Thursday, April 10, 2008

The measure of a man ...

Life is very efficient, if you think about it - it always seems to have the ability, when you need it, and even when you don't think you need it, to kick you in the ass and tell you not to wallow in your own muck, but to get on with it. That jolt to the system can come in many different forms. It can come in the form of a stranger's liver, or in the form of a toddler who doesn't know why she feels so bad, but still has the spirit to smile. And last night it came in the form of a computer science professor whose energetic, lively and poignant message to his children has become a worldwide phenomenon, almost by accident.

Many of you already know the story of Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who last year presented a lecture to a packed auditorium at the Pittsburgh-based college. The theme of his talk, though, had little to do with computers. It was entitled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," and that's precisely what he spoke about it - how he had pulled off almost everything he had wished for as a boy, and how everyone else could do the same. He spoke with vitality, with easy humor, but there was something else on Randy's mind, and on the minds of almost everyone in that lecture hall - the cold, hard fact that just weeks earlier, this husband and father of three young children has been told that he had pancreatic cancer, just about the worst form of cancer that a man can have. Randy had been told he was going to die.

His intent was to give his lecture - his "last lecture," delivered on the birthday of his wife, Jai - and then move to Virginia with his family to fight the disease as best he could and live out the three to six months of good health he had left. But then a funny thing happened: a recording of Randy's presentation ended up on YouTube and other viral video sites. Millions of people watched it and took heart from the professor's words of hope, humor and wisdom. And before he knew it, Randy had a book deal and had become a media darling. In a cultural landscape where self-help gurus are a dime a dozen, here was a simple message of love and life and happiness, presented by a man who had every reason to wallow and feel sorry for himself, and at least four reasons to do anything but that.

Tonight ABC presented what amounted to a truncated version of Randy's book, called "The Last Lecture." We saw Randy with Jai, their three kids, some of the people he calls friends. We saw Randy at work, at play, fulfilling one of his last childhood dreams - to toss a football with some of the Pittsburgh Steelers. We also saw the cancer take its toll on his once-healthy body, how the therapy designed to lengthen his life had its nasty side effects as well - you know, like kidney problems and heart failure. But though he admitted to tough days, to worry about his children, to sometimes crying in the shower because, like singing, that's where people think no one is watching them, his smile was as broad as ever. You can be a Tigger or an Eeyore in life, he says, and it's obvious what he is.

His book will be a bestselling smash - it was only published today, and it's already at number two number one on's top-selling list. Its success will leave his wife and kids well taken care of. And his story already has touched so many lives in small and large ways - during the broadcast he read a letter from someone who had contemplated suicide before hearing about Randy. But none of that will make up for the fact that, sooner rather than later, he will be gone. But his legacy will live on - a legacy that ultimately has little to do with a book or even a lecture, but with the way he lived - and lives - his life. Well done, Dr. Pausch.

NOTE: When asked why there won't be a movie based on his life, Randy said it would because there was no Hollywood actress as beautiful as his wife. That's about the nicest thing I've ever heard someone say about their spouse.

NOTE #2: As beautiful a job ABC did on tonight's special (full disclosure: a division of Disney is publishing Randy's book, but hey, sometimes synergy can work for good rather than evil), I was appalled to see, during one of the commercial breaks, an ad for the new Al Pacino thriller 88 Minutes, which is about a college professor who is trying to solve his own murder after being told by an anonymous caller that he has just 88 minutes to live. Whomever made that ad sale for this particular program should be fired for bad taste and even worse timing.

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