Category Archives: Tributes

R.I.P. Susan Wirth (1946 – 2017)

I am mortified by the news of the unexpected death of Susan Wirth, who was widely known in the world of fountain pen aficionados and collectors.

I met her at the Los Angeles International Pen show and looked forward to seeing her again every year. We never got to talk much (she was always very busy) but it was fun seeing her in action: just being Susan Wirth, the colorful personality she was.

Over the years, I’ve brought many newcomers to the pen show – people who didn’t know anything about pens, inks and papers, and who were both impressed and confused by the frenzied activity and plethora of displays. These poor souls who were too confounded to see the trees in the forest, I always sent to Susan.

With anyone interested in pens, Susan had the patience of an angel. She didn’t mind if people just looked, touched and tried, or asked uninformed questions. In fact, she encouraged it. Best of all, she had the gift of putting intimidated newbies at ease. Her enthusiasm was infectious and her encouragement and advice turned hesitant rookies into converts. Nothing seems to have made her happier than knowing she had spread the love of pens and manual writing to yet another person, or as the put it on her web site: “Specializing in helping people find pens that enhance their writing”.

Susan never pressured anyone to buy from her table, nor did she talk people into particular pens or nibs. Rather, she was a matchmaker, always on a quest to find the pen most fitting for a person’s hands and needs. If she didn’t have it, she was always willing to offer advice on where else that perfect, yet elusive match could possibly be found. To her, locating the right pen was like a treasure hunt, and she took genuine pleasure from being part of it. On many occasions, she even walked prospective buyers to another seller’s table and made the introduction.

Susan was a down-to-earth, common sense person. Much of the advice she gave to beginners makes perfect sense, but is nevertheless often not followed even by seasoned buyers: when trying out a pen, do extensive writing tests in a natural writing position – not while standing and bending over. And try writing what you normally write – not just names and frequently used phrases.

Susan wasn’t afraid to get ink on her fingers and in fact wore it as a badge of honor. On occasion, she gregariously referred to herself as “the Queen of Ink”.

I will miss her.


The June 2017 issue of Pen World magazine (at which I serve as Contributing Editor) will have more coverage. Meanwhile, here is the obituary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

 

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R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy (1931- 2015)

I had a dire feeling when Leonard Nimoy was taken to a nearby hospital on February 19, suffering from chest pain. (He had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease several years earlier, which he attributed to smoking earlier in his life). This morning I woke up to the sad news that Mr. Nimoy had died at his home.

The character Mr. Nimoy played so well that everyone else attempting it seems like a joke to me, “Mr. Spock” was one of the heroes of my teenage years. At the time, I was struggling to find a workable and somewhat sane balance between my interests in science and rational thought on the one hand, and my passions for art and creativity drawing me into the opposite direction at the same time. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do with my life.

As a character, Spock appealed to me not only because he was fighting the same inner conflicts while inhabiting a world he found troublesome to relate to — a world populated by irrational, perplexing, immature, superfluous and barbarian humans, who were both irritating and fascinating at the same time.

Mr. Spock: “May I point out that I had an opportunity to observe your counterparts quite closely. They were brutal, savage, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous – in every way, splendid examples of homo sapiens. I found them quite … refreshing.” Captain Kirk (to Dr. McCoy): “I’m not sure, but I think we’ve been insulted.”

Spock also inspired me to reflect deeply about the differences between the emotional and the rational mind, and on the roles both aspects play in human existence. In time, this led me to the study of existentialismbudō, pantheism and pandeism.

Eventually, I arrived at the conclusion that the conflict between reason and emotion is a vital part of human existence. It forms a system of checks and balances. Only the right, harmonious balance between these two aspects of the human mind, heart and soul form a complete and content human being reaching its full potential.

Mr. Spock: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical … but it is often true.”

Many years later, Mr. Nimoy graciously agreed to meet me in person. I wanted to discuss a project I had come up with for the reopening of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. (The facility was closed for renovations from 2002 to 2006, and Mr. Nimoy was a fervent supporter and donor. Today, the observatory’s Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater is named after him).

Our meeting took place at a synagogue in Hollywood, and I was probably as nervous as a schoolboy meeting his favorite superhero. I know Mr. Nimoy would not have appreciated my sentiments, but to me it seemed like meeting Mr. Spock in person.

Mr. Spock: “In critical moments, men sometimes see exactly what they wish to see.”

As far as I could tell, Mr. Nimoy liked the idea I was pitching, but of course he may just have been polite. In the end, it didn’t go anywhere, as it became clear that coming from an outsider without political connections, the complex hierarchies of Los Angeles city politics and its bureaucracy would have made it all but impossible to execute. (I was clearly too naive about politics back then).

What else remains there to be said? “Warp speed ahead, Mr. Spock?”. No. Rather: “Thank you, Mr. Nimoy. You did so much more than playing a fictional character on TV and in the movies.”

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R.I.P. L. Stephen Coles, M.D., PhD (1941 – 2014)

LSCWhat is the maximum human lifespan? Why do we age? What are the causes and their mechanisms? Why do humans tend to live longer than most other mammals? Do we have a built-in “expiration date” – perhaps for the benefit of the species? Can the aging mechanism be delayed or entirely deactivated leading to eternal life?

These and the related questions were what fascinated Dr. L. Stephen Coles, who in 1990 founded the  Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group, a global network of researchers and parties intrigued by the boundaries of the human life span. Among the group’s primary work is the cataloguing, tracking and studying of so-called “supercentenarians” – people who live past the age of 110. (As of this writing, there are only 76 such humans verified to be living on this planet. 74 of them are women).

I became intrigued with this subject after reading about Dr. Coles’ work in this Los Angeles Times article in 2004. So I got in touch with him and found a fascinating researcher, inspiring person and mentor.

stephen-coles-md

Subsequently, I wrote a long-form magazine article on the subject, which was published in a German science magazine. Dr. Coles was the most important and primary source for it. During the many hours we spent talking, I learned to appreciate not only his professional knowledge, but also his humor, gregarious personality and boundless enthusiasm for the hope that science would, very soon, make it possible for humans to live exceedingly longer than today.

Steve was a passionate proponent of evidence-based science and rational thought, for the prosperity of all mankind. Sadly, he didn’t get to benefit from the future scientific breakthroughs he was hoping for. I was shocked when shortly after Christmas of 2012, there came an e-mail announcing this Steve’s holidays had been rather miserable.

“I am sad to report that on Christmas Eve (two days ago), I received the
horrible diagnosis of ‘adenocarcinoma of the head of the pancreas’,” the message read. “BTW, this is the same form of cancer that Steve Jobs CEO of Apple Computer had before he passed away when money was no object. Although I knew that something was wrong with my body for the last three weeks (acute onset of symptoms with the occult tumor possibly growing subclinically for two years or more with no manifestation of its presence until it grew large enough to screw up my internal plumbing by its  sheer volume [about the size of a plum])”.

Knowing that pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of all carcinomas, the first thing that came to my mind was obvious. It was really crushing.

Of course Steve was perfectly aware of his low odds. He went on writing, “Even in the best of all possible worlds, the mortality statistics after five years of chemo therapy are not great (around 50 percent). Of course, in the event of metastases, one’s life post chemotherapy/radiotherapy are significantly shortened proportionally.”

And unfortunately, there was metastasis in the liver.

Various attempts were made – first surgery (the “Whipple Procedure“), then various chemotherapy, as well as some experimental procedures involving the growth of tumor-specific cells in the laboratory.

While the procedures prolonged Steve’s life to the limits of the statistical prognosis range, they failed in in the end.

When this final message on Oct. 9, 2014, we all knew this was it. “Update on Health Status,” it said. “In order to be eligible for more services, last week I was placed on hospice care at home.  Now that I have been taken off taxotere, some measures of health have improved.  However, my eligibility for the ECLIPSE clinical trial has been placed on hold pending a decrease in frailty.”

Steve passed away on December 3, 2014, a few weeks short of living for two years after his diagnosis.

But the story does not end here. A few days before his death, Steve must have gone on his life’s final journey: From Los Angeles to Scottsdale, Arizona. Located there is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation – coincidentally also an organization which intrigues me, and about which I have also reported in detail.

Alcor is the leader in “cryonics”. This is an experimental technology which seeks to preserve human bodies through a procedure resulting in suspension of human tissues in liquid nitrogen, at extremely low temperatures, in perpetuity. The hope is that one day in the future, biotechnology will exist to revive these cryogenically “suspended” human bodies, restore them to life by the use of sophisticated nanotechnology, and also deal with whatever the cause of death was.

Depending on the preferences of the customer, either the entire body, the head or just the brain may be frozen (on the theory that once biotechnology has progressed far enough, it should also be possible to either create a new body, or transfer the brain’s content into a computer system).

I am not at all surprised that Steve was also intrigued by the idea and made arrangements to implement this option as a last resort.

And so, Steve’s brain will come to rest in a dewar of liquid nitrogen. Perhaps, one day, he might live again. And he has reportedly made a reservation to attend his colleague Johnny Adams’ 100th birthday party. In the year of 2049.

I will miss him.

stephen_coles_headshot

L. Stephen Coles on Wikipedia

Gerontology Research Group

Obituary in the Los Angeles Times

 

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Keiko Fukuda, 1913 – 2013

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“Tsuyoko, Yasashiku, Utsukushiku” (Be gentle, kind, and beautiful, yet firm and strong, in body, mind and spirit). – Keiko Fukuda, Judo Sensei. Taught classes until the age of 99.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keiko_Fukuda

 

 

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