Canary in the Coal mine and Felix Sater

Kurt Vonnegut compared creative types to the canaries British coal miners used to carry into the mines to detect odorless poison gases like carbon monoxide.    When the tiny-lunged bird keeled over in his cage the miners knew it was time to get out of there.   (This practice was apparently stopped in 1986 when electronic sniffers replaced the wee birds).  Vonnegut meant by this comparison that those who fret and worry about communicating to others are often more prone than the rest to succumbing to the invisible deadly gases that are looming to kill everyone.

In an age when the kind of straightforward information in the paragraph above can be found by anyone with internet access and a few seconds to spare, why do we have so much plainly bogus news?   How can lies be fed to us so consistently, so brazenly, with no consequence for the liars?   We are busy living lives of quiet, increasingly hectic desperation in a dangerous world on the brink of massive catastrophe.   WE DO NOT HAVE TIME TO WASTE!  Time is MONEY! Wasting money is a sin.   (As our over 500 billionaires know so well).

It is quaint, I know, to find history fascinating, as I do.   It all flashes by so fast, after all, it’s hard to take note of it.   Did you know, for example, that there is a twenty year-old Supreme Court case, Clinton v. Jones, holding that there is no bar to suing a sitting president in federal court for acts done before he was president?    You could look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say.   [1]

I knew that Clinton’s lies under oath in that case (about sexual relations with a former intern called as a witness by Paula Jones’ attorneys, though she didn’t meet Clinton until years after the president exposed himself to Jones) were the basis for his impeachment.  I remembered (and heard again recently on a Showtime documentary) that the case was dismissed, suggesting then Arkansas governor Clinton did not show his dick to Ms. Jones.   I don’t ever recall hearing that Bill Clinton paid former employee Paula Jones more than $850,000 to end the sexual harassment lawsuit, suggesting strongly that he did something very wrong.  [2]

I don’t know why the intricacies of this world are so intriguing to me, but they are.   I had a friend who attends services and Bible study at the Chabad of Port Washington.   In 2010 and 2014 Port Washington Chabad’s Man of the Year was a wealthy Jew named Felix Sater.   Sater lost his broker’s license after slashing a guy’s face and breaking his jaw in a bar.   He spent a relatively short time in a minimum security prison for the felony assault.   A few years later he pleaded guilty to fraud in a couple of massive financial scams, and gave evidence against his co-conspirators to stay out of prison (and keep his fortune).  

Since he was barred from finance he got into another lucrative line of work, real estate development, and was partners with our current president in at least two massive development deals.  He was the money man for Trump SoHo and the liaison with Russian officials for the planned Trump Tower Moscow.  I’ve been wondering about this nefarious little fucker for about two years, since I first heard of him.  Congress is going to talk to him next week.  He will be under oath, too.

It is so easy to get the outline of the facts these days, but SO MANY FACTS!  [3]

The president is a liar, he can’t help himself.  He’s apparently always been this way.   Everybody knows it.  His defenders say that he never promised not to lie, so there’s that.  Plus, his lies are always in the service of making the country great again.  Plus, he frankly calls “bullshit” on people who call him a liar.  Plus, there’s no law against lying, unless you lie under oath.  If the president ever lied under oath, like the disgraced Bill Clinton, we don’t have the proof of that, and, anyway, if he got away with it doesn’t it just show how smart he is?  He’s not like other people.   He is the president of the United States and the richest, most successful man in the world!

If he paid off a couple of women he had extra-marital sex with to dummy up about it in the final days of his presidential campaign, whose business is that?  Many Americans wouldn’t have voted for him if those stories came out, if he didn’t pay off these women.   He basically had to pay them to shut up or he would have lost the presidential election, because Americans are so judgmental about this kind of thing.   Felony, shmelony!   USA!   USA!!!!

Have we ever had a compulsive liar as president? That would take some digging to know for sure, but I don’t think we ever did.  There have been several total shitbird presidents, without a doubt, but our current guy seems to be setting a prodigious record for lying.  And, most impressively, he’s doing it in an era of almost instant fact checking that can show the lies in real time.   His defenders will point out that he has never been convicted for lying, so shut up, nothing to see here.

It’s morning in America, boys and girls, and history is being written in the blood of those who hate our freedom, their innocent neighbors and a million fucking canaries.    The stories we read about it, so many of them, cunning and deadly as that gas that so often fills my own beak.

 

[1] Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681 (1997), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case establishing that a sitting President of the United States has no immunity from civil lawlitigation, in federal court, against him or her, for acts done before taking office and unrelated to the office.[1] In particular, there is no temporary immunity, so it is not required to delay all federal cases until the President leaves office.[1]

[2]   Wikipedia:

As a consequence of his conduct in the Jones v. Clinton civil suit and before the federal grand jury, President Clinton incurred significant administrative sanctions. The Independent Counsel considered seven non-criminal alternative sanctions that were imposed in making his decision to decline prosecution: (1) President Clinton’s admission of providing false testimony that was knowingly misleading, evasive, and prejudicial to the administration of justice before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas; (2) his acknowledgement that his conduct violated the Rules of Professional Conduct of the Arkansas Supreme Court; (3) the five-year suspension of his license to practice law and $25,000 fine imposed on him by the Circuit Court of Pulaski County, Arkansas; (4) the civil contempt penalty of more than $90,000 imposed on President Clinton by the federal court for violating its orders; (5) the payment of more than $850,000 in settlement to Paula Jones; (6) the express finding by the federal court that President Clinton had engaged in contemptuous conduct; and (7) the substantial public condemnation of President Clinton arising from his impeachment.   source

[3]    Wikipedia:

Felix Henry Sater (born Felix Mikhailovich Sheferovsky; Russian:Фе́ликс Миха́йлович Шеферовский; March 2, 1966) is a Russian-American former mobster, convicted felon, [6] real estate developer and former managing director of Bayrock Group LLC,[7] a real estate conglomerate based out of New York City.  Sater has been an advisor to many corporations, including The Trump Organization,[8] Rixos Hotels and Resorts, Sembol Construction,Potok (formerly the Mirax Group), and TxOil.

In 1998, Sater pleaded guilty to his involvement in a $40 million stock fraud scheme orchestrated by the Russian Mafia,[9][10] and became an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and federal prosecutors, assisting with organized crime investigations. In 2017, Sater agreed to cooperate with investigators into international money laundering schemes.[11]

During the 2015-16 American presidential campaign, Sater worked with Michael Cohen, former attorney for The Trump Organization, to broker a deal to build aTrump Tower Moscow, asserting to Cohen that he could boost Trump’s election prospects through his Russian contacts. He is scheduled to testify publicly before the House Intelligence Committee on March 14, 2019.[12]

(and a few details:)  

Felix Sater has been described as a career criminal due to his links to organized crime.[30][31][32][33][34] In 1991, Sater got into an argument with a commodities broker at the El Rio Grande restaurant and bar in Midtown Manhattan. He stabbed the man’s cheek and neck with the stem of a cocktail glass, breaking his jaw, lacerating his face, and severing nerves, creating a wound that would require 110 stitches to treat. Sater was convicted of first degree assault, and spent 15 months in minimum security Edgecombe Correctional Facility in New York City before being paroled.[35][4][23] 

In 1998, Sater was convicted of fraud in connection to a $40 million penny stock pump and dump scheme conducted by the Russian Mafia[9][10]involving his company White Rock Partners. In return for a guilty plea, Sater agreed to assist the FBI and federal prosecutors as an informant in organized crime.

In 2009, he was sentenced to pay a $25,000 fine and served no prison time. As a result of his assistance, Sater’s court records were sealed for 10 years by Loretta Lynch, then the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Lynch’s decision to seal his records was discussed at her 2015 Congressional confirmation hearings to become attorney general; she stated that Sater provided “information crucial to national security and the conviction of over 20 individuals, including those responsible for committing massive financial fraud and members of La Cosa Nostra.”[36][37][38][39]

The Financial Times, citing five sources with knowledge of the matter, reported that Sater had agreed to cooperate with investigators looking into an international money laundering scheme involving Viktor Khrapunov, a former government minister in Kazakhstan. Khrapunov, who now lives in Switzerland, has been accused by the Kazakhstani government of embezzling millions of dollars and is wanted by Interpol.[11]

Sater received multiple subpoenas to produce documents and be deposed in the case against Mukhtar Ablyazov who is alleged to have defrauded BTA Bank of up to $5 billion as chairman.[40] Ablyazov’s alleged fraud is one of the biggest cases of financial fraud in history.[41]

Involvement with Trump Organization during presidential campaign   [edit]

The Trump Organization pursued a luxury hotel and condominium project in Moscow—dubbed the Trump Tower Moscow—during the Trump presidential campaign. This project was facilitated by Michael Cohen, then an attorney for the Trump Organization, and from January 2017 to May 2018 Trump’s personal attorney. Trump signed a nonbinding “letter of intent” dated October 13, 2015, to proceed with the project.[42] The letter, also signed by Russian investor Andrei Rozov, was forwarded to Cohen by Sater. He boasted to Cohen about his connections to Vladimir Putin, saying in an email to Cohen on November 13, 2015, “Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this. I will manage this process.” He also asserted that he had secured financing for the project through the Russian state-owned VTB Bank, which was under sanctions by the United States government.[43]BuzzFeed News reported on March 12, 2018, that Mueller’s investigators had questioned Sater,[44] and on April 13, 2018, reported that a former Russian spy had helped secure financing for the project.[45] In 2010, Sater was provided business cards describing himself as “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump” with an email address at TrumpOrg.com.[46] In a 2013 sworn affidavit, Trump said “If [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like,”[47] and in 2015 he stated “Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it. I’m not that familiar with him.”[48] Sater is scheduled to testify publicly before the House Intelligence Committee on March 14, 2019.[49]

Personal life[edit]

Sater resides in Port Washington, New York. He has three daughters.[50][51] Felix Sater was a member of the Chabad of Port Washington and was named their Man of the Year in 2010 and 2014.[52][53] In November 2017, Sater put his home inSands Point, New York on the market for $2.5 million.[54] The home sold in February 2019 for $2.03 million.[55]

The power of a word, e.g., anodyne

An unknown word, nonchalantly spoken in context by someone, then looked up (which takes about three seconds in the internet age) can turn on a light to illuminate a place you never had a word for.   Once you have the word, a way of thinking about and discussing the thing emerges. I am having this experience with the word “anodyne” which is usually among the first things that flow after I dip a Speedball C-4 nib into a bottle of black ink and begin to guide it across an expanse of smooth bristol.

What is the deal with anodyne (and why do I seem to prefer it to immiserated?)    It means harmless, often deliberately so, calculated to remove pain.  It explains something I never had the word for.   Anodyne explanations are essential to preserving our way of life here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and everywhere else in this slightly imperfect world.

Take an otherwise sickening, even intolerable, situation and describe it in an anodyne way, a smooth way that makes the medicine go down.  No reason to get excited…

The richest country in the world has an alarmingly high rate of economic insecurity.  We are often told that most Americans don’t have $400 for an emergency.   The point is underscored over and over in recent days in the human interest stories we hear about struggling federal employees as the president holds almost a million working people and their families (collectively millions, plus the tens of millions affected by the loss of government services)  hostage as leverage to get one of his signature vanity projects done for his angry base.

It’s a little shocking in a nation this wealthy that so many Americans live so close to the edge of ruin, even Americans we consider middle class.   We have billionaires here by the luxury busload, a metaphorical shit ton of ’em, even a few black billionaires (hello Martin Luther King, Jr.).   We can spend a trillion or more on an endless war against a country that posed no threat to us, drummed up by false pretenses (nothing to see there, Saddam was a modern-day Hitler, after all).   We can give a trillion or more to the richest people and companies in the country, as in the GOP’s recent tax breaks.    We can’t manage to provide adequate health care to tens of millions of Americans, nutritious food to hungry children, or decent public education for them, or first class maternity facilities in American communities that have infant mortality rates as high as third world shithole countries.   Not to mention the crisis of affordable housing and  the millions of homeless nationwide, or the thousands of traumatized, hopeless military veterans who kill themselves every year.

Not to worry though.   There is an anodyne answer to this seeming conundrum.   We Americans believe in the Free Market and the power of private entrepreneurial initiative to solve even our most vexing and intractable problems.  You see, here in America we believe in liberty, in freedom for all from coercion of every kind.   Nobody can force you to do anything you don’t want to do in our exceptional democracy.  

Wait, I’m not sure this is really anodyne.  There could be dissent, offense could be taken from this shabbily transparent answer.    Anodyne, after all, means, first and foremost, causing no pain, by design.   It’s noun form means painkiller.

No, actually, I’m sorry, on second thought, this smart answer is good enough to be anodyne.   The thing about anodynes we must not forget is the power of the placebo effect.   The thing is to distract the mind, body and soul from the pain, something that is easily enough done, if the will is there not to feel the pain.  And who wants to feel pain, outside of a masochist? 

So when we say we treat you like family, we don’t mean incest, child-abuse, domestic violence, patricide, fratricide, matricide, all-consuming rivalry, lifelong grudges, the relentless warfare that rages within so many families.   We mean by “family” the unconditional love that always triumphs at the end of the day, as dependably as that anodyne millions of Americans reach for daily, to make them feel that all of this pain is just an illusion, created by those who hate our freedom, who seek to destroy our true belief that we live in the greatest nation, the most exceptional country, upon which God has ever shed His grace.

Good Government

To a person who inherits $300,000,000, like each of the Koch boys and our current president, who actually got more than $400,000,000 from his tough father, good government is one that keeps its hands off their fortunes while protecting them from anybody who wants to rob them.   That government also provides a strong military for general defense, good roads, bridges, electricity, sewage systems, police and fire departments, airports and so forth, the things necessary for all citizens, rich or poor.  The rest: liberty! [1]  

For all other citizens, we expect good government to provide other things.   A free, quality public education, for example.  Affordable health care.  Programs to protect the weak, the disabled, children, the elderly.  Regulations to ensure that the environment is not destroyed and that poison is not piped into our homes.   Laws to protect vulnerable citizens, and enforcement of anti-discrimination and labor laws, among other things.

The long, openly racist rule in the former Confederacy, for example, would never have ended but for federal enforcement of Civil Rights laws (Malcolm X more accurately called these rights Human Rights).   The constitution was amended and laws were made after the Civil War to enforce these new rights for freed slaves (and everybody else), but states and the Supreme Court soon nullified these for a century or so.  During that century of terror and virtual slavery under a new name, lynching was commonly used to enforce Home Rule in states that had rewritten history to make outfits like the Ku Klux Klan heroic protectors of white womanhood in the eyes of angry white citizens who believed in the old ways.

I was amazed to learn, during Constitutional Law class in the first term of law school, that much of the long overdue federal enforcement of Civil Rights in the former Confederacy (and in many other places where racist practices were written into the law) came under the constitution’s Commerce Clause.   The Commerce Clause gives the federal government the right to intervene in state matters when interstate commerce is involved.  The segregated restaurant in Georgia served potatoes from Idaho: commerce clause!

I learned recently that the Commerce Clause had been a compromise with slaveholders, they received a guarantee that slaves could be imported from Africa for at least twenty more years in exchange for the Commerce Clause. Good on you, you murdering racist motherfuckers, sealing your own eventual doom with that sweet deal.

I have an old friend who worked as a corporate lawyer for a few years until his conscience got the better of him.   He became a lead lawyer for the earth, constantly arguing in federal court on behalf of endangered species, poisoned land and water, destructive policies pursued for profit, often in violation of existing regulations.   His job was to convince a federal judge to force the responsible government agency to step in and enforce its own laws.  Ain’t dat some shit?   His organization would bring lawsuits to force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce its own rules against a massively powerful company like Monsanto, whose chemicals do great damage to the ecosystem.  Monsanto would send an army of the best lawyers money can buy.  My friend fought them toe to toe for years.   He won quite a few cases, though many were also lost.   He is leaving that job after many years pretty exhausted, as you can imagine.

When our current president took office he hired, as head of the EPA, a climate change denier who, as governor, had sued the EPA many times, on behalf of toxic polluters like his good friends and political backers.   His brief as EPA Administrator was to get meddlesome government regulators off the backs of job creators.    Fuck nontoxic drinking water, mercury, arsenic, toxins in the air, destruction of the biosphere… CLEAN COAL!   FOSSIL FUEL!  USA! USA!!!  [2]

I’m reading Juan Gonzalez’s fascinating book on progressive politicians struggling to remake America’s cities.   He concedes that the jury is out on all of them, including Bill de Blasio, the main politician he discusses in Reclaiming Gotham,  but the chapter detailing de Blasio’s first hundred days lays out a lot of admirable moves from the administration that promised an end to the Tale of Two cities that has long been life in New York City, increasingly the playground and safety deposit box for the international rich.

In contrast to Trump’s picks to head agencies (with an eye toward disabling them), de Blasio picked as head of the Human Resources Administration, the organization that provides all services to the city’s poor, the disabled, the elderly, and many services to children, a Legal Aid lawyer who had sued the HRA many times over its many abuses and shoddy practices.   Who better to run the agency, if your intent is to make it serve its public mandate better? 

The argument rages, between those who view fairness and justice as the same thing, who believe the weakest among us deserve society’s protection, as does the earth we all live on, and those who believe only in infinite, unmolested wealth for themselves.   The sides are drawn, between those who consider basic fairness an aim of human society and those who believe justice means preserving existing privileges for the few at all costs, at any cost.  

Untold millions are spent every year by the super-wealthy to advance the idea that liberty means a government that coerces nobody to do anything they don’t want, a government small enough to drown in a bathtub.   These determined fucks are at it around the clock, with dozens of well-funded think tanks, where the only thought is how to change the public dialogue to convince at least 40% of citizens of a philosophy that cares nothing for them, for the earth they live on, for the future of their children’s children.

There is no price too high, for most inheritors of vast fortunes (and most self-made billionaires, for that matter, in my ruthless opinion), to make sure the government keeps its hands off their fortunes.   Pave the goddamned roads, keep the planes running on time, have cops to protect me, a fire department, top notch sewage disposal, all the rest of those basic services of civilization, just keep your fucking hands off my wealth.  In fact, stop fucking looking at it, you entitled, class-war stoking social justice warrior fucks!

 

[1] The “ideology” these oligarch-types have devised, to make themselves appear morally upright, is called “libertarianism” which we can all agree sounds much better than “greedy assholism” or “fuck y’all, I got mine, bitches!”.

[2]  Quick hit on google:

President Trump’s first EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, resigned effective July 6, 2018, amid a series of scandals. Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, started serving as acting administrator on July 9, 2018.

 

 

You Are Not Allowed Those Feelings

This ongoing denial of human feelings is like a stubborn fiber, stuck between my molars.  I think about it in relation to someone I was good friends with, who, without explanation (beyond a reference to “and other things”) has stopped communicating with me.   He frequently suffers from Tension Myoneural Syndrome, a condition he introduced me to, intense physical suffering related to repressed rage.   He cannot process all the rage he has, I understand that completely now.   Still, his silence irks and baffles me, whenever I think about it.   It appears to be an angry reaction to my attempts to escape and stay out of the trap of my own anger.

The underlying mechanism of most human tragedy, of course, flows from a lack of empathy, or from extremely selective empathy (which allows ruthlessness toward anyone outside the selected group).    Unhappy people believe themselves doomed to never get a fair hearing anywhere and it makes them understandably angry.   As a result of this unfair sentence upon them they cannot tolerate the expression of certain feelings by others.   They are not allowed to express anger, too much sorrow, discontentment, voice meaningful complaint that will be taken seriously — so why the fuck should anyone else be allowed their fucking feelings?

How hateful is it, to somebody angrily resigned to being caught in a trap, to hear somebody else struggling against their own cage?

If you have some time, and patience, you can read the background story about a group of problematically married men, often angry, and the roles their unhappy, demanding wives play in their endless, embattled unhappiness.   The piece is here.

One of the wives called me, a week or so after “a bad day” for her husband.   It was a day I’d spent five hours with the guy walking and talking, waiting for him, pressing him at times, to acknowledge that he had treated me in ways that he would hate to be treated.   He had accused me of deliberately trying to destroy his marriage, for one thing.   He bobbed and weaved, told me he’d already apologized for everything, including “that thing in the car” (when he told me our friendship was on death row and I’d better come up with something good if I wanted a reprieve) and that I was being an unreasonable hard-ass who would not accept his multiple expressions of regret.

His wife called (yes, I can hear you, Sekhnet– “flush!”) and told me she was very upset that I was refusing to forgive her husband, who told her his apology apparently wasn’t good enough for me.  I began to explain to her that if you tell someone they’re hurting you, and that they owe you an apology, and they then apologize and keep doing the same bad things, then the apology is an apology in form only.   She brushed past this.  “We are family,” she told me, “and we love you.   You can’t stop being friends with us!  We love you.  Our children love you.”

Here is what I’m trying to capture: that moment when you express your feelings as clearly as possible and are given an anodyne statement in response: but we love you, stop complaining, you big jerk!    Anodyne, no controversy, who could argue with the idea that a family fights but in the end loves each other in a love that conquers everything else.

People who love each other certainly hurt each other from time to time, it’s part of the human condition.  Love means, above most things, empathy, and in my mind love demands that you make peace as soon as possible after becoming aware that you’ve hurt a person you love.   Love involves a certain amount of conscious work to keep it free of sabotaging, inchoate grievance.   Love doesn’t avoid the hard questions by saying “but you can’t be hurt, because I love you, you crazy asshole!”

To underscore the absurdity, and destructiveness, of not acknowledging you’ve caused somebody pain– and claiming they should just pipe down about it because you love them– the woman telling me I had to forgive her hapless husband spends much of her time enraged at the guy.   SHE KNOWS EXACTLY HOW AGGRAVATING THE FELLOW IS.   They are now attending marriage counseling, after deciding to divorce and reconsidering.   She rages at him herself regularly, they both fear the psychic harm they’ve done to their two children by violently screaming at each other in front of them over the course of the boys’ lives.  

So a better strategy, on her part, if she’d really been intent on making peace, would have started by acknowledging what a maddeningly frustrating opponent her husband is.   “Look, we both know how infuriating he can be, you know I struggle with it every day, I want to kill him a lot of the time, for sure.   All I can tell you is that he really is going to therapy twice a week, and he’s working hard, and I ask you to keep an open mind about him.   There are great things about him that become hard to see when he provokes us, as you know better than most people.   I’m asking you to remember all the reasons you and he have been friends for more than fifty years.” 

But that was not part of our conversation.  Instead the wife’s call was a referendum on love– either you love us, because we love you, or YOU’RE FUCKING DEAD TO US.

I had to breathe deeply a few times in that frustrating hour of talk, to keep my anger in check each time it flared up.  I was being blamed, over and over, for not being loving enough, for not forgiving, even if the apologies I received had been extracted, strained, and ultimately false.  I was the one who was being unforgiving, unloving.   No matter what the provocation, I had no right to remain angry at her husband.  He really can’t help himself, and. after all, she had still not divorced him, and he’d done far worse to her.

This is how it is done in the zero sum world of damaged souls who truly believe they have no hope of anything better.   Accept whatever it is, you can be as angry as you want about it, but you have to keep that in anger check as much as possible.  Yes, it will spill out in rage from time to time.  Merely the price for love, I suppose, is how their reasoning goes.

In that conversation with the guy’s wife I was not trying to score any points, I was trying to be as clear as possible about my feelings and the reasons I now have to stay away from her husband.  If I’d been intent on racking up points there would have been an easy moment, right at the start, to put some points on the board.  “We are family, we love you, you have to forgive him,” gave me an open shot on goal.  I’d have pointed out that she was permanently estranged from both her brother and her sister, that her relationship with her high-strung mother was extremely tense and that she had described in detail some of the harms her morally upright macho father had inflicted when he smacked her around when she was a girl and made sure she admired him and emulated his example of toughness.

You can win an argument, in a way, by pointing out such things, but in the end there is nothing productive about it.   Empty stats, like buckets scored in garbage time.   If you are trying to come to an understanding with somebody, forget about keeping score.  

All I wanted was for her, a friend of many years, to understand why I felt the way I do.   She initiated a call I would not have made, and I restrained myself several times, as my feelings were being constantly dismissed, or challenged, because I hoped I could make her understand.   I could not.   The call went on and on.  Suddenly I heard a small voice in the background and she screamed.

It became clear in that instant.   Her husband was home.   She didn’t want him to know she was calling me.   She had gone into her son’s room, closed the door, and called me from there, sitting on the edge of his bed.  Her son came home, found his door closed, opened it to find his mother talking to somebody in hushed tones.  He must have been startled, startled her, said “mom, what the fuck?” or words to that effect and all the anger she was withholding talking to an intractable apparent former good friend she poured out onto her son.

The lesson: nobody has any right to any feelings that fucking piss me the fuck off you goddamned fucking fuck!

 

 

All we’ve got is time — until we don’t

I think about this more often now that I’m older, this fleeting thing our lives are actually made of – time.  The richest, most pampered person in the world, when it comes down to it, has only their time on this earth to spend.  

Some believe in the infinitely tender idea of an afterlife, a magical place where we’ll be lovingly greeted by those we’ve loved and lost.   It’s a nice idea, I can’t lie.  Fewer and fewer people, I think, are betting on heaven right now, though it continues to comfort the dying and those loved ones left behind.

We are left with the world we live in, and the time we have left to live in it.  All any of us really have, in the end, is time.   Since in the West we are conditioned to believe that time is money, well, it seems a sin to waste it, even though the most important changes we can make in our lives often take a lot of time.  For better or worse, I put no restrictions on my time or efforts these days, living frugally to avoid the thought of time actually being money.

Since I have too much time, some people would say, I talk to strangers this way (since most of my friends silently freak out when I address these musings to them) by arranging words into this parade of thoughts, feelings and ideas.  

I don’t know how I would feel, getting something like this in the mail from someone I know.   I might well feel: what the fuck?!!   What is this shit?   What does he want from me?   Am I his fucking reader, his confessor, his validator?   What does he expect me to say, that it’s good?   It’s weird and unpleasant to have this odd, heavy burden suddenly thrust on me.   Why doesn’t he just wage the long war to make a goddamned living at it and get praise from the people who really matter to a writer?

Strangers, I think, are the proper readers, to them I’m just a writer of some kind.   Sitting among these readers I also imagine people like my mother, who took great pleasure in how my writing improved over the years.

I have time, and I take a few hours of it every day to reflect.   You could call it my spiritual practice, if you like, this contemplative period of silence and tapping every day, during which my thoughts and feelings come into focus on the page in front of me.

After a joyous New Years Eve celebration with friends we returned to the quiet house Sekhnet inherited from her parents.   It is a mile from the little house I grew up in.   I often walk that mile, passing all the old places, most of which have been repurposed many times over.  

I continue past my old block to the park, where I sit on a bench and scan the gigantic sky that is impossible to truly appreciate in most cities and suburbs.   I feel the thousands of trees breathing.   Then I choose another route and head back to Sekhnet’s.

The first day of the year reached midnight and, technically, it was the second.   I checked my email and found a link Facebook had sent me to a friend’s post.   I rarely visit Facebook, routinely delete the emails they send, but this friend often links to worthwhile reading material, so I clicked the link.   Next to the new post was a short roster of people I might want to have as Facebook friends.

One of them was the widow of an old friend of mine, Melz.   Melz died of a rare soft tissue sarcoma, the same thing that killed Hugo Chavez, apparently.   He sent me a link to an article about what actually killed Chavez, a few weeks before his own long battle with this merciless disease reached its predictable end.   He had defied the doctors one last time, they predicted he’d be dead by New Years, he lived until the second day of the year.  I did not recall, as I looked over the public areas of his widow’s Facebook page, exactly when he had died.

On her Facebook page there was a picture of him leaping, hand in hand with her, also off the ground.   The photo had been snapped at the height of their leap. Melz’s free arm is thrown up in the air, his mouth is open in a joyful shout, his legs are spread wide.  He looks strong and full of life, as he no doubt was at that time.

It had been his wife’s profile picture, the two of them at the top of a leap.  Later it had been replaced by another photo of the two of them, their faces filling the frame.  They are young and both look great in the shot.   Melz, who was built like Fred Flintstone, looks dashing, confident, at peace with himself.   His head, I notice, is almost twice the size of his wife’s.   I look at these pictures for a long time.

Later that morning an email arrived from an old friend, noting that January second is the fifth anniversary of Melz’s untimely death.  This fellow had been Melz’s inseparable best friend for many years.   Like me, a very close associate of Melz’s for a decade when we were young men, he had been gently ousted from his close friendship with Melz when Melz took a wife.  The wife Melz took had her own ideas about his very close friendships, I suppose.   Though we spoke on the phone several times in his last months, I saw him only a handful of times during the last thirty years of his life.   His longtime best friend, the writer of the email, had seen him not that many times more than that, though they lived close by each other on the outskirts of Boston.

The writer of the email had conducted Melz’s funeral.  He wrote and delivered a magnificent eulogy.  The funeral was choreographed, per the wishes of the widow, a bit of the eulogy, then a designated guest would take the stage.   When he went back to his seat, our old friend looked like the exhausted star of a basketball team in the fourth quarter of the seventh game of the playoff finals.  

He was not sweating, but he looked wrung out, as we all were.  When it was his time to take the ball, he did not hesitate or falter.   He handled the ball calmly.   Every shot fell straight through the net without touching the rim.   He was in a flow state, unconscious, channeling the love so many people in that room felt for the departed.

One of the guests introduced himself as Melz’s best friend.   His oldest friends had never met this guy, but nobody doubted him.   Melz was gone and all we had now were the memories of his life, which were a kind of blessing to us.

The email evoked Melz by noting that he “moved from this world to the next on the wings of some magical keyboard five years ago today.”   Melz was a talented piano player who I’d first seen playing a hundred variations on “Sunny” in a talent show in the rec hall at the camp we all went to.   He was a fountain of improvisations, his Fred Flintstone-like fingers flickering flawlessly over the keys. 

I was off my game the other day when I wrote back to the few old friends of Melz on the email list.  I began the New Year feeling dull, disconnected, unequal to the tasks ahead.  Fucking hell, you know, which is why so many people prefer going to work, and getting paid, to sitting at home, “working” for free.   So I wrote a short email that missed the mark in several essential ways, sent it off, and instantly regretted the ungainly air ball I’d chucked up at the imagined buzzer.  I will try it again now:

Eerily, almost Melzerianly, I found myself studying these photos of Melz in the wee hours of January 2.   I rarely check FaceBook, but there I was, unaccountably, on Robin’s page.

Here is the old boy leaping with joy (note that I have cut off the person whose hand Melz is holding in a way that will be familiar to all old comrades of Comrade Melz). (photo)

And here he is looking handsomely himself in a great photo with his wife, now his widow.  (photo)

Too soon, my friends, and though his memory is a blessing, in the way of such things, a greater blessing still would be coaxing the old showman to a piano and putting him through his paces.

Great Insight into Toxic Masculinity

I heard this on an excellent podcast called Scene on Radio.   John Biewen has enlisted Celeste Headlee this season to explore the idea of manhood in our society.   You can hear this entire episode here.   Well worth checking out.   Below is a section of the conversation that literally made me stop, while listening, to hear it again and take note of it.   Thankfully, and helpfully, John puts up the transcript of each show (bless him):

Joshua Goldstein: What the pattern of history shows across the board is that it’s really hard to get men to fight; it’s not a natural thing. So, just look at the pervasiveness of conscription through history; you have to draft men into the army and then, when it actually comes time to fight, a lot of armies have used either drugs or the rum ration in the British Army, a lot of these militias in Africa and recent civil wars giving various combinations of drugs, amphetamines and then after the fact, people are very traumatized by it.

Societies, cultures have to work at men from childhood. One of the strong motivations that a lot of cultures have found effective is this appeal to gender, that you’re not a real man unless you can fight in a war and so we raise boys to be tough, to not cry, and to suppress their feelings, except for anger; anger is okay, but sadness and stuff, not supposed to feel it, not supposed to show it. Man up, tough it out, soldier on, and after year after year after that, then they’re ready to be put into the military and they’ll be able to do these unnatural horrible things and follow their orders.

We could do that with women, as well, but it would undermine the appeal to men that they’re proving their manhood. When women have gone in the military, sometimes the men say, “hey, if a woman can do this job, then what’s that make me? I thought I was proving what a man I was.”

Barry Lam: Goldstein became interested in the provocative idea that the need to prepare men for the violence of war is where our ideas of manhood come from. This idea runs counter to the view that men are in some ways, biologically or naturally, violent and aggressive and that they are the source or cause of war. Instead, Goldstein likes the view that a culture perceives a need for its members to engage in violent force on its behalf and it fulfills this need by establishing for its members that the traits that make a good man are the very ones that make a good soldier.

Tom Digby: My name is Tom Digby. I am professor emeritus of philosophy at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. The book is titled Love  and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance.

Barry Lam: In Digby’s book, he finds three important norms of manhood that he thinks follow directly from the norms for being a good warrior.

Tom Digby: The number one requirement actually, of a warrior is to be able to manage the capacity to care about the suffering of others and of himself. You care deeply about the people you’re fighting with, but you don’t care at all about the suffering of the people you’re fighting against.

Barry Lam: Selective empathy. You have controlled and marked empathetic care for those in your community, under your protection, and none at all for those outside of it. The second Digby calls a faith in masculine force.

Tom Digby: You know I describe it sometimes more broadly as just a faith in force. For example, when a man is expected to be able to unscrew the lid from a pickle jar, there’s this assumption that men are strong and forceful and able to do forceful things.

Barry Lam: The idea is that a real man, a good man, the norms for a man include the capacity to solve problems using physical force, but this faith in force also means that the society itself seeks out masculine force to be the solution to its problems. The counterpart to the norms for masculinity that derived from the warrior are the complementary norms for femininity.

Joshua Goldstein: The woman is going to represent the normalcy of  society; while the men are fighting wars, the women will be maintaining civilization, the kind of things that the men can feel like, “I’m fighting for my girl back home” and the whole way of life that she represents, so that’s sort of how it’s been structured as a way to motivate the men.

Barry Lam: If Goldstein and Digby are right and part of the very standards for being a good man are the traits for being a good soldier and built into the norms for being a woman are only complementary or supportive traits, then the disadvantages that women face in trying to be soldiers are going to be deeper than just physical ones.

The rest of a fascinating discussion is here.