A thought about my father’s talent for empathy

I was thinking about the mild, kind, nurturing side of my complicated father recently.   It was not his default setting, he was usually guarded and ready to attack if he felt in any way threatened, but his talent for comforting was a memorable side of him that needs to be brought out in describing him to you.  He was capable of great sensitivity and supportiveness, in the right emotionally threatening situation.   Anybody who ever found themselves in a tough spot, and was calmed by the way my father’s used great intelligence, warm humanism and a hint of humor to relieve worry, will remember him gratefully.

It was his ability to be conciliatory, reassuring and merciful while, at any given moment, also capable of merciless verbal violence, that made being his child so tricky, so disorienting, made it so hard to get a handle on what was real and what was ridiculous.   Ultimately, I think it was this highly rational man’s irrational need to unconditionally vilify, coming from someone equally capable of great empathy, that proved so damaging to his offspring.

My sister, who identifies with our father as much as I do, noted that our father was always playful and tender with young children (as well as small animals, he took a particular delight in lifting small dogs by the armpits and rocking them, rigid legged, in front of his face).  She concluded this was because they posed no threat to him.   I think she was right.  He was a different person when he wasn’t worried about being attacked, as any of us are.  Little kids of a certain age are cute, playful and trusting as puppies.  They can be fun to play with — plus they pose no harm and are very happy for attention.  He was at his best goofing around with them, sounding them out about things, going with the flow, making them laugh.

My father was also at his best in times of crisis, when you were very upset in the midst of an emergency.  He would quietly lay out his understanding of your worries and then calmly walk you through all the reasons you shouldn’t be so upset.   He had a great ability to reassure. 

The mechanism of this, I realize now, was similar to his unguarded playfulness with children.   When my sister or I were most vulnerable, our father was least concerned with being attacked by us.  This freed him to express his better nature.   The memory of his consistent kindness in these tough situations also served to make my sister and me often blame ourselves when he was enraged at us.

It was an emotionally confusing situation to grow up in, being raised by someone so reflexively critical and angry who was also capable of such soothing compassion.   One of the hallmarks of my father’s fighting style was the insistence that you were wrong to feel what you were feeling.  “You’re wrong,” he’d say flatly, in the face of your upswelling emotion, and then reframe things to tell you what you should actually be feeling, if you weren’t so fucked up, and why you’d be much better off simply feeling the opposite of how you felt.   

I’ve since learned that this refusal to acknowledge another person’s hurt is perhaps the most provocative thing a person can do in response to someone else’s vulnerability — tell them they have absolutely no right to feel what they are feeling. 

There was rarely an attempt to de-escalate anything in our home, this was not in either of our parents’ emotional repertoires.   They had both suffered greatly at the hands of strong-willed, violent mothers.   They were ill equipped to deal with their frustrations, our own frustrations were maddening to them.    

There would be angry confrontations at the dinner table, virtually every night.  Accusations would fly, authoritative pronouncements by my father delivered in the style of a prosecutor’s closing remarks to the jury.  What you were doing now, in this moment of anger, was what you always do because you are an irredeemably angry person, a bad seed, a hater.   In my sister’s case, she was portrayed to the imaginary jury as not angry, so much, but reflexively dishonest, scheming, vain, empty-headed.   This reduction of each of us to the sum of some purported faults or weaknesses did a great deal of harm, as you can imagine.

When my sister and I discuss our childhood there’s a phrase we bat around that often gets a chuckle out of us “twisted and contorted with hate”.   My father must have directed the phrase to me more than once, since we both recall it so clearly.  He would snarl this at me whenever I’d sit across from him, my face twisted and contorted with hate.    Hate, mind you, is a very strong word.

My grandmother, whose six brothers and sisters were marched to a ravine and shot in the back of their heads by local townspeople who hated them, always reacted with disgust when I’d report that I hated my teacher.  She tried to teach me what a strong word hate is.   “You HATE her?  Be quiet! You don’t HATE her… you don’t know what hate means, hate means you’d kill her,” she’d say, correctly.   I’d stick to my guns, as my grandmother waved her large hands dismissively.

“Yeah, grandma, I’d kill her…” I’d insist, as righteous children often do. 

“Please…” she’d say turning away with incomparable dismissiveness.

 

                                                                                    ii

In thinking about my father now, and the deeper values he imbued in me, and what he tried to teach me to never tolerate,  I grasp something impressive.   At the same time that he often acted tyrannically, he also instilled in me a profound resistance to tyranny– not only by an instinct to refuse his overbearing assaultive behavior toward me but also by his philosophical example, the courageous people he admired.  

He truly hated tyranny, an irrational assertion of unchallengeable, often brutal, will, and I digested this hatred, which on some level he supported, even as he reflexively acted like a despot and fought me without restraint.  I could see that on some level he respected me for fighting back against his attempts to tyrannize me.  Tyranny, he taught me on a cellular level, is evil — straight up.   I would come to lose many jobs, even my chosen profession, animated by this high-minded belief in higher justice and by a visceral inability to yield to a bully — or to seeing others bullied.

My father told me, the last night of his life, that his life was basically over by the time he was two.  I’d learned the reason for this a few years earlier from my father’s closest cousin, Eli, a first generation American tough guy 16 years older than my father.  I spent many a Saturday up at Eli’s retirement bungalow during the last few years of the old man’s life, talking about everything.   My father would vehemently dismiss any insight I believed I’d taken from my talks with Eli.  Eli’s accounts were bullshit, he’d insist, portraying Eli as a hopelessly muddled and unreliable historical revisionist and pointing to his estrangement from his own children as the proof that Eli was full of shit.   

When, at 1 a.m., I entered the room my father would die in nineteen hours later, one of the first things he said was “those stories Eli told you… everything he said was true, though I’m sure he spared you the worst of it.”  The worst I’d heard from Eli was bad enough.   Eli’s mother died when he was a year-old.    He instantly bonded with his Aunt Chava, his father’s youngest sister, a red-haired beauty who arrived by boat when Eli was six.  Eli and his father were at the dock in lower Manhattan to greet her.

“It was love at first sight,” Eli told me happily and recounted all the ways his beloved Tante Chava doted on him throughout his life.  There was no mistaking the painful ambivalence in Eli as he prepared to tell me a horrible detail I needed to know about his beloved Tante Chavah, my father’s mother, in order to help me make sense of our tangled, violent family history.  To give me a painful insight into my father’s most painful secret.

Eli had seen it more than once.  I picture him standing in the doorway to the kitchen of Chava’s home as his one year-old cousin stood in front of his chair, eyes downcast in terror, as his mother, Eli’s beloved Aunt, reached angrily into the drawer behind her chair for the rough, heavy cord of her iron, and whipped him across the face with it.

Across the face?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Eli with infinite sorrow.

“How old was he?” I asked.   

“However old you are when you can stand on your own two feet, I don’t know, one, one and a few months, I guess… a baby…”

After a while, of course, all Chava had to do was rattle the drawer where she kept the rigid, burlap-wrapped cord and my infant father would stand rigidly, eyes fixed on the floor in front of him, shuddering in terror.  A terror and humiliation that never left him, vicious pain inflicted for no reason by the mother who called him “Sonny”.   From the time he could stand.

It is impossible to reckon the damage this betrayal by your own mother would do to a person.  My father was often very mean to my sister and me, and the damage of that is hard to reckon.   I can only imagine the soul destruction my father experienced was ten times worse, maybe a hundred times worse.

“My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” said the dying man as I stood beside his deathbed, the tiny digital recorder propped on his chest.   Many mysteries remain, all these years later.   One is how he managed to limit his abuse of my sister and me to harsh words.  Another is how he retained the ability, when things were darkest and scariest for us during our childhood. to empathize and calm us.   There are deep lessons in my father’s life for me and I will continue to delve until I have some answers worth sharing.

 

Organizing my attack

Sometimes we get insight in a very roundabout way, only after a thing has been gnawing at us for a very long time.   It can take being nibbled by a particular demon for many years before you jump out of your chair one day and say “what the fuck?!!” look down and see what is snacking on you.

At the end of several long, stressful days getting the house ready for the contractors (the lioness’s share done by indefatigable, self-proclaimed working dog Sekhnet)  I went through a pile of papers (a short stack) propped helter skelter on a board laid across an open desk drawer.   More than half the pages immediately went onto the recycle pile to be carried down to the bag.   The rest, mostly drawings, I clipped neatly into the clipboard they were lying haphazardly on.   

Not really very hard, I realized, though the volume and variety of papers here, as I glance around, is many, many times more than that short stack at Sekhnet’s I dispatched in a few minutes.   Of course, Sekhnet is right — spending a half hour a day at it would make a big difference within a few days, even here, in the eye of the storm.

Another insight hit me when I pulled a page I’d printed out of the pile and began reading.   It was my unsent pitch to a publisher who welcomes book proposals from unknown authors.   A two paragraph evocation of the book I thought I was writing about my father, something I worked on hours every day for two years, a massive, unwieldy first draft.   

I stopped reading my pitch shortly into the second “reveal” paragraph.   I was glad I’d never sent the thing, it was a labored, strenuous, grunting swing at nothing but air.   It did not present a hint of a compelling idea for a book.

I recently saw a best-selling author, in the windup to an ad for his Master Class on how to become a successful writer, describe the writing of the second draft as an exercise in convincing everyone that you knew exactly where you were going when you wrote the first draft.    Wow.    That’s precisely my challenge in putting together the book of my father’s life and then successfully pitching it.   

The story of my difficult father’s life is not the tired old story of a smart idealist with an abusive dark side, fighting for justice for strangers while doing great harm to his own family.   It’s not the story of a man’s triumphant emergence from childhood poverty into the middle class (along with a large cohort of World War Two vets at a unique and fleeting moment in history).  It’s not the story of monstrous anger, righteous and senseless both, and a rigid inability to forgive.   

Those things are part of the back story.   The book is more of a meditation on the nature and substance of history itself, what we remember and what we forget, and the imagining of a lifelong conversation that should have been.   That conversation with the skeleton of my father, the one that began the last night of his life, is the heart of the book, though it’s not the story I need to tell, shop and sell.  

The real story is what I suspected from the start, the difficulty of forgiveness and a rare moment of grace, just before death, when an unbearable burden is lifted, the regrettable truth finally spoken and reassurance given to the dying man just before his light winks out.  The story is about exactly what those regrets are made of, what was learned, and lost, how the unlikely and precious moment came to happen at all.

Twenty-five years ago an old friend celebrated my decision to become a lawyer (an ill-considered one, at best) as me finally being about to “compete”.  I get what he was saying, I’ve always kept myself out of the economic competition that defines our materialistic culture, refusing to race the rest of the rats for the mirage of an illusory goal (or simply being a cowardly rat, depending on your view).   I did not embrace the world’s second oldest profession, nor did I ever really compete in it, outside of plucking the occasional victim out of the meat grinder of justice, as when I saved an old woman from homelessness at the hands of zealous NYCHA attorneys.

In mulling over the anger I’ve been feeling lately I realize part of it is my chafing feeling of paralysis (not helped by painfully arthritic knees — as Vonnegut said “be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.”), of being overwhelmed by difficult things that are hard, true, but clearly not impossible.    Part is anger at my resigned acceptance of a limited, frugal life, foregoing comfortable middle class options while muttering here in great, sometimes worthwhile, detail about the objectively atrocious state of things and what I have pieced together.   

I’m angry about having no voice, in spite of speaking all the time (as I am silently doing right now, you dig?), and often finding and saying things I think would advance the larger discussion in a threatened world increasingly dominated by mindless bluster and vapid shouting.   I’m angry that evil idiots, often born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us [1] rule and I that have nothing to say about any of it, no matter how well I may say it.    And that others, professionals, who blow “thoughts” out of their asses, are well-paid to do it.

I’m angry about my inability to marshal my abilities to tell a story and get paid.   I’m angry that I have to monetize my writing in the first place (but in an uncertain casino economy one needs to keep some money coming in) and I’m angry that I’m not getting any money for it.

I’m angry that I’m not getting paid for writing what I write and I’m angry that I’m doing virtually nothing about it.  It is a frustrating cycle and it presses on because I do not confront the hard work I need to do to market and sell my work.   I am, on a fundamental level (and as hard as I’ve often worked in my life) lazy, preferring at any given moment to do what I like rather than what needs to be done.  Since writing itself is satisfying to me, once I have the words in final form, I never think of it as unproductive unless paid for.   When I think of it that way, through the eyes of the world, it pisses me off.   

I don’t mean to say that lazy is the last word on my life, it certainly isn’t (he hastily added).  There is also fear, of course, long habit, the actual daunting difficulty of the uphill task, and so forth.   I learned a very important life lesson during a dark time in my life — how crucial it is to be kind to yourself.   I don’t pile on myself when the going gets tough and I never reduce myself to the sum of my faults.   

On the other hand, this anger I’ve described is something only I can work on, a grating car alarm only I have the key to silencing.  I also remind myself that I don’t need to be paid a million bucks or write a blockbuster hit, a couple of thousand dollars would be a very good start.

Sekhnet observed the other day that the therapy I’ve gone through did not touch my powerful aversion to organizing my papers, my life.   Fair enough.  I’ve recently come to think of my great and irrational resistance to going through old papers as an odd reflection of my fear of death, but what the fuck is up with that?

Anger at how difficult it has been for me to read the proverbial writing on the wall, about situations, sometimes about people, the bottom-line nature of the reality we are all living in, is less than useless.    Anger, while it can alert us to a problem in the manner of all pain, disables the ability to see any path out of it, as anger directs all energy back to itself.  Time to poke a few breathing holes in this smothering carapace of aggravation, I say.  

 

 

 

[1]   The well-read Thomas Jefferson, master of the felicitous phrase, stole this famous image for his final letter (shortly after the great passage about democracy  “arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government”).

The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

source

from Richard Rumbold, a man executed by the English for treason more than a century earlier.  Rumbold delivered the line toward the end of his final remarks, moments before he was drawn and quartered :   

I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.

source

I always loved this image of people born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us, particularly at a moment like this — Avi Berkowitz, 30 year-old assistant to Trump Special Advisor Jared Kushner, himself the supremely unqualified son of a billionaire. is elevated, by another very important man who inherited hundreds of millions and squandered more than that, to take the helm of  Trump’s secret, still unreleased Middle East Peace Plan that these born booted and spurred individuals are already boasting about. 

as to Richard Rumbold, here’s some great detail:

Note 1. Delivered in Edinburgh. Rumbold was captured after having been wounded and then separated from his companions in arms. An immediate trial had been ordered that he might be condemned before he died of his wounds. He was found guilty on June 26, 1685, sentenced to be executed the same afternoon, and was drawn and quartered, the quarters being exposed on the gates of English towns. [back]
Note 2. At this point Rumbold was interrupted by drum beating. He said he would say no more on that subject, “since they were so disingenuous as to interrupt a dying man.” [back]

 

“Paul, Paul…” (note for the Book of Irv)

Had a vivid memory yesterday, probably dredged up by Mark’s older brother’s memory of how his little brother hid candy bars from his two older brothers and how quickly he ate his meals at restaurants, lest somebody else get a morsel off his plate.

My father was over six feet tall and carried up to forty or fifty pounds of excess weight most of the time I knew him.   His younger brother Paul was quite a bit smaller, and fairly trim.   My father, at least once, told my sister and me the story of taking as much of his little brother’s food as he could get.   He told the story with a chuckle.

I didn’t stop to think, a middle class kid when I heard the story, that my father and my uncle were probably frequently hungry growing up in “grinding poverty” (the phrase my father always used to describe it, the family’s desperation corroborated by his cousin Gene) during the Depression.   My father would finish his food, turn to his brother, who ate more slowly, and ask him for another bite.  

” ‘Paul, Paul…’ I’d say and hold out my hand to him and he’d very reluctantly break off a tiny crumb of food and hand it over.    He didn’t want to, you know, but he always gave me something.”

As I told this to Sekhnet last night I remembered something else, the walk back from Carvel with my younger sister.  

Our parents would give us some change to go buy ice cream at the Carvel two short blocks and one long one from our house.   Carvel had soft serve machines and we’d generally each get a cone, sometimes plain sometimes with sprinkles (my sister was partial to the multicolored ones) and sometimes dipped in molten chocolate that would instantly become a lovely, slightly soft, thin chocolate shell (the “Brown Bonnet”).  

We’d lap up the delicious ice cream as we walked that first long block.    As we turned the first corner the swirl of ice cream in mine would be flattened down to the cone, a few bites and I was finished.   My sister ate more slowly, turning the cone methodically to lick away the drips, savoring her ice cream.   I’d always ask her for a slurp of her cone.   When she resisted I mocked her as a “saver”.  She’d reluctantly hand over the cone, protesting the unfairness (and she had a point) and I’d take a slurp.

“Paul, Paul…”

 

 

King of The Jews

Our world-savior president, Donald J. Trump, recently embraced the exalted new name bestowed on him by tweet (by an impressive maniac in his own right) and doubling down on that inspired compliment (Trump’s only move in any situation) referred to himself (with a point at the heavens above) as “the Chosen One.”   Done and done.  The best friend the Jews ever had, since Reinhard Heydrich, and I say this as a Jew. 

The messianic president should be on guard now, I think.    I say this as a Jew, as a loyal American, as someone with Google on his phone.    Last I heard, things did not go well for the last person to wear that “King of the Jews” crown (which was made of thorns).   Y’all remember Jesus of Nazareth, “King of the Jews”?    Just type “King of the Jews” into your smartphone and you get this:

The acronym INRI represents the Latin inscription IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDÆORVM (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum), which in English translates to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).         source

That mysterious INRI on the sign shown in many old paintings of Jesus being crucified stands for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.   It was a final vicious mockery of the Prince of Peace, a flicker of that old Roman sense of humor. 

Likely suggested, as we are told by devout men, by the hateful “disloyal” Jews of the time, Jews that Christians soon blamed for the crucifixion of God’s son (the alternate story, that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities, would not have been popular in Rome — and Rome controlled most of the world’s known population at the time).   Hey, it’s all about P.R., after all, if you plan to proselytize widely and become a major world religion.

It is not known whether the crucified in 33 A.D. King of the Jews had a sense of humor.  I like to think Jesus did.  It is a mark of a gentle character, to see the humor in things.  Laughing together is a beautiful way of bonding, a blessed moment of relief from oppression of every kind, a gentle reminder to be humble.   Of course, a talent for laughter is also the mark of a good Nazi, the comradely ability to see the undeniable humor in the wretched humiliation of a hated enemy.   The jury, I suppose, must be eternally out on whether INRI had a sense of humor.

A thought about humor, and who laughs, and why:  

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” [1]

Humor is clearly a double-edged sword. 

Seriously, then, our president, The Chosen One, an “extremely stable genius” (with an historically gigantic member), tweeted that he is not going to Denmark next week because he was insulted that his ridiculous proposal that the United States buy Greenland was characterized by the Danish prime minister as “abzurd”.   Greenland, by the way, is one of the places on earth where global warming is happening at a disastrously higher rate than predicted.

“‘Abzurd’,” the president repeated in disgust, quoting the mortal insult again, a moment before characterizing the Danish prime minister, a woman, as “nasty”.   

Donald King of the Jews knows a lot about nasty, vindictive, hateful bitches, always the victims, always blaming him because they are sexy, or good looking, or ugly, or powerful, or smart, or incisive, or use a word, or a tone, that wounds him.  The real victim is always the savior of mankind, about to be crucified by really unfair, totally conflicted, disloyal, nasty witch hunting bitches of both sexes, of many sexes.

I would love to be undistracted, to concentrate, back inside my imagination and my memory, on the things I need to write.   There are things in my mind much more compelling than the most recent ass-tweetings of an unstable attention-craving idiot.

My sister, for example, at the age of three or so, grabbed the largest pointed knife in the kitchen, a long, sharp meat slicer with a white handle, and plunged it toward me.  I backed away quickly without turning around, backpedalled out of the kitchen, five years old myself.   She followed a step behind, holding the large knife in front of her, tottering unsteadily forward on her tiny feet as fast as she could.   I was afraid to turn my back on her to flee up the stairs.   The pursuit ended in the front closet, me somehow backed inside it, against the coats as my sister brandished the knife, thrusting it forward, smiling fiendishly.    Why did I not simply overpower her, take the knife?   I was afraid of blood, of the aggression of this tiny child, afraid that either of us might be spouting blood out of a severed artery if a struggle over the large knife took place.  Afraid.

A friend told me that some of my writing in the first draft of the memoir of my father was “extreme”.   She was hard pressed to explain why she felt that way, beyond that it was just too brutally honest, and the conversation veered into other subjects before I could learn more.    Weeks later I read an old piece that was pretty good, but contained an objectively extreme phrase, describing my father’s angry stare as “the unblinking mask of a psychotic” or something like that.   Extreme.  My father was not psychotic, not by any definition. 

Not only was it not a good description of his face at that moment, it was a weak and distracting one, a lazy one.    It betrayed unrestrained emotion, undermined my credibility and instantly pulled the reader away from the more important truth I should have been establishing: my father, a good man, smart, funny, sensitive and idealistic, was eternally desperate and it was this desperation that kept him on guard and frequently enraged at his children.   

How the story is told is very, very important for passing on the intended message, the discovered insight.   One sloppy stroke and the reader is rightfully distracted, shakes her head “fucking guy, pretty interesting piece, but he lost me there” and then on to the next link.

Instead of making forward progress in my own life of leisure and genteel poverty (I can live without working as long as I don’t spend much money), I drink my coffee while reviewing a few events that made the news since last night.    The NY Times reports that the president called any Jew who was prepared to vote against him “ignorant” and “very disloyal”.   I know this guy simply talks out of his face and his ass interchangeably (no comment about his breath) but found that I had to read a little about it.  Which led to a youTube clip, which led to another, which led to an article and so on.

Back to the King of the Jews and disloyalty to him.   My father had a colleague and good friend named Evelyn, who later became a hated former friend and former colleague.   I  looked her up decades later and we began a correspondence.  Evelyn had converted to Judaism in the intervening years and was trying to convince me that then-presidents Bush and Cheney, the neoCons and the Evangelical right, were the best friends of Israel and all Jews.   The invasion and occupation of Iraq was very good for Israel, she argued.  The one-time socialist scholar was not very persuasive, she was unsuccessful in her mission to convert me to extreme right wing politics, in the name of Judaism and what is best “for the Jews”.   An  old saw:  two Jews in an elevator, five strenuous differences of opinion.  

An old joke, by way of  illustration:   Two Jews are stranded on a desert island for many years.  When the rescue boat finally arrives the rescuers find the two Jews have built three synagogues on the island.  “I don’t understand,” says a rescuer, “there are two Jews, why three synagogues?”   The Jews point to the third synagogue and answer, in one voice, “nobody goes to that one.”

There are Jews today who, to me, are indistinguishable from Nazis in their core beliefs, which include a righteous, well-justified refusal to regard “enemies” as human beings.   If you sincerely believe that every Palestinian two year-old is a hate-filled terrorist you might as well let them live in open air prisons until they are old enough to shoot with live ammunition at the border fence.    

If you believe, as Jews have long been urged to do by our tradition, in the importance of protecting the weak, being hospitable to the stranger among us (a tradition modern-day desert nomads still practice), you will have a much different attitude toward the suffering of any child, Palestinian babies, Israeli babies or the tiny children (and their parents) in the privately owned for-profit hell-holes that Trump’s ICE uses to keep stinking, unwashed human asylum seekers in cages.  

It is only a Nazi type who justifies inflicting  this kind of suffering on others, wholly innocent of anything themselves, insisting their victims deserve their cruel fate because they are part of an infestation of an invasive species of subhuman.   That’s Nazi shit, my friend.

To me, speaking as an American Jew, this self-appointed King of the Jews, seriously, is more like the fancy King of the Very Fine Nazis, the finest Nazis, some very, very fine Nazis.  Hey, what a cool idea: a King of the Nazis!  I guess you could also call that heaven appointed ruler the Fuhrer.  Got a nice ring to it, I think.

Nazi fucks…

 

 

[1]    Senator Leahy:  “You’ve never forgotten them laughing at you.”

Blasey Ford “They were laughing with each other.”

Leahy:  “And you were the object of the laughter?”

Blasey Ford  “I was underneath one of them, while the two laughed.”

source

No obituary for the man who read them every day

My father, a perplexing man,  like so many of us, read the New York Times obituaries every day.   He’d come into the kitchen holding the paper and announce to my mother, “Maurice Tannenbaum, tote” which meant “dead”.    Then he’d read a few bits from the dead man’s obit.

It sometimes seemed to me he was reading the death notices each day to confirm that he wasn’t among the dead himself.  I sometimes think of his obituary reading habit in relation to something I caught myself doing in a library once — searching for my name on the spines of books on the shelves.   It would have been impossible to find a book by me in the library, because none has ever been published, but I absentmindedly scanned the W shelf nonetheless.      

“I’m sure I’m not the first to point out that you seem to be a bit insane,” said the skeleton of my father, lifting his head slightly in his eternal dirt bed.    

Nor will you be the last, pops.  

“I’m wondering about the book of your life, now that mine, gigantically bloated like a dead body kept in warm water for a long time, is largely written and languishing… festering, if you prefer…” the skeleton turned his head, with that maniacal smile they all have.  “You know, it’s a deep question:  how do you summarize somebody, make their emotional life into a coherent story?  We are largely incoherent creatures, Elie, and making sense of a life is essentially a labor of the imagination, painting a convincing picture that people can recognize as uniquely human in a way they care about, in a way that relates to their lived experience.  But truly, what the fuck?”

When you died your brother gave me a 500 word obituary he’d written and printed out and told me to contact the Times and arrange to have it published.    (A year or two ago, after Sekhnet located the print-out, I posted that obituary here.)   At the time the long obit, and the demand that I call the Times and have it printed, both struck me as absurd.  In hindsight I realize it was a pretty good piece of work by my uncle and that there was nothing unreasonable, outside of my uncle’s overbearing and oblivious style, in his asking me to arrange to have the Times print it.  

“Well, my brother could have seen that you were organizing the funeral and writing my eulogy, and basically taking care of everything else, so he could have contacted the Times, but as you say, it wasn’t his style.”    

The question of style might hold the key to the biographer’s art.  

“And the ingestion of gaseous foods might hold the key to the biographer’s fart,” said the skeleton absently.

Sometimes I wonder why I drag you into this.  

“It’s a fair thing to ask yourself, Elie,” the skeleton revolved his head 360 degrees, a new trick he’d discovered, very disquieting.  

I started off thinking how you, a man who read the obituaries religiously, as we say, never had one himself.  There was no obituary of you ever published, that I am aware of.  

“Are you blaming me?   Don’t forget, I was dead already, so, I have to plead, I don’t know– I couldn’t have done it since I was already dead?”

Nah, of course not.   I was just wondering about my inaction in the days after you died, why I didn’t get the obituary printed somewhere.  

“Well, in fairness to you, it was probably related to your general inaction, your decided predilection for inactivity — how long is it since you broke that tooth and made a note to call the dentist?   Two weeks, three weeks?   I mean, don’t be hard on yourself, man, you are inactive about many things,” the skeleton turned to watch the lazy arcs of two turkey vultures.    

“Elie, I realize you’re feeling listless and lifeless today, I get that, I really do– you could hardly feel more listless and lifeless than I do, after all, but could you leave the fucking turkey vultures out of it today?”

One turkey vulture seemed to turn to the other in mid-air as if to say “watch this” and then deposited a long stream of vulture shit on to my father’s side of the headstone my mother had picked out for them.  

“Nice,” said the skeleton, doing his best to smirk, as he turned on to his side and seemed to sink back into his grave.  

 

Asking Unanswerable questions

I’ve long had the intrusive habit of asking of what often seem to be unanswerable questions.   They’re not unanswerable because there is no explanation, no cause and effect that can be laid out, no illuminating reasons that can be produced to get closer to the truth of what’s actually going on. 

They’re unanswerable because they are fucking hard questions, the true reasons are ugly reasons, and great forces are arrayed to make sure they are answered only in self-serving, inadequate ways, like Mr. Trump’s (no reply submitted) reply to Mueller’s last long, compromising written question about the actions of his disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.   

The real answer will often cause more trouble than its worth — to those who have something to lose by it.  The anodyne answer (like the ones the New York Times specializes in) is always preferable, though it’s usually only a partial answer that, while accepting the status quo as the way it should pretty much be, makes no trouble.   Except that it also provides no real clue about anything but how important it is not to make trouble if you want everything to continue pretty much as it is.

I get that I seem to be acting as though humans are mostly rational creatures, animals who use sophisticated tools and logical means to enjoy the many wonders of nature and live in harmony with our miraculous world.  A clever person could say it’s illogical to proceed as if logic ruled the world.   Indeed, the world, we can see at a glance, is clearly not ruled by Reason.   That doesn’t invalidate thoughtfulness as the best we can do in a world often ruled by selfish, enraged brutes.    Understanding is always a net gain, it seems to me, as is honest connection to others.

I also understand that my clinging to “understanding” is an emotional thing, stemming from my childhood need to feel heard and addressed.   Not to say some explanations are not far better than others, only that in seeking them feathers will often be ruffled and emotions raised to the boiling point.   I grew up in a home where that happened regularly.   Some of my parents’ outbursts were understandable to me, I’d touched a raw nerve I had reason to know would be raw — but some were just rage doing what rage does — raging.    What the hell is up with rage?

After our father died, my sister used a great phrase to describe a force that decisively shaped his life (and to a large extent our mother’s as well).  “Shame-based” she said, and it’s a phrase that explains a lot.   The main characteristic about shame is that it compels the sufferer to hide that painful emotion, to rationalize, defend, develop plausible sounding explanations for actions that are not always easy to justify, and often, to lash out violently at others.

Shame is a powerful force in world history.   Adolf Hitler spoke directly to the shame and thwarted national pride of his audience.  He spoke magic words to larger and larger crowds of desperate, angry Germans after Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War One and its submission to a harsh and destructive treaty.  According to the self-taught Mr. Hitler, the German army had never lost the war, not at all; Germany had the greatest military in the world, but it been savagely betrayed, you see, it was stabbed in the back.   No reason to feel national humiliation, the punitive Versailles diktat was heaped on a great and victorious nation by vicious, scheming, inhuman traitors, you understand.   Inferior traitors who continue laughing at Germany, traitors whose laughter will turn to whimpers and screams when we turn the tables!!!

Shame is the source of much rage and violence.    The need to hide shame and act out to keep it hidden is behind many of the terrible stories of savagery we see, many tragedies that unfold before us.  Shame leads directly to abuse, in its many forms. 

 A few years back I heard a great interview on this subject with a psychiatrist named James Gilligan who’d spent many years in prisons working with violent offenders.   He put his finger on shame as the common denominator for violent acts of domination, horrible things done out of a sense of being “disrespected”.    You can read his article on the subject here.    Every sadist was once humiliated, and the reaction to that humiliation is often expressed in a desire to humiliate others.   The vicious cycle (literally) is turned harder by the fact that we tend to blame ourselves for our shame, and for the sometimes shameful things we sometimes do to avoid further shame, which makes everything ten times worse.    

There is a great scene in the movie Goodwill Hunting that vividly illustrates the first step on path away from shame  — addressing the pain and forgiving the self for feeling it.    The psychiatrist, played by Robin Williams, finally get’s through Will’s (Matt Damon) resistance to gaining real insight.   The young man is clearly in pain, and his nerves are painfully exposed after he lays out the violence of his childhood, the terrible punishment inflicted on him by a brutal parent for no reason.    Williams tells him “it’s not your fault”.   The statement is undeniably true — the kid is not responsible for the uncontrollable violence of his angry drunk father.   Will tries to nonchalantly acknowledge this, but he is only retreating back to his tough guy pose.   The shrink, not going to miss the opening, tells the kid again “it’s not your fault.”   He keeps repeating this statement, in the face of his patient’s rising emotions.    In the end the young man breaks down in the older man’s arms and it’s a moment of great progress in his treatment.

Of course, it’s a Hollywood movie.  We know all about successful Hollywood movies — they are pretty much mostly bullshit.   Every time a couple has sex on screen — they come together.   Every time a victim gets a gun, she shoots her sadistic victimizer dead in the final scene.   The poorest characters live in beautiful homes.   Violence is cathartic, makes everything better.   Plus, for good measure, showing a naked woman or man is much more offensive, for purposes of ratings, than showing people being shot, blown up, smashed in the head with baseball bats.    Still, the essence of that scene between Robin Williams and Matt Damon crystalizes something deep and true.

We tend to blame ourselves, which increases our sense of being worth less than others who, aggravatingly,  do not seem to blame themselves.   Except in rare cases, nobody shows us how not to blame ourselves when we feel guilt, or regret, or shame — or rage, for that matter.   It’s our fault we are (slug in your pet fear here).   The poor, generation after generation of these hard-pressed fuckers, have only themselves to blame for their poverty.   After all, hard work and determined ambition is always rewarded in a free nation like ours — just look at all the successful people who worked their asses off to become celebrities!    Surely the poor can grab ahold of their own bootstraps and perform the physics-defying feat of lifting themselves off the ground by their own heels.   Even the metaphor is absurd — but no worries, the image is good enough for our purposes.  Our purpose, to sum it up, is “fuck you.  It’s not me, not us, not the way we do things here, it’s you, asshole.”

So it is down the line with superficial, stupid answers to troubling questions.   Husband, finding himself in a tight spot, as a result of unsuccessful embezzling and numerous lying attempts to cover up his crimes, about to declare bankruptcy he’s kept secret from everybody, suddenly threatens mass murder– stabbing, beheading and killing by fire — of his entire family.   What the fuck?  “He was under unbearable pressure!”  Decades later, the wife who never left, dismisses the homicidal raging as an isolated thing that only happened once.   Her children, two of the intended victims, must never know about the shameful, terrifying episode.   She can’t understand why she still has tremendous anxiety, even though her life is objectively pretty much stress-free, though, admittedly, she does blame herself for the low self-esteem that prevented her from leaving her volatile, serially untruthful husband.

A woman tells you, after a few glasses of wine, that she has always hated everybody.   Present company excluded, she adds with a wan smile, realizing how bad that categorical statement must have sounded.   We all laugh about it, admit that we hate most people too.   Then, over time, it emerges that this woman does hate EVERYBODY– present company now included.  Doesn’t talk to her brother or sister, rages at her children, is in a constantly escalating war with her husband, etc.  She hates everybody because, when it comes down to it, her life is shit and she hates that too– and, most unbearable of all,  it’s all her own fault.

A guy praises and thanks his old friend, offering to do him a favor he then, without explanation, decides not to do.   When questioned about this change of heart the guy explodes — “this is the last straw, you demanding fuck, I don’t owe you shit, I don’t owe you an explanation, you pushy fucking fuck!    I love you, man, but we have a gigantic personality conflict here, so maybe better if you just fuck off and die.”   The guy, on some level, must know he’s overreacting and trashing a long friendship over what seems to be a pretext, but, for whatever reason, it feels good for him to rage at this guy.   Certainly better than feeling whatever shame is behind his emotional outburst.

In any of these cases, the facts don’t speak for themselves.   The true causes are murky and, most likely, shame-based, as my sister said of our father’s frequent outbursts.   The wife whose husband threatened to kill everyone would need, at minimum, a sincere apology from her murder-threatening husband before they could move on together in their lives.    The woman who says she hates everyone is reaching out, clearly in pain, feeling isolated, no matter how justified her feelings of hatred may otherwise seem to her.  The guy who loves his friend would, it seems, extend a tiny benefit of the doubt rather than attacking, but, who’s to say?

You probe these kinds of shame-based scenarios at your own peril.  As we have seen over and over, many people would rather punch you in the face than look squarely at something that causes them shame, or even discomfort.   Turn on the news and you will hear the latest “social media” attack by a powerful man whose overbearing, inhumanly demanding, brutish father (and loveless, materialistic mother) instilled in him a lust to blame others as loudly as possible as the better alternative to dealing with the lifelong terror of shame and a deep sense of his “inadequacy”.   Better to put three, four and five year old enemies in prisons, let them stink and catch all the diseases unsanitary confinement produces, then brazenly lie about their conditions of captivity, than realize your entire life is based on unbearable desperation not to feel the shame inflicted on you by relentless sadists, no?

Telling the story of my father

I started this post a week back, intending to get back to draft two of my account of my father’s life.  I rarely let a post sit unfinished this way, but the shit has been flying off the fan so continuously with this not-non-Nazi president that I haven’t had a moment to reflect.   The distractions with this fellow are wall-to-wall but it’s my own fault that I’m so distracted.  Sekhnet tells me I lack executive function, the power to focus on and complete a task.   

My mind keeps flipping back to the witnesses who said Trump frequently used the forbidden word “nigger” while posing as America’s greatest businessman on a top-rated “reality TV” show.  Every American knows that Trump paid off women he allegedly had sex with, forced them to sign binding nondisclosure agreements.  The incriminating tapes of him from The Apprentice were also purchased, along with silence.   Does anyone doubt this thoroughly racist German-American ever used the word “nigger” to describe “a low IQ, stupid, ugly” person from a “shit hole country”?  Get the fuck out of here.  I wonder what, if anything, would happen if those tapes of the racist Trump honestly being Trump ever came to light.   Speaking the “n-word” (and fuck that f-ing n-word shit– how about having a real public discussion about American racism instead of banning an f-ing word, you c-words)  out loud seems to be the one taboo this norm busting winner has not broken.

OK, dad, now that I’ve filled the spittoon, let’s continue with you.

When I sat down to make a serious attempt at untangling the contradictory lessons of my poor father’s life– a life lived partly as a monster– I thought I was looking at a unique situation.  Irv Widaen was a bright, funny, sensitive, curious, affable, quick witted, well-read, sardonic, fairly hip, justice-oriented man  who was at the same time the brutal zero-sum Dreaded Unit in the cozy confines of his immediate family.   I imagined that solving this great riddle would be the journey of the book.   It turned out not to be.

1,200 pages and more than a year of pondering later, it dawns on me that my father’s story is not unusual at all,  In fact, it’s all too familiar, a fairly universal story.  The details of what makes somebody a tyrant in the confines of his family home are always somewhat different, but this Jekyll and Hyde personality is on view everywhere if you get a true peek behind the fragile facade of civility we all wear in public.   We are, each one of us, capable of monstrous things, when we are upset and “justified”, if we feel safe acting out.

How do I explain the life-altering brutality of a man who rarely hit his children?  It’s elusive, as, for many years the reasons this otherwise good man, sympathetic to  the underdog and committed to justice, ruthlessly oppressed those he loved the most were carefully hidden.   To understand how a father can be hard-hearted toward his children you must look at the role models he had, the humiliations he underwent, the painful conflicts he never resolved.

If you met Irv Widaen you’d have been struck by his intelligence, his quick-wittedness and how engaged he always was in a conversation.   He was funny.    He was honest.   He was committed to bending the moral arch of history toward justice.   Well-read and interested in the world around him, he could comment intelligently on any subject that came up.    He connected easily with people.  Though he had firm political views, he could argue both sides of virtually any issue, a skill not many people bother to develop.   He was irreverent.   Out of the blue he could hit you with some darkly funny observation that would crack up his friends.  I recognize now that he did the best he could, and I know this for sure from the regrets his expressed the last night of his life.

My sister never recovered from the damage our father did to her.  She feels I had it worse than she did, because, while she usually tried to keep her head down,  I always fought back.   I had it bad enough, and my path through life has been strewn with violent obstacles and sometimes vicious confrontations, though who can really say who suffers more from what?   

In the first draft of the Book of Irv (and I know I probably need a better title, for starters), I wrote everything I could recall about our father’s implacable anger, the black and white world he set out– a world where my sister and I might win individual battles but would “lose the war.”   What was the war, dad?   I mean, can one really comprehend the desperate insanity of a father teaching his children that formulation of  life?   “You might win this battle, but you’re going to lose the war.”   The war?   What the fuck, dad?

In turning over this material, I came to see things from my father’s distorted point of view.  Odd to say, my imagined conversations with the opinionated, voluble skeleton of my father, who spoke from his grave outside of Peekskill, the benighted little anti-Semitic town he grew up in, revealed my father’s point of view in ways I never could have imagined.   I know that I imagined all the responses the skeleton provided, day after day, but some still struck me as surprising revelations.   I actually came to see things through his eyes.

So one major thing I need to convey in the book, I see now, is how a damaged person, desperate to feel whole, and intact, fashions a persona to conceal the shame that tortures him in his private moments.

(more to follow, I have to get back to the protectors of our Klansman-in-Chief…)