Here’s a long and sometimes rambling note to myself. TL; DR would be “What benefits a man if he gains the world but loses his soul? But also, don’t let assholes win.”
It is also an obituary of sorts, for my involvement with a family I realize I’m actually not a part of in any meaningful way. One of my last exchanges with an older cousin of mine was at my dad’s funeral/memorial party. He was never a deep or thoughtful person, but always determined. Sort of a Fortinbras, in the Hamlet sense: move forward, gain ground, don’t waste time with too much “what if?” It’s a good strategy, in a lot of ways. But not all ways.
I loved my cousin. When I was a kid, he and his brother treated me as a mascot, in the 3 or 4 times a year I’d see them. I was a precocious, tough kid, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of boxers when I was 6 or 7, so that was enough of a gimmick for them. I was a Hagler fan, he was for Duran.
Anyway, all the funny and loving, interesting and heartfelt testimonials to my dad put him in an unusually contemplative mood, such as it was for him. Here we were, now at the end of a life story which had a beginning and middle, and in the summarizing of the arc of it all, it moved even him to deeper waters of considering life and “what it all means.” He was largely a stranger to such contemplative moods. This served him well in his career and life– He decided upon goals and then met them. He had and has a very lucrative and admirable career in a very respected field. But when he attempted deep or meaningful thoughts, it was always awkward and embarrassing, but in a very specific way. His confidence was always such that he assumed his attempts at depth, rare though they were, were that much more precious and valuable for it, and that when he deigned to wax philosophical, it yielded wisdom and gravitas. But what emerged was always somewhere between farce and tragedy. Think Little Carmine Lupertazzi from THE SOPRANOS.
So, there at this gathering, with emotions running deep, I had just projected a video montage of my dad’s life. The video ended on a portrait of him as a young and beautiful man, after the music swelled, and the image moved from larger than life in the foreground, resolving itself into a composition of the portrait being a centered rectangle on a field of white, I had faded in the words: Joel Dobbin: April 16, 1939- April 17, 2009. And then, under that, the words “Live like him.”
(An aside, before returning to my point: that bit, the “live like him,” I included as both a summation of my dad’s story and an echo and reference to a curious historical figure named Joshua Norton, who my dad had told me about when I was a boy. Norton was a businessman in San Francisco in the mid to late 1800s. He lost his life’s fortune when a ship he had invested in sunk, after following the conventional rules of chasing success. He was now a pauper. Norton decided that the sane, conventional path to “success” was a ridiculous illusion and altogether mad; that accepted the fiction of “reality” was only arrived at by a consensus of deluded people too afraid to admit they were all just making it up as they went along , so the only logical course of action was to create a reality that suited himself, and let the world get out of his way. He crowned himself Emperor of the United States, printed up his own currency, and issued proclamations as if it were all true. A magic thing happened, there in San Francisco: People loved him. He ate for free at the finest restaurants (giving out his own currency, which became collectible treasures that the owners would frame and display), his “proclamations” (many of them forward thinking and visionary, among the ridiculous) were published in all the newspapers. His funeral was attended by thirty thousand mourners. Mark Twain was one of his admirers. He was a real life Don Quixote whose non-fictional adventures and absurd stand for romantic meaning managed to beggar the imagination of fiction writers. The phrase “Live Like Him” was the title of poem/essay written about Norton, by a friend of my dad’s from his beatnik days, in an underground classic book/zine called “Principa Discordia.” It speaks to the triumphant nature of following one’s own noble, absurd, ridiculous, romantic and transcendent values, even when the world mocks them.)
So my cousin finds me, and we have a private moment. He is wistful. He says, “Josh, I’ve been thinking, I need to buy a boat. But I don’t know.”
I said, “Oh, I never knew you were a boat guy.”
“No, I’m not, but I’m at that stage now, where I *should* have a boat. It’s expected. I’ve got the second house, and all my colleagues are getting boats, it’s time for me, I think, too. But I don’t know. It’s strange. I don’t want one, but I feel like I need to get it. Maybe I shouldn’t?” He seemed sad about it. It was a dissatisfied feeling that was coming across.
I was in an odd headspace. I was burying my father, and this cipher of materialism, this android of monetary success was attempting to derive meaning out of all of it by wondering aloud as to the relative emotional value of purchasing a status-affirming symbol of having MADE IT. I looked at him with something approaching wonder and, in a cosmic sense, pity. But still. He seemed very small and silly to me, and I felt outside of myself, watching and listening to the conversation, as well as being involved in it.
“Well, these are good problems to have, I guess? I cannot exactly empathize; but, you know– do what makes you happy, is what I think I can tell you.”
It was then that the conversation, if possible, took a turn for the very strange. StrangER, in any case. With a half-kidding smile, he says, “You know, Josh. I’ve led a very disciplined life. I’ve done what I was supposed to do. I’ve met everyone’s expectations, I think. And I’m proud of that. I am. I’ve always done what was expected of me, what I expected of myself. I know I had some advantages, but I have always put my head down, and worked toward all my goals. And I’ve got a beautiful family, a successful career, the respect of my professional peers, an impressive home—”
“Potentially a needless boat,” I added, nodding in agreement in his assessment and tallying.
He nodded sagely, and concluded: “I think I deserve a mistress. I feel I’ve earned that.”
I laughed, thinking that he was hitting me with a dry punchline. I don’t even like jokes like that, though, both from a philosophical standpoint, and based on a kind of comedy-snobbery position: the “take my wife, please” bit is hack stuff, and it bores me to even hear others go through those motions to make jokes in that direction. “Men and women, they shop differently, amirite, fellas?” It’s tired and stale.
I clapped him on the shoulder, said his name, and, in warm way, said, “C’mon, don’t even joke like that. Your wife is amazing, your whole story together is nothing but sweet, that’s not even funny, we all know this.”
But I said it, too, to sort of lead him to a conclusion of the conversation, and to signal I wasn’t the audience for this joke, especially now. It’s funny (not funny ha-ha, but, you know, funny), but when you’re mourning, you often must accommodate and comfort those people who seek to comfort you, by assuring them that their accommodation and attempts at comfort and bonding, “moment-having,” are successful.
Because that’s really what they want out of the exchange, more often than not; not to reassure, but to be reassured that they are reassuring, if that makes sense. It isn’t that people don’t mean every “So sorry for your loss,” they do. Or they, mean it as much as they can, and they want to know that you heard them. It is a strange dance. It is comforting, in a way that becomes very meta: you must comfort those seeking to comfort you that you are comforted by their comfort, which in reality offers very actual comfort. And in assuming that caretaker role for the caretakers, you DO feel a little better, in that you must temporarily put your grief on a shelf to manage the politics of the situation with handshakes, eye contact and nods. It is not a fake, but the participation in the simulation of genuineness is, itself, genuine. It is as Joseph Campbell put it : one “joyfully participates in the sorrows of the world.”
And, as a mourner, I found I did not begrudge people that. Not at all. In fact, I know I had been on the other end of that exchange, many times. My grief was profound enough that I had empathy for everyone’s attempts at the impossible; there’s a noble futility to it all. A Don Quixote tilting at a windmill, or even an Emperor Norton quality to the endeavor. This is what we do in the face of death. It’s all a part of the ritual, and if you live long enough, you play all the parts. One day, you’ll play the part of the dead. There’s a zen awareness of that, in those moments.
But here I was, in this Jesus-Buddha-Krishna mindset, feeling both apart from this interaction, and a part of it, and watching it all from a third person camera floating a little above in addition to seeing it all through my eyes. I was thankful that my cousin came. I was mindful of the ocean of time navigated by all parties, to get to this moment; the Thanksgiving dinners, the Seder tables, the years gone by. But still in all, they had led me here, to listen to his existential musings on whether a boat or an affair would be his next project. He continued, jokingly, but also, and I stress this: not jokingly. There was a smile, there was a laugh, but there was also the acknowledgement that these were thoughts in his head.
“No, I’m very serious.”
Me, shaking my head in an “oh, you rascal” fashion, politically and politely protesting, “stop!” with a simulated laugh, for his benefit.
“Listen. These are the facts. I’ve been very measured and never indulged in my own desires. I’ve provided a good life for my family, I love them. I love my wife, but I think I deserve this; I’ve kept in shape, I’m pushing fifty. I think I should probably have a brief affair with a young, attractive person. That’s only fair, right? It befits a man of my station. I should have a nice mistress. I’ve never had one! That’s already an accomplishment. I think I’ve finally earned one.”
Again, there was a sly smile, which could indicate plausible deniability, but a part of me really understood, on a soul-deep level: This was as soul-deep as he ever got. And the smile was not extending all the way to his eyes. Was he ever going to have the affair? Probably not. I think he’d run a cost/benefit analysis on the idea, and come to the conclusion that it was probably more risk than he’d be willing to entertain. I tried to pity him, there in the moment. It mostly succeeded.
I ended the exchange by referencing the character of Dr. Gonzo from Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, more for the benefit of the ongoing TV show I conduct in my head, following my own adventures through life like a sit-com and said, “As your attorney, I advise you to go with the boat.”
I thought long and hard about that exchange for a while. There was always a fiction to my extended family. My dad was the odd man out; he was brilliant and passionate, firey and well-read. He had adventures. He rebelled against his parents’ fearful status-based world-view. He fought in Korea at 19. He hung out with the Beats in San Francisco and Baltimore. He handled reptiles for a living at the Bronx Zoo. He had a TV show in the 70s and was a minor local celebrity; he worked a 300 head of cattle dairy farm. He drove a cab. He ended his career of having careers as a Master Sargent in the Air Force, of all places. And throughout all of it, he had the sweetest, most enduring, 40 year love story with my mother, who he prized and loved beyond all else that ever was. She allowed him to be this poet-warrior-improbable-heroic figure to the rest of the world, because he always had her, and she always had him.
It seemed a violation, to me, of the sacrosanct nature of that dynamic, which my cousin really did not (and could not) understand, that this conversation took place, there at my father’s memorial party. But I felt like it, too, was a part of a larger narrative.
And in that moment, I honestly held that I was protective of my cousin, older and far more successful though he was. When he departed that night, I hugged him and I thought, “Oh, you poor thing.” It will come as no surprise, then, that we would drift apart, as islands of a once more connected family. After our grandmother and great uncle died, the overlapping Venn Diagrams of filial obligation to meet for keystone holidays stopped overlapping, and life goes on, oblah de oblah da, and all that. Still in all, for me, those Seders, those Thanksgiving, those shared moments and mutual ties meant something. I loved them. I honestly did.
I do used the past tense advisedly. Because love looks like is should be a noun, but in reality, it is a verb. It is a dynamic, and it is dialectical. Love is an interplay, and a participation. All love, every love; family love, romantic love, love of country, whatever. I loved the idea of them, when they were a real idea. Inasmuch as it served them, in their moment, they may have loved me, loved my mother, loved my dad. But we have different givens, I come to realize.
Since that moment, there in the corner of a shared space where we told Joel Dobbin stories and laughed and cried, I have witnessed that part of the family largely abandon my mother, paying initial lip service to her as a member, but eventually, by inches, and with no watershed moment, arrive at a place miles distant and transform her into a vestigial organ that becomes wholly removed from consideration. Out of sight and out of mind. They stopped with even the pretense of keeping up contact, with no fight or argument. Perhaps a perceived slight existed, and was used as a rationalization to eventually remove her from the literal and metaphorical mailing list of life. I don’t know. My mother used to call, once a week, every week to her sister-in-law. Eventually, the calls stopped being returned. No real reason. Or at least, none given.
I also realize I no longer care if there even was a stated reason, there amongst themselves.
I found out by accident the other day that my uncle, this cousin’s father, died. In 2014. Two years ago. They never felt it necessary to send word. There’s a line one does not uncross. It has the finality of death as its signet ring, pressing into the hot wax, on the agreement to never truly be family. It makes me wonder on the nature of family. Is it all a temporary fiction? Were they EVER truly “family?” What does that word mean, in that context? Are they family now? By any meaningful definition, it would appear not. What does it all mean?
I’m not sure. But it has made me think and consider things. If it can be truthfully said that this cousin, in the end total, when his life and days are finally numbered and ended, suffered from a lack of too much thought, to his detriment, I can cop to the opposite. I find that I think too much and do too little.
So here, at long last, is where I’ve arrived, in putting these thoughts down in something resembling cohesion, in order to examine them, and see what I can make from it all: For all my high-minded thoughts and ponderings, there is value in sitting down and doing THE WORK. When I consider the figure of this person in my life, who I once loved and looked up to, it’s not all “a pox on your house!” I still admire much of the determined nature of his approach to things. It gets things done. But without thought about what those things getting done mean, they are, by definition, I think, meaningless.
I suffer a malady of too much meaning, and not enough action. Today, in examining all this and seeing where it leads me, I announce to myself : I end it. I have written a novel that, by rights, in a just and fair world, should be a Newbery Award winning classic. But this is not a just and fair world, and the only people who achieve in it are those who put their heads down and move forward, and make their “success” happen. Today I vow to push everywhere I may to make this book a real book in the hands and shelves of real people. Not to go out like the CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES dude. Or Melville.
Today I vow to complete the other novels I’ve begun and abandoned, and the others still within me. Hamlet may be the protagonist of the play, but that sorry sum’bitch lies dead on the stage along with everyone else, all for his indecision and over-thinking. (Sorry, spoilers for HAMLET.) You know who isn’t dead at the end of HAMLET? Is that conquering asshole, Fortinbras, who never even bothered to show up on stage!
Today I vow to throw myself into every project I need to complete, and once completed, to do my best to make them “successes,” in the crass, material way that that word gets thrown around. Money can’t buy you love, the Beatles were correct on that score. But you do need it to keep the lights on. When that time comes around for me, I’d like to be ABLE to buy that boat, but to have no regrets in never wanting it, and to be very happy and content with the actual family I love.
Now I leave this keyboard to go get some things done. Wish me luck.