By Tarak Kauff
Not everyone has to be a political activist. There's a story on the back page of the summer issue of Peace in Our Times about a parrot who curses and gets into mischief which will make you laugh until you cry. There are many ways to make a positive contribution to life and living.
My friend Joe was not a political activist per se, even though he was very well informed and knowledgeable about history and politics.
Throughout his 56 years he crammed more life, living, and loving into that time than most of us would do in many lifetimes. He was a big man physically but gentle. I never even saw him raise his voice or argue with his wife Beth and I stayed at their place in Brooklyn many times. The only time I saw him get angry was when we spoke about how twisted this country has become. He was, to me, revolutionary in human ways that counted. That’s why I want to share a little about the man.
He was an athlete, a kayak racer, a surf-ski competitor, writer, filmmaker, husband, and a great dad. He did it all, and did it well. He traveled a lot, mostly off on his wilderness or kayaking adventures, but when he was home, he was totally there.
“Big Joe,” as some of us referred to him, or, as he was known to his kayaking buddies, “Glicker” saw the best in people and just by who he was, inspired those who knew him to also live as fully, laugh and love as much as possible. His sense of humor (almost a constant) and love of people and life was contagious. He made people feel comfortable in his presence. And eventually his keen and insightful, but never pompous, wit had them laughing. There were so many times when we were talking either in person or on the phone, when Joe would have me literally gasping for breath laughing. He had a way of doing that with people that seemed effortless, like that other Joe—Dimaggio, who, as Ted Williams once said, “made it look easy.”
We first met 24 years ago in a gym in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I had recently moved from Queens and one of the first things I did was to join a local gym. I was at that time fairly strong for my 150 pounds, and I was on the pull-down machine pulling a lot of weight, actually the entire stack. I think that’s what got his attention. I was also wearing a well-worn marathon team t-shirt. As soon as I finished the set, he came over and just started chatting, as if we were old friends, asking me questions about myself and about running. After a few inquiries, he found out I had run marathons and triathlons, so he told me that he had cycled across the country and I responded that I could appreciate that, having done something similar, running through all 50 states.
That qualified me in his eyes as a “wild man” and we became friends and occasionally trained together, lifting weights, pushing ourselves to exhaustion on Concept 2 rowing machines and running loops in Prospect Park. He asked for my training advice often but as time went on and he got stronger and more fit and I got older, it was I who asked more for his. At the time we met, Joe was 33 and was just at the take-off point of more major outdoors adventures and transcending of physical and mental limits. Some years later, although he wasn’t a mountain climber, he decided to climb the highest peaks in each of the 50 states and write a book about it, which he did—To the Top with photographer Nels Akerlund. It was one of six great books and many articles he wrote.
As I got more into social justice issues and working with Veterans For Peace, and after I moved from Brooklyn to Woodstock, NY, we gradually drifted apart a bit, but he always appreciated and encouraged my activism as I appreciated his athleticism and adventures, and we stayed in touch.
Bush of course, and Clinton before him repulsed him. But he had some hope with Obama, then said to me after he’d been in office a while, “This administration has been so spectacularly disappointing, sadly, you told me so a long time ago. It’s just hard to fathom whether this president is that weak or this vile system so corrupting and strong. Maybe some of both.”
When Joe got into kayaking he trained like a madman. He was out training on Jamaica Bay even in the middle of winter! Soon he was competing and writing about the sport and getting travel expenses to compete and write about races and events. He wrote about a lot of things, articles appeared in National Geographic, Outside magazine, and the LA Times, and also had a few dozen columns in the New York Times called “Weekend Warrior.”
But he wasn’t just a writer. His training and competition were totally focused—the only things more important than training, racing, and writing were Joe’s daughter, Willa, and his incredibly supportive, wise and beautiful wife, Beth. But kayaking was a very close second, which was understood and appreciated by all who loved Joe and of those there were many. Like other endurance sports, it became a way of life, and a positive one. He became a two-time member of the U.S. National Marathon Kayak Team and did many, many other kayak and surf-ski races around the world. He won the Blackburn Challenge, a 20-mile open water circumnavigation of Cape Ann, twice.
He was a great competitor but it wasn’t all competition with others. He competed with himself, with his own limits. He almost froze in a snowstorm one night as he was kayaking solo from Montana to Chicago and then to Brooklyn.
Joe had great courage. He was not fearless, but courage is facing, fear not being devoid of it. A little over a year ago he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Joe kept training, kept racing and kept making people laugh, as he always did. He even won a doubles kayak race while undergoing chemo!
He seemed unstoppable, but eventually the cancer caught up with him. I hadn’t seen him in years, our paths, though not contrary, went separate ways. We both “ran” in different circles but were mutually appreciative and we kept in touch. A phone call or email now and then always saying we had to get together, it’s been too long. It was good just to hear his voice and invariably he made me laugh...
I made it to the memorial in Brooklyn. Hundreds came from all over to honor and remember him. As soon as I walked in, I could feel it. We were all on the verge of tears but nobody was crying yet. We were all holding it together, saying hello to people, hugging, talking. I wandered off by myself. They had wine at the bar. I got a glass and drank it fast, hoping it would steady me. People spoke about Joe and told stories. It went on for a long time but the stories were never boring or tedious. We laughed and we cried. We had all lost something irreplaceable but the memories were there and would remain.
One of his dearest friends from childhood, Andy Zlotnick, whom Joe simply called “Z,” put it in a nutshell, “. . . he lit up every room he entered, how he held court, always the center of attention, regaling anyone who would listen to his long circuitous tales that made you laugh until you cried. Tales packed with meshuggenuh characters who performed improbable feats and got themselves in the most unbelievable of pickles. His own brand of magic which took a whole life to develop and market—the quips, the witticisms, that subversive slant adjusted to those of us fortunate enough to be so close to the bright lights of his stage, our laughter close to tears, and our tears to laughter.”
Another close friend, Chip, called from England when Joe was in the hospital. It was close to the end. Andy was there and put Joe, who was by then in a lot of pain from the cancer, on the phone. Chip said to Joe that he heard that he wasn’t having a good day. Joe said, yeah, it wasn’t good. Period. Chip replied that he had never known Joe to be the master of understatement, at which point Joe, through the pain, went into one of his riffs, adding with his classic humor, “Joan of Arc has nothing on me. Burning at the stake would be easy going.”
When one of his kayak pals asked what they could do for him, Joe said, “Just paddle another mile for me.” That became One More Mile for Glicker.” These days at kayak races you will see OMMFG! pasted on kayaks all over.