The Joy Menu #26: Sadness
The author and Michael Jordan explore art's role in the excavation of memory.
How often do we sit with our younger selves? Remember how they saw the world: magically, unrealistically, boundaries blurred, as thin as magic cupboards or porous wardrobes which offer access to dreams?
Like many, I remember a joyous worship of Michael Jordan. I had no context for his greatness, no ability to ascertain what set him apart. Yet I relished his artistry like every other kid, too young to be self-critical of whether I was consuming cross-promotional branding or mythology, appreciating skill, or just riding a collective fervor. Old enough to feel a genuine pull toward a towering figure and to relish the connection, as tenuous, as imagined, as it may have been.
I’ve been watching The Last Dance, the documentary series about Jordan and the championship 90s Bulls. I don’t have any emotional investment in contemporary athletics. But between third grade and sixth, I was unapologetically invested in this story. Watching The Last Dance now is like spending time with a younger version of myself. And I’ve been surprised to find a layering of emotion in this younger me—a depth of feeling I never would have remembered if not for these trigger points, these free-throws, and rebounds, and adult stories of how those years were lived.
In episode three, Jordan and the Bulls play against the Cleveland Cavaliers. A dateline flashes across the screen: April 3, 1986.
My fourth birthday.
Suddenly, I feel an intense sadness wash through my body: a tightness in my solar plexus, which spreads out like heat, up to my head and down through my calves.
What is that?
The discomfort is real, and I pause the show. I question myself: why so much sadness tethered to what should have been a celebratory day?
I don’t have any concrete memories of my fourth birthday. What I know is we’d been living in California by then for close to a year and a half. I would have been at the collective pre-school. My brother, just a year and two months old, would have sported loopy blond ringlets, and my sister would have been halfway through the first grade.
I remember our house: 100 Briarwood, a two-story condominium with low brown carpets and a small, ratty carport where we parked our car. I remember we ran to hide under the bed when the landlord—an intense, older woman—came by. (I don’t remember why she came by; could it have been to pick up the rent?). I remember my father coming home exhausted in his buttoned shirts and trousers from his first job as a city planner; I remember my mother taking us to see other mothers from the pre-school to play with their kids; I remember I took piano lessons and practiced on a long unfurled piece of plastic patterned like piano keys because we couldn’t afford a real keyboard. (Which was just as well—I hated it and quit soon after.)
I don’t remember being exactly sad.
Yet something visceral came into my body with that thought: “I turned four that day.”
In 1965, the family has just arrived in Israel. They spend June, July and August together in one hotel room in Herzliya Pituach.
(On the voice memo I made in January 2017, weeks after my father’s diagnosis, I hear my him call it the “Valador Hotel,” though I find no evidence of such a place online).
Herzliya Pituach is a sandy beach town, underdeveloped and not far from where my grandparents will build their new house. All summer, they eat breakfast and dinner at the hotel, and for lunch walk over the dunes to a family friend’s nearby. (Years later, this family will also end up in North America; we’ll share other lunches with them at an apartment in New York, a house in Marin, a buffet in Las Vegas).
The hotel is full of tourists. Americans mostly, except for my father, his brothers, and his parents. (“We were only immigrants living there the whole fucking summer,” he says with a chuckle.) I imagine this as a beachside scene: my father in shorts and sandals, walking slowly in the sand; he’s 15, not yet in school, his Hebrew nascent, his displacement as raw as it would be. (“They scrambled their eggs in olive oil,” he says. “Blech.”)
One morning, after the Watt’s Riots began in LA, an older gentleman comes down to reception, distressed, mumbling an unclear story. (“He’d pissed his bed,” my father says. “Either from too much beer, or too much stress. Perhaps he was from LA.”) My father remembers his shame, his embarrassment. The violence of Sharpeville and the pass laws not distant in his mind; he understood enough. (“It was a bad year for the United States, too,” he adds.)
Another midday, they’re heading out for their walk to lunch. A woman comes from behind, yelling: “Mr. Wynn, Mr. Wynn!” She’s calling for my grandfather; she thinks he’s Keenan Wynn, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer character actor and Hollywood mainstay. (“The woman was so excited,” my father says. “She was peeing her pants.”) My grandfather (“he was always debonair”), smiles, says hello, shakes her hand.
That summer, my grandfather dreams of starting a business: a restaurant, or a café. He and his friend go from shopping center to shopping center, talking to café owners, restauranteurs, shopkeepers. (“They realized really quickly that the only way to make a small fortune in Israel was to come with a big one.”)
On the recording—52 years after the summer in Herzliya—my father still has bitterness in his voice.
“Why didn’t it work?” I hear my own voice ask.
“Too fucked up of a country; too much bullshit going on,” my father says. “Not enough people, and the ones that were there were weird; they really resented the immigrants, and well, that was us.”
Dennis Rodman, in episode three: “I wanna go out there and get my nose broke. I wanna go out there and get cut. Something that’s just going to bring out the hurt. The pain. I want to feel that.”
At four, I’d never heard of Michael Jordan. My father never watched American sports. Maybe the horse races, an occasional a soccer match. But never an American team.
I google “Keenan Wynn.” He does look like my grandfather. I remember a framed photo sat next to my grandmother’s bed in the years after he died: in it he is dapper, young, wearing his navy hat, his head cocked to one side, with a slight, sad smile.
We have to reckon with our sadness, I think. We have to contend with it, move through it, make it into something else. It doesn’t just go away.
Art can do that.
I think of a singer on stage, how they scream above the chords. I think of the Fontana’s cuts into canvas, Abramović's self-inflicted injuries, Cronenberg (and Ballard’s) Crash.
There’s too much bullshit going on. We have to find a way to sweat it out.
Onward, friends, toward your creative joy,