“Life is short,” the comic Garry Shandling said sardonically, “But not short enough!” Shandling died in 2016, at 66.
“Take nothing for granted,” Chicago deejay Lin Brehmer would often say to sign off his show. “It’s great to be alive.” Brehmer died on Sunday, at 68.
I’m of both minds, I guess.
I don’t much like Ezekiel Emanuel, but I do think I agree with his recently re-expressed plan to refuse life-prolonging drug treatments or therapies after 75 or so. From what I see, lots of people just wind up marring perfectly good lives with long and miserable last acts. (There are exceptions, of course: My 74-year-old sister had a knee replacement yesterday and I expect her to be ready in time to play in Wimbledon.)
The oral historian Studs Terkel lived a long time. “Nineteen twelve,” he used to bellow. “The Titanic went down, and I came up!”
Too long, almost. Toward the end of his 96 years, the nearly deaf listening man complained of loneliness. Yes, he had lots of younger friends. “But they don’t know the songs!” The songs he and his generation grew up with. But of course he clung to life like everyone does. “People ask, ‘Who wants to live to ninety?'” Studs would always say. “The answer is: Every eighty-nine year old!”
It also seems to me that for many of us—even endlessly curious cats like Terkel—there’s only so much social evolution that it’s possible to gracefully negotiate in one life. I remember my 85-year-old father, a career advertising man, bewildered at most of the commercials on TV near the end. “Buddy?” he asked me plaintively, “What is ‘GoDaddy’?”
In the introduction to one of Terkel’s last books—if anybody can find this passage, I’d be grateful to replace this poor paraphrase with the real thing—he observed that when he was young, death was everywhere, and on everyone’s lips: People died of all kinds of things and at all ages, and were often waked in their own houses. People were comfortable talking about death, because death was so common and present. Back then, sex was a taboo subject, spoken of only by young boys, and only in whispers. By the time Terkel was old, death was the whispered thing, discussed awkwardly if at all, and as briefly as possible, the dead whisked quietly away to funeral homes lest their presence might upset someone. But sex? Now, Terkel said with astonishment, sex was all anyone could talk about.
It’s lately occurred to me that it’s lucky Terkel died when he did—in 2008, just as social media was taking off. The man who helped America discover that ordinary people had extraordinary things to say narrowly missed living in an age when ordinary people, unfortunately, began to think we’re more interesting than we actually are. What is oral history, in the age of SnapChat? And how would Studs Terkel have digested the notion that “artificial intelligence” was now purporting to mimic human conversation, thus threatening to remove meaning from human communication, and thus for some of us, the meaning from our lives.
We’ll all be along eventually, fellas. We’ll tell you all about it. You won’t believe your ears.