The Book of Friedman

Friedman, a man with a problematic singing voice, was, at one time, a prodigious writer of highly personal songs that were often hard to listen to, sung in that difficult voice of his. A central tragedy of the poor devil’s life — to write with sensitivity for an instrument so ill-suited to music. The singer-songwriter had a good sense of pitch, it was not a matter of tone-deafness, in the strict sense. For all his skill on guitar and piano, for all of his original musical ideas, his singing was more than anything a certain lack of grace.

When he was found dead, naked in a chair last summer in his home in Santa Fe, his older brother was contacted by a Medical Examiner. “Just like on TV,” he said. The two brothers flew down to New Mexico to clear his cluttered house and settle his tangled business affairs. They lived for two weeks as guests of Friedman’s ex, a generous woman he finally rejected when he felt she’d been insufficiently supportive when he was inconsolable over the death of his mother, at almost a hundred. “She was his rock,” said his older brother, after their mother died, “he was lost without her.”

The older brother was dogged by guilt, he’d finally had it with his demanding, eternally unhappy youngest brother and had laid into him at one point. The younger brother had never spoken to him again. It had been three years. Then the call from the Medical Examiner asking what to do with the dead body. The middle brother, always a practical man, had avoided a fatal falling out with the youngest by always keeping him at arm’s distance. When an annoying email arrived, screen after screen of tortuous arguments, the middle brother immediately hit delete. He took the same approach to the clutter in the dead brother’s house. Several cartons of contractor bags, a quick look and toss the stuff.

Among the things tossed, to my great regret, were a series of letters between Friedman and the father he always complained didn’t respect him. A box of letters between father and son. They felt like voyeurs after beginning to read them and quickly tossed the collection. As a longtime student of Friedman, and someone who knew his father pretty well too, I feel the loss of these unknown letters keenly. Goddamn, I would have loved to read those letters! There was a book full of pathos and insight in that back and forth, 100%.

Another book, saved by the older brother, exists. It is the hard-covered once blank book where all of the lyrics (and probably the chords) to all of Friedman’s songs were inscribed. The definitive record of a life in music that was almost lived. If only he’d had the voice to sing them. It occurred to me recently to ask the brother if I can borrow this book for a while, to read his collected songs and use them to reconstruct his painful, illuminating life. The endlessly repeating tragedy of his life is the greatest cautionary tale I know.

Many years ago, and I mean decades now, Friedman accused me of using my friends as lab rats in my psychological dissections. I suppose he had a point, the long serving, giant lab rat, though I plead science and the expansion of human knowledge as a redeeming rationale for my experiments (as all the great monsters of history have). We are raised, many of us (and probably all of us who are subject to bouts of misery), deliberately blinded to what we are actually up against in this life. It takes determination, and openess, as well as a certain amount of blind luck, to eventually begin to see the crucial clues that are zealously hidden from us. Friends as lab rats, a small price to pay sometimes, to learn the things we need to learn to live less miserable lives.

(Cold? I don’t know. It certainly doesn’t put the narrator in the most sympathetic light. Start again.)

In telling the story of the talented, miserable, demanding, aggressively unhappy Friedman, I will try to illuminate the two paths open to each of us. We can struggle, in the darkness, to be right, always, to justify, everything, to prevail, at any cost. We can struggle to grasp what is intolerable in our lives, work to see and understand what particularly triggers our misery, seek to suffer less and inflict less pain in the world. I am, clearly, biased toward the second way. Friedman is the greatest example I know, though far from the only one, of the first way — the way of righteous anger and eternal victimhood and fatal disappointment.

Yes, we also have a president now who fits that description– a selfish, childish person who is always the victim, always right to be angry, a fundamentally unhappy person who, although already very wealthy, can never get enough. Forget him, if you can, as I tell you the story of Friedman, the youngest of three boys, an envious sibling who never got enough respect from dad or love from mom.

“OK, let me get this straight, sir,” says nobody in particular “you propose to tell the story of a remorseless, graceless asshole, with no insight into his own misery, told without sympathy, the tale of a putz famous for sweeping others into the ‘putzbin of history’ for betrayals real and imagined.”

I wouldn’t use that as my elevator pitch, no.

“Get on with it, then, why should anybody give a rat’s tutu about this so-called book proposal?”

Insight, man. Hard to come by. Look at it as I pieced it together. At one time this guy was my closest friend. Over the years I came to see, more and more unmistakably, that he was, in elemental ways, an unredeemable version of the worst of my father. Both were smart, articulate, capable of waging fierce arguments to the death, both were supremely sensitive in their own feelings and often monstrously insensitive to the feelings of others. My long wrestling match with Friedman turned out to be an attempt to get a grip on the dilemma with my own father.

“OK, so far you ain’t selling jack, son.”

Says the voice of the internalized victimizer. Look, I’ve been putting together clues for many years now. The Book of Friedman might be the most straightforward way to put them between two covers in the context of a story with a start, middle and end. Much easier to write than draft two of the 1,200 pages I’ve written as I came to see my father’s tragic point of view through his too late clear eyes.

“If you say so…” then there is the pregnant pause, more potent in its power to undermine than any words could be, “we’ll see if this idea comes to anything more than dozens of other big ideas you’ve hatched over the course of the long misadventure that has been your life here, dreamer.”

Which leaves me with this toothache of a thought: What is left of our lives here, beyond what we leave behind?

A Tricky Story to Tell

“You had only two uncles, me and your father’s brother,” he said.   

“Our father had a brother?” said the niece. 

“Yes, a few years older.   We only met him once, he was kind of estranged from your father and his father.   He was funny, and personable, and seemed like a very nice guy.   He was as big as your father, and had dark hair.   We sat on the back porch playing cards, at your grandparents’ house in Queens.”   

“How come we never heard of him?”   

“You’d have to ask your parents.   I have no idea.   Maybe it was the fact that they were estranged, had virtually no contact once the brothers were adults.   I  don’t know.   Maybe it has to do with his mental illness,” the sole uncle said.   

“Mental illness?” said the nephew.   

“Look, I know virtually nothing about the man, except for a pleasant afternoon we spent with him.   And that he was taking some psycho-pharmaceutical and his psychiatrist apparently had told him to have nothing further to do with the family, that it would only aggravate his condition.   And like I said, we only met him that one time, never heard about him after that.”   

“Whoa, his ‘psychiatrist’?”  said the niece.

“You know, in most families you have your pick of aunts, uncles, cousins.  You will have the ones you feel closest to, a real kinship, and many others will leave you cool, or even cold.  In our family, since the family tree was so ruthlessly pruned back in 1942, you get only one or two uncles — in your case one.   Your other uncle probably died before you were born, another reason you never heard of him, I guess.”   

“How did he die?” said the nephew.   

“That’s just speculation, we really have no idea.  He could still be alive, he’d be in his early seventies now”   

“Jesus,” said the niece, glancing at her phone.

“I can tell you what happened two generations ago, on your mother’s side, when the German army ran across the area we’re from, on their way to invade the heart of the Soviet Union.   Between the winter of 1941 and the winter of 1942 everyone in our family was murdered, except for the handful of people who arrived here between 1904 and 1923.    The areas they came from were, as they say, cleansed of Jews by the SS and willing local anti-Semites.   We know a few of their names, we know what happened to their towns, the muddy little hamlets they came from.   Everyone was executed, end of story.”   

“That would make you a little paranoid, I guess,” said the nephew. 

Claro que si, sobrino,” said the uncle.

“I can only say a little bit more, because to some people, well, this is ticklish to say… some people believe that anything that causes pain or anguish should be avoided.  The passive voice and all that.   You don’t touch a nerve that’s raw.  If it’s bad, or makes you feel bad, especially if it evokes shame or anger, don’t talk about it.  Talking about it is very dangerous,” he turned to his niece.   

“You know, when you were a baby and first learned to sit on the potty to do your business, your mother asked you once why you have no hesitation to sit there and pee but the other thing, the shitting business, you weren’t ready to do that in the potty.   She asked why.  You said, with great seriousness and conviction, and you couldn’t have been more than two:  it’s very dangerous!   

“Ha, I forgot about that,” the niece said.   

“What I hear you saying between the lines, Uncle, is that you are very dangerous,” said the nephew.   

“Yes, nephew, if you believe in making sure every source of shame and anger is completely repressed at all times, someone like me is very dangerous.   I’m as dangerous as pooping in a potty, more dangerous, actually,” said the uncle. 

 “Some people believe it’s better to lie than to expose and talk about regrettable, shameful or terrible things.   We have a president like that.  Never made a mistake, never been wrong, never had any reason to reflect or do anything differently, nothing to apologize about, anything bad that ever happened in his life was somebody else’s fault.   You know, a lot of people live that way.   I try not to judge those motherfuckers, but I can’t live like that.  If I know I hurt you, and I care about you, I’m going to try to make it right, starting with an apology.  Unfortunately, not everybody does that.”   

“This is getting a little awkward,” said the niece. 

“I agree,” said the uncle, “where are we going for lunch?”

Fiction Writing Workshop

Fortunately for Hal, who’d had a novel published to good reviews when he was fresh out of college, he came of age in an era when such things could be parlayed into a comfortable life.  Hal was a tenured professor of fiction writing by the age of thirty-two and never had to worry about making a living after that.   

When Hal’s father died, Hal got drunk.   He got the news from his sister, who’d been at the hospital when their angry, hopeless father breathed his last.  The old man was pissed off that Hal couldn’t make it back to the hospital to say goodbye one last time.   Hal had been at the hospital all day, went home to make dinner for his daughter, and his father was bitter about that last bit too, according to his sister, who had no reason to lie.

Hal told his sister he’d see her the next morning and went into the kitchen where he kept the Scotch.   He drank a good deal of that fine single malt, which the label said had been aged in a sherry cask.   The warm feeling came over him.   He sat quietly at the kitchen table, in a comfortable chair that could tilt any way he leaned.  

When Hal’s daughter came in, her father was already drunk, that familiar blank look on his face.  He changed his facial expression slightly as she came into view, but the effect wasn’t exactly a smile.  She already knew that grandpa was finally gone.   She’d had the text from her aunt.   She went into her room, locked the door, and a few moments later, tweeted that she was going to kill herself.

“This is your autobiography, Al,” his friend Tova told him, walking in through the back door, gesturing toward the bottle, the daughter’s locked door.  “As you have been telling your students for decades, even back when you were still writing, ‘all good writing is autobiography’.”

“Yeah, yeah.   I was full of shit,” said Hal.  “All bad writing is also autobiography.  A meaningless cliche, like all the other ones in the vast imaginary forests of bullshit.  Vanity.  What the fuck was I thinking?”

“You made a good living,” Tova said.  

“Yes, there was that,” Hal said.  

Tova had a notification from her phone.  She read the screen.  “You’d better call David, your daughter is going to kill herself.”

David was still seven hours away, driving through the foggy night from upstate.  Even in good conditions, it was a long and tedious drive. David was the only person who could talk to Debbie in a way that made any sense to her.

Hal found himself thinking of the family roots. His father had been the last of thirteen children, from some benighted hamlet in Poland nobody had ever bothered to put on a map.  Just as well, everybody there was dead, murdered one chilly afternoon in 1943, by people smelling of vodka.   Hal’s father was in the United States twenty years by then, the only one.  Nobody had a crystal ball, or the money to consult one, otherwise they all would have tried to come to America before that madman marshaled an army of murderous zombies.  

“Look, Hal,” Tova said, as she had many times, “I’m sorry you came from such a poor, shit family and got no rachmunis from anybody when they were all slaughtered, may they rest in peace.  I, and I don’t need to remind you, I have the papers to prove my right to be fucked up, both of my parents got checks from the German government until the day they died, as you know.  They were certified Holocaust survivors, I am a certified, official child of Holocaust survivors.  You, on the other hand, are a melodramatic self-pitying drunkard masochistically fond of brooding on history that happened while you were in boot camp.”

“I could have been Charles Kushner,” Hal had taken to saying recently, “son of two Holocaust survivors who got out of Europe in time, their assholes crammed with enough diamonds to build a small real estate empire in New Jersey.”  

Charles Kushner, the billionaire son of Holocaust survivors, begat Jared Kushner, who was so righteously outraged when his father was imprisoned briefly for simply hiring a prostitute and a filmmaker to make a video blackmailing his uncle, a man who was about to turn rat.  

The blackmail video was necessary to shame Charles’s sister, who Charles believed wore the pants in her home (and, also, appeared to be susceptible to the threat of public shame).  If she said the word, the fucking rat would not take the stand against her brother. Otherwise, her husband was scheduled to rat him out at the federal fraud trial that was about to start.  Charles had been given no choice, as he explained to Jared in the weeks before he was convicted, sentenced and disbarred.  The brother-in-law was the only witness who could really hurt him, and they seemed to be on the same page going forward, but the prosecutor flipped him.  

“Fucking rat,” said Charles, when he gave the money to the scumbag who set up the whole ill-fated prostitute and surveillance thing.

“Who knew my fucking sister was also a fucking rat?” Charles later asked a pigeon sitting on the window ledge of his cell at the federal prison.  “They never revealed if she’d worn a wire that day or not, the treacherous bastards…”   The bird nodded.

“Why is Debbie going to kill herself this time?” Hal asked Tova.    

“The tweet is vague on that,” Tova said.  

“I haven’t been much of an improvement on my old man,” said Hal.  “I have no clue how to help that kid.”  

“I’m going to make coffee,” said Tova.  

“To ruin a perfectly good buzz,” Hal said, pouring the last of the single malt into his glass.  

“Buzz-kill is what they called me in college,” said Tova.  

“You went to a top school full of smart bastards, didn’t you?”  

“Not like the place you teach, professor,” said Tova.  

“No, not like the place I teach,” said Hal, drinking up.  

“No matter, David will be here soon.”

“Let’s hope he can stay awake on the highway this time,” said Hal, tilting back in his chair.   There seemed to be no end to nights like this one, he thought.

 

(to be continued, or not)

 

The Torture Debate

Disclaimer from Sekhnet about this piece:

“I hated it.  ‘I hated it’ was an understatement.  I urge you to take this down, people will not realize it’s fiction.   They will think this is something that really happened, you acting like a complete asshole.  It’s horrifying, and very realistic, it’s plausible to people who never met you.  It seems to have been written from life.  They will think this is an actual story from your life, and it’s a sick story.   And the connection between the narrator’s torture debate with his colleague is not made to what the asshole narrator does to his guest. It’s just plain stupid.”

Enjoy.

Rest assured, this is a harmless work of complete fiction:

The Torture Debate

A classmate of mine from law school I hadn’t heard from in decades, a striving type who’d gone to work for “the man”, and “done very well”, called to check in with me, the great idealist.   Our career trajectories could not have gone much differently.   He was very wealthy, loved the new tax cuts, I was still idealistic, and paying off my student loans on the drip, drip, drip plan.   I got a couple of laughs out of him before he turned serious, began talking politics.

It wasn’t long before we found ourselves coming from our respective corners, the then-contentious subject of torture reared its ugly head, specifically the issue of Americans and foreign partners collaborating in the torture of terrorism suspects.   His points were predictable: the human right of one particular individual, or hundreds, not to be handled inhumanely did not equal the human rights of a little blonde girl not to get blown up by a fanatic on her way to school.

We eventually “agreed to disagree,” with appropriately fake phone smiles, about things like whether a stress position, forced enemas, a freezing cold cell or prolonged sleep deprivation were actually torture or merely forms of tough, but perfectly legal, ‘coercion’ to get vital information to save the lives of those innocents whose deaths from a terrorist’s bomb were imminent.   After we reached this lawyerly agreement I thanked him for calling and told him I had to get going.  He said he’d be in town the following week and asked if I’d be free to meet him at some point.  He cheerfully accepted my invitation to come by for a drink.

He liked the drink I served him very much, the last of a bottle of 12 year-old MacCallan’s.   We drank a toast with that lovely single malt, followed by a round of Johnny Walker Black, also good.  We chased the whisky with small glasses of cold seltzer and, being both suddenly thirsty, found ourselves musing over the peculiarly unambiguous American use of the word “drink.”

“I haven’t had a drink in ten years,” I said, setting up the old gag.

“Boy, you must be thirsty!” he said, smiling like he’d spiked the winning shot at the Canker, Boyle and Whitehead annual volleyball tournament.

“If you are, in fact, thirsty,” I said, “I can get you a delicious drink I just re-discovered.  I think you’ll find it quite refreshing.”  I brought him a tall, frosty glass of fresh squeezed pink grapefruit juice, very sweet, spiked with a splash of ice cold seltzer.  I had one too.  The delicious combination of the sweet liquid fruit and the cold bubbles really hit the spot.  He liked it very much, too.  I offered him a refill and he smiled, thanked me and drank that also.

When I came back from the bathroom I asked if he’d like one more.  Best to avoid dehydration while drinking whisky, I reminded him.  With a slightly sheepish smile he said he wouldn’t mind one more, if I had enough.   I assured him I did and brought him another tall, frosty drink.  We had another shot of whisky, too.

When he got up to go to the bathroom I stood, put a firm hand on his shoulder and restrained him.  

“No,” I said.

Unable to dislodge my hand he quickly became indignant.  He started using his words.  Being stronger than him, and determined, I was not obliged to pay the slightest attention to his arguments.   I would remain, for purposes of this particular dispute, the proponent of argumentum ad baculum, which the internet informs us is the fallacy committed when one appeals to force or the threat of force to bring about the acceptance of a conclusion

We were locked this way for over an hour, maybe two hours.   Every time he tried to get up, I’d press down with force.   The futility of this exercise of trying to stand, once it became clear that I was determined to argue like a “Might Makes Right” asshole,  finally overwhelmed him.   

After the ignored legal and moral arguments came the cursing and the attempts at intimidation.  When the cursing was done, the appeals to my common decency, the ethical standards of our shared profession, to our long ago friendship, began.  The consciences of my dead parents, who he’d met at graduation, were eventually dragged into his shameless appeal.  The appeal got so personal I had to stop looking at him.   Eventually, he was quiet.  

It took a moment before I realized my work was done.  His chair was in the middle of a dark lake.   His ride home would be embarrassing, his tailored leisure pants would need a dry cleaning and his expensive shoes appeared to have been ruined.  

Then the tears began, which was horrible to see, really.   Hosing down the tile floor afterwards, I knew that my old classmate now had every right not to call me next time he comes to New York.  Worse, I’ll never get to find out who won that long-running debate between us about the exact nature of torture.

 

How You Do It

“What difference did it make to Azrael?” I asked him, when he told me how upset Azrael had been when an insect drowned in hot water while he was running a bath.   

“I asked him that after he came out of the bathroom,” he said.  “He’d been running hot water to rinse the tub when a bug he realized was alive a moment too late to save it died a horrible, plunging, drowning death in the pipes.    What he said to explain it to me was so simple it still strikes me.   He said ‘picture your own moment of death — would you like it instant and painless or prolonged and painful?’  I always think of that when I kill a bug, to this day.  That bug desperately swimming for his life away from the sucking drain could have instantly been put out of his mortal terror and unavoidable death by a merciful finger.  

“Azrael had been too slow to react when he saw the bug, at first he didn’t realize it was even alive.  Then he saw it struggling to swim in the hot water away from the drain.  Then he’d watched the bug get swept over Niagra Falls to die an agonizing death by drowning in the churning, unbearably hot water.  It impressed me how awful he felt about not sparing that bug such a miserable death.”  

“Instant and painless or prolonged and painful,” I said.  “I like that.  A no-brainer for a marketing/branding scheme exploiting that no-brainer:   ‘Quick/no pain or slow/maximum pain, your choice.’  It’s appealingly philosophical, too.”    

“Of course, life is not so black and white,” he said.  

“Exactly, which is why such idiotically phrased choices are so irresistible, anyone who’d choose the wrong choice is so obviously wrong.   I like the phrase, and I think we can monetize it, I think it’s a good choice phrase,” I said.  “Plenty of imagery and punch, the rubes will love it.”

“The phrase is fine, monetize away, I’m just sayin’,” he said.  

“You know, it’s not like Azrael was exactly into Ahimsa or any ascetic religious practice that would have made him so sensitive to a bug’s soul.  He ate meat, he’d curse, he was always rough breaking up a fight,” I said.   “He certainly didn’t shrink from hurting anybody.”

“He didn’t, but when you say Azrael ate meat, that’s funny, yeah, he ate meat.  He lived on meat, ate almost nothing besides meat.   He was a shoichet’s assistant, at a place down the street from the butcher’s, from shortly after his bar mitzvah, if I recall correctly, until he started working at the delicatessen,” my brother reminded me.  

“He was one tough son of a bitch,” I said.  

“Yiss,” he said.  

“And he always kept a dog.”  We both remembered Azrael’s dogs.

“Yiss,” my brother said.

A Way With Words

You have a way with words.  

Away with words!   Speak little, do much.  

Nicely said, Ned!  

I’ll pretend you didn’t say that, Fred.  

Now, why you want to be like that, Ed? I was trying to tender you a kind word.  

Yet you rendered me a mind turd, dittn’t you, Ted?

I just said you have your way with words.  

You sayin’ I don’t respect ’em, just have my way with ’em, is that what you’re saying, Zed?  

I’m not saying that.  I’m not saying anything.  

You sure have a funny way of not saying anything, Red.  

You said it.

Addiction to Social Media

It’s understandable, friends.  There is a human longing to be connected to…. hang on a second,  I’ve got to send a quick email, excuse me.

What’s the deal with looking at the smart phone every couple of minutes, every few seconds, what’s the …

It is addictive, this feeling of being connected, of having the world at your fingertips. A moment of total control in an out of control world when you stop to make your phone do something cool, smart, informative, interactive.

In elementary school, for me decades ago, when any of this was the domain of the smartest science fiction writers, a teacher described a psychological experiment that has a lesson in it for all of us today…. wait, got a message coming in, hang on.

They hooked an electrode up to the pleasure center of a rat’s brain.  Many rats were hooked up this way.  They had a button to push to give them a jolt of pleasure, the equivalent of an orgasm.   It took the rats a very short time to make the connection between pressing this button and the immediate jolt of pleasure.  

The scientists were not all that shocked to find that every rat died with his or her paw on this button.   There was no reason for them not to keep pressing it and it was irresistible, after all.

I had something more to say, but my phone is now fully charged and I’m thinking of downloading the electrode to the pleasure center app.  I’m sure someone is developing it… hold on, there’s a notification.  

Shoot, just an email, I’d better answer that.