Reservoir of Rage — and Silence

Rage is a famously difficult subject, which is why I’m trying to take some ways of expressing it one at a time. Reframing, for example, is an essential technique for angrily dominating someone in an argument. Silence, in the face of a friend or family member’s expressed concern, or in answer to a direct request for a conversation, is one of the most potent weapons in the war of rage. It has the virtues of being subtle and deniable (there are MANY reasons for silence), but it is also highly effective, dramatic and deadly, in my experience.

Silence can be a great blessing, of course, like when an overbearingly loud noise finally stops. When quiet descends we feel our breathing calm, we can focus and concentrate. Silence (as opposed to blurting something) can often be very useful when confronted with vexation, it gives you time to gather yourself, deliberate and react more productively. Silence is golden, as those prone to uttering cliches will sometimes say in a quiet moment.

Silence can also be used as the ultimate, uninterruptible, elegant last word in a spasm of rage. One obvious beauty of using deathly silence this way, (to the practitioner), is that it’s the anger expression technique that keeps giving, the silence will continue to irk the other person until they can forget about it and the meaning of the silence itself can always be debated, ill will denied vehemently.

Silence is just silence, the practitioner will insist if confronted, though it might feel like the “silent treatment” to an oversensitive eternal victim type. “… and, you know, though it might well be possible that my silence actually does express my utter contempt for you, you overweening baby, you will always get an unwinnable argument from me about why you are totally wrong to construe it that way. It’s just silence… no meaning to it whatsoever, it’s all inside your messed up head… and typical of you to blame me for the outpourings of your corroded imagination.”

The genius part of this defense is that it’s often true — people fail to respond for many reasons, including being busy, distracted, overwhelmed, truly not knowing what to say. I used to be offended when I heard nothing back from friends I’d send random bits of gratuitous creativity to. Now I understand there is no intention to be hurtful — most people have no experience with a need to feel creative and simply don’t know what to say when someone sends them a thirty second bit of original music. Musicians know that “nice” is a perfectly satisfying reply if they like the thing, but, most people feel overmatched to respond to a drawing sent out of the blue, an incoherent bit of calligraphy, a poem, or whatever the fucking thing is. “Nice” seems mechanical, I guess, something original probably seems in order, and what to actually say to someone who insists on “sharing”– I have no idea.

For our purposes here I am talking about the silence that is a refusal to speak, after being asked to. If you ever experienced this kind of bruising silence, you know what I’m struggling to bring out here.

It is an integral part of the game of rage to always have an argument ready to justify your anger and the actions it caused you to take. (The passive voice, we note, is always good in this case: righteous anger caused me to do this, it was clearly not my choice to be so provoked by you, asshole!)

The argument an angry person makes doesn’t need to be sound or have any chance of prevailing based on what actually took place, the only point is to contest the other person’s right to their feelings. Anger is a zero-sum game — one winner (innocent, 100% right), one loser (infuriating asshole, 100% wrong.) It’s an angry fool’s reductive way of looking at life, but there it is.

This readiness to fight, and the devilish quickness to justify any harsh action, are hallmarks of the perpetually angry person. That raging reflex to deny, no matter what, is what is so infuriating about people addicted to that intoxicating surge of righteousness anger provides. Compulsive Contrarians will fight you angrily, out of an insatiable need to fight, no matter what the cost, to the death and beyond.

To be clear about the kind of anger I’m talking about, it is an unyielding reflex to remain angry and to win the fight. We all experience anger, it is an inevitable part of our condition here as humans. Unfairness, disappointment, bad luck all make us mad. A mark of maturity is being able to keep these things in perspective, to learn to fix what we can and not dwell forever on everything that makes us angry.

The kind of anger that demands the regular harsh punishment of others is an attitude toward life. It hardens into a stance of eternal grievance, a much different, more destructive force than what is released when we sometimes get pissed off at the ordinary frustrations we all have to deal with.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a permanent attitude.We need to be ready to forgive, when the time is right, we have to stay receptive to another person trying to make amends — hence, the permanent attitude. Being ready to accept an apology is a philosophical stance. The same goes for letting go of, or holding on to, anger. We can stay focused on a grievance forever, and act accordingly, or learn to repair what we can and coexist with things that enrage us but that we can do little about, without being mad and ready to fight all the time.

Back to the angry use of silence in situations where dialogue is needed. Political examples of this, the brazen refusal to honestly answer a straight question, for example, are ubiquitous. No point to cite specific cases, there are too many every day, every hour, to start naming. Besides, our current political idiocy is too sickening and bringing it into the discussion is a distraction that will take us off course. I’ll stick to the personal here, keep it clean and straightforward, in hopes of making a point worth making.

The epoch we’re living in now is a worldwide Age of Anger, (or Age of Rage, if ya like a rhyme on yer page) to an extent not seen on this scale in almost a century. Since we’re all forced into offense so much of the time, by news designed to make us angry (and watch the ads [1]), it is best to see anger as the personal thing it always is. Anger is personal, totally, for every person who feels it.

Working to understand our own relationship to our personal anger, and what specifically makes us mad, is probably the best we can do, and a first step toward making our own lives, and the lives of those around us, less contentious. It’s also one of the hardest things to do, especially if you’re prone to getting pissed off. We live in a world of constant provocation at a historical moment when the dial is turned up to 10 all day long (and all through the night).

Here are a couple of examples of angry uses of silence from my life, as succinctly as I can lay them out (I’ve written about each of these vexing kerfuffles here when they happened.)

Let’s recognize first that silence can have different meanings, depending on how we were raised. These meanings determine our feelings about silence and our sensitivity to it. In some households silence may be a proper initial response to a perplexing question. It can indicate respect, the person is thinking deeply about your question and will give a considered opinion after they have thought things through. In another home you’ll be taught that silence as a reply means “never,” the silence about your expressed concern will go on until the next time you bring it up, when it will be answered by an identical pointed silence and so forth, ad infinitum.

Nobody who expresses a concern likes to be ignored (nobody that I’ve ever met, anyway). It is a cruel thing to do to a child (or a person of any age, actually). It amounts to neglecting them emotionally by ignoring their fears, desires, questions and concerns. Is it as cruel as daily beatings, making the child go to bed hungry, humiliating the kid publicly? That depends on how diligently silence by way of response is wielded.

In my own life I’ve come to understand, as a fairly old man, that what I thought of as my father’s relentless cruelty (he made very effective use of strategic silence as a weapon) was in large part his relentless inability to do any better than he did. He was the victim of unspeakable abuse in a home ravaged by poverty, ignorance and rage. He did the best he could, I understood finally, though his best did a good deal of damage. This understanding of my father’s helplessness against his pain and anger came only after a lot of pain and conflict in my own life. My eventual understanding of his limitations erased virtually none of it, but it makes the world make much more sense to me.

As he was dying my father made a seemingly incomprehensible request, asking me to understand that, in a real sense, our long war was “nothing personal”. I thought about this Zen koan for a long time before its meaning emerged. His mistreatment of me had nothing to do with me personally — he would have done the same thing to any child of his, no matter who he or she had been. He was reiterating what he’d said earlier that last night of his life: it had been him, not me, who created most of the intractable problems between us. Our endless war had little to do with me personally.

If I was traumatized, as a young kid, to suddenly learn about the Nazi death machine, by seeing black and white film clips of a guy wheeling a wheelbarrow of jiggling skeletons and dumping them into a pit of corpses (an image that caused me to vomit), and agitatedly asked my father about it, what did I really expect him to say? He was not emotionally equipped to say what he probably wished he had:

“You saw some of the most horrible images in human history and you’re asking a terrible question that the greatest minds in the world can’t really answer. You’ll learn about racism, scapegoating, the terrible violence angry mobs are capable of when whipped up by hate-filled maniacs. You’re right to be upset, especially at age eight when you have no way to put any of this into context. I’m sorry you saw those clips that I tried to spare you from seeing, I know you can’t unsee them, but believe me, a lot of the horror you’re feeling right now will start to fade pretty soon. We humans are very adaptable, you’ll feel much better tomorrow, I guarantee. I understand why you vomited, you were right to vomit. You’re safe now, and we can talk more about this later. As you have questions, just ask and I’ll do my best to explain what I can.”

Instead, frustrated and overwhelmed, my father snapped that he’d warned me not to see that goddamned movie, forbade me, in fact, but I never fucking listen to him, that I’m a drama queen always trying to claim a special right to feel like a victim. He told me angrily that just because many members of our family died (people he referred to as “mere abstractions!”) at the hands of Nazis and their helpers, it gave me no special right to feel in any way like a holocaust survivor, and so on.

He was overwhelmed, upset, not at his best, would have felt shame if I played a recording of what he had said to “console” his young son. Obviously he’d much rather have said something along the lines of the more humane response I set out above. On the bright side for him, it was years before I asked again about the slaughter of at least 15 great aunts and uncles and their entire extended families.

You grow up, reach an understanding of things that hurt you and hope to do much better yourself treating other people well. As Hillel said: what is hateful to you, don’t do to others. As you also learn — it is best to avoid people who can’t do this.

If you send a professional writer friend a piece you talked about, something you hope to publish, pages he said he’d be happy to read and comment on, and you never hear back? Shades of that hurtful silence, especially after two or three follow-ups when you still don’t hear back from him. In the end, if the guy claims you’re the asshole for being upset after only three or four tries for feedback, that anyone but a schmuck would have persisted, that, in fact, he probably did read the piece, likely even replied at the time (it made no impression on him either way, understand) you know the story with him. It’s not personal, in a true sense.

If an old friend offers legal help with a painful legal situation you find yourself entangled in and winds up playing devil’s advocate throughout the aggravating weeks and months, then loses his temper a few times that you keep getting upset, then apologizes, but later feels compelled to tell you he only apologized because you are such an irrationally angry person that groveling was the only way he could get you to calm down — you have learned who your old friend is, on a primal level. He operates within a very narrow empathetic bandwidth, to put it charitably. When he claims to have carefully considered every point you raised about the sad pass things have come to, while responding to none of them (and insisting he’s still been given no clue), his hurt silence is predictable, and finally welcome.

On down the line, I have other examples from my own life but I think the point is made. Again, as the sage Hillel told the man challenging him to put his Jewish faith into a single sentence: what is hateful to you don’t do to someone else. We all know what is hateful to us. It’s a good principle to try our best not do it to others. When we know we’ve failed, we should be quick to express our genuine regret.

When you know your personal kryptonite (in my case silence wielded as a final response to an expressed concern) all you can do is tell the people in your life, when you feel them doing that, YOW! THAT SHIT IS MY KRYPTONITE, please don’t wave it near my face! When they know what hurts you most, they have the final choice about whether they will deploy it against you or not. They will decide what the silence at the end means.

Almost never is that silence the blessed kind that restores calm, unless they are silently figuring out how to take care of another person’s hurt feelings and are going to get back to you.

At the same time, with deathlike silence there is something healthy and refreshing about the way the ugly noise finally stops. In fact, there are few things better, when things have already turned ugly, than the peace that comes when somebody who sincerely doesn’t know how to treat people finally shuts the fuck up.

[1]

Thought for a future post:

The mass media has long known that “if it bleeds, it leads”– all the research has shown executives that a larger audience will tune in to breaking news about violence, murder, mayhem, teased loudly in an alarming headline. The more recent refinement to this theory was among Mark Zuckerberg’s great innovations in monetizing the universal human desire for connection: rage is contagious, spreads like wildfire and there’s fucking GOLD IN THEM THAR FUCKING HILLS!!!

Speaking of rage and gratuitous best-selling violence, I would love to punch that particular noxious piece of shit in his smug, grotesquely monetized face. I’m pretty sure Mark would like it, too. And if not, it will be nothing personal, I assure you.

Searching for the Truth

“I’m searching for truth,” I admitted.

“You poor bastard, I did that to you,” said the skeleton of my father.

Things that make no sense to us can sometimes be explained after enough research and pondering. When you can lay out and understand the reasons behind something perplexing it becomes a little easier to deal with. That’s my belief, anyway. In my experience, there often seems to be a certain relief in understanding how a terrible thing actually works.

I feel like the recent years I spent, hours each day, considering and sorting through every aspect of my father’s troubling life that I could, finally gave me useful insights into his life, into my own. Many of my waking hours, during this present shit-storm of propaganda-directed anger, are spent gathering as many verifiable facts as I can. I use this information to try to construct some kind of reasonable meaning for truly awful things that otherwise make little or no sense.

History, my own and our common human heritage, is indispensable to me in this project. Our lives here are fleeting and often seem meaningless, millions of lives are regularly written off as disposable, but there is a long human history to learn from, as well as our own personal histories. Learning history can lead to the desire to try to do better, become better humans. Which is something, a considerable thing, it seems to me.

I’m aware that my long habit of “study” and pontificating may make me insufferable at times, because not only am I as opinionated in my certainty as my mother was, I feel that keeping myself closely informed (as my father always did) gives my opinions a certain weight. It also creates impatience in me for opinions based on less, or false, information. It’s hard to have a productive discussion, or influence anyone’s thinking, if your own thinking betrays any kind of feeling of superiority. “I know more than you about this so I’m definitely right” is a very weak, invariably maddening, line of persuasion.

A real search for truth requires challenging yourself from time to time, placing your own ideas into the uncomfortable position that they may be wrong. It requires, most difficult for me, considerable humility. A sense that the deeper mystery may never be revealed, no matter how much you come to understand the layers above those deepest ones.

We homo sapiens are fundamentally irrational beings, it would appear, geniuses though we are at self-justification and self-deception. Our lives here are not, as much as we may want to believe it, based mainly on rational considerations taken for reasons we fully understand. To test the proof of this — look at the passionate American fight over the use of personal protective gear during a pandemic.

As for strong opinions based on hard fact — on some level these are not fundamentally all that different from strong opinions based on faith alone. The person of deep religious faith will cite the deep benefits of spiritual faith while the believer in a world ruled by empirical fact will cite the undeniable clarity science and Reason provide. Both human opinion systems, in the end, are matters of faith, on one level. (To be clear, on another level, they are not remotely the same thing)

Do I know, for example, based on logic, with examples for proof of my argument, that there is a workable large-scale economic system better and more humane than the eternal growth model of the “Free Market” system of capitalism that rules the world today? It is not hard to find a dozen contemporary books making excellent, detailed cases for how inhumane this problematic concept of economic freedom really is in practice, how barbarous it is in many of its demonstrable outcomes.

But as I spout my fact-based outrage at a deeply flawed, unsustainable, extractive system that leaves hundreds of millions in desperate poverty so that others can be unimaginably wealthy, do I have a better idea that is actually possible? Our lives here, on many levels, are a mystery. As for someone who will challenge my dissection of the so-called Free Market and demand my better idea (one that comports with human nature, a crucial caveat in any such discussion) — I cannot point to a large scale system that works in the world today that is not based on this idea, on this transactional assessment of human nature and what motivates our behavior. My actual alternative?

“You don’t really have one, do you? Outside of your fond dream of greater justice and a more ‘fair’ distribution of resources and wealth, elimination of poverty and so on, which is a very high-minded idea, and for which I salute you– the world you dream of living in is superior to this one, I’ll grant you,” a kindly neoliberal will counter, when I am done reciting my facts. “But, sadly for us, time is money and both are short at the moment, so, back to your books, genius, back to your idealistic echo chamber with you. Unfortunately for me, I’ve got to go make some money now, so you’ll have to continue enlightening me some other time.”

I can see clearly, in my own case, that a world that made no sense to me — my family life during childhood and beyond — was my initial motivation to seek what was behind a rigid insistence on the demonstrably insane. My sister and I were frequently warned by our angry father that however much we thought we might be winning certain battles, we would inevitably lose the war.

“The war, father? Don’t you always tell us that family is the most important thing in life, the place where we are always safe, the only love we have that we will never lose? How can we four be in permanent war, around the family dinner table, father? Please explain, I’m only a boy, but I truly don’t understand.”

Sadly for my younger sister and me, I somehow did not have this enlightened dispassion within me as a seven year-old. Few of us do. People experience constant, irrational anger from demanding parents all the time. Many convert it into self-doubt, self-hatred and, in some notable cases, a driving ambition to succeed. If a brutal parent doesn’t crush you, you can sometimes convert the restless energy they’ve instilled in you into a billion dollar enterprise, as history shows. Particularly if you have limitless financial help from the tyrant parent that insisted you become a killer instead of the piece of shit you already are.

This search for “truth” is increasingly lonely work for me. Destructive things that are easily seen in others can be impossible to see in ourselves. I lost an old friendship a few years ago because a friend since fourth grade was unable to stop provoking me. He believed I was wrong to feel provoked by his actions, which he always could justify as motivated by his love for me. He believed that as sincerely as I found it intolerable to be constantly provoked.

Each of us eventually took our hurt, and our belief that we had acted with integrity, and went our own ways in the end. There is not that much solace in that kind of “resolution”, but it is better than being pissed on by someone who angrily insists you’re whining about the rain. As I say, we are all masters at self-justification, with a strong bias toward seeing ourselves as right.

I can clearly see the pathology of my recently deceased former longtime friend Mark’s life. I mention it from time to time as the clearest example I know the Repetition Compulsion-– the endless reflexive replaying of an unresolved primal battle. In Mark’s case the form was the identical three act tragedy each time, though superficial details varied. Act one: idealizing an object of love, Act two: mounting disappointment as imperfections are revealed, Act three: an unforgivable betrayal by the one time object of perfect love.

Mark was unable to recognize this inevitable story arc of every relationship he ever had. He relived it over and over, with the same hurt and anger every time. It was painfully frustrating to me that he couldn’t see it, even as we played out a years-long Act two, as my imperfections as a friend became more apparent, more galling, my betrayals more and more inevitable.

“Is this slimy?” Mark’s ex asked me, drawing back slightly, as my heart pounded against her chest. This was several months after he’d rejected her, along with the rest of his small circle of neurotic New York City loser friends, and moved across the country in search of the superior people he dreamed of meeting. The first time she’d stayed over at my place she sent me into my own bed to deal with my youthful passion on my own timetable. The second time, for some reason, she showed up in a clingy, transparent shirt, with no bra.

When she asked if what we were about to do was wrong, what choice did I really have but to reassure her with an immediate, definitive, only slightly quivering “no-o-o-o…”? Few choices I have ever made in life have been so unequivocally right. Still, you know, this was an unmistakable step into act three of Mark’s eternal play.

In each case of a long, close friendship that is no more, I can tell you exactly, step by step, how we came to the impasse that ended it. Most people simply mutually lose touch with people from the distant past they have grown apart from, I kept quite a few in my life. With predictable results, it seems. If you have a circle of fond acquaintances, updated periodically, it is easier not to fall into the illusion that you are intimate friends with somebody just because you’ve known them for decades. True lifelong friends are rare for most of us.

In every case of a friendship that is no more, I can give you a sixty second overview of why I was right to write them off, why they behaved with an unconscionable lack of self-knowledge and empathy. Does this certainty about right and wrong, and what is tolerable and what intolerable, enrich my life in any way? Is it different than Mark’s hideously repeated three act tragedy?

Clearly, I am not the ultimate judge of that — as you wouldn’t be based strictly on my account. On the other hand, nobody else is the ultimate judge, either. We can only do what we believe is right, and almost always will.

If I was writing these kinds of pieces for a sizable book or magazine-buying audience, perhaps reading this to you in a bookstore (all of us wearing masks, and keeping our distance), this daily work of mine would be rational and completely understandable. I’d be a writer, after all, perhaps even some kind of thinker as well, and a reader here or there might be moved or even awakened by some of the ideas I present. On the other hand, a guy with a blahg, who refines a piece for a couple of hours and then hits “publish” … well, you know, literally anybody could do that.

On the other hand, to me, I’m not just anybody, you understand.

Dying for Principle

It has been said that the mark of a life worth living is being willing to die for your most deeply held beliefs, your principles. This sounds like a profound formulation, but the jury, as far as I can see, is still out on this one. If someone is coming to kill you or someone you love, and you have the means to fight back, by all means, defend yourself and your loved ones, to the death. But it is rarely this simple.

Usually, in matters of principle, there are no lives directly in the balance, but, equally important principles, larger than any individual life, at stake. You can see the problem right away of willingness to die for your beliefs as the mark of a life worth living: the nineteen Al Q’aeda suicide bombers forced those planes into buildings for their deeply held principles, their most fervent beliefs. Does it make them admirable in any way?

My father considered himself a man of principle, and in many ways he was — in the best sense of the word. As he was dying, he exerted himself to take one last principled stand. It was important to him, before he breathed his last, to apologize, at least to his son, for being such a relentlessly combative father. Everything in life was a matter of principle for him, though sometimes the principle was that he was simply emotionally unequipped to do what he knew deep down he should have done.

As a father he believed he was always acting out of love, and duty to his children’s best interests, but he realized, as death came for him quickly, that his black and white view of the world was not only stupid (he lamented missing the nuanced palette of gradations that would have enriched his life), but had exacted a terrible price on those he loved.

“Life is hard enough,” he said, in a dying man’s voice, “and instead of helping you, like a father should, I put even more obstacles in front of you and your sister, made your lives so much harder…” He then apologized for the only time in memory.

The forces of our personality that we can’t see are the ones that bite us the hardest, this also goes for the hidden obstacles in our path, the things that infallibly trip us up. They are truly the most destructive demons we must battle in our effort to learn from our mistakes, to become better people.

In the last few years I’ve made a close study of my father’s life, looking for lessons for my own. I may have stumbled on an important one recently that had been impossible for me to see until the other day. It was a painful thing to realize, for the first time, at 64, and it hit me with some force. It also gives rise to a great irony of my long, solitary attempt to create a meaningful public memorial for my parents and their erased ancestors, as I will try to explain.

My father was an intelligent, well-read man with a grasp of history and a good sense of humor who fought like the devil his entire unhappy life. He believed people cannot change, because he could never change, never hope to heal from or overcome the deeply instilled pain of a childhood of abuse. In the end he had to acknowledge, in the face of my mildness as I listened to his final confession, as I did my best to reassure him, that he’d been wrong to reject the idea of working to change himself in any way.

He resisted the idea that people can work to change themselves as as a matter of principle, mind you. He was honestly looking life in the face, as he saw it, while weak people who indulged in endless therapy were deluding themselves, and the victims of pathetic quacks working in a field where even the supposed experts wildly disagreed about the fundamentals of what worked. His unshakable belief that our inborn traits and traumas mark us for life was always argued as a matter of principle.

It was insane, he insisted, to think that we can meaningfully change our natures, natures unknowable to ourselves that are largely innate and then baked in before our consciousness is even fully formed. It was no doubt sobering to him to see his lifelong adversary standing by his deathbed without any trace of anger or judgment, without recriminations.

We have too many examples of this kind of mad belief in “principle” to need more than a reminder. Look around, everything in public and private life has been reduced to inarguable zero-sum matters of black and white, non-negotiable “principle”. The principle, for example, that liberty itself depends on defense of the personal right to infect whoever you want during a raging pandemic. To insist that everyone take simple, easy to follow, proven effective precautions to slow the spread of a deadly disease, supposedly for the common good, is AN ACT OF INTOLERABLE TYRANNY that must be resisted!

If you are acting on deeply held moral principle there is little room for discussion with unprincipled people, compromise is certainly out of the question. In my father’s case he saw the world, as billions now do, as a raging, merciless war zone; perhaps not an unreasonable view in many ways.

The harder to defend part was his view that the family dinner table, too, was an eternal battlefield, bloody and savage, where in the end, he warned his young children angrily, no matter how many battles they might think they’d won, they would “lose the war”. In the end he would prevail. It was a matter of principle. An insane principle, perhaps, but a principle nonetheless. Also, of course, the bit about losing the war was a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways.

Fighting in this senseless war of principle every night shaped me in ways I can see and ways I can’t see. I am like a former child soldier, in some deep recess of my soul I was shaped and scarred by the brutality that was a regular feature of my life at the dinner table war zone, night after night. My sister considers that I suffered more than she did, because while she often kept her head down and endured the attacks, I always fought back. I have the opposite view, though both sides of the argument have merit.

I learned how to use my intelligence to cooly inflict maximum harm on the old man when the fighting got ugly. I learned how to provoke him to rage with a slight shift of my mouth, the look in my eyes, a half turn of my torso, an inhalation of breath.

These skills did not serve me well in the world. Confronted by a bully at any point in my now long life, I was helpless, I could not avoid a confrontation in the end. Once I recognized an unreasonable person craving some kind of violent domination I’d eventually smirk and say the very worst possible thing “you’re an unreasonable person, craving some kind of violent domination, you know you’re a weak, contemptible bully, don’t you, asshole?”

It was not in my skill set to smoothly back away from someone who made it clear they wanted to fight for no discernible reason. It is still hard for me to do when suddenly confronted with this behavior, as much as I strive to avoid confrontation with unreasonable people these days.

It turns out a lot of change is possible with hard work, self-acceptance and the blessing of supportive friends, while other, deeper changes are very, very difficult to make.

You can learn to recognize when you are getting angry, what is about to make you angry. You can take steps to resist getting angry, to allow your breathing to calm you a bit, to control your reaction, to not blurt out the regrettable words that can’t be taken back. There are many things you can learn to do to have a less angry, less violent life.

My father may have been right about one thing – you may never be able, once the hateful game is afoot, to lose that provocative set of your mouth, the look on your face, the exaggerated intake of breath that makes someone want to slug you – it’s baked in, it’s yours to keep forever, no matter how hard you might try to disown it.

Once you do any of those angry moves, it instantly proves the point of the person who insists you’re a ruthless killer, no matter how hard you try to deny it, no matter how patient you’ve already been, no matter how much better you might be doing at self-restraint than before.

I can’t help thinking of political oppressors in the same way. Provoke a hurt response and then punish the person for that response. Keep a knee on somebody’s neck for years. When the person gets up, and is angry about the mistreatment, it proves the oppressor’s point. “That’s why I had to keep my knee on your neck. Look how fucking angry you are!” Bill Barr is a master of this particular despicable trick.

Of course, the beauty — and horror — of being human is that anyone can convince themselves that they are only acting for highly principled reasons. It’s the other side – you know, that is doing all the hating, cheating, obstructing, killing, drinking the blood of murdered child sex slaves. We are only doing these things because THE OTHER SIDE IS DOING IT ALREADY! It’s a matter of principle – and survival.

Here’s what hit me hard the other day. I decided at a certain point a few decades back that I will not tolerate abuse in my personal life. I try hard not to abuse anyone’s feelings, and if I do something that I learn hurt somebody, I am quick to try to make amends, first by apologizing. I’d will this to be a universal principle. I saw the other day that this is only a first step, that it really prevents no part of your lowest nature from coming out if the provocation is sufficient. You can read these posts over the years for several examples of fatal fallings out I’ve had with longtime friends and acquaintances. Here are three off the top of my head. Bear in mind that each of these characters has their own version of these dramas that make me as much the irredeemable villain as these may make them appear to be.

I had an acquaintance I used to see once or twice a year. A writer by profession, a great storyteller with a merry aspect, always good for several hours of spinning interesting tales back and forth and having some knowing laughs. We weren’t friends beyond that, but we liked each other. When I was first working on the book about my father we discussed it over dinner and he seemed intrigued. He told me to send him some pages, he’d give me his two cents. I sent him some pages, didn’t hear back, sent a few more, didn’t hear back, asked him about it, didn’t hear back.

Was it unreasonable of me to feel hurt? Probably not. Was it unreasonable of me to expect a working craftsman of a writer who had never published anything of a personal nature to have any meaningful input on my first draft of a highly personal memoir? Maybe yes, maybe no. Writing is writing, you could say.

In my mind, his year-later defensive email that I was being an asshole to hold it against him that he may or may not have ever commented on pages he doesn’t even remember if he ever read, and that if he had read them he’d almost certainly have written back about, was abusive. Perhaps not everybody would interpret this response, or the ones that followed, as abusive. I did. The gloves I’d carefully kept on came off, I ripped him into several bleeding pieces and walked away [1]. Proving to him, as well as to his ex-wife, that I was indeed a vicious, unreasonable asshole. Case closed, end of story.

Many people might have had a different reaction than mine. OK, they might reason, he was the wrong person to ask for this feedback, even if he offered it. OK, we were never really friends, just acquaintances, it was unreasonable of me to expect him to be able to react to these deeply personal pages. OK, he admitted, toward the end, that he was raised to be insanely competitive, maybe these intensely personal pages were something he felt overwhelmed by, that he felt he could not compete against. I don’t know. I do understand now, that only someone raised in a war zone would calmly slash the guy five times with a sharp sword over it, making sure he knew why he was good and dead, before walking away [again– 1].

Same with the longtime musician friend who offered to do me a favor, then changed his mind, then insisted I had no right to ask why he’d changed his mind, then admitted he did it because he’s been harboring a lot of anger and resentment against me and this was his way of telling me “fuck you.” Many people might file this somewhere, lower their expectations, no longer think of the guy as a friend – maybe even write the guy off. Not everybody would feel compelled to cooly and methodically remove each of his limbs and pile them in front of his head and torso in order to ensure he’d be hurt enough to shut the fuck up [2].

One last, most recent one. A very good friend, since late childhood, and I came to (figurative) blows a few months back. He’s a very smart guy with a dark sense of humor and we’d known each other since Junior High School. In hindsight, most of our intimate conversations were about my troubles. He told me once that he doesn’t like to complain about his life. He always seemed to have a good appetite for my troubles, though. In the latest round his efforts to help wound up antagonizing me, several times in a row. The more I tried to explain why, the more he told me I was wrong, not making sense, that he still didn’t understand. The clearer my explanations became, the more he asked me to please explain further, more clearly, since he was finding it impossible to understand what I was talking about.

A game for suckers, no doubt, and by then I should have recognized it and gracefully written him off, reduced my expectations to near zero, preserved what I could of our long friendship, if only for the sake of our mates. Something was rotten here, clearly, but I kept trying to explain what he kept telling me he still couldn’t understand. I kept believing in this mutual good faith effort we were not managing to make.

He got angry a few times, snarled and even hung up on me during a tense conversation after gruffly apologizing, although he really wasn’t sure what I needed an apology for or why the hell I insisted on shoving him into a corner when he’d done nothing any other good friend wouldn’t have done in his situation.

It is what happened last that lingers for me. I eventually saw that this was an emotional impasse I could not get him to understand with his fine and subtle mind. Emotionally, he was unable to recognize or take responsibility for the hurtfulness of his actions. He waited weeks to apologize for his little temper tantrum, and the follow up text that he was done being “reamed” by me, even as he wrote me several long emails attempting to be conciliatory and expressing a desire to do everything possible to save our friendship.

In the end he once again insisted he didn’t understand why or how I could have been so hurt by anything he might have done, though he apologized again, for whatever it might have been. He made an unusual complaint: since my communications had been so mild mannered he’d had a very hard time realizing how much I’d been hurt by his inadvertent acts. If he accidentally stepped on my toe and I didn’t cry out, how could he possibly be expected to know how much it had hurt me? When in the end I did cry out, he was inconsolable.

Again, why bother crying out at that point? It was clear, over and over, that my old friend did not have the emotional bandwidth to understand what was missing in our friendship. He insisted I was his dearest friend ever, that he loved me and would fight to remain friends. It was equally clear that he had much different expectations of a lifelong friendship than I did. My crying out, upon request, by going through several emails and pointing out the seamless folly of our back and forth, struck a fatal blow in the guy. It was unkind and hurtful of me to make it so clear that there was nothing further to discuss, he wrote. In the end, he couldn’t fathom my unprovoked viciousness.

In each of the above cases, an argument could be made that, after all my attempts to be reasonable, I did nothing to regret in writing a suitable ending to each of these dramas. In one, an acquaintance set me up for a cruel disappointment he then blamed me for. The musician friend had a long list of unspoken reasons to tell me, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck myself. My old friend’s limitations only finally overwhelmed me when I was in a tight spot and his inability to empathize kept making it tighter. In each case, not much to salvage, whether or not I insisted on having an unkind last word.

In each case, yes, in the end I was categorical in stating the obvious. I seemingly could not stop myself. The other party felt brutalized by me. All unfortunate, in a better world than this one.

The insight for me is how hard it is to root out this final urge to kill someone who insists on their right to hurt you. Perhaps I am setting an impossibly high bar for myself, but this reminder that I am still helpless against certain specific emotional circumstances, was an unwelcome one.

If someone accuses you of being angry, and you remain mild, and they keep insisting you are irrationally angry, and you start to become frustrated but hold yourself back, and they redouble their efforts to prove you are an implacably angry bastard – well, a wiser person would manage to get out of the loop before he explodes in anger. This trap is one of the obstacles my father apologized for putting in my path. How I never saw it before a few days ago is a mystery to me.

The irony I mentioned about the seeming impossibility of completing the public personal memorial to my parents and their erased ancestors: it seems impossible to me for the very reasons I’ve discussed above. A sense of futility was instilled in my sister and me, from a young age, seeing there was nothing we could do to avoid eternal war with the father who always blamed us as the aggressors.

“I can hear you whining to the fucking shrink about how your parents ruined your life,” our father would predict from time to time. A pretty judgmental way to put it, perhaps, though not unreasonable, given the hard work he was putting in to make it so.

So, granted, my father had many great qualities, along with a few tragic failings, that would make him an excellent protagonist for a memoir. I’ve written at least 1,300 pages of an unwieldy first draft of his story. Granted, the vast majority of my family, on both sides, were lost in the cold fog of history, mere statistics, victims of Hitlerism without names, their mass graves and even the godforsaken hellholes they came from erased from human memory. I’d like to write and leave a living memorial to them, before I fold up my tents here and cash in my chips. The irony?

The obstacles my father unwittingly placed in the way keep me from feeling able to complete this gigantic task I have set myself, a task I have probably already come more than 80% toward completing. So those obstacles will prevent my father, his life, the world he came from, from being memorialized in a book strangers can read, to ponder the difficult, important lessons I’ve been grappling with since I was a young child.

Ironic, eh wot?

[1] to be clear, this bloody act came in the form of a blahg post methodically dissecting and dismissing his maddening if-pology, phrase by phrase

[2] This gruesome dismemberment took the form of three stinging paragraphs, responding to his “personality conflict” conclusion. I corrected it to a worldview conflict — the first paragraph savaged his vanity and materialism, the second disclaimed responsibility for his inferiority complex — the third I don’t recall at the moment, but it was apparently as hurtful as intended.

Echoes of Disturbing Issues from Childhood

My father, pursued to his deathbed by what he referred to as his demons, suffered unimaginable abuse as an infant that he was never able to heal from. He told me as much as he was dying. “My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” he said, by way of opening our last conversation, on the last night of his life.

At that point I knew exactly what the man whose fluids were draining into a bag on the side of his hospital bed was talking about, but only because I’d spent literally decades puzzling out the painful secret he guarded to his death. His mother had been a violent, enraged, religious fanatic who literally whipped him in the face from the time he could stand. A light suddenly went on in a dark room when I learned this.

I can hear his voice now, saying what he couldn’t when he was alive and frantic to stay just ahead of the demons that drove him to act in ways he’d regret while dying. “You don’t recover from that kind of betrayal, Elie. How do you come back from a mother who treats you as a despicable enemy from your earliest memory, from before you could even talk to her?” I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, though it is worth pondering.

Whenever I raise my voice to Sekhnet, or otherwise show frustration (something I am sadly prone to), she immediately reacts with pain. She feels unfairly under attack like she did as a girl, and I understand this.

My nastiness immediately triggers painful childhood feelings from a childhood that was harsh in certain ways. All I can do is try to always be aware of this trigger and not react in a way that hits it, a great challenge in a matter of reflex. Making matters harder, my facial expression alone will pull the trigger, even if I manage to keep my mouth mostly shut. I can only apologize when I provoke this pain in her and try better to not do it the next time. My apologies, no matter how instant or sincere, only offer so much consolation, I have learned.

I don’t mean to sound like a sniveler, but disturbing issues from childhood remain for many of us, most of us, I suspect, to the end of our lives. We do our best to be aware of and overcome them for the sake of those we love, it’s the best we can do.

The subject of childhood pain is either tedious or fascinating, to be avoided or delved into, depending on your tolerance for a certain kind of discomfort and your need for a certain kind of clarity. It is tricky, emotionally fraught terrain dotted with patches of quicksand.

There is a term for constant self-punishing brooding on painful feelings from the past, rumination. There is even a psychological disorder for those addicted to this form of self-flagellation, Obsessive Rumination Disorder:

Rumination is focused on past events. It is a preoccupation with perceived mistakes, losses, slights, actions taken or not taken, opportunities forever lost. The feelings associated with obsessive rumination are guilt, regret, anger and envy.

(two second google search: what is obsessive rumination disorder?)

Here’s a short piece on the dangers of rumination and tips on how to overcome the worst of it, and lift ourselves out of it, by a guy with the incomparable name of Guy Winch.

The harm of repeatedly chewing over and reliving past hurt, churning pain you can do nothing about, is not hard to see. The difference between torturing oneself with guilt, regret, anger and envy and thinking about and learning from past pain, moving toward healthier reactions, not remaining stuck in negative cycles for reasons you can’t see or grasp, becoming a more self-aware and kind person, is not as easy to see sometimes.

Our past experience, of course, is the lens through which we view everything. More crucially, it is the filter through which we feel everything. I see this paragraph from today’s news and am struck (by the part I’ve put in bold) by an immediate painful feeling straight out of my own childhood, beyond my adult horror at the larger meaning of this news item:

Judge Amy Coney Barrett would be Trump’s third appointee to the Supreme Court and the sixth conservative justice on the bench. During her Senate hearing, she refused to state her position on abortion rights, gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act, voting rights, climate change, family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border and presidential powers in relation to the elections.

source

Not answering specific, troubling questions by authoritatively turning the conversation away from reasonable, concerns, was a specific technique my adversarial father deployed frequently. I found myself on the short end of this technique over and over during my childhood and well into my adult life.

This move is the complete negation of the rights of the other, a calm, unappealable pronouncement that the thing you are so concerned about is of no legitimate concern whatsoever. It dismisses your concern as the unreasonable product of your own shortcomings.

It seems clear that a Supreme Court nominee should be able to state, without hesitation, that armed people at the polls intimidating voters is against the law, is, in fact, a felony in many, if not most, states. There is no political point of view expressed in stating the black letter law in answer to a direct legal question — this behavior, though endorsed by the incumbent president, violates rights guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as federal statute. It is a crime to interfere with a fellow citizen’s right to vote, by intimidating them or in any other way (not authorized by a superseding state law.)

This carefully vetted zealot nominee, about to become a sixth unappealable vote in the 6-3 majority to suppress anti-Trump votes (with or without legal justification [1]), refused to state her position even on this simple, important matter of voter intimidation on behalf of a president who exhorts violent resistance to “Democrat tyrrany” and vows to protect his followers from legal consequences. Instead of a straightforward answer to an uncomplicated legal question, Coney Barrett reserves all judicial options by standing on the absurd claim that she’d need, in a fact-specific situation, to consult with her interns and fellow legal scholars before deciding how to answer. She adds, in the politest possible tone, that the people asking such questions are simply partisans intent on “borking” her perfectly legal and proper nomination.

There are many reasons to be disturbed by the powerlessness many of us, a large majority of Americans, feel at the brazen and unstoppable bit of cynicism of appointing another extremist justice to cement a 6-3 right wing majority just days before an election she’ll have a vote on deciding, on behalf of democracy-averse corporations and reactionary billionaires. Add to this disturbance, in my case, a painful personal reminder of an ongoing childhood torment.

Here is the important distinction between what I always try to do and being stuck in the self-harming cycle of reliving pain from the past that psychologists call rumination. I recognize that there is a painful, personal echo in this news item for me. I can put my finger on it. I understand its harmfulness precisely. It does not send me into a spiral of negative thoughts from the past.

There is plenty negative and abusive about McConnell and company’s ugly, unprincipled move (several prominent votes in the 51-49 majority to rush Coney Barrett on to the bench took a “principled” stand, in 2016, against the very thing they are rushing to do now), days before a highly contested election, without this particular feature that strikes me so hard.

This refusal to address important concerns is one particularly personal component of this outrage for me, one I feel in my body and I understand why it strikes me that way. It’s as they say: the personal is political. It reminds me again how crucial it is for me not to do this hateful thing to people I care about.

It’s all we have when the going gets tough — the understanding of what hurts us the most, the desire not to inflict it on others and the knowledge that our concerns will not be brushed aside by the people closest to us.

We are living through historically tough times now, with the active message delivered over and over by our own government that hundreds of thousands of unnecessary American deaths, and untold deprivation, fear, hunger and other suffering, is the appropriate price of liberty, for certain powerful, unaccountable forces in our nation.

You can only look at the calculated ugliness of this and countless related daily outrages for so long, before you begin to lose hope, feeling, desire to even fight it. That is part of the deliberate design of overwhelming government-sponsored brutality like this– to emotionally dominate its victims beyond their power to resist. Resist we must, of course.

It is understandable that few, if any of us, are at our best in this disorienting moment of multi-faced crisis. It is plain that there are different styles of coping with the present horrors as they continue to unfold with such mind-numbing monotony. We all find our own ways to remain sane and hopeful, to balance the need for information and the need for relief from the assault of deliberate misinformation.

Tolerance for our differences is more important than ever. Only by hearing and understanding each other’s concerns is there any chance of emerging from this awful moment with our full humanity intact. Patience for the foibles of others is much harder under these worst of circumstances, when we are on each others’ nerves, locked up in small, isolated groups during these fearful days, granted. For that reason patience is even more needed. The reward for patience and fortitude is proportionately greater in scary, disorienting times like these.

[1]

The emergency ruling Kavanaugh authored in April, overturning two lower courts to prevent the expansion of voting in Wisconsin during the pandemic (with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s short, sparkling, crystal clear dissent), was one of many recent un-argued eleventh emergency rulings by the Supreme Court. Unsurprisingly:

The Trump administration has been a major contributor to the trend, Professor Vladeck wrote, having filed 36 emergency applications in its first three and a half years. By contrast, the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama filed just eight such applications over 16 years.

source

white stubble

I realize it is a reflection of my luck, to have lived long enough to see this, but it gives me a small shudder every time. In the bathroom mirror downstairs, with diffused light coming in from the left, the short white hairs sprouting on my unshaved cheek and neck are unmistakable. They are identical to the ones on the lower half of my father’s face, and his neck, a few days after he died, when they popped open the plain pine box to make sure we were burying the right guy. It’s apparently true, hair continues to grow after death, he was clean shaven when he breathed his last.

I often hasten upstairs to shave. I’m not sure why. That white stubble is no different, really, than the tuft of now white hair that reaches up through the open collar of my shirt, tendrils that can only be constrained by the collar of a t-shirt. My father had the exact same tuft of white hair on his chest. I remember it from when he tried on the blue and white flowered Hawaiian shirt I brought him from my trip to those islands. Reaching up like a clump of dry grass, animated by some crazed will to climb.

Thinking of my father’s face in his coffin, I often recall the guy who instructed the gravedigger to lift the lid. He was a cheerful, ghoulish creep in a sharp black suit, a former lawyer. “I like this much more,” he told my mother and me with a big smile, as he counted the eight thousand in cash we had to bring to the cemetery before they’d release my father’s dead body for burial.

The Book of Lost Souls

As my grandmother, who loved me fiercely, was on the bed in my childhood bedroom dying a painful death from colon cancer, I went down into the basement where I slept and wrote a song one night. I was in my early twenties at the time and was certain I knew a great deal more about life than I actually did. I sang quietly there in the basement, playing some nice guitar chords against a plaintive melody I can almost remember. The lyric that I recall, the chorus, was “when you have love, you never die.” The line repeated several times, and then again as the song faded out. It wasn’t true, of course, she died a few days later and remains steadfastly so. The fact is, no matter how much love we have, we always die.

My grandmother was one of seven children born to her parents in a Ukrainian town near Kremenetz, not all that far from Khmelnitsky, a city named for a Ukrainian nationalist famous in Jewish history as an enthusiastic slayer of Jews, a major pogromnik. A talented, ambitious girl and an adventurous young woman, my future grandmother embraced the vision of universalism, equality and the brotherhood of workers she learned from the idealistic young commissars of the Red Army who took over her neighborhood of the Ukraine after a bloody civil war. She brought that vision with her, along with her dreams of some kind of personal greatness, to the United States, where she arrived, after a fairly harrowing ocean crossing, at twenty-one or so, in 1921. She was the only one of her family to leave. My grandfather, also one of seven siblings, followed two years later, also the only member of his family to get out.

As I write about my grandmother, as you read these words, a small sense of her eternal soul flickers and shimmers a bit. Her soul, while I am considering it, is not truly lost. I knew and loved her well.

Then I think of her six siblings, and their spouses and children, and my grandfather’s six siblings and their families. Of all these only her adored youngest brother, Yussele, Joe, has a name that anyone alive (me) knows. I wonder how many were still around when another group of true believers took control of that inhospitable corner of the Ukraine. One airless Ukrainian night in August, 1943 the last of them officially became Lost Souls.

What I know from a small monument in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried (erected by the Vishnivetz Benevolent Society), and from transcripts of translated witness history (the only mention of the atrocity that I have found on the internet) is that the survivors of the hastily constructed ghetto in that small town, after being starved and tortured for a year or so, were marched after dark to a ravine on the north western edge of town.

They were marched to the sound of drums, the clanging of pans and the yowling of brass instruments, to drown out the cries. The ravine had been prepared in advance, the earth softened up. Layer after layer of doomed Jews were buried there, fragments of their bones skitter in the wind to this day, according to a travel piece about the town I read in the New York Times a few years ago.

What to do about these lost souls? Have they nothing to say? No right to their tiny place in the mad story of in the world? Who am I to write about these lost souls? The only one left alive who knows any of them ever lived.

When I was a boy, and learned about this mass murder of every one of my great aunts and great uncles and all of their children, the immensity of the horror was too much for my parents to discuss. My grandparents never uttered a peep about their loss, I never heard so much as a clue from either of them that anything bad had ever happened. Everyone pretended, it appears, that everyone getting a bullet in the neck and being hastily tucked into a mass grave was normal; that bad, even unthinkable, things happen, that you clutch tightly to the people you love, even as you sometimes battle them to the death.

At one point, for two years or so, I sat every day, as I am sitting now, thinking and tapping at a computer keyboard, trying to tell a story that is, at best, a puzzle with most of its pieces missing. I wrote more than a thousand pages diving into the life of my father, holding it against him, at first, as I had for decades, that he got angry when I persisted in trying to learn more about the murder of our family. True, he called me a drama queen (or whatever the equivalent of that phrase was when I was eight years old) and accused me of trying to claim some kind of victimhood I wasn’t entitled to since the people who died were mere abstractions I’d never even met. I understand now that he had no way to process this atrocity, no way to discuss it with his young child. In the context of his own life, articulate, righteous anger was the best he could summon.

When I was thirteen, by the tradition of my religion, I read part of a holy book to the community and “became a man,” I have few recollections of that day, except that a girl from Hebrew School who I liked, who had not been invited to the bar mitzvah party, showed up anyway in that catering hall on Hillside Avenue. She spirited me away from the party, down a flight of stairs, sat on my lap on an upholstered chair under the room where the festivities were going on and kissed me on the lips a few times.

I mention this to illustrate how elusive the past is. I was there, I am said to have an excellent memory, and I remember one detail. I have a few mental images of myself in the chapel, reading from the Torah (my part was read from the same xeroxed and marked up page I’d learned it from). Mostly, no memory at all of that memorable day.

As we also learn, given enough time, a life seems to go by in the wink of an eye. Thirteen years is not very long to be alive. Thirteen years passes quickly, I’ve discovered as 13 turns to 26 then to 39 and so forth.

A few months less than thirteen years before I was born there was a terrible racket in the Ukrainian night, and then, after the ruckus was over, the silence of death. Every Jewish soul that was alive that night when the banging started — that soul was lost forever. Have we nothing to learn from this?

A Few More Thoughts About Time

When I got the call from my sister, during a festive meal at the home of old friends, that my father had been admitted to the hospital after being brought to the emergency room, time changed.   

“When I saw the doctor’s face I knew this was it,” my sister told me, “he looked like the malach ha mavet (Angel of Death).”  The specialists my father had been seeing regularly — cardiologist, endocrinologist, hematologist — collectively had no clue that their patient was in the last stage of liver cancer, days from death.    The ER doctor, assessing my father’s jaundiced color, difficulty moving and tapping his stomach, distended with ascites (liver-related fluid build up in the abdomen) [1] knew at once that this man was in the last days of liver cancer.

Two doctors were at the dinner table when I got the news.  When I mentioned the ascites they both told me not to worry, that ascites can be from many things [2], that I should wait and talk to the doctors at the hospital.  I consider their reassuring lies to have been a kindness, under the circumstances, and always think of their unspoken, united determination to shield me from extra worry with great fondness.

“If you have any family who want to see him before he goes, you should call them right away,” the ER doctor told my sister.

A couple of days later I arrived in Florida.   My father was attached to a bag hanging off the side of the hospital bed.  The bag was filling with the most unhealthy looking liquid I’ve ever seen.   It was the color of cancer.  It dripped away, along with what was left of his life, for the three or four days I was in Florida before my father breathed his last breath.

My father was eager to see his little brother, a man he had always bullied and dismissed.   Once, late in his life, when my father was returning from a short visit to his brother I asked him how my uncle was doing.   My father paused for a few seconds to reflect then uttered this great line:  “let’s just say, he remains unchanged.”   At the end my father was anxious for his brother to be there and his brother rushed to Florida.

I went to pick my uncle up at Ft. Lauderdale airport.   When we got to the hospital he immediately stopped the doctor, who’d met us in the hall to update us about the patient’s condition, to ask if there was any chance of a liver transplant for his dying 80 year-old brother.   I had to take my uncle by the arm to let the uncomfortable doctor get away.  The way the two brothers clung to each other at the end was poignant to see.

My uncle was a bossy man and he instructed us all, at around nine pm, that it was time to let the dying man rest.   For some reason we all left the hospital.  I even attempted to get to sleep, hours before my natural bedtime, which is around four a.m.    Suddenly I sat up, thinking “what the fuck?,” got in the car and headed back to the hospital.   

My father, who’d told me earlier in the day that he wanted to talk to me, that he was still assembling his thoughts, was wide awake when I arrived around one a.m.   He appeared to be expecting me.  I’d always had an adversarial relationship with my father, one I’d tried many times to improve, but my father was so deeply, fundamentally wounded that meaningful peace with him was pretty much out of the question.   

I’m a fairly creative person, with an active imagination, and, once I left my parents’ house, I’d tried everything I could imagine over the years to make peace with my old man.  In the end, when he angrily told me that if he ever told me what he really felt about me it would do “irreparable harm” to our relationship, I saw that his desperation was too great for him to overcome.   He would “win” by destroying what was left of our ability to discuss things beyond the weather, baseball, history and politics.   I stopped banging my head against the locked door at that point.

I am writing about time.   Two years passed from that final slamming of the vault on any hope for real dialogue with my father.  Nobody knows from one minute to the next how long the rest of their life will be.  I can measure it now:  two years elapsed from the time I became certain that no true peace with my father was possible.   

During those years I was in psychotherapy, and I finally reached a point where I was able to understand that my father was incapable of doing any better; that he was actually, sad as it was, doing the best he could.  Knowing this allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.   

Luckily, I had this revelation a few months before I got that call from my sister than our father was not long for this world.  I was ready, in a sense, in a way I couldn’t have been holding on to the pain and anger my father’s righteous prosecutorial rage inspired in me.

Now, on April 29, 2005,  it is after one a.m. on what would turn out to be the last night of my father’s life.   The first question he asked is if I’d brought the digital recorder I’d bought for him earlier in the day.   I’d left it with the nurse, got it, turned it on, propped it on his chest.   

The next thing he said was that his life was basically over by the time he was two.   He didn’t mention why, it was something I already knew (though not from him) — his angry, religious mother had whipped him in the face from the time he could stand.   Add to that “grinding poverty” and turning five as The Depression began, being the poorest of the poor in a small town as everyone in your family back in Europe is being rounded up and killed, you begin to get the picture.   Betrayal by a mother, shame and humiliation are not easily overcome.   I can’t imagine the struggle my father had, to appear strong, infallible, while making only glancing references to the “demons” we all must deal with.

Because I was no longer that angry, because my father was dying, I knew my purpose in that room was to make his death as easy as it could be.   I was not there to challenge him, I was there to comfort him.  I understood without needing to think about it that these moments were not about me, they were about him.

When he apologized for putting obstacles in front of my sister and me, making our lives harder instead of helping us in times of need as a loving father should, I told him he’d done the best he could.   

When he told me he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years, I nodded, thankful to hear him finally acknowledge it.   He lamented that he’d been too fucked up and defensive for us to have this kind of conversation fifteen years ago.   

At the time the number seemed off to me — thirty years of war, fifteen of peace?   Later I realized that fifteen days, or even fifteen hours, of this kind of honesty would have been an amazing blessing.

We spoke quietly for several hours, the door to my father’s hospital room open, everyone else on the floor asleep.   The nurse, an angel in human form, sat outside the room.    The look of love she gave me when I left I will never forget.

Early next evening, as the sun was beginning to set, my father told my sister, my uncle and my mother that since I’d arrived it was a good time for them to take a break, go to the cafeteria and get something to eat. 

As soon as they were gone my father said to me “I don’t know how to do this.”   I assured him that nobody did, that it would be fine.   The nurse helped take down the bar on one side of the bed so I could sit closer to my father.  I don’t remember if I had my hand on him, or arm around him, or anything like that, but I sat close by.   

His breathing got shallower and shallower, death from liver cancer is supposed to be one of the gentler ways to go.   After the liver goes, the kidneys shut down and you go to sleep, only forever.   

A friend later told me the Talmud poetically compares the moment of death to removing a hair from a glass of milk.  It is an excellent description in the case of death from liver cancer.

Within twenty minutes or so my father took his last breath.   I reached over and closed his dead eyes with the fingers of one hand, like I’d done it a thousand times.

[1] A 0.66 second search reveals: 

Ascites is when over 25 milliliters of fluid fills the space between the abdominal lining and the organs. It’s usually caused by cirrhosis.

[2]  It turns out they were misleading me, not lying:

But the most dangerous problem associated with ascites is infection, which can be life-threatening. Ascites may go away with a low salt diet, and with diuretics (water pills) ordered by your provider.

1924 (5)

All this focus on the year 1924, a time when there was still no federal law limiting child labor, before any kind of governmental social safety net existed, when the resurgent Ku Klux Klan was at its all time peak in membership, and organized xenophobia, following a senseless World War, a massive slaughter the exact cause of which nobody has ever rationally explained, was at fever pitch… why?

It was the boiling world my father was born into. Add to it that young Irving was a tiny, impoverished member of those teeming, sweating immigrant masses that so alarmed the descendants of the original Anglo-Saxon Americans. Add to it that fear of drunken foreigners was one of the driving forces of the Temperance movement that led to the ill-fated Eighteenth Amendment, which stated “the manufacture, sale or transporting of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States … for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” 1924 was year five of the failed fourteen year experiment in banning alcohol.

Eliyahu, my father’s father, a man who never drank alcohol, died young of liver disease. My father was a lifelong “teetotaler,” as he would say from time to time explaining why he almost never lifted an alcoholic beverage to his lips. He’d have a sip of sweet red wine, on ceremonial occasions, but outside of that, I don’t believe he ever drank so much as a beer. He certainly never tasted whisky. By sheer coincidence, Irv died of liver cancer.

My teetotaler father was a lifelong student of history. When I used to have a “current events” assignment in grade school my father stressed the importance of making sure I clipped the date of the article I was reporting on. He instilled this habit in me, the historian’s instinct to place events into a sequence that could be followed later, to note, to the extent possible, cause and effect in historical progressions.

Finally, unable to restrain himself, the skeleton of my father sat up in his grave outside of Peekskill, in Cortlandt, New York. “OK, look, Elie, I know the thought of going through those 1,200 pages of your first draft is exhausting to you– but don’t you think it’s time? Are you seriously trying to write draft two completely from scratch, with this clunky chronological time line? Telling instead of showing, since you know so little about my early life, outside of a few stories from Eli.”

“Well, I do see your point, dad, but I can’t very well skip to the drama of the misshapen blue pants I was so reluctant to wear for the visit to NYU hospital when you were hospitalized with bleeding psoriasis, the round of temper tantrums my refusal to put on those hideous pants caused…”

“Sure, go right there, that’s the way to do it…” the skeleton rotated his head, for effect. “Obviously, I’m in no position to tell you how to write this, or do anything. I’m just saying, it makes a certain amount of sense to review that huge draft you’ve already written and start organizing the best of it into draft two, where you act like you knew what you were doing all along.”

It does make sense, a lot of sense.

For example, I could include something like this (I Just Want You To Be Happy, Nov. 18, 2017):

We were driving north on the Throgs Neck Bridge, my lifelong adversary at the wheel. When my sister and I were little kids, and the family drove back to Queens over the Whitestone Bridge after visits to the U.S. mainland, my father would point to the towers being built in the channel between the East River and the Long Island Sound. “When that bridge is done, we’ll have a much quicker ride home,” he said, or words to that effect. He must have said it several times, because the bridge opened when I was four and a half and I clearly remember him pointing at the bridge being constructed across the Throgs Neck.

We were heading to my apartment on the northern end of Manhattan, I’d had dinner with my parents in Queens, as I did periodically in the years before they moved to Florida. I was close to forty, and had finally gotten rid of my car (impossible to park in my neighborhood). I used to make the drive, around 25 minutes each way, but once I ditched my car it was a ninety minute trip each way by subway and walking. My father was driving me home this particular night. It was a rare stretch of just the two of us being together in a car. On the Throgs Neck Bridge, about five minutes from their house, I asked him, point blank, what it was that he wanted from me.

“You seem eternally unhappy, disappointed, disapproving of my choices in life,” I told him. It must be said, at that point I’d been fired from a series of jobs and most recently blacklisted from teaching in the public schools after a long ordeal by bureaucracy. “What would you like me to do to relieve you of those, no doubt painful, feelings? Is there anything? Would law school do it for you?” I asked. “Would you be happy if I became a lawyer?”

I remember the dark Long Island Sound stretching out to the right of us as we headed toward the Bronx. My father paused. Then he told me that he would feel differently about my life if only I were happy in what I was doing. My happiness, he said, was the most important thing to him. I managed not to say anything snide.

“You know, if you were happy being an artist… you know, I never understood why you don’t try getting a show in a library, or a hospital, or some place like that, just to get some exposure, get a foot in the door. You work in isolation and you… I mean, it just seems like a very unhappy life. I just want you to be happy. If you were happy, I’d be satisfied.”

I explained to him that a show at a library or a nursing home was not a stepping stone toward becoming a professional artist. An artist only makes a living working in advertising, illustration or becoming a darling of wealthy art collectors, curators and influential art critics. None of those options appealed to me, I told him, yet I love to draw and that’s that. I asked him again what it was that I could do that would leave him feeling I was not wasting my life.

“You don’t have to do anything for me,” he said, steering his Cadillac into a lane for the toll booth. “I don’t know where you get the idea that you have to do anything for me. You’ve never sought my advice or input before, I’m a little surprised you’re asking me now.”

I’m asking you now, I told him, weary from decades of senseless war I had little insight into. I’d been an antagonistic newborn, an implacable infant, a relentlessly defiant toddler, an angry, fearful school boy, a rebellious, sharp-tongued, disrespectful teenager. I’ve digested all of these things by now, the first few being patently absurd, the remainder fairly predictable, based on being treated as a challenging little adversary from before my first memory, but at that moment in the car I was seeking a way off of this boundless, senseless battlefield.

“Only if it would make you happy to become a lawyer,” he said. “I mean, obviously, I think you have the mind to be an excellent lawyer.”

And extensive experience with adversarial proceedings, I pointed out. I don’t recall much more about that long ago conversation, except that I took the LSAT review books out of my local library and took a few sample tests. I learned later that many people take courses to prepare them for this highly specialized test, but I had long experience cramming for Regents Exams in high school and had always had a knack for these standardized tests (though I had mediocre scores on my SATs, as I recall, but those were taken at my personal height of not giving a fuck about anything).

I did well enough on my LSATs that, with my college transcripts, I was accepted to all three of the law schools I applied to. I chose one, took out loans (that I am still repaying more than twenty years later) and the rest, as they say is history.

“So you’re saying you went to law school in an attempt to please a father you knew to be impossible to please?” said the skeleton of my father, a much different creature than the man who drove us across the Throgs Neck Bridge that night.

Pretty much. I’ve spent the day today immunosuppressed, working out different ways to play Hoagy Carmichael’s great Lazy River on guitar. What a beautiful, bluesy, ingenious tune. Hoagy graduated law school and passed the bar exam on his first try, just like I did. He was a musical genius and was soon making money as a musician and so never had to experience the grinding that is the fucking law. I, on the other hand, was forced, for more than a decade, to earn my crust of bread by the stinging sweat of my brow, in the manner of Cain, cursed by his maker.

Playing that tune, with an involuntary smile when he pulls out some of those great lines, I can forget all about it, until it’s time to put the guitar down.

“Well, you know Elie, we all have to put the guitar down some time,” said the skeleton with great tenderness.

1924 (part 4)

Back to that baby, my father, born on June 1, 1924.   It was a hard birth after a no doubt stressful pregnancy, the tiny mother struggled to give birth to a very large baby.   The mother had lost her previous child shortly after birth and must have been undergoing tremendous emotional turmoil.  The family was very poor, the horse that pulled the herring wagon may have already died, for all we know, and, if so, the breadwinner was winning no bread.  Crime was rampant on the crowded Lower East Side where they lived, violent criminals were organizing into a national syndicate to profit from Prohibition which was already proving to have been a massive mistake.

The second time was the charm for my grandparents, the big baby survived.   It was three of them now in the tiny, hot slum apartment during the airless summer of 1924.   What could go wrong?

My grandmother’s older brother Uncle Aren intervened, packed up the family’s belongings in his truck and they made the then long trek up to Peekskill, where Aren lived.  When this happened exactly is unknown.  My uncle, who was fifteen months younger than my father, may have also been a tiny passenger on that trip up the Hudson River, past Sing Sing prison.  Aren’s son Eli, freshly expelled from DeWitt Clinton high school shortly before graduation, helped the little family pack up and move.

Aren installed the little family on the second floor of a three story house he owned in Peekskill.  Little comes down to us about those first years in Peekskill, except that when Eli moved there around that time he had an altercation with the three Ku Klux Klan member sons of the guy who ran the local hardware store. 

“So you’re the new kyke from New York City,” Eli said they greeted him, blocking his way on the sidewalk in front of their store.  “I dropped the biggest one, stepped over him and said ‘Eli Gleiberman, nice to meet you guys’.  They didn’t bother me after that.” 

“Eli’s full of shit!  He’s a completely unreliable narrator and a notorious reviser of history” my father always insisted, particularly after I began visiting Eli regularly.   Maybe so, but many of his stories had the ring of truth.   Eli was menacing and physically formidable even at 85.

What we can establish, with simple arithmetic, is that my father started school just as the Depression was kicking off.   In September 1929 the boy was five.  His school career didn’t start off well since he didn’t speak any English and he was legally blind.  Outside of that, he probably had a pretty normal adjustment to school.  Here is a picture of him, one of very few from his childhood, that was taken during his early school years.   That’s dad in the middle.

young-irv-paul-herman

“Who’s that kid on the left?” I asked my uncle, sometime after my father’s funeral.

“That’s Henry,” he said immediately.   Henry moved away from Peekskill shortly after the picture was taken, my uncle said, and does not figure further in my father’s story.

We note that young Irv is still not wearing glasses.  He’s smiling, looking at the camera, seemingly everything is fine.   He’s affectionately draping his arms over his friend and his little brother.   All appears right in the world at that moment, during that literal snapshot of time.   It’s probably fine.