The Joy Menu #46: Permission
In the tan armchair beneath the bright front window, I ask: “And then?” “And then?” “And then?”
Who gave me the right to imagine a creative future for myself?
Who gave me the right to see myself inevitably destined to be an artist?
Who gave me the right to build for myself a future so specific, so grounded in one definition of success, that any change, any slip up, any dislocation of that set idea would cause devastation, disaster, disappointment — reality?
Did I make it all up? Did I build it from the ashes of a burned down house?
Would I have been happier to have never dreamed it?
After college, I remember a visit from a friend. I was living in New York.
She’d moved to another city with her college boyfriend, a person I liked but didn’t understand, and while we walked the streets catching up — talking, endlessly, with the intense micro-focus of the young and self-involved — he went to sit in a bar, to watch sports and chat with strangers. (At the time I thought his choice was alien and cold; now I recognize it as a generous gesture to his differently-disposed partner).
What we both had, this friend and I, was a dream, and this dream was both north star and magnet: we aimed toward it, and we felt it pull us in the direction we wanted (needed!) to go. Momentum and monument. Goal and grease.
We both wanted to write. To “be” writers.
Her boyfriend (now husband, now father of her children) didn’t know what he wanted. Didn’t know what he wanted to do or be.
I remember somewhere past NYU, when the gridded streets around the park cut into the folding backways of the West Village, we wondered out loud if we were free and he was trapped, or if it was the other way around.
Me: What if we could do anything and not worry about failing our dreams?
Her: What if we were open to the world — to whatever came our way?
Me: But what if we were lost — what if we had no dream to guide us?
Her: What if we had no great passion that defined for us a life well-lived?
Me: But if we don’t get what we want, but get something else — and what if that something else can’t make us happy?
Her: But what if he were to get something wonderful — would it make him happy, even if he hadn’t dreamed it first?
I don’t think we pitied him or envied him. I think we just didn’t understand.
We were 24. We had so many ideas. But also no idea at all.
And now? Fifteen years later — has anything changed?
When my father was dying, I began to ask him follow-up questions. He wasn’t a storyteller, but we knew the outlines of things — often only the outlines: he’d immigrated to Israel at 15, leaving South Africa behind; he’d been in the Israeli Army, had hated it, had refused to return as a reservist and had been put in military jail; he’d left soon after and made his way to the US, again an immigrant, and then met my mother.
But what did these experiences mean to him? How did they make him? How did they really go down?
In the living room in our house in Irvine, I placed my phone on the small side table nearest the window and asked him: “And then?” “And then?” “And then?”
[“A Refusal to Serve”]
I finished the army in September, 1971, and started school right away. I served just short of three years, because they let me out early to go to college. University of Tel Aviv. And then I got called up, I think in 72. March, maybe, or April, for Reserve duty. They sent me a call in the mail — my papers — "Come for Reserve duty." They wanted to send me to drive a truck down in the Sinai.
In the army, I didn’t have a unit assignment. I’d been assigned to the paratroopers’ headquarters, as a driver for officers. A kind of chauffeur. But when I finished, I had to be assigned to a unit, a Reserve Unit. And the Reserve Unit they assigned me to was a truck unit at the Suez Canal.
See, the Sinai’s big, so what they did was they had everyone at the canal. There's Gaza, yeah? And the Suez Canal there. And the distance, I don’t know, it’s probably a thousand kilometers down the length of the Sinai. So, they had these long routes, where they would schlep stuff down from, say, Ashkelon, which is near Gaza, all the way down — convoys of huge Leyland Trucks filled with whatever, supplies and food, I don’t know, hundreds of truck drivers making their way down.
That was my classification.
I don't remember the details. I reported, and I told them that I didn’t intend to serve in the occupied territories.
The thing is, I’d seen things in the Jordan Valley, driving my bus around when I’d been a chauffer, things that I knew were fucked up. They were stealing shit from the fields, they were treating the Arabs like they were shit, you know?
A convoy would stop, and they would go, "Oh, jump out," and they’d run into the fields and take a bag of onions, a bag of potatoes, steal stuff, dig stuff up, and fuck their fields up. Because they were entitled, you know? This kind of disgusting, “we’re better than them, they’re just fucking farmers.” You know? “They’re bullshit, they’re fucking Arabs. We won."
There was no magnanimity, no sense of “wow, we did it, we fucked them, now let’s be magnanimous and make peace and treat them right and do the humane and correct thing.” It was disgusting. It just made me sick.
So I was disgusted already. And then these young guys, there were at least 10 or 12 of them, they got together and made a stand. Do you know the story of Giora Neumann? They were kids, but they were fighting the whole damn country — it’s fucking hard. They were 18, 19, and the army decided that they were going to show them — who the hell did they think they were, you know what I mean? They separated them all out, and took them to different places to try and break them, to show that they were unstable, that they were fucked up in the head, and that they were stupid, that they were this, that they were that.
But Neumann was a very articulate, strong little guy. Eighteen years old, a kid, but he stood up to it and it really brought the whole issue into the mainstream.
So that was going on when I got out. I went to University and then they sent me this letter. I don't know. I went to what they called the Tel HaShomer, which is the induction headquarters, or the reserve headquarters; there’s also a big hospital there. A big, British military base. Massive, massive military base in the middle of the country there near Tel Aviv.
Years before, when I was driving for the paratroopers, I’d taken one of my bosses’ fathers there for cancer treatment. He had lung cancer. Later, my first wife Sheila ended up there. She had a kind of — not a nervous breakdown, but she had these, well, I guess kind of a nervous breakdown. She ended up in the mental institution there. Once, I remember, I even went to visit another guy there who had got a weird kind of venereal disease in his mouth. He was a strange dude. I think he was having oral sex with prostitutes and he got really sick. We were going to visit him and his mouth was, well, it was all fucked.
So it was a big medical facility. Military and a lot else. There was everything there: mental wards, the cancer centers, infectious disease. But then there were also barracks for guys — inductees, and guys reporting for reserve duties. And there was Jail #6.
When I signed up, that’s where I went first; there was a side of the compound where they kept inductees in barracks, where they gave us our uniforms and they gave us our assignments. So I’d been there before and that’s where I had to return when they called me up. Only, I knew I wasn’t going to serve again.
But we’ll get to that.
We’ll get to that.
In the tan armchair beneath the bright window, I ask and I listen. Above him, the bright green artwork, the naked woman lying sideways on a park bench, an image I have seen nearly every day of my life, he tells me his stories and I listen.
More next week.
Onward toward creative joy,
"We wondered out loud if we were free and he was trapped, or if it was the other way around. . . . I don’t think we pitied him or envied him. I think we just didn’t understand."