On Deadline

I’m not sure how old I was when I calculated the year of my death. Let’s just say I was between 35 and 40 (I’m now 70), and I figured, based on the age my grandfathers were when they died, that I would die at 75 in 2020. You have to admit that the year has a nice balance to it.

But then my father lived until he was 84 and my mother died a month short of her 98th birthday so it would appear I have longevity genes on my side. Unfortunately, I also inherited a condition that killed my father and my eldest sister. Fortunately, I found out in time and was able to have corrective surgery done on my heart.

But the surgery not only gave me a new lease on life, it also gave me a new deadline because the new aortic valve came with a 15-year life of its. So that puts my due date at 2026 when I will be in my early 80s. And that’s only if the aneurysm they discovered during surgery doesn’t require an intervention. (My cardiologist checks it annually.)

The good news is that I can always get a new valve, and there’s a decent chance that the surgery won’t be as traumatic as the original in which I was opened up, attached to a machine to keep me alive, and then dealt with recovery and several complications that kept me hospitalized longer than normal.

But there are other factors that may come in to play. I realized this when a friend in his early 80s died after declining surgery. He had a couple of medical issues beyond the one the surgeon might—might—have fixed and his quality of life was not the best. It was possible he would come out of surgery alive but not by much. And so he chose to die.

I write this not to be morbid, but to be clear-headed about what lies ahead for me. When my valve’s due date arrives, what kind of shape will I be in? If I am not able to get out and photograph, produce books, write pithy letters to the editor, enjoy wine and scotch, share a decent life with my wife, I just might opt out.

And that’s why at this point I see myself as on deadline. I used to think that anything after 2020 was a bonus. If I’m lucky, I’ll get six bonus years.

Gotta go. I have things to do and only so many years left to do them.


The Shortcomings of Memory

When I taught in China in 1994, I had a dust-up with an associate dean in the China School of Journalism. I decided later, maybe even a year or two later, to write something about it, although for the life of me I don’t remember why I waited so long.

I took pen in hand and began what was a very damning piece about this dean. I painted him in the most negative of terms and showed myself to be one fine fellow.

Then I found the notes I had made right after the dust-up. Turns out, it wasn’t quite the dramatic situation I had penned and the dean didn’t look all that bad. I think I was still the heroic figure, but more subdued. (Every man’s a hero in his own story, I like to say.)

I write about this in the context of what’s going on with Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC News. Various sources have come forth to undermine Williams’ telling of a helicopter attack in Iraq in 2003. When he first told the story, he was not in the helicopter that was under attack, but as the years moved on and he repeated the story, the story got more dramatic and less credible.

Let’s face it: Stories, cheese and wine get better with age. But in the case of stories, you should always check your original notes. I bet Williams wishes he had.