Thoughts on Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist

One of my favorite sayings is, “I’m not a pessimist, I’m an experienced optimist.” (ha ha)

My book club read Michael J. Fox’s book for May of this year. Everyone seemed to like it.  Dale, our ‘remote’ participant, commented a couple times that it was books like this one that made him appreciate our club the most, in that it was a book he would never have picked out and read himself, but – due to   our club’s selection procedure – he was “forced” to read it and ended up really liking it.  (Part of our club’s original ‘stated mission’ was for our members to be willing to read outside our normal genre.) Another “cool” thing about our club (that I bring up frequently at meetings) is how, now that we’ve read a fair number of books, we are now often able to relate our current selection to other books the club has read.  My reference point for this one was the book, The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch.

Unlike millions of others, my reactions to The Last Lecture were predominantly negative.  First of all I admit this book has a lot of useful “little bits of wisdom” and some that I will remember and certainly will find their way into my conversations.  And the subject matter is quite compelling and thought-provoking (wasn’t everyone else wondering, “what would I do if I knew I only had six months to live?”).  But I didn’t like this book.  It was quite depressing, and I suspect that – if I had know Randy Pausch in person – I wouldn’t like him very much, either.  I’ve met “his type” before.  I found an underlying tone of ‘martyrdom’ to his writing, and some of the stories I found a little suspect or revealing.
He seems obsessed with convincing us that, although he was dealt a hand he is certain to lose, he is ‘fine with it’ – I think it’s his way of trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  “See what a great person I am, even though I’m dying?”  I didn’t find that particularly edifying as a reader.  One of my fellow book club members pointed out that, since I had never faced a situation like that, I shouldn’t be too harsh in how another person would handle it.  Fair enough, but having now both read Pausch’s book and Fox’s book, I feel even more negatively about the former.

On the other hand, Michael J. Fox’s misfortune has become more of a shared experience for him.  His establishment of a foundation to raise money for research Parkinson’s Disease is helping not only him but all the other sufferers of this affliction.  Not only that, his advocacy of easing restrictions on stem cell research benefited not just his fellow PD sufferers, but many others with conditions not directly related to PD.  Fox was humble.  Fox rejects the idea of his being a ‘hero’: “I agree that if I took on the condition and everything that comes with it just to be an advocate on behalf of others so afflicted, well then yeah, that would be historically heroic.  But in a way, I am just rolling with the punches.”

One other incident this book recalled to my mind was Rush Limbaugh’s callous mocking of Fox’s disease.  Maybe Fox can take solace in the fact that it’s “not personal” – mocking is what Limbaugh does.  I’ve listened to him often enough to realize that is a common theme, which I personally do not find very constructive.  Perhaps it is the fact that his audience is likely to be almost 100% the ‘already converted’ – i.e. he’s preaching to the choir.  They already agree with him, so why not just mock the enemy to entertain ourselves? Early in the book, my memory began to stir, thinking, “didn’t Rush Limbaugh make fun of Fox’s political commercial where he is visibly shaking from the symptoms of PD.  Limbaugh assumed Fox is exaggerating for effect and sympathy, or had purposefully avoided taking his medicine so that the effects of PD would be ’exaggerated.’  This was not the case, but the book points out that “wouldn’t it be more honest to let the viewers/voters see the symptoms of this disease in their unmitigated form?”  I’ve never been a fan of Limbaugh anyway, but I found him despicable in this instance.

I thought Randy Pausch’s character was somewhat revealed earlier in his book when he relates a story of how his boss insists he (Randy) be reachable during  his honeymoon and, even though Pausch eventually agrees, he does it such a way that he demonstrates himself to be a smart ass. His pre-recorded answering machine message: “Hi, this is Randy.  I waited until I was thirty-nine to get married, so my wife and I are going away for a month.  I hope you don’t have a problem with that, but my boss does.  Apparently, I have to be reachable.” I then gave the name of Jai’s parents and the city where they live (why not their number, jerk? Oh, that‘s right, you‘re ‘punishing’ them for insisting on reaching you- my parenthetical). “If you call directory assistance, you can get their number.  And then, if you can convince my new in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter’s honeymoon, they have our number.”  This was the last straw for me while reading this book.  Conclusion: this guy is a jerk – a jerk with talent, but that’s no excuse.  He called this “the perfect phone message”  He’s PROUD of it.

How we deal with adversity says a lot about us. How Fox dealt with his made me admire him; how Pausch dealt with his made me shake my head.  I guess I should also ask myself – are my reactions influenced because I almost feel like I know Michael J. Fox because of his endearing portrayals of  “Alex Keaton” or “Marty McFly?”  Perhaps…

Have you read either of these books?  What were your reactions?  Am I the only one who didn’t like The Last Lecture?


  1. Dale Barthauer said,

    June 22, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    I’ve been watching episodes of Family Ties from the library. I had forgotten how good of a sitcom that was. And what a great character Alex P. Keaton was!


  2. Rosyst said,

    May 26, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Maybe, maybe not. Personally, I loved ‘The last lecture,’ because it was real. He’s an ‘arrogant smartypants’, and he acknowledges it, which is a lot more than I can say for SOME people, myself included. Plus, I have a thing for ‘smart-arses’ as you so eloquently put it.

    Yeah, probably influenced. I’m a computer-programming dabbler (admittedly, I also loved ‘Back to the future’ but I haven’t yet Fox’s book) so…

    I have to say though, thanks for having an honest review that acknowledged both sides of the coin. SO refreshing!


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