Lucky: A Swan Song

Film critic Brian Formo reminisces on the cinematic history of the late, great actor Harry Dean Stanton and shares some thoughts on his final offering, Lucky, in which he plays the title character. Stanton’s film credits range from bit parts in 50s westerns and war films to minor roles in Cool Hand Luke, Kelly’s Heros, and Alien. He went on to star in Paris, Texas, 80s cult classics such as Repo Man and Pretty in Pink, and modern films Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Green Mile.

The late Harry Dean Stanton was the ultimate character actor. He’s given us 60-plus years of acting credits across film and television from cameos to supporting roles, but rarely the full blown lead. His biggest role, in terms of screen time, was Wim Wenders‘ lyrical Paris, Texas about a man who seeks atonement for his sins against his wife and child by wandering the desert completely alone sickened to temporary muteness at what he allowed himself to become. John Carroll Lynch, a character actor in his own right (he’s still “not the Zodiac” and if he was he “wouldn’t tell you”), has made his directorial debut with Lucky and it features Stanton’s final leading role in the familiar lonely desert vista.

Lynch, like many actors, obviously revers Stanton for his rundown and defiant spirit that’s breathed a different air into films as diverse as Alien, Wise Blood, Repo Man, The Green Mile and The Avengers. But Lucky is more than a Valentine to an actor, it’s a delicate discussion of time and nothingness that would resonate even if Stanton didn’t just pass away in the same month of its theatrical release. Because of the subject matter, it of course resonates a little more with an afterglow of Stanton’s career being capped by a film that asks the question: what do we really leave behind? For Lucky (Stanton) the perceived answer to that is not much. He has no kin, no children, never married. What he has is a routine. He gets up, has a morning cigarette, does a few exercises, walks into town where he gets breakfasts and does his crossword puzzle, goes to buy a pack of cigarettes, stops to yell “c#nts!” into a golden orb, watches his game shows, smokes more cigarettes and then goes out to the one bar that’ll allow him to drink there.

Lucky is a complete character piece. And though it begins with some broad comedy setups for the cranky old man it never goes into the territory that most aging actors are relegated to these days: the comedy road trip or comedy duel. Logan Sparks‘ and Drago Sumonja‘s script reveals any back-story or insight about Lucky with organic strokes. We see him shake his head when a man kisses another man on the cheek at a diner but later when he’s at home watching Liberace play on the piano, he’s in awe of his ability to play “with so many rings on his fingers” and he sighs to a younger woman who’s dropped in to check on him, “I don’t know why I ever cared who he fucked.” These are just two small passages that show Lucky taking into account just how long he’s spent on this earth and seen humanity shift, although he might not have himself.

In another reflection at the diner, Lucky spots a Marine closer to his age at the counter (played by Tom Skerritt) and they swap war stories. But Lucky was lucky to never have actually seen battle, he was a cook in the Navy. We’re never told when and why Lucky got the nickname “Lucky” but Sparks’ and Sumonja’s script weave in many bits of dialogue that show that he’s lucky to have lived this long, whether he realizes it or not. He smokes a pack of cigarettes a day but his lungs show no sign of caving, he served in the Navy but got to be in the can instead of the shit, he fell in love but didn’t have his heart broken. He’s lived a life that’s unspectacular enough that Death might not know of his existence.

Lynch has flanked Stanton with a number of great career supporting actors. In addition to the aforementioned Skerritt (a Weyland Industries reunion!), David Lynch plays a lonely man who’s obsessed with his tortoise, Ed Begley Jr. is the town doctor, Ron Livingston is a lawyer who Lucky butts heads with at Beth Grant‘s saloon and Barry Shabaka Henley brings the coffee at the diner. You might not know all of these actors by name but you’ll recognize them. And it’s a nice stroke by John Carroll Lynch to dot his film with familiar faces who we don’t truly know well for that’s what Lucky is to the town. He’s familiar and has been a corner fixture for years but people don’t know about his life. And as Lucky begins to debate what reality is, whether each individual has their own experience and that’s all that reality is, he learns some personal truths from those around him and about himself.

Lucky is a film that’s content being small and internalized and that’s why it works very well. Even though it can feel slight, and toes the line of crotchety eccentric, it expands with immense questions in the second half of the film, signaled by a digital clock blackout that breaks Stanton’s daily routine. It, of course, helps that Stanton is magnificent. He uses silence and rascal exuberance so interchangeably that you know they’re rooted in the same place, in a place of hollow disbelief in life. Being alone in life might be easier than dying alone. Lucky lambasts many of the locals in town, greeting them by calling them “nothing”, telling them that souls don’t exist, that no smoking signs don’t apply to him but it’s the dual nature of darkness and light that they not only allow him to continue to be in their presence but also like to soak it up. Lucky wrestles with big questions without showing off. There’s a fitting awareness of humility and we’re just specks of dust approach to weighty ideas. As if the characters are consumed by their thoughts but mildly embarrassed by them.

What Lucky seems to be most concerned with is the perception of things and how, as he approaches closer to death, it might be perceived that he indeed was nothing because he doesn’t have the belt-notches of life that people mark as leaving something behind. If all you have is your reality and perception, death takes all of that, and is he able to live with that and accept it? For Stanton, he’s left behind so many great pieces of work that — even though some of these story asides are similar to his own story (never marrying, never having a child, and serving as a cook in WWII before becoming a Lieutenant) — he’d never need worry about being forgotten or having nothing to show for it. And like Lucky, he got lucky in age. It’s his lasting legacy that made the writers, director and probably a good chunk of the cast, band together for something small but special. He’s lucky to have a film like Lucky to lay his legacy to rest. In peace.

From ‘Lucky’ Review: A Fitting Swan Song for Harry Dean Stanton written by Brian Formo for, September 29, 2017. See the full article here.

57 Years Apart

The power of inquiry and interaction between youthful innocence and the wisdom of age. This Interaction brings about self-reflection, awareness and appreciation for life, and being conscious of each moment and the richness life brings.

Tell us what this marvelous discussion awakens in you and how it might make your Third Act all the richer.

About Time – Part 1

How did it get late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time had flown. How did it get so late so soon?
– Dr. Seuss

Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change.
-Thomas Hardy 

Time is a current that runs deep in the Third Act. Though some of us have been sensitive to it in our earlier years as well, there is no denying its influence on our thoughts and feelings as we grow older. We think: “How is it possible that so many years have passed since we left high school or college to start our adult lives?” And the emotional accompaniment is like the thud of a big drum, the crashing of cymbals – our hearts pound for a few seconds, we let go our suspended breath, and find our balance again – which is to say, an acceptance of life moving forward, however it will.

In literature, the flow of water is an oft-used and profound metaphor for the passing of time, a symbol of never-ending life but also of its constant changeability and ephemerality, as in the following excerpt from Aidan Chambers’ This is All: Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn.

“Do I change like a river, widening and deepening, eddying back on myself sometimes, bursting my banks sometimes when there’s too much water, too much life in me, and sometimes dried up from lack of rain? Will the I that is me grow and widen and deepen? Or will I stagnate and become an arid riverbed? Will I allow people to dam me up and confine me to a wall so that I flow only where they want? Will I allow them to turn me into a canal to use for their own purposes? Or will I make sure I flow freely, coursing my way through the land and ploughing a valley of my own?”

Widening the lens, Hermann Hesse’s old ferryman in Siddhartha reminds the now not-so-young seeker of Prana of the illusion of time and the ubiquity of the present, for which all things exist — a lesson which the aging Siddhartha has after years of meditating on the nature of the river begun only now to understand:

“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

The present is all we have in the Third Act, and must find ways to use the moments it offers. The present need not – in fact, to many, must not – require certainty. It is enough to know that one is in the flow of life; not being able to see around the next bend is less important than discovering what might happen when we get there. It is this relaxation about time that modulates the frantic drive to suck every moment dry, and, rather, simply live it, whatever it is and however it comes and goes. Consider Milne’s thought in The House at Pooh Corner.

By the time it came to the edge of the Forest the stream had grown up, so that it was almost a river, and, being grown-up, it did not run and jump and sparkle along as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly. For it knew now where it was going, and it said to itself, “There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” But all the little streams higher up in the Forest went this way and that, quickly, eagerly, having so much to find out before it was too late.”

In fact, uncertainty – if one can allow it — may be the perfect condition for letting go of our ‘secure base’, and experiencing what comes. The Turkish playwright Mehmet Murat ildan asks:

“Do you know where you are going? Do you know what you are going to do? Do you know what you are going to say? Sometimes you better know nothing and flow freely just like a river, not knowing where to go, not knowing what to do, not knowing what to say!”

Finally (for now), music that on the one hand is created within the strictures of time, on the other unchains itself from time’s strictures, and sings of special memories in our lives – and in an instant we are transported from the present to seminal memories of our earlier lives, often accompanied by powerful emotion. Check out this animated musical piece that captures a lifetime of memory. Maybe a little sappy, yet still it is full of genuine sentiment.

Old Friends & the Fun of Play

The lovely excerpt on friendship in old age comes from Daniel Klein’s Travels With EpicurusA Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life.

The author (also one of the Five Wise Guys) re-discovers the power of friendship and play on his return to the island of Hydra, where as a young man he often escaped when strenuous bouts with real work (gag-writing at the time for the likes of Flip Wilson) made him weary. His agent was frustrated because how was his client Danny Klein going to produce an income for them both if he was always running off to a Greek island instead of sticking around to build up his career as a comedy writer?

So here it is 2014, and Danny is back on the sun-bleached island wondering about what constitutes a “fulfilled life” in one’s mid-70s.

What is a fulfilled life? Is yours a fulfilled life? Anything missing? Any new plans? Lord, lord, do tell us! 

As I coast into old age, no philosopher speaks more meaningfully to me than that ancient Greek, Epicurus. For starters, there is his delicious dictum:

“It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”

I reread that lovely maxim recently while sitting on a taverna terrace on the Greek island of Hydra, a place where I have spent months at a time over the years. This time I was on the island to think about my new stage of life and what it might offer. One of my suitcases was packed with books by my favorite philosophers.

At a table near mine, I saw my old friend, Tasso, a man about my age who is a retired judge. Tasso was playing cards with three friends, also white-haired, and from the ease of their chatter and laughter, I knew I had come to the right place to learn how to live an old age that both Epicurus and I would approve of.

Above all, such an old age would fully embrace friendship and playfulness. Epicurus wrote, “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.” But even more significantly for me at this time, he was convinced that we old folk have a unique opportunity to elevate companionship to its highest level. Epicurus believed that we oldsters no longer ever need to treat our fellows as means to an end and therefore we always can enjoy them as ends in themselves.

In old age, we can be free from what the philosopher called, “the prison of everyday affairs and politics.” Retired from business and striving, we no longer need to see other people as a way to close a deal or get a raise or obtain a contract. Having said goodbye to all that, we are left with pure camaraderie, the kind that Tasso and his fellows were contentedly enjoying.
Tasso wanted nothing more from his tablemate, Kostos, a retired fisherman, than to simply be with him — to pass the time with him, to talk with him, even just to sit in silence with him as they both watched the sun settle onto the horizon in the Peloponnesian straits. Indeed, Epicurus believed that being together in silence was the highest form of personal communion. Clearly such communion did not come easily to us when we were still in that stage of life when we were hell bent on achieving goals.

The idea of playfulness in old age also resonates with me. I was happily surprised to discover how many of the philosophers in my little portable library paid tribute to “play.” In his popular essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” the 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, lamented modern man’s loss of his capacity for play, seeing it as having been erased by the “cult of efficiency.” But perhaps the philosopher who best understood the transcendental possibilities of play was Epicurus’ forbear, Plato, who wrote: “Man is made God’s plaything and that is the best part of him. … What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play.”

I found myself recalling the first time I saw old Greek men dancing. It was on a night in 1968, during my first long sojourn on Hydra. Outside the window of my hillside house, a full moon had set the whitewashed houses aglow and the unearthly light drew me out of my room and down to the coastal walkway for a dreamy ramble. It was utterly quiet except for an occasional donkey bray and rooster crow.

Then I heard music coming from the direction of the main port, at first only the stuttering beat of bass notes, then, as I walked toward the music, the Turkic twang of a bouzouki. I followed the sound to a taverna called Loulou’s. By then I recognized the music; it was a classic song by Mikis Theodorakis, whose music at the time was prohibited by the ruling dictatorship because of his antifascist activities. The doors to Loulou’s were locked shut, but one of the windows was open. I peered inside.

Five old men were dancing side by side, connected one to the other by handkerchiefs held in their raised hands. Their craggy faces were tilted upward with what struck me as pride, defiance, and, above all, exultation. All of them were straining to keep their backs erect, though none fully succeeded, yet their legs executed the dance’s sideward steps in perfect, graceful synchrony. When, toward the end of the song, the music gradually accelerated, their steps accelerated along with it. For a long moment after the music’s crescendo climax, they remained standing silently next to one another with upraised arms.

What I had witnessed, quite simply, was a dance to life and to its consummate fulfillment in old age. This was play at its most exalted.

I fully understood what Plato meant when he wrote that pure play has intimations of the divine. And now, in my old age, I feel I am finally ready to play and dance with well-earned abandon.

How Do You Keep the Music Playing?

I’ve loved this deeply emotional song — “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” — for a long time, and these days it evokes in me an entirely new way of asking the question because I’m feeling it in the heart of a now older man. What is love and how do you hold onto it in a relationship that is decades old? How do you keep the music going? How do you keep your passion for life alive? The fire to endure whatever gets handed to you?

One simple lyric provides an answer to life itself: “If we can try with every day to make it better as it grows/With any luck, then, I suppose/The music never ends.”

But what makes the music better? Often I don’t know and just keep moving — exactly where, I don’t know either; just one foot in front of the other. When I have a hard time hearing the music anymore, it’s like I’m lost in the woods and the only way out is to backtrack to the last place you remember and go on from there.

Now listen to Tony Bennett (who was 88 when he sang this) and Aretha Franklin (now, sadly, gone) fly with this one. Play it loud! And write us back with your impressions.

How Do You Keep the Music Playing?
Music: Michel LeGrand
Lyrics: Alan and Marilyn Bergman

How do you keep the music playing?
How do you make it last?
How do you keep the song from fading too fast?
How do you lose yourself to someone?
And never lose your ways?
How do you not run out of new things to say?
And since we’re always changing
How can it be the same?
And tell me how year after year
You’re sure your heart will fall apart
Each time you hear her name?
I know the way I feel for you
It’s now or never;
The more I love the more that I’m afraid
That in your eyes I may not see forever…
If we can be the best of lovers
Yet be the best of friends;
If we can try with everyday to make it better as it grows,
With any luck, then I suppose,
The music never ends.

Elder Artists: Don’t Quit!

“You’re not a late bloomer, says Times Columnist Roxanne Gay to those of us who are writers, “You are already blooming.”

The following excerpt from “Ask Roxanne,” (New York Times, December 30, 2017) exhorts us to keep at it. Our words and our voice are the things we can control; so don’t let them grow silent. And this applies to whatever your art is, whatever expresses your spirit in only the way YOU can. Isn’t this commandment just another way of saying: “Don’t die till you’re dead”?

What are you working on these days? Want to share it with the Project?

The older we get, the more culturally invisible we become, as writers, as people. But you have your words. Writing and publishing are two very different things. Other writers are not your measure. Try not to worry about what other people your age or younger have already accomplished because it will only make you sick with envy or grief. The only thing you can control is how you write and how hard you work. The literary flavor of the week did not get your book deal. All the other writers in the world are not having more fun than you, no matter what it might seem like on social media, where everyone is showing you only what they want you to see.

“Write as well as you can, with as much heart as you can, whenever you can. Make sure there are people in your life who will have faith in your promise when you can’t. Get your writing in the world, ideally for the money you deserve because writing is work that deserves compensation. But do not worry about being closer to 50 or 65 or 83. Artistic success, in all its forms, is not merely the purview of the young. You are not a late bloomer. You are already blooming.”

Photo: Dalton Trumbo, 1967

A Grandfather’s Memory Book

What should we old guys leave of ourselves to our children and grandchildren so they might know who we once were? Does it matter?

I have a wide bookshelf filled with my journals of thirty years or so. They contain story ideas by the score, and my very personal responses to events and people in my life at the time. Do I share these? Throw them out before I die? Just leave them to be discovered? I wish I had a better sense of what was going through my father’s mind in his 50s and 60s. But that’s me; maybe not my kids’ idea of great discovery.

What to do with your own stuff? Do let us know, will you?

Colin Levy’s illustrated video remembrance called ‘My Grandfather’s Memory Book’ (The New York Times‘ Op-Docs video series) is full of the young man’s gratitude that his grandpa left so many notebooks filled with drawings and person reflections. 

Just recently the Five Wise Guys (Episode 1: Season 2) discussed the notion of getting one’s papers in order, and we weren’t talking about wills and insurance and stuff like that. Should we leave something of ourselves to our children and grandchildren, a way of letting them knew who we were?

An answer floats around in this moving video from The New York Times‘ Op-Docs video series, Colin Levy’s charming, illustrated remembrance, ‘My Grandfather’s Memory Book’.

Forget Me Not

What is it like to care for a lifelong companion who is slipping away from you day by day?

I found this Japanese video touching — though some will call it schmaltzy — because it speaks in very honest and realistic terms to the enduring love of a husband for his lifelong companion who is steadily fading away into Alzheimer’s disease. His endless patience and love and the memories of easier and happier times are what keep him going.

What keeps you going when things get tough, really tough? How do you return to the business of living?

The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)

Oliver Sacks writes about the heartfelt pleasures of turning 80. I so totally relate when he says: “I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible … and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called ‘an intercourse with the world.’”

Just find and delight in his abounding thoughtfulness and gratitude for not just being alive but still exploring new avenues of adventure at 80. May it continue to be so for all of us!

What about you? Still discovering new ways to experience life while you have it? Let us know how!

The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)

A version of this op-ed appeared in The New York Times on July 7, 2013.

LAST night I dreamed about mercury — huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be 80 myself.

Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood, when I learned about atomic numbers. At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (Element 11), and now at 79, I am gold. A few years ago, when I gave a friend a bottle of mercury for his 80th birthday — a special bottle that could neither leak nor break — he gave me a peculiar look, but later sent me a charming letter in which he joked, “I take a little every morning for my health.”

Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over. My mother was the 16th of 18 children; I was the youngest of her four sons, and almost the youngest of the vast cousinhood on her side of the family. I was always the youngest boy in my class at high school. I have retained this feeling of being the youngest, even though now I am almost the oldest person I know.

I thought I would die at 41, when I had a bad fall and broke a leg while mountaineering alone. I splinted the leg as best I could and started to lever myself down the mountain, clumsily, with my arms. In the long hours that followed, I was assailed by memories, both good and bad. Most were in a mode of gratitude — gratitude for what I had been given by others, gratitude, too, that I had been able to give something back. “Awakenings” had been published the previous year.

At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect. (This is in contrast to a story I heard from a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” to which Beckett answered, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”) I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world.”

I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.

I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever “completing a life” means. Some of my patients in their 90s or 100s say nunc dimittis — “I have had a full life, and now I am ready to go.” For some of them, this means going to heaven — it is always heaven rather than hell, though Samuel Johnson and James Boswell both quaked at the thought of going to hell and got furious with David Hume, who entertained no such beliefs. I have no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence, other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still “speak” to people after my death.

H. Auden often told me he thought he would live to 80 and then “bugger off” (he lived only to 67). Though it is 40 years since his death, I often dream of him, and of my parents and of former patients — all long gone but loved and important in my life.

At 80, the specter of dementia or stroke looms. A third of one’s contemporaries are dead, and many more, with profound mental or physical damage, are trapped in a tragic and minimal existence. At 80 the marks of decay are all too visible. One’s reactions are a little slower, names more frequently elude one, and one’s energies must be husbanded, but even so, one may often feel full of energy and life and not at all “old.” Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life.

When my time comes, I hope I can die in harness, as Francis Crick did. When he was told that his colon cancer had returned, at first he said nothing; he simply looked into the distance for a minute and then resumed his previous train of thought. When pressed about his diagnosis a few weeks later, he said, “Whatever has a beginning must have an ending.” When he died, at 88, he was still fully engaged in his most creative work.

My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.
I am looking forward to being 80.

Oliver Sacks was a professor of neurology at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine and the author, most recently, of Hallucinations.

Just Visiting

While Stephen Zimmer is unnerved by his own frightful symptoms of possible illness, he shares at the same time an ongoing grief over his younger brother’s untimely and eventually mortal condition.

The Blue Mosque at once dominating and enchanting is the view from our Istanbul hotel window and the last thing I see before I lay down and try to sleep. But I am preoccupied by an irregular growth the size of a furry caterpillar in the center of my chest; a slowly growing rough edged slightly raised area of gray skin, which I noticed last week. Frightened into action I phoned the first five dermatologists on the insurance company list, but no one could see me. This thing had been there for years but smaller, innocuous. Now it is aching and the ache goes deep into my chest, the way a melanoma would. Great. We’re traveling. Sans children, sans work worries. We’re actually doing what we always wanted. Now, first night out, I may be dying.

Carole is six inches from me in bed. She’s not asleep either; her breathing still slightly uneven, but I say nothing. She’s the worrier and I’d like to keep it that way. Lung disease, heart attacks, brain tumors, she wakes with a list. Not only illnesses, her worries cast a wide net: what’s wrong, what might go wrong, what needs to be fixed, what we’ve run out of, that sort of thing. And she is anxious to fill me in as if my knowing brings her a modicum of relief. I guess there’s a compliment in there somewhere. When I’m feeling particularly good humored the first thing I say when I walk in the door is not “hi,“ or “I’m home,” its: “Honey, what’s wrong.” She starts right in, as if that’s the way everyone says hello: “We need to get that chair put down into the basement. It doesn’t fit anywhere.” Love the “we.”

So I keep my cancer to myself. I don’t want to be The Whiner; The Hypochondriac; The Big Baby. If I don’t say it maybe it’s not real, or not yet real. Once you know, the clock starts ticking. That’s not quite right. In fact, my ticking started on 5/4/48, but once you think you know, you hear the ticking. Not that hearing the ticking itself is the thing. That happens fairly often these days. Some one you know dies and there’s the ticking. But it’s temporary. Like when you land on jail in Monopoly but are “just visiting.” When you get the Diagnosis, you transfer from visitor to inmate. You hear the ticking, it doesn’t disappear, and your normal life is over. Death sentence.

Listen to me: Just visiting,/not just visiting. When I was 26 I thought when you’re old, you can take it easy. But these waking nightmares never happened when I was twenty-six or even fifty-six. I’ve got to get some sleep.

Sleep will not come. There is a thing on my chest. It is not temporary and will not be going anywhere without the aid of a surgeons scalpel. It’s raised, rough, has irregular borders and is getting bigger. What if it’s been growing for years unnoticed and it’s too late?

Like Joel.

In September 2008 my little brother emailed me this: “Yo bro-I just went to see an oncologist about a swollen lymph node. He didn’t like the way it felt and I’m going for an MRI tonight to see if I have head and neck cancer. Oy Veh, Jobo.”

It was already too late for him. Four years later the ordeal that had replaced his normal life was finally over. Perhaps this terror of mine is Joel inspired.

I think about him nearly every day. Either I remember something I associate with him, like eating crab after blue crab and making an incredible mess, or me cringing while he practiced the West Coast Swing standing in the foyer of his house waiting to go out to dinner; or else I think about what he’s missing, like going sailing, or Thanksgiving this year. Two years ago he was there at the table rhapsodizing over our mother’s brisket but not all there. He knew he was leaving the party so in a way he’d already left and you could tell by the terrible sadness in his eyes.

Giving up on sleep I stand in front of the open window and let the cool air envelop me. It’s still there, the Blue Mosque, in all its glory, glowing purple, bathed in the barely visible light of the rising sun. It will still be there when I’m long gone.

If this is it, if my normal life is over maybe I should get that Corvette I’ve yearned for ever since my teacher Mr. “D” showed up at my elementary school parking lot with a new ’61 ‘Vette. It was probably the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and cemented his reputation as the coolest cat around. So what if I need a second garage space? The idea of retirement savings suddenly sounds like the punch line of a bad joke. Midnight black. Red’s safer, easier to see, but safety has lost its relevance. Black is badass. Drive that beauty across the U.S.A. and go down guns blazing.

But if I’m dying, what’s the point of living out one more fantasy? What is the point of dying with a Corvette in the garage? Will my last days be any happier? No, my last days will suck because I’ll never want to leave the party.

A piercing wail blasts through the dark interrupting my thoughts. I realize It’s the early morning call to prayer booming from enormous loudspeakers mounted on the six minarets of the Blue Mosque. It would be charming if it weren’t screaming at me. I’m exhausted. When I get home I’m going directly to a doctor but today, assuming I’m not too tired to go anywhere, we’ll take the ferry up the Bosporus all the way to the Black Sea and tonight after dinner we’ll watch the Dervishes whirl. Have fun, stay busy. I could be “just visiting.”