My Most Favorite Teacher-Friend: Greg Ungar

It was another dusty morning in the desert, calmly walking back from the porta potty, when I saw a figure coming towards me that literally brought me to my knees.  I was so surprised to see my friend Greg Ungar smiling as he moseyed my way that I burst into tears, falling to the ground, shocked, surprised and beyond excited to know we'd get to have another week together in the desert.

I can't say I've had this response to people very often, but if you knew how integral his friendship has been in my adult life, you would understand my visceral reaction.  Plus, just a week earlier he'd told me he wouldn't be joining us that year for Burning Man. 

Knowing now how hard it is to keep friendships alive as the years roll by and we're all pulled in our various directions, I am all the more grateful that he and I are still in contact after our fortuitous meeting my first year at UC Irvine.

Ungar smiling.

Ungar smiling.

*knock, knock, knock* 

"Mitch, are you awake?"

"Shit.  Yeah." 

I wasn't.

Such was the start of countless mornings my sophomore year of college, in which Washburn would wake me up just in time to jump out the door and drive to Ungar's Drama 40 class at 8am. 

Drama 40 (Development of Drama) was a three quarters long course that we started in the spring of our Freshman year.  Though the class was taught by multiple teachers, by some stroke of dumb luck, we ended up in Ungar's class. 

The first time I sleepily walked into his classroom, I remember thinking, "Damn, this guy looks a lot like Lance Armstrong."  He had this curly red hair, super-cool California vibe, and was instantly likeable.  When I think about him now, it is impossible not to picture his kind, blue eyes, and I'm certain I was struck by them all those years ago in our first meeting too.

Admittedly, I was a terrible student, and most morning commutes were spent with Washburn giving me the general overview of the play we were supposed to have read.  Unfortunately, I was still coasting off my awful study habits in high school: namely that I didn't have any.  I had somehow survived by learning what I needed to know in class, then bullshitting the rest.  I was ill-prepared for the work of collegiate study, and it took me all four years to establish anything resembling a work ethic. 

Never to be outspoken, my lack of knowledge about the plays we were supposed to be reading did not prevent me from participating in our group discussions.  In fact, I recall speaking passionately and defending my thoughts about characters, themes and theatrical devices from plays I hadn't read.  The fact that Ungar graded us partially on our verbal contributions may have inspired my boldness.

I share all of this to say, it amazes me that after being such a shitty student, he and I became friends.  In the years since, I've stumbled into old papers I submitted and have been retroactively embarrassed for myself, as most of it was total garbage.  But he gave me a chance to prove I was more than a shithead, and I am so grateful he did.  Though at this point, I'm pretty sure he'd tell you I'm still the same ol' shithead...and he'd be right.

I don't recall exactly what the inspiration was, other than joking around together in his class, but at some point I'd gotten the idea that we ought to be friends.  Washburn and I started inviting him to our parties, which were among the biggest and best undergraduate drama parties to be found.  Time and again, come the end of the night, we were always bummed that Ungar hadn't shown up.  Of course, now in my thirties, I completely understand why a Ph.D. Candidate would choose not to show up at a party where many of their students engaged in underage drinking.

Ungar was one of the first teachers I emailed in college asking to get lunch, in hopes of building a deeper connection.  Fortunately, he took me up on this offer, and we began our quarterly coffee dates at The Gypsy Den in Costa Mesa.  We'd talk about school, girlfriends, worries and mostly laugh at ourselves for being such idiots.  It was these meetings that seemed to buoy my life at Irvine.  My personal dramas may have been boiling over, but we'd sit and laugh and I'd walk away feeling like everything was going to be okay, even if it all went to shit. 

And though I looked up to him immensely, Ungar had a way of speaking to me, a fresh-faced college kid, as an equal.  He listened to whatever I had to share as if it was truly important.  And looking back, I'm certain very little of it actually was.  His playful compassion was endlessly encouraging, which only made me want to spend more time with him. 

One of the rules in the world of improv is "Yes, and."  Its intent is for performers to accept any suggestion a fellow performer has contributed to the scene so that they can move forward seamlessly as if the whole thing had been planned from the start. 

Ungar seems to live by this philosophy when he is engaging with friends, which makes him an exceptional life scene partner.  No matter what I have thrown his way, he has always urged me to lean into that which is calling me.  Early on I remember him subtly sharing advice to take heed when I seemed to be making a decision out of fear or laziness. 

His strength as a teacher in part lies in his ability to drop just enough hints for the student to put the pieces together for himself.  For instance, when I was considering not auditioning for the entire season at Irvine my senior year, he didn't tell me that I should or shouldn't, he didn't agree with my reasoning, he simply heard me out and said something to the effect of, "Yeah man, that's a tough decision.  When I'm in spots like that I just have to keep asking myself, am I choosing this because I'm afraid or too lazy to do the work?"

Presented as his approach to personal struggle, I was free to intuit how I might apply such a technique to my own situation.  This adept communication exemplifies his ability to minimize any strange power dynamics that arise from student-teacher relationships.  Perhaps this is why, though I have been learning from him for nearly 15 years, I've always simply thought of him as my dear friend and brother.

Ungar and I discussing some of the plays I never read on top of The Yum Cart.

Ungar and I discussing some of the plays I never read on top of The Yum Cart.

Our friendship found new depths when he joined us in the desert for my second Burn in 2008.  When I'd come home from my first burn the previous year, Ungar was one of the first people to whom I'd spent hours proselytizing, so I was thrilled to see him get dusty with us.

That second burn ended up being a tough one.  After a year of built up expectations, awaiting my chance to return to the holy land, I was immediately let down.  No joke, I'd spent every day for a year dreaming of Burning Man, recalling the new (and sober) highs I'd found.  In many ways, I'd been "reborn" in the desert and desperately wanted to recapture that explosive zeal and relief I'd found the year prior.  So when it wasn't going as planned, I was devastated. 

My frustration with how the Burn was unfolding came to a head on a daytime bike ride out to the trash fence with Ungar and our friend Sage.  The rains had been light that winter, so the earth was fluffy and damn-near impossible to ride on.  Seething with anger that I wasn't able to casually keep up with my friends, I got off and walked my bike.  Eventually Sage came back for me, knowing I was moving through inner turbulence, her presence reminding me to breathe. 

We joined Ungar near an installation aptly called "The End" that sat at the furthest reach of the trash fence, and shared space in silence.  What happened next I wasn't able to put into words then, and certainly cannot now. 

The three of us seemed to enter a vortex of our own making.  Not a word uttered for hours, we began moving, playing and communicating non-verbally with crystal clarity.  I remember crying and breaking into the most insane laughing fits.  Holding these two humans and feeling the rush of release, fully entrusting my being in the hands of embodied saints.  It is not hyperbolic to say that they literally lifted my spirit through this cathartic and mysterious ordeal.  The whole thing was so weird I remember us looking into each other's eyes with this wild confusion, unclear if we were moving or being moved.  The experience was completely bewildering and unbelievably intoxicating. 

Suddenly hours had passed and the sun was setting.  A couple of giggling playa-bunnies in full hippie-fairy attire then flitted into our world and gifted us with, Sage, appropriately, then drifted off.  With that our ceremonious encounter with the divine riddle had come to an end.

After it passed, though we each had a desire to speak of what happened, we couldn't.  We could only look to each other, as if reaching out to say "What the fuck...Was that real? " to which the others could only smile, perplexed, in effect saying, "I don't know, but I think so."

This was the first of many monumental experiences with Ungar in the desert, all of them stone cold sober.  From my first monkey chant to my first time at The Pink Gym, he was the perfect accomplice for all on-playa adventures.  But oddly enough, my favorite memories shared with him in that absurdly magical oasis are our walks and coffee dates.  As it is with many friends from the Burn, we live in different cities and see each other very rarely, so I cherished the opportunity just to sit and confess our latest foibles at Center Camp. 

While the celebrated Burning Man stories are often the most outlandish and mind-blowing, when people ask me about that place these days, I'm happy to share that the pull to go has mostly been the chance to spend time with people like Ungar. 

Ungar and I awkwardly posing in a café, back during my feather earring phase. 

Ungar and I awkwardly posing in a café, back during my feather earring phase. 

Before graduating in the fall of 2008, there was a brief moment when Ungar and I thought about moving in with our friend Ethan.  That plan fell through, and I ended up staying with my parents for about six weeks, deciding to wait on any major moves until after I went on a two week trip to NYC to visit my friend Quinn in October.  I finished reading Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" about 24 hours before my trip and was completely inspired.  Suddenly I had it in my mind that after spending all of my years on the path well-traveled, it was time to break free.  If I found work in NYC, of any kind, I would stay. 

Not one week into my time in New York, I'd found a job selling Obama Condoms in Times Square.   I called my parents and told them I wouldn't be home until Christmas, and thus began my relentless pursuit of a neo-beatnik lifestyle.   Nearly every moment of my first months in the city was judged on whether or not Kerouac would have approved.  If it seemed like the kind of trouble he would have written about, I jumped into it headfirst. 

As thrilling as those days were, my life in the city also began the first period of my life in which I lacked immediate community.  Most of my time was spent in quintessential New York solitude: surrounded by millions and completely alone.  I texted with Ungar frequently during this transition, reaching out for his support as I found my NYC-legs.  I specifically remember standing outside of Ars Nova one night, talking to him until my phone died.  We laughed and I eagerly shared tales of life as a street vendor, evading the cops and drinking at bars until last call.  As I got off the phone, I was filled with the same enthusiasm I had felt back in college after a chat with him; whatever was ahead, I could face it.  The loneliness of the city would not consume me.

Before going home for the holidays after my first couple of months in the city, I flew back to LA and stayed with Ungar for a few days in his cozy Costa Mesa apartment.  To this day, I often reflect on the peace I felt settling into his orbit for a brief respite.  It was this visit that first inspired my desire to carve out my own sanctuary someday.  The walls lined with books, desk stacked with journals, and ceilings outlined with dim lighting set the perfect mood for contemplation, self-discovery and rejuvenation.  The apartment I share with Lauren now is clearly a reflection of the vibes he created in that home, which have reverberated in my being ever since. 

In the mornings we'd go to the café to journal, and in the evenings we'd sit and drink tea.  It was so simple and so rewarding.  My tendency to romanticize the past is strong, but in this case I'm confident my reverence for these memories is well-deserved. 

Ungar and The Kloons.

Ungar and The Kloons.

As The Kloons began to take shape, Ungar was one of our most ardent early adopters.  He would text or email after almost every new release, with a constant stream of "keep going!"  Which is again surprising, because most of it was garbage.   (I'm starting to find his judgment suspect.)  But over the past seven years, he has gone out of his way to support us, taking a keen interest in our trajectory and has provided sage advice when needed.  Quite frankly, though it has been fun to watch our project grow, few things provide us with more instant-joy than knowing that Ungar got a kick out of something we made.

Below is an email that demonstrates both his superlative sense of humor and the way he has let me know he's in my corner:

You don't need this, but I do.

I'm reading a giant biography on Beckett. 

He sent his first novel--Murphy--to 60 publishers over the course of a few years. Everyone rejected him, sometimes harshly.  So, as might be expected, he was depressed. He lived with his mother and got big boils on his ass and neck. He kept writing.

love you,


Hard not to love this guy.

As wonderful as all of this is, it is still not what I most appreciate about our friendship.  A couple of years ago when my interest in meditation and Buddhism was swelling, Ungar came to NYC for a visit and we made one of the most beneficial pacts I've ever been a part of.

We were both filled with guilt and shame over our lack of discipline in starting a meditation practice.  We'd read the books, listened to the talks, but still couldn't get ourselves to actually sit.  So we made a deal.  Ten minutes of meditation, every day for two weeks.  If one of us didn't complete the challenge, we'd have to write a check to the NRA for $100 dollars (his idea).  As the supposedly peace-loving, hippie-dippie assholes we are, it was a wickedly appropriate punishment. 

Ungar's brilliant plan worked.  After more than ten years of meditation sitting on my to do list, I was finally sitting regularly.  It was painful, restless and awful.  The peace I had imagined I might find was nowhere to be found.  But I stayed with it.  And after many months of practice, I signed up for my first meditation retreat. 

Had Ungar not suggested we make our deal, I'm not sure that I would have gone on that retreat, and I can't imagine how life might be unfolding now without the insights that came from that diligent seclusion. 

Two years later and I am still sitting fairly regularly. This is partially thanks to our ongoing practice of texting each other "Done" after we sit.  It's silly, but it helps.  Sometimes I fall out of it, and getting his "Done" for a few days is enough to get me back into it.  There is some built in accountability, knowing that to sit is one of the best things I can do for myself and my friend.  Ironically, this practice of going inside, has only continued to strengthen my bond with Ungar.  Though it is only one word, I feel his presence in my world almost every day...and it would be EVERY day, if he wasn't so lazy. 

An uncomfortably close, close-up of Ungar and I.

An uncomfortably close, close-up of Ungar and I.

I've known many wise men and women, and have been the fortunate heir of much insight.  But there is one piece of advice I received from Ungar that sits atop all the rest.  It's so obvious, and yet can be quite elusive when caught in our own traps.

Back when I was still auditioning, I was bemoaning to him about how anxious the whole process made me, and how I always ended up just making a fool of myself.  He spoke of his own troubles with auditioning and shared a habit he'd established.  Before going in the room he told himself, "Just make it nice for them."  Not "be good," or "impress them," just make the experience pleasant for them.

This phrase became my mantra for a long while not just in auditions, but in daily life, and it's probably time to put it back into use.  It's a lovely way to approach any moment with "others" and immediately quells some of that self-conscious, nervous energy that can bubble up.  Whoever we're with, just make it nice for them.

And if I can make it as nice for any of you, as Greg Ungar has made it for me, well that's about the best damn thing I can possibly offer.