Categories
Creative

from FOOTNOTE 1 — “Minnie”

(The following is the Excerpt from The Twentieth Century Passes, a memoir of my father’s life)

By the time I was born, three of my grandparents were already dead. They had died young, in their early 60s, just before and after the birth of my sister ten years before me. My parents had had me, their third child, late for those days, my father at 42. The only grandparent my brother and I knew was Minnie, who had left Dad in infancy, as had her husband, Yoina, to travel to a new life in America. During my first decade, Minnie had already entered her 70s, but she looked, to a child, a hundred, and with her square, weathered face, the stocky block of her body, and her kerchiefed head, she could have been, during her frequent Sunday visits to our Queens Village garden apartment, any Babushka plucked the day before from a field in Podolia. And by then, she had been living in the United States for nearly fifty years.

We felt no love for Minnie. We had, the three of us, very early on some idea of what she had not been to our father, and it would have been otherwise, anyway, not easily accomplished, without some assistance, to turn from Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo to the peasantry under Czar Nicholas II. Minnie would arrive dutifully retrieved by my father, Mac, from her apartment off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, to which he would return her, by car, at the end of the afternoon—two round trips of two-to-three hours each for every Sunday visit. Minnie would visit us along with her companion, Charlie, a large, round, gruff old American character with neatly parted and lacquered black hair and a fat cigar permanently chewed into the corner of his mouth. Imagine him beside Damon Runyon at a Jack Dempsey fight. Like everything else about the history of our family prior to our birth cries, we never got it entirely straight or clear from Mom, but apparently Charlie, who was some fair number of years younger than Minnie, was actually her first or second cousin, and her seduction of him away from a promising career (One must do uncounted mental crunches and endless stretching to imagine Minnie as seducer.) was a scandal in its day. Charlie was always friendly in his crusty way, but—he had, after all, shacked up with Minnie—also a being too foreign to contemplate for the suburban-ized children of Eisenhower’s America.

Minnie was odd and distant and vastly inappropriate. On every visit, we would be brought before her at the dining room table as if in presentation to an idiot Queen, all terse and awkward decorum, in anticipation, as it were, of a detached and senseless laugh. Minnie would beam a smile of grandmotherly pleasure upon us and fix somewhere on each face one of those gross, heavily smeared lipstick kisses of comic, Woody Allen reminiscence. There was no other effort at contact with us. What there was, until Minnie grew too old and the visits ceased, was the ritual of found-gift giving. Planted at the table, each grandchild in turn beside her, Minnie would reach into and draw out from large Alexander’s or Mays department store shopping bags a succession of soiled and broken toys that she had retrieved from the street: punctured rubber balls, wheel-less cars, half-used pencils, lone figurines, all held up with wonder before our eyes as if baubles brought from China. Sharyn, Jeffrey, and I would receive each gift in a manner of stupefied thanks, and then pass it to one parent, who would pass it to the other, who would next, for safekeeping, place the item into a bag, which would later, after Minnie’s departure, complete the cycle of its existence as a garbage bag finally to be disposed of. Gift giving over, we grandchildren would depart—to leave the adults to their adult time together—but not before being quietly directed to go to the bathroom to wash our hands.

….

AJA


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Creative On The Road

from FOOTNOTE 1 — “Route 66: The American Road”

(News came two days ago that Martin Millner, along with George Maharis, one of the two stars of the legendary television series Route 66, has died, at 83. As a young boy, my own introduction to the adventure of road travel and the romance of the route came from the series and the experience of new places and people each week of Milner’s Tod and Maharis’s Buz. It seems the right time, then, to offer this excerpt of my “Route 66: The American Road,” originally published, along with the photography of Julia Dean, in the final issue of the also legendary, documentary journalism magazine DoubleTake, and republished now in the inaugural issue of Footnote: A Literary Journal of History.)

….

When the beaver were depleted, and there was too little left to trap, many of the mountain men who wished to continue to live outside of civilization hired on as guides for the new wagon trains leaving from Missouri for unsettled land. The trappers had found the way, and now, from St. Louis, St. Joseph, and Independence, not only individuals seeking fortune at gold strikes and elsewhere, but whole families seeking new lives were heading west. In the heyday of the Western wagon train, from 1840 to 1860, as many as 500,000 people migrated along the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe trails.

These trails became permanent routes west, but as coordinates on maps and rutted wagon-wheel trails, they were paths for the most intrepid— of which the United States has never had shortage—but not for the ordinary lone individual or family. Phenomena like the Pony Express, and the telegraph that spelled the short-lived Express’ demise, provided the first sense of coast-to-coast communication, but they were not a means of travel.

Only with the driving of that last, golden spike connecting the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads in 1869, had a means of transportation been established that enabled the free flow of people, without the daunting hardship and risk of wilderness travel, between the nation’s Eastern origins and its Western expansion. It had taken just short of 64 years from the date Lewis and Clark reached their destination across an uncharted wilderness until the completion of the first, fixed, permanent, regular, and safe means of transportation across it. Where once an overland journey would have taken months—it had taken Lewis and Clark twenty— or a journey by ship around Cape Horn weeks, on June 4, 1876, the Transcontinental Express traveled from New York City to San Francisco in 83 hours and 39 minutes.

Before and after the railroad, there was also the stagecoach, for some decades a regular fixture of western commerce and travel. But companies such as the Butterfield Overland Express Company were primarily government- and private -mail haulers and, like Wells Fargo, movers of bank funds. For the nine people crammed into a semi-weekly Celerity coach for the typical twenty-five day, bone-jarring, cold and snowy, or hot, sweaty, and smelly journey from Missouri to California, the fare was around $200, or about $4,000 in today’s money, more or less the price of a one-way ticket on the Concorde SST over its lifespan. If you could afford it, you took the stagecoach before the transcontinental line was completed, or because it went places the railroad didn’t, not to celebrate your individual freedom as an American to travel where you wished.

The railroad, on the other hand, moved thousands, hundreds of thousands—millions. Along with the Homestead Act of 1862, it completed the settlement of the West.

The Homestead Act offered free title to 160 acres—after five years, if you worked the land and improved it. In contrast, the railroads sold the land along their right-of-way, the land they had been granted by the federal government as an incentive to undertake the transcontinental enterprise. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad lives on in the popular historical imagination as one of the great moments in the building of the American nation, and it is certainly that. An extraordinary technical feat and a permanent conquest of nature cannot be denied. But here again, as with every inroad to the West, that tension between the individual and the collective is visible.

An individual picks up from New York, or Philadelphia, or the Ohio River Valley, or even somewhere in Europe, and alone or with his family makes his way finally, by train, to Nebraska, Wyoming, California, or another state, to start afresh. The railroad is available for travel, however, because the government had its grander social and commercial goals, granted land—and its natural resources—to the enterprises commissioned to lay the track, and even subsidized the construction.

The railroad is there to be used because legislators succumbed to wholesale bribery from lobbyists in the form of cash and corporate bonds. It is there because the owners and operators of the Union Pacific Railroad established the shell company, Credit Mobilier—the Enron of its day, owned by the same majority shareholders as the Union Pacific—to which to award the construction contract and bill back the railroad, subsidized by the federal government (and risk-taking private investors), multiple times the actual cost of materials and labor.

Once the Transcontinental Railroad was established, the railroads also went into the business of luring settlers to migrate to the West. They offered reasonable prices for the land, good credit terms to enable purchase, showings of parcels, and even established European offices with representatives to attract additional emigration across the Atlantic. The settlers would populate the land the railroads traversed and help establish the railroad towns that would both service and feed off the railroad. Thus is the goal of a westward expansion fulfilled. Thus does the American mythos of individual initiative and self-determination run up against a contradiction. And that is how it remained for almost 60 more years.

But if our world is anything, it is a world of contradiction. However settlers may have arrived—by someone else’s wagon train, stage coach, or train, or by steamer from another part of the world—whatever corporate hucksterism or nationalistic boosterism had sold them an idea about the circumstances toward which they traveled that was not entirely in accordance with reality (disgruntled natives not entirely glad you’re coming, anyone?), they had made their own choices, determined their own wills, and endured hardships their neighbors would not undertake. They possessed the independence and strength to travel far from unhappy or unsatisfactory conditions that others less daringly abided, and they felt no less individual because they aimed to shape their destinies within a web of relation and influence they could not always see around them.

Perhaps that is why the lone cowboy on his horse, crossing the panhandle, passing among the mesas, a speck on a vast prairie beneath an enormous sky—what so few, in fact, ever were—became our resonant American myth. Nothing is ever how we portray it, but our symbols are what we feel, and we feel for a reason. The cowboy, as we see him, is singular and integrally himself within the natural world. His kindnesses are not mandated, but his own. His cooperation is given, not required. And if he’s of a mind, whenever he’s of a mind, he’ll go his own way. Just point his horse’s head like a compass, and move on.

Yet, how many could really live that dream?

Beginning November 11, 1926, anyone.

And with the affordability of Ford’s Model T—soon to be a fixture on the new Highway 66—the automobile was quickly developing into what it would not take very long to become, the singular and democratic mode of transportation of the 20th century and beyond. Route 66, the first transcontinental interstate highway, was created to serve it.

It is true that in the years before the opening of the route, there had developed the romance of train travel, and the train has its romancers still. Stand in so many small towns across America—a town, say, like Dwight, Illinois, through which Route 66 runs—and watch the train pass through, even now. Listen to its whistle. Hear it “moan mournfully,” as Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant heard it. Far places, it says. Distant lives. The great, wide world. Teasing you with its call. Passing on. For so many who longed for experience, the train’s receding rumble, the lingering whisper of it gone, uttered the great paradox of the nation—that while one might live, it seemed, smack-dab in the middle of it all, one felt stranded so far from everything that was happening. To live in the middle, it turned out, was to reside at the edges. To move to the center meant to travel to the boundaries, because the boundary—the frontier—is where the “other” is, and the other is experience.

….

AJA


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Categories
Creative On The Road

From FOOTNOTE 1: “Place … traveling”

(I thought I might offer here, complete, one of my ten works of poetry, essay, creative nonfiction and documentary journalism in the inaugural issue of Footnote. When I travel, every moment is a flight in the weightlessness of the journey, against the gravity of destinations and origins and belonging.)

Place
traveling

It’s a road, behind and before. I wander it like dust
with wind for a will.

Arizona, now, ranges over mountain and pass
desert brush and Geronimo’s ghost for, once
a watchful youth

while Los Angeles is leaving, spinner and lure
for a hungry eye, hooked, but never caught.
They’re soft winds over those ocean dreams. They blow
they blow.

Soon Oklahoma, the South, Virginia
Michigan, the Northern Plains: the sweep and particular
of country and tale – also a vision. Deep breath and sigh, wide-eyed
I have seen this meadow, that rock, timber of a home long ago
I had always imagined.

Budapest, too, and Buenos Aires, and Asian jungle
whose river snakes to a mountain source, the hidden life
from early springs. Sought a seed, too, where my father
sprang from Galicia, a cold and foreign soil in which to germinate
a Jew. How far, then, back to ramble home? Be gusted over Sinai sands?
Gather in the Great Rift Valley?

Where I come from, every feeling calls a name, every
name a habitation, a place of birth, and all my destinations merge
into me. When the Dutch first spied Manhattan’s breast, and paid
with all the rich corruptions of the heart for every generation crossing
Brooklyn ferry, they opened up a harbor, carried human cargo
the city still unloads. Hudson wandered, too, up Mahicanittuk River
and never arrived beyond it.

AJA


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Categories
Creative

From FOOTNOTE 1: “Bordello Rooms” (excerpt)

(The last of my ten works of poetry, essay, creative nonfiction and documentary journalism in the inaugural issue of Footnote is “Bordello Rooms.” Its ending offers a basis for understanding its closing placement, but its beginning offers a different explanation, for why I choose it to introduce the series of excerpts I will be offering here on the blog.)

ok-corral
Photograph by Julia Dean

Bordello Rooms

The way I do it is I stand in the middle. I’ve done it all over the world. I stand in the midst of an historic environ, and I conjure. I go to museums. I eat in the restaurants. I sit in the squares and inhale, with the lift of a hand to my nose, the daily life. I seek the raw or gentle splendor of nature. But my true destination, in all my travels, is the past. I seek the literary Paris of the Twenties in old-world cobblestones, or that of the Revolution layers deeper. In Saint-Remy-de-Provence, it is the path of Van Gogh’s painting I follow, and again, though they were hidden from him, the ruins of ancient Glanum many levels below. I imagine, thirty years on, the youthful death fortune withheld from me in the Mekong Delta. I follow the flight of Depression migrants along Route 66. And I make pilgrimage, after his death,  to the Ukrainian shtetl of my father’s birth, near the medieval city of Kaminets-Podolsk.

There is even a photo by Julia (my significant other, or SO, we call her; I’m her SOB) entitled “Capturing Jay’s Imagination.”

It was our first night in Vienna, and we were walking without guidance when we stumbled upon the Hofburg Palace, on the entrance, in fact, to what had been the private apartments of the royal family. Immediately my imagination set to work, figuring before my eyes the horse-drawn carriages that once would have swept into the outdoor entrance rotunda to deposit their royal Ärsche home. No sooner had I voiced this imagining to Julia but I was forced back by those nearly selfsame carriages (though Julia stood ground with her camera) delivering more modern derrieres to what turned out to be a charity event.

If only for an instant, in ignorance of the details, I had made it so. I had paddled back against the current of loss.

This time I’m in the Arizona desert, gazing at the landscape as the dogs chase rabbits and roadrunners around me. My back is turned to Highway 80, to RVs and the other signs of post-nineteenth-century life, though they are not plentiful. Before me, almost all round me, is an empty, sweeping, sometimes rolling expanse ringed by a moonscape of mountains. It startles me with its beauty. I hadn’t expected it. I’m only a mile from Tombstone.

And I conjure. It is easy enough to see – Doc Holiday or the Clantons, ghost-like, riding their horses through the brush, over the shallow gullies. Like a slow superimposition in a film, I can draw out of the atmosphere Wyatt Earp and Josie Marcus – the Jewish prostitute who was his third and final wife, of over forty years – talking by a bush as he woos her away from Sheriff Johnny Behan. What I imagine once more, probably more miraculously than anything else, is the notion that these people and the moments of their lives – because they have become so legendary – continue to occupy some alternate dimension of the coordinates that surround me. As if every period of time – every instant – continues to occur in some fractional off-frame, a parallel universe just a little invisibly, dimensionally beyond sensory apprehension. Until I conjure. And then I envisage that Earp and Marcus, in clandestine conversation in the desert in 1881, are an event somehow more concrete than my own occupation of that space, standing there in all my mundaneness in the desert of today, an experience the ephemeralness of which I exhale with every breath….


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Categories
Creative The Political Animal

Norm of the Norm

I didn’t think I would write anything. I was not friend or family to Norm Geras, and so could speak nothing of the private man that those to whom he truly belonged had known. And how many were there who could say at least as much as I – that though I had never met Norm Geras, I felt somehow that I knew him, that he had made an addition to my life, that I cared for him? I knew there was nothing I could say that many others would not say as well and more personally. I knew this even before I checked the blogosphere and social media, and when I did, it was as I knew it would be, the outpouring, from so many quarters, of so many admirers who had been encouraged, inspired, and affected.

I thought, then, that I would confine myself to a tweet or two of my own and to tweeting links to the expressions of others.

It took, what – a day? – for Normfest to arise?

But the weekend passed, and Monday came, and I was still thinking about Norm. I was missing him. I felt, from all he had offered of his sharp, lucid, and rigorous intellect, and of his enthusiasms and his moral being, that I had actually a sense of the man – though I did not know him personally – and that I could hear his voice. The absence of his voice to come.

I recalled younger years, before I had ever lost anyone for whom I truly cared, when I would sometimes morbidly imagine what it would be like, what the finality of the death of another meant. I imagined how when the time came that my mother or father died, for instance, it would not be like a long, even very long, absence from them, which I had experienced and suffered well enough. It meant, I vivified for myself, that I might search the world wide over, in every corner of the earth, and never find them. They would be gone not just from me, but from everywhere, never to be found again in some apartment, even in some far place, sitting beside each other on the sofa.

This was what I kept thinking about Norm’s voice – his wry, reasoned and humane voice. After ten years of its sounding daily in the minds of those who wanted it through his blog – beyond the illustrious scholarly and pedagogical contribution that came before – it was now silenced. What almost immediately became a common cry of longing from so many, answered before on so many subjects of these and former days – what does Norm think? – was now never to be satisfied again.

This is what I have been feeling – loss, and the missing that comes with it. I have been feeling it about someone I didn’t “really” know, someone I never met, someone I knew only through the internet: in the blogosphere, on Twitter and Facebook, via some email exchanges.

I have had something like this experience once before.

In my early days on those various media, encountered via Twitter and then in some email exchanges, a young man named Christopher Al-Aswad offered gracious guidance about how to use them all. Operating in very different, artistic circles from those of Norm’s UK-based and international political ones, Chris founded the wondrously titled internet arts magazine, Escape Into Life. When Chris was lost to his demons at far, far too young an age, the outpouring of affection and grief across social media was a revelation. So admired was Chris, by so many who never “really” knew him, that the mantle of EIL was taken up by others and continued in his memory. My good blogging, Twitter and Facebook friend, poet and art connoisseur Maureen Doallas, for instance, (whom I have never met) now serves as EIL’s Artist Watch Editor.

How did it happen? What is it in the nature of human relation that enables it to form so profoundly in the absence of any physical presence, in a transmission through what develops before our eyes as an expanding social ethernet? Is it even, as we think it, something technological and new, or merely an old contact of being to being facilitated in new forms? In thinking about my own relation to Norm, I found my answer.

Like so many others who blog, I took my Normblog profile as a badge of recognition. (Mine was number 359, August 6, 2010, not so very long ago. The last was 386, just this September.) I felt earlier honored when Norm invited me to contribute to his Writer’s Choice series (number 237). I wrote about Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, but what work I chose is less important here than why I chose it. I chose it because it saved my life. Amid “the dark mental forces that oppressed me” in my very young manhood – not unlike, perhaps, Chris Al-Aswad – it “gave me a way to live.” Through writing, the contact only of mind and mind, across cultures, oceans and years – how often is it across continents and centuries – one human being (here, a French Algerian) entered into a most private kind of communication with another (a New York Jew) and influenced his life.

The power, the relational element of ideas and language, and what they carry in them, an intrinsic cargo, of a person. To a person. All those who mourn the loss of Norm Geras mourn the end of that carriage in words, of ideas about the world, and through their expression, an example of how to be and speak in the world.

When Norm co-authored the Euston Manifesto, right-thinking people of the left everywhere – people who felt abandoned on a progressive path that had, in reality, abandoned them almost from the start – spied a tall marker for the way forward, and a post around which to rally. In smaller increments, day by day for his ten-year blogging career, Norm offered more of the same: finely tuned, clearly and carefully constructed arguments of reason and insight that never lost their concern for the human in their vision of humanity. There are thousands of examples over the years. Here, among his very last posts, just nineteen days before he died, is some of just one among those many.

It’s not that, being a Marxist myself, I begrudge Howard [Jacobson] the judgement that no one of feeling should be a Marxist. He’s perfectly entitled to it, given how many Marxists, past and present, have used Marxist categories for precisely the kind of excuse-making on behalf of the killing of the innocent that he laments. For my own part, I happen to think that this isn’t the only kind of Marxism possible, since like any other tradition of ideas Marxism is capable of change. There are Marxists who understand the necessity of embodying human rights norms at the heart of any morally acceptable political outlook today and who reject absolutely the violations of civilized constraints in the interests of some highly speculative future good. Still, as I’ve argued at some length before, there are different meanings of being a Marxist, and Howard won’t be short of material in finding ways to justify his own expressed preference.

What surprises me in the above-quoted judgement of his is how lightly, by implication, it lets off other doctrines and their adherents. Allah and Jesus would not forgive. As if that ever stopped anyone from adapting religious belief to suit their murderous or oppressive purposes. Fanatical commitment, or what Howard himself identifies as ‘an unswerving conviction of rectitude’, finds many different homes.

And as if the purveyors of excuses for modern terrorism were confined to ever-smaller groups of Marxists, rather than coming – as they do – from practically every shade of so-called progressive opinion and beyond: liberals, greens, anarchists, Guardianistas of every stripe, anti-imperialists, anti-Zionists, and plain fools by the cartload.

Add to this his passions for cricket, jazz, country music (Emmylou Harris division), Jane Austen and Anne Tyler and fiction of all kinds, new technologies, New York City, and old-fashioned decency and you got what seems deserving of a name. Regular readers of Normblog will have gotten the title above right way. Much in the world of Normblog was puckishly “of the Norm.” Adele Geras, Norm’s wife, was WotN – “Wife of the Norm.”

All I wrote of here, all the virtues, all the smaller and greater humanities, the ideas that touched and influenced the lives of so many, they were and will remain the norm of the Norm.

AJA

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Creative The Political Animal

A Second Look: The Brotha & the Otha

President Obama’s summer vacation just concluded, there was a fair amount of attention to the frequency of his golfing: courses traversed, rounds played, partners played with. ABC News even gave us “Obama’s Vacation by the Numbers.”

  • He made FIVE outings to local restaurants, including TWO dinners with friends, ONE intimate night out with the first lady, ONE family dinner and ONE run for fried-food pick up.

For that someone attended journalism school. (Somehow we won World War II without knowing Roosevelt couldn’t walk.) This put me in mind of a classic sad red earth posting from deep in the archives about one of the President’s vacations early in his first term. Yes, we do have classics on the sad red earth, admitted to that pantheon by vote of the assembled sad red earthlings. who happily, not haply, present:

The Brotha and the Otha

President Barack Obama's First Day In Office

(Scene: the White House – the Oval Office. President Obama sits behind his desk. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel stands before him.)

Emanuel: Okay, next – where you thinking of for your vacation?

Obama: I was thinking we’d go to Hawaii.

Emanuel (chin descending, eyes ascending): Not a good idea.

Obama: Ah, come on, Rahm. It’s home. It’s beautiful. I’ve got friends. Why not?

Emanuel: Optics.

Obama: Optics.

Emanuel: You gotta consider how it looks.

Obama: That I take a vacation?

Emanuel: Where you take the vacation. It can’t seem you’re having too much fun. Presidents can’t have too much fun. Only in limited doses, for limited times. Joe the Plumber’s plumber is thinking, I lost my job, my kid’s in chemo – people want to kill us – and you’re shankin’ balls under the palms, against the blue Pacific. No, no, no no, no, no, no.

Obama: People don’t want me to have a vacation?

Emanuel: Probably not. But they’ll accept something not too conspicuous.

Obama: Like Crawford, Texas? See, I think that proves right there I’m more qualified to be President. “What do you do on your vacation Mr. President?” “Ah clear brush.” Sheeit.

Emanuel: But he stayed too long.

Obama: So I won’t stay too long.

Emanuel: I don’t know, Rock –

Obama: I asked you not to call me Rock.

Emanuel: Well, I can’t call you Bar.

Obama: Wasn’t that Bush 41’s wife?

Emanuel: My point. The anti-Obama.

Obama: You could call me Mr. President.

Emanuel (considers a moment): I’ll call you Rock. (Beat) Then there’s the question of what if something happens while you’re on the vacation.

Obama: Then I’ll come back and deal with it.

Emanuel: Maybe, maybe not.

Obama: If I don’t come back they’ll say I’m indifferent and aloof.

Emanuel: If you do come back they’ll say you’re a captive of events. The terrorists flick the fiddle, you dance to their tune. “Member Carter and his Rose Garden strategy? Reagan murdered him with it.

Obama: Now you’re going to extremes. Isn’t there some reasonable middle ground on this?

Emanuel: Reason’s got nothing to do with it. Take Joe B., for instance, when he called you clean and articulate.

Obama:  Putz.

EmanuelPetzel. (He holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.)

Obama: Sez who?

Emanuel: Arlen. Remember all those train rides?

Obama: Spector? How the hell would he know?

Emanuel: It’s a big tent, Rock.

Obama: On the down low? Come on, man. I haven’t had lunch yet. Now I gotta be thinkin’ about that?

Emanuel: He calls you clean and articulate – like you’re not either, like everyone isn’t thinking it, about you, Colin – and they make a big deal about it. Like a Sharpton with his Brooklyn Do and drawl was ever gonna be the first.

Obama: Actually, I thanked Biden. Michelle always says I don’t shower enough.

Emanuel: Or word is that new book by Halperin is gonna quote Reid about you being light-skinned or something, not talking with a Negro dialect.

Obama: Negro? Get the fuck.

Emanuel: I shit you not.

Obama: But I am light skinned. I don’t talk Black.

Emanuel: Not unless you want to.

Obama: But that’s the point. Everyone gets what they want. The President has to be all things to all people.

Emanuel: And if you’re not, then they get you for that.

Obama: Like when I started droppin’ my “g”s.

Emanuel: Well, that was for the white workin’ class. After that shit about guns and religion.

Obama: Which I don’t believe for a minute. Devil made me say that.

Emanuel: Exactly. So this book is coming out and you can just see it now – somebody like Liz Cheney goes on This Week and rips into Reid for his racism, because, you know, you’re not light skinned and you don’t talk Black – actually, I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be good or bad; when conservatives go PC for points it gets really confusing – and even George Will is gonna blow chunks.

Obama: It’s amazing. There’s no reality to any of it.

Emanuel: Oh, it gets worse. Because when they talk about this stuff on TV, most of the time they acknowledge it’s all bullshit, but they talk about it anyway, because if a Pol talks shit, they think they’ve got to cover it, even if they cloak it in a discussion of how the media covers shit (which they’re not doing, they’re covering the story of how the media covers shit.) And the pol talks shit just so that they will cover it. And the news people acknowledge its shit – that’s their kinda due diligence, you see, “we told you this was shit” – and then they ask each other if the shit is going to hurt the President, and they say it is (as if no one’s listening) and people have now been told the President is being hurt by what everyone acknowledged from the start was bullshit. And then – I really love this – there’s always the sardonic one, without fail, a little above it all, who pings ‘em all with a “And that’s just exactly what we’re doing by talking about it.” There are so many mirrors you can’t even find yourself.

Obama: “So keep on playing those mind games together…”

Emanuel: “Faith in the future outta the now…”

Obama: Takes me back.

Emanuel: Yeah.

Obama: Okay, so where does that leave us?

Emanuel: I’ll tell you where that leaves us, Rock. A lot of these people out there grew up on 24/7 meat and dairy, wall-to-wall Wonder and mayo. Now their world’s being run by The Brotha and The Otha.

(Obama laughs. Emanuel extends his arms, palms down, for some skin.)

Emanuel: World upside down, Nigga!

(Obama scowls.)

Emanuel (pulling back)I’m just jivin with ya.

(Obama continues to scowl.)

Emanuel (reluctantly offering a beta shrug): I’m kibitzing.

Obama (widenening his eyes and pointing, as if to say “psyche!”): Word, Hebrew.

(Obama gets up, buttons his jacket.)

Obama: Okay, so where does that leave us? Wherever I go, whatever I do, they’ll find a way to spin it against me, right?

Emanuel: Long and short.

Obama (heading out of the office): Fuck that shit. I’m going to Hawaii.

Emanuel (turning, calling after him): You can’t go to Hawaii.

Obama (disappearing)Oh, yes, I can!

Emanuel: Yeah, well, you better hope no one tries to blow up a plane over Detroit!

(But Obama is gone.)

Emanuel: Mutherfucker!

AJA

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Creative Culture Clash

We Fuses

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Julia gave me a splendid gift for my birthday today. When I was a very young man in Manhattan, in my early and later twenties, I would pour over and plow through the book reviews and journals – all the epistles from the church of literature –  including, deliciously each Sunday, the New York Times Book Review, in those days, under John Leonard, so much more seriously literary than now. I would cut out black and white print photos of so many of the twentieth century’s greats and excerpts of books and poetry collections, memoirs and anecdotes that captured my admiring and aspiring fancy. Apparently, years ago, I gave the folder with all of those clippings to Julia. I forgot that. I forgot I even had such a folder.

This morning,  framed against blackboard, I received three arrangements of photos and literary selections to start my day, a summation of my life’s passion and a recollection of my youth in thrall to it. Heading one collection, cut from the subhead of the story of some other writer’s life, were these words: “All he wanted to do was be a writer.”

I don’t like growing older. I like it less than last year and only a little bit better than next. If you want to tell me that you celebrate the accumulation of your years and experience, hold your tongue. Julia says that, but she has special privileges. If you say it beats the alternative, you’re banned from the blog. In my annual acknowledgment of the day, I do not so much celebrate my birthday as attempt to lose myself in each year’s newly chosen festive balm. “Short Farewells,” by William Matthews, from one of those three frames, helped me begin this time, speaking of toasts to departures, in which “you hold a small mouthful / of wine on your tastebuds and let your body / meditate on travel, the saddest / of its pleasures.”

…Somebody breaks the silence
with a joke and then it’s done.
It hurts to age and part but it hurts worse
not to, to turn blue with held breath.
Rain falls on our scalps like the blunt ends
of pins. We wear our grief like an extra flesh,
but it is only pain. Those lurid paths
we blazed along, we fuses? They’ll cross
again if we should want. I’ll drink to that.

AJA

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Creative Culture Clash Indian Country Israel On The Road The Political Animal

Taking Stock, Taking a Leave

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The first post on this blog is dated December 2, 2008, so I have been blogging as of the date of this post, four years, three months and two days. I began when Julia and I hit the road during a sabbatical year, traveling the country in our motor home researching Native American life. In those early days, blogging was about our experiences in Indian Country and the deep, moving joy of road travel. If you feel the strike of an interest, you can go back in the monthly archives or click “On the Road” on the horizontal menu bar and read what it was like when this blog traveled a different path from the one of recent years.

Before that original mission, I had never imagined any interest or conceived an intention to blog. So it was a gradual startlement, of a kind most bloggers experience, at how, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, of a jar upon a hill in Tennessee, “It took dominion every where.” Major events have happened in my life while I blogged, acknowledged and transformed by the blog, as writing transfigures everything. As with other marked experiences in life, there is for me now life before the blog and life since the blog.

I learned over time, again like many other bloggers, that blogs generally cannot be all things to all readers. I tried to mix the original focus with a broader political interest and with rough drafts of some creative work, too. That did not work in building readership, and since I was not treating the blog as a personal journal, I did want it to be read. Political writing drew more readers more quickly, and it was easier to produce, so the sad red earth became, with occasional forays into locales my fancy still would take me, what it has become.

Beyond even those broad political interests, the sad red earth gave increasing attention to Israel. That was never my intention with the blog, either, but while unintentional, it was not accidental. In the area of international affairs, where my political interests predominate, Israel is the focus of many other people’s attention too, exceedingly beyond what its relative circumstances warrant. My concern with that fact might seem obviously based in my being Jewish, and it would be silly of me to deny that element of personal import, but were my concerns based in that personal relation alone, I would be hard pressed to make the case that Israel should matter to everyone. It should matter to everyone not because it matters to Jews, but because its misguided critics and it enemies, masked and outright, have placed it at the very fault line of a civilizational crisis that affects all liberal democracies, and the fissures extending from that fault lead in every political direction. Why Israel matters is a topic about which I will continue to write, with even greater focus and, I hope, clarity.

Now, though, after mostly long periods of daily blogging, or of blogging several times a week during these four plus years, over recent weeks, the frequency of my posts has diminished. I always tended to write not the usual brief or mid-length post, but extended essays, and even knocked out pretty quickly, they consumed a lot of time. This writing has had many benefits. I am a writer, and the past four years have been enormously productive of words, beyond even what is reflected on the sad red earth. But there is much else I want to write, of book length and in other genres, that cannot stand the drain of attention to the blog. I need the time to do that writing. There is, too, life stuff that needs to be unstuffed. The pressure to produce for the blog is not one I wish to accommodate anymore, not for now, anyway.

It is not my thought to give up blogging completely or for good. I have made for myself, if not a megaphone, at least, then, a little bottle for my message, and I plan to float it when the spirit moves: excerpts of and links to what I will publish elsewhere, as well as original posts whenever inspiration and opportunity are cooperative. In not too many days, there will be the spring issue of West and my column on poetry there. Other works in other genres are in other pipelines.

It is time for change. For half my life I didn’t know that I liked it as I do. In the second half of my life, I learned that I need it, feel a calling for it, like the undiscovered country that looms up speeding by through the window of a car, or a motor home or a train, any vehicle that can make a movie of the journey from where you are to where you have never been.

I wish to focus more on my creative work again, including that mix, or that meeting, of the personal with the world-historical forces that both produce and ignore the personal. I want to write some of that parchment that Aureliano II is reading at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the great hurricane begins to blow – the lived and unlived history of Macondo and its people leading to that moment.

Aureliano skipped eleven pages so as not to lose time with facts he knew only too well, and he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror. Then he skipped again to anticipate the predictions and ascertain the date and circumstances of his death. Before reading the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

AJA

Susana Baca & Javier Lazo

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Creative

New Fiction

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My short story “La Revolución” is at the Ampersand Review.

I spent a week. Gary worked as a critic for a music magazine, so even when he had to work, I tagged along. The music was everywhere. Gary and Pilar, his second wife, lived in Miramar, a wide open, breezy Havana suburb. They ran a paladar, one of the unofficial private restaurants that people operate out of some of the large, multi-story, former private homes of that Embassy area. Pilar was a raven-haired beauty, bursting with sensuality and very gracious to me. She set us up with food and a couple of Mojitos that day I arrived, then left for the afternoon.

“No, stay,” I said.

She said, “Old friends. So many years apart. You need to know each other again. Later we’ll have dinner.”

And that’s what we did. Got to know each other again. When I was done bringing Gary to the present, he said, “You were always so shy. Just take her by the arm and start walking her home. She’ll let you. Don’t ask.”

He was talking about Regina. Gary always cared about his friends. He loved his friendships.

“She’s an alcoholic, Gary.”

“What, you’re afraid she won’t amount to anything in life? You like each other. Keep each other company.”

Gary and Pilar had been married almost fifteen years. She was forty-five. Gary left his first wife for her, after twenty years.

“It was the worst thing I ever did.”

I must have looked shocked.

“I don’t mean I regret it. That’s not it. A woman like Pilar? Pilar and music. The rest doesn’t matter.”

He saw me try to understand.

“It’s the worst thing I ever did to another person.” I could see him remember the pain. “The worst. And the thing is, I’d do it again.”

I was silent. “So things are good with Pilar?” I said after a while.

“They’ve been great.” He emptied his glass. “You remember that Bertolucci film Last Tango in Paris?”

He surprised me again. “Yeah?”

“Near the end Brando suddenly decides that he actually does want to know this woman, and he wants her to know him. He starts chasing her out of the tango hall, scaring the shit out of her, telling her everything he can about himself in a rush. He calls out above the music, ‘I got a prostate the size of a potato, but I’m still a pretty good stick man.’ I love that line. I think Brando ad-libbed it.”

Gary chewed on a mint leaf. He raised his eyebrows at me. “I got a prostate the size of a potato.”

I nodded. “These are good,” I said, draining my glass.

“Wait till you try the Havana Club. Siete. It’s like a warm fire in the winter going down.”

I never did bring up the politics of it all. Who was I to, anyway? And what might he have been feeling after all that had happened, or hadn’t.

“You’ve been happy here?” I asked instead.

“I love it,” he said. He glanced out the window toward the sea. “I don’t know. In the summer, when the breeze blows through the palms, or when the hurricanes make you feel like the island’s just a boat on the water, and you’re riding it out for all you can make of it, whatever moments there are. When the rhythm comes up and a woman like Pilar tosses her hips. And the maracas rattle and a man rolls his shoulders.” Now he looked at me. “It’s supposed to be an atheist society, right? After all this, there’s nothing?” He paused. “It’s the opposite of nothing.”

Start from the beginning and read the rest here.

AJA

Photo by DeviantArt user trace-on.  Used under a Creative Commons 3.0 License

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Creative

A Memory

I awoke today in the shadowy dim light of the pre-morning, and as I will, I lingered, to feel my body’s not-yet awakening, its comfort still in the homey impresses of the bed, the dawning recollection of its minor aches while my mind reached weakly, moment by moment, to crawl out of its foggy depths. Call it rest. I do not wake with a yawn and a cheery stretch of the arms.

I linger longer. I reach for my tablet and begin to read. The mind reenters first, only after, the body. I peer with my first weak effort of the day through my cyber portal into the world. But I am still in bed. And in the weak light that is not yet light, an image comes to me, of my mother and father already up, already about the business of the day, the readiness, the chores, the obligations, the work, the doings that must be done.

My parents were not lingerers in the comforts and reluctance of the morning, and their work was not like mine. I read, I write, I create, I teach, I engage the mind. I should hardly call it work, it is so like breathing, necessary and pleasurable as is the fulfillment of any need. It is only that often, after very long days of doing little else, I am fatigued as one is from what we call work.

My parents labored, because the life of the poor, and both were born poor, if it will be more than that, requires labor. Lfe to be a life of value, and ironically, to be a life of deeper pleasure, requires labor. Care for a family requires labor.  My parents’ pleasure, less in the work itself, though they had some, was in the laboring. Unlike me, they did not – could not – retire a little longer into the first recesses of the day.

I thought of this perhaps, in my day’s early mind, because Tuesday would have been my mother’s 97th birthday. She died at 88. I imagined her and my father up already for hours, even in the darkness, while I as a child even still slept. I remembered when I was in the latter grades of elementary school. My sister was already married and out of the home. By brother and I were due at school by 8 a.m. We had to wake ourselves, with alarms, because both our mother and father worked in Manhattan and had to travel up to two hours by subway to get there.

Every morning, after we had wrestled ourselves into wakefulness, and washed and dressed and approached the kitchen bleary and dragging, my brother and I would find on the table, prepared by our father, a cup of tea each, covered by aluminum foil held tight by a slender rubber band.  On a sandwich plate, for each of us, was a slice of toast already buttered. By the time we reached them, by about 7:15 in the morning each day, the toast was soggy, the tea long cold. We ate and drank while our parents rattled through the subway tunnels of New York.

AJA

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Creative

How We Lived On It (51) – Route 66: The American Road

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The New York Times reported the other day, while talking with series co-star George Maharis (along with Martin Milner), that the complete four season series of Route 66, the iconic television show of the early 1960s is now available on DVD from the Shout! Factory. Post Kerouac’s On the Road, pre Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus, Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock drove their Corvette across America.

IF there is such a thing as a visionary time capsule, the newly released boxed set of “Route 66” is it. Watch these discs (from Shout! Factory) and you are transported back to a version of the United States that was still basking in postwar success, a country rich in blue-collar jobs and industrial production and somewhat oblivious to its problems. But while enjoying that return to America as it was, you may also be struck by how often this half-century-old black-and-white television series tackled issues that seem very 21st century.

“Route 66,” which ran from 1960 to 1964 on CBS, was an earnest, ambitious serial about two young men on a random journey across North America in a Corvette. It was shot on location, something hard to imagine given the bulkiness of equipment at the time. Viewed today, a scene on a shrimp boat in New Orleans or at the half-built Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona prompts admiration for the producers, camera operators, electricians and others who made the shots feasible.

The romance of Route 66 is not just American. When Julia and I drove its length in 2006 on the occasion of its 80th anniversary, we discovered first hand the well established lure of the road (and love of the TV show) for many Europeans. Common for groups of French, German, or Scandinavian romancers is to fly into Chicago en masse and rent a score of Harleys for the journey west. We crossed paths with several groups just on our trip. The following is an excerpt from the middle of our “The American Road: Route 66 at 80,” which appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of DoubleTake, the great magazine of narrative documentary journalism, founded by Harvard’s Robert Coles, unfortunately now defunct. You can read the ending here. Photography is by Julia Dean.

It is true that in the years before the opening of the route, there had developed the romance of train travel, and the train has its romancers still. Stand in so many small towns across America – a town, say, like Dwight, Illinois, through which Route 66 runs – and watch the train pass through, even now. Listen to its whistle. Hear it “moan mournfully,” as Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant heard it. Far places, it says. Distant lives. The great, wide world. Teasing you with its call. Passing on. For so many who longed for experience, the train’s receding rumble, the lingering whisper of it gone, uttered the great paradox of the nation – that while one might live, it seemed, smack-dab in the middle of it all, one felt stranded so far from everything that was happening. To live in the middle, it turned out, was to reside at the edges. To move to the center meant to travel to the boundaries, because the boundary – the frontier – is where the “other” is, and the other is experience.

Before Route 66, in any of America’s countless small towns, with the train seeming to emphasize more the distance of it all than the nearness, it must have been hard, at times, to really comprehend it as one nation. Of the nearly 3 million miles of highway in America in 1920, only 36,000 had the all weather surface to sustain automobile traffic. Today’s interstates are massive arteries. The roads before 66 were capillaries, so small and spindly before the size of the country and the scope of its ambition, who could have truly imagined, standing in one of those towns and looking out, the extent and oneness of that to which, in fact, those roads did not adequately connect them.

Julia Dean 2006

After Route 66, though, small towns were never quite so much that again, because the highway not only takes you to the other; it brings the other to you. People passing through, people you would otherwise never have met, needing places to stay, to eat, to fill up on gas – even recreation, in odd, road side attractions: petting zoos, trading posts, statuary, motel rooms in teepees. Spend a dollar. Make a dollar.

The first of Route 66’s four distinct eras began with only 800 of its 2448 miles paved. The remainder was graded dirt, gravel, asphalt-covered brick, or even planks of wood. But those early travelers came.

Starting as far east as Chicago, they would drive through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. They traveled through the Ozarks, the Okalahoma prairie, the Texas Panhandle, the Great Plains, the Mountains of northern Arizona, the Arizona and California desert. They had to prepare for cold and great heat. On long stretches of road a Model T might be far from civilization in the midst of forbidding geography. Still it was an adventure, with picnics beside the car, for those picking up and moving, and for those inaugurating the tradition of the long distance road trip.

From the beginning, Route 66 was promoted across the nation. The National U.S. 66 Highway Association dubbed the route “The Main Street of America.” A marathon foot race, The Bunion Derby was organized to follow it in 1928. The soon to be famous sequential Burma Shave signs appeared along the route:

A peach

looks good

with lots of fuzz

but man’s no peach

and never was

Burma Shave

It didn’t hurt either that in its last years, a Model T could be purchased for as little as $290, only $3,000 in today’s money, or nearly three quarters the cost of that single 1860 stage coach trip to California – for a car that was your own and would last.

Julia Dean 2006

It wasn’t long before a new era dawned. The Depression put a crimp in road trip tourism, but it and the Dust Bowl sent new legions, from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas onto the road. It was the single greatest migration in American history. John Steinbeck, who drove what he and others then called Highway 66, to research his book, memorialized the route in The Grapes of Wrath, providing it with a new, and its most resonant, name:

…and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.

Woody Guthrie sang:

Been on this road for a mighty long time,
Ten million men like me,
You drive us from your town, we ramble around,
And got them 66 Highway Blues.

In the end, one quarter of the Dust Bowl population uprooted itself and moved away. As many as 2.5 million people left the Great Plains, nearly 400,000 of them coming to California, and they did it along Route 66. As no road had been since the 19th century wagon trails, the mother road was at the center of the American story.

AJA

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Creative

A Year with Death

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Once upon a culture long ago or far away, mourning was a state both ritually displayed and visibly endured over protracted time. Widows might literally or effectively sacrifice their lives, though this was manifestation of something other than grief. Black or some other mourning color might be worn for life, maybe for a few years, certainly for one. People’s lives were changed; at least they were noticeably marked. The grieving were meant to accept that; others were intended to know it. Death became us.

What gloom this is for we who live in the secular culture of unfettered fulfillment and celebrated overcoming. In our culture, life’s possibilities are as great as our imaginations, our setbacks are temporary, and a loss only a plot point on the way to inspiring comeback. Life – life! – is looking forward.  Death is looking back. Death is a downer.

Suffer a death, and most others, even good friends, will fairly quickly cease to speak of it. Reverse the roles and you will too. It is awful, so awful – what, beyond the first sincere expressions of sympathy, the early empathetic consolations, is there, finally, to say? We go on. We cannot linger. We cannot dwell. We cannot lose ourselves in self-pity and despair. It comes to us all, both the mourning and the death, but life is not life – life! – that is daily diagnosed with death. We must endure – only now, in our modern cultures, we must do it invisibly, without a ritual call for attention. To wear even a black armband for a year would be a curious and questionable display.

Suffer the death, however, of someone deeply loved, and what you soon enough learn, and long experience, is that a year is a moment, a headshake, really, only, as after a blow, in the effort to clear it. There may be going on, but there is no overcoming. There is no processing, no coming to terms, no “closure,” except as for scar tissue over a wound. Let life pick at you in misfortune for a while and discover then that a scar is not a healing, but a protection, not a recovery, but a covering. The wound remains, invisibly, as the world, and even we, will have it – to go on, in order to go on – but just like death, our wounds, the wound of death too, become us.

Yesterday was the anniversary of my brother’s death. One year ago, suddenly, within minutes, of a heart attack. I eulogized Jeff a few days afterwards. I memorialized him on his birthday a few weeks ago. He would have been 65. These have been the public expressions, the normalized utterances of grief, and continued mourning in a world without black to display them while the mourner keeps his peace. This has been my year with death, of grieving who was lost to it, bearing the transfiguration of it, living palpably in the immanence of it.

If one is lucky, and I was, the first profoundly affecting death will be of a parent, in its proper time. The first for me was my mother, almost nine year ago. It feels – may I be pardoned this cliché? – yesterday. That is the truth of it. And surely I began to feel the transformation then, the unveiling of a truth like a monument, one you knew was there all along behind the curtained parapet, bound to take dominion everywhere, and yet which, the curtain dropped, stuns nonetheless with its very monumentality. My father died a year and a half later, and soon the metamorphosis was complete. One is not the same person anymore.

My father died at 94. But he nearly died – the doctor’s said so – of a heart attack thirty years earlier, at 64, the age at which my brother did die. My mother’s only sibling, her brother, Al, died of a heart attack too, at 59. Two months ago, I turned 60.  I feel much younger – only now, maybe, properly middle-aged, say 40. I’m pretty fit for my age too. And until the grey came in, I was always taken for much younger than I happened to be, occasionally still am. But I am not 40, and just a few weeks before Jeff died, he said to me over our drinks – a smoky, burnished single malt scotch washed over glittering rocks in a fine hotel bar – that you never know what is going on inside your body. Then, soon, he woke in the morning planning to love his wife, Anne, another day, hoping to enjoy their life together another thirty years, as our father got to do, and by that evening his heart had exploded in his chest on a tennis court and he was gone. He was up in the set five games to one when he got the chills – “Something’s not right,” he said – then began to perspire, his throat feeling tight, so he went to the bench to sit down, where his head jerked back and he fell to the floor.

There could be more.

My father was raised until the age of 12 or so by his grandparents, after his parents had abandoned him and sister to come to America. His grandmother died first, then his grandfather – my great grandfather Zakiah. That’s him below in his Sabbath best. Heckuva beard. I had one like it at 20. He’d have been proud.

By the time I began to press my father, late in his life, for all I could learn of the pre-Revolutionary Russian shtetl in which he was born – actually in Ukraine – he could not tell me how his grandparents had died. As I learned on my own, though the now well known Ukrainian Holodomor – the Soviet’s manmade famine of 1932-33 – claimed anywhere from 2.4 to 10 million lives in the Ukraine, the lesser known famine of 1921-23, in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Civil War, was responsible for perhaps 1.5 to 2 million deaths. This was the period during which my father and his sister left Ukraine on their own as children, after Zakiah died. How likely is it that Zakiah, too, died of hunger?

What is the possibility he collapsed in the dirt of his stable – an old Jew dead on the ground, who knows from what –  from a heart attack?

For a year, then, I have wondered, worried. Me, too? When? I have grieved my brother and grieved myself (“It is Margaret you mourn for”). For there is so much unfinished, so much more to do. Just let me accomplish what I was meant to do – what I meant to do.

Would I ever welcome it? Who knows, but not too soon, not cut short, not before I’m done.

I walk the dogs, late at night. The dark is electric, translucent, it vibrates. I vibrate with it. The tree limbs are painted against the sky. I feel my body, its vulnerable physical being as never before, the connection of bone to cartilage, tissue to organ, the great organ of my heart suspended in its cage, pressed against my chest. I feel – imagine I feel – its every skipped beat, its spike, its thump, its moment before. What is always theoretical, which is not to say not real, is now real and not theoretical. At any moment. From out of the sky, the new, the blue, the cars speeding by, the faces rising up, the now, the not, forever, anymore. Like that. Just like that.

We live as if made to be here. What illusion. Now, I feel the contingency of the physical world, and, so, me, like a house not of cards, but of numbers, Pythagorean metaphysics with one digit wrong: the numbers tumble from their scaffolding and all the universe disappears. Mine anyway. Or when I freaked out on acid at 17 and the worst of the many nightmares: the big bang reversed, the universe contracting on itself, wrapping back around and condensing until it is shrinking to nothingness again, folding in upon my regressing fetus, in dark, starless space, and the end of me.

I gaze dreadfully at the now unnatural reality that surrounds and threatens to swallow me, at any instant end me. I am Roquentin, and I am sick with the world. The world is changed, and I am changed.

We imagine – from whence do we imagine, what personal self-delusion, cultural sedative, civilizational lie – that if we are lucky enough not to die young, by accident or illness, not to lose our hearing, our sight, our legs or arms, that the course of our pleasure in being alive, however great or small, will proceed on a continuum of breadth and intensity, no matter what impediments may temporarily rise up.

How many decades of People Magazine covers are there?

“His Despair Behind Him, He’s Back in the Fast Lane.”

“Her Sorrows Over, She’s – Back, and Better Than Ever.”

Life interrupted (life!), but never off its course in the pleasure of it, never altered in its path to fulfillment. Not to live forever altered. Unalterably altered.

We love, great loves, we lose, great loves. What is the boy now, who has lost his ball? We think we shall never love again, have cause to love life again. An ultimate shaking grief.

But in death, the worst, the starkest, most despairing, most ungiving of words, you may cry forever, pound your fists and kick your feet – the epistemology of loss:

Irretrievable.

Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour. .

***

Two months after my father’s death, I completed what had been an aborted journey before it, to that Ukrainian shtetl from which he came – Orinin. At the end of my visit, on a gentle slope that was the best I could figure from what he had told me of where his home had stood, I read aloud a simple story of Mac’s life, his flight, and the return of his youngest child nearly eighty-five years later. I buried in the soil on that spot a time capsule of his life, a copy of the story and images of the family life he got to have, long into the future and far removed from the early pain and the ultimate effort to deny it to him.

I sat down on the slope of the small hill, just above where I had buried the capsule. With the shovel in my hands, I faced the tree on which I had posted the story of Dad. I could see ahead of me, to the right, the high hill on which were buried, their headstones looted, somewhere, Zakiah, my great-grandmother, and who knew however many other long gone and distant ancestors. Straight ahead, passing behind the cemetery hill, was the second of the two roads Mac had remembered to me, the one that led to a lake and a waterfall.

Peripherally, I could see that Julia, down now by the car with our interpreter and our driver, was taking photos of me. They were waiting for me, waiting for me to be complete with what I was doing. I was trying to imagine. As I have all my life, I was trying to imagine what was gone and had come before me, in order to make it present and no longer gone. When would I be done? When would my conjuring be enough? When would I be satisfied?

– when my father, as an eight year old boy, perhaps, leading a pair of horses to drink after their long ride to Kamenets-Podolsk and back, was actually walking down the road below me?

How long could I make the others wait while I tried to perform this magic? They would wait. They would not begrudge me. I had come a third of the way around the world for this moment. They would wait. But how long could I sit there, staring out at the rear of Orinin in 2005 – looking not that different from Orinin in 1910 – but living in my head? When would be enough? Could there ever be enough?

What was it, in fact, now, that I wanted?

I stared out at the scene before me. What did I want, sitting on that hill? How long could I remain before the call of life, the next moment, the need to pick up and go on – because we need to pick up and go on – led me to rise and walk away, probably forever?

I wanted us all to be together again. I wanted to return to some original state, whatever, whenever that was. It would be Queens Village, the garden apartment, I suppose, for me, maybe for all of us, our father coming home each night to that outer borough oasis with the daily paper and tales of the city, our mother still mothering us but moving on, finally, to a career of her own, and the three children for the last time all living together, before my sister was married. Strange, in a way, that I might choose that time, when I was so unformed and unhappy, when I would not discover anything that might be called happiness, or the self I had always been, for decades. But how do we know it is happiness and our own selves we really long for? I wanted to go home to when we had all been together, no matter what each of us had been alone. I wanted to go home all the way to Orinin and my father’s childhood, to the great-grandparents I had never known and who had led lives that could barely have been more different from my own.

Yet… who knew what surprises there might be? Did Zakiah – after my father watered the horses and they were stabled, after dinner was done, and Aikah, my father’s aunt, and Golda, his sister, and he were asleep – did Zakiah sit down by the fire for some last, quiet waking minutes and… write? Did he argue with some Jews on the streets of Kamenets-Podolsk, after dropping off a fare, that there would be no Messiah because there was no God, because even if there had been a God, he had been murdered in the shtetls of the Pale a thousand times – a hundred thousand times – the Bal Shem Tov be damned, and maybe that’s why our father never went to school, because there were only the Jewish schools and to hell with them, they taught two thousand years of nonsense, put a horse’s reins in your hands and you’ll live. Maybe I wanted to go home before Orinin, to Germany, from where those Adlers must have come, or to the town of that Tatar who probably raped some ancestor of mine during a pogrom I have the eyes I do. Or I wanted to go back to that first gene that was my own – no, that first gene – and look it in the face and see the mirror of the world.

What did I want?

I wanted that my father had not died.

I wanted that all my powers of imagination and all my talents – all those years of thinking and dreaming and inward turning, to see into the essence of things – would bring him back and make him undead (I didn’t care about “longevity” or the natural course of anything) so that the journey, as I had put it after our mother died, would go on forever.

I wanted that the first and last, the only natural barrier between me and my own coming end had not been removed.

I wanted that I would not die.

I wanted that our family would all be together again, in those essential moments of who we were to each other, early and late, trying and failing, learning, always becoming and never ending.

How long could I sit there and make it so?

***

Our dinner just ended, my phone had rung now five times, an unknown caller leaving no messages. How it annoyed me. And then the sound of a message this time. I listened. It was Anne, my brother’s wife. Could I call her on Jeff’s cell phone, she asked in an even voice.

I had barely ended the call and begun to form the thought something must be wrong before my sister’s number showed up on the screen, and I knew something was.

A heart attack?

“Sharyn?”

“Have you spoken to Anne?”

“I just listened to a voice mail asking me to call.”

I had stood from the sofa, was making my way for some reason to my desk.

“Are you sitting down?” Sharyn asked.

I had sat down.

“What?” I said urgently. “What?”

“Jeffrey’s dead.”

My head sunk toward the desk as the howl of protest rose up in me along with my fist, the fear that I had kept buried, sometimes withdrew to hold and worry like a bead, then quickly stuffed away again, all the fears, the worries, the anxieties that rise up in a mind, in a life, that never come to pass, surely this was meant to be one too –

No! No! No! My fist pounded the desk with every growling, aching howl of agony.

Fist pounding, right first, up, down with every scream, No! No! No!

Julia ran to me, threw her arms around me in tears.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

We sobbed, we shook, we lamented. Jeffrey, dear Jeffrey.

We gathered ourselves. I told Sharyn we would go the emergency room, where Anne awaited us. I stood near the door before we left, as Julia collected some last items we might need, my body wracked inside the way it had been the night in Paris I nearly choked to death and Julia saved my life with the Heimlich, the way I had felt in the emergency room at UCLA, after my car was totaled by the woman who ran the light, before Jeff came to get me, when I thought I was about to go into shock, though I did not.

I thought I would have a heart attack myself.

I asked Julia to drive. I called my department chair from the car and asked her to cancel my classes for me. I turned to the window.

From Marina del Rey to West Hills in the San Fernando Valley, thirty to forty minutes at that time of night, to think, to sit stunned in the well of the passenger seat and watch the black, bleak profiles of the Santa Monica Mountains pass on either side, eternal witnesses to the long procession of the dead and grieving.

We turned into a parking lot we had visited many times. All the illnesses of my parents’ declining years, taking my mother home to die in her bed, standing around his hospital bed with Sharyn, Jeff, and Anne to watch my father die, his eyes staring up at us in his final silent glowing moments, shining with unaccountable beauty.

Now Jeff.

As we walked from the car to the emergency room entrance, Julia held my arm to brace me. These were the last moments of its being only hypothetical, a tale told of the end that comes to all of us, even those we love, even us, the myth of creation and destruction we worship and deny. But now, once we walked through that door and down the corridor…

I pulled aside the curtain. Jeff lay on his right side, a tube still in his throat. So still. Behind him, to his right, sat his oldest friend and his wife. In a chair by his head, Anne sat. I stared. Just as with my mother and my father, one feels in an instant – faster than an instant, it is in the tissue of life – the difference between sleep and death, the cold absence. The life is of the body, but the person is not the body, however we may adore and worship it.

Anne called me to her chair. You sit with him, she said.

I took her place. I reached out with my right hand and caressed my brother’s cheek and hair as I would never have done in life. I leaned in close, repeating my love in whispers to his vacant gaze. For what I had observed from above, I could now see clearly and directly. Jeff’s left eye had remained half open, and it was staring now right at me.

AJA

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Creative

A Geology of Birds

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My parents were fortunate enough to live long lives, my mother, Helen, until 88, my father even longer. For the last eleven years of my mother’s life, after some decades of their wandering and separation, the three children had come together again in the same city. The birds had flocked together once more. Mother and father took wing to join them, and all flew home together – a second family life less complicated than the first, unburdened by grievances, by then let go, lifted aloft by love and joy in relationship. It was the gift of all our lives.

One element in this experience, different from that of friends who lost parents much earlier in life, was the that of persisting in relationship with parents many long years after the original basis of that relationship had passed, even, in many respects by the end, been reversed. This is a poem I wrote about that experience, while my parents were still alive. It was, then, “for my parents, grown old.”  It’s for my mother today.

A Geology of Birds

Water has worn us, like more time’s mountain
flow we could ever have seen coming
left us on this present bank like stones
found in near relation on the ground.
The inexorable flood rounds us
apart, our mineral origin
matter only for geologist’s eyes.

Who would have thought
the birth cries, stone’s cries
water forgot, we’d forget?
A mother’s songs of deliverance drift
homeless in the burbling stream
a father’s tillering hand lies idle
and ritual kisses
try to shape from lips
an early, pressing need
like the air we’d gasp for lack of.

But need
like the nested sparrow’s
gaping mouth, wild with hunger
for the seed of all that follows
need departs, a winter’s calling
and we fly, stones into birds
into another hemisphere
so far from any beginning
nearer even the youngest’s end
riding currents we cannot name
feeling, as we seek what calls us
we see a wing we knew.

AJA

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Creative

Rescue Me

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My brother, Jeff, and I, Fort Ticonderoga, New York, about 1956. Jeff was born this day in 1947.

When I was in the second grade, I ran away from home. I told one or two of my classmates at school of my intention, and at the end of the day, when the school bus from P.S. 18 dropped us off about a mile further west along Hillside Avenue, in Queens Village, in front of the Bell Park Manor Terrace Garden Apartments, I avoided the large center court of apartments where I lived with my parents and my sister and brother, and I followed an alternative, wending route through other courts, making my way up the gently inclining hill in the winter snow. When I reached Manor Road, which cut the Manor apartments in half in a brief arc between 229th Street and Hillside Avenue again, I was still in familiar if not everyday territory. There were still more, familiar looking garden apartments and courts to traverse before reaching the next landmark of Stronghurst Avenue.

When I arrived at Stronghurst Avenue, the outer perimeter of the Manor, I stopped. What faced me now were “the woods.” “The woods” – as they were to the child I was, a city boy in the midst of an outer borough of New York City – were actually a long corridor of trees, through which one could not see, that bounded what I did not know was on the other side of them – the Grand Central Parkway of New York. The Grand Central, which as a young man I would later travel so often, wended its own way through the city, to the Triborough Bridge, connecting before that to the Van Wyck Expressway for a more direct route to the center of Manhattan. I suppose what I imagined beyond the woods, at only seven years old, was the frightening and forbidding forest of fairy tale. What lay truly beyond them was just as great a world of metropolitan wonder and fear. In either case, I was at my limit. I hadn’t the knowledge or wits or courage to go any farther. I had not gone very far at all. Even more sad and dejected than when I set out, I plopped myself down on my lunch box to sit.

I had run away because I was the youngest child of a boisterous and emotionally tumultuous family within which the painfully shy and dreamy child I was, however pampered and loved, felt disregarded, not as a subject of care, but as a person. I was lost in my imagination, unheeded, and I was no one.

My older brother, Jeff, was not no one. Jeff, unwound coil of anxious energy that he was, was known, for his innocent mischief throughout the neighborhood, as “the little redheaded bastard,” and Jeff was someone. As different as we were – and as is, I suppose, every proper relation of older and younger brother – ours was a brotherhood of love and hate and adoration.

With the light still in the sky, but the day waning, I spied from my seat on the sidewalk, looking back down the hill though the courts, Jeff slowly making his way in my direction. One of my friends had told of my plans – I must have imparted my intended direction – and our parents had sent my brother out to find me. I recall that as he advanced up the hill with all the begrudging annoyance of a twelve year old boy who had had his afternoon of delicious adventure spoiled by his pest of a baby brother, Jeff called out to me the warning that I’d better not run. I feel certain that amid the warning, or certainly to end it, had come the emphatic, “you pecker.”

Jeff took me home.

When we were home, our older sister, Sharyn, fulfilled her role, as only she sat alone with me in the room Jeff and I shared and listened and consoled me as I cried of my pain. But the role of my brother, if it had not been before, was that day set. Whenever I was in trouble or need, for the rest of his life, my brother came for me, rescued me, or took or led me home.

When I was fourteen, and an older boy, amid some football fun, slugged me in the face, it was Jeff, already by then slighter and shorter than I, who flew at him, took  him to the ground, and pummeled him into regret.

If I was lost, Jeff would tell me how to find my way. If my first car broke down, old and past repair on a Manhattan street, it was Jeff who came to help me junk it.

When I was seventeen, and the Sixties caught up with me at a huge house party that ended in a mass arrest, and for me, a final acid trip that went horribly wrong – my screaming in terror and nightmare and needing to be restrained, returning to reality at last on an emergency room stretcher soaked in urine and sweat – it was Jeff, emissary again from our parents to a world too alien for them even to imagine, who was the first real thing I saw, standing painfully beside me as I confessed to him in horror and grief, “I blew it.” Jeff, only twenty-two himself, caressed my head and told me I would be okay now.

Six years later, running from a broken love affair, I followed Jeff, for the first time, to Los Angeles. He and his wife, Anne, took me into their Malibu apartment, and I went to work in the antiques business Jeff and some New York friends had opened.

Through all of this time, as I tore against the gripping intensity of my own interiority, Jeff was my model of what it was to be free of it. If I wanted to be more confident and gregarious, more adept at encountering the world with ease and success, the master of a moment and not a brooder on it, I had Jeff before me to demonstrate how it was done. I was not Jeff, could not be Jeff, but in all the ways I was unhappy with myself, I wanted to be Jeff.

Six years later again, the world turned around, I was a successful young executive faced with a life-determining decision. Offered a momentous promotion that would mean almost certain wealth, but the loss for good, I was sure, of the person I really was and the life I was meant to lead, I withdrew to my Manhattan apartment for a long weekend of thought. There should have been nothing to consider. But a brief few years in business had saved me from myself, had brought me to myself, or part of myself. I had encountered the word with success, in every way one could mean the word, and I felt liberated. During that weekend, I spoke to only one person – Jeff, by phone, in Los Angeles. He helped me to make the decision, the opposite of what he would have chosen for himself, but which he understood was what I really wanted. He helped me to feel right about the choice that everyone else would question.

If our lives were rewards for daring choices, in true commitment, the shape of a pleasing story, a decade later mine would not have reached its bottom. But it had. I moved to Los Angeles again, where Jeff – and Sharyn – took me in, gave me a place to live while I found work and saved money. Jeff helped me find a car. He helped me find my apartment. Just a few years earlier, when Sharyn hit her own hard times, she also had moved to Los Angeles, and Jeff had taken her in, too, with her daughter, Jennifer. After, he helped them find a place to live, where the schools were good for Jenny. At a later time, when Sharyn needed a job, Jeff gave her one.

When a car accident left bones fractured and broken, it was Jeff who retrieved me from the emergency room, took me home with him and cared for me, with Anne, until I could move on my own.

When I called him to get me from another hospital, checking myself out after surgery, against doctor’s orders, because “I need to get this fucking thing out of me,” it was Jeff, with our father, who came quickly with a car to take me home.

It would continue all of Jeff’s life.

During our mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s, it was Jeff’s extra burden to be the only voice that could calm her, tamp down the demon of her anxiety. Even before, but more yet after she died, Jeff became our father’s best friend. He loved and so admired the small, uneducated immigrant who had shown us such devotion and who faced his great old age and end with fearless calm and stoicism.

So it was that, all that behind us, sometime around Passover last year, Jeff and I met for a dinner at Nate ‘n Al’s Deli in Beverly Hills. We tried to feel our mother’s love in the stuffed cabbage, recall our father’s joy in a pastrami sandwich. We talked about our lives

We talked for some time about the difficulty I had been having for nearly a year in selling the motor home – a thirty-seven foot Tiffin Allegro Bay – Julia’s and my travels in which were the genesis of this blog. With skills I had partly learned from Jeff, I had negotiated hard for the coach in the lead up to the fall ’08 economic meltdown, when the RV business was already hurting, and gotten a price that had the dealer still moaning even as we signed the papers. Now, the RV business even worse, especially for a private seller needing the cash, the only genuinely interested party for my sale was the same dealer we had purchased from. They were getting their own back and offering two thirds what I knew the motor home would be worth in a good economy. After thirty years of selling real estate, Jeff was now dealing with this for a living, trying to persuade unhappy sellers that the only thing worse than selling their homes for prices they didn’t like was selling them six months later for prices they would like even less. You need the money, he said. When you have the cash in hand and you’re relieving all those financial pressures, you’ll be feeling good about that and focusing less on the price you sold for.

I listened. We finished dinner, took a stroll, and stopped in at the bar of the Mirage Hotel. We sat in a couple of club chairs and enjoyed our Scotches. Now Jeff talked. While I had been having my great adventure on the road for a year, during the economic crisis his financial life had fallen apart. This I knew already. For two years he could barely sleep at night. Everywhere he tried to make some light, it got only darker. He was afraid he would lose everything. Now, he was cutting back on his health insurance coverage. Anne had chronic ailments, so he was maintaining the coverage on her, but he was saving a few thousand dollars by reducing his coverage to, practically, a catastrophic only plan. We considered the risks.

“The bottom line,” he said to me, “is you never know what’s going on inside your body.”

Finally, we walked to the same underground parking lot we had both, coincidentally parked in. We descended the elevator, first to the second level for him, then on to the third for me. When the door opened, we hugged and kissed on the check as we always did, and he walked out into the garage toward his car. I followed him with my eyes, I see him still, as the door closed like a shot in a film and he was gone.

About three weeks later, he called on a Sunday morning while I was still in bed watching the weekly news programs. For the first time, since we saw each other, things were looking up. He had closed a lot of deals – he had been working so hard, never giving up, driving himself – and money was coming in. In July, Sharyn, now living in Cleveland near Jennifer, would be celebrating her 70th birthday. Her son, Rob, cousins, and I were flying out for it, but Jeff had long said he couldn’t afford it and couldn’t afford to get away. Now he said he could. He had looked in to booking a flight, might fly with me. He also wanted to go on to New York with me afterwards, where I had planned a long visit. He would stay with me for a week or so.

We were so excited. We hadn’t been in New York together in over a decade. Now we would walk the streets again that ran in us like rivers. We would breathe it in, remember our youths and our family in it.

Then I told Jeff that since our evening out, I had sold the motor home. I had basically accepted the dealer’s price, squeezing another thousand out of them. Jeff was very happy to hear it, even happier when something I said just before we hung up made clear that it was out talk over dinner that persuaded me to let go and make the deal. And he had been right. Cash in hand already, problems getting solved, I was feeling okay about it.

“Really?” Jeff said.

He paused.

“I’m really glad you told me that.”

Then we hung up, planning to speak in days about our flights to Cleveland and New York.

When he left the phone, Jeff told Anne what I had said about his role in my selling the motor home, and how good it made him feel to know it.

The next evening, on the tennis court with his friends, Jeff began to feel funny. A minute or two later, having retreated to the bench beside the court, where his pals hovered around him, his head jerked back from the rupture in his chest, and he fell to the floor. His friends then tried  to do with all that was in them what I have wished every day for exactly six weeks short of a year I could do – rescue him.

In the near year since that night, I have thought every day about who my brother was to me, what he was in my life, and how to live my life without him. I had imagined, in the hope we all blindly live in, that we would become old men together. I had thought that as time took so much of its payment for long life, if one is lucky enough to have the barter, the same reflective shadow that had hovered over me since my earliest memories, in that childhood bedroom, would still be with me to remind me, against all the growing sense of the illusory passage that advancing age brings to life, that it had all been real and just as I remember, because he had lived it too. That I would be the same for him. I have no memory of life before that bedroom, no recollection of experience before experience with Jeff.

I have thought about who we were as personalities, as people with qualities and attributes, skills and talents. It began to seem true to me that for all the stark differences visible in childhood, and that had diminished with age, that we had been variations on a theme. I began to think of us, in an odd conceit, in terms of a graphic equalizer for audio. Each graphic band for a frequency might represent sociability or introspection, athleticism or intellectual inclination, shrewdness or nurturing tendencies, sense of humor or world view. All of the same frequency channels were present in both of us. Adjust this one higher, this one lower, these two now up over here, down just a little bit there, all of these, so many, the same, and in one case you got Jeff, the other me.

It isn’t as if we were identical twins. We lived different lives, for several periods in different cities and states. Our brotherly relationship was not without blemish. I know there were times I disappointed him, even hurt him, even deeply. And with death, regret is a rock you push up a hill for the rest of your life.

But if everyone of us is a world, with webs of association and memory and sensory connection and personal relation, with apprehensions of human history and of the universe, and emblazoned on the film of our minds the vision of a certain quality of light on the streets of New York in 1957, and with all of it an intuition of the worlds that lived in some other people at different times and places, then there was no world closer to mine than Jeff’s. Unbeknownst to me to start, increasingly by the end, he was my secret sharer of experience, by which a self is reflected to itself in another’s experience. In the first weeks and months, there were conversations that began in me to an internalized, anticipated Jeff that were then cut short in surprise – conversation for which there is no substitute for Jeff. Parts of me are now dormant, never to be awakened again. The loss of a person you love is the loss, too, of a part of yourself.

A few days after Jeff died, I gave a eulogy at his memorial service. I tried amid all my grief to capture the very great fun of Jeff, and there was much laughter. The rest of the family spoke, and we invited friends and coworkers to share their memories and feelings too. It was a minor revelation to meet so many people his family did not know who appreciated him so much and for the same qualities. No one failed to speak of Jeff’s bonhomie and his often outrageous sense of humor, including the loud, cackling laugh that could dominate a room.

Among the last to speak were Jeff’s tennis buddies, the men who had been with him at the end. They shared some of what had happened, though in less detail than they gave me privately. To a man, they spoke not only of Jeff’s quality as a player, in a game he took up only in his mid-fifties, but of what a great teammate he was, always encouraging his fellows, even on his own off days. When the last of them spoke, the reminiscence took a surprising turn. This friend reiterated how fine a teammate Jeff was. Then he said something else. The friend is black, and when he said it, he spoke the word “wasn’t” with a black vernacular pronunciation, in which the “s” nearly disappears, that aided the delivery. And his timing, with the briefest delay, was perfect.

Sure, Jeff was a great teammate, he said. But as for his play –

“He wuhdn’t that good.”

You could sense – I thought I did, anyway – a hiccup in the room, as some felt momentarily, perhaps, that something inappropriate had been said. But those of us who knew Jeff best did not hesitate at all. We roared with sudden laughter. His friend well timed a repetition of the line, and we all roared again. Nobody loved more than Jeff, after his father, to puncture pomposity or a too solemn moment. Just a few weeks ago, our nephew Robert and I were speaking on the phone, recalling the moment and the joke, and reached at the same instant for the very same phrase in affirmation, that Jeff himself, “would have been on the floor” at the joke. The memory of it is part of the memory of him now and of his end, and that is just as he would have it.

Except that he was that good. He was.

AJA

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Creative Culture Clash

Poetic License

As I mentioned last week, I am now contributing poetry editor at West magazine. Among my contributions in each issue will be a regular column on poetry called Poetic License. This issue’s essay is entitled “Poetic Thinking.”

It is a Hollywood axiom that the first step to being a producer is calling yourself a producer. Producing begins with selling and you have to sell yourself, to yourself and to others. If you don’t believe you’re a producer, no one else in Hollywood is going to either.

It doesn’t quite work that way for writers, and for poets especially it could be that even if you write the stuff – doggerel and bad poetry can be found everywhere – you’ll really only be a poet not when you call yourself a poet, but when you think like one.

When I teach introductory literature or poetry classes, I begin by introducing students to two contrasting traditions of consciousness that I label the Logos and the Tao. The ancient Greek word logos, which means word, idea, story, explanation, discourse, reason, is central to the Western philosophical and Judeo-Christian traditions. In the New Testament’s original Greek, John 1:1 reads, “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.” In Socratic philosophy, commitment to the logos is a belief in the discursive nature of knowledge, that what we know can be put into words, is articulable, and that what is not articulable is not knowledge. What is real is subject to reason, and what can be reasoned can be expressed in words.

The Tao (Dao), meaning the way, or path, or principle, is the basis of a Chinese spiritual tradition that has broad application across many other Eastern traditions as well. It offers a contrasting sense of ultimate reality. An essential statement about the Tao is the paradoxical notion that “the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao.” That is, ultimate reality, ultimate knowledge or understanding, is beyond words. Words limit reality by categorizing it, confining and reducing it. The moment you think you have identified the Tao, by naming it – that’s not the Tao. The Tao is something other, something different, something more. Still, it is a kind of understanding, reached through a form of consciousness.

In Zen practice, in the koans (paradoxes) that practitioners will puzzle over, and in the simple, often puzzling verbal responses a master may give a disciple seeking answers, words are not containers of meaning, but conveyances to it – if one can find one’s way into them. So, too, it often is with poetry, that words, rather than landmarks, are pointers, signs that say, not “You are here,” but… “this way.”

Continued

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Creative

The Privilege of Being Here

My last post, about my nephew Rob’s birthday, got me to thinking. (There are exits all around.) Over a pre-birthday, birthday dinner this past Saturday, Rob acknowledged to me that he actually doesn’t feel very celebratory on his birthday. Actually, neither do I, though birthdays in our family, as in most others, have for years been traditional family occasions. On my own, after our dinner was over, I got to wondering just what the big deal is all about.

The celebration begins in childhood, promoted by parents, and children quickly understand the birthday fete as a celebration of their specialness – what parents want their children to feel about themselves. Quickly enough, too, children come to conceive the birthday as marking their advance in life. They are supposed to (they understand) grow up and mature, become big people, which most of the child wants to happen. (Another part of the child wants to remain a child.) So for children, then, we get it easily enough. They are marching toward their natural goal of adulthood, and the birthday celebrates their progress.

But what about once we reach that stage? Why do we keep celebrating? There may be further age-related goals, like the inheritance at twenty-five (ahh, missed that one) or the plan to run for congress that cannot be fulfilled until thirty, but otherwise, past some point in adulthood that each individual will consider prime (I conceived it, wrongly for me, as thirty-five), it becomes, in various considerations, a downward momentum.

Why, then, do we keep on celebrating?

If you are the naturally celebratory type, like the well-known Julia of this blog (check out her photo gallery above), the happy occasion is like putting on a show was for the 30s Mickey Rooney type. It’s Friday? Let’s have a party! It’s life! Let’s have a party! Let’s celebrate life.

Some of us are less psychologically salubrious, more constitutionally lugubrious.

I’m another year older? Waaahhhh!

One year more of physical decline, one year closer to death – what’s to celebrate? That you’re still alive? Hell, you can do that any day. It doesn’t have to be the one day that reminds you that you’re still alive, but for one year less than you were last year. What’s with that?

Maybe it helps to think more fundamentally, more originally, by which I mean not thinking something new, but thinking about something as if it were new, as if you had never thought about it before. Back in the mid-20th-century heyday of Continental philosophy and of Existentialism, the question of why there is something rather than nothing was considered most fundamental and profound. (Because God created the world, you understand, being a philosophical cheat.) It is rather extraordinary how that question has lost its cogency. Analytic philosophy decided that the question, like all questions not amenable to analytic approaches, is meaningless. The only fields that remained interested in the question were particle physics, cosmology, and theoretical physics. Their considerations are the closest thing we have to what Continental philosophy used to attempt. (Now Continental philosophy concerns itself primarily with counter-intuitions that serve admirably as the bases for disruptive political ideologies, but according to which, by my last count – two billion and proceeding – no one actually lives.) The approach of physicists, however, is decidedly more … physical than philosophical, with a dollop of speculation thrown into the mix once the physical inevitably hits, as seems fitting, a brick wall.

Why we are here. Or maybe, more simply, just that we are here. Seeing, feeling, hearing, imagining. The warmth of the sun on our flesh. The cool of the water. The wind. The sea salt smell. Our consciousness. Aliveness. Love. And maybe the melancholy we have to feel about the inevitable loss of it all – of life – and its final absence, is all that needs to be said about the magnitude of its presence.

Paul Newman, whose name often comes up in these considerations, was, if I have figured it correctly (and I’m quite certain I have) in every genuine, non-hipsterish sense of the word, the coolest physical and astral body to have graced the planet. And in addition to his deep and affecting talents as actor and director, his joy in auto racing, and his political and philanthropic commitments, it turned out he was something of a Bodhisattva as well. It was widely reported after Newman’s death from lung cancer at the age of 83, nearly three years ago, that in the final days of his life, he sat with his daughter one late afternoon in the garden of his Connecticut home and quietly said, “It’s been a privilege to be here.”

Thinking on the subject can’t end so simply, though. There are the tortured, the starved, the enslaved and abused, the beheaded and the crushed lives, and, as Ivan Karamazov complained, the suffering of innocent children. What privilege in that?

All that may be more than one can consider on a birthday – more, no doubt, than most want to, though a few minutes would do no harm and almost surely do a little good. If you’re having a birthday, it may be no privilege for the sufferers of the world – of the suffering beyond redemption – but it is some kind of privilege for you. Thinking about that won’t answer the larger questions, but it will focus us on what Newman seems to have perceived so finally, just as he was about to lose it, about what he had had. That has to be a start.

AJA

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Creative The Political Animal

My Political Calendar for Friday, January 14, 2011

6 a.m. Morning in America

6:30 a.m. Exercise 1st Amendment right 2 tell liberal neighbor he’s an asshole.

7 a.m. Exercise 2nd Amendment right: target practice (neighbor leaves 4
work)

7:30 a.m. Morning Joe

8:30 a.m. “Rush” Hour

9:30 a.m. National conversation about race

10:30 a.m. Seek the better angels of our nature in a shining city on a hill

11:30 a.m. Rex. Winthrop Hotel. Rm.776

11:40 a.m. Open Goldline account

12:00 p.m. Prayer lunch (spring mix salad w/Ranch dressing, Chicken Cordon
Bleu, peas w/pearl onions, rhubarb pie)

1 p.m. National conversation about religion and tolerance

2 p.m. National conversation about mental health (Tucson)

3 p.m. Talked out. Tweet and retweet, Andrew Breitbart

4 p.m. Nap. (SP, MB, MM, AC) Conservative women rock.

5 p.m. Seminar: Strauss and liberal nihilism

6: p.m. Long day. Shot: Bud and Ted

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Categories
Creative

1 World, Ocean View

It was New Year’s Day. It was the California coast as we rode our bikes north in celebration of the new year. We pushed our loaner one-gear cruisers up the hills they weren’t meant to climb, straining against gravity and a little age. We topped one hill to arrive at a bluff side turnout, where two women and a marbled mutt gazed out over the beach and ocean below. The sands were brown with winter and weeks of rain, the water silver with light below the gray sky. It was the elemental world, and the gulls – the gulls were everywhere littering the air and waves. They soared and dipped. They glided and dove. They sat like Buddhas on the water. Birds in flight, water in motion, all over the world’s roundness. What more was there to know? We rode on.

Later we arrived below at the beach. We parked our bikes and took to the rocks to sit and watch. Still the gulls swarmed, more densely and darkly. Outliers skimmed the wavelets away trailed by their tiny young. Latecomers swooped down. But it began to seem a black storming hunger now, a frenzy in the air as the swirl of movement grew ever more intensely wild. And amid it all was the diving – the nose diving, straight from mid air, sudden and steep, breaking the surface in explosions of water, spreading along the shore and ever more concentrated, as if the ocean were being bombed. Oh, it was a marvel, it was a sight, this wondrous and varied nature we treasured in the new year.

And I began to think of what was happening beneath the water.

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Creative

“Mac”

“Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair.”

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

“Do you really think he was born on Christmas Day,” my mother said.

I was already fully adult, but felt instantly young and naïve.

“No one knows when he was born. We don’t even know the year.”

My parents, Meyer “Mac” and Helen Adler

My mother then went on, at my questioning, to share with me for the first time all of the details that were, together, her reason for thinking that my father was actually born in 1909, and not 1910. When he and his older sister Goldie arrived at Ellis Island, whatever meager documents they had – and later accounts to my mother from Goldie of events and years – seemed persuasively to indicate 1909. For this to be wrong, my mother explained to me, citing the accounts and the documents that once there had been, but that were no more, Goldie, a very vain woman, would had to have been making herself older than the two years she claimed to have on my father.

The information my mother shared with me, all of which in the years since I have completely forgotten, persuaded me, too, that my father was born in 1909. Since in those years, sometime in the 1980s, I was the only one of my parents’ children still also living in New York City, and much more involved in their lives at the time than my older sister or brother – I took an executive sibling decision. I made my father one year older. Remarkably, this act of pedantry applied to a whole life by the youngest child was accepted by all with only mild curiosity regarding the evidence. Even Mac, my father, accepted the additional year without complaint.

This situation prevailed for about fifteen or twenty years. Then, when my father was approaching his ninetieth birthday or so – let’s say ninetieth – I made casual mention of that upcoming milestone.

To which my father replied, “I’m not 90. I’m 89.”

Hm, I thought. I hadn’t (highly educated and sensitive individual that I am) realized that this was an issue, that Mac, had, for these whatever number of years, been harboring resentment against my diktat. And I thought instantly, without remark, that when your beloved father, a mostly very easy going guy, tells you directly and clearly that he is 89 and not 90 – well, you don’t argue with him. And what did I really know, anyway?

My father regained his year.

So this is to tell you, then, that today would have been Mac’s one hundredth birthday.

Mac

My father died on August 10, 2005, at the age of, ahem, 94, so he very nearly made it. After his death, I discovered documents in his keeping that indicated in one case a birth year of 1912, and in another, a judge’s decision that my grandfather Yoina (“Joe” in the document) had not been breaking child labor laws when he permitted my father to work in 1927 because it had been established that Mac was 17 in that year.

The story, the meager story, all through the childhoods of my sister, brother, and me, and into our adulthoods, was that my father was from a shtel in Russia called Orinin. He and Goldie had been abandoned by their parents in my father’s infancy. The couple divorced (who knows how, or if, really) and both emigrated to America (together? separately?) leaving the children in the care of their grandparents, my grandmother’s parents. Mac and Goldie left Russia when my father was ten, and wandered Europe for seven years before arriving at Ellis Island in 1927. Both parents had remarried in the U.S., accounting for the four American-born half brothers and sisters my father had in addition to Goldie. Beyond this basic story, little was added for many years. Mac simply did not talk about his past.

Instead, my father fully embraced his Americanness, and was thoroughly a New Yorker. In the 1930s he lived in Brighton Beach, attended concerts at Lewisohn Stadium at the City College of New York, slept on Central Park benches on summer nights, and dined in Sheepshead Bay (the first date with my mother). By the time I came along in the Eisenhower years, Mac had served in the army, then earned his citizenship in 1947. He had his Chevy, then his Pontiac Ventura, and he navigated the expressways, parkways, and turnpikes of New York City like any native man of the boroughs. Directions from Flatbush to the Grand Concourse were relished in their offering, precise and detailed in their possible variations like the recipe to a French sauce. Dad was a saucier of New York subways and roadways. We were an American family, and it was easy to forget that Mac came from a world that was unfathomable to the rest of us.

Though my mother, Helen, was born of parents also from Russia, she herself had been born and raised in New York, and while Mac’s accent, to the end of his life, was so thick that others would sometimes confide they could barely understand him, we hardly heard it at all. In a way, it was easier to forget his origins precisely because, beyond his silence about them, they were so extraordinarily foreign to the America in which we lived. He wasn’t just born in another country – he was born in rural pre-Revolutionary Russia. He might as well have been born in the nineteenth century. I studied the era, like the Napoleonic or the industrial revolution in England, in college history classes. How could my own father actually be of it? It was not easily accomplished as a child, without some assistance, to turn from Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo to the peasantry under Czar Nicholas II.

Mac, Helen, Yoina, my grandfather, and Aunt Goldie

Yet the signs were all around. There were the names and the accents, of Goldie and her Polish husband Chaim. Mac’s mother, Minnie who had abandoned him all those years before, and to whom he struggled to no avail to be a loving son loved in return –  she was probably in her late 60s in my earliest memories of her, but she looked, to a child, a hundred, and with her square, weathered face, her stocky build, and her kerchiefed head, she could have been, during her regular Sunday visits to our Queens apartment, any Babushka plucked the day before from a field in Podolia. And by then she had been living in the United States for nearly fifty years.

There was another sign of where Mac had come from and what had been before us all: his anger. Though we all knew the enormity of his love for us – his love and our mother’s was the atmosphere we breathed – Mac’s explosions of temper when frustrated, provoked, or disobeyed were like that of Moses smashing the Tablets. They towered over the family life. But we children could not then conceive the abandonment, the dangers, and the hardships that had forged that anger in him.

As it happened, too, as some children will experience, I lived through a period of deep disappointment in my father. When I was a child, he doted on me as the last born, unintended and then embraced with love all the more for it. And he was, indeed, my Moses. As a very young child, in the Catskills, I would not move my bowels all week until my father arrived for the weekend to hold my hand on the toilet. When in pain from some mishap, I cried “My daddy! My daddy!” as if invoking a presiding spirit. The earliest extant photo of me is as an infant cradled in my father’s arms on a New York City beach.

Then, briefly, at the age of fifteen, I saw my father differently. He had had me relatively late in life, so was ten to fifteen years older than the fathers of my friends. He was short and slight, at his largest 5’4” and 140 lbs. He was, aside from the deep practical education he had gained in politics and world affairs, almost completely uneducated. He could barely sign his name in English, and this he would do only unobserved. He could not teach me sports or guide my intellect, and the quiet caution before any form of authority that was the product of the hateful and murderous world he had survived in his youth, but that I did not yet understand, I perceived as an embarrassing timidity.

But this would soon pass, and how it would turn by the end of his life. Thirty-six years ago today Mac was having the heart attack that nearly killed him at sixty-four. The doctor’s said he had been walking around having it for days. In his life he had learned to bear much pain in silence. After he recovered, having seen his life, he told me, “differently now,” my father became a changed man. Over the remainder of his years, I saw him become very mildly angry perhaps a couple of times. He took pleasure in the love of his family, in daily walks, the sun on his face, and the renewal of the world around him. I have never known another person to so heal his own afflictions and transform himself.

Over time, during my adulthood, more details of Mac’s early life came out, dribs here, drabs there, like the leak of memory seeping through cracks. Orinin had not been in Russia, exactly, but Ukraine, though the latter was then ruled by Russia. There had been, in addition to his grandparents, an Aunt, Aikah, who had cared for him as a child. She survived the Holocaust and emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in 1980, when she and Mac had not seen each other in nearly 60 years. Another aunt and an uncle had not survived. Mac did not recall his grandmother’s name, so I concluded that she had died when he was still quite young. His grandfather’s name – my great grandfather – was Zakiah. Zakiah was a liveryman, and he would often taxi people the ten miles to the medieval city of Kamianets-Podilskyi. At the end of the day, it was my father’s job to water the horses. My father was perhaps not 10, but maybe about 12 when he and Goldie left Orinin on their own, rowed across the Zbruch River into Poland in the dark of night.

My great grandfather Zakiah Meltzer

I can recall with utter clarity the first time my father described to me, as we drove along Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens some time during the 1970s, the pogroms that swept through Orinin – how Zakiah would lead the family quickly up a hill through the trees and across the Jewish cemetery to the home of friendly Ukrainians, who would hide the family indoors. Once, lucky enough to be spared his life, Zakiah was caught and knocked to the ground by a Cossack on horseback, to have his leather boots stripped from his feet. I remember staring into my father’s eyes and imagining the world that lived on the other side of them, the images flickering there like a moviola projecting back in time.

Revelations might come in sudden, casual disclosures, but they were never, even then, easily achieved. For instance, one morning in Mac’s late 80s, I was visiting for the weekend breakfast he made for me and served me – bagels and lox and eggs and onions – and going over the daily newspaper together as we had since my childhood. There was some story I don’t recall of events in Nairobi.

“I’ve been there,” Mac said.

“Where?”

Where. Nairobi.”

“Nairobi. Kenya. You’ve been to Nairobi, Kenya. When the hell were you ever in Nairobi, Kenya?”

When. On the way here.”

“What were you doing in Nairobi?”

“They took us there.”

They. Who’s they? They took you there from where?”

“How do I know? A Jewish organization.”

“From where?”

“Where would they take me from? – from Russia.”

“Russia? But you’d already left Russia. You were in Poland.”

(A little impatient.) “I came back.”

“You came back from Poland to Russia? You never told us that.”

“Of course.” (Of course.)

“Where’d you go from there?”

“From Russia?”

“From Nairobi.”

“To London.”

“London. Now he’s been to London. By ship?”

“What then, by horse?”

“Where’d you go from there?”

“Then I came here.”

“I thought you came from Bremerhaven.”

“That was the second time.”

It wasn’t simply a matter of turning on the recorder and letting him speak.

After our mother died, I spent more time trying to draw Mac out. One afternoon in Marina del Rey, California – the state to which, over sixteen years, the whole family had separately moved – sitting on a bench and gazing peacefully at the sun-starred Pacific, Mac told me about the small lake where he took Zakiah’s horses to drink. He would lead the horses into the lake to refresh them, then grasp a tail to be pulled for a ride through the water. At night once, by the lake, the full moon hanging hugely over him, Mac became scared, and he ran through the trees to try to escape the moon, but each time he turned he found it always there.

When, in early 2005, Julia planned a travel photo workshop in Transylvania, so close to Ukraine, I began to research in earnest. On a trip to New York, I spent hours in the New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division collection. Though I had never found reference to it anywhere before, in one small book I finally saw the name – Orinin. Somehow the memories of my father had seemed the dream of ages. Now, objectively, it was real. Not only had there been an Orinin – it still existed. And I learned more.

During the ten to twelve years of my father’s parentless childhood in Ukraine he lived through the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, the first great Ukrainian Famine of 1921-23 and one of the great waves of pogroms by Cossacks, all in the birthplace of Hasidism and in one of the centers of Zionist organizing and resistance. The area of Kamianets-Podilskyi was at the front line in World War I, the Austrian military bombarding KP on August 5, 1914. When the Cossacks retook the city, they attacked its Jews, many of whom fled. During the first three years of the Revolution, until 1920, KP changed hands among the Germans, competing Ukrainian forces, and the Bolsheviks. When the Bolsheviks occupied KP in November of 1920, the majority of Kadima, the Zionist student organization, escaped to Palestine. During the Civil War, both the Ukrainians and White Russians conducted pogroms against the Jews. In the Civil War period of 1918-21, it is estimated that 100,000 Ukrainian Jews died in pogroms. During the famine of 1921-23, between 1.5 and 2 million Ukrainians, including Jews, died of starvation or epidemic disease. My father could not say how his grandfather had died. There were many possibilities.

Julia and I left for Transylvania in August 2005. The night before our departure, I had dinner alone with my father. I was going, at last, to Orinin. He had not seen it in perhaps 85 years. How he wished he could go with me. But he was ill from a freak accident that had fractured a vertebra, and he struggled against apparent indigestion to share new details with me. He described the layout of the town to me, in order to help me locate the house in which he lived, attached to a barrel factory. At the lake where he took the horses, there a small waterfall, and it was to that spot that he would lead them to drink.

I did not make it to Orinin on that first attempt. I was called home from Budapest by my brother. I made it back in time to speak with my father one last time, and to be at his side with the rest of the family when he died. His penultimate thought, the next to last time he was conscious, was to think of his children, and to tell my brother of cash he had hidden away. His last act was to stare up from his tubes at my brother, in the middle of the night, and to shake his head. He chose his end as he chose the character of his last decades, as he had not been able to choose his youth. He lived his long old age and faced his death, with humor, grace, and stoic courage.

Two months after Mac died, Julia and I completed our journey to Orinin. What had been the Jewish houses along the main street are now occupied by Ukrainians. There are no more Jews in Orinin. I did the best I could to figure where my father’s house, apparently gone, had been. I attached to a tree a brief account of Mac’s life, and with Julia, and Vitaly and Vasily, our interpreter-guide and our driver, standing by, read it aloud. Then I buried at the spot a time capsule with the account of Mac’s life and photos of his family. I visited the old Jewish cemetery, where presumably my great-grandfather and great-grandmother are buried. There is no way to locate their graves because the stones had long since been overturned and stolen, many used by the Ukrainian wartime mayor to build his new house. On the steps of it are still the inscriptions in Hebrew. We were given the account of the days in August 1941, one month after the birth of my sister in New York City, when nearly all of the Jews of Orinin and Kamianets-Podilskyi were executed by the Nazis.

Vitaly found the current mayor for us, who welcomed us into his office. With Vitaly’s help, I interviewed him. At one point, our subject of discussion led him to interrupt and show us photographs of Orinin’s recent celebration of Ukraine’s fifteenth anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union. I thumbed through the photographs and then stopped, showing them to Julia. Several young women, in traditional garb, were standing by a small waterfall.

Now I interrupted.

“Please, tell me. Where is this?”

At the lake, the mayor told me – just at the edge of town.

“I need to go there,” I said, looking around. “Can you take us there?’

The mayor led us in two cars through the center of town, past the monument to the Great War. We made a right and passed the dirt fork where I believed my father’s house had stood. After only another minute or so of driving, we stopped on a low ridge above the small lake. Off to one side was a new mill. On the other was a tree-covered slope leading up the Jewish cemetery. The remaining open landscape was as it must have been for centuries.

We walked to the far end of the lake. There, at the hillside, was the waterfall. Amid all the growth and rock, there was only one clear path, foot worn, down to the fall. The others stayed behind as Julia and I walked down to it. This was it. There could be no other spot. This was where, 85 and more years behind, my father would have led the horses. This is where they would have dipped their heads to drink. This was where, at 7 or 8 or 9, the boy who would become my father, if he survived, had stood.

Suddenly, Julia turned and walked away. And I was alone with the thoughts the seeds of which had been planted when I lay on the sofa as a boy myself, the ache in my growing bones so deep.

“Rub my feet, daddy,” I would plaint as Mac, this man from some other place, but my father, took them in his hands and healed me.

I imagined as intensely as I could. The soft summer day. The bird calls and rippling waters in the vast rural quiet. No strife in these moments, only the pleasures of the earth, and a boy’s simple wishes. The horses nodding their heads in the cool flow from the fall. And then my father patting one on the haunch, tripping forward behind the horse as it entered the water, reaching for the tail and grabbing it, the boy already caught in the slipstream that has no beginning and that has no end, but for now holding tight to the tail, his eyes half closed in delight and forgetfulness, being glided through the water.

AJA

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Creative On The Road

Who

Arriving home from an evening out a few weeks ago, I sat down at the computer for one last check of email, Facebook, Twitter, all the disparate and convergent paths of communication. I discovered an email that made me cry out. (How soon, already, in resemblance to a long-form letter of lore seems an email to a Facebook message, a tweet, an IM, a Like.)

“Is this you?” it read. “My wonderful friend that I moved from Virginia to NY to work with?  You fell off the face of the earth after I moved back to Virginia.”

I read the words in the wonder of life coming back to me. It was B, after twenty-five years. From so many corners these years, the threads of my life fall at my feet. It took only minutes to write back and say, yes, I am the friend. (“Wonderful” has had its dissenters.)

Increasingly, this happens. From all the distant skies, the birds are calling in flight, waiting for a cry of return. Are you still there? Where? How can I find you?

B had been my assistant – not my number two, but my right arm – when I was an executive in the air courier business. She was the first hire I made after my boss was fired and I was told the same morning that I was now promoted to take his place. I could rely on her for anything, she performed every job meticulously, and she gave me the loyalty, through all the battles of corporate warfare, of a true friend. To have had a B in your life is to have at least once been lucky.

In the 1970s and early 80s, the air courier business, in the excitement and the startup creation, was a little like Silicon Valley two decades later, except the field was not high profile, the billions were millions, and only relatively few became modestly wealthy, or in a handful of cases, more. But there was the exotic allure of international travel and shipping; the compelling attraction of solving, often by the seats of pants already in motion, varied logistical problems, and the hordes of young people in their twenties, mostly male, who rose quickly through the ranks, often to leave to helm their own new companies. Fedex, still Federal Express, had not yet turned a profit. DHL was steeped in the mysteriousness of its origins and ownership.

Part of the excitement was that we were all making it up as we went along. Today, expedited delivery and inventory control logistics are highly professionalized and mathematically systematized activities. In the Seventies, we were cowboys. Today, we have fax machines, email, word-processed documents, uploads, downloads, attachments, imaging. Then, we had telephones and telex machines. If it needed to go somewhere, it went there physically. A contract to a guy fishing in the Alaska wildnerness? A solar panel to Dusseldorf (lost for a month in a warehouse in Marseille)? A rock star’s (male) hairspray to Marrakesh? Sure, we’ll do it. (How are we doing it?)

That first Friday as head of what was then an international department, I told a major client we could get him Sunday delivery in Trinidad. Sunday. In Trinidad. And we didn’t have an agent in Trinidad. But I wasn’t going to mark my first week in charge by telling a major customer no. I didn’t leave the office Friday night or all day Saturday. The phone bill alone lost us money on the job, but I found an agent in Port-of-Spain who understood the demanding nature of American business and who had close contacts in customs. Package delivered. I was on my way. I was 26.

But to where?

I had never wanted to be in business. That wasn’t me. Me, just two or three years earlier – dropped-out of college twice, kicked-out finally – was unemployed and boarding dogs in my Manhattan apartment for extra money. I would walk the city streets, sit in the parks and sink into the hours, vibrating, I felt in my stillness, with the quick atomic motion of the world at rest. If, along the way, in some required contact of daily life, man or woman spoke to me, what came back in return, pressed though the vise of my inwardness, was a croak in the guise of a voice. Once, on a late fall day, I entered the St. Marks Cinema in the East Village and sat through a triple bill of Last Year at Marienbad, La Strada, and La guerre est finie. I emerged six and a half hours later into a chill, melancholy night, driven so deeply into interiority I thought I might never speak again.

Now I was sitting executively behind a wall on a restaurant patio in Las Mercedes, eating my first rabbit and first turtle soup, talking to the man whose company was about to become our new agent in Caracas, and I’m telling him I’m glad he’s lived in the U.S. and understands the demands of American business, and it’s great that his son is going to West Point, but I’ve heard this before, and if six months from now the promised second morning deliveries start becoming afternoon and third morning, I’m going to have to terminate the agreement. (And I did.)

I had flown in a couple of nights before with a dozen boxes or so of medical brochures. They needed on-board accompaniment, I had an idea, and the company president said, sure, go find us a better agent. I had booked a hotel on the coast, in La Guaira, not that far from the airport, thinking the companies I needed to visit would be headquartered in that area, but as it transpired I had to travel by taxi multiple times through the northern mountains that separate Caracas from the coast. The humidity was so thick I changed perspiration-soaked clothes three or four times a day, and during the slow climbs up the mountain highway, stuck interminably behind huge lorries freighted with timber and the same carga larga sign behind them all, I could peer closely through the huge needles of moisture that seemed to hang suspended in the air, study the tin shacks that climbed the mountain sides to the top, housing the city’s poor. They are there still today, home to the Chavezistas. No wonder, I thought, nothing gets delivered on time. It’s an effort to move. Here, sit down. Have a cool drink. Let’s talk a little. It’ll still be there when we’re done.

It is curious how feeling the body more closely, the atmosphere pressing on it, leads to a sharper awareness of its opposite, the formless self the body contains. What was I doing there? Who was I fooling? Everyone, clearly, but myself. I had arrived at National Airport, outside of D.C., for my connecting flight to Miami, only to discover – B. still handling customers and not yet taking care of me – that I had forgotten my passport. On a morning flight the next day, I managed to make the same flight to Caracas. No one needed to know. When I counted up the boxes in the hotel lobby, the cab driver already gone, I found them one short. Now I walked along the coastal highway – he worked the airport and the airport hotels – surely I would see him going one way, returning the other. Come night, I hired another taxi to take me back to the airport. I scanned the line of cabs. I saw him. He saw me. Yes, yes. He had looked for me. He didn’t know my name, my room.

Executive? I couldn’t make a courier delivery without fucking up. But no one had needed to know in either case. If you are only an imposter to yourself, you are in on your own secret. But it was my secret and I did know it, and the sense of otherness enveloping me was only greater, as it so often is, for the foreign locale and my skin crawling with the press of the world upon it. I had to get out, had to walk, to feel space around me, a breeze, any kind of breeze. All around in the darkness along the coastal road, the side streets, I saw figures, caught the tail of furtive movements. I began to conceive the story I would write when home again. A foreigner – always a foreigner – mistaken for someone else. I needed a circumstance to represent this profound  dislocation of identity I felt – a first time homosexual encounter, I imagined, anonymous figures in the dark, a Columbian, in fact, mistaking an unspeaking American, beating him in the shadows, kicking him, spitting out in his contemptuous dismissal, “Venizolano,” the title I gave the story.

Home again, my car gave out. I went to the man who now would be called the head of Human Resources, JD, a huge, rolling, born-again Christian, deeply southern, deeply country, a former good ‘ole boy with a broad blast of white hair and heart wide enough to make every up and-coming young male, every tender female in the company his ward. He took me to the president, who listened.

“Oh, what the hell,” he said, “Give him a car.”

JD told me to find what I wanted on any lot, come back and tell him, and he would work out the lease. Most of the other young directors of operations and VPs of sales were driving Gran Prix’s. That wasn’t what I wanted. Short of an Alfa Romeo, I wanted a 280ZX.  The thing was, the Grand Prix, in 1979 dollars, went for eight thousand dollars. The ZX was twelve.

I reported back to JD.

“Boy!” he bellowed and drawled in a diphthong that had at least three syllables to it – “Boyahhhuh! You got to be SHITTIN’ me! You picked out a twelve thousand dollar car?!”

I was already well into feeling my savoir faire, but I stammered before JD.

“You GOT to be shittin’ me!”

But he hadn’t given me any limit.

Now he gave me the car.

All the young peacocks were stylin’ as they’d say twenty years later. London Fog. Fedoras. Cigars. I went for three piece suits, a brown Borsalino, my ZX. By the time we moved what was now an international division up to New York, near JFK – B. and my number two coming with me – I was living the high life, working endless hours, playing the rest, tooling around town: wine after wine at dinner, taking the measure of every vodka and brandy at The Odeon. CW, ten years my senior, who had bought in as a third, minority owner to lend his international expertise, was now the chief executive of a independent international subsidiary, while I was the chief operating officer. He and I spent late nights at his favorite riverside haunts on the Queens side, bent noses and soaring tenors at tableside. Every Friday we picked an Italian restaurant on the Island for an extended lunch: a couple of cocktails, a bottle or two of wine – the Borolo’s not big enough; let’s try  an Inferno – and we’d saunter into the office cool as two guys who didn’t know they were walking distilleries not pulling it off. In the meantime we were expanding around the world, our own offices in Australia, Brazil, joint ventures in England and France.

In 1980, a still young HBO raised our profile even higher. While NBC would broadcast the big name matches from Wimbledon, as usual, HBO would carry the secondary matches.

Satellite?

No.

Each morning, we flew videotape of the previous day’s matches from London to New York. There was only one way to make the time constraints, though: the Concorde, with an on board courier. This was much too big to let anyone else handle. I set it up myself. And just to be sure there were no kinks in the system, you understand, I made myself the first courier. I enjoyed a few days of Wimbledon (but saw the classic McEnroe loss to Borg from my Murray Hill living room) and flew the Concorde home, with a 9 a.m. London departure, a 9:30 a.m. arrival at JFK, a car to rush the tape to Manhattan, and a full day at the office.

On the plane, it was poached Scotch salmon, champagne, cigars, and brandy from take off to landing. My seatmate perused his leather bound portfolio of Rolls Royces with me. Somewhere in flight, we approached twice the speed of sound. I stared hard out the window. Instead of the usual cruising altitude somewhere in the thirty thousands of feet, we were soaring at fifty-seven thousand. The atmosphere, very rarified, was darkening. The earth was curving. I was very high.

Just short of a year later, B., not much of a New York girl, decided to return to Virginia and soon look for work elsewhere. I wrote a letter of reference intended to ensure employment through any future life. A day that I always knew was coming began to approach in my mind. Then I was made an offer.

My counterpart for the parent company, younger brother of one of the two original owners, was leaving the company. They wanted me to take his place. In the hierarchy of the company, there would be the three owners, and then there would be me. Of course there was much more money. The probable future was clear. It was Friday afternoon.

I spent the weekend at home. I had a long talk with my brother. If I accepted the promotion, it was very likely that by forty, if not before, I would be a wealthy man. I would be a very unhappy, wealthy man. I was struck that I even contemplated it. The brooding young man who had taken a customer service job with another company for $150 a week just three and a half years earlier would not have thought about it for a moment. For a weekend, however, the twenty-nine year old did. Because it had been a hell of a ride. It had enabled me, in fact, not long before, to leverage a real estate investment into a four thousand percent profit in two years. So I had options.

On Monday morning, I walked into CW’s office, and I resigned.

I had felt as if the company were mine. Operationally, I had created it, hired all the people who hired all the people. I felt responsible. I signed a short-term consulting contract and agreed to conduct the search for my successor. They continued to woo me for the other position. During those final three months, in addition to offers of more money still, I was being invited to a lot of power breakfasts with colleagues from Virginia, all the others in my cadre of up and comers who had made it to director of operations and VP of sales. Jay liked the night life, everyone knew, so there were many late nights and restaurants and bars. At the last breakfast, I emerged from the hotel lobby with one of those VPs, my age, tall and JFK Jr. handsome. We paused as he lit our cigars.

“Jay,” he said. “Aren’t you gonna miss this?”

He expected, as they all did, that the missing would move me.

I gazed down the street at the U.N. and the East River beyond.

“Sure,” I said.

We never discussed what “this” was.

Then I was gone.

Within a few years, original two owners putting the company up for sale, CW bought rights to the international subsidiary’s name, moved to London, and created a worldwide network of independent expediters. It exists today. For fun, he opened a London wine bar. The parent company was sold to Airborne Express, where for twenty years, under its own name, it provided specialized courier service. A few years ago, DHL acquired it. Earlier, I had reason to learn that a decade after I left, no one had any idea who I was or knew who the people were that created the company.

Then B. wrote me. We started to catch up on twenty-five years. She wanted to know why I had disappeared. She got married, I said. A married woman with children in Virginia. A single man hundreds of miles away. Different lives.

“I know,” she said.

But she wasn’t completely satisfied, and it wasn’t the whole truth. The whole truth is that I leave all my lives behind, one imposter after another, working my way, I keep thinking, to the real me.

I remembered when we last saw each other. I visited soon after her first daughter was born. And I knew that soon after my return to New York I had received a card from B. It’s in one of the boxes that contain the memorabilia of all those lives. I haven’t seen it in years, but I know what it says. It says that I have to visit often, because B. couldn’t imagine her daughter growing up without knowing me.

She did.

She is older now than B. was when I met her.

Searching my memory, I thought I had to have been at B.’s wedding. There was no way I would not have been. Yet I had no recollection at all. The next morning, as if still, after so many years, anticipating my needs, I received an email from B. with two attachments: photos from her wedding.

In the first, one of those table shots, behind those in seats, three people stand. In the middle is B., her silken veil of waist-length hair a kind of talisman of her innocence and beauty. On one side of her is her new husband. On the other side is me. Once again, somehow, the imposter leads my life. I do not recall the moment. I do not remember the day. Yet that is my own self standing there, in one of those three pieces suits, taller and leaner than I remember anymore ever having been, already losing my hair, but still only balding, not yet bald. The hair that is there, and my beard, that I have worn since I was seventeen years old, is so dark it seems to have been inked in. I was once that young. I thought I was still.

Staring and staring, I don’t know what to make of a self I left behind, on a day I have forgotten, and I am reminded of poem I wrote as my mother disappeared into Alzheimer’s.

At that, we both turn to Katherine Hepburn, sixty years ago
and taut as a bowstring, wonder if the stars remember
every escapade and kiss, or if sometimes in the darkness
they sit and only stare
at some actor on the screen.

The second photograph shows a lineup of young men. I am among them, reaching forward, perilously balanced on one leg as I stretch my arm for something.

“What are we doing there?” I wrote and asked.

Lined up for the tossing of her garter apparently.

“Guess who caught it,” B. wrote.

That seems, in all the remembering, to be the question for me now. Or the beginning of many questions, the many questions that have preoccupied me in the weeks since B. first wrote: all the questions about the life that was, and was before, the life that is, and the life to come, and all of them beginning with “who.”

AJA

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Change Has Come

The projected two days became two and a half, but change is no longer coming to the sad red earth – it’s come. His Holy Blogmaster tolerated all of my definite confusion and vague certainty in conception and design, and my several “Hey, I’ve got another great idea”s when it seemed the end was in sight, and once more wrested from the soup of my directions the meat kreplach of my imagination. Soon I will be opining again on the deepening disgraces of American conservatism and European anti-semitism, and offering up some personal reflection too. In the meantime, come in, take off your jacket, make yourself comfortable. Look around. It’s open house.