Were I with thee, wild nights would be our luxury

\That is a quote from an Emily Dickinson poem and the title of Joyce Carol Oates‘ new book, Wild Nights, Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. Liane Hansen (NPR) interviewed Oates this morning and I learned this book is a group of fictional memoirs written in the style and voice of the authors which reinvent climactic moments toward the end of their lives.

I recently wondered if someone would create something like this, even mentioning Mark Twain, and here it appears! Amazing. I can’t wait to read it. The radio interview was too short but revealed a few real personal idiosyncrasies the stories were built on, opening with another great quote from James that JCO keeps posted above her desk: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” How true, we do what we can, we give what we have and as JCO says, “…we can, in times of emergency, be so different from our previous lives.” Which is how her reincarnation of James spending his last days working in a hospital changes him. In reality Dickinson never left her house after age 20 and left behind 776 insightful poems but in an alternate history JCO makes her into a replicant, a robot purchased for entertainment but who ends up instead revealing the poverty of her owner’s lives. Finally, Liane also briefly mentioned Ray Smith, Joyce’s husband of over 45 years, who passed away this last February which I’m sure made finishing this novel even more difficult for her. Her reply about how tired and unmotivated his passing has made her makes me wonder how much more she will feel compelled to write or if her “madness” has left with the departure of her long time companion’s support and strength. Well, it’s time to trundle off to the library to make another new book request. Sundays are a good day for that.

An ethical will by any other name

Last year Randy Paush and his 70-minute talk, now known as “The Last Lecture” become extremely popular. Now it has become an inspirational book containing “ideas for achieving one’s childhood dreams” which has spawned a “…contest seeking examples of great parental advice either dispensed or received.” I have mixed feelings about this.

I’ve read that Paush was astonished at his sudden notoriety and only cared about “…the first three copies of the book.” One of his friends said, “Randy never, ever had any expectation that his lecture would turn into the phenomenon that it has become. The main reason it was taped at all was so that his children, especially his younger two, would know something about him.” At around the 55 minute mark (where it deepens into something more than a professional resume) he shares his success depended on the blessings he was born with and talks about the wisdom imparted by those closest to him. A contest doesn’t quite mirror the intent.

Whether Paush (or hundreds of comments) inspires you or makes you cringe shouldn’t matter. Leaving something personal after death is very common. We all have something intimate to pass along. What should matter is that we be encouraged to do so regardless of children. While wisdom isn’t the strict purview of the dying, or even the old, those groups do tend to have a sharper focus on the essential. And despite Paush’s claim that the “headfake” of the lecture was that it wasn’t intended for the audience, his reflections enlightened everyone who saw it. I wish the Times had used the opportunity to promote ethical wills to their readership (which I’ve mentioned before). I realize all the hype over social media encourages us to feel like everyone must want to read our pearls of wisdom (honestly, they don’t). But unlike blog posts your “final love letter” isn’t addressed to the world. It is written to a few very specific people who mean the most.

There are already 324 comments (and counting) of people sharing their advice with strangers on a web page that will soon enough go dark without benefit to anyone. Whereas if they’d taken the same trouble to write these thoughts in a letter, included a photo or two, and put it in a safe place (–even reviewing it once in a while), it might just survive long enough to make a deeper impression. Much more valuable than a fleeting contest with a questionable prize. As much as I hate to admit it, I understand why people would rather leave a public comment than write a personal letter.

Funny, sweet, smart

The insightful Venn Diagrams of Jessica Hagy and the mind-bending humor and personal history of Demetri Martin (especially when he uses flip charts or drawings) are like pie and ice cream. Perfect, delicious, simplicity. I wonder if they collaborated it would be mind blowing amazing, or if their talents would cancel each other out. Maybe they even already know one another and share ideas. Anyway, together with “Wait, Wait” they are all good for a Sunday smile. See, it’s not all death and dreariness 24/7 around here. There are always times when a little humor steps in for balance.

Take a picture, it lasts longer

tonbridgepmthn.jpgThat’s the traditional comeback line to a long stare. Yet there are some things we just can’t help staring at in order to capture an essence that escapes us at first glance. That is what the photos of Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta do for me. They cause me to examine them so closely I find myself staring, captivated by what Cory Doctorow calls, “…the difference between flesh animated and the empty vessel gigantic and unmistakable, even when the before-death shot is of someone terribly ill.” And interestingly, because of the intimate juxtaposition of life before death and the amazing brief stories they tell about their feelings towards that death, they are more powerful than the similarly somber cabinet cards or postmortem photography of the late 1800s (where equally as many children as adults were photographed).

Pulling out a camera after death must certainly be difficult emotionally. I know it never occurred to me to preserve that particular moment. It’s also hard to judge what might be insensitive behavior toward other family and friends in attendance at a deathbed who might consider it an intrusion or at least be uncomfortable with it. It’s true we can watch it in the abstract on tv, or in movies, or in games, but there does seem to be something odd about, “lights, camera…inaction” when someone you love is involved. (Photo credit: Paul Frecker collection of 19th century postmortem photography)