When A Golden Age Ends
December 16, 2017—28 Kislev 5778
Once upon a time, in Fairfield County, Connecticut, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there was a golden age—a golden age of cartoon making. Over 100 cartoonists lived and thrived within 30 miles of one another. A man named Cullen Murphy grew up in this world as the son of a cartoonist and became a cartoonist himself. Recently interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Cullen Murphy describes the glory of the golden age of cartoons:
Imagine a Sunday morning when 16 full pages of comics arrive with the newspaper. And the comics are so important that they wrap the newspaper. …These pages are the size of a newspaper broadsheet. The color is beautiful. And this has been going on for decades, really since the turn of the century. And the pages were so big that for a kid you could not realistically sit in a chair and read the comics. You had to spread them out across the floor…It’s hard to recapture what a big deal newspaper comics were for a long part of our history, in particular at the very heart of the American century.
In his just published memoir entitled Cartoon County, Cullen Murphy relates that he worked together with his father on a comic strip called Prince Valiant. Prince Valiant waged war and triumphed over evil from the Roman Empire to the late middle ages. For 24 years father and son worked together on this cartoon, the father drawing the pictures, the son writing the story line, until his father passed away in 2004.
This story about the golden age of cartoons, and the father son cartoon pair, really resonated for me because it’s not just about cartoons. It is about something more basic, more human, more universal. It is about the problem of what happens when a world we know and love is dying all around us? We know it. We feel it. It is happening slowly but inexorably. And there is nothing we can do about it.
Cullen Murphy had this problem at two levels. The golden age of cartoons was his youth. But the world of cartoons, and Sunday morning newspapers, were dying. How people got their news was changing. Fewer and fewer people were getting those thick Sunday morning papers. Cartoonists like his father were getting laid off.
But he also felt it at a personal level. After all, his father was his professional partner. They worked together every day for 24 years. He knew that could not last forever.
What do we do when our golden age is ending? To be a human being is to be heir to that question.
This past Tuesday night we had a lovely Hanukkah celebration where four generations were gathered together eating latkes, lighting candles, and hearing a concert. I was greeting folks in the Adelson Community Hall when I came upon one couple I did not recognize. I had never seen them before. So I approached them, they looked to be in their early 70s. I asked them who they were. They said they were not Temple members. They explained that they have four grown children, each of whom is married and has children, but all four live in different cities. None lives in Boston. They do not have a single local child or grandchild. They remembered when Hanukkah meant being with their children and grandchildren. But with no local progeny, Hanukkah had lost its luster. Then they heard about our party. They heard children and grandchildren would be here. Other people’s children and grandchildren, but still children and grandchildren. So they were happy to be here, in the presence of happy generations, as we were happy to have them. But in hearing their story I wondered: what is the relationship, for them, between this Hanukkah, watching other people’s children and grandchildren, and previous Hanukkahs, when they were celebrating with their own family?
How many incarnations are there of this very human story?
I remember my golden age, when our children were younger and still under our roof.
I remember my golden age, when my husband or wife was still alive, and I would come home at the end of the day and there was my best friend and life partner to talk to.
I remember my golden age, when I still had my health and lucidity and strength.
I remember my golden age, when I still had a job to go to that filled my days and weeks with meaning and purpose.
Our golden age is ending. How do we make our peace with that?
As always, our weekly Torah portion speaks to our dilemma. What are Pharaoh’s two dreams about? They are about the world he knows and loves dying all around him. Seven cows, healthy and whole, are eaten by seven cows, sick and gaunt. Seven ears of grain, healthy and whole, are eaten by seven ears of grain, sick and gaunt.
Pharaoh’s nightmare is all of our nightmare. The nightmare that our health is evanescent. That our wholeness is evanescent. That illness and loss and death will have the last word. If we are lucky, if we are truly blessed, we get the seven fat years. But nobody gets only the seven fat years. At some point we will all know lean years too. That’s the point of Pharaoh’s nightmare. That’s the reality of being human. Nobody emerges unscathed.
What is the answer to Pharoah’s nightmare? Let’s start with what not to do.
Denial is not a strategy. It would not be wise for the cartoonists of Fairfield County to deny that how people get their news is changing and that cartoons are losing their appeal.
Nor is rage a strategy. How does it help if cartoonists rage against the wind that fewer people are buying papers and reading cartoons?
If denial and rage are not healthy responses, what is a healthy response? I would say three things. Regroup. Renew. Redo.
Regroup. When the world we love is dying all around us, we are entitled to some doubt, some mistakes and missteps, as we try to figure it all out. We are entitled to some time before we move on. But move on we must.
Renew. When the world we love is dying, what can we take from that world that can live again? How can we generate positive energy that can thrive in a new world?
Redo. Doing what we used to do no longer works. What can I do now that will work in this new world? Cullen Murphy could no longer do cartoons because the world of cartoons was dying. But the world of ideas was not dying. He became the editor of Vanity Fair and the author of numerous books.
When a world that we love is dying, when it seems like Pharaoh’s nightmare is coming true, we are not helpless and we are not hopeless. I do not have the answer for you. But here is a roadmap where you can find your own answer: Regroup. Renew. Redo. Let me tell you a story of what this looks like.
Eighteen years ago this week, a truly great man named Lenny Zakim passed away. If you are new to the community, Lenny was the head of our local ADL. He was a charismatic visionary who brought people and worlds together, and he passed away from cancer at a tragically young age. His funeral was attended by people of all races, colors, and creeds. All human beings loved Lenny Zakim. He is the man for whom Boston’s iconic bridge, the Zakim Bridge, is named.
He died. Pharaoh’s nightmare came true. Now what?
When he died, he left a young widow, Joyce Zakim, and three young children, Deena, Shari and Josh.
Roll the film forward 18 years. This past Monday morning, at minyan, Joyce,
Deena and Shari came to mark the 18th yahrtzeit of their husband and father. Teens when their father died, all three children are now young adults who are thriving. Deena works as an attorney representing tenants with disabilities. Shari is a clinical social worker doing individual and group therapy with at risk populations. Josh is a Boston City Councilor running for Secretary of State. All three were married within the last two years. Joyce was blessed to find love again and to remarry. Joyce and all three adult children give their heart to the Lenny Zakim Fund and to the Zakim Center at Dana Farber. Times change. Fragile flowers fade. Worlds come and go. But love is forever. Our grit and resilience can help us make our peace with the passing of one world and the emergence of a new world.
What do we do when the golden age is over?
It takes some time, it involves some fits and starts, but what we do is we start working on creating a new golden age. Shabbat shalom.