Posted in family, fiction, writing

Honesty

green wooden chair on white surface
Photo by Paula Schmidt on Pexels.com

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

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 11.38.09 PM

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, family, fiction, Mothers, Shadows and Ghosts, writing

Coming to….

 

the-persistence-of-memory
The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali

(From Shadows and Ghosts)

I returned to New York in August of ‘91 with five hundred dollars to my name (all that was left from the royalties on my surrealism film, money I’d saved while teaching, and a surprisingly large option on a Jungle Thriller I’d written as a joke), direct from my breakup with Ricky Mahoney, looking for God-knows-what from the city and my family. I’d say I was thinking that a change from L.A.’s brand of insanity might do me good, or that my mother’s homemade chicken soup, Max’s good-natured pep-talks, and Lisa’s insistence that having my hair colored and styled would make me feel better, but that would be a lie. The sad fact is, when I left the West Coast for the East, I wasn’t thinking at all. All I had going for me was brain-stem activity, and even that was minimal. The only reason I managed to get on the right plane was because the same friend who had convinced me to fly out to L.A. put me on it. I vaguely remember an arm around my waist and the feeling of falling into a seat and seeing someone’s hands fussing with a clasp in the vicinity of my crotch. I also remember telling the person who was fussing not to bother with the chastity belt because I knew how to pick the locks. The next thing I recall is coming to in a hospital room. Max was standing at my bedside and Lisa was pacing madly beside him.

“You should have left her on the plane.”

“I couldn’t. They would have taken her to a state hospital. You don’t want her in a place like that.”

“I don’t?”

“Lisa.”

“No, Max. I’m sick to death of the way she keeps dragging us into her messes, and the way you get Crusher to leap into action to save her. For once, she could have at least had the courtesy to get strung out on the other side of the country.”

“Keep your voice down.”

“Who’s listening? The nurses? The doctors? They have better things to do.”

“What about Ida Mae? She might hear you.”

I quickly shut my eyes.

“Oh, please.”

“Or your mother. She could show up any minute.”

Lisa said, “What?”

“I said, your mother might hear you.”

“You told our mother?” she said. “My mother that Ida Mae was here? In the hospital? That she was….”

“Don’t worry. I didn’t tell Edna why Ida Mae was here. I just said she collapsed at the airport, probably from exhaustion. I thought your folks would want…”

“Of course. I mean, Ida Mae is their darling, isn’t she? Why wouldn’t they want to know why she didn’t come to see them the second she landed? Exhaustion. I protect Ida Mae and myself and end up being a schlemiel. They’ll carry on about how sensitive she is and I’ll get shoveled away like a pile of soaked kitty litter.”

“That’s not true.”

“Oh, no? You wait and see what happens when they get here. You wait.”

And then I caught a whiff of Chanel and stuffed cabbage, and heard my mother’s voice slice through the room. “How is she?”

I opened my eyes. My mother was bending over me, laying her palm on my forehead, and grasping my wrist to check for signs of life.

“She’s slee…” Lisa moved next to her and got a look at me. “I guess she’s awake.”

“Mom, Lisa, Max.” I smiled weakly. “Hi.”

My mother leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, nearly smothering me with her chest in the process. Then she sat on the bed. “Look at all these tubes. Gevalt. So why didn’t you come home before you got sick?”

“I’m sorry.” I looked past her to Max. He had this sad, lopsided smile on his face. Lisa’s back was to me. “Where’s Dad?”

“Looking for a spot.”
 Lisa swiveled around. “Why didn’t he just go into the lot?”

My mother turned so she could see Lisa. “I told him that, but you know your father. ‘What? I’m going to pay twenty dollars to a hospital to visit my daughter there? Don’t they charge enough already for the room?’ Who can argue with him?” She shifted her focus back to me. “So, are they feeding you enough? You look so tired. What did you have for lunch?”

“I don’t know. What does it say on the bag I’m hooked to?”

Max laughed and Lisa shot him a glare. “That’s not funny.”

“Sure it is, Leese. C’mon.”

I took Mom’s hand just to annoy her. “So, Max, did you guys get a cat? I thought I heard Lisa say something about kitty litter.”

“What’s this?” Mom pulled away from me and zoomed in on Lisa. “A cat with the baby? Are you meshugah? It could smother her.”

“Ma, the baby is five years old.” I swear, if Lisa had had a gun at that moment, she would have used it on me.

Max cut in. “Edna, Lisa told me you went to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Met yesterday. How did you like it?”

“It was wonderful.” My mother, who could be distracted no matter who was in the hospital, said, “We loved it…and we would have seen the whole thing, but we were parked at a half-hour meter.”

It was about then that my father showed up, having found a great spot two blocks away at another half-hour meter. As a result of the parking situation, I didn’t see much of them while I was in the hospital, which is just as well. It made it easier to sustain the lie.

©2011 All Rights Reserved