Writer’s Statement: Not Congruent with General Standards

I find that my thinking, and thus my writing, is not congruent with general standards of thought. And immediately, I find it necessary to explain.

Take a look at the first sentence. My immediate reaction is to add the following: “My thinking and writing meets all the standards of PFCs right up through colonels, but the senior-most officers do not approve.”

Now I do understand that my addition is somewhat sophomoric, likely to bring a smile to the face of some and a groan from the throats of others; it is a modest play on words, somewhat forced, and surely not my (nor anyone’s) best shot at humor. But I cannot resist. I enjoy, internally, the word play and it brings to my mind a quick smile which I enjoy. This is no doubt a reflection of my insular view of the world. I do believe that if I make a joke or a telling remark that does not resonate with, or that even may offend, the listener or the reader, then it is the other person who has a problem. They did not get it? They took offense? Well, surely I do not care; if you cannot smile with me, or catch up with my wit and insight, then YOU have a problem and it is not a problem that I own. You think less of me, think me a fool? More proof that you just don’t get it, I sneer at your judgment and revel in its fallout.

This attitude has led to a wide variety of aberrational behavior, some of which I will share with you shortly. But first, I have challenged myself to try to uncover the source of my lack of congruence with what I must admit are the vast majority of normal, well-meaning and straight-forward people.

Perhaps it was my early joy in the simplest of off-kilter silly children’s jokes. “Do you have Prince Albert in a can? Well for God’s sake let him out!” “Did you take the bus home today? Wow, you must have an enormous living room.” “Is your refrigerator running? Just don’t stand there, run out and catch it!”

But all that is just a reflection of the issue, it is not the cause.

Perhaps it is rooted in my being an only child in a highly indulgent household, revered and praised as a person at home, excellent at school, but never popular outside a small knot of similar friends. I was always picked last in the stick-ball games. I could not run and I could not fight. I never understood the sex jokes that my peers laughed at. I was socially awkward. I was overweight. I got a reputation as teacher’s pet, a brown nose of the first order. It did not help that our family was one of the richest in our tight urban neighborhood; I could feel the resentment when I came home with five comic books from a single outing to the corner store, and could feel the eyes on the trunk of our car as we pulled out of our garage; who could afford a new Dodge, let alone an inside rented garage, in the mid-‘40s in Crown Heights?

So my reaction was to believe I was, in the important ways of intelligence and morality, superior to everyone whom I suspected were envious or hostile. You are angry at me because I struck out? Well, it is only a game, what is important is, can you figure the volume of a pyramid in math class? We go to “the mountains” on vacation during the summer, which clearly costs a lot of money? Jealousy is an ugly thing…. You find me socially awkward and easy to make fun of? My day will come, I will be smarter and richer and more powerful and will be as smooth as I want to be and if I am not so smooth, you will have no standing to make a point of it.

Maybe it came from believing the mis-statement that Jews were the chosen people of God and thus were better by definition. This was not likely as my neighborhood was entirely Jewish and all my detractors, real or imagined, also were Jewish. But this inherent suspected conceit might have helped me bridge the confidence gap when, arriving at a fancy private college at 16 (of course I had skipped a grade, why the hell are you in the slightest bit surprised, I would think), I found many people seemingly much smarter and better-taught than I was, coming as they did out of private prep schools with a long tradition of training the WASP elite.

But all these speculative forays into the source of my persona cluster around one unfortunate theme: the source of that persona is negative, a compensation from a perception that I was better than others and was (thus) treated worse than others. Not a happy conclusion, particularly when you then see yourself in the mirror of your own private thoughts many decades after these putative sources had their day.

Odd examples of behavior abound.

I have written three books and numerous stories. I have given up working with an editor. I wrote these things for myself, I don’t need someone telling me they can be improved. Are they unclear? I wanted that part to be unclear, part of the concept you see. Do characters lack depth? Of course they do, my idea is to sketch characters like a Stuart portrait of Washington, all on the surface and the observer sees only such features as are needed to drive the narrative, that is how I wanted the reader to experience the character.

I have copied people who say outlandish things to strangers, admiring their self-assurance and their assertion that they are so superior that they can say whatever they want and either defend it or ignore the lack of defense.

President Franklin Roosevelt, I read somewhere long ago, was so bored with and intrigued by the ground-rules of formal receiving lines that he tested whether anyone ever paid attention to what was said by greeting guests with statements such as “my sister died this morning.” The story was that people, not expecting anything like this and being unable to process it, always said things like “thank you, Mr. President” or “oh, really?”

In the movie “Good Will Hunting” the hero is invited for coffee by his would-be girl friend. “Or caramels,” he replied. The girl, perplexed, asked for clarification. The hero replied with a statement that meeting for coffee was a convention, a habit that just as easily could have developed in society into an invitation to meet over a munching of caramel candies. Just two days before writing this, at a networking event, someone suggested we meet for coffee to discuss our respective businesses. I replied, “fine; or for caramels.” Faced with non-comprehension, I explained the reference. As I did so, this wave of superiority swept over me. And more: I could feel, just knew, that the other party was made quite uncomfortable, and even sensed my glee in my internal sense of superiority for having floated what was likely a well-known cultural reference that SHE did not understand and that my explanation was a one-upsmanship, AND that I had the power to go through the explanation, survive her own thought (“what the hell is that all about; weird”) and still see her, with a smile, continue to press for a meeting because she had the need, and I had the power to set the table for our meeting as the aggressive and disruptive voice.

So we are scheduled for coffee. I will refrain from buying a bag of caramels and throwing them casually on the table when we do meet, as my point has been made, my superiority implicitly demonstrated. And if she thinks me a jerk? Well, she took the meeting so, although I just know she thinks I am edgy and a little strange. Sort of like the end of Annie Hall, where Woody’s voice over recounts telling the shrink that his brother erroneously thinks himself a chicken, but no one in the family will confront the brother because the family needs the eggs.

I don’t watch network television or repetitive programs. I watch movies, sports, sometimes the news, that’s it. Growing up I watched everything all the time, which was not hard because only four or five channels existed on our round-screened Crosley, and programs began only mid-afternoon and you spent the first half-hour adjusting the rabbit ears to be able to see images through the snow that filled the screen. People often raise television programs in discussion. I have perfected the superiority-expressing response consistent with my persona: I am a superior being by declaring without overt judgment that I do NOT watch television. I have learned how to frame that statement with just enough passive-aggressive reserve that this intentionally insulting inter-personal moment will remain facially civil; but the other person is thinking I am weird; but that is fine as I do not care and as the superior being I have come to expect unexpressed discomfort, which I take to be further proof that I am superior; and, like almost everyone else, my victims know it and I make them uncomfortable or angry but they cannot say that out loud because of the power dynamics of the moment or because it is a further loss of face to admit that they know they are being subtly put down but any angry response would be taken as further proof of their inferiority.

In writing, this persona often expresses itself as scorn. Stories of people who are punished for their mundane failures that do not meet MY standards. Retribution to people who wear sweat shirts with the names of colleges they did not attend. Arcane references that I know will be missed and the reader knows I will be happy they are missed, even though almost everyone else in the world could make references which I, limited exposure to the universe that I have, would myself not understand – but other people do not use the arcane and implicitly proposed superior allusion as an aggressive tool very often.

Then there is veal. My family has come to accept veal references. But who the hell makes repeated references to veal?

In 1989 my wife, who has suffered the most from what passes as my persona, my voice, my oddities, and I took part of our honeymoon on a sailing trip through the Greek Islands, during which we ate wonderful sea food and an occasional piece of meat (what were those animals again?), but in two weeks at sea we never saw “veal” on any menu. I like veal. I noted that there was no veal. I could not wait to get to our next destination so I could order veal. I proposed that all the veal in the Islands had been relegated to one island we had not yet found, the well-known but uncharted island of Vealnos. I have been invoking veal ever since. Twenty-five years of bad and cryptic veal comments that clearly make strangers knit their brows and make my family cringe in that all-too-familiar “there he goes again, will he never shut up about fucking veal” look.

When someone asks what I would like as a present, I will often suggest a portion of pre-pounded veal. What should we pay the president of the company? How about $350,000 per year, stock options and a rack of veal every second Sunday. What is your idea of a perfect vacation? A week on the isle of Vealnos, come now you must have heard of it, it is where all the veal in the country of Greece resides. How are you feeling? Wonderful, it is great day to have veal for breakfast….

Do people stare in disbelief? You better not disbelieve that. Do they think privately, he is weird? I do not know, I think that they should but no one (other than my wife in private) has even once said something like “what the hell is that” or “you are weird, are you on something” or, fittingly, “you are a real schmuck, ya know that dontcha?”

Then there is the matter of cursing. I find that people are uncomfortable with public cursing. I am firmly convinced that they curse like sailors at home. This model is inconsistent with my upbringing, where no one in my house ever said anything stronger than “oh hell” but, out on the streets of Brooklyn, you might think you had been washed into a verbal sewer. Let me rephrase that in public Brooklynese: “So we’re cursing like a fukkin’ sailor? No shit, you figure that out all by yerself, or did yuse get help from yer bitch ho mamma? ‘Course, if ya wanna talk more about it, move yer fairy ass down the alley and we can resolve this whole fuckin’ issue by my beating the shit outta yer asshole where yer brains is already located…. Ya mamma….” (This is the expurgated version as children may read this essay; although come to think of it, I am not sure why.)

So I have greatly held back in this area of self-expression. Why, you ask, when I claim to be totally committed to saying whatever I wish and anyone who objects is to be ignored as unworthy? It is a matter of efficacy. Usually, taking my self-conceited persona out for a walk is fun and may increase the quality of my results. But not here, not in business or social Boston. All I can do is fake street-tough, letting slip an occasional “shit” into a presentation (“I respect your perspective but, with all due respect, I think we will shit the bed if we take that approach”); or in social conversation (“your lawn looks for shit, Harry, let me lend you my spreader and some of the weed stuff that Julie and I have used successfully for years”). The F-bomb is verbotten except with neighbors late at night with the third bottle of Two Buck Chuck almost drained, and then only with the guys, not the gentle flowers of womanhood.

In writing, however, I can do whatever I like. In print we are not talking about one person in the physical space of another person who must pretend to be shocked and offended and actually act upon that pretense to the speaker’s disadvantage. And in movies? They are our cultural outlet, the inner F-bomb buried in all of us comes out for a stroll when the screen goes silver.

I also think that editors inject both one sex chapter and forty (count them) swears in any manuscript except a reprint of the gospels. I think Amazon insists, as does the readership. But I may be wrong about Amazon, after all what the fuck do they know?

Finally, I hate people with opinions but no facts. I tolerate it from people who agree with me because we can use all the support we can get and if someone agrees with me then allow ME to provide all the facts needed. I admire people who do not agree with me and have real facts (eg “the mean temperature in Nome has fallen .43 degrees per annum on average over the last twenty years so query global warming”) as opposed to people without facts, only conclusions, when they disagree with me (“Look, this whole global warming thing is a crock, more big government interference and, while we are talking about it, do you want to sign my petition to get the theory of evolution out of God’s schools?”) So I do not allow non-fact-based expressions of opinion to sit politely unchallenged. This leads directly to violation of my mother’s trite but wise prime directive: don’t discuss religion or politics. So be it.

Example: recent casual remark about Obama losing control of both houses of Congress in the 2014 mid-term election: “Well, not surprising, everyone knew his policies would catch up with him, the American people aren’t stupid and they finally woke up to his leftist agenda.” Sample recommended answer from this author: “There are three different thoughts there and I would like to hear your reasons for each of them. Is not saying that Americans are not stupid a statement that assumes the conclusion? Stupid compared to what? Where is your data? What specific policies caught up with him with which constituencies and how did the voting of that cohort differ between 2012 and today? Which policies are leftist, left of what, define your frame of reference, and what is leftist about social justice and income equality and while we are at it, what is the argument for the superiority of a rightest policy menu in the United States.” And, “why is it not surprising?” I was surprised. Did you really expect, prior to election day, that minority voters would not be motivated across the country and if so, beyond speculation by the press that such might be the case, which data were you relying on which proved inconsistent with results on the ground?”

Such a categorical attack, couched in terms of need for facts and measured against the implicit assumption that your listener must have not done the homework, is not designed to maximize your friendship count, I can assure you. And it is viewed as inappropriate; so dropping unsupported stupidities is polite and asking for facts is impolite? Perhaps this is a window into a major problem in American politics and the nature of the social compact?

If you think politics is bad, let me spare you a recounting of my situations involving religion, lest I end up sleeping with the fishes along with Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Suffice it to say that a call for factual support for religious belief is, along with politics, the second exception to my personal world view of my immunity from the scorn of others.

So this essay is an explanation of both my behavior and my writing. I like the edge and edginess of things, and believe that robust debate based on facts and tethered in utilitarian logic is a positive state of being. I have learned that most people stay away from the edge, enjoy edginess only in Halloween movies, and shy from debate lest they learn something about themselves.

This last paragraph will sum up, if not the origins of my persona, at least its definition. I just like shaking things and people up. It is hard to achieve while functioning as a lawyer, husband and father, as in those roles the calm and conventional often are required. I must settle for second best shake-ups: a prickly remark here, a noir distortion of a story there, a pride in perceived if unspoken criticism from people who I do believe, for whatever the reason, are just not as cool as I am. And for those who, in response, would say, “this self-important jerk is a legend in his own mind,” I would reply: “It’s my mind so stay out of it. But by the way, aren’t you just the tiniest bit jealous?”

The Negroes

I want to talk to the teenaged boy who overheard my conversation with my Uncle Charlie at the corner of Rochester Avenue and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York on some Spring day in about 1952. Of course, he won’t be teen-aged any more. He might even be dead. In 1952 I was ten years old and my best memory of the boy was that he was somewhere around sixteen or eighteen.

My Uncle was a story himself; my only aunt or uncle on either side of the family who was born in the “old country,” he came to America as a small child, to be followed in birth by my mother, one aunt and two other uncles. Even discounting old stories for embellishment of hardship and poverty, it seems that the family struggled quite a bit in the early years, and Charlie went to work for American Steel and Wire at its Worcester, Massachusetts factory at the age of fourteen. He would retire from that same factory 51 years later.

Charlie would come to New York once or twice a year, in his Dodge or Plymouth, on his way to the race tracks in Florida. Horses were his passion; that and poetry, an avocation not identified until his death and a dusty sojourn into his attic. He was a two dollar bettor unless he could find someone to split the bet, and the cheapest human being I ever recall meeting. His stop in New York was for a free meal or two, and to entice my mother to join him going South and to pay for the gas and lodging along the way.

I should mention in passing, lest you judge me critical of Charlie, that I loved him fiercely and defended him in family discussions during his life and long afterwards. He was the uncle with time to spend with the nieces and nephews, and a vocabulary and logic that we as children could understand.

So there I was, standing on a corner of a wide street that ran almost the width of Brooklyn, explaining to my beloved hick uncle how the big bad world of the City actually worked. I knew that Worcester was just an overgrown town, and that he never left there except to go to Hialeah or, much more often, to Suffolk Downs on the outskirts of Boston for a day-trip.

I held within me, and still do, the prejudices of my parents and of their upbringing and times. The sharp edges of prejudice were rounded by the compassion that came with their histories: Jewish liberal thought, living in New York City; and, the love of Jackie Robinson, who captivated Brooklyn upon his arrival in 1947, and that love, true worship, sloshed over into a more general awareness. But this was 1952, and the only Negroes on my street and the surrounding streets were the cleaning women, ordered by telephone from some central government hiring agency to come and clean our houses for seventy-five cents an hour, lumbering down our streets to our houses carrying a cloth bag with work clothes and the lingering odor of unwashed sweat, sullenly washing our floors and dusting our tables under the ever-vigilant eye of our non-working mothers who had hidden the jewelry, the silver, and anything else that might seem appealing.

Eastern Parkway was a dividing line of sorts, and South of it the older established Jewish and white neighborhoods still held their character, including our enclave of Crown Heights. North of the line, across the two side lanes, across the green plantings that separated those lanes from the main thoroughfare, across the broad traffic lanes that each Memorial Day saw the march of soldiers from the Spanish American, First and Second World Wars sandwiched between the trucks and tanks that left tread marks in the pavement, across this urban frontier that might as well have been lined with barbed wire, lived the Negroes. We knew they were newcomers but that is not what bothered us. What bothered us was that they were of a different color and no liberal political context could alter that fact or make us at home with people who were so unlike anyone else we ever dealt with.

The zoning protected our schools; oh yes, I was in High School before I ever shared a home room or a lunch table with anyone who was not white-skinned. But there they were on the ground, cutting us off from our old houses of worship that once were safely in our hands, making a weekend trip to a store on St. John’s Place a family outing at which the father must always join us. There they were, staring at us when we walked past, as no doubt we stared (or tried not to stare) at them.

So here is what I said, as best I can recall and paraphrase:

“The Negroes live over on that side of this street, Eastern Parkway. They mostly stay out of the Park, but if I go to Hebrew School on Lincoln Place, which is a couple of blocks over there, I have to be careful. They sometimes collect a nickel from us. There is a movie theater over there we don’t go to, we go down the hill to the Caroll [vaguely pointing with a wave of arm]. Sometimes they come into the Park and chase us.”

“Fuck you.”

Standing almost on top of us, this Negro teenager has, apparently, been listening to my explanation of urban geography and life. His voice is firm, although he is not yelling. He is simply telling us what he things of us — of me. He is telling me what he thinks of my parents, my own mind, my family, my uncle standing there, my future, my failings, my ignorance. He is telling me what to do with my life.

The boy walks away. My uncle, shaken, turns to me and says, “I see what you mean.”

I do not know what happened to that boy of course; what hardships he had in life by way of prejudice or happenstance. Perhaps he had none. Perhaps he had many. I do not know. I only know that I want to talk to him for just a few seconds.

I want to say, “I’m sorry.”

Fat, Body Piercing and Tattoos [2012]

I am not into body piercing and tattoos. In fact, when I sat down to write this essay I originally misspelled “tattoo,” that is how alien the whole thing is.

As for the “fat” part, as we say in the law racket, “Further deponent sayeth not.”

This weekend I drove through verdant moist warmth of a New England August and visited Canobie Lake Park. For those who do not know it, the Park is an old-fashioned amusement park that seems to have found a nostalgic niche in competition with more flamboyant and up-to-date amusement venues. There are the kinds of rides WE rode as kids. There is a water park with short safe slides, nothing – well—splashy. There are entertainment venues with impersonators of Tim McGraw, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Elvis. The demise of at least half of those people seems to pass unnoticed.

You can even bowl Skee-Ball. And earn tickets for high scores, redeemable for useless trinkets. Just the way I grew up….

But there is a difference here. And it has to do with, yes, fat, body piercing and tattoos.

I hasten to observe, right up front, that although the Park seems to draw an incredible diversity of people (the population more reflects the demographics of the region, with its people of Asian and African and Latin background, than just about any other venue I can recall except perhaps Boston’s decayed Downtown Crossing), the phenomenon seems to ignore ethnicity, age, skin color, and everything else save the one common element: if you are fat, have lots of body piercing and/or are replete with tattoos, you are statistically much more likely to be at Canobie Lake Park than anywhere else – Boston City Jail only excepted.

And this is not a population gathered to make a statement. You find these people as they are in real time: skin-tight T-shirts further shrunken by a drenching in the water park or some flume ride, shorts so brief as to make leer-ers of us all, tattoos on men’s arms and shoulders and necks and legs, tattoos disappearing into fatty crevices that polite people do not describe when referring to women, iron and brass sticking out of ears and noses and tongues and, yes, in visible outline under shirts from nipples and navels.

Are these people fundamentally slovenly as a group? Well, frankly, yes they are. Not dirty, just not white suburban middle class neat, scrubbed and coordinated. In fact, the key word is “uncoordinated.” Nothing matches anything; the tattoos are blue and red, the do-rags around the head are black and white, the Celtics shirt is of course green, the shorts are striped, and the shoes are likely to be unlaced work boots on men, unlaced sneakers on women.

The kids can get away with it, but you just have to probe the adult adherents. How to sound casual?

In line for a head-jerking spinning ride, me: “Nice tattoo.” [Unspoken: does the tiger have a tail or has it lost it in a fight, the tiger’s butt has disappeared into a roll of fat sticking out of your shirt and falling down your back.] Reply, “thanks, man, got it in Iraq.” [He looks like a jerk and he defended my liberty? Oops….]

Eating a fruit cup from the one healthy vendor and turning to a sixty-ish woman dripping powdered sugar down her shirt-front from her fried dough, me: “How long have you had the, you know….” Reply, “Last year, I got it in Hampton Beach, my granddaughter and I did it together. You like?” [Oh yeah, what do I mumble now?]

Stopping an enormous woman with flabby arms, bright tattoos of snakes and a bar through her nose and with what seems like forty children under the age of seven in tow: “Excuse me, are all those children yours?” Reply, “No, I got them in that booth there, if you break a balloon with a dart they give you one.” [Whoops, a regular Mae West on steroids.]

There is no rhyme, reason or predictor except, here they all are. In a ten minute “experiment” I find that 15% of all adults I see have tattoos, about 10% of the men have earnings, and fully half are what might be classified as “obese.” Not chunky. Not full-bodied. Not overweight. Just plain really really fat.

So what can you buy to eat, here at the Park? I will spare you the litany, you can imagine. One pushcart has fruit cups; one stand has salads in plastic. No signage for either. Advertising for all that is not good abounds (the signs for onion rings, fries, soft-serve ice cream and dough are ubiquitous).

The kids don’t care; they don’t see it, or it does not register. They are at that lucky early stage where passing judgment on people with a different personal style is ahead of them (although from what I hear about Middle Schools, not all that far ahead). For us button-down types in crisp khaki shorts and collared shirts and our backpacks with sun screen and deet-laden bug spray, it is an exercise in self-control and unrestrain-able snobbish moments.

On the way home we stop in an ice cream shop in our neighborhood in Newton. The shirts have polo players or logos from golf clubs. Even though these people are buying an ice cream, they are trim, their shirts tucked neatly into crisp shorts, proper golf skirts. Not a tattoo in sight. No body ornaments except for those lovely small seashell gold earnings, and those are all on the women. As for body fat – these people, even the pudgiest, are in the minor leagues of lard.
Ahhh—safely at home in the trim, neat suburbs. We have survived our August walk on the wild side.