Sunday, June 21, 2015

What My Father Gave Me

Gifts can take mysterious forms

My pleasure reading has long been biographies and other non-fiction. Maybe since I write fiction myself, I often don’t find it “relaxing” to see how well someone else writes. (Though I do of course read some novels.) If you’re a true movie buff, you will have heard of a silent film actress named Lillian Gish. Her work holds up quite well to the test of time; she doesn’t seem corny but timeless, and has been called things like the First Lady of Cinema.

In any event, she wrote an autobiography in which she thanked her mother for teaching her love, and her father for teaching her insecurity. Like me, Miss Gish had a deadbeat dad who abandoned his family, which was how and why she became an actress as a child. And she kept on acting into her 90s, dying just shy of her 100th birthday. Still, when I first read this, I was not mature enough to understand how insecurity can be a positive force within the self. But now I am old enough to see how it has helped me.

I’m not advocating that people abandon their children because it will do them good. It does them harm, sometimes quite serious harm, and even when you make lemonade out of the lemon there is still a sense of loss. Still, I have to say that not knowing my father since I was nine months old is part of who I am, and the insecurity thereof has been something of a gold mine where my creative drive is concerned.

So, on this Father’s Day, for better or for worse, here is the story of my father.

When my parents got divorced, there literally was no money, so my mother got to take whatever there was. This included all of my father’s family heirlooms. So even though I never knew him, we had (for example) his childhood drawings and photo albums. I know that he grew up in a big house with servants (witness the maid’s bell we had, though we of course had no maid). He was his mother’s favorite, as far as I can tell. Apparently he talked to her every day until she died in his middle age. Nothing much was told me about his father.

Though of course I am guessing, I think his mother spoiled him. He thought everyone would accept him as she did, no matter what he did. I know now that he also dealt with chronic depression and possibly other mental conditions. None of this came in handy when, during the Great Depression, his family lost all their money. He never quite adjusted to this reality, and his poor money management skills played a major role in his downfall.

My father was a talented musician. His Master’s thesis was a classical composition still available in the University of Chicago library. He received several other degrees, and by all accounts was highly intelligent. I did not inherit the music gene from either of my parents (my mother was a singer), but I have been told I have some of his mannerisms. He also was said to have had a great deal of charisma, and when men, possibly loan sharks, came to collect the money he owed, he could talk his way out of it—at least for the time being.

Through music, he and my mother met and got married. He set up a music business in NYC. He did arrangements and produced record albums, mostly kiddie stuff as far as I can tell. My mother kept singing here and there, but with their growing family they decided to move to Florida, and take advantage of the real estate boom. My father was to be a contractor, though sometimes he was his only employee, and did some house building himself. He liked to bet on horses, and perhaps gambled in other ways, too. He did not do well. So he never paid his taxes, he won a bid from the government to build a building that never got built, he forged checks, and ripped people off in some bogus money deals.

My mother of course was not pleased by any of this, especially when he purposefully took advantage of innocent people. Pregnant with her third child (yours truly), they ran out of money, and shortly after I was born they divorced. I've been told I was given ten grand by my paternal grandmother at birth, but my father spent it up to throw into the bottomless pit of debt he collected.

My mother had her reasons for not being president of my father’s fan club. It was a bitter, vindictive divorce, and my mother told all three of us kids we never wanted to see him again. Not that we wouldn't see him, but that we didn't even want to. I can remember being maybe four years old and my mother showing me a photo. “This is your father,” she said, “and you hate him because he’s a bad man.”

I think all three of us resented our mother from keeping us from our father. And I do believe that part of her motivation was vengeance. But now I also realize she probably was frightened for her safety and our safety, as he had some pretty shady dealings and even did a stint in prison. I imagine she also did not think he would be a positive influence in our lives.

Years later, when I located my father’s widow, she told me that he always made a mess of money and still lost at the racetrack. The one time she suggested he handle money differently he tried to strangle her. Learning this was quite a wake-up call for me. For the first time I considered that while I still would’ve wanted to meet him at least once, maybe in other ways I was better off not knowing him. I also wondered if my mother feared for her life not just because of the shady characters who came to the house but because of my father himself.

His widow spoke openly about his depression and other odd habits. He seldom bathed, and stayed up all night playing piano and doing crossword puzzles. The entire time she knew him he was horrifically depressed over not seeing his children. Holidays and our birthdays were especially trying for her.  She told me she never had a non-traumatic Christmas in the many years they were married. Yet for all his crying about missing his children, he never picked up the phone to call us. I was curious to see how he looked in his older years, but he refused to pose for photos. Perhaps her being a nurse helped her find the patience to stay with him.

They lived in an extremely tiny home, and some of the windows were boarded up. On his death certificate, his principle occupation was listed as plumber. I have nothing against plumbers, who perform a necessary and well-paid service. But I doubt my father was content to be a plumber when he started out wanting to be a great composer.

In an earlier attempt to try to find him, I called someone by his name in the Florida city he was last seen in, and a very strange man’s voice shouted into the phone and hung up on me. Perhaps this was my father. If so, I suppose we did have a ten-second conversation. I “met” him, so to speak.

It is hard to harbor much hatred toward someone you never knew, and since he was the excluded party that gave him a dimension of sympathy. For most of my life I thought about him, say, a few times a year, and wondered why he hated me so much that he disappeared. But after learning that he missed me and my siblings, I let go of that particular form of self-flagellation. Telling my sister and brother that he never stopped caring for us gave me a sense of empowerment. I honestly don’t know what to make of him, but I’m old enough to accept that sometimes life’s riddles go unanswered, and that’s okay.

I also have known many other people over the years whose fathers were physically or emotionally absent. Sometimes I think that many people end up with the same father, whether he was physically present or not.

My next novel, to be released in the near future, is called Deadbeat Dad. It is pure fiction and not at all the story of my father or anyone else in my family, but I drew on the insecurity he gave me to write the book. So thanks, Dad, for the gift of insecurity. I hope I live as long as Miss Gish. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

PTSD is a Family Illness

For Uncle Paul

On the Memorial Day weekend I wish to honor my late Uncle Paul. He enlisted in the Marines at the oldest age accepted, and was seriously wounded after landing on Iwo Jima during World War II. He won the Purple Heart and a host of other medals that he proudly framed on his mantelpiece—and which were routinely discarded by the wife who outlived him far too long to care, if in fact she ever did.

He was the first of several substitute father figures I had in my life, as my own father, like many divorced fathers, disappeared when I was a baby. I was told my father pretended to be mentally ill to get out of serving in WWII. His Jewishness did not compel him to serve. 

Uncle Paul was the only boy in his own fatherless family, and had three younger sisters. They were quite poor, but from what I’ve heard he used to make toys and games for them. He was their champion, had many friends, and loved having pet dogs. And, as I experienced years later, he loved children, though he never had any himself.

Like many immigrant families, ours was an extended one, so uncles and cousins were seen frequently and were almost like parents and siblings. Uncle Paul lived in our same town, and he frequently took us kids to a nearby boardwalk for ice cream and balloons, or to the local root bear drive-in for window trays of soda and hot dogs. He was one of those grown-ups who knew how to enter the world of children, and delighted in it. He made our few broken toys come to life and stimulated our imaginations. He knew dumb tricks like the “broken thumb” that held me mesmerized.

I remember literally crying tears of joy for how happy he made me. When the time came for my momentous kindergarten “graduation” ceremony, I invited my mother and Uncle Paul, though my soon-to-be-stepfather was already in the picture. I can still see my uncle in the audience, smiling at me through the entire sordid extravaganza of six year olds attempting to sing and dance, and not minding when I messed up routines on purpose just to be different.

Uncle Paul was married, and he was my mother’s brother, but I used to ask my mother if she would marry him. I guess she thought it was cute or something, but she did not take the hint about not marrying my lemon of a stepfather. In any case, I was somewhat on target. They had a tight bond as brother and sister, and confided things to each other that they told no one else. My mother’s untimely death was an additional nail in his eventual coffin. I had just turned nine, and my grandmother asked him to tell me my mother died, as she believed it would be better for me to hear it from a man. But he cried and said he couldn’t do it, so my grandmother did it herself.

Still, I wanted to be just like Uncle Paul, and so when he exhibited the odd habit of walking back and forth in a room for hours, mumbling to himself, I followed right behind him. My grandmother told me not to do it because I’d pick up the habit from him. I disobeyed her, and she was right. I, too, have been a lifelong floor pacer. Though I could not have verbalized it at the time, I wondered how my happy, wonderful Uncle Paul could have so much on his mind. Once, when he had an especially bad day, he picked up the telephone and had a long conversation with the operator, unloading all his woes to an unfamiliar voice. I guess he trusted strangers with his troubles more than he did us.

I used to think that Uncle Paul told us “war stories,” but looking back they were never about combat but funny tales about K-rations or off-color jingles about the enemy. He kept old issues of Leatherneck magazine in a trunk in his attic, as well as an old Japanese flag that enemy solders had signed. When my older brother played with his green plastic army men, I always thought of them as being Uncle Paul. There also were a lot of old movies on TV back then, and some of them were WWII epics in which the good guys bloodlessly always won. For us kids, it seemed like fun, even though the grownups never liked to watch war movies for some reason.

While Uncle Paul was off in the Marines, his mother and sisters did not, to my knowledge, do much for the war effort besides worry about him and resent the Japanese for Pearl Harbor.  I think some relatives worked in a munitions factory, but this was at least in part because they had to work anyway. Food rationing was just business as usual for a poor working class family that weathered the Great Depression. They were republicans during a war effort led by a two democratic presidents, and anyway world events were too large for their mental and emotional landscapes. All that mattered was Uncle Paul coming home alive.

My grandmother could be a complex person, even an inscrutable one, but sometimes her responses had a childlike purity about them. And from what I gathered, she spent several years ceaselessly worrying about her son. I was told that this was what made her hair turn gray. Even though my mother married a German Jew who became my father, there was never much of a sense that winning the War freed occupied nations or concentration camp prisoners. Movies or TV shows that dealt with the holocaust were deemed unnecessary because they were not happy things to watch. First, foremost, and finally, the Second World War was the war that ruined Uncle Paul.

His wife, in old movie terms, was a good times gal, a floozie. From what I gathered between the lines, she had no intention of letting World War II cramp her style. To my family’s Old World values, such cavorting already was a sin, but it was especially unforgivable while her husband was overseas. Uncle Paul left behind a beloved dog that his wife claimed ran off searching for his master, but everyone else believed she got rid of it on purpose. She was not renowned for her honesty.

Her partiality to Martinis and men over dogs and children, combined with her eager bad temper, made her an intimidating presence for both young and old. (Though at times, her undomesticated nature made her a better, less judgmental listener than other relatives.) Still, she often was characterized as ruining my Uncle’s life—his wife and WWII, quite a combination. Let’s just say that when you saw the two of them at their zenith, there was no need to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

I have been told that when Uncle Paul came back from the war, he was “never the same.” People did not know to call it PTSD back then, or understand that it was an illness that does not just go away.  He did tell me that when he came home from the war his mouth was crooked. The doctor recommended he take up singing to straighten it out, and it worked. He even sang professionally in a choir. (Alas, I did not inherit the familial music gene.) He could also draw and oil paint and was an all-purpose builder and handyman. When I was little I thought he could do everything, but by mid-childhood I started realizing he could hardly do anything. I got old enough to see his irrational fits of rage and unwarranted cruelty for what they were, and no longer found them thrilling to witness.

Uncle Paul bought a white elephant of a big house in an upscale neighborhood, and spent the last 25 years of his life endlessly fixing it up, long after it supposedly was “finished.” In between carting bags of cement, he drank quite a lot and had the largest arsenal of prescription pills I have ever seen. (And I have seen some mighty big ones.) There were sad, violent episodes, and the family grew wary of visiting his big house. There was nothing in their frame of reference that told them how to deal with such things. Political-like factions were formed that created more ill will and destroyed any lingering sense of closeness.

Yet long after the extended family utterly fell apart, Uncle Paul insisted that being close to family was the key to happiness. I suppose his own life upheld this hypothesis, given how unhappy and bitter he became.

The last time I saw Uncle Paul I barely entered his house before he grumpily drove me to visit other relatives that supposedly were the key to happiness. But he did not get out of the car to see them himself. In fact, though his house faced a picturesque seascape, he began filling in the windows so that no one could see in and he could not see out. For many years my grandmother lived with him and his wife, but above the objections of his siblings he routinely put Granny in an indifferent facility for the elderly, where she died feeling abandoned and scared.

Yet she outlived her son by a year or two. He died of heart failure, I think, and without a clue as to what had gone wrong. My grandmother was not told of her son’s death, and kept insisting she needed to be taken back “home” in order to take care of Uncle Paul.

I am glad that, as it happened, I called to wish him a happy birthday during the last year of his life, and we had the first pleasant conversation we’d had in years. As what might politely be called a rebellious youth, I engaged in some high theatricality myself. When he lectured me that I needed to spend more time with the family, I’d say things like, “Well, they call your wife a whore behind her back.” Somehow his own growing isolation from these same people did not count. It was not in his cosmology to say, “I see why you keep your distance, I feel the same.” Decades of PTSD had severely warped his ability to reason, and the accompanying pill fog was too thick to penetrate.

Most of my family did not venture far away from familiar turf, so as Uncle Paul fell apart, small pockets of people became increasingly isolated themselves. The older generation seemed happy only when they were talking about olden times when they’d go to the movies or an amusement park. I long thought it was careless of them to create such an obvious impression that they were happier before their children were born. But I see now that their good times actually ended when my uncle came home from the war. The 2006 film, Flags of our Fathers, made me understand much more about those men and sometimes women who came home from the war and said nothing that made much sense as their lives crumbled like bombed out buildings.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hi Mom

I am the son of Rozalia and Richard

One week ago on Mother’s Day I did something I never did before. I wished my mother a happy Mother’s Day. Thanks in large measure to the gravediggers who started shoveling dirt on her casket the moment it was being lowered into the ground, I’ve considered my mother nothing but dead since she died. I felt like the gravediggers were slapping me across the face, but a point was made. You’re alive or you’re dead, and my mother was the latter. Message received.

I’ve never “talked” to my mother since she died, have seldom dreamt of her, and until about a week ago never thought that maybe someday I’d see her again. Like most kids, as I got older I realized my mother wasn’t perfect. But unlike many mothers, she was not here to defend herself, so my anger and impatience toward her won every time. I suppose first and foremost, I was mad at her for dying.

She was confined to her bed with uterine cancer from about the time I was six, and died just after I turned nine. She was not told she had cancer, and neither were I or my older brother. My sister knew as the eldest child, but when I’d ask what was wrong with Mother (as we had to call her), I was dismissed or yelled at by everyone who knew the truth.

How my mother’s illness and death were handled would make a textbook example of how not to deal with such things. Like many cancer patients, her behavior grew erratic, even irrational, as her illness progressed. At night her cries to God to let her die woke me, and when I mentioned this to others they snapped at me as usual. She of course also physically degenerated. I was an observant child, and this experience gave me a lifelong sixth sense as to when someone was about to die from illness. It’s a dubious skill I could live without.

For the last week or so of her life the door to her bedroom was closed so I could not see her. Yet on the morning of the day she was to die, I opened her door. Various relatives called out, “Don’t go in there,” but I already manifested the curious boldness that so often would get me in trouble over the years. My mother turned to me and said, “Yes?” as if asking what she could do for me. I mumbled hello before they pulled me away and whisked me off to school.

My maternal grandmother immigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe when she was only twelve years old. She kept talking about wanting to come to the USA, so her dirt poor farming family somehow arranged it. (She came by herself, and would see her family of origin only once more.) Granny arrived at Ellis Island knowing but one word of English, “broom,” which came in handy. She was a house servant for a time, and then worked in a factory until she retired. For over seventy years her home was Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a good place for blue-collar workers to find jobs.

Her husband died when she was pregnant with her fifth child, and in fact Granny would outlive three of her children. She worked a man’s machine in the factory for extra money—in other words, an extra dollar or two per week. Only two of her children would graduate high school (one was my mother), while the two others still living were forced to quit school to work in the factory. Granny herself never learned to read or write, though she always had an opinion.

My grandmother was devoutly Russian Orthodox, and like most everyone in my family—and many Russian Americans—a lifelong conservative. However poor she and her children were, they never took a handout. She kept a picture of the Czar in her bedroom, and believed communism to be evil. Taking money from the government was shameful in her eyes, and she always gave thanks to God for all that she had—which was not always much in other people’s eyes. (When I lived with my aunt, I was not allowed to get an after school job or eat at a friend's house, lest the neighbors think we were poor. I likewise got fed the riot act one day in summer, when I left the house barefoot. The neighbors again—they’d think we were too poor to buy shoes.)

Like her mother before her and her sisters, my mother grew to be an attractive young woman. And like something out of The Glass Menagerie, she had many promising suitors, but chose an exceptionally irresponsible one to marry. By the time she was pregnant with me, she and my father were literally broke—as in, no food in the house. My father also was in trouble with the law, and would do a stint in prison. He liked betting on horses more than Fate enjoyed rewarding his efforts, and men with guns came to the house looking for him. I was nine months old when my parents divorced, and none of us kids would see our father again. (Though we learned of his death.)

My mother, like her siblings, felt caught between her old world heritage and new world reality, though more than the others she erred on the side of the old world. She even made sure her second husband was Russian, though he proved no more dependable than his predecessor.

Her fascination for all things Russian rendered me highly embarrassed by my heritage. Like many third generation Americans, I strove to be 100% Americanized. As a kid, I wanted to live in a suburban ranch house like the perfect TV families. I wanted Betty Crocker cakes and Thom McCan shoes like the other kids. Granny was famous for her homemade bread and poppy seed loaves, but I refused to eat them.

At the time, it must have seen only fitting that my mother be given a Russian Orthodox funeral. Her siblings supplied the lengthy and complex a capella chorale. But not a word of the funeral was in English. There were no speakers who talked about her, nothing set aside for her children to participate in. It’s a strange sensation to feel excluded at your mother’s funeral. But everything was done as my grandmother wanted it. Even had it occurred to any of her surviving children to do it differently—and it probably did not—they could not stand up to her even when they were middle aged. 

I should also mention that my mother’s was the second of four funerals in a row I attended over a period of four months. They were all Russian Orthodox affairs, which meant I also went for several evenings in a row to the wakes for all of them. Decades before it became fashionable, I saw dead people. Perhaps this contributed to my eventual interest in writing murder mysteries. Certainly it contributed to a chip on my should I carry to this day—though I’d like to believe it’s gotten smaller—as to why other people had “normal” things like a steady home and parents. I’d live in several different households before going off on my own at fifteen. I wore my poverty as a badge of honor, proof of my emancipation from the past. Or so I told myself many times over.

I could write a book about all the thoughtless things my family did in the wake of my mother’s illness and death. But this blog post is already too long, so I’ll only mention two more. One was during her wake, when an aunt of mine smiled and said, “Well, when are you going to kiss your mother good-by?” She said this like someone saying, “Would you like an extra dab of mayo on your sandwich?” Or at least that’s how I heard it. So I walked up to the open coffin alone, and, always afraid of disobeying at the most self-destructive times, counted one-two-three and forced myself to kiss her cold dead lips. Nothing more was said about it.

Then, several years later, the same aunt told me that my birth was what caused my mother to get cancer and die. The American Psychological Association owes my aunt a debt of gratitude for all the financial support her remark set in motion over the years. 

Anyway, I got tired of feeling like damaged goods whenever I met someone, because sooner or later they ask you about your family, and the tale of my early years doesn’t exactly make for a surefire anecdote at parties. I felt ashamed to have no parents, to live with other relatives or then be on my own as a minor. I remain ashamed of my Russian heritage, and still have only a theoretical grasp as to why people take pride in their ethnicity. I don’t know what it feels like. I joined several different faiths to “erase” the Orthodox from my life. I went back to using my birth father’s surname instead of the Russian one of my stepfather, which embarrassed me every time I heard it. Better a crook than a commie.

But last Sunday, the outpouring of support I received from Facebook friends prompted me to come forward with all this. I hope I haven’t bored you. Moreover, if you are facing the loss or potential loss of a loved one, please, talk about it. Even—or especially—if children are involved. And as for my mother, I am starting to get to know her for the first time.

PS: She had some minor success as a singer, but most all her mementos were routinely discarded upon her death. I was told I could keep one picture of her for my own, and this is the one I chose.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Poverty: Isn’t That the Name of a New Fragrance?

Pass the tap water, please.

I did not plan to post a new blog today. I was waiting for a time in the near future when I could tie it in with my latest novel campaign, once it gets started. (Did someone just drop a hint?) But I saw a post on Facebook today from Gwyneth Paltrow that I guess you could say “inspired” me share. You can also say it did something else.

I of course have never met Ms. Paltrow, and more to the point I can live with the fact that I never shall. Insofar as her acting chops are concerned, I liked her some years back in a film version of Jane Austen’s Emma. But after that she became, for me, one of those stars whom I felt was overrated. She won an Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love, a film in which she spent most of her screen time supposedly passing for a man, and I found her utterly unconvincing as such. She was okay in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but in a smaller part Cate Blanchett acted her off the screen. Since then, she hasn’t done anything of distinction that I am aware of. Though she bears a physical resemblance to poet Sylvia Plath, I thought Paltrow gave a listless performance in Sylvia, as if acting the part took time away from shopping. (I’ll bet you didn’t know I am a frustrated film critic.)

This is a subjective process I’m sure we all go through with various people in the limelight. There are stars we “like” and stars we do not. If you admire her acting, you are entitled to your opinion.

For what it is worth, I also have never found her physically beautiful. Attractive, certainly, in an ordinary, cheerleader sort of way. But when she is called one of the world’s beautiful women I don’t get it. Sometimes she has been compared to Grace Kelly. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; look below and decide for yourself. And again in my opinion, Kelly was a better and more interesting actress.

Some of us are old enough to remember a concept called the Peter Principle. It came from Laurence J. Peter, and the upshot was that if you seem good at what you are doing, you will then be promoted to a higher position and thereby rise to your “level of incompetence.” Peter was writing about the business world and management, but I think it can be adapted to other arenas. In the case of Paltrow, an attractive and somewhat talented actress (with parental show biz connections) rose to a status that magnifies how undeserving she is to occupy her current status.

In more recent years, Paltrow has received bad press for saying all sorts of things that make Marie Antoinette sound like a bag lady. Her utter lack of empathy, understanding or even token interest in those less fortunate than herself has provided fodder for standup comics as well as serious criticism. One presumes that a publicity agent or some such told her she needed to change her image by coming across as a concerned citizen, even if lowly Americans do bore her. Turning to politics, she told us how handsome President Obama is. And now she has turned to SNAP (i.e., food stamps) to show us how hard it can be for a poor family to live on $29 a week for food. This I do not doubt for a moment. But sometimes princesses live a bit too happily ever after, and her supposedly eye-opening photo of what $29 of groceries looks like says far more about Princess Gwyneth than it does about being poor. 

Oh no, how can I stretch out this bunch of Kale or cilantro (someone else said it was parsley) for a week? What will it do to my complexion? Cook with only one fresh clove of garlic? And why does gluten-free have to cost extra? We need our vegies, and of course we must buy them fresh. And look at these . . . these egg things, which are not even free range. And surely you do not expect me to eat white rice instead of brown? What would my nutritionist say?

As it happens, Yours Truly spent a number of years doing the starving artist bit, and while I don’t know about my art I sure was good at starving. Actually, I was poor anyway for having to live on my own as a minor. I was very bad at cleaning toilets or emptying public trashcans, so when I became a busboy/dishwasher, I thought I had it made. I still remember that my lowest-paying job of all time was for $1.25 an hour. So I might as well say I was an artist.

For the benefit of Ms. Paltrow and her ilk, here is how I did my grocery shopping:

You think in terms of bulk—what can be stretched out for as long as possible for as little money as possible. You buy big bags of potatoes, and lots of rice, pasta, and popcorn (which you pop yourself). Drink tap water (your main beverage) with the popcorn and it will fill up your stomach. Buy lots of bags of dried beans, for big pots of chili. Or split pea or lentil soup with two extra ingredients: water and salt. Pasta is bought in 16 ounce (not 12 ounce) packages, and like everything else you go for the cheapest—the supermarket brand.  Also get the supermarket brand of a large container of oatmeal (rolled oats)—again, it's filling, especially with a glass of powdered milk.

Speaking of which, supermarket brand macaroni and cheese is cheaper than Kraft. Tomato paste can be thinned it out as needed. Powdered milk tasted okay once it was in the fridge for a couple of days, and you can use it just as powder to make pancakes; just add flour, water, and baking soda. If you can afford oil (though the actual recipe calls for clarified butter), you can make a huge amount of equal parts green split peas, yellow split peas, and rice. It’s some sort of Indian appetizer as I recall, but for pennies you have dinner for a week. Tell people you are on a macrobiotic diet. On those rare occasions you treat yourself to a candy bar (or maybe that's all you can afford), you again buy by the ounce. Three Musketeers was the best deal in my day, even though I didn’t like it much.

If meat is your thing, go for the cheapest hot dogs, regardless of what goes into them. You can get a bit of ground beef to throw into the chili or spaghetti sauce you make. For a time, I lived where a supermarket sold beef with soy additives for a cheaper price, and I got that. Plus, for example, if you live near smaller shops, you can buy day old bagels or meat that’s gone bad. Douse the meat in a ton of cheap wine to kill bacteria, and there you are. If you splurge and buy tuna, you buy the cheapest dark meat brand. A “sandwich” usually means an egg salad sandwich—if you’re lucky enough to afford sandwiches.

You also have to keep in mind how much you can carry, because you may or may not live near a bus stop, and you may or may not have enough money to ride the bus. Living day to day, week to week, buying a collapsible grocery cart for yourself may seem prohibitively expensive.

Poor families, I imagine, do some variation of what I have described above. Kids, yes even poor kids, can be fussy eaters, so the situation, I’m sure, gets more complicated. (How much did you like to eat leftovers when you were a kid?) I sometimes had roommates, and once, when nothing else was left in the cupboards, I made us a sumptuous graham crack crumb lasagna (don’t ask).

I’m not here to discuss why people are poor or how much aid should go to the poor. I’m just saying, if you are poor, this is what it can be like. And let’s not forget that what I lived on would be considered a feast in some parts of the world.

Plus there was, in hindsight, something positive that I learned, because if need be I can live like that again. Which, in today’s uncertain economy, is good to know. In general, I believe eating should not have to cost a lot of money, and even though I can afford it I do not eat out often and still shop looking for food items on sale, and so forth.

Oh, and there was one other thing I did. I made sure I had a lot of friends so I could hit them up for a few bucks here and there, or raid their refrigerators when they weren’t looking. Or sometimes, when really, really hungry, even when they were. In addition to the moral implications of this practice, it also meant that I rarely stood up for myself or made any waves whatsoever out of fear of losing a precious friend. So I got used to feeling I did not have the same right to freedom of speech as other people. In some ways, I regret this more than anything else.

No, I have never visited the Goop website.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Virtual Politics

Life is not a video game

As you may have read, a student government group at the University of California, Irvine, voted to ban the American flag from being displayed in the lobby of the student government office, and then a higher-raking student government group vetoed the ban. Personally I have no problem with the American flag being displayed. As long as there are nation-states (and they do not seem to be going anywhere) there will be flags and other symbols that connote nationalism. That’s humanity, that’s the world.

Also, since this is a state university, at least much of its funding is coming from that big bad government some students hate so much. And if the school is making a profit, the tuition money these students pay goes right back to the same government. Just like taxpayers pay for many policies and salaries they may personally wish would go away. Perhaps as these anti-flag students get older, they will realize these kinds of connections that zealous young people often miss.

Yet I bring up this incident not to take sides but rather to take no side. Because what bothers me more than whether someone is pro- or anti-U.S. policy is the increasingly trivial way they go about expressing it. Yes, there are many injustices in our history up to this present moment. But in my opinion taking away a flag from a lobby is the wimpiest of symbolic gestures. In concrete terms, it changes nothing that these anti-flag people wish to change.

Part of my training as a college professor in the social sciences was learning the importance of symbolic acts. But increasingly I get the impression that the younger generation in particular thinks that symbolic gestures are more than what they are. Getting rid of a flag in a lobby is seen as interchangeable with accomplishing something of merit to make the U.S. or the world a better place.

It isn’t just about the flag, either. I have no problem with refraining from using certain words that offend a group of people. It costs me nothing not to use these words. But again, I think that some (not all, but some) words one is not supposed to ever use is like some collective form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Some folks may not know this, but if you want to be up to date you never call, say, a female teenager a girl. She is a young woman. In fact, “male” and “female” should not be used, and a woman should never be called a “lady.” I understand the ideology behind these sorts of things, having first been exposed to it many moons ago when I was a teenager myself—and yes, in California. But when we’re done busting people for referring to members of a particular gender by this word and not that word, has anything been accomplished? Are we living our lives with mutual regard for other people? Are we making personal choices that reflect self-respect or self-loathing?

There has been concern expressed for the current generation of young people. Some older folks worry that kids anymore spend too much time in virtual reality via the Internet, video games, smart phones, texting, and so forth. I am on the Internet a lot myself, and I believe the good it offers outweighs the bad. But I wonder if some people (mostly young but not always) have come to believe that virtual activism—don’t say this, don’t think that, don’t display this other thing—is the same thing as actual, lived activism. Who are you giving your money and time to? Do you dialogue only with people who agree with you? Do you have a sense of history? That change takes time and is often difficult and requires patience? That fighting for freedom comes at a cost, up to and including people losing their lives? That you may have to deal with unpleasantness from people who disagree with you?  You may even, yes, be called a name. 

I recently read a critique of a book written thirty or more years ago. The young critic was quite smug in noting that the book did not mention certain terminologies or concepts that had not yet been coined. But obviously this young person had no sense of history or perspective—and perhaps no interest in correcting this. I once heard a student say he did not vote because the only thing he cared about was being able to afford college. Hello, anyone home?

While some people obsess over their mental masturbation, literally billions of others are starving to death or dying of incurable diseases. Last time I checked, people keep killing each other, too. Sometimes they are gunned down in their youth, or left to rot in prisons for expressing an opinion. But I guess that’s too icky and gross to talk about. Let’s stick to what’s safe and abstract.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Insanity of Insanity

No wonder there are so many law books

The verdict in the Chris Kyle/Chad Littlefield murders did not surprise me, and I feel no sympathy for the perpetrator, Eddie Ray Routh. Murdering people trying to help you and shooting your unaware victims in the back are among the least likely behaviors to win public favor. Chris Kyle of course was a hero in the minds of millions. (He lives on in people’s minds as a tragic hero or as someone whose karma caught up with him, depending on your point of view. I’m not here to get into all of that.)

If I understand correctly, Routh lied about the war traumas he witnessed. Before he shot and killed his friends, he already claimed to have PTSD, though his actual service record casts doubt on this. Among other things, Routh apparently wanted to have PTSD, just as he apparently wished he could have participated in more bloodshed while in the service. And for no apparent reason, he shot two friends in the back. I do not have a problem with him being found guilty. But I have long been intrigued by how, in a legal context, we define sanity vs. insanity. Having described Routh thus far, how sane does he sound to you?

As has been pointed out by sources far wiser than me, we often call someone “crazy” when we can’t think of any other reason for why the person did what she/he did. And when crazy doesn’t work, we shrug and say the person then must be “evil,” because what other explanation can there be? If you’re a fancy talker, you may say the person is a “psychopath” or “sociopath,” though neither terminology is listed in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of psychiatry in the U.S. However, there is something called Antisocial Personality Disorder that includes in its list of symptoms a lack of remorse for one’s actions. 

The DSM does not fall from the sky. In the final analysis, it is a book composed and periodically updated by a group of people who, one may assume, go through the same haggles any group of people go through when trying to write something together. Word choices and definitions change from one edition to the next. But in any case, the DSM does not contain a definition for simple insanity vs. sanity. 

According to expert testimony, Routh was sane at the time he shot his friends in the back for no reason. So why did he do it? Because he’s “evil,” which according to the dictionary means things like “morally bad, harmful, causing misfortune, malicious and devilish.” Well, if he’s morally bad, how is it assumed he knew right from wrong, since his worldview is off to begin with? How is causing harm and misfortune for no reason a mark of sanity? The only reason for malice existed in his mind. And if the devil made him do it, then maybe he needs an exorcism?

I am not trying to be flippant over a serious crime that has caused friends and family of the victims immeasurable grief. Frankly, this murder case, like so many others, seems inexplicable to me. The only thing that comes to mind about Routh is that he must have had some mighty deep hangups about being a man. But then, so do other people who do not murder anyone. 

However, I am saying that our legal system seems odd (to use a polite word) when I stop to think about it. In a legal context, you can be sane while you do all sorts of heinous things. Sanity does not require sound moral judgment. The most horrific and torturous murders are committed by people deemed legally sane. 

I am not saying these people should not be held accountable for their actions, or that murderers should all just be declared insane. Still, how can someone possibly be sane if these are the things they do? And, extending the argument, we are saying that a sane person may intentionally choose to commit evil. In the dictionary, “sanity” means “a state of good mental balance, good sense.”  Think of some awful murder you read about, and then think if the perpetrator of it possessed “good mental balance.”

In a legal context, insanity is a mental illness so severe that one cannot discern fantasy from reality, and is dominated by psychosis or uncontrollable impulse. I am not a psychiatrist, but it seems to me that most murders could be explained in ways that fit these criteria (though only about one per cent of murder cases pursue the insanity plea). You may ask: what about hit men or people who murder their spouse for money? Well, are these people mentally fit? Do they not have issues with reality and impulse? 

Some say that in the final analysis, sanity is only a matter of being able to conform to society’s dictates. John Doe stabbed his victim over one hundred times, but when disposing of the body he obeyed the traffic lights, so he was and is sane. 

Many people think the insanity defence is a new, liberal invention, but it dates back to ancient times. And contrary to what often is assumed, the expert witness cannot decide the defendant’s legal responsibility, or whether the person is wholly insane. The scope is limited to the action in question, and in legal terms the opinions of doctors are just that—mere opinions that can be disregarded by the jury. And if found not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but insane, the person likely is committed to a mental facility for life. If prisons are not nice places, neither are state mental hospitals. 

Also, a defendant cannot be forced to plead insanity. There have been instances in which defendants find the label of insanity more of a burden than receiving a life sentence or the death penalty. But while expert testimony may be permitted, the psychiatrist’s conceptualization of mental illness need not match the legal context.  Which seems to me problematic. 

The parameters of this defence, and the burden of proof required, varies across states, and some states do not permit the insanity defence it at all. (Though diminished capacity may still be allowed.) But those that do usually put the burden of proof for insanity on the defence. Things like mere temporary insanity, diminished capacity, intoxication, ability to control impulse at the time of the action, may or may not apply in a given state. But the Supreme Court has ruled that when the death penalty is on the table, jurors must consider diminished capacity and responsibility and the time of the incident. So I guess you can be sane enough to commit murder but at the same time have committed it with diminished capacity. And whatever is decided, the judge bangs the gavel and officially anyway justice has been served. 

I know it’s always easier to criticize than to offer solutions. But, speaking as a fellow shmuck, it seems to me that our approach to the insanity plea is neither fish nor fowl. And its moral implications—or should I say lack of moral implications?—are troubling. In legal terms, the possession of what is called sanity does not account for much as to who you are as a person, and can even work against you. All that obedient behaviour was your worst mistake.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Perfect TV Family

Those weren’t the days.

The man in a business suit pulls his car into the driveway, and before he even gets out of it his children want his attention. He doesn't tell them to go away. Instead, he listens attentively as he enters the house, where dinner is being prepared. Without changing his clothes, he rolls up his shirtsleeves and helps his wife make dinner. Before the meal is ready, he attends to several other issues about the household; he multi-tasks with ease. When not at the office he is 100% committed to helping his wife and kids. He assumes authority only to the extent that it protects his family.  He does not yell or lose patience or ask for alone time. He does not bully his way to authority, and he never tries to intimidate or guilt-bate his family by being the patriarch.

This is a summary of an episode I happened upon of the 1950s sitcom, Father Knows Best. This program is one of several from TV’s so-called Golden Age that, depending on your point of view, showed life as it used to be—and in a good way—or shows life as it never was—and in a bad way.

There’s no point pretending that these shows were about “everyone,” and possibly they were not about anyone. The families were solid middle class WASPs, with gainfully employed fathers, housewife mothers, and children without serious mental or physical issues. Minority ethnicities—even Jews or Catholics—virtually did not exist. Women accepted that men were in charge. From time to time there would be an episode in which a tomboy learned that her true happiness came from nylons and make-up and acting stupid or weak to impress a certain young man.

In real life, Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, had to fight the network to broadcast a show about white woman married to a Cuban bandleader. My Three Sons, for most of its seasons, featured a single parent, and Bachelor Father saw John Forsythe raising his orphaned niece. Recasting necessities caused Danny Thomas/Williams on Make Room for Daddy to have a second wife and a stepdaughter. This program and I Love Lucy were set in New York apartments. But for the most part these shows featured intact, white, nuclear, suburban families.

There were no money problems to speak of, Lucy Ricardo’s bad spending habits notwithstanding. No one lost a job or got divorced or had an affair. The children didn’t talk back to their parents, drink or do drugs, or have premarital sex. There were no unwed mothers. In fact, I saw another Father Knows Best in which eldest daughter Betty, a high school student, says goodnight to her date at her front door. He asks, “May I?” and she meaningfully nods her head. He kisses her once on the cheek, and then goes back to his car. Sitcom kids sometimes got into mischief or made mistakes (as youth are prone to do), but nothing caused anyone serious harm. Life lessons were things like boys standing up to bullies, or girls learning not to be selfish. Daughters had a bad habit of bursting into tears and running off to their bedrooms, but Mom or Dad could fit whatever troubled the girl with a few wise words.

There were of course serious problems both here and abroad, but politics did not enter into the TV family perfect universe. At the dinner table, no one argued about Republicans vs. Democrats, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, or much of anything else.

As the 50s gave way to the 60s, these shows ran their course. People who wax nostalgic for them may forget that these programs did not disappear by magic or a Communist plot; their ratings went down. Baby Boomers got exposed to new ideas and new conceptualizations of “reality,” and stopped watching or caring about these relatively trivial picture-perfect families. In fact, I think that breaking away from these perfect sitcom families was a rite of passage in the mid- to late 1960s. The world—not to mention one’s own family—did not match the perfection seen on the small screen. Shows that lasted to the end of the decade, such as My Three Sons, went from seeming cool to reactionary. Latecomers like The Brady Bunch wanted to be cool, but if you were cool you knew The Brady Bunch wasn’t. Only in hindsight does a show like The Brady Bunch seem campy fun.

It is not a coincidence that the most timeless of these shows, I Love Lucy, featured less than perfect characters. However loony Lucy and Ethel’s escapades were, and even if Ricky and Fred got the last word, this was a show essentially about wives not obeying their husbands. Lucy didn’t have a career, but she spent the run of the series wanting one. And she’d go to any lengths to try and make her mark. A few episodes intimate the threat of what we would now call domestic violence, though it never occurred. Still, it is worth noting that even in the so-called traditional 1950s people were ready to embrace a woman who rebelled against the limitations of what society expected of her.

The 60s has been characterized as a time of youthful nonconformity and racial unrest, but popular culture frequently lagged a few years behind. Many rock songs now considered classics did not actually top the charts when first released. And few TV shows succeeded in capturing the temper of the times. People of color were brought to the small screen ever so slowly and ever so carefully. The youth culture was captured in only the most superficial of ways, like those stick-on flowers people used to put on their cars. Marcia Brady was a far cry from Janis Joplin, though in real life some of the young actors who played these perfect children suffered addiction, depression, poverty, and even suicide.

Yet for all that was limited or fake in these older family shows, I think they need to be looked at as products of their time and place. The post-World War II suburban boom was (whatever its flaws) something new and exciting in many people’s eyes. The mere fact of living in a pristine suburb was seen as modern. It gave the Cleavers and the Nelsons a built-in dimension of cool. In fact, Ricky Nelson became a singing teen idol, and other TV kids (such as Donna Reed’s) had hit records, too. Of course, television itself was a new toy in the 1950s, so even the fact of being a TV show was in itself something special.

Additionally, I saw an interview with a former star of one of these shows that made me think twice about some of the assumptions that are made about them. According to this ex-child actor, the players and producers of these programs knew that real-life families did not achieve perfection. So these series were intended to provide good examples for people to follow.

Looked at from this perspective, the old family sitcoms had a little more going on in them than we often remember. Even just the titles sometimes seem telling. Father Knows Best was a pun, because the original saying was that mother knows best. So while it is possible to view this title (and the program thereof) as sexist cooptation, it also possible to look at it as trying to provide a positive role model for men. Robert Young (playing Jim Anderson) knew as much about his children as his wife did, and lived for no other purpose than to embrace his role as husband and father. He never cheated on his wife, and he never was unfair to his children. Atypical even at the time? Yes. But maybe the show was trying to tell men that a more caring and yes, even a bit more egalitarian world could be theirs.

Leave It to Beaver was mostly about the youngest son who gets into jams and tries to get away with doing things he wasn’t supposed to do. But kids will be kids, and, well, leave it to good ol’ Beaver to always make mischief. Don’t hit him or yell at him. Be like his father, Ward, and have an understanding talk about how he can do better next time. Likewise, despite all of her shenanigans, “I” (i.e., Ricky Ricardo) love Lucy. (Years later, the same would hold true for “everyone” loving Raymond, despite Ray Romano’s way of messing things up.)

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet gave intentional irony to the word, “adventures,” because the show never was about anything much. (Some consider it the prequel to Seinfeld.) But with the right attitude, the show seemed to say, ordinary life could be seen as funny, and worth the time and trouble.

The Donna Reed Show was about Mom and not Dad.  Contrary to legend, she never cleaned the house wearing pearls, and the show depicted how central the woman was to the family. The father was a doctor, so he was away from home quite a lot, and it was Donna Reed (a/k/a Donna Stone) who knew everything that was going on, and who provided words of wisdom to her children. Yes, she was “only” a housewife, but she was Queen of her Universe; it was her show, not his. Even if the man was technically in charge, the show implied, it’s really the woman who makes things happen.

Also, in this more innocent time, some things were accepted that in today’s world would raise eyebrows. On an episode of My Three Sons, the youngest boy must write a paper for school about his mother. So he writes about the old man who cooks and cleans for the household, saying that he is his “mom” because this is who takes care of him in a way that a mother would. It is intended to be a wholesome, heartwarming moment. When Bob Hope guest-starred on Make Room for Daddy, he and Danny Thomas end up in a cabin in the country where they sleep in the same bed, and this simply is taken for granted. There are no jokes about it, and it isn’t supposed to mean anything more.

I think where these shows went wrong was that many viewers, rather than reflect on themselves, simply felt inferior to not living up to the ideals. Reality was much harder to pull off than it appeared on TV. Other viewers mistakenly believed that these shows showed what their families were like, because the TV wouldn’t lie. Even today, some people want us to go back to a past that never was.

I certainly never received any understanding talks when I got in trouble as a kid. There was no Ward Cleaver or Jim Anderson or Donna Stone in my life, though there were a couple of Godzillas and Mommie Dearests. Maybe I wasn’t the only kid who felt this way, which maybe explains why those cheapo monsters movies of the day were what kids my age really wanted to watch.