The First Young Love

The three-year-old beauty flapped her arms to express her urgency. “Put those away; he’s coming, he’s coming!” The mother smiled and followed orders. The tiny sweetie knew a remarkable young man and his family were about to arrive. She didn’t want him to spot the box containing her diapers. Accidents still happened, knowledge to be hidden from her first love.

Who was the object of her concern and admiration? My not quite six-year-old grandson, the heartthrob of her sister’s kindergarten class.

W met his classmate, the older sister, soon after moving to the new family home. This was their first in-person school experience. Herself a cutie, Maddie sent W a note before her at-home competitor knew of his existence. “I Luv yu,” she scrawled, along with a heart and Cupid’s arrow. Writing, reading, and spelling are new to these kids.

The youthful hero, one of two grandchild carriers of my DNA, is the real deal. He is tall, handsome, and charming. Moreover, my boy is an outgoing storyteller and knows his future profession: paleontologist.

The number of those smitten is growing, sending similar love notes taxing to the postal service. Now you know why the mail is late.

Unfortunately for his admirers, the young man’s mind is on dinosaurs, the extinct creatures of his intended full-time occupation. Live beings hold interest for this prospective scientist for playing, friendship, and nothing more. They are playmates, but not the Hugh Hefner kind.

W has no idea he is the talk of his youthful cohorts and their parents, but he doesn’t appear fazed by the frequent tender offerings from the captured hearts. I’m sure the unawareness of his charm makes him more appealing. Asked by his mom about his matrimonial future, he said he doesn’t ever intend to marry.

Yesterday I watched a video of Mr. Gorgeous making repeated climbs to the top of a pool slide, then giggling all the way down. The young man’s joy should be bottled. The only difficulty was that each of the slides caused his swim trunks to edge south. W’s dad reminded him to pull them up. Insubstantial hips didn’t block the downward drift. God help his fan club if they should discover him this way.

During summer days in safe residential neighborhoods, you might see colored chalk drawings on the sidewalk. Some of these could be the handiwork of female children like those who dream of my oldest grandson. They display many hearts, rainbows, and good wishes.

Lucky adults like me remember those days. The world is simple and benign for such fortunate kids. It is a vision more precious because it isn’t permanent. Still, some will keep the sense of wonder, goodness, and innocence embedded within them — and be better for it.

We should all be so lucky. In the meantime, W and his lady friends — and I do mean friends — warm my heart, bring a smile, and even an occasional tear to my eyes. Such moments make life wonderful.

Note to myself: cherish them.

———-

The image is called Love Since Childhood by Katyatula. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Basketful of Moms

There are lots of moms out there. You might even have had one yourself. Or more than one.

Here are some to cheer or miss or wish they’d been better:

  • The One Everyone Wants. Loving, supportive, defending us when needed, encouraging and challenging us, too. Always there.
  • The Overburdened Mom. Too many kids, too many jobs, too many issues of her own.
  • The Stepmom. She can be either of the first two, just not the one who gave birth to you. This mother might favor her own kids or accept you as if you arose from her body.
  • The Big Sister Mom. Usually, the oldest sister, especially if you have an overburdened mom.
  • The Nextdoor Neighbor. She might have made you wish she were your own mother.
  • The Favorite Teacher Mom. If you had a winning teacher such as this, I don’t need to tell you how much she influenced and helped you.
  • The Dad Mom. The double-duty father has to take both roles when the mother is absent or ill. He might be a stay-at-home dad when the mother is the breadwinner, too.
  • The Mentor Mom. A supportive guide you find in the workplace.
  • The Role Reversal Mom. She expects you to listen to her and, to some degree, be her moral support and caretaker (long before she gets old). You hear stories from her you shouldn’t hear.
  • The “I Know Better” Mom/Grandma: She won’t accept the second banana, supportive job you’d like her to take with your kids.
  • The Good Mom/Grandma: This lady allows you to grow up whether you have kids of your own or not, and limits her unrequested advice. You are allowed to be an adult, your own person with your own ideas.
  • The Mother Who Played Favorites. Yikes is all I can say.

Well, I’ve probably missed a few, including some of the least admirable, but you get the point. I hope the stork deposited you in the lap of the kind of mother you needed. If not, that you found a substitute elsewhere. An impossible job, for sure, but the most essential one on the globe.

A round of applause to all the best of them and perhaps some kindness even for the rest of them.

And to all of you who are mothers, will be, or wish you could be.

================

The drawing is called Mother and Baby. It comes from a 1923 advertisement for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Have Men Changed? Curing the Culture of Complaint

We live in a culture of complaint, as Robert Hughes first called it in 1993. Maybe a malicious physician transfused the once belittled stereotype of the angry old white men into the national bloodstream. Some younger men now glorify their righteous anger.

It shouldn’t have been surprising to find the written word “unfairness” used 36% more often in 2018 than in 1961.

Raucous whining was not always tolerated when I grew up. Loud expressions of self-pity and bellyaching served as the stock material of situation comedies. Fulminating males like Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden and Carroll O’Conner’s Archie Bunker depicted the stuff of laughter and futility.

A “real” man projected quiet, decisiveness, and courage, enduring disappointment in silence. Pushed far enough, he settled matters with his fists or on the playing field. After a loss, he got up, shook hands, congratulated his opponent, and returned to do better the next day.

This male accepted the rules. Dads of his kind lived next door to everyone in the 1950s and ’60s. They weren’t an easy bunch, however. A few pushed the family around or worse. Some drank to excess but had comrades and friends who believed in shared sacrifice. Shouldering responsibility was taken for granted.

A dark side lived inside them: crushing, unspoken privacy. One had the sense they kept secrets, things about which they harbored shame.

The “real man” role demanded they carry too much weight, but not the kind measured in numbers on a scale. It came from the psychological armor covering their tender parts. The burden of maintaining a livelihood also added poundage. The home was for the spouse to care for in a time of unmentioned gender discrimination.

Their battlefield, they’d been told, was downtown.

These gents did not kick down or suck up, but the toll of all they were and what they weren’t stalked them. Such fellows put their hearts into fulfilling the standard image of manhood. The ticker continued to beat but also beat them down, failing at an alarming rate in a time before statin medication and a healthy diet.

Much has changed. I’ve described a myth, of course, but one that featured select qualities worth admiring. Its white and black quality matched the lack of color in the movies and on TV. Black men, too, aspired to the white man’s model. They understood endurance.

These fathers were solid. Hard at times, yes, but when a broad hand rested on your shoulder, it encouraged and melted you. You wanted to embody it, to create yourself in the mold out of which it emerged.

The best of men still aspire to a modified version of the old fiction. A new gentleman’s design encourages him to show love to his offspring, listen more, and recite fewer solutions. The spouse is a partner saluted in her desire for fulfillment beyond her mother’s old and conventional slot.

Kids today still want certainty and security from their parents, who, if they allow themselves to remember, recall their own place as children once: young people needful of adults to rely upon.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) acknowledged the challenge: how to persuade your family you will protect them from everything when you aren’t sure you can ensure your own survival.

Bacon believed achieving this required hocus pocus, a magic act of sorts. Guardians hide something, a least for a while:

The joys of parents are secret; and so are their griefs and fears. They cannot utter the one; nor they will not utter the other.

For most, this entails self-deception, burying enough self-doubts to accomplish the charade, both in the competitive workplace and at home.

Perhaps the irate men of today are finding the masquerade more difficult. They return from work without a living wage of the kind their poppas achieved — if they have employment. Many seek a reason for this outside themselves and, it must be admitted, there is no shortage of unfairness to point to.

Our triple troubles of unemployment, inequality, and pandemic enable the defensive closing of too many minds. Certitude takes the place of thoughtful examination. Belief in demigods squeezes out the supreme beings who are neglected once the sabbath is over.

Simplified answers drip from those who would misuse the widespread terror of failing at the basic job of meeting family expenses and caring for one’s kids. Their demagogic rants offer an example their followers imitate.

Francis Bacon recognized this dilemma, too, offering the remedy of mindful inquiry, not unsupported jumps to judgment:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

Despite the distracting and desperate circus performance sometimes masquerading as leadership, the modest, neighborly man and woman deserve respect. The world would do well to toast their everyday labor to make an honorable living and a home.

These decent souls put their families ahead of their own needs. They form the ranks of our best public servants, the people who do their jobs with integrity. This group of adults continues to give us reliance on the democratic republic we live in. Their oath of office binds them to serve the Constitution and not loyalty to any person.

Hope and the possibility of trust survive, partly due to the faceless and nameless citizens who do not place their advancement on the auction block.

Most of us recognize the same values and work to instill them in our children: enough fortitude to overcome hardship, enough effort to meet challenges, and enough humanity to comfort our fellowmen.

In the face of disease and want, the words of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) add to Bacon’s 400 hundred-year-old guidance. Roosevelt was a daughter of privilege who lost both her parents by age 10. A timid and frightened child by her own report, she became a voice against racism and disadvantage. Her life was a triumph over anxiety and the second-place status of women:

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

———————————————————

The painting Freedom from Fear, reproduced above, comes from the Four Freedoms, a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

As noted on the United Nations website, “First lady of the United States of America from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt (photographed above) was appointed, in 1946, as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by United States President Harry S. Truman. She served as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and played an instrumental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At a time of increasing East-West tensions, Eleanor Roosevelt used her enormous prestige and credibility with both superpowers to steer the drafting process toward its successful completion. In 1968, she was posthumously awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize.”

As further noted on the UN website, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.

Finding Trust Without Guarantees

In village days a scoundrel couldn’t conceal his character for a month. But today every time I take my car to the garage or have a prescription filled, I have to trust people I don’t know about things I don’t understand.

Those comments were made over 60 years ago by Huston Smith, a transcendent philosopher of morality and religion. His statement remains valid today. Where does this leave the wisest and most secure of us, not to mention those for whom trust is a luxury of someone else’s unimaginable life?

Smith found reason to believe in many of his fellow-men. He sought those who wrote about virtue and, more crucial, those who lived it.

He knew iniquity exists, as did those he spoke with, but is not the whole of existence.

All of us suffer betrayal. An ex-patient I’ll call by the initials KF told me a tale of uncommon cruelty.

KF was a college student out West during the Vietnam War, before the volunteer army. He commuted to school from home. The husky, black-haired young man was free from military service so long as he remained in good academic standing and carried a full course load.

His father, who abused this fellow when he was small, now charged him rent for shelter and food. Though my client managed the tuition, the old man offered no consideration on living expenses.

Knowing he was at risk of eviction, KF dropped out of school. The military came for him.

During combat in Southeast Asia, KF escaped physical injury, but letters home went unanswered. Once home, he discovered his father had thrown away or sold everything he owned.

Nonetheless, he surmounted the challenge of finding love and making a family better than the one from which he came.

Not all of us are as afflicted as my former patient, but we share his hope of intimacy. James Baldwin recognized the desire and the risky necessity of letting down our guard to get it:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

Yet so many of us do go without – without companionship, absent a confidant, and lacking at mate. Some believe the world wouldn’t care if we disappeared from its face.

Anonymity seems the better choice if your pattern is to encounter bullies and the unfaithful. Thieves, narcissists, alcoholics, and abusers possess their own imperfect radar attuned to human vulnerabilities.

Some people hesitate to trust because they have no confidence in their capacity to distinguish the dangerous from the safe. This leaves them writing-off all of humanity or attempting to obtain information from every possible source, as if diligent detective work guaranteed discovery of unquestionable virtue.

Neither approach works. The former souls inhabit a cloud of ignorance and take a stance of perpetual defense. The latter never find “the truth” because they seek endless data, never realizing there will always be a sliver of doubt.

Both types of individuals remain isolated or disguised, little better than existing in a bunker far from anything but momentary ease. Both are exhausted by near-constant scanning for the self-interested and evil. They suffer preoccupation with misgivings over incidental events others forget.

Because they skate past those who might give them respect and kindness, the negative experiences of their life do not find a counterweight on the other side of the scale to persuade them intimacy is worth the risk.

Everything they believe confirms the danger of mankind. They also discount their own value to those few they acknowledge could merit knowing.

There are no perfect people, no purity even among those who give their lives for others or their country. We all hold to our self-interestedness in no small part of our behavior. Such quality enables us to survive.

In his 1788 essay Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

He and the men whose thoughts inform the U.S. Constitution knew they were not to be found either in government or out.

Nonetheless, our necessary concern for our well-being still permits the possibility of understanding and decency. Humans pull through because of the ability to join together, trust each other, and benefit from the comfort, love, and security they provide and receive from others.

Disappointment in relationships is inevitable. Those you fear may well also be disappointed by your words or conduct. Avoidance or rejection of available friends or lovers can inflict the equivalent injury on them you wish to avoid for yourself.

These challenging times present the opportunity to discover the best and worst of our brethren and the identical characteristics in ourselves.

No guarantees come with a new relationship. Remember this, however. The person who represents to you the potential for connection also looks for the same fulfillment himself.

Perhaps he even searches for it because of the qualities he recognizes in you.

—–

The three photographs are the work of Laura Hedien, with her permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien?lang=en. The first is of Mountain Reflections Near Salt Lake City in January 2020. Next comes A Lightening Storm With Stars Above in Western New Mexico. Finally, Factory Butte, Utah, 2019.

Understanding Your Parents

We can blame, accuse, or praise our parents. These acts come to many of us with ease. A more complicated task is to understand them.

An old friend told the following story. His mother was waiting for a baby sitter when he was little. Like all tots, he was attached and needed the security of mom’s nearness.

Having nothing better to do, she decided to hide behind a sofa. No warning was given to her son, no announcement she’d be playing a game of hide-and-seek.

When he called out, she didn’t answer. He ran around the apartment looking. The boy’s search turned into a frenzy. Soon came his screaming breakdown into tears.

Mom jumped out laughing. As my buddy asked me many years later, “What was she thinking?”

Here are some suggestions to help you understand your own parents: what they do, what they don’t, what they think, and how their particular brand of humanity came about:

  • Talk to your grandparents if you still can. Try to find out how they raised their children. Ask them to remember what their small ones were like before and after school arrived in their lives. Observe how these elders connect with their offspring today.
  • Look at old family photos. Ask your folks about them. Who are the unrecognized friends and relatives? What became of the relationships with them?
  • Are the people in the photos happy? If you are captured there by the camera, what was your mood? Was the youthful version of those who parented you remarkably more attractive before time’s transformation? What effect might the change have had?
  • Uncles and aunts are sometimes essential sources of illumination.
  • If you have children of your own, watch how mom and dad interact with them. People do alter, but not everyone does. Their behavior is the closest visible example now available of how they brought you up.
  • One by one, do life history interviews if your father or mother cooperates. Some oldsters will be flattered; others will say no. The reason for their choice might be enlightening.
  • Learn the background of their early years: the places, neighborhoods, and economic circumstances that impacted them. Did they change residences and schools often? With what consequences?
  • Find out about significant life events, the downs and ups of love, vocation, and health. How did they respond?
  • Ask about religion, including movement toward or away from the faith. Do they expect you to “believe” as they do? What values do they hold?
  • How do your caregivers talk about their progenitors? Look at their faces for evidence of emotion. Listen to phone calls between them and your grandparents.

  • Attitudes toward money, status, and material things are useful to know.
  • Friends of the family can supply relevant information if they offer you a factual account. Do your parents maintain long-lasting friendships? Why or why not? When buddies depart or are banished, who gets blamed? Do they make new friends?
  • Research the educational and employment time-line of mom and dad. Did they achieve what they hoped for? How do they explain their success or failure? Do they live to work or work to live?
  • If your folks hold racial, ethnic, or religious biases, attempt to uncover the origin of such beliefs. How do you explain their embrace of diversity or its absence?
  • Do you remind either one of somebody from their past? Were feelings toward those individuals transferred to you because of your likeness? Transference grows not only in a therapist’s office.
  • How do your begetters get along with each other? Who is in charge? Does one criticize the other in your presence or privately express spousal grievances to you? Did you ever occupy the role of a confidant or consoler? Was the keeping of secrets required? Was your well-being considered when they overshared?

  • Do mother and father accept responsibility for their actions? How affectionate are they, how distant?
  • Might they play favorites among their children? Are the ones who gave you life reliable and honest? Do they display preferences among their grandkids? Why?
  • How do these guardians deal with their physical issues, as well as illnesses or injuries you have?
  • In what ways are you like those who cared for you? Don’t say there are no similarities, there always are.

Consider this a start. The understanding of another (not to mention yourself), comes from thinking like a therapist. I’ve offered you questions as a launching pad for your inquiry.

Your understanding will change as life proceeds. Until you reach the stage another person passed through, you lack the knowledge such passage provides.

Attaining a complete grasp of the nature of any life is never achieved in full. In the meantime, remember to live not just a good life, but one enriched by experiences. The clock on your time here is always in motion.

—–

The above images in order: 1. Willem de Kooning, Untitled XI, 1975. 2. Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, Summer 1909. 3. Paul Klee, Blossoming. Jackson Pollock, one of his untitled, numbered paintings.

November Anniversaries

This week brings two anniversaries to mind, not of the wedding kind.

A birth and a death, both. A man I knew well and one I never met. I’ll concentrate on the former.

My dad would have been 108 had he lived another 19 years. When I think of him, it is not as a man near life’s end, but the middle-aged version. Perhaps that’s because he was 35 when I walked on stage, and never less than 40 during my school days.

I think of the challenges he faced getting a job in the Great Depression and his wartime service in the army. I recall how hard (and how much) he labored to make a living for his three boys and our mother. I witnessed how the responsibility was like a machine-lowered ceiling pressing down on him.

Milt Stein was a sweet man. My brothers and I saw him express that affection to my mother with tender words and embraces. She occupied his world. We were satellites circling a planet named Jeanette.

How might one celebrate his memory?

I could revisit the video interview I did when he was about 75.

No, too weighty. Moreover, the four-hour recording won’t fit my schedule right now.

I might arrange one of his favorite hot meals and uncap a lava flow of ketchup on top of it, as was his habit. My mom, you see, was not a master chef.

Another possible homage would be to stir a creamer in my morning coffee as he did, for what seemed like minutes at a time, almost long enough to wear his metal spoon to a nub.

The bell-like sound echoed too early and too long inside our two-flat on Talman Avenue. You knew dad was home — so announced the clanging — as it did that by 5:30 AM he’d be off to his job at the downtown post office.

If I had the urge to go to Chicago’s Loop today, a visit to the main library would serve as a symbolic honor. He borrowed books there and read novels and the Sun Times on public transit to and from work.

My memories take me to all these places and more: to excursions on the elevated train beginning at the Western stop, to trips on the #11 Lincoln Avenue bus, to Riverview Park’s high-rides, and Cubs games at Wrigley Field.

In the bag full of a lifetime’s remembrances, those ritualized, repeated events stand out. One such repetition occurred at the baseball contests. We understood the drill, though Milt Stein never failed to remind his boys of an essential feature.

The relative poverty of dad’s childhood required continued focus on the dearness of a hard-won dollar, even as time moved him away from the economic challenge of America in the 1930s. Thus, this man told his three sons we could each have only “two items” on our day at Wrigley.

Mom packed us all lunches. Corned beef on rye bread was typical, maybe a banana, too. But if we wanted ice cream or a Coke or a hot dog, my father limited us to any two of these, not more.

Ed, Jack, and I thought the restriction unreasonable, but we’d never experienced want. Our sire got categorized as a miser. Only years later did I recognize his limitations offered protection against a future when food might be a question not of how much, but whether we’d have any.

This little story leads me to salute Milton Stein’s 108th birthday anniversary the way he’d have advised. I intend to shop at the grocery, especially those aisles filled with all the goodies I likely wanted on a day at the ballpark in, say, 1959.

You know what I’m going to do, don’t you?

I’ll buy just two items.

—–

The top image is a sign of The Four Candles, a Wetherspoons pub in Oxford named after The Two Ronnies comedy sketch. Matt Brown is the author. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Question of Trust in Therapists, Parents, and Others

I shall not be surprised if my eldest grandson wants to explore outer space. Unlike fake superheroes, he doesn’t need tricks of the camera. His paternal grandmother, Claire, captured the moment. Not yet four when this solo flight occurred, he is a joyous, energetic, strong-willed, and sweet little boy. He was confident enough to make the leap because he knew Claire would keep him safe.

Of course, no undersized man understands the range of dangers in the world. He counts on his parents and grandparents to protect him. Thus his uninhibited abandon and joy are purchased at the cost of delayed knowledge. The guardians are his trusted custodians, those who must recognize the perils for him.

Adults count on lots of others in a similar way. A man who soon will keep some of us alive is forty-three year old Daniel Harding, a symphony conductor of worldwide reputation. His temporary departure from baton-wielding was reported by Slipped Disc:

Daniel Harding, on a farewell tour with the Orchestre de Paris, has told El Pais that he has qualified as a commercial aviator and will be taking a sabbatical to fly for Air France. ‘Since I was a child I dreamed of flying planes, but my dedication to music prevented me,’ he said.

‘In the spring I will join Air France as a co-pilot and in 2020/21 I will take a sabbatical as an orchestra conductor to apply myself to flying.’

Should we trust the Maestro to ensure a trouble-free journey above the birds?

Risky flights and endangered children have long been the subject of storytellers. A Greek myth described here by Wikipedia raises the question of proper oversight by our parents:

Phaethon … sought assurance from his mother that his father was the sun god Helios. She … told him to turn to his father for confirmation. He asked his father for some proof that would demonstrate his relationship with the sun. When the god promised to grant him whatever he wanted, he insisted on being allowed to drive the sun chariot for a day.

According to some accounts Helios tried to dissuade Phaethon, telling him that even Zeus was not strong enough to steer these horses, but reluctantly kept his promise. Placed in charge of the chariot, Phaethon was unable to control the horses.

In some versions, the Earth first froze when the horses climbed too high, but when the chariot then scorched the Earth by swinging too near, Zeus decided to prevent disaster by striking it down with a thunderbolt. Phaethon fell to earth and was killed in the process.

We might say the mom and dad lacked adequate judgment. Wisdom and self-awareness are essential qualities in the trusted one. Any therapist or physician should be dedicated to your well-being and experienced and knowledgeable, as well.

All of them must keep up with research, obtain the training to evaluate it, and adapt as new learning indicates. No less, our health demands them to embrace the humility needed to reconsider a failing plan of treatment.

Our providers need to look after themselves, too: sleep enough and not work so hard they burn out. Avoidance of unethical time on the greasy, narrow ledge of self-interest cannot be assumed. Vacations, despite the dismay of a counselor’s patients, are required.

Add the necessity of making time for family and friends, leading a balanced and loving life, and ministering to their own personal issues. These specialists must walk a tightrope between empathizing with your pain and succumbing to it.

Without such guardrails, a therapist with the best character and motivation in the world is otherwise untrustworthy. Well-founded confidence in those who care for us requires more of them than their willingness to hold a hand or respond in an emergency.

The rest of humanity tries to achieve as much in their own professions. No matter our best effort, some will ignore whatever wisdom we impart, the young in particular.

A few of the latter opt to “live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse” as a portion of every new generation always does. Therapists and physicians contend with these daredevils more than most, including those who do not live fast, don’t die young, and leave the planet on a bad hair day.

Blind faith in an unknown authority is a hazardous undertaking. Even though I won membership in such a respected and privileged group, I question the gray-haired, expensively dressed, mostly male class at the helm of the world.

I’m referring to those who act as though they are immortal, omniscient, and beyond reproach. The same officials who, in government, would use bleach (if they could) to whiten the nation; and an ironing board to “straighten” its sexual disposition.

Age alone doesn’t guarantee anything. To quote a popular ’60s suggestion, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

Of course, the many who said so are now more than double the age in question.

That can only mean one thing for those of us who repeated the advice:

—–

The painting reproduced above is Phaethon by Gustave Moreau. It was sourced from Wikiart.org/

The Critics Among Us and Those Who Raise Us

The standard method to make a child to dislike himself is to contrast him with a sibling, one alleged to be superior in behavior or personality. It takes a kind of misbegotten skill, however, to use the technique on every one of your offspring. The destructive parent tells son X he isn’t as well-behaved as his brother Y. Meanwhile, the mom or dad complains to Y that he isn’t as smart as X.

“Try to be more like X. I’m only saying this for your own good.”

Both end up disliking themselves and their competitor, not knowing the other receives the same treatment.

Therapists, were they loathsome enough, might put such caretakers on commission, since they drive droves of the walking wounded to an eventual meeting with a counselor.

Ah, but wordy wickedness was practiced even in ancient times. Some parents unknowingly model their actions after the Greek god Momus, so foul he was expelled from Olympus, the gods’ heavenly home.

Aesop included Momus in a couple of his fables. In one he presides over a competition between a man, a bull, and a house. This ungodly judge gave no trophies, finding fault with them all. The man’s failure was to hide his heart, causing Momus to claim he could therefore not evaluate the merit of his makeup. The bull fell short because his horns included no eyes, the better to guide him whenever he charged.

My own favorite, however, was the umpire’s indictment of the house. The god of blame found the residence lacking in the wheels needed to avoid difficult neighbors. Momus might have a point here.

Critics also attract their own critics. A world famous musician on the downside of his career gave the local music scribes a name: eunuchs. Why? “Because they can’t do it.” Meaning, in his case, they wrote in complaint of him because they lacked his musical talent to perform.

The player’s bitterness revealed one of the dangers of being the target of denigration: becoming like the person who castigated you.

The “eunuch” example is odious. The extremity of such word-use is the point. Exaggeration is valuable to those who wish to damage; injure in an indelible, lasting way. We can all remember personal examples.

Who do verbal abusers and bullies aim for? Those weaker (children, subordinates) and the targets who betray their vulnerability, terror, or timidity by facial expression, downcast gaze, words, neediness, or posture. These are the preferred victims, though anyone will do. Protest their sarcasm and they’ll say you can’t take a joke.

Rise higher and you encounter a few jealous backstabbers. Fall down and you serve some as a doormat. But don’t discount life’s frustrations as a driver of lashing out under pressure. Almost everyone has a boiling point.

The right criticism is worthwhile. Corrective instruction and rigorous expectation by a mentor or supervisor are both necessary and inevitable. One only finds resilience in taking on that which is painful and challenging. If we received 24/7 adulation and applause, whether inside ourselves or out, the world of excellence would be beyond us.

Still, one must distinguish between those whose words can help or spur us on and the people intent on our obliteration. When you have been raised by folks who pretend the former, but shoot for the latter, confusion follows. Life requires us to identity disguises. False friends display affection so long as we are of use, not longer.

With therapeutic guidance it is possible to improve at ferreting out adversaries, the wolves clothed as sheep or protectors; those who vilify and believe your weakness is their strength.

Remember, no one is so fine a judge of character as to be foolproof. Disappointment and hurt contribute to the price we pay for love and participation in the human group.

Some flee from appraisal and keep out of range of the quiver full of arrows we all carry at times. Here is the best argument not to run, captured in the last line of a quote from a Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel.

“The opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

He did not survive the murder of family and friends to die inside, but to live with people, many of whom were kind.

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The first two photographs, both taken on May 24, 2019, come from Shasta County, south of Redding, California. The first is by Angela Walfoort, the second by Monica Leard. The final image is the work of Hans Hillewaert: Angola at Dawn on the Kunene River, seen from Epupa Falls, Namibia. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Sweet Memories and the Drowning of the Sun

A murder of sorts happens every day. You’ve seen it, but didn’t think to make a police report.

Remember the day at the lake? Or was it the ocean? You thought you watched the sunset.

Nope.

The invisible hands of the water pulled the yellow ball down, inch by inch. The flaming star drowned. The day was done and done for.

The world departs us without even a goodbye note. Well, you might say, the sun will rise tomorrow and you’d be right. Other things, different types of disappearances, are less predictable. A final meal with a parent or friend that seemed routine when it happened. The last conversation with a comforting voice. A live recital by a musician you won’t hear again. In the moment you don’t realize the “next time” is an idea about to be defeated by fate, but some day you’ll say, “Oh, that was the last time, wasn’t it …”

No, it’s not so serious. The old buddy might still be out there. The pianist is yet performing, but no longer at his artistic peak. Best not to go to his next concert, you say. Better to remember him at the height of his perfection. Some folks — athletes and actors, singers and trapeze artists — stay on stage too long. Of course the latter reside above the stage, but you get what I mean.

Last times happen because we cannot hold the globe still any more than we can stop a bull stampede.

Reading The Night Before Christmas to your little ones becomes a swan song, too. I loved my two charming girls cuddled around me on the eve of the once-a-year gift-athon. What they thought or felt I can’t be sure. Perhaps enjoying the ritual, my voice, and the closeness; but impatient to fall asleep, the better to jump over the nighttime to the morning.

As the years passed I’m pretty sure this habit of December 24th came to mean more to me than to my little sweeties, by then less little. I found uttering the words ever more touching. The girls were getting to an age when such things wouldn’t fit: the end of their childhood and a passageway leading to one fewer intersection of our lives.

I can’t tell you when we laid to rest the pre-holiday custom, but whatever the year, it was one of those things about which I am philosophical. Life can’t be freeze-dried, tiny creatures kept small in perpetuity. Put the flight of this ritual under the heading “a small price to pay for their growth and maturity; their flourishing.”

Thursday night, though, came an encore. The unremarkable routine of baby sitting at my youngest’s house offered no foreshadowing. Bedtime approached and with it the three books my grandson’s mom put next to the recliner in his room, his invitation to dreamland.

My boy responds to the drill as well as I do. He sits in my lap after we put on his pajamas and, once the recitation ends, gets tucked in.

How lengthy he’s gotten! He no longer fits snug in my lap. Remind me to buy a larger-sized space between my chin and my knees. Soon this three-year-old — long-limbed for his limited span of years — will be too big for this position.

I was about to pick up the first book when I spotted the title: The Night Before Christmas.

My eyes moistened, but I plunged in. He’d heard it before, but not from me. I’m an animated reader, so I gave the job passion: speeding up, slowing down; some parts louder, others softer. A performance.

The tear that started at the start made its way down my right cheek by the finish. I wiped the dew away and turned the mute printed words of the other two children’s stories into sound. Afterward my parents’ great grandchild scrambled into his bed, I kissed him, and we exchanged the words “I love you.” Once the lights were dimmed I left the room.

There have been moments in my life in imitation of eternity. Maybe they are eternity if you fully inhabit them, lose yourself, forget the hourglass and the daily sunset. Reciting this verse to my progeny makes me immortal for the few minutes it takes.

The man I am is well-past thinking money is the solution to anyone’s troubled soul, outside of purchasing necessities. I am incapable of religious faith, never my strong suit. I am done asking the question “What is the meaning of life?”

As a young man I wondered and wondered.

Choose your own meaning or no meaning, but for me I’ve never come up with a more pleasing one than revisiting The Night Before Christmas with my children; and now the first male in my parents’ genetic line since my brother Jack. So long as I can do that, the sun will hover in the sky, the flaming thing keeping all my loves warm, safely beyond the water’s reach.

The idea of a river drowning the sun was borrowed from Matsuo Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1694. The top photo is a Sunset from Zebulun Beach, Herzliya, Israel. The photographer is RonAlmog. The last picture is the work of Maureen Boyle: Freya’s Golden Tears in the Style of Gustav Klimt. Both the sunset and the Boyle were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Fathers and Memory

A woman I dated in college later gave a female friend the self-published autobiography of her dad. Mr. H was a complicated guy, something my old love seemed to indicate by her inscription on the inside cover of her gift:

Fathers!

If “Fathers!” meant he was narcissistic, she was right. The long account of his life mentioned his two children in only one paragraph. Their mother received a little more coverage, but the self-preoccupied writer failed to get their correct divorce date. He missed by a couple of years!

Dads and moms are on my mind because both my folks were born in November. I therefore offer you a few thoughts on how we remember people.

For example, I had several of Milt Stein’s baseball caps, but recently threw out most of them. I saved them after his death, all still holding his scent. His unique human fragrance was the whole — the remaining all one could then retain of his physicality. Now, lacking that redolence, they mean less to me. So long as I keep a couple I am satisfied.

My father’s electric razor held his presence, too; in the bull dozed bits of beard and the detritus of flaked skin. They reminded me of my face momentarily next to his in an embrace, the roughness of his after-workday epidermis, the substantial musculature of his body, the manness of his being.

I’m not alone in this attachment to aroma and sensory memory. My friend Mel, after the abrupt death of his wife, kept all her clothing for a time — and for the same reason.

We all remember people in photos, but our search for such vanishing wisps of creaturely residue recalls a closer closeness. Scent, sounds, and strands of hair are the evidence of physical nearness beyond what can be seen. They retrieve the touch, sonority, and smell of the other. In this we recapture the animality of our senses and the story they tell us of our past.

Mel agreed to be interviewed by me for an oral history late in his nine-decades-or-so of life. He was something of a father figure after my dad died in 2000; one generation younger than Pops, but still not young. So I have his voice, as well as a similar four-hour video interview I did of my father.

My treasure chest also includes not precious stones, but audios of a few of those who meant and mean something to me. Among these are my adult children when they were little. Mom’s spoken words own a place there, too, coupled with a bit of her singing. Though she never acquired vocal training, the tape displays undeveloped talent.

Jews, among others, remember people symbolically with illumination, lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of a death. They also memorialize the name of the departed by giving it to an offspring whose birth happens soon after. Thus, the name does not die, despite Goethe’s assertion that “names are like sound and smoke.”

The usual explanation for this practice is the parents’ hope that in receiving the name of an admired family member, the child will emulate in life the virtues of the deceased namesake. To a certain extent, too, it is believed the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his name.*

All this, of course, takes no account of any convoluted feelings we might have toward parents. But these memorials assume a kind of idealized love for (and from) one’s guardians. Such emotions are baked into the cake of the connection between any small child and his sire; any small child and his mum. Therapy deals with the complications, but the remembrance remains.

Judy Collins created a different tribute to her father in a semi-autobiographical song. She emphasizes the sentiment, not the factual details, in her short introduction:

A prominent physician with whom I went to Chicago’s Mather High School dedicated his life to medicine because of the early death of his dad to cancer. Such stories aren’t hard to find.

When my best school friends and I established the Zeolite Scholarship Fund at our alma mater, we gave awards not only in honor of deceased and living classmates, but recognized several surviving teachers. They all appeared grateful to be recalled 40 years or more after we graduated.

The most touching story I know about ways of remembering involved two “star-crossed lovers,” no longer young as in “Romeo and Juliet,” from which the leading use of those words derives.

When their relationship came to its inevitable end, the woman told her beloved she would never wear a particular dress he favored; at least until such time as they again met. Only later did he emerge from his stupefaction and realize he too had reserved shirts he connected to her; and — so he said — purchased for her. Until then he didn’t grasp why he hadn’t worn them any other time. His unconscious alone kept the secret.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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The top image is Salvador Dali’s Portrait of My Father. It is sourced from http://www.Wikiart.org/ The Missing Painting is the work of En-cas-de-soleil and comes from Wikimediacommons.

*The quotation regarding Jewish naming practices comes from http://www.Kveller.com/