30. June 2020 · Comments Off on COVID-19 in the land of Maximum I · Categories: Olio

While growing up in an immigrant family, I had a job: explain America to my parents. They didn’t understand Americans. The assumption was that I, with fresh eyes, could do a better job of it. I also served as the family’s translator of impenetrable American accents, usually Southern.   

According to my parents, Americans were lazy intellectually and physically, soft, undisciplined, mouthy, ridiculously optimistic, naive, superficially friendly, unserious, emotionally cold and disloyal to their own families. The assumption was that you couldn’t trust Americans not because they were dishonest, but because they were incompetent. My parents didn’t understand America, but they did believe they understood the character of Americans, which was awful, and as parents their number one goal was simple: their children would benefit from the wealth of America but avoid its defective character. The worst insult my parents could level at me was, “You’re behaving like an American!” 

I took my job as the explainer of America seriously. Like de Tocqueville over a century before, I carefully observed the America I saw. I took mental notes. Americans, I noted, were incredibly individualistic. You couldn’t get them organized in group activities that weren’t sports, no way, no how. As a kid, I’d hear Sinatra on the radio sing I Gotta Be Me and think that that was America in a nutshell. Everybody has Gotta Be Me. Our cities look like crap. Nothing runs on time. Our parks have trash strewn everywhere. Everybody is their own king. Our selfishness and radical individualism is even written into our Declaration of Independence:

“all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This statement by Thomas Jefferson is a lofty way of saying that America should be about me, me, and me. From day one of our country, we were told to be selfish a-holes. Contrast that with the French “liberté, égalité, fraternité!” Fraternity is just not an American thing. 

Scholars far more serious and learned than I am have noted how the Enlightenment in the West championed and defined the rise of the individual over community. America took it one step beyond. We went maximum I. Everything in America was about the individual and our radical individualism, our hatred of government and community, define our character and define what we consider our exceptionalism. 

It turns out that creating a nation of radical individualists comes with some advantages. It means that those individuals, suffused with egotism, will tend to be incredibly good at innovation and making things. That’s what America does better than anyone else. We win Nobel Prizes so frequently that the Nobel Prize committee might as well move their ceremonies and offices from Stockholm to New York City to save on travel. That many of those “American” Nobel Prize winners are immigrants means that not only do we breed radical individualists, but we attract them as well. My father, for example, hated Americans, but he loved how America let him do what he wanted when he wanted to do it. My father’s favorite song? Sinatra’s My Way, which he would belt out in our home in full voice not infrequently. 

Being radical individualists means we create with ease world beating companies led by billionaires. America is where money is made, more money than anywhere else. 

But the American exceptionalism of radical individuality comes with a price. Our communities are at best ragged affairs. Health care? It’s not for everyone. Shelter? Not for everyone either. Disparity between the rich and poor? Off the charts. And when we are required to do something that demands community and self-sacrifice we are going to fail at it. America, the land of Maximum I, is just not built for such an effort. 

The failure of America to deal effectively with the coronavirus and COVID-19 has flummoxed many observers. How could a country so powerful and wealthy be taken down by a virus? Much of the blame for this failure has been assigned to our leadership, in particular Donald Trump. Yes, Donald Trump has been horrible at leading us through this disaster. But I try to imagine another leader trying to get Americans to wear masks and I come up empty. I try to imagine another leader trying to get Americans to not hit the bars and beaches and I come up empty as well. Obama would have done better, sure. But I have no doubt that America would still be a COVID-19 hell.

I think of my parents and what they would say about COVID-19 in America if they were still alive: Americans, what do you expect? Soft, undisciplined and selfish. America’s failure would confirm their bleak view. I think of the look my mother gave me when I asked her why she didn’t say yes to the marriage proposals from American Jewish soldiers in Europe after the war, the pure derision on her face. “Why would I have wanted to marry one of those babies?” 

I didn’t agree with all of my parents’ litany about Americans. Dumb is everywhere. America doesn’t own stupidity. I’d have arguments with them about their anti-American attitudes. But I look at what America has done during this pandemic. No preparations. No medical safety equipment at the beginning, equipment that is still hard to obtain. No N95 masks for its citizens, who have to walk around with homemade cloth things instead. For thirty days or so, most Americans made an effort to “flatten the curve” and then many decided, fuck it, this is too hard.

In contrast Western Europe, the source of modern individualism, screwed up its initial response, but got disciplined in a hurry and at least temporarily brought its infections and deaths down. Asia, where community is more important than it is in the West, quickly worked to keep infections low from the start. 

We are probably at the 20% mark of this pandemic. We have at least another nine months before we have a vaccine, probably longer. In America over the months ahead it will be every person for him or herself. That’s how America works. That’s part of its exceptionalism. It’s an exceptionalism that may well produce a breakthrough in therapeutics. It’s an exceptionalism that may well produce a rapid vaccine. But it’s also an exceptionalism that treats the death of its own citizens with frightening callousness. 

12. March 2020 · Comments Off on What I’d tell myself · Categories: Olio

This photo is over 40 years old. I’m on the left, my brother is on the right. My parents used to refer to us not by our names, but by our sizes. I was the small one (der kleiner), my brother was the big one (der groyser). In his teens, my brother got a different name, the wild one (der vilder). He was self-destructive. When I was thirteen, my mother made me promise that I would watch over him and make sure he stayed alive. For ten years, that’s exactly what I did. I was successful. It was exhausting. I did what I had to do out of love. Then his wife did the same until my brother’s heart gave out. This picture was taken toward the end of my watching over my brother period. The following year he’d get married. We’re as happy to be together as we’d ever be.

When you’re twenty-two, my age in this picture, you think you know everything but you’re a baby. You’re filled with hubris or at least I was. I look at this picture and I’m reminded of two things: 1) my love of my brother; 2) what a pisher I was. I want to go back in time and tell myself what to do and not to do. Of course, my twenty-two year old self wouldn’t listen. But I’d still try. You have to try.

I have few regrets. I’ve loved and been loved fully. I’ve achieved a great deal. I’ve been lucky with my health, my finances, and my family has been healthy, too (pooh, pooh, pooh, as my mother used to say). I’ve been one lucky s.o.b. I wouldn’t, looking back, do a whole lot differently in terms of major steps. But I could have made those years a whole lot smoother along the way. That’s what I would tell my young self if I got inside a time machine and went back to 1979. I’d keep it simple. Maybe I’d just hand my younger self a piece of paper with a list. Then I’d go to Skokie and get a decent piece of kishke, something I haven’t found anywhere in decades. Here’s the list.

 

  1. Do not worry about every step you take. They don’t all have to be perfect. Every day you’ll make a few missteps in your work and your relationships. It’s like a jazz musician hitting a bad note. Even the best do it. You just need to keep on, keepin’ on and be sincere and honest in what you do.
  2. Hold on tight to the ones you love. Most of them will die far sooner than you think and you’ll miss them every day. Enjoy every minute with them and don’t get bent out of shape on days when they or you misbehave.
  3. Life really is about the company you keep. About 1/3 of the people you meet are truly wonderful. Another third are unreliable, but can surprise. The final third will always hurt and disappoint. Stay away from that final third. Try to spend as much time as possible with those in the upper third and aspire to be like them (because face it, you’re in the middle third).
  4. Your parents are smarter than you think. Listen to them now because later on you’ll remember what they once said and think, damn these people were geniuses.
  5. Yeah you’re smart, but there all kinds of smart and you’re book smart. You’re not people smart. You’re not emotionally smart. You don’t think that stuff is important but it is. Watch others who have those kinds of smarts and learn from them.
  6. Your depressions will come and go and miraculously will diminish with time. That thing your father did – physically shadow boxing his depression – turns out to be a marvelous exercise.
  7. You are not static, your personality will change. You’ll get louder. You’ll in fact be as loud and out there as your mother by the time you’re in your 40s (yes, I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s true). You’ll slowly get some of those emotional smarts you think you’ll never possess or need. Strangely people, complete strangers, will want to be around you and tell you about their lives; scary but true.
  8. Keep taking intellectual risks and expect that most of the time you’ll fail and hear no from the powers that be. But the rewards from those yeses will greatly outweigh the pain from all the nos. Take even more risks than you think you should.
  9. You’ll live longer than you expect so don’t be in such a hurry. Take time to hang and be with friends.
  10. Keep striving, but the fact is that you’re no Shakespeare, Mozart or Einstein. You’ll be remembered a healthy little, not a lot. But you will be remembered. Embrace what you do accomplish.
  11. Eventually you’ll get to an age where conquering the intellectual world is still important, but who you love is more important. Nurture every one of your friendships along the way because you have no idea how much you’ll love to see the faces of the fat, bald and droopy versions of those people decades later.
  12. Those obscure languages you know that you think will never be of use will come in handy one day. Don’t let them get too rusty.

 

06. March 2020 · Comments Off on Going nuclear over David Brooks · Categories: Olio

Many years ago I was at the funeral of a brother-in-law who died young of cancer. My mother, not related by blood or marriage, wanted to be at the funeral and drove ninety miles to the cemetery. As we stood around the grave, my mother stared at my late brother-in-law’s younger brothers. I knew what she was doing . She was looking to see if they were wearing wedding rings. She was examining them for their overall health. Her gaze never veered from those two young men. “This isn’t Poland,” I said to my mother. That’s all I had to say. She then knew that I knew what she was thinking.

“What would be so wrong?” she asked me in Yiddish.

“It’s not that it’s wrong. It’s that it won’t happen here,” I said. My mom seemed satisfied with this answer, but I could tell she was satisfied in the sense that she thought Americans were stupid and were never capable of doing the right and proper thing.

After the funeral, my wife asked what my exchange with my mom was about. “She wants one of your sisters’ brother-in-laws to marry your sister,” I said.

“You’re kidding,” my wife said.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “That’s how it was done in Poland. She can’t imagine why it shouldn’t be done here. Your sister has a baby. Someone needs to take care of that baby, be a father. Who would be better than one of those two?”

“That’s ridiculous,” my wife said. “And you agree with her?”

“In theory, she has a point,” I said. My wife laughed. I think she thought that I was joking.

It turned out that my brother-in-law had a little bit of the old world in him. He didn’t make one of his brothers promise to marry my sister-in-law, but he did make one of his brothers promise that he would watch over his child like she was his own. That’s what he indeed did do. That’s what families do. It’s why they thrive.

About a month ago, I put my family tree together. I got back to about 1820 or so before I lost track. The tree starts out in Poland on both sides of the family. It now includes people in Argentina, America, Israel and even Germany (some young ones have improbably moved back to Europe). I know many of the families in that tree and know enough stories about them and their long gone parents and grandparents to fill a book (which I wrote for my daughter and is strictly for family reading). These people survived cholera, typhoid, heart attacks, cancer, gulags, the Dirty War, the Holocaust, the Israeli War of Independence, the Yom Kippur War, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. Somehow these families (mostly) grew and thrived. The latest generation has some divorces. Such is modern life. But still these families thrive.

Recently I read a “provocative” article in The Atlantic written by David Brooks entitled The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake. When I look at my family tree in the context of that article, I think, “There’s no mistake here. This is a complete success. Mr. Brooks is a fool.”

I think of my marriage. Where would I be without it? Who would I love and grow old with? I think of my parents’ marriage. I heard the word divorce in Yiddish said by my mother exactly once. It was an idle threat. Those two were joined at the hip. I think of my in-laws’ marriage. They’ve been joined at the hip for over 65 years. Where is the mistake in any of this?

I looked up Mr. Brooks online and found out he got divorced and married some ridiculously young thing. Aha! Mr. Brooks was projecting and being ridiculously inductive in his article. Just because his own nuclear family was a mistake doesn’t mean that all nuclear families are mistakes.

In his article, Mr. Brooks has some data that “shows” nuclear families are a mistake. According to him, the nuclear family was never very good except for a brief heyday after WWII. Again I think about my family tree. According to Mr. Brooks, my great, great, great, great, grandfather, Rabbi Herschel Rojstaczer, had a lousy marriage in Volodymyr Volynsky. Who knew? Mr. Brooks, to be fair, does equivocate. He states that back in the old days, nuclear families were good because they were big and were like corporations. You needed a big family to run your farm. Ahem. There have been no farmers in my family. We’ve been city folk. Tradesmen, small time merchants and the rare rabbi. I guess according to Mr. Brooks my ancestors must have all been miserable.

According to Mr. Brooks, nuclear families are only working for the wealthy nowadays. Last fall, I went back to my childhood neighborhood, which was never the best and is now a step down from where it was when I was a kid. I talked to the man who owns the house next to the one I grew up in. He was putting away stuff from his daughter’s wedding from the night before. He’d raised his children in that house and had lived in it for thirty years. He was glowing while talking about those years to me. Maybe I should write to him today and tell him his nuclear family must suck because Mr. Brooks told me it did. Maybe I should write a letter to every family on that block and tell them their nuclear families suck. I know at least one of those people just might write me back. He’s the brother of a childhood friend. He lives in the same house he grew up in and lives there with his wife. He just might write to tell me to eff off.

Yes, there are stresses on today’s nuclear families that didn’t exist forty years ago. Most of those are related to money. The brother of the childhood friend in my neighborhood is making half of what his dad made back in the day. Just about everybody in skilled construction, which is the trade I grew up around, makes about half of what their fathers made in today’s dollars. Mr. Brooks barely talks about that in his article. He’s a conservative and doesn’t want to give the working class honest wages for a day’s work. He’d rather just blow up nuclear families. But I’d love to run a experiment where we erase forty years of suppressed wages in America and double everyone’s salary. Do you think nuclear families would work better than they do now? That’s a rhetorical question.

It’s strange that a conservative is against an institution so old that evidence for its existence is found in archaeological digs. What’s stranger is that what Mr. Brooks is proposing, blowing up the nuclear family, is flat out impossible. We have no alternative method to raise children at the scale required.

Mr. Brooks talks about his love of his extended-family-like “forged family,” a local group not related to him by blood or marriage. These kinds of relationships are all well and good, but they are relationships by choice. You like the people you’re around. You stick with them. But what happens when you decide you don’t like the people you’re around anymore? Or they don’t like you? There is nothing to keep you bonded. Pfft. You’re alone.

One of the essential aspects of real extended families is that, in fact, you don’t like everyone in them. There are people in my own extended family that I would do my best to avoid if they weren’t related to me. But they are related so I suck it up and spend time with them. I’ve even grown to love some of the very people I wouldn’t have been able to stomach had they not been related. Learning how to get along with (and even fall in love with) people who aren’t like you emotionally or intellectually is a skill you aren’t going to learn easily except in forced group relationships. Living in an extended family is a central way we learn that being annoyed or worse with someone else’s behavior isn’t the end of the world. You learn compassion, patience and resilience.

There are, indeed, many nuclear families that fail. I don’t wish to make light of those failures or accuse the wives and husbands in those marriages of being irresponsible or wrongheaded (except for maybe Mr. Brooks). There are tens of millions of people actively engaged in relationships that work well, provide emotional strength, and have no relation to the nuclear family. I wish them nothing but joy. But for most of us, nuclear families are an integral part of our happiness. We don’t need a better way to raise families, Mr. Brooks. We just need to give them the wages the adults in those families earned forty years ago.

08. February 2020 · Comments Off on The long slow death of the interior life of the American male · Categories: Olio

I was at a neighborhood party. There was no talk of politics because there were some Trumpinistas present and no one wanted the party to blow up. Instead there was, of course, talk of the neighborhood and city politics. People asked me how long I’d lived in the neighborhood (forever is basically the answer) and what I thought of Palo Alto schools (too much of a pressure cooker, but basically OK). Then a man asked me what books I’d recommend that I’d read recently. He knew I was a writer, but still. A man hasn’t asked me about books at a non-writers party in a decade at least. I probably had an initial look of shock because I don’t have a poker face. Then I composed myself and recommended what I thought were the best of the books I’d read last year.

It may be another ten years before a man at a party asks me about books again. It may never happen again. Men hardly read books today. They dropped reading literary fiction about thirty years ago and a handful still read revenge porn stories with Jack Reacher type characters. Bureau of Labor Statistics bear this out. American males read, on average, fourteen minutes per day for pleasure as of 2018. That’s it, fourteen minutes. Women don’t read much more – seventeen minutes a day – but I note that women at parties do ask me about books. They also dominate the book clubs I’ve done Skype/FaceTime sessions with and fill the seats at bookstore readings. A YouGov survey indicates that sixty-nine percent of men never read for pleasure at all.

Men also only sparsely attend theater and concerts. A couple of months ago a young woman was sitting next to me at the symphony. She was a violin student and we chatted about the music. I asked her boyfriend what he thought and he gave me a blank stare. “I’m here because she’s here,” he said. He looked relieved that I was filling up the intermission time by talking with his girlfriend.

The loss of men participating in American high culture is something that gradually happened over my lifetime. World War II and the GI Bill started men on the path to self-reflection. Soldiers were given cheap paperbacks during the war and access to higher education after. Of course, not every man participated. Highbrow and middlebrow cultures weren’t big in the working class neighborhood of my childhood. But in my home, culture was a presence even though my parents hardly read books. My mom read Tolstoy and other books in Russian when she came to America, but when the McCarthy era hit, she got scared she might be deported for such reading and stopped taking Russian books out of the library. My dad worked like a demon and read the newspaper.

While my parents weren’t book readers, they certainly valued books and encouraged their kids to read. My father would quote from Pushkin and Lermontov and would tell me that reading novels and poetry were essential for understanding life. We’d go to Russian cultural events, like when the Bolshoi came to Chicago, or Polish-Jewish cultural events, like when Arthur Rubinstein came to play in Milwaukee. The idea was that high European culture enriched your mind and soul. In my family, the life of the mind was important. Intellectuals were admired. The assumption on the part of my parents was that their two boys would pursue the life of the mind as a lifetime avocation.

Central to all this was that examination of the interior life was essential. It wasn’t just what intellectuals and wimps did. It was what everyone who wanted to live a full life did. You didn’t just run around and make money. You thought about your actions, their intent and purpose. You put your actions in the context of the behavior of those around you.

Why were my parents self-reflective? I don’t think they were born that way. I’ll take a leap and say that war transformed them. There’s nothing that can throw doubt into your mind about life and its meaning than being shot at or being woken by bombs blasting away. Both of those jolts happened to me only once each and I’ll never forget them. My parents survived gun shots and bombs again and again as well as starvation, frostbite, and typhoid over a six year period. They knew the war scarred them and changed them permanently. When my mother was looking for a husband, she avoided American men because, “They were babies. They couldn’t possibly understand my life and what I lived through.”

Don’t get me wrong. My parents weren’t intellectuals, far from it. They were pragmatists and doers at heart. But the war made them think about matters loftier than how they would make their next mortgage payment. It’s not surprising that my parents expected their children to live full interior lives, although my parents were leery of us becoming intellectuals.

My brother was more intellectually inclined than I was. He dragged me to the library, where he would pick out books for me to read. He took me to see Hamlet when I was twelve. He had me listen to Coltrane. Eventually I shared his interest in literature and music. This wasn’t a common pursuit in our working class neighborhood, but it wasn’t reviled. I was respected and admired for being able to both throw a punch and help anyone with their homework. It didn’t hurt that respect for high and middlebrow art was part of 1960s American culture. Books were celebrated in major magazines. Even late night talk shows occasionally had real authors, classical musicians and opera singers.

Strangely or maybe not so strangely for me, Orthodox Jewish schooling contributed to this pursuit of the life of the mind. We’d read the Bible in Hebrew and discuss it with the help of Rashi’s commentary. Reading the Biblical scholar Rashi was basically my first exposure to footnotes. I can’t imagine that there is a better way to reinforce the idea that footnotes are valuable.

While our pursuit of art and the interior life was unusual in our childhood neighborhood,  my brother and I found out that what we were doing was not at all unusual once we moved to the suburbs. The fathers of my friends frequently had, as a mark of their success and erudition, their own libraries filled with leather-bound books. They had jazz and classical music albums. During their adult parties, I’d eavesdrop and hear them talk about the books they read and music they listened to. In their world, a successful man was a sensitive soul when he wasn’t earning the family’s daily bread. I looked at these men – stockbrokers, store owners, lawyers and doctors – and assumed that not only would their life be my life, but it would be a life that was fulfilling.

Were these fathers sincere with their intellectually minded talk? Not all of them were. Their social lives demanded that they at least fake it. Thorstein Veblen, a late 19th/early 20th century sociologist, would probably say that what they were doing was signaling they were part of the leisure class. The men talked about art and literature because it showed that they had achieved enough success to have the time to pursue reading books and attending concerts and art shows. But for many, this time spent on art and self-reflection was, indeed, important.

My friends didn’t follow in their fathers’ footsteps, though. When they became adults they wanted man caves not libraries. Video games filled shelves instead of books. Talk about art and books was replaced entirely with talk about sports, which were being broadcast 24/7 on cable TV.

Why did this evolution happen? My wife says that it was due to the distracted culture of video games and over-scheduled children’s lives. She believes reading for pleasure is something that develops early. How America has raised children over the last thirty years implicitly assumes that literature and art aren’t important.

I think there’s truth in this assessment, but I also believe something else is going on. Like my parents, the fathers of my friends knew war. Many were soldiers in World War II or soldiers in Korea. Some of their older children were soldiers in Vietnam. War scars everyone emotionally. It forces many to be self-reflective. For thirty years, we routinely made the young men of the middle and upper middle class fight in our wars. Then we abandoned the draft.

War is now something strictly fought by our poor and uneducated. The sons of the American soldiers who went on to college and aspired to having homes with personal libraries weren’t exposed to war. They never experienced anything life threatening. The war books and novels that their fathers held dear because they spoke of a common painful experience meant nothing to them. The sons felt no need to be self-reflective. No traumatic experience fundamentally changed them and exposed their souls.

A few months ago I was in front of a tourist town bookstore that had some books outside on a cart. A father, about fifty years old, and his son, about twenty-four, looked at the cart like it was an artifact from a foreign land. “What are those?” the son asked (he really did ask this question). “Books,” the father said with derision. “Why are they here, outside?” the son asked. “I guess because they want to sell them,” the father said. They both looked perplexed and then walked to a neighboring bakery. I watched them walk by. I felt an urge to say to them what my father sometimes would say to me: “You can learn more about life from ten pages of Tolstoy than you can learn from five years of living.” But I knew my plea would have no effect.

I don’t want this country to bring back the draft and fight more wars in an experiment to see if the self-reflective, book-reading American male will return. Such an effort would be too damaging and, despite my theory, probably wouldn’t succeed at turning men into readers. I don’t want to go back in a time machine and live the rest of my days with the fathers of my friends. Among other things, I don’t think, given their drinking habits, that my liver would last more than five years if I did so. I’m, instead, happy to talk to women who still read and to talk to the handful of young men who are artistic souls (they will always be with us). But I do have a profound nostalgia for the time when my friends’ fathers routinely talked about books and art with emotion.

 

 

 

27. January 2020 · Comments Off on Why cultural appropriation is here to stay · Categories: Olio

When I was in high school I lobbied to have Muddy Waters play at a school music night. He and his band came for a mere $1500. He wasn’t pleased about doing a high school gig, but clearly he needed the money.

I was ecstatic. It would be the only musical event I ever attended at my school. Muddy Waters was the real deal to me. Bands like The Rolling Stones were pale (haha) imitations of real bluesmen like Waters. But I was the only one in the crowd who looked happy listening to Muddy and his band. Everyone else would have been far happier if we had a cover band playing the ersatz blues of The Stones.

After that concert, I tried to understand why my fellow students disliked what was raw and real, Muddy, and loved what was fake, derivative bands like The Stones. I decided that the appeal of The Stones was really about their whiteness. My fellow students couldn’t connect directly to a black musical art form. They needed a smoother, anodyne and whiter version of the real thing. Just like Elvis Presley took Sam Cooke’s music and put a less musical and whiter face on it, The Stones were putting a white face on the blues.

It irked me that playing white versions of black music made millions while playing the real deal got you a gig at a Milwaukee high school. Life wasn’t fair. But as I grew older, I mellowed a bit. The Stones and Elvis could be thought of as cultural appropriators, sure. But there was another way to look at them that was perhaps less negative. They were translators. They translated black music into something accessible to white people. Was it as good as the real thing? No. But it was as close as mainstream audiences wanted to get to the real thing.

In literature, I’ve run into the equivalent of Elvis and The Stones frequently. It hasn’t just been in novels like The Help, where a white person writes a cartoon version of black culture that sells millions of copies. I’ve read novels about Holocaust survivors and Eastern European immigrant families written by people who are clueless about this culture. I’ve thrown books against the wall again and again that have been on bestseller lists. I know that if white Christian readers encountered an authentic book about Holocaust survivors and their families, they’d read a few pages, close up the book and never open it again. Mainstream readers prefer anodyne versions written by Americans appropriating/translating outside cultures.

Given the reality that the mainstream reading public strongly prefers the inauthentic to the authentic, publishers, of course, prefer to publish works by cultural translators/appropriators. They’ve been doing so for as long as I can remember. They’ve been making big bucks doing this as well. What has changed recently is not the demand for tone deaf books by white Christian cultural translators. Instead what has changed is the rightful public resentment by people from outside cultures, especially from writers of those outside cultures whose work has been ignored by big publishers and mainstream readers.

Five years ago, a cultural translator book like American Dirt, which came out last week and is about a Mexican woman trying to come to America, would have sold millions to white Americans without much of a peep from the Latinx community. Now Latinx and even Asian writers are angry. I don’t expect cultural translators/appropriators to go away. The market demand for their work is too great. They will continue to be published and sell millions. Latinx writers will continue to throw books against the wall they read that are written by appropriators. Asian writers will continue to throw books against the wall. I’ll continue to throw books against the wall. But these books are here to stay just like rock and roll.

I note that the Rolling Stones have made billions playing the blues badly and are still filling stadiums. In contrast, Muddy Waters died long ago and while he was alive bought used cars from my wife’s uncle. The marketplace decides what sells and what sells is frequently not very good and in bad taste. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that I love to listen to recordings of Susannah McCorkle, an American, singing Brazilian tunes and Theodore Bikel, an Austrian Jew, singing Russian folk tunes. I’m certain people in the know about Brazilian and Russian music howl at these efforts. I don’t care. The desire for the inauthentic but comfortable and non-threatening will always be strong.

 

 

16. January 2020 · Comments Off on Acts of kindness · Categories: Olio

I was in New York at a theater last week and just two days before developed a shoulder condition that inflamed my right rotator cuff and restricted the movement of my arm to zero. Broadway theater seats have never been known for their comfort and as I sat down, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit in my seat next to my wife and daughter without occasionally yelping in pain. I got up and explained my problem to the house manager. She expressed sympathy. They didn’t have seating for disabled people, but she could bring a dining room chair out and put it next to one of the seating rows “as long as you don’t call the fire marshal because what I’m offering you is illegal.” I told her I wouldn’t call the fire marshal. I sat in a comfy seat that gave me enough room to put my dead arm in a position that kept me pain free and enjoyed the show.

The house manager did not have to do this for me. It was extra work. It was a violation of fire laws. But she decided to be kind. It was a small favor that she gave to a stranger, albeit a paying customer. During intermission I thought of acts of human kindness big and small that have impacted me and my family.

My mother was a great believer in human kindness. She was, given her past as a child who lived through WWII, also alert to any potential danger. Somehow her view that people will often go out of their way to help others mixed happily with her belief that a new Stalin or Hitler could come back any day and ruin her life and the world again. She never would have survived the war without acts of kindness. After the war, that was true as well.

In 1946, my mother, 17 and on her own, left the safety of the American Zone of Germany to go back to Poland and search for her father. She wandered from town to town. It was dangerous to do this. Poland was, at the time, lawless and rubble-filled.

My mother searched for her father for thirty days, when she ran out of money. She had failed and it was time for her to return to Germany. She waited at a train station for the train that would take her back. A Soviet soldier at the train station was ogling her. Finally he shouted, “Come here, girl.”

My mother was scared. She’d heard the stories of young women being raped and murdered by Soviet soldiers. She knew she was trapped and approached the soldier. He asked for her name and she didn’t lie. The soldier heard my mother’s Russian accent, the result of being in a Soviet gulag with her family during the war, and was surprised. “What’s a Russian girl doing here?” he asked.

My mother told the soldier her story of being in a Soviet gulag town during the war, of being separated from her father when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and her father was conscripted into the Soviet Army, and of her failed effort to find her father in Poland. The soldier said, “You don’t have to stop looking for your father. Take this.” He handed her a suitcase. “I’m going home today. I don’t really need it.”

The suitcase was full of Polish zloty, nearly worthless as a currency. But given the large quantity of bills it contained, the suitcase would allow my mother to continue her search. She found her father two weeks later and with false papers reunited him with his wife and my mother’s kid brother.

Why did the Soviet soldier decide to help my mother? Humans have an innate capacity for kindness. We respond with empathy to other’s hardship. In difficult situations  big – my mother in search of her father – and small – me in search of a seat at a Broadway show – we can find it.

We live in a time when we’ve elected a president who doesn’t believe that kindness is possible, that everyone is on the make. Our news is full of tales of cruelty, selfishness, and greed. But we can be better than our president, better than what we read in the newspapers. In fact, many respond to their better angels every day.

05. January 2020 · Comments Off on Jewish and proud · Categories: Olio

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25. December 2019 · Comments Off on Why I owe my life to borscht · Categories: Olio

Here’s a lunchtime bowl of my favorite food, borscht.

My wife made it with latkes for Chanukah last night. My mother used to make it, too, of course. According to my mother, my wife makes a good bowl of borscht and she should know. She was born in Poland. She lived through the war because her mother, my grandmother, made a good bowl of borscht. I owe my life to borscht. Here’s why.

When World War II began in September 1939, the Germans pounded Poland. They took Poland with ease, but the overmatched Polish Army did fight and there were some major battles. One was in my mother’s hometown, Tomaszow-Lubelski. My grandfather was worried about Hitler before the war began, so worried that he rented a farm house for his family to live east of town. During the summer before the war, my mother, her kid brother and my grandmother lived on the farm while my grandfather lived in the city. His logic was that his family would be safer in the country should Hitler attack. On paper, this sounded like a wise idea, but in fact when the Germans attacked, they quickly took over the rural lands east of Tomaszow-Lubelski. The Polish Army fought to keep the town. The battle is famous enough to be featured on a Polish stamp.

My grandfather, separated from his family,  was, no doubt, worried. During the battle, my grandmother heard a knock on the farm house door. A Polish translator was with a German lieutenant. Had that translator figured out that my grandmother and her family were Jewish, they’d likely have been shot. But context is everything. Jews didn’t live on farms. They lived in the city. Ergo the translator probably assumed my family was Polish. Looks are important, too. My grandmother looked like she was Roma. My mother, then nine years old, didn’t look Jewish either. With pale skin and Asiatic cheekbones, she didn’t look anything like her parents or brother (as a little kid, I assumed my mom had been adopted and that my grandparents were Polish and Yiddish speaking Native Americans; DNA says otherwise). Language is also important. My grandmother spoke a perfect Polish free of any Jewish accent. My mother didn’t even know Yiddish and spoke the Polish of an ethnic Pole. The translator probably thought, OK we’re at the home of a Pole who married a Roma. No one was going to get shot as a result.

The translator said, “The lieutenant is hungry. He wants a good bowl of soup. Make him some. Now.” My grandmother started to make some borscht immediately. The lieutenant stayed for two hours and waited. My grandmother talked with the translator and the lieutenant while the soup was cooking. My mother held her baby brother and prayed silently over and over that the translator and the German officer would not figure out that they were Jewish. Finally, my grandmother served the borscht to the German lieutenant and the translator. “Poles know how to make good soup. I’m going to like it here,” the lieutenant said. He left a happy man.

If my grandmother hadn’t made a good bowl of borscht, who knows what would have happened to her and her children? Nothing good, no doubt. I owe my life to a bowl of borscht.

Happy Chanukah

22. December 2019 · Comments Off on Title-ville · Categories: Olio

Lately I’ve noticed that movie titles have been loaded with misdirection. A Star is Born is not an astronomy documentary (I wish it was!), Joker is not a comedy (ditto for wishing). A Marriage Story is really a divorce story (well done, but watching two people scream at each other off and on for two hours is no fun). Uncut Gems is not gay porn (which is probably a good thing). OK, I’m joking more than a bit, but titles are important.

I self-titled one of my books, Gone for Good. Oxford Press didn’t object, but in hindsight it sounds bleak and dour. Sometimes I delude myself into thinking that if only I had given that book the title The Fault in Our Stars and Universities it would have sold a million copies easily. But like I say, I’m being delusional… and silly. Lofty sounding titles do sell, though. If Hemingway had tried to sell The Sun Also Rises as Jake and Brett it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Intriguing titles sell, too. The Great Gatsby, yes. West Egg Tales would have bombed.

I know the person who came up with the novel title Primary Colors. It’s simple and clever. I also know the person who came up with The Lovely Bones, also simple and clever. Titles with exotic or romantic cities in them work well, too. Death in Venice, for instance, is a classic just for the title alone.

I didn’t title The Mathematician’s Shiva. I bit my lip when I first heard that title so the person on the phone wouldn’t hear me groan. The worst thing you can do to a book is give it a The Noun’s Noun title, but that’s what I got stuck with. Despite that crummy title, TMS managed to sell well and continues to sell. Titles aren’t everything. The Dean’s December was a snooze of a title and yet the novel did well back in the day. But just think if TMS had been titled I Know Why the Russian Mathematician Sings or A Gentle Lady from Moscow. It would have been on bestseller lists for years. I’m being silly again, sorry. On a serious note, I tried to get TMS titled The Millennium Prize and as time passes that proposed title looks better and better to me.

I never thought I was particularly good at titling books, just didn’t believe I had the knack for it. I decided it was OK, actually preferable, to let the pros at selling do their thing and come up with titles on their own. But nowadays, I think differently. If I’m not good at titles, I better get good at them. It’s a simple skill. I should be able to learn it. If I publish any new books, I’m going to try my damnedest to make sure that the title on the cover is as much my work as what is inside.

14. December 2019 · Comments Off on The last light bulb joke you may ever see · Categories: Olio

Here’s a light bulb joke for you. How many geophysicist/novelists with the name Rojstaczer does it take to change a light bulb? It better be no more than one because finding two geophyscist/novelists with the name Rojstaczer is, in fact, impossible. Hahaha.

I’ve been changing out light bulbs in my house because my eyesight is iffy and is especially bad under low light. Out with the curly fluorescent 23 watt and less light bulbs. In with 23 watt LEDs. The difference has been amazing. Our house is no longer a fuzzy cave for me in the evenings.

Changing them out has taken me about one minute per bulb. That’s no joke! But I’m not going to be able to tell another light bulb joke for a long time, maybe never again. The boxes that housed the new bulbs say they’ll last 22 years. 22 years! I may well be six feet under the next time a light bulb goes out in my house. How can you tell a light bulb joke when you never have to change a light bulb?

My plight is not personal. Over the next few years just about every fluorescent and incandescent bulb in the world will burn out. What will they be replaced with? LED bulbs, of course. When that happens, light bulb changing worldwide just might stop for 20 or so years. How many people worldwide will be needed to change a light bulb? Zero. How about the year following? Zero again. The light bulb joke will have to go on a two decade hiatus. It will be, temporarily, the dodo bird of jokes. It may well become the 22 year cicada of jokes. Ten years from now when you try to tell a light bulb joke to your kid/grandkid, you may get the same stare you receive when you mention Blockbuster or telephone booths.

We’ll need other jokes about incompetence to replace them. Here’s one. How many doctors would it take for Americans to obtain decent health insurance? One, a surgeon capable of implanting backbones into 218 slimy, slithery congressmen. Hahaha! I’m sure you can think of a bunch of “how many“ jokes on your own.