GOP Narrow Framing, personal anecdote

As former president Trump’s legal team and his party begin to argue that it is unconstitutional to impeach a president once his party has run out the constitutional clock on an impeachment trial, and that anything the president might have said that made certain irrational people act violently against elected officials, even if seemingly in response to his exhortations, was within his protected First Amendment right to free speech, I have a personal anecdote that is directly on point. I’ll try to set it out in a flash for you.

When I was thirty my younger sister got married. I was the best man. There is a photo of me in my rented tuxedo making my ironic, prophetic toast welcoming my brother-in-law to the family. Behind me in the photo the caterer, also in a tuxedo, if I recall correctly, is glaring at me. Not a fan of irony, perhaps, I don’t know. A short time later the caterer was pounding me with his fists, trying to bash my face in.

Afterwards my parents took the caterer’s side in this dispute. My disrespect toward the caterer had, understandably in their view, justified the caterer in his strong conviction that I needed to be punched in my smart fucking mouth a few times. This fight, clearly, took place long before I began trying to practice a form of ahimsa, consciously refraining from harmful actions as much as I can.

In my own defense, I had no idea the caterer was an off-duty cop. Had I known perhaps I’d have chosen a less inflammatory way of telling him to buzz off than the one I used. In hindsight, I see how disrespectful it was of me to tell the officer to suck my dick. I’m still, more than thirty years later, not certain it gave him the right to physically assault me, but that’s not our concern here.

A few days after the wedding (the party was amazingly not interrupted by my loud fist fight with the cop, the band drowned us out) my parents were still in a rage because, in their view, I had deliberately tried to ruin my sister’s wedding. I was angry too. It seemed to me too evident to dispute that the caterer, at the moment he began trying to bash my face in, was at least as culpable as I was in the ugly confrontation. My parents disagreed. It had been 100% my fault, no question. The caterer was a lovely man, I was a violent, enragingly provocative thug, as they told me several times. After a few days of a sickening stand-off I went to confront my parents about this, to try to set the record straight.

They were defensive, sticking to their guns. I was a provocative, irrationally angry, violent-tongued person. I had no right, in any universe, to tell the nice man to suck my dick. My explanation, whatever it was, was beside the point. Once I said that to him he was within his rights to charge me, get me up on his hip and begin throwing punches into my face as hard as he could.

My explanations bounced off my parents like Jewish space lasers off a kryptonite force field. Like the caterer’s punches to my smart face, which landed on my forearms as I continued to provocatively curse at him like the pugnacious potty mouthed asshole I’d always been.

Nothing I said could make them see any part of the unfortunate confrontation any differently. My father was mostly quiet, letting my mother do most of the heavy lifting. When he finally spoke, it was to calmly deliver the death blow to my arguments.

“You’re leaving out the most important part of the whole thing,” my father said confidently, holding the trump card that would cancel out all of my arguments. I walked into his trap.

“You had no right to be in the kitchen, so whatever happened after that, was completely your fault,” said my father with icy calm.

Talk about narrow framing.

I had permission to be in the kitchen, from the caterer himself, earlier in the evening, when he told me to just go into the kitchen to get something I’d asked him for.

No matter. You had no right to be in the kitchen.

There is nothing like a stubbornly narrow frame to frustrate an adversary. Frame any issue in a narrow enough legal strait jacket, and hold fast to that framing, and you can eliminate any discussion of the facts, the merits, drama, nuance, culpability, incitement, escalation, etc. from any story.

Did the president stoke escalating anger by constantly lying about a stolen, fraudulent election for months, invite his followers to a wild rally to #Stop the Steal on the day the election was going to be officially certified, exhort them to go down to the Capitol to STOP the STEAL, to TAKE THEIR STOLEN COUNTRY BACK? Did he watch the riot on TV for hours, refusing to take panicked calls from the locked down Capitol, before reluctantly allowing the National Guard in to restore order? Did he finally tell his rampaging followers to go home now, that they were right to be angry about the stolen election, that he loved them?

All irrelevant, you see. Our position is that it is clearly unconstitutional to hold a trial for a president who has already left office. Y’all know that. Y’all know that! Even if you somehow twist it and get a 51-50 vote that the constitution allows this outrage, you’re punishing free speech in an insane, partisan political stunt motivated by irrational hatred for an innocent man whose only “crime” was making America great again!

After my father pulled his Bill Barr-like parlor trick with the flimsy trump card that he claimed foreclosed all further discussion, I grew more frustrated. I laid hands on my father with violent intent for the only time in my life. Actually, I laid one finger on him, smartly across his nose, to demonstrate the difference between verbal assault and a physical one.

The cop caterer was perhaps within his rights to tell me to eat shit and die, or to go fuck myself, or that I should suck his dick, but not to start grunting and trying to punch me in the face over and over. My father was unconvinced by my demonstration, though he was now outraged too, began bellowing threats from his couch, and as my mother screamed “suck my dick! suck my dick!” over and over I took my leave of my unreasonable, angry parents.

This pathetic scene is basically what is going to be playing out in the Senate the next few days, by all appearances.

Visual Pasta Sauce Recipe

This is a simple recipe based on a delicious sauce my mother used to make. Minimalist, slightly verbose, directions below:

I don’t remember if my mother used red pepper or a carrot (I haven’t watched her make the sauce in more than 45 years), but they add a nice sweetness to the sauce. We like garlic, so I use several large cloves, 1/2 cup, from the looks of this, finely chopped. One medium onion, finely chopped.

Cover the bottom of your sauce pan with a thin layer of oil (we use avocado oil), turn on the heat– medium high. When the oil is hot (a dropped chopping sizzles) stir in the chopped ingredients, stirring frequently until the onions are a caramel color (the photo above is early in the process). When I make this with fake meat (my mother used real chopped meat, particularly when she made her incomparable lasagne), I brown the fake meat during this stage of cooking.

During Sekhnet’s tomato season I cut off the tops of and parboil as many as she harvests (until the skin looks wrinkly), remove them carefully with a slotted spoon, into a strainer, run them under cold water (the suckers are hot!) and pull the skins off, before adding them to the ingredients above. In the winter, it is a can or two of whole tomatoes, which have been skinned somewhere in Italy. Using canned tomatoes (though not quite the same as fresh, ripe ones) eliminates the real possibility (the first time) of being hurt by a scalding hot tomato you are skinning.

Pour the tomatoes into the sauce pan, mixing well and crushing them with a wooden spatula or potato masher (I suppose you could also use crushed tomatoes in the can). Once it reaches a boil, simmer it over a low flame, uncovered (this allows it to reduce into a rich sauce). Stir frequently while it simmers.

Every half hour or so spoon out a bit, let it cool, taste it. When it is close to your liking, add chopped fresh oregano and fresh basil to the sauce, stir and simmer a bit longer. This is also the time to start the pasta cooking.

You will notice I mention neither salt nor ground pepper, though both can be added. We use only a pinch or two. These can also be added to taste once the sauce is on your plate, if anyone at your table is trying to limit their salt intake.

It is possible to eat this sauce after a fairly short cooking time (less than an hour, or even twenty minutes in). But Sekhnet, shrugging like one of her mother’s old Italian friends will say, with the tolerant, slightly pitying nod of someone forced to state the obvious, “it’s young.”

The young sauce is not bad, but the longer you cook it, the more it reduces (as water slowly boils away) and the richer the flavor becomes. Like many good things, this sauce rewards your patience.

A great sauce for a cold day, and if you love a good pasta sauce, your house will smell great for a few hours while it’s cooking.

How to Never Heal

Pro tip: NEVER, EVER, ADMIT YOU WERE WRONG!

In a world where we all make mistakes, sometimes very hurtful ones, I’m glad to have a disposition that allows me to forgive people. That may sound funny coming from a man who felt he had to cast many old friends adrift over the years, but it’s true. All I need to be able to forgive is a sincere expression of regret when somebody I care about hurts me, their understanding of why I was upset and an assurance they will try hard not to act that way again. Reconciliation can’t happen without truth. If I won’t even acknowledge that I acted badly toward you, when you spell out exactly why you were hurt by my actions, repeated actions in many cases, what hope can you have about the comfort of our friendship going forward? Think about it.

How not to heal: refuse to hear what the other person is concerned with, no matter what, focus on your own counter-grievance, press it over and over. When they complain, tell them they are whining snowflakes, oversensitive, passive aggressive pussies. “I elbowed you in the Adam’s Apple for the fifth time this week — BY ACCIDENT, ASSHOLE, as I already fucking told you!” is an explanation that attempts to bully you into accepting your powerless in the relationship. “I’m not wrong, YOU ARE,” is an asshole’s first response most of the time.

People who are not comfortable apologizing will often “double down” in the sickening gambler’s phrase we all learned during Mr. Trump’s regime. Apology, admittedly, requires a moment of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, recognizing that you too would feel hurt, followed by an act of humility — contritely asking forgiveness — that makes you vulnerable. Ironically, it takes a certain amount of strength and self-confidence to apologize, even when you know you’ve hurt someone.

Insecure people have a very hard time admitting they are ever wrong, especially when the result of their actions is set in front of them. By reflex they feel attacked, become defensive, counterattack. It is the only play of someone too insecure to acknowledge the possibility of being mistaken. We are living through a prime public example of what I am thinking about in interpersonal terms and it has us at the brink of being angry enough to actually begin murdering one another.

In the case of the many Republican politicians continuing to support the president (many by their silence) in his endlessly repeated lying claims of massive electoral fraud (he made the same claim when he narrowly “won” in 2016, millions of dead people voted then too), they are sticking to their stories [1].

That their story may make little or no sense, less important than having a story. As more and more terrible facts emerge, like sickening details of the violent riot incited by their leader, seen by everyone, the stupid cover-stories about the sudden need for unity, or Antifa, or Trump learning the first lesson of his life, become more and more ridiculous. They simply can’t stop now, not after their tireless, valiant campaign has finally brought us to to bring about this sickening, anti-democratic zero-sum political moment. Now even a violent riot by insurrectionists planned and fomented by the president can be … a… a teachable moment? — a step forward on the road together? They need a story. Any story is better than no story, wait, here we go.

To hold Trump accountable for planning and inciting a riot, inviting an angry mob to D.C. on January 6th to STOP THE STEAL!, sending the stirred up mob down to the Capitol while he instructed federal law enforcement to stand down, in hopes of seeing Mike Pence (so disappointing!!) swinging from the gallows and the heads of his other enemies on pikes (“Hi Nancy, hi Chuck!! Hi, Shifty Schiff! who’s laughing now?”), would– eh, DIVIDE THE COUNTRY! That’s it — yeah, Democrat traitors, look who’s trying to divide the country now, shameless partisan hypocrite zealots!! We’re trying to heal here, you libtard commie fucktards, and you’re… so… goddamn mean and hypocritical — and vindictive! Admit you’d do the exactly the same thing if you had the election stolen from you, or even claimed repeatedly and falsely that it was stolen from you!

As I watch this heart-sickening theater, personal feelings are being vigorously stirred. Two friends from childhood did exactly this move in recent years. One simply by refusing to admit that his reflex to make me angry had anything to do with him, the other by telling me he had no idea why I was upset with him, repeatedly asking for an explanation for why I was so hurt and then attacking me for explaining it in such a brutal way. In short, two smart people incapable of great insight into themselves, unable to behave any better than they did and angry at being unfairly expected to. Each now has the consolation of knowing that I was finally the cruelly self-righteous, heartlessly unforgiving asshole who put an end to a long, beautiful friendship. I don’t begrudge them, it’s all they’ve got.

I was telling a friend recently that I’d truly have no problem forgiving either of them, if they would only own up to what they’d done, and kept doing, that was so hurtful to me, promised to try to do better. If the first guy had a breakthrough in psychoanalysis and called to tell me he realized that he was actually, unconsciously, often trying to provoke me to rage and was sorry about it, I’d be playing guitar with him the next day. The second guy is a slightly harder case, because although he initially thanked me for my mildness in stating my grievance without accusation the first couple of times, he remained specifically unapologetic (he claimed to have no understanding of why, exactly, I’d been so upset) and non-responsive, repeatedly telling me I still hadn’t made myself clear, pushing me for clarification, and then blaming me for clarifying things, which was very hurtful and made him feel terrible! A more complicated kind of asshole than the first guy, still, I’d be glad to forgive him, if he contacted me with even a soupçon of insight into how his actions, and his constant doubling down, had finally aggravated me beyond endurance.

Politics is personal, its roots go back into our formative childhoods. Social scientists have run tests to determine the basic personality types of the typical liberal and the typical conservative. Here’s a test. Take these traits and assign them to one side of the political spectrum or the other: obedience, loyalty, harsh punishment, self-sufficiency, individualism. If you said “liberal” you pass the test. How about these: fairness, reconciliation, mutual help, community. If you picked “conservative”– how right you are!

We embrace the worldview that comports with our upbringing, or sometimes rebel against it hard, like Stephen Miller (whose family, survivors of Hitler, is anti-fascist). If dad taught you that the Bible said “spare the rod, spoil the child” and took every opportunity to not spare the rod, well, you are more likely to have a certain view of the righteousness of harsh punishment and retribution. If mom instilled a conviction that food should be shared equally by everyone at the table, that no-one should ever go hungry, or get less than somebody else, there’s a different fundamental lesson about what is truly important in life.

I knew the families of these two guys I grew up with quite well. The home life of the first was an endless exercise in restraining and repressing very understandable anger. The mother, a woman of great charm and intelligence, is a compulsive (though often harmless) liar and something of a manipulator. The father, an equally charming person, was treated like a rebellious child in their home, and acted chastened much of the time. This daily humiliation was disguised as a deep love that nobody could deny. The second kid was raised by an openly autocratic father and a narcissistic mother who worshipped his uncompromising dad without question. My friends had little chance to learn any life lessons at home but what they did. Both of these boys, as men, endured rough marriages that ended in ugly divorces.

You can understand these unfortunate backstories and, still, it doesn’t sit right (my home life was as bad or worse in many ways), in a world where we can work to gain more insight and change things about our lives that torment us the most.

I am prone to anger, and it is my daily work to get better at not succumbing to it, work I consciously do. One thing I’ve learned is that when you cannot solve an interpersonal problem with someone, it is crucial to simply walk away. That applies in the moment you are getting mad as well as longterm, of your decision to stay in an aggravating arrangement with little emotional counterbalance. To conclude that proneness to anger is simply my nature, and there is nothing I can do about it, would be an abdication of any moral responsibility or agency on my part. What they used to call a “cop out” in the sixties — it’s not me, man, it’s undeniable, immutable genetic-social necessity!

To return to my personal examples of the problem of making peace with people who have lost the ability to see things from your point of view: the first guy will endlessly deny his anger and his unconscious provocations, make it everybody else’s problem that they are so angry all the time — a stance that is, frankly, infuriating. The second guy will do pretty much the same, actually, though in a much more sophisticated way. They will both be right, eternally. And so be it.

It is beyond our powers to change any of that, least of all in someone else, particularly a person who sincerely believes we can really not do anything differently, or better, than we’ve always done. It reminds us of the role our native dispositions play in our outlook, I guess, and whether you’ve had the luck to have at least one parent love you unconditionally.

Back to “politics”, the sword hanging over all of our heads. As the US nears 375,000 dead of the pandemic, it’s clear that the president, who has snapped that he has no responsibility for it, doesn’t care. He cares about overturning a rigged election he has produced zero proof was in any way improper. He clearly DOESN’T CARE IF YOU DIE and he’s not going to address taking reasonable steps to prevent the wild spread of COVID-19, in fact, he’ll weaponize disease prevention itself and insist on super-spreader events like that mask-free tour de force of domestic terrorism he hosted last week then inflicted on the Capitol.

The plain fact that the leader of the wealthiest nation in the world, whose infection and death rates are 5X higher, by population (4% of world population, 20% of infections) than anywhere else, clearly doesn’t care about stopping the spread of this deadly plague, by itself, should be a compelling argument for removing him under the 25th Amendment. It’s depraved, if not outright insane.

Oops, there I go again, angrily dividing this poor, ravaged country!

Back to the promise of the title: How to Never Heal. Focus on a grievance and being the victim. Nurture those painful feelings, no matter what.

In the case of aggrieved Trump followers, let’s take one major strand of their belief system — that the unreasonable, pushy demands of America’s coloreds endlessly claiming racism in America are a crock of crap. Here’s what you do, Trumpie, hit back with history. FACT: the ones who were slaves, the black ones, were freed more than 150 years ago. Fucking get over it! You people are fucking animals, look at you! That’s why we had a phalanx of National Guardsmen in full anti-riot gear guarding the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as you passed by in your protest march — because you are insane, violent savages who will never be satisfied no matter how many rights we give you and you would have attacked even the sacred statue of Abraham Lincoln, the best friend you ever had until LBJ, if given the chance. Nothing will be enough for you, until we are your slaves. Now get out of our way so we can go hang Mike Fucking Pence.

There you go, it is as easy as that. If you are determined to be right, even with a grievous self-inflicted wound, even if it means being a moronic, self-deluding puppet screaming against your own best interests, it is very simple to do. Take the three easy steps again: focus on a grievance, nurture it, justify it, no matter what; repeat as necessary. You can thank me later.

On the other hand, if you want to heal, for some reason, there are a few necessary steps. You have to be honest. You need to honestly discuss the things in the past that have led to the harmful situation we find ourselves in now. You have to acknowledge terrible things that happened (beyond a nonchalant “we uh tortured some folks”, if you know what I mean) and commit to fixing them. You have to listen carefully, be open to all proposals for improving things, if you want to have real reconciliation. If you want to correct injustice you have to first look at it fairly, listen to the voices of those who are being hurt by it, remove from the conversation those who are intent on perpetuating unjust practices.

If you want to be right, of course, just blame the pitiful losers for wanting to be victims when YOU ARE ACTUALLY THEIR VICTIM! You know what I’m saying?

USA! USA!!!!

[1]

The New York Times, channeling The Onion (America’s Finest News Source), reported on its front page earlier today (they removed the headline in the last hour, during updates, so I paraphrase:) Supreme Court Declines to Fast-track Trump Election Case. I was too slow to click on it while it was up, and it can’t be easily found (searching “Supreme Court” on the buggy NYT phone app doesn’t do it) but, seriously– WHAT THE FUCK? What fucking Trump election case?

better shot

In the underlying letter I complain to my nephew about Louis DeJoy, too busy sucking his own ass to deliver the hand-written letter I sent the young artist weeks ago, lost for good, it appears (after more than three weeks), irretrievable as the millions of undelivered Trump ballots that resulted in such pain and violence, disappeared as if by angry mouth-breathing Anti-maskers, into the mist of crude Nazi fog machines.

Reservoir of Rage — and Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1]

Thought for a future post:

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

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

Reservoir of Rage

The Age of Reason was an age of optimism, unfounded in many ways, as an insightful psychiatrist named Frank Yeomans observed. We like to believe that we “wise apes” act based on the intelligent use of actual knowledge — the wisdom gained through experience. We also like to believe that Death will never actually come for us. Look at any newspaper for a glimpse into the role of Reason in our world today and compare its effect to the workings of terror and anger.

In these days of increased isolation caused by this raging pandemic I sometimes find myself thinking back to a series of lost friendships, looking for a common denominator. The common trait in every friendship of mine that went to shit, I can easily see now, is rage — anger and disappointment that wound up being mutual. Good luck reasoning with that force of nature.

My friend Mark, one of the first close friends I finally had to cast over the side, was frequently in an agitated depression but if you pointed out that he was angry, as shown by the harshness of his judgments of himself and others, he’d hotly deny it, quickly become enraged. I am prone to expressing my anger when it flashes, a trait I’m not proud of, but my anger is often there to be seen by others when I am hurt.

Most people do not readily display this unseemly emotion, carefully covering the embarrassing lack of control it reveals. It doesn’t mean they don’t get angry, of course, they just don’t readily express it most of the time. I’ve done better, recently, sometimes, not reacting with anger when something irks me beyond endurance, but the strong reflex is always there.

What I’ve learned, at great expense, is the value of breathing and keeping quiet when the impulse to say something cruel is strong. Quickly apologizing is also a necessity after angrily expressing harshness toward someone, I’ve found, not that it will always be the healing balm it is intended to be. One or two sincere apologies will often be accepted, and I quickly accept the sincere apologies of others, but once the need to apologize becomes a pattern, it indicates something deeper and, well, good luck to you and your friendship.

My father, a man prone to outbursts of anger, always insisted that we cannot change our fundamental nature, our reflex to act a certain way. He’d point to babies born with an easygoing nature, placid and easily contented from day one, and others, like me, that fussed all the time, rarely satisfied, defiant from the day they first focused their eyes to glare accusingly. There is a certain amount of truth in this, the over-the-top surrealism of the description of the second baby aside.

You can see the truth of this principle illustrated in every new litter of feral kittens. Some baby cats are bolder and more trusting than others, others more prone to flee, to bite, to cower. This behavior was not learned, they were born with a certain predilection, a fundamental nature that will not change that much. The reflex to be petted or to cower will always be there to a certain extent, no matter how much they may learn about the tender intentions of the people who take care of them.

A friend of mine cheerfully reported on an article she’d read about the discovery of a suspected “happiness gene”, a bit of DNA that predisposes one to optimism and contentment. She looked across the table with her sly smile and observed to her fellow happiness gene recipient, Sekhnet, that her husband and I sadly did not seem to have much of this gene. I told her to fuck her so-called fucking happiness gene. But the point is made again, we are born with certain traits that are then pounded into more or less permanent form by how we are treated while we are malleable little lumps of clay.

I think back to the list, now considerable, of former friends, people with whom I shared confidences and a love of badinage [1]. All affable, smart people, articulate, many quick with a witty comeback, most of them connoisseurs of dark humor. One other common factor I saw only too late: each had a deep reservoir of rage and an inability to forgive.

I understand the workings of the Repetition Compulsion, to some extent. Some of us are compelled to recast and repeat painful relationships, the dynamics of which we don’t understand, in an unconscious effort to have a better outcome. It’s called a compulsion because it is not something we choose, those of us who do this must do it. I saw it clearly in my old friend Mark’s life– he endlessly repeated variations on the identical three act drama: idealizing, being disappointed by, violent betrayal. Easy to see in someone else, if you are around long enough. In our own case, it’s hard to see if we’re behaving reasonably or out of some kind of compulsion.

So, take my case, say you were raised in a long war with your parents. Your father is angry just about every evening at the dinner table, raging, making ugly pronouncements, baleful predictions. Your mother, for the most part, indignantly takes your father’s side. Her mother once famously said of her, in Yiddish, “you stick to his ass like a wet rag!” Both parents, at the same time, are smart, avid readers, expressive, love to laugh, enjoy the old badinage, are connoisseurs of dark humor. When searching out friends to commiserate with about your often painful life at home, it is not surprising that you would always be attracted to people who had these fine, cherished qualities.

It may seem funny to write this, but witty repartee with friends, which used to mean so much to me, now means little. I like to laugh, of course, I’ll often toss off an absurd take on something ridiculous (the menu of such things is comically gigantic), but whether you are a wit or not means little to me these days. My friends are funny, sure, but that back and forth of smart rapid-fire commentary doesn’t seem to play a large role in my life these days. The release of humor, it seems to me, was necessary in those years to protect me from the painful darkness all around me. Now that I’ve emerged from the worst of that darkness (for the moment) that need for banter just seems funny, if you follow me.

What we want in a friend is a person who will give us the benefit of the doubt. If a friend snaps at us, they will immediately express their sorrow as soon as they calm down. The larger world does not operate this way, neither does nature. This good will is what separates our friends from everyone else. The loss of good will, the benefit of the doubt, the lost impulse to quickly overlook a friend’s bad moment, is painful. Once good will is gone it is almost never coming back.

When I go down the list of people I once shared intimacies with I see that despite variations in their personal styles, they were all capable of titanic anger (maybe everyone is, but each of these bastards sure was).

The more introverted, quiet ones were no less given to implacable fury than the more extroverted ones. In fact, the reservoirs of rage in those who rarely expressed any sort of displeasure was perhaps the deepest of all. Keeping that existentially threatening anger inside at all times means that when it finally explodes, it’s going to cause an avalanche, helpless villagers running in terror.

Then silence again, which in friendship is the deadliest and most final expression of eternal anger.

1]

[

Searching for the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dying for Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ironic, eh wot?

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

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