Winning in a world of losers

“You know, to borrow this whining seventy year-old brat’s babyish analysis, which breaks the world neatly into winners and losers, I spent my life trying to be a winner while feeling the whole time like a giant loser.   It’s such an idiotic and inhuman way to look at the world, Elie, winner vs. loser, and a recipe for frustration for the vast majority of us, who are manifestly losers.” The skeleton settled back against his tombstone, regarding the lush foliage all around him.    

“Hey, this graveyard, for example.  I am buried at a prestigious spot on the top of the hill, under a shady canopy of enormous trees.   I can see my brother’s grave a few steps away.   We paid a lot for these prime spots over the years, I can’t do the math for you at the moment, but it was probably tens of thousands of dollars.  Our parents are buried in that section at the bottom of the hill, with poor drainage, where the small tombstones are jammed together like crooked teeth.  Those are pauper graves, dug in the cheap real estate, with no shade on a hot day, where members too poor to pay regular dues were buried.”  

“What does it mean to any of us buried here?  Hah.  To the living it means trudging across the boneyard to the bottom of the hill, walking a ways on the gravel road, and picking your way through the tightly packed graves, to go from my grave to my father’s.   You have to walk over the graves of other Jewish losers to stand where you can put a stone on my mother’s modest grave marker, or my father’s.”  

“I keep wondering about these winners, as you struggle to keep yourself on the right side of the mental health line.  Without money, I know what a struggle life is.  The closer you live to the poverty line, the more the world fucks with you on an hour to hour basis.  The money we left you could only last if you have no material expectations for a middle class life.  That’s never been a problem for you, I realize, living on a subsistence income, you’ve never done otherwise.   But to most people, it’s mystifying that you’d be satisfied, living in a land of plenty, and amid constant clamor for your consumer dollars, consistently denying yourself the pleasure of buying all the cool must-have shit they’re continually updating.  I guess that’s one good thing I did for you, somehow.”

I date it to when you and mom devised that draconian punishment after I disobeyed you and went to see Fail Safe with Michael Siegel.  No TV for a year, for a six or seven year-old, shit, maybe I was even younger.  That was the beginning of sitting in my room, thinking of myself as the protagonist of that Chekov story, though I hadn’t yet read it, where the young lawyer bets the banker he can stay alone, with no human contact, in a room with unlimited books, music and writing tools.  The banker bets him he can’t do it for five years, the lawyer offers to do it for fifteen.

“Ah, The Bet, a classic story of doubling down, which is what a glorious winner is supposed to do.   Taking on impossible odds casually, with elan. You remember that great moment in Cyrano where he arrives to defend his friend, told that a hundred swordsmen are waiting for him.   ‘I’ve been cheated, there are no hundred here!’ he grumbles as he begins to dispatch a few dozen men with swords.  Look, these stories are one thing.  Look at the real-life ‘winners’ you know, Elie…”  

You’re preaching to the choir, boss.   I see them in their hundred room mansions, being chased by the devil from room to room.  I’m like Zora Neale Hurston, I refuse to play a game designed to fuck people like me.  

“Well, you do seem to be constantly doubling down on that refusal…” said the skeleton.  “But look, the president you have now, the self-proclaimed biggest winner, wakes up every day at the crack of dawn, in a rage.  He wakes up snarling, doubling down on his idiotic promises, and snarls through the day.  ‘You’re gonna win so much, you’re going to be tired of winning, believe me, believe me.’  Not a very good advertisement for winning, a winner who wakes up mad every day.  But as we’ve noted often in these talks, the supposed role of rationality is overstressed in human affairs.  Much of life is pitched directly at our ids, a shameless play to our lower impulses.  When challenged for being wrong, a winner doubles down.”  

No argument here, dad.  The only question, really, is, if you’re doing something you believe is valuable, how do you share it, publicize it, get paid a living wage to do it.  

“Well, we’ve talked about this, Elie, this is where hard work and grit come into play.   Two things that have never really been your strong suit.    On the other hand, a shit load of money can relieve one of the need to work hard.  You can buy people to work hard for you.  Look at how Trump got those 70,000 or so votes that swept him to victory in the Electoral College, though he lost by more than thirty times that margin in the general election.   Social media played as big a role as the corporate mass media that gave him the billion dollars of free publicity.  

“One of Steve Bannon’s great strengths was analyzing and exploiting social media, playing those lonely, angry internet nerds and geeks like a vast, out-of-tune string section.   Trump’s team bought hundreds of bots in Singapore or somewhere over there to re-tweet his brilliant aphorisms.   Each bot would re-tweet the latest shard of glittering prose hundreds or thousands of times. This in turn spurred an army of trolls, emboldened by the million hits to their candidate’s latest semi-literate 140 character utterance, to take to social media and do what trolls do.  

“Look, I know you are revolted by faceBook, and I have to give it to you, that billionaire weasel who invented it, though he was on to something– monetizing the desire of people to connect to others– does appear to be your classic piece of shit.   Your hermit friend, the tortured, emaciated fellow you see in the library from time to time, has hundreds of close personal friends on faceBook.  By the looks of the way he clings to your company, he has only one friend, you, in real life, though to call your casual bumping into each other in the library a few times a year friendship might be stretching things.”  

A lot of things are stretched, dad.  An increasing number of things, more than I can explain.  Just in the twelve years since you died, brains have been radically rewired.  We are all like rats, hooked up to instant feedback machines.  I have a new phone, a genius, that gives me an alert beep any time anyone I know contacts me.  It is programming me to be an endlessly distracted, twitching rat.   I can turn off notifications, but then I might miss an email or text.  

“That would be a fucking tragedy, Elie,” said the skeleton, “I can see why you’d be reluctant to turn off notifications.   LOL!”  

It’s hard to explain.  When you were struggling with Mavis Beacon to learn typing, you found that software that translated speech to text.  It produced Mad Libs.  A few years later, I can talk into my phone and it flawlessly transcribes whatever I’m saying.  

“Ain’t dat some shit…” said the skeleton.  “How does this make your life better, actually?”  

You’re missing the point, dad.  This is the direction the fractured attention span of the world is going.  I can save valuable minutes, and my carpal tunnels, by just dictating my emails now.  It’s not about making my life better, actually, it’s about providing services that make it more convenient, tie me more inextricably to this little computer I carry in my pocket.  The better to know my habits, needs and preferences, the better to market to me. 

“They’re marketing to the wrong guy, Elie, we’ve just established what a shitty consumer you are.”  

OK.  That’s true.  But most people are perfectly suited for this kind of in your pocket continual reminder of the many, many great things money can buy.  And keeping in touch with the people they know, like my old friend who just sent me a beautiful video of the view from his kayak, shot ten minutes ago.

“Well, it’s nice that your friend can send you a nature video, that’s pretty cool, but the rest reflects the tragedy of misguided mankind right there.   The complete triumph of ever more invasive capitalism.    What’s the latest thing?  Want to search for images of naked ladies in a private browser that doesn’t record your searches?   Google now makes you sign in, so they can know if you like black chicks, or Asians, small ones, gigantic ones, young ones or old ones.  This is important information for those who pander to your id.   To those who pander best, go the spoils.  Expert pandering is the difference between winning or losing.”  

Thanks, as always, for the insight, dad.  I’ll catch you next time.  

“Be there, or be square, baby,” said the skeleton, with what might have been a wink.

Fundamental Question Two

“You awake now, Elie?  You snooze you lose, time is money, chop chop!” said the skeleton of my father gaily.    

Yeah.  Let’s go harvest the ducats, father.

“While you were sleeping, I was thinking.  I may have your theme here.  We had a lifelong argument over whether people could change their natures in a significant way.   You’ve written about that controversy here, but how ’bout you wrap the whole story in that fundamental question?   It’s bullshit that people can change themselves in any meaningful way vs. it’s essential that tormented people change themselves.  We went hundreds of rounds on this question.”  

Yes, and I can make a vigorous case for both sides at this point.  If you’re talking on the level of our essential DNA, our genetic predispositions, our body type, our immediate reflexes to react one way or another, there is only so much we can change.  

“OK, fine, but that’s not the point.  You were talking about moral growth, something I gave a lot of lip service to while I was strafing you and your sister over flank steak and rice-a-roni and telling you, through gritted teeth, that you were going to lose the war.  I think what you were hammering at was the need to develop self-critical insight and what I was defending against was the same thing.  You can’t keep machine gunning your children once you realize what you’re doing.  I had to insist I was right, you see, because my entire personal life was defending myself against the terror of who I thought I was.   No matter how much outward security I had, no matter how much status I achieved, I was always the dumbest, and poorest, Jewish kid in Peekskill — and a physically and emotionally abused one at that.”  

Still unthinkable to me.  Poor, I get that, and I have no doubt of the deep scars poverty leaves.  The physical and emotional abuse is beyond question. But the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill still sounds like an insane statement.   

“I could tell you more, but do you really want to veer from the work you might be able to get a  handle on today?” said the skeleton.  

Well, just to say that my theory is that you started school behind the eight ball, a year behind at least since you had to learn English while your little classmates laughed at you.  I also think your 20/400 vision was probably not discovered until after you were placed with other slow kids who couldn’t read.   In Peekskill 1930 I think the class was probably designated “The Retards Class” and the teacher probably addressed you all as such.  But you graduated Syracuse with honors and finished graduate studies at Columbia.  Isn’t there a scale where you weigh these factors and realize you couldn’t have been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill?  

“Well, that’s a fair question.  I’d say it takes some insight to connect the obvious dots like that sometimes.   That’s what our argument over change boils down to, the quest for insight and exploring possibilities vs. insistence that grim reality is immutable.  My failure was a failure of imagination and a lack of faith that anything could really change.  My life experience was that no matter how hard I worked, no matter how comfortably we lived, no matter how many people applauded me when I spoke, it made no difference.  Every night my demons were waiting for me, their pitchforks glowing red hot.   You see, that’s part of the whole pathology  of an adult who takes it out on his kids.”  

“It was easy for me to use the two of you as intellectual and emotional punching bags.  You two were always punching way above your weight class.  You remember Eli telling you about me getting angry at you one day, you must have been four or five, and I came over to menace you.  You said “Oh, big man, going to hit a little kid…” and Eli cracked up, as did mom and everyone else who heard it, and I lost my chance to smack you.”  

Well, to your credit, you were never much of a hitter.  Mom hit us more often than you did, or at least she hit me.  

“Yes, that’s true, but as we discussed, verbal violence, emotional abuse, is as damaging as a belt buckle or a fist.  Both attack your soul, your sense of personal safety, of ever feeling protected.  Abuse fundamentally alters your DNA, as that brilliant and striking pediatrician described in that TED talk you saw.  

“What causes one person to grow up and replicate that abuse and another to become a defender of the abused?   See, that’s a mysterious question, Elie.  Every abuser was once abused– you have that great George Grosz quote to that effect:  ‘to understand how a man can brutalize his fellow men you must study how he was brutalized’ or however he said it.  You can say, as I might have, that certain people are predisposed to a more heroic outlook than others, or that luck plays a role — something hard to deny, accident of birth, fortuitous meeting, wise mentor, and so forth — or you can say that each of us has the capacity to develop insight, to live more wisely, with less pain.”

Three large vultures soared over head.  The skeleton and I turned to watch them.  

“You know, as I was dying I thought what a shame it was that it would have to wait until after I was dead, if ever, to have this kind of conversation with you.  It’s easy to be a philosopher when you’re dead, Elie.  When we are alive, sometimes, it’s just one big fight, as your friend Albert King described his life of hard luck and trouble.”  

One of the vultures swung low, opened his curved beak and let out what sounded like a mocking laugh.  

“Fucking bird, what does he know?” said the skeleton.  “Carrion eating motherfucker!”

“Look, Elie, I know you have to leave momentarily or you’ll be late for your lunch date, but consider this organizing principle.   The difficult and unrecognized change you were forced to make in yourself in order to accommodate my refusal to change, even acknowledge the possibility of it.  It will take a bit of art, to avoid making this sound self-serving, how, as I was dying, I admitted you were right and I’d been a ‘horse’s ass’.  And, yeah, obviously, I also have no idea whose ass I pulled that ‘horse’s ass’ phrase out of.  I think it’s a good theme, that and well illustrated by how you were able to be so mild as I tried to make some kind of amends the best I could that last night of my life.”  

The lazily swooping vulture was now close enough that I could see his red face clearly.  It was not a good looking face in any way that I could see.   On the other hand, if I don’t get up and into the shower right now, I will be late for lunch.  

“Don’t be late for lunch, Elie, we’ll pick this thread up next time.”


A Fundamental Question

“Well, you know, Elie, one very important question you still need to answer remains  unaddressed.   You have to figure out why anyone would give a shit about a poor Jewish kid from Peekskill who, by pure luck is rescued by The Second World War (no combat), the GI Bill, hard work, attains American Dream.  In his comfortable suburban home he was The Dreaded Unit to his children and not very tender with his wife, so what?”  said the skeleton of my father.  

“I mean, why would a reader give a shit about my life?  I was pretty much nobody.   I was not the best man, but there were many, many worse men than me.  Statistically I was like millions of other guys of my generation, the so-called Greatest Generation.  I came of age when America was fighting a just war, the last just war, against manifest evil, actual Nazis and Japanese militarist fanatics.  Every American who fought in that war was entitled to a middle class life, if he didn’t throw away the chance.”  

“That post-war period, during the early Cold War years, was the largest growth of a middle class probably ever in human history.  When it was over, people became very, very bitter.   In the end, when the populace gets de-spirited and bitter enough, you get someone like Trump.”  

“Another way to think of it is as a monster story, and I have to admit I was a monster as a father to both you and your sister.   We discussed this right before I died, you understand I became aware of how fucked up I was when I used to machine gun you and your sister at the dinner table.  I couldn’t really see it for all the years I was desperately fighting for my life, but I saw it as I was dying, as you know.”  

“Still, it’s not your classic monster story anyway, you’d have to write it really masterfully to get the nuances of my monstrosity.   I  wielded a metaphorical machine gun, strafing in a subtle manner, leaving no dramatic physical wounds.  I could justify everything, very convincingly, and I inflicted my damage with the relentless cruelty of that.   I ground you two down, my ground game was awesome.  You and your sister were going to lose the war, that was the main thing.”  

“I was, if I might say it about myself, an eccentric monster.   My subtle monster story might fascinate a few freaks, the sophisticated, creative ways my sadism expressed itself, the entirely psychological palette I used to such great effect. But it’s not a story built for more than a small, specialty niche demographic. Nobody will be very impressed by what a monstrous dick I was to you and your sister.”  

“In the scheme of monstrous pricks, I’d hardly rate, though I know to you and your sister what I inflicted was just as bad as what the first rate monsters do.  In any random group of fathers, there are a few who commit truly horrible abuses against their kids.  I never crossed that line, I like to think, though I certainly know I did my damage, serious damage.”  

“Maybe a better way of thinking of my story is playing the angle of how almost universal this intense childhood pain you’re talking about is, my childhood, your childhood, my mother and father’s childhoods.  It’s a matter of degree, of course, but few children escape traumatic experiences altogether.   Childhood involves a certain amount of trauma for all but a few fortunate kids.”  

“There is something scary, scarring, enraging, humiliating, traumatizing, in almost every child’s life– think of all the ways a kid can be scarred for life.  They call these Adverse Childhood Experiences now, and there are quite a few such experiences on the list, with lifelong effects.   Poverty comes with its own set of them.  Hunger is one, being constantly hungry can really fuck with your mind, as well as your body.  Being beaten is certainly an adverse childhood experience, especially if the one beating you is your father or your mother.   Kids are raped, how do you recover from that one?   Others are viciously told just to shut the fuck up every time they open their mouths.   A parent who is intoxicated all the time, or two parents who are constantly at war.   The ways to traumatize a kid are limited only by your sick imagination”

“I never knew what trauma my poor father must have gone through to leave him ‘two eyes, a nose and a mouth’ as the poetic Eli described him to you.”  

Eli finally explained to me why your father was named Harry and his brother was also named Harry.  I was confused when introduced to Uncle Harry, who was my grandfather Harry’s brother.    

“They were half-brothers.  They had two different mothers.  My grandfather married a woman with two or three boys, one named Harry.  His son was also Harry.  So my father was the second wife’s step-son, and not a very welcome Harry in a family that already had a kid named Harry,” said the skeleton.  

According to Eli she was the classic evil step-mother.   She was reportedly fond of whacking her step-son Harry in the head with heavy objects.  She would slug him with a cooking utensil, a thick book, a wooden board.  He adapted, apparently, by keeping a straight face and looking straight ahead.  He rarely spoke, Eli said, and when he did, it was in a tentative, ironic manner that Eli described as drily comical, infinitely subtle.  

“Well, it was certainly infinitely subtle.   Eli must have been the only one who would describe my father as ‘drily comical’.   It makes sense, what Eli said about my father being hit in the head frequently when he was a kid.   He was completely unable to cope with this world, my father.  He was illiterate, unsophisticated, overwhelmed by the demands of the material world.   It wouldn’t surprise me to learn he’d had concussions, traumatic brain injury, something like that.  People thought he was retarded, that’s why when I went to kindergarten as a big, blind dummy who couldn’t speak to anyone everyone just figured, ‘well, his father is a retard, what do you expect?'”

“The retard doesn’t fall far from the retard tree, as they say.  I know we don’t say ‘retard’ anymore, it’s considered a pejorative term for low IQ people.  Moron used to be a word, a descriptive term for a certain range of low IQ people.  However you want to say it nowadays, my father, to all outward appearances, was a dullard.”  

I’m going to have to stop you there, dad.   I know you don’t have to get up tomorrow, dad, but I do.  I’m tired as hell, so I will bid you a good nap and, God willing,  I’ll catch you on the other side.  

“Goodnight.  Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

Most of us never grow up, Elie

My conversation with the skeleton of my father has grown quiet lately, which is a shame in a lot of ways.   I spent the better part of the last year waking up every day excited to continue our long overdue discussion.  It was the kind of talk we rarely had, but should have had regularly.  My father blamed himself, as he was dying, for not being capable of letting his defenses down long enough not to be a ‘horse’s ass’.   He was right to blame himself.  

Poignantly, and too fucking late, he acknowledged that he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years to have the kind of back and forth we started to have on the last night of his life.  Fucking tragic, truly, and the only other person who could fully appreciate the tragedy of it was the man who had just died.

I need to point out again that the idea of conversing with my father’s skeleton was not something I dreamed up, it happened of its own accord.  In fact, he spoke first.  It was early on in writing this manuscript, trying to recall everything I could about my father in order to try to describe the full scope of his complicated life.  

“Well, I couldn’t just let you make a hash of the historical record,” said the skeleton of my father from his grave atop the hill at First Hebrew Congregation cemetery north of Peekskill.  “Whatever liberties I may have taken interpreting personal history over the years, you will admit I was kind of a stickler for accurate historical detail.”    

Granted.  The devil, of course, is in the interpretation of those bare bones of what happened.   History isn’t a recitation of chronology, it’s showing events in perspective to help us understand the present, navigate the future, in light of the heartaches of the past.  

“Yes, of course, that goes without saying,” said the skeleton.  “Howard Zinn spoke beautifully, toward the end of his life, of the ideal role of the historian.  It’s at the end of a long, rambling post, as I recall.  You can cue it up, Elie, cut and paste it, right?”

Sure thing, though it’s really an aside here, isn’t it, dad?

“Fine, make a footnote, or appendix out of it, then,” said the skeleton.    

Done. [1]  

The past’s fugitive moments of compassion, what a beautiful phrase,” said the skeleton of my father, with that manic grin skeletons always seem to have.  

“OK, the point we’re discussing today, as you know, is that in fundamental ways adults never truly grow up.  I’m not saying this just to excuse my immature temper tantrums or to justify the way I emotionally abused you and your sister.  I’m thinking of that deep insight John Sarno expressed about how the subconscious has no sense of time.   An early traumatic experience is exactly as painful at fifty and seventy as it was at two and six.  These traumas operate on an emotional level, their pain is not lessened by the passing of years. 

“It was almost a hundred years ago now that my mother, the only one besides my uncle who escaped the massacre of their extended family, in desperation and rage, rose to her full five feet and first whipped me vehemently across my unmarked baby face.   Five hundred years from now, if anyone interviews me, the moment will be just as– for lack of a better word– fresh.  Do you think the victim of a lynching has any more vivid memory of anything in their life than those last horrible moments?”  

I never thought about it, but, it sounds true.  

“Well, you know, it’s the old ‘aside from that, Ms. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’   These indigestible moments mark us, Elie.  The miracle is that anyone can move on at all.   That’s one reason leisure does not sit well with most people.  I don’t need to lecture you about this, since you seem driven to prioritize your life to have minimal security and maximum leisure…”

I think of it as productive work time and not being distracted by bullshit.  

“Well, OK, but it’s work you don’t get paid for.  Most people prefer to be working and getting paid to anything else they could do on an average day.  You work, you get paid, you buy things you want, put money aside, take a vacation, come back and work.   That’s the world, Elie.  You’ve always been a little queer that way, as if the world, from the beginning, owed you something for trying to see beyond the facade of this mysterious dung-heap of a world.”  The skeleton fixed me with an eyeless stare.  

And your point, sir?  

“No point, really, just sayin’.   When you were a kid, and you could draw like that, grandma encouraged you to believe you were already a great artist. What did George Segal tell you about grandma?   ‘Your grandmother was very good for you, and very bad for you’.”  

That’s ambition, dad, that’s a separate thing from the love of creation. George turned out to be a pretty angry guy himself, when prodded a bit.

“Well, just because you get world famous, and rich, doesn’t mean you’re not still a spoiled little baby pinched by all your original demons.  Look no further than this Whiner-in-Chief your idiot countrymen selected as their CEO — do you think he’s sick of winning yet?  That’s all well and good.  But, look, however intoxicating you find those moments of creation, without ambition, without getting paid and recognized for what you do well, love of creation eventually withers, becomes a bitter caricature of itself.”

Perhaps, but that’s another discussion for another time, dad.  

“Fine.   You know, when you were a kid and you watched mom and me interact with Russ and Arlene, I’m sure you felt you were watching four adults, finished with their maturation and enjoying adult life.   You remember going upstairs to go to sleep and the smoke from Arlene’s cigarettes wafting up the staircase to your bed, and the roars of laughter continuing downstairs until very late.   It was impossible for a kid to understand that those were also the laughs of five year-olds.  I’m not explaining this very well.”

Believe me, I get it.  It’s like the personalized demons we were talking about recently.  Things that terrify one person are blandly nonthreatening to another person and there’s no predicting who will be deeply afraid of what, who will seem brave about what.  My ultimate horror is finding myself trapped in an uncreative job I don’t particularly like, at the mercy of an employer who is free to act like an angry two year-old.  

“I can understand where you’d get that,” said the skeleton, “since you spent your childhood at the mercy of parents who were eternal two year-olds, on one level.   I was certainly that way, I think mom and you had a better relationship.  You didn’t have to confront that childish side of her as often.  Or maybe I’m rewriting history a bit, you can never tell.”  The skeleton turned to watch two turkey vultures, sweeping in long, lazy arcs in the sky toward the river.  

You know, dad, all this has made me think of other things I have to do today, to make myself feel productive.  I’m going to wrap this up and try to do some excavation on the right side of my desk, see what I can do about taming some of this horrific interior wilderness.  

“Strength to your arm, Elie,” said the skeleton, “and watch out for the natives.  They’re restless today.”


[1]    Howard Zinn:

“I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a consciousness in my readers, of class conflict, of racial injustice, of sexual inequality and of national arrogance, and I also wanted to bring into light the hidden resistance of the People against the power of the establishment.   

I thought that to omit these acts of resistance, to omit these victories, however limited, by the people of the United States, was to create the idea that power rests only with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth.  I wanted to point out that people who seem to have no power — working people, people of color, women– once they organize and protest and create national movements, they have a power that no government can suppress.

“I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements, but to think that history writing must simply recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat.  And if history is to be creative, if it’s to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I think, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.

“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in the solid centuries of warfare.”

Shame-based orientation

Shame is a killer.   It can turn an abused person into a violent criminal, a tortured neurotic, or both.   Shame spins a web of secrecy, to be guarded tenaciously.  My father fought shame his entire life, the shame of growing up in “grinding poverty”, the shame of being whipped in the face by his religious mother from the time he could stand.  Any other shames thrown in there on top of those were just gravy.  He would not, could not, consider opening the door to examine this deep shame, possibly find some relief from it.   As a result, he lived as the “Dreaded Unit”, bullying his wife and children, and died with many regrets he only got to confess due to chance.  

“I did what I thought I had to do.  I wish I’d had the insight to understand how fucked up that was, how much richer my life, and your lives, could have been if I’d only had some fucking insight, some fucking courage,” he concluded tragically on the last night of his life. 

Two people subjected to the same shame may have different responses.  One response, like my father’s, is never to speak of shame, to angrily attack others whenever they get close to the source of your shame.   It is a response that leads to a defensive, sadly circumscribed emotional life.   You are constantly wary, blame yourself for being ashamed, which increases the shame.  

Another reaction is to understand that what was done to you, the thing that causes you shame, was not your fault.   This was portrayed beautifully in the movie Good Will Hunting, when Robin Williams as the psychiatrist, tells Will, during a breakthrough moment in therapy, that Will’s shame is not Will’s fault. He hammers gently at the tough kid, saying it over and over, “it’s not your fault”, until the boy breaks down in the shrink’s arms.   The truth of this kind of moment, Hollywood screenwriting aside, is hard to dismiss.  

My father’s shame about being whipped in the face was truly not his fault. He was powerless, at two and three, to do anything but endure it.  The shame was his mother’s, not his.  He was too terrified to go near the subject, so he tried to act like the toughest man in the world and lost much of the richness that could have been in his life.

Shame is generally imposed by somebody else, it is almost never the result of a conscious act of our own.  Shame is deeply scarring, traumatic, it is not the same as regret for a mistake we have made, a misguided action we feel badly about.  We may feel ashamed of ourselves, but that is not the same as shame that is imposed on us.

A young woman is swept off her feet by a handsome, charming, athletic older man.  He tells her he is separated from his wife.  They begin a love affair.  It turns out he was possibly not separated, but really, really wished he was.   He eventually gets a divorce and they marry.   He impresses her with how large he lives, unlike her frugal father, this man will casually leave a $50 tip in a diner if he loves the service.  

She notices he is not always truthful.  The lies begin to add up.  He didn’t lose his job due to a mistake, as he said, he’s been fired from his job for stealing from the company, as the boss, a former friend, calls to inform her.   They move to another town.  He loses his next job for something similar, announces they are broke.  

They move again, to live near their parents.  They plan to buy a house, schedule the closing, he borrows ten thousand from his father-in-law towards the downpayment.   At dinner two days later he announces that he has declared bankruptcy.  

His father dies, he takes the wallet from the bedside table and maxes out all the dead man’s credit cards.   He pretends, for over a year, to be going to work and bringing home his pay.  He leaves the house at 8:30 every morning, hangs out in strip clubs while his wife is at work and his children are at school.   He returns on payday with cash advances drawn from his dead father’s credit cards.   One of the three credit card companies eventually catches him, his wife repays a large sum of money.  

He gets another job from a friend, embezzles from the friend, is fired.  Tells his wife business has been slow and he was let go.  A call from the former friend, and a threat to press charges, makes the wife arrange to pay back the thousands her husband has stolen.   Then he is immobilized with crippling back pain, can’t get out of bed, suffers on oxycodone for three or four years.

Through this all, the woman keeps everything mostly to herself.   She is frequently angry, as anyone would be, but her children must never know the reason, it would cause them all shame.  She is ashamed, on one level, to have married a person so lacking in character.  How badly does the choice reflect on her? she wonders.  

On the other hand, he is a keen student of her psychological weakness, nobody understands her better or is better able to reassure her.   He is calm where she is wracked with worry.   Their children know they can count on her, but are drawn to their loving, always accepting father.   He is playful and affectionate and never blames anyone while, mom, as they all know, can be critical.    

I watch this unfold and ask how it is possible to live with a demanding husband (he still yells downstairs to find out what is holding up his dinner) who hasn’t worked for years, with a storied history of lying, criminal activity, road rage and many speeding tickets, “borrowing” money from friends and family he never repays, manipulating, never apologizing,  someone who threatened to kill the kids, her parents, and both of them…    

“He only did that once,” she protests.

And someone who fucked every willing skank that moved.  

“He never did that!  If he ever did that I’d leave him in a second!”  

Well, as you said once when I asked how he was doing “how would I know?” I say to you– how would you know?  He does have a long and impressive history as a manipulator and liar. 

The thing about shame is how insidiously it replicates itself.  The children grow up watching mom frequently enraged at dad, the most laid back man in the world.  Dad throws up the palms of his hands and says “well, you know, mom has a hard time forgiving anyone who isn’t perfect.  I may have made a few mistakes, but you know mom…”   The kids know this is sometimes true, mom can be a hard-ass.  

The sensitive kid wonders about this far too simple explanation, something is intuitively wrong with this glib over-simplification.  The mother worries about the daughter’s road rage, occasional bad choices, the son’s dark moods.  But shame ensures that the shameful truth must never come to light.  

It makes me want to cry.

Unanswerable question

My father, the night before he died, told me I had no idea what it was like to have been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill, which he claimed to have been.  This stunned me.  There are many things you could say about my father, some of them not at all complimentary, but it was impossible to say he wasn’t extremely bright.   Well-read, with an excellent memory and a quick wit, it didn’t take more than a short chat with him to realize how intelligent he was.

I asked him how he could possibly say he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill.

“Hmmmmf, by far!” he huffed, more than seventy years later, still convinced he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill.  There were a handful of Jewish families in Peekskill back then, most of them, I imagine, gathered in the tiny First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill, a narrow white structure as austere looking as a Lutheran church.  The Jewish kids of Peekskill were a fairly small, random group of kids.  Unless fate had strewn an astoundingly improbable group of young Jewish geniuses in Peekskill, I had no idea how he could make this claim.  He died a few hours after insisting he’d been, by far, the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill, so I never had a chance to follow up.

“Well, I can’t help you much here, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father.  “As you know, I know pretty much what you know about any of this.”  

Let us look at what is known, then.  By 1929 or 1930 when you started kindergarten, you spoke no English, only Yiddish.   Though you were born in New York City, you didn’t understand the most basic English questions put to you by teacher and classmates.   Your mother famously went to school and faced the principal, who wanted to know how it was that an American boy came to school knowing no English.  She delivered the line that had probably been fed to her, a line immortalized (so to speak) by Eli.   “He’ll loin…” she assured the principal, in one of her few English sentences.  

“Well, she was right about that,” said the skeleton.

Your vision was 20/400 meaning you could not clearly see your mocking little classmates’ faces, or much of anything else.  Not much reading in kindergarten, so no worries there, but classmates’ feet, thrust in your path, would not be easily seen.  You were bigger than the other kids, maybe your mother didn’t enroll you when you were first eligible.  So, as far as you were treated by your merciless little classmates, you were the Big Dummy.  

“I was the Big Dummy,” said the skeleton.  

Hold on, there.  If you were legally blind, and hampered by not knowing English, how is any of that a reflection on your intelligence, which is obviously far above average?  

“I was the dumbest Jewish kid in that school, there is no doubt about that,” said the skeleton.  

Here’s what I’m thinking.  You emerge from kindergarten with half decent English and you’re put into the dumb class for first grade.  Most of the Jewish kids are in the other class, as Jews were famously studious, especially back then when immigrant Jews pushed their first generation American children hard.  Maybe there are a couple of Jewish kids with you in the dumb class, but they are gone by the time you are promoted, still blind, to second grade.  Now we are in 1931 or 1932.  The Depression is in full, depressing swing.  Your family, poor before the Depression hit, is now the poorest family in that hard-hit river town.  

“That much is all true,” said the skeleton.  

Herbert Hoover was still the president, presiding over the shit-show that would doom his presidency.  Hoover was no friend of the working man, or the unemployed man either, for that matter, or the children of such men.  That’s one reason he lost the Electoral College 472-59 to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, class traitor.  

“We can get into FDR some other time.  He ran against a Socialist candidate and a Communist candidate, as well as Hoover.  They didn’t get any electoral votes, natch, but their movements were forces in society in 1932.  FDR saved America for capitalism with his New Deal, but that is not what we’re talking about here.”  

I recall you telling me that the eye-glasses I selected, when I was a teenager, wire frames based on John Lennon’s, were just like the glasses you wore, the humiliating badge of being on Relief.  

“They made us wear those wire rimmed glasses, the cheapest to produce, I guess, and it was a sign to everyone we passed that we were on the dole,” said the skeleton.  

But here’s the question, dad, now unanswerable with anything besides my best guess: what year did you get those Relief glasses?   To ask it differently: how old were you before you could finally see?

“Well, obviously, Elie, I can’t tell you that, but, before you pursue this theory, you recall that I always flipped my glasses up on top of my head and held the newspaper close to my face, I didn’t need glasses to see up close.  I was near-sighted, like Magoo.”  

OK, fine.  You also had Lasik surgery toward the end of your life that made your vision basically 20/20.  

“Yop,” said the skeleton. 

I’m picturing you in first grade, in that class with the other dumbest kids in Peekskill, and the teacher is pointing at the letter A on the board in front of the room.  The other kids are all chanting “A”.  The teacher is holding up words that start with A, with pictures.   Apple, alligator, asshole.  You are muttering along with them, but could not possibly see the letters she was teaching you.  

“I don’t know, I have no specific memory of this, but it sounds plausible,” said the skeleton.

At the end of Hoover’s term he passed some kind of half-hearted Relief Act, but it was directed toward the states, as far as I can tell, bailing them out of boiling water.  I doubt glasses for kids were even a remote consideration in that first bill.  FDR, shortly after his inauguration on March 4, 1933 (a month and a few days after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany) passed an Emergency Relief Act that might have covered glasses for poor kids.   If so, your first pair of glasses might have been made around your ninth birthday, meaning you were legally blind from kindergarten to, say, fourth grade.

“Your guess is as good as a dead man’s,” said the skeleton.

If your first pair of glasses were made under the Social Security Act, that would have been 1935, when you were eleven.  

“The math is right,” said the skeleton.  

“I note here, while we’re doing the math, that I was fourteen when the federal minimum wage law was passed.  We take Social Security and the shamefully low Minimum Wage for granted.  But the same law that mandated a federal minimum wage also created the forty hour week (something else we take for granted) and banned child labor.  Meaning, if my vision had been OK, any time before my bar mitzvah I could have legally been forced to work in some factory, for as many hours as required and for whatever slave wage offered, if a job had been available.  Ain’t dat some shit?”

Dassum shit, as my father used to say.



Winning the Battle, Losing the War (2)

My family, all through the sixties, as the Vietnam war and the war for Civil Rights here in America raged on TV, had our own war every night at the dinner table.  This is not my imagination speaking, it was an actual war.  In case there was any mistaking it, our father would grimly remind my sister and me regularly “you may win this battle, but you’re going to lose the war.”  

What kind of parents style their struggles with their children as a war? How does it nurture a child to predict that, in the end, no matter how many bloody battles they manage to win, they are going to lose the war?  What war?  What exactly is this fucking war, dad?   Speculating about what kind of parent convinces their child that they are in a losing war is a dodgy exercise, I think.  All I can say definitively is that, in my case, it was parents who’d been raised by brutal tyrants themselves, and had lifelong difficulty controlling their own over-boiling rage.  

My mother loved me, there is no question about that.  Yet I have a vivid, and hilarious (in retrospect, I didn’t see the grand humor at the time) memory of my mother shaking me vigorously by the shoulders at the dinner table.  She was frustrated, I was small enough to be grabbed by the shoulders and vigorously shaken.  As she shook me, in the manner of a terrier shaking a rat, she demanded angrily, each syllable accompanied by a shake  “What did an-y-bod-y e-ver do to you to make you so fuck-ing ang-ry!!?”  

I had no sensible answer at the time, though it occurs to me now I could have said “I don’t know, maybe things like what you’re doing right now.  Would you let me go, please? and stop screaming, I’m a few inches away.”   The point is, my mother, who I was much closer to in many ways than I was to my father, was as capable of incoherent rage as my father was.   They simply did not know how to control themselves when they were frustrated, which was often.  

I don’t blame them for being frustrated.  Life is often frustrating.  We have our noses rubbed in our powerlessness countless times every day.   Corporations are people, increasingly we are not and the cards are ever more unfairly stacked for the corporate “person” against the human person.  We are powerless consumers manipulated into buying things we don’t need, things we are told will make us feel better about ourselves, voting for representatives who will not hesitate to sell our interests to the highest bidder.   People who pine for long-past golden days are nostalgic for a sense that we are not all endlessly manipulable saps.  We always have been, but much more so now, in the age of instant data-driven demographic manipulation.

My parents were born at the dawn of our modern age of mass manipulation. My father, born in 1924, came on the scene around the time of the radio.  By the time he was old enough to understand what he was hearing over the radio we had our first mass media president, FDR, skillfully using the magical new wireless medium to reach every American in their living rooms.  Poor as my father’s family was, there was some radio somewhere they could huddle around to hear FDR address the nation in his Fireside Chats.  Movies were the other new form of mass media, and both of my parents saw them as often as they could.  My mother went every Saturday, saw the newsreel between features, watched the events unfolding in Europe and elsewhere.  

Fast forward to now, every kid has a device in their pocket that shows them endless, opinionated newsreels endlessly.   The torrent of targeted content is unstoppable.   Kids think they are the best informed generation in history, since they have instant access to the five second answer to any question.  We can think of this as “information” but it is most often slickly packaged commercially-driven manipulation.  Being constantly bombarded by “content” also fractures the already shaky human ability to focus and concentrate, shatters it into one and two second twitches.   The world is constantly changing, for the most part without wisdom increasing.  So be it.

Anyway, I don’t blame my parents for being frustrated, for having been the victims of frustrated, violent mothers.  The only thing I can blame them for, and this is a stretch, is not gaining any insight into their life-long battles with rage.  You’d hope a new parent could examine their life and reactions honestly enough to realize that blaming a new-born baby for being irrationally enraged, adversarial and vicious was probably not the entire answer to the question of why life with baby seemed so impossibly hard.

Back to the war at the dinner table.  The tension would be mounting all day, my mother making the famous threat of that era “wait ’til your father gets home!”  As my mother served dinner, after my father came in from his exhausted nap, the sniping would begin and my father would as often as not beg our mother “feed me after them!”  It was unbearable to him, trapped in his corner seat near the toaster, between the wall, my sister and the refrigerator, to have to fight this endless battle every single night after a long day at work, before he headed off to his second job.  

At his second job he interacted with Jewish teenagers who seemed to love him, as many of his high school students also seemed to.  He was a hip guy with a good sense of humor and no taste for bullshit.    Every so often one of these kids would become a surrogate son (no surrogate daughters that I can recall).  He developed a lifelong friendship with the last of these surrogate sons, a man named Benjie.  

But at the dinner table, he was cursed, besieged by his own bloodthirsty offspring, at war.   He was reduced to threatening his snotty, doomed children, that, although they my have been winning battle after battle against him at the table, they were destined, in the end to lose the fucking war.   He guaranteed it, bitterly, angrily.  “You will lose the war!”  What fucking war, exactly?  

“Well, of course, I can’t defend any of this,” said the skeleton of my father, “it was an existential war.  I’d been raised by an angry mother who literally whipped me in the face from the time I could stand.   You can judge her, decide she was psychotic or whatever judgement you’d like to make.  The fact is, I was forced to eat shit and ask for more from the time I was two.  From the time I could stand, I was made to shudder in fear, by my own mother. You do the math.”  

I get it.   Here’s what I was thinking.  My sister and I did the best we could to survive in this existential war.  The alliances were constantly shifting, but we could never forget that we were in an ongoing battle, in the midst of a long war we were told we were going to lose.  It came to me, the other night before I fell asleep, that since we were always duking it out and fighting for our lives, we would often take it out on mom.  Yeah, these two little bastards would join forces to mock and torture your ally, mom, on a regular basis.   We tortured the fuck out of her.  

“Don’t sound so happy about it,” said the skeleton.  

I’m not happy about it.  It’s sickening, really, to think about.   We were being bullied regularly and we found someone to take it out on.  Mom was a prime target for bullying– her mother had bullied her, you bullied her.  It was irresistible to us when we were kids, being in a war anyway and sensing her vulnerability, we bullied her.   She fought back, she ranted, she cried, she even lashed out at us a couple of times physically, usually with dire consequences that left her crying.   But we tortured her.  She may have won a few battles but we…

“Don’t even say it.   Why are you telling this to a dead man?” said the skeleton, turning his face to show me his profile.  

The apple, it is said, doesn’t fall far from the tree.  

“That’s beneath you, Elie,” said the skeleton, shaking his head slowly.  

Maybe so, but who gives a shit? You may win this particular battle, dad…