Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Rachel de Beer - A Folk Tale Written During Hurricane Sandy

Randomly stumbled upon this story on my Internet Sandy excursions. It’s a story that was initially passed down as a true story, but then came to be realized as a sort of folk tale. I have tried to retell it. I found it poignant regardless. Enjoy.

I gave up my life to find a lost calf. She was my calf, or my family's calf and I didn't feel any particular attachment to Frikkie, but I felt responsible as the eldest child to take care of everybody in our family, our dealings, our objects, our business. I did love Frikkie a little bit, but only because my little brother loved the cow even more. My little brother Joszef, about 6 year old at the time, I was 12, loved this cow. He loved most of the cows but he love this calf even more than the rest. I don't know, but Joszef always struck me as a bit odd in that way. He understood animals in an intuitive manner more than the rest of us. They listened to him, he calmed them down, even being only six years of age, he stilled calmed our animals down.  

Joszef cried when Frikkie ran away. He cried a lot, this sensitive child. He felt so much pain for such a little kid. He scared us all in this way with the intensity of his pain, all his emotional suffering and wounds. But he calmed down and quieted the animals under all circumstances. Just his presence, but even more his touch and his voice. He sung them strange songs, foreigner songs he couldn't have learned from me, or Papa. He sung them to these cows, his friends, he would say, and they would calm down, as if drinking milk before going to bed. So we brought him along to maybe calm down old Frikkie in case we found her and she was scared in her cow body and hide. I didn't think he should go, but papa thought if I watched him, he could trust me, and Joszef would be alright, as long as I watch him, and how maybe he could help with the search party, seeing how good he is with Frikkie and all. I told Papa, I told him that Joszef is too young and something bad can happen to him.

Papa told me he loved me, but I worried too much like my Mama who died a few years ago. He told me he loved my Mama for her worry, for her care about other people, and that's why he loved me too, he told me. Like my Mama, I cared about those I love. I care more than other people, it's what makes special. I think Papa  tells me this because he thinks I miss Mama. I do, but I don't think this helps. I don't think it does help me much, though I do miss Mama a bunch, but I don't think this helps because I know Mama cared much more than I do. People tell me I care, but I don't really care as much as they think. I mean, I love Joszef and my Papa, but not like my mother. She did everything for us. She always thought of us, always, like a good Mama, she helped us with our school work, and ran with us in the park, she tied our shoelaces even when we could, and she sang with us. She taught us to read. We loved her a lot, we all did. Joszef only knew her for four years and I knew her for ten. I told Joszef stories about our Mama. I finished all the stories I knew and he still asked for more. I started to make up stories that I thought would sound like Mama. I don't think Joszef noticed because he still asks me for stories. Sometimes, because I run out of ideas I take stories I know and make them about our family, and about Mama. Joszef might know. He is a very smart little brother. I think Papa is wrong. I think when he told me that I took after Mama, that I inherited her kindness I think he meant Joszef. Joszef followed in the steps of my Mama. 

He really cares, not just because he should care. I care for reasons. Joszef doesn't care. He loves people like mother used to - without reason, all people. I don't like all people. Some people make me feel sad, some make me scared, and others seem mean and selfish. I don't understand the selfish. Papa tells me I would understand the selfish in time, later in life, as if I missed some part or some experience to understand selfishness. Papa says he is often selfish, and sometimes its a good thing, and sometimes you do it because everyone makes mistake. But to me, I still don't know, selfishness never seems like a good choice to make. How could selfishness every help another person? Joszef was never selfish. He was just a little kid and I know that children can often be the most selfish, but we don't call it selfish when they are kids because children, my Mama told me, children don't understand anything besides what they need. They need to learn how to be selfless, how to be nice. But not Joszef. Joszef always cared too much. He was weaker because of that. He would never fight back or yell because he cared too much about the little child yelling at him. He wanted to make him feel better. I thought he was stupid because of that. I though all children should do the opposite of what he did. Papa told me that Joszef was special, different than the rest of the kids. That Joszef cared so much in a different way than anyone else we knew. I didn't believe Papa. I just thought Joszef was stupid because all my friends and people I knew where not like him at all. Sometimes I would treat him in a mean way just to see how he would react. He always reacted in a kind manner, maybe too kind. I tried to teach him differently. Mama and Papa both told me the same thing. We needed to treat Joszef differently. I didn't understand till recently. 

Maybe since Mama died I understood more. Joszef, though just four, he cried a lot. More than me and Papa all together. He cried a lot, and all the time. He cried even when he didn't look like he was crying. Even when he walked with me to the store or something, he cried while doing everything, a quiet cry. Even a week ago, sometimes, I would find him crying and when I asked him why he was crying, he would say he didn't really know, or he just saw something pretty, but I knew he cried for Mama, still. I think he cries because he misses what Mama could have been. He imagines a lot, and he always asks for those stories and when he finds out how great Mama was, how much she loved us, he feels sad, very sad. I think that maybe sometimes I should tell him bad stories about Mama, like when she yelled at me or at Papa, or got angry and mean even for a minute. Maybe these stories would make him less sad, but I can't tell him these stories. He would feel too much pain to think of Mama like this. He loved to think of Mama as a sort of angel, someone who never made mistakes like me. 

I once believed that about Mama, and I still think she was more nice than mean, much more nice than mean, but she still said mean things, and hurt my feelings and Papa's feelings sometimes and I think that matters. After Mama died, Papa told me that now I needed to take care of Joszef more than before. He told me that I need to act like Mama to Joszef, if I could. That Joszef needs a woman to bring him up, and that now, at age ten, I needed to be a woman for Joszef. I needed to look out for him, protect him, because he said he was like glass, he told me he was this word fragile, could easily break, and that I needed to watch him, to stay close to him, to listen to him when he felt sad or wanted to cry. I did not want to take care of him like Mama did. I did not like him enough. He cried too much and never liked to run around. He liked to walk, or sit and try to read. Or just sit and stare and look at flies, or animals, or insects, or other people. He could sit and stare and just think and smile and laugh. We became friends in the past few weeks. I don't know about friends. But he liked me more, and I kind of liked him too, at least more than before. 

After Mama first died Joszef couldn't do anything besides cry. He just sat there or stood there and wouldn't play with the other children or do the small chores given to him. He couldn't do anything. He just cried like a doll who could only cry. He reminded me too much of the sadness and I thought that if he wanted to be sad fine, but why does he need to cry around us, why couldn't he just sit on his own in his room, why did he have to remind us all about the sadness? Papa said he understood my point, but despite the fact they he did understand my feelings, he thought that it would be better for us all to hear him crying. Both for Jozsef and for us, we can all stand to cry a bit more. I didn't like how he said that to me, as if I needed to cry more for Mama, as if Joszef was a better child because he cried more. He was a child, the baby of the family. Of course he cried more, I know, but I still thought he exaggerated, made stuff up because he wanted attention.

My Papa said to me that I was gonna to be in charge of Joszef. That I needed to take responsibility for him, and to watch him, and to make sure nothing happens to him, but most importantly to make sure he comes back, that he doesn't get lost, or doesn't get hurt. I told him that I could do it, of course, he didn't need to repeat it to me, but inside, I know that I felt scared and sick, and tingly. I felt like this was a bad idea. Not because I couldn't watch Joszef, because it felt like a bad idea, a bad night to go look for a calf in the dark.

Joszef held my hand as we walked into the forest but not because he was scared. I saw his face, I knew what his fear looked like, and this was a calm face. But he grabbed my hand and held on tightly just to hold on tightly. We walked together with two adults, two people who knew my parents but we didn't know them so well. A husband and a wife. They were nice to us, telling us to just stay close to them and not to worry, and calling out both of our names, "Rachel, Joszef" every couple of minutes to make sure they knew we were there. They called our names a lot and each time we both answered back loud and clear and strong in our name, as in some game. I yelled my name first and then Joszef called his name in a louder voice, he yelled louder than me. But we kept close to these friends because it was very dark and very cold. We walked in line to cover our section back and forth and then move over a little bit to the left and go up and down throughout the forest so that we could cover all the places Frikkie might have run off too. 

We walked back and forth a lot Joszef holding on to my hand very tightly, his softer smaller hand fitting mine. He walked fast, without me telling him to walk faster just because he knew that we needed to walk faster, to keep up and to be safe. He just knew what to do. He walked fast with us and all of us called out Frikkie's name, we yelled her name but Joszef only said her name, softly, to himself and I could overhear him. He kept on saying her name as if speaking a secret language with the cow. He smiled a lot and held my hand and walked in my pace. I could see his smile because of his very white face. No one found Frikkie yet, and no one even found the smallest signal to where she could be. We walked for an hour just like this and made a circle, a big circle around the camp because we thought that she could only go so far. After an hour, for the first time, no one found anything. 

We took a break for 30 minutes just to rest and to get more energy for the next round of searching. We all walked to the border of the previous search and then began and went further out in the same way that we did the first search, but now the second search took longer because we needed to cover more ground. Frikkie not only was loved by a lot of us, but she also cost a lot of money because she was supposed to give birth to many expensive and beautiful calves. She was important in these two different ways. So we looked for her in a very important way. Joszef didn't even want to rest, he kept asking why we all needed to rest if he wasn't tired? Rachel told him that some other people needed a break and that we all needed to walk together for safety. Joszef never calmed down, but didn't complain anymore as if he understood. It was already about 2 or 3 o'clock. We couldn't tell the exact time, but we knew somewhere between these times, or so people told us, but it felt right. So it was late. 

Many people were tired and many people felt that if Frikkie was out for so long already, they assumed, that an animal, however sad it would be, an animal probably killed Frikkie and that we should not search anymore, because it was cold, and late, and so very cold that it would be better to wait till morning because, they told me, that we shouldn't put ourselves in danger to save an animal, that we should worry more about the human people than the animals, or any money. I agreed with them, but other people, the more powerful, or the people more people listened to, these people wanted to push on, they said that we need to take care of our property as if part of our family or we won't treat our property right in other future times something happens to our property. I didn't understand really what they might or why it made sense. I thought that it sounded strange, but I knew to respect these people and so did everyone else and so we continued to search. We searched in that same manner just moving further off, again until we found ourselves very far away from the camp from the other groups because we had to cover more ground. 

We were still with our family friends and they still called our name, and we still answered. It was late, or early, at this point and we were all tired, even Joszef was tired, we wanted to rest, to save our energy. We stopped for a few minutes and Joszef fell asleep on my arm. He felt warm and held me like he trusted me more than anyone he knew in the world. He fell asleep after two minutes and I felt like I wanted to fall asleep, but I knew that I needed to stay up, that one of us needed to stay up to make sure we knew where we were and to see the adults, the older adults than me, to make sure we weren't lost. When he did fall asleep in my arms, like a little baby even though he was six years old, he did look a bit like a baby, and he did seem very safe and warm though I was cold and very mightily scared. I didn't let him now at all that I felt scared because I knew he would get scared because of my fear. And I knew he did not react well to fear, that sometimes he reacted worse than most other people, that he felt the fear more and I knew that if he felt all of this fear he would cry and he wouldn't be able to search anymore when he woke up from the nap. 

I knew that he needed to stay safe and quiet and calm and not sad that he would be okay so I just made some noises to calm him to sleep then while he was sleeping made the same noises to keep him sleeping. I never did these voices before for Joszef and not really for anyone, I had no idea what to do so I just did what sounded and felt right. I don't know it could be that I remember something I never remembered before, maybe from what my Mama or Papa would do for me when I was younger, so I copied that idea or maybe memory and I just say shhhhhhhhh, but not as if to tell someone to shut up, but to calm them down, in a way that calmed the kid, so I did that. I held him as I sat down right against a tree and on the cold ground, and held him there like a baby, but a big baby, and rocked him back and forth and said softly to him this sound, longer than usual that I made, Shhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhh, over and over again until he fell asleep then stayed asleep. Even after he fell asleep I continued making this nice sound both for him but also for me because it made me calm because as much as I needed to remain calm for Joszef, now that he was asleep I found myself growing more scared and full of fear. I didn't know what to fear or why to fear at all, but I feared more for Joszef than for myself, or for anyone else really. 

I really felt scared just for him, that something might happen to him, my younger brother, the only son of my father and my dead mother. Someone they loved very much, that I love very much, that I want to take care of because I am his older sister, and older sisters take care of their younger smaller and more sensitive younger brother who needs your help to do the important things in life and he really loves you because he knows that you take care of him, he loves you because he knows you would always protect him, and he loves you because you love him, and I do love him, I really do, even though sometimes he gets annoying and sometimes he can be mean to me on purpose, and sometimes I don't want him around because he is a burden to us all, with his crying and sadness and sensitivity, and how sometimes we say or I say that I would love for him to go live somewhere else I would never want anything bad to ever happen to him.  

I realized in this weird moment that I would do anything to protect my little brother. I would hurt people, I would hurt a lot of people again and again even if it came to it, I realized, I would kill people. If I had to protect people, even though we all knew that killing was the worst sin you could do, I knew right then and right there that no matter what happened I would kill another person, even more than for myself, just to make sure that nothing bad would happen to my little brother Joszef with his little coat, and his little hat, and little gloves for his little hands. I realized that I would kill just to make sure he felt no real pain, I would kill even if the other person threatened just pain or just to make them feel uncomfortable. I would do everything in my power to destroy that other person, that the moment I thought about real pain to Joszef, to him even feeling like someone hurt his feelings made me want to kill that other person, and I would do it without even thinking about because something in me, when I think of Joszef feeling pain, something with in feels like an animal that wants to hurt another animal, I feel dangerous like an animal about to kill an animal for food.

I sshhhhhhh'ed so much that I began to feel sleepy and I thought to myself that I could fall asleep for a few minutes with Joszef in my arms feeling very warm and calm and breathing in his sleep so that I keep feel his life. We feel asleep holding on to each other, leaning on a tree sitting on the the cold floor, but we still fell asleep because we were both so tired and both now so calm because of the shhhhhhhhing.

Mama and Papa used to talk us for walks in the woods. Papa not as much as Mama, but both would still walk us in the woods. Mama would always point out the different plants and animals in the woods, what we could or could not eat, what the animals ate, what the animals made. Mama loved the woods, she always told us that when she was a kid she also liked the forest and would spend hours in the forest sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, and how she liked to get to know the plants, how they looked and felt. She taught me how know which plants we could or could not touch, and which plants contained poison. She felt at home here, she would always say, but I never felt at home like she did. I liked when she would show us the different animals in the forest, nothing too big or too scary, but sometimes, not most of the time, but sometimes the animals would come next to us and say hi and smell us and walk away. I used to be scared of the animals, but Mama made me calm and taught me to be calm when an animal would come by to say hi.

I woke up with Joszef still cuddling next to me. The cold sun shone in on our faces and woke us both up. It wasnt so bright and it was foggy and very cold. I looked around and saw that I no one was around us. Not Papa, and not our family friends, and I couldn’t see anyone else searching for Frikkie. Maybe they found her, which would be good, but we were lost, and separated from our family and our friends, and I felt scared. Joszef looked scared, but he wouldn’t say anything about his fear and I felt thankful for that. I worried that if he worried I would worry even more, and I knew because Papa told me that when you are in trouble worrying never helps. We were in trouble. We were very cold and even though it was during the day there was a lot of fog and we couldn’t see anything or anyone. We held onto each others hand so as not lose the other person, and to stay warm. We were wearing very big coats, but it was still cold almost freezing and we hadn’t eaten anything in a while and we were both hungry.

I decided, because I was the adult and the older person, to search for the other people in the same way that we searched for Frikkie. We started by walking out past our tree, a tree that I ripped off some bark to remember which tree we slept next to, in case people came looking for us, then we walked out in a straight line then moved to the right and walked back that way. We came back to the tree then did all of that again to keep on going farther and farther away. We didn’t really know which way to go, but we needed to go one way. Joszef didn’t say much, but whenever I looked at him he smiled at me, a very nice and comforting smile that he smiled at me. He didn’t cry or ask me annoying questions. I think he understood our situation, and he understood that I didn’t know anything or know what to do but he smiled at me and told me he trusted me. I loved him for that.

Mama once showed me an aardvark. She told me that aardvark was called that because those words mean a ground pig, because the aardvark always looks for food in the ground. I liked the aardvark because I thought it looked funny, with its big and weird nose. Mama used to tell me that sometimes aardvarks take out everything in an ant hill leaving them empty.

We searched a lot. We walked far then returned to our tree for a few minutes to rest. It started to now, a lot, and we got colder and colder and still didn’t have any food. Joszef was much smaller and skinnier than me, and therefore he shivered a lot from the cold, much more than me. We both were wearing a lot of clothing, but with the snow falling all over us, and the cold, Joszef shivered so much that I got more scared. We still held hands and I could feel his hand turning to ice and I got scared. He said we should walk more to find other people, but I wasn’t so sure. I was the adult here and I needed to make a decision. I needed to make a decision to either keep walking or to stay put and try to find some shelter or some food. I didn’t know what to do neither Papa or Mama ever told me or Joszef how to deal with something like this.

Joszef shivered more and more. He wouldn’t say anything bad about the situaiton, but I knew anyway it was bad. We were both very scared and didn’t know what to do and I worried that Joszef would get hurt, or worse die from being so cold and having no food to eat. Papa told me stories about people in our community who died from both of those and he told me that it was a painful death. I knew that I couldn’t tell Joszef about any of my worries, but I know that he worried about it too. He was a very smart little brother and he understood our situation. He told me that we should remember to walk around a little bit to not only look for food but to get our blood flowing. Papa used to say that all the time that we should move around to get our blood flowing and that it’s good to fight cold to keep moving. After some time though, we couldn’t move much we were so cold. We walked around some more and I noticed that Joszef started to look different. His skin looked like a sick persons, and he looked more cold than me. His skin was blue and a bit read, he looked beaten up but very white. I touched his skin with my fingers and his skin felt colder than my fingers. He still smiled but I could tell he was in a lot of pain. We couldn’t find any food, especially with all the snow coming down making everything look white with powder.

At first, Joszef wouldn’t take my coat from me. He told me I was crazy, and that I must be cold too. I told him I am the older sister and that he has to listen to what I say and that he was colder than me and that he needed this jacket more than me and that if he didn’t take the jacket he would get in trouble with Papa when Papa found us. Joszef knew that my threat wasn’t such a real threat, but I think he understood how serious I was so he took my coat. The coat was too big for him and he tried to put it on his shoulders but I made him put it over his head because I remember that Papa told me that when you are cold it’s most important to cover your head. Joszef looked funny with my coat over his head and we both laughed for a second. I got colder when I took my jacket off, much colder, but I could tell that Joszef was warmer and this made me proud of myself and happy. I realized that if I didnt find Joszef a place to hide while it snowed that giving him my coat, or anything else wouldn’t help in the long run and that he would get hurt from the cold and snow if I couldnt find some way to protect him better than this.

We walked around a little bit to get our blood flowing and to try to find some food because the snow stopped snowing so hard and because we could walk a little better. Joszef saw how cold I was but also saw that I wouldn’t take the coat back. We walked around and still found nothing but I saw an ant hill, a very big ant hill covered mostly by snow but I could still tell it was an anthill. I walked over to it and with my sweater over my hand I brushed aside some of the snow. The ant hill looked strong and intact. My mother once told that sometimes, aardvarks as they looked for food would look for their food in an anthill. Sometimes, I remember her telling me with her soft kind voice, aardvarks will empty out the whole anthill making it look like an anthill from the outside but inside there will be nothing, just space. I remembered all this when I saw this anthill. I thought, maybe, Joszef and I could both hide in the anthill. We would need to make a small hole so we could get in and then maybe we could cover it up and it would provide us a place to rest and be out of the cold. Joszef thought it was a good idea so we first brushed off some of the snow from the anthill.

We kicked in a small hole, and Joszef crawled in and said that he felt much warmer in here, but he told me that he didn’t think we could both fit in there and maybe we should take turns. He got out and I tried to get in but I didn’t fit. Joszef wanted to make the hole bigger so I could get in but I had to explain to him that if we made the hole too big it might not work for either of us, and it might break. He didn’t really understand but I told him that for now, if it only worked for one person we needed to use it. I told him to go first, and that he should rest up and then after he rested up and got warm maybe we could switch spots. I lied to him, but I think both Mama and Papa would be proud of the lie I told him. In fact, I knew both Mama and Papa would be proud of everything that I was doing for Joszef. I was the adult and I was taking care of my younger brother because he couldn’t take care of himself. I was being a good older sister, and I knew it and this made me feel good. I was very cold on the outside but inside I felt very warm, like I used to feel when my mother would hug us after we came inside from the cold outside.

Joszef sat inside the anthill, and I told him I sat watch on the outside, but I really just wanted to cover the hole against the wind for him. I worried that even inside he would be too cold so I sat on the hole but made a little space so he could breathe, because I wanted him to be warm but also to have air. Joszef, I called from time to time, and he told me that he did feel more warm, and he felt tired and warm and comfortable and that he loved me and always loved me even though sometimes I didn’t seem to love him as much. I told him that even when I seemed angry I always loved him that you can be angry or annoyed with someone you loved and still love them more than anything in life as I loved Joszef. Joszef said he didn’t really understand but he knew how much I loved him and he loved me even more than that. I said I really felt the love and that his love was keeping me warm outside in the cold while the anthill kept him warm. He asked me every couple of minutes or so if it was time to switch. I told him not yet, not yet, and then he understand he didn’t need to ask so much. I told him that he was my favorite person in the world since Mama died and he said the same to me. He told me he missed Mama still, all the time, and I told him I knew that because he cried so much. He apologized for crying so much and I told him it was good that he cried so much because it reminded us how much we all loved Mama and how much we all still cared and remembered Mama. He said sometimes he cried because he felt like he couldn’t remember Mama besides for what I told him. I said not to worry because as he grows up more and more people will talk about Mama, about all the things she did for us and how much she loved us and that he will always remember Mama. He said that I reminded him of Mama. I really liked that he said that because I did think that if Mama was in this situation she would do like I did to protect Joszef, and I also knew that if she could see us now she would be both sad but very proud of how we treated each other. Mama always liked when we were nice to each other. I told Joszef that this was a very nice thing to say because I loved Mama and I always tried to act like her, and he said that I was the kindest person he ever met. I knew that this was a lie because Mama was nicer than me and didn’t say or think mean things about the people in her family, but right now I felt like Mama a lot and it made me feel very warm inside and tired.

Eventually, after about 20 minutes like this Joszef told me that being in the hole was making him sleepy and I told him he needed a nap to save his energy because we would need our energy to wait for all the people and family who would come to rescue us. Joszef said that he was scared and I said I was a bit scared too, but that we shouldn’t be because sooner or later someone, probably Papa or one of his friends would find us and we would go back home and take a very hot bath. Joszef felt good about that but told me that he couldn’t fall asleep right now because he felt too afraid and that he didn’t think he could fall asleep without a story. I asked him what kind of story he would want, my lips shaking at this point, making all sorts of noises, and he told me that if I could, please tell me another story about Mama because he loved when I told him all these stories about Mama. I told him I told him all of my stories about Mama. That I had no stories left. He said that couldn’t be and that anything can be a story, maybe one time Mama walked funny, or took me to a park, anything, even something stupid or not fun or funny.

I tried to think through my cold and teeth making noises but I couldn’t come up with anything. I really wanted to come up with something about Mama, a new story that I could tell Joszef so that he could fall asleep while warm, but I couldn’t remember anything at that point. I needed to tell Joszef a story because I really wanted him to fall asleep so that I could fall asleep and not feel so cold anymore. I asked Joszef if I told him about how pretty our Mama looked. He said that I told him all the time, but that he loved when I talked about how Mama’s prettiness. I talked about how her skin was softer than a babies and how I loved to just hold her hand or to brush her hair with my fingers, and how Mama always let me do that. Sometimes I would just rub my fingers over her hands and fingers to feel how soft her skin was. Her skin was softer than mine because I got my skin from Papa. I could hear Joszef short and loud breathes he would make when asleep and I felt good that he was asleep in a warm and somewhat comfortable place. I stopped telling my Mama story, but I kept on reminding myself in my mind all about Mama because it made me feel warmer. I remember that Mama had very pretty eyes that sometimes looked very blue and sometimes looked green. They always looked pretty and big and like they contained other worlds in her eyes, like she could see more than anyone else. I used to sit and ask Mama if I could just stare at her eyes and most of the time she said yes, but only for a minute because she was busy. Sometimes though, she would let me sit and stare into her eyes because she would say that when I stared into her eyes she never felt more loved than she did right at this moment.

I could see her eyes looking at me as I got more cold and more tired. I felt really tired and all I wanted to do was to go to sleep just so I wouldn’t feel this cold. I realized that Joszef, however warm he said he was, couldn’t be that warm because my body couldn’t cover the whole hole. I took off my sweater, the purple one I was wearing, a heavy sweater, and used it to cover up the hole before I fall asleep just to make sure that Joszef would be actually warm for however long he could fall asleep. I saw my Mama’s eyes all blue and green, all warm just smiling at me as I fell asleep. I knew that if she could talk to me she would tell me how much she loved me at this moment and how proud she was of how I took care of my little brother.


Friday, September 28, 2012

The Maturation of Paul Thomas Anderson: A Review of the Master

Generally, we try to speak and analyze art in a holistic manner. In fact, as many claim, we look to art to provide a sense of completeness and connectivity we find lacking in our experienced lives. For example, take The Dark Knight Rises. We know what it is about i.e. both the end of a trilogy, a sense of completion to one of the defining myths of this decade, and a poor attempt at dealing with contemporary issues. The only question that stays with the viewer are questions of plot holes, a sort of geeky nerdiness that seeks to finds gaps in the story. Even something a little more highbrow like Drive, or pretty much any movie we attempt to comprehend we discuss in normal categories of beginning middles and ends, and bring to bear upon it our standard tools of analysis.  However, for the most part, in the better Paul Thomas Anderson movies, I cannot get a handle on the movies as a whole. They provide their pleasure in resisting a classic sense of interpretation, in confounding our sense of completion.  
Maybe this explains the uncertainty many feel when we leave his movies. I always walk out feeling unsure, of what, I am even uncertain as to that as well, but I know I feel confused in some manner. Not that I didn’t understand what happened. No scene befuddled me, but I tend to miss how all the disparate parts of the film fit together. How the auteur level talent of Anderson’s cinematography fit with his writing chops, a writing both mundane and yet mysterious. In a sense, though used in a liberal manner, this partakes of a Kafkaesque style. As all critic’s note, Kafka’s stories beg for endless interpretation, but any systematic interpretation we try to apply to his work, or even one specific work falls of the pages like water off a duck. This holds true of Anderson’s most recent effort, the highly anticipated movie, The Master, a movie only superficially about a cult and more importantly about a relationship.
Even if we cannot provide a cohesive and complete analysis of the movie, we can notice the levels of maturation this film signifies for the often avant-garde Anderson. The most striking aspect of The Master, in light of Anderson’s previous films, lies in the lack of intrusiveness from Anderson himself. Importantly for his development as a director, I think we see the least of Anderson’s often purposefully heavy hand.
To appreciate this we need to take a short detour through his repertoire. Hard Eight, a movie all Anderson fans should revisit, indeed feels like a workshop effort of a young ingenue crafting beauty from nothing but the barest bones of a plot. You see Anderson’s decisions and talents all throughout the film, written with crayon. Boogie Nights, in this analytic narrative, signifies a genius running wild: head down, not looking at the larger picture as he adds character upon character, shot upon shot to show what he can do with something this large. And yet, I can’t help feeling that in his ambitiousness he creates a largely untethered film, almost easily forgettable. Then in apotheosis of his highly idiosyncratic vision, one that seeks to recreate a place and era through separate short stories, in the most Andersonian of his films, we visit Magnolia. Magnolia is a movie at once so jarring and moving as to compel the director to remind the audience of the artificial nature of the endeavor both in a highly crafted though enigmatic opening and peppered throughout, almost as if in code, until that divisive ending.
We do well to reacquaint ourselves with Magnolia’s ending. Famously, Magnolia ends in both a deux ex machina and a breaking of the fourth wall. All of the actors at the same moment sing a song together, and then, Anderson, channelling the God of the Old Testament rains down a biblical plague of frogs on the unsuspecting characters. Many found this cheeky, or infantilizing, or plain immature. Though late to the game, I found the ending of Magnolia delightful though perhaps misguided. To me, with all the necessary qualifications, I see these narrative intrusions as funny, jarring, but most importantly, reminiscent of the method playwright Bertolt Brecht coined and popularized known in German as Verfremdungseffekt, or more simply, the distancing effect. Brecht purported to use this method, which essentially breaks the continuity and the illusion of the narrative, to foster a more critical stance towards his work. His actors would address the audience so viewers would not get lost in the evocative and lulling emotional experience that precludes thought. Post-Modernists, we can realize, used this tool but for a different purpose.
For Brecht, this instruction allows the audience to critically question both the actions and idea represented in the play. For Post-Modern writers these methods allowed the reader to explore the nature of the medium itself. For Brecht these intrusions largely pointed to questions of judgment, value, and politics, for Post-Modern writers this distancing effect focuses the viewers on the act of entertainment itself, a somewhat tenuous difference, though an important one. This Brechtian comparison, though it sounds highfalutin actually proves valuable to understand the importance of music in the movies of Anderson. Brecht himself, in his plays used loud and jarring music to interrupt or to play over the action. With Anderson’s movies, I first thought that I need to adjust the volume settings on my TV or my Netflix, but then as I watched the movie one after the other in order of their filming, I saw this as a characteristic trait of Anderson’s films. The music, loud, tense, often in a manner incommensurate to the plot, lives in its own world and takes on independent importance. For Anderson, the music often takes the place of the dialogue and allows us to realize that we are watching something crafted, something artistic, something that deserves further thought. In both of these tools we can understand much of the singularities of Anderson as Brechtian, which brings us though to some of the indulgences of Anderson that often misfired in his earlier films.
While all of Anderson’s films provide platforms for stellar performances, he often failed to match the acting, the setting, the cinematography and tone with equally compelling content. Hard Eight, with its tenuous characterization and murky plot felt slight, forgettable, but you could see the beginnings of brilliance. Boogie Nights, with its onslaught of people, sensory data and scenes failed to allow breathing room for any sort of attachment between characters in the movie and between the audience and these characters. Magnolia, while still somewhat sloppy, leaking at the edges, largely corrected many of these understandable excesses. Yet, the movie still feels like it lacks enough of a focus, an obfuscation engendered by Anderson’s enduring need to say something larger, to show something with such force as to undercut much of the potential power of the film. (Wait, did I tell you that this movie seeks to explore the nature of coincidence? Wait, I haven’t hinted at in since ten minutes ago...) Not that I didn’t love the film, but as many would agree with, it takes a lot to want to sit down and even watch two hours of that movie. Not because it takes something out of you, it does, but because certain parts of the movie grate on you with repeated exposure.
I tend to see these next slate of movies as the second stage of Anderson’s career. From Punch Drunk Love on Anderson shifted from a panoramic view to a more intimate lens, focusing in each subsequent film on one male character in extremis. Punch Drunk Love zooms in on an emotionally disturbed Sandler contending with his sisters and the maelstrom of love. There Will Be Blood focuses on an equally emotionally disturbed Lewis, though in an opposite manner. In Punch Drunk Love Sandler seethes beneath his anxiety, while Lewis signifies that same anger unleashed, a pure id, in love with nothing but his own abilities. Both of these are portrayals of man alone, rooted in a visceral terrifying anger that knows no bounds. Though some will surely note that Punch Drunk Love is a love story, albeit one tinged by emotional disturbance, it is truly much more of a study of one person. As enchanting as Emily Watson delivers her character, she is as much as an object of obsession as is Sandler’s pudding.
And yet, despite this shift to a smaller scope, you can still feel the at time both deft but leaden hand of Anderson in these movies. In Punch Drunk Love Anderson not only creates a sort of trippy recurring imagery that looks like what making a phone call sounds like, or what internal bubbling rage might look like, but the movie uses non-stop invasive music. The music, not only loud, but also tense creates fear and suspense where none exists even if you assume it mimics Sandler’s internal storm. Similarly, in There Will Be Blood, Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame creates one of the most haunting soundtracks that transcends even the terrifying nature of Lewis’ character. I found the score not only distracting but manipulative. Greenwood’s brilliant soundtrack comes at you with a force of a battalion but often corresponds to nothing of the sort in the movie. It creates a ceaseless tension for its own sake, a tool used by Anderson since his first film.
The Master, with these considerations in mind, does indeed feel more mature, more calm. We rarely see any sort of intrusion, any sort of Andersonian tic we would come to expect. Many scenes lack music, and even the Greenwood music this time around feels more subdued, more purposeful instead of scattered as if fired from a shotgun, it feels almost meditative more than fear-inducing. Moreover, for such a talented and nuanced writer, Anderson often shies away from ambiguity. While we might not understand all the individual pieces of the movies, we tend to understand the emotional struggles of the characters. In that vein, The Master mines new territory for Anderson.
In contrast to what comes before, then, The Master finds a stable center from which to branch out. Despite all the larger themes of the movie, the cults, the manipulation of a charismatic leader, the frightening will of a powerful women, our desire to lose ourselves in obvious idiocy, the trauma of war, ultimately what makes the Master different, mature, nuanced is not this delightful background noise, but the almost unprecedented, complex, ambiguous, ambivalent and downright beautiful love relationship between Hoffman and Phoenix. Whereas Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood focused on man alone, here we see men together, with the intimacy of soulmates. In this sense, Anderson appears to have achieved something he’s been attempting since his first movie. If Anderson picks up a theme he will not let it go until he feels finished with it. The ultimate Anderson obsession rests in the relationship between one generation and the next, and specifically between a parent and child. Anderson’s first stage repeated this trope in variable forms over and over again. In the second stage, he mostly gave up that theme for Punch Drunk Love, but revisited it in There Will Be Blood and made it the glorious center of The Master. In a sense, much of the story, its vigorous Americana, and its glossy, often blurry cinematography creates a proper setting for one of the greatest, truest, and most compelling love stories I’ve seen on film in a while. While purely non-sexual, these characters feel drawn together, by what Lancaster Dodd would refer to as, “A process that began trillions of years ago.”
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddy Quell a volatile army veteran with clear emotional issues and a penchant for making makeshift alcohol that if consumed in the wrong manner could kill. Phoenix, with the help of makeup artists, transforms his body into a scarred, almost humpback wiry person who makes up for his physical deficiencies with an indomitable will to fight. His eyes burn whatever he stares at, and though he wears his pants a good couple of inches above his belly button he oozes an insouciant sexuality and animality. Hoffman plays an attempt at the opposite. In Lancaster Dodd, or Master, as his acolytes refer him, Hoffman serves up the model of refinement. Well kempt, hair always trimmed, clothes always matching and fitting, Hoffman plays it calm, cool, charismatic, compelling, and pompous though with enough world-weariness as to invite you in. Of course, this veneer of control only makes his inevitable outbursts all the more dangerous and exciting. Essentially, in a dynamic that engenders a complex kind of love, each of these characters have what the other wants.
For Dodd, surrounded by yes men and those with their own agendas, in Quell he sees someone differently but equally unbound and unhinged. Quell, while willing to follow Dodd, will not follow blindly, and this combination allows Dodd to explore the boundaries of abnormal behavior. Dodd sees Quell both as a truly kindred spirit, and as a challenge, as the ultimate test of Dodd’s genius. But past this, he sees something he cannot tame, representative of the more animalistic side of life he preaches against and he falls in love, immediately.
For Quell, as Dodd astutely points out in their short jail scene, Dodd signifies the only person left in the world who truly and actually loves Freddie. He might love him for a host of strange reasons, but he loves him nonetheless. In their first true scene together, when Quell brings Dodd a potent batch of his concoction, Dodd sits Quell down for “processing,” a mix of investigative psychology and pseudo-spirituality. This interview turned dialogue is one of the most riveting, interesting and just evocative scenes to grace the screen in years. When Hoffman repeatedly asks Phoenix if he often thinks about his inconsequentiality, you can sense the creation of an unbreakable bond. Hoffman and Phoenix create a sort of magical interpersonal connection, one which you can attempt to understand, but you do better to just enjoy.
In this manner, through this relationship, Anderson takes the craft of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, the sort of disparate scenes thrust together and uses it for a more attainable goal.  Whereas in these two previous movies he attempted to create a sort of transcendent whole, he harbors no such pretenses in the Master. Certain scenes could easily belong in pretty much any movie about anything. Specifically, Master Dodd takes Quell, and his daughter and son-in-law into the desert to choose a point on the horizon and to ride a motorcycle, as fast you can, until that point. Supposedly, in the narrative of the film, and in Dodd’s altered mind this exercise will affect some internal change, but it amounts to beautiful joyriding, to a life that Quell lives that Dodd know’s he cannot. The scenes pushed together provide odd portraits of this relationship unfolding, nothing less and nothing more.
The best relationships, we tell ourselves, are ones that contain unpredictability even after considerable time. In the end of the movie, a purposeful whimper of an end, Dodd and Quell break up on ambiguous terms. Quell, in line with the teachings of the Cause, Dodd’s movement, surmises before they say goodbye to each other that perhaps they will meet in another lifetime in different forms. In the greatest manifestation of love to grace the screen in some time, Dodd, looking wistfully at his now son Quell says, “If we meet again in another lifetime I know we will be the fiercest of enemies.” With that, Quell leaves to lead his own untethered life, and Dodd realizes his possessiveness of this unique persona can only result in heightened obsession, therefore, he must let him leave.
On a more meta level, when you title your film The Master you invite questions of self reference, regardless of your intention. When Paul Thomas Anderson titles his film the Master, a director and writer well known for his auteur often self-referential style, a director who despite the content of the film loves to focus on similar themes, tensions, and relationships, he begs the question if film represents a mastery of his craft. Or better yet, does this film signify Anderson finally honing all the disparate components of his talent? I cannot give an easy answer, and that might be the point. Art works as well, Anderson claims, when it only offers pieces, not a montage or a pastiche, but tenuous pieces that mimic the more random aspects of life. We do look for a holistic way to understand a piece of art we see, but Anderson, in his maturity, in his ability to accept a less is more policy might not have mastered the craft of film today, but certainly he mastered the art of artistic self-control.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Tribute to Rabbi David Eliach

When we think of the word daunting, we carry along with it unnecessary negative baggage. It calls to mind domineering authority, fear instead of love, and a sense of undue distance. Despite these extraneous layers, I think of the venerable, talented, kind, visionary, generous and brilliant Rabbi Dr. David Eliach as nothing but daunting in all the right ways. As a child I knew him in two ways. First, as a role model for my mother, a person she feared, respected and love. The fact that Rabbi Eliach could scare my mother, someone who scared all of girls campus in Camp Morasha, alerted me to Rabbi Eliach’s stature. She recalled with trepidation the chance of seeing a letter from him in her mailbox in regards to speaking English in her hebrew class, an unforgivable sin at that time. When my mother would yell at me, I used to think, “If Rabbi Eliach were present maybe he can make this fight a little more balanced.” I knew she chose the right person to look to as a role model.  
Rav Eliach also served as the chazzan for the high holiday services my family attended in the Yeshiva of Flatbush Elementary School. For those who have heard his voice, my meager description could only poorly approximate the range of emotions his voice captures and engenders in the congregants. My body still quivers when I hear his tunes or recall his voice as it sang the haunting dirge “U’Netaneh Tokef”, and my heart explodes with joy as I remember the triumphant tune to closing prayer, “HaYom.” Seeing Rav Eliach, draped in his tallit, his sonorous voice completely at odds with his more frail body elicited dreams of angels, of the righteous of old pleading and even arguing with the Almighty. These indelible memories stay close to me; they nourish my soul in times of darkness and delight. The Rabbis inform us that for the High Holidays we cannot choose our cantor, our representative before God, lightly. If you were going before the Supreme Court, would you not want the greatest lawyer in the universe representing you? Who else but Rav Eliach could possibly represent the congregation he helped build?
Yet, this subjective account of this daunting intellect and religious leader, does little to capture the true power of Rav Eliach. My generation lives in a post-historical world. Despite all the conflicts and war that disease our world, we know them only through TV if we know them at all. Our world cries out in pain under the weight of poverty, sickness, and death, but most people my age simply struggle to get through their own lives: to find jobs, to marry, to afford Jewish schools. We watch movies of heroism, of true love, but overall our lives retain none of the drama of the previous generation. Of course, the previous generation fought in wars and against anti-semitism to provide the comfort we now live in. But we all can see how this comfort can breed a comfortable apathy towards the issues that demand our attention.
Then I think of Rav Eliach’s life and I marvel at his heroism, at his courage. In a barren Jewish world Rav Eliach resuscitated the modern Jewish community. As the dean of Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, with his visionary Ivrit b’ivrit curriculum, he redefined and set the standard for an academic yet religiously guided high school experience. As a student of that illustrious high school, I still benefit from the  discipline of its rigorous studies, the memories of religious inspiration, and of course, through my passable hebrew (though I imagine Rav Eliach would find it lacking.) Even today, long retired from his mantle in Yeshivah of Flatbush, Rav Eliach still works with teachers to guide them in his accumulated educational brilliance.  Amongst the myriad of accomplishments, we can easily forget that he helped begin the program of the post-high school year in Israel, a program that clearly changed the nature of development for Jewish teenagers the world over.
The love for his wife Yaffa, an infinite love, is the stuff of legends, the muse of Romantic poetry.
Speaking of love, if you have ever had the distinct privilege of either learning with, learning from, or even seeing Rav Eliach learn then you can begin to understand what we say when we speak of a love of learning. Recently, I found my grandfather, Rabbi Meir Moskowitz, learning with his best friends Rav Bakst  and Rav Eliach. I saw these three giants sitting around a text, and I felt thrown back into the world of Ponovezh or the Chevron Yeshiva. Here, in this room, the Jewish chain of tradition felt intact, strong, unbroken. I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of history in the room, of accomplishment.  My grandfather quickly got rid of me so as to return to his beloved studies, but just a glimpse was enough to elicit a few tears in my eyes.
To put this into perspective, as a teenager I mostly worried about girls, tests, and TV shows. Rav Eliach, if he worried at all, thought of the Haganah, of how he could both help holocaust survivors and save the Jewish Nation’s soul and culture. The Talmud speaks of Talmidei Chachamim, our scholars, as walking Torah scrolls given their encyclopedic knowledge and brilliant intuition into the halachic and hashkafic framework. In the same manner, we can speak of people as the embodiment of a nation’s history. Rav Eliach given his storied life both encapsulates but embodies, with utter modesty, the scope of modern Jewish history.
Recently, after admiring mostly from afar for all of my life, I received the privilege of learning and talking to Rav Eliach in his apartment in New York City. I walked in shaking, not by choice, but shaking nonetheless. His apartment, elegant and spacious, impressed me by the scope of books aligned throughout his living room and dining room. He saw me admiring his collection and in a charismatic manner commented, “Yosef, these are only half of my sefarim, at most.” As a bibliophile, I tend to judge people by their collections, but Rav Eliach put me to shame. I came in expecting to just let him talk for as long he would, but given his nature he inquired into my life.
He cut right to the bone.
What am I doing to forward the goals of the Jewish Nation, how is my hebrew, do I still learn, what is my vision for the future, what problems do I feel are most exigent? Though we come from disparate generations, Rav Eliach evinced a preternatural ability to empathize and understand my concerns and my thoughts of the current challenges we face as a generation, even if he disagreed. I came into our meeting with a sense of awe, and I left not only feeling justified, but with the awe magnified.  We live in a time of cynicism especially in regards to our leaders. Rav Eliach, despite the cultural jadedness, still commands our deserving respect.
Some people live lives of poetry, others write poetry, while the rest of us enjoy the fruits of these labors. Rav Eliach does all three. His love of Jewish ideas is only paralleled by his devotion to the Jewish people. His life, a historical one in the truest sense of the word provides a daunting inspiration to the generations that he taught, both directly and indirectly. I cower when I attempt to compare my life to his. Knowing his kindness, he would tell me not to engage in this irrelevant activity. I know he would tell me to stop thinking so much and to get up, and just do something, anything, but give, constantly to the world that needs you. Thank you Rav Eliach. I cannot convey the extent to which you’ve affected mine and countless other lives.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Some Quick Thoughts on the Siyum HaShas

When I tell many people I went to the Siyum Hashas they first ask me, “Why?” which makes sense. I mean, look at this hilarious picture that now, numerous people have sent to me. (I was not profiled we all got a nice pat down,) I look completely out of place. Though it would require another longer piece, I didn’t feel out of place at all, which felt like a religious victory for numerous reasons. Regardless, I enjoyed myself and found it to be an illuminating night on many fronts. I didn’t stay for the whole event so I can’t give a rundown on what happened though I did live tweet it so you can find that under my twitter name @josephwinkler. So here are some thoughts from the night. Please keep in mind that if you do want a more positive glowing review that praises what a glorious and unified night it was you won’t find it here, not because I disagree, necessarily, but because so many other people covered that part of the event I would have little to add. So here are five points I don’t think would receive much notice.
1. The pervasiveness of technology  
Now, depending on your standpoint and values you might think of this as a bad turn of events, but everyone there from yeshivish to hasidic sported a smartphone. I even saw numerous people charging their smartphones at the station. During prayers many people took out their phones and everyone used their phone to take pictures and videos. Consequently, I find the whole conversation of whether or not to embrace technology as obsolete. Even in the ultra-religious world it is there and has entrenched itself into the deepest strata. It is no longer a question of using it or not, but how to use it. To that extent, I felt impressed by the Agudah extensive use of important technology without any polemic against technology.
2. The relative impressiveness of the Agudah
Though the event is an inherently political event, the Agudah divested many of the explicit comments of any political tinge. For the most part they really worked hard to create one coherent message of unification in an attempt at all-inclusiveness. Now, a cynic might say that their inclusiveness only went so far as their comfort boundaries, and when you hope to sell 90,000 tickets you literally can’t afford to exclude people, but given that the Agudah made a real attempt to depoliticize the event, to make everyone feel comfortable there, again to the extent that they could. I think they deserve some applause regardless of your religious stance. (In that vein, I didn’t expect any mention or display of recognition of the Israeli state, but they had Rav Lau there, and they even showed a picture of a daf yomi shiur in an Israeli air force base. Progress? Maybe.
3. Some of the demerits of the Event
Of course, even given number 2, some of the aspects of the event felt embarrassing to downright shocking. I can’t argue much with the, again, relative mistreatment of women because by now that cannot be shocking, but other parts were just beneath this type of event. Despite thanking all of the non-Jewish (even the phrase non-Jewish makes me feel uncomfortable as it places Jews at the center of the human universe) staff for their help, many of the rabbis then went on to disparage the non-Jewish world as striving for the wrong goals, as having the wrong values. Not only is this a sort of elitism bordering on racism, but to do so when hundreds of non-Jewish people can hear is downright thick. Do we really need to emphasize how they run to empty pursuits while we run to the transcendent pursuit of torah learning? Have we not grown past that?
4. The Haredi obsession with the Holocaust
In a similar vein, I find the yeshivish/chareidi obsession with the Holocaust painful, outdated, and inappropriate. To state it bluntly, as many academics have noted, the Haredi world creates a narrative in which they serve as the saviors the lost world of the Holocaust. Hitler attempted to destroy our beautiful world of thriving Yeshivot and now we have wrought revenge on that monster by creating more and more yeshivot and bringing back to life the shtetls we lost in our Haredi enclaves. The fact that every speaker felt the need to make this point time and time again either goes to show how far reaching this narrative goes or the extent to which these speeches were calculated and thematic on purpose. I don’t think that I need to completely delineate the both the danger and falsity of this narrative, but simply, it simplifies the holocaust and creates a fake straight line between then and now that gives the Haredim a justification and a hero complex that allows them, without any critical thought to perpetuate their lifestyle and this myth of the Haredi life as the purest form of Judaism. (In that sense, it is also a false note for a celebration. We need to outgrow the shadow of the holocaust as well as suffering. Even those who live a more haredi life than me noted that the song they choice struck a plangent note in an otherwise celebratory event. The song beseeches god to look how much the Jewish Nation suffers but still learns torah.)
5. An onslaught of awesome people.
This being a night of endless Jews, some stereotypes were fulfilled and some were broken. I found it kind of hilarious to see Jewish people filling Metlife stadium only to see a throng standing in front of a Cheesesteak sign trying to buy brownie bars and rugelach, or someone asking where this gate was and the person responding, well that is the budlite gate, just find the big picture of BudLite... In that manner, seeing people smoking cigarettes in front of a no smoking sign made me wish I brought a camera. A guy who sat next to us, Hasidic, kept on making the weirdest jokes to us, then when the press guy came to our section to take pictures he would not stop hounding him, begging him to take a picture then asking to see other pictures. Marvelous. In the train station, a hasidic man cut me off, to which I say to my friend, shocking a Hasid cutting me off. The Hasid then apologized. A yeshivish person wearing his suit like a 1950s mobster with a cigarette in his mouth asked me if I had a lighter. I said no, but I said that I was the right person to ask. We both laughed.