A friend told me when he reads the paper, he turns to the obits first. Then everything else.
He didn’t sound the least bit morbid. Obits can be enlightening. Interesting. Fill-in blanks about people who have done something, made something or contributed something.
Three stand out recently: authors Shirley Hazzard and Paula Fox and Jack O’Neill, the man who made and popularized the wetsuit.
Hazzard wrote a book called “The Transit of Venus.” I hadn’t heard of Hazzard or her book, but it sounded like the Australian-born author was the greatest thing since sliced bread but a literary loaf I had missed in the bakery.
I ordered the book quickly. Sometimes there is a run on an author’s books when he or she dies.
Authors would probably prefer a bump in sales without having to die, but a sale is a sale.
“The Transit of Venus” is a quiet masterpiece filled with observations like this: “He had the complexion, lightly webbed, of outdoor living and indoor drinking.”
We’ve all known a few people like that, otherwise known as “scratch drinkers.”
Another passage: “All the girls of London shuddered, waiting for the bus. Some had knitted themselves unbecoming brown Balaclavas, with worse mittens to match. Some held a hard-boiled egg, still hot, in their glove — which warmed the hand, and could be eaten cold at lunchtime in the ladies’ room. At that hour all London was a shudder, waiting for the bus.”
Paula Fox wrote a novel called “Desperate Characters.” According to Irving Howe, who sounded familiar, intelligent and in the know, it rivaled “Billy Budd,” “The Great Gatsby” “Miss Lonelyhearts” and “Seize the Day.”
Author Jonathan Franzen wrote the forward and had read the book at least four times. When somebody reads your book four times, they’re either in prison or the book is good.
“Desperate Characters” is another quiet masterpiece, 156 pages and filled with insight that only a suffering woman could have, suffering that makes a man feel complicit.
Then there's Jack O’Neill, who had something in common with Hazzard and West. A good book and a well-made wetsuit can save your bacon and keep you warm.
O’Neill lived in Santa Cruz, the cradle of California surfing, and was the first to make wetsuits from neoprene, a material he was inspired by after seeing the material in the carpet on airliners.
O’Neill put his children in the wetsuits and dunked them in ice baths at trade shows in order to promote his invention.
Eventually, O’Neil sold the company and moved to Hawaii because the business was cutting into his surfing time. He’d made enough money and may have realized at a certain point, time trumps money.
O’Neil talked about his proudest achievement, the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and educational program for children.
The program, founded more than 20 years ago has taken nearly 100,000 children to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to learn about the ocean.
“There's no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
There is nothing wrong with rich or famous, but funny what stands out in a final accounting is somebody opening up their boat, their library or their arms. These are lives well-lived and ones worth celebrating.