We made this when the kid was a girl, she’s probably almost twenty by now (the age her mother was when I met her). Tempus fwiggin’ fugit, no?
As universally hated Lyin’ Ted Cruz and now eleven other brave Republican Trump supporters in the Senate (the most highly placed members of the Sedition Caucus) call for an emergency special commission to immediately audit undisputed votes in an election certified in every state (and recounted a few times in several) that only Trump the Kraken insists was rigged, stolen, corrupt, fraudulent, a lie, a big fat complete Communist con job, #StoptheSteal! I wonder “what am I going to write about today?”
I certainly ain’t writing about Lyin’ Ted, the despicable guy with the unsexy wife, whose father killed JFK and whose ancestors, people are saying, nailed up Jesus. Fuck him and his vile, seditious crew (note, this may be the first time the wildly unpopular Cruz is the leader of any crew, way to go Ted).
I’m also not going to mention the provision of the National Defense Authorization Act, vetoed by Trump in the first Trump veto overrode by the Senate (never too late to do the right thing, I suppose), that makes it criminal for federal law enforcement agents to cover their name tags while performing their duties or otherwise operating as unmarked, unaccountable thugs . Who’d have thought such a measure was needed in our nation of law?
This was likely one provision of the military budget bill that outraged the easily angered Trump — if former Attorney General Barr says it’s perfectly legal and reasonable to use chemical irritants, batons and a horseback charge by mounted federal law enforcement, with covered name tags, to break up peaceful protests (Washington D.C.) or to have heavily armed, generically uniformed goon squads jump out of unmarked rented vans and grab dangerous anarchist, God-hating protesters off the streets, force them into unmarked vehicles, without identifying themselves as law enforcement (as federal agents did in Portland) who is the goddamned Congress to usurp the massive powers conferred by Article Two? Fuck that noise, everyone knows Trump wishes he’d been a real dictator, instead of a Twitter dictator. Today is Sunday, a day of rest.
So, like, what do you want to talk about?
Is this an example of you talking to yourself?
Hah, no, it’s an example of you talking to yourself.
You got me there, comrade.
You’ve been noted, around the house, because, during this tyrannical COVID lockdown you no longer live alone in your apartment where passersby in the hall and in the airshaft have no inkling you’re not muttering to somebody else, that you are, in fact, carrying out grunted conversations with yourself…
Nay, that would be YOO, muchacho.
Hah, OK, you got me there! Anyway, she mentioned these grunts I seem to make as being pretty regular, constant, apparently. From the other room she hears the conversational-sounding grunts, she says.
Hmmm, we always imagined that these internal conversations were in your head, my head, our heads.
Well, that’s imagination for ya!
By the way, I admired your restraint above in not mentioning fucking Acting head Homeland Security stooge Chad Wolf, declaring that unrestricted federal military force was necessary in Portland because violent anarchist terrorists were out of control (he used the term “violent anarchists” 60 times in a short speech when he got to Portland), including those hundred or more bitches, the mothers of these violent anarchists, who came out to form a peaceful barrier between unmarked assault-attired federal officers and their fellow citizens. And, you know, got gassed, the wall of mothers.
OK, OK, calm down. “‘No reason to get excited,’ the thief he kindly spoke.”
Yeah, I suppose that’s true. Good to have you here to calm me down sometimes.
Yes, yes indeed, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Neither would I. By the way, it was determined by the government office that determines these things that fucking Chad Wolf had been in the “acting” role longer than was legal and that his authority was now being exercised contrary to American law.
Look, you know better than most people, when you’re dealing with childish, irrational assholes with authority accountable only to somebody exactly like them, you just have to cut them infinite slack.
I know, I know…
Fuckface likes “acting” loyalists in charge of everything. “I like ‘acting’,” he said nonchalantly, with his characteristic frankness. They don’t have to be vetted or confirmed, their lack of credentials for the job is immaterial, they are accountable only to his moods, can be used as needed and discarded like the disposable toilet paper they are, you can fire them at will and nobody will even care!
Right! I did cook a nice variation on Divya Alter’s delicious mixed vegetables in cashew curry sauce an hour so so ago. Came out really delicious, creamy, with a nice mushroom accent.
Let’s not talk about that, you ruined lunch, you heartless fuck.
OK, well, anyway, it was nice talking to you, as always, I have to get on with some random creative pursuit now.
There seems no way to stop it these days.
Have a nice day, man.
You too, bubba! Nice talking to ya.
OK, obviously not “criminal” but Congress stated that federal authorities must “visibly display” their name tags when operating in public. Clearly there is a great deal of play in the word “must”.
A quick peek at a how-to watercolor video I made for a very bright and creative kid, locked down in NJ.
Got to hand it to the cleverly, obsessively monetizing little fucks … only a hundred bucks or so (they’ve already reminded me my “shopping cart” contains items for which I have not yet authorized credit card payment) to show you this colorful 11 second video clip. Why not? This is America, after all!
Here, have a quick GIF instead (it’s free!)
Persistent little bastards.
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?
“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?”
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)