The Last Lecture

I sat on a concrete step on the south side of Pittsburgh and wondered who to call. I wasn't in the mood for small talk. My brain felt heavy, at least 10 lbs, more than its usual three. That's right, I weighed it. It was bloated.

"Gail," I wondered, "Where is she?" She'd sent me photos from Alaska. I didn't know if she was back in Minnesota but I'd been thinking about her ever since Salt Lake City. When the tour got to Salt Lake a couple weeks earlier, I called Gail and left her the message that I could see her and Dave living in Salt Lake City.

It was probably the mountains but right away I thought, "I have to tell her they could live here."

Later, on the phone, Gail told me that she'd quit her job and her family was going to move, probably to the west coast but they'd been considering Salt Lake, too.

I've shared parallel moments with Gail ever since we met in Minneapolis in 1994, all kinds of little similarities in thought and detail, many of them from a distance.

So it made sense that at the end of that phone call she mentioned a book, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.

She told me that it was a lecture by a professor who died of cancer, who spoke not of death but of life and how he lived. "That's exactly what I've been thinking about today," I said, "Living and dying and optimism."

I didn't really know what I meant, my thoughts were playing bumper car in my brain and probably still are. I definitely didn't know that Randy Pausch had died only three days previous and that he'd been a professor at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. I was on his turf.

The book looked small when I bought it. "Uh oh," I thought, "I hope this isn't chicken soup for the soul." I was skeptical because a lecture on achieving your childhood dreams sounds treacly. The fact that he'd been watched by millions of people on You Tube and by another few million on Oprah didn't, in my mind, help.

But that is an example of me being too cool for Oprah. Sometimes I have to get over that.

Do many popular inspirational writers make me want to choke myself with the crayons that I'm so whimsically instructed to color with? Yes. SARK, I will let you know when I'm in the mood to "build a fort with blankets" and "giggle with children". Or better yet, I'll just go ahead and DO THAT STUFF without consulting your magical poster first.

But guess what?

I appreciated The Last Lecture. A few people told me that it was "heavy" but it wasn't heavy. It was LIGHT. Surprisingly, I didn't mind. I usually like it when books make me work harder. I mean, Randy Pausch was smart - nerd smart - but these stories are simple. No need to refer to your engineering or philosophy degree to get it.

He was dying of pancreatic cancer when he gave the lecture, stories for his kids that he wouldn't get to tell later, on how to take your dreams seriously and set a high standard for yourself and not settle. How to keep learning and having fun while doing hard things and being a big old kid.

National bestsellers are almost by definition accessible to lots of people, easy to read and easy to follow. I can be a snob about it when I'm not stooping, Steve Martini style, but I didn't get all SARKed out by this one.

I just felt psyched that someone so shamelessly dorky about computer science and virtual reality and f'ing Disney World, where I never even wanted to go when I was 10 years old, and football - FOOTBALL - made me sit up straight.

I don't think it hurt that I started reading in the cafe of the American Museum of Natural History when I had time to kill between the space movie and the dinosaur movie I'd bought tickets to.

Thanks, Gail.

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