Friday, October 25, 2013

Happy Families and Cultural Bureaucracy

In your attempts to understand the reach and potential of story in order to begin telling your own, you spent considerable time reading the creation myths of various cultures.  Your first possible opportunity for explosive revelation came with your readings of what has been called the Abrahamic faiths, a segment of which comprises your culture of origin.

You'd already read and taken Tolstoy's opening line from Anna Karenina as literal.  "Happy families are all alike..."


Your culture speaks of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Right away, trouble with Christianity, who are seen as descendants of Shem, Noah's oldest boy.  In the Islamic faith, Abraham's son, Ishmael was the progenitor of the Arab line.

You went for the happy family stuff big time, in large measure because you came from one, although you conveniently didn't take Aunt Augusta into account, even when you'd already reached age fifty and she accused you of breaking into her condominium and stealing her entire collection of Eskimo Pies.

Some pretty heavy stuff obtains in the Indian dharmic faiths, and hey, what about the Taoist beliefs?

All of which is to say, you skipped family and regional battles.  In the process, you created a kind of one-size-fits-all equivalent of a block party.  You were intrigued, but not sufficiently, when the mother of a friend of yours, told you with firmness that her family was Lutheran, and she knew all about your people and you must promise not to try to lure Donald over to Catholicism.

Even more baffling, the mother of another friend of yours, questioned you with some persistence until she was assured you had no knowledge of what it meant to be an Ashkenazim.  You found out soon enough when you went home and asked.  "Oh, them,"  your mother said.  "The Jews of the Rhine and Germany.  No, we are not them.  Who would think that?  Have you been going over to the Zimmer's?"

Later, back in California, you asked in all innocence at dinner one night, "Why don't we ever have bollos?"  To which there could only be one response, "Since when do you know Sephardim?"  This from you material grandfather.

Later still, you are living in the Hollywood Hills, writing pulp novels in which the antagonists are given names of your friends, living with a grouchy cat named Sam, and thinking the most remarkable instrument in the world is a fire engine red Olivetti portable typewriter, of course manual.  Your friend, Gary Boren, who later went on to become the dean of a law school, taught you two words in Hebrew that put not only your own culture but much of the human parade into perspective.  Tsouris beliden. 

Trouble aboundeth.

Indeed, it does.

In your thirties, long past the time when most are recognizing the value of the story of Antigone and her Uncle, King Creon, you find a familiar pull between a culture so far removed from yours and yet so close.  In the play by Sophocles, Antigone comes into the world troubled from birth, her father Oedipus, her mother Jocasta, who has married Oedipus, not knowing she is his mother.

At the time of the Antigone play, the ruling religion was not the monotheistic arrangement of the Abrahamic peoples.  There were numerous gods, goddesses, and in-betweens.  When one spoke of pleasing the gods or goddesses, even more mischief was possible, and if there is any doubt about that, look how Prince Paris got messed up, agreeing to be the judge in a beauty contest in which three goddesses were playing fast and loose, wanting to win.

King Creon loved his niece, wanted the best for her.  She had nothing but fondness for him, that is, until her brothers decided on a political coup against Creon that didn't work out too well for them .  Creon was not being so much meanspirited as political when he refused to allow their corpses to be buried.  Enter Antigone with a shovel, and so we have a story.  Do not do that, dear niece.  Do not attempt to bury your brothers.

You were actually great friends with your cousin, the son of Aunt Augusta.  He in fact used to tease you about which things you would next be accused of stealing from your Aunt Augusta, who started out in life thinking your father was something else, but when said father say your mother, the matter was settled.

At some point after reading enormous rounds of stories in which happy families were not indeed all alike, you began to suspect that stories were haunted by cultural ghosts, attitudes toward and around diversity, hidden rivalries, a kind of cosmic bureaucracy that proves Gary Boren was right when he proposed the mantra, tsouris beliden, trouble abounds, mischief is everywhere.

You attempt to travel lightly in terms of the cultural luggage you bring along with you, but there is no escaping it.  Since about 1976, when you attended a memorial service for a man you'd only met once, you've in a metaphoric sense eaten a few curries in another culture.  It, too, is rife with the yeasty dough of diversity and opinion.  It is not so much that you have anything against Lord Vishnu, who is seen as the supreme being and fountain from which such better known beings as Krishna, Rama, and Siva emerge.  In fact, and for reasons of which you are not completely sure, you have a lovely framed painting of Lord Vishnu, adorning a shelf in the bathroom.  It is more that you know individuals who are Shaktas, devotees of the mother goddess aspect of the divinity.  There are places in India where Vashnavas and Shaktas do not get along.  You have seen a few icy confrontations.  For other reasons for which you have no explanation, a statuette of Kali Ma, the Divine Mother, is in your kitchen, waiting, it seems, for you to make some discovery of reason or intent or random whim.

One of the last conversations you ever had with Aunt Augusta was a phone call wherein she apologized profusely for having made such an egregious accusation about the missing Eskimo Pies.  "I completely forgot I was having the freezer serviced,"  she said, "and I gave them all to your sister.  You are not a ne'er do well, you are a dear boy, and if you come by, we'll sit on the patio and have Eskimo Pies."

You could not refuse such an invitation, even though during the course of an Eskimo Pie or two, she made you promise you'd look into the possibility that your mother was beginning to exaggerate.  And of course, less than an hour after you'd departed, she called your sister, complaining that you'd made off with her check stubs and were, as she put it, probably kiting checks all over Santa Monica.

Story is perception, intent, and cultural bureaucracy, mixed with a dash of dementia, some Angostura bitters, a cube of sugar and tsouris beliden.

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