Privilege and Sacrifice

September 15, 2021 at 7:09 pm (By Amba) (, )

Much of my time in Chicago has been spent rereading the journal and letters of my uncle,* Alan Gottlieb, who died in a Naval Air Force training accident in Vero Beach, Florida, in 1943, two months to the day before his 23rd birthday. (I had read them decades ago, but remembered only highlights.) My mom wants to include his voice in an appendix to her memoir, the very purpose of which is to gather the lost—including two suicides, whose names were never spoken again per Jewish tradition—back into the ongoing family.

Alan’s death has been handed down as a tragic accident and a noble, if wasteful, sacrifice. To my surprise, as I read his thoughts and his voice danced to life in me, I came to see it, instead, as both a totally routine budget item of war and a kind of heroic, quixotic suicide. I wrote in my journal about his.

I went through Alan’s journals almost word for word, inhabiting his lively voice and immersing myself in his living presence to the extent that I began to struggle in protest as I was pulled toward the inexorable falls of his fate, No! No! Don’t extinguish this light! but it already happened almost 80 years ago! Mom grieving it again as if it was something I accompanied and comforted her in rather than something I instigated (at her behest, to get Alan’s voice into the memoir). I typed out passages into the new computer, and there were things missing that I remembered: a kinesthetic description of standing on the pedals of a dive bomber during a run; a paradox about the “constructively destructive” use of his new skills in war. I rummaged in the disorganized files (so like mine) and found both, one among letters a girl friend (not girlfriend) had given his mother, the other on file cards typed out by Dad, perhaps the best saved of faded or damaged letters. (How did he do it?)

Two things became clear. One was that if Alan hadn’t died as and when he did, there’s a high chance he would’ve died as a dive bomber pilot working off a carrier, the role he was training for. Those guys were the next thing to kamikazes. Even dying in training as he did was commonplace; he’d lost several friends in crashes before his. I told David it was as if they (the masters of war) were just throwing handfuls of flesh into a spinning fan blade. . . . The second is that Alan chose this self-sacrificial role. If his death was in part the Navy’s fault, it was also his own. He was being groomed for leadership and could have saved himself for that role. Should he have? He would have been a liberal leading light, a Jewish Kennedy, surely a senator, maybe even the first Jewish president—he was WASPy-looking enough. 😜And, in the supremest of ironies, he might well have been assassinated. His loss was anyway an early falling spark in that arc that led us to this dark place.

It’s easy to fall into fantasies of “the best and the brightest,” to flatter oneself that the loss of a sensibility so gently reared, so cultivated and self-cultivated, was a bigger loss than the closing of any anonymous consciousness that never was incubated in the Ivy League or singled out by the spotlight of Eleanor Roosevelt’s attention. But that was exactly what Alan felt obliged to escape. He had an early sense of the injustice and also of the emasculation of “privilege.” He felt he had to put himself at physical risk both to purge himself of that and to stretch himself, to break out of that coddling and self-congratulatory confinement.

I can relate.

The biggest paradox of all for me is that *he could only be my uncle dead. If he had lived for however much longer, the world would have been shifted the millimeter or more it took for a different sperm to meet a different egg at a different time and place, and someone else would exist in my place—in all our places.

It might have been better that way. But this is what we’ve got.

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Lucy and Me

September 22, 2009 at 1:08 am (By Amba) (, )

My niece Rachel, when she was little, dubbed me Ant Ant.

So now Lucy has kicked me upstairs:  I’m Great Ant Ant!

lucymeetlucykisslucylaugh(That solid, reassuring wall of father on the left is Lucy’s dad, Matt.)

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So Lucky . . .

June 21, 2009 at 10:42 pm (By Amba) (, )

. . . still to have my Dad . . .


. . . and his first love, my mom . . .


. . . at 91, 85, and 63!!


And with me, they were just getting started!  Don’t get me started!


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Life as a Boy Toy in Southern China

June 5, 2009 at 11:25 am (By Amba) (, , , , )

Jason (the commenter), @BXGD, tweeted this remarkable story this morning by an Argentine writer/photographer about life in a genuine matriarchy, the Mosuo of southern China.

[I]t simply doesn’t make sense to the Mosuo women to solve conflicts with violence. Because they are in charge, nobody fights. They don’t know feelings of guilt or vengeance — it is simply shameful to fight. They are ashamed if they do and it even can threaten their social standing.

* * *

They are strong women who give clear orders. When a man hasn’t finished a task he’s been given, he is expected to admit it. He is not scolded or punished, but instead he is treated like a little boy who was not up to the task.

* * *

For the Mosuo, women are simply the more effective and reliable gender. However, they do say that the “really big” decisions — like buying a house or a machine or selling a cow — are made by the men. Men are good for this kind of decision-making as well as physical labor. The official governmental leader of the village, the mayor, is a man. I walked with him through the village — nobody gre[e]ted him or paid him any attention. As a man he doesn’t have any authority.

* * *

[T]hese are very strong women who give the orders and yell at you as if you were deaf. [You wouldn’t want this one‘s eagle eye on you!] But when it comes to seduction, they completely change. The women act shy, look at the floor, sing softly to themselves and blush. And they let the men believe that we are the ones who choose the women and do the conquering. Then you spend a night together. The next morning, the man leaves and the woman goes about her work like before.

* * *

[T]he women decide with whom they want to spend the night. Their living quarters have a main entrance but every adult woman lives in her own small hut. The men live together in a large house. The door of every hut is fitted with a hook and all the men wear hats. When a man visits a woman, he hangs his hat on the hook. That way, everybody knows that this woman has a male visitor. And nobody else knocks on the door. If a woman falls in love, then she receives only the specific man and the man comes only to that woman.

* * *

When she can talk with a man, have sex, and go out, then she is in love. Love is more important for them than partnership. They want to be in love. The one reason to be with another person is love. They aren’t interested in getting married or starting a family with a man. When the love is over, then it’s over. They don’t stay together for the kids or for the money or for anything else.

* * *

One woman wanted to have a child with me. I told her, no, I can’t have a child with you because you live here in China and I live in Argentina. “So?” was the reaction. The children always stay with the mothers. I said that I couldn’t have any children whom I could never see. She just smiled as if I took it too seriously. When they have kids, the children are theirs only — the men don’t play a role.

* * *

Often, the women don’t know which man is responsible for the pregnancy. So the children also don’t know who their biological father is. But for the women it is usually not important because the men barely work and have little control over things of material value.

Most Chinese citizens prefer sons and suffer from their government’s draconian regulation of the birthrate.  But because the Mosuo have ethnic minority status, they are allowed three children.  And because women run the family and handle money, “[a] family without daughters is a catastrophe.”

Look at the picture gallery:  these people look and dress rather like Peruvian Indians.  Their way of life, so utterly alien to us, feels familiar to the nervous system somehow, eh?  (I want my own small hut with a hook on the door!)  Fascinating food for thought.  Now I can say “Read the whole thing” and mean it.

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