Over at The VideoReport, fearless leader Bill Duggan has an announcement to make, former VideoReporters of years past have some memories to share, your tireless editor keeps on highlighting new releases, and I have one last recommendation for a free rental that will break your heart, and it should.
I’ve been trying to count up how many friendships, marriages, partnerships, and careers Videoport nurtured in that cool, well-stocked cellar, and I can’t even begin to tally ’em all up. Thank you, Videoport, for everything — for even more than the movies, when just the movies would have been gift enough.
It’s a little odd, because I don’t much care about cheesecake. It’s pleasant, and frankly I make great cheesecake, but it’s not something I’ve ever craved. Not until now.
Thanks to social media, today I’ve been privy to several groups of friends chatting at length about what gifts they should get their fathers. And I realized with a pang why I’m thinking about cheesecake.
It’s almost the anniversary of Dad’s death. And instead of thinking about it, instead of reasoning out my sorrow and loss, my body tells me to eat cheesecake.
My dad never needed much, which meant coming up with a gift for him was either very simple or very complicated. The complicated gifts were fun: The big bag of homemade firestarters, fatwood kindling, extra-long matches, and telescoping marshmallow forks, and s’mores ingredients to make the most of the fireplace in my parents’ new home, about which he was so excited. The big flat basket full of fancy paper clips, pens (appropriate for one leftie, from another), nice paper, and magazines to celebrate the completion of a new room on their house, the study he’d wanted for several years. The balsa-light, elegantly carved wood-and-wool dusting tool to clean the top shelves of its built-in bookcases without taxing his overworked lungs and frail arms.
But most years, there was one simple thing he asked for and one simple thing I gave him: a cheesecake. Nothing fancy, nothing gussied up. He liked it as plain and simple as it could get. That’s how I learned to make it when I was a child, and that’s how I like it, too.
When he was young and stronger, I’d make a whole cheesecake for him to keep in the fridge and eat huge slices of until it was gone. As he got older and his appetite failed, I made smaller cheesecakes, or made a batch of two-bite cheesecakes or bars to keep in the freezer so he could nibble away on them for months. He’d call me up, days or weeks or months later, to tell me how much he loved it, and we both knew it was more than cheesecake he loved.
I’ve made cheesecake since my father died — once, for a party a few months later. I don’t think I even tasted it. I haven’t made it since.
But this winter, I will. I’ll make a simple cheesecake, just cream cheese, eggs, sugar, and a spike of vanilla and lemon in a barely-sweet crust. And we’ll eat it. And I’ll remember my father, who loved complicated things and simple things. And I’ll think about how our relationship was complicated and simple, and how much I love him.
When I was a little girl and we went out for dinner, Dad would always give me the cherry from his whiskey sour. When I was ~35, if he ordered a whiskey sour, he would still offer me the cherry.
Dad was always proud of me, and always for unexpected reasons. When I was a weird little kid ordering snails or frog’s legs in restaurants, he was proud of me for that.
When some dear friends offered me their summer house furniture for my new apartment, Dad and I went over to collect it. The gentlemen neighbors saw me getting ready to heft the clunky table and blurted “Oh, no, Miss Emily, it’s awful heavy, you should let your father do that!” My rail-skinny Dad and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Dad assured them “She’s strong!” He was proud of that, too.
When I’d visit them, Dad used to slip me a little cash money once in a while. Usually it was a $20, sometimes it was a $50, once or twice a $100. Sometimes specify what I could use it for: he’d say “for your cab fare” or “to tip the driver” or “for dinner on the road” or—my favorite—”spend it on something silly.”
Dad used to cook dinner every Sunday while Mom would take a nap or read a book in their bedroom, several stories up. When we moved to a one-story house, where she could hear his incessant swearing as he tried to heat canned foods without incident, Mom decided Sundays weren’t so relaxing anymore. (We eventually moved to Sundays being “fend-for-yourself” nights, but I’ll never forget Dad calling out “EVERYTHING I TOUCH TURNS TO SHIT!” while trying to heat up canned chili.)
Dad made up little songs and jingles every single day, and especially when he was driving.
Dad once asked my (middle) sister quite seriously whether she saw any signs of creeping dementia in him. “Do you think I’m losing it?” She responded “Dad, how would we know?” He found this answer reassuring.
When there was only one grandchild in the the family, Dad christened her “The Smart Baby.” I finally pointed out that he’d better stop calling her The Smart Baby before someone else had a kid, because it wouldn’t do to have two grandchildren known as The Smart Baby and The Other Baby. He was receptive to this logic.
Dad loved Egg McMuffins. Loved them. But only in theory. In practice, he was almost always disappointed by them. But he kept making special trips to the drive-thru, so strong was his faith. I have a great Dad-in-hospice story to tell about an egg sandwich, but I can’t bear to cry right now, so it will have to wait.
Dad, who spent the last decade of his life hampered by CPOD, loved that Mom kept traveling even though he couldn’t. He would promise her he’d be fiiiiiiiiiine, just go! And almost always, he’d call me in the first 24 hours after she left to help him with some seemingly small task he just couldn’t manage. The one that stands out in my mind is the time she left for the airport and maybe three hours later he called to ask me to come over and change his sheets: he’d celebrated his solo lifestyle by going to bed to watch TV and bringing A WHOLE GLASS OF ORANGE JUICE, and then upended the entire glass into the bed without even taking a sip.
About a month before he died, during a long cold rainy stretch when I was spending a lot of time commuting between his home and mine, Dad left me a voicemail on my old machine telling me he “just called to check in, and to tell you we love you. I keep thinking of you at the bus stop. Keep dry in the rain… and out of the rain.” I kept that message for months. When I moved and had to unplug the machine, the message erased, which is just as well. I still think about it a lot.
The Dad-est thing that my Dad ever did, he didn’t even do. I kept a secret from him so his last days wouldn’t be filled with a terrible anxiety… the anxiety about the mail getting slightly damp.
My beautiful, sleek MacBook Air is really and truly dead, and I would like to memorialize my fallen friend.
If that sounds over-emotional, I can understand. But it was a gift from The Fella, who saved up for a whole year to surprise me with it. It was both a huge (expensive) treat and a symbol of faith in my writing. He knew that I needed my own computer, not the one we shared for years, and when I could not even afford to dream of it, he made it happen.
No longer having to share a computer was, for me, the modern equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s “a room of one’s own” — it gave me all the breadth and time I needed to grow as a writer, to value my own work as much as my husband’s (paying) writing, and to let my instincts and impulses move me to write more than my (and his) schedule.
On that MacBook, I wrote my first published article. On that MacBook, I stored my first paying contracts and received my first money for writing. On that MacBook, I earned my first income in several years. On that MacBook, I learned how to edit photos to accompany my first published recipes. On that MacBook, I applied for a dream job, a job so far beyond my then-current hopes that I assumed I was applying just for practice, and on that MacBook, I learned to my astonishment that I got it.
That MacBook gave me freedom and hope and opportunity. I am so grateful for it. I know it’s just a hunk of metal and plastic and circuits, and now that’s all it will ever be, but it was also a little box of dreams. And I made them come true.
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place
and every day was exactly the same,
and nothing that you did mattered?”
– Phil Connors, Groundhog Day
Days after E. died, I moved into a new apartment, one I’d been waiting for for months. It was a place he’d never seen, the top floor of an 18th-century warehouse with vaulted ceilings and only a handful of windows punched through the brick walls. On the ground floor was the shop where I’d worked for several years; some days, I only had to leave the building for the seven steps from my front door to the shop’s front door.
After my beloved friends helped me move, I fed them, and then they left. I was alone in a new apartment. It was full of boxes and clutter and furniture all at off angles, waiting for me to figure out where the couch should go, which tables went where and which lamps went on them, where art should hang on the wall.
I spent a long time in stasis in that new, dark apartment with all my possessions around me, waiting for me to take a deep breath, embrace my life again, and start living it.
It took a while.
One thing I did set up right away: my VCR. (That alone should tell you how long ago this was, how long ago he died, how young I was, how lost in this big world I felt.) Down the street was a great locally-owned video store with a huge selection and a proprietor I was knew well, even worked for from time to time, but some of those days – most of those first days – just getting to work and living through that day was all I could manage. Dragging myself a block to rent a movie was impossible.
I had a small collection of tapes to play, and the one I turned to over and over was Groundhog Day. Day after day, hour after hour, I’d watch Phil Connors live out the same day, over and over, hour by hour. Sometimes I’d stop the film in the first act, rewind it, and start it again. Sometimes I’d watch half of it, rewind it, and start it again. Sometimes I’d watch to the last few minutes, just before the end, rewind it, and start it again.
Sometimes I’d watch just the end, the last perfect day when Phil saved all those lives, averted all those accidents, fostered all those dreams, then rewind just that sequence, and start it again.
It turns out that Groundhog Day, with its peculiar pattern of repetitions and differences, is weirdly well-suited to this fragmented repeated viewing, and also weirdly ill-suited to it. The film’s chronology began to blur for me. Even when I watched it as intended, from beginning to end, I found I couldn’t remember what happened when, what had already happened, what might happen next.
To have something so familiar and comforting become suddenly unpredictable, confusing, even disruptive – that was just the natural result of my frantic, repeated viewings, of treating a piece of film as a pacifier, but it felt like a metaphor.
Not just that: it felt like an eerily apt metaphor. E. and I had a rocky relationship, but an unquestioned one. We’d known since high school that we would be there for each other, whatever we were to each other, for the rest of our lives. We just didn’t expect “the rest of our lives” to be so short for one of us, and so mismatched.
And now I was floating, flailing, untethered. Without him. A fundamental part of my life, someone I loved as wholly as I loved myself, was simply… gone. Everything I’d known about life as an adult was suddenly uncertain. For a few months, I was incapable of surprise, just a numb mixture of confusion and acceptance.
I was sad and small and lost, and I became careless of my own life and safety in a way that, when I finally noticed it and sternly set myself straight, scared me to my bones.
I won’t say that Groundhog Day saved my life. But it was a companion to me in a time when I needed one, and watching it and laughing and crying day after day, night after night, felt very much like holding hands and swapping jokes with the person I missed most in the the world, and whom I would never see again.
Rest in peace, Harold Ramis. I wish I’d thought to thank you when you were alive, in any of the long, happy years since the dark hours and weeks I’m describing here. I thank you now with all my heart.
I feel like I don’t have to tell you I was 14, just on the cusp of 15, when I started listening to Lou Reed.
I feel like I don’t need to tell you that I’d worked my way through the waves of punk, post-punk, and New Wave that were available to a suburban kid in those days before the internet opened up the world.
I feel like I don’t have to tell you that the rough, raw power of The Velvet Underground cut through all that synth-pop and atonal noise, cut straight to my bloodstream, cut into something in me that healed clean and and fast and left a mark for the rest of my life.
I feel like I don’t have to tell you that because, against all reason, it feels universal, inevitable, certain. It feels perfect. Is there a better age for a kid to hear Lou Reed’s early work?
Maybe for another kid, but not for me. At 14-almost-15, I was just starting to think what an adult world might look like, what an adult me might feel like, just starting to cope with the coming-of-age clichés, and The Velvet Underground meshed them perfectly: sex, drugs, cynicism, pain, and the high-minded hope of art.
I can’t count the number of nights I spent dancing alone in a darkened room, tethered to the stereo by the headphone cord, listening to the soft scrape of the needle saying shhh, shhh, shhh as the record ended and the hard POW of sound when I flipped the record and started over.
I can’t count how many times in that first year I rehearsed my own adulthood in their lyrics, or sang their songs under my breath, or cribbed lyrics from them to bolster my own weak poetry – because you can’t write poetry until you know what you’re writing about.
I can’t tell you how many times I, thinking myself so clever and avant-garde, stuck The Gift in the middle of a mix tape, or how many more times I feelingly uttered “Awwwwww!” along with the record after “She needed him, and he wasn’t there.”
I can’t tell you how that phrase resonates more strongly as an adult, or how now, stripped of all irony, it speaks to me today.
I can’t tell you how, even as I was listening to “Satellite of Love” and dancing alone this afternoon, I kept thinking of Laurie Anderson, whose work touched and shaped me even earlier, wondering how it feels to see your private grief echoed all over the world by people who never met your lost love, much less loved him.
I can’t tell you whether I’m crying for Lou Reed, or for Laurie Anderson, or for the rest of us, or just for 14-year-old Elsa dancing in the dark with headphones on.
Dear Dad, I was thinking about “Macbeth” again this week, and the cat i’ the adage. Whenever I read that, I think of talking to you.
Dear Dad, I got some new cartridges for those pens you gave me when I first went back to school. Thanks for thinking of me, and for knowing how useful it is to have brightly colored pens so classmates don’t walk off with them.
Dear Dad, it might be about time for me to have a BLT. I never have one without thinking of that midnight with you. I wish I could take you to the neighborhood restaurant where I sometimes get them. You’d hate the noise and love the fries, and you would have been as vexed as I was that they called themselves Hot Suppa but weren’t open for supper, and as weirdly relieved as I was when they fiiiiinally started serving during supper hours.
Dear Dad, I’ve been in pain for a few weeks now — nothing serious, but unpleasant and even scary sometimes. The Fella has been unsurprisingly amazing and thoughtful during all that time. I wish you’d met him. You’d love and trust him with all your heart, just like I do. I think you’d love him for himself, not just because he loves and cares for your daughter so sweetly and unfailingly.
Dear Dad, I’ve spent a lot of years unwinding my complicated feelings about my childhood and the ways my parents coped with (or didn’t cope with) your own grief and heartache before I was born, and how that affected my own adult relationships and my own childless state, and I know that I might never come to the end of that skein.
But it gets easier and easier to reconcile that complex snarl of feelings with the simple love that I feel for you and Mom, and to say it over and over: Dear Dad, I love you. Dear Dad, I miss you.
It was a good thread: full of compassion, laughter, and condolences. MeFi member dmd (identified in The Atlantic as Daniel Drucker) posted this question: “My father passed away this morning. I’m going through his file, and I came across JOKES.TXT … which contains only the punchlines. Can the Mind please tell me the jokes?”
He included the list of punchlines, and one by one, community members popped in to offer their sympathy and answer the question. (It’s worth pointing out that MeFi guidelines require AskMe responses to answer the question above all things; a response that doesn’t answer the question is promptly deleted. In a condolence thread, it’s possible that a response offering only condolences miiiight stand, but it’s by no means certain.)
O9scar outlines the riddle above, but it’s worth mentioning that this one works best deployed not as a joke but as a casual bit of trivia tossed off when you see a V of birds in formation.
Person 1 [points to birds]: Hey, y’know when you see birds flying in V-formation? And sometimes one side of the V is longer than the other? You know why that is?
Person 2: No, why?
Person 1: More birds on that side.
If you do it casually enough and your friends are sufficiently curious about random subjects, you may even be able to use it on the same person more than once. I caught my own much-missed father with that gag several times. My sorrow for your loss, and thank you for that happy memory.
As MeFi member HotToddy (quoted in the Atlantic‘s closing paragraph) says in the MetaTalk appreciation of that thread, “What an amazing thing, your dad inadvertently arranging for your friends to tell you jokes all day long on the day he dies.”
My own father would have loved to be involved in this discussion — and now he is, through my memories and my story. I love you, Dad.
The Coen brothers’ darkly comic A Serious Man uses the uncertainty of quantum mechanics — and especially the unresolvable uncertainty of Schrödinger’s paradox — as a metaphor for the unpredictability of life, and the pains we nonetheless take in futile attempts to impose predictability on the inherently uncertain future.
Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is suddenly a man beleaguered — by fate, by coincidence, by a vengeful God? Who knows?
His marriage is in trouble, his job is in danger, his brother is ill, both mentally and physically (and sleeping, and seeping, on Larry’s couch), his children are sullen and misbehaved. Buffeted by uncertainty, Larry turns to his community, to his rabbis. He’s looking not for advice, but for something more concrete: for answers. [SPOILERS ahead.] Larry assures these studied, somber men that he can grapple with the greatness of God — that he too is a serious man capable of understanding, if only they will tell him why these hardships are befalling him.
If you believe in an omniscient, all-powerful god, surely it’s plain hubris for a layperson to think that he can, through a mere few days of application and inquiry, grasp the unknowable purpose of that deity’s actions. Job finally wailed his way into an audience with God and still didn’t get an answer, but Larry Gopnik thinks he can wrest one out of a few conversations with rabbis. The impossibility, the futility, of his task is emphasized by the very name the rabbis use to refer to the God whom Larry find so approachable: not Adonai, not Yahweh, not any of the names that can be spoken in worship, but HaShem, literally “the name.” Larry Gopnik cannot grasp the ineffable plans of the almighty; he must not even speak His name.
Larry’s field of study has perhaps emboldened him to such audacity. Physicists are able to fathom some of the great secrets of the universe and even represent them through equations, but Larry of all people should know that the ineffable doesn’t yield to cold hard logic and that not everything is knowable: his specialty is quantum mechanics, and the only physics we ever see Larry teach revolve around uncertainty.
In a dream, Larry presents his class with a breathlessly rapid and precise presentation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, concluding as he writes, “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” The bell rings; class dismissed. As the students bustle out, Prof. Gopnik yells out “But even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the mid-term!”
[Larry’s dream; audio NSFW]
Compare this with Larry’s comically inept real-life lectures: he tap-taps at the blackboard with his chalk, writing a complex formula and narrating his progress with vague, uninstructive mutters: “You following this?… okay?.. so… this part is exciting…. so, okay. So. So if that’s that, then we can do this, right? Is that right? Isn’t that right? And that’s Schrödinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead? Okay!”
A failing student comes to Larry’s office to complain about his grade, and especially to complain that Prof. Gopnik’s standards are unjust. He can’t do the mathematics, the student explains, but “I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.” Larry gently but firmly informs him, “But you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing. The stories I give you in class are just illustrative. They’re like… fables, say, to help give you the picture. I mean… even I don’t understand the dead cat.”
And it’s true, he doesn’t understand the dead cat or the fables. And neither do we. The Coens have already reminded us of this in the opening scene: a period piece, a haunting little story about a dybbuk (or is it?) performed in Yiddish. The first 7 minutes of the film are spent with characters we never see again, speaking a language most of the audience doesn’t understand, grappling with a mystery that will never be solved.
Larry Gopnik is in search of a certainty that doesn’t exist. He wants some tangible proof, a measure by which to decipher the future. He’s a serious man who expects his intelligence and diligence to render the confusing, unpredictable world into something logical, legible, verifiable. Larry is not so different from his poor lost brother, the unstable wanderer with a dog-eared notebook scrawled through with an elaborate “probability map of the universe.” Though the larger secrets of the universe can be revealed by study and science, the smaller mysteries — the ones that matter most to us, our lives and our loves — are not susceptible to our tiny writings and equations, however hard we try. Our futures cannot be predicted with mathematical accuracy, and often they cannot even be understood as they unfold.
So, if the meaningful, fateful events of our little lives cannot be predicted or controlled or even fully understood, how are we to extract any meaning from this existence? I think A Serious Man answers that question in its 20th-century opening: from the 19th century shtetl, the camera hurtles us down a dark passage outlined in blushing light and thrumming with intense music… which turns out to be the ear canal of Danny, Larry’s adolescent son, who sits in class with a transistor earpiece illicitly jammed into his ear so he can listen to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” instead of his Hebrew lesson.
The song recurs as a chorus throughout the film. When Larry is at his most distraught — after his fruitless meetings with rabbis and lawyers, as he is crushed under the weight of accumulating troubles, when he despairs of ever finding the answer he sought — the song blasts out as the soundtrack to an erotic dream. And again, after Danny’s bar mitzvah (where he becomes, like his father, “a serious man”), the elusive Rabbi Marshak finally appears, intoning these heavily-accented words of wisdom to the stuporously stoned boy-become-man: “When the truth turns out to be lies and all the joy within you dies. Then what?”
As trite as it may sound, Jefferson Airplane delivers the answer: “You better find somebody to love.” This is the last message of A Serious Man: in the film’s very last moments, as the literal whirlwind (echoing the whirlwind from which God spoke to Job) bears down on a crowd of children milling around a parking lot, we hear it again through Danny’s earpiece: “You better find somebody to love.” And if that person leaves you or betrays you or dies or vanishes, you must find another, and another, and another: a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, a neighbor, a student, a rival, a friend. No matter what befalls you in this unpredictable, sometimes cruel world, you better find somebody to love, because love — giving love, creating kindness and passion and selflessness where there was nothing — is a powerful act of affirmation against uncertainty, an act of creation in a void. Maybe even a divine act: to find somebody to love.
This morning, Maggie of Mighty Girl transcribed a harmless-seeming (or harmless, depending on your mindset) chat between friends, spurred by a typo: widow for window.
In the comments there, I responded to her joke, a response that was half thoughtful and half visceral. Since a handful of people have clicked over to Macbebekin by way of that comment, I felt it was worth addressing here as well.
As a sort-of-widow myself*, with a sister recently widowed, and many friends and loved ones who have seen their partners die, I felt gutted by that joke, by the ease with which it consigns widows to a pile of anachronistic things.
That is not to say that Maggie shouldn’t have made the joke, or shared it.