law, modern problems, politics, true crime

Do I even want to go “home” again?

The featured photo was taken on May 18, 2014, when Bill and I took a last Space A Hop to Germany, ahead of his military retirement. At the time, we didn’t know we’d be coming back to live in Germany just weeks later. We’re still here… and we no longer really want to go back “home” again. It definitely gives me some empathy and a unique perspective toward people who flee other countries for the United States…

Today is the one year anniversary of the death of an old Peace Corps friend of mine. I wrote about Matt last year, a few days after I found out about how he was senselessly killed by a reckless driver in Brooklyn, New York. Matt Jensen was a very special person. He had dedicated his life to teaching English as a foreign language, and students of all ages benefited from his natural acumen in the classroom. Matt was born to teach, and he had loads of charisma and a wonderful sense of humor. Although we hadn’t spoken or seen each other in many years, I was genuinely heartbroken when I heard about his sudden death last year. It just seemed so incredibly unfair.

For months, I watched the news to see if anyone would ever be arrested in connection with Matt’s death. Finally, in February, just as I was about to give up on justice, I was inspired to do one last search of the news. Sure enough, that very day, I found out that the police had taken a suspect into custody. I wrote another post about how I felt about that. I didn’t expect a lot of people to get it, since it was one of my more “creative” efforts… but to me, the post I wrote about Matt’s killer’s arrest set to the Police’s 1983 album, Synchronicity, made a lot of sense. When I knew him, Matt bore a resemblance to Sting.

I’m still watching for updates on the case involving Tariq Witherspoon, the 30 year old New York Emergency Medical Technician who is being held responsible for mowing down Matt with a borrowed black Rolls Royce last year. Every time I think about how Matt died, it seems more absurd to me. This was a man who served in the Peace Corps twice. He had devoted his life to helping people, especially those who wanted to learn English and improve their lives. To think that he was taken out by an over-the-top status symbol driven by a man who supposedly devoted his life’s work to saving other people’s lives! It’s completely ridiculous.

Every day, there are more news articles about how absolutely insane the United States has become in recent years. From the relentless attack on women’s rights, to the senseless gun violence at schools, churches, and supermarkets, to the abhorrent racism on every common street corner, I’ve become a lot less impressed with my homeland. Last night, I was reading a sickening story about a nine year old White boy who brought a whip to his Black neighbor’s house. He was captured with a Ring camera, whip in hand, visibly seething with rage as he banged on the neighbors’ door, demanding that their daughter come out. Why? Because they’d had an altercation at school, and he wanted to “finish” it with a fucking whip! Below is a video of the incident, along with follow up footage of the Black girl’s parents confronting the whip wielder’s father. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that the boy’s father came to the door with a gun in his hand. I can see where this kid’s rage comes from; his father is clearly a toxic and dangerous person.

What the HELL is wrong with people?

What is especially sad to me is that this is a nine year old child. He probably has no idea about slavery in America, and how enslaved Black people were whipped, beaten, raped, and murdered so that rich White people could get richer. I hate to think that this child, at just nine years old, has this much hatred for others. I see how angry and violent he already is at age nine. What will he be like at 19? I hope he gets some competent help from a therapist before he winds up arrested on felony charges, as his dad was after he fired a weapon at the Black couple who confronted him about the whip and the damage the boy allegedly did to their car.

Amid stories like the one above, there are so many angry people in the United States. I read another story this morning about how Spain is considering allowing women paid time off when they suffer severe period symptoms. I think the idea is very progressive and humane. While my own periods have mainly just been annoying and inconvenient, I know women who literally get sick every month when they have their periods. I have known women whose cramps were so bad that it hurt to walk, and they spent days vomiting.

What a contrast this policy is, especially in a country as Catholic as Spain is, to the anti-women legislation being considered in the United States right now. I grew up believing that the United States was the epitome of a “free country”. But if the Republicans have their way, abortion will be outlawed, and women could find themselves at risk of being arrested when they have miscarriages. That seems extreme, but consider that Lizelle Herrera, a woman in Texas who miscarried, was actually arrested recently and accused of “murdering” her unborn child. Thankfully, good sense eventually prevailed, and she was released after what was surely a very stressful and horrifying ordeal at the Starr County Jail. I hope the American Civil Liberties Union helps her sue the fuck out of the people who reported her to the authorities and arrested her. What is especially scary about Herrera’s case is that she had gone to a hospital for help, and wound up being accused of “death of an individual by self-induced abortion”. If we don’t do something about the right wing anti-abortion zealots, this is a fate that could affect a lot of women. And it may lead to miscarrying people not getting medical help when they really need it, for fear of being arrested and charged with murder.

Mama Doctor Jones spells it out for all of us. Outlawing abortion in the United States will result in a lot of morbidity and mortality.

Naturally, the comment section for the article about Spain’s proposed legislation included many awful comments from American males, who have NO idea what it’s like to have periods, be pregnant, or deal with the aftermath of childbearing. Having lived in Europe for almost eight years, I’ve admired the family and community focused laws here. No, it’s not perfect, and people here pay a lot of taxes, which I know would not be popular in the United States. But Europeans recognize that children need their parents. Women who have babies in Germany get a very generous paid maternity leave before and after their pregnancies, as well as other benefits. Fathers are also granted time off to bond with their babies.

In the United States, we have people screaming about fetal rights, yet denying citizens the means to give babies and children a healthy start in life. When someone points out this discrepancy, they are sure to receive a snarky, unempathetic reply, usually from a Republican male, who obviously cares more about money than fellow human beings. This is what one typically tone deaf man– a man who claims he’s a doctor, no less— had to say about Spain’s proposed legislation:

Great. How do you prove that you have severe period symptoms compared to moderate ? How can you control for abuse of taking time off and differentiate between authentic cases and fictitious ones?

This was what a woman said in response to the “doctor”, who doesn’t have much regard for women:

Wait, you claim to be a physician? It seems horrible that this would be your level of compassion for a patient. There have been days out of every month for the past 40 YEARS when the pain was so severe I was vomiting and in tears. I spent the time with a heating pad or in a hot bath, trying my best to even prepare a meal for my family or perform the most basic tasks. This began when I was 12 years old. I was never diagnosed with any specific problem, and often told (mostly by male doctors) that it was just like that for some women and to “push through.” How does one prove such a thing?

Lots of people took on this supposed “doctor of misogyny”, as he continually mansplained why this law could be problematic. According to him, there are a lot of women in Spain who are just waiting to game the system and take off work when their period pain doesn’t warrant it (in his opinion, anyway).

I also saw a comment from a man who probably votes for pro-life candidates, but harangued a woman who pointed out how misogynistic the United States is. He told her to “get a new job” and exercise “personal responsibility”. When she came back and told him she was a member of a union and got decent benefits (for the United States, that is), the guy told her to “stop crying”. In his mind, she already had hers and needed to STFU. He couldn’t see why she’d want to advocate for others, who aren’t as fortunate. Does this man have women in his life? Does he care about them? Based on his comments, I’d guess not.

The pervasive self-centeredness and selfishness in the United States is just awful. It really doesn’t make me want to go home, even though I know I’m going to have to at some point. We have some unfinished business that needs to be handled. But do I want to move back there permanently? I have to be honest. I don’t think I want to. The United States has changed noticeably since the Trump years. I think Trump’s presidency has awakened and emboldened some of the worst people in our society. It will be years before the United States is back on track. It hurts to see how awful it is from afar.

Meanwhile, here in my little Hessian village, people are community minded and focused on doing things for the environment. Our local Facebook group shared a new “bee feeding vending machine” that is available now. Someone repurposed an old gumball machine so that it sells “bee bombs”– bee friendly flower seeds that can be planted in gardens to provide bees with fuel. Here in Germany, it’s illegal to kill bees. The government has wisely realized that without bees, we’d have no food. Similar legislation and efforts to save bees in the United States would probably garner nothing but derision from the clueless.

Well, I know it’s inevitable that we’ll go home at some point. Does it mean we’ll stay there for good? More and more, I’m thinking that maybe we won’t. My Italian friend, Vittorio, was right when he told me some years ago that America has a “weird-o-rama” culture. He was spot on. I didn’t see it when I was in the thick of it, but after years in Europe, it’s as plain as day. And it’s truly heartbreaking.

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art, music, musings, nostalgia, true crime

I experience synchronicity as The Police finally do their job…

In 1983, a band called The Police, fronted by the ever lovable Sting, released an album called Synchronicity. That album has always been kind of important to me, even though I wasn’t necessarily a Police fan in 1983, and some people think it’s their “weakest” work. Personally, I disagree. Maybe Synchronicity wasn’t as edgy as some of the other albums done by The Police, but it legitimately had some incredible songs on it that still sound amazing in 2022. I actually gifted this album on vinyl to my ex best friend, and it was probably through her that I learned to love The Police before Sting went solo. It could have just as easily been my older sister who influenced me, since she’s the one who turned me on to Kate Bush.

As I sit here writing this blog post today, I’m reminded of the wise and intelligent lyrics penned by Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland all those years ago, when I was still a kid, and some of the most important people to me were on the brink of starting their adult lives. I hope you’ll indulge me this clumsy foray into creativity today. Sometimes the clumsiest attempts can eventually lead to grace. Of course, this post could also turn out to be totally cheesy, non-sensical, and stupid crap. We’ll see what happens.

A picture of Matt from after I knew him… when he was younger, he looked a lot like Sting. I have pictures of him from our Peace Corps days, but they are unfortunately in storage. In 1983, Matt was turning 20. I wouldn’t meet him until 1995.

I was sitting on my bed last night, watching my new Facts of Life DVDs, pretending it was the early 80s again. I was a bonafide child in the early 1980s, while Bill was a young man about to embark on his career. Although I didn’t have the greatest childhood, sometimes I like to watch old TV shows from that time in my life. I also love the music from that time, even the really shitty stuff. There’s something about it that comforts me and makes me feel– temporarily– like I’m still young, with my whole life ahead of me. Then I’m jolted into reality as I realize that in a few short months, I’ll be 50 years old. And there’s still a lot I’ve never managed to do. Maybe watching shows like The Facts of Life temporarily make me feel like I still have a lot of years left. So does listening to albums like Synchronicity. But then, Sting is a master songwriter, so his work probably holds up much better than The Facts of Life does.

Tea in the Sahara

The sky turned to black
Would he ever come back?
They would climb a high dune
They would pray to the moon
But he’d never return
So the sisters would burn
As their eyes searched the land
With their cups full of sand

As I was soothing myself with the best seasons of a successful sitcom last night, I suddenly remembered my friend, Matthew Jensen, who was killed last May, just hours after celebrating his 58th birthday with family and friends. It was just after midnight in Brooklyn, New York on May 18th, and Matt was walking home from his own birthday party. He had almost reached his abode, and was crossing a dangerous intersection, when a man driving a black Rolls Royce mowed him down in the street and left him for dead.

Every Breath You Take

Since you’ve gone, I’ve been lost without a trace
I dream at night, I can only see your face
I look around, but it’s you I can’t replace
I feel so cold, and I long for your embrace
I keep crying baby, baby please

I’ve written about Matt a few times, and I’ve thought of Matt many more times since his death. Although it had been years since we last spoke, Matt left an indelible impression on me. I was legitimately devastated when I heard about what had happened to him. I hated the thought that the person who is responsible for taking him out of the world was still free to harm other people. Since last May, I’ve been watching the news to see if anyone was being held responsible for killing my old friend and colleague. Every time I looked for updates, I was left disappointed that there hadn’t been any new news about the case. I was beginning to lose hope, so my searches had become less frequent. I don’t even know why I thought of Matt last night, in spite of the impression he made on me. Life goes on, even after someone interesting dies.

Synchronicity I

A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectible
Nothing is invincible

When Matt’s memory inexplicably and suddenly popped into my head, I found myself dutifully searching for news about his case. As usual, I didn’t have much hope that there would be any new developments. And then, there it was. Someone finally got arrested. At 8:45 AM, Brooklyn time, a 30 year old man named Tariq Witherspoon turned himself in to the 94th Precinct station house. Mr. Witherspoon, who was employed for eleven years as an Emergency Medical Technician for the New York Fire Department, is being charged with criminally negligent homicide, leaving the scene of an accident, reckless endangerment, and speeding. Was it intuition that caused me to look for that news? I don’t know. Maybe it was synchronicity.

Murder By Numbers

Once that you’ve decided on a killing
First you make a stone of your heart
And if you find that your hands are still willing
Then you can turn a murder into art

In the early hours of May 18, 2021, Matt was crossing the notoriously dangerous McGuinness Boulevard against the light. Mr. Witherspoon had a green light, but the speed limit was 25 miles per hour. Mr. Witherspoon was reportedly changing lanes at 50 miles an hour, when he and Matt had their tragic meeting with fate. And then, in spite of being an experienced EMT who should have been among the very last people who would commit hit and run, Witherspoon sped off into the night, evading responsibility for Matt’s death for over nine months.

Now if you have a taste for this experience
If you’re flushed with your very first success

Then you must try a twosome or a threesome
You’ll find your conscience bothers you much less
Because murder is like anything you take to
It’s a habit-forming need for more and more

You can bump off every member of your family
And anybody else you find a bore

According to an article published by the NY Daily News, Tariq Witherspoon has been sued several times for other accidents he’s either directly caused, or been involved in, over the past ten years or so. He seems to have a curious fondness for expensive cars. He allegedly hit Matt with a 2010 black Rolls Royce that he’d borrowed, but other accidents involving Witherspoon have involved a Porsche and a Mercedes-Benz, either driven by, lent by, or struck by him. For some reason, in spite of being repeatedly sued after seriously injuring several other people in accidents involving motor vehicles, Mr. Witherspoon has inexplicably been able to maintain his employment as an EMT. However, in light of his arrest, he’s now suspended from his job without pay. He is currently being held on $75,000 bail or a $15,000 cash bond. ETA: NBC says Witherspoon has posted a $15,000 cash bond.

O My God

Everyone I know is lonely
With God so far away
And my heart belongs to no one
So now sometimes I pray
Take the space between us
Fill it up some way
Take the space between us
Fill it up, fill it up

Witherspoon is a Brooklyn resident. He must have seen how much Matt’s community has suffered since he so callously mowed him down last year. There were many memorials for Matt, including one in which former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged $39 million to “fix” the dangerous intersection on McGuinness Boulevard where Matt and others have been injured and/or killed.

I was involved in a much smaller memorial for Matt last July. It took place on Zoom, but there were people from around the world who were there to remember him. I will never forget the sincere grief expressed, particularly by the Armenians Matt worked with when we were in the Peace Corps together. One Armenian man was in tears as he remembered the tall, blond man who helped him get a job with the Peace Corps and showed him a world beyond Vanadzor, the city where Matt worked. I’m sure he was just one of many. My heart breaks for Matt’s students, who reportedly adored him. And then there were his family members and friends who are now left without his presence… as well as two cats.

Mother

Well the telephone is ringing
Is that my mother on the phone?
Telephone is ringing

Is that my mother on the phone?
The telephone is screaming
Won’t she leave me alone?
The telephone is ringing
Is that my mother on the phone?

Matt was a much beloved person by many people around the world. He was incredibly charismatic, and he had a true gift for teaching and presenting. Matt wrote letters, and he had many friends in influential places. He loved to have fun, and he had many quirky interests that made him truly fascinating. He loved ABBA, royal families, and being irreverent. In the weeks after Prince Philip died last year, Matt wrote letters of condolences to Queen Elizabeth II and her daughter, Princess Anne. At the time of his death, Princess Anne had written back to him. Queen Elizabeth’s response, sadly, arrived after Matt was already gone.

I have always remembered Matt as a hilarious, warm, and talented guy, and back when I first met him in 1995, he bore a resemblance to the famous rock star, Sting. He was fun to dance with, and we had many memorable evenings in Armenia enjoying low sodium meals involving beets, lentils, and cabbage. He once told me that he’d learned to cook low sodium meals because his mother had high blood pressure. He also told me a hysterical story about how his mother had once watched a “sickening” Mother’s Day special involving Kathie Lee Gifford. Obviously, I drank in his stories, as did a lot of our colleagues and friends. He was just that kind of person. Unique, magnetic, and just unforgettable.

Walking In Your Footsteps

Hey mighty brontosaurus
Don’t you have a lesson for us
You thought your rule would always last
There were no lessons in your past
You were built three stories high
They say you would not hurt a fly
If we explode the atom bomb
Would they say that we were dumb?

I learned later that Matt was affecting his friends, students, parents, and family members the same way he’d affected me, as he worked as a much beloved and highly respected teacher in Brooklyn. I take some comfort realizing that Matt managed to influence people around the world. At our small online memorial last summer, a man from Armenia wept as he talked about how Matt had influenced him. Later, a woman who had worked with Matt in Brooklyn spoke about how Matt had helped immigrant children fit in at their new school.

Fifty million years ago
You walked upon the planet so
Lord of all that you could see
Just a little bit like me

I know for a fact that Matt spoke Armenian and French. It wouldn’t surprise me if he knew other languages, or at least tried to learn a few words, just to help welcome innocent children to their new home in New York. Everybody knew him, whether or not he was their teacher. He had a towering presence and an infectious energy that was impossible to ignore. He stood six feet four inches tall. And yet, Tariq Witherspoon allegedly hit him at 50 miles per hour and just kept going. For nine months, he’s been evading responsibility for exploding the atom bomb in so many people’s lives… especially the students left behind, some of whom aren’t from the United States and really needed Matt’s comforting presence.

Wrapped Around Your Finger

Devil and the deep blue sea behind me
Vanish in the air you’ll never find me
I will turn your face to alabaster
When you’ll find your servant is your master

Why did it take nine months for Tariq Witherspoon to be arrested? I don’t know. But I do know that he’s about to face judgment. I would not be surprised if there are many people who will want to attend his court sessions. There will be people who will want to speak about the man who died because of his careless actions in a black Rolls Royce. Imagine the absurdity of it. A teacher who had served twice in the Peace Corps killed by a careless man in a very expensive status symbol.

Matthew Jensen was a man who dedicated his life to teaching people, helping them make better lives for themselves. He served in the Peace Corps twice– in Senegal and Armenia– and he worked with children in New York who didn’t speak English. He taught university students. He taught other Americans who were going to carry on his legacy in Armenia, teaching youngsters how to speak English. It was a great loss to the world when Matt Jensen died… but at least we know that someone is finally going to answer for this crime.

King of Pain

There’s a little black spot on the sun today
It’s the same old thing as yesterday
There’s a black hat caught in a high tree top
There’s a flag pole rag and the wind won’t stop

I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running ’round my brain
I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign
But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain

I don’t know what kind of person Tariq Witherspoon is. I can only make assumptions. I don’t know what made him choose his line of work, which is supposed to be based in mercy and decency. He’s supposed to save lives, not end them. Based on his record of hitting people in cars, hurting them, and being sued for negligence, I can’t help but wonder if Tariq Witherspoon could have used another session with a guidance counselor.

Miss Gradenko

Don’t tell the director I said so
But are you safe Miss Gradenko
We were at a policy meeting
They were planning new ways of cheating
I didn’t want to rock your boat
But you sent this dangerous note
You’ve been letting your feelings show

Are you safe Miss Gradenko
Miss Gradenko are you safe

I’m glad to know that someone is finally going to answer for Matt’s death. I hope the police have the right guy, and that the charges will stick. I don’t wish pain or torture for Mr. Witherspoon. I just want him off the streets. My unmarried niece lives in Brooklyn now. She doesn’t have a car. I don’t want Tariq Witherspoon to be involved in any other accidents. I don’t want him tending to my niece if she’s ever in need of an EMT. He needs to be taken out of commission for awhile… and hopefully, he’ll learn.

Synchronicity II

Another suburban family morning.
Grandmother screaming at the wall.

We have to shout above the din of our Rice Krispies
We can’t hear anything at all.
Mother chants her litany of boredom and frustration,
But we know all her suicides are fake.

Daddy only stares into the distance
There’s only so much more that he can take.
Many miles away something crawls from the slime
At the bottom of a dark Scottish lake.

Bill came home from taking our Kosovar refugee dog, Noyzi, to the vet for booster vaccines. I had just read about Tariq Witherspoon’s arrest when he walked into our bedroom. I looked up at him and said, “I don’t know why, but I just looked up Matt Jensen to see if anyone’s been arrested for his death. And someone was today, just HOURS ago. It’s so weird that I would think of him today– out of the blue– and someone got arrested.”

Bill is about Matt’s age, and he’s one of the kindest, most decent people I’ve ever met. For the past year, he’s been studying the psychologist, Carl Jung. He’s been in analysis with Jungian psychologist, and is even taking courses at the Jung Institute out of Zurich. The concept of synchronicity is one that fascinated Jung. Synchronicity, put simply, describes a situation that seems meaningful, but lacks a causal connection. This kind of thing happens to me all the time. I see important connections in things that might mean nothing to other people. What made me think of Matt last night, all of a sudden? Was there something in the universe– my subconscious? Maybe it was the ghost of Matt himself, tapping me on the shoulder. Who knows?

Later, we were in our dining room eating dinner and listening to music. My music collection is incredibly eclectic. There’s no telling what will play. I have everything from L.L. Cool J to Beethoven in my playlist. Last night, as I sipped a lovely Italian red wine, the strains of a familiar piece from Gabriel Faure started playing. When I was in college, I took many music courses. I was also in a choir, and we performed a number of pieces by Faure, to include parts of his Requiem and the ethereal Messe Basse. Messe Basse is one of my favorite works by Faure.

If you like choral music, I invite you to listen to this. It is a delight to listen to, and glorious to perform.

Then it occurred to me that Faure, was a French man, and Matt spoke French and had spent time in France… and next week, I hope to be in France, too. Just like I was at around the time Anthony Bourdain died. In fact, I was in the area where Bourdain died just a couple of weeks before he passed. Matt wasn’t unlike Bourdain, in terms of his influence or his very “New York” personality… And then I was reminded that back in the spring of 1994, our choir went to New York City at the end of our spring break and performed Messe Basse in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Synchronicity again!

It’s fitting that I’m reminded of choirs when I remember Matt. He had a way of unifying people in harmony. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to perform this magnificent choral work by Faure. Maybe someday, I will have the opportunity… if no one mows me down and leaves me for dead.

And suddenly, I’m reminded of how much I miss college… singing in choirs… traveling… hanging out with friends over bland foods that make me fart… sitcoms from the 80s… I am reminded of how important it is to always appreciate the people in your life who make it special or wonderful, because you never know when they will make an exit. I don’t know if I have ever affected anyone the way Matt affected me, and all of the other people in his life. I’m just grateful that the police in Brooklyn have done their jobs, as The Police from the early 80s do theirs every time I need to think about simpler days, or the complex concepts coined by Carl Jung. Somehow, it all seems to come together, at least in my head.

This song will never be the same.

I’m reminded of these lyrics by Sting… and Matt, a man who always reminded me of Sting… Somehow, we’re all connected.

With one breath
With one flow
You will know
Synchronicity
A sleep trance
A dream dance
A shared romance
Synchronicity

A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible

Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectible
Nothing is invincible

If we share this nightmare
We can dream
Spiritus mundi
If you act as you think
The missing link
Synchronicity

A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectible
Nothing is invincible

We know you
They know me
Extrasensory
Synchronicity
A star fall
A phone call
It joins all
Synchronicity

A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectible
Nothing is invincible

It’s so deep, it’s so wide
You’re inside
Synchronicity
Effect without a cause
Sub-atomic laws
Scientific pause

Synchronicity
Synchronicity
Synchronicity
Synchronicity
Synchronicity

Synchronicity
Synchronicity
Synchronicity
Synchronicity
Synchronicity

For Matt… hopefully in paradise.
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love, memories, obits

One last toast to a man whose bright light will never really extinguish…

I took the featured photo on a moving bus while touring the Isle of Arran in Scotland back in 2012.

Last night, I sat in front of my computer with Bill and a German beer. I tuned into Zoom, an application I had only used once before last night. The first time I used Zoom, it was for a wine tasting. Last night’s Zoom meeting was for a much more sober purpose. We were there to remember our dear friend, Matt Jensen. Most of us in on the Zoom call knew Matt because he served with Peace Corps/Armenia from 1995-97. But Matt was also widely known in other circles worldwide. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal in the 1980s, and most recently, he was a beloved teacher at P.S. 110, an elementary school in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.

It was in Brooklyn where Matt lost his life just after midnight on May 18, 2021. He was just trying to cross the street– a wide boulevard well known for being dangerous to pedestrians. He had just celebrated his birthday with friends and was on his way home. He’d almost reached home when he was struck and killed by a speeding car on McGuinness Boulevard, the driver having apparently not noticed that they’d hit him and left him for dead!

Apparently, there were no witnesses or surveillance cameras to capture a photo of the person who killed this man with such a huge heart and bright spirit. Based on debris found at that the site where Matt was found, police surmise that he was hit by a black Rolls Royce. He was someone who had devoted his life to helping others– especially through teaching. He was a very gifted teacher, and I learned last night that the young children at the school where he taught practically worshiped him, even if they weren’t in his class. He knew everyone, and they all knew him. He was a very tall guy with incredible energy, so he was hard to miss, even without that vibrant personality and charisma that defined him.

Geoff, the organizer of the memorial, had asked me to sing a song. It always cracks me up that no one ever asks me to speak at memorials or weddings. I usually get asked to sing a song written by someone else. Even at my own father’s memorial, I wasn’t asked to speak. I was asked to sing– and my mom even told me which song she wanted me to perform. I was happy to do it, although my college minor in speech has gone to waste.

Just as I had for my mom when my father died, I sent Geoff a couple of recordings I had made, and he really liked my version of “Imagine”, sort of done Eva Cassidy style. I sing it in her key and with her mood, but more in the straightforward fashion that John Lennon sang it. I guess you could say it’s really “my” style, though heavily influenced by others. I was glad to have Bill with me, as he had graciously downloaded Zoom yesterday so we could figure out the technical aspects of the application. I wanted to make sure we did the music sharing part right. I’m glad to say that it went off well, except that I was very emotional and almost started crying in the middle of it.

Last night, I learned that besides Matt, our Peace Corps community has also recently lost two others– Loretta Land, who was an amazing senior Volunteer who had joined the Peace Corps at age 62– and Don Flumerfelt, who was in the group before mine. Loretta died in January of this year and Don passed in 2019. I had recently been in touch with Loretta, but she kind of dropped off of Facebook. I wondered about her. I can’t say I was surprised about the news that she’d passed, but I am so glad we did get to chat a bit last year. I wasn’t as close to Don, but I do remember spending a great afternoon in Yerevan, making business English conversation recordings for him. I also remember that he was very inventive and had built a shower for another Volunteer.

We also lost an Armenian friend, Ashot, the drummer for a local band in Vanadzor called Snack. Vanadzor was where Matt was originally assigned to work). Snack was an Armenian band, but one of the Volunteers also played with them, so they often performed at our parties. In storage, I have a cassette tape of their music, which always reminds me of so many fun times in Armenia. Ashot would have been turning 49 today, but he passed away of a heart attack in his bed on Thursday of last week. Ashot was also, for a time, married to Rose, a Vanadzor based Volunteer from my group. They shared a son. She was also in attendance last night. Some of the guys would have performed last night, but since Ashot was buried yesterday, it wasn’t possible.

At 7:00pm Germany time, I joined about 25 other people on the Zoom call. I felt so honored to be among them, even if I wasn’t close to Matt in recent years. It was great to see so many familiar faces of people I knew in the 1990s, back when I was trying to make my own mark in the world. To be honest, I left the Peace Corps as an angry person. There were many complex reasons for my anger, and some of them had absolutely nothing to do with my service. But, suffice to say, I was ready to go home in August 1997, thinking that maybe things would get better. What ended up happening for me, personally, was a bit of a nervous breakdown. Ultimately, the “breakdown” wasn’t a bad thing, because it forced me to reset my life and make some changes, to include taking voice lessons that helped me sing last night’s song. But I worried about what people in that group remembered about me, as I was a bit of a mess in the 90s. I was determined not to make an ass of myself. 😉

There were several returned Volunteers from my group, as well as the former country director, the former TEFL director, several Armenians, people who had known Matt through the American University of Armenia, and a woman who knew Matt in Brooklyn. We were also joined by Matt’s cousin, John. I had never met John before, but I immediately liked him. I could tell that losing Matt has been devastating for him. I can’t even fathom how much pain he and Matt’s friends and loved ones felt when they got the terrible news that he’d been killed. I was glad to hear that Matt’s brother is taking good care of Matt’s beloved cats, Katie and Olive.

The participants in the Zoom meeting were scattered around the world. I’m in Germany, but we also had a couple of folks from Armenia, someone in Sweden, someone in Russia, someone in Belize, and a number of folks on the East and West coasts of the United States. It’s amazing to think of how far and wide Matt’s light has spread… and there were so many loving sentiments and stories shared.

One of Matt’s former students, Hoveek, really touched my heart as he spoke about how much Matt had impressed him. When we were in Armenia, it was just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was a time when there weren’t a lot of Americans there. And Hoveek was immediately moved by this man who was not at all like the people he knew. He spoke movingly about how he observed the way Matt dressed, and how when they visited the Peace Corps office in Yerevan, Hoveek saw the magazines about America and met others. Matt helped Hoveek get a job working for the Peace Corps. I could easily see and hear how much love and gratitude this man had for Matt. It was an honor to hear what he had to say… and really, just to be a part of the large group of people who got to know Matt and were touched by his spirit.

I learned that Matt wrote letters to so many people and had connections to folks in very high places. I think, if he had lived longer, he might have even delved into politics. He loved to talk politics and wasn’t afraid to speak out… but even in death, he will make a difference. There was a huge memorial for him in New York, and some very high ranking people vowed to finally do something about McGuinness Boulevard, a dangerous street that has claimed other people’s lives over the years. If they make that boulevard safer for others, then Matt’s death will have done a great service to so many people… again, a way of sharing that light and affecting others for good.

But I think the most profound commentary I heard regarding last night’s memorial came from my own husband, Bill. Bill never had the chance to meet Matt, but he’s heard me talk about him over the years. My memories of Matt are mostly about some of the hilarious things he said, but also his wild dance skills. Matt loved to dance, and had taken lessons. I don’t dance all that well, but I do like to spin around the dance floor with men with rhythm. I learned last night that Matt would dance with anyone! I have told Bill many stories about Matt over the years, but until last night, all Bill knew about Matt came from my limited perspective.

Thanks to our Zoom meeting memorial, Bill had the chance to hear about Matt from others who knew him through different channels. So, this morning, when I asked Bill what he thought about the memorial, his comments came from a totally different perspective. This was the post I wrote for the Peace Corps Armenia Reunion Facebook group:

My husband, Bill, was sitting in the Zoom meeting with me last night. I just asked him what he thought of the memorial, and he said it was interesting to hear all about Matt from someone other than me. Not having met Matt in person, he was struck by how personal Matt was in his dealings with others. He noticed we didn’t just gush about the positive things, but we mentioned his many quirks, too. And he loved that Matt wrote letters, since letter writing is such a lost art. He said he could tell that teaching was truly Matt’s calling.

And then Bill said, “It made me wish that the person who killed Matt could be there to see and hear just how many people have been affected worldwide by his death, and the profound loss and grief caused by that one careless act. Especially among the kids he taught.”

It really drives home how much we all affect each other, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. My husband never even met Matt, and yet he has been affected by him through me, and now by all of the people who spoke so lovingly about him last night. I take some comfort in knowing that there are so many people worldwide that he taught. Every single one of them has the potential to share his vibrant light with everyone they know, too. In that way, he’ll never truly be gone from the world.

When I think about that, it makes me realize that we all have so much potential… and most of us affect people in ways we’ll never know. We’re all connected. Not to be corny, but Matt’s life was a little like the proverbial “candle in the wind”. It glowed bright and cast warmth and light to so many… and then it was suddenly snuffed out by the careless actions of someone driving a Rolls Royce. Such a bizarre way for a man like Matt to die… it was as if Kurt Vonnegut conjured it for a novel! But in the end, his death may end up saving lives, as local activists continue to demand that something is finally done about that unsafe crossing.

Every person has the potential to share something unforgettable and good. Matt Jensen shared his light generously with people far and wide, and because he cared and shared so very much, that generosity is still perpetuating through people who will never, ever forget him.

Bill never met Matt, but Matt still affected Bill. Imagine what those young students in Brooklyn will do as they grow up. Maybe one or two of them will be inspired to teach. Maybe a few will decide to join the Peace Corps. Maybe one or two will learn to dance, or become fans of ABBA, or travel the world. Or maybe they will simply tell their friends and family about this tall, blond, monarchy obsessed ABBA fan who taught them so much , helped them learn English, made them laugh… or made them a memorable meal with beets and cabbage, or a delicious pound cake!

Matt was a thoughtful, kind, and loving person to the very end, and he always thought of others. Upon hearing of Prince Philip’s death in April, Matt wrote letters of condolences to Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Anne. Princess Anne wrote back before Matt died, but I think I heard that Her Majesty the Queen also responded, but her letter arrived after Matt’s death. I like to think that Matt knows how many people loved him and will remember him, sharing his light to infinite numbers of people around the world. And I hope he’s up there in the great beyond, sharing a toast with Loretta, Don, and Ashot… and anyone else beyond the bar who was touched by Armenia and knows how much Armenians love making toasts!

I’m so grateful that I was able to share my memories with other people… and in some small way, honor Matt with one of my own gifts. Maybe I can share my light the way Matt did with whatever time I have left. The most important thing Matt taught me is that no one is promised the next minute. So I hope this post inspires you to share yourself… because I promise, you matter to someone. And you probably matter to many more people than you will ever know.

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memories, obits

“Christ on the cross! Who are we waiting for?”

I’ve been waiting for today for weeks. Sometime tonight or perhaps tomorrow morning, Bill will come home from his latest business trip. I’ve really missed him. I always miss him when he goes away, but this time has been more difficult than usual. I was feeling like I just might make it without any major catastrophes last night, when I got a private message from the very first Armenian language teacher I had when I was in the Peace Corps. She was looking for information about one of the Volunteers who had served with me. I put her on the right track; she had forgotten the Volunteer’s name and site location.

This particular teacher, name of Armine, was brand new to the Peace Corps when my group arrived in the wee hours of June 2, 1995. I always really liked her. She was tiny, had a high pitched voice, and a wonderful sense of humor. We used to laugh a lot in our classes. I was among her very first four Peace Corps students, and she taught me for four weeks, until we all rotated to new teachers.

We were the third group of Volunteers to serve in the Republic of Armenia, and in those days, things were still pretty rough over there. I remember being completely exhausted upon arrival in Armenia. We had gathered in Washington, DC for staging, which lasted a night and all day May 31st. Then, we boarded a United Airlines flight to Paris. We spent all day in Paris– in my case, the day was spent in horrible Charles de Gaulle airport, because I didn’t know how to get to the city and hadn’t made any friends on the flight. That was my first flight in many years, although I did live in England when I was very young. It was also my first overseas experience without my parents.

My parents were definitely over the kid thing by the time I arrived, so they would take vacations and leave me at home with my older sisters or a house sitter. I remember they went all over the place… to Barbados, the Bahamas, Europe, Morocco (to visit my sister when she was in the Peace Corps), and to several places in the States. Given the way I was when I was a teenager, it actually might have been better that they didn’t take me with them. But not traveling so much when I was growing up had left me very inexperienced when I joined the Peace Corps. I was 22 years old… about to turn 23 in 1995. You’d think the first overseas trip I’d take as an adult, I’d go to a place like France or Germany. That’s what a sane person would do. But no… I joined the Peace Corps, and it forever changed me in countless ways.

As Armine and I were chatting last night, she asked me if I’d heard the tragic news about one of my former colleagues, Matt Jensen. I hadn’t, because I wasn’t one of the popular people when I was a Volunteer, and am not in any of the Facebook groups. She told me that Matt died the other night in a terrible hit and run accident. He had been trying to cross a busy intersection against the traffic light, in the wee hours of the morning. A black Rolls Royce struck him, and he was later found by police, gravely injured. He was rushed to a hospital, but his injuries were so severe that he could not be saved.

A3 in 1995… we were still in training.

I thought about the calendar and realized that he had just celebrated his 58th birthday. I remember how, when we were in the Peace Corps, I once made him a birthday cake. In storage, I have two photo albums full of Peace Corps photos, including a picture of Matt hugging the cake I made for him for his 34th birthday in 1997, just a few months before we finished our service and left Armenia. Although he had originally been assigned to a different area when we were Volunteers, he came to live in Yerevan for a good portion of our second year. Matt was a master’s level teacher in the TEFL (teaching English as a Foreign Language) program and, for some reason, he had come to the capital, where I was assigned, and temporarily lived with my friend, Ginny.

I got to be friends with Ginny because all of the Peace Corps teachers were required to have side projects. Ginny, who was a business Volunteer, was working with the USDA to develop products made with dried Armenian produce. I was a good cook, so I was recruited to help Ginny develop recipes that could help farmers market the produce internationally. That project was a lot of fun, and led to us hanging out a lot during her first year of service and my second. Ginny and Matt were unlikely roommates. Matt was about 14 years younger than she was and very liberal. Ginny was from Missouri and kind of country. I remember they had a few fights. But because they were roommates, I got a chance to know Matt better than I otherwise might have, and we became friends… at least during that time.

Matt was unique in that he was in his mid 30s during our time in Armenia. Most of the people in our group were either just out of college, or were older folks living out a lifelong ambition. Matt was also unique in that it was his second time as a Volunteer. He had served in Senegal in the 1980s, right after he finished his years at Hartwick College. He was always very outspoken during our training, and a leader in everything. He was also a talented artist, having designed the t-shirt we had made for our training group. I remember when we had our swearing in, I was in a skit we put on for our host families. Matt had recruited me to play a woman named թագուհի (t’aguhi– it means queen). I sang my lines, opera style, in Armenian as Matt and several other freshly sworn in Volunteers put on a comedy sketch about two women who meet at a hair salon and find out they love the same man.

I remember during our close of service training, he famously announced that if any of us saw him headed to a Peace Corps recruiting office, we should tell the recruiter that he was “not well”. We all had a good laugh at that, because by the time our service was ending, a lot of us were getting a bit antsy about the next big thing in life. For me, it was to be a month long train trip through Europe. I had planned it thinking I might not ever have the chance to come back… little did I know what the future would hold, huh?

After we left the Peace Corps, Matt and I eventually lost touch. I never forgot about him, though. That would have been impossible. Matt was the kind of person who completely defied being forgotten. I even thought of him yesterday morning, before I knew what had happened. I heard his voice in my head, which isn’t unusual for me. I often rehash memories of people long after they’ve left my life. But, for many reasons, Matt was especially memorable.

Personality wise, Matt was kind of like a much younger and male Bea Arthur crossed with George Carlin– maybe if Bea and George had ever had a son together, he’d be kind of like Matt was. Then there was his towering height. He was of Danish and Swedish stock, and he stood at 6 feet 4 inches. He had blond hair and blue eyes and a heavily Yankee-accented, gravelly voice that quickly betrayed his Connecticut roots. At one point, he’d let his hair grow long, and he looked like a regal Viking. I used to enjoy mimicking him, because his voice had so much character. He was often profane, which I admired a lot, and he was very witty, which I admired even more. To this day, I still sometimes say things that I heard him say first. I still say them because they make me laugh, even after many years. And when I say them, I say them the way he used to, because it’s even funnier that way.

Matt was a great teacher, very artistic, and a natural leader. His students all loved him. However, he could also be cranky and impatient. It was the kind of impatience one might expect from a no-nonsense New Yorker. For instance, one time we were walking somewhere together, and there was a woman ahead of us who was moving kind of slowly. Matt blurted out, “Oh, come on! Walk like you mean it!” Naturally, I busted out laughing, because it was just so unexpected and hilarious… and rude!

Another time in May 1996, our group was on a bus, headed for mid-service training. It was summertime, and hotter than Hell outside. We were parked in Yerevan, waiting for some people to get on the bus so we could make our way to Lake Sevan. I didn’t enjoy trainings that much, particularly during that middle point of my service. I didn’t know it then, but at that time, I was suffering a pretty severe bout of clinical depression, and was feeling kind of persecuted and paranoid. Anyway, there we were on the bus, feeling uncomfortable in the heat. Everyone was quiet, waiting for the lone person who was due to join us. Suddenly, Matt blurted out with his characteristic New York bluntness, “CHRIST on the cross!! WHO are we waiting for? Let’s just leave ’em!”

Matt is in this picture, taken just a few months before we finished our service.

Once again, I just about died laughing, because it was just such an irreverent, blasphemous, and obnoxious thing to say! I turned around to look at him and we both cracked up. It was exactly how I was feeling, too… kind of cranky and irreverent and totally over it. That point in time was a low point in my Peace Corps career. I was having a hard time with my service and giving serious thought to quitting, although I knew if I quit, my parents would probably disown me… or, at least that’s what I was thinking at the time. Remember, I was legitimately mentally ill then.

I’m glad I didn’t quit the Peace Corps, although I do have some regrets about those days. I was very young and naive, and I did things back then that I would not do today… and behaved in ways then, that I wouldn’t today. In those days, I was also a proud Republican voter, which is especially embarrassing– although at least in the 90s, there was no one like Donald Trump representing the party so openly. Sometimes, those memories are cringeworthy for me. But then I remember some of the good times, and times I spent hanging out with Matt were among the best.

When Matt was in Yerevan, living with Ginny, I would come over and we’d often have dinner. One night, he cooked cabbage. I have never been one for eating a lot of cabbage because it makes me fart like a whirlwind. But I do remember having cabbage with Matt, and now I think of him whenever someone tries to serve it to me. He hadn’t used a lot of salt, explaining that his mother had high blood pressure and wasn’t allowed to cook with a lot of salt. He’d learned not to use it, either. It was a very windy night at my house that evening.

As he did with a lot of subjects, Matt used to talk about food with a lot of excitement. He’d get animated over anything, even lentils and dill. That was another thing about him that I can’t forget. He was an incredibly energetic, charismatic, and enthusiastic person, when the mood suited him. I remember he loved to dance and had even taken lessons. I can’t dance at all, but I do remember him twirling me around the dance floor at some of our Peace Corps parties. I remember, even as I clumsily stumbled around with Matt, who was so much taller, lighter on his feet, and a confident leader on the dance floor, I felt pretty and had so much fun.

Ararat as viewed from a window at my school in Yerevan.

Matt Jensen even influenced me to make a music purchase once. One of the last times I saw him alive was in January 1998, a few months after we came home from our service. I went to his sparsely appointed apartment in Washington, DC and spent the night. I remember on the way to his place, we were talking about Mariah Carey’s latest single, “Butterfly”, which he didn’t like at all. He was hilariously going off about the lyrics, which he found inane. I remember the tone of our conversation– it was very sarcastic and hysterically funny. I had to agree with him about Mariah’s song. When we got to his place, he immediately pointed out the bathroom, because he knew I’d need to pee. I don’t remember a whole lot more about that evening, except that he had ABBA’s box set. He played it while we talked. I have always liked ABBA, but was more of a casual fan. I later ended up buying the box set myself, and every time I hear it, I remember how much Matt liked ABBA.

I also remember having a funny conversation with him about Kathie Lee Gifford. For some reason, I was telling him about how she had done some kind of mother’s day variety show special. I want to say she had some guest stars with her– I seem to remember Cindy Williams was among them. And Matt said his mother, who was quite elderly, had seen Kathie Lee Gifford on television and was describing it to him. I will never forget hearing his highly characterized New York accent as he imitated what his mother said about Kathie Lee’s show… “It was SICKENING!” Again… I laughed my substantial ass off at that– just the very disgusted, yet hilarious tone he used that really drove home the point. I could easily picture a female version of Matt saying that.

Matt went back to Armenia during the summer of 1998 to be the TEFL trainer for that year’s group of Peace Corps TEFL trainees. We traded letters and gossip for awhile, but then eventually lost touch. I think the last time I saw him alive was at the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC. I was with another former Volunteer, a guy named Albert. Albert and I were both headed to graduate school in the fall of 1999. He was going to New York University, and I was going to be off to the University of South Carolina. We went into the career center, and Matt just happened to be there, too. We had kind of an awkward exchange; Matt told me to enjoy being represented by Strom Thurmond, and that was the last time I ever saw Matt.

Incidentally, I have a weird habit of either running into people I used to know, or strangers who know people I know. One time, I went to the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC and ran into a guy who had been a Volunteer in Bulgaria. My friend and fellow Volunteer, Elaine, and I stayed with him in Sofia for about a week. No, we didn’t know him before we stayed with him– she just called him up and he graciously let us crash. And a couple of years later, I ran into him, completely by chance, in Washington, DC… the same way Albert and I ran into Matt by chance.

Years later, I saw Matt on Facebook, but I never felt comfortable friending him. I don’t exactly remember why we quit writing to each other. The late 1990s were a rough time for me. I lost touch with a lot of people at that point and went through some hard times. I finally got better when I got treatment for my depression and anxiety, but I’m afraid that people probably remember me for being a bit crazy back then. I’m still a bit crazy, but not like I used to be. I’m also a lot more mature. I wish I could have been friendlier with Matt in his last days. I think he might have enjoyed knowing that I finally came over to the liberal side and voted all blue last November. Matt was a very devout Democrat, and I remember when we were in the Peace Corps, he used to wear a Barbara Boxer t-shirt and pick on the lone staunch Republican in our group, a guy named Frank.

Not long ago, I ran into Matt on Facebook. We were involved in a Peace Corps related exchange, probably involving a mutual friend, but I don’t remember what it was about. He wrote, “I always liked you.” That made me feel good. I’m so glad that is the last thing he ever said to me, because it almost gave me closure. If I’m honest, there were times when he wasn’t nice. He had a short temper and could be grumpy and even kind of mean, when the mood struck him. But overall, he was just a larger than life kind of person, both literally and figuratively. He was a wonderful and gifted teacher, a warm friend, and he really loved his work and was dedicated to doing it well. Based on the comments left by the people who knew him more recently, I can see that he touched a lot of lives and has left his unique and indelible mark on so many hearts… especially young and impressionable ones.

Godspeed, Matt. I’ll never forget you. Thank you for making me laugh so many times… especially when I needed it the most. You have inspired me, and so many others, in so many ways. In that way, you’ll always live on.

I felt like singing this for Matt.

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