The Global War on Morris
SUNDAY, AUGUST 1, 2004
tsu·ris n.—1. Trouble or woe; aggravation.
That’s what Morris Feldstein, a man who spent his entire life avoiding anxiety, danger, or tsuris, thought as he sat in his dining room. He was chewing on Kung Pao chicken from the Great Neck Mandarin Gourmet Takeout. His wife, Rona, had just asked him a question.
“Morris. Do you plan on watching the Mets game tonight?”
He mumbled: “I was planning to. Unless you want to watch something else. Benson is pitching. The Mets just got him. They’re playing the Braves.”
And now, as Rona considered his response, Morris detected the possibility of tsuris. He resumed chewing, avoiding any eye contact with Rona, and hoping that the only sound in the Feldstein dining room would be the Kung Pao shifting between his cheeks. He hoped
Rona would accept his answer with a silent affirmation, rather than the clucking of her tongue against her teeth, the drumming of her fiery-red fingernails against the table, or that sigh. God had implanted what Morris called Rona’s “guilt pipes” deep within her.
The sounds of tsuris, like the wail of a tornado warning, the stirring of a police siren, or a wave drawing back on itself before breaking in white foam.
The dining room was lit by a crystal chandelier purchased at Fortunoff department store when the Feldsteins moved to 19 Soundview Avenue many years before. Faded photographs smiled from the walls, distant memories of what Morris used to call “Feldstein family fun!” Back when the Feldstein family was fun. The pastel suits and flowing gowns and voluminous hair at Jeffrey’s bar mitzvah and Caryn’s bat mitzvah. The trip to Disney World when Rona summoned a weary smile for the camera even though “you could plotz from this heat.” The weekend upstate at Lake George when Rona refused to go into the lake because “I don’t swim where living creatures swim and God only knows what diseases you can catch in there.”
Morris ate, watching the steam rising above the white cartons from the Chinese restaurant.
The next moments would define the rest of Morris’s evening. Silence would mean Rona had accepted his response, and that he was free to finish dinner, sit in his RoyaLounger 8000, and watch the Mets. Anything other than silence meant certain tsuris.
“Okay,” whispered Rona. “That’s fine. I guess.”
Fine, I guess, in Rona-speak meant that things were anything but fine.
“Well, did you—” Morris stammered.
“Did I—” Rona replied.
“I mean, do you want to watch something else?”
“Me? No. Why would you ask that?”
“I mean, if you want to watch something else—”
“Look,” Rona said, her voice beginning to quiver. “So I’ll miss Wolf Blitzer tonight. A CNN special on the War on Terror. I’ll watch him another time. No biggie. It’s just the War on Terror.”
Morris lifted his head and locked his eyes on his wife. She pushed her food around her plate while resting her chin on one hand. Her red hair was cropped, thanks to her weekly appointments at Spa Daniella, which Rona liked to call “my sanctuary.” Even at fifty-seven, she had retained the qualities of youth that attracted Morris to her so many years before: the glimmering green eyes over a high ridge of cheeks, the protruding lips, a slender frame that time and two pregnancies seemed to ignore.
That was the amazing thing about Rona, he thought. Everything about her resisted time itself. She used passion and guilt like gravity—the heavy force that kept everything together, including their marriage. Three months after their wedding, in 1980, Rona asked Morris to attend a rally to protest the Soviet invasion of a place called Afghanistan. Morris didn’t even know where Afghanistan was. Or why the Russians invaded it. But Rona’s concern for people they had never met and a place they never knew attracted Morris to her.
It was at that protest that Morris realized what he now remembered thirty-four years later. Someone had to do those unpleasant things that Morris hated about life: asking strangers for directions, arguing with sales clerks, protesting invasions of foreign countries. That was Rona! Morris Feldstein’s wife.
For thirty-four years.
“If you want to watch CNN, we’ll watch CNN,” Morris said.
“No, no, no. God forbid you should miss the Mets tonight, Morris. And, by the way, you’re not eating your spareribs. What’s the matter with them?”
“The spareribs are fine, Rona. We’ll watch Wolf Blitzer. It’s settled.”
“Are you saying you want to watch CNN, Morris? Or are you placating me?”
“Yes, I want to watch CNN.” I do not want to watch Wolf Blitzer talking. I want to watch Kris Benson pitching.
“I just think it’s important that we stay informed. With all that’s going on in the world. Everywhere you turn is mishagas!”
“I agree.” Why get involved? What difference does it make?
“Then, if you want to watch CNN, it’s fine by me. We’ll watch. Now tell me: What’s wrong with your spareribs? You haven’t even touched them. What’s wrong, Morris?”
It had been the biggest dilemma of Morris’s day. A day that, until that moment, had gone just as smoothly as the day before, and the day before that, for fifty-seven consecutive years. If every day was a winding road, Morris was pretty much doing a tick under the speed limit in the right-hand lane of the longest, straightest, levelest stretch of unbroken pavement ever. Every weekday at eight-fifteen, he kissed Rona good-bye. And it was always the same kind of kiss, more habit than affection. His central nervous system sent a signal to his lips, his lips pursed, and his body lurched forward, there was an instant peck, followed by a mumbled exchange of “love you”-“love you too.”
It wasn’t loveless. Just automatic.
Then he worked his territory as a pharmaceutical sales representative for Celfex Pharmaceutical Laboratories Inc., doctor’s office to doctor’s office. From one exit of the Long Island Expressway to the other. Stocking samples, pecking out orders on his BlackBerry. Stocking more samples and pecking out more orders. Plying the North Shore communities of Long Island, dispensing blue and yellow and pink boxes in the enclaves of Long Island Sound.
At about five thirty every night, Rona would hear the soft thud of the car door in the driveway, then Morris’s plodding footsteps against the brick walk, as if he were shuffling toward the electric chair. The two exchanged polite small talk over whatever Rona had ordered in for dinner that night. (Mondays usually meant the pastrami platter from The Noshery.) Morris would then descend into his so-called office;
a partially finished basement adorned in 1970s’ brown mahogany paneling and faded orange shag carpeting. There, he worked at a wooden and wobbly junior desk, doing the day’s paperwork and tapping at his computer, in a room he shared with piles of clothing in various stages of laundering and a sadly drooping Ping-Pong table last used when their youngest child, Caryn, was in junior high school. Later, he would return upstairs, sink into his RoyaLounger 8000, and raise his arms with the scepter that the king of every suburban castle wielded: his television clicker. If it wasn’t a Mets game, it was Turner Classic Movies. Morris felt safe in the comfort and the distance of black and white. At about eleven each night Rona tapped him on the shoulder and reprimanded him: “Morris, you fell asleep!” Which was the last thing he would hear from her until the next morning.
Morris Feldstein’s entire life was tucked in the safe confines of anonymity. If Morris clung to any life philosophy, it was “Don’t make waves.” Whenever Rona wanted to return a purchase to Saks or Nieman Marcus, Morris would cringe and ask, “Why make waves?” then wait in the car while she made the return. When he and Rona flew somewhere on vacation, Morris wouldn’t recline in his seat. That would make a wave for the person behind him.
One night, when Caryn was in high school, she proclaimed at the dinner table that she was going to be a documentary filmmaker “to expose injustice and inhumanity.” Morris chewed his veal Parmesan from Mario’s Takeout Gourmet and deliberated. He wanted to watch movies to escape the world. Caryn wanted to make movies to change the world. But Morris knew the only way to change the world was by pressing the TV remote: channel up or channel down. He didn’t raise his objections with Caryn. That, too, would be making waves.
Morris Feldstein was so averse to making waves that he demurred when the leaders of the Temple Beth Torah synagogue of Great Neck asked him to become president of the Men’s Club. When they suggested instead that he accept the vice presidency, he declined again. After two weeks of prodding, Morris agreed to the position of
second vice president, and then only for two reasons. First, because the second vice presidency of Temple Beth Torah of Great Neck seemed like a pretty good place not to be noticed. And second, he didn’t want to make waves with the synagogue leaders who continued their appeals.
Morris sat in the RoyaLounger 8000, viewing CNN with detached interest. It was 2004 but it could have been any year since the War on Terror was proclaimed. The same rolling crescendo of music, the unmistakable voice of James Earl Jones heralding to CNN viewers who may have forgotten that “Thisssss . . . is CNN.” Then Wolf Blitzer broke the day’s news: the Attorney General of the United States announcing the discovery of a terrorist plot that revealed “critical intelligence in the War on Terror.” And after that pronouncement, Blitzer reported that “Administration sources have told CNN that the Department of Homeland Security may—may—raise the threat alert tomorrow for unnamed financial institutions in Washington and New York. Those sources cite intelligence reports suggesting a possible—possible—al-Qaeda attack. CNN is watching this story closely. And will report on it as it unfolds. Right here. On CNN.” There was also increased fighting by a radical cleric in Iraq whose name Morris couldn’t pronounce. And President Bush was expected to urge Congress to create two new intelligence agencies with acronyms Morris would never remember, because, evidently, the current alphabet soup of federal agencies wasn’t up to the task of protecting the homeland. And with that rosy recap of the day, Wolf Blitzer promised to “be right back” after some commercials about depression medications.
Not a word about the Mets. Or their new pitcher, Kris Benson, who had just arrived in a dubious trade, thought Morris.
Then it got worse. During the commercial, Rona asked: “Now, isn’t this better than a baseball game?”
Morris couldn’t understand why anyone would frighten themselves by watching the news, when the worst thing that
happened in a Mets game was the relief pitching. “Yes, Rona.”
“I wish you would pay more attention to what’s happening in the world, Morris.”
This was the difference between Morris and Rona. Rona wanted to change the world. Morris wanted the world to leave him alone. She read news magazines and subscribed to the New York Times and watched Wolf Blitzer. He was like the Public Access channel on cable television: there but rarely observed. In 2000 she had planted herself in front of the television for four straight nights watching them count ballots and peer at chads in Florida before the Supreme Court anointed George Bush the new President. And then clapped when their daughter, Caryn, announced that she was going to protest in front of the Supreme Court and bring her camera. She sent modest donations to the Nature Conservancy and occasionally attended meetings of Hadassah, and her eyes filled with tears whenever she watched the news about the genocide in Darfur. She believed she could make the world better, when, Morris knew, she could not. All watching the news did was to prove how unalterably miserable the world was. Why bother watching what you couldn’t change?