Mehchaya

It was recently uncomfortably hot and humid in New York City (and much of the northeast, I understand) for about ten straight days.   The air was thick, heated to a sickening degree, and walking through it for more than a short stretch was like walking through warm vaseline.   It left a filthy slime on the skin that was most unpleasant.   The air went down hard to those trying to breathe it.   I would go out for a listless limp every evening slightly shaking my head.  Walking through it was like being slowly and deliberately punched in the face over and over by a giant, sullen, slimy fist.

We Americans have reason to be skeptical about a century of escalating pollution due to refining and burning fossil fuels having anything whatsoever to do with the warming of the atmosphere, and the oceans, and the catastrophic climate emergencies: floods, droughts, catastrophic hundred year storms and raging wild fires,  popping up with horrific frequency on every continent.   Our reason for skepticism has been bought and paid for by the refiners of the dirtiest, most polluting form of crude oil, primarily Koch Industries who invested three times more in “climate change denial” than even Exxon.  They certainly have nothing to gain by mounting this vigorous campaign against scientific consensus, easily observable catastrophic events and common sense.   I have to tip my hat to fucking Charles Koch, what an enormous and stunning cunt the man is.

Anyway, I was walking down Broadway one evening, at around my breaking point.  I’d been philosophical during the first week of the heat wave, summer in New York City has always been famous for airless humidity, certainly by day.  It began getting to me big time by day eight or nine.   I dragged myself down Broadway and looked toward a favorite bench, which was thankfully empty.  I sat down on the metal bench to check the score of the Yankee game on my phone.  I was damp from the short walk, my Hawaiian shirt stuck to my back.

From the south, without any warning, a cool breeze suddenly blew, and it kept coming.  I sat there like an old Jew in a sweaty shirt, two hundred years ago, my eyes closed and a big smile on my face.  “Oy,” I said to myself, or possibly out loud, “a MEHCHAYA!”   This Yiddish word indicates a pleasure that comes in the form of a great relief.  A cold drink to a parched throat– a mehchaya.  This beautiful, magnificent, life and hope restoring breeze, a mehchaya.  A fucking mechaya.

The breeze was actually wicking the dampness from my shirt.  It was indescribably beautiful.  It got me thinking, after the breeze finally died down and I made my way back up Broadway toward my apartment, that a mehchaya like that inevitably reminds one of other mechayas.

I recalled my father, at the dinner table one night when we were somehow not fighting, describing a woman he’d met recently, I have no recollection of who she was.   My father described her as a mehchaya.   A person as a mehchaya!   He had met her, possibly with some hesitation, and she had turned out to be a mehchaya.  Like a cool breeze on a hot, airless night.  A mechaya.

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3,000 words, first shot (2,914 words)

My father read two or three newspapers every day, starting with the New York Times.   The bending of the moral arc of history concerned him greatly and he could speak spontaneously and intelligently on many philosophical subjects without the need for notes.   He came across as something of a hipster, an ironic idealist with a dark, wicked sense of humor.   He loved soul music, particularly Sam Cooke.   For a few years, in the middle of his long career, he wound up speaking like the angry black cats on the street.  “As they say in the street,” he would say, then hit us with the latest street vernacular. “Dassum shit,” he would snap when confronted with something that struck him as bullshit.  He appreciated the subtleties of the word motherfucker.

Professionally, he hung out with the violent leaders of rival ethnic high school gangs, bullshitted frankly with them and won them over to his way of thinking.   In those days he wore mutton-chop sideburns and grew his dark hair down to his collar.   As part of a Mod Squad style team (Black guy, Jew, WASP folk singer, Italian guy, Puerto Rican woman) my father led the rap sessions, I am sure, with quick, barbed humor and irreverent, pointed honesty.   His deep identification with these discontented underdogs must have come across, along with his sincere hatred of brutal, random hierarchy and its inhuman unfairness.   He invited these young enemies to laugh, identify, curse, imagine, talk about injustice and find common ground. They all left as friends, or at least with mutual respect, at the end of these weekends, time after time.   There was a certain amount of charisma and a lot of deft, real-time improvisation involved in this alchemy.

He was born and raised in “grinding poverty”, a phrase he always spoke through gritted teeth, face like Clint Eastwood’s.   “Grinding poverty” stood in for his unspeakably brutal childhood circumstances in Peekskill, New York during the Great Depression.  My father had the good fortune after High School to be drafted into the Army Air Corps as America entered World War Two and live through a unique time in American history when hard work and determination, and a little help from the G.I. Bill, which put him through college and graduate school, could actually lift a person from humiliating intergenerational poverty to a comfortable middle class American life.   Not to say my father ever felt comfortable, not for a minute.   He paid a high price, working two jobs, to give his children an infinitely better life in a nice little house on a tree-lined street in Queens.  Naturally, his children, not knowing any different, never sufficiently appreciated the things they took for granted, the lawn, the great, small public school, the backyard with the cherry tree that gave big, black cherries. 

My father had all the appearances of a cool guy, but the pose concealed a dark, corrosive edge that was always at the ready.   He had a deep reservoir of rage that was kept under tight control most of the time.  His anger poured out almost every evening over dinner, in violent torrents over his two children, my younger sister and me.   Even as we expected it every evening, as our overwhelmed mother recited all her complaints about us for her tired husband to address before he drove out to his night job, the ferocity of his anger still surprised us, somehow.   It was a little bit insane.  

Like anyone who rages and snarls, he justified his brutality as necessary to deal with his responsibilities, in our case to educate the two viciously ungrateful little pricks he was raising.   He never hit us with physical blows but pounded us regularly with ferocious words intended to cow us and destroy unified resistance. The terrible mystery was how he could be such a tyrant while also imbuing us with important life lessons about decency, humility and kindness to animals.

The brutal battlefield of our family dinner table was a regular feature of our childhood.   It was as horrific as any war scene you can imagine.   The strafing from planes, ominously rattling machine gun nests, the rolling clouds of poison gas, the stinking trenches, rusted barbed wire, the groans of dying horses were as common to us as the steak, salad and Rice-a-roni we found on our plates in front of us virtually every night.   Eating steak was a sign of prosperity for a man who had been hungry during his entire childhood, my mother broiled steaks from Frank and Lenny’s almost every night.  The steaks were barbecued during the spring and summer months, my father or I usually turning them on the grill.  Ironically, and somewhat characteristically, my animal loving father joined PETA later in life and cut out a lot of his former meat diet.  

I was an adult, well into in my late-thirties, before I had the beginning of any insight into this confounding split in my father’s psyche.  On the one hand he was a funny, smart, sympathetic, hip guy who was very easy to talk to, when he wanted to be.  On the other hand, he was a supremely defensive man who more often used his great intelligence to keep others constantly off balance, a man who seemingly could not help trying to dominate and verbally abusing his children.  

My father had all the attributes to be a sensitive, lovable, very funny friend, yet he somehow chose to be an implacable adversary to his children most of the time.  

I’m realizing only now, as I write these words, since I am not a father, what most fathers would probably have realized a long time ago:  what a tormented father my father must have been all those years.  

I spent many years, before and since his death in 2005, trying to assemble a picture of my father as a whole person whose life made some kind of holistic sense.  I could never do it.  That’s the reason I eventually started writing this, an attempt to put together the puzzle of my father.  I work at the puzzle in a darkened room, most of the pieces missing, moving things around on a slanted, slippery table.  His unhappiness, right alongside his great capacity for laughter, was something I never had any insight into, not even a clue.   Puzzling over it as a kid must have been at the roots of my lifelong compulsion to research and write.  

Partly in search of insights into my perplexing father, I used to visit my father’s beloved first cousin Eli in his retirement cottage in Mt. Kisco, New York.  I’d drive up there every other week for a while, about an hour north of my apartment, and sit with the supremely opinionated Eli in his tidy living room, shooting the shit.   Then we’d go out for a meal somewhere.  We’d often wind up talking until well after midnight and by the time I left I had to drive the twisting, black Sawmill River Parkway steering with both hands on the wheel.    

Eli was an old man, well into his eighties, alienated from his own three kids, in a forty year blood feud to the death with his half-sister, on an every other year basis with his half-brother, he didn’t get that many visitors.   I was a fledgling writer and he was a great storyteller and it was usually a pleasure sitting around bullshitting with him about the past.  

It added to our bond that I was also the firstborn son of Eli’s favorite cousin, Irv.   Irv was the firstborn son of Eli’s favorite aunt, Chava who was the youngest sibling of Eli’s firstborn father Aren.  My father’s Uncle Aren had deserted from the Czar’s army, hopped a westbound train as the other draftees were shipped east to fight the Japanese.  Aren’s run to America, and bringing his little sister here a decade later, a few years before their hamlet was wiped off the face of the earth along with everyone they’d ever known there, is the only reason any of us were ever born.  Eli was Uncle Aren’s firstborn son, born in New York City, 1908.  

My father’s first cousin Eli was seventeen years older than my father, he had watched my father for his entire life.  The tough, American born Eli was the closest thing to a father figure my father had growing up, though his own father, a silent man from Poland overwhelmed by this world, was around until my father was in his mid-twenties.

Eli was a colorful character, no other way to put it.   A short, powerfully built, frog-bellied man of infinite charm, with a sandpaper voice, equally comfortable charming a pretty waitress with his smile or punching someone in the face with either hard hand.   I have often said of Eli that if he loved you he was the funniest, most generous, warmest and most entertaining person you could ever spend a few hours with.  If he didn’t like you, he was Hitler.  

I sometimes brought friends with me to visit with him.  I’d know in two minutes if the visit would be a fleeting ten hours of cheer, great stories and laughter or 150 endless minutes of grim, pointless discussion and occasional glaring.  Eli either loved you or hated you, there was not much in between, though he was capable of pretending, mostly, for a couple of hours.   He had his own demons, surely, but was devoted to my father, my mother, my sister and me — there was never the slightest doubt of that.  

He had a fierce temper, the “Gleiberman temper” as he called it, and would turn, in one second, from an infinitely charming raconteur into a purple faced, savage panther, white foam on his sputtering lips.  Even at eight-five he was formidable when he was angry, and my father seemed to be somewhat scared of Eli until the end.  My mother was the only person I knew of who was allowed to constantly fight with Eli.  It was great sport between them, to rage at each other wildly and end up laughing, hugging and kissing when it was time to take their leave of each other.  

Once, describing a car trip back from Florida with Eli, my father told me happily “your mother and Eli fought all the way from Boynton Beach to the end of the New Jersey Turnpike.”  I pictured my mother, turned around in the front passenger seat, slashing at Eli with a broad sword as Eli swung his at her from the back seat.  Tireless combatants locked in mortal combat, swords clanging, for more than a thousand miles, then getting out of the car, hugging and kissing with genuine, unquestionable love, laughing and saying they’ll see each other soon.

I had something of this kind of relationship with Eli, every visit he’d turn purple with rage at least once, but we always parted as friends.

It was in this spirit of friendship, and seeing me so frequently perplexed by my father’s unfathomable anger and sudden alarming rigidity, his grim determination to win an argument at any cost, that Eli finally told me something that immediately changed the way I thought and felt about my father.   The more I thought about it, the more it explained.

“You remember seeing those old electrical cords they used to make before the insulation was made out of plastic?   They were thick and heavy, not very flexible, wrapped in layers of rough cloth for insulation.  The ones you saw as a kid were frayed, like burlap — you remember those cords on the old toasters?”

I did.

“Well your grandmother, my beloved Tante Chava, had one of those cords for her steam iron that she kept in a drawer near where she sat at the head of the kitchen table.”

I pictured the kitchen grinding poverty would have provided a little family in Peekskill, New York in the 1920s.   It was like a scene out of a gothic horror movie, a shaft of light coming into the dim, barren room from a high, narrow window, dust motes dancing listlessly, menacingly.  

“When your father was little, she used to reach into that drawer every time she got mad, and she had the Gleiberman temper, you know, and she’d grab that heavy cord and whip your father across the face with it.”

Across the face?  What?  I’d never met my paternal grandmother, who died before I was born, but… what the fuck?

“Yeah, she’d give him a couple of shots in the kisser with that heavy cord and he’d stand there cowering and crying.   I saw it many times.   After a while, all she had to do was rattle the drawer and your father would stand like this,” and Eli stood and did a remarkably moving imitation of a little kid staring down at the ground, cowering in terror.

“How old was he when she started whipping him in the face?” I asked.

“From the time he could stand,” Eli told me with infinite sorrow.

The skeleton of my father sat up abruptly in his grave at the top of the hill in the small First Hebrew Congregation cemetery just north of Peekskill.  

“Jesus, Elie, you spend forty years trying to dig up enough clues to solve an insoluble existential puzzle and you put that giant piece on the table just like that?   On page two?   You don’t think that’s kind of a spoiler?”

I never planned on my father’s skeleton being my partner in trying to tell the story of his life and times, but he made a pretty good case.   As I said, he was a very smart guy and, in spite of a lifelong twitch to defend himself at all costs, could always see the other side of whatever he was arguing against.  

“I love it when you talk to the reader like I’m not sitting right here,” said the skeleton, turning his head in a crackling circle to loosen his crepitating neck.  

I can feel this little intro slipping out of my hands, dad.

“Don’t mention it,” said the skeleton, with a nonchalant little flip of his boney hand.

High over the well-situated grave (there is a huge tree providing blessed shade) two Westchester turkey vultures made lazy circles in the air.   The skeleton looked up and nodded.

To those who loved my father, and there were many of us, including some very bright people who frequently roared at his tossed off lines, waiting with expectant smiles for the next bit of hilarity, it will cause great distress to read about his monstrous side.  

“After all, Elie, who among us has not employed relentless brutality to irreparably damage the children we raise?   Come on, Elie, be fair about that.”

I’m picturing the dinner table when Arlene and Russ Savakus were over.  Arlene with her keen appreciation, her super-sharp mind, Russ, her more low-key hipster husband, a moderately famous bass player, both of them howling.  Their explosions of laughter were a kind of music I can still hear.  My father was at his best with an audience like Arlene and Russ.

“We’re always at our best with people we love, who love us back,” said the skeleton.

Yes.  Love is all we’ve got here, really.  If you don’t have love in your life, nothing else really matters, except a ruthless lust for power I suppose.

“As your friend Napoleon, who reputedly regarded men as base coin, wrote in his diary  ‘As for me, I know very well I have no real friends, and you don’t suppose I care– as long as I remain what I am I will always have ‘friends’ enough.’  As you have noted before, Elie, who is the ‘you’ he is addressing this thought about not needing intimates to?”

Arlene and Russ.   I remember lying in my bed, as a kid, long after dinner, with the smoke from Arlene’s endless cigarettes wafting up to my room, along with their cackles and excited remarks.   It is hard to imagine, seeing you at your best, that you could have also…

“Well, there’s your mystery of life right there, Elie, and nothing very sweet about it, I’m afraid.”    

The potential in all of us, to be at our best, instead of pressed under the pressures we are constantly forced to fight being crushed by.  Mind boggling, how hard it is to put that best side always forward.    

“Well, some people are better at it than others.  Some people, some of our most successful people, are all show, a thin candy shell over an inner life of squirming, festering horror.  Look at this menace you have in the White House now.  Unloved bully, raised by a demanding, overbearing. loveless father and whatever the hell his gold-digging mother was, look at the cruel monstrosity that produces.   I like to feel, although, admittedly, I verbally whipped you and your sister in the face every night over dinner, that I never humiliated either of you, that I always, somehow, let you know how much I loved you both.”  

Aye, that you did, pater, though it took me almost sixty years to see it all clearly.

“The tragedy of life, Elie,” said the skeleton.   One of the vultures suddenly veered toward earth, the other one turned to follow.  

Also the triumph of life, dad.  We couldn’t have this kind of conversation when you were alive, but now we are.  

“I’ll take it,” said the skeleton, looking off toward the rapidly descending scavengers.

The rest of the 3,000 words, draft one

The skeleton of my father sat up abruptly in his grave at the top of the hill in the small First Hebrew Congregation cemetery just north of Peekskill.  

“Jesus, Elie, you spend forty years trying to dig up enough clues to solve an insoluble existential puzzle and you put that giant piece on the table just like that?   On page two?   You don’t think that’s kind of a spoiler?”

I never planned on my father’s skeleton being my partner in trying to tell the story of his life and times, but he made a pretty good case.   As I said, he was a very smart guy and, in spite of a lifelong twitch to defend himself at all costs, could always see the other side of what he was arguing against.  

“I love it when you talk to the reader like I’m not sitting right here,” said the skeleton, turning his head in a crackling circle to loosen his crepitating neck.  

I can feel this little intro slipping out of my hands, dad.

“Don’t mention it,” said the skeleton, with a nonchalant little flip of his hand.

High over the well-situated grave (there is a huge tree providing blessed shade) two Westchester turkey vultures made lazy circles in the air.   The skeleton looked up and nodded.

To those who loved my father, and there were many of us, including some very bright people who frequently roared at his tossed off lines, waiting with expectant smiles for the next bit of hilarity, it will cause great distress to read about his monstrous side.  

“After all, Elie, who among us has not employed relentless brutality to irreparably damage the children we raise?   Come on, Elie, be fair about that.”

I’m picturing the dinner table when Arlene and Russ Savakus were over.  Arlene with her keen appreciation, her super-sharp mind, Russ, her more low-key hipster husband, a moderately famous bass player, both of them howling.  Their explosions of laughter were a kind of music I can still hear.  My father was at his best with an audience like Arlene and Russ.

“We’re always at our best with people we love, who love us back,” said the skeleton.

Yes.  Love is all we’ve got here, really.  If you don’t have love in your life, nothing else really matters, except a ruthless lust for power I suppose.

“As your friend Napoleon, who reputedly regarded men as base coin, wrote (something to this effect) in his diary ‘As for me, I know very well I have no real friends, and you don’t suppose I care– as long as I remain what I am I will always have ‘friends’ enough.’  As you have noted before, Elie, who is the ‘you’ he is addressing this thought about not needing intimates to?”

Arlene and Russ.   I remember lying in my bed, as a kid, long after dinner, with the smoke from Arlene’s endless cigarettes wafting up to my room, along with their cackles and excited remarks.   It is hard to imagine, seeing you at your best, that you could have also…

“Well, there’s your mystery of life right there, Elie, and nothing very sweet about it, I’m afraid.”    

The potential in all of us, to be at our best, instead of pressed under the pressures we are constantly forced to fight being crushed by.  Mind boggling, how hard it is to put that best side always forward.    

“Well, some people are better at it than others.  Some people, some of our most successful people, are all show, a thin candy shell over an inner life of squirming, festering horror.  Look at this menace you have in the White House now.  Unloved bully, raised by a demanding, overbearing. loveless father and whatever the hell his gold-digging mother was, look at the cruel monster that produces.   I like to feel, although, admittedly, I verbally whipped you and your sister in the face every night over dinner, that I never humiliated either of you, that I always, somehow, let you know how much I loved you both.”  

Aye, that you did, pater, though it took me almost sixty years to see it all clearly.

“The tragedy of life, Elie,” said the skeleton.   One of the vultures suddenly veered toward earth, the other one turned to follow.  

Also the triumph of life, dad.  We couldn’t have this kind of conversation when you were alive, but now we are.  

“I’ll take it,” said the skeleton, looking off toward the rapidly descending scavengers.

First stab at 3,000 words (2172)

My father read two or three newspapers every day, starting with the New York Times.   The bending of the moral arc of history concerned him greatly and he could speak spontaneously and intelligently on many philosophical subjects without the need for notes.   He came across as something of a hipster, an ironic idealist with a dark, wicked sense of humor.   He loved soul music, particularly Sam Cooke.   For a few years, in the middle of his long career, he wound up speaking like the angry black cats on the street.  “As they say in the street,” he would say, then hit us with the latest street vernacular. “Dassum shit,” he would snap when confronted with something that struck him as bullshit.  He appreciated the subtleties of the word motherfucker.

Professionally, he hung out with the violent leaders of rival ethnic high school gangs, bullshitted frankly with them and won them over to his way of thinking.   In those days he wore mutton-chop sideburns and grew his dark hair down to his collar.   As part of a Mod Squad style team (Black guy, Jew, WASP folk singer, Italian guy, Puerto Rican woman) my father led the rap sessions, I am sure, with quick, barbed humor and irreverent, pointed honesty.   His deep identification with these discontented underdogs must have come across, along with his sincere hatred of brutal, random hierarchy and its inhuman unfairness.   He invited these young enemies to laugh, identify, curse, imagine, talk about injustice and find common ground. They all left as friends, or at least with mutual respect, at the end of these weekends, time after time.   There was a certain amount of charisma and a lot of deft, real-time improvisation involved in this alchemy.

He was born and raised in “grinding poverty”, a phrase he always spoke through gritted teeth, face like Clint Eastwood’s.   “Grinding poverty” stood in for his unspeakably brutal childhood circumstances in Peekskill, New York during the Great Depression.  My father had the good fortune after High School to be drafted into the Army Air Corps as America entered World War Two and live through a unique time in American history when hard work and determination, and a little help from the G.I. Bill, which put him through college and graduate school, could actually lift a person from humiliating intergenerational poverty to a comfortable middle class American life.   Not to say my father ever felt comfortable, not for a minute.   He paid a high price, working two jobs, to give his children an infinitely better life in a nice little house on a tree-lined street in Queens.  Naturally, his children, not knowing any different, never sufficiently appreciated the things they took for granted, the lawn, the great, small public school, the backyard with the cherry tree that gave big, black cherries. 

My father had all the appearances of a cool guy, but the pose concealed a dark, corrosive edge that was always at the ready.   He had a deep reservoir of rage that was kept under tight control most of the time.  His anger poured out almost every evening over dinner, in violent torrents over his two children, my younger sister and me.   Even as we expected it every evening, as our overwhelmed mother recited all her complaints about us for her tired husband to address before he drove out to his night job, the ferocity of his anger still surprised us, somehow.   It was a little bit insane.  

Like anyone who rages and snarls, he justified his brutality as necessary to deal with his responsibilities, in our case to educate the two viciously ungrateful little pricks he was raising.   He never hit us with physical blows but pounded us regularly with ferocious words intended to cow us and destroy unified resistance. The terrible mystery was how he could be such a tyrant while also imbuing us with important life lessons about decency, humility and kindness to animals.

The brutal battlefield of our family dinner table was a regular feature of our childhood.   It was as horrific as any war scene you can imagine.   The strafing from planes, ominously rattling machine gun nests, the rolling clouds of poison gas, the stinking trenches, rusted barbed wire, the groans of dying horses were as common to us as the steak, salad and Rice-a-roni we found on our plates in front of us virtually every night.   Eating steak was a sign of prosperity for a man who had been hungry during his entire childhood, my mother broiled steaks from Frank and Lenny’s almost every night.  The steaks were barbecued during the spring and summer months, my father or I usually turning them on the grill.  Ironically, and somewhat characteristically, my animal loving father joined PETA later in life and cut out a lot of his former meat diet.  

I was an adult, well into in my late-thirties, before I had the beginning of any insight into this confounding split in my father’s psyche.  On the one hand he was a funny, smart, sympathetic, hip guy who was very easy to talk to, when he wanted to be.  On the other hand, he was a supremely defensive man who more often used his great intelligence to keep others constantly off balance, a man who seemingly could not help trying to dominate and verbally abusing his children.  

My father had all the attributes to be a sensitive, lovable, very funny friend, yet he somehow chose to be an implacable adversary to his children most of the time.  

I’m realizing only now, as I write these words, since I am not a father, what most fathers would probably have realized a long time ago:  what a tormented father my father must have been all those years.  

I spent many years, before and since his death in 2005, trying to assemble a picture of my father as a whole person whose life made some kind of holistic sense.  I could never do it.  That’s the reason I eventually started writing this, an attempt to put together the puzzle of my father.  I work at the puzzle in a darkened room, most of the pieces missing, moving things around on a slanted, slippery table.  His unhappiness, right alongside his great capacity for laughter, was something I never had any insight into, not even a clue.   Puzzling over it as a kid must have been at the roots of my lifelong compulsion to research and write.  

Partly in search of insights into my perplexing father, I used to visit my father’s beloved first cousin Eli in his retirement cottage in Mt. Kisco, New York.  I’d drive up there every other week for a while, about an hour north of my apartment, and sit with the supremely opinionated Eli in his tidy living room, shooting the shit.   Then we’d go out for a meal somewhere.  We’d often wind up talking until well after midnight and by the time I left I had to drive the twisting, black Sawmill River Parkway steering with both hands on the wheel.    

Eli was an old man, well into his eighties, alienated from his own three kids, in a forty year blood feud to the death with his half-sister, on an every other year basis with his half-brother, he didn’t get that many visitors.   I was a fledgling writer and he was a great storyteller and it was usually a pleasure sitting around bullshitting with him about the past.  

It added to our bond that I was also the firstborn son of Eli’s favorite cousin, Irv.   Irv was the firstborn son of Eli’s favorite aunt, Chava who was the youngest sibling of Eli’s firstborn father Aren.  My father’s Uncle Aren had deserted from the Czar’s army, hopped a westbound train as the other draftees were shipped east to fight the Japanese.  Aren’s run to America, and bringing his little sister here a decade later, a few years before their hamlet was wiped off the face of the earth along with everyone they’d ever known there, is the only reason any of us were ever born.  Eli was Uncle Aren’s firstborn son, born in New York City, 1908.  

My father’s first cousin Eli was seventeen years older than my father, he had watched my father for his entire life.  The tough, American born Eli was the closest thing to a father figure my father had growing up, though his own father, a silent man from Poland overwhelmed by this world, was around until my father was in his mid-twenties.

Eli was a colorful character, no other way to put it.   A short, powerfully built, frog-bellied man of infinite charm, with a sandpaper voice, equally comfortable charming a pretty waitress with his smile or punching someone in the face with either hard hand.   I have often said of Eli that if he loved you he was the funniest, most generous, warmest and most entertaining person you could ever spend a few hours with.  If he didn’t like you, he was Hitler.  

I sometimes brought friends with me to visit with him.  I’d know in two minutes if the visit would be a fleeting ten hours of cheer, great stories and laughter or 150 endless minutes of grim, pointless discussion and occasional glaring.  Eli either loved you or hated you, there was not much in between, though he was capable of pretending, mostly, for a couple of hours.   He had his own demons, surely, but was devoted to my father, my mother, my sister and me — there was never the slightest doubt of that.  

He had a fierce temper, the “Gleiberman temper” as he called it, and would turn, in one second, from an infinitely charming raconteur into a purple faced, savage panther, white foam on his sputtering lips.  Even at eight-five he was formidable when he was angry, and my father seemed to be somewhat scared of Eli until the end.  My mother was the only person I knew of who was allowed to constantly fight with Eli.  It was great sport between them, to rage at each other wildly and end up laughing, hugging and kissing when it was time to take their leave of each other.  

Once, describing a car trip back from Florida with Eli, my father told me happily “your mother and Eli fought all the way from Boynton Beach to the end of the New Jersey Turnpike.”  I pictured my mother, turned around in the front passenger seat, slashing at Eli with a broad sword as Eli swung his at her from the back seat.  Tireless combatants locked in mortal combat, swords clanging, for more than a thousand miles, then getting out of the car, hugging and kissing with genuine, unquestionable love, laughing and saying they’ll see each other soon.

I had something of this kind of relationship with Eli, every visit he’d turn purple with rage at least once, but we always parted as friends.

It was in this spirit of friendship, and seeing me so frequently perplexed by my father’s unfathomable anger and sudden alarming rigidity, his grim determination to win an argument at any cost, that Eli finally told me something that immediately changed the way I thought and felt about my father.   The more I thought about it, the more it explained.

“You remember seeing those old electrical cords they used to make before the insulation was made out of plastic?   They were thick and heavy, not very flexible, wrapped in layers of rough cloth for insulation.  The ones you saw as a kid were frayed, like burlap — you remember those cords on the old toasters?”

I did.

“Well your grandmother, my beloved Tante Chava, had one of those cords for her steam iron that she kept in a drawer near where she sat at the head of the kitchen table.”

I pictured the kitchen grinding poverty would have provided a little family in Peekskill, New York in the 1920s.   It was like a scene out of a gothic horror movie, a shaft of light coming into the dim, barren room from a high, narrow window, dust motes dancing listlessly, menacingly.  

“When your father was little, she used to reach into that drawer every time she got mad, and she had the Gleiberman temper, you know, and she’d grab that heavy cord and whip your father across the face with it.”

Across the face?  What?  I’d never met my paternal grandmother, who died before I was born, but… what the fuck?

“Yeah, she’d give him a couple of shots in the kisser with that heavy cord and he’d stand there cowering and crying.   I saw it many times.   After a while, all she had to do was rattle the drawer and your father would stand like this,” and Eli stood and did a remarkably moving imitation of a little kid staring down at the ground, cowering in terror.

“How old was he when she started whipping him in the face?” I asked.

“From the time he could stand,” Eli told me with infinite sorrow.

(to be continued)

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I spent the weekend, with ambitious plans, too distracted to do much, though I did do a mean version of Yer Blues for a while there downstairs.  My fault, really, being distracted, still letting petty, personal vexations twist and constrict me that way.  I am 62, it is past time to get much better at not being squeezed by extraneous emotions.  I’m not responsible for the misery of enraged, terrified, provocative people, I’m responsible for my own thoughts and actions, keeping my focus on what I need to do, in spite of all the noise all around.   

After all, the world is as the fox told Pearl in The Amazing Bone by the immortal William Steig (may he rest in peace).  

amazing bone.jpg

Pearl, the pretty little pig,  taken home by the smiling, courtly fox, is trussed and ready for the oven, flames already leaping inside the wood burning stove.   She pleads with the fox who is cutting up vegetables with gusto and whistling happily thinking of the tender, succulent pig he is about to enjoy.  Pearl pleads to the fox to spare her life.

“Why must you eat me, Mr. Fox?   I am young, I want to live.  Please!” The fox looks over at Pearl sympathetically. 

“Why are you asking me?” says the fox, “how should I know?  I didn’t make the world.”   (This isn’t the actual Steig line, the correct quote is below [1])  The fox finishes preparing his salad.   As he leads her to the door of the oven he offers further words of solace:

‘I regret having to do this to you’, said the fox. ‘It’s nothing personal’. 

It is the bone, it turns out, who says to the fox:

“You must let this beautiful young creature go on living. Have you no shame, sir!”

The fox laughed. “Why should I be ashamed? I can’t help being the way I am. I didn’t make the world.”  [2]

The wisdom of that “I didn’t make the world,” however cruel its particular use might be,  has always stayed with me. 

It’s an answer as illuminating as “because he can” to the question of why a dog licks his genitals or how a Supreme Court justice with a glaring appearance of impropriety can insist he has no legal or moral obligation to recuse himself from sitting to hear the case.  

“I didn’t make the world.”  

Truly.  I had no hand whatsoever in the making of this world.

My only work here these days is coherently setting down what I’ve seen, heard, learned, discovered, read, in an effort to understand as much as I can.  I don’t know what compels me, exactly, or why it seems so necessary to me to write down clearly as much as I can write  down in whatever time remains.  

I know it has something to do with this cosmic less than wink of an eye we each have to be alive in, this flickering miracle of consciousness we so briefly share.  How intolerable is it, therefore, to be forced to march in a column, for an insane reason, life and death decided by the worst and most violent humans on earth at any given time?   To wait a century or more for rights our Constitution provided for almost two hundred and thirty years ago?  Is it just me?  I don’t think so, my friend.

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 ii

A great book is like a fascinating conversation.   When you hear the voice of someone who reads a book with feeling, the author’s ideas coming out clearly in the spoken words, you’re having a conversation with those people.  The conversation of reading is as real as, and often much more substantial than, many actual conversations you may have with other living people.  Particularly conversations in these contentious, violent times, which can burst into flames quicker than you can say “wait…”.  

I have been listening to two fantastic audio books that I cannot recommend highly enough.   Eichmann in Jerusalem (Hannah Arendt) and Dark Money (Jane Mayer).   I intend to post full reviews of both here at some future time, hopefully some time this summer.  In fact, the NY Public Library is into me for two weeks of overdue fines already for the paper copy of Eichmann I have been making notes from. I have to buy a copy ASAP.  

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iii 

I offer the following as an example of the kind of thing that, designed to eliminate stress, actually causes more stress, a kind of forgetful oversimplification that can lead to a fist fight.   It is the lazy mind’s approach to thinking.   Take a snapshot of the idea, and that’s the idea. The snapshot is the idea, get it?  If you hold the snapshot, the still frame from the movie, you’re holding the actual idea.   Nuance is for fucking eggheads, and, anyway, who can keep all that contradictory shit in their heads, you know what I’m sayin’?  The snapshot, on the other hand, is clear as the nose on your face.  Often the only possible response to a brilliant presentation of great nuance is “Fu-uh-uck YOU!”    That response often carries the day in the debate between a snapshot and the actual person in the photograph.

That’s just the way it is right now, when so many are angry, fearful, desperate, riled up, not going to take it anymore.   We didn’t make the world.  Consider, though, how limited the essential truth, if any, is contained in a single snapshot of anything.

There is a book called Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl.  I found it in the public library in Fresh Meadows back when I was in high school.  I read it and recall being very impressed by it.  An editor at Wikipedia did a wonderful job describing it:

Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.

Toward the end of the book (a longtime international best-seller) Frankl writes, as I recall, that the highest form of personal purpose is one you’d be willing to die to defend.  I remember thinking as a sixteen year-old what a beautiful thing it must be to love someone or some value so much you’d die to protect her.  I also recall being a little troubled by the statement, even as a teenager.

Over the next few decades I’d come to see the danger of this statement, removed from the humanistic context of Frankl’s book.  Frankl was talking about defending decency against indecency, not endorsing some crackpot’s idea of hate and violent revenge that other enraged imbeciles would willingly die for.  But take that one statement by itself, present it as a snapshot of the book and you have the humanitarian Frankl advocating suicide bombing, killing abortion doctors, performing any of the many atrocities, undertaken for the sincerest of murderous beliefs, for which certain humans are rightfully abhorred.   These atrocities reflect badly on all of us humans, when you think about it.  Although we, none of us, made the world.

But dig how that works.  Out with the filthy bathwater, fuck the baby!    You read an entire book, enjoy and get engaging ideas from the author’s conversation, agree with virtually everything you read.  Then you find a paragraph toward the end that causes your brow to furrow.   You underline the sentence about being willing to die for your beliefs and put it next to a picture of fucking Mohammed Atta [3].   Then you take your snapshot: Frankl says Mohammed Atta is an example of the highest form of purpose and meaning in human life.   Based on that, the rest of the book can be dismissed as an intolerable incitement to fanaticism and murder.   You cast it on to the bonfire, along with Mein Kampf, The Art of the Deal, Atlas Shrugged and the rest of the worst of best-selling twentieth century dreck.

A stray thought: could this hateful principle, seemingly applauding fanaticism, have possibly come from the same book by the same Victor Frankl portrayed here?   Remove nuance from any conversation and all that’s left is simplistic folly, or worse. 

iv

When my weekend of agitated distraction was about to begin I had an ambitious, perfectly achievable, though challenging, plan.  I was optimistic about making a good start on it, with two days to myself, before my concentration was shattered by an intolerably annoying personal sideshow I was unable to put out of my mind for long.   My goal is a 3,000 word publishable abstract of my 1,200 page manuscript about my father’s life and times.  This would be published somewhere and I would send the enticing published clip out to literary agents to try to hook one to sell the book proposal, to get me some money, an advance from a publisher.   I will take the first step now:

the first draft is here  (placeholder)

 

[1]  I went searching for the exact quote, as I am bad at exact quotes in spite of having a better than average overall memory and spending hours daily carefully weighing words. You’d think I’d be better at quotations, but I really am quite lousy at getting them perfectly correct.   I get the sense, almost never remember the exact words.

My own copy of Steig’s masterpiece is buried somewhere in my apartment.   I found nothing on-line to enable me to give you the exact, perfect Steig quote (he was a master of language in addition to being a great artist). I provide a link to a short animated clip, an advertisement of the copyright holders for the very best of perhaps six hideous video versions of this marvelous book read aloud on the internet.   I am seriously considering plunking down my $1.99, this is a beautifully done animation and aloud reading of one of the great books of all time.

[2]   Excellent description and review of  the Steig masterpiece, complete with quotes (yay!) and selected illustrations:  HERE.

[3]  Mohammed Atta was one of the 9/11 suicide terrorists who flew two 747s  into the World Trade Center.  His face, in the single snapshot of him most people have seen, is a mask of hatred.   The nervous Sekhnet and I  were at JFK airport for a flight to Spain, around 2005.   She had some anxiety about the flight, and time pressure (due to my habit of arriving at the last moment), and asked me to arrive with her three or four hours prior to our flight time, to avoid stress, and I had agreed.  While she slept contentedly on a bench in the terminal I walked around aimlessly with our valuables, sullenly counting the wasted minutes.  Over the PA there was an announcement asking Mohammed Atta to please come to such and such a desk.  The announcement was repeated several times.   I was glad Sekhnet was asleep, and figured the name they were calling over and over must be a common one in some parts of the world.

Preface fragment no. 3 or 4 or 5

Two and a half years ago I set out to write a memoir of my father’s life, a complicated life that had always been a troubling puzzle to me.   He was a man of high ideals, deeply held beliefs about justice, a great knowledge of history, sharp, funny, a lover of animals, underdogs and soul music, particularly Sam Cooke.   He was also, when the mood was upon him, a monster to his own family, conducting a relentless war over the dinner table every night.  A story that I thought might take a year or so to write has so far taken two and a half years.  The manuscript I have to wrestle with now is almost 1,200 pages, goddamn it.   I am continuing to wrestle with it, in my way.

It was tempting initially to structure the story of my father’s life with his dramatic deathbed regrets the last night of his life saved for the end, a kind of cosmic punchline at the end of a life insisting he’d had no choice but to strafe his children whenever he felt cornered.   He was literally cornered there at dinner, he sat in the worst possible seat at the kitchen table, landlocked between the wall, the counter with the toaster on it and the refrigerator, with my sister blocking his egress.  I had the best seat, right by the door, and often took advantage of it whenever I couldn’t stand the heat and had to get out of the kitchen.  

I came to realize, as I worked on the book, that setting the story up that way, with the big reveal at the end, was no favor to the reader or any kind of worthwhile dramatic revelation, really.   Not to say it wasn’t dramatic, or a revelation, but not one to save to the end of the story.  It’s not really a suspense story, or a mystery, though it’s also a suspense story and a mystery.

My father was a perplexing riddle, true, but perhaps every father’s life must be a riddle to his children.   When you think of telling the story of any life, boiling it down to a book, you are talking about a riddle.  Every human life is a riddle, human history is a riddle without an answer and much of what we experience here falls into that category.  I’ve had to keep this in mind as I work in a darkened room, trying to put together a puzzle that is missing many pieces, under the dimmest of lights.   The fragments, I think, are probably story enough.  Then again, I am not the judge of how much of a story I have managed to tell so far.

 

 

You can read all of it, in no particular order, here.

The other site I refer to at that link, while it does have some good photos and a selection of somewhat evocative early segments, hasn’t been updated for maybe a year and a half.   Feel free to check it out, but be forewarned.

The Skeleton pipes up

“I don’t mean to push you, Elie, not at all… and it would be hard to do from this remote grave, even if I wanted to — but any thoughts on draft two of my book?” said the skeleton of my father from the lush green graveyard just north of Peekskill.  “I’d hate to see all this work you’ve put in become another albatross around your neck.  That albatross necklace must be getting pretty heavy by now.”

Heavy enough.  It keeps my neck strong, anyway.    

“To the cutting room floor with this bullshit.   Just a question, Elie.  1,200 pages is a lot to go through.  The other night you had the perfect ten second gem of a memory to include, but you didn’t write it down, and now….”  

Over the years I’ve largely lost that once ingrained good habit of jotting everything down, particularly things that came to me out of the blue, things that seem perfectly obvious when you think of them, then are prone to disappearing completely.  

“Well, those things happen as we crawl toward the grave, I suppose,” said the skeleton, motioning around him at the graves, his and everyone else’s.  

I have a sort of plan, and Sekhnet endorsed it the other day.  I need to buy several reams of paper.  We got a new printer that supposedly gets amazingly economic ink mileage.  I have to put the manuscript on an external hard drive, take it to the farm, print out the whole bloody thing.   Then work with pages themselves.  I’ve never seen the fucking thing on a page, only a screen, like the one I’m tapping on now.   It’s impossible to flip pages here, only scroll.   There is a metaphor there for our modern digital world, scroll only.  

“Yes, these algorithmically aided young geniuses, with the world’s assembled information a click away, never flip through books, through indexes, through a card catalogue.  They get exactly what they are looking for when they search, every time.  Specific information, delivered refreshingly free of context.   The human brain seems to be changing in accordance with this streamlined information/opinion delivery system.   I think it’s a good idea to have actual pages to read, mark up, re-order.   Get to it, man.”

I’ve got to find an external hard drive here formatted for the Mac, copy the current pages and selected pages.   Something has been bugging me the last week or two and I need to get it written out, out of mind on to page, put those black symbols onto this nice white screen.

“Use your symbols, Elie, and don’t let my story meet the fate of Whippie the Slave Dog, and your brilliantly simple animation non-profit” said the skeleton, with the proper note of poignance.    Whippie was an inspirational character and her story would have made a beautiful children’s book, in some alternative universe.