I, Nerd, II
Last week I examined (in considerable measure by looking in the mirror) the habits and markings of nerds, describing their pained behavior in general society and their ease, even giddy pleasure, in a habitat where they feel safe. Far more than social disability, it is the delight of knowing things and gathering tales that defines nerddom. Despite their public show of unrelieved sadness – nerds are anger-phobics, frightened by feelings of rage directed at them or bubbling within them – there is a secret joy that pervades their lives, blurring the distinction between work and play, between adult and child. This may serve either to perpetuate childhood or to make up for a childhood missed.
I was born in Stuttgart, then in British-occupied West Germany, in 1947, conceived by my parents as their revenge against Hitler. My father, in dental school in Geneva after a couple of wandering years in England and France, had been the one Polish Jew in safety who, upon learning of the Nazi invasion of September 1939, returned home. The story as it came down to me was that he wished to stand by his beloved. During the war this woman who would become my mother, whose features were passably Aryan, dyed her hair blonde and worked for a variety of employers, moving from town to town using false papers, picking up and leaving whenever she suspected she was about to be informed on. There are many tales of her heroism, told mostly by herself but seconded by my father and fellow survivors with whom she had conspired to evade the authorities.
After the Russians had reconfiscated, in 1944-45, the family properties expropriated by the Nazis in 1939 (my father’s family, particularly, had been well-to-do), my parents traveled west with diamonds sewn into their clothing. These they translated into cash to ransom my cousin Adam from a (Gentile) Ukrainian farmer with whom his parents had hidden him before meeting their own demise. This farmer now professed a great attachment to the child and an unwillingness to relinquish him without suitable balm for his tears. Adam was to become recast as my brother Allan in Stuttgart where my father, who spoke excellent English, pidgin French, and a bit of Russian too, found work as a translator for HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Society).
In the Potemkin village of recreated prewar ease they were thus able to fashion among their displaced peers, my parents hired a nanny to care for me. From the tales they told over the years that in recall still make me wince, this skinny German dry-nurse was the wire-and-wool monkey to whom I attached maternal devotion. She was likewise devoted to me, but when our visas to the U.S. came through in 1949 she was denied the chance to come along, despite her wish to do so. As a result, I came to Ellis Island on a boat in the custody of two strangers for whom I have always felt the thin, affectless emotion of gratitude ... along with an obligatory admiration for my mother’s fierceness and a sad bond with my frequently droll father, ineffectual in his own defense as well as mine.
My parents and the Polish immigrants in their New York City social circle, unlike so many Holocaust survivors, told their grisly tales with an unnerving gusto: Max Linden, the jeweler, never tired of telling how he lay overnight on a pile of corpses, waiting for the propitious moment to act upon the disconcerting intelligence that he, unlike everyone else who had been shot, was not dead. My father, whose looks were unquestionably Hebraic, was less forthcoming about his wartime experience. During the day he had stayed under the bed in whatever room my mother rented, coming outside only at night and traveling by train in a trunk, with one very near miss: Nazi officer opens trunk, hatpin miraculously materializes, my father pricks the inquisitive hand, Nazi slams trunk lid in pain and disgust. Thrilling as the story was to me as a very young boy, I soon could not bear to hear it, for all its undertones of dread, helplessness, and dumb luck.
This age of horrors and heroes, ended before I was born, shaped my parents so indelibly that it inevitably shaped me too, fostering fear, shame, self-loathing and, most damaging to a creative soul, overriding caution. In bed at night I was filled with so much unrelieved tension that I would flap my head from one side to the other, rapidly smacking against the pillow. This felt good, I remember. I bit my nails and picked and chewed at my cuticles and fingertips till they bled and were a ghastly mess. It took decades before I was comfortable in my own skin, freed from frantic responses to tension. While these troubling signs form barely a wisp of full-blown autism, schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder, they are in the same ballpark.
Baseball had been my real visa to America and becoming (almost) one of the guys, although this had been my patent intent and wish since the day I hit these shores. Moreover, baseball had no links to my ancestral history or my parents’ wish to insure my material success as their totem against a return of evil. Like the American West with its cowboys and Indians, baseball provided an institution with legends that could stand up to Nazis and Jews; and unlike the frontier, closed since 1890, in baseball heroism still seemed possible. Even as I grew older and was no longer able to play the game, I did not strike out … there was to be lasting Joy in Nerdville, a tranquil greensward where I have taken my best licks.
But I run ahead of myself. I was a smart but solemn lad, entering first grade at 5 and skipping another grade later on so that I graduated high school just past my16th birthday. My parents, given to second-guessing my every move when we were in the same room, went off to work daily and so were blessedly absent much of the time, permitting me to spend a significant part of my youth watching movies, playing ball, and pursuing vice (with only middling success in the latter two areas). When I did as my parents wished, I was a good son, a sensible boy; when I went my own way I was stubborn, and if I persisted in a stubborn course of action I was branded with the worst epithet they knew: I was selfish. I, for whom everything had been done.
This is how and when I was made a nerd. Finding a place of retreat, a world my parents could neither appreciate nor penetrate, was as I saw it a matter of survival. For many Future Nerds of America that world would be off in the future, a science-fiction playground. For me that proprietary, selfish place was in the past. Old books, old music, old film, old folks long dead but not to me. Here the age of adventure was still alive – one could decipher the pentimenti and revivify past eras, discovering facts and forming interpretations that would fulfill my need to be special. I read books on the history of New York City and silent film, subjects which intrigued few others and thus might be “mine.” Both have been enduring passions, especially anything related to Chaplin (there are those who prefer Keaton to Chaplin, but I cannot understand such people). I felt a psychic connection with the past, an ability to walk streets of the present and sense ghostly emanations. This was a private world, a world that was perfect if perhaps not perfectly sane. A selfish world.
I know perfectly well my own egotism;
I know my omnivorous lines, and will not write any less;
And would fetch you, whoever you are, flush with myself.
Long was I hugg’d close – long and long.
Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have help’d me.
Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen;
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings;
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.
Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me;
My embryo has never been torpid—nothing could overlay it.
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
I used to hate The Good Gray Poet, thinking him o’erblown and o’erfilled with self … as my parents regarded me. Now he is the literary figure I most admire and whose work I love best. He embraced his self and would have you do so, too, and his subject he “turned over to his Emotionality, even Personality, to be shaped thence; and emerges strictly therefrom, with all its merits and demerits on its head.” To his last, Whitman averred that his self was both a gift to him and a gift from him.
I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.
I have been writing this column, a paean to self-absorption, a song of myself, to explain myself to myself as much as to you. Because a self is not owned but merely borrowed, it is the only gift that both giver and recipient may truly share.