Archives for posts with tag: family relationships

RELATIVELY SPEAKING

 

 

The recent killings in Orlando, Dallas and elsewhere thrust madmen into our consciousness. Their insanity follows a string of similar outrages.   Despite wall-to-wall media coverage few of us can begin to fathom the mindsets of these murderers. The simpleminded among us, including a candidate for president, ascribe killings solely to religion. Like most religions, Islam can be interpreted to support murderous behavior. So can Christianity. Remember the Crusades? The solution, if there is one, continues to elude mankind. Yet, to focus on faith ignores the fact that Tim McVeigh (Oklahoma City) was not a Muslim. Neither was Lanza (Sandy Hook), Holmes (Aurora), the perpetrators of the “original” Columbine massacre, or the killer in Charleston, Dylan Roof.

 

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In America, the combination of easily obtained guns and twisted minds is closer to the common denominator. Many of our politicians flail in the face of NRA pressure. A sizable portion of the population finds the simple explanation for mindless slaughter (radical Islam) appealing. They buy guns in the hopes of keeping themselves safe, ignoring the FACT that they thus render themselves and their families more likely to experience suicide, manslaughter or murder as a result.

 

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I’m not aware of ever having interacted with a murderer. Studies indicate one in 1,360 Americans will participate in a murder, with higher concentrations in urban areas and lower in rural. (Google “How many Americans are murderers?” to review the literature). Statistically speaking, it’s likely I pass one or two every time I drive on the highway. Murderers don’t murder every moment. While this in no way excuses them, for most, their crime is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Whether their act reflects uncontrollable passion or requires months of preparation, it’s only a tiny portion of the totality of their lives. Criminals they may be, but they still stop at traffic signals, still purchase and eat food, still root for their local teams. At the other end of the spectrum are mass murderers and, on a larger scale, masterminds of ethnic cleansings, genocides, holocausts.

 

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In an NCIS episode I recently viewed, Tony, the goofiest of the agents, brags that an “Ancestry.com” search disclosed his “long lost relative, the 17th Earl of Trent,” a nineteenth century English nobleman. Tony declares to his co-workers:   “Not only was the Earl rich, but also a painting shows he was handsome.” Tony affects an English accent. Initially, Tony’s co-workers refer to him as “M’lord,” and he struts with characteristic pomposity.  Days later, however, Tony’s further research reveals that the Earl became a criminal. He died shamed and penniless after being linked to Jack the Ripper, a notorious serial murderer. Needless to say, Tony loses interest in genealogy.

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“Imagine if you had such a relative,” said my wife, Katie, after the program ended.

“Well,” I said, and paused for effect. “I can top that.”

“You can?” she said.

 

*****

 

Lazar Kaganovich was my father’s cousin, the son of his mother’s first cousin. The name may be unfamiliar to most readers, but cousin Lazar was Stalin’s right-hand man throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. More than any other Soviet official, he shaped the agricultural policies that effectively caused famine throughout Ukraine and neighboring Soviet republics. Tens of millions died as a result. Kaganovich clothed his intentions in virtuous language but extensive literature shows little doubt he intended to cull the population.

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Kaganovich was sufficiently cunning to survive the countless purges for whch Stalin was famous. In fact, Cousin Lazar lived well into his nineties, just months shy of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout his life, Kaganovich remained an unapologetic champion of Stalin and his policies. While still a powerful member of the government after Stalin’s 1953 death, he engaged in shouting matches with Premier Khrushchev whom he thought too liberal. Just months before his death, he decried the weakness of Gorbachev and complained the Soviet Union lacked the will to crush dissenters.

How do I feel about my tenuous relation to a man who deserved to join Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot in the pantheon of twentieth century agents of death? Not good. It’s disturbing. I suspect my father felt that way, too, because he never mentioned his connection to Kaganovich in my presence. After my father’s death, I found a trove of newspaper articles he’d saved and confirmed the connection with older relatives who also had never spoken of it.

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What would cousin Lazar think of modern suicide bombers? All evidence indicates he was a tough SOB, belligerent and merciless. But he definitely was not suicidal. His will to survive was his salient feature. Killers who see death as their own salvation would probably have disgusted him. Long-term programs, not spontaneous shooting, were Kaganovich’s specialty. The phrase: “Five Year Plan” was his contribution to twentieth-century history. Though the results of his collectivization schemes were disastrous (“Famine” is the word most connected to Lazar Kaganovich) his emphasis on central planning shaped all of Soviet history and still influences the ruling party in China.

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*****

 

I’m not concerned I contain an “inner Lazar” who is going to emerge. I confine maniacal ruthlessness to the tennis court. And my agricultural plans don’t extend beyond a modest backyard garden.

In case I haven’t been clear enough, NONE of Kaganovich’s horrors are excusable or laudable. But he is somehow easier to relate to, and not just because he is actually a relative of mine. He had a purpose. He persisted. He achieved a lot, all terrible.

My cousin raises huge questions. Was Kaganovich outside the realm of “normal” human experience or were his superhuman powers of perseverance and determination merely at the far end of a continuum? Was he insane in his tolerance of mass suffering or merely a master of organization gone awry? Are his descendants in any way implicated in his actions? Perhaps, if I had a PhD in psychology or sociology I could delve deeper into these questions, but I still would not find a definitive answer. The issue is too complex. As an obvious example, the debate on the issue of guilt among Germans, as individuals and as a society, continues seventy years after the end of the Nazi era.

To conclude, I can state that Kaganovich was a significant historical figure; he left an imprint on human history.  The modern mass killers, domestic and foreign, share the characteristic of being no-bodies – insignificant, contemptible scabs on the human experience.   There’s no honor in being related to Lazar Kaganovich. I merely observe that his evil has stood the test of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Proof is in the Putting

 

Four months after quitting golf for life, for at least the fifth time, I found myself hosting my cousin, Eddie, on my community’s championship golf course.  I ended up beating him decisively… on one of the eighteen holes.

Golf is an activity that remains mysterious to me.  If I can hit a moving tennis ball or baseball or soccer ball, why is the stationary golf ball so infuriating?  Each swing presents an opportunity for something wonderful to occur, but a fortune could be earned betting on the opposite result.

Eddie is the “patriarch” of the nine cousins in my extended family.  He is sixteen years older than I, eight inches shorter and proof that those metrics mean nothing at all in golf.  Eddie has lived most of his life in Chicago where I have rarely visited – we’ve seen each other sparingly over the years.  The last time I played golf with him I was sixteen.  Eddie did not even remember that event so forgettable in the pantheon of his golf experiences.  We played at a Philadelphia public course that barely qualified as a “real” course.  In fact, in most of the country, particularly in North Carolina where I now live, the course would long since have become a housing development or alpaca ranch.

We had a lovely time during Eddie’s visit.  Meals were delicious, Scrabble victories over his wife, Sherry, were mine.  A long ago defeat at her hands on the ping pong table (she took out my pacifier before we played) was avenged.  We introduced them, or subjected them, depending on your viewpoint, to Carolina barbecue, the Durham Bulls and the local version of a traffic jam, the occasional red light.

It was interesting to discuss family events and personalities with Eddie from our disparate ages and geographical perspectives.  He knew different versions of the same people – a mutual uncle, for instance, whom he knew as young, hopeful and fun to be with and who I knew, a generation later, as burdened and somewhat embittered.  He described his own mother’s deep intelligence while my memories are sadly clouded by her later bouts with illness and anger.  On the other hand, Eddie was able to describe to me the transformation of a contemporary I once met in Chicago and thought of as unstable and troubled; as a middle-aged man, he has built an admirable life for himself.

One subject I cannot discuss comfortably with Eddie is politics.  Somehow, though spawned in the same genetic line, we may as well be from different planets.  All we could finally achieve was a reasonably respectful impasse.  We each conceded several points, namely:  I agreed the President is not all I’d hoped for in 2008 though I still share most of his viewpoints.  Eddie agreed with the President’s dithering on Syria.  Basically, “stay the hell out of there.”  We both agreed that the recent retirement announcement of the shrew from Minnesota is a good thing; me because she is insane and a liar and dangerous; he, as far as I could comprehend, because she is a distraction from the core of Republican values.

Golf, fortunately, is a politics-free zone.  I have enough to worry about without arguing tax policy and the right to choose.  First, we went to the practice range.  Eddie’s shots all went straight and for distances that he had in mind.  Mine were as varied as the menu at a New Jersey diner.

“Feel free to make any suggestions,” I invited.

He observed one shot.

“I’m not going to say much, since it will be confusing,” he started, “but:  keep your left arm straight, cock your wrist at this point in your backswing, don’t put the club so high on take-away, follow-through, and make sure your feet and chest are lined up properly.”

I tried to accession all of that information and hit three consecutive grounders.  I switched to a different club and smacked a few more balls off to the right, then overcompensated with a grip adjustment and blasted several to the left.  Meanwhile, various golfers who know me to be a star of the tennis courts, at least in the dimness of the local constellation, were probably delighted to see me hacking away so futilely.

“Perhaps we should try putting,” I said, noting that we were scheduled to tee-off in fifteen minutes.

“Sure,” said Eddie, before smacking one last perfect shot.

My luck did not change at the practice green.

“I have the yips,” I said.

“I have them too,” said Eddie, with touching empathy.

“Mine are worse than yours,” I said.

“I’ve been known to miss a four-footer,” said Eddie.

“I commonly hit a four-footer so it ends up twelve feet past the hole,” I said.

“You win,” he conceded.

I yanked a ball to the right of the hole.

“I think that hole is cut too small,” I said.

“I’ve never seen anyone slice a putt,” said Eddie.

“Is there anything I can change?” I asked.

I could tell that Eddie was holding back some thoughts; he did not want to overwhelm me with suggestions moments before we went to play with two other experienced golfers.

“Just this,” he said, demonstrating with his putter.  “Put your left thumb here, your right index finger here, square your shoulders like this, bend over the ball like this, be sure your eyes are above the ball, be sure the backswing is exactly as far as the fore-swing, don’t move your head and don’t bend your wrists.”

“Is that all?” I asked.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” he said.

We went to the first tee and met the two friends who filled out our foursome.  Both are accomplished golfers and fine gentlemen.  Still, their participation may have initially struck them as charitable – playing with non-golfer Stuart and his unimposing-looking cousin from out-of-town.

The first hole gave no particular indication, as Dennis hit a par four, Eddie and I both managed fives and Hayes scored a six.  On the second hole, however, as I settled over my tee-shot, one of the men decided to suggest a change to my grip.  “And roll your wrist over,” he added.  “Like a cross-court shot in tennis.”

His effort to relate the suggestion to something I could understand was appreciated, but there are no trees in the middle of a tennis court.  I lost two balls so far into the woods that we did not even bother to look.  I was embarrassed even amidst the easy camaraderie of the golf course.

“What if every hole is like this? I said.

“Don’t worry,” said Eddie.  “I have a lot of extra golf balls.”

“Do you have thirty six?”

“Not that many.”

My play improved from that point.  Perhaps, I was freed from the modest illusion of competence I had gleaned from the successful first hole.  At least I never lost two balls on one hole again.  And on a short hole that required a tee-shot over a lake, I somehow managed a par that beat everyone else.

Eddie, too, was rallying.  I was proud, and a little relieved, to see how his flawless form impressed the men, along with his ability to master a new course.  By the end of the round, Eddie’s 83 had nearly caught Dennis, a renowned local star.  I scored 102, which is nothing to brag about, but was politely lauded by everyone.

“If I could just have you for three weeks,” said Hayes, twenty or thirty modifications to my swing doubtless coming to mind.

Eddie and Sherry departed the next morning and we all look forward to seeing each other again.  In this case, if I can stay away from politics as though it is a sand trap, the course is a pleasure to play.