This year you write the book

Whatever you may have said or written about it last year, or in any past year, he said to himself, this year you must actually write the book.

“What is this ‘he said to himself’ business? ‘More to see in 1983?'”

Never mind that, he said, vow that this will be a year without parentheticals…come crisply to the point.  The clock has long been ticking, it is time to score some points, the shot clock winding down, shoot, score, ca-ching!

In a dream last night I had set up my electric guitar in the living room of Hitler’s house.  My host had insisted, I’d gone to plug in in the living room.  Hitler was busily rushing about with guitar cords.  I didn’t notice what kind of guitar he had plugged in, but he was eager to jam.

“A jam session with Hitler?” the whoosh of a long sigh filled the air.

 Yes, and in the dream I knew enough not to argue with him, knew he’d storm into the other room and come back with a pistol. He was famously psychopathic, I knew, and wouldn’t hesitate to show his irritation by shooting me in the face.  The usual low stakes had been raised a bit in this jam session, I later thought to myself.  I never heard him play, because I woke up before that point, but I suspect he played like he spoke.

“Don’t we all?”  Some year without parentheticals (somebody said)

and forget ellipsis, too …

This is the year you do all the things you have not yet done, the things you gave up as impossible, improbable, too hard, too taxing.   This is the year to unlearn learned helplessness, he said with waning faith.  Meaning enough with the 57 varieties of brooding.  

It is time to stop picturing yourself on the lip of that ravine in Vishenevitz just because the day, or year, dawns darker than expected.  Just stop it.  And stop talking to yourself, and pondering, with endless unprofitable invention, the slipperiness of the ground most of us are tap dancing on.

Suddenly, the music begins, and who is that coming overloud through the amp on the left side?   We can only guess.

An Epidemic of Mental Illness?

This excellent article, which I found very convincing, was given to me by a very intelligent man who considers himself insane.  He may well be right, although the piece he recommended is well worth reading if you are considering a psychopharmaceutical cure for what ails ye.  

Or if you are a psychiatrist who spends hours talking to patients, while wondering how to make more money in less time, with far fewer head aches.

The second part of the fascinating two part book review is here.


There may be individuals, I suppose there must be, who can continue uphill, pushing a worthy long-shot project, undaunted by the continual climb, the lack of landmarks, fellow-travelers, encouragement, the barren landscape.   Could be part of the myth of the rugged individual, of course, the invigorating but pernicious idea that one person, alone, can create a community to play a small role in changing horror into hope.   There are the usual outliers, guys like Don Trump, who start with nothing and wind up– or who start with relatively little, a few million, say… and…. ah, fuck Trump and the Trump he rode in on.

There is, it is written, a time to reap and a time to sow.  There are other worthy projects I’ve been neglecting as I neglect the larger one, an ambitious undertaking that has already showed its potential to do what it purports to do.   Few alive today are aware of its great potential, true, but, anyway, it seems a good time to list and try to advance the other worthy projects I must also put my back into.  Progress in one thing helps in another.

Among the 901 posts I have put on this blagh since August of 2012 there are a dozen or more that can be raked into the approximate bones of the Book of Irv, the tragic and illuminating story of my difficult father.   There are posts on my mother, an equally compelling character, probably another dozen.   One of each of these story types was published, in abbreviated form, for a small but decent payday.  You can see them here and here.  Although each bears the mark of sometimes arbitrary editing, the small violence done to my prose, the random insertion of a cliche here and there– a very small price to pay for the nice cash money I received for them.

There are several posts about animals, my ongoing vigilance against doing harm, musings on friendship, etc.   Each should be raked into a little pile, organized, submitted somewhere for money.

Of course, when I write of raking into little piles and organizing, the chaos in here strikes an ironic pose, winks at me saucily.  “You want to rake some piles and do some organizing, my friend?  Really?  Heh.”   I should take these sprawling dunes of paper, drawing books, boxes, cords, rulers, cutting boards, sunscreen, dropper bottles, rubber stamps, dead electronic devices, hats, zipper bags, music books and many other odd items and tame them, one by one.  Would make everything else much easier, no question.  One small triumph inspires the next.

There is also the memory of the excellent advice an adjunct professor in law school gave us at the end of that last semester.  When you study for the bar exam, he said, treat it like you are in training for a grueling fight.  Set a daily schedule of study, keep to it, but also eat well, work out, get enough sleep every night.  You need to be in the best shape of your life, he told us, mentally and physically.  Sitting for hours studying means you’ll need to schedule daily time for exercise.  The exercise will also help you unwind from your studies and improve your sleep.  I took him at his word and rode the bike for an hour every night.  It helped a lot as I passed two bar exams in three days.

After long days at the computer, mostly distracting myself, I rode my bike, briefly, each of the last two nights.  It was good to be rolling again, if also a little sobering to be reminded– when you get back on the bike it takes a while to build up to where you want to be.  Those hills you conquered on nightly rides in the past will kick your ass until you build back up to being able to kick their asses.  I’ve been there before, needing to get back into shape, getting back into better shape.  It is a pleasure when you do, a struggle to get back there, a longer struggle the longer you neglect to begin.

Like so many other things in life, my friend.





Ten Minute Drill – Supervisor

It’s like going to the dentist, really, a ten minute drill (and more for the reader than for me, perhaps).

Thinking of some recent folly, which I’d like to comb out of mind.  With high hopes I began a course of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) with a student therapist, at a steeply discounted rate that added up, over many weeks, to the price of a decent guitar, or a very good acoustic amp.  I’m not crying over the money (though I’m resentful) as much as over the long stretch of unthinkingly wasted time.

CBT is a technique that allows the successful practitioner to run negative feelings through the filter of Reason, to consider these feelings from a more productive perspective.  Identify their source and move beyond them to do what negative feelings often stop one from doing.   I’d gone into the program with three distinct but inter-related goals, made no progress at all on the first two and only minimal progress on the third.

Trouble was, the therapist was a student.  Trouble is, I speak well, fluently, concisely.  This student, young enough to be my daughter, revealed, after many, many weeks of spinning my wheels, that she deferred to me, because of our age difference, because I speak so well, am so analytical, seem so capable and confident and blah blah blah.

“Have you no supervisor?” I finally ask, aghast.   I had begun suggesting exactly what the therapy should have been doing, the simple, practical steps that should have been reasonably taken, but many weeks too late, the sessions are almost done.  Another exercise in uselessness.  If I could have designed and implemented the course of treatment myself, motivated myself to move forward toward the three unrealized goals I came here with six months ago, why would I need to be coming here?  “What has your supervisor advised you?”

She was cagey about the supervisor, yes she had one… but… it’s good that we’re talking about how disappointed you feel.   I realize now, since each session is video taped, since her supervisor is clearly not helping her to be a more effective therapist, that she’s aware that this person who is evaluating her will watch with twitchy, beady eagle eye for the moment in any session when she might admit, in the interests of that candor so important to effective therapy, that her supervisor is a bit hands off, distracted, stuffy, paranoid, pompous, kind of the caricature of that useless, tic afflicted maniac we think of as becoming a supervisor and evaluator of other shrinks.

“Do you feel better now?” asks Siri.

Well, Siri, a tiny, tiny bit better, yes, thank you.  I’d better get back to designing my own therapy program now.

Reason vs. Emotion, redux

Here we go again, goddamn it, tap tap tap like a blind man here at the keyboard instead of picking up the phone and being in contact with other humans, like my wonderful nephew or my very cool niece, instead of going visiting, renewing ties with living, breathing creatures.    

Although here on the blank page, things can be set out and pondered in a way that is rare when we sit with others, listening, waiting, thinking we know what they are not hearing, hearing what they are, possibly, not saying.  

“I thought that piece about the ticking time bomb was another screed against Dick Cheney, the personification of evil, I just couldn’t take another one….”  

“Was it about Cheney?”  

“No, not really, but the opening made me think it would be.”  


Expectations.  There is what there is and what we think there is.  More precisely, what we feel there is.  Our thoughts and expectations are influenced by our emotions, obviously.   There is no truth-based reason for general optimism or general pessimism, these are features of general mood.  Genetic, perhaps, a tendency toward the major key or the minor key.  Me, I steeped myself in the blues, a five note minor key, that music is in my soul.  The major key, often considered happy and optimistic, set against the sadder minor scales, always gave me an uncomfortable shudder of church.  

The church, to me, in the abstract, an institution that long sanctioned the mistreatment of my kind.  Bad-smelling incense, a super-wealthy institution that tolerates terrible crimes against the most helpless of its own innocents, using shameless threats about God to shame the victims into silence.  And let us not mention the swords wielded and oceans of blood spilled in the name of the Prince of Peace.  “What you do to the least of us you do to ME!” warned Jesus.  The fighting popes had infallible reasons why Jesus didn’t really mean this, skewering the least of us, disemboweling and plundering in the name of Christendom.

 “You mean, I’m sure, to exempt from this merciless portrait of Christianity hundreds of millions of good, kind, generous Christians who take the proper lesson from the life and teachings of Jesus.”  

Yes, thank you,  of course. I certainly do– along with a few billion fine Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists too, and everyone else who practices their religion for the right reasons.  The righteous of all nations have a share of the world to come, no doubt.  I’m painting with a broad, savage brush today, but it doesn’t change the larger truth.  Most people in the world are decent people, most religious people are humble and good in their practice.

The hellishness of the world was set out brilliantly in Catch 22, the concept of Catch 22.  You can get out of the army if you’re crazy.  Plain, clear, merciful.  There is one small caveat, Catch 22.  If you can prove that you actually are crazy —  wanting to leave the army shows that you are actually not crazy, therefore, in the army you will stay.  Catch-uh 22!  This merciless catch sums up the world of men as well as any single concept.  

The precepts of the church are mercy, charity, peace, gentle practices, service, devotion, loving our neighbors, even our enemies, but those precepts do not always translate into following the way of Jesus.  Unscrupulous religious demagogues have always carved out exceptions to Jesus’s love edict for those neighbors who hate our freedom, disagree on any significant aspect of our Christian belief (a sect of religious Christians once fought a hundred year war against another over whose love of Jesus was set out the right way), for people who insist they were born homosexual, or those who shrilly try to hold the church accountable for life-altering crimes against children, or blah blah blah.  

“Oh!  Taking a stand against the institutionalized hypocrisy of the worst of the Church on a Sunday!  Very bold.”

No, that’s not my goal today.  I give the example to show how mood colors our interpretation of the world.  Everything I’ve written above is true, even if not the entire picture.  Does it cancel out the comfort widows and orphans have always taken from the church?  The deep Christian faith that sustained American slaves generation after generation?  

“Why do you have to bring slavery into it, pantload?”  

Because Christianity was indispensable to ‘the Peculiar Institution’, as you know.

“Jeez, you’re in a mood today….” 

One slave ship captain had a revelation as he was steering another ship full of captured Africans across the murderous Middle Passage to lives of almost unceasing torment.  According to the story he turned the boat around, released all the prisoners, got out of the human trafficking business.  He wrote Amazing Grace, the hymn about God saving a wretch like him.  One of the most popular hymns around, they probably sang it at Klan rallies too.

“They didn’t sing it at fucking Klan rallies!  Have you no decency?! What the hell are you on about?”  


“The thing you need to do is shave, shower, go outside and visit a sick person.  Put on a clown nose and cheer up a dying child in a cancer ward.  Go find homes for one or two of those adorable, doomed little kittens.  Spread some goddamned joy, instead of ruminating on the horrors of the church.  The horrors of the church, the horrors of the church…  Jesus, how goddamned original….” 

Catch-22– the things that would help my mood the most today, my mood prevents me from doing.  

Suddenly, in my head is the Temptations great version of “I Can’t Get Next to You”, one of the greatest tracks ever spun on a piece of vinyl. I can turn the grey sky blue-uh, I can make it rain, whenever I want it to… but the things I want to do the most, I’m unable to do.

“Unable, or unwilling?”

You clearly know nothing of my work.

Head in Hands (labored re-creation)

This afternoon, at a loss for anything better to do, and having written that piece referencing Cheney that activated Sekhnet’s PTSD and made her cry one sentence in (where I stopped), I found myself sitting in the universal pose of resigned inaction, head in hands.  My few chores done and a futile attempt at a restorative nap aborted, I sat wearily at my desk near the window overlooking Sekhnet’s farm and my head sank into my hands.  I sat that way for a long moment.  The symbolism of this posture dawning on me, I lifted my head, opened this computer and resolutely tapped out a few hundred words that disentangled some tendrils, put it about as well as I can.  

It was a different kind of post than most of these and it felt like a good day’s work.  Writing it put my thoughts and feelings in order, explained some things I was hard pressed to understand or express and salvaged an otherwise fairly bleak and low-energy day for me.

Sekhnet and I went shopping and after the long trip I opened the blahg to read it to her.  There was no sign of the new piece anywhere, not in drafts, not in the trash.  “Head in Hands” does not exist, I was informed.  I was sure I’d hit publish, I’d definitely selected the categories, which appear below this post now, which I have already saved now three times.  It was hard to believe I had never even once saved the draft.  I hadn’t shut off the computer or logged out of WordPress, yet, no trace of the ninety minutes of writing.  

Seeing it wiped away at the moment I was going to read it to Sekhnet I felt panic and then rage, at once it became the most profound thing I’d ever managed to write, of course, being now irretrievably lost.  In despair I realized how impossible it would be to recreate the integrity of the piece, whatever music it had contained.  It took all I had not to scream or smash something.  Sekhnet was sympathetic, immediately reminded me I should always save my work, no matter what, we’ve both learned the hard way, blah blah blah, helpful advice I couldn’t listen to.  850 something posts on this blahg with no hitch that I can recall, maybe one.   Fitting reward at the end of a day I dragged myself through, to have some of my best work wiped away without a fucking trace and for no explainable reason.  I went outside and stalked for a mile.   

I’d started off wondering if dysthymia had me by the neck lately and posted a link to a wiki describing the condition.   I compared the inevitable hopeless feeling to music, the depressed theme striking a familiar chord, persistent fatigue providing the bass, empty stretches of senseless inaction like a sad string section, the dulled, receding emotions forming amusical harmonies to a background music as pervasive and hideous as the sickeningly effective ad jingle that plays involuntarily in your head.  

I mused about the genetic component of dysthymia and described my mother setting out for work every day, carrying dysphoria on her shoulders, working all day, coming home on the train, cooking us dinner, watching TV, reading, looking forward to the emotional release of the opera Live from the Met that throbbed from the stereo every Sunday (it may have been every Saturday).  She became tearful easily, was often angry, over-ate, reported feeling blue when she was alone, though she was always convivial and had a good sense of humor in company.

I spent hours alone in the basement, listening to blues records, the same sides over and over, playing along on an acoustic guitar, learning the ropes.  Friends came and went, I never questioned their qualifications or motives.  I enjoyed interacting with them, cherish a few of them still, but probably spent much more time by myself than in their company.  When alone I worked in one expressive medium or another, it always seemed important to me to express myself well.  I follow the same practice now.  

This tendency to isolation is quite possibly a symptom of dysthymia, a diagnosis I dismissed, a hazy condition easily waved off because it lacks the sharp drama of a scary depression, or a rising anxious terror, or the wild mania that will land one in the Emergency Room.  The proclivity to oversensitivity and introspection could also be called part of an artistic temperament, I suppose, but that temperament famously comes at a steep price.

I was considering, in far less words than this, that I should probably go off to work every day, or at least several times a week.  Any work, meaningful or not is not important, the main thing is to keep oneself busy.  This is universal therapy practiced by most people in the world and much mischief and violence are the result of enforced idleness, too much time on one’s hands.  Working people have routines and stay busy, the validation they get from doing their jobs well is part of what makes their lives make sense to them, makes them feel productive.  At the end of the day they have a good reason to be tired, to relax and unwind, and they have to be ready to get up for work early the next day so too much emotional heavy lifting is out of the question.  

Unlimited time to ponder and imagine is not a good thing in the long run.  It is difficult, maybe impossible, to sustain vital creativity in isolation anyway.  Creativity is intended to be shared, it’s collaborative by its nature.   You may sometimes create fine work, hone it to a great smoothness and clarity, provoke thoughts and feelings in a unique way, but such work, done primarily for yourself, has an element of madness to it, is not complete as expression until it is received by another.  It is necessary to find a partner or two, it seems to me, if the work is going to have real meaning and resilience.  Things I write here for a small handful of readers, sometimes true things, at times elusive but obvious when pinned down, a good in and of itself.  But in another sense: what the fuck?

I noted that with no warning, today, I find myself again in that hot August night outside Vishnevitz, the tortured little town where we’d been forced to fence ourselves into a crowded quarter six months earlier, using barbed wire, splintered boards, chicken wire, plaster.  They’d forced us to pay for it too, with money we needed for food and medicine, and now had finally marched those of us who survived to the side of the ravine, my tiny nephews and nieces walking at the unnatural pace of the feeble, hobbling elders I’d assisted up the road.  

This forced march was supervised by our neighbors, people who cursed their difficult lives and had for centuries looked with superstitious ignorance for someone to take it out on, to make pay.   These captive fellow citizens of Vishnevitz had been ordered to murder by conscripted German men brainwashed by a madman in a society conditioned by generations of militarism, conformity and war.   The Ukranians collaborated gladly, having the chance to freely pour out the hatred and humiliation that had been boiling in them for generations.  

They made the night stink with their drunken anti-Semitic songs and their infernal banging to cover the groans and cries.  I tried not to look at them, what was the point?  There was nothing to say.  Why give them the satisfaction?  Humans, these were not exactly that.  The deadly play was written in blood and shit by people who hated themselves, murderers.

“Goddamn it Vasily, I hate this fucking life, I curse my goddamned mother for bringing me into this fucking life, Vasily.  Give me the goddamned vodka, Vashke, and we’ll do what we have to do.  Fooh!  It tastes like your stinking spit, Vasily.  That’s OK.  It’s good.  Let us do what we came here to do to these fucking kykes, OK.”

There was no point to run, nowhere to go and the old people and the children couldn’t run anyway, there was nothing to be done, no expression to even have on your face.  Running would only provide a moment of challenge and excitement for these reptiles, and they have excellent depth perception and three dimensional vision, reptiles.  I said nothing, my face two eyes, a nose and a mouth.  I flattened myself into two dimensions, both eyes on one side of my profile, fuck you, reptile.

Why invent the time machine for this particular trip, I cannot say.  Pessimism is wrong, nothing good can come from it.  It is not always right to be optimistic, of course, but hope is a better mistake than hopelessness.  In a world of miracles and atrocities there comes a time to simply sit with your head in your hands sometimes.  It just is what it is, as they say and, as I did not make the world, I just live in it, for whatever time I am given.

The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario

One of the great bullshit hypotheticals, used to justify medieval barbarity that is both immoral and useless: the ticking time bomb scenario.   In this fantasy you have captured the insane fanatic who’s planted a powerful bomb somewhere where it will imminently kill thousands.  Make it a dirty bomb, or a suitcase nuke, even better, poised to take out two million innocent citizens in a major city.  You have the undeniably guilty guy, handcuffed to a chair, smirking, the bomb ticking away somewhere: what do you do?  You spend five seconds consulting your lawyers, who nod grimly and turn away, and then you do whatever it takes to get the insane fanatic to tell you where the bomb is hidden.

Of course, if it’s planted in Grand Central Station he’ll tell you St. Patrick’s Cathedral, send you up to the Bronx where the President, the Pope and dignitaries of all nations are visiting Poe Cottage.  It’s such a bullshit scenario it’s not even worth thinking about– if the guy is ready to die for what he believes is his cause, and knows the bomb is set to go off in twenty minutes, what’s his motivation to tell you the truth just because you’ve attached electrodes to his testicles?  The real terror of torture is that it will be endless.  Most fanatics can take twenty minutes of the worst you can dish out standing on their heads, naked in an icy room full of hissing snakes.

The real ticking time bomb is us, our lives.  Not that we’re going to explode, necessarily, the end, in the words of an immortal anti-Semitic poet, is as likely a whimper as a bang, but our personal extinction is certain.  That suspicious mole on my left leg just above the knee?  Too bad you didn’t have it looked at six months ago, the dermatologist will say, we could have saved the leg, your life.  Melanoma is treatable when it first appears– now you’d better start going through that mass of papers in your apartment, there may be time for a cruise with Sekhnet, if you schedule it today and make it a short one.  

A week stealthily turns into three weeks, to a month of Sundays, to the limit of human endurance.   Your great idea, the unwritten novel, the memoir…. pffffft.  For some the certainty of an unknowable end drives them to make the most of every moment.  For others, the vague dread causes them to steer as far from the heart of it as they can.  If I do not think about my death, well, maybe… oh, you know, I’d better stay busy!

I listened to another interview with a famous writer yesterday.  They very matter of factly discussed the prolific author’s bouts of depression, uncertainty, paralysis.  The lot of every creative, introspective person, it would appear– a certain amount of torment and self-doubt.  Most creative people are troubled, it seems, the greatest comedians are often tortured souls.  Are you surprised when a great poet puts her head in the oven?  The only surprise is the lack of a farewell note.  Not to bring up a sore subject, but, Bill Cosby, at the height of his fame, when he was a handsome rock star with a killer wit who could have any woman in the world, and in the years that followed, preferred his women unconscious.  I mean… what?  

The trick, I suppose, when trying to ride this impossibly high horse– the view from which often makes old friends invisible, they can’t be expected to understand the things that drive someone to practice arts they do not even try to sell– is to maintain a kindness toward oneself, toward the world.  Remain interested in others, be mild, do not complain, do not raise the lash over your own back for failures to move an impossibly heavy boulder endlessly up an endless hill.  

The clock is ticking, true, but it ticks in any case.   Set reasonable goals, take human bites.  The clock may well run out on you, as it does on us all, but succumbing to the pressure of the relentless ticking… as good an option as futilely torturing that sick fuck in the chair who smiles as you slice at him.  He ain’t telling you where the goddamn bomb is, Dick, no matter what your lawyers tell you about the tortured legality of the unspeakable things you are doing to him. 

Generativity vs. Stagnation, again

There is no shortage of irony here.  

I am striving to bring interactive creativity and fun into places where these things are spoken of highly but rarely practiced; myself, creative, yes, but not having much fun.  

The program I’ve already implemented is capable of injecting some encouraging news into the depressing discussion of American education, the non-discussion of real participatory democracy; I am a marginal participant not actively discussing the issue with anyone who cares.  

The program is therapeutic, I saw haggard women with chronic disease transformed into laughing girls at the end of our sessions; it gratified me, but, burdened with logistics, I was not laughing with them.  

I’ve solved dozens of logistical and psychological problems so far, though some very large, possibly insoluble, ones remain.  With the best of intentions, as I try to maintain my focus on promoting this inclusive, participatory program, I have somehow become a kind of hanging judge.  

Nuance has become harder for me to discern; holding multiple truths in mind, and choosing the one that casts the best light– not always possible.  I listen to the prosecutor making his relentless case, nod my unsmiling head.  Fine, I think, give the guy the chair, let the Court of Appeals worry about it, there are many worse tragedies happening everywhere.  Bang the gavel, next case.  

I’m not always able to refrain from doing what was so hateful to me watching my father do it:  reducing a person to the sum of his faults.  We are flawed, all of us, and gracefully accepting the flaws of others is an important part of being a decent person.  Whipping a fucking goat?   Really?  I take pride in not being the sort of person who inflicts harm, particularly on those with limitations.  Lately I couldn’t rest until I’d given a particular animal a hard kick in the ribs.  The thing was perhaps less than perfectly thoughtful, or even characteristically oblivious, but in either case, why the need to kick it? 

The seventh stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development is called Generativity vs. Stagnation.  Being productive, successful and involved in the world during the middle and later stages of adulthood versus being isolated and removed from the world, dogged by feelings of failure and hopelessness.  The eighth and final stage, Integrity vs. Despair, takes place at the end of life, looking back, when one feels satisfied at a life well and authentically lived or is bitter and full of regrets.  

I embarked on a project of encouraging expression, using free play as an educational strategy.   I undertook this ambitious project knowing nothing about how to plan and build a business, how to run an HR department, how to secure funding to hire professionals needed for several live or die jobs.   I have no connections or friends who can fill these gaps.

The program is a success, as far as implementing it in five minutes anywhere, as far as how easily it does what it purports to do.   The student-run workshop vindicated my best hopes for how it would work.  The creativity and competencies of young kids, and ailing adult women, for that matter, exceeded my expectations.   Yet, not having a network of people in a position to participate productively… so far enforced stagnation.  

Those who don’t understand what I am striving for, or who take no interest in it, who now quite sensibly avoid the subject, I can’t help thinking of as partial jerks, even as I know I have only a passing interest in all the details of their working lives.   I was surprised and touched when a hard-working friend took a few moments to enquire about the progress of my program a couple of months ago.  I told him the program itself, curriculum and all, works smoothly and wonderfully wherever we’ve done it, and that now I am focused on packaging, promoting and selling it.  

I described my initial hope– that kids would work together to produce original animation in a workshop setup where adults would set things in motion and step back as children learn and teach each other.   This big taste of autonomy fosters students’ confidence, brings out peer-mentoring and leadership skills.  It has happened quickly every place we’ve done the workshop, about a hundred times so far.  

Now that the program itself works smoothly, I told my friend, I am wrestling with the crucial tasks of packaging and promoting it.  I told him I’m optimistic that someone in di Blasio’s administration would be quite interested in the presentation that I have recently put together, that is just about ready to roll.

He told me he now understands the important goals I set for the program, the workshop’s many great applications.  He said he was impressed by how well thought out it was, acknowledged the tremendous amount of work I’d done and the ingeniously simple design of the program.  He wished me success, strength to my arm and told me he agreed that di Blasio’s people would be very interested in a program capable of producing a cadre of peer-teachers entering Middle School.  

This reaction was as wonderful as it was rare.  We have but one measure of success in our society and until friends read about the program in a NY Times piece, or hear a well-crafted moment about it on NPR, it is a dream I am dreaming alone as I sleep my fitful sleep.

One more note in the polyphony of my imperfect sleep: my attempts to avoid bitterness in old age seem ironic to me much of the time these days.  These attempts are hampered by the difficulty of living by words I have written on pages many times with various calligraphy pens, words I must inscribe in my heart as I find ways to become more actively and productively involved in the world:  cultivate mindful empathy.  Everybody we encounter is fighting a hard battle against killer odds.  Just because somebody almost never keeps their word, for example, is no reason to write off the rest of their virtues.  

Now, if you will excuse me, there are some kittens in the garden I have to go be sarcastic to.


Meditation on Discouragement

Courage is a rare and indispensable thing.  It is necessary for overcoming fear, which is all around us in a tumultuous world that ends, inevitably, in our certain death.   I don’t mean courage in the sense of being able to rush headlong into danger, although, in the moment sometimes it comes to that, but more the daily courage to act on what you know to be true in the face of an immense crowd chanting the opposite, loudly and constantly.  Or in the face of a small, silent crowd, for that matter.

Encouragement is a good and important thing to anyone facing any kind of challenge.  Note the way ‘courage’ is embedded in the word encouragement.  We can actually give courage by sincerely encouraging.  Presumably one encouraged consistently during the formative years will internalize enough fearlessness to continue without the need for external encouragement.   Blessed are these people, instilled with an incalculably valuable gift by the people who raised them.

Me, some days I find myself looking through the eyes of my grandmother’s beloved little brother who never made it out of Vishnivetz.   The youngest of seven Marchbein children, my grandmother spoke of him with love, and a glitter of joy in her eyes, the one time she mentioned him to me.   She was scratching my back, no doubt, as she often did when I was a boy, and told me about how much she loved her wonderful little brother, whose name was a Yiddish diminutive variation on Joe.  

No mention, of course, of what became of him, or the other six siblings, though I would find out years later exactly how things ended for them all.  Explaining, at least in part, why my grandmother resorted to so much vodka so often in her final years.

I am that beloved youngest sibling, standing on the lip of a ravine on the northern outskirts of Vishnevetz, in my underwear, amid the pounding of drums, the crashing of cymbals and the drunken ruckus of Ukrainian peasants who are trying on my clothes and scrambling over the ravine like demented monkeys.  It is evening, the sky is darkening.  I am waiting, and I can see what I’m waiting for.  The group before me has just had it — a bullet in the back of the head, one for each.  One more shot for the occasional twitcher and then a little dirt thrown over this layer.  “Next,” motions the Nazi in charge, like the maitre d’ at a horribly overpriced restaurant the critics can’t get enough of. 

I cannot get past this ancestral memory at the moment, though I try.  It is more than enough to stop me in my tracks, force me to the keyboard to try to tap it out of mind.   Some days the incomprehensible hatred, greed and stupidity of human beings lays on my heart like an anchor.   Why should such long ago events, no matter how terrible, stop me from doing what I need to do today?  Where is the courage to acknowledge it as just another terrible and distracting thought, one to think and let go of, and let myself get back to work?

What is work?   Today it is sitting at the kitchen table, where the new laptop is set up and ready to go, and clicking “play”, the timer on my cellphone running.  Watching the pitch that I need to refine, make sure it’s as close to ready as I believe it may well be, note what I still have to improve.   I have been working on to it now for over a month.   My immediate task is to make sure the automation is working correctly and timing the presentation, which aims to be about ten minutes long. 

Does not sound like particularly hard work, though I’ve been nervously unable to get to it so far.  Instead I am thinking of a ravine I never saw, on the outskirts of an old town cursed by God himself.

Of course, it’s the fearful difficulty of the entire enterprise that is upon me today.  The arbitrary slaughter of my family thirteen years before I was born is just a manifestation of my feelings of futility.   The fear is knowing that everything is riding on the pitch being a wonderful evocation of the thing I’ve been working on, unpaid, for the last few years.  

An excellent sales pitch is the difference between life and death, I understand that finally.   No shame in being a shameless shill for something that can help so many kids, give myself a better and more productive life in the process, I understand that now too.   I’m ready to do it, truly, and working on it.  Except for the feeling of discouragement I have to talk myself out of.

The pitch will explain why the program I’ve created, which has worked 100 out of 100 times, under very bad circumstances about half the time, and even been greatly appreciated by several amazed adults who’ve seen it in action, is something the NYC public school system, and every children’s hospital and juvenile cancer ward, should pay to have their kids participate in.  

The good work will then go on, the joyful laughter will be heard, the heartwarming feelings will be stirred.  The alternative?  Nothingness, the years theorizing, designing, field-testing, being delightfully confirmed in my theories, refining, trying to document, raise funds, publicize… gone with no meaningful trace.

I’ve refined the pitch now for a few weeks, showed draft 3 to two professionals last week who gave me excellent feedback.  I am using their notes to make draft 4 much better.  It is already much better, after several hours work on it yesterday.  I am sure of it.  

All that remains for me to do at the moment is to press “play”, start the timer, and watch the show.  Then I will know how close I am to having something I can present that will do the bulk of the selling for this wonderful program; that and being in and out of the sales meeting in 20 minutes or less and leaving the potential purchaser with a warm feeling of confidence in me and my product.  Nothing to it, baby.  

And so I have successfully talked myself into doing the obvious now, as soon as I’ve hit the “publish” button I’ll head right in there with my timer.  

Even though I am also, clearly and at the same time, still standing by that godforsaken ravine in Eastern Europe waiting for that coup de grâce as the supercilious maitre d’ distractedly fusses with the collar of his uniform in the hideously warm Ukrainian night.


I should be excavating the foot deep surface of my desk.  I have misplaced a very nice new 0.9 mm mechanical pencil and it’s bugging the hell out of me.  I hate losing things, and don’t often lose things, in spite of the swirling chaos in here.   I’ve looked everywhere, superficially.  It has to be somewhere under this nest of papers all around the computer screen.  Why this reluctance to tackle these heaps of papers?

Is it related to the reluctance to tackle more difficult things?  Brooding over an inability to tidy is preferable to thinking about the vexing impossibility of the larger challenge, I suppose.   People build huge edifices to protect themselves from the things they fear the most, like the reality of their eventual extinction.  Lives are spent busily making monuments to the self that will vanish without any other trace when the animating light goes out.  Denial of death is not just a deadly river in Africa.  

“You are riffing hard on the back pedal, son, because you fear to take even a mincing, tiny step forward,” says Hmmmm.  

A worn out device, like the rest of these devices… observes one to none.  

I give a fleeting thought to a lamentable thing.   In reaching the limit of my forbearance, when an old friend’s obliviousness finally cut me too deeply to tolerate, I lost something rare that I valued greatly.  Whatever else his flaws, he is a quick-witted fellow I never had to worry did not follow a divergent remark.   Lightning quick to catch on, which made it a pleasure to banter with him.   This feature, oddly, was one of the best things about my father, whose sense of humor was similarly dark, irreverent and instant.  Interestingly, both of them were often driven by self-hatred.

Speaking quickly and unchecked is a pleasure rare in this world, where we often have to explain, pull punches, consider the other person’s squeamishness and taste before riffing.  It was like rare moments in jam sessions where the kernel of an idea would pass, lightning quick, and we’d be on it at once.

Oh, well.  Time to get back to work rolling this hoop down the joyful road.