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New Year’s Eve

December 31, 2011

So here we are again at the end of another year. Time to take stock, look back, look ahead.

2012. It seems so unreal, this combination of numbers representing the year we now enter. It is especially hard to conceive for my generation who grew up with George Orwell’s 1984 still being part of the distant future. 2012…oh, my.

Bernadette is working today, so I’m left alone, rattling around the house with my thoughts (always a dangerous thing). The needles are starting to drop from the Christmas tree, and I noticed that multitudinous spiders have taken up residence in the corners of certain walls, but I am distracted. In another place. Nostalgic. The spiders are apparently unconcerned about such matters. Maybe I’ll just take out the vacuum cleaner and show them a thing or two.

I once saw a documentary segment about nostalgia which mentioned how at one time it was considered a form of depression. One modern expert put a somewhat different spin on it. He said it is a way we can help to view ourselves relative to others who came before us. Since this is the time of year when the remembrances of those who have left this plane of existence in the year just ending are revisited, it’s a perfect opportunity to test his theory.

It is quite a procession of notable people who impacted our lives — sometimes significantly and sometimes tangentially — and to realize that they’re no longer present is always unsettling. Inevitably it leads me to think about how much some people manage to accomplish in their lifetimes. Then, a singularly provocative question: how do those of us who spend most of our allotted time seemingly just muddling by expect to stack up?

This was especially true this year for me. Two of the departed were personal heroes of mine. Neither particularly captured the public spotlight in life or death, but they had a powerful effect on me.

R. Sargent Shriver was the man most responsible for the creation of the Peace Corps in which I proudly served. He led a life of public service dedicated to the proposition that poverty was a condition unacceptable in a society where prosperity was the hallmark. Setting aside personal aspirations for what could have been a brilliant career in politics, he dedicated his time and energy in a valiant attempt to actually do something about the problem. After serving as the director of the Peace Corps, he helped create the Office of Economic Opportunity and was its first director. The array of social programs he founded is unparalleled: Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, Upward Bound, and numerous legal services for the underrepresented and dispossessed. Most people don’t realize the profound contribution of this incredible American. He fell victim to Alzheimer’s on January 18.

Milton Rogovin also focused his talents on the forgotten in our society, but as a photographer. His documentary photos of common people — the workers, the poor, the otherwise faceless masses — were done with dignity, clarity, and an honesty that conveys the often ignored humanity of his subjects. His aptly entitled documentary film, “The Rich Have Their Own Photographers,” captured his social consciousness and brought his quest to remedy social injustice to a wider audience (though not wide enough, as far as I’m conerned). He was a simple man, an optometrist by trade, but he could not ignore the wrongs he saw, and he too did something about it. And, like Sargent Shriver, he also left this earth on January 18.

There were many others I admired now gone:  civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth, Czech writer-turned-president Vaclav Havel, the incomparable marathoner Grete Waitz, actor Peter Falk (ah, Wings of Desire), and saxophone wizard Clarence Clemons, to name a few. Their achievements will stand long after their departure.

I do understand that not every human will make a mark as memorable as a select few manage to do. I recognize that, in taking stock, though most of us won’t quite measure up to the incredible levels of the finest among us, if we have made an effort to do something that has made the world better in some small way and we use their example to inspire us to perhaps do a little more, we can enter the new year with some solace or satisfaction.

So I shall be of good cheer after all. I feel as though I am still contributing with my new teaching “career” in spite  of retirement. My health, though not what it once was, is not bad. Bernadette still puts up with me. I continue to be easily amused and captivated by simple things. My life has been filled with plenty.

I therefore resolve to celebrate a more positive view of the nostalgia I’m awash in. Spiders, you have a reprieve. Bring on the dropping ball, 2012. Ready or not (well…not, but anyway), here I come.

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