Friday, December 10, 2010

(Don't) Look Back

So my father hasn’t spoken to me in about 11 years. That was when I called to wish him a happy 80th birthday and he told me if I really wanted to give him a present I’d never call his house again. I’m not completely sure what it is I did… I mean trading a Harvard Law School scholarship for a spot in a 2nd rate CBGB’s punk band might warrant a year or two of parental cold-shoulder. And the ex-husbands--- well, not exactly guys he’d invite to his tennis club...but it’s getting late in the game for lifelong grudges. There are criminals skimming off his investments and child abusers on his own street. He can’t actually take seriously the tales his grandson feeds him about my maternal shortcomings just to extort a few sympathy bucks now and then.

So today one of our relatives called from a safe distance and explained that in my father’s old-world Jewish family it was considered bad luck to compliment. Criticism rather than praise ensured success--- the more negative, the better the outcome-- like an inverted curse. If someone had explained that to me, I might have learned not to befriend failure quite as literally—not to punish myself for being unable to rehabilitate the vicious stray dogs I picked up—for being powerless to keep the homeless guy on my block from spending his handouts on crack, to stop my own son from cutting school, from gambling, from treating his girlfriends like dogs, dogs like girlfriends.

I keep thinking about his ‘mid-life-crisis-at-21' editorial statement— that not only are his heroes no longer his heroes, but that they are no longer themselves. Safer to have dead heroes, I offered… although in this age of compulsive cyber-fingerprinting, plenty of trash emerges post-mortem.

In my old day, dead people got respect. They were exempt from unpaid tax bills and slander. In this day of TV forensics, we autopsy and dissect the emotional DNA of our Jacks and Marilyns, the dietary eccentricities of our Elvises, the sexual privacy of a martial arts expert, the blood chemistry of our Heaths and dead comedians. We are compelled to deconstruct and humanize, to simultaneously raise and lower the dead.

In this omniscient internet network, we spend so much time as para-scientific voyeurs, we scarcely have the inclination to look inward, or even to look out from that inner eye. The darker ones among us---we look back, we cannot take our eyes off the disappearing car or boat on the horizon, the setting sun, our present becoming not just past, but disappearing. It is not simply that we have loved and lost… those of us who are looking sense we not only forgot to love and be loved, but that we are lost. Our GPS’s are hopeless when we are here, right where we are standing, but everything else is not.

We all remember when we were kids and the day before Christmas was interminable. Those of us who have experienced childbirth—again, the unbearable slow hours of labor. And how many nights have we spent wishing…waiting… for love, for a missing child to come home--- for good news, praying the minutes would stop and delay bad news forever? For an errant husband--- halfway around the world, across the street--breaking your heart, praying for sunrise, for the betrayal to be over, for lovers to fall asleep, for some relief, for the truth, for a lie. Looking--- watching the thing disappear— the pain, the joy, whatever-- life— standing perfectly still, with nothing but an old moon, the fading night.

My son informed me tonight that it is impossible to have any memory from before 4 years of age, so my cherished stories of the building of the Verrazano bridge are inaccurate invented falsehoods. Maybe dreams. We are poor eyewitnesses of our own history; how can we possibly give an accurate account of someone else’s?
So maybe I choose to have memories of memories. I choose to stand watching as the latest version of some dreamcar drives through mist, becomes smaller, takes my breath away-- me standing without a cellphone, with only my heart for a camera, looking.

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