Peter Barton's Late Wisdom

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Last week someone lent me a copy of Peter Barton's co-written memoir, saying we should write about it or excerpt it.

Turned out to be good advice. It's a compelling story that can't help but change your perspective in some way, if only for a few moments before your own life intervenes.

Barton died a year ago today at the age of 51 — only six years older than his father and his grandfather were before they died of heart attacks. He started this book project with writer Laurence Shames in January 2002.

Barton writes that he'd always lived at double speed because he knew his life might end at 45, too. He retired as president of Liberty Media after hitting 46, financially secure, and received his first stomach cancer diagnosis over his cell phone during a Yahoo! board meeting in December of '98. (He was there to pitch a business idea.)

Many highlights of Barton's doubled-down life enliven this directly told book: an almost off-hand business bet that won him a Rolls-Royce; a late-night jam session the young piano-playing Barton had with Frank Sinatra; a Columbia University connection to the '50s revival rockers Sha Na Na, before they made history at Woodstock.

There are business tales, too, and enough "do's" and "don't's" to appeal to readers looking for keys to his success. But those are all side dishes. At the heart here are Barton's intense life reflections as he approached death. To me, who didn't know Barton personally, they have a ring of truth and beauty.

Here's a small one that really resonated with me. He describes the sense of loss he felt at age 5 when his family moved from upstate New York to Connecticut.

"I was doing something I'd never done before: closing off a chapter of my life. Saying a real good-bye. Not see ya later. Good-bye.

"Kindergarten friends — gone, never to be seen again. My favorite climbing tree — never to be climbed again. The view out my bedroom window — vanished as if it had never been."

There are many worse losses than that in life, and certainly in Barton's, who faced dying while his three children were still children. But all of life's losses hurt in the present tense, especially as time compresses on the way to death.

Business is always about the future, Barton observed. But after he "understood the disease was killing me, I realized that, for most practical purposes, I no longer had a future." He added:

"I promised myself that I wouldn't have a bad day for the rest of my life. If someone was wasting my time, I'd excuse myself and walk away. If a situation bothered me or refused to get resolved, I'd shrug and move on. I'd squander no energy on petty annoyances, poison no minutes with useless regret. I'd play music at any hour of the day or night. I'd make a point of noticing the smell of the air, the shifting light on the mountains."

There's a quiet rock opera here in Not Fade Away: a short life well lived, by Barton and Shames (Rodale Press, 224 pages; $22.95, though Amazon was quoting $16.95 last week).

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