Monday, November 5, 2018

Changing the World One Person at a Time



This post is about my mother, Carol Orkin, who tragically passed on October 28, 2018.

It is a deeply unfortunate truth that we often end up singing the praises of those we care most about after they’re no longer around to hear them. There are various reasons for this that don’t necessarily pertain to not appreciating them or taking them for granted. I’d say the primary contributing factors are our self-constructed delusions about the fragility of life and the related belief that we’ve got plenty of time to do all that we need and want to do. Make no mistake. We don’t have plenty of time. Our time, or the time of the people we love may run out tomorrow. Time and life are fleeting. If you’ve got something to say to someone, do yourself a big favor: Say it today. It will never be enough. You’ll always think of more you wanted or needed to say, but it will help. Trust me on this.

In the case of my mother, though I never wrote anything like this specifically for her prior to her passing, I’d like to think that my love, respect, and admiration for her came through in my actions, words, and writing. That said, though I did tell her I loved her pretty regularly, I wish I had told her, “Thank you. Thank you for being a great mom, grandmother, and wife. Thanks for being a great role model. Thanks for being a great person.”

Quite simply, I am the person I am today because of her and my father, Jerome Orkin. Some of it may just be genetics, but on the whole, it’s that they took the job of being parents seriously. On some level, they were aware of their moral obligation, their awesome responsibility (the obligation and responsibility of ALL parents) to contribute decent human beings to the world. Any commendable traits I may have can be resoundingly attributed to them. My shortcomings are on me.

My parents were both truly remarkable people. I will never match their unique personalities and accomplishments, but certainly, they instilled in me realistic and attainable (though no less noble and meaningful) aspirations of success, some of which I may yet achieve before I – to paraphrase Stephen King – reach the clearing at the end of the path. Neither my mother, nor my father cured cancer or stopped a world war but they were immensely successful just the same. Indeed, though they both left this life far sooner than they should have, each of them can look in the mirror and nod in satisfaction at a job well done.

Having concluded the Jewish ritual of mourning known as Shiva, I have decided to use this post to record the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s memorial service. It is my hope that my words have in some small way captured the spirit of her, that they’ll give you some sense of who she was, how deeply and profoundly she is loved and how enormously I and all who knew her will miss her.


Eulogy for my Mother, Carol G. Orkin (1/13/40 – 10/28/18)

In sacred moments such as this, we endeavor to rise to the occasion. We summon our divine, creative forces, and do our best to speak truth.

We begin with the words of my father, Jerome Orkin.


WHEN I'M GONE...

When I'm gone, don't weep for me
When I'm gone, just keep for me
all the love that I once knew
And my love, will be with you
don't despair, don't distress
Keep alive the Happiness,
That all our lives we always had,
although the times were sometimes bad.
So don't just mourn and frown with sorrow
remember and smile and think of Tomorrow

~~~

How do you define a life in a few short minutes? How do you convey the joys, glories, miracles, mysteries, nuances, achievements, losses, and all the other myriad things that create that tapestry? In short, you can’t. I could write a thousand-page biography or film a 12-hour movie, and they would only be primers. Alternately, I could stand here in silence and leave it to each and every one of you to write your own story, weave your own tapestry of memories regarding the life of my truly remarkable mother. They would all be true. They would all be beautiful. They would all matter.

There are so many things I can tell you. I can tell you that growing up, we didn’t have much, but the love our parents shared with each other and with us made that not matter.

I can tell you how I and many others frequently teased Mom about her OCD-spectrum need to create frictionless surfaces when spreading cream cheese on a bagel, or her ability to form geometrically pristine matzah balls and latkes.

I can tell you about her squint of distaste and muttered exclamation of “Uh; disgusting!” when my father used to drink the water from green olive or pickle jars. I can see him in my mind, smirking around the edges of the jar, which increases my confidence that he did this not so much because he liked the taste, but for the explicit purpose of making my mother squirm.

I can tell you how much she loved her grandchildren and about the unique bond she shared with my daughter, Julianna. I can tell you how much she enjoyed the simple pleasure of making eggs with Jules when we visited for breakfast on Saturday or Sunday mornings.

I can tell you how Mom visited my office and met my team a few years back. After only about five minutes of chatting with her, my friend and coworker Christiana looked at me, looked at her, looked at me, looked at her, and declared, “You are one hot mama!”

I can tell you about her 'Brooklyn Posse,' her group of girlfriends who have known and loved each other for over 60 years, sharing and enhancing each other's lives throughout that time.

I can tell you she was the most life-affirming, empowering person I ever met. I can tell you she was impeccably classy and feminine. Indeed, though she may not have realized it at the time, her final words, as she attempted to send me off home shortly before she passed, were, “I’m going to bid you good night.”

I can also tell you that her quiet femininity and classiness did not preclude her from being one tough broad. As anyone who ever got on her wrong side can attest, she could be formidable.

I can tell you she was immensely strong, fiercely intelligent, deeply loving, and frequently hilarious. She not only had a wonderful sense of humor, but a great appreciation for the humor of others and was always a great sport when my brothers and I poked loving fun at her.

I can tell you how passionate she was about this planet and the people on it. She was living proof that if you want to change the world, you do it one person at a time. Mom resolutely believed in the power of conviction, compassion, and common sense, that we all can indeed make a difference, that we can make the world a better place. Had we put her in charge, you can be sure there would have been some big changes around here.

Indeed, right at this moment, there is a meeting taking place in heaven. My mother and her brother, Lenny Hochman, in a rare show of solidarity, have boldly strode past God’s receptionist into His office without an appointment. They have sat themselves down, and have informed Him, “We have some issues to discuss with you.” God responds by pointing to the name plate on His desk and advising them, “Do you not know who I am? Do you not see that this sign says, ‘Holy One, Blessed Be He?’ The conversation will quickly deteriorate from there, ending with God fleeing his office with his hands over his ears, shouting, “Make them stop! Somebody send them back to Earth! Do whatever you have to do!”

The beautiful memoir, ‘A River Runs Through It’ by Norman MacLean, begins with this line: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.” I took my mom to see the Robert Redford-directed film adaptation of this story and I remember her loving the relationship between MacLean and his brother, and their father, which in many ways emulated the relationship my brothers and I shared with our own father. If we were to adapt Mr. MacLean’s opening line for our purposes here today, you could go with, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion, and bagels & coffee.”

Recently, Mom photocopied an installment of the newspaper comic strip, ‘For Better or For Worse,’ which she has always been very fond of. In the strip, the main character, Elly, is taken out for dinner for her birthday by a few of her friends, and they talk about all they’ve shared together through the years. She returns home later that evening and her young daughter Elizabeth asks, “What did Connie and the other ladies give you for your birthday, Mom?” Elly answers, “Their love and friendship.” The girl responds, “Is that all?” Elly replies, “Elizabeth, that’s everything!!”

Mom didn't need fur coats or trips around the world to be happy. Her idea of a perfect day was to have as much family gathered around the kitchen table as possible, engaging in spirited debate about the events of the day, telling great stories, good-naturedly teasing each other, and above all, laughing. She lived life with joy, passion, humor, and love, and did her best to make sure everyone around her did the same.

Toward the end of ‘A River Runs Through It,’ there is a death in the family. MacLean’s father struggles enormously with this tragedy in the months that follow, repeatedly asking him, “Is there anything else you can tell me?” After quickly running out of new information, MacLean finally tells his father, “Yes. He was beautiful.” With the simple switch of a pronoun, this line, too, serves our purposes.

I can go on and on. But let’s end with this. No tribute to my mom is complete without talking about her truly great American love story with my dad, Jerry. They loved, respected, and appreciated each other so profoundly and beautifully. They set a nearly unmatchable standard for excellence in relationships. If I could typify their love and unity in simple terms, it would be watching them dance. Life, my friends, is an uncertain business, but there are certain immutable truths. One such truth is that my parents knew how to MOVE, baby! When they danced, you couldn’t take your eyes off them. They danced with style and spirit but were never flashy or arrogant.

The passing of my mother, Carol Orkin, is a titanic tragedy. She is absolutely irreplaceable. But she would not want people to dwell on the loss of her. She would much rather we celebrate that she was here. Another immutable truth I’m going to share with you is that this is not really a memorial service. It’s a celebratory service. It’s a service of unadulterated jubilation.

In that spirit, I’m going to ask you to do something unconventional. I’m going to ask you to help me engage in a bit of magic. I’m going to ask every single person in this room to close your eyes. I want you to listen to the music that’s about to play.


Now, imagine my mom moving across a dance floor with my dad, perfectly in synch with the music and each other, smiles on their faces. Take a few moments. Hold that vision of immaculate rhythm and love in your mind.

Do you want to know what joy looks like? It looks like my mother dancing with my father.

Now, let’s celebrate the life of Carol Orkin in a way that she would absolutely appreciate. In fact, she is smiling down on us at this very moment. Let the spirit of this amazing and extraordinary woman fill your heart and mind. Open your eyes. Get up. And dance.

Long after today, every day of your lives, I want you to remember the power and beauty of my mother and the joy and fun of this moment. I want you to know in your hearts that if she could leave you with one message, it would boil down to simply this: Keep. On. Dancing…

May God bless the immortal, loving spirit of Carol Orkin.

Thank you.

~~~




Note: This photo was taken in Summer 2009. I feel it captures my mom’s gentleness, strength, grace, and beauty. When I think of her, I think of her in this moment, smiling in quiet contentment on a lovely summer day.

~~~

Thank you for reading.

~~~

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Titan of Tales

Circumstance forces me to interrupt my sequence of posts about the 2nd Amendment and the NRA.

That circumstance is the passing of writer extraordinaire, Harlan Ellison. 





Harlan was nothing less than a titan of words. Ferociously dedicated to the craft of writing, he was likewise immensely talented in terms of the vast and diverse body of work he produced. Though he was most often associated with Science Fiction, he rankled at this label, often proclaiming the genre of his work to be "Harlan Ellison Stories." With regard to technique and power, he has few equals and no superiors. His words are titanium steel on the page.

Notable tales for me are ‘Paladin of the Lost Hour,’ ‘I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream,’ ‘Mefisto in Onyx,’ ‘Repent, Harlequin, Said the TickTock Man,’ and of course, the classic Star Trek episode, ‘City on the Edge of Forever.’ (His original version really is even better than the Gene Roddenberry-revised version that was ultimately aired on the show).

Favorite Quote:

“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”

Notable anecdotes for me are:

-        His one-day employment at Disney. During his lunch hour, he regaled a bunch of fellow writers with a stirring rendition of a hardcore porn film featuring Mickey and the gang. Unbeknownst to him, Roy Disney was sitting at a table nearby and overheard the whole thing. Harlan returned from lunch to find a pink slip on his desk.
-        Being confronted by a little person who took offense to his use of the term ‘midget’ and explained that the correct phrase was, ‘little person.’ In response, Harlan replied, “I am 5’5. I am a little person. YOU are a midget.”
-        Moments after sitting down to sign autographs following an appearance at a convention, Harlan realized he’d left his glasses in the meeting room where he’d just given his presentation. Because he was very tight on time and wanted to be sure everyone got their book signed, he stood up, announced, “Okay, everyone follow me,” and strode back into the meeting room with myself, my friend Cheryl, and several other attendees in tow. When I ‘admonished’ him that he was making a spectacle of himself for losing his glasses, he halted, turned, and glared, ready to take me to task for insulting him. Then, he got the joke, rolled his eyes and shook his head in bemused exasperation, and continued on, later graciously signing one of his books for me.
-        His penchant for making writing a performance art by taking requests from patrons of a local bookstore (some of them well-known celebrities; Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman spring to mind) regarding basic ideas for a story, then sitting in the front window of said bookstore and writing said story.
-     His steadfast rejection of the personal computer as a writing instrument. He worked exclusively on manual typewriters, and could type faster than most computer keyboardists.
-        His standard answer to anyone who asked him where he got his ideas, which was something like, “I order them from an idea factory in Peoria. I send them a check and every few months they ship me a six-pack.” Several years after I heard that story, I witnessed his delight as a pair of fans gave him a custom-designed six-pack of black cans with “IDEA” printed in purple on the sides.
-        At one appearance, I saw a fan respectfully approach his autograph table and hand him a copy of one of his books that had clearly seen better days. Fidgeting in embarrassment, the fan said to him, “I’m sorry it’s not in very good shape.” Without missing a beat, Harlan held up the book and replied, “You know what this means? It means this book has seen some miles. It means you took it with you in your car, to the beach, to the bank, to a laundromat, to a diner, to your girlfriend's house. It means you cared so much about this book and what was in it, you carried it around wherever you went, and it shows.” He then proudly signed the book and returned it to the fan.  

In describing himself and his work, Harlan writes: "My work is foursquare for chaos. I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell. From time to time some denigrator or critic with umbrage will say of my work, ‘He only wrote that to shock.’ I smile and nod. Precisely."

Love him or hate him, Harlan Ellison was simply impossible to ignore. A middle ground perspective regarding the man and his words was not an option. He was a poster-boy for the phrase “larger than life,” a diminutive powerhouse of personality with a razor-keen, unapologetically emphatic opinion on everything from civil rights to the merits of Hydrox Cookies over Oreos. Seeing him in person never failed to impress, whether you agreed with him or not. He was a fabulous storyteller (with a killer Bogart impression) with a warehouse of a mind and a diabolically subversive sense of humor. Harlan lived a spirited and eventful life filled with colorful adventures. He walked his talk and was not intimidated by anyone or anything (sometimes to a fault). Saying he did not suffer fools lightly is like saying the Titanic sprung a little leak. He was incredibly passionate about social issues and all but homicidally dedicated to and protective of the integrity of his work.

There are scores of people who can write about Harlan with vastly greater knowledge and authority than I can. He was certainly far from perfect and some, maybe even many, of the criticisms leveled at him over the years have at least some legitimacy. That does not preclude him from being remarkable. 

I’m providing a few links to articles that will tell you more about the man and his life.

There’s a very good documentary about him titled ‘Dreams With Sharp Teeth.’ It’s predictably out of stock at Amazon as of this writing but will undoubtedly turn up again soon.

Though I only met him in passing on a few occasions scattered across the years, Mr. Ellison has made an indelible impression on my life and has been an incredible inspiration to me. Indeed, he is tied for first place as my most powerful creative muse (If you have to split the win, sharing it with Freddie Mercury is a pretty badass compromise). When anyone asks me who my favorite writer is, my response is always “Harlan Ellison” without a blink of hesitation. If you have ever read one of my stories or blog posts and enjoyed them, you should pass along a nod of thanks to Harlan. His mark can be found in virtually everything I've ever written.

His passing leaves a scar on the literary landscape. The world is now less passionate, less interesting, less hilarious, less unpredictable, less intelligent, less creative, and a lot less fun.

There are not many people who truly live up to the phrase, "We will not see his like again" but Harlan Ellison most certainly does. 
 
He will be very sorely missed.

Thank you for reading.

~~~