I have a great memory, made of a moment that sucked in real time but which has become precious to me over the years. During one of our normal family fights at the dinner table I became furious. I must have been eight or nine, maybe younger.
My mother, who sat next to me, responded by grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me. She shook me like a terrier shakes a rat, or a floppy rag doll version of a rat. In my memory I am limp, and being wagged in the rhythm of her words, almost syllable for syllable. Picture it: “what (shake) did (shake) any (shake) body (shake) ever (shake) do (shake) to (shake) you (shake) to make you so (shake) fucking (shake) angry?! (shake)”
I thought of my reply many years too late. It was one of those moments some clever grenouille dubbed l’esprit de l’escalier, the bon mot you think of after the fact, on the stairs, the perfect witty rejoinder realized moments too late to deliver. My missed line was an obvious one: I don’t know, mom, maybe being angrily shaken when I’m clearly pissed off and asked angrily why I’m so fucking angry?
I don’t offer this story as any kind of indictment of my mother, not at all. She never gave me reason to doubt her love. Those fights at the kitchen table were no holds barred, we were all in pure survival mode in the fog of war as we fired our rounds, lobbed grenades, ducked wherever we could. She and my father were as helpless as we kids were. I don’t hold it against either of them, at this point, it was just a tableau vivant (although not silent, but screaming) of the Human Condition.
I love the image of the mother angrily shaking her young kid and demanding to know why he’s so fucking angry.
I’m not writing this as part of my Mother’s Day or birthday card to my departed mother. Though I’d like to note here that an orthodox Jewish friend of her’s, Benjie, hearing that she was in a coma on her 82nd birthday, told me that it is considered a sign of a righteous life to die on your birthday.
My mother was miles away at the time, in a nice room at Hospice by the Sea, but she seemed to have heard this remark. She’d always fought with Benjie about what she considered the idiocy of a life ruled by religious ritualism. She hung on overnight and died a day after her birthday, that way winning one last argument with the religious friend she loved to fight with.
Why am I angry lately? On one level it’s the same reason my mother and father were so often angry. An imposed sense of powerlessness, frustration they had their faces rubbed in over and over. In reality I am no more powerless than anybody else, I just get more occasion to soak in it than most people I know, living on a small fixed income, as I do. And, of course, I have much more time to feel my feelings daily, being self-unemployed until I can start selling little slices of myself the way professionals all do. Few people can have any real understanding of the possible value of what you are putting together unless you sell it; once you are paid for it, all the work makes perfect sense.
We all live in the same viciously materialistic society, currently governed by a grasping, entitled madman who personifies its values to an alarming degree and is stinking up the common space with uncommon speed and effectiveness. The poor, the weak and the marginalized are vilified in our great democracy as greedy parasites, while the truly insatiable and powerful are celebrated. Yeah, yeah, I know, go write a letter to your Congressweasel… write an op ed, write your damned blahg, in fact, monetize it, win or go home, take a flying fuck at a rolling donut.
I had the same chance for a comfortable, successful middle class life as any of my hardworking friends, I know. It is unseemly of me to complain, really, having so flagrantly failed to cash in my winning ticket years ago. I could be running on a very fancy treadmill in really, really expensive running shoes. Instead of moralistically daydreaming about making any difference about anything, or even having a voice in the conversation.
So what is it specifically that is so maddening? We accommodate ourselves to the world we must live in. It is a place where only a microscopic fraction of humans have any say about what is done in our names. We learn as much as we can about the proper way to act and try to take as much solace as possible from doing what we believe is the right thing, from our sense of integrity. Having integrity of any kind is just one challenge of being a member of a dodgy species like our earth ruling, hubris-filled, existentially terrified homo sapiens. Homo sapiens, the self-named “wise man”, has figured it all out, everything except how to behave decently toward his fellow primate. Oh, and how not to destroy life on the planet while exploiting its bounty and striving to own and control everything.
Money, motherfucker, the only thing you lack, to give substance and reality to your fleeting, meaningless life, is a dump truck full of filthy lucre. Until you get paid, you ain’t shit. If you forget that for a minute, how about a long wait for a subway at night, a tight squeeze into the train with a thousand other powerless chumps too stupid to take a $45 cab ride home, remember now what you are? Next go visit a doctor here, wait a few hours for surly service, try to see a specialist — here, let us remind you again, bitch — you want to feel like you have integrity of some kind, with that laughably shit insurance? Hah! Yaw hilarious! Unless and until you get paid for what you can do better than someone else, friend, you ain’t a fart in the wind, let alone shit. Let that be a fucking lesson to you, ass-bite. Have a wonderful day!
(to be continued)