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.  

 

Learning or not learning

An old friend was lamenting the other night how many years it has taken him to learn the most basic things about being a kind person.  How to overcome the ready reflex to react violently to provocation, for example [1].  I commiserated, that kind of transformation is not accomplished overnight, if at all, particularly if you grew up regularly under attack in a family war zone.   On the other hand, struggling to be a more compassionate person is the right thing to do and whatever progress we make benefits those we love as much as it benefits us.

We’re taught many things as children that are not only wrong, but do great damage to our young souls, damage we’re often compelled to pass on to others who don’t deserve to be mistreated.   Every abusive person in the world was subjected to abuse as a young person.  It doesn’t excuse the asshole behavior, but it makes it understandable.   Nobody becomes a bully unless they grew up in fear, humiliated and shamed regularly.

I reminded my friend at one point of something he’d long ago forgotten, a random moment of kindness he had no reason to remember, but one that made a deep impression on me.   That moment showed me, more clearly than anything up until that time, that there was a gentle beauty to life that had been largely hidden from me during a combative childhood defending myself against an antagonist who waited until the last night of his life to express sorrow and regret for the lifelong war he’d always blamed me for.   The random act of my friends’ kindness opened my eyes to how nurturing and healing real gentleness is.

I reminded my friend of that long ago day at the lake (which I wrote about here) and he had only the vaguest memory of  it.    He recalled taunting me, at one point, until I laid back on the rock, a crust of bread held between my lips, and waited for the beaked kiss of a hungry Canadian goose.  The aggressive birds had surrounded us during lunch, looking for some lunch.  He’d been doing it, and laughing as the birds snatched the bread from his mouth, and urging me to try it, but I’d resisted.   He called me a pussy in front of two female friends, “PUSSY!” he taunted, and like a true pussy, I put a crust of bread in my lips, laid back and waited for the hungry kiss of a large bird.  It was pretty cool.  I then reminded him about swimming in the lake and Audrey, who he’d only met that one time, and I fondly praised her as a great girl, talented, funny, cute, sensuous.     

“Why didn’t you stay with her?” my friend asked, hearing the obvious affection I had for her. 

I explained that at the time I was still way too immature to know how to handle somebody as damaged as Audrey also was.   I loved hearing her laugh, her touch, her beautiful singing voice, many great things about her, but I was too big an asshole, still, at age thirty or so, to know how to take care of the parts of her (or myself) that were so broken.     

She gave me stern advice one day, late in our friendship, and I resisted what she was telling me.  She pressed on, telling me that she wasn’t telling me anything she didn’t also tell herself.  I smirked and told her, with a bit too much coldness, that the things she told herself included “put your head in the oven and inhale the gas” and “take the razor blade into the bathtub and end this suffering.”   I said, if somebody told me those things, I’d defend myself violently against them.

That wasn’t the point, of course.  I managed to reject her advice, and win that little round of an ongoing disagreement, but the cruelty was unnecessary, and damaging.   She had struggled against suicide (and I hope never afterwards succumbed to the urge to do herself in, I haven’t heard of her for decades now) and prevailed more than once against a self-destructive tic I could not relate to.   Others might kill me, and I’d fight them about that, but I won’t ever raise my hand against myself (unless, perhaps, I am in unbearable pain in the final stage of a terminal disease).   Those things might all be true, but it was very mean of me to use them against her like that.   At that time I was simply too hardened against critical voices, even if they were right, and too intent on being right.

The world of hurt in Audrey’s heart, the pain that sometimes made her want to die?  I had no way to touch it.  I could make her laugh, I could make love with her, I could accompany her on guitar when she sang and played the flute, but beyond that, I was pretty much clueless.  

What we learn, I don’t know how we do it.  I’ve sometimes thought that the things that trouble us most make us think deeply about them (if we are wired that way, denial is probably a more common response) and look for insights into how to have less pain.    Pain, of course, is famous for distorting our thinking beyond endurance.   

Look at the tens of thousands of deaths of despair every year in America: suicide by gun, drunk driving, drug overdoses.    There is no help for this kind of hopelessness in a nation that divides the world into great winners and fucking losers.   We can learn to repudiate this false, asshole version of the world, though it is not easy.  “Winning” is really about the love and kindness we have in our lives, everything else is deliberately misleading advertising.  If you live without much love in your life you know this, if you live with a lot of love, you know this too.

How do we learn anything?  I don’t know, even as I know I’ve learned some important things over the years.  Some things we learn without effort, because we love them, are fascinated by them, drawn to them, can’t help improving because we are involved in them all the time, curious, thrilled by them.  If you love the sound an instrument makes, for example, and how it feels to play that instrument, odds are you will get better and better playing it.   If you love to draw, you will draw all the time, and if you do, you will get better and better at it.   Writing, same deal.   Critical thinking may also be in this category– finding and assembling the facts to figure puzzling things out.

But the really hard emotional stuff — how not to behave like our earliest role models?  How not to blame ourselves for the cruelty that’s sometimes inflicted on us?  How not to be tortured by fear?   How to remain mild, and as kind as we can, even when we feel hurt?   Very hard things, all of them.

I don’t know that I have a nice bow to tie this up with.  I don’t.  Life rarely includes real closure, or black and white changes that are beyond dispute.  In our war-torn world, nothing is beyond dispute, if you are willing to fight to the death over it.   Our current president is the perfect example of this: never wrong, always justified, always perfect.   Angry too, of course, because he is so innocent and lives in a corrupt world with so much wrong, so many enemies unjustifiably hellbent against him, everything so imperfect. 

The changes my friend and I discussed the other night are sometimes subtle, other times impossible to see at all.   We still react with anger when we feel provoked, but we probably react with less anger at times.   We still are unable to do much to heal the hurt in people we love, but we are better at it than we were.   We have learned a few important things, after many, many years.   I congratulate my friend for this learning, even as I commiserate about the hard road he is on, has always been on.   It is, of course, much easier simply to remain an asshole.

 

 

[1] If there is a harder trick, for somebody who was subjected to abuse as a child, I’m not sure what it is.

Empathy requires focus sometimes

Empathy is what we hope we always give to people we love, what we always hope for from those closest to us.   Sharing another person’s pain, fear, sorrow, weakness is the kindest thing we can do for them.  It’s not always easy to empathize, even with those we’re closest to, especially about things we ourselves have never experienced.   Empathy is an essential element of kindness, its absence feels like indifference, abandonment, even if the lapse in empathy is purely unintentional and leaves us aghast when it is revealed to us.

Some people are simply dicks, we can stipulate to that.  This type is too immature and selfish to think of anything but their own needs.   This tendency is exacerbated by the extreme nature of the on-demand winner-take-all society we live in.   In our individualistic, competitive culture it’s easy to get sucked into the prevailing mentality that it’s no vice to step over somebody weaker and do a crowing victory dance next to their fallen body.  We are unconsciously conditioned to view the world in a crudely Darwinian way.   That said, most of us are empathetic, whenever our hearts are touched.  

There are rare types on either end of the empathy scale.  Finely tuned empathetic souls who are always concerned for the feelings of others, of every stranger they encounter, about the fate of others they will never meet, the well-being of the planet itself.  On the other end of the spectrum is the clinical diagnosis for evil: the malignant narcissist, incapable of empathy under any circumstance.    The rest of us are in between, our own empathetic abilities varying according to circumstance.  

I give two illustrations of things I will always remember, pictures from both sides of the empathy scale.

Years ago I went to the lake  with three friends.  

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It was a warm spring day, but not hot.   Audrey and Alain went into the lake, up to their necks, and began cooing about how perfect the water was. They soon starting urging me to come in.  I was quite comfortable on a cool rock and the idea of being wet didn’t appeal to me.  It wasn’t that hot out and my clothes would probably stay wet and become increasingly chilly for the rest of the day is what I was thinking.

They called me from the water, laughing and smiling.   “It’s fantastic!” Alain called.  “You have to come in, you won’t regret it!” said Audrey.   They were both smiling from ear to ear as they eventually came out of the water towards me.

In my experience this was their chance to drip cold water over me, to hug me wetly, to behave like happy, dumb, obnoxious kids do.   To my surprise they did none of these things.  They spoke to me quietly, cheerfully, telling me to trust them, urging me on as they gently took me by my arms and helped me reluctantly to my feet.   There was no pushing or pulling, no coercion, just their reassuring touches and gentle slowness, letting me decide if I wanted to join them, doing their best to make my decision easier for me.   I stood and took a few steps toward the water.

It is perhaps thirty years ago, and I remember my feelings in this moment more clearly, more fondly, than almost any in my life.   It was the feeling of being loved, taken care of, supported, listened to, respected.  I felt like I was in the nurturing hands of my ideal parents, two gentle souls who truly wanted the best for me.  I felt protected, certain that they had my best interests at heart and only those interests.  

Step by step we walked into the water, which felt cold when I put my first foot in it, but which they assured me was perfect once I went in.   They were right, it was fantastic, perfect, delightful.  I’d worry about being wet later.  I certainly wasn’t worried about anything as we splashed and swam happily.   Gayle was not coming in under any circumstances and none of us tried to convince her to come in once she made that clear.

I think of those moments as one the greatest demonstrations of empathy I can call to mind.  So simple, so trivial, but their kindness touched me so deeply and the swim was so well worth it.   The odd thing is that Audrey and Alain had never met before that day, yet they worked in perfect, loving coordination.   As far as I recall they never met after that day either. For one moment in time the stars were aligned perfectly and I was given this beautiful gift: to feel in this random moment, as an adult, the beauty of a perfect childhood memory.

I was going to contrast this with another image, but, on second thought, it’s much better to leave off with that transcendent image of empathy.  It is easy enough for anyone to imagine the opposite of being treated with this much consideration.

 

 

 

Tucking Melz in (Two)

An illustration of the inherent feebleness of even a well-reputed memory (such as my own).  

I noticed that yesterday somebody had clicked on an old post called “Tucking Melz In” and I told Sekhnet the story.   Later I read the piece and was amazed to find a significantly different anecdote, bearing little resemblance to what I’d just told Sekhnet, which was, minus the first paragraph (which she already knew) which was:

Five and a half years ago an old friend, Melz, succumbed to a rare and deadly form of soft tissue cancer.   When I say succumbed, I mean he died.   The funeral was conducted by his long-time bosom buddy, trained as a rabbi and with a great talent for humanistic public speaking.   He conducted a beautiful funeral.   It’s hard to say how he held himself together the way he did.

Afterwards, at the golf course-like cemetery (no head stones) as we gave our shovels to others who were taking turns burying Melz, according to our tradition, Alan and his wife Terri came up to me.  Alan said (referring to the wonderful funeral oration we’d just witnessed) “you realize, if we die before Sokoll, we’re fucked.  Who’s going to do our funeral?  Think about it!”

I did.  As I was thinking, Sokoll walked by and we told him our concern.  The good rebbe told us not to worry.  “I’ll bury all of you fuckers,” he said, without breaking stride.   Oddly reassuring words.    

After a moment Terri said “let’s go tuck Melz in,” and we walked over and took over the shoveling for a while.

(compare with the original, written a day or two after the funeral)