Some thoughts on living and dying.

Ann Lucas Hughes, 1923-2013

Here’s what everybody who knew my mom knows about my mom.

Everyone knows she was funny.  Not just nice-sense-of-humor funny, but laugh out loud, on purpose funny.  Lucille Ball funny.  Lucille Ball had her chocolates story; mom had her story about thinking the rose petals at a wedding were some kind of new age potato chips. While others were throwing the petals toward the bride and groom, mom was eating them.  (The petals, not the bride and groom.) She’d tell you about the time she was leaving a party with dad and whispering to him that “the first thing I’m going to do is take off my pantyhose”—only to discover the man she was walking arm-in-arm with was a total stranger (who’s probably still laughing about it today.) Or the time she was dieting and a man sat down next to her in the cafeteria with two donuts. He got up and left, leaving one donut uneaten.  Of course, she was eating it when he came back with his second cup of coffee. 

On a European trip with Patti, Ginny and a number of their female friends, mom was making her grand entrance at the Casino de Monte Carlo.  At the top of the stairs and between the royal guards, her slip fell around her ankles.  Rather than keep it quiet, she burst out laughing.  “Hey, everybody, look at me.”  (Patti just kept walking.  “I was horrified.”)

Once mom was at the beach house with my Aunt Louise. To this day we don’t know how they locked themselves onto the second-story porch, but their plans for ways to get safely back to earth ranged from full-frontal senior nudity to climbing down trees.  Thank goodness a Good Samaritan beachcomber came to the rescue. 

Then there was the time she was at a party with a good friend—and even though my dad’s sisters were named Mae and June—mom said to her friend, “I hate it when people name their kids after months or flowers.  Don’t you, Violet?”

            Everyone knows mom was social.  Unlike her beloved son, she liked a party. No one was a stranger to my mom.  Even if you’d never met her, if you found yourself in a line next to her, you’d soon be laughing at her stories and telling her how impressed you were by her son’s accomplishments at The Martin Agency.

            Everyone knows mom had a huge heart.   It’s not that she loved everyone—you couldn’t be as funny as mom was without having a few people to complain about—and we have to admit that she liked “cute” people more than she liked people who weren’t “cute”—but at least she always loved everyone she was with at the time.

            Everyone knows that beneath that zany lady appearance, there was real wisdom.  She might have grown up with a Southern accent, but she was never a bigot.  If you were black, she noticed it, but “that cute black boy” was every bit as beloved as any cute white boy.  If you aren’t cute, I’m sorry but your race won’t help you much either way.  You could achieve cuteness by being good looking or by doing good things.  Or by telling mom how much you admired her daughter and her son.  That last one got you a free lifetime cute pass instantly. 

            Real wisdom?  There once was a misunderstanding or miscommunication among the cousins.  One of the mothers was afraid her young gay daughter and the daughter’s new partner weren’t going to be welcomed into a family gathering the way they should have been.  My cousin called me, I called Patti and Patti went straight to the matriarch.  Mom’s response was immediate:  “Somebody thinks someone’s not good enough for our family?  Have they looked at our family?  Everyone’s good enough for our family.”  (I was never prouder of her.)

            Most of us know these things about mom.  But there’s one thing that might deserve a little more attention.  Maybe we should be reminded that mom was a world-class rescuer of people.  There was rarely a time in our home when someone ‘extra’ wasn’t living with us.  She gave my uncle Foo Foo (that’s what we called him, Foo Foo) the run of our house and half of my bedroom from the early ‘60s to the day he died 15 years later.  We loved having “Foof” at home. 

            Then there was mom’s cousin Stanley.  He was in his mid 30s when he came to live with us. He was a lovable handful. He had Down syndrome and he was set in his ways, opinionated, stubborn and very sweet.  When Stanley’s mother died, our house immediately had a new family member—and some loving, hilarious Stanley stories. (A quick one:  Stanley loved birthdays, especially his own.  He’d try to convince us that every day was his birthday.  Stanley had lived with us for about two years when Patti brought Georgia, one of her new friends at Mary Baldwin, home for a holiday weekend. Georgia was walking through the living room and saw Stanley walking toward her.  Completely naked.  Stanley says, “Georgia, it’s my birthday.”  Her immediate response:  “Good.  I see you’ve already got your suit on.”  Those Baldwin girls were quick.)

            Priests would call mom when children from a troubled family needed a place to stay: two beautiful toddlers, Nicky and Ricky, lived with us for over a year.  There was also a beautiful young girl dying of leukemia:  I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember her name right now.  Everything about her story was heartbreaking.  Everything mom did for her was inspiring.

            Patti and I are convinced that dad would get a little nervous coming home for work every night:  what new member of his family would he meet today?  What stranger might be moving in for the next year or so?  Who would be eating his food?  (Come to think of it, the answer to the food question was usually Stanley.)  Dad was actually great about all of it.  He was clearly proud of her, soft heart and all.  Besides, as far as we could tell, he would never deny anything to his beloved “Nimanim.” (We have no idea where he got that nickname for mom.  Thankfully he was the only one who used it.) 

            So she was wise and funny, outgoing and bountiful.  And beautiful in every way a person can be beautiful. But most important of all—the reason we love her like we do—is because when all is said and done, she was awfully damn cute.


            One final thought from Mike.  She was also one heck of a mother.  In the fine tradition of Catholic Italian mothers everywhere, she was smartly manipulative with Patti and me and never cared a bit that we could see right through her guilt trips.   But her goals were always good.  She wanted to squeeze every drop of joy out of life—her life and our lives.  She loved every minute she had with Patti, Ginny, Jason, Carley, Ella and me.  Nobody ever did more for a parent than Patti did for mom.  She showed mom the world.  She was also mom’s main caregiver, with Ginny as the devoted backup.  Jason’s family would drive all the way from Beacon, New York, to see her.  And there was always an army of Murphys and Littons to fill her days.  As always, I was the spoiled one.  I just had to show up occasionally.  I want to thank everyone, including many not named here, who did so much to give mom the magnificent life she had.  You’ve got a big place in our family and in my heart.  Love, me.





My mother died this morning.  She’d been in a coma since Tuesday, when she apparently suffered a stroke and a heart attack.  Here’s the obituary that will appear in tomorrow’s Richmond paper:

Ann Lucas Hughes loved being part of a big family.  The Hughes family itself isn’t very large. Ann and Jim (aka “Mickey”) had two children—Patti and Mike.  Mike and his wife Ginny had two sons—Preston and Jason.  Jason and Carley have a rambunctious daughter, Ella. Ann and Jim’s siblings were the ones who really filled out the family tree.  Jim’s two sisters had 22 kids (no kidding)—the Duncans and the Orsinis. Two of mom’s sisters had 20—the Murphys and the Roaches. The Lucases, Kennedys, Bowles and Saulniers filled out the other branches of the family tree.  And then there were the honorary family members—the Littons, Patti’s retinue, the Bowluses, Mike’s entire company, an army of dedicated friends and many, many more.  Over the years, there was also an eclectic mix of people facing health or family or loneliness problems.  Ann welcomed them into her Forest Hill Avenue home.  Several lived with the Hugheses for years.

 Ann outlived Mickey and all of their siblings.  At her death Saturday at age 90, she was clearly the adored, funny, kind matriarch for four generations of a family that numbered in the hundreds.  She shared her stories with all of us.  Stories about being the first female draftsman at the state highway department.  Touching stories about how much she missed Mickey since he died in ’84.  But mostly self-deprecating funny stories about saying or doing the wrong things at the wrong time.

Patti was her mother’s best friend for the thirty years since Mickey died.  Patti’s best friend will now be Eloise.

The family will welcome friends at a visitation from 2 to 4 today (Sunday) at Bliley’s-Central, 3801 Augusta Avenue. A rosary service will follow at 4 p.m.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be held 11 a.m. Monday, Nov. 11, at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, 213 N. 25th St., followed by a reception in the church hall.  In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Westminster Canterbury or St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Richmond.




Is it possible that the world’s getting better?

It’s hard not to focus on the train wreck/sinkhole/inferno (choose your metaphor) that is Washington, D.C., these days.  Even when we point out to each other that there used to be fistfights under the capitol dome when congress was in session, it’s hard to imagine anything more stupid than the stuff that goes on there today.  Unless, of course, it’s the even more idiotic and evil genocides in Africa and the Middle East.

But think for a minute about the progress civilization’s made on so many fronts in the past few years. 

As recently as ten years ago, no baby boomer expected to see a black president in our lifetimes.  We have a long way to go on race relations, but think of the progress represented just by the fact that Obama, with a not-great first term, beat a rich, white, successful former governor for a second term.

On Tuesday in Virginia, a slightly liberal Democrat (certainly not the greatest candidate we’ve seen) will nevertheless defeat a Tea Party-lite right wing homophobe for Governor of Virginia.  On the same day, New York City will elect as mayor a white liberal who is married to a black woman who used to identify herself as a lesbian.  There are gay members of congress, gay mayors and gay bishops, some of whom are even “out” about it.  For all our faults—and despite the very visible and dangerous bigotry emanating from and directed toward religious fundamentalists–mankind as a whole seems to be becoming more accepting.  (I admit proudly to my leftward leanings, but my point here isn’t that liberals = good and conservatives = bad.  My point is that many Americans are voting for people they wouldn’t have considered voting for just eight or nine years ago.)

In The Better Angels Of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist and scientist Steven Pinker makes a convincing case that there’s an ongoing radical decline in per capita violence in the world.  It doesn’t seem that way, does it?  That’s because the bad news always pushes the good news off the front page.  But the facts are unmistakable.  There are fewer nation-vs.-nation wars.  Many are threatened, but few develop.  There’s been a disturbing little uptick in domestic violence in America over the past couple of months, but crime—especially major, violent crime—is down substantially.

And speaking of the news, journalism is still remarkably robust despite the dire forecasts I’ve been making over the past decade. The economic model that supported journalists and even made many of them rich for the past century has imploded.  That’s why I’ve assumed that expensive, in depth, investigative reporting was on its deathbed.  On the contrary, it actually seems more robust than ever.  Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Carlos Slim have thrown some financial lifelines to important mainstream newspapers.  They haven’t shown us long-term solutions, but they’ve at least given us more time to figure it out.  Whistleblowers have also helped, alerting the newsmedia to corruption in high places. I always knew that in addition to their much chronicled and bemoaned faults, online “amateur” journalists and dedicated “anonymous-style” hacktivists would have some positive impact on journalism, but I never dreamed they would complement so well the work of old school reporters, who undoubtedly hold their noses while following up on scoops from WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, Daily Kos, Gawker and your friendly neighborhood blogger.

It was once hard to believe that technological advances in the 20th century would surpass those of the 19th century.  They did.  And now we all believe the 21st century will be even more astonishing.  We usually blame cheap overseas workforces for the declining number of jobs in the U.S., but robots, computers and cellphones should get a bigger share of the blame.   Assisted by modern technology, average workers today can accomplish twice as much in a workday as they could 25 years ago.  Technology also makes it easier to work much more than 40 hours a week—and that’s what we’re doing.  If we really want to create more jobs, we should be putting a ceiling on the number of hours we allow workers to work.  Yes, there would be some short term inflation—people would still need to be paid a living wage—but it wouldn’t take long for those millions of newly employed workers to make a meaningful long-term contribution to the nation’s economy.  (It would also create meaningful jobs for millions of immigrants who would be greeted at the border by their new employers waving balloons and popping champagne corks.)

The other sciences are also contributing to civilization’s progress.  Life expectancy continues to climb around the world.  The only force keeping us from eradicating malaria is politics: medical scientists now know how to end it in three years.  In the U.S. we’re making significant strides in reducing the diseases that affect young people—heart disease, breast cancer, etc.  It looks like the really stubborn cancers—lung cancer, for example—will just be the way old people die.  But as they say, something’s got to get you.  (At least, we think something’s got to get you: don’t try to tell Dr. Kurzweil that.)

There are, of course, a number of intractable challenges ahead of us.  We definitely need to be specific in defining those problems.  For example, the problem isn’t education in America; it’s educating the poor.  The problem isn’t violence, it’s violence among the poor and it’s gun violence in particular.  The problem isn’t providing affordable healthcare.  The problem isn’t even providing universal affordable healthcare.  The problem is finding the national leadership that will stand up to the ludicrous demands of the insurance, hospital and pharmaceutical lobbies. (Dear Mr. Drugmaker:  If you find a cure for Parkinson’s, believe us, we want you to be a billionaire.  Heck, we want you to be a trillionaire.  Just don’t expect us to let you steal from the needy by playing your Patents Ponzi games.   Stop creating incentives that reward you for making baby steps instead of making genuine headway.)

Global warming isn’t going away.  Neither is the Tea Party or the NRA.  We will always have the greedy, the ignorant and the unethical nipping at our heels.  But mankind is actually solving many of its chronic nightmares and actually has the knowledge to solve many of the ones remaining.  This isn’t blind Pollyannaish optimism:  this is looking at the world without filters or blinders.  (It’s also a major challenge to society.  If the smart folks really do know how to solve major problems, why aren’t they doing more of it?  What obstacles have we set up?  Are our governmental and economic systems helping or hurting?  Dammit, who’s stepping up to the plate?)

We all believe it’s a moral obligation for our generation to leave the world a better place for the generations that follow.  I’ve worried about that.  I’ve worried that my granddaughter would grow up with an inferior education and fewer opportunities to do the things she wants to do with her life.  All of those worries haven’t gone away.  But I do think her prospects are better than I’ve imagined.

Who knows.  Maybe she’s the one who’s going to step up to the plate.


(Forgive the weird paragraphing and spacing in this and other posts:  it has to do with Word and WordPress not getting along with each other. When you’re in hospice care you hate having to learn new tricks.)


I told you he could write.

And I told you he was funny.  Here’s how John Adams introduced me at a One Club event.

The Truth About Mike Hughes

Mike Hughes is not what he seems.
To the world, he is a rare and talented writer and an even more skilled creative director, an icon of advertising. I’ve known the man for thirty-two years now and I love him dearly, but as he prepares to receive this singular and noble honor, there are things that must be said.
Mike’s name isn’t Mike.
It’s James. James is a perfectly good name. Let’s start there.
Mike’s writing is awful.
My first impression of him came from his handwriting, which is like that of a five year old. Mike left The Martin Agency for a few years. I arrived about a week after he left and was handed a pile of his notes and God-awful scribbles for a brochure he had started that I was going to finish. As I looked over his notes, I remember thinking to myself, “What’s wrong with this guy? Why does he suddenly start writing sentences vertically? By the way, there are some interesting ideas here.”
Mike has a big head.
It’s physically imposing. His shoulders are immensely broad to provide adequate support for this head. He doesn’t stand, he looms. His mother, a charming and lovely woman, thinks he is handsome. She is unique in this respect. We’ll leave it at that. A year or so after I met Mike’s handwriting, I met him in person. He was the creative director of a competing agency and our two agencies were collaborating on a campaign for the United Way. We were on a shoot for a television commercial Mike had written. He was in charge and had recruited this beautiful young woman to appear as volunteer talent. As she stood there and he loomed, someone mentioned to me that they were very much in love and were, in fact, engaged. I remember thinking to myself, “What the hell does a woman like that see in this guy? How did he get to be a creative director at his age? By the way, it’s a damn good commercial.”
Mike has no talent.
What he has is more regularly referred to as genius. Not a word to be taken lightly. If it was Edison who identified the ingredients of the elixir we call by that name, it was Hughes who perfected the chemistry: 30 percent inspiration and 170 percent perspiration. The inspiration comes from an astounding diet of current events, literature, business news, film, music, commentary and soft drinks. While I’ve only rarely seen him literally perspire, his work hours are legendary.
Of course, what happens during those hours is what separates Mike from the drudges. He listens more intently than most people are willing to listen. He requires himself to be more inventive in solving problems than most people require themselves to be. He allows himself less comfort and complacency than most people allow themselves. And he periodically shows us all how it’s done by writing breathtaking copy. All this creates a phenomenon that physicists might call bending time. The longer his hours, the faster the world spins for the rest of us. It’s disconcerting, but exhilarating.
Mike intimidates people.
He talks about the kind of advertising he wants them to do. He tells them he wants them to change the world. He insists that they think bigger than they’re able to think. Then, as they sit there unnerved, he tells them what he finds remarkable about them and their work and how knocked out he is by their talent. He admires the things they can do that he can’t do. They leave scared and proud, off to find a wall to walk through for him.
Mike has no taste.
The other four senses are fine, but his taste buds appear not to function: the only explanation for his preternatural ability to swallow a large plate of food with such stunning speed. When you inquire about the meal, he says it was great. He can’t possibly know that.
Mike doesn’t get it.
He has no idea what impact he has on people. When people are with him, they laugh more, learn more, feel more hopeful. They want to be with him and they want to be like him. When he gets notes of admiration from people, he always seems a little surprised. When he’s asked to talk about the effect he has on people, it’s as though a fish has been asked to describe water.
Mike isn’t nice.
He’s called that a lot. “He’s such a nice man.” “Nice” is a pale, diminutive shorthand we often use to describe someone whose character we only glimpse in casual encounters. On the surface we see only courtesy, attentiveness, appreciation. Those things are nice. But when you get to know Mike well, you stop calling him a nice man. You call him a good man, a loyal man, a loving man. The kind of extraordinary man you will meet once or twice in your life.
I’ve known Mike Hughes for thirty-two years. “Nice” is the last word I’d ever use to describe him.

John Adams, chairman, The Martin Agency.



We continue to be optimistic about her treatment.  In fact, the company that developed the trial program she’s on is going to use her as their “successful” case study at an upcoming conference.


The chemo is getting to her.  Her hair is thinning.  She tires easily and needs naps.  Sometimes she’s a little dizzy and shaky on her feet. 

Of course, this is Ginny we’re talking about: she’s still going to push herself too hard when she feels better.  Sigh.

Still (again)…

She’s the sexiest 71 year old with Hodgkin’s lymphoma the world has ever known.


A number of you have commented on my writing.  If you’re interested in my thoughts about my writing–and who wouldn’t be?–you might be interested in the new posting on my other, not-about-death blog.  Just FYI.


By almost any measure, last week was great.  Four days in Beacon with Carley, Jason and ELLA!  Three days in Manhattan, just Ginny and me, a couple of movies and (for me) a great lunch with Jon Kamen, who always has a greater number of interesting things going on than anyone I know.  (The Martin Agency is proud of its new Emmy; there’s actually an Oscar in Jon’s office.)

Even after selling our Riverside home, our beach house and (finally) my mom’s house, Ginny and I still have an embarrassment of property riches, but they’re all at least a little more modest.  We now have a little apartment in Chelsea and medium-sized apartments in Beacon and Richmond.  We love living in our three-city home.   And that’s what Ginny has created:  I feel completely at home in any of these places.  Beacon has quickly become my favorite of the apartments—and I think I’d feel that way about it even if the other Hugheses didn’t live downstairs. It’s a loft space with windows everywhere and a skylight on top. It’s bright and open and contemporary.  The furniture, most of which came from the beach house, is eclectic and inviting.

Our days in Beacon last week were a treat.  So were our days in Manhattan, even if neither of the movies we saw was as good as I hoped it would be.  (James Gandolfini is fabulous in Enough Said, but Captain Phillips is the better of the two flicks.) We love the experience of going to movies so much that we enjoyed both outings anyway.

Last week I was inspired by Ginny’s energy and joy in fixing up the Beacon place.  I was delighted by Ella’s weird Andy Kaufman-like humor. (I can’t describe it; you have to be there.) I was amazed at how many balls Jason and Carley are juggling every day.  I was energized by my lunch with Jon.

Invigorated, I started making plans–things I want to do, things that I can still physically do.

That might have been a mistake.  If you have plans, you’re not ready to die.  Most of the time I don’t think much about dying.  I go through my routines—meds, nebulizer, injections, quick hits of morphine, etc.—and I just think about them as that—routines.  I don’t see them as constant reminders of where I am in my life.  I don’t dwell on dying.  It’s not denial, it’s acceptance.  Acceptance is every bit as good as it’s cracked up to be.  You can have a good time in acceptance.

The things that do get me thinking about dying are the grody[1] things and in the last part of this week the grody things seemed especially vivid.

The elevator in Beacon won’t be installed for some time, so for now it’s three flights up to the apartment.  I have to stop on the third floor and just sit until I muster enough energy to climb the final stairs.  And when I make it up to four, I have to lie down for a while, inhaling big gulps of air.  So in Beacon once I’m upstairs I have to give some thought to going back downstairs.  I never even went to the bakery this week.  That’s grody.

It’s harder lately to finish even a small meal without feeling the blockage in my chest that sends tears to my eyes.  Grody.

It’s getting harder to finish a day without some of that damn phlegm climbing up into my mouth.  (I don’t think Jon noticed it, but for a minute at our lunch, I thought I might throw up.  Helayne Spivack can tell him what that’s like:  she was with Ginny and me at Morton’s steakhouse when I had my worse episode.)  Especially grody.

I have trouble walking four blocks[2] to the movie theater.  I have to stop at least once to catch my breath.  Grody.  (I did laugh when I realized I was in front of one of Chelsea’s gay men’s clubs doing some heavy breathing.  Passers-by probably just thought the old guy couldn’t take the excitement.)

And sometimes I just feel grody.

There are other, less grody but still unmistakable, reminders of my condition. I can get very tired very fast—even if I’m not doing anything.  Sometimes my hands are so shaky I have trouble opening the medicine containers.  It’s hard to pick up the tiles when Ginny and I are playing our marathon Bananagram games.[3]  When these symptoms come in combination with the others, I get a little down.  Maybe more than a little.

I move from acceptance to frustration.  When I’m frustrated, it’s harder to enjoy the things that I can still do most of the time (writing, reading, tv, good conversations with friends, family time, movies etc.) because my mind’s stuck either on the things I can’t do or on wondering if this is really a good time to start reading, writing, watching tv, going down the stairs, etc.  I tell myself just do it—and stop when you have to stop.  But “when I have to stop” means “when one of the grody symptoms raises its ugly head.”  And then I’m back in that damn dying head game.  I already cancel about half my visits with friends in NYC and Richmond because of the way I feel a few hours before we get together. Now I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t even try to meet people for lunch or dinner.

Enough of the damn self-pity.  I hope I’ve made it clear in my many other posts that I really love my life in the extra innings.  I’m doing much better right now. (Look:  I’m writing!) And six days out of seven are spent not in frustration but in acceptance and even appreciation.  This week is going to be great. I have no reason to whine.

So I’ll stop here for now.  After all, I’ve got things to do.

[1] Some dictionaries don’t include “grody.”  It means gross or disgusting.  Which means it’s perfect for this post. (The word is also big with Ella, who loves to gross me out.  “Look what’s in my mouth, Mickey.”  When I tell her something’s grody she feels like she’s hit a home run.  She runs to tell Ginny, “Mickey thinks this is grody!”)

[2] And these are the short uptown blocks, not the long cross- towners.

[3] By the way, I’m getting sick of these Bananagram games, but I haven’t found anything else that takes my mind off the way I feel when I’m feeling bad.  I don’t know how Ginny stands it.  She’s playing even though she doesn’t “need” it the way I do.  What a trooper.  (Tell the truth:  you’re getting tired of even reading about these damn games, aren’t you?)

The nasty and the nice.

A number of people have commented on the fact that the comments on my blogs have been so universally positive.  They wonder if I’ve blocked out the nasty ones—the ones typically posted anonymously.  I have received one or two nasty notes on the agency’s “We love Mike” site (http://wealllovemike.martinagency.com), but except for goofy spams, I’ve approved every single message that’s come to the blogs–even the ones I don’t quite understand.  Of course, even anonymous hate-mailers might think twice before dumping too much venom on a cancer patient. That doesn’t mean I’m universally loved. 

In various places on the worldwide web I’ve been called a dinosaur (not necessarily inaccurately) and overrated (I’d agree.)   I’ve been accused of hollowing out the company’s piggy bank by flying around making personal trips on “the corporate jet.”  That’s not true.  (And for the record, the longstanding rumor that The Martin Agency has a corporate jet isn’t true either.) For the last couple of years I’m much more likely to travel by train.  In coach.  With a senior discount.  Ask my wife:  I’m cheap.  (Since my pulmonary embolism, I am under doctor’s orders to fly business class when I am on a plane.  Do you have any idea how few flights out of Richmond even have a first class section these days?)

Lately, on one of the ad industry’s many blogs, there’s been a particularly rancorous stream of comments about a Martin Agency campaign that some folks just don’t like.  Not liking a campaign is fine, of course; there have been many Martin Agency campaigns I didn’t like.  (Although not too many lately.  Overall, the work’s getting better.)  I can understand not liking a commercial, but one commenter takes it a step further:“I don’t think people should say mean things about Martin. Our president is a humble man who has been dying for 20 short years and blogs about it on two blogs and asks nothing for his kindness but a big paycheck and everyone’s unending sympathy and praise. That’s it.”  (OK, so maybe these commenters will dump on a cancer patient.)

How much truth is in that cheap shot?  I won’t go into the paycheck thing except to point out that everyone I know at least asks for a big paycheck.   (And you don’t have to be Mick Jagger to know you can’t always get what you want.)  The bigger question is, with my blogs am I asking for “unending sympathy and praise”?

My conscience is clear that in the beginning, at least, my “death and dying” blog was an attempt to reduce the amount of pro-active emailing I was doing to keep friends and coworkers up to date on my health.  Those reports were in response to a promise I’d made to people when I had no idea this would go on for so long.  With the blog, they could check in when and if they were interested.  My news wouldn’t be “pushed” to anyone.  Inspired partly by Christopher Hitchens’ magnificent writing about his last years, I wrote about more than just the scans and prognoses.  I wrote about how I was feeling.  The blog started attracting hundreds and some days even thousands of readers.  The feedback was beyond complimentary.  And I liked it.  I really liked it.

Liking it isn’t quite the same as believing it.  I am embarrassingly needy.  I need affirmation about almost anything I do.  If I give a speech, I’m barely off the stage before I’m asking everyone, “Was that OK?  Did I make sense?”  I post something on my blogs and wait eagerly for a response.  Of course, like neurotics everywhere, I only believe the negative feedback.  Otherwise I’m convinced people are just being nice.  Especially now that they know I’m dying. That’s crazy, of course.  I get more feedback than anyone I know—and 99% of it is positive.  (90% of it is over-the-top positive, which naturally fuels my suspicions.)  Just last week my sister was pointing out to me how strange it is that I have so many people saying so many nice things about me—but I don’t believe any of it.

I now have some news about me that I’m free to share—but I feel funny doing it.  I’m afraid it’ll just be an ego-trip.  Or I’m afraid you’ll think that I believe I’m somehow special.  (Is denying an ego-trip an ego-trip?)

Well, here’s the news:  I’ve just been voted into the American Advertising Foundation’s Advertising Hall of Fame.  It’s a big deal in our business and I am appropriately humbled.

I hope everyone knows that I’m not the only one being honored with this award.  All my life I’ve been surrounded by hall of fame caliber people.  (That’s true in my home and at the office. There should be halls of fame for sons and halls of fame for wives—Jason and Ginny would be locks.)

My industry honors are really honors for all those people I’ve worked with over the years.  They created the much-admired Martin Agency culture.  They created the work that’s won so many awards and had such a big impact on popular culture.  They created the perception that maybe the president of this company should be honored.  I’m just the guy who gets to pick up the trophy.  (Of course, that means I must still be among the living when the prizes are handed out next year at the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom.)

Here’s what I do believe about myself:  I’m nowhere near as good a writer as my reputation would have you believe. I’m nowhere near as good a creative director.  I’m nowhere near as good a friend. I love good ideas.  I love seeing them come to life:  I wish I were better at making them happen.  I’m extremely competitive in a narrow range of activities.  I hate losing new business competitions or board games. I’m a gracious, but not a good loser.  I play by the rules.  (I do think having this reputation for being honest has helped me a lot.  I’m not a saint:  I’ve been known to break some speed limits and early in my career we worried more about the letter of the law than the spirit of the law when we entered some advertising award shows.)  I try hard to give credit where it’s due.  I work long and hard, but not fast or efficiently.  I am often too ready to compromise. I’m less cynical than many of my advertising brethren.  Especially since I received my cancer diagnosis, I am much more candid about my feelings:  I point out to anyone who’ll listen that I do work I love with people I love.  I think my jokes are funnier than they’re given credit for being:  I’m always the last one still laughing at my witticisms. I have been extraordinarily lucky in just about every part of my life.

The One Show Creative Hall of Fame is the creative community’s highest honor.  I’m still stunned that I was among the first 50 people in the history of the business to make that roster.  Now comes the AAF honor.  The AAF Advertising Hall of Fame includes the biggest names in the entire industry—marketers, agency heads, account people, media people, creative people, etc.  I’ve just been shown some of the fabulous letters written in support of my nomination by some fabulous people.  And I just saw Joe Alexander’s notes for the presentation he made to the AAF judges.  When I say I don’t believe the wonderful things they say about me, it’s not that I think they aren’t expressing their true feelings.  I know they’re very sincere.  I just don’t understand how they could feel those things about me.

Do I love reading these things?  Wouldn’t you? Am I asking for your sympathy?  Nah.  Why would anyone have sympathy for one of the world’s luckiest people?  Am I looking for praise?  Tough question.  But if you give it to me, don’t be surprised if I look a little skeptical.   My sister’s probably right that only an idiot would doubt so many good people. 




Look into my eyes.

About a week ago, I started seeing this strange translucent gray horizontal line across my field of vision.  It felt like there was a hair running across my eyeballs.  I mentioned it to my NYC hospice nurse yesterday, who called my NYC hospice doctor.  It was probably nothing, they said, but I should see an ophthalmologist asap.  Ginny was able to get me an appointment today.

The news was all good.  It’s probably just an unusual floater and it’ll probably be gone in a couple of weeks.  It’s extremely unlikely that my brain tumors have anything to do with it.

The doctor noticed that I’d had a torn retina in the distant past (I never knew that) and that my body seemed to be developing the scar tissue that will take care of that tear for the foreseeable future.  What’s surprising about that, is that with all I’ve been through healthwise and “chemowise,” I shouldn’t have that good an immune system.  And yet it seems to be doing a good job, at least in this one area.  (The doctor was also just generally blown away by how healthy I looked for a hospice patient in my condition.  I get that a lot, but it’s especially good when I get it from a doctor.) 

As I can plainly see, I continue to be the world’s luckiest hospice patient.

The world’s luckiest hospice patient (WLHP) also has the world’s best wife.  We’ve been driving each other crazy the last couple of days.  She can’t stand it when I worry about her.  (“I’m perfectly fine,” says the 71-year-old Hodgkin’s Lymphoma patient.)  And she can’t stand it that the 65-year-old lung cancer patient is so scatterbrained–even though the patient has been that way for the duration of our 39 years together.  (A fact she points out regularly.)  Ah, young love. 

After spending a couple of weeks with us, my sister Patti called one of her best friends yesterday to share her insight: “You and I did exactly the right thing,” she said.  “We didn’t get married and we didn’t have kids. Married life is exhausting.”

Reminds me what my mother used to say:  “Retirement means more husband and less money.”

The WLHP has a wife who cares, a sister who helps and a mother who’s funny.  What could be better than that?



An old friend is worried about his son who recently started smoking.  Although I barely know the son, I do know what my friend’s feeling.  It’s incredibly frustrating to see your kids do something stupid–and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.  Kids dig in with real gusto when they’re debating their parents about something like this.  I was asked to write the young man a note.  I hope it helps him and I’m posting it here with only small changes on the chance that maybe it could help someone else. 

Dear                  ,
We’ve met once or twice over the years.  I worked with your mom and dad a long time ago at The Martin Agency in Richmond.  If you think your dad’s crazy now, you should have seen him then.

Of course, being crazy is one of the privileges of being young.  Hell, it might even be one of the obligations of being young.  If I could live some of my early years over again, I guarantee I’d be at least a little crazier than I was.

But I hope I wouldn’t have been stupider.  There’s a difference we all understand between crazy and stupid.  Crazy is a tattoo.  Stupid is a cigarette.  I personally don’t understand why anyone would get a tattoo; I bet most of our tattooed brothers and sisters regret the decision they made back when they were young (crazy) and drunk (crazy.) But a tattoo is a crazy they can live with.

My dad started smoking in the pre World War II days when all the young guys were doing it.  Three packs a day.  As much as he loved the taste of the Camels and Kents he smoked, he came to hate the habit.  It made him quit the sport he loved (tennis) and it undoubtedly hastened his death in the mid ’80s.  He tried to quit many times.  But a 3-pack-a-day habit developed over many years doesn’t go away easily.

He didn’t live to know that  the second-hand smoke he left in his wake was almost certainly a big reason his only son—a lifelong nonsmoker—developed lung cancer.  I’ve had radical surgery to remove a lung.  I’ve been through seven or eight different kinds of chemotherapy programs—half of which kept me sick most of the time.  A collapsed lung sent me to the hospital for a week.  I’ve lived through three or four different radiation programs.  I’ve been hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism.  I’ve spent an entire summer in an American Cancer Society Hope Lodge while undergoing various treatments.  I’ve been told that my cancer has spread to my pancreas.  To my liver.  To my brain. I take 14 or 15 doses of medicine every morning, mostly pills, but also injections and creams.  I take half that many again at night.  And  about a half a dozen during the day.  Three times a day I do a horrible tasting, 12-minute nebulizer breathing routine.  I spend almost all my time hooked up to an oxygen machine.  I’m going to see an ophthalmologist in a couple hours because my vision’s gotten a little weird lately.

I’ve had to live with the public humiliations and indignities that go with this serious disease. There have been times when I can’t allow myself to go too far away from the bathroom. A couple of times I’ve coughed up a little blood.  My hands shake sometimes;  my wife or my sister have had to cut up food for me a couple of times.  One night while dining with friends at a very nice restaurant I repeatedly threw up some strange kind of phlegm on my plateful of food.  I’ve listened to the lies friends told me about how good I look when my hair has thinned away and my face has puffed up.  I’ve found out too late at times that I’m not strong enough to climb even one or two stairs.   I’ve given up a number of things I loved:  diving, skiing, foreign travel.  I often cancel visits with friends because I’m just not up to it.

Several times I’ve had to tell my wife and my sons the statistics for how long I have before I would be expected to die.  I’ve had to say goodby to family and friends I thought I’d never see again.  Lately, it’s become hard to eat many solid foods:  my chest feels clogged, my breathing becomes labored, my eyes water uncontrollably.

All that said, I know how lucky I am.  While I often feel sickly and uncomfortable, I’ve rarely felt much pain.  And, amazingly and against all odds, even though I’ve had lung cancer for at least 18 years, I’m still alive.  I don’t usually feel great, but I’m still able to love my life.  And I do.

Increasing your odds of getting cancer is stupid.  When my dad’s generation of young men—the “greatest generation”–started smoking, they didn’t know what we know now.  They thought smoking made them look more sophisticated, more mature.  When young people start smoking now, they just look young and stupid.  That’s what everyone says.  “Look at those kids lighting up.”  “Oh, they’re so young.”  “So stupid.”

The only good news I have for you right now is this:  recent research confirms that it’s easier to quit the habit now, when it’s still relatively new.  Quit.  Don’t just try to quit, quit.  Make your mom or dad a serious $1000 bet that you won’t smoke at all for the next year.  Do something crazy a year from now with the money you win.  Just don’t do anything stupid.

You don’t really know me, but I really care about what you do here.  If you do quit now—and stay off the tobacco for a year—my wife Ginny and I will also give you  $1000 to go crazy with.  She’s cc’d here because you might have to give her the good news about the money she owes you after I’m gone.  Every day is a gift for me now; cancer is a murderous bitch.

Please let me know your decision.


Afterword:    I got a note from WordPress that I apparently hit the “Liked” button on this posting. “You’re so vain,” the note said.  “You probably think this posting’s about you.” 


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