One from the vault (Sensitive Dog)

One from the Random Acts of Senseless Creativity files. After I thought about this track an hour ago I went looking for it, a journey through a labyrinth of old emails and various digital booby-traps. After a few small wrestling matches with the technology, I was able to place it here, where it can be found easily next time. I was happy to locate it and I’m glad to pass it on.

The underlying track for this is called Dog on a String, composed and performed by Paul Greenstein sometime after the turn of the twenty-first century, if memory serves. This was an improvisation I recorded, back on April 14, 2006, apparently. All parts were played for the love of making the track and for that reason alone.

For me this over-the-top jam captures the thrill of interactive invention — the joy of improvising over a groove you’re really digging.

Our ability to find joy and improvise has been sorely tested in the isolation of this COVID crisis. Mutual, playful improvisation, a vital part of human interaction, a free delight of life, fades during dark times, the habit of playing happily — another casualty of the pandemic. Playing together gives us joy, undeniable but easy to forget, sometimes. This track reminds me of how much fun play is.

Paul’s track was a delight, I greatly love that mysterious, soulful Indian singer, all of Paul’s parts are superb (if several lovely ones were drowned out by the overloud distorted guitar, sorry about that). It is also beautifully engineered, everything is exactly where you want it to be in the mix and the EQ. I’ll ask Paul for the original track, so I can post that beauty for you to hear.

Listening to this track I hear my excitement, the enthusiastic variations inspired by the sheer fun of following a wildly idiosyncratic groove.

Sensitive Dog starts with a dog lover’s question for Cesar Milan, who then considers the best way to interact with a dog who is very sensitive. Odd to say, I couldn’t tell you what key it’s in, I had no idea when I was playing it, most unusual for me, I followed the singer as best I could.

There are suboptimal notes, which I can’t begrudge someone inventing parts over a track he is greatly loving as he plays. If you don’t let yourself be distracted by the mistakes and take in the entire 1:56 as a piece, I think you’ll get what I’m talking about.

My only regret is the mix. If someone had been sitting at the controls (there were no controls, the overdub was recorded off the small amp that was also playing Dog on A String) and adjusting the volume on the distorted guitar, to allow Dog on A String’s many subtle nuances to be appreciated, the track would be infinitely better.

To me, the track is still cool, instant time-travel to a moment of great fun. A reminder of a vital thing, sadly easy to forget during dark days — the joy of carefree play with someone you enjoy. I hope you find it so too.

Musical Interlude

This early pandemic recording (May 2020) seems a good Christmas offering, something about Tony Bennett, the singer who made this lush pop tune popular back in the Eisenhower days, even before my time. [1]

To me this tune is a great example of a great arrangement, you really can’t do the proper accompaniment without playing the two main parts. The chords are basic and provide a pleasing harmony to the melody. But it’s the line the piano is playing against the chords (a clever arpeggio of the chord), it turns out, that gives the song its swing, its groove. The melody, applied over the top, even loosely, cannot help but be at its most beautiful, set off this way by the other two parts. My Christmas elf’s hat is off to the arranger of this great tune.

To the musically hip, check out a fatal flaw in the underlying loop, every time the top comes around (and dig the riff from Santana’s first album in the bluesy final chorus, and a guest vocal from Sekhnet at the very end).

[1]

“I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is a popular song, written in the fall of 1953 in Brooklyn, New York, with music by George Cory and lyrics by Douglass Cross and best known as the signature song of Tony Bennett. Wikipedia

Take Care of Yourself, friend

There are things you love to do. You should do them. When things are at their worst, at their scariest, when life on our planet is teetering on the brink of extinction, it is imperative to remember to cherish the things we love and to do them often.

The people we love too, of course, of course, we have to try extra hard to take good care of them. It is more important now than at other times to show them as much mercy and kindness as you have in your heart, and that goes for mercy and kindness toward yourself too in this terrifying, aggravating time. But what I am talking about now is doing the things that make us happiest, that restore us to ourselves. It is super important now to remember them, and do them often.

I love to play music. I am a good guitar player and a limited, though functional piano player. Few things I know compare to the pure joyful relaxation that takes over once the guitar is staying in tune (cold weather, and sudden changes in temperature, can really mess with the strings), the instrument is warm in your hands and the musical sounds emerge as beautifully as you can make them. Take a beat, if you like, swing another beat against it. It’s probably as close as I’ll ever come to taking off and soaring on thermals, or gliding a mile under a perfect ocean.

The words you are reading now, something else that gives me great pleasure to put together. Obviously, I spend time every day doing this. I am compelled, but, also, I love to do it.

Cooking a tasty, healthy meal, something I’ve always liked to do, has taken on more meaning to me during this lockdown as Sekhnet feels up against the daily horrors and it is a comfort to us both to share a fresh meal that is actually good for us. I am starting to love the whole process of making a pot or pan of something good.

Walking is something I’ve always liked to do. Now that I have arthritis in both knees, it has become a necessity for me to walk throughout the day, to avoid pain. An hour or two in nature, breathing in the trees, is always a beautiful thing. I love certain moments of my long daily walk. There is a time, after walking long enough, when the stiffness and soreness in my knees melts away. The pleasure of sitting on a bench after thirty minutes of purposefully striding along — I love it.

Odd to say, though I’ve always loved to draw, and make all kinds of marks on paper, have always carried a drawing book with me, and several of my favorite pens and pencils, I’ve done virtually no drawing or calligraphy during this pandemic nightmare.

I showed a friend’s super-talented granddaughter how to do simple stop frame animation the other day. Under the mounted camera I drew a simple face and quickly showed her the principle of making animation out of two or more carefully registered drawings (or in this case, two stages of the same drawing).

I explained to her that you can later make the drawing as colorful or detailed as you like, photograph it and add the changes to the animation. (We were working outside in a park, so our art supplies were quite limited). At home afterwards I decided to refine the drawing above to demonstrate this idea to her. You will understand at once, I think, why I decided not to send her the drawing.

Who wants to look into those bizarre, hopeless, death-haunted eyes? Certainly not a sensitive seven year-old who is living through one of the worst periods in recent human history.

Shoot, maybe that’s why I’m not drawing these days. More than in anything else I do, my subconscious emerges most freely in drawings. I can play a stiff version of a beautiful tune on the piano, it’s not great music, but it doesn’t have even a hint of the terror in the face above. Perhaps I’ll try a bit of calligraphy later.

For now, do yourself a kindness. Think of something you love to do, maybe have forgotten about in your overwhelmed concern about the simultaneous and intrusive plagues that are upon us now, and do it. You will thank yourself afterwards, I’m pretty sure. Even if you don’t thank yourself (ingrate!) time is never wasted doing something you love to do.

groove for Plague Mice, collaboration with PG, 5-16-20 (with thanks to Jimi for the bassline)

America, America…

As the president continues to block a rational transition to the Biden administration, at the height of the pandemic, President Trump’s top pandemic advisor, Dr. Charles Atlas, urged the citizens of the great state of Michigan to “rise up”– another incitement to violent overthrow of Democrat Tyranny, in the form of a mask mandate and the closing of businesses to protect residents against a new surge of COVID. (No call to behead the traitorous Republican governors of North Dakota and Utah who imposed similar mandates? Come on, Atlas!)

Atlas is right, of course, about one part of that: we only get what we accept. Bill Moyers published this piece, with the clever “Dr. Atlas Shrugs” (a tip of the cap to the grande dame of sanitized fascists, Ayn Rand) in the headline, which gives more detail for any egghead who might want to go beyond the good doctor’s tweet (which Atlas, shrugging, later denied was any kind of incitement to violence, “rise up”, you know, like “stand by,” LOL!) [1].

Anyway, fuck Atlas and the whores he rode in on. He’s just another incendiary device in Mr. Trump’s unrelenting blitzkrieg on objective fact, evidence, all that unfair Communist claptrap and folderol. I mean, just look at these complete lies from yesterday’s New York Times!

The “Times” makes it seem as if the Republican Secretary of State of Georgia is being pressured by his own party to resign, or to throw out the fraudulent signature-mismatched votes that gave Biden the stolen, rigged election in Georgia. Well, he is being pressured, sure, OK, that’s just hardball party politics, but it’s not like he’s getting death threats, though, naturally, he reports he is. Which, of course, he would. He’s clearly in on the Biden scam! Another traitor!

OF COURSE THESE “EXPERTS” WOULD SAY THAT! They wouldn’t know fraud it if came right up and DID NOTHING TO THEM!

I’m hoping we don’t have blood in the streets as this FAKE electoral dispute senselessly continues while administration loyalists stand proudly, manfully working up passions for the violent end of electoral democracy in the USA. As things stand at the moment, I don’t think there will be a Second Civil War, but, objectively, it is Mr. Trump’s only path to staying in power after losing the election. Worth a shot, no?

Georgia’s Republican officials disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters since 2017 — purged at least 107,000 eligible voters before their current governor (the man who, as Georgia Secretary of State, unilateraly ordered and oversaw the voter purge) won a 55,000 vote victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams. Soon to be preemptively pardoned Louis DeJoy deliberately slowed mail delivery in 2020 from places like Atlanta, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans. How many votes were undelivered? We’ll find out in the coming months, perhaps.

The Republican party did everything possible to suppress the hated “Democrat” vote in Georgia, including outright cheating, and Biden still managed to squeak out a 14,000 vote win in the great state of Georgia, thanks to the dedication of millions of voters in Georgia who would not be deterred, not take what they were being forced to accept.

I thought of these dedicated voters fleetingly yesterday, as I posed these two candy bars on the cashier’s conveyor belt for their portrait.

The cashier looked confused at first, as I fussed lining up the shot, trying to get an angle that reduced the glare enough to make the labels readable. Then she read the labels. “It’s everything now,” I said to her, “you can’t buy a fucking candy bar without having to pick a side…” She told me, as she announced her register closed, that she’d never noticed that about the Twix bars, until now. I shook my head, tight smile mostly a smirk, turned to put the candy bars back on the rack.

The expression on her face, the cashier was what we in the U.S. call a “black woman” or “African-American”, was that unique mixture of bemusement and bottomless sadness, plus a bit of resolve. Sekhnet and I nodded in agreement. We all wished each other a cheerful “be safe,” and Sekhnet and I went to find the car in the Target parking lot.

[1]

Here’s one nice slice, to give you the general flavor of both sides of this “argument” about wearing masks during a deadly pandemic:

During his interview, Dr. Atlas railed against those who refuse to accept facts that contradict what they want to believe. He lambasted people unable to admit that they’re wrong. But when asked about Dr. Fauci’s comment that Dr. Atlas is an outlier on epidemiological and public health issues relating to the pandemic, he said, “I’m proud to be an outlier, especially when the ‘in-liers’ are completely wrong…I’m not afraid to be a contrarian because I know I’m right.”

source

A Little Reminder About Moods

Moods come and go, and are often subject to actual events in your life. It is good to keep this transience in mind when a painful mood is oppressing you, when it feels like a particularly hard emotion will keep you in its grip forever. Moods feel irrefutable, but the ones produced by raging stress often start succumbing to reason after a good night’s sleep. It’s hard to keep this in mind while the emotion is strong, when it’s hard to even get to sleep, but I think practice may help.

Sekhnet and I recently saved the lives of five tiny feral kittens. They’d been dropped in Sekhnet’s garden by a shrewd mother cat, a cat we didn’t know, who abandoned them to the care of the provider of the neighborhood’s best cat buffet. Once Sekhnet inadvertently allowed one of them to eat. The good looking little cat caught her eye before he left.

The next day the tiny alpha kitten was back, demanding food on behalf of himself and his four larger siblings. He simply would not take no for an answer.

After Alpha made his successful appeal, the others followed. Sekhnet got a good shot of three of his four bothers and sisters, coming out of their hiding place and marching toward the feeding area.

That day they all began eating two hearty meals a day in the garden, exploring and hanging out all over the place, much to the disgust of the five adult feral cats who already lived on, and had fought for control of, that turf. Here they are, led by tiny, indomitable Alpha Mouse, in the male pear tree. Naturally he was the first one up the tree. He’s looking down on them in this shot.

The disorienting pandemic lockdown was on and we took on the saving of these five tiny lives as a kind of mission. Over the years we’d watched dozens of feral cats and kittens we got to know live short, often brutal lives, many of our favorites living only a couple of months. We decided we’d try our best to save these five.

Sekhnet fed and played with them a bit in the garden every day. She took many great photos of the little beauties. I would go out and sit with them late at night, little Alpha didn’t mind being picked up, would sit calmly on my lap from the beginning. They all learned to chase the little cat cookies I’d toss them and eventually to eat them out of our hands. Once the first couple were fairly tame (Alpha’s brother Beta followed in the little leader’s footsteps) Sekhnet designed an ingenious trap, scooped them all up at once and brought them inside where they lived in a large comfortable cage she’d found online. We then set about getting the others used to being picked up and petted. They all took to it quickly.

They were surprisingly happy with the cage, which had several levels and a little workout area where they could take turns pounding a couple of light speed bags. We took them out and handled them one at a time, petted them, won them over, made them all pets. In the end we brought them to a great adoption center we finally found and every one of them was soon adopted as a pet. Naturally Alpha was the first to be adopted, after a very short stay at the shelter, his first day out of quarantine, I think. The rest were all quickly adopted in the days that followed.

We’d done a good deed, we knew we couldn’t keep them around, our plan from the start was to get them adopted to have good lives but we were emotionally devastated that first night, after our friend rented a van and helped us transport them to the shelter in Freeport. They had all come to trust us, and were affectionate and playful, and incredibly cute. We’d grown very attached to having them around. Then they were gone. The house seemed so empty. We cried looking at their many portraits and film clips that first night.

But here is the point I want to make. The pain, though intense, did not last long. By the next day it was much easier, within two days easier still. The good deed we’d done lingered, the painful goodbye to them didn’t. It is something worth remembering when you feel heartbroken sometimes. Painful feelings truly do pass, sometimes surprisingly quickly.

I think of our horror (mine and Sekhnet’s, millions of others were delighted) on election night, at how close the vote was, at the real chance that America’s long experiment in democracy was finally and definitively at an end. At least five million MORE of our countrymen had come out to vote a second time for the most deliberately divisive, untruthful, vindictive, angry, litigious president this nation has ever had. Women, it emerged, had voted for Trump in larger numbers in 2020 than 2016! Women! Hispanic (desculpe me, Latinx) votes seem to have put him over the top in Texas and Florida. The real possibility that this raging winner could win the election and triumphantly rule as lawlessly as he sees fit set Sekhnet to sobbing into her ginger beer. I felt sick too, could not get to sleep.

In the days before the election, as the pandemic continued to rage out of control in most of the country, and new records for infections and deaths were broken day after day, the president confidently (and lyingly) declared victory over the disease that was killing record numbers in the states he won. Mission Accomplished! His maskless crowds roared their approval. On election night the agitated depression we felt was impossible to refute. It was based on the unwanted truth that we are living in a nightmare where the stubbornly reinforced, aggressive stupidity of millions of our fellow citizens, proud “values voters,” impervious to evidence even if it comes up and chokes their family members to death, is unfathomable.

The day after Election Day, as the incoming vote totals were being disputed by a president who had already strongly suggested he was declaring victory, even as he announced his intention to dispute his loss in the 6-3 Supreme Court he’d created, the media (the lying media, die Lügenpresse) was quietly publishing items like these. No longer really headlines, as much as wistful reminders:

I think bitterly that if Trump’s pandemic plan had really worked, letting the pandemic kill millions of “Democrat” voters of color in “Democrat” cities, cutting off needed financial aid to the increasingly large numbers of poor to create mass desperation and massive crime sprees, riots, looting and the need for Bill Barr’s Bureau of Prisons and ICE forces to violently clamp down on “Democrat” cities, (perhaps deploying even the military itself under the Insurrection Act,) he could have proved his wildest “law and order” theory about antifa and anarchy and black rights groups, killed and locked up enough of his enemies to actually win the Electoral College, even if he again lost the “popular vote” by millions. His open conspiracy with political supporter and mega-donor Louis DeJoy, who openly sabotaged the delivery of predominantly Democratic votes, alone, could have won him the election. It could still, unlikely as it now appears.

As the vote counting continues, Trump insisting that counting in areas he leads but is in danger of losing must be halted immediately while demanding recounts in states he has already lost (fair is fair), it looks less and less likely that the president has a path to 270. As my cousin wrote me from the great state of Georgia today:

It’s too close, but I think the only way Trump gets to 270 is if he loses 50 lbs. 

My point in all this — as Biden gets closer and closer to the 270 needed to win, as horrific as it is that almost 70,000,000 Americans seem to have voted for Donald Trump — and a majority of white women! (maybe the misogynists have a point…) as Trump’s path to the 6-3 Supreme Court seems more and more far-fetched — today feels much different than Tuesday evening.

Biden is far from my idea of an inspirational president, the Democratic party is not anyone’s idea of a meaningful political opposition party. One side radically employs any means necessary to maintain power and force its minority views on the majority of country — and that side is not the corporate Democrats. The Democratic party, as a party, is about as committed to the economic status quo as the Republican party always was. Still, Joe Biden is not Donald Trump — the main reason maybe 75,000,000 of us will have ended up voting for him.

Once he is sworn in, hopefully with a 50-50 Senate where Kamala Harris will be the tie-breaker (though even that modest goal of flipping four Senate seats likely won’t be achieved) we will have to set up committees of correspondence, organize, mobilize, stay in the streets, be smart in messaging, push, push, push. We will still be pushing a reluctant centrist against the dogged resistance of Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham — and every single elected and appointed member of their unified, radical party– as sickening as that thought is.

We need to stay positive and proactive, of course. If we push hard enough, you never know. The midterm primaries in 2022 may even feature meaningful Democratic party debates about how to avoid rapidly approaching fatal Climate Catastrophe. The escalating danger of global warming is even further down the page today than the new record COVID numbers, though the threats are equally dangerous. We don’t have much time to fix any of this, and four years have just been worse than just wasted — we need to ride President Biden like the affable, probably well-intentioned donkey he is.

My point though: it feels better today to be an American (for a bare majority of us), and much more hopeful, than it did two days ago.

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 help 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.