The Refusal to Yield

Humans are fallible creatures, we make mistakes from time to time, even the smartest of us.   Often our mistakes are purely emotional ones, if we’d thought more carefully at the time we wouldn’t have done what we’ve come to regret (or, just as commonly, cover up).  We know we were wrong, thinking back on it honestly, but at the time we couldn’t help doing it — we felt it was the right thing to do.  The moral question is what do you do when you realize you were wrong (assuming you are capable of such self-assessment).

There is a common type, particularly in a competitive, litigious society like ours, who will never admit wrongdoing of any kind.  Corporations are one example, never, ever admit wrongdoing without a viable lawsuit brought against you, and then, settle with no admission of wrongdoing.  We all know this type.  Their defenses are familiar.    If, once, in a rage, I threatened to kill you, your parents and your children, in a very specific, detailed way, IT WAS ONLY ONCE, YOU MERCILESS FUCK!   If an investigation found insufficient evidence of my crimes, because I was largely successful in covering them up– THEN FUCKING SHUT UP ABOUT WHAT YOU COULDN’T ACTUALLY PROVE I DID, LOSER!

The categorical refusal to yield is a terrible thing to be up against.  There is no possibility of resolving anything, except by accepting an unacceptable version of events.   When we are wronged we’d like the other person to at least acknowledge “my bad.”  That simple acknowledgement goes a long way, can stand in for an apology, in a pinch.   I realize this is a regular theme of mine, the difficulty of reconciliation, and a perhaps it’s a bit of a tired theme, but Yom Kippur and current events both remind me of it.

I think of recently dead Mark, whose ashes his brother and I scattered in his favorite lake last week.   I don’t want to think further about his exasperating and tragic life, but there are apparently emotional loose ends I still need to tie up.   His chief characteristic was a refusal to yield.  That, above all else about him, marked him for a life for constant conflict, rage and eventual betrayal and/or repudiation by virtually everyone.  There was no compromise in him.   Here is a snapshot of his life, the album cover photo for the LP of a life of great expectations and even greater disappointments:

 

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When Dubya Bush and Cheney were president, their steadfast refusal to ever take responsibility for their own fuck-ups always reminded me of this guy.   It was categorical.  Nothing bad was ever their fault, and if they were ever called on anything they insisted on setting the rules for being interviewed:  they’d take no oath to be truthful, no recording or note taking allowed, absolute blanket secrecy about anything they said.

When Trump was elected by the Electoral College in that massive 78,000 vote nationwide landslide, he was Mark even more to a T.   He has the body posture down perfectly — the arms crossed across his chest, the surly expression on his face.   The picture of childish churlishness.

Here’s a bit of how the thinking by this type goes.    If you have a small business, and your most loyal, long-serving employees work for low wages, and often work many hours of overtime without extra pay, and you hit it big with a startup and suddenly have millions of dollars … what does one thing have to do with another?   It’s true, during the years when you were eking out a living from your business, rolling nickels and dimes and taking them to the bank, every dollar you didn’t pay your workers went into your pocket.   Then your pockets were overflowing.  SO?   I repeat:  WHAT DOES ONE THING HAVE TO DO WITH ANOTHER?

You avoid any kind of moral consideration of your behavior by reframing the accusation so that there is no reason to yield.   And you can make a good argument.   Business is one thing, personal wealth is another, clearly.  In business every dollar of profit you make first goes to ensure the health of the business, something your workers have no worry about.  Personal wealth is another thing entirely, particularly if that wealth is not derived from your business.   The exploited workers were free to quit any time they liked, nobody literally held a gun to their head.   A wise $30,000 investment in a start-up that blew up a hundredfold has nothing to do with that other thing, nothing whatsoever.

I’m not going to bother bringing our Mark doppelganger president into this, the examples are too plentiful and too well known to bother recounting here.   If you have time, as I do, I highly recommend a podcast called The Report [1],  a thorough run through of the dramatic story told in Mueller’s dense, long report, with readings of pertinent parts and illustrative sound bytes from people involved in the campaign’s collusion with Russia (collusion, yes, chargeable criminal conspiracy — insufficient evidence)  and obstruction of Mueller’s investigation.    Listening to the details, particularly in light of recent headlines, you will have repeated “aha!” moments and come to understand the full perfidy of Bagpiper Bill Barr, another grim example of the utter refusal to yield, ever, on anything. 

The refusal to yield, no matter how strong the moral or legal case against you, is the mark of mobsters, sociopaths, tyrants and fanatics.   We can understand it comes from insecurity, weakness, terror — but still.   Let’s call it what it is: fucked up.

 

 

[1] as the creators of the podcast wrote on July 19, 2019:

For the past several weeks, a group of us has been working on a project to tell the story of the Mueller Report in an accessible form. The Mueller Report tells a heck of a story, a bunch of incredible stories, actually. But it does so in a form that’s hard for a lot of people to take in. It’s very long. It’s legally dense in spots. It’s marred with redactions. It’s also, shall we say, not optimized for your reading pleasure.

Various folks have made efforts to make the document easier to consume: the report is now an audiobook; it’s been staged as a play; there have been live readings. We took a different approach: a serialized narrative podcast.

  

 

Our lives, after death

Yesterday I guided a dead former friend’s older brother to the favorite lake of the departed, a lake he’d swim in for literally hours at a time, a place I’d hiked to many times over the years.   Sunny and cool, it was a perfect day to carry Mark’s ashes up the small mountain and scatter them in a beautiful lake.   

The trek also gave us six hours to talk, and remember, and flesh out more details of a convoluted, vexing, largely miserable life.  Made me think about what’s left of each of us after we die — the impact we had on the people closest to us.    You can see the last of Mark’s mortal remains in the grey splotches at the edge of the lake at the bottom of this photo:

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Mark had many good people in his life at various times, though virtually nobody by the end.   His brother was one such person, but they had a falling out three years earlier, hadn’t spoken since.   His other brother never broke things off with him, but was quite dismissive.    His ex, who he rejected after she was insufficiently moved when his 98 year-old mother died suddenly, is a good and generous woman who hosted Mark’s brothers for two weeks as they tried to put the dead man’s affairs in order.   His favorite cousin, a beautiful spirit twenty years younger than him, a kindred soul he loved and wrote long. soul-baring letters to (until the family intervened to let the adult know they thought his flourishing quasi-romantic correspondence with a teenager was inappropriate) — they’d finally had a fatal falling out too.   Me and him?  At one time best friends, but for years estranged, finally virtual enemies.  I literally cannot imagine what the guy’s laugh sounded like, I hadn’t heard it in that many years.  All I can recall of him now is his churlish glare.   Nice legacy.

I’ve discussed him with several people who knew him pretty well.   We are hard pressed to recall any  unreservedly fun times with him (though our Corsican friend — among the first to repudiate him after three brutal strikes — shared some fond memories).   What we all recall is the familiar three act play he was compelled to act out over and over.  Act one: new person or thing — amazing, the best, the ultimate! Act two: warning signs of imperfection, Act three: traumatic, unendurable betrayal.

Mark was demanding, famously so, of all of us and of himself as well.   He was a perfectionist continually disappointed to be living in a world of fallible hacks where perfection is almost never seen.   He always sought the highest expression of perfection and was continually disgusted to find only the sorry human equivalent — flawed people, disappointing, aging, doomed to wither and die.   Old age depressed him terribly, though he was completely crushed when his mother died before she was even a hundred.

I learned two truly terrible things yesterday, one on the ride up, the other almost at the end of our hours together.  Each with a horrific image to go with it. 

Mark had a business, selling food made in a dirty commercial kitchen his friend the inspector gave him a pass on.  The new inspector was less inclined to overlook the black mold, the filthy deep fryers, the unwashed ventilation hoods, the old worn counters the pad thai and breakfast burritos were made on.  Mark’s workers were badly underpaid, all of them, and when they worked overtime they were never paid extra, as the law requires.  He was able to get away with making them work 12 and 15 hours days (when necessary) because the workers were for the most part undocumented or otherwise vulnerable to coercion.

His two longest tenured employees, a Salvadoran couple who had worked for him since 2002, made a claim, shortly after he died, for unpaid overtime since 2002.   He had sponsored them for green cards and so they owed him, but now they were demanding their due.   As part of a settlement, Mark’s brothers paid them severance of about a year’s wages and let them take what they liked from the kitchen and from Mark’s house.  They pulled up in a pickup truck and filled it at least twice.   They cashed the checks the brothers wrote for them after they signed the release, then started a lawsuit  for the back wages since 2002.

Horrible image number one, right out of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas eve nightmare conducted by the silent, terrifying ghost of Christmas future.  After Mark died, people he’d openly exploited for years, people who justifiably hated him, gleefully rummaging through his possessions looking for things of value.   All of the things he collected, cherished and loved, fingered and pocketed by people intent on recouping something from a man who had taken ruthless advantage of them.   I can imagine faces beaming maliciously as one of the defrauded holds up some cherished object that could be sold for $300.   $300 they’d been cheated out of by nickels and dimes over countless long days in a filthy job.

The final horrible image was of his last moments on this earth.  I learned of this toward the end of our trip yesterday and it is maybe the worst of all. 

Mark lived with an apparently lovely young woman, a Muslim from Morocco, a religious woman.   They’d been together for four years, since he’d hired her, and it was unclear what the nature of their relationship was.  She did not consent to be photographed, she was very religious.   She wanted to marry Mark, but only if he converted to Islam.   Mark was never going to convert to anything.  And so they lived together in Mark’s cluttered house, though one can only imagine the details of their arrangement.  Shades of the Salvadoran couple in that she had no legal status in the U.S. and she lived under Mark’s protection, to a large extent.

His housemate had called at 5:30 to tell Mark she was on her way home.  He said he’d see her soon.   At 6:00 she arrived to discover his naked, dead body.  

The moment of his death.    Naked in his computer chair he was following his new practice for achieving perfect clarity.   The theory has been popularized by “Ice Shaman” Wim Hof, teaching practitioners to push past boundaries to a fuller existence.   Part of it, apparently, requires teaching the body to go without oxygen for longer and longer periods.  After a round of deep breathing, you hold your breath for as long as you can then rush into an ice cold shower (or plunge into an ice bath) where you breathe for your life and emerge feeling energized, with no further need for caffeine.  Mark, over the course of several months of diligent practice, was apparently up to four minutes without oxygen in his quest for perfect clarity.  This theory was exactly the kind of dramatic shortcut to enlightenment that greatly appealed to Mark.

Try holding your breath for as long as it takes to read this next paragraph (I’ve already had two or three lovely, life sustaining breaths myself) and see if you can follow the logic of striving for perfection this way.   After a short interval without oxygen you feel a desperation to  breathe (you’re at about ten seconds now).   You must resist this desperate feeling as the mortal weakness it is (I made it this far holding my breath, but hold on to the end, you can do it!) — put all thoughts of an oxygen deprived brain out of mind.   After a time your lungs feel like they might burst, but pay no attention to that, the theory demands you exceed what you falsely believe to be your limits.  Your heart may begin screaming, twisting in your chest, no worries.  Nothing to fear but fear itself, and the rewards are fantastic.   (30 seconds, come on, come on, you can do it…)  Two minutes and twenty seconds, let’s go for two and a half.  Now we’re up to four.

In fairness to Wim Hof, and the many who swear by his techniques, Mark’s death probably had much more to do with Mark’s rejection of science and doctors than it did to the health enhancement techniques Hof advocates.  Mark apparently hadn’t been to a doctor in years.   He was overweight, aggravated, fighting with everybody.   His arteries may have been only a hairsbreadth wide when he began this demanding regime of holding the breath and plunging into ice water.

Picture the unimaginable horror of the devout, modest Muslim woman, finding her beloved housemate naked in death.   The medical examiner noted that the discoloration on the skin over the naked cadaver’s heart was a clear indication of death by heart failure.  There were other signs as well.  The heart apparently gave out.  It was not a stroke, the signs would have been different, reflecting some terrible agony at the end.  

In the end this man who stubbornly refused to believe, in spite of a lifetime of evidence, that the world was a viciously unfair place, where the ecstasy of perfection was at best fleeting, where betrayal by anyone you love was inevitable, where all flesh withered and people aged and became grotesque, might well have held his breath until he died.

Repentance and Atonement

It may seem churlish, arch and dickish of me to bring this up, especially during our Second Civil War here in the land of the conditionally free and the home of the transactionally brave, but a sincere apology is a powerful thing, a force for peace and reconciliation.   Sad to say, as Sir Elton sang it, in words probably written by Bernie Taupin, ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’.

I think about this each year at this time on the Jewish calendar, during the Ten Days of Repentance.   We are supposed to use this time to honestly review our actions of the past year, find acts we regret, times we were wrong, seek out, apologize to and make amends with the person we hurt.   

It is a beautiful and very humane idea.  It is a caring thing to do for people we care about.   It is a hard fucking idea, to make yourself humble and vulnerable, especially when the hurt was mutual, where you feel like the other person also  acted like a jackass.  Too hard for most of us to sincerely apologize because, seriously, the world has probably been meaner to us than we were to some provocative asshole who desperately demanded whatever we might or might not have done to them.   

This self-justification is the working of anger and its first cousin pride.  These emotions have one demand: I am right and you are an asshole.   It’s a zero-sum emotional landscape.   While I am angry at you, my friend, you are a fucking piece of shit and I have a hundred reasons why.   Deny it, go ahead, it only makes you more despicable, unredeemable, deserving of my wrath.     

I realized the other night that in my understandable desire to have someone stop talking aggravating shit to me, I went too far.   I didn’t stop to consider that this old friend’s sudden rage might have indicated he was having a serious problem or something.   He attacked like a petty prosecutor, he doubled down when I tried to explain, when I  asked for the benefit of the doubt.  His final email came back lightning fast and really got under my skin. 

I waited a few days, removed some expletives from my reply and methodically,  surgically, wounded his pride to shut him up.  The hideous noise stopped, peace, end of story.   

I can rationalize my hurt, my anger, 100%.   The guy acted like a world class jerk, no question.   Yet, look, I was also very harsh to him.   Those are two different things — his acts and mine, and we are each responsible for our own.   I was wrong.   I erred on the side of hurting him too much, to guarantee he would have no reply.   His timing had also been bad, his instant double-down on his anger came back right before my birthday.   A self-righteous, superior, stupid stream of steaming shit, right in my inbox.   I needed to make it stop.   

Did I need to cut off both of his arms and legs, and his head, to make sure he couldn’t respond?   It felt like I needed to at the time, to be sure, but now I can see a range of choices I didn’t consider, much more productive ways to proceed.   I did the one thing that would guarantee the quiet I needed, though it also ended not one but two friendships.

Was I wrong?   Arguably not.  Still, did I need to be so harsh?  Probably didn’t need to be so harsh.   So I sat down the other night to write a letter apologizing for my role in our titanic, fatal battle of the assholes.   No point arguing over who was more at fault, we were both hurt and angry and lashing out. 

I did something I now know was wrong and I am sorry.   Sorry I was so viciously hurtful, what I did would have hurt me, would have hurt anyone.   It cost me two old friends, and I was wrong to offer no way back from our dumb fight over nothing specific.

Writing that letter while refraining from justifying myself cost me blood.  As I was writing it I had to keep separating what I had done from the several strong provocations.   You may well have provoked me to want to punch your lights out, but I can still regret punching your lights out.  It does not accord with the way I want to live — being provoked and lashing out in return, I try to do better.   

Maybe it’s impossible to be friends with an insecure, competitive person who turns out to be a cheap-shot artist when it comes down to it, still, my reaction to even a cheap shot is my choice.   I chose wrong by calmly and methodically cutting this guy’s limbs and head off.

I spent a few hours writing the letter of apology.   I think it was a decent apology.   I have no expectation that it will change anything, and I wrote as much, but it was important to me to seize this important, widely neglected religious obligation to try to make peace instead of war.    I went to sleep and had troubled dreams.

I had been challenged, by a gang of Thai toughs, to body surf down a steep flight of stairs and, for some reason, I’d accepted the challenge.   A Thai tough had put on a motorcycle helmet and, when I wasn’t watching, supposedly tobogganed  down the steps on his belly, arms outstretched like superman.   I stood at the top, having accepted their challenge, and had many second thoughts — though there was clearly no way out. 

I asked for the helmet.  The owner of the helmet refused, handing me a soft stocking cap instead.   So soft I stood there petting it, a really beautiful material.   I put it on, stalling, not quite sure how I’d wound up in this untenable position.   I told them I needed to go next door.

Next door, in the bar,  I ran into a girl I used to know.   I told her about my predicament and that I had to go back and body surf down this steep staircase next door.   Instead of talking sense to me, or urging me to flee, as I was out of the presence of the toughs, she told me she’d go with me, that she had to see this.   She accompanied me next door, back to the top of the stairs, where she took a seat on a long bench with the Thai toughs (why were these toughs Thai?  No idea) and waited for me to make my injurious descent.   What the fuck, I thought?   I continued to stall.

I stalled long enough to wake up from this dream.   When I did, my first thought was that letter of apology I’d written to a person who had already told me that my previous two apologies, while sincere, were beside the point.  A person incapable accepting an apology and of apologizing himself.   I was angry about bending a knee to someone I still thought of as a petty tyrant, a giant two year-old.    

I understand:  you don’t apologize for the petty tyrant’s sake.  You apologize for your regrettable, if arguably justifiable, overkill.   You apologize to remind yourself to try to do better next time.

You apologize for the way your taking of the high road (no cursing, no outward show of hurt or rage) was nonetheless dismissive, vicious, and reduced the other person to sputtering, silent rage he could only take out on his wife. 

You apologize for the sake of the wife’s feelings, and because you probably didn’t need to remove all four of the guy’s limbs, and his head, no matter how loudly and aggressively the angry tough guy may have demanded it.   

You apologize because it is the right thing to do, because the world is better when people try to make peace than when they hold ugly grudges.  Even if it makes you feel like you are giving in to a smirking bunch of asshole bullies who wait for you to break a limb or two, or perhaps your neck, as you try to keep your word.

I Can’t Keep Blaming Mr. Hitler

True, Hitler did send columns of determined men with guns to conquer areas where my family in Europe lived, followed by special squads of “ideological” specialists who worked with desperate, angry locals to kill everyone in my family (and their ilk) left in Europe.   Not a bit nice, as my grandmother Yetta used to say about people who did awful things.   Yetta herself had six siblings (every brother and sister she had) and her two parents murdered, by local Ukrainians, granted, but at the behest of specialized men who took an oath of personal loyalty to Mr. Hitler and did everything he told them to do. [1]     

I tend to think regularly of the outsized influence this conceited little puke had on my family, by killing virtually all of them — and then I think– you know, it all took place thirteen years before I was even born.    There are, after all, two sides, at least, to every story, plus all that nuance.   Maybe I am just being a melodramatic little bastard by continuing to make a big deal about this Hitler business, blaming that long-dead extremist demagogue for things that had nothing whatsoever to do with him.

I mean, people in my small family here, people I actually knew well, hated each other– having nothing whatsoever to do with Adolf Fucking Hitler.   A pair of half-siblings, my father’s first cousins, didn’t exchange a word for the last thirty years or more of their long lives.   What had Mr. Hitler to do with that?  Absolutely innocent on that count, your honor!

My fractured family, largely extirpated by men obedient to Mr. Hitler, was composed, a couple of generations back, in Hitler’s day, of a large group of hardworking poor people.   They were what you call “nobodies”.   Their lives fell silently into that huge statistic of dead people killed in the deadliest war in history.   On my father’s side the disappeared hamlet they came from, down to its precise location in the marsh land of Belarus, was one of literally thousands of Jewish enclaves permanently wiped off the world map in those years, when men like Mr. Hitler and his kind made big, important decisions about who shall live and who needed to be exterminated.  

I look at my own circumstances, ponder the epigenetics of it sometimes, the way my grandparents’ experience of being the sole survivors of large, murdered families might have shaped their personalities, how that unspoken of trauma of their murdered brothers and sisters and everyone else they knew altered the things they passed on to me without any of us being aware of it.   Then I think, there you go, blaming Mr. Hitler again!

I sometimes find myself comparing the circumstances of my own family with those of the proud, accomplished Jared Kushner and his family.   Jared has that haughty bearing, proud and imperious as a top SS man in the old photos.  It may seem unfair to make that comparison between a very wealthy Jew and the most “ideological” of the Nazi leadership cadre (most top SS men, as they say, were “well-born”), but you have to admit, looking at the way he carries himself, that Jared is an indomitable man and appears quite certain of his superiority.   Jared would never allow himself to be marched to a ravine for a bullet in the back of his head, after giving up his clothes for payment to his murderers.  No way.  Jared would find a way to win, to vanquish his enemies, because a guy like Jared Kushner, let’s face it, one of the President of the United States’ top advisors, is a winner.   His kind doesn’t get shot lying face down in a ditch like a nobody.

You may be tempted to call it a matter of pure, dumb luck, observe that Jared was randomly born to a very wealthy family of Jews who escaped the Nazi murder machine and managed to thrive in the United States, amassing a fortune of almost two billion dollars in barely two generations.  Think deeper.   It is just as likely a matter of character, which is, of course, destiny.  The best are the best for a reason, n’est-ce pas?  If it was mere dumb luck that Jared’s grandparents arrived here and were able to build a modest family business, buying and renting out multiunit apartment buildings in New Jersey, into a thriving real estate empire in just a few decades while mine worked as hard for a fraction of the reward, then what does it all mean?  What is the possible meaning of this random, merciless arrangement? 

I get worked up sometimes considering questions like these and I eventually get back to blaming fucking Hitler.   At the same time, I know that Mr. Hitler was merely a symptom, a purulent boil that was fated to burst upon the scene, like any inevitable destructive psychopath whose message manages to resonate with millions and spurs them to unthinking violence.  

I mean, if Mr. Hitler had never lived, had never come to power in the most civilized, highly industrialized nation of his day, had never held sway over millions of Germans (36.8% voted for his party in the last election of the democratic Weimar Republic), how different would the world be today?  How different would my life be?  Hard to imagine.   And senseless to try, really, except for the lessons I take from it, having studied Mr. Hitler and the rise of the movement he led, some might say obsessively, on and off for literally decades.

I realize, of course, that even if Mr. Hitler (I’m adopting the New York Times style here, the Grey Lady once puckishly referred to “Mr. Clapton” and “Mr. Diddley” in a piece about Eric and Bo) had never existed, most of my family probably never would have arrived here in the USA anyway.   By 1924 prominent American “nativists”, xenophobes and racists, under the banner of Eugenics (a discredited sham science that the learned and unimpeachable Mr. Trump devoutly espouses to this day), had severely restricted immigration from shit-hole countries like the places my people come from.  The few who arrived here came in before the land of the free largely closed its doors to immigrants in 1924, the last of them, my grandfather, sneaking in in 1923.

1924, coincidentally, was the year of my father’s birth, in an unforgiving, crime-infested  slum in Lower Manhattan.    Trump’s feverishly imagined Baltimore has nothing on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1924.   1924 was also the year, nine years after D.W. Griffith’s darkly influential silent film masterpiece The Birth of A Nation extolled the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan, that Klan membership in America reached its all-time peak of 2.4 million proud sheet wearing members.   Birth of A Nation was the first motion picture screened in the White House and President Woodrow Wilson, who watched it raptly, [2] later enthused “it’s like writing history in lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true!”

What was so terribly true, in the eyes of the otherwise progressive Woodrow Wilson (aren’t people complex?), was that the former slaves down south had been completely out of control, savagely and vengefully dominating the innocent local whites and raping the women — also attaining political office in many areas with their new bayonet-imposed right to vote.   As Griffith showed in his blockbuster epic, history written in lightning fifty years after the fact, a heroic band of white underdogs, modern day knights in sheets, arose to protect the glorious South from these unrestrained black beasts and protect the honor of their pure, white women.  

I was exposed to a big chunk of this controversial movie by an Italian visiting professor, during my time in graduate school at City College.   Almost ninety years after Griffith wrote his terribly true history in lighting, she insisted the group of us in her comparative literature seminar watch it.   I was there as part of my study of, eh, creative writing.   We all agreed that movie was some fucked up and incendiary distortion of history as we knew it.   It also explained a lot about historical revisionism and the dramatic power of heroically presented bullshit shouted through the right megaphone.

The forces of violent, irrational hatred in the world are always simmering (open virtually any history book anywhere if you doubt this).   Mr. Hitler sometimes, in the early days, when he was up and coming, humbly referred to himself as a “drummer”, the kid tirelessly banging the drum to set the cadence for the righteously marching troop parade.   Like the guy on the old slave-powered Roman galley, the hortator, some poor bastard who beat a drum and chanted to set the cadence for the coordinated pulling of the heavy oars by the other slaves, as ordered by the captain.

We have a hortator, inciter, encourager, exhorter, urger like that right here, in charge of scrawling his name jaggedly across the bottom of Executive Orders, veto pen in his other hand, and though I hesitate to invoke his tiresome name (again) in a piece about blaming Hitler, well, really, who can blame me?   Ah, fuck him [3] and the Nazi hordes he rode in on.   I really do have to stop blaming Mr. Fucking Hitler, though.

 

[1]  Hitler’s every word was, literally, law.   The Nazis phrased it “Fuhrerworte haben Gesetzeskrafte” and it was left to an army of Nazi lawyers to put their infallible leader’s every utterance into crisp legalize and codify it into the German legal code of the time. 

[2] I’ll try to keep the fucking toilet type adjectives and nouns here in the footnotes, gentle reader.  Wilson was a racist motherfucker if there ever was one.  He was the only U.S. president  in history born and raised in the Confederacy, so there’s that– he grew up in besieged and eventually defeated territory that had staged an armed rebellion against the United States.  In fairness to him, the famous Progressive also apparently hated Jews, a people who are not, except to certain racists, actually a “race”, though, like the Fuhrer himself (who had more than 300 “do not touch” Jews on his list) he had Jews he thought were first class.    He nominated Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916– a bold and progressive move.    As it was later written of Brandeis by Justice William O. Douglas:

 “Brandeis was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible … [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.”

the Wiki continues:

On June 1, 1916, he was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 47 to 22, to become one of the most famous and influential figures ever to serve on the high court. His opinions were, according to legal scholars, some of the “greatest defenses” of freedom of speech and the right to privacy ever written by a member of the Supreme Court.

source

[3] Shit, sorry, gentle reader, I f–ed up.  So hard to keep the fucking cuss words out of it, idn’t it?

Organizing my attack

Sometimes we get insight in a very roundabout way, only after a thing has been gnawing at us for a very long time.   It can take being nibbled by a particular demon for many years before you jump out of your chair one day and say “what the fuck?!!” look down and see what is snacking on you.

At the end of several long, stressful days getting the house ready for the contractors (the lioness’s share done by indefatigable, self-proclaimed working dog Sekhnet)  I went through a pile of papers (a short stack) propped helter skelter on a board laid across an open desk drawer.   More than half the pages immediately went onto the recycle pile to be carried down to the bag.   The rest, mostly drawings, I clipped neatly into the clipboard they were lying haphazardly on.   

Not really very hard, I realized, though the volume and variety of papers here, as I glance around, is many, many times more than that short stack at Sekhnet’s I dispatched in a few minutes.   Of course, Sekhnet is right — spending a half hour a day at it would make a big difference within a few days, even here, in the eye of the storm.

Another insight hit me when I pulled a page I’d printed out of the pile and began reading.   It was my unsent pitch to a publisher who welcomes book proposals from unknown authors.   A two paragraph evocation of the book I thought I was writing about my father, something I worked on hours every day for two years, a massive, unwieldy first draft.   

I stopped reading my pitch shortly into the second “reveal” paragraph.   I was glad I’d never sent the thing, it was a labored, strenuous, grunting swing at nothing but air.   It did not present a hint of a compelling idea for a book.

I recently saw a best-selling author, in the windup to an ad for his Master Class on how to become a successful writer, describe the writing of the second draft as an exercise in convincing everyone that you knew exactly where you were going when you wrote the first draft.    Wow.    That’s precisely my challenge in putting together the book of my father’s life and then successfully pitching it.   

The story of my difficult father’s life is not the tired old story of a smart idealist with an abusive dark side, fighting for justice for strangers while doing great harm to his own family.   It’s not the story of a man’s triumphant emergence from childhood poverty into the middle class (along with a large cohort of World War Two vets at a unique and fleeting moment in history).  It’s not the story of monstrous anger, righteous and senseless both, and a rigid inability to forgive.   

Those things are part of the back story.   The book is more of a meditation on the nature and substance of history itself, what we remember and what we forget, and the imagining of a lifelong conversation that should have been.   That conversation with the skeleton of my father, the one that began the last night of his life, is the heart of the book, though it’s not the story I need to tell, shop and sell.  

The real story is what I suspected from the start, the difficulty of forgiveness and a rare moment of grace, just before death, when an unbearable burden is lifted, the regrettable truth finally spoken and reassurance given to the dying man just before his light winks out.  The story is about exactly what those regrets are made of, what was learned, and lost, how the unlikely and precious moment came to happen at all.

Twenty-five years ago an old friend celebrated my decision to become a lawyer (an ill-considered one, at best) as me finally being about to “compete”.  I get what he was saying, I’ve always kept myself out of the economic competition that defines our materialistic culture, refusing to race the rest of the rats for the mirage of an illusory goal (or simply being a cowardly rat, depending on your view).   I did not embrace the world’s second oldest profession, nor did I ever really compete in it, outside of plucking the occasional victim out of the meat grinder of justice, as when I saved an old woman from homelessness at the hands of zealous NYCHA attorneys.

In mulling over the anger I’ve been feeling lately I realize part of it is my chafing feeling of paralysis (not helped by painfully arthritic knees — as Vonnegut said “be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.”), of being overwhelmed by difficult things that are hard, true, but clearly not impossible.    Part is anger at my resigned acceptance of a limited, frugal life, foregoing comfortable middle class options while muttering here in great, sometimes worthwhile, detail about the objectively atrocious state of things and what I have pieced together.   

I’m angry about having no voice, in spite of speaking all the time (as I am silently doing right now, you dig?), and often finding and saying things I think would advance the larger discussion in a threatened world increasingly dominated by mindless bluster and vapid shouting.   I’m angry that evil idiots, often born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us [1] rule and I that have nothing to say about any of it, no matter how well I may say it.    And that others, professionals, who blow “thoughts” out of their asses, are well-paid to do it.

I’m angry about my inability to marshal my abilities to tell a story and get paid.   I’m angry that I have to monetize my writing in the first place (but in an uncertain casino economy one needs to keep some money coming in) and I’m angry that I’m not getting any money for it.

I’m angry that I’m not getting paid for writing what I write and I’m angry that I’m doing virtually nothing about it.  It is a frustrating cycle and it presses on because I do not confront the hard work I need to do to market and sell my work.   I am, on a fundamental level (and as hard as I’ve often worked in my life) lazy, preferring at any given moment to do what I like rather than what needs to be done.  Since writing itself is satisfying to me, once I have the words in final form, I never think of it as unproductive unless paid for.   When I think of it that way, through the eyes of the world, it pisses me off.   

I don’t mean to say that lazy is the last word on my life, it certainly isn’t (he hastily added).  There is also fear, of course, long habit, the actual daunting difficulty of the uphill task, and so forth.   I learned a very important life lesson during a dark time in my life — how crucial it is to be kind to yourself.   I don’t pile on myself when the going gets tough and I never reduce myself to the sum of my faults.   

On the other hand, this anger I’ve described is something only I can work on, a grating car alarm only I have the key to silencing.  I also remind myself that I don’t need to be paid a million bucks or write a blockbuster hit, a couple of thousand dollars would be a very good start.

Sekhnet observed the other day that the therapy I’ve gone through did not touch my powerful aversion to organizing my papers, my life.   Fair enough.  I’ve recently come to think of my great and irrational resistance to going through old papers as an odd reflection of my fear of death, but what the fuck is up with that?

Anger at how difficult it has been for me to read the proverbial writing on the wall, about situations, sometimes about people, the bottom-line nature of the reality we are all living in, is less than useless.    Anger, while it can alert us to a problem in the manner of all pain, disables the ability to see any path out of it, as anger directs all energy back to itself.  Time to poke a few breathing holes in this smothering carapace of aggravation, I say.  

 

 

 

[1]   The well-read Thomas Jefferson, master of the felicitous phrase, stole this famous image for his final letter (shortly after the great passage about democracy  “arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government”).

The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

source

from Richard Rumbold, a man executed by the English for treason more than a century earlier.  Rumbold delivered the line toward the end of his final remarks, moments before he was drawn and quartered :   

I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.

source

I always loved this image of people born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us, particularly at a moment like this — Avi Berkowitz, 30 year-old assistant to Trump Special Advisor Jared Kushner, himself the supremely unqualified son of a billionaire. is elevated, by another very important man who inherited hundreds of millions and squandered more than that, to take the helm of  Trump’s secret, still unreleased Middle East Peace Plan that these born booted and spurred individuals are already boasting about. 

as to Richard Rumbold, here’s some great detail:

Note 1. Delivered in Edinburgh. Rumbold was captured after having been wounded and then separated from his companions in arms. An immediate trial had been ordered that he might be condemned before he died of his wounds. He was found guilty on June 26, 1685, sentenced to be executed the same afternoon, and was drawn and quartered, the quarters being exposed on the gates of English towns. [back]
Note 2. At this point Rumbold was interrupted by drum beating. He said he would say no more on that subject, “since they were so disingenuous as to interrupt a dying man.” [back]

 

The Denial of Deniable Denial

Those who offer prescriptions about how to live, righteous, generous fuckers like me, should follow that old advice to the physician about healing thyself.  It’s easy enough to sit in a chair and opine, bolstering your case with easily found internet artifacts, harder by far to get out off that chair and take needed action[1].

If you write or speak proficiently, it’s not that hard to craft a story that makes it sound like your head is not firmly planted in your own ass.   Given the right motivation we can usually convince anybody of anything by telling the right, reasonable story the right way.  That convincing, of course, includes ourselves and the foundational stories we live by.

I think about this deniable denial today, as I hesitate once again to fully join Sekhnet in her heroic cleaning/reorganizing marathon to empty the ground floor, ahead of the imminent arrival of contractors, hopefully, before the rest of the dining room ceiling collapses.  

In fact, I’m going to keep this very short, finish my coffee, and get down there into the basement, brush aside her contention that there’s nothing I can do to help right now and leap into action.   It’s not that I haven’t helped, I have, but I’ve done less than I could have, debilitated by brooding and my, eh, important work here.

A few quick examples, and a few more sips of coffee and I’m gone, down to move things around, wrap them in plastic, carry them to safety in huge stacks in the basement.    At least make another large pot of sauce out of the dozens of delicious tomatoes, picked the last few days and beginning to attract countless tiny flittering fans who also love their delicious sweetness.

My last post suggested that thinking your way through difficult feelings is the way to go.   Fine, and I believe it, particularly compared to the blind rule of emotion, a rule that never takes reason into consideration while a great amount of energy is consumed repressing difficult emotions.  There are times when an important piece of knowledge really does change your feelings about the thing in question.  The devilish detail about feelings is that they are fucking feelings, very sensitive little things they are, and you can’t reason with them the way you can with ideas.  Also, feelings can’t be wrong, even if they don’t make any sense.

In theory, confronted with something troubling, you can set out all the predictable outcomes of an idea to make it better and discuss ways to avoid the worst.   They call some version of this the “marketplace of ideas”.  According to this theory, ideas come to market, are picked over, the bad items are left to eventually rot (and presumably become fodder for animals being raised for slaughter) and the good ideas are put into everyone’s basket and taken home to enlighten the little ones.  [2]

We live in denial (as I am now, doing this, ahem, important work instead of getting down to the asbestos rich cellar to somehow help Sekhnet pick through 70 years of debris, or at least follow her directions about what else I can do), almost all of us, on some matter or another.  We can all point to examples of things we are not in denial about, difficult things we take by the horns and wrestle to the ground.   These examples suffice to demonstrate that we are not in denial, though there are other things we deniably deny we are in denial about.   Deniability is the key, no?

My mother, a wonderful, bright woman with a great sense of humor, liked to insist, from time to time, that she was very well-adjusted.   She would go down a list of the many vices she didn’t have.   Hard to dispute that she wasn’t an alcoholic, a smoker, a child abuser, a racist, a cheat, a liar, on down the list.  She’d concede that she could lose some weight, that was true.   She’d give you that one.

“She’s a hundred pounds overweight!” my sister always pointed out to me after one of these moral lectures from our otherwise morally upright mother.   Nowadays my sister recites a similar list, she’s at the perfect weight, her blood pressure and cholesterol are perfect, she walks miles every day, she doesn’t smoke, take drugs, gamble, have any other obvious vices.  

You know what I’m sayin’ here?

I don’t know why I have this undeniable aversion to cleaning.   I will clean a bathroom floor, a toilet, a sink, dishes, the stovetop.   Those things I have no hesitation to keep fairly clean.   It is the living mass of dozens, hundreds, of other items, particularly the shifting rafts of paper everywhere, that I cannot tame or organize.   Why not just go through them, shred what needs to be shredded, file and store everything else, after making space for them?   It is as the slothful saith in the Book of Proverbs:  there is a lion in the way, yea, a lion!  

If I have a place to put something, I generally put  it there.  A nail in the wall is where my baseball hat gets hung when I walk in, it is either there or hanging on the carabiner attached to my backpack.   My keys, wallet and phone stay in my pants pocket or in a metal dish I have on my desk.   Everything else… hoo boy.

So part of the agony of Sekhnet’s cleaning marathon for me is the overwhelmed feeling I get looking at piles of chaos that need to be tamed, sorted, boxed, wrapped, moved.   The energy immediately drains from my body, even as I carry heavy items down from the attic after carefully wiping away decades of soot.  

I understand, using my mind, that this debilitating anguish is a feeling I just have to put aside.   It’s not a phobia, I’m not actually terrified.   It’s an aversion, like I have toward snakes.   I won’t die of a heart attack if I approach a pile of clutter with a box in hand, I just… it’s just… 

I can’t deny it, I have a problem.   One more cup of coffee and I’m on it, goddamn it! Here I come, Sekhnet!   

 

[1] what actions are truly needed is another, deeper question for another time  

[2]  Sadly, this theory, in practice, is as sadly self-serving as its sister theory, the “free market” with its insidious “invisible hand”.    Good ideas, it turns out, don’t drive out bad ideas in the marketplace of ideas.  Instead bad ideas often incite strong emotions that cause the holders of bad ideas to beat up or kill the holders of better ideas.   The marketplace of ideas is as free and beautiful as the free market that subsidizes already wildly lucrative industries that are rapidly destroying the earth.  Of course, the theorists of freedom have a bold answer to my critique: the alternative is TYRANNY!!!!

To Feel or Not To Feel

An old friend reminded me the other night that it is better (though not easier) to feel what you’re feeling, experience the pain of it if it’s painful, than to pretend not to feel any part of what is oppressing you.   Feeling your feelings is an essential part of processing, healing, moving forward, being respectful and kind to yourself. Which seems counter-intuitive when you feel like shit.   It was good to be reminded of this pillar of humaneness.  If we practice not feeling what we’re feeling, how do we remain empathetic to difficult things our loved ones often go through?

I think of the choice to feel or not to feel as closely related to the choice between knowing and not knowing [1].   I think it’s better to feel and to know.  The choice not to feel a given feeling or consider a given fact is often simple denial.   Repressing the feelings your soul is going through, denying things that make it go through turmoil, is a one way ticket on the Miserable Asshole Express, as far as I can tell.   As they say on TV, individual exceptions may apply.   I’m not certainly not advocating no anesthesia before a painful procedure, I like a good anodyne as much as the next agony avoider, but I also see the importance of feeling my feelings and having my thinking informed with as much actual knowledge — and feedback from people I trust —  as possible.

What we feel is often closely related to what we know, or, just as often, to what we don’t know.   I’ve been feeling mostly anger since I learned of the sudden, senseless, premature death of a once very close friend.  He died alone and virtually friendless, in spite of possessing many great and rare qualities that could have made him a good friend to many.   It irked me, in large part, that his mere death, a purely random event two thousand miles away,  compelled me, involuntarily (as far as I could tell) to focus once more on his irremediably painful life of wasted potential.  To me an important piece of working out the puzzle of anger is figuring out exactly why the hell something makes me so mad.  I don’t know a better way of trying to digest things and come out the other side of anger.

I’ve been remembering viscerally, continually, the many years I tried to make the pain-filled solipsist see another perspective, how hard I banged my head against the locked door of his highly intelligent but utterly closed mind.   Part of my anger is at myself, for remaining friends with such an impossible person, expecting the clearly impossible, even after ample proof of its impossibility, not accepting the futility of this abzurd expectation years earlier, not saving myself a decade or two of stressful, energy-sapping adversarial relations with a very unhappy and demanding, yea, toxic, person.

Sometimes something we learn or realize can immediately begin to change our feelings for the better.   We can’t learn this kind of crucial thing without being open to learning, and to our feelings about what we learn.   We can’t feel any differently, can’t get relief from hurt, without additional insight.   Not that learning a better way, or discovering an objective, revealing fact that changes a story,  instantly makes bad feelings go away.   Feelings, bad and good, will always arise and often challenge us.

One insight I was blessed to be given was that sometimes much of what we suffer over is not remotely our fault or our doing.  No less an authority than the Buddha taught that the nature of life in this world involves this kind of impersonal suffering we can’t help but feel personally, from the pain of being attached to things that can vanish at any time.   I don’t know much about Buddha, but I do know that what the fox said in William Steig’s beautiful The Amazing Bone rings very true in regard to perplexing things beyond our control we sometimes agonize over:  I didn’t make the world.

All we can do is live in this world the best we can, trying to be kind, maintaining the relationships we value as well as we can, until it is our time to move on, hopefully with some grace, as a final gift to those we love.  

I’m thinking about this today in part because of what my friend said the other night about feeling his painful feelings and partly because of two very different reactions from two old friends to my last angry piece about the now recently cremated Mark.

One read the final email exchange between me and my relentlessly exasperating old friend and didn’t understand what was so provocative about his final response that I felt compelled to drive a stake through his grieving heart right after his mother died.  His question caused me to re-read Mark’s last words carefully and write a detailed explanation.   This process entailed putting my finger on exactly why it had set me off, giving him the context of my long experience that had left me with the conditioned reflex to react that way.   He wrote back that he understood now, and found my explanation quite complete and sensible.

Another old friend had a much different reaction.  He was troubled by the outpouring of rage, which struck him more as the reaction of a betrayed lover than a merely disillusioned friend.    I wrote back that we were like siblings, bound in a constant sullenly competitive rivalry (Mark really wasn’t my romantic type, I’d have to say).  I offered to send him the long email I’d already written explaining exactly where the rage came from but he declined, having read enough already.   De gustibus non disputandum est.   I don’t judge anyone about their appetite for the hideous details, we are all different that way.

I have an appetite for the hideous details.   As, to some extent, does my friend who asked me why I’d been so savage replying to what appeared to him as an inept, clumsy, odd yet sincere attempt at reconciliation, not the final provocation I took it to be.   It was a good question, I saw, rereading the awkward reply that had set me off.   Sitting down to examine my anger and setting out exactly what ignited it was an excellent use of several hours.   In the end I felt neither arbitrary nor capricious (nor unfair) in responding the way I had.  

This can also be seen as merely my take on the endlessly justifying human need to endlessly justify our behavior and the justness of the feelings that lead us to do what we do.   Sure.   I made a good case for why I was angry, cited a few persuasive examples from the text.   It is what lawyers do in our litigious society and I did it to the satisfaction of my fellow lawyer.  

It was also an examination, for me, of the more vexing question of whether I had been fair to do what I’d done.   I questioned my actions, my motives.   The whole process of unraveling Mark’s maddeningly “un-unravelable” lifelong conundrum, as reflected in his final email, was some help to me.  In the end I was satisfied that I’d behaved as I’d want to behave, as I’d will anyone else in the same situation to behave, if I had the power to make it so.   The old Kantian Moral Imperative: act in a way that the world would be a better place if everyone did likewise.

One more annoying question and I’ll be on my way.   Why write things like this and hit “publish”, why put these sometimes troubling personal musings up on the internet for anyone to find?     Aren’t these private thoughts best shared among a small handful of closest friends?  Couldn’t they potentially torment people who might have loved Mark and not shared my anger at him?

I write them for an invisible reader as a way of putting things that feel important to me in a more objective, finalized form.   I need to provide enough general background for anyone to understand what I’m talking about.   In doing this I practice sorting through everything in mind and putting it forward in a way that is most easily comprehensible.   It’s not good writing if the average reader can’t follow it.  

Writing it, and constantly re-editing it, allows me to go back and clarify whatever is left unclear, on the page and in my mind.  In combing away cluttering words (in a way I wish I could attack my desk or kitchen table) I am able to make what I am saying, what I am feeling, clearer and clearer — to the virtual reader and to myself.

When it is as clear as I can make it, there is a feeling of completeness, the satisfaction of a job well-done.   Before I hit “publish” I read it one last time, to make sure everything is in the place where it makes sense for it to be (I often continue editing an already ‘finalized’ post any time I find something confusing in it).  If somebody in Kenya reads it, and it helps her see something in her life better, my work is worth it, I suppose.

 

 

[1[  Mind you, though you surely don’t need reminding, I speak merely as one opinionated, self-appointed pontiff (the better to pontificate, I say).   Feel free to skip this entirely, reject my right to write it or mock away.  This thinking/writing business works for me, better than the alternatives, anyway, but reading it is not for everybody — it goes without saying… just sayin’…