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.

Echoes of Disturbing Issues from Childhood

My father, pursued to his deathbed by what he referred to as his demons, suffered unimaginable abuse as an infant that he was never able to heal from. He told me as much as he was dying. “My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” he said, by way of opening our last conversation, on the last night of his life.

At that point I knew exactly what the man whose fluids were draining into a bag on the side of his hospital bed was talking about, but only because I’d spent literally decades puzzling out the painful secret he guarded to his death. His mother had been a violent, enraged, religious fanatic who literally whipped him in the face from the time he could stand. A light suddenly went on in a dark room when I learned this.

I can hear his voice now, saying what he couldn’t when he was alive and frantic to stay just ahead of the demons that drove him to act in ways he’d regret while dying. “You don’t recover from that kind of betrayal, Elie. How do you come back from a mother who treats you as a despicable enemy from your earliest memory, from before you could even talk to her?” I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, though it is worth pondering.

Whenever I raise my voice to Sekhnet, or otherwise show frustration (something I am sadly prone to), she immediately reacts with pain. She feels unfairly under attack like she did as a girl, and I understand this.

My nastiness immediately triggers painful childhood feelings from a childhood that was harsh in certain ways. All I can do is try to always be aware of this trigger and not react in a way that hits it, a great challenge in a matter of reflex. Making matters harder, my facial expression alone will pull the trigger, even if I manage to keep my mouth mostly shut. I can only apologize when I provoke this pain in her and try better to not do it the next time. My apologies, no matter how instant or sincere, only offer so much consolation, I have learned.

I don’t mean to sound like a sniveler, but disturbing issues from childhood remain for many of us, most of us, I suspect, to the end of our lives. We do our best to be aware of and overcome them for the sake of those we love, it’s the best we can do.

The subject of childhood pain is either tedious or fascinating, to be avoided or delved into, depending on your tolerance for a certain kind of discomfort and your need for a certain kind of clarity. It is tricky, emotionally fraught terrain dotted with patches of quicksand.

There is a term for constant self-punishing brooding on painful feelings from the past, rumination. There is even a psychological disorder for those addicted to this form of self-flagellation, Obsessive Rumination Disorder:

Rumination is focused on past events. It is a preoccupation with perceived mistakes, losses, slights, actions taken or not taken, opportunities forever lost. The feelings associated with obsessive rumination are guilt, regret, anger and envy.

(two second google search: what is obsessive rumination disorder?)

Here’s a short piece on the dangers of rumination and tips on how to overcome the worst of it, and lift ourselves out of it, by a guy with the incomparable name of Guy Winch.

The harm of repeatedly chewing over and reliving past hurt, churning pain you can do nothing about, is not hard to see. The difference between torturing oneself with guilt, regret, anger and envy and thinking about and learning from past pain, moving toward healthier reactions, not remaining stuck in negative cycles for reasons you can’t see or grasp, becoming a more self-aware and kind person, is not as easy to see sometimes.

Our past experience, of course, is the lens through which we view everything. More crucially, it is the filter through which we feel everything. I see this paragraph from today’s news and am struck (by the part I’ve put in bold) by an immediate painful feeling straight out of my own childhood, beyond my adult horror at the larger meaning of this news item:

Judge Amy Coney Barrett would be Trump’s third appointee to the Supreme Court and the sixth conservative justice on the bench. During her Senate hearing, she refused to state her position on abortion rights, gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act, voting rights, climate change, family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border and presidential powers in relation to the elections.

source

Not answering specific, troubling questions by authoritatively turning the conversation away from reasonable, concerns, was a specific technique my adversarial father deployed frequently. I found myself on the short end of this technique over and over during my childhood and well into my adult life.

This move is the complete negation of the rights of the other, a calm, unappealable pronouncement that the thing you are so concerned about is of no legitimate concern whatsoever. It dismisses your concern as the unreasonable product of your own shortcomings.

It seems clear that a Supreme Court nominee should be able to state, without hesitation, that armed people at the polls intimidating voters is against the law, is, in fact, a felony in many, if not most, states. There is no political point of view expressed in stating the black letter law in answer to a direct legal question — this behavior, though endorsed by the incumbent president, violates rights guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as federal statute. It is a crime to interfere with a fellow citizen’s right to vote, by intimidating them or in any other way (not authorized by a superseding state law.)

This carefully vetted zealot nominee, about to become a sixth unappealable vote in the 6-3 majority to suppress anti-Trump votes (with or without legal justification [1]), refused to state her position even on this simple, important matter of voter intimidation on behalf of a president who exhorts violent resistance to “Democrat tyrrany” and vows to protect his followers from legal consequences. Instead of a straightforward answer to an uncomplicated legal question, Coney Barrett reserves all judicial options by standing on the absurd claim that she’d need, in a fact-specific situation, to consult with her interns and fellow legal scholars before deciding how to answer. She adds, in the politest possible tone, that the people asking such questions are simply partisans intent on “borking” her perfectly legal and proper nomination.

There are many reasons to be disturbed by the powerlessness many of us, a large majority of Americans, feel at the brazen and unstoppable bit of cynicism of appointing another extremist justice to cement a 6-3 right wing majority just days before an election she’ll have a vote on deciding, on behalf of democracy-averse corporations and reactionary billionaires. Add to this disturbance, in my case, a painful personal reminder of an ongoing childhood torment.

Here is the important distinction between what I always try to do and being stuck in the self-harming cycle of reliving pain from the past that psychologists call rumination. I recognize that there is a painful, personal echo in this news item for me. I can put my finger on it. I understand its harmfulness precisely. It does not send me into a spiral of negative thoughts from the past.

There is plenty negative and abusive about McConnell and company’s ugly, unprincipled move (several prominent votes in the 51-49 majority to rush Coney Barrett on to the bench took a “principled” stand, in 2016, against the very thing they are rushing to do now), days before a highly contested election, without this particular feature that strikes me so hard.

This refusal to address important concerns is one particularly personal component of this outrage for me, one I feel in my body and I understand why it strikes me that way. It’s as they say: the personal is political. It reminds me again how crucial it is for me not to do this hateful thing to people I care about.

It’s all we have when the going gets tough — the understanding of what hurts us the most, the desire not to inflict it on others and the knowledge that our concerns will not be brushed aside by the people closest to us.

We are living through historically tough times now, with the active message delivered over and over by our own government that hundreds of thousands of unnecessary American deaths, and untold deprivation, fear, hunger and other suffering, is the appropriate price of liberty, for certain powerful, unaccountable forces in our nation.

You can only look at the calculated ugliness of this and countless related daily outrages for so long, before you begin to lose hope, feeling, desire to even fight it. That is part of the deliberate design of overwhelming government-sponsored brutality like this– to emotionally dominate its victims beyond their power to resist. Resist we must, of course.

It is understandable that few, if any of us, are at our best in this disorienting moment of multi-faced crisis. It is plain that there are different styles of coping with the present horrors as they continue to unfold with such mind-numbing monotony. We all find our own ways to remain sane and hopeful, to balance the need for information and the need for relief from the assault of deliberate misinformation.

Tolerance for our differences is more important than ever. Only by hearing and understanding each other’s concerns is there any chance of emerging from this awful moment with our full humanity intact. Patience for the foibles of others is much harder under these worst of circumstances, when we are on each others’ nerves, locked up in small, isolated groups during these fearful days, granted. For that reason patience is even more needed. The reward for patience and fortitude is proportionately greater in scary, disorienting times like these.

[1]

The emergency ruling Kavanaugh authored in April, overturning two lower courts to prevent the expansion of voting in Wisconsin during the pandemic (with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s short, sparkling, crystal clear dissent), was one of many recent un-argued eleventh emergency rulings by the Supreme Court. Unsurprisingly:

The Trump administration has been a major contributor to the trend, Professor Vladeck wrote, having filed 36 emergency applications in its first three and a half years. By contrast, the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama filed just eight such applications over 16 years.

source

white stubble

I realize it is a reflection of my luck, to have lived long enough to see this, but it gives me a small shudder every time. In the bathroom mirror downstairs, with diffused light coming in from the left, the short white hairs sprouting on my unshaved cheek and neck are unmistakable. They are identical to the ones on the lower half of my father’s face, and his neck, a few days after he died, when they popped open the plain pine box to make sure we were burying the right guy. It’s apparently true, hair continues to grow after death, he was clean shaven when he breathed his last.

I often hasten upstairs to shave. I’m not sure why. That white stubble is no different, really, than the tuft of now white hair that reaches up through the open collar of my shirt, tendrils that can only be constrained by the collar of a t-shirt. My father had the exact same tuft of white hair on his chest. I remember it from when he tried on the blue and white flowered Hawaiian shirt I brought him from my trip to those islands. Reaching up like a clump of dry grass, animated by some crazed will to climb.

Thinking of my father’s face in his coffin, I often recall the guy who instructed the gravedigger to lift the lid. He was a cheerful, ghoulish creep in a sharp black suit, a former lawyer. “I like this much more,” he told my mother and me with a big smile, as he counted the eight thousand in cash we had to bring to the cemetery before they’d release my father’s dead body for burial.

The Book of Lost Souls

As my grandmother, who loved me fiercely, was on the bed in my childhood bedroom dying a painful death from colon cancer, I went down into the basement where I slept and wrote a song one night. I was in my early twenties at the time and was certain I knew a great deal more about life than I actually did. I sang quietly there in the basement, playing some nice guitar chords against a plaintive melody I can almost remember. The lyric that I recall, the chorus, was “when you have love, you never die.” The line repeated several times, and then again as the song faded out. It wasn’t true, of course, she died a few days later and remains steadfastly so. The fact is, no matter how much love we have, we always die.

My grandmother was one of seven children born to her parents in a Ukrainian town near Kremenetz, not all that far from Khmelnitsky, a city named for a Ukrainian nationalist famous in Jewish history as an enthusiastic slayer of Jews, a major pogromnik. A talented, ambitious girl and an adventurous young woman, my future grandmother embraced the vision of universalism, equality and the brotherhood of workers she learned from the idealistic young commissars of the Red Army who took over her neighborhood of the Ukraine after a bloody civil war. She brought that vision with her, along with her dreams of some kind of personal greatness, to the United States, where she arrived, after a fairly harrowing ocean crossing, at twenty-one or so, in 1921. She was the only one of her family to leave. My grandfather, also one of seven siblings, followed two years later, also the only member of his family to get out.

As I write about my grandmother, as you read these words, a small sense of her eternal soul flickers and shimmers a bit. Her soul, while I am considering it, is not truly lost. I knew and loved her well.

Then I think of her six siblings, and their spouses and children, and my grandfather’s six siblings and their families. Of all these only her adored youngest brother, Yussele, Joe, has a name that anyone alive (me) knows. I wonder how many were still around when another group of true believers took control of that inhospitable corner of the Ukraine. One airless Ukrainian night in August, 1943 the last of them officially became Lost Souls.

What I know from a small monument in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried (erected by the Vishnivetz Benevolent Society), and from transcripts of translated witness history (the only mention of the atrocity that I have found on the internet) is that the survivors of the hastily constructed ghetto in that small town, after being starved and tortured for a year or so, were marched after dark to a ravine on the north western edge of town.

They were marched to the sound of drums, the clanging of pans and the yowling of brass instruments, to drown out the cries. The ravine had been prepared in advance, the earth softened up. Layer after layer of doomed Jews were buried there, fragments of their bones skitter in the wind to this day, according to a travel piece about the town I read in the New York Times a few years ago.

What to do about these lost souls? Have they nothing to say? No right to their tiny place in the mad story of in the world? Who am I to write about these lost souls? The only one left alive who knows any of them ever lived.

When I was a boy, and learned about this mass murder of every one of my great aunts and great uncles and all of their children, the immensity of the horror was too much for my parents to discuss. My grandparents never uttered a peep about their loss, I never heard so much as a clue from either of them that anything bad had ever happened. Everyone pretended, it appears, that everyone getting a bullet in the neck and being hastily tucked into a mass grave was normal; that bad, even unthinkable, things happen, that you clutch tightly to the people you love, even as you sometimes battle them to the death.

At one point, for two years or so, I sat every day, as I am sitting now, thinking and tapping at a computer keyboard, trying to tell a story that is, at best, a puzzle with most of its pieces missing. I wrote more than a thousand pages diving into the life of my father, holding it against him, at first, as I had for decades, that he got angry when I persisted in trying to learn more about the murder of our family. True, he called me a drama queen (or whatever the equivalent of that phrase was when I was eight years old) and accused me of trying to claim some kind of victimhood I wasn’t entitled to since the people who died were mere abstractions I’d never even met. I understand now that he had no way to process this atrocity, no way to discuss it with his young child. In the context of his own life, articulate, righteous anger was the best he could summon.

When I was thirteen, by the tradition of my religion, I read part of a holy book to the community and “became a man,” I have few recollections of that day, except that a girl from Hebrew School who I liked, who had not been invited to the bar mitzvah party, showed up anyway in that catering hall on Hillside Avenue. She spirited me away from the party, down a flight of stairs, sat on my lap on an upholstered chair under the room where the festivities were going on and kissed me on the lips a few times.

I mention this to illustrate how elusive the past is. I was there, I am said to have an excellent memory, and I remember one detail. I have a few mental images of myself in the chapel, reading from the Torah (my part was read from the same xeroxed and marked up page I’d learned it from). Mostly, no memory at all of that memorable day.

As we also learn, given enough time, a life seems to go by in the wink of an eye. Thirteen years is not very long to be alive. Thirteen years passes quickly, I’ve discovered as 13 turns to 26 then to 39 and so forth.

A few months less than thirteen years before I was born there was a terrible racket in the Ukrainian night, and then, after the ruckus was over, the silence of death. Every Jewish soul that was alive that night when the banging started — that soul was lost forever. Have we nothing to learn from this?

Evil needs darkness to thrive

Evil plans generally require a careful hiding of true motives, calculated lying about the reasons something is done, aggressive justification at every step. These things become much easier to do when inconvenient information, so-called “facts”, are simply hidden. Evil hates any sort of transparency, particularly regarding compromising information of any kind, for reasons that are easy to understand.

Trying “leakers” (sometimes called “whistle-blowers”) under a draconian 1917 Espionage law (made to squash all dissent and anti-war sentiment as the US entered The World War) that does not allow the intent of the leaker to be part of their defense, is a dramatic example of a law designed to ensure a lack of transparency for the public, on pain of death. Literally.

Mary Trump’s book about her divisive uncle Donald apparently begins with an epigraph from Victor Hugo. The truth of it is worth pondering, in civic life and personal life, both:

“If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.”

As Amy Goodman added, in her long talk with Mary Trump today, “the epigraph is clearly a reference to what Fred Trump, your grandfather, you say, did to Donald Trump”

I think of terrible secrets in my own small family and the destructive effect they had on many lives. I think of the gnawing regrets my father expressed the last night of his life, wishing he’d had the courage to face some of them, the ability to see beyond his understandable shame.

I am sometimes forced to live in the menacing shadows of this family darkness, and it is not a comfortable place to be, I can tell you from my own soul. In that darkness is the root of all depression, desperation and hopelessness.

The Glue Trap of The Daily Horror

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.   Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

                                                             ― Martin Luther King Jr. [1]

 

A friend told me the other day that he’d had a realistic anxiety dream that woke him in horror after a few hours of sleep.   A true nightmare that left him sitting bolt upright, breathing hard.  I empathized.  Shit, even in sleep, when you’re supposed to be relaxed, getting rest from all this, letting your body regenerate itself and regathering your strength, the daily horror all around us intrudes to rob you of that needed relief.  We talked about the dream for a moment then I expressed thankfulness that I rarely have such dreams (inviting Murphy, of course, to invoke his law).

Naturally, this morning, after maybe four hours of sleep, I woke up from a disturbing dream, not a nightmare, exactly, but disturbing enough to keep me from falling back asleep.   In the dream I’d been urged by an old friend to stop being such a hermit, to become friends with neighbors, people he’d met, who he touted as very nice people.   

These neighbors seemed friendly enough, until they began expressing their great admiration for Mr. Hitler, which was active and ongoing.   They considered Mr. Hitler a genius philosopher and benefactor of mankind and enthusiastically believed in the ideals of Nazism.   We eventually got into a violent confrontation over Mr. Hitler’s arguably one-sided view of human history.   It was several of them against me, and the facts we were disputing made no difference at all.

“Motherfuckers,” I thought as I sat up and realized that was going to be the end of my night’s sleep, “they got me too.”   

I checked my phone.   Herman Cain, wealthy black Trump supporter and former contestant for the Republican presidential nomination, had died of covid-19, contracted a month ago at Trump’s mask-free Tulsa rally.   

Louie Gohmert, vocal Representative from Texas, who proposed recently in Congress that the “Democrat” party be banned from the House of Representatives because they are the party of the KKK, a fiercely defiant “anti-Masker,” tested positive for covid-19 yesterday.   Gohmert does not allow his staff to work from home, social distance or wear masks in the office.  They were not wearing masks when he addressed them all personally in his office today, not wearing a mask himself (why would he?) to tell them he had covid-19.   They already knew, from this article on Politico.com.

Louie Gohmert said today that he probably got the disease from his mask, which he wears Texas-style, off his face around his neck, as he did at the recent Bill Barr hearing.  Some virus must have gotten on the mask, he said, and he must have breathed it in.   See, masks can kill you!  He said he’s taking the hydroxy now, like Mr. Trump claimed he was, like the dictatorial former military junta member leading Brazil to disaster, and the world’s second highest covid-19 infection and death rates, claimed he was when he became infected.

It’s a death cult, this science-denying, reasonable precaution-defying, mouth-breathing pandemic spreaders.   SO?  They love freedom and hate tyranny!   You got a fucking problem with that, puny earthling?

I’ve been trying to reassure worried friends that this idiotic death cult will not sweep all the same heedless criminals back into office in 2020.   I tell them that, after being pushed to accept increasingly unacceptable government by force, we have actually reached a national moment of conscience, a moral tipping point, that the margin of victory by the forces of ordinary human decency will be too big to rig.   

I point out that the military has not gone along with the would-be authoritarian’s command to forcefully clamp down on peaceful protesters.  Defense department leaders have distanced themselves from their Commander-in-Chief on this issue.   The courts still regularly uphold the laws that the president and his loyalists routinely violate.  They violate these laws still, true, (think of countless little Hispanic kids still in cages) and every norm of democracy, and the courts are now stacked with ideological rightwing zealots chosen for their loyalty, but still — we are a nation of laws. 

I emphasize to them that this is not a replay of 2016.  I point out that Biden, doddering, shit, sell-out, compromise candidate that he is, is not nearly as hated, or as awkward a politician, as Hillary “Benghazi” Clinton was — there won’t be the same reluctance by tens of millions to vote for him (as there was among millions who could not bring themselves to vote for Ms. Clinton) if it means getting rid of Mr. Trump, who has now proven what he is capable of, over and over.  And over.  And then doubled down on his bad bets, his cruel, divisive strategies. 

Then, in my dream, I find myself fighting with friendly Nazis who insist they would be my friends, if only I’d accept Mr. Hitler’s worldview.   I am suddenly stuck to the glue trap that is this present, perilous moment of human history.   With no clear way to band together in realtime with the millions of my countrymen and countrywomen who feel exactly as I do, I sit sweatily in front of a fan blowing hot air on me, fearing the worst again as the corporate Democrats continue to run the show, as they always do in the land where money talks and power walks. 

I think of the power of the irrational in human affairs, how every atrocity in history was committed by mobs whose blood was violently stirred by their masters.  I start recalling past Democratic presidential campaigns, particularly ones running weak, compromise candidates, where huge projected leads were squandered, and I begin to shudder too.  The fear in our United States of Fear is palpable and pervasive.

I found myself thinking about epigenetics again, the messages of despair deep in my DNA, or at least on approximately the same genetic level as my DNA.  After all, when my mother was a fifteen year-old girl, any of her twelve aunts and uncles who were sill alive, along with their families, and any of my mother’s surviving grandparents (and several were alive and corresponding with my young mother, until the letters stopped one day) were marched to a ravine on the northwestern edge of their Ukrainian town, shot and buried in layers in the soft dirt.   Shoot, that August, 1943 massacre was only of a few thousand souls, it’s not even recorded anywhere in the books, there were so many similar slaughters in those dark days of 1943.

My grandmother, by then an American citizen twenty years in the Bronx, was the only survivor from her large family.  My grandfather was the only survivor from his large family.   My mother was an only child.   When she was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, was a word mentioned about all of these murdered relatives who suddenly stopped writing back to her?   I don’t know, but I’d wager not.   I myself rarely heard so much as a mention of any of them, even when I was old enough to start asking about them.

My grandmother drank more and more vodka as the years went by.   She was generally cheerful when she’d had enough vodka, with only flashes of weepiness and other wild emotions.  I never knew my grandfather drank vodka, but I once saw him down a good quantity like he was drinking cold water on a hot day.  It seems likely he did it more than that one time.   They were both silent about their painful losses, except for the fear they conveyed to me about the world.   Their fear was not passed on in any conscious way, but it wound up in how my genes allow me to organize myself to fight.

I assemble as many facts as I can.   I approach a position I find hateful and oppose it with arguments based on all the facts I can use.  I organize my thoughts, try to comb out excess emotion and express my ideas as clearly as possible.  I have achieved a reasonable degree of clarity in my writing.

I do this in a world that has no use for this kind of argument, this kind of unpaid, involuntary writing.  Sure, everybody I respect pretty much operates somewhat this way, you know, show me convincing evidence that I’m wrong, I’ll change my behavior.  The fear creeps in looking around at the world beyond my close circle, a world not ruled this way.  A world where irrationality is King.  

The graph of coronavirus infection is shaped like a pyramid in most countries.   Infections spread, authorities started to act, figured out what worked and what didn’t, as rates continued to climb, at the peak the “curve” was eventually flattened and began to decline.   The US graph, like Brazil’s, like Russia’s, is shaped like a ski jump.   It goes up, levels off, goes up again and continues to climb.   It is the highest ski jump in the world right now, like jumping off the edge of the Grand Canyon into the end of the natural world.

Sure, the president is a very nasty man, his few remaining loyal henchmen/sycophants are likeminded, unprincipled men on a mission.   Their mission is power and domination, on behalf of a tiny percentage of citizens, our few greatest citizens, people who increasingly enjoy most of the country’s vast wealth and a more merciful system of justice and health care than the rest of us.  Their mission is aided on the ground by millions of angry white men with grievances and guns, men willing to believe anything but what is actually coughed into their faces.   

The president and his very fine people care as much about these common, angry, fearful men as the wealthy Planters of the antebellum south who formed the Confederacy cared about the so-called White Trash they sent to fight their own country in a bloody war to preserve their privileged way of life. 

A way of life, based on proud, open and often grotesque inequality they call “liberty,” a thing worth dying for, the thing that most of the very wealthiest among us are still fighting like the Devil to preserve.

 

 

 

[1]  this was quoted by a commenter on this beautiful video of Bill Frisell’s  recent performance of a great Burt Bacharach tune.  Heck, this one:

1924 (5)

All this focus on the year 1924, a time when there was still no federal law limiting child labor, before any kind of governmental social safety net existed, when the resurgent Ku Klux Klan was at its all time peak in membership, and organized xenophobia, following a senseless World War, a massive slaughter the exact cause of which nobody has ever rationally explained, was at fever pitch… why?

It was the boiling world my father was born into. Add to it that young Irving was a tiny, impoverished member of those teeming, sweating immigrant masses that so alarmed the descendants of the original Anglo-Saxon Americans. Add to it that fear of drunken foreigners was one of the driving forces of the Temperance movement that led to the ill-fated Eighteenth Amendment, which stated “the manufacture, sale or transporting of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States … for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” 1924 was year five of the failed fourteen year experiment in banning alcohol.

Eliyahu, my father’s father, a man who never drank alcohol, died young of liver disease. My father was a lifelong “teetotaler,” as he would say from time to time explaining why he almost never lifted an alcoholic beverage to his lips. He’d have a sip of sweet red wine, on ceremonial occasions, but outside of that, I don’t believe he ever drank so much as a beer. He certainly never tasted whisky. By sheer coincidence, Irv died of liver cancer.

My teetotaler father was a lifelong student of history. When I used to have a “current events” assignment in grade school my father stressed the importance of making sure I clipped the date of the article I was reporting on. He instilled this habit in me, the historian’s instinct to place events into a sequence that could be followed later, to note, to the extent possible, cause and effect in historical progressions.

Finally, unable to restrain himself, the skeleton of my father sat up in his grave outside of Peekskill, in Cortlandt, New York. “OK, look, Elie, I know the thought of going through those 1,200 pages of your first draft is exhausting to you– but don’t you think it’s time? Are you seriously trying to write draft two completely from scratch, with this clunky chronological time line? Telling instead of showing, since you know so little about my early life, outside of a few stories from Eli.”

“Well, I do see your point, dad, but I can’t very well skip to the drama of the misshapen blue pants I was so reluctant to wear for the visit to NYU hospital when you were hospitalized with bleeding psoriasis, the round of temper tantrums my refusal to put on those hideous pants caused…”

“Sure, go right there, that’s the way to do it…” the skeleton rotated his head, for effect. “Obviously, I’m in no position to tell you how to write this, or do anything. I’m just saying, it makes a certain amount of sense to review that huge draft you’ve already written and start organizing the best of it into draft two, where you act like you knew what you were doing all along.”

It does make sense, a lot of sense.

For example, I could include something like this (I Just Want You To Be Happy, Nov. 18, 2017):

We were driving north on the Throgs Neck Bridge, my lifelong adversary at the wheel. When my sister and I were little kids, and the family drove back to Queens over the Whitestone Bridge after visits to the U.S. mainland, my father would point to the towers being built in the channel between the East River and the Long Island Sound. “When that bridge is done, we’ll have a much quicker ride home,” he said, or words to that effect. He must have said it several times, because the bridge opened when I was four and a half and I clearly remember him pointing at the bridge being constructed across the Throgs Neck.

We were heading to my apartment on the northern end of Manhattan, I’d had dinner with my parents in Queens, as I did periodically in the years before they moved to Florida. I was close to forty, and had finally gotten rid of my car (impossible to park in my neighborhood). I used to make the drive, around 25 minutes each way, but once I ditched my car it was a ninety minute trip each way by subway and walking. My father was driving me home this particular night. It was a rare stretch of just the two of us being together in a car. On the Throgs Neck Bridge, about five minutes from their house, I asked him, point blank, what it was that he wanted from me.

“You seem eternally unhappy, disappointed, disapproving of my choices in life,” I told him. It must be said, at that point I’d been fired from a series of jobs and most recently blacklisted from teaching in the public schools after a long ordeal by bureaucracy. “What would you like me to do to relieve you of those, no doubt painful, feelings? Is there anything? Would law school do it for you?” I asked. “Would you be happy if I became a lawyer?”

I remember the dark Long Island Sound stretching out to the right of us as we headed toward the Bronx. My father paused. Then he told me that he would feel differently about my life if only I were happy in what I was doing. My happiness, he said, was the most important thing to him. I managed not to say anything snide.

“You know, if you were happy being an artist… you know, I never understood why you don’t try getting a show in a library, or a hospital, or some place like that, just to get some exposure, get a foot in the door. You work in isolation and you… I mean, it just seems like a very unhappy life. I just want you to be happy. If you were happy, I’d be satisfied.”

I explained to him that a show at a library or a nursing home was not a stepping stone toward becoming a professional artist. An artist only makes a living working in advertising, illustration or becoming a darling of wealthy art collectors, curators and influential art critics. None of those options appealed to me, I told him, yet I love to draw and that’s that. I asked him again what it was that I could do that would leave him feeling I was not wasting my life.

“You don’t have to do anything for me,” he said, steering his Cadillac into a lane for the toll booth. “I don’t know where you get the idea that you have to do anything for me. You’ve never sought my advice or input before, I’m a little surprised you’re asking me now.”

I’m asking you now, I told him, weary from decades of senseless war I had little insight into. I’d been an antagonistic newborn, an implacable infant, a relentlessly defiant toddler, an angry, fearful school boy, a rebellious, sharp-tongued, disrespectful teenager. I’ve digested all of these things by now, the first few being patently absurd, the remainder fairly predictable, based on being treated as a challenging little adversary from before my first memory, but at that moment in the car I was seeking a way off of this boundless, senseless battlefield.

“Only if it would make you happy to become a lawyer,” he said. “I mean, obviously, I think you have the mind to be an excellent lawyer.”

And extensive experience with adversarial proceedings, I pointed out. I don’t recall much more about that long ago conversation, except that I took the LSAT review books out of my local library and took a few sample tests. I learned later that many people take courses to prepare them for this highly specialized test, but I had long experience cramming for Regents Exams in high school and had always had a knack for these standardized tests (though I had mediocre scores on my SATs, as I recall, but those were taken at my personal height of not giving a fuck about anything).

I did well enough on my LSATs that, with my college transcripts, I was accepted to all three of the law schools I applied to. I chose one, took out loans (that I am still repaying more than twenty years later) and the rest, as they say is history.

“So you’re saying you went to law school in an attempt to please a father you knew to be impossible to please?” said the skeleton of my father, a much different creature than the man who drove us across the Throgs Neck Bridge that night.

Pretty much. I’ve spent the day today immunosuppressed, working out different ways to play Hoagy Carmichael’s great Lazy River on guitar. What a beautiful, bluesy, ingenious tune. Hoagy graduated law school and passed the bar exam on his first try, just like I did. He was a musical genius and was soon making money as a musician and so never had to experience the grinding that is the fucking law. I, on the other hand, was forced, for more than a decade, to earn my crust of bread by the stinging sweat of my brow, in the manner of Cain, cursed by his maker.

Playing that tune, with an involuntary smile when he pulls out some of those great lines, I can forget all about it, until it’s time to put the guitar down.

“Well, you know Elie, we all have to put the guitar down some time,” said the skeleton with great tenderness.

1924 (part 4)

Back to that baby, my father, born on June 1, 1924.   It was a hard birth after a no doubt stressful pregnancy, the tiny mother struggled to give birth to a very large baby.   The mother had lost her previous child shortly after birth and must have been undergoing tremendous emotional turmoil.  The family was very poor, the horse that pulled the herring wagon may have already died, for all we know, and, if so, the breadwinner was winning no bread.  Crime was rampant on the crowded Lower East Side where they lived, violent criminals were organizing into a national syndicate to profit from Prohibition which was already proving to have been a massive mistake.

The second time was the charm for my grandparents, the big baby survived.   It was three of them now in the tiny, hot slum apartment during the airless summer of 1924.   What could go wrong?

My grandmother’s older brother Uncle Aren intervened, packed up the family’s belongings in his truck and they made the then long trek up to Peekskill, where Aren lived.  When this happened exactly is unknown.  My uncle, who was fifteen months younger than my father, may have also been a tiny passenger on that trip up the Hudson River, past Sing Sing prison.  Aren’s son Eli, freshly expelled from DeWitt Clinton high school shortly before graduation, helped the little family pack up and move.

Aren installed the little family on the second floor of a three story house he owned in Peekskill.  Little comes down to us about those first years in Peekskill, except that when Eli moved there around that time he had an altercation with the three Ku Klux Klan member sons of the guy who ran the local hardware store. 

“So you’re the new kyke from New York City,” Eli said they greeted him, blocking his way on the sidewalk in front of their store.  “I dropped the biggest one, stepped over him and said ‘Eli Gleiberman, nice to meet you guys’.  They didn’t bother me after that.” 

“Eli’s full of shit!  He’s a completely unreliable narrator and a notorious reviser of history” my father always insisted, particularly after I began visiting Eli regularly.   Maybe so, but many of his stories had the ring of truth.   Eli was menacing and physically formidable even at 85.

What we can establish, with simple arithmetic, is that my father started school just as the Depression was kicking off.   In September 1929 the boy was five.  His school career didn’t start off well since he didn’t speak any English and he was legally blind.  Outside of that, he probably had a pretty normal adjustment to school.  Here is a picture of him, one of very few from his childhood, that was taken during his early school years.   That’s dad in the middle.

young-irv-paul-herman

“Who’s that kid on the left?” I asked my uncle, sometime after my father’s funeral.

“That’s Henry,” he said immediately.   Henry moved away from Peekskill shortly after the picture was taken, my uncle said, and does not figure further in my father’s story.

We note that young Irv is still not wearing glasses.  He’s smiling, looking at the camera, seemingly everything is fine.   He’s affectionately draping his arms over his friend and his little brother.   All appears right in the world at that moment, during that literal snapshot of time.   It’s probably fine.

I Am SO Judgmental

It’s hard for me not to be, especially living through this deadly public denial of an out of control pandemic.  As the disease rages, and new infection records are set almost daily, we are barraged by constant public denials of the proven best ways to control the spread of this killer disease, by many of those in power here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  If only I could stop being so darned judgmental…

I look at our floridly insane president, an incoherent man living in his own, demon-infested, world.   He cannot answer a simple question posed to him, he rambles about unrelated matters he thinks will make him look good.   He lives the life of the tormented rich man from old Yiddish curse, racing from room to room of his mansion, the Devil in hot pursuit.   

We can pretend he’s not insane, as we do, even when confronted with the latest proof of his madness, but it changes nothing.   “We must not let science stand in the way of the fact that the president wants the schools open,” says his most recent press secretary yesterday, sealing the deal, in case there was any doubt.

Donald Trump’s revered grandfather, Frederick, by the way, died of influenza in the 1918 Pandemic.   You can’t make this shit up.

What has me so judgmental today in particular?   I’m thinking about the under-reported story of how much richer the richest Americans have grown during this time of suffering and plague and judgmentally wondering why this story is not on the front pages. 

During this pandemic, between March 18 and June 17, our 614 American billionaires increased their wealth by $584,000,000,000.00.   

These are people who each already had over ONE THOUSAND million dollars, becoming richer by an average of another almost THOUSAND MILLION dollars, during a time of historically disorienting fear and mass suffering.  Take this little factoid, from the above article (which originally appeared at Common Dreams. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. Feel free to republish and share widely):

Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison—the five wealthiest billionaires in the U.S.—saw their collective riches grow by $101.7 billion between March 18 and June 17, according to the new report. A dozen other American billionaires saw their wealth more than double during that same period.

By now, a month after these figures were published, we are pushing closer to an additional trillion (A MILLION MILLION) dollars in wealth for the wealthiest and most deserving among us.  And why not?

Screen Shot 2020-07-17 at 4.15.02 PM.png

It’s not as if it would be fair to take that money, earned fair and square, and use it for the public good.   Do not wonder how many PPEs, incomprehensibly still in short supply in Jared’s America, could be immediately manufactured and distributed with a fraction of that kind of money.  Unthinkable!   That would be Marxism!  Unconscionable, sick, unAmerican!

It’s not as if a trillion dollars would be more than a drop in the bucket anyway, once you divide it by the 100,000,000 or more Americans already in increasingly desperate need.   Let’s do the math, shall we, based on last month’s $584B total.   

Shoot, that’s only $5,840 a person (or a shade under $13,000 each if we gave it only to the 45,000,000 recently unemployed Americans), how much good could that pittance actually do for anyone?   How long would that really prevent a foreclosure or eviction, anyway?  Is delaying the inevitable a good use of the hard-earned money of our most valuable, precious and productive citizens?

I keep wondering why I am so fucking judgmental.   Why does it make me so angry that someone who already has a THOUSAND million dollars has an indisputable right to have infinitely more than that?   Why does the eternal well-funded argument by the finest Americans about their right to pay as little tax as possible piss me off so much?   

Maybe it’s because I come from a once poor family and I am repelled by greed and contests of heedless vanity.   Maybe it’s because my grandmother, Yetta, living in a land of pogroms sanctioned by local aristocrats, found hope and courage in the message of international brotherhood preached by the Marxist emissaries who arrived in her hellhole part of the world, holding out a better vision for the future than endless poverty, oppression and violence.

On a louder and more immediate note:  I don’t know why the hell I am so fucking judgmental.