Laddie Boy, and bullying for no reason

There was a popular dog food, when I was a kid, called Laddie Boy.   For all I know it’s still around, I’m seldom in that aisle in the supermarket these days.  I think our brilliant dog Patches may have eaten Laddie Boy.  I recall the stink of it when the can was opened — in later years on an electric can opener that sounded like George Harrison’s electric guitar on Revolution (White Album version).  

I had a classmate, for a couple of years, named Fred Ladner.  I liked Fred, we stood at the back of the sized place line in fourth or fifth grade and he was always pleasant.   One day, for reasons– or more likely simple, brutish reflexes — I can’t recall, I menaced Fred in the school yard.   I remember how he recoiled, confused and hurt and I recall the vitriol with which I called him “Laddie Boy” as I glared at his sudden fear.  I may have grabbed his shirt, but I don’t think I even did that.  He didn’t make a move to get away, just stared at me wide-eyed, his sense of my senseless betrayal clear in his wet, scared eyes.   I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know what, if anything, may have precipitated it.   What I remember was his fear and confusion, and that I was the direct cause of it.  

I don’t remember any other incident of myself being a bully in childhood.   I sometimes expressed a bit of malevolence here and there, as any boy sometimes does, like after a friend’s mother drove him and his sister into a concrete stanchion and the guy wore a maroon wool hat, a la Mike Naismith of the Monkees (not sure what color Mike’s wool hat was) all day long in school.  One day somebody snatched the kid’s hat off and we saw that it covered a white circle shaved into the dark curly hair of his head, where he had been probed, or stitched or whatever.   He was very unhappy to be exposed this way and I was in the circle of boys, his friends and classmates, who sadistically kept the hat away from him in a game we used to call Saluji, for some reason.  He desperately tried to get the hat back, only to see it flicked away at the last second by the mercilessly grinning little boy he rushed.

It was a momentary thing, and this kid was probably my best friend at the time, something I quickly forgot about.   I had no recollection of it until, to my surprise, I learned that he was still very bitter about it more than fifty years later, when he brought it up one day with great feeling.  

It is easy enough for me to see these behaviors, and if there were two instances I can recall there were surely more, as me acting out what I experienced at home.  Where my sister was sly, passive aggressive, darkly, sadistically funny, I fought back directly whenever our parents took a verbal swing at me.  My father was, I can see now, often tormented by demons that caused him to act contrary to the way he taught my sister and me to behave, contrary to his ideals and highest beliefs.  He bullied my sister and me, often goaded by my mother’s demand, after a long day at work, as he was trying to rest up a bit before going to his second job,  that he do something about the two disobedient, disrespectful little pricks she had been dealing with all day.

We are aggressive and sometimes irrationally hostile, we smart apes, and, in crowds, we are capable of doing things that are the stuff of nightmares.   We have always been this way.   We don’t always know why we are screaming and pumping our fists into the air as someone we hate is being publicly tortured to death.   It’s a homo sapiens thing.   You don’t see cats and dogs doing this kind of thing.   Pigs raised for slaughter in Auschwitz-like conditions don’t act this way.   Only humans form lynch mobs, send armed men into villages to rape and burn, build vast state-of-the-art machines to kill as many as possible in the shortest amount of time.

As I state the obvious I’m also thinking about what makes a reliable narrator.  Is somebody trying to get to the bottom of his or her pain a reliable narrator?   For example, I wrote hundreds of pages, posted here, in a first draft trying to get to my father’s point of view as he was inflicting terrible damage on his children.  This process caused me to swing wildly at times, in an attempt to vividly describe the damage and also understand it from a bully’s point of view.  

Although he generally bullied us, is that really what my father was at his essence?   Surely there were many other things at work in his nature, more salient features that those who knew him would see him as before “bully”.   Describing my father’s angry glare as “psychotic,” for example, was a wild swing and a clear miss.   In the second draft, should I live long enough to produce it, these missteps will be corrected as I convince the reader, and, more importantly, the publisher, that I knew what I was doing all along when I stumbled through the first draft.   (Tip of the yarmulke to Neil Gaiman who hipped me to this in his Mahster-clahss youTube ad).

I don’t think it requires a Sigmund Freud to convince anyone that the indigestible traumas of our childhoods live on in us many years later.   The pain we can’t understand or process has nowhere to go except various, mostly unconscious, survival strategies: a rigorous daily exercise regime, sarcasm, constant busy-ness, “recreational” drug use, etc.   We make vows to do better, as I have with my attempt to apply an “if I can’t help, I don’t hurt” ahimsa-based approach to my own life.   Knowing that I am as capable as the next little Hitler of cruelty to my fellow creatures, I try to be aware of my hurtful actions as I keep my own interactions with violent or provocative assholes at a minimum.   A neutral straight face shown to a vicious person one encounters by chance, I’ve learned, is usually better than a sneer, a comment, a middle finger raised.  As is getting away from them as smartly as possible.

Still, most of us get to understand so little about what makes us act the way we do. Of course, we’re all masters of justifying it, to ourselves and anyone who might be offended by it.   I realized a few weeks ago, to my great surprise [1], that after writing everything I could think of about my father, in the course of a daily practice over two years, that I am now able to clearly see things from my father’s point of view.   I imagined his voice, informed by the regrets he had while dying and the lifetime of progress he made in the last few days of his life, expressing what he wished we could have talked about when he was alive.  

Talking to his skeleton regularly explained things to me I could never understand before.   I don’t pretend to understand exactly how this happened, but imaging the conversations I know he wished we’d had revealed things I never had a conscious clue about.   I finally understood this perplexing character, in a way I cannot presently understand the little boy who suddenly turned on his friend Laddie Boy and made his eyes grow wide in betrayal and fear.    Very much like my father’s eyes when, one day during a verbal beating he was dishing out, I stood, a skinny fifteen year old, with such violence that the old man in his chair was suddenly afraid.  

 

 

[1]   As I learned, to my great surprise, one day during law school while I was transcribing words of a legal decision into a paper I was writing, that I wasn’t looking at the keys as I typed.  I was amazed to realize that I’d taught myself to touch type, completely unconsciously, simply by typing countless pages during my dreamy creative writing days and as a rat-like law student. 

Lack of Parenting

When your parents are usually your bitter adversaries in a senseless, ongoing war, it is difficult to seek advice from them.  I had a sudden reminder of this when I read this line in an article about Elizabeth Warren, about a proponent of integration who excepted his own children from the school integration policy he fought for.

His story — as the idealistic father who moves his own children out of urban schools — was chronicled in J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “Common Ground.’’

I suddenly recalled my idealistic, liberal, pro-integration parents’ desperation when, during my two years in Junior High School, the local school zoning was changed (to increase racial diversity) and my local High School was no longer nearby highly rated Jamaica High but predominantly black Andrew Jackson High (talk about ironies, naming that school after rabid racist slaveholder and Trump favorite Old Hickory…) located squarely in a black area a few miles from where we lived.   Students could opt out of the rezoning plan by pursuing majors at Jamaica not offered at Jackson, I recall metallurgy was one such major, or by getting into one of the specialized schools that required passing an entrance exam.

I took the exam and passed.  It was my first inkling that I had a distinct talent for doing well on meaningless high-stakes tests [1].   My choice, as winner of this lottery, was between the nerd-filled Bronx High School of Science (where I’d travelled to take the entrance exam, as I recall) or much closer, much cooler, Stuyvesant High School, a school, as I learned much later, with a long reputation as a liberal arts high school.   My sister went there two years later and had the great Frank McCourt, later author of Angela’s Ashes, as her English teacher.  She loved Frank, as most of his students apparently did.

From Stuyvesant, then located in Manhattan’s hippyish East Village, students could walk to Chinatown to eat.   The trip to school was about 45 minutes by bus and subway from where we grew up in Queens.   A good friend of mine to this day went to Stuyvesant and had a fine time there.

Science, by contrast, was more than twice that distance from home.  It was located on a tundra, bitterly frozen in the winter where arctic winds off the reservoir would lacerate you on the long walk from the Grand Concourse.  It was not located near any place anyone would want to go.  Most of my classmates, outside of a few smart misfit friends of mine who happened to live in the Bronx (including the only musical genius I have ever met), were future engineers, computer geeks, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, quants, Nobel prize winners and so forth.   

Because I never had a real discussion about any of this, and had no guidance from my parents, a friend and I basically flipped a coin and chose Science.   As I recall we never thought about the length of the commute, what we were interested in by way of curriculum or any other factor.   To make the deal even more meaningful, we had little contact in High School, after a semester of taking the bus and subway there together I don’t even recall seeing the guy there.

I wound up setting the Bronx High School of Science record for lateness by a student, a growing record of incorrigible tardiness bitterly pointed out to me by a series of red-faced deans of discipline.  I was late to class virtually every morning.   The alternative to lateness was being up by 6:30 or so and out the door not long past 7:15 a.m.    I had few classes there worth my time, little of any interest at all.  The English department handed out vocabulary sheets containing dozens of fancy, unfamiliar words we were required to learn every week.   I applaud this practice, which instilled a lifelong habit of learning the meaning of every unknown word I encounter.   Outside of that, I recall little else academically from my three years of strife there.

One day in High School I ran into a girl I knew from the neighborhood, a cute girl I’d always liked.   She was going to Andrew Jackson and told me it was great.  She wound up graduating at sixteen, because the classes were apparently so easy there that she aced everything and was able to do her three years of high school in a little over two.  I promptly cut school and took the bus with her to Jackson.   I recall spending a very nice day there, meeting her bright, politically active friends, hanging out.  I remember standing on the steps of the school smoking a joint with her and some of her friends as classes went on inside.  I recall not a single menacing black kid hassling any minority white kid, the ultimate fear of liberal parents.

At the highly competitive Bronx Science, my 83 average put me at the bottom of my class.   As I recall I was somewhere in the 800s out of a graduating class of almost 1,000.   The same amount of work (those diligent, angry last minute hours I spent every year cramming for the New York State Regents) would have put me at the top of the class at Jackson, probably put me in line for many a college scholarship.

I write these words with no bitterness, I really regret none of it.  I merely point out that had my parents been capable of real parenting, as opposed to what they actually did, I might have had a chance of thinking through the some of the things I realize now so clearly.  I would have learned to think through a choice and make the best decision for myself, instead of flipping a coin with a friend equally clueless about such things.  The travel time alone should have been a decisive factor in my decision of where to commute to high school.

I’ve had to become my own parents, a process that no doubt set me back quite a few years, and cost me a ton of hard work.   It was good work, and I certainly don’t regret it, in fact, I recommend it for everyone who feels the need for good parenting, but, seriously, man, what the fuck?

 

 

[1] Years later I’d score in the top percentile in the National Teaching Exam.   I also got a perfect score on the exam for Census Supervisor, a test score that was later unaccountably erased along with my application.  I also passed a variety of high school subjects I had not studied by bitterly cramming, often in a day or two, for a series of Regents’ Exams.    I averaged very high scores on these predictable tests of subject matter that could be quickly learned merely by taking a series of past tests.   My scores would rise from an initial 20%, to the 85 or 90% I’d score on the last test I’d take on my sleep-deprived subway ride to school to take the actual exam.

A lesson from the murder of Malcolm X

Adults forget how hard certain things can hit a child.   I had a strong reminder of this last night while watching the excellent and compelling Who Killed Malcolm X? on Netflix.  A tip of the cap and much respect to Abdur-Rahman Muhammad for his long, tireless investigation and the important work he accomplished in the face of discouragement by virtually everyone he knew and met.

In the documentary, a black and white news clip panned past the Allied Chemical Building at the foot of Times Square.   I don’t know what this building is called today, but it’s the one they drop the ball from every New Year’s Eve.   I suddenly had a vivid memory, from around the time I heard the news that Malcolm X had been murdered, making me around nine years old at the time.   My mother, my father, my little sister and I were walking past that building, which had a showcase at street level.   We must have been strolling after seeing a Broadway show, which we did from time to time in those days.

Behind a gigantic glass window was a collection of magazines on display.  The cover of one showed a black and white photo of a pile of naked, emaciated corpses, intimately entangled.   It was essentially the still image of a movie clip that had caused me to sprint out of an auditorium to projectile vomit at the age of eight, or maybe seven and a half.   A child never entirely gets over the shock of the first knowledge they receive of the unimaginable evil humans can be so nonchalant about participating in.  

I will never forget watching the short, stocky man in the cap, impassively wheeling the giant wheelbarrow full of jiggling skin-covered skeletons, tipping the wheelbarrow to direct the skinny corpses down a chute, into an enormous mass grave.   Perhaps because he knew he was being filmed, and could not resist a theatrical gesture (or maybe he’d been directed) he tossed the butt of his cigar in after the cadavers, before turning to pick up his next load.  I’d seen enough, and I left the screening room, running up the aisle, through a crowd of crying teenagers in a room full of cigarette smoke.

Seeing that horrific photo in the window of the Allied Chemical Building I turned to my father.   His response was something to the effect that there are “some very sick people in the world” (that phrase remains).   I don’t know if he was referring to the Nazis, the publisher of the magazine with the horrific picture on its cover, the magazine’s audience or the management of the Allied Chemical Building who had decided to place that nauseating image in its ground floor window for children of all ages to see.  It makes no difference, really, which very sick people he was referring to.

Around this time, in the late afternoon of February 21, 1965, I was sitting on the foot of the bed in my parents’ room, looking for something to watch on TV.   The radio was also on in the room, for some reason, tuned to the news station my father always had on his alarm clock.   I remember the news coming out of the radio.   Malcolm X had been shot in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, shot many times and killed.   Even at my young age I immediately understood the terrible immensity of the moment, I was struck by the sickening thought of how violence can end a righteous debate in favor of the murderous.

My father had long been involved in what is now known as the Civil Rights Movement.   He was a fierce integrationist who’d been screamed at and pelted by angry New York City parents and teachers in the first school where he spoke in support of Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling that overturned the long racist doctrine of “Separate But Equal” in racially segregated education.   After the angry reaction to my father’s first speech he was accompanied by police when he went to speak to these agitated PTA groups.   I learned about this only after he died, when my mother told me the story as I was working on his eulogy.  

Malcolm, it turned out, had no police protection on the day of his murder, a week to the day after his home was destroyed by three molotov cocktails thrown through windows in the middle of the night (the press suggested that Malcolm himself had set his home on fire, in some kind of insane publicity stunt — what do you expect from a desperate, hyperbolic, race-baiting rabble rouser? — the mainstream media asked).   The phalanx of cops who arrived after his assassination to wheel Malcolm’s dead body to the emergency room of the hospital across the street had been stationed on the other side of six lanes of Broadway that afternoon, far from the packed ballroom where the killing was done.  Only one of Malcolm’s five killers was apprehended at the scene.  The other four, including the man with the sawed off shotgun whose blasts the coroner ruled had caused Malcolm’s death, never even faced arrest, let alone trial.  Two men who had not even been present during the execution were convicted of Malcolm’s murder and served twenty year sentences as the murder investigation was quickly wrapped up.

My father clearly admired Malcolm X.   There was, as far as I could see, much to admire.  Malcolm spoke clearly and forcefully, and never without wit.  He talked about things nobody was allowed to speak of, calling for long-denied rights every human being should be entitled to from birth in a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Malcolm stressed that waiting another generation or two for incremental change in an inhuman system was not an option. He fearlessly debated everyone who wanted a piece of him.  Malcolm, in the last year of his life, was increasingly willing to work with anyone of good faith to advance the cause of human rights in America and worldwide.  At the time of his assassination he was treated, in many countries, as an ambassador for America’s millions descended from former slaves.

At the same time, during Malcolm’s Nation of Islam years, my father often chuckled recounting Malcolm’s robotic insistence that everything he knew was the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.   I recall chuckling with my father over Malcolm’s dutiful recounting of the true story of how the evil scientist Yakub had, as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught, created the evil White Race and set those devils upon the other races.  The image works as metaphor, not as “science,” though to the faithful this is a distinction without a difference.

The larger point is that black and brown men like Malcolm, like millions of despised children born in the wrong neighborhoods today, are born facing a system of murderous injustice.   It was Malcolm’s articulate struggle to fight effectively for long-denied Human Rights that inspired my father.  By the time Malcolm was murdered by five Black Muslim fanatics, with the active complicity of the New York City Police, J. Edgar Hoover’s reactionary FBI and the rest of them, I was well aware of the impossible, crucial things Malcolm was attempting to do.   I admired him myself.  In the fifty-five years since his murder, and many books later, I admire him no less.

The lessons of his life, and the “necessity” of his killing, live on in anyone ever touched by Malcolm’s powerfully articulated efforts to change an evil system.  The deepest horror to me, in our angry, divided, tribal society where even old, long-cherished friendships are in peril when politics raises its hideous head, is that human beings, capable of kindness, empathy, creating things of transcendent beauty, are unable to unite in our universal desire to live in a better, more fair world.  We may argue angrily about what justice is, but we all know injustice when it is personally thrust into our faces.

We are deliberately divided about the most basic things in our lives.  Living at a time when humans are unable to unite, even  in our desire to continue to live on a habitable planet, I think of Malcolm’s heroic, doomed fight.   Instead of concerted worldwide action toward solutions there is an angry “debate” over whether the unprecedented violence of rapid climate disruption observable by everyone, after every recent “hundred year” natural catastrophe, has anything to do with a century of increasing pollution from burning fossil fuels and cutting down the earth’s forests to graze cows for beef.   The “argument” benefits only those already wealthy and powerful “persons” who profit directly from the destruction of the habitable earth.

We are not doomed to these awful fates, until we are.   The horror of that magazine cover in the window of the Allied Chemical Building is no different to me now than when I was nine, no different than the public execution of Malcolm X, El-Hadj Malik El- Shabazz felt when I first learned of it.   Whatever the intent of some “very sick people,” these horrors should stand for only one thing— people of good will need to stand as one against all such organized hatred and mass deception, everywhere.   That as a rule we don’t is our eternal shame as humans.

A thought about my father’s talent for empathy

I was thinking about the mild, kind, nurturing side of my complicated father recently.   It was not his default setting, he was usually guarded and ready to attack if he felt in any way threatened, but his talent for comforting was a memorable side of him that needs to be brought out in describing him to you.  He was capable of great sensitivity and supportiveness, in the right emotionally threatening situation.   Anybody who ever found themselves in a tough spot, and was calmed by the way my father’s used great intelligence, warm humanism and a hint of humor to relieve worry, will remember him gratefully.

It was his ability to be conciliatory, reassuring and merciful while, at any given moment, also capable of merciless verbal violence, that made being his child so tricky, so disorienting, made it so hard to get a handle on what was real and what was ridiculous.   Ultimately, I think it was this highly rational man’s irrational need to unconditionally vilify, coming from someone equally capable of great empathy, that proved so damaging to his offspring.

My sister, who identifies with our father as much as I do, noted that our father was always playful and tender with young children (as well as small animals, he took a particular delight in lifting small dogs by the armpits and rocking them, rigid legged, in front of his face).  She concluded this was because they posed no threat to him.   I think she was right.  He was a different person when he wasn’t worried about being attacked, as any of us are.  Little kids of a certain age are cute, playful and trusting as puppies.  They can be fun to play with — plus they pose no harm and are very happy for attention.  He was at his best goofing around with them, sounding them out about things, going with the flow, making them laugh.

My father was also at his best in times of crisis, when you were very upset in the midst of an emergency.  He would quietly lay out his understanding of your worries and then calmly walk you through all the reasons you shouldn’t be so upset.   He had a great ability to reassure. 

The mechanism of this, I realize now, was similar to his unguarded playfulness with children.   When my sister or I were most vulnerable, our father was least concerned with being attacked by us.  This freed him to express his better nature.   The memory of his consistent kindness in these tough situations also served to make my sister and me often blame ourselves when he was enraged at us.

It was an emotionally confusing situation to grow up in, being raised by someone so reflexively critical and angry who was also capable of such soothing compassion.   One of the hallmarks of my father’s fighting style was the insistence that you were wrong to feel what you were feeling.  “You’re wrong,” he’d say flatly, in the face of your upswelling emotion, and then reframe things to tell you what you should actually be feeling, if you weren’t so fucked up, and why you’d be much better off simply feeling the opposite of how you felt.   

I’ve since learned that this refusal to acknowledge another person’s hurt is perhaps the most provocative thing a person can do in response to someone else’s vulnerability — tell them they have absolutely no right to feel what they are feeling. 

There was rarely an attempt to de-escalate anything in our home, this was not in either of our parents’ emotional repertoires.   They had both suffered greatly at the hands of strong-willed, violent mothers.   They were ill equipped to deal with their frustrations, our own frustrations were maddening to them.    

There would be angry confrontations at the dinner table, virtually every night.  Accusations would fly, authoritative pronouncements by my father delivered in the style of a prosecutor’s closing remarks to the jury.  What you were doing now, in this moment of anger, was what you always do because you are an irredeemably angry person, a bad seed, a hater.   In my sister’s case, she was portrayed to the imaginary jury as not angry, so much, but reflexively dishonest, scheming, vain, empty-headed.   This reduction of each of us to the sum of some purported faults or weaknesses did a great deal of harm, as you can imagine.

When my sister and I discuss our childhood there’s a phrase we bat around that often gets a chuckle out of us “twisted and contorted with hate”.   My father must have directed the phrase to me more than once, since we both recall it so clearly.  He would snarl this at me whenever I’d sit across from him, my face twisted and contorted with hate.    Hate, mind you, is a very strong word.

My grandmother, whose six brothers and sisters were marched to a ravine and shot in the back of their heads by local townspeople who hated them, always reacted with disgust when I’d report that I hated my teacher.  She tried to teach me what a strong word hate is.   “You HATE her?  Be quiet! You don’t HATE her… you don’t know what hate means, hate means you’d kill her,” she’d say, correctly.   I’d stick to my guns, as my grandmother waved her large hands dismissively.

“Yeah, grandma, I’d kill her…” I’d insist, as righteous children often do. 

“Please…” she’d say turning away with incomparable dismissiveness.

 

                                                                                    ii

In thinking about my father now, and the deeper values he imbued in me, and what he tried to teach me to never tolerate,  I grasp something impressive.   At the same time that he often acted tyrannically, he also instilled in me a profound resistance to tyranny– not only by an instinct to refuse his overbearing assaultive behavior toward me but also by his philosophical example, the courageous people he admired.  

He truly hated tyranny, an irrational assertion of unchallengeable, often brutal, will, and I digested this hatred, which on some level he supported, even as he reflexively acted like a despot and fought me without restraint.  I could see that on some level he respected me for fighting back against his attempts to tyrannize me.  Tyranny, he taught me on a cellular level, is evil — straight up.   I would come to lose many jobs, even my chosen profession, animated by this high-minded belief in higher justice and by a visceral inability to yield to a bully — or to seeing others bullied.

My father told me, the last night of his life, that his life was basically over by the time he was two.  I’d learned the reason for this a few years earlier from my father’s closest cousin, Eli, a first generation American tough guy 16 years older than my father.  I spent many a Saturday up at Eli’s retirement bungalow during the last few years of the old man’s life, talking about everything.   My father would vehemently dismiss any insight I believed I’d taken from my talks with Eli.  Eli’s accounts were bullshit, he’d insist, portraying Eli as a hopelessly muddled and unreliable historical revisionist and pointing to his estrangement from his own children as the proof that Eli was full of shit.   

When, at 1 a.m., I entered the room my father would die in nineteen hours later, one of the first things he said was “those stories Eli told you… everything he said was true, though I’m sure he spared you the worst of it.”  The worst I’d heard from Eli was bad enough.   Eli’s mother died when he was a year-old.    He instantly bonded with his Aunt Chava, his father’s youngest sister, a red-haired beauty who arrived by boat when Eli was six.  Eli and his father were at the dock in lower Manhattan to greet her.

“It was love at first sight,” Eli told me happily and recounted all the ways his beloved Tante Chava doted on him throughout his life.  There was no mistaking the painful ambivalence in Eli as he prepared to tell me a horrible detail I needed to know about his beloved Tante Chavah, my father’s mother, in order to help me make sense of our tangled, violent family history.  To give me a painful insight into my father’s most painful secret.

Eli had seen it more than once.  I picture him standing in the doorway to the kitchen of Chava’s home as his one year-old cousin stood in front of his chair, eyes downcast in terror, as his mother, Eli’s beloved Aunt, reached angrily into the drawer behind her chair for the rough, heavy cord of her iron, and whipped him across the face with it.

Across the face?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Eli with infinite sorrow.

“How old was he?” I asked.   

“However old you are when you can stand on your own two feet, I don’t know, one, one and a few months, I guess… a baby…”

After a while, of course, all Chava had to do was rattle the drawer where she kept the rigid, burlap-wrapped cord and my infant father would stand rigidly, eyes fixed on the floor in front of him, shuddering in terror.  A terror and humiliation that never left him, vicious pain inflicted for no reason by the mother who called him “Sonny”.   From the time he could stand.

It is impossible to reckon the damage this betrayal by your own mother would do to a person.  My father was often very mean to my sister and me, and the damage of that is hard to reckon.   I can only imagine the soul destruction my father experienced was ten times worse, maybe a hundred times worse.

“My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” said the dying man as I stood beside his deathbed, the tiny digital recorder propped on his chest.   Many mysteries remain, all these years later.   One is how he managed to limit his abuse of my sister and me to harsh words.  Another is how he retained the ability, when things were darkest and scariest for us during our childhood. to empathize and calm us.   There are deep lessons in my father’s life for me and I will continue to delve until I have some answers worth sharing.

 

Organizing my attack

Sometimes we get insight in a very roundabout way, only after a thing has been gnawing at us for a very long time.   It can take being nibbled by a particular demon for many years before you jump out of your chair one day and say “what the fuck?!!” look down and see what is snacking on you.

At the end of several long, stressful days getting the house ready for the contractors (the lioness’s share done by indefatigable, self-proclaimed working dog Sekhnet)  I went through a pile of papers (a short stack) propped helter skelter on a board laid across an open desk drawer.   More than half the pages immediately went onto the recycle pile to be carried down to the bag.   The rest, mostly drawings, I clipped neatly into the clipboard they were lying haphazardly on.   

Not really very hard, I realized, though the volume and variety of papers here, as I glance around, is many, many times more than that short stack at Sekhnet’s I dispatched in a few minutes.   Of course, Sekhnet is right — spending a half hour a day at it would make a big difference within a few days, even here, in the eye of the storm.

Another insight hit me when I pulled a page I’d printed out of the pile and began reading.   It was my unsent pitch to a publisher who welcomes book proposals from unknown authors.   A two paragraph evocation of the book I thought I was writing about my father, something I worked on hours every day for two years, a massive, unwieldy first draft.   

I stopped reading my pitch shortly into the second “reveal” paragraph.   I was glad I’d never sent the thing, it was a labored, strenuous, grunting swing at nothing but air.   It did not present a hint of a compelling idea for a book.

I recently saw a best-selling author, in the windup to an ad for his Master Class on how to become a successful writer, describe the writing of the second draft as an exercise in convincing everyone that you knew exactly where you were going when you wrote the first draft.    Wow.    That’s precisely my challenge in putting together the book of my father’s life and then successfully pitching it.   

The story of my difficult father’s life is not the tired old story of a smart idealist with an abusive dark side, fighting for justice for strangers while doing great harm to his own family.   It’s not the story of a man’s triumphant emergence from childhood poverty into the middle class (along with a large cohort of World War Two vets at a unique and fleeting moment in history).  It’s not the story of monstrous anger, righteous and senseless both, and a rigid inability to forgive.   

Those things are part of the back story.   The book is more of a meditation on the nature and substance of history itself, what we remember and what we forget, and the imagining of a lifelong conversation that should have been.   That conversation with the skeleton of my father, the one that began the last night of his life, is the heart of the book, though it’s not the story I need to tell, shop and sell.  

The real story is what I suspected from the start, the difficulty of forgiveness and a rare moment of grace, just before death, when an unbearable burden is lifted, the regrettable truth finally spoken and reassurance given to the dying man just before his light winks out.  The story is about exactly what those regrets are made of, what was learned, and lost, how the unlikely and precious moment came to happen at all.

Twenty-five years ago an old friend celebrated my decision to become a lawyer (an ill-considered one, at best) as me finally being about to “compete”.  I get what he was saying, I’ve always kept myself out of the economic competition that defines our materialistic culture, refusing to race the rest of the rats for the mirage of an illusory goal (or simply being a cowardly rat, depending on your view).   I did not embrace the world’s second oldest profession, nor did I ever really compete in it, outside of plucking the occasional victim out of the meat grinder of justice, as when I saved an old woman from homelessness at the hands of zealous NYCHA attorneys.

In mulling over the anger I’ve been feeling lately I realize part of it is my chafing feeling of paralysis (not helped by painfully arthritic knees — as Vonnegut said “be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.”), of being overwhelmed by difficult things that are hard, true, but clearly not impossible.    Part is anger at my resigned acceptance of a limited, frugal life, foregoing comfortable middle class options while muttering here in great, sometimes worthwhile, detail about the objectively atrocious state of things and what I have pieced together.   

I’m angry about having no voice, in spite of speaking all the time (as I am silently doing right now, you dig?), and often finding and saying things I think would advance the larger discussion in a threatened world increasingly dominated by mindless bluster and vapid shouting.   I’m angry that evil idiots, often born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us [1] rule and I that have nothing to say about any of it, no matter how well I may say it.    And that others, professionals, who blow “thoughts” out of their asses, are well-paid to do it.

I’m angry about my inability to marshal my abilities to tell a story and get paid.   I’m angry that I have to monetize my writing in the first place (but in an uncertain casino economy one needs to keep some money coming in) and I’m angry that I’m not getting any money for it.

I’m angry that I’m not getting paid for writing what I write and I’m angry that I’m doing virtually nothing about it.  It is a frustrating cycle and it presses on because I do not confront the hard work I need to do to market and sell my work.   I am, on a fundamental level (and as hard as I’ve often worked in my life) lazy, preferring at any given moment to do what I like rather than what needs to be done.  Since writing itself is satisfying to me, once I have the words in final form, I never think of it as unproductive unless paid for.   When I think of it that way, through the eyes of the world, it pisses me off.   

I don’t mean to say that lazy is the last word on my life, it certainly isn’t (he hastily added).  There is also fear, of course, long habit, the actual daunting difficulty of the uphill task, and so forth.   I learned a very important life lesson during a dark time in my life — how crucial it is to be kind to yourself.   I don’t pile on myself when the going gets tough and I never reduce myself to the sum of my faults.   

On the other hand, this anger I’ve described is something only I can work on, a grating car alarm only I have the key to silencing.  I also remind myself that I don’t need to be paid a million bucks or write a blockbuster hit, a couple of thousand dollars would be a very good start.

Sekhnet observed the other day that the therapy I’ve gone through did not touch my powerful aversion to organizing my papers, my life.   Fair enough.  I’ve recently come to think of my great and irrational resistance to going through old papers as an odd reflection of my fear of death, but what the fuck is up with that?

Anger at how difficult it has been for me to read the proverbial writing on the wall, about situations, sometimes about people, the bottom-line nature of the reality we are all living in, is less than useless.    Anger, while it can alert us to a problem in the manner of all pain, disables the ability to see any path out of it, as anger directs all energy back to itself.  Time to poke a few breathing holes in this smothering carapace of aggravation, I say.  

 

 

 

[1]   The well-read Thomas Jefferson, master of the felicitous phrase, stole this famous image for his final letter (shortly after the great passage about democracy  “arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government”).

The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

source

from Richard Rumbold, a man executed by the English for treason more than a century earlier.  Rumbold delivered the line toward the end of his final remarks, moments before he was drawn and quartered :   

I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.

source

I always loved this image of people born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us, particularly at a moment like this — Avi Berkowitz, 30 year-old assistant to Trump Special Advisor Jared Kushner, himself the supremely unqualified son of a billionaire. is elevated, by another very important man who inherited hundreds of millions and squandered more than that, to take the helm of  Trump’s secret, still unreleased Middle East Peace Plan that these born booted and spurred individuals are already boasting about. 

as to Richard Rumbold, here’s some great detail:

Note 1. Delivered in Edinburgh. Rumbold was captured after having been wounded and then separated from his companions in arms. An immediate trial had been ordered that he might be condemned before he died of his wounds. He was found guilty on June 26, 1685, sentenced to be executed the same afternoon, and was drawn and quartered, the quarters being exposed on the gates of English towns. [back]
Note 2. At this point Rumbold was interrupted by drum beating. He said he would say no more on that subject, “since they were so disingenuous as to interrupt a dying man.” [back]

 

“Paul, Paul…” (note for the Book of Irv)

Had a vivid memory yesterday, probably dredged up by Mark’s older brother’s memory of how his little brother hid candy bars from his two older brothers and how quickly he ate his meals at restaurants, lest somebody else get a morsel off his plate.

My father was over six feet tall and carried up to forty or fifty pounds of excess weight most of the time I knew him.   His younger brother Paul was quite a bit smaller, and fairly trim.   My father, at least once, told my sister and me the story of taking as much of his little brother’s food as he could get.   He told the story with a chuckle.

I didn’t stop to think, a middle class kid when I heard the story, that my father and my uncle were probably frequently hungry growing up in “grinding poverty” (the phrase my father always used to describe it, the family’s desperation corroborated by his cousin Gene) during the Depression.   My father would finish his food, turn to his brother, who ate more slowly, and ask him for another bite.  

” ‘Paul, Paul…’ I’d say and hold out my hand to him and he’d very reluctantly break off a tiny crumb of food and hand it over.    He didn’t want to, you know, but he always gave me something.”

As I told this to Sekhnet last night I remembered something else, the walk back from Carvel with my younger sister.  

Our parents would give us some change to go buy ice cream at the Carvel two short blocks and one long one from our house.   Carvel had soft serve machines and we’d generally each get a cone, sometimes plain sometimes with sprinkles (my sister was partial to the multicolored ones) and sometimes dipped in molten chocolate that would instantly become a lovely, slightly soft, thin chocolate shell (the “Brown Bonnet”).  

We’d lap up the delicious ice cream as we walked that first long block.    As we turned the first corner the swirl of ice cream in mine would be flattened down to the cone, a few bites and I was finished.   My sister ate more slowly, turning the cone methodically to lick away the drips, savoring her ice cream.   I’d always ask her for a slurp of her cone.   When she resisted I mocked her as a “saver”.  She’d reluctantly hand over the cone, protesting the unfairness (and she had a point) and I’d take a slurp.

“Paul, Paul…”

 

 

King of The Jews

Our world-savior president, Donald J. Trump, recently embraced the exalted new name bestowed on him by tweet (by an impressive maniac in his own right) and doubling down on that inspired compliment (Trump’s only move in any situation) referred to himself (with a point at the heavens above) as “the Chosen One.”   Done and done.  The best friend the Jews ever had, since Reinhard Heydrich, and I say this as a Jew. 

The messianic president should be on guard now, I think.    I say this as a Jew, as a loyal American, as someone with Google on his phone.    Last I heard, things did not go well for the last person to wear that “King of the Jews” crown (which was made of thorns).   Y’all remember Jesus of Nazareth, “King of the Jews”?    Just type “King of the Jews” into your smartphone and you get this:

The acronym INRI represents the Latin inscription IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDÆORVM (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum), which in English translates to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).         source

That mysterious INRI on the sign shown in many old paintings of Jesus being crucified stands for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.   It was a final vicious mockery of the Prince of Peace, a flicker of that old Roman sense of humor. 

Likely suggested, as we are told by devout men, by the hateful “disloyal” Jews of the time, Jews that Christians soon blamed for the crucifixion of God’s son (the alternate story, that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities, would not have been popular in Rome — and Rome controlled most of the world’s known population at the time).   Hey, it’s all about P.R., after all, if you plan to proselytize widely and become a major world religion.

It is not known whether the crucified in 33 A.D. King of the Jews had a sense of humor.  I like to think Jesus did.  It is a mark of a gentle character, to see the humor in things.  Laughing together is a beautiful way of bonding, a blessed moment of relief from oppression of every kind, a gentle reminder to be humble.   Of course, a talent for laughter is also the mark of a good Nazi, the comradely ability to see the undeniable humor in the wretched humiliation of a hated enemy.   The jury, I suppose, must be eternally out on whether INRI had a sense of humor.

A thought about humor, and who laughs, and why:  

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” [1]

Humor is clearly a double-edged sword. 

Seriously, then, our president, The Chosen One, an “extremely stable genius” (with an historically gigantic member), tweeted that he is not going to Denmark next week because he was insulted that his ridiculous proposal that the United States buy Greenland was characterized by the Danish prime minister as “abzurd”.   Greenland, by the way, is one of the places on earth where global warming is happening at a disastrously higher rate than predicted.

“‘Abzurd’,” the president repeated in disgust, quoting the mortal insult again, a moment before characterizing the Danish prime minister, a woman, as “nasty”.   

Donald King of the Jews knows a lot about nasty, vindictive, hateful bitches, always the victims, always blaming him because they are sexy, or good looking, or ugly, or powerful, or smart, or incisive, or use a word, or a tone, that wounds him.  The real victim is always the savior of mankind, about to be crucified by really unfair, totally conflicted, disloyal, nasty witch hunting bitches of both sexes, of many sexes.

I would love to be undistracted, to concentrate, back inside my imagination and my memory, on the things I need to write.   There are things in my mind much more compelling than the most recent ass-tweetings of an unstable attention-craving idiot.

My sister, for example, at the age of three or so, grabbed the largest pointed knife in the kitchen, a long, sharp meat slicer with a white handle, and plunged it toward me.  I backed away quickly without turning around, backpedalled out of the kitchen, five years old myself.   She followed a step behind, holding the large knife in front of her, tottering unsteadily forward on her tiny feet as fast as she could.   I was afraid to turn my back on her to flee up the stairs.   The pursuit ended in the front closet, me somehow backed inside it, against the coats as my sister brandished the knife, thrusting it forward, smiling fiendishly.    Why did I not simply overpower her, take the knife?   I was afraid of blood, of the aggression of this tiny child, afraid that either of us might be spouting blood out of a severed artery if a struggle over the large knife took place.  Afraid.

A friend told me that some of my writing in the first draft of the memoir of my father was “extreme”.   She was hard pressed to explain why she felt that way, beyond that it was just too brutally honest, and the conversation veered into other subjects before I could learn more.    Weeks later I read an old piece that was pretty good, but contained an objectively extreme phrase, describing my father’s angry stare as “the unblinking mask of a psychotic” or something like that.   Extreme.  My father was not psychotic, not by any definition. 

Not only was it not a good description of his face at that moment, it was a weak and distracting one, a lazy one.    It betrayed unrestrained emotion, undermined my credibility and instantly pulled the reader away from the more important truth I should have been establishing: my father, a good man, smart, funny, sensitive and idealistic, was eternally desperate and it was this desperation that kept him on guard and frequently enraged at his children.   

How the story is told is very, very important for passing on the intended message, the discovered insight.   One sloppy stroke and the reader is rightfully distracted, shakes her head “fucking guy, pretty interesting piece, but he lost me there” and then on to the next link.

Instead of making forward progress in my own life of leisure and genteel poverty (I can live without working as long as I don’t spend much money), I drink my coffee while reviewing a few events that made the news since last night.    The NY Times reports that the president called any Jew who was prepared to vote against him “ignorant” and “very disloyal”.   I know this guy simply talks out of his face and his ass interchangeably (no comment about his breath) but found that I had to read a little about it.  Which led to a youTube clip, which led to another, which led to an article and so on.

Back to the King of the Jews and disloyalty to him.   My father had a colleague and good friend named Evelyn, who later became a hated former friend and former colleague.   I  looked her up decades later and we began a correspondence.  Evelyn had converted to Judaism in the intervening years and was trying to convince me that then-presidents Bush and Cheney, the neoCons and the Evangelical right, were the best friends of Israel and all Jews.   The invasion and occupation of Iraq was very good for Israel, she argued.  The one-time socialist scholar was not very persuasive, she was unsuccessful in her mission to convert me to extreme right wing politics, in the name of Judaism and what is best “for the Jews”.   An  old saw:  two Jews in an elevator, five strenuous differences of opinion.  

An old joke, by way of  illustration:   Two Jews are stranded on a desert island for many years.  When the rescue boat finally arrives the rescuers find the two Jews have built three synagogues on the island.  “I don’t understand,” says a rescuer, “there are two Jews, why three synagogues?”   The Jews point to the third synagogue and answer, in one voice, “nobody goes to that one.”

There are Jews today who, to me, are indistinguishable from Nazis in their core beliefs, which include a righteous, well-justified refusal to regard “enemies” as human beings.   If you sincerely believe that every Palestinian two year-old is a hate-filled terrorist you might as well let them live in open air prisons until they are old enough to shoot with live ammunition at the border fence.    

If you believe, as Jews have long been urged to do by our tradition, in the importance of protecting the weak, being hospitable to the stranger among us (a tradition modern-day desert nomads still practice), you will have a much different attitude toward the suffering of any child, Palestinian babies, Israeli babies or the tiny children (and their parents) in the privately owned for-profit hell-holes that Trump’s ICE uses to keep stinking, unwashed human asylum seekers in cages.  

It is only a Nazi type who justifies inflicting  this kind of suffering on others, wholly innocent of anything themselves, insisting their victims deserve their cruel fate because they are part of an infestation of an invasive species of subhuman.   That’s Nazi shit, my friend.

To me, speaking as an American Jew, this self-appointed King of the Jews, seriously, is more like the fancy King of the Very Fine Nazis, the finest Nazis, some very, very fine Nazis.  Hey, what a cool idea: a King of the Nazis!  I guess you could also call that heaven appointed ruler the Fuhrer.  Got a nice ring to it, I think.

Nazi fucks…

 

 

[1]    Senator Leahy:  “You’ve never forgotten them laughing at you.”

Blasey Ford “They were laughing with each other.”

Leahy:  “And you were the object of the laughter?”

Blasey Ford  “I was underneath one of them, while the two laughed.”

source