Book Review

Point of Contact

Jay Lemke
Randy Pausch
Wednesday, January 7th 2009
Jan/Feb 2009

Before dying of pancreatic cancer in July 2008, Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch lit the world on fire by talking about death. During his "Last Lecture" on campus, he implored friends and colleagues to follow their childhood dreams as he intimately shared his life, which had but a few months remaining. Through the best-selling book of the same name, America became fascinated with the smart, articulate, and empathetic young man who spoke of his impending demise with an openness and honesty rarely seen.

Indeed, Pausch gives voice to something we all know and try to avoid: death is coming for us all. Though the advice given in The Last Lecture can be overly simplistic, the book has many charms, as certainly Pausch had himself. In Pausch, you discover someone who desperately wanted to live without getting caught in the minutia and trivialities of life. And it is here that a reader trying to do the same can find encouragement.

At 46, Pausch was a star in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon, and was looking forward to many more bright days in academia. He was married to the woman of his dreams and had three lovely children, all under the age of five. He then learns of his cancer-an aggressive form that offered little chance of a natural life span.

As the book begins, we learn that Pausch doesn't always play by the rules-and that he believed in facing challenges head on. While waiting in the doctor's office, he and his wife Jai sneak a look at his latest health records:

"Shall we have a look-see," I said to Jai. I felt no qualms at all about what I was about to do. After all, these were my records. I clicked around and found my blood-work report. There were 30 obscure blood values, but I knew the one I was looking for: CA 19-9-the tumor marker. When I found it, the number was a horrifying 208. A normal value is under 37. I studied it for just a second. "It's over," I said to Jai. "My goose is cooked." (59-60)

The Last Lecture is comprised of many short chapters-basic snapshots of key moments in Pausch's life he hopes will provide insight into our own. As he tells about growing up with parents who encouraged him to dream, you get a picture of a man who knew himself and wanted others to follow their goals.

He tells about how he fulfilled his childhood dream of being an astronaut when he arranged for his students to conduct experiments on NASA's "Weightless Wonder" airplane-and then, through persistence and a bit of harmless chicanery, got himself on the plane as well.

Indeed, Pausch tells of many dreams he fulfilled, from writing an article for World Book Encyclopedia to working with Imagineers at Disneyland to building a virtual reality Starship Enterprise, complete with a real William Shatner. Sometimes, it is tempting to view these stories as braggadocio, but it is clear Pausch tells them to inspire others.

At times, though, The Last Lecture can be tiring, as his cheerleading threatens to become a series of clichs. He writes, for example, "Brick walls are there for a reason: They give us a chance to show how badly we want something" (79); "Ask yourself: Are you spending your time on the right things?" (108); "Complaining does not work as a strategy" (139); "Don't obsess over what people think" (141); "Am I a fun-loving Tigger or a sad-sack Eeyore?" (180).

At other points, however, Pausch comes close to lessons found within Scripture. He writes prophetically on the healing power of truth, as well as forgiveness:

If you've done something wrong in your dealings with another person, it's as if there's an infection in your relationships. A good apology is like an antibiotic; a bad apology is like rubbing salt in the wound. (161)

But it is the final few chapters of The Last Lecture that are the most poignant. Pausch lets us know how painful it is to die as he leaves behind his wife and children. For a reader evaluating one's own close relationships, this will likely be one of the more emotional sections of the book.

When I cry in the shower, I'm not usually thinking, "I won't get to see them do this." Or "I won't get to see them do that." I'm thinking about the kids not having a father. (191)

Jai and I work hard at our marriage. We've gotten so much better at communicating, at sensing each other's needs and strengths, and at finding more things to love about each other. So it saddens us that we won't get to experience this richness in our marriage for the next thirty or forty years. (202)

In the end, while The Last Lecture does indeed contain many good life lessons and can be very moving, it may also leave the discerning reader with a sense of wanting. After getting to know, enjoy, and cheer for Randy Pausch, there is little in the book that directly speaks to the ultimate meaning of life. What happens after you die? Why are we on this earth? Even if you live perfectly, following your dreams, what difference does it make from an eternal perspective?

Pausch, a Unitarian Universalist, notes that he intentionally avoided a discussion of religious matters because he wanted to dwell on the "universal principals that apply to all faiths." For the purposes of the book, this is a useful strategy, though at times an unfortunate one. We do get a clear view of what Pausch thinks can make this particular life a success. Christians, however, will want to recall Paul's words to the church in Corinth, considering that life is more than just a succession of days on this planet: "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all."

Wednesday, January 7th 2009

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