Pop’s hammer

This is the “European hammer” that belonged to my grandfather.   I will have more to say about the old fellow and his life in the coming days, but, for the moment, here is the hammer itself:

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You can see how ready it is to get to work, banging in a thin nail or doing some serious peening (whatever the hell that is).   Here is another view of the business end of my grandfather’s ball-peen hammer:

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I never saw my grandfather use this hammer, that I can recall.   The hammer, I must say, reflects his style.  My grandfather had a certain graceful delicacy about him.  He was surprisingly light on his feet.   My sister once witnessed him, at close to eighty, doing a mocking dance move behind his overbearing wife’s back.   It was during a dispute over the fate of some cash my grandfather was planning to deposit in the bank.

“Don’t put that money in the bank! I’m taking Abby out for lunch and then we’re going shopping, I need the money,” my grandmother said, in the tone of one used to being the boss.  

My sister then had the miraculous luck to witness a little dance that my grandfather must have done countless times over his long life with Yetta.   As his wife went into the other room, he did a kind of shrug and with fluid grace lifted one leg, bent the other knee and threw his arms to the side in a comically ironic manner.  

“She don’t want to put the money in the bank,” he said quietly, moving his head from side to side as he danced his mocking dance.   “She don’t want to put the money in the bank!”

Decades later I found a great clip somebody put together of Paolo Conte’s [1] wonderful “It’s Wonderful” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.   A beautiful job.  Take a moment to enjoy it, and enjoy it you certainly will.   I sent it to my sister with the caption “Pop” and she instantly agreed.

 

[1]  dig  what Conte plays behind the sax solo, (I’ve cued it up for you), great stuff!

My grandfather’s hammer

My grandfather had a ball-peen hammer [1] that I now use to drive small nails into the wall to hang baseball caps and calendars on.   Because I was a child the first time I saw this eccentric looking, thin handled hammer (without the familiar woodpecker comb on the back of the head, used for pulling nails) I thought it was called a European hammer, which made sense to me, since my grandfather was European.    I have no idea how he came to own the machinist’s hammer as, to my knowledge, he never did any type of peening at all (whatever the hell that is).

I love this hammer, because it was owned by Pop.   The smooth handle has the feel of old, well-used wood.  The small metal head is smart looking and ready to bop.   I wield it every time there is a small nail to be driven into anything.   I feel a small rush of excitement as I go to get the natty little hammer.

When I was a boy I went through a time when all I wanted was a baby elephant.   I would not let up on the theme.   One day, over dinner, Pop promised to get me one when I reached a certain age, along with, a few years later, a copy machine.   I never stopped to think that baby elephants grow to become the earth’s largest land mammals.  The baby ones are so cute.   I was a kid.   Still, I didn’t forget, when I reached those ages and had no elephant, no copy machine (at that time a gigantic thing that took up the footprint of a single bed) appeared. My gentle, loving grandfather had lied to placate me.   Et tu, Pop? 

He was trying to soothe me with these obvious lies, I realize, and I didn’t really hold it against him.   Fifty years later we’d all have copy machines on our desks and, truly, it would have sucked to have been the child owner of a baby elephant.  In the best case scenario there would have been that wrenching moment when the growing elephant would have to move away.   I never even thought of the cruelty of taking the little giant away from her mother so I could have the world’s coolest pet.  Elephants are social animals.

… And I am going to be late for my appointment with the nephrologist if I continue tapping here now.  So, if you will please excuse me, I must… be…. awwwwwn my way.

 

 

[1] Wikipedia:  

also known as a machinist’s hammer, is a type of peening hammer used in metalworking.

Thoughts on the end of a long friendship

Good friends enrich our lives, make us feel optimistic, are people to share life and intimacy with.  There are few things more valuable than a good friend, particularly a lifelong friend.  Sadly, for a variety of reasons, friendships sometimes stop being enjoyable and mutually beneficial.  Friendships that sour, if they cannot be saved, are worth ending.   The signs that a friendship has reached this point are relatively straightforward, though they may be tricky to recognize.   Here is my view, for whatever use it might be to you.

If you are born to angry, fighting parents, or parents at war with others who take out their frustrations out on you, or parents unable to cope in some essential way, it is difficult, seemingly impossible, to learn certain skills needed for living peacefully in the world.   The things a child needs, and doesn’t get from parents, will be sought from others.  Sometimes this works out beautifully, often it doesn’t.

I stumbled through this dark obstacle course landscape for many years, making friends with people who stood in for my parents, trying to reconcile things through these chosen relationships that may never be reconcilable, working haphazardly with surrogates standing in for difficult parents.   The people I found mutual affinity with were often as damaged and incapable as I was of even knowing what it was we were lacking.   Some of these folks remain my closest friends today. Many of these friendships ended unhappily, which, in hindsight, could have been predicted.  

These relationships, on one level, bore the heavy psychological burden of trying to fix things I needed to find ways to heal in myself.  I eventually came to see a common pattern in the demise of these relationships.   I present the most salient warning sign that a friendship is moribund, for whatever value my observation may have to you.

The relationship with your parents is central to all other relationships, and the better you can grasp what you got and what you didn’t get from the people who raised you, the more clearly you will be able to see and understand yourself, what you need and what you have to give others.  

We can only give someone else what we actually have ourselves.   If you never learned mercy for yourself (a crucial thing to learn, in my experience), you can’t really extend mercy to anyone else.   Mercy to others, when we give it, flows from mercy to ourselves.  Not everyone is capable of mercy, sad to say.

People who sincerely insist they love you, if they hate themselves, can only give you the version of love they have.    People who never resolve the painful contradictions many of us get from inexpert parenting, from being raised by people who haven’t resolved their own childhood hurts, can only blindly pass on what was done to them.   At least that’s how it looks to me, in so many cases I’ve seen.  

Parents often inculcate painful conundrums in their children, in ways they are unaware of, starting at an age when the child’s psyche is supremely malleable.  In order to see themselves as moral actors, they usually continue to defend this unconscious practice as having been in the best interests of the child they love, no matter what harm they may have done.   We need to make peace with what was done to us by parents who truly believed they loved us more than they loved themselves.

In friendship, the psychic imperative to solve essential riddles like the ones implanted by inept parenting does not operate with the same urgency.  Friends can sometimes help, but not always, and care must be taken not to unduly burden friends with such difficult psychic matters.  People who have massive, unquenchable expectations of friends are called ‘energy vampires’ and need to be dealt with in the manner of regular vampires, with a stake and a heavy hammer.

Friendships are voluntary and can end at any time, for many reasons or for no good reason.  A friend who claims to love you, but will not yield an inch when you describe hurt they’ve caused you, obviously is not someone you need to keep in your life.  In friendship there is a much better option than letting yourself be mistreated and tested over and over.  There is no reason to tolerate merciless treatment, having your friendship, and your character, continually tested.   Addition by subtraction is almost always a relief in these cases.

A sure sign that a friendship is over is when there is no good will left in the relationship.   The benefit of the doubt stops being extended back and forth for the annoying little things we all do. These things become intolerable, insurmountable, indefensible, though everyone usually gets very defensive.  

This happens when, for whatever reason, one party stops listening to the expressed needs of the other.   In my experience, there is really no way back from that, once the pattern of one person minimizing, attempting to rationalize away, the other person’s discomfort becomes clear.  

Seeing the pattern clearly will depend on how confusingly we were raised, how murkily our expectations of fairness, reciprocity, mercy, were instilled in us.   Having anger directed at you every day as a child will distort your notion of what you deserve.   Seeing anger constantly flaring between parents will distort your view of what a loving, mutual relationship is supposed to be.   If one partner tells the other “it hurts me when you do X” and the other one, every time they get angry, does X– there you have the perfect illustration of a relationship the ignored partner needs to leave.  

When you tell someone they’re hurting you, and they insist that they are not, that it’s actually your fault you feel hurt, not their’s, there is no clearer sign that the moment for addition by subtraction is at hand.  

It is a sad and painful moment, particularly for that sentimental side we all have a bit of, but once you add by subtracting (all attempts to make peace having failed), you will wake up the following day feeling a bit lighter in your soul.

My mother in 3,500 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Are Not Allowed Those Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What I’ve Learned So Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the key there, keep it handy.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what I’ve learned.   

 

Thanksgiving Cliche scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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