The Third Act

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May 19, 2018

If life is a play, what happens during the last act? What’s it like to live knowing you have a limited amount of time left? This week, we’re talking about how to face, and in some cases, embrace your third act, whenever it arrives. Whether you’re looking at retirement, a late-life job change, an illness or just a lot of birthday candles on the cake — how do you live differently when you reach what’s likely to be your final act?


Sabrina Frey has metastatic ocular cancer, but she's already lived longer than her doctors expected. What can we learn from how she looks at life? For one, she lives in the moment.

A push of the clock

Dan Pink has written several books about motivation, work and behavior. His most recent, called “When,” is all about timing. He says people facing an ending seems to push people in new directions.

Ma Dukes and J Dilla

James Dewitt Yancey – also known as J Dilla — was a hip hop super-producer and pioneering beat-maker. J Dilla died at just 32 years old, and worked right up until the end, making music and creating beats from his hospital bed. His mother was there for every bit of it.


British writer Martin Amis is 68 years old. He’s written 14 novels, hundreds of essays, memoirs, even a screen play. But he has strong feelings about writers who work past their prime. So he feels the clock ticking — is it time to pack it in? When will he know?


Show Details 📻
May 19, 2018
January 05, 2019
October 12, 2019
Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne Strainchamps] It's "To the Best of our Knowledge" from PRX. I'm Anne Strainchamps. If life is a play, what happens during the third act?

- [Sabrina Fry] It was January of 2013. I was about to take my kindergartner, Harper, who was five at the time, to the bus stop.

- [Anne Strainchamps] This is my neighbor, Sabrina Fry.

- [Sabrina Fry] I noticed that I had a giant inferior blind spot, so I couldn't see anything below my pupil. So I called the clinic and they said, "Well, it sounds like you have a retinal detachment. Why don't you come in right away? We have an appointment at 10:20 this morning." And they knew on exam, I had my appointment at 10:20. By 10:40, they're like, "You have a melanoma in your eye. It's an ocular melanoma." It wasn't even like, "Oh, we think you might have this." It was, "This is what you have, and this is what we need to do."

- [Anne] It was bad, really bad.

- [Sabrina] It's very, very rare. You know, that's four to six in a million every year are diagnosed.

- [Anne] Ocular melanoma metastasizes about 50% of the time, usually, to the liver where it's incurable. The median survival time without treatment is two to eight months.

- [Sabrina] I'm telling the kids that I've got a problem. They're bouncing off the walls 'cause they have no idea. I mean, I was a complete mess. The morning after, I was sitting around in my pajamas, drinking my coffee, of course, thinking like that I was imminently going to die. That's really what I was thinking. And one of my neighbors came over and said, "What are you doing? Why aren't the kids at school? You're in your pajamas." And I was like, "I don't know." So we packed up the car. I was in my pajamas. It was the middle of winter, January in Wisconsin. Went to Franklin, our elementary school in my pajamas, dropped off kids there, and you know, with the help of all my friends, got everybody where they needed to be.

- [Anne] And that was how Sabrina Fry's third act began. So this week we're talking about how to face and even embrace your third act whenever it arrives. Whether you're looking at retirement, a late life job change, an illness or just a lot of birthday candles on the cake, how do you live differently when you reach what's likely to be your final act? It's been five years since Sabrina Fry was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. She has stage four metastatic disease, but she's still here, Not dying, but living, down the block from me.

- [Anne] Hey Sabrina. How's it going?

- [Sabrina] Come on in guys. Oh, oh, oh. We're not gonna bark. We're not gonna bark. Come on, let's come in.

- [Anne] How's your day been?

- [Sabrina] It's better. Much, much better so.. I always joke when I say that I'm healthy besides my liver and bone cancer.

- [Anne] But you look amazing.

- [Sabrina] Thank you. Thank you very much. You know, I've just gotten back into trying to exercise as much as I can and just living kind of as normal a life as possible. And then you remember Harper?

- [Anne] Of course I do. Hey, Harper

- [Sabrina] And Warner.

- [Anne] Hey Warner.

- [Sabrina] Right after I was diagnosed, I was sure I'd be dead in like six months. And then you remember Rebecca? So I called hospice and set that up. I called a therapist and I set that up. I'm, I'm really, you know, very proactive, obviously, you know, I've done all these things to prepare for my death and I'm still alive. And Max is back from college. She came back on Sunday, which was very fun. You know, it's funny, I've never to this day asked any doctor 'cause I actually don't think they know. I've never said how much time do I have?

- [Anne] Wait, really?

- [Sabrina] No, I've never asked any doctor. I'm not afraid to ask the question because I'm not afraid of death. I'm not afraid of what's to come it, it is what it is. I'm very much like, okay, we'll just get through today. But it is a very precarious situation because I'm terminal. I know it's looming. Whether it's six months from now or three months from now or you know, five years from now. Does anybody need something to drink? Milk or orange juice ?

- [Child] Hey, they took everything.

- [Sabrina] I know I'm gonna need you to eat.

- [Anne] How have things changed over the years? When you first got your diagnosis, your youngest was five, he's 11 now, which is great. But during that time he must have a completely different understanding of your medical condition and what it means.

- [Sabrina] It's in our lives, but it's not in our lives. My boys, they're like, we want dinner, we need to get to our activities. You need to go to the grocery store. We're out of chocolate milk. They care that they have their snacks and their field trip permission slips filled out. And for them, I'm still their mom. Harper, Ms. Campus said that we can work on your visual arts project. I got an email. Everybody's been working on it, but maybe you haven't.

- [Anne] In some ways actually it sort of sounds like I'm starting to wonder whether having children has actually helped. It's kept you really focused on today and on having to do all those things. I gotta go pick up more chocolate milk.

- [Sabrina] Here you go. Would you like a drink, milk, orange Juice? The biggest sadness for me is that like when I pass, I'll be gone. My kids will have to deal with it. I try not to think about that too much because that to me is just, it's more than I can bear. It's frightening to me. I was looking at Facebook with all the kids that are like attending prom. I'm like, these are all the kids that like, were on the playground together. You know, like to me, like yesterday, One of the things that we've really done is made a point of making memories and we do tons of vacations and you know, we do lots of things that will, you know, hopefully stick in their minds. We went to Puerto Rico right before Hurricane Maria and they can say, oh my God, we were there with my mom. I could have just laid in bed for the last four and a half years with the covers over my head and been like, okay Grim Reaper, come on and get me. But, I think that wouldn't have been as fun as you know, living. How is your day at school, Beckett ?

- [Beckett] Good.

- [Sabrina] Did you check your work schedule?

- [Beckett] I was working on Friday.

- [Sabrina] Just on Friday. What time is your shift? I don't sweat the small stuff. You know, they lose their iPhones or they, you know, the whatever might happen. That is something that I'm like, we can replace that. And then Beckett and Warner are gonna get into mountain biking this summer, you know, bike different trails. And then they actually have meets where they'll get together with other schools. You know, I'm gonna see, hopefully, you know, God willing, my fingers are crossed here. My oldest started his sophomore year in college and I never thought that I'd see him graduate from high school. I do my best just to get through today. And I always joke that my biggest challenge every day is just dinner. Making sure that we have dinner on the table I can also make you a panini if you'd like. Like that, like a turkey panini

- [Beckett] Yeah.

- [Sabrina] And if we get dinner on the table, I'm like score. It's a great day. [Anne And Sabrina]

- [Anne] What's your medical health condition right now?

- [Sabrina] Right now my liver is still under control. I'll get another scan in about a month or so. In my spine and pelvis, I've got innumerable tumors. But it's funny, since they're, we can't cure 'em anyway. We just kind of let them sit there and if they bother me then we radiate 'em. It's really a watch and wait.

- [Anne] How did that happen? What things did you try, something new right?

- [Sabrina] It's actually a treatment that's in trials right now. They take balloons and they take your liver and they block it off from the rest of your body. They soak your liver in this very, very high, about 12 times the lethal dose of chemo with the hopes that the tumors will respond. And mine have, I haven't had any treatment coming up on two years.

- [Anne] What did it feel like to endure?

- [Sabrina] Oh my goodness. It was awful. The good news is, is the rate of recovery is very good. I had it on a Tuesday. By Friday night I was eating out in a restaurant with my family. Do you guys have homework tonight? Besides Harper, I know that he has his visual arts project, which we are going to work on. Who else has homework?

- [Beckett] I have homework

- [Anne] How do you think your kids have coped with all of this? I mean, they're growing up living with what most kids are most afraid of.

- [Sabrina] What happened to the community here? My kids are aware that this cancer could kill me. I did have it, the cancer move into my spine last fall and my 10 year old for about a week every morning would wake up and scream, oh my god, you've got cancer in your spine. And I finally had to say, yes I do and we're gonna work on that. But I need to have you not yell every morning. 'You've got cancer in your spine,' we can talk about it. There was a little girl who was running home a couple months ago behind my fifth grader and she yelled, Hey, is your mom dead yet? And he turned around and said, not yet. He came home and told me about it and my first reaction was like, pure anger, you know? I just wanted to be like, how can anybody be so insensitive? And then I had to reel myself back in and be like, we're dealing with a 10 year old. People don't know what to say. I've become a little bit, you know, I joke a lot about my death and people will say, how are you doing? You know they'll see me and they can't believe I'm upright and I put my finger under my neck and I'll feel my pulse and I'll be like, well my heart's still beating. It's a good day.

- [Sabrina] I don't know what else to say, you know? Here I am so...

- [Anne] I mean, the other thing is that we're all dying.

- [Sabrina] Yes. I worked with a gentleman in ice hockey administration for several years. He was in his mid fifties in good health and he joked with me, you better not die. I do not wanna have to, you know, name this ice rink after you. And we laughed about it a little bit. Well, in September of that year we were sitting together and he had a massive heart attack in front of me and passed away. Right in front. I mean his son and I, you know, performed CPR and it was unsuccessful. That was not supposed to happen. I was gonna die and he was gonna have to name the ice rink after me. I mean, we wake up every day, all of us thinking that tomorrow is promised. I still do now until somebody says there's nothing more we can do for you. You better call hospice. I think that I even do the same thing.

- [Son] Can we just throw all of this away? Shall we throw this all away?

- [Anne] I do think that from what you're describing, cancer has pushed you to live with uncertainty in a way that most people don't learn until much later.

- [Sabrina] Yeah, it's an interesting place to live. It's living between life and death. I'm definitely closer to life, but at the same time it's, you know, I had to purchase a plot where I could bury my urn. It's this land of sometimes I don't really know quite where I am.

- [Sabrina] Harper your panini, it'll be ready in just a minute. Much to my surprise, the panini maker is not broken.

- [Anne] Sabrina Fry lives in Madison, Wisconsin, just down the block from me. As you can probably tell, she and her four boys bring a lot of joy to our neighborhood. I think I speak for all of us when I say it's a privilege to know her. Third acts can begin in a lot of different ways and they can propel all sorts of changes like trying something new, taking a chance you might've missed or giving something up. Dan Pink has written several bestselling books about motivation, work and behavior. In his most recent called 'When' is all about timing. He says, people who reach their third acts are usually less sad than energized because something about facing an ending seems to push people in new directions. Steve Folson wanted to know, how.

- [Steve Folson] You have this phrase called the Nine Enders. Like people who were 29 or 39 or 49, they think about things differently.

- [Dan Pink] Absolutely. There's a whole psychology of endings and the work on Nine Enders is from Adam Alter at NYU and Hal Hirschfield at UCLA who looked at the age at which people were most likely to run their first marathon. And it turned out, as you say, people are disproportionately likely to run their first marathon at ages 29, 39, 49 and 59.

- [Steve] So in other words, the 39 year old is much more likely to run the first marathon than a 38 year old or a 40 year old.

- [Dan] 29 year olds are twice as likely to run a first marathon as 30 year olds or 28 year olds. Which is weird because there's no like physical difference, right? But wait till you hear this. 49 year olds are three times as likely to run a first marathon as 50 year olds. Now, this makes no sense and it all has to do with, what is the effect of endings on the way we see our lives and the way we behave. And when we see something ending a it can energize us, we kick a little harder. And it also seems to trigger some kind of search for meaning. And at some level, running a first marathon is, I don't want my life to disappear. Time is moving quickly. I want do something significant and I wanna do it before I turn 30. Or I wanna do it before I turn 50. But yeah, when something comes to an end, it energizes us. There's all kinds of research on that. There's freaky research out there showing that you give half the people a gift certificate that expires in three weeks and half the people a gift certificate that expires in two months and the people who had less time are more likely to cash it in 'cause the ending was more salient.

- [Steve] You sort of forget about it if it's two months.

- [Dan] Right.

- [Steve] Yeah. Dan, you talk about how life has a natural beginning, middle, and end. And I wanna focus on that last act. How would you describe Act three?

- [Dan] Well, a lot happens in Act three. Basically, if you think about our lives as three acts, we've got the first 25 years, the second 25 years, and the third 25 years. And there's some interesting research out there showing certain things that happen in that final act. So Eric Erickson years and years ago came up with this idea of what he calls generativity. We become less focused on ourselves, we become less focused on accomplishment, and we become more focused on our legacy.

- [Steve] When you talk about third act, are you talking about post-retirement or could this be also final stages of a career?

- [Dan] It's both. I think it's idiosyncratic and everything what's happening right now in the American workforce is a refashioning what retirement is, there are fewer people who are fully retired. So when we get to that final act, you have people who are doing things that are much more hybrid. They might have left their main job that they had during their middle years and are doing something else that's a different kind of career. But they're only doing it part-time. So they were an engineer at a big company and now they are teaching math after school, or they were a physician and now they have a paid role, part-time at a church. So there's a lot of idiosyncrasy at the individual level in what people are actually doing.

- [Steve] Why would people wanna do that? As opposed to the old model, which is you have a big career and you retire and you go off and you smell the roses as opposed to doing something else that maybe doesn't pay very well but is more meaningful.

- [Dan] Because growing roses is far more challenging and satisfying than smelling roses. It's that simple. Like we're more satisfied as human beings when we do things. And again, there's a long line of research about this in the field of psychology where we think that leisure is actually gonna be the time when we feel the best, when we're most satisfied. And from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyius, the famous University of Chicago social psychologist to the present day. We know that isn't true. People are more satisfied when they're doing something, when they have a combination of challenge, purpose, and relationships. And that's what leads to a satisfying life. And what you also see, again in psychological research is some really interesting behavior at that stage of life. To me, one of the most interesting things going on is the work of Laura Carstensen at Stanford. And she has looked at friendship networks and it's basically what is your network of friends and people you care about? And she charted the trajectory of that over the lifespan. So we'll go back to this idea of act one, act two and act three. You have this rise in the number of friends that you have, the size of your social network throughout Act one really, really rises in act two. And then around the age of 60 there is a dramatic drop in the size of our friendship networks. Now that seems superficially like a sad story,

- [Steve] Right, it seems like, oh, we're so lonely then

- [Dan] We're lonely, people are disappearing on us. And Carstensen's work on this is just so important and profound. So she asked people to organize their friends in three circles. The inner circle. These are people I absolutely can't live without. The middle circle. Hey, they're awesome, I like 'em, they're great. Outer circle. Hey, they're good, I like 'em. They're okay. Yeah, they're fun. And what she found is that when she divided the circles that way, all of the drop in the total size of the friendship networks was the middle and outer circle. And what's interesting about that, she says quote, they were actively eliminated. That is people were making the affirmative move to what I like to call editing their friends. They were editing out the people and then basically when they got to that final act, they said, wait a second, I don't have all the time in the world

- [Steve] I don't actually really care about these people.

- [Dan] Yeah, and it's a combination of the two. I like these people, but I have limited time. So do I wanna spend my limited time with people I kind of sort of like, or do I wanna spend that limited time with the people who are most deeply meaningful to me?

- [Steve] So basically you start editing your whole life at that point, you start weeding out the stuff that you just don't really care about.

- [Dan] Eric Erickson, the great developmental psychologist intuited 60 years ago in this move toward generativity, I want meaning, I want what's my legacy going to be? Because in that circle is almost always your closest family. So you think, okay, what am I gonna leave to my kids? Now, I don't mean that in the monetary sense. I mean, what kind of legacy am I gonna leave to my kids when I'm gone and my grandkids remember me? What kind of person am I gonna be remembered as?

- [Steve] So let me rephrase this slightly differently and make it a little more personal about me. So I'm in my late fifties and I think unavoidably for someone at my stage of life, you know, I'm starting to think about, you know, how many years do I have left in this job? I've spent my whole career in public radio. Do I keep doing the same thing, a job I like? Or do I think about doing something new? How, how do you sort out those kinds of questions?

- [Dan] I don't think there's a perfect universal way to do that. I think though it's important for people if they have the ability to ask those kinds of questions. And what you often see, and there's some great research from a researcher at the London Business School named Herminia Ibarra Her research has shown is that the changes that people make in these kinds of circumstances are less vocational changes than really identity changes. So for you, and I don't wanna turn this into a therapy session here. Go ahead though, if you....

- [Dan] Sure, of course. I'm completely unlicensed and unqualified. But let me go forward. The decision you're making at that point is not only a vocational decision, what should I do? It is an identity decision. Who am I? I mean, I'm totally making this up. Did you say I'm gonna leave public radio? But you know what, there's one avocation I have, I don't know if you're a sports fan or a music fan or something like that. And you know what, I got some time. I've got clearly the talent and experience. I'm gonna do a short podcast on ska music or bluegrass music. For me it would be the tennis podcast.

- [Dan] Okay, perfect. And maybe you have some, you're gonna maybe round up the tennis players who you watched and admired when you were a kid. So you're gonna go say, what's Jimmy Connor's doing right now? Let's get Martina Navratilova over on here. And then it might be that, Hey, you know what I really wanna do? I actually want to go maybe write a book about tennis. And so this identity ends up having a, not kind of an off on switch, but a dimmer switch. And that's what Ibarra's research has shown.

- [Steve] And one of the things that you write about also is that people later in life tend to live more in the present, more in the now than other people. Which is interesting. 'cause you might think, oh, they'd be thinking a lot about their past.

- [Dan] Yeah, well they're thinking less about the future 'cause there's less of it. But there's another thing that we also know about this stage of life. And you see this in a whole range of data across different nations. If you look at the shape of wellbeing over time, it's shaped like a U. So that early in our life, our wellbeing, our subjective wellbeing, are we satisfied with our life, is reasonably high. It dips not considerably, but enough. So if you take say middle class people in America, at some level, many of their motivations in their quote unquote careers are achievement motivations being, well-known, making money, having an influence. But what you also see is that the curve goes back up markedly later in life. And so if you put these things together, what you see is, hey, people are editing their friends, they are living in the present, they are focused on generativity and their legacy. And wait a second, they're a lot happier than a lot of other people. And that can begin giving us, I think, some clues across the lifespan into what constitutes the good life. And I think about this myself. It's like, whoa, is my life half over? I'm 53 years old. I say, is my life half over? Holy smokes! Like that concentrates the mind. And I think back and say, let's say I lived to be, knocking wood here, let's say I lived to be 83, okay? Which is a good, healthy life, longer than my father lived. I look back 30 years to when I'm 23 and I think, holy smokes, that happened like this. That was yesterday. I was 23 yesterday. That all happened in a blink. Is the next 30 years gonna happen in the blink? And maybe it is time for me to reckon with this question of who am I really? Why am I here? And what is my legacy going to be?

- [Steve] Do you think about that? Are you starting to think about, okay, what is your third act?

- [Dan] Do I think about it myself? Yeah, I, I don't necessarily think about it in terms of acts, but I do find a greater sense of urgency in that question. Now the therapies for me. Now I do think about it as someone who has spent most of my professional life as a writer and having written six books, as analytic of a person as I am. I sort of look at it that way. It's like, well what's gonna be be the marginal return on the seventh book in terms of my own satisfaction and contribution to the world? And maybe there is something else I can be doing that is perhaps a better expression of who I really am intrinsically and perhaps a better way for me to contribute to the world. And perhaps even raising the stakes a bit. If I ever have grandchildren, they look back on that and say, whoa, wait a second. My grandfather did that super cool thing when he was 70 years old. That's awesome.

- [Anne Strainchamps] And that's Dan Pink talking with Steve Paulson. Dan's most recent book is called 'When, the Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.' So I'm curious, do you think of yourself as in your third act? And if so, what are you doing differently and what's your advice for others? We wanna know. Share your tips at Some people reach their third act and ask what could I be doing differently? And then there are those people who discover very early in life exactly what they wanna do and they never look back. Hip hop producer, J. Dilla was one of them. This is his mother.

- [Ma Dukes] He fell in love with music months before he could walk.

- [Voice From old Recording] Merry Christmas.

- [Ma Dukes] He was just so absorbed with the music and James Brown and things like that. We got him a Fisher-Price record player on his first Christmas.

- [Voice From old recording] What Santa Claus brought you.

- [Ma Dukes] We let him use some of the 45s. By the time he was a year and a half, he could put the records on the little spindle. He learned to play the music.

- [Voice from old recording] Go ahead let me see. ♪ One two three, make it. ♪

- [Ma Dukes] I tried to influence him by getting the toy. He'd play for a few minutes and then he's back to his records. Some children will play and roughhouse with the toys. He was very careful. You would think he was messing with something that's two or $300 and it was probably not even $19 at that time. It meant something to him. I'm a James Brown fan and grew up in Motown, but I'm sure that he heard more in that record than I heard.

- [Anne] The legacy of J. Dilla and the story of his last years, after this. It's 'To the best of our knowledge' from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. If you're just joining us, we're talking about what it's like to know you're in the third or final act of your life. It can be a time to reinvent yourself or a time for single-minded focus. James Dewitt Yancey aka J.Dilla was a hip hop super producer, a pioneering beat maker and MC who still has a huge cult following. He died in 2006 from complications from lupus. He was just 32 years old and he worked right up until the end, making music and creating beats even from his hospital bed. His mother was there for every bit of it. Ma Dukes, the legendary hip hop matriarch is keeping her son's legacy alive. Haleema Shah reached her at her home in Puerto Rico. ♪ Now, you caught my heart for the evening ♪ ♪ Kissed my cheek, moved in, you confuse things ♪ ♪ Should I just sit out or come harder? ♪ ♪ Help me find my way ♪

- [Haleema ] Your son, J. Dilla has worked closely with icons like Common, Erykah Badu, A Tribe called Quest. The list goes on. You weren't aware of the impact his music was having when he was alive?

- [Ma Dukes] No, no

- [Haleema ] What changed? How did you find out?

- [Ma Dukes] It would be my employees that would tell me that, oh, I got the magazine already. Your son's in front of a magazine or I saw an article in the magazine about your son's music. He never told me that he was in magazines or had articles coming up. He never talked about it. He never boast about anything. He was very quiet, you know, he was totally introverted. And even at home, if I didn't get a chance to hear something that he was doing from the basement stairway coming up, then I didn't get a chance to sample anything early. I heard nothing until someone played it and told me. He'd say, wow, he's really doing good. Or did you hear the new album? It stymied me that he would not let us know. I was very proud. But he was very humble.

- [Haleema ] Why was he so private about that?

- [Ma Dukes] He didn't want to make big of anything that he did. He always felt that he could do better than what he did. He was always looking for perfection. ♪ Should I just sit out or come harder? ♪ ♪ Help me find my way ♪

- [Haleema] So that must have played into his music. He sounds so meticulous. ♪ There comes a time ♪

- [Ma Dukes] He was very, very meticulous. He had OCD very bad. I didn't know about all of that then. But he was very, very particular. And as an adult it was obsessive. Everything had to be in direct order in his refrigerator. Coke was on the top shelf and Sprite. Every C on the Coke can had to be an exact same order going down the row. And it had to be minimum space. And then the Sprite and the apple drawer, the red apples could not touch the green apples. Nothing could be out of order.

- [Haleema] That is incredible.

- [Haleema] When did he learn that he was sick?

- [Ma Dukes] He came back from a tour. It wasn't unusual for him to maybe have a cold or something. Usually when he toured he would go to, at least at the very minimum, 14 countries before he'd come back. So that's a lot of transition and a lot of cold weather during the winters. I just assumed that it was maybe a cold or some virus he was catching. And it was not that he actually was dealing with something that we had never heard of and didn't know anything about the diseases that they were looking for. But the one disease that they did not look for was lupus because it was supposed to be a disease that females had. So they didn't look for it.

- [Haleema] What year was that? The year he got that diagnosis?

- [Ma Dukes] That was in 2000. So he suffered four whole years without them finding out what it really was. They didn't know until the last year that it was lupus.

- [Haleema] Did the diagnosis influence his music in any way or how he started to approach his work?

- [Ma Dukes] No, he kept the same regimen. He'd stay up three days without taking a nap If somebody's deadline was coming up. If there was an artist that had come, like if Questlove or somebody had come and trying to finish tracks or album or Common or Erika was there and they wanted to finish their album, he would never let them down. Even if he was exhausted, he'd take a quick nap and energize and tell me maybe to fix some certain kind of food or something. And he'd eat that, give him some energy and he'd be back downstairs. ♪ Ooh, hey.. ♪ A lot of times he would not leave from downstairs to come up. He would nap on one of the benches downstairs and I'd have to bring in the food there. 'cause that's how dedicated he was to his work. He never took a break.

- [Haleema] It sounds like when he set his mind to something, especially when it came to his music, you probably couldn't argue with it. But did you ever have a an impulse to say, Hey, slow down.

- [Ma Dukes] Well, no, I knew better ♪ Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby ♪ ♪ I just, I need you now ♪

- [Haleema] One of the things I'm thinking about is how you mentioned that he started to notice that he was sick when he was having trouble with his hands. That must have been incredibly frustrating for him.

- [Ma Dukes] Yes.

- [Haleema ] He makes music. His hands are so essential.

- [Ma Dukes] Exactly, exactly. And so this of course would irritate him and probably worry him because he was not gonna stop working. I've seen Michael Jackson hands with tape and bandaids on him and things like that. Dilla would do the same thing. His fingers, they would get irritated, not enough moisture in his hands. So they would get brittle by his nails and he would need nourishment that he wasn't getting. He'd get a little relief and he'd be back behind the bar doing his work.

- [Haleema] So tell me about this experience about making music in the hospital. This is something that I think maybe really speaks to his character as a perfectionist and a person who loved making music.

- [Ma Dukes] I had taken the turntable, his computer, and I took crates of records and we didn't have any tables. So I'm borrowing, you know, the tray tables you eat your food on? I'm borrowing those from different rooms that didn't have a patient in. And so we are lining them up and I'm putting them all across the side of the bed and at the foot of the bed, like can roll the bed over to him because the bed's on wheels. If he could reach his arms over, he could do something. 'cause he was still in that good shape. And even during his days when we thought that he might not make it till the next day, the one prayer that I heard out loud, he was talking to his maker repetitively saying that he just wanted to finish his work and give his music back to the world.

- [Haleema] So you knew for a while that he was sick?

- [Ma Dukes] Yes.

- [Haleema] So when he died, what was that like?

- [Ma Dukes] Oh my God, I knew that the time was coming and I should have taken a clue from the day before. Dilla wasn't eating enough and he wasn't doing well on his test. Dr. Big said, I'm gonna put the tube in, let me put a tube in, so a feeding tube and we can get some nourishment in you. And Dilla was like adamant with no tubes. He said, well, you gotta have it, I gotta do this. He said, well, can it wait till the morning? And when Dilla said that, my son-in-law, I looked at each other like, what? Because he's been adamant about no tubes. When he said, wait till the morning, I should have taken a clue then. But he already knew. And that next morning I got him up and bathed him and dressed him for the doctor's appointment to put the tube in. And we had 20 minutes left that he could rest. I said, do you wanna rest this 20 minutes or you wanna just leave and you know, go on to the doctor's office? He said, mm. He said, I'll rest. So I waited like 15 minutes and then I said, well Maurice, we better get the wheelchair now and put him in it so we can get into the car and then head over. And I couldn't wake Dilla. Okay, he must really be asleep. And when he couldn't respond or answer me, that's when I got scared. So we called the doctor and we told the doctor what was going on and he said, well, just go to the emergency room across the street. Just go there and they'll be waiting for you. So that's who we did. But as soon as we got into the car and took off, he died in my arms. I heard the breath, but I couldn't accept the fact mentally that that was his last breath.

- [Haleema] You know, the way you tell this story, you remember literally every single detail of this time. I mean, you remember the time of your flight when you went out to see him in California. You remember the time of his passing.

- [Ma Dukes] I mean, well, you know, it's because I visualize it as I'm telling you. Everything that you've asked me, it's a visual picture and I can relive it. But I'm reliving without the pain because I'm rejoicing that he's not in any pain. I'm so proud of the life that he lived and the work that he did because it meant everything. He was very, very compassionate and selfless as an individual. The beauty of music is what kept him alive. It is what made his heart beat, it's what made him happy. It's what made him Dilla. I just want the world to wake up and to realize that JD is the icon.

- [Anne] Jay Dilla died in 2006. His influence on today's beatmakers continues. The synthesizer and MPC he used in his last days are in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. And his mother, Ma Dukes divides her time between Detroit and Puerto Rico, which is where Haleema Shah reached her. And now if you're lucky enough to live a long time, sooner or later there will be something you love that you'll have to give up. For writer Martin Amos it was tennis.

- [Martin Amos] I really loved it. And I used to play almost every day. It seems to me the perfect arena for expressing athleticism, wit, cleverness,

- [Narrator] The drop shot,

- [Martin] the wrong footing.

- [Announcer] hitting behind someone, catching them going the wrong way,

- [Martin] Ideally putting them on their ass The average player ends up just cherishing about eight or nine shots that were perfectly executed. The one I think about most is a top spin lob and a very good player on the other side of the net was on the service line. And he just clapped when I did it.

- [Announcer] One point One shot

- [Interviewer] Years ago and it's still very vivid to you.

- [Martin] Yeah, it is. I feel it right through my hand and arm. It's no good if you never win anymore. And that's what happened to me, hanging up my racket for good, which I've done.

- [Interviewer] Oh, you don't play anymore at all?

- [Martin] No, my wife says well just play 80 year olds.

- [Martin] But that's, that's too sad. Too much pathos in that. It's just too painful.

- [Anne] Martin Amos on endings and legacies after this. I'm Anne Strainchamps It's 'To the best of our knowledge' from Wisconsin Public Radio and PR RX. We've talked a lot today about time and about the choices we make when it starts to run out. Well, British writer Martin Amos has been thinking about that. He's 68 years old. He's written 14 novels, hundreds of essays, memoirs, even a screenplay. But he has strong feelings about writers who work past their prime. So he feels the clock ticking. Steve Folson has talked with Amos several times, most recently this week.

- [Steve Folson] So your new book, the Rub of Time, collects essays you have written over a span of 23 years from 1994 to 2017. And this idea of time is the kind of through line here. It seems to me. I mean, not just how culture has changed over these years, but how you have navigated this passage of time. What does that phrase, the rub of time mean to you?

- [Martin] It means two things. It's an acknowledgement that the only value judgments that can be made about literature are the judgments of time. That's your only reckoning. It's a rather beautiful idea in a way because it means you'll never find out if you are any good because you'll die. The other thing is the rub of time in the sense of the wear of time on a particular talent or intelligence. It's an embarrassing truth that 90% of writers do suffer tremendous diminution or dilution as they pass the biblical span.

- [Steve] And let me ask you about that 'cause you say in, in one of your essays that modern literature's dirty little secret is that writers die twice. Once when the body dies and once when the talent dies.

- [Martin] It's something of increasingly pressing interest to me. What would I do if I felt that my writing had become ordinary? I admire Philip Roth for just announcing that he's not gonna do it anymore.

- [Steve] It takes the pressure off, it takes away the expectations. You know, when is the next Philip Roth book coming out?

- [Martin] Yeah, and you make a sort of clean breast and just say, that's it. And I respect that, rather than toiling on and producing as some very distinguished and John Updike lost his ear.

- [Steve] And you've said that for the most part, writers decline noticeably as they age, but there would seem to be exceptions. Penelope Fitzgerald for instance, who first..

- [Martin] Yeah, she's a good exception.

- [Steve] She published her first book at age 58, published her final novel, 'The Blue Flower' often considered her masterpiece at age 78, I think. And a lot of people would say that it was that acuity of perception that as a result of a lifetime of experience that made her such a great writer.

- [Martin] Yeah, no, she's a famous exception. And I would also offer up my stepmother Elizabeth Jane Howard, who wrote a quintet of novels starting when she was 70 and going on into her eighties. And it is by far and away the best thing she ever wrote. So yeah, you can, God knows how, but you can sort of dodge this fate otherwise it's as inevitable as death I think.

- [Steve] So what about your father, Kingsley Amos, one of the most famous writers of his generation. Did his writing drop off at the end?

- [Martin] I think it did a bit. Although the Old Devils, he was 60 mid sixties when he wrote that. And that's his great book. But then he wrote, the novels that follow The Old Devils are pretty watery, sort of diluted.

- [Steve] Did you ever talk to him about this? The struggles of the aging writer?

- [Martin] We tended to talk more technically about what you couldn't do in fiction. Like we agreed that sex is more or less a forbidden zone.

- [Steve] You mean don't write about sex?

- [Martin] Don't write about it, no.

- [Steve] Just period? Or as you get older?

- [Martin] No, period. It was very nice. He parodied Kurt Vonnegut in a single sentence where in some pulp book, one of his characters reads the following sentence, which is 'She gave out a cry. Half pleasure, half pain. How do you figure a woman as I rammed the old avenger home'

- [Martin] A brilliant parody. But there are so many dangers. And actually the reason you can't do it, when you think of what sex entails, I mean it's a huge chunk of experience and it's the act that peoples the world, the whole of human life is there, but we can't penetrate it. You can do failed sex 'cause that's comic. But what you can't do, and this is the challenge, is do sublime sex. Good sex. That's what's impossible to write about.

- [Steve] I wanna come back to this question of what happens to writers as they age. I mean, you write a lot about that in a number of these essays here and you are now 68, I believe. Is that right?

- [Martin] That's right.

- [Steve] I'm guessing that you think about this a lot.

- [Martin] Yeah, you don't actually day to day, you are used to the ups and downs. The writer's life has always been this pas de deux of aspiration and anxiety. Keats called it negative capability. This idea that you can progress, you can move forward even though you are absolutely wracked with doubt. That's the sort of fruitful edge of it all. Is ambition hedged with doubt But I haven't sort of really come face up to this falling off of powers.

- [Steve] You don't think that your writing is has gotten worse than it used to be?

- [Martin] No. I mean it's got less sort of pyrotechnic and you quickly resign yourself to that. And it's awful to see an older writer trying to be lively. A good example is Truman Capote, Answered Prayers, this novel he kept boasting about for years and everyone wondered whether it really existed and it did. And it was very short and full of this false vivacity that he tried to inject into it. And that's a terrible sight. That's like watching your grandfather dancing at a party. You know? It also helps if you write historical novels. Because the other thing that happens, and my father put it well to me, he said all older writers hate younger writers. He said, because they're saying to you it's not like that anymore, it's like this.

- [Steve] Yeah, I mean, that's the other question. It's not just does your talent decline once you enter your sixties and seventies and eighties? It's do you still matter? Are you still relevant in a culture especially that is obsessed with youth and with fresh perspectives?

- [Martin] Yeah, you notice that of course all the time and you benefited from it when you were young and then you pay the price for it when you are older. That's just the way of the world. And it's good that it should be so. You know, aging and death do have their functions. Immortality has never been in literature, never been anything other than a horror. Tennyson put it very beautifully and neatly. He said, the woods decay. The woods decay and fall. The vapors weep their birth into the ground. Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath. And after many a summer dies the swan me only cruel immortality consumes. And in that terrifying story, The Immortal, it's a horror. And the old crocs do need to sort of fade away.

- [Steve] So you have been on the literary scene for decades. You've had a very public career as a writer. You've been the object of envy. And it seems that when critics write about you, they are often writing about your entire career, not just the new book. They're sort of comparing early Amos and late Amos. Does that bother you at all? It's sort of like those artists who get the retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum rather than just looking at their new work.

- [Martin] Yeah, also when they die, a funny thing happens. Do you know about this, that there seems to be a five year lag. You'd think interest in a writer would stir up again when they die. It's not the case. And my Spanish publisher put it well, he said they have to go to purgatory first. ♪ When you've got no more assurance ♪ ♪ than a great big hunk of lead ♪ ♪ If you don't respond to romance, ♪ ♪ Jack you dead. ♪

- [Anne] The irrepressible Martin Amos talking with Steve Folson about his latest collection of essays. It's called The Rub of Time. ♪ Jack You Dead ♪

- [Anne] All things come to an end, including this hour. But we could keep it going a bit with your help. We're making a list of tips for embracing or maybe just facing life's third act. So what's your best advice? Go to and share it with us. ♪ Jack you dead ♪

- [Anne] 'To the best of our knowledge' is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio by Charles Monroe Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Mark Riechers and Haleema Shah. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hardtke. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson. And I'm Anne Strainchamps Thanks for listening. ♪ Rigor mortis has set in daddy ♪ ♪ Jack you dead. ♪

- [Announcer] PRX.

Last modified: 
November 20, 2023