Friday, June 26, 2009

It's not tax season but death keeps rolling in

My hero -- Cool Hand Luke --died earlier this Spring. Actually, the obituary was for Paul Newman, who played that chain gang version of Kesey's McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a rebel whose spirit could not be crushed. Salad dressing and all, Newman always was Luke to me, the guy with the mocking blue eyes, ready for whatever came his way.

This week it was Ed, Michael and Farah, entertainers from different eras, 36 years apart in age but all decades past their prime. I'll blush and be honest. For me, it was Farah, Grade B actress and the focal point of college pin-up fantasies, who hurt the worst.

Next? From all reports, it could be Walter Cronkite, the broadcast news giant of my childhood, the man we all watched to learn "that's the way it is."

I had a professor at the University of Missouri graduate school of journalism who talked about the trajectory of news reading habits. As younger readers, he said, we start by inhaling the front-page headlines. They keep us current (this, of course, was pre-24/7, pre-Internet, pre-Twitter). As we age, we open first to the opinion pages: Being first seems less important than being wise. We want to make sense of the news' meaning and importance. And as we get older, we start with the obituaries. the pages that measure the legacy of those who've gone before, the last shot for those lucky enough to have had at least 15 minutes of fame to leave a lasting impression.

Maybe it's because I turned 60 this year, but I'm starting to read those obituaries regularly. A lot more people who touched my life are dying. Oh, I'm not ready to put my false teeth in a glass at night; I bought a new bike this summer and booked a rigorous hike in the White Mountain hut system. But life and what we leave when it's over do weigh more on my mind.

In his final column, published days after his death, humorist Art Buchwald asked, "What's it all about Alfie?" I'll be darned if I know. To live a full life? To touch others? To be true to one's beliefs? To win the egg-eating wager in the chain gang? Beats me.

"Do not go gentle into that good night," wrote the poet Dylan Thomas. "...Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Unless I'm lucky enough to go fast, someday I'll start raging. I'm hoping that can wait awhile. For now, I'd like to explore some of the remote corners the light still shines on, pausing to peek from time to time at the obits to see who has dropped out of this adventure called life.

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