Simon Sobo Writing

A collection of opinion pieces and chapters from his novels

March 3, 2018
by Simon Sobo
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Mimi Moscowitz’s Shopping, Chapter from CC

 

Chapter 19

Mimi Moscowitz expected that her daughter Evelyn would grow up to be a princess. However, becoming royalty didn’t mean sitting on a soft pillow. When it came to Evelyn, Mimi was a strict taskmaster.

It’s worked very well. On the one hand, throughout her life Evelyn has been cushioned by her self-confidence. On the other, she’s never been conceited, or snobbish. With good reason, Mimi didn’t indulge her imagination. Her head was never in the clouds. She assumed Evelyn would be the queen of their small domain on and around Flatbush Avenue and that was more than enough. Her idea of reality was what she could see, what she knew, where she walked–her neighborhood. There wasn’t TV to stretch her boundaries. The world outside of Brooklyn was far, far, away.

Later, for Evelyn, after she married Ira, it was Great Neck. The driving force was the same. The key element in her ambition, which worked so well, was what she learned from her mother. At no time did her duchy lie beyond her reach. To be sure, effort was required, compared to her schoolmates, a lot of effort. But Evelyn’s expectations were always within what she knew, which is the secret of a comfortable life, familiar boundaries, that seem just about right.

Towards the beginning of World War II, during training, Ira was stationed in the middle of nowhere, Fort Blanding, Florida. It was the deep south. Off base, more than once, they encountered a sign posted outside lavatories. No dogs, no Negros, and no Jews. Evelyn assumed the sign didn’t apply to her. It was some crazy thing, part of the wacky encounters they were having, at what, for them, was an extended honeymoon. The hicks that lived in Florida were like the natives one encountered in the Caribbean. They and their habits were a fascinating part of a travel adventure.

She looked at their time in Florida like a tourist on vacation collecting vignettes, collecting interesting sights and sounds. The sign forbidding Jews entrance to the toilet wasn’t so much an insult as it was a curiosity– an interesting detail, part of a good story she could tell her friends in Brooklyn about the natives, when she got home. She had Ira pose with her in front of one of the signs, smiling even more than her usual photo-smile. She was tickled by the dirty looks she got from the locals when one of them took that picture, even more when she used the bathroom. Not that anyone staring at them had the nerve to say anything. They rightly imagined she could crush them with a glare. Beauty has that advantage.

In school, she always had similar power over her classmates, from 5th grade on. In the stores, with other customers already there, some longer than her, the shopkeepers always turned their attention to Evelyn. If they asked who was next she would always defer. Fair is fair. But when they would turn to her soon after she entered the store, eager to be of service, even with others around, she considered herself lucky to have come across a nice merchant. Nothing more. She wasn’t aware, she was oblivious of the fact that she had privileges. When Ira pointed it out to her 10 years into their marriage it wasn’t a surprise. She had noticed, but she saw it as no big deal. It was simply part of her package, like being a brunette or having big green eyes.

Her beauty and confidence were so much a given that it never occurred to her that she was anything other than a usual person. She knew she possessed power.   She wanted to maintain it. And that she was prettier than others. But she assumed other people had different powers that worked for them. She had the advantage that while her mother sometimes made mistakes, she couldn’t go too far off in her shopping decisions. Evelyn was that pretty.

That didn’t mean that Mrs. Moscowitz treated shopping for clothes casually. She was just luckier than other mothers. It still took effort. Major effort. But she had a higher baseline. Since everything looked good on Evelyn. the challenge offered Mimi was, could she find something smashing? She was able to aim higher, for Evelyn’s appearance to be spectacular. But the hours it took to reach her goals, were not less than others.

Hour after hour, they performed the proverbial ritual. They shopped until they dropped. Like all of her classmates and their mothers, Mimi and Evelyn labored hard looking for the exact right thing. There were times when Evelyn was ready to cry, times that she did cry. But always her mother was capable of rallying the troops. Evelyn’s tired legs, and exhausted curiosity about what might await them, were handled with military discipline. She had to stuff her discomfort, turn off her whining. All complaints would be ignored until they found their prize.

It was rarely for naught. Although sometimes Mimi bought something that even she wasn’t sure about, bringing it home and hearing her husband Herman’s judgment, could sometimes turn the tide. When he liked it, whatever uncertainty she might have had, completely disappeared.

That wasn’t always necessary. For the predominance of her purchases, Mrs. Moscowitz knew when she had found what she was looking for, a skirt, a blouse, a cute hat, 2 skirts. From the grapevine, she knew which stores had had a fresh delivery, which had been shopped out. They were also able to get in to Mimi’s cousin’s factory and get skirts wholesale. They invariably found something that made the afternoon worthwhile.

When Mimi and Evelyn got home all other activities ceased. Mr. Moscowitz might have been reading the newspaper, or doing paperwork for his business. But the task at hand was far more important. And pleasurable. She had Evelyn run to her room with the shopping bags, and try each thing on. She, along with Herman, waited eagerly for her return.

“Ta-da,” Evelyn cried out as she entered. The cream silk blouse was as perfect as it was in the store, the dark green skirt the same. The moment Evelyn entered the room, she knew what she sought. Her father’s delighted eyes were reward enough for their efforts.

On a great day, if they had discovered one item after another that was just right, as Evelyn modeled each garment their pleasure was multiplied several fold by Mr. Moscowitz’ reaction.   They usually knew beforehand.   Both anticipated he would celebrate their successful undertaking with them and he invariably did. But you never know until you know. Detail by detail, the tailoring, the fabric, the color– he reinforced his wife’s judgment. “Stunning” was the word he used a lot. He almost never used that word in any other context. Hearing it from his lips, Mrs. Moscowitz looked over to her daughter as if to say “see”. “I told you.” –erasing any doubt one of them may have had at the store.

Sometimes, Mimi would step forward, and pull in a waist here, the shoulders there. Herman had great confidence in his wife’s seamstress abilities. She had once worked for him. So the result was a sure thing. When Evelyn joined them for breakfast before school, the altered garment was part of the joy both of them derived from adoring Evelyn. They knew she was beautiful, but now, with this outfit, they were reminded of how beautiful. The day brand new, God seemed to have given his blessing. It was part of the explanation for the spirited way Mr. Moscowitz applied Mimi’s marmalade on his toast. They praised Evelyn effusively, unhesitatingly, but they both knew it would be sacrilegious to say out loud their secret conviction, to openly proclaim that God was the reason for their good fortune.

All was, of course, not perfect. Success would have been meaningless if it hadn’t been won battling their handicaps. She had to operate within her price range. Herman would have a conniption if he found out they paid too handsomely for an item they brought home –even if it were a treasure. It would immediately not be a treasure, on price alone. There was a soft boundary. Respecting the extreme effort she and Evelyn had just made, Mimi sometimes felt justified fibbing about the cost. Just a little. Frequent practice perfected that ability. Herman may have occasionally suspected that he wasn’t getting the facts, but he never challenged her.

For those living in the country, the first warm day in the spring is glorious. The sun is bright. The birds are tweeting. It was no different for Mimi and Evelyn in Brooklyn. Certain days were wonderful. Mimi never bought anything just because it was on sale. But if she found something she loved and it was on sale–that made the day wonderful.

It helped that Evelyn’s parents shared the same perspective about shopping. They came from the same background. They grew up a block away from each other. Shared values made it easy for them. Unlike modern marriage with its emphasis on tolerance of each other’s differences, there was nothing to explain, nothing each of them had to learn about the other’s expectations. At least when it came to shopping, no changes were expected of either of them. That was true of a good proportion of other characteristics they brought to their marriage. The marriages went smoothly because their families had so much in common, same rules, same rituals, same habits. Perhaps Mimi’s mother used more onions when she made a pot roast, and her Friday night soup was saltier than Mr. Moscowitz’ mother’s beloved chicken soup that he treasured growing up. But these were specifics of no great importance. Of course, the newly married had to make many adjustments to the stranger they now lived with, and sometimes those adjustments were impossible for either or both of them, but, at least when it came to shopping, Herman’s family’s ideas were identical to Mimi’s family’s ideas.

When she truly found a bargain and it was beautiful, when Evelyn tried it on for Mr. Moscowitz, and he was similarly happy, Mimi took enormous satisfaction, not only because it looked great, but because it cost so little. She knew how much pleasure he derived from that detail. So did she. It was little different than the excitement a fisherman feels when he has caught a giant trout and happily poses for a photograph with his catch.

“A dollar fourteen for that blouse. A dollar fourteen! Can you believe it?” They both looked in wonderment, like a miracle had occurred.   After Evelyn took that blouse off and put on something else, Mr. Moscowitz examined every detail of the bargain, expecting to find some defect in the stitching, a small tear, something that would explain its price. When he could not find anything wrong, Mimi also examined it closely. She realized how lucky she had been, which reflected well on her. They both knew her luck derived from her hard work, her tireless devotion to finding this and similarly perfect clothes. Yes, she had been lucky, but it was a deserved reward.

Evelyn wasn’t any different than the other girls in the neighborhood. Their mothers took them shopping with the same determination and expectations. Sometimes they found a nicer outfit than Evelyn’s. When confronted at school Evelyn could comfortably acknowledge it as a fact. It spurred her and her mother on. Someone else’s success set a new standard. It guided Evelyn and her mother as they tried to find, at the very least, the same or a similar blouse with equal pizazz. The key belief was that victory was not beyond their grasp. They might find something nicer. Much nicer.

But the success of her competitors never threatened her throne. At least not for long. Even when she couldn’t replicate or surpass their victory, the image her classmates had of Evelyn could not be altered . She was a certainty for prom queen. Her place at the top could not be removed by the temporary success of a nicer purchase.

The importance of fashion in Evelyn’s Brooklyn was not unique. Jewish neighborhoods all over the city were similar. Today it is hard to imagine that the Bronx could inspire the young Ralph Lipshitz, (eventually named Ralph Lauren). But the Bronx was very different during Lipshitz’s youth. The Grand Concourse, one hundred and eighty foot wide, with a line of trees separating the roadways was built to echo the Champ Elysee. In the thirties and forties, and even the fifties, the Grand Concourse was considered the Jewish Park Avenue, an elegant destination for the successful.

The fierce standards of Jewish expectations effected every facet of a young person’s life, their character and especially their accomplishments. A stroll on the Grand Concourse served as a crucible for their persona. Shame or praise were the cauldron that shaped their abilities, that presented the details, alerting them to what was coming next, what would be in style. You didn’t stroll on the concourse unless you looked right. For some it was more than that. They made sure they were dressed to kill. You might as well be dead if you were not up on this season’s look.

Particularly now, fifty years after the Jews fled, when drugs, muggings and violence replaced its fancy aura, if you weren’t from the neighborhood, few would believe its former existence. It is hard to imagine a milieu in high school, where a handsome guy like Ralph Lipshitz, dressed to the nines was as admired as a quarterback at a Texas high school.

The arc of Ralph Lauren’s life is an interesting study of the transformation that was taking place in America. Jewish families are said to honor learning and intellectual pursuits. Ralph Lauren began high school at Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy. Limudei Kodesh classes are taught in Jewish(Talmud), Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and Halkha studies including Gemara (Jewish law). These classes comprised the morning session of the day. In the afternoon the school was secular. After 2 years he switched to DeWitt Clinton High School.

Before they arrived there, De Witt Clinton students were infused with the high expectations that their immigrant parents created for them with their dreams. The high school took it from there. Its Latin Department was legendary. Its campus was adjacent to the Bronx High School of Science. Standing out from the noise and chaos of the city, together they were sometimes compared by admirers to the Sorbonne. Sounds silly now, but then? It wasn’t just Ralph Lauren that brought a little class. Fashion photographer Richard Avedon went to De Witt Clinton. The New York Times said that Avedon’s “fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century.”

De Witt Clinton High’s graduates were spawned in a cultural pressure cooker. They shot out of their background to fame and glory. Neil Simon went to De Witt Clinton. So did Bruce Jay Friedman, Richard Rogers, William Kunstler, (the attorney of 60’s radicals and Robert Altman the 60’s photographer). Judd Hirsh, Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling, Avery Fischer, George Cukor. Its culture demanded excellence–not just among the Jews. Burt Lancaster went to De Witt Clinton. So did James Baldwin and Sugar Ray Robinson. The outsized hunger of Jeremy and his compatriots in Brooklyn and the Bronx drove him on as it did them. Ralph Lauren especially soared in where he wanted to go. He imagined a better world in the Hamptons, a world of Wasps and designed accordingly. As much as his designs don’t look like Jewish clothes, he could not have existed if he came from a different background than Mrs. Shapiro. Their wisdom was his.   Clothes make the man. And the woman. Ralph Lauren would not have existed if he didn’t share Mrs. Moscowitz priorities. Same for Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Anne Klein, and the myriad of Jewish designers. Young Lifshitz’s passion for fashion was part of a secular transformation happening all over the city. At sermons everywhere, the rabbis railed against the allure of tinsel town, but they couldn’t hold back the tide.

In later Jewish neighborhoods like Great Neck, the antenna for style continued to remain high. It was a cultural given, seemingly an eternal reality.

At the Fresh Meadow Country Club, Mrs. Rivers was the final arbiter of good taste. She sat at a table, at the entrance to the dining room, always in the same seat. No one can remember anyone else sitting there. As each woman entered they were scrutinized by Mrs. Rivers. Her reaction was more important than the meal that followed. As women entered the room, for that moment, nothing else in their life mattered as much. This was what all the preparation was for.

The judgment was finished in a flash. A smile, Mrs. Rivers’ eyes sparkling and you’re there. Her lips turned down and you’re in hell. Who originally set her up as the supreme arbiter is unknown. She had the talent. She had a sharp eye for what is right and wrong with the outfits women wore. She had a sharp tongue and a quick wit, but perhaps the best explanation for her 20 year reign was the look on her face when she didn’t like what someone was wearing. It overpowered anything else that might be going on in the room. That look could be devastating. Or her approval could be a reason for celebration. When she liked an outfit, everyone agreed.

To an outsider it might seem like a parade of fashion. Most of the women, however, got neither high praise nor ridicule. They were satisfied if what they wore was simply acceptable. It was good enough for the family to relax and enjoy their meal. But when Mrs. Rivers was aroused, positively or negatively, she was incapable of being silent about what she thought. Sometimes her voice could be heard throughout the dining room. It wasn’t that she was so loud. Everyone was listening. They recognized her voice from out of the din. They wanted to hear her verdict right away. She usually hit the nail on the head about what is right and what wrong.

When a new outfit was wrong, she could cut you in half. When something like that happens, by the end of the day, everyone has scrutinized the unfortunate victim again and again, confirming the original verdict.

And it’s not just for that afternoon. For years after, people talked about Mrs. Herman’s hat, which Mrs. Rivers described as a fruit bowl. It made Mrs. Herman a laughing stock. Another evening, everyone remembered what she said about Mrs. Silverstein. “Her pupik’s bursting out of her midriff.” For years what jumped into people’s minds when they saw Mrs. Silverstein were those words. That is, until she had a heart attack and died.”

Without pausing for a moment, out of respect for Mrs. Silverstein., they all plowed forward. No one blamed Mrs. Rivers. Death came years after her comment. But when she died everyone remembered Mrs. Rivers’ indictment and wondered if it could have contributed to her death. The verdict was no, but the fact that it was the first thing everyone thought of when they talked about Mrs. Silverstein confirmed the ferocity of Mrs. Rivers power, and the accuracy of her judgment.”

What qualified Ashkenazi Jews to be experts in finding and selecting beauty is a mystery. There was no history of it being a particular emphasis in the Shtetl. Well not quite. Maimonides referred to a section of the Talmud (Brakhot 57 b) “Three things increase a man’s self esteem, a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife, and beautiful clothes.” Two industries were created in America, enormous industries, as a consequence of the seriousness of Shtetl Jews’ love of beauty.

That they came to dominate fashion is not completely a surprise. Jews were tailors in the old country so making clothes came naturally. But what qualified them to create Hollywood, selecting extraordinarily beautiful women and handsome men and making a fortune off of it. Was it the advice of Maimonides? Doubt it. It’s a mystery. Whatever the explanation, the passion of American Jews for beauty, brought them industrial might not only in America. But all over the world.

The narrative for success doesn’t change over the years. Fierce determination. The mother of Diane Furstenberg, (nee Halfin) gave birth to her 18 months after she survived a concentration camp. Furstenberg has spoken broadly about her mother’s influence in her life, crediting her with teaching her that “fear is not an option.” Victory is the best revenge. Her friend Lauren Bacall, from the Bronx had the same attitude. “You just learn to cope with whatever you have to cope with. I spent my childhood in New York, riding on subways and buses. And you know what you learn if you’re a New Yorker? The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing.”

One year after marrying a German prince and becoming a German princess, Diane Furstenberg decided that having a German title was not enough. Not nearly enough. Besides she needed her own money. She entered the fashion world. She was not going to fail.

CC’s grandfather, Herman Moscowitz’ resemblance to Sammy Glick is unflattering but not unfair. Mimi always denied it. She thought he was a mensch. He was the president of the Shul, meaning during good years he gave a lot of money, and raised a lot of money, for others to study the Torah, which placed his intentions close to God’s. And indeed, outside of business, especially on the Sabbath, he was a different man. He didn’t obey all the rules for the Sabbath. He didn’t know half of them. But on that day, on Flatbush Avenue he was said to walk in fields of clover. That’s how he described Shabbos to cousins. His voice was soft, cushioned, wise, especially to Evelyn. His face lit up when, on Saturday, she’d come down for breakfast, groomed to perfection, and sometimes better than that, in her Shabbos outfit.

Sammy Glick would have never enjoyed the Shabbos composure of Herman. Still it was true that he had many things in common with Sammy Glick. Herman had to beg, borrow and steal and, not rarely, lie his way to success. Jews could not get loans from banks. They had to turn to brothers, sisters, cousins, congregants at the shul, anyone who claimed to be their friend, in order to remain one step ahead of their invariably coming due debts. The sweater business was not as dependent on staying ahead of fashion as manufacturers of dresses and blouses. Sweater styles didn’t change as quickly, but still, unfortunately, it was possible in a given season to guess wrong, to manufacture a line of knits that was out of step with customers’ tastes. If this was repeated too many time it meant disaster. Herman was up one year and down the next, and at one point, after two straight bad seasons, he was barely holding on.

But even during the good years it was tense. Daily there were new crises–dozens and dozens of them. Twenty times a day his panic button went off.. The zippers were no good. The wrong buttons came. He’d scream and yell. There were unending problems that required him to come up with solutions quickly. And sometimes there were no solutions. That’s when his shouting got intolerably loud. Besides his own ulcer, he gave one to his secretary and to Mimi. She used to kid him that he kept Alka Seltzer in business.

But when there were good years, of which there were many, and occasionally great years, he did the lending. His top dresser drawer was full of I O U’s given to him, scratched out on any paper available, including napkins. He was an easy touch, sentimental to a fault when it involved other people’s troubles. He died broke, but he had been planning his comeback, as he had many times before.   Three years before his death, after a good season, he was on top of the world. After he died, Mimi opened his dresser drawer, as Herman had instructed her to do, the top one on the left. It was full of IOUs. Mimi wondered, since it was a bad year, why he didn’t try harder to collect on his loans.

She knew the answer. He was too interested in wanting people to like him. Like a woman. Herman made a show of seeming tough, but he was basically a softy, like his mother. Mimi blamed her for being so close to him, her need not his. For years after his death that was the conclusion of everyone who thought about his family’s financial difficulties. They were suffering the consequences of Herman’s mother’s indulgence.

The Moscowitzs had made clothes for four generations, first with needle and thread, then on a family sewing machine in the old country. In America Herman had been one of the many American miracles, owner of a factory with 40 knitting machines and 60 employees. Unfortunately, when he died at 59, broke, before he could get his new plan up and running, when Evelyn was 17, during her final year in high school, the future seemed frightening. Mimi did not know how many of the IOUs would lead her to cash.

Ira and Evelyn met that year at a dance. He noticed her from across the gymnasium, as did half the guys entering the room. She didn’t really notice him. He was nice looking, but nothing special. His hair was already beginning to thin in front and he did not particularly project strength if you watched him walk. Not at all. But he had the courage to ask Evelyn to dance and that was all he needed to do. As she later told the story, she couldn’t really explain it but it had something to do with the way he held her, not too strong, not too gentle– just right.   Subsequently, I’ll Be Seeing You became her favorite song. And his. Because that is what they danced to. He hummed it into her ear, exactly on tune, as they slowly moved over the floor.

That did it. She felt so calm, so safe in his arms.   She had never felt quite like that before. She knew Ira was the man she wanted to marry.

January 18, 2018
by Simon Sobo
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CC Chapter 6: Jeremy turns to Dave about his new love

Chapter 6

Jeremy approaches Dave’s office. They’ve known each other since the fourth grade. Their relationship has been up and down since then, but being in the same graduate program over the last several years,  has turned them into pals.

Jeremy knocks on Dave’s door quickly.  Four times. David knows the knock… He puts down a paper he has been reviewing,  glad to be rid of it. The student in question is smart and sincere but he tends to overreach and Dave isn’t sure how to communicate with him gently.

“It’s open” he shouts to Jeremy

“Busy?”

“Not at all.”

David returns the loose pages  on his lap to the original paper clip.  Carefully he sets it aside.  He  sees that Jeremy is upset, which is how he usually is when he comes visiting.

“Still stuck with your thesis?” Dave asks him.  “Believe it or not, I finished mine. I handed it in yesterday.”

Jeremy offers his hand. “Congrats. We’ll have to celebrate.”

“How about now? Let’s get out of here.”

Just off campus is a coffee shop that they both like. It is a funky combination of old oak Windsor chairs grouped around tables. Part of the floor is peeling linoleum, part unfinished wood. There are two well worn leather sofas, cracking with dryness. In front of them are coffee tables, covered by today and yesterday’s newspapers. The whole thing would be bleak were it not for several nice looking student waitresses who dress the place up, that and loud Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Richie Havens, Mother Earth. A busboy puts water in their glasses. Each of them holds up his glass

“To Dr. Miller” Jeremy clicks his glass on David’s for a toast. He nods encouragingly .. “practically there.” Dave eyes say thank you:

“To Dr. Slater, who is about to get his act together starting this afternoon.”

Jeremy smiles. “I wish.”

“You wish? Enough wishing. You just have to do it.”

“Okay Mr. Get–It–Done Dave, what’s your secret?” He again clicks Dave’s glass, a bit aggressively.

“No secret. You just have to tunnel ahead. Dig your way there.”

“Through the mud.”

“Mud, hail, rain. It won’t happen where you are most of the time. Flying high.”

“You mean the pot?”

“You could use a few less “oh wows!” And more “one plus one equals two.” But even without the pot I think that’s where your head is all the time anyway.”

“Maybe.”

“So come on down. Digging. What’s the word everyone uses?… Being grounded.”

“You mean working?”

“Exactly. But real work, not the inspired kind.”

“Being inspired is real. Just because you are excited and enjoying yourself?”

“Well I mean the other kind. Work, work.”

Jeremy waxes poetically:

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

David is impressed:

“I didn’t know you were religious.”

He nods, “If I find a good line.”

“You like that part about the dust?”

Jeremy repeats it “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” Not my favorite. Doesn’t matter? I’m making enough bread.”

“I’d call it cake.”

This doesn’t get a smile from Jeremy, more like a frown. Taking note that Jeremy is upset, Dave dials back, smiles at him generously. It has little effect. Jeremy’s sadness remains.

“Okay come to mama. What’s wrong?”

“I’m in love.”

“Again?”

“When did I ever say I was in love?”

“A thousand times.”

“Not true.”

“You implied it.”

“No I didn’t. This is real.”

“Last time it was real.”

“You mean Martha? I never said that was love.”

“You said you were turned on.”

“Yeah I was, but this is different. This is like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”

David is used to Jeremy’s dramatics. He accepts that whatever is getting Jeremy down is real to him. But he erupts so frequently it has made Dave not take him as seriously as Jeremy would like. Fortunately Dave is often entertained by Jeremy’s excitement, and sometimes he does take Jeremy’s whims as seriously as Jeremy would like them to be taken. That is enough.

“Go ahead. I can tell this is a big one.”

“It’s one of my students.”

“I expect nothing less. You don’t like keeping things simple. “

“No. This is something else. I think this is where I’ve been heading all my life.”

Dave smiles gratuitously.

The waitress comes to their table. She’s very attractive. Both of them, but particularly David, look at her flirtatiously. She is enjoying their attention.

“Two coffees.” David tells her.

The waitress leaves. She has a nice walk. Their eyes follow her. She knows it. She thrives on the looks she gets from the tables she serves

Jeremy begins: “When you were younger, did you think that one day you were going to find this incredible woman and that would be it?”

“You mean like our waitress?”

Jeremy looks him in the eye.

“Did you?”

“I guess so.”

“I’ve built my life around her. “

“Come on.” Dave replies playfully.

“No, I mean it. It’s true. Everywhere I’ve been, I was searching for her. Without her I wasn’t really living. More like preparing. But if I found her, then my life could begin… You’ve never felt that?”

David is detached:

“Go on.”

“If I went to the museum I would look at the paintings, but I was rarely completely absorbed. I liked a few, was bored by others, but none of them gave me what I was looking for. Perhaps in the next room I might find a painting that would grab me. But if I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a nice looking woman meandering ten, twelve feet away, that feeling disappeared. She had me.

Nothing usually happened. I didn’t, I still don’t have the boldness to proceed as I picture myself in my fantasies, but I was engaged. In the next moment, anything might happen.

When I lived in the Village I’d walk the streets. Street after street. Sometimes hour after hour. Same thing. Looking, looking. It’s why I moved to the Village, to up the chances.

Ever see a movie of a male lion, wandering. Same thing, wandering, looking everywhere, hoping to pick up a scent. They say he is guarding his territory, I think he’s looking for a mate. Or two.”

“Plenty of guys do that. They’re looking to get laid.”

“But that wasn’t it. This started when I was 12 or 13. Okay maybe my hormones pushed me. But it wasn’t that. Well it was a little, but I was looking for…” He hesitates, considering whether to continue.

“Go ahead.”

“You want me to say it?”

“The holy grail? What?”

Close to whispering Jeremy answers him

“True love!”

It is an awkward moment. Saying it openly, putting it that way is not very cool. They both know it. He’s confessing to motivations that they, that he should have overcome long ago.

“Sounds stupid, but everything important sounds stupid.”

“It’s not stupid but you make it so dramatic. It sounds pumped up, like you are making a big production out of it.”

“It’s real. I didn’t decide to talk about it this way for effect. It’s just always been there.”

“Always?”

“In the second grade I had this dream. Many times. I’m not talking about a fantasy. A dream. I’d wake up and remember it. I was superman, flying, looking, returning to earth for my princess. Usually she was the prettiest girl in the class. For two years it was Mindy Nussbaum. Sometimes I’d crash but sometimes I came down smoothly and swept her up into the sky.”

David’s eyes continue to wander through the room, hoping to continue his flirtation with the waitress. He watches her serve another table. Jeremy realizes where Dave is at. It’s okay. He has also done the same thing, eyed a pretty girl when Dave wanted him to pay attention. Jeremy, nevertheless, admonishes Dave.

“Can I go on?”

“It’s all yours.” David answers “

“Do you know why I came to Buffalo?”

He kids: “Yeah you followed me.” They both know that isn’t true. They’re friends, good friends, but not that good.

“The real reason… You’re not going to believe it.”

“When it comes to you I believe anything. Why did you come to Buffalo?”

“Because when I came up for an interview I saw this student in the cafeteria. It was maybe a glimpse, but she was beautiful. That’s why I came here. To meet her.”

“You were already married.”

“I know, but I flipped.”

“Who was she?”

“I never saw her again.”

David’s eyes mock him, but affectionately.

“You’re serious?”

“I know it’s idiotic.”

David says nothing.

“But it’s true.”

“You’ve done that more than once?”

“It’s crazy. There’s got to be a name for it.

Sweetly Dave asks, “What does your shrink say?”

“She throws it into some big basket. Psychiatry has maybe 6 or 7 of them. She’s actually been hinting that she’s figured me out. “

“Really?”

“She’s been hinting. She doesn’t know for sure, but she thinks, along with 6 million other people, I have bipolar disorder.”

“So that explains you?”

In a sarcastic tone Jeremy continues:

“According to her that explains me. She’s nailed it. I’m like 6 million other people. “

“So what do you think your diagnosis is?”

“I’m in love.”

“That’s it?”

“I’m just telling you like it is. I mean I may go overboard…”

“How’s that?”

“Everything I’ve ever done. Everything! Every award in college, every home run I hit, every basket I scored… People put together a CV trying to impress a future employer. My accomplishments, whatever they’ve been— it’s all been for that day when I would find the woman of my dreams. I’d lay it at her feet. Sweetly tell her. I’m the one. Look at what I’ve done!”

David has a shit eating grin as he speaks. Jeremy smiles along with him like he’s in on the joke.

“What’s so funny?”

“Your life is a Hollywood movie.”

“Yeah well. There’s a reason they make all those movies. I’m not alone feeling this way.”

Still noticing Dave’s reaction he complains. “You’re still laughing at me.”

“I know you’re serious. It’s just you have a knack for admitting to things that no one else even mentions. Well maybe teenage girls. But guys? Not even in passing. Sure I’ve watched those movies and gotten in to them. As much now as ever. Even at my age. I’ve been there in real life too. So have most men, but it’s usually a disaster. After their ass has been kicked, after they have been humiliated often enough, they’ve learned their lesson. They steer clear. Having a broken heart is not where most guys want to be.”

Jeremy’s attention wanders off.

“Where are you?”

“This song… Carol wrote it.”

Half mumbling half seriously he sings:

“HEY YOU WITH THE BROKEN SMILE

COME ON OVER AND STAY FOR A WHILE

HEY YOU WITH THE HUNGER IN YOUR EYES”

“Can’t remember the rest…”

Jeremy hums the tune for a moment

“Oh right:

I RECOGNIZE THAT LOOK ON YOUR FACE

A SHATTERED HEART STILL SEARCHING FOR GRACE

DISAPPOINTED? I KNOW IT’S NOT THE WAY YOU PLANNED.

DARLING SAVE YOUR WORDS

BECAUSE I KNOW THAT’S THE WAY IT HAPPENS

YOU WOULDN’T BE THE FIRST

TO BE STANDING

WITH YOUR HEART LEFT IN YOUR HANDS

Dave shakes his head. Looks up to the sky.

“Carol wrote that?”

“She writes beautiful songs. Personal ones. She says no but that song is about me. I’ve been there. Pretty sure I inspired her lyrics.”

“I’m sure you did. But most guys after it happens once, twice…   most guys stick to sports. But you. I don’t know whether you’re incredibly stupid or fearless. It’s a stage you’re supposed to get by. You’re 28. Move on.”

“Oh, Mr. Maturity.”

Insistently Dave continues, “The girl of my dreams, of your dreams, of every guy’s dreams, is exactly that.”

His voice rises: “A fucking dream! You’re 28! Why do you have a problem with that? Why are you stuck?”

Somewhat meekly Jeremy answers him:

“You’re right.”

“Open your eyes. It isn’t just love. You make such a big deal about finding the truth. It’s right in front of you. It’s called the way things are.”

“Come on.”

Dave continues. “Your dream girl. You’ve devoted your life to finding her? She doesn’t exist.”

“You’re too chicken to think about this, aren’t you?”

“Chicken?   I’ve moved on. It’s not in the stars. I’m right here on earth digging ditches.”

Jeremy counters: “I’ve dug a thousand ditches. How do you think I got so many fellowships to come here. I‘ve worked my ass off. It doesn’t change anything.”

“It’s a strange coincidence that you’ve fallen in love exactly when your head has to be on straight, exactly when you have to get your thesis done.”

“I don’t think this has anything to do with it.”

Dave shakes his head more seriously, “You’re in never—never land. You’re fucking Peter Pan.” He chants “I won’t grow up. I won’t grow up.”

“You are the biggest cynic.”

“Cynic? I’m just telling you what you already know.”

“Flying around in never, never land. You got to dig ditches not fly around. Learn how to be satisfied. It is possible. Lana and I have made it work. Warts and all. She’s a real person. No body else gives a shit. She does. I’ll take that.”

“Look, I’ve done the same thing with Carol. And she’s terrific. I realize what I’m talking about is asinine. “

“Puer aeternus. Living your life waiting for your ship to come in.”

“I don’t need that Jungian shit. Look I know you are right. Absolutely right.”

“You’re not 14 anymore.”

“You’re right. You’re right. You are right. Believe me I know it. You’re right. It’s not like I didn’t do the same thing. I got tired of waiting. I married Carol to go forward, to get on with it instead of waiting.”

“You fuckin’ seized the day.”

“So you like Bellow?”

I read Seize the Day years ago. I had an epiphany. Only it lasted maybe 4 minutes.”

“You read too much.”

“Me? You’re the one. You need to get your thrills outside of books.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“I’m gonna’ sign us up for a polar expedition.”

“We’ll be the first Jews from Brooklyn, who grew up in an apartment house, to go to the North Pole.”

“How about Antarctica?”

David takes a breath, refocuses.

“So what are you going to do?”

“You know what I am going to do.”

With a gentle still friendly edge of superiority David eggs him on,

“I do. Let’s start from the beginning. You’ve waited all your life, everything you’ve strived to become… it’s been for—

“CC.”

“CC! Oh boy. I get it. I have her in one of my classes.” He smiles. “She’s a knockout. Remember at Penn, Davidoff’s class—how he went on about Helen of Troy?”

“The face that launched a thousand ships.”

“He left his wife and kids. CC’s even more beautiful than his girlfriend. I get it…”

“Right.”

“Which makes her all the more dangerous. Chasing Helen resulted in thousands of people dead.”

“And the end of Davidoff’s marriage.”

“And career.”

“I have no choice. I can’t get her out of my head. It’s strange. This is supposed to happen when your marriage is bad. I love Carol as much as I ever have.   We have a good thing going. Carol doesn’t bore me at all. I admire her. I’ve never had a friend like her.”

“That song you sang. She got inside of you. She loves you.”

An image comes into Jeremy’s mind. Carol smiling at him adoringly.

David watches Jeremy sympathetically as his eyes water. Then defying that moment, Jeremy proclaims,

“I can’t help it.”

“Do you still get turned on by Carol?”

Jeremy thinks it over.

“Not as much.” But then he quickly recants, “No it’s fine. She gets turned on and she’ll do practically anything I want to do. Wherever my head goes, it turns her on. She goes crazy. And that makes me go crazy.”

“Do you have to dream up things?”

“Not really, well sometimes but what’s wrong with that? Variety is the spice of life.”

“With CC?”

“We haven’t gotten that far. I don’t know if we ever will.”

“But do you have to dream up stuff?”

“You mean kinky? No. With CC I’m there. I’d go ape–shit for a kiss.”

“Still. You know what you have with Carol. You’re lucky. You have it all. What’s the problem?”

“It’s not complicated. CC erases everything else. I can’t take my eyes off of her. I can’t think about anything else. I’d do anything for her.”

“I understand but—“

“If you were in a room with Elizabeth Taylor you’d want to stare at her. Stare and stare. But you couldn’t. You’d look like a jerk, like a nut. So people buy magazines, or they watch her in a movie so they can get a good look. That’s what CC is for me. Only she is living and breathing. If she could be mine!”

They are both quiet for a few moments.

“Do you remember the first time you saw the Eiffel Tower. You dropped right?”

“Yeah, but what about the second and third time?”

“I can get lost in her. Every detail.   It’s new every time. Her dimples. The way her chin—”

“Jeremy I get it…”

David waits for what he is saying to register. He sees no signs. He continues:

“Beautiful is nice. Beautiful is beautiful. But a taste… That’s all you get. The last thing you need Jeremy is to fall under a spell.”

“This isn’t a spell. It’s the real thing.”

“Believe me it’s a spell.”

“That’s easy for you to say. Being outside of it you think that way. When it happens…” He counters “It could happen to you.” He takes a deep breath. “My head is spinning. I can’t just drop it and go on with other things. I can’t. Who can do that?”

“Millions of people.”

“That’s all you have to say?”

“What’s there to say? Look, the important question is whether you would leave Carol for her. Would you?”

“No.”

“You know that for sure?”

“Absolutely. I love Carol. I know I am lucky. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“So stay away from CC. She’s dangerous. You said you discussed this with your psychiatrist.”

“I’m going to.” But as he says this, Jeremy has a disgusted look on his face. He puts 2 thumbs down in front of him.

“Your shrink’s no good? Go to someone else.”

“Let’s not go there…”

They both take a breather as they think about what they have been saying.

Jeremy continues:

“Everything you are saying makes sense except for one thing. “

“What’s that?”

“I’m feeling fantastic. I’m finally alive. I look at the trees, the sky. And I see them.”

“When I’m reading, I’m understanding what’s on the page more than I ever have. The possibility of me and CC does that.”

“Marijuana makes you manic Jeremy.”

“You know, that isn’t what this is. You’ve given up David. I remember this guy…”

(a bit too patronizing) “It’s called growing up.”

(sarcastically) “Big shot.”

 

****

 

Dr. Weiss, Jeremy’s psychiatrist, finishes writing a prescription for Depakote. Jeremy is focused, confident. Dr. Weiss is extremely concerned as she hands it to him.

“You need to take this three times a day.”

“You’re sure I’m manic depressive? I just don’t know about that.”

“You started seeing me when you were depressed about your thesis. You couldn’t get it done.   You knew the way you felt was not normal. It was an illness. This is the polar opposite of it. It’s not unusual on the upside to feel like you do, the best you have ever felt. Bottom line is that you still aren’t taking care of business. It’s the same, no thesis.”

“What I feel has nothing to do with my thesis. I don’t see anything wrong with feeling like this. “

“Well I do. Take the medicine.”

“You’ve tried this before. You gave me meds last year. They just made me tired.”

“This is a different medication.”

“Right. It’s going to cure me, change me.”

“Mr. Slater. No medicine is perfect, but it can make a big difference. Your illness has to be treated. If you don’t comply I may ask your wife to come in for a conference.”

“You can’t do that without my permission.”

“If I have to I will.”

“Fine. I’ll take the medicine.”

Dr. Weiss scrutinizes him. He is not convincing. Jeremy doesn’t make eye contact. She lets that be. Her next patient is waiting.

As soon as Jeremy leaves Dr. Weiss’ office he tears the prescription up. He throws it into the refuse container next to the elevator.

January 13, 2018
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

A Cure for our Fixation on Metrics

In recent decades, what I call “metric fixation” has engulfed an ever-widening range of institutions: businesses, government, health care, K-12 education, colleges and universities, and nonprofit organizations. It comes with its own vocabulary and master terms. It affects the way that people talk and think about the world and how they act in it. And it is often profoundly wrongheaded and counterproductive.

Metric fixation consists of a set of interconnected beliefs. The first is that it is possible and desirable to replace judgment with numerical indicators of comparative performance based on standardized data. The second is that making such metrics public (transparency) assures that institutions are actually carrying out their purposes (accountability). Finally, there is the belief that people are best motivated by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance, rewards that are either monetary (pay for performance) or reputational (rankings).

But not everything that is important is measurable, and much that is measurable is unimportant. Most organizations have multiple purposes, and that which is measured and rewarded tends to become the focus of attention, at the expense of other essential goals. Similarly, many jobs have multiple facets, and measuring only a few of them creates incentives to neglect the rest. Almost inevitably, people become adept at manipulating performance indicators. They fudge the data. They deal only with cases that will improve performance indicators. In extreme cases, they fabricate the evidence.

It’s not that measurement is useless or intrinsically pernicious. The challenge is to specify when performance metrics are genuinely useful—that is, how to have metrics without the malady of metric fixation.

Should you find yourself in a position to set policy, here are some questions that you should ask, and the factors that you should keep in mind, in considering whether to use measured performance, and if so, how to use it.

A Cure for Our Fixation on Metrics
ILLUSTRATION: JAMES STEINBERG

What kind of information do you wish to measure? The more the object to be measured resembles inanimate matter, the more likely it is to be measurable: that is why measurement is indispensable in the natural sciences and in engineering. When the objects to be measured are influenced by the process of measurement, measurement becomes less reliable. Measurement becomes much less reliable the more its object is human activity, since the objects—people—are self-conscious and are capable of reacting to the process of being measured. The more rewards and punishments are involved, the more people are likely to react in a way that skews the measurement’s validity.

How useful is the information? The fact that some activity is measurable does not make it worth measuring. Indeed, the ease of measuring may be inversely proportionate to the significance of what is measured. To put it another way, ask yourself, is what you are measuring a proxy for what you really want to know? If the information is not very useful or not a good proxy for what you’re really aiming at, you’re probably better off not measuring it.

Are alternative measurements available? Are there other sources of information about performance, based on the judgment and experience of clients, patients or parents of students? In a school setting, for example, the degree to which parents request a particular teacher for their children is probably a useful indicator that the teacher is doing something right, whether or not the results show up on standardized tests. In the case of charities, it may be most useful to allow the beneficiaries to judge the results.

What is the metric for? It’s crucial to distinguish between data used for purposes of internal monitoring of performance by the practitioners themselves—say, teachers who want to know how much their students seem to absorbing—versus data to be used by external parties for reward and punishment, such as government agencies. It’s the difference between crime data used to discover where the police ought to deploy more squad cars versus data used to decide whether the precinct commander will get a promotion.

Tools of measurement are most useful for internal analysis by practitioners rather than for external evaluation by the public, which may fail to understand their limits. Such measurement can be used to inform practitioners of their performance relative to their peers, offering recognition to those who have excelled and offering assistance to those who have fallen behind. To the extent that they are used to determine continuing employment and pay, they will be subject to gaming the statistics or outright fraud.

MORE FROM REVIEW

What are the costs of getting the data?Information is never free, and often it is expensive in ways that rarely occur to those who demand more of it. Collecting, processing and analyzing data take time, and a large part of their expense lies in the opportunity costs of the time put into them. Every moment that you or your colleagues or employees devote to producing metrics is time not devoted to the activities being measured. If you’re a data analyst, of course, producing metrics is your primary activity. For everyone else, it’s a distraction. Even if the performance measurements are worth having, their worth may be less than the costs of obtaining them.

Who develops the measurement? Accountability metrics are less likely to be effective when they are imposed from above, using standardized formulas developed by those far from active engagement with the activity being measured. Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up, with input from teachers, nurses and the cop on the beat.

This means asking those with the tacit knowledge that comes from direct experience to provide suggestions about how to develop appropriate performance standards. Try to involve a representative group of those who will have a stake in the outcomes. In the best case, they should continue to be part of the process of evaluating the measured data. A system of measured performance will work to the extent that the people being measured believe in its worth.

Does the measurement create perverse incentives? Insofar as individuals are agents out to maximize their own interests, there are inevitable drawbacks to all schemes of measured reward. If doctors are remunerated based on the procedures they perform, it creates an incentive for them to perform too many procedures that have high costs but may produce low benefits. If doctors are paid based on the number of patients they see, they have an incentive to see as many patients as possible and to skimp on procedures that are time-consuming but potentially useful. If they are compensated based on successful patient outcomes, they are more likely to take the easiest cases, avoiding problematic patients.

Just because performance measures often have some negative outcomes doesn’t mean that they should be abandoned. They may still be worth using, despite their anticipatable problems. It’s a matter of trade-offs, and that too is a matter of judgment.

With measurement as with everything else, recognizing limits is often the beginning of wisdom. Not all problems are soluble, and even fewer are soluble by metrics. It’s not true, as too many people now believe, that everything can be improved by measurement, or that everything that can be measured can be improved.

“You seem to be the idol of only a crawling swarm of small souls, who love to glorify your most flagrant unworthiness in print or praise your vast possessions worshippingly; or sing of your unimportant private habits and sayings and doings, as if your millions gave them dignity.”

Mark Twain 1869

Wait there’s more:

Poor Vanderbilt! How I pity you: and this is honest. You are an old man, and ought to have some rest, and yet you have to struggle, and deny yourself, and rob yourself of restful sleep and peace of mind, because you need money so badly. I always feel for a man who is so poverty ridden as you… It isn’t what a man has that constitutes wealth. No–it is to be satisfied with what one has; that is wealth. As long as one sorely needs a certain additional amount, that man isn’t rich. Seventy times seventy millions can’t make him rich, as long as his poor heart is breaking for more. I am just about rich enough to buy the least valuable horse in your stable, perhaps, but I cannot sincerely and honestly take an oath that I need any more now. And so I am rich. But you, you have got  seventy millions and you need five hundred millions, and are really suffering for it. Your poverty is something appalling. I tell you truly that I do not believe I could live twenty-four hours with the awful weight of four hundred and thirty millions of abject want crushing down upon me. I should die under it. My soul is so wrought upon by your helpless pauperism that if you came to me now, I would freely put ten cents in your tin cup, if you carry one, and say, “God pity you, poor unfortunate.”

A little background.  Some historians consider the 3 most famous people of the 19th century to be Twain, Vanderbilt, and Edison.  In any case Vanderbilt was constantly in the news.  First because he loved to be in the paper, but more importantly, as a poor boy who made good he was the people’s choice.  He was one of them.  Here is what Vanderbilt says in the novel:

What a crock of shit.  What’s with this guy?  He is more involved with me than I am.  What else has he written about me?”

 “I think that’s it.”

  “Mark my words.  He cares about money a lot.  I mean a lot. Or, he wouldn’t care so much about me.”

  “Well you are in the paper all the time.  It’s hard not to react.”

“Yeah but he’s not calling me a show off.”

Vanderbilt sends a wad of phlegm and spit accurately into the spittoon.

  “One day, this Mark Twain guy is going to go broke.  People who love money, but won’t admit it, that’s what happens.  They don’t think clearly about what they’re doing.  There are more people not worrying who make fucked up money decisions just because they make believe they don’t care. 

I said I am crazy when it comes to money.  But, I’m not the only one.  I see people all the time like Twain, acting better than other people and all that.  Snobs about it. You just know it’s a big lie.  Sonia has a cousin like that.  He made the craziest decisions.  You couldn’t get him to talk about it, like it is not dinnertime talk.  But some of the things he did.  He’s a lot crazier than me.    He couldn’t  be sensible making decisions because it drove him too nuts.  Tellin’ yah. Twain is going to make crazy money decisions.”

   “You can’t know that.”

   “Mark my words.”

Clearly Twain was protesting too much.  Fact is, our Huck Finn, man of the people, lived a genteel, dandified existence in Hartford, with many servants.  He made all kinds of desperate financial decisions which brought about his ruin.  So if Vanderbilt had still been around he would have had the last laugh.

 

Commodore Kindle Link

 

December 22, 2017
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Looking back at Berkeley, Chapter 38 of CC

    Chapter 38

Looking Back at Berkeley

         1968

 

Mark is shopping on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. It has a large parking lot, which means he can drive there. The hippy revolution has not reached Shattuck yet. It looks like the downtown main street of any small city in America circa 1940’s or 50’s. Not far from the supermarket is a Walgreen’s, a Lane Bryant, and a tall men’s shop. In spite of Marks’ political leanings, he can’t forego Twinkies and Devil Dogs, traif to those religiously opposed to processed food, but a comfortable reminder of home.   In recent years, despite the tension, bordering on animosity, between him and his father, home is still a good thing in his heart.

While, by the standards of Great Neck, Mark looks like a bum, he showers every day, and carefully brushes his teeth so that they remain pearly white. His hair is longish and scruffy. He cuts it himself with a hair-thinning scissor. He has a blonde mustache, and most days, a two-day growth. But by comparison, his unkempt appearance is hugely different from the Telegraph Avenue regulars. His Levis are worn thin and soiled, but not filthy. His wrinkled tee shirt is Tide detergent clean. He puts on a fresh one daily after a shower.   Though successful in conveying he is not from the North Shore of Long Island he cannot hide the features he shares with CC, his handsomeness, which gets him looks even in Berkeley.

At the supermarket he picks up chopped meat, hot dogs, spaghetti, Heinz ketchup, Gulden’s mustard, Best Food mayonnaise (Hellman’s California brand), and all the accouterments he is used to at home. Although at restaurants he douses his salad in oil and vinegar, in his apartment he still prefers his wedge of iceberg lettuce, topped with Russian dressing, a poor man’s simple combination of ketchup and mayonnaise in no particular ratio.

He has always been an adventurous eater. Like many college towns, Berkeley has a huge assortment of cheap, good, ethnic restaurants. Mexican, Indian, Indonesian, Spanish, Szechuan and Cantonese, Italian, Thai, Brazilian. He’s tried all of them. Fortunately he has an iron stomach. Not just for the restaurant food, without knowing what the ingredients are, a whiff of street food and he is an eager customer, afterwards licking his fingers to extract every last bit of flavor.

After putting his groceries away, Mark takes to the streets.  One of the great things about his psychiatric medical internship at Herrick Hospital is that he is done with exams.  He has a lot of on call hours but no exams.  From 7th grade through medical school, a period of 13 years, for most of the life he has known, the freedom he now has, hasn’t been part of his experience.   When he would try to have fun, contingencies snuck up and grabbed his attention, imminent exams and midterms, not to mention finals, a day of reckoning, vaguely posted in the future, which was never fully absent from his mind.  Now vast amount of free time are his.  He can kill an afternoon, an evening, a weekend, hour upon hour, waste them completely and no harm is done.

Unfortunately, the years of hard work have taken their toll. Despite the reality of his new freedom, he’s still a prisoner. All along he tried so hard for it not to possess him. Not wanting to present himself like most premeds, as a grind, he had always put on a decent show. He tried to give the impression that he didn’t study all that much.  He envied the easy style of English majors, usually off beat preppies. He was more than willing to copy their persona. There was a certain conceit to presenting himself that way. With his terrific grades, emphasizing how little he studied implied he must be very smart.  Plus, playing down his studying, served as an excuse if he did poorly on an exam.

But now, in different circumstances, nothing has changed. Persona is one thing. His premed uptight identity still controls his soul. In theory, in reality, he is free to do as he pleases.  But the truth is the truth. In college, he may have reasonably succeeded in giving the impression that taking it easy, having a leisurely afternoon was more important than wasting it on biochemistry equations. But it was bullshit. Even then, he wasn’t able to fool himself. His spirit was owned by forces beyond his control. Sticky, like summer sweat, guilt has been his constant companion. Still is. He may have tried, he may have insisted to himself, that he relax, but without noticing exactly when and where, he had so ably turned off the mindless child in him, that it was now gone.

The image he cultivated in college was exactly that, an image.  He was no different than the other pre meds, perpetually on the edge of panic, certain that one disastrous exam could ruin his life forever.  He just was careful not to show it. Among the grinds, worried that they might not get grades in the 90’s, all nighters were the usual before an exam. He worried equally the night before, but he didn’t see the point. He knew the material. Yes a professor could ask a trick question. His son of a bitch chemistry professor, Dr. Reed was known for that. But staying up all night wouldn’t help with Dr. Reed’s sadism. Actually, the other premeds knew the material plenty well, as well as he did, but they imagined doom so often, that sleeping wasn’t a choice. Occasionally Mark feared they might be on to something. They understood their situation and automatically did what was necessary. They didn’t care about their nerd reputation. It was irrelevant.

Certainly, being admitted to medical school was every bit as important to Mark as it was to them.   The desperation they so often felt, defined his existence every bit as much as it did theirs. The proof was his dreams, one vivid nightmare in particular:

An hour before an exam. He has run out of time to try to understand the material, which, so far, he hasn’t been able to get down.  The dream is frantic. It has a racing pace which grabs him up into it.. Then suddenly, the racing is gone. He is lost. He doesn’t know where he is. Immediately relevant, he doesn’t know how he will get to the classroom to take his exam. Then the room appears. He throws open its doors. He sees his empty desk. The dream is racing again. It’s now seconds before he will open the exam booklet. There is no greater feeling of helplessness than that moment. The closest comparison is the time he almost drowned. He had gotten good at snorkeling, at least he thought. His confidence allowed him to go far from the shore with out a life jacket. He breathed in a bunch of water in his snorkel. Tried to blow it out, but couldn’t get back the rhythm. He was far, far deeper than he had ever been. He tried floating on his back, tried a gentle breast stroke. The waves kept coming. He kept breathing in water He couldn’t get any air His arms were getting tired. For a moment he thought that this was it. He overcame his embarrassment, feebly screamed “Help.” Which saved his life.

Staring at the exam, it is as if he is awake. His brain is frantically tearing through solutions trying to think of what he can do.  He comes up with nothing. There is no way out.

He felt enormous relief when he awoke. He had escaped. It was only a dream. His mother used to tell him that. But then as now, he can’t snap out of his hell hole immediately. It takes him some time before he feels safe, until his emotions catch up with his awake reality.  

But here’s the issue. School’s done. Exams are forever in the past. He still has that dream!  It makes no sense. He’s been accepted at Mass General and Yale and Einstein for his residency. He was Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude. He should be on top of the world.  His vaunted Permanent Record, the one his high school principal held over him and his family when he got caught smoking pot, the key to his future, has been safely put in the past.  The California sunshine is his to enjoy.

Why can’t he soak it up, absorb the warm rays, bathe in their tenderness.   Why does taking it easy still elude him? The California natives simply wake up, eat their Wheaties and they are in that groove, relaxed. Why is the idea of California, the best he can do? Living is an entirely different animal than preparing for it, judging it sweetly, expecting the rewards. He can’t will his way there.

Where did it go? Until he was 12 or 13, he enjoyed himself without effort, without thinking about enjoying himself. When he did, it was simply on to the next thing and enjoying that. Or not enjoying that, but always immersed. Why can’t he have that back?

His guilt.  His guilt.  It shouldn’t be there but it is.  Guilt about what?  He was without sin that day and the day before. And the day before that. He is perpetually busy proclaiming or proving his innocence to himself. Why does it elude him?  He can’t put his finger on it.

Jewish guilt?

Probably not.  For centuries Christians believed God had this huge book where he kept track of good deeds and sins.  He must have had billions of books, one for every person.  Or did he have an incredible memory? Catholics knew they were being watched. They felt the same way as Jews.  So it is definitely not specifically a Jewish malady.

Perhaps his guilt explains why he is so passionate about causes on the left. His compassion for those having a hard time is automatic, as is his anger at those who can be blamed, those partying, who seem to have no conscience as they enjoy themselves.   Except, he doesn’t always agree with politicos about who is to be blamed, the generalizations they make, the lies they so easily slip into their rhetoric.  Anger is only satisfying when it is righteous, and truthful.

But that is an insignificant detail.  His politics provide an outlet which he needs, at least pointing in a direction where something can be done to eliminate unfairness.  Perhaps there are so many leftist Jews because they share his psychology. His guilt is the same as theirs.

None of this rings true.  Catholics have just as much guilt.  Or do they? They can go to confession and have a total brain cleansing.  Jews don’t have that luxury.  Their remedy doesn’t work. More than once he fasted on Yom Kippur. It didn’t do a thing. It had absolutely no effect on his guilt.

He has torn through D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, quoted them to anyone who would listen.  Logically Zen is the answer.  It’s what he needs. He wants to relearn how to lose himself in the moment.     In Berkeley, as in the Village, Zen seemed to be on everyone’s mind, so it must not be just him. What was expected of them, the cherished answers of America in the 50’s. Everyone is pouncing on “stereotypes.” Trying to be free. Zen eliminates every expectation. There is just now.

Except Zen is harder to do than understanding its purpose. The moment can’t be occupied by deciding to live in it.  It takes training.

But training isn’t an option. As enamored as Mark is by the prospect of diving into and remaining in the moment, he’s never given a moment’s thought to how he could bring it about.  Going off to Japan and studying in a Zen monastery was out of the question, inconceivable. It was not even part of his fantasies.  Life, as he had planned, waited for him.  What was he going to do? Not go on to his residency, not become a psychiatrist? Living in the moment is the answer to the puzzle, to the pervasive angst that he lives in. But chucking his life, and taking off for Kyoto has never crossed his mind.   Diving into the paradise of ordinary life, Paradise Now as a Broadway show is proclaiming, will have to wait.  Besides it’s nothing more than a slogan.  He has to take what he can get.  Cherish, like jewels, his epiphanies, believe for that moment that his realization will wash over the rest of his life.

Except, it dissipates fairly quickly. As wonderful as the moment of recognition is, as hopeful as it makes him, as much as he believes that he has finally arrived, found the Holy Grail, the euphoria, that a great discovery brings him, rarely lasts more than a day. Sometimes it lasts 5 or 10 minutes. The belief and celebration that he has arrived, solved the mystery of his existence, is totally gone in two or three days. The best he can do, the closest he comes to loving the moment, and thus, love his life, comes easily, his awe when Tom Seaver is having an awesome day on the mound. His intellectual gymnastics, his Olympian effort, never got him anything close to that.

Mark has reached campus. Left, right, straight ahead, agita is everywhere. Villains have been identified. Their frustration is being mollified by their united anger. Joining them is very appealing to him. It entitles him to let loose against evil forces wherever they may be. Being angry like that brings the innocence of the accuser.

But Mark can join them when suffering is palpable. He is turned off when politicos make generalization that he knows are untrue. Yes if he can feel the pain he can join the shouting of student activists with his own mighty complaint.  More often, however, they are furious and he isn’t. Driving by he has seen the suffering in Oakland, poor black people, decrepit old men, or 50 year-old men looking old, sitting on milk crates drowning their misery in booze. Unsupervised kids trying to defeat the misery all around them, taking charge, by getting into trouble. He’s seen it. It’s allreal. He has locked his car doors when driving through rough neighborhoods.

But, it hasn’t sunk in. How could it, growing up in Great Neck and busy at school? When he was going to law school at night, his father had climbed tenement stairways in Harlem, collecting unpaid bills for a furniture store owner, a neighbor in Kew Gardens Hills. His father sometimes talked about what he saw in the apartments. He had no reason to exaggerate. Mark is convinced the injustice is not fictional and something must be done. But what?

He feels coerced by politicos with an ax to grind. In Berkeley, that happens frequently. Whether they are right or wrong, his instinct is to hold back, to doubt what they report. He no longer challenges. They can so easily identify skeptics as disguised right wingers, or being cold hearted to black people, which is not true. He actually wishes that he could join in with their anger, feel cleansed by their passion, obliterate any possibility that he is not 120% pro black people in everyone else’s mind as well as his own. He wishes he could be left wing in his heart and not just in his head.

A hundred feet away, a crowd of students has gathered. From time to time they let out a cheer. He goes over to see what’s going on. One by one, students are taking out their draft cards, lighting their Bic lighters and throwing the flaming card into the air. One of the students throws his burning card down on the sidewalk and stomps on it. This gets an even bigger cheer. In succession, several of the students go the stomping route. Without a moment’s thought he joins the group nearest to him. He has to borrow someone’s lighter to do it, but the deed is done quickly, probably to not let his doubts veto his admirable intentions.

Then someone produces an American flag and puts his Bic lighter to it. At first it stubbornly resists the flame. The lighter keeps going out. But the student is persistent and finally he has a strong flame. Once again the crowd has become one large group. The burning flag has a higher priority than the draft cards. There are cheers, swoons. Not Mark. He silently watches the flag burn.

It makes him sad. He recalls, as a little boy, helping his father put the flag up on July 4th. He remembers the look on his father’s face, not too dissimilar to the look on his grandmother’s face when she bencht licht, when she lit the Friday night candles. A sacred moment of respect and appreciation. Marks’ grandparents said it often enough. How lucky they were to be in America. It was the same sentiment Lone Ranger fans shared with the grateful recipients of his heroics, those he had rescued. Who is that masked man? Hi-ho silver he proclaimed as he rode off into the sunset.

The sentiment went far beyond the Lone Ranger’s heroics. America had rescued millions. Not just his grandparents. Millions and millions bless America. He still has some of that left. He has no rituals that he practices, no sacred beliefs that he is sure of. Moving forward into his career has an almost sacred absoluteness, but that is utilitarian. His politics bring him to a higher level than being a work horse with no higher beliefs.

Burning the flag isn’t sitting right. Okay Kennedy and Johnson made a mistake about Viet Nam. But burning the flag.

He decides burning his draft card was an empty gesture. As he walks back to his apartment it worries him. Was he seen?

In medical school he arranged the teach-ins against the war. Called the speakers. He chartered the buses to bring them all to Washington for the Pentagon march. Attended by something like 800 people, Mark made the introduction to Ben Spock, the fatherly pediatricians that a generation of mothers revered. He had come out against the war and was speaking at meetings like this one. It went extremely well.

Spock had a remarkable persona. Marcus Welby, Goyisha innocence. That smile. The kindness in his eyes. His raison d’etre was clearly to be of help. So his antiwar fervor means a lot more than a bunch of bohemians sounding off. He resembles the person Mark sometimes wishes for himself in the future. You wouldn’t, for a moment think Dr. Spock had a secret trove of Playboys. His firm, and now his righteous angry voice, somehow seemed gentle and properly concerned about what matters. Human beings. Suffering. After welcoming the audience, before Mark introduced Spock, he had an announcement. He asked the hundreds of doctors present to see him after the talk, if they were willing to do “sympathetic” draft exams. Meaning they would help potential draftees to get a 4F, be medically disqualified from fighting in the war.

Afterwards, he wanted to kick himself for his stupidity. What if the FBI were there? What if they took down his name? Although he was chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, he had steadfastly avoided SHO, the Student Health Organization, whose members he assumed were in touch with very radical organizations, the Weathermen, people like that. Most members of SHO were in their first and second year at Einstein. In contrast to Mark, they had been in college when campus activists had been radicalized, when most universities had classroom take-overs, sit-ins, when all of a sudden students were calling the shots, radical students. Mark had not seen that first hand, only seen it on the TV. He didn’t want to be a part of it

Mark isn’t a radical. Upon learning that he was on the libre-virgo cusp, Nancy, who he was crazy in love with for 4 weeks in ‘63, announced that the explanation for what he thought of as being truthful and balanced (although admittedly to an extreme) was that he was born between September 19 and the 25th. Nancy didn’t last long for precisely that reason. She was an air head.

But she got it right. Mark wasn’t a radical. Some people were proud to present themselves as radicals. Not him. He was positioned at the edge, in between. Some card carrying communists, lab workers at the medical school had originally chosen him to be chairman of MCHR. They asked him to arrange for the teach ins. They knew all the phone numbers he needed to contact speakers.

His anger at LBJ over Viet Nam was complete. But he had done nothing about it, so when he was asked to head MCHR, he was pleased to be able to actually do something. It was his chance to be a hero, a role that had been his obsession when he played baseball, but had essentially disappeared. Until now there hadn’t been a vehicle.

As a senior in medical school he had plenty of time. Having been given the position, he was obsessed with doing a great job as Chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. He started a lead poisoning project, another program that tutored kids in the ghetto, and a health careers program.

The health career program was unusually successful. He got 70 people from the medical community to be counselors, 4 kids each. Together they could choose from 300 programs, volunteer meetings with people in the medical community at work. The kids could talk to physical therapists, inhalation therapists, lab technicians, to X ray technicians, to doctors and nurses about what their career was like and how they got there. The emphasis was on seeing them in action.

It could be dramatic. One group followed an operating room nurse into the operating room, while they were doing a gall bladder. Another time a surgeon brought them in to see an appendectomy. The operating room visits were good for a front page second section New York Times story. Doors were wide open for Mark and his program even before the Times story, but after that there were no barriers. Mark had gotten the NYC school system to allow the kids in his program to take time off from school. They provided buses to bring them to the medical school. He had gotten the Commissioner of Hospitals to provide free meals for them at Jacobi Hospital when they came. When he called any city commissioners in Lindsay’s administration, he saw them that day. When he dialed Aspira, the head of the program called back immediately. He seemed to be the real thing, a student activist who could get things done.

He didn’t give himself credit for being a capable administrator. He felt compelled to do something as the chairman of MCHR, so people wouldn’t think he was enjoying the prestige without earning it. But as for the doors open to him, everyone wanted to be part of Bronx Bio Careers. Even Republicans. The plan cost zero. No one got paid, no one asked for a thing. They just wanted to give. And during that year, for some reason, his ego was gone, his motivation uncomplicated. He just wanted to give.

So Mark was anything but a radical. He was very proud of everything he had started and seen through.. There were very few exams during his senior year at medical school. So why not? But now, in Berkeley, he didn’t know why he strove so hard to be a good person. He knew part of the reason he cared deeply about being a good person. He wanted to disprove his own suspicion that he is all talk, no action. It was all part of a piece.

He took pride that he did a lot of charitable things privately, proving to himself that his desire to perform good deeds wasn’t only driven by his need for the limelight. As a child, when he had a powerful belief in God (or, at least, a desire to believe) he was inspired by one of Rabbi Kirshblum’s sermons. Giving charity was most pure when nothing was expected in return, when no one knew about it (other than God).

So he wasn’t a radical. At the time he didn’t know that he was offered the MCHR chairmanship by actual communists, but that wouldn’t have mattered. He was flattered they thought of him. Only much later did it occur to him that his good looks and bohemian but still all American persona made him useful to them. Since he wasn’t a radical, being chosen by card carrying members of party seemed irrelevant. He was proud that he kept his objectivity.

All of his heroes had exclusively become committed left wing intellectuals, but there were a lot of people on the left that he couldn’t stand. How easy it had been when he first became political, believing that people on the left cared about the unfortunate, and those on the right didn’t. The good guys and the bad guys. It was as simple as that. He wanted his basic goodness to be known–at least by the FBI. Because at this point he vaguely believed that the FBI, now kept his Permanent Record. So for them to get it right was important. Rebellious, but basically harmless. If they made a notation in his record like that he would be relieved.

But what if his draft card burning that afternoon was taken too seriously. As for his comments about draft exams, before the 800 people. it was 8 months ago. Nothing ever came of it, or he would have heard about it by now. Or would he?

In frustration, that night as he lies in bed, Mark debates the flag burning. Back and forth– he is for it, then against it. For it, against it. He wonders if his uncertainty, his consistently moderate positions, which he considers the only way an honest person can resist the exaggerations and lies on either side of a controversy– he wonders if that moderation is in reality, a veil for cowardice. He decides it’s true. He is a chicken. Why else would he think so much about how the FBI viewed him. In his calculated self image, that negated his many years of good deeds.

He’s a phony. His positions are all an act to curry favor with…with…He can’t identify who would be impressed by the serious way he pursues objectivity. Most people aren’t that way at all. They want you to side with them. And that is it. So it is not them he is trying to impress, not most people. He decides the person he wants to curry favor with is himself. The standards that rule him is-they are, he half mutters it:

“Me!”

He’s immediately embarrassed that he has sunk so low. Talked to himself out loud.

That’s what the psychotic patients at Bronx State do.

Okay he isn’t a phony. In the end his internal standards matter, which means he is “self directed,” a good quality according to many articles he has read on self esteem. But why does he feel that he’s always putting on an act. Well he is, but everyone else is. Some say what others expect to hear but privately believe the opposite. He isn’t a hypocrite like them.

Or do they not believe something different from what they say? Do they make a point of not thinking privately at all, keeping distracted, watch TV, get on the phone and talk small talk. They want nothing to do with the kind of thinking he is doing now, meandering, zigzagging, doubting, leading nowhere.

Once, one of the few times he was successfully connecting to his father, his father called what he does the same thing everyone calls it, “studying your belly button.” Charitably, on one of the few occasions that he defended his father in his mind, he accepted that his father meant well. His father   was simply giving good advice. “Move on.” But Mark can still hear the accusing tone in which his father spoke. It is his vanity.   He overvalues his importance. Who cares what you find in your belly button? Why do you think what’s there is of any importance. It’s just lint.

His father meant to mock him. To humiliate him if he could. Just so he could remain better than him.

Why? For what reason? So he can score with Mom? She wasn’t there when he said it. He wanted to score with me. Why? Why does he want to win that much? Why does he have to win.

Finally Mark is able to be easier on himself with a generalization that’s true. Guys need to win. They may deny it, try to be better than that, but it’s what their life is about. Victory. Getting over defeat. They root for the Mets, the Jets, the Giants, the Yankees, with far more passion, far more deeply than they let on. They make believe their interest in sports goes no further than entertainment. Which is a lie. Mark mourned for a week, more than a week when Da Bums, the Dodgers were defeated in1952 and 53. Like the whole season had been wasted. All those triumphs, all those nail biters for naught. He said “wait til next year” like all the other Dodger fans, but even when he said it, as he proclaimed his faith in the future, he only half believed next year would be different.

The damn’ Yankees-five straight championships. Jay, his older brother, rubbed it in every October. Jay didn’t deserve to be all conceited about it, the pride he took in the pinstripes maintaining their throne. Anybody could pick the best team and stick with them. What kind of fan is that? What kind of satisfaction can you get from loyalty to those who are characterized as the pinstripes? It’s like rooting for the Rockefellers.

Nothing can compare to the Dodgers victory in 1955. Da Bums put an end to Yankee pinstripes, put an end to their tyranny. Certain moments still glow in Mark’s memory, Sandy Amoros’ catch. And the way he spun around, his throw from the outfield to get a double play. Johnny Padres. Johnny Padres.

Jay and the other Yankee fans can’t come close to the joy of Dodger fans when they finally won. Joy? When the Yankees won, the most they are capable of having is their expectations confirmed.

But maybe they don’t have to get excited? They are perfectly comfortable with complacency, the security that accompanies those who side with winners. Jay has always been like that, ass kissing the teachers he needed, palling up to the powerful. He’s probably doing the same thing with his boss now. It’s his M.O.

Mark never stoops that low. Why else is he in Berkeley? The heroic is being for the underdogs. Even if you don’t win. That’s what it’s all about– beating the pinstripes. That’s why Jay is where he is, happily commuting from Forest Hills.

The only real question is why his bosses don’t see Jay as an ass kisser?

Or is he? All those political fights Mark has had with his father– Jay always sided with his father. Because he controls the goodies? It’s cowardly, taking the easy way. But is it really that? Is he ass kissing?

Jay likes their father. He respects him. Right or wrong he’s on his side. Is it ass kissing when you want to do what your boss expects, when he knows you are on his side, when he thinks of you as his trusted lieutenant, when you respect and like your boss.

But what if your boss were to lose his power, what if he is on his way down, would you stick with him? It’s not a question Jay would ask himself. The rules of the game are you respect your master because he is the master. Not if he isn’t. Suddenly, he realizes that a fantasy he has always had, is based on the difference between Jay and himself. He will be close to his father, when he is sick, when he is dying. To him it has always meant that, unlike Jay, despite the frequent battles he’s had with his father, he’s the one who really cares. Which means he loves his father more than Jay. Because he will be there when his father is down.

Suddenly a saying from Muhammad Ali pops up in his mind:

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

He opens his eyes, looks up at the ceiling, smiles.

If only he could do that. His father continued to call Ali, Cassius Clay. He was angry that he changed his name, angry he wouldn’t go to Viet Nam.

Just before his consciousness disappears into sleep, another Ali quote seizes his mind.

He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

Mark’s convinced Ali’s right. Whenever he’s gone in that direction he’s come to that conclusion. The problem is he hasn’t always gone in that direction. His mind, his conclusions are fickle. He wonders if it is his courage.

He finally decides that he is in favor of burning the flag. It puts him on the side of the fearless, which is what he needs in order to turn off his mind.

 

 

 

 

 

December 21, 2017
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

About me

I am 74 and still unknown as a writer of major import, but as ridiculous as it may sound, I am patient. Here and there I have had my moments, glimpses of where I might go, but they have been ephemeral, a tease.  Fortunately,  they have also given me a hint at possibilities.  So, like an adolescent, hope springs eternal, firing me up,  creating expectations, also setting me up for disappointments.  Whatever happens, the effect on my writing is nil. I am as charged and excited as day one when I couldn’t understand something  and the light went on. I found an answer. I write and write and write.

I still get excited by the joy of discovery. My head suddenly feels clear.  More than that, realizing  I have something to say, that isn’t being said elsewhere, gets me going. Even if someone else has gotten there first, I take that as confirmation.  Whether I, or someone else,  I’m thrilled when I discover  an answer to a question that is bothering me.

I suppose I go deep.  Not by choice. My questions lead me to new questions and doubts so I keep going.    Occasionally, I nail it.  Correction– more than occasionally.  Often enough. But my heroes are Wittgenstein and Socrates.  They treasured honesty above any other habit,  being able to admit when they didn’t have an answer.

In the middle of  his lectures at Cambridge, Wittgenstein often called himself an idiot when something confused him.  He’d stand in front of the class unable to go forward. Eventually, he quit Cambridge’s philosophy department.   For 10 years he worked as a gardener.  He came back when he figured his way out of logical positivism’s traps.  The answer was “ordinary language” philosophy.  His fellow gardeners were able to avoid the mazes his colleagues  at Cambridge created for themselves.

A similar story about Socrates.  Someone told him he was the wisest of all philosophers.  He had his doubts.  So he went to hear other philosophers’ teachings.  Many knew things he didn’t know, but he had one unique quality, which he decided made him wiser than any of   them. He knew when he didn’t know something.

A last, certainly sentimental and embarrassing confession. Tears come to my eyes every time I watch this one scene in Dr. Zhivago.  Zhivago is dead. His brother thinks he has found his long lost daughter, now grown up. He tells her all about her father, his greatness as a poet, his love of Lara.

“This man was your father. Why won’t you believe it? Don’t you want to believe it?”

“Not if it isn’t true.”

Zhivago brother smiles, “That’s inherited.”

I don’t know what any of that means.  How I got that way.  But it nevertheless is true, for better or worse, it is one of my obsessions. Even now, for the hundredth time, I feel the tears coming when I go there.

 Until my retirement, most of my writing  was on psychiatric subjects.  It was old school psychiatry, not science, the kind that  appeals to laymen.   The pain in our hearts, forever ready to grab a hold of  our life, the mysteries of our motivations–I was drawn there.  The brain’s chemistry may some day provide very good solutions to our troubles, but right now psychiatrists are fooling themselves, and worse, the public.  Our knowledge is thin.  Yes they should rightfully pride themselves that they adhere to  scientific method, to hard facts, to the certainty of numbers proving a point.  But all too often this provides an illusion of effectiveness and surprisingly, rigidity and an abundance of false claims.   The tip-off is the deference given to “experts.” Experts?  Huh? Who are they?  I’d much prefer “this is my best shot”  That’s all any of us can offer.

“Expert” sounds authoritative, but it represents the eternal temptation of the Wizard of Oz.   Basing their elixirs on studies, on hard numbers, on science is very appealing. We  prefer very little wiggle room about answers we need. The trap in this mindset, however,  is that waving  science as a banner,  its virtues can act like a smokescreen.  The language, the prestige, the trappings of science can be so distracting that science’s core value is overshadowed, absolute clarity about what is known and not known. The theme of many of my articles is that, considering how much we still don’t understand,  our steps forward should be tentative, investigative, not closed off by the chilling effects  of authority.

Please go to SimonSobo.com to read the praise my articles have received in my field from the likes of Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled). Lauren Slater (Prozac Diaries) and Anna Freud: “I read immediately what you have written and found it very interesting and convincing…  I have searched for the right words to describe the processes which underlie the young people’s attitudes, but I was not able to find them.  I believe that you have done much better in this respect and I find myself fascinated by your elaborations.”  She put part one of that article in the yearly Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, which was like being chosen for the all star team. Thirteen or fourteen of the best articles for that  year.  And, at that point  I had just finished my training.

Professor Bruce Charlton in England, at the time, editor of the iconoclastic journal Medical Hypothesis, had me write an editorial, attacking psychiatry’s “diagnosis” fetish,( placing patients in  one of 6 or 7 categories which presumably then explains everything.) Samuel Timimi included a contrarian chapter by me in his book Rethinking ADHD. I should also add my idol at the time, Pauline Kael “loved” a movie review I sent her.  She sent me a postcard to call her, and the next day we were shmoozing in her apartment.

IUP wanted to publish my book, The Fear of Death (derived from part 2 of the article Anna Freud liked).  A number of people were excited by it. It opened up a whole new perspective in psychoanalysis. Freud had a powerful fear of death. It was the craziest part of him.  Yet strangely, he denied it was an important motivation in our psychology.  My book presaged, in 1980, a preoccupation that had grabbed a hold of American culture, and that is still with us, a  focus on health,  on mortality of almost religious magnitude. Destruction of conventional authority, particularly religion, the elevation of me, of  personal  freedom,  left us to face alone the very worst possibility in our life. Death.

IUP, at the time, was the premier publishing house, kind of the Knopf of psychiatric literature.  They registered it with The Library of Congress.  Listed it in their upcoming publicity. It’s a long story of  what went awry but the manuscript eventually sat on my shelf for years unpublished.(I was busy writing another book).  Its fate says it all.  One day, many years later, Walt Disney Productions contacted me.  They had found the title in The Library of Congress.  They were doing a comedy, What About Bob?  A character in the movie, the shrink’s son, was brooding in his father’s library, reading The Fear of Death. I told them the book didn’t exist.  “No problem” they said.  They would create a book cover (with blank pages). Sure I told them. At that point, why not.  They filmed the scene.  But then cut it from the final version of the  movie. Speaking of how fame is fleeting. In the end I had to self publish. Took me five years to write that book.  Why not get it out there.

  Anyway, as often as I have sputtered and fucked up good opportunities, the point remains that many renowned writers, especially those who admire originality, have been turned on after  reading my work. So I still expect it is going to happen. Or it won’t. Either way I still have my photography

November 27, 2017
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

CC: A chapter debating religion

 

It is 1968, a year when conventional religion seemed to dissipate.

 

Chapter 32

 

Mr. Gordon has his coat on near the door of Jay’s apartment. Jay kisses Dora and their baby after he puts on his coat. They are rushing to get out of the apartment. Jay shouts to his father.

“Do you have the tickets?”

“Mr. Gordon waves the two tickets.”

Dora fusses over Jay. “Don’t forget your gloves. It gets cold there. I made you sandwiches.”   She looks at Ira as well. “Don’t throw them out this time.”

Jay smiles guiltily. So does his father.

“We like the hot dogs there.”

Jay takes his gloves out of his coat pocket and shows them to Dora. She stares at her father—in law. Guilty as charged he waits to be sentenced.

“Well?”

“I don’t need gloves.”

She returns from the bedroom with turquoise wool mittens.

“Oh If you told me. Blue mittens. Turquoise blue!” he says with a laugh.

“Aquamarine I knitted them for Jay as a Hanukah present. He refuses to wear them.”

Ira puts them on and claps his hands like a happy nerd.

“Okay. I get the point.” Dora tells him.

“You married a good women Jay. Caring. You remind me of my mother. She made mittens.”

“She was a nag?”

He puts his hand under her chin and lifts it. “A Yidisha Moma…26 hours a day. She cared.”

She steps away.

“Dad. Did you wear your lucky socks?”

“Jay lifts his pants revealing his own wild striped socks.”

“That’s good enough for both of you.”

Mr. Gordon lifts his own pants. His socks are even wilder. Kangaroos eating lightening, and lighting up.

“The question is. Is it good enough for the Jets?”

“God likes striped socks”

“And kangaroo lightening socks.”

“Well there you have it:” Dora tells them.

As they walk down the hall, Dora shouts after them: “Go Jets. Go Namath.”

“Go Maynard”, Ira shouts. “Namath’s nothing without him to catch the ball.”

In unison they shout as they enter the elevator, “Go Maynard.”

At Shea Stadium, as predicted, Namath throws a perfect pass to Maynard who runs it in for a touchdown. The stadium crowd goes wild.   Jay and Mr. Gordon slap hands.

While breast feeding her son, Dora is watching the game on TV. The first half has ended with the Jets leading 16—7.

Dora puts her sleeping son in his crib. She goes to the phone and dials CC’s phone in her dorm. She’s told CC isn’t there, but then a Sheila comes to the phone. CC had given her Jeremy’s number. Dora dials. Jeremy answers in the bedroom. but then hands the phone to CC.

“You watching the game? Jets are beating Buffalo 16—7.”

CC signals Jeremy to give her privacy He goes to the kitchen.

“I haven’t been following the Jets. They don’t get them up here.”

“But today’s game is probably on. Buffalo. You know Buffalo beat them the first time they played, their only victory   They’re 1 and 7.

“So that means the Jets aren’t that good?”

“Are you kidding? That loss was an anomaly. This year there’s going to be another super bowl, the third one, the NFL champs playing the AFC champs. Jay’s told me, with Namath, the Jets might go all the way. It will give the AFC respectability.”

“First they have to get into the playoffs. Jay’s always an optimist.”

“So is your Dad. He’s excited.”

There is a pause. Both are silent.

“Was that your friend that answered the phone? What’s going on with you? We haven’t had a good talk in a while.”

“Well…”

“Tell me.”

Again a long delay. Then: “You can’t tell Mom or Dad what I tell you. Promise me.”

She doesn’t know why she is asking this of Dora. They already know about Jeremy. Perhaps it is to protect her parents from Dora’s judgment.

“Okay, I promise.”

“The guy who answered. Jeremy. He’s one of my teachers. I’ve been staying at his house.” She hurriedly blurts it out. “He’s married with a kid. His wife is in the hospital”

Dora responds coolly. “How did that happen?

“I don’t know but it did… Don’t tell Jay.”

“How old is his child?”

“He’s a toddler.”

“He’s going to leave his wife?”

“He says he loves her. He’s told me he will never leave her.”

“So what is it then? Sex?”

“I love him and he loves me.”

“I’m sure you know what I think.”

“I do.”

“So why did you tell me?”

“I wanted to get your perspective.”

“I blame Mark… He’s filled your head with all this crap. He’s always turning morality into this crazy universe of no right and no wrong. Like it’s up for discussion. Meaning anything is okay. CC what you got going with this guy is not okay.”

“His name is Jeremy.”

“Jeremy” Dora repeats as if named, he now exists.

“He’s a lot like Mark. He’s been arguing that ending the war, saving the planet, are far more important than the rights and wrongs we were raised on. He thinks those are nonsense.”

“It’s not just Mark,” Dora adds. “Everyone’s talking like that. I don’t know what’s going on. Jay told me his therapist was always getting on him about his guilt, like it was the main cause of his problems.”

“Is it?”

“Sure his “rigidity” comes from that but that is what I respect about him. I think therapists making fun of guilt are trying to destroy Judaism”.

“That’s a little extreme.”

“But it’s true. Everyone wants to put an end to Judaism. Remember Robin Schaff? She was a year ahead of us in school.”

“Yeah. She’s very spiritual. When you see Robin you think religion. She’s off somewhere from the bullshit world. She’s serious. She’s with God.”

“She was always that way. She came from a kosher home. But religious? How can you be religious and write songs for Shiva and Krishna and Vishnu?”

“Why not? If they’re beautiful songs, something you could sing to God, reach out to him… Maybe please him. Why isn’t that religious?”

“What you are asking is, do I think Robin has God on her mind when she sings to Shiva or Vishnu? The answer is no. The songs are for not just for Krishna, or Vishnu. There are a dozen different, … I don’t know what they call them.”

“Gods. Indian gods,” CC answers.

“What’s screwy is that’s what Jews believed before Judaism began, before God spoke to Abraham. The Shma is repeated in every service. The whole congregation sings out. “Sha- ma Yisra-el…Adoshem elohaniu… Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

One” she repeats emphatically. Who is she praying to? 12 different deities, 15? Accepting that there is one God is the cornerstone of Judaism. Never mind the rest of it, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…”

“Robin thinks of herself as spiritual. She presents herself that way. I’m sure she thinks of herself as equally holy as the most observant Jew.”

“Perhaps. Except I don’t think she believes in God.”

“Then who is Vishnu, Krishna all the gods she prays to?”

“While Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the newly freed Jews started to worship the Egyptians gods, idols, all kind of mumbo jumbo, some of them got into orgiastic rituals. Naked, drugged orgies. They were enchanted by exciting food. Pleasure. Like that is what life is. Getting as much pleasure as we can, while we can… Do you remember the rest of the story?

CC does. “When Moses returned from Mount Sinai and saw it? He had been in the presence of God, given the Ten Commandments as his gift to his people.”

“And what did he do?

He threw down the tablet, smashed it to smithereens.”

“Robin’s far from stupid. She graduated from Stamford Phi bête, but I don’t know if the thought crosses her mind. That she is not having a dialogue with God, not embracing him.”

“But she is so serious. So accepting. She seems to have godly qualities, her belief in tolerance.”

“Exactly. I don’t know if it crosses her mind. Not only is she renouncing the most holy Jewish belief, that God is one, stomping it with her feet,  Tolerance?   Speaking about it in a loving way… Tolerance? She repeats. Anything. Everything is okay? Whatever floats your boat.”

“So What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s a repudiation of everything a practicing Jew believes. Forgiveness perhaps, being able to ignore other people’s sins. But tolerance worshipped as much as it is. It means every word we hold sacred is wrong, every prohibition we hold holy, all that God ordered us to do and not do. All of it is nonsense. It means the Torah is a book of stories, nothing else. God didn’t talk to us And if he did he was wrong about what he thought was wrong. Claiming that anything is okay. You don’t think that is an attack on Judaism?”

“And Catholicism…All religions. It’s not just people like Robin. Marx proclaimed, “Religion is the opium of the masses. It’s bullshit. All religions. They’re a trick, to make people satisfied with how shitty capitalism is. The Communists took Marx very seriously. The party closed down the synagogues and churches in Russia, and every country they conquered. Religion had to go underground, All because Marx called it opium.”

“Mark and Jeremy are not communists. I can’t imagine either would want synagogues closed.”

“I hope not. No I’m sure they aren’t. I know they are not communists. They love America.”

“So you’re saying it is a coincidence.”

“I think they believe it would be a better world if everyone embraced no religion or a different religion than what they were raised on. Mark has tried to teach me that, and sometimes I think he’s right. You don’t think Jewish guilt is overdone?”

“Overdone!?”

“My therapist always made fun of my guilt. According to him that’s why I’m neurotic. I can see his point.”

“I told you what I think already. Therapists are directly attacking Judaism, not just Judaism, Catholics’ guilt– they feast on their ridicule. But therapist are so slippery. They would never own own up to that’s what they’re doing.”

Spiritual? NO way Robyn is spiritual. She’s selling a Hallmark card religion. Your soul can’t get to a higher place that easily. Catholics only reach a state of grace when they’ve confessed their sins-admitted transgressions they may have kept secret for years, that they were too ashamed to tell anyone. Same for Jews when we fast on Yom Kippur and promise to try harder to be a better person. Our dialogue with God is the real thing, hoping to be returned to innocence. You can’t simply sing about peace and love and jingle a bell to get there. Or stretch your body into a yoga position.”

Dora continues. “You can’t make guilt disappear by making fun of it. Calling it neurotic is a cop out. Jay would come home from a therapy session and tell me crazy things his shrink said, just like yours.”

“Like what?

“Like how everyone has a god within them. They just have to go there. Stuff like that. It’s nonsense.”

“That’s how Jeremy talks.”

“And a thousand other people like him. You can’t be your own God, no matter how many chants you perform. I’ve seen people go there. Get glassy eyed, have this beatific smile. They look like they’re on heroine. It’s the easy way to a state of grace. It may feel the same but—

CC lashes out: “Mark thinks you are the least liberated person we know. Your kosher home. How you force Jay to not eat lobster.”

“So?”

“Lobster was Jay’s favorite food.”

“Poor Jay.”

“Jay can’t drive his car on Saturday. Even to go to the supermarket. He can’t turn on the light. All this mumbo jumbo– he can’t use a stapler, lick an envelope on Saturday. Sins, sins everywhere, about to be committed. Tell me that’s spiritual liberation.”

“Who’s talking about liberation.” Dora answers

“What is it then?”

“Devotion. Knowing what God allows and what’s okay has guided us for centuries. Guilt has been at the core of Judaism for a thousand years. It never occurred to anyone that it could be anything else… You never thought God was watching you? Judging you?”

“I guess so. Well maybe when I was 10. But now…”

“So you think there is no one there now.”

“I suppose.”         `

“So you are not Jewish. Judaism is based on this very simple, sane idea. God is there, he’s watching us, expecting us to follow what he told us to do. It’s all in the Torah. That’s the whole story. That’s the core of Judaism.”

“You mean it’s not lox and bagels?”

“I’m serious”.

“Gefilte fish?”

Dora is smiling but is intent on not being sidetracked.

“That’s why the Torah has a crown on it. That’s why we kiss it as they walk it through the congregation. His do’s and don’ts. Written down. God’s commandments! He watches every last thing we do.   Making sure we obey.”

“And…”

“And nothing. You’re big on the whole Jewish intellectual thing?”

“What about it?”

“How do you think it started? For centuries the most serious scholars studied the Torah inside out, trying to glean every hint God gave us about what he expected. The Talmud, the Mishnah, it was all to try to figure the Torah out. This hippie idea that God is this nice guy saying “Oh well” to everything. That is totally wrong. He wants to be taken seriously. He’s made these rules and it’s our job to follow them.”

CC imitates God’s voice.

“Thou shall not eat bacon and eggs… Sounds like God is not a very spiritual guy.”

“You’re exactly right. He’s not concerned with the spiritual, what ever that means.”

“It means peace and love and understanding.”.

“And repeating those sweet chants. That’s right. God is not a hippy. He has rules and he’s given them to us.”

“In the shtetl the smartest student would be rewarded with a wife from the richest family so that he could study all his life. There was no Ford Foundation. Understanding God’s will was considered the sweetest, the most meaningful way any one could spend their life. Understanding his rules. Interpreting new ones and obeying them. But never mind all that. Let’s cut to the chase. You don’t need the Mishnah or the Talmud to rule on what you are doing. Adultery. It’s one of the Ten Commandments.”

“You really think there is a God?”

“He’s right there, watching me. And you. “

“But that’s so creepy.” She remembers one of Mark’s jokes. “Does he have a calculator counting the sins, or just a great memory…”

“Very funny.”

“That’s from Mark…Seriously, how do you picture God?”

“I picture God as fair. If you go along with him he’s on your side.”

“Religious Jews never get cancer? They never die young?”

“They do. There’s a lot we can’t understand, but who am I to question him? Dora Gordon at 39 Yellowstone Blvd, Forest Hills, Queens?”

“It’s more than that. God can get pissed. He killed everyone on earth but Noah’s family. He’s definitely not a live and let live God.

“That’s true..”

“Well that’s not much of a God to me.”

“Why? Because by Sesame Street standards he doesn’t measure up? I swear, sometimes I listen to the left’s sacred beliefs. and all I hear is a child. La-la nursery school beliefs.”

“I don’t know what God’s like. No one does. But he’s not Mr. Roger’s. A God fearing person doesn’t question God’s character. I mean who are we? Us judging him? We are forbidden to give him a name, to make a graven image of him. We are little nothings compared to God. Ants scurrying around.”

“God fearing? What kind of God is one you have to fear?”

“My father would have said, “You’re 15. You’re going to say what God should be like? He was right. He still is and I’m 26. All I know is without him I’m alone, lost. With him I share in his glory. And there is much glory all around us.

On Yellowstone Blvd?

“Everywhere. Every day the sun rises”

יֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִי־א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר Yoe mer, elohainu, Ya chi-or, va yachi or.

 

 

“And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

And God saw the light that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness.
And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening and it was morning, one day.”

 

Night and day, sunrise and sunset were among his first miracles. I see his glory every morning when I open my eyes. You never feel that?”

“No…Sometimes in the synagogue, when I hear the choir sing. When I sing “Shma Yisrael. God is one! The proclamation means something to me”

CC takes a deep, deep breath, cherishing the Shma.

“God’s allowing you to experience his presence.”

“But what if it all is a sham. God fearing is what they talk you into?

Dora’s voice raises, “Your world is so pure? Creating these men Gods. John Lennon, Paul McCartny. CC, they are just people. Great they can sing, and create a line or two of terrific lyrics. They’re just people, like you and me. Just as lost. Get rid of God and that’s what you are left with, worshipping celebrities. I’d rather reserve my awe for God.”

CC doesn’t answer but then contritely. “I agree with most of what you are saying.”

Dora wants to pound it home further. “I listen to these leftist leaders. Where are they leading students? Away from Judaism? Away from Christ? To where?”

There is a long pause.

“To equality.”

“Marx’s state of grace.”

“You don’t think that is important?”

“Equal opportunity? Absolutely but–“

“You should teach at my school. Some students would listen.”

“I don’t think anyone would listen.”

CC knows Dora’s right. The school used to encourage students to practice their religion.

“When I was a freshman we had these convocations. They began with a prayer. Everyone was respectful.”

“Do they still have them?

“They’ve dropped them, along with having to wear a jacket and tie for dinner.”

“How come?”

“Students were complaining.”

“You mean the college wanted to be hip.”

“I think they recognized that they were old fogeyish.”

“How did they get them to agree, by occupying their offices?”

“Colleges aren’t God fearing. They’re student fearing.” Dora adds.

CC says nothing

“CC, what I like about you is that you are a student, still trying to figure things out. Some of these activists, with their don’t trust anyone over 30. They really think they have all the answers.”

“You don’t think they see a lot of what’s wrong?”

“But that fools them into thinking what they have in mind is better. They’re going to make a perfect world. They are so sure. CC the answer is Judaism….You were Bat Mitzvahed right?

“Yeah..”

“You are no longer a child. You are held accountable. Like an adult. .. By God!”

Dora gives her a moment to think it over, then continues:

“Adultery doesn’t have a question mark next to it. It doesn’t require a complicated interpretation from the Talmud. There is no maybe. It’s one of the Ten Commandments.”

“There’s no wiggle room in your world, is there?… About anything?”

“There is. I have questions about plenty of things but not about the Ten Commandments.”

“So to you I am just a sinner.”

“No. You’re still my family! We’ll be together all our lives. But you’re grasping at straws. I know everyone wants to have someone but…” Her voice raises like a rabbi delivering a sermon from a podium. “You have no reason to be desperate.”

Her voice reverberates, as if Dora wants to be heard in the heavens above, and below, seared into the heart of every believer:

“You’re having an affair with a married man, a father of a young child!”

CC remains absolutely silent, more frozen by indecision then feeling contrite.

Jeremy sticks his head in the door.

She covers the mouthpiece of the phone then whispers loud enough for him to hear.        “My sister-in-law.” CC waves for him to go away.

Dora continues “I know that sounds judgmental but you know what? It is. That’s how it should be. I don’t know how this whole thing started about not being judgmental. It began with therapists. Now it’s everyone. Tolerance. Understanding. Accepting anything and everything you do. Doing your own thing has become the sacred commandment of our times.” Like an orator, she waits for the rhythm to carry her forward.   “Says who?”

Then silence.

From the look on her face it appears CC is being won over.

Unable to be silenced, not confident that she has made her point, Dora continues to press, “It’s a crazy perspective. Not being judgmental? It’s not a Jewish perspective. What else is there? How else can we evaluate what has happened that day? What we are doing. What we are allowed to do. Even if the debate is not on a grand stage, not on an op ed page, not public at all, if it only occurs in the bedroom at night between husband and wife, as they evaluate their own and everyone else’s behavior. Even if it occurs in your own mind, trying to convince yourself that you are not the judging type. You can’t avoid it. What’s the point of trying to rise above your conscience? CC I love you, but you are lost.”

CC remains quiet.

“Are you there?”

“I’m listening.”

“You know Jay was exactly the same.”

“Why the same?”

“Because he had no connection to God. He was observant but things he did had no meaning.”

“Jay always obeyed the rules.”

“I know. But he had begun to feel he was weird for doing that. That is so strange. He doesn’t have to apologize for being the way he is… God has given him a reason why he should not break free.” Dora hesitates…“I probably sound like a Bible thumper.

CC doesn’t answer immediately but then:

“No I know it’s coming from a good place.”

“It is. It’s what I believe… Deeply. …   CC when we first met, we promised that we would tell each other what we really thought. You told me about this because you wanted to know what I thought– didn’t you? If I was okay with it, then it wasn’t so bad.”

CC answers “I didn’t think about it but—“

“I love you CC. Otherwise I wouldn’t be so hard. But it is bad. Sin is sin. God doesn’t like when we do bad things… Wait. The second half is starting.”

Dora makes the sound of a loud kiss. “I love you. Stay away from Jeremy. He’s poison. God wants more from you.”

With an apologetic voice: “Jeremy is in the other room..”

“You don’t need my permission. If you break up with him it won’t be for me. It’s what God expects.”

““I’ll think about it. Just promise me you’ll say nothing to Jay. Or Mom and Dad.”

“I said I wouldn’t.”

Again she wonders why she is asking this. They already know.

Dora hangs up and goes back to the TV. The Jets come running on to the field.

In the stadium, the Jets return to the playing field to the sound of a huge roar from their fans, Jay and Ira slap hands. Jay moves his pants up and down, comically, flashing his socks. They bump asses. Then they slap hands again.

Hearing that CC is off the phone, Jeremy reenters the bedroom.

November 21, 2017
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

What is pride? How long does love last? CC: Chapter 43

Chapter 43

“Do you remember one of the first things you asked me about was pride, what makes us proud in my family?”

She says this calmly, carefully avoiding an edge in her voice.

“I’ve been thinking about that. I may write a paper about pride for my psychology class. It’s important. Mark’s always going on about people’s egos.

“It’s a big deal for him?”

“I think he’s like most guys. How you get it by outdoing someone else. It’s about becoming king of the mountain. The best basketball player deserves to be the king, the best swimmer at the Olympics, the best scientist wins the Nobel Prize..”

Jeremy kicks in. “What about in junior high, the guy with the best putdowns.” He’s pleased by his example. “What about the best gossip at Fresh Meadow Country–” CC’s eyes warn Jeremy to veer off that example, which he does. “The best gossip in the faculty lounge.”

“Except I have this cousin Gabriel. Don’t know where he got it from, but he’s always had this aura. My mother calls him little Buddha.”

CC smiles contentedly as she pictures Gabriel.

“He has no aspirations. Some people just have it.”

“You mean the world is his oyster.”

“Something like that. I wish you could bottle it His smile…”

Jeremy takes her hand. “When I see your smile.”­­­

CC ignores him. He never lets up. She goes to her coat and takes out a piece of paper with writing on it..

“This is what I wrote so far for my paper. About my mother.”

“You and your mother.”

“What do you mean, me and my mother?

“I don’t know. You have a thing.”

“Maybe. But I’m not imagining this. There’s something… Grace…Something. It’s not put on. Almost everything she does.”

CC reads what she’s written.

“Breakfast. The way my mother eats her grapefruit.”

“Is that the title?

CC ignores him. As she reads she is picturing her mother.

“Just watching her cut the grapefruit…. Maybe it’s her fingers– they’re long and thin and elegant. Always perfectly manicured. She has this ring. Simple. Small sapphires surround her finger. The way she holds a grapefruit knife, by the tips of her fingers.”

“Boy. You got it bad.”

CC is undeterred.

“She spoons out the seeds from the flesh, carefully sprinkles sugar, sometimes honey. One by one, very patiently, she puts each piece in her mouth, quietly relishing the flavor.”

“So?”

CC continues to read.

“Her soft boiled egg is in one of these egg cups, sitting high up, like a throne. She taps on the shell gently, removes the top half. Then scoops the egg out, putting it on buttered toast, allowing the yolk to soak into the bread.”

CC speaks as if in a reverie. She salivates

When the toast and egg are ready. One at a time she cuts it into bite size pieces, places each in her mouth, as if she has found a treasure. She barely chews, savoring the taste of each piece.”

“I don’t get it. What are you saying?”

“She’s eaten breakfast like that a thousand times. Calm, unhurried.”

“Still don’t get it.”

CC tries again. “My mother has this friend who’s worked in a courthouse for years.”

Once again CC reads what she’s written.

“At the start of every court session the clerk announces: “Everyone rise.” Then the judge, in his robe, enters. The clerks voice is identical every single time. The judge’s pace, as he walks to his seat, the way he sits down and places his glasses in front of him, undoes his watch putting it at the same place over to the left. When he’s done he takes this little breath, barely audible Every detail, always exactly the same.”

“So you’re saying people’s rituals make them proud?”

“Mastery of the moment. Everything in control.

“And it’s infectious. Ever listen to Walter Cronkite?”

“No TV” he reminds her.

“You should get one.”

“My father once told me how, with certain judges, even if it’s some terrible crime, the sessions are dignified throughout. He likes that. It elevates what they’re doing. As justice should be.

She pointedly turns to Jeremy’s. “For you breaking down the old, interrupting things– you’re proud of that. You and my father are complete opposites. He thinks that’s the whole point. Elevating our experience with rituals.. Otherwise everything just flies by. It’s chaos.”

CC hesitates with what she is about to say but then goes forward.

“When he was in the air force, my father said he enjoyed marching in step with the other men in his unit. More than that. He once marched in this really big parade. All the men spiffed up in their nicest uniform standing straight and tall, marching in perfect unison. He said being part of that, thousands and thousands of men united, he described how terrific he felt, how proud. I guess that’s why they train soldiers to march like that, to be a part of this powerful machine. Soon enough, in combat, potentially feeling alone and helpless, whatever is left of their esprit de corps can see them through.

“Did he march in goosestep?” Jeremy kids. CC expected that, but, CC can see in Jeremy’s eyes that his sarcasm is only half hearted. He’s enjoying her observations. Her pride is growing as she continues.

“Then there are people who take pride to the next level. With a tad of sarcasm she adds. “People like you. People in show business.”

Jeremy tenses up. CC tries to be gentle, to not sound too challenging.

“You are who you are. If you have the talent to pull it off, why not. Did you ever see Nureyev leap and fly through the air?   Defying gravity? The audience is exhilarated, like they are soaring with him. They share his pride for pulling it off.

That’s what I felt with you, when you went off about Wittgenstein. I felt like I was going right along with you into the stratosphere. When you finished I wanted to leap up, give you a standing ovation.”

Jeremy doesn’t react. He’s waiting to see where this is going. She continues.

“It’s so strange. If a performer doesn’t get there, watch out. He pays a heavy price. An accountant might fear his boss, but that’s it. He’s expected to do his job competently. Nothing more. The last thing he wants is the spotlight.

Performers have to go beyond that– way, way beyond. Perform magic. The audience craves it. They expect it. They want to be exhilarated like I was when you got going.”

The tone of her voice changes. “It takes courage to really go for it.”

“Why courage?”

“Because you are on the edge of humiliation, Fail and the audience can turn on you. They blame you. They can’t stand you for trying. It’s not like they say, “Good try” It’s more like where does that shmuck get off acting like he is someone. Like he’s better than us. People used to throw rotten tomatoes and eggs.”

Jeremy is quietly listening, still expecting her to lower the boom if he lets his defenses down.

“Did that ever worry you before a lecture?”

“Not really. I usually feel like I am about to knock the class’ head off.”

“Knock their heads off?”

“Get them exhilarated. Even when a lecture is going so-so, or poorly. I think it’s just a matter of time ‘til I connect.”

“Which is my point about pride. You ever watch championship ice skaters? One slip and they are toast. You can see how tense they are. But when a champion falls, a real one, they get right up. On their face, you can see their determination. Their pride Like what you just said… I got a leap coming up that will amaze you. And when they pull it off. The glory at that moment.”

She continues: “Did you ever notice how entertainers need award ceremonies, one after another. Accountants don’t get that, doctors, lab technicians. They just do their job without applause. That flying trapeze. The biggest fear entertainers have is that they are like everyone else. Ordinary. You talk about what goes on in Great Neck like they are stage performers. You have that kind of contempt for them showing off.”

“For showing off when they have nothing to deliver. An Eldorado?”

“It’s not nothing. They are living their lives, yeah, showing off is a big part of it at the club but basically they are just going along with what is expected of them, what everyone does. You’re disgusted by that but there is nothing more to it.”

“Anti-semites, that’s what they can’t stand about Jews. That superior look on their face. Like they are hot shit. They want to wipe it off their face.”

“Maybe, but that look on our face. That’s why we accomplish so much. Going for it, expecting to be more–”

“I don’t know about that.” The subject is making both of them tense. He wants to call a truce. “We’re always disagreeing.”

“It’s your hot issue not mine.”

“I admit it. I can be obnoxious. I don’t like the people at you parents’ club. You don’t agree. But it doesn’t have to cause so much tension between us.”

Jeremy let’s that settle in. He takes her hand.

“Never mind the club. I like your ideas…like them a lot. What you just said was interesting. You’re really smart? Do you know that?

Whatever anger she has about his hatred of the club, dissolves. “Do you really think so?” Her tone is deferential, grateful, surprisingly like her tone when they began, student with teacher. He continues:

Your curiosity…   You want to figure things out. It leads you to terrific insights.. You come up with interesting answers to questions no one else has even thought of. Or dares to think about. I love that.”

She knows it’s true, but until now she wasn’t sure he noticed:

“Mark told me the same thing.”

“It’s true.”

“I’m his kid sister so I assumed he was doing his big brother thing, encouraging me.”

“No really. I like the way your brain works.”

She is happy. Very happy.

“Coming from the old master.”

He smiles. They’re finally back in synch, happily rolling along.

“Old master, Right. Twenty—six and I got it all figured out.”

“Twenty-six?” she says surprised.

“What about it?”

“You’re only a few years older than me. I thought you were a lot older.”

He shrugs. “I skipped some grades… The important thing is I meant what I said. You have an interesting way of seeing things.”

She unsuccessfully tries to appear not flattered. His comment is not a total surprise. Mark’s ideas drew her to him. Same thing with Jeremy. When she comes across an author who seems to have fresh insights, that person becomes one of her heroes. That she shares this very same quality, that she can generate novel ideas, and that Mark and Jeremy get turned on by them, means a lot to her. It emboldens her.

“Okay here is another theory I’ve been thinking about.”

“Go on.”

She begins:

“I was thinking about this when I was telling you about me and the communes.”

“We’re back to that?”

“Just hear me out.”

“Go ahead…

“What are you going to do with your ideals? You’re going to expect them to be fulfilled, right?”

“If you are not trying to make them happen what’s the point?”

“Exactly.”

“And if it doesn’t happen?”

“Where are you going with this?”

“I read this cool article in psych. How ideals serve an important role in our psychology. Man cannot live with bread alone. Basically they are a wish fulfillment, an expectation, which becomes a promise,.. An ideal about how things are going to be in the future– that’s what keeps us going day to day. Our dreams. Our hopes. No one could live without an idea that something better is coming.”

“Go on.”

“Used to be, no matter how shitty your life was, and I guess for billions of people who have lived on this planet, it has been shitty. The idea of heaven kept them from getting too down. Isn’t that what they say in Hollywood. You got to hold on to your dreams.

Heaven evened everything up. The good got rewarded. Hell for those who deserved it. When day to day your life sucks, you wouldn’t be able to make it through without believing that it all has a purpose. Something like that. Justice will prevail. God! Heaven! The happy ending.”

“Right. Hollywood movies True love conquering all. They have been as popular with people al over the world as religion. Jeremy is with her.

CC continues. “You need that. Otherwise what’s the point. Heaven was the central meaning in people’s lives. For centuries! It worked well. Worked amazingly. I mean there was a down side. Some people suffered about the state of their soul, whether their sins would condemn them to hell. But the main thing, that despite what is happening day to day, all is not lost. It will all even out. The universe is just.

Your daily experience may tell you life is mean and nasty. But think about how amazing Christianity has been. If suffering can be seen as a trial, the cross everyone must bear, with the end result heaven, existance is made whole You can’t beat it! People need that.”

“Go on.”

“It doesn’t always have to be religion. When people were stuck and there was no way out, having faith was crucial to keep going. But along came America. For a lot of immigrants, America took the place of heaven. Imagine what it was like for my grandparents. With the Pogroms, the Jew hating. There was a place you could go to truly start over. Where you can see your dreams come true. What’s that song in West Side Story. “There’s a place for us.”

He smiles.

This was it! America. Yes they were crowded into tenements. The streets weren’t paved with gold as they expected, but the power of their dreams kept becoming real. My grandparents lived to see my parents make it. The condos my father bought for them in Florida. When they lived in the shtetl– no way they could imagine a condo in Florida. Near the beach. With the sun. With bougainvillea.

They’d look at my parents house in Great Neck. How big it is. How beautiful. The Eldorado! in the garage. Those sporty fins. No one in the shtetl could imagine being sporty. Sporty? What’s that? It wasn’t part of their vocabulary. Word like sporty didn’t exist except to describe foolishness.

Sporty? America outdid their dreams ten times over. The Spaniards searched all over South America trying to find El Dorado, the legendary city of gold. And there it is in my parents’ garage, made in America.”

She’s on a roll, he listens happily

“Never mind pride. Their life was a miracle come true. You may think my parents culture is show-offy, total bullshit. And it is. It is. But fuck you. You and Mark have no right to be contemptuous, treat it like it is nothing. My grandparents, my parents did well. Not just them. Millions can tell the same story. They made a decent life for themselves. Better than that.” She laughs “the Miracle Mile on Northern Blvd.”

“What is your point, Miss rah-rah America?”

“I don’t see people’s current ideals working out so well in the future. If the ideals in the commune, and in the counter culture, are what has replaced the hope my parents and grandparents had for their children, if that is the future that people are living for, it’s going to come back to bite them. When their ideals aren’t fulfilled, there’s going to be a whole lot of angry people.”

“Interesting, I–”

“I’m not finished. Something more follows from that. I had this conversation with Dora. People need to be in awe of something. Life is too empty, too disappointing without it. When God represented that, it was right there. Mozart reaching for transcendence, composing a spine chilling requiem, almost touching God.

As people entered God’s cathedrals. Behold! The devout, their eyes lifting them into the sky, for that moment an intimation of heaven.

She continues. “With God dead, what is there without him? People are finding people to be in awe of. The Beatles. Worship celebrities? That’s what’s going to happen in America. Without God, we are left to worship celebrities. Which when you think about it is pathetic.

“Where did you read that?”

She laughs, “I didn’t. After I spoke to Dora. She got me thinking.”

Jeremy is enthusiastic: “You should write an article on that. It could be amazing if your predictions turned out to be on the money.”

For a moment they are peaceful, smiling at each other, the undertow of anger seems to have remitted.

“We talk too much. We should give our brains a rest, get out more.”

“And do what? We’ve been to Niagara Falls.”

“I don’t know. Get an egg cream.”

“This isn’t Brooklyn.”

“I guess you’re right. We’re back to the real problem. You don’t have a TV.”

Jeremy smiles: “Right.”

“I don’t think all our talking is so bad. You are getting to know me and my family.”

“Maybe…”

With the tension between them seemingly dissipated it is time to continue where they left off.

He reaches for her. “I want to know if you love me right this second. He unbuttons her blouse. She finishes unbuttoning it. She takes it off and then her skirt, folding them. He kisses her, but she’s not really into it. He has an erection and is soon inside her, but CC is not responding. She pushes him off of her. There are troubled looks on both of their faces. Questions…

“Was I hurting you?”

“Not really”

“Maybe if we try a different position.”

“I couldn’t shut my brain off.”

“I know how to fix that.”

“How?”

“A super—fuck.”

“You’re back to being Superman?”

“Superman can pump you a thousand times in 12 seconds. I’ll bet that would turn you on.”

“Don’t think so.”

If I were French” With a Brooklyn accent he suggests, “Soixante—neuf. I can get into that.”

She doesn’t answer. He continues,

“Did you ever hear of the 8 Chanukah sexual positions?”

She laughs.

“So that’s it. You want to learn the 8 Chanukah sexual positions.”

She smiles: “You’re a sex fiend.”

She is quiet, thoughtful.

“I want to try to answer your question. Do my parents still love each other after 30 years?” Funny it was your question but that’s been bothering me for a long time.”

“I already know the answer…” He starts to sing from Fiddler on the Roof

For thirty years I’ve washed your clothes…

She interrupts him trying to get them back to a more serious focus: “It matters to me a lot.”

“Truthfully, I don’t think it’s possible. I’ve never seen it. My father’s 3 marriages– maybe he was just being honest each time he closed the book.”

Feebly he jokes “Come here baby. We got to finish what we started.”

CC ignores him

“Three marriages”…she trails off, “always in love with someone new…Like you.”

“Why do you keep mentioning that. I’m not like that. There’s been Marlene Schneider and you. That’s it.”

“What was it like for you– each time your father fell in love?”

“It wasn’t that bad. The first time, when my mother found out he was cheating. That was upsetting. Very upsetting. It blew up our world…But after that? Every time he fell in love he was so happy. It was an upper for me. He’d buy me gifts, take me to Dodger games at Ebbets Field. In the winter, we went to Knick games.

“So it was nice.”

“He’d get great seats. Once he was so much in love that he got court side seats. It cost him a fortune, but that time he was sure he had finally found the one. Bonnie. She was beautiful.”

“What happened to Bonnie?”

“It didn’t last. That shook him up. After Bonnie he kept going over what he had done wrong. He was hard on himself. He got depressed, which was rare for him. But he put it all to rest when he became convinced that he had fixed the problem. I’m not sure what he decided, but he was back to being himself, sure that love was just around the corner. He just had to play his cards right.”

“Is that what you believe?”

“I really would like to see the real thing.”

“I thought we’ve found it.” Given how they are both feeling, especially they’re failure in bed, both know she is lying for both of them.

“I mean being together year after year and still loving each other.”

She laughs to herself. They’ve been in this maze before. It’s easy to find the entrance, easier to get lost…

“If that is love?” She drills down to a smile which stays on her face as this time she sings. She has an uncanny ability to mimic singers. She’s listened to Fiddler on the Roof often enough to sound like Goldie.

For twenty—five years I’ve lived with him

Fought him, starved with him For twenty—five years

my bed is his

Jeremy joins her. They point at each other

If that’s not love, what is?

(Tevye/Jeremy)

Then you love me?

I suppose I do. Goldie/CC

 

Together :

And I suppose I love you too

(Both)

It doesn’t change a thing

But even so

After twenty—five years

(with corny harmony they both sing out) It’s nice to know

 

For the moment they are happy with each other, particularly that last crazy harmony. Wasn’t bad. After that has sunk in CC continues:

“I know I keep going back to it. I keep asking myself whether my parents love each other.”

“And?”

She gets up. Covered by a blanket she goes to a mirror, studies herself. She looks very hard at herself.

“Like I said, he loved her when she looked great. And she loved him when he looked at her like that.

“When was that?”

She continues to study herself in the mirror, one angle after another. “When they’d go out.” she repeats. “Especially, when we were on our way to the club.”

Both Jeremy and CC are aware, that they are going through the motions, mindlessly repeating and repeating conversations they have already had, as usual, hoping that in that repetition something new will arise. Perhaps it is their recent failure to connect sexually.

His voice sounds victorious. “So once again it is pride, vanity. Liking to show off. Your mother is no different than your father’s Eldorado?”

“He loved his Eldorado. It was very powerful. If the Eldorado was a women it would feel like a million dollars. I told you when she saw him looking at her like that it just lit her up. I guess like what you told me about Carol, when you looked at her with love. Don’t you ever look at her like she’s beautiful?”

“Well…”

“You don’t?”

“Well…”

“So, it’s true. In the end what matters is your appearance.”

“No. I look at Carol with love, the real thing. Her appearance doesn’t matter.”

“But doesn’t that mean a lot to you?”

“Not when it comes to Carol. There is no wow.” He hesitates before continuing. “I feel tenderness. Sometimes that’s as intense as being overpowered by beauty.”

“Do you feel tenderness when you look at me?”

The answer is on his face. The answer is no.

“My looks. That’s it?”

But it isn’t just showing off. Maybe that is your father’s thing, but for me it happens when we are here alone. Think of a sunny autumn day. The foliage. It’s gorgeous. It just fills me up. That’s not showing off. It’s what something beautiful does to me, what you do to me.”

“Maybe.”

“Yeah there is a bonus to showing you off, but I feel it in my heart? The first time I saw you. Since then, again and again. I look at you and that’s what you do. What you still do. It breathes life into me, fires me up.

“And Carol?”

He tries hard to identify what he feels.

“It’s her eyes. Her lips. I don’t know. The way she is looking at me.”

As much as they tread again and again over the same subject, neither feels they are getting closer to an answer. More than ever they are aware that they can’t capture his feelings.

“I once saw this quote “Writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. Maybe it’s the same for love. Poets try to capture it. They do but it’s gone so quickly. It’s elusive.”

“I suppose,” CC replies but that doesn’t stop her from continuing to look for a better answer.

Once again CC recalls that day at the club, when she first felt pretty. She’s already told Jeremy about it–not just about her mother’s pride. She could feel her father’s love for her growing. The look on his face was something entirely new. After they went shopping, his eyes sometimes lit up when she tried on a new outfit that was perfect, but at the club that day it was something different.

“It made me very happy that my father wanted to show me off, the same as he loved showing off my mother.”

“Is that how you feel when I look at you?”

“When it is the two of us I agree with you. You are not showing me off. You couldn’t even if you wanted to. I am your secret.”

“Was your mother jealous that day at the club?”

“Not at all. That day, he adored me. And she took full credit. It was her glory to claim, her good genes…, but also her preparation of me. Whatever grace I had came from her.”

“Still!”

“No. She still gets those looks from my father, far more than me.”

“I was asking because I’ve seen families where that isn’t true. At restaurants, the father loves his daughter more than his wife. She’s gotten fat or just old. Or she’s fine, but his 17 year old daughter is incredible.”

“I know. Nature has made it like that. Like June is for roses. Beauty peaks at that age. That’s when men go ape-shit, fall in love, propose.”

“So I have passed my peak?”

He laughs, “Are you kidding?”

And then. Silence. They look at each other trying to keep their smile alive. But they feel awkward as silence descends on them, surrounds them. Their unsuccessful lovemaking, the way they are repeating themselves now, talking over and over about the same thing. Have they reached that point that love eventually comes to? Has their perfection been exhausted? All that’s left is repetition, hoping memories of it can fire it up again.  That often sustains couples long after the bloom is off the rose. As their relationships age it often doesn’t satisfy couples.

But then she drops her blanket and is naked. And everything is new.

 

June 27, 2017
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Summary of Commodore

1876. Cornelius Vanderbilt lies close to death in his New York townhouse. Outside, a carnival-like atmosphere of reporters, those who made him a household name, gather to wait for the end. Cantankerous old Vanderbilt is not done yet. He’s not ready to die. He allows a journalist, Michael Burch, inside. He’s worried about his legacy. He intends to make sure his story is told properly, the way it should be told. How a dirt-poor farm kid from Staten Island grows up to be first among America’s tycoons: admired by the public, consulted by Presidents, and feared by anyone who screwed him.

Burch and Vanderbilt go at it. Vanderbilt has more than an earful to dish out, unending amounts of piss and vinegar ready to be spewed. Also spit.  He is anything but easy, but the story is there.

Age 11. Vanderbilt quit school in the 5th grade , partly in defiance  of his beloved teacher, who regarded him as an opportunity to let out his animosity on a deserved  victim.  He was like his older brother. He didn’t do his homework and quit school young.  Both were groomed by Cornelius Sr., an illiterate man who was full of get rich schemes.  He always went for the easy way.   Little wonder that the Vanderbilts were assigned little status  in the community.  Poverty generation after generation. And their own fault.   Even after he rose to great heights, Cornelius couldn’t spell the simplest words. Burch is genuinely curious, amazed really.   How did this kid end up the richest man in the world?

The story is huge, not quite Christ like, where in the retelling  a common man becomes God, more like regular guy becomes king. Even then the regular guy is not from a Dickens story, where virtue and hard work are duly rewarded.  Vanderbilt is a ferocious competitor, a cursing, Pete Rose of a man.  Pete Rose got more hits than anyone who has ever played baseball. Legitimately. Yet he is banned from Baseball’s Hall of Fame by a committee that won’t forgive him for gambling on his team.  Didn’t matter that he never bet against his team.   He broke one of their sacred rules.  Pete Rose and Vanderbilt were kindred spirits.   Both did whatever had to be done. Both refused to lose. They  didn’t understand the word `no’. Vanderbilt  found a way. It wasn’t always zippity clean, but it aways was legal.

The Commodore was born in 1793, when New York and America were still young, at a noisy time of dire and ordinary poverty when, despite the lofty rhetoric we now memorialize, in bad times people starved to death, and most, barely got by.  No one could possibly imagine the meteoric trajectory that would materialize, not only for Cornelius Vanderbilt , but for America.

He started with a small sailboat at 16, taking passengers across the bay from Staten Island to Manhattan. At night he delivered freight. It didn’t occur to that boy that one day he might rule the financial universe.  His business plan during the fist year was inspired.  It was resolute. He was determined to pay back his mother’s loan for his boat after one year. He paid her 10 times over, just like he bragged he would.

He was very good at what he did, or if not, he made himself very good.  At 16 his focus was on being able to provide what his mother needed. When effort and determination were necessary it could be assumed.  If guile and ingenuity were required?  Also no problem.  That came to him naturally.

As a shrewd  business man he preferred being thought of as stupid.  (Not in his personal life, but that’s a different story.) His crudeness was an advantageous façade. The stupider others thought he was, the easier to outsmart them.  In the classroom he may have been a dolt, but elsewhere… He designed the engine for the fastest ship in the world.  During the insane Gold Rush years, it was Vanderbilt who dreamt up and delivered the fastest route to California.  Everyone else had frenzied travelers, rushing to get rich, climb the mountains of  Panama, passing bandits and barrooms.  Vanderbilt went through Nicaragua.  His early wealth came from that little project.  And so it went. He worked without vacation for 60 years, got into fist fights well into his 50’s.  In his 70’s, when others his age were settling into a comfortable rocking chair, he changed from ships to railroads without  a bump.  It never occurred to him  to quit.  He  followed the same business principle that  energized him from the beginning.  He loved making money.  He went where it led him.

Vanderbilt’s  story should appropriately end inside Grand Central Station.   Not even commuters hurrying along, can pass through Grand Central’s main concourse without experiencing the presence of a powerful architectural will.  The eyes are swept upward.  Our vision soars, uncontained.  The station’s vastness captures even the reluctant soul. In that sense the station most resembles a cathedral.  It was finished three years after the Brooklyn Bridge, four years after the Suez Canal, during  an era, when everywhere, men were building huge monuments to modern capability, the trans continental railroad, the  Eiffel Tower, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Statue of Liberty. It was a time celebrating the greatness of man, a time when can-do people believed their triumphs were just beginning.

The God fearing  were offended.   To them the spirit of the age was hubris.   We were creating Towers of Babel. Perhaps now,  Grand Central Station might be spared that charge.  Or maybe not.  It wasn’t a museum for the worship of awesome man made treasures, but it was a wonder, the towering portal to what was, in its day, the Empire State. Grand Central Station was far more Vanderbilt than his other wild fantasy.

He wanted to build a giant statue in Central Park, where he, the largest employer of men in the nation, with more money than the U.S. Treasury, where he and a giant likeness of George Washington would tower over  Central Park.  Make no mistake, he was truly the king of his era.   Lesser men, generals and statesmen often were memorialized with  statues in the park.  But still, although George Washington may have been his idol from childhood on,  and many at the time,  might have agreed with  Commodore assessment of his importance, future generation would have found his pomposity laughable. Fortunately he was talked out of that project.

Grand Central Station is exactly right.  It is a place where millions upon millions  of travelers rush through, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. It is a passageway, not an end point.

Vanderbilt was the Steve Jobs, the Jeff Bezos, the Warren Buffet of his day, forever creating and reinventing projects, invariably contesting the way others did things. The public was ga-ga about him, so much so that, in an envious fit, Mark Twain lost control. He took a shot at him, ridiculing the public’s ape like fascination.  Twain couldn’t have been further off.    He presented Vanderbilt as a forever hungry man, for whom nothing would ever be enough.  He didn’t understand that’s what the public liked about him. He arose from them, and remained one of them. Hungry.  They liked the spectacular projects going up everywhere.  It excited them.  It was a different  age. Not microchips,   huge undertakings captured the public’s wonder.  Even now, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, Grand Central Station, the Brooklyn Bridge bring millions from far and wide to gaze at  what men can do. Despite his spitting and cussing, his crabbiness and bitterness,  Commodore infuses the reader with his powerful spirit.  But they will also be present when Vanderbilt experiences his biggest failure, when he does what every man must do, lose.   He dies.

 

Commodore at Amazon

August 4, 2016
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

A Plea to Black Moderates (including Oprah)

After Ferguson two New York City policeman were assassinated, then the five at Dallas and three in Baton Rouge. As could be expected from the President, and throughout the black community, the reaction has been both shock and sympathy for the fallen officers and their families. They are calling call for love, not hate, reconciliation not violence, reactions that should be expected of them and the only hope that can see us through.

 

But no matter how heartfelt their reaction has been, we can expect little improvement in the hostility towards policemen expressed by Black Lives Matter protesters and others’ fury about unarmed black men being shot by the police. What can make a great deal of difference is for moderates to straighten the misinformation that animates a good deal of the hostility.

 

From the very beginning of the narrative that the police have been shooting innocent black men, the media has played up racism as the motive. Starting with Ferguson, a shooting that the Grand Jury took the unusual step of making their deliberations public, then followed by Obama’s Justice Department which independently went over the evidence. There was no question that the policeman involved was legitimately defending himself. There was gunpowder on Michael Brown’s hands from trying to grab the officer’s gun. He did not have his hands up. He was charging the officer. These facts were available to any reporter who did a minimum of research. Yet Ferguson is cited again and again and again by the media as an example of the police targeting innocent black men.

 

Following Ferguson, Philadelphia’s police chief asked the Justice Department to study the problem there.  In Philadelphia there are six times the number of shootings by the police as in NYC.   The Justice Department studied  the pattern of OIS (officer involved shootings) when the suspect turned out to be unarmed (a great many of those shot were suspected of having arms).  Sure enough 80% of those shot owing to  “a misinterpreted threat perception” were black and their average age was 20. However the threat perception failure rate for white policemen was 6.8% with black suspects.  For black policemen it was  11.4% and for hispanic policemen it was 16.8%.  So apparently fear of the black suspects and acting on that fear was least among white policemen.  One other statistic is worth noting.  In keeping with the belief that having to patrol  dangerous places is the main factor behind  OIS, a map of Philadelphia was made which clearly shows that OIS, by far, most commonly occurred where there is the highest amount of crime and homicides, particularly districts 22 and 25. In black middle class neighborhoods no one was shot.

 

Why has the media not presented the facts about Ferguson? Why has there not been more awareness of the Philadelphia study? Most of us who watch the news know how often they amp up happenings, to capture the most viewers. This is true of hurricane coverage as much as racially charged incidents, but there is another factor operating here. The media has been afraid to appear racist by not going along with the Black Lives Matter perspective.

 

I assume similar motivations exist for someone like Oprah or Mayor Dinkins of New York and I should add President Obama. They don’t want to appear to be on white people’s side in these controversies. It is seen as a betrayal. It should be noted that when the Justice Department’s findings totally exonerated the white policeman in Ferguson, it released this information with a condemnation of the Ferguson Police Department for their racist policies.

 

Even after the two New York City policemen were executed by a man furious with what he had been told happened in Ferguson, Obama held back from cooling things down.  He was against shooting policemen he said and he was also against the rioting that followed the grand jury’s announcement of their findings. But this man, who considers himself to be the president of all the people, could not bring himself to proclaim Officer Wilson’s innocence.  He did not mention that Officer Wilson had never used his gun before. The best he could do is this.   During a town hall-style meeting at Benedict College, a historically black school he said to the crowd:

“Officer Wilson, like anybody else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and reasonable-doubt standards…  And if there is uncertainty about what happened, then we can’t just charge him anyway because what happened was a tragedy.”

 

So I am making a plea to black moderates. Before any more policemen are killed it is not enough to whisper platitudes. Your reluctance to speak loudly is understandable but too much is at stake here for you to hold back. Why does no one bring into the narrative the fact that during the Civil war 360,000 white men from the north lost their lives trying to free black slaves? Your courage is needed. It could save lives.