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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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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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]

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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.)

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]

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.