THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN ANYTHING... (so follow my other essays/blogs on PsychologyToday.com and Huffington Post!)
November 17, 2013
On Veteran's Day morning, my Facebook page lit up with postings from friends, "friends," and colleagues honoring family members who had served in battles past. The one that caught my eye -- and breath -- was from Jessica Keener, an author whose words and character I admire. She wrote to honor her WWII veteran father, who'd been part of the American unit that liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. The things he and his fellow soldiers had seen there stayed with him all his life, she said -- although he never much talked about it. She'd written that "he probably had PTSD from what he'd witnessed in Dachau," and that he hated to see war (or his own bravery) glorified in any way.
The sight of human cruelty and suffering, the sight of violent death -- these sights should indeed cause stress and trauma. It is thus understandable that even well-trained soldiers have never been immune from the effects of post traumatic stress disorder. With this dawning insight, however, comes a paradox: We live in an increasingly hardened world, in which TV shows, movies and games offer guns and bodies as the bloody meat of mass entertainment. Corpses are burned and displayed for our forensic enjoyment, to be seen from the living room armchair; lives are ended (with groans and gore) at the push of a potato-chip-dusted plastic "controller" button. In that context, it's especially touching to see the persistence of humanity, and we see it in these veterans. It's heartening to see this vulnerability -- this moral, psychological, visceral allergy -- to violence, even (or especially) in those who are meant to be most immune, those who actually risked something.
Dachau's liberation story is not hypothetical to me. I was personally touched by this author's post, touched by her father's staunch refusal to revel in the aftermath of war, even a war that was won. What this soldier saw when he opened the gates of Dachau, was a sea of corpses, emaciated, tossed one atop the other in obscene piles. A few skeletons emerged alive, however, and one of them was my own father. Unlike most of his fellow prisoners, he survived the Holocaust, and like those who rescued him, got on with his life. He carried his heavy backpack of memories and kept on moving. As I child, I'd learned that my father, too, had made the most of a hellish time and place, saving other lives even as he faced the grave. That moved me; it inspired me. Watching life's constant war between the tawdry and the brave, I'd remember how he behaved.
My father died 18 years ago. That's a number that mean's "life" in Jewish tradition. After all these years, his courage is alive, and that of his saviors. The men who liberated the camps allowed themselves to be hit by the worst, most hellish tableau imaginable. Haunted though they were, these survivors and heroes are less "disordered" than those who don't grasp what was outlived. The war-torn have seen and braved what most of us never did -- the worst of the worst. They stood in our place as we stayed "ordered," unstressed. And there is not a day in the year that we shouldn't thank them for taking that mental bullet for us.
January 18, 2013
It’s listed among the seven deadly sins, but envy seems to be the least fun one. After all, you profit temporarily from lust, gluttony, and sloth, to name a few of the good vices, but what is the draw of envy? Why do we submit to it, even indulge in and obsess about it, knowing, as we do, that it is painful and pointless?
Envy, like the tango, takes two. There is one who has, or seems to have, something ineffably wonderful. And there is the other, nose pressed resentfully against a glass divider, who feels he hasn’t got it. Who worries, with increasing misery, that he’ll never get it. As painful as it is to be the have-not, being the object of envy is known to be quite pleasant. When I was in grade school, a girl I'll call Linda used to bring in M&Ms. She would put one in her mouth, dropping it in almost delicately. Red, green, brown, tan – each little disk would twirl momentarily on her tongue, then vanish. would smile at me as I watched her. “Oh, do you want one?” she’d ask. And I, a foolish celebrant, would admit, “yes!” This naked request cued her next move: Linda would scrabble for another piece in the bag. After displaying it like a jewel in the light, she’d then pop it in her mouth, shaking her head: “No. I don’t think I’ll give you one today.”
That day, and every day the heartless hussy dragged the candy-bag into school, she got me. I suffered envy and it knocked me backward. She was lucky; I was not. She was favored with pleasure; I was doomed to hunger. I’m sure the chocolate never tasted as good to Linda as the feeling that she was the lucky one. After all, she had more than I did. Not only did she have more candy; she could transform that mathematical fact into humiliation, attesting to her greater power. Linda, I recall you after all these years. All the chocolates in the world could not mask the bitterness I still feel. Are you dead now, of diabetes? I hope so, Linda.
Two decades later, when sweets mattered less than seduction, I found myself actually looking at bottled “Envy.” There’s an expensive perfume with that name, and I’ve bought and worn it. I’m guessing that “Envy” aficionados like me were attracted not only by its combination of fragrant elements, but also by the thought that we, former losers and window-gazers, could be the lucky ones now. At least when we sprayed ourselves with the stuff.
Win or lose, where did this game come from? Why do we pair up willingly – me versus you, you versus me? What fuels these toxic comparisons? One flaunts, the other resents. The story’s as old as Cain and Abel, but what does it signify, and why do we continue to play its parts? An answer one often hears is that America (and the modern world in general) breeds envy. There is always something new to buy, some updated status-signifier that your neighbor flaunts in the driveway. Maybe their kid runs faster, hauled a nicer potato-clock to the science fair, or is headed to a better college or career. Maybe their home is simply larger, with a brassier, shinier doorknob or a more melodious bell, and the smell of their organic rutabaga trumps your humble mac and cheese.
I’ve asked enough rhetorical questions, and will answer them at last. From where I stand, neither the best or the worst, the luckiest or unluckiest (and it’s where you stand, too), we suffer from envy due to existential factors. Life is rocky. One minute is good, and the next could be awful. No matter how determined we are, we are rightly insecure about the vagaries of fate. Now, add that we are insecure in ourselves. Even if we started out beloved by our parents, maybe the world didn’t always second their generous opinion. Perhaps we were high school athletes who never made it to the majors. Maybe we were beauties who discovered that the concept of wrinkles and cellulite applies to all mortals. The bottom line: We never quite know what we have or how long we can have it. We get nervous. We look for a vantage point, a sightline, something to help us steer to the safest harbor. We look around at others to gauge where we are.
Sometimes that is good. Sometimes we recognize a real avenue of interest by watching other people. Your friend plays piano really well. Her Chopin renditions make you cry, and not in a good way, but from self-pity. And then you take lessons. Bravo: You learned something from your envy. More often, however, comparisons to others are futile and destructive. You leave the sanctity of your own self, nearly falling over as you tilt towards the vicarious and hollow indulgence of watching someone else.
Woody Allen wrote many great jokes, but my favorite is this: A student confesses, “I cheated on my philosophy exam. I looked into the soul of the student sitting next to me.” I am looking into the soul of Woody’s witticism now, and think it pinpoints the source of envy’s sting. We will never, ever find our lodestar in comparisons to other people. True, it would have been hard for Cain to say, “Oh, well, God likes Abel’s sacrifice better. Maybe I’ll try to be more like him.” It would have been even harder for Cain to come to terms with who he was, and what his gifts were: “I LIKE hunting, and I’m good at it. Abel can’t hunt like I do – he’s kind of a wimp. Maybe someday, God will crave fresh ox-flank. I, not my brother, will shine on that day. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the nature of my self – a man of the outdoors, swift as a lion.” Poor Cain couldn’t come up with these alternative responses, but maybe we can.
Linda had the chocolate, but I get to write about her, and about them, and about envy. Each of us has some great, interior gift that’s ours alone. And dwelling on that unique bounty, relishing it more than the gleaming fixations outside us – that’s a cure to envy’s pain, and the source of life’s greatest contentment.
October 29, 2012
Not my blog but better: Author/Critic James Wolcott's eloquent response to THE WATCHMAKER'S DAUGHTER
April 20, 2012
"A heartbreaking memoir of healing power and redeeming devotion, Sonia Taitz's THE WATCHMAKER'S DAUGHTER has the dovish beauty and levitating spirit of a psalm.
"The suffering and endurance of Taitz' parents — Holocaust "death camp graduates" who met at the Lithuanian Jewish Survivor's Ball in a New York hotel (imagine Steven Spielberg photographing that dance floor tableau) — form the shadow-hung backdrop of a childhood in a high-octance, postwar America where history seems weightless and tragedy a foreign import — a Hollywood paradise of perky blondes, Pepsodent smiles, and innocent high-school hijinks where our author and heroine longs to fit in.
"Although the wonder years that Taitz scrupulously, tenderly, beautifully, often comically renders aren't that far removed from us, they and the Washington Heights she grew up in, the shop where her father repaired watches like a physician tending to the sick tick of life itself, the grand movie houses where the image of Doris Day sunshined the giant screen, have acquired the ache and poignance of a lost, Kodachrome age.
"A past is here reborn and tenderly restored with the love and absorption of a daughter with a final duty to perform, a last act of fidelity."
— James Wolcott, New Yorker and Vanity Fair cultural critic and author of the memoir Lucking Out
March 21, 2012
My latest essay for Psychology Today.com. A response to my youngest child leaving for college, and how both of us are gaining a higher education. Or as I put it: "Children both hamper us and heal us."
February 18, 2012
In passionate love, Whitney Houston flirted with the annihilation of herself.
See my essay in PsychologyToday.com:
February 16, 2012
Watching Oprah's recent televised visit the Chassidic community in Brooklyn, I saw her amazement at the "oddness" of these people turn to longing and then identification. "We're all alike," she concluded wonderingly. Despite the fact that these women covered their hair, arms, collarbones and legs; despite the fact that they kept kosher (to the (more…)
January 18, 2012
"I've always been confused about the farther shores of love." See this month's post on psychologytoday.com. Comments welcome!
December 18, 2011
"Out of America arose a vixen with jet-black hair." See my essay on psychologytoday.com. I loved her.
November 20, 2011
There is something about the rounded 60’s contour, plasticine and space-aged, that draws me, not back to the future, but to the past. This happened the other day, as I sat in a wonderful exhibit called “Jews on Vinyl,” listening to Herb Alpert blaring joy with his Tijuana Brass-mates. I was downtown at the (more…)