Yesterday was an intense double helping of Book Fair. Lily Koppel’s talk on The Red Leather Diary and Jeff Zaslow’s on Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture made for bittersweet counterpoints. One private and forgotten, one public and intentional, each is testament to the power of the words we leave behind.
Rushing to work one crisp fall morning, Lily Koppel was stopped in her New York City tracks by the sight of a “red Dumpster brimming with old steamer trunks” on the sidewalk of her Upper West Side apartment building. As Koppel began speaking to us, the venue walls fell away; spellbound we listened as she told of diving right into the Dumspter (“archeological dig”). Burrowing through mountains of valises and steamer trunks whose colorful labels proclaimed luxurious voyages to the Continent, Koppel came across treasure after treasure: an elegant pocketbook containing a half-smoked Parliament; in another, a tube of Revlon lipstick in Bachelor’s Carnation; one shopping list reminded the pocketbook’s long-deceased owner to “pick up rug; get bra from Saks.” Now hanging in Lily’s closet is the tangerine boucle coat with an iridescent lining and a single Bakelite button that “only needed a trip to the dry cleaners.” I confess to a touch of vintage-wear envy.
The best find of all was yet to come: “some girl’s diary from the ’30’s” her doorman Hector told her. “Did she want it?” He had stashed it in his basement locker. Plastic Zabar’s grocery bag in hand, Koppel had no way of knowing that Hector had just handed her a young girl’s life preserved in the amber of her diary.
Beginning the eve of her fourteenth birthday, Florence Wolfson penned four lines every day for five years. Distilling each day’s experiences into those four lines crystalized her passion for life, art and literature until the words on the crumbling pages sparkled like a Contessa’s tiara. Florence was passionte about art and books. About men, and women. She had a crush on actress Eva Legallienne. She showed up for her admissions interview at Barnard dressed in a man’s suit. Having unearthed Florence’s admissions file, Koppel learned that the admissions director thought her “too brilliant and individual” and denied her admission. Barnard’s loss was Hunter College’s gain. Florence read Balzac, Austen and Flaubert. She despaired of ever being able to draw a pear with any skill and, heady with life, likened herself to a “ripe apricot.”
For three years Koppel lived with Florence, reading the books mentioned in her diary, searching out “remnants of Florence’s time.” Then, another dash of serendipity led Koppel to Florence, now 90 and living on Long Island. She had forgotten all about the diary. She married, penned short pieces of feminist writing years before the word entered the public lexicon; she raised a family and told Lily, “My life was a tragedy before you came along; now it is a romantic comedy.”
The idea of secreting one’s thoughts in locked diary seems anathema in today’s blog-lust era. Nearly eight decades after Florence Wolfson began her private journal, Carnegie Melon Professor Randy Pausch, stricken with pancreatic cancer, delivered a very public talk: a declaration of love, courage and heartfelt directives for making the most of one’s life. Invited to deliver the school’s annual Last Lecture, Pausch used the opportunity to deliver, in one soul-searing lecture, everything he wanted his children to know. And so the Lecture. Is there anyone who doesn’t know what came next? Four million books sold; at least that many website hits. Weekly perhaps?
No matter how many times I view the lecture or read a random chapter from the book, it is as if I am doing so for the first time. No, not because I am dense but because Pausch’s joy is incandescent. What might have happened, or not happened, had Jeff Zaslow (Carnegie Melon ’80) not made the snap decision to attend the lecture? But he did and thus the Last Lecture phenomenon that has changed lives all over the world. Literally.
I know, I know, I sound hyperbolic. Shirley Temply, Polyanna-ish all rolled into one cloying gee whiz meringue ball of exclamation. But think about it. A terminally ill father and husband gives an incredible lecture. It goes up on YouTube and circles the earth again and again and again. People start talking. And sending it to everyone they know. More people start watching it. A journalist (yea journalists!) is captivated enough to dig a bit deeper and proposes turning Pausch’s Last Lecture into a book. To accomplish this, Zaslow spoke to Pausch during the latter’s daily bike rides. He worked fifteen hours a day, seven days a week for fifty three days, transcribing the recorded conversations and shaping Pausch’s lectures into book form. All of this you know. Here are a few tidbits courtesy of Jeff Zaslow from last night’s Book Fair event
•”Is cancer solvable?” Pausch’s son Dylan asked a family friend after his father’s death.
“Pancreatic cancer is a problem,” came the reply.
“My dad said it’s within me to solve problems,” replied Randy Pausch’s son.
•Zaslow likened Pausch to Moses. Not because of any kind of leadership grandiosity or singular relationship with God. Instead, Zaslow’s analogy referred to the heartbreaking reality that Pausch, like Moses, saw the promised land of his children’s future but will not be around to experience it with them.
•Zaslow accompanied Randy to the grocery store. The self-serve scanner rang up a $16 item twice. Pausch took his purchases and made for the exit. “I can spend ten to fifteen minutes getting my sixteen dollars back or I can leave. Fifteen minutes or sixteen dollars? I’m dying.” Pausch went for the minutes.
•Was he angry about his fate? “I’ve never found anger to make a situation better.”
Yours truly thinks that’s one for the fridge magnets.
•An email arrived from someone who said he had planned his suicide. And then he saw/read The Last Lecture and chose to live.
•You can’t tell people how to live. Just tell them stories. They’ll learn what you want them to know.
•If you wait long enough, people will show you their good side.
What will any of us leave behind? Kind gestures, healed spirits, hard-won wisdom. Wounded hearts, broken marriages, resentful children. And words. Oceans and oceans and oceans of words. Thank you, Florence and Lily for yours. And thank you, thank you, Randy for yours.