Modern homo sapiens first walked the Earth about 50,000 years ago. Since then, more than 108 billion members of our species have been born. Which means 101 billion have already croaked, kicked the bucket, or bitten the dust.* You will too. Does that scare you? It shouldn’t.

Why do we fear death? Mainly for selfish reasons. “I need more time to finish my masterpiece!” “I’ve never visited Nome or Kiev!” “I was promised a cushy retirement if I played by the rules for 40 years!” “I am an important __________(your professional status here) and the world needs me to continue!”

Except the universe doesn’t care about your family, your goals, your summer trip to the Cape. If it’s time for a flood (or earthquake, or pandemic, or meteor) to hit, then that takes center stage — and you’re reduced to an insignificant carbon-based life form who may not survive.

How curious! How mysterious! How perfect!

The truth is, most of us quarantine ourselves each day from the realities of nature. We’ve been socialized to embrace the sweeter things in life (corn syrup, air conditioning, leather recliners), and shy away from the dark, unruly forces we can’t control.  But that negates a huge part of existence.

That’s why now is a swell time to spend some quality hours embracing the source of your deepest anxiety. Invite it to tea, and offer it a finger sandwich. The more you embrace it as a part of you, and give it respect, the less it will snarl and bite and render you helpless.

Once you and your fear are on speaking terms, you’ll realize that your anxiety may be unfounded. Are you really in mortal danger at this very moment? And if so, what’s wrong with that?

Let’s take a lesson from Mexico’s “Dia de Muertos.” Rather than fearing the reaper, why not joyfully celebrate this natural part of the human cycle, and toast the memories of departed ancestors. May fear take a backseat to fiesta!

*According to the primary texts on Buddhist psychology, fear is not even inherent in what is known as basic mind. What is inherent? Clear seeing, spaciousness, pure awareness. Of course, it takes practice to think this way. Or not think, as the case may be.

 

 

Did you know that Academy Award losers die 4 years earlier than Academy Award winners?*  That’s 1,460 days of life snuffed out due to a subjective judgment passed by others on a single performance.

The reason for this startling fact: The losers unconsciously spend the rest of their lives comparing upwards, instead of down. In the case of Oscar nominees who go home empty-handed, many of them harbor resentments against the winners until the day they (prematurely) die, along with hating the guts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, their agents, their lawyers, the editors at Variety, and the entire Hollywood community. In their minds, they deserved that statue and now the odds are great that they may never get another shot at one as long as they live!

Sure, the losers may mouth the words “I’m just lucky to be here, in the company of these other fine actors,” but how many believe it, live it, and are truly happy for the winner? In fact, unless they know how to process this loss SuperOptimistically, they’re on the road to ill-health and bad fortune.

Instead of obsessing over another person’s success, look over your shoulder at a screw-up.  How about that old roommate who was always borrowing your favorite sweater when you were both in college?

You know — the one who developed the dependency on prescription drugs and is now living in the basement of his mother’s house?

And if you’re really in a fix, think about someone you knew who you didn’t like very much, and who is now dead and gone. Just a skull and bones, rotting away while you get to enjoy a cranberry scone with your piping hot coffee.  Feel better now?

Start any comparison with those less fortunate than yourself, rather than those who have more**, and you’ll be three steps closer to SuperOptimism.

*Redelmeier and Singh, Annals of Internal Medicine, May 2001

**“More” is a technical term used by the SuperOptimist to define the combined problems of money, power, fame, good looks, family status, height, skill, 4.0 GPA, influence, and premium real estate location. All of these are potential impediments to achieving SuperOptimism.

This week, we mourn the passing of a great humanitarian and leader, one who brought the country together in perilous times and who gave selflessly to his profession.

Carrying himself with humility and restraint, he led a ragtag team of soldiers to prominence in the face of great odds. (He was also a frequent guest star on “The Carol Burnett Show” and played the lead on “Mayberry RFD.”) So let us pause during a time of discord and division to acknowledge the life and legacy of one Kenneth Ronald “Ken” Berry.

Starring as Captain Wilton Parmeter in the ABC series “F-Troop. Berry was a man America turned to for comfort during the years 1965-67.  Although Larry Storch hogged more of the comic spotlight as Corporal Randolph Agarn, it was Berry’s indomitable work as Parmenter that was the glue that bound the men of Fort Courage together.* Going against the redoubtable Fess Parker in “Daniel Boone” on NBC, they were solid in their Thursday night time slot for the entirety of their 65-episode run.

Taking on the hapless role of kook, klutz and fall guy, Berry made frustration and failure into an art form.  And while the New York Times referred to him as the “bumbling hero” of the show, Berry was much more than that. Without the physical grace acquired from years of professional dancing, he could never have pulled off the tricky business of stabbing himself with his quill pen, becoming entangled with his ceremonial sword, and wincing painfully as his superior pins a medal to his chest – immediately earning his character another medal for being wounded getting a medal.

The fact that Ken was a trained in the mold of Astaire and was hoping to star in the next wave of movie musicals (which never materialized), only makes him an even more heroic figure.  For Berry didn’t quiver and buckle when his plans went awry.  Instead, he turned the lemons of show business into the lemonade that was “F-Troop” (and later, a star turn in “Mama’s Family”), never complaining, never pulling focus from his fellow thespians, always comfortable in his own shoes.

And speaking of shoes, Berry later became a spokesman for Kinney, singing and dancing to the “Great American Shoe Store” jingle in commercials seen coast to coast. While far from his dream of the big screen or the Great White Way, Berry gives his all in these 30 second spots, and the resulting sales marked a high point in the life of the now-defunct footwear chain.

And so, on a day spent saluting the passing of president #41, we propose that another man be given a full state funeral, with color guards, brass bands and horse drawn carriage.  For while the record of George H.W. Bush causes some to question his convictions, our nation can truly coalesce around a man who put a pratfall before his own wellbeing.   Ken Berry made this country grin from coast to coast — an act that can erase divisions, heal wounds, and cause warring factions to put down their weapons in order to giggle, snort and convulse with laughter.

*Even the “F-Troop” theme song was centered on the exploits of this great American.  Let us sing in remembrance:

The end of the Civil War was near 
When quite accidentally, 
A hero who sneezed abruptly seized 
Retreat and reversed it to victory. 

His medal of honor pleased and thrilled 
his proud little family group. 
While pinning it on some blood was spilled 
And so it was planned he’d command …F Troop!

News conferences, state dinners, ribbon-cutting, photo ops…political leaders spend an inordinate amount of time stage-managing ceremonies intended to commemorate their successes.

Small wonder, since they wouldn’t have ventured into the business of pressing flesh and begging for votes unless they were eager for attention.  Yet their day-to-day activities pale in comparison to how much effort they put into planning their last rites.

Take John McCain.  He spent a full 8 months designing an elaborate ceremony to honor…John McCain.

As the New York Times reported, “He obsessed over the music…choreographed the movement of his coffin from Arizona, his home state, to Washington. And…began reaching out to Republicans, Democrats and even a Russian dissident with requests that they deliver eulogies and serve as pallbearers.”

Now we don’t want to cast aspersion on John McCain’s motives for this four-day tribute to John McCain.  He was a war hero and served the people of Arizona for much of his time on earth. And there is the thumb in the eye his ceremony is intended to administer to the current president.   (We can only imagine the services Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer are planning for themselves.)

The question is, why should a grandiose spectacle be reserved only for those who spend their lives courting the limelight?  Over-the-top memorials need not be the sole provenance of movie actors, senators, and members of the Catholic archdiocese.  The unsung heroes of this country deserve special treatment as well.  (Our definition of “hero” being anyone who puts up with various attention-seekers while going about the business of surviving this current age of unreason. Namely, all of us!)

So we encourage you to begin planning your personal requiem now.  Start putting aside a few bucks every week earmarked for “My Send-off.” Begin writing a set of instructions for your big day — or days — that specifies what you’d like to have occur. Fireworks, tap-dancing, power boat races: It’s all fair game. Swap these instructions with your best friend. Whichever of you goes first, the other will circle the wagons (loaded with plenty of food and beverages, since you’ll want to attract a crowd beyond mourners who actually know you).

Research the rules in your community for throwing a parade where your remains are the main attraction. A brass band helps attract attention; an ice cream truck is also a nice touch.  The parade need not stretch for miles; you can just have your pals walk your body up and down the street in front of your apartment.

As for the coffin, why settle for the standard rectangular box?  Better to be carried aloft in something that really represents your life. Have a custom wood-worker come up with something shaped like an airplane (if you’re a pilot) or a fish (if you’re an angler).  A life-sized Gibson Les Paul with starburst finish? Why not?

You may find that once you start planning this great event, you won’t want to miss it by being deceased.  So don’t wait! Have your funeral in advance, while you’re still alive to enjoy it.  “Playing dead” is way more fun than being dead.  At least, that’s what the ghosts in our life have told us.

*Don’t forget to give your loved ones something to remember you by.  In South Korea, many opt to compress their remains into gem-like beads which are then colorfully displayed at home.   

Edgar Allan Poe, master American author and proto-goth innovator of the macabre, knew how to make the best of things.

In 1835, Poe, then 26, obtained a license to marry his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm. They were married for eleven years, by all accounts a loving and respectful match, filled with true romance. One evening in January 1842, Virginia showed the first signs of consumption, now known as tuberculosis, when she indelicately vomited blood while playing the piano.

Virginia lived another five years in a state of pallor, weakness and lingering sickness as she approached the grave. But Poe turned this horrific situation to a creative bent,  developing a theory that “the death of a beautiful woman” was the “most poetical topic in the world.” This became his touchstone of gothic writing, like his most famous poem, “The Raven” — exploring themes of death, sickness, and the ghostly lives of captivating young women who happen to be dead.

There are opportunities in the worst situations for a true SuperOptimist, and as old E.A. Poe said:  “To die laughing must be the most glorious of all glorious deaths!”

The artist Paul Gauguin achieved his greatest success long after death, so who knows, maybe you will too.

At the beginning of 1903, Gauguin was living on an island in Polynesia and engaged in a campaign designed to expose the incompetence of the island’s gendarmes, in particular Jean-Paul Claverie, for taking the side of the natives directly in a case involving the alleged drunkenness of a group of them. Claverie, however, escaped censure. At the beginning of February, Gauguin wrote to the governor, François Picquenot, alleging corruption by one of Claverie’s subordinates. Picquenot investigated the allegations but could not substantiate them. Claverie responded by filing a charge of libel against Gauguin, who was subsequently fined 500 francs and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. Gauguin immediately filed an appeal in Papeete and set about raising the funds to travel to plead before the judge. At this time he was nearly penniless, very weak and in great physical pain. He resorted  to using morphine. He died suddenly on the morning of 8 May 1903.

Nobody thought too much of his passing, but one hundred and ten years later, Gauguin’s painting Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) sold for $295,000,000 to the museums of Qatar, as one of the most expensive art objects ever. Gauguin would be tickled pink.

Who knows what you’ll be worth after you are dead?