Remarks At My Mother’s Memorial

Before I talk about Mom, I want to say a few words about hospice.

In her story “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” flash fiction author Kathy Fish suggests a group of hospice workers be called a grace. I wholeheartedly agree. They are angels on Earth. For weeks these kind souls came into our home and made Mom’s passing as easy as possible. We will be forever grateful.

***

I am convinced the reason the elderly repeat the same stories over and over is so you’ll get the details right at times like this. We don’t have the time for me to tell you all of Mom’s stories. So this is the Reader’s Digest version.

My mother, Anna Karolina Badum, grew up in Nazi Germany. Her small farming town in Bavaria went largely untouched by the war, save for those sons and fathers who returned wounded, or never returned at all. Mom’s father, my Opa, had been a railroad engineer on the Russian front. He never said more than that about what he did in the war. When the Americans finally came through, they camped in the fields around Mom’s house. She recalled they had plenty of chocolate. When President Roosevelt died, they fired artillery in tribute. The concussion shattered windows in the house.

After the war, Mom was sent to live with her grandmother and maiden aunts in the 14th century stone tower that is Höchstadt’s primary landmark. I know this sounds like the set up for some dark German fairytale. But Mom loved her grandmother and her aunts, and this is where she learned to cook and bake and to make her own clothes. Her grandmother was regularly hired to cook for weddings and other celebrations in town, and her aunts had a thriving cottage business making dresses. They had no phone, so it was Mom’s job to run around town taking orders, delivering finished dresses, and collecting payment. She did very well on tips.

Living with her grandmother also meant she went to church every day and twice on Sunday. Her friends gave her the nickname “Holy Anna.” They always saved her a seat at the movie theater on Saturdays, when she would be the first one out the door at church, running across town and only ever missing the newsreels.

Like most girls in Germany at that time, Mom’s schooling ended with eighth grade. She moved back home and told her mother she wanted to get a job. Mom was told she needed to help out at home and take care of her brothers.

So she ran away from home. She found work and lodging at a small inn outside Nürnberg, cleaning rooms and helping in the kitchen. Her brother Hilmar was the only one who knew where she was, and he kept her secret. By the time she was eighteen, she had saved enough money to come to America by steamship.

She first stayed with an aunt, and worked keeping house for a retired Army colonel and his family. The colonel knew German, and this is where Mom started to learn English. She then went to live with her Uncle John’s family, and went to night school to improve her English. She also put her sewing skills to work in the embroidery shops of West New York.

My father was a bus driver there, and my mother met him while taking his bus to work. Dad was 16 years her senior, and apparently a real smooth talker.

We lived in West New York until I was five, when we moved to a house in Bergenfield which my father – a veteran of WWII – bought with help from the GI Bill. I will always be thankful for that. It’s where I forged cherished friendships, and where music became such a big part of my life.

Dad was the musician in our house, playing guitar and accordion by ear, singing his kids to sleep. But Mom had the best records: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette. Her hunk of burning love was Elvis: She had all his records, saw all his movies multiple times, even named her miniature schnauzer after him. Later she succumbed to the boyish charms of Glen Campbell. I have fond memories of the whole family watching Campbell’s TV show together. She bought me my first Beatles album – Meet the Beatles. By the end of high school I was putting together bands with my friends and rehearsing in our back basement, sometimes well after Mom had gone to bed. I once asked her why she put up with that, why she never complained. She said, “Because I knew where you were.”

Dad had a heart attack in 1967 that forced his retirement from bus driving. So Mom went back to work at the embroidery shop that had been asking her to come back for years. Often times she’d put in an 80-hour week, that second 40 being paid as overtime. She belonged to the textile workers union, but she didn’t really need them: she was so good at her job she could cause a slowdown at the factory all on her own. So she generally got what she wanted.

I get my love of Star Trek from Mom. When it was first on, when I was nine years old, she let me stay up to watch. I never made it to the end of an episode. But we happily devoured it later in reruns. She loved Captain Kirk. Who didn’t? She loved that women in the 23rd century wore mini skirts. Mostly, she loved its optimistic, inclusive vision of the future. As hard as it is to do sometimes, I still hang on to that vision. Mom did, too, even though it occasionally manifested itself in the phrase, “What the hell is wrong with people?” For Mom, the 23rd century couldn’t get here fast enough.

Mom could knit and crochet like nobody’s business. Sweaters, scarves, bedspreads, pillows, stuffed animals. Truly remarkable work. I believe it was her form of meditation. That her children and grandchildren can wrap themselves in her handmade blankets for all the winters to come brings added meaning to the word “comforter.”

Then there’s the baking. Bread. Cakes. Danish rings. Christmas cookies. Growing up, my favorite time of year was from Thanksgiving until Christmas, when Mom’s kitchen was a feast for the senses. Almost as good as those Christmas cookies was stealing pinches of cookie dough from the fridge and trying to cover up the evidence. A few years back, when Mom said she could no longer make those cookies, it was like a favorite sports hero retiring.

When I let people know Mom had passed, my buddy Andre sent a message of condolence. Shortly after, he sent a second message: Did you get the recipes? Yes. They were in a shoebox under her bed. Of course, they’ll never taste the same. But we’ll give them our best shot.

Lest I paint too rosy a picture, let me say: Mom could be ornery. She could hold a grudge like a champion. And for most of her life, she wasn’t one to verbalize her feelings. I think a lot of the difficulties she and my father had could have been ironed out if they had just talked more with each other, been a bit more vulnerable. My mother didn’t tell me she loved me until I was in my thirties. I never doubted her love for a moment, but it was a joy to finally hear her say it. And it was easier to say from that day forward. That day, she was having radiation treatments. Yes, Mom beat cancer, a disease that had claimed her older daughter. It didn’t stand a chance this time around.

In the last couple of years, when she was done telling the same stories, Mom would reflect and say “I’ve had a good life.” It was good to hear her say that. The last time she was able to come to our house for Thanksgiving, I caught her looking wistfully at a photo of my dad we had hanging in the dining room.

“He was handsome, wasn’t he?” she said.

Yes he was Ma. And you were beautiful.

So Heaven just got a lot more interesting. It certainly tastes better now. Seriously. If you can’t bake in Heaven, the place doesn’t deserve the name.

***

I want to close with a couple of favorite passages.

The first is by Walt Whitman. I read these words at a friend’s memorial some years ago. I tried to find something different for Mom, but it’s tough to top old Walt. I hope someone will read these same words when my time comes:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed … and luckier.

This last passage comes from Mom’s favorite philosopher. He’s one of mine, too:

Live long and prosper.

[2018]

Unsung Hero

We used to imagine the unsung heroes, the people lost to time who were the first to do something — try a food, form a joke, make a simple tool. Lately I wonder about the first people to sing a major triad, how it might have felt to collectively conjure that magic from within themselves, to behold that new and holy sound and what that must have opened within them.

I remember how it felt to build chords in choir. But I’d heard music all my life and knew what to expect. Still, it was transcendent to be one of the instruments. And then I think about the first person to flat the third, who made the triad minor and knew it wasn’t a mistake, knew it wasn’t evil, and wept just the same.

[2018]

 

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Fine Tuning

At sixteen I declared I would study medicine. The following summer I visited Germany. Even with my poor German, I could tell my grandmother was proud.

While shopping with my cousins, I bought The Beatles’ “White Album.” I’d never heard it, but knew something of its mythic reputation.

I listened that night, alone, with headphones, during a thunderstorm. Though Ringo bade me good night, I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to know what those four guys knew, to make others feel like this.

I went to Germany wanting to be a heart specialist. I came back wanting to be John Lennon.

[2016]

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Election 2016

To anyone who thinks Clinton and Trump are equally bad choices, who is considering voting third-party as a matter of conscience, or who is considering sitting out this election:

Electing Donald Trump would be a monumental mistake. It would open the flood gates for the very worst in this country to run roughshod over everything. The signs are everywhere. The troglodytes are already emboldened. The dumbing down of America, which started around 1980, is almost complete. I guess a lot of people really do just want to watch the world burn.

I understand and share the frustration with a government that has lost sight of its charge. I agree that things ought to be shaken up. It’s why I supported Bernie. He’s the leader we need. But at this late stage, we must work with what we have. Trump is playing the populist outsider. But he is no ideal. He’s a confection for the frustrated and the simple-minded, telling them exactly what they want to hear in the way they want to hear it. His followers praise his penchant for speaking his mind. But speaking one’s mind is no virtue when one’s mind is full of garbage. Trump’s empty bravado appeals to the politically emasculated, the folks who believe America should be dictating terms and kicking ass when anyone gets out of line. Apparently this is what would make America great again. It’s ironic that their champion is a petulant man-child who needed to defend the size of his junk during a nationally televised debate.

Hillary is vilified as a liar. Once you clear the air of incessant right-wing noise, I imagine she’s guilty of about half of the things of which she is accused, none of them criminal. Trump is also a liar; it’s his modus operandi. He reflexively says whatever he needs to to get what he wants, facts and contracts be damned. So, on a purely pragmatic level, we are stuck with two liars as the only people with a realistic chance of being elected president in 2016. Let’s set aside Trump’s racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and general hate-mongering and instead just look at resumés.

Hillary’s would show a lifetime of public service, and a deep understanding of government and public policy. Trump’s would show, aside from his many bankruptcies, juggling of debt, and stiffing of vendors, nothing involving government beyond paying politicians to kiss his ass (the Clintons included). He is woefully out of his depth, and seems incapable of making up the shortfall. He is a vulgar carnival barker, a crass opportunist with a short attention span, a fascist dilettante who’s only allegiance is to himself.

Oh, but he’s a successful businessman! That’s what this country needs — a captain of industry to right the ship of state! Trump is not so much a successful businessman as he is a gifted con artist. Mike Bloomberg, Warren Buffet, and Mark Cuban can attest to Trump’s less-than-stellar business acumen. Even the Wall Street Journal has pointed out that if Trump had simply invested the money he got from dear old dad instead of playing real estate mogul, he’d have made out considerably better. He didn’t even write his own book on how he conducts business. Trump is the living clichè of someone born on third base believing he hit a triple.

Leading the United States of America is so much more complex than running any business. Trump is terrific at marketing his brand. But salesmanship does not equal statesmanship. If he and Hillary were to interview for the job the way most of us have had to for ours, I guarantee Trump would come off like a school kid trying to BS his way through an oral report on a book he never read, while Hillary would ace the thing without breaking a sweat.

There is much that troubles me about Hillary Clinton, particularly the extent to which she is beholden to moneyed interests. The influence of corporate money is the single biggest thing poisoning government. But cutting out the political middleman and just placing  an unhinged, unqualified, narcissistic, alleged billionaire in the White House is no solution.

Of this you can be certain: In 2016, one of these two liars will be elected President of the United States. Only one of them actually has the chops. Not voting for her would be a huge mistake.

[2016]

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Memorial Day 2016

On Memorial Day, we remember the ultimate sacrifices Americans have made defending this country — this grand, magnificently imperfect Enlightenment experiment in self-governance.

More than 400,000 Americans died fighting in World War II. Among other things, they fought to defeat fascism.

Since that time, there has been a strain of fascist thuggery that remains alive in this country. Thanks to the decency and wisdom of the majority of Americans, it has been relegated to the fringes of our society. Now we have a Republican presidential candidate who is more than willing to be its standard-bearer.

So as we honor the service of our fellow Americans this weekend, especially those who fought and died in World War II, let us also reflect on the fact that this November, we may well elect that vulgar carnival barker to lead us, thereby embracing that which we once opposed and rendering the sacrifices of more than 400,000 Americans for nought.

Shame on us if we do.

[2016]

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My Sister, Her Daughter, and the Kindness of Nanci Griffith

In the autumn of 1989 we had tickets to see Nanci Griffith at The Bottom Line in New York City. When the day of the show arrived, my sister Barbara was feeling too poorly to go. She had given birth to her daughter Emily that May, and had been undergoing treatment for cancer since then. So she wrote a letter to Nanci and asked if we would deliver it.

Three of us were going — me, my brother Joe and our friend Bob. (Another friend, John, was supposed to go but had to back out at the last minute. Our sister Cindi was still too young to come along.) We figured one of us had a better chance of delivering the letter than three of us, so the mission fell to me.

I don’t remember who I approached or what I said. All I know is I found myself backstage with Nanci Griffith and her band. She was very sweet and gracious. I remember marveling at how such a big singing voice could come from such a petite woman. I delivered the letter and she autographed an album for me.

As I started to leave, I was introduced to Julie Gold, the composer of “From A Distance,” a song that Nanci had recorded and that would become a huge hit for Bette Mildler a few years later. I told Julie how much I had enjoyed her original demo of the song, which I had heard on Vic Scelsa’s radio program. She then turned and introduced me to Vin Scelsa, and I marveled at how such a sonorous radio voice could come from such a compact man. Someone remarked that things seemed to have come full circle for me at that moment. I laughed in agreement and excused myself to take my seat out front.

Nanci and the band were in fine form that evening. About half way through her set, as she played the intro to the next song, she said, “This song is for Barbara Merklee, her daughter Emily, her brothers Bill and Joe, and their friends Bob and John.” We were floored. With everything else she must have had going on before hitting the stage, Nanci Griffith had actually read my sister’s letter, committed the names to memory, and carried out her request. The song was “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.” I was a sobbing mess by the time the song was finished. I become that sobbing mess anytime I hear it now.

Bob and I went back to The Bottom Line the next night to see if we could get Nanci to sign an album for Barbara. After the show we waited near the end of the stage as the rest of the crowd filed out the exits. Clearly exhausted, Nanci came out and signed my sister’s album with this: “Safe passage through the storms.” My sister passed away a few months later.

Yesterday her daughter Emily got married. I wanted her to have something from her mother on her wedding day, so I put together a small gift package. It included a Polaroid of Emily in her mother’s arms when she was just a few days old, a lock of her mother’s hair (taken from a lock my father had clipped when Barbara was six years old), two of her mother’s books (a play by Dylan Thomas and This Is It by Alan Watts), a CD of “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods,” and a note telling the story of how Nanci Griffith had helped her mother tell us something all those years ago. It’s something I’m sure she would want Emily and James to know as they start their life together: In difficult or uncertain times, there is a light that beckons and never dims.

[2015]

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9-11

We were at our desks in the Marketing Department of The Record newspaper in Hackensack, New Jersey, when my co-worker Wendy started to panic. She had just heard about an airliner crashing into the World Trade Center. Her husband Kevin was due to fly out of New York that morning. Desperate for information, she needed my help turning on the TV in our conference room. She could barely hold it together, and I did my lame best to reassure even though I didn’t know anymore than she did about what had happened.

She finally heard from Kevin, whose plane was still on the ground. Our relief and jubilation was short-lived as it became apparent that what had happened at the World Trade Center was no accident.

The South Tower. The Pentagon. Pennsylvania.

Before the towers collapsed, I was able to see them burning from the third floor of our building. A manager came through and admonished us for looking. I understood his respect for the victims and the first responders, but I also felt like I needed to bear witness.

I only ventured into the Editorial Department on the fourth floor a couple of times that day. I witnessed — I felt — the hum of solemn purpose that marks a newsroom at its finest. It spread to the rest of building; newspapers have a sacred duty to the public, especially in times of crisis. We all had a job to do.

What was my job? I had to design a rack card, a seventeen-by-eleven inch cardboard sign that is mounted on the front of newspaper coin boxes. They usually scream some special offer or section or something else to entice you to buy the paper. Obviously this would be different. I simply couldn’t bear the thought of another sales piece with color bursts and heavy type hyping our coverage — the paper equivalent of those obnoxious tragedy teasers for which cable news has become infamous. My manager and VP agreed. I needed to find a way to acknowledge what had happened, to express solidarity with our community. And I had to have it done that day.

I found a stock image of the World Trade Center, gleaming in late afternoon light. I photoshopped and image of the American flag over this. In my mind, it was like a parent pulling a cover up around a frightened child. It was the country putting its arms around New York City. There was no need for words. In the lower margin, I placed the small logos of our two daily newspapers, The Record and the Herald News. In the top margin: September 11, 2001.

As soon as those signs were placed in the coin boxes throughout the Bergen and Passaic counties, they began to disappear. I started seeing them in people’s windows, even in offices I visited in the weeks that followed. I was glad to have made that connection.

It was but a small prelude to what came next.

When The Record published Tom Franklin’s photo of three firemen raising the American flag at Ground Zero, it became the defining image of that tragic day. Everyone knows that photo; there’s nothing else to say about it. I will never understand how it failed to win a Pulitzer. The gifted photographer is now a professor at Montclair State University. Lucky students!

The Record was inundated with requests for that photo. It became my department’s job to help manage those requests. We heard from fire departments, police departments, and EMTs from all over the country and even overseas. We heard from celebrities and politicians. Then the thank you letters started coming, and our collection of fire and police uniform patches began to grow. I have two mementos from that time that I cherish. One is my copy of the famous photo autographed by Tom. The other in an NYPD baseball cap.

The most moving requests came from people who had lost a relative or a friend. Sometimes these requests were made by phone, and sometimes those conversations seemed as important as the thing they were requesting. Many others, myself included, did not personally lose a loved one that day, but they wanted a copy of the photo to help them process their shock and grief; it was a symbol of hope and resolve. The most sobering phone call I received was from a forensic specialist whose job it was to identify victims from bone fragments.

Every year on the anniversary, Wendy and I exchange single word messages on Facebook. I can never forget how scared she was that morning, and it makes me so happy to see how happy she is now, to see her family pictures and how her boys have grown. It’s the sort of thing to be celebrated as we remember what we lost.

Like so many of us, I will always remember where I was on 9-11: Working at a newspaper in Hackensack, New Jersey. On that day and the days that followed, it was the best possible place for me to be.

[2015]

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The Civil War Is Always With Us

At the beginning of Ken Burns’ remarkable Civil War documentary series, author Shelby Foote says, “Any understanding of this nation has to be based — and I mean really based — on an understanding of the Civil War. It defined us as what we are, and it opened us up to what we became, both good and bad. It was the crossroads of our being.”

It should be required viewing in every high school in the nation. How can we hope to address race in this country when so many of us know more about the Kardashians than we do about Frederick Douglass?

The horrific killings in Charleston, South Carolina, and the ensuing disagreements over symbols of the Confederacy are reminders of how the ripples of the Civil War still reach us.

Those who would continue to fly the Confederate battle flag — or some permutation of it — on government property insist the flag is about “heritage, not hate.” Their cries ring hollow. It is, among other things, a heritage of racism and white supremacy. When they argue states’ rights, they mean the right to uphold a racist and white supremacist system. This is explicitly clear in documents and books from all the Confederate states and from the designer of the Confederate flag. Flying that flag on public/government property is a petulant “fuck off” to the side that won that war, especially when you consider the battle flag went up in the early 1960s as a response to desegregation.

Anything good about Southern culture also existed under the stars and stripes. And, as some are quick to point out, so did slavery, and a good many other atrocities that some would leave out of the history books.

True. So why not remove the American flag as well?

Because the American flag also represents our attempts, however imperfect, to confront our wrongs and to rectify them. The same cannot be said of any Confederate flag.

If only we could finally find closure in those attempts.

In ways great and small, the Civil War is always with us.

When my wife and I were considering names for our daughter back in 1996, we didn’t want to name her after someone else in our families. We wanted her to be her own person. We chose Amanda.

The history of that name within the family was unknown to us at the time.

My daughter’s birth rekindled my interest in genealogy. I soon discovered she had two great-great-great grandmothers named Amanda on my side of the family.

Both these women were married to Union veterans of the Civil War. Amanda Worden (who I had only known as Minnie; it’s even the name on her headstone) married Edward Root, who served in the 2nd New York Cavalry. He saw action in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. His handwritten family history became the foundation of my genealogical research. I also have his diary, his medals, and his Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) pin. My brother’s middle name is Edward in his honor.

Amanda Lewis married Edward Tremper, who served in the Union navy, fought in the Battle of Mobile Bay, and was a prisoner of war. He escaped from Libby Prison in Virginia. Ed Tremper died in 1888 when a disgruntled drunk who had been tossed out of a tavern returned and threw a rock at the bartender, hitting Ed instead.

My biggest surprise was learning that my daughter was not the first Amanda Merklee in the family tree.

The first Amanda Merklee was a half-cousin who lived in Philadelphia her entire life, from 1832 to 1919. Her father was a veteran of the War of 1812. She kept journals, which are now held by the Pennsylvania Historical Society. They offer a glimpse into her life and times that I don’t have for the other Amandas.

About half of the pages are taken up with recording the day-to-day events in her life. She and three of her sisters always lived together and never married. They were all deeply religious, and deeply involved with their extended families in Philadelphia and New York.

The remaining pages record news and her thoughts about the War of the Rebellion. Clearly an abolitionist, she writes that slavery has “long been agitating our land” and how the Union is the side of “justice and right.” The passages about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination are very moving, and conclude with this: “A. Lincoln died an honorable death. J. Davis will fill a traitor’s grave.”

Amanda also writes about the volunteer work she and her sisters performed at Philadelphia’s Cherry Street Hospital, where they cared for wounded soldiers, Confederate and Union alike.

The first Amanda Merklee knew her cause was just. It included the end of slavery, the preservation of the Union, and compassion for anyone and everyone who needed her help, regardless of the uniform they wore. I couldn’t ask for a better legacy for my daughter.

Where some find in the Civil War a reason to stay divided, they can also find those “better angels of our nature” that President Lincoln spoke about. It should not take tragedies and government decrees to relegate the Confederate flag to museums and text books. It should finally come down because we finally listen to those angels. The racial wounds of this country, wounds that have been there from its birth, cannot heal otherwise.

Incidentally, the name Amanda means “worthy of being loved.” It would cause an awful lot of confusion, but by that definition, everyone should be named Amanda.

[2015]

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The Ballad of Young Bill Merklee

My paternal grandfather, William Earl Merklee Sr., died six years before I was born. I only “know” him via stories and some recently acquired photographs. I am not named after him. I am named after his son, William Earl Merklee, Jr. My father had his reasons.

William Earl Merklee was born in 1891 in what was then West Englewood, New Jersey. He was the oldest of the six children of William Henry Merklee and the former Susan Hoyt Tremper. His father was a news agent whose family had been in New York City for less than a hundred years, having come over from Germany via Holland. His mother’s family was largely Dutch, and had roots that reached up and down the Hudson valley and back several centuries. Mount Tremper, New York, is named for one of her ancestors.

This is the earliest story I know about my grandfather, an event that I believe colored everything that came after: When he was six years old, he shot and killed his younger brother Harry with a pistol they found while playing in their parents’ bedroom.

A small newspaper article about the incident says more about the sorry state of journalism at the time than is does about what happened. Somehow, the writer was magically present in the bedroom, so he could quote my grandfather as having said, “Harry, I am going to shoot you.” I do know the family moved to Dumont shortly thereafter. In a time before the telephone and the widespread ownership of cars, one could conceivably make a fresh start just moving across the county. I also know my grandfather’s parents eventually divorced. It’s not difficult to imagine the pressures that this kind of tragedy produced, and how ill-equipped they were — by today’s standards — to deal with them.

When my grandfather was about twelve years old, he took a rifle from the house for some shooting practice. This was not unusual; at the turn of the last century, you could hunt rabbits and squirrels in the wilds of Haworth, Harrington Park and Closter. On this day, however, he decided he would try and hit the weather vane atop the steeple of Dumont’s Old North Church. The story goes he hit it on the first shot, sending it spinning wildly, and he soon caught hell from his father, who had become a prominent member of that church as well as a member of the school board.

In the summer of 1969, the Old North Church was having its steeple restored. The weather vane, shaped like a multi-pointed shooting star, was taken down and displayed in the lobby of the bank across the street. My dad took me to see it. One of the star’s lower points was splayed open; my grandfathers’ shot had not been a bull’s eye. Onlookers wondered what had happened, saying it must have been a lightning strike. Dad knew exactly what had happened, but no one seemed particularly interested in the truth.

William Earl Merklee married Adele Fox of Dumont in 1910. They were both nineteen years old. They named their first child, a son, Harry Root Merklee, after the brother William had accidentally killed and after Adele’s maternal grandfather, Edward Root, a veteran of the Civil War with whom she and her mother had been living in a house on Niagara Street since Adele’s father had walked out on them.

Another son, William Earl Merklee, Jr., arrived in 1917. My dad, Norman Harold Merklee, was born on August 19, 1919. His middle name comes from one of his uncles. No one knows where his first name came from. He never liked it. A fourth son, Warren Fox Merklee, was born the next day. It was a surprise to everyone when Adele, who had just given birth to Norman, went into labor again just after midnight. They named this son after the physician in attendance, Dr. Warren, who would later become mayor of Bergenfield. The twins were born in a house on Quackenbush Avenue in Dumont.

It’s not clear when my grandfather’s drinking became a problem. According to my dad, it was a problem for as long as he could remember. The pastor of the Old North Church was apparently criticized by his congregation for socializing and playing checkers with my grandfather. The pastor explained he was simply taking the battle to the devil, when really he just enjoyed my grandfather’s company. I was told he could be quite charming.

That charm enabled him to find work during the Great Depression. He could find work, but he couldn’t hang on to it. His alcoholism would always make him unreliable. And he would squander much of his earnings on drink. In the early 1930s he landed a job as the superintendent of an apartment building in Weehawken. It was an ideal situation: A paid position plus a rent-free apartment for his family. He was also put in charge of collecting the rent from the other tenants. When it was discovered my grandfather was using some of the collected rent money to buy booze, he had to pack up his family and move out in the middle of the night.

It fell to his oldest son, Harry, to provide for the family. Even then, they sometimes could only afford to eat cornflakes three times a day. My grandmother made her boys’ shoes last longer by using the cardboard from the cornflakes boxes to line the worn-through soles. She even turned burlap flour bags into underwear for them. When there was a little extra money, my grandmother would buy supplies to bake extra loaves of bread. She would wrap them in wax paper and then have her sons sell them around the neighborhood. They could occasionally feast on fish, rabbit or squirrel when the boys were able to go hunting or fishing.

When my grandfather was desperate for booze money, he was not above pawning some of Harry’s fishing or hunting gear.

Home life became unbearable for my father. When my grandfather wasn’t out getting bombed, he was home listening to baseball on the radio. The shouting, over-the-top announcers grated on my father’s nerves so much that he completely soured on the sport. (When I was growing up, no one watched or listened to baseball in my house until 1969, when it seemed everybody in the neighborhood was a Mets fan. Everybody except my father.) And when my grandfather wasn’t doing that, he was having dish-throwing brawls with his wife. It’s one of the main reasons my dad joined the Navy in the summer of 1941 — just to get the hell away from it all.

Ten years later, William Earl Merklee Sr. was dead, in a sanitarium in Newark, New Jersey. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn, with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Just Dad and my grandmother attended. Dad told me he was simply providing transportation for his mom and that he never shed a tear.

Only twice did I hear my father speak of his father with anything close to admiration. The first instance was when sixteen-year-old William Earl Merklee Jr. lay dying in a hospital. He was suffering the complications of bronchiectasis, a fatal lung infection in the time just before antibiotics. One of the complications was the swelling of his face from an accumulation of fluid under the skin. My grandfather was at that hospital every day, massaging and pushing fluid out through small incisions to relieve the pressure, and doing whatever else he could to make his son comfortable. My Uncle Billy, my namesake, was laid to rest near his grandmother at the Old South Church in Bergenfield in 1933.

The other instance involved the family dog. My grandfather was sitting on the front porch of his house, letting the dog roam around the yard and the immediate vicinity. It was a common practice; there were no leash laws. The dog wandered across the street to do some of his business in a neighbor’s yard. The neighbor, a strapping Polish fellow, took exception to this and gave the dog a swift kick in the groin. The dog howled and collapsed in agony. My grandfather flew off the porch and laid the guy out with one punch.

***

In the late 1970s I was working as a driver for Betty Lee Pharmacy in Bergenfield. I made a delivery to an elderly gentleman named John Holmes. He was in a wheelchair. While a woman who was also there (she could have been a home health aid or perhaps his daughter) was taking care of the payment, Mr. Holmes starting telling me how he had lived in Bergenfield all his life and once owned a construction company that had built most of the houses in the northwest corner of town. Then he asked me my name.

“Bill Merklee,” I said. His face brightened.

“Young Bill Merklee’s boy?” he said. I immediately knew who he meant.

“I’m his grandson,” I said, and told him how young Bill Merklee had married Adele Fox and had four sons. Mr. Holmes was happy to hear this; Adele was “quite a looker” he said.

“Your grandfather was some ball player,” he said, and he proceeded to tell me all about it, how all the towns had baseball teams and how they traveled by train to play other towns and about the crowds that always turned out to watch. Here I was, listening to a guy who knew nothing of my grandfather’s early tragedy and nothing of what was to come. For him, Bill Merklee was a good-looking kid who could play any position and almost always got a hit. Mr. Holmes couldn’t know he was providing a warm, sepia-toned coda to what was the otherwise sad song of my grandfather’s life. And of course, I got in trouble with the boss for getting back to the store so late.

***

Flash forward to 2014. A kind stranger tracked me down via the Internet and told me he had a photo album that might belong to me. It turned out to be my father’s. I don’t know how this gentleman came across it, but I’m grateful he did.

It’s the photographic companion to all the stories my dad ever told me. Except that they don’t tell the whole story. Nobody was photographing the fights, or sneaking shots of my grandfather passed out drunk, or recording the sadness. Everyone was on their best behavior, usually smiling, and they generally seemed to be enjoying themselves.

There are pictures of my grandfather in his declining years, fishing in Harrington Park and down the shore. Even with everything that had happened, family bonds, however strained, were still there. For all the pain and misery my father talked about, he still kept the pictures.

[2015]

wemerklee

Ring of Not-Too-Bright Water

Yesterday morning I was taking care of the laundry when I took a look outside to see how the pool looked (I had just done a three-day treatment for algae and was admiring how well it had turned out). I saw a chipmunk at the edge of the pool, reaching down as if to drink and then jerking back to keep from falling in. I kept watching in case he did fall in, when I noticed a second chipmunk in the water, swimming for his life, desperately looking for a way out. His buddy was trying to help him.

So I ran out, grabbed the skimmer, and placed it in the water below the struggling chipmunk and lifted him to the concrete. He (she?) took one short hop out of the skimmer net and then lay there, soaked and shivering and exhausted. His buddy had skittered behind one of the large faux terra cotta flower pots along the back fence. I stayed and watched the rescued chipmunk to be sure he would recover, and because in his depleted condition he was easily cat or hawk bait. He was blinking his eyes and panting heavily — both good signs. As he gathered some strength, he slowly walked into some tallish grass at the edge of the concrete. He then scooted under the pool fence and toward the neighbor’s yard. He was fine.

I walked back toward the pool gate and turned to see the other chipmunk, who had been hiding behind the flower pot, come back to the pool and start darting back and forth, desperately looking for his friend, unaware that he was safely away. So I walked toward him to scare him away, afraid he might end up in the water, thinking that his friend was still in danger.

I went in the house to take care of the laundry. Before going back upstairs to tend to my work, I took another look at the pool, concerned the second chipmunk — not one to abandon a friend in need — might have doubled back. And sure enough, the same scenario was being played out, though I had to believe the two had changed places with the the previously rescued chipmunk running back and forth at the pool’s edge and his would be rescuer paddling furiously in the cold water below.

Again I went and fished the little guy out. He lay on the concrete with his legs stretched out behind him. I was worried that there might be something wrong with them. I stepped back so as not to frighten his friend. The soggy rodent slowly pulled his back legs up under himself. He must have been seconds away from drowning when I got to him. Eventually he sat up, wiped his face a bit, and walked into the tallish grass, where his buddy went to meet him, and together they scurried out of the pool area and under the neighbor’s fence.

I imagined them back in their burrow that evening, regaling the other chipmunks with their near-death exploits and starting to piece together a mythology of the soft white cloud at the end of a great blue stick that descended from the sky and lifted them to safety, to recall all the others who were not so fortunate (I had pulled one out of the pool the weekend before) and to speculate on why their new deity had chosen them for saving.

After relating all this to my family over dinner that evening, I went back out to test the pool chemicals. And there was another chipmunk, paddling away, his head barely above water.

“Really?” I said to myself as I lifted this one to dry land. He seemed smaller than the others. He was alone. When I set the skimmer down, he just lay inside it, resting his head on the net frame. I went in to get my family so they could see the latest victim for themselves. He barely moved. I wondered if he’d swallowed too much water or had hypothermia or was having a heart attack. His head shook when he tried to move it. I could see him blinking his eyes, but he would not leave. So I picked up the skimmer and gingerly placed the net atop the tallish grass at the edge of the concrete. He eventually pulled himself out.

I imagined he was part of the same burrow, that he would crawl back to add his harrowing story to the growing chipmunk mythology, and I wondered if they would continue this foolish behavior, believing the soft white cloud at the end of the great blue stick would always save them, or if they would wise up and just stay the hell away from the big pond with the steep, slippery banks.

[2015]

chipmunk

Dreams So Real

Good night Irene, good night Irene / I’ll see you in my dreams

This has troubled me from time to time: Why haven’t I had any dreams about some of the people closest to me who have died?

Some say the dream state is a way to contact the departed. There are traditions that maintain that the world of our dreams is another aspect of reality, even a separate reality. Others say it’s nothing more than a manifestation of our brains doing filing, sorting, and even problem solving during our physical downtime. I can tell you from experience there really is value in “sleeping on it.”

I’m not going to discuss any of that here. Anyone who has ever awoken in a cold sweat from a heart-pounding nightmare, or awoken laughing (my favorite), or seen a dog whimper and move it’s legs while sleeping — knows that dreams produce real reactions in the waking world. No, my main question was always “Why dream of some people and not others?”

After more than 24 years, I finally dreamt about my late sister Barbara.

I don’t know why this should have taken so long. Only a few days after a friend of mine died from injuries he suffered in a car accident, I dreamt he was in the kitchen of the apartment I was living in at the time. In the dream, I awoke in the late morning to the sound of someone in the kitchen. I got up to see if it was my roommate. To my surprise, it was my deceased friend Rick, leaning back against the stove. I said, “Rick, aren’t you dead?” He just smiled, and I woke up.

Some time later, a co-worker died after a long struggle with cancer. A number of us had donated blood during his treatment. In this dream, I was wearing a business suit. I had fallen asleep on a toilet in an ornate Art Deco public restroom that had marble sinks and counters and small, black and white floor tile. But there were no stalls to speak of, so there I was out in the open, half asleep on the throne with my plants down around my ankles. Other men in business suits came and went without disturbing me. When I fully awoke in the dream I noticed one of the guys standing at a urinal looked like the recently departed co-worker.

“Nick?” I said. He zipped up and turned around. It was him. “I thought you were dead.”

He also just smiled, put his finger to his lips as if to say “Shh,” and slowly nodded his head side to side.

In my dream about Barbara, I found myself in front of the house in Bergenfield where I grew up. It was a mix of the way it looks now (I sometimes drive past it when I go to visit my brother in the next town) and the way it looked then: the pine tree my father planted was still in the front yard, but the fence and hedges that ran between us and the neighbor’s house were gone. I walked into the front yard, and there was Derek, one of the cats we have now. He’s an indoor cat and never even tries to venture outside, so this was unusual. I told him to get in the house (a house he’s never lived in) and held the side door open for him. As I did this, I noticed out the corner of my eye that Ben, a guy I used to work with at the local newspaper, was in the neighbor’s yard measuring a post for a split-rail fence. In the dream, this seemed perfectly normal. He didn’t notice me and I said nothing as I entered the house behind Derek.

The kitchen looked pretty much the same as the last time I saw it, which was 13 years ago as we were clearing out the house to be sold. I also felt like I was 30 again. No one else was in the house. I walked to the back where our childhood bedrooms had been, and there was Barbara, wearing what might have been a hospital gown since it was open enough in the back to see she was thin and frail, like when she was going through chemo. Her hair was up and she was sorting though a bunch of things in the room that she once shared with our sister Cindi, putting things in scrapbooks.

“Hey you,” I said, “What are ya doin’?” In the dream, at least, it seemed perfectly normal to see her — no dramatics or tearful histrionics. I was just happy. She looked at me and smiled. “We’re going to get something to eat,” I continued. “Want to join us?”

“Thank God,” she said, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t eat my one meal a day.”

“Oh good,” I said, “cancer humor.” And I hugged her and noticed how short and bony she was. “It’s so good to hug you.”

I awoke gently, not in tears but with a sense of wonder. I immediately started replaying the dream in my head, over and over so I would not forget the details, and then wrote them down. I finally had a dream about her, and I was happy. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

My wife and I sometimes try to interpret the symbolism in our dreams. Of course it’s a completely amateur endeavor. At the very least, we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what real-life experiences probably informed what was happening in dreamland.

In the one about Nick, the ornate restroom was likely based on a similar one I’d used at the New York City archives when I was doing some genealogy research (though it did have privacy stalls). I imagine this became the setting of the dream because it resembled how busy the restroom would get at the newspaper where I worked, after the morning sales meeting as everyone prepared to hit the road.

Rick’s dream was very realistic because it took place in the house I was currently living in, and nothing seemed out of place or unusual except for Rick being in the kitchen.

So I set about identifying the elements of the dream about my sister. The outside of the house was a combination of the way it had been when we lived there and the way it looks today. I can construe that to represent a bridge between past and present. The former coworker measuring fence posts next door makes sense because both my sister and I had worked at the newspaper with him. The cat probably should have been Alex, a gray Abyssinian my late sister had brought home as a kitten only to discover she was allergic to him. She couldn’t bear to send him back, so I adopted him and he became my best friend of 17 years. Derek, one of our current cats, seems to have stood in for Alex. Derek is diabetic, and I give him an insulin shot twice a day. So that may be some allusion to having helped care for my sister when she was ill. The inside of the house appeared largely as I had left it the last time I was there. And Barbara looked only a little healthier than the last time I saw her alive, so there was a sense of picking up where we had left off. I’m not surprised that the hug felt very real; I have many tactile memories of hugging my sister.

But what triggered this dream after all this time? I believe it was a “Throwback Thursday” photo posted by a friend on Facebook. She is a survivor of ovarian cancer, and she posted a TBT photo of herself from when she was undergoing treatment. I’m so certain this photo was the catalyst for my dream that I thanked her for posting it and told her what had happened to me.

There are many interpretations of what dreams may or may not be. I’m always happy to discuss all the possibilities, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I got to hold my sister again, and I am so grateful.

[2015]

dreams

Mark Becker (1960-2014)

My friend Mark Becker died in a horrific accident on the New York State Thruway on February 27th. He was on his way to teach a class at Bard College. He was 53 years old.

Like me, he went to college a bit later in life. Unlike me, he didn’t stop with a bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn his master’s, and then to teach at Columbia University and at Bard. His specialty was geographic information systems (GIS). His work included documenting the effects of global warming and mapping the most effective placement of resources in the battle against AIDS in Africa. He was also the Associate Director of the Geospatial Applications Division for the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

All of this grew, I believe, out of his crowning achievement: the co-founding of the Bergen Save the Water Action Network (SWAN) with his partner of 30 years, Lori Charkey. Bergen SWAN has been responsible for the preservation of thousands of acres of sensitive forests and wetlands in Bergen County, New Jersey and Rockland County, New York that would have otherwise become home to townhouses and shopping malls.

A memorial service was held for him on March 23rd. Lori and her cohorts managed to turn a rather sterile corporate auditorium into a magical homage to Mark, complete with live plants, live music, water fountains, and wind chimes. The tributes were remarkable, mainly because they showed a life well lived in so many circles. I’m sure my stories were as much of a surprise to his academic colleagues as theirs were to me.

Here is what I had to say about my friend:

I met Mark through my sister Barbara. She passed way in 1990. I find it very poetic that we are here celebrating Mark on what would have been Barbara’s 51st birthday.

I was forming a band around 1978 and needed a guitar player. My sister suggested I call Mark. I think my first question for him was “Can you play Led Zeppelin?”

Let me tell you: He could play Led Zeppelin. And The Beatles. Jeff Beck. The Allman Brothers. Yes. The Police. Steely Dan. Mahavishnu Orchestra. His bandmates who are here today can attest to his musical gifts. Mrs. Becker, thanks for letting us rehearse in your basement. We apologize for stapling carpet to the walls.

But music was only the beginning for me and Mark. He was curious about absolutely everything, so any subject was fair game for the most intense conversations. For him, everything was amazing, and that outlook was contagious.

In the mid 80s we were roommates in a house in Westwood, NJ. It was a growing experience, especially for me since it was my first time living away from home. I was a slob. Mark was not. Neither of us liked confrontation. After so many days of me leaving my unwashed dishes in the sink, I came home to find them stacked in the middle of my bedroom floor. I didn’t get mad. I washed my dishes. Lesson learned: Clean up your own damn messes. We had a great couple of years in that house; a lot of music and a lot of laughs. It’s also where I got to know Lori, and to marvel at the life she and Mark were creating together.

Mark was the closest thing to a Taoist I ever met. He would never have called himself that, which made him the best kind of Taoist. He was contemplative. He did not impose himself on nature, but rather sought to understand his place in it. He was one of the most peaceful souls I have ever encountered. The first copy of the Tao Te Ching I ever read was Mark’s.

I couldn’t know it at the time, but he helped put me on a path that would lead me to embrace Zen Buddhism. Mark did this, not by proselytizing or by pedagogy, but by being who he was, by living his convictions, and by being my friend. I wish I had thanked him.

I can’t help but note the passing this year of two champions of the environment for whom music was as vital as breathing. When Pete Seeger passed away earlier this year, Arlo Guthrie’s response was “Well, of course he passed away! But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

For my friend Mark Becker, I leave you with a similar sentiment from Walt Whitman:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

 All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed . . . and luckier.

[2014]

becker

Songs Along the Path

It was quite a trip from being raised Roman Catholic to having my jukai ceremony at age 51. (Yes, I was tempted to write “a long, strange trip” or “a long and winding road,” but thankfully I stopped myself.) I had doubts about my given religion even as a child, went through a rebellious atheist phase in my twenties, and eventually found my thoughts and feelings about things spiritual were closest to Taoism and Buddhism.

I can pinpoint the various influences that got me here: the TV show Kung Fu; my roommate’s copy of the Tao Te Ching; listening to Alan Watts on WFMU; sessions with a therapist whose approach was decidedly Buddhist; stumbling across copies of Buddhism Without Beliefs and Zen Mind, Beginners Mind in a favorite book shop; finding Heart Circle Sangha and finally getting up the nerve to step inside.

Perhaps the subtlest and most powerful influence has been the music I’ve listened to since my youth. It has stirred me as few other things can, and its ability to do so has not diminished with time.

The Beatles were my first exposure to Eastern spiritual themes in pop music, as they were for so many others. But in going back through my music collections, I identified so much more. Some of the songs certainly have overt Buddhist references: John Lennon’s Instant Karma, Three Dog Night’s Shambala, Steely Dan’s Bodhisattva, Alex Chilton’s Dalai Lama. Some have spiritual themes that, while not expressly Buddhist, are perfectly at home in Buddhist contemplation. Others contain a feeling, theme, or even just one line of lyric that got me to consider the bigger picture, or seemed to affirm something I was already feeling.

I’ve compiled more than 200 of these songs, and the list continues to grow. Recently I distilled the collection down to what could fit on a CD so I could present some friends with a kind of Zen mix tape (remember mix tapes?). I sequenced the playlist for a bit of narrative structure, and was struck by how many of the tracks reference water imagery and impermanence.

These, then, are some of my songs along the path. Regardless of the artists’ original intentions, this is what I get from them. They’re all available on CDs or iTunes if you’re inclined to try the collection for yourself. Your mileage may vary.

Litany (Life Goes On) by Guadalcanal Diary
We start with a sort of overture or grand statement for the collection. Relentlessly positive, the lyrics spell out how the world looks through clear eyes and with an open heart. The uplifting music takes what might otherwise be the uncomfortable uncertainty of “We move so quickly / Who knows where he time goes? / Where does this road lead? / No one knows” and turns it into a celebration of possibilities. Embrace life and fear not; it has no beginning and no end.

Now by King Missile
Probably the most obscure song on the list (and the shortest), it has the uncanny ability to focus my attention on the only thing we ever really have: the present moment. It contains what is, for me, a very playful depiction of dependent arising: “Once there was nothing but nothingness / Then something happened and now there is somethingness.”

Mind Games by John Lennon
This is the song that truly started me on the path. Where Litany is a celebration of being presented with this marvelous world, Mind Games is a call to action, a resounding chorus of how one can proceed. It made me want to know what the “karmic wheel” was, and it introduced me to the idea of non-attachment: “Yes is the answer / And you know that for sure / Yes is surrender / You gotta let it go.” It never fails to lift my spirits.

Pure and Easy by Pete Townshend
Townshend has been a spiritual seeker most of his life. He became a follower of the Indian mystic Meher Baba in the 60s, and much of his best work has been rooted in this seeking. Pure and Easy is the foundation of his Lifehouse idea, a spiritual song cycle that he struggled for years to bring to fruition. The Who’s best album — Who’s Next — arose from that struggle. When he sings of “the note in us all,” it sounds to me like the Tao or Buddha-nature. This song also came to mind when I first read “The Note” in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens
Hard to believe a traditional Scottish Christian hymn made it into Top 40 radio back in the 70s. The future Yusuf Islam is accompanied here by pianist extraordinaire Rick Wakeman and some beautifully haunting background vocals in a song about constant renewal. Like I tell my kids: Any day you wake up is a good day. Rejoice in it.

Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds
Continues the influence of my Christian upbringing with lyrics taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes, set to music by the incomparable Pete Seeger. It’s probably my earliest exposure to the ideas of necessary opposites and endless cycles.

Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan
I take this as a call to meditation. Whatever is vexing you, the answers are always at hand. Just be still.

Rain by The Beatles
The first of five water-themed songs, this one made me look at the problems we create for ourselves through our perceptions: “When the rain comes / They run and hide their heads” and “When the sun shines / They slip into the shade.” Nothing is ever good enough. We always want what we don’t have. But then: “Rain — I don’t mind / Shine — the weather’s fine.” It’s just a state of mind. Get out of your own way.

Think About Your Troubles by Harry Nilsson
Nilsson’s album The Point was a favorite when I was a kid, the animated film even more so. This is a playful song about cycles and how everything, including your troubles, is impermanent.

Once in Lifetime by Talking Heads
When I heard David Byrne sing “Water dissolving / And water removing / There is water / At the bottom of the ocean,” I was reminded of how the Tao is said to be like water, seeking the lowest places which men abhor. A major theme of the song is self refection, and being surprised by what one finds. The refrain of “Same as it ever was” is almost a mantra. Rather than being a statement about how nothing changes, I take it to mean what was true then is true now.

All This Time by Sting
Written in response to the death of his father, Sting uses river imagery to evoke the endless stream of time, how we all rise and fall in the flow, and the folly of seemingly permanent monuments and rituals. I have always loved the last line: “They only get better one by one.” We have to awaken on our own.

What’s Good – The Thesis by Lou Reed
One of my early struggles with Buddhism was making room for paradoxes. This track is a meditation on loss from an album that was inspired in part by the death of Reed’s friend, the songwriter Doc Pomus. Reed juxtaposes things that don’t make sense together — some real, some truly nonsensical — while trying to come to terms with the death. His conclusion: “Life’s good, but not fair at all.”

Let Love Rule by Lenny Kravitz
A latter-day All You Need Is Love. If love is indeed the answer (as we hear in Mind Games), then we would do well to let love rule.

(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding by Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Written by Nick Lowe, this is a seeker’s lament. We see the pain, hatred and misery. We respond with compassion. Why should anyone scoff at that?

One by U2
Our feelings of the universal are often rooted in our experiences of the particular. Here, a relationship is coming apart, and it brings out something much bigger: “We’re one, but we’re not the same / We get to carry each other.”

Just Breathe by Pearl Jam
What Buddhist wouldn’t be intrigued by that title? It’s only mentioned once, but it’s the best response to contemplating impermanence, and being grateful in the moment.

All Things Must Pass by George Harrison
From the über-spiritual album of the same name, Harrison wrote this in the midst of the turmoil surrounding the disintegration of The Beatles. It’s a beautiful reminder that everything — whether we see it as good or bad — will pass away.

Do You Realize?? by The Flaming Lips
Structurally similar to Mind Games, and musically just as rousing. Listeners have been quite moved by this track that includes the lines “Do you realize / That everyone you know / Someday will die?” Far from being morose, it’s a celebration of seeing the world as it is, seizing the day, and giving the lie to illusion. It brings to mind the Evening Gatha. Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Find the River by R.E.M.
Back to water imagery for the final summation. Michael Stipe’s lyrics are frequently impressionistic (if not downright cryptic) and R.E.M.’s songs have always touched me at a more subliminal level. Find the River feels like an elder looking back at his life and passing the torch. Throughout the song, he observes how “Nothing is going my way” — except at the end, when he sings, “All of this is coming your way.” It could be a warning from a world-weary soul. Or it could be sage advice to check desire, to “do without doing,” to open up to what is flowing in the river — or blowing in the wind.

[2013]

(Click here for the playlist on Spotify.)

God is a Loaded Term

I’m a regular reader of CNN’s Belief Blog. More often than not, the blog’s contributors have refreshing takes on the role of faith in American life. They also don’t shy away from addressing the subject from the point of view of non-theists. (CNN in general has become a magnet for theist/atheist arguments; they seem to crop up in the comments section of many of their articles, even when the article isn’t about religion.)

This past week, the blog highlighted the response to an iReport by Deborah Mitchell, a Texas mother of two teenagers. (iReports are stories sent to CNN’s website by users — an exercise in citizen journalism). Mitchell’s report has garnered the second highest number of page views of any iReport, and the most comments of any submission.

The title? “Why I Raise My Children Without God.”

Predictably, there was considerable backlash in the comments section. Some tried to have the report flagged as inappropriate in an effort to have it removed. But many others — including more Bible-belt moms hiding in the atheist/agnostic closet — applauded her bravery. Yes, bravery — because non-believers may well be the most hated minority in the country.

I have quite a bit of sympathy for freethinkers (the term I use for atheists, agnostics and all manner of religious skeptics). This was the road I took to Zen Buddhism. It was Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian that helped me shake off the last vestiges of my Catholic guilt. Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll are two of my heroes, freethinkers unjustly ignored by American history. I am truly saddened that Christopher Hitchens is no longer among the living.

Like Deborah Mitchell, my wife and I also decided not to raise our children with organized religion, and to be free and open with them concerning questions about God and spirituality.

When our daughter was born, we did not have her baptized. Much to my relief, this did not cause any problems with the more devoutly religious among our friends and family (perhaps one of the perks of living in New Jersey). In fact, my wife’s grandfather, who had been an officer in the Knights of Columbus, never once questioned us about it, never tried to sway us, and never changed the way he treated us. I found this so incredibly decent that I decided we could meet him half way. We had our daughter baptized when she was eighteen months old (which I know pleased my mother-in-law as well as her father) and also our son shortly after he was born. But that was the extent of our involvement with any formal church.

As our children grew, questions about religion would come up. I would always try to answer them by starting with “In the Christian tradition” or “In the Jewish tradition.” When they would ask what religion we were, I would tell them we were all baptized Roman Catholics but we don’t go to church, and that I was now a Buddhist. I told them they could claim to be either. As near as I can tell, they usually told their friends they didn’t have a religion. And again, this doesn’t seem to have caused any problems.

Questions about God were trickier, because “God” is such a loaded term. When I was younger, my stock response to the question “Do you believe in God?” was “Define your terms.” Of course it was always God as they imagined him in the Bible. I say imagined because I’ve found that a good many people who profess to believe in the God of the Bible have actually read very little of the book. And then my answer is “no.” I’ve felt for a long time that whatever God may be, he or she is in desperate need of better PR.

I have told our children what others believe God to be while admitting that I just don’t know (and that no one else does, either). I’ve always found agnosticism to be the only intellectually honest position, since theism and atheism both seem to require a degree of certainty that I feel is unwarranted.

My children are acquainted with the basics of the Tao and of Buddha-nature. This is how I’ve approached the idea of God, and this seems to make sense to them. One day I’ll also tell them about Emerson’s Over-soul. I know our children don’t believe in a God that sits in judgement up in the sky, dishing out rewards and punishments. They understand that doing good, that acting from a kind heart, doesn’t require these.

I’ve also tried to teach them to appreciate the value others find in religion, and the difference between private faith and religion-based social policy. There is a time and a place for understanding personal needs of the spirit, and a time and place to defend freedom of the mind and heart.

I really do miss Hitchens.

[2013]

We Are What We Consume

WHEN MY daughter was very young, we were watching TV together. I don’t recall the program, but it wasn’t a cartoon, and at a certain point, one character hit another. It wasn’t slapstick; it was mild TV violence by my standards.

Not by my daughter’s.

She was horrified. She had never seen anyone do that to another person. I felt like the worst parent in the world. I turned the set off and did my best to explain that what she had seen wasn’t real; it was acting.

But even then, I knew her reaction was the right one, the true one.

Today, her reaction to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., is like so many others: Wouldn’t the world be a better place without guns?

Once again, her reaction is the right one, the true one.

When I was a younger man, I wrote impassioned letters to the editor of my local newspaper about the need for gun control. I’ve had little personal experience with gun violence, other than the story of how my paternal grandfather had accidentally killed his younger brother when they were mere toddlers with a pistol found under their father’s pillow. I can only imagine the effect on him and his family. The only clues of which I’m aware: His parents divorced, he named his first child after his slain brother, and he died a hopeless alcoholic and rests in an unmarked grave.

No, most of my experiences with gun violence come from the news. I’m old enough to remember the Kennedy assassinations. Dr. King. John Lennon. And far too many special reports of carnage in every corner of America. In other countries as well: I haven’t been this shaken since the slaughter in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996.

I would love a world without guns. But time has made me realize that will never happen. I do believe in strict gun laws at a national level, so one cannot circumvent one state’s laws by simply going to another state.

The Founding Fathers could not have imagined the weapons that are now our reality. It was a simpler time, and the means of defense were much simpler, too. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was meant to ensure a well-equipped militia in lieu of a standing army, which was seen as an instrument of government tyranny. But now we have a standing army, and the idea that armed citizens could reasonably do battle against it is laughable to me.

In that regard, the Second Amendment is almost as quaint as the Third, prohibiting the quartering of soldiers in private houses. As for self-defense: I have no quarrel with it. And sports? If you need a 100-round magazine to hit a paper target or take down a deer, you’re no marksman. Limits must be set. Just about every other industrialized democracy on the planet has shown that reasonable gun regulations reduce gun violence. Surely, we can follow suit.

For the record, I am a gun owner, of the kind the Founders would actually recognize. I have no use for the National Rifle Association.

So why do I find it so difficult to write another angry piece to a newspaper editor about gun control? Because the problem is bigger than just guns.

We are what we consume. That doesn’t just go for food. It means books, movies, television, games, music, magazines, websites — everything we take into our minds and hearts, and everything we allow into our children’s. Garbage in, garbage out. This is a dark side of the free market: Sell the people what they want. Satiate every impulse and desire, and we end up valuing the wrong things. More than wealth, status, appearance, possessions, ego — we should value each other.

Granted, in a free society, we cannot condone censorship. We can, however, exercise discretion in the marketplace: Turn your back on junk culture, and it will whither away. That seems as likely to happen as getting rid of all guns, but if we at least move in that direction, things can only get better. Not perfect, but better.

Some have claimed the increased violence in our society stems from driving God and religion out of public schools and the public square. I disagree with that reasoning, but not with the larger point.

There is a spiritual aspect to our nature. We neglect it at our peril. We don’t necessarily need to get religion, but we each need to acknowledge that part of ourselves and care for it as surely as we need to care for our physical, intellectual and emotional well-being. It’s the part of us that knows we’re all connected. We’re born with it.

My young daughter’s first reaction to violence was the right one. We’re born with that awareness, and we too easily let it slip away. We need to honor that awareness every day.

[2012]

Originally published under a different title in the December 30, 2012 edition of The Record.

Election 2012

We were relatively lucky in our confrontation with Sandy: Two days without power and a vent cap torn from the roof. My wife and I work from home, so gasoline is not an issue for now. Far too many people fared far worse. The photos from our beloved Long Beach Island are heartbreaking.

That everyone has rallied together to help one another is truly inspiring, but not surprising. This is what I know is in us at all times.

Halloween was postponed until Monday. I’m surprised there’s still any candy in our house to give out. We still watched “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” on the day. I am always dismayed by the editing that is done to make more room for commercials.

In the coming weeks, I will change the name of this blog to reflect broader interests. Parenting is still job #1, but there is so much more to write about.

Below is something I posted to Facebook concerning the upcoming election. Don’t worry, I have no intention of turning this blog into some wonky political screed. In fact, after this I will most likely avoid political topics here. I can’t make the same promise when it comes to religion.

Wherever you are, whatever your politics, please vote. And if you can, please send a little hurricane relief to your friends here in the northeast.

My dear friends —

I have tried — and reasonably succeeded — to keep politics and religion out of my Facebook postings. So now, with the election just around the corner, I’m going to throw in my two or three cents and be done with it.

I’m voting for President Obama. Not because he’s perfect. Not because he’s some kind of political messiah. Because I believe he has worked in good faith to do the right thing by the people, and will continue to do so (which is more than I can say of the Republicans in Congress). I’m not happy with everything about the last four years, but I believe he was presented with an enormous mountain of crap from the previous administration, and there are just so many shovels.

I am also voting for him because the Democratic party, while certainly not perfect, better represents my views than the Republicans. In my opinion, the GOP has been taken over by a political and religious lunatic fringe.

I was actually sympathetic to many of the concerns initially voiced by the Tea Party. But like so many grass roots movements before them, they were quickly infected by opportunistic parasites. I cannot help but oppose a group that so willingly harbors bigots, displays such utter contempt for science and reason, and embraces the likes of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann as serious political thinkers.

Then there is Ayn Rand, who is something of an avatar to conservatives, especially the Tea Party. Paul Ryan is a Rand devotee. He has his staff read her books. I don’t know if the same can be said of Governor Romney. I’m not sure he has any unshakable principles beyond saying and doing whatever is necessary to close deals that favor himself. By that measure, he may well be a Randian Objectivist and not even know it.

When politicians simultaneously embrace Jesus and Rand, I’m surprised their heads don’t explode. According to Rand, Jesus was a chump and altruism is an unforgivable sin. I am not a Christian, but like Thomas Jefferson, I believe that the sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth amount to one of the most sublime philosophies of life ever offered to humankind. Buddhism has taught me that self reliance and acts of compassion are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they are both absolutely essential in a world where everything is interconnected.

Rand’s entire career was one big pity party. Her family’s business was confiscated by the Bolsheviks. So instead of coming here and just starting over, she also had to promulgate a capitalist fantasy that, to me, is essentially Marxism turned on its head, enshrining selfishness as a virtue and money as a basis for morality. But her philosophy fails for precisely the same reason Marxism fails: it’s predicated on the notion that people will voluntarily deal fairly with one another at all times. Unfortunately, this has never been the case, which is why we have laws and regulations.

Conservatives have told me that caring for the least among us is the duty of individuals, not the government, that there is nothing in the Bible about the state caring for the poor. Ah yes, but the American form of government did not exist when the Bible was written. Properly regarded, our government is an instrument of the will of the people. If it is the will of the people to do good, to care for the least among us, then it is entirely appropriate to use the government to those ends. If that is not our will, then we should stop the pretense of being a “Christian nation.”

The cries of “class warfare” ring hollow to me. The assault has been going on since the 80s, and only now gets called warfare by the right because the lower classes are starting to fight back.

The Republicans claim they want to restore the “American Dream.” It’s a cynical ploy that amounts to “Yes, we’re wealthy, and you can be, too, if you will just get these burdensome taxes and regulations off our backs.”

By all means, let’s work to achieve our dreams. But the truth is that most of us will never be that wealthy, and chasing that particular carrot on a stick only leads to voting against our own true interests.

It should be in the best interests of the producers in this country to facilitate upward mobility and an expanding middle class so as to grow their consumer base. This is what happened in the 1950s, when the wealthy were taxed at between 70% and 90%: A booming middle class, massive investment in infrastructure, and the rich still partied on. This is what has worked, not the trickle down BS of the last 30 years.

But money is also power, and for the last 30 years, the wealthy — through their bought-and-paid-for proxies in government — have pushed policies that hold the lower classes down while expanding the wealth of the top 1%, thus solidifying their hold on power. And in a global economy, the jobs will go where labor is cheap, and goods will go wherever buyers can be found; it makes no difference to the monied interests. Where is the patriotism in that? It seems they don’t love God or country so much as money and power.

I am suspicious of patriots who feel the need to advertise themselves as such, just as I am suspicious of a “news” channel that needs to trumpet that they are “fair and balanced.” They are either trying very hard to convince themselves they are worthy of the label, or attempting to pull the wool over our eyes. Probably both.

Listen: I know the names of my ancestors who fought in almost every American war since the Revolution. I know which of my ancestors owned slaves. I have a pretty good grasp of my country’s history — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We haven’t always been the nicest kid on the world playground. Sometimes we’ve been the bully, and many times we’ve been the one to slap the bully down. To admit as much isn’t unpatriotic nor an apology; it’s an honest assessment, and a pledge to do better. Blind patriotism fixes nothing.

Many on the right are quick to point out that our unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as written in the Declaration of Independence are not a guarantee of outcomes, only of opportunity. I agree. But I also hold dear the closing statement of that document: “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

That doesn’t sound like “every man for himself.” It sounds like “we’re all in this together.”

And that doesn’t sound like today’s Republican Party.

[2012]

A Good Day in “Church”

My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of church-going. ~ Aldous Huxley

This morning I left the house with my rakusu, but also with my backpack, my iPad, hiking boots and socks, a copy of Emerson’s Nature and a volume of Whitman’s poems. Which was silly, because when I awoke this morning, I knew I was going out to the woods instead of the zendo.

I’m not sure why a walk in the woods was preferable to going to the zendo. I know I’ve always been rather solitary (even my kids have now picked up on this and will chastise me about needing to be more social). So I don’t know if it’s that or my growing sense that the Japanese cultural aspects of Zen — meaning the rituals, chanting and sutras — do not resonate with me as much as the ideas of Buddhism. I absolutely find value in zazen, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the precepts, but everything beyond that seems to me to be beyond the point. And then I will check myself with “Well, are you just being lazy? Or being a fair-weather Buddhist?”

Now I see that it’s not laziness. I have plunged headlong into my studies of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, precisely because their lives and work resonate with me. I danced around with them (superficially) for years, and now I feel like I’m finally “getting it,” finally feeling immersed in it. And I think it’s because it’s American.

This isn’t racist or jingoistic: Buddhism as flourished precisely because it has always adapted itself to the culture of its new hosts. I’ve felt for sometime that there were common themes in Zen and New England Transcendentalism. Now I find that, while Emerson and Thoreau were, to varying degrees, influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, a lot of what I took to be their Zen-like thought was actually rooted in Greek and Roman stoicism. So now I’m getting acquainted with the Stoics, and sure enough, there are striking parallels with Zen.

So these ideas have arisen at all times and in all places (which happens to be one of Emerson’s themes). The writings of the Transcendentalists resonate with me because I recognize the ideas from my own thinking as well as from my Taoist and Buddhist reading, and because it is writing grounded in my own culture.

Between this and my continuing doubts regarding rebirth and karma across lifetimes, I’m just not sure I can still call myself a Buddhist. Based on my beliefs and outlook, it still makes sense to me. It just may not make sense to other Buddhists. But then, a true Buddhist would never refer to himself or herself as such.

I wrote the above while sitting in my car at the boat launch on the north side of the Monksville Reservoir. When I finished, I took a brief stroll down to the water, exchanged pleasantries with some fishermen, and went back to the car to head over to Long Pond Ironworks for a short hike.

When I exited the parking lot onto the winding, fairly desolate road leading back to the main road, I had what I can only describe as a “Twin Peaks Moment.”

There, pacing slowly up and down the road, was a Japanese man (certainly east Asian, but struck me as decidedly Japanese) playing bagpipes. This was wonderful on many levels.

One, we were in the area of New Jersey known as The Highlands. Two, after reading some of Nature and writing the above about Zen and western culture, what are the odds of being met with a Japanese man playing bagpipes? Three, he seemed to be improvising (and doing it beautifully), occasionally throwing in almost jazz-like quotes from “Amazing Grace” (granted, a staple of bagpipers everywhere, but it also happens to be my favorite piece of music ever). I lowered my windows and slowed down. When I was along side him, I gave him a thumbs up and he gently nodded while continuing his performance. I kept driving slowly, listening to the pipes fade with the distance, then happened upon a young woman in the middle of the road, standing still on rollerblades and holding a cellphone to her ear but not talking. When I looked toward her to offer a greeting nod, her face was expressionless, and her left eye was eerily cold and dead.

When I pulled out onto the main road, I couldn’t stop laughing. Whatever choice bit of synchronicity this was, I took it to be an omen that I’m on the right track. It was exhilarating.

The short hike at Long Pond was beautiful and peaceful. I stopped at one of the lookout platforms and read a little bit of Whitman:

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,
clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of
work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing
a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the
refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking
engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)

I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,)
I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music—this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

[2011]

A Dancing Lesson from God

This past weekend I traveled to Indianapolis with my son Patrick so he could compete in the 2011 Pokemon Nationals. How we came to do this is, to me, a wonderful example of simply being open to — and mindful of — possibility and opportunity.

Pokemon, for anyone not familiar with it, is a Japanese cartoon about young people who capture and train strange little creatures who possess various powers and abilities and are made to compete or battle against each other. It has spawned a complex trading card game as well as a video game played on Nintendo’s hand-held DS platform. My son enjoys both, but is particularly fond of the video version.

A few months back, one of my son’s friends told him about a regional Pokemon competition happening not far from where we live. Patrick asked if I would take him. I looked it up online, saw that it was free to enter and would be over by noon, so I agreed.

Several weeks later, we arrived an hour early at the convention center in Secaucus to find a massive line of children and their parents snaking from the closed doors, through the underground parking, out the other side of the garage and up the roadway. Our hearts sank a little as there were a limited number of slots for competitors, and it was first come, first served.

But we managed to get in, only to wait on another line to be checked in and to have Patrick’s team (on the DS) approved. Patrick was then escorted to a player table while I was sent to the periphery of the player area with the other friends and families.

I expected Patrick to maybe make it through the first couple of rounds, since this was his first competition and there were so many serious-looking players in attendance. This was to be a simple elimination: winners moved on to the next round, losers would go home. Once all the players were seated, there was a rousing countdown (the staff for the event were very energetic) and they were off, thumbs a-blazing.

And Patrick kept winning.

When all was said and done, he placed third out of more than 500 players in his division. This earned him an invitation to the nationals and a stipend to help with travel expenses. He was interviewed by reporters from two newspapers.

The whole experience was surreal to me. But I was proud of my son. He just wanted to have fun. He stayed calm and was a complete gentleman, wishing his opponent good luck at the start of each match and shaking hands at the end.

Look what can happen when you approach something with joy and without expectations!

We figured it was too expensive a proposition for our whole family to go to Indianapolis. My wife said since I’d started this with Patrick, I should see it through with him. So off we went.

The Nationals were conducted a bit differently: Seven rounds, and the top 16 players with the best win/loss records would then compete the next day for eight slots at the World Championship next month in San Diego. Patrick won his first three matches, then lost the remaining four. It was a good run. And he took it very well. A dash across the hall to the Pokemon vendors, and all was right with the world again.

The trip was a marvelous father/son adventure. Indianapolis is a beautiful city. We met wonderful people from all over the country (and Canada). The people of Indiana couldn’t have been nicer. We had a great time at the Indianapolis Zoo and riding a paddle boat on the canal that runs through the city.

And I got to visit the hometown of my favorite author.

At the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, we saw some of Vonnegut’s artwork, exhibits detailing his family’s history, even a pair of his reading glasses. Patrick used a typewriter for the first time, in a room where they had recreated Vonnegut’s workspace. This quote was painted on one of the walls, a line from Cat’s Cradle that immediately came to mind when Patrick made the Pokemon Nationals:

Unusual travel plans are dancing lessons from God.

[2011]

Kyron Horman

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer. ~ Bertrand Russell

It has been just over a year since Kyron Horman disappeared from his school in Portland, Oregon. Much money and manpower has been spent looking for him, and authorities don’t seem any closer to find him or explaining what happened to him. His stepmother, who was the last person to see him, is not a named suspect. But most people who have followed the story believe she knows more than she has said.

I have been following his story from day one. I don’t know why, but when I saw Kyron’s picture, I took an instant liking to him. Perhaps it’s because he reminds me of my own son.

Some have been critical of the amount of attention Kyron’s story has gotten. They point out that children go missing every day, and ask why Kyron’s story is so special.

A lot of the attention has to do with the tremendous efforts of Kyron’s parents to make sure their son is not forgotten, and to make sure that people keep an eye out for him. I can only applaud their efforts. My heart breaks for them.

My heart breaks for missing and abused children almost every day.

Every time I read of some tragedy committed against a child — all too often by someone they trusted — I whisper “I’m sorry,” as if there was something I could have done to save them. I swear, if I could be granted a super power, it would be to know whenever a child is being harmed, and to be able to bolt to them in an instant to stop it.

I’d never have a moment’s rest.

From a Buddhist perspective, am I causing myself to suffer by clinging to these thoughts? Maybe so. But I find it difficult to be dispassionate about such things. It’s one of the aspects of Buddhism with which I struggle.

There is a scene in Woody Allen’s film Radio Days in which the family is listening to a live radio broadcast of the rescue of a little girl who has fallen down an abandoned well. The scene was inspired by the true story of three-year-old Kathy Fiscus back in 1949. The ensuing rescue effort was broadcast live via radio as well as the still-novel medium of television. I remember my dad telling me about it. The world was riveted by the story.

In the film, as in the real-life incident, the little girl did not survive. The family in the film is quietly devastated by the news. The father, holding his own little girl on his lap through all this, holds her a little tighter, barely able to contain his tears.

In the absence of any super powers, this may be the best I can hope for. These terrible stories will continue to come. I will hold my children a little tighter. And I will keep a watchful eye on all the other children in my small corner of the world.

[2011]

Harry Root Merklee (1912-1971)

Today my Uncle Harry would have turned 99.

He was the oldest of four sons. My dad always said it was Harry who got the family through the Great Depression. He was like a second father to me. He gave me my first Bible, my first dictionary, my first rifle, my love of the mountains, and along with my dad, my love and appreciation of America and its history.

While I have no recollection of my parents ever hitting me, I very clearly recall the day when I was five years old, bumped my head getting into my dad’s car, and uncharacteristically uttered an expletive. As soon as the word left my lips, I felt Harry’s hand smack the back of my head. It was the only time he ever did something like that. Lesson learned.

In the late 50s, Harry purchased a little over two acres of land in Sussex County, New Jersey. His plan was to build a house there for himself and his aging mother, to grow his own food, and to hunt and fish in the as yet unspoiled countryside.

First he built a small, one-room cabin in which he could live while working on his project. Shortly after the house’s foundation was put in, he took ill, and the house project was abandoned. But he kept the land and the cabin, and it became my favorite summer destination.

My dad and I (and later my younger brother Joe) would ride out there with Harry in his ramshackle Ford Falcon. It really was paradise for a young boy. Fishing. Exploring. Catching newts. Learning to shoot targets with a muzzle-loading rifle. Campfire cooking. The night sky ablaze with more stars than I’d ever seen. The thrilling mystery of being able to pull in stations from Canada through the clear night air on the portable radio. The stillness of the deep woods, with no planes or cars humming in the background. Just the wind in the trees, the cicadas, and later the sounds of all those night creatures.

When Harry died, he left that cabin to me in his will. He had stipulated that it be sold and the money used for my education. I convinced my parents to hang on to it, and I did return there a couple of times with Dad. But it wasn’t the same. How could it be?

Eventually, my parents did sell it to the owner of some adjacent property, because he promised not to develop it. I’ve returned there several times over the years, just to see if I could still find it. Though the cabin is slowly returning to nature, the gentleman has kept his word.

Given my later appreciation of the works of Henry David Thoreau, I have wished more than once that we could have kept the cabin. Regardless, Harry and the cabin are with me still.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Ha.

[2011]

Bee-ing and Nothingness

I was afraid of bees when I was younger. Part of that fear, I’m sure, was fueled by my father’s story about chopping up an old wooden table out in the country and finding there was a hive underneath. The ensuing angry swarm chased him into the cabin. When things finally calmed down, he quietly left the cabin, got into his car, and proceeded to run over the table. A thick black cloud of bees covered the car, as if sensing the real perpetrator was inside the machine, and desperately tried to find a way in. Defeated, they eventually left.

Personally, I’ve only been stung a couple of times. Once on the bottom of my foot while running shoeless in a field of clover.

I’ve also been afraid of wasps and hornets, maybe more than of bees. Wasps just seem more intimidating, even evil. I’ve been stung by them, too. It was scarier and more painful.

Yellow jackets were just a nuisance, and I learned early on that I could just swat them away with my hand.

So spraying poison on bees and wasps and their nests was never a problem. I didn’t want them stinging me or my family.

That changed a few years ago. I was tending our vegetable garden, manually removing cabbage worms, when I noticed a hornet descend on one of the worms and carry it off to it’s nest in the eaves of my shed. And just like that, I was done killing the stinging insects.

The cabbage worms come back every year. But each year, there are fewer hornets. They don’t try to start nests in my shed anymore.

On one of our afternoon walks, my wife and I were on a trail beside a large field of clover. To my dismay, I couldn’t see a single honey bee on any of the little white flowers.

Lately, I only see the carpenter bees running their patrol patterns near my roof.

I’m thinking about one of the Alan Watts lectures wherein he illustrates the unity behind the mutual arising of seemingly separate things. His primary example is that there are no flowers without bees, and no bees without flowers. And I’m wondering what it is that we may have done.

[2011]

Gaining Perspective

Last week my children had two experiences that helped broaden their outlook. One close to home, the other on the far side of the world.

Two Sundays ago we had dinner with our friends Bob and Mary and their kids.  (The visit was partly social, partly business. Bob is an accountant and he looked over our tax returns before dinner, since I now work for myself and our taxes have become a bit more complicated. Thankfully, it was not as painful as I had imagined. But I digress . . .)

Mary’s father had just had a pacemaker put in and was still in the hospital. She said he was doing well.

Wednesday morning, Bob called me to say that Mary’s father had died. The wake was set for Friday, and the funeral for Saturday.

My kids have been to a funeral mass, but not a wake. They wanted to go to this one as a gesture of support for Bob and Mary’s kids.  We were also dealing with local flooding, so my wife said she’d stay behind to keep an eye on our basement as we continued pump it out.

My daughter and son were expecting the wake to be a sad and somber event. What they found was a loud and genial gathering of friends and relatives paying their last respects to Mary’s dad. Tears were certainly shed, but laughter was more abundant as stories about the late Aldo made the rounds. It was good to see a life being celebrated more than a death being mourned.

We have been very honest with our children about death. They each had moments when they were younger where they comprehended the seeming finality of it, and were understandably upset. We talked through it, and they now see it as a normal part of life (at least that’s the way they talk about it). The wake demystified another aspect; they weren’t as upset as they thought they might be by viewing the deceased. I’m sure the reaction would be quite different if it were someone close to them, but it was an important step nonetheless.

All this took place against the distant backdrop of the devastation in Japan. While not experiencing it firsthand, the news coverage still makes the tragedy more immediate than reading about such things in the past. My kids are witnessing the destructive power of nature, and how fragile we are in the face of it. It’s a reminder that, while death is certain for us all, the time and place are not.  We all travel different paths in life, but two things we all have in common are that we were born and we will die. What we do in between, and how mindful we are about it, is what matters.

At the wake, it was obvious that Mary’s dad had made every day count. I hope we can do as much.

[2011]

Breathing Life Into the Printed Word

I read to our kids every night when they were very young, and listened to them read aloud as they were learning their words. But as they became more accomplished in their reading, we all became more private readers.

Sometimes my teenage daughter would get nostalgic for bedtime stories, and she’d ask me to read a favorite, like Goodnight Moon or a dramatic presentation of Green Eggs and Ham.

As a variation on this one night, I read her the short story Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. She loved it, and it prompted questions and discussion for a good week.

Lately, though, we’ve all gone back to being private readers.

As part of my daily Zen and Taoist reading, I decided to read aloud to myself. As a result, I’ve rediscovered how much more power the printed word has when it is given a voice.

I can be moved by something I read silently, but it’s another experience altogether when I get a catch in my throat reading something aloud that has really hit home, when the words resonate through my body and not just my mind.

With this reawakened appreciation for the spoken word, I asked my son if he’d like to make some time before bed so I could read to him. He really liked the idea, and we decided to read The Tao of Pooh. (I told him if he liked it, we could also read The Te of Piglet. He then asked if there was a Ching of Eeyore.)

I forgot that The Tao of Pooh — despite being based on the classic A.A. Milne children’s books — is really written more for adults. But my son has really taken to it, suggesting he read the actual Milne excerpts and I read the rest. To my endless delight, he’s grasping the Taoist ideas, too.

I’m going to suggest something similar to my daughter. Since the Vonnegut piece was a hit, I’ll stick with the short stories. And if her very hectic teen schedule seems to leave little time for a bedtime story, I’ve got several volumes of Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction.

[2011]

A Mostly Minimalist Christmas

My family knows that I have embraced minimalism. They witness the gradual uncluttering of my home office, the extra time spent in the basement, and the extra trash bags set out each week. But I avoid any sort of proselytizing.

I never came out and said I wanted a minimalist Christmas, beyond saying there was really only one thing I would like as a gift (the John Lennon box set).

That feeling wasn’t anything new or necessarily tied to my current pursuit of minimalism. I’ve felt for as long as I can remember that Christmas was far too commercialized.

It’s a point of view I can probably ascribe to repeated viewings over the years of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. And to an “aha” moment I had almost 20 years ago.

We were giving Christmas presents to my two-year-old niece. On Christmas Day, we presented her with a doll and baby carriage. And she was thrilled. She was all smiles and hugging the doll as if it were the only thing that mattered in the whole world. If that had been the only thing she’d gotten that Christmas, she would have been perfectly content.

But it was just the beginning. Gift after gift was laid at her feet. Tearing through the wrapping paper of each successive present, I could see the joy in her face give way to a kind of numbness. Where the doll and carriage had been special, now nothing was, just a growing pile of things and very little time to feel anything special about any of them.

The image haunts me still.

But lo and behold, we had a mostly minimalist Christmas this time. And it was just as merry as any other.

My wife and I exchanged just a few things (including the Lennon set).  The kids got some things that they really wanted, but none of the silly “filler” items that used to be part of the deal.  Well, OK, they did get sea monkeys. But there were no outlandish, big-ticket items.

Perhaps nicest of all, the kids seemed to treasure the visits with family and friends as much as, if not more than, the presents.

Now, it may just be a sign of the economic times (I did get laid off this year, though we’re still financially sound). And there have been some marital fractures in our extended family recently, which did draw us all a little bit closer.

No matter. We all saw a Christmas that was more about what we had and less about what we got. And it was great.

[2011]

John Lennon (1940-1980)

Thirty years.

Like so many others, I will always remember where I was and who I was with when I heard that John Lennon had been murdered.

I was at a club called Maximus in New City, New York with my friends Z, Chris and J. Monday night was “New Wave” night, and we were hanging out drinking kamikazes and watching the still-novel medium of music videos on the club’s monitors.

We all had to go to work the next day, so we called it a night about 11 p.m. It was in Z’s car that we heard the breaking news that Lennon had been shot and rushed to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt hospital. Soon after, we got the news that he was dead. The DJ on whatever station we were listening to thought it was funny to play Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” so we turned off the radio and drove home in stunned silence.

Back at home, I walked in crying, and found my brother and sister in their rooms crying, and my father looking a bit perplexed in front of the living room TV. I didn’t really sleep much that night.

At work the next day, friends and co-workers asked me how I was doing, as if I’d had a death in the family. They all knew how much of a John Lennon fan I was. But my boss couldn’t quite fathom the world’s reaction. I said something about Lennon having a big effect on my thinking, and he said it’s not like the guy was Aristotle or something. I didn’t know how to respond to that. Maybe I should have said, “Good thing. Ever try dancing to Nicomachean Ethics?”

John Lennon may not have been an Aristotle. But he was a seeker, and a very public one at that. If people like Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jesus et al built the doors that lead to greater understanding, people like John Lennon knock on those doors, and sometimes hold them open for us and say “Hey, check this out.”

I might not be on this path were it not for John Lennon. His songs were my signposts.

We all shine on.

[2010]

Mindfulness Hike in the Mountains

The kids and I were supposed to visit Zen Mountain Monastery this month for their youth program. But my daughter had some school projects due, so we opted to stay home.

I love taking them to ZMM, because for a few hours they are immersed in a broader Zen culture than Dad’s altar, incense and cushions, and they really enjoy it.

I still wanted to have some kind of Zen practice with them, and I spontaneously hit on the idea of going on a mindfulness hike.

Where we live, there are many great hiking trails in and around the Ramapo Mountains. I decided to take them to a favorite trail at the historic Long Pond Ironworks; wide trails, flowing water, old buildings, and some nice wooden observation platforms that I thought might be good places for some outdoors zazen.

The day was perfect for a hike with the crisp autumn air and the sunlight playing through the clouds. I decided we would just hike, pay attention to whatever was around us, and talk about whatever came up. Anything resembling formal Zen discussion would only happen at the platform.

I brought along my copy of Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. I wanted to talk to my kids about “Right Speech” — what Bhante G calls “Skillful Speech.” Of all the aspects of the Eightfold Path, this seemed to be the one that needed the most attention.

I didn’t want this to be a pedantic exercise, and Bhante G’s book was perfect for the task. Each chapter has a wonderful, bullet-point summation at the end, and this was the only part I read aloud once we arrived at the platform. It was short and sweet, and left space for questions and discussion. These are the Key Points for Mindfulness of Skillful Speech:

  • Skillful Speech requires that you abstain from lying, malicious words, harsh language and useless talk.
  • Lying by omission is still lying.
  • Malicious talk is speech that destroys other people’s friendships or damages their reputations.
  • Verbal abuse, profanity, sarcasm, hypocrisy, and excessively blunt or belittling criticism are all examples of harsh language.
  • Harsh language hurts others and debases you.
  • Gossip and idle talk lead to quarrels and misunderstandings, waste your time, and create a confused state of mind.
  • All unnecessary speech not motivated by generosity, loving friendliness, and compassion is harmful.
  • The test of Skillful Speech is to stop and ask yourself before you speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?”
  • Using mindfulness to strengthen your resolution to say nothing hurtful and to use only soft, well-chosen words can bring harmony to any difficult situation.

And I added one last item: Skillful speech includes the words you use in e-mail, while texting, and on Facebook.

It was a relatively quick talk. The kids had some good questions, and then we sat zazen for about five minutes out there in the woods. They commented on how vibrant the sounds of the wind and leaves and water were when just sitting still.

Make no mistake, skillful speech is still in short supply at our house. My children are, after all, 11 and 14, and we parents still have a way to go in carefully choosing our words and tone in the heat of the moment. But perhaps the most skillful speech that day was just talking about it.

[2010]

Old Photographs

All we have is now.

This perspective, so central to Zen, has helped me immensely. The past is gone.  The future does not exist.  There is only now.

And yet, I have found that photographs of the past have a way of fostering compassion.

One way is having before my eyes representations of the world in which my ancestors lived. It’s one thing to hear the stories. It’s a bigger thing to have the stories illustrated.

I’ve been researching my family history for 15 years now, and one of the great joys is acquiring photos of the people and places I learn about along the way. It creates an appreciation for all those who have gone before me, whose lives made my life possible.

Old photos have also been helpful when it comes to family members who are still very much alive. I first discovered this while compiling photos from my mother’s past.

My relationship with Mom is very good. But like anybody else, she can be difficult at times, and of course there are those rough spots in our past that sometimes resurface when you least expect it. Letting go, it seems, is a full-time job.

But ever since I uncovered a photo of her when she was five years old, looking somewhat lost while sitting on a makeshift merry-go-round in Germany back in 1940, I see her in a different light. She had no idea what was going on or what the future would hold. And for all our life experiences, this still holds true for us as adults.

It’s now very easy for me to remember this when I look at her, age 75, and it brings up this wellspring of compassion that I would have felt for that lonely little five-year-old girl if I had crossed her path way back when. That’s not to say I don’t have compassion for my mother to begin with — I certainly do — but any transitory irritation or anger that may come up is immediately vaporized by the memory of that photograph. It’s a remarkable thing.

A similar reaction happens when dealing with my children. They’re only 10 and 14, and I have vivid memories of them at every stage of their lives. I try not to fall into the trap of longing for a time when they were younger and seemingly more respectful of their parents and kinder to each other. But a photo of either of them around age five does wonders do disarm my anger.

Yes, we only have now. But I have to wonder, since most of us meet the other adults in our lives as adults and not as kindergartners, if it would be a good idea to carry photos of ourselves at age five, and to share them at the moment we’re about to act out of anger.

[2010]

Zen and the Art of Bicycle Riding

My son has put off learning to ride a bicycle for almost his entire walking life (he’s 10). Despite training wheels, our best encouragement, and the example (and teasing) of his older sister tearing around the neighborhood, he just wasn’t interested. Until now.

He’s at the point where getting together with his friends is not about his parents arranging play dates but about his friends coming to call, usually on their bikes. Peer pressure has succeeded where parental prodding has failed.

The training was going to be similar to what we did for his sister: take him out to the school parking lot and run along with him while barely holding onto the back of his seat until he seemed comfortable, then letting go. I was also going to do this one-on-one; his mom and sister would have to sit this one out. Too many cooks, etc.

But once we got to the parking lot, my approach abruptly changed. I knew he had a better sense of balance from riding his Razor scooter. And he was a bit bigger now than when we first got him the bike, so I thought he might have a little more physical confidence.

He was already on the same page. We parked the car, took the bike out of the trunk, and he got on and adjusted his helmet.

“I can do this,” he said.

“I know you can,” I replied.

He started off, head down, and quickly stopped before toppling over.  He repeated this a few more times. I could hear the frustration rising in his voice.

I had him bring the bike to one end of the lot. And I said something to him that just came to me at that moment, and said it only once.

“You already know how to do this. Don’t look down at the pedals. Look forward to where you want to go, and just go. Don’t think about it. Just go.”

And he did. I will never forget the look on his face or the feeling in my heart. Back and forth he went — stopping abruptly sometimes and saying “I’m thinking too much” — until the sun went down.

[2010]

Grasshopper Moments

I had to admit sometime ago that the TV series Kung Fu may have been my earliest exposure to Zen. It made sense once I’d read the stories about Bodhidharma bringing Buddhism to the Shaolin temple, and also giving them the foundations of what would become the martial art called kung fu.

I was a big fan as a kid, and probably made my parents more than a little crazy with my endless attempts to mimic David Caradine’s moves. But as much as I enjoyed seeing Caine kick butt in the Old West, my favorite parts were always the flashbacks depicting different lessons with his masters.

Because of that show, the word “grasshopper” (Master Po’s nickname for the young Caine) has become synonymous with “student” or “apprentice.” So when I see one of my kids demonstrate some aspect of Zen in their own life, I call that a “grasshopper moment.”

Now this certainly isn’t a monastic kind of thing, not any kind of formal training (and I’m certainly in no position to be that kind of teacher). What I’m hoping is that I can at least walk the walk (not just talk the talk) and have Zen be the way I am in the world, without any outward advertising that it’s “Zen” — just life. That takes some doing, but my other hope is that my kids pick up on this by example, that it’s just a way to be without necessarily knowing what it is.

My recent grasshopper moments were from my daughter on, of all things, Facebook.

I’d found clips on YouTube from an 80s documentary on Kurt Vonnegut and posted a link to them on my Facebook page with the comment “I miss Kurt.”  A short time later my daughter added this comment: “Well . . . Everything does have to end sooner or later . . .”

Talk about “getting” impermanence! I think Kurt would be impressed.

Then, a few days later, she felt the need (like so many of us Facebook users) to post a pithy saying to her Facebook status. And this is what she wrote:

“Don’t wish for what is not already here, do what you can, with what you have, where you are right now, and that should satisfy.”

My first thought was that she had somehow managed to channel Emerson. Then my more rational thought was that she may have started reading something other than “Twilight.” I had to know who she was quoting, and I asked her.

“I made it up” was her response.

“Really?” I asked, trying very hard not to be insulting. “Since when do you use the word ‘satisfy’?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “It sounded smart.”

So like any proud father would, I posted this comment about her status: “That’s my girl.”

And like any embarrassed daughter would, she quickly deleted the comment.

That’s my girl.

[2010]

The Lost Detail

The heat is shimmering off the pavement. My friends and I are out for a ride on a sultry New Jersey summer afternoon in 1978. John, a childhood friend, is home on leave from the Navy. He has grown a beard. Now he and I and our friend George are cruising along North Dean Street in John’s maroon Chevy Impala, on our way to Palisade Avenue to find something to eat.

We sit three across in the front seat. The windows are rolled down, and the stereo is turned up to fight the noise of the rushing air. We’re listening to Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Jeff Beck. I’m in the middle, wearing my usual attire: T-shirt, skintight flared blue jeans, Frye boots. My one hint of individuality is a beat-up, floppy-brimmed fishing hat that had belonged to my favorite uncle. George is similarly dressed, leaning against the passenger door, thoroughly enjoying the music and the wind blowing through his almost shoulder-length blond hair.

As we approach downtown Englewood, we pass Depot Square Park (later renamed Veteran’s Memorial Park) to our right. The park, about two blocks long and half a block wide, is sandwiched between North Dean Street and the railroad tracks. It’s all lawn, tall old trees, and benches — a pleasant place to have lunch.

On this day, however, something looks very out of place.

There, on the south end, a block from Palisade Avenue, are something like fifteen or twenty soldiers milling about in brown uniforms with swastikas on their sleeves. John notices them first and nonchalantly says, “Hey look — Nazis.”

My eyes fix on them; I want to be sure of what I’m seeing. They’re Nazis, all right: neatly pressed brown shirts and slacks, polished jackboots, the infamous arm bands.

I’m stunned. My first thought is, These guys have a ton of nerve. Englewood has always been an ethnically diverse town. How is it that these guys are still standing?

My next thought is, This is too close to home. We lived in the next town, and I’d always believed that this sort of thing only happened in Georgia or Illinois, that most American Nazis lived down south or out west somewhere.

Now I’m incensed. I also completely forget that George is sitting next to me. Like a man possessed, I scramble over him and lean halfway out the passenger window of the Impala, holding my hat to my head, shouting at the top of my lungs.

I declare to the world that the Brownshirts are illegitimate children. I question their sexual orientation: not their gender preference, but their species preference. I proclaim my knowledge of Adolf Hitler’s previous occupation and genital peculiarity, and contend that his mother had been a dog.

In the midst of my tirade, I feel the car stop. Two people grab my arms and lift me out of the car. They’re Englewood police officers. One is a man with sandy hair, just over six feet tall. His partner is a short but muscular woman with brunette hair. Neither looks very happy.

They order me to put my hands against a storefront wall and spread my legs. The male officer frisks me. For reasons I still don’t understand, I tell him to “check my boots, just in case.” Behind me, I hear George explaining, “He’s just very emotional.”

When I’m finally allowed to turn around, the officers inform me that I’m in serious trouble, that I’m to be taken down to headquarters. I try to argue with them about allowing a Nazi rally to take place in their park. They say I have no right to shout obscenities and incite a riot.

At that moment, we are joined by a third officer, who grabs my arm and takes me aside.

“Are you Jewish?” he asks.

“No,” I say, “but my mom’s German. You have to be Jewish to hate Nazis?”
And I’m thinking, This guy ‘s black. He should be on my side.

He pulls me farther away from his partners — who seem bent on taking me in — and goes nose to nose with me, looking me right in the eyes.

“Listen,” he whispers, “they’re not really Nazis.”

“What do you mean? Just look at them. The uniforms.”

“No. They’re not Nazis. It’s a movie.”

“Come on . . .”

“It’s a Woody Allen movie.”

“Get outta here . . .”

The officer continues to look me in the eyes, slowly nodding his head up and down.

Then, as if it will actually help me, I smile at him and whisper, “I love Woody Allen.”

The officer is not amused. He tells me to give him a minute to talk to his partners, but says he can’t promise me anything.

He returns a few minutes later and tells us to just shut up, get in the car, and get out of town.

And through it all, John is somewhere between laughter and nervous collapse. He’s on leave from the Navy, but neglected to tell the Navy about it. A routine background check would have assured him a private escort back to Philadelphia.

P.S.: The Woody Allen movie turned out to me Manhattan. While there is a reference to a New Jersey Nazi rally in the film, the footage of the rally was apparently left on the cutting room floor.

[1992]

Originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the July 1992 edition of New Jersey Monthly.

A Lifetime in Bergenfield Belies Author’s Version

I JUST FINISHED reading “Teenage Wasteland,” a recently published book that attempts to examine the circumstances behind teen suicides like the ones in Bergenfield in 1987.

While the author, Donna Gaines, made some valid points concerning alienated youth and the skewed priorities of American culture, I disagreed with her less-than-flattering portrayal of Bergenfield, particularly the high school.

The author is a sociologist. I am not. She spent a month in Bergenfield researching a book. I have spent my life here.

As a student, I did not fit into any of the author’s pigeonholes of high school society. I was not a “burnout,” nor was I scholarship or honor society material. I was just an average student who graduated in the middle of his class.

The two copies of “Teenage Wasteland” at the Bergenfield Public Library seem to be on perpetual reserve. If you want to get in line, you can read the author’s version of Bergenfield High School.

This is my version.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that the noblest of all professions are nursing and teaching. Sad to say, many of us only come to realize this under unfortunate, and sometimes tragic, circumstances.

In the days following the Bergenfield fire that killed William McClain’s family this past spring, I witnessed the struggle of Bergenfield High’s students and faculty to cope with the loss of 16-year-old Bill McClain, a struggle compounded by the tragic death of another 16-year-old student less than a month before, Nakia Wright.

The day before the fire, Bergenfield’s renowned marching band had participated in New York’s welcome-home parade for the Persian Gulf troops. Billy played the French horn in the band. My sister, a senior, was in the color guard.

Sixteen years ago, I played trombone in the band.

So in covering the aftermath of the fire for a local weekly newspaper, I found myself conversing with teachers I had known when I was in school. What came through in these conversations was the love these teachers have for their students. A recurring theme in the conversations was family.

On the day of the fire, several Bergenfield alumni, people who had never met Billy McClain, came to the school to offer assistance, much in the same way relatives gather after the death of a family member.

I spent a good part of thai evening talking on the phone with Gloria Pennell. She is married to Kent Pennell, the marching band’s director. She, too, had been in the Bergenfield High School marching band. She now spends a great deal of her time with the band, particularly the color guard.

Gloria Pennell and I reflected on our experiences, which we had taken for granted as students, and how people tend to take what she says about teachers’ sacrifices with a grain of salt because her husband is a teacher.

She spoke about the commitment of the faculty, about the countless extra hours spent by the art department to put on shows; by the athletic department during summer, weeknight, and weekend training; by the music department in extra rehearsals; by the clubs and organizations during their after-school activities; and by the teachers who make the effort for no reason other than they want to do it.

The Pennells consider the band their adopted children. The Saturday before the fire, they had attended the local Eagle Scout presentation, where Billy McClain was recognized for his achievements.

The Pennells have no children of their own, and, like many young couples, are sometimes questioned about it by well-meaning friends and relatives.

Gloria Pennell said that on such occasions, she just smiles and thinks to herself, “You couldn’t buy what we have.”

Claire Quirke, a senior in the band, agreed about the relationship.

“She is band mother,” Claire said. “And we are her children. All 90 of us.”

Frank Levy, the high school’s music director, had known Billy McClain for eight years. He concurred:

“I know these kids from Grade 4 on. Maybe we’re not all father and child, but at least we’re cousins.”

He said the support the faculty had given the students was reciprocal; he had found comfort in being able to talk about his feelings with his students.

Two days after the fire, the high school had its senior awards night. Principal Ross Medlar believed that it was important to resume a normal routine. Each department, as well as civic organizations, presented awards and scholarships to seniors. The auditorium stage was filled with teachers sweating beneath the klieg lights. I recognized every one of them.

An almost reverent lull fell over the audience as the math department teachers came to the podium. Billy McClain had been a math prodigy. Joyce DeSantis, the head of the department, announced the establishment of a scholarship in Billy’s name. The auditorium erupted with sustained, resounding applause.

Some time later, choir director Michael Benard presented a vocal music award to a student he affectionately referred to as “his son.” Faculty and students alike roared with knowing, appreciative laughter. Such are the relationships at Bergenfield High School.
I thought about the things these teachers had given me, lessons that were not in the texts, lessons that did not come out of their plan books but from their example.

I had learned tolerance. I had learned the value of an individual’s contribution to a group effort. I had learned commitment. I had learned compassion.

It was easy to take those things for granted as a student. It is also very easy to take them for granted as a voting member of the community.

I grew up with one of the so-called “burnouts” mentioned in “Teenage Wasteland.” To this day, I do not fully understand the reasons for his death in 1986, or for the suicides of the four teenagers in that Foster Village garage nine months later.

What I do understand is that children are a community’s greatest treasure.

And teachers are the children’s treasure.

[1991]

Originally published in the August 19, 1991 edition of The Record.