Dying for Principle

It has been said that the mark of a life worth living is being willing to die for your most deeply held beliefs, your principles. This sounds like a profound formulation, but the jury, as far as I can see, is still out on this one. If someone is coming to kill you or someone you love, and you have the means to fight back, by all means, defend yourself and your loved ones, to the death. But it is rarely this simple.

Usually, in matters of principle, there are no lives directly in the balance, but, equally important principles, larger than any individual life, at stake. You can see the problem right away of willingness to die for your beliefs as the mark of a life worth living: the nineteen Al Q’aeda suicide bombers forced those planes into buildings for their deeply held principles, their most fervent beliefs. Does it make them admirable in any way?

My father considered himself a man of principle, and in many ways he was — in the best sense of the word. As he was dying, he exerted himself to take one last principled stand. It was important to him, before he breathed his last, to apologize, at least to his son, for being such a relentlessly combative father. Everything in life was a matter of principle for him, though sometimes the principle was that he was simply emotionally unequipped to do what he knew deep down he should have done.

As a father he believed he was always acting out of love, and duty to his children’s best interests, but he realized, as death came for him quickly, that his black and white view of the world was not only stupid (he lamented missing the nuanced palette of gradations that would have enriched his life), but had exacted a terrible price on those he loved.

“Life is hard enough,” he said, in a dying man’s voice, “and instead of helping you, like a father should, I put even more obstacles in front of you and your sister, made your lives so much harder…” He then apologized for the only time in memory.

The forces of our personality that we can’t see are the ones that bite us the hardest, this also goes for the hidden obstacles in our path, the things that infallibly trip us up. They are truly the most destructive demons we must battle in our effort to learn from our mistakes, to become better people.

In the last few years I’ve made a close study of my father’s life, looking for lessons for my own. I may have stumbled on an important one recently that had been impossible for me to see until the other day. It was a painful thing to realize, for the first time, at 64, and it hit me with some force. It also gives rise to a great irony of my long, solitary attempt to create a meaningful public memorial for my parents and their erased ancestors, as I will try to explain.

My father was an intelligent, well-read man with a grasp of history and a good sense of humor who fought like the devil his entire unhappy life. He believed people cannot change, because he could never change, never hope to heal from or overcome the deeply instilled pain of a childhood of abuse. In the end he had to acknowledge, in the face of my mildness as I listened to his final confession, as I did my best to reassure him, that he’d been wrong to reject the idea of working to change himself in any way.

He resisted the idea that people can work to change themselves as as a matter of principle, mind you. He was honestly looking life in the face, as he saw it, while weak people who indulged in endless therapy were deluding themselves, and the victims of pathetic quacks working in a field where even the supposed experts wildly disagreed about the fundamentals of what worked. His unshakable belief that our inborn traits and traumas mark us for life was always argued as a matter of principle.

It was insane, he insisted, to think that we can meaningfully change our natures, natures unknowable to ourselves that are largely innate and then baked in before our consciousness is even fully formed. It was no doubt sobering to him to see his lifelong adversary standing by his deathbed without any trace of anger or judgment, without recriminations.

We have too many examples of this kind of mad belief in “principle” to need more than a reminder. Look around, everything in public and private life has been reduced to inarguable zero-sum matters of black and white, non-negotiable “principle”. The principle, for example, that liberty itself depends on defense of the personal right to infect whoever you want during a raging pandemic. To insist that everyone take simple, easy to follow, proven effective precautions to slow the spread of a deadly disease, supposedly for the common good, is AN ACT OF INTOLERABLE TYRANNY that must be resisted!

If you are acting on deeply held moral principle there is little room for discussion with unprincipled people, compromise is certainly out of the question. In my father’s case he saw the world, as billions now do, as a raging, merciless war zone; perhaps not an unreasonable view in many ways.

The harder to defend part was his view that the family dinner table, too, was an eternal battlefield, bloody and savage, where in the end, he warned his young children angrily, no matter how many battles they might think they’d won, they would “lose the war”. In the end he would prevail. It was a matter of principle. An insane principle, perhaps, but a principle nonetheless. Also, of course, the bit about losing the war was a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways.

Fighting in this senseless war of principle every night shaped me in ways I can see and ways I can’t see. I am like a former child soldier, in some deep recess of my soul I was shaped and scarred by the brutality that was a regular feature of my life at the dinner table war zone, night after night. My sister considers that I suffered more than she did, because while she often kept her head down and endured the attacks, I always fought back. I have the opposite view, though both sides of the argument have merit.

I learned how to use my intelligence to cooly inflict maximum harm on the old man when the fighting got ugly. I learned how to provoke him to rage with a slight shift of my mouth, the look in my eyes, a half turn of my torso, an inhalation of breath.

These skills did not serve me well in the world. Confronted by a bully at any point in my now long life, I was helpless, I could not avoid a confrontation in the end. Once I recognized an unreasonable person craving some kind of violent domination I’d eventually smirk and say the very worst possible thing “you’re an unreasonable person, craving some kind of violent domination, you know you’re a weak, contemptible bully, don’t you, asshole?”

It was not in my skill set to smoothly back away from someone who made it clear they wanted to fight for no discernible reason. It is still hard for me to do when suddenly confronted with this behavior, as much as I strive to avoid confrontation with unreasonable people these days.

It turns out a lot of change is possible with hard work, self-acceptance and the blessing of supportive friends, while other, deeper changes are very, very difficult to make.

You can learn to recognize when you are getting angry, what is about to make you angry. You can take steps to resist getting angry, to allow your breathing to calm you a bit, to control your reaction, to not blurt out the regrettable words that can’t be taken back. There are many things you can learn to do to have a less angry, less violent life.

My father may have been right about one thing – you may never be able, once the hateful game is afoot, to lose that provocative set of your mouth, the look on your face, the exaggerated intake of breath that makes someone want to slug you – it’s baked in, it’s yours to keep forever, no matter how hard you might try to disown it.

Once you do any of those angry moves, it instantly proves the point of the person who insists you’re a ruthless killer, no matter how hard you try to deny it, no matter how patient you’ve already been, no matter how much better you might be doing at self-restraint than before.

I can’t help thinking of political oppressors in the same way. Provoke a hurt response and then punish the person for that response. Keep a knee on somebody’s neck for years. When the person gets up, and is angry about the mistreatment, it proves the oppressor’s point. “That’s why I had to keep my knee on your neck. Look how fucking angry you are!” Bill Barr is a master of this particular despicable trick.

Of course, the beauty — and horror — of being human is that anyone can convince themselves that they are only acting for highly principled reasons. It’s the other side – you know, that is doing all the hating, cheating, obstructing, killing, drinking the blood of murdered child sex slaves. We are only doing these things because THE OTHER SIDE IS DOING IT ALREADY! It’s a matter of principle – and survival.

Here’s what hit me hard the other day. I decided at a certain point a few decades back that I will not tolerate abuse in my personal life. I try hard not to abuse anyone’s feelings, and if I do something that I learn hurt somebody, I am quick to try to make amends, first by apologizing. I’d will this to be a universal principle. I saw the other day that this is only a first step, that it really prevents no part of your lowest nature from coming out if the provocation is sufficient. You can read these posts over the years for several examples of fatal fallings out I’ve had with longtime friends and acquaintances. Here are three off the top of my head. Bear in mind that each of these characters has their own version of these dramas that make me as much the irredeemable villain as these may make them appear to be.

I had an acquaintance I used to see once or twice a year. A writer by profession, a great storyteller with a merry aspect, always good for several hours of spinning interesting tales back and forth and having some knowing laughs. We weren’t friends beyond that, but we liked each other. When I was first working on the book about my father we discussed it over dinner and he seemed intrigued. He told me to send him some pages, he’d give me his two cents. I sent him some pages, didn’t hear back, sent a few more, didn’t hear back, asked him about it, didn’t hear back.

Was it unreasonable of me to feel hurt? Probably not. Was it unreasonable of me to expect a working craftsman of a writer who had never published anything of a personal nature to have any meaningful input on my first draft of a highly personal memoir? Maybe yes, maybe no. Writing is writing, you could say.

In my mind, his year-later defensive email that I was being an asshole to hold it against him that he may or may not have ever commented on pages he doesn’t even remember if he ever read, and that if he had read them he’d almost certainly have written back about, was abusive. Perhaps not everybody would interpret this response, or the ones that followed, as abusive. I did. The gloves I’d carefully kept on came off, I ripped him into several bleeding pieces and walked away [1]. Proving to him, as well as to his ex-wife, that I was indeed a vicious, unreasonable asshole. Case closed, end of story.

Many people might have had a different reaction than mine. OK, they might reason, he was the wrong person to ask for this feedback, even if he offered it. OK, we were never really friends, just acquaintances, it was unreasonable of me to expect him to be able to react to these deeply personal pages. OK, he admitted, toward the end, that he was raised to be insanely competitive, maybe these intensely personal pages were something he felt overwhelmed by, that he felt he could not compete against. I don’t know. I do understand now, that only someone raised in a war zone would calmly slash the guy five times with a sharp sword over it, making sure he knew why he was good and dead, before walking away [again– 1].

Same with the longtime musician friend who offered to do me a favor, then changed his mind, then insisted I had no right to ask why he’d changed his mind, then admitted he did it because he’s been harboring a lot of anger and resentment against me and this was his way of telling me “fuck you.” Many people might file this somewhere, lower their expectations, no longer think of the guy as a friend – maybe even write the guy off. Not everybody would feel compelled to cooly and methodically remove each of his limbs and pile them in front of his head and torso in order to ensure he’d be hurt enough to shut the fuck up [2].

One last, most recent one. A very good friend, since late childhood, and I came to (figurative) blows a few months back. He’s a very smart guy with a dark sense of humor and we’d known each other since Junior High School. In hindsight, most of our intimate conversations were about my troubles. He told me once that he doesn’t like to complain about his life. He always seemed to have a good appetite for my troubles, though. In the latest round his efforts to help wound up antagonizing me, several times in a row. The more I tried to explain why, the more he told me I was wrong, not making sense, that he still didn’t understand. The clearer my explanations became, the more he asked me to please explain further, more clearly, since he was finding it impossible to understand what I was talking about.

A game for suckers, no doubt, and by then I should have recognized it and gracefully written him off, reduced my expectations to near zero, preserved what I could of our long friendship, if only for the sake of our mates. Something was rotten here, clearly, but I kept trying to explain what he kept telling me he still couldn’t understand. I kept believing in this mutual good faith effort we were not managing to make.

He got angry a few times, snarled and even hung up on me during a tense conversation after gruffly apologizing, although he really wasn’t sure what I needed an apology for or why the hell I insisted on shoving him into a corner when he’d done nothing any other good friend wouldn’t have done in his situation.

It is what happened last that lingers for me. I eventually saw that this was an emotional impasse I could not get him to understand with his fine and subtle mind. Emotionally, he was unable to recognize or take responsibility for the hurtfulness of his actions. He waited weeks to apologize for his little temper tantrum, and the follow up text that he was done being “reamed” by me, even as he wrote me several long emails attempting to be conciliatory and expressing a desire to do everything possible to save our friendship.

In the end he once again insisted he didn’t understand why or how I could have been so hurt by anything he might have done, though he apologized again, for whatever it might have been. He made an unusual complaint: since my communications had been so mild mannered he’d had a very hard time realizing how much I’d been hurt by his inadvertent acts. If he accidentally stepped on my toe and I didn’t cry out, how could he possibly be expected to know how much it had hurt me? When in the end I did cry out, he was inconsolable.

Again, why bother crying out at that point? It was clear, over and over, that my old friend did not have the emotional bandwidth to understand what was missing in our friendship. He insisted I was his dearest friend ever, that he loved me and would fight to remain friends. It was equally clear that he had much different expectations of a lifelong friendship than I did. My crying out, upon request, by going through several emails and pointing out the seamless folly of our back and forth, struck a fatal blow in the guy. It was unkind and hurtful of me to make it so clear that there was nothing further to discuss, he wrote. In the end, he couldn’t fathom my unprovoked viciousness.

In each of the above cases, an argument could be made that, after all my attempts to be reasonable, I did nothing to regret in writing a suitable ending to each of these dramas. In one, an acquaintance set me up for a cruel disappointment he then blamed me for. The musician friend had a long list of unspoken reasons to tell me, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck myself. My old friend’s limitations only finally overwhelmed me when I was in a tight spot and his inability to empathize kept making it tighter. In each case, not much to salvage, whether or not I insisted on having an unkind last word.

In each case, yes, in the end I was categorical in stating the obvious. I seemingly could not stop myself. The other party felt brutalized by me. All unfortunate, in a better world than this one.

The insight for me is how hard it is to root out this final urge to kill someone who insists on their right to hurt you. Perhaps I am setting an impossibly high bar for myself, but this reminder that I am still helpless against certain specific emotional circumstances, was an unwelcome one.

If someone accuses you of being angry, and you remain mild, and they keep insisting you are irrationally angry, and you start to become frustrated but hold yourself back, and they redouble their efforts to prove you are an implacably angry bastard – well, a wiser person would manage to get out of the loop before he explodes in anger. This trap is one of the obstacles my father apologized for putting in my path. How I never saw it before a few days ago is a mystery to me.

The irony I mentioned about the seeming impossibility of completing the public personal memorial to my parents and their erased ancestors: it seems impossible to me for the very reasons I’ve discussed above. A sense of futility was instilled in my sister and me, from a young age, seeing there was nothing we could do to avoid eternal war with the father who always blamed us as the aggressors.

“I can hear you whining to the fucking shrink about how your parents ruined your life,” our father would predict from time to time. A pretty judgmental way to put it, perhaps, though not unreasonable, given the hard work he was putting in to make it so.

So, granted, my father had many great qualities, along with a few tragic failings, that would make him an excellent protagonist for a memoir. I’ve written at least 1,300 pages of an unwieldy first draft of his story. Granted, the vast majority of my family, on both sides, were lost in the cold fog of history, mere statistics, victims of Hitlerism without names, their mass graves and even the godforsaken hellholes they came from erased from human memory. I’d like to write and leave a living memorial to them, before I fold up my tents here and cash in my chips. The irony?

The obstacles my father unwittingly placed in the way keep me from feeling able to complete this gigantic task I have set myself, a task I have probably already come more than 80% toward completing. So those obstacles will prevent my father, his life, the world he came from, from being memorialized in a book strangers can read, to ponder the difficult, important lessons I’ve been grappling with since I was a young child.

Ironic, eh wot?

[1] to be clear, this bloody act came in the form of a blahg post methodically dissecting and dismissing his maddening if-pology, phrase by phrase

[2] This gruesome dismemberment took the form of three stinging paragraphs, responding to his “personality conflict” conclusion. I corrected it to a worldview conflict — the first paragraph savaged his vanity and materialism, the second disclaimed responsibility for his inferiority complex — the third I don’t recall at the moment, but it was apparently as hurtful as intended.

A Lesson in Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Can’t Argue with A Feeling

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

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

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

Common Argument Technique (Reframing) Analyzed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note that it could not have been accomplished without reframing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Good Deed…

No good deed goes unpunished, it is often said. Usually by people trying to be philosophical about that bitter feeling when your best attempt to make something better by doing a kindness comes around to bite you in the ass. I woke up with that cliche in mind today and find myself needing to organize some thoughts about it.

I saw a cool short discussion of why so many people want to be writers these days. The little animation makes a convincing case that the desire to write stems from existential loneliness (which is on the upswing in this era of “social media” — and heightened during the pandemic, of course) — an unfulfilled need for intimate back and forth conversation all too rare in real life. To accommodate ourselves to our relative isolation, many of us conduct internal conversations on the page that we wish we could have in life [1].

I recently attempted an extended soul-draining good deed over the course of several months and got a sharp, defensive, hurt retort by email the other day. The upshot is that I am mean, vengeful, incapable of generosity– and deluded. This is the verdict of an old friend with his own emotional limitations. Though I had no confusion about where the anger was coming from at this point in our long back and forth, it’s an argument, isn’t it?

Nonetheless, it irked me, after my patient efforts to get through were all ignored, to get this shotgun blast blaming me for being a rigid, vindictive, insensitive putz. I gave an adorably reluctant Sekhnet the two minute version last night, she was sympathetic as I read part of the email, after dismissing anything he might have written to me by telling me to consider the source and the context. She was right. Nobody else I know can reasonably be expected to listen to a few pertinent takeaways as I struggle toward them in conversation. So I’m going to give it an hour or two here, make a fuller account of why this resonates with me so much.

I’m also hopefully doing a good deed by providing a discussion that might be helpful to someone in turmoil about a relationship turned sour, and to anyone who’s had to give up on an old friendship after a long struggle not to.

First, there is the matter of the good deed itself. Most “good deeds” are done for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it makes us feel better to do something nice for a person in need. I once liberated two women, strangers, who were locked in their apartment, plaintively calling out of a window overlooking an alley. Overcoming my feeling, on that dark, deserted street, that someone might be waiting behind the door to knock me out with a baseball bat and take my wallet, I entered their lobby and went to unlock their door. The women were relieved and grateful to be saved from their predicament by a sympathetic stranger. I felt good too, and a little better about mankind in general.

One person’s good deed may be another person’s self-righteous, passive aggressive kick in the groin. Strictly a matter of perspective. Think of the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Picture outgunned, desperate Jewish partisans in the Warsaw Ghetto as the Nazis were “liquidating” the population. I suppose it’s possible to say there were very fine people on both sides, everyone believing they’re on the side of the angels, especially when fighting for their own notion of freedom. Not many would say that, perhaps, but you see what I’m driving at about our point of view being key to analyzing right and wrong.

For purposes of this exercise, let’s agree that a good deed is rarely 100% selfless and altruistic. It’s just part of the nature of good deeds. They make us feel better to do them, they help somebody else — or not. When they don’t help, they can hurt. Unwanted results in such cases are to be expected, sometimes lead to punishment, as they say.

I try to practice of my secular version of Ahimsa (non-harm) and I attempt to “first do no harm.” This doesn’t always result in a peaceful outcome, though I’m doing better now than years ago. It is much more important to me these days to avoid fights than to win them. I try my best to see things from the other person’s point of view, to listen, to be fair, to phrase things in a way I think will be heard, to eventually realize when I need to accept, with as little anger as possible, that there can be no agreement in this particular case. I try to avoid the bad feelings that can easily come from these clashes. I withdraw when I see a relationship is no longer a mutual exercise in overlooking human flaws in the other. Sometimes, in spite of my efforts, I get drawn into an existential showdown anyway.

I recognize that this strong reflex to fight back is from my childhood. I was raised by an implacably angry, very smart, adversarial father. In my conscious mind, I am now taking a nonviolent stand by being direct: laying out the causes of friction with as little anger as I can and appealing to conscience when I feel somebody is unfairly accusing me of being the aggressor. To a longtime observer, my need to take this stand probably feels like “here we go again, he really, really needs to be right…”

It’s true, it’s hard to know for certain sometimes that what we think we’re doing is what we are really doing. I had a troubled friend who dramatically and infallibly illustrated this principle. He lived the Repetition Compulsion over the decades I knew him– endlessly replaying the identical, primal three-act play in every situation. It always began with great excitement and inevitably ended in betrayal, anger, sometimes violence. No matter how often he fell into the same trap, he was never wrong. Also, he could not see the pattern, had no clue that he was performing the same idiot drama over and over. Maybe I’m the same way?

Memory is unreliable, we’re ruled as much by emotion as by Reason, we believe things that turn out to be shaky, outright mistaken. The world, if we scroll through the Doom that is today’s headlines, offers unlimited proofs of the power of irrationality and delusion. I am obsessed with this issue, as you can read here on any given day [2].

So, you may be forgiven for seeing my writing here as just so much venting, a twitchy, idiosyncratic virtue dance to make myself seem righteous. People I’ve known who thought themselves the most brilliant, the most insightful, were also, in fundamental ways, the most broken. We all virtually always believe we are doing the right thing for the right reasons. Otherwise, how could people gather to do things like burning down the home of a voting rights activist?

I’ve digressed from the story with these caveats about my own reliability. Of course, I believe I am right in this case– but, of course I do! So just two or three illustrations that I think will complete the point I’m trying to make.

A longtime friend, a lawyer by profession and personal style, called after my health insurance had been abruptly (and mistakenly, it finally emerged) cancelled last January. He was angry that I seemed to be so angry about it, had written him a couple of overwrought emails and then sent him one that he called “snide and inaccurate”. He told me he was concerned about my out of control anger, worried where it might lead me. Within a few minutes he cut me off and loudly challenged me to tell him to go fuck himself, if that’s what I felt like doing.

This guy was an old friend, one of a small handful I have left. I managed to calm him down. In the discussion that followed he admitted that my email had not been inaccurate, or even very snide. It was snide, he said, by the standard of my usual breezy communications with him, which is why the snideness struck him so hard that it also felt inaccurate, which he now allowed it was not. After the call, I felt good that I’d avoided a shouting match with an old friend who was obviously going through some stressful shit on his end.

I know, “Jesus, El, this guy sounds like… well, you described it yourself.” Sure, but we had been friends for about fifty years. He is a very smart guy, good sense of humor, we shared many beliefs about the world, a taste for blues guitar, a love for good, clear writing, we went back decades and had always been loyal friends to each other. You don’t throw all that away because the guy is having a bad day and calls to take it out on you. Or do you?

In hindsight, maybe you do. It certainly feels that way in light of the relentlessness that followed. But hindsight, you know what they say about that superpower.

The crankiness continued, on a slow boil, expressed through endless challenges to most things I said in the weeks that followed. This rigorous contestation was always part of my friend’s nature — he relates by parsing, analyzing, challenging assertions, testing the strength of claims. It served him well in his legal career, if not always in his personal life. I was very slow to grasp how much he was deploying these things to … I don’t even know, destroy our friendship?

He has a dark view of the human race, seeing people as basically flawed, unreliable, deluded, incapable of not being selfish. Perhaps it was inevitable that his closest friend had to be shown to be the same as everybody else. He said I was a better person than him, at least I was struggling against my crabbed human nature, but over the years more and more bitterness crept in.

I will spare you all the ugliness of the months that followed. I isolated for my friend the two most intolerable things in our frayed friendship. These were things I thought he’d be able to see and make adjustments for, as he told me I was his best friend and that he was determined to do everything in his power to make sure our friendship continued.

The first was the lack of response to concerns I raised. He would simply ignore them, no matter how many times I raised them. I told him this was particularly hurtful to me because it was my angry father’s favorite technique for getting under my skin. I presented him with my belief that virtually anyone, bringing a concern to a close friend, would be rightfully hurt if that concern was ignored. He had no comment about this, no matter how many times I raised it.

The other thing that was intolerable was the reflexive lawyerly reframing of every issue to shift the ground of the discussion. This was another dreadful adversarial technique I knew well from childhood. As a kid I’d try to explain why I was upset and my father would cooly counter that I was conveniently sidestepping the real issue: my vicious, uncontrollable temper. Suddenly I am struggling to defend myself, and stay calm enough not to prove my father’s provocative point, the hope to get my father to understand why I was upset long gone.

Reframing is a very easy technique to use. Even a man of limited smarts like Mike Pence can do it almost in his sleep, as he did over and over the other night while talking over his female opponent for Vice President. All you need for reframing is a perceived weakness in the person you’re talking to and a desire to dominate. They say A and you immediately pivot to X, and, HA! now they have to defend why they want to put 100,000,000 Americans out of work!

In the end, after thousands and thousands of words spoken and written, and reducing the friction between us to just these two crucial points, I had no response to anything I’d raised, except for my friend’s protestations that he still didn’t understand exactly what I was asking him for. In the end, after all my attempts had come to nothing, I sent him these thoughts, before repeating, with some anger, a few of my many unheeded attempts to make peace:

Intimate friendship is rare and can be hard to maintain, in my experience.  Real mutuality takes trust, mutual vulnerability and sometimes work, including a two-way readiness to overlook a friend’s faults and to accommodate ourselves to a friend’s weaknesses and problems.  We can all be assholes sometimes, the beauty of real friendship is that our asshole side is not held against us, not tallied on some kind of ledger for future use at the worst possible time — and that we repay our friend’s generosity in kind.   

When our attempt to explain why we’re hurt is met with resistance, reluctant acceptance, impatience, then anger, and that anger is redoubled (as when a friend angrily cuts us off, hangs up the phone and texts us back to tell us he’s done with us violating him), then, for weeks, the friend stands on his right to be angry and unapologetic, and later, after multiple explanations, claims to still not understand the exact nature of his hurtful acts … I’m not sure how a friendship moves on from there.  I haven’t figured it out in my life, anyway.

It may be that like all living things, friendships have life spans.   As much as I understand from your last email that you want to somehow salvage our friendship, the idea that you’re unable to imagine, after so many years, how I feel, how I think, even what I actually mean when I try my best to be clear (let’s stipulate that I express myself with reasonable clarity), is impossible to get past.  

It turns out knowing how to take care of a friend’s hurt feelings is the most essential part of being a good friend.   Of having good friends, of deserving the few close friendships we’ve managed to sustain.  Knowing how to take care of a friend’s hurt feelings is another way of describing intimate, mutual love, which requires a reflex to mercy above all else.

I’m not entirely sure how we’ve come to this sorry pass — this brutal contest of vanities — and, outside of this little intro, I really don’t have anything to add to what I’ve written below.  Along with the sadness is a sense of disappointment at our mutual limitations, that I, in spite of exhaustive efforts, haven’t been able to figure out a way to solve this sickening moral puzzle.   It feels like a failure of my ahimsa shtick, the “first do no harm” business of being a loyal friend, and a mensch.

I balance that disappointment with the knowledge that we can only work to change ourselves, not others.   If you can’t overcome a reflex to act abusively when you feel righteously angry, even with someone you deeply care about, nobody but yourself can help you with that.   The breaking point for me is when somebody, claiming to love me, stands on their right to act abusively — fuck that.

Anyway, no need for a reply like to the other emails.  Each reply did more harm than good, in spite of the good intentions expressed in each one, each one made the hole deeper.  Your good intentions were complicated by the confusion you expressed, and the lack of confidence that you knew how to interpret the past, understand the present or move productively forward.   Your confusion and lack of confidence in our friendship are things it’s unproductive for me to grapple with at this point — particularly since you acknowledge that I’ve always been a good friend to you.

I understand you may want to have some kind of last word, but it’s not necessary.   As I’ve sat weeks (now months) with this email ready to go I’ve wondered from time to time if there’s any real point to sending it.   I’ve decided I don’t want to leave you hanging after our many years of good friendship and your last good faith attempt to salvage it.  It doesn’t seem right to finish without some kind of closure that might help you understand the impossibility of my situation, of our friendship, even if only a complete explanation of why I have nothing to add to what I wrote weeks, and now months, ago.    

I understand the impulse to have a last word of some kind might be strong.   You may feel a reply would be your last chance for a summary, an understanding, an expression of any final regret, etc., but I urge you to consider, again, out of friendship, whether your reply will do anything to make me feel better about the end of our long friendship, or go any way toward mending what is torn.  If not, just don’t do it, OK?   In any case, if you need to reply, there’s absolutely no rush.   At least hold on to what you may have written for long enough to repeatedly reread and refine it, if you need to make some kind of reply.  On my end, there’s no need.

It’s very sad, either way you slice it — eternal silence by way of final reply or a categorical final reply like the one below.  Little rehearsals for our own deaths, I suppose, these leave takings from old friends after so many decades.  On the other hand, I don’t know anyone else who has a friend from Junior High School still in their life.  Also, sadly, we all have to die, something I find myself thinking about more and more these days as the death count continues to rise in the greatest nation Jesus ever blessed.

I’m sad about the loss of our long friendship, but as I’ve seen in other situations like it over the years, it is best to be philosophical.   The most important thing when a friend is not treating you with the mercy you’ve tried to extend (and have a right to expect in return), and when nothing you say or do makes any difference in that friend’s perceptions, is to leave.   

Sad, truly, but sadder still is fragile, self-conscious, sentimental friendship, waiting for the next chance to repeat the same enraged, clueless dance and shatter into painful pieces again.  There is relief at the end, to be finally out of harm’s way.    

With that, my regrets and my immediate reply to your email of May 27

(in part that email offered many specific things I’d raised in previous emails that he’d never responded to– this is key to appreciating the last line of his first paragraph below).

Here he is, the final 10% of his long reply:

I understand well that I’ve hurt you, Eliot. I’ve told you I’m sorry. You apparently find my conduct unforgivable. I’ve asked myself (and others) many times what you might be looking to me for that I’ve failed to offer, that would demonstrate to you that I’m someone you still want to be friends with. I find no answers in your emails or elsewhere, and reluctantly  conclude you really don’t want that.

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

If I’m mistaken and you actually do still want to be friends with me, the door is open. If not, nothing more needs to be said.  In any case, my best to you and M.

The issue with Noam, as presented by my friend, was slickly reframed, probably by the instinct to remember something in the light kindest to oneself. It is reducible to this:

If I have a disagreement with a good friend, try my best and can’t get my friend to agree with me, I give it to them with both barrels, like the brutal, self-righteous asshole I am.

The issue with Noam was not a disagreement, except in the broadest sense of the word. Noam had picked a fight with me, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, over what turned out to be a catalogue of unexpressed resentments, as he finally admitted. It was not a “disagreement” that could be worked out with Reason, it was open hostility that could not be pacified, that had become mutual.

For anyone who has made it this far, a bit of “sorbet”. Here is the footnote (written by this same articulate fellow) that I closed my last snide, if not inaccurate, email with, his own words about the end of my friendship with Repetition Compulsion Man from many moons ago:

[FN]

Not ever having really known him –I was around him at times but have no recollection of actually exchanging any words with him directly –I could only vaguely comprehend the basis for your position. His email opens a window. Very manipulative and emotionally Byzantine, the art of placing blame while trying to appear not to have done so, but rather to have made a bold and mature gesture. Very frustrating, if not infuriating, watching someone bob and weave so strenuously to evade emotional connection and basic responsibility, seeking to anticipate and counter objections and arguments rather than open a line of communication.  I can only assume it’s infinitely more exhausting for him than it is for the recipient, and that’s saying something.

[1]

[2]

Just the other day, the Supreme Court ruled that lack of evidence of actual voter fraud is no obstacle to the South Carolina state legislature imposing its will in a democracy by passing laws to prevent a practice they believe could result in such fraud. We have a raving emotional basket case as our fearless leader. Tens of millions love him and regard him as their savior from a cabal of immensely powerful cannibal pedophiles. And so forth.

a gratuitous self-quoting headilne:

It’s very sad, either way you slice it — eternal silence by way of final reply or a categorical final reply like the one below.  Little rehearsals for our own deaths, I suppose, these leave takings from old friends after so many decades

white stubble

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

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

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

A Few More Thoughts About Time

When I got the call from my sister, during a festive meal at the home of old friends, that my father had been admitted to the hospital after being brought to the emergency room, time changed.   

“When I saw the doctor’s face I knew this was it,” my sister told me, “he looked like the malach ha mavet (Angel of Death).”  The specialists my father had been seeing regularly — cardiologist, endocrinologist, hematologist — collectively had no clue that their patient was in the last stage of liver cancer, days from death.    The ER doctor, assessing my father’s jaundiced color, difficulty moving and tapping his stomach, distended with ascites (liver-related fluid build up in the abdomen) [1] knew at once that this man was in the last days of liver cancer.

Two doctors were at the dinner table when I got the news.  When I mentioned the ascites they both told me not to worry, that ascites can be from many things [2], that I should wait and talk to the doctors at the hospital.  I consider their reassuring lies to have been a kindness, under the circumstances, and always think of their unspoken, united determination to shield me from extra worry with great fondness.

“If you have any family who want to see him before he goes, you should call them right away,” the ER doctor told my sister.

A couple of days later I arrived in Florida.   My father was attached to a bag hanging off the side of the hospital bed.  The bag was filling with the most unhealthy looking liquid I’ve ever seen.   It was the color of cancer.  It dripped away, along with what was left of his life, for the three or four days I was in Florida before my father breathed his last breath.

My father was eager to see his little brother, a man he had always bullied and dismissed.   Once, late in his life, when my father was returning from a short visit to his brother I asked him how my uncle was doing.   My father paused for a few seconds to reflect then uttered this great line:  “let’s just say, he remains unchanged.”   At the end my father was anxious for his brother to be there and his brother rushed to Florida.

I went to pick my uncle up at Ft. Lauderdale airport.   When we got to the hospital he immediately stopped the doctor, who’d met us in the hall to update us about the patient’s condition, to ask if there was any chance of a liver transplant for his dying 80 year-old brother.   I had to take my uncle by the arm to let the uncomfortable doctor get away.  The way the two brothers clung to each other at the end was poignant to see.

My uncle was a bossy man and he instructed us all, at around nine pm, that it was time to let the dying man rest.   For some reason we all left the hospital.  I even attempted to get to sleep, hours before my natural bedtime, which is around four a.m.    Suddenly I sat up, thinking “what the fuck?,” got in the car and headed back to the hospital.   

My father, who’d told me earlier in the day that he wanted to talk to me, that he was still assembling his thoughts, was wide awake when I arrived around one a.m.   He appeared to be expecting me.  I’d always had an adversarial relationship with my father, one I’d tried many times to improve, but my father was so deeply, fundamentally wounded that meaningful peace with him was pretty much out of the question.   

I’m a fairly creative person, with an active imagination, and, once I left my parents’ house, I’d tried everything I could imagine over the years to make peace with my old man.  In the end, when he angrily told me that if he ever told me what he really felt about me it would do “irreparable harm” to our relationship, I saw that his desperation was too great for him to overcome.   He would “win” by destroying what was left of our ability to discuss things beyond the weather, baseball, history and politics.   I stopped banging my head against the locked door at that point.

I am writing about time.   Two years passed from that final slamming of the vault on any hope for real dialogue with my father.  Nobody knows from one minute to the next how long the rest of their life will be.  I can measure it now:  two years elapsed from the time I became certain that no true peace with my father was possible.   

During those years I was in psychotherapy, and I finally reached a point where I was able to understand that my father was incapable of doing any better; that he was actually, sad as it was, doing the best he could.  Knowing this allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.   

Luckily, I had this revelation a few months before I got that call from my sister than our father was not long for this world.  I was ready, in a sense, in a way I couldn’t have been holding on to the pain and anger my father’s righteous prosecutorial rage inspired in me.

Now, on April 29, 2005,  it is after one a.m. on what would turn out to be the last night of my father’s life.   The first question he asked is if I’d brought the digital recorder I’d bought for him earlier in the day.   I’d left it with the nurse, got it, turned it on, propped it on his chest.   

The next thing he said was that his life was basically over by the time he was two.   He didn’t mention why, it was something I already knew (though not from him) — his angry, religious mother had whipped him in the face from the time he could stand.   Add to that “grinding poverty” and turning five as The Depression began, being the poorest of the poor in a small town as everyone in your family back in Europe is being rounded up and killed, you begin to get the picture.   Betrayal by a mother, shame and humiliation are not easily overcome.   I can’t imagine the struggle my father had, to appear strong, infallible, while making only glancing references to the “demons” we all must deal with.

Because I was no longer that angry, because my father was dying, I knew my purpose in that room was to make his death as easy as it could be.   I was not there to challenge him, I was there to comfort him.  I understood without needing to think about it that these moments were not about me, they were about him.

When he apologized for putting obstacles in front of my sister and me, making our lives harder instead of helping us in times of need as a loving father should, I told him he’d done the best he could.   

When he told me he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years, I nodded, thankful to hear him finally acknowledge it.   He lamented that he’d been too fucked up and defensive for us to have this kind of conversation fifteen years ago.   

At the time the number seemed off to me — thirty years of war, fifteen of peace?   Later I realized that fifteen days, or even fifteen hours, of this kind of honesty would have been an amazing blessing.

We spoke quietly for several hours, the door to my father’s hospital room open, everyone else on the floor asleep.   The nurse, an angel in human form, sat outside the room.    The look of love she gave me when I left I will never forget.

Early next evening, as the sun was beginning to set, my father told my sister, my uncle and my mother that since I’d arrived it was a good time for them to take a break, go to the cafeteria and get something to eat. 

As soon as they were gone my father said to me “I don’t know how to do this.”   I assured him that nobody did, that it would be fine.   The nurse helped take down the bar on one side of the bed so I could sit closer to my father.  I don’t remember if I had my hand on him, or arm around him, or anything like that, but I sat close by.   

His breathing got shallower and shallower, death from liver cancer is supposed to be one of the gentler ways to go.   After the liver goes, the kidneys shut down and you go to sleep, only forever.   

A friend later told me the Talmud poetically compares the moment of death to removing a hair from a glass of milk.  It is an excellent description in the case of death from liver cancer.

Within twenty minutes or so my father took his last breath.   I reached over and closed his dead eyes with the fingers of one hand, like I’d done it a thousand times.

[1] A 0.66 second search reveals: 

Ascites is when over 25 milliliters of fluid fills the space between the abdominal lining and the organs. It’s usually caused by cirrhosis.

[2]  It turns out they were misleading me, not lying:

But the most dangerous problem associated with ascites is infection, which can be life-threatening. Ascites may go away with a low salt diet, and with diuretics (water pills) ordered by your provider.

Worthwhile investigations take time

I heard two award winning investigative reporters say that time is the single most important aspect of doing a full investigation into anything.   If you have the time to follow every lead, and go where that lead takes you, you will discover things that are impossible to learn if you’re working under a deadline.   To perfect any difficult thing, there is no substitute for time.   Robert Caro, the great biographer and historian, famously sometimes takes a year or longer to dig for the truth about a single disputed fact that troubles him.

Let’s take a moment to consider the gift of time itself, the single greatest gift we have, until we don’t have it any more.  Brother David Steindl-Rast gives a beautiful meditation on gratefulness for the gift of time and our ability to appreciate the wonders our senses provide us, if we take a few moments every day to pay attention.   He speaks midway through this beautifully illustrated TED talk by visionary nature photographer Louie Schwartzberg.   Well worth ten minutes to watch in its entirety, the monk’s inspirational short speech is cued up HERE (if you’re in a hurry).

 

 

Back to investigations, my own leisurely dive into my father’s life is a perfect example of the benefit of spending as much time as needed to gather something worthwhile.  Without any time limit, I carefully wrote out everything I know or could imagine about my father’s life.  I constructed this tricky puzzle, with many key pieces missing, in a darkened room, free from any thought that I had to rush.  In the end, after more than two years of doing this daily, I am finally able to truly understand my father’s motivations — in a way that was impossible for me to grasp as I was working toward it.   I don’t agree with every position he took, but I feel like I completely understand why he took each one.  That empathetic view was unimaginable to me as I was working over the sketchy puzzle in the dimness.

A long, thoughtful investigation will always be more fruitful than one done in a hurry.   We tend to miss details when we rush.  Sometimes these details can be very important.   The gift of time can cut both ways, as when it is extended or contracted for an unscrupulous purpose.

If, for example, A.G. Bill Barr empowers a federal prosecutor to launch a limitless, global exploration into the detailed investigation into Mr. Trump and associates that he calls “a travesty” based on the “flimsiest” of evidence, embarked on after illegal “spying” — after enough time and resources are invested something will likely be turned up about some irregularity or impropriety.    Something concrete to support Barr’s politically handy theory of partisan “presidential harassment” and baseless “spying” on a president who (in spite of massive proof to the contrary) took no help from Russia or anyone else.

As it turned out, in the case of “Russiagate,” there was incorrect information on two of the four original FISA warrants that began the surveillance and investigation into the Trump campaign’s coordination with Russian state actors who were later shown to have meddled directly in all fifty US states on behalf of Mr. Trump.  False information, perhaps a dozen instances of it, in at least two applications for the FISA warrants to wiretap Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page [1]. 

After enough digging by a team of prosecutors and investigators, a malefactor was found, an FBI lawyer who left out that Page had been an informant for the CIA at one time.    A smoking gun!    As announced a few days ago, this now unmasked traitor (who claims the mistake was inadvertent, not part of a Deep State coup d’etat against a duly elected American president) is going to plead guilty for this deliberate misstatement on an application for the original FISA warrant that got operation Crossfire Hurricane up and running.   

I’d always thought the standard of proof for a FISA warrant to be approved was fairly low.  I’d understood that something like 99% of them were approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.  Though 99% of them are granted, based on probable cause to reasonably suspect a national security threat, the standard of proof to submit a warrant is higher than I supposed.   Here is an article extensively quoting an FBI insider’s description of how high the bar for a FISA warrant actually is.

That said, the DOJ’s own Inspector General, like the DOJ’s Special Counsel Mueller before him, and the Republican majority Senate Intel Committee since [2], determined that there was adequate legal predicate for the investigation of what is now known to be widespread, high level cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia, an investigation that resulted in numerous prosecutions and guilty pleas.   The DOJ’s IG pointed out the errors and omissions in the paperwork to get the FISA warrant and concluded that ambiguities in FBI and DOJ policy need to be tightened up.   He also made a referral for prosecution, which was not publicized much at the time.

It turns out the FBI lawyer was referred for prosecution by DOJ Inspector General Horowitz, not by the Barr/Durham criminal investigation [3].   But that is not for lack of effort by Barr/Durham who are determined to have some dramatic criminal indictments for an October Surprise to help their candidate.

With enough time and effort, a dogged team of investigators can usually turn up some kind of wrongdoing, about something.  If not Whitewater, for example, incriminating, irrefutable DNA on a blue dress.   Contrast this kind of thorough long-game investigation with one conducted under a tight deadline.

The tight negotiated deadline in the FBI’s five-day investigation into the sexual impropriety charge against Brett Kavanaugh is an example of a  investigation starved for time to investigate.   Even within that tight time frame, if the intent had been to verify or dismiss the allegation against the judge, the FBI could easily have learned if there was a house among that small circle of people at the gathering nobody specifically recalled (except for the girl who was traumatized) that fit the description the witness gave.   You walk up the stairs, bathroom on the left, bedroom directly across.   Who owned the home during the summer in question?   Did the parents work late every day?   Were they in town during the month the event nobody remembered took place? 

The answers to those relatively straight-forward questions make it more likely than not that one or the other was telling the truth, based on a now verified (or not) recollection of place.  Confirm the place, confirm the time frame, re-interview everyone there with this new information, other leads emerge, in time.

Of course, some investigations are merely for show, to demonstrate a willingness to investigate the truth or falsity of the statements of those involved, even if, as in the case of the Kavanaugh/Blasey Ford controversy, the FBI spoke to neither Kavanaugh nor Blasey Ford, nor Kavanaugh’s high school best friend, who was allegedly also in the room, also drunk, laughing uproariously and finally throwing himself on top of the two teenagers struggling on the bed, allowing one to escape.

Time, the only gift any of us cannot do without.

 

[1]  Wikipedia

Carter William Page (born June 3, 1971) is an American petroleum industry consultant and a former foreign-policy adviser to Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential election campaign.[1] Page is the founder and managing partner of Global Energy Capital, a one-man investment fund and consulting firm specializing in the Russian and Central Asian oil and gas business.[2][3][4]

[2]  Wikipedia:

The Republican-controlled Committee released its final report on 2016 Russian election interference in August 2020, finding that despite problems with the FISA warrant requests used to surveil him, the FBI was justified in its counterintelligence concerns about Page. The Committee found Page evasive and his “responses to basic questions were meandering, avoidant and involved several long diversions.” The Committee found that although Page’s role in the campaign was insignificant, Russia may have thought he was more important than he actually was.[101]

[3] Wikipedia 

Horowitz did fault the FBI for overreaching and mistakes during the investigation. These included failing to disclose when applying for a FISA warrant to surveil Page in October 2016 that he had provided the Central Intelligence Agency details of his prior contacts with Russian officials, including the incident the FBI indicated made Page’s conduct most suspicious.[84] In addition, Horowitz found that Kevin Clinesmith, an attorney in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Office of General Counsel (OGC), intentionally altered an interagency email to exclude from the FISA warrant application that Page was a CIA source from 2008 to 2013.[84][92] According to the Horowitz Report, if the FISA court judges had been informed of Page’s CIA relationship, his conduct might have seemed less suspicious, although the Report did not speculate on “whether the correction of any particular misstatement or omission, or some combination thereof, would have resulted in a different outcome.”[84][93] Horowitz referred Clinesmith to prosecutors for potential criminal charges.[94] On August 14, 2020, Clinesmith pleaded guilty to a felony for making a false statement by altering the email.[95][96]

Horowitz attributed the warrant problems to “gross incompetence and negligence” rather than intentional malfeasance or political bias.[97] In a December 10, 2019, interview on Hannity, Page indicated that he had retained attorneys to review the Horowitz Report and determine whether he has grounds to sue.[98]

In December 2019, the Justice Department secretly notified the FISA court that in at least two of the 2017 warrant renewal requests “there was insufficient predication to establish probable cause” to believe Page was acting as a Russian agent.[99]

In a subsequent analysis of 29 unrelated FISA warrant requests, Horowitz found numerous typographical errors but just two material errors, which were determined not to impact the justifications for the resulting surveillance.[100]

Bravo Fortune (on USPS story)

Fortune, unlike NPR and other news outlets analyzing the current, corrupt- smelling Postal Service situation (slow-down in deliveries ordered by leading Trump donor/Postmaster General to “increase efficiency”), reported (in its July 24 edition):

But the agency has been rapidly losing money since a 2006 law, passed with the support of the George W. Bush administration, required USPS to pre-fund employee retiree health benefits for 75 years in the future. That means the Postal Service must pay for the future health care of employees who have not even been born yet. The burden accounted for an estimated 80% to 90% of the agency’s losses before the pandemic. 

Critics call the law “draconian” and say that it was created with the intention of leading the Postal Service toward privatization. No other federal agency bears this burden.  

source

Bravo.  Thank you.   

What about the rest of you news sources?

 

Three Pieces of Terrible Psychiatric Advice and their fallout

I’m reminded, by a recent chat with a woman I’ve known since I was eight, of how destructive following bad advice from experts can sometimes be.  The cliché that the craziest people often go into psychology is borne out by the experiences of my close childhood friend whose family and mine grew close as well.   I think of the damage done to them by following three pieces of catastrophic psychological advice they were given by professionals over the years.

I had a call yesterday, out of the blue, from Caroline, the soon to be 93 year-old mother of a longtime friend I haven’t been in contact with in a few years.  She told me she’s going stir-crazy during lockdown, was tired of reading (she can’t bear to watch TV these days) saw my name in her phone book, decided to call and see how I was doing.  I was glad to hear from her.

My mother and Caroline were good friends for many years, until my father eventually took a deep dislike to her, which began to come to a head when Caroline, who busily visited everybody, particularly the sick and elderly, apparently never once stopped by to see my mother when she was recuperating from cancer surgery.  “She lived five fucking blocks away,” my father pointed out.  He later added other charges, to finalize the break with longtime friends Caroline and her husband.

I’ve always liked talking to Caroline.  She’s bright and sharp and a good listener, as well as a character with an interesting take on things and the occasional cool turn of phrase (Trump, if he loses, will remain a media force and “make borsht” out of Biden).  Like all of us, she has her faults, but they never bother me when we’re chatting, as we did for a long stretch yesterday.   At one point, after she told me of her son’s soon to be finalized divorce,  I summed up the monumentally bad advice her family had followed, in desperate moments, and she immediately agreed.

ONE

Mid-1960s:  Her daughter was always a very dramatic and often unhappy girl.  At some point dad began taking her into the city regularly for father-daughter nights on the town.  They’d go to dinner and a Broadway show.  Though she seemed to enjoy the nights out, they didn’t make the miserable girl any happier.  Her unhappiness led to a threat of suicide, maybe even an attempt.  Her alarmed parents brought her to a psychiatrist.  The shrink told them to take her threats of suicide very seriously– basically to give her whatever she asked for, because if they didn’t, they could lose her.

Second opinion, anyone?  No need.  Instead they gave the teenager a credit card.   She instantly developed a lifelong taste for the finer things in life.  The bills came, the parents paid.  What could they do?  When she needed a car, she got one.  Rent?  They paid.  The young woman did not become much happier, but she was able to live well without working, at least.   In the end, she acquired  disabling drug and alcohol addictions.  Caroline agrees, in hindsight, that it was stupid, fifty years ago, to take the advice of that psychiatrist.  At ninety-two she is still subsidizing her daughter’s lifestyle.

TWO

My childhood best friend had a series of Christian girlfriends during his college and post-college years.  The relationships would fray when he informed each one he could never marry a Christian.  At thirty, feeling desperate, he went to a shrink who told him he needed to stabilize his life by finding and marrying a Jewish girl. 

He took this advice to heart, finding a Jewish girl to date (the younger sister of a guy we knew from Hebrew School), becoming engaged to her, in spite of several brightly flashing caution signs, (including vicious fights) and marrying her soon after, in a wedding notable for its openly simmering tensions.  I didn’t understand the urgency of any of this, and told him so as he reported the latest fight while rushing toward his wedding day, but the shrink had told him it was imperative to his sanity to do it, so it was full speed ahead. 

“I knew it was a terrible mistake,” said Caroline, “everybody did.”

The decision to marry was followed by thirty years of uninterrupted warfare between the spouses.   A common early war theme involved my friend’s commitment to what he hoped would be a professional songwriting career.   For some reason these activities (working with a singer, a guy, mind you) had to be carried out in secret.  The secrecy led to occasional white lies, some of which were discovered.  There was distrust, accusations of the husband being a fucking liar, screaming matches in the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom.  An active war zone it horrified my friend to know he was raising his two sons in.  He couldn’t imagine the damage he was doing to them by subjecting them to these regular explosions of violence between their parents.

“Sheesh,” said Caroline “yeah, that was some bad advice.  Well, at least that long nightmare is over.  The divorce will be finalized next week.”

THREE

This piece of bad advice led directly to me, the guy’s oldest friend, and it was also something of a doozy.   I was on good terms with both my friend and his wife, felt like I performed a kind of peacemaking function when I hung out with them.  They always seemed relatively fine when I was there.   I always liked her, though I could also see she was troubled and subject to rages.  I was only once on the business end of her anger, but it passed quickly.  Later, I found out, she weaponized something I’d casually told her to beat her husband bloody with at a marriage counseling session toward the end of their marriage of a thousand atrocities.

Her husband had told me a quick story he regretted telling midway through.  The little tale was truncated, it involved his wife and a third party I didn’t care much about it, he told me to forget it, I pretty much did.  A few weeks later, his wife called to tell me the same story, which she laid out in great detail.   For the first time the odd little anecdote seemed to make sense.  

“Ah,” I said, unwittingly slipping my head into the noose.

” ‘Ah’ what?” she asked.

Here I made my fatal mistake, being unguardedly candid.

” Ah, I get it.   Now it makes sense, when he told me about it I didn’t really understand why you stormed out at the end.”

“Oh,” she said, “what did he tell you?”   

Looking back, I suppose I could have tried to sidestep the question, which would have been the discreet, if tricky, thing to do.   Instead I spoke what I thought was a bland, harmless truth.  I recounted what I recalled of the first version of the story and stressed that he’d told me the whole anecdote in about a minute and that I hadn’t asked him any follow-up questions, so he’d had no chance to clarify what I hadn’t understood about the little story.

She probably made some comment about what a fucking liar he was.  If she did, I would have pointed out that it clearly wasn’t a case of lying, it was a quick story I didn’t much care about so I hadn’t bothered getting clarification of what was incomplete about it.

A few weeks later I had a text from my friend.  He had to see me, immediately.  I called to find out what was wrong, his voicemail picked up.   He immediately texted me that he couldn’t talk on the phone, he had to see me in person.   The texting went on for a few days until we arranged a time to meet in my neighborhood.   When he arrived in his car he texted me, I texted back what corner I was standing on.  He wrote back “got it” and, a minute later, drove right past me and turned right on to Broadway.  I hobbled after his car and caught him at a red light a block away.

He was cheerful, but I noticed his eyelid was ticking.  After a few minutes of small-talk I asked him what he needed to talk to me about.  He came to the point:  he was confronting me because I had deliberately tried to destroy his marriage.

“What?” said Caroline, as though I hadn’t also told her the story in detail at the time.

His wife told their marriage counselor that her fucking husband’s oldest friend confirmed that the guy was a fucking liar.   She weaponized my remark about her husband’s “false” account of a story involving her.   The marriage counselor and the wife told my hapless friend that he was not a man who could be respected, nor any kind of husband, if he let his oldest friend sabotage their marriage this way without confronting him.   So he arrived to confront me.   

“Oh, my God,” said Caroline.

I told her the funny thing was, in spite of the tensions between us by then, I really wasn’t that upset about the accusation.   Seeing him in such turmoil, I tried my best to help him out of this impossible jam with his impossible wife in his impossible marriage.   I gave him a reasonable account to bring back to his marriage counseling session, for whatever that might have been worth. 

“Well, he’s a different person now,” Caroline said “he’s happier than he’s been in a long time.”

I told her to tell him mazel tov on his divorce and to tell him I was gratified that my attempt to destroy his marriage had finally born fruit. 

At the end of a very pleasant ninety minute chat she asked me if she should tell her son we’d talked.   I told her she certainly should.  I told her again to tell him mazel tov on his divorce and to tell him I was gratified that my attempt to destroy his marriage had finally born fruit.     

I made a note of the date of her upcoming 93rd birthday and hope to check in with her then.