THE IMMORTALIST: There's something unspeakably sad about reading the obituary of a brilliant person. There in a few lines, their unique lives are whittled down to a few indisputable facts and surviving anecdotes, their accomplishments reduced to a grocery list of chronological events. Of course, every obit subject suffers the same bureaucratic fate; and perhaps, in a way, the manner in which death levels the playing field for the exceptional (because for everything stated, there's so much more to that life that remains unstated) serves as a reminder that all lives are exceptional, all voices unique. And that in the end, it isn't the things we accomplished, but the people we became in the process, that leaves an indelible mark on the world...that makes us immortal.
Certainly, this was a philosophy embodied (and far more eloquently expressed) by the late Alan Harrington, an American icon and former UA educator, who died in his home on Saturday, May 23, of leukemia.
Harrington played host to a wide cross section of humanity, from wild days with beat writers like Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (whose 1950-something visit to Harrington's adobe home in the Fort Lowell area found its way into the pages of On the Road), to the fond memory of one former UA student, who told a Tucson Citizen reporter, "He didn't think he was teaching; he called it sharing. I wasn't much of a writer, but he made me feel I could do it. He changed my life."
His experiences as a Harvard educated wire service reporter, PR flack, editor, novelist, social commentator, writing professor and cancer patient all are exhumed in his nine books of fiction, published between 1955 and 1994. According to his family, the author considered The Immortalist (1969) his seminal work.
We never had the pleasure of knowing Alan Harrington personally, though our pleasure of knowing of him is distinct. A distant persona who touched the lives of many; the famous writer whose books we devoured while, unbeknownst to us until much later, he lived just a few houses from ours; the teacher who bestowed unparalleled insight and understanding to students both talented and average.
In thinking of Harrington, we're reminded of a close friend's death from cancer: One mourner, grimly resolved to his grief, told us a story about a man he knew who was a real asshole--had cheated on his wife, beat her, was dishonest in business... who apparently had no redeeming qualities whatever.
"Why are you telling us this?" we asked.
"He died of cancer," he said. "You never hear about anyone like that dying of cancer. You only hear about the nice people."
True enough. Just the same, we prefer to remember this about Harrington, instead:
"In my view, we're all soldiers of evolution, some wounded in battle, some damaged," he wrote in a personal letter to Tucson artist Margo Burwell in 1996. "But the best recover from these pops and make life better, through art, science and giving...and through love, make the evolution, with all its backing and filling, better for everyone."
Our sympathies to Harrington's family and friends, who will no doubt miss him greatly. For all who wish to celebrate his life, there will be a memorial gathering at 10 a.m. Sunday, June 8, at Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle. A potluck brunch will follow, and all are welcome. Take Oracle Highway to American Avenue, and head east to Calle Futura, which winds around to Linda Vista Road. Turn right (west) and continue on after the pavement ends to the Rancho Linda Vista complex.
OVERDOSE: The death at age 20 of David Sorrentino, whose "heroin-chic" style of fashion photography was featured in the March issue of Details magazine, has been turned into a festival of feelings. While most of the world was unaware of his passing on February 4, 1997, the fashion industry responded with pledges that the drugged-out look perpetuated by David, his brother Mario (responsible for the Calvin Klein Obsession ads featuring his dangerously thin girlfriend Kate Moss) and other young photographers was, well, dead. All this would have gone down as quietly as a back-alley transaction were it not for the May 20 issue of The New York Times, which featured a moralizing article on Sorrentino's death by Amy Spindler, an article which caught the eye of our nation's ethical chief executive, Bill Clinton. Taking time out from defending himself in court against charges of trailer park infidelities, improperly acquiring campaign finances and making illegal loan requests at small town banks, Clinton went out on a limb politically to say, "The glorification of heroin is not creative, it's destructive." He then outlined a plan to further restrict civil liberties in order to combat the scourge of skinny models with sloppy eyeliner.
For those who think nothing is sexier than a scabby junkie lying in a pool of her own vomit, fear not: We're sure Clinton's plans to dismantle the public health system will ensure us many such sights in years to come.
INK SPOT: Join authors Gloria Bird, Laura Tohe and Anne Lee Walters for a reading and signing of Reinventing the Enemy's Language, a long-awaited anthology of contemporary Native women's writings on North America, hailed as "an important contribution to our literature, and an historical document." Contributors who couldn't make the reading but nonetheless offer important material to the book include writer Joy Harjo and poet Ofelia Zepeda. The free event runs from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Friday, June 6, at The Book Mark, 5001 E. Speedway. Call 881-6350 for information.
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