For my eleventh birthday, my father took me to see WrestleMania III, closed-circuit, at the Paramount Theater in downtown Seattle.

Junkyard Dog knocked The King Harley Race unconscious with a chair and took his robe and crown.

Rowdy Roddy Piper put Adrian Adonis in a sleeper hold, and while he was sleeping, Brutus Beefcake cut his hair.

When Hercules bashed Billy Jack Haynes’ face in with a chain, my father covered his eyes with his hands. He couldn’t look.

But I knew he liked wrestling.

* * *

My father sits on the grass and does his work, completing charts, while my brother and I wander around. Just a field with craters in the grass, bits of clothing and shards of bones pushing up through the earth, yellow butterflies flitting about close to the ground.

I touch the smooth snout of an emaciated white cow grazing in one of the open graves, run my hand over the sharp ridge of its spine.

Some workers are fixing one of the wooden signs that say in English and Khmei how many bodies have been dug out of a particular depression in the earth.

The workmen are listening to Cambodian pop music on a boom box. The high whiny voice of the singer carries through the air. On the other side of a wooden fence a man leads a water buffalo by the big metal ring in its nose. Birds are singing in the trees. The sun is shining brightly.

Just the world going by.

* * *

The idea of tikkun olam—healing the world—is central to Judaism. Not that my father was raised Jewish. As a kid in the fifties he went to Unitarian church. His father, who was never religious and no longer even identified as a Jew, was drawn to the rationalism at the heart of Unitarianism.

* * *

I remember my father taking me to demonstrations. Not protests or marches—demonstrations, that’s what he called them. I sat on his shoulders amid the signs. Everyone there looked like a friend of his—unglamorous and good.

Embargo South Africa, not Nicaragua! we all chanted.

Leaflets showed corpses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We took a ferry and then drove for a long time and stood on some train tracks and sang “Yellow Submarine.”

They all blend together in my memory.

During a film screening about Haiti at some dreary community center, a little old woman got up while the film was playing and went into the bathroom and farted for a long time. That’s all I remember about the film screening, the way her fart just seemed to go on and on, echoing through the community center.

* * *

I think about Don Quixote: Our gentleman was approximately fifty years old; his complexion was weathered, his flesh scrawny, his face gaunt . . . . I think about how lovable and pitiful he is—how heroic and sad and familiar.

In the realm of the ideal, Don Quixote seeks an escape from the perils of selfhood. But the perils must live themselves out—with or without his awareness. This is the source of the novel’s disturbing comedy. Continuously, we bear witness to the hilarious, frightening gap between what he sees and what we see—to the inseparable forces of his delusion and idealism:

Don Quixote could not shield himself as well as Sancho, for so many stones found their mark on his body, and with so much force, that they knocked him to the ground; as soon as he had fallen, the student attacked him and took the basin from his head and struck him three or four blows with it on his shoulders and smashed it an equal number of times on the ground until he had shattered it.

I wince, I laugh, I pity him. I admire his gentleness, his humility, the force of his will and perseverance. He is crushed, he rises. He tries so hard to be good.

He is a survivor.

* * *

To dissuade me from wanting to see the movies I wanted to see as a kid, my father told me how he had gone to see Halloween in the theater when it first came out. The film was so scary that he hid under his seat.

I tried to imagine him under a seat in a movie theater.

I tried to imagine him that afraid.

What was the nature of a fear that could make my father hide under his seat in a movie theater?

I was curious.

* * *

I didn’t watch the videos, but I saw the photograph. The figure clad in black with the long knife in his hand. The reporter on his knees, dressed in an orange jumpsuit. The desert stretching back behind them. The moment before death. Two human beings.

My wife and I were in Seattle, drinking at a bar in the sunshine. It was August, perfect weather, not a cloud in the sky. She went to the bathroom, and I checked the news on my phone. The compulsion to fill the emptiness of waiting. To be connected and disconnected at the same time.

The photograph was at the top of the page beneath the headline.

A few weeks later, it happened again: a second reporter was killed in the exact same way. His mother had made a video pleading for his release, but it did no good. He was thirty-two years old.

I study the look on their faces, in the moments before they are killed. I study the look in the killer’s eye. I study the shape of his human form.

I wake up thinking about them. I lie in bed in the dark, trying to stretch my mind around the experience, to contain it from both perspectives—victim and killer. But I can’t. Of course, I can’t.

I feel my heart beating fast.

* * *

My two-year-old son likes to ride the subway. We can ride it for hours together with no destination. He likes the announcements—he can imitate them all—and the sound the doors make when they open and close.

We ride out to Coney Island.

Look, Dada, he says, pointing at the Wonder Wheel.

When you’re a little older, we can go on it, I say.

Is it scary? he asks.

Not that scary, I say.

It’s the final stop. The last passengers get off—everyone except for us. My son eats his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, his little legs swinging from the seat. We watch the workers in orange vests come on with their brooms.

Really, there is nothing that makes my son happier than being on the train.

From Coney Island, we ride back, past our stop, into Manhattan. As we cross the bridge, he stands on the seat and looks out. I turn and look out too—the late afternoon winter light on the river, the skyscrapers, the cold blue sky.

Is that the Brooklyn Bridge? he asks, touching his finger against the glass.

Yes, I say.

What’s that bridge? he asks.

That’s the Brooklyn Bridge too, I tell him.

Is that the Manhattan Bridge?

No, baby, that’s the Brooklyn Bridge, I say. We’re on the Manhattan Bridge.

I put my arm around him, pull him close.

Next stop Canal Street, he says.

We get off at Union Square. In the playground, he wanders the path by the fence. He goes up and down a few stone steps, over and over again, completely immersed.

I stand a little ways away, watching him. He is so himself, and yet I feel my own life flowing down to him—the inheritance he did not choose. All the stuff that comes from outside.

* * *

In Chicago, where we went to visit my grandparents, my mother wouldn’t let me watch the premiere of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video on TV. I was seven years old. I crept into the living room and turned it on, but she came in and caught me and made me turn it off. I was desperate to see it, but nothing I could say or do would make her change her mind. I hated her for making me feel that powerless feeling.

But as consolation, my father agreed to tell me the plot of Psycho, and then I really got scared.

* * *

I remember watching my grandfather on the couch listening to music. Mozart or Beethoven or Schubert. He looked content when he was listening to music.

It was so easy to say the wrong thing to my grandfather, so easy to be stupid and inept in his eyes. I felt like I was always stumbling when I was around him.

As a kid, when I tried to ask him about his life, he always managed to turn it into a scolding lecture.

His judgment frightened me. His accent frightened me. His brooding distance frightened me.

There was this heavy dark thing around him.

* * *

A new form of pornography: set to beautiful spiritual chanting, men are chased down, plead for their lives and are killed. The scenes of killing are intercut with images of their killers expressing their love for God in intensely emotional, poetic language.

At a great cost, they seem to have freed themselves from the terror of having to die.

I think about how pornography circles around bare corporeal reality, preserving and repeating it—fetishizing it.

All pornography entails the annihilation of mystery. This is what human killing looks like, the images all say.

I watch footage of Iraqi soldiers, stripped to their underwear, being marched in a line, one by one, to the mouth of an open grave. When they fail to keep their heads down, they are beaten with rifles. Their upper bodies are almost parallel with the ground; each clasps the body in front, forming a kind of human chain. They walk a step and stop, walk a step and stop. One by one they are shot in the head and fall into a pit at the end of the line.

There is a terrible efficiency to it. A terrible simplicity and lack of nuance. lt’s an assembly line for the production of corpses. The images, despite the sleek production, are utterly banal; and yet they are watched, with desire, by men all over the world.

* * *

When I visit my parents in Seattle, I find my father’s copy of Being and Time on the bookshelf in his study. He must have brought it up from somewhere in the basement.

In college, my father was obsessed with Heidegger, and the text is full of his marginalia—barely decipherable references to Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Husserl, Sartre.

I spend a couple weeks trying and failing to read it.

Not only was Heidegger a Nazi, he was a terrible writer, I decide.

It’s clear now that the Nazism was more than just opportunism. His Black Notebooks make explicit his aversion to Jews. And yet all this retrospective moral condemnation strikes me as fairly overheated. He was a man of his time and place.

Born in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, would I have grown up to be a Nazi? No, because I’m a Jew. But if I weren’t a Jew?

* * *

One time my grandfather took me to his lab. He introduced me to men in white coats, who treated him with deference, a strange kind of specialness. They were old, but my grandfather seemed older. I remember the white coat he wore with our last name stitched into the pocket above his heart. There were cages full of monkeys, a whole wall lined with cages. The monkeys were jumping around inside their cages, and the air was frantic with their screaming.

Why did he think I would want to see this?

* * *

We live inside a tremendously violent system, stranded amid a sea of fake, disfiguring images—a system in which almost everything is made to bow to the power of commerce.

But we are experts at creating distance, disguising our own brutality, covering it over with a mobilizing mythology.

Everything functions, Heidegger said in an interview with a German newspaper, and the functioning drives us further and further to more functioning, and technology tears people away and uproots them from the earth more and more.

I think I understand: all the confusion, despair, and powerless rage, which are this global system’s exhaust products, swept up in a cause, transfigured by a heightened dream of violence, adventure, ancient poetry, a quixotic dream that circles a text, that suckles an interpretation of a text like a baby suckles its mother, perfectly secure and connected, beyond separation, beyond fear.

It is astounding how far some will go for a pure idea—an idea of purity.

In Cambodia, they abolished money and declared the year zero.

“Oh, my brothers living in the West, I know how you feel,” the fighter says into the camera, as he crouches with the butt of his Kalashnikov touching the ground. “In the heart, you feel depressed. The cure for the depression is Jihad. You feel like you have no honor. Oh, my brother, come to Jihad, feel the honor that we are feeling. Feel the happiness that we are feeling.”

* * *

After a long day of teaching and marking papers and riding the subway without my son, I Google street fight videos.

I am drawn to these images, as if by some strange magnetic charge. Something in me is attracted. The promise of some mastery—or is it the release from the need for mastery?

I watch a man get beaten on a highway by three bikers. There is no release, no justice—it’s one against three.

But in the good ones powerlessness becomes power; helplessness is transformed.

* * *

My father is only back in the United States for a couple weeks a year, and I am eager to connect with him.

He takes me and my brother hiking. I try to talk to him about Heidegger. He corrects my pronunciation of dasein. My voice saying words like phenomenology and ontology and the meaning of being sounds foolish in the forest.

It is clear my father doesn’t want to talk about Heidegger.

We walk in silence.

The path climbs steeply for a while, before it flattens out, and we enter a meadow full of wildflowers, surrounded by the seemingly endless blue peaks of the North Cascades.

* * *

I think sometimes about Hitler, his audacity. I think of his idea of a race of higher beings, his idea of transcending ordinary morality.

Those were poetic ideas. In some ways, they still are.

But Hitler, of course, went further. To see real death and real killing in, at once, utterly mechanical and mythical terms. Devoid of human pity. Filled to the brim with a dream of conquest and superiority.

* * *

My father’s uncle was a critic of German philosophy and literature. Reading his essays is still exhilarating. The criticism is really just a vehicle for his own tragic, romantic ideas about life.

He adored Nietzsche, but he had little to say about Heidegger.

Before the Nazis invaded Prague, my great uncle fled to England, where he ensconced himself at Cambridge and earned his doctoral degree.

His brother, my grandfather, stayed to finish his medical exams.

Their mother stayed as well.

I have only one memory of my great uncle. He is wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a jacket with patches at the elbows. He is very tall. He bends down and gives me a quarter.

Sometimes when I am trying to write, I think about him. Sitting at his desk, smoking a cigarette, trying to transform an unspeakable loss into a language that might redeem it for a moment.

* * *

In 1946, my grandfather came to America, and soon he settled in a comfortable neighborhood outside of Chicago where he did everything he could to begin again, to create a humane existence for his wife and their children. He hardly ever talked about the past; all his conscious energies were directed toward the future.

But the world had broken. The brokenness was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, dissolved in the sweet-smelling suburban air.

* * *

When my brother and I visit our father in Phnom Penh, where he works as an AIDS doctor, he is distracted, remote. We go out, and he walks ten feet in front of us along the sidewalk.

When he gets home from work, we sit on the couch in his living room and watch mixed martial arts, which seems to be playing whenever I turn on the TV in Cambodia.

We sit back and watch men hurt each other. Vicariously, we experience our own controlled detonations.

My father covers his eyes when the fighting gets intense.

* * *

Don Quixote’s idealism saves him—not from harm, but from self-awareness. The trauma, however, must go somewhere, and the irony of the novel is that, as readers, we experience it for him, transforming it into laughter, while he remains deep in his chivalrous dream.

No other character in literature moves me as deeply.

* * *

According to the unpublished autobiographical sketch that he wrote so that his grandchildren would have something to remember him by, the worst thing my grandfather had to do as a prisoner-doctor in a sub-camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was preside over the execution of twenty political prisoners who’d tried to escape. After they were hanged, he was the one to pronounce them dead.

The story was that he saved lives. I don’t doubt he did.

* * *

In 1982, when I was six years old, I drew a picture of a man and a woman in a rowboat. I couldn’t decide whether to draw a sun or a crescent moon in the sky, so I’d drawn both. I drew jagged waves under the boat, the tips of the waves almost touching the boat but not quite, the boat hovering above the waves. Next to the water, I drew a sign that said Love Lake.

The picture was transposed onto a white plastic plate, which I gave to my grandfather.

As the years passed, I’d always be a little surprised whenever I found that plate in his kitchen cupboard. It was all scratched up, but the drawing on the face of it stayed clear.

He kept that plate until his death, in 2001.

* * *

When I come home from work, my son is inconsolable.

What set him off? I ask my wife.

Hard to say, she says.

I take him into the bedroom and try to soothe him, but I can’t. I hold him on my lap, while he writhes and screams, throwing the back of his head against my chest.

I put him down on the floor, but it doesn’t help. I’m afraid he’ll hurt himself. When I pick him up again, he tries to scratch my face. He pounds my thighs with the heels of his feet.

I feel his screams deep inside my body, an almost unbearable pressure in my chest.

This goes on for almost an hour before I manage to give him some milk. He sucks it right down. Just like that, he’s all better.

Hi, Dada, he says, beaming and blinking his eyes, as if seeing me for the first time all evening.

I feel like laughing.

It’s like he’s come through the deepest nightmare—come through intact. He has a kind of startled lightness about him, an air of gratitude and deep relief. I feel it too, all the tension inside me washed away.

Remember the train that could, Dada?

You mean the Little Engine That Could?


You remember what he says? I ask.

You tell me.

I think I can, I think I can.

I think I can, he says.

That’s right, I say. You got through it, my boy. You survived.

Translation of Don Quixote by Edith Grossman

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