A Look Back: Counting Our Blessings, Our Losses

We are a nation of rituals, especially if we are members in good standing of the tribe of media: writers, photographers, essayists, editorial writers, reporters and bloggers.

At year’s end, we engage in time-honored rituals: predicting the outcome of the probable future of the next 12 months—as in the unsurprising firing of Redskins’ coach Mike Shanahan; Republicans regaining the Senate; Ted Cruz running for president; George Clooney not winning the Oscar or Taylor Swift winning some other award and remaining chaste and so on.

We look back, trying to decipher what just happened.

We look back and count our blessings.

We look back and count our losses.

Obituaries are a source of many things to their readers. It brings us up closer and personal to how we feel about death, and its existence in our lives. Because obituaries are the most final of facts: this person or that person, dead at 85.

We feel: bad, sad, shocked and somehow diminished, depending. Obituaries, well written or not, simply by the fact of them, are notable for how they make us feel, how we react to them, depending entirely on who you are and where you fit in the scheme of things. The death of Annette Funicello will not mean a thing to a Miley Cyrus devotee, for instance, but seeing her name there on the page this year took me right back to the 1950s summers in Ohio, after football practice when we went home as freshmen in high school, watching Mickey Mouse Club because of her, because she was our age and pretty, and American Bandstand came on right after that with its own rewards, which was watching cool kids dance to rock and roll.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is somehow important in the roll call of the dearly departed this year or any year. But it is a memory and a loss all the same.

The death of Nelson Mandela—anticipated but not immediately accepted—culminated in a celebration of his life, a kind of elevation to secular sainthood and a demonstration that the death of one great man means different things to many people. For many African American civil rights leaders and foot soldiers, Mandela had been a source of inspiration, an icon, a fountain of motivation for his passage from South African tribal royalty, to freedom fighter, to prisoner of the oppressors for 27 years during which his fame and stature grew, and his strategy and tactics changed as a political and national leader. He was the South African who would slay the dragon of Apartheid, while preaching conciliation and forgiveness and cooperation, a decision full of equal parts wisdom, political pragmatism and no small amount of visionary empathy. The aftermath of his death, which was a major loss for his country which lacks anyone close to his size and influence, became a celebration of life before apprehension about the future could set in.

The United Kingdom lost its Iron Lady, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Venezuela lost its self-styled revolutionary leader Hugo Chavez (to cancer), the latter a death not much mourned in the United States leadership circles, to whom Chavez was a thorn in the side.

I still read a lot but not as much as I used to: I expect time sends you back to old favorites, of which Elmore Leonard was one of mine, a quick-witted, pungent writer who was a pro, through and through, equally adept at westerns—(Robert Parker was, too) and thrillers which featured sometimes monstrous villains, very smart and sexy heroines, with whom the heroes could not sometimes keep up with. Some folks, including a New York Magazine writer, loved him for his westerns: books like “Last Stand at Saber River” aren’t being written any more, sad to say, not even by Larry McMurtry of “Lonesome Dove” fame. I liked “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Tishimingo Blues,” “Rum Punch” and “Up in Honey’s Room,” just to name a few of a dozen or two.

Leonard defined the idea of reading for pleasure, which is self-defining. I mean no disrespect to Doris Lessing, who after all won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I only keep her “African Stories” for occasional forays. As a novelist, Lessing was too cerebrally cool for my taste, but that’s just my two cents, as the Food Lion spokescat says.

I loved Oscar Hijuelos, the Cuban-born novelist and author of “The Mambo Kings Plays Songs of Love,” a beautiful, richly stylistic writer. And I will read Seamus Heaney’s poems til the day that I can’t.

Locally, I always remember hearing about Joseph Grano and his unsuccessful fight to keep Rhodes Tavern from being demolished. I remember seeing the name of Ev Shorey, and then remembering his graceful charisma whenever I encountered him, occasions well met, especially in his days as president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown. I remember going to the the Parish Gallery a number of times, as run by Norman Parish, it was a gift for African-American artists, but not exclusively, the gallery was an invitation to the citizens of Washington at its Canal Square location. We also lost Ed Thomson who co-founded the Friends of Book Hill Park. Jim Weaver of Weaver Hardware was a mainstay for decades and one of Georgetown’s classic and classy businessmen. Likewise, the innovative Norman Tolkan of the Door Store left us.

James Gandolfini’s death was big because it was sudden, and he was working his character actor gifts like a worker bee even in the aftermath of his huge success as Tony Soprano on “The Sopranos” on HBO. You could find him dozens of films working his acting magic—he was sly and oddly shy, all eyebrows and menace and carrying the hungers of a big guy around like pebbles in his shoes.

Noted in Passing

Richard Ben Cramer—“What It Takes”was the ultimate political and campaign book ever written, dense, detailed and just plain perfect about the 1988 presidential race.

Patti Page—Beautiful woman, beautiful singer and “Tennessee Waltz,” a gorgeous song.

Van Cliburn—Prodigy pianist in Moscow, the eternal tuxedo man.

George Jones and Ray Price—What it means when people talk about classic country and western male balladry. No one like that around any more.

Richie Havens—“Freedom” over and over again at Woodstock, plus “Here Comes the Sun,” a sage and iconic figure of rock and roll.

Pat Summerall—The best, most concise and worth listening to in sports broadcast sports, especially pro football, plus a good guy.

Jean Stapleton—Edith, and a lot more than that.

Bonnie Franklin—Personified what it meant to be a modern single parent raising two daughters in a sitcom.

Stan Musial—A St. Louis Cardinal forever, but always even more “Stan, the Man.”

Earl Weaver—Baltimore Oriole, tough, pungent and pugnacious, and he won.

Deanna Durbin—Girl and child star, foil for Judy Garland, beautiful, Mickey Rooney’s and Andy Hardy’s crush.

Ken Norton—Superb fighter, former heavyweight champ, tough on Ali.

Ray Manzarek—Remember all those keyboard riffs that surrounded Jim Morrison like musical jewelry? That would be the Doors’ keyboardist, Mister Manzarek.

Tom Clancy—The biggest military thriller writer ever, mega-million copies, “The Hunt for the Red October” to begin with.

Roger Ebert—Outside of Pauline Kael, the best popular and serious movie critic ever, excluding James Agee who was just plain serious.

Jack Germond and Helen Thomas—Political media legends.

Dennis Farina—Tough guy cop, tough guy mobster, always Farina.

Eleanor Parker—One of Hollwyood’s finest (“Detective Story” and “The Man With the Golden Arm”) actresses who had the misfortune to be really beautiful and red-haired (“Scaramouche” and “The Naked Jungle”) and to be remembered for losing out to Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”.

Joan Fontaine—Olivia DeHavilland’s sister, a sibling rivalry that should have become a movie. Oscar for “Suspicion,” a star in “Rebecca,” “Ivanhoe” and “Jane Eyre” opposite Orson Welles.

Peter O’Toole—Old blue eyes of the epic movie in “Lawrence of Arabia,” wonderful in “Becket,” “The Lion in Winter,” “My Favorite Year”, boozum buddies with Richard Harris and Richard Burton.

Jonathan Winters—On any given day, in any quirky way, the most original, funniest funny man alive.

Lou Reed—Took a walk on the wild side.


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