Without Life’s bizarre and often ironic twists and turns and dips and loops, it wouldn’t be Life… it would be a plain old anecdote, about which we can confidently declare that it (an anecdote) is supposed to have a point, an attribute so patently unlike Life. The New Age metaphysicians who assert that Life’s point is to teach us (to live) are indulging in the kind of tautology that made me question the “wisdom” of almost everything I read (that wasn’t sci fi) in the 1970s.
I once saw a friend, whom I had always considered a level-headed cynic, declare (in one of those year-end group-mails that used to be popular; if your year was good, I discovered, it gets on people’s nerves) that an opossum which had turned up on his doorstep, after a recent mudslide, was “here to teach us to live”. This friend had a beautiful young wife at the time so I forgave him for saying such a thing (although I haven’t forgotten that he said it, clearly). But would the hardboiled version of this friend that I first knew, in the 1980s, have recognized and claimed this late-1990s version of himself? Would he have recoiled in horror? Are any of us safe regarding what we might become, or forget, or cause to happen in direct contradiction to the core of Self (and its principles) we’d like to believe is good and constant? Do we each contribute, in the end, to the arguments and forces that refute us? Are we self-cancelling? Are we absurd?
I’ve spoken of the curious case of my father before. Perhaps I’ve never gone in great detail, so here I will, starting from an oblique angle and zigzagging my way to the point. To wit…
Egon Schiele was one of the great Artists, in my opinion, and Egon and his wife were snuffed by the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. This pandemic made my grandfather, an undertaker on America’s east coast, very wealthy (relatively speaking: he was “colored,” after all)… so wealthy that he could afford to woo, marry and impregnate my beautiful grandmother, 25 years his junior (17 to his 42), in 1925. Without the Spanish Flu, Egon Schiele would have lived longer, perhaps much longer (he died at 28), and he probably would have made more Art, probably great Art… but I wouldn’t now exist. What the world regrets, in that case, I must celebrate: the Spanish flu set the wheels in motion that created my father and, by extension, me.
My father was two when my grandmother, still in her twenties, fell off the roof garden of the “mansion” my grandfather had built for them to live happily-ever-after in. As improbable as it sounds (and this is either true or both my parents, and older family members, were world-class liars), grandfather, the grief-stricken undertaker, performed the “eternal preservation” technique (à la Comrade Lenin) on grandmother and put her in a glass coffin in the “mansion” basement. The building is still visible on Google street view (the neighborhood went from semi-grand to proudly slummy in 90 years); is my grandmother’s corpse still in the basement? I lived in Philly (1977) when I was told about the glass coffin but I never made the forty minute journey to have a look for myself.
My father was raised in the thirties by my grandmother’s exotic sisters, three of them who moved into the mansion to nanny him. My father was a beautiful (essentially half-caste) boy with light eyes and longish, taffy-colored hair and his aunties dressed him in velvet sailor suits and paraded him around the neighborhood like a princeling (“Little Lord Fauntleroy” was a meme of the era). He grew into a lady-killing adolescent who rebelled, Brando-like, against his prettification, toughly taking up the smoking of cigarettes (the habit that would kill him at the age of 56, three years younger than I am now) at the age of 13. He told me a tale of speeding, in his hot rod, in his late teens, laying rubber across the Benjamin Franklin bridge, being stopped by a cop and then jovially waved on when the cop recognized him as his father’s son.
I’m not sure why he enlisted to participate in the Korean war (possibly the continuing effort to live-down his childhood prettification) but I know he learned to speak Japanese, sired my older (never met) Korean half-sister and went AWOL. He told me he would refuse to shoot at the Koreans, his of-color brothers, would shout sentiments to this effect across the firing-zone and finally smuggled himself off the base, and lived as a Bohemian deserter with his wartime squeeze, until MPs caught up with him. He was found to be nuts by reason of his principled pacifism and somehow eluded getting in serious trouble; ended up going to art school, on the GI Bill, after his discharge. Six years later he was set up, by mutual friends (who owned a boarding house in New Jersey), with my mother, a girlish beauty of such salad-genes that she looked like a dark-skinned emigré from India, with her long black hair and slender frame. They moved to LA, father became a disc jockey on a radio station specializing in jazz… and I was born. All before the ’60s had begun.
By the middle of that decade (while I was happily at home watching shows like Candid Camera, Get Smart, the Beverly Hillbillies, My Favorite Martian and the uncannily compelling I Dream of Jeanie), father had grown into a pan-Africanist Radical Militant with a profound collection of jazz records. He grew a beard, permed and teased his naturally straight hair into an Afro, wore Dashikis and chunky leather Jesus-sandals and white turtleneck sweaters, or dickies, under the Dashikis (his jazz hipster essence asserting itself)… and hung a glowering, wooden, tiki-like mojo on a chain around his neck.
The mojo gave me the creeps. With its atavistic facial expression, and a few of my father’s actual beard-hairs glued to its chin, it always struck me as the only thing really convincing about his costume. The rest of it, for whatever reason, made my father look like more of a hippie than a Black Radical (probably because he was so fair-skinned that it was difficult for him to tan, convincingly, and his fluffy Afro lacked the genuine density of authentically kinky hair; Art Garfunkel’s Afro was more convincing than my father’s). Subconsciously, my father probably realized this as well, so, in order to bolster his radical image, he got himself a young, genuinely Black, girlfriend. She was sixteen years older than I was, had served in the Peace Corps, was extremely well educated, had big tits, somewhat bulging eyes, a stern expression and a perfect Afro. For a year or two, I think my father found peace.
Being the son of the wife prior to the advent of his soul mate, however, I was not disposed to like the soul mate and she worked not even a little on making that happen. She was rather bossy. Perhaps he needed a bossy (or “hard-headed,” as Cat Stevens sang) woman to support him in his ongoing and utterly passionate (and almost-too-personal) struggle against the US Gov, and White Supremacy and the War in Vietnam, et al. He was working with all kinds of “grassroots” (some funded, no doubt, by the CIA and/or FBI’s Cointelpro) communities to support Black Literacy and solidarity and Political Consciousness and nutrition and so forth. When he came to fetch me, once, for our weekend hang-out, in the ghetto my mother and I were stranded in (she knew he was from relative wealth when they married; she couldn’t have anticipated how profoundly un-promising his Bohemian, and then Radical, inclinations were), I remember him looking at a cluster of bottle-clutching men on a shredded couch on the corner, near a burnt-out car, as we drove away and him shaking his head and saying “What have they done to my people?”
What would he think now, fifty years later? The slow-mo Genocide of North American Blacks is not for the faint of heart, nor the impatient, to contemplate.
My father taught me to identify and dismantle Euro-centric, and US Gov, propaganda at a young age but I learned, as a corollary, to identify and dismantle the subconscious motivations for his militancy, the chief of which being that he clearly longed to fit in somewhere that he had felt excluded from at a formative age, some lost hypothetical Eden: Blackness itself.
I thought he could have been more effective, and happier, and less likely to be blindsided (as he was when he was forced to take The Black Panthers to court, over a copyright issue… a black-light poster-map of Africa he’d designed and the royalties from which Chicago Panthers were keeping for themselves… and his “best friend” had shouted, in court, “Your honor, that half-white nigger ain’t getting a dime out of me!”) if he’d attempted a stark and balanced, out-of-body look at himself, and the world, and his actual place in it. He had attended a tony private finishing school as a boy, after all, and his mother was described as a “blonde” in the headlines announcing her death. Standing on 63rd Street and making a Black Power Fist in 1968 made him appear slightly (fairly or unfairly) absurd.
In my own case, I am part “Black” and part “White” (on both sides) and enjoy inheritances from “both” (although they are, in fact, a dozen) gene pools and cultures. I’m convinced that I’m so healthy, and horny, big-dicked, with all my teeth and un-bowed, still, at a few months shy of 60, because, frankly, some of my ancestors were bred, for centuries, for robustness, like horses or cattle. I identify as “Black” but endured lots of “where are you from?” from Black classmates in an all-Black school, then from White classmates, in an all-White school and I have learned to navigate between two mutually-antagonistic camps. I like being the mixture that I am; too bad my father never reached this point, or that his militancy was, partially, a Freudian performance that made reaching that point undesirable.
At the height of the radical chapter in my father’s life, I met Muhammad Ali in my father’s office (in the heart of the Black Radical Southside of Chicago) and his friend Dick Gregory (with his soothing voice) and others (included a never-trusted-by-“the movement” Jesse Jackson). I breathed a lot of patchouli (my father’s scent) and incense (stuck in “Buddha” incense holders) and absorbed several metric tons of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. My father was painting semi-abstract, partially-figurative, symbolist canvases of three-quarter moons and big left tits and pyramids and I absorbed the richly toxic odor of turpentine along with the radical patchouli.
When I was nine he signed me up for Arabic lessons, with the notion that they would come in handy when we left the country for the “motherland” (I realize now that these lessons, scheduled on Saturdays, were a good way to have me babysat by a third party during what was supposed to be our weekly hang-out). This arrangement lasted for three or four lessons until I rebelled on the way home from the last of them, leading to a scene in his car, the climax of which involved me hopping out of that car in ashamed-of-my-tears tears and running up the front stairs of my (maternal) grandfather’s house as father peeled out down the street. I was clearly not “motherland” material.
My parents were long-separated by then (soon to be divorced) and I continued to see my father on weekends, mostly, and more than once, during these hang-outs, he’d introduced me to various beautiful young Black girls who’d modelled for this or that of his paintings (obviously, as I deduced later, he was fucking them) but the models gradually disappeared when he married his soul mate, the sinewy 26-year-old with the perfect Afro and judgmental smile, who was on the way to getting her doctorate and an infinitely more judgmental grimace. Dad was about forty; my Wife is seventeen years younger than I am: I haven’t managed to dig up info on the age-gap between my paternal great-grandparents but I have my suspicions. All I know is that my father’s grandfather was a sailor during the Civil War… and that I come from a long line of anti-Oedipalists. Not sure who Freud/Sophocles had in mind on the subject but it wasn’t us. Not in the full sense of the term. “Kill” your father, though: sure. Why not?
I’ll skip the part about living with my father and his new bride, for a couple of years, out west, in the early ’70s. I’ll even skip the good part (as unlikely as it sounds etc) about the racist, red-haired, pug-nosed Irish kid named Gallagher trying to intimidate me on horseback as I walked home, from school, one day, across a mile of desert.
I’ll get right to the bit where my father fulfilled a longstanding (hypothetical) dream and moved to “the motherland,” with his Korean war rifle and an expensive high-tech van equipped with four-wheel drive. Rather than roam around the continent like a pan-Africanist Jack Kerouac, my father took his young bride straight to fucking Liberia, the godforsaken punchline to every Send-Them-Backer’s racist jokes since Abraham Lincoln. There, my father started a new family with his soul mate, painted pictures of the people in the village he’d settled in, had his Korean rifle confiscated by the Liberian Government (it was the most powerful weapon in the country at the time), had to build a secret room under his house in which to store his paintings (the villagers invariably returned after sitting for the paintings, demanding them “back”), and ended up dealing with Transvestite Cannibal Warlords (I am not making this up) who had established a curfew… meaning that if they caught you outside after sundown, you were legally dinner.
Somewhat disillusioned, my father returned to America until the cigarettes (which he had quit, already, in the mid-’60s) caught up with him: he died in 1986 of emphysema. When I heard of his death I thought back on the time, in 1969, during a big family reunion, back East, of quadroons, octoroons and mulattoes, some of whom were passing for “white” in the corporate world, that Dad had groaningly resisted the sudden temptation to eat his long-lost favorite food, a Philly “hoagie.” He had become a strict vegetarian in an effort to improve his health and repair the rips in his lungs. My rail-thin father could have had two hoagies every Tuesday, and been that much happier, for all the difference it would have made to the timing of his death-day. But that minor philosophical thought was not the point of this essay. To wit…
Yesterday I was crawling through Facebook (I refuse to have my own account, so sometimes hijack my Wife’s, like a friend on a “strict diet” plucking french fries off your plate) and found one of my Africa-born half-brothers (all of whom are successful in the government and/or corporate world, and horrifyingly patriotic) had posted a photograph of my father that I’d never before seen…
… Dad in Korea, in full combat gear, on Facebook beside a picture of my half-brother in an expensive-looking business suit (for the third or fourth time I default to the disclaimer that I am not making this up) and paramilitary shades, proudly brandishing some kind of automatic weapon, on a high hill overlooking an obscenely vast base, in the “Middle East,” a base that looks like a city on Mars, beside a caption to the effect that Dad had proudly defended the country in his way and now son (half-brother) was proudly doing so in his.
What can Dad do but laugh in his pan-Africanist afterlife or throw up?
I inverted my father’s principles and obsessions by expatriating to Central Europe and marrying a Silvana Mangano lookalike and my half-brother inverts and betrays Dad’s principles and obsessions with his GOV-issued Heckler and Koch G28 rifle.