Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Letter from Your Dziadek/Dido in Search of the Empyrean

Dear Michael Alexander,

I died 15 years ago today. I lived a healthy lifestyle. I never smoked cigarettes. I despised their putrid stench, and I was perturbed when your mother started smoking as a kid after your Babushka insisted she jump from fifth grade at a perfectly fine public school to seventh grade at a private girls’ school. One sure way to expose your kid to more vices is to send them to school with scions defined by their family fortunes. I’m glad your mom kicked those lousy coffin nails long before you were born so that you never had to see one dangling from her mouth. I drank only at weddings and funerals. I hated hooch. That’s short for hoochinoos, a type of distilled liquor made by Alaskan Indians, but I mean all booze. Though I won’t deny that Degas, Manet, van Gogh, Picasso, Poe, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Wilde, and Hemingway, and countless other great minds, clearly got some inspiration from absinthe. Born into abject poverty, I didn’t have the luxury of pursuing my primary passion: philosophy. The drunks I knew as a kid your age, while crammed into a one-room efficiency above a noisy saloon in Newark with my immigrant factory worker parents and three brothers, were not gifted artists and writers, and they found no inspiration in their spirits.

I always had to work, and you have to be sober to work all the time and pick up slack from those who showed up late or called out sick because their heads were still throbbing from the rotgut. I ate locally grown vegetables and fruits and whole grains, and I researched  the best supplements to ease the inflammation of chronic arthritis that plagued my joints after years of playing college football and working labor jobs under conditions you hopefully won’t see in 2017 America, surely not in the West Village. I never took narcotics or any other drugs doctors prescribed until they detected the cancer that had been poisoning my body for years even while the doctors claimed I was healthy as a horse, and they stuck IVs in my arm. When I wasn’t at the college teaching, or working various other jobs, I was landscaping or repairing the house I’d built in 1967. I made time to get to the gym and swim every day. It was the only competitive sport that didn’t further degenerate my joints. Tell your mom I’m sorry she inherited that disease.

I’d had a physical when I was 73 years old, and the doc told me “you’re healthier than a 30-year-old.” About a week later, your Babushka, who already grew suspicious when I was taking a nap on the recliner where I’d read, came over to cover me with a blanket. “You’re feet are frozen, Michael. Something is wrong.” I shrugged off her concern. “The doc said I’m in better health than some punk half my age.” Finally, she forced to me to see a doctor. They found a blockage in my colon, just days after that doc performed a procedure that he said “proved” I’d live for another 30 years. A year later I was dead.

If I were alive today to see you play chess tournaments, a game I tried to teach your mom, solve complex math problems without making those silly diagrams they force you to draw as homework, or race you across the pool, I’d be telling you other stories – even some with happy endings. Did I mention I had to pull my weaker Army buddies out of the ocean when a tsunami struck in the South Pacific? 

I warned your mom when she was your age that “life is about 99% disappointment. If you can get over that, you can be happy.” She knew I was only half joking. Maybe I shouldn’t have said it over and over again. I think she’s taken it a little too seriously.

You were born in Manhattan, the center of the universe. I struggled to survive there, decades before your neighborhood was overrun by people who don’t think twice about plunking down an obscene chunk of their inheritance to own a $22 million townhouse where they spend 4-5 days a week when they’re not on vacation. Obscene. You’ll understand more once you read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  “Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality.” That book was published a day before your mom’s birthday, 195 years before she was born, but it couldn’t be more true today, could it?

So far, you’re doing OK there, even as last drops of Bohemian culture are being siphoned out of your neighborhood landmarks by greedy landlords. I’m sure your mom and pop have told you about the golden age of your neighborhood, when you’d see William Faulkner and Eugene O'Neill walk by instead of some gal who became famous playing a hare-brained, gold-digging clotheshorse who somehow paid her rent by writing a weekly smut column for a tabloid on a decades-old TV show. I think that pays some $2 in today’s editorial dollars.

Did you know that Marcel Duchamp, who was a great chess player, as well as a painter and sculptor, got his pals to climb on top of the Washington Square Arch and set off a bunch of balloons proclaiming "The Independent Republic of Greenwich Village" 100 years ago?  Can you imagine what the cops would do now? That was a typical public display of liberalism in the West Village a century ago. Now liberals are white women who can take off a couple days to stay in a fancy Washington, D.C., hotel and wander around for a couple of hours in pink pussy hats. How many of those people even vote in your local elections?

I’m sorry you missed the heyday of the West Village. Even I was just a couple years older than you are now when Café Society opened at 1 Sheridan Square, which you pass by nearly every day. It was the first nightclub in the country to crush racial barriers and give music legends like Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Burl Ives, Lead Belly, Anita O'Day, Charlie Parker, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Paul Robeson, Kay Starr, Art Tatum, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Josh White, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, and The Weavers, a chance to perform in the same venue. Ask your dad about most of these guys. His own grandfather played with some of them. Watch out, though, your pop can probably tell you as much about Charlie Parker as your mom’s told you about Andy Warhol and David Bowie.

There I go rambling on like an old dead man. Your grandfather was known for keeping his audience captive as long as possible, which was easy as most of them were plied with drink. I know I’ve made it all sound so bleak. It’s not all lost. At least in a few weeks you can go swimming around the corner at the public pool where another one of your mom’s heroes, Keith Haring,  painted a mural when your mom was 15 years old. Once they paint over that, it’s really time to flee to a new city like your parents kept threatening. I never got to leave the United States outside of military service. I traveled the world only through books. I hope you have the opportunity to see it all while retaining that compassion and empathy that distinguishes you from those who have yet to approach human becoming. That’s about as close to human being as most of us get. I made up a lot of funny words. Your mom may still use some of them. I hear you still can’t quite blow a bubble with chewing gum. Your mom was a quick study by the fireplace, her favorite spot in the house I built where your Babushka still lives. Next time you sit near a fireplace, think of your dziadek/dido. Don’t worry, that sounds a lot better in Polish and Ukrainian, respectively. Ask your mom to pronounce it.

I know you’ve told your mom you’re waiting for David Bowie to come back as something else because he believed in reincarnation, having questioned and embraced both Christianity and Buddhism throughout his life. She cried when you chose Bowie to play while you bravely lay still during an hour-long MRI. That’s Gural tough, because part of being a tough guy is knowing when to listen to rules so that you can stay strong enough to break the ones that hold us back and create your own set.

The Anishinaabe people, who include a huge group of indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States, carry down the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers. Think of it as basic rules for treating other people: wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and truth. Your school teacher described your core trait as “integrity” above all else.

You’ve chosen a challenging path. Albert Camus said “Integrity has no need of rules.” That sounds like fun, but I know not having rules is no cake walk for you. You can blame your mom for instilling that ideology. Maybe it’s better to listen to Moliere, who, like your pop, was a master at writing funny plays. Sometimes we have to take the comedy most seriously. “If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless.”

I have to remember you’re just 7 years old. I’ve been dead twice that long. I have so much I want to tell you, so much I could have shown you. If only I could just once watch you accept a medal at a chess tournament. Your proud smile muted by an underlying shyness and modesty for fear of gloating.

I’ll leave you, for now, with first quote your mother remembered me telling her when she was about your age: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s widely believed that Socrates said this at his trial when choosing death rather than exile. Socrates was, above all, committed to the love of wisdom. I’m glad your mom and pop like to yammer on as much as I do. And I’m glad you listen to them and record every idea with your photographic memory. Just make sure you weed out the silly arguments.

Your mom’s coping with the teachings of another ancient Greek today, Aeschylus, who said “There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief.” No surprise your mom would turn to the one known as the father of tragedy. Thanks for bringing her such joy and comfort. Sometimes she’s too caught up in accepting that 99% rule.


Brother Mike, your dziadek/dido in search of the empyrean

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