One of the bittersweet joys of every year's end is the Times magazine's "The Lives They Lived" issue. As the editors noted this time, the issue should be seen "less as an assortment of obituaries than as a collection of narratives that celebrate lives."
I've always been drawn to well-written obituaries, not from any morbid impulse but because a good obit (one that captures someone's triumphs along with their flaws) succinctly captures the melancholy joy that we call life.
I first paid serious attention to the Lives issue in 2006, when Andrew Martinez, Berkeley's "Naked Guy" in the 1990s, took his own life at the age of 34. This was before I knew I would ever live in Berkeley, but the story of Martinez--a young man who preached nonconformity, endured the mocking glare of the media, and eventually succumbed to schizophrenia--was enough to make me think about the severe toll that challenging any norm can take. Reading the piece again tonight it was even more sad, as I could now visualize Martinez's angry strolls along Telegraph Avenue after he'd been expelled from Cal.
This year's writing seemed especially lyrical, most especially "Grief is a walk to the ending you already know" (by Michael Paterniti, describing Mr. Frantz Termilus's loss of two daughters in the Haitian earthquake.) Jonathan Mahler's 4 page oral history of George Steinbrenner, the centerpiece of this year's issue, was fascinating. But I'll still never be a Yankees fan. What fun is rooting for Goliath?
The greatest pleasure of this issue is learning about people I'd never hear about otherwise. How about Allan Tibbels, the quadriplegic who oversaw the construction of 286 owner-occupied houses in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Baltimore? Or Karen Woo, the physician and filmmaker who was murdered this year in Afghanistan? The 36 year old had just made plans to be married, but had one last adventure left in her before starting a more conventional life that she was ready to embrace. In a letter to her fiancee, Mark Smith, she wrote, "Suddenly I look forward to P.T.A. meetings and shopping for school uniforms." Woo never got that chance.
Sometimes the paper's daily obituaries only seem to honor men, a fact that sparked discussion earlier this year. Daily obit editor Bill McDonald pointed out that his section is necessarily backward-looking and only features very prominent people; alas, in earlier times women had less public space in which to contribute their talents and perspectives.
So I was happy to see that the magazine's gender split was much more even, both in terms of the writers (the stable of daily obit writers seems highly male too) and among the people they chronicled. The dailies will catch up eventually, but the magazine already has things covered. That in itself is cause for celebration.