Pushing through difficulties is tough sledding, for everyone, but more so for those prone to frustration and helplessness. There is a genetic component to optimism, I would think; some are born with more of what scientists have recently identified as the “happiness gene.” But much of our “can do” or “can’t do” attitude comes from the examples we had during our upbringing, the experiences that formed our characters, no?
My father, for example, was raised in poverty by an extremely passive father and a mother who was in a constant rage. Neither one was a role model for pushing through difficulties to solve life’s inevitable problems. So, the constant example I had from him, who had his powerlessness and pessimism reinforced over and over as a kid, was, when something frustrating happens, vent Tourretically. To his credit, he wasn’t a hitter. But his outbursts of verbal rage were epic, and frequent. Mostly, though, especially outside the home, he kept this predisposition to frustration and hopelessness inside, or mostly inside.
His psoriasis was one manifestation of the difficulty of dealing with undigested anger. He had a severe case of this scaly skin condition. The skin over most of his body was red, scaly and itchy and he’d often scratch it. The flakes would fall off his arms, his back, his legs and gather on the floor and other surfaces. This led to frequent sponging, sweeping and vacuuming, by my mother and by him. I will never forget the smell of the vacuum cleaners, which got hot sucking up these large, translucent, greyish-white flakes. They smelled like a mixture of strained machinery and burnt skin.
My father’s psoriasis periodically got so bad, his skin painfully cracked and bleeding, that more than one winter he had to be hospitalized. In the hospital, with enforced rest, therapeutic treatments including sun, tar baths, cortisone shots, being slathered with balms and wrapped in plastic, and presumably massages, he would recover enough that his skin would heal and stop bleeding at the cracks. His psoriasis was a torment he endured for most of the years my family spent together in that little house in Queens.
He was from that rugged Greatest Generation of men who didn’t seek the help of people with degrees in psychology. Psychiatrists were for weak, self-pitying neurotics, as far as my father could see. It was part of the job of a man to be a man and not whine about his troubles. Psychiatrists and other therapists could do nothing for a man who wasn’t a man to begin with, my father contended. That my uncle, his high-strung little brother, had been in psychoanalysis for many years, and remained sadly unchanged, only proved his point.
My father’s view of therapy was not uncommon in those days. In fact, I still see examples of the old stereotype about shrinks being the craziest and most troubled among us when I look around at some successful therapists I know. Still, it seems to me, there is no substitute for gaining insight into what torments you if you hope to move forward in your life.
“You are hilarious,” says the grinning old skeleton who was once my father, “you’re the prefect person to show others how gaining insight helps you move forward in your life. Your life is a perfect roadmap for how to gain insight and move forward in the world, isn’t it?”
“Let’s review. You thought you’d be an artist, but you were too pure to play the only game in town if you want to be a successful artist: getting rich people to buy your work. Rich people have always decided who the real artists are and who are just pretentious hobbyists. Is that fair or good? We can agree that it’s neither of those things, but unless you want to be a tortured soul like St. Vincent Van Gogh, mythically alternating the unfulfilled agony of your daily life with short bursts of rapture as you paint, and then dying in misery, abjectly unappreciated for your life’s work, you’d better learn to make rich people respect you and buy your work, hang it in museums. That’s what you have to do if you want recognition as an important artist. I agree this is an odious prospect, but that’s what being an artist is and has always been. And, deep down, you knew that, and later, not so deep down.”
“Too much time on your skeletal hands these days, dad,” I say.
“Glib,” says the skeleton. “Anyway, you persisted in the artist dream, in the end you made a few short films, even had a couple of modestly sized audiences give you generous applause, until you hit a wall at around thirty years old. You remember that, don’t you?”
Indeed I do. The world became grey, and tasteless, and dull. I endured the dark days, which seemed endless, and played guitar at night, when I felt the weight lifted slightly after the world went to sleep. Drawing music from the guitar gave me my only comfort, and small, life-sustaining whiffs of the mysterious creative force that is the source of life. I didn’t draw much, but each of the few drawings I have from that six months or so is memorable.
“Nobody’s saying you don’t have the talent to be a professional artist,” says the skeleton more quietly, “but it takes a certain temperament to compete with everyone else who wants that great honor, the plum job of expressing your feelings and getting paid and admired for it. The successful artist must be lucky as well as doggedly determined to put one’s work in the proper format and do whatever it takes to win the support of the rich people who will decide how much your work is really worth. Kings, Dukes, Popes, the rich traders of Amsterdam, the Robber Barons, these have always been the arbiters of the ‘value’ of paintings, drawings, ideas, the artists themselves.”
“I understood your dilemma, it’s not that I didn’t get it. You can look at it from a Marxist perspective and say artists who make a living and gain fame in a capitalist system must agree to commercialize and brand themselves, have their work commodified, publicized, monetized and valued according to what the curators, tastemakers, and art collectors of the capitalist art market decide. You won’t get much of an argument from me seeing it that way, but, though you win the hypothetical argument with a now sympathetic dead man, unless you accept those ground rules and play by them, you also will never make a living, especially in a culture as unabashedly commercial as our’s is.”
“But, think about it, it has always been this way. If the Emperor liked your work, you were made a member of the wealthy class and painted likenesses of the best of your time. If you drew ingenious cartoons that showed these vain, avaricious, self-aggrandizing, exploitative pricks for what they really were? Off with your head, you know.”
“Then we have your short-lived teaching career, idealistic, loved by kids and their parents, mostly admired by your peers, but you couldn’t deal with the frustration of working for a series of all-powerful imbeciles. Look, I dealt with the same frustrations when I worked for the Board of Ed, but I had a family to support, you and your sister, and I couldn’t afford to walk away, to tell one boss after another to fuck off.”
“You know, that’s the piece you never got, that you have to eat a lot of shit to live a life of integrity. Is being subjected to arbitrary edicts from incompetent supervisors what you imagine when you dream of teaching? Of course not. Does obedience to the sometimes ridiculous orders of those ambitious former teachers who escaped the classroom to obtain more money, and power over their former peers, have anything to do with being an effective teacher? No. But if you want to keep your job, put food on the table for your family, have health care for everybody, and a pension, you learn to just be a man about it, be stoic about being treated like an asshole, for the most part.”
“I can say the same about your decade practicing curtsying to sometimes asshole hearing officers in the Housing Court. Did you not finally have an outburst there too? Of course, the young man in the robe could not criticize your performance or conduct as an attorney, but he did force you to defend your actions as a dog he kicked as hard as he could in the ribs, the face, the stomach. Couldn’t stand it, could you?”
“No, dad, I couldn’t stand it.”
“And then, when your mother died and you inherited enough to live on, modestly, for a few years, you decided to combine your first and second loves, didn’t you? An idealistic and fairly ingenious program for fostering collective creativity and optimism in the doomed children of the damned. You worked very hard on turning the idea into a real program, and, I have to admit, for one person working on your own, you really did sort of impressively prove how well your theories could work in practice.”
“But there’s an unscalable distance between having a great idea that works and being able to get funding to sell it, isn’t there? Trying to scale that impossible incline is a great and very satisfying job for a man living at 167% of the poverty line, with no connections to anyone who could actually help advance the cause, no?”
I can’t argue with any of that, nor could I have said any of it better myself.
“The worm doesn’t fall far from the old apple tree, eh?” he says with a wry grin.
“Look, I know what you’re talking about and, although it pains me as your father to see the struggles you must go through to try to live a life of integrity, I actually appreciate what you are trying to do in quixotically painting this nuanced, three-dimensional portrait of me, of not reducing me to the monster I often was, in many ways. Of course, we are both well aware that, by being afraid to face my own demons, I put many of those obstacles in your way, in your sister’s way. And, as you recall, a few hours before I died I admitted as much and told you how sorry I was for doing that to you guys.”
“Still, I stick by my point that a man has to be a man and not a whining worm, if you know what I’m saying.”
This reconciling of irreconcilable truths is the hard part I began this piece thinking about. You can learn the lay of the land by heart, look at it truthfully, understand the failings, contradictions and missed attempts– and learn something from it, in spite of everything. That’s my belief, anyway. It’s fucking hard, without a doubt, to gain truly useful insights, but it’s a struggle that’s worth waging. The alternative, to me, though much easier and infinitely more common, is worse.
It seems to me the danger of not struggling to understand is that you’ll eventually abandon all your ideals, one by one, and lower your expectations about your world and the people in it. Sham democracy and grotesquely unfair rule by the most ruthless and greedy of the top tier of the top 1%? Just the way the world has always been. Centuries of racism at law, unappealably justified by learned justices who’ve been elevated to the highest court in the land and, in recent decades, claiming to be the impartial “color-blind” referees of our “post-racial” society ? Par for the course, baby. You want Justice, do you? Here you go, rascal, suck on the way things have always been, will always be.
The eventual difficulty of selling this manuscript as a book, no matter how well I might eventually manage to rake together these reflections of my father, his world and beliefs, no matter how elegantly I may succeed in turning it into a compelling and life-affirming tragedy, has not stopped me so far from trying. I have come to the hard part too, having focused for weeks on sympathetically telling the story of a kind, humble and humanistic man who, also, in a moment of weakness or two, actually set fire to his children’s lives. A man who, though he loved her deeply, in a way nobody could doubt, was also consistently cruel to his wife, our mother.
I heard a quote from Pat Conroy yesterday, a writer I’ve never read but think I should read now, who died recently. He said he wrote to explain his life to himself.
“Bingo!,” I thought, for there is really nobody but the self better situated to explain that life to the person living it. Those given to honestly delving into the materials of their own lives can learn important, perhaps life-changing, things. That being said, making useful sense of one’s life is one of the hardest things imaginable. It also strikes me as the single most important work anyone can do, if life gives them the chance to put in the time.
That difficulty of looking too closely at ourselves is one of the main reasons so many run, full-tilt, full-time, as hard as they can, to be as tired as possible after a day of striving, and hit the hay hard, practical about the need for strength for the next day’s run. I try not to judge them and I don’t fault them. For one thing, running full-time leaves little time or energy to consider things that can disquiet a person’s soul, but it’s never been for me.
That being said, let’s see how I do telling this story, as I continue trying to push through the hard part, and selling you the heart of it, here.