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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I Will Not Forget

Nicholas Ferrar - Deacon (1637)
[Charles de Foucauld - Hermit & Servant of the Poor (1916)]
World AIDS Day

“There's a sadness, written on her pretty face
A sadness all her own, 
from which no man can keep Candy safe”


Jimmy loved junk food.

He could put away whole boxes of Hostess cakes, although you wouldn't know it to look at him. I don't remember why I know that; he must have told me at some point.  I used to flirt with him at our local bar, where we were both regulars.  He was a cutey, after all, but he always had a little bit of a sad edge to his smile. I wish I had a picture of him. We had no interaction outside of the bar, and I just stopped seeing him there at some point.

Jimmy died 20 years ago. He couldn't have been more than 30 or so, maybe younger. I can't find any record of his funeral, but I see his parents and his only brother all died since then and his death is noted in their obituaries.  I know where they were buried so maybe I'll go sometime and see if he's there, too.

Gaston had no such sadness about him: he was full of energy.  A wrestler in high school, he still lifted weights and looked it. When he was not DJing at that same bar, he also helped renovate it.  My love affair with Jeep Wranglers began with him: he had a nice blue one with all kinds of mods. I got to ride in it once: he took me to a Marky Mark concert after I won the tickets on the radio. I was afraid to drive in the city then, and still don't like to.

Gaston disappeared, too, but that happens in a bar. I found out later through a friend that he was also gone. He did have a picture of him for me, though, in his graduation suit.   I still have it.

The bar used to have plaques on the wall for a bartender who kept working there long after he he'd been diagnosed with cancer, and one of the drag performers who also died a few years ago.  I asked if Gaston would ever get one, but it was so long ago, there are probably few people still there who would recognize him.

For years I have helped a dear friend of mine borrow and display some panels from the quilt.  Not enough people were coming to see it, though, and people in the place where we hung it said it made them sad to look at it, especially at Christmastime.  My friend bore the expense single-handedly, and it was a lot of work for us and another friend of his to go get the panels out of the chilly storage facility where they live most of the time, put them up and take them down, so we didn't do it this year. But we would still do it, somewhere, if people would come see.

Last year, I resolved to make, or--more accurately--commission, a quilt panel for Gaston. I know he doesn't have one, because you can check.  As it happens, a year later, I haven't gotten anywhere with that.  I feel bad about it, and I still want to do it.

I don't know enough about Jimmy to make one for him, really.  Not yet, but I'll keep trying to find someone who does. I don't think he wants to be remembered by a box of Ho-Hos, although I could always get to see that smile by teasing him about it.

A young guy told me today that World AIDS Day doesn't really speak to him "just because I'm gay" and pointed out that men like him are no longer the largest group of new infections. I know this is thanks in part to the drugs, but I wish the pharma companies didn't make it sound in their commercials like HIV was reduced to a minor inconvenience for those lucky enough to afford their products.

I didn't argue with my young friend. He didn't know guys like Gaston and Jimmy, and he didn't live with the fear that we did.  Because of them, we got tested.  Because of them, we stopped taking chances.  Because of them, we're here.

So because of them, I will not forget.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Holocaust Survivor Helen Paktor: "I Wanted to Live."

Twenty Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Kristallnacht (1938)

This was a weekend of broken glass.

On Friday, one of my friends made us a wonderful dinner. Roast chicken, haricorts verts sauteed with garlic and lime, and a whole tray of yams baked over shredded coconut. He treats us to feasts like this quite often, as do many of the gifted cooks we know, probably because they know we are not that handy in the kitchen. 

As he was cleaning up, the pan, slick with sweet syrup, slipped from his hands and crashed to their new tile floor, exploding into a million pieces.  The floor survived, but I wasn't sure if I was sadder about: the pan or the loss of those leftover yams!  We hurried to clean it up before their dog accidentally stepped on some glass or--worse--tried to lick up the mess.

Yesterday, another celebration, other friends' son turned ten, and a houseful of people with more food and drink than we could safely consume. "I always have nightmares that there won't be enough," she once confided in me. Later in the evening, while a few of us were making some music, someone accidentally dropped a drink. CRASH! More shards everywhere, and a puddle to clean up.

Today, however, the broken glass existed only in the abstract.  My friends at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Clifton, N.J. chose the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht "the night of broken glass" to observe their annual remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust by inviting Helen Paktor, who survived that experience, to speak to us.
Helen Paktor (right) with her daughter
Jeanette Mahler and Dr. Jacob Lindenthal
PHOTO CREDIT: Dr. Jacob Lindenthal

The talk was introduced by Dr. Jacob Lindenthal, who serves a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark.  Dr. Lindenthal interpreted for us a series of photographs he took at Auschwitz.  Coming from a family who lost loved ones in the camps, he recalled shaking with emotion when seeing the railroad tracks leading into it, to the point where he dropped one of his cameras, a vintage Leica.  He described meeting Helen Paktor, the guest of honor, during the last year and developing a strong kinship based on their mutual experience of loss.

Helen Paktor was born in Tarnow, Poland, in 1925.  Her parents worked in the dressmaking industry for which the area was known. She was 14 when German troops invaded her town, rounding up her family among the other local Jews and herding them into the city's ghetto, where they were subjected to forced labor and unprovoked violence, while their homes were pillaged. Her father  was killed, and she and her mother were separated from her brother and sent to the first of three concentration camps.

Helen told us matter-of-factly about how the prisoners were treated. Brutality was a daily occurrence, and there was the constant white smoke from the crematoriums.  They were forced to work 10-12 hour days on just crumbs of bread and "soup" that was little more than hot water. Helen and her mother were lucky to be together, as they helped one another survive. She told us of sleeping top-to-toe so they could warm one another's frostbitten feet under their arms.  On their third encounter with "Doctor Death" Josef Mangele, who personally inspected prisoners' left arms to see if they retained enough muscle tone to be fit for work, Helen was worried her frail-looking mother would be singled out for execution, so--by prior arrangement--she "stumbled" forward and pushed her mother, creating a distraction. 

The ploy worked, and both women lived to see the day Soviet troops liberated the camp. The guards had actually abandoned it ahead of the advancing army, but electrified the gates to prevent the prisoners from escaping.

Helen and her mother returned to their hometown and she tried for years to locate her brother, traveling as far as Italy, only to discover that he, too, had been killed.  They emigrated to America in the 1950s, her mother first, then Helen a year later.  She married and had two children, and lives in Livingston today.

The range of questions people ask Helen is amazing, and unfortunately in some cases reveals the ignorance that many Americans have about this dark period in human history. She does not mince words in her replies.  When asked how she responds when she learns about Holocaust deniers, Helen pointed at the numbers tattooed on her arm and asked "Why would any sane person do this to herself?"  A young man once asked if that was to help her remember her address.  She said no, it was to help him remember what the Nazis had done.  She was also asked if she'd consider having the tattoo removed since it was a constant reminder of the horrors she had witnessed and endured. "As if I needed a visual to be reminded."  Someone else asked, "Did you ever consider suicide in the camps?" She looked us for a long moment before replying firmly, "No. I wanted to live."

Understandably, there is still much anger in Helen's voice when she talks about the Nazis. She testified at a trial in Munich for some camp officials, but said very little was done to punish them.  According to Lawrence Rees, author of Auschwitz, A New History (2005) only 12% of the camp's 7,500 staff were ever brought to justice, and many of the sentences were trivial.

Helen brightens when discussing the heritage and contributions of the Jewish people. She shared that--despite being about 1% of the world population--Jews have won 22% of all Nobel Prizes. It is important to her that this history and heritage is passed down.  She  spent time last year with a young man named Andy Antiles as part of his preparation for Bar Mitvah. Andy writes about his experience here.  

Helen's daughter Jeanette was with her at today's event, and they both expressed profound gratitude for the expression of humanity offered by the people of St. Peter's. They were  moved to tears by the choir chanting the ancient Hebrew prayer "Ani Ma-Amin" ("I Believe") during the morning's Eucharist, which was Helen's first time attending a worship service in other than a synagogue.

In conclusion, Helen read aloud from an essay "Concerning the Jews" written by Mark Twain and published in Harper's in 1897. Twain who--having just spent time in Austria--perhaps saw the signs of what was to come.

"The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"
At age 90, Helen's continued strength of spirit is a clue to that secret.

Abridged versions of this post were republished in the Voice of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, and in the December 2015 edition of The Episcopal Journal.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Keeping Persecution in Perspective

Kristallnacht (1938)

This morning's groggy scan of the Face-space feed revealed that the annual "Keep-My-Christ-in-Your-Christmas" sanctimony has--like the onslaught of reminders to get out there and shop--crept yet earlier. I'm convinced that in my lifetime we will start seeing ads for next Christmas before this Christmas is over.  Of course the important season of Advent gets completely lost in the tide, but that's a rant for another day.

This time the outrage de l'année is because That Omnipresent Coffee Company -- having dispensed its last not-actually-pumpkin spice latte for the year--has gone with a plain red motif for its disposable cups during not-really-peppermint season.  That's right! No Santa Claus, no tree, and, shamefully, no Baby Jesus, surrounded by adoring animals.  So you must boycott, and you must tell everyone.  Because this is a Christian country, by golly, and we've got to make sure nobody forgets!

The irony that this is being held up as an example of "religious persecution" on the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht simply cannot be overstated.  More on that later today.

The fact that this is getting any traction whatsoever suggests American Christians as a group have become so warped by privilege, that we confuse any thwarted attempt to impose our beliefs on the greater society as "persecution".  And let's be clear. It's not like Allyourbucks used to have Christian images on their cups and abruptly took them away.  If you want to be outraged at them, why not check out their resistance to label GMO ingredients on their products, or the fact that we're still using so many throw-away cups at all?

The Rev. Emily C. Heath summed up my reaction so well that I was hesitant to write about this topic at all:
"Do you think Jesus would rather we remember his birthday by putting it on a coffee cup that’s going in the trash? Or would he rather we remember it by no longer treating one another as disposable?"
I could not say that any better, and I commend her entire post to you. I actually lament the commercial bonanza that Christmas has become, and the fact that--to get us in the mood to spend--we're surrounded by saccharine schlock so early so that we're sick of it by the time the actually holiday  arrives. But any one of us could choose to walk away from all that and observe the season--or don't--however we please.

I did, however, resort to arcane sacristy-rat humor to further point out just how ridiculous this whole manufactured snub truly is:

A Proclamation to the Outraged:
The Feast of Christ the King not being for several weeks, and thusly the season of Advent to follow, any talk of red cups (other than for the movable feast of Beer Pong) is verily premature.

Ye are reminded that the acceptable and orthodox cup choice of the day remains consistent with the weeks After Pentecost, known by our Roman friends as Ordinary Time.

This message (was not) brought to you by the Homer Laughlin China Company, manufacturers of Fiestaware. With Fiestaware, there's no excuse for sloppy orthodoxy on your table!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear

I was struck this week by two passages we read in my Education for Ministry seminar, both quotes of Lloyd Steffen, Chaplain at Lehigh University in Philadelphia.

The first is to do with listening.  How often have we been speaking to someone and realized from their body language or their response that they were not so much listening as waiting for their turn to talk? How often have we realized someone has asked us something and we don't know what it was because our mind was somewhere else?  Steffen suggests there is more to this than laziness or narcissism:
“The ability to listen depends not in the first place on any particular skill or technique, but on a fundamental respect for one’s partner in conversation. Listening is thus a moral act. Listening is an act of attending to the other that discloses the strangeness of otherness, disrupting our comfortable self-images and threatening to undo our everyday experience of ourselves (and others) as familiar and basically unified personalities. Not listening becomes a way of securing ourselves from encounter with the mystery of otherness. Listening exposes us to our own desires not to want to share of ourselves. Listeners are required not only to welcome the strangeness of the other but to risk self-disclosure in the act of listening, for the listener must at some point recognize and then expose to the other his or her own strangeness—and not only to the other but to one’s own self.”
This can be damaging enough on the interpersonal level, but what about what is going on in the universal church? The recent discourse around what constitutes "religious freedom" in a pluralistic society demonstrates what happens when Christians can no longer count on the privilege of assuming the political and social norms are in line with their own... or even that their fellow Christians will agree with them on what those norms should be.  How do we find a way forward when we can't even hear one another above the noise in our own heads?
“We are in need of a theology of listening, for a willingness to listen ultimately expresses an attitude of love. Christians believe that Jesus listened to God and to those he encountered in his daily life. We do neither. If we listened to one another we should be inviting one another into new forms of relationship based on openness and respect and a willingness to share ourselves. If we listened for God, we should spend our time not praying for ourselves but listening to our prayers to see what we are saying not to God but to ourselves. The heart is a great mystery. Christians believe that God knows the human heart (and we do not), for that heart is where God’s omniscience lies. God does not need to be informed about our wants and needs. It is we who need to know what we want, what we fear, what we love.
The bolded bits struck me particularly. We have all been the recipient of mass prayer requests for this or that cause, generally with a specific requested outcome. Pope Francis recently decried the notion of God as magician... how is one left to feel when one's request is not granted?

When you agree to pray for a third party, what are you really doing beyond repeating the obvious desired result (wellness, a job offer, etc.)? Is it like opening multiple trouble tickets for the same problem, where your wish might get granted because it seems to be popular?  If non-believers see our notion of God as a cosmic suggestion box, for which we'd have only ourselves to blame, it is small wonder that they don't take people of faith seriously; it would be a very simplistic, childish view of a god, and difficult to defend when things don't turn out according to the script.

So should we stop praying for those people?  Certainly not. We agreed that a more beneficial form of prayer is to reflect on the situation and our own response to it... how can we "be Christ" in the situation for the people affected?  Knowing that giant unseen cheering squad is out there certainly can have a positive effect on a person's state of mind, the impact of which in situations requiring confidence and healing should not be understated.

If nothing else, we can pray to become better listeners.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Requiescat in Pace: John Maxtone-Graham

I was saddened to learn yesterday of the passing of maritime historian and author John Maxtone-Graham, many of whose books about passenger ships are in my collection.  Peter Knego, who operates the popular site Maritime Matters, said in his obituary that "Mr. Maxtone-Graham’s poetic style of writing and his charismatic onstage manner were an inspiration to generations of fans of ships and the sea.  His breakthrough The Only Way To Cross, when published in 1972, was one of the first non-Titanic books to capture the essence of the ocean liner."

John possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of ocean liners and cruise ships, and delivered it--both in writing and at speaking engagements--with grace and humor.

One of my favorite of his tales describes an incident one night aboard the Bergensfjord of the Norske Amerikalinje (Norwegian America Line) in the 1960s, captured in his 1985 book Liners to the Sun

A woman, after having caught several garments on a protruding screw in her cabin panelling and forgetting to tell the steward about it, decided to fix it herself.  She couldn't get the screw in any further, so she took it out instead.  Just as she removed it from the wall, the Bergensfjord was struck by a tsunami and heeled violently to port, throwing people and contents to the deck.  Until she learned the cause of the accident, she was secretly terrified that her meddling with the ship's infrastructure had somehow triggered it.

John and wife Mary were frequent passengers as he was often called upon to give lectures on board, particularly for maiden voyages and others of historic significance. Whether in suit and tie or his trademark kilt, he struck a distinguished and gallant figure.

My father and I had the privilege to hear John speak several times as the RMS Queen Mary 2, flagship of the storied Cunard Line, made her inaugural crossing from Southampton, England, to New York in 2004. Despite the number of ship enthusiasts and industry names on board, I somehow ranked to have breakfast with him, and he patiently endured a tour of the amateurish design I had created for a ship like the QM2 before Cunard had the funds or the will to do so themselves.  My copy of his coffee-table book about that ship bears both an inscription (in which he amusingly took the heat for smudging his own signature) and a stamp commemorating the fact that our encounter took place during that historic voyage.

One amusing piece of trivia:  John's son Ian Maxtone-Graham is one of the brains behind the TV series The Simpsons, and--hidden among the details of a faux-bronze relief along a companionway on the QM2's lounge deck--the sharp-eyed can spot Homer among the mythological figures and wonders of creation.

Homer Simpson hidden in the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) Hallway Panels

While the movie Titanic takes some credit for the renewed interest in the golden era of ocean liner (which spanned from roughly 1890 til 1960, when jets began carrying the majority of passengers across the Atlantic) it is writers and historians like John who make sure this unique era is thoroughly and engagingly documented for generations to come.

Friday, June 19, 2015


Thus says the Lord:
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more."
Thus says the Lord:
"Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work."

Says the Lord:
"they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future."
Says the Lord:
"Your children shall come back to their own country."

- JER. 31:15-17

I'm hesitant to even comment on last night's news that nine members of a A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C., were shot by a 21 year-old man who spent an hour participating in their prayer meeting before pulling out a gun and opening fire, reloading several times and continuing to shoot people despite pleas from the crowd to stop.

I have no business saying anything. I don't live there. I don't know these people. I can't pretend to know what it's like to be subjected to the kinds of subtle and overt aggression that people of color face, particularly in a state where symbols of a time when enslaving other people was acceptable are displayed on public buildings as a reminder that there are people among them, including people in positions of power, who wish it was still the case.

And yet I will.

I will because--if it was me--I would want to know that others felt devastated, too.

I will because it will never, ever be okay with me that my actions, or lack of actions, contribute to a society where one group of people is "more equal than others".  The older I get, the less comfortable I am with the idea that I can manipulate how I am treated by my appearance in a way that others cannot, and that assumptions will be accordingly made, privileges granted, opportunities extended.

I will because, despite that, I know all too well how it feels to have adjectives applied to you that you didn't choose, other assumptions made, and privileges withheld, because of a biological trait over which you have no control, but for which you should have absolutely no reason to feel ashamed.

I will because we all bleed red, and whether you are Caucasoid or Afro-Caribbean or Hmong or Coeur d'Alene, you are entitled to feel safe in your house, at your place of worship if you have one, or on any street in America, because your kin fought and died for that just as mine did, and I have no more right to that feeling than you do.

I will because I, and my sisters and brothers around the planet, meet in places very much like Emanuel with people we don't know, and offer them whatever comfort we can with the thought too frequently in our minds that something like this can happen.  And yet we do it anyway, because can you imagine what kind of a world it would be if we gave into our fear, and stopped?

I will because there are people whom I love who work in law enforcement, and i want desperately for the things I believed about members of law enforcement as a child to be, without exception, safe things for a child of any color or upbringing to believe. I am grateful for the men and women in blue, along with civilians, who put their lives on the line to swiftly apprehend this shooter.

As old as I am, I am still naively optimistic on most days that these things are possible and we will someday reach that promised land.  There is an expression I love, whose rightful authorship I have not been able to pin down: "We ain't what we could be, we ain't what we gonna be, but at least we ain't what we was."  I believe that, and I have to believe the arc of history will continue to lead us forward.

But today I'm just heartbroken.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Too Many Flags to Fit

 “A boy like that will kill your brother
Forget that boy, and find another
One of your own kind, stick with your own kind”

This Sunday was Flag Day in the U.S. We have an enclosed porch with the ability to fly eight flags, which I do only on special occasions. Besides the American and Episcopal Church flags, which I fly on most nice days, I have a bunch of others, representing my partner’s and my varied ethnicity, places we’ve been, and some (like Wales) that I just have because visually it’s a cool flag. I have a vague sense of the major holidays in these various countries, as well as seasonal fillers to trot out when appropriate. We may the only people in New Jersey with Mardi Gras flags, for example, but I have attended the real thing in Louisiana many times and think observing it with gusto is a great way to usher in Lent.

Since my youngest sister married, it occurred to me that — just among my siblings and our partners — we now don’t have enough spaces to represent everybody’s background completely. Besides our own Italian, Lebanese, and Polish roots, some of which our spouses share, we have connections to Germany, Peru, and various British isles. I guess we can’t have everybody over at once, or someone’s going to feel slighted when they pull up to the house.

With that in mind, I saw with pleasure that a blogger whom I discovered recently, Joe Kay, had a piece from last year republished today by Sojourners. From This Day Forward… or Backward” starts out by describing the pressure Kay experienced from his family to marry someone just like them: Eastern European and Catholic. There was a tremendous fear that “the old ways” would be lost if this purity was not preserved. As he put it:
“To so many people, my relationship wasn’t about finding someone who fit me — it was more about me finding someone who fit them.”
My family has one pretty homogeneous narrative: my mother’s mother’s mother came from Poland as a teenager, quickly married a Polish man, and lived for most of her life in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where it was (and may well still be) possible to get by while speaking and reading only Polish. When my grandmother was of age, she also married a Pole, and her two siblings who married did likewise (in fact their spouses were also siblings, children of another family from the neighborhood).

My dad’s background is somewhat different. When my Italian-American grandfather brought his Lebanese-American wife to live with his Italian-immigrant parents above their grocery store, the two women both continued to do what they did best: cook amazing meals, each in her own kitchen. In fact, my grandmother was among the few people whose cooking my great-grandmother would eat besides her own.

There was some initial resistance, however, on her folks’ part: Italians, in that age of Mussolini, were viewed with an extra layer of the suspicion that most immigrant groups faced, and the Lebanese compensated for their share of discrimination by playing up their political and cultural association with the French. Once they proved themselves, however, both my grandfather and my cousin’s husband (also Italian) were adopted as part of the tribe.

My parents’ disparate backgrounds did not, as far as I know, cause any strife for their respective families , and neither did they impose any such restrictions on us (our mindset is pretty much Hey, another food to try!). As fate would have it, my sisters still all married Catholic men, two of whom are at least part Polish.

I guess by choosing another dude (and a WASP, to boot!) I wandered furthest from the field of what anybody might have expected from me, but I am grateful to say none of this has been an issue for anybody in my extended clan, including that same Polish grandmother, who is now 94. Thus I had tremendous sympathy for what Kay experienced.

This kind of concern still exists, even in the ethnic soup that is New Jersey. Some cultures prefer to associate only with their own, and to not do so can trigger suspicion and displeasure. An Indian friend’s family took a long time to get used to the idea that his lovely wife, also Indian, was not of their religious tradition; and a young Italian guy I dated briefly told me that if were to ever meet his family, I should not disclose my mixed heritage, the fact that I grew up in another town, or that I was no longer Catholic. And that was just to describe me as “a friend”! I never did end up meeting his family, as there was no way I was going to keep up that charade.

On June 12, we recalled a milestone in our collective recovery from such fear: 48 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that the state had no interest in preventing people of different races from marrying. Since 2003, the precedent this ruling set has been employed in the case for marriage equality for same-gender couples. As we approach the expected ruling that may finally put that struggle to rest (at least on paper) I’m grateful to my kin for embracing the relatively newfangled idea that a relationship is primarily for the people who are in it. As Kay said it:
“If someone really cares about you, they’re going to want to know whether this other person makes you laugh, helps you feel loved, brings out the best in you, and challenges you to grow. Does being with them bring you joy? Does your relationship bring you a deep experience of love? It does? Great! Congratulations! I am so happy for you! You are truly blessed.”
Would that it doesn’t take another 48 years before same-gender couples achieve the same degree of normalcy those of mixed race, ethnicity or religion are at least starting to achieve. In the meantime, as I look forward to empanadas joining the pierogi, insalata caprese, and tabbouleh on the table at family gatherings, I am glad that there is always room on my family’s mental porch for another flag, even if the real one can’t hold it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Dear Eighteen-Year-Old-Me

This was part of a suggested exercise in response to a piece called "Letter to My 18-Year-Old Self" by Brita James, published in baristanet.com guru Debbie Galant's Mid-Century Modern blog on medium.com

Dear 18-Year-Old Me:

Greetings from the Future! I realize that I (45-Year-Old You) am still not on speaking terms with 16-Year-Old-Me for not lifting weights instead of taking gym class whenever you had the chance. For the record, we’re still thudding three miles around the track everyday trying to get rid of that Burger King sandwich you just ate.

However, since New Jersey is in the midst of celebrating Pride, I’m feeling benevolent. I realize you don’t yet know what that is, sheltered little Catholic School graduate that you are. But someday you will not only come to terms with the way you feel about some of the guys you know, but there will be guys who feel the same way back, and you will no longer think you are some kind of alien species with crossed wires.

Speaking of which, not three months ago, two of those boys in your high school class, who weren’t always the nicest to you, manned up and apologized for the way that they acted, completely unbidden. I know it’s hard to believe now, but 45-Year-Old-You wasn’t even overwhelmed with surprise at this development. People change and grow, and — if you have any kind of conscience at all — it seems to be human nature to carry around those little hurts that you cause, like pebbles in your shoes. Redemption — when you find it — can feel be a relief, and 45-Year-Old-You was actually glad to be a part of that exchange.

We’re not supposed to give spoilers, but you’ve seemed kind of in the dumps lately, so I’ll throw you one. Breathe a word of it and I’ll deny everything, mind you, but listen: Right now, in a house not that far from your freshman dorm room with the roommates you’re afraid of, a ten-year-old boy is growing up fast. Years from now, when you’re both what you currently consider ancient (don’t think I didn’t hear that!), he will cross your path and catch your eye. In a church, no less. Yes, I know a church just told you to take a hike, but God won’t give up on you just because that nun did, and when it’s time, you’ll grudgingly come around.

A few years after that (I should warn you, they keep going by faster, like some crazy carnival ride) you and he will be the proud uncles of nine (count them, nine) beautiful and intelligent nieces and nephews, and each of your families will treat you like there’s nothing wrong with you being together. Because there isn’t.

So hang in there, 18-Year-Old Me. The best is yet to be.

Knowing what you do now, what would you tell your eighteen-year-old-self? Keep the party going by replying to Brita's original letter, and/or using the hashtag #Dear18YOMe.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

More Than a Handsome Face: Model/Singer Kerry Degman Draws Eyes to Military Suicide Prevention

It is not every day that someone you once admired (or envied) on a purely aesthetic level fleshes out to be a real person who not only responds graciously to fans, but devotes a considerable amount of his time and energy helping others.

I’m speaking of Kerry Degman, who has since 2007 plied the wares of Abercrombie & Fitch, Braun shavers, and other products, but has more recently demonstrated formidable chops as a country singer, and put both good genes and musical talent to work to raise money and attention for the issue of military suicide.

A few years ago, I commented on something he posted on social media, not really expecting a response, but ended up having a fulfilling, if sporadic, exchange about spirituality and other matters that continues to this day. A recent interview reveals a young man who remains thoughtful and grounded despite being a household face, if not always name (yet).

Degman’s solo debut Red Light, available on iTunes and other outlets, features a cover of the John Denver classic "Take Me Home, Country Roads", but is mostly original material, including the title track, the nostalgic "Home-Grown Tomatoes" and the infectious (pun fully intended) “Stuck In Your Head” (video below):

The album also features a track called “Pray for a Soldier in Pain” which Degman wrote after learning some troubling statistics about suicide among both active duty military and veterans: The Department of Defense reported there were over 100 active duty and reservists who took their own lives in the first quarter of 2014 alone, and veterans kill themselves at a staggering rate of 22 per day.

Degman and Columbus Blue Jackets’ forward Cam Atkinson are the public face of a new (as of this past Friday) nonprofit organization, the Force Network Fund, which promotes public awareness of this issue and funnels donations to thirteen established charities who care for soldiers, veterans, first-response personnel, and their families.

How to Help

If you are in a position to help financially, please check out Kerry's page (). There are give-aways and prizes for various contribution levels.

Beyond donations, everyone can help get the word out about FNF and the issue of military/veteran suicide. Degman has a call out to other artists to cover “Soldier in Pain” and repost with the hashtag #sing2serve. Atkinson is challenging other professional athletes, fans, and friends to take and post a patriotic “selfie” on Instagram, tag @camatkinson and use the hashtag #americam.

And of course if you or someone you encounter is experiencing suicidal thoughts, get help! A national hotline 800–273–8255 is one of many resources available.

Grace... Eventually?

“Grace is having a commitment to—or acceptance
of—being ineffective and foolish.”


Ugh, I swore up and down that I was not going to write about this.

As I was winding down last night, I caught wind that a favorite author of mine had apparently used her Twitter account to express fatigue with the very public gender transition of an individual once known for athletic prowess but now in the common consciousness principally through association with a media accident I refer to, collectively, as “the K Hole”. You may gather from this moniker what you will any insight about my attitude towards same.

This was problematic for me, not because of her disdain for the media circus which has ensued, but because — by not respecting that individual’s choice to adopt a change of pronoun through the omission of one letter — my author suggested an uncharacteristic callousness toward the gender identity issue as a whole that shines a new, somewhat distressed lens on her writings about grace and compassion.

I don’t know what drove that; it may have been the fact that this individual has overshared TMI about plans to Keep It and assure us (did I seem worried?) that there would be no accompanying change in sexual orientation. Or maybe it was the plasticine Photo Spread, or possibly the unwavering support for people and institutions which do their best to keep others on that same road of transition, who do not share the same safety net of money and prestige, in places of poverty and violence. 

Or maybe my author was just plain tired.  Anybody who reads her stuff knows she makes no claim to be perfect. She has been candid about some pretty self-destructive choices along the way, and the ongoing struggle to surrender control, be present, and generally see past others’ warts (and her own) to the God-loved person inside who really is trying hir hardest. She wasn’t issued a manual on how to respond to a seemingly camera-hungry public figure who has suddenly stood our perceptions on their collective ear. 

Similarly, no such manual exists for undergoing profound identity change, post middle-age, while bearing media scrutiny and a lifetime’s assumptions about gender and sexuality on your back, many of them obtained in the oh-so-forward-leaning world of athletics.  

That said, having this experience does not magically make one above reproach. Narcissism is still narcissism, and publicly voting against one’s own interests (or those of the people who share your gender identity but don’t share your privilege) is still going to earn you criticism. On the flip, if you set yourself up as a coach for others to find kindness and mercy, and then say something completely tone-deaf, you can expect to be called out on it. Possibly by your own kid.

What I know… what we fought for… is that this individual has the right to explore these things, maybe mess up, shape-shift, and sort out how to be seen and known. We can wish it didn’t have to unfold in lurid detail in the tabloids, and we don’t have to attach any bravery or heroics that aren’t warranted (try this as a poor, inner-city person of color and get back to me!).  But how we respond to who one person becomes should be based on hir choices alone, and not reflect our understanding, or path to one, of what it means to have or change a gender identity.

The next Tweet in my feed, offering a completely unrelated story about Afghanistan, began with a quote:
“Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world”
So that’s where we are: bitter and beautiful, trying to live with each other, getting it horribly wrong sometimes. Everyone we encounter has something to teach us; it’s harder with some than others to know what that is, but — in those cases — it seems to be something we need to know about ourselves.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Touring a Ghost Ship

I'm generally not someone who would encourage trespassing or other illegal behavior, but I could not resist watching the video footage an "urban explorer"  captured aboard the salvaged wreck of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, which is currently being stripped of its fittings in Genoa in preparation for scrapping.

An unknown individual, who identified himself on social media as "AdHoc" snuck aboard the ship at night sometime earlier this year and walked around filming and taking still photos of what he saw.

To someone who is somewhat familiar with passenger ships, it was eerie to see the spaces and shapes associated with a relaxed time at sea, now peeling and muddy and piled with garbage, having been "raised from the dead" last September in a pretty amazing feat of engineering that cost over $1 billion US (so far).

The Costa Concordia was cruising off the coast of Tuscany on the night of January 13th, 2012 when she struck a rock and began taking on water through a 230-foot gash in her hull.  In a rather grievous violation of maritime law, no abandon ship order was given for over an hour, by which time she had begun to heel over and drifted closer to shore. She eventually came to rest off the village of Giglio, which allowed some people to actually swim ashore.

Given how badly the evacuation was managed, it is somewhat amazing that of the 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew members on board, only 32 died.  This was the largest passenger ship ever lost in peacetime, and her commander, Francesco Schettino, has been convicted of manslaughter based on his actions before and after the collision, which included having his girlfriend (neither a paying passenger nor a crew member) on board and in the wheelhouse at the time of the accident, and abandoning the ship himself before all the passengers were evacuated.  Australian journalist Phillip Knightley described the incident as the "most significant event in modern maritime history" because "every single safety procedure designed to make sea travel safe failed miserably."

The cruise line Costa Crociere S. p. A., is one of the brands owned by Carnival Corporation and the Concordia was built from the same plans as their Carnival Splendor.  Governing bodies and industry groups on both sides of the Atlantic reviewed and tightened safety procedures in the wake of the wreck, including that large vessels are expected to stay two miles from ecologically sensitive coastlines and that boat drills must be conducted before leaving port.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Running On Empty

This post was actually begun on the Feast of Christ the King, but needed to wait til now to be shared.

MY FRIEND MICHAEL SAYS THAT THE CHURCH WILL SUCK YOU DRY IF YOU LET IT. By that he means, if you don’t allow yourself say “no” sometimes, you will find yourself on every committee and guild, and have guilt pangs if you ever have to leave before the last dish is washed and the last chair is stacked, despite the insistence of the EMTs carrying your stretcher towards the ambulance. There is a truthism that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person. The church seems to have taken this very seriously, maybe because it works. For them. For a while. But then what?

I read an article recently called “The Rise of the Dones”. Basically, the Dones are the people above. They have volunteered at the soup kitchen and taught Sunday School and stuffed envelopes and sat through all three liturgical cycles five or twenty times and heard seemingly every possible take on the readings from the pulpit. They grow tired of feeling that no how matter how much they do, it is never enough. Up your pledge, stay on vestry one more year, miss your TV show or your kid's game for that meeting. So, they bolt.

A dear clergy friend from whom I sought counsel told me it was totally okay that my partner and I left our church because it wasn't working out with the new rector. As she put it, we were not being fed. Her assumption, and ours, was that we would look around, find someplace else, and feel fed again. And we tried. We went to about twelve places with no expectations, and landed on one where the rector was everything his counterpart was not. We did our best to adapt to the way things were done differently, and struggled to fit in, until he abruptly left six months later. We stuck it out for another six months or so, and finally drifted away. Well, my partner drifted; I walked out in the middle of a service and never went back. That was over  a year ago, and I have not gone to church regularly in all that time. It is no-one's fault; it's just how things are right now.

Separately from, but related to that, I have concluded all but one of the ministries in which I am involved.  If you read my previous post "Hurt People Hurt People" you know as much about that as I do.

Am I a "done"? I don't know, but -- as my friend Matthew says -- I can sure see it from where I live.

I don’t want be a Done. It’s not that I don’t miss it. Sometimes I do, but it’s hard for me to articulate whether I miss something I actually had, or am pining for a kind of community that I have yet to find, or create.

I am being fed, through recitation of the Daily Office (boy howdy, those lenten psalms are rough, but apropos) and the Church of the Internet.  You can attend morning prayer online with a group and find wisdom and beauty from all quarters in music and writing.  The prophetic Jennifer Thorson wrote an absolutely brilliant sermon for Christ the King:
“The Rich and Powerful of today are not listening to Scripture any more than the Kings and Queens of the past who claimed that their leadership was a Divine Right. Earthly rulers may push and shove to get their way, they may see themselves as God-like, but the God of our scripture is a Shepherd King with dirt under his nails instead of blood on his hands, and the earthly powers are mere sheep, just as the exiled Israelites of Ezekiel’s time were sheep, just as you and I and the poorest of our brothers and sisters are sheep.”
I do go to actual church sometimes. During a trip to North Carolina, I visited a parish I helped my friends find and join a few years ago. They had a guest preacher (Jeffrey Pugh, Ph.D.) , and his take on the Gospel parable of the unprepared bridesmaids was to use the lack of oil as a metaphor for contemporary fatigue, confusion and despair:
“Immersed in a world that seems bereft of hope or promise, we still wait for the Not Yet. We wait for deliverance from empire that grinds us all down by its incessant demand for more power. We exist in the middle of a world where any lie is told to gain control over others, and wealth is used by an oligarchy to oppress those who do not have the ability to fight back. We await in the darkness of billions of dollars spent on weapons of destruction, and of political propaganda to maintain control, and it keeps us all -- especially the rich and the powerful and those who benefit from this -- in a great darkness that leaves us feeling our way along a long dark tunnel of any light. We are exhausted, and our light has gone out.”
A few weeks later, two friends and I “did church” of a different sort, driving 2 1/2 hours to Lancaster, Pa., to hear author Anne Lamott speak. Her voice resonates with me the strongest, here in the tunnel, because she makes no pretense of being any better at it than I am. Completely forthright about her own fractured upbringing, struggles with addiction, and “teeny control issues” she told us that God fully expects us to be messy, and grouchy, and selfish sometimes. That was a relief to hear, because I don't even have her dissonance-inducing compulsion to be perfect. But listening to her tell of her friends and family members, followed by the stories some of the other audience members shared, I couldn’t help but feel like a little bit of a jackass. Yes, our church experience got screwed up, but nobody died, or even stole my sticker collection. And I am surrounded by loving and talented people who give tremendously of themselves.

So maybe I need to shut the hell up. I can be fed, if I take the time to look and listen. And more importantly, I can make sure that others are. Pugh and Lamott had similar answers, on the theme of Don’t Become Part of the Problem. She suggested treating yourself to TV and m&m's for a few days, but ultimately, find someone to talk to. Or sit with a kid and make angels out of coffee filters. Her congregation of 32 people operates on the thinnest and most frayed of shoestrings, but she describes it as a place of unspeakable joy, and I believe her. I pray that I will have that feeling about church again someday.

Pugh says, “Christ returns to every heart that makes room for forgiveness and grace. The second coming happens every single day we choose to make peace instead of war; every moment when we extend mercy to those in need. It is not the constant watching that is the heart of faith; it is the preparation for the long haul. I can manage being kind for fifteen minutes in a day... but a lifetime?”

I guess we can find out.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

After the Fire, the Fire Still Burns

Phillips Brooks - Bishop & Preacher (1893)

Those in our area could not miss the headline earlier this week of a five-alarm fire that destroyed much of an apartment complex known as Avalon at Edgewater. If you've been around a while, you may remember that the same complex burned in 2000 as construction neared completion.

I'm not really wild about the trend toward wood frame construction for high-density housing like this.  With over 400 apartments in a city block, that's a lot of stoves, candles, extension cords, heaters, potentially careless smokers, etc., in a small area.  The building is still relatively new, but what happens when wiring and other material is 30, 40, 50 years old?  It is not as if it is cheap to live there, either; I saw mention of rents upwards of $3,000 a month.  We're getting two similar complexes in our town (one by the same developers) and I expressed concern to town officials that we may be exposed to similar risks.

On Thursday the Newark Star Ledger reported that a worker's blowtorch accidentally started the blaze, and that the crew called and spoke to their supervisor for 15 minutes before dialing 9-1-1, thus critically delaying firefighters' response.  This reminded me of another fire, which took place right across the river at Pier 88 in the Passenger Ship Terminal, seventy-three years ago this coming February 8th.

The SS Normandie, luxurious flagship of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, took shelter in New York when World War 2 began. Her crew remained on board until December 1941, when she was seized by the U.S. Navy and renamed the USS Lafayette, vessel AP-53.

Workers using blowtorches to remove iron handrails in the ship's cavernous first-class lounge accidentally ignited a stack of life preservers, which were full of a very flammable substance called Kapok.  They attempted to extinguish the fire, but the ship's sophisticated sprinkler system had been abandoned by the Navy and they quickly discovered that the fittings did not match American hoses.

The fire spread rapidly; the Normandie boasted numerous large public spaces (the First Class restaurant was longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles) which unfortunately acted  like a giant chimney. The FDNY used every means at its disposal to pour water on the ship, and she soon began a dangerous list away from the pier.  Her Russian-born designer Vladimir Yourkevitch arrived at the scene and attempted to provide expertise that would have possibly saved her, but he was ignored.  In the middle of the night, like a suffering whale that beaches itself, the beautiful ship fell on her side in the muck.

Burned-out wreck of the USS Lafayette (ex-Normandie) lies on her side at New York's Pier 88
PHOTO CREDIT: James Vaughan. Used under Creative Commons License. Some rights reserved.

She would remain there for a year, an embarrassing waste.  The Navy considered re-purposing her as an aircraft carrier, but the damage was found to be too extensive and they focused on other priorities.  She was scrapped at Port Newark after the war's end.  Luckily, much of her interior fittings had been removed and stored before the disaster, and can be seen in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Our Lady of Lebanon (the Maronite Catholic Cathedral in Brooklyn), and the Chicago Hilton.

Like the Avalon fire, her loss was ruled an accident, and--also similarly--the response immediately after it began played heavily into the outcome.  The design of passenger ships has changed significantly since then; the SS United States, launched 12 years later, had almost no wood on board, and both she and the SS France employed large amounts of asbestos, which was also subsequently ruled to be hazardous.  Large spaces like those aboard Normandie now have to be subdivided by fire-suppressing bulkheads and doors.

But, on land, are similar precautions being taken?  Hopefully we will not have to wait 73 years for a lesson from the Avalon fire to be learned.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

40 Symptoms of the 40s Gay Man

Used via Creative Commons
Some rights reserved
So, a friend posted this list of forty sucky things that a 40-year-old woman experiences, and it got a chuckle.  I thought it would be funny to compare my own list, much of which overlaps.  It will be funnier if you read that list first, as they sort of line up.  Sort of.
  1. I have no clue what's on MTV. Do we get MTV? I can’t find the remote.
  2. Gay shelf life is a thing.  Bars and parties that seem fun in the constant promos they send... yay Netflix!
  3. My entry in “movember” or any other facial-hair trend will be gray/white and thus put on ten years.  What works for Anderson Cooper makes me look like an aging owl during molting season.
  4. Should we fool around or watch a mo… zzzz
  5. The beer I drank on Super Bowl Sunday is still inside me somewhere.
  6. Wake up with that “but it’s a good hurt” feeling, like you did a heavy workout the day before… but you didn’t.
  7. Doctor’s appointment beginning to resemble a bad encounter with the TSA.
  8. Not that I'd leave my job and family to become a rich guy's houseboy and live on his yacht, but it was nice when that was at least a remote possibility.
  9. Going shirtless in public is seeming more and more like an aggressive act.
  10. The "me" in my head gets hit on by the “me” in the mirror... and shot down
  11. Mark Wahlberg still has that body. I, on the other hand...
  12. If I strolled across a college campus, people would ask I was lost or possibly tell security about the homeless-looking old guy
  13. The only place I get carded is the airport. Bonus: car insurance keeps dropping
  14. The mall, once my place of employment and the social epicenter, is like a visit to another, hostile planet. Any clothing that appeals to me is “too young for you” and doesn’t come in my size. Have actually purchased clothes at Costco. Does it have a drawstring or elastic waist? Take four of them.
  15. Random hairs. Wherever they feel like. Try and stop ‘em.
  16. I still like new music and go see it live, but people assume I’m there to clean up afterwards.
  17. Everything I wore in high school is probably somewhere in the house. If the hipsters want it, they can come find it.
  18. Whole TV series have been created, cancelled and become “classics” and I still haven’t heard of them. Where’s the remote?
  19. My employer will be paying my Medicare Part B someday and I actually understand what that means.
  20. I would not know Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, or any of these people “you’re supposed to like” if I tripped on them. Whatever happened to Cher and Madonna?
  21. Christmas, which used to start after Thanksgiving, now starts before Halloween. I think in our lifetimes, next Christmas will start before this Christmas.
  22. All the Abercrombie & Fitch went to the church thrift shop a while back. “Tell your son thank you for us!” Um, yeah, sure will.
  23. Have you seen my glasses?  $300 designer frames once every two years has morphed into a new $18 pair of readers from the drug store every few weeks because I keep losing or breaking them.
  24. Now that everybody has unlimited talk time, all my phone conversations are conference calls for work.
  25. All the concerts, clubs, and clothes I used to scrimp for are more within the budget, and yet I’m usually home on Saturday night and fine with that… mostly.
  26. If I was to flirt with the cable guy, police would probably be called. I just want the remote.
  27. If a good-looking, 21-year-old guy is friendly to me, he is trying to sell something.
  28. Naked pictures? I’d rather have Stacy’s Naked Pita Chips… with hummus please!
  29. I’m tempted to put tape over the front camera on my phone to avoid an accidental “selfie"
  30. Sagging your pants is not a fashion or political statement, it means your gut is pushing them down! Forget your suspenders again, grandpa?
  31. Touching my toes is easy… I’m already sitting down!
  32. When we go on a date in a classy restaurant, the mood is broken when I use the flashlight on my phone to read the menu. Left my glasses in the car.
  33. Impulsively buy vitamins, take them for three days, find the expired jar a year later.  Can't read the label anyway.
  34. A dog used to be a social accessory, so you could meet guys while walking/running him in a park. That rarely happens when you push him out on the back deck in your sweatpants and slippers.
  35. Every new exercise, eating, or other good behavior is going to happen “starting on Monday”.
  36. Post-bar at the diner, with the attendant flirting and gossip, has morphed into brunch at the diner with everybody looking at their phones.
  37. Instead of open bar, we look for BYOB and show up with Costco wine.
  38. Birthday party went from all-night in the city to … could we just forget about it please?
  39. I have nine pairs of $#@*(#@( glasses, where the #$@*#$@(*#@( are they?
  40. In my head, I am “dude” or “bro”. To the world I am “sir”. Can’t “sir” be my dad for just a little longer, please?