Saturday, October 8, 2011

800 Words: An Ambition for Culture - Part 4


Hyde School. Winter term. I’m about to turn nineteen. Through some miracle of mercy, I’m granted an independent study to write the most abstract and absurd possible theater piece to be performed at the term’s end. As usual throughout my life, I had a grandiose idea for creating a world-changing piece of art that had no hope of materializing. My head was filled with concepts from Beckett, Boulez, Brecht and Artaud - and I’m sure I didn’t understand the first thing about any of them. True to the grandiose ambitions that have followed me at every stage in my life, I wanted to ‘create’ a ‘new’ kind of ‘theater’ that was so spare and ‘primal’ that all our basic assumptions of what constituted theater, art and life itself would be challenged. In truth, the idea was nothing deeper than Andy Kauffman, only much, much more pretentious.

So I came up with a title for the piece called ‘The Purgatory Machine,’ and finding a way to perform it had obsessed me for a whole year previously. So obsessed was I by it that I used my free hours to take naps while the rest of the school played sports. In my defense, I’d long since given up on making The Purgatory Machine a reality and simply prayed that nobody would remember that I’d basically ditched sports for a term. Nobody seemed particularly interested in what The Purgatory Machine was, which is just as well considering that I couldn’t explain it to them, particularly to my advisor, Mr. Edwards. I had spent the entire year trying to get students, teachers, even janitorial staff interested in this so that somebody might volunteer to be a part of its performance. Finally, we get to two weeks before performance time and my advisor needs to see an outline. I knew exactly what it was in my head, but I could not explain it to anyone. So I just write up an outline of the whole piece in two hours - the whole thing is a page and a half long. To my utter shock, my advisor sends me back an email saying in all-caps “THIS IS SUPERB!”. I can only surmise that he was just happy that the piece was a real thing and that I wouldn’t have to be held accountable for doing nothing, because superb it certainly was not.

And so I corral my advisor and three underclassmen to be the other actors in the piece. For two weeks, we rehearse in our spare time. The action includes lots of time in which the audience looks at a bare stage, sequences conducted in pitch dark with non-verbal grunting noises and fights choreographed between us so as to confuse the audience into thinking the performance was completely breaking down. Three days before the performance, one of the performers drops out, “it’s just too weird” he tells me. They had no idea what we were doing and I got all sorts of protests from the actors. They were right to protest, I also had barely an idea what I was doing. I wanted to tell a myth that explained the capabilities of human endeavor, language, science and philosophy. When it came time for curtain, I simply told the performers ‘if we do not get half the audience clapping and half booing, we have failed completely.’ Mr. Edwards introduced it to the audience by saying ‘We can promise you this, it will be something!’

The audience was clearly confused. A third of the audience was laughing (with or at us....did it matter?), a third was shushing the laughers, and another third sat in utter silence. To my disappointment, I did not get half the audience to boo. And to my terrible dismay, the audience gives it an ovation. More intellectual students came up to me afterwards to offer their own interpretation of it, that it was about ‘evolution’ or ‘creation’ or ‘concsiousness’ or whatever else. Some less intellectual ones came up and said ‘I didn’t understand it, but that was really funny. I didn’t think I would like it, but I really did.’


I am named for my great-grandfather, Avraham Katz. Since Jewish genealogy is a very difficult pursuit, there isn’t all that much about him that’s verifiable. I do know that he was born around 1892 in a town near the Belarus-Lithuania border called Maladzyechna. Around the time of the Russian Revolution he married a local girl named Tirtza Gordon. By 1920 they were married and Tirtza became pregnant with my Bubbie, Malkeh Katz. Would Malkeh grow up in a war-torn country or would she grow up in a place that gave her a chance to know peace and prosperity? And so for the entire year of 1920, my great-grandparents waited in the Free City of Danzig to find a ship that would take them to America.

Like almost all my immigrant relatives, Avraham (now Abe) Katz was a Baltimore shopkeeper. Like all my immigrant relatives, he worked his way up from nothing. He made sure that my Bubbie had a full education put her through both college and graduate school.

Though he had no formal education outside of the Cheder, Abe himself was a well-rounded man. Bubbie once described to me how her father would send her around Baltimore to comb the libraries for every Yiddish and Russian book she could find - and apparently he had a particular fondness for Tolstoy. When I first read The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, I could not escape the thought that my great-grandfather must have been very much like Grandma Lausch. Abe Katz was barely a lower-middle-class resident of the tenements, but he believed in culture and believed in the importance of imparting its power to his daughter. In the late 30’s when the Metropolitan Opera used to come through Baltimore, he used every spare penny he had to make sure that my Bubbie could go to every one of its performances. He was also a huge fan of wrestling. He would go to as many matches as he could find in Baltimore. My mother tells stories of watching him shout at the TV whenever a wrestling match was on.

Aside from my Hebrew name, his great legacy is Mollie Witow, my Bubbie. Now 90 years young, last month was the first Baltimore election in sixty-two years in which she was not a judge. She has spent her life in pursuit of the culture to which her father gifted her. No concert in Baltimore is left unheard, no movie unseen, no book unread, no gallery unviewed, no country untravelled, no academic lecture unlistened, no community college course untaken. But no girl from Patterson Park could be as highbrow a snob as a description like that could make you think. Over the years, she and I have gone together to baseball games, to see Lewis Black at the Baltimore Improv, to eat tuna sandwiches at every diner in Baltimore. She once even asked me to go to a Matisyahu concert with her (there are some things you won’t even do for your grandmother...). The most enthusiastic I have ever seen her after a movie was when she came to our house after seeing Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. When her parents came to America, it was so my Bubbie could live a life exactly like the one she has.


Fourth or fifth grade. I’m sitting in the Krieger Auditorium at Solomon Schechter Day School with a room full of kids no older than eleven or twelve. An actor comes onto the stage. He tells us that he is a nearly blind old man named Claude Monet who cannot see any of our faces. He proceeds to tell us his life story - his joys, his sorrows (mostly sorrows) and his passions. With every new story comes a new painting which he places upon the easel. Every new painting provokes a massive gasp through the audience - as though every student in that auditorium seems overwhelmed that something like a Monet painting can exist. Monet will never overwhelm many of us again.


Hyde School. I’ve just turned seventeen. It’s taken me six months at my new school to meet my best friend of those years, Chris Wyton. At that point, I still have no idea whom Alec Wyton is. I only know is that I’m hanging out with a kid I’ve barely said a word to for six months, in spite of the fact that we’re known as our grade’s ‘music guys.’ As music guys, the conversation is mostly about music and I pretend, as I often do, to have any idea what rock people are talking about. He tells me to get my violin, he leaves to get his guitar. Five minutes later, we’re outside of Hyde’s Cultural Center with the 1,100 seat theater which the school barely uses. He starts playing. I have no idea what the song is. But after thirty seconds I get the harmonies and I improvise around it. No sheet music, no preparation. 1 Corinthians 15:52


January 2001: I and a few other Hyde students risk expulsion (I come closest) to compel the school to let a group of 16 students go down to Washington DC and protest George W. Bush’s inauguration.

Nine months later: I'm at AU. And as we used to say, “9/11 changed everything.”

June 2002: I go back up to Hyde to see the graduation of my friends in the next class. I’m talking to a radical friend from Hyde and an even more radical teacher. The teacher storms out of our conversation when I say that I could see why the Afghan Invasion might be a good idea.

February 2003: I’m an active supporter of the Iraq War on the most political campus in America (by a few million miles). Shouting matches are a thrice daily occurrence for all of us. Friendships between all sorts of people both pro and anti grow strained. One or two break apart.

September 2004: My friend KW and I are being interviewed on AU radio for being the only liberals on campus who support the Iraq War.

November 2005: I arrive in Israel a full-fledged liberal hawk who constantly rails at my political friends for opposing our wars, therefore betraying the liberalism of FDR, Truman and Kennedy. I can quote Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Friedman, Michael Ignatieff and Kenneth Pollack to them in my sleep (and probably did). I’m about as close to neo-conservatism as you could get while still claiming to hate neocons. But when you’re in a seven-month sojourn into the desert with weeks spent camping, fiddling with guitarists every day,drinking at the bars until 5 every morning, even your most tactfully worded support for war can sound like support for General Franco.

July 2006: I return from two-thirds of a year in Israel on the very day the Lebanon War begins. For eight months, I dithered over whether to become an Israeli resident in a manner that would impress Hamlet. Finally, I make up my mind to come home and rebuild my life from the place where it started. Even with a war raging, it’s a decision I instantly regret. Some of my best friends in the world are still in Israel. I have no job, no prospect for a job, and no desire to look for a job. Instead, I obsessively update a blog on the Israel/Lebanon War which I’m fairly certain was never read by anybody. I have twenty or more posts a day, often just cutting and pasting the texts of articles into posts (properly attributed of course). Most days I have a post of my own which goes upwards of 3-5000 words. I didn’t even know that I had 3-5000 words to say about Israel, but I certainly thought I did at the time.

Everything written on that blog is long since lost to that graveyard where deleted blogs go when you’re in too embarrassed by your writing to save it to a flash drive. But at the time, it all seemed terribly important. I’ve become a dyed-in-the-wool Israel ambassador gleefully seizing any opportunity to debate a tangentially Israel related topic. Back in Washington, I get plenty of chances - particularly when the alcohol is flowing. It usually starts with an innocent comment, my retort ‘whatd’ya mean....’, the entire room except the offending person leaving and one of them poking their head into the room once every half-hour to check if I’m done yet.

On July 29th, 2006, I receive this letter.

Dear Mr. Tucker,

My name is Mal’ak (a pseudonym), I'm a 18- year old university student (well actually I still did not start studying but hopefully I will at La Sorbonne).
First of all, I would like you to know that I found your writing great. It displays great knowledge about the Middle East. But I think you were bit biased. I'm not saying this because of anything, (I actually hate what Hezbollah did), I just think that writing should never be biased if it is meant to intensify the truth. Well, I know I'm still young and un-experienced but I think you missed a very important issue which is childrren.

Mr. Tucker, don't you think that innocent civilians and especially children, on both sides(whether in Lebanon or Isreal) are the ones who are paying the price? I actually think Hezbollah are making a very big mistake by creating mini-hidden bases between houses in Lebanon.

I trully believe that this war has been planned for, like most wars now. Besides, where is Iran from all this? Isn't it the main catalyst in this crisis?

I'm sorry if I disturbed you, I just wish we could exchnage opinions because I'm really very intrested in discussing this event with you.

Thank you for reading my email.

With high hopes you will reply to me,

Thus begins one of the most fascinating friendships of my life. Mal’ak is a Palestinian business student living in Amman. She never did get to La Sorbonne, but that made her all the more remarkable. She parades her commitments publicly in a country where public commitment means much, much more than it does in the United States. She’s an extraordinarily talented artist whose work could astonish the world if somebody were smart enough to notice her talent. For five years we’ve been sending letters to each other, the only day we’ve even so much as g-chatted is the day Mubarak falls.

January 2007: I’m back in the States, taking poli-sci grad classes at Johns Hopkins’ Baltimore campus. How the fuck could I have supported the Iraq War?

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