Little Rehearsals for Our Own Deaths

At a time when so many are dying around the world, and around our nation, from the pandemic, from hunger, by suicide, thoughts of death are closer than usual.

Death may be the beginning of the dead person’s embrace of eternity, I suppose, but it’s a high price to pay for that union. What’s left behind is the painful absence, forever, of that loved one. In a way, our mourning for those we love and lose contains an element of rehearsal for our own death. This secret, internal rehearsal is very hard for us to do, in a society dedicated, to an impressive extent, to the eternal denial of aging, death and dying.

I thought about these little rehearsals for our own deaths recently when I reluctantly took my leave of a friend I’d known since Junior High School. Losing this old friend felt like a kind of death, partly my own. A lifetime of shared experiences, personal references, little inside jokes, good will, great favors done for each other, erased as by death. Erased, rather, by an unwillingness, or inability, to do what needed to be done to continue a mutually beneficial friendship.

I’ll take my share of blame for the final death, and though my friend angrily concluded I’d been the unreasonable, cold-hearted aggressor, I did my best to avoid the silence that eventually had to come in the absence of empathy and understanding. I spent months taking him up on his offer to grapple with how to fix what had gone wrong in our friendship. When I laid out my side for him as clearly as I could, with as much patience and lack of blame as I could muster, he was hurt and angry about it. Your choice at that point becomes stark: eternal grievance and unresolvable fight or quiet. There’s enough angry noise in this mad world without it hissing from an always virtuous person who insists he can’t be hurtful because he’s your true friend — my former good friend surely agrees with that.

When someone we love dies, the pain we feel is universal. It’s hard to imagine a person who does not share this terrible clutching in the chest, or wherever one feels it, when someone he was close to is no more. Hard to picture a human being unmoved by a selected death, unless we dehumanize them, that is. Once the despised party is no longer seen as fully human, it’s much easier to imagine the worst. That’s what rabid partisanship is all about. If you’re the malicious type, the death of someone you despise can leave you feeling “good for them… only tragedy is that it didn’t happen sooner

I am about as far to the left on the political spectrum as I can imagine anyone being. It feels to me like the pull of liberalism, progressivism, socialism, whatever you want to call it, is toward mercy and inclusion. It aims to foster recognition of our common humanity, our unalienable equality and value as humans, the right of poor people to live with dignity. The magnetic pull of conservatism, autocracy, militarism is toward exclusion, protecting the privileges of the few, employing a punitive order that enforces divisions according to class, race, religion, nationality or, usually, a combination of those things. The right sees these divisions among people as natural and inevitable and the friction they cause as something best controlled by a well-armed police force and prison system.

Of course, someone on the political right will characterize the philosophical difference in reverse. Conservatives want to preserve freedom, decency, the value of hard work, free competition, justice, moral righteousness and so on. Liberals want to impose a kind of politically correct tyranny, giving away hard-earned money to reward lazy, corrupt people who refuse to compete on a level playing field. Liberals also don’t want to punish criminals, they want to “understand” them. And so on.

An animating belief of humanism is that our shared humanity can rise above any artificial divisions, given empathetic understanding. A very liberal writer, Jeanne Safer, gave a beautiful illustration of this in a book about seeing beyond partisan animus [1]. Her very religious, right-wing neighbor, a person with whom she shared almost no beliefs and few opinions, took her to chemotherapy every time she went, sat with her, brought her home, made sure she was comfortable, did her shopping. Her gratitude for this woman’s selfless kindness in her time of need made her appreciate the deep humanity of this undoubtedly good woman. She may vote for Trump, march in Right to Life rallies, believe homosexuals will burn in hell, but she has an undeniably generous heart on a personal level. Safer learned to cherish this wonderful heart, even as she disagreed with virtually everything else this neighbor was passionate about.

This, my friends, is a subtle fucking point well worth pondering in our troubled times.

It is a very difficult point to get a hold of during this nakedly partisan cold civil war we’re all living through. The stress acting on us daily is almost disablingly heavy, but the point is worth considering. People on the other side of every great question, people we write off as mindless partisan fucks, love their kids, take care of aged parents, would jump in front of a moving car to save a stranger’s toddler, watch videos of animals doing adorable things, to take their minds off the horrors we are all swimming in daily.

Part of the intent of keeping us all constantly at war with each other is to destroy this larger truth of our innate human connection to every other human. How many humans can kill a baby? Not many, I’d wager. Tribalism is one thing, and often a destructive one, but our common humanity, in the end, is the only thing that can save us and the planet we live on. Not easy, of course, not often seen, but urgently needed, going forward.

Looking at any history book it’s not hard to see the interests of the wealthiest (and generally most conservative) behind every war fought between average people. Poor people, young ones, from each combatant nation are indoctrinated against an enemy and sent to kill each other with the ultimate aim of making an elite group of rich, older ones, richer and more secure in their wealth. To understand war, follow the money, as they say.

And the horrible reality is that when the war sweeps through, there is no survival for the meek, no possible appeal to our higher nature. All bets are off when they come for you with machetes, guns, planes, flame throwers, mobile killing units. This is the nightmare scenario our species has lived, and perpetrated, over and over since before there was a system for recording these slaughters. In the world right now there are tens of millions displaced, people who ran from a meat-grinder that hacked up the unluckier, meeker members of their families, their community. Those who hid, cowered (not unreasonably!) and were caught are not shown mercy, not by bombs, not by men crazed with the wild adrenaline of life and death battle. They shoot first, at people who may well want to kill them, ask themselves questions later.

Extreme partisans are ready to die for their beliefs, to kill for them. This willingness to die is sometimes seen as the ultimate expression of having the “courage of your convictions” though it is just as often the “enduring brutality of your mistake”. In this country, according to the FBI, violent, deadly partisans are mostly on the far right. Far right groups have killed many Americans in the last twenty years, as part of their general operations, far left groups have killed few, if any, over that same span.

A willingness to use violence is the hallmark of terrorism — in fact, the use of violence to achieve an aim IS terrorism. We terrify you into doing what we say, because we’ve killed some innocent people, as you’ve seen, and we’ll fucking kill you. too. The threat of violent death is our calling card. Our side will beat down your side and stick those protest signs up your asses!

You wonder what has to happen to a human heart to conclude, during difficult times, that it is better to take up arms and take as many of the bastards with you as you can before they kill you than to look for a way out of war. Something the equivalent of Nazis coming to your area, rounding up local leaders and publicly executing them. If you have the ability, that moment is definitely your last chance to organize and take up weapons for self-defense against a deadly enemy.

The specter of a nation finally struggling to come to terms with a long history of racism, de jure and de facto, seems to present this endgame scenario to those ready to believe that equality among people inevitably leads to tyranny. Got to arm and kill as many of those fucks as possible before they can force us to live as slaves in a world like that! We never did anything to them, why are they coming to persecute us?! They are the violent tyrants, not us!

As I think about these little rehearsals for our own deaths, I wonder how ready I’d be, if forced into that terrible position, to die for my beliefs. Even to be beaten up, or even menaced, by armed thugs outside my polling place. Fanatics are famous for their willingness to go down in a hail of bullets, guitarists and calligraphers, not so much.

When things are put into black and white, life and death frames — if socialists are elected to Congress it will be the violent end of freedom as we know it — evil, righteous men with the money to influence mass events will eventually put death squads into motion. You can take that to the bank, the smart money will bet on it. As we all do our little, trembling, mostly unconscious, rehearsals for our own unthinkable deaths.

[1]

I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics: How to Protect Your Intimate Relationships in a Poisonous Partisan World, 2019, All Points Books ISBN 9781250200396

A Lesson in Death

A friend who knew a lot about cats told us it was a shame the wild little beauty who was sitting at our feet, just out of reach, had been untouched by humans for the first months of her life. Once they are feral you can’t really get too close to them, she told us. This kitten came to trust us and eventually love being petted by us (when she felt like it, of course). She became our outdoor pet.

One day, in the first spring of her life, before she was even six months old, she marched her first litter of tiny lookalikes out of the bushes, to show Sekhnet to them. She will feed you when I’m done, she told them, and it came to pass.

Sekhnet was horrified when Mama Kitten chased her first kittens out of the garden. They’d been weaned, and learned to get food from humans (and to hunt a bit as well) and suddenly Mama was driving them away, quite savagely. What a bitch! said Sekhnet. We started to learn about cats in nature, nature which is as cruel as it is kind.

Mama Kitten was tough. She had to be to survive out there. She gave birth to her next litter shortly after banishing her first.

Over the next three years she gave birth to many more, producing more than twenty beautiful little kittens in her first four years of life. Few survived very long — five that we know of.

We hesitated to give them names, because it would create more attachment and make their deaths more personal, somehow. Sekhnet began giving descriptive names only, so we had a way of referring to them as they had their adventures in the garden.

Of Mama’s second to last litter of four, two daughters, Little Girl and White Back, survived. They occupy the garden to this day. The girls stood together, refusing to be intimidated by their mother, the first to do that, and both survive.

Here is the dominant one, Little Girl (left), with her two brothers, Turtleback and Whitefoot, fine little cats who had very short lives.

In the end, with the heandlp of an almost insanely dedicated cat rescuer, we were able to trap Mama Kitten and the others and have them spayed, and the father (we assume) neutered as well. For a year and a half we’ve had a stable little colony in the garden. It was disrupted briefly a couple of months ago by five adorable little ferals whose mother abandoned them by the best cat buffet in the neighborhood. We managed to catch, domesticate and find homes for all five.

One day, not long ago, Little Girl, who always stayed close to her mother (they were known as the Driveway Bitches for their ruthless shakedowns for treats) and had always deferred to her mother in all things, snatched some food from her. I instantly intervened, and Mama finished what she was eating, but the writing was on the wall.

A day or two later a friend noticed one of Mama’s eyes looked a little funny. A few days later she lost interest in food, even the favorites Sekhnet brought to her. She took to one of the houses we made, staying warm. Then, one rainy, miserable night a couple of days ago she disappeared. Little Girl was now sleeping in her house.

We figured Mama Kitten had crawled off to die somewhere, probably in the nearby strip of wooded area across the service road. She was not yet six years old, but feral cats live much shorter lives than pampered indoor cats.

I had intended to write about her death yesterday, but somehow I didn’t get to it. Last night, after we moved the car for the firs time in a few days, to do some shopping, we found out what happened to Mama Kitten. She’d made it as far as the narrow space behind the car, before breathing her last. I put her in a box, closed the flaps carefully, and carried her a short distance to a wooded area where Sekhnet covered her coffin with branches full of dry leaves.

We spent the next few hours looking for photos of this beautiful cat. Here is the hero shot:

I thought at first that the lesson of Mama Kitten’s death was the simple reminder that we all must die, that it is part of nature and that a creature who showed no signs of being sick (she could jump up on to her petting table until the end) knew when to accept the approach of Death and when to go gracefully with it.

During these fearful days when the possibility of our own deaths is closer than usual, I’ve been thinking about death a lot. Mama Kitten’s death was a reminder of the pain for those left behind. I feel it clutching at my chest as I try to conclude this post with some thoughtful words. The pain is great for this stray cat we cared for, who crawled off to die, and didn’t make it to the woods.

How much more immense is our pain for a human we have known, who has touched our lives, made us laugh, held us when we were afraid?

This long-dead poet says it best, as I recalled with tears when I found it among my emails last night, searching for pictures of Mama Kitten, in her prime.

How’s things? Funny you should ask…

We may be justifiably optimistic that change is about to come, at the last moment, before we’re all plunged irretrievably into the toxic soup. The signs are encouraging, millions lining up for hours to cast ballots instead of leaving them to the less than up-and-up Louis Dejoy to deliver for counting. These early in-person ballots will all be tabulated before Election Day, eliminating one worry about electoral hanky panky and a premature declaration of Four More Years, with an exhortation to the enraged white men in the Second Amendment brigade.

We may keep ourselves on an even keel, most of the time, remaining positive, taking care of ourselves and our loved ones, remembering to be grateful for the blessings we have. We make even make somebody laugh once in a while. But how well can any of us actually be doing at a historically stressful time like this?

A friend asked me the other night, after a few minutes of batting the latest crazed news items back and forth, how I’m doing. I thought for a moment then said “limping along, I guess” and he probed– why limping?

I told him that even without the pandemic, the stress we are all under at this point is pretty much off the charts. Just reading the headlines is now accurately called “doom scrolling.” The American carnage evoked during the president’s first inaugural address has come to pass.

The natural world is being destroyed at an alarming rate — anyone who brings up this terrible fact is labeled “an alarmist.” The norms of public life in our democracy that once provided a certain amount of civil discourse in politics, moral limits and predictable outcomes, have been flagrantly ignored, replaced by expressions of open partisan hatred.

We literally have a mad man in charge of the country, intent on turning back the clock on every form of social and political progress our nation has struggled to make since the 1950s. New episodes of the man’s florid insanity are released several times a day, day and night, weekends included. The news media is flooded by a firehouse of official misinformation spraying lies faster than they can be corrected, or even taken in. By pure coincidence, perhaps, this is a famous Soviet technique for keeping the populace off balance.

We’re on the brink of the literal end of democracy here, if this election goes the wrong way, if a 6-3 Supreme Court decides the election results all across the country were tainted by massive unverifiable fraud, even as millions were disenfranchised by open and covert means during the election itself.

Our nerves are shot, millions more of our fellow citizens have recently officially entered poverty, masses of people are starting to get evicted from their homes as winter approaches.

That’s a lot on the old plate, he agreed, after I’d stated a bit of the obvious.

Now, add, on top of that overflowing platter of hideous treats a deadly, incurable virus spreading wildly here in this country and to some extent also worldwide. “Freedom,” we are urged by our mad leader, now includes the right to infect whoever you want, here in the Home of the Brave. You walk into a room where somebody shunning the most basic personal protective equipment recently coughed, someone with no symptoms of the disease, who doesn’t even know he’s sick, and catch an incurable disease that could kill you, or mess you up very badly if you survive.

Here’s an illustrative COVID-related snapshot of the extent of the horror we’re facing: the leader of the free world is literally infecting his followers and donors with a deadly disease and it doesn’t seem to matter.

It appears likely the president knew he had COVID when he sat at that buffet with rich Republican donors, (the day after his close advisor Hope Hicks was diagnosed with the virus) glad-handing them and breathing on their food, hours before he was helicoptered to the hospital. Of course, we’ll never know if he actually knew he was infectious — although it’s virtually certain he was tested as soon as the woman who is always by his side came down with COVID — at least not until after the election.

Should we all be happy, and feeling no anxiety at all, at this moment, when we all are quite possibly living in Berlin right before the election of 1932? (Some of us more perilously than others). With an overlay of the Black Death, for good measure, just to heighten the dramatic effect? Why not? Don’t worry, be happy.

I’m happy, I suppose, with this uninterrupted shit show as the background and foreground to every waking moment, to be limping along. Forward and onward, with all deliberate speed.

For me, the answer to “how are you?” is a game “limping along, baby.” “Doing fine” is a lot to ask for right now, and less strictly honest than at most times. I hope you’re making your way forward too. Try to be of good cheer, know that everybody else you meet is on the verge of freaking out and totally losing it, and remember — this too shall pass.

The Pursuit of Happiness

In these dark, threatening times we should, more than ever, be reaching out to others, sharing hope and joy; pursuing happiness. Instead, the chilling shadow of constantly predicted doom, sprayed over us by high pressure firehose, can easily darken our waking hours.

We are living through a vast war on so many fronts it’s hard to remember, through the lens of this endless multimedia blitzkrieg, how beautiful the ocean is, the sky, trees, the natural curiosity and playfulness of kids and other young animals, the faces of people we love. Happiness, it often seems now, will have to wait on a few major world factors changing for the better.

Meaning that to pursue happiness, we need to become part of the change we want to see in the world. It is on each of us now to figure out how to do our part carrying a mercilessly heavy burden to get us all to a better day. And figuring out how to remain as happy and decently human as possible while we do it.

As I was reading NY Times headlines on my phone late last night (while Sekhnet battled a little insomnia) I saw a reference to “doom scrolling”– an excellent description of exactly what I was doing, reading the newspaper at this perilous moment in human history.

It’s very scary not only here in the United States, life everywhere on the planet is imperiled, at war, trying to make sense of massive global chaos, violence and destruction — in the face of vigorous, constant, brazen propaganda, much of it insisting there’s no problem at all — except for irrationally enraged cranks intent on deception and violence. The whole problem, everyone seems to agree, is inchoately angry, vicious assholes on the other side of every damned issue!

I then, to my chagrin (since I was by then aware I was “doom scrolling”), clicked on an Op Ed that was one of the worst evocations of possible doom here in America that I’ve ever seen. Entitled Whose America is It? it makes the point that in these radically polarized times both sides see the opposing party as not only 100% wrong and despicably deluded, not only as enemies but as less than human.

We have learned over and over that dehumanization is the precondition for mass violence, you have to see an enemy as a disgusting piece of garbage before you can kick him in the face and then shoot him. It’s much harder to brutalize and kill a fellow human being, it seems.

I’ve been urged by my few good friends to disconnect from this soul-crushing cycle of violence that is the news, get out into nature, immerse myself in the preciousness of our world, refresh my spirit. I understand their point– unless I can figure out how to join with others to take effective action I am just marinating in a horror movie and spouting random opinions to nobody in particular. I vow to take a day off, enjoy the beautiful weather we’re having in NYC lately, be thankful that the air here is not toxic like on the west coast, that the pandemic is not ripping through here at the moment, that constant ambulance sirens are not shrieking by all night as they were a few months back.

I decide to start the day doing something I love. I will go downstairs to play the guitar, finish learning a musically ingenious song I’ve been working on, a beauty Louis Armstrong made popular a few years back. But, first, I’ll quickly catch up on the headlines, just for a second. In that second I see, no surprise, that this evil blowhard is pursuing his own perverse notion of happiness, making sure the world is ruled by his master’s irrefutable will, presumably a reflection of the divine will of this guy’s fervently beloved deity. Stops me in my tracks, it does.

No details really needed, here’s a picture of this dogged pursuer of happiness, from today’s news.

Presumably animated by his deep faith in the compassion and wisdom of the Christ he venerates, he gives a speech urging federal prosecution of protesters arguably exercising their First Amendment rights. He wants federal prosecutions of angry protesters under a draconian federal sedition law that allows imprisonment for twenty years for “sedition” which is, in common parlance, a synonym of “treason” [1].

Rings a bell. Weren’t the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts, designed to muzzle political opponents, the downfall of the John Adams administration? [2]

Damn this mind of mine, and its endless interest in the idiocies of our most powerful humans that are recorded as history!

As soon as I finish editing this (won’t take long) I’m going to force myself to make that unpleasant call to try to resolve a large, surprise tax bill, make an appointment to have my clogged ears cleaned, and go finish mastering “Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)” on the piano as well as guitar. Playing it in time on the piano (mainly that Bbm7-9 Eb7-9 Eb7 Ab7 sequence) is a musical challenge so far that feels very much like the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness, happiness, and justice shall you pursue.

[1]

While seditious conspiracy is generally defined as conduct or language inciting rebellion against the authority of a state, treason is the more-serious offense of actively levying war against the United States or giving aid to its enemies.
Sedition – FindLaw

Sedition is defined as words or speech that incite people to rebel against the government or governing authority. Words that inspire a revolution that overthrows the government are an example of sedition.
Sedition dictionary definition | sedition defined – YourDictionary

[2]

The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1798 amid widespread fear that war with France was imminent. The four laws –which remain controversial to this day– restricted the activities of foreign residents in the country and limited freedom of speech and of the press. Mar 5, 2020
Alien and Sedition Acts – Definition, Significance & Purpose …

Follow the link above and we see that these partisan, free speech limiting laws were brought to you by our original Federalist party (talk about yer small world!) — under the headline:

Dueling Political Parties 

The Federalist Party, which supported a strong central government, had largely dominated politics in the new nation before 1796, when John Adams won election as the second U.S. president.

In opposition to the Federalists stood the Democratic-Republican Party, commonly known as Republicans or Jeffersonians for their ideological leader, Thomas Jefferson. Republicans wanted to reserve more power to state governments and accused the Federalists of leaning more towards a monarchical style of government.

A Few More Thoughts About Time

When I got the call from my sister, during a festive meal at the home of old friends, that my father had been admitted to the hospital after being brought to the emergency room, time changed.   

“When I saw the doctor’s face I knew this was it,” my sister told me, “he looked like the malach ha mavet (Angel of Death).”  The specialists my father had been seeing regularly — cardiologist, endocrinologist, hematologist — collectively had no clue that their patient was in the last stage of liver cancer, days from death.    The ER doctor, assessing my father’s jaundiced color, difficulty moving and tapping his stomach, distended with ascites (liver-related fluid build up in the abdomen) [1] knew at once that this man was in the last days of liver cancer.

Two doctors were at the dinner table when I got the news.  When I mentioned the ascites they both told me not to worry, that ascites can be from many things [2], that I should wait and talk to the doctors at the hospital.  I consider their reassuring lies to have been a kindness, under the circumstances, and always think of their unspoken, united determination to shield me from extra worry with great fondness.

“If you have any family who want to see him before he goes, you should call them right away,” the ER doctor told my sister.

A couple of days later I arrived in Florida.   My father was attached to a bag hanging off the side of the hospital bed.  The bag was filling with the most unhealthy looking liquid I’ve ever seen.   It was the color of cancer.  It dripped away, along with what was left of his life, for the three or four days I was in Florida before my father breathed his last breath.

My father was eager to see his little brother, a man he had always bullied and dismissed.   Once, late in his life, when my father was returning from a short visit to his brother I asked him how my uncle was doing.   My father paused for a few seconds to reflect then uttered this great line:  “let’s just say, he remains unchanged.”   At the end my father was anxious for his brother to be there and his brother rushed to Florida.

I went to pick my uncle up at Ft. Lauderdale airport.   When we got to the hospital he immediately stopped the doctor, who’d met us in the hall to update us about the patient’s condition, to ask if there was any chance of a liver transplant for his dying 80 year-old brother.   I had to take my uncle by the arm to let the uncomfortable doctor get away.  The way the two brothers clung to each other at the end was poignant to see.

My uncle was a bossy man and he instructed us all, at around nine pm, that it was time to let the dying man rest.   For some reason we all left the hospital.  I even attempted to get to sleep, hours before my natural bedtime, which is around four a.m.    Suddenly I sat up, thinking “what the fuck?,” got in the car and headed back to the hospital.   

My father, who’d told me earlier in the day that he wanted to talk to me, that he was still assembling his thoughts, was wide awake when I arrived around one a.m.   He appeared to be expecting me.  I’d always had an adversarial relationship with my father, one I’d tried many times to improve, but my father was so deeply, fundamentally wounded that meaningful peace with him was pretty much out of the question.   

I’m a fairly creative person, with an active imagination, and, once I left my parents’ house, I’d tried everything I could imagine over the years to make peace with my old man.  In the end, when he angrily told me that if he ever told me what he really felt about me it would do “irreparable harm” to our relationship, I saw that his desperation was too great for him to overcome.   He would “win” by destroying what was left of our ability to discuss things beyond the weather, baseball, history and politics.   I stopped banging my head against the locked door at that point.

I am writing about time.   Two years passed from that final slamming of the vault on any hope for real dialogue with my father.  Nobody knows from one minute to the next how long the rest of their life will be.  I can measure it now:  two years elapsed from the time I became certain that no true peace with my father was possible.   

During those years I was in psychotherapy, and I finally reached a point where I was able to understand that my father was incapable of doing any better; that he was actually, sad as it was, doing the best he could.  Knowing this allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.   

Luckily, I had this revelation a few months before I got that call from my sister than our father was not long for this world.  I was ready, in a sense, in a way I couldn’t have been holding on to the pain and anger my father’s righteous prosecutorial rage inspired in me.

Now, on April 29, 2005,  it is after one a.m. on what would turn out to be the last night of my father’s life.   The first question he asked is if I’d brought the digital recorder I’d bought for him earlier in the day.   I’d left it with the nurse, got it, turned it on, propped it on his chest.   

The next thing he said was that his life was basically over by the time he was two.   He didn’t mention why, it was something I already knew (though not from him) — his angry, religious mother had whipped him in the face from the time he could stand.   Add to that “grinding poverty” and turning five as The Depression began, being the poorest of the poor in a small town as everyone in your family back in Europe is being rounded up and killed, you begin to get the picture.   Betrayal by a mother, shame and humiliation are not easily overcome.   I can’t imagine the struggle my father had, to appear strong, infallible, while making only glancing references to the “demons” we all must deal with.

Because I was no longer that angry, because my father was dying, I knew my purpose in that room was to make his death as easy as it could be.   I was not there to challenge him, I was there to comfort him.  I understood without needing to think about it that these moments were not about me, they were about him.

When he apologized for putting obstacles in front of my sister and me, making our lives harder instead of helping us in times of need as a loving father should, I told him he’d done the best he could.   

When he told me he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years, I nodded, thankful to hear him finally acknowledge it.   He lamented that he’d been too fucked up and defensive for us to have this kind of conversation fifteen years ago.   

At the time the number seemed off to me — thirty years of war, fifteen of peace?   Later I realized that fifteen days, or even fifteen hours, of this kind of honesty would have been an amazing blessing.

We spoke quietly for several hours, the door to my father’s hospital room open, everyone else on the floor asleep.   The nurse, an angel in human form, sat outside the room.    The look of love she gave me when I left I will never forget.

Early next evening, as the sun was beginning to set, my father told my sister, my uncle and my mother that since I’d arrived it was a good time for them to take a break, go to the cafeteria and get something to eat. 

As soon as they were gone my father said to me “I don’t know how to do this.”   I assured him that nobody did, that it would be fine.   The nurse helped take down the bar on one side of the bed so I could sit closer to my father.  I don’t remember if I had my hand on him, or arm around him, or anything like that, but I sat close by.   

His breathing got shallower and shallower, death from liver cancer is supposed to be one of the gentler ways to go.   After the liver goes, the kidneys shut down and you go to sleep, only forever.   

A friend later told me the Talmud poetically compares the moment of death to removing a hair from a glass of milk.  It is an excellent description in the case of death from liver cancer.

Within twenty minutes or so my father took his last breath.   I reached over and closed his dead eyes with the fingers of one hand, like I’d done it a thousand times.

[1] A 0.66 second search reveals: 

Ascites is when over 25 milliliters of fluid fills the space between the abdominal lining and the organs. It’s usually caused by cirrhosis.

[2]  It turns out they were misleading me, not lying:

But the most dangerous problem associated with ascites is infection, which can be life-threatening. Ascites may go away with a low salt diet, and with diuretics (water pills) ordered by your provider.

Worthwhile investigations take time

I heard two award winning investigative reporters say that time is the single most important aspect of doing a full investigation into anything.   If you have the time to follow every lead, and go where that lead takes you, you will discover things that are impossible to learn if you’re working under a deadline.   To perfect any difficult thing, there is no substitute for time.   Robert Caro, the great biographer and historian, famously sometimes takes a year or longer to dig for the truth about a single disputed fact that troubles him.

Let’s take a moment to consider the gift of time itself, the single greatest gift we have, until we don’t have it any more.  Brother David Steindl-Rast gives a beautiful meditation on gratefulness for the gift of time and our ability to appreciate the wonders our senses provide us, if we take a few moments every day to pay attention.   He speaks midway through this beautifully illustrated TED talk by visionary nature photographer Louie Schwartzberg.   Well worth ten minutes to watch in its entirety, the monk’s inspirational short speech is cued up HERE (if you’re in a hurry).

 

 

Back to investigations, my own leisurely dive into my father’s life is a perfect example of the benefit of spending as much time as needed to gather something worthwhile.  Without any time limit, I carefully wrote out everything I know or could imagine about my father’s life.  I constructed this tricky puzzle, with many key pieces missing, in a darkened room, free from any thought that I had to rush.  In the end, after more than two years of doing this daily, I am finally able to truly understand my father’s motivations — in a way that was impossible for me to grasp as I was working toward it.   I don’t agree with every position he took, but I feel like I completely understand why he took each one.  That empathetic view was unimaginable to me as I was working over the sketchy puzzle in the dimness.

A long, thoughtful investigation will always be more fruitful than one done in a hurry.   We tend to miss details when we rush.  Sometimes these details can be very important.   The gift of time can cut both ways, as when it is extended or contracted for an unscrupulous purpose.

If, for example, A.G. Bill Barr empowers a federal prosecutor to launch a limitless, global exploration into the detailed investigation into Mr. Trump and associates that he calls “a travesty” based on the “flimsiest” of evidence, embarked on after illegal “spying” — after enough time and resources are invested something will likely be turned up about some irregularity or impropriety.    Something concrete to support Barr’s politically handy theory of partisan “presidential harassment” and baseless “spying” on a president who (in spite of massive proof to the contrary) took no help from Russia or anyone else.

As it turned out, in the case of “Russiagate,” there was incorrect information on two of the four original FISA warrants that began the surveillance and investigation into the Trump campaign’s coordination with Russian state actors who were later shown to have meddled directly in all fifty US states on behalf of Mr. Trump.  False information, perhaps a dozen instances of it, in at least two applications for the FISA warrants to wiretap Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page [1]. 

After enough digging by a team of prosecutors and investigators, a malefactor was found, an FBI lawyer who left out that Page had been an informant for the CIA at one time.    A smoking gun!    As announced a few days ago, this now unmasked traitor (who claims the mistake was inadvertent, not part of a Deep State coup d’etat against a duly elected American president) is going to plead guilty for this deliberate misstatement on an application for the original FISA warrant that got operation Crossfire Hurricane up and running.   

I’d always thought the standard of proof for a FISA warrant to be approved was fairly low.  I’d understood that something like 99% of them were approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.  Though 99% of them are granted, based on probable cause to reasonably suspect a national security threat, the standard of proof to submit a warrant is higher than I supposed.   Here is an article extensively quoting an FBI insider’s description of how high the bar for a FISA warrant actually is.

That said, the DOJ’s own Inspector General, like the DOJ’s Special Counsel Mueller before him, and the Republican majority Senate Intel Committee since [2], determined that there was adequate legal predicate for the investigation of what is now known to be widespread, high level cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia, an investigation that resulted in numerous prosecutions and guilty pleas.   The DOJ’s IG pointed out the errors and omissions in the paperwork to get the FISA warrant and concluded that ambiguities in FBI and DOJ policy need to be tightened up.   He also made a referral for prosecution, which was not publicized much at the time.

It turns out the FBI lawyer was referred for prosecution by DOJ Inspector General Horowitz, not by the Barr/Durham criminal investigation [3].   But that is not for lack of effort by Barr/Durham who are determined to have some dramatic criminal indictments for an October Surprise to help their candidate.

With enough time and effort, a dogged team of investigators can usually turn up some kind of wrongdoing, about something.  If not Whitewater, for example, incriminating, irrefutable DNA on a blue dress.   Contrast this kind of thorough long-game investigation with one conducted under a tight deadline.

The tight negotiated deadline in the FBI’s five-day investigation into the sexual impropriety charge against Brett Kavanaugh is an example of a  investigation starved for time to investigate.   Even within that tight time frame, if the intent had been to verify or dismiss the allegation against the judge, the FBI could easily have learned if there was a house among that small circle of people at the gathering nobody specifically recalled (except for the girl who was traumatized) that fit the description the witness gave.   You walk up the stairs, bathroom on the left, bedroom directly across.   Who owned the home during the summer in question?   Did the parents work late every day?   Were they in town during the month the event nobody remembered took place? 

The answers to those relatively straight-forward questions make it more likely than not that one or the other was telling the truth, based on a now verified (or not) recollection of place.  Confirm the place, confirm the time frame, re-interview everyone there with this new information, other leads emerge, in time.

Of course, some investigations are merely for show, to demonstrate a willingness to investigate the truth or falsity of the statements of those involved, even if, as in the case of the Kavanaugh/Blasey Ford controversy, the FBI spoke to neither Kavanaugh nor Blasey Ford, nor Kavanaugh’s high school best friend, who was allegedly also in the room, also drunk, laughing uproariously and finally throwing himself on top of the two teenagers struggling on the bed, allowing one to escape.

Time, the only gift any of us cannot do without.

 

[1]  Wikipedia

Carter William Page (born June 3, 1971) is an American petroleum industry consultant and a former foreign-policy adviser to Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential election campaign.[1] Page is the founder and managing partner of Global Energy Capital, a one-man investment fund and consulting firm specializing in the Russian and Central Asian oil and gas business.[2][3][4]

[2]  Wikipedia:

The Republican-controlled Committee released its final report on 2016 Russian election interference in August 2020, finding that despite problems with the FISA warrant requests used to surveil him, the FBI was justified in its counterintelligence concerns about Page. The Committee found Page evasive and his “responses to basic questions were meandering, avoidant and involved several long diversions.” The Committee found that although Page’s role in the campaign was insignificant, Russia may have thought he was more important than he actually was.[101]

[3] Wikipedia 

Horowitz did fault the FBI for overreaching and mistakes during the investigation. These included failing to disclose when applying for a FISA warrant to surveil Page in October 2016 that he had provided the Central Intelligence Agency details of his prior contacts with Russian officials, including the incident the FBI indicated made Page’s conduct most suspicious.[84] In addition, Horowitz found that Kevin Clinesmith, an attorney in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Office of General Counsel (OGC), intentionally altered an interagency email to exclude from the FISA warrant application that Page was a CIA source from 2008 to 2013.[84][92] According to the Horowitz Report, if the FISA court judges had been informed of Page’s CIA relationship, his conduct might have seemed less suspicious, although the Report did not speculate on “whether the correction of any particular misstatement or omission, or some combination thereof, would have resulted in a different outcome.”[84][93] Horowitz referred Clinesmith to prosecutors for potential criminal charges.[94] On August 14, 2020, Clinesmith pleaded guilty to a felony for making a false statement by altering the email.[95][96]

Horowitz attributed the warrant problems to “gross incompetence and negligence” rather than intentional malfeasance or political bias.[97] In a December 10, 2019, interview on Hannity, Page indicated that he had retained attorneys to review the Horowitz Report and determine whether he has grounds to sue.[98]

In December 2019, the Justice Department secretly notified the FISA court that in at least two of the 2017 warrant renewal requests “there was insufficient predication to establish probable cause” to believe Page was acting as a Russian agent.[99]

In a subsequent analysis of 29 unrelated FISA warrant requests, Horowitz found numerous typographical errors but just two material errors, which were determined not to impact the justifications for the resulting surveillance.[100]

Plague Mice

Had a cheerful greeting from this guy at Costco today, who, when I asked him to smile for the camera, went:



Here is a meditative little track for you: Plague Mice. A recent long-distance (over 10,000 mile) collaboration with guitarist Paul Greenstein [1].

We figured, since we were doing it during a worldwide plague, that those beautifully singing mice who solo along with Paul’s guitar could only be Plague Mice. We offer the tune as a hope for better times, and soon.





[1] Technical details: My parts were done on a Ditto looper, recorded on my phone, sent to Paul, Paul improvised that cool melody over the top, with the soulful chorus of digital mice singing over his guitar. Paul called dialing in that electronic, ethereal mouse chorus effect “putting eyebrows on it” , as Frank Zappa used to say.

I say nice eyebrows, man.

The Benefit of Thinking

I’m currently experiencing an annoying and intermittently painful medical situation, a bit of the old gross hematuria that’s been going on for a few days.   I’ve learned not to stray too far from a bathroom, as the sudden urge to piss a little blood and a few clots sometimes becomes, in two seconds, completely unbearable.   I am assured by my urologist that this is not unexpected in a man my age and that medicine doesn’t know the exact reason I’m having these troubles (science calls such unknowable things “idiopathic”) or how long they will persist.   I’m waiting for test results that could shed more light in a day or two.   I’m told we can safely rule out all of the most scary end-stage cancer possibilities and so I’m inconvenienced, and drinking ridiculous amounts of water (a gallon and a half the other day) but otherwise not full of fear.

But enough of my medical troubles which nature will resolve, or medical science eventually will.   The reason I bring them up is to foreground the life-affirming power of wrestling a difficult intellectual/emotional/moral puzzle into comprehensibility and how the effort brings a great sense of satisfaction as it helps put physical suffering into perspective.   I find it a particularly rewarding exercise in this age when supremely confident, heedless ignorance is triumphantly strutting at the head of several of the earth’s largest nations.

I’ve spent the last few days, between hundreds of sessions straining and groaning in the bathroom, writing and thinking, thinking and writing, digging my way to the bottom of a deep, extremely vexing situation, the tragic end of a friendship of fifty years.   Thinking helps writing, of course, and writing — and rewriting —  greatly helps clarify thinking, I find.   

After many hours, I finally wrote the final words on the subject, explaining to a perplexed girlfriend (two actually, my friend’s and mine)  exactly why I could struggle no more to save something that appears to be dead.   When any doubt about my motives and my sincere efforts to resolve things was cleared away I felt a great sense of relief and release, having worked to fully set out what had been impossible for me to fully grasp — or explain– before the hours and hours I put into grappling with the thorny issues.  It was not the effort to be “right” that consumed me, it was the effort to fully understand and articulate exactly why I’d been so hurt, why the situation was so intolerable to me.

One great beauty of this process was that in the end I had something I could read to Sekhnet, that put my feelings into a reasonable frame for her.  It allowed her to understand that I had not acted out of blind anger, or pettiness, or pride or any impulse but trying to preserve a friendship that was clearly on life support while in a death spiral.  It put its finger squarely on what has become unsupportable in that friendship.

In the midst of this exercise, which took several days across several weeks, we watched an excellent 2013 movie called Hannah Arendt.   I rediscovered Hannah a couple of years ago and wrote a kind of intro to her calling her the Intellectual It-Girl for this moment in history.  She is a hero of mine and, among other things, a great analyst of totalitarianism and how it operates — how it requires ignorant faith in irrational ideas and leads to the violent repudiation of rational thought.

Her masterpiece, Eichmann in Jerusalem, is perhaps my all-time favorite book [1].  In that short book, which made her legions of devoted enemies, she gets as close as anyone to isolating and describing that irresistible impulse in some humans, pursuing a perverse but common notion of ambition and integrity, conforming without thought to abnormal new norms, to commit the most monstrous evils, while themselves being neither psychopaths, fanatics nor monsters. 

We watched the 2013 movie, which starred the superb Barbara Sukowa as the Hannah of my dreams.   Take a look at the trailer.  I was tickled all the more, watching the film a couple of days before what would have been my mother’s 92nd birthday (happy belated birthday, mom), at Barbara Sukowa’s uncanny resemblance to a younger Yetta, my mother’s mother.  We both thought the movie was great.  It showed clearly the price Hannah Arendt willingly paid to not kowtow to any particular interest group, tribe or ideology, but to get to the deeper, more difficult truth of the matter she was investigating, wrestling into comprehensibility and presenting for readers.  

To my knowledge nobody has ever written a better short history of the Nazi era than Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece.  It would certainly be hard to imagine one.   The unsettling insight that emerges from the book is that ordinary people will do unspeakable things under unspeakable conditions and that some of history’s greatest “monsters” are simply ambitious people who unthinkingly go along with their insane masters’ plans [2].

In the case of Eichmann, he unquestioningly did whatever he was told by his superiors.  First he diligently sought to expedite Jewish emigration, a good solution, he thought.  Then, in phase two, he applied himself to the forced expulsion and concentration of Jews, which was admittedly less pleasant for him, but nonetheless necessary.  He was equally diligent in the performance of his duties in the final stage, his least pleasant task: getting the optimum number of Jews on the optimum number of trains to optimize the number that could be solved, finally.

A man like Eichmann deserves to be executed, if anyone does; Arendt doesn’t flinch for a second over the fate of a blindly obedient unthinkingly murderous cog like Adolf Eichmann.  He doesn’t get a pass, because he’s a clown, for his willing participation in one of the most gruesome mass murders, certainly the most coldly efficient, in world history.   Hannah:

The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist — provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.   Some of the comedy cannot be conveyed in English, because it lies in Eichmann’s heroic fight with the German language, which inevitably defeats him.   (p.48)

She was right, the comedy couldn’t be conveyed in English, though she gave it a shot, a short parade of absurd examples of Eichmann’s limited and ridiculous powers of expression, to give a sense of it.  She concludes:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely related to his inability to think, namely think from the standpoint of somebody else.   (p.49 — in the margin I see I have written “Trump” in pencil, hmm…)

To present Eichmann as one of history’s greatest monsters — well, to her it completely missed the point.   An important point.  A crucial point.  When we stop thinking, analyzing, acting as moral agents, we become capable of unimaginably monstrous things.   Like shipping millions of Jews to their deaths while insisting you are no killer, never ordered a single killing, never deliberately hurt anyone, are not in the least bit antiSemitic, have never harbored any ill will toward anyone.

Fortuitously, a friend just sent me a link to the first article by Arendt published in the New Yorker in Febaruary, 1963  (the articles that later became Arendt’s book length masterpiece).  Read the opening, admire the mind that, fluent in English, French and German (and probably other languages) can say, without hesitation, that the German translation (the only one Eichmann and his lawyer could understand) was by far the worst.   The three Israeli judges, good men all, were originally German Jews.   They struggled at times to correct the poor German translation, to clarify things, and they did not pretend to wait for things to be translated into Hebrew before they replied.   Hannah admired these qualities in the judges as she lamented the terrible German translation that surely muddied the clarity of the proceedings.   She wonders why, with so many fluently bilingual German Jews in Israel, the German translation had been so poor.  It is something to think about — and perhaps another of several reasons Arendt’s book was not published in Hebrew, or available in Israel — none of her books were–  until 1999.  

Of course, thought is famously hard, as is expressing thought coherently, as is arguing intelligently about which thought is more profoundly thought.  Sekhnet and I loved the movie.   A very articulate and well-read critic at the New Yorker had problems with the movie, serious ones, and equally profound problems with Arendt herself.   You can read it and emerge convinced that the filmmaker and Hannah Arendt both missed the mark, badly.  In the end, the critic acknowledged that Arendt had inadvertently written a ‘masterpiece’– though he claims this happened by accident.   Take a look at the smart review if you have some time.  Or, better still, watch the movie — then read her book.   Then read this brilliant jerk-off’s well-argued opinion.

For me, the guy’s surgical critique of Arendt (and the film about her)  brought to mind words I read at the end of a short biography of Django Reinhardt, included as part of a book teaching a few of Django’s guitar parts note for note.    The writer who’d been paid to write the short bio (not the musician who lovingly transcribed what Django had composed and improvised) concluded with his considered opinion that Django had been a “near genius.”   I immediately felt the urge to contact this hack writer and correct him.  Actually, the urge was a bit more direct than that.   Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, of course, but, as someone pithily put it once: not their own facts [3].

There are facts, things that actually happened, physical things, tapes that can be played back to confirm what was said or show what was actually done, documents, there is data, ideally verifiable and reliable data compiled by scientists.  Facts make our beliefs more or less solid, basing action on fact separates considered opinions from absolute, blind faith or sheer stupidity.  The factual world, the idea of truth itself, is under attack.  No useful understanding of anything is possible without first knowing, as factually as possible, the thing you are trying to understand.

In Brazil, strongman former military junta member Jair Bolsonaro is doing the same work Narendra Modi is doing in India, the tireless work this orange-toned manipulator is doing here:  the human and scientific facts have NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING!   Bolsonaro has taken to insisting, aping his American counterpart, that hydroxychloroquine (70% of the world supply is manufactured in Modi’s India) is a miracle drug that will protect everyone from the virus, as the pandemic sweeps through Brazil’s crowded favelas, its slums, as it has been wildly spreading here in what has become the world epicenter, of the pandemic and denial of the pandemic, both.  As it is sure to sweep the crowded slums of India, makers of most of the world’s most miraculous miracle drug.    If you follow leaders like these, and carry out their orders, in spite of the shakiness of the “logic” they present, be prepared for the judgment of history — if, indeed, we will have history in the future — or any human future at all, for that matter.

 

[1]  Right up there with The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (Walter Morrison translation).   If you have not read these stories, particularly if you’re a writer pick up this out-of-print book, (you can also read this post.)

[2]   A tangentially related point enraged legions of Jews and others against Arendt.   She noted that had the Jews not voluntarily organized themselves, had their leaders not helped keep order in their ghettos and make lists of Jewish property and designate which individuals were to be deported, that fewer Jews would have died in the chaos that would have resulted from lack of Jewish cooperation — chaos that would have required massively more Nazi manpower to supervise (the Jews were forced to provide their own police forces to assist the Nazis).   People wanted her head for this, though she made this hard to dispute observation in passing while describing several desperate cases of certain Jewish elders, forced into the unimaginably hellish position of having to deal with the Nazis who were busily killing them, some of whom believed they could make moral deals with monsters, at times making decisions a few would later commit suicide over or, in at least one case, later face criminal prosecution in Israel for (he was murdered during the trial)

[3]  Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as the internets inform us.

Personality Conflict

If you are raised by a relentless bully there is a challenging process you must go through not to become a relentless bully yourself when you grow up.   Granted, it is not a process for everyone.

Under stress, we sometimes revert to type, in spite of what we may have learned to do better, through great effort.   Human.

I don’t want to argue with people all the time.  I try my best to avoid it, I really do. You want to argue me out of my desire not to argue, since it is a waste of a good skill set, to your way of seeing it.  I understand you can’t help the constant demand that I justify everything I say and do, but I don’t like it, can’t make you understand how much I don’t like it.

“You have an emotional blind spot,” I say, when subjected to this again, when I can see no other way out, no way to make you see my point of view.  

“I don’t see it,” you say, reflexively asserting your human right to see things as you do.  

Later, blood pressure rising as the futility becomes more and more impossible not to feel, I will make an ill-advised reference to tone-deafness that will send you into a rage, cause you to scream and slam down the phone.  

“I am neither tone-deaf nor do I have an emotional blind spot, I, in fact, love you more than just about anyone in the world,” you will write in a long, reasonable email a few days later.   “As for your ‘kryptonite’ — silence by way of response — I don’t get why your right to a response supersedes my right not to have my innocent silence misconstrued.   Further, my recent apology, which I found it unfair and unreasonable of you to demand,  was only given because you were so irrationally enraged…”

At which point my desire to continue reading fades, the stomach acid returns to my stomach and I reach for my guitar.  I play “That’s Amore”– now in the key of D, a much better key for a solo guitar version of this snappy tune, which I can’t seem to get out of my head.   Play it in D, you will like it very much.   

I later rescue from undeserved obscurity two paragraphs I wrote in closing a post I later deleted for fear of offending an old friend, my last words on the subject:

Silence, ideally, is the best remedy for unwanted silence, to demonstrate exactly how it eats at a heart that has posed an unanswered question.  To know how it actually feels, a thing difficult to explain in words.

Though here, in the odd event that my old friend who could be affected by this ever reads these words, I’d have to sacrifice the cold satisfaction of that beautifully symmetrical working of easy, elemental justice in the name of further digesting this true, hard stone — that professed love is worth little without a reflex to unconditionally empathize when your friend is in pain.