Getting the Bigger Picture

My father once, while grudgingly giving in to my demand to put up a few hundred bucks for the last two credits I needed to complete my course work for my New York State Teaching Certificate many years ago, took the opportunity to sum me up unflatteringly.

“I’ll give you the two hundred dollars,” he said smartly after my long argument, “but I have to tell you, I find it pretty pathetic that a 37 year-old man has to beg his father for two hundred dollars because his unemployment ran out after he lost yet another good job.  You have never been able to hold a job.”  He went on in this way for a long lung-full.  

Not only was an adult man begging his father for money pathetic, he pointed out, but also several other very pitiful things about my life needed some prompt attention.  The saddest part, of course, was that I was so willfully blind to all my faults, no doubt even considered them virtues.  I avoided seeing myself as I really was because I surrounded myself with yes-men, sycophants, and a series of pliant and confused women who gave me what I wanted until they too, for obvious reasons, had to get the hell away from me.  He softened these hard truths with a few words of consolation.

“Look, I’m your father, and I’m always going to tell you the truth your friends are too spineless to tell you,” he said.

I was a grown man, and as he spoke I recognized this for the sharp-smelling hostile weasel shit it was.  It would have been easy enough to turn it all back on him, but I decided to wait a few weeks, since it was close to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and I knew it would make for a good discussion before we broke the fast.  Also, for one of the few times in my life, I was being practical first.  Let me get the check, pay the tuition, I reasoned, then we can talk about the nature of deeper truth.

It would be another fifteen years or so before the old man died, now almost eleven years ago.   The math somehow doesn’t add up to my current age as I do the math in my head now– 37 +15 + 11.  Somewhere I’m off, because the sum should be 59, not 63.  The timing of the course work was when I was 36 or 37.  The Yom Kippur talk was at least a year or two before I ever thought about applying to law school.  The point is not to get bogged down with the particulars.  It was more than 20 years ago, in any case.

I met him after Yom Kippur services at Hillcrest Jewish Center, as was my custom.  I always fasted, except for that year Seth Nagel urged me to leave Junior Congregation with him, and took me to King Yum, his treat,  straight from services, the two of us in our suits, Seth gleefully polishing off a big plate of pork, me hedging my bets with a small bowl of wonton soup, a couple of shavings of pork floating on the top.  Outside of that time, I always fasted, my sister always fasted, we both fast on Yom Kippur to this day.  Our mother didn’t fast.  My father was the only one who went to services and it was my custom, as evening approached and bad-breathed Jews weak with hunger hurried out of the shul, to meet my father in front of Hillcrest and walk him home to break the fast together.

We walked along Union Turnpike in the fading light, then turned to walk up the short hill to our house.  I don’t recall what we spoke of as we walked.  I remember that we sat across from each other in the living room, my mother in the kitchen, delicious smells coming from there, as I told him what I would no longer tolerate from him.

“This is the day when God supposedly seals the Book of Life, having inscribed the coming year in light of the psychic accounts left open and the ones settled.  I know you’re not big on apologies, and I don’t expect any.  I just need you to understand that I’m not going to tolerate your hostility disguised as fatherly advice anymore.  If you persist in that, we’re done, I’m gone.  I’m glad to hear any advice or wisdom you might have to offer, you just have to filter out the hostility, I’m not having any more of that.”

The old man looked sullen, and you could see in the way his eyes got tight and shifted that he was preparing himself for a mighty battle.  He opened with a familiar gambit.  “I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he said, doing a decent impression of Clint Eastwood.

“I’ll give you a very recent example.  When you agreed to give me that money for the course at Lehman, and thanks again, by the way, you took the opportunity, as you said, to tell me all the hard truths about myself that my ‘spineless’ friends are too worm-like to tell me.” 

He braced himself, glowering and listening.  I went on to lay out all his criticisms.   “Now, even assuming that all those things are 100% accurate, and let’s say they are, what percentage of my total being do you suppose they represent?  20%? 30%?  Why not say 50%?  Do these faults cancel out the better half of me?  Do you suppose they cumulatively outweigh my compassion, sense of humor, readiness to help, my honesty, my defense of the bullied, my general decency, etc.?   Do they negate my talents or the way I try to listen and be the good friend I am to my invertebrate friends?”

I saw he didn’t have anything to say that made too much sense, so I closed.   “Whenever I put myself in a vulnerable position, whenever I ask you for anything, no matter how small, you can’t resist serving up the thinly disguised hostility.   We’re finished with you trying to reduce me to the sum of my faults.  I’m done with it.   The collection of my worst attributes is not the totality of my life.  No more.”  

Needless to say, he didn’t like any of this.  He wasn’t going to agree to stop doing something he’d never admit doing anyway.  He answered all this with a heavy hammer, the tongs gripped tightly in his other hand.  I met the hammer blows with my shield, held at the end of a strong, determined arm.  I pushed him back.  He hammered.  The meal to break the fast was ready to go, but my mother stayed in the other room, quietly, within earshot, listening.   I don’t remember where my sister was that Yom Kippur, probably with her husband somewhere.

“You know,” said my father crossly, “the real thing we should be talking about is your terrible fucking temper.”  He’d thrown a bolt of lightning at my shield, my response was a half smile.

“That’s a funny thing to bring up now, and I don’t see how it’s related to what we’re discussing,” I said.  

“Oh, is it funny?” he asked, “you’ve always had a raging temper, that’s something you find funny for me to bring up in the context of this angry outburst of yours?

“Well, I do have a temper.  So do you.  Why you are mentioning it now is a bit mysterious, unless you’re just trying to change the subject,” I said.  

“Would you agree that you’re a man of more than average intelligence?”  I asked him, taking a page from his Socratic book.

“I suppose,” he said, setting himself, “though I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”  His eyes began to move more.

“Well, would you agree it’s frustrating to have to explain something simple to someone of more than average intelligence several times, in several different ways, and have that person insist, no matter how clearly you present it, that they have no idea what you’re talking about?  Wouldn’t that frustrate most people?”

He grudgingly agreed it would, though he continued to insist he didn’t see my point.

“Well, I’ve just restated the exact same thing to you three or four different ways– that I will no longer accept your hostility crudely disguised as part of your fatherly advice- – and throughout this long, strenuous conversation you keep pretending not to know what I am talking about,” I said.

“And your point is?” he demanded, about to lose.

“Do I appear angry to you now?”

He gave a low growl, cornered as he knew he was.

“So why the hell are you bringing up my anger?” I said.  A moment later he agreed to do his best to filter out the hostility when giving me fatherly advice.  We sat down to break the fast. 

And for the next ten years or so, he was as good as his word, with a marvelous and terrible punchline waiting, for exactly the right moment, to spring out like a leprous lap dancer from a bachelor party cake.


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