My niece, when she was a toddler, began using the toilet to urinate.  She was hesitant to do the rest of her business there and her mother asked her why.   “It’s very dangerous!” my little niece apparently said, with great conviction.   The seriousness with which she delivered her answer made it a great laugh line in the family for many years, though we never learned what the actual danger was.   

The last Mother’s Day of my mother’s life, a week or so before she was taken to the hospice to die, was one of the saddest days I can remember.   Her daughter, my sister, had long been operating under the principle that our mother was “kookoo for Cocoa Puffs.”   The phrase harkens back to an ad for sugary cereal that ran for a while when we were kids.   The mascot, a very excitable cartoon bird, apparently a kookaburra (famous for its hysterically laughing call), went wild for the delicious cereal, bouncing off the walls and squawking “kookoo for Cocoa Puffs!” over and over as it freaked out.   Saying our mother was kookoo for Cocoa Puffs was a cute way of saying she was batshit crazy.   When my mother “lost” her wedding ring, her mother’s solid gold bracelet, the one with the little photos of our family lovingly cut out and pasted into sections of a little gold orb that opened and  expanded like an accordian, it was because she was kookoo for Cocoa Puffs.   When my mother was pissy that her daughter and grandchildren never thanked her for anything she bought them, same verdict.

During that last meal with the family, gathered around our dying mother’s kitchen table, many meaningful looks were shot behind the old woman’s back.  She’d say something and eyes would quickly roll, facial expressions would flash all around, silently and constantly, “phew, nuts, eh?”  My sister, her husband and her children were convinced of the old lady’s lost grip on reality.  She was nuts, and they humored her, if barely.In the end my mother started to cry, which they felt proved their point. 

I never found my mother to be the least bit nuts, except when she was in a situation where everyone was pretending.  That shit drove her crazy.  A week or two before she died, a new hospice nurse met her with a small group of hospice workers.  I heard them all laughing from my mother’s bedroom.  When the nurse came out, she said to me, with a big smile,  “whatever else you want to say about her, your mother is sharp as a tack.”

Meanwhile, before an early dinner on that final Mother’s Day, there had been a tense negotiation, for the hours leading up to that carefree meal, with numerous phone calls back and forth, due to a serious, ongoing suicide threat.  A door had been slammed and locked, wailing tears from within, nobody could reason with the inconsolable teenager who’d been humiliated on line, as teenagers are when their friends turn mean.   It had apparently been touch and go for a while, until finally the younger brother quietly talked his way into the room and was able to calm his sister down.   They arrived a few hours later, big smiles on all their faces, with Chinese take-out and the firm conviction that grandma was insane.   It was an excruciating experience.  A few days later a van from the hospice came and took my mother to her deathbed.

I have that same tic my mother had when faced with dishonesty, selectively poor memory, a failure to acknowledge when my feelings are hurt, an insistence that I’m crazy and the people insisting on my insanity are beyond criticism, no matter what they have to do.  After my mother’s funeral I mentioned a historical fact, someone’s prior marriage, that sent my sister into a frenzy.  She desperately made the slashing “ixnay!!! ixnay!!!” gesture across her throat to get me to stop talking.  The prior marriage was, for some reason, a humiliating secret that left my sister no choice but to lie to her daughter about it.   It upset me to be called a liar, and in my confusion I held my tongue.   The next day, when we spoke alone, my sister promised to clear things up afterwards, but put so many conditions on when and how, that it took over a year and then, she explained, the conditions were still never right.   After a year she was hurt and very angry that I still had an issue with being called a fucking liar.  A year!   My fucking insane brother only knows one thing — how to hold a fucking grudge.

My mother’s funeral was more than twelve years ago.  Now, in my sister’s mind — twelve fucking years later my brother is still upset that I inadvertently called him a fucking liar and that there was a slight delay in telling my children the demanding, judgmental asshole hadn’t lied.  Is there no statute of limitations on his insane, prosecutorial bullshit?  What about love?  What about fucking love?  My brother wouldn’t know love if it came up and lied to his face!

Call me kookoo for Cocoa Puffs, but to me love does not include a need to lie whenever necessary, a pass for all hurtful behavior, a license to do whatever you feel you need to do to someone else, whenever you feel hurt or upset, with a lifetime entitlement to unlimited, unconditional understanding, kndness and graciousness.  That’s something, we can all agree, but I’m not sure we can call it love.   

For one thing, it is a one way expectation, since the party insisting on it does not extend the same privileges of unlimited forgiveness to the other.  For another thing, without authenticity, what is there between two people?

Being authentic means being honest.  In an intimate relationship it means being honest while taking care with other people’s pain when they feel they’re not getting what they need from you.  To some people it hurts too fucking much to consider making themselves vulnerable that way.  They tend to believe that we all have our own perspective, our own reality, that nothing anyone you love says is necessarily true or false.  This essential solipsism is untouchably real to someone to whom the pain of rejection is much more terrifying than accepting that we are, on the most basic level, eternally unknowable to each other.   The price of maintaining this kind of solipsistic relationship is very high if you are so kookoo for Cocoa Puffs that you insist on difficult abstractions like honesty, apology when someone is aware they’ve hurt you and so on.   If you can’t love and forgive without conditions, they insist, you are not worth loving.

And, of course, they are completely right.  You certainly will never be able to convince them that they are not, since it is humiliating to them to ever admit being wrong or acting hurtfully.   You know them well enough to know what will make them tense up, set their faces, become cold, whenever they feel you are criticizing them.  You are prying open an unbearably painful primal wound, proceed in the face of resistance only if you want to end things.

Sometimes, even with your best efforts, relationships you love, that have long been a source of comfort and security, will end.  It can be very, very hard to move on, but sometimes it is necessary for everybody.   Sad, and true, as death itself.

Psych 101

Traumatic experiences in childhood often have long-term effects [1] on a person’s ability to trust, to form close bonds with others, to be honest. Let’s just apply a little psychology 101 to this needy disturbed, dangerous when wounded guy who’s constantly in the news.

His father was known to be a psychopath. He was a famously hard charging judgmental workaholic who parlayed millions of dollars in government grants and his own great business acumen, and willingness to take risks to keep and pass on every dollar of his money, into a billion dollar empire. The father had little use for his young fuck up son as he was grooming his charismatic oldest son to succeed him. Imagine the psychopathic father’s disappointment when he learned that his heir apparent was not a killer, didn’t have what it takes to take everything from everybody by constantly fighting to the death. So the much younger brother, an incorigible bully with limited smarts and very poor people skills, was eventually chosen and groomed to be a killer like Dad.

You don’t get much love from a psychopathic father, the best you get is approval when you carry out his orders. It’s a hard life for a sensitive young person.

When that sensitive young person was in his period of most intense need for his mother’s love and protection, before he was two, his cool, slightly distant and distracted mother became ill and was out of the house for many months, while her youngest son cried for her and got disgusted looks from psychopath dad when he got home from a long day of making the world in his image.

In other words, the time when this kid most needed love, understanding, appreciation and guidance, he was left alone and made to feel weak because of his whining. Is it hard to understand the kind of adult this hurt little boy would likely grow up into?

Imagine his relief a few years later when he got a younger brother, someone he could take out his frustrations on by tormenting every day. Kind of restored the little fucker’s belief in God.

Look at the rest of this now widely adored, widely despised, infamous, beleaguered rich reality TV star/F POTUS. You can draw a straight line from his early childhood injuries to his total war against anybody inclined in any way to contest his will.

And we are all, here in the United States and worldwide, much the poorer, and our lives much more precarious, than they were before this twisted creature came onto the world scene to prove to his psychopath daddy that he’s not a loser.



Demons, fear and reflexive distrust

There are demons within us all, stirring terrors too formidable to face unless we’re forced to.  They are extremely painful to confront, even when we’re aided by somebody who has the skills and gentleness to help.  My father, a man with more demons than most, and better reason than most to host so many of the merciless little fuckers, always stressed that everybody has his demons and that it’s impossible to know what to make of someone else’s demons.  Never truer, in my experience, than with my father.   

Although, towards the end of his life I came to understand the source of some of my father’s major demons:  regular childhood face whippings from his mother, daily hunger, excruciating, humiliating poverty, illiterate, defeated-by-life father, low expectations from his extended family, a feeling of shame for being stupid because he couldn’t learn to read — they only figured out he was legally blind when he was about eight and the brand new New Deal made it possible for him to have his 20/400 vision corrected with glasses (he went on to get a graduate degree in history).   If that’s not enough childhood pain to support a thriving colony of demons, I can only imagine what the rest of the story was.  At the very end of his life, he still believed he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in the haunted small town he grew up in, by far.

Our most ferocious demons make us rage sometimes.   If someone touches one accidentally WATCH THE FUCK OUT!   Often, after losing your cool and lashing out, you feel embarrassed, particularly if the people you care about are victims of your anger.   If one of your demons is shame, it is humiliating to acknowledge that you did something wrong and hurt somebody. You will have developed strategies to not feel the burning of deep shame.  Better to get angry again, indignant over and over, than to feel mortified that you’ve hurt someone you care about for a weak reason, or no reason you can talk about.

You stop trusting the person you hurt, if they won’t shut up about their need to talk about what the hell happened, their need to put everything on the table.  If everything is laid out clearly, your understandable human weakness is exposed.  Weakness may be understandable to others, but it’s intolerable to you, because your demons will immediately start painfully sodomizing you for being imperfect, weak, capable of hurting others who, sometimes, maddeningly, refuse to pretend they weren’t hurt. 

If you’re vulnerable to the need to be perfect,  you’re in for a lot more pain than the average schmuck who can forgive herself for sometimes acting badly.   We all sometimes act badly, no matter how diligently we try not to hurt people we care about. 

The only way back to mutual care is through making amends and forgiveness.  Forgiveness takes place after the hurt is acknowledged, it can’t happen in any meaningful way if the person asking for forgiveness insists the other person is a pussy who simply can’t put the past in the past and insists on bringing up a painful situation that nobody can do anything about because it’s in the past, duh!  

Many people find it impossible to forgive themselves.  The hurt we suffered at our own hands can only be forgiven by being honest and gentle with ourselves.   It works with the self the same way it does with others.  We truly didn’t mean to hurt ourselves, acknowledge the accident, cure it with taking better care never to hurt ourselves that way again.   This doesn’t mean shutting ourselves off from others, it means accepting they we’re humans who do stupid things sometimes and there is no point whipping ourselves over them, much better to learn important life lessons from mistakes and avoid repeating the same bad pattern.

When you hurt somebody, and they tell you they’re hurt, listen to them, do not allow a demon you can’t control to jump in and angrily cut them off.  Understand why they were hurt, empathize, assure them you will do your best to not do that to them again.  The same goes for when we act in a way that hurts ourselves.  Unless you do yourself the kindness of letting yourself off the hook for dumb mistakes, the hook gets sharper and sharper, sinks in deeper and deeper.  In the end, that hook is never coming out.

The alternative to making amends is that the truth of hurtful past events becomes poison to you, and the one you hurt.  A clear recitation of the thing you can’t talk about is seen as an aggressive, threatening frontal attack.  You marshal your armies, but they have very little to work with in defending something that can only be defended by spraying ordnance wildly.  You accuse, express distrust, and fear, sprinkle in some regret, quickly followed by more anger, and tell them how merciless they are.   Direct questions can be uncomfortable, an assault. What can you say to something like: was anything I said inaccurate, unfair, unkind?  All you can do is hurl something back “you’re unfair and mean!”  Sometimes we are at fault, and if we never yield, do the same thing over and over, fight responsibility and the idea that we can change our behavior in any meaningful way, that’s about it for that relationship.

There is no genius mediator, supremely skilled at her job, who can fix that distrust, denial, anger and inability to forgive yourself enough to reach compromise with people you love, in a single short session where everyone gets a chance to express how they were hurt and the mediator makes sure each one knows they’ve been heard.   At least, I can’t picture that kind of alchemist mediator.   If there’s only mutual hurt and distrust going in, how does the process have a chance to heal anything?

Follow-up to a month of no reply

Since silence can be for many reasons, and is construed differently by different people, please let me know what your silence means.

If you simply don’t know what to say, let me know. This leaves open the possibility of future communications from me.

If your silence means “fuck off!” let me know. It is the courteous and considerate thing to do, you fucking fuck.

A lie is more powerful than the truth, if needed

When someone is desperate, they will cling to a lie with the religious fervor of a martyred saint.   The lie, you see, is their rock and their foundation.  Without it, they are humiliated.  The lie protects their good name, their true intentions, their very value as human beings.  The lie becomes essential to their integrity and they will defend it as though their life depends on it.

Take the example of a woman married to a criminal.  She has been shocked and angered over and over by his criminal acts and the lies he told her to conceal them from her.  It is humiliating to her that he has never acknowledged being wrong — every “crime” he ever did was for her sake —  or asked for her forgiveness, even when his crimes, and the lies surrounding them, destroyed her dreams at the moment they were about to come true.  

Think about this scenario for a second.  If she ever said aloud what I just wrote above, how could she live with herself?  She couldn’t.  So… the lie!  It’s not her husband, it’s her fucking brother the self-righteous, unforgiving prick who is judging and torturing her entire family, always a threat to blow the lid off decades of carefully guarded shame.   He can’t keep anything secret, his mouth is an open faucet, he doesn’t care who he hurts with his pernicious moral uprightness.   He self-righteously hides behind “truth” when all he wants is to hurt people and feel virtuous being a sadistic piece of shit.

How do the sister and brother retain a relationship in this hostile situation?  They talk about books, movies, a little celebrity gossip, dogs, some commiserating about the political cesspool we are all bobbing in, their health.  Everything else, everything personal and important, is off the table.  The lie that her brother is a liar remains undisturbed. 

The brother tolerates this the best he can, which often is not very well.  His name is assassinated, since he is a threat to the children if he starts fucking blabbing and telling his precious “truth” to the kids.  The kids must be kept away from a destructive agenda-driven fuck like that. 

On the other hand, the brother must remain eternally patient, hopeful and generous.  If he ever shows frustration, or, god forbid, anger, he has shown his hand, proved the case against him and that’s the ballgame, ladies and gentlemen.

And so it goes.  You could say that a lie, if desperately needed, is more powerful than the truth.

Making amends

Making amends is trying to fix something that’s broken. If a guest’s bone gets broken, as a result of you accidentally placing a stumbling block in a place that resulted in a fall and broken bone, making amends might be contritely driving the person to the hospital to have the broken bone treated. It might be helping the person while they are hindered by the broken bone. It should include assuring the person that you will do your very best to make sure never to put a dangerous obstacle where they can trip over it and get hurt.

It doesn’t seem to me that making amends with somebody you have hurt is all that hard. Unless you consider that you must take responsibility for the pain you caused, which makes you vulnerable, which puts you at risk of being rejected by the person you are trying to make amends with. Making yourself vulnerable is the price of trying to make amends. It is also the price of meaningful friendship.

I understand it may seem a fearful price to some, but it is hard for me to understand how to retain a facade of friendship with a person who is incapable of acknowledging the pain they cause. Fake friendship with people I can no longer trust is not for me.

It is particularly hard to do during this time of year when we Jews are instructed to make amends, to speak the truth, to move beyond lies that people tell to make themselves feel righteous, instead of ashamed, when they are wrong and continue to act badly.

I understand that some people are weak, damaged and desperate to be right at any cost. If the cost is my friendship, so be it, I suppose. As long as they refrain from assassinating my good name among mutual friends. The inability to behave with emotional maturity confers no right to kill.

כל עכבה לטובה

Every pause is for the best.

This was written on a pocket-sized card in a small meticulous hand by the paternal grandfather of an old friend of mine. He’d write down these aphorisms to remind himself of things that he wanted to remember.

One thing was this phrase. If you are upset and thinking about doing something decisive, a bit more delay is rarely a bad idea. If you are thinking of doing something that will hurt somebody, and you hesitate, that little mercy is a good in itself.

I suppose it’s a good thing to remind yourself of once in awhile, if you don’t know what to do, if you’re in turmoil, if you feel hurt, in a tight spot, it’s not a bad idea to hesitate rather than take an action or say words that you might not be able to take back.

What you can tolerate will depend

We have different thresholds for what kind of treatment we can tolerate from others. One person’s tough, challenging, funny wise-ass is another person’s humorless abuser sometimes. It all depends on our personality, our experience, our other relationships and what we feel comfortable with.

To some people periodic displays of intense anger are fine, providing the person quickly calms down and becomes reasonable. It’s not hard to understand or identify with anger, we are all subject to it from time to time. We are able to tolerate different levels, displays and durations of anger, depending on the circumstances and our tolerances.

Pirkey Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, is found in the back of many Jewish prayer books like the ones that are usually at the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs I’ve been forced to sit through over the years. So as the congregation is rising and being seated, (please rise, please be seated, please rise), and praying in unison, I am scanning Ethics of the Fathers, the whole short book is in there, after all of the prayer services. I used to read Pirkey Avot looking for little bits of eternal wisdom from ancient times. There’s one about anger I’ve been greatly influenced by. It describes the four kinds of temperaments with a beautiful, clean logic.

There are four kinds of temperaments when it comes to anger and peace.

One type of person is quick to anger but quick to be pacified. His loss is offset by his gain.

Another type is slow to anger but slow to be pacified. His virtue is offset by his deficit.

Another type is slow to anger and quick to forgive. This is a virtuous person.

The fourth temperament is quick to anger and slow to forgive. This type is evil.

I always thought the Father’s (whoever the hell they were) laid that out profoundly and indisputably. My cousin Eli was quick to anger, and I made him angry many times. But because he loved me he was also very quick to be placated and we would soon move on from the thing he was so angry about a minute before. It was a beautiful thing about our relationship.

My mother had the same kind of relationship with him before I did. She would fight with Eli hour after hour, day after day and when they said goodbye they hugged and kissed and had big smiles on their faces and couldn’t wait to do it all again soon. It was beautiful to see.

If Eli didn’t like you he had no qualms about making a face, turning away and closing a door on you, or, if needed, making a great display of his purple faced anger, which was terrifying to see. As a young man he had no hesitation to punch somebody in the face, if it came to it.

But in spite of his fierceness, his face deadly as a springing jaguar’s, teeth ready to bite, foam on his lips, his face purple, his white hair trembling on top of his head, neither my mother nor later I, ever backed down from his terrifying displays of dominance.

We would say “come on Eli, you have to be honest, if your daughter said that to you you would be pretty pissed off too.” And Eli would rage a bit more, give a few last groans and cries and flashes of teeth, but then he would say “fine, but I have to tell you what happened after that” and he’d continue until the next fight.

After a few fights it was time to go get dinner, take a long time-out, to talk about other things, eat and have coffee in peace and drive back to his place. Only once we were settled comfortably back in our chairs would we resume the fights, which would sometimes go on until late in the night. Every time I left Eli we hugged and kissed and agreed to talk soon and make plans for the next time.

Eli didn’t have that kind of relationship with any of his estranged children or grandchildren. Or really anybody besides my mother, that I knew of. I certainly didn’t have that relationship with my father or mother, I mean we fought all the time but there was none of that hugging and kissing and laughing at the end of it. I guess I was lucky to know somebody like Eli, who could be infuriating, and furious, but was at the same time very easy to get along with.

Strange are the blessings and curses of this life.

A happy, healthy, sweet 5783

The first day of 5783, the new Jewish year, dawns after a night of plentiful rain.   The garden is looking very lush after its long, refreshing drink.  Tomorrow we join a group of old friends for lunch and a walk to the river to symbolically throw away our sins, our bad thoughts, our hurtful deeds, the times we gave in to our baser impulses.  Thoughts percolate in my head as every year at this time, maybe more so today than most years.

Today is the first of the Ten Days of Repentance, a traditional time of introspection for Jews, a period when we are supposed to make amends, let go of hurt and anger and repay debts.  In my experience, few people have much use for introspection.  It’s not hard to understand why.  It makes people feel like shit to spend too much time thinking about their real motivations, confronting the demons that make them act with (justifiable) brutality toward others.  We would rather feel right, just and loving than wrong, unfair and punitive.  If you think I’m wrong, unfair and punitive I’ll show you who’s fucking wrong, unfair and punitive!

Some people pray at this time of year.  I’m with Ricky Gervais on this: pray, by all means, it’s fine, but do not cancel the chemotherapy.  Prayer is between you and God, if you have that kind of relationship, have a deep, prayerful talk with your Maker.  Not for me, though.  Prayer does nothing for me.  If I talk to God at all it’s as an equal, made in the All-Merciful’s image, as we all are.

The arrogance of humans can be seen in a hundred variations, in every direction.  If you are ashamed, crush whoever makes you feel ashamed.  If you have hurt somebody, it’s their fucking fault for being an asshole.  If you are caught in a criminal act, blame others, wail about being persecuted by ruthlessly unfair enemies.  

Religion can ordain certain actions, but it cannot cause a greater truth to enter the heart unless people allow it to.  We surrender our own will to a higher will and feel righteous doing so, some of us.  Others try to live a life of fairness, expecting no more of others than we ourselves are capable of.  Then we will have a war, where both sides fervently believe God has our backs during the righteous slaughter.  Pathetic earthlings.

Best to you all for a happy, healthy, sweet 5783.  May it be much better, in every way, than 5782.