Wednesday, October 31, 2007

October 31, 2007--Take Back Halloween!

Not only is today Kathy Donovan’s birthday, it’s also Halloween. Walking from here in Greenwich Village to Balthazar in Soho for morning coffee, we passed dozens of people streaming down Broadway on their way to work who were wearing various subtle kinds of costuming: rubber spider rings, devils’ ears, cats’ noses and whiskers, spider-web stockings.

Of course later this evening the Village will be flooded with 2.0 million (you heard me) revelers in much more elaborate array. About how they will be decked out I can only speculate. Much of it will be political (there are certain to be hundreds of George Bushes and Dick Cheneys as well as many Hillarys) and much of the rest will be quite erotic (this I leave to your imagination).

But about one thing there is and will be no doubt—adults have run off and absconded with Halloween.

Not too many years ago when we first moved to the Village, the Halloween parade was called the Children’s Parade and all who marched down Fifth Avenue into Washington Square Park were children in costumes accompanied by parents in regular clothes. Now, no right-thinking parent would bring a small child out into the mayhem. Yes, there is a separate rump event for kids, but it’s a sideshow. The real action now goes on for miles up and down Sixth Avenue and it is pretty much for adults-only.

Crank back in time some more, as I am quite capable of doing since I have a few years on me, and Halloween in the city and suburbs was totally for and about children. We even made our own costumes. Tricking and Treating went on in a serious way with the emphasis on the tricks. Kids carried on on their own—parents stayed home. Some of the tricks were ashamedly rough and even violent. Since no one was interested in gathering candy treats we began setting off stink bombs on people’s doorsteps even before they could answer the doorbell.

Go on, accuse me of indulging in nostalgia. I plead guilty, but isn’t there also some sort of cultural shift reflected in adults purloining this formerly kids-only day? The first evidence of this takeover was adults attempting to turn the Trick of Treating into something benevolent—to defang it, taking all the perverse pleasure out of the soft-core wilding. They did this by pressuring kids to collect money for UNICEF rather than scrambling after Hershey’s Kisses and mini Three Musketeer bars. Then, either out of fear that their kids would be molested, poisoned, or kidnapped they began to accompany them as they made their rounds.

We live in a doorman-protected apartment house and you would think parents who live here would be comfortable tonight turning their tikes loose in the hallways. Buy no, when our doorbell rings, 100 percent of the time the children will have parents tagging along with them. Parents, by the way, frequently in costumes more elaborate than their sons’ and daughters’.

You tell me what this all means. I suspect it has something to do with adults feeling the need to escape adulthood, or their current identity, by reliving childhood—this time as they wished they had lived it back then.

Me? I’m going out tonight as Alex Rodriguez in an LA Dodgers uniform, and I’ll be collecting money for myself.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

October 30, 2007--Yes Virginia, There Was A Civil War

Though I confess to enjoying picking up lost coins on the street—sort of in the spirit of find-a-penny-and-have-good-luck-all-day—I don’t pay much attention to the coins themselves. Including what’s depicted on them.

I am aware of the government’s interest in the possibility of eliminating pennies since it costs more than one cent to produce one. And I know about efforts to phase out paper dollar bills and replace them with one-dollar coins. Neither of these has met with much success—we are clearly devoted to our pennies even though there is literally nothing any more available to buy for one, though for many people collecting pennies is their most consistent means of saving for their retirement. And since no one seems to want to carry around even more change in their pocket or purse, the Susan V. Anthony coin has been a bust, except when getting change from stamp vending machines in post offices.

I am vaguely aware of the fact that during the past few years each of the 50 states has had the opportunity to have their own version of a quarter. The back of New York’s, no surprise, has the Statute of Liberty superimposed over a map of the Empire State; Virginia’s includes what to me look like the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria approaching Jamestown; Washington State, the Evergreen State, has a salmon leaping out of the water with Mount Rainier in the background; and Kentucky has, what else, a race horse in a corral in front of My Old Kentucky Home.

And though I am not noted for my aesthetic sensibilities, the one thing all of these coins, and the other 40 or so, have in common is that they are, to be kind, undistinguished in design. I can only assume this is because each of them was designed by a committee where all sorts of political considerations and correctness came into play. This was confirmed for me this morning by a report in the New York Times that a committee is working on a new design for the back of the venerable penny. (Linked below.)

A portrait of Lincoln will remain on the head side, what will appear on the tail, or back side is up for grabs. What do we suppose is likely to happen? With an eight-person committee making the decisions—four members were selected by Congress; the other four “by merit” because of their expertise in numismatics and history (which of course implies that the congressional appointees lack merit). I do not have a view about what the numismatists must be advocating—presumably a quality design—but it’s already pretty clear what the historians are up to.

When reviewing potential designs the group pretty much agreed that they liked the one that depicted the legendary log cabin; and another one of the young Lincoln with work-shirt sleeves rolled up reading a book by candle light; and a third version of him making a speech in the Illinois state legislature. They couldn’t, however, agree on how to represent his presidency.

He was best known of course for leading a part of the country during the Civil War and for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. There seems to be some reluctance about depicting either of these. Maybe showing him “freeing the slaves” would upset some citizens; perhaps a scene of him at the Gettysburg battlefield would remind people that when we are at war there are casualties and burials that take place in cemeteries. Clearly this is not the sort of thing we want the public to have to see.

So let’s stick to the more mythological stuff we learned in public school American history classes—log cabins for Lincoln, cherry trees for George Washington, and scenes of Mission Accomplished for the George W. Bush Wooden Nickel.

Monday, October 29, 2007

October 29, 2007--Rona's Last Straw

We each have different tipping points. I went over the edge over abu ghraib. To me, though I was terribly upset about the war in Iraq and the lies that went into justifying it, it wasn’t until I saw young American soldiers taking sadistic pleasure in humiliating and torturing Iraqi detainees that I blew. For me this summed up all that was wrong with our so-called mission to overthrow Saddam and bring democracy to that region. By revealing what we had been doing in that prison, one of Saddam’s worst venues for torture, it was obvious and maddening to me that we had replaced him as the tyrannical oppressor.

Though Rona was progressively upset about this and the manipulations that led up to our invasion and angry and frustrated about all the congressional scandals and hypocrisy they revealed and Scooter Libby’s felonies and the Katrina failures and the demagoguery that is likely establishing the “justification” to bomb Iran and the Democrats’ cowardly and enabling behavior, Rona somehow managed to maintain her perspective and sanity.

But she really lost it last night while talking on the phone with her sister Sharon. After the usual checking in with each other about their mother’s situation and how expensive everything has become, the conversation quickly turned to things in the news. At first most of this was fairly benign, considering the state of the world, about how some of our governmental agencies give sweetheart contracts to well-connected providers; but then Rona uncharacteristically began to bounce on the bed screaming and yelling. I was only half listening to her side of the conversation, trying to watch the beginning of what turned out to be the last game of the World Series, but I grew alarmed that something terrible had happened.

She was ranting about the fake news conference FEMA staged in California while there purportedly to help in the relief effort. After Katrina they were obviously eager, along with President Bush, to make it appear that they were both on the case and effective. What better way to do that than have a high-level FEMA official confronted by what would predictably be a skeptical press corps? If he could fend them off successfully, it might help wipe out memories of FEMA and administration failures in New Orleans. And what better way to assure a good outcome from such a press conference than giving real reporters just 15 minutes notice that the press conference was about to begin so they would be unable to get to it; or, even better, have other FEMA employees pose as reporters and lobe softball questions to their boss? Questions such as, “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?” and, “What lessons learned from Katrina have been applied?”

For Rona, after recalling that early on in the Bush administration Karl Rove was famously quoted as saying that the truth is what we say it is, this was her last straw. She screamed into the phone, “Are we living in the Soviet Union? When in so many countries in the world brave men and women are placing themselves in danger, are suffering in prison, or have been killed while fighting for freedom of the press, here in this country our government is holding phony press conferences.” She raged on, “It’s bad enough that our so-called ‘legitimate’ reporters so casually sell out to the administration so they can gain access to ‘sources’ and get invited to the best parties. But it’s a hundred times worse to have their own people posing as journalists.

“And,” she continued, “Why didn’t the New York Times put this on their front page? They buried their account of it on the bottom of page 15. [Article linked below] Was it because the Washington Post scooped them by reporting it first and they were embarrassed? And why aren’t all the network and cable TV channels making a bigger deal of this? If I were in charge of one of these networks I’m mention it first thing every day.”

Then, she said, “What’s happened to us to make us so passive? So afraid to protect our own values and democracy, while sending troops all over the world supposedly to bring the same things to others?”

Finally, she added, "Bush should be impeached for this. But of course he won't be. What does he have to do? Get a blow job?"

It was hard after that to continue to watch the Red Sox proceed to wipe out the Rockies.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

October 27, 2007--Saturday Story: Mt. Lebanon--The End (Part Five)

In Part Four, Lloyd Zazlo’s mother spoke more about her initial attraction to his father—how his very tallness represented to her, an immigrant girl, the promise of America. How he carried himself as if all things were possible and how he radiated an air of optimism, which was so different from what she was used to in the, as she put it, physically and spiritually “runted” boys from Poland, one of whom her parents hoped one day she would marry and who would “provide” for her. But after the intoxication of that first encounter and what at the time would have been considered a highly-charged courtship, after he was asked to leave college and a series of failed attempts in the business world, things with them began to change. This frustration and gathering anger, which he soon deflected to her, transformed what had been blissful into a life of harsh compromise. But she stayed with him for the sake of Lloyd and his brother, and also, she confessed, for his sake—to take care of him too but also, in her way, to love him. Closer to home—this complexity she said to her first born was what was missing in the representation of the family in his writing—this balanced, more nuanced picture, full of contradiction and ambiguity. This subtler truth, in his terms “essential truth,” she pressed on painfully, should be what he sought. Though he attempted to defend himself, still emotionally crushed, he threw himself to the ground and tearfully embraced her grave.

Whereupon, in Part Five he hears . . .

Get up. On your feet. What kind of way is this for a grown man to behave?" This familiar voice and its admonishment could only be my father’s. “I always expected that this is what your Uncle Ben would turn you into. Stop sniveling and acting like a girl. If I wanted a daughter I would have had another child.”

At his order, I immediately stopped sniveling. As a young boy he had taught me to “steel myself” by having me lie on my back on the living room carpet while he tickled me, barking at me to stifle myself, to steel myself whenever I could no longer contain my laughter. This basic training had been so effective that I not only lost my tickle-reflex but I would, at the sight of just his raised eyebrow, shut off my tears.

“That’s better. Now get up off of that and come over here,” he ordered, “I have a few things I’ve been wanting to get off my chest.” At that I hoisted myself up from the ground. “And stand up straight.” Standing rigidly at attention had also been part of the drill. “You look like a shlump.” Instinctively, as in the past, I thrust my shoulders back until they hurt and moved around to the other side of where he was interred. Since this was undoubtedly not going to be pleasant I thought to get as far away from my mother as possible. To shield her, as I had tried to in the past, from my father’s anger—she had had quite enough of that.

“I heard what just went on over there.” It wasn’t clear to me what he was referring to. Sensing that, he said, “What your mother said.”

“Well she was upset with me for not having come to visit for such a long time. I told her I had been busy and not feeling . . .”

“Maybe you think you can get away with those kind of lies with her. Why don’t you try telling the truth for a change? Say it, you’re a grown man, say that you have your own life now and don’t want to be bothered any more with the rest of us.”

“No, no, that’s not it. I do want to be bothered. I mean, I do want to come here. It means a lot to me to stay involved with you. All of you. I mean . . .”

“Stay ‘involved’? What does that mean?” he was mocking me. “You need new material for your scribbling? We didn’t supply enough already? You seem to keep yourself quite busy with what you have.”

It was as if he could read my mind. But I also did feel secure and comforted by visiting them. Even in their current state. Just by being there. Coming to Mt. Lebanon had been such a significant part of my life. “It’s more than that. Yes, it’s true, what Mom just told me is something I think I might one day want to write about. To at least try to. Actually, some of what she said about my work, though I have to think about it some more, could be helpful to me. She said that I didn’t . . .”

“I heard what she said.” He pronounced each word separately as if they were intended to be distinct, crushing body blows. “And I heard what you didn’t say.”

I managed to say, “I don’t think I’m following you.”

“What you didn’t say to defend yourself. To stand up for yourself, for your work.” This startled me—that maybe, could this be, that he regarded my writing as something worth standing up for, something worthy of defense? My father who had nothing but contempt for books and anything he thought to be “literary.” He would spit that word out contemptuously whenever I would on rare occasions in his presence utter it, always proclaiming that books and reading were the source of his brother Ben’s and my weakness, Ben’s and my affliction.

“Your mother loved books. As she told you, the day we met she was reading something. I forget just what, but it was how I first saw her. With a book in her hands when I crashed my car into the front of her tenement. What a broken-down place that was. Full of Polocks right off the boat. But what she said to you, even though books and I never got along very well, about your stories, including the one about the washing machine, well she got it wrong.” What he was saying now was beyond amazing to me. That he would be seeing my work to be worth talking about and especially that he would think to disagree with her about a piece of writing. “She said that you caricatured me. That to write a good story you needed to be more truthful, to write about all sides of things. In order to be fair.” Clearly, in spite of being seriously hard of hearing, he had pretty much heard and understood her.

“The point often is not to be fair.”

Incredulous, I said, “What?”

“If you want to tell a good story, and I don’t just mean by that an amusing or entertaining one--a good one is about the truth, which your mother and you agreed was what you were trying to do. But to succeed, to produce something worthwhile that anyone will remember fro more than five minutes, being what she calls ‘fair’ can get in the way.”

“I’m not following you.” Maybe hearing him say even one word about writing without being contemptuous was so startling, so unexpected that that in itself short-circuited my ability to follow his words much less comprehend them. “I mean, Mom was right, wasn’t she, that when I turned what actually happened into that story about the washing machine, I failed to include any deep understanding of what caused the father to behave as he did. That I . . .”

“You mean ‘the father’ or me?”

“Sort of.”

“What’s this ‘sort of’ crap?”

“Well you know, I fictionalize.”

“That sounds to me like one of the words you learned from my brother.”

“Can we maybe stop talking about him that way? Books didn’t make him what he was. He was gay, all right? What was the big deal?” I didn’t know where I found the audacity, that’s what had always been required, to confront my father this way. We had had our fights about my plans for the future and my girlfriends—he objected to all of them, the plans and the girls—but about his homosexual, to him, disgrace of a brother? This was something that I never had been able to manage to push myself to talk with him about, but here I was doing just that and thus I kept going. “In fact, books saved him from you and the rest of the Zazlos. Just as they saved me.” I expected him to hit me with a barrage of abuse, but he remained silent. I thought that maybe it was a good time to leave. To escape before he exploded and even get to my meeting before it ended. I had had my say.

“You said,” he said softly—his calmness also was a surprise--“that you turn what ‘actually happens’ into stories.” In fact I had and I did. “Well if you have any plans to turn what your mother just told you, claimed actually happened that first day and thereafter,” indeed I planned to do so, “well then you had better know then what actually happened.”

For this from him I had plenty of time. “Shoot,” I said and immediately regretted my choice of metaphor.

“I won’t dispute that I was taking a shortcut through her neighborhood and that I had a flat tire and she brought me a glass of water. It was as she said--a hot day in June. And though I can’t know what she saw in me I can tell you what I first saw in her.”

“I’d very much like to know that. Yes. Please.”

“All the girls I had known to that time were mainly the ones who came to our fraternity parties. Girls mostly from good families in the city. From places like Hunter College. They were nice enough but they felt dry to me. I don’t know how else to put it. As if the sap had already been drained from them. And all they were interested in was finding husbands, ones who would get good jobs as engineers or doctors and make enough money to rent a three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan or buy a house with columns up in Westchester or out on Long Island. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was looking for something very different; and I’ll confess that when I first set eyes on your mother, glowing in that sunlight she told you about, I knew in an instant that she was exactly what I hade been waiting for.”

I stood there transfixed—to hear my father, the man who trained me not to feel, to have him confess to me how he felt, to talk about how my mother looked in the sunlight, this was not the man I had known, who I had grown up fearing . . . and despising.

“She to me seemed like something that had emerged directly from the natural world. She was not of Brooklyn or any city. She was more like a creature who had lived her whole life in a meadow or forest. By saying this I do not mean to diminish her by comparing her to an animal. Rather I want you to understand her power and her superiority. She was a glorious human creature who gave back to the sunlight as much as she received from it. She glowed with a life from within that was unlike anything I had ever seen or imagined. I knew immediately why all the other girls I had been dating had not been right for me. Yes, with some I did have some fun and occasionally one let me touch her; but until I saw your mother sitting on her patched-up stoop with her skirts pulled up above her knees, I hadn’t understood what I had been hoping to find. Someone to lure me out of my comfortable and secure world. To capture my imagination and fulfill my dreams. Just as she told you that in me she saw someone with the potential to take her away from her stifling, old-world existence.”

“This is amazing Dad,” I stammered. “I never would have thought of Mom this way. Having this power. I mean, how could I? I was her son and could see her only very differently.”

“Stop blathering for a moment, will you. Of course you couldn’t. For a change this is not about you and your fictionalizing. I’m telling you about me. What I experienced and felt and what she meant to me.”

“I know. I know. I mean, I don’t know what to say or how to say it. You’re catching me so off guard. You know that . . .” I was soaked through with perspiration though the sun was beginning to set and it had become chilly.

“I don’t think you have the faintest inkling about the meaning and importance of what I’m telling you. My point is that your mother and I began with each other from our own versions of the same place, with our own powerful needs to escape. You heard what she sensed in me and now you know what I felt from her. Do you at least have that straight?” I nodded though I was by then totally confused—hadn’t he said that he had heard what she told me and that he disagreed with her story? Wasn’t he now contradicting himself, claiming that they in effect had both been instantly and viscerally attracted to each other?

“I am confused. It sounds as if both of your stories are in alignment, that they match. I’m not getting where you disagree.”

“This thus far is the easy part. The attraction, the passion, the falling in love, the deciding to be together, to get married. Actually, the getting married part was not just difficult for her—her parents were very orthodox, as she told you, and thought I was worse than a gentile since I did not practice my religion. I hadn’t even been bar mitzvahed. But my parents too were against the wedding. They thought she came from a family of Mokiesshtetl-brained peasants who spent all their time praying in schul for the Messiah to come. So we didn’t get their blessing, rather their approval either. But still we got married.

“Again, this is the easy part,” he continued, “and if you were to write about it that too would be easy. It’s what happened next that is difficult and complicated.”

“I know. That’s the part that Mom also said I didn’t understand.”

“And that’s my point—it’s about this that she and I disagree. Take the washing machine for example. It will . . .”

For the first time in my life I interrupted him, “But aren’t you jumping way ahead? You were just beginning to tell me about getting married and the washing machine came so many years later. What happened between . . . ?”

“We don’t have all day here. They close this place at sundown and it must be getting close to that time. And it isn’t important to talk about everything. I want to concentrate on a few things that are essential to the story because they illustrate so much. You can get too lost in too many details. Listen to me—I’m telling you how to tell a story!”

“Clearly, I’m not that much of an expert yet.”

“You made a big deal out of that fucking machine.” Here we go again I thought. I caught myself starting to cringe. “But you were right to do so.” Right? “Yes, because if you had really understood its meaning you would have really achieved something. Your mother told you what she thought was important. And, as she and you would put it, the truth it represented. That’s the way she spoke about it, right? About getting to the truth?”

“Yes, the ‘essential’ truth.”

“Whatever. No one ever said she didn’t have a better education than me, and a way with words. So let’s leave it at that. But here is where we diverge. She and me. She was right, yes, that I was a failure and . . .”

“No you weren’t Dad,” I interrupted for a second time. I did not want to hear this from him. It hurt too much. “You worked so hard and tried so many things and you . . .”

“Look, we’re telling the truth here, aren’t we? So we can cut the pretending and the bullshit. I don’t have time for any of that any more. You understand?” Again, I nodded. “That’s what I was, a failure at making money and plenty of other things. I’m sure your mother gave you an earful about that too.” I shook my head but admit that I hoped on another visit she would. “And that did make me bitter. She was right about that. Especially what it felt like to have to go to work for my younger brother. That didn’t help at all though I needed the job and the money. You were about to begin college. She said I felt emasculated. OK, I’ll go along with that.” I was hoping he would go not further with this—just leave it out there as a metaphor. “But she missed entirely two other things. Which to my mind are at the heart of things. From my point of view of course.” He was now mocking himself.

He paused to take a deep breath as if this was exhausting him. “First of all, soon after I was thrown out of college, to tell you the truth more because of all the time I was spending with her—neither one of us could get enough of the other, shortly after that happened she went to teacher training school and did very well there. She was always a good student, and all she thought about was becoming an elementary school teacher. I was fine with that but felt after I started making a good living of my own she would quit and take care of the house and have time to be with her sisters and their children. She loved children. But very soon, which didn’t bother me at first, she started to correct me. This began with my grammar. It made her crazy when I mixed up ‘that’ and ‘which,’ or ‘who’ and ‘whom.’ One of her favorites was to criticize me, because that’s what it became—criticism, whenever I used ‘good’ when I should have said ‘well.’ And yes, ‘me’ and ‘I.’ Not that she was wrong about this, mind you, a scholar I wasn’t. At first she did it with a smile, even flirtatiously—it was one of our games: she played the teacher and I was her misbehaving student.” I didn’t want to hear more about this either. “But over time she began to do this more and more in public and also started to correct and contradict almost everything I said. If I pronounced a word wrong, she corrected me. If I forgot who the Secretary of State was she jumped in before I could remember it to give his name.

“Under ordinary circumstances this would not have been a major issue, I liked becoming better at things, to improve myself, but the circumstances that I was starting to find myself in were anything but ordinary. My family always had money. So when I was living with them I had what I needed. More than I needed. You heard about my convertible. But when I was on my own and couldn’t make a go of anything, when I couldn’t support my wife and we needed to depend on her salary to live, not only did I become angry and frustrated, you got all of that right, but your mother, out of disappointment in me, turned on me. Yes, that’s what she did—turn on me. There were little signs of that initially, like all the correcting; but as one business venture after another failed, she began to distance herself from me, disassociating herself from me, as if to say ‘I am not part of this, not part of him and what he is becoming, what he has become.’ She held herself aloof and presented herself as the arbiter of competence and, harder to take, all virtue. She became self-righteous in her pursuit of perfection. The grammatical correcting expanded to include passing judgment on everything I said or did, on who I was or had become. On the simplest level, if I hit my thumb with a hammer, I would hear her snickering in the background. This hurt because I prided myself on the fact that I was physically adept. If I wore clothes that didn’t match, she would walk one half-step ahead of me so as to make it look as if she wasn’t with me. And this too cut me because even as I was failing I still took pride in my appearance. I tired to put on a good front, especially to her family since she had so disappointed them when she announced to them that over their objections she was going to marry me. But she took that away from me too. My pride in how I looked. These to you may seem superficial—being corrected, being judged for insignificant things; but I was feeling so wounded by feeling inadequate, from having let her down, by not holding up my end of the bargain, that her stream of judgments broke what little remained of my spirit.”

I stood there by his side, wanting to get closer to him, but was not able to do so or say anything that I thought might ease his wounds. “And then there are other things that happened, that even now, when claiming it’s finally time to strip away the pretending, there are things that are difficult for me to bring up, though I remember them well, things that are hard for me tell you. Suffice it to say these were a part of our private life. That’s how we referred to it in my day—our ‘private life.’

“So if you are going to continue to write about me, about us, and I suspect and hope, yes I hope you will (and, let’s be truthful, none of this should be a surprise to you—you are supposed to be a sensitive and perceptive person), what I am telling you must be a part of the story.” I realized that he was right—I did know most of these things, at least I had intuited them from the daily evidence of their lives—but, again he was correct, I had failed to push myself to write about them. They were too painful and, I confess, embarrassing to reveal since everyone who might read what I was writing would know my stories were derived from thinly-disguised incidents from our lives. It was simple--I lacked the courage to do that.

“But there is more. Remember I told you that there are two things you have not been sufficiently understanding or considering if you want to get closer to your truth?” He in fact had, and for the moment, when mentioning “truth,” had ceased disparaging me. “Did you ever wonder why we didn’t have children until nearly ten years of marriage?” Indeed I had. “I suspect you thought there was something wrong with us. I mean physically. That I was shooting blanks or your mother was infertile.” Indeed as the first-born I had had those thoughts. I even thought I might have been adopted. “Well, we were both fine. At least in that regard.” About this I wanted to hear more since in this he was talking about me. “Your mother was desperate to begin a family, but I refused. Don’t look so puzzled.” Which I was. “It was, though, the one thing I could do to hit back at her for what she had been doing to demean and humble me.”


“But there you are. Evidence that something happened, didn’t it? To produce you.”


The wind began to whip through the huddled tombstones. He had stopped speaking and its sound was all there was. The light that remained lanced obliquely across the swollen graves. The few other visitors had long since departed. I assumed he had said all he intended. It would be up to me to struggle to imagine what his refusal to participate in having a child had been like for my mother. And, more profoundly, to understand more about his motives.

“We did still have a private life.” I was relieved that he had more to say. “As I told you, it too was no longer what it had been like at first. But it must have been one night after I had had too much to drink at some cousin’s wedding that I failed to protect myself, and a month later your mother told me she was expecting. So I couldn’t make that work either!

“There was nothing to do about it. She was thrilled and so there would be no discussion about ending the pregnancy. If I had even implied such a thing, she would undoubtedly have left me for good, as she had at times threatened and gone back to live with her parents. Maybe that would have been a good idea. Who knows.

“But in those days, no matter the circumstances, no one ever divorced. The most any couple did, if they had the room, was move into separate bedrooms. We didn’t have an extra room, especially with you on the way; but we bought separate beds and placed a two-foot wide night table between them. You remember that? Back in our East Flatbush apartment?” Indeed I had. In fact, one day when home alone with the croup I had rummaged through the drawer of that table and among the tissues and envelopes and pads I found an illicit treasure—a flaming red box of Trojans. It suggested to me that indeed, though separated by more than an arm’s distance, they still had a ‘private life.’

“But, Dad . . .”

“I’m getting to that. Back to you, your favorite subject. But first there is a little more I have to say. The months raced by and soon I had to rush your mother to the hospital and eighteen hours later you were born. You looked like a skinned rabbit you were so long and skinny. The doctor said you were the longest baby he had ever delivered. And you were ugly--this is about the truth, right?—so ugly that if they hadn’t kept you and your mother in the hospital for ten days, which is what they did back then, and you hadn’t gained some weight during that time, I was planning to bring you home at night so none of the neighbors would see you.” I had heard that version of the story before—it was part of the family lore—but what I had just heard about him not wanting children provided another explanation to the plan to sneak me out of the hospital after dark.

“And to my own surprise, though I did not want any children for the reasons I already told you about, I began to be interested in you. Even more than that--to be drawn to you. To pick you up out of you bassinette and hold you. Why should I hold back now—it is also true that I began to feel love for you, in spite of myself, and to want to be responsible for you. I had no interest in the feedings and the diaper changing, that I will acknowledge, but I did want to be a father. A real father. You remember when you were about five how I used to ask you ‘Why are you such a lucky boy?’ and trained you to answer, ‘Because I have a wonderful father.’” I did remember that. “I wanted to be that wonderful father. I couldn’t wait for you to become old enough to understand what I meant when I called you ‘son.’” His voice broke. I had never heard that from him before or anything like this.

After a moment, again fully composed, he added, growling in a more familiar manner, “But she wouldn’t let me. When your mother sensed my interest, which wasn’t hard to do, in small ways she withdrew you from me. She made it clear that you were her child. All I had done as far as she was concerned was perform a biological service.”

“How did she . . . ?”

“By lavishing so much attention on you, by making you so totally dependent on her, slowly the need for me diminished. Yes, we still did things, you and I, but they were simple things like roller skating together or playing catch in the driveway or occasionally shopping for a new pair of pants or a jacket.”

“I do remember them Dad, and I really . . .”

“I’m happy to know that, but I wanted to do more. I came to want to be a father who on the weekends did more than throw a ball back and forth with his son. This is where my much deeper frustration came from. Yes, I wanted to be a better provider. What man didn’t? Yes, I wanted to be respected in the family. Her family. But more than anything else I wanted to be a good father to you and to your brother when he came along.”

Again he paused to gather himself and then said, “I’m almost done. But here’s the worst of it.” I could hear him breathing deeply. “As a result of all the attention and devotion and love your mother gave to you, I am ashamed to admit it even now, I became jealous of you. I began to compete with you. And at times this jealousy and competition took strange forms. If you ever wondered why I gave you such a hard time about your grades, even when they were excellent, it was less to motivate you to do better than to pull you down. I suppose down to where I thought I was.”

I could not stand there any longer listening to this and so I exploded, “This is pure bullshit. In effect you’re saying because you and Mom couldn’t make it work, because you couldn’t figure out how to do better, or minimally talk to each other about what had been happening between you that was eating away at you, about what you had originally found in each other—wonderful, loving things—since you couldn’t do any of that, you now look back on what happened and claim it was all my fault? This is totally outrageous. You now say that if I hadn’t been born, things would have gotten better between you. If you had been able to be a real father to me, you now contend, you would have found a purpose for your life. Bullshit like that. Well, I’m not buying any of it. I’m not accepting your version of things to be the truth,” I spat “truth” out as if now mocking myself, “In fact, I think you’re the real fictionalizer in the family. And if you ask me whose version of reality I believe—yours or Mom’s, since they are irreconcilable--I have an easy answer for you. Which you don’t want to hear. And beside that . . .”

“Again,” he cut me off, but gently, “you’re not understanding. You’re missing the point.”

“And what might that be?” I snapped back at him.

It was all my fault. Everything. I made stupid business choices. I went into things that anyone with his eyes only half-open would have realized were doomed to fail. When your mother showed the first signs of concern, I did nothing but ignore her. I cut her off as much as she eventually pulled back from me. And when I did that, in spite of her efforts to talk with me about what I was experiencing and feeling, when I as a result turned passively aggressive toward her, her concern turned into disappointment and then that hardened into contempt.” He let me take that in and then said, “Which I now confess I deserved.

“I thought, feeling sorry for myself, trying to justify how inexcusably I was behaving toward her, turning my disappointment in myself into anger directed at her, and eventually you—the washing machine being a case in point—I wondered, in moments of clarity and honesty, about which I of course said nothing: Whatever happened to that girl in the sunlight?"

Once again that day, in the setting sun, I found myself sobbing at the graveside of one of my parents.

“It breaks my heart, but I know.”

It took all my strength, all my pride to keep from again hurling myself to the ground. For what purpose, to do what, after all this time, I still do not know. And as I struggled with that and to steel myself, using the well-honed techniques he had drummed into me, he said, “If you can manage to compose yourself,” he was back to his old self again, “let me now bring this closer to home.” With tears still streaming, exhausted, I thought—can there be more? “I want to bring this back to you. And we’re no longer talking about your mother and me and what you, in your writing, have been attempting to do while reflecting on our lives. Though you could certainly do better at that.” Of course! “There is something of greater importance that you need to pay attention too. Immediately.”

“And what is that?” I truly couldn’t imagine.

“I’m talking now about Rona. About you and Rona.”

This caught me so off guard that I almost fainted. But I quickly realized that, thankfully, this would have to be brief since they would be closing the gates to Mt. Lebanon is fewer than fifteen minutes. More than anything else, I didn’t want to get locked in there for the night. I had heard stories that this had happened to some visitors. And who knows what might have happened to them.

Hopefully, to be concluded next Saturday . . .

Friday, October 26, 2007

October 26, 2007--Fanaticism XCIV: Voting For Rudy

Recently Rudy is having all sorts of self-inflicted trouble. He still leads the Republican pack but the gap is narrowing. Perhaps this is in part because Rudy, the world’s most vocal and visible Yankee fan, announced that he’s rooting for the Red Sox to win the World Series. Something no diehard Yankee fan would ever consider doing. But he’s desperate to win the New Hampshire primary, and everyone up there is a Sox fanatic.

Then his testimony before the 9/11 Commission is leaking out. It was supposed to be sequestered until after the 2008 election. Why that would be is inexplicable except as a way to induce Rudy to testify honestly about what he knew and when he knew it. From reports about his testimony, it is no surprise that he didn’t want it to be publicly known until after he was inaugurated on January 20, 2009. He fessed up to not knowing about problems with the Fire Department’s radios (in spite of the fact that they didn’t work the first time the Trade Center was bombed and he as mayor never got them new ones that would work). And he acknowledged that he knew nothing about al Qaeda prior to 9/11 even though they had carried out the first bombing and there were very public trials in New York when they caught the perpetrators. In other words, Mr. 9/11 who is now promoting himself as the one man (man) tough enough to protect us from all the Islamofascists who are lusting to attack us was off the case when it came to protecting the city of which he was mayor.

But now, perhaps to rehabilitate his reputation as the Baddest Dude running for the presidency, there is a report that back in 1986 when Rudy was Manhattan U.S. Attorney and as such was busting up the Mafia, the five Crime Bosses met and took a vote on whether or not to hit him. It was an election he won, he quipped yesterday, but only by one vote—3-2. Allegedly, the two voting to knock him off were Carmine Persico and the Dapper Don himself, John Gotti. (See NY Times article linked below.)

Mafia watchers are skeptical that this actually happened, claiming that the Boys viewed themselves as businessmen and would not order the murder of any U.S. attorney knowing that this would surely bring the house down on top of them. But Rudy, all puffed up with the thought that he was so Bad that they might have made an exception in his case (his office did, truth be told, win 4,000 convictions during his six year tenure, many of them against Mob figures), Rudy is playing it to the hilt. It’s a much better story to get into circulation than the fact that he was asleep at the switch while mayor, chasing down Squeegie Men but not terrorists.

Yet I wonder—if Rudy was as kick-ass as he claims, how come he won that vote? If he was such a treat to the Bosses, why wouldn’t they have made that exception and put out a contract on him? If he was sending them to jail as he claims, wouldn’t you think . . . ? Hey, Arthur Flegenheimer (aka, Dutch Schultz) tried to murder Thomas Dewey when he was New York’s crime busting DA. But come to think about it, didn’t Dewey in 1948 lose the presidential election to Harry Truman? One thing we can say about Rudy is that he knows his history.

And to quote Rudy, “Go Sox!"

Thursday, October 25, 2007

October 25, 2007--Woodstocked

As John McCain crawls back into double digits in the polls he is again feeling feisty, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s been able to raise a few dollars to run campaign ads in New Hampshire.

He’s is betting the farm that he can do as well in the Granite State as he did eight years ago when he was the upset winner and steamed down to South Carolina, the site of the next primary, confident that he could win there as well since it’s the home state of so many veterans. And he was the quintessential veteran, having spent six years as a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton. But as we all know, he was beaten there by a National Guard chicken hawk named George W. Bush, and the rest is history.

There are a couple of things germane to this year’s McCain efforts that derive from his experience in 2000. Though his fame and viability depended on his having been a brave and resilient prisoner of war, he resisted talking explicitly about it back then, feeling that he did not want to parade that before the public as a cheap technique to elicit emotion for him and his run for the White House.

And, second, he lost because the Bush Anschluss led by Karl Rove had the chutzpah to call his patriotism into question and mounted a whispering campaign that claimed he had fathered an illegitimate child with a black woman. Thus, modern-day Swiftboating was born, and we know what happened four years later to poor John Kerry.

With $100,000 of new money McCain is running a TV ad across New Hampshire that is designed to put him over the top. It was produced by Foxhole Productions. Get it--Foxhole. In many ways, it was inspired by what happened to him in South Carolina. Sort of like a perverted flashback, it turns what was done to him onto his leading opponent. No, not Rudy or Mitt but . . . Hillary. It chastises her for securing an earmark, $1.0 million of pork-barrel money for a museum to commemorate the 1969 Woodstock Festival. To make sure those too young to remember Woodstock get the point, the ad shows images of drug-crazed concertgoers dancing in the mud wearing, well, hardly anything.

One could easily argue that Hillary’s (and Chuck Schumer’s) slice of pork was not the best way to spend a million bucks; but the implication, actually since it’s not that subtle, the contention that Hillary (and Bill, let’s not forget him) are responsible for the cultural pox that infects our youth is a bit of a stretch.

But there’s more. Remember the McCain who to his political disadvantage, and thus nobly, demurred from talking about his years of incarceration and torture? Well, the new, more desperate-to-be-president McCain this time around has no hesitancy flaunting his POW history. Thus, the new ad includes a quip about it—He says that he couldn’t be at the “pharmaceutical event” while Hillary (and Bill) were hanging out there, because he “was all tied up.” And to underscore that latter point, since the former one is a lie, images flash across the screen of POW McCain lying on a litter while smoking a cigarette. (See linked NY Times article.)

Sic transit gloria McCain . . .

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

October 24, 2007--"A Little Crazy"

I used to collect stamps. At first, on those rare occasions when a letter would arrive from a relative in Canada or England or Israel, though I didn’t much care about what the letter contained (usually a request for money to buy a refrigerator) I steamed off the stamp and sequestered it in my album. Later, I discovered that you could buy foreign stamps by ordering them from companies that advertised by placing ads in the back of Superman comics.

Then I found out about the world of big-time stamp collecting. It even had a fancy Latin-sounding name—Philately. Gimbels department store, Macy’s across-the-street rival (“Would Macys tell Gimbels?” was a famous tag line back then), on the first floor no less had a Philately Department where rare stamps in good condition sold for hundreds of dollars. This really impressed me and sent me back home to look more carefully at my skimpy collection to see if maybe, just maybe I had a stamp worth perhaps $20.

And then as I lost whatever was left of my adolescent innocence (not much) I read in the New York Times about a stamp from I think New Guinea that was one of a kind and thus the rarest and most valuable stamp ever—worth hundreds of thousands. I think that the great and wealthy hockey star Wayne Gretsky bought it a few years ago for millions. So stamps, in addition to teaching you a little about world geography, could also be a good investment.

No surprise then to learn yesterday about the sale at auction of a strip of three 1923 Warren Harding stamps for $172,000. (See NY Times article linked below.)

What was so rare about these stamps considering that million of them were printed? Not their condition since there are tens of thousands in perfect shape. What made these special, and valuable, is the number of holes or perforations across the upper and lower edges. You know, before we had self-adhesive stamps that we just peel off a glossy paper strip, stamps that required us to lick them came in sheets of 100; and to use one we had to detach it from the sheet. This was made easy by tearing along the perforations.

But in the printing of the Harding stamps, some came out of the press with 10 holes across the top and others, many, many fewer, emerged with eleven. These are the rare and valuable ones, especially if you have a strip of three or more and, of course, if they are in good condition. Mint condition being the best.

There is one Lawrence Cohen of Plymouth, N.H. who has devoted all his collecting energies to these 2 cent stamps. In the 1980s he acquired several shoe boxes that contained about 150,000 of them and then spent, by his own admission, thousands of hours over ten years searching for perforation variations until, eureka, he found a well-preserved three-stamp strip with the sought-for 11-hole perforation.

The rest is history. After paying his seller’s fee to the auctioneer, he is likely pocketing a sum of money that is closely equivalent to what he would have earned if he had had a part-time job that paid minimum wage. But what would you prefer—flipping burgers at McDonald’s or bent over a table with a magnifying glass while going blind counting perforations?

His wife, I think, had it right. She said, to do this, he had to be “a little crazy.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

October 23, 2007--Chump Change

Former Senator Everett Dirksen had it right. When talking about the swollen federal budget and the pressure to spend even more, he said, “A billion here; a billion there. After a while you’re talking about real money.”

I wonder what he would have to say about President Bush’s request yesterday for another $46 billion to pay for his wars. Add that to the pending appropriation of $150 billion and we’re talking about real money. All of it borrowed from China, India, Japan, and even poor Mexico. The war of course has other costs, human and political, but when (not if) Congress approves this nearly $200 billion we will have borrowed and spent about $1.0 trillion. And according to the Pentagon, which is budgeting for ten more years of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan (you heard me—ten more years) the grand total will be close to double that. (See NY Times article linked below.)

The pathetic Democrats are off on a holiday but their leaders are doing their usual thing—David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which has the power to approve all, part, or none of the president’s request, said: “It’s amazing to me that the president expects to be taken seriously when we cannot afford $26 in investments [as opposed to ‘spending’?] in education health, law enforcement and science, which will make this country stronger over the long term.”

Way to go David! That’s telling it like it is! That’s why we gave you guys the majority in Congress—to roll over, as you surely will, and “invest” another $200 billion in the war because you’re afraid Americans, in spite of the fact that more than two-thirds want to see the war ended, in spite of this you’ll give him the money to “support our troops” and thereby avoid looking like the Mommy Party.

But if you want to look like the Macho Party, why don’t you take on the president and just say “no”? Say, “Go on Mr. Resident, shut down the government. We think the American people will put up with not being able to visit their national parks so they can show support for our brave men and women by bringing them home in a responsible and safe way.”

And while you’re at it, rescind the Joe Lieberman resolution you passed a couple of weeks ago that before too long will provide President Bush and his VP with the fig leaf they need to do some bombing in Iran. This would even give Hillary another chance to vote against something she voted for before she was against it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

October 22, 2007--Les and Joe: Less Is Less

Last week’s most prominently-discussed employment contract was the one the Yankee brass presented to Joe Torre, now, since he rejected it, the former manager of the team.

Less noticed, but remarkably similar to Torre’s, was the new contract Les Moonves eagerly signed to continue as CBS’s chief executive through the year 2011.

Both contracts had significant things in common—both called for cuts in base salary and both were loaded up with various incentive clauses that called for Joe and Les to have the potential to earn much more than their base if they met certain stipulated performance targets. Moonves said, “Where do I sign?” Joe said, “I’m insulted” and took a hike.

Torre was hailed as a version of a working-class hero (it should only be that such heroes could earn what was offered to him--$5.0 million for the year, down from last years $7.5). Both the New York Post and Daily News brandished the same lurid headlines—Shove It!

Moonves on the other hand was hailed as a corporate stalwart by agreeing to a salary reduction of $2.4 million, reduced from last year’s $5.9 to only $3.5. Less than Joe’s—after all, what’s harder to do: manage the 25 Yankee ballplayers for six months out of the year or be the CEO of CBS’s multibillion empire than not only includes the Tiffany Network but hundreds of radio stations around the country and much more. (See NY Times article linked below.)

More interesting than the deal-aspects of this and the incentive specifics (Joe would get $1.0 million more just for getting the Yanks to post-season play and $3.0 if the team got to the World Series—in other words, a total of $8.0 million, more than his full salary for this past year), more revealing are the reasons Joe walked out of his contract negotiations after only 20 minutes.

He said he was ‘insulted” by the incentive provisions—as a competitive person he didn’t need to be lured by the prospect of more money to work hard and win games. I want to be “trusted,” he added; I want to feel a “commitment” from the team’s ownership. Can you imagine fully corporatized Les Moonves having these kinds of feelings and needs and using this kind of emotional language?

Further, Joe Torre said, such a contract would be unfair to “my guys,” his players, to whom he unabashedly said he wanted to be “a father figure.” They would see him as diminished by this contract, and that would interfere with the strong personal bonds that exist between them. Again, can anyone imagine a Les Moonves thinking about, much less having this kind of relationship with his employees? Folks such as Katie Couric or Andy Rooney?

So Joe had to go. The world has moved way on from a time when his kind of CEOness is valued. Now it’s all about bottom lines and quarterly earnings and seeing employees as disposable interchangeable parts. Actually, with free-agentry and cable-TV deals and luxury sky boxes in stadiums the Summer Game, played by the Boys of Summer is also long gone.

So I see a lot of golf in Joe’s future. Moonves, on the other hand, if he can squeeze one more hit out of his “creative people” to join such stellar stuff like Kid Nation and Criminal Minds and NCIS, whatever they are, old Les should be raking in the shekels.

Last week’s most prominently-discussed employment contract was the one the Yankee brass presented to Joe Torre, now, since he rejected it, the former manager of the team.

Less noticed, but remarkably similar to Torre’s, was the new contract Les Moonves eagerly signed to continue as CBS’s chief executive through the year 2011.

Both contracts had significant things in common—both called for cuts in base salary and both were loaded up with various incentive clauses that called for Joe and Les to have the potential to earn much more than their base if they met certain stipulated performance targets. Moonves said, “Where do I sign?” Joe said, “I’m insulted” and took a hike.

Torre was hailed as a version of a working-class hero (it should only be that such heroes could earn what was offered to him--$5.0 million for the year, down from last years $7.5). Both the New York Post and Daily News brandished the same lurid headlines—Shove It!

Moonves on the other hand was hailed as a corporate stalwart by agreeing to a salary reduction of $2.4 million, reduced from last year’s $5.9 to only $3.5. Less than Joe’s—after all, what’s harder to do: manage the 25 Yankee ballplayers for six months out of the year or be the CEO of CBS’s multibillion empire than not only includes the Tiffany Network but hundreds of radio stations around the country and much more. (See NY Times article linked below.)

More interesting than the deal-aspects of this and the incentive specifics (Joe would get $1.0 million more just for getting the Yanks to post-season play and $3.0 if the team got to the World Series—in other words, a total of $8.0 million, more than his full salary for this past year), more revealing are the reasons Joe walked out of his contract negotiations after only 20 minutes.

He said he was ‘insulted” by the incentive provisions—as a competitive person he didn’t need to be lured by the prospect of more money to work hard and win games. I want to be “trusted,” he added; I want to feel a “commitment” from the team’s ownership. Can you imagine fully corporatized Les Moonves having these kinds of feelings and needs and using this kind of emotional language?

Further, Joe Torre said, such a contract would be unfair to “my guys,” his players, to whom he unabashedly said he wanted to be “a father figure.” They would see him as diminished by this contract, and that would interfere with the strong personal bonds that exist between them. Again, can anyone imagine a Les Moonves thinking about, much less having this kind of relationship with his employees? Folks such as Katie Couric or Andy Rooney?

So Joe had to go. The world has moved way on from a time when his kind of CEOness is valued. Now it’s all about bottom lines and quarterly earnings and seeing employees as disposable interchangeable parts. Actually, with free-agentry and cable-TV deals and luxury sky boxes in stadiums the Summer Game, played by the Boys of Summer is also long gone.

So I see a lot of golf in Joe’s future. Moonves, on the other hand, if he can squeeze one more hit out of his “creative people” to join such stellar stuff like Kid Nation and Criminal Minds and NCIS, whatever they are, old Les should be raking in the shekels.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

October 20, 2007--Saturday Story: Mt. Lebanon--The End (Part Four)

In Part Three Lloyd finally made his way over to where his parents were at eternal rest. Still pressed for time, he planned to make two stops—first briefly with his mother and then an even shorter one with his father. He had not been to see them for quite some time and promised he would return soon. Perhaps realizing she might not see him for a while, the gaps between visits had been attenuating, his mother wasted no time in telling him how disappointed she was in her Number One Son. For at least two reasons: first, as the first-born of a first-born it was his responsibility to take the lead in maintaining a close extended family—just as her parents had and as she had attempted to do—and that he was failing in this; and second, cutting him deeper, she chastised him for being unfair to the family, perhaps even maligning them, in the stories he was beginning to publish that drew upon their personal history. His first instinct, as always, was not to upset her by telling half-truths about his work; but he decided it was about time that he represented himself more honestly, and so he stood up for the “truth” of what he was trying to do in his writing. Perhaps to provide him with more material, perhaps to correct his version of the family record, she began to tell him her version of her life with his father, including the rapturous way in which they first met. This sparked the prurient interest of our hero and he ask to hear more, even if this meant that he would miss his meeting back in the city.

So in Part Four, Lloyd’s mother picks up where she left off and . . .

“This may sound strange to you, but it was his tallness and all that it represented that at first attracted me to him. Almost everyone I knew were immigrants. They were small people. So literally short. I was five-feet-two and few were taller than me. Including the boys. This was because of the physical hardship of living and working in the shtetl. The work was endless and difficult and we always feared for our lives—when would the next pogrom descend upon us? And the food we ate was all made of starch—potatoes and turnips and bread, endlessly bread and potatoes. We had meat maybe once a week, and it was more bone than meat. Without good food, and living in such fear made everyone sickly and runted. Even the boys who were born there and came here on the boats at the same time as we did reminded me of those I remembered back in Poland. At most my parents hoped I would marry one of them, someone from an orthodox family who would become a good provider. But I hated the looks and, forgive me, smell of decay on these little Polish Jewish boys. I was hoping for more from America. I was not naïve, I knew that as someone who wanted to become an elementary school teacher at that time I would experience discrimination, that most of the teachers and principals were Irish and would try to keep me and others like me from ever getting assigned to one of their schools. I knew that but still I persisted and became a good student to at least give myself a chance. But I was not about to marry, much less fall in love with a tailor or a grocer. I didn’t care about how much of a living they might make. I was never interested in money of things. It was that I didn’t want their hands on me.

“So you can only imagine how the sight of your father looked to me. At six-feet he was at that time a giant. The memory of this still makes me quiver. Because I saw from the very first instant, in that hard, long American body, what I was seeking. But there was more. My neighborhood and school friends, the boys, were not just small in size but in spirit as well. They arrived here already defeated. Yes, some of them made it out of the neighborhood and found ways to become successful; but still, no matter how powerful they seemed to the rest of the world, they still lived under a cloud of their own fear and suspicion. Their spirits were blighted, runted too. But not your father’s. He shone in that sunlight not just because he was tall and wet from the effort of changing the tire but because he also carried with him the radiance of optimism and promise that is only born in America. And so I eagerly gave myself to him. But later, but not that much later, I began to pay the price for that embrace and surrender.”

I so much wanted to hear about the later, about how he became the man I knew, but hoped she would pause for a moment so I could attempt to envision him as she that day first saw him. And that radiant, optimistic picture of him was just beginning to come into focus in my mind when she continued, now in a voice in a minor key.

“Soon after we married, against my parents’ fierce opposition—they said they would never to come to my house of traif to eat--it was clear that we would always have to struggle financially. It is true that his family was comfortable; but after he failed to complete college—more truthfully he was asked to leave because his grades were so poor (he spent more time with his friends and me and his sports than with his books), since they refused to help him get on his feet, they were so disappointed in him, he drifted from one failed business to another. He worked for an uncle in the grocery business, but that no-good uncle ran off with a floozy and all the money; with my brother-in-law Harry, just there next to him, he bought a bar and grill, which for a Jew was a shonda, and it too went bankrupt in less than two years, and he never again ever spoke a word to Harry; and then with another worthless uncle he bought a parking garage in a neighborhood where there were lots of safe places in the street to park. So it too was not much of a business. As I already told you, I never cared about money, and I was earning enough by teaching to help support us; but to him money was the way he measured his manhood. And by that measure he was a failure.

“His frustration turned to anger and, it is true, as you witnessed, much of that anger became directed at me.” And some later at me, I thought. “As if it was my fault that he didn’t finish school and go into the family business which after the War was booming. They were now doing heating and ventilation work in all the big office buildings that were going up in the city. His brother Sonny, who did go into the sheet metal business even though I’m not even sure he graduated from high school, became wealthy and moved into a mansion on the water on Long Island.

“And that anger intensified when, after failing at everything he tried, and I will grant that he tried very, very hard—he was not lazy—at his sister Madeline’s suggestion, which was the only kind or generous thing she ever did—she was working for Sonny—he was taken in by his brother Sonny, that’s how your father described it—being taken in—and given a job that he hated but desperately needed. You were about to go to college and we couldn’t pay the tuition without Sonny’s agreeing to take him in.

“Sonny, you of course know, was your father’s younger brother, and being given a job, being rescued by his baby brother ate away at your father more than all his failures. He was a broken man. Still tall and handsome, a wonderful dresser—that he remained until the day he died—who could put on a good show to the world; but everyone in the family knew the truth. And most important, so did he. It was right before him every hour of every day.”

At these last words her voice broke and I could hear her sniffing and clearing her throat. But I wanted her to continue. There was more I needed to hear, more to know. “So why then, Mom, do you object so much to what I’ve been writing?” Again, I couldn’t help myself from relentlessly, in spite of the pain she was obviously feeling, pull these painful recollections back to me and my work. “What you’ve just said, I feel, is not so different from what I’ve been writing.”

Her voice was strong again when she responded, “It’s not that you write about us that I object to.”

“What is it then?”

“That what you write is so imbalanced.”

“I don’t follow. Please, tell me what . . .”

“Take the washing machine story as an example.”

“That’s a good example, but tell me what’s unfair about it. What you object to. Didn’t it happen as I wrote it?”

“Yes, some of it was as you described it.”

“Didn’t your brother, Uncle Jack, without asking you or your sisters, just one day send each of you a washing machine as a gift?”


“And wasn’t Dad upset about that? More accurately, wasn’t he furious?”

“Yes, he was.”

“And didn’t he want you to send it back?”

“Again, that’s true.”

“And when you refused to do so he destroyed the machine?”

“He did do that but not as you wrote.”

“So your problem with my story is that I exaggerated a little to make it a better story? That he didn’t smash the washing machine with a hammer, as I wrote, but that he ‘only’ tore off the hoses and cut the up?”

“That’s what he did—he pulled the hoses off and destroyed them.”

“So . . . ?”

“What you wrote about this, and in many of your other stories, is only a part of the truth.”

“But no writer can write about all of it, about everything.”

“You’re missing my point. That’s not my problem with you. Remember, I told you how I loved literature as a girl and I always tried to read good books during the rest of my life? So I know what authors want to achieve. But to quote you—you claim that you want to write not just about the literal truth of things but more, the essential truth. Do I have this right? Isn’t this what you’ve been fighting about with your friend Heshy Perlmutter?”

“Well, yes. But how do you know about that?”

“You’d be surprised what you learn around here. The Perlmutters are just on the other side of this hill. But, please don’t try to distract me. I want to finish my point.”

“I’m sorry. I was just curious and . . .”

“My point being that you turned your father into a caricature. A stereotypical, frustrated, emasculated Jewish father. There’s very little essential truth in that. Among other things he was hardly Jewish and until his prostate operation, when he was nearly seventy, far from emasculated.”

This latter information I was not much interested in gathering right then. He always said the operation turned him into a capon, and I thought it best to just leave it at that. It also contradicted how I had been presenting him in my work, which is what I wanted to keep talking about during the remaining time.

My mother continued, “If you want to tell the truth about him, you must be fair, even if by doing so it leads to contradictions and ambiguities. In fact, not even if it leads to this but rather because it must do so if what you report is to be what you’ve called ‘essential.’ In your father’s case, when transforming him into a character, this means knowing all that I’ve told you today, and more, and assimilating it through your imagination into your representation of him. Unless you struggle to do that, which I know is hard work, your stories will have no more value than the clinical notes of the therapists you’ve been seeing.”

“You know about that too?” I cried and slipped off the bench where I had remained seated during all of this.

Ignoring me, she said, “And do you want to know what was essential for me?” Without waiting for anything back from me, I was on my knees beside her, she answered her own question, “To stay with him, to endure him, and to love and take care of you and your brother. And him. Yes to love as well as take care of him. Regardless of what our life had become, considering how it began. All of which I told you today. Because, in spite of the sadness, and at times the pain, I realized there was nothing else I could imagine for myself that had a higher purpose.”

I tumbled forward onto the grass that covered her grave. The grass that I had so lovingly tended as a child. Her voice, as she concluded, had been strong, without any evidence of tears; but I on the other hand sobbed as I embraced her.

* * *

Get up. On your feet. What kind of way is this for a grown man to behave?" This familiar voice and its admonishment could only be my father’s. “I always expected that this is what your Uncle Ben would turn you into. Stop sniveling and acting like a girl. If I wanted a daughter I would have had another child.”

To be continued . . .

Friday, October 19, 2007

October 19, 2007--Outrage Overload

The psychology of inaction is a fascinating subject. It has numerous sources. One of which is feeling powerless—if I can’t make something happen, why even bother. Another, not unrelated, is being so overloaded with competing priorities that, in effect, one’s circuits get blown. And if you add to that overload the sense that each separate thing on your list of items clamoring for attention in itself is overwhelming, the compounding effect leads to paralysis and frustration.

This latter example is just what we are now seeing in our political and governmental arenas. It is why President Bush’s approval rating has plummeted to about 25 percent and Congress’ is even lower, hovering near 10 percent. Forgetting the president for a moment, this means that the Democratic-controlled Congress we elected less than a year ago (they took over just in January) to “bring about change” is frustrating and maddening even those of us who voted for them. How else to explain the 10 percent?

And we’re being driven crazy by their inaction not because they can’t muster 60 votes in the Senate—it’s more because since they’re not capable of dealing effectively with the big issues, they’ve turned to their attention to lesser matters; and as a result, since they can’t get these done either, they find themselves twisted into knots over whether or not to pass, say, a resolution condemning the genocide that the Turks perpetrated against the Armenians nearly 100 years ago. Perhaps they feel because they can’t do anything about the war in Iraq they at least can do something to pander to the Armenians. Of course, by thinking about doing this, they have so enraged our “allies” the Turks who let us use their country as a staging ground for our war in Iraq, that out of fear that the Turks will tell us to go home, our congressional leaders took the resolution off the calendar.

Is it just that the congressional leadership is so inept that they can’t figure out how to be more effective? I’m sure that is contributing to the self-afflicted stalemate. And of course without a Dick Armey-like tyrant running things in the House, it’s hard to keep members in line and voting in unison. But the profound inaction may have a deeper source.

During the past six years, on almost a daily basis, we have seen grievous examples of deception, incompetence, hypocrisy, corruption, and unconstitutional behavior. Any one of these would have in the past been enough to launch court battles, congressional hearings, indictments, investigations, the appointment of special prosecutors, and even articles of impeachment. Which is worse, whatever the Clintons did or didn’t do in Whitewater (remember that?), the White House Travel Office, or even Monica Lewinsky (her we remember) or . . . See list below:

Weapons of mass destruction
Abu Ghraib
Warrantless wiretapping
Congressmen Foley, Cunningham, and Dick Armey
And of course Larry Craig
Jessica Lynch
Jack Abramoff
Scooter Libby
Valerie Plame
Toxic air at Ground Zero
Osama Bin Laden
Mission Accomplished
Slam Dunk
Other _____ ?

About torture. This is a very current example of inaction bordering on paralysis. The Senate Judiciary Committee is at this moment questioning Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey, who is supposed to be reasonably independent and not likely to be a lap dog for the Bush administration. On the other hand, yesterday, he testified that eavesdropping without warrants and using “enhanced” interrogation techniques such as waterboarding that might strictly speaking be unconstitutional (carried out in Syria no less!) are allowable because of the president’s powers as commander in chief. (See NY Times article linked below.)

The committee got him to say this in public and went home last night feeling good about themselves. In spite of this, what’s your estimate about how many senators will vote against his confirmation?

How many fingers do you have? That should be more than enough.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

October 18, 2007--Slicing Carver

If you haven’t had the pleasure yet to read What We Talk About When We talk About Love, Raymond Carver’s book of 17 short stories, rush out to your local book store or library, get a copy, clear out the next rainy afternoon, light a fire if you have a fire place, settle into your most comfortable chair, and let him take over your imagination and get you thrillingly agitated.

But you’d better hurry because his widow and literary heir is about to publish a new version of his stories in the form that he drafted them, before his editor went to work on them. This might sound like a good idea—Ray Carver unexpurgated—but why don’t you be the judge if it is.

Below are two excerpts from the last story in What We Talk About, “One More Thing.” The first is from Carver’s unedited version; the second what the ending of the story looked like after it was edited and published:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm again and once more picked up the suitcase. “I just want to say one more thing, Maxine. Listen to me. Remember this,” he said. “I love you. I love you no matter what happens. I love you too, Bea. I love you both.” He stood there at the door and felt his lips begin to tingle as he looked at them for what, he believed, might be the last time. “Goodbye,” he said.

“You call this love, L.D.?” Maxine said. She let go of Bea’s hand. She made a fist. Then she shook her head and jammed her hands into her coat pockets. She stared at him and then dropped her eyes to something on the floor near his shoes.

It came to him with a shock that he would remember this night and her like this. He was terrified to think that in the years ahead she might come to resemble a woman he couldn’t place, a mute figure in a long coat, standing in the middle of a lighted room with lowered eyes.

“Maxine!” he cried. “Maxine!”

“Is that what love is, L.D.?” she said, fixing her eyes on him. Her eyes were terrible and deep, and he held them as long as he could.

Published Version:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.

He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”

But then he could not think what it could possibly be

I prefer the originally published version—it seems more in the Carver spirit of what we find we can’t talk about when we try to talk about love. Been there; done that. If you agree, is this an example that less is more? But making matters more complicated, note that though the first line of the edited version comes from Carver’s manuscript, neither of the last two do. Is this then another kind of example—of an editor becoming a co-author?

Wherever you come out about this, get the book. The 1981 version to be sure.

(If you want all the gossipy details about the battle among editors, publishers, and widow, see the NY Times article linked below.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

October 17, 2007--Political Potpourri

How many months to the next election? I forget. But I do know that in fewer than 100 days Iowans will do their caucus thing (can anyone explain to me what that is and how it works?) and shortly thereafter New Hampshire will hold its primary followed almost immediately by South Carolina and Nevada (Nevada?). And who knows, if Florida legislators have their way, their primary could very well take place next week.

So forget about all the national polls that show a Subway Series general election—Rudy actually from New York vs. Hillary sort of from here. I myself would have preferred the real thing—Mets vs. Yankees; but I’ll have to settle for rooting for the Rockies, whatever that is. And forget about Hillary’s inevitable inauguration. All I have to say to convince you that, in spite for everything, it’s too soon to declare anyone the winner, all I have to do for the older folks is say Tom Dewey; and for the more au courant generation, Howard Dean.

Here, therefore, are a few things to think about—

If you believe that Senator Larry Craig is going to be the poster child that Democrats will use to expose Republican hypocrisy, think what a poster boy Bill Clinton will be when Karl Rove, or one of his nocturnal minions, comes up with a video of our former president in full flagrant you-know-what.

What will happen if Barack Obama finally locates his cojones and actually mentions Hillary Clinton’s name in a sentence? Much less how the earth might move if he actually took her on in public, at a live debate, and not while mumbling something about her from carefully crafted notes.

What would happen if Fred Thompson actually went on the campaign trail rather than putting in a half hour a day of public yawning? This one’s too easy—he’s at about 20 percent in the opinion polls right now running as a mummy. So appearing alive in the open air of Iowa or New Hampshire would without doubt drive him down to single digits.

What would happen if John McCain were to sink so low in the polls and run totally out of money—how would he be able to maintain even the semblance of a campaign? But might this diminishment in status ironically allow him to redefine himself as a Dennis Kucinich-type of maverick? A version of back-to-the-future? Yes, but only if he had enough cash to put in the tank of his Straight Talk bus.

What would happen if we had a real discussion about the Mormon religion and what the implications of that might be for a Mormon president? But then again, just as we were unpacking some of its harder-to-believe tenets, we’d probably have to take another look at more familiar burning bushes and loaves and fishes.

And then, what if Rudy, after chasing all the Squeegee Men out of Iowa City, was caught on tape wearing a dress in the women’s room at the Minneapolis Airport? Would Donna Hanover, Mrs. Rudy III, come to his rescue and stand by her man (or whatever) like Mrs. Larry Craig?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

October 16, 2007--Failing Schools

The clock is ticking on what to do about failing public schools. At the end of this academic year, because of provisos in the No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB), schools that are deemed not have made adequate academic progress are to be reconstituted or the children enrolled are to be allowed to switch into others that have proven to be more effective.

If there were just a handful of these schools we would not be facing a crisis. But in California, where there are 9,500 public schools, at least 1,000 are in danger of being designated “chronically failing.” And there is no way they can be fixed in time for next fall nor are there sufficient places in the remaining 8,500 to absorb the hundreds of thousands of students who are stuck in them. (See NY Times story linked below.)

I’ve been writing about this for years and this looming problem has been known about for longer than that. There are some schools and even districts where there has been some measure of success, but as in California, after decades of reforms, things are getting worse.

Compared to the healthcare crises, even worse is the situation in our public schools. And, heretically, perhaps more important. If we can’t adequately educate the next generation what will our future be like? Our aspiring candidates for the presidency all have elaborate proposals to “solve” the healthcare problem and the specifics of each of their plans have been comparatively examined in the press and in their debates. But can you tell me what any of the candidates have to say about fixing education? At most, they take potshots at NCLB.

Most experts claim that the most important thing to do is assure that “a qualified teacher” be assigned to every class. NCLB itself calls for that. This has spawned a new certification industry among state departments of education and colleges of education. Their solution—require all potential teachers to major in the subject they seek to teach. Mathematics if they aspire to teach math in middle school; history if they plan to teach it in high school. Intuitively, this makes sense. Before you turn someone loose in front of a science class shouldn’t he/she have a strong academic background in science?

Perhaps yes; maybe no. There is no consistent, credible evidence based on practice (as opposed to intuition or theory) that shows there is a correlation between these kinds of higher standards for teacher preparation and effectiveness in the classroom. In fact, a recent study conducted in the New York City schools by Thomas Kane of Harvard shows that non-credentialed teachers (including Teach for America teachers) performed as well in the classroom as those who are fully certified. But, by insisting that all teachers must now be traditionally certified we are driving away from teaching thousands who would like to teach who could potentially be effective.

Very little attention has been paid to Dr. Kane’s research. It has not been reported in the press and isn’t part of our political discourse, such as it is. And thus the credentialing industry rolls on and more and more schools fail. The truest of clichés is that our children are our future. It’s more than about time that we treat them as if that were true.

Monday, October 15, 2007

October 15, 2007--"Getting the Communicating (Sic) Right"

Harvard finally has a female president. She is Drew Gilpin Faust and replaces Lawrence Summers who had a short tenure in large part because he raised critical questions about the academic output of some of the university’s most esteemed African-American faculty members (Cornell West to be specific, who among other things put out a Rap record)) and, perhaps more transgressively, speculated about the genetic differences between males and females when it comes to scientific achievement. With that one, it was only a matter of days before the Harvard board would need to find a sinecure for him. Which they did.

Last week Dr. Faust was officially inaugurated and, as is traditional, she gave a speech. In it she touched all the right bases. From the NY Times report linked below, here are a few selections:

The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future — not simply or even primarily to the present.

A university is not about results in the next quarter.

Education is not to make men carpenters so much as to make carpenters men [and women?]

[Universities are] stewards of living tradition [places for] philosophers as well as scientists [where learning and knowledge are pursued] because they define what has over centuries made us human, not because they can enhance our global competitiveness

What a string of corporatized clichés. Could she, if she tried, have come up with anything blander or safer? Perhaps after her Ivy League colleague, President Lee Bollinger of Columbia, made such a fool of himself the other day when he “introduced” President Ahmadinejad, ever mindful that her, as his, job is more about managing various continuances than speaking out on important social and cultural issues, especially keeping potential donors donating, she told them what they hired her to hear.

Then, almost at the same time, we had the spectacle of the president of another great university, Duke University, finally squeaking out a few words about the exoneration of his lacrosse team. Fully seven months after the Durham prosecutor was discredited, disbarred, and tossed in jail. President Richard Brodhead, let’s get his name out there in bold type, after initially condemning the team for their “racist and sexist actions,” all at the time unproven, and after many of his faculty out of their own pockets paid for full-page ads that were equally accusatory, finally Brodhead offered a tepid version of an apology:

Brodhead said that he “regretted” Duke’s “failure to reach out” in a “time of extraordinary peril” after a woman accused three players of assaulting her at a team party in March 2006.
“Given the complexities of this case, getting the communicating (sic) right [emphasis added] would never have been easy, but the fact is that we [not "I"--again my emphasis] did not get it right, causing the families to feel abandoned [what about his students?] when they were most in need of support. This was a mistake. I take responsibility for it, and I apologize for it.”

What a stand-up guy.

I remember the day when political leaders, including presidents of the United States, and journalists, and plain-old citizens looked to university presidents such as James Conant and Derek Bok and Clark Kerr and Theodore Hesberg to help put grand social issues into meaningful, objective context and to help us think about and solve our most daunting problems. When there was deep concern about the lack of civil rights for Negroes and ugly confrontations all over the nation as Blacks rose up to demand their rights, President Eisenhower selected Father Hesberg, president of Notre Dame to head the Civil Rights Commission and its reports, though they upset and at times angered some of Eisenhower’s successors, were deeply influential and helped shape the nation’s agenda.

There was even frequent talk about certain university leaders running for President of the U.S. Eisenhower, recall was the head of Columbia when he ran. God help us if we had to choose one now. I’d rather have Fred Thompson.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

October 13, 2007--Saturday Story: Mt. Lebanon--The End (Part Three)

In Part Two Lloyd threaded his way through traffic across the borough of Queens to Mt. Lebanon, site of his mother’s family’s final resting place. He was struck, as he always was, by the stark contrast between his father’s family plot that was situated in the austere and, if appropriate when describing a cemetery, elegant reaches of Mt. Hebron and the decidedly old-world flavor of the other Mount. But his mother’s world had been more the one in which he had grown up and he always enjoyed the warmth he felt when close to her, her parents, and her brother and sisters. As he was pressed for time—a meeting that included him was about to begin back in the city—he skipped plans to visit his Uncle Eli and Cousin Chuck, though he had important things to ask each of them, and began his visit with his grandparents. His grandmother Frieda questioned him closely about some of the younger cousins, concerned that as a result of the scattering of the family to all corners of the country, a virtual diaspora, they would find themselves not only in danger of losing the closeness that she and her generation had enjoyed and depended upon when they arrived in America from Poland, but they would also find themselves adrift, insecure, and perhaps even in literal danger. Nothing essential had changed, she insisted; and she reminded her grandson that all he and the others had were what remained of their lives, and each other. Just as in the past.

So, in Part Three, pressed for time and thus feeling overwhelmed, Lloyd . . .

I had just enough time to see my mother and for a quick stop with my father. To get to her, I needed to step carefully over the ivy-crusted grave of my Uncle Hyman which was pressed up close, as he had been, to his in-laws, my grandparents; next I had to pass by where his wife, my Aunt Bertha was situated (ignoring the thistle that was beginning to invade the closely cropped yew that encased the three-sided border of their linked plots—I would tear that out next time if I remembered to bring my leather gardening and cemetery gloves); and then I needed to turn quickly past Uncle Jac and Aunt Helen, to whom my mother was so close during their life times and now.

A bit out of breath, and, checking my watch again, in a considerable hurry, I made the excuses I had rehearsed: “Sorry I haven’t been here in a couple of months. I’ve been very busy at work and to tell you the truth I haven’t been feeling that well.”

“I knew it. I knew it,” she wailed. “You’re always holding things back from me. If you never tell me the truth I’ll always be worrying about you. I’ll always think something is wrong. Didn’t we agree you wouldn’t . . . ”

“Yes, we did. But I didn’t want to worry you. It wasn’t anything serious. Just a stomach virus.”

“You’re telling me the truth now? Not like when you had your operations? Then you also said it was just a ‘nervous stomach.’ And look what happened. You almost died. And almost killed me in the process I was so worried. It’s not a natural thing for a child to go before his parents. I don’t know what I would have done. Died of grief or killed myself.”

“You did fine, Ma. I was stupid. I ignored the symptoms and got myself in big trouble. But here I am. Feeling like my old self. Better than new!” I tried to put the best face on my situation which had in fact been almost deadly. She never knew the half of it. We strategically decided to tell her the minimum, just that I needed to go to the hospital for some tests and intravenous medication, coldly calculating the value her concern and support would provide against how much of a burden it would be to manage that concern—it was enough to have to deal with just my needs; but we knew there would eventually be a reckoning, which I was now beginning to face.

What she never knew was that the infection in my intestines had ruptured the wall of my colon and went on to infiltrate my bladder. It had gotten so serious that, at the risk of being indelicate, I wound up pissing through my rectum and farting and shitting through my penis. The surgeon, who I eventually found my way to, said that the damage was so extensive that it was unlikely I would survive. But after three operations and five hospitalizations here I was at Mt. Lebanon, on my feet. The place reserved for me there was still miraculously unoccupied.

“Rona told me that you almost committed suicide.” Until then I hadn’t realized that she knew about this. “That you were in Europe and in so afraid that you wrote a note that she found and that she confronted you with. Learning from it for the first time how sick you were. You lied to her too, didn’t you?”

It was true, but I had nothing convincing to say back to her that would make it better, make it go away. I was two years later still so tortured by guilt and now remorse that all I could whisper was, “I know what I put you through. Both of you, who have been so wonderful to me. I wish I could . . . ”

“Forget about me. I was old and almost dead and had seen many terrible things. But how could you have done that to her? My wonderful Rona.”

Since for that I had no acceptable answer I tried to shift the subject. “I did stop to see Grandma and Grandpa, your parents.” Knowing she would like to hear this, I told her how I had brought them news about the family--just as she used to do—including a good report about one of her favorites—Eric.

“I’m so happy you did that.” I remembered how she always smiled when I visited in Florida and would fill her in about those cousins with whom I kept in touch. Not as many as she would like—she would press me to do better and I would have to resist lecturing her about how times were different and how most of us had scattered to form families and lives of our own. But she would wave that off and remind me, as her mother just had, about how all we had was each other. “But what have you heard about Ruthie’s children? And her grandchildren?”

“You know, Ma, we’ve talked about this in the past, though I loved all our time with Ruthie when we were growing up, in recent years we haven’t been that close.” I chose not to tell her that it had been at least ten years since I had seen or spoken with her because this would not sound to her like anything resembling being “close”—much less “that close.” To my mother, this would seem to be exactly what it was—complete estrangement. But since I did hear secondhand reports about her from her brother, Murray, with whom I had maintained a truly close relationship, I tried to pass them off as if I had obtained them more directly from Ruthie herself. “I can tell you that Susan, her daughter [“I know who she is thank you.”] is a very good businesswoman and with her father [“Paul.”], yes him, they started a car service company. [“This they did more than five years ago”—I knew this was not working]. Well, yes, it’s true, that was some time ago but . . . ”

“This is enough of a report from you. With my parents you can maybe get away with this kind of fibbing. But not with me. I know too much and you too well. You are not doing what I expect of you. The first-born of a first-born.” Was she mocking me? “As such, it is your responsibility to maintain the family. I love you very much, this you know, but about this I am disappointed.”

She had never spoken this directly to me much less expressed disappointment that was so profound. At most she had corrected me for minor breaches of etiquette, for not opening the door for one of my aunts, or, rarer, gently rebuked me for neglecting to speak proportionately to all of the elderly relatives at a Passover Seder. But never had there been anything like this. And as a consequence, feeling, frankly, unfairly chastised—what after all was so terrible about the little dissembling I had done: hadn’t I as her Number One Son, out of concern for her, done this to avoid upsetting her?—but nonetheless shaken by her rebuke, I slumped onto the nearby bench.

“And there is something else even more important I need to tell you.” Something else that is more important and to tell me, not discuss? What could be more important than criticizing me for being a failure as the first-born of a first-born? Thankfully seated, feeling faint, I clutched at myself to keep from toppling to the ground.

“I hear what you’ve been saying, I mean writing about your father and me.” I had no idea where this was headed but began to tremble. “You make him sound like such an ogre.” I had indeed published a story, loosely derived from reality, about the rage he felt, the impotence he experienced when her brother, who was financially the most successful of our relatives, had bought his sisters washing machines so they would no longer have to scour our underwear by hand on a washboard in the kitchen sink. Perhaps I had exaggerated the extent of his anger and frustration, she might be right about that, but I thought that doing so had made for a better story. And I had changed all the names.

“But you know, Ma, this is what I do now. I always wanted to write and now that I finally have the time I did my best when I wrote, in a disguised way, about the Malones and the Zazlos. I tried always to do this with respect and love.” As these words spilled out of me I felt nausea in addition to the dizziness, caused, I was certain, by the fact that I was again trying to get away with a half-truth. In much of my more personal fiction I attempted to do the opposite—I had tried to cut through the family pieties of closeness and sacrifice to expose the raw nerve of competition and even jealousy that defined and dominated so much of their lives. Yes I knew that some of this family mythologizing was to protect us, the children, from the harsh realities of discrimination and the deprivations of post-war life. But still, there had been so much schmaltzy writing, glop really, published about the proverbial Jewish family, especially the all-sacrificing Jewish mother and her tirelessly laboring husband--all for the sake of their children’s future—and though some of these clichés, like all clichés, were derived from truth, some minimal truth, in many real situations, in many actual families, mine included, I came to see and understand what else was churning, and being obscured, in the sentimental haze. I had no illusions that anything I had produced, or ever would produce, would be equal to that of any of the great writers who spoke about the need to cut through these deceptions to get to the deeper truth, no matter how noble some of the roots; but through the persona or alter ego I had invented, I hoped he, Lloyd Zazlo, would add at least, perhaps a footnote to what we have learned from Stephen Daedelus or, much closer to my home, Nathan Zuckerman.

While sitting there on that cemetery bench spinning and, confessedly, enjoying these soaring thoughts, I almost missed hearing my mother when she resumed: “You did not know him as I did. Of course not. How could you?” It was as if she were whispering to herself and I was unexpectedly there to overhear her. “I didn’t get pregnant until eight years after we were married. So how old were you when you feel you really began to know and understand him? Ten? Twelve at the earliest? By then he was at least forty and much, too much had happened. And changed him.” Thought not expecting this change of direction or tone, I felt certain what she was now recounting was going to be a good source for my work and so I leaned closer, moving as imperceptibly as I could, to make sure I did not miss a word. If only, I thought, I had brought my notebook.

“I know this will surprise you, maybe shock you since you think of me as an old and shriveled woman, but the first time I saw him he was not wearing a shirt. I will never forget that glimpse of him. And if I believed in love at first sight, which at the time I did—I was just seventeen--I knew that I loved him.” I wasn’t shocked at all—I had seen pictures of him taken at about that time and he was handsome in an Errol Flynn sort of way; and with his perfect pencil-moustache, as best as one could tell from the grainy images, almost as sexy.

“We didn’t live near each other, actually in many ways we came from different worlds. His father had money and they had an elegant house on Bedford Avenue in one of the best parts of Brooklyn. It was made of brick. This was before my parents had saved enough money to buy their own house, which was really more a place for the entire family and friends to live and sleep for a few nights as they passed through New York from Europe on their way to getting settled elsewhere. And they were all born in America. While we were immigrants. Even I, the youngest, was born in Poland and arrived in this country at Ellis Island.

“The Zazlos’ house had a backyard and a garden in front with flowers. We had a third-floor walkup on Pacific Street in Brownsville. A railroad flat. I didn’t have a bed of my own until I was sixteen. But we did have hot water. So how then could we meet, your father and I, and how come I saw him that first time without a shirt?” I was wondering that. “He had this wonderful car. It was his, not his father’s. A gleaming black convertible that I think he must have waxed every day. It had a white canvas top and whitewall tires. He kept them spotless. I can still see that car. My parents never had one.

“On that day, it was a hot day—two days before my birthday in June--he was on his way to visit a friend from college. A fraternity brother. Victor Herbert was his name. Like the composer. That’s why I remember it. Victor had two first names—‘Victor’ and ‘Herbert.’ My Papa said only gentiles had two first names. Your father had gentile friends. I didn’t know anyone else who did. He was a student at Brooklyn Polytechnic, studying to be an engineer. So he could go into the Zazlo family business with his father and uncle. It was a good business. They installed skylights and ventilators in apartment houses all over Brooklyn, and even in Manhattan. They had money. But I already told you that.”

“I did know that. I’m sorry I never met dad’s father. He died so young.”

“Yes, he did. At only forty-eight. He was a very gentle man. He wrote poetry, if you can imagine a Zazlo writing poetry, special poems for every birthday and anniversary. Even when someone died. Your father’s mother, on the other hand, was a cigarette-smoking, card-playing, hard-drinking woman who could curse like a man. Actually, she was more like a man than a woman. Which was another issue in the Zazlo family.” She paused for a moment. “You of course know about your Uncle Ben?”

“I do. I mean I did. I liked him. I think I was the only one who did. Every else made fun of him. Because of what he was. But he was the only member of that family, until Madeline much later, who paid attention to me. He gave me books to read. It’s because of him, I always felt, that I came to love books and literature. And Dad always thought that because of that I’d ‘turn out’ just like him. That I’d become, he would spit out the epithet, a fag!” Now I paused to recall the pain of that. “But you were telling me . . . ” I wanted to bring her back to that day when she met my father. That hot day when he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

“Yes, I was telling you about that day. He was driving through my neighborhood to visit his friend Victor who lived with his family in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. It had three floors. The occupied all of them. Just Victor, his younger brother, and his parents. They all had rooms of their own. But I’m digressing again. I was telling you about how your father loved to take shortcuts. So on that day he drove through Brownsville, which was the shortest route from Bedford Avenue, where he still lived with his parents, to the Herberts. And just as he was racing down my street, Pacific Avenue, wouldn’t you know it, he had a blowout. The car jumped the curb right in front of our house and knocked over two ash cans! What a mess he made. I should have known from that what other messes were in store for us.” I could hear the excitement as she recalled this remarkable act of fate but was more eager to learn about the messes. I had been a witness to many of those.

“I was sitting on the stoop, which I did whenever it was that hot, to catch a breeze, and doing my homework assignment. I even remember that I was reading Silas Marner, by George Eliot, who I think was really a woman, though they didn’t tell us that in my day.”

“Mom,” I interrupted, “this is all very interesting but I have to get back to the city soon and was hoping you’d tell me more about meeting Dad.”

“That is what I’m doing. But this is how I tell my stories. You have to be patient with me. This is not easy for me. To remember those days.”

“I’m sorry. I understand. But, please, tell me more. I’ll make the time.” So I’ll be a little late for my meeting, I thought. They can begin without me.

“Before I could see exactly what had happened to his car he was standing on the street and already taking off his shirt—it was a splendid shirt, crisply ironed and full of starch. And then one, two, three he had the car jacked up and was putting on the spare tire. As I said, it was very hot and though he did this effortlessly his arms and that part of his chest I could see were glazed with perspiration. This emphasized the shape of his body. It was a beautiful body. He was an athlete and very masculine, but also beautiful. I don’t know what got into me but, as if in a trance, I got up off the steps on which I was sitting and was pulled toward him. I stood over him as he bolted the tire in place, watching his rippling back. When he was done he arose from his crouch and almost bumped into me. Not the least bit surprised or startled, as if this happened to him every day, he looked directly at me, now having to look down as I had to do when he was working on the tire—he so towered over me—and said, ‘My don’t you look splendid.’ He stood there with his greasy hands on his hips, breathing heavily and still wet all over, not caring if he soiled his trousers, and just smiled radiantly. Not saying another word. I almost swooned—I am prone to that—but managed to say back to him, ‘You look thirsty. Can I get you a glass of water?’ He didn’t respond or even nod. All he did was hold me with his eyes.

“I raced up the stoop and then up the three flights of steps to our apartment, filled a glass with water from a pitcher in the icebox, and ran back down to him as quickly as I could, fearing that while I was gone he would have looked more carefully at my house and my street and, realizing this was not his part of town, would have driven away, back to his friends who lived in his world. But there his remained, I was ecstatic to see, wiping his hands on a rag he retrieved from the trunk of the car, and came over to me, took the glass I held out to him and sat down on the step where I had been and looked over at the book I had been reading. He gulped down the water in a single swallow and said, ‘This is a novel isn’t it? To tell you the truth, I hate novels. I like my science and engineering courses well enough, and love to read about sports, but I almost failed literature.’ He grinned at me and shrugged his shoulders. ‘But I bet you like these kind of books. Most girls do.’ And in what would be the first of thousands of accommodations to him, though I loved to read and George Eliot was one of my favorites, I said, ‘They’re OK. But I also like science,’ which was more than an accommodation since I always struggled with anything that involved math.

“I know you’re busy and have to get to the city; so, if you’d like, we can talk more about when I first met your father next time. But let me quickly tell you before you race away, and I hope I’ll see you next time sooner than between this visit and the last one, that your father and I began seeing each other two days later. It was a Saturday and your father took me to a party at his fraternity house where I met Victor and all his other friends. And we arranged to be together every other every Saturday for months after that. I couldn’t tell my parents I was seeing him. Though his mother and father were Jewish, they were not the kind of Jews my parents considered real Jews—they never went to synagogue and didn’t keep a kosher home. To them, they were the same as goyim. Maybe worse.

“But I couldn’t get enough of him. During the rest of June and through July I continued to see him, having to lie about where I was going on Saturday nights. And all during that time I couldn’t get the first sight of his glistening arms and chest out of my mind. But before the end of that summer, one night he drove us to Brighton Beach, I saw all of him and he saw all of me in the slivers of moonlight that filtered through the slates in the boardwalk under which he had spread a blanket and took me into his golden arms.” At this recollection I heard her chuckling to herself.

Though I was tempted to ask for more details about his golden arms and what that moonlight exposed and must inevitably have led to, even in that more repressive time, I decided to let my imagination fill in the rest of that part of the story, thinking it could do at least as good a job as whatever the reality itself might reveal. Her imagination after all was captured by the sight of his beautiful body and he clearly was similarly interested in hers; and by choosing to see him covertly she was as risk-taking and transgressive as any “fast” young American girl of her era. It had to be a good story which I could shape and tell in my own way at some later date. But with the time that remained, I wanted to hear more about what had happened, what had transformed that enchantment into their life with which I was familiar. So I said, “This is a remarkable and beautiful story. I can only imagine how happy you must have been, how he made you feel. But as you said, I didn’t ever see or know this version of Dad. The one I knew was when he was older and many things must have happened between your first meeting, the Saturdays with his friends, and especially that night at the beach. I mean, he was so different when I knew him, and I am wondering what . . .”

“This is fair to ask,” she cut me off, “but first you must know a little more about what he did for me. What he meant to me.”

“I do want to understand that. I do.”

To be continued . . .