Friday, October 3, 2014

Death, Be Not Loud (Pt. One)

What got me to thinking about this was the notion of writing my final Facebook post (and Google+ and LinkedIn--those folks purportedly give a damn about me too, or so the Terms and Conditions imply). The only hard part would be not being able to read how many "likes" the post received, or, for that matter, what the "likes" meant. Did they like the post, or did they like it that I was dead?

At the very beginning of a J-School 101 class years ago, I learned the most-read parts of a newspaper were the letters to the editor and the obituaries. Totally guilty, I. They're both far more interesting than the usual articles on venality, mayhem, corruption, and greed. Or planning commission meeting stories which, arguably, are pretty much the same thing.

The best obituaries I ever read were in the Eugene (OR) Register-Guard. They really tried to tell a story, unlike, say, those in the New York Times, which are little more than vital statistics with good verbs and serve to remind you that you're not important enough to warrant an obit in the Times. The next best are those in the Portland Oregonian, which are written by one of the bereaved and therefore have a human quality (so to speak). Oregon may be onto something.

About midway through that selfsame J-School course, students were assigned to write an obituary of a famous person. I ticked names off a mental list of celebrities and politicians I hated, but because there were so many of them, I couldn't make a choice. Instead, I opted for shock value and picked Muppets creator Jim Henson.

He died for real a short time later and I'm still not over it, as though his untimely, odd demise was my fault. Will the pre-death writer of Robin Williams' obituary please stand up? You're toast, man.

But I digress, except to note that one's final Facebook post, or, more to the point, thinking about what to put into it, is kind of like an obituary. "Why did you do that?" someone once asked my father about some scurrilous or notable thing he'd done. "So they'd have something to put in my obituary," he said. It's kind of the same issue with your Facebook epigram (which, for those of you born since 1970,  is like Instagram, only different).

And, wouldn't you know it, but along comes a wonderful article in The Atlantic by an esteemed bioethicist (yes, definitely a First World profession, but, you know) on his hoping to die at 75. The author, Ezekiel Emmanuel--a physician, brilliant thinker, avuncular writer--doesn't say what you might suspect from the title. An end-of-life specialist, his thoughts are life-affirming and he opposes assisted suicide.

But it got me to thinking--why not cash in at 75? Okay, okay, I understand the usual rejoinders--look at all those much older than 75 who function very well, you'll change your mind when you're 74, and so on. I get it. It's like all the politicians who change their minds about term limits when their terms are up. Sort of, anyway. Just more permanent.

In my case, though, I've always wanted to make a difference and leave the world better off for my having been here. By "making a difference," I mean performing some act that weaves a different-colored thread through the fabric of society, of life, and if not leaving it better than it was, then at least noticably different apres moi. It doesn't have to be anything grand, such as negotiating an Israel-Palestine peace treaty or discovering a cosmological Grand Unifying Theory. And it can't be something affecting only you and your kith, like being a good storyteller or halfway decent babysitter.

It means leaving something in your wake that people think of when they think of you. Something to put in my obituary, in other words. The 21st Century variety.

Dr. Emmanuel points out that the early medical advances that extended life expectancy mostly affected early life--lower child mortality rates, polio vaccines, antibiotics, that kind of thing, all of which not nobly extend life, but improve the quality of living. Later medical achievements extend your termination date, but those extra years are not quality of life extensions. You've probably done everything great you're going to do and you pretty much just pass time sitting in the sun and dream of vodka in your Metamucil.

Should you lie to your doctor
about alcohol consumption?
I think I've missed my chance at leaving behind a better world than the one I entered. I like to think I had some tiny part in bringing the war in Vietnam to a close and in ending racial discrimination, but it's less than clear. Too many people still think both were a good idea. Women's equality was (and is) a huge issue for me, especially as it is intertwined with the environment, my other huge (and Quixotic) concern. But I'd venture to guess there are more people who have never heard of the Equal Rights Amendment than there are those who have, and that it was never ratified. Even my lost causes are dated.

But I do want to finish a novel. I wrote one, once, but go so exasperated with it that I destroyed the 350-page second draft. A new one is in progress, but will I finish? Maybe, if I die at 75.

I always did better when there was a deadline.

And then, my final Facebook post could express my gratitude to all those who pretended they liked the rough draft.