writing the anodyne version

I had a thought the other day about my massive on-line manuscript for the book about my father — write a detailed, sanitized version that gives only the many reasons to like and admire the man, as a preface to the whole deeper portrait.    Write the anodyne account, the one anyone could read with no fear of being confronted by anything unsettling or upsetting.  No harm in that.

The original first draft of the manuscript included everything I could remember about my father and his life, the noble things he did and the traumatic harm he also perpetrated — along with the unspeakably terrible details of the horrific childhood he survived.   I conducted a two year-long interview with my dead father (seriously) to help me speculate about things I knew almost nothing about — for example, a black and white photo, taken some time after World War II,  of him looking happier than I’d ever seen him.   To my amazement some of the things my father’s skeleton “told me” took me by surprise.  These revelations, spoken to me in his voice, furthered my understanding and changed my evolving view of this complicated and challenging person, dead now fourteen years.  

People who loved my father could easily have been horrified, on his behalf, at my first draft’s open recitation of some monstrous behavior, always done in the privacy of his family home.   Airing this kind of “dirty laundry” is generally frowned upon.   Every family has it, it always stinks, why wave it around?   Nobody wants that.   Unless, of course, you are determined to understand the forces that shaped your own challenges.

I realized the other day that it’s possible, perhaps even desirable, to write an andoyne version of my father and his life — one that shows only the many good sides of my complicated old man, only hinting at the understandable human foibles that we, all of us, are subject to.   Picture reading the inspirational story of a person born into unimaginably desperate circumstances who simply would not allow the past to hold him down.  Someone imbued by the privations he suffered for the first eighteen years of his life with a hunger for justice, a better world for everybody.   A man intimately connected to a sometimes terrible history, who did not shrink from doing all he could to help bend the moral arch of history towards justice.   

As any writer who seeks to seduce a reader knows, we must draw the reader over to our point of view by giving her (at least at first) treats she can readily chew on and digest.   My father was funny, clearly very bright, an idealist.  You see, here he is again being bravely idealistic, pelted with rotten vegetables as he speaks to New York City parents and teachers about the importance of de-segregating the schools in the mid-1950s.   Here’s a throw away line of his that always got a chuckle.  Look how tender he always was with animals, how playful with little dogs and young children alike!   Now we’re talking.

Explanation for P___

I saw old friends this weekend.   One of them, P______, told me  that V____ had given her a link to my blahg and that she’d read some of my posts.   This puts her in an elite sliver of humanity, since I scorn “social media” as a destructive shit-show and, in consequence of being an on-line hermit, get very few visitors here.   I was pleased to hear she was reading it.   I must have raised my eyebrows questioningly because she volunteered that she found some of it extreme.

I immediately tried, without waiting for her to elaborate (she didn’t seem about to in any case), to explain why these posts might seem extreme.  I sit down, often burned by some specific, irksome detail (like the seeming fact that many Americans appear to believe Bill Barr’s version of the Mueller report– nothing to see here, total exoneration of “POTUS”– in spite of Mueller’s own take, that Barr is sewing confusion about Mueller’s findings and conclusions) and I have to process it somehow, to make the burning and the fucking irking stop.  

It often helps, I explained, to think an issue through by setting it out in front of me, trying to see it as clearly as possible, writing it out as lucidly as I can.    I saw, as I was saying this, that P’s expression wasn’t changing.

It turned out that the politics didn’t bother her (probably because she holds largely related views).   It emerged that the extreme aspect was the personal writing, the laying out of hidden, monstrous details of people close to me, like my father.  My father had been director of the camp P and I went to as teenagers.  It turns out P thought my old man was a really great guy, smart, funny, hip.    Yes, he was all of those things, but he was also, how to put this delicately … a fucking monster.    

This is the kind of highly opinionated thing P was referring to when she said “extreme”.   Crossing a boundary of privacy and good taste, I guess.   I told her that it may have been a mistake to put the first draft of the book about my father on-line. as I was wrestling the material into form.  

I neglected to tell her that making my words “public” exerts a good effect on the words, forcing me to commit to each sentence in a way I don’t have to if I’m not putting them on-line.  It has become my practice, writing and editing my words for others to read, for a couple of hours, as close to daily as I can — and “publishing” them.    

I told her that if I had it to do over again, I would have written the sprawling first draft differently, now that I’ve written more than a thousand pages.   The first few hundred pages of the best version of the book about my father would conjure a man capable of great personal warmth, wit and charm.  An idealistic man imbued with humor and sophistication, a man unlike most fathers we knew in that he clearly loved subversives like Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior, Malcolm X.   He could tell you, in very few words, when you passed him in the grove by the office, why you should check out Lenny, why Malcolm was an inspirational character who needed to be vilified by the Man.   He could talk about virtually anything with insight and wit.   He could be playful.   Yes, I told P, I completely get why you found my old man cool.   He was, objectively, an original.

Only once you liked him, as a reader, would the crafty writer begin to show the fissures, the cracks you could look through to see the world of demons inside that made him act, in the privacy of his nuclear family, like the coldly insane bastard he often was to my sister and me.   A much more interesting story, once you like and admire the guy, to find the very dark side, the bottomless pit of personal torments that drove him.

I am fascinated by the feat of holding two strongly opposed sides of a person or thing in mind at once.    It is a feat we must often perform with the people we love, their faults balanced by qualities we do not want to live without.   That balancing act was the genius of Jane Leavy’s masterful portrait of my childhood hero Mickey Mantle.  On every page, sometimes in the same paragraph, you get strong evidence of the cool, generous, funny, playful, powerful, beloved  Mick and an equally compelling case for the sullen, angry, self-loathing, despicable asshole Mick.  

You can make the personal case both ways, at the same time, as Leavy does, without diminishing or idealizing the person.   If you do it well– fascinating shit.   We are all complex this way, capable of great kindness and sometimes unspeakably bad actions.  Leavy’s biography did not make me like or admire Mantle any less, it gave me a lot more nuance, and a much more realistic picture of the person, than most biographies do.

I also meant to tell P of my lifelong project, not to react with the helplessly raging anger I was taught.   It was the lingua franca of the little house I grew up in — lash out violently at those you know won’t punch you in the face.   A foolish way to be, and something that must be thoroughly understood if you hope to escape it.

My very brief conversation with P gave me an idea.   From time to time I write things here that are anodyne, in the best sense of the word.  These pieces are (unconsciously) calculated to cause no harm.  They are written not to grind any ax, expose troubling difficulties or to wrestle with my own nimble, endlessly engaging demons.  Oddly, these pieces express no bitterness, ambiguity or criticism at all.   I sometimes (not often, admittedly) write something just to tell a story of someone or something I love.    Take these pieces, for example.  

My brief chat with P convinced me that I should put up an Anodyne category on this blahg.  A link I could send you where you would read only pieces that put the things written about in the best light.    The affectionate vignettes about my grandfather, for example, do not hint at the savagely powerful demons that haunted the gentle old man in his deepest places.  Demons with every claim to fucking haunt him, I might add.   He grew up in the Ukraine among anti-Semites who, from time to time, drunkenly invaded the Jewish part of town and held an old fashioned pogrom.

Seriously, you ask, a fucking pogrom?  

Yes, a cohort of the worst of the good Christian Ukrainians he lived among, the folks he sold his father’s grain and other groceries to, went nuts periodically, and animated by the passionate belief that my grandfather and his filthy ilk had deliberately murdered God’s only son (another long story) , ran amok among the Jews.  They’d smash shop windows, plunder, loot, beat people up, kill a few Jews, if the feeling (and the vodka, one imagines) was on them strong enough, and, of course, rape any Jewish women and girls who were not hidden behind sturdy, heavily bolted doors.

My grandfather was physically strong, but an individual, no matter how strong, is no match for an enraged lynch mob.   He grew up with legitimate terror.  Being the object of a mob of hate-filled drunks is no joke.   Twenty years after he left the town, following his more courageous fiance to America during the reign of Calvin Coolidge (she’d arrived while Harding was president), those same Christian neighbors marched every Jew to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town and executed all of them, under Nazi supervision.   Fragments of their bones still stir on windy days, the bones of my grandfather’s and grandmother’s many brothers and sisters, and their children.  I read this disquieting detail in an article in the New York Times magazine, by someone who visited the town not long ago.

In the Anodyne section there would be no reference to this kind of horrific shit.   You could safely read, in a protected harbor I’d carve out for you, gentle reader, only things that make you wonder and imagine.  Only the lapping of the waters on the shores would be heard, the rustle of the leaves and the songs of birds and primates.  I will attempt to put this section together in the coming days, for my old friend P_____ and anyone else who might want to hang out in the cool shadows of a leafy glade as the greediest of the world casually burn everyone who is not them.