terra incognita!!!

Mapmakers used to describe gaps in their knowledge of the world under the phrase terra incognita.  The legend on old maps described uncharted, unimaginable expanses of unknown terrain.  Krakens, dragons and every kind of supremely destructive beast were presumed to inhabit terra incognita.  Prove they didn’t, using the maps of the day, you couldn’t.  Therefore, under the coercive, superstitious logic of the day, these monsters actually lived in the terra incognita, and if you disagreed too conspicuously, you could be bound and publicly set on fire as an instruction to other monster skeptics.

Armed with better and better maps intrepid explorers, funded by kings, queens and wealthy early corporations (Dutch East India Company comes to mind) bravely ventured into these uncharted areas and the maps became more and more complete until there was no corner of the earth (except perhaps deep under the sea) that was truly terra incognita.  Today the greatest expanse of terra incognita is inside the minds and hearts of homo sapiens.

A friend used to have a footer on his emails (which I was unable to find in a pile of emails to quote verbatim, dagnabbit):  be kind, remember that everyone you meet is engaged in a hard battle.   True, and good advice.  The invisible battles waged by everyone are truly terra incognita.  We stumble into this land of other people’s unimaginable terrors at our peril.   When your interior battle crosses mine, watch out.  

I spent two years, every day, writing everything I could think of about my father, a perplexing man of unlimited potential and unlimited defensiveness.   My father was chased every moment of his waking life by what he referred to as the demons we all have inside us.   After writing and conducting a long post-mortem discussion with him for two solid years I came to truly understand his motivations, though I didn’t always agree with them, and this understanding allowed me to truly forgive a destructive character who apologized for the first and only time at the very end of his life, hours before he breathed his last. Still, as well as I grasp the tragedy that was my father, the recesses of my heart are still haunted, as all such recesses are.

Do the same thing my father used to do, glare with implacable hostility, maintain an angry defensive silence, defend yourself in lawyerly and inhumane ways, create and insist on an insane counter-narrative to make me the aggressor, you the victim, and I immediately find myself in that familiar, terrifying, incoherent terra incognita.   We can’t map this terrain because we can’t bear to look at it for more than a second or two at a time.  It overpowers us and seems to limit our options to fight or flight.  It is primitive, terrible, maddening business.   We push it down because there is little else to do about it.  Anyone seemingly not engaged in a hard battle is very good at acting, until you touch a nerve that sets off their fight or flight response.

We live in a culture where our collective terra incognita has been set on fire. Along with actual record wildfires on various continents, and the rage and violence we see and hear in many of our citizens, a fire rages in the hearts of tens of millions of us.   This fire is fed regularly, and much of its most potent food is incoherent poison, things a healthy body would never put into its mouth.  No matter.  Down the hatch it goes, and instead of digestion, fire belches forth, to singe the eyebrows of anyone who dares to ask “Jesus, are you OK?” 

When you breathe fire, of course, you are not OK, not fucking OK at all!  How infuriating is that stupid question when the burning inside you is actually flaming out of your mouth and singeing the face of your interlocutor?   Jesus, am I fucking OK?  Yes, I’m fine, you’re the one who is about to die, asshole… 

The roots of my need for coherence

Growing up in a home where I was treated as a dangerous adversary from the day I came home as a newborn affected my wiring in fundamental ways.  Because my parents were always ready with anger and blame, and I was often regularly excoriated over trumped up offenses, sometimes things I was not remotely at fault for, I became painfully sensitive to the brutality of an incoherent, self-serving narrative.   

It was much easier for my parents, two overwhelmed abused children who grew up without essential tools to process their own frustrations, to unite in their blame of a kid who was, in their view, just an irrationally angry little bastard constantly fighting for no apparent reason.  In their story their own behavior had nothing to do with their child’s mysterious, unfortunate, completely innate bad feelings.  They insisted they were right, stuck together most of the time, and that was that.

My life’s work was set for me early on — to discover a truth deeper than the harmful bullshit that was being angrily forced on me and explaining to myself coherently the reasons for the insane arrangement I was expected to subscribe to as simply reality.  As I learn reasons that make sense to me I begin to calm myself. 

Understanding is my most important tool and I wield it with as much clarity as I can against the sometimes awesome incoherence of a world that requires little by way of reason or clarity to form huge enraged armies to inflict hell on their enemies.   Finally learning of the extreme abuse my father underwent, from infancy, (I was in my forties when I learned some key details) unlocked a door of empathy and understanding for me that my father was unable to approach, until hours before his death.

Whenever I am confronted with an incoherent reframing of actual upsetting events it gets my back up.   If someone treats me in a thoughtless way that hurts me and when I react with pain tells me I am wrong to be hurt in any way, that it wasn’t thoughtlessness at all, it was an innocent misunderstanding and I have to forget about it because they love me, because they wouldn’t have been hurt at all if I’d done the same to them, it never quite gets down the old craw.   

I literally can’t swallow an incoherent story, maybe because it makes no fucking sense.  Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know.  I think I am probably not alone in preferring a story that is understandable in the light of observation and experience to a senseless one designed to serve an emotional agenda to protect someone else against feeling bad.   

Friends, when they feel defensive, see my need for coherence, which requires an openness to accepting one’s part in things that actually happened, as a relentless need to be “right”.   I can understand why it could look that way to them, particularly in a competitive and violently adversarial culture like ours, but it is a need for honesty and mutual understanding on my part, more than anything else I can put my finger on.   I was forced to defend myself from before I could even speak, in adversarial proceedings brought daily by a father/prosecutor who was very good at prosecuting.  I developed skills in arguing way before I finally, misguidedly, went to law school.   People sometimes tell me they feel overmatched and it gets their backs up, because they need to feel “right” too and I’m a more skilled fighter with words than they are, so their disadvantage makes them fight harder.  There are many ways to fight against something that makes you feel defensive and many are familiar from my childhood.   

Reframing is a famous technique for avoiding any discussion of anything you don’t want to talk about and my father was a genius at constantly steering the conversation away from what his children needed to talk about to a much deeper thing that we were “really” talking about.   Any conversation about being hurt was constantly reframed until we were talking about the real, and only, issue:  what an irrationally angry little fuck I’d always been, and remain.   

If I behave toward you in a way that’s wrong, and keep defending it as a mistake, like all humans make, I am choosing a neutral, understandable synonym to let myself off the hook for hurting you.   I was wrong because I made a mistake and I made a mistake because I was wrong are fairly close, almost interchangeable.  Wrong carries a bit more moral weight than mistaken, since using it accepts responsibility for the harm the mistake caused, so to shift the ground from the moral idea that it is wrong to do something to you that I hate done to me, I can insist on calling it a mistake and put the onus on you, the person I wronged/mistaked to have the human compassion to forgive me without more.  It is a painful thing to be unforgiven and an ugly thing to be unforgiving, isn’t it?  About a simple mistake?  Come on.

Then there is the greatest weapon of all against responsibility or reconciliation — silence by way of response.

This is kryptonite to me, as it would be to you, if applied steadily and consistently over years to make sure there was no possibility of being heard, no chance for reconciliation of any kind.  After months of silence about my last attempt at reconciliation with my father (and, naturally, I’d chosen the infuriating medium of a letter, where I have the unfair advantage of not being interrupted, reframed, dismissed, or ignored while communicating as clearly as I am able) he spoke words that live with me to this day “oh, that letter (the one I’d sent twice before hand delivering a third copy).  Yeah, I read that.  You have to respect my right not to respond to that.”

A debatable proposition, but there you are.  As polite and crisp as my father’s sentence was “you have to respect my right not to respond to that” is, it’s a problematic, even incoherent, response to a loved one expressing a need for something better, even as it attempts to close a door forever, even as it succeeds, until the last night of the poor devil’s life when he admits, hours before he breathes his last and I close dead eyelids over eyes I never really noticed were the stormy grey green color of a troubled sea, that he had been wrong.   Wrong or mistaken, he blamed himself harshly, as he was dying, for things he understood that last night he should have had the sense and strength to work on in himself, instead of being content to blame a baby for being a deadly adversary.

Sometimes there are swamps we walk into without knowing where we are, and clarity is essential here in order to avoid wading into danger for everyone.  We can mistakenly believe that people we love can show us an intimate side, a dark side, make themselves exceptionally vulnerable, and then not act desperately to make painful things disappear.   The private lives of a couple, how they treat each other, show anger to each other, accept or reject each other, is a swamp we must exit as quickly as possible once we see we’ve stepped into it.  Any attempt to protect one against the other will go as badly as reaching into the muddy depths of a swamp to pull at something you can’t see.   

This last piece is recently acquired wisdom, thanks to friends who shared experiences to illuminate the truth of this.  If you doubt the truth of it, try it yourself sometime, spend a few days alone with a couple and begin trying to protect the wife against the open hostility of the husband and tell me you are not suddenly neck deep in a hot, humid, mosquito rich paradise for dangerous reptiles.  Live and learn, my friend, and take the lessons you learn to heart.   Only by doing that can we get out of a dangerous swamp that can easily swallow everything we love.

Harder to sit with sorrow than with anger

Sorrow is draining and terrible, it forces you to feel the pain of loss in its pure form. Anger, while blinding, gives you energy, purpose and a bracing sense of righteousness.

If you are quick to anger, try sitting with sorrow sometime, feeling the loss of a soul you love. It is an illuminating exercise.

My father found it humiliating to feel vulnerable. His early hurt made him unable to risk giving anybody the power to hurt him, so he never let his guard down. His fists were always ready, his blows were struck with glares and harsh words. If he had begun to taste the pain of the ocean of pain he was thrashing in, he would have drowned.

But I couldn’t have understood any of that while I was still his adversary. I couldn’t break free from that endless, senseless vying until I learned about his traumatic infancy. Seeing him as a whipped two year-old flooded me with compassion, and opened a window, for the first time, into his valiantly defended, tortured soul.

My strange belief in the power of understanding

I say strange belief because the world often appears to defy understanding. Look around, and tell me an understanding can be reached between people who hate each other. I believe it is possible for two enemies to become friends, once they learn how much they have in common, how many fundamental beliefs they actually share. It is rare, sure, but it has been known to happen.

The mother of a boy randomly killed by a new gang member tells the kid when he’s convicted that she will kill him. She visits him in prison, sends him books and money. When he’s released she lets him live in her murdered son’s room, which he does gratefully as he finishes his education. They become as close as mother and son. The young man asks one day if she still believes what she said at the end of his trail, that she’d see him dead. She tells him she does, and that his current life proves she did kill that monster he was becoming. He understands the truth of that. A beautiful true story I heard the woman herself narrate years ago on a program about the power of forgiveness. Rare, and wonderful, and also, proof that things that seem impossible can be done, if the heart is right and the actions taken are intelligent and consistent.

I enjoy talking with people, particularly when the conversation goes beyond normal pleasantries and daily observations and takes unexpected turns into new terrain and unknown commonalities are revealed.  There are difficult things we learn sometimes, important life lessons, and I particularly love those rare occasions where conversation takes this deeper turn and we compare the personal details of hard lessons we’ve learned about a particular vexation. 

In my home growing up, though the four of us were all reasonably good at talking, and liked to chat, our conversations often turned into angry arguments.   In that previous sentence we see, I suppose, the roots of my strange belief in the power of listening, speaking clearly, acknowledging — my belief in the importance of understanding.

You can argue adamantly, to prove you’re right, dominating the person you’re arguing with, yielding nothing, ever, or you can argue without stubbornness, open to another perspective and trying to illuminate a misunderstanding or unintended cruelty.  Dispassion is a word Buddhists and others use to describe thinking and communicating that is not the slave of passion, not in service to strong feelings that impede our ability to reason, to weigh things fairly, under a warm light.  If you speak and listen dispassionately you hear better and your responses are not as likely to add fuel to anger.  Dispassion is sometimes derided as unemotional, robotic, inhuman, but the real essence of it, I think, is keeping your thoughts slightly apart from your feelings, particularly strong feelings that will often stir you to assemble the troops to counterattack, and bearing in mind the larger, more humane purpose of the conversation.

In the grips of strong emotion we are often not at our best, emotionally, intellectually or morally.   In the last five years of my mother’s life, on the rare occasions I said something that made her explode in anger,  I became adept at quickly changing the subject to something pleasant.   It worked very well, she’d immediately release her mask of aggression and smile with great relief.  I came to see that the thing she was angry about was something I could immediately stop pressing and the thing I distracted her with showed that I understood her pain and we were now talking about something she liked instead.   I recognized that there were some things, like her painful relationship with her daughter and grandchildren, that she needed to vent about, and get my sympathy for.  She was unable to imagine anything better between them and her hurt and anger got inflamed whenever ideas about how to improve the hopeless situation were suggested by her know-it-all son.   Finally recognizing this inability of hers, an inability she shared with her daughter, sad to say (and which doomed every suggestion I might make),  I would desist in my doomed peacemaking efforts at the first sign of anger.

My father and I had a lifelong debate on whether people can change their fundamental natures.  There are good points on either side of the issue, but I was locked into proving that my belief that we can change much of what is painful to us was reasonable and based on evidence, and he was determined to prove that the idea that we have this kind of autonomy and power to change is a cruel illusion that does more harm than good.  I can see truths on both sides of the debate as I type these words.   Because of the acrimony between my father and me it was never possible to persuade my father of how much we can change our reactions to things that bother us or to move him off his fixed belief about the inevitability of pain, frustration and anger.   

“You admit you’re only changing your reaction, the superficial part, and that doesn’t touch the inborn, fundamental nature at all,” my father would say. “If you are born with a prickly disposition, no amount of navel gazing is going to make you able to resist provocation when it arises, provocation that would not even bother some one with an innately placid nature .   You might get a tiny bit better at not immediately snarling, but you are only changing your surface reactions, not your genetically programmed reflex. The fundamental things about ourselves are immutable and it’s pathetic to believe in something impossible.” 

“But changing your reaction, say not responding with reflexive anger, makes it possible to have a reasonable conversation with others, and that’s not a small thing,” I’d say.  In the end I pointed out that he himself had changed his angry reactions toward me, and that our relationship was better for it.  This proved a bad example to hand to a wartime prosecutor like my father, though he had, in fact, greatly moderated his angry reactions to me in recent years, after a difficult conversation I’d initiated with him one Yom Kippur.

“I only changed my superficial reactions,” he told me, “nothing fundamental changed in me.  I became a better actor, is all.  If I ever honestly told you what I really think of you it would do such irreparable harm to our relationship that we’d never be able to talk again.”   

He rested his decades-long case by saying the one thing that proved he was determined to be right, more than anything else in the world, and this neither he, nor I, nor any power in the universe could change — and here was the final proof.  All this talk of emotional plasticity and the value of a skilled therapist, of introspection, self-criticism and self-acceptance, so much bullshit for contempibly weak people to believe.  As for him, he was man enough to admit the difficult truth about humans — however we are, emotionally, at two years old, is how we are for the rest of our lives.

Therefore, following the logic, we cannot learn anything important, not really.  Superficial things, OK, we all learn to use toilet bowls, and language, academic subjects, but we can never learn how to hurt ourselves and others less.  Some people are born decent, reasonably happy, they get along in the world without friction or conflict.  Others are born riled up, unhappy, critical, ready to rumble, and these angry little ass kickers, who can never be wrong, are doomed to live in a world of hurt.

His tune changed on his deathbed, as apparently not infrequently happens.  Part of it, I believe, was seeing his lifelong adversary quiet, thoughtful and willing to do whatever he could to make his father’s death easier.  He lamented that he’d been unable to consider so many things, had been so limited in what he could imagine, had been so adamant, seen the world as so black and white.   He had painful regrets that he expressed for the first time, and I did my best to reassure him about each one that he’d done the best he could.

Now, it’s important to note how many times I have infuriated people close to me in recent years by my determination to remain peaceful and mild-mannered in the face of escalating bad feelings.   In the end the ugliness where there was once friendship and laughter, the absence where mutual good will used to be, becomes impossible to ignore. In their defense, there is nothing more maddening when you are angry than some fucking prig on the high road, managing to keep the anger off his tongue.

Expressing anger dramatically is a deadly game I’ve played countless times over the years, so, in the end, after enough angry invitations to tell a friend to go fuck himself, I yield to the surge of righteousness I’ve been trying not to express as contempt and tell the person, in detail, all of the irredeemable things about them I can no longer tolerate.   Friendship does not recover from this, because at the point where everything about another person is reduced to their worst and most shameful weaknesses, well, that’s irreparable harm.

So maybe my pre-deathbed father was right all along.  If you are locked in a battle with an adamant rival, intent on winning at all costs, you will, in the end, revert to however you were born to be.   The angry will rage, the placid will cry. You can pursue dispassion, believe in the power of conversation to illuminate difficulties, remove hostility, the plasticity of the human soul, forgiveness and all the rest, but in the end, when a line is crossed that is impossible to get back to the other side of, you are only prolonging the terminal phase of something that is already dead. All your high ideals about the power of understanding are so much useless, smelly, self-righteous baggage. 

Maybe so. 

I continue to work on being clear, and listening carefully to others. It is not the work of a few days, that.  Do we get better at things we practice faithfully?  All signs say we do, however loud the hooting chorus of fatalistic naysayers gets.

Nothing personal — my father’s deathbed Zen koan

Perhaps the most mysterious, profound and illuminating thing my father said to me the last night of his life was that none of the long war between us had been personal.   It took me a long time after he died to figure out what he meant by that.

“You have to understand, Elie,” my father told me in the strained voice of a dying man, “on a real level there was never anything personal about our battles.”   He explained that the hostilities had little to do with me, personally, though I was the one forced to fight.  He assured me he’d have acted the same way with any child, regardless of their temperament.  

Nothing personal.  When I fought you to the death every night, it was, strictly speaking, nothing personal.  My father was fighting his demons, the fears that tortured him all his life, those torments just took on my face when I sat across from him.  When he snarled at me it was difficult for me not to snarl back at him.   Nothing personal became intensely personal, though he told me that last night that I had to understand none of it had been personal, strictly speaking.

It reminds me of the moth joke Norm McDonald used to tell Conan O’Brien.   Norm took a ten second joke and milked it for seven minutes.   The set up is a moth walks into a podiatrist’s office and starts pouring out his heart to the doctor.  In Norm’s telling the moth is tortured by how much he hates himself, hates the reflection of himself in his son.   “When I look at my son,” Norm’s overwrought moth tells the podiatrist, “I am overcome with rage and self-loathing, it’s like looking at everything I hate in myself, and I hate that I hate my own son, which reminds me more how much I hate myself and how much I deserve to hate myself.  What kind of father feels revulsion when he looks at his own son’s face?  I tell you, doc, that kid, it’s like the worst in me condensed into a face I want to literally hit with a hammer.  I’m afraid one day I’m going to act on this rage, and I know it’s irrational, it has nothing to do with the poor kid, who I can see has some good qualities.  He’s actually a pretty good guy, my son, but I continue to stare at him with rage, I can’t help it, and I know how sick it is, doc, but I look at the kid’s face and I literally want to vomit, I’m afraid someday I’m going to murder him…” and Norm continues in this vein for several more minutes as Conan chides him and goads him on.

Finally the podiatrist says “listen, it sounds like you have some serious issues you need help with, but you really need a psychiatrist.  I’m a podiatrist, I treat problems of the feet and lower legs, I’m not the kind of doctor who can help you with what you just described to me.  Why did you walk into a podiatrist’s office?”

“The light was on,” says the moth.

Like the light that went on when I finally understood what my father meant by telling me I had to understand it was never anything personal, strictly speaking.  That he put it in context was helpful.   He told me he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years to make peace, but that he was always too fucked up to reach back.   He told me how much he regretted his lack of emotional maturity, imagination, moral courage.  He said he wished we could have had this kind of honest, back and forth conversation fifteen years ago, after only thirty-five years of constant, senseless warfare.

Nothing personal, like the universe itself had decreed it.  And we, hapless pawns that we are, blown like leaves in the wind, subject to forces too gigantic and terrifying to have any hope of overcoming.  Nothing personal, a great relief and a terrible curse, at once.  

Anger is a mask for feelings even more threatening

It hit me last night during a walk, after a day sadly considering the ongoing righteous anger of people I’ve known for years, that anger is a powerful emotion that often masks even more painful emotions.   It is unbearable to sit with the pain of feeling unloved, rejected, abandoned, ignored, powerless, harshly judged, vilified, unfairly punished.   Shame, of course, is a famous goad to violence, a cycle observed in every prison, in every slum, where people kill each other for the capital crime of disrespect. 

The easy fix for terribly painful feelings is a nice surge of anger at the perpetrators, or those you focus your anger on, which works just as well.  In the clean, harsh, black and white light of anger, all becomes clear.  These merciless fucking fucks deserve no less than the full force of my manly wrath!

Anger is an automatic reflex to being hurt. Easy as kicking when the doctor expertly hits your kneecap with that little rubber hammer. It also has the great advantage of closing off any conversation that might make you feel uncomfortable, possibly force you to confront whatever terrifying personal demons you are trying to hold at bay. Anger is far superior, and feels much more empowering, than crying in pain about something beyond your control or ability to heal from. It also has the inherent advantage of making you the victim of the person who made you mad. Being the victim is very important for a feeling of righteousness and personal integrity since it lets you off the hook for doing anything you’d be at fault for if you had not been the victim of the person you’re rightfully getting back at with your anger.

On a mass level, which is the aggregate of millions of individuals, anger works exactly the same way.  You have middle class citizens who work hard and play by the rules, losing ground every day in a world where your savings are constantly losing value and only the casino of the stock market offers the kind of interest banks used to pay depositors, although you can lose it all when you place your small nest egg on the Wall Street roulette wheel.   The job you work hasn’t seen a raise in decades, the union is gone, the plant is about to close so the corporation can make a bundle for the shareholders by moving production to a country with no regulations at all about anything.   You look around and more and more “minorities” are getting ahead, they’re on TV, in the movies, winning awards, championships, these rich, spoiled bastards complaining about being mistreated, the victims of systemic prejudice.   The so-called party of the working class is openly owned by billionaire corporate donors, just like the other party has always been, and has done little to protect what is being taken from you every day.  It’s a billionaire’s world now, and you don’t stand a fart’s chance in a hurricane of getting out of this in the comfort your parents enjoyed at the end. We all know who’s to blame. Time to get some payback!

Make America (insert any country’s name here) Great Again!   Like it was in the good days, when everybody was prosperous and before a bunch of activist commie dupes on the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the longstanding protections we all enjoyed during perfectly legal racial segregation.  Women knew their place in those days too, did their duty and gave birth to whatever was in their womb, as God intended.   And the so-called gays kept their perversions to themselves, on pain of a nice ass whupping, or worse.  We put Jesus Christ into the Pledge of Allegiance, for fuck sake, and still the godless communists keep coming, for our God, for our guns, for our children.

Much easier to feel rage toward all these hyped up perceived enemies than to realize you’ve been suckered, divided, conquered, force fed a gallon of stinking bullshit, down the old gullet with a funnel and hose.  The problem was never a vast cabal of powerful pedophiles, no such cabal exists (except in fevered fascist propaganda, it’s a favorite charge of Putin) these destructive creatures are universally hated (even when protected and hidden in hierarchies, or by their great wealth and political connections) and don’t last ten minutes in prison.  The problem was never most of what you are constantly told it is.  Believe it or not, it’s not even a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and I would know. if it was

The problem in the US and elsewhere is that the super-wealthy 0.01% have finally taken over the political system. Here they’ve orchestrated the appointment of a hand-picked Christian corporatist majority on the Supreme Court, installed by them, that decides what’s constitutional and what must be struck down as contrary to our democratic values. These super wealthy include the eternal vampire psychopaths, created by our courts, known as corporations.   Endowed by federal judges with feelings and rights, and even personhood, equivalent to an innocent embryo, these artificial persons are entitled to do whatever they feel necessary, legally spend unlimited amounts of secret money to make the laws, and have the government, that protect themselves, and their profits, the best.

The thought that anger is just a mask, much of the time, for more threatening emotions, struck me as a good starting point to think about a lot of things related to non-harm and kindness.   The easiest thing, and it is part of basic survival, is to simply get mad when you feel mistreated.   Fuck the fucking consequences, I don’t have to take this kind of treatment from an actual piece of shit!   I will rage, and feel righteous, and the unbearable pain and life-sapping fear that lurks inside when I start to consider the harms that were inflicted on me personally will be replaced by a surge of being 100% in the right to smash your fucking face, asshole.

This mechanism, I realize now, was the emotional engine that drove my father, from his shameful childhood to his deathbed regrets.  A man, particularly in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, could not give in to the need to have a good cry about the painful betrayal he experienced in his earliest life.  Feeling humiliation is unbecoming, unhealthy, crippling, weak.  Fuck that, a man takes action! 

Sometimes, sadly, that action needs to be righteously bellowing at your children.  It’s your right, you feed the ungrateful little provocative bastards, and clothe them, house them, bust your ass working two jobs to give them a life a hundred times better than the horror show you experienced.  I understand the anger itself, I saw it regularly, daily, for almost the entire time I knew my father.  It was only once, not long before he breathed his last breath, that he had his first inkling that maybe there was a better way to be a human being than raging at his children, keeping his wife on a short leash.

Lack of imagination is a crippling handicap, and a very common one.   Without it, you cannot imagine better options than variations on the old standard you inherited from your own fucked up parents. It’s like the corporate insistence that it’s either unregulated worldwide capitalism (freedom) or totalitarian communism. Limited in your seeming choices, you are bound to justify everything you do as the only real choice. Real choice, of course, being limited by what you can imagine your choices to be.

If you do something, and feel totally justified doing it, it must be universal, otherwise, shit… it could be abnormal. The thought of not being normal was one of the most terrifying things my father, who never forgave any hurt, was ever confronted by. When I told him once that he was weird, his brain almost short circuited. The odd expressions that played on his face as he repeated the word “weird” with incredulous inflections made a big impression on teen-aged me. Luckily, for him, everyone in the family knew how fucked up and abnormal I was.

Sitting with corrosive emotions

This has got to be one of the hardest things humans have to do.   A feeling that causes pain, and is left unaddressed by the people involved in causing it, leads to anger or depression (anger turned against the self, in an apt description I read), after an increasing bitterness that becomes impossible to ignore.  The reflex in most will be to turn anger on the person causing the pain, simply blame them, or to quietly take the pain on yourself as confirmation that you deserve no better, somehow.  Hard to sit with corrosive emotions, though sit with them you must, sometimes.   

There are a few reasons a loved one will not hear you when you ask them to, few of them are very promising for the relationship.  Particularly if they, understandably, demand to be heard at once when they are in pain and then tell you just to wait a few more months to talk about what’s bothering you.   

Parents, for example, may feel supremely challenged by a very smart child.  The kid will have to learn to navigate around the insecurity of the parents, find his or her own way forward, without the help of the parents.  Sometimes just a difficult question about something that perplexes the kid will set the parents off.   How do we explain something that gives us so much pain to think about?  Nobody knows the answer to human evil!   Why do you ask such goddamned questions all the time!?   Jesus, can’t you just be quiet?!  The kid derives various lessons from this consistent feedback, adjusts the best they can.

Some people cannot be wrong.  If you point out something they did thoughtlessly, or unfairly, you are pointing to something intolerable, something inhuman, unthinkable to them.   “You don’t seem to understand, I cannot be wrong.  It’s not that I don’t like being wrong, I can’t be wrong.   How do you not know this about me after all these years?  I will not be wrong, I will not be challenged to defend my actions, you have the problem, not me!  I am loved by everyone, you’re the only one with a problem, look at your own life!” 

My dear old dad had this feature, an inability to admit fault for anything.  It endured through almost fifty years of constant war with his children, two provocative little shit snots who constantly challenged him, and lasted until the last night of his life, when he realized how much of a horse’s ass (his phrase, only time I ever heard him use it) he’d been to see the world as black and white.   He wistfully imagined the world he could have been living in instead, full of nuance and color, rather than the bleak high contrast warscape he inhabited and imposed on his young children.  He apologized for forcing my sister and me to grow up in the grim shadow of his irrationally limited emotional worldview.  I appreciated the apology.  He died a few hours later.

Once, two years before he died (two years of the meaningless fake small talk he demanded at the end) he told me I had to respect his right not to respond to concerns I raised. For once I was there with a reply I couldn’t later improve on. I told him I understood that he was choosing not to talk about a difficult subject but that I certainly did not have to respect that choice. He then demanded we keep our conversations politely superficial, talk only about sports, health, politics, and so we did, until that last night of his life, when he admitted he’d felt me reaching out to make peace with him many, many times over the years. He regretted, that last night, that he hadn’t been mature enough to reach back, even once. He’d been too afraid, he told me. And so, to avoid pain he could not bear, we’d had to pretend to be a loving father and son, on his strict, limiting terms, until I was there to support him as he died.

Sometimes, I have to say, I am the last one to understand the full scope of a situation.  Sometimes it feels like I’m the last to realize that something I’ve long cherished is already dead.  My efforts to not react with anger, to fully process what needs to be said so I can speak without the anger, must make me some kind of aggravating holier-than-thou freak to loved ones who get anger off their chest and move on, without the need to understand anything about what set off their anger (since, after all, they know who to blame).    By the time I put my thoughts together, particularly after a couple of follow-up challenges (threats like “I’ve dropped people from my life for doing less to me than what you did”) the subject is ancient history, being dredged up needlessly by a troubled person, and nobody in their right mind cares about that stuff.

My best advice is to somehow make peace with the bitterness that churns up when your needs are dismissed.  That bitterness is to be expected when you are stonewalled in your need to be heard.  Forgive yourself for being unable to stop feeling it. I find that setting things out clearly on a page provides some temporary relief.

You will have to leave the embittering situation in the end, if you can’t find a way to make it better, it is Survival 101 for anyone but the hardcore masochist. Remember that making peace requires goodwill and openness on both sides, you can’t do it alone. In the meantime, finding the patience you will need is a great challenge, a mind-fucking challenge some days, as is maintaining a posture of peace, when the sides seem to have been drawn in black and white, the final irrefutable victim story irrevocably arrived at, all details agreed to, and the terms of any possible peace treaty have already been carved in stone.

Picturing the familiar festive table without you is a little foretaste of death, the place we all must go in the end.  If you’d been hit by a truck, or died suddenly of a heart attack, the effect would be the same.  A chair you used to sit in, occupied by someone else, as life goes on, as it must.

Note on the Book of Irv

As I suggested yesterday, I’d like to get back to rewriting the story of my father into a readable 250 pages (the first draft, which you can see here as it emerged, is about 1,200 pages) but I’ve been unaccountably distracted by the worldwide resurgence of the kind of fascism that always leads to mass murder, after years of brutal repression.   The world’s getting a little appetizer in the deliberate war crimes Trumpie’s pal Putin is committing in a war of unprovoked aggression against the civilians of Ukraine [1].   

The movement we have here has been on the move for decades, pretty much since the New Deal programs began, funding their dozens or hundreds of powerful octopus arms with billions in hereditary wealth, determined to destroy the administrative state, all social programs, and reserve government coercion for poor people who don’t have shit to say about it.  These are the same supremely entitled motherfuckers who are always upset when “entitlements” like Social Security, child labor laws, anti-pollution laws, unemployment insurance, pro-labor and pro-environmental enforcement agencies, governmentsubsidized private health insurance for the old, the poor, a century- belated ruling that segregation is unconstitutional, anti-lynching laws and so forth become the normal expectations of ordinary American citizens.

Globalist is usually right-wing code for “nefarious fucking socialist Jews” (which, as a nefarious fucking socialist Jew, I am allowed to say, happy Passover, y’all) but it applies much more accurately to the global coordination between extreme right wing parties.   When it comes to the international fascist movement, Sloppy Steve Bannon is right there, 100% gung ho, ready to be a muscular martyr for the cause.  Ditto angry Trump confidante Stephen Miller, racist Jeff Sessions’s protege and loyal Trumpist in the bunker with the mad former president.  Furrow-browed Tucker Carlson, TV dinner fortune heir (and the political party Carlson propagandizes for), loves Victor Orban, the Hungarian fascist, and hosted his FOX show in Hungary, a model society for his ilk — why do gays need rights?   Why should I be against Putin, he never called me a bad name?   Why do George Soros and the Clintons hate our freedom so much?   How do we actually know Trump wasn’t cheated, along with the rest of us, in a cleverly rigged election?  Why are Blacks always angrily complaining about unarmed family members being killed by cops when whites never do?    Why do I always pose these hateful things as questions?   Do you want to get sued for directly defamatory, or prosecuted for treasonous, behavior? Do you actually believe my viewers want nuanced answers? Do I not give them answers they already know every night, in the form of leading questions? 

So, yeah, I’m distracted, I don’t know why, keeping one eye on the 50/50 chance we will have our own one party state, bound by a Fuhrer’s Oath of personal loyalty to a compulsive liar and vindictive king of open corruption, where a timid but comparatively decent party bows to the will of violent mobs and submits peacefully to their own public executions.   C’est la vie, I suppose.

[1]

Not to say the US didn’t do virtually the identical thing under the aptly named Dick Cheney when it launched a preemptive war, based on lies told over and over to the citizens of the US and the world, against Iraq a few decades back.  How many Iraqi children and old people did we kill, maim, turn into homeless refugees?   We will never have an accurate count of the many thousands our smart and stupid bombs killed or crippled, though the number of brown refugees who fled the brutal “liberation” of Iraq was in the millions.

Book of Irv, anyone?

I struggle, more than most, against lifelong impediments installed in my childhood.  My parents were generally united in their theories, rationales and accusations, but most of the hostility I faced was generated by my brilliant father, a perplexing contradiction of a man to be raised by.  There is nothing more difficult for a child to make sense of than sentimental tenderness expressed with humor alternating with sudden rage, particularly when the anger is defended in a unified front by both parents. 

For example, it was beyond debate, according to them both, that I had been born a very angry baby.  After all, they’d say, I’d displayed red-faced rage and challenged my parents on everything from the time I was a few days old.  My father referred to the accusing way I stared at him from my crib, with huge, unblinking black eyes,  from the day I returned from the hospital, a newborn.  This creeped him out so much they moved my crib to my mother’s side of the bed after a couple of days.  

It always seemed crazy to me, this insistence that I was born angry, stared “accusingly” at my father from the second or third day of my life, and that there was no concievable explanation for my natural born intransigence as an infant, and my constant anger, but that was always their position, at least until the last night of my father’s life. 

I struggle against the damage done to me by insistent, unlikely theories about my character in several ways.   One is a determination to avoid any echoes of the unfair, opinionated, sometimes insane, beliefs about me that I was expected to accept as true.  I am attuned to the sometimes subtle machinations of angry self-defense and how it often becomes intent on blaming others for sudden outbursts of anger.   Such displaced anger is a common thing most people encounter and sometimes practice, the assigning of unfair blame for grievous acts a loved one never committed.  It is commonly done by people close to each other, because that is the safest place to prosecute such anger.  Or maybe not, most murders, we’re told, happen between people who know each other, often within families.

Another way I struggle is by researching and pondering, often while tapping these keys. It took me years to discover the source of my father’s frequent rage and how that rage shaped my view of the world.  I sat down finally, in 2016, at sixty, to write out everything I knew about my father’s life, to write his biography as best I could.  I found myself putting together a puzzle with thousands of missing pieces, working in almost total darkness.   I wrote daily for two years.  Much of it was like searching history for a trace of the muddy hamlet my father’s mother came from, a place wiped off the map in 1942 along with everyone in it, like literally thousands of other little Jewish hamlets and towns in those years.    

Initially I was looking for a scene to dramatically convey the severe damage my father inflicted on my sister and me.  This was devilishly hard work because his techniques were frequently very subtle, the withholding of an encouraging word, a glare, often just silence applied, by reflex, to strategically cruel effect.  I couldn’t point to a busted nose or a broken arm, a tearful midnight trip to the emergency room.   The damage that can be done with words alone, backed by an implacable will, is impressive.  It is also often fiendishly subtle.   We all get hurt by words sometimes, and we can all say, together “boo hoo!”, though the pain hurtful words can inflict is as sharp as the entry of an arrow into our flesh.  

I struggle against a ready temper, every day.   I overcompensate sometimes in my efforts to remain mild.  This has sometimes driven others to rage, that I try not to react with anger when provoked, goadingly clinging to the high road, like a superior fucking prig.  This is maddening to people who want a good fight.  I don’t want a good fight.  I never wanted a good fight, though I was forced to fight daily for the first few decades of my life.  Like most experienced fighters, I’m aware that facial expression, tone of voice and body language are potent weapons of war.   Part of my struggle against my temper is against an inability to keep these reflexes under control. A look on the old face, no more than a telltale micro-expression, a tone saying otherwise polite words just so, a tensing of the body are still fairly automatic when the heat is being turned up. Mastering that shit, my friends, may well be beyond my powers.

I’m aware that many people may view these struggles of mine as a kind of vanity, if not also folly.   My father, for one, put forth a lifelong argument that people cannot change anything fundamental about themselves.   He denounced as deluded the belief that a skilled psychiatrist or other therapist can help us gain insights and change anything about our innate natures.   As proof he’d point to the reflex to become angry.  Some are born with a hair trigger temper and some are born with a more placid disposition, no amount of work is going to change the reflex in a born-angry person to get mad easily.   As if in proof of this theory, as much as I consciously try to remain mild, I fly into a rage instantly when a computer or smart phone bends me over, even momentarily.  I wax Tourretic when forced into a corporate or bureaucratic cul du sac, or encounter idiocy built into their help line, like having to navigate five menus to learn the help line is currently closed (easy enough to post hours of operation next to the number, no?). I have also provoked a couple of people in recent years, at times by not showing I was hurt by getting angry, as any normal person would.

I can say this with certainty — had I not gone through a painful course of psychotherapy toward the end of my father’s life, I’d have never been able to be calm and supportive the last night of my father’s life as the poor devil was expressing his sincere regrets, and for the first and last time in his life, his apologies.   Without the twice weekly wrestling matches with my demons I’d have never realized that letting go of much of my anger toward my father, rightful as most of it undoubtedly was, was a necessity for my own life, growth, ability to evolve into a more insightful, hopefully kinder person than my father was.  If we can’t make 100% progress in such changes, I’d say, 50%, or 30%, is still pretty good. At the very end, even my father had to agree.  

I can also say this with certainty, virtually any of us is capable of acting like a fucking tyrant, given the right context.   And we almost always believe we acted that way with perfect justification.   

In the end, the story of the Book of Irv is about anger, insight and the power of repentance and forgiveness.  I believe the story of the long, senseless, ugly war between my father and me, and its unexpected peaceful conclusion on the last night of the old man’s life, could be useful to many readers.   It is a story of persistence, and the durability of love even under brutal conditions.   If I can tell it properly it will evoke the power of learning to forgive, ourselves and others, though the lesson came too late to do my father much good, though my own struggles are lifelong.  

My father’s life was an example of a very smart, funny, likeable man, a friend of the underdog and lover of animals, often trapped in the emotions of a two year-old viciously assaulted by an insane mother, a life he told me, hours before his death at 80, had been pretty much over by the time he was two. He said this, in the passive voice, after a lifetime of angrily denying that childhood has anything to do with the adult, that only whiners complain to shrinks about how mean their parents were and snivelingly try to blame their parents for their own problems.

I am a fairly old man myself now. The clock is ticking on my time to put everything I learned in those two years of daily writing into a coherent book that others can read and consider.   Much of the first draft is a conversation with the skeleton of my father, the skeleton applying a dead man’s too late insights to much of the discussion, somehow providing me with details it was impossible for me to know from the scant record.  The skeleton showed up one day early on in my writing, seemingly of his own accord, and I came to look forward to sitting down each day to talk to the spirit of my dead father, much wiser than when he was alive and struggling in the world, between the beating he took as an infant and his deathbed realizations.   

Think about this too, just because serious damage can be inflicted in subtle, deniable ways doesn’t mean we have to accept it and move on.  My father’s life, and mine, demonstrate the impossibility of just accepting it and moving on. The price of accepting what is unacceptable, without understanding it and learning lessons from it, is a price nobody should have to pay.    To my mind, it is a merciless fucking price to demand someone pay.

The tragedy of my old man

My father, a bright, funny, friend of the underdog, was a pessimist who conceded the last night of his life that his life had been effectively over by the time he was two years old. He did not believe people could actually change anything meaningful about themselves and lived accordingly.