2016 was a rough year for cultural figures. No, I’m not talking about the 17 (yikes) Republican Presidential candidates, each of whom was in fact quite good for culture, though beyond writing SNL-styled spoofs they had the nerve to call their “campaigns” (Jeb! Ben Carson…) few of them contributed much of value any of us would like to remember. Instead, I’m talking about all the famous (more or less) folks who passed this year, a list that feels oddly extensive and significant.
Before the tributes being rolling, let me note that in the past I’ve frequently been oddly un-impacted when supposedly significant cultural figures have died. Largely this was because I wasn’t old enough or engaged enough to have spent sufficient time with so-and-so for their passing to have been meaningful to me; e.g., I hadn’t spent four nights a week, forty weeks of the year, for years verging on decades, watching Johnny Carson, so when he died in 2005 I more or less shrugged. He just wasn’t mine. I’ve also always been very aware of the very real physical distances that exist between me and celebrities: I’ve met one or two but would never pretend to know anyone personally, and spend zero time with anyone who’s operating at that level. For whatever reasons I’ve always kept a strange separation in my mind between an artist and her art; that is, I’m oddly aware that an artist ≠ her art, which can distance the death of the artist. Lastly, sometimes I’m just a disassociated guy.
But I’ve lived enough now that when certain cultural figures die I get sad and/or reflective. I’m not going to make a comprehensive list of 2016 deaths—if you’re reading this you have the internet: look it up—and instead will highlight a couple I’ve always enjoyed or have strange associations with. Mostly I just let my mind ramble its tangential touches when writing this, so some of these connections are piecemeal and wandering. Also, simply because someone isn’t noted here doesn’t mean they didn’t impact me: specifically, I’m not going to write about Bowie or Leonard Cohen, but the music of both has been really significant in my life.
Literature lost some big names in 2016: Edward Albee and Peter Shaffer and Umberto Eco and Elie Wiesel, all of whom have had far more impact upon me than W.P. Kinsella, who most of us know as the author of Field of Dreams, although because I have the following connections with that story he’s the one who’ll get some space. First, Field of Dreams is the only book I was assigned during college that I never finished reading. ((It’s been 20-years and I don’t recall the specifics, but I hated it so much I wanted to rip the pages out; I’ll acknowledge here a failure of due-diligence and admit that I did not re-read the book for this piece. In my defense: if you had comparable memories, would you have re-read it??)) Additionally, out of all Kevin Costner’s movies about baseball it’s one that may not suck. ((I haven’t watched it in years and don’t want to run my mouth either way, but I am very aware that we often confuse sincerity with quality. Regardless, having recently revisited Bull Durham, let me say this to parents everywhere—if you want to punish your child for a plateful of uneaten brussels sprouts, that film is 108-minutes long, 106:27 of which are pure dulling schmaltz)) Lastly, the end of the movie, Field of Dreams, was one of only four (4) times I ever saw my grandfather cry. ((I grew up with my grandparents, and until I turned 12 and my mom got married my grandfather was the main male role model in my life. If you’re tempted to put two-and-two together, that is, a-limited-crying grandfather and however-the-hell-you-perceive-me, please, for your own well being, don’t…))
The following is a list of the other times I saw my grandfather cry. Oddly enough, they break down by decade, as if once-every-ten-years or so was about right for all too many men of his generation:
1) The mid-1980’s: the funeral of his mother/my-great-grandmother, Edna.
2) The mid-1990’s: my grandfather was hospitalized with something non-life-threatening (I don’t recall the details). During his stay several teenaged, suburban Detroit-area boys were sentenced to jail for having kicked-to-death a kid named Alex, with whom they’d gotten into a fight after a high school dance over, of all things, a girl. ((This isn’t anti-lady, it’s just an acknowledgment that of all the things to fight to the death over at the age of 17, a romantic interest isn’t one of them, Romeo and Juliet be damned.)) Alex was a year older than me and had the locker next to mine at school, but I never knew him well. I was at the hospital visiting my grandfather with my friend Eric, about whom the following points are salient: Eric went to a different high school and was friends with the guys who’d killed Alex; in fact, Eric had been with them the night of the fight but left before things got out of control; he and I met a couple weeks after the fight and he wilted in my presence, full of apologies and ashamed of himself, as if I, by virtue of going to the same school as Alex, would not only somehow exact retribution but was properly positioned to do so. We became buddies, me and Eric, so there we three were, Eric and me and my grandfather, watching as the jail sentences were announced on TV. My grandfather cried in his hospital bed because he could see what a waste of life it was: not simply Alex, the boy who’d died, but the boys who’d committed the act, boys who were not only off to time in prison but who would forever have to live with the reality of their actions.
3) The mid-2000’s: several months before his death my grandfather suffered a stroke; it hit him pretty hard, and he ended up in a nursing/rehab home where he struggled to re-learn how to walk and talk. I visited him in the hospital and will always remember walking beside him, my hand looped through a blue strap that was wrapped about his waist, steadying him as he tried to shuffle across the room. The last time I saw him was to say goodbye before I caught a flight back to Seattle. He was seated and I bent over his chair and leaned to give him a hug. I whispered into his ear, “I love you, Grandpa”. At that time I was in my late-20’s, and prior to that moment I don’t remember us saying those first three words to one another. In response, my grandfather whispered/mumbled, “You too.” For dictionary fans, I will now employ a euphemism (n), and note simply that his response sucked. Afterward my mom talked to my grandfather and (presumably, I’ve never actually asked her about this) explained to him how much that hurt me. He and I talked a week later. I was in Seattle and he was still in the nursing home. Through the phone his voice was weak and distant. Before he hung up he said, “I love you, Aaron.” We never talked again.
Another big literary name to go this year was Harper Lee. Many may know her as the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 to rave reviews and a Pulitzer Prize. In the years after Lee published nearly nothing else until 2015, when Go Set a Watchman, a “prequel” to Mockingbird that had been rejected by publishers in the late 50’s, was somehow dug out of a bin and put in bookstores, where despite claims of manipulation involving Lee’s (in-)competence in opening the vault, it sold well.
Like pretty much everyone else in America, I read Mockingbird in high school, and I liked it well enough at the time. I re-read in about ten years ago, and while I know it’s oddly uncouth to acknowledge I thought it was pretty weak: the writing was good enough, clean and simple, and the story moved along nicely, but the characters and the plot they followed were about as morally complex as Tolkien—here are the good guys and here are the bad; don’t worry, try as they may the bad won’t win because Gregory Peck would never let that happen… I voiced these flaws to a couple folks and got a lot of blow-back on it, which has also happened the few times I’ve ventured to criticize Mark Twain. In both cases I think it’s because we read these things when we’re young and haven’t developed have much of a critical lens; we’re simply told they’re good—why else would we have to read them? We rarely return and examine these things as adults, and so when someone criticizes what we were told, as children, is something good, reflexively our knees spasm and we kick the critic in the shins.
On the sports front, the Detroit Red Wings lost their beloved star, Gordie Howe, aka “Mr. Hockey,” whose 36-year professional hockey career lasted until the ridiculous age of 52, a feat none of us will likely ever see again. Seriously, imagine a 52-year-old man playing professional hockey… (Jaromir Jagr, who will turn 45 this season, is the closet present threat). Howe was one of hockey’s all time greatest players who defined the early years of the NHL, when rinks were lined with chicken wire and a hat trick consisted of scoring two goals and winning a fist-fight. Gotta love that.
Gene Wilder deserves his own post, and maybe sometime down the road I’ll find time for that. Wilder’s eerily sad pathos offset his oddly deep humor in ways that only a very small group of performers will ever achieve. His movies with Richard Pryor; his work with and for Mel Brooks (The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein—”Are we black?”); and of course, Willy Wonka. I say good day.
There’s also Alan Rickman, the only actor ever who has blown up the roof of Nakatomi Tower, threatened to cut out Robin Hood’s heart with a spoon, mangled Emma Thompson’s love, and been a moral conundrum all throughout the time that Harry Potter kid was growing up. What a life he led.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary General of the United Nations, whose term encompassed, as far as the following story goes, the years I was in high school. Every morning in our homerooms we had to watch a news program called Channel One, a show that, at the time, was hosted by Serena Altschul, a beauty later of MTV fame, and, more notably, a gray-haired and apparently ageless Anderson Cooper. Any time news of the UN came on several of my friends and I would refer to BBG as “Boutros Boutros Kenneth Ghali,” inserting a name we insisted American newscasters knowingly overlooked in some strange and inexplicable conspiracy, and one which, with the release of REM’s 1994 hit, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” took on new and added significance. (The title of that track was taken from a real life situation involving newscaster Dan Rather, who was mugged in NYC by a man who, as he and another assaulted Rather, repeatedly screamed, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” We rightly teach our children to shun violence, but I say if it’s carried out with this sort of panache perhaps we ought to reconsider.)
I’d be super curious to read an informed take on the overlap between George Michael and Prince. In both I see an odd but similar path: two highly talented, major sex-symbols of the 80’s/90’s who achieved mass success on a level beyond what most could ever dream, only to walk away from mass appeal in pursuit of their respective brands of what must be called Sex Music. That this choice led to lower album and concert sales for both seemed to concern them equally, which appeared in both cases to be not-at-all.
I was six years old when Return of the Jedi came out. I don’t know if I’d already seen Star Wars or Empire, but I do remember going to the theater for Jedi. It turned my world upside down and I, like pretty much every boy (and many girls) age 4-to-??, got wrapped up in the obvious next step—the merchandise. I recall a lightsaber and action figures and etc., and at some point I received a Return of the Jedi book that I remember consisting largely of glossy, color stills from the movie ((The book may or may not have had text; likely it did as Lucas et al appear anxious to convince us their films have real plots, which are typically nothing more than thinly disguised tripe stolen from other sources, plots that, as was the case with the last Mad Max (a movie it should be acknowledged was far superior to most of the Star Wars crap we’ve had pounded over our heads), they’re better off skipping entirely and simply letting the action happen, even if the action, as was the case in Max, was nothing more than a chase from here to there, because, as Max demonstrated, sometimes a great chase is enough)). One of those pictures was of Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia, lounging in her bronze bikini across Jabba the Hut’s girth. If you’ve been awake over the past 30-years you know exactly the image I’m talking about.
I kept that Jedi book around for a good two years, and I recall looking at that picture of Leia and feeling the first stirrings of what I now know was sexual desire, though at the time I didn’t have the words for such things, and thus didn’t know anything other than that I was feeling something new, different, exciting and scary (several adjectives that remain accurate descriptors of my present romantic life). I’ve talked with enough guys around my age to know that this image of Leia was a beginning of something sexual for many of them as well, which is why if at Halloween a woman dresses as Princess Leia, with the white robe and the cinnamon buns around her ears, most men of a certain age will perk right up (pun intended).