As social animals entangled in our web of formal and informal, obligatory and optional, pleasant and painful, the question of who’s brain would we like to crack open (not in the zombie way) just before we’re done for good is a complicated one. Each of our proposed companions offers something in the face of terminal adversity — perspective, redemption, reflection, levity, pathos. If you’re known by the company you keep, then maybe this simple list, and the reasoning behind it, tells you something about each of us.
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So the guy by my side isn’t going to be your traditional funnyman. It’s Tony Mendez, the former CIA intelligence officer known for his role in forging documents and concealing identities during various shadow conflicts of the Cold War. Ben Affleck plays him in Argo. Maybe Mendez and I will dress up as police, arrest my friends and then bring them to a party with lots of good beer, cigars and lobster. He probably has some good ideas, too.
The other guy I’d like to share a laugh with is Woody Allen. There’s this TV interview he did with CBC in 1967 that makes me laugh out loud every time I watch it. At one point he’s describing his work routine while intentionally hitting terrible shots on a pool table. His comedic timing is the best. So I guess I’d shoot pool with Woody Allen.
The man I’d want on the roll call for earth’s final moment is Ansel Adams. A visionary in the most literal sense, Adams was and remains known for his signature black & white photographs — the ones that fill calendars and embellish suburban walls — but Adams was a photographer second and a conservationist first.
I don’t spend my weekends hugging trees, but Adams is one of the reasons we cherish this vast hunk of land called America. While others captured and chronicled the country’s populous movements and boom, Adams skipped both, controversially capturing an idealistic nature — later becoming one of the driving forces behind our desire to preserve it.
Born into the forces of nature of San Francisco’s great earthquake in 1906, Adams may have began his career as a humble custodian of the Sierra Club, but eventually became a custodian of the American wilderness, and a folk hero.
Now the point of conservationism may be moot when demise is anigh, so I might as well confess to more selfish reasons for choosing Mr. Adams.
How would Adams, someone so dedicated to photographing the beauty and preciousness of the wilderness capture its impending demise? Would he travel by pack and mule to capture the same pristine landscapes as they thundered into kingdom come? Would he shoot in color?
Tough to say. But if there’s one man I’d shortlist for good company at the world’s annihilation, it would be Mr. Adams — and boy would it be stunning.
For spirituality, the Dalai Lama offers an openness and unconditional acceptance that is appealing. Save the proselytizing sermons — give me the “Keep calm and carry on” type, without that British puffery. Tenzin Gyatso is just a man, but his calmness is more than a thin veneer. Besides, he’s supposed to be pretty funny — I’m imagining Yoda speaking in koans here. That’s definitely going to lighten things up.
For a scientific flavor, Stephen Hawking is the easy pick. At the edge of our understanding, theoretical physics borders on faith. Though Hawking soundly rejects religion’s explanations for the universe, his explorations into the fundamental qualities of this existence reach levels of spirituality. At least, as far as I can understand — I have a liberal arts degree, and it says “barely” on the back of my diploma. For someone who requires a voice synthesizer, Hawking will have quite a lot to say about the end of the world.
Championing Jack Kevorkian and his own unique mission isn’t why he made my list — not that his campaign to recast the role of life’s great equalizer isn’t important. But I don’t pace in the night over the issue, and there’s no doubt the man was his own distinct brand of crazy.
It’s the type of questions his life provoked and the perspective that comes with them that I’d want to absorb before the world went dark. What’s it like to be vilified by some and beatified by others? What revelations come from teetering along a course our moral compasses can’t plot? There’s a reason why this is the topic of some of the world’s most famous and engaging fiction.
I’d ask Jack to leave his Jazz flute and creepy art at home, but politely remind him to stop at the pharmacy on the way over. Hopefully after a few drinks and maybe a Xanax, he’d speak about what weighed on his conscious and share if the burden was worth it. And once the delivery method for our collective sentence was finally revealed, I’d be glad to know I was with someone that could grant me one final semblance of control if it all became too much. Because when you aren’t actually steering the ship, the pantomime of spinning the helm can still be comforting.
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) fits the bill pretty darn well. The American humorist, novelist and common-sense genius strikes one hell of a chord with just about anybody in his novels, short stories and essays. His humor has shaped mine, and though I’ll never reach the heights of his witticism, I can darn well try (or just quote him a lot).
He certainly wouldn’t be glum. “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it”, he once said. Twain also smoked the most noxious cigars he could while writing; and speaking of refraining from alcohol, once quipped, “Total abstinence is so excellent a thing that it cannot be carried to too great an extent. In my passion for it, I even carry it so far as to totally abstain from total abstinence itself”. Sitting in a rocking chair, wreathed in copious smoke with a bourbon glow on my face, next to this friendly uncle of a man? Hell. That’s pretty much worth the apocalypse.
Twain dealt with death both level-headedly and with a stoic passivity that humbles any reader. Writing about his daughter’s sudden death the very day she died, he said, “Would I bring her back to life if I could do it? I would not. If a word would do it, I would beg for strength to withhold the word…. she has been enriched with the most precious of all gifts — that gift which makes all other gifts mean and poor — death.”
I would expect the master story teller to spin yarns that would make the very doomed man giggle; I would also expect him to listen to what paltry tales I could muster. That’s a friend.