Being Remembered and Forgotten
Wait, wait. Stop! Look!—I said loudly as she raised her arms and coffee cup in excitement.
With the napkin she still held in that hand, and the outstretched fingers of her other hand above her head, she was casting a fascinating long shadow across the courtyard floor of the cafe—seeming to be holding a torch and wearing a spiked crown.
Hah!—she laughed aloud—I look like Lady Liberty.
Regarding the Upcoming Novel by Zĕna Kōan
I was having tea with author Zĕna Kōan [“Shoegum Gumption”] at the Smak Cmak Cafe on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Smak (Cмак in cyrillic) translates to “Taste”.
This neighborhood—where she has lived most of her life and I used to visit regularly for its vibrant nightlife—still retains these small enclaves dipped in the Ukrainian culture that thrived here in the 1950s and 1960s.
We were sitting outdoors enjoying a favorite dessert—kutia (honey-drenched wheat and poppyseed pudding) and coffee.
Here’s to the end of the pandemic—Zĕna was saying—when I had interrupted her to point out the shadow.
It looks like I am going to make it after all, she then went on to say, and they won’t be able to drive that dramatic nail—“died from COVID-19”—into my obituary. Alas, quite a few famous people will forever have that stigmatic honorary medal hanging over their legacies. Celebrity dies of celebrity virus.
Prior to this Zĕna and I had not talked for over a year—since January 2020—when we had run into each other at Joe’s Pizza. At that time she had delightedly recounted to me that someone had written quite an extensive review of her nonexistant meta-mystery book, “No Chaser”.
Fictional review of fictional writer’s fictional book, she said and we enjoyed a good laugh.
And then there was the pandemic.
Other than an occasional check-in on social media we were out of touch.
But a couple of weeks ago I ran into Zĕna at the Javits Convention Center where we were both getting our vaccination shots. She told me she was working on a new book.
The new novel is about fame and death, she said —whatever the first one even means and the fantasies of escaping the latter.
I gladly offered to meet with her in the near future, gather some of her thoughts, and maybe even get some media attention by writing a piece about her on Medium.
Death and Fame
She was okay with letting me record our conversation, and with her approval I will now share some selected fragments of Zĕna’s caffeine and honey fueled thoughts from that evening as they soared on the wings of the ideas fueling the book she was writing.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve had plenty friends and family leave the planet. And of course the endless cavalcade of The Renowned heading off into the sunset. And with all of the interconnections these days, the mouse clicks and notification beeps, it becomes a crazy pinball machine of information when one of our species checks out. News, social media—extending outward based on your notoriety.
Like everything else out there it’s a temporary cacophany—after a few weeks the ball slips down and onto the next one.
I got started on this book after my friend Joan died.
I recalled our conversation on the topic of celebrity and her saying that we are all, as she put it, “famous in our own little way”.
She was an artist. Gorgeous assemblage work. She’d had a few small one-person shows here and there, had a lively presence on the internet, and just kept on making her creations. She always had a 9 to 5 job to pay the bills.
One of her running jokes was that when she posted her artwork on Facebook she’d have 10 of her 400 “friends” take the effort to press the clicker on the mouse to send a “like” her way, but once, when she posted a picture of a pignoli cookie she’d bought over at Rocco’s Bakery, the page lit up with many dozens of “likes”, a few “loves” and even a couple “wows”. It was usually followed by what I’d call a sardonic laugh.
When she died and her partner posted the sad news—her face showing up on computers and cellphones and maybe even an Apple watch somewhere—over a hundred praised her creative work and interesting character.
I’d swear that Zĕna was reading my mind as she suddenly added:
Why is it that we respond to births with “is it a boy or a girl?” and deaths with “what was the cause?” I suppose the cancer had a lot to do with it—but certainly with a side dish of the existential angst she carried around regarding the behavior of her own species.
I began telling Zĕna about my experience with writing, and getting friends and family to take the time to read my work.
She said: Joan always felt that those people will not be your audience. She said that lots of people talk the talk of “art” — all exalted and passionate and life changing—but put that up against binge-watching some sitcoms and the remote control wins every time.
Just like there is all this talk about the dangers of shortened attention spans—while they’re working overtime to create new ways to to make it even shorter.
I have friends who say they “read” a novel when in fact they’ve listened to a movie star read it for them while they drove their car.
I digress. Look at the death notices. Post mortem the Illustrious Ones get meaty and voluminous obituaries in the New York Times—a portfolio of accomplishments. Kind of strange to think about the fact that many of them are already written in advance, with photos, ready to hit the press when the news comes in.
The majority of readers won’t read the whole thing—a quick skim, and then they hop onto social media — Hey, did you hear _____________ died?
Rending of garments and gnashing of teeth—and proclamations of genius for writing that amazing song, that dazzling painting, that groundbreaking book.
One hit wonders. Influencers. Warhols. Some are famous for being famous.
Details about how they were the first to pluck a guitar string a certain way, or what other famous string plucker they once jammed with.
A few weeks of uptick in sales of whatever related product and then— tilt!
Flip the next ball into action.
Writers, if they’re lucky to have a short poem or quotable phrase can get converted to picture memes for the web. Visual art, already a money game in progress, now gets values adjusted upward. And thus you get to live on, until you don’t. Heck, you might get a gold star in the sidewalk for people to walk on.
Accomplishments are subjective. If you’ve got a registry name and funds’a’plentiful—like maybe your tax accountant helped you pay less and still get your name on a hospital wing—you can get one of these fancy obits too.
In one part of my novel I play with the idea that the flash of light during near-death experiences is all the camera flashes going off as you are presented with an imaginary 15 minutes of fame against a media-logo wall near the Pearly Gates.
My treat, said Zĕna, when the check arrived—I got a nice advance on this book.
And let’s not wait another year for kutia and coffee!
Here’s on last tidbit from our chat:
I did some research and math for the book.
120 people die on the planet every minute.
“Famous” is an impossible term to define but based on individuals having Wikipedia pages some have calculated an approximate notoriety quotient of between 1-5 in 10,000.
Based on that I personally calculated that in 84 minutes 10,000 people leave the planet. Hence a person of noteriety leaves the planet on the average of 1 every 84 minutes.
Keep an eye out.
It’s like a bubble that rises to the surface of some veneer that we’re all skating on daily and then it blends back into the passing parade.
I hope the sampling is such that you’ll await her novel—tentatively titled “Zombie Fame”—with as much anticipation as I.
© Photos by AleXander Hirka 2021. All Rights Reserved.
“It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.” — Woody Allen