Please continue to hold

‘You would have loved this shit, dad.  Now that we all have cell phones, in our pocket or charging next to the bed while we sleep, you get calls around the clock from companies you do business with,’ I told the skeleton of my father.   

“That’s the American way, Elie,” said the skeleton brightly.  “The business of America is business, and you can take that to the bank.”   

Yah, mon, 9:30 a.m. Saturday I got another call from the Internet Service Provider that has a monopoly in my neighborhood.  I had two more today, with important news about my internet account.

“Courtesy calls, Elie,” said the skeleton,  “Jesus, you’d complain if you were hung with a new rope.” 

I know, I know.  Anyway, they’ve called six or seven times the last few days.  I figured there might be some problem with the robot that processed my most recent payment, plus a ten dollar late fee, not on my bill, that the robot had informed me was imposed.

“A brand new rope, Elie, and here you  are bitching…” 

It’s my way, dad.   Anyway, the folks at Speculum were much faster than the Student Loan people, whose recording thanked me over and over for being such an important customer and read me information about how to pay them while reminding me that all of their representatives were still busy helping other customers.   

“Jesus, Elie, the problems of the living are tedious….” 

I’m hip.  Anyway, it was only five minutes and thirty-nine seconds before the Oklahoma Student Loan servicing corporation put a human on the line.   

“You actually timed it, you petty, seconds counting bastard?”   

The phone times it automatically, it’s right on the screen while you’re listening to muzak and ads and being thanked for your time and politely reminded to please hold, that all representatives are currently still busy helping other customers. 

“The technology truly is amazing,” said the skeleton. “I can’t tell you how fascinating all this is to a dead man.”    The skeleton turned to watch two squirrels leaping after each other in the dead leaves. 

“At least they didn’t refer to you as a ‘guest’, like at so many retail establishments now.”   

I used to say, ‘if I’m a guest how come you’re trying to take money from me?  Not a very gracious host, is Bed Bath and Beyond?’.  In the beginning it got a smile from the cashier, by now it’s just a stony expression and the predictable, deadpan “credit or debit?” 

“May I help the next guest?” said the skeleton. 

Yeah, so anyway, the guy at Speculum was quick to pick up.  He asked my name, which I spelled.

“A last name unique in the United States, at least as far as Social Security is concerned.  That was verified by  your uncle Paul Widem, my brother, and long-time Washington D.C. government insider.  You can remind your readers that ‘Widaen’ was mistakenly written on my birth certificate, it was an invention coined by a nurse at the hospital with the nodded approval of her collaborator, the illiterate patient, my mother.  It became my name, and later our nuclear family name, only once I got into the army.” 

Yeah, true.  So, anyway, I spell the name for him and he types it in.  Then he says ‘do you have an account with Speculum?’

“I have to admit, this is even more interesting than watching the leaves turn color,” the skeleton of my father said, pointing up to the tree over his grave, stretching out limbs and branches bare of leaves.   

I read the kid my account number and he tells me…

“That you’ve received a series of courtesy calls, dear guest?” 

Close.  That because I am such a loyal customer Speculum has been calling me around the clock to reward me with a special promotion.   

“Ah!” said the skeleton. 

I tell the kid, listen, I don’t have a land line or a television set, so I don’t need phone or cable service.  I’d appreciate being taken off the promotions list for these bundles.   Then, because I’d just spent ten minutes getting  useless and incomplete information about the repeated courtesy calls from the private Student Loan servicing corporation (they hadn’t yet received the payment I sent last week, had no record that I need to immediately re-certify my income to stay on the new income-driven repayment plan), I couldn’t help myself.   

“That’s my boy,” said the skeleton, “chip off the old crock.”

I told the kid the CEO of Speculum makes $98,000,000 a year, highest paid CEO in the U.S., and that all of the unionized technicians are still on strike, that Speculum, which has a monopoly in my area, has raised my rates every single year so that I am now paying almost double my “promotional” rate from three years ago, plus a brand new 25% late fee if you pay after a due date that does not appear on your invoice.   

“Fair is fair, Elie, they have a monopoly, what are they supposed to do?  Give you a break, sucker?”

One of us born every minute, dad.   Anyway, the kid tells me he’s sorry for all the calls about the promotion and that he’ll take my name off the promotions list.  Then he informs me it will take up to thirty days for the calls and letters to stop. 

“Is there no end to this courtesy call, Elie?” the skeleton said.

Yeah, that’s it.   

“So this was just a courtesy call?” said the skeleton.

Basically, yeah.  No action on your part is required.  However, if you wish to take action, we couldn’t care less, knock yourself out, be our guest. 

“Action-taking knave,” said the skeleton. 

I wouldn’t dream of taking action, dad. 

“No you wouldn’t, that’s the last thing you’d dream of,” said the skeleton, “now, if you’ll please excuse me, Elie, I have to take some action — get back to my nap here in my eternal dirt bad.”

Pleasant dreams. 

“Zzzzzzz….” said the skeleton, with exaggerated fatigue.

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The Gifts that Keep on Taking

Here is a little illustration of my father’s generosity.

“Careful,” said the skeleton of my father.

Sometime in the mid-1980s my father gave me a car, his 1978 Buick Regal, a slightly sporty two-door car he bought after my sister and I were out of the house.   He replaced the Regal with a Buick LeSabre, I believe, on his way to a series of leased Cadillacs.   He liked a powerful engine, eight cylinders if possible, and the Regal had a borderline powerful six cylinder engine.  In any case, the car he gave me was in fairly beat up shape.   

“It was a nice car,” said the skeleton of my father.

It had been a very nice car.  When I was done scrubbing the black crud off the steering wheel, I….

“That’s a low blow,” said the skeleton.   

I never understood where that black gunk came from, I never knew you to be a grease monkey, never thought your hands were particularly dirty.   

“Move on, I assume you have a point here,” said the skeleton. 

The car cost me over a thousand dollars a year in repairs to keep on the road, a series of increasingly larger repairs, until I finally donated it to some charity a few years later.   

Caveat emptor,” said the skeleton with a shrug, “nobody held a gun to your head and made you take the car, plus, you didn’t pay a penny for it, outside of the thousands in repairs.” 

OK, let’s just move on to Exhibit B– the couch and Lazy Boy. 

“Is there no limit to your pettiness?” said the skeleton.  “Is there no statute of limitation for these, apparently timeless, de minimis grievances of yours?” 

Mom was lamenting the fact that you had to throw out all of your beautiful furniture when you sold the house.  She couldn’t believe that nobody even wanted it as a donation.  There was a new pull-out couch in what used to be my bedroom, and a reclining chair that was in excellent shape.   

“This is exposition, I suppose, for the reader, I know very well what couch and Lazy-Boy you’re referring to,” said the skeleton. 

Astute observation.  Anyway, I spent several hot afternoons and evenings up in that filthy attic, removing grime encrusted articles, the things were literally blackened, and disposing of most of them.  You were very grateful for my help and urged me to take the new sofa-bed and recliner to my minimally furnished apartment.   You told me you’d arrange to have them trucked over. 

“And I did, those two Russian Jews Benjie recommended, and they brought the stuff right into your then empty living room,” said the skeleton.

Yes, and then handed me their bill, which I paid, a few hundred dollars, and a tip on top of that.

“You’d complain if you were hung with a new rope.  I always said that and it’s as true today as when you were a kid,” said the skeleton.   

I suppose so.

The D.U. Reassures His Wife

I need to amplify this subject, how my father treated his wife, my mother.  We can understand a person best by how they treat those closest to them.  For now, this one regular scene from our family dinner table, when the war was not actively raging.

My mother from time to time would express concern about some possibly life-threatening turn in my father’s health.  He always had the same breezy answer ready for her expression of concern.

“Don’t worry, Ehvie,” he would say cheerfully “only the good die young.”   

My mother’s response was always the same too.  Her nostrils would instantly flare, her eyes would become wet and she’d begin to sob.  My sister and I would look at each other and shake our heads, though neither of us could have explained exactly why we were reacting like two wise, old Jews.

NOTE to self (gracias a Gaj): loo-doo

“I Just Want You To Be Happy”

We were driving north on the Throgs Neck Bridge, my lifelong adversary at the wheel.   When my sister and I were little kids, and the family drove back to Queens over the Whitestone Bridge after visits to the U.S. mainland, my father would point to the towers being built in the channel between the East River and the Long Island Sound.  “When that bridge is done, we’ll have a much quicker ride home,” he said, or words to that effect.  He must have said it several times, because the bridge opened when I was four and a half and I clearly remember him pointing at the bridge being constructed across the Throgs Neck.

We were heading to my apartment on the northern end of Manhattan, I’d had dinner with my parents in Queens, as I did periodically in the years before they moved to Florida.  I was close to forty, and had finally gotten rid of my car (impossible to park in my neighborhood).   I used to make the drive, around 25 minutes each way, but once I ditched my car it was a ninety minute trip each way by subway and walking.   My father was driving me home this particular night.  It was a rare stretch of just the two of us being together in a car.   On the Throgs Neck Bridge, about five minutes from their house, I asked him, point blank, what it was that he wanted from me. 

“You seem eternally unhappy, disappointed, disapproving of my choices in life,” I told him.  It must be said, at that point I’d been fired from a series of jobs and most recently blacklisted from teaching in the public schools after a long ordeal by bureaucracy.  “What would you like me to do to relieve you of those, no doubt painful, feelings?  Is there anything?  Would law school do it for you?” I asked.  “Would you be happy if I became a lawyer?”

I remember the dark Long Island Sound stretching out to the right of us as we headed toward the Bronx.  My father paused.  Then he told me that he would feel differently about my life if only I were happy in what I was doing.  My happiness, he said, was the most important thing to him.  I managed not to say anything snide.   

“You know, if you were happy being an artist… you know, I never understood why you don’t try getting a show in a library, or a hospital, or some place like that, just to get some exposure, get a foot in the door.  You work in isolation and you… I mean, it just seems like a very unhappy life.  I just want you to be happy.  If you were  happy, I’d be satisfied.” 

I explained to him that a show at a library or a nursing home was not a stepping stone toward becoming a professional artist.  An artist only makes a living working in advertising, illustration or becoming a darling of wealthy art collectors, curators and influential art critics.  None of those options appealed to me, I told him, yet I love to draw and that’s that.  I asked him again what it was that I could do that would leave him feeling I was not wasting my life.   

“You don’t have to do anything for me,” he said, steering his Cadillac into a lane for the toll booth.  “I don’t know where you get the idea that you have to do anything for me.  You’ve never sought my advice or input before, I’m a little surprised you’re asking me now.” 

I’m asking you now, I told him, weary from decades of senseless war I had little insight into.  I’d been an antagonistic newborn, an implacable infant, a relentlessly defiant toddler, an angry, fearful school boy, a rebellious, sharp-tongued, disrespectful teenager.  I’ve digested all of these things by now, the first few being patently absurd, the remainder fairly predictable, based on being treated as a challenging little adversary from before my first memory, but at that moment in the car I was seeking a way off of this boundless, senseless battlefield.   

“Only if it would make you happy to become a lawyer,” he said.  “I mean, obviously, I think you have the mind to be an excellent lawyer.”   

And extensive experience with adversarial proceedings, I pointed out.  I don’t recall much more about that long ago conversation, except that I took the LSAT review books out of my local library and took a few sample tests.  I learned later that many people take courses to prepare them for this highly specialized test, but I had long experience cramming for Regents Exams in high school and had always had a knack for these standardized tests (though I had mediocre scores on my SATs, as I recall, but those were taken at my personal height of not giving a fuck about anything).   

I did well enough on my LSATs that, with my college transcripts, I was accepted to all three of the law schools I applied to.  I chose one, took out loans (that I am still repaying more than twenty years later) and the rest, as they say is history.   

“So you’re saying you went to law school in an attempt to please a father you knew to be impossible to please?” said the skeleton of my father, a much different creature than the man who drove us across the Throgs Neck Bridge that night.

Pretty much.   I’ve spent the day today immunosuppressed, working out different ways to play Hoagy Carmichael’s great Lazy River on guitar.   What a beautiful, bluesy, ingenious tune.  Hoagy graduated law school and passed the bar exam on his first try, just like I did.  He was a musical genius and was soon making money as a musician and so never had to experience the grinding that is the fucking law.  I, on the other hand, was forced, for more than a decade, to earn my crust of bread by the stinging sweat of my brow, in the manner of Cain, cursed by his maker. 

Playing that tune, with an involuntary smile when he pulls out some of those great lines, I can forget all about it, until it’s time to put the guitar down.

“Well, you know Elie, we all have to put the guitar down some time,” said the skeleton with great tenderness.

Dramatis Personae (draft one)

Azrael “Israel” Irving “Irv” Widaen:  protagonist, educator, socially conscious, angry one-time historian, talkative skeleton.  He grew up in Peekskill, a small town an hour north of New York City, in grinding poverty. Had a lifelong interest in social justice and history.   A man of great wit, intelligence, compassion, known to his children as the D.U. (Dreaded Unit) he faced his sudden death stoically and without self-pity, but died with terrible regrets.  His life is an object lesson in the dangers of unexamined anger.

Aren “Aaron” Gleiberman: uncle of the protagonist.  But for Aren’s desertion from the Czar’s army in 1904 as his unit was being shipped east for the Russo-Japanese War (he and two fellow Jewish draftees headed west) the life of the protagonist, and this account, would have been unimaginable.  Aren sent for his youngest sister, Chava, on the eve of World War One.  Chava would beget the protagonist, in 1924.

Chava Gleiberman Widem — born in the tiny, doomed hamlet of Truvovich in Belarus, across the Pina River from Pinsk, Chava and oldest brother Aren, in America, were the only members of their family left alive after the Nazi advance across their area.  Tiny, red-haired, religious and given to rage, she entered into an unhappy arranged marriage with Eliyahu “Harry” Widem and gave birth to the protagonist in 1924.

Eliyahu “Harry” Widem:  the protagonist’s father, a cipher.  He was described as completely deadpan, his face “two eyes, a nose and a mouth.”  The most complete account Irv ever gave of his father, given the last night of his life, was “my father was an illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world.”  He died young, his gravestone indicating that he was a straight, simple man, which, it turns out, is not as uncomplimentary as it sounds.

Uncle Paul:  younger brother, by less than two years, of the protagonist.  Highly intelligent, he was a lifelong civil servant in the federal government in a bureau dealing with alcoholism.  A mild mannered, playful man with a corny sense of humor, he was also, among his intimates, a man of towering rages.  After retirement he dedicated himself to the creation of a federal civil service museum, a dream that was not realized.

Eli Gleiberman:  first son of protagonist’s Uncle Aren, seventeen years older than the protagonist, the closest thing Irv had to a father figure.   Aren’s wife died shortly after giving birth to Eli.  Alone in NYC, Aren planned to give the baby up for adoption.   Eli’s mother’s mother, and her three daughters, took Eli to grow up on their farm in the Bronx.   By age four, Eli reported, he ruled that farm, his word was law.  He added in a quiet voice “… which was very, very bad….”  Eli had, and displayed, the “Gleiberman temper”.  A man of great charm and humor, a wonderful story teller, equally capable of brutality.  He greatly loved, and terrified, his first cousin, the protagonist.

Evelyn:  wife of the protagonist, a poetic woman with a good sense of humor, given to wild exaggeration.  The sophisticated NYC girl had been reluctant to meet the bumpkin Irv, who was related to neighbors/friends of her’s in the Bronx.  The witty college boy soon swept Evelyn off her feet, although there is much more to the story than that, obviously.  They were married in 1951 and remained so until Irv’s death in 2005.

“My sister”:  younger than me by twenty-two months, the protagonist’s only other child, a bright and very private person.  I have zealously excluded all details of her life and identity, except for her participation in childhood events and her occasional insights on the protagonist and his wife, our mother.

 

Divergent Approaches to Life

I realize it’ll be hard to write this without sounding like an overbearingly judgmental asshole.  I may be setting myself another impossible task today.   For one thing, we live in a society whose values I consider insane, one where “winning” is the only goal, admitting fault and sincerely apologizing are often derided as weakness, the marks of a hesitant loser.   We argue in order to make ourselves feel that we are right and the other party is an asshole.  We omit the best points of our opponent’s arguments, reduce them to the stupidest things they’ve said, the most foolish or despicable choices they’ve ever made.   We win!   We win!   (Or we take our ball and go home.)

We win like the twitching chicken that used to play tic tac toe in the Chinatown Arcade on Mott Street.   For fifty cents you could play tic tac toe with a scrawny caged bird.   Most often, at the end of the match, the sign would flash “BIRD WINS!” and the victorious poultry hen would peck hungrily at the two or three grains of dried corn that dropped down a chute as its reward.   It was impossible to beat the bird, she went first.   A skillfully played game would result in a tie, which was as close to a win as the paying human could come.   I saw my proudest, toughest third grader humbled by the bird, in spite of my warnings that the game was rigged.   His classmates laughed at him and, for once, Roscoe did not retaliate, he hung his head.    My friends, this is the world we live in, playing as purported equals on a grotesquely tilted playing field.     

I’ve spent much of the last twenty-three months reimagining my troubled father’s life.  It has been a productive exercise for me, getting a much more nuanced understanding of my difficult father, probably because I am wired that way.   My father was called the Dreaded Unit, and his dreadedness was the result of an implacable will never to be defeated.   The phrasing is deliberate.  He fought doggedly, on many fronts, and I see now that his desire was not to “win”, he had little hope of that, but was simply a desperation not to “lose”.   

Consider how disabling this need would be to a person, to a friend, to a colleague or parent.   My father was very smart, knowledgeable, funny, capable of great empathy, full of traits that made him good company– his burden was living determined not to be defeated in any contest, no matter how small.   He didn’t play games, as a rule, since the prospect of losing was so painful to him, I guess.  His need to not lose restricted his view of life to a black and white funnel through which he saw every encounter.  It was a worldview he expressed great regret about as he was dying, trying to imagine how much richer his life would have been if he’d allowed himself to see all the nuance, gradation and color in the world.

Here is the divergent approaches to life point I allude to in the title.   Among our choices every day: you can accept what is in front of you, God having granted you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change and all that, and not fret over the many things you are powerless to influence; you can look at life through a straight-forward, narrow lens, pursuing happiness and your goals and interests as best you can; you can ponder and try to make sense of things that make little sense, hope to reach an understanding of vexing things that will lessen their sting, enable you to remain calm in the face of them.   This is a clumsy attempt, on my part, to set the stage for the hideous sounding thing I am poised to say.   I will dance towards my point.   

My father, at one point toward the end of their friendship, reserved special venom for his long-time friend Caroline, who was always running to do good deeds but, when my mother was hospitalized after her cancer surgery, and later confined to bed for several weeks, apparently didn’t find her way five blocks to visit her old friend.   I wasn’t there, I take his word for it.  I don’t recall quizzing my mother about it, although I think she confirmed it.  My mother didn’t appear overly hurt or angry about it, but my father was inconsolably peeved.   

“Caroline always runs a full flight pattern,” my father grumbled, stoking his anger at her and selling the righteousness of it to me.  “Since she’s always running, she can’t be responsible for the things that fall through the cracks, she’s too busy, you know.   She didn’t once, in all her frantic running around being everyone’s best friend, manage to make the long five block trek to visit her good friend who was laid up.   If I confronted her about it, she’d put her ears down and become immensely guilty, but why would I bother?   The point is, that type of neurotic person can always justify why it was impossible for them to do something that would have been easy enough, like drop off a bowl of soup, sit for ten minutes with a friend who can’t get out of the house, because they run a full flight pattern.”   

The full flight pattern is one mode of coping with a challenging, frantic, sometimes mad world, particularly since time is money.   You keep your schedule tight, your day productive, you run from one meeting to another, one task to another, stay busy, stay on point, feel good because you are ticking off important boxes many times a day.  At the end of the day you’re tired, fall into a deep sleep, wake up early the next day and do the same thing, try to get to the things you didn’t do the day before.   With a full flight pattern you can never actually do everything you need to do on a given day, but that only makes it more important to run faster and book more flights the next day.   

I get it.  I read a quote once that many people in our society have an absolute dread of leisure.  Leisure (unless an earned vacation) is equated with laziness, and laziness is the deadly sin of Sloth.  A good person does not slack, shirk, relax until the jobs are all done, a good person is tireless and productive.  I kid myself, I suppose, that I am not lazy but doing the hard work of trying to recover fully from a traumatic childhood to lead a better, more useful life, attempting to leave a road map for strangers to make use of.  I tap these keys in a quiet room, make my thoughts as clear as I can, and feel I am not just lazily indulging myself but doing something important.  I am lazy, even if I am also doing hard work most people would not even consider thinking about.   

Here’s the divergent approach to life bit:

I had the luck to spend many long visits with my father’s first cousin Eli, during the last few years of Eli’s long life.  Eli, seventeen years older than my father, had been a larger-than-life, opinionated fly on the wall during my father’s infancy and childhood.  We eventually became close enough friends, Eli and I, that he felt compelled to give me whatever difficult insight he could express to shed light on my vexing relationship with my old man.   Eli greatly loved my father.  He told me that the roots of our family were impossibly tangled and supremely difficult to understand or explain.  It was worse than that, most of our large family had been murdered by people empowered by those intent on making Germany Great Again and there was no way to even explore any but a couple of living roots.  There were warring factions in our small family– one tiny group didn’t have any contact with the others.  Hitler’s work was done.   

Brief meta-aside: 

When we hear a story we want a fairly straight line, a narrator who leads us on a fascinating tour without a hundred distracting detours.  Every detour has a dozen potential side detours and each side detour a suite of hidden rooms.  Soon the story is as clueless as the world itself and there is no way forward.  I get that.  I’d like to avoid footnotes today.  Here then, to tie a bow on this for you.   

When I returned from Eli’s, with new stories that shed light on my father’s torturous childhood and on my father’s often baffling stances as an adult (we pretty much agreed about politics, but he found cause to argue every time we spoke on the subject), my father hunched into a defensive crouch and hurled curses at fucking Eli, the closest thing to a father he’d ever had, a man he loved.   

He discredited Eli in a long torrent of reasons Eli was full of shit.  Eli had a violent temper, was deluded, falsely insisting he could have been a millionaire several times in the course of his egotistical life, if others hadn’t screwed him, Eli had a cockeyed view of life, was a bullshit historian, Eli had been a despicable tyrant to his kids, all of whom avoided him, one of whom hated him.   Yeah, ask Eli’s kids about fucking Eli, he suggested.   My father fought so hard to fend off whatever Eli might have told me that it never came up for discussion.  It was all intensely painful to my father, I realize now, and it was his choice neither to discuss it or to attempt to get, or give, any insight into any of it.  The thing was to fend it off, even if it meant savaging the character and the soul of the cousin he loved the most. 

My sister seemed to share the D.U.’s horror that I was probing into this painful past.  She was offended on his behalf when I asked my father, when the three of us were on line at a wedding buffet table, if he still considered verbal violence the same as physical violence, in terms of the psychological harm it does.  He told me he did.  I asked him, in light of that, if he’d consider my sister and me to have been victims of child abuse.  He told me he did.  My sister glared at me angrily, empty plate glistening in her hand. 

Our father’s life, she once told me insightfully, a few years after he died, had been shame-based.  He lived with deep shame and his existence was devoted to warding off any sign of shame.  Shame is a motherfucker, no question about it.  Among violent inmates in prison, a psychiatrist who spent many years speaking to them came to understand, virtually all of them had done violence out of an unbearable sense of humiliation.   “All violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem,” wrote James Gilligan, the man who’d spent years working with violent inmates. 

The point is, with our divergent approaches, some find comfort in moving forward, at the greatest possible speed.   The demons that may dog them in rare unscripted moments can usually be outrun.  Others find more comfort in this careful chewing, turning the thing over and looking at it from different angles, with different light sources.  I should not wonder that my sister has not responded once to the last six or seven slices of this manuscript I’ve sent her over the past year.   I imagine that even the most merciful, least revealing of these pieces fills her with dread of what the others might contain.   Everyone has their own style for minimizing pain. 

As for mine, there is incalculable value, to me, in trying to see as much of the vexing, endlessly fascinating picture as I can, even as it delays me in rushing toward the goal line to do my victory dance. 

Even as it sets me up as an easily mocked self-righteous asshole who has never learned how to make a living and who sits alone, feeling smart, as he edits his thoughts for clarity, that they might be read by half a dozen people once in a while.