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John Palcewski's Journal

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Literary Exegesis

As a photojournalist I avoid interaction with my subjects. Which is why I'm using a 300 mm telephoto lens. I'm partly hidden by a post, but the man across the piazza has spotted me. He is not pleased. I take the picture anyway.

Later at the café I think about the cringe response I always get whenever I see a man's angry glare. It always goes back to the beginning.

Seeing my father for the first time, when I was three, in the living room of a house in Youngstown, Ohio, in the fall of 1945. The other day I wrote a story about it, entitled "We Won The War, Ma!"

In the story Mike's behavior reveals him not as the war hero he thinks he is, but rather as a self-absorbed womanizer and drunk. He's thoughtless. He offends Josephine, his mother, by showing her a grass hula skirt he brought back from Hawaii. She wonders, "Why has he brought that thing home? Why is he showing it to ME?"

Mike gives her perfume, a box of candy. Cliches. Worse, they are totally useless to her, as is that ridiculous grass skirt.

Now, that rustling Hawaiian dancing garment is related to the Excelsior stuffing of Tommy's rocking horse. A representation of what's inside Mike, what comes spilling out. It's dry, hard, lifeless, and makes a funny noise. But Mike needs to remember the wahinis. They were his consolation after his wife's abandonment.

Mike once said that when he first got to the island those women nauseated him. But the longer he stayed, the better they looked. Even as a kid I felt the sexist and racist contempt in his voice when he related those Hawaiian stories. A locker room wink and a nudge. "You know what I mean, doncha?" he said. "Whores are no good, but once in a while they come in handy."

Two minutes into our first encounter he flashed me an angry look and said: "I'm your FATHER." He believed this biological fact entitled him to instant respect and total obedience. He would not validate and honor his little son's fear, as a loving father would, because he was interested only in getting his own needs met. Josephine--dutiful mother to the end--always served him, and so he expected everyone else to do it as well.

He was quick to employ his most effective weapon--ANGER, and the implicit threat of physical violence. It was in his eyes. That glare. He loathed anyone who opposed him, did not bend to his will.

Effective? Well, maybe in the short term. But in the end it all fell apart. My mother got sick of it, and left. He didn't expect that. And he never forgave her.

How long did it take Mike to abandon his responsibilities as a father? Just a few days after his mother/baby sitter died. He dumped the kid at his sister's house, then headed down the hill, a spring in his step.

He was now free. And happy. He didn't look back.

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Re: I am sad for that little boy

Many thanks for your empathetic comments. Yes, Betty was my mother. And your friend is right about the father's gift of example...although it's a lifelong struggle to break free of all the chronic negative influences.

The up side to the whole thing is that when you're an artist you get a hell of a lot of material to work with. There's a liberating joy in shaping the experiences that have shaped you.

If you turn something toxic into a photo, a story, a novel it might give courage to those who are presently in the middle of similar difficulties. You win in the end if you make these kinds of transformations...

Re: I am sad for that little boy

Oh yes, I like that way of thinking in terms of overcoming the hurtful things of life. Reframing is what we called it when I worked doing counseling.

Thanks for sharing that this is your life you're writing about, it makes the stories even more powerful for me.

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