RIP, Phillip Seymour Hoffman

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are reporting that Phillip Seymour Hoffman has died, reportedly from a drug overdose. What a sad day, a giant loss, one of the best actors of his generations.

Worth reading today, this 2008 profile of the actor in New York Times Magazine “A Higher Calling”:

From his first roles in movies like “Scent of a Woman,” in which he played a villainous prep-school student, to the lovesick Scotty J. in “Boogie Nights,” to the passionate and ornery rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” Hoffman has imbued all his characters with a combination of the familiar and the unique. It’s not easy; it’s the sort of acting that requires enormous range, as well as a kind of stubborn determination and a profound lack of vanity. In the theater, Hoffman finds refuge in being part of a community. Theater presents considerable difficulties — Hoffman said his most challenging role for the stage was as Jamie Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” on Broadway (“That nearly killed me”). But when he speaks about his work in films, Hoffman’s struggles sound lonelier: his childhood dream was to be on the stage, and the fulfillment of that fantasy seems to mitigate some of the strain Hoffman experiences when he is acting.

“In my mid-20s, an actor told me, ‘Acting ain’t no puzzle,’ ” Hoffman said, after returning to his seat. “I thought: ‘Ain’t no puzzle?!?’ You must be bad!” He laughed. “You must be really bad, because it is a puzzle. Creating anything is hard. It’s a cliché thing to say, but every time you start a job, you just don’t know anything. I mean, I can break something down, but ultimately I don’t know anything when I start work on a new movie. You start stabbing out, and you make a mistake, and it’s not right, and then you try again and again. The key is you have to commit. And that’s hard because you have to find what it is you are committing to.”

For all of his struggles, Hoffman works a lot — he’s a very active co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company, a multicultural collective in New York that specializes in new American plays. LAB mounted five productions last year, thanks in large part to Hoffman’s diligent involvement with every aspect of the process, from fund-raising to directing to acting. “I’ve seen him tear tickets and seat people at LAB productions,” said John Patrick Shanley, the writer and director of “Doubt” and himself a LAB company member. In his 17-year-long career, Hoffman has also made more than 40 films, including “Doubt,” for which he has been nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actor, and “Synecdoche, New York,” which was also released this year. “Synecdoche,” which was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, is a hugely ambitious film that deals with death and art and how they come to inform one another. Hoffman plays a theater director, Caden Cotard, who wins a MacArthur and uses the prize money to begin an autobiographical play so enormous that it swallows his actual life. The movie is, as Manohla Dargis wrote in her glowing review in The Times, “about . . . the search for an authentic self in an unauthentic world.” The plot may get murky and the worlds within worlds (within worlds) are often confusing, but the film lingers in your memory, largely because of Hoffman’s performance. As he grows old, disintegrates, misses romantic connections and suffers loss after loss in pursuit of his artistic vision, Hoffman remains the emotional center of the film.

A torturous soul, he reflected on the art of acting being the same:

But that deep kind of love comes at a price: for me, acting is torturous, and it’s torturous because you know it’s a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, That’s beautiful and I want that. Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great — well, that’s absolutely torturous.

RIP, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

“The Things You’ll Miss” by Derek Thompson

Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson recounts the last few months of his mom’s life (who was battling pancreatic cancer) and his ability to cope with the grief after she passed away. It’s a beautiful, poignant piece titled “The Things You’ll Miss.”

A boundless black terror is how I imagined life without my mom. The history of grief, or what we know of it, is written by its greatest sufferers and ransacked with horror stories, lugubrious poetry, and downward-spiraling memoirs plunged in sadness. For some people, the death of a loved one is truly life-stopping, and I worried it would stop mine.

Then, in the weeks after she died, something strange happened. I did not plunge. Life did not stop. Instead, I felt something so unspeakably strange, so blasphemous, that I wondered for if I could talk or write about it, at all. I felt okay.

Even stranger, I discovered, is that I wasn’t strange, at all. Despite the warnings that grief would drag me through the prescribed five stages and discard me in a darker place, bereavement researchers have recently learned that we’ve been wrong about loss for centuries. For some, grief is a dull and unrelenting ache that fades—or doesn’t. But for many of us, grief is something else. Grief is resilience.

I loved this passage of retelling of happy stories:

For the 16 months after her diagnosis, I returned the favor. We never spoke of the food she couldn’t eat, the thick hair she couldn’t grow back, or the weight she couldn’t keep. Instead, riding home from New York once a month and bounding onto her bed, I’d serve a feast of happy stories harvested from a life spent trying not to worry. I cried often, but privately, in the stairway at work, on the train behind a pair of sunglasses, and in my apartment, indulging a memory behind a locked door. But I only lost it twice in front of her, both times trying to say the same thing: What makes me saddest isn’t imagining all the things I’ll miss, but imagining all the things you’ll miss. The wedding dances, the wine-fueled parties, her birthday cards, each emblazoned with ludicrously incorrect ages. For mom, who drew kinetic energy from every drip of living, as if by photosynthesis, and braved the winter of life with spring in her heart, smiling like a sweet little maniac all the way to the end, cancer was such cosmic robbery.

This is a beautiful passage, how grief is like undulating waves:

Mourning, even for the resilient, is a study in extremes, and, for the family and friends filling out our house, the crescendos were violent. We would scream at each other, and then laugh over wine, and then scream some more, and back to the wine. Grief is not a steady process, Bonanno said, but rather an “oscillation,” like everything inside of us. Muscles tighten and relax, our bodies warm and cool, and so do our tempers. In that house, in those last days, we might have thought of ourselves as individual antibodies, pinging around the home, attaching ourselves to tasks to invent a small sense of utility. But we were also one house, one body, mourning to and fro.

A must-read in its entirety.

David Foster Wallace on the Mortality Paradox

David Foster Wallace took his own life five years ago today.

This quote on the mortality paradox, found in Conversations with David Foster Wallace, resonated with me:

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

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(via Brainpickings)

RIP Roger Ebert

That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear. Some years from now, at a funeral with a slide show, only one person will be able to say who we were. Then no one will know.

It is with a heavy heart that I learned of Roger Ebert’s death yesterday afternoon.

Thanks to Cheri Lucas for highlighting this blog post titled “I Remember You” Roger wrote about one year ago (which I read for the first time yesterday):

Memory. It makes us human. It creates our ideas of family, history, love, friendship. Within all our minds is a narrative of our own lives and all the people who were important to us. Who were eyewitnesses to the same times and events. Who could describe us to a stranger.

The passage below brought tears to my eyes, because in a hundred years we will remember, Roger.

Early one morning, unable to sleep, I roamed my memories of them. Of an endless series of dinners, and brunches, and poker games, and jokes, and gossip. On and on, year after year. I remember them. They exist in my mind–in countless minds. But in a century the human race will have forgotten them, and me as well. 

If you read one thing today, make it this.

Go Against Your Instinct

Dustin Curtis recently had a friend who went into cardiac arrest during a session at the gym. This event forced him to evaluate his reason for being. The post is excellent:

Humans are by default hopeful and optimistic creatures. We usually think about the future as though it will occur for us with absolute certainty, and that makes it hard to imagine death as a motivation for living. But knowing that my friend could potentially never wake up forced me, unexpectedly, to contemplate my personal drive for existence. Why do I do the things I do every day? Am I honestly acting out my dreams and aspirations? What’s my purpose? For a long time, when I was younger, I waited to discover my purpose. It was only very recently that I realized purpose is something you are supposed to create for yourself.

After my own comparatively minor brush with death a few years ago, when I was 22, I pledged to live my life as fully as possible, as though I had nothing to lose. For a few months afterward, I consciously tried to fight against the status quo. It’s so easy to get stuck in the waiting place, putting things off until later, even when those things are vitally important to making your dreams come true. But the truth is that, in order to make progress, you need to physically and mentally fight against the momentum of ordinary events. The default state of any new idea is failure. It’s the execution–the fight against inertia–that matters. You have to remember to go against your instinct, to confront the ordinary, and to put up a fight.

Does the statement below ring a bell for you?

It used to confuse and fascinate me how so many people with great dreams and great visions of the future can live such ordinary, repetitive lives. But now I know. I’ve experienced it. Doing something remarkable with your life is tough work, and it helps to remember one simple, motivating fact: in a blink, you could be gone.

Complement Dustin’s essay with Steve Jobs’s vision for the world.

The Obituary of Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld

The year 2012 is turning out to be a good one for excellent obituaries. This one of Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld certainly fits the bill. Here’s an excerpt:

En route to his execution in Auxerre, La Rochefoucauld made a break, leaping from the back of the truck carrying him to his doom, and dodging the bullets fired by his two guards. Sprinting through the empty streets, he found himself in front of the Gestapo’s headquarters, where a chauffeur was pacing near a limousine bearing the swastika flag. Spotting the key in the ignition, La Rochefoucauld jumped in and roared off, following the Route Nationale past the prison he had left an hour earlier.

He smashed through a roadblock before dumping the car and circling back towards Auxerre on foot under cover of night. He sheltered with an epicier. From Auxerre, friends in the Resistance helped him on to a train for Paris, where he evaded German soldiers hunting him by curling up underneath the sink in the lavatory. “When we arrived in Paris I felt drunk with freedom,” he recalled.

Still, this is only the second best obituary of the year. The best one? That of John Fairfax.

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(HT: @legalnomads)

Death and Taxes

Tax Day is coming April 15… This news should be unsettling for more than the obvious reason of the yearly deadline. According to a new study, deaths from traffic accidents around April 15, traditionally the last day to file individual income taxes in the U.S., rose 6 percent on average on each of the last 30 years of tax filing days compared with a day during the week prior and a week later. The research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

What’s more curious is that even allowing Americans to file their taxes electronically hasn’t negated the crash trend, lead researcher Donald Redelmeier said. The findings suggest stress, lack of sleep, alcohol use, and less tolerance to other drivers on tax deadline day may contribute to an increase in deaths on the road.

They say death and taxes are two certain things in life. Seems like they also go hand in hand.

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(via Bloomberg)

How Doctors Choose to Die

Ken Murray, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at USC, writes a powerful essay about how he wishes to die, as a doctor. I am not sure if his essay can speak for all doctors, but his is a strong and resonant message:

How has it come to this—that doctors administer so much care that they wouldn’t want for themselves? The simple, or not-so-simple, answer is this: patients, doctors, and the system.

To see how patients play a role, imagine a scenario in which someone has lost consciousness and been admitted to an emergency room. As is so often the case, no one has made a plan for this situation, and shocked and scared family members find themselves caught up in a maze of choices. They’re overwhelmed. When doctors ask if they want “everything” done, they answer yes. Then the nightmare begins. Sometimes, a family really means “do everything,” but often they just mean “do everything that’s reasonable.” The problem is that they may not know what’s reasonable, nor, in their confusion and sorrow, will they ask about it or hear what a physician may be telling them. For their part, doctors told to do “everything” will do it, whether it is reasonable or not.

The above scenario is a common one. Feeding into the problem are unrealistic expectations of what doctors can accomplish. Many people think of CPR as a reliable lifesaver when, in fact, the results are usually poor. I’ve had hundreds of people brought to me in the emergency room after getting CPR. Exactly one, a healthy man who’d had no heart troubles (for those who want specifics, he had a “tension pneumothorax”), walked out of the hospital. If a patient suffers from severe illness, old age, or a terminal disease, the odds of a good outcome from CPR are infinitesimal, while the odds of suffering are overwhelming. Poor knowledge and misguided expectations lead to a lot of bad decisions.

But of course it’s not just patients making these things happen. Doctors play an enabling role, too. The trouble is that even doctors who hate to administer futile care must find a way to address the wishes of patients and families. Imagine, once again, the emergency room with those grieving, possibly hysterical, family members. They do not know the doctor. Establishing trust and confidence under such circumstances is a very delicate thing. People are prepared to think the doctor is acting out of base motives, trying to save time, or money, or effort, especially if the doctor is advising against further treatment.

Some doctors are stronger communicators than others, and some doctors are more adamant, but the pressures they all face are similar. When I faced circumstances involving end-of-life choices, I adopted the approach of laying out only the options that I thought were reasonable (as I would in any situation) as early in the process as possible. When patients or families brought up unreasonable choices, I would discuss the issue in layman’s terms that portrayed the downsides clearly. If patients or families still insisted on treatments I considered pointless or harmful, I would offer to transfer their care to another doctor or hospital.

But doctors still don’t over-treat themselves. They see the consequences of this constantly. Almost anyone can find a way to die in peace at home, and pain can be managed better than ever. Hospice care, which focuses on providing terminally ill patients with comfort and dignity rather than on futile cures, provides most people with much better final days. Amazingly, studies have found that people placed in hospice care often live longer than people with the same disease who are seeking active cures. I was struck to hear on the radio recently that the famous reporter Tom Wicker had “died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family.” Such stories are, thankfully, increasingly common.

Several years ago, my older cousin Torch (born at home by the light of a flashlight—or torch) had a seizure that turned out to be the result of lung cancer that had gone to his brain. I arranged for him to see various specialists, and we learned that with aggressive treatment of his condition, including three to five hospital visits a week for chemotherapy, he would live perhaps four months. Ultimately, Torch decided against any treatment and simply took pills for brain swelling. He moved in with me.

We spent the next eight months doing a bunch of things that he enjoyed, having fun together like we hadn’t had in decades. We went to Disneyland, his first time. We’d hang out at home. Torch was a sports nut, and he was very happy to watch sports and eat my cooking. He even gained a bit of weight, eating his favorite foods rather than hospital foods. He had no serious pain, and he remained high-spirited. One day, he didn’t wake up. He spent the next three days in a coma-like sleep and then died. The cost of his medical care for those eight months, for the one drug he was taking, was about $20.

Torch was no doctor, but he knew he wanted a life of quality, not just quantity. Don’t most of us? If there is a state of the art of end-of-life care, it is this: death with dignity. As for me, my physician has my choices. They were easy to make, as they are for most physicians. There will be no heroics, and I will go gentle into that good night. Like my mentor Charlie. Like my cousin Torch. Like my fellow doctors.

The full essay is here.

On Being Scared to Death

From the Wall Street Journal article “Inside Movies and Real-Life Risks,” we learn about the phenomenon of being scared to death:

Fear can be fatal. Martin A. Samuels, chief of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has collected hundreds of reports of people whose hearts have suddenly stopped during times of extreme stress or emotion.

“The heart muscles contract involuntarily in a characteristic pattern, and they don’t relax again because of the huge rush of stress hormones,” says Dr. Samuels, who thinks that many disaster victims may die from fear rather than injuries, although obtaining proof in autopsies is difficult.

Researchers have noted a spike in sudden cardiac deaths following earthquakes and other disasters. For example; there were triple the typical number of heart attacks at 11 Worcester, Mass., hospitals on Sept. 11, 12 and 13, 2001, immediately after the terrorist attacks, according to a study in the American Journal of Cardiology. People have also suffered sudden heart attacks at times of extreme joy or excitement—such as hitting a hole-in-one in golf or being acquitted of a crime.

And in rare cases, people have had fatal reactions to make-believe situations. One woman in Wichita, Kan., died of an apparent heart attack while watching the 2004 film “The Passion of Christ,” with its crucifixion depiction, and at least two children have apparently been scared to death on amusement-park rides.

Another interesting tidbit from the piece, which I never heard about before:

 In a famous 1986 experiment, Indiana University psychologist Dolf Zillmann interviewed 36 pairs of students after showing them excerpts of slasher film “Friday the 13th.” The more distressed the woman was by the movie, the more attractive her date found her. The less distressed the man was, the more attractive his date found him.

So gentlemen: next time, take your date to the scariest movie playing at the theater. Just don’t have a heart attack in the process.

R.I.P. Steve Jobs

Today, Steve Jobs has passed away at the age of 56. I am so sad.

Tonight, I watch, again, Steve Jobs’s commencement speech from Stanford.

This is some of the best advice you’ll ever hear:

Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

R.I.P. Steve Jobs. You were a visionary. The world is a better place for everything you have done. Thank you.