Category Archives: Personal Essays

Dad at 112

Happy Birthday, Dad. Hold on just a minute. It’s going to take me a lot of wind to blow out all 112 candles.

All right. OK. Done!

Speech!

Yes, all right. I know you are a man of few words — even fewer now that you’ve left us almost 40 years ago. But as you know from all our conversations since December 28, 1971, that I’m the guy who always does most of the talking.

But I do remember not so much your words, word-for-word, but what I took from them. Flinty, old-fashioned father-to-son advice. ‘Look everyone in the eye’ and ‘You’re as good as anyone else’.  Without that latter little bit of interpersonal ideology, the former piece of advice would be merely mechanical. A cold stare into the eyes of another. Nothing behind that stare. Which is why that look, with its implication of basic human equality beyond social stratification, must come from the heart. From the gut. And what I know about you (and I learn more every year) is that you meant it and lived it. No one was better than you, and I never got the sense that you believed you were better than anyone else.

Yours was a great lesson in self respect. I’ve done my best to apply it, to live up to its implications. It’s my guide not only on how to speak to others — including others whose station is far above mine — but how to regard them, as I regard myself, with respect and dignity.

Sam Brown, right, in 1905, photo taken at 353 Grand StSam Brown, right, in 1905 photo taken at 353 Grand St., New York City’s Lower East Side

You were a dignified man, a proud man. You’d emigrated to America when you were a little pisher of 8, with your mother who died when I was a child, and your father who died before I could lay eyes on him. You had reason to be proud because you were (I switch tenses for historical, not emotional or existential reasons) one of those iconic self-made men, so called. You rose from the slummy tenements of New York’s Lower East Side a century before it became the trendy LES with its million-dollar co-ops and rock clubs and bistros.

You learned to speak American English and make it in the business world as a entrepreneur. But that’s much too fancy a word, and one I never heard you apply to yourself. You were a wholesaler, a middle man. You sold furs — minks and chinchillas and fox stoles. One of your customers was Peter Tripp, the disc jockey on WMGM, who called himself the Curly-headed kid in the third row, and once pulled a bizarre stunt staying awake for eight days in a row in a glass booth in Times Square.

You never did anything like that. You lived in style — we did, because of you. On the 24th floor of an apartment hotel just off Central Park West — in the neighborhood of movie stars and gangsters. For six years we lived across the street from the Dakota, famous digs of Bogey and Bacall, Bellafonte, and thirty years later, where John and Yoko. You had your nails polished. Wore silk suits. Took six-week vacations cruising the Mediterranean with Mom who recalls your dinner companions on one crossing, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

It was Richard, my brother, who taught me about American sports — baseball, football, basketball, hockey and boxing — and how to catch and throw a ball so I wouldn’t embarrass myself, so I could behave like an real American boy. You never had the slightest interest in any of those sports, although when Richard and I watched Sugar Ray Robinson duking it out on TV with Carmen Basilio, you did wander in in your robe (white boxers underneath) and caught a couple of rounds. Sports wasn’t your thing. But you did hit the racetrack some Saturdays with your buddies — guys in the shmata trade, mostly, and maybe a gangster or two in the Jewish mafia.

You drove a 56 lime and gray Olds 98 out to a country club in New Jersey, where you never swam or golfed or hit a tennis ball. What you did was an indoor sport — gin rummy for hours on end in a room full of Chesterfield and Pall Mall and Winston smoky haze, while Mom and her women friends (not the Real Housewives of New Jersey, exactly, but a few of them could pass) played canasta in another smoky room before making their way to the pool to worship the sun in their one-piece bathing suits and drink vodka tonics and stick their toes in the chilly pool but never swim a lap.

You worked in that wholesale fur showroom for 20 years with Mom —  so pretty and just a babe of 33, with an 12-year-old son, when you  — a middle-aged, twice married guy of 54 — married her in April l951. Do the math.

You bragged you were good at math, when you tried unsuccessfully to teach me how to balance my checkbook, which I never got the hang of, incidentally. What you weren’t was a good teacher, except for what you taught by example. You were impatient with me, so much so that I still cringe when anyone gets impatient with me, with how slowly I learn something, do something. I get pretty mad, still, at 64. I never got over it. I get mad at impatient people. I get mad at you. I get impatient with slow learners but I try, perhaps unsuccessfully, not to show it. I try to hide it. But it’s you I get mad at. And because I am a grown man — a senior citizen, for heaven sake!– I get ashamed of myself. Ashamed for being slow and clumsy and impatient and angry. At you and at me.

Years ago, do you remember how I used to roll up the windows in my car and scream at you at the top of my lungs, as I was heading down Storrow Drive? I’d get all spent and then, of course, the absurdity of it and the emotional exhaustion would put an end to my raving.

You told me you got “too angry” — I think those were your exact words — when I announced I was divorcing my first wife who HAD AN AFFAIR!

You weren’t impressed. You’d been through a lot more, a lot longer. Your sange froid was pretty hard to take. I was a victim of this perfidious woman who BETRAYED ME!

Ah, but you reminded me — and of course in my sanctimonious indignation I tuned you out– about how she helped support me in graduate school. It wasn’t worth all that rage I was working up. ‘So get a divorce,’ you said. There were no children’s lives to wreck. You were not the shockable audience I had wanted.  And you arranged it all and paid for it. The lawyer in Juarez who held up a sign in the El Paso airport. Limo across the border, right to the front of the line. Over in a flash, and back came the divorce papers in Spanish.

Like you, I’d been too angry. And like you I grew out of it. I grew up. I mellowed out. I settled down. After a few more speed bumps, I finally go it right — everything, including a very  happy marriage, just like yours and Mom’s felt like and looked like and, no doubt, was. You had to like each other, spending all that time working in the showroom, driving to and from the place, and lying on the bed with a big bowl of apples and grapes, watching “I Love Lucy” and “Father Knows Best.” It’s that scene I think of sometimes when Delia and I spend hours watching the Red Sox games on TV.

What a little bastard I was, too, feuding with you the way I did. I could be such an ungrateful punk. Like the time I brought home my freshly minted Ph.D. dissertation on the poet William Carlos Williams, and handed it to you. You didn’t know from poetry — why should you? What you cared about was that I earned a big shot degree. And when you opened the spring-bound covered dissertation to the acknowledgment page, you didn’t see your name, but the name of my dissertation advisor — a swell fellow and a wonderful mentor, to be sure. But it should have been your name on that page — not his. Or your name above his.

Just another regret. I have regrets — certainly I do. I could fill a shoebox, a Word file, a Smart Folder with them. I find it utterly phony when people pronounce that they have no regrets. Nonsense! Of course they do. Just covering up. A bit of strategic communication, stage management, dramaturgical discipline, as Erving Goffman called it.

I could go on — but enough. You sired a man of many words — a blatherer. My son, Sasha — so unfortunate that you never got to see him, to see what a splendid, sweet, talented man he is — is not a blatherer like his dad. Your concision skipped a generation. He’s inherited your judicious silence, and what he has to say he channels through his guitar.

My wife is rewardingly talkative, and like me, a writer and a teacher. Sorry you didn’t get to meet her. You would have approved. You would have been happy for me.

I’m finished blowing out those candles. Can’t wait till next year, when I apply for Medicare you hit your teens.

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Twitter and the Age of Crisis

“I am Married to a Crowd”

Boston Globe, Friday, April 11,2009, A-15.

My wife (Twitter handle: @GirlsSentAway) was the muse for this article and its star.

According to Boston Globe statistics, of 5,200 Globe articles tracked, the humor piece about my wife’s tweeting was among the top 25 most frequently emailed. (Lots of twittering birds out on those limbs.)

Not that everyone approved — of Twitter, my article, the Globe’s decision to publish it,or what HBX, an anonymous commenter on the Globe site, said was a “puff piece”. Mr “X” also lambasted my twittering spouse and me for being a couple of shameless, fame-hunting “celebrities,” which got a giggle from the Twitter Queen and me. (Stand aside, Lindsay, Britney, Justin and A-Rod!)

At grad school in Eng Lit, we read Chaucer’s “House of Fame”.  The author of The Canterbury Tales had no more respect for fame than HBX. Whether Chaucer would have retweeted (RT) my article to excoriate it, however, is a matter I shall leave to literary historians.

chaucer

While all this seem utterly unrelated, it has a more than a whiff of crisis communication, a specialty of general management and public relations, which I teach. What is fame, after, all, but a perception of reputation? In the era of constant communication, reputation — a public figure’s, a private person’s, a politician’s, an organization’s — is subject to the kinds of violent swings we associate with the stock market. Crisis has been described as a circumstance in which someone (or some organization) faces a significantly damaging blow to reputation, and has hardly any time to react. The usual examples: Monica’s impact on Bill Clinton’s presidency. The Valdez’s impact on Exxon. Abu Ghraib’s impact on foreign opinion of the U.S

It’s no secret that ours is an age of crisis. While poet W. H. Auden nailed the post-W.W.II era as the “age of anxiety,” the digital revolution has upped the ante considerably by speeding up, spreading out and constantly enabling  communication. For this reason, perhaps, even the most trivial matter can feel like a crisis and appear like one. As a result, persons and organizations may well be even more anxious than Auden thought they were in the early years of the A-bomb era.

Thus, to be a celebrity today is to be stalked by gawker, and one misstep away from a humiliating gotcha in The Smoking Gun. It’s enough to make even faux celebrities install alarms and surveillance cams in their underwater-mortgage homes.

But while I regard Auden’s anxiety-tagging of the nuclear era as insightful, I am unpersuaded by HBX’s of the world the sky is falling because of Twitter. Those sorts of perceptions are right out of the Chicken Little playbook — just plain silly.

What is not so silly or trivial is the way in which communications revolutions like the one we’re experiencing has a way of making us feel even more anxious and insecure and neurotic than ever.

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Rabbit’s At Rest

The Early Stories

The Early Stories

Lorrie Moore’s splendid little piece, “The Complete Updike,” on the NY Times op ed page on Jan. 28, 2009, reminds me that there are writers and there are super writers. John Updike (1932-2009) was in the super category.  The only other American author I can think of  — top of the head — who belongs in that category is Philip Roth.

Updike’s famous and enormously under-rated little dictum of ‘three finished pages a day is a whole lot harder than it sounds. Try it. For a week. See if your three pages look finished or merely typed.

Updike had the eye-memory coordination that allowed him to describe almost anything in precise detail. Try it sometime, writers. See if your description of objects and actions and faces turns out vivid or pedestrian. See how many times you ask yourself, “What is that thing called?”  Like Flaubert — whom I’ve barely read, but who’s widely considered the first great master of realistic fictional detail — Updike made the world of things and people and places come alive. Sex, of course. (“The Transaction.” Couples. ) Places. His prose could rise to the high diction, the sweet music of poetry. He broke your heart describing the way the Maples told their children that they were going to get divorced. He “got” big cities, small town, farms, suburbs, exurbs, malls and airline waiting terminals. He got New York and Shillington, Pennsylvania, and Miami Beach. He got young jerks (as does the wonderful Richard Ford). And he got old fools: variations on the jerky sides of Updike. His avator, the depressive tumler Jewish novelist Beck, got to interview his “real” self, the suburban WASP star novelist John Updike.

The Nobel Committee is no more infallible that the Pope.  The committee failed to award the great and learned and graceful and often profound Updike the prize he deserved. Thirty years ago, when I interviewed Henry Miller, I asked him why he’d never won a Nobel. He told me that someone on the committee thought he was a pornographer. Miller said he didn’t care — but he could have used the cash.

In my eyes — and I’m certain in the eyes of so many of our great authors (see Lorrie Moore’s touching op ed in the NY Times) — Updike was in every way a Nobel Prize winner. But the prejudice against American authors — that they’re somehow less worldly or more provincial than, say, authors from New Zealand or South Africa (I adore Coetzee) or Portugal. It’s just plain silly and condescending, no less than it was when the British snubbed Melville’s Moby-Dick in the 1850’s because whale oil is identified as the substance anointing a king. How absurd an objection, and one I can imagine that would have amused Mark Twain.

Maybe Updike’s snub will be good news for the other American literary giant, Philip Roth. I had the good fortune to be his student at UPenn in a world lit class in the spring of l965. He knew verimsilitude. He explained what Tolstoy was doing when he showed us Vronsky’s muscularity, and when he averted his eyes from Anna’s sex scene. He wanted to cast Groucho as the lead in Kafka’s The Castle. He duck-walked into class, although probably just one time. (It has been more than 30 years since.)

I was editing a magazine called Mankind (I know — no one’s heard of it) when Saul Bellow’s Nobel was announced in 1976. I immediately called his office in Chicago. His secretary said he was home, and that he’d cut himself shaving. Bellow’s prize made me proud. I was 30-something, but so what? I felt like a fan, which I was. Which I am. Which I have always been. Which I always will be.

So maybe the Nobel snobs in their stubborn snubbery will do what sports referees do when they’re hectored by furious coaches for missing a call. That coach’s team seems to always get the next call. Maybe it’ll be that way for American authors. For ever since before Washington Irving, American writers were tarred with the prejudice that this is a country of provincial rubes, and it’s therefore no great shakes to write a novel about this cultural backwater.

Say, World. I know you were watching when Aretha sang at the Obama inaugural. How about a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T for our authors?

Well, I’ve got three words for you, World:  The Great Gatsby.

I’ve got a list of authors for you, Sweden: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Morrison, Updike, Roth.

You want poets, World? You want a piece of me? Whitman, Dickinson, Pound, Frost, Stevens, William Carlos Williams.

So here’s to you, Mr. Updike. Rabbit is finally at rest.

(The NY Times featured a videotaped conversation with John Updike in October 2008.)


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