A Tricky Story to Tell

“You had only two uncles, me and your father’s brother,” he said.   

“Our father had a brother?” said the niece. 

“Yes, a few years older.   We only met him once, he was kind of estranged from your father and his father.   He was funny, and personable, and seemed like a very nice guy.   He was as big as your father, and had dark hair.   We sat on the back porch playing cards, at your grandparents’ house in Queens.”   

“How come we never heard of him?”   

“You’d have to ask your parents.   I have no idea.   Maybe it was the fact that they were estranged, had virtually no contact once the brothers were adults.   I  don’t know.   Maybe it has to do with his mental illness,” the sole uncle said.   

“Mental illness?” said the nephew.   

“Look, I know virtually nothing about the man, except for a pleasant afternoon we spent with him.   And that he was taking some psycho-pharmaceutical and his psychiatrist apparently had told him to have nothing further to do with the family, that it would only aggravate his condition.   And like I said, we only met him that one time, never heard about him after that.”   

“Whoa, his ‘psychiatrist’?”  said the niece.

“You know, in most families you have your pick of aunts, uncles, cousins.  You will have the ones you feel closest to, a real kinship, and many others will leave you cool, or even cold.  In our family, since the family tree was so ruthlessly pruned back in 1942, you get only one or two uncles — in your case one.   Your other uncle probably died before you were born, another reason you never heard of him, I guess.”   

“How did he die?” said the nephew.   

“That’s just speculation, we really have no idea.  He could still be alive, he’d be in his early seventies now”   

“Jesus,” said the niece, glancing at her phone.

“I can tell you what happened two generations ago, on your mother’s side, when the German army ran across the area we’re from, on their way to invade the heart of the Soviet Union.   Between the winter of 1941 and the winter of 1942 everyone in our family was murdered, except for the handful of people who arrived here between 1904 and 1923.    The areas they came from were, as they say, cleansed of Jews by the SS and willing local anti-Semites.   We know a few of their names, we know what happened to their towns, the muddy little hamlets they came from.   Everyone was executed, end of story.”   

“That would make you a little paranoid, I guess,” said the nephew. 

Claro que si, sobrino,” said the uncle.

“I can only say a little bit more, because to some people, well, this is ticklish to say… some people believe that anything that causes pain or anguish should be avoided.  The passive voice and all that.   You don’t touch a nerve that’s raw.  If it’s bad, or makes you feel bad, especially if it evokes shame or anger, don’t talk about it.  Talking about it is very dangerous,” he turned to his niece.   

“You know, when you were a baby and first learned to sit on the potty to do your business, your mother asked you once why you have no hesitation to sit there and pee but the other thing, the shitting business, you weren’t ready to do that in the potty.   She asked why.  You said, with great seriousness and conviction, and you couldn’t have been more than two:  it’s very dangerous!   

“Ha, I forgot about that,” the niece said.   

“What I hear you saying between the lines, Uncle, is that you are very dangerous,” said the nephew.   

“Yes, nephew, if you believe in making sure every source of shame and anger is completely repressed at all times, someone like me is very dangerous.   I’m as dangerous as pooping in a potty, more dangerous, actually,” said the uncle. 

 “Some people believe it’s better to lie than to expose and talk about regrettable, shameful or terrible things.   We have a president like that.  Never made a mistake, never been wrong, never had any reason to reflect or do anything differently, nothing to apologize about, anything bad that ever happened in his life was somebody else’s fault.   You know, a lot of people live that way.   I try not to judge those motherfuckers, but I can’t live like that.  If I know I hurt you, and I care about you, I’m going to try to make it right, starting with an apology.  Unfortunately, not everybody does that.”   

“This is getting a little awkward,” said the niece. 

“I agree,” said the uncle, “where are we going for lunch?”

Perspective and Losing It

Perspective:

I am a grown man, sitting in my shorts, tapping at a computer pretending I am a writer, though I make no effort to market and monetize my work.  A tiny handful of people ever read even the very best things I write here.  It is easy to see me as a sadly overgrown perpetual kid with an overactive imagination, childishly playing at being a serious adult writer.  This is the case, of course, with anyone who doesn’t actively compete in the actual professional marketplace to find an audience and get paid for what is actually hard work.  I write to communicate with others, I don’t write purely for myself, but this blahg is the next best thing (to writing purely for myself).  My name is not even attached to these pieces.   WTF?

I set up this blahg years ago (2012) in order to gain access to what turned out to be a very disappointing archive of so-called source material for Manning Marable’s problematic late 2011 biography of Malcolm X.    Without giving it any thought, I set it up under my cat’s name, Oinsketta, and that is the author’s name you will see displayed here instead of my own.  I don’t know how to change that, haven’t even really exerted myself to find out if it’s possible to change it.   Even if you like these posts you will have to do some work to even figure out my name, something every writer in the world must promote.

All that is true.  On the other hand, I generally see it from another perspective.

I live a contemplative life.  It is not an ideal life for everyone, but my inner world is quite compelling to me.  I can honestly say I don’t know what it feels like to be “bored”.   I play guitar, ukulele and guitarlele (a very cool little six string guitar with a high voice– a 4th above guitar range) just about every day.   Music is an important part of my life, playing it, keeping steady time, making each note ring as true as I can.   I draw and lately have been practicing an idiosyncratic kind of calligraphy.   I cannot refrain from this long graphomaniacal habit, nor do I know what to do with the output, and so every place I sit I am surrounded by an uncombed tangle of drawings.  Both of these things, I guess, are forms of meditation.  I think about nothing in particular as I play, and that is a beautiful thing.

When I write I am writing for you, the reader.  I have something in mind whenever I sit down and I try to make it as clear as I can.   I focus my thoughts in the most concentrated way I know, cutting through vagueness as well as I am able, editing with care to eliminate confusions that careless words can create.  

There is value in the exercise for me, independent of the possible value to anyone who reads these posts, unrelated to money or fame.   I am silently thinking out loud, really, when I sit here tapping out my thoughts and feelings.   I have no need to burden people I know  with something that vexes me, once I write it out to my satisfaction here.   If someone is interested in my view I can send them a link.   Writing itself, in order to put your thoughts in order,  is a useful practice.  I recommend it.   We all know how to use words, this is an excellent use of words.  

Most days this second way of thinking of my situation is my perspective as I sit down to write.

Today I just feel like a listless, immature 63 year-old asshole sitting in my shorts, writing nothing, for no reason, for nobody.    

Luckily for me, I know this feeling will pass the next time I sit down with something burning me to work through and set out as clearly as I can.

 

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.

 

Fiction Writing Workshop

Fortunately for Hal, who’d had a novel published to good reviews when he was fresh out of college, he came of age in an era when such things could be parlayed into a comfortable life.  Hal was a tenured professor of fiction writing by the age of thirty-two and never had to worry about making a living after that.   

When Hal’s father died, Hal got drunk.   He got the news from his sister, who’d been at the hospital when their angry, hopeless father breathed his last.  The old man was pissed off that Hal couldn’t make it back to the hospital to say goodbye one last time.   Hal had been at the hospital all day, went home to make dinner for his daughter, and his father was bitter about that last bit too, according to his sister, who had no reason to lie.

Hal told his sister he’d see her the next morning and went into the kitchen where he kept the Scotch.   He drank a good deal of that fine single malt, which the label said had been aged in a sherry cask.   The warm feeling came over him.   He sat quietly at the kitchen table, in a comfortable chair that could tilt any way he leaned.  

When Hal’s daughter came in, her father was already drunk, that familiar blank look on his face.  He changed his facial expression slightly as she came into view, but the effect wasn’t exactly a smile.  She already knew that grandpa was finally gone.   She’d had the text from her aunt.   She went into her room, locked the door, and a few moments later, tweeted that she was going to kill herself.

“This is your autobiography, Al,” his friend Tova told him, walking in through the back door, gesturing toward the bottle, the daughter’s locked door.  “As you have been telling your students for decades, even back when you were still writing, ‘all good writing is autobiography’.”

“Yeah, yeah.   I was full of shit,” said Hal.  “All bad writing is also autobiography.  A meaningless cliche, like all the other ones in the vast imaginary forests of bullshit.  Vanity.  What the fuck was I thinking?”

“You made a good living,” Tova said.  

“Yes, there was that,” Hal said.  

Tova had a notification from her phone.  She read the screen.  “You’d better call David, your daughter is going to kill herself.”

David was still seven hours away, driving through the foggy night from upstate.  Even in good conditions, it was a long and tedious drive. David was the only person who could talk to Debbie in a way that made any sense to her.

Hal found himself thinking of the family roots. His father had been the last of thirteen children, from some benighted hamlet in Poland nobody had ever bothered to put on a map.  Just as well, everybody there was dead, murdered one chilly afternoon in 1943, by people smelling of vodka.   Hal’s father was in the United States twenty years by then, the only one.  Nobody had a crystal ball, or the money to consult one, otherwise they all would have tried to come to America before that madman marshaled an army of murderous zombies.  

“Look, Hal,” Tova said, as she had many times, “I’m sorry you came from such a poor, shit family and got no rachmunis from anybody when they were all slaughtered, may they rest in peace.  I, and I don’t need to remind you, I have the papers to prove my right to be fucked up, both of my parents got checks from the German government until the day they died, as you know.  They were certified Holocaust survivors, I am a certified, official child of Holocaust survivors.  You, on the other hand, are a melodramatic self-pitying drunkard masochistically fond of brooding on history that happened while you were in boot camp.”

“I could have been Charles Kushner,” Hal had taken to saying recently, “son of two Holocaust survivors who got out of Europe in time, their assholes crammed with enough diamonds to build a small real estate empire in New Jersey.”  

Charles Kushner, the billionaire son of Holocaust survivors, begat Jared Kushner, who was so righteously outraged when his father was imprisoned briefly for simply hiring a prostitute and a filmmaker to make a video blackmailing his uncle, a man who was about to turn rat.  

The blackmail video was necessary to shame Charles’s sister, who Charles believed wore the pants in her home (and, also, appeared to be susceptible to the threat of public shame).  If she said the word, the fucking rat would not take the stand against her brother. Otherwise, her husband was scheduled to rat him out at the federal fraud trial that was about to start.  Charles had been given no choice, as he explained to Jared in the weeks before he was convicted, sentenced and disbarred.  The brother-in-law was the only witness who could really hurt him, and they seemed to be on the same page going forward, but the prosecutor flipped him.  

“Fucking rat,” said Charles, when he gave the money to the scumbag who set up the whole ill-fated prostitute and surveillance thing.

“Who knew my fucking sister was also a fucking rat?” Charles later asked a pigeon sitting on the window ledge of his cell at the federal prison.  “They never revealed if she’d worn a wire that day or not, the treacherous bastards…”   The bird nodded.

“Why is Debbie going to kill herself this time?” Hal asked Tova.    

“The tweet is vague on that,” Tova said.  

“I haven’t been much of an improvement on my old man,” said Hal.  “I have no clue how to help that kid.”  

“I’m going to make coffee,” said Tova.  

“To ruin a perfectly good buzz,” Hal said, pouring the last of the single malt into his glass.  

“Buzz-kill is what they called me in college,” said Tova.  

“You went to a top school full of smart bastards, didn’t you?”  

“Not like the place you teach, professor,” said Tova.  

“No, not like the place I teach,” said Hal, drinking up.  

“No matter, David will be here soon.”

“Let’s hope he can stay awake on the highway this time,” said Hal, tilting back in his chair.   There seemed to be no end to nights like this one, he thought.

 

(to be continued, or not)

 

Pop’s hammer

This is the “European hammer” that belonged to my grandfather.   I will have more to say about the old fellow and his life in the coming days, but, for the moment, here is the hammer itself:

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You can see how ready it is to get to work, banging in a thin nail or doing some serious peening (whatever the hell that is).   Here is another view of the business end of my grandfather’s ball-peen hammer:

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I never saw my grandfather use this hammer, that I can recall.   The hammer, I must say, reflects his style.  My grandfather had a certain graceful delicacy about him.  He was surprisingly light on his feet.   My sister once witnessed him, at close to eighty, doing a mocking dance move behind his overbearing wife’s back.   It was during a dispute over the fate of some cash my grandfather was planning to deposit in the bank.

“Don’t put that money in the bank! I’m taking Abby out for lunch and then we’re going shopping, I need the money,” my grandmother said, in the tone of one used to being the boss.  

My sister then had the miraculous luck to witness a little dance that my grandfather must have done countless times over his long life with Yetta.   As his wife went into the other room, he did a kind of shrug and with fluid grace lifted one leg, bent the other knee and threw his arms to the side in a comically ironic manner.  

“She don’t want to put the money in the bank,” he said quietly, moving his head from side to side as he danced his mocking dance.   “She don’t want to put the money in the bank!”

Decades later I found a great clip somebody put together of Paolo Conte’s [1] wonderful “It’s Wonderful” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.   A beautiful job.  Take a moment to enjoy it, and enjoy it you certainly will.   I sent it to my sister with the caption “Pop” and she instantly agreed.

 

[1]  dig  what Conte plays behind the sax solo, (I’ve cued it up for you), great stuff!

My grandfather’s hammer

My grandfather had a ball-peen hammer [1] that I now use to drive small nails into the wall to hang baseball caps and calendars on.   Because I was a child the first time I saw this eccentric looking, thin handled hammer (without the familiar woodpecker comb on the back of the head, used for pulling nails) I thought it was called a European hammer, which made sense to me, since my grandfather was European.    I have no idea how he came to own the machinist’s hammer as, to my knowledge, he never did any type of peening at all (whatever the hell that is).

I love this hammer, because it was owned by Pop.   The smooth handle has the feel of old, well-used wood.  The small metal head is smart looking and ready to bop.   I wield it every time there is a small nail to be driven into anything.   I feel a small rush of excitement as I go to get the natty little hammer.

When I was a boy I went through a time when all I wanted was a baby elephant.   I would not let up on the theme.   One day, over dinner, Pop promised to get me one when I reached a certain age, along with, a few years later, a copy machine.   I never stopped to think that baby elephants grow to become the earth’s largest land mammals.  The baby ones are so cute.   I was a kid.   Still, I didn’t forget, when I reached those ages and had no elephant, no copy machine (at that time a gigantic thing that took up the footprint of a single bed) appeared. My gentle, loving grandfather had lied to placate me.   Et tu, Pop? 

He was trying to soothe me with these obvious lies, I realize, and I didn’t really hold it against him.   Fifty years later we’d all have copy machines on our desks and, truly, it would have sucked to have been the child owner of a baby elephant.  In the best case scenario there would have been that wrenching moment when the growing elephant would have to move away.   I never even thought of the cruelty of taking the little giant away from her mother so I could have the world’s coolest pet.  Elephants are social animals.

… And I am going to be late for my appointment with the nephrologist if I continue tapping here now.  So, if you will please excuse me, I must… be…. awwwwwn my way.

 

 

[1] Wikipedia:  

also known as a machinist’s hammer, is a type of peening hammer used in metalworking.