Engelhardt, In Praise of the Dead-ish

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers:  Indulge me.  I’m on vacation this week, largely offline and out of touch (and probably not answering email).  To keep the site warm and humming, I’m posting something different, a piece of fiction (my own), reflecting my fascination with the daily obituary page in my local paper.  Those of you who enjoy this short story might be interested in the novel I wrote about the world I’ve lived in (or at the peripheries of) as a book editor for so many years: The Last Days of Publishing.

It hit the bookstores back in 2003, and I have to admit that, even then, I had a pretty clear sense of what was coming in my business.  I included, for instance, an advanced Kindle-like electronic reader, which I dubbed the “Q,” and I made a case in fiction, which I’ve repeated since in essay form, for just why the Kindle’s children and grandchildren will change the nature of reading — by breaking the unitary structure of the book, the novel in particular, and slipping the ad (not to speak of pinging email and all the rest of the distractions of our world) between the covers.  Should you be interested, excerpts from reviews of Last Days can be found here.  By the way, if you missed the Tuesday TomCast interview in which Noam Chomsky discusses the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran, the feasibility of an Israel-Palestine two-state solution, and the concept of international law, click here or, if you prefer to download it to your iPod, here. Tom]

Obit Page 
By Tom Engelhardt

In memory of B.C.

She wheeled into the coffee shop, pulled up next to me, and pushed a piece of paper my way.  “Take a look,” she said.

It was a single typed page with her full name, Helena Bascomb Johnson, at the top which was not, of course, how any of us knew her.

You usually did what Nina wanted.  So rather than greet her, I began to read.

Helena Bascomb Johnson, lead dancer and choreographer for the Danceteria Mobius ballet company, who first set foot on stage at age 37, died on September 22nd in her apartment in New York City. 

The cause of death was a heart attack, her son Eric Johnson said. 

After 20 years as a single mother and chef, Ms. Johnson, who had long choreographed dance routines in the privacy of her living room, convinced Ursula von Bethe, director of Danceteria Mobius, to watch her perform.  “The rest,“ Ms. von Bethe later remarked, “is dance history.” 

“I saw all my routines in a dream in 1982,” Ms. Johnson said in a 1991 interview with Interview magazine.  “It just took me another decade to bring them into this world.”  Those routines became her Moodscapes, which she performed every spring on the Danceteria’s main stage on Prince Street. 

Ms. Johnson was born Helena Bascomb in Claremont, California, on August 27, 1946.  Her mother, Margaret Désiree Scott, an early female aviator, barnstormed the West in a biplane.  Ms. Johnson directed her two sisters in neighborhood dance and tap performances during an otherwise uneventful childhood.  She attended Pomona College where she won a women’s junior tennis championship in 1965. 

She married Charles Johnson, a trombonist, in 1979.  The marriage lasted only two years.  Ms. Johnson subsequently supported her son and herself as the sole proprietor and chef of The Cuban Missile Crisis, a Caribbean restaurant she opened on Lafayette Street.  She shut the restaurant’s doors when she began to dance.  “From the age of three, all I ever dreamed of was being a dancer,” she told the New York Times in 2005.  “When it happened, nothing else mattered.” 

She is survived by a sister, Emma Bascomb Rodriguez of San Antonio, Texas, and by her son Eric.

I pushed it back to her.

She said, “What do you think?”

I said, “You came from Claremont?”

She said, “Why not?”

I said, “And your mother was really an aviator?”

She said, “She could have been.”

I said, “What do you want from me?”

She said, “I’m helping you out.  You’re the one who’s going to have to write it when the time comes.”

I said, “Is the time coming?”

She said, “You don’t like my obit, do you?”

I said, “I don’t like obits, period.  I don’t like them as a form.”

She said, “You’re telling me you’ve never read the obituary page?  Not when Duke Snider died?  Not for Sachmo?  What about the first woman to go down Niagara Falls in a barrel who took a spill in her kitchen and died?”

I said, “I don’t cherish irony.  And I prefer not to read about death.”

She said, “What’s wrong with death?”

I said, “Nothing.  I just don’t care for it as a context for life.”

She said, “You see no value in memorializing the dead?”

I said, “As far as I can tell when you’re dead you’re dead.  I don’t think there’s much more to say about it.”

She said, “But you didn’t like my obit.”

I said, “You don’t have a son — and won’t Tasha be insulted if you don’t mention her?”

She said, “She’s insulted me enough.  I could hardly wait for her to leave home.”

I said, “That’s not true.  And were you really a college tennis champion?”

She smiled.  “You mean before…”

I said, “Yes, before.”

She said, “I could have been.  I had a nasty backhand.”

I said, “I’m just trying to establish whether any of it’s true.”

She said, “As if true were the issue!”

I said nothing.

She said, “Here,” and pulled a small notebook and pen from her purse.  “You’ll see how easy it is: try to write my obit for me.  Get in practice.”

I said, “What do you want me to say?”

She said, “Sorry, I’m dead.  No clues.”  She drew her index finger across her throat.

So I picked up the pen, pulled her obit over next to me, and began in the notebook I always carry.

She said, “Don’t copy,” and took her page away.

I said, “I was just cribbing the form.”

She said, “I doubt you faintly understand the form.”

I said, “I’m telling people you’re dead.  I’m letting them know what you did to get into the newspaper, unlike all the people who don’t get obits.  It’s a stupid form.”

She said, “You’re the one who’s being stupid.  Any half-decent obit hits you right in the gut.  The shallower it seems, the deeper it is.  The perfect obit highlights everything that can’t be said by artfully not saying it.  It’s the same principle as autobiography — only you, the dead person, don’t write it.”

I chose not to respond.

She said, “Here are a few simple tips.  The first paragraph has to tell you I died, and in a lengthy appositive phrase, what I was best known for doing in my life.  The second paragraph has to tell you what I died of, and it has to be given as a quote from someone who knew me at the end.  Say you, in my case.”

I said, “Or, say, your daughter.”

She said, “Say you for the sake of argument.”

I said nothing.

She said, “The first half has to elaborate on what I did best, because otherwise I wouldn’t be on the obit page.  How important was I?  Not that important.”  She paused.  “But more important, say, than you.  So let’s give me three paragraphs — and they don’t have to be long ones — on what I was best known for doing, or being, because doing isn’t everything.  Say, if I had been Marilyn Monroe’s secret daughter and had written a tacky autobiography knocking my mom.  I’m just pointing out that you don’t have to be on the obit page in your own right.  But let’s say I am.  That gives us how many paragraphs?”

I said, “I have no idea.”

She said, “Five by my count.  That’s halfway, and that would make me the third story on the New York Times obit page on a day when no one too earthshaking bit the dust.”

I said, “Yippee.”

She said, “Now, at paragraph six you begin at the beguine.  She was born blah-blah-blah, and run me up through my life, but this time — and this is trickier than you might imagine — you skip what I’m best known for and end on whom I left behind, who outlived me.” 

I said, “Why am I doing this?”

She said, “Take your time.  I can amuse myself.”  She signaled the waiter and ordered a latte light.

I said, “How old are you exactly?”

She said, “Wing it.”

I said, “Well, at least tell me where you were actually born.”

She said, “Roanoke, Virginia.”

I said, “Home of the lost colony.”

She said, “Exactly.”

It took me 25 minutes.

About 10 minutes in, she said, “You’re not writing enough.”

I said, “You’re dead.”

I shoved it her way.  “It’s rough.”

She said, “What isn’t?”  Then she took off her glasses, bent over — being extremely nearsighted — and read.

Once upon a time, a girl named Nina was born, more or less like every other baby, but in Roanoke, Virginia.  As in many fairy tales, no one knew the day or year of her birth, or perhaps this information was withheld by an evil witch or her cruel stepfather.  As a result, she has no idea how old she is.  She is nonetheless dreaming of dying (more or less the fate of us all).

“She could sometimes be a big pain,” her daughter Tasha reported.

There is, however, agreement among those who knew her, including her daughter, that her life has been an odyssey, part Princess Leia, part Superwoman.  In our crowd, she has been the hero with a thousand faces, or hundreds, anyway.  She’s simply lacked a Homer to tell her stormy tale.

She orders lattes light, raises her voice when faintly irritated, and has written and illustrated a children’s book, Natasha’s Home Movies, which is exceedingly clever and will be published next year.  It is her third exceedingly clever children’s book and her innovative home cooking is appreciated far and wide.

She was once married to Charles Johnson, a trombonist, and the marriage lasted only two years.  I don’t know why.  It was before I met her.

If all goes well, she will be survived by me.

She said, “You jerk.  Anyway, I’m 63 years old, more than halfway through my lifespan, and that’s the truth.”  And then she laughed.

It was a nice sound.  Very Nina.

I said, “It was the best I could do on a moment’s notice.”

She said, “Well, keep practicing.  You might get it right.  I’m going to think of you as the second team.  I’ll only send you onto the field if there’s an unexpected crisis.  Now I’ve got to go meet that daughter of mine.”

I said, “Coffee tomorrow?”

She said, “You never know.”

She turned.  Two people at neighboring tables had pulled their chairs together, blocking her way.  I started to get up.

She said, “Don’t move, idiot, I’m not dead yet.”  Then, in true Nina fashion, she shouted at the offenders and wheeled past them, slowly up the ramp and out the door.

That night, when my mind wouldn’t turn off, I got up, went to my desk, and wrote these few lines, which I printed out, folded in half, and carefully slipped under the notepads in my top desk drawer.

Nina Bascomb, who danced in her dreams, my friend of almost 25 years, mother of Natasha Bascomb Johnson, also known as Tasha Greenpeace, died in her apartment in New York City surrounded by friends and her two cats, Makework and Obvious.

She had had liver cancer for two years, her daughter said.

For a close friend, I knew remarkably little about her or how she came to be the way she was.  She claimed Roanoke, Virginia, as her birthplace.  I have no idea if that was true, or who her parents were, or if she had a sister, or what her childhood was like, or anything about her marriage except that there was indeed a trombonist named Charles Johnson.  I saw him play once at The Bitter End.

She was a remarkably open human being, but managed to give away little.

The texts of her three children’s books, two of which were published to little notice, were uninspired, but the illustrations caught something of her flamboyance.  I believe they will not be remembered.

I do not know what happened to her legs or when.

She helped strangers, as only the best of us can stand to do.  She was one of those people who could never resist a problem, provided it wasn’t her own.  It drove her daughter crazy.

It is unbearable being in mourning for a friend who is not yet dead.

She died in pain, after a long struggle, on the afternoon of February 23, 2011, possibly at the age of 64.

She is survived by the rest of us, for however long.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War.  His latest book, due in June, is The American Way of War (Haymarket Books). He also wrote the novel The Last Days of Publishing.

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt