THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN ANYTHING... (so follow my other essays/blogs on PsychologyToday.com and Huffington Post!)
June 21, 2014
[First published in The Huffington Post -- February, 2014, as "A Valentine for Everyone"]
Valentine's Day comes every year, an avalanche of roses, hearts and chocolates. I am very afraid of this day; its mascot is Cupid, who seems to be a short-sighted boy who's armed with a sharp arrow. Ouch, you impudent bully!
I've been hit by some spears in my time. I've eaten the chocolates and cut the flower stems. These pleasures, like love, have been followed by empty wrappers, a weight on the heart, and drooping foliage. Bitter, me? What makes you say that? I've been married to the same man for over 25 years. Sparkling rocks on my fingers have I many. Surely, I have reaped the benefits of love eternal, love committed. Surely I have made my bed, covered it in excessive thread count, lain in it, and more. I've made love, nursed babies, found rest among a man's leg, a puppy's head, a small child's out-flung arm.
No, but I'm still forlorn when February comes. I'm disappointed in its shallows. Love is big -- it is the stuff of Russian novels, sodden pillows, duels and suicides. I don't want it rappelling from its heady heights, but it does. It morphs as inevitably as puppies and children into something perhaps better, but so different. According to some psychologists, that's the mind adapting to "sameness of stimulus," that's the mind accommodating to real shape and shadow. You couldn't be productive (or sane) if you stayed "crazy in love." You need to snap out of it and get back to the mundane march of life, the rational calculus of quantity, not quality. Perhaps, but I will grieve aloud in public, all the same. I'm a reader and a writer and a real love junkie, and I mourn this slap of sanity.
Sometimes, there's little quality or quantity. So many of my peers have now split up; so few look at each other in the nutty way they once did. (We don't tell them, "get a room" -- they got the room, the flat, the house, the mortgage...) Anyway, some couples never did look at each other in that trippy, illogical way. Many of them they married for good reasons, with realistic expectations and the cozy sense that they had what they needed and no more. For the divorced, the long-married, and even the rational co-habitaters, what could Valentine's possibly mean? And what could it mean to the real romantics?
Cupid's party, for us, is a forced march. It's a mechanical dance, and a wan pantomime. Leave us alone, Hallmark and Teleflora. You're great to have around for birthdays and funerals, but when it comes to our heart of hearts, don't taunt us. We're all in this together, eking out our way to emotional authenticity. Despite ages, stages or the grinding of life against illusions, we continue to love love. We honor its brief firework sparkle in the bittersweet way we honor our grown children's baby pictures, or the memory of their first brave steps into the world. We'll never forget the sound of their first words -- "Mama." "Dada." Other words were said to us -- impossible vows -- that meant as much. We've been shaken by love, so don't mock us with bonbons. Don't distract us with doggerel sold in mass numbers. We're trying to reach out and find something long past, a trace of a wondering sigh.
If there is a special day in February, that darkest month, let it be a day to remember that each of us -- husbands, wives, young, old, the single, the ruined, the lovelorn -- is heir to tender longings. If Cupid is blind, if his arrows prick, let's go beyond the callow boy and his old-hat party tricks. Love is more complex, more rare, delicate and variegated, than any of its marketed expressions. Let's celebrate that -- every day -- with humility, awe and all the heartfelt kindness we can muster.
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!