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Sibling Rivalry

Cigarettes, Meatloaf, and four dysfunctional sons

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A Catholic couple with whom my wife and I are friendly phoned late last week in a panic; their daughter’s baptism was the next day, and they needed witnesses. “Sure,” we said. They are wonderful people who are thoroughly devout and completely insane. Their daughter’s name is True. Her middle name is Maria. Get it? We met at the church the following morning. “True loves Mary,” kvelled True’s mother as the infant crawled towards the statue of the Virgin. “Mary’s her favorite.” The sanctuary door creaked open, and an elderly priest in a long black robe entered and made his way to the altar table. “Father George,” said True’s father, rising to meet him. “Georgie!” called my son. “Georgie!” I picked him up. “No, buddy, sorry,” I said quietly, “that isn’t Curious George.” That’s Dogmatic George, son. That’s Resolutely Non-Curious George. We sat side by side in the front row—True’s father, at his side her mother with Baby True on her lap, my wife, and me. Father George solemnly approached and began the service. “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” Father George asked True and her parents. Her parents nodded. “Do you promise to serve Christ the Son of God in faith and in truth together with the Father and the Holy Spirit?” Her parents nodded again. Father George leaned forward, clasped his hands together and fixed his eyes upon them all. “And do you,” whispered Father George, “renounce Satan and all of his works?” True frowned, slowly raised up her arm, and pointed at me. My mother would love her. * * * I’m smoking. I don’t smoke. I’m listening to Meatloaf. I don’t listen to Meatloaf. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked my shrink. “It’s September,” he said. When he says, “It’s September,” he means “It’s the High Holy Days.” Seven months from now, when I slump down on his leather couch and tell him I’m depressed, I’m not writing, I’m smoking pot every night and Earth is the superintendent’s mopbucket in the peepshow of the Universe, he’ll say, “It’s March,” by which he’ll mean “It’s Passover.” * * * Lucifer lives in a brown ranch house with yellow trim around the windows and roofline. She is a medium-sized shepherd mix, black, the wiry hairs around her muzzle starting to gray. Every day she chases me. She runs behind my bicycle, snarling, barking, and lunging at my back wheel for a hundred yards or so before losing interest, turning around, and trotting triumphantly back home. “So help me God, Lucifer!” I shout back at her every day. “I’m calling goddamn Animal Control!” It’s been a year and a half now. She’s getting faster. I have yet to call Animal Control. Which brings me to my mother. After 36 years of her snarling, barking, and lunging at my back wheel, I decided last month to call the whole thing off. I’ve tried before, many times—pleading, begging, throwing her a bone:

“Mom— enclosed please find pictures of our baby. Please disappear off the face of the earth.—S.”

But no more. No more halfmeasures, no more once-a-year visits that torture me the month before and leave me crippled the month after. I can’t go on with her, I’ll go on without her, isn’t that what Beckett said? No more phone calls, no more brightly colored gift-wrapped packages of guilt from her to my son, no more emails. I spent a long time trying to craft the bounce-back message:

A: Your email address has been blocked from this account. B: Emails from your address will no longer be accepted. C: Christ, lady, take a hint. D: The addressee has decided God is a myth, religion is superstition, and you are a manipulative, self-centered corruption of the notion of a mother.

I went with A. Soon, though, I felt guilty and decided to hurt myself. I read some news stories about incidents which could possibly be interpreted as anti-Semitic, worried about the disappearance of Judaism for which I was no doubt responsible, had a cigarette, upped my chances for lung cancer, and downloaded some more Meatloaf. Most self-destructively of all, I bought David Mamet’s new book, a tirade against Jewish assimilation and self-hatred. I had read about it on Nextbook. It sounded like just the thing for the self-loathing mood I was in, so I hurried out to the bookstore where the price of the book, with my Barnes and Noble Reader’s Club discount, was $19.39. Get it? I was feeling better already. * * * From the introduction to The Wicked Son, by David Mamet:

To the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who, in the nineties, envied the Palestinians; who weep at Exodus but jeer at the Israel Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the seder; who…find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue…to you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.

My mother would love him. As he, in turn, would love her. He would have to, as she is one of only a handful of Jews that fit his idea of a good Jew—she is not an “Epicurean,” a “turncoat,” a “neurotic,” and, having no concern for anyone beside herself and Jews, she is not “seeking the end of Israel” by favoring a two-state solution. The title of the book is taken from the Passover parable of the four sons—the good son, the wicked son, the moron, and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask a question—which is not only one of the most famous parables in Judaism, it is also one of the most corrosive. Written by dreadful parents for other dreadful parents, it is a handy primer on labeling your children, favoring the one who doesn’t ask the difficult questions, and rejecting the ones who would think for themselves. It could have been written by Tony Snow. The only good son is the one who agrees; the others are wicked, stupid, or simply to be pitied. Moreover, there is no thought given, or suggestion that such thought should be, to the nature of the children themselves, beyond how they—oh, those messy, stiff-necked children!—affect the adults. Why is this supposedly wise son so desperate to please? Does that concern anyone? Shouldn’t he grow a spine and consider other philosophies? And since when is rejection considered wicked—given that Abraham, the father of our people, rejected everything his father taught him? Particularly irritating to me about David Mamet’s book is that he was raised Reform. Nothing against the Reform—I envied them terribly as a child, not least of all because they could watch Miami Vice on Friday nights—but do me a favor: Don’t stumble into Club God-Fearing at four in the morning, raise a beer above your head, and shout, “Come on, you lazy bastards! You call this a party?” Some of us have been in this Cuckoo’s Nest our whole lives, McMurphy. On the plus side, I have perversely enjoyed picturing my mother reading his book and deciding he’s the second coming of Jeremiah. “How come I’ve never heard of him before?” she’ll wonder. “He’s fanTAStic.” She’ll pass the book to my father, who will grunt one way or the other. “If only MY son would write such fire and brimstone,” she will sigh. Then she’ll go to the bookstore and buy everything he’s ever written, and it gives me a warm feeling inside to imagine her curled up on the couch on Friday night, a cup of hot tea by her side, and on her lap, her brand new copy of David Mamet: Plays. “I hope these,” she thinks, bending back the spine and settling into her cushion, “are also about yiddishkeit.” Curtain up. Man: Fuck. Other Man: Shit. Curtain down. * * * We are thinking of having a second child. Of trying. We are thinking of trying to have a second child. Someday, when my son asks me why we decided to have another child, I am going to sit him down, brush the hair from his forehead and say, “Strawberry Go-gurt.” Go-gurt is a brightly-colored tube of yogurt, its package laden with neon cartoons of ecstatic hyperactive children on Rollerblades and Razor scooters. When I work, I often listen to System of a Down. In the foyer of our home hangs a framed Tool “Undertow” album cover, an anniversary gift from my wife. There are Banksy prints in the living room, and the books I go to most for inspiration and direction are issues of Ivan Brunetti‘s Schizos and my plastic-wrapped National Lampoons from the early, pre-glory days of Mike O’Donoghue. The other day, as I was searching for the issue with his “Children’s Letters To Hitler,” I realized I was doing so with a Strawberry Go-gurt hanging out of my mouth. “Let’s have another one,” I called to my wife. “Another Go-gurt?” “Another child.” There have been, I suppose, far worse reasons. * * * Three packs of Camels and a few hundred plays of “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” later, Rosh Hashanah arrived. Mamet reserves his most waggingest finger-wagging for Jews who dare to rewrite traditions other Jews wrote so long ago. (Were they, back then, also “turncoats?” Just curious.) My wife, having not been raised as strictly with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Mamet, still has an affection for the Jewish holidays, and we have decided to build our own traditions from the ashes of the ones we (or I) was raised with. For Rosh Hashanah, we ditched the supplicating but kept the apples. The three of us drove to an orchard, where, after we filled a large white bag with bright red fruit, we climbed a tree, sat among the branches, ate apples, and shared my son’s bag of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish as we sang his favorite songs. For Yom Kippur, a day of death and rote repetition of prayers trying to pass for introspection, we decided to celebrate life. In the morning, we hiked the woods behind our house, whispering past the deer and rabbits and trying not to step on the newts, and then, in the afternoon, we drove to Poet’s Walk, a five-mile nature trail in Red Hook, New York, that meanders through meadows and hills and finally passes by the edge of the Hudson River before winding its way back. The sun was beginning to set behind the hills. A distant train wailed to see it go. I lifted my son into my arms. “Time to go, buddy.” He waved to the geese and called “Bye bye!” to the river, and as the Day of Atonement came to an end, we hiked slowly back to the car, where we rested our tired feet, sang a few rounds of “Jack and Jill” and shared the last Strawberry Go-gurt.

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Sibling Rivalry

Cigarettes, Meatloaf, and four dysfunctional sons

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