What I Learned From Those We Lost in 2013

I thought I’d wind up 2013 with a list of lessons I take away from the words and writing of some notable people who died this year. As always, the losses were heavy. But the departed left us with wonderful insights and advice:

Stan Musial, on not letting unfairness and mistreatment get to you: “When a pitcher’s throwing a spitball, don’t worry and don’t complain, just hit the dry side like I do.”

Ed Koch, on sexual identity: “Listen, there’s no question that some New Yorkers think I’m gay, and voted for me nevertheless. The vast majority don’t care, and others don’t think I am. And I don’t give a shit either way! What do I care? I’m 73 years old. I find it fascinating that people are interested in my sex life at age 73. It’s rather complimentary! But as I say in my book, my answer to questions on this subject is simply Fuck off. There have to be some private matters left.”

Chinua Achebe, on how to help others: “While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.”

Maria Tallchief on good design: ”If anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away”

Roger Ebert, on religious zealotry: “The problem with being sure that God is on your side is that you can’t change your mind, because God sure isn’t going to change His.”

Joyce Brothers, on how to succeed: “There’s a very positive relationship between people’s ability to accomplish any task and the time they’re willing to spend on it.”

Douglas Engelbart, on computers: “The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing.”

Seamus Heaney, on the highest purpose of poetry and the other arts: “We want what the woman wanted in the prison queue in Leningrad, standing there with cold and whispering for fear, enduring the terror of Stalin’s regime and asking the poet Anna Akhmatova if she could describe it all, if her art was equal to it.” (the Akhmatova poem he alludes to is here)

Elmore Leonard, on how to write well: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” (which is a distillation of his 10 rules of writing)

Doris Lessing, on planning: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

Peter O’Toole, on longevity: “The only exercise I take is walking behind the coffins of friends who took exercise.”

And Nelson Mandela, on how to bring about peace. His words are all the more astonishing for being spoken two weeks after he was released from prison: “My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea!”

Happy new year, all.