Monday, May 30, 2011

Poem For My Wife's 60th Birthday

We met like survivors appearing out of the dust of a battle just ended.
I could barely see you, all scarred and wounded.
My hair had turned to mud.
We had fought for different kings
but we had survived the wars.  Now we serve the same king
and we are together.
Today you are sixty.  I know, that's a hard stone for a woman
to swallow.  You think you're done for.  It doesn't matter. 
In this kind of life, there is no beginning middle or end.
You are the same woman you've always been.
You think you don't work hard enough, but
you work way too hard.  Your bills are already paid, the important ones: mother, grandmother, partner.  You've given far beyond your heart's frontier.
Be sixty.  Be seventy.  If we get to eighty
we can walk together into the desert, beyond where the roads end.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When I Was In The Sixth Grade

          The above photo was taken in May of 1959.  It shows my entire sixth grade class, with our teacher, Mr. Warren, to the right (YOUR right) of the principal, Mr. Long.  I am located in the middle row at your extreme right.  That little boy with the strained smile and the upswept hair- is yours truly. 
            Memory provides me with the names of almost three quarters of these people.  The scowling boy in front of me, sitting on the bench, recently got in touch with me.  He's a successful attorney with kids and grandkids.  He was always affable and known as a superb athlete.  When I tap his memory, things look very different from the way they look in my own memory.  My classmate remembers not only the shoes he was wearing that day, he remembers the shoes I was wearing that day.
            Most of these kids were eleven or twelve.  Sixth grade was the last moment of innocence before we were pushed into Junior High School and the fierce competition that would ride on our backs like flying monkeys all through high school.
            Some of these kids look dumb as telephone poles and others look like they're plotting to bomb the school.  I'm positive that at least one of the boys farted.  I'm also positive that at least one of the girls suppressed a fart, thereby precipitating her very first menstrual period.
            The guy standing next to me, whose name was Lansing Boyles-Hertz, invented a working time machine in 1967.   He went back to see his father during the Battle Of The Bulge and accidentally shot his dad in the head.  Lance wasn't seen after that.  He erased his own existence.  The tall guy in the top row is in the Witness Protection Program.  The boy standing just below the teacher is doing time for arson, and the guy next to him is now the Rabbi at United Hebrew, St. Louis' largest Reformed congregation.
            That was the sixth grade.  At the time there were only three billion people in the world.  A mere fifty two years ago.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Jewish Nazi

My father cut out the image of my mother sometime during his second marriage.  He had his reasons but I regret not being able to study the visage of the woman who had such a devastating effect on our family.

            I come from a Jewish family.  When I was a kid I attended Hebrew School four days a week until I was thirteen.  As you can imagine, I hated it.  While my gentile friends were out playing, I was wearing a yarmulke in a stuffy classroom taking instruction from a stuffy alte-kocker named Mr. Ansky.  My Bar Mitzvah brought four years of religious education to an end.

            I've never had much sympathy for organized religion.  Over time I've cobbled together a personal interpretation of the cosmos and my place in it.  That's all I need to say on the subject.

            When I was eleven or twelve I became fascinated with Vikings and Nordic mythology.  I discovered the operas of Richard Wagner and spent hours listening to The Ring Cycle.  This tied in with all things Germanic, and I was engrossed in the history of World War Two.  In retrospect I think it was about style: the Germans had the coolest uniforms.  I read everything I could get my hands on.

            Then I fell in with an older kid who was a neo-Nazi.  He had an amazing collection of memorabilia.  He had photos, documents, models, weapons, uniforms.  I found the whole Nazi mythos fascinating.   I was hooked, big time.  I couldn't get enough of it.  I can, in a weird way, understand why so many Germans fell under Hitler's spell.  He exuded a terrifying magnetism.

            I didn't appreciate the irony of being a Jewish Nazi.  I rationalized that I was a history buff.  Only in retrospect do I understand what I was doing.  I was in rebellion.  My mother was a Jew-hating Jew.  If you're not Jewish you may not understand this phenomenon.  Trust me.  Some of the most anti-Semitic people are Jews.  My mother planted in me a deep shame.  She said awful things about Jews and I developed a loathing for my ethnic identity.  I also loathed my mother.  Or shall I say we loathed one another.  That's very sad.

            My Nazi friend drew me deeper into his fantasy world.  He believed that Hitler was still alive and that an organized Nazi movement was preparing to spring forth and begin another war of conquest.  Bear in mind, this was 1960, and memories of the war were fresher than they are today.  My dad and all my friends' dads had been in the war.  They didn't talk about it and we didn't ask.  But they had been in the war.

            My acquaintance showed me letters in German that he was receiving from Argentina.  They appeared with authentic looking Nazi letter heads.  They were scary looking.  My companion told me that I could be "safe" and even "useful" if I renounced Judaism.  Meanwhile my Bar Mitzvah was only months away and I was singing from the Torah several times a week, rehearsing my portion of the reading.

            I had to get away from this guy.  He was asking me to paint swastikas on synagogues.  He wanted to beat up Jewish kids.

            When I told him I was done with all this crap, he threatened to kill me because I was now a security risk.  I believed him.  I lived in silent terror for almost six months.  I was too ashamed to tell my dad.

            I remember this scene so well.  Dad and I were sitting in a booth at an ice cream parlor called Jack And Jill's.  The owner created monstrous castles of ice cream.  The premium super-duper top of the line sundae was called The Empire State Building.  It was two feet high with buttresses of wafer cookies and whipped cream, topped by a giant spike of chocolate.

            It was a special moment, being with my dad at Jack and Jill's, but I was too nervous to enjoy myself.  I was constantly looking over my shoulder.  I watched every person who entered the establishment.  I looked so wan that he asked me what was wrong.  At last, swallowing my shame, I spilled the story.  I told him that Nazis were going to come for me, to kill me.

            He laughed.  "That's total nonsense," he responded.  "No one's going to kill you.  It's only kid stuff."

            Just like that, my father dispelled my terror.  I felt as if I had been released from a set of medieval stocks.  It was over.

            Of all the things my father has done for me, I can never forget the relief he gave me by responding as he did.  My father, in his wisdom, said exactly the right thing.  He might have gotten freaky and suggested calling the police, or talking to the kids' parents.  That would only have prolonged my misery.  That would have treated the threat as real.  But it wasn't real.
And dad knew that; he had his own finely tuned threat-gauge that seems to belong in the toolkit of fatherhood.  He quickly consulted his gauge, saw that the needle was way down on the Green
zone, and dismissed my terror as unnecessary.  I wasn't humiliated.  Dad wasn't the kind of dad who called his son a pussy.  He simply enabled me to gain a perspective on the situation, which I grasped with total instant clarity.  My Nazi friend was all hot air.  End of story.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Modeling On Our Parents

          The older I get, the more I realize that I am just like my parents.  There was a time when I would have rejected this notion bitterly:  I am NOT like my parents.  I've spent my whole life trying NOT to be like my parents.
            It's mostly unconscious and completely out of my control.  The behaviors that I witnessed as a toddler formed the template for my future life.  It is possible to alter this template but I don't think it can ever be overcome.
            Jung said that it's not our parents that wound us; it's our fantasy of our parents that wounds us.  I think that's  an important concept. How much time do we spend going over our grievances?  How much anger do we have towards dad's indifference or mom's suffocating micro-management?  Were they really as atrocious as our memories indicate?  Or are we just spinning a narrative that's convenient to our self-image?  Somewhere in this skein of memory lies the truth. It's almost impossible to find the truth after coloring in all the spaces with our interpretations.  I'm not even sure the truth is so important.  It isn't about what our parents did to us; it's about who our parents WERE.
            I'll be very specific.  My mother had no self control at all.  She ate herself into obesity.  She spent money that nearly ruined the family.  She  drugged herself into both stupor and frenzy. There was no brake on her temper.  She blamed everyone for her troubles.  She was cruel.
            My father had too much self control.  He had no spontaneity.  His emotions were bottled up.  He seemed to secretly enjoy being at the center of crisis, so he arranged his life to provide him with ample crisis.  He married a woman who could provide continual drama.
            A toddler observes his or her parents and models on them.  This modeling is so powerful that it will dominate a lifetime of behavior.
            After ten years of therapy I got to know my parents pretty well.  But I missed some fundamental things.  I have only sketchy memory of the little stuff, the daily habits, the body language.  I forgot the way my mother stuffed herself full of candy and cookies every night before she went to sleep.  And what do you know?  Here I am, a middle aged man, stuffing myself full of candy and cookies.  My bedside table looks like a Seven Eleven counter.
            I talked to my dad about it.  He admitted to doing the same thing. It's a family trait, eating junk in bed while we watch TV.  When my sister and I were very little, we slept in a crib next to our parents while they watched Jack Paar and consumed Oreos with milk or ate Snickers bars.
            Here I am dealing with the same behavior now, and it's compulsive.  I can't get a handle on it.  I've been doing it all my life.  I need to stop this and it's really hard.  I substitute.  I get raisins instead of candy.  Sooner or later, I slip back into candy or dunking oatmeal cookies into milk.  Or both.  I know better.  I practice Yoga, I know about nutrition, I know the do's and dont's of our modern system of self maintenance for health and vanity.
            This line of thought arose after a visit to the doctor and a shocking weight gain of seven pounds.  I'm a big guy but I hold steady at my weight, I've held steady for decades.  I noticed that I was doing a lot of junky night time eating and I could feel the pounds coming on.  I know it's all about frustration, it's comfort eating at a time of discouragement and sorrow.
            The Flame raisins at Whole Foods are really really good.  Maybe I can try graham crackers instead of oatmeal cookies.
            It's food for thought.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Impressions of you
are engraved upon me.
I don’t know when it happened:
that a certain way you laugh
became like oxygen when I was gasping
for breath.
Your laugh became my life.
When you cry and become small
and crawl into me for comfort;
I can no longer live without that.
Every day some other tiny part of you
takes residence in my soul;
little by little you have moved in.
I invited you to come here
but I did not know what I was doing.
The best parts of me, the parts
I seldom have the sense to visit,
met and agreed
you should be here.
“We’ll tell him later,”
they concurred,
pointing at the hapless man who slipped and stumbled
amid the twisted debris of his life.
“We’ll let him know when he most needs to know.
For now it’s enough that she’s there,
that she won’t go away no matter what a fool he is.”
Now I know.  They told me.  Or I heard them.
Or something changed and I knew.
There are things you do with your voice
that are like keys that unlock boxes
that contain gifts I have always wanted.
There are ways you smell
that remind me of the best days of my childhood.
There are things you make with your hands
that I watch like a happy captive.
There are ways you mispronounce words
that make little dances erupt in my stomach.
Oh, lovely one, how can you doubt yourself,
when it is the very things you doubt
that I most cherish?  It is your mistakes
that tickle me,
it is your funny odors that have seeped into me
until I can no longer tell
whose sweat I am smelling.
It is your hair that refuses to harm me,
though it could turn lethal at any moment.
Impressions of you are engraved upon me
so much, that when you are not here,
I must write a poem
to bring you home.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Letter From The Afterlife of a Terrorist

This seems to be a good moment to publish this poem.  I wrote it on Sept 12, 2001 and no one has read it until now.

Letter From The Afterlife Of A Terrorist

I thought I would be in Paradise
but I am in unspeakable hell.
The fire, the fire!
I thought it would only burn for a second,
but it keeps burning!
I thought I would lose consciousness
and wake up in heaven,
but now I am trapped forever
in agony!
The screams of the innocent dying
are like poisoned darts,
they lance the exposed nerves of my inmost soul.
The tears of the bereaved in their thousands
rain upon me like acid.
The worst hell of all is my regret,
my infinite regret,
that I was so stupid, so gullible, so callous,
so easily swayed by insipid argument,
so readily moved to escape my living awful depression
by casting it upon others.
The fire, the fire!  The jet fuel
sears me for ten thousand years!
The screams and the grief that blame me, rightly,
crush me under a million tons of leaden metal and concrete!
Allah, Allah, I was not merciful, I was not compassionate,
and now when I call to you I see the grit of your robe
as you turn away from me.
I thought I would awake in Paradise.
I have made a dreadful dreadful mistake!

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