Thursday, November 30, 2017

From the Archives - Radio Station Poetry


It’s a slow news day at albertnet so here’s another poem from my archives, complete with all-new footnotes. This one goes way back to spring 1988, after high school but during my year off before starting college. I was working as a receptionist at a radio station in San Luis Obispo, which was a really easy job ... most of the time.

Radio Poetry – Spring 1988


I went to print a lame computer file,
A task that rarely causes any strain.                                 2
But this time it’s become a real trial
Because my finger has betrayed my brain.
I pushed the wrong damn key, or so it seems,
Which set disaster into motion quick.                              6
Deleting files hurts my self-esteem;
And I’ve just done it, with one finger flick.
Of course a backup file isn’t there:
Erasing it, another of my feats.                                        10
And my mistake caught everybody’s glare;
I botched the job by trying to be neat.
     I’m glad my job seems still to be intact;
     But that move wasn’t helpful, that’s a fact!               14

Footnotes and commentary

Letterhead: Class FM

Yes, this radio station was actually called “Class FM.” As you can see, the call letters were KLZZ, which was the manager’s second choice because he couldn’t get KLAS. (Maybe KLAS breaks some arcane FCC rule.) As receptionist I was required to answer the phone, “Good evening, you’ve got Class!” The deejays gave me a hard time about that. In fact, one of them was bored once and swooped by my desk to snatch up the ringing phone before I could, and answered, “Good evening, you’ve got gas! I mean Class!”

The competing radio station in our moldy oldies genre, US 98, had the slogan “Rocking the Central Coast with hits, we’re US 98!” There was a standing dare among our deejays to actually say, on the air, “Hitting the Central Coast with rocks, we’re Class FM!”

Line 1: went to print

Though this is obviously a pretty lousy poem, I like the internal rhyme in the phrase “went to print.” I wish the rest of the poem matched this strong start.

Line 1: lame computer file

Of course a computer file can’t be lame, exactly, but I was a teenager, so “lame” was naturally one of my favorite words. (I’ve just checked in with one of my resident teenagers and she says “lame” isn’t used that often nowadays ... it’s reserved for special cases because “it’s like the ultimate insult.”)

Computers weren’t quite so ubiquitous back then. I think there were only one or two of them in the whole radio station. This was long before most teenagers (outside of a few nerds) did anything on a computer, so the station manager assumed I would be unable to operate ours. He was  astonished to learn that I not only knew WordStar, but could even type fast. I’m not saying he was impressed, exactly, but I think he found my rare skills kind of cute.

Line 2: causes any strain

Word processors didn’t do a whole lot back then, so using them was a breeze. The hard part of my job was keeping busy. The only reason I even had the job is that this radio station was located inside a mall, and the mall rules required that all businesses be open and staffed during mall hours, which ended at 9:00 p.m. My shift therefore started when the daytime office manager’s shift ended at 5 p.m. On those days that the main staff left on time, I could relax, but when they were milling around I had to look busy. This was a challenge because there was almost nothing for me to do there. There was barely enough work for the office staff. It was a new station and just finding its footing.

You know what did cause strain? When the station president got drunk. He had a sizeable wine collection in his office (which the deejays said was highly unusual, alcohol being traditionally banned from radio stations for obvious reasons). This guy had serious personal issues, and when he got drunk  he got mean. His favorite drunken activity was to chew my head off for “abusing the position” by “studying on the job.” My standard defense—“Sir, I’m not even a student!”—fell on deaf ears. Once the deejay rescued me by calling me into the broadcast room: “Dana, come in here, we’re about to do a contest!” This ruse amazingly did work; the president failed to grasp that I ran the contests (i.e., took the ninth caller) right from my desk.

Speaking of strain, those contests really were pretty  tricky. The deejay would announce the contest, my phone would light up, and I’d have to blow off the first eight callers very quickly to have the ninth caller queued up in time to transfer him or her to the deejay’s phone, so this lucky winner could be on the air receiving the prize. Sometimes I’d get flustered and accidently disconnect the winner, meaning I’d have to take the next (i.e., tenth) caller to transfer in to the deejay. In this case both the ninth and tenth callers would get the prize, but the ninth caller would be furious about missing that little bit of radio fame.

The other problem was if too few people called in, and I’d be anxiously willing the phone to ring again so we’d actually have a winner. It’s embarrassing to recall how long it took me to figure out that callers had no way of knowing where their call actually fell in the onslaught, meaning I could say whatever I wanted. I could tell the first caller, “Congratulations, you’re the ninth caller!” and transfer him or her into the deejay, then get rid of all the other callers, perhaps telling each and every one of them, “Sorry, you’re the eighth caller.”

Line 3: it’s become

Glaring verb tense mismatch here. Heaven will take note.

Line 4: my finger

I’m not sure which finger this would have been. To save and exit from a WordStar document you typed Control-K and then X. To exit without saving changes you typed Control-K and then Q. So really, two fingers betrayed my brain: my ring finger that failed to type X, and my pinkie that typed Q. But neither of these would actually delete the file unless I hadn’t saved it at all. Who knows how I screwed this up. How lame is that: in a sprawling 14-line poem I failed to properly document the failure mode so as to learn from my mistake.

Line 6: set disaster into motion quick

It’s a good thing I was hired on as a receptionist, not a poet. This line is just plain embarrassing. Deleting the file was almost instantaneous. There was no disaster to “set into motion.” One second the file existed, and the next it didn’t. And a “disaster”? Please. It’s not like I had done a bunch of research or composed a precious manuscript. Whatever that file was, it could just be retyped. Sure, this might take time, but as I said, I had gobs of time. Nothing but time.

Line 7: self-esteem

Now this is just plain laziness. I needed a word that rhymed with “seems,” and blithely landed on “self-esteem” without any concern for accuracy. I was not some emo kid, let me assure you. Hell, emo hadn’t even been invented yet. I cannot fathom why I even bothered to write this sonnet if I wasn’t going to even try to make it good. In fact, I’ll bet in the next ten seconds I could write a better line. “I turned my day into a dreadful dream.” That’s better. Of course, the original eighth line no longer follows so I’ll have to rewrite it, too: “I screwed the pooch with just one finger flick.” There.

Line 10: Erasing it, another of my feats

I half-wish I could say I made up  this part solely to add a line or two to the sonnet. But in fact, I actually had deleted the backup file. Unless you’re an old guy like me, you probably won’t remember a time when disk space was considered valuable and something worth conserving. The 5¼-inch floppy disks we used back then held precious little data: 160 KB, which is 1/25000th the capacity of the 4-GB micro-SD cards that I happen to have a whole Ziploc baggie of. (Imagine a stack of 25,000 of those 5¼-inch floppies, holding the same amount of data as a thumbnail-sized card!) I filled up more than a dozen of those big-ass floppy disks during college, with nothing but text. Saving file space in those days was as sacred an act as saving trees.

Line 11: caught everybody’s glare

Okay, this part is just pure fiction. I doubt anyone in that office paid any attention to anything I did. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. The bulk of my “work” was chatting with the deejay, to keep him or her from being bored. Most of the time the deejay during my shift was Beverly Hayes (her broadcast name), and we had these long, rambling conversations interrupted periodically by her required on-air utterances (e.g., “That was Neil Diamond with ‘Forever in Blue Jeans, and you’re listening to Class FM, 101.3”). Occasionally we sang along with the music, really belting it out. Sometimes I would have the strange experience of hearing two versions of Bev simultaneously: one talking in real-time about, say, the La Brea tar pits, and the other an on-air playback of an ad she’d recorded for the station: “Not elevator music, not hard rock ... just smooth, easy-listening favorites from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s!”

Needless to say, my file deletion wouldn’t have caught the deejay’s glare. Who, then, was even watching? It could be that as a teenager I felt so self-conscious, I naturally believed that everybody automatically noticed my blunder. Perhaps the office manager did, if she was waiting for me to finish typing the document. But she wouldn’t have cared. She was a pretty cool gal, in her twenties, with a blond perm, a stick-thin figure, and a fondness for stiletto heels. She drove me somewhere in her Jeep once (I can’t remember where or why) and as soon as she turned the key in the ignition this MegaDeth song came on at party volume. Shoot, what was her name? I remember her walking through the station singing along to Peter, Paul, & Mary’s “Where have all the flowers gone?” but changing up the lyrics a bit: “We rolled them up and smoked them, every one!”

Line 12: trying to be neat

Isn’t it odd how much the act of using a personal computer involves aesthetics? Try turning down the screen resolution on your PC and you’ll immediately find that something is seriously amiss. Back in 1988, of course, all monitors were monochrome and every character was highly pixelated.  (And mere characters were almost all there was, graphics being a long way away for most applications.) About all we could do to improve things aesthetically was to shorten the list of filenames that would zoom by when you typed “dir” and hit Enter.

Line 13: job seems still to be intact

Could I really have been worried about losing my job? Well, perhaps, since it seemed too good to be true that they would pay me the princely sum of $5.50 an hour just to sit around yakking with a dejay (and, yes, occasionally putting up with a chaotic contest or a drunken tirade from the big boss).

Now, $5.50 an hour might not seem like a lot to you, or to Eminem, who rapped, “I’m tired of jobs startin’ off at five fifty an hour/ And then this boss wonders why I’m smartin’ off/ I’m tired of being fired every time I fart and cough.” But he wrote that in 1999. Adjusted for inflation, my pay in 1999 would have been $7.73 an hour. Hmmm. That still seems like not very much. In today’s dollars, though, it would be $11.59 an hour. That’s pretty good, actually. My daughter says she’d take it. (How did I calculate all this? Click here!) 

I was supporting myself on that receptionist job, plus my day job as a bike mechanic, so I’d have hated to get fired for deleting a file, farting, or coughing. I don’t recall ever farting or coughing at that job. I did, once, sneeze spectacularly. This was far enough along in my receptionist career that Bev had gotten tired of walking out to my desk from the broadcast room every time she was done talking on-air and had started another song. So she invited me to roll my chair into the broadcast room next to hers, and we’d just keep the conversation running right up until the current song was ending. Then she’d flip on the mike, the “ON AIR” light would go on, and I’d know to shut up. But one time, a sneeze took me by surprise—in fact it took us both by surprise—and was totally picked up by the mic. After a short, awkward silence Bev said her bit, flipped off the mic, turned to me and said, “Congratulations, you just sneezed all over the Central Coast.”

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Is This Pinarello Nytro Ad Sexist?


In this post I tackle the question of whether this bicycle ad  is sexist.

The ad in question, from Pinarello hawking their new Nytro electric-motor-assisted racing bike, caused quite a stir on social media. In case you’re viewing this on a smart watch, or hastily while driving (that was a joke, please don’t), the caption on the ad says, “I’ve always wanted to go cycling with my [dickhead] boyfriend, but it seemed impossible. Soon everything will become possible.”

(I added “dickhead” because even if this boyfriend is stronger, he should be happy to slow down a bit to ride with his girlfriend. I am a former and occasional racer but I love riding with my wife and daughters no matter what kind of workout this gives me.)

Christine Majerus, a female pro cyclist, responded (via Twitter), “The only thing highly possible is that I am going to drop every single Pinarello rider from now on, even @chrisfroome if needed #PinarellNO.” The husband of the women’s WorldTour champ Megan Guarnier tweeted, “I’ve always wanted to cycle with my wife, @MeganGuarnier , but she drops me like a rock so I follow in the car. Soon everything will be possible. #pinarellNO.” Another pro, a Frenchwoman, wrote, “C’est quoi ce bordel?!” which I roughly translate, “What the hell is this?!”

I was particularly tickled by this suggested improvement on the ad campaign:

So, is the ad sexist?

To start off, I think it’s dangerous to position myself as an authority on sexism, particularly since I’m a guy. It’s a little easier to brush off somebody’s misconduct when you’re not the victim of it. The results of a Metro magazine poll about the above ad support this idea:

Granted, this is just one poll, but its conclusion is dramatic: women are twice as likely as men to think the ad was sexist. Clearly, women are still the hysterical, emotionally fragile drama queens they’ve always been. KIDDING! Fear not, I’m as grossed out by this statistic as you ought to be. In fact, the visceral reaction I had to the poll made it difficult not to reduce this post to a single word: “yes.”

Obviously, that wouldn’t be a very persuasive blog post, and moreover, there were lots of comments below the cyclingnews article that ought to be addressed. Not because they’re thoughtful statements made by reasonable people, of course; most of them, needless to say, are not. But in this modern era where all kinds of people automatically take umbrage at the very idea of political correctness, those of us who had to look up the terms “snowflake” and “SJW” ought to stick up for ourselves.

(What is a “snowflake?” Urbandictionary defines it as either “A hypersensitive, irrational person who can’t stand to have their world views challenged, or be offended in any perceived or even slightest of ways,” or “Referring to someone, usually the Alt-Right, Yiannopoulos, and Nazi Sympathizers (A.K.A. ARYANS), whose immense white fragility causes a meltdown when confronted with the most minute deviation from orthodox White Supremacy.” Meanwhile, “SJW” stands for “social justice warrior” and is used pejoratively. Both these terms seem to be favorites among the Internet whiners who whine about other people’s whining.)

Some other opinions

Since I don’t feel I can be a standalone authority on whether the ad is sexist, I asked my teenage daughters and my wife. My wife replied, “What? Huh? Oh ... I haven’t been listening.” (I made the mistake of starting my question with a little background, which included the word “bicycle.” It’s been a long marriage. Especially for her.) My younger daughter replied, “Seriously? Uh ... yeah!” (She did not actually use the word “duh,” but it was strongly implied by her tone.) My older daughter said, “Give me a second. I’m deciding whether the ad is heteronormative. I don’t think it is. Definitely sexist, though.”

To get the perspective of an older generation, I showed the ad to my mom and asked what she thought. Mom didn’t have an automatic problem with the idea that the electric bike could help a slower woman keep up, but she bristled at the wording of the ad: “I’ve always wanted to go cycling with my boyfriend but it seemed impossible.” The word “impossible” she took particular issue with—it struck her as defeatist that a woman would assume there was no way she could ever match the fitness of her boyfriend. Men may tend, on average, to have greater God-given strength, but surely the gap isn’t insurmountable. (I have personal experience with this as an assistant coach of my daughter’s high school mountain bike team. Lots of girls routinely drop lots of guys, and the guys have been very cool about not roaring a terrible macho roar, making stupid BS excuses, or quitting in a huff.)

What’s particularly interesting is that both the ad agency that created the ad, and Pinarello, who paid for it and ran it, didn’t seem to think this ad was sexist—until this was pointed out to them all over the place and they issued an apology.

I don’t buy the idea, suggested by numerous Internet commentators, that this flap was all contrived in advance for free publicity. These wannabe pundits cited the old adage, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Yeah, right. Just ask the guys who promoted the Ford Edsel, or, more recently, the ignoramuses behind the racist Dove ad that backfired. I can’t imagine any company runs an ad that it hopes to have to apologize for.

So how did Pinarello get this so completely wrong? Probably a lot of men at the ad agency thought there was nothing wrong with implying that a man might need an electric motor because he has “no time to work out during the week” (the text from their ad featuring a male) whereas a woman needs a motor just because she’s a woman. And when a bunch of men at Pinarello looked at the ad they didn’t see anything wrong with this disparity either. Why? Because they’re men. Stupid ones. (Okay, it’s possible that sexist women were involved, but the poll I cited earlier suggests this is only half as likely.)

There’s a big difference between these clueless types and the angry males making comments such as “Never apologize! That’s when the feminazis think they’ve won,” and “I doubt if the young gals can afford the 6,000 euros without the help of their boyfriends.” But the non-aggressive, passively clueless types are a big part of the problem. They’re controlling budgets and influencing public perception (not to mention creating situations that inflame outspoken misogynists) without realizing that they’re harboring antiquated, unfair attitudes toward women. They apparently never got the memo that women don’t want to be patronized or coddled.

Why none of this matters

Of course sexism matters. It should be fought on every  front. But the Pinarello Nytro doesn’t matter whatsoever. It’s a completely stupid bike, and here’s why.

First of all, the Nytro is not going to help riders of differing abilities to enjoy riding together. Its motor puts out up to 400 watts, which is enough to drop a pretty decent club racer on a long climb without even pedaling. But the motor cuts out when the bike reaches 25 km per hour (about 15.5 mph), which is a lower speed than the club racer can easily sustain on the flats. So on climbs, the weaker rider on the Nytro will crush the stronger one on the regular bike, and then on the flats the stronger rider on the regular bike will exact revenge. In the case of a couple, this looks like a recipe for disaster. (I’d love to watch this play out, actually.)

Second, almost anybody serious enough about cycling to drop $7,000 on a racing bike is going to want to earn the glory of dropping people, rather than claim the empty victory of “beating” somebody through a totally unfair equipment advantage. (The existing differences from a basic bike to a top-end bike are not anywhere in the ballpark of 400 watts.) Real cyclists want to improve, not outsource their ability to a motor. Naturally there are filthy rich douchebags who might love the idea of this bike, but they’ll surely sour on it when real cyclists crush them on the flats.

Where Pinarello ought to put their R&D money is into motor-assisted commuting bikes. Think of all the people who don’t commute by bicycle because they don’t want to get to work all hot and sweaty, and/or don’t want to tackle that one big hill on the way home. Giving an electric boost to a basic bicycle—or, if you prefer, putting out a new kind of electric scooter that you can easily carry up the stairs to your apartment, and/or bring on the train—is a great way to get more people commuting by bike. According to this article, there are already 200 million e-bikes in China. Why would Pinarello go after the impossibly small niche of shameless rich douchebags who want electric racing bikes, instead of serving a legitimate societal need?

More food for thought

I hope that I’ve made a strong case for Pinarello and their ad agency being sexist. But here’s a thornier question: is it sexist if a guy on a bike team, upon seeing his male teammate roll up on a Nytro, calls him a “little bitch”? I will leave this question for the reader to ponder.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Famous Last Words - Part II

NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.


If you haven’t read last week’s post, I recommend you click here and do so now. In that essay I explored the phenomenon of a dying person’s last words, and was all set to tell you my father’s last words—but then ran out of room. Well, not room, exactly, but I had gone on long enough and didn’t want to bore you. So today you get to find out what my father’s last words actually were.

My father’s last words

My father, just before he died, said … well, wait. Before I get to that, I should give you a bit of background, so that you can fully appreciate just how funny, unexpected, and yet apropos my father’s last words truly were.

To start, my father always fancied himself a gentleman. He never cussed. I mean, ever. It was weird. This is a guy who never even said “fart.” I think he said “damn” here and there, but less frequently even than my daughters, who aren’t officially even allowed say this. When my dad needed emphasis, he either resorted to volume or other means.

For example, he was once a passenger in my 1984 Volvo when I had a mishap. I was parking in front of my house and came in a little too close to a broken curb outcropping, which caught the edge of my car’s trim and zipped it right off the side of the car. This made a terrible, loud noise like the car was shrieking in pain. When my dad got out he was shocked—almost disappointed, it seemed—that my comeuppance involved so little damage. I zipped the trim right back on to the car, good as new, and my dad said, “You are real lucky you didn’t do more damage.”  For him to use the adjective “real,” where the adverb “really” is called for, was tantamount to profanity, given his normally precise, professorial syntax.

Even when my dad was clearly angry, he didn’t resort to strong language. Once, on a beautiful summer evening, just before dusk, my dad was driving my brothers and me up Flagstaff Road, just for the pleasure of it, when we encountered an encampment of drunken college kids whooping it up. I can’t remember what they were saying but it was vulgar and far louder than necessary. They were being loud, it seemed, just to disturb the peace, and to flaunt their youth and irresponsibility and drunkenness. (I even seem to recall a soiled prophylactic sailing through the air, but perhaps this is the embroidery of memory.) My dad did not yell, “Shut up, you bastards!” like any normal person. What he yelled was, “Hush up!” Who says “Hush up”? Nobody, that’s who. (Oddly, this caught the drunks so off-guard they were momentarily speechless as their soused brains attempted to parse this utterance.)

My dad’s uncannily clean mouth wasn’t due to any moral or religious airs. He just had this profound sense of decorum. Surely he was aware that a certain amount of profanity is common among adults. In fact, on one occasion, a year or so ago, he even alluded to this. He remarked, “I encountered recently a rather humorous website cataloguing all the ways the F-word can be used. The F-word turns out to be highly elastic, and can be used as almost any part of speech … as a noun, as a verb, and so forth.” I was so eager to encourage this exploration that I probably overstepped a bit. I replied, “Oh, yes, I’ve seen that website and it’s pretty funny. But you know, it’s incomplete. The guy compiling the list missed one: ‘fuck’ as gerund adverb, as in, ‘Are you fucking shitting me?!” This seemed to catch my dad completely off guard, and just like that the conversation was over. He responded as though I’d been verbally abusive. I realized this may have been the first time he’d heard me use such language. (I just shrugged it off, like, “You started it, dude.”)

Notwithstanding my dad’s lifelong avoidance of profanity and other tough talk, I knew toward the end of his life that, as far as last words go, anything was possible. Perhaps a new experience like dying of cancer would unleash an entirely new lexicon. This was the case with a former President of Bolivia, Antonio José de Sucre, who was known to be a gentleman who had never cursed in his life. Upon being shot twice in the head (but before a third shot, to the heart, killed him) he cried out, “¡Carajo, un balazo!” [“Fuck, a bullet!”]. So he had that word in him but had just never been upset enough to deploy it.

So it was with my dad, not long before he died, when in the middle of the night I heard him yell out, “Shit!” I had literally never heard him utter this word before. Of course, he didn’t have an audience—or at least, he didn’t realize he did, being alone in his bedroom—so maybe this wasn’t eligible to be his last word. On the other hand, he yelled it quite loudly, and was well aware that a crack team of his sons was assembled in the living room on cots and mattresses, taking turns attending to him during his hospice. Novel as this word choice was, though, I can’t say I was surprised. Something about having an ostomy bag burst open would surely loosen anyone’s tongue. (If it had been me in there bursting my ostomy bag, I’d have woven a tapestry of profanities that would make Eminem blush.)

Still, cursing to an empty room in the dark is a long way from challenging somebody verbally, in broad daylight, face to face. Throughout his life my father avoided pointed statements and direct challenges whenever possible. If you said something that upset him, he would either fold up completely—the conversational equivalent of going limp or playing possum—or he would quietly explain that you were upsetting him.

He had a special way of reacting if you were boring him or about to hold forth on a topic he didn’t want to hear about. His protocol in this scenario was even more efficient than a teenager’s “Whatever dude” or “Like I care.” He would essentially cut you off with the simple word, “Good.” For example, I once said to him, “I just started a pretty cool project at work.” For some reason he didn’t want to hear it. Maybe his brain was tired, or maybe he was afraid he’d be out of his depth with this topic (which would have been ironic, as my brothers and I grew up hearing all about his work in the field of rocket science). Whatever the reason, he just said, “Good.” It’s impossible to capture, with mere text, the peculiar inflection he employed to convey the utterly dismissive intent of this utterance, but his meaning was impossible to miss. Dad’s “good” meant “All right, good for you … but I don’t give a rat’s ass, so shut up already.” So often did he employ this “good,” it became a running family joke. Even my kids have become expert at mimicking it. So I’ll say, for example, “Girls, I want to talk to you about Internet security,” and they’ll reply, with perfect Grandpa inflection, “Good”—and then disappear.

Okay, great … so what were his last words?

My father’s last words were … well, first let me paint the picture for you, of this deathbed scene. My dad had reached the phase where lucidity was a huge struggle. If somebody visited with whom he really wanted to connect, he dug deep, made eye contact, swallowed, cleared his throat, and then asked (with a gesture or a croak) for a drink of water, which would cause a coughing fit right after he swallowed it, and then he would utter a sentence clearly tailored for maximum brevity. The effort would exhaust him, and then he would slump back on the pillow, and his eyelids would half close, and his eyes would roll up toward the top of his head. For long spells between these verbal efforts—which became progressively rarer—he would just lie there in a partial doze.

My brothers and I learned that our dad seemed to appreciate our presence even if he couldn’t communicate (verbally or through eye contact). So we’d sit by the bed and hold his hand. He’d acknowledge this, sometimes, with a brief hand squeeze. (And if our presence didn’t always register with him, the gesture meant something to us, anyway.) And so, sometime in the last hour of our dad’s life, my brother Geoff and I just sat with him, across the bed from each other, each holding one of his hands. We sat there quietly, looking upon him, knowing full well that we wouldn’t be looking upon him for much longer, and then never again.

What a sight he was. He hadn’t gotten around to getting a haircut or trimming his beard before a big surgery in mid-August, and the ensuing complications and follow-on surgeries—one crisis after another, each advancing him toward this early death—meant he never got around to these petty sartorial matters, so now his hair was long and wild, his beard long past the professorial stage into well into hipster territory. From the neck up, he was like some crazy old man from a Faulkner novel. But below the neck, his body was just wasted away—nothing but skin and bones. His rib cage was so prominent we couldn’t help but think of E.T. His arms and legs were so spindly, so utterly devoid of flesh, he was like an honest-to-God prisoner of war. His remaining skeletal frame was birdlike—like Poe’s “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore.” In short, our dad’s physical presence was nothing short of heartbreaking to look upon.

And yet his hands, amazingly, remained unchanged. Sure, they were old person’s hands—mottled, red, sun-ravaged—but still large and strong. His grip was surprisingly good. Looking from the wrist down, you might have said this guy had gotten too much sun—but not that he was clearly a terminal patient heading down the home stretch of a wasting death. Geoff and I sat there holding his hands for a long time and then Geoff said exactly what I’d been thinking: “His hands are still the same as ever.”

So we sat there, gripping his hands, managing to find something to admire in this broken, wasted man. “Think of all the cool stuff he built with these hands,” Geoff said. It was true. Our dad was always building things, his whole life long. He made custom roof racks to put his bikes on his car. He built world class telescope tripods from old hockey sticks. He once built a prototype of some kind of aerospace stabilizer out of crap he found in the basement, including an old car tire that was suspended over the floor horizontally; as I stared at it, wondering what the point could possibly be, Dad invited me to give it a kick. This I did with gusto, and to my amazement there was a sudden whizzing and whirring of servos and the swinging of the tire was stopped in an instant, like magic.

“Think of all the knots these hands have tied,” I said. My dad knew all the sailors’ knots. He could do a clove hitch, a half hitch, a bowline, a sheepshank—all of these in his sleep, in the dark. Geoff replied, “Yeah—” but was suddenly cut off because:

“Shup,” our dad said. Huh? Shup?

I looked into his eyes, and he looked back. “You mean, ‘shut up’?” I asked. He nodded. And that was it. The last words he ever spoke. Shut up.

Now, this may not seem momentous to you, but remember everything I said above. This man had surely never, in his life, told anybody to shut up—certainly not us. That really says something, because we were four very boisterous boys—I can still hear our mom yelling, “Stop all that yammering!”—but our dad had never, ever told us to shut up.

So Geoff and I shut right up, believe me. And we looked at each other in astonishment. What was our dad reacting to? I guess it must have been painful for him to be talked about like that, right in front of him, almost in the past tense, and without being part of the conversation. Maybe the allusion to his wasted body was hard to take; to hear the statement “His hands are still the same as ever” was part and parcel of the bigger point—that the rest of his body was ruined. Or maybe he just couldn’t handle the casual ease with which we expressed ourselves, when he was barely able to speak.

Or maybe, just maybe, after a lifetime of decorum and politesse, and now facing imminent death, he decided there was no reason not to finally say those simple words—“shut up”—that he’d been waiting his whole life to be able to say.

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Famous Last Words

NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.


I had the unfortunate opportunity recently to hear somebody’s last words. As in, on his deathbed. I suspect that few people’s last words are memorable, or at least get remembered. However, I came well prepared for my opportunity as witness, which gratified my longtime fascination with dying words. In this post I’ll explore that fascination with you.

Famous last words

My brother Max and I have discussed this at length. We want to go out saying something impressive. Max declared, “I wouldn’t want to go into death unprepared. I want to have something rehearsed.” Like what? “Well, something like, ‘Stay gold, Ponyboy … stay gold.’” Of course he was joking, as that’s been taken. Myself, I’ve always kept the following quote handy, ready to rattle off whenever I don’t know what else to say: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Those are Vladimir Nabokov’s words, but not his last. His last words were, “A certain butterfly is already on the wing.”

Pretty glib, eh? Almost too perfect. And that’s the challenge: to have something queued up in advance, and then to have the lucidity and presence of mind to recall it in your last moment. Adding to the difficulty is that you may not know which moment will be your last. As I’ve discussed with Max, there’s always the Little Big Man scenario: you think the time has come to die, and you make a big speech and everything, and then you unexpectedly go on living for quite some time, making this “final” thing you said a bit of an embarrassment.

There’s also the scenario where you give a nice little speech, thinking it’s the end, but then you live just long enough to spoil it with some other random utterance. This happened to the famous writer Roald Dahl, who had his family gathered around him and said, “You know, I’m not frightened. It’s just that I’ll miss you all so much.” Pretty nice sentiment, but then, as he seemed to lose consciousness, his nurse decided to give him a morphine injection to ease his transition—whereupon Dahl cried out, “Ow, fuck!” And then died. Ow, fuck … famous last words.

Convicted murderers, right before being executed, have a great opportunity to say something memorable. In my extensive study of last words (i.e., reading the entire Wikiquotes entry), I found murderers to be the best represented. They can predict the moment of death beforehand, and they’ve had some time on death row to think of something. James French, just before getting the electric chair, yelled to the assembled press, “Hey fellas! How about this for a headline … ‘French fries!’” Thomas Grasso declared, “I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s; I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this.” Of course, even murderers can screw this moment up. Shannon Charles Thomas gave some long formal statement, but then forgot to shut up afterward. His actual last words: “Is the mic still on?”

Perhaps murderers aren’t whom to look to for the crème de la crème of last words, as these people don’t tend to be well educated and/or or deep thinkers. I’ve found wittier quotes from those executed in the name of politics. Consider Pedro Munoz Seca, a playwright executed during the Spanish Civil War, whose last words, facing a firing squad, were, “I am starting to believe you are not intending to count me amongst your friends.” George Jacques Danton, a French revolutionary famous for his physical ugliness, said just before being beheaded, “Show my head to the people. It is well worth seeing.” But my favorite line comes from James Scott, First Duke of Monmouth, a British nobleman executed on Tower Hill. It was customary in those days to tip the executioner in advance (as a way to ensure good—i.e., swift—service), but Scott refused. Perhaps for that reason, the first blow of the axe landed on his shoulder. He looked up at the executioner and said, “Sir, if you miss like that again, I cannot guarantee that I shall remain still.”

Of course, anybody whose life ends like this has the benefit of an audience which knows it is witnessing somebody’s demise. This audience is prepared in advance to register what is said and may naturally suppose the words will be remarkable—so they’re paying attention. But the death doesn’t need to be deliberate, if there are enough people in attendance. There is very little doubt as to the authenticity of the final words of Mark Sandman, the lead singer of Morphine. Addressing a stadium full of fans at a concert in Palestrina, Italy, he said, “Thank you Palestrina. It’s a wonderful evening, it’s great to be here and I wanna dedicate you a super sexy song.” And then he collapsed of a fatal heart attack.

In contrast, when a famous person dies but not many are around to hear his or her last words, there’s certainly room for error—especially when posterity so badly wants to glorify the memory of the deceased. Perhaps this is how history has recorded so many conflicting (and thus inaccurate) accounts. For example, Groucho Marx is said to have parted with, “This is no way to live!”—but his last utterance is also reported as, “Die, my dear? Why, that's the last thing I'll do!” So which account is correct? At most one, and quite possibly neither. Humphrey Bogart supposedly said, “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.” But other sources have him leaving off by telling his wife, “Goodbye, kid. Hurry back.” Maybe the thing about martinis was merely toward  the end? Who knows.

Dylan Thomas either said, at the last, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies … I think that’s the record,” or, “Roses plural or Rose’s with an apostrophe?” The second report, spoken to his girlfriend, strikes me as more authentic (for being less pitch-perfect), but again we can’t really know. Elvis Presley is purported to have made his final utterance, “I’m going to the bathroom to read,” but the more believable account is that he said, “Okay, I won’t,” which gives the more interesting utterance to his fiancée, who (as he headed for the john) warned him,  “Don’t fall asleep in there.”

One apocryphal final utterance that I’m guilty of repeating is that of Tom Simpson, a cyclist who died of a drug overdose during a Tour de France stage. He supposedly said, “Put me back on my bike.” What he actually said was, “Up … up….” Of course that doesn’t make as good a story. Pancho Villa left us a nice touch of irony along these lines, saying at the end, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.” Very witty and “meta,” except that, alas, this quote too is apocryphal … nobody knows what his last words actually were.

Other last words can perhaps be better trusted, not because of who was around to remember them, but because they’re memorable without being uttered by a famous person burdened with the responsibility of saying something bright. For example, Louise-Marie-Thérèse de Saint Maurice, Comtesse de Vercellis, reportedly said, “Good. A woman who can fart is not dead.” This was, yes, after letting one rip. That’s just too good to be made up (and if it was untrue, people would surely have spoken up). Another utterance that seems too apropos to have been apocryphal is the final utterance of the surgeon Joseph Henry Green who, upon checking his own pulse, spoke just one word: “Stopped.”

Then we have the case of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, whose last words were, “God bless, God damn!” According to Wikiquotes, “He was known to spend many long hours trying to decide what his last words would be; one can only speculate if this is what he had intended to say.” I guess there are worse final proclamations; after all, “God bless, God damn!” was reportedly good enough for James Thurber, a noted wordsmith. (Perhaps Thurber was quoting Santa Anna?)

Where last words are concerned, accurate recall is a two-way street: anybody who might be in the room with the dying could be the only one to hear these words, and may or may not care to commit them to memory, especially if they’re humdrum things. Freddy Mercury, on his deathbed and weak from AIDS, probably didn’t realize his humble and necessarily concise request for help getting to the restroom—“Pee pee”—would be the last thing he ever said. But was it, really? Unless he literally died moments later while getting this assistance, he might have died half an hour or so later, and do we really know he didn’t say some other similarly bland thing during that time?

My father’s last words

Many of my dad’s utterances, toward the end, seemed like candidates for his last words. In these final days, I struggled to remember not only every single thing my dad said, from the profound to the truly banal, but also the sequence in which he said them. After all, I wanted to get this right. There’s a world of difference, to me, between something said toward the end versus the very last thing a person ever said.

When people are gravely ill and thus not of a reliably lucid mind, or even when they’re just bummed out about being terminal, they run the risk of leaving off with something less than totally profound. Agnieszka Osiecka, the Polish writer, said to her children on her deathbed, “Do Dupy,” which translates, “This sucks.” Perhaps she didn’t intend these to be the last words she ever spoke. Similarly, I doubt my dad intended his last word to be “Integers!” which he said quite loudly and emphatically, but apparently to nobody; my brother and I heard it from the next room. But he also said, “Urinal,” because he needed to pee. It vexed me at the time that I could not recall which came first. What if he never said another thing? What if I wouldn’t be able to know his last words for certain?

Hanging on my dad’s every word during those final days seemed a fool’s errand, because nobody could know how long he would last. It seemed he could die any minute, or in the next few hours, or maybe not for days, and possibly a week or more. How long could I go on committing his every verbal output to memory?

There was also the risk that If I didn’t nail down my father’s last words, I might unknowingly invent something. I’m not talking about putting words in his mouth, but about conveniently seizing on something profound, and later recalling it, inaccurately (though inadvertently) as the last thing he said. For example, he did gather my three brothers and me around him toward the end to bid farewell. “Okay boys,” he said, and then paused. So far he was off to a great start. How many times had he addressed us that way? I was almost crying already. 

Then, working to summon the breath needed to continue, our dad cleared his throat and said, “This is the last time I’ll have an audience.” This, because it came from a man who had always enjoyed an audience, was profound. But now he was truly running out of breath, and mental clarity, and only managed to finish up with: “Bye-bye.” And this could have been it, and though it’s not a total zinger, it does have a nice sense of closure, perhaps not worthy of My Dinner with Andre, but more than good enough.

But I knew this might not be his final utterance. I stayed focused, because if I didn’t catch whatever he said next, I’d forget that next thing, and fall back on the last thing I did remember—i.e., the “bye-bye” speech. And that wouldn’t be fair to my dad. Make no mistake about it: the last words should be remembered exactly—not for the benefit of the audience, but for the benefit of the dead.

A bit later our dad said some very nice things to Max, that I could probably remember pretty much verbatim if I thought hard (and which deserve to committed to memory, I suppose), but I know for a fact these weren’t my dad’s last words. He was going to go around and give a final benediction to each of us, and you’d better believe I’d have paid close attention and made sure to immortalize whatever he said specifically to me—but he never got to it. He ran out of steam. And the really crazy part is that I can’t even remember if this was the very day he died, or the day before. That’s how quickly these memories get warped.

But you know what? In the end, I managed it. I know unequivocally what my dad’s last utterance was, and what’s more I have a witness. Two of us heard him, distinctly. And this was in the last hour of his life, and we were with him the rest of the way, and he never said another thing. And what he said was totally unexpected, completely lucid, and—in its way, coming from the mouth it did—totally profound. It was also pretty funny. What he said was this:

Wait, hold on. About the only feedback I ever get on this blog is that my posts are too long. And look at this, I’m at like 2,300 words already! So I’m going to just snip this off right here so you can get back to binge-watching House of Thrones or Game of Cards, or tweeting or snapchatting or whatever I dragged you away from. Tune in next week for the thrilling conclusion (I originally typed it “confusion”) of albertnet’s Famous Last Words!

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