According to the American Bar Association, there are more than 1.3 million attorneys in the U.S. as of last year. This writer, as well as the subject of this profile, are both in fact law school graduates. Like many in the profession, Robert Markowitz is a recovering lawyer, and left the law to briefly dabble in working as a clown at children’s parties, then honed his guitar skills to become a popular musician at children’s parties. But all of this was not before he escaped the courtroom and the country, and then had to figure out how to make himself happy even as friends and family didn’t know what to make of this radical career turn.
Shani R. Friedman: Where did you grow up? Were you raised in a Jewish household?
Robert Markowitz: I was raised Jewish — bar mitzvahed at Larchmont Temple (Reform) in suburban New York. My parents slouched toward atheism but upheld some traditions out of cultural, not religious, convention. I copped that attitude until my dad died when I was 28. That freed me to pursue an innate spiritual bent which had been previously eclipsed by my devotion to my father. He taught American and World History at Mamaroneck High School. My mother taught Remedial Reading in the White Plains schools. My younger brother and I adored our dad who gave us much more time than many fathers of that era. Our mom introduced me to music. But her equilibrium was easily disturbed probably due to losing her first-born child after only one year of life. He would have been my older brother.
SRF: What did you study at university as an undergrad? Did your family kvell when you decided to become a lawyer?
RM: I majored in American History and Literature after a brief flirtation with acting and music. My parents both urged me to become a lawyer. There was an immigrant sense that my grandfather had been a baker, my parents, teachers, and that I was to rise “higher.” I knew law wasn’t right for me but didn’t have the courage to take the road less traveled. I remember telling my mother about the first criminal trial I conducted. When she then asked me why I hadn’t become a corporate lawyer, I realized that the ”kvell factor” I’d been seeking was not in the cards.
SRF: How did you end up an East Coast kid going to Duke and then practicing in California? What kind of law did you practice?
RF: After college, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents by becoming a musician or a writer. With my grades and LSATs, I only had one in seven chances of being admitted to Duke Law. When I graduated, my brother was in California, so I drove out to live with him. Criminal law was the only specialty I considered because I knew I couldn’t sit at a desk all day. Much later – in my early 50s – I was diagnosed with ADHD, which explained a lot. As time went by, it became very difficult to motivate myself to do the work. The consequences of slacking off were so dire that I forced myself. This led to burn out after four years. By that time my father had died. My mother was very upset when I left law. She told me that I was ruining my life.
SRF: You walked away from the law and the country. How did you end up in Mexico and tell me more about the ad your mother placed in the newspapers?
RM: When I lived in San Miguel de Allende from 1991-1993, it was a very inexpensive place to live, populated by artists, pensioners, and drunks. Now, houses near the Jardin go for about three million dollars. I went there because I was unhappy and wanted to have an adventure. In the ten days it took to drive there, I neglected to call my mom, and she took out an ad on Mexican television to find me. A stranger poked my map in the Jardin and told me I’d been on television last night.
SRF: Speaking of ads, when you were back in the US at your mother’s place, why did the one about training for a party clown speak to you? What was your family’s reaction?
RM: Have you ever read the want ads in the New York Times? One office job after another. None of them call for much imagination. Then picture seeing an ad to appear as a clown at children’s parties. Spontaneous, alive! — $25 a party. That’s it — even in 1994. But I was already living at my mother’s house as a 37-year-old man. I couldn’t go much lower than that. My first performance as a clown, the birthday child said, “I love you, Bobo!” That did it for me. I guess I was looking for love. Law was not about that. My family and friends saw me as an utter failure. I lost practically all my friends. My family put up with me. The transition to performing music for children was tough. I played rudimentary guitar but honestly, I sucked at first, and people let me know. It took years to become good.
SRF: How did your book come about? What made you decide on a novel rather than a memoir?
RF: My novel started out as a memoir of my career change from criminal lawyer to clown to children’s musician. But when I discovered the deeper meaning of the story, I decided to accentuate it by raising the stakes, incorporating a love affair, condensing the timeline, and creating a redemption arc.
SRF: What does your day look like now and where do you call home?
RM: During the school year I perform at a slate of regular schools and libraries, mostly in Westchester County, New York, where I live. This summer is special because I’m doing shows in five states — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey — so I’ll be traveling and staying at hotels — a real tour!
SRF: What are you looking forward to about your book being out?
RM: I’m really looking forward to my library tour of both musical performances and, separately, talks about writing. It’s to promote my book, but I want to see if I can truly enjoy it instead of getting too geared into results. Fulfilling desires doesn’t bring lasting happiness I’ve found. But being truly open to experiences does.
SRF: What would you tell your younger self and any advice for aspiring lawyers and unhappy practicing attorneys?
RM: My career change served as a catalyst for true personal growth. But, as a rule, I don’t believe that you can change the inner with something on the outer. Most unhappiness stems from being caught in the mind, believing that our thoughts and emotions are actually who we are. I would never counsel people to leave their jobs unless they feel, as I did, that they absolutely must. I believe that people can be happy without having to abandon their careers. But for me, it worked out well.
For more about Clown Shoes and tour dates (in person and virtual), go to the author’s website.