I have been writing daily now for a long time. I look forward to it every day, taking some thought, some idea, and writing it out, refining it, making it as clear as I can, to myself and to the reader. It feels like a valuable exercise, particularly in the perplexing world we live in.
“All he seems to do is write, he doesn’t actually DO anything, except walk, draw and play the guitar. It’s funny that he sometimes talks about writing for ‘the reader’, since the reader he had doesn’t even read his stuff anymore. He had an aspiring writer friend who used to read his stuff everyday– well, the guy was actually a failed writer, he’d tried to write one ambitious great American novel decades ago and then kind of quit — but outside of that, he writes for an audience of one, himself. It’s kind of crazy. His stuff is sometimes pretty good. He could make some money from it, probably, if he focused and learned a bit of marketing.”
I surprise myself, sometimes, with the things I learn as I am mulling something over. For example, in writing a massive first draft of a life of my father, I eventually came to see things from his point of view. This amazed me, since the guy had always been a bitter adversary. The process of seeing the world from his vantage point snuck up on me, but one day I suddenly had a clear view from his eyes. It explained a lot to me about his life, about my life, my sister’s and my mother’s lives.
“He spent two years working steadily on a massive memoir of his father, it will be three years pretty soon. He will mention the 1,200 page manuscript he has on his computer like it’s a normal thing for someone to have written. He’s written more than a thousand pages about a complicated, difficult, unknown man nobody’s ever heard of. Think about that. A guy who’s published only two short pieces, ever, and suddenly he’s undertaking a massive, landmark biography of an unknown man.
“He gets worked up about celebrity culture, the shallowness of our materialistic, advertising-driven world, the hideous spectacle of one famous idiot after another publishing and publicizing books they are well-paid for, about losing a famous trial, working for and being fired by an internationally famous bully, having a talk show where irrational hatred is preached like a religious calling. Fame sells books, it has always been thus. He dreams, somehow, that this massive book about his father’s life will be magically published and then he’ll get that MacCarthur Genius Grant that’s been eluding him, the one that will keep him from having to eat cat food in his dotage.”
It’s easy to see me as wasting my time. Time is money, and where is the money for me? I see the world I live in as clearly as anyone. I understand that without success you are a failure, but it’s more complicated than that to me.
“Look, he’s a smart guy, nobody will dispute that, but something is amiss with him. He always admired Hillel, the Jewish sage remembered for his kindness, a man who was an illiterate shepherd until he was forty. Like Hillel, who became a leading scholar only after learning to read late in life, he got a law degree at around the same age Hillel hit his stride. Passed the New York and New Jersey bar exams on the first try and went on to earn a meager living as a lawyer that enabled him to just about pay his modest bills every month. He is kind of self-righteous about his inability to make a living, really, it’s like he judges everyone around him for their success and feels morally superior, somehow.”
Success is problematic.
“When he has no answer, he speaks in riddles. Zen koans.”
I am driven to try to understand things that perplex me. Three of my four grandparents lost everyone they ever loved back in places in Europe that had never been hospitable to their kind, places that suddenly became deadly for them. The fourth grandparent probably lost almost everyone too, but he himself, it is said, was lost. Fifteen lost brothers and sisters of my three grandparents that I can count, back in the Ukraine and Belarus. No graves, no details, names for only three of them: Chaski, Volbear, Yuddle.
“He goes into these irrelevant, morbid reveries about people he never knew. We have all lost things, some of us have experienced terrible, unbearable losses. But we get up every day, brush our teeth, take a shower, get dressed and go out into the world. We go to work, we socialize, we try to help others, we go to the gym, we participate in things. He thinks about things. He does this while being very critical of successful people who think for a living. Lately he’s on a kick about David Brooks, of all people.”
The murder of everyone on both sides of my family is no historical anomaly, really. Millions and millions worldwide have experienced similar things in the past century, and down through history, in every epoch. What is the larger meaning of this? To me it is to oppose organized violence wherever you encounter it.
“In the privacy of his rented hovel he fancies himself a kind of contemporary Gandhi. His kick the last few years is ‘ahimsa’, the philosophy of ‘non-harm’ that Gandhi made famous in the West. He certainly has a funny version of it, with his foul mouth, his opinionated remarks that he often delivers with no filter, no concern for how his views might chafe the person he’s talking to. His neighbors on the air shaft are regularly treated to his alarmingly vile curses, words I will not even hint at here, grunted loudly out of nowhere, exploding violently whenever his internet service winks out for a minute, or an hour, often long after midnight.”
There was a guy, years ago, who lived in an apartment with windows on that air shaft. I concluded he must have had Tourette Syndrome since he would bark periodically, out of nowhere, streams of staccato curses. I thought he must have had Tourette’s but maybe he had Spectrum internet service, I think now. No, this was years ago, before anyone spent hours a day staring at a computer screen, clicking on links for distraction, information and disinformation. I remember reading in one of the local tabloids that a man had been screaming incoherently in a nearby bodega and was beaten, later dying of the beating. I immediately thought the guy must have been him. I never heard any screams from the air shaft after that, seemingly confirming my theory. The only screams now come from me, I guess.
“I don’t know if he thinks it’s funny, or clever, or what, some of the things he writes. I mean, hours upon hours, millions of words by now. On papers in folders and dozens of notebooks prior to the computer age, on various computer drives since then. He even, somewhere, has the rolled up degree he got in Creative Writing. ‘Creative Writing’– seriously, they give a masters degree for that. He had to translate a long passage of very obscure literary French to get that degree, along with writing a ‘thesis’. That was many years ago, before law school, before his subsistence legal career. I mean, if you look at his life, it makes no goddamned sense.”
If you look at a human life, it rarely makes much sense. The irrationality of so much of history is readily apparent reading it, watching it unfold. We are not primarily rational actors here, we humans. Powerless people are often whipped into frenzies, sold vicious ideas like racism, carry out unspeakable acts against people who, in every fundamental way but one, are exactly like them. Powerless and supremely vulnerable. Frustration, terror and rage are much bigger forces in history than contemplation, logic, desire for fairness.
“Fairness. There we go. He likes to write as though we all have a vast array of choices, among all the daily pressures most of us face. He feels superior to the rest of us working stiffs in a life of ‘contemplation’ only possible because he had the fantastic luck, eight years ago, to inherit enough money to live without having to work for a living, provided he lived like a monk. The financial advisor his girlfriend took him to informed him that nobody could live more than five years on the amount his parents left him. That was seven years ago. He considers himself a secular monk, I suppose. It’s clear he fancies the life he lives a life of contemplation, though what he actually contemplates is hard to imagine. He speaks in generalities about the irrationality of human affairs, like he’s above it. His life is arguably the most irrational of anyone he knows.”
Any idiot can make arguments. Some of the most argumentative people in the world are the most idiotic. Something is wrong, they are stirred up, they react, they make arguments. There are not two sides to every argument, sometimes there are four or five sides. We look for logic, but most of it depends on the biases we start from. A mentor in law school told me to read Dred Scott, the 1854 Supreme Court case that infamously, but accurately, declared “the negro has no rights a white man is bound to respect.” Read that decision, he said, and find me one weak legal link in the argument– outside of the premise that blacks are inferior to whites. As he said, once you get past the premise, a flawless legal argument. I couldn’t find a single weak link of legal reasoning in that irrefutable chain of arguments and sophisticated syllogisms that led directly to the Civil War.
“He works by distraction, by the relentless, endless divergence of his written attack. Finally he just wears you down with irrelevant bits of remembered trivia, there is nothing you can do against a scripture citing devil like that. Nothing but turn away.”
Nicely played, for whatever difference it might make to anyone.