Final Goodbyes of 2012

As the year comes to a close, it’s fitting to remember those who’ve gone but can’t, or shouldn’t be, forgotten.

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Daniel Inouye – Like many Japanese-Americans of his generation, he was reviled, discriminated against, locked away into concentration camps, looked down upon. And like many, to prove his loyalty to his country, he went to war. In Inouye’s case, he suffered, soldiered on and became an honest-to-God American, Medal-of-Honor-winning hero. The story goes that he went into a San Francisco barber shop on his way home, still wearing the uniform of an Army captain (with one sleeve pinned up because he’d lost an arm in the Italian campaign) and the barber refused to cut his hair because he was Japanese. A mark of shame on my hometown. Inouye became the first Asian-American member of the House, and first in the Senate. He died as the most senior member of Congress. He was steadfast in his principles and admired for his humanity.

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Johnny Otis – Brilliant and revolutionary bandleader, showman, musician, developer of talent. ‘Hand Jive’ anyone?

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Etta James – A singer who can get you up dancing and break your heart at the same time. Coincidentally, one of Johnny Otis’ great discoveries.

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Joe Paterno – His players practically worshiped him but his reputation will be forever linked and, therefore, sullied by his connection to a sexual abuse scandal centered around a former assistant.

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Earl Scruggs – A giant. A legend. A pioneer. A person who, defying all odds, brought soulfulness to the banjo.

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Dick Clark – Forget the new year’s eve caricature he became. He broke ground and he sincerely loved teenagers and their music.

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Levon Helm – Listen to him sing. Read his lyrics. You can’t mistake him for anybody else.

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Mike Wallace – The number-one case in point for this axiom: fearless journalists piss powerful people off.

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Maurice Sendak – He turned a very uncertain and unhappy childhood into art adored by millions of children and adults alike.

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Carlos Fuentes – Great writer of brutally honest fiction.

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Doc Watson – Changed the lives of thousands of musicians and maybe millions of fans with his clear and honest singing about the lives of real people.

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Rodney King – Beaten by LA cops, who were filmed doing it. All holy hell broke loose when they were acquitted. Then, in all sincerity, Rodney King asked his townsfolk to get along and stop killing each other. For his efforts, he was turned into a national joke. He deserved better.

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Andy Griffith – On popular TV shows for, like, 50 years but he still died an underestimated and underappreciated actor.

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Ernest Borgnine – Played honest-to-God working-class American men with gravity and honesty. They don’t make guys like him or movies like that anymore, to our great loss.

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Kitty Wells – Raw and honest voice. A trailblazer for women in music. Ran her own life and her own career her way. Also a beautiful, generous and gracious human being.

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Sally Ride – Terms like “role model” and “hero” get thrown around like nickels these days. I just wish kids knew less about people like Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan and a whole lot more about people like Sally Ride.

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Neil Armstrong – The first line of every single obituary of Neil Armstrong? He was the first man to set foot on the moon. Do you need a second sentence? Every one my age or older remembers the precise moment.

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George McGovern – A war hero who wanted to end the useless and wasteful Vietnam War. As a result, he was chewed up by the Nixon campaign machine and made to look weak, unmanly. He told the truth.

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Margaret DuPont – Graceful, smart, tough as nails. Was she the first American female sports star? Many owe her a great debt of gratitude for making the model many now trade upon.

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Marvin Miller – Created major league baseball as we now know it. Helped players stand up to the organized servitude that was baseball. Hated by many. Hated.

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Hector Camacho – Grew up tough in Spanish Harlem. Became successful, rich, famous. Never lost the chip on his shoulder or need to live wild. Ended bad, as it had to, by a bullet to the head.

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Dave Brubeck – His iconic ‘Take Five’ may be the most recognized jazz song of all time. His bands were tight. His piano was beautiful. He represented his era well.

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Ravi Shankar – Classically-trained. Spiritual. A bridge between very different cultures.

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Luncheon, Civility, and Other Anachronisms

I had a wonderfully restorative lunch today with a good friend. We talked about many things, some quite contentious; we agreed on lot, disagreed on a few, remained civil always.

Part of my enjoyment was due to the fact that there are fewer and fewer opportunities to openly and candidly discuss and civilly disagree about matters of interest and contention with people of shared good will. Our country has been purposefully cleaved by people whose interests are served by a hostile, mistrustful, and radically bifurcated country.

I’m reminded of this by Olympia Snow’s announcement that she will be leaving her seat in the Senate because it had become too shallowly self-serving and too uncivil. (My thoughts about her departure are here.) I’m also thinking about the death of Andrew Breitbart, who brought uncivil personal attack of his enemies, both online and in the flesh, to a high art form. And, to be fair, I also have to mention groups like Code Pink, who think nothing of shouting down and otherwise proudly interrupting people they disagree with, even during sessions of Congress and other civic functions. Or recent political campaigns based on demeaning and vile tactics that make Americans lose faith, not just in particular candidates, but also in our political system, and each other. (Thank you for this legacy, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, et al.)

The result is a society more dysfunctional and less humane, one in which we’re split into tribes, and very mistrustful of the other.

Some years ago, I had a long philosophical conversation with a colleague and friend who happens to be a conservative Republican. Our talk crisscrossed many subjects, as conversations will do, at one point landing on immigration.

Eventually, I talked about the experience of my grandparents, who came to America virtually penniless (My grandfather arrived with $10 in his pocket; not hyperbole, I’ve seen the ship’s manifest at the Ellis Island museum. My post about him is here.), about their belief in America, concept and reality, and our family’s history of progress here.

And I choked up, as I’m wont to do when I think and speak about them.

My friend told me it was the first time he’d ever even considered the possibility that a liberal Democrat (me) might just also be patriotic; still among the saddest sentences I’ve ever heard spoken.