Friday, September 9, 2016

Dodge Darts, Fila Sweaters and Suicide: The Danger of Facades


When I was ten, I once sobbed for three straight days. No relative had died. I hadn't been bullied for wearing unbearably tight tennis shorts (not this time). And no, Welcome Back Kotter hadn't been cancelled. It was a sad event, not a wholesale national tragedy.

In 1976, my parents sold their '71 Dodge Dart for a new Mercedes, to go along with their Cadillac. And I couldn't stop crying. So much so that I even missed Hebrew School- so it wasn't all bad. Mind you, I was a sensitive boy who's crying jags could be triggered by everything from a botched haircut to Cindy Brady asking Santa to restore Carol's voice for Christmas.

What I remember from that time, 40 years hence, was being acutely aware that part of my youth was going away. See, I was an unremitting nostalgist long before I began posting lists of 90's songs on Facebook. But what I really intuited was a shift, maybe of values. It seemed like the final transition from our more modest life in the flats of Van Nuys to a posher existence in the Jewish Alps of Encino. And even then, with only my gut and intense sensitivity to guide me, I sensed a hollowness in the striving. So much so that my parents remember me finally blurting out the reason I was so upset. Sounding like a ten year-old mini-Marxist, I apparently yelled "It's because you're selling out!'

You may be wondering what my disproportionately emotional response to unloading a domestic sedan has to do with National Suicide Prevention Week. Even after typing 3 drafts, my fingertips were asking the same question. And it's true, this piece has a more esoteric, roundabout thesis than my usual "Don't eat onion rings after midnight." Or "My daughter's going to college. Me, sad."

What I think this is about is the immense power we give to projecting success to the world. It's about the need to signal, especially in the social media era, mental well-being, even when it's not the case. It's about presenting the world a façade of contentment instead of asking for help. That's what my Dad did. Right up until he took his own life.

Now I am not claiming to have possessed the predictive powers of a boy Nostradamus or a kid Nate Silver. Nor was I a child with a novelist's ability to see the grand scope of my family's saga while it was happening. No, I couldn't extrapolate all of this from selling a car. But I did intuit that things were changing and I didn't like them. Either that, or my tennis shorts were too tight.

In a million years, I'd never have predicted this story ending in my father's suicide. Not my Dad, who until the minute it happened, I had considered the happiest person I knew. To this day, I half-assume my waking hours without him are the bad dream. And the ubiquitous dream where he's still with us is the real life.

I have never cared about labels, as a kid or today. At 50, my wardrobe consists of one pair of jeans, one pair or Vans and a rotating collection of identical black pocket t-shirts. It's not a punk rock fashion statement, per se. But I do look like I'm dressed from the Henry Rollins mail-order catalogue. I don't care about designer suits or designer glasses or designer watches. Plus my utilitarian fashion philosophy is aided by the fact that I couldn't afford them even if I did care.

Sure, I wanted Quicksilver chord shorts instead of OPs. I said I was anti-materialistic, not a farmer. My mother took great pride in trying to dress my brothers and I in various Fila tennis sweaters and sweat jackets. Now, I wouldn't mind wearing those ironically at a Wes Anderson costume party. But at the time, I felt like an imposter. Especially because I rooted for everyone but Bjorn Borg, while still secretly wishing I had his hair and headband.

In every aspect of life, I witness parents placing inordinate value on labels, never more so than in elite private schools. The power of labels is why parents knowingly send their kids to insane high schools that destroy their kids'spirits and self-esteem, just so they can brag about it at Soul Cycle and throw a sticker on the back of their Tesla. It's why someone (me) would stay at an elite school where the wealthiest Gentile boys formed a group called the Sons of Hitler and drew swastikas on the lockers of Jewish seventh graders. Yet, transferring was never an option. Such is the power of a label.

The truth is, we all project facades. We present to the world, through Facebook, happier marriages, better kids, more satisfying jobs and fuller bank accounts than we actually have. I'm not trying to present myself as some holier-than-thou gag writing Dali Lama.

In fact, instances of my colossal hypocrisy abound. I think we can all agree there is no group of people more smug in their zealotry than college freshmen home for their first winter break. Imagine how annoyed my parents must have been with my intro-course socialism, ranting against the capitalist system, quoting Marcuse and C. Wright Mills, all the while eating prime rib at a fancy Maui steakhouse. Or, the time as a temp at Rocketdyne I refused to file any paperwork relating to the military-industrial complex. Where did I think I was working? The place had 'rocket" in its name!

Even as I decry how beholden we are to labels, I wonder about the damage my own prestige obsessions have caused. When I allow myself to fall into a guilt spiral, I think about my insistence on going to Brown over a UC. And the youthful shit fit I threw over not wanting to transfer even when my parents first encountered money problems my junior year. Did my adherence to the Ivy League "label" incur debts my dad was never able to escape? My guess is that the two are unrelated. But these are the kinds of questions your brain asks as you forever ponder the unanswerable questions regarding the suicide of a parent.


Every generation creates its own facades to signify "making it." It's why we'd wear Knights of the Round Table collared shirts from Marshall's to fool the near-sighted kids in middle school into thinking they were genuine Polo. It why somebody generations ago changed the pronunciation of my last from "Bay-har" to "Bee-har", presumably to sound less Istanbul and more 'Merican.

I will never understand the pressure my father must have been under as an immigrant's son to show he had made it, to signal that he was no longer the Sephardic kid from Boyle Heights who swept up at a drugstore to pay his way through UCLA. I don't know. And I'll never know. I can only surmise that the pressure he placed on himself to indicate he'd made it was too immense. And the shame in admitting weakness or asking for help was too great. Thus, for a long time, he created a façade. It was not an accurate reflection of either his financial wherewithal or his inner life. That to me is the great tragedy of this and most suicides. When someone who is loved by all feels they can turn to no one. When the compulsion to keep up appearances outweighs everything else.

You just wish he were here so you could say, we never needed the fancy school or the country clubs or the house on the Westside. None of that ultimately mattered. I'd be a lot happier with a Dad and maybe a '71 Dodge Dart.

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