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GP 25 January 2006: Brush with Death

“One must risk death, not to die but in order to live.” - Andre Malraux

Man’s Fate Andre Malraux was quite a fellow.  An adventurer, he careened about the globe and was threatened with quite a bit of hard time for stealing artifacts in Indochina.  Lurching from Left to Right in politics, he trafficked a bit with Mao, Chaing Kai Chek, and other creators of Greater China and the Asia we know today.  Later he served in the French Resistance.  After World War II, he did a few stints with DeGaulle as Minister of Information and Minister of Cultural Affairs when he cleaned up French monuments and hobnobbed with the likes of Jackie Kennedy.  His career is all the more remarkable since Tourette’s Syndrome took hold of him in childhood and had him in its grasp for life.

Along the way, he did a string of novels to include the renowned Man’s Fate, as well as The Royal Way and The Conquerors.  He is a fast, fun, easy read; no wonder so many were swept up by him, even if his tales added too much embroidery to his life and deeds. Here one discovers that he thought action in the face of death lent nobility and vitality to life, but that nothing justifies that final act of the gods in which death finally snatches a person from life’s battles.  “Art,” he thought, “is a revolt against fate.”  The threat of death sharpens our spirits and our intellect, but nothing can really justify the death sentence that is the handmaiden of mortality.  Death was his consuming theme.  For him, “Death made man a man. Man does not make death.  Death is a mask man wears.”

Home of the Brave.  Francis Scott Keyes called ours “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  That heroism goes much beyond our warriors.  To our left and right are people fighting the good fight with death, always with heroic success, whether for days, or months, or years.  We find that so many live on the edge of darkness imbued with a total nobility that is shared by their families.  There’s Matt Ginop, a quadriplegic, who has managed to put up an award winning spinal injury website to help his comrades-in-arms.  Or Stan, who has been strafed by cancer in his brain and lungs and is off to Boston each week to see if Dana Farber’s experimental vaccine will cure the beast.  Or Phil in Chicago, passionate about wine and life, who is using a novel arsenic potion (arsenic trioxide) to wrestle with his formerly untreatable glioblastoma.  Finally, we get reports on the rector in Washington, who has labored too hard for her flock, and has just come off the ventilator after 31 days in the hospital, beset by a particularly vicious incarnation of pneumonia, her caretakers wary of the new, virulent, drug resistant forms of staph that now infest all the nation’s wards.

Last week in “Getting out of Limbo,” you heard from unstoppable Lynn Nelson, who berated all the hand wringers who moan and groan about bird flu but don’t do anything about it.  This multi-talented man sticks close to home these days, assailed by a panoply of health complaints about which he does not complain.  In fact, he writes to tell us that he has had a fun time self diagnosing his new problem, diabetes, which all the doctors managed to miss when they last looked at him.  He’s playing the hand he has been dealt. In contrast, one is reminded of Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, where we learn that the act of despair itself, especially despair over one’s sins, can be so consuming as to deny one any chance of salvation. The will to act must overcome the temptation to weep.

Eat Dessert First Ms. Stephanie Day, out in California, has written extensively for us about every facet of her duel with IBC—the most threatening of breast cancers.  Her counsel, though free of the persiflage with which Malraux the Frenchman showers us, is just as true to the mark:

Tip #10: Life is uncertain; eat dessert first.  Cancer liberates you from emotional baggage. You are freed to pick and choose what’s really important to you for whatever time you have left to live.

The brush with death gives one a certain clarity about what counts.  One swats the carrion-sniffing flies aside and savors the moment.

Port in a Storm.  One of New York’s top surgeons, a friend of longstanding, himself went under the scalpel in January  2005, the highways of his heart both weak and blocked.  In December, just before he dealt with the knife, we called to ask whether he had sipped any good port lately.  “Yes, as it turns out, I have,” the good doctor replied.  “You see, there were just a few fingers of some vintage Croft nesting in the cabinet, perched there until the correct moment arrived.  If the operation goes south, I would never forgive myself if the port had been wasted.”  He must have heard Ms. Day’s advice to “eat dessert first.”  And he has survived so nicely that he has since sampled Cloudy Bay and other New Zealand whites with us.

Managing Your Career and Your Life.  Back when the Wall Street Journal was a better newspaper, it had a host of columns that really hit the nail on the head.  There was the very popular “Business Bulletin” column, which ran on Thursdays, and was  reputed to be the most widely read section of the paper—for the whole week.  What moved the editors and publisher of the once spritely Journal to squeeze out their winners defies comprehension.  Their editorial judgment has been rotten. In Japan, they would feel obliged to fall on their swords for bringing their enterprise into disrepair.

Another hit that’s gone was called “Managing Your Career,” and it was written for a long time by a chap out of the Dallas bureau called Hal Lancaster. Chief executives remarked to us that they could get yards of comment in the Journal and hear nothing about it: a mention by Hal set their friends a-chattering.  Offbeat Hal once did a piece called “Sometimes Sickness Can Help You Face and Cure Career Ills” (Wall Street Journal, March 21, 1995, p. B1).  He said:

Here’s a column for all you Type-A, 80-hour-a-week, pressure-cooker dynamos. It’s about some businesspeople and professionals who were just like you until they confronted a major health trauma.  Since then, their lives and careers have changed—mostly for the better.

Each of the businessmen Lancaster encountered had walked on the high wire and was about to fall off. Illness intervened.  Each learned it’s all right to keep one’s feet on the ground, to avoid pyrotechnics, and to separate the wheat from the chaff.  If you stare death in the face, from there on in, you suddenly focus on priorities for the rest of your adventure on earth.  Nothing like death, it seems, to concentrate the attention.

Change Management.  John Le Carre, the spy novelist, once remarked that the odd thing was that even with war, the disintegration of the class structure, and the end of Empire, nothing really had changed in England.  That’s often the truth everywhere: the more things change the more they stay the same.  People talk about change, but waffle instead.

Whenever we heard about change management from consultants, businessmen, or politicians, we know things are pretty much going to circle back to the way they were  yesterday.   This changelessness seems all too true of our biggest industry and, ironically, the one that deals with death: healthcare.  Change management is a hollow euphemism that echoes well only in the nation’s business schools.

But a brush with death is interesting.  It makes you change your own life.  And it probably makes you capable of changing the world, because finally you are playing the game in a different way.  When against death, you achieve enough clarity to be certain of your course of action.  If he understood nothing else, Malraux knew this, trying to live his life fully in a glorious French Republic that has slowly been drained of its vitality.  France, one must understand, was and is fighting for its life.

P.S.  We suggest a peek at 19th-century Paris when the sun still shined in France.  We remember in the 1960s a leisurely lunch with a Bordeaux wine merchant just after a visit to Chateau Margaux.  He told us that his best memory was of La Belle Epoque, a beautiful period  prior to World War I, when the values of the Third Republic held sway.  France has never had it so good since.

P.P.S.  Heroism has gone out of style.  Our newspapers puff up a few athletes and movie stars, who are genetically hardy, but usually not heroes. There’s the thought in politics, business, and other matters that technocrats and anglesmen matter more than heroes.  We don’t think so, and that’s why the Global Province has a Gods, Heroes, and Legends section.  It takes heroes to bring moral force to unpopular propositions and to swim upstream when most are floating down the river.

P.P.P.S.  The Wall Street Journal has not driven all its talent out the door, and there still may be life after death.  We would especially recommend to your attention Tunku Varadarajan, who is distinguished by his wit and is capable of very realistic commentary, butand this is the ultimate accoladeunderstands that one has to frequent a bar with the right ambiance to properly enjoy one’s drinking.

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