Tuesday, June 23, 2015

800 Words: Something...

American Literature and I don't mix. I used to be absolutely militant on the idea that literary quality is  literary quality, regardless of whether a dead white male wrote it or anybody else. Quality is quality regardless of its source, and with enough eons, other people will ascend to the pantheon. Then I realized I had the same problem. Just as so many minorities have trouble in literature with Dead White Males, I have trouble with dead goyim. It's not so much that I can't read non-Jewish authors (even writing that quid-pro-quo makes me cringe), it's simply that when they come from a society that has either complete ignorance of Jews, or complete contempt for them, I simply find that their worldview is so far from my own that I can't get into it. I don't mind reading antisemitic authors, or even antisemitic books, I just find, very often, that their worldview doesn't jive with mine - which is perhaps a clue as to why these authors have so much antipathy toward Jews.

I've written about this problem reasonably often. I was reminded of it recently as I tried to read The Great Gatsby again, or at least listen to it on audiobook. I know, I know, Gatsby is amazing. You know it, I know it, and the American people certainly know it. I've read Great Gatsby at least two or three times before, and it really is as great as people say - or at least I thought so the last few times. This time through, or this failure, I just couldn't get into it.

In so many ways, it's an ideal book. Every word means something, every sentence has direction, every piece of narration is part of a whole. There is not a single empty moment in the book - all that's left of it is a narrative voice who is guiding you securely from one paragraph to the next - secure in the knowledge that every place you go is ventured with a purpose.

But there's just something about it that doesn't jive. We see Gatsby's vitality and pit it against the buttoned up West Egg snobbery of the old money set, and while we see that their lives are full of decadent contempt for anything that stands out, Gatsby's nouveau riche vitality, gauche as it is, is something real and pure. And yet, this time, though I only read a small part of it, the novel simply seems like the myopia of a country club snob who sees the barbarian knocking down the gates while he congratulates himself on fitting in. Trivialities on that level are no way to spend a full novel, you'll get bored by quarter of the way in (as I was...). I don't doubt I'll fall back in love with Gatsby before too long, but it was disappointing to come to it with that feeling so close by. The last time I read it, a few months after I graduated college, it seemed like the best kind of irony, as though he were holding these supposedly attractive people up to contempt. But contempt only gets us so far in this crazy world, and why should anyone have to read about decadence like this? It's like the preacher who inveighs against pornography by showing the congregants a picture of it.  No wonder you're/I'm bored!

I can't doubt that it's the Jew in me that's howling in protest. This, no doubt too censorious, voice is shouting at me that this kind of dessicated boredom is the kind of thing which you get from never having encountered poverty and not seeing a world past your spoiled social set.

"Oh really? Says the guy who grew up in Pikesville among Jewish guys who spent tens of thousands on alabaster staircases and vanity plates on their Porsches?" This voice, 'liberal internationalist Evan,' never ceases to make Evan self-critical about Jewish Evan's monstrously Prophet-like urge to denounce everything as an abomination in the sight of the God Evan's brain tells him can't possibly exist.

I had a similar experience a few days earlier trying to read Herman Melville - small excerpts from Moby Dick, the entirety of The Encantatas, and The Bell Tower. Melville, pointedly unlike Fitzgerald, was a philosemite - though I can't imagine that a mid-19th century New Yorker who spent most of his life either at sea or at a writer's desk knew many Jews.

Melville is, how shall we say?.... a little boring. Like Fitzgerald, his prose is absolutely beyond reproach; he writes in the kind of linguistic tapestry you can't possibly recapture in an era when our brains are more shaped by moving images than language - Dickens has that kind of linguistic tapestry too, so does Victor Hugo at his best. Today, the great over-writers go to the avant-garde and make (subject?) us to linguistic experiments. If any writer reached for their particular kind of linguistic feast (or feat) today, we'd just think of that writer as florid.

But to my view, Melville's problem, a common one among the earlier American writers, or perhaps simply artists the mid-19th century, is that he's so interested in the metaphysical striving that he neglects to note whether we're interested too. Wagner certainly has the same problem, so does Dostoevsky, so does Tennyson.

But I have a particular bone to pick with Melville, something to my personal experience that makes his flaws unforgivable in a manner that I can much more easily forgive Tennyson. I had to read the entirety of Moby Dick in the last trimester of high school. My English teacher, the recently deceased and mostly otherwise lamented Mr. Spaeth, made us keep a journal of each chapter to make sure we read the entire fucking thing. And I did, every goddamn page. If you think Moby Dick is agony, try having to read every page of it with the knowledge that if you don't, an abusive high school might mete out one last punishment for you.

But as a novel, Moby Dick's kind of  sacrificing everything to distribute vengeance and some sort of perverse justice upon the earth seems, to say the least, futile. It reminds me of a description a great music critic once gave of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony - referring to its 'visionary dreariness.' No doubt, there is something sublime about chasing after the infinite, whether it's in the form of a great landscape, or a White Whale, or building a robot that will serve humankind. But since it's a given that those who wade too far and deep into the water will eventually drown, why are we going in at all unless there's a chance that we'll enjoy ourselves along the way?

What's missing in Melville is that thing that offsets the unremitting bleakness. Any artwork, any city or country, any human being, that ignores comedy at the expense of tragedy (or vice versa) is unhealthy. I may be the only person to believe this, but I believe that there is probably a finite amount of suffering in the universe. For every pleasure we experience, there is someone else who doesn't - whether that someone is the butt of a joke, or whether that someone is a slave-wage worker in Malaysia, or a chicken in North Dakota awaiting its slaughter among millions of other chickens, someone has to pay the price for our privilege and happiness. In a balanced society, the suffering is evenly distributed, with tragedy and triumph being roughly equal in its inevitability. And when that happens, the life cycle can continue uninterrupted. But the more one side profits from another, the greater their comeuppance will be. Nature always finds a way to correct.

...To everything there is a season... A righteous man falls seven times and gets up... Kleig, Kleig, Kleig - du bist a Naar (smart, smart, smart - you're an idiot)... If I am not for myself who will be for me, and if I'm only for myself, what am I...

The duality of Judaism... that idea is what makes it an attractive religion to me. Not the usual 'God is this, God is that...' which you can get in any other religion. No God will ever get my unconditional praise. I don't doubt that in actuality, Judaism is very different from my personal interpretation of it, and probably a lot more boring. But it's my personal interpretation that makes it interesting to me. The tragicomic nature of life, the idea that everything and anything can happen, that the mysteries are there for us to probe, but at the same time, those mysteries are merely to be enjoyed as best we can.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mad Men vs. Game of Thrones (part II of) Part 2

Life is a state of Mad Men, with Game of Thrones always creeping in. Mad Men, recreating an era of ersatz American perfection which turned out to be a prison from which America had to escape, and doing so with its own claustrophobic perfection.

Endings are tricky, they're much easier to do well when the show was flawed, because the show can then be about the ending itself. Was there any truly great TV show, or great novel, that landed its ending on a level as estimable as the rest of it? Any story longer than the story itself is not about capturing the story, but the passing of life itself. The passing of life and time can't simply end (unless it's The Sopranos), it has to wind down and show that life still goes on even if we don't see it. 

Mad Men was a victim of its own achievements. It was, in my firm opinion, the greatest TV Drama that ever there was, or ever there could be. But subjecting that level of examination to life as it happens, to 'lifeness', can never be sustained forever. Just as life seems to, the story can go on forever, even if we're not around for it. But in the real world, every story has to end, and it's almost a given that a story that so deeply questions what pure life experience is made of will have no idea how to correctly land its ending, because no person has seen their end and lived to tell us what it's like. There was only one appropriate ending for Mad Men, and it was already used by The Sopranos. 

The final half-season of Mad Men was perhaps its weakest. It did not end with a bang, it simply wound down to an ending that is completely in keeping with the tone of the show itself, yet it felt completely wrong at the same time. To see the shock of Don Draper becoming a fervent follower of an Ashram is so banal, so petty in comparison to the mythic man he once was, that it diminishes this larger-than-life figure to smallness. It leaves a horrible taste in our mouths that we've been following ten years in the life of a man we thought was of mythic dimension, only for him to confess his sins and in his first moment of true vulnerability, show that he's just a human as gullible as the next person. And yet, in keeping with history, in keeping with the tone of the show, it's still absolutely perfect. 

Mad Men is a study in the glories, and the limitations, of perfection. It is as flawless a work of art as has ever been created, but its flawlessness is its flaw. It's a prison from which the only escape is to ignore it. By Season 5, their best in my humble opinion, the world no longer cared about Mad Men. It had moved on to Game of Thrones. Mad Men is about trying to grasp the mysteries of human personality, Game of Thrones is about showing us how cheap human life is. Mad Men is a work whose creator is a single authority who allowed no compromise to his vision and no telegraph as to what was in store. Game of Thrones is a work defined by collaboration, whose plot is developed in concert with the original novelist whose work half the audience already knew from the books before it's shown on TV, and whose work may further be developed by suggestions from the audience. Mad Men is meant as a work of Art with a capital A, Game of Thrones is a work of awful magnificence, but like so many works of great art, it is primarily intended as entertainment. Mad Men is a micro snapshot of our world and history, Game of Thrones is a macro panoramic view of an historical world that isn't even our own. Mad Men deals in perfection, Game of Thrones deals in the infinite. 

Perfection is a prison from which the life force which is nature has to escape. The classical age of TV is over. Mad Men is our Mozart, our Leonardo, our young Shakespeare, our Tolstoy, our Jean Renoir. The elegance, the naturalism, the formal perfection, is so finely honed that the only way forward is to smash the rules it sets out into a million pieces. In the control which the showrunner has, Mad Men recalls the Hollywood's Golden Age of the Director, when Coppola and Scorsese and Altman could fulfil a genuine artistic vision. But in its achievement, perhaps Mad Men goes even past Coppola and Scorsese, with their concessions to potboilerdom, and is an achievement to rival great figures from the Golden Age of World Cinema - Renoir, Ozu, Ray, DeSica, Bergman and others of similarly gilded eminence to the World of Great Art. Except perhaps for Altman and Bogdanovich, no director from America's Golden Age mined the problems of real people so deeply.  

But maybe great art needs that potboiler aspect to it. We are as much dust as divinity, and without the ability to be entertained, who will pay attention? Even I can admit that Mad Men had its dull, even wooden moments that didn't ring true at all. Perfection is an enclosed space from which by definition, you can't reach higher than its limitations. But when the White Walkers come spilling into Hardhome like latter day devils making their first inroads into Elysium, when Ned Stark is senselessly beheaded in front of his family, when Daenerys Targaryen emerges alive like a goddess from the fire - completely nude with baby dragons on her shoulders, when a condemned Tyrion Lannister curses the entire audience of the showtrial his father convened to have him killed, when Oberyn Martell's head smashes like a falling melon, when half the remaining Starks are butchered when they finally recover from the loss of their patriarch, when Stannis Baratheon - TV's Macbeth, or King Saul - literally sacrifices his daughter to fire as a last desperate attempt to fulfill his ambition, you realize that you're dealing with a different, wholly more potent and terrible, kind of sublimity. Mad Men merely hints at this horrific, warnographic sublimity in its 2nd to last episode when an Oklahoma WWII veteran alludes to his brief dalliance with cannibalism on the Western Front. Game of Thrones stands, perhaps lesserly, but still very much present, in the tradition of Beethoven, Michelangelo, older Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Orson Welles. It grasps at the infinite, and goes higher and further into the sublime than Mad Men ever could. It's strong evidence, like Dostoevsky and Shakespeare at his worst, that only works that sink so low can rise so high. No amount of absurd, bad, or trashy scenes can take away the horrific and disgusting greatness Game of Thrones has achieved. 

Mad Men vs. Game of Thrones (Part 1 of) Part II

There was a few weeks when I thought I'd made my peace with Game of Thrones. No matter how much sadism is served to us, no matter how many rapes, how much torture, how many grisly ways to mutilate bodies, how much undeserved death, it is still true to itself, and true to what we as the audience require from it. Here is a TV show, a work of art, of operatic, epic, Shakespearean, near-Biblical ambition; with more characters, more plotting, more set pieces, more sheer scope, than anything ever seen on a screen, either large or small; served to us in brilliantly disturbing bits, but with a surfeit of wit and panache to help us through the grimmest of passages. Last week, the White Walkers appeared, in a battle scene (or a massacre) whose filmmaking stands with the most extraordinary passages in Spielberg.

Then Stannis Baratheon sacrificed his daughter to the Lord of Light by burning her on a pyre, and we the audience are compelled to listen to this sweet little girl, more intelligent than anyone around her and who never got anything but suffering from this show, as she screams in agony while her mother is held back by soldiers after she tries to rescue her. There has never yet been horror quite like this so graphically rendered on a screen. And make no mistake, this is horror rendered as it is. It's the kind that haunts our nightmares for years because we're made to care about these characters in a way that slasher movies throwing fake blood at a camera never could. With slasher movies, taking their cue as they do from Alfred Hitchcock, there is almost always a wink that tells us this is all in good fun - you can disengage from your nightmares being exploited at any moment. But Game of Thrones never gives us that wink. We're carried along, horror after horror, with our critical faculties long since obliterated. The sensory assault continues week after week, battering us into craving ever greater levels of gruesomeness. What horror can possibly be in store after this?

I predicted that this would happen weeks ago, my mother can attest to it. And yet I honestly thought they would spare us the horror, just this once, because it's just too horrible. Perhaps she'd be led into a room with Melisandre, and it would tastefully happen offscreen. But no, it happens in real time, in front of a cast of thousands. Fortunately, we're spared watching the burning girl, but we hear everything, and short of actually seeing something like that, what could possibly be more horrifying?

Game of Thrones is in a terrible bind. In order to keep us watching, they have to create ever more horrifying levels of violence. Yes, war is war, today as much as in the Middle Ages, and people far more real than anybody on Game of Thrones get raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered; but to show it so often makes violence the entire point of the show. At this point, Game of Thrones belongs to that unholy class of art that's both great art and horrific exploitation. 

Yes, I can hear the protests of the half-dozen of you who've read this far. It's the same protest my mother pointed out to me. There are so many other things in Game of Thrones - complex characters portrayed by great actors, amazing filmmaking of stupefyingly complex plots, and intrigue on a level The Wire can only dream of. But that's ultimately the problem with the fantasy genre. It can literally do anything, and because it can, it must do everything in order to be compelling. Reality may have moved past magic and medieval superstition, but our minds have not. Our psyches still boil with reptile fascination for the ability to destroy, and the more we gaze into the that power to destroy, the more likely society is to embrace destruction.  

Art is a societal seismograph, and when millions of people are reading and watching scenes of horrific violence, with every taboo broken of what society once held sacred, history stands to reason that horrific violence is none too far away. Like the Ring Cycle before it, like The Brothers Karamazov, like even Candide, Game of Thrones exists in the world of the psyche and its archetypes. It speaks to its society because it gives voice to all the unmentionables that are already in the air. 

Westeros is America. The phenomenon of Game of Thrones was created by a country with 270 million privately held guns, with nearly 20 trillion dollars in government debt and nearly another 40 trillion in personal debt, with temperatures and sea levels rising (summer is coming...), 400 nuclear weapons around the world unaccounted for and thousands more barely protected, 1 in 30,000 people controlling half the country's wealth, and a threat from a country known for its dragons just beyond the horizon. Game of Thrones speaks, very loudly, to the unmentionable, almost unconscious, fears of what lies in a future all too close at hand. Some works of art exist to console us, others exist to drive us mad. 

The world has always relied on fantasy to give us the most stupendous bursts of sublimity. Religion is impossible without fantasy literature, so is all the human progress that comes in the wake of epic tales that awoke parts of our imagination we never knew existed. How many worlds of thought were opened by the Bible? By Homer? By Shakespeare? All of them traffic in a mental world where even the most miraculous things are possible. But the sublimity that makes them possible also drives men crazy with the idea that all things are possible so long as we make them happen. 

There is not a shred of verifiable evidence to show that art makes us better people, but it is a mark of civilization that we can recognize our baser selves through art, but great art puts us in touch with the fundamental truths of what lies within our natures, almost like a 'warning and reassurance' system to our psyches as to what we're capable of. We shouldn't necessarily like what we see, and we shouldn't necessarily believe what great art tells us - nowhere moreso these days than on Game of Thrones. 

Game of Thrones was an inevitable show. If it weren't Game of Thrones which shows us the deep darkness of human nature, it might have been a still more violent show. But while we grew incredibly accustomed to violence long before Game of Thrones appeared, it's beyond debate that Game of Thrones has desensitized us to the idea of that those we are close to will be murdered.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Untitled Play: Act 1 Scene 3 Draft 1

Scene 3 (Interrupted by the entrance of Brother 2 and Cousin 3)

Cousin 3: I dunno… this dumpster diving thing sounds dangerous.

Aunt: (overlapping when she sees Cousin 3 and walking over to him) Oh there he is! Let me see you.

Cousin 3: Hang on a sec Ma. I gotta go to the bathroom.

Mom: (overlapping) Oh my god, what a sight for sore eyes (gives her son multiple kisses) If I’d have known you’d be here so early I’d have had us wait to say Kiddush.

Son 2: That’s ok! We can always say it again!

Cousin 5: (finally giving a subtle glance up from her book) No you can’t, you only say it once.

Son 2: (enthusiastically) Hi there! How are you?? You never call me anymore! (tries to hug her, she moves out of the way)

Aunt: You can’t touch her now, she’s Shomer Negyia, it means no man can touch her until she gets married.

Son 2: Oh my god! That’s horrible!

Cousin: It’s what Hashem wants.

Son 2: Oh really? How’s God doin’?

Cousin 5: He’s great! He doesn’t judge me the way you do.

Son 2: Oh you can’t really believe that, can you?

Cousin 5: Of course I do.

Son 2: You know, you’re basically joining a cult...

Aunt: Yeah, but it’s our cult.

Cousin 5: MOM!

Aunt: Don’t mind her, this is just her teenage rebellion. Now stop avoiding me and say hello to your aunt (kisses him on the cheek). I hear your gay now.

Son 2: Yeah. For now...

Aunt: What? Is it like a shirt that you change every day?

Son 2: That’s what the Rabbis always told us.

Aunt: But your boyfriend, he seemed so Jewish! How could he possibly be a goy?

Son 2: You can always try to break us up.

Aunt: So men to you are like women and you can just go through them like water.

Son 2: C’mon, be fair to me. Every one of them was at least cattle.

Aunt: And at least they were kosher cattle. Well, I just want you to know that we’re all really proud of you for coming out. Even if your gay guy’s a goy.

Son 2: Yes. The goy guy’s a gay.

Aunt: So the gay boy’s a goy.

Son 2: Yes, the goy boy toy.

Aunt: Now let me see my boy. (grabs him for a hug) Oh my god you’re so handsome.

Cousin 3: I certainly think so.

Aunt: How was your trainride? What time is your wife getting in?

Cousin 3: She’s coming in with your other son, they should be here in about twenty minutes.

Aunt: Aren’t you ever scared that she might confuse the two of you?

Cousin 3: Not really. I’m three years older than him.

Aunt: I’m your mother and once the two of you were fully grown had to look at your teeth to tell you apart.

(enter Dad, Uncle, and Son 1)

Dad: You couldn’t have waited 20 minutes and all take a cab together?

Son 2: You can afford to pay for both…

Cousin 3: We couldn’t all have fit in one cab with the luggage; and I paid for the cab.

Dad: Well anyway, come here my son (gives his son a big hug and a kiss) I love you. And I just want you to know that we’re all very proud of you for coming out.

Son 2: (Waiting for it…) But....

Dad: (slaps him upside the head) Yes, but!… You’re going to break up with this goy tomorrow and I’m gonna find you a nice gay Jewish mixer.

Son 2: That’s very thoughtful of you Da...

Dad: (interrupting) You should have thought of your poor father and his ulcer! However long your mother was going to live you took ten years off her life! You sh...

Uncle: (interrupting, stepping between them) Easy there. Anyway, everything he said but without the slap. (hugs and kisses his nephew)

Son 2: I figured.

Dad: And nu? (going up to his nephew) How’s my favorite son? If only my real children had half your sechel for anything that really matters!

Son 1: (irritatedly sarcastic) Thanks Dad.

Dad: What? All I want is for you to make money, is that such a crime?

Son 1: And all I want is to spend your money.

Dad: I know you do. That’s why you’re going to put us all in the poorhouse before you move out of this one.

Son 1: Do you promise? That would be delightful.

Dad: (turns around to leave room before things get ugly. As he leaves, he exclaims with both hands) Ochen vey! I have a son!

(Exit Dad)

Cousin 3:  Well his kids are great. (puts arm on Son 1’s shoulder) I believe in them, even if they don’t.

Son 1: Oh go lose another million dollars!

Cousin 3: Well that’s the difference between me and my brother. When you’re in finance, you lose a million dollars every day. When you’re in computers like him, you make it.

Mom: Oh he’s not doing that well is he?

Cousin 3: Give him another few years and he’ll invent the robots that kill us all.

Son 1: And of course they’ll start with the Jews.

Mom: Why would they do that?

Son 1: I dunno, but of course his invention would beg the question: would killer robots be good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

Aunt: I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes you wouldn’t make fun of our religion so much.

Son 1: Don’t mind her. She’s still mad about my idea of the Holocaust themed Bar Mitzvah party.

Cousin 3: Oy gevalt.

Son 1: The place cards would all have yellow stars on them and you could be seated at the Bergen-Belsen table or the Majdanek table.

Cousin 3: Well (shrugs), it is very creative.

Son 1: Isn’t it? I really wish everyone in this family would stop acting like they don’t hate Bar Mitzvah parties so much

Mom: I think it’s nice to see all your family and friends together to celebrate.

Son 1: Well at my bar-mitzvah all our family and friends got together to watch Dad make fun of me. So I wouldn’t know.

Mom: You’ll appreciate them when your children get bar-mitzvahed.

Son 1: Let’s face it Mom, I’m never going to have children. Sorry about that.  

Aunt: Of course you are. All you need is one woman to pick you out of a lineup and say ‘this is the guy for me.’

Son 1: How romantic.

Uncle: That's what your Aunt did. Do you really think I had any success until she glommed onto me?

Son 2: You just need to get out of this cage and into the real world. You can always join me in New York. There’s no end of women up there!

Son 1: And get set up with all your sloppy seconds? I think I’ll pass.

Son 2: There are millions of women in New York I haven’t slept with.

Son 1: What about men?

Son 2: Gimme two years…

Son 1: Y’know, it really is unfair. You got the charisma, the looks, the competence. All I got was the brains and you were still the one who went Ivy.

Son 2: You still could if you wanted to.

Son 1: With my standout resume?

Son 2: Everybody lies on their resume. It shouldn’t be too hard to fake one.

Son 1: So I’m going to fake a resume to get into Harvard just to find out that the reading is all jargon and the courseload is going to give me a nervous breakdown? I’ll pass.

Son 2: It’s gotta be better than here.

Aunt: For him? Everything’s better than here.

Mom takes the second turkey out of the oven and makes announcement that dinner is served…

(everybody leaving except Cousin 3 and Brother 1)

Cousin 3: So how you been feeling?

Brother 1: The usual. It’s touch and go every day. Every time I’m happy, Dad notices it and makes sure to find a way to make me miserable again. I’m sure he feels the same way about me.

Cousin 3: I know you’ve heard this a zillion times but…

Brother 1: I know. I need to move out, but I gotta be ready for it.

Cousin 3: A lot of things will improve when you do.

Brother 1: If I do…

Cousin 3: You will.

Brother 1: Who knows if he’ll pay for the rent.

Cousin 3: Of course he will.

Brother 1: I don’t know that. And what happens if he doesn’t, or if he stops. I get evicted and Dad might not let Mom take me back in.

Cousin 3: That’s nonsense.

Brother 1: (agitated, slightly raised voice) You don’t know that!

Cousin 3: (calming) I’m just trying to help.

Brother 1: (collects himself) I appreciate that. Really I do.

Cousin 3: Are you taking your medication?

Brother 1: Of course.

Cousin 3: We should go in. You know I’m here no matter what if things go wrong tonight, and I’m always just a phonecall away.

Brother 1: I do, and thank you for that. I can’t imagine it’s easy.

Cousin 3: Don’t worry about it. I work on Wall Street, I see bigger psychopaths every day.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Untitled Play: Act 1 Scene 2 Draft 2

Scene 2 (in the kitchen. Mom and Aunt are preparing food, Cousin 5 is reading at the kitchen table, doesn’t look up.):

Aunt: What’s all the commotion in the dining room?

Mom: (dismissing it) They’re probably just fighting.

Aunt: (rolls eyes) Why’s this night different from all others?

Mom: (trepid) Well,... there’s a bit of news from the other one.

Aunt: What news? You told me he was gay months ago.

Mom: Yeah but... (pointing to the dining room) he didn’t know.

Aunt: Your husband wouldn’t care if his son were gay.

Mom: Well, that’s not the problem.

Aunt: What is?

Mom: Well,... remember the boyfriend, Robert Gold?

Aunt: Yeah.

Mom: It turns out he lied about the boy’s name, the name is Robert GOULD!


Mom: Shhhhh. Don’t let your husband hear, he might have a heart attack.

Aunt: How can he do this to us?!

Mom: He never cared what we thought. He always did whatever he wanted. (small beat) Remember when he was four years old and I was pregnant again? Well... one day, just a few weeks before I had his sister, I couldn’t find him, so I asked his brother where he was. He told me, ‘he went out to lunch.’ So I went outside and I still couldn’t find him. I start looking down the road and still I couldn’t see him. That was when I realized that he was totally serious. So I ran as fast as I could toward Main Street screaming his name. When I finally see him, he's riding his tricycle in the middle of main street, with stopped cars honking their horns as far as the eye can see in either direction. I screamed at him ‘What do you think you’re doing?!’ And he shouts back: I’m going to McDonald’s.

Aunt: (laughs) Wow. How did you not have the baby right there?

Mom: Who knows? All I know is that was the moment I realized that I would have to watch him with both eyes. (sighs) By the time I realized the other one needed another two eyes, it was too late.

Aunt: (resigned) He was always so bright.

Mom: And his whole life, I never knew what to do to help him. We don’t know musicians, we don't know from writers, we know from Jews.

Aunt: Couldn’t one of us help him find some of those people? Some people like him might make him happier.

Mom: We could if we tried, but why would we ever do that? If we helped him, he’d turn his back on us the way they all do. He might be happier but he’d become just like his brother and hate everything about us. (emphasis on us)

Aunt: You can’t know that.

Mom: Look at his brother! Y’know I almost would be OK with our sons becoming more assimilated if they actually assimilated. But they wouldn’t be Americans, they’re just America-haters like every Jewish kid these days that comes out of college. They complain about everything in this country and ignore that this country did everything for them! From when they were little they both did everything they wanted and thought they were entitled to it. They never cared that their parents had no lives except taking care of them! And they both live like we’ll be there forever.

Aunt: Well look at your mother. You might be around forever!

Mom: I don’t think I will be. (comes right up to the aunt and says very quietly) I don’t want you to tell anybody this, but the reason I lost all the weight on that diet is that around this time last year I was diagnosed with Lupus.

Aunt: (concerned, perhaps overly) Oh my god!

Mom: Shhh… I don’t want the kids to know.

Aunt: Well, you’re obviously taking care of yourself.

Mom: But my kids can’t take care of themselves. It’s my fault for not teaching them, but I have to live with the fact that I've failed as a mother.

Aunt: That’s not true at all. You’re the best mother in Baltimore!

Mom: No I'm not. I have to be around as long as I can because nobody else is gonna take care of them. They didn’t need the world's best mother, they needed a drill sergeant.

Aunt: Well, your husband certainly tried.  

Mother: And I should have let him. But he’s such a shithead.

Aunt: He means well, and when you really need him he’s a real tzadik.

Mother: A manic-depressive tzadik for sure. He always tells me that I want him to be miserable because the times when he’s miserable are the only times I’m not.

Aunt: (laughs) Was there ever any doubt about that?

Mother: Of course not. But he's proof that you can still be a complete asshole and still be a great husband, son, and father. We have parents and children to take care of. And he takes care of them - anything they need: money, laundry, food, cars, apartments, tuition.

Aunt: (jokingly) And he wants every bit of credit for it.  

Mother: Yeah, he complains about it every second, but can you blame him? All these years when his Dad was sick: stroke after stroke, screaming nightmares from both his parents for their years in the camps. All the fights in his house during the growing up and the breaking of the furniture.

Aunt: Did you ever wonder if his dad hit his mother?

Mother: (immediately) Never. Jews yell so they don’t have to hit each other

Aunt: Nobody in my family ever yelled, my parents just sat in the living room simmering at each other for fifty-eight years.

Mother: Your family was German Jews. Your great-grandparents all got here in the 19th century and moved out to the midwest to run stores. To Jews like us, your family might as well have been goyim.

Aunt: That’s not very nice!

Mother: You should be happy! You had a real American upbringing! The rest of us were just poor Jews in the middle of a neighborhood that became black after the fifties.

Aunt: We had antisemitism too!

Mother: Not the way we did! My family didn’t move out to the suburbs until 19fucking70 - in the sixties the schvartzes harassed me every day. Dad had to drive me and pick me up from college so I wouldn’t get groped on the way home from school.

Aunt: Yeah,... I'm sure that must have been hard. We didn’t have anything like that.

Mother: And I had it easy compared to my husband. He never really had a childhood! All those years in his parents store he would have to help out, stay up late to count the money from the day, get up early to help unload the stocks.

Aunt: And still he skipped two grades.   

Mother: And then he got PhD in Toronto back when getting one meant something…

Aunt: Yeah. Why does he always dismiss that so much?

Mother: He always says he did it because of the war. But I think he just did it to get away from his family. He'd have loved to go to Vietnam if it meant getting out of that house, he might have almost been more scared that his draft number wasn't high enough! But it doesn't matter, that's all nearly thirty years ago. (sighs) I got pregnant, five months later we have a wedding with 400 people while I'm showing through my wedding dress. And now we're old too and I wonder if that brilliant mind of his isn’t gonna go sooner than his father’s did. The seizures are getting more frequent.

Aunt: I remember seeing it, it’s pretty scary. But long as you keep taking care of yourself, you’ll be there forever.

Mother: I don’t know that.

Aunt: Your kids still have plenty of time to figure it out. (decisively) They'll be fine. (beat) Anyway, I know you’ve known about him being gay for months. But how long have you known about the goyfriend?

Mom: (resignedly) From the beginning. I kept the whole thing a secret from his father until he told me to tell him, which was just this week. He didn’t want his father to know about the boy either because he knew his Dad would grill him about it until he got the truth.

Aunt: Well that’s just stupid. He should have told you everything right away.

Mom: (throws hands up in the air) He knew we’d try to break them up.

Aunt: Yeah, well, so what? There are plenty of gay Jews out there.    

Mom: You know him. If we tell him he can only date a Jew, he’ll go through every schkotz in New York.

Aunt: (confused) Y'know, I just don't get it... All those girls from college… Not a single shikse.

Mom: He probably shtupped his way through the whole Hillel house.

Aunt: How did he even find time for studying with all those schnozzy meydlach? (make a beak against your head with your elbow)

Mom: (shrugs) I don’t think he did. He was just one of those kids who could do the reading five minutes before class and ace the test.

Aunt: (shakes head) That’s so weird. I never thought of him as the type to cut corners.

Mom: (bitterly joking) Well, apparently he still likes things uncut…

Aunt: That’s horrible... (beat) But he was never the smart one. How did he turn out so well and your other one fuck up so badly?

Mom: (half-heartedly chuckles) Well, the other one always joked that he sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of soup.

Aunt: I don’t get it… (thinks about it for a second) you mean like Esau did to Jacob?

Mom: Yeah. He keeps repeating that joke like it’s hilarious, but you know... nobody ever seemed to get most of his jokes but him.

Aunt: (as if to broach a difficult subject) Did you ever test him for some kind of autistic spectrum, like Asperger’s?

Mom: We did,... he has some traits in common, but if he has anything like that it’s mild. Between you and me, I always wondered if he had Borderline Personality Disorder.

Aunt: (aghast) Don’t say that! That’s horrible!

Mom: (bitterly and resignedly) You’ve never really seen how bad his temper gets.

Aunt: Well I’ve seen flashes of it, and I’ve certainly heard all about it, but you should have seen the way my sister got when she was younger!

Mom: Yeah,... (knows she's broaching a difficult subject) y’know, about that, I know this is none of my business.

Aunt: (interrupting, angrily) Don’t start with that. You have no idea what she put me through. I know everybody gets along your family. But she’s crazy.

Mom: (beat, confused look) Have you taken a good look around here?

Aunt: She hasn’t thrown away a single article of paper in thirty years! She doesn’t let anyone come over to visit her so I can't even be in my mother's apartment anymore! She’s never had a job and now that Mom is dead she moved into Mom’s apartment with only her crap for company!

Mom: That sounds incredibly sad.

Aunt: I know it’s sad, but you can’t talk to her without her blowing up. She can’t even be in the presence of mustard!

Mom: Y'know... I might regret saying this, but with your permission of course,... if you want,... I’ll…

(Interrupted by the entrance of Brother 2 and Cousin 3)