Last Saturday afternoon, I listened to the final episode of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, ended now after 42 years of weekly broadcasts.
The show had been recorded the evening before at the Hollywood Bowl and President Barack Obama called in live to mark the moment. It was funny that Keillor did most of the talking, hardly letting the president speak at all.
I wasn't a particular fan of the program nor, as some, did I dislike it either. I tuned in now and then and over those many years I became familiar, of course, with Lake Wobegon, Guy Noir, Lives of the Cowboys, commercials for Powdermilk Biscuits, the townsfolk at the Chatterbox Cafe and all the rest.
Prairie Home Companion has been a part of my personal cultural landscape for most of its existence. Even though, sometimes, a year or two or three went by since I had last heard the show, it was a familiar presence each time I returned, one of the small pleasures I could count on that defined the times during which I have lived.
On the same day as Keillor's last show, I read with my early morning coffee that Elie Wiesel had died at age 87. Elie Wiesel? The Auschwitz survivor who dedicated his life as witness for the 11 million slaughtered in the Nazi Holocaust?
Elie Wiesel, the teacher, the writer, the humanitarian, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient dead?
“Wiesel is a messenger to mankind,” reads his Nobel citation. “His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.”
It is, I guess, such an homage – and there have been many others - that made me think that somehow Elie Wiesel was immortal.
I was barely out of high school – just three or four years - when I read his first book, Night, a powerful memoir of his teen years in the Nazi camp at Auschwitz-Berkenau, a book that once read can never be forgotten.
As my introduction to the Holocaust, Night was so hard to read, such a horrible shock to learn what had taken place at the camps (they skipped over those details in my school) that I could hardly keep reading. And I couldn't not keep going either.
It's been nearly 60 years now and I haven't stopped reading Holocaust literature, always returning to Elie Wiesel. He's been with me all these years and it never occurred to me that he would die.
About a month ago another cultural icon died, the boxer Muhammad Ali. He was 74, having lived for many years with Parkinson's syndrome.
I worked with him twice, many years ago. Once over a period of a couple of days at his home in Chicago for a television interview and again for another TV show about American sports legends recorded at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.
It is difficult for me to explain to other people how little I care about sports. It is so central to the American experience that people have trouble believing me. But it is true; I have zero interest – as though I am missing a gene.
And that makes me an almost perfect example of the reasons for Muhammad Ali's universal fame. Not celebrity, that describes something too fleeting and unimportant for Ali. It is his fame – in every corner of the world.
Even I care about Ali. As Robert Lipsyte explained in The New York Times obituary:
”In later life Ali became something of a secular saint, a legend in soft focus. He was respected for having sacrificed more than three years of his boxing prime and untold millions of dollars for his antiwar principles after being banished from the ring; he was extolled for his un-self-conscious gallantry in the face of incurable illness, and he was beloved for his accommodating sweetness in public.”
I got to see that sweetness up close when working on the sports show. When he walked through a public area, people of all ages – kids, teens, grownups, old men and women – wanted to shake his hand, to hug him, to bask in his aura of humankindness. He was bigger than life and eminently approachable.
Like Elie Wiesel, Muhammad Ali came along in my life when I was just a few years out of high school and he has been there ever since floating around edges of my consciousness.
Garrison Kiellor, Elie Wiesel, Muhammad Ali. They are more than cultural icons, they are embedded in my worldview, contributors – with thousands of other people, events and things – that define for me the era through which I have lived.
And now they are gone.
It keeps happening these days as the actors in the mise en scene of my life drop away to be replaced with the newer people, events and things that help define the later, different eras that people younger than I inhabit.
Of course, this is as it should be and has been since the beginning of time. Still, that doesn't mean I'm not a bit discomfitted when, as with the departure of these most recent three, the narrative of my era becomes a little bit emptier.
It's not that I am a stranger in a strange land. Yet. But I am feeling somewhat forlorn today living in a world that is a little less my own.