My mother in 3,500 words

As I struggle to figure out how to successfully package and sell the long-shot story of my father’s anonymous long-shot life, after years of detailed conversation with his skeleton,  it occurs to me that my mother, once a very opinionated and vibrant person, has been mostly silent.   To be expected, of course, she died almost ten years ago.   Her ashes are in a plastic bag in a corrugated paper box in a beautiful shopping bag.   She would like the bag, it is actually elegant.   A sturdy old fashioned brown paper bag on the outside, made of heavy paper, with two sturdy handles, slate gray inside; gorgeous.  It’s not like her to have been so silent all these years, she loved a good story, hearing them and telling them, and she had strong opinions about everything and never hesitated to voice them.

Her body was reduced to ashes according to wishes she made known two or three times over the five decades I knew her.   She was not one to talk about death.  I reassured my mother, when a sudden terror of being eaten by bugs and worms gripped her not long before the end, told her to have no fear, that I’d make sure that would never happen.   After she died I made arrangements to have her cremated.   My father’s written instruction, for both he and his wife, was earth burial.   Accordingly, he’s a skeleton, buried in their double wide grave at the top of the hill at First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill cemetery, and my mother is a spirit whose mortal remains dwell in a beautiful bag at the farm where I do most of my unpaid work.

It struck me tonight as ironic that my father, who was a complete pain in the ass most of the time, what he would call a prick, has taken up so much of my energies the last few years while my mother, also a pain in the ass, but a loving one– which makes all the difference, really — has been hanging out quietly, off to the side, seemingly waiting her turn.    It seems only right to try to publish a few words about her before I start back in on figuring out how to package the long story of my relentless, tragic father.   After all, I have my mother to thank for the pleasure of reading for pleasure.

Growing up I remember my mother telling me that she was a poet when she was younger, when she was an English major at Hunter College.   She’d write the occasional rhyme for an occasion, even late in her life, but the blue covered notebook of poems I’d seen once or twice when I was kid was never seen again.   It was not among her things when she died.  I looked on every shelf, in every box, but nothing.  I was disappointed.   One poem, written in her distinctive hand, remained, I found it among her papers after she died.   My sister blushed at the passion of that poem, noting that it was definitely not written about our father.  Though my mother stopped writing poetry at some point, she had a poet’s heart, a lifelong flair for colorful exaggeration. 

My mother loved words, even if she didn’t always use them to seek deeper truths. There were good reasons for this, I suppose.   I remember how it felt, struggling against the painful limits of my power to express myself, when I was a kid.  My inability to have my questions heard burned me, provoked me.   As it turns out, the most eloquent, clear-speaking poet in the world, accompanying himself on a lilting samba guitar, against a lush, evocative painterly backdrop, could not have expressed what I needed to express as a child.    

The situation we were living in in that little house was insane, nobody could have made sense of it.  It was also devilishly subtle, the overarching madness of it, the way it posed as a perfectly normal middle class life and snappishly thwarted all analysis.   It wasn’t as if the rest of our once large family had been slaughtered during a particularly hellish period in human history, their letters just stopped arriving.   It wasn’t as if her mother’s many beatings had anything to do with my mother’s sometimes volatile temper. There were many things like this, things you simply had to suck up because, no reason — put your pajamas on!  

I always loved to draw, though it’s a famously confusing way to communicate.   “Who is that supposed to be?   What does this picture mean?” became as tiresome as the concerned look on the face of the person asking.   Writing was a clearer path forward — more perfect speech.   As I learned to write better I was able to get through to my mother’s intellect, sometimes move her with my words, which was always gratifying, to see her happily transported like that.  

My father, who could write well but used the skill only for readily practical purposes,  read whatever I handed him looking for what he needed to defend himself against.  He’d read the telltale words aloud, hum the first bars of his rebuttal.

My mother read like a real reader, if she liked the writing she’d follow the words wherever they were trying to take her.  She liked to suspend her disbelief, if she found the writing credible.  My father read more for information, my mother read for the journey.   I have my mother to thank for my love of reading.   I first saw by the way she read, how she read aloud to us, that worlds can be conjured with words, worlds more interesting, more vivid, more immediate than the world that is constantly around us, things endlessly happening, very few of which make great stories.  

She died a day after her eighty-first birthday, of a cancer that took its sweet time finishing her off.   Cancer of the endometrium, the walls of the womb my sister and I came of age in, took twenty-three years to kill her.   She never liked to consider this fact, that she was actually dying, that her unfathomable, indescribable pain toward the end was a not subtle signal that she was dying.   She fought the knowledge that she was being killed by a relentless disease with no cure, particularly toward the end, when she lost a lot of weight, lost the taste for even her favorite foods and there was nothing more the doctor could do.  

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me!  I never had pain like this,” she often said in exasperation during those final weeks. Though I am not a big fan of denial, I always considered it a duty of love to play along with her denial of death.  She was the one who was dying, I saw it as her right if she didn’t want to make it worse by acknowledging  it.

She fought the cancer to a standstill for more than two decades.  If we can say anybody can fight a monster like cancer, no matter how proactive and positive of mind and body they are.   My mother was fortunate, her body responded miraculously to a new treatment they had just come up with, a synthetic hormone called Megace that had shown some promise and was kind of a last shot for my cancer riddled mother, by then the cancer was everywhere.   She got lucky and had about fifteen years of remission, not that she was ever overwhelmingly grateful about that new lease on life, though she had many things she loved about life.  In the end, there was no treatment available, just a series of discussions to be had.   She had no taste for these kinds of talks.

My sister and I took her to the oncologist, maybe a year before she died.   She saw the handsome little silver-haired doctor’s face and immediately said “I don’t want to hear any bad news!”   

“It’s been nice seeing you, then, Evelyn, always a pleasure,” said my imagined version of the doctor, though the dapper oncologist was unable to be quite so breezy, nor would it have been possible to be, in his place, I suppose.  So, isn’t it really better to say that he was just cool and witty, made a quick, dashing joke out of the whole thing?   We all had a laugh, instead of deathly news, and went to a new restaurant and had a delicious lunch.  

My mother would appreciate my improving the story that way.   It’s not what happened, precisely, but it’s pretty close and why not give the doctor a better, jazzier line than the one he uncomfortably came up with?   It’s got to be brutally hard, breaking the bad news to a patient who doesn’t want to hear it.  Might as well have the doctor play along with a wink, we all know the score here but, damn it, Evelyn, you’re right, no reason to lay the terrible details out like that.    

My sister, who had many more dealings with him, was angry at the oncologist by the time he retired, about six months before my mother died, after he’d said an awkward goodbye.   My sister had been unhappy at the way he seemed to lose focus. The visit before he’d apparently asked my mother to take off her shirt so he could examine her breasts.

“She has endometrial cancer, doctor,” my sister reminded him, shaking her head slightly, signaling to her mother that this guy was as cuckoo for Cocoa-puffs as she was.

                                                                                   ii

During her final days, when I was staying with her, my mother would call me in every night to watch Jon Stewart with her.  My mother loved the bright, adorable comedian.   As much as she loved Stewart she hated his equally brilliant protégé Stephen Colbert.  As soon as Colbert’s over the top show began she’d quickly switch the channel to a rerun of some old show.

 I got why she loved Jon Stewart, I felt the same way.   He made her laugh and think, he informed her of unfolding events with trenchant irony, his wit and his perfect facial expressions made the horrible news easier to bear.  He, almost alone among the media in the years of her widowhood, gave her hope that not everyone in the world had gone insane.  

She was a secular Jew from the Bronx, had been raised to believe in equality, human rights and social justice.  I recall her telling me when I was a young reader that she didn’t think much of Howard Fast as a writer, but that the idealistic man who’d been blacklisted as a suspected Communist had his heart in the right place.  As an old woman she was depressed by the many signs that our country did not always have its heart in the right place.  She would clench her teeth every time President George W. Bush came on TV.  

She regarded him as the worst American president, definitely the worst of her lifetime.  One of the last things she said to me on her deathbed at the hospice, spoken urgently:  “please promise me Sarah Palin will never be president of the United States!”  

I promised her, thinking to myself “at least not in your lifetime, mom.”  

As much as she loved Jon Stewart, she had an almost visceral dislike of his gifted protégé Stephen Colbert.  As soon as Stewart’s show ended, even before Colbert’s American eagle swept, beak and talons first, toward the camera, she had the remote in hand and was looking for something else to watch.  I never understood this.   She couldn’t explain it, she just couldn’t stand him.  

“You realize that the overbearing right wing blowhard persona is parody, he’s playing a character.  He’s hilarious, mom.”  

She shook her head.   “I know.  I don’t know what it is, I can’t watch him.  I know it’s a parody, I just can’t stand him.”

So it wasn’t that she was like President Bush’s team who’d hired Colbert to do the Correspondents’ Club dinner, apparently in the mistaken belief that he was a fellow traveler, a very funny, popular comedian who happened to be as patriotic as Sean Hannity and a true believer in the unquestionable greatness of America and the Unitary Executive, right or wrong.  In 2006 nobody in the media was saying too much out loud about the Bush administration’s many excesses.

I showed my mother the video of Colbert fearlessly skewering the president at the Correspondents’ Club.  I recall at the time feeling great admiration for him, he was about the first person to publicly suggest that the Emperor and those around him might not be dressed as splendidly as they imagined.   He showed impressive sang froid by doing it, literally, in the president’s face.  My mother admitted it was a great routine.  He began:

Mark Smith, ladies and gentlemen of the press corps, Madame First Lady, Mr. President, my name is Stephen Colbert and tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.

Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument.  (the rest is here)

President Bush is still smiling gamely at this point, but his smile becomes more and more brittle until it falls off his face after a few moments.  Good sport and nice guy that I’ve often heard George W. Bush is, his politics aside, I’m pretty sure he shook Colbert’s hand at the end, probably told him he’d done a heck of a job.   But he clearly understood in pretty short order that he was being roasted by a merciless chef in a bullet-proof apron.  My mother loved it.

I tried to get her to watch Colbert’s show a few times after that, but she never lasted through the opening, switching to an in progress re-run of NCIS, CSI or other murder mystery as I left, befuddled.  

One night I was going through a shoebox of black and white family photographs.  I found a photo that made me feel like the protagonist of one of her detective novels.   It was a shot of my uncle, my father’s younger brother, as a young man, dressed in a well-fitting suit.  It could have been a photograph of Stephen Colbert, in character as the rooster-like right-wing talk show host.   My mother strongly disliked my uncle.  She found him narcissistic, tyrannical, unreasonable, demanding and petty.   In a word, Colbert’s character on the show.  

 She once desperately offered me a huge monetary bribe to spend a week in Florida when my uncle and aunt planned to visit her, after my father died.  She kept upping the dollar amount as I hesitated.

“Please,” she begged over the phone, “you can’t leave me alone with them!  For a week!  A week, Elie!  There will be bloodshed.”  

I rushed into her room with the photograph of my uncle.

“Is this why you hate Colbert?” I asked, handing her the photo.  

“Oh, my God,” she said, staring at the picture, “oh, my God!”  And then she began to laugh.  Another mystery satisfyingly solved.

 

                                                                                iii

I would not say that my mother was a mostly happy woman, though she had several things that gave her delight, things she loved to the end: opera, thoughtful conversation, well-plotted ​murder mysteries, dogs, intelligent comedy and good writing.   

When she was alone, which she was most of the time in the years after my father died, she was subject to dark mood​s. This is no surprise, considering she was alone day and night for the first time in fifty-four years, with a gnawing cancer increasingly determined to do her in.  Also, sorrow had always been as large a part of her life as her robust sense of humor.

After she died I was referred to an excellent book called Death Benefits (by Jeanne Safer) which points out that the life of a loved one, once over, can be seen as a whole and valuable ​life ​lessons should be drawn from it.  I made a list of the things I’d received from my mother, there were many good things on there.  

One that I remembered to add after I spoke off the cuff at her memorial service was: have no fear to shock a little if the truth also makes a good story and nobody is really harmed by it.

At her request we had her cremated.  The woman at the Florida crematorium insisted on calling the ashes ‘cremains’, which gave my sister and me a few cringing laughs.  I brought the cremains up to Peekskill, the haunted little town where my father’s unspeakably miserable childhood unfolded.   We gathered in the beautiful new chapel of the synagogue up there for a memorial service.   

My mother’s cremains were in the first row, sitting unobtrusively in a box in their fancy shopping bag.  We’d already been informed by the rabbi that her ashes could not be buried in her funeral plot next to her husband of 54 years.

S​everal people were ​ready to speak, a looping slideshow showed photos of my mother at different ages, and the people she loved; a recording of her reading some of her favorite Edna St. Vincent Millay poems played over improvised ambient music.  She was an excellent and expressive reader and it was eerie and oddly comforting to hear her living voice in that setting.

I changed into my suit behind the folding wall.  It was a hot day so I left my sandals on instead of putting on shoes and socks, something I needlessly pointed out ​to the assembled guests (most of them couldn’t see my feet) ​and apologized to my mother for.  My mother would have certainly ​given me grief for not putting my polished black shoes on, and done so sincerely, but in the end she would have probably written the offense off as me, as always, having to be me.

The chapel was full, I cued the recorded music to go down, a singer friend and I played September Song.  Then I began what were to be short remarks before my beloved partner read the beautiful eulogy she’d written.   I had a digital recorder in my pocket, but I forgot to hand it to someone to record the service, so memory, as so often, is the only available guide.

“My mother would not have missed the irony of having this memorial in a synagogue in Peekskill, of all places.  Not only did she have only the most tenuous connection to this small town, having visited it only a handful of times, but my father, who’s buried here, left at the first opportunity and never returned.”

​”It is even more ironic, of course, that we are gathered in a synagogue. Outside of the occasional wedding or bat mitzvah, my mother did not set foot in synagogues.  She had no use for the rituals of our religion, although she proudly identified as a Jew, in fact, you know, she couldn’t have been mistaken for anything else, except perhaps Italian.  Now that I think of it, she was last in a synagogue about a year ago, for a Friday night service, of all things.”

“There was a left wing rabbi in South Florida whose column she read every week in the local paper.  She was largely in despair about the tidal shift to the ​right in American politics​, how even supposed liberals like Bill Clinton, who called themselves Centrists, were in many ways to the right of Eisenhower.   So she loved this fiery liberal ​rabbi who stood for all the things she believed in and wrote fiercely about his values.”  

“She was excited to read that the rabbi would be speaking at the local synagogue.  She went to the Friday night service with a friend to see and hear him in person.”

“I asked her afterwards how it was.  She told me, with characteristic animation, that it had been horrible, awful.  Her rabbi was on the bima, seated, was introduced to the crowd, waved and did not say a word.  Not one word!  Not only that, she said, ‘they read every goddamned prayer in that fucking prayer book!'”

Those assembled in the chapel laughed heartily at this evocation of my mother, a refined and earthy woman from just off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx of the 1930s and ’40s.  I hadn’t really intended to tell this particular story, but as I stood there it became an irresistible opening to my remarks.

My mother would have been only fleetingly embarrassed, had she been there in more than spirit.  She would have immediately protested before laughing herself, any embarrassment quickly wiped away by the love she got from those assembled to remember her distinct and unique personality in that godforsaken chapel in the little town that had formed the backdrop for her beloved’s traumatic childhood. 

You Are Not Allowed Those Feelings

This ongoing denial of human feelings is like a stubborn fiber, stuck between my molars.  I think about it in relation to someone I was good friends with, who, without explanation (beyond a reference to “and other things”) has stopped communicating with me.   He frequently suffers from Tension Myoneural Syndrome, a condition he introduced me to, intense physical suffering related to repressed rage.   He cannot process all the rage he has, I understand that completely now.   Still, his silence irks and baffles me, whenever I think about it.   It appears to be an angry reaction to my attempts to escape and stay out of the trap of my own anger.

The underlying mechanism of most human tragedy, of course, flows from a lack of empathy, or from extremely selective empathy (which allows ruthlessness toward anyone outside the selected group).    Unhappy people believe themselves doomed to never get a fair hearing anywhere and it makes them understandably angry.   As a result of this unfair sentence upon them they cannot tolerate the expression of certain feelings by others.   They are not allowed to express anger, too much sorrow, discontentment, voice meaningful complaint that will be taken seriously — so why the fuck should anyone else be allowed their fucking feelings?

How hateful is it, to somebody angrily resigned to being caught in a trap, to hear somebody else struggling against their own cage?

If you have some time, and patience, you can read the background story about a group of problematically married men, often angry, and the roles their unhappy, demanding wives play in their endless, embattled unhappiness.   The piece is here.

One of the wives called me, a week or so after “a bad day” for her husband.   It was a day I’d spent five hours with the guy walking and talking, waiting for him, pressing him at times, to acknowledge that he had treated me in ways that he would hate to be treated.   He had accused me of deliberately trying to destroy his marriage, for one thing.   He bobbed and weaved, told me he’d already apologized for everything, including “that thing in the car” (when he told me our friendship was on death row and I’d better come up with something good if I wanted a reprieve) and that I was being an unreasonable hard-ass who would not accept his multiple expressions of regret.

His wife called (yes, I can hear you, Sekhnet– “flush!”) and told me she was very upset that I was refusing to forgive her husband, who told her his apology apparently wasn’t good enough for me.  I began to explain to her that if you tell someone they’re hurting you, and that they owe you an apology, and they then apologize and keep doing the same bad things, then the apology is an apology in form only.   She brushed past this.  “We are family,” she told me, “and we love you.   You can’t stop being friends with us!  We love you.  Our children love you.”

Here is what I’m trying to capture: that moment when you express your feelings as clearly as possible and are given an anodyne statement in response: but we love you, stop complaining, you big jerk!    Anodyne, no controversy, who could argue with the idea that a family fights but in the end loves each other in a love that conquers everything else.

People who love each other certainly hurt each other from time to time, it’s part of the human condition.  Love means, above most things, empathy, and in my mind love demands that you make peace as soon as possible after becoming aware that you’ve hurt a person you love.   Love involves a certain amount of conscious work to keep it free of sabotaging, inchoate grievance.   Love doesn’t avoid the hard questions by saying “but you can’t be hurt, because I love you, you crazy asshole!”

To underscore the absurdity, and destructiveness, of not acknowledging you’ve caused somebody pain– and claiming they should just pipe down about it because you love them– the woman telling me I had to forgive her hapless husband spends much of her time enraged at the guy.   SHE KNOWS EXACTLY HOW AGGRAVATING THE FELLOW IS.   They are now attending marriage counseling, after deciding to divorce and reconsidering.   She rages at him herself regularly, they both fear the psychic harm they’ve done to their two children by violently screaming at each other in front of them over the course of the boys’ lives.  

So a better strategy, on her part, if she’d really been intent on making peace, would have started by acknowledging what a maddeningly frustrating opponent her husband is.   “Look, we both know how infuriating he can be, you know I struggle with it every day, I want to kill him a lot of the time, for sure.   All I can tell you is that he really is going to therapy twice a week, and he’s working hard, and I ask you to keep an open mind about him.   There are great things about him that become hard to see when he provokes us, as you know better than most people.   I’m asking you to remember all the reasons you and he have been friends for more than fifty years.” 

But that was not part of our conversation.  Instead the wife’s call was a referendum on love– either you love us, because we love you, or YOU’RE FUCKING DEAD TO US.

I had to breathe deeply a few times in that frustrating hour of talk, to keep my anger in check each time it flared up.  I was being blamed, over and over, for not being loving enough, for not forgiving, even if the apologies I received had been extracted, strained, and ultimately false.  I was the one who was being unforgiving, unloving.   No matter what the provocation, I had no right to remain angry at her husband.  He really can’t help himself, and. after all, she had still not divorced him, and he’d done far worse to her.

This is how it is done in the zero sum world of damaged souls who truly believe they have no hope of anything better.   Accept whatever it is, you can be as angry as you want about it, but you have to keep that in anger check as much as possible.  Yes, it will spill out in rage from time to time.  Merely the price for love, I suppose, is how their reasoning goes.

In that conversation with the guy’s wife I was not trying to score any points, I was trying to be as clear as possible about my feelings and the reasons I now have to stay away from her husband.  If I’d been intent on racking up points there would have been an easy moment, right at the start, to put some points on the board.  “We are family, we love you, you have to forgive him,” gave me an open shot on goal.  I’d have pointed out that she was permanently estranged from both her brother and her sister, that her relationship with her high-strung mother was extremely tense and that she had described in detail some of the harms her morally upright macho father had inflicted when he smacked her around when she was a girl and made sure she admired him and emulated his example of toughness.

You can win an argument, in a way, by pointing out such things, but in the end there is nothing productive about it.   Empty stats, like buckets scored in garbage time.   If you are trying to come to an understanding with somebody, forget about keeping score.  

All I wanted was for her, a friend of many years, to understand why I felt the way I do.   She initiated a call I would not have made, and I restrained myself several times, as my feelings were being constantly dismissed, or challenged, because I hoped I could make her understand.   I could not.   The call went on and on.  Suddenly I heard a small voice in the background and she screamed.

It became clear in that instant.   Her husband was home.   She didn’t want him to know she was calling me.   She had gone into her son’s room, closed the door, and called me from there, sitting on the edge of his bed.  Her son came home, found his door closed, opened it to find his mother talking to somebody in hushed tones.  He must have been startled, startled her, said “mom, what the fuck?” or words to that effect and all the anger she was withholding talking to an intractable apparent former good friend she poured out onto her son.

The lesson: nobody has any right to any feelings that fucking piss me the fuck off you goddamned fucking fuck!

 

 

What I’ve Learned So Far

A caveat, first.   We don’t get to learn that much of great importance, the vast majority of us, in the short time we’re given here in this distracting, demanding world.  I’ve learned this so far, which I’ve found useful, and which I’ll write now and post.  I share it here partly out of pride that I’ve been able to learn it.  I offer it also for whatever help or comfort it may give for some of what you might be struggling to understand in your own life.

Parents don’t fail their children, in most cases, out of any kind of malice or ill-will.

This simple truth is in no way intuitive or obvious, though when you read it you might go “duh…”   As kids we hope for everything from our parents, and almost none of us get that.   The rest is on us.

There are extreme situations, of course, where insane people do unspeakable things to their children.  To the children of those outliers, I really wouldn’t know what to say that could be of use to you, having had to live through that unimaginable nightmare, outside of that none of it was your fault.  I am also not talking to anyone who survived a childhood in an actual, violent, physical war zone, a truly inconceivable horror, except to wish that your parents were heroes and that you and your family were spared the worst.   This piece will probably be most digestible to anybody raised by more or less ordinary, average, normal, regular parents living in peacetime.

Being born to parents, or a single parent, or raised by an adoptive parent, or a parent figure, who is able to give you exactly what you need in life, all the essential things, or even simply a life-affirming sense of being loved that never deserts you, is a matter of luck as great as any other lucky thing in the world.  How were the stars twinkling the night you were born, or, if by day, where was the sun, exactly?   Who can say?  Even if the stars actually have anything to do with luck in the first place, which, who the hell knows? 

My sister and I had painful childhoods, we watched each other suffer, gave each other what little help we could, even as we fought each other much of the time.   None of it could be helped in the house we grew up in.  Yet, our parents were not sadists, psychos, creeps, fools, jerks, nuts, assholes, zealots, criminals, compulsive liars or even particularly rigid people.   They were both very intelligent, sensitive, had good senses of humor,  and both loved us AS WELL AS THEY COULD.  

That is the key there, keep it handy.  

They did what they thought was best for us, always.   How were they to know that at the most crucial emotional moments for my sister and me they had literally no fucking clue how to give us what we needed?   Where were they to have learned that blessed skill?

They certainly had no role models.   Their childhoods were MUCH worse than my sister’s and mine.   I guarantee that, can see few things more clearly than I see that. And my parents’ parents’ childhoods had been worse than my parents’ childhoods and so forth, all the way back.

My father, I learned toward the end of his life, had been whipped in the face (in the face) by his angry, ignorant, religious fanatic mother, from the time he could stand. One year old, or whatever, he’s finally on his feet and — BOOOOM!!!!   In your fucking face, bitch, don’t you fucking look at me, asshole (but hissed in Yiddish).   It’s hard to imagine the horrors of her childhood, except that everyone left behind in that impoverished hamlet she came from was slaughtered in 1942.  

My mother’s mother was charming, dynamic, loved me to death as I loved her, but even as a kid I could easily see how hard she’d come down on my mother, her only child.   Countless yardsticks broken over her daughter’s ass, was the phrase I used to hear, from both my parents.   I always pictured the flimsy yardsticks I knew, with the ads printed on them, no big deal, I could effortlessly snap ’em myself as a ten year-old.  Years later I saw a yardstick from back then.  36 inches of solid squared lumber an inch thick, with numbers and lines carved into it, not those thin, light almost balsa wood jobs they gave away at the hardware store when I was a kid, with the numbers printed on.   Not much was known about my mother’s mother’s childhood, except that twenty years after she left everyone in her large family, and her husband’s, was shot and left in a mass grave in August 1943, if they hadn’t died earlier from starvation, disease, cold or other violence, in the cruel year before the final massacre.

Do I take valuable lessons from my parents?   Yes, from each of them.   I carry them with me every day, wherever I go.   Did I have to undo many curses they placed on my little soul as they ineptly tried to protect me, and love me, and make me not ask terrible questions they couldn’t answer, and encourage me, and discipline me, and praise me, and keep me humble, show me new things, and shield me from things, make me cautious, and brave, empowered, outspoken and submissive and the hundreds of other crucial things parents must constantly do well, in real time, with no notice, and that they receive absolutely no training or preparation for, or sometimes even a clue about?   Many curses that I still have to deal with all the time.  Things that in their angriest moments they never would have dreamed of wishing on me. But there it is.

Did I vex my parents?  Every single day of their lives (at least until the final years of my mother’s lonely life when I’d finally learned not to, and the sudden last two days of my father’s life on the eve of my mother’s widowhood).   Did I disappoint them?  Too many times to count.  Were they proud of me nonetheless?   More than they could say.  Did they love me?   They loved me the very best each of them could love anybody.   More I could not ask of anyone.

What did I learn?  To smile at the idiotic, dependably merciless voice that was in my head year after year, repeating the vicious, undermining things my parents hissed at me when they were too frustrated and angry to remain coherent.   How long did it take me to learn that life-saving trick?  More than thirty years, I think.  It was not quick, I can tell you for sure.  The beauty part is, after enough practice, that ugly little fucker finally pretty much shut the hell up.  What I learned, as that victimizing voice was fading, was to always be merciful to myself. 

Do I ever doubt that I have a good heart?    Never.   Do I question my motivations? Only on rare occasions, and when I find myself on shaky ground I almost always try to fix what I can fix.

But, isn’t that true of every asshole, they believe they have a good heart and that they are right all the time?   Yes.   So doesn’t that mean I’m an asshole?   Not really.

My parents, luckily, gave me the tools to work things out, though they often thwarted me as I was trying to learn to use them.   I’m not proud of the grief I caused them during our long struggle, but neither do I blame them now for the grief they caused me.   How long did balancing that unthinkable mess take, until there was no more pain or regret involved?   I don’t know, maybe forty years, and I have to keep practicing to keep it straight, but it is quite easy to practice now.

What did I learn?   That most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can, within their limitations.   The only thing we can fairly ask of someone else is not to treat us unfairly.   We have the right to demand the best of our loved ones, and we will most often get it, especially if we give ours to them, unless we are making unreasonably one-sided demands.

What did I learn?   “What is hateful to you, do not do to somebody else.”   It is easier to master that than the other formulation of the same golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.   We all, each of us, viscerally and instantly know what is hateful to us.   Love can be trickier, even as love, is also, first and last, trying never to do something we find hateful to a person we love.  And if we do fuck up, which we always do, being humble and making amends.

Do I think having finally learned that make me Jesus, or Hillel, or anything special? No.  Isn’t it true I’m just another asshole?   Fine.   But I’m an asshole who will try not to treat other people like assholes, to the extent that I can, and whenever I act with mercy toward another I feel a certain peace and a greater sense of hope for my fellow assholes on this poor, persecuted planet.  I feel like mercy for others, when I can give it, flows directly from my mercy for myself, is part of the same process.

As I told an old friend the other day, and as I spoke it surprised me to hear me saying it: I find I’ve become more patient than I ever thought I could possibly be.  Those feelings of mercy and hope, and learning to nurture myself, help others when I can (and when I can’t help, not hurting), to me, are most of the ballgame, right there.

That’s what I’ve learned.   

 

Thanksgiving Cliche scene

We had a great Thanksgiving at the home of Sekhnet’s family, a very warm and interactive bunch.   It actually made us all feel thankful, including the great feature of their home being only 18.3 miles away and therefore not our usual hours in traffic drive for family, vegetable side dishes and dessert on turkey day.   Toward the end of the day I was sitting in an alcove with a couple around my age and noticed that the pillow behind the woman’s head had little black eyes and a black nose.   The eyes blinked.   It was the family dog.   Her husband had been absentmindedly petting the same dog when we chatted earlier.  She began singing the praises of this affectionate pipe cleaner of a dog.    The dog was indeed a wonderful creature.

I told her Ricky Gervais’s great bit about dogs being better than people.   Gervais is an atheist, but he says that when he dies, if he finds out he’s wrong, and there is a God, the first question he’s going to ask God is “why did you make chocolate deadly for dogs, you bastard?”

“Ricky Gervais is an atheist?” she said, and then we got into a conversation about Netflix, which is where I saw the routine.  They don’t subscribe to Netflix.   A friend had recently told her about a BBC documentary she had seen on Netflix about three generations of Trump and said it was great.  It was.  I began describing some highlights, in the most neutral possible way, as it became clearer and clearer that the woman was horrified by our fake reality TV president.   The man sat on the couch across from us glaring silently.

This appeared to be shaping into an instance of the Thanksgiving day cliche in our tribal America: a few drinks, a big meal, a violent argument about politics that tears another family down the middle.   I watched the man glare on the couch across from us while his wife got more and more animated in her denunciations of Trump.  In the next room at least two of the family members there had actually voted for the vile lying psychopath.  I was aware of being dangerously close to the high voltage third rail of American life in our third century.   Finally the woman said “Gary did work for Trump, tell ‘im,” and the glaring husband spoke.

He’d been one of the contractors on Trump Tower and had been screwed by Trump, during the course of the job and at the end.  “He’s a bully,” he began and then described the details of what a scumbag he was to work for.  “We had a contract, laying out everything we had to do, the prices, every detail.   Working for him was a nightmare, because he treated everybody like his slaves, then when the work was done he just goes ‘ah, I don’t like this work so much, I’m only going to give you…’ and he pays pennies on the dollar.   You want to spend thousands taking him to court, be his guest, he loves nothing better than sending an army of lawyers after workers he screwed.”

I agreed that the man is no damned good and referred to the many businesses in Atlantic City that had literally gone under after Trump stiffed them as his imbecilically self-toppled casino empire came crashing down.  They’d been delivering steaks, dry cleaning, maintenance, electrical work for years, extending mountains of credit to our deadbeat grifter-in-chief and then — poof! 

He nodded, glaring. still angry decades after working for the man who is now, by a narrowly engineered Electoral College win, the president of these disgraced and divided United States.   What can one really say, in the end, about an insatiable, broken, destructive person like this scary clown with the nuclear codes as his last card to play if all goes badly for him?

We concluded our chat and I excused myself to go into the next room and got a cup of coffee, which I drank sitting near a smiling woman who had voted for the man who promised to make America great again, and saved them a bundle on their taxes.

 

I’ve Waited Long

I am typing in the room where my mother’s ashes sit in a box in a beautiful paper bag.   The elegant bag is in the corner, out of my view, and I haven’t looked at it in a long time, but it is a distinctive bag.   The bag is brown paper on the outside, a pure slate gray on the inside.   My mother would like the bag.   She has no worries now, nor any wishes, either.  I decided years ago that I’d scatter her ashes in the Long Island Sound at the public beach at Wading River, but we haven’t done it so far, in eight and a half years.   I haven’t been to that beach in more than fifty years, who knows if you can even get on the beach now without a resident pass?   When I was there last there were swings, seesaws and a sliding pond on the sand, and a small parking lot with maybe eight spots painted on the once black shore road.

The idea of scattering my mother’s ashes in the water at Wading River was a sentimental one.  I  think of those months in that rented green and white bungalow a hundred yards from the lapping water as the happiest summers of her life, but who knows?   She always said she wanted to live near the water, and for a couple of summers we did.   I don’t know if she was happy there or not, hearing the waves breaking at night.  What I do know is that at the moment she truly doesn’t care.   Her concern at the end was about not being eaten by worms and bugs, the thought terrified her.  I assured her it would never happen and it will never happen.  

The scattering of her ashes is more a poetic matter, really.   Every so often it gives me a pang, that I haven’t managed to scatter her ashes into the gently lapping Long Island Sound,  that her ashes are sitting there in that elegant paper bag.  On the other hand, I am positive she doesn’t mind, even if she would chide me about my long failure to do it, if she were somehow able to.

That I can sit here, a few feet from her ashes, writing thoughtfully about it in words almost nobody will ever see, is a blessing and my form of daily meditation.   Thinking these thoughts, molding them into sections that I then comb carefully for readability, focuses my spirit, clarifies my beliefs, sharpens my sense of purpose.   That I have little clue about the only thing the world understands — attaining financial success — does not distract me while I work.  The hard work of vainly striving is not a remote consideration while I concentrate on making my words express my thoughts, my heart, as clearly as I can.

                                                                           ii 

I had a call just now from a one-time good friend of my mother’s, a woman a year older than my mother.   My mother would have been ninety last May, this woman was ninety-one last month, and still going strong.  God bless her, as we say.  Her mind is sharp, her language is crisp, she is upright and walking and driving great distances– still a force at ninety-one.   In the course of narrating a lot of horrors she asked me to keep to myself, while assuring me that she is up to the challenges, taking them one day at a time, she mentioned something that gave her a glimmer of hope in these dark times.

She attended an interfaith vigil the other day, the great throng of several faiths who had gathered was inspiring to her.   The hall was very crowded, with a big crowd outside also.   Somebody came through the mass of people outside and ushered her inside to a seat she didn’t want.  “I can stand, I’m perfectly fine,” she insisted, “give the seat to someone who needs it.”   In the end, she took the seat, though she felt bad about it.   Her ninety-two year-old friend, who had declined the seat in another part of the crowded hall, regretted it afterwards as her lower back tightened up painfully after standing on the concrete floor for a couple of hours.   Better to be seated than aching, I say more and more often now.

Small mercies take on a bigger and bigger significance as life goes on.   We see few enough of them in the world now, as so many nations stand on the brink of merciless horrors many of us believed were a barbaric relic of a bygone, insane age.  I’m talking about a small mercy like finding a vacant bench at the point of a walk when your arthritic knees are barking.   The relief you feel, taking the weight off your troubled bones, a gift you give yourself, provided by a merciful side of the universe and gratefully accepted.

There was a lot on this woman’s mind, and much of it I agreed not to share with anyone, so there’s that.   At one point, God bless her, she couldn’t resist giving me just a little shit about not calling her lately, after I’d spent hours on the phone last month advising her about some very vexing things– and sent her several more pages about my father’s life that she was too vexed to really take in.   

                                                                  iii

After the Saudis murdered a journalist in their consulate in Turkey last month there was a period of several weeks during which the vicious, smiling thirty-four year-old Crown Prince had his advisors and marketing folks make up and spin multiple lies about what happened to the disappeared critic of the regime.  Our president, also born to great wealth that made him feel truly exceptional since childhood, stalled along with the Crown fucking Prince of Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Islamic monarchy.   “We have to wait until  the Saudis finish investigating whether they murdered this vicious, lying journalist, which they strongly deny, look, they strongly deny it, like Justice Kavanaugh denied all those lies against him  — whatever happened to the presumption of innocence that liberals used to talk about?  Here they go, rushing to call MBS a murderer, which we don’t know, we may never know, certainly not until he’s done investigating whether he is or not, look, this kid is a gem, a great, great future king– no presumption of innocence for him?   Typical of the lying haters and hypocrites, funders and defenders of the raping, leprosy and smallpox infected terrorist hoards advancing on us …”

All we have, any of us, is the impression we leave behind on those who knew us. We are whispers, after our death, not even ghosts.   The example of how we lived is the only thing we leave to the world of people who knew us.   The power we may have wielded over others is nothing, it is how we used that power that is remembered, that lessons for the living can be drawn from.

I had an old friend who lives the frenetic, embattled life of a successful suburban citizen.   His many stresses and frustrations have few, if any, safe outlets.  It appears that I became his best option for relief.   More and more, particularly since I’ve devoted myself, from before my mother’s death, to restraining my angry reactions as much as I can, he took to provoking me.    I pointed this out to him each time he did it, but he always argued that he was not provoking me, that I just get mad unfairly, that maybe I was the one with the provocation problem, not him.    I had more than one opportunity to throw him on the ground and kick him, but I breathed and fought my way to remaining as peaceful as I could.   This restraint apparently goaded him to ever greater provocations.

In the end, he provoked me into detailing the many things I don’t respect about him.  I don’t know if I mentioned his lack of basic courage, which I think is probably encompassed in the unfortunate phrase I do recall using “moral retard”.   In the wake of this his wife called me, basically offering me an ultimatum.   You have to forgive him, she told me, because he loves you, we all love you.  

I explained why it’s impossible to forgive someone who takes no responsibility for hurtful things they repeatedly do.   Futile, really, since those hurtful things continue on and on into the future if they are not acknowledged and corrected.   The only option, to pretend everything is fine because people tell you that they love you, is not one I’m willing to take, even for the high moral cause of professed love.

Besides, I told her, love is the way you treat people, what you reflexively do when you see a loved one in pain.   Love is action, not a word.  I told her to let her husband know that I’ll be happy to hear from him once he gets some insight in the therapy he assures me he is working hard at.  “That’s not going to happen,” his wife told me, and it had the ring of truth.   He would rather lose his oldest friend than admit that the annoyingly superior fuck might have been even partially right.  Zero sum, baby, he can’t help himself.  If you don’t win, you lose.  What could be worse than that?  Ask the president.

It began to bug me more and more that because I’d taken a principled stance in regard to an old friendship I’d lost the longtime friendship of his wife and his two sons, as well as the friendship of a close mutual friend, apparently enraged at how badly I’ve hurt his troubled old friend.   I called the guy on Halloween (spooky, I know), to ask him three questions that had formed in my head.   I left a voicemail.   I heard nothing back from him, though I’d spontaneously left him the option of doing nothing, saying I’d email him the questions if I didn’t hear back.

A few hours later I rethought my offer.  What was the point of sending questions to someone who could not even reply to a voicemail?  It would only increase my aggravation if I never heard back, give him an easy, an effortless, final provocation.  I called again, left a second message, asking him to text, email or call me if he was willing to help me by answering three questions.  

Two days later, having heard nothing, I texted him, asking if he was out of town or too weak and unJewish to respond.   “Weak and unJewish”, an admittedly provocative formulation (especially to a Jew who fervently prays every morning), but, in context, restrained, I thought, particularly after two days of silence by way of reply.

I soon got the texts one would expect, explaining how he’d heard the first message and thought he’d be getting an email, and then no email came, and then, belatedly, he saw the other voicemail from me but didn’t actually hear it until after my recent text a few hours earlier and so on and so forth and so, you see, there was a rationale to all the delay, a hazard of digital communication (which is what I’d called to avoid in the first place) and, yes, please send him the three questions.

I sent this:

It depresses me that people I was friendly with and had no quarrel with, your wife, your sons, R___, have all vanished from my life as a result of our falling out.  Not to mention you.   I understand your wife and kids have to take your side, whatever it is, but still.   And you can’t even pick up the phone and return a missed call? (rhetorical question)

What was my final, unforgivable act against you?

What did you tell R____ that made him cut off communication with me?   When he left the US we were seemingly the best of friends, he was apologizing that we’d only managed to squeeze in one quick visit when he first arrived.  Then, as a prelude to complete radio silence,  I got a reference to “other developments over the last year or so” that presumably magnified the differences between us beyond the point of possible friendship.

Did you talk to your rabbi in the days before Yom Kippur and, if so, what did he tell you?    I don’t think it’s possible that a rabbi would advise someone to make no further attempt at reconciliation with his oldest friend during the Ten Days of Repentance.   I conclude you didn’t discuss it with your spiritual adviser.   I think you should consider this seven minute discussion on apology, forgiveness and atonement: 

https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/metoo-men-repent

I heard back quickly by email.  He’d received my questions, but I’d have to give him a few days to answer them.

I took a breath and typed back: OK.

The Sins of the Fathers

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, in Leviticus 26, makes it clear that He will punish the children, grandchildren, yea, the great-grandchildren of sinners seven times over. OK, actually, I’m lying, He only implies it, merely hints at it in his final threat.   There will be no children or grandchildren left alive when the All Merciful is done with you, disobedient sinners.   As it is written:

27 “‘If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, 28 then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. 29 You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.'”  [1]

As it is written (by me):

The father’s weakness
anger, vanity
visited as a curse
on the lives
of his children

It does not, of course, need to be written this way, though frequently it is.   Your parents are your first role models for how to act.  Sometimes they are the worst possible role models, in which case, you will have to take your lumps for having originally learned how to treat others from teachers who had a poor idea of how to do it.

It makes me very sad, because, though you can learn these things over the course of many years, given the time and inclination and the luck of finding people to support you in this difficult endeavor, the odds of ever doing so are greatly stacked against you if you’re raised by senselessly enraged parents, or terrified ones.  They can’t be expected to offer meaningful support because they don’t even understand what you’re trying to do.    Your parents’ poor teaching will, as Ha Shem threatens the willfully disobedient, eat your flesh. 

 

[1] The Lord’s truly divine punchline (you really should read the entire five or six paragraphs of unimaginable horror the Holy One threatens will befall the disobedient, if you want the full effect of the punchline):

36 “‘As for those of you who are left, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, and they will fall, even though no one is pursuing them. 37 They will stumble over one another as though fleeing from the sword, even though no one is pursuing them. So you will not be able to stand before your enemies. 38 You will perish among the nations; the land of your enemies will devour you. 39 Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their ancestors’ sins they will waste away.'”

Provoking vs. Disrespecting: anatomy of a fatal falling out

I will use a personal story to flesh out a mechanism that commonly leads to violence and sometimes death.  It is a mechanism that is particularly ubiquitous in this black and white zero-sum society we are living in at the moment.  It is the reduction of a complicated story to a simple, primary concept, like betrayal, or loyalty.   One party wins all, the other loses all, or it’s mutual destruction — fine, everybody loses and everybody wins, sort of.

In this particular personal anecdote no punches, kicks or bullets were exchanged, though both sides wound up feeling hurt and completely justified in their final anger at the other.  Every person who knows my once good friend, including two who claimed recently to love me, has cut me dead, which is as bad as the underlying impasse with a guy I’ve known since fourth grade.   In some ways it’s worse, more painful, this tribal closing of ranks after an ultimatum to forgive without condition or forever be seen as the vicious loveless party persecuting a weaker man. 

This is an aggravating story Sekhnet, who tries her best to take care of me, urges me to somehow put out of my mind every time I mention anything connected to it.   I don’t know how that’s done, until I am done working through it to my satisfaction.   A gnawing, vexing story untold is just a fucking tumor in waiting, as far as I can see. There is nothing I can do about a lying sociopath president or a lockstep political party who seems to have, with alarming speed, acquired a taste for the inside of their new leader’s ass, but this situation with an old friend I can wrestle with directly.  I believe it also sheds light on our larger problem as a culture, which comes largely from partisan oversimplification and a mass failure of empathy.

The common response to a fight is to take sides, be loyal to your people.  They call this tribalism now, reminding all of us homo sapiens that when it comes to war, we jump with those closest to us.  Loyalty has been elevated to the highest value, they used to call this kind of reflexive patriotism “my country– right or wrong” — you defend whatever America does because you’re American.   Somewhere far down the list of civic virtues, after loyalty, are being analytical, and fair-minded, and trying to find the causes of friction and the best solutions for difficult problems, including interpersonal troubles like I had with an old friend recently.

My mother always expressed frustration, even anger, at her daughters’ children’s seeming ingratitude.   My sister (my mother’s daughter) always expressed frustration, even anger, that her mother could not just give with grandmotherly generosity without demanding a “thank you”.    I always thought that a skilled mediator could convince my sister to teach her kids to say “thank you, grandma” when grandma gave them something.   This simple act would have gone a long way toward reducing tensions, but they were both too angry, and too stubbornly committed to being right, to ever go to a mediator.   Each one dismissed the idea of mediation as something the other would never agree to do.

Sekhnet reminds me of all the other things I should be worrying about, instead of this intransigent former friend who is too hurt and angry to make peace.   I have worry enough to cover these other things, and have made appointments, or at least calls, about all but one of them. [1]   Seems funny, in light of these other immediate worries, that I’m returning over and over to the sad and now sickening falling out with a friend of more than fifty years, but here we go.   On the other hand, this is the only vexation I have any chance of getting closer to solving today.

Much violence among armed teenagers is over the issue of perceived disrespect.  “He dissed me,” more than one violent young man will say in complete justification of why the person he shot needed to get shot.   Disrespect is a fundamental blow that we are taught not to tolerate.   For purposes of my friend’s case against me, I explicitly told him I don’t respect him and I gave several specific reasons why I don’t.   It would seem to be case closed for our friendship.  

I disrespected my friend, first by my actions and then by explicit words, and that’s all she wrote.  If you don’t respect someone it’s impossible to be friends with them.   End of story.   There is no coming back from this.   It’s as bad as lack of trust, lack of mutuality, lack of empathy, lack of affection.   There is nothing else to tell, many would say, closing the case, though I will tell the rest, as is my way.  The details may be useful in seeing how this sort of irrefutable tribal conclusion is often reached.   

What I was seeking from my friend, by the way, was that when he saw me getting aggravated as he pressed ahead in some conversation — the reddening of my face, the clenching of my arms and hands, the gritted teeth, the labored breathing, the other universal signs of approaching anger, plus my words to that effect — that he could take his foot off the accelerator, apply the brakes a little and change direction.   He was increasingly unable to do this in recent years, as his own life got more and more stressful.

During our last discussion my friend told me, three separate times in the course of about twenty minutes, that he felt disrespected by me.  He felt this because I had been ninety minutes late to meet him for an important discussion to try to save our failing friendship.  He told me at once, and slightly sheepishly, that he knew the feeling was irrational, since we’d been loose about the time, and he’d declined to accompany me on the errands that took longer than planned so that we could meet at the original time.  This talk was important to him and he’d saved the entire day for it, from two pm on.  

He told me we could meet at any point, true, but still, I didn’t show up until almost 3:30 and ninety minutes is past the border line for disrespect.  It was even worse when you start the clock at 1 pm, which was my initial suggestion, making me a full one hundred and fifty minutes late.   It was true, he said, that I’d called as soon as I knew I was going to be late, spoke to him from the middle of a traffic jam on the Grand Central, and that each time I called he’d reassured me that he wasn’t, for once, under any particular time pressure. He’d told me not to worry, in fact.   All this was true, he said, and so it might seem irrational to me that he felt disrespected, but there it was.  Ninety minutes.  It’s hard to ignore ninety minutes.

The second time he told me how disrespectful I’d been to him, about ten minutes later, he was in the middle of denying that he had provoked me again recently, intentionally or unintentionally.  He told me that he’d only apologized to me in the most egregious previous instance because I seemed so peeved.   He had actually been in the right, he told me, to insist in the face of my rising aggravation, on the annoying thing he’d been insisting on me hearing, for a second time in a week, as it turned out.   In fact, he added, he’d do the same thing again, if it came to it.  

I was just wrong, he said, to see what he’d done as provocation.  He is not provocative, he is actually a lifelong peacemaker by nature, and besides, I was the one who’d behaved disrespectfully toward him and was now not accepting his most recent apology.  Ninety minutes, he reminded me, more than enough time for my disrespect, intended or not, to sink deep inside of him.

This line of counter-attack is familiar from my childhood.  My father liked to reframe everything away from whatever I was concerned about to a discussion of my terrible temper, how angry I always was.  When I was young, this used to piss me off pretty quickly, the abrupt pivot from what I needed to talk about with my father to the general subject of my crazy anger.  Once I got mad, I lost any chance to talk about anything.  “You see,” he’d say with a smug smile, “this is exactly what I’m talking about.  The People rest, you’re irrationally angry again.  You really have a fucking problem with your violent fucking temper.”    

My father did me a favor, in a roundabout way, since by the time I was a middle aged man this kryptonite became a weaker and weaker weapon against me.   It took years of work, but years well-spent, in my opinion.

My disrespected friend, on the other hand, had been actively taught never to show anger.   Anger is a threatening emotion, particularly to someone raised never to express it by word or conscious deed.  “I was taught to swallow it,” his mother told me recently, “avoiding conflict at all costs is how I was raised.   My mother used to tell me to use any means necessary, including creatively altering any details of what happened that could possibly make anyone mad.  The only supremely important thing, according to my mother, was avoiding confrontation.”  

I experienced a few untruths from this now very old woman over the more than fifty years I’ve known her, but I never held that personality quirk against her.  She’s a lovely woman, outside of that.   I spent hours on the phone with her last month advising her about a very aggravating and frightening situation I must keep secret.   That’s the other piece about her approach to anger, fear, shame — really emotionally explosive things must always be kept secret.

The son is like her in some fundamental ways.   His occasional bending of the truth was something I just accepted as a regrettable feature.   I always felt I could trust him about the big things, in spite of his tendency to be less than truthful at times about small things.   Funny that this equivocation was never a terrible issue in my friendship with him, I guess because our affection went back to childhood and since I always felt I could trust him in the larger sense, I never worried when he did that dance he sometimes does to try to make sure everybody is happy.   I suppose I never questioned his motivations when he was being less than honest, it was for the sake of avoiding what he saw as an inevitable confrontation, I could always see that.  

Now here we were in a real confrontation, and his dance was not at all endearing nor did it give me any reason for optimism.   He simply could not admit, beyond saying the words “I’m sorry”, that he’d been wrong to blame me, based on a casual remark made to his wife in passing, for willfully, or recklessly trying to destroy his long-troubled marriage.   I was his oldest friend, and I tried my best to help him get the full context to that particular, unfortunately weaponized remark.  

I was not at all angry at the pointed accusation, odd to say.  I was on the spot, I was concerned, there was a slight tightness in my gut, I felt under pressure, but I wasn’t angry.  Seeing him in such distress I did what I could to try to help him.  It took an hour or more to get things to a reasonable place that he could offer to his wife and their therapist in explanation of his oldest, closest friend’s alleged treachery.

When I was finally done with that he asked me if I harbored anger at him, conscious or unconscious, and told me I’d never once in our long relationship ever admitted I was wrong, had never apologized to him about anything.   These are faults I work on not having, when I become aware I’ve hurt a friend I do my best to make amends as soon as I can.  He brought up a thoughtless thing I’d apparently done to him years ago and I told him I was wrong and apologized, for what it was worth.

As soon as I was done telling him how sorry I was he accused me, based on something “someone in his family” had disclosed to him, of insultingly treating him like a helpless child.   The vexing information he complained of being spilled by a family member (there are only three possible candidates) was something I later realized that I myself had told him months earlier.   It was quite an emotional trifecta in his car that afternoon.  It took a few days before it began to strike me as an unfriendly, and unfair, assault on my character and my friendship.   My friend kept telling me how impossible his life was, worse than ever, the pressure on him was unbearable.  I told him we needed to talk face to face, that things between us were very bad.

Now I was in a suddenly aggravating conversation, doing what I could to try to save a friendship that was hanging by a thin, fraying thread.   The conversation was hard work, because he’s very smart and quite capable of putting up a strenuous emotional and intellectual fight.   His position was that he’d apologized to me already, about everything, including that “thing in the car”, and that it appeared to him that I was unforgiving, unreasonably demanding more than an apology.   “I apologized to you already, but my apology apparently wasn’t enough for you,” was his opening line to this conversation we needed to have to better respect each other’s feelings if our friendship was going to survive.  

In his defense, I’m pretty sure he honestly does not see himself as capable of expressing vehement hostility.   That, he likely believes, is my area of expertise.  I am the one who expresses anger, after all.    All of his efforts in interpersonal relations are intended to keep the peace, make peace, be a mediator between angry people.  In the short term, his efforts sometimes work, two angry people kiss and make up.   Long term, his record is not as good — as nobody’s can be when “peace” is based on persuading everyone to let bygones be bygones and a polite agreement that everybody loves each other.  That’s not how love, or anger, actually works.  In any event, the impasse between him and me is a special case and he really couldn’t be expected to make peace with someone as angry and unforgiving as I apparently am.   Plus, of course, the disrespect, how do you get past that?

In the end, the third time he brought up the disrespect, about five minutes after the second time, I finally lost it.  Outside of provoking me, I have no other theory for why he kept mentioning this perceived feeling of being disrespected.  I snapped.  I told him he was right to feel disrespected, that I don’t respect him, not the way he treats people, not many of the choices he’s made in his life, not his inability to empathize, to be honest about his feelings, to have any insight into his anger, to make a meaningful apology.   If you apologize for hurting somebody, I said, and you continue to do the same hurtful thing over and over, your apology is a shit apology.   A lie.   A meaningless fucking lie, dude.    

It may be worth mentioning here that we spoke for another four or five hours after that.   We talked quietly, but in circles, each trying our best to somehow rescue our deeply wounded friendship.   Oddly enough, he seemed to calm down and fight much less after making me explode at him.

 My childhood friend now spends a lot of time studying the ancient wisdom of Judaism with an orthodox rabbi, though he chose not to contact me during the Ten Days of Repentance, a time when Jews are supposed to make amends with people they know they’ve hurt.   Feeling the aggrieved party (victimhood is one of the most frequently and potently weaponized feelings in Trump’s America) I am sure he contented himself praying for his soul and the souls of his loved ones.   I thought about this falling out, blamed entirely on me for my inability not to be provoked by what I falsely claim is provocation, extensively during those ten days and beyond.  

I heard a rabbi talking about apology, atonement and forgiveness.   A fascinating seven minute segment on On The Media (click here for the excellent conversation) .  The rabbis apparently require someone seeking forgiveness to apologize at least three times before they can give up with the human and atone before God.   Element number one of an apology is empathy– I know you’re hurt, if someone had done to me what I did to you I’d be hurt too, just like you are, I’m sorry I hurt you, I’ll try my best not to ever do it again.   Remove empathy and you have only the empty form of an apology:  I see you’re hurt and waiting for an apology, so I’m sorry, can we just move on now?

Can we just move on, you merciless fucking irrationally hurt self-righteously enraged prick?

Think about any member of his family who might want to keep in touch with me– impossible.   There is a huge cost to taking sides against your own family, going against the current of your tribe’s strong feelings, even in a small way.  This conflict in the soul when a person opposes the will of the tribe has been the stuff of drama forever.  First, it is seen by those who trust you as disloyal.   Second, if you are critical of the accepted tribal story your head can be next on the chopping block, you see how upset everyone is.   Best to say nothing.  

I have a friend fond of quoting his grandfather’s aphorisms, gleaned from the teachings of the rabbis.  One of our favorites is “yaffa shteeka leh cha-chameem”   beautiful is silence to the wise.   Dig it.

 That said, the only hope we humans have, if we truly seek to change things for the better, is looking as deeply and dispassionately as we can into things that are sometimes, frankly, terrifying.  It is easy to resolve conflict in your own mind by reducing something to a simple scenario.   Few scenarios are actually as simple as we easily convince ourselves they are.

 

[1]  I have a CAT scan of my kidneys, bladder and ureters early next week, then a camera on a long stick up the penis into the urethra to look for the source of a large blood clot, gross hematuria, some emergency dental work I need to set up and a bit of fancy footwork to do playing the insurance odds, by the December 15 deadline to buy health insurance for 2019, trying to learn before then if I’ll need another $88,000 infusion of chemotherapy for my eventually life ending kidney disease.