My Inheritance . . .

—From CB—

This week, for reasons unfathomable, I’ve been thinking about my mother. She died some years ago, age 85, and left us enough money for a downpayment on our house. I’ve been thinking what else she left me.


     A pile of photo albums: the family in front of the Christmas tree, the family in front of the car, the family in front of the house. endlessly. Oddly, we’re always smiling, and it wasn’t forced, except on visits when we had to watch the Lawrence Welk show.


    And when I hit the teen years and discovered my own, we had many tempests. Yet she could bend—not with a boss or a salesclerk or some honcho in charge, but with me. Having struggled for money all her life, she was deeply anxious about my going into theatre rather than engineering, but finally it was, “Whatever you’re happy with.” Same with my marrying young. Same with my leaving professorship for taking a chance on a rag-tag theatre troupe. She’d worked all her life at drudge jobs—from bookkeeping to riveting B-29s to assembly line at a meatpacking plant to driving a dynamite truck—and simply wanted me to do what I wanted to do.

    What I didn’t inherit, to my regret, was her confrontational instinct. I hate conflict. I hate my own anger. I don’t like it in others, but I could use a bit more of it myself. As a playwright, I’ve rarely worked well with other directors of our work because I’m too compliant. I can’t bring myself to complain about the neighbor’s dog. On the other hand, it’s perhaps contributed to my high creativity in finding compromise.


    As a writer, I look first at my characters’ incongruities, and much of that, I think, comes from trying to comprehend her. She would certainly have supported Trump’s policies, but she always voted—or didn’t—on whether or not she liked the guy, and her assessment of him might well have been “big fat blowhard.”

    For a time she had been dirt poor, with the challenge of being a single parent, but she had no sympathy with anyone on “handouts.” She would have been appalled at the current family separations, but would have blamed the mothers for putting their kids in danger. At family gatherings our kids would hear their loving Grandma spout racial epithets —“The niggers are all over North Omaha”—and we would have to explain, “Grandma’s just that way, and you’re not going to change her,” as I knew from having that fight many times. We’re each a menagerie of personae.


    She had a capacity to accept the inevitable. Two failed marriages, but while she was dead honest with me about my deserter dad’s faults, she was honest about her love for him. When she was courted in elder years by a nice man with what was, to her, absolute disqualifiers (a farmer, a Catholic, and with strong family ties), she married him—in large part, I think, to provide for her old age without being a burden to us. When she was seriously ill, receiving regular transfusions, as soon as it became clear to her that she was beyond recovery, she died rapidly—an iron will turned inward.

    Odd to think of that as a survival mechanism, but it was for her and it is for me. Shit happens, and my head goes instantaneously to, Okay, what do we do? It’s a challenge to realize that I need to precede that by an appropriate allowance for grief or rage, and I try to be mindful of others’ emotional timelines, but it serves its purpose for my own process to proceed on, Damn, that’s life. What’s next?


    I’ve always thought that my father, through his negative example, gave me an almost pathological sense of responsibility. But maybe in a roundabout way, my mother contributed. “You’re the man of the house,” she told me at the age of five, and I was painfully aware of my inadequacy for that role. But a little guilt goes a long way. I was no better than any only-child at taking on the dishwashing or lawn mowing that would make a difference, and I married someone with a technical bent that made “man of the house” irrelevant. But traits kick in at various levels. If I say I’ll do something, I’ll do it.


    It was always that. In my own life, I can only claim that for three people, my wife and my children. Love for and a stake in many friends, but for me “unconditional” for only a few, and it’s as literal as my mother’s love for this little brat who stomped on her boyfriend’s shiny shoes.


            Lots of genes that I wish hadn’t come from her, and lots that didn’t, but I’m grateful for what she gave me.


Lookee Here . . .

—From EF—

I have developed a highly itchy reaction to any photo wherein one person, grinning at the camera, is pointing his/her (usually his) index finger at the other person. “Looky here!” One person who does this a lot is he-who-shall-not-be-named, and I thought my ick-reaction was a product of how I feel about this “person.” Then I began seeing a lot of photos with this same gesture being performed by someone I know personally, someone for whom I have a big heap of respect and affection. And I still went “Ick.” So what’s up with that?

We live, IMHO, in a Top-Dog culture, where dominance is the name of the game. The domination memes are so baked into our consciousness that they don’t register as that, and the use of the meme may have nothing at all to do with an attempt to dominate. It takes a aha-moment to get it.

There was a study done, multiply reported, that went something like this. In a mixed group, a researcher named Jackson Katz would ask a question: “What do you do on a daily basis to prevent yourself from being sexually assaulted?” In general, men were initially confused, then answered, “Nothing. I don’t think about it.” Then the women responded, and they had a long list of their multiple actions, from holding their car keys in their fist as a defensive weapon to putting a male voice on their answering machine. It would take a whole page to list these, but all women will know what I’m talking about.

So neither men nor women are putting this at the top of their consciousness, it’s just part of what they do on a daily basis. Why should this matter? Because it takes for granted the inherently different lives lived by men and women. Should this be accepted? 

OK, what about the common photos of two people, one grinning and pointing at the other? This is what I get, whether or not it is intended. The pointer is putting himself in the dominant position, and reinforces this by grinning directly at the camera. “See me? I’m telling you to look at this other person, and I’m telling you that they’re really special. You know me, you think I’m special, so you’ll pay attention.”

Why am I writing about this, other than to vent an irk? Because I’d like to share a wish to see from the other side of the mirror more often, to walk in other shoes, and to have the sand to be able to ask, “Is this what you really mean?” When our kids heard their beloved grandma use vile racial terms, we would say something privately to them later, “Well, that’s just Grandma, that’s the way she grew up.” Looking back, I can’t remotely imagine how I could have spoken of this to her. But we are on different ground now, and much of it is turning to tar-pits. 

So if your shoe starts to stick to the sidewalk, I encourage you to lift your foot, see what’s under there, and think where you’ve been walking. Then see if there’s anything you can do to clean it up. 


Stir & Stew . . .

—From CB—

We’ve returned from four days at a music festival a couple of hours north of here, about our fourth time and for once not blindingly hot. Very mellow days, in fact, very laid-back schedule, good sleep except for the final night when our neighbors were jamming till 2:30 a.m., and a sweet laid-back vibe overall. It’s conceivable we could have tuned into email and the news, but we didn’t. The walks to the music stages were long enough to tune us in, and our tent & tequila were welcoming.

I did carry one obsession with me, as I must: the final chapters of the sixth draft of our new novel AKEDAH. Oddly, in the days when the writing was essential to our livelihood, I was probably less obsessed than now, when there’s little problem paying the bills and consequently the obsession has.a purity that risks overdose. My iPad is easily charged from the Prius’ battery and accompanies me over the musical acreage, allowing me at times to be distracted by a mad Scottish quartet or a girl (now grandmother) band from the Sixties or a headliner I never heard of or a very sweet slide guitar. I managed three chapters of the revision, and we finished the tequila.

Today we returned, unpacked, washed all the tuppers that had held Elizabeth’s exquisite camp meals, and caught up on the news—pretty much as bad as I’d expected, though not entirely. Though our house-sitter kept things in order, our cats swarmed us as expected, and I picked a basket of plums from our teeming tree.

The mind compartmentalizes, I suppose as a survival tactic. I can read the news or a friend’s pain on Facebook, and then I can pet the cats. All are felt, but none hold me fast in their claw. In a way it’s like my wandering from stage to stage at the festival and then to my writing and then to supper and then to the snuggle in the tent—these things all exist side by side.

It’s especially odd with the novel. It comes out of an unproduced play from a number of years ago, an update of the Abraham/Isaac story, implacably grim. It’ll be the next thing we publish, though it’s very hard to imagine who’ll want to read it: the more humane it becomes, the grimmer. In fact the only way I can justify publishing it is to take the money we’d budget for promotion and apply it to giving books away gratis. That’ll happen some time after the first of the year. Right now I’m just trying to get it out of my head.

Yet it doesn’t dull the magic of the plums or the cats or the music or my mate. It’s just part of the stir and the stew.


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