Posted in family, fiction, writing

Honesty

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I vowed not to return until I had news about some piece, or poem, or what-have-you being published, knowing that at the rate I finish work and submit, that could be years…

…but then Philip Roth died.

***

I came to Roth’s work through a friend, who handed me a copy of The Ghost Writer and insisted I read it. Since the friend had also been my composition teacher in graduate school, I didn’t waste any time in getting to the assignment, and even took the book with me when I went home to visit my parents several days later.

When my father saw what I was reading, he said, “Roth? He’s anti-Semitic, isn’t he?”

My father had never read any of Roth’s work.

I said, “I don’t think so. Read the jacket.”  I handed the book to him.

After reading, he seemed interested. The next day, I bought him a copy.

He finished reading it while I was visiting, and loved it.

***

I suspect Roth found other new readers with The Ghost Writer, a tale in which the author/protagonist’s notorious anger is replaced by a yearning so potent it bleeds off the page. It is, at its core, about the love of story and storytelling, the need to create, and the search for redemption through creation.

So, It was no accident that my former teacher—a composer and artist—loved the book. Nor was it any accident that my father—a linguist and writer— loved it, or that so many people who love storytelling have loved it, too.

***

My friend, my father, and I went on to read all of Roth’s Zuckerman books as they were released.

***

It wasn’t until I was teaching that I finally read Portnoy’s Complaint. One of my students mentioned it in class, and another burst out laughing, saying, “Even the title gets me going.”

I never taught Portnoy, but I did teach The Ghost Writer, numerous times, as well as Operation Shylock, Deception (a work which has continued to fascinate me), Goodbye, Columbus, and, of course, Defender of the Faith.

I will say that every time I taught any of these works, students came to class with plenty to say about them, which was not always the case with other literature we studied.

***

When my mother was getting on in years, she confessed that she had grown up in a Kosher house. We never kept Kosher, and ate trayf at home and in restaurants, so I was confused. Besides, I had seen my grandmother eat all kinds of trayf.  My mother shook her head. “She’s always eaten it, just never at home…at least, not until the day I bought a pound of bacon and fried it in one of her pans.”

***

There’s an anger that brews when you’re subjected to a set of rules and standards, only to see them broken by their makers and enforcers.

And if you’re a writer, you turn that anger into prose and take aim, pitting good against bad, reverence against hypocrisy, knowing, hopefully, that readers might take offense.

***

I know with absolute certainty that Shadows and Ghosts would not have been written without Roth’s influence.

I never met the man, but the lessons I learned from his writing are all over mine.

I’ve seen the anger, the “anti-Semitism,” the misogyny (not my favorite books), and I’ve also seen a writer who, even at his most offensive, is unflinchingly and brutally honest about his experiences and feelings.

***

Sadly, my father never spoke much about his relationship with his father, other than to relate a couple of hilarious anecdotes. (The time my grandfather threw my father’s student violin out a window comes immediately to mind. Anyone who has ever suffered through a beginning violin student’s practice sessions will sympathize.) Even though I wished he had said more, I didn’t press him. My grandfather died of cancer when I was a baby, and I sensed my father was still pained by the loss. However, when he read Patrimony, he opened up a bit, enough to let me know that Roth’s remembrances of his dying father resonated in a profound way.

Honesty in writing, the kind that clings to the bone, is a rare and difficult quality; it can disgust and inflict pain, but it can also provide understanding and solace.

***

In the past year, while I’ve had much to say about a number of issues and events, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not the time to speak, as tempers are running high, and I so often run afoul of popular opinion.

Frankly, who needs the tsuris?

But Roth’s legacy has given me pause, something to mull over as I crawl back into my comfortable silence…

…perhaps I should reconsider.

©2018 All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in fiction, Flash Fiction, food, human nature, language, writing

Pudding

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Once upon a time, there was Comfort, and there was Safety, and each was known for its own special meaning. Because the two got along so well, they developed a relationship of mutual respect and autonomy. Comfort could live without Safety, and Safety could live without Comfort; but as they discovered they were often better together, enhancing each other’s unique qualities, they preferred not to be apart.

All was well in their relationship for a while, until a strange thing began to happen: people started to mistake one for the other—saying, I want comfort, when, in fact, what they really meant was, I want safety, and vice versa. At first, Comfort and Safety were amused by the confusion. However, as it increased, they found themselves squabbling over which of them was needed for this or that purpose, with one saying, You go, and the other saying, No, you. The result was that either both of them would show up, or neither would, leaving people so confounded and frustrated, that there was no recourse but to heap enormous bags of connotation on them in an attempt to clarify their uses. This left the two stricken and pained, and so weighted down that they suffered severe identity crises, and, eventually, could not function at all.

Naturally, their relationship soured.

Comfort, who had never had a secure sense of self-esteem to begin with, due to being overshadowed by safety’s stalwart nature and moral certainty, wanted to seek Therapy.

But Safety scoffed at the idea, claiming Therapy’s definite article was misused and over-prescribed, making it a cliché.

If Comfort had been of a different ilk, it would have pointed out the rich irony of Safety’s comment, considering that both of them had been described as illusions. But, since arguing was antithetical to Comfort’s nature, it said nothing. And, ignoring a string of modifiers that were now dangling from one of its overstuffed bags, it slunk away, and plunged into a vat of warm chocolate pudding to console itself.

Meanwhile, Safety was not about to sit and wait for Comfort’s return. Who did Comfort think it was anyway, ditching Safety for speaking the truth? The nerve! Safety was so miffed, that it hoisted itself, and its baggage, up, and stalked off, determined to find and court Happiness.

But, as Happiness, in a fit of paranoia, had taken a nose dive into the chocolate pudding with Comfort, it was a pursuit that proved utterly futile.

©2018 All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in books, creativity, fiction, music, Shadows and Ghosts, writing

An Imperfect Stitch

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There is an error in Shadows and Ghosts.

During occasional battles with an ongoing obsession over symmetry and accuracy, I’ve considered correcting it…but only momentarily.

~~~

In 1975, Leon Redbone released his album, On the Track, which contains a rendition Of “Ain’t Misbehavin” (lyrics by Andy Razaf and music by Thomas “Fats” Waller and Harry Brooks).

Redbone’s interpretation is slightly off-kilter: the intonation struggles in places, and there are extra beats sprinkled throughout. But I love it. Its off-balance rhythmic irregularities, the nasal grit in Redbone’s voice, the imperfect instrumental tones and pitches feel fresh and authentic.  They transform a great song into a greater one.

~~~

My mother was a perfectionist. Today we would likely say her attention to detail was compulsive. But that compulsiveness got her far, made her successful at everything she did. Although I’ve spent most of life as an unapologetic underachiever, I have no doubt that some of her “perfectionism” rubbed off on me. You can’t spend hours practicing scales and arpeggios, isolated musical passages over and over without being at least a little compulsive. It’s the only way to train the brain, develop fine motor skills, make the muscles remember.

But it’s not always enough.

Along with compulsive tendencies, creation demands an oblique and often fractured perspective, a willingness to look at subject matter, construction, sideways and through a prism.

~~~

When I think of the thousands of books I’ve read, pieces of music I’ve played, I realize most of them contained errors and/or irregularities, some degree of strangeness in small or large ways that established the works as fresh and unique, that transformed and elevated them.

So I keep my error in place, because in important ways, it acts as a type of cipher.  And to reinforce its importance, I put a prism in plain view.

©2018 All Rights Reserved