Click here for a wonderful short film. In fact, just click the picture.
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)
it has to be true, it’s in the Bible.
A caveat, first. We don’t get to learn that much of great importance, the vast majority of us, in the short time we’re given here in this distracting, demanding world. I’ve learned this so far, which I’ve found useful, and which I’ll write now and post. I share it here partly out of pride that I’ve been able to learn it. I offer it also for whatever help or comfort it may give for some of what you might be struggling to understand in your own life.
Parents don’t fail their children, in most cases, out of any kind of malice or ill-will.
This simple truth is in no way intuitive or obvious, though when you read it you might go “duh…” As kids we hope for everything from our parents, and almost none of us get that. The rest is on us.
There are extreme situations, of course, where insane people do unspeakable things to their children. To the children of those outliers, I really wouldn’t know what to say that could be of use to you, having had to live through that unimaginable nightmare, outside of that none of it was your fault. I am also not talking to anyone who survived a childhood in an actual, violent, physical war zone, a truly inconceivable horror, except to wish that your parents were heroes and that you and your family were spared the worst. This piece will probably be most digestible to anybody raised by more or less ordinary, average, normal, regular parents living in peacetime.
Being born to parents, or a single parent, or raised by an adoptive parent, or a parent figure, who is able to give you exactly what you need in life, all the essential things, or even simply a life-affirming sense of being loved that never deserts you, is a matter of luck as great as any other lucky thing in the world. How were the stars twinkling the night you were born, or, if by day, where was the sun, exactly? Who can say? Even if the stars actually have anything to do with luck in the first place, which, who the hell knows?
My sister and I had painful childhoods, we watched each other suffer, gave each other what little help we could, even as we fought each other much of the time. None of it could be helped in the house we grew up in. Yet, our parents were not sadists, psychos, creeps, fools, jerks, nuts, assholes, zealots, criminals, compulsive liars or even particularly rigid people. They were both very intelligent, sensitive, had good senses of humor, and both loved us AS WELL AS THEY COULD.
That is the key there, keep it handy.
They did what they thought was best for us, always. How were they to know that at the most crucial emotional moments for my sister and me they had literally no fucking clue how to give us what we needed? Where were they to have learned that blessed skill?
They certainly had no role models. Their childhoods were MUCH worse than my sister’s and mine. I guarantee that, can see few things more clearly than I see that. And my parents’ parents’ childhoods had been worse than my parents’ childhoods and so forth, all the way back.
My father, I learned toward the end of his life, had been whipped in the face (in the face) by his angry, ignorant, religious fanatic mother, from the time he could stand. One year old, or whatever, he’s finally on his feet and — BOOOOM!!!! In your fucking face, bitch, don’t you fucking look at me, asshole (but hissed in Yiddish). It’s hard to imagine the horrors of her childhood, except that everyone left behind in that impoverished hamlet she came from was slaughtered in 1942.
My mother’s mother was charming, dynamic, loved me to death as I loved her, but even as a kid I could easily see how hard she’d come down on my mother, her only child. Countless yardsticks broken over her daughter’s ass, was the phrase I used to hear, from both my parents. I always pictured the flimsy yardsticks I knew, with the ads printed on them, no big deal, I could effortlessly snap ’em myself as a ten year-old. Years later I saw a yardstick from back then. 36 inches of solid squared lumber an inch thick, with numbers and lines carved into it, not those thin, light almost balsa wood jobs they gave away at the hardware store when I was a kid, with the numbers printed on. Not much was known about my mother’s mother’s childhood, except that twenty years after she left everyone in her large family, and her husband’s, was shot and left in a mass grave in August 1943, if they hadn’t died earlier from starvation, disease, cold or other violence, in the cruel year before the final massacre.
Do I take valuable lessons from my parents? Yes, from each of them. I carry them with me every day, wherever I go. Did I have to undo many curses they placed on my little soul as they ineptly tried to protect me, and love me, and make me not ask terrible questions they couldn’t answer, and encourage me, and discipline me, and praise me, and keep me humble, show me new things, and shield me from things, make me cautious, and brave, empowered, outspoken and submissive and the hundreds of other crucial things parents must constantly do well, in real time, with no notice, and that they receive absolutely no training or preparation for, or sometimes even a clue about? Many curses that I still have to deal with all the time. Things that in their angriest moments they never would have dreamed of wishing on me. But there it is.
Did I vex my parents? Every single day of their lives (at least until the final years of my mother’s lonely life when I’d finally learned not to, and the sudden last two days of my father’s life on the eve of my mother’s widowhood). Did I disappoint them? Too many times to count. Were they proud of me nonetheless? More than they could say. Did they love me? They loved me the very best each of them could love anybody. More I could not ask of anyone.
What did I learn? To smile at the idiotic, dependably merciless voice that was in my head year after year, repeating the vicious, undermining things my parents hissed at me when they were too frustrated and angry to remain coherent. How long did it take me to learn that life-saving trick? More than thirty years, I think. It was not quick, I can tell you for sure. The beauty part is, after enough practice, that ugly little fucker finally pretty much shut the hell up. What I learned, as that victimizing voice was fading, was to always be merciful to myself.
Do I ever doubt that I have a good heart? Never. Do I question my motivations? Only on rare occasions, and when I find myself on shaky ground I almost always try to fix what I can fix.
But, isn’t that true of every asshole, they believe they have a good heart and that they are right all the time? Yes. So doesn’t that mean I’m an asshole? Not really.
My parents, luckily, gave me the tools to work things out, though they often thwarted me as I was trying to learn to use them. I’m not proud of the grief I caused them during our long struggle, but neither do I blame them now for the grief they caused me. How long did balancing that unthinkable mess take, until there was no more pain or regret involved? I don’t know, maybe forty years, and I have to keep practicing to keep it straight, but it is quite easy to practice now.
What did I learn? That most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can, within their limitations. The only thing we can fairly ask of someone else is not to treat us unfairly. We have the right to demand the best of our loved ones, and we will most often get it, especially if we give ours to them, unless we are making unreasonably one-sided demands.
What did I learn? “What is hateful to you, do not do to somebody else.” It is easier to master that than the other formulation of the same golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We all, each of us, viscerally and instantly know what is hateful to us. Love can be trickier, even as love, is also, first and last, trying never to do something we find hateful to a person we love. And if we do fuck up, which we always do, being humble and making amends.
Do I think having finally learned that make me Jesus, or Hillel, or anything special? No. Isn’t it true I’m just another asshole? Fine. But I’m an asshole who will try not to treat other people like assholes, to the extent that I can, and whenever I act with mercy toward another I feel a certain peace and a greater sense of hope for my fellow assholes on this poor, persecuted planet. I feel like mercy for others, when I can give it, flows directly from my mercy for myself, is part of the same process.
As I told an old friend the other day, and as I spoke it surprised me to hear me saying it: I find I’ve become more patient than I ever thought I could possibly be. Those feelings of mercy and hope, and learning to nurture myself, help others when I can (and when I can’t help, not hurting), to me, are most of the ballgame, right there.
That’s what I’ve learned.
I am typing in the room where my mother’s ashes sit in a box in a beautiful paper bag. The elegant bag is in the corner, out of my view, and I haven’t looked at it in a long time, but it is a distinctive bag. The bag is brown paper on the outside, a pure slate gray on the inside. My mother would like the bag. She has no worries now, nor any wishes, either. I decided years ago that I’d scatter her ashes in the Long Island Sound at the public beach at Wading River, but we haven’t done it so far, in eight and a half years. I haven’t been to that beach in more than fifty years, who knows if you can even get on the beach now without a resident pass? When I was there last there were swings, seesaws and a sliding pond on the sand, and a small parking lot with maybe eight spots painted on the once black shore road.
The idea of scattering my mother’s ashes in the water at Wading River was a sentimental one. I think of those months in that rented green and white bungalow a hundred yards from the lapping water as the happiest summers of her life, but who knows? She always said she wanted to live near the water, and for a couple of summers we did. I don’t know if she was happy there or not, hearing the waves breaking at night. What I do know is that at the moment she truly doesn’t care. Her concern at the end was about not being eaten by worms and bugs, the thought terrified her. I assured her it would never happen and it will never happen.
The scattering of her ashes is more a poetic matter, really. Every so often it gives me a pang, that I haven’t managed to scatter her ashes into the gently lapping Long Island Sound, that her ashes are sitting there in that elegant paper bag. On the other hand, I am positive she doesn’t mind, even if she would chide me about my long failure to do it, if she were somehow able to.
That I can sit here, a few feet from her ashes, writing thoughtfully about it in words almost nobody will ever see, is a blessing and my form of daily meditation. Thinking these thoughts, molding them into sections that I then comb carefully for readability, focuses my spirit, clarifies my beliefs, sharpens my sense of purpose. That I have little clue about the only thing the world understands — attaining financial success — does not distract me while I work. The hard work of vainly striving is not a remote consideration while I concentrate on making my words express my thoughts, my heart, as clearly as I can.
I had a call just now from a one-time good friend of my mother’s, a woman a year older than my mother. My mother would have been ninety last May, this woman was ninety-one last month, and still going strong. God bless her, as we say. Her mind is sharp, her language is crisp, she is upright and walking and driving great distances– still a force at ninety-one. In the course of narrating a lot of horrors she asked me to keep to myself, while assuring me that she is up to the challenges, taking them one day at a time, she mentioned something that gave her a glimmer of hope in these dark times.
She attended an interfaith vigil the other day, the great throng of several faiths who had gathered was inspiring to her. The hall was very crowded, with a big crowd outside also. Somebody came through the mass of people outside and ushered her inside to a seat she didn’t want. “I can stand, I’m perfectly fine,” she insisted, “give the seat to someone who needs it.” In the end, she took the seat, though she felt bad about it. Her ninety-two year-old friend, who had declined the seat in another part of the crowded hall, regretted it afterwards as her lower back tightened up painfully after standing on the concrete floor for a couple of hours. Better to be seated than aching, I say more and more often now.
Small mercies take on a bigger and bigger significance as life goes on. We see few enough of them in the world now, as so many nations stand on the brink of merciless horrors many of us believed were a barbaric relic of a bygone, insane age. I’m talking about a small mercy like finding a vacant bench at the point of a walk when your arthritic knees are barking. The relief you feel, taking the weight off your troubled bones, a gift you give yourself, provided by a merciful side of the universe and gratefully accepted.
There was a lot on this woman’s mind, and much of it I agreed not to share with anyone, so there’s that. At one point, God bless her, she couldn’t resist giving me just a little shit about not calling her lately, after I’d spent hours on the phone last month advising her about some very vexing things– and sent her several more pages about my father’s life that she was too vexed to really take in.
After the Saudis murdered a journalist in their consulate in Turkey last month there was a period of several weeks during which the vicious, smiling thirty-four year-old Crown Prince had his advisors and marketing folks make up and spin multiple lies about what happened to the disappeared critic of the regime. Our president, also born to great wealth that made him feel truly exceptional since childhood, stalled along with the Crown fucking Prince of Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Islamic monarchy. “We have to wait until the Saudis finish investigating whether they murdered this vicious, lying journalist, which they strongly deny, look, they strongly deny it, like Justice Kavanaugh denied all those lies against him — whatever happened to the presumption of innocence that liberals used to talk about? Here they go, rushing to call MBS a murderer, which we don’t know, we may never know, certainly not until he’s done investigating whether he is or not, look, this kid is a gem, a great, great future king– no presumption of innocence for him? Typical of the lying haters and hypocrites, funders and defenders of the raping, leprosy and smallpox infected terrorist hoards advancing on us …”
All we have, any of us, is the impression we leave behind on those who knew us. We are whispers, after our death, not even ghosts. The example of how we lived is the only thing we leave to the world of people who knew us. The power we may have wielded over others is nothing, it is how we used that power that is remembered, that lessons for the living can be drawn from.
I had an old friend who lives the frenetic, embattled life of a successful suburban citizen. His many stresses and frustrations have few, if any, safe outlets. It appears that I became his best option for relief. More and more, particularly since I’ve devoted myself, from before my mother’s death, to restraining my angry reactions as much as I can, he took to provoking me. I pointed this out to him each time he did it, but he always argued that he was not provoking me, that I just get mad unfairly, that maybe I was the one with the provocation problem, not him. I had more than one opportunity to throw him on the ground and kick him, but I breathed and fought my way to remaining as peaceful as I could. This restraint apparently goaded him to ever greater provocations.
In the end, he provoked me into detailing the many things I don’t respect about him. I don’t know if I mentioned his lack of basic courage, which I think is probably encompassed in the unfortunate phrase I do recall using “moral retard”. In the wake of this his wife called me, basically offering me an ultimatum. You have to forgive him, she told me, because he loves you, we all love you.
I explained why it’s impossible to forgive someone who takes no responsibility for hurtful things they repeatedly do. Futile, really, since those hurtful things continue on and on into the future if they are not acknowledged and corrected. The only option, to pretend everything is fine because people tell you that they love you, is not one I’m willing to take, even for the high moral cause of professed love.
Besides, I told her, love is the way you treat people, what you reflexively do when you see a loved one in pain. Love is action, not a word. I told her to let her husband know that I’ll be happy to hear from him once he gets some insight in the therapy he assures me he is working hard at. “That’s not going to happen,” his wife told me, and it had the ring of truth. He would rather lose his oldest friend than admit that the annoyingly superior fuck might have been even partially right. Zero sum, baby, he can’t help himself. If you don’t win, you lose. What could be worse than that? Ask the president.
It began to bug me more and more that because I’d taken a principled stance in regard to an old friendship I’d lost the longtime friendship of his wife and his two sons, as well as the friendship of a close mutual friend, apparently enraged at how badly I’ve hurt his troubled old friend. I called the guy on Halloween (spooky, I know), to ask him three questions that had formed in my head. I left a voicemail. I heard nothing back from him, though I’d spontaneously left him the option of doing nothing, saying I’d email him the questions if I didn’t hear back.
A few hours later I rethought my offer. What was the point of sending questions to someone who could not even reply to a voicemail? It would only increase my aggravation if I never heard back, give him an easy, an effortless, final provocation. I called again, left a second message, asking him to text, email or call me if he was willing to help me by answering three questions.
Two days later, having heard nothing, I texted him, asking if he was out of town or too weak and unJewish to respond. “Weak and unJewish”, an admittedly provocative formulation (especially to a Jew who fervently prays every morning), but, in context, restrained, I thought, particularly after two days of silence by way of reply.
I soon got the texts one would expect, explaining how he’d heard the first message and thought he’d be getting an email, and then no email came, and then, belatedly, he saw the other voicemail from me but didn’t actually hear it until after my recent text a few hours earlier and so on and so forth and so, you see, there was a rationale to all the delay, a hazard of digital communication (which is what I’d called to avoid in the first place) and, yes, please send him the three questions.
I sent this:
It depresses me that people I was friendly with and had no quarrel with, your wife, your sons, R___, have all vanished from my life as a result of our falling out. Not to mention you. I understand your wife and kids have to take your side, whatever it is, but still. And you can’t even pick up the phone and return a missed call? (rhetorical question)
What was my final, unforgivable act against you?
What did you tell R____ that made him cut off communication with me? When he left the US we were seemingly the best of friends, he was apologizing that we’d only managed to squeeze in one quick visit when he first arrived. Then, as a prelude to complete radio silence, I got a reference to “other developments over the last year or so” that presumably magnified the differences between us beyond the point of possible friendship.
Did you talk to your rabbi in the days before Yom Kippur and, if so, what did he tell you? I don’t think it’s possible that a rabbi would advise someone to make no further attempt at reconciliation with his oldest friend during the Ten Days of Repentance. I conclude you didn’t discuss it with your spiritual adviser. I think you should consider this seven minute discussion on apology, forgiveness and atonement:
I heard back quickly by email. He’d received my questions, but I’d have to give him a few days to answer them.
I took a breath and typed back: OK.
I will grant you at the start, learning real lessons in this difficult life is hard work and many people do it only haphazardly, when some crippling tragedy knocks them back and forces them to take stock. In fact, if you’re like most people, you might want to skip this entry entirely, because I am pretty much talking to myself, and for myself.
I find I learn some of the most valuable things I know by studying the lives of people I know well who do not learn the lessons of their own lives. My father was one I knew very well, watched very closely for decades, and there are many others. This makes me sound judgmental, I know, but I don’t stand by, like a scientist with a gigantic pair of tweezers, observing my lab rat friends. I was once accused of that, actually, by one of the cheekier lab rats, he actually said to me “I get it now– you’re the scientist and we’re all your lab rats!” I smiled, because he was right, in a way, but I said nothing, because, you know, I don’t talk to lab rats, as a rule. I try to help the people I know as I hope they will help me if the need arises. It is sometimes subtle, but I like to think my good will is always apparent. I am willing to listen and keep talking until the story breaks apart into incoherence.
Humans need a story to grasp anything. I’ll tell you an old one, featuring the brilliant, troubled lab rat above. He was the youngest of three brothers, always felt he got the short end of everything, that life was a zero sum game he was always losing. He learned to negotiate, wheedle, demand, pout, glower. These things served him well in business, I suppose, I believe he eventually made a shitload of money by nickel and diming everyone involved. It did not make him successful in friendship or love, sad to say. But here’s the thing: over the years I watched him stage and brilliantly perform an identical three act play maybe a hundred times. There is a lesson in this.
Act one: meet a new person and view this new person in glowingly idealized terms. If the person is funny, he’s the funniest person ever. This goes for coolness and every other perceived quality. Act one is animated by playfulness, infinite promise and the protagonist’s belief that he has finally found a great person, not just another neurotic asshole like all the ones who have previously let him down. You will always be compared, unfavorably, to the new person, just so you have a personal stake in the rest of the play. Audience participation, you dig.
In Act Two: complications arise, as in any good drama, or any good comedy, for that matter. The person is still very funny, sure, but there’s a snide edge creeping in sometimes. Yes, the person is very charismatic, but also, careless, not very thoughtful, kind of dumb, in a weird way. The promises made in the first act are being strangely revisited in act two and everything is suddenly coming into question. Reality itself is starting to come into doubt. Drastic corrective action is called for and eventually taken by the protagonist.
Act Three reveals that this is no tragicomedy we are watching, it’s a rather stark tragedy. In Act Three the inevitable betrayal comes, sometimes in a terrible form. One time it’s an anti-Semitic outburst and threatened punch in the fucking face. Another time it’s the trashing of your commercial kitchen. People break into your house, almost certainly people you know, steal a bunch of your things, including every valuable in the house, take a shit on the piano bench, for good measure. Or you’re invited to the wedding of illegal immigrant, underpaid workers of yours and are then served food stolen from your own kitchen. Or the new best friend is fucking your now ex and the two of them are laughing about it when you confront them. Or, paint your own betrayal picture here, the possibilities are truly endless.
Classic repetition compulsion, one of the defining neurotic behaviors of our time, maybe of any time. I could not have learned about it more thoroughly from even the best psychology course as I did from watching a close friend tirelessly at work for many years. It’s a simple process, keep repeating the same painful thing the same way until, well, just keep repeating it.
If at first the play seems a tragedy rather than an enlightened comedy, recast the play and play it again. You dig how this works, right? You get a new star to play opposite you, you stage the thing with a genius director, or better, direct it yourself, who knows your vision better than you yourself? No need to change the script, because this time– THIS TIME– everything is perfect for the desired result. The play cannot fail to entertain and enlighten because– look at the incandescence of the new star I have cast!
But back in the dressing room, it’s always the same. Opening night and the incandescent new star is loudly having sex with your mother, who is loving the sex and shockingly uninhibited about expressing it, not even looking away when you walk into the dressing room shocked. Another fucking putz! Un fucking believable… Another shocking betrayal, is it not? IS IT FUCKING NOT?!!!
You look at this lab rat, after he tells you story number one hundred identical in every detail to the ninety-nine that came before: idealized new person, disillusionment, betrayal. Every story exactly the same dramatic arc, exhausting. You think to yourself: how can you not see this, my dear lab rat? Hard for the scientist in me to truly understand. When they hook me up to the machines that deliver that awful shock, I try to figure out how not to get the electricity full blast, there is always some way to get less pain from the sadists who designed the experiment. That’s just me, OK, I get that, and maybe I haven’t come up against a sadistic enough experimenter, but still. I’m left holding my clipboard and scratching my head when I see a rat rushing constantly, inexorably toward the button that delivers electrocution.
Now I have told you a simple story, about a rather extreme case, yes, but true in every detail, I assure you (except for mom and the star in the dressing room). Most people conduct their repetition compulsion business on a much more subtle level. We are, virtually all of us, geniuses of justification. We can give a rationale that makes insane behavior seem more or less rational. Why did you march all those indigenous people to their deaths when you could have made an arrangement that would have served everybody, preserved peace, honored wisdom and honor itself? Manifest Destiny. Social Darwinism. Freedom on the march. Done. What is your fucking point, asshole? Get off my land.
I am trying, as I believe I sometimes demonstrate in these pages, to understand the sources of pain in my life, in the lives of my friends and loved ones, and behave in ways that seem productive, healing rather than harming. It is better to be gentle than to be harsh, better to help than to hurt. I may not always be up to that challenge, but it seems better to struggle with remaining gentle than not to. For me.
Not everyone welcomes this kind of struggle, it’s a matter of temperament. I understand that, even as it sometimes makes me sad. It is, to my way of thinking, cheating yourself out of the full richness of this life, not being open to looking deeply into these highly educational situations that shed what little light there is to be had here in a world of darkness.
If I manage to reel myself in from anger over and over, while provoked without mercy by someone who believes I am stronger than them and therefor able to take multiple punches and kicks, it is a good day for me– not giving in to rage, remaining calm enough to remain open and almost cordial. It is not as good a day, of course, as a day when I don’t have to prove my ability to take multiple punches and kicks, but there is something worthwhile in it for me– proving to myself again that constantly giving in to righteous rage is not my fate. If the person I finally have to walk away from is sobbing piteously, or cursing me angrily, convinced that I am a heartless bastard, it is something I just have to live with.
All this is well worth thinking about, I think. And if not– well, there’s always the weather, good books, politics, culture (and lack of same), our well-stocked catalogues of frustrations and the relative fascism of various nations to discuss. The vexing smugness of powerful lying fucking hypocrites who make decisions the rest of us must live by is always easy enough to bat around (see previous several posts, and the next few, no doubt).
There is also philosophy, of course, observations about life made in a general sort of way that don’t need to touch on tangible details that are personal or difficult, don’t force us to take sides in moral pissing contests. No need, in a philosophical chat, to go into the well-known intimate examples of the thing we are talking about– why go there? There’s always all that to kick around. But that shit is really not the beating heart of a human life, or why it sometimes grabs us by the throat, this flickering miracle of being alive.