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Douglas Adams, Memento Mori, and the Meaning of Life

The universe works in strange and unpredictable ways. On May 11th, 2001, exactly four months before the tragic events of 9/11, Douglas Noel Adams went to the gym and died of a massive heart attack.

Douglas Adams is one of the first writers that made me want to pick up a pen and write a story. His combination of absurd humor and wry criticism of humanity still holds a place in my heart. When people ask me about my chapbook, Funny Plastic Flowers, I always say it's my poor attempt at imitating Douglas Adams.

Writing a tribute to my favorite author twenty years after his death might seem a tad on the late side, but consider this:

1. Douglas Adams was notoriously late when it came to meeting deadlines. The tales editors locking themselves in a room with Adams to get him to finish his novels are not mere legends. In regards to deadlines, he famously said, "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. "

2. Given the universe's age, 20 years is nothing but a speck of dust on a gnat's wing compared to its vastness.

How did I come to writing a tribute to Douglas Adams twenty years late? The usual way. I searched through Libby for an audiobook to listen to while walking my number one dog, Marbles. As I combed virtual bookshelves filled with stacks of When the Crawdads Sing and Shadow and Bone, a copy of Life, the Universe, and Everything appeared to save me. And it was read by Martin Freeman, so it was a no-brainer!

As I listened to the audiobook, I was transported back to my youth when I first discovered Mr. Adams and his universe of eccentric inhabitants. When I first read the series back in the 80s, the idea of a pocket-sized computer containing all the world's knowledge seemed absurd. Remember, this was when computers were so bulky that we referred to them as boat anchors! Not to mention that Adams predicted simulation theory before The Matrix. Spoilers! In his first novel, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the main characters find out that the Earth is nothing but an organic computer designed to calculate the answer to the meaning of life.

Listening to the audiobook reignited my interest in Adams' work. I dug out a copy of his final book, The Salmon of Doubt, and began re-reading it for the umpteenth time. The Salmon of Doubt contains his final, unfinished novel and a collection of essays and interviews found on Adams hard drive.

As I read through the book and saw that Adams died at 49 years old, it reminded me of my mortality. When Adams died back in 2001, I was 32 and just beginning my writing career. This may sound silly, but 49 seemed far enough away that it didn't register to me how young Adams was when he passed away. Now, at the age of 52, it hit me that I was three years older than Adams when he died.

Upon his death, Adams left a hard drive filled with 2000+ files and a novel that he struggled to finish for 10 years.

Adams' untimely death made me wonder what would have happened if he knew that the Grim Reaper would be coming to cash his check at such a young age. Would he have hunkered down and completed all of his unfinished works? Or…or..would he have turned off his beloved MAC and spent the remainder of his life on his ecological passion projects and doing crazy things like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit?

As a massive fan of his work, I would love to think that he would have done a little of both, some writing and exploring places like The Galapagos Islands.

What would I do if I knew the date of my expiration?

What would you do if you knew your expiration date?

This brings me to the Stoic philosophy of Memento Mori. If you're not familiar with the term, it's Latin for “remember you must die.“ While that term might seem morbid, the phrase is meant to remind us that our time on this plane of existence is finite, so don't waste it. As I read Salmon of Doubt, I had the profound feeling that Douglas Adams lived life to the fullest. Sure, he may not have finished his books on time, but he lived!

Last year, we wrote a blog post about applying the philosophy of improv to your creativity. In the post, we discussed that when you're presented with an opportunity, instead of saying, "Yes, but…” which is sadly the default response by us risk-averse humans, we should respond with "Yes, and…"

I would imagine that when Douglas Adams was presented with an opportunity like, "Do you want to test out an experimental submarine, he'd replied, "Yes, and…."

When life knocks, will you open the door?

Did you enjoy this post? While we would love a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, we'll settle for a coffee!

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Kaylena Radcliff
Kaylena Radcliff
Sep 30, 2021

Adams' "The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul" was formative in my college experience. It was hard to believe a writer could be so funny and so thoughtful at the same time!

Oct 01, 2021
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I’m a huge fan of all of his stuff! Dirk Gently is so good!

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