In this week’s creative nonfiction — in honor of Father’s Day — MICA prof Saul Myers recalls rousing kitchen debates with his funny, brilliant dad, Jack.
In my early teens I smoked grass and hash every chance I got. It was a career. With my mind a euphoric vapor, I nodded along to The Grateful Dead and shared laughing fits with my cronies over freaky, pot-hazed perceptions. But then rather suddenly my hash-pipe went cold; those rushes that came from a deep toke made me sick to remember, and I forgot all my secret nickel-bag stashes. What happened? The change had to do with my father. I saw him when he was down — a humiliating thing for a son. When he rose to his feet again, he wasn’t the only one who received a new life.
One morning during my eighth-grade year my mother woke me early. Something was the matter with Dad, he could not get out of bed. When he tried to move his left leg excruciating pain shot from his lower back and paralyzed him. My mother could not afford to miss work that morning, so I would have to miss school and figure out a way to get him out of bed and walking. It was no use lifting him. I decided to remove books from the nearby bookcase and to pile them on top of each other until they formed a tower as high as the bed. He could rest his leg on top of the pile. At intervals I would withdraw one book from this tower and gradually bring his foot a few inches closer to the floor.
They happened to be the tomes he had collected during years of graduate work in sociology, from courses he had taken at night after his day job as an accountant. I would learn later my father’s quitting his doctoral program preceded his back attack.
“I don’t have to take this,” he had barked to the dumfounded chairman of the department, and walked out. He had been the only ‘30s-style radical in a department that did not appreciate his point of view. In a fit of angry pride he turned his back on the hopes of a professorship that he had built up for a decade. And now I had his leg balanced on the same volumes he’d pored over every weekend of my childhood: Weber, Durkheim, Marx.
Every few minutes I removed one of these worthies from under his trembling foot, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, all right?”
“Ooch, I can take it.”
“The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life?”
“I feel less pain, go ahead.”
“Here’s a skinny one coming up.”
“Good, which book?”
“Lazarsfeld, Statistics in Social Research.”
“Owwww! It’s unbearable!”…until his foot finally touched the floor.
I was 13 and I was humiliated. Our worst humiliations are not felt for ourselves directly, but on behalf of someone else.
I’d watched as an ambulance team lifted my father like a thing and strapped him into a stretcher. I sat in the taxi and overheard him, coming back from 10 days in traction at the hospital, cut himself down: “I am a sissy.” And I had walked on the side of his cane as he hobbled to a psychiatrist’s office. It would be a year before he would walk his steady way without a cane or special apparatus, a metal-hooked corset for the lower back.
And yet it was at this very time, when he had to construct a new future for himself, and I was beginning to find books more stimulating than bongs, that I came to know my father in a new way. He introduced me to the weapon of the Word.
I don’t think it was intentional. One day he found me leafing through a book from one of his sociology courses: Eros and Civilization by Marcuse.
“Marcuse huh? No one takes him seriously except students and beatniks,” my father said. “He thinks he can make the revolution with his balls.”
His colorful recommendation made me read the book with great relish.
Sometimes a book became an occasion for my father to teach. If it was an idea that I was having difficulty grasping, he would exhale and start his explanation again, and as he spoke he would cradle in his hands something that he bore slowly toward me, as if handing the difficult idea over, though there was physically nothing there.
Far from being a patient recovering from disk surgery, he seemed imbued at these moments with immense power. His exaltation in words and ideas thrilled but also frightened me. Dad could be fiercely devoted to his political map of the world; it flooded his vision as he spoke. And the vitriolic drubbing he gave professors who’d done him wrong let me know that these were not worthy opponents at some academic debate but enemies of humanity and justice. All history was on the line.
Then his moral ferocity would suddenly dissolve in a disarming pun or a dopey Mortimer Snerd face, and I would laugh.
And yet when Dad read something aloud, a story or a poem, his voice was anything but violent; it enchanted like a lone, unruffled flame. Reading a poem his voice found a kind of buoyancy and self-sufficiency, a clear even tone. He took pleasure in the sonorous flesh of words, and because he found pleasure in the words, I did too.
It is a year and a half since my father died and I find myself thinking a lot these days about his voice. It is so bound up with my own. When I am teaching a literature class — yes I became a professor, though sometimes I think it is his professorship as well — when I am poised to read a poem to my students, I have developed a queer tic: I feel that I must read from a certain place. It is not quite the place from which my own voice comes; it is not a wholly different one. It occurs to me as I write this that the place I need to reach is the calm assurance of my father’s voice as he read to me.
The period of discipleship, however, did not last. We began to argue over obscure points of political philosophy as if it were an exclusive torah that only one of us could own. That kitchen where a few years back Dad had taught me to question all ruling-class pieties now became the courtroom or police station where we subjected each other to ruthless interrogations. Interrupting each other with “For God’s sake let me finish” we often made our case to an unwilling jury, my mother, who would come into the kitchen wondering what the ruckus was about. Each of us would then unconsciously rise from his chair and approach her while pointing back at the other: “He has this preposterous notion that Marx said… Where does Marx ever say such nonsense, vu shteyt es geshribn*?”
In my college years when I’d return to the kitchen on holidays, my father made me feel, or I made me feel, that I had betrayed him. Painful as it was to differ with him, part of me found pleasure in getting him riled. We’d begin butting heads over a picayune point and this would quickly inflate into a serious test of knowledge and loyalty.
Serious? These kitchen debates were too exaggerated, too theatrical, to be completely serious.
Dad: So you’re all for democracy, are you? Do you really believe the powers-that-be would allow you to democratize the source of their profits? Suppose you won an election on a platform to turn over to the people the banks and major industries like oil. Wouldn’t they bring in the CIA to subvert and overthrow you like they did to Allende in Chile, and Arbenz before that, and how about Mossadegh in Iran? Elections! They’d hang you up by your democratic balls. That’s why you gotta have an army and police force, to defend the revolution from counter-revolution.
Me: If you mean a secret police force to defend the State or the Party against dissent and opposition, that’s been tried already. No thank you.
Dad: You sound like…a Trotskyite.
Me: Oh, I’m worse than that. And you sound like a Stalinist.
Dad (whispering conspiratorially to Mom): There he goes again bringing in Stalin.
Mom: Your father was never a member of the Comm–
Me: I know that. Is he really afraid that I would denounce him? As what? I have no idea what he is. He has such contradictory notions that he could never tow anyone’s line, not even his own.
Dad: Nevertheless, the revolution is no excuse to give up reality and realism, as you and the other Luft Menschen** want to do. And this Professor Blabbermouse you’re studying now.
Dad: At a certain point, when all the professorial gobbledygook is over, you will need to hold to what you think is justice, and fight, Saul. You won’t be the popular man about town for standing up. You might even be reviled. Will you have it in your kishkas*** to stand and fight anyway? Don’t look at me like that, I’m a coward myself. But if I could, if I were leading the revolution, I’d throw the fascist bastards into a booby hitch and hang them by the–
Me: Wait. Wait just a second, Mr. Balls-Hangman, what kind of a word is booby hitch?
Dad: Let me finish! (to Mom) He’s not letting me finish!
We’d skirmish over a controversial term, in this case booby hitch, and then as final arbiter, Dad would lug into the kitchen a very heavy Webster’s supported by a wooden stand.
Dad (pointing his finger to the place in the dictionary): Booby hatch…one, Insane Asylum, two, a place like an asylum. A prison. There you see? So I was right.
Me: That’s booby hatch. You said hitch.
Dad: So do me something, I hatched a hitch.
Me: Stop holding out, Dad, what else does it say there?
Dad (pretending to read from dictionary): Three, booby hatch: cure for flat-chested women and those suffering from diaspora droop.
Me: Don’t you think, in the light of how past revolutions have proceeded, that a crank like you, who always mocks and antagonizes any group you’re a member of, don’t you think you would be the first counter-revolutionary booby to be thrown down the hatch? Or to get an ice-pick thrust in your head?
Me: That’s why the revolution needs the good ole Bill of Rights. To protect guys like you from… guys like you.
Dad: Be that as it may, you still have not answered my question. You’ve just been elected to office with a program to socialize the banks, to put them under public control, and the ruling class isn’t going to let you do that without blood, your blood, my smart but still very, very deluded son, whom I want to live for the revolution, not die, like a booby.
Me (to Mom): Why is it always blood and balls with him? He’s just an old guy sitting there with thick eyeglasses reading the dictionary, sometimes making up his own words, and suddenly he’s the persecuted enemy of all the ruling classes throughout history. (Observing Dad absorbed in reading the dictionary.) On second thought, maybe he is that. (to Dad) There needs to be democratic control, our democratic deliberation over our collective destiny, including economic destiny. Ultimately that’s a matter of the force of the better argument among equals, not who can clobber the enemy.
Dad: Gaw ’way, you’re so full of words. Don’t gimme that bubbe maisen.**** Go back to that upper-class school of yours and study real history, Bubbee. Then return and tell us how you’ll have a revolution by discussion alone and by psychoanalyzing everybody. I bet you don’t even call yourself a Marxist anymore?
Me: “I am not a Marxist.”
Dad (to Mom): What did I tell you?
Me: Marx said, “If those guys are Marxists, I am not a Marxist.”
Dad: That was his brother Groucho said that. I know what you are.
Me: Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me, tell me, what I are.
Dad (pointing at me): You have been DE-FANGED. That ivory league school has DE-FANGED you.
And he’d linger with carnivorous delectation on the fang syllable, breaking out into a cartoon wolf’s grin, bearing his filed-down teeth. I can’t say what face I pulled in response. I probably howled, laughing.
But if it wasn’t all serious, why did we not let go of it, why did the contest continue with such predictable, such ritual, compulsiveness into my graduate school years?
At one dinner I was so intent on refuting Dad that it didn’t matter that he’d begun to choke on his lychee pudding while I expatiated. It had to be pointed out to me that the inquisitor against whom I had been defending myself with a long dissertation was slumped over in his chair, almost under the table.
By my father’s oldest age — he lived to 95 — our duels had died down.
However, when he’d invite me to read a poem he had just written, a spark of our former clash of arms might have appeared in the punctiliousness with which I sometimes challenged him to change a word. But by now my old warrior was too absorbed in poem-making to fight. He just nodded his head over and over to himself and made a very light pencil mark. Listening to him read, to the unruffled burn of his voice, I just wanted that flame to keep going.
He had become so frail I could have lifted him with one hand. And he had been subject of late to sudden collapses while walking in the street.
Kissing him goodbye one evening I said something lame: “When I come back next spring will you still be standing on two feet?”
“I shall be DE-FEETED,” he winked with sly satisfaction in the word.
*Yiddish, literally ‘where (in the Bible) is it written?’ but more sarcastic in tone.
**Yiddish -German, a head-in-the-clouds intellectual
*** Yiddish, stuffed derma, guts, intestines, one’s emotional insides
****Yiddish, old wives’ tales.
Saul Myers teaches in the Humanistic Studies Department at Maryland Institute College of Art.