"That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, - is already in our bloodstream. And we don't know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can't say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens."
-Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet
My father's accent was as thick as pierogi. Despite having emigrated from Poland to the United States after the war, decades later his phrasings and pronunciations in English were still almost painful to listen to. His intonation and dropped articles, conjunctions, adjectives, participles, and other parts of speech defied inflection and went straight for the meat and potatoes but never belied a specific Eastern European point of origin. Rather, he spoke a kind of pidgin; to me he always sounded like Tonto, the Lone Ranger's obsequious kemo sabe. The fact that he spoke at least five languages, and English was the one to which he had to acquiesce, never really occurred to me. In fact, I was embarrassed by his accent any time one of my friends would meet him, finding his voice to be a singularly thick and stupid sound. My father was a darkly complex, angry man who lashed out at the world in irrational vitriol and psychological violence toward his family. The horrors he experienced in the war were more implicit than expressed. Fear had made him a kind of spiritual burn victim where the outer flesh of his humanity had been scorched and scarred, and now he acted out of fear and used fear as his means of manipulation. My story is his story turned inside out; I am a version of him that I don't understand. Or is all that bullshit, the archetypal oedipal rationalization? Whatever "all that" is is irrelevant.
During the final five years of his life or so ("or so" was one of his ubiquitous qualifiers) – he died in 2002 at 82 – my anger and, I want to say, hatred, but the word is not quite accurate, diminished like dying embers. Metaphors and similes don't really work when your own life is a myth. Clichés fit like a glove, however. I began to have actual conversations with him: awkward, stilted, floundering sentences that left an odor of stale air. He had been a life-long Democrat, although he seemed to have a disdain for liberalism. I don't know why this fact is salient in my memory, but he always admired Joe Biden. The point of all this goes back to his manner of speaking; he used certain phrases repetitively, like leitmotifs, in his discourse on economic, political, or social issues. One of these leitmotifs was the descriptive modifier, "out of proportion." He would describe, for example, the exorbitant and constantly rising prices of his many prescriptions – most of which he would have to pay for out of pocket and put in vouchers for partial reimbursement – as "out of proportion." I distinctly remember him describing the USA Patriot Act, with its dystopian-like overreach (my words, not his), as "out of proportion." Of course "out of proportion to what?" was the tacit question, though one that never really pressed itself since I knew what he meant.
My father joined the Polish Army at 17 by lying about his age, and in September of 1939, as the Germans invaded Poland from the east, he found himself on the Russian front in the west where he was quickly captured and incarcerated as a prisoner of war. He managed with some comrades to escape from the Russians, whereupon he repatriated with his army and fought the now invading Germans. He was captured and put into a German concentration camp, and again he escaped. Now he was on the run, with a few other soldiers. There are tales of life saving heroics and abject fear, of nightmarish hunger, death, torture, and debasement. Eventually he was captured again by the Germans and sent to one of their labor assignments on a farm in Germany.
Several months before he died, my father recorded six hours of audio tape, at my behest, narrating his youthful experiences in Poland before and during World War II. My request over the years for some kind of documentation of his early life must have finally become understood, or misunderstood, to be the search for explanations. Of course, and he would have known as well as anyone who had survived in Poland in WWII, some things cannot be explained. At the time he wrote the pages of narrative and recorded the tapes he certainly did not expect to die anytime soon. Although he was on dialysis, and enough different medications to fill his entire kitchen table, I also thought that he would be around for many years to come, if only because of his stubbornness.
The narrative proved to be disappointingly clipped, parenthetical, a summarily dispersed tale, most of which I'd already heard at one time or another. What was telling on the tapes – is moving now when I listen to them – was pressed into the tone of his voice, the pauses (presumably to pull up the actual memory), the held-back (often unsuccessfully) tears, and what was not said, what was not able to be said. Clearly he understood, more than most, the existential meaning of the word "proportion."
Recently, I was trying to find some way into a sentence that wouldn't suck me into the vortex of political invective that results from trying to give grammatical form to this Götterdämmerung; this collapsing in on itself of civilization; this immense otherness beyond the outer perimeter of my sphere of influence collapsing into my very room; this collapse of all reason and proportion. I thought of putting words into categories, putting the categories into small tin boxes, shaking the boxes and spilling the words onto a white tablecloth; a kind of Scattergories or Scrabble or Magnetic Poetry (board games, after all, have become increasingly popular again during these recessionary times); a Dadaist or surrealist or William S. Burroughs or Tristan Tzara-style cut-up methodology. Perhaps the words in juxtaposition without context would reveal some pattern.
Afghanistan Iraq bailouts drones Tea Party Guantanamo torture Constitution Pakistan corporatism Blankfein insurance Mubarak Somalia banks Khadafy Congress AIG corruption Yemen Libya Newt Gingrich liberal Iran conservative Beck progressive Bagram Summers CDS libertarian MSM corpocracy Bachman GDP Birther Afghanistan GNP Boehner deregulation Bernake lobbyist oligopoly Halliburton drones plutocracy Geitner populist Goldman-Sachs socialism SCOTUS capitalism POTUS terrorism Darwinism electorate WMD pundits conspiracy war anarchy Palin Orwellian Taliban caucus unemployment poverty hope hopelessness Bin Laden debnvju fklalk aglan g nskn lahfgia ewrop gnbnk lfgpa blkkda fgelb hylk bikla el erpoad fobbzln al bikl kaleidrf lgka sfga pojrkalk fgepa ojfg afkg pnad gtyajn vebva bavsvja sklig bojsa vaijklaskdog arjga bujpo hauptuz rpdmeotrcaublni jrna v iaj rgoi;weg af haojweg j-a9ufvb 9o3wto bsga l g jpjp'gjo p'g
Actually, staring at a word – say, Guantanamo, Guantánamo, from an aboriginal term meaning "existence of the sea" – conjures images, then emotions if ineluctable, bright sunshine and stark, tropical colors and contrasts, other contrasts, freedom, incarceration, justice, torture, loud orange jumpsuits, barbed wire, salty winds, hot sun, interminable drowning, the sad futility of prayers. But all of these things are in strange proportion to first, each other, second, to a common reality of what constitutes a diurnal existence, to our Constitution, to any accepted system of human ethics and moral values. They are, as my father would have said, out of proportion.
That alluded-to sentence, giving grammatical form to juxtapositions that should only exist in board games or psychopaths, keeps taking shape in my mind as apoplectic invective tweaked. It's not a sentence, it's a primal scream. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has hired Blackwater founder Erik Prince is to set up an 800-member battalion of foreign troops. Without irony – or an ounce of veracity – Newt Gingrich is running for president. Bin Laden's assassination is being used as a rational defense of torture by the old gang of torturers in the former Bush administration, from the obtuse Rumsfeld, to the equivocating John Yoo, and as a symbol of American exceptionalism and the need for more war by the Obama administration. These things, my father would have said, are out of proportion.
Disproportionality would certainly be the term by which we would describe the egregious concentration of wealth by so few to the detriment of so many; the 400 richest Americans are now richer than the bottom 50 percent combined. And half the population and their representative party wants to take more away from the poor and any government programs that help them. "This is out of proportion," my father would have said.
The disproportionality of people of color versus whites living in poverty, worldwide as well as domestically, makes any discussion or scrutiny of causal systems and absence of remedies one of race, and insists on an implicit racism on the part of the governing systems. Extreme upper tier tax cuts, which deplete from or obliterate any governmental safety nets (now anathema, like bleeding heart liberals), incompetent urban planning and development, and a total absence of recognition of, let alone discussion of and solutions for, the delineation of class schisms and broadening, to the point of infinity, of the space between the haves and have-nots, has created a society that is just waking to the reality of its own insignificance.
My father was a Democrat, and that may be the best thing I can say about him. Well, actually he was a hard worker as well as a Democrat, and he was also a World War II Veteran. He did provide for his family, he was an avid and talented gardener, and occasionally he was funny, if awkwardly, even if only for the two weeks of vacation in August of every year. Oh yes, he was an above average bowler and a loyal asset to his bowling team. If asked, I'd have to admit that he was an excellent carpenter and craftsman, but I wouldn't offer it up as palaver. I mean, he seemed to know how to do a lot of things that he would eventually stop doing, which to someone else may have made him interesting. He grew his own grapes and made wine, he played the mandolin, he played darts, and he collected book collections, although mostly encyclopedias, dictionaries, and Reader's Digest collections of abbreviated stories. He seemed to enjoy working in his workshop building furniture and such. He also seemed to enjoy speaking in languages other than English. He talked to Mrs. Schneider and Mr. Pope in German. He spoke to his friend Tony Kieslowski in Polish. But, the only time I could definitely say he looked happy was when he was sitting talking to his brother John in Polish, although he seemed very fond of our dog. In fact, he definitely enjoyed playing with that dog. The only time he wasn't ardently occupied in some solitary endeavor, diurnal chore, or laborious enterprise was when he requisitioned my assistance, not by supplication but by tacit order. I suppose I learned some stuff along the way.
I could imagine no reason or appropriate setting to espouse the sundry details of my lifelong estrangement from my father, unless I were supine on a psychiatrist's couch, and even then I doubt I could work my way back through that Daedalian labyrinth of anamnesis. There would be, in such an arrangement, a syllabus of things that occurred and another syllabus of things that never occurred. And, I would never know which list contributed to whatever attribute or lack of attribution that I may manifest. Although there must have been other moments, there truly must have been, the only second I can recall a communication of emotion between us was on the day he died; his abject fear and a lifetime appeared in his eyes.
There was a side of my father that others outside of our family would never or rarely see. However, if one witnessed this personification, one would never forget it. I wonder how many families live with secrets so large that they fill every waking space.
While my father discoursed, in his way, about the many things that were out of proportion, my poor mother had already given up on the world. One of the things that was out of proportion was her marriage to my father. And then there were the strokes, which for a while took her away, to a dark world of inexpressible sadness. After that, although she conversed normally and liked to talk about her childhood and youth, she seemed much older than her years. She had already begun to fade. To paraphrase the writer Michael Kimball, we are all dying in different ways and at different speeds. In this so out of proportion post post-modern world, death is delayed in long food-obsessed meals, nostalgia, and endless variations of pharmaceuticals. The only way into a sentence is one letter at a time, backspace, delete, start again, or stop trying and grab the cheese and Gruner Veltliner.