Death with a View

Can you control your death, give it parameters, give it stage direction and make it dramatic, pastoral, humorous? Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? Most of us have trouble managing life, and death just happens. Typically, it’s out of our control. That doesn’t stop us from trying, nor should it. After all, we try to avoid a head-on collisions. But, aside from the various purgatorial outcomes, you either make it or you don’t.

Perhaps that’s why we put so much emphasis on controlling what happens after we die. We can choose eulogies, flowers, type of service, music, prayers, pallbearers; in short, we can arrange our funeral with the verve of an obsessive bride. You can even write your own epitaph. Aphra Behn, Restoration era literary role model for women, presumably wrote, “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough against Mortality.” Bill Blake forever claims innocence, “Was hanged by mistake.”

However, despite the endless jokes, your death is not a wedding. You don’t really attend your funeral in the way you would a wedding. For the most part, as far as we know, only your bodily remains attend, which may or may not constitute who you are, or were. You can choose where you will be buried or where your ashes will be sprinkled, tossed, strewn; you can have your ashes mixed with seeds and grow yourself into an apple tree; you can be thrown into the wind, off a cliff, flushed down the toilet if you so ordain. Again, this is all after you are dead.

But what about the death event itself, the one where you get to attend? (Where everyone else goes home, and you do too – sort of.) Will you keep it simple like you did when you got married, with just a few attending, or will you go extravagant. If you can pick your pallbearers, why not choose who to invite to your death? Guests need not bring gifts. In fact, you may have to pay them to attend, or include them in the will. Of course, you must choose a venue. Where will you die? Online quizzes at places like playbuzz and GoToQuiz “playfully” try to predict where you might die. But they have nothing to do with choosing a location. They assume that you have no control because you can’t know when you will die. (There are plenty of other quizzes about that.) You can’t send wedding invitations without setting a date and the same applies to your death party. Where you die is inextricably entangled with when.

Notably, suicides choose the time and place of their death. (Although that applies a liberal definition of “choice.” Is suicide a voluntary act?) Implicit in the location of death is the guest of honor’s last view. Forget about last thoughts. We can barely record our living thoughts. The planned epitaph or the inevitably incomplete note aren’t really last thoughts. We have a better chance conjecturing about their last view.

Famous suicide Ernest Hemingway who (as an aside) transformed the American literary landscape, stuck a shotgun into his mouth. Many of us already know this, but probably few know where exactly it occurred. He was of all places in the foyer of his Idaho home. The foyer? Why did this consummate outdoorsman choose to die inside? Perhaps he didn’t have much of a choice after all. Was his last view the parallel barrels illusorily connecting at the trigger? Or was he looking up at the ceiling? What was on that ceiling? Plaster? Confessional poet Sylvia Plath must have enjoyed cleaning ovens, otherwise why stick her head so far into hers and let loose the gas. Her last view the dark safety of an appliance. Probably both Hemingway and Plath had their eyes closed at the last second, in which case technically their last view could have been splendid flashes of color and images that often appear on the inside of our eyelids. Perhaps we should also include the smell of gas, the sound of the wind rattling Hemingway’s front door.

Maybe suicide is a little too depressing, so let’s move on to something a little more cheerful. How about assassination? That’ll lighten it up. What about JFK, his last view? Was it the cheering crowd all waving in adoration? Rolling along in a convertible, the top down, on a sunny day in Dallas, waving and smiling, a thoroughly happy demise. He never regained consciousness so that’s good. Let’s believe that he didn’t see anything bad on the inside of his eyelids. But JFK’s happy last view was hardly of his own choosing. And Lincoln, was he enjoying the play?

Perhaps assassination isn’t cheerful enough, so what about sudden death. FDR was at his beloved Warm Springs Georgia retreat having his portrait painted when struck with a “terrific pain” in the back of his head, his last view perhaps of himself unfinished. My Cuban exile friend Luis went upstairs to write a letter, had a heart attack and slumped onto his desk. Not so bad. Writing. A happy view maybe, black ink on white paper. My good friend Bob died in a nursing home. Is it possible to have a happy last view in such a place? And what about my younger brother? What did he see before he passed out? From the position I found him, I’d say it was the dirty cob-webbed ceiling of his bedroom.

My 95-year-old Dad has “cheated” death many times in WWII. He now faces the inevitable. He can’t get out of this one. In the frenzy of updating wills, checking into burial arrangements at Arlington, and impossibly difficult questions, should I ask, “Dad, have you thought about your last view?”

Timothy Leary’s last utterance was “beautiful,” but he took lots of acid. Imagine that view. Since, as far as I know, my Dad never took acid, I’m not sure his death would be a time to experiment – the devil might be in the bad trip. Maybe mushrooms are an option. In a recent New Yorker article, “The Trip Treatment,” Michael Pollan writes about exciting research into using psilocybin to relieve “existential distress.” Under the right circumstances, hallucinogens could make your death party and your last view lots of fun, just like good wine at a wedding.

First and foremost, we avoid death. Beyond trying to live forever and failing, we plan our funerals. Trying to also plan our last view may be futile, but it’s worth a try. In the 1970 film “Little Big Man,” Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George) ascends a hill to the Burial Ground and declares, “It is a good day to die.” He lies down waiting for death. Raindrops splatter his eyelids. The brilliance of the scene lies in clearly depicting an often unexpressed wish and illustrating the difficulty in attaining it. Old Lodge Skins seems only slightly disappointed to still be alive. He accepts his fate. “Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” Arranging your last view takes “magic” few of us possess and, even for Old Lodge Skins, it rarely works. Dying on a good day is our ultimate challenge.

Posted in Write | 2 Comments

New Testimonials — Jeff May Writing Services

“Throughout the entire process of writing a book, from start to finish, Jeff May is a skillful editor, grammarian, and writer. He is encouraging, patient, and understanding. He is a joy to work with. I am sorry my book is finished. I will miss him.”  — Anonymous, author of God’s Prey: Overcoming Sexual Abuse Through A Life With God.

“This is a review of my experience with Jeffrey Penn May who formatted and placed several of my novels on Amazon as eBooks. I am one of those people who missed the computer generation and must depend on experienced people to do various chores. Jeff was patient, answered my questions, gave direction and very importantly, did follow up and did not leave me hanging. After the job was completed I still needed his expertise and help. I cannot stress strongly enough how competent his work is as I had first hand experience with how incompetent some workers can be. Unfortunately, my typist created lots of typos that I am still trying to correct; however, Jeff has put me in contact with a highly qualified proofreader. Additionally, my typist literally begged me to give formatting work to a family member. I gave her one of the books and it is formatted crooked, and is placed in another area of Amazon kindle where I cannot access it to make changes. If depending on someone to do this for you, you need them to be experienced, extremely competent and honest – Jeff is all of those in addition to being fairly priced. I am extremely happy and satisfied with his work on my behalf.” — Anne Steinberg, author of Manroot, The Quest, The Cuckoo’s Gift, Every Town Needs a Russian Tea Room, and Elias’s Fence.

Posted in Write | Leave a comment

“Best” Note About My Writing

I continue to scan old letters onto my hard drive. (An act that in itself defines our time.)

This note about my writing is perhaps the “best.” I think it was around 1982.

“Jeff, thank you for sharing your work with me. I think we should stop seeing each other. If you’d like to talk about it, give me a call. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine too. See you around.”

Posted in Write | 2 Comments

9 Obvious Harsh Realities To Tell Your Children (That You Never Fully Understood Until The Great Recession And You Got Old)

My kids are kind, considerate, and empathetic. Where did I go wrong?

1. Money really is power, freedom, and pretty teeth. While it can’t buy you perfect health, it can help – a lot. While it can’t “buy you love,” it can help – a lot. People are often attracted to money. Freedom isn’t free – it’s expensive.

2. Volunteer work is good for a hobby if it makes you feel good, but don’t count on it paying the rent, or mortgage, or medical bills. Yes, all those studies show that giving makes us feel good and could even help in long term health, but it also assumes you can take care of yourself first. Not many homeless superstars are curing cancer or uplifting millions from the very poverty they themselves are oppressed by.

3. Follow your passion only if you can get paid well for it. Sure, you don’t want to work at a job that makes you miserable, but often you don’t understand what miserable is until you can’t get any job. And the job you really enjoy can make you miserable in unforeseen ways if you cannot afford a vacation, or car repairs. There is nothing like getting a fair paycheck that sufficiently rewards your hard work, creativity, dedication, and concern.

4. Others will take advantage of you. If you offer your work for nothing, you will get paid nothing. All organizations will try to get the most from you for the least amount of money. Find a better job for more money, then demand a better wage or move on.

5. Lie. Not in everything of course. Often people are lying to you without even realizing it. I’m not suggesting blatant lying, saying you’re a chemical engineer when you know nothing about chemical engineering. However, inflating your work experience just enough to bolster your chances is almost expected now. Trust that you can teach yourself and fill in the gaps later.

6. Nice guys often do finish last. If it seems that psychopaths rule the world, it’s mostly true, psychopathology disguised as calculated risks and derivatives. After you’ve “earned” your millions, you can say it was because of your obvious superior intelligence. You were not afraid to crush your opposition. So cultivate your inner psychopath. (The trick is to do this without hurting others, a paradox for sure.)

7. Compete. Even when you are cooperating with others, you are competing. Even if they don’t know it, or admit it, they are competing – and so are you – being unaware of it merely means that your chances of “losing” are increased.

8. Study finance. Try to understand balance sheets, statistics, mathematics as much as possible. Only then can you defend yourself from those who would profit from destroying your humanitarian work.

9. People love to criticize. You will be criticized often, and will often be unfairly criticized. Critical thinking to solve problems is good. However, people criticize to compete, to push you down so that they can get ahead of you. The chief aim of such criticism is to throw you off, to disorient you from your goal, assuming you have at least one, which you should, otherwise people will criticize you for not having any goals.

Posted in Write | Leave a comment

Letters From Ingomar

RTTMH.BRecently, I began unearthing old letters with the intention of scanning them onto my hard drive. (An act that in itself sort of defines our time, doesn’t it?)

I started with letters from Ingomar Robier (for no reason other than they were “on top”), a 1976 classmate from English Lit classes at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. Since I had a habit of befriending people who didn’t seem to fit in, I insisted on showing him around St. Louis. I took him to a baseball game and tired explaining the rules while we drank wine from a American made fake goatskin wine flask, and I introduced him to my girlfriends and their friends, and we went to Chinese restaurants, being cosmopolitan college students in St. Louis. After graduation, he went back to Austria. I didn’t remember much about his circumstances, but kept a series of letters from him dated January 20, 1977 through April, 1979, a particularly transformative time in my life, as I suppose as it is for most at that age.

I’m not sure why we stopped corresponding. His letters clearly showed he was the better writer, the better academic, writing about his Masters and Doctorate work. I was moving on to the ugly world of writing fiction and working various insignificant jobs. It may be that we just stopped for no other reason than being consumed by life. I have no idea who wrote the last letter. I don’t have copies of what I sent him. (Did anybody make Xerox copies of personal correspondence?) But one thing is clear, then and now, the Ingomar Robier I knew was an intelligent, astute reader, an excellent critical writer, and judging from his response to my work, a generous and kind heart. Clearly, I valued his friendship, however brief, and I can only hope that I expressed it at the time. (I have researched his name and found that he was on a Fulbright in the USA, published his doctorate, and apparently is teaching English Lit and French at a university in Austria.) As young men, we were brash, sometimes boastful, but also confident (in some of our abilities at least). Now, at sixty, I am invoking my impetuous young man prerogative and am quoting the letters from Ingomar. Who cares if I appear boastful? (Sometimes humility is merely a mask for your fears and is not the virtue you might think it is.)

In a conjunction of seemingly coincidental events, I started rereading Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan (downloaded to my kindle two years ago), and I can clearly see it’s influence on my writing, especially Roobala Take Me Home. I’m convinced now more than ever that had Scribners published Roobala all those years ago, it would have been successful, and perhaps more. Since the initial draft, Roobala Take Me Home has been expanded and revised countless times. See my last blog “Why I Stopped Revising My First Novel.”

Last letter from Ingomar:
April 7, 1979
To start with, I think that “Roobala Take Me Home” is vivid and exciting, full of weird humour and cosmic nostalgia. The universe you portray is a galactic Wild West and the hero himself, Jesse Enoob, hunts through stellar wilderness, a lonesome Candide who finally settles down to cultivate his space garden with his long-lost lover found at last. What made “Star Wars” so amusing, that is, the generous exploitation of hetergenous elements, also gives your space fantasy its special flavour. I’ve found “Roobala” immensely entertaining. Al’s Bar and Grill is turned into a spaceship only to reappear later in Jesse Enoob’s front yard on a strange planet. The American myth of discovery is put on a galactic scale and becomes even more obvious in Daniel Boone, the half brain hunter and, of course, Willima Bailey. If “Roobala” is space realism too, you managed perfectly to reveal the familiar in the unknown and vice versa. Taken as a chain of episodes, the story is fast-moving and picaresque, leaving out emanations of the characters’ inner space dives, who are nevertheless alive and colourful.

If, as Henry James once wrote, all criticism finally boils down to the question of like and not liking, I think I’ve answered it through my “interpretation” of your fine novel. Roobala is a living thing the memory of which has remained alive in me. I should really like to see it published. Have you already submitted it? Maybe you can send me a word or two. Meanwhile I wish you good luck with your efforts to get your first book into print.

Your friend,

Posted in Write | Leave a comment

Why I Stopped Revising My First Novel

RTTMH.BOver a 35-years span, Roobala Take Me Home was rewritten, revised, reworked, and partly re-imagined so many times that I’ve lost count. Despite my best efforts to stay current and true to my ever developing self, Roobala Take Me Home inevitably, like all novels, turned into a historical document.

Even “historical” novels are rooted in the imagination of the writer looking back. A historian from 1980 looking back at 1900 has a different perspective than the historian from 2000 looking back at the same year. And 2014 predictions about 2050 will eventually recede into the past and will likely become part of a collective joke – “Look how silly and misinformed we were!”

When I wrote the first draft of Roobala Take Me Home using an ink pen, yellow legal pads, and manual typewriter, predictions were flourishing about how the personal computer was going to save us all so much time that we’d only have to work 20 hours per week.

The Scribner’s Publishing Company, the one existing in1980, was mildly interested in publishing Roobala. “Many moments are beautiful, witty, and surprising, and the entire work is permeated with a curious nostalgia that I found very touching.” The irony of “curious nostalgia” in a young man’s futuristic space fantasy novel still, to this day, propels me forward and backward, and renders me mentally convulsive. Whether those “surprising” moments remain so today, at this moment, is uncertain. (Why don’t you go and find out?) And what about tomorrow?

What novelist has not, at some point, secretly worried that all their work suddenly becomes irrelevant because aliens arrived? Never occurs to them that it was irrelevant to begin with. Nevertheless, it’s hard to sustain belief in your cutting edge prose after a planet-altering event. Sort of messes up your suspense. Think of the revision needed to stay current. Your “almost finished” suspense novel becomes a cozy pastoral period piece. You give up. Of course. Because you are sane. You really are.

A thousand years from now, when your work is discovered in a pile of electronic rubble, you may be recognized as an unknown author and your imaginative moments may become one of the many historical markers of our collective imaginations. So that’s something. Be happy.

Occasionally, I feel like an ideologue after the system has collapsed. My writing becomes the rambling of someone receding rapidly into the past, tortured words twisting in the wind, struggling to remain relevant, while relying too heavily on alliteration. But when was I ever relevant? So nothing lost. No big deal.

In this speeded up age when everything changes from one millisecond to the next, when words “typed” yesterday become obsolete next week, I must quit revising my symbolically futuristic, comical space-western novel Roobala Take Me Home. I will no longer revise Roobala! I’m finished! There is no point in trying to go back and revise what has already been rewritten endlessly – more important to write in the moment – to stay alive, fixated forever on the next word. (Unless of course someone pays me lots of Roobalas.)

Inevitably, a setting in the future becomes obsolete when the future arrives; therefore, I make no claim to relevance. Roobala Take Me Home is however a more or less precise imaginative work of a twenty-five year old writer, and a writer in his thirties, forties, and fifties. Now I am sixty and, in this note, I am trying to make sense of my younger self who made bad decisions and who wasted so much time trying to capture time.

Perhaps young writers will read this and say, “Well that was bizarre; I hope I never make that mistake.”

JPM 2014

Posted in Write | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Secure in Social Security (156 words)

Social Security will be there for me, more if I make enough money in my six years past sixty.

Curious, the money is based on thirty-five years “highest paid.” So be careful of years unemployed, years for schooling, for children, for illness and for saying goodbye to parents.

A welder gets less security than a surgeon, a retail manager less than a lawyer, and me, a private sector educator, far less than a financier.

Sort of makes sense I suppose. The more money you make, the more money you pay, and then the more money you receive – not a lot from what I can tell. But I can’t tell much without taking time off to study the system.

Still, it feels odd, the value of work reduced to comparisons with baseball stars, movie stars, political and financial ones too. Don’t you see, a star needs more security than me because I chose to make less money.

Posted in Write | 2 Comments

Blog Tag

Recently, fellow writer from the St. Louis Writers’ Guild Linda Austin asked me to participate in what apparently is called “blog tag.” Normally, I might shrug off such a request, with its specific guidelines, and go back to twittering away my time with what passes for social networking. However, perhaps because of Linda’s unique St. Louis perspectives stemming from her Japanese culture and history, I have obviously convinced myself that this specific tag tour might be worth something. Visit Linda Austin at

(Ideally, I would have listed other tagged writers at the end of this blog. I gave that some effort but didn’t get enough of a response in time and then became overwhelmed with earning enough money to pay bills.)

Think of the following as an interview, as these tour questions mimic those I’ve been asked before in TV and radio interviews. And visualize yourself as your host of choice, (Fallon, Goldberg, Winfrey, Kimmel, DeGeneres, Letterman, Stewart, Williams, Sawyer, and so on).

You: What are you working on?

JPM: Nothing. This blog, so I am occasionally blogging. Also, I’m writing poetry now and then. But mostly I’m trying to survive by helping others write and hoping they pay me for the help. No long narratives, especially after my cancer comedy. Staring into the abyss makes you (or maybe just me) want to climb into the mountains as much as possible for as long as I can. My writing has, for now, become secondary to my living a more external life, or at least trying to. However, there is no shortage of material. I have a half-finished novel, other old novels needing revision, several short stories, and piles of notes scribbled out in my nearly unintelligible handwriting.

You: How does your work differ from others of its genre?

JPM: My recent work is Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest For Cancer Comedy. Not many cancer survivor stories are a quest for comedy. Also, I’m a fiction writer, so the narrative was constructed using the elements of good fiction. It’s a thriller, suspense, comedy, (According to more than one review, it’s a “page-turner.”) My hope has always been that might help others, although I wasn’t sure how. I avoided reading books about cancer. If I still had the disease, I couldn’t read my own book. However, my radiation oncologist and a nurse who was the caregiver for her late husband both recommend it as a “must read.”

You: Why do you write what you do?

JPM: As a writer, the only way I could survive my ordeal was of course to write about it. Previously, I focused on fiction, and wrote essentially for the same reasons, to survive daily life, to make sense of the world, and most importantly to entertain.

You: How does your writing process work?

JPM: Usually, I write or scrawl with ink onto a yellow legal pad, revise while keyboarding, write new scenes on yellow pad or in the margins of the printout, rewrite, printout, markup, omitting and adding, and eventually during this process that seems like a constant expansion and contraction, I have a more or less finished manuscript. But nothing is ever finished.

Posted in Write | 1 Comment

Words Mean Something

I have an obsession –words must mean something – must be read, spoken, and especially written for a purpose. Useless words are an abomination. Conversations should be calculated to inform while entertaining your partner and being sensitive to their idiosyncrasies. The goal of artful writing is to produce a group of words informative and entertainingly arranged in a series while understanding the nuances of your audience.

Too often writers write for themselves and expect everyone to love them.

In writing for yourself, in digging deep into a personal examination of your psyche you can reach a level whereby your writing transforms into literature and your personal examination expands the critical examination of all, of the human condition, expanding our awareness of ourselves in a satisfying series of words.

So, even if you are narcissistic, if you dig deep and find the source of your narcissism, and expose it on the cellular level, then your self-centeredness can be enlightening. Most times of course it is not. Most times it is clichéd third person genre. (I’m a tough cool person with my guard up but so sensitive underneath.)

All I’m asking for here is that those writers dig a litter deeper and ask themselves why? Why do I write these words? Why am I writing this critique now, I ask.

Posted in Write | Leave a comment

What A Writing Client Is Teaching Me

Client 002When I was younger, I wrote first for myself, then to show others, and eventually perhaps I might gain recognition. As I grew older and dealt with the vicissitudes of publishing, I cynically embraced the belief that being paid well for your writing is what made you a real writer. Anything less and I was more or less failing. (Talk about high expectations.) Now I’m not so sure. One of my clients is reminding me that writing is so much more than the pursuit of money.

She’d been working on “her book” for nearly 40 years but never could “finish” it. About five years ago, I coached her a little, but we hadn’t spoken in a long time. Then she called one day and said, “I’ve got to finish the book.” She had metastasized cancer. The doctors told her she didn’t have much time left. I had just endured my own battle with cancer, emerging scarred (a little maimed), but cancer-free and happy to talk, taste, swallow and breathe.

She handed over a dizzying array of paper and computer files, duplicates with one or two lines revised, many with whole new paragraphs mixed in. I painstakingly sorted through them and arranged them in chronological order. We went through them line by line, sitting together hunched over her laptop. Her computer skills were basic, and she was amazed at how I could move stuff around. I printed pages, she marked them up. She read the changes and I typed, revising on the fly, discussing themes, chronology, the merits of each line and each word, moving scenes and creating chapters. My suggestions had to be consistent with her voice. She wrote poignantly, truthfully, clearly. She instinctively understood the writing process, often asking herself what she meant by something she’d written. The chaos of her 40 year attempt was congealing into a powerful narrative.

When I worked at home, she called urging me to go faster because the doctors had done another scan, and it didn’t look good. Through all of this she was getting chemotherapy and courageously plowed on, the act of writing seeming to uplift her enough to be uncannily productive. I’ve had deadlines before but this one gave the term a whole new meaning. I’m not sure what that meaning is –  one of the reasons I’m writing this I suppose.

She’d had, to say the least, challenges that made for an interesting life. Abuse, depression, alcoholism, astounding business success, drive and determination, love, humor, a unique pragmatic use of religion, and a useful unwavering belief in God. (I’m not religious or even that spiritual – she never proselytized.)  She is an extremely successful, kind, bright woman who wants to remain anonymous. No fame and glory needed.

We’re almost there. At the end, I will format for CreateSpace, Kindle and Smashwords. Clearly she is getting immense satisfaction from the process and the knowledge that she will finally “finish the book.” If it sells half a million, the likelihood of her being around when it does are slim. Her motivation was never to be a successful writer in the sense I’d considered it. She just thought her story might be helpful to others. And if she wasn’t there, well, that was God’s plan all along.

Posted in Write | 2 Comments