Soulful point about empathy

There seems to have been a nice move by WordPress, overnight, now embedding a youtube video is a premium feature you can pay extra for, the old clawback technique, removing useful features and selling them back to you, making you pay extra for them, used to great shareholder profit by Apple … The corporate personality will monetize their mother’s farts for a few extra copeks…

Anyway, watch this short, it makes a beautiful point about remembering that everyone you meet might be facing terrible challenges you’re not aware of, and that we never know when we’ll face something similar. So do the decent thing with the benefit of the doubt. Great, very short video:

Insight vs. a punch in the face

Gaining insight is hard, delivering a punch in the face, when provoked, is pretty straightforward.   Not to say you might not pay a price for the punch, you can break your thumb, bruise your knuckles, have the shit beat out of you, even get shot or stabbed, but the reflex to lash out when angry is pretty basic.  It’s simple, primitive, sometimes effective in dealing with a real or imagined threat.   Those who train to deliver a punch effectively learn to harden their hands, protect their fingers from damage, turn the fist just so right before impact for maximum effect. Everybody else is free to let fly, with real or metaphorical fists, like a hurtful series of words you can never take back.

Insight, on the other hand, is hard to come by, often painful.   You need to learn to see things from a perspective not your own, feel things that may never have happened to you directly, learn to study the broken pieces calmly, detached from your ingrained reactions.  Insight allows you to make connections on a more thoughtful level than our world consistently operates on.   

The level our world operates on is a well-deserved punch in the face.   More specifically, a punch in the smug, fucking face.  Insight allows you to understand the operation of life on a less reflexive level.  Gain enough insight and almost everybody may want to punch you in the face, if you’re not insightful enough to be cool about your path toward insight.

I give the example of my own attempts to not replicate what I experienced from my parents in my youth.  That is, I try to follow Hillel’s formulation of the Golden Rule.  I try not to do things to others that I hate being done to me.   All we can do is try, but trying is a step in the right direction, every time.  I hated being unfairly accused of things I hadn’t done, painted in an ugly light, I still do, as does everybody else, of course.  In my parents’ house I was constantly confronted, always portrayed as coming home from the hospital two days old angry and ready to fight, usually blamed for the anger that was always exploding all around me, and always required to fight.   I fought, and got pretty good at it, even as I understood how tragically ridiculous the nonsensical war I was drafted into was.

I have made it a long project to make myself less susceptible to my anger, less ready to react with rage.  Reading about Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha (not in detail, mind you) I began trying to practice ahimsa, non-harm, as a first principle.  A difficult stance, in our violent world, particularly without a religious framework and a community of fellow non-harmers, but I have found the goal very worthwhile. Trying to keep the principle of non-harm in mind has made my life better, even if I am far from serene.

If you come from a mindset of not harming others, of being straight in expressing what you need, being direct and patient, it seems to me your life will improve, particularly if you were raised in a senseless war where everybody had to fight all the time for no real reason. 

It turns out even a straightforward insight like this is very shaky in the real world.  Certain old friends will insist that you’re deluding yourself, that you may have become a tiny bit better at DELAYING the arrival of your famous fucking anger, but you are actually just kidding yourself, propped on a flimsy moral pedestal that with only a few hours of determined kicking I can topple, proving that your rage is very real and present, you fucking superior fucking asshole.  In the end, I will make you want to punch me in the face, Ahimsa-boy, proving that I and the brutal real world are right and your ahimsa pose is just gas, self-righteous fumes, no matter how much you may think you’ve improved in overcoming your reflex to respond with anger.

To me, resisting the impulse to react with anger is a net good, no matter how incremental the improvement. If in the past you would have been angry a minute into an aggravating situation, you now find you are able to go for an hour before the anger starts sapping your will to remain peaceful.   In one sense it is a huge step forward, you will find yourself doing better in many situations that would have turned to shit instantly in the past.   It is a useful skill in our world, to refrain from striking others with words or fists. 

On the other hand, to someone intent on proving that you, like them, are a piece of shit beyond redemption, beyond the possibility of meaningful change of any kind, well, in the end they will be able to grind you down.   You are not a bodhisattva, you are just trying to do better, and in the end you will reach your limit and get that look on your face that will prove their triumphant point.

Been there, done that, showing great patience with people who demonstrated that insight was not for them, that a punch in the fucking face was much more to their taste (even if beyond the limits of their physical courage), and that I, actually, rather than being less angry and provocative with my so-called insight and ahimsa was even more of a piece of shit for trying to be better than them.  Of course, and I say this just between us, I was already better than them, in terms of treating people the way I would like to be treated myself, but my goal was to be better than myself, not anybody else.  I’m not in competition, in any field you can name, except to make myself better.

Insight is the only way out of pain, outside of the usual painkillers.  It is not a magic door you can walk through, of course, it is a path you take, a goal you aspire to.  Much easier than pausing to gather yourself and trying to develop understanding is staying on the treadmill, running until your heart gives out.  Hard to blame people who recoil from introspection.  People don’t like things that cause them pain, unless they are masochists. 

Think of it this way, though — you can repeat the same tragedy over and over in your life, with minor variations, or you can learn from the way you play your part in the tragedy and do it a little bit less tragically next time.  Or, you know, you can just punch me in the fucking face, it’ll probably feel better, at least until the adrenaline and cortisol rush wears off.

Memory of an old friend

Warning, some may find this description disgusting. If you think you might, please skip it. Turd, er, word to the wise.

He was an enormous guy and, unsurprisingly, he was capable of taking gigantic shits. Some of these turds would be like the circumference of your forearm and I know this because there was one of them in the guest bathroom toilet bowl the entire time I was at his house in Santa Fe. The fucking thing had some mighty integrity, every time I flushed the toilet virtually the entire monster would remain unflushed because the pipe was much narrower than the giant, unholy turd trying to pass through it.  He was, I have to say, arguably, not a great host, leaving his guest to wrestle perpetually with his unflushable product. Plus, he had his own fucking bathroom. Shit host!”

Plague Mice

Had a cheerful greeting from this guy at Costco today, who, when I asked him to smile for the camera, went:

Here is a meditative little track for you: Plague Mice. A recent long-distance (over 10,000 mile) collaboration with guitarist Paul Greenstein [1].

We figured, since we were doing it during a worldwide plague, that those beautifully singing mice who solo along with Paul’s guitar could only be Plague Mice. We offer the tune as a hope for better times, and soon.

[1] Technical details: My parts were done on a Ditto looper, recorded on my phone, sent to Paul, Paul improvised that cool melody over the top, with the soulful chorus of digital mice singing over his guitar. Paul called dialing in that electronic, ethereal mouse chorus effect “putting eyebrows on it” , as Frank Zappa used to say.

I say nice eyebrows, man.

writing the anodyne version

I had a thought the other day about my massive on-line manuscript for the book about my father — write a detailed, sanitized version that gives only the many reasons to like and admire the man, as a preface to the whole deeper portrait.    Write the anodyne account, the one anyone could read with no fear of being confronted by anything unsettling or upsetting.  No harm in that.

The original first draft of the manuscript included everything I could remember about my father and his life, the noble things he did and the traumatic harm he also perpetrated — along with the unspeakably terrible details of the horrific childhood he survived.   I conducted a two year-long interview with my dead father (seriously) to help me speculate about things I knew almost nothing about — for example, a black and white photo, taken some time after World War II,  of him looking happier than I’d ever seen him.   To my amazement some of the things my father’s skeleton “told me” took me by surprise.  These revelations, spoken to me in his voice, furthered my understanding and changed my evolving view of this complicated and challenging person, dead now fourteen years.  

People who loved my father could easily have been horrified, on his behalf, at my first draft’s open recitation of some monstrous behavior, always done in the privacy of his family home.   Airing this kind of “dirty laundry” is generally frowned upon.   Every family has it, it always stinks, why wave it around?   Nobody wants that.   Unless, of course, you are determined to understand the forces that shaped your own challenges.

I realized the other day that it’s possible, perhaps even desirable, to write an andoyne version of my father and his life — one that shows only the many good sides of my complicated old man, only hinting at the understandable human foibles that we, all of us, are subject to.   Picture reading the inspirational story of a person born into unimaginably desperate circumstances who simply would not allow the past to hold him down.  Someone imbued by the privations he suffered for the first eighteen years of his life with a hunger for justice, a better world for everybody.   A man intimately connected to a sometimes terrible history, who did not shrink from doing all he could to help bend the moral arch of history towards justice.   

As any writer who seeks to seduce a reader knows, we must draw the reader over to our point of view by giving her (at least at first) treats she can readily chew on and digest.   My father was funny, clearly very bright, an idealist.  You see, here he is again being bravely idealistic, pelted with rotten vegetables as he speaks to New York City parents and teachers about the importance of de-segregating the schools in the mid-1950s.   Here’s a throw away line of his that always got a chuckle.  Look how tender he always was with animals, how playful with little dogs and young children alike!   Now we’re talking.

Explanation for P___

I saw old friends this weekend.   One of them, P______, told me  that V____ had given her a link to my blahg and that she’d read some of my posts.   This puts her in an elite sliver of humanity, since I scorn “social media” as a destructive shit-show and, in consequence of being an on-line hermit, get very few visitors here.   I was pleased to hear she was reading it.   I must have raised my eyebrows questioningly because she volunteered that she found some of it extreme.

I immediately tried, without waiting for her to elaborate (she didn’t seem about to in any case), to explain why these posts might seem extreme.  I sit down, often burned by some specific, irksome detail (like the seeming fact that many Americans appear to believe Bill Barr’s version of the Mueller report– nothing to see here, total exoneration of “POTUS”– in spite of Mueller’s own take, that Barr is sewing confusion about Mueller’s findings and conclusions) and I have to process it somehow, to make the burning and the fucking irking stop.  

It often helps, I explained, to think an issue through by setting it out in front of me, trying to see it as clearly as possible, writing it out as lucidly as I can.    I saw, as I was saying this, that P’s expression wasn’t changing.

It turned out that the politics didn’t bother her (probably because she holds largely related views).   It emerged that the extreme aspect was the personal writing, the laying out of hidden, monstrous details of people close to me, like my father.  My father had been director of the camp P and I went to as teenagers.  It turns out P thought my old man was a really great guy, smart, funny, hip.    Yes, he was all of those things, but he was also, how to put this delicately … a fucking monster.    

This is the kind of highly opinionated thing P was referring to when she said “extreme”.   Crossing a boundary of privacy and good taste, I guess.   I told her that it may have been a mistake to put the first draft of the book about my father on-line. as I was wrestling the material into form.  

I neglected to tell her that making my words “public” exerts a good effect on the words, forcing me to commit to each sentence in a way I don’t have to if I’m not putting them on-line.  It has become my practice, writing and editing my words for others to read, for a couple of hours, as close to daily as I can — and “publishing” them.    

I told her that if I had it to do over again, I would have written the sprawling first draft differently, now that I’ve written more than a thousand pages.   The first few hundred pages of the best version of the book about my father would conjure a man capable of great personal warmth, wit and charm.  An idealistic man imbued with humor and sophistication, a man unlike most fathers we knew in that he clearly loved subversives like Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior, Malcolm X.   He could tell you, in very few words, when you passed him in the grove by the office, why you should check out Lenny, why Malcolm was an inspirational character who needed to be vilified by the Man.   He could talk about virtually anything with insight and wit.   He could be playful.   Yes, I told P, I completely get why you found my old man cool.   He was, objectively, an original.

Only once you liked him, as a reader, would the crafty writer begin to show the fissures, the cracks you could look through to see the world of demons inside that made him act, in the privacy of his nuclear family, like the coldly insane bastard he often was to my sister and me.   A much more interesting story, once you like and admire the guy, to find the very dark side, the bottomless pit of personal torments that drove him.

I am fascinated by the feat of holding two strongly opposed sides of a person or thing in mind at once.    It is a feat we must often perform with the people we love, their faults balanced by qualities we do not want to live without.   That balancing act was the genius of Jane Leavy’s masterful portrait of my childhood hero Mickey Mantle.  On every page, sometimes in the same paragraph, you get strong evidence of the cool, generous, funny, playful, powerful, beloved  Mick and an equally compelling case for the sullen, angry, self-loathing, despicable asshole Mick.  

You can make the personal case both ways, at the same time, as Leavy does, without diminishing or idealizing the person.   If you do it well– fascinating shit.   We are all complex this way, capable of great kindness and sometimes unspeakably bad actions.  Leavy’s biography did not make me like or admire Mantle any less, it gave me a lot more nuance, and a much more realistic picture of the person, than most biographies do.

I also meant to tell P of my lifelong project, not to react with the helplessly raging anger I was taught.   It was the lingua franca of the little house I grew up in — lash out violently at those you know won’t punch you in the face.   A foolish way to be, and something that must be thoroughly understood if you hope to escape it.

My very brief conversation with P gave me an idea.   From time to time I write things here that are anodyne, in the best sense of the word.  These pieces are (unconsciously) calculated to cause no harm.  They are written not to grind any ax, expose troubling difficulties or to wrestle with my own nimble, endlessly engaging demons.  Oddly, these pieces express no bitterness, ambiguity or criticism at all.   I sometimes (not often, admittedly) write something just to tell a story of someone or something I love.    Take these pieces, for example.  

My brief chat with P convinced me that I should put up an Anodyne category on this blahg.  A link I could send you where you would read only pieces that put the things written about in the best light.    The affectionate vignettes about my grandfather, for example, do not hint at the savagely powerful demons that haunted the gentle old man in his deepest places.  Demons with every claim to fucking haunt him, I might add.   He grew up in the Ukraine among anti-Semites who, from time to time, drunkenly invaded the Jewish part of town and held an old fashioned pogrom.

Seriously, you ask, a fucking pogrom?  

Yes, a cohort of the worst of the good Christian Ukrainians he lived among, the folks he sold his father’s grain and other groceries to, went nuts periodically, and animated by the passionate belief that my grandfather and his filthy ilk had deliberately murdered God’s only son (another long story) , ran amok among the Jews.  They’d smash shop windows, plunder, loot, beat people up, kill a few Jews, if the feeling (and the vodka, one imagines) was on them strong enough, and, of course, rape any Jewish women and girls who were not hidden behind sturdy, heavily bolted doors.

My grandfather was physically strong, but an individual, no matter how strong, is no match for an enraged lynch mob.   He grew up with legitimate terror.  Being the object of a mob of hate-filled drunks is no joke.   Twenty years after he left the town, following his more courageous fiance to America during the reign of Calvin Coolidge (she’d arrived while Harding was president), those same Christian neighbors marched every Jew to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town and executed all of them, under Nazi supervision.   Fragments of their bones still stir on windy days, the bones of my grandfather’s and grandmother’s many brothers and sisters, and their children.  I read this disquieting detail in an article in the New York Times magazine, by someone who visited the town not long ago.

In the Anodyne section there would be no reference to this kind of horrific shit.   You could safely read, in a protected harbor I’d carve out for you, gentle reader, only things that make you wonder and imagine.  Only the lapping of the waters on the shores would be heard, the rustle of the leaves and the songs of birds and primates.  I will attempt to put this section together in the coming days, for my old friend P_____ and anyone else who might want to hang out in the cool shadows of a leafy glade as the greediest of the world casually burn everyone who is not them.