Tuesday, November 1, 2011

the inner shlemiel

Tonight I went to see a documentary "Laughing in the Darkness" about the Yiddish storyteller Sholem Aleichem who created the character Tevvye, the milkman; the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" was based on his stories. The story of Sholem Aleichem's life encompasses much more than his biography -- it's the story of eastern European Jewry and its transformation or attempt at transformation into contemporary life, particularly American life. It's the cultural clash between a very provincial people (not simply a religion but a culture) living in a remote part of the world (the pale of Russia for the most part) and Modern Times. When I write this, it occurs to me that the culture clash was not peculiar to Jews  -- Italian, Swedish, Chinese, Hungarian -- most cultures experienced the same confusion, the same loss of identity as Jews which is why Charlie Chaplin could satirize it so potently. We all had to become something very different than what we'd been in our effort to become American, to fit in to the U.S of A. (Some cultures like Native Americans are still traumatized by the effort at transformation.) And for some, the transformation was never complete which is why we still have movie-makers like Woody Allen or a movie like the Coen Brothers "A Serious Man" -- which humorously describe this culture clash that continues to occur generation after generation. That feeling of being ill-equipped to fit it, of even wondering whether fitting-in merits the loss involved? What is that loss?  It's a loss of a certain humanity, of accepting human foibles, of not needing or even wanting to measure up to the bar of financial success or any kind of "success" -- it's the right be a schlemiel, a slacker, a low-achiever -- and that being okay. In "Fiddler on the Roof" Tevvye sings, "If I were a rich man..." The original Sholem Aleichem story was "If I was a Rothchild..."but Tevvye is a milkman; he's not ever going to be a Rothschild and frankly we need more Tevvye's than Rothschilds, don't we? The truth is not all of us want to spend our lives becoming rich and famous. We don't aspire to be Bill Gates or even Steve Jobs. And yet we live in a culture that constantly extolls achievement, that presses us to achieve, achieve and achieve so more...no wonder so many people are depressed; no wonder so many people feel not good enough. I was actually asked that question today in an interview about a book of mine that's just been published. How does it feel to be a writer who keeps writing even if the path is not the Pulitzer (that's not how the question was phrased but that's what I thought the interviewer meant). I was kind of surprised, but I attempted to say: If you like to write and you do write and you have any success at all, like publication by a local publisher -- hey, that's great!!! And I was greatly cheered by seeing Sholem Aleichem pull out his notebook every chance he got, just to write, cause that's what you do, that's what feels good, that's who you are whether or not it's recognized or acclaimed. You do what you do because you're claiming your humanity -- and that's the goal. That's always been the goal.

The Better Divorce

I just read an article in the NY Times about the "good divorce" --  because the writer is so pleased her divorce was better than her parents. A lot better. My generation didn't know how to get a divorce I suppose because we hadn't had parents who divorced, so we didn't know how. When I went to high school in the '60's there was one student, as far as I knew, in the entire high school whose mother was divorced. It was a big deal. The girl's identifying characteristic, so to speak. People had parents (as one learned later) who drank. "Admit it, everyone knew," said one of my classmates later. "My father was a lush." There were parents who were skirt-chasers, who molested their children (again we hear of it 50 years later); who were mentally ill (those kids lived in total isolation, fear, shame, anguish); parents who argued, threw dishes at one another, and so on....But mostly the Boomer Generation had parents who stuck together. Unless they lived in California which, as far as we were concerned, was another country. A country of divorced parents and wild kids.

I only write this because I personally had so little direct contact with divorce in my life (my husband and I have managed to stay married a very long time) until my son -- already a father -- separated from his girlfriend. I had no idea of the impact on our grandchild who was only one at the time. I assumed he would be okay. After all he was growing up mostly with separated parents so that was the world he knew. But I was wrong. From the very beginning, it was clear he relished having his parents together. On the few occasions when his Mom and Dad were in the same room -- holidays, for example -- he so delighted in the moment. "Look, Mom, there's Daddy." he'd say with joy and wonder. Now he simply misses the parent he's not with. We have a photograph from the one Christmas the three were together. Actually it's a triptych with one photograph of my son, the Dad, on the left, a picture of the baby with Mom in the middle and a picture of Mom on the right. The picture hangs in the bathroom, over the toilet. Every time my grandchild stands on the toilet after peeing so I can help him wash his hands in the adjacent sink, he studies that picture. I study it too. We both are sad for a moment together. We both wish that little family had stuck together. But my "daughter-in-law" (that's what I consider her) is like many young women of that generation. Her parents (the Boomer generation) had a horrendous divorce when she was in her teens. It was an awful experience in every respect. She seems determined to circumvent that emotional upheaval by not committing to marriage in the first place. I don't entirely blame her. My son was hugely immature when they got together. At the time he didn't have a job, didn't take care of the house; he was largely irresponsible. No wonder she kicked him out. I believe, of course, that he could have grown into the responsibility motivated by his love of being a father. But she didn't give it time to happen. Maybe she saw herself as forestalling the eventual agony. But the agony is there anyway whether it comes early or late...And it's especially present for our grandchild. Of course we all pitch in, both parents and grandparents, to care for him and make sure he feels loved at every moment. But his missing, his sense of disappointment that both his beloved parents aren't present in his life at all times, is palpable. That bit of sadness is woven into who he is just like his marvelous sense of humor, his huge imagination, his tenderness. No there is no good divorce, I don't believe -- not when children are involved. There's simply a "better divorce". It's not simply that math scores slip (as national studies seem to indicate) -- it's the child's sense of an intact universe, a sense of completeness, of wholeness that's lacking. That's what our grandchild has to compensate for, has to struggle to achieve. Maybe this early separation beats the other sort -- it's surely better than a hostile, violent marriage.  But I wish my grandchild had the best of everything ( not materially but emotionally) and that's not possible when his parents are split. I honestly believe he experiences a core psychic split that will heal in some fashion, but will always exist...like invisible scar tissue. So, yes, there are better divorces but, for children, not good divorces.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Little Donna

It's never too late to grow up. A friend named Donna recently offered me a very useful metaphor. She said she was going on a trip to meet with a prospective boyfriend and before going she performed this ritual. She put "little Donna" in a pocketbook and put the pocketbook in a drawer and closed the drawer. Little Donna was not going on the trip with her and sabotage her efforts at creating a genuine love relationship.

She explained to me that "little Donna" was the portions of her personality that were still childish or adolescent -- bits and pieces that hadn't caught up to the rest of her growth and maturity as a person. I listened closely. I can truly relate to this metaphor. There are parts of me that simply won't behave, that won't act rationally, that continually cause problems in relationships (usually) -- parts of me that are selfish, greedy, petulant, immature, irresponsible, childish. The ME FIRST parts of me. The angry, I WANT MY WAY parts of me. The LOOK AT ME parts of me.

For whatever reason, these parts didn't get resolved in my youth -- they come around and keep coming around despite many lessons, hard lessons, that should have pushed me to move on, grow up, reach a higher level. A part of me digs in her heels and says "NO I STILL WANT TO BE FREE AND IRRESPONSIBLE - I WANT TO BE A CHILD FOREVER!!"

At age 60 and older, isn't it time to really look at those unruly parts of ones self? It seems late to be paying attention. But it's not too late. We all know old ladies who behave in extremely childish ways -- fussy, greedy, petty -- it's not very becoming. And we know other elderly ladies who are very dignified, very disciplined, serene. Wouldn't we prefer to be the latter?

But it ain't easy to put our "little selves" in the drawer. The longer she's been in our life, the more entrenched. Also there's always a good side to hanging on to one's child. The enthusiasm, the playfulness, the zest. How can one still enjoy being a child but eliminate the childishness? That's the issue. That's the work.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


We've just been treated to the venerable Academy Awards celebrating the BEST movies made but what are the WORST movies ever made and couldn't some of the WORST movies ever made also have won Academy Awards?

My answer is YES. Definitely YES. There are a number of movies that won BEST PICTURE that I hate. One of those might be the recent winner "No Country for Old Men" except that I only watched the first one and half minutes before leaving the theater. (Fortunately it was a multi-plex so I just went into another room and watched another film). Cause I knew that I didn't need to see how Javier Bardem was going to find new and different cruel ways to kill people for two hours longer. And yet some people, like my sister in law, loved that movie. And it won a heap of Oscars.

But there is one movie that I did watch from start to finish that I totally despise and it also won BEST PICTURE.  In my opinion MILLION DOLLAR BABY is the worst movie ever made. Not because of its production values or the directing or the acting -- all of which were excellent. But because of the MESSAGE of the movie. Now you may ask: What is the message of a movie? And I will tell you quite simply that the message is what you carry away from the movie, it's the underlying truth of the movie -- it's what it's REALLY about -- and sometimes even the people who make the movie don't even know....

But the underlying message in Million Dollar Baby is that spunky, talented, determined young women end up in a hospital bed wishing they were dead and biting off their tongues until a self-absorped daddy figure kindly pulls the plug and takes them out of their misery. 

No, I don't think Clint Eastwood knew that his movie was cruel and vengeful toward energetic, ambitious young woman at least not on a conscious level ( on an unconcious level he may have because he's had a few forceful young women in his life who didn't make him happy). Nevertheless it's impossible for the ordinary movie-goer to walk away from that movie and not think WOW the ending of this movie sure is different from Rocky or The Fighter or Cinderella Man. Especially Rocky -- because that movie is typical of the down and outer who works his ass off, literally and figuratively, but despite all huge odds ultimately wins the match, wins the girl, wins the OSCAR, becomes such a super-hero we can't get rid of the dude.

That's not what happens to the enterprising boxer Maggie (Hilary Swank) . It could happen but it doesn't happen. Instead she gets thrown an ugly punch by a tough black female fighter and falls and hits her head and the rest is misery. Really deep dark gruesome misery. And why does this make me mad, really spitting mad -- is that young women who are talented and spunky and determined need to know that they can win, just like Rocky, they can overcome the odds (of their upbringing or their education or their appearance == cause that still really matters with girls -- or whatever their challenges are) and go to the top, the very top. They too need to believe they can get the man and the money and the applause or whatever they set their heart on...they are not going to end up wrecked and ruined and needing some patriarchal dude to alleviate their distress.

I wish this movie would disappear. The fact that it was well acted, etc. just means that its message becomes stronger and more persuasive. And don't think young women don't get it. They do. So I ardently hope some day Clint Eastwood will make a movie with production values as good as Million Dollar Baby but with an entirely different message for young women -- and that movie also will win an Oscar.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


As a writer and somebody who thinks about things, I love to watch my grandson’s brain working. At age three when he doesn’t have a mastery of language and he’s still learning new words, you can see him thinking about things. Thinking how to say things, how to describe what he’s seeing. It’s fascinating. Not to mention how easily he remembers everything you’ve said to him.

Like this morning we were petting the cat and talking about how the cat could use his claws to climb up a tree; how the dog had claws too but didn’t have the sort of claws to climb up a tree. He had just learned that information during the last time we talked about the cat and he was eager to show me his new knowledge. He demonstrated with his arms and hands how the cat would climb up the tree. He repeated it two or three times.

He searches for words to describe what he wants to say. He’s so eager to learn and know more. There’s so much in the world that fascinates him. I love for him to ask why about very simple things we take for granted. Why does water come out of the faucet? Why does the pan get too hot to touch? Why is the floor slippery if you spill oil on it? Why does the cat have softer fur than the dog? So many things in the world to wonder about…

We grown-ups are so busy doing things and things are just something that’s there to help us do what we want to do – the water comes out of the faucet so we can fill up the teapot or brush our teeth. If the oil spills on the floor, we need to clean it up. When the pan gets hot enough we’ll melt butter and cook our omelette. We live in a utilitarian universe. We rarely wonder why any more. We rarely even think about the world we’re living in. We busily try to find other worlds – in the newspaper, in a book, on the television, on the computer. What about the world existing around us? The very simple, solid, here it is now world that grabs Brandon’s attention at every moment.

How my heart comes alive as I live the day with him, moment by moment. Last night he pointed through the skylight at the moon shining above – magic – it’s magic and it’s right in our lives, right now, with us.