Writing your own obituary? First of all, I should note that I’m not in imminent danger of dying. As far as I know. I suppose I could be mistaken. In any case, I’m betting against living another six decades.
The idea of writing my obit appeals to me. It’s mostly because I recognize that the task can be onerous. Writing it yourself alleviates the stress of your family and friends having to take on the task. Of course, you also have to face up to your accomplishments. You might say, as Peggy Lee did, “Is that all there is?” Conversely, you might be forced to consolidate the bullet points. That racquetball trophy I won in 1989 won’t make MY list.
I love a good obituary. It’s like any compelling story. I remember leafing through The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells: A Celebration of Unusual Lives by Marvin Siegel. Where this happened, I don’t remember, but it was several years ago. Thrift Books reviews speak to me.
“Rather than an ode to death, this book cherishes lives once lived by all kinds of people. Whether brilliant or simple, rich or poor, actions great or discreet, each of the people written about contributed to society in a meaningful (and often surprising) way.”
“You wouldn’t think a book of obituaries would be entertaining, but it is when the obits are well-written and celebrate the lives and characters of the 100+ people found in this collection. The subjects are most often unknown to the majority of us, but the various authors (including well-known NYT obituary author Robert McG. Thomas, Jr.) humanize each subject and inspire you to contemplate your own life.” Yeah, that.
Then there was an October 15 commentary in the Albany Times Union. “On the obituary pages, reflections of lives fully lived” was written by Karl Felsen, a local retired public relations executive. His daughter, in the time of COVID, had asked Karl and his wife to write their own obits. “If you have a favorite picture, include it.”
Felsen quotes poet Jim Harrison. “Death steals everything except our stories.” He started perusing the longest obituaries in the TU. Charles P. Rougle lived a fascinating life “that ran from Montana to Moscow, from Sweden to Slovenia. A translator and expert in my many languages, a woodworker sand cello player on the side.” Someone Felsen wished he had met.
Of the collection of obituaries that he read, “They were here. They lived. They mattered.” So Felsen’s going to write his own obit. “It’ll be long, celebratory, and mostly true.” He’s “come to the conclusion that crafting your own final story is one way to stay busy living.”
I’m inclined to do this. Maybe not next week, or next month, but probably in the next year. Have any of you done this? Any pointers? This could be an interesting posthumous “ego trip.”
I got this intriguing email from Casey Seiler, the editor of the Times Union, the local (Albany, NY) newspaper, a couple of weeks ago. “Nothing urgent, but please give me a ring if you have a few minutes — cell is … Thanks.”
He’d never contacted me before, so I was most curious. The purpose of the contact was to tell me that the entire page of community blogs located on the TU website would be going away on Friday, February 5.
The Community Blogs started early this century, in 2006, I’m told. But even before that, I had been participating in a program of community websites hosted by the TU. I was creating the ones for my then-church, Trinity UMC, plus Albany United Methodist Society, the FOCUS churches, and one of the other member churches of FOCUS. Since I left Trinity in 2000, this would have been in the late 1990s.
Mike Huber, who had been running the community websites became the majordomo for the blogs. Since I had started this blog in 2005, he knew that I could create content with sufficient frequency. He nagged me regularly, and in January 2008, I finally capitulated.
But what to write? I didn’t want to necessarily replicate this blog. So I tended to post things that were Albany-centric and/or ephemeral. Say an event at my church or offered by the Albany Public Library.
Information without the Bun
There were definite upsides. I could plug events important to me. Occasionally, on the front of the B section of the print newspaper, the TU would print a pull quote from my post. I’d generally learn about this before I saw it. “Oh, you’re in the paper again.” While mildly ego-boosting, it was occasionally frustrating that some people didn’t recognize that it was only a small part of what I wrote.
And the bigger the platform, the more chances for the blog trolls. I’ve seldom experienced this on rogerogreen.com, but a fair amount on Information without the Bun, an obtuse referral to me being a librarian and eating hamburgers. Even when the content was exactly the same, the nasties would always come from the TU audience.
Still, it was fine. I’d write something a couple of times a week. And the newspaper seemed to care about their unpaid community bloggers by sponsoring an occasional event. I remember one at the College of Saint Rose maybe a decade ago where there were short videos of each of us. They created bios of us for the print version of the paper.
The interesting thing was that the agreement read that the TU wouldn’t edit what the bloggers wrote, as long as what we posted wasn’t libelous or profane.
Herder of cats
Then… stuff started happening. J. Eric Smith, who has been blogging since the word was invented, had made what seems to be a reasonable request to keep political mads out of his blog space. It could have jammed him up at work. He explains this in a series of posts here. He ended up leaving in 2010.
In January 2017, Mike Huber, herder of cats, left the Times Union. I’m left to wonder how events of that year would have otherwise played out.
Chuck Miller had a clearly marked April Fools post in 2017 involving Kellyanne Conway which got pulled down, despite eight previous 1 April posts, at least one of which had been picked up by Washington Post. He departed, but he subsequently was always the instigator of promoting local bloggers on his site, and meetups, at the Gateway Diner, a pizza joint, and even at Ken Screven’s lovely apartment.
I was most infuriated when Heather Fazio’s post about sexual assault from October 2017 was deemed too graphic. Or was it libelous? The narrative kept shifting. Chuck and I both reposted Heather’s words: my version is here. Chuck quoted her response to the TU here, and you should read the comments.
I even complained about Heather’s treatment on my Times Union blog, because I could. The headline, I believe was, “Rex: you’ve got a lot of ‘splain’ to do.” Rex being Rex Smith, then editor of the paper, and a guy I actually liked the few times I’ve met him. But this was a crappy decision which he felt obligated to defend. Heather, of course, left, and she too has her own blog.
Yet this conspiratorial flake – whose name had fortunately been exorcised from my brain, Donna something, I think – kept writing absurd post after post for months until even she crossed the line. She was actually brought on board to provide a more conservative position, which I endorsed, but she was a true wingnut.
By then, I had really lost my TU blogging mojo, even as the newspaper abandoned the community bloggers. Periodically, I would literally forget I still had the page, and my recent spotty posting there was proof.
The long goodbye
What seems to have been the last straw from the Times Union’s POV was the Lale Davidson post about Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY). The member of Congress “demanded the Times Union retract what she called a ‘heinous and wildly inappropriate’ blog post. Apparently, the work of fiction pushed a button, not about Stefanik’s absurd challenge of the 2020 election, but her being described as “childless.”
As TU blogger Lawrence White wrote: “I think most people had no idea this was going on. The blog in question does not have a vast readership and nothing had been posted on any of the social media sites I frequent. Clearly, the sting of the original piece would have gone away with only a handful of people even reading it if Ms. Stefanik had let it slide, or dealt with it in a more private manner.”
When Casey Seiler called me to tell me the TU had put the kibosh on the community blog pages, he noted this story. Last spring, one of the bloggers had “swerved from their totally innocuous chosen topic to instead use his platform to spread the looniest conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19 that you can possibly imagine. We shut it down immediately.”
So the TU community blogs are dead. Actually, it’s been dying for a while. Of the 80 or so blogs on the page as of January 30, including the staffers’ pages, about a quarter had not been updated in over a year. It seems as though the TU stopped caring about the blogs, and maybe vice versa. While I feel a little wistful, the demise was no surprise.
Surely, I understood. For his November 1 piece, Casey Seiler, the editor of the local newspaper the Times Union, was looking to write about almost anything except the election. November 10 “marks five years since the death of Allen Toussaint, a true renaissance figure in American popular music.”
As an avid reader of liner notes, I know the musician more as a producer and songwriter of great renown than as a performer. He once said, “I always take forever to do an album, because when I do an album, I don’t plan to do another.”
Allen Toussaint worked with the legendary Meters. He produced, arranged, and/or played piano for artists such as Etta James, Albert King, Elvis Costello, and Joe Cocker. His horn arrangements for the Band, Paul Simon, and Little Feat greatly enhanced their work.
Seiler interviewed Toussaint “in 2014, as a preview of his appearance at Mass MoCA… He talked about losing his home in Hurricane Katrina nine years earlier, a catastrophe that forced him to leave New Orleans and resettle for an extended period in New York City. He spoke of the collaborations and friendships he had made during his exile as ‘a blessing.’
“Near the end of our interview, I asked the 75-year-old Toussaint if new songs and compositions were still occurring to him as readily as when he was younger.
“‘Now more than ever before! I wake up in a hurry to get to the pen and page,’ he said. ‘Yes — I’m inspired because I move around more than I used to, and inspiration is every door I open, every corner I turn, every other way I turn my head to look. And I enjoy inspiration all the time; it makes life so wonderful… All the new things that happen around me — everything is a surprise.’
“I’ve interviewed a lot of people, including artists whose work has inspired me immeasurably. But I don’t think I’ve ever gotten an answer to a question that has stayed with me like Toussaint’s.”
He wrote these songs, some under the name Naomi Neville (his mother’s given name)
In his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, his page notes, “A rare talent forged in the fires of New Orleans’ red hot music scene.
“Few people can produce, arrange, write songs or perform—Allen Toussaint did it all and then some with expertise and aplomb.”
The live album Songbook (2009) was the last one he released. He died in Madrid while touring. “A few weeks prior to his passing, Toussaint reunited with Joe Henry to cut material for a new record. Those recordings, combined with some solo 2013 sessions, were packaged as the posthumous American Tunes, released in June of 2016.”
As a perk of having a subscription to Albany’s remaining newspaper, I can enter a number of contests pretty much automatically. So I play. A couple months back, I scored a pair of tickets to a movie theater.
Then in November, I received a pair of season tickets to Siena College men’s basketball games. Siena is in suburban Loudonville. That’s pronounced LOUD-in-ville, not LEW-den-ville, or London-ville.
Siena plays in Division I. It’s in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, a league that generally gets only one team to play at the end of the season NCAA March Madness. Siena’s gotten to that tournament six times over the years and has won a total of four games.
But it’s one of OUR teams, along with my alma mater, UAlbany. I missed the first home game. I decided I should go to the second game on Tuesday, November 12 because there wouldn’t be another home game until December 21.
I decided to invite the only person I know who definitely knows something about basketball. Chuck Miller is a fellow blogger, but more importantly, an announcer for the Albany Patroons, defending champions that play in the oddly-named The Basketball League.
We met at the pizza place nearby. The owner ended up offering a free slice to a guy who asked almost everyone in the joint for money. The fellow claimed to be a homeless veteran; perhaps, perhaps not.
The last time I was in the Times Union Center was when I saw a football game of the now-defunct Albany Firebirds a couple of years back. Our seats at the basketball game, if it were a football stadium, would be in the end zone. In other words, we were almost behind one of the baskets. Yet we could still see pretty well.
The two teams, Siena and St. Bonaventure University, were playing for the Brother Ed Coughlin Franciscan Cup. Coughlin was Siena’s president before he died in July 2019. He had earned his bachelor’s degree at St. Bonaventure.
Siena started the game off really cold, even missing free throws. The Bonnies made a few threes and had a six-point lead after four minutes. But the Saints turned things around, as their opponents got sloppy. Siena, up three at the half, built an insurmountable lead in the latter stages, and won 78-65.
There was a young woman in front of us, a Siena alum, who knew far more about the team and their skill sets than we did.
What was that?
The school held a 50/50 raffle to help one of their baseball or softball teams. Chuck spent $10 on his tickets and wanted to know if I wanted to go in on it with him. I decided to buy my own $5 worth. With 15 minutes left, the scoreboard flashed the winning number. The announcement was that I should go to the VCfghfl jkgughjn. WHAT?
I wandered around the perimeter of the arena until I found a young woman and her daughter, who was under five. She verified my ticket and handed me $263. Ah, Christmas is saved!
I was reminded that, generally, live sport is more interesting than watching on television. The game, I later learned, was broadcast on ESPN+, one of those several tiers of the sports network.
I also disagreed with the TU’s decision not to run your rebuttal.
Dear Mayor Kathy Sheehan:
We’ve met a few times, most notably at my church’s adult education class on March 4, 2018. That’s me on the right, my fellow choir member Tim on the left, and you (of course) in the middle. After I introduced you, unfortunately, Tim and I had to run off and make music.
You talked about the City of Albany Poverty Reduction Initiative (CAPRI) program which “aims to better align public and private resources with community-based interventions and build partnerships with community leaders, municipal and state government, direct service providers, the faith community, local employers, and, most importantly, the people impacted by poverty in order to develop sustainable strategies that address the unique needs of the community and reduce poverty in the City of Albany.”
Subsequently, as Chuck Miller noted: “There have been recent protests in Albany by the Poor People’s Campaign. These protests, which have disrupted traffic in the downtown Albany area, are designed as a non-violent alert to the systemic problems of racism and police brutality and pay inequality. Noble effort, to be sure.
“The City of Albany sent the organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign a bill for $1,451, a bill for police coverage and the mitigation of disruptive public services.” I thought that was not warranted in that the police action disrupting traffic was far greater than the protesters’ behavior warranted.
The Times Union, rightly in my view, excoriated you the selective imposition of the fine, in an editorial Albany’s free speech fees.
And yet I also disagreed with the TU’s decision not to run your rebuttal. You posted it on your own site, which was picked up by Medium.com, ironically giving you a far bigger platform.
And I STILL disagree with your argument, Mayor Sheehan. But here’s the thing: if you had but asked me, I would have posted your response on my seldom-used Times Union blog.