Need

John Haber
in New York City

My father was one to whom things come easily, on condition that he never struggle with them.

He was an athlete, but by dint of good coordination rather than a proper form; a sociable young man, but not altogether by choice; a fast learner, even bookish, and yet far too detached to throw himself into anything like the arts. He even gave himself a literary sounding middle name for a time and taught English, but his fling with pretension vanished almost on the first shock of working for others, and anyway he was just a kid from up on the Grand Concourse and there was a war on. John at age 29, before screwing up too badly

A war also made it simpler to accelerate his education, so he followed the lead of his older brother and became a dentist, comfortable in the sense of control owed to self-employment, confidence in his skills, and a captive audience. He taught me to read, to inquire, to cherish the freedom of city streets, to exult in democracy and America while expecting they both will make the worst conceivable decisions, to distrust mass solutions like religion, and to trust humor above all things.

He also supplied a great deal of love and attention, but he set me a hard act to follow, for I felt I had to match his abilities but not his adjustments to everyday life. And he hated conflict, a reserve that had helped him live quietly, almost silently, with a dutiful mother, a woman who had survived a new country, death during the Depression of her educated, American-born husband, and her own shrill, unshakable ignorance. Her son became a cynic who thought himself a stoic, if one can imagine a cynic loving; there was to be a point beyond which his caring could never go.

   &

My mother's father was a stout German businessman who came to America more to make money than out of fear for his safety as a Jew. He valued tickets to elegance and respectability, and he supposed women to be one of the best. He had no trouble making his daughter feel that she could never be pretty enough.

Oh, he was generous—giving over his Manhattan apartment when she married—but generosity never translated into more than conditional acceptance. His values, along with her wish to repudiate him ever more deeply, made her eager to be assimilated. She achieved that goal almost at once, singing on television as a girl, and grasped desperately for it ever after.

Almost from that moment, with only a mistaken interruption for a year or two of college, she pursued a career in voice-over commercials and diligently immersed herself in updating her address book, audition tapes, singing lessons, and personal appearance. In time she came even to believe that her mother, a lovely Romanian-born Jew with delicate features, had been a French Christian.

She adopted her father's attitudes more than she could know. If I wore glasses starting as early as age 4, I must have been reading too much or failing to exercise my eye muscles properly. If I had splay-feet, it must be that I didn't take care each day to walk a straight line and wear the right shoes. I was handsome if only I made an effort to dress properly, put down my book, and look someone in the eye.

Still, it was a more than a decent early childhood; it was '50s America with live-in help. Besides, the entire world kept telling me I was special from the time I began to read and add—and that was soon. I could sit in the back of the room in first grade, on the floor reading, while the other kids had to work. I underwent endless testing to see what made me so different, and I relished the difference.

   !

My parents met over shared phrases from a musical comedy, but the phrases and the music were fast exhausted, leaving at best the comedy. She no doubt found him distant, and he found her depressive, silly, and loud.

Their divorce when I was 7 was soon followed by her remarriage, to a late-night anchorman. For me it was only the start of many adjustments—to a far more competitive school far uptown, a social life in which thick glasses and ten thumbs were not shorthand for overachievement, a summer camp for mostly Long Island Jewish kids to mutter unintelligible prayers when not picking on one another, and of course the inevitable facial and psychological scars of adolescence.

While my mother lost herself in herself, my primary parent had been my father, whom I now saw only twice a week. My new stepfather had two of the strongest American values, childhood in the rural Midwest and adulthood on television. He was a stern believer in proper behavior and proper chores for boys, a proper show of expenditures for husbands and fathers, and by the time I reached acne, those beliefs had grown rigid indeed.

   #

By then, I had lost the excuse for reluctant obedience of a recent divorce, the marriage had grown harsh, and he drank heavily. I had a room to myself at the far end of a long corridor, and my homework, and those refuges became increasingly fragile. If ever my reading was broken into, it boded a good smack in the rear. My mother blamed her husband's harshness on alcoholism, but she firmly believed that unhappiness is best cured with discipline. I shall always see conservatives' faulting values for the harsh effects of urban poverty in that light.

Fridays my father met me at school, sat with me, helped me with French homework, took me along if he had a date, played the piano so I could sing, took me patiently to parks and the World's Fair, and offered acceptance. Sundays he left me instead with my more-athletic Long Island cousin, but anyway I never felt he was an avenue to alternative arrangements. My father was a respite from my life as well as its most interested participant.

Saturdays were my mother's time to entertain me, which meant my waiting an hour or so at her hairdresser before following her through department stores; I have never willingly bought clothes since. If the routine made me restless, I should know how to behave myself at my age. Starting when I was about 14, she made an effort to get to know me, which amounted to sharing her anxieties about herself and increasing hatred of her disintegrating marriage. I deal with her today much as my father probably handled his own mother—holding the telephone at a safe distance from my ear.

   (  )

At the time, however, I had no better way to deal with her than by hiding, reading, puzzling, and dreaming. With friends, I liked board games, because the rules were fixed and I could win. Alone I swayed and leapt to music on the radio and threw balls of socks in eager pantomime to the rhythms of basketball broadcasts. I belted upbeat songs from the '60s musicals my mother so loved to play, knowing that in my own room, if not in camp or school, I need never be a nonsinging character actor.

And I wanted to be complete in the things that had won me independence as a child, the words and numbers whose nature still seemed reliable. When finally I missed a perfect score in seventh-grade history, I cried at the end of class. I memorized long passages from the plays we read in English, delivering them in a monotone with a ham actor's pauses. Hoping to prove to the clever boys in school that I had a way with words and feelings, I convinced myself instead that my gifts were curiously mechanical.

One day, the mechanism would propel me to a physics degree, with a glimpse of a gloriously mathematical, tactile, physical world, but I knew all along how little I could command it. Already I began to fear that machine—to fear it far too much to slip it out of gear and coast.

My father's remarriage when I was 11, like my sister's birth the next year, was at first a loss of the little private attention I had received. Before long, his family had become my own point of stability and a better model, but by then I had almost outgrown the need for it. Once a competitive tennis player, my stepmother was not quite successful enough to capitalize on the budding network of professional tournaments. That left her more than good enough—and driven enough—to earn plenty years later teaching Manhattan children, even kids a little like me.

My stepmother needed neither my mother's anxious self-reflection nor my father's more philosophical kind. She also made it clear that one can be quite responsible without it to others (and to me), but the athlete's image of easy self-discipline could never secure my well-being. Her own son was born when I was already in college, and by then my whole adolescence had become unpleasant enough that I now have the vagueness about it that one associates with earliest childhood memories.

In fact, I cannot pin down the precise time of my mother's second divorce, except that I was still in high school. She remarried again only a few years ago, to a charming enough fellow. I look forward to his jokes, especially since my father has long since exhausted his material, but he will probably have my mother dead broke before they are done.

   @

Between my shyness, outright fear, nerdy exterior, and all-boy high school, I had never socialized with women when I got to Princeton, and my first lover was at age 25. Even then I started to extend myself slowly, taking the ultimate rejection as given from the start, afraid openly to express or discuss feelings lest I trigger it.

I suppose I ruined the best and dearest of my love relationships from just that failure. At a party, I have always flitted among conversations, feeling foolish, not exactly meeting anyone, and dropping a line here and there like a heavy weapon.

Still, all of a sudden I found myself to be a surprisingly personable, attractive adult. I had the ease of a native New Yorker—who had ridden the IRT every day to school, who had his first snowfalls in Central Park and his first intellectual strivings watching Off-Broadway—and the naive enthusiasm of an urban explorer. My oldest friends and open dreams were in the arts, which made me more exotic to newer friends in the workplace, but anyway I could handle most situations on my own by the fragile defense of staying on the fringes. It helped to play the guitar, and for the first time since second grade, it paid to know a bit about everything.

At age 31 I fell into a relationship in which I was actually loved, and the woman moved in with me. The main trouble, other than that for once someone was equally reserved as I, leaving us no ability to communicate affection unless I had first harshly provoked her near to tears, was that I saw her unfairly as she wanted to be, as the proper young lady my parents would approve of, and I felt I was settling after something better.

   ? ?

And so I withdrew—at first from her, then from the whole game—until the despairing intensity of a relationship at age 37. A year later still, I woke up to find myself out of touch with or too old for people I once would have hit upon, distant from good friends who had now settled down in their own way. Until age 30 I had never put much of myself into the work world, feeling I'd be too nerdy if I kept to academia, too clumsy if I didn't, never being accepted warmly or fairly in either competitive world anyway, and now I felt stuck with that mutual neglect as well.

Like family life, self-esteem and self-expression came late but became nonnegligible. In today's jargon, I even feel good about myself at times, or at least have exchanged self-pity for anger: Am I in need of counseling or of a life? I shall see if I am still able to find one.

A postscript: two explorers

As The Gates slowly rose in 2005, it transformed an entire city. Thanks to Christo and Jeanne-Claude, it became an American landscape and a work of art, a patchwork of color and a fabric of people, a public event and a chance to recover precious moments of solitude. For native New Yorkers, of course, all these meant simply recognizing the obvious. We think of them as our birthright. Yet for me, they also came with a shock—the shock of stumbling on a photograph album or a wormhole in time. I had cause to remember.

As I began a review of The Gates back then, "when I was boy, my father used to take me 'exploring.' He must have known and loved Central Park as deeply as I do now, but he had me believing in each turn as a discovery. We liked especially the Ramble, a hilly, wooded network of paths almost in the exact middle of park, north of the lake and south of Belvedere Castle's high ground and open vistas. I understood that, no matter what, I would always end up eventually on the other side, east or west. But hey, you never know."

Exploring means something different to a boy than to a scientist or adventurer. A child does not want to draw the Mason-Dixon line or to map the Lewis and Clark trail once and for all. A kid just wants to feel lost and still to come out on the other side. In part, I had learned about "the explorers" in school, from teachers who cared nothing about the sextant and still less about the wide-open sea. I heard only about the uncertain journey to the other side, "the New World." In part, too, a kid wants at once the thrill of the unknown, the comfort of a parent, and the certainty that the game can start all over again next week.

I have had the shock of recognition a lot lately, more than a decade after I wrote the earlier part of this essay on an electric typewriter, with no word-processing program in sight. And I have had to face what it tells me about myself. On May 22, 2006, my father entered intensive care, where he remained until he died one night, exactly a week before Christmas Eve. I found memories that I never knew existed and that I could never share with him again. First an operation and later a breathing tube, growing weakness, morphine, and finally death made conversation impossible for nearly seven months. More often than not, the memories somehow involved exploring.

I remembered a short-wave radio that he kept on the bedroom window sill up until his divorce, when I was seven. The distant voices each night could have come from nowhere, but he gave them a local habitation and a name, and he made them his own discoveries, as he tried to keep up with his French. I remembered the breakfast table, especially one morning when he showed me his paper, The World, Telegram, and Sun. Did I know that the fancy title came from things that only he could have known, three once-separate newspapers? I like remembering now that the world existed before the Internet. I can hardly forget how much I still love to read and still love urban exploring, in and outside of parks and galleries.

Everyone wants a teacher like that—someone who will recognize one's own interests, support them, share them, and even suggest that he is discovering them for himself as well. Good artists share what little they or I have learned by rediscovering it themselves. A good critic does, too, and the finest illusion of discovery starts from more than a pretense. In my father's case it certainly did. I knew him, after all, when he was young and, for a time, a bachelor again. He made me much of what I am, and now I shall have to explore it for myself.

BACK to John's arts home page

jhaber@haberarts.com

I made some other confessions to another Web site, in an introduction to ArtBistro, in a return at long last to the World's Fair grounds, and after retinal surgery.

 

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