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I spent the weekend, with ambitious plans, too distracted to do much, though I did do a mean version of Yer Blues for a while there downstairs.  My fault, really, being distracted, still letting petty, personal vexations twist and constrict me that way.  I am 62, it is past time to get much better at not being squeezed by extraneous emotions.  I’m not responsible for the misery of enraged, terrified, provocative people, I’m responsible for my own thoughts and actions, keeping my focus on what I need to do, in spite of all the noise all around.   

After all, the world is as the fox told Pearl in The Amazing Bone by the immortal William Steig (may he rest in peace).  

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Pearl, the pretty little pig,  taken home by the smiling, courtly fox, is trussed and ready for the oven, flames already leaping inside the wood burning stove.   She pleads with the fox who is cutting up vegetables with gusto and whistling happily thinking of the tender, succulent pig he is about to enjoy.  Pearl pleads to the fox to spare her life.

“Why must you eat me, Mr. Fox?   I am young, I want to live.  Please!” The fox looks over at Pearl sympathetically. 

“Why are you asking me?” says the fox, “how should I know?  I didn’t make the world.”   (This isn’t the actual Steig line, the correct quote is below [1])  The fox finishes preparing his salad.   As he leads her to the door of the oven he offers further words of solace:

‘I regret having to do this to you’, said the fox. ‘It’s nothing personal’. 

It is the bone, it turns out, who says to the fox:

“You must let this beautiful young creature go on living. Have you no shame, sir!”

The fox laughed. “Why should I be ashamed? I can’t help being the way I am. I didn’t make the world.”  [2]

The wisdom of that “I didn’t make the world,” however cruel its particular use might be,  has always stayed with me. 

It’s an answer as illuminating as “because he can” to the question of why a dog licks his genitals or how a Supreme Court justice with a glaring appearance of impropriety can insist he has no legal or moral obligation to recuse himself from sitting to hear the case.  

“I didn’t make the world.”  

Truly.  I had no hand whatsoever in the making of this world.

My only work here these days is coherently setting down what I’ve seen, heard, learned, discovered, read, in an effort to understand as much as I can.  I don’t know what compels me, exactly, or why it seems so necessary to me to write down clearly as much as I can write  down in whatever time remains.  

I know it has something to do with this cosmic less than wink of an eye we each have to be alive in, this flickering miracle of consciousness we so briefly share.  How intolerable is it, therefore, to be forced to march in a column, for an insane reason, life and death decided by the worst and most violent humans on earth at any given time?   To wait a century or more for rights our Constitution provided for almost two hundred and thirty years ago?  Is it just me?  I don’t think so, my friend.

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 ii

A great book is like a fascinating conversation.   When you hear the voice of someone who reads a book with feeling, the author’s ideas coming out clearly in the spoken words, you’re having a conversation with those people.  The conversation of reading is as real as, and often much more substantial than, many actual conversations you may have with other living people.  Particularly conversations in these contentious, violent times, which can burst into flames quicker than you can say “wait…”.  

I have been listening to two fantastic audio books that I cannot recommend highly enough.   Eichmann in Jerusalem (Hannah Arendt) and Dark Money (Jane Mayer).   I intend to post full reviews of both here at some future time, hopefully some time this summer.  In fact, the NY Public Library is into me for two weeks of overdue fines already for the paper copy of Eichmann I have been making notes from. I have to buy a copy ASAP.  

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iii 

I offer the following as an example of the kind of thing that, designed to eliminate stress, actually causes more stress, a kind of forgetful oversimplification that can lead to a fist fight.   It is the lazy mind’s approach to thinking.   Take a snapshot of the idea, and that’s the idea. The snapshot is the idea, get it?  If you hold the snapshot, the still frame from the movie, you’re holding the actual idea.   Nuance is for fucking eggheads, and, anyway, who can keep all that contradictory shit in their heads, you know what I’m sayin’?  The snapshot, on the other hand, is clear as the nose on your face.  Often the only possible response to a brilliant presentation of great nuance is “Fu-uh-uck YOU!”    That response often carries the day in the debate between a snapshot and the actual person in the photograph.

That’s just the way it is right now, when so many are angry, fearful, desperate, riled up, not going to take it anymore.   We didn’t make the world.  Consider, though, how limited the essential truth, if any, is contained in a single snapshot of anything.

There is a book called Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl.  I found it in the public library in Fresh Meadows back when I was in high school.  I read it and recall being very impressed by it.  An editor at Wikipedia did a wonderful job describing it:

Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.

Toward the end of the book (a longtime international best-seller) Frankl writes, as I recall, that the highest form of personal purpose is one you’d be willing to die to defend.  I remember thinking as a sixteen year-old what a beautiful thing it must be to love someone or some value so much you’d die to protect her.  I also recall being a little troubled by the statement, even as a teenager.

Over the next few decades I’d come to see the danger of this statement, removed from the humanistic context of Frankl’s book.  Frankl was talking about defending decency against indecency, not endorsing some crackpot’s idea of hate and violent revenge that other enraged imbeciles would willingly die for.  But take that one statement by itself, present it as a snapshot of the book and you have the humanitarian Frankl advocating suicide bombing, killing abortion doctors, performing any of the many atrocities, undertaken for the sincerest of murderous beliefs, for which certain humans are rightfully abhorred.   These atrocities reflect badly on all of us humans, when you think about it.  Although we, none of us, made the world.

But dig how that works.  Out with the filthy bathwater, fuck the baby!    You read an entire book, enjoy and get engaging ideas from the author’s conversation, agree with virtually everything you read.  Then you find a paragraph toward the end that causes your brow to furrow.   You underline the sentence about being willing to die for your beliefs and put it next to a picture of fucking Mohammed Atta [3].   Then you take your snapshot: Frankl says Mohammed Atta is an example of the highest form of purpose and meaning in human life.   Based on that, the rest of the book can be dismissed as an intolerable incitement to fanaticism and murder.   You cast it on to the bonfire, along with Mein Kampf, The Art of the Deal, Atlas Shrugged and the rest of the worst of best-selling twentieth century dreck.

A stray thought: could this hateful principle, seemingly applauding fanaticism, have possibly come from the same book by the same Victor Frankl portrayed here?   Remove nuance from any conversation and all that’s left is simplistic folly, or worse. 

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When my weekend of agitated distraction was about to begin I had an ambitious, perfectly achievable, though challenging, plan.  I was optimistic about making a good start on it, with two days to myself, before my concentration was shattered by an intolerably annoying personal sideshow I was unable to put out of my mind for long.   My goal is a 3,000 word publishable abstract of my 1,200 page manuscript about my father’s life and times.  This would be published somewhere and I would send the enticing published clip out to literary agents to try to hook one to sell the book proposal, to get me some money, an advance from a publisher.   I will take the first step now:

the first draft is here  (placeholder)

 

[1]  I went searching for the exact quote, as I am bad at exact quotes in spite of having a better than average overall memory and spending hours daily carefully weighing words. You’d think I’d be better at quotations, but I really am quite lousy at getting them perfectly correct.   I get the sense, almost never remember the exact words.

My own copy of Steig’s masterpiece is buried somewhere in my apartment.   I found nothing on-line to enable me to give you the exact, perfect Steig quote (he was a master of language in addition to being a great artist). I provide a link to a short animated clip, an advertisement of the copyright holders for the very best of perhaps six hideous video versions of this marvelous book read aloud on the internet.   I am seriously considering plunking down my $1.99, this is a beautifully done animation and aloud reading of one of the great books of all time.

[2]   Excellent description and review of  the Steig masterpiece, complete with quotes (yay!) and selected illustrations:  HERE.

[3]  Mohammed Atta was one of the 9/11 suicide terrorists who flew two 747s  into the World Trade Center.  His face, in the single snapshot of him most people have seen, is a mask of hatred.   The nervous Sekhnet and I  were at JFK airport for a flight to Spain, around 2005.   She had some anxiety about the flight, and time pressure (due to my habit of arriving at the last moment), and asked me to arrive with her three or four hours prior to our flight time, to avoid stress, and I had agreed.  While she slept contentedly on a bench in the terminal I walked around aimlessly with our valuables, sullenly counting the wasted minutes.  Over the PA there was an announcement asking Mohammed Atta to please come to such and such a desk.  The announcement was repeated several times.   I was glad Sekhnet was asleep, and figured the name they were calling over and over must be a common one in some parts of the world.

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