Sunday, June 19, 2011

Memories of my Father In the 1970s

This past month of May, 2011 has been the month my father died at the age of 76. In keeping with the theme of my memoirs from the 1970s - that is, on those rare occasions when I do turn to personal matters - this particular post will be most peculiar. It will in no way be a conventional tribute to my father. It will form a portrait in keeping with my perceptual, rather than conceptual nature. It will be a brief, episodic and aphoristic inquiry into the nature not of death or of parenthood and fatherhood, but of immediate and raw sensation and feeling- the very stuff from which memories are created.

My father was a celebrity, in certain respects he was like a rock star in certain quarters, in part because he was one of the originators or creators of the natural foods and/or products industry. He developed what became a family business, based on organic and preservative free and cruelty free ingredients.

These are the facts in the external world, yet my mind constantly is drawn backwards to earlier times when my father made me into a child magician.

I hated doing the magic but it taught me something about the nature of performance and art. Suzuki Roshi once lectured that you cannot play magic tricks in this world. "The world is its own magic". Thankfully I learned that firsthand through living out my father's obsessions with the world of professional predistinators.

My father suffered with psoriasis all of his life; he later devoted part of of his life to making other's skins beautiful or at least presentable. The hygiene and presentability that had often eluded him in life, he devoted part of his life to insuring it in others.

I am drawn back to the earliest days when he made substances - liquids and thick gruel - out of exotic and lovely smelling, intoxicating herbs and plants with names I could hardly pronounce like eucalyptus and quilla bark. Often these were made near my crib, from what I am to understand. I am sure I got a good and real natural high from these substances and that they staved off most childhood diseases and gave me pleasant dreams at night.

Speaking of dreaming at night, my father would improvise stories for me at bedtime. They were based on the work of Franz Kafka, but they were altered to accomodate the mind of a child. Thus, there were the usual bureaucratic frustrations and annoyances in, say, The Trial or The Castle, and there were the anthropomorphic transformations of The Metamorphosis, except that the anti-hero was me and the challenges were from imaginary creatures and villages. All his invented stories concerned little people of about my size. And the the scale of the environments were miniature as well.

My father read Coleridge to me before bed: both The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. I believe he recited from memory.

There is no area of human life and endeavor so suffused with outright nonsense as that concerning the family. Because it is the most common and universal of themes, by definition both the best and worst of our art and thought concerns this insane institution we call family. Oh there are charts and systems but its enormity escapes, thankfully, our grasp.

Ours is an age of hyperbole. We no longer respect the distinction between like and love. Say you like something or that you don't love something and people will misunderstand and think you hate or dislike it. We have lost the value for that which is serviceable as the English used to say. We don't comprehend "good enough", our excessive use of the word awesome, once applied to items worthy of its use shows that we don't love or cherish enough that which we merely like. And our hates, oh our hates, burn with ever greater intensity.

People open up like cheap suitcases, a fetish is made of intimacy. They are suspicious of tact and reserve. I never had a wish for my father to talk more or tell me he loved me. His was the old way for he was, as the the youth are want, to say old schooled. Much of what passes for wisdom today is but knowledge of bits of statistical facts out of which are spun ideological tales of a false holism at best - and at worst are as was said nonsense. I would take my father's "I Like Ike" sensibility (so beautifully defended in George W S Trowe's work, especial My Pilgrim's Progress) any day over what passes for relevant humanity today. My father worked in an often hippie milieu but was pre-Boomer to the core. The values of those days were not all better than the improvements that have followed in the wake of the sixties, but some of them are more virtuous than those of today.

This has nothing to do with, say, politics or the status of men and women but all to do with the virtue of obliquity, opacity, indirection, put more plainly, mystery. Our current epoch is one of explanations and understanding. His was a way of example. I say leave the transparency to the federal government and reserve.

My father expressed his feelings through example. He took me to see the original production of Chicago in the 1970s - the one with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and a young Jerry Orbach. He took me to Broadway shows, from Neil Simon and Harold Pinter, and taught me a class in Shakespeare.

My father had so many problems and flaws such that, were a list of them offered here, it would have us reading it all day. But my father was interesting. Alas and alack we live in an age that has replaced interesting with awesome and craves a clean antiseptic perfection and prefers the company of cats and dogs to people. (As did my father too come to think of it, ever the animal rights advocate). In short, we have traded the interesting, in the name of security, for the boring.

In my youth he took me to two of the greatest jazz concerts I will ever hope to hear: the great Freddie Hubbard, who, upon discovering that my dad was a fellow "hoosier" allowed me to hold his trumpet and sign my CTI golden, earthen yellow recording. He also took me to hear Herbie Hancock and the original Headhunters in the 1970s, after which I played Hancock the first piano piece I had ever learned which was not minuet or a nice Bach knockoff but a rural and earthy BLUES. Herbie Hancock wrote on my two record set, "Mitch you play great piano."  I pity the youth of today who are raised by parents who, as Trowe pointed out, formed their views of life from Howdy Doody on television. Howdy Doody was pathetic and cheap.

My father formed his views of life from Lorenz Hart lyrics. I defy anybody to try and tell me we aren't living in an age of decline. I don't give a shit how many wondrous technical improvements we have made or how nicer we are to each other. Howdy Doody and Barney or even Wicked don't cut it. I'm very sorry to say that but it needs to be said. Better to read Wind In The Willows or Coleridge anyday.

My father taught me what performance was and taught me to enjoy life as a stage.

My father educated me in the arts and consequently in what it means to be human. Not, mind you, what was necessarily right or wrong for humans in conduct but what humans are like and how we got that way. One of my father's favorite movies was a depiction of seedy and rank desperation: the criminal lives in the 1970s movie Straight Time. He gave me a taste for the perverse, which in reality was a lesson in compassion. Nothing human should ever be alien What is it like to write something like Macbeth? How can we permit ourselves to not marvel in that, that a human made that, to quote Mark Edmundson.

I have this marvelous photograph of my dad as a youth, as a teenager in New York City in the fifties. He is standing next to an attractive girlfriend, whose identity we can't figure out. And they are standing posing in front of this rich cultural milieu of the grand MIDDLEBROW (when middlebrow was really really good) joys of New York at that time. Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella and Damn Yankees. He is beaming with joy and this perky girl, probably a budding acting student with Sandy Meisner or even Lee Strasberg, in an A line skirt is so happy to be among these cultural treasures.

At the very moment that photo was taken of my father John Cassavetes was shooting Shadows around the corner. (The shot of the Frank Loesser marquee is visible and the year matches up) - Cassavetes who also extolled the virtues of action over talk, who famously complained that most movies didn't have enough "behavior" in them by which he meant not too much talking and too little "action" - his own films were practically all talk. But rather, like my father, he didn't want everything spelled out, on the nose. Cassavetes was of the old school too. I miss the old school.

I guess when I think of my father's loss I think of how we can't help what or who we love. I will always love old fashioned things. I am not made for the present times. It is like my work furlough, purgatory.

What if everything we think we know about grief or memory and loss is wrong? What if it is just a new fashion, bolstered by some very truthful cognitive neuroscience but still a kind of fashion. What if it is up to us how we are to go about things.

There is no progress in human affairs. Improvements yes. Little reforms yes. But Progress no. The losses sustained by overthrowing the old world - the world of Ike or Jack Kennedy, say, are not compensated for by the gains of our current world. There is no measure from which to judge. We don't lynch people and women can achieve the status of Oprah, but our world is collapsing from automobiles and overcrowding and new health problems. All things collapse and die. Oh they may renew and come back, but it is an ever eternal cycle, never a linear onwards and upwards march to Utopia.

How I wish my father were here to read what I just write. He would smile, have a twinkle in his eye and say, as he always did, "most people have certain beliefs. I have uncertain beliefs." That is the wisdom of Socrates there. I don't think I could have had much better than that expressed to me as I was growing up, long ago in a world poised between old and new.


  1. Think sync, my father died this month, still processing. Like your father, he was an interesting person.

    Lovely remembrance, thanks. You definitely made him come alive. Why not include that photo from the 50's you refer to?

  2. You were lucky to have such an interesting man as your father Mitch. He left you with many memories that most people dream of having in their adult years. He loved you and showed it in a wonderful way with quirky experiences.