The Body Knows

In the same way that animals instantly know when a tsunami or other natural disaster is about to happen, and begin fleeing the soon-to-be killing zone, our bodies know many things before we are aware of them.

Years ago I watched my father bully his granddaughter, my niece.   She was about five, it was the evening before her birthday and my father asked her where she wanted to eat the next day to celebrate.  She told him and he shook his head.  No way.   When she tried to argue a case she shouldn’t have needed to argue, her grandfather cut her off with a smiling “you show me a girl who insists on going to Shells and I’ll show you a girl who doesn’t get the bike her grandparents bought for her.”  This bike, by the way, a sparkly little purple number with training wheels and girlish streamers coming out of the handlebars, long coveted by the birthday girl, had already been purchased.

The girl’s parents remained silent.  I tried to reassure my niece that we’d go wherever she wanted, but she ran upstairs crying.   A few minutes later, when I went up to say goodnight before heading back to where I was staying with my father, the bully, my niece smiled and pretended she was fine.   She’d been taught to do this and was already, at five, a master of the fake, but very ingratiating, smile.  I later learned that as soon as we left she ran into the bathroom and vomited.    She was 100% right to vomit.   She couldn’t have articulated, perhaps, the exact reason she was puking her guts out, but any observer of the scene with her mean grandfather and her silent parents could get a pretty good idea of what had upset her so much.  Her body had no hesitation to vividly express her feelings for her.

Five or six weeks ago I pushed myself a little too hard on a nine mile hike that, with my arthritic knees, was a little too strenuous.   The hike was beautiful and painless, except for the steep, rocky descent and climb back up which were very painful for my knees (the descent had been particularly excruciating).  I needed to rest after the climb, as I’ve learned to do periodically when walking, to take the stress off my knees for a few minutes, but my fellow hikers, none of whom have arthritis, continued happily on and I grimly struggled to catch up over those last few miles.  

I felt fine after the hike and woke up the next day, after a long sleep, feeling fine. That evening, in the car, I suddenly found myself unable to speak.   The sounds I made were the incomprehensible sounds of nonfluent aphasia.   One syllable expletives, expressing my frustration at not being able to speak, were about the only intelligible things I could get out.  

By the time we got to the ER, a few minutes later, my episode of transient nonfluent aphasia was over.  I was able to explain exactly what I’d experienced during those twelve to fifteen minutes of not being able to speak.   Sekhnet reminded me, in telling the doctors, that I’d maintained my ability to say “fuck” and “shit” and things like that.   I was rushed through several tests to rule out an ongoing stroke and determine the severity of this TIA, transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke.   None of the tests showed any reason to keep me in the hospital, I felt fine, my blood pressure and heart rate were normal.   They gave me a pill to take, an anti-coagulant called Plavix (clopidogrel to you and me) that is apparently part of the post-stroke protocol.   I swallowed the first dose in the ER, as instructed, and filled a prescription for the drug the following day, as I found a neurologist to follow up with.

Before it was time to take my second dose of clopidogrel (where do they get these names?) I had dinner and went for my customary walk.   About a mile from the house I suddenly experienced severe abdominal cramps.   I stopped and waited for the rumbling to pass, googling the side effects of clopidogrel (prominent among them were bloating, cramps and diarrhea), and, in the moment that followed, learned the terrible truth of the cliche about when you’re old never pass a bathroom and never trust a fart.  I have long understood the first part of that adage, and I live by it.  The wisdom of that odd bit about never trusting a fart suddenly became clear to me for the first time.

The back of my pants suddenly felt damp and, I’ll be damned, there was a little wet spot,  quickly becoming a cold wet spot.  I shook off my horror and headed home in mounting discomfort, my intestines groaning as I made my way through the residential neighborhood I walk in, where, I thought ruefully, every house I passed has several bathrooms.  As I got close to the house I called Sekhnet in panic, telling her to unlock the door and clear the path to the bathroom.  It was one of the most terrible miles I’ve ever walked.  Arriving at home at last, I pulled open the unlocked door, climbed the first step, and as my foot hit the second, learned the sinister Latin meaning of Plavix:  “explosive diarrhea while walking”.

The neurologist I consulted told me to discontinue the aptly named clopidogrel and I did.  The trauma to my excretory system persisted, day after day, week after week.  Clopidogrel had apparently ripped the hell out of my insides.   This side effect is only experienced by a statistically very small number of patients, and there appears to be no lawsuit related to it among the many against the makers of the drug for several other terrible, even deadly, side-effects.   If I’d had a serious stroke or heart attack, most doctors would have insisted I take this drug.  For a suspected mini-stroke, the protocol apparently requires it.   But it’s some fucked up shit if you fall into that statistically insignificant category who get 100% of side effect number 26, I can tell you from hard personal experience.

As the sudden spasms in my colon continued, punctuated by stirring episodes of what can only be described as a spastic colon, I began a liquid diet.  After 48 hours without solid food, the spasms eventually subsided.   I cautiously began introducing solid foods, noting on paper what I was eating every day.  Brown rice was fine, so were carrots, oddly enough and popcorn, steel cut oatmeal and whole wheat bagels were fine, even with tofu spread, tofu was also fine, persimmons and grapes were OK, raisins immediately brought back all of the symptoms.  

This has been an ongoing dance since October 21.  It’s been improving slowly and by Thanksgiving I ate virtually everything (our host made everything vegan, except for the turkey), in moderate portions, and I was fine.   Even the fine scotch went down without any problem.  I figured I was finally OK again.    Last night, throwing yer proverbial caution to the proverbial wind, I ate a normal dinner with friends, celebrating Sekhnet.  A few hours later my colon announced, with an unmistakable lack of ambiguity, that I’d once again be paying certain prices for my imprudence.

It occurred to me the other day that my colon is absolutely right to be freaking out, roiling and lashing out spastically.  

I follow the news closely and even do a little side reading to get some of the backstories.   The most recent post here, for example, is about the little side story that 3/5 of the president’s original campaign brain trust are now convicted felons.   The fourth was fired early on and was not directly implicated in any improprieties or illegal acts.   The fifth, a pugnacious, crew-cutted twat who should have been held in contempt of Congress for his open contempt, started a lucrative lobbying business across the street from the White House with direct, friendly, personal access to the most “transactional” president in history.   Presumably he is now very wealthy– and loyal to his president beyond question.

The Democrats, we hear, are reluctant to bring the damning conclusions of the Mueller Report (based on specific sworn testimony) into Trump’s impeachment.   (My colon tightens slightly as I write these sentences).  Their reasons for this are practical.  They cannot prove, without sworn testimony from those same witnesses, that the president engaged in the pattern of obstruction Mueller laid out because — the president continues to obstruct access to all fact witnesses who testified to Mueller under oath and all related documents.  It could take more than a year for the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the president’s clearly obstructive behavior.  (An abdominal sonogram ruled out an obstruction in my digestive system, by the way).

This ongoing obstruction by Trump and his myrmidons continues the pattern of the president’s successful obstruction of the original investigation into his campaign’s collusion in massive Russian interference in the 2016 election.  Trump interfered enough, by continually denouncing the “witch hunt” “hoax”, refusing to cooperate, giving “inadequate” evasive, lawyerly written answers and intimidating, praising and floating pardons to witnesses, to ensure that the investigation produced “insufficient evidence” of criminal activities, though Mueller’s report also, explicitly, if almost silently, did not exonerate him of the crime of obstruction of justice.   Mueller’s investigation also put several of Trump’s closest associates (3 of the 5 originals) in prison for felonies related to this obstruction.

My gut correctly points out that it is not intemperate, nor hyperbole, to call the aggressive, diehard, fact-denying followers of Mr. Trump Nazis.   Nazi officials under Mr. Hitler were supremely ambitious men guided by only one principle: das Führerprinzip, the “leader principle” [1].   This meant their supreme duty was loyal, absolute obedience to the will of their leader, their Führer.  As Nazis themselves would put it, even the fine, decent Nazis our president praised after their march in Charlottesville: Führerworte haben Gesetzkraft — the leader’s words have the force of law.   Keep repeating any theory Trump spouts — that is the surest ticket to the leader’s approval and support.

Check out the party of Lincoln now, says my twisting colon.  It’s the party of Trump. We read that he now actually controls all the money the RNC raises, he decides which candidates get party funds for their campaigns and how much they get.   The party strongman is unprincipled, uncurious, viciously opinionated, vindictive, petty, cruel.   The perfect kind of man to blindly obey, if you are an ambitious Nazi.  When Nazis are ascendant, and “facts” no longer even exist, guys like me start getting the heebie jeebies.  So I don’t blame my guts at all for being in an uproar, even as I do my best to calm them.

I sip my broth and think about making a cup of tea.  Yes, my twitchy colon says, a little pineapple chamomile sounds about right.

 

 

{1]   The Führerprinzip [ˈfyːʀɐpʀɪnˌtsiːp] (About this soundlisten) (German for “leader principle”) prescribed the fundamental basis of political authority in the governmental structures of the Third Reich. This principle can be most succinctly understood to mean that “the Führers word is above all written law” and that governmental policies, decisions, and offices ought to work toward the realization of this end.[1] In actual political usage, it refers mainly to the practice of dictatorship within the ranks of a political party itself, and as such, it has become an earmark of political fascism.

 

Learning or not learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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]