Sunday, July 27, 2008

Death in the House at Pooh Corner

Sorry for the delay between postings, but July has been a ragged month. From the moment I set foot in the office after a short break in late June straight through last week, it’s been nonstop bullshit at work, to the point where I’ve pondered throwing in the towel and pulling out of a contract early, even in this bad economy. I’m hoping it was just a bad spell, but we shall see. All I know is that when I come home from work too beat to write, or do much of anything, that’s not a situation I will tolerate for long.

And it looks like some time in the last few days, Randy Pausch finally passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 47.
I recall hearing his story a few times over the past few months: Carnegie Mellon professor doing pioneering work in virtual reality research, wife and three kids, incredibly popular with students, struck down with pancreatic cancer, knows he has X number of months to live, gets it all together for The Last Lecture, which serves more as a life summation and final farewell done, as he notes, to show his kids what he was all about long after he’s gone. Lecture filled with warm wit, life lessons, wisdom, cautionary advice, etc. I understand he put out a book called The Last Lecture that sums up his philosophy and apparently has sold like hot cakes on the Non-Fiction best-seller list.

I finally watched The Last Lecture today, after hearing it hyped for so long, and even took in the long Diane Sawyer special he has posted on his website, which visited Pausch a few months after his last lecture to see how his life had changed.

I get the impression I would have liked the guy immensely: a no-bullshit sort of person who recognized you need to live simply by a few hard, set rules, have a positive attitude, and his big thing, be honest with yourself. Cool stuff that he expressed well.

But, man, after watching the thing, I feel oily. Not because of the man himself. It’s the aura around him, created by the media, the “dying young” aura that attaches far too much meaning and weight to a single person’s passing, when you can look at your own life and find much more meaning in the deaths of people, generally much older, whom you’ve known and loved. If anything, Pausch stressed that death, and the visible approach of it, is not sappy and, in fact, requires a person to bear down and decide how he wants to spend his last days, what he wants to pass along and be remembered for. In his case, that’s far over-shadowed by too much self-help bullshit with a patina of sentimentality that anyone who’s watched a loved one die knows is bogus. Again, not the man’s fault, but I’m acutely aware of this routine when I see it, and, boy, I don’t like it.

His last lecture was about “achieving your childhood dreams” … which makes no sense to me. I haven’t thought or cared about my childhood dreams in decades. They’re meaningless to me as a grown man; they were meaningless by the time I was 25. My childhood dreams? Let me think …

Have Tina Louise (Ginger from Gilligan’s Island) give me a blow job while Olivia Newton-John tossed my salad (more like a teenage dream … don’t think my mind was working that way at eight … but teenagers are still children).

Kill Phil Donahue.

Have shotguns for arms.

Make the world and everyone in it stop moving for an hour so I could take $1,000,000 out of the bank and be rich forever.

Have the ability to make various people's heads blow up just by looking at them.

Grow wings and fly, mainly so I could shit on my enemies from above.

And those are the more sane ones. Be a baseball player? A doctor? Man, whatever. My point is, as a guy a few years younger than Pausch, I no longer see the relevancy of childhood dreams: whether they came true or not. As he points out in his lecture, some of his came true, some didn’t. And, of course, he learned much more from the ones that didn’t. It seems like an overly precious concept to base a last lecture on, but I consider his place in life, as a college professor surrounded all day, every day by people who are virtually kids, thus it probably made sense for him to go on seeing the world this way.

It’s cheesy stuff, meant to tap into a Disney-style take on life that I find mildly offensive. Just not my cup of tea. Another major point in Pausch’s speech was to ask yourself whether you were one of two characters from The House on Pooh Corner: Tigger (the energetic tiger always in a good mood) or Eeyore (the morose, long-faced donkey). Frankly, I’d rather not be either. Obviously, no one’s going to cop to being Eeyore all the time. And if you see yourself as a Tigger … stay the fuck away from me.

The “honesty” angle is also specious. Honest to a point seems to be more the M.O. Because the honesty and truth of the last few weeks of someone dying from any type of cancer is a truly brutal, ugly thing to behold, one you don’t want to experience for yourself or anyone you know (but most likely will, sooner or later). We’re never shown this. We’re told, by Pausch occasionally, that he goes through bad spells. We never see these, or have any understanding of them. Never shits the bed. Never has spells of dementia. Never is in so much pain he can’t even move without weeping or gasping in agony.

Of course, I suspect he experienced all these things and more on the way out – most people do when they’re in the final stages of cancer. We’re spared them. But if he was to be honest, we’d see that side of him just as surely as we saw the sprightly, optimistic guy leading up to that awful phase where he spends the last few weeks of his life physically decimated and waiting to go. I’m sorry if this sounds blunt – you experience it with a loved one, it isn’t. It’s every-day reality: the truth. Frankly, I’m glad to be spared bearing witness to this sort of pain – it serves no purpose other than to tell the truth.

If you’re going to be honest all the time -- a point he stresses above all others -- and make the truth a priority in your life, this is it, at the very end, for millions of people throughout history. There’s absolutely nothing sentimental about it – it’s a tough thing to witness. And I respect Pausch for understanding he had to make himself as strong and positive as possible to enter into that last stage. We’re spared this simply out of respect for someone deathly ill and doing about as poorly as you can physically.

But it’s a crucial thing to acknowledge … that goes unacknowledged when you have Diane Sawyer cooing over you on a TV special, with every camera shot of her on such a vaseline-coated lens that you can hardly see her face much less the wrinkles on it, and the soundtrack welling up, literally, with the theme from Chariots of Fire. (I often use that movie-theme reference as a joke to mimic overboard sentimentality – it’s been years since I’ve heard that piece used as anything but an ironic put-on. Until now!) All we see are the heartfelt quotes, the audience rising to its feet at the end of The Last Lecture, the accolades, the tears, etc. That’s the good stuff. The truth is the guy surely went down 30 miles of bad road at the very end, and he didn’t want anyone else seeing it. And I’m glad he made that choice, because no one is filled with warm wisdom and witty quips when he’s in agony on his death bed and probably medicated to the gills.

What we’re purposely left with is that illusion of youth at death’s door – the nerdy professor doing push ups on stage, giving the speech of his life, laying out his path so his kids knew and understood who he was, what he did, how he chose to live. And I can’t knock him for that – it’s a beautiful image to pass along. All I’m underlining is that had we been shown the complete truth about this man and his awful predicament, all sentimentality regarding his legacy would have been stripped bare, and more likely become a thousand times sadder and more human than the forced cotton candy of the Sawyer special and that illusion of beautiful youth bravely standing at death’s door.

I guess what I’m getting at is I can’t stand seeing death turned into a sentimental opportunity. Because it sure as hell isn’t. It just speaks to me as exploiting young people's lack of experience in dealing with death, or the refusal to acknowledge the profound depth of it, because it is so daunting. I’m glad Pausch got a best-seller out of it – that’s probably the smartest, most-sane aspect of this situation. The man realized he wouldn’t be around to support his family, and also realized there was money to made putting his personal philosophy into a book that objectified him as a dead man walking, i.e., filled with senses of knowledge and urgency most of us don’t have. It gets published, sells incredibly well, and I’m hoping it provides enough money for his wife and kids to live the rest of their days without him. That’s called being a good husband and father, above all else, to the end, and after. You can leave the legacy of your words and physical images of yourself, but, man, to be able to provide like that after you’ve gone, that must have given him great comfort in the last few months.

Can you tell the mixed emotions I have over this entire situation? Again, it’s not him. If anything, he seemed to underline that he knew he was presenting his best face, and that he knew he was in for much worse times physically as his disease progressed. Most people who know they’re going to die are much older, and must have a stronger sense of fairness in their passing, that they’ve lived this long, and it’s time to leave. But you also need to understand – millions of people have said goodbye to their kids in the same way. Whether the kids were six or fifty-six. Doesn’t make it any easier to bear or understand. And that's one thing you don't grasp as an adult until it happens, because you've spent years being one, but you forget you've spent a much longer time being someone's child.

And that’s only one type of death. Recently in my home county, an illegal immigrant from Mexico was beat to death by a mob of drunken teenagers one night, leaving behind a (white, American) wife and three kids he had by her. Same number of kids Pausch had. Same sense of leaving the world far too early (he was in his early 20s). No one’s fawning over this poor bastard and his life philosophy, which just seemed to be “work two jobs in a foreign land because there’s nothing for me back home.” Of course, the incident has been turned by some into an immigration issue, and a racial-divide one, too, as opposed to the simple horror of a bunch of thugs beating someone to death on the streets of their town, which should be the only issue.

Is his passing any less relevant than Pausch’s? Does it mean any more or less to you? Do you cry for them? Well, think about it, thousands of other people died the same week, all with their own stories that might register nothing with you or might touch you in some sense, and you simply haven’t been made aware of their passing. Which is the way of the world. And something I like to routinely acknowledge, because most people don’t think about death unless it’s happening in their lives or, because of someone’s celebrity, are made aware of it.

I don’t think about death all the time, but now that I’ve seen how it works in my own life, I accept it and think about it like I’d think of the wind. Do you think about the wind a lot? Probably not. Only when it blows and you feel it. You feel it brush your face. Or get dust in your eyes. Or watch it tear off a tree branch because it’s blowing so hard. Or jingle a set of wind chimes. Death is the same thing. And it’s just as ever present. I was going to write “just as plainly visible.” But you don’t really see it. You see the effects of it. And you feel it. Sometimes you live in fear of it – think a tornado or hurricane – other times, you welcome it.

So, forgive me if I blanche at the idea of having a TV special make me believe it’s something more resembling a Lifetime Network movie. It’s a force of nature, not an emotional party trick. Not something I take lightly. I want to see this thing as clearly as possible, and these are the sort of takes on it I've come up with over the past few years. As for childhood dreams and such, pfffttt. Ditto "happiness" and such. Just get busy living your life and stop worrying about how you or anyone else sees it. We'll have a hard enough time making sense of our every-day lives as they go along, much less trying to determine how they fit in with a concept as quaint and meaningless as childhood dreams. We're going to get a lot more out of life, good and bad, than we ever could have imagined as kids.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Zen Redneck

I often wonder where to draw the line with things I’ll write about here. Once upon a time, I considered my life an open book of sorts, that any topic was fair game. That’s what artistes do: bare their souls.

Still have no problem with that, but the real issue is baring other people’s souls, or more likely my pale imitation of what I think their souls are, and deservedly catching grief in return. A lot of times, it just isn’t worth it. From a writer’s point of view, and much more importantly, from a humane point of view. Some shit, while it would make for great reading, could be perceived as hurtful or disrespectful by a reader who recognizes, “That’s me he’s writing about.” Some things are better left unwritten and unexploited.

Now, if you think this is a lead-in for me hanging someone’s ass out to dry, think again. No lead in, just wanted to get into writerly stuff here. Poking around the web, or just reading various themed-blogs, I gather a lot of people think everything in their lives is fair game. My intentions here are to only write about topics that I gather would make for good reading by an audience, but to leave plenty of stuff private, as I don’t see the logic in making that stuff public, not even for money. If you’re taking a shit with your laptop, or bored at work, or following me all along as I stumble through life, here’s something that will hold your interest for 15 minutes (and don’t forget to wipe). There are any number of petty gripes and personal opinions I could get into at any time, but most times, I think, honestly, who the fuck cares. I wouldn’t even care after the fact. Any person involved in the gripe would care, would think I was a huge asshole for doing it, and would have my total agreement on that opinion.

This all plays into the “there’s just so much I’ll do for writing” theme I developed in my life a few years back, which may well be a kiss of death in terms of making it big as a writer, but screw it, that’s part of it, too. There’s just so much I’ll do to make it big. (I don’t even know what “big” means anymore – I have friends making a living as writers, and they’re hustling their asses off to make ends meet.) It just doesn’t matter as much to me on that level anymore. I’ve managed to make a living all along. I’ve worked through stuff in my head to realize personal happiness is something you create for yourself, every day, like an exercise routine that keeps you fit, as opposed to some shining goal you must reach, which of course requires another shining goal once you realize that wasn’t quite it. My ambitions are to be sane, solvent and healthy, above all else. In my mind, happiness comes from those things. Not other people, not things, not various emotional states that come and go.

I’ve somehow entered a zen redneck frame of mind. I’m not a redneck, nor a Buddhist. But I can gather the way I see the world has become laid back in a way that I’ve seen many times before with guys in the country, who are rednecks. They don’t have a lot of money. Their wives are often plain. Their jobs kind of suck. Their homes are nothing to write home about. But, you look at these guys, and often you’ll see a look of contentment on their faces suggesting they know something you don’t. As related to the above details, they love their wives, work hard, and take pride in the upkeep of their deeply average homes. On one hand, some less savvy people would look at their lives and mutter “loser” under the breaths. But you have to ask yourself, how can it be that a guy like that appears to be happy and satisfied with his life. (This song might help; after two decades in New York, it rings true in ways I hadn't grasped before.)

And there you have the zen, the acceptance of life on its own terms, surrendering to it in a sense. I don’t think life makes sense until you’ve failed a bit, had life kicked your ass a little harder than you thought it could. You see that failure is an option. Granted, you don’t want to choose it all the time, or even again. But you fail in some sense … and life miraculously goes on. You’re left with a choice to pity yourself on some mass, grieving level that suggests you deeply understand Christ’s pain on the cross. Or you get your shit together and make your life worth living again. Could be a professional failure. Could be a relationship failure. Could be anything that didn’t work out the way you planned it. Frankly, I don’t understand people unless I can see and understand how they’ve failed in some sense. It makes them seem much more human and real to me. I guess it also gives me a sense of compassion towards the person. I don’t always feel compassion for people cruising through life in a convertible while “We Are the Champions” blasts from the car stereo (although a more apt analogy for "successful" people might be driving a tank through a maternity ward).

I guess this all is a minor lead-in for something. I’ve mentioned her before, a woman I see regularly at the laundromat – beautiful woman with two kids from a previous marriage, appears to be on her own now. Every time I see her in there, I feel a nice, beatific sense of peace. We smile at each other, say hello. I’d love to say more to her, but often it’s hard. Sometimes her two kids are there, and they’re doting on her more than she is on them. She also speaks Spanish, don’t know where she’s from (I thought she was a basic white girl for a long time, looks that way, as do her kids). I’ll often see her speaking Spanish with a nice older couple who come in at the same time and have really taken to her. This morning, there was a swarming nest of Indian kids and their mother next to my friend as she folded laundry, and it was nigh on impossible to do anything but say hello and pass.

It’s always something. I guess I’m saying I’d like to hit on her, but the circumstances are rarely conducive. Not to mention it’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning, I’m sweaty from sweeping the sidewalk, and I feel about as sensual as Boog Powell. It’s a fucking laundromat, not a tikki lounge. This woman has two kids, for crying out loud. I look like I’ve been working under a car. There are all kinds of nutty neighborhood people hovering around as we inter-act.

If you had told me at 18, back in rural Pennsylvania, listening to a Bowie album on headphones in my bedroom, that I’d be a single guy in (a previously working-class neighborhood in) Queens, New York in my 40s, seeing the good in the world in a pretty latina with two kids in a laundromat, I’d have shook my head and told you that you were nuts. Just telling me I’d be living in New York one day at that time would have had me thinking you were nuts.

But there’s that serene, kind look in her eye that I recognize: the zen redneck. Whatever’s gone on in her life, man, it's had to be rough. And I can see that she’s obviously learned from it, as she always has a smile on her face and carries herself light on the breeze. Good for her! I can’t tell you how attractive I find that quality in people, no matter what the relationship. I love seeing that sense of grace. That older couple she talks to, they look like the kind of people who’d drive around on a motorcycle with a sidecar, and bring along their pet chihuahua Raoul in a little helmet. And I think they're cool. I love meeting hang-loose, friendly people like this in my outer-borough existence (because not everyone here shares those admirable qualities, to say the least).

Where does something like this go? I’m not really sure. For all I know, it might stay right where it’s at the rest of my days, and in some strange way, that’s all right. Could go somewhere else, if I ever see an “in” to gently nudge things in another direction. I don’t feel pressured to move too hard in any direction. But I’ll tell you this – if it does go anywhere, this is most likely the last time you’ll read about it. Because I feel like I’ve already shed enough light on this scenario, and shedding any more wouldn’t sit right with me. Sometimes you just got to live life instead of writing about it.