Nancy Balbirer Finds Wisdom in Having a “Terrible Time”
Discussing her new book, 'A Marriage In Dog Years,' the memoirist recounts the worst year of her life: the loss of her beloved dog and her troubled first marriage. Spoiler alert: This story has a happy ending.
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In her first memoir,Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences, Nancy Balbirer shared some of the more extraordinary tales of her life as an actor, writer, and downtown New York fixture. A star theater student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, all that talent didn’t translate into lucrative show-business work; still, Balbirer’s big personality and audacity led her to be known, she wrote, in “certain fringe theater circles” as “the Chick Who’s Willing to Show Her Tits in the Show If Need Be.”
Just a year after the book was published in 2009, Balbirer began a year of worry, change, and wrenching pain as she was losing her marriage and her beloved beagle, Ira, who was dying. In her early 40s, she worried about paying the bills, like many artists in New York. And she was desperately trying to hold it all together, not only for herself but for her young daughter.
Now comes Balbirer’s new memoir, A Marriage in Dog Years, a poignant and ultimately inspiring chronicle of that awful year that begins on a July day she first learns Ira is terminally ill to the following July when she finally gathers the courage to move on from her first marriage. A lifelong New Yorker, Balbirer now lives in Southern California with her second husband, Howard Morris, a television writer she first met when they were NYU students and who is now the co-creator of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. Her daughter, now a teenager, is thriving. Which is to say, life is in a much better place.
Writing about one of the most painful years of her life, says Balbirer, has helped her “gain, she said, “a modicum of wisdom, which usually comes from having a terrible time!” Balbirer is a great talker: our conversation, much like her happy/sad book, ranged from the absolute despair of losing a dog to the thrill of new love.
Before we talk about anything else, I want to offer my condolences over the loss of your beagle, Ira. You write about him so beautifully.
Thank you. He was truly, if not the best friend I’ve ever had, certainly in the top one or two. And I can’t help but think how—he was truly a Leo, and in that psychic session we had, she made it clear that he really wanted to be a star. I think he’d get such a kick out of the fact that so many strangers know his name. I think he’d really like that!
I actually share his birthday—mine’s also July 27.
Oh my God! Are you serious? That is so beautiful. That is such a special fucking day.
Have you had other dogs since Ira?
The loss was so huge, but I also lost my husband at the same time. Even though my relationship with Ira seemed to be more reciprocally on the same page, and kindred through and through, it was just such a devastating time. The thought of getting another dog was really hard for me. And that goes for having another relationship, too. I did not date, I did not think about getting another dog. And then all of a sudden, people were trying to encourage me to do online dating and I just was like, I’m too much of an old lady. I always was, even in my twenties. But what I did start to dip my toe into was the idea of adopting a dog. That was my porn, that was my online dating. I would sit there scrolling through all these rescue sites looking at all the faces of the dogs going, “Are you my dog? Are you my dog?” before I could swipe right.
I finally got a new dog last year. He’s a year and a half now, and he’s a West Highland Terrier named Alfie, after the Michael Caine character.
What’s Alfie like? I know he couldn’t replace Ira.
I will always love Ira as a dog and as a friend and partner. He got me through literally the worst time in my life. And I know that he stayed because I was such a mess. But your heart is a big place, and you can love again, there’s room enough for other people, and other dogs.
You’ve lived in New York and L.A.—one of the big conflicts you write about in your first marriage was rooted in how much you wanted to stay in New York. But now you’ve ended up back in Southern California. How did that happen?
Nobody is more surprised than I am! I honestly said I would never leave New York again. I never in a million years could have imagined moving back to L.A. But I also had given up on the idea that I’d ever be with my husband. He’s somebody that I was in love with starting in 1983. New York is a love affair of mine as well, but I couldn’t give up this opportunity for us to finally be together. My husband, for his work he needs to be in California. My entire community is in New York, all of my friends. It’s been hard for me, but in other ways I’m very happy in California. My daughter’s happy there. It’s a good place for me to work.
It’s heartening to hear how happy you are now. Tell me about your new husband.
Life is long. It’s actually really long, in this case. My husband and I met as teenagers—I was a freshman at NYU, we were in the drama department. He was a year ahead. I was 17 when I met him in 1983. He wanted to make out with me. So he wrote a play and cast me as the lead. That play began his television career.
So, you wrote this book mostly after you reconnected with the man who would become your second husband, several years after you separated from the first. Was it hard to go back to that and try to remember and really dive into those emotions?
It was extraordinarily hard. I had to give myself big breaks. I really questioned it; I wanted to bury it and forget about it. But I am in a very, very different place now. To have to write this book about the worst, grief-stricken, most challenging year of my life, when I was so goddamn happy, was a challenge in itself. I avoided the work for a long time. At the same time that I wanted to avoid it, I felt totally compelled to tell the story. I felt like I had no choice but to write it. It didn’t mean it wasn’t hard.
But honestly I feel like I don’t choose what I want to write, it kind of chooses me. I know that sounds kind of woo-woo.
So, about that—your book mentions more than a few woo-woo things, including your dog’s astrological sign, burning sage to remove bad energy from your old apartment, and then the women you call the witches, at a NYC occult shop, who read your Tarot cards and so on. Like, truly, honestly, how much do you think that stuff helped you find clarity and move through those sad times?
I explored all kinds of areas, whether it was rational and intellectual thought. I was reading books about relationships, I was talking to therapists, looking up sexperts online. There wasn’t a stone I was willing to leave unturned, whether it came to saving my marriage or saving my dog. Going to the witches, and hearing what they had to say … to be honest, everyone in my life was telling me the same thing. You know, my favorite story in the world is The Wizard of Oz. it’s like, everybody was telling Dorothy the same thing, but until she learned it herself she wasn’t able to hear it.
Every single thing that I did, including the witches, the way I see things, it’s all part of how I came to a level of consciousness and wisdom. They helped me, if only because they were there to listen. They have a saying in Tarot that you never pick the wrong card. The cards are yours. They tell your story. Whatever you’re there to hear, whatever you need to talk about. All of these things are really forms of self-talk.
Also, when you are crazy and desperate, you do a lot of wackadoo things. When I’m in dire straits, I do seek these things out. It’s incredibly interesting, at least to me, that I never read Tarot or look at my horoscope when I’m happy. I don’t want to disrupt the happiness. I don’t want to peer into the crystal ball. And yet when I’m unhappy, that’s my porn.
Losing your dog and your marriage in the same year is awful. I can’t help asking, nearly ten years later, how are you feeling about both losses?
I felt a tremendous amount of guilt about both. Both of them were kept going, and therefore made worse and more painful, because of my unwillingness to see the truth and let go. I think I’ve eased up on myself about the marriage more than I did about the dog. With my ex, he played a role in keeping it going, whereas my dog was at my mercy. I feel much more guilt about that.
I will never not miss Ira. I am grateful to him and I’m grateful to my ex husband. I will never not love both of them, but in totally different ways. I’m glad that my relationship with my ex husband gets to evolve to a friendship and a co-parenting relationship. My relationship with Ira just exists inside of me at this point. I wish I could see him again. I see my ex-husband all the time!
Tell me about your relationship with your first husband. Are you two friends now?
We are; we truly are friends. He’s the first person I gave the completed book to. We had a very moving moment together where I gave it to him, and I said—now I’m going to cry again—I said, “Listen, you don’t need to read this, I don’t expect you to read this, I’m not even sure I want you to read it. But I want you to have it, because I’m proud of it, I’m proud of us, where we came to and who we are, and our incredible kid. And I wouldn’t be a writer without you.” He was just incredibly lovely and generous about it. We have a really successful divorce. I love him; I will always love him. We were meant to be together to have our extraordinary child, but we were really not ultimately meant to be partners in a love relationship. That’s just the way it is. And that’s okay.
The book covers such an emotional time in your life. I wonder if you feel like you came out of that year, and on the other side of those losses, a different person?
I’m a totally different person, there’s no question about it. I was a selfish person. I was a person who had a certain idea of how things were supposed to look and seem. And I didn’t even think I was that kind of person. I thought I was this very open, groovy person. I had to learn a lot, not just about why my marriage couldn’t work, or the limits of [veterinary] palliative care, or even the limits of love. I had to learn some very hard truths about myself, and that meant letting go of ways that I was super uptight and rigid.
I had to spend the next several years alone—without a dog, without a man to distract me—to figure myself out, and what the fuck made me tick, and also how to mother my daughter properly. I was not as good a mother as I am now. I was too unhappy, too distracted, too a lot of things. I was given an opportunity to become a much different, and I’ll say better, mother. That was really an incredible gift that I would not have if I stayed married.
What advice would you give someone in the same situation you were in back then? What would you tell her about making the decision to stay or leave a marriage, and surviving the fallout?
I think that you have to really honor the part of yourself that knows. Everyone arrives at a place eventually where they know what the right thing is. I once had a cat and I couldn’t figure out if it was time to put him to sleep: He had cancer, but he was still eating. And then one day he jumped somewhere and he knocked something over, something he’d never done in his whole life, and he turned and looked at me, and I knew from that look that he was done. And I felt like there’s always that thing.
Things have ups and downs: marriages, illnesses. There will be a day when you’ll be like, Oh my God, this shit is turning around now. It’s hard. And you just have to honor your inner North Star and say, I will know. I will know when it’s time. Because you do. You know when you know. And you just have to give yourself a break, and be gentle with yourself.
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