The July event our family looks forward to ever year is a party held in Connecticut by Evil Jesus, the guitar player for Premature Strangulation. Premature Strangulation hasn’t played since their record breaking* world tour in 2015, but this annual gathering predates the concert series that served as a featured element.
After making a modest batch of Double Satanic Deviled Eggs and packing our children and other necessary accoutrements, we set out to make the journey from Queens to Killingworth. Despite typical heavy I-95 traffic, one children’s bathroom emergency and monsoon-like rains on I-91, we made pretty good time.
The Double Satanic Deviled Eggs were a hit, and others inspired by their long-standing success brought their own delicious but less Satanic versions.
It was a family-friendly event where children were so well occupied that attempts to check on them were met with a mix of perturbation and disgust. Older girls were magnets for young children and were incredibly gracious in minding toddlers. There was even a piñata that yielded great treats for the gathered children, and it was miraculous that no one was rendered unconscious with multiple youths swinging aggressively to break open the treat.
There was plentiful food and drink, but the real attraction is catching up with old friends. Our host, Evil Jesus, has known some of us since high school and others from college. Like his mother’s house was when we were in high school, his home is a center of an expansive social scene, a community. The guests at the party included includes Republicans, Democrats, Christians, atheists, lawyers, housewives, and other derivations of the human condition.
I met a young man who did extensive work in North Korea working to help reunite people with families in South Korea and has a grandmother north of the DMZ who has not seen family for decades. I learned another good high school friend is pursuing his dream of being a radio DJ, and heard about our host family’s recent trip to Paris.
The members of Premature Strangulation were not all there. The band has as many as nine members at any one time, like a more intoxicated and less-well-rehearsed Allman Brothers. Those members who were present discussed the possibility of getting together to play songs again. Maybe next year will be the reunion world tour that their adoring public is waiting for**.
The drive back was along less-crowded highways and under a clouded sky. Buzzing as best one can on diet Pepsi and Five Hour Energy, I was the only one awake for part of the drive. A slender golden moon haunted the night sky with a sense of beauty and adventure yet to come. Fireworks silently illuminated the sky from the far side of the highway.
Evil Jesus did it again. Another great gathering is in the books, and it produced good memories and good times, and a true sense of community. The human race needs more of this.
*largest concert attendance by a cover band in Killingworth Connecticut in the first-half of July on a non-leap year, according to the Evil Jesus Research Institute for Beer and Cynicism
**adoring public may be limited to sympathetic spouses, children, and pets
The Fourth of July every year brings with it many great traditions: hot dogs, fireworks, partying to excess with friends and family. And every year I have partied with high school friends in a way that embraces all of these observances.
My high school friend Steve and his wife Paige put on a great 4th of July party that brings in friends from far and wide.
Steve is the center of our social circle among most of my Connecticut friends. When we were in high school, his mother’s house was our central meeting place, and Mrs. Q was a second mother to a lot of us. She is missed. Steve and Paige’s house has become a second home to many. They have helped many friends and relatives who have needed places to stay. Even friends with perfectly good homes of their own nearby wind up spending a lot of time at Steve and Paige’s house.
The day of the party, circumstances delayed our departure until after 2 p.m. Driving on I-95 in Connecticut is its own special hell, and a Saturday on a holiday weekend it was an infernal misery of traffic. A two-hour drive became a three-hour drive, and since our kids had already napped at home, they screamed and cried for much of that three-hour drive. When we finally pulled onto our friends’ property, it was after 5 p.m.
I didn’t have time to make the stop for fireworks like I normally do. The forecast called for rain.
Once we got there, it was great to be among friends again.
Steve is a very handy person. He turned his one-story house into a two-story home and constructed his own out-buildings to keep farm animals on his property. He got me into hunting, gave me good advice on how to move about the woods, and helped me field dress my first deer. He also introduced me to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and we’ve debated both the immutably dark nature of human existence until the wee hours of the morning.
Steve and I were both financial journalists for a while. After being laid off and being without a regular job for a long time, Steve began working in shipbuilding by helping to renovate the historic Amistad. He has since began working on boats in Newport, Rhode Island. More than a year ago, he told me he could not go back to working behind a desk. At the party he said he hated having to be away from his family for so long for his job, but that he loves his job. He wakes up every morning and looks forward to going to work. It was something I had heard about but didn’t think I’d see.
A man who loves his job today is rare. I expected to see Bigfoot or get kidnapped by a UFO before one of my friends told me they loved going to work every day. Even though he loves to play the part of a curmudgeon, he looked sincerely happier than he’s been in the past. It was great to see and I can’t think of someone who deserves that more than Steve. He brings a lot of good thoughts and much-needed perspective to a lot of his friends. I know I’ve been better for having had long conversations with him and I’m far from alone.
He’s been writing a lot of good poetry lately as well and posting his poems online. He’s getting to see new things, and be inspired by his work with ships. “In so many ways, sailing is freedom like most of us can’t even understand.” He messaged me at one point.
A while into our time at the party, I found Steve sitting on a lawn chair in the back of his pickup truck. With him was our friend Jay. The two were perfectly content to sit with their beer there and observe the party from their perch. But they soon began to attract a crowd. Everyone wanted to stop by and enjoy the conversation. In between searching for and wrangling my children and stuffing my face with food, I discussed poetry with Steve.
We agreed that two men sitting in the back of a pickup truck was good fodder for a poem and we decided to each write a poem with this as the theme.
The party continued and despite my not being able to contribute to the supply of ordnance, there were still plenty of fireworks. My twin girls asked to be brought inside and skip the rest of the barrage after getting a bit too close to the pyrotechnics. Inside Jay was making his outstanding jambalaya, and we got a peek at the culinary genius at work.
We stayed late and got on the road for home after 11:30 p.m. Someday we’ll stay overnight in a tent on our friends’ lawn like my wife and I did before we had children.
It was a great way to celebrate Independence Day. The national politics evolves and devolves, and no matter your perspective, it’s easy to become discouraged. The strength of our country lies in the bonds we form with friends and neighbors, and at Steve and Paige’s house, a strong community thrives on its own.
This past weekend, my wife and I took our three girls to the Cradle of Aviation Museum not far outside the New York City border in Nassau County, Long Island, New York. The museum is located on the spot where Charles Lindbergh took off on his historic first trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.
The museum is a nice one and wasn’t too crowded even though it was a Saturday. There is a play room for children that our older girls enjoyed as well as plenty of airplane and helicopter cockpits they enjoyed climbing into and pretending to fly.
As we were busy wrangling our children and enjoying the exhibits, I saw people I recognized. I saw my friend Poppy and his son Mike there at the museum. It was a great coincidence.
I worked with Poppy years ago when I first moved back to New York City and worked as an immigration inspector at JFK Airport. Even though I was only on the job for about two years and left it more than sixteen years ago, it remains the most interesting paying job I’ve ever held.
The immigration service attracted an interesting mix of people, and most of my fellow immigration inspectors were excellent people. Some of them, particularly some of the supervisors, liked to put on airs even though they did little but order people around and make things easy for the airlines. Some people like to inflate themselves or wear needless tactical gear and pull power trips on passengers or other inspectors.
Poppy didn’t have to yell at people or strut around pretending to be tough. He’s a decorated veteran of both the U.S. Army and the New York Police Department. He saw combat in Vietnam and on the streets of New York as a housing cop during some of the most violent times of the city’s history. Rank-and-file inspectors like me respected the retired cops like Poppy because they had real and more impressive law enforcement experience and had no use for the petty politics of the federal bureaucracy. There was nothing that a paper-pushing supervisor could threaten him with that was going to scare him. He’s fought off Vietcong and hardened criminals. He’s seen humanity at its worst, repeatedly, and retained the ability to laugh at it.
His ability to laugh at bullshit that would otherwise drive a normal person insane is one of the qualities makes him so valued. After I left the airport to work in journalism, I worked with Poppy to write a book of funny stories about his time as a police officer. He gave me some recordings of conversations he had with fellow retired officers so I could write them up. I decided to listen to a few minutes one day before heading out, but these stories were so funny that I couldn’t stop listening and sat in my apartment listening to these stories and laughing out loud.
Among all the people I am in touch with from the airport, Poppy is the central figure in our network of friends. He is the one we will plan to meet for dinner months in advance, the one we’ll call when we make our one pilgrimage to a wrestling show for the year, the one we want to go to opening day at Yankee Stadium with. Some of the most memorable dinners I’ve had were with Poppy and other JFK friends at Two Toms Restaurant in Brooklyn.
Poppy has faced his share of troubles. He has faced health problems, his house burned down, and the useless airport bureaucrats held up his retirement paperwork. But despite that he has lost none of his humor or his ability to make you feel like you are one of his crew. My discussion with him and at the museum lasted only a few minutes, but it brightened my entire weekend.
We live in troubling times and we’ve seen New York and America enter difficult times that strain our concept of survival. But I take comfort that our country produces men like my friend Poppy, who is strong enough to face any danger and help you laugh at the absurdities of life.
There is a popular meme being widely shared on social media. It depicts several of current crop of presidential candidates and says, “If you are voting for any of these candidates, please unfriend me now …. Just kidding. I’m not twelve.”
It’s a funny meme and one people ought to take to heart. I learned long ago that political views and personalities are not one and the same. Just because someone agrees with you on political philosophy and public policy doesn’t mean they are agreeable people are even good people. You will find that you will completely loathe some of your own allies more than your sworn enemies. A person’s personality is not dictated by their politics.
Some of my most productive and pleasant conversations have been with people on the extremes, the outside of what is considered proper or viable political discourse. These people could speak honestly with me because they had nothing to lose. They didn’t have to put on airs to convince themselves or the world around them who they were. Their outlier status bestowed on them an easy confidence that meant they didn’t have to prove who they were or make a dramatic demonstration to establish their identity at every turn.
I have friends who span the political spectrum from far left to far right. Some of my friends would be horrified that I’m friends with communists, cops, Black Lives Matter protesters, white nationalists, transgender activists, Republicans, Democrats, Green Party activists, Libertarians, and more. I’m friends with active duty military members as well as pacifists, anti-war demonstrators as well as veterans (and some of the most fervent anti-war people I know are veterans).
I didn’t set out to cultivate friendships from every political persuasion, it just happened that way. I’ve met lots of interesting people from all walks of life. I value the friendships I’ve made along the way even though I will always disagree with many of my friends on the important issues of the day. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I don’t want to live in a world where everyone agrees with me. That would be a strange place and no fun at all. Life is better when your ideas are challenged and you are exposed to ideas on all sides. Many of the opinion writers I read are people I rarely agree with but their arguments are so well written I can’t resist. Also, how will you learn to defend your ideas unless they are challenged by worthy adversaries?
Also, human beings are complex, many-sided beings. The person who may be very conservative on one issue may be very liberal on another. No one worth knowing is a completely blank slate of ideological talking points. No one with a sound intellect can be pigeon-holed into a stereotypical ideological bracket on every matter.
There’s nothing wrong with despising someone’s ideas or speaking your mind when it’s appropriate. But trying to pick and choose your friends by an ideological litmus test will lead you to quickly paint yourself into a corner.
Hauling musical gear on the back roads of the Connecticut countryside was satisfying. I followed my friend Steve past some interesting houses in the woods of Killingworth: one giant massive estate that was under construction was already completely out of place with the houses around it. Another house was built in a strange dome-shape, eccentric to the last.
We were done loading the gear for my friend’s big July 4th party. I invited Steve to join me for some pizza, but he couldn’t. He had to make a phone call to a friend’s mother. The friend was in Texas and had committed suicide. It was an online gaming friend; they had never met in person, but the loss was hard to fathom. The guy was young and had a lot to live for if he had only been able to see that. Now it was up to my friend Steve to try to console his friend’s mother. Steve has a lot of friends and cares deeply about people despite his cynical and jaded exterior. He’s a person people are drawn to and for good reason, but this also means he spends a lot of time facing life’s tragedies. He’s seen more than his fair share.
The day after July 4 my father flew into town and rented a car at LaGuardia airport. He came to our apartment in Queens and visited briefly with me and my wife and our two little girls. My Dad lives in Georgia and doesn’t get to see his granddaughters much.
Then we headed to Poughkeepsie for a wake.
Mickey Murphy was my father’s best friend. They had been friends since they were 13-year-old freshman at All Hallows High School in The Bronx.
Mickey and his wife Denise are my godparents and were a very good influence. They were adults that spared me the drama of regular hectoring and criticism required of parents. There are times in every person’s life when they hate their parents; but I could never think a bad thought about the Murphys Mickey was always a friendly face, a calm voice even amid the sturm and drang of adolescence. His wife Denise is the liveliest and friendliest person of every place she goes.
Mickey had diabetes and had not had an easy time of it. He had experienced heart surgery, kidney dialysis and a lot of other non-fun things. He’d be permitted a measure of self-pity about it but that was unthinkable. He was a constant doer of good and could keep his head up even through very bad times.
My father and I drove to Poughkeepsie talking about things to keep our minds off of our destination. We gabbed about the sorry state of politics, the health and well-being of our own family, how his granddaughters are growing and his difficult travel schedule.
At the wake the significance of the loss was evident. Whether people knew Mickey for 15 years or 50, they considered him their best friend.
I owe Mickey a lot, because he was always giving my father interesting books to read and helped shape him as a voracious reader in high school. Not too many 16-year-olds can tackle Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness but Mickey Murphy and my Dad did.
My father was asked to say a few words and he came with prepared remarks prepared. As per usual he made me very proud to be his son.
Here is what he said:
“I met Mickey in freshman year high school now more than 50 years ago. In the past few days many of our classmates have been exchanging reminiscences and nearly all of them recall his amazing abilities. One of us wrote that, given what Mickey could do on the basketball court as well as in the classroom, he was a kind of superhero to the rest of us. And that was true. I remember describing Mickey to someone once who said, ‘Really, a guy who can do everything really well, sounds pretty hateful.’ But in Mickey it wasn’t. He was a gracious man and there wasn’t an ounce of swagger in him anytime, ever. In fact, if there was a flaw to point to at all, it was that he seldom paused long enough to even take in the great thing he had just done before he went on to the next.
“Mick had a successful career at IBM before illness cut it short. He had a series of important positions in our Human Resources function and ended up as Director of HR for the company’s corporate headquarters division where he had responsibility for the global headquarters site in Armonk. When I asked him about his executive responsibilities he said, ‘It’s simple, it’s just the stuff you already know. ’ Mickey had a welcome sign placed at the desk in the headquarters lobby. So yes, that’s simple and it was certainly something that Mickey knew to do, but no one had thought to do that before. He carried a reflexive graciousness with him throughout his life and applied it everywhere.
“Thirteen years ago Mickey and I visited Ireland. The trip was a Christmas present from our wives. Neither of us had ever been and it was a pilgrimage of sorts. We visited our mothers’ birthplaces. Mickey’s mom’s in Charleville and my mother’s hometown of Roscrea. We also hit all the sites that would draw any self-respecting brooding romantic Irishman. We went to Kilmainham prison and saw the yard where the leaders of the 1916 uprising had been executed. We traced the bullet holes in the walls of the post office on O’Connell Street in Dublin. I remember joking that if we had to have all of the darkness of this heritage couldn’t we at least have some of the light? I get the brooding intensity and sense of injustice unpunished and all that but what about the mirth and the magic? Isn’t there supposed to be a pot of gold here someplace, Murphy? So I got him to go to the Art Museum. It’s really convenient being right here next to the prison. I insisted we go to the Abbey Theater in Dublin to see a play. True, it was a brooding tragedy about a dying young man, but it was the theater.
“This struggle between the darkness and the light – not letting one overtake the other – is something all of us of Irish descent inherit. We don’t always achieve a manageable balance and it can be a life’s work. There is one thing this week that gives me comfort. Today Mickey is with Our Lord of whom Scripture says, “In Him there is no darkness only light.” So we know that for Mick a perfect balance is now achieved and all the physical challenges he bore so graciously throughout his life are resolved. Because we understand the truth of the Resurrection, we know that Mickey is restored to the fullness of his abilities and all the great gifts God gave him just as he was when I first met him. This is a promise made to all of us and in the sadness we feel at having to say goodbye to our great friend, this gives us legitimate cause to celebrate.”