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Obituaries (with a side of noodlin')

I'm at that awkward stage in life where dropping off is a possibility but not yet a probability. Not so young anymore but not old enough to be considered elderly (unless, of course, you happen to be around 25 or younger when everyone over 35 is elderly).

So, I guess it's not unusual at this age to start contemplating one's own mortality. Not that it occupies my mind all the time, you understand. But, I don't remember considering my own demise much when I was younger unless I had just narrowly escaped a collision with a freight train or thought I had eaten a salmonella infested fish. When I was younger I used to worry about food that didn't taste right -as if everything that didn't taste right was full of botulism or some other awful bacteria. Now, many things don't taste right but I rarely worry about bacteria in my food. I have more pressing concerns like clogged arteries, blood pressure, and other things that normally concern those of us who have passed into this "awkward" age stage of life.

Well I'm getting morose here and I don't mean to. Let me liven things up a bit (no pun intended) before you become depressed by my musings. You will learn many things if you stick with me and read on. No promises though.

A couple weeks ago, a friend and I were having breakfast in a local restaurant. We usually share a copy of USA Today - he gets the sports section first and I have my choice of the rest. Behind us, an elderly couple was sitting and instead of USA Today they were sharing a copy of our local small-town fish wrapper which is optimistically called "The Reflector". The lady was reading the obituaries to her husband. I don't know if he had forgotten his glasses, was illiterate or just had his wife well-trained; but in any case she was reading the obituaries to him and it apparently kept him from nodding off in his eggs. He appeared to be listening to her which is unusual for husbands of any age.

Every time she read a name they'd both comment on the person who had passed away. They seemed to know all of them. My brain is not wired like most other people's I guess because this little scene set off a bunch of random and weird thoughts related to mortality and aging. For a moment I imagined myself twenty years older (a frightening thought indeed) and reading the obituaries. Twenty years from now, I would know most of the people whose lives were summarized in these little bitty columns. I imagined that I'd gloat a little when I realized I had outlived someone I didn't particularly care for - "Ha Ha, I'm alive and you're not!" - and I imagined I'd feel a twinge of sadness if someone dropped off that I somewhat liked. It must be terribly strange to be very elderly and you know most of the people starring in obituaries. Of course, this is a phenomenon only in small towns. In big cities no one really cares.

It was a Monday, and apparently the Grim Reaper had a big bash over the weekend in our little town. There were an unusually high number of souls who departed us forever. This of course made good reading for the elderly couple. The woman continued to read the obits to her husband, who slurped his coffee and dabbed at his mouth with an old wadded-up napkin. She would read a sentence or two and they'd both sigh and comment about the deceased. Sometimes though I thought I heard a little snortle. It could have been the man choking on the coffee, but I think not. I think it was more likely a sinister chuckle about someone they didn't particularly like.

We finished our breakfast and USA Today and left while the elderly couple continued to ponder, gloat and sigh over the obituaries.

I've never paid much attention to obituaries. But the next night I happened to be reading our little five-page, little-town newspaper and an article I was reading on the first page was continued on page 3 - which just so happened to be the same page on which that day's obituaries appeared. I noticed a man a few years YOUNGER than myself had passed away - and that captured my attention.

We'll call the man Carl, not that using his real name would give you any clue, but I do have some respect for the deceased you know. Carl's obit was quite short. Apparently he had lived an ordinary life and had spent it all in our little town. Now, the obituary summed up Carl's entire life in one sentence: "Carl enjoyed gardening and reading.". I found that very profound. But, as I told you, my brain is not wired right, so bear with me.

At first I thought it was pathetic that a man's entire life could be summed up in one sentence; especially a sentence like: "Carl enjoyed gardening and reading". It seemed so sad that that's all someone could think to say about poor old Carl. It was then that it struck me - what would they say about me? How could they sum up my life in one sentence? How dare they? But then, I thought, it would be easy. They (whoever "they" are) could say: "He hated mowing grass and despised shoveling snow and coconut". It struck me funny because neither obituary-writers (or I) are noted for creating succulent sentences. Yet "shoveling snow and coconut" does conjure up some rather bizarre images. But, still, obituary-writers have to consolidate a lot of stuff in one sentence; so we have to grant them a broad literary license. And you should grant me the same license too, please. You're probably thinking of my epitaph right now: "He was a wordy old cuss given to rambling on and on about nothing". But not so fast, you don't really know me. In real life I'm a very quiet type. I hardly say anything. Honest!

But, I realize, that in reality, they don't print negative stuff like: "He hated riding in the car, watching basketball and cheese curls."  Which, come to think of it is another great sentence. In fact it reminds me of the book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves".

Newspaper Headlines: "Panda Eats, Shoots and Leaves"

"A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

"Why?" asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"Well, I'm a panda," he says at the door. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

If you enjoy picking apart other people's writing, and these "rants" in particular, you'd really enjoy that book.

Sorry, I've been divagating again. Let's get back on the topic, shall we?

They'd have to find a few positives about me; which is probably harder to do while someone is alive than after they've passed on. After someone has dropped off you can make up all kinds of good things about him or her and no one will dare argue with you; even if it's all a bunch of lies. Too bad the deceased can't read it, eh?  Anyway, I wondered what positive things they'd say about me? Not that I'd care. I certainly won't be reading it anyway nor will I care.

One thing led to another. I called my good friend in Georgia and we discussed this morbid topic. We love long melancholy and morose conversations sprinkled with a touch of sardonic humor. Or at least I do. Maybe he just humors me and listens and rolls his eyes. He IS a sardonic old bean though, regardless of what he might think of himself. People his age can have very distorted self-images. I should know - I'm about his age. Anyway, we're nothing if not boring - boring, sardonic and cynical - and getting old.

But, we couldn't think of much to say to sum up either his life or mine. OK. I will admit we're a couple of very uninteresting people. We both live uninteresting and tedious lives. I figure it's about time we start planting the seeds for great obituaries when the time comes. Being the considerate gents we are, we certainly don't want to put undue stress the guy or gal who gets stuck with writing our obits. I guess they could make up something nice to say but that may be difficult. Nice or not, I'd rather have whatever is written be the truth since I won't be reading it anyway. So, it's time to start planning for an obit that will leave readers with their mouths agape, panting for more, and missing me - such a fine example of humanity.

I figure we do have some years left for the seeds that we plant now to grow. I personally would not mind someone writing a single sentence about me that sums me up: "He hated mowing grass and despised shoveling snow and coconut". Because it's true and it's also a great sentence. It really makes for vivid mental imagery. I can picture my driveway buried under five inches of coconut and me red-face and panting trying to shovel it off as more coconut falls from the sky. Can't you?

Sometimes I think though, that a life summation such as: "Carl enjoyed gardening and reading" is the best you can hope to do. Carl did well to avoid anything crass or exceptionally provocative. His life was summarized in one simply elegant sentence. No undue mental imagery at all. Just "he enjoyed gardening and reading". See? They used the past tense. Obviously, Carl is not enjoying either anymore. But his obit was understatement at its finest.

But can Carl's obit possibly be true? It's doubtful. It sounds more like they couldn't think of anything nice to say about him and picked out a couple of things to make readers go: "Oh, what a nice man he must have been!". I think Carl was a philanderer and probably didn't like bathing. But, in obits you're forbidden to say things like: "Carl enjoyed being filthy and chasing women". If you were an obit writer and wrote something like that, you'd be run right out of the obituary business. Then you'd have to try to eek out a living by writing Internet newsletters or smarmy Internet love columns. "He enjoyed gardening and reading" it is. Truth or fiction. We'll never know. And who cares anyway. He's dead and we're not. We still have time to create our own designer obituaries. And I'm going to talk to my friend about this tomorrow for sure.

My friend in Georgia and I are going to get busy right away and give the obit guys and/or gals something they can sink their teeth into. Things that will make the avid obit reader's eyes pop. As I've said, we might have many years ahead of us, good Lord willing. So, if we start right now we should have plenty of time to give the obituary folks some meaningful fodder. Yes indeedy, we hopefully still have some time left to create a legacy, make ourselves interesting and plant the seeds for some real eye-popping obits.

My friend lives in the south so I will suggest to him that he take up "noodlin". (Don't know what "noodlin" is? Click here.)  It appears to be an adventuresome "sport" one that someone of his advanced years could manage to do without too much strain on his vital organs (except for his hands - if you consider hands vital organs). If you do enough "noodlin" you're bound to have many thrilling adventures to share. I think he would be a great "noodler" He sort of resembles the noodlers I've seen in pictures. But since he doesn't drink he'd have to noodle sober and from what I hear, you can't do it sober. The best noodlin' is done while completely inebriated or so my friend tells says. And he should know - he lives in the noodlin' capital of world where the Confederate flags still fly.

But, unfortunately, I live in the North where no one noodles. And if anyone did they'd be committed or shot or run out of town.  So noodlin is out for me, but for my Southern friend it would make for a great obit" "He enjoyed noodlin', raking leaves and peanuts". Except for noodlin' that sentence is true, too. And amusing. My friend, I'm sure, will give some thought to doing some noodlin'. A good old boy is he. I am sure too that I will enjoy living his adventures vicariously. Indeed, I will be hanging on his every word :-).

As for me, I don't know what I'll do because noodlin' is certainly not an option. I might take up bungee jumping, parachuting or mountain climbing. But mountain climbing in Ohio would be difficult as we are not blessed with many mountains. I guess I could climb Goon's hill and make a big deal of it. And maybe not. Bungee jumping would be the most interesting obit: "He enjoyed bungee jumping, watching old movies and tomatoes." Indeed, I do love tomatoes and I really love that sentence too.

T.S. Eliot said: "In my beginning is my end". Sure is. And the older you get the more interesting it becomes. I'm at an awkward age. But, come to think of it, to be remembered as someone who enjoyed gardening and reading is about the best any of us can do.

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