It’s time to leave those kids alone. This is an excerpt from a post that just came across my Facebook feed. It’s a common complaint I see coming from the 50+ crowd,
“We don’t need yet another generation of entitled brats who think everything’s about them because their obsessive parents gave them awards just for showing up.”
I often wonder if these cranky old bastards have children in school now or if they actually associate with young people. Those “participation trophies” stop after maybe the second grade and give way to years of tyranny at the hands of teachers frightened to lose their jobs, and volunteer coaches, and high pressure after school activities, high pressure “projects,” which the parents end up doing, and even worse, which the school teachers reward. And when the kids are not busying solving for “x” in the second grade, their teachers are cramming geometry down their throats.
By the time kids reach high school they’ve been tested, sorted, and most thrown on the heap of mediocrity, which in today’s world is the loser pile. There’s a rather crass joke about Asian people that goes something like “Do you know what an A- is to a tiger parent? An “F.” There are tiger parents in every culture and you know what, the kids don’t need their tiger parents to tell them they are “losers” when struggle to get “C”s or “B”s. Message received.
And when they get to college, a few “C”s on an otherwise outstanding transcript puts them out of the running for the better grad schools, which in turn puts them at a disadvantage when competing for jobs. And if you think that doesn’t matter, ask any recent graduate of a third or fourth tier law school. Mostly report they cannot get work as lawyers or if they do, the firm expects them to work for free in exchange for a desk and conference space and a share their profits. And that’s all while paying back hundreds of thousands of dollars in school loans. All while trying to get along in an anti-union, “gig economy” that does no longer provides health insurance or fixed benefit pensions.
So yeah, they have iPhones and Air Jordans, and yeah the lucky ones have parents who can afford to enroll them in after school activities and advocate for them while wending their way through the obscene obstacle course of high stakes tests and pressure filled sports, and extra curricular activities, which if they don’t do they won’t get into decent schools, and yeah they are often not required to do chores around the house but that’s because they spend all of their time in a pressure cooker competing with all the other kids for the choice spots in everything.
Unlike my cranky-ass peers, I put off starting a family until later in life. My son is still in high school. Just this past summer he applied for a counselor-in-training job at the summer camp for gifted kids which he attended from the fourth to eighth grade. There were literally only 12 positions available. He competed with a pool of several hundred “gifted kids” to get the job. There was a waiting list of 50 kids who were only less qualified by the equivalent of hundredths of a second. Even though he is working for the camp, as opposed to taking the courses, we still have to pay the full amount. We made the last tuition payment a day late and they assessed a $25 late fee. When we questioned it, the camp operator said fork it over in two days or he loses the spot.
I’m pretty sure every 14 to 18 year old I know would love to have the adolescence I had. The only standardized test I took were the Regents and the SATs. The former was optional and outside of NY had no real effect on your life. I shot hoops with my friends after school, had a part time job, played every sport with a ball, figured out how to get in and out of trouble, went cruising in my parent’s cars on .50 a gallon gas, did marginally well in high school, stumbled in my first few years of college but still gradated from one of the top colleges in the US with a decent GPA and still landed a full ride at the number 16 graduate school for my discipline. And I started my post college life owing just $2500–and that’s because my father died in my senior year.
How about we look in the mirror. It is us 50+ adults who think we are entitled. It is we who created the world as it is. We’re the ones who fucked the banking system, killed the unions, wrote the laws that made it more profitable to send our businesses off shore, who allowed the credit card companies to become legalized loan sharks, who changed the bankruptcy laws so that it is now essentially impossible to recover from a financial misstep, unless of course you’re a rich asshole like Donald Trump. We’re the ones who hired lawyers to sue everyone for everything, and so on and so on.
Want to “straighten out” the kids? Let’s do what we can to right the ship before we die instead of leaving it to our kids with holes in the hull and a broken bilge pump.
About a week ago I was admitted to the hospital for severe blockages in two of my coronary arteries. The doctors inserted three stents in my heart in two separate procedures. The surgeon told my wife “it was the real deal.” He said I was a time bomb, armed and ready to blow. Those cautionary words notwithstanding, my prognosis is great. So long as I take care of myself (you know the litany, exercise, lose weight, lower my blood pressure, and avoid fatty foods), I will live to be an old man.
I felt awful for the entire summer but didn’t go to the doctor because we did not have health insurance (that’s the subject of another story). Back in late May my son asked to plant a garden. We hadn’t done that in a long time, so I said, sure. He and I measured out an area in our back yard and set to work. When healthy, it would have taken me maybe two or three hours of to turn over the soil. I found I couldn’t turn the shovel more than two or three times without feeling sick. Sessions lasted 10 or 15 minutes and ended on the couch with the air conditioner on full blast. My promise kept me at it but that project took over a month to finish.
Things got worse from there. Come July exertion became increasingly more difficult. The slightest activity left me feeling like I’d just finished running 10 miles in 90 degree heat with a hangover. Walking like a New Yorker gave way to a more Southern pace, which gave way to “slow down I don’t feel well.” By the summer’s end I broke out into a sweat just shuffling to the mailbox.
All that ended last week thanks to my wife. She found us healthcare. Thanks also go to the big guy in the sky who invited me back for a second act.
There I admitted it. Please don’t run away screaming cliché and complaining that yet another guy has a brush with mortality and finds God.
God found me. The idea that there’s some guy in the sky with a grand plan pisses me off on many levels. Without resorting to the bullshit faith arguments, I want someone to explain to me how a supreme being can possibly have enough bandwidth to keep the sun shining and the planets spinning and then pick and choose the joyful and tragic moments in everyone’s life, every day, and every year since creation? And why me? How the do I fit into the divine plan? Why waste single byte of bandwidth on me when there are countless humans tragically suffering every moment of every day? Why did I survive coronary heart disease when my father, his brothers, his father, and countless Cohens from the days of yore all dropped dead young?
I Had a Dream
God got mixed up in the narrative against my will. Dr. Martin Luther King isn’t the only one who had a dream. Just prior to the hospitalization, I dreamed about a conversation with my imaginary literary adviser about an equally imaginary novel. We talked about story arc and themes and the like. When the question arose about what to name my protagonist, the man across the table said, call him Tolah. He spelled it out slowly and repeatedly to make sure I would remember when I woke up.
Tolah, what’s a tolah? I opened my eyes the next morning to the Google search form and t-o-l-a-h spilling from my fingertips. It means worm. Not just any worm, cue the reverb and dramatic music, the crimson worm.
The Crimson Worm
Ancient cloth makers crushed the shells to dye priestly garments red. When it lays its eggs, the mother creates a red shell around itself. After the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the mother’s living body until they are strong enough to break out of the shell. The word worm appears numerous times in the BIBLE but tolah only in “Psalm 22” ‘But I am a worm, [emphasis added] and no man; /A reproach of men, and despised by the people.'” (ll. 6-7).
What’s more, religious scholars consider this poem the bridge between the New and Old Testaments and Judaism and Christianity. It foreshadows Jesus Christ. According to Matthew and Mark, JC utters the very same words upon his death on the cross.
This did not (and still does not) rest easily on my mind. I turned away from God and organized religion a long time ago. Too many unanswered question and too much unassuaged human suffering for me to believe in a supreme being who knows all, sees all, has a plan he won’t share, and who refuses to give a prime time interview with Barbara Walters to establish his bona fides.
The research pointed to “Psalm 22” so I couldn’t ignore it. Something inexplicable happened when I read it. The narrator of the poem begins with “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? /Why are you so far from helping Me.” (ll 1-2).
I cried from the first sentence to the last. A profound watershed of relief, a phenomenon I think some people call grace, passed through my being. “Psalm 22” was an ancient blues written at the dawn of the Abrahamic religions. Like all blues its words gave shape to the amorphous and seemingly unending suffering of the last five years and in so doing robbed it of its power.
Indeed, I could have written “Psalm 22.” I have cursed God many times since my wife was wrongly and cruelly bullied out of her job of 22 years as the executive director of a legal non-profit organization by former president. He is an unrepentant and sociopathic lawyer from Washington, DC who had a reputation within the non-profit legal world as cruel person who enjoyed ruining executive directors. Upon taking the reigns of the organization’s board, he systematically destroyed her life’s work.
We all hear those stories about bystanders who stand around watching as some hapless victim suffers at the hands of an antagonist. That same thing happened. some 20 directors watched him do it and failed to lift a finger to help. That alone would have been difficult enough but it was only the beginning of what can be described as a first-world hell on earth. So much of what we worked hard to accomplish unraveled.
Somebody Got to Help Me
As Sonny Boy Williamson, a/k/a Rice Miller sang “Ya got to help me, I can’t do it all by myself.” Shortly after that dream, my wife, who’d basically given up on MassHealth, found one last burst of resolve. That led to a nameless state employee who waved an administrative magic wand and approved the application on the spot. The insurance cards arrived in in days and very shortly after that, I was lying in a room at Carl J. and Ruth Shapiro Cardiovascular Center recovering from life saving surgery.
It was a fucking miracle. Everything about me changed. The color of my skin changed. I felt more alert. I literally wanted to dance an Irish jig on hospital room floor with the tubes and electronic leads dangling from my body.
Looking at me this minute, you would never guess that a week ago, I was one strenuous step, one blood-vessel-dialating emotional outburst, one moment away from dying. Don’t get me wrong. I feel blessed. Once the wounds in wrist heal, I’m free to take off my seat belt an move about the cabin. I will see my kids grow up. I still have an opportunity to accomplish some of my unfinished goals.
Yet at the same time I am confused. There is no lengthy and rigorous convalescence, no crucible of pain to make me appreciate the gift of life. The transformation has been so complete and the absence of any perceptible insult to my body from surgery so minimal that I am having a lot of difficulty reconciling what could have been with what is. Never mind the people who will hear me say, I almost died of coronary heart disease and I have three stents in my heart.” They will never connect their perception with the truth.
Chaplain, My Chaplain
Before leaving the hospital I called the Brigham and Women’s chaplain service. God wouldn’t exit the stage. He stood there demanding acknowledgment. Imagine that? The bastard wanted credit.
That sucked because I’d I already devised an intellectually plausible explanation. To wit, I must have heard the tolah story at some point in my life. My mind simply pulled the engram out of deep storage at the right moment. It was Bobbi’s perseverance led to finding the right person at MassHealth. Having studied the heart disease, I knew the signs and symptoms and listened to the warning signs. I was smart enough to go to the doctor and just plain lucky it wasn’t too late.
Hoisted by my own petard, intellectual honesty demanded I hear from the other side. As evidence goes that explanation is based on guesses. The worst part is they stand on equal footing with divine intervention. At least they do for those who are willing to look with an open mind. Therefore, I called the Brigham and Women’s chaplain service.
20 minutes later, a charming and nattily dressed man named Enos Gardnier, Bishop Gardnier, as he named himself arrived in my hospital room.
After establishing myself as a non-judgmental atheist, I shared the story of my dream and caught him up on all that had happened. He listened. He laughed heartily at my jokes. When I concluded my monologue, he said simply, and I’m paraphrasing, you’ve been given a gift and it doesn’t matter why or from whom?
Then he said something that really made me think. God doesn’t always save people for themselves but for others. He asked me what I planned to with my gift. How will I live my life going forward? I’m thinking to myself gift? Whaddya mean gift? When I come home from the hospital, all those problems will still be there.
He talked about God a bit, in a gentle way. In particular he told me about Abraham, whom he said lived as a pagan but received God’s grace nevertheless because he lived life according to a clear set of principles. God rewarded him for the effort. But mostly Bishop Gardnier returned to the themes of gift and service to others.
I thanked him and promised to read about Abraham in the BIBLE, with an open mind, which, thanks to a great iPad app, I’ve been doing. So far, it’s been taxing to keep my mind open but I’m trying.
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a Latin phrase which means, “After this, therefore because of this.” In rhetoric it’s an informal logical fallacy used to refute poorly researched and understood points. In other words, the dog barked right before I fell off my stepladder and broke my leg, therefore dogs must be bad luck. People draw this conclusion all the time.
I really don’t know what to make of this series of events. Here are the facts: My life has sucked 90-year-old-man-saggy-balls for the last five years. I was sick. I had a dream with a symbol that led me to a bible passage that made me feel good and also made me feel hopeful for the future. Immediately following that I got health insurance in the nick of time, which prevented my untimely death from coronary artery disease.
God spoke directly to me through that dream?
I experienced his grace?
The ball sucking, which by the way isn’t over yet, was all part of his master plan for me and is almost over?
My unconscious mind rescued me in a time of need?
I’m one lucky son of bitch?
I don’t know? The only thing about which I’m positive is that I am one lucky son of a bitch.
So I woke up with the word tolah on my mind and googled it.
It’s a Vedic unit of measurement equal to +/- 11.6 grams or 3/8 of a troy ounce.
It’s a family name.
It’s a red grub-like worm used by makers of religious garments in biblical times to dye cloth . In particular it was used by the makers of various Jewish religious garments.
The word appears several times in THE BIBLE and seems to be a nexus between the OLD and NEW TESTAMENTS.
How’d that get there? It came in a dream. This man and I sat at a table in a library talking about the difficulties I was having with my writing. I told him I was tired and afraid I’d never get it together, and that I felt out of ideas, and that I was despairing that my lazy bum, no goodnick first novel was never going to get out the door and that I was worried whether I would ever get my writing career moving.
He listened with a reassuring smile. Then we turned to my next project. I didn’t know I had a next project. He knew the story. He enveloped my hands in his and said, “Name the protagonist Tolah. He spelled it out several times slowly T-o-l-a-h like he was talking to a slow learner.
I woke up with a compulsion to google.
For the record, I have no conscious recollections of the word tolah, or of its various meanings and associations.
The biblical associations piqued my interest. The word “tolah” (as in worm) is used in several biblical passages–in particular “Psalm” 22:6, “But I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people”
I looked up “Psalm 22.” Not to sound melodramatic but I could have written that poem this morning. It speaks directly to my current condition and state of mind. My wife and I have been struggling with the aftermath of having her career and health ravaged by the president of her board of directors. He was a workplace bully who assaulted her, emotionally tortured her and concocted a web of lies that resulted in turning the entire board of directors and all her colleagues against her.
There was nothing I could do to help. And because I was a stay-at-home dad, I couldn’t bridge the financial gap. Most of the time I feel alone, afraid, miserable, and beset from every conceivable angle by the troubles of the world.
We’ve struggled to keep our house and to pay our bills. We’ve struggled to provide for our kids. We’ve struggled to understand why this happened even though we’d done all the right things. We’ve searched in vain for a path through these difficulties that leads us to firmer ground.
To paraphrase the psalm, “But I am a worm,” 22:6 “I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent” 22:2 “For trouble is near; for there is none to help” 22:11 “My strength is dried up . . . and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.” 22:15
“But” there’s always a but, even though the narrator complains that God abandoned him, he begs, “be not thou far from me, O Lord, O my strength, haste thee to help me.” 22.19 And the text goes on to say those who seek God’s strength will not only endure they will flourish, “The meek shall eat and be satisfied” 22:26, to which the atheist in me says, bullshit.
So on the one hand, “Psalm 22” is a woe-is-me complaint about how God abandoned the narrator to his earthly troubles. On the other, apparently God is the only solution to the problem.
Likewise, many people regard “Psalm 22” which begins with the words “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?”as a foreshadowing of the moment of Jesus Christ’s death during which Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 say he cries the very same words just before dying.
In that moment, Jesus passes in pain and torment with doubt and disappointment on his lips and yet that supposedly saved humanity from perdition.
Fucking religion and its paradoxes!.
This why I jokingly call myself an Ivory Soap atheist, which is to say I’m 99 and 44/100ths sure there’s no God.
How does God work? Why didn’t he save Jesus? Why does he abandon “Psalm 22’s” narrator to despair? How can he countenance the evils done by the people who organize in his name? I do not understand how he allows all this suffering. I do not know why he won’t speak more plainly to us. That’s why I stopped going to church and why I’m a Zen Buddhist. There’s nothing to believe except what is really there.
Fucking religion. Just when I think I have it all figured out, last night’s dream comes along with an answer I don’t like.
There’s no reason why I should wake up this morning with the word T-o-l-a-h on my mind. I suppose one could argue having read various bits and pieces of THE BIBLE and having been to church many times in my life, my unconsciousness mind grabbed that word out of deep storage and gave me a mystery to solve to help me find strength in trying times.
But there’s always a “but.” It doesn’t feel that way. What if God came to me last night and said, in effect, “I know things suck. I know you’re mad at me but, trust me, everything is going to be all right.”
I got a visit from an angel today. May 31st started full of worry. One of my central air conditioning compressors stopped working and the weather reports predicted temperatures in 90s° F. Our physical discomfort notwithstanding, money is very tight right now. Replacing an air conditioner compressor would have been devastating and would have been yet another reminder of how much the world sucks.
Still it was hot and the problem needed attention. I forced myself to do some research last night and I made one call to a company with a Wrentham number. But fear of the expense caused me to stop.
This morning the company I remember calling left a message on my answering machine. I didn’t return it because I hoped the temperature would go down and we could put off the expense for a few weeks.
Later in the day, there was a knock on my door.
A pleasant looking man in a clean orange tee shirt stood on my stoop and asked, “Did you call for service for your air conditioner?”
“Not exactly,” I said, “I made a few phone calls but hadn’t yet decided who to hire.”
He waited patiently for me to continue. Normally, when confronted with situations like this, I wait a few beats to gather a cynical comment and send the guy packing.
I don’t know what got into me. I said, “As long as you keep the mask and gun in the truck, you’re here. You might as well look at it.”
Perhaps it was because the tech was very presentable and pleasant or because it was hot and I figured everyone charged about the same money, I don’t know. The unit was broken and he was already there, and it was hot . . . .
He made a quick call to his boss after which I escorted him to the offending central air conditioning compressor. He cracked open the electrical panel. Shreds of fabric, bits of twigs, and little black pellets tumbled onto my lawn.
Apparently an itinerant family of mice took up residence in that cozy little space and thanked me for the free rent by chewing through the wires.
Angry and relieved all at once, I told the guy to go ahead and fix the problem. While he went about his work, I fetched him a bottled water and then walked back inside cursing our bad luck and dreading the inevitable negotiation over the price of the service call.
In the meanwhile, I posted a snarky kvetch on Facebook saying how much I hated mice and how, “I wish I could sue their asses for the damages.” I went on to say, “Stuart Little, Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse, hate ’em all!!!! And I don’t care what anyone says, Superman could definitely kick Mighty Mouse’s ass, and I wish he would.”
45 minutes went by. That seemed awfully long to fix a couple of wires. I began wondering if I’d fallen prey to a gonef who hustled business by showing up at people’s doorsteps uninvited and inventing problems to fix.
No sooner did the thought pump a few more milligrams of adrenaline into my body, I heard knock on the door.
I pasted on a fake a smile and forced myself to open the door. Before I could say a word the tech said, “It’s all set.”
I inhaled and held my breath, “How much?” I waited for the bad news.
Talk about shocked. I stood in my doorway dumbstruck. Not knowing what else to do, I fumbled in my pockets and thrust two fives in the guy’s hand. “Here,” I said awkwardly, “This should be enough for a six pack. Buy yourself a beer. It’s the least I can do.”
After he drove off, I started to cry.
Most people don’t know how difficult things have been for my family the last few years. But without divulging any more, our struggles have drained every last micro gram of faith in humanity and in God.
Note I only speak English. The title
Translation came from the Internet.
As for the Yiddish words? I had a
Jewish grandfather and was born in
The Bronx. So sue me if I
got it wrong.
I imagine it was a crooked mezuzah
Great grandfather Kalman clumsily nailed
Over the door of the Bronx tenement
In which he and his family lived that
Caused my grandfather to marry a shiksa.
Maybe the old Russian, who crossed the
Atlantic as a Kramer and left Ellis Island a
Cohain, used a bent nail filched from
The construction site where he worked
As a laborer.
Surely a dybbuk caused Nathan to say,
We’re in America now. Who cares
What The Torah said or that meshugana
Christian Bible with its fancy-schmancy
New Testament and that luftmensch
Yeyshu who thinks he’s better
Than everyone else.
To which Kalman replied, So what?
The Torah isn’t good enough?
Moshe Rabbenuwas a real macher
He came up with the Ten Commandments,
And don’t forget that Red Sea shtick.
That clever Landsman sure fooled
Everyone. Said G*d parted the waters
–never happened. Shh. Everybody
Knows the Jews control the media, and
The banks too.
Some say Moses really waited for low tide.
Then all those Yids tip-toed across
Ankle deep water praying to Yahweh
Their corns and callouses wouldn’t
Soften and blister.
All the while the Egyptians watched
Feigning distress over losing free
Labor. Truth to tell, the Pharaoh had
Had it with Moses’ incessant kvetching,
“Let my people go.” Go? Go where?
To Israel? Knock yourself out.
G’wan Get lost.
Ramses had the last laugh. After all
Those years in slavery EquiFax
And TransUnion rated their credit
Below 300. By the time they got
To the Promised Land, the gonef
Moneychangers wouldn’t loan
Them a red shekel to buy last
Century’s chariot, never mind
A mud hut with a picket fence
And a view.
A hint of a smirk colored Ramses’
Face as the last tuchas skibbled up the
Far bank. He undertoned to a nearby
Vizier, “Did you slip The Dybbuk
into that wooden wine box like
I told you?
Not waiting for an answer, He intoned,
“Schmucks.They’re gonna wander
that desert for 40 years. When they
finally get to The Promised Land,
some schlemiel’ll open my
paperclips pens keys and coke
scissors thumbdrive tzio lamp
aeron chair, bluetooth
apple industrial complex
ipad, iphone, computer
original art on the walls
and a picture of my own star
facebook, twitter, and blogs icams
two hundred something friends
privacy through exhibitionism
two acres and four bedrooms
two kids and a wife
am i happy yet?
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion.”
“Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot
On a warm Long Island summer night in 1979 about seven months before my father unexpectedly died of a heart attack, he sent me to bear witness to a ritual murder. What’s more I enjoyed it. In fact I rooted for the killer, who was a young man not too much older than me. He brutally hacked his victim into pieces with a razor sharp machete. Each time the blade tore into his victim’s flesh, I cheered. “Kill the old man. Kill him”
As usual, my father occupied his familiar spot on the living room couch. He spent nearly all his time at home there. He mostly slept. Sometimes he read, listened to opera, watched TV and nearly always had a Lucky Strike in his lips.
No one else was home that night. My mother worked the three to 11 shift in the ICU department of Brunswick Hospital. My grandmother and sister visited with my aunt who lived around the corner. My brother was in Virginia serving in the Navy. I was downstairs lying on my bed reading.
Around eight o’clock my name thundered from upstairs. “Bobby.” the “o” came out like the “a” in father with a slight drawl. The “y” like Fonzie’s “Ayyy.”
I dropped my book and ran up the stairs, “Yes dad?”
Carvel is a New York-based soft ice cream franchise that was fixture in every strip mall from the East River to Montauk.
He didn’t care whether I wanted ice cream. He just didn’t feel like driving. I hated him for his lack of control over his appetites. Or, who knows, maybe that was the only way he could be nice.
I stuffed my feelings into their cage and replied. “No thanks. But I’ll go to the store for you.”
He reached under his prodigious belly into his trouser pocket, withdrew a worn leather billfold, and handed me a $20 bill. “I want a chocolate nut sundae with vanilla ice cream.” Like I didn’t know.
20 minutes later I stood at the couch’s edge handing him a Styrofoam cup full of ice cream along with his change.
He took the sundae. “Have you seen Apocalypse Now?” he asked.
Not sure how to answer, I meekly replied, “No.”
The question seemed odd. He didn’t go to the movies. At least I thought he didn’t. I know he didn’t go with my mother. Then I remembered yet another one of his uncontrollable appetites—this one far less benign than ice cream.
Anger flashed. He must’ve seen it with his skank mistress”
She was supposed to be a secret. But late one night several years earlier my brother and I and saw him in her car in front of our house. We tacitly agreed never to speak of it.
Concealing my father’s sins seemed the best way to avoid hastening the dissolution of our family. Bearing the secret had consequences. At 17 my brother ran away and joined the Navy. I gained 60 pounds and nearly flunked out of college.
“Go see it,” he ordered. “It’s fantastic,” This time emphasizing the first syllable and sounding the “a” sounded like “Ann.”
Proffering his change, I told him, “No thanks. I don’t like violent movies.”
He waved off the comment and the change, “See the movie.”
“But there’s no one to go with,”
He reached for the Newsday lying on the coffee table and thumbed to the Living/Arts section. “There’s a nine thirty show at the Lowes in Bay Shore.”
“But dad,” I protested.
Anger and frustration swelled. Fear contained it. Years of beatings and bullying taught me to suppress my feelings. So I went and I lied to myself. “Pick your battles.”
Director Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius, who co-wrote the first two Dirty Harry movies collaborated on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s literary masterpiece Heart of Darkness. Instead of a European steamboat captain and ivory trader named Marlow sailing up the Congo to retrieve a lost soul, the U.S. government ordered a Special Forces captain named Willard to journey up a fictional South East Asian river named Nung to “terminate with extreme prejudice” a Green Beret colonel named Kurtz who’d gone native.
The movie faithfully captures the essence of Conrad’s story. It argues against imperialism and the fundamental hypocrisies of our culture. It paints a stark portrait about the flimsy mask of civilization worn by men. Bereft of checks and balances, we revert to the brutish and unflinching laws of nature.
My father dropped out of high school at 17 to become a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. Two years before that he tried to enlist to fight in the Korean War. He fooled the Army or more likely they didn’t care. His parents had to drive to Fort Dix in New Jersey and drag him home. My grandfather, Nathan, who was a small time bookie and loan shark, didn’t seem to mind. My grandmother gave him a vicious beating. Dreams of glory and adventure had to wait. So, I doubt my father read Heart of Darkness.
The novella did not inform my father’s motivation. Whereas, my English professor assigned it because Conrad occupied a hallowed slot in the cannon of dead white guys deemed essential to understanding the transition from 19th Century literature to Modernism, my father sent me to watch to the movie to give insight into his situation and to presage the climax of our own version of the Oedipus Rex.
At the time, I thought of the movie as nothing more than Ignus fatous, foolish fire, flickering on a silver screen. I judged my farther harshly for bullying me into going, for his many sins venal and mortal, for his lack of education, and for is inability to express himself.
I had no compassion for his situation. Men like my father, sons and grandsons of dirt-poor Eastern European peasants still carried the attitudes and burdens of institutionalized poverty and serfdom. When young survival required the ability to take pain. When grown up, existence required the ability to inflict pain. They worked to survive and aspired to define themselves by their jobs. They expressed themselves through their actions. They taught by example rather than by story.
I arrived home close to midnight. The empty Styrofoam sundae cup, stained black with rivulets of chocolate syrup lay, forlornly on the coffee table like a decapitated head carelessly tossed next to its body. My father indolently lay beside it. Every lamp in the house burned brightly in contrast with the movie’s lurid world of shadow. Low-key lighting hid Marlon Brando’s swollen body and shrouded Kurtz in mystery. High key lighting revealed everything. A Lucky billowed smoke from an ashtray.
Moments before Kurtz’s death we hear him reciting T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” “In this last of meeting places /We grope together /And avoid speech /Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.”
Clearly Apocalypse Now contained something he wanted me to learn. He had a lifelong relationship with violence and the law of the jungle that began with an abusive mother and father who supported his family with illegal gambling and usury. It played itself out in the Army and later when he joined New York City Police Department. As a rookie, he got a taste of war when his duty required him to shoot and kill an armed robber. He associated with the corrupt cops and worked in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the City.
Except for our genes, we had little common ground because he shielded my brother and me from the brutality of growing up poor in the Bronx. It made for a troubled relationship because his ideas about being a man revolved around the ability to fighting and domination. He had no respect for me because I cried easily and preferred to run rather than fight.
Driving home from the screening, I keenly observed how Marlow and Kurtz stood for the late Victorian man grappling with a rapidly changing world, Willard and Colonel Kurtz symbolized the 80’s permutation of the American man: neurotic and self-absorbed, victim and perpetrator, dissolute men adrift without no moral compass. It was an analysis I’d like to think would have delighted my professors.
“You were right dad. It was a good movie. Thanks for the treat.”
I fumbled over a few platitudes as his crystal blue eyes probed me for signs of enlightenment. They held me seemed to ask, Are you here to kill me? I averted my glance.
What passed for a smile brushed his lips.
“There’s some change left,”
“You keep it.”
I bent down and kissed him on the lips. “”Night dad.”
He rolled toward the back of the couch in a peaceful easy motion and closed his eyes. All these years later, Eliot’s words bubble up, “Shape without form, shade without colour, /Paralysed force, gesture without motion.” (“Hollow Men”).
One quarter pound
of top round
upon a bed of
wheat and rye.
from crust to
–the spicy kind.
All goes unnoticed
until the first bite.
I have some.
take blade to
an edge knowing
full well that
the gesture will
Blood dried, bread
One bite missing.
How I relished
each bite until
I bought this card a long time ago
Planning for a time
When life might get in the way
Of a special occasion.
It’s a practice you taught me.
The planning doesn’t stop
Because life got in the way,
Neither does hope diminish,
Nor the optimism cease.
It’s a practice life teaches us.
Soon I will buy a new card
Planning for a time
When grief gives way to happiness
And optimism replaces despair
And life gets in the way
It’s a practice I hope to teach you.
My dearest, here’s An Easter Poem
Today I wish you Happy Easter.
Nothing less, nothing more
The feelings well up
from a reservoir
a life time
as can be,
from a moment
as recent as today
from energy that took
many lifetimes to create
Today I wish you a Happy Easter