What do you really want?

Boil it down to what you actually need to have a good life.   I suspect even the most ardent Nazi or Klansman will have a list fairly similar to mine.  For Nazism to flourish, the fact of our mortal commonality, that vast confluence of basic human/animal needs and desires, must be denied.  Denial is a powerful force in human affairs and so it is not hard to prove to a racist that all his problems are imposed on him by the Other, powerful, pathetic, inhuman monsters who are vastly inferior to him.  It’s not true, strictly speaking, but we have seen the limits of true and false in recent years, they are no barrier to any faithful belief.

What do we agree that we all need?  All of us need love and understanding.  Parents should be gentle with their children, firm when needed, and never abusive toward them.   We need friends, people we can share our lives with, the good and the bad.  Friends don’t always have to agree with us, but they always treat our feelings with care.  We need to laugh once in a while.   We need sex, and tenderness, from our partners.   We need to feel productive, however we define that.  We need food, clothing, shelter, health care, treatment of diseases that threaten us.  We need a feeling of dignity. We all want to feel safe from attacks, safe from natural disasters, the destruction of our biosphere, safe from criminals, safe from killers of various kinds.  We want to live in peace and be treated fairly by others. We want to control our own lives.  We want to live in a world where justice rules, everyone’s basic needs are met and bad people are kept away from the rest of us. 

An insane criminal court judge I used to know coined the phrase “honor anemia” to describe a root cause of the epidemic of anger, despair, shame and violence that is convulsing our society.  Most people feel they are treated as disposable by a profit-driven economic system that clearly favors only the rich and famous.  The lack of respect the other 98% of us rightfully perceive is constantly burning us, like a draining physical disease that saps our better nature.   The judge, who was greeted as “Your Honor” in all of his favorite restaurants, and who eventually convinced me that he was not just blowing smoke when he claimed he was insane, was certainly an example of the disease he diagnosed as a widespread cause of American misery.

Our better natures are challenged a hundred times a day in our corporate media-driven culture. Scroll through the headlines of your favorite newspaper and try to remember that you are a reflection of the divine.  Read one headline too many and you find yourself snarling “fuck that, these Nazi motherfuckers have to pay!”   The Nazi reader will have a similar reaction to the headine that finally sets him off “fuck that, these Jew motherfuckers have to pay!”   The impulse, of course, is identical.

We go to the dark side when our ability to keep hoping is finally crushed.   In many of us, this hopefulness is a tiny, often timorous flame, as fragile as the human soul itself.  Take away hope and you destroy the impulse to strive to be better, to dream of anything better than despair and revenge.  You wind up joining the Ku Klux Klan, and screaming in the torchlit night, with your equally enraged comrades, filled with the virile mass-murderer’s belief that at least you can go out taking some fucking inferior race mongrels with you.   A dead-end dream that leads only to death, but a dream, at least.

There are many more things that unite us than divide us.   We all need a home.   We will all die.  We all grieve and mourn the deaths of our loved ones. We all feel well-disposed toward people who treat us with kindness.  We prefer to trust people than to assume that everyone is an irredeemable piece of shit.   We all want a better world.   We would all at least flinch to see a baby toddle into traffic, or into a river, many of us would leap to save the kid before thinking about it.

The “genius” of Nazi-types is in creating specific, infuriating wedges to drive us apart.  Keep us divided, angry, afraid, insulted, ignored, ravaged by “honor anemia,” savaged daily by crushing examples of injustice, informed in a stilted status quoconfirming way by a corporate press owned by a small handful of billionaire sociopaths, and you have fertile soil for an ideology of hatred and revenge.  Then the only trick is to keep that rage focused on anyone who denies that dictatorship/oligarchy is the best form of human society.  Punish those who tell the truth under oath, criminalize dissent, incentivize partisan vigilantism and violent intimidation of hated, inhuman enemies worthy of only death.  

Me, I’m trying to keep my eye on the ball.  Someone, I think it was the Jewish sage Hillel, wrote “in a place where there are no mensches, strive to be mensch.”   Strive, my dear unknown friends, to be a fucking mensch in your life.  It is the best we can all hope for.

Emotional Maturity, anyone?

I don’t know how the artificial intelligence of YouTube algorithms determined to send me this particular video, (and I shudder to think about the sophistication of the surveillance we are all under using our smart devices) but as I watched it I said “damn!A pretty smart little film clip with a short, powerful comparison of emotional immaturity and emotional maturity.

The narrator asks what our characteristic reaction is when someone we love hurts us. We can sulk, hoping for a magical solution. We can rage, like the cartoon of a powerful autocrat. We can grow cold and withdraw. Babies and children act this way, why shouldn’t adults?

For one thing, the world would know nothing but war and no interpersonal conflict could ever be solved.

Three characteristics of emotional maturity needed to actually solve musunderstandings and mistakes: The capacity to explain why we are hurt. The capacity to stay calm and extend the benefit of the doubt when hurt. The capacity to be vulnerable.

The narrator asks reasonably and humanely how we can expect to emerge from childhood with emotional maturity if we are raised by people lacking the emotional vocabulary, or emotional maturity, to show us how adults deal with pain? Lacking that, it’s just years of hard goddamn work not to act like a baby when we’re fucking hurt. Here’s a neat six minute primer:

Harsh truth or anodyne truth-lite?

Individuals can always spin things any way they please, since many things are strictly matters of taste and preference.   One is urged to accentuate the positive, be cheerful, not dwell on depressing or painful things!   When times are tough, look forward to a fabulous holiday, a great meal at a fantastic new restaurant, a cool new car, the pleasures a life of hard work can provide.

The same story can be told in many ways, even by readers of the same newspaper.  In one story, we are facing the worldwide march of triumphalist fascism as our habitat is being quickly boiled into a toxic miasma.  In that story, our moral obligation, if we are not fascists or those who profit from the destruction of our biosphere, is to do everything we can to avoid this awful fate for every living creature on the planet. 

The story can be told with a different emphasis: radical alarmists alarming people to advance their radical agenda.  Sure there are some bad, dishonest politicians here and there, even evil ones, sure some countries execute drug addicts, and gays, force raped girls to give birth to their rapists’ baby, commit modest genocides, sell off the rain forests that are the lungs of the planet to corporations that will bulldoze the trees to graze animals for slaughter, but there are also people doing wonderful things and life is beautiful.  Actually, it’s the radical alarmists who are alarming everybody!

The attitude behind this second version of the story is that it’s better to believe that everything is going to be fine and what we are seeing all around us its not really as bad as it looks.   I believe this myself, but not to the extent of denying we’ll have fascism shortly unless we prevent Republicans, who already have a nakedly partisan 6-3 Supreme Court (the last three chosen strictly for their extreme partisan cred) from capturing one or both houses of Congress.  In fact, unless we pick up a Manchin-proof majority in the Senate, we’re heading straight over the filibuster waterfall to the fascism of a heavily armed one party theocracy.  

Fascists don’t care about saving the environment or anything else that humanists, or humans, consider important.  Fascists care about only triumph and dominating their hated enemies.   Fascism is the harnessing of the human tic to go to war in a rage, making that lowest impulse the iron law of the land.

Calling Republican office holders and candidates fascists just because they promote what they all know is a destructive lie, in the interest of regaining absolute one-party control of everything, may seem hyperbolic to some.  Consider:  if you repeat a lie that makes people angry, and those angry people form a violent lynch mob that maims and kills people, and afterwards you defend that lynch mob’s right to try to kill people they believe betrayed them, and you are required not to break the party-line wall defending the lie and the mob, and you vote in a bloc to hurt your political opponents, who you vilify, and leave every problem to get worse so that you profit politically, is there a more accurate word than “fascist” to describe you?

Mel Brooks has a genius definition of comedy and tragedy that rings so true it hurts.   “Tragedy is when I break a fingernail.  Comedy is when you fall into a manhole and die.”   A slapstick sight gag vs. actual personal suffering, no matter how minor.

How you view and tell the story is determined by your personal experience and your emotional needs.   Humans can always find an anodyne truth-lite way of spinning stories that would otherwise terrify them.  Just ACC-cen-tuate the positive!

The positive, to me, is truth, honesty.  If you are talking about what really happened, as opposed to what you want to believe happened, we can discuss anything you like.  Nothing is out of bounds, nothing can’t be solved, if we agree on the facts of what we are talking about.  If you insist on an anodyne version that lets culpable parties off the hook, that makes you feel better — at the expense of reality — that’s your wonderful belief and God bless.   Just don’t try to insist on that bullshit to someone like me.

Isolation can kill

Isolation, like many things, can be good or bad.   On the good side, you have the uninterrupted time to be introspective, to ponder things that may perplex you and the quiet to work out difficult life puzzles.  On the bad side, extended isolation can drive a person mad because when there is nothing but yourself to distract you from your troubles your mind starts to cannibalize itself.   

The UN declared the isolation of solitary confinement, for more than 15 days, to be torture.  Our history and traditions support the practice of solitary confinement, an estimated 80,000 US prisoners are held in solitary confinement under a variety of rationales as I type these words.  Here’s a bit on the deeply rooted history and traditions piece that the most authoritarian on our doctrinaire 6-3 Supreme Court like so much:

The practice of completely isolating prisoners began in Pennsylvania and New York, and goes back to a theory proposed in the early 19th century, said Peter Scharff Smith, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

Quakers in Philadelphia proposed that if prisoners were kept in complete isolation, they might find redemption and rehabilitation by concentrating on their weaknesses without distraction and ultimately become closer to God. Taking up the theory, Pennsylvania built a wheel-shaped prison in Philadelphia designed to ensure that every prisoner was completely alone.

One famous visitor to this prison, called the Eastern State Penitentiary, was Charles Dickens. In 1842, he wrote in “American Notes” that life in the prison was “rigid, strict, and hopeless.” The prison is still standing but has not been used since 1971.

https://www.insidescience.org/news/solitary-confinement-form-torture

I suspect this early 19th century reasoning is good enough for the Federalist Society Six, should the issue of solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment (maybe cruel, but certainly not unusual, Kavanah, J.) come before the court so deeply rooted in our history and traditions, and why not?   First liberals complain about conservatives taking away the so-called right to privacy, and then, when the state provides absolute privacy, Social Justice Warriors whine about that too!  

Solitary confinement is one thing, and an extreme and terrible form of isolation, but social isolation is a kind of torture too.  In the old days (and probably to this day), religious communities would excommunicate people they deemed assholes, send them out of the community and into nature where they could fend for themselves or die, or both.  

We live in a time of extreme social isolation for many millions of us.  In this isolation we are constantly goaded by the relentless, stupid war over everything.  This war mentality has been greatly exacerbated by the lockdown and the idiotic zero sum war of principle, waged by mask and vaccine skeptics, over how to best combat a deadly pandemic.  Guys like the inimitable Charles Koch have spent hundreds of tax-free millions to make sure we live in a black and white world of existential conflict to the death, with no solutions available to any but the few who benefit from the mayhem.  The more armed hate groups, the better, for untouchable guys like Koch. 

The natural response to this determined, public, endlessly repeated stonewalling of every possible solution is widespread disaffection, despair and anger which bursts into rage pretty easily.  This rage, which has nowhere else to go, is turned on each other, and on ourselves.   We live in a time of mounting American deaths of despair, by drug overdoses, by guns, by just going out and shooting random people until the cops come, and if you are Black, you are instantly a successful suicide by cop.

In a time of unprecedented social isolation, a handful of genius American entrepreneurs have monetized American loneliness by creating a virtual world of unlimited like-minded friends.  Online we can even have followers, just like actual celebrities.  Even this little-read, unknown blahg has over 300 followers.  Would they march with me to the gates of Hell?  Not one, I’d wager, but, shit, I have a small army of noncommittal followers, which nobody can deny.

Instead of communities, and a small group of people we can count on in times of trouble, we have the illusion of a gigantic community of people who think and feel just like we do.   They share the same political views, the same moral stances, the same shopping habits, the same tastes in food, drink and culture.  We may never see them in real life, but isn’t it nice to know we are not alone?  I mean, if it wasn’t for the mass illusion that we are part of a vast network of like-minded friends and followers, many more of us would probably be suicidal at this point in the long, ugly, ceaseless war of each against all that has been forced on us by our most powerful citizens.   Maybe the mass illusion itself is a cause of despair, we know that these “friends” are not real and we think back sadly to when we had real friends we could be honest with, who could console us, personally, having been in our actual, offline lives for years.   

Trust?  Despair? Benefit of the doubt? Silence?  Abstractions, like death, that we are free to endlessly contemplate or run from, in our chafing isolation.  Thankfully, we all have each other.

insight?

When I was in my late twenties, visiting the farm of my parents’ best friemd, Arlene, she laid a great truth on me. As we watched the sun set one evening she said:

You feel like you disappointed your parents, like you’re responsible for their unhappiness. I love your parents to death, as you know, they’re my best friends, but they are both very unhappy people. They just are, they were that way long before you were born. Their unhappiness has nothing to do with you, there is nothing you can do to change it, the burden of it is not something you need to carry through life.”

Though what she said sounds obvious to me now, it was like she’d reached up and pulled a string to turn on a light in the universe.

That understanding was an immense help to me, comparable to my father’s older first cousin Eli, years later, describing how he witnessed his beloved Aunt Chava grab the thick, burlap covered cord for her steam iron, from a drawer behind her seat at the kitchen table, and whip little Irv across the face with it.

In the face?” I said.

Yep, over and over,” said Eli.

Jesus,” I said, “how old was he?”

However old you are when you can stand on your two feet without falling over,” he said, with limitless sorrow. He saw it many times after that, and he said that over time all she had to do was rattle the drawer where she kept the whipping cord and young Irv would stand at rigid attention, staring at the ground, trembling, waiting for the whipping to start.

how writing helps you clarify things

I was raised by parents who had been physically and psychologically abused as children.  They grew to adulthood with little ability to restrain themselves when frustrated and, quick to anger, took out their unbearable feelings on their children.   My sister and I were blamed for all kinds of things, some of them ridiculous.  I trace my need to express myself to my childhood desperation to untie the knot of the incoherent story I was expected to accept about myself, about my sister.   I started writing fairly young, and before that I drew, constantly.   

“Why are your drawings so scary?” my mother would sometimes ask.   

“Because I can’t write yet,” I might have told her.

I had a girlfriend and her baby visit me in New York decades ago, saved up, sent them plane tickets.  The child, who I loved very much, is now in her thirties, maybe forty (damn!).   I last saw her on her fourth or fifth birthday.   Her mother was beautiful, talented, had a great sense of humor, we got along great, I loved her, but in the end things didn’t work out between us.  During the week they were my guests, the two year-old had a few temper tantrums, as two year-olds do, and her mother tried to press me into moving to California and join the community she lived in with her Indian guru, Baba Hari Dass.  I felt increasingly pressured as the week went on.

After they left I found a drawing I’d done while they were in NY.   It was a shapely woman’s leg, standing firmly on its lovely foot, with a leash tied to the thigh, where a garter would be.   The leash was taut and straining against it was a dog with a human face, and a huge boulder on his back.

“Fuck,” I thought when I saw that drawing afterwards, “that self-portrait says it all…”

I find this unexpected revelation of my deeper feelings with writing sometimes.  I read something I wrote and a phrase jumps out to clarify a complicated quandary for me.  Here’s a paragraph I wrote recently that made me realize something very important about a prolonged estrangement from two of my oldest, dearest friends.

Long, deep talk with old friends recently [different ones — ed.], reminding me of the healing power of being heard and of forcing yourself to hear things you may not like to hear.  These are crucial perspectives you can’t come to on your own when you are impaired by pain. Good friends don’t always have to agree with you, though they often do, but they always treat you with care when you need care. 

Simple test: did my oldest friends always treat me with care when I needed care?

Well, not always, and lately, for the last nine months or so, no care at all.  In fact, the opposite of care. They insisted I was wrong to feel the way I did after one jumped ugly with me, since in their story she was only reacting to my threatening attitude.  They blamed me for ruining a wonderful vacation with a flash of anger the last day, denied there was any tension at all leading up to my outburst, just a simple misunderstanding I blew up over, until seven months later one of them admitted things had been very tense, because she had been micromanaging everything to make sure it was all perfect.  The other one later threatened me that he’d walked away from friendships for less than what I’d done to him.  The first one had a temper tantrum, then was so shocked later that I still needed to talk about it that she went incommunicado for months, then had another temper tantrum when I dared to bring up the troubling pass our long relationship has come to.  

Understanding does not lead to a clean solution to your vexations, but it is better to see the thing clearly than to have it muddily painful in your head, waking you hours too early, like a toothache.  I compare this depressing impasse with my dear, old friends to having a knife stuck in my side by one of them, unintentionally, let’s say.  When I pointed to it, the other pushed it in a little further.   Months later, when I gestured toward the still unhealed knife wound, the first one stuck her finger deep into it and wiggled it around.  I didn’t bleed out, I didn’t lose consciousness, so what am I fucking blubbering about?  That’s a tiny flesh wound, asshole, I’ll give you something to blubber about!

To forgive is divine, truly, and to be slow to anger is praiseworthy.  I managed not to respond to either of them with anger, but their conditional apologies turn out to be hollow, empty, without form or substance, without any change in behavior.   I don’t need apologies anyway, as I explained to them, I need to be heard and understood by loved ones when I’m hurt. You know, empathy, understanding, the benefit of the doubt — basic friendship.  I expect to be treated with the same care I extend to them.  But that turns out to be unreasonable when the only pain the other person can truly relate to is their own.

We are all capable of casting ourselves as the victims when things get ugly, and things are ugly enough for all of us right now on this imperiled little planet, at the doorstep of climate destruction and surging worldwide fascism.  There are also not always two equally compelling sides to every story.  Treating friends with care is the most basic duty of friendship.  Dereliction of that duty, especially if repeated over and over, is an indication that the friendship you are clinging to may already be dead.   

I still have a hope that these two dear friends will have an unexpected change of heart the next time we meet, whenever that might be.   I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised, delighted and relieved, by that change of heart, that deeper understanding.  It’s a slim, wan, simpering hope, I know, but it is a hope and I appreciate it.  Hope is always better than no hope, I believe, until the proof is irrefutable and the hope for something better is crushed by dull, heavy, merciless reality.

terra incognita!!!

Mapmakers used to describe gaps in their knowledge of the world under the phrase terra incognita.  The legend on old maps described uncharted, unimaginable expanses of unknown terrain.  Krakens, dragons and every kind of supremely destructive beast were presumed to inhabit terra incognita.  Prove they didn’t, using the maps of the day, you couldn’t.  Therefore, under the coercive, superstitious logic of the day, these monsters actually lived in the terra incognita, and if you disagreed too conspicuously, you could be bound and publicly set on fire as an instruction to other monster skeptics.

Armed with better and better maps intrepid explorers, funded by kings, queens and wealthy early corporations (Dutch East India Company comes to mind) bravely ventured into these uncharted areas and the maps became more and more complete until there was no corner of the earth (except perhaps deep under the sea) that was truly terra incognita.  Today the greatest expanse of terra incognita is inside the minds and hearts of homo sapiens.

A friend used to have a footer on his emails (which I was unable to find in a pile of emails to quote verbatim, dagnabbit):  be kind, remember that everyone you meet is engaged in a hard battle.   True, and good advice.  The invisible battles waged by everyone are truly terra incognita.  We stumble into this land of other people’s unimaginable terrors at our peril.   When your interior battle crosses mine, watch out.  

I spent two years, every day, writing everything I could think of about my father, a perplexing man of unlimited potential and unlimited defensiveness.   My father was chased every moment of his waking life by what he referred to as the demons we all have inside us.   After writing and conducting a long post-mortem discussion with him for two solid years I came to truly understand his motivations, though I didn’t always agree with them, and this understanding allowed me to truly forgive a destructive character who apologized for the first and only time at the very end of his life, hours before he breathed his last. Still, as well as I grasp the tragedy that was my father, the recesses of my heart are still haunted, as all such recesses are.

Do the same thing my father used to do, glare with implacable hostility, maintain an angry defensive silence, defend yourself in lawyerly and inhumane ways, create and insist on an insane counter-narrative to make me the aggressor, you the victim, and I immediately find myself in that familiar, terrifying, incoherent terra incognita.   We can’t map this terrain because we can’t bear to look at it for more than a second or two at a time.  It overpowers us and seems to limit our options to fight or flight.  It is primitive, terrible, maddening business.   We push it down because there is little else to do about it.  Anyone seemingly not engaged in a hard battle is very good at acting, until you touch a nerve that sets off their fight or flight response.

We live in a culture where our collective terra incognita has been set on fire. Along with actual record wildfires on various continents, and the rage and violence we see and hear in many of our citizens, a fire rages in the hearts of tens of millions of us.   This fire is fed regularly, and much of its most potent food is incoherent poison, things a healthy body would never put into its mouth.  No matter.  Down the hatch it goes, and instead of digestion, fire belches forth, to singe the eyebrows of anyone who dares to ask “Jesus, are you OK?” 

When you breathe fire, of course, you are not OK, not fucking OK at all!  How infuriating is that stupid question when the burning inside you is actually flaming out of your mouth and singeing the face of your interlocutor?   Jesus, am I fucking OK?  Yes, I’m fine, you’re the one who is about to die, asshole… 

The first casualty of a frayed relationship

When a relationship is strained, lines are drawn, sides taken and moral stances struck.  The first casualty in such standoffs is often honesty, which is a shame, since it’s also the only way back to health.   But since feelings are strained, hackles are easily raised and things are at a breaking point, you must be very careful about what you say, how you say it, what you leave out, what is safe terrain and what is a minefield that will blow everybody up if you set a toe on to it.   

Though this limited honesty may feel to you like a kind of death, if you are used to an honest back and forth, it is nothing like death.  It is an attempt to save the life of a frayed relationship in the only way possible, by putting things on a respirator in hopes of an eventual return to health and good cheer.

Only time will tell if your efforts towards repair succeed.   A primal wound feels the same every time someone pokes a finger into it.  The loss of a long, close friendship, in spite of your best efforts, always hurts exactly the same way, is identical to the grief of death in its inexorable finality.  I will say, from my experience, a friendship that ends with someone screaming at you or bullying you is much easier to walk away from than one where your friend expresses only hurt, confusion and exasperation.  It is as if the anger of the friend you are trying to reach cauterizes the wound, since you feel immediately relieved to be away from someone who can’t stop hissing and snarling.  Good riddance to the raging bastard.

It is a tricky business, to be a human, as anyone who has tried it will tell you.   The most important tool to mending hurt is mutual understanding. 

Trying to reach understanding with only limited honesty, certain things never on the table for discussion, is supremely challenging.   If the relationship means enough to you it is possible to find the patience to wait, even though it may seem impossible to be that patient at certain points.   As long as you don’t lose your temper there is a chance of repair, even with the prickliest, most defensive of characters.  The hope is that at that point mutual honesty will also be restored, everyone wiser for the long, terrible disruption of good will.