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.

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]

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]

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]

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.