Evanston RoundTable, Dec. 14, 2017
Welcome, everyone, thanks for coming. So glad you all could be here.
Wish I could too!
It’s OK to laugh, I’m just kidding!
Actually of course, I am here, laid out in this nice plywood box, very comfy in my favorite cashmere sweater, blue jeans and sensible loafers. No suit and tie for me. It’s casual eternity where I’m headed!
I have asked that some of my favorite things be included in the casket: family photos, a few Russian novels for the long days, fleece blanket for the long nights, and several gallons of coffee-flavored Haagen Dazs ice cream. Can sure use a sugar buzz for the eternal trip.
Aside from the corporeal me, I am also here in spirit, which according to our religious tradition lingers around the body for several days, like Homer at Moe’s Tavern, until it is ready to depart. That means I’m actually keeping an eye on the proceedings, so no snarky asides or inappropriate speeches, people.
Kidding aside, I can say without exaggeration that I have had the extraordinary good fortune to be born in this country, in this era, and with this family. I have been truly blessed, with good jobs, great friends, extensive travel, and the opportunity to work in journalism, write my columns as well as some fiction, play great music, read wonderful books, and meet delightful people, many of whom are here today for this rousing sendoff.
There have been lots of highlights. Spending a year as an undergraduate living in London and hitchhiking through Europe. Serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa. Meeting my future wife in Lincoln Park. Our many decades together in good health. Raising two wonderful children and spending so much time with our fabulous grandson.
I have also been lucky to have inherited my father’s passionate curiosity about the world, and why not? This place we call home is endlessly fascinating. Luckier still to have inherited my mother’s sense of humor and compassion, without which the world’s stupidity and suffering would be insupportable.
And luckiest of all, perhaps, to realize that the best thing in life boils down to just this: do everything possible to help make other people feel better, happier, more secure, and more productive.
Music has always been critical to my life, from Fats Domino to Duke Ellington. On this very special occasion, to make the sendoff more agreeable, I have requested two favorites. The first is the scherzo of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, in which as I hear it God in the voice of the French horns comes down from heaven to tame a fractious and incorrigible humanity—the orchestra—making wild, joyous noise. You could think of it as the landlord asking the partygoers to keep it down. God keeps trying and failing, but what a glorious mess! The second is Steve Winwood’s “Vacant Chair,” a simple-seeming song about the death of a loved one. It is lovely, majestic and, in its way, joyful too. It begins, “My dearest friend, till we meet again…” and ends with a line from a Yoruban proverb, oku-nsukun-oku: “The dead are weeping for the dead.”
Despite the unlikely prospect of heaven, I am not gloomy about the void. After all, it is where we all came from. Worms will chomp on my innards, it is true. But the worms will be eaten by birds, and the birds will poop by a tree, and the tree will absorb and process and expel my essence as oxygen, and I will be of the air and the sky, still part of the universe and inevitably settle back onto earth to blend with the soil and grow as a stalk of corn or a lilac bush, to be eaten and become part of another living thing, the cycle of birth and death playing out again and again.
An eternal adventure, like life itself.
Note: the original article did not for space reasons include the paragraph about the music. I add it here because I like to think how good it will sound to sail off this mortal sphere to the glorious music of Mahler and Steve Winwood.