Thanksgiving Cliche scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I’ve Waited Long

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

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

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

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

                                                                           ii 

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

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

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

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

                                                                  iii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sent this:

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

What was my final, unforgivable act against you?

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

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

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

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

I took a breath and typed back: OK.

The Sins of the Fathers

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

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

As it is written (by me):

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

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

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

 

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

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

Provoking vs. Disrespecting: anatomy of a fatal falling out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Silence!

I learned young, in my cells, the truth that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.   Whenever something scary or painful happened to me or my sister, something that cried out for discussion in the home I grew up in, silence was imposed.   “You have to respect my right to ignore your pain,” was my father’s position.   He actually said as much to me explicitly, when we were both adults.    He had his own terrible pain, clearly, which made him very uncomfortable in these situations.    Why did I have to respect his silence?   I lived in his house, he bought me my clothes, my food and everything else.   I suppose that was how his logic worked, though it applied long after the childhood rationale was gone and he’d regret it all bitterly as he was dying.    

Silence is a prerogative of power.   If you have the power, you simply sit, lips pressed together, a silent “fuck you” the most irrefutable response to anything you don’t feel  like talking about, for any reason or no real reason.   That’s power.  Ask the powerful nominee a question he doesn’t want to answer.  He has already spent hours strategizing with the lawyers of the man who nominated him, has vast experience in this process himself as legal advisor on such nominations to a past president.   He is asked a question he doesn’t want to answer.  Clamps his lips together, stares at the questioner with undisguised hostility, knowing he can eventually run out the game clock.  “My answer, sir, is a loud, silent FUCK YOU!” he glares, mouth constricted to the size of a tightly clenched sphincter.

If a powerless person is sexually assaulted in the woods, a hand clamped over her mouth, and there is nobody there to hear her muffled protests– was there a sexual assault?   Come on.   Is this even a question?  

The Constitution was largely silent on the question of slavery.  To many of those who did not immensely profit from the “Peculiar Institution”, chattel slavery was an abomination.  For the rest a virulent racism was encouraged, so they didn’t care about the slaves.  It would not do to enshrine slavery too explicitly in the liberty-granting blueprint for republican democracy written by men who believed that all men were created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable human rights and so forth.  Lawyers are geniuses of this kind of thing, inserting the devilish, controlling details between two commas, bland as all get out.   “… such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit…” [1]  yeah, there we go– the constitutional basis for the Fugitive Slave Act is authorized by an equally innocuous-sounding clause.  Read the Constitution, it’s not long.  See if you can find the three discrete, discreet phrases making slavery as lawful as anything else a landed white man had a right to.  As a law student it took me a long time to find all three.

Silence!  Those who would be tyrants must become masters of this.   Speaking with a definitive, uncontradictable voice is only possible when no contradiction is allowed.   First thing you do, silence all the investigative journalists.  Then the lawyers of the opposition.   Once these troublesome elements are dealt with, the sailing is much smoother for a tyrant.  Of course, “tyrant” is such a judgmental word.   Can’t we just say Leader?   Or Winner?  

Silence!  Your right to be heard is limited by my right not to hear you, fucker.  If you can make yourself heard, go right ahead.   Let me just put on my state-of-the-art noise canceling headphones and my sleep blinders, ah, that’s much better.  Alone with my own thoughts.   Among them, no thought of taking off my blinders and deafeners.   Scream away in your victimhood, assholes, it’s so much faint white noise to me.

Silence, while sometimes the best response when tempers are hot, more often than not benefits the powerful and the guilty.   The most important single thing required for an unjust scheme to  succeed, without adverse consequences for the hatchers, for any crime to be committed with impunity, is silence.   Silence is golden, literally.

The Stories We Tell Each Other

My mother used to complain to me about a certain person’s conversational style, said that it eventually drove her almost insane.   The talk was always rapid fire, the meandering stories long, involved, usually about friends or acquaintances of people this person knew, who my mother didn’t know, had never met or heard of.  There would always be many twists to the endless, meandering tales, and a large, shifting cast of characters, and, not knowing any of them, my mother was hard-pressed to follow most of the drama, let alone care about it.  

My mother would be at a loss for how to respond, she’d venture a polite, inane comment once in a while, just to prop up her end of the monologue.    Her friend understood this non-engagement as a sign of my mother’s dementia and looked at her with a mixture of concern and impatience.   My mother didn’t have dementia.  She had strong opinions, and she spoke them to the end.   She also tuned out when she was bored, like many of us do, but she was not demented.   It was rare for my mother to have nothing to say and when she honestly had nothing she was at a loss, stumped, reminding herself that there was really nothing in the conversation for her.  Trying to remember not to make another lunch date with this high pressure talking hose.

To the other party in these chats, it was easy to make the case that her old friend was demented.   “First, she can’t really follow a simple story.   I had told her all about these people already, only last week.   Memory is another issue, she has no short or medium term memory, none!  She stares at me blankly, her mouth partly open, like she’s in a daze.”

“It’s true, I go into a daze, like an alpha state, just to try to keep myself from screaming.   I’m pretty sure if I ever started yelling it would hurt her feelings, there’d be some kind of trouble afterwards.   But every week, these endless tales of interlocking, uninteresting strangers she barely describes, over generic food I can hardly eat.  I hate that place, but it’s the only restaurant she likes to go to, it’s cheap.  

“If she was a good story-teller, at least, but she’s not, she doesn’t set anything up right, there’s no through-line to anything, no dramatic shape or pay off,  it’s all just:  ‘So X and Y go over to Z’s house, and everybody knows what Z’s house is like, I must have told you about that shithole.  Now, if you recall from three weeks or so ago, there is a couple named G and H, they were friends of U and V, the ones from college that they sort of aren’t really close friends with anymore, though they all claim to love each other and their kids, and those goddamned kids are another long, terrible tale, but anyway, as you may recall, G recently lost her hot shot job, a big blow to the ego and also to the family checkbook, and so H says…”

“It’s sad, the dementia.  I still try to tell her stories, keep her engaged, interested in life, but it seems she’s sunken into her own dour thoughts, whatever they may be.   It’s impossible to arouse her interest or engage her at all.  She doesn’t even seem to care about eating anymore.  It’s so sad, she was such a bright interactive person and now she’s just… like this.'”   The eyes half close, the mouth falls half open, under the dropped eyelids the eyes move around slowly, without plan or hope of a plan.  

“I become a zombie, I really do.   After ten minutes of her endless narration I just want to sink my teeth into somebody’s arm and go ‘ahhhhnnnnngggggghhhhh….’ the way zombies do.  I just want the noise to stop, that’s all it is, nervous, chattering white noise.   ‘So H has the temerity to say, and when I say temerity, I mean, you can’t compare H to even Z in that regard.  How people get so brazen and oblivious I will never understand.   Anyway….’  

“Last time she called I told her I’m sick and she said she’d come over, bring me that prepared overly salty chicken soup from Publix.  I told her she’s very kind but that the doctor told me I’m very contagious.  I almost told her I might bite her face, hard, if she didn’t let me hang up the phone right then, but thought better of it.  I’m lonely enough and at least she calls, you know?”

I understood my mother’s loneliness better than most things.  I urged her to write, but she never did.   There was a world in there that was too painful to relax in, let alone explore, better to keep the mind busy with books, murder mysteries, and murder mysteries on television.  It was uncanny how quickly she would tell you who the murderer would turn out to be, she pounced on plot points with the lightning quickness of a terrier grabbing a rat by the neck.  She’d give it a quick shake and leave it twitching when the commercial hit.  In the end, she was never wrong about the killer.

Fact or Fiction

My version of the story may be fact, or fiction.   You can take that to the bank, even though fact and fiction may be woven together without a seam and almost always are.  I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.   Think of any story you’ve heard, it contains the seeds of fact and the seeds of fiction grown together.  A little bit of fiction thrown into an otherwise completely truthful account of a well-recalled event can explain something in a very satisfying way sometimes.   Wisdom, if it is to be had, is choosing what is most useful, most evocative and real, among the interactive facts and fictions.

Wisdom, I joke.  There is only the way we treat each other.

I think of how many ways a child might be lied to.  The lies are limited only by the imagination and determination of the liar.  What do we call these lies?   Fact, because the world may repeat them loudly, over and over, in a chorus sung to an earwig tune that is hard to drum out of mind?  Fiction, because in the clear light provided by someone who loves you without selfishness or thought of profit, the ridiculousness of these lies can be easily seen?

How about the boy who watches his father be emasculated every day, what is the fact and fiction in his life?   Hard question.   What is it to be “emasculated”?   It is to take away from a man, by some kind of force, the vital sense that, in a rugged moment, he can protect himself, protect others.   This is the one thing a man has, at heart — the image of himself as strong enough to protect himself and those he loves.  Forget all the other trappings of what we think of as toxic masculinity, and no mistake, those are some toxic trappings to what we commonly think of as masculinity.  Emasculation is called that because the symbolism is easy to grasp: you hold a man powerless and forcibly remove that masculine quality that makes him think he has any control. [1]

We can call this rendering powerless by other names, or by no name, and it is certainly not restricted to use against men.   It is routinely and brutally done to women, and to vast multitudes of children, to anyone who attempts to act, as we all start off doing, with self-agency.   With the belief that our life is of infinite value, and unique, that our soul is a miracle, that there is right and there is evil and that we must be warriors against evil without becoming like those motherfuckers.

I see myself standing with the kid who is having his ass kicked.  I see myself there, even though I am almost never there during the actual ass whupping.   Kids have their asses handed to them every day, every minute of every hour of every day.  The things routinely done to kids make a certain kind of grown up want to scream.   Screaming is no help in this case.  A scream is only a reaction to horror, a turing up of the volume, it only makes things worse for everybody.  

Picture a hand moving quickly enough and strongly enough to intercept the fist heading toward the child’s face.  Picture Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kun Do, the Way of the Intercepting Fist, not practiced for personal glory, not for inflicting punishment on a violent jackass, but to intercept the fist, turn aside the blow, save the child from the punch, make the adult hesitate, afraid, perhaps become amenable to a larger discussion of right and wrong.

Picture the same child at dinner, watching someone she loves reducing her father to a puddle of fear, the awful lessons she must draw from it.   My father can’t protect me, my mother is a monster!   Fact or fiction, makes no difference in the individual case, everyone can picture this child’s dilemma.  The best fiction, of course, has the ring of truth throughout, is played without false notes.   Maybe it didn’t happen, maybe it couldn’t even happen, no matter, the story itself makes sense.  Real people would really do that, or want to do that, or dream of doing that.   The line is not always clear between fact and fiction, is it?

“Who are you talking to, dear?”  

And then, of course, there is always “who are you talking to, asshole?” which can be said in every shade of viciousness or perfect politeness if the tone is done just right.  And the tone is always done just right, done to a turn.

 

 

[1] Note, please, how daintily I have avoided any reference to the horrifically graphic castration.    Oops.