Today is our 39th wedding anniversary.
But as readers of Seraphic Secret know, I have been helplessly, hopelessly in love with Karen since fourth grade when I first saw her on the playground of our elementary school, Yeshiva of Flatbush.
Without Karen, I never would have accomplished much in life. It was her faith that propelled me to become a successful Hollywood screenwriter. And of course, it has always been Karen’s uncommon common sense that has turned me from an irresponsible young dreamer into a mature man who proudly shoulders the complex burdens of life.
This Shabbat, Karen and I were separated. She slept in the hospital with our daughter who just gave birth to a baby boy. I stayed with our other daughter and her family. There was a traditional Shalom Zachar on Friday night. Friends filled the house. Men vigorously shook my hand and wished me a mazal tov. Women cooed about the new baby and asked how I liked being a grandfather. I was surrounded by generous and warm people who wanted nothing more than to share our family’s joy and witness the continuity of the Jewish people.
But I was alone.
Because without Karen, all my experiences feel ghostly.
And then, suddenly, in the midst of the crowded room, time seemed to turn liquid as present and past merged. For one hallucinatory instant, I saw Karen as the mysterious nine year-old, onyx-eyed beauty who captured my vulnerable heart 57 years ago.
I said to myself: “Karen loves me. Karen married me. We have raised wonderful children together. We have endured the unspeakable loss of our beloved son Ariel Chaim z’l. And now we are enjoying our beautiful and lively grandchildren. My life has meaning far beyond me.”
Here’s an excerpt from my eBook, How I Married Karen.
The Seven Samurai
The time has come to introduce Karen to Akira Kurosawa. The time has come to introduce Karen to the single most important movie in my life, the film that has shaped my consciousness and turned me from a directionless yeshiva student into a rabid film fanatic and budding screenwriter.
Yes, The Seven Samurai is playing at the Thalia, and I’ve invited Karen to see it with me. Keep in mind: these are ancient days. There are no videos, much less DVDs. To see a classic film, you must rush to Manhattan, to one of the revival houses and hope that the print they have is halfway decent. And with Japanese films, the biggest problem is the subtitles. Frequently, they are illegible.
As we stand on line to purchase tickets, Karen quizzes me about the film.
“What’s it about?”
“The eternal battle of good against evil, impossible love, and courage and loyalty in sixteenth-century Japan.”
“Does it have a… plot?”
“Oh, yes. There are several strong plots running parallel to one another. Don’t worry — it’s a foreign film, but you’ll find that all the emotions are completely familiar.”
Karen looks a bit skeptical.
By now she knows me well enough to know that my take on reality is not quite… ahem… quite real.
“How long is it?”
“We’re incredibly lucky, Karen,” I enthuse. “This doesn’t happen very often, but we’re actually getting to see the original three-hour version! Isn’t that great?”
Karen smiles, but her smile is strained. I’m not worried. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that once the film gets going, she’ll be caught up in the magnificent imagery, the classic narrative, the heroic, tragic characters. Once Karen screens this film, our relationship will be sealed — a final intellectual union.
The house lights dim and chills run up and down my spine as the opening shots of The Seven Samurai thunder across the screen. Karen is at full attention. She sits straight as a pilaster, like a proud Japanese princess.
A half-hour into the film Karen is… oh, my gosh… idly toying with her split ends.
I am incredulous, in shock, in a kind of numbed pain that I never knew existed.
How is this possible?
Slumped in her seat, Karen is bored out of her mind. My heart is actually pattering in my chest at twice its normal rate. I am twenty-five years old and I’m having, I’m pretty sure, a massive heart attack.
A few years ago, I told a friend that I could never love a woman who didn’t love The Seven Samurai.
Not only did I say it, but also I believed it.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” says Karen, “I need to take a break.”
“There’s a break at the hour-and-a-half point,” I lamely point out.
“I need it now,” Karen says quite evenly, with no hint of rancor whatsoever. She exits to the lobby.
I feel like committing hara-kiri.
In the dark, I gaze at my beloved and outnumbered Samurai warriors; even unto death they maintain their code of honor. There is something very Jewish about these men and their stubborn refusal to give up their way of life. This film has changed my life, made of me a screenwriter, a writer with a developing vision.
What to do?
The images no longer cohere, for now I see Karen, nine years old, on the day that she first transferred from Yeshivah Ohel Moshe to the Yeshivah of Flatbush — the day I, also nine years old, fell in love with her. Now I see her leaning against the chain-link fence during recess, pressing her linen handkerchief against unnaturally pale lips; there she is, years later, when we meet in camp and exchange a few awkward sentences; and again I spot her at a high-school basketball game. Karen has no idea how I feel. What am I saying? She has no idea that I even exist. This life of mine is one that can easily slip into utter catastrophe.
Karen’s image splits and flies away. There she is, up on the screen in full close-up. I love her; I have always loved her. And this moment, this film, this decision that I’m about to make will define the balance of my life.
The Samurai speak of Bushido, the soul of the warrior, the perpetual struggle to maintain honor and dignity, the fight to recognize your true inner self. I catch a glimpse of my own Bushido. It’s in danger of being crushed… by yours truly.
I bolt from my seat and follow Karen into the lobby. Sitting on a bench, she looks sad.
“I know how much this movie means to you,” says Karen.
“It doesn’t matter,” I respond.
And it doesn’t.
In a split second, I have gone from being a boy to a man. Morally, I have matured, been forced by this honest and most unpretentious of women to reorder my priorities.
I took another young woman to see The Seven Samurai and she told me that she loved it. Adored it. “It’s fantastic,” she gushed. But in the darkness I felt her boredom, sensed her incredible yearning for the film to end. She was just saying what she knew I wanted to hear.
Karen cannot lie. Karen is constitutionally unable to say that she admires something when she just plain doesn’t like it.
To this day, when I slip the DVD of The Seven Samurai into the player, Karen beats a hasty retreat.
This night, this moment, I make the decision to grow up and be a man. I understand that admiring or despising The Seven Samurai, or any movie, has nothing to do with the guts of a relationship. If you look closely, it’s merely about aesthetics.
What it’s not about is values. Admiring or disliking a movie or a book or a painting or a song or whatever is not a good indicator of the strength of a relationship. Love — real love — and lasting relationships are built on shared values.
Karen knows how important this movie is to me. But because this film is so central to my life, she cannot bring herself to pretend that she likes it. In fact, the way I feel about The Sound of Music (1965) is how she feels about The Seven Samurai.
I bid goodbye to The Seven Samurai. We do not stay for the rest of the film. We leave the theater. Walking along Broadway, Karen searches my face for some expression of what I’m feeling, some hint of what my reaction is to her reaction.
As we walk away from the movie theater, I discover that I feel lighter. I feel unburdened and I find that I am grinning hugely. I smile because at long last I’m able to bid goodbye to my youth. Karen’s perfect scrupulousness, her female/Jewish/Samurai persona has, as I have long suspected, compelled me to become a better man.
Robert skipped ahead in our courtship, telling of his epiphany: that I didn’t have to share his rapture with The Seven Samurai.
There was no litmus test to be passed.
Still, there were future rites of passage that involved questions of artistic taste.
One of these was the flip side, where I became upset at a movie and had to come to the understanding that it was OK for the two of us to have different tastes in art, and that I had to be tolerant and suspend judgment.
The movie in question was one that we never would go to now, and will remain nameless. At the time it was considered a classic, starring Marlon Brando. Those old enough will know the film. Well, I didn’t get it. I was upset. I was crying for most of the film. Not because it moved me, but because I was repulsed by it. So what do I do? I make allowances; I understand that we are different people, with different sensibilities and different set points for art. And we talk about it. The last point is the most important. I explain what I am feeling.
Another example: Before Robert and I were married, we had a debate about modern art. It was one of the few times we actually had a formal debate. It was titled “What Is Art?” We never resolved it.
Of course, I came down on the side of a more conservative, representational art. Robert’s argument favored a conceptual art — for example, a totally white canvas. We never resolved our differences, but we did come to a civilized compromise — I agreed to go to his types of museums and galleries for ten minutes, and ten minutes only.
So I guess the point I’m making is that there is room for differences as long as you can accept those differences, respect each other and work out a way of compromising and living with the differences in a realistic way. No two people agree on everything. If they do — well, that would make for a pretty boring relationship. In fact, if you think about it, that’s what totalitarian governments are all about: getting people to shed their individual identities and agree upon some bland collective identity.
P.S. I spent my time in The Seven Samurai trying to figure out who played whom in the American adaptation of the film, The Magnificent Seven (1960).