The Challenge of Staying Human

Listening to a recent episode of the excellent Behind The Bastards podcast by Robert Evans, How Nice, Normal People Made the Holocaust Possible, I was struck again by how many regular, decent people merely go along to get along, try to keep their heads down, not make waves, get what they can from an unfair world. Yes, we reason, it’s bad to (insert the worst thing you can think of here) and we don’t support that, of course, but on the other hand (insert other hand here). Take rapper and actor “Fitty Cent”, he doesn’t condone the overt racism and divisiveness of President Trump, but he got a very generous tax break from the man, got to keep a bundle of his own money, so how can he say the man is all bad?

Nobody likes to admit that the party they support, the community they feel part of, does terrible things. We all consider ourselves good people who want the best for ourselves and our loved ones, the best for everyone. We are masters at justifying our actions, even hard to defend things we may do are done for the greater good. Robert Evans, a man fascinated by the lives of powerful bastards, gleefully mocks their justifications for being a piece of shit in every episode. The one I heard the other day focuses on the “little Nazis” who made Hiterlism possible, the millions of small, humble citizens, with no particular strong beliefs or philosophy, who supported the Nazi movement because, even if Mr. H’s rhetoric about the need to cleanse the world of Jews, Communists, Roma, etc. was a bit over the top, he was undeniably making Germany great again.

I woke up full of regret today, with the news of extremist Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination being voted out of committee in preparation for putting her in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recently vacated seat in time to rule on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, that I didn’t dedicate my life to investigative journalism, human rights advocacy, environmental activism, that I didn’t find a meaningful way to join with others of like mind, to step meaningfully into the fight against the destructive forces I hate. Fighting bullies in my own life, and working to become less angry and violent, were small, all-consuming battles that distracted me from the larger war going around all around me. I won’t dwell on any of that now, just put this out there today.

I heard someone recently cite the murder conviction and sentence of Lieutenant William Calley, for the killing of twenty-two Vietnamese civilians (among hundreds he and his men murdered that day), as an instance of American justice. For his war crime, the slaughter of an entire village of unarmed men, women and children, the American justice system sentenced him to life in prison [1]. With Nixon’s help, Calley was free after three years of house arrest.

When I was teaching elementary school a lifetime ago, I heard an inspirational educator tell this story at a teachers’ conference:

A young boy is walking down the beach at low tide. There are thousands of starfish washed up on the beach, slowly drying out, as far as the eye can see. The boy is picking up starfish and flinging them back into the ocean. A man shakes his head and says “you think you can save all these starfish? What difference does it make if you throw a few back?” The boy picks up another starfish, says “it makes a big difference to this guy” and tosses it back into the ocean.

This was a moral lesson to teachers, depressed about the impossibility of helping most of the students in their overcrowded, underfunded classrooms, reminding us that our efforts were not wasted. The Talmud states that saving one life is like saving the entire world, we can only do what we can do, our responsibility is to do the best we can for those we encounter. Our duty is to fight for good no matter how terrible the odds for success may be.

The Lieutenant Calley morality tale is kind of the starfish story in reverse. The rare case of temporary justice for a mass killer in uniform who orders his men to kill women and children and being put away for life — followed by the typical injustice of a politician freeing him to score political points with that good, decent Silent Majority who don’t think the murder of some anonymous gooks in some far off godforsaken hellhole means that a decent American boy’s life has to be destroyed [2].

We see, daily, that the president we have now is prepared to do far more dastardly things than even Mr. Nixon, to stay in power. To pluck one example by a starfish leg, he pardoned a Navy officer whose men turned him in for, among other things, torturing and killing a captive Iraqi teenager then posing for a photo with the corpse.

The massacre at My Lai, a war crime by any definition of the term, was at first covered up by the military. It only came to light because a helicopter pilot named Hugh Thompson and his crew, gunner Lawrence Colburn, and crew chief Glenn Andreotta, (who landed to stop the killings, risking their own lives) and a few dogged soldiers who could not unsee the horror they’d witnessed that day, including Army photographer Ronald Haeberle pushed ahead. Their cause was assisted by journalists, including Seymour Hirsch, who pressed to make the story public The scope and brutality of the atrocity was undeniable, it had been documented in real time in the photographs of GI war photographer Ronald Haeberle.

Vietnam veterans report that the massacre was one of many, perhaps hundreds, that took place during that misguided, un-winnable, depraved war. The slaughter at My Lai would have to stand in for all of them. In the fog of war, all kinds of nightmares play out all the time, that’s why they say “war is hell”. In more recent times, we’ve had a military whistle-blower tried as a spy and sentenced to a long prison term for disobeying orders to keep secret video of an American helicopter crew receiving permission to massacre civilians in Iraq. NOTHING TO SEE HERE.

Just two Ronald Haeberle photos [4], then, and another weak-ass reminder to get out to vote.

As my father, overwhelmed by his young son being so upset to learn about the murder of his own family back in Eastern Europe not many years earlier (in a manner quite similar to the slaughter in My Lai, actually), angrily said: THOSE PEOPLE WERE ABSTRACTIONS, NOBODY KNEW THEM, WE DON’T EVEN KNOW ANY OF THEIR NAMES!

A group of abstractions in My Lai, March 16, 1968, waiting to be killed:

A few moments later:

[1]

William Laws Calley Jr. is an American war criminal and a former United States Army officer convicted by court-martial for the premeditated killings of 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the Mỹ Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. Wikipedia

[2] the reporter who got to know Calley during the trial writes:

There was nothing about Rusty Calley, as he was called, that would make you say that he was an explosion waiting to happen. He didn’t have killer instincts. He didn’t love guns. None of that was the case. He was a young guy from South Florida who loved being around people and going to parties. He was fun to be around. He was not the kind of guy who should be commanding other men in warfare, in my view. But he was probably not the only one out there like that, either.

source

[3] These photos, by soldier/war photographer Ron Haeberle, and the following, are from an article published in Time Magazine on the fiftieth anniversary of this notorious American war crime:

It was 50 years ago — on March 16, 1968 — that a group of American troops killed hundreds of civilians at the hamlet of My Lai, in what would become one of the most infamous atrocities of the Vietnam War. Months passed before the news of that event began to spread, and it would be years before anyone involved would face possible punishment. Though several of the men involved faced courts-martial, only one—1st Lieut. William Laws Calley Jr.—was ever convicted. He was found guilty in 1971 of murder and sentenced to life. (President Nixon changed Calley’s sentence to house arrest, and he served about three years. He apologized in 2009.)

source

Only 41 years between the mass murder and the apology, but he DID apologize! Here’s the motherfucker’s actual apology:

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus on Wednesday. His voice started to break when he added, “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”

source

Note the killer’s repeated use of the passive voice to distance himself from his own deliberate, atrocious actions “what happened that day in My Lai” and “Vietnamese who were killed” and “the American soldiers involved”. He did the best he could to express how sorry he was, as shown by his voice starting to break, but, seriously– fuck him.

Then have done to him what happened that day in My Lai, have him tortured him a bit, scalped, shot, once or twice in each hand and foot, a couple of times in each leg, and left in a ditch, with a sobbing infant clinging to him as he bleeds out.

Little Rehearsals for Our Own Deaths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1]

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

A Lesson in Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’s things? Funny you should ask…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Can’t Argue with A Feeling

There’s a point in a serious, hard to resolve conflict where nothing you can say or do will avert a terminal impasse. It is no longer possible to talk about objective things that actually happened and find any agreement, we’re in the realm of feelings – hurt feelings, at that – so, everybody gets to be right.

Everybody gets to be right. You get to have very fine people, on every side of every issue. You get to have courts rule in your favor with or without evidence, if you have the power to make them feel the way you do. You get to be right, no matter how strong the case is that you’re wrong.

Among people who care about each other, things can be done to soothe hurt feelings. The first thing we do for someone is listen, without trying to correct anything the person is feeling. Between people who despise each other, or have hurt each other beyond caring, hurt feelings are their just desert for being assholes — you know, fuck ’em.

Common Argument Technique (Reframing) Analyzed

When you argue with someone who constantly reframes what you’re talking about, so that you’re always discussing the issue they want to talk about, from their chosen perspective, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to ever reach agreement about anything. This technique is used all the time in bare knuckle politics and the partisan interpretation of law, and it can be maddening. It can also be hard to see or counter, until you learn to spot it as it’s happening.

Here is a recent example, from my life, which lays out clearly how reframing can create a false equivalency that can then be used to drop the mic, having won the argument. It’s likely you’ve experienced the same thing, possibly without being able to get a handle on what actually happened. If so, this illustration may help you see it more clearly.

An old friend questioned me about my falling out with an old jamming partner. I described how tensions had been rising and anger was being stored up by the ace harmonica player. I wasn’t aware of how much resentment this guy had stored up, since he never mentioned any of it to me. In the end, and suddenly, a spark burst into a bonfire. Hurt escalated quickly, and, had the confrontation been in person, and we were the types to resort to violence, we would have come to blows. Things were said in anger that could not be taken back. It was the end of our ability to ever get along again. My later attempt to make peace did not succeed.

The old friend who questioned me later jumped ugly during a couple of tense phone calls, yelling and angrily hanging up mid-sentence the last time we spoke. We then communicated a few times by email, trying to make things right. He felt no need to apologize until I brought it up weeks later, in taking my leave of the troubled friendship he said he was trying his best to save. He no doubt felt justified in his angry actions, under the theory, I suppose, that since I had mercilessly and infuriatingly provoked him, I was the one at fault and so he didn’t need to explain why a person would hang up on somebody like that, let alone apologize for it. Anyone with any self-respect would have done the same thing.

It became impossible to pretend to a friendship that had obviously outlived itself. I finally threw in the towel. To my mild but persistent dismay, he was determined to have the last word.

Here is his reframing of my comments about the awful final, unresolvable confrontation with the harmonica player, which he used to demonstrate that I was the unreasonable, unyielding party in our unresolvable dispute, the cruel bastard who had ended our friendship for no understandable reason:

You’ve said many unkind words to me, Eliot, and I’ve been deeply hurt. When we were discussing your issues with Noam about a year ago, you said something along the lines of, when you have a disagreement with a friend, you try hard to get to a meeting of hearts and minds, but once you conclude that’s not happening, you give it to them with both barrels. I feel that’s where you’re at with me. I feel you no longer value the relationship, but value articulating your grievances and causing me pain in retribution, for whatever purpose that may serve for you. If at this point you just want to be sure you’ve “given as good as you’ve gotten, and then some,” I think you have. 

The beauty of this paragraph is that it makes one of us clearly wrong and the other one the victim of the wrong person’s senseless, deliberate cruelty. When I disagree with a friend, and don’t manage to persuade him I’m right, I blast him with both barrels of the old shotgun.

Note that it could not have been accomplished without reframing.

Substitute “disagreement” — a common human experience we all deal with regularly, a largely intellectual conflict — for “violent fight” — an emotional flare up, something hopefully rare, and always upsetting — et, voila! you have the proof you need of who’s being reasonable and who is undeniably at fault for the end of a long friendship. Never mind that it always takes two to Tango, Foxtrot or Waltz.

What I actually told him, in relation to Noam, was that once I recognize behavior as abuse, motivated by sustained, righteous anger, and I fail in my best attempts to defuse that abusive situation (where anger is dumped on us that we’ve done little to bring on and the other party won’t yield a millimeter in their insistence that we are exclusively at fault), I owe that person nothing but a figurative punch in the face.   

Friends can do this sort of thing sometimes, argue using unfair politician’s tricks to reframe what is actually at stake and why, particularly when they feel defensive, and it is best to overlook it most of the time. We all can be assholes, our friends are people who value the best of us and don’t slam us for our weaknesses. I had a friend for many years who was a habitual liar, it never bothered me much since it rarely had a direct effect on me or my friendship with the guy.

These kinds of flaws only become dangerously contentious when good will has been otherwise lost in a friendship. When we share a problem with a friend who tells us we’re crazy, that it’s all in our head, or who won’t address our concerns at all — it’s pretty much game over. Once that happens, every technique available can come into play to pry whatever remains of friendship apart. What I think about then is trying to leave with integrity, taking my leave in a way that explains my position as clearly, and nonviolently, as I can.

Of course, not matter how gracious I may try to be, it doesn’t change the other person’s sincerely held belief that I am the violent, enraged asshole who deliberately and unilaterally blew everything up. Nothing I can do about that. Having extended courtesy and fairness to the other party makes me feel better about my difficult decision. It also supports my improved ability to make healthier choices based on an honest assessment of what actually took place, to own and try to fix damage I’ve caused and to let go of blame unfairly thrust on to me.

Of course, the injured party, reading this account, will snarl at this further proof of my pathological need to be right, and sanctimoniously unforgiving, and the lengths to which I’ll go to preserve my self-righteousness. Fortunately, that particular snarl is no longer really my problem.

white stubble

I realize it is a reflection of my luck, to have lived long enough to see this, but it gives me a small shudder every time. In the bathroom mirror downstairs, with diffused light coming in from the left, the short white hairs sprouting on my unshaved cheek and neck are unmistakable. They are identical to the ones on the lower half of my father’s face, and his neck, a few days after he died, when they popped open the plain pine box to make sure we were burying the right guy. It’s apparently true, hair continues to grow after death, he was clean shaven when he breathed his last.

I often hasten upstairs to shave. I’m not sure why. That white stubble is no different, really, than the tuft of now white hair that reaches up through the open collar of my shirt, tendrils that can only be constrained by the collar of a t-shirt. My father had the exact same tuft of white hair on his chest. I remember it from when he tried on the blue and white flowered Hawaiian shirt I brought him from my trip to those islands. Reaching up like a clump of dry grass, animated by some crazed will to climb.

Thinking of my father’s face in his coffin, I often recall the guy who instructed the gravedigger to lift the lid. He was a cheerful, ghoulish creep in a sharp black suit, a former lawyer. “I like this much more,” he told my mother and me with a big smile, as he counted the eight thousand in cash we had to bring to the cemetery before they’d release my father’s dead body for burial.

The Book of Lost Souls

As my grandmother, who loved me fiercely, was on the bed in my childhood bedroom dying a painful death from colon cancer, I went down into the basement where I slept and wrote a song one night. I was in my early twenties at the time and was certain I knew a great deal more about life than I actually did. I sang quietly there in the basement, playing some nice guitar chords against a plaintive melody I can almost remember. The lyric that I recall, the chorus, was “when you have love, you never die.” The line repeated several times, and then again as the song faded out. It wasn’t true, of course, she died a few days later and remains steadfastly so. The fact is, no matter how much love we have, we always die.

My grandmother was one of seven children born to her parents in a Ukrainian town near Kremenetz, not all that far from Khmelnitsky, a city named for a Ukrainian nationalist famous in Jewish history as an enthusiastic slayer of Jews, a major pogromnik. A talented, ambitious girl and an adventurous young woman, my future grandmother embraced the vision of universalism, equality and the brotherhood of workers she learned from the idealistic young commissars of the Red Army who took over her neighborhood of the Ukraine after a bloody civil war. She brought that vision with her, along with her dreams of some kind of personal greatness, to the United States, where she arrived, after a fairly harrowing ocean crossing, at twenty-one or so, in 1921. She was the only one of her family to leave. My grandfather, also one of seven siblings, followed two years later, also the only member of his family to get out.

As I write about my grandmother, as you read these words, a small sense of her eternal soul flickers and shimmers a bit. Her soul, while I am considering it, is not truly lost. I knew and loved her well.

Then I think of her six siblings, and their spouses and children, and my grandfather’s six siblings and their families. Of all these only her adored youngest brother, Yussele, Joe, has a name that anyone alive (me) knows. I wonder how many were still around when another group of true believers took control of that inhospitable corner of the Ukraine. One airless Ukrainian night in August, 1943 the last of them officially became Lost Souls.

What I know from a small monument in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried (erected by the Vishnivetz Benevolent Society), and from transcripts of translated witness history (the only mention of the atrocity that I have found on the internet) is that the survivors of the hastily constructed ghetto in that small town, after being starved and tortured for a year or so, were marched after dark to a ravine on the north western edge of town.

They were marched to the sound of drums, the clanging of pans and the yowling of brass instruments, to drown out the cries. The ravine had been prepared in advance, the earth softened up. Layer after layer of doomed Jews were buried there, fragments of their bones skitter in the wind to this day, according to a travel piece about the town I read in the New York Times a few years ago.

What to do about these lost souls? Have they nothing to say? No right to their tiny place in the mad story of in the world? Who am I to write about these lost souls? The only one left alive who knows any of them ever lived.

When I was a boy, and learned about this mass murder of every one of my great aunts and great uncles and all of their children, the immensity of the horror was too much for my parents to discuss. My grandparents never uttered a peep about their loss, I never heard so much as a clue from either of them that anything bad had ever happened. Everyone pretended, it appears, that everyone getting a bullet in the neck and being hastily tucked into a mass grave was normal; that bad, even unthinkable, things happen, that you clutch tightly to the people you love, even as you sometimes battle them to the death.

At one point, for two years or so, I sat every day, as I am sitting now, thinking and tapping at a computer keyboard, trying to tell a story that is, at best, a puzzle with most of its pieces missing. I wrote more than a thousand pages diving into the life of my father, holding it against him, at first, as I had for decades, that he got angry when I persisted in trying to learn more about the murder of our family. True, he called me a drama queen (or whatever the equivalent of that phrase was when I was eight years old) and accused me of trying to claim some kind of victimhood I wasn’t entitled to since the people who died were mere abstractions I’d never even met. I understand now that he had no way to process this atrocity, no way to discuss it with his young child. In the context of his own life, articulate, righteous anger was the best he could summon.

When I was thirteen, by the tradition of my religion, I read part of a holy book to the community and “became a man,” I have few recollections of that day, except that a girl from Hebrew School who I liked, who had not been invited to the bar mitzvah party, showed up anyway in that catering hall on Hillside Avenue. She spirited me away from the party, down a flight of stairs, sat on my lap on an upholstered chair under the room where the festivities were going on and kissed me on the lips a few times.

I mention this to illustrate how elusive the past is. I was there, I am said to have an excellent memory, and I remember one detail. I have a few mental images of myself in the chapel, reading from the Torah (my part was read from the same xeroxed and marked up page I’d learned it from). Mostly, no memory at all of that memorable day.

As we also learn, given enough time, a life seems to go by in the wink of an eye. Thirteen years is not very long to be alive. Thirteen years passes quickly, I’ve discovered as 13 turns to 26 then to 39 and so forth.

A few months less than thirteen years before I was born there was a terrible racket in the Ukrainian night, and then, after the ruckus was over, the silence of death. Every Jewish soul that was alive that night when the banging started — that soul was lost forever. Have we nothing to learn from this?

Thinking About Thinking

I’ve noticed a mysterious little flurry of viewers to a post I wrote two years ago about Hannah Arendt and her view of thinking and creativity. It is lack of imagination, Arendt asserted, and the dumb obedience this crabbed view of the world produces, that leads men, seeking to escape loneliness (among other things) to join movements in which they may be required to function as monsters, carry out unthinkably inhuman orders. They simply accept the rationale they are given, join a movement and execute the wishes of a Leader who may or may not be wise, capable or decent. A leader who may, in fact, be Adolf Hitler.

Adolf Eichmann, portrayed to this day as one of history’s most infamous monsters, was, as observed by Arendt during his sensational, important trial in Jerusalem, an unremarkable man of modest intellectual gifts who insisted it had been his duty to obey the laws of the new order in Germany. He spoke in cliches, often repeated stock Nazi phrases and was incapable of imagining that a regime that made mass murder ordinary, normal and lawful could have anything wrong with it. The several psychiatrists who examined him prior to his criminal trial in Jerusalem concluded he was not a “man obsessed with a dangerous and insatiable urge to kill” or a “perverted, sadistic personality” (as the prosecutor later wrote of Eichmann — and as the ad for the current Netflix offering about him suggests).

Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as “normal” — “More normal than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that his whole psychological outlook, his attitude toward his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends, was “not only normal but most desirable”– and finally the minister who had paid regular visits to him in prison after the Supreme Court had finished hearing his appeal reassured everybody by declaring Eichmann to be “a man with very positive ideas.”

(Eichmann in Jerusalem, pp. 25-26)

It was Eichmann’s utter lack of imagination, his willingness to believe what his superiors told him, his ambition to succeed and advance in his career, that made Eichmann the hardworking cog in the Nazi killing machine that he became. He was not troubled by conscience because what he was doing he had been legally ordered to do, he had only been doing his job. He literally could not imagine refusing to do his legal duty. A refusal to do it would have resulted in his own demotion, imprisonment, probably death — all unimaginably harsh and self-destructive outcomes. End of inquiry. Arendt was internationally vilified for “humanizing” this monster in her 1963 masterpiece. I’m with Hannah, she gives us a crucial understanding in her deep portrait of an otherwise ordinary enabler of evil.

In law school students are drilled in thinking through and articulating both sides of an argument, imagining as many avenues of legal attack to the client’s position as possible in order to defend against them. Rigorous thinking means sometimes considering ideas you might find repellant, overcoming the reflex to simply cast them out with a grunt of disgust. A mark of the agile mind, someone said (F. Scott Fitzgerald?) is being able to keep two contradictory thoughts in mind at the same time. We live in the instant information age, so here you go:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” [1]

We are not trained to be nimble, creative thinkers — we are trained to be earners and consumers, as well as reflexive moralists who do not dwell on crazy-making nuance. From birth, here in the United States, we are exposed to hour upon hour of commercial advertisements, teaching us what to buy. By the time we are in kindergarten we can recite countless commercial tag lines and sing (at least when I was a kid and every product had a catchy little tune attached) dozens of jingles. I often lament that I can easily sing the entire “Veep” (a lemon lime soft drink, circa 1961) jingle perfectly but can’t recite a single line of Shakespeare or the Bible accurately.

In a sense it’s not anyone’s fault that we are a largely superficial, stubbornly opinionated culture, we’ve become this way by design, for the massive profit of the beneficiaries of this commercialized state of affairs. Imagining a fundamentally different way of life is almost impossible, given the pervasiveness of the one being sold to us 24/7 and now, literally so: carried on smart devices in our pockets, with little notification sounds to remind us to look at them. We tend to latch on to whatever suits our views, gravitating to items that support our confirmation bias.

Every moral and political issue is reduced to an oversimplified false duality — yes or no. If you critique an extractive, highly polluting consumer society that may well be destroying the earth for short-term profit it is easy to see what you are: a Communist, a soul-dead enemy of freedom and liberty. There is no other frame to think about such things here, though a desperately needed one is evolving with things like The Green New Deal.

Thinking about crowds carrying torches, united in some cause, often a violent one, we can set them in virtually any epoch in history. The rationale of the march is always similar — we are in pain, we are afraid, we’re angry, we are the victims, we are going to kill the people who are victimizing us! It’s true that once we have murdered the evil bastards our miserable life remains pretty much the same, the anger, pain and fair have not vanished — but that just means we haven’t killed enough of them. It is the triumph of action without thought, without imagination, without Reason, that leads to every mass catastrophe (not caused by “Acts of God”) that humans have ever fallen into.

It’s tempting, of course, to make comparisons between a guy like Eichmann and some of the political actors of our time. What “belief system” must one accept to justify the caging of children forcefully ripped from their mothers’ arms? It’s tempting to compare the thousands in perfect solidarity at a Nuremberg rally to the crowds today at certain political rallies, the fascist goon squads of 1930s Germany to a gang of men who take up arms to protest the tyranny of mandated mask wearing to slow the spread of a deadly pandemic. These types can imagine only one version of the world, as they believe it is, with powerful, evil cannibal child molesters trying to gain the upper hand, doing whatever they can to destroy our cherished way of life.

These crowds live, as we all do today, in echo chambers that magnify whatever bias they had last night, the one they wake up with today. A few guys are getting incredibly rich running these massive echo chambers while the rest of us face ever greater peril from endlessly magnified real problems that require deep thought, serious discussion and ingenious solutions, problems that are reduced to idiotic black or white, red or blue, yay or nay.

Thinkers are easily killed by violent men of action, men with guns, ropes, bombs. Violent, unthinking emotion, time after time, prevails over reflection, understanding, mercy, wisdom. That doesn’t make the attempt to understand, to be merciful, foolish. Understanding, and imagining a better future, is the only chance we have against the hoards who increasingly believe that politically powerful cannibal child rapists are coming to get all of the little white, Christian children in America and that only one man, an admittedly flawed vessel– but one secretly filled with Christ’s love — can save them. Decency prevails, when indecency becomes impossible not to see. The unimaginable stink of the thing can finally wake dozing souls to say: enough, goddamn it.

But we have to think. We actually have to think.

[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1936, yo. A year one would have done well to keep this test in mind.