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The Hop Bird
My Dad, 1931-2005.


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Jonah Goldberg

AUTHOR’S NOTE: As most readers have probably heard, my dad passed away after a long struggle. The response from the extended NRO family has been more generous than I can convey (and the folks at NR itself have been more supportive than I could ever hope). I haven’t been able to respond to everyone. Rather than try, I am posting the remarks I gave at the memorial service. These are as prepared (which means they were written to be spoken, not read). Thanks again to everyone from the whole Goldberg family and Happy Father’s Day.

As few here would vigorously dispute, my parents are, at first blush, an odd match. Mom, an Episcopalian southern gal essentially ran away from home as a teenager, looking for fun and adventure.

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In a sense Dad ran away from home too, but in the way so many nice Jewish boys of his generation did: he graduated from high school when he was 15 and headed off to the University of Michigan looking for books, books, and more books.

As Goldberg family legend has it, my parents were engaged after only a few dates, and mom fell for dad after a daytime date at the Central Park Zoo.

My Dad, already in his late thirties and a respected editor, took Mom on a daytime trip to the zoo. Now, for a gal like Mom, this wasn’t exactly her idea of an exciting date. But she was intrigued. He brought her straight away to the old birdhouse, which hasn’t been there for decades. At the main birdcage he told her to look off to one side where an un-presupposing small bird was standing alone. It took my Mom a few moments to find it. Keep your eye on that one, Dad told her, as she was still wondering what this was all about. And she waited. And waited. What was the deal?

And then, suddenly, the bird hopped.

It was a humble hop, all things considered, but a distinctly purposeful one. And, then nothing. Another longish wait. And then: another hop. And that was it. That’s all it did: Hop, after long intervals and for no apparent reason. It was, as we Goldbergs have called it ever since, “the hop bird.” And my Mom thought it was hilarious. She laughed and laughed and laughed. She still laughs about it today.

If you didn’t have it pointed out to you, you might never have noticed the hop bird. He didn’t look particularly special. He didn’t have showy feathers or huge wings, like many of the other birds in the cage. But he had this hop. And he hopped as he saw fit, on his own schedule, to his own inner clock and, while he surely noticed the other birds, he was content to be unlike them. He was, simply, the hop bird. There was no explaining him. Either you got him, or you didn’t. And if you got him, you loved him.

And my Mom got him.

While it’s always bizarre to imagine your parents–or at least my parents–dating, I’ve always understood that this was my Dad’s way of testing Mom, of seeing if she got what my Dad was all about. Because if you didn’t get the hop bird, you just couldn’t get my Dad.

The three things most people say over and over again about Poppa, is that he was funny, that he was wise, and that he loved and enjoyed his family more than everything else in the world. All of these things are of course true, as almost anyone in this room can attest. The Sid you saw was the Sid you got.

I’m reminded of the very, very, old story about the physicist who explained to a lecture hall the heliocentric nature of the solar system and the newly discovered quantum nature of the universe. At the end of the talk, an old man comes up to the scientist and says, “Very interesting, but I’m afraid you’re all wrong. The world rests on the back of a giant tortoise.”

“Oh really?” the physicist responds. Looking to snuff-out the oldster’s impertinence quickly, he asks, “Well, what does the turtle stand on?”

“Another turtle,” the old man confidently replies.

Annoyed, the physicist asks, and what about that turtle?

The old man cuts him off. “Look: Let me help you out, it’s turtles all the way down.”

Dad was turtles all the way down. And he was, and will always be, what my entire world stands on.

But I think it would be a mistake to think my Dad’s wisdom and his humor were different facets of his personality. For him, “humor” and “wisdom” were different words for the same thing. After all, a sense of humor is merely the ability to see connections between things we haven’t noticed before (while laughter is what we do when we realize that those connections should have been obvious all along). Is wisdom really such a different thing?

Maybe it is, but it never really seemed to be in my Dad.

Call it wisdom or humor, my Dad saw the world through different lenses. This is no postmodern point. He saw the same reality as everybody else, it’s just that what was obvious for my Dad was often insightful, profound, or hilarious to the rest of us. And, conversely, what was obvious to most people could often be a complete mystery to him. To call my Dad “handy” or overly burdened with street smarts would be a stretch.

He had a rebellious mind, but a conservative soul. He knew the world was the way it is for a reason and that efforts to change the world for the better would have to take account of those reasons or they would lead to folly. His arguments invariably relied upon nature and morality, the former being the root which allows the latter to blossom. This is what offended him so much about Communism–and it truly offended him, often to the point of distraction–for even under the best light, Communism could be seen as nothing more than a flower with an impossible and poisonous stem.

Indeed, it’s one of the things which bothered him so much about overly theoretical writing in general. Often, when I would show him something wonkish I had written, he would say, “tie it to the earth more. It needs ballast. It’s floating away.”

So in the time I have remaining here, let me tie this to the earth more.

One of his favorite movies was–oddly enough–My Dinner With Andre. He told me many times that what he liked about it was that the humble slob played by William Shawn is slowly revealed as the genius, while the supposedly brilliant fop is just as slowly revealed to be, if not an idiot, than something of a fool.

I don’t want to indulge in psycho-babble, but I think maybe Dad saw something of himself in all of this. My Dad met and worked with important and famously brilliant people all of his life. It never occurred to him to act smarter or more clever than them. It never occurred to him to act like anything. He was too much of a mensch for that. But, if you paid attention; if you looked off in the corner, while others puffed out their chests, fanned their plumage, or offered their swan songs, there was the hop bird, hopping with a knowing smile and a hop, hop…hop all his own.

My Dad was never cowed by the received wisdom, never intimidated by intellectual authorities, never unduly deferential to what passed for enlightened positions simply because all the “right” people had them. Dad was, after all, a Jewish conservative who worked–as he put it–”behind enemy lines” in the liberal media and lived on the upper-west side of Manhattan. This was a predicament not altogether dissimilar to being a Christian working the concession stands at the Coliseum in Ancient Rome.

But perhaps the greatest evidence for the force of his intellect and the power of his conviction lays in the fact that my mother–yes, yes: that Lucianne Goldberg–was a JFK liberal when she first met my father and before he–in his words–”got to work on her.”

But, I’m talking too much about politics. My Dad was not, at his core, a political person. In fact, I’m not sure I could really ever explain who he was. Not just because he was my father and the principle author of my being. Not just because we are all made in the image of God and hence we are all smaller versions of the same mystery. But perhaps in part because he was just such a “peculiar duck,” to borrow one of his favorite phrases.

And I mean this in a happy way. For those who had the patience and good taste to appreciate him, he was boundlessly entertaining, including to himself.

At Thanksgiving every year as the carving of the turkey got underway, he would note that if there was a planet of super-intelligent turkeys watching all this, the spectacle would be worse than any horror movie ever seen.

At the end of the meal, he would always look at the remains of the carcass on the platter and ask me, gravely, “Jonah, Do you think if we assembled the greatest doctors and scientists in the world, we’d be able to save this bird’s life?”

In part because he believed that truth was eternal and good advice useful whenever given, and no doubt largely because he loved his sons so very much, he had a tendency to give Josh and me tips about life that were sometimes a bit premature. For nearly 20 years, every Sunday, my Dad would take one or both of us to Murray’s Sturgeon Shop on 89th and Broadway to procure the traditional provisions of lox and bagels and, of course, the various items he could never persuade Josh and I to like: pickled herring, dried fruits and other staples of the ideal Jewish fallout shelter.

(Before each expedition, my mom would always yell, “Release the Bagel-Lancers!”)

On these walks–and others like them, for Dad loved to go for walks with his boys–he would pour out guidance, observations, and advice I will cherish always.

(To this day, I clearly remember how he insisted that it was far more likely, in a random universe without a God, that astronauts would find a perfectly running pocket-watch on Mars than even a rudimentary life form, since even single-celled creatures were vastly more complex than a pocket watch.)

But one of my earliest memories is of us walking to Murray’s–I couldn’t have been much older than 7 or 8–when he stopped, and suddenly tightened his grip on my little hand and said to me, “Jonah, if you are ever pulled over by a policeman in a South American country, you must tell him ‘I’m sorry officer. I didn’t realize my mistake. Is there any way I can pay the fine right here rather than go down to the station house?’”

As Josh and I grew older we sometimes, as kids are wont to do, bristled at my Dad’s tendency to tell us things we felt we didn’t need to hear or stuff we thought we already knew. “I know Dad!” became a reflexive response from Josh and me, often to our peril.

One time, when I was in high school, I was eating something with hot sauce in the kitchen. By accident, I got some on my fingers and then managed to rub the Tabasco into my eye. The stinging began almost immediately and I ran to the bathroom and started flushing my eye with water from the tap. My dad walked by the open bathroom door and saw me. He came up to me and asked what was wrong. In short spurts between splashes of water, I told him, “I…rubbed…hot…sauce…in-in-in… muh-my eye.”

My Dad paused for a moment and then in that dry, razor-like pitch-perfect monotone said, “Damn. I could kick myself for not telling you not to rub hot sauce in your eye.”

While his greatest inclination was always to communicate to his boys how proud he was of them, he could be brilliant at bringing you down to earth when you got too full of yourself. In college, I was as caught up in the atmosphere of self-discovery as anybody else. At some point during–I think–my junior year, I’d been selected to take a special course in “leadership.” As part of the seminar, I took some highfalutin personality test. Most of the details aren’t important, but one of the results of my profile, I was told, was that my personality stays the same during good times and bad, under great stress and great happiness. I wish this were more true, as I fear these last few months made me too much of a burden on those I love.

Anyway, I called my Dad, flush with ego and excitement about the test results, about being selected for the course itself and lord knows what else. My Dad listened to all of it–he was a great listener. I told him how cool it was that I am such a reliable personality type; that I could be counted on to be the same person in a crisis that I was during normal times; That I didn’t crack under pressure. I was a rock! A Rock I tell you! You can rely on me!

“Mmmm, hmmm” Dad said. And then after a long pause, he replied “That’s great….unless you’re always an a**hole.” It was one of the handful of times I’d ever heard him curse.

Which reminds me. My Dad has sent me hundreds of e-mails and thousands of newspaper clippings with little notes attached over the years since I graduated. Alas, I didn’t have much time to prepare for this–as if we ever do–so the vast majority of that is still in Washington. But I did dig up a few e-mails which happened to be saved on my laptop hard drive. That they’re fairly random, is probably even more revealing of the kind of mind he had and the sort of father he was.

Here’s one:

You ought to read [the] bottom editorial slugged JACK KEROUAC’S HAIKU in today’s NYT. The editorial is an encomium to Kerouac’s genius, that he was a “master of haiku.” The only problem is that haiku is the most rigid poetic form–17 syllables in three lines of 5 , 7, and 5 syllables each, a form set in concrete for three or four centuries–and, as NYT points out, Kerouac was able to overcome this and do haiku in different numbers of syllables, not even adding up to 17. Haiku is supposed to be a compressed burst of meaning, form, or feeling. The examples cited by NYT editorial are pure crap. As you know, I don’t often use the word “cr-p.” If the walls of this apartment were thinner I would punch my fist through one of them (after donning my gladiator glove)! The peg for editorial is that someone just published a book of Kerouac’s “haiku.”

 

In another e-mail sent to me during the media hysteria over the demise of ABC’s Roone Arledge and the supposed brilliance behind his invention of The Wide World of Sports, my Dad wrote me:

“Only now do I realize what a genius Roone Arledge was. Who else could have figured out that viewers would like to see more sports. As you know, ABC had been considering The Poetry Hour until Arledge stepped in with his groundbreaking sports idea.”

When Charles Taylor, the Liberian dictator, was forced out in a coup, he dashed off a quick note:

Don’t you think it odd, even suspicious, that the one African president whose name we can pronounce is being forced out?

 

On another occasion for, no reason at all, he informed me of the following:

I don’t recall where I read it, but one of the better quotes of the past ten days was, “There is an old Russian proverb: ‘If you see a Bulgarian on the street, beat him. He will know why.”

 

At the end of a long fascinating e-mail discussing the intersection of child pornography, censorship, and copyright law, he explained that:

….The solution–as I said before–is to treat certain actions as taboo, no rationale needed to ban them. God never tells us why we can’t eat pork. He just says “don’t eat it!” With no limits there is a sense that our world is not defined. Animals don’t normally eat their young, even though there is no animal law against it….

 

And in a follow-up e-mail:

One last thought on this. Somewhere in the Talmud there supposedly is the question of what God was doing before the Creation. The rabbi says “He was studying Torah.” Which means that God, all-powerful though he may be, wanted to study and learn from a body of wisdom outside of his own being, which also means that God wanted to be “good,” because if this being were evil he wouldn’t bother to study and learn from an outside moral law. If this episode is true, it lends credence to the fact that God is good. The devil would not undergo this procedure. But I don’t know enough about this, and it also leads to so many other unanswerable questions.

 

And then, in an exchange about who I should get to blurb my book he reminded me:

Don’t forget the blurb: “Jonah Goldberg shows great wit and learning and his book will go a long way toward making this a better and more understandable world.”–God.

 

But what struck me the most amidst the couple hundred random e-mails in my laptop were the dozens upon dozens of questions and comments about our daughter Lucy, demands for more pictures of Lucy, demands for help opening the pictures I sent of Lucy, questions about how she was doing and when he would see her again. There were also updates about Josh and Chantal or what he and my mom were doing that weekend, advice for my wife Jessica, and reports about how his beloved brothers Ralph and Arthur were doing, or what my cousins were up to. There was also a steady stream of e-mails pertaining to his will and such, long, long, before his health took the terrible turn it did.

Of course, none of this is particularly interesting or revealing. Grandpas care about their grandkids, and good and decent men think more and more about their families and getting their affairs in order when they get older. But his concern with his family–you could almost call it a fixation–were nothing new. My Dad always cared about his family more than anything else, not merely at the end of his days. He stayed the same decent, brilliant, devoted, sweet man all of his life.

He was turtles all the way down.

He cherished his family for all of the normal and natural reasons. But also because he was just a bit out of synch with the world–and he liked it that way. But he liked it largely because he had his family, his safe harbor, his guardrail in the fog. We were at once his biggest heroes and his biggest fans. We steadied him and he us.

That was at it should be, because after all, no one ever said the hop bird had to hop alone.



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