Framing and Atonement

The art of persuasion is, mainly, the art of properly framing the issue.  The frame you set the story in makes the story look the way it does.   

“Bingo,” said the skeleton of my father.  

“And by the way, my apologies for giving you the silent treatment the other day when you were up at our grave.   As much as I enjoy these chats, you know, I couldn’t resist giving you the bony cold shoulder on that wet, frigid day as your cousin planted his mother’s ashes in the grave my brother paid so many thousands of dollars for over the course of more than fifty years.

“I know you weren’t really expecting a cheerful greeting, Elie, but still, I wish I could have given you a sign, like knocking the rocks off the top of my gravestone when you put an arm around it for that photo Sekhnet told you not to smile for.  It’s all poignant shit, but beside the point, and ready to be snipped away and left on the cutting room floor.  At any rate, I didn’t mean to cut you off, geh ‘head.”  

The person who frames the conversation generally controls the conversation.  You had a particular genius for framing and constantly reframing conversations, on the fly, to suit the brow-beating you were intent on delivering.  

“Nice of you to say so,” said the skeleton, “if only I could have used my powers for good instead of evil…  

“Look, I had to do that to you and your sister, you understand.  You posed a constant, existential threat to me, the threat of revealing that I was actually a monster, even with my excellent and laudable intentions, a destroyer who deeply knew the value of nurturing and just couldn’t fucking do it.  So it was essential for me to always frame what we were talking about so I had the advantage, the moral high-ground from which to strafe you guys.  I’m not proud of that, Elie, but it’s an important facet of my personality and tactics you do well to point out.”  

Heh, yes, I know that.  After all, I am framing your story now, even as we speak.   Think about it, if only you knew at thirty-five what you first figured out as you were dying, what you know so well now that you’ve had almost twelve years in your grave to meditate on.  

“As if a pile of dry bones can fucking meditate…” said the skeleton wistfully.

Yes, of course, I suppose this whole conversation is an exercise in poetic license.  But, now, an example of the framing I was talking about.   It took me forty years, and law school, I suppose, to acquire the skill to consistently fight past your framing, but in the end, framing is a fairly crude, almost mechanical technique, even if you were infernally fast on your feet in shifting the frame whenever necessary.  That adroitness, dad, was a gift.  

“Well, in the end, you were able to beat me at my own game,” said the skeleton.  

But it took more than forty years of senseless fucking war.  Once I “won”, I gained nothing but the certainty of how tragic your desperation to win had always been.  

“Well, as Reagan said to Carter over and over, ‘there you go, again…’.  I know the example you’re going to bring up.”  

It’s a beauty, in its crudeness and simplicity.  Yom Kippur, around twenty-five years ago now.  Met you at Hillcrest after services, at the end of the fast.  The hypocrisy of the whole ritual of fake atonement chafed me like a wet, crusty diaper every step we took toward the house.  

“A truly disgusting image,” said the skeleton.  

For a truly disgusting thing.  Here is the holiest day of a religion whose moral teachings you tried to instill in my sister and me, The Day of Atonement, and there is no hint of remorse for anything you’ve ever done, not a thought of atonement.  You just fasted, and stood, and sat, and stood, and read responsively in a well-dressed crowd of the very people of whom Jesus reputedly said “woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  

These good people were a cross-section of climbing middle class types, living a few blocks from people who’d managed to acquire some measure of real wealth, pretending, once a year, to be pious, God-fearing Jews.  They took a day off from their carping, grasping secular lives to mortify themselves, whether they needed it or not, not before those they had wounded but in front of a judgmental God who, if He even heard their prayers, is senile at best.  

I used to think God went mad with grief over centuries of heart-break, watching what humans did to each other, to the world He created.  If He had been all-knowing and all-powerful and full of mercy at one time, He’d been broken by the viciousness of the worst of his Creation.   I’m no longer committed to that youthful metaphor.  God is the fantasy crutch religious fanatics use to beat nonbelievers to death with.  “God is a concept, by which we measure our pain”– John Lennon.

“Yeah, we get it, on with it, MacDuff,” said the skeleton.

On Yom Kippur we’re expected to make amends, go to people we’ve hurt and tell them we’re aware that we hurt them, and that we regret it, and to ask their forgiveness and promise to do a better job being decent in the coming years.   Instead, for the vast majority of modern Jews, Yom Kippur is a long, somber synagogue service and quick stepping it home after a day of fasting and praying, bad-breathed and longing for a drink of juice, some food, caffeine.  

So we are walking along Union Turnpike, God has already sealed each of our fates for the coming year, and snarling silently between us, as always, this senseless enmity.  

Seenas Cheenam, my mother, may she rest in peace, always called it when my brother and I went at each other.  ‘Groundless Hatred’ I suppose is the translation from the original Hebrew, which she pronounced in Yiddish.  She was a deeply religious woman with no clue, and I, in turn, in spite of my great understanding, and every reason to know better, had no fucking clue,” said the skeleton.  

So we walk along Union Turnpike in the gathering darkness, get to 190th, cross over, and finally I can hold it in no longer.  I say to you “I am willing to listen to your fatherly advice, but if you can’t filter out the hostility, I am not willing to continue this charade.  You use s0-called fatherly advice as a delivery system for your rage and I’m not having that any more.”  

You say you have no idea what I’m talking about.  I quote your recent statement, when grudgingly agreeing to cut me a check for a final course towards my teaching certificate, after my unemployment ran out, toward the end of my savings.  

“Well, I’ll give you the $169, not that I feel obliged to, and I don’t like the way you asked me, but you have to admit it’s pretty pathetic for a thirty-six year-old man to have to beg his father to pay for his course.   You’re unemployed for a very good reason, you have no respect for authority and you feel you’re too good to work.  You’ve always had that, you know, a genius shouldn’t have to work.  I know your friends are kiss-asses you’ve surrounded yourself with to tell you what you want to hear, that you are special, and sensitive, and talented and so forth.  But I’m your father, and I’m always going to tell you the truth– the reason you can’t hold a job is the same reason you’ve never had a girlfriend for very long and don’t have one now — you’re lazy and selfish and you think the world owes you a living.”  

My father’s face shows no sign of yielding.  I’ve quoted him accurately, everything he said is true, what is the fucking problem? We are in the house now, my mother greets us and asks if we’re hungry.  The food smells great, we are hungry.  

My father says “I really have no idea what you want from me.”  We sit across from each other in the living room as my mother goes back into the kitchen.  

“I want you to think before you give me your advice.  I want you to consider what will help me and what is just venting anger at me.  I want you to make an effort to filter out the anger and tell me the thing you believe I need to know.  I’m willing to listen, I’m not willing to be abused.”  

“Well, this is pretty abstract, I mean, I really have no idea what the hell you’re talking about…” he says, eyes shifting as they always did at such times.  

“OK, let me try to make it more concrete.  When you paid for that course at Lehman last month you attached the condition that I accept your opinion of me: pathetic, surrounded by spineless, ass-kissing friends who flatter me, unable to keep a job, or a girlfriend, for the very real reason that I am some kind of lazy, self-centered asshole.”

As far as my father can see, I’d stated basic, indisputable facts pretty succinctly.  He waits, dukes up, wary, ready to counter my next move.  

“So, let us assume, for the sake of this discussion, that all of that is true.  I won’t dispute any of it.  But what proportion of my total being is encompassed in that unflattering description?  Maybe 25%? I mean, aren’t we leaving out things like my basically generous disposition, sense of humor, self-deprecation, general acceptance of people, willingness to listen, my intelligence, integrity, kindness to animals, a lot of other things? You’re reducing me to the sum of my faults and expecting me to accept that picture as the totality of who I am.  I’m not having that anymore.”  

“You know, I really don’t get what you expect me to do about any of that,” says my father, with every appearance of deep conviction.  

“Let me try this again.  I am willing to listen to your wisdom about life, but only if you’re not using the conversation to force the poison pill on me that condemns me as a failed human being.  I am more than the sum of my weaknesses, everybody is.  I agreed for the sake of argument that I’m all those negative things you laid out– but there is an argument to made for each one being less than 100% true.  For example, I am one of the vast majority of teachers, something like 80%, that the system loses to attrition in the first few years.  Most teachers quit the fucking system if they find any remotely better way to make a living.  It’s not necessarily a referendum on my character that I am not currently teaching in New York City Public Schools.”  

“Yeah,” says my father, jumping on this chance to reframe what we’re talking about, “but not every teacher gets fired from every single school he ever worked at.  You’ve been, literally fired from every job you ever had, inside and outside of teaching, do you realize that?  What does that say about you?”  

“It says that I’m less able than most people to accept being treated like an asshole by a boss who, everybody else knows, has the prerogative to fire you if you get the last word,” I say.  

“Oh, so now it’s a virtue that you can’t take a normal amount of shit like everyone else who has to eat a certain amount of shit to make a living,” says my father.  

“No,” I say, “I agree it’s a disability.  I don’t say it’s a virtue, it’s something I need to work on.  But we are getting far from what I need you to understand.”  

“You’re not explaining it very well, you know, you just want the right to be outraged and attack me for my so-called abuse when all I’ve ever wanted is what’s best for you,” says my father, playing another favorite card from the bottom of his deck.  

“Well, then let me explain it again.  I’m willing to hear your advice, and appreciate any insight you have to offer, but I’m not willing to be reduced to the sum of my faults.  If you can’t manage to separate those two things, I’m not continuing this false and destructive relationship with you.  We’re done, if you can’t manage to lose the constant hostility you disguise as fatherly advice,” I say.  

At this point he’s had enough.  “Well, what we should really be talking about is your titanic fucking anger.  You get into a self-righteous rage and just fucking explode, that’s what we should be talking about, your fucking need to be right and rage whenever you feel like it.”  

“Do I appear to be enraged right now?” I ask with exaggerated quietness.  He clamps his jaw.  

“What does that have to do with anything?” he asks.  

“Would you say you’re a man of more than average intelligence?” I say.  

“I suppose so, what does that have to do with anything?” he says.

“Well, I’ve had to explain the same relatively straightforward thing to you now several different ways and you still act like you don’t understand,” I say.    

“What does that have to do with anything?” he asks, clearly not thinking things through.  

“Well, don’t you think it might be frustrating to have to explain the same relatively simple idea now three or four different ways, and have a father of above-average intelligence keep acting like he has no idea what you’re talking about?”  I say.  

“What’s your point?” he says pointedly.  

“Do I look enraged?  Am I raising my voice or acting angry?  So my temper, however fucking terrible it might sometimes be, is not the issue here.   The issue is that another Yom Kippur has now passed with the same result– zilch.  I’m not even asking for an apology from you.   I’m telling you what I’m prepared to accept from you going forward and what I’m not prepared to accept.”

He makes a grudging acknowledgement that he gets what I’m saying, says he’ll try to do better, we go in and break the fast.

He’s as good as his word, for the next ten years or so he manages to filter out most of that rage.  When I point out in his Florida den years later that even he’s changed, by way of showing the possibility that humans can actually change, he laughs with Dick Cheney-like mirth.  

“No, I didn’t,” he said, “I pretended to change, just like you asked, on a purely superficial level.”  

“Well, that made a big positive difference in our relationship,” I pointed out.  

“Not really,” he said, “because below the surface act, which you demanded I perform, I never felt any differently about you.  If I ever told you how I really feel it would do such irreparable harm that we could never have any kind of relationship.”  

After a moment I told him he’d won, that we’d do it his way, never talk about anything deeper than a baseball game, health or politics. Paid a hell of a price to win, I think.  

“Yop,” said the skeleton, “and I kept thinking about my willingness to pay that insane price as I was dying, hoping you’d be as gentle as you wound up being to a father who’d treated you like that.”  

All we can do is hope for the best, dad.

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