Five Elements Soup

We discovered this delicious soup a few weeks back in a vegetarian Chinese joint called Zen Garden.  DEEE-licious broth, truly the most flavorful broth I’ve ever tasted.   It is also supposed to be very healthy.  This is how it’s described on the menu:

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We had it several times in the days after we discovered it.  I decided to try to make it myself a few days ago and Sekhnet went to a nearby Asian grocery and brought home a length of Burdock Root, which resembles a thin, slightly flexible brown cane.   A neighbor had given us a daikon she grew in her backyard garden, so that went into the soup. 

It turns out to be an amazingly simple soup to make.   It has five ingredients, plus water.   

Here’s a photo of my second batch (those are Diakon at my local supermarket at the bottom).  Peel and slice or chop up burdock root, daikon and carrot.  Rinse the mushrooms and greens.   Put in twice the volume of water to dry ingredients, adding a bit as you taste the soup in progress.   Simmer  for about two hours, you want the soup to wind up a dark caramel color.   DEEEE-licious, and, apparently, very nutritious.

I’m looking for better health in these poisonous times.  You should too. Try this soup, I think you’ll love it.

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Moral Dilemma of the day

You have a conversation with a close friend who, when you broach a certain subject, suddenly becomes upset, angry, tells you hotly that you’ve weaponized his confidences against him and are putting the relationship in serious jeopardy.  In tracing these feelings back with the person it’s clear that you’ve put your finger on a painful wound and the attack is basically a cry of pain.    At the end of the call you both agree it was great the peaceful way the worst was avoided, and certain insights were gained, and that a path back to trust and friendship was found.

Unease lingers after the call.   The explosive thing you mentioned that caused your friend to go wild is a bad and recurring part of the dynamic with that friend.  A toxic bomb waiting to explode again next time.   

It is something hard to avoid sometimes, as the person complains about their anxiety regularly, even while avoiding mention of the omnipresent stimulus of the anxiety itself.   The ever-present 300 pound gorilla in the room is always in the room.   Nothing can ever change unless this troubling this subject is dealt with, but mention of the actual gorilla is forbidden on pain of ending the friendship. 

Tolerating the intolerable cries out to be addressed.  If not with a friend or family member’s help then, for god’s sake, with a good therapist or someone willing to patiently listen.  Nothing can change unless the trouble is addressed, it only makes things worse to merely push the feelings down and proclaim that the monster is “being handled”.

You have the choice, as a friend, to avoid this subject completely — the easiest, if not most satisfying way to do it — or to find a way to talk about it productively (not easy, but possible, I believe).   There is one specific event that encapsulates this whole dilemma in your relationship, but your friend, while acknowledging it probably happened just as you say,  tells you they don’t really remember it very well and don’t really want to relive it.

We have different levels of intimacy with different people in our lives.  Some friends are fun companions we’re very fond of, but we don’t seek them out to confide in and get advice from when we’re in great pain or trouble.  We value others in our lives for different reasons, though the people we’re truly intimate with are in their own necessarily small category.   We tend to listen to these people carefully and remember the most important things they entrust to us.

I also must say — not everybody is capable of intimacy, since it requires openness, trust, honesty, confidence that your vulnerability will not be betrayed.   Not everyone is capable of all that, sad to say.  If you continue to seek deeper connection with somebody who is not able to operate in that mode, trouble is bound to follow.

Today’s moral dilemma: 

The forgotten past is prelude to the deniable future.  That horrible incident I brought up that so upset me, that thing you don’t really remember in detail and don’t really want to discuss… why do I keep bringing it up?   

I bring it up because it upset me profoundly, because it stands in perfectly for what continues to upset me, for what I see as the underlying dilemma: your belief that painful things must never be revealed or talked about and that raising them is an act of war.   This is particularly true for potentially shameful things.   

You believe that these things are too painful and threatening to face and you require others to respect your right to remain mute about them — which all sounds fair enough.  The trouble is, you want friends and family to listen supportively to your troubles without giving an opinion that might involve anything challenging, difficult, painful, embarrassing or shame-inducing.

I believe that if we are as close as siblings and can’t talk about what is really bothering you, the chitchat dancing around the obvious is pretty much a waste of both of our time.  If you don’t trust me, you don’t trust me.  I didn’t make the world.  Look carefully at this upset you gave me that time, I’ve written it out on a page.  See if you can identify with why  I was so shaken up.  See if it gives you a clue to what you could do going forward to better consider my feelings, to have less fear, anger and anxiety in your life.

I had a long-time friend, now dead, who made the unreasonable demand of just being listened to without comment until it became unbearable.    He had nobody else to confide in, since he lived in a world where literally everyone he ever met disappointed and betrayed him, and he needed to tell his best friend the ongoing tales of this horrible personal torture chamber he lived in.  Every story was exactly the same.   Somebody he really admired turned out to be crazy, brutal, vindictive, a total putz.   The three act play was identical every time.   Admiration, suspicions of imperfection, vicious betrayal by the formerly admired person.

You can only hear the same awful story so many times before it is unbearable to withhold the opinion that your friend’s unreasonable expectation of human perfection needs to be addressed before anything can change for the better in his life.

This infuriates your friend who angrily tells you he just needs you to shut up and “be there for him”, listen to his latest painful tale without the fucking commentary, just let him tell the long, complicated story.   Eventually this becomes impossible, you are obliged to reveal your human imperfection and move on to act three — betrayal by repudiation.

Today’s moral dilemma: 

That painful incident you told me you pretty much forgot, though you don’t dispute my version of it, you also say that you truly don’t really remember it in any detail.  These erased details of what upset one person are the essence of what causes the most trouble between people, the erasure of how I hurt you plants the seeds for the next episode, which is guaranteed to be worse that the previous one since it is the same hurtful thing I did before and managed to forget about.   

Here, then, are the details, laid out clearly and concisely.  Take a look.  Do you understand now why I was so upset, why it upsets me that you’ve managed to put it out of mind?   Do you understand that you would have been equally upset if I had placed you in that position?    Are you capable of self-knowledge?  If not, what are we doing here?

The dilemma is how to balance a desire to help, and be heard, and treated fairly, with the certain knowledge that you are dealing with someone who, no matter how objectively you set an uncomfortable thing out, is likely to be enraged by your intrusion into their painfully protected privacy. 

The dilemma:  do I maintain an essentially false relationship with little trust, for the sake of having any relationship at all, or do I respectfully risk everything to try to have a better, healthier one?

 

Learning or not learning

An old friend was lamenting the other night how many years it has taken him to learn the most basic things about being a kind person.  How to overcome the ready reflex to react violently to provocation, for example [1].  I commiserated, that kind of transformation is not accomplished overnight, if at all, particularly if you grew up regularly under attack in a family war zone.   On the other hand, struggling to be a more compassionate person is the right thing to do and whatever progress we make benefits those we love as much as it benefits us.

We’re taught many things as children that are not only wrong, but do great damage to our young souls, damage we’re often compelled to pass on to others who don’t deserve to be mistreated.   Every abusive person in the world was subjected to abuse as a young person.  It doesn’t excuse the asshole behavior, but it makes it understandable.   Nobody becomes a bully unless they grew up in fear, humiliated and shamed regularly.

I reminded my friend at one point of something he’d long ago forgotten, a random moment of kindness he had no reason to remember, but one that made a deep impression on me.   That moment showed me, more clearly than anything up until that time, that there was a gentle beauty to life that had been largely hidden from me during a combative childhood defending myself against an antagonist who waited until the last night of his life to express sorrow and regret for the lifelong war he’d always blamed me for.   The random act of my friends’ kindness opened my eyes to how nurturing and healing real gentleness is.

I reminded my friend of that long ago day at the lake (which I wrote about here) and he had only the vaguest memory of  it.    He recalled taunting me, at one point, until I laid back on the rock, a crust of bread held between my lips, and waited for the beaked kiss of a hungry Canadian goose.  The aggressive birds had surrounded us during lunch, looking for some lunch.  He’d been doing it, and laughing as the birds snatched the bread from his mouth, and urging me to try it, but I’d resisted.   He called me a pussy in front of two female friends, “PUSSY!” he taunted, and like a true pussy, I put a crust of bread in my lips, laid back and waited for the hungry kiss of a large bird.  It was pretty cool.  I then reminded him about swimming in the lake and Audrey, who he’d only met that one time, and I fondly praised her as a great girl, talented, funny, cute, sensuous.     

“Why didn’t you stay with her?” my friend asked, hearing the obvious affection I had for her. 

I explained that at the time I was still way too immature to know how to handle somebody as damaged as Audrey also was.   I loved hearing her laugh, her touch, her beautiful singing voice, many great things about her, but I was too big an asshole, still, at age thirty or so, to know how to take care of the parts of her (or myself) that were so broken.     

She gave me stern advice one day, late in our friendship, and I resisted what she was telling me.  She pressed on, telling me that she wasn’t telling me anything she didn’t also tell herself.  I smirked and told her, with a bit too much coldness, that the things she told herself included “put your head in the oven and inhale the gas” and “take the razor blade into the bathtub and end this suffering.”   I said, if somebody told me those things, I’d defend myself violently against them.

That wasn’t the point, of course.  I managed to reject her advice, and win that little round of an ongoing disagreement, but the cruelty was unnecessary, and damaging.   She had struggled against suicide (and I hope never afterwards succumbed to the urge to do herself in, I haven’t heard of her for decades now) and prevailed more than once against a self-destructive tic I could not relate to.   Others might kill me, and I’d fight them about that, but I won’t ever raise my hand against myself (unless, perhaps, I am in unbearable pain in the final stage of a terminal disease).   Those things might all be true, but it was very mean of me to use them against her like that.   At that time I was simply too hardened against critical voices, even if they were right, and too intent on being right.

The world of hurt in Audrey’s heart, the pain that sometimes made her want to die?  I had no way to touch it.  I could make her laugh, I could make love with her, I could accompany her on guitar when she sang and played the flute, but beyond that, I was pretty much clueless.  

What we learn, I don’t know how we do it.  I’ve sometimes thought that the things that trouble us most make us think deeply about them (if we are wired that way, denial is probably a more common response) and look for insights into how to have less pain.    Pain, of course, is famous for distorting our thinking beyond endurance.   

Look at the tens of thousands of deaths of despair every year in America: suicide by gun, drunk driving, drug overdoses.    There is no help for this kind of hopelessness in a nation that divides the world into great winners and fucking losers.   We can learn to repudiate this false, asshole version of the world, though it is not easy.  “Winning” is really about the love and kindness we have in our lives, everything else is deliberately misleading advertising.  If you live without much love in your life you know this, if you live with a lot of love, you know this too.

How do we learn anything?  I don’t know, even as I know I’ve learned some important things over the years.  Some things we learn without effort, because we love them, are fascinated by them, drawn to them, can’t help improving because we are involved in them all the time, curious, thrilled by them.  If you love the sound an instrument makes, for example, and how it feels to play that instrument, odds are you will get better and better playing it.   If you love to draw, you will draw all the time, and if you do, you will get better and better at it.   Writing, same deal.   Critical thinking may also be in this category– finding and assembling the facts to figure puzzling things out.

But the really hard emotional stuff — how not to behave like our earliest role models?  How not to blame ourselves for the cruelty that’s sometimes inflicted on us?  How not to be tortured by fear?   How to remain mild, and as kind as we can, even when we feel hurt?   Very hard things, all of them.

I don’t know that I have a nice bow to tie this up with.  I don’t.  Life rarely includes real closure, or black and white changes that are beyond dispute.  In our war-torn world, nothing is beyond dispute, if you are willing to fight to the death over it.   Our current president is the perfect example of this: never wrong, always justified, always perfect.   Angry too, of course, because he is so innocent and lives in a corrupt world with so much wrong, so many enemies unjustifiably hellbent against him, everything so imperfect. 

The changes my friend and I discussed the other night are sometimes subtle, other times impossible to see at all.   We still react with anger when we feel provoked, but we probably react with less anger at times.   We still are unable to do much to heal the hurt in people we love, but we are better at it than we were.   We have learned a few important things, after many, many years.   I congratulate my friend for this learning, even as I commiserate about the hard road he is on, has always been on.   It is, of course, much easier simply to remain an asshole.

 

 

[1] If there is a harder trick, for somebody who was subjected to abuse as a child, I’m not sure what it is.

Empathy requires focus sometimes

Empathy is what we hope we always give to people we love, what we always hope for from those closest to us.   Sharing another person’s pain, fear, sorrow, weakness is the kindest thing we can do for them.  It’s not always easy to empathize, even with those we’re closest to, especially about things we ourselves have never experienced.   Empathy is an essential element of kindness, its absence feels like indifference, abandonment, even if the lapse in empathy is purely unintentional and leaves us aghast when it is revealed to us.

Some people are simply dicks, we can stipulate to that.  This type is too immature and selfish to think of anything but their own needs.   This tendency is exacerbated by the extreme nature of the on-demand winner-take-all society we live in.   In our individualistic, competitive culture it’s easy to get sucked into the prevailing mentality that it’s no vice to step over somebody weaker and do a crowing victory dance next to their fallen body.  We are unconsciously conditioned to view the world in a crudely Darwinian way.   That said, most of us are empathetic, whenever our hearts are touched.  

There are rare types on either end of the empathy scale.  Finely tuned empathetic souls who are always concerned for the feelings of others, of every stranger they encounter, about the fate of others they will never meet, the well-being of the planet itself.  On the other end of the spectrum is the clinical diagnosis for evil: the malignant narcissist, incapable of empathy under any circumstance.    The rest of us are in between, our own empathetic abilities varying according to circumstance.  

I give two illustrations of things I will always remember, pictures from both sides of the empathy scale.

Years ago I went to the lake  with three friends.  

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It was a warm spring day, but not hot.   Audrey and Alain went into the lake, up to their necks, and began cooing about how perfect the water was. They soon starting urging me to come in.  I was quite comfortable on a cool rock and the idea of being wet didn’t appeal to me.  It wasn’t that hot out and my clothes would probably stay wet and become increasingly chilly for the rest of the day is what I was thinking.

They called me from the water, laughing and smiling.   “It’s fantastic!” Alain called.  “You have to come in, you won’t regret it!” said Audrey.   They were both smiling from ear to ear as they eventually came out of the water towards me.

In my experience this was their chance to drip cold water over me, to hug me wetly, to behave like happy, dumb, obnoxious kids do.   To my surprise they did none of these things.  They spoke to me quietly, cheerfully, telling me to trust them, urging me on as they gently took me by my arms and helped me reluctantly to my feet.   There was no pushing or pulling, no coercion, just their reassuring touches and gentle slowness, letting me decide if I wanted to join them, doing their best to make my decision easier for me.   I stood and took a few steps toward the water.

It is perhaps thirty years ago, and I remember my feelings in this moment more clearly, more fondly, than almost any in my life.   It was the feeling of being loved, taken care of, supported, listened to, respected.  I felt like I was in the nurturing hands of my ideal parents, two gentle souls who truly wanted the best for me.  I felt protected, certain that they had my best interests at heart and only those interests.  

Step by step we walked into the water, which felt cold when I put my first foot in it, but which they assured me was perfect once I went in.   They were right, it was fantastic, perfect, delightful.  I’d worry about being wet later.  I certainly wasn’t worried about anything as we splashed and swam happily.   Gayle was not coming in under any circumstances and none of us tried to convince her to come in once she made that clear.

I think of those moments as one the greatest demonstrations of empathy I can call to mind.  So simple, so trivial, but their kindness touched me so deeply and the swim was so well worth it.   The odd thing is that Audrey and Alain had never met before that day, yet they worked in perfect, loving coordination.   As far as I recall they never met after that day either. For one moment in time the stars were aligned perfectly and I was given this beautiful gift: to feel in this random moment, as an adult, the beauty of a perfect childhood memory.

I was going to contrast this with another image, but, on second thought, it’s much better to leave off with that transcendent image of empathy.  It is easy enough for anyone to imagine the opposite of being treated with this much consideration.

 

 

 

The Refusal to Yield

Humans are fallible creatures, we make mistakes from time to time, even the smartest of us.   Often our mistakes are purely emotional ones, if we’d thought more carefully at the time we wouldn’t have done what we’ve come to regret (or, just as commonly, cover up).  We know we were wrong, thinking back on it honestly, but at the time we couldn’t help doing it — we felt it was the right thing to do.  The moral question is what do you do when you realize you were wrong (assuming you are capable of such self-assessment).

There is a common type, particularly in a competitive, litigious society like ours, who will never admit wrongdoing of any kind.  Corporations are one example, never, ever admit wrongdoing without a viable lawsuit brought against you, and then, settle with no admission of wrongdoing.  We all know this type.  Their defenses are familiar.    If, once, in a rage, I threatened to kill you, your parents and your children, in a very specific, detailed way, IT WAS ONLY ONCE, YOU MERCILESS FUCK!   If an investigation found insufficient evidence of my crimes, because I was largely successful in covering them up– THEN FUCKING SHUT UP ABOUT WHAT YOU COULDN’T ACTUALLY PROVE I DID, LOSER!

The categorical refusal to yield is a terrible thing to be up against.  There is no possibility of resolving anything, except by accepting an unacceptable version of events.   When we are wronged we’d like the other person to at least acknowledge “my bad.”  That simple acknowledgement goes a long way, can stand in for an apology, in a pinch.   I realize this is a regular theme of mine, the difficulty of reconciliation, and a perhaps it’s a bit of a tired theme, but Yom Kippur and current events both remind me of it.

I think of recently dead Mark, whose ashes his brother and I scattered in his favorite lake last week.   I don’t want to think further about his exasperating and tragic life, but there are apparently emotional loose ends I still need to tie up.   His chief characteristic was a refusal to yield.  That, above all else about him, marked him for a life for constant conflict, rage and eventual betrayal and/or repudiation by virtually everyone.  There was no compromise in him.   Here is a snapshot of his life, the album cover photo for the LP of a life of great expectations and even greater disappointments:

 

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When Dubya Bush and Cheney were president, their steadfast refusal to ever take responsibility for their own fuck-ups always reminded me of this guy.   It was categorical.  Nothing bad was ever their fault, and if they were ever called on anything they insisted on setting the rules for being interviewed:  they’d take no oath to be truthful, no recording or note taking allowed, absolute blanket secrecy about anything they said.

When Trump was elected by the Electoral College in that massive 78,000 vote nationwide landslide, he was Mark even more to a T.   He has the body posture down perfectly — the arms crossed across his chest, the surly expression on his face.   The picture of childish churlishness.

Here’s a bit of how the thinking by this type goes.    If you have a small business, and your most loyal, long-serving employees work for low wages, and often work many hours of overtime without extra pay, and you hit it big with a startup and suddenly have millions of dollars … what does one thing have to do with another?   It’s true, during the years when you were eking out a living from your business, rolling nickels and dimes and taking them to the bank, every dollar you didn’t pay your workers went into your pocket.   Then your pockets were overflowing.  SO?   I repeat:  WHAT DOES ONE THING HAVE TO DO WITH ANOTHER?

You avoid any kind of moral consideration of your behavior by reframing the accusation so that there is no reason to yield.   And you can make a good argument.   Business is one thing, personal wealth is another, clearly.  In business every dollar of profit you make first goes to ensure the health of the business, something your workers have no worry about.  Personal wealth is another thing entirely, particularly if that wealth is not derived from your business.   The exploited workers were free to quit any time they liked, nobody literally held a gun to their head.   A wise $30,000 investment in a start-up that blew up a hundredfold has nothing to do with that other thing, nothing whatsoever.

I’m not going to bother bringing our Mark doppelganger president into this, the examples are too plentiful and too well known to bother recounting here.   If you have time, as I do, I highly recommend a podcast called The Report [1],  a thorough run through of the dramatic story told in Mueller’s dense, long report, with readings of pertinent parts and illustrative sound bytes from people involved in the campaign’s collusion with Russia (collusion, yes, chargeable criminal conspiracy — insufficient evidence)  and obstruction of Mueller’s investigation.    Listening to the details, particularly in light of recent headlines, you will have repeated “aha!” moments and come to understand the full perfidy of Bagpiper Bill Barr, another grim example of the utter refusal to yield, ever, on anything. 

The refusal to yield, no matter how strong the moral or legal case against you, is the mark of mobsters, sociopaths, tyrants and fanatics.   We can understand it comes from insecurity, weakness, terror — but still.   Let’s call it what it is: fucked up.

 

 

[1] as the creators of the podcast wrote on July 19, 2019:

For the past several weeks, a group of us has been working on a project to tell the story of the Mueller Report in an accessible form. The Mueller Report tells a heck of a story, a bunch of incredible stories, actually. But it does so in a form that’s hard for a lot of people to take in. It’s very long. It’s legally dense in spots. It’s marred with redactions. It’s also, shall we say, not optimized for your reading pleasure.

Various folks have made efforts to make the document easier to consume: the report is now an audiobook; it’s been staged as a play; there have been live readings. We took a different approach: a serialized narrative podcast.