High Variance

Jim McKee (1942-2018)

My dad’s memorial service was last Saturday. Here’s what I had to say:

Thank you all for coming today to remember and honor James Russell McKee III.

I want to take a few minutes to talk about who Jim McKee was and what he meant to me as a father. Jim McKee was born in the Bronx on July 7, 1942. As a kid, he loved riding his bike, and swimming and playing in the woods. He was raised Catholic and read Ayn Rand. He joined the navy, drank too much, and met my mother at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I asked her the other day why she married him. She said he was smart, funny, and (of course) very good looking. In less than a year he had had his first kid (me) and that marriage had fallen apart. As far as I can tell, he spent far more time working than working on the relationship.

He met Chris, his second wife, at another AA meeting and for a while, this went better. He had two more kids, two cats, and an idyllic house in Teaneck. I had some of the best times of my life in that house. My dad wasn’t much for long conversations, but he helped me with my math homework, argued with me about baseball, and watched tv with me. He even tried to explain what he did for work, first as a market researcher for the New York Times and later as a computer programmer for Windsor Systems. And he worked a lot.

Then the whole thing fell apart about as badly as you could possibly imagine. I will skip the details here, but within a year, he was unemployed, living alone, and having seizures regularly. A big part of this was his own doing, but he also got really unlucky. For example, he lost his job because he had a seizure at work and his boss said he couldn’t risk that happening in front of a client.

He met Judy, his third wife, in a psychiatric hospital. I don’t know anyone that would have benefitted more from Internet dating than my dad. She was crazy, but had a big heart. Dad seemed to learn from his earlier mistakes and as far as I could tell, they had a great relationship. I watched my dad’s patience and compassion with her mental illness right to the bitter end.

For most of his last thirty years, my dad was a devout atheist and socialist. Most of the time he was rational and compassionate. He read widely until it was just too hard to read, but he kept up on the news with MSNBC right up to the end. In 2007 he wrote a letter to the editor of the Bergen Record. Here’s one paragraph:

I also consider myself to be an ethical person, that is I try my best to live the golden rule, not because I fear where I’m going when I die, but because I think it’s the right thing to do. It is not necessary to believe in a divine or supernatural being in order to be a kind and loving person. I think that churches rather than being so called houses of worship should be converted to places where people could gather together for social reasons, and if considered necessary, to preach only idealism.

On many days my dad was confused. He would try to convince me that Google had bought Apple, and he would regularly try to rewire his apartment to “fix” his computer. But even on these days he was patient and kind. I would try really hard to be patient and kind back, but it was hard. He was a great role model.

So here are the lessons I take away from my dad’s life:

  1. Follow your heart
  2. Work hard, but not too hard
  3. Some people get really lucky in life, some people get really unlucky, and most people get both. Make the best of the cards you are dealt.
  4. Treat everyone you meet with empathy and generosity.

I think he would have really appreciated us getting together and celebrating his life rather than mourning his loss. So let’s share stories and laugh and appreciate the time we had with him. Thank you.