Dehumanize those you wish to destroy

If you see the pleading humanity in the eyes of someone who simply wants to live, you will have a harder time driving a bayonet into him, even selecting his home for a remote controlled missile strike.   Thus, in order to have successful war, and an effective army, you must dehumanize the persons you are about to kill. Those you are about to wipe out must be seen as an inhuman enemy, if you are to kill them without hesitation.  Without the crucial step of dehumanizing the enemy, you are going to have an army with a lot of fucking qualms.   It is common sense to make them hate the dehumanized enemy first, War 101.

This dynamic of dehumanization is not limited to physical war, of course.    It applies, in an increasingly visceral way, to politics in our divided world.   The humanity of the opposing side is amazingly easy to dismiss, particularly when tempers flare.   We believe it is a human right, in a wealthy, industrialized country, to have enough food to eat, sufficient clothing and a place inside to sleep every night.   You believe that people with mental problems, living in poverty, isolated and unable to thrive for one reason or another, are not quite as human as those of us who are not homeless.   We believe that care must be taken to protect the weakest among us.  You believe the weak should learn to be as strong as the rest of us, it is a matter of principle, liberty and life choices.

We can go on and on with the examples.  The fossilized fucking Koch brothers, Charles and David, can smile their grotesque rictus grins now as they prepare for eternal life, to see how far to the merciless side they and their privileged ilk have swung the public discussion about rights and humanity in America.   Tax is equated with murder, liberty trumps every other value — to a man like Charles, born to great wealth who then went out and earned billions of dollars.   I cannot see the humanity of these two motherfuckers, no matter how many philanthropic endowments David seems to make.  

Yet, even these two prime pieces of shit are as human as you or I, presumably.   They have things they love and care about deeply, people and places they are very attached to.  They feel pride and shame, fear and boldness, happiness, sorrow; sometimes they must feel humility, gratitude. 

Like the rapists who keep surging over our borders, in search of young girls and boys to rape.   Like the vicious murderers who mass along the Gaza border with Israel, surging toward the fences and screaming the most hateful things, expressing their deadly wishes with molotov cocktails on kites.   Like those who support Trump/Hillary and all they represent.

If you think calmly, for even a moment, you will see the sickeningly idiotic fallacy of each of the examples in the paragraph above.

For every Mexican rapist who comes to the U.S. border there are many thousands of people, humans, merely seeking a less desperate life.  The vast majority never rape, would never think of doing such a thing.   Yet, they can be painted as rapists, drug smugglers, killers, wetbacks, Spics, Beaners, ass-dickers, what have you.   See?  Then any reasonable person would support using any force necessary to keep these sick fucks out of our great nation.

Same with the Palestinians who are being shot with live ammunition for massing along the Gaza/Israel border every week.   They are not desperate, not living in isolation and generations of poverty– they are all hate-filled terrorists that Israeli snipers may take out with impunity.   The Israeli defense minister proclaimed as much when he approved the use of live ammunition against the masses of Gazans who come to the border fence to rail against Israel’s policies.   All terrorists, not a single one a human being with any human need like any of ours!

Same with those who support a rather angry, harsh president who lies publicly many times every day.   It’s hard for someone like me to remember that these people are as human as I am, as human as people I love and care about.   Every one of them has a compelling reason to overlook the man’s many flaws, see only the greatness he promises to deliver.   Which is a very human thing to do, see the best in somebody, in the face of their large and glaring flaws.  

I can’t see the good in Trump, I think of him as a very dangerous, supremely damaged and self-serving man-child.    I have to look hard to see the humanity of those support him, those who come forward to sing his praises.  I can’t often do it, all I want to do is make them shut up when they open their mouths to explain why a greed-driven, unapologetic, compulsive liar president is actually a great thing for American democracy.

Same with those who voted for Hillary.  I held my nose to vote for her, as did many I knew, but there were people who truly thought she’d make a great president.   Human hopes were placed on her by other humans.  The whole process, very human.

But, fair is fair, it is truly hard to hate if you constantly see the humanity of the person you are supposed to destroy.   Dehumanization is the only humanly possible way to do that.   The enemy must always be nothing like us, he must be motivated only by vicious, inhuman desires.   Otherwise, we’d be constantly killing ourselves and members of our own tribe, and how much would that suck?


The Limits of Law

There is plenty of evil that is not illegal.   You can see it everywhere.   Things that are plainly wicked, but that no specific law proscribes.   Greedy rich financial geniuses hatched a complicated plan where they sold “tranches” of the inflated value of “toxic” assets, underwater “liar’s loans” mortgages, falsely rated triple A by ratings agencies paid to truthfully advise investors, and made literally billions while causing a vast economic catastrophe.    They all got richer and collected record bonuses, laughed all the way to the bank.   Nobody was ever prosecuted for the vast conspiracy.   The law has its limits.

The two American psychologists, Mitchell and Jessen, who designed the recent American torture protocols and were paid tens of millions for their rude expertise.   Perfectly legal.  They eventually coughed up a few bucks to settle a civil suit brought by some of their victims, but, so what?

The architects of a current program to terrify already traumatized legal asylum seekers by taking their children from them, housing them in privatized cages, losing track of them, etc., arguably are violating no laws but God’s.  

There is an adage used by lawyers and judges to describe injuries, even serious ones, that are not remediable in a court of law: de minimis non curat lex — the law does not concern itself with trifles.

So if you have a lawless man, the beneficiary of seventy years of financial fraud committed by his family and himself, he can behave as lawlessly as he likes, provided there is no actual law that he is technically violating.  If the man lies publicly ten thousand times, even a million times, it is no crime unless he did it under oath.    His ever changing battalion of lawyers will not let him testify under oath– perjury trap!    The man can’t help being what he is, but there is, fortuitously for him, no specific law against being that way.

Some are constrained by traditions of what we think of as decent behavior, we call these ethical practices norms.   Norms are for assholes, losers.  Common decency?   It says it right in its name, common.   For extraordinary men, born booted and spurred to ride the rest of our sorry asses, well– unless you have a smoking gun, in my hand, that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, to a jury of my peers, that I have violated some specific law, well… fuck off.    Nothing to see here! Fake morality!!  

As Mr. Hitler himself styled it, conscience is a Jewish invention, part of their vicious conspiracy to dominate the world.  I know it’s part of mine, anyway.

For those of us who don’t take our cues on ethical living from the likes of Mr. Hitler (who had an army of Nazi lawyers putting his every opinion indelibly into law), well, it’s not always necessary to have a specific law to let us know when we are treating others in a way that’s hateful to us. 

The Curse of Fairness

Justice Louis Brandeis, among others, pointed out that when we consider what is just we are thinking about what is fair.   Justice is fairness.   Fair enough.    You want someone you are arguing with to admit it when something you say is fair.   “That’s a fair point,” is a concrete step toward agreement.    Children, at a certain age, are obsessed with fairness.   They are right to be, fairness is manifestly better than unfairness.  Sadly, it’s a childish idea that is soon slapped out of young heads by the observable world around them.   The world, by and large, doesn’t really give a rat’s armpit about fairness.   By that I mean that the powerful, who have the option to enforce extremely unfair arrangements, are almost never shy about doing so.

So we have American billionaires, citing their liberty, who cry that raising their tax rate (radically cut by recent Republican presidents) by 2% is as inhuman as placing them in Auschwitz.  OK, in fairness, it was one American billionaire, probably having a very bad day, who publicly carried on that way.   The rest of America’s billionaires  shook their heads, it made them all look bad, even if it was hard for many of them to disagree with the sentiment.  

The American discussion of fairness has been shaped by the beneficiaries of an increasingly unfair arrangement.    In the name of freedom and liberty for all, some compromises must occasionally be made.  The CEO of Amazon, for example, acceded to the until recently unthinkably radical idea that American workers should be paid a minimum of $15 an hour.   Fair is fair.  Nobody who works for the richest corporation in the world should work for less than $600 a week, or almost $30,000 a year, before taxes.   So although he does not allow unionized workers, collective bargaining or other basic mechanisms of what a kid might think of as fairness,  he stepped up and paid Amazon workers the $15/hr.   He continues to make almost $9,000,000,000/hr but, then again, he is an amazing American genius, so, why are we talking about childish things like “fairness”?

Many intractable problems could be solved by investing billions to fix them, poverty being one of them.  It would require a real commitment, and the best ideas of how to do it–  a large scale multifaceted government program, job training, low cost public colleges, affordable housing and so on, but we could eradicate poverty in the wealthiest country in the world, if we were dedicated to doing it.  The same goes for slowing the catastrophic climate disruption we are already seeing.   It will take a commitment, and a lot of money, but it can be done.

America has always had unlimited funds for war (whether justifiable or not) but peace is harder to justify spending money on. A hundred million for the president (whoever he or she happens to be) to launch a massive missile attack against an airbase somewhere?   No problem at all, the blank check is already in your pocket, Mr. President, ma’am.   A hundred million to continue funding a program to make sure the elderly can afford heat in the winter?   Well… why can’t the old fucks just put on an extra sweater, a scarf and a hat?  If they weren’t morally weak or  criminally stupid they would be rich enough not to need the subsidy, right?

(You can fact check me here and  here and see how full of shit my numbers are.)

The discussion is always arranged to make certain ideas– like the vaunted Free Market– sound just and reasonable, while others– like renewable energy and a sustainable rather than extractive economic model— are the mad ideas of crazy radicals (as a $15/hr minimum wage was two or three years back).   The Free Market subsidizes many vastly wealthy corporations and industries to the tune of many billions annually.  How exactly is it free?   No matter, renewal, sustainable— just crazy talk you crazy commie bitches!

I heard this bit from Rupert Mudorch’s FOX mocked the other day by one  of our most successful late night comics.   In a discussion of raising revenues by increasing taxes on the ultra-wealthy, something apparently supported by most Americans, a Fox host fought back the idea in  a laughable but honest way.  The reason 70% of those polled by Fox favor raising taxes on the very rich is that there is a creeping ideology of “fairness” that is about to become an electoral force when these little bastards reach voting age.  

Schools have apparently been teaching children fairness for years, and it has distorted a whole generation’s values!   You can read most of the weak ass “discussion” below. [1]

The idea expressed by Louis Brandeis and others, that justice and fairness are the same thing, is deeply, intuitively true.   Eisenhower appointee Earl Warren apparently believed the same thing, and acted on it as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1953 to 1969.   He steered the court to numerous decisions based on common decency and fairness.  He was not shy about what his project was– increasing fairness and justice at law, sometimes relying on the court’s equitable powers– the power to go beyond the law to fashion relief that’s fair.   He got landmark decisions on the Civil Rights of all Americans, took stands to protect workers’ rights, the rights of the poor, the weakest among us.   Warren’s court was one of the most liberal in American history.   This, naturally infuriated many. 

In an excellent, very readable Law Review article called  Justice-as-Fairness as Judicial Guiding Principle,  author Michael Anthony Lawrence writes:

At the same time, many Warren Court decisions were hugely controversial, upsetting the settled expectations of those who benefited from long-entrenched governmental biases and practices. The ubiquitous “Impeach Earl Warren” [2] billboards seen throughout the countryside during the late 1950s and the 1960s reflected the underlying efforts of laissez-faire conservatives to overturn aspects of the New Deal, which began a quarter century earlier. The intensity of the political opposition to the Court’s newfound commitment to fairness and equality was matched only by the infamous pre-Civil War Dred Scott case a full century earlier. To this day and through the decades, conservative jurists, academics, and others have bemoaned the Warren Court’s “lawlessness” and lack of principle.

Laissez-faire conservatives are generally wealthy and content with the status quo, as long as it zealously protects their particular privileges and immunities, their inalienable liberties in the pursuit of happiness.  Laissez-faire [3]  is a French term that translates to “go fuck yourself”.  “Leave it alone” is the mantra of these liberty loving conservatives, unless, of course, the thing you are leaving alone is an honest societal commitment to basic fairness.   Too much fairness is unfair to the most privileged beneficiaries of a system that favors unfettered liberty above all else.   Unfair tyranny over the few by the many!  Stinking majoritarian hoards!


[1]  SANDRA SMITH (CO-HOST): There is — what seems to be, a movement against capitalism in this country. This is a piece in Politico, just published: “Soak the rich? Americans say go for it.” In this piece — it talks about how recent polling is showing that the American public is increasingly on board with raising taxes on the rich. As evidence, we pulled up this latest Fox News poll on the issue, whether Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy, on incomes over $10 million. Those that are in favor of that, 70 percent, Charles. Over a million dollars in income, 65 percent are in favor of raising taxes.

CHARLES PAYNE (FOX HOST): The idea of fairness has been promoted in our schools for a long time. And we’re starting to see kids who grew up in this notion that fairness above all and now they are becoming voting age and they are bringing this ideology with them. In the real world, though, you have places, very progressive states like in New York where you have the governor saying, hey, 46 percent of — the 1 percent pay 46 percent of the taxes. Last year in California, the governor, you know, [former Gov. Jerry] Brown said the 1 percent pay 48 percent of the taxes. Let’s not go back to that well anymore. So there’s a practical, realistic idea about this and there’s the ideological, hey I’m going to — it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t work. But I will say capitalism has to do a better job defending itself….


[2]  My footnote:

“Impeach Earl Warren” was embraced by Fred Koch, charter member of the John Birch Society (once the lunatic fringe of the far right) and father of the accursed octogenarian brothers Charles and David Koch, men whose life’s work has been to make the lunatic fringe of the extreme right mainstream.    How proud ruthless Fred would be of these two highly successful motherfuckers!


[3]  Google translates the French term laissez-faire into English as laissez-faire.  Nice work, boys.  (without the dash it is rendered as “let do”)

here’s a generic definition of the English term:

lais·sez-faire/ˌ    lesāˈfer/   noun
  1. a policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering.
      abstention by governments from interfering in the workings of the free market.
      “laissez-faire capitalism”
    • synonyms:  free enterprise, private enterprise, individualism, nonintervention, free-market capitalism, private ownership, market forces, deregulation


Thoughts on the end of a long friendship

Good friends enrich our lives, make us feel optimistic, are people to share life and intimacy with.  There are few things more valuable than a good friend, particularly a lifelong friend.  Sadly, for a variety of reasons, friendships sometimes stop being enjoyable and mutually beneficial.  Friendships that sour, if they cannot be saved, are worth ending.   The signs that a friendship has reached this point are relatively straightforward, though they may be tricky to recognize.   Here is my view, for whatever use it might be to you.

If you are born to angry, fighting parents, or parents at war with others who take out their frustrations out on you, or parents unable to cope in some essential way, it is difficult, seemingly impossible, to learn certain skills needed for living peacefully in the world.   The things a child needs, and doesn’t get from parents, will be sought from others.  Sometimes this works out beautifully, often it doesn’t.

I stumbled through this dark obstacle course landscape for many years, making friends with people who stood in for my parents, trying to reconcile things through these chosen relationships that may never be reconcilable, working haphazardly with surrogates standing in for difficult parents.   The people I found mutual affinity with were often as damaged and incapable as I was of even knowing what it was we were lacking.   Some of these folks remain my closest friends today. Many of these friendships ended unhappily, which, in hindsight, could have been predicted.  

These relationships, on one level, bore the heavy psychological burden of trying to fix things I needed to find ways to heal in myself.  I eventually came to see a common pattern in the demise of these relationships.   I present the most salient warning sign that a friendship is moribund, for whatever value my observation may have to you.

The relationship with your parents is central to all other relationships, and the better you can grasp what you got and what you didn’t get from the people who raised you, the more clearly you will be able to see and understand yourself, what you need and what you have to give others.  

We can only give someone else what we actually have ourselves.   If you never learned mercy for yourself (a crucial thing to learn, in my experience), you can’t really extend mercy to anyone else.   Mercy to others, when we give it, flows from mercy to ourselves.  Not everyone is capable of mercy, sad to say.

People who sincerely insist they love you, if they hate themselves, can only give you the version of love they have.    People who never resolve the painful contradictions many of us get from inexpert parenting, from being raised by people who haven’t resolved their own childhood hurts, can only blindly pass on what was done to them.   At least that’s how it looks to me, in so many cases I’ve seen.  

Parents often inculcate painful conundrums in their children, in ways they are unaware of, starting at an age when the child’s psyche is supremely malleable.  In order to see themselves as moral actors, they usually continue to defend this unconscious practice as having been in the best interests of the child they love, no matter what harm they may have done.   We need to make peace with what was done to us by parents who truly believed they loved us more than they loved themselves.

In friendship, the psychic imperative to solve essential riddles like the ones implanted by inept parenting does not operate with the same urgency.  Friends can sometimes help, but not always, and care must be taken not to unduly burden friends with such difficult psychic matters.  People who have massive, unquenchable expectations of friends are called ‘energy vampires’ and need to be dealt with in the manner of regular vampires, with a stake and a heavy hammer.

Friendships are voluntary and can end at any time, for many reasons or for no good reason.  A friend who claims to love you, but will not yield an inch when you describe hurt they’ve caused you, obviously is not someone you need to keep in your life.  In friendship there is a much better option than letting yourself be mistreated and tested over and over.  There is no reason to tolerate merciless treatment, having your friendship, and your character, continually tested.   Addition by subtraction is almost always a relief in these cases.

A sure sign that a friendship is over is when there is no good will left in the relationship.   The benefit of the doubt stops being extended back and forth for the annoying little things we all do. These things become intolerable, insurmountable, indefensible, though everyone usually gets very defensive.  

This happens when, for whatever reason, one party stops listening to the expressed needs of the other.   In my experience, there is really no way back from that, once the pattern of one person minimizing, attempting to rationalize away, the other person’s discomfort becomes clear.  

Seeing the pattern clearly will depend on how confusingly we were raised, how murkily our expectations of fairness, reciprocity, mercy, were instilled in us.   Having anger directed at you every day as a child will distort your notion of what you deserve.   Seeing anger constantly flaring between parents will distort your view of what a loving, mutual relationship is supposed to be.   If one partner tells the other “it hurts me when you do X” and the other one, every time they get angry, does X– there you have the perfect illustration of a relationship the ignored partner needs to leave.  

When you tell someone they’re hurting you, and they insist that they are not, that it’s actually your fault you feel hurt, not their’s, there is no clearer sign that the moment for addition by subtraction is at hand.  

It is a sad and painful moment, particularly for that sentimental side we all have a bit of, but once you add by subtracting (all attempts to make peace having failed), you will wake up the following day feeling a bit lighter in your soul.

My mother in 3,500 words

As I struggle to figure out how to successfully package and sell the long-shot story of my father’s anonymous long-shot life, after years of detailed conversation with his skeleton,  it occurs to me that my mother, once a very opinionated and vibrant person, has been mostly silent.   To be expected, of course, she died almost ten years ago.   Her ashes are in a plastic bag in a corrugated paper box in a beautiful shopping bag.   She would like the bag, it is actually elegant.   A sturdy old fashioned brown paper bag on the outside, made of heavy paper, with two sturdy handles, slate gray inside; gorgeous.  It’s not like her to have been so silent all these years, she loved a good story, hearing them and telling them, and she had strong opinions about everything and never hesitated to voice them.

Her body was reduced to ashes according to wishes she made known two or three times over the five decades I knew her.   She was not one to talk about death.  I reassured my mother, when a sudden terror of being eaten by bugs and worms gripped her not long before the end, told her to have no fear, that I’d make sure that would never happen.   After she died I made arrangements to have her cremated.   My father’s written instruction, for both he and his wife, was earth burial.   Accordingly, he’s a skeleton, buried in their double wide grave at the top of the hill at First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill cemetery, and my mother is a spirit whose mortal remains dwell in a beautiful bag at the farm where I do most of my unpaid work.

It struck me tonight as ironic that my father, who was a complete pain in the ass most of the time, what he would call a prick, has taken up so much of my energies the last few years while my mother, also a pain in the ass, but a loving one– which makes all the difference, really — has been hanging out quietly, off to the side, seemingly waiting her turn.    It seems only right to try to publish a few words about her before I start back in on figuring out how to package the long story of my relentless, tragic father.   After all, I have my mother to thank for the pleasure of reading for pleasure.

Growing up I remember my mother telling me that she was a poet when she was younger, when she was an English major at Hunter College.   She’d write the occasional rhyme for an occasion, even late in her life, but the blue covered notebook of poems I’d seen once or twice when I was kid was never seen again.   It was not among her things when she died.  I looked on every shelf, in every box, but nothing.  I was disappointed.   One poem, written in her distinctive hand, remained, I found it among her papers after she died.   My sister blushed at the passion of that poem, noting that it was definitely not written about our father.  Though my mother stopped writing poetry at some point, she had a poet’s heart, a lifelong flair for colorful exaggeration. 

My mother loved words, even if she didn’t always use them to seek deeper truths. There were good reasons for this, I suppose.   I remember how it felt, struggling against the painful limits of my power to express myself, when I was a kid.  My inability to have my questions heard burned me, provoked me.   As it turns out, the most eloquent, clear-speaking poet in the world, accompanying himself on a lilting samba guitar, against a lush, evocative painterly backdrop, could not have expressed what I needed to express as a child.    

The situation we were living in in that little house was insane, nobody could have made sense of it.  It was also devilishly subtle, the overarching madness of it, the way it posed as a perfectly normal middle class life and snappishly thwarted all analysis.   It wasn’t as if the rest of our once large family had been slaughtered during a particularly hellish period in human history, their letters just stopped arriving.   It wasn’t as if her mother’s many beatings had anything to do with my mother’s sometimes volatile temper. There were many things like this, things you simply had to suck up because, no reason — put your pajamas on!  

I always loved to draw, though it’s a famously confusing way to communicate.   “Who is that supposed to be?   What does this picture mean?” became as tiresome as the concerned look on the face of the person asking.   Writing was a clearer path forward — more perfect speech.   As I learned to write better I was able to get through to my mother’s intellect, sometimes move her with my words, which was always gratifying, to see her happily transported like that.  

My father, who could write well but used the skill only for readily practical purposes,  read whatever I handed him looking for what he needed to defend himself against.  He’d read the telltale words aloud, hum the first bars of his rebuttal.

My mother read like a real reader, if she liked the writing she’d follow the words wherever they were trying to take her.  She liked to suspend her disbelief, if she found the writing credible.  My father read more for information, my mother read for the journey.   I have my mother to thank for my love of reading.   I first saw by the way she read, how she read aloud to us, that worlds can be conjured with words, worlds more interesting, more vivid, more immediate than the world that is constantly around us, things endlessly happening, very few of which make great stories.  

She died a day after her eighty-first birthday, of a cancer that took its sweet time finishing her off.   Cancer of the endometrium, the walls of the womb my sister and I came of age in, took twenty-three years to kill her.   She never liked to consider this fact, that she was actually dying, that her unfathomable, indescribable pain toward the end was a not subtle signal that she was dying.   She fought the knowledge that she was being killed by a relentless disease with no cure, particularly toward the end, when she lost a lot of weight, lost the taste for even her favorite foods and there was nothing more the doctor could do.  

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me!  I never had pain like this,” she often said in exasperation during those final weeks. Though I am not a big fan of denial, I always considered it a duty of love to play along with her denial of death.  She was the one who was dying, I saw it as her right if she didn’t want to make it worse by acknowledging  it.

She fought the cancer to a standstill for more than two decades.  If we can say anybody can fight a monster like cancer, no matter how proactive and positive of mind and body they are.   My mother was fortunate, her body responded miraculously to a new treatment they had just come up with, a synthetic hormone called Megace that had shown some promise and was kind of a last shot for my cancer riddled mother, by then the cancer was everywhere.   She got lucky and had about fifteen years of remission, not that she was ever overwhelmingly grateful about that new lease on life, though she had many things she loved about life.  In the end, there was no treatment available, just a series of discussions to be had.   She had no taste for these kinds of talks.

My sister and I took her to the oncologist, maybe a year before she died.   She saw the handsome little silver-haired doctor’s face and immediately said “I don’t want to hear any bad news!”   

“It’s been nice seeing you, then, Evelyn, always a pleasure,” said my imagined version of the doctor, though the dapper oncologist was unable to be quite so breezy, nor would it have been possible to be, in his place, I suppose.  So, isn’t it really better to say that he was just cool and witty, made a quick, dashing joke out of the whole thing?   We all had a laugh, instead of deathly news, and went to a new restaurant and had a delicious lunch.  

My mother would appreciate my improving the story that way.   It’s not what happened, precisely, but it’s pretty close and why not give the doctor a better, jazzier line than the one he uncomfortably came up with?   It’s got to be brutally hard, breaking the bad news to a patient who doesn’t want to hear it.  Might as well have the doctor play along with a wink, we all know the score here but, damn it, Evelyn, you’re right, no reason to lay the terrible details out like that.    

My sister, who had many more dealings with him, was angry at the oncologist by the time he retired, about six months before my mother died, after he’d said an awkward goodbye.   My sister had been unhappy at the way he seemed to lose focus. The visit before he’d apparently asked my mother to take off her shirt so he could examine her breasts.

“She has endometrial cancer, doctor,” my sister reminded him, shaking her head slightly, signaling to her mother that this guy was as cuckoo for Cocoa-puffs as she was.


During her final days, when I was staying with her, my mother would call me in every night to watch Jon Stewart with her.  My mother loved the bright, adorable comedian.   As much as she loved Stewart she hated his equally brilliant protégé Stephen Colbert.  As soon as Colbert’s over the top show began she’d quickly switch the channel to a rerun of some old show.

 I got why she loved Jon Stewart, I felt the same way.   He made her laugh and think, he informed her of unfolding events with trenchant irony, his wit and his perfect facial expressions made the horrible news easier to bear.  He, almost alone among the media in the years of her widowhood, gave her hope that not everyone in the world had gone insane.  

She was a secular Jew from the Bronx, had been raised to believe in equality, human rights and social justice.  I recall her telling me when I was a young reader that she didn’t think much of Howard Fast as a writer, but that the idealistic man who’d been blacklisted as a suspected Communist had his heart in the right place.  As an old woman she was depressed by the many signs that our country did not always have its heart in the right place.  She would clench her teeth every time President George W. Bush came on TV.  

She regarded him as the worst American president, definitely the worst of her lifetime.  One of the last things she said to me on her deathbed at the hospice, spoken urgently:  “please promise me Sarah Palin will never be president of the United States!”  

I promised her, thinking to myself “at least not in your lifetime, mom.”  

As much as she loved Jon Stewart, she had an almost visceral dislike of his gifted protégé Stephen Colbert.  As soon as Stewart’s show ended, even before Colbert’s American eagle swept, beak and talons first, toward the camera, she had the remote in hand and was looking for something else to watch.  I never understood this.   She couldn’t explain it, she just couldn’t stand him.  

“You realize that the overbearing right wing blowhard persona is parody, he’s playing a character.  He’s hilarious, mom.”  

She shook her head.   “I know.  I don’t know what it is, I can’t watch him.  I know it’s a parody, I just can’t stand him.”

So it wasn’t that she was like President Bush’s team who’d hired Colbert to do the Correspondents’ Club dinner, apparently in the mistaken belief that he was a fellow traveler, a very funny, popular comedian who happened to be as patriotic as Sean Hannity and a true believer in the unquestionable greatness of America and the Unitary Executive, right or wrong.  In 2006 nobody in the media was saying too much out loud about the Bush administration’s many excesses.

I showed my mother the video of Colbert fearlessly skewering the president at the Correspondents’ Club.  I recall at the time feeling great admiration for him, he was about the first person to publicly suggest that the Emperor and those around him might not be dressed as splendidly as they imagined.   He showed impressive sang froid by doing it, literally, in the president’s face.  My mother admitted it was a great routine.  He began:

Mark Smith, ladies and gentlemen of the press corps, Madame First Lady, Mr. President, my name is Stephen Colbert and tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.

Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument.  (the rest is here)

President Bush is still smiling gamely at this point, but his smile becomes more and more brittle until it falls off his face after a few moments.  Good sport and nice guy that I’ve often heard George W. Bush is, his politics aside, I’m pretty sure he shook Colbert’s hand at the end, probably told him he’d done a heck of a job.   But he clearly understood in pretty short order that he was being roasted by a merciless chef in a bullet-proof apron.  My mother loved it.

I tried to get her to watch Colbert’s show a few times after that, but she never lasted through the opening, switching to an in progress re-run of NCIS, CSI or other murder mystery as I left, befuddled.  

One night I was going through a shoebox of black and white family photographs.  I found a photo that made me feel like the protagonist of one of her detective novels.   It was a shot of my uncle, my father’s younger brother, as a young man, dressed in a well-fitting suit.  It could have been a photograph of Stephen Colbert, in character as the rooster-like right-wing talk show host.   My mother strongly disliked my uncle.  She found him narcissistic, tyrannical, unreasonable, demanding and petty.   In a word, Colbert’s character on the show.  

 She once desperately offered me a huge monetary bribe to spend a week in Florida when my uncle and aunt planned to visit her, after my father died.  She kept upping the dollar amount as I hesitated.

“Please,” she begged over the phone, “you can’t leave me alone with them!  For a week!  A week, Elie!  There will be bloodshed.”  

I rushed into her room with the photograph of my uncle.

“Is this why you hate Colbert?” I asked, handing her the photo.  

“Oh, my God,” she said, staring at the picture, “oh, my God!”  And then she began to laugh.  Another mystery satisfyingly solved.



I would not say that my mother was a mostly happy woman, though she had several things that gave her delight, things she loved to the end: opera, thoughtful conversation, well-plotted ​murder mysteries, dogs, intelligent comedy and good writing.   

When she was alone, which she was most of the time in the years after my father died, she was subject to dark mood​s. This is no surprise, considering she was alone day and night for the first time in fifty-four years, with a gnawing cancer increasingly determined to do her in.  Also, sorrow had always been as large a part of her life as her robust sense of humor.

After she died I was referred to an excellent book called Death Benefits (by Jeanne Safer) which points out that the life of a loved one, once over, can be seen as a whole and valuable ​life ​lessons should be drawn from it.  I made a list of the things I’d received from my mother, there were many good things on there.  

One that I remembered to add after I spoke off the cuff at her memorial service was: have no fear to shock a little if the truth also makes a good story and nobody is really harmed by it.

At her request we had her cremated.  The woman at the Florida crematorium insisted on calling the ashes ‘cremains’, which gave my sister and me a few cringing laughs.  I brought the cremains up to Peekskill, the haunted little town where my father’s unspeakably miserable childhood unfolded.   We gathered in the beautiful new chapel of the synagogue up there for a memorial service.   

My mother’s cremains were in the first row, sitting unobtrusively in a box in their fancy shopping bag.  We’d already been informed by the rabbi that her ashes could not be buried in her funeral plot next to her husband of 54 years.

S​everal people were ​ready to speak, a looping slideshow showed photos of my mother at different ages, and the people she loved; a recording of her reading some of her favorite Edna St. Vincent Millay poems played over improvised ambient music.  She was an excellent and expressive reader and it was eerie and oddly comforting to hear her living voice in that setting.

I changed into my suit behind the folding wall.  It was a hot day so I left my sandals on instead of putting on shoes and socks, something I needlessly pointed out ​to the assembled guests (most of them couldn’t see my feet) ​and apologized to my mother for.  My mother would have certainly ​given me grief for not putting my polished black shoes on, and done so sincerely, but in the end she would have probably written the offense off as me, as always, having to be me.

The chapel was full, I cued the recorded music to go down, a singer friend and I played September Song.  Then I began what were to be short remarks before my beloved partner read the beautiful eulogy she’d written.   I had a digital recorder in my pocket, but I forgot to hand it to someone to record the service, so memory, as so often, is the only available guide.

“My mother would not have missed the irony of having this memorial in a synagogue in Peekskill, of all places.  Not only did she have only the most tenuous connection to this small town, having visited it only a handful of times, but my father, who’s buried here, left at the first opportunity and never returned.”

​”It is even more ironic, of course, that we are gathered in a synagogue. Outside of the occasional wedding or bat mitzvah, my mother did not set foot in synagogues.  She had no use for the rituals of our religion, although she proudly identified as a Jew, in fact, you know, she couldn’t have been mistaken for anything else, except perhaps Italian.  Now that I think of it, she was last in a synagogue about a year ago, for a Friday night service, of all things.”

“There was a left wing rabbi in South Florida whose column she read every week in the local paper.  She was largely in despair about the tidal shift to the ​right in American politics​, how even supposed liberals like Bill Clinton, who called themselves Centrists, were in many ways to the right of Eisenhower.   So she loved this fiery liberal ​rabbi who stood for all the things she believed in and wrote fiercely about his values.”  

“She was excited to read that the rabbi would be speaking at the local synagogue.  She went to the Friday night service with a friend to see and hear him in person.”

“I asked her afterwards how it was.  She told me, with characteristic animation, that it had been horrible, awful.  Her rabbi was on the bima, seated, was introduced to the crowd, waved and did not say a word.  Not one word!  Not only that, she said, ‘they read every goddamned prayer in that fucking prayer book!'”

Those assembled in the chapel laughed heartily at this evocation of my mother, a refined and earthy woman from just off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx of the 1930s and ’40s.  I hadn’t really intended to tell this particular story, but as I stood there it became an irresistible opening to my remarks.

My mother would have been only fleetingly embarrassed, had she been there in more than spirit.  She would have immediately protested before laughing herself, any embarrassment quickly wiped away by the love she got from those assembled to remember her distinct and unique personality in that godforsaken chapel in the little town that had formed the backdrop for her beloved’s traumatic childhood.