Book of Friedman (8)

Friedman once accused me of using my friends as lab rats, making them unwitting participants in my lifelong psychological experiments. All of us here are lab rats, to some extent, as we can see by looking around at the peculiar setup we find ourselves in. Most of us, as we live and learn, calibrate the amount of grief we are prepared to accept from those closest to us in this ongoing, partially voluntary, experiment.

Since this giant and supremely predictable lab mouse Mark is no longer with us, I am drafting him to stand in for all those who, by their often self-destructive actions, give the rest of us clues and insights into why we act the way we do. In the end I can see that Mark’s tragedy was set in motion by the emotional challenge we all face: the eternal mammalian need for love in a world where everyone dies in the end. Mark’s painful life was ruled by his inability to find and return the love he needed to thrive. It’s a kind way to put it, perhaps, in the case of a supremely self-centered rodent who could never accept the love he needed (none was ever perfect enough, sadly), but I can now see clearly that his doomed quest to love and be loved shaped his painful life nonetheless.

After I told a friend part of a long, sad story of a badly frayed old friendship, languishing on a ventilator, she sent me one of her longtime psychiatrist’s rules. Rule Twelve reads:

A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

I can see quite clearly now, in light of this rule, that I spent my early teens into my thirties (and sometimes much later– as the recent case of my old friend X illustrates) facing the same unlearned lesson. I repeated the same primal scenes over and over with a cast of characters, dear friends all, who were uncannily like my difficult, defensive father in psychological make-up. In the individual cases, I was eventually able to see the ongoing harm these relationships caused. The pattern was much harder to see, and only became clear when I found myself with my back against the wall. Like Dr. House says: the lesson will be repeated until learned..

X is about the last of these stand-in for my father left in my life, and our friendship is literally hanging by a thread, there may well not be any way to salvage it (we’ll see how strong his expressed desire to fix this comatose friendship really is — see rule 13 anecdote, below) but at one time there were quite a few of these Irv stand-ins among my closest friends. A kind of intimate fifth column, undermining my progress by repeating that an angry person like me is incapable of overcoming the reflex to act out of temper, no matter what we might think. No matter how many times we may have believed we’ve demonstrated our progress.   

The lesson I needed to learn, and kept having to repeat until I began to learn it, was that somebody who is smart, and funny, and sometimes kind, but who often doesn’t listen and insists on blaming you for any conflict, is an unhealthy person to be around.  Amazing how many times I had to live through the identical storyline until I started learning to recognize the signs and take action earlier and earlier. In case after case I learned where the line was when things became intolerable and how to protect myself by acting contrary to how my programming (and I was programmed by this very type, mind you) had taught me to react.   Each time I was unable to see the mechanism, until some flare-up made it painful enough to see, bad enough for me to cut ties.   

Over the years I began to see the actual mechanism at work, always very, very similar in its operation, yet I couldn’t figure out how to get past the constant traps set by this brilliantly insane type.   Manipulative, able to convince you they really cared about you — inwardly angry and able to express it as well-camouflaged, perfectly deniable hostility (virtually all of these people were very smart, like my father was, and most also witty, in a sardonic way that could be used as a weapon, or to disarm). Part of the genius of this type is their ability to make you believe that you must be crazy, oversensitive, at fault for any ugliness that might crop up. 

The gradual learning I had with these types (virtually all of them gone from my life now) may have culminated in this one last lesson with my longtime friend now.  I say that knowing that no progress is permanent, that we always take steps backwards and forwards. In the case of X, a guy I’ve known since we were kids, I have been able to lay out the syndrome in granular detail — not only for him, but for his girlfriend, who heroically tried to make peace, for Sekhnet and for myself.  X continues to express bewilderment that I seem to have been so hurt by his mistreatment, but the two women and I can now view things with clarity.  

The things that killed our friendship, step by step, are literally there on the table, in black and white, for anybody with the ability to read to follow.   I now know the workings of the incredibly subtle (at the same time incredibly crude)  game I am up against better than I know almost anything.  In every case of a “last straw”, the final proof is only the latest example of a long list of things.  

I had a poignant email from his girlfriend, sentimental, kind, intelligent, asking me to please explain why I cannot accept that X is really trying, that he truly loves me, values our friendship, etc.   Her letter moved me, and I wrote her a long letter back, illuminating exactly how each skillfully veiled, arguably unintended, “fuck you” was constructed, made to look like a gracious statement, or a generous offer.   When I was done writing the letter explaining things to her I felt a surge of energy, of completeness.   

I felt like I’d finally mastered that particular difficult decades-in-the learning lesson.   It was gratifying to know I had set so much of it out so clearly, at last, like I was reciting the lesson, finally learned.   Like I’d completed my Masters Thesis and it had been accepted. When I read Sekh the letter I wrote to X’s mate, the would-be peacemaker,  she understood for the first time that I was not being merely being a “man”, petty, mean, proud, venting anger, manfully exacting revenge for perceived mistreatment, trying to teach him a lesson– I was only making clear exactly what was intolerable to me, the kind of no-quarter argumentativeness I would no longer accept.   

I’d laid out for his girlfriend (as I had previously for him) everything that was toxic in the relationship and recounted his defensive attempts to place his increasing callousness in the context of eternal friendship, his own bewilderment and my constant misunderstanding.  I provided everything needed for her to understand our respective roles in the conflict, how patronizing his ostensibly peacemaking emails had been, couched in polite, seemingly conciliatory language containing repeated instances of clear, snarling, yet subtle “drop deads” (arguably even unconscious on his part).   Felt like I’d graduated, being able to explain it so precisely, and also, never losing my temper while having endured more than a little abuse from X over the course of the last few months.

Mark Friedman was the poster boy for repetition compulsion, for living and reliving the unlearned lessons of his life.  I understand now, thanks to this 12th Rule (A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.) that Mark kept trying to learn something by this repetition that he was never able to get any insight into. In the end, I believe, it was his lack of insight into his misery that did him in.

How many years can one perform the same sickeningly familiar three act tragedy over and over and over, new cast each time, identical, infernal dramatic arc?   Act one: great excitement!  amazing new person, or idea, or program, nothing like it — thrilling, life changing!   Act two; ominous cracks begin to appear, imperfections, warning signs.   Act three: violent reprisal against Mark, anger, betrayal, repudiation.   

It depressed me to hear this same story a hundred times over the years.  Finally could take it no more — plus, our friendship was the same airless drama, only the longest running version of it and Act Two was being endlessly drawn out.   In the end, he never learned any lesson from his predictable misery, died a wealthy man, completely alone, having alienated virtually everyone he ever knew.

Which brings us to Rule 13, a reminder that even an asshole, if he is motivated, is not doomed to be an asshole. It also reminds us to be kind, whenever we can:

People always do the best they can.  If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

This was a big lesson I was fortunate to learn shortly before I got the sudden news that my father was dying.   A parent is a different case than a friend — my close relationships with all those friends who stood in for my father were attempts to learn the lessons I needed to be able to work out with my father without it being total war (my dad generally insisted on total war).  I had a breakthrough in psychoanalysis maybe two months before Irv suddenly found himself on his death bed with a few days left to live.   

The timing of my psychological breakthrough was very lucky.  I’d come to realize, truly, that he had not been able to do any better than he did — the truly horrible abuse he’d suffered as a baby and throughout his childhood had given him a lifelong emotional disability that prevented him from being able to do the painful work necessary to not be that way.  He did not believe anything he did or might do could change anything for him — or for anybody else, for that matter.   What he did as a father, while often not what a child might wish for, was the best he was capable of. 

That revelation– that he was sadly, truly unable to do better — allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.  I came to this when I digested how atrociously he’d been abused as a young person.  As he was dying he was full of regrets, I was able to keep sincerely reassuring him that he’d done the best he knew how, that he could not have done better.  It was a small reassurance for him — his main efforts before he died were expressing his many painful regrets. Without the insight that he’d truly done the best he was capable of, I could not have been as open with him as I was. He would not have been able to unburden himself the way he did if I hadn’t been hearing him with so little judgment in that hospital room.   

That is speaking of my father, the rare relationship where it is almost always worth the exertion to try to heal.   A friend, X for example, who does the best he can but simply can’t hear — because of lack of a role model for how it’s done, or out of an excess of myopic self-regard, or competitive mania, or whatever reason  — I won’t be around to comfort him on his deathbed as he expresses his regrets.   I don’t owe it to X, as I didn’t owe it to Mark, though I felt I should try to give it to my father, to make his passing easier.   It was a wonderful gift to both of us that I was in a position to hear him, and he to feel heard. These, rules 12 and 13, are two excellent, important life lessons to digest and put to use.   

Here they are again, for your consideration:

12: A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

13: People always do the best they can.  If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

Here is her doctor’s Rule 8, always well-worth recalling, if we are to be as merciful to ourselves (and others) as possible:

There are no mistakes, only lessons.  Growth is a process of trial and error, of experimentation.  The “failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately “works.”

Book of Friedman (6)

Years later, as Al Friedman lay dying in a Florida hospital, the oddest Mark Friedman story of all would take place. I cannot really begin to explain it, even all these years later, though I will tell it in as much detail as I can.

First I need to point out a subtle element of this story. The harmful nature of very smart, deeply damaged, people we become attached to can be very hard to see. They are able to intelligently explain why any problem you may perceive is not a problem they have any part in creating. They can often convince you, as is routinely done with children, that the problem is all in your own confused, less than perfectly rational, head.

Exactly how my father inflicted great damage on my sister and me, the lifelong actions he apologized for so miserably right before he died, took decades for me to understand. I fought against the clear unfairness and sometimes irrationality of his abuse as it was happening, but I had no real grasp of the full scope of the harm this otherwise reasonable, peaceable, politically sensitive, philosophical man was doing. The subtle nature of it, the way our father’s anger was always hidden behind some greater principle, made it a very slippery form of abuse. Much harder to understand than a sharp smack in the face. You want subtle? How about simply deploying silence when an answer to a perplexed question was requested?

In the case of my father, once I understood the unforgivable abuse he’d suffered from his mother, the face whippings, the furious demands that he have no will of his own, I could explain his desperation to myself. It made sense that he’d be filled with rage, anyone would. After enough time I came to see that, in a real sense, he couldn’t help acting the way he did, and further, that it was actually a kind of victory over his horrific childhood that he didn’t beat or humiliate his children. He merely raged at us, and made us feel it was always our fault. Bad, yes, abuse, certainly, but, at the same time, a great improvement over what he’d experienced. Silence may hurt when you are a child hoping for an answer, but a good whipping for no reason, when you are two, leaves no room for interpretation.

It was a matter of great, wonderfully-timed luck that I’d reached these understandings, digested the idea that he’d done the best he could and that anger toward him was unproductive, at best, when I got the call from my sister that he was suddenly on his deathbed. When I got to the hospital room where he’d die two or three days later I asked if he was in pain.

“Only psychic pain…” he said, his weary voice trailing off. He told me he wanted to talk to me, but that he was still putting his thoughts together.

The last night of his life we talked for hours. He talked, mostly, I asked a few clarifying questions and refilled his cup of water. He had certainly put his thoughts together. He put his impressive mind through its paces one last time, this time trying to get it all right. The organization of his thoughts struck me, obviously he spoke without notes, but he could have been reading from a thoughtfully edited essay. He had this great ability to speak off the cuff, always had. Finally he was using it to make amends. It was, as I’ve said, a blessing to us both, him making this attempt at peace, me finally in a position to hear it with sympathy instead of anger.

The day after my father died I walked around the circle in the retirement community where my parents lived. In my memory it was dawn. I’d been getting a steady stream of calls from Friedman who wanted to know how it was going, wanted to offer his support. By that time I’d begun to dread his calls. I called him back as I walked.

I was stunned by his first question after I mentioned the long talk the last night of my father’s life: “did you tell him to go fuck himself?”

I explained that there was no need, that we’d had a very productive conversation. Then, for the next forty minutes or so, as I completed the two mile circle and started around again, I heard the story of his oldest brothers’ new sports car, a beauty from the sound of it, and the beautiful, young girlfriend he had now, how things were really looking up for him, just as things had been looking pretty bad for him recently. Mark’s stories were always fantastically detailed. When he was done telling me these fabulous developments in his brother’s life I said “well, here, my father is still dead.”

I finally came to realize the difference between a struggle to come to peace with your father, or another family member and the constant vying with a friend who is a surrogate for these same people, who, while like the troubling family member in essential ways, was once a stranger and can easily be one again. We owe ourselves a certain psychic debt to figure out how to make peace with those in our family, if we can. We owe nothing to friends who insist on their right to be as vexing as the troubling intimates we are born into a family with.

The Difficult to See Slow-Killing Murder of (attempted) Love (Part 2)

Love is what we all seek in life, what every living creature needs to flourish, even to survive, and I don’t mean to shit on anyone’s interpretation of love.   We all know what love feels like when we are loved, virtually every one of us has been blessed to feel this and remembers it gratefully.   I’m going to try to analyze how thwarted, frustrated or imperfect love can lead to anger, violence, lifelong hatreds and other terrible things.   Not thwarted in the sense of a hope for love that is rebuffed, most of us know how bad that kind of romantic strike-out feels, but love that is not given in a way the loved one can derive real support from.

I have to be fair.  Not everyone is always good at expressing their deep feelings for others.  I’m not.   We are all creatures of our upbringing, our genetic predispositions, society’s often unrealistic and harmful myths [1].    I’ve only recently made a habit of returning Sekhnet’s regular “I love you” greetings, and I’m glad I have, but it was something I had to learn.   My father, as he was dying, lamented that he had had no idea how to express love, never having seen it done in the miserable home he grew up in.   Made me feel great tenderness for the poor devil and even sadder about his last-hours’ struggle to make peace with a representative of the people he’d hurt by his disabilities.    It really was not his fault, in a certain very real way, as I finally came to see.

I woke up today an hour or two before I was done sleeping and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I woke up thinking about fairness, what it feels like to be the victim of unfairness.  A regular theme, of course, but as I was recently shrieked at by an outraged old friend who keeps a close watch on his emotions, I woke up wondering if I’d been unfair.   Was it really fair of me to ask for things this old friend was clearly incapable of giving?   Clearly he didn’t think so, nor would he admit he is incapable of anything– he’d always given me his best version of philia and agape (two crucial kinds of love that don’t involve romance) and I’d ungratefully, maliciously taken a greasy, prissy dump on it.   Incoherently demanding yet more of him, after all he’s struggled to give, over more than half a century, an intolerable demand that was irrational and fundamentally unfair.

I thought of a phone call I had a year or two ago.  The wife of another childhood friend I could finally not continue to negotiate the terms of a frayed adult friendship with.   She informed me that I had to remain friends with him, and her, and their two sons, because they loved me.   “We love you!” she told me, and I know she was telling me the truth, the deepest truth she knew, an undeniable truth.    I knew it myself, they clearly did love me.  Then she gave me the ultimatum:  forgive him immediately, I’m giving you this one chance, out of love, but if you don’t — you’re dead.  I told her what had become unbearably clear to me:  “forgiving” a person who can’t see he’s constantly hurting you, no matter how many times you try to make it clear, is kind of impossible.   We came to a kind of understanding, out of mutual love  — I am a dead man writing today.  

I don’t think I need to give the details of that situation beyond this restatement of what I was being asked to accept:  love is what we feel toward you, not how we may sometimes act toward you.   My husband and I, now long-since estranged and living apart, practiced our best version of love for years, fighting, making up, storing grievances, yelling at each other, hating each other, making up, storing grievances, etc.   We loved you the same way.   It was the best we could fucking do, and we fought with you MUCH LESS than we fought with each other, you judgmental fucking asshole!

I am not trying to sound morally superior to anyone (he said, unconvincingly).   It’s pointless to judge people on the basis of what they’re unable to do, just as it’s important to get away from them if it has a bad effect on you.   I guess I draw the line where someone demands the right, out of love,  to treat me in a way I can’t tolerate.   It’s a bottom line for everyone, I suppose, not accepting being treated badly, unfairly by people who claim to love you.   It may take a long time to get to that bottom line, but in the end, somebody you feel is treating you unkindly will not be able to convince you that they are treating you well.  Or that the treatment  is the best you deserve.  

Again, not to knock anyone’s life choices, many people come to accept that what they get from those closest to them is the best they deserve.   More power to them if they are comfortable in that belief.    My parents had a lot of personal demons, both of them had been ruthlessly subjugated by very angry mothers from the time they could sit up and look at the world.   In the end, I felt loved by both of my parents, nonetheless.   We fought constantly and at times I felt I hated them, but I know I was loved.   Funny how those things can all be true.   One thing I emerged from childhood convinced of:  I did not want to replicate the unhappy lives of either of my parents.

There is a subjective element of love, for sure.  When we are full of love for somebody we truly want only the best for them.   It is not always possible for us to give it, but we always intend to give it and we hope our intention outweighs our mistakes or failures.   We all have our limitations and our needs.   We have design flaws.  We can’t help being angry when someone we try to always show love and patience to is ungrateful for our best efforts.    None of this is hard to understand.

The hard part, it would appear, is not letting our disappointment show in a way that infuriates somebody who loves us, no matter how imperfect that love might feel to us.   A secret to avoiding their fury, I would guess, is never to expect more than the person who loves us is able to give.  

 

 

[1] One example: you must always forgive every hurtful thing that is ever done to you, it is primarily for yourself that you must forgive, to free yourself from the pain of what was done to you.   This sensible sounding idea is repeated in many forms, by many of our subcultures.  To forgive is divine, even if the ability to easily hurt is human.   Jeanne Safer brilliantly lays out the destructive fallacy of this A Good Person Always Forgives dictum in her book Forgiving & Not Forgiving: A New Approach to Resolving Intimate Betrayal.  

Look, it should be clear enough: you have no moral obligation to forgive the unrepentant serial rapist uncle who has only fond memories of raping you and keeps insisting you just have an irresistible ass, LOL!  Is it necessary to resolve things within yourself to close off the pain the evildoer caused, absolutely, but to forgive?   That’s some pretty divine ability to forgive right there.   Fuck that puto. Forgive him right after you forgive Hitler, or whoever else might have murdered your family in the name of bettering the world…

The Difficult to See Murder of Slow-killing Love (part one)

A few days after an unfortunate event at my sister’s wedding decades ago, my parents and I met in their living room for a violent confrontation.  There was snarling, bad language exchanged, overheated comments made on both sides, and once things became too much for me, physical violence — a single finger passed inexcusably across my father’s nose — to illustrate to him the real difference between physical violence and the emotional violence that was his specialty.

I have to back up for a moment, as I’ve tried to condense too much there.   The argument between my parents and me was over whether I had a right to be upset after an attempted beating, by the caterer of my sister’s wedding, who, by the end, had the assistance of three or four fellow off-duty cops who held me by my arms. True, he’d only thrown a dozen punches, or so, and I’d managed not to be hurt, though it was an undeniable ordeal, deserved or not, particularly while wearing a rented tuxedo I later got some of my blood on.  

My parents position was that, since I had clearly provoked the confrontation with this polite, smiling stranger, no matter how I might try to spin it to justify myself, I had only gotten what I deserved.  I found that position unfair, particularly coming from my parents, who I’d hoped would be at least partially sympathetic listening to my side of things.   Their unified, hardline attitude made it impossible for me to restrain myself from expressing my opinion at length, and with increasing conviction.

And so, because these two irreconcilable emotional positions could not be peacefully resolved, things quickly came to an ugly stalemate there in my parent’s comfortable living room.   After the illustrative pass of a single finger across my father’s nose, all hell broke loose.  It was like throwing a lit match onto a lake of gasoline.   The explosion of ugliness was not without an instant of timely, dark wit from me, but this story is not about any of that.

After enough screaming was done, I gave my parents the finger one last time as I left their home, a home I’d been told I was no longer welcome in, and rode off on my bicycle, through the rain, toward the subway for the long ride back to my apartment.   Passing the nearby home of an artist friend, a woman my parent’s age, I stopped by and rang the bell.   Florence and her husband listened to my story, troubled and sympathetic, and told me gently that time would heal this too, that these kind of mad family things have a way of blowing over and that I should not be too hard on myself.   All good to hear.  I hugged them and went on my way through the cold, dark, rainy night.

The point of this story:  the next morning I woke up to sunshine, birds singing, feeling unexpectedly light as a feather.   It was as though an immense anvil had been lifted off my chest, a tremendous weight I’d carried always, without realizing it, was suddenly gone.  I felt like leaping through the air, the relief was exhilarating. I remember the surge of energy I felt to be free of the kind of love that sadly concludes that if somebody wanted to punch you in the face over and over, they probably had a damned good reason for it.  [1]

Understand, I’m not trying to present myself as an innocent victim.   As you can probably conclude just from reading these words today, the words of a man who’d whip his own father across the nose with an outstretched finger, I am not a person who shrinks from a fight, nor any kind of angel.  When I was younger, if somebody told me I couldn’t talk to them like that I’d smile and tell them to go fuck themselves.  Cost me more than a few jobs in my day.   I have tried to learn to do better.  I’m pretty sure I do better, certainly in terms of not always giving vent to my anger, but that is not the point of this story either.  

People who insist they love you sometimes don’t really grasp what love is, and, in fairness to them, they may have come to their understanding of love honestly, never having experienced it.  The first requirement of love, it seems to me, is wishing no harm to the person, or creature, that you love.   First order of business, tend to the hurt they are expressing.   Feelings are real and can’t be dispelled by mere logic when they are enflamed.   Later order of business, once things are calm, if it will be helpful in the future, talk about the underlying issues involved, how to resolve things, etc.  But when you see a loved one crying, the first instinct must be to help them dry their tears and sit with them until they start to breathe normally again.  

That may sound kind of tender, coming from a man who’d slap his father across the nose with a finger, I know, but does it ring true to you?  

You come to me upset.  I say “before I hear your entire long story, let me quickly tell you five reasons why you really shouldn’t be upset, you need to let me finish — JUST LET ME FINISH–  before you can continue.  Try not to interrupt me, it will only take a few minutes and my calm explanations will clarify everything for you.  I have a right to tell you these things, because I love you.”  You raise a hand, extend one finger and slap me smartly across the nose.   Knowing what I know now, I really can’t blame you for that reaction.  

The thing to do, except in a situation where someone you love is about to hurt herself or somebody else, is let the person you love do what they need to do, say all they need to say, particularly when they’re upset.   The time may come, when heads are cooler, to discuss why I wasn’t actually wrong to insist on telling you the reasons you were wrong to be so upset.   But that time is not when you are upset.  

The immortal Charles Bukowski, in his immortal “The Shoelace” catalogues some of that swarm of trivialities that kill quicker than a heart attack.  On that list, and leaping off of it some days, are “people who insist they’re your friends.”   They claim to love you like family, and often they do.   It is good to remember that many assaults, most murders, and all incest, occurs in families, but that is a side note.

The main note is this — horrific as it also is, and upsetting to the stomach and disruptive to sleep as it is — if a person who tells you they love you does not treat you the way they’d want to be treated by the people they love, then that love is probably not the best kind of love for you.  

If they impatiently sit through your explanation of why you were hurt, when they meant only to help, and they insist on their right to tell you why they still believe they did nothing to hurt you, intentionally or otherwise, no matter how precisely you try to explain the hurt — and they wind up screaming at you and hanging up the phone because you have so upset them by denying their right to be just as upset as you are, in fact, more upset because your upset over an “accidental tasering” is such an irrational and unfair accusation of them… well, the best you can probably hope for is waking up the next day feeling a bit lighter.   As I can practically guarantee you will.  

 

 

[1]  This wonderful feeling of liberation would not last long, my father called a few days later to negotiate a peaceful return to the status quo, and after some wrangling over the course of several powwows, we went back to the way things had always been.  It would take until the last few hours of my father’s life, thirty years later, before he expressed his deep regrets about having been the way he’d always been.

 

Lack of Parenting

When your parents are usually your bitter adversaries in a senseless, ongoing war, it is difficult to seek advice from them.  I had a sudden reminder of this when I read this line in an article about Elizabeth Warren, about a proponent of integration who excepted his own children from the school integration policy he fought for.

His story — as the idealistic father who moves his own children out of urban schools — was chronicled in J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “Common Ground.’’

I suddenly recalled my idealistic, liberal, pro-integration parents’ desperation when, during my two years in Junior High School, the local school zoning was changed (to increase racial diversity) and my local High School was no longer nearby highly rated Jamaica High but predominantly black Andrew Jackson High (talk about ironies, naming that school after rabid racist slaveholder and Trump favorite Old Hickory…) located squarely in a black area a few miles from where we lived.   Students could opt out of the rezoning plan by pursuing majors at Jamaica not offered at Jackson, I recall metallurgy was one such major, or by getting into one of the specialized schools that required passing an entrance exam.

I took the exam and passed.  It was my first inkling that I had a distinct talent for doing well on meaningless high-stakes tests [1].   My choice, as winner of this lottery, was between the nerd-filled Bronx High School of Science (where I’d travelled to take the entrance exam, as I recall) or much closer, much cooler, Stuyvesant High School, a school, as I learned much later, with a long reputation as a liberal arts high school.   My sister went there two years later and had the great Frank McCourt, later author of Angela’s Ashes, as her English teacher.  She loved Frank, as most of his students apparently did.

From Stuyvesant, then located in Manhattan’s hippyish East Village, students could walk to Chinatown to eat.   The trip to school was about 45 minutes by bus and subway from where we grew up in Queens.   A good friend of mine to this day went to Stuyvesant and had a fine time there.

Science, by contrast, was more than twice that distance from home.  It was located on a tundra, bitterly frozen in the winter where arctic winds off the reservoir would lacerate you on the long walk from the Grand Concourse.  It was not located near any place anyone would want to go.  Most of my classmates, outside of a few smart misfit friends of mine who happened to live in the Bronx (including the only musical genius I have ever met), were future engineers, computer geeks, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, quants, Nobel prize winners and so forth.   

Because I never had a real discussion about any of this, and had no guidance from my parents, a friend and I basically flipped a coin and chose Science.   As I recall we never thought about the length of the commute, what we were interested in by way of curriculum or any other factor.   To make the deal even more meaningful, we had little contact in High School, after a semester of taking the bus and subway there together I don’t even recall seeing the guy there.

I wound up setting the Bronx High School of Science record for lateness by a student, a growing record of incorrigible tardiness bitterly pointed out to me by a series of red-faced deans of discipline.  I was late to class virtually every morning.   The alternative to lateness was being up by 6:30 or so and out the door not long past 7:15 a.m.    I had few classes there worth my time, little of any interest at all.  The English department handed out vocabulary sheets containing dozens of fancy, unfamiliar words we were required to learn every week.   I applaud this practice, which instilled a lifelong habit of learning the meaning of every unknown word I encounter.   Outside of that, I recall little else academically from my three years of strife there.

One day in High School I ran into a girl I knew from the neighborhood, a cute girl I’d always liked.   She was going to Andrew Jackson and told me it was great.  She wound up graduating at sixteen, because the classes were apparently so easy there that she aced everything and was able to do her three years of high school in a little over two.  I promptly cut school and took the bus with her to Jackson.   I recall spending a very nice day there, meeting her bright, politically active friends, hanging out.  I remember standing on the steps of the school smoking a joint with her and some of her friends as classes went on inside.  I recall not a single menacing black kid hassling any minority white kid, the ultimate fear of liberal parents.

At the highly competitive Bronx Science, my 83 average put me at the bottom of my class.   As I recall I was somewhere in the 800s out of a graduating class of almost 1,000.   The same amount of work (those diligent, angry last minute hours I spent every year cramming for the New York State Regents) would have put me at the top of the class at Jackson, probably put me in line for many a college scholarship.

I write these words with no bitterness, I really regret none of it.  I merely point out that had my parents been capable of real parenting, as opposed to what they actually did, I might have had a chance of thinking through the some of the things I realize now so clearly.  I would have learned to think through a choice and make the best decision for myself, instead of flipping a coin with a friend equally clueless about such things.  The travel time alone should have been a decisive factor in my decision of where to commute to high school.

I’ve had to become my own parents, a process that no doubt set me back quite a few years, and cost me a ton of hard work.   It was good work, and I certainly don’t regret it, in fact, I recommend it for everyone who feels the need for good parenting, but, seriously, man, what the fuck?

 

 

[1] Years later I’d score in the top percentile in the National Teaching Exam.   I also got a perfect score on the exam for Census Supervisor, a test score that was later unaccountably erased along with my application.  I also passed a variety of high school subjects I had not studied by bitterly cramming, often in a day or two, for a series of Regents’ Exams.    I averaged very high scores on these predictable tests of subject matter that could be quickly learned merely by taking a series of past tests.   My scores would rise from an initial 20%, to the 85 or 90% I’d score on the last test I’d take on my sleep-deprived subway ride to school to take the actual exam.

Hereditary Trait — war between siblings?

Years ago I had a terrible fight with my sister.   A few days later I was visiting my father’s first cousin Eli, a rough character as capable of tenderness as he was of socking somebody with one of his hard fists.  The old man thoughtfully listened to my description of the fight.  He paused to take it all in, then gave me his advice.

“Look, she’s your sister, I hear what you’re saying about the fight but don’t let the bad feelings linger.   You have to swallow your pride, tell her you’re sorry you two fought, you don’t have to apologize for starting the fight or not starting it, you’re just sorry about the whole thing.   Tell her you want to make up, put it behind you, tell her you love her and you feel terrible and you want it to be over.  Don’t let your pride stand in the way of making up with her.  Do it sooner rather than later when it might be too late.”

I told him it was good advice, and that I appreciated it, but that I was still too hurt and angry to make that move, and then, taking a page from my mother’s book, I told Eli it was a little ironic coming from him, a man who hadn’t spoken to his own sister in over thirty years.   This got the same reaction my mother’s challenging comments always got from Eli.  His face immediately turned magenta and he leaned forward menacingly, ready to attack.

“My sister is a completely different story!   There is no comparison between my sister and your sister!   My sister is a complete bitch!” he yelled in a cry of pain and anger, as acutely stung by the painful falling out they’d had decades earlier as if the unforgivable offense had just happened.

Fast forward three decades.  I get a call from Eli’s daughter.  She and her sister are visiting the cemetery where their parents and mine are buried.  She asked if I’d like to meet them, it’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.   I took the train up to Peekskill and we drove over to the cemetery.   It is a Jewish tradition to take a small stone and place it on the gravestone of the dead person we are visiting.     We gathered our stones and walked among the graves.

At their parents’ grave we put our stones on Eli’s side of the large headstone and then, as I put a stone on their mother Helen’s side, I said “she was a sweet lady.” That was my memory of her — long-suffering, hospitable, kind smile.  I was a boy when Helen died young, but I remember her pretty well.  Neither of her daughters said anything when I said their mother had been a sweet lady.

Afterwards, over lunch, they told a couple of stories involving their mother, as though to set the record straight, letting me know that their mother, in her way, had been as problematic as their emotional, sometimes violently opinionated father.

If your father is tyrannical, as the beloved Eli also was, and your mother always goes along with the tyranny… well, an ally of your enemy is also your enemy.  I know this well from my own childhood.  Helen always seemed sweet to me, she’d smile warmly and bring us good things to eat.   She was quiet and kept herself busy being the perfect hostess during our visits, she laughed easily.  She died of cancer when I was about 11 or 12.   Why wouldn’t a boy remember her as a sweet person?   Particularly if his own parents often attacked him, sometimes quite savagely.

We can think of these childhood observations without attaching value judgments to them, somehow, but it’s not easy, or even always a great idea, I think.   Value judgments are our assessment of what’s the right way to act and what not to do.   Even the doltish Nazi Adolf Eichmann, the subject of Hannah Arendt’s brilliant book on his trial in Israel, was able to accurately summarize Immanuel Kant’s view on this, the Categorical Imperative.   When pressed by the judges at his trial he defined it: to act in such a way that you could will your actions to be universal principles.   Would the world be better or worse if everyone acted like I am acting now?

I think of this as another statement of Hillel’s famous summary of morality: what is hateful to you, don’t do to somebody else.   Loving your neighbor as yourself is a difficult golden rule to follow.   Phrasing it the way Hillel did cuts through difficult theory to practical practice.   It’s a simple matter to know what you hate, you hate it instantly, always, it’s like a chemical reaction.  

You can do something hateful to you to somebody else, if you don’t expect that person to treat you any differently in return, but what kind of world would it be?  If everyone treated everyone in this hateful manner we’d have a state of constant war, each against all.  If we all stopped ourselves from doing things to others that we hate done to us, that would be a huge step toward solving problems before the oceans rise to drown all of us not turned into desperate climate refugee/cannibals determined to not to die by water.

But back to my original thought about whether we inherit certain idiosyncrasies regarding siblings (begging, of course, the equally valid question of whether we learn them as children).   Eli didn’t talk to his sister for the last 30 or 40 years of their long lives. He lived to be almost 90, his sister to 103.  I believe their final dispute was related to sharing their father’s modest inheritance, more than 40 years before Eli’s death.    Eli’s daughters have a younger brother I haven’t seen or heard from in years.  When I asked his sisters about him they said he was fine.  I got the feeling that they haven’t talked to him for a long time.

Although I often ascribe this family harshness to the brutal pruning of our family tree back in 1942 and 1943, and the centuries-long culture of persecution my surviving family comes from, I suspect these estrangements between siblings happen in many cultures.  I just read a book about sibling strife by psychologist Jeanne Safer,  Cain’s Legacy.  She states her credo at the start of the book:   “Cain’s Legacy reflects my passionate conviction that it is essential not to gloss over the dark side of life.”   She states my credo as well.  

I have to peer into the darkness until I can see the fucking thing, I can’t stop myself, nor do I want to.   I need to understand what is there.  If it can be fixed, let’s fix it.  If it provides a lesson, let’s take the lesson from it.  If it is too monstrous to survive in the light, we’re better off leaving it there in the dark and both walking away from it.  To pretend it’s not there does not seem to be a life-affirming option.

The common peace-seeking instinct is to move toward the anodyne, the inoffensive, compromise version of conflict that blames nobody.  An explanation that lets everybody off the hook, you dig.  This is the purportedly non-controversial version of sometimes unbearable things we often hear from those who urge us that both sides always have an equal right to their opinion and that we should not judge.  We always judge, it’s part of our nature.  It’s how we survived as a species, as individuals.   It’s what we’ve learned to do from the experience of our lives, to the extent we ever really learn anything.

My father’s brother was younger, sickly as a boy and mom’s favorite.  Where my father was literally whipped in the face by mom, from the time he could stand, his brother was coddled.   Neither one emerged from their childhood without deep emotional scars, although my father’s problems are easier for me to understand now than my uncle’s.  My uncle, to his credit, spent years in psychoanalysis.  His son, my first cousin, would scoff to read the reference to his father’s long exercise in denial, dressed in a suit, lying on a shrink’s couch week after week, gaining so little insight. What did he learn?  When the mood struck, he remained tyrannical in his rage until the end. My father, for his part, had a lifelong scorn for people so weak they needed to whine to a shrink about the demons all of us must battle in our lives.

My uncle, much smaller than my father, often cringed around his brother, like a younger brother who’d often been sucker punched by his older, bigger, stronger antagonist.  One of the few stories my father ever told us about his brutal childhood of grinding poverty was the time he stuffed his little brother’s mouth full of raw chopped meat.   He told us the story more than once, chuckling each time he did.   The brothers had a strained relationship throughout their lives.  One time my father stayed at his brother’s overnight and I asked him over the phone how my uncle was doing.  I wrote his immortal reply on the page I was doodling on:  “let’s just say he remains unchanged.”

Yet, check this out– when my father was dying, he kept asking for his brother.   I picked my uncle up at the airport and the two brothers clung to each other morning to night for the last couple of days of my father’s life.   It was incredibly poignant to my sister and me.  After my father died his brother sat with his dead body (along with my brother-in-law) until members of the Chevre Kadisha (the Jewish burial society) claimed the body to watch over it and prepare it for the funeral.

My paternal grandmother, a savage little woman who died before I was born, used to yell at her sons when she saw them at each other’s throats.   “Seenas Cheenum!” she would shout — baseless enmity!   No reason on earth for these boys, growing up in extreme poverty, one beaten, the other coddled,  to be at each other like that!  I can imagine my grandmother grabbing my father roughly, pulling him away from her beloved younger son.   This kind of thing is detailed in the Old Testament where sibling treachery abetted by mothers and deadly fights between brothers are reported multiple times.  

This tendency for eternal ruthless war between siblings appears to wind up in the blood.  A combination of nature and nurture,  I suppose.  It is seemingly replicated down the generations.   Without insight into it, we remain prisoners of strong feelings we cannot understand or get past.  We pick up a rock and slay, sometimes.  

This unreasoning, murderous side of us lurks in our wounded hearts– there are circumstances that will bring out this rage.  The challenge is never to pick up a rock and slay, or maybe, to learn, without a doubt, that the wisest thing to do is to remove yourself from a situation so emotionally fraught that, under pressure, it will inevitably yield to the impulse to pick up the rock.   

A thought about my father’s talent for empathy

I was thinking about the mild, kind, nurturing side of my complicated father recently.   It was not his default setting, he was usually guarded and ready to attack if he felt in any way threatened, but his talent for comforting was a memorable side of him that needs to be brought out in describing him to you.  He was capable of great sensitivity and supportiveness, in the right emotionally threatening situation.   Anybody who ever found themselves in a tough spot, and was calmed by the way my father’s used great intelligence, warm humanism and a hint of humor to relieve worry, will remember him gratefully.

It was his ability to be conciliatory, reassuring and merciful while, at any given moment, also capable of merciless verbal violence, that made being his child so tricky, so disorienting, made it so hard to get a handle on what was real and what was ridiculous.   Ultimately, I think it was this highly rational man’s irrational need to unconditionally vilify, coming from someone equally capable of great empathy, that proved so damaging to his offspring.

My sister, who identifies with our father as much as I do, noted that our father was always playful and tender with young children (as well as small animals, he took a particular delight in lifting small dogs by the armpits and rocking them, rigid legged, in front of his face).  She concluded this was because they posed no threat to him.   I think she was right.  He was a different person when he wasn’t worried about being attacked, as any of us are.  Little kids of a certain age are cute, playful and trusting as puppies.  They can be fun to play with — plus they pose no harm and are very happy for attention.  He was at his best goofing around with them, sounding them out about things, going with the flow, making them laugh.

My father was also at his best in times of crisis, when you were very upset in the midst of an emergency.  He would quietly lay out his understanding of your worries and then calmly walk you through all the reasons you shouldn’t be so upset.   He had a great ability to reassure. 

The mechanism of this, I realize now, was similar to his unguarded playfulness with children.   When my sister or I were most vulnerable, our father was least concerned with being attacked by us.  This freed him to express his better nature.   The memory of his consistent kindness in these tough situations also served to make my sister and me often blame ourselves when he was enraged at us.

It was an emotionally confusing situation to grow up in, being raised by someone so reflexively critical and angry who was also capable of such soothing compassion.   One of the hallmarks of my father’s fighting style was the insistence that you were wrong to feel what you were feeling.  “You’re wrong,” he’d say flatly, in the face of your upswelling emotion, and then reframe things to tell you what you should actually be feeling, if you weren’t so fucked up, and why you’d be much better off simply feeling the opposite of how you felt.   

I’ve since learned that this refusal to acknowledge another person’s hurt is perhaps the most provocative thing a person can do in response to someone else’s vulnerability — tell them they have absolutely no right to feel what they are feeling. 

There was rarely an attempt to de-escalate anything in our home, this was not in either of our parents’ emotional repertoires.   They had both suffered greatly at the hands of strong-willed, violent mothers.   They were ill equipped to deal with their frustrations, our own frustrations were maddening to them.    

There would be angry confrontations at the dinner table, virtually every night.  Accusations would fly, authoritative pronouncements by my father delivered in the style of a prosecutor’s closing remarks to the jury.  What you were doing now, in this moment of anger, was what you always do because you are an irredeemably angry person, a bad seed, a hater.   In my sister’s case, she was portrayed to the imaginary jury as not angry, so much, but reflexively dishonest, scheming, vain, empty-headed.   This reduction of each of us to the sum of some purported faults or weaknesses did a great deal of harm, as you can imagine.

When my sister and I discuss our childhood there’s a phrase we bat around that often gets a chuckle out of us “twisted and contorted with hate”.   My father must have directed the phrase to me more than once, since we both recall it so clearly.  He would snarl this at me whenever I’d sit across from him, my face twisted and contorted with hate.    Hate, mind you, is a very strong word.

My grandmother, whose six brothers and sisters were marched to a ravine and shot in the back of their heads by local townspeople who hated them, always reacted with disgust when I’d report that I hated my teacher.  She tried to teach me what a strong word hate is.   “You HATE her?  Be quiet! You don’t HATE her… you don’t know what hate means, hate means you’d kill her,” she’d say, correctly.   I’d stick to my guns, as my grandmother waved her large hands dismissively.

“Yeah, grandma, I’d kill her…” I’d insist, as righteous children often do. 

“Please…” she’d say turning away with incomparable dismissiveness.

 

                                                                                    ii

In thinking about my father now, and the deeper values he imbued in me, and what he tried to teach me to never tolerate,  I grasp something impressive.   At the same time that he often acted tyrannically, he also instilled in me a profound resistance to tyranny– not only by an instinct to refuse his overbearing assaultive behavior toward me but also by his philosophical example, the courageous people he admired.  

He truly hated tyranny, an irrational assertion of unchallengeable, often brutal, will, and I digested this hatred, which on some level he supported, even as he reflexively acted like a despot and fought me without restraint.  I could see that on some level he respected me for fighting back against his attempts to tyrannize me.  Tyranny, he taught me on a cellular level, is evil — straight up.   I would come to lose many jobs, even my chosen profession, animated by this high-minded belief in higher justice and by a visceral inability to yield to a bully — or to seeing others bullied.

My father told me, the last night of his life, that his life was basically over by the time he was two.  I’d learned the reason for this a few years earlier from my father’s closest cousin, Eli, a first generation American tough guy 16 years older than my father.  I spent many a Saturday up at Eli’s retirement bungalow during the last few years of the old man’s life, talking about everything.   My father would vehemently dismiss any insight I believed I’d taken from my talks with Eli.  Eli’s accounts were bullshit, he’d insist, portraying Eli as a hopelessly muddled and unreliable historical revisionist and pointing to his estrangement from his own children as the proof that Eli was full of shit.   

When, at 1 a.m., I entered the room my father would die in nineteen hours later, one of the first things he said was “those stories Eli told you… everything he said was true, though I’m sure he spared you the worst of it.”  The worst I’d heard from Eli was bad enough.   Eli’s mother died when he was a year-old.    He instantly bonded with his Aunt Chava, his father’s youngest sister, a red-haired beauty who arrived by boat when Eli was six.  Eli and his father were at the dock in lower Manhattan to greet her.

“It was love at first sight,” Eli told me happily and recounted all the ways his beloved Tante Chava doted on him throughout his life.  There was no mistaking the painful ambivalence in Eli as he prepared to tell me a horrible detail I needed to know about his beloved Tante Chavah, my father’s mother, in order to help me make sense of our tangled, violent family history.  To give me a painful insight into my father’s most painful secret.

Eli had seen it more than once.  I picture him standing in the doorway to the kitchen of Chava’s home as his one year-old cousin stood in front of his chair, eyes downcast in terror, as his mother, Eli’s beloved Aunt, reached angrily into the drawer behind her chair for the rough, heavy cord of her iron, and whipped him across the face with it.

Across the face?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Eli with infinite sorrow.

“How old was he?” I asked.   

“However old you are when you can stand on your own two feet, I don’t know, one, one and a few months, I guess… a baby…”

After a while, of course, all Chava had to do was rattle the drawer where she kept the rigid, burlap-wrapped cord and my infant father would stand rigidly, eyes fixed on the floor in front of him, shuddering in terror.  A terror and humiliation that never left him, vicious pain inflicted for no reason by the mother who called him “Sonny”.   From the time he could stand.

It is impossible to reckon the damage this betrayal by your own mother would do to a person.  My father was often very mean to my sister and me, and the damage of that is hard to reckon.   I can only imagine the soul destruction my father experienced was ten times worse, maybe a hundred times worse.

“My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” said the dying man as I stood beside his deathbed, the tiny digital recorder propped on his chest.   Many mysteries remain, all these years later.   One is how he managed to limit his abuse of my sister and me to harsh words.  Another is how he retained the ability, when things were darkest and scariest for us during our childhood. to empathize and calm us.   There are deep lessons in my father’s life for me and I will continue to delve until I have some answers worth sharing.

 

We never study this part of our history

Americans are famously unconcerned with history.   Even recent history is quickly forgotten, dismissed as “been there, done that.”   The president’s controversial acts are forgotten almost as quickly as he commits them.  All that skullduggery detailed in the Mueller Report?   Old news!   We heard about it already, the president openly and innocently admitted it, the partisan witch hunt completely and totally exonerated the poor guy!  We look forward here in America, not back, like Obama so high-mindedly did with state-sanctioned American torture that was rebranded as “enhanced interrogation” for purposes of immunizing American torturers.   “We tortured some folks,” admitted the president, citing the best of intentions with which good Americans unfortunately did these admittedly wrong things, and we moved on.   America, land of opportunity.

I heard this report, of the hundredth anniversary of a racial slaughter in rural Arkansas, one among many in our bloody history of racial violence, a racist slaughter I’d never heard of.  I’m an American who takes history seriously, and I’ve read a good bit of it over the years, but I’d never heard of this particular massacre. Oddly, like the racist bloodbath in Colfax, Louisiana on Easter Sunday eight years after the end of the Civil War, it didn’t appear in any of the books I read in school [1].   

The Elaine Massacre took place during the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, at a time when some very fine people (including progressive president Woodrow Wilson) were recasting the history of the Confederacy’s bloody rebellion against the federal government as a glorious lost cause for the highest of ideals.   The Civil War, American history students were taught for decades, had not been fought over the constitutionally protected right of the wealthy to own slaves (as every Confederate state’s articles of secession stated) but for “States’ Rights” — local sovereignty, something everyone wants and is sympathetic to.   MAGA, baby. [2]  

I only know about the Elaine massacre because Amy Goodman reported, on October 1:

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Elaine massacre, when white vigilantes in Arkansas massacred hundreds of African Americans in one of the deadliest incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history. The massacre began after black sharecroppers attempted to organize with the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America to demand higher pay for cotton. A new memorial to the victims of the massacre was recently unveiled in the county seat of Helena, Arkansas.

source  

Sure, you can look it up now, in the age of instant information, and find the story documented somewhere (but only, of course, if you learn about it in the first place, somehow):

The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30, 1919, knew the risk they were taking. Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.

source

(you will have to overlook the unintended irony of the article’s anodyne title: The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System — yah, mon, they curbed that shit back in 1923…)

You can also learn things more troubling still, from the same article:

Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 1919. It was part of a period of vicious reprisals against African-American veterans returning home from World War I. Many whites believed that these veterans (including Robert Hill, who co-founded PFHUA) posed a threat as they claimed greater recognition for their rights at home. Even though they served in large numbers, black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” says Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.

And as to the fate of the twelve black men convicted and sentenced to death for the alleged murders of the whites who died in the pogrom (the African-American men were the only ones prosecuted in relation to the Elaine massacre in which virtually all of the victims were African-American), this interesting footnote, from the same article (which leads to the title referred to above):

In February 1923, by a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed. Citing the all-white jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, denial of change of venue and the pressure of the mob, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority that “if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion,” then it was the duty of the Supreme Court to intervene as guarantor of the petitioners’ constitutional rights where the state of Arkansas had failed.

Tulsa, Oklahoma .  We’ve got a couple of years until the centennial of that massive anti-black rampage.

I think about my concern with this American denial of our history and wonder if maybe I’m just oversensitive because of my peculiar family history.   My father’s side of the family back in Belarus (then known as White Russia) was wiped out by the Nazis with no trace of what happened to them.   My mother’s side lived in a Ukrainian town where local Jews from neighboring areas were assembled in a makeshift ghetto and finally led to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town where several thousand were executed one August night by bullet to the back of the skull.   One searches the internet in vain for any listing of this massacre among the many Nazi massacres of World War Two.  Go figure.

The family of everybody slaughtered during the Elaine pogrom, the Colfax pogrom, the Tulsa pogrom, surely remembers the people they lost a few generations back, murdered by violent strangers who acted with no fear of legal repercussions.   You tend not to forget that kind of thing, if it happens to you.

Forget history at your own peril, my friends.

 

[1]  There was a footnote in the Constitutional law casebook I had in law school to a case called U.S. v. Cruikshank.  A single line, citing it as a precedent for a more famous case, the aptly named Slaughterhouse cases.   Cruikshank arose out of the organized slaughter of black men, women and children in a rural town in Louisiana. (you will get no sense of the horrific underlying events reading the Supreme Court’s dry, legalistic whitewash that signaled the judicial end of the Ku Klux Klan Act which became unenforceable in light of the Cruikshank decision).

Armed black Civil War veterans were defending ballot boxes in the county seat of rural Grant Parish after the 1872 election (one of the last with wide scale black voting in the former Confederacy until after passage of the Voting Rights Act almost a century later) which was angrily disputed by local whites.  Local whites (led by Cruikshank, et al) arrived in droves, an armed militia, with at least one cannon, and committed atrocities including the murder of prisoners who had surrendered.  

There was clearly no chance for a fair trial in the state court, so the families of the victims, and civil rights advocates,  sued in federal court, under the Ku Klux Klan Act, and things went no better for them there.  Cruikshank and the other killers walked, the Supreme Court found the federal charges against the local whites had been inartfully drafted.  The little remembered Cruikshank decision set an unshakeable precedent, was instrumental in instituting a century of “states’ rights”, giving local authorities the final say in how to deal with violence against its local troublemaking Negroes and those carpetbagging scoundrels from up north. Here’s the Smithsonian’s account of the Colfax Massacre. 

And racist monument makers get the last word, in 1951:

colfax_riot_sign_img_2401.jpeg

[

2] “Make America Great Again” was one of Ronald Reagan’s several campaign slogans during his first successful presidential run.   A young Roger Stone, who has a life-sized image of Nixon’s head tattooed on his back, was part of Reagan’s campaign and profited handsomely afterwards as a pioneering lobbyist with direct access to the highest elected officials he’d help put into office.  Stone later became one of Trump’s closest advisers and is, you might recall, awaiting trial for a string of shady dealings on the president’s behalf.  Not much has been heard from the provocative loudmouth lately, now that I think of it.   Stone’s idol Nixon, incidentally, was the first to refer to an impeachment as a “partisan witch hunt.”

“Paul, Paul…” (note for the Book of Irv)

Had a vivid memory yesterday, probably dredged up by Mark’s older brother’s memory of how his little brother hid candy bars from his two older brothers and how quickly he ate his meals at restaurants, lest somebody else get a morsel off his plate.

My father was over six feet tall and carried up to forty or fifty pounds of excess weight most of the time I knew him.   His younger brother Paul was quite a bit smaller, and fairly trim.   My father, at least once, told my sister and me the story of taking as much of his little brother’s food as he could get.   He told the story with a chuckle.

I didn’t stop to think, a middle class kid when I heard the story, that my father and my uncle were probably frequently hungry growing up in “grinding poverty” (the phrase my father always used to describe it, the family’s desperation corroborated by his cousin Gene) during the Depression.   My father would finish his food, turn to his brother, who ate more slowly, and ask him for another bite.  

” ‘Paul, Paul…’ I’d say and hold out my hand to him and he’d very reluctantly break off a tiny crumb of food and hand it over.    He didn’t want to, you know, but he always gave me something.”

As I told this to Sekhnet last night I remembered something else, the walk back from Carvel with my younger sister.  

Our parents would give us some change to go buy ice cream at the Carvel two short blocks and one long one from our house.   Carvel had soft serve machines and we’d generally each get a cone, sometimes plain sometimes with sprinkles (my sister was partial to the multicolored ones) and sometimes dipped in molten chocolate that would instantly become a lovely, slightly soft, thin chocolate shell (the “Brown Bonnet”).  

We’d lap up the delicious ice cream as we walked that first long block.    As we turned the first corner the swirl of ice cream in mine would be flattened down to the cone, a few bites and I was finished.   My sister ate more slowly, turning the cone methodically to lick away the drips, savoring her ice cream.   I’d always ask her for a slurp of her cone.   When she resisted I mocked her as a “saver”.  She’d reluctantly hand over the cone, protesting the unfairness (and she had a point) and I’d take a slurp.

“Paul, Paul…”

 

 

Family is the most important thing

Although most mass murders happen within families,  as a ten second scan of the internet will show [1], fratricide, parricide and filicide are not the most common forms of murder, thankfully.    (Although 100% of all incest happens in families, by definition.)    In many families lifelong grudges stand in for murder.   My family, for example, has generally practiced this humane alternative to actual killing (those few outliers who survived the actual mass killings of 1943, that is).    Even within devastated, crazy, dysfunctional families, the common refrain is that there is nothing more important than family– except possibly keeping your insane fucking aunt as far from us as possible.

Sekhnet’s mother’s best friend for many years (they had a terrible falling out years later) was the sister of a woman married to a dynamic first generation Italian man named Uncle Tony.   Uncle Tony and his wife had no children of their own, but exerted a great influence on so far three generations of their nieces and nephews.   They hosted them every summer at their summer place near the beach, put them to work and instilled their values deep within these kids.   The youngest of these kids are now in their seventies, having passed the values on to their children and grandchildren.

The third weekend in August every year, for the last 65, is the Italian Picnic.   Family and friends would arrive on Long Island by the dozens, pitch tents, sleep in cars, in curtain-divided cubicles in the original cabin with Uncle Tony and his wife, in the “overflow”, a handmade structure in the back that housed an additional ten or so in various compartments.  Behind the overflow was the outdoor shower.   The sign over the toilet read “in these isles of sun and fun, we never flush for number one.”

Sekhnet attended the first Italian Picnic “in utero” as she likes to say.   She went that first time as a four month-old fetus (perhaps she was still an embryo, I’d have to look it up) and has missed only one or two in the following six and a half decades. I’ve been going every year since 2001, when I drove Sekhnet and her aged parents to the picnic when Sekhnet had a medical problem that prevented her from driving the 80 miles or so.    

I was welcomed warmly and instantly by this large, gregarious family.   It was beautiful to be in a gathering where everyone seemed to genuinely love, or at least like, each other.   The food was great, the controlled chaos of the festivities was cool, and there were several colorful characters that made these picnics a lot of fun.

Over the years I got to know a unique character named Louie, a truly larger than life nephew of Uncle Tony’s.   He was a jovial, powerfully built former cop with flowing white hair, impressive facial hair, an even more impressive belly and a great talent for storytelling.

Some years he’d drink everyone under the table (the table was in a thatched tiki bar across the dirt yard from the main house) while telling an endless series of detailed and often very funny stories.   Some years he didn’t drink at all, like the year he fasted, passing up the dozens of trays of delicious Italian delicacies, all that pasta, and seafood, and lasagna, and all the rest, including the table of homemade desserts.  He explained that he was doing this for his self-discipline and also as part of a purifying detox he’d been doing for a few days.   Early the next morning he broke his purifying fast with an enormous bacon sandwich he devoured standing over the outdoor breakfast griddle, cooking breakfast.  

One year early in my tenure, during a year when Louie was drinking, I first heard his stories,  They continued late into the night as one inebriated younger person after another staggered off to turn in.  He was in charge of the blender at the tiki bar and he induced me to drink perhaps ten delicious frozen drinks of some kind.   He drank at least that many himself, as one by one every other drinker mumbled good night, shuffled off, fell over.

I was the second to last man standing that night, kind of, I tottered off to sleep after slurring a goodnight to Louie. To my amazement, I saw (while up briefly to pee) that Louie was the first guy up in the morning, putting the coffee on, (in the big, dented aluminum drip urn), before anybody else was up, cheerfully at work out at the makeshift workstation near the tiki bar, breaking eggs, mixing pancake batter, firing up the grill to get breakfast started for everybody.

Over the years there were tragedies.  Louie’s younger brother, Frankie (they were two of four brothers), another beloved guy, a former NYC detective, had a terrible string of them a few years ago.   Frankie’s playful wife was diagnosed, too late, with the cancer that killed her a very short time later, right before the picnic one year. A few months later Louie came down with a sore throat he couldn’t shake.  The sore throat turned out to be esophageal cancer.   Louie’s funeral was on a brutally frigid day a month or two later.   Frankie underwent a heart procedure that had a very remote, less than one percent, chance of paralysis.   Frankie hit that jackpot too. Somehow, his faith sustains him.  He seems in most ways to be pretty close to how he always was, except that he’s in a wheelchair and attended by two caretakers at all times.

I’m thinking about this family today because we came back from that third weekend in August picnic last night.   When Uncle Tony’s widow died about fifteen years ago the picnic was in jeopardy.   It was unclear, as Sekhnet edited her beautiful movie chronicling the history of the picnic, if there’d be another one.  That was a big motivation to make the documentary, to capture this unique tradition.  In the end the property was purchased by a grand-nephew who rebuilt the place into a modern family compound.  

I first saw this guy as a young man in Sekhnet’s masterpiece. The young Anthony looks into her camera and says “it was just a weekend but it seemed to us like the whole summer, we couldn’t wait to go and we used to cry when we had to leave.”  In the end he and his wife bought the place and they continue to host the family tradition the third weekend every August.

Anthony runs the picnic much the way Uncle Tony used to do it when Anthony was a kid.  No elaborate planning of the menu is done, people bring whatever they bring, and it is always plenty, and delicious.  Lunch is at one, laid out on long tables.  People take a walk down to the nearby beach.    The traditional games are played as the assembled adults cheer and heckle: a line of kids trying to whistle with a mouth full of crackers, blow the largest bubble gum bubble, eat a round slice of watermelon by thrusting the face into the middle of it, three-legged sack races, tug of war with a gigantic rope.  Prizes go to everybody after each game.  

Gone is the candy tree of Sekhnet’s youth, a tree with candy on every branch where the kids found their prizes under the leaves and picked them right off the tree. Gone are the buzz cuts for the boys that Uncle Tony used to administer, but the traditions of the picnic are clearly prized and ongoing, as is the love and closeness of everyone there.   The children of Uncle Tony’s grandnieces and grandnephews are now becoming teenagers, young adults.    I knew all these kids as babies, then as toddlers.  If we live long enough, we’ll see their babies and toddlers, hard as that is to believe.  Sekhnet and I are among the older generation now.

Somebody took out a packet of photos yesterday after dinner.   They were passed around and cackled over.  Here is so and so (sitting across from me) at thirteen, forty years ago.  “Oh, my God, look at… is that so and so?!!”  Amid much hooting Sekhnet was examining a photo with a human shaped cut-out in the middle.  “I like the invisible man,” I said, pointing to the blue table cloth showing through the open space the shape of a person literally cut out of the picture.   The cut out person was not identified or commented on and I didn’t follow up.    

Over the years a few people have disappeared from the gatherings.  Not only because of death, but other things too.  This happens in families.   We don’t talk about that, beyond a mention and a shrug, sometimes a short summary of the sad tale.   Why talk about it?   Family, and being with those you love, is the most important thing.  Am I wrong?

 

[1]  Although familicides are relatively rare, they are the most common form of mass killing.    source