Wednesday, October 7, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4 - The Bolton Street Synagogue Part 3

Prepare to start to be creeped out. The next umpteen posts will go over old hurts, old longings, old scores to settle. They will necessarily be uncharitable to their subjects, and no doubt at times an uncharitable reader will probably think me misogynist if they haven't already thought me an antisemite. There's little I can do about that. I'm doing my best to be a reliable narrator, but there is no sense in disguising feelings of uncharity if they're there.

But at the same time, at least in relation to other, perhaps realer, misogynists, I don't think what I have to say is all that bad. When you spend the majority of your life in varying states of unrequited love, you have a lot of uncharitable and regretful thoughts about women. Perhaps if you had better things to say about women, you wouldn't feel unrequited love so often, but there's nothing to be done about thoughts that simply occur to you except to question why you have them and try to solve it so you don't have them in the future. Sadly, there's not much success yet in that regard...

But I will also say, I think that overall I've been a lot kinder to womankind than womankind has ever been to me - and I don't even mean romantically. I don't think men can get much more feminist than I, but I am precisely the sort of liberal the modern feminist, female and male, is told to fear and loathe by the internet, by modern etiquette, by the zeitgeist itself - a man who considers himself a liberal, but is unswayed and unsympathetic to any argument that smacks of critical theory, or militance, or censorship. More importantly, I have never been shy about saying so in the most public, and probably most obnoxious, possible manners. It's one thing to disagree with the party line, it's another to make a show of disagreeing and dispel the demonstration of unity. I don't doubt that to most feminists I know, the word 'mansplainer' was invented to describe me. And no matter whom it is, I refuse to apologize for my 'splainin' to anybody. I may be a white male, but we're all in this together, and there is something fascist about the idea that the rest of us should just shut up and listen.

Such attitudes haven't just cost me romantically, I believe it's cost me a great deal of emotional closeness with women whose companionship I would have greatly valued, romantically or platonically. We can't help whom we are, and I'm clearly a little nuts, or perhaps more than a little. Even if I weren't, I'm not the sort of person who finds it easy to keep his opinions to himself. My ability to speak out is like a hose that bursts if I don't keep the valve relatively open all the time. A childhood and adolescence spent in some environments where contrary opinions were particularly unwelcome like Beth Tfiloh, Schechter, and particularly Hyde, showed me just what happens when the valve is closed. Perhaps the hose wouldn't burst again if I closed the valve, but I reallydon't want to find out.

But also, I don't doubt that men with emotional disorders like mine are responsible for a lot of the abuse perpetrated against women over the centuries, so in an era when women are finally somewhat able to choose their own fates, an impossible man like me is shit out of luck. That's just the way it is. Had I been born in 1932, a man like me would probably be on his sixth wife by now, and who knows what it would have taken for me to get there? Had I not been a man in therapy for most of my life, in touch with all the things I know I have to atone for and acquired an obvious need to confess my sins which this blog provides amply, God knows what other abuses I might have perpetrated upon people by now. I'm well aware of the demon that lurks within me, and at the moment, I fortunately live with much more fear of it than anyone else. Some people say that any man is capable of violence. Perhaps that's true, but most men of my demographics don't have confirmation. As yet, there is no reliable cure for such demons, and so men like me must be viewed with suspicion, and perhaps with all due justice. It may be wrong for men to be held silent on issues of feminism purely by virtue of being men, but I may be the prosecution's best evidence that such extreme measures are necessary, and my own best evidence that my feminism is of a completely wrong type.

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Let's call her Sharon Kazin - an old fashioned Jewish intellectual name for an old-fashioned Jewish intellectual girl, even though she was only quarter-Jewish on her patrilineal side. She was five years older than me, though she looked at least five years younger. She was a little waif of a thing, barely five feet tall and looking as though she would blow over from consumption at any moment. Though she had no children, to friends I called her the 'Manic Pixie Dream Milf.' She looked like dead ringer for one of those dying Italian opera heroines she so seemed to love (*footnote): Violetta or Mimi or a white Aida. But in her waif-like way, she was absolutely gorgeous - long strawberry blond hair, huge eyes, and a giant toothy grin - beautiful like a porcelain doll. She reminded me very much of Carol Kane, a celebrity from the years between our births that only Jews remember.

In May of 2013, I met her from match.com, and she is still the only good thing that ever came out of online dating for me. Even moreso than the girl from my not-so-longterm relationship this year, she was the one woman I've known in my adult life whom I honestly could see us having a real future in a better world than this one, where neither of us felt quite so obviously damaged as we did. I didn't mention Sharon all that often to my now ex-girlfriend, but she nevertheless commented once or twice upon the way I occasionally spoke about her, and said that it sounded like she had an invisible rival. It was just one of the many ways she showed her contempt and disgust for so many aspects of me, and no doubt, there was much to be disgusted by, even if not quite as much or in the ways that she thought. But in this case, though not too many others, she got it exactly right. My ex, whom I have yet to give a name on this, has many wonderful qualities. Charitableness to the motivations of others is not always one of them - and just because we're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get us.

To this day, that month-long not-quite-fling makes me think more better and worse things about my life than anything since then. I can't say that my time with Sharon changed me in any profound way, there are experiences far more tattooed on my heart than this one. And yet, in terms of the implications for what I knew about myself, it confirmed everything in the most brutal possible way.

Sharon's aspirations, like mine, were astonishingly anachronistic. She loved classical music, she loved classic lit and art, she was politically and philosophically knowledgable. I fell for her on the first date, probably at the moment she told me that she felt like a New Yorker of two generations ago.

On our third date, we sat together in the Lyric Opera House during a performance of Rigoletto, taking nips from her flask of scotch, and I thought to myself that I'd finally hit the jackpot. Later that night, we had our first kiss before we parted in the parking lot of the Associated Jewish Charities, and as I went home, I glowed as I have never glowed before or since.

But the oddest and most beguiling of all things about her was that I saw exactly the moment that she fell for me on that same first date. It was, and no doubt this should have been a sign to run for the hills, the moment when I confided to her about my various learning disabilities. It was the first time I ever confided anything nearly so personal on the first date, and I hope like hell it will be the last. There's a famous old English poem, not by Shakespeare, which opens 'Pity is sworn servant to love', but if that's true, then as Shakespeare says: Most love (is) mere folly. The reality of loving, or even kinda romantically liking, the person you pity eventually reveals itself in all its splendid ugliness. Such did it seem with both her and my more recent romantic foray.

As I got to know her better, it became clear to me that Sharon had a Bubbie - my Bubbie-like quality. She was a narcissist who clearly lived in her own world. I could never figure out what she was going to say next or how she was going to react to anything. It was thrilling in a way, but it was also clearly the source of some kind of psychic disease - perhaps she was on the autism spectrum, which Bubbie, with her amazing intelligence for social situations, is most assuredly not. There was a certain 'Lillith from Cheers" quality about her, frosty on the surface but explosive beneath. Whatever the source of it was, Sharon was clearly an impossible woman. Like the impossible man she was quite briefly with, she was a tyrant of opinion who judged disagreement as a failure of character. And as a man terrified of turning into the firebreather I once was in any setting but the internet, I did my best to accommodate her fatwas and skirt around whatever subject might raise her fearsome intellectual ire.

From the very beginning, even being vaguely in love with this impossible woman, I knew that rejection would eventually come, perhaps because as an impossible man I seem only to be attracted to impossible women. She was standoffish from commitment as only someone whom you can tell will never be happy can be. She claimed she was very happy, but I didn't believe her for a second. I doubt I'd have been as attracted to her had I believed her, and frankly, I doubt that anyone truly happy can ever be truly attracted to me.

We never had sex, we barely even made out, and yet we spent the better part of a month in constant contact. Long dates, long conversations on the phone. I don't know why she was so standoffish, but I think it wasn't (or wasn't just) because she was insufficiently attracted to me. She clearly was hesitant as only someone terrified of something can be.

From the way she spoke about them, I had to conclude that her family was abusive in one way or another, because she kept talking about how she had to 'get out' from her family situation as a teenager and spoke about them with unconcealed rage. In spite of them, she put her way through Columbia alone even though her family thought her rather 'uppity' for doing so, and was honestly convinced she'd gotten rid of her Queens accent. When I told her in an unguarded moment that it was plainly audible, she got slightly offended.

It was not more than five minutes after the moment I assumed I was in the clear for the next few weeks or months that she broke things off. The breakup - was it anywhere near long enough to be a breakup? - was probably over Israel, during which our conversation got ever-so-slightly heated. The tension of this argument was negligible, but more on that in a moment.

When she broke things off, I, of course, went insane. I spent a day trying to calm myself down at the house of friends who had assured me the day before that I was 'in like Flynn', and there's no way I didn't have myself a long-term girlfriend. The urge to calm myself was unsuccessful. I showed my true colors to her in an outraged email, yet another masterpiece of invective and self-justification from the master of both (rather like this blogpost...). Any chance that she might have regretted her decision was immediately dispelled.

I was virtually inconsolable for weeks afterward, slogging through my days in a depressed haze. And then, as only a true nutter can, I sent her another email a month later, practically begging her to give me another chance in spite of my obvious maladies, the extent of which I detailed at length - while still omitting some... I knew that this was the best shot I'd get for a long time, and that for all our mutual damage, a girl this externally compatible will not come again any time soon.

I could of course be wrong, but I doubt that a boy more compatible for a girl like her has come again for her. There is no way our relationship would have ended in anything but the same brutal storm of mutual accusations and anger that my last relationship did - but in retrospect, knowing what I know about her, I would have put the chances that it would have come so soon slightly lower than it was for the woman who came after her. Nevertheless, we'll never know. People like her, like all people who are relentlessly not themselves, do not admit partners in life. Whether that implicates me as well, I can only guess that the answer is no, but current evidence shows that in this way as so many others, I'm completely wrong.

Nevertheless, it's types like her, not like me, go through their lives carrying the Shel Silverstein myth within themselves that they want someone complete and without problems as a complement to their already whole selves. But if we are truly whole alone, why would we ever need companionship? Even so, perhaps a partial version of us is better off alone than in trying to make two halves come together comprised of explosive contents. In retrospect, there was nothing about that Sharon that seemed whole except her narcissism, but beneath the narcissism was something relentlessly curious about the world, a fragile inner beauty that clearly craved love and to be loved. There was a warm and generous side to her that only meant people well. That was the side I desperately wanted to bank upon, but I doubt a person like her would ever allow herself enough vulnerability to display it fully, nor do I doubt that a person like me would know how to handle it once I saw it.

But the question still remains? Why did the 'breakup' happen just minutes after the Israel argument? There were plenty of other moments which would have been more obvious to end things. She knew from the very beginning that I was severely learning disabled, and had to know that the probability of a learning disabled person having emotional disabilities was exponentially higher than in the general population. She was clearly, though silently, disgusted when I introduced her to an obviously drunk friend at a party I'd brought her to two days earlier, but she still spent two hours with me on a date and a half-hour beforehand on the phone that day.

I have deliberately saved the thesis of this entry until now. The true point of airing this old, and admittedly a bit creepy, obsession in public is that I really believe that a disagreement over Israel was the real reason she broke things off. A girl as closed off from the messiness of emotion as she was clearly determined to be could not allow for such a disagreement, and my loyalty to Judaism and to Israel - a loyalty which so many people I grew up with found insufficient - was the place where I made a subtle stand against her edicts that she could not abide after a few dozen fatwas that I let slide, knowing that by doing so, I was jeopardizing the future of a relationship I hoped against hope would work itself out.

Even being only a quarter-Jewish, she still seemed (seems) to me a self-hating Jew, ashamed of all those dirty New York qualities associated with that little bit of Jewishness in her. In me, I don't doubt she was attracted to the very things in me she was repulsed by. I was a fucked up Pigeon-Yiddish speaking Jew like so many she no doubt knew from the 'old neighborhood' who went out of his way to refine all the qualities that were still so raw in her family. She had no way of knowing, except perhaps intuitively, that I too had all the demons she tried to escape, but when she saw that I had failed to escape them in the way she coveted, she fled. It was not when she realized that I was mentally imbalanced that she fled, nor was it when she saw that I was hanging around with immature drunks that she broke up with me, it was when she saw that I was a proud Jew willing to defend Israel that she could no longer abide the thought of my companionship.

Halakhically (that is, according to Jewish Law), people don't get more 'quarter-Jewish' than Sharon, and yet my radar for Jewish shame went off in spades. This was a girl from Queens who decided to give up everything in her life - her humble origins, her accent, her ability to connect with others as a real person - to become the very model of the modern intellectual. There was hardly a single opinion of hers that did not confirm to what she so assiduously read in her print editions of the New York Review of Books. To show support for Modern Israel was not merely in contradiction to everything she was supposed to believe, but a betrayal of everything she tried so hard to become - nothing less than accepting a reversion to the old Sharon.

In that second letter, I wrote her in that if she didn't want to give me another chance, I'd prefer no answer, and I swore I would never contact her again. I was true to that promise. She lived in Mount Vernon on the block of the old Red Emma's. For months afterward, I was terrified to even drive past it, and would avoid that stretch of neighborhood even though it was the most convenient way to get downtown for any driver or cyclist.

In November of that year, during the brief period when the old Red Emma's was converted to a performance space, there was a performance at it that I had to go to for the sake of making musical contacts. I was truly terrified, and begged friends to come with me lest I be seen by her on her block. No friends came with me, and I had to park alone and try my best to be inconspicuous.

My worst nightmare nearly came true. I don't know exactly what happened, but as I walked through the cold wet November dark of Mount Vernon Square, I saw a waif-like figure walking her dog fifty feet away. I could swear that I heard this figure say at mid-volume: "Evan?"

Rather than brave the chance of an awkward and unresolvable reunion, I crossed the street, and did what I could to put the whole thing out of mind forever. I'm pretty sure I saw Sharon a few times more as I biked around the city - it is impossible not to see a person in Smalltimore, particularly the person you're trying hardest to avoid.

I know a person or two who knows her from her place of work, who tell me that she is known by the office staff as one of the most impossibly arrogant colleagues. Perhaps as a brilliant woman in science, she earned the right to be so, or has to be so as a defense against a field inherently biased against high achieving women. I must say, hearing that a person like her makes enemies is the least surprising possible news. But I wish it were differently. She deserves better than she got,... we both did....



* Never trust any opera lover who prefers 19th century opera to Mozart. With the exception of lovers of lighter opera/operetta like Rossini or Offenbach or Gilbert and Sullivan, nothing good can ever come of them. Mozart operas express, one and all, the need for characters showing equanimity and empathy in the face of other people's concerns. Characters who empathize are rewarded with greater happiness, characters who refuse to empathize are punished mercilessly. Their moral is that by considering one another's emotions, our communities can arrive at greater happiness, and therefore we can be happier as individuals. But for all its glories, 19th century opera, whether Italian or German, is at best an incitement to narcissistically emote as though your emotions are more important than others. At worst, it's about transcending the human messiness of the world by blowing it up. People who draw spiritual sustenance from Verdi and Puccini and their related sub-genres, like Sharon did (and to a certain extent Bubbie), are narcissists. And, of course, people who draw sustenance from Wagner are downright fascists.... I'm not entirely certain that I'm kidding.

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