How Are You?
The fragile physical condition of West Virginia's 90-year-old U.S. senator, Robert C. Byrd, reminds me that when obit writers ask "How are you?" they're usually just being polite. It's not a professional inquiry. Still, we have to keep our eyes peeled and our ears open for what we call "advancers." For a public figure like Byrd, who's lived a long and eventful life, it's hard to write a thorough and engaging obituary on deadline.
I remember a few years ago planning an advancer for my Austin friend Liz Carpenter, who was Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary during the White House years. Liz, then and now, was in her 80s and ailing. I practiced in my mind how to word the possibly delicate request. I think I used the word "profile" when I called.
"Oh, Joe, I know what you're doing," she said in her brassy Texas twang. "You're doing one of those eulogy-type things." Whatever I called it, we spent a delightful afternoon together in her home above Austin's Town Lake. She was happy to recount her colorful life.
So how are you? Growing up in Waco, Tex., I knew an unfailingly friendly man named Chick Smith, who once asked that question of a casual acquaintance. "Why do you wanna know?" the man responded, snippily. "You a doctor?"
"No," Chick said. "I'm a veterinarian. Specialize in jackasses."
I've never been that quick with a whip-snap retort, but these days I wouldn't have to be. "I'm an obit writer," I could say, "and it seems to me you're looking a might peaked."
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