Parting words left on my LinkedIn profile

You are more than your résumé. You are the result of a unique intersection of matter, time, and space. I mean, the odds against you being here are astronomical. You are a gift. Truly a one-time special offer. At the same time, you’re no big deal; there are billions of other people in the world. But no one like you. Never has been, never will be. Make room in your heart for this paradox — it is the root of compassion. Strive to do good works and not just to be a good worker. Try not to conflate wealth and worth. Understand that capitalism is an imperfect tool, not an infallible religion. You are more than a client, a customer, a vendor, an employee, a means to an end.

[2019]

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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Neil deGrasse Tyson Brings Radio to the Bronze Age

I convinced Neil deGrasse Tyson to learn Kushitic Akkadian. After some fierce debate about the ethics of temporal mechanics, I then sent him back in time to explain to Abraham how things really work. Then when God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac, Abe sat quietly in a grove and told the voice in his head to go piss up a rope, that he loved his son and would not kill him, no matter who was telling him. When Neil came back, little had changed. God had found some guy named Shmuel willing to do the deed, so the story came down to us as Shmuly and Iggy. Neil said we obviously needed some mass communication. So he brought radio to the Bronze Age. Then everybody learned to deal with the voices in their heads from voices in little boxes. But the world was still fucked up. Apparently Rush Limbaugh’s family goes way back.

[2017]

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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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Dakota Cats

We have been hiding because it has been very noisy.

We know where all the good hiding places are. Nobody owns them; you run for the nearest spot when you need to.

Usually it is very calm; we can go where we like. The Man and the Woman are very nice to lie on. So is the Boy, now that he has stopped petting us too hard and pulling our tails.

There is a lot of music. And laughing. Sometimes the Man plays the piano. Mostly he sits on the big bed and plays guitar. We like the big bed too. The Woman is often down the hall talking to people while the Man is often on the floor, singing to the Boy and making him laugh. Other people come and go all the time. They play with us, too, and sometimes feed us.

We love the kitchen best. Not just because the food and water are there, but because it is warm and smells so good. It must have been fashioned from a late-afternoon sunbeam.

The Man likes surprises. Sometimes when I walk near him while he is reading, he moves his foot suddenly and I jump straight up in the air. He laughs. I don’t think it is all that funny. And I fall for it every time. The best surprise was the day the Man brought in the giant climbing tower. He acted like he had found the best thing in the world. (He had.)

There used to be more of us. One day the one they called “Alice” (they never learn our real names) got scared by a loud noise and jumped out an open window. She did not come back. It was the only time I ever saw the Man cry. Sure, the three of them could be sad from time to time. But we all know how to fix that. This was different.

Today we came out from hiding. There is sadness, worse than when Alice left. We tried to fix it, but this is different.

We have not seen the Man yet. He must be outside; we can hear him singing. People are singing with him. Maybe they found Alice.

[2015]

Lennon-Cat

Harry Twenty Years On

He was raised
To quote chapter and verse.
A true believer
Betrayed
Not even for silver —
Just certainty.

Unlocking the door
He slumped against the wall.
I helped him to the sofa;
Easy in his small studio,
Past the kitchenette,
A spice rack filled
With myriad medications hung
Beneath photos of young Natalie Wood
And young Dean Cain.

A beautiful drive,
A chance to talk, about god
And California and the Hemlock Society
And would I help him —
A promise never tested.

I searched for music on the radio,
The thing that had brought us together
In high school.
He would have liked the club mix of
Where The Streets Have No Name.
I was thinking the theme to
Midnight Cowboy.

An hour later, at the hospital
It occurred to me
The staff believed I was his partner.
It never occurred to me
To correct them.
The memory of their kindness
Melts my heart still.

A drainage tube in his back.
A little more life in his eyes.
His wit and humor diminished
But still potent.
When his parents arrived
I was barely there.
They were unwilling
Or ill-equipped to be
In such a moment.

They displayed the same countenance
At the memorial, a formality,
Something to endure.
I said I didn’t know
Where we go
When we die, if anywhere.
But I hoped some of my loved ones
Now had the pleasure of his company.
And I wondered
Who among his family
Had had to box up his gay porn.

I still hear his voice.
I struggle to write his story.
To remember
All the ways
Healing never happens.

[2015]

Originally published in HIV Here & Now.

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]

9-11

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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