“Teach your children well. Their father’s hell did slowly go by. And feed them on their dreams….” –Graham Nash
Frank Sinatra is haunting Mrs. Muse and me. Not our house. We don’t wake to the sound of a ghostly rat pack stumbling around in the attic, yukking it up, or the sight of Frank’s pale form float across the ceiling grinning ear to ear. No, Frank only visits when we eat out.
Wherever we go, from Chinese joints in Frisco to London Pubs, Paris Bistros to Roman Trattorias, even up the road in Shelburne Falls, somewhere between “May I take your order” and the Crème Brulee we hear his voice. We exchange looks and a sad laugh. “Frank again.” “Followed us all the way to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana.” “Amazing persistence.” “I think that’s a ghost thing, persistence.” Aside from “My Way” and “New York, New York,” we don’t recognize any of his songs, cause we don’t like Frank, have never liked Frank.
When the Beatles came and girls screamed and tore at their hair on Ed Sullivan my mother said, “They did that for Frank Sinatra, too,” implying there was no difference between the two acts, or silly girls then and now. But I knew the Beatles and Frank were night and day. (The girls are a more complicated story.)
At first I just sensed the difference in sound -Frank measured and cool against legions of horns, my guys shouting their red hot exuberance against a jangle of electric guitars. But as I heard John Lennon sing “I’ll be back,” “In my life” and “It’s only love” I realized the chasm between them was deeper – as profound as that notorious Generation Gap. And related.
What I heard in Lennon’s voice and words was a brand new thing.
In the light of it Frank sounded like he was putting on an act, always striking some pose, faking it, lying –about his feelings. This contrast between an act and the real thing struck a deep chord in me, and I’m not talking music.
Eventually I would understand: I was the product two highly intelligent people, yet they lived numb to bodily sensations, the contents of their hearts secret to each other and themselves . A guru once told me, “Your body is a temple.” My parents treated theirs like squalid slums, my mother smoking and drinking herself to a premature death, my father addled by prescription drugs and booze until he could no longer think straight, no longer even pretend to be civilized. They poured on the self-medication because they couldn’t tell each other or their children what they felt, didn’t even know what they felt, and couldn’t bear to feel it. The cauldron of rage, sorrow and disappointment remained hidden in their hearts, poisoning everyone in our family. They couldn’t feel the pain, and, to my continuing sorrow, consequently felt little joy.
But that knowledge all came to me decades after the 60s. At the time all I knew was that I was missing something essential. Freedom from what bound my body, mind and above all, my heart. I heard the promise of release in music: in Janis Joplin, who howled out her lust and torment like no one before in history. In Dylan, who croaked out new notions that we recognized as gospel truth the moment we heard them. And finally, in 1971, in Joni’s Blue. She found the courage to lay her heart bare. I felt my heart beat as one with her desires and sorrows. At the nadir of some romantic disaster I put on that record and it pulled from me the tears my father had expressly forbidden me, that his father had forbidden him before.
It wasn’t just music that showed the way to authenticity. I remember stumbling from the theatre in 1969 in a state of shock after seeing “Midnight Cowboy.” Not because I’d never heard of gay hustlers or quite seen that seamy side of New York, but because Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt hadn’t been acting like actors. They’d acted like real people. When Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo left on that bus, coughing his lungs out, I felt like a real person was about to die. In all the movies before that, even the best ones, there’d been this theatrical quality to the acting, this one step remove to the performance.
I heard the call to authenticity in music, and movies, and catch phrases - “Tell it like it is” and “Let it all hang out.” I did my damnedest to follow. I spoke my truth to my mother at Thanksgiving dinner, reducing her to rare tears. I shouted out Jefferson Airplane songs at anti-war demonstrations. Dope and acid temporarily cracked open the doors to my body and soul giving me glimpses of a promised land of freedom. But soon they shut tight again. Early sexual encounters delivered highs, but like drugs they only showed bits of what I hoped for in my deepest heart, what I was too much my parent’s child to even be able to put words to yet.
Intimacy - with another person. Intimacy with my own heart.
Those doors have been immensely difficult to open. I still struggle every day. My marriage began 30 years ago, with little promise. Yet by coincidence it began just as the full gruesomeness of my parent’s marriage came to light. That terrible sight fused with those 60s hopes for the real, for freedom from the tyranny of closed bodies and heart, and began my determination to do better.
It has taken decades of painful work to piece by piece cast off the armor my parents taught me to wear. To learn that that armor protects nothing really, only locks me away from my wife and children, and from my own feelings. To learn not to cower in hurt silence or explode in violent rage, but to open this rusted mouth, to tell it like it is: “What you said was hurtful.” “I’m afraid.” I’m….so sorry I hurt you.”
“I love you.”
My older son called me this Father’s Day. Appropriate for someone in his 20s, he focuses on his present and future. So I was surprised to find him curious about the past, about the line of fathers proceeding me. He had read my Father’s Day piece and needed to know: how could men and women and their relations have changed so radically in just one generation? I’m not much for bragging. It was the plain truth that spilled out of me on the phone, I said, “We did it. We hippies. We changed it.”
Shawn studies engineering at MIT, his choice of lucrative careers awaiting him at graduation. Yet he has vowed not to be sucked up solely onto that path. His greater purpose is to live and love authentically.
My son Chris called me too on Father’s Day. We spoke, easily, about the real stuff in our lives. My father wished he could have that conversation with me, and I wished it too, but we could never make it happen.
I feel like Moses standing on that hill, glimpsing the promised land. But my sons are already traipsing down there to live, to raise their children in that place, where people are real, that we dreamed up in the 60s.
OK, I do get to sneak into the promised land from time to time and mess around. How do I know? Because Frank doesn’t bother me much any more. Though you won’t find me buying his records anytime soon.