The names of dead friends in my contacts list are growing. Embracing mortality with a touch of humor, I’ve been joking for the past few years that I leave the dead ones in so when they outnumber the live ones I know it’s my turn to go.

Years ago at a family wedding a cousin said, “You know, we’re going to live well into our hundreds.” I responded, “I have no desire to live to be a hundred.” This bothered him so I explained that I’m not looking just to pack on years. As long as I feel good and there’s a reason to live I’ll do what I can to stick around, but it’s okay to die.

Occasionally, I have an odd thought, kind of a “God is laughing from above thing” with God saying to one of the assistants, “I’m not sure why they’re all afraid to die. I suppose it’s my fault, I was in a rush.”

I remember reading that the poet William Carlos William died at ninety-one. It seemed like a lovely number. My father died at ninety-two and my mother died at fifty so I have no firm precedent to predict my longevity but ninety one always felt like a cool number. I’ve learned in life you get what you get.

When I was fifty I studied Buddhism and meditation Tulku Jigme Rinpoche for some time. Wikipedia says, A tulku is a reincarnate custodian of a specific lineage of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism who is given empowerment and trained from a young age by students of his or her predecessor. “Tulku,” as I called him, was twenty-three. One day I told him it seemed odd that he at twenty-three was teaching me at fifty. The second the question left my mouth I thought how silly that must sound to someone steeped in reincarnation.

People die all the time but when someone leaves who you admired it leaves a hole. It’s not sadness so much as, well, I’m not sure what it is but it has to do with how they affected your life and how they lived theirs and it always feels cruel to me when someone dies who brought joy to others.

One of my favorite musicians died last week, the pianist Chick Corea.

If you don’t know Chick’s music, listen to The Ultimate Adventure on YouTube or anything else by him, especially, Crystal Silence. I started listening to Chick Corea when I was fourteen and his music brought me much joy.

The mother of a close friend, Jean Coram, died last week.

Twenty years ago we were traveling in England and Jean took us into her home and toured us around her village. It was four of the best days of my life. Jean lived in an older person’s residence in England and was 97. Ninety-seven is a big, long life. When she got COVID-19 she told her daughters, “No trips to the hospital.” Her daughter told me “Mum said growing old is not for sissies.” Tomorrow is her funeral. Farewell kind friend.

Rush Limbaugh died last week. I didn’t know him and I don’t like to throw dirt on anyone’s grave. I’m sure there are people who loved Limbaugh and their loss is meaningful. 

The first time I heard Limbaugh I was driving home from teaching at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. I was spinning the knobs and landed on KVI, one of Seattle’s talk radio/news stations. The voice was comical, the delivery polished but soon enough the tone, my gosh, it was ugly, derisive and abusive. I’d never heard anything like it. The voice was making fun of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. I appreciate intelligent and respectful opinions even from those with whom I disagree, but this was despicable! What the voice lacked in substance he made up for with sarcasm and derision. I listened for a while until I decided I don’t need this in my life and I switched stations never knowing who the speaker was.

When I got home, I called KVI. When I connected with the station manager I told him this, “I’m not sure who or what that guy is, but it’s a horrible thing to hear that kind of talk on the radio and as long as he is on your station I will never listen to KVI again!” The station manager laughed and said, “Sir, I feel the same way you do, and I hate to tell you this, but that guy is the most popular radio show host in the country and he’s making this station a ton of money. His name is Rush Limbaugh.”

And there it was: abuse and derision and non-substantive attack and insult was a money maker. Sound familiar? P.T. Barnum at his best; no publicity is bad publicity, it doesn’t matter what you say, only that people are listening. 

Three years later, a friend called to say he was coming for a visit and warned me, “I want you to know, I’ve become pretty conservative” to which I responded, “Well, that’ll give us something to talk about.” 

When he arrived he was eager to share his ideas. It wasn’t upsetting that his ideas were conservative, so much as they weren’t really ideas at all, but mainly crude and personal attacks on others. I finally asked him, “Have you been listening to Rush?” to which he replied, “Yes” adding, “I listen to the other side too.” “What does that mean, the other side?” “You know, NPR.” Then I said, “You know, if you’re embracing conservatism, why not learn about it from some reputable and intelligent sources instead of Rush?”

A week after Rush’s death, we are a country of people adept at insult and attack but who struggle to honorably or civilly disagree. We would rather demonize each other than do the hard work to find compromise and common ground. In short, we’ve become haters.

Limbaugh opened the door to an army of abusive, truth forsaking radio and TV talk show hosts who pander to the lowest element of their listeners. They promote anger and embrace a society destroying pathological distortion of reality. Instead of opening minds and hearts, they’ve closed them, and it isn’t just on the “right.”

Rush pretended that he was just an entertainer, oft citing the influence of The Firesign Theater satire troop he admired as a child, but he knew better. Rush understood he was extracting gold from the mine of hatred, contempt and rudeness, and perhaps more than any media personality in the history of the country up to his arrival, Rush promoted a culture of abuse. It made him rich, powerful and famous and metastasized into hundreds if not thousands of others just like him.

And that, my friends, rankles me. If a sociopath tells you a truth it doesn’t mean he isn’t a sociopath. It matters in what form ideas are cast into the culture. It matters how we speak, what we say, and how we do or do not respect those with whom we disagree.

While Chick Corea and Jean Coram departed this world leaving behind music and joy, Rush Limbaugh departed the world with a society he helped tear into shreds, if not so much for his ideas but for how he shared them. It is for that I will remember Rush Limbaugh.