Repentance and Atonement

It may seem churlish, arch and dickish of me to bring this up, especially during our Second Civil War here in the land of the conditionally free and the home of the transactionally brave, but a sincere apology is a powerful thing, a force for peace and reconciliation.   Sad to say, as Sir Elton sang it, in words probably written by Bernie Taupin, ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’.

I think about this each year at this time on the Jewish calendar, during the Ten Days of Repentance.   We are supposed to use this time to honestly review our actions of the past year, find acts we regret, times we were wrong, seek out, apologize to and make amends with the person we hurt.   

It is a beautiful and very humane idea.  It is a caring thing to do for people we care about.   It is a hard fucking idea, to make yourself humble and vulnerable, especially when the hurt was mutual, where you feel like the other person also  acted like a jackass.  Too hard for most of us to sincerely apologize because, seriously, the world has probably been meaner to us than we were to some provocative asshole who desperately demanded whatever we might or might not have done to them.   

This self-justification is the working of anger and its first cousin pride.  These emotions have one demand: I am right and you are an asshole.   It’s a zero-sum emotional landscape.   While I am angry at you, my friend, you are a fucking piece of shit and I have a hundred reasons why.   Deny it, go ahead, it only makes you more despicable, unredeemable, deserving of my wrath.     

I realized the other night that in my understandable desire to have someone stop talking aggravating shit to me, I went too far.   I didn’t stop to consider that this old friend’s sudden rage might have indicated he was having a serious problem or something.   He attacked like a petty prosecutor, he doubled down when I tried to explain, when I  asked for the benefit of the doubt.  His final email came back lightning fast and really got under my skin. 

I waited a few days, removed some expletives from my reply and methodically,  surgically, wounded his pride to shut him up.  The hideous noise stopped, peace, end of story.   

I can rationalize my hurt, my anger, 100%.   The guy acted like a world class jerk, no question.   Yet, look, I was also very harsh to him.   Those are two different things — his acts and mine, and we are each responsible for our own.   I was wrong.   I erred on the side of hurting him too much, to guarantee he would have no reply.   His timing had also been bad, his instant double-down on his anger came back right before my birthday.   A self-righteous, superior, stupid stream of steaming shit, right in my inbox.   I needed to make it stop.   

Did I need to cut off both of his arms and legs, and his head, to make sure he couldn’t respond?   It felt like I needed to at the time, to be sure, but now I can see a range of choices I didn’t consider, much more productive ways to proceed.   I did the one thing that would guarantee the quiet I needed, though it also ended not one but two friendships.

Was I wrong?   Arguably not.  Still, did I need to be so harsh?  Probably didn’t need to be so harsh.   So I sat down the other night to write a letter apologizing for my role in our titanic, fatal battle of the assholes.   No point arguing over who was more at fault, we were both hurt and angry and lashing out. 

I did something I now know was wrong and I am sorry.   Sorry I was so viciously hurtful, what I did would have hurt me, would have hurt anyone.   It cost me two old friends, and I was wrong to offer no way back from our dumb fight over nothing specific.

Writing that letter while refraining from justifying myself cost me blood.  As I was writing it I had to keep separating what I had done from the several strong provocations.   You may well have provoked me to want to punch your lights out, but I can still regret punching your lights out.  It does not accord with the way I want to live — being provoked and lashing out in return, I try to do better.   

Maybe it’s impossible to be friends with an insecure, competitive person who turns out to be a cheap-shot artist when it comes down to it, still, my reaction to even a cheap shot is my choice.   I chose wrong by calmly and methodically cutting this guy’s limbs and head off.

I spent a few hours writing the letter of apology.   I think it was a decent apology.   I have no expectation that it will change anything, and I wrote as much, but it was important to me to seize this important, widely neglected religious obligation to try to make peace instead of war.    I went to sleep and had troubled dreams.

I had been challenged, by a gang of Thai toughs, to body surf down a steep flight of stairs and, for some reason, I’d accepted the challenge.   A Thai tough had put on a motorcycle helmet and, when I wasn’t watching, supposedly tobogganed  down the steps on his belly, arms outstretched like superman.   I stood at the top, having accepted their challenge, and had many second thoughts — though there was clearly no way out. 

I asked for the helmet.  The owner of the helmet refused, handing me a soft stocking cap instead.   So soft I stood there petting it, a really beautiful material.   I put it on, stalling, not quite sure how I’d wound up in this untenable position.   I told them I needed to go next door.

Next door, in the bar,  I ran into a girl I used to know.   I told her about my predicament and that I had to go back and body surf down this steep staircase next door.   Instead of talking sense to me, or urging me to flee, as I was out of the presence of the toughs, she told me she’d go with me, that she had to see this.   She accompanied me next door, back to the top of the stairs, where she took a seat on a long bench with the Thai toughs (why were these toughs Thai?  No idea) and waited for me to make my injurious descent.   What the fuck, I thought?   I continued to stall.

I stalled long enough to wake up from this dream.   When I did, my first thought was that letter of apology I’d written to a person who had already told me that my previous two apologies, while sincere, were beside the point.  A person incapable accepting an apology and of apologizing himself.   I was angry about bending a knee to someone I still thought of as a petty tyrant, a giant two year-old.    

I understand:  you don’t apologize for the petty tyrant’s sake.  You apologize for your regrettable, if arguably justifiable, overkill.   You apologize to remind yourself to try to do better next time.

You apologize for the way your taking of the high road (no cursing, no outward show of hurt or rage) was nonetheless dismissive, vicious, and reduced the other person to sputtering, silent rage he could only take out on his wife. 

You apologize for the sake of the wife’s feelings, and because you probably didn’t need to remove all four of the guy’s limbs, and his head, no matter how loudly and aggressively the angry tough guy may have demanded it.   

You apologize because it is the right thing to do, because the world is better when people try to make peace than when they hold ugly grudges.  Even if it makes you feel like you are giving in to a smirking bunch of asshole bullies who wait for you to break a limb or two, or perhaps your neck, as you try to keep your word.

I Can’t Keep Blaming Mr. Hitler

True, Hitler did send columns of determined men with guns to conquer areas where my family in Europe lived, followed by special squads of “ideological” specialists who worked with desperate, angry locals to kill everyone in my family (and their ilk) left in Europe.   Not a bit nice, as my grandmother Yetta used to say about people who did awful things.   Yetta herself had six siblings (every brother and sister she had) and her two parents murdered, by local Ukrainians, granted, but at the behest of specialized men who took an oath of personal loyalty to Mr. Hitler and did everything he told them to do. [1]     

I tend to think regularly of the outsized influence this conceited little puke had on my family, by killing virtually all of them — and then I think– you know, it all took place thirteen years before I was even born.    There are, after all, two sides, at least, to every story, plus all that nuance.   Maybe I am just being a melodramatic little bastard by continuing to make a big deal about this Hitler business, blaming that long-dead extremist demagogue for things that had nothing whatsoever to do with him.

I mean, people in my small family here, people I actually knew well, hated each other– having nothing whatsoever to do with Adolf Fucking Hitler.   A pair of half-siblings, my father’s first cousins, didn’t exchange a word for the last thirty years or more of their long lives.   What had Mr. Hitler to do with that?  Absolutely innocent on that count, your honor!

My fractured family, largely extirpated by men obedient to Mr. Hitler, was composed, a couple of generations back, in Hitler’s day, of a large group of hardworking poor people.   They were what you call “nobodies”.   Their lives fell silently into that huge statistic of dead people killed in the deadliest war in history.   On my father’s side the disappeared hamlet they came from, down to its precise location in the marsh land of Belarus, was one of literally thousands of Jewish enclaves permanently wiped off the world map in those years, when men like Mr. Hitler and his kind made big, important decisions about who shall live and who needed to be exterminated.  

I look at my own circumstances, ponder the epigenetics of it sometimes, the way my grandparents’ experience of being the sole survivors of large, murdered families might have shaped their personalities, how that unspoken of trauma of their murdered brothers and sisters and everyone else they knew altered the things they passed on to me without any of us being aware of it.   Then I think, there you go, blaming Mr. Hitler again!

I sometimes find myself comparing the circumstances of my own family with those of the proud, accomplished Jared Kushner and his family.   Jared has that haughty bearing, proud and imperious as a top SS man in the old photos.  It may seem unfair to make that comparison between a very wealthy Jew and the most “ideological” of the Nazi leadership cadre (most top SS men, as they say, were “well-born”), but you have to admit, looking at the way he carries himself, that Jared is an indomitable man and appears quite certain of his superiority.   Jared would never allow himself to be marched to a ravine for a bullet in the back of his head, after giving up his clothes for payment to his murderers.  No way.  Jared would find a way to win, to vanquish his enemies, because a guy like Jared Kushner, let’s face it, one of the President of the United States’ top advisors, is a winner.   His kind doesn’t get shot lying face down in a ditch like a nobody.

You may be tempted to call it a matter of pure, dumb luck, observe that Jared was randomly born to a very wealthy family of Jews who escaped the Nazi murder machine and managed to thrive in the United States, amassing a fortune of almost two billion dollars in barely two generations.  Think deeper.   It is just as likely a matter of character, which is, of course, destiny.  The best are the best for a reason, n’est-ce pas?  If it was mere dumb luck that Jared’s grandparents arrived here and were able to build a modest family business, buying and renting out multiunit apartment buildings in New Jersey, into a thriving real estate empire in just a few decades while mine worked as hard for a fraction of the reward, then what does it all mean?  What is the possible meaning of this random, merciless arrangement? 

I get worked up sometimes considering questions like these and I eventually get back to blaming fucking Hitler.   At the same time, I know that Mr. Hitler was merely a symptom, a purulent boil that was fated to burst upon the scene, like any inevitable destructive psychopath whose message manages to resonate with millions and spurs them to unthinking violence.  

I mean, if Mr. Hitler had never lived, had never come to power in the most civilized, highly industrialized nation of his day, had never held sway over millions of Germans (36.8% voted for his party in the last election of the democratic Weimar Republic), how different would the world be today?  How different would my life be?  Hard to imagine.   And senseless to try, really, except for the lessons I take from it, having studied Mr. Hitler and the rise of the movement he led, some might say obsessively, on and off for literally decades.

I realize, of course, that even if Mr. Hitler (I’m adopting the New York Times style here, the Grey Lady once puckishly referred to “Mr. Clapton” and “Mr. Diddley” in a piece about Eric and Bo) had never existed, most of my family probably never would have arrived here in the USA anyway.   By 1924 prominent American “nativists”, xenophobes and racists, under the banner of Eugenics (a discredited sham science that the learned and unimpeachable Mr. Trump devoutly espouses to this day), had severely restricted immigration from shit-hole countries like the places my people come from.  The few who arrived here came in before the land of the free largely closed its doors to immigrants in 1924, the last of them, my grandfather, sneaking in in 1923.

1924, coincidentally, was the year of my father’s birth, in an unforgiving, crime-infested  slum in Lower Manhattan.    Trump’s feverishly imagined Baltimore has nothing on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1924.   1924 was also the year, nine years after D.W. Griffith’s darkly influential silent film masterpiece The Birth of A Nation extolled the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan, that Klan membership in America reached its all-time peak of 2.4 million proud sheet wearing members.   Birth of A Nation was the first motion picture screened in the White House and President Woodrow Wilson, who watched it raptly, [2] later enthused “it’s like writing history in lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true!”

What was so terribly true, in the eyes of the otherwise progressive Woodrow Wilson (aren’t people complex?), was that the former slaves down south had been completely out of control, savagely and vengefully dominating the innocent local whites and raping the women — also attaining political office in many areas with their new bayonet-imposed right to vote.   As Griffith showed in his blockbuster epic, history written in lightning fifty years after the fact, a heroic band of white underdogs, modern day knights in sheets, arose to protect the glorious South from these unrestrained black beasts and protect the honor of their pure, white women.  

I was exposed to a big chunk of this controversial movie by an Italian visiting professor, during my time in graduate school at City College.   Almost ninety years after Griffith wrote his terribly true history in lighting, she insisted the group of us in her comparative literature seminar watch it.   I was there as part of my study of, eh, creative writing.   We all agreed that movie was some fucked up and incendiary distortion of history as we knew it.   It also explained a lot about historical revisionism and the dramatic power of heroically presented bullshit shouted through the right megaphone.

The forces of violent, irrational hatred in the world are always simmering (open virtually any history book anywhere if you doubt this).   Mr. Hitler sometimes, in the early days, when he was up and coming, humbly referred to himself as a “drummer”, the kid tirelessly banging the drum to set the cadence for the righteously marching troop parade.   Like the guy on the old slave-powered Roman galley, the hortator, some poor bastard who beat a drum and chanted to set the cadence for the coordinated pulling of the heavy oars by the other slaves, as ordered by the captain.

We have a hortator, inciter, encourager, exhorter, urger like that right here, in charge of scrawling his name jaggedly across the bottom of Executive Orders, veto pen in his other hand, and though I hesitate to invoke his tiresome name (again) in a piece about blaming Hitler, well, really, who can blame me?   Ah, fuck him [3] and the Nazi hordes he rode in on.   I really do have to stop blaming Mr. Fucking Hitler, though.

 

[1]  Hitler’s every word was, literally, law.   The Nazis phrased it “Fuhrerworte haben Gesetzeskrafte” and it was left to an army of Nazi lawyers to put their infallible leader’s every utterance into crisp legalize and codify it into the German legal code of the time. 

[2] I’ll try to keep the fucking toilet type adjectives and nouns here in the footnotes, gentle reader.  Wilson was a racist motherfucker if there ever was one.  He was the only U.S. president  in history born and raised in the Confederacy, so there’s that– he grew up in besieged and eventually defeated territory that had staged an armed rebellion against the United States.  In fairness to him, the famous Progressive also apparently hated Jews, a people who are not, except to certain racists, actually a “race”, though, like the Fuhrer himself (who had more than 300 “do not touch” Jews on his list) he had Jews he thought were first class.    He nominated Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916– a bold and progressive move.    As it was later written of Brandeis by Justice William O. Douglas:

 “Brandeis was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible … [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.”

the Wiki continues:

On June 1, 1916, he was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 47 to 22, to become one of the most famous and influential figures ever to serve on the high court. His opinions were, according to legal scholars, some of the “greatest defenses” of freedom of speech and the right to privacy ever written by a member of the Supreme Court.

source

[3] Shit, sorry, gentle reader, I f–ed up.  So hard to keep the fucking cuss words out of it, idn’t it?

Organizing my attack

Sometimes we get insight in a very roundabout way, only after a thing has been gnawing at us for a very long time.   It can take being nibbled by a particular demon for many years before you jump out of your chair one day and say “what the fuck?!!” look down and see what is snacking on you.

At the end of several long, stressful days getting the house ready for the contractors (the lioness’s share done by indefatigable, self-proclaimed working dog Sekhnet)  I went through a pile of papers (a short stack) propped helter skelter on a board laid across an open desk drawer.   More than half the pages immediately went onto the recycle pile to be carried down to the bag.   The rest, mostly drawings, I clipped neatly into the clipboard they were lying haphazardly on.   

Not really very hard, I realized, though the volume and variety of papers here, as I glance around, is many, many times more than that short stack at Sekhnet’s I dispatched in a few minutes.   Of course, Sekhnet is right — spending a half hour a day at it would make a big difference within a few days, even here, in the eye of the storm.

Another insight hit me when I pulled a page I’d printed out of the pile and began reading.   It was my unsent pitch to a publisher who welcomes book proposals from unknown authors.   A two paragraph evocation of the book I thought I was writing about my father, something I worked on hours every day for two years, a massive, unwieldy first draft.   

I stopped reading my pitch shortly into the second “reveal” paragraph.   I was glad I’d never sent the thing, it was a labored, strenuous, grunting swing at nothing but air.   It did not present a hint of a compelling idea for a book.

I recently saw a best-selling author, in the windup to an ad for his Master Class on how to become a successful writer, describe the writing of the second draft as an exercise in convincing everyone that you knew exactly where you were going when you wrote the first draft.    Wow.    That’s precisely my challenge in putting together the book of my father’s life and then successfully pitching it.   

The story of my difficult father’s life is not the tired old story of a smart idealist with an abusive dark side, fighting for justice for strangers while doing great harm to his own family.   It’s not the story of a man’s triumphant emergence from childhood poverty into the middle class (along with a large cohort of World War Two vets at a unique and fleeting moment in history).  It’s not the story of monstrous anger, righteous and senseless both, and a rigid inability to forgive.   

Those things are part of the back story.   The book is more of a meditation on the nature and substance of history itself, what we remember and what we forget, and the imagining of a lifelong conversation that should have been.   That conversation with the skeleton of my father, the one that began the last night of his life, is the heart of the book, though it’s not the story I need to tell, shop and sell.  

The real story is what I suspected from the start, the difficulty of forgiveness and a rare moment of grace, just before death, when an unbearable burden is lifted, the regrettable truth finally spoken and reassurance given to the dying man just before his light winks out.  The story is about exactly what those regrets are made of, what was learned, and lost, how the unlikely and precious moment came to happen at all.

Twenty-five years ago an old friend celebrated my decision to become a lawyer (an ill-considered one, at best) as me finally being about to “compete”.  I get what he was saying, I’ve always kept myself out of the economic competition that defines our materialistic culture, refusing to race the rest of the rats for the mirage of an illusory goal (or simply being a cowardly rat, depending on your view).   I did not embrace the world’s second oldest profession, nor did I ever really compete in it, outside of plucking the occasional victim out of the meat grinder of justice, as when I saved an old woman from homelessness at the hands of zealous NYCHA attorneys.

In mulling over the anger I’ve been feeling lately I realize part of it is my chafing feeling of paralysis (not helped by painfully arthritic knees — as Vonnegut said “be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.”), of being overwhelmed by difficult things that are hard, true, but clearly not impossible.    Part is anger at my resigned acceptance of a limited, frugal life, foregoing comfortable middle class options while muttering here in great, sometimes worthwhile, detail about the objectively atrocious state of things and what I have pieced together.   

I’m angry about having no voice, in spite of speaking all the time (as I am silently doing right now, you dig?), and often finding and saying things I think would advance the larger discussion in a threatened world increasingly dominated by mindless bluster and vapid shouting.   I’m angry that evil idiots, often born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us [1] rule and I that have nothing to say about any of it, no matter how well I may say it.    And that others, professionals, who blow “thoughts” out of their asses, are well-paid to do it.

I’m angry about my inability to marshal my abilities to tell a story and get paid.   I’m angry that I have to monetize my writing in the first place (but in an uncertain casino economy one needs to keep some money coming in) and I’m angry that I’m not getting any money for it.

I’m angry that I’m not getting paid for writing what I write and I’m angry that I’m doing virtually nothing about it.  It is a frustrating cycle and it presses on because I do not confront the hard work I need to do to market and sell my work.   I am, on a fundamental level (and as hard as I’ve often worked in my life) lazy, preferring at any given moment to do what I like rather than what needs to be done.  Since writing itself is satisfying to me, once I have the words in final form, I never think of it as unproductive unless paid for.   When I think of it that way, through the eyes of the world, it pisses me off.   

I don’t mean to say that lazy is the last word on my life, it certainly isn’t (he hastily added).  There is also fear, of course, long habit, the actual daunting difficulty of the uphill task, and so forth.   I learned a very important life lesson during a dark time in my life — how crucial it is to be kind to yourself.   I don’t pile on myself when the going gets tough and I never reduce myself to the sum of my faults.   

On the other hand, this anger I’ve described is something only I can work on, a grating car alarm only I have the key to silencing.  I also remind myself that I don’t need to be paid a million bucks or write a blockbuster hit, a couple of thousand dollars would be a very good start.

Sekhnet observed the other day that the therapy I’ve gone through did not touch my powerful aversion to organizing my papers, my life.   Fair enough.  I’ve recently come to think of my great and irrational resistance to going through old papers as an odd reflection of my fear of death, but what the fuck is up with that?

Anger at how difficult it has been for me to read the proverbial writing on the wall, about situations, sometimes about people, the bottom-line nature of the reality we are all living in, is less than useless.    Anger, while it can alert us to a problem in the manner of all pain, disables the ability to see any path out of it, as anger directs all energy back to itself.  Time to poke a few breathing holes in this smothering carapace of aggravation, I say.  

 

 

 

[1]   The well-read Thomas Jefferson, master of the felicitous phrase, stole this famous image for his final letter (shortly after the great passage about democracy  “arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government”).

The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

source

from Richard Rumbold, a man executed by the English for treason more than a century earlier.  Rumbold delivered the line toward the end of his final remarks, moments before he was drawn and quartered :   

I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.

source

I always loved this image of people born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us, particularly at a moment like this — Avi Berkowitz, 30 year-old assistant to Trump Special Advisor Jared Kushner, himself the supremely unqualified son of a billionaire. is elevated, by another very important man who inherited hundreds of millions and squandered more than that, to take the helm of  Trump’s secret, still unreleased Middle East Peace Plan that these born booted and spurred individuals are already boasting about. 

as to Richard Rumbold, here’s some great detail:

Note 1. Delivered in Edinburgh. Rumbold was captured after having been wounded and then separated from his companions in arms. An immediate trial had been ordered that he might be condemned before he died of his wounds. He was found guilty on June 26, 1685, sentenced to be executed the same afternoon, and was drawn and quartered, the quarters being exposed on the gates of English towns. [back]
Note 2. At this point Rumbold was interrupted by drum beating. He said he would say no more on that subject, “since they were so disingenuous as to interrupt a dying man.” [back]

 

To Feel or Not To Feel

An old friend reminded me the other night that it is better (though not easier) to feel what you’re feeling, experience the pain of it if it’s painful, than to pretend not to feel any part of what is oppressing you.   Feeling your feelings is an essential part of processing, healing, moving forward, being respectful and kind to yourself. Which seems counter-intuitive when you feel like shit.   It was good to be reminded of this pillar of humaneness.  If we practice not feeling what we’re feeling, how do we remain empathetic to difficult things our loved ones often go through?

I think of the choice to feel or not to feel as closely related to the choice between knowing and not knowing [1].   I think it’s better to feel and to know.  The choice not to feel a given feeling or consider a given fact is often simple denial.   Repressing the feelings your soul is going through, denying things that make it go through turmoil, is a one way ticket on the Miserable Asshole Express, as far as I can tell.   As they say on TV, individual exceptions may apply.   I’m not certainly not advocating no anesthesia before a painful procedure, I like a good anodyne as much as the next agony avoider, but I also see the importance of feeling my feelings and having my thinking informed with as much actual knowledge — and feedback from people I trust —  as possible.

What we feel is often closely related to what we know, or, just as often, to what we don’t know.   I’ve been feeling mostly anger since I learned of the sudden, senseless, premature death of a once very close friend.  He died alone and virtually friendless, in spite of possessing many great and rare qualities that could have made him a good friend to many.   It irked me, in large part, that his mere death, a purely random event two thousand miles away,  compelled me, involuntarily (as far as I could tell) to focus once more on his irremediably painful life of wasted potential.  To me an important piece of working out the puzzle of anger is figuring out exactly why the hell something makes me so mad.  I don’t know a better way of trying to digest things and come out the other side of anger.

I’ve been remembering viscerally, continually, the many years I tried to make the pain-filled solipsist see another perspective, how hard I banged my head against the locked door of his highly intelligent but utterly closed mind.   Part of my anger is at myself, for remaining friends with such an impossible person, expecting the clearly impossible, even after ample proof of its impossibility, not accepting the futility of this abzurd expectation years earlier, not saving myself a decade or two of stressful, energy-sapping adversarial relations with a very unhappy and demanding, yea, toxic, person.

Sometimes something we learn or realize can immediately begin to change our feelings for the better.   We can’t learn this kind of crucial thing without being open to learning, and to our feelings about what we learn.   We can’t feel any differently, can’t get relief from hurt, without additional insight.   Not that learning a better way, or discovering an objective, revealing fact that changes a story,  instantly makes bad feelings go away.   Feelings, bad and good, will always arise and often challenge us.

One insight I was blessed to be given was that sometimes much of what we suffer over is not remotely our fault or our doing.  No less an authority than the Buddha taught that the nature of life in this world involves this kind of impersonal suffering we can’t help but feel personally, from the pain of being attached to things that can vanish at any time.   I don’t know much about Buddha, but I do know that what the fox said in William Steig’s beautiful The Amazing Bone rings very true in regard to perplexing things beyond our control we sometimes agonize over:  I didn’t make the world.

All we can do is live in this world the best we can, trying to be kind, maintaining the relationships we value as well as we can, until it is our time to move on, hopefully with some grace, as a final gift to those we love.  

I’m thinking about this today in part because of what my friend said the other night about feeling his painful feelings and partly because of two very different reactions from two old friends to my last angry piece about the now recently cremated Mark.

One read the final email exchange between me and my relentlessly exasperating old friend and didn’t understand what was so provocative about his final response that I felt compelled to drive a stake through his grieving heart right after his mother died.  His question caused me to re-read Mark’s last words carefully and write a detailed explanation.   This process entailed putting my finger on exactly why it had set me off, giving him the context of my long experience that had left me with the conditioned reflex to react that way.   He wrote back that he understood now, and found my explanation quite complete and sensible.

Another old friend had a much different reaction.  He was troubled by the outpouring of rage, which struck him more as the reaction of a betrayed lover than a merely disillusioned friend.    I wrote back that we were like siblings, bound in a constant sullenly competitive rivalry (Mark really wasn’t my romantic type, I’d have to say).  I offered to send him the long email I’d already written explaining exactly where the rage came from but he declined, having read enough already.   De gustibus non disputandum est.   I don’t judge anyone about their appetite for the hideous details, we are all different that way.

I have an appetite for the hideous details.   As, to some extent, does my friend who asked me why I’d been so savage replying to what appeared to him as an inept, clumsy, odd yet sincere attempt at reconciliation, not the final provocation I took it to be.   It was a good question, I saw, rereading the awkward reply that had set me off.   Sitting down to examine my anger and setting out exactly what ignited it was an excellent use of several hours.   In the end I felt neither arbitrary nor capricious (nor unfair) in responding the way I had.  

This can also be seen as merely my take on the endlessly justifying human need to endlessly justify our behavior and the justness of the feelings that lead us to do what we do.   Sure.   I made a good case for why I was angry, cited a few persuasive examples from the text.   It is what lawyers do in our litigious society and I did it to the satisfaction of my fellow lawyer.  

It was also an examination, for me, of the more vexing question of whether I had been fair to do what I’d done.   I questioned my actions, my motives.   The whole process of unraveling Mark’s maddeningly “un-unravelable” lifelong conundrum, as reflected in his final email, was some help to me.  In the end I was satisfied that I’d behaved as I’d want to behave, as I’d will anyone else in the same situation to behave, if I had the power to make it so.   The old Kantian Moral Imperative: act in a way that the world would be a better place if everyone did likewise.

One more annoying question and I’ll be on my way.   Why write things like this and hit “publish”, why put these sometimes troubling personal musings up on the internet for anyone to find?     Aren’t these private thoughts best shared among a small handful of closest friends?  Couldn’t they potentially torment people who might have loved Mark and not shared my anger at him?

I write them for an invisible reader as a way of putting things that feel important to me in a more objective, finalized form.   I need to provide enough general background for anyone to understand what I’m talking about.   In doing this I practice sorting through everything in mind and putting it forward in a way that is most easily comprehensible.   It’s not good writing if the average reader can’t follow it.  

Writing it, and constantly re-editing it, allows me to go back and clarify whatever is left unclear, on the page and in my mind.  In combing away cluttering words (in a way I wish I could attack my desk or kitchen table) I am able to make what I am saying, what I am feeling, clearer and clearer — to the virtual reader and to myself.

When it is as clear as I can make it, there is a feeling of completeness, the satisfaction of a job well-done.   Before I hit “publish” I read it one last time, to make sure everything is in the place where it makes sense for it to be (I often continue editing an already ‘finalized’ post any time I find something confusing in it).  If somebody in Kenya reads it, and it helps her see something in her life better, my work is worth it, I suppose.

 

 

[1[  Mind you, though you surely don’t need reminding, I speak merely as one opinionated, self-appointed pontiff (the better to pontificate, I say).   Feel free to skip this entirely, reject my right to write it or mock away.  This thinking/writing business works for me, better than the alternatives, anyway, but reading it is not for everybody — it goes without saying… just sayin’…

Mark’s last words to me

This will be my last post about my old friend Mark, who died recently.   It will contain the last exchanges we had, including the final thing he wrote to me, which was gracious, touching and something I appreciate greatly.   This long back and forth will not be for everyone.   If you want to scroll to his kind and touching lines, the last thing he ever wrote to me, they are in large print, right before the footnotes.

Mark had a unique and maddening style, in part due to his long-windedness, in part due to his intense and unwavering self-regard and his need to prevail, and these last emails between us showcase this prolix, convoluted, battling style beautifully, or horribly.   In fact, this post is almost guaranteed to extend to tedious, even excruciating, length, (Christ, I’m starting to write like him…).   I write it for those with the appetite for the fascinating, terrible details.   As well as to write the final words on this sad person I’ve been thinking about the last few days, since he was found dead in his home by a woman named Fatima.

I reconstructed our final exchanges last night (exchanges that occurred about ten years after our final falling out, mind you)  and was shocked  by the ferocity of my final words to him.  Then I reconstructed our actual email conversation to try to see why I’d been so merciless.  Once I read the back and forth, I was no longer shocked at how brutally I made sure never to hear back from him again.   I accomplished this brutality by removing all traces of sympathy from my remarks.

Reading the last few posts you may think I’m hard-hearted to speak with so little affection of a long-time friend.   This loss of my friendship was many years in the making.   In fact, I worked very hard the last few years to try to save the burdensome friendship, writing long letters, spending hours on the phone, having long talks with him whenever he was in town.   

His argumentative unhappiness was aggressive and growing, he was like an evangelist for misery.   Enduring his own demanding unhappiness required reducing everyone he knew to his level of moral agony, bending them to his view of things.   People tended not to stay around to listen to much of this, once he settled into his evangelical mode.  In his world there was only his will, his unfounded hope, unrealizable expectations and senseless betrayal by a parade of merciless false messiah putzes.

He was insistent that only he saw the world clearly, a horrible world where even his musical heroes got hideously old and let him down by aging.  It was exhausting to try to counter his grim emotional conclusions.   In the end, after a marathon conversation in a Florida diner (during the most drenching rain I’ve ever seen) I finally reduced him to silence, a process that had taken maybe five years and a million words– not to mention a law license and several years practicing law.   

He simply had no answer to what I finally said.  He sat glaring at me, arms folded across his chest, the picture of churlishness, very hurt to have been trapped that way by his old loser friend.  I found it a very satisfying moment.

I mentioned yesterday the profound similarity between Mark and Trump.   It was embodied in one quality more than any other: an unyielding need to be right, motivated by a feeling of being at a permanent disadvantage in the world.  Mark could not yield, though he’d sometimes, in an attempt to be conciliatory, refer to things like wishing he was wrong, or allowing the possibility he was seeing things badly, and things like that.  His absolute refusal to simply yield when it was called for, when he was mistaken or wrong, is what made him so hard to deal with.   My father had this quality too.   

You don’t need to have a keen mind to be unyielding, as our president shows every day, if you’re consistent in your insistence that you’re the rubber and the other person is the glue and that whatever they say will bounce off you and stick to him.  My father was by far the most skillful of the three, he almost never needed to outright bend the truth in order to prevail in an argument.   Mark was also not an untruthful person by nature, but when he felt cornered, which happened a lot,  he wouldn’t hesitate to insist, using easily disprovable assertions, that his feelings were right no matter what the facts might have to say about it. [1]   

I noticed a striking example in his final emails to me.   He mentions with hurt that I never responded to his many attempts to reconcile with me.    I reminded him of every time I responded to one of his attempts to reach out.   He agrees, when confronted, that, actually, I did almost always respond, at times beautifully.   However, he reminds me, there was that one time I didn’t respond and he’s still terribly hurt by it.   So the accusation that I never responded turned out to be an admission, when confronted, that I had actually written him back all but one time, but STILL!

Bear in mind, I had no obligation to respond at all to this overbearingly demanding former friend, outside of my promise to his mother to please not lock the door against him.  I kept my word to her as best I could.  When she died, and I got his final, completely characteristic, response, I felt released from that vow.   

Here is an email I sent somebody about my promise to Mark’s mother that I found from six months after my mother died in May of 2010:

The idiots who painted my mother’s apartment told me the enamel oil-based paint they’d have to use on all the doors was highly toxic.   The idiot in chief advised me to sleep elsewhere when they painted it.  I told him I’d be gone Tuesday and Wednesday night.  He said, “very good. we’ll paint with the oil Tuesday and Wednesday.”  When I got back to the apartment Monday night the air was so toxic, from enamel paint, my lungs began to ache after an hour in the house.

Luckily Sophie, the vampire Mark’s mother, was happy to have me drive up to her place and sleep in her guest room, which I did.  The vampire was arriving the following day.  It was somewhat ticklish.  I arrived at 11:00 pm, Sophie and I talked until 2:30 a.m., mostly about Mark.

Mark has no friends, every former friend is a ‘putz’ who betrayed him.   Sophie understands that he’s very difficult to get along with, she does everything he demands, she understands that he’s immature, and angry, and very unhappy, and bossy, and pushy, and so forth.  She wishes she could do something to help him, but he lives in a world where everybody but him is the problem.  She completely understands my point of view, why I can’t be friends with someone who, like Irv used to, views me as a rival to constantly battle.  I told her I am a good fighter but I don’t want to do it anymore, especially not with friends.

The next morning we had breakfast and I left a few hours before he arrived.  Standing by the car, leaning on her cane, this wonderful, upbeat, life-loving 94 year-old said as I started the car.

“I know all the reasons, and I wish it could be different, he doesn’t have a single male friend… and I love you so much, and I love him, it breaks my heart that you can’t be friends,” and she gave me that heartbreaking sunshine-filled smile of hers.

As I put the car into reverse she said, “maybe I shouldn’t mention this, but he’s jealous that you and I have maintained a friendship when you won’t be friends with him.”

“That’s because he lives in a black and white world,” I told her immediately.  “he can’t see the shades of grey, the gradations that make the world rich, and complicated and beautiful.”  We told each other we loved each other and I drove off, leaving her to two weeks with her loving and demanding youngest son.

His mother knows: Mark is immature and petulant, he sees himself as a victim, you’re with him or against him.  He can’t hold contradictions in his head, or see that one thing may have nothing to do with another, or that not every two different things are mutually exclusive.

I’d promised her I’d reply to his email, sent to me on the eve of his coming to Florida, since he knew from his mother that I was there too.  He sends out these feelers periodically when we are going to be in the same town for any period of time.  I was at a loss to reply to his email about which my sister’s comment was the best  “He’s completely insane and, to top it off, not a good writer,”

A few days ago I finally wrote back to him, honest and gentle as I could be, and blind cc’d it to Sophie, for whose sake I’d written it, hoping it would ease her 94 year-old mind and heart ache a bit.  She never wrote a word about it, naturally, though she’s an old fashioned kind of correspondent, almost always responsive, but when I called her tonight, with Sekhnet on the line, she told me she loves me.

 

Here is the last exchange with Mark, minus my  final, merciless-and-plain-as-Death words. I leave his kind final couplet as the last word on our long, tortured friendship, as I did, gratefully, in my otherwise brutal reply.

Mark wrote me this characteristic note on November 22, (JFK Conspiracy Day) 2014, after his mother died, when the brothers were arranging a memorial service for her in New York City:

Hey there — well here’s one exquisitely stanky hanky . . . . and I just want to check in with you, if there’s the slightest chance that my read of the situation is wrong, which could have very sad & profoundly tragic dimensions. You may have heard, there’s an upcoming NY memorial gathering for my mom. Several people have said to me — in light of your appropriateness to be there — “just let it go . . . . reach out.” To which I could only respond — first — that it’s never been me holding on to anything to begin with, this split was all your choice, so there’s not even anything for me to let go of . . . . and second, that I’ve already tried reaching out, repeatedly , and got no response. So I finally had to give up, as eventually it could only be taken as the very manifestation of the resoluteness of your choice, the confirmation. The art of answering without answering. Which was further seemingly confirmed by having received no personal reach-out in this, the most ultimate of moments.

But I’ve certainly had my experiences of the same reality being experienced completely differently by the two people involved (the source of so many problems & tragedies on this stinking planet), and if there’s the slightest chance whatsoever that that might be the case here, it’s too big and fraught a thing not to give you the courtesy of checking in on. And this is one situation where, contrary to how you’ve previously characterized me, I’d gladly welcome being absolutely wrong. But it’s not a thing for sugarcoating, I guess it’s a simple “yes, you’re right about the resoluteness of my decision” — or a not-so-simple (to-follow-up-on-but-I’m-willing-to-try) “no.” If it’s the first, well, then, so be it, but you’ll hopefully understand why I can’t even consider extending the invitation that you otherwise so rightfully deserve. Two of the very stankiest of hankies ever dealt me, at the very same time? Unthinkable & unbearable. There’s already more agony on this overflowing plate than it can barely hold.

Given which . . . if it is in fact the second, there’s still highly uncharted & choppy waters to immediately set forth on to see if it’d even lead to a place where, even then, the extreme existential discomfort factor could be mitigated to a level bearable enough for this most vulnerable & raw & emotional of events.

So this is me, reaching out,
Mark

I replied to his email [2] three days later:

Your note reminded me that each of us has his own terrors, his own style of terror, and there is very little one can do for another on that primitive level, even if a healthy, reciprocal friendship is there.  The end line “this is me reaching out” was particularly terrible in the context of the rest of the email.  

I’m done fighting, unless somebody comes to do me harm, even so, it’s hard to not point out that when you emailed me when my mother died, I wrote back.  I believe I wrote back to another email you sent maybe a year later when we were in Florida at the same time.  I didn’t answer the time you emailed to ask for my “most efficacious address” so you could send me a long letter and addressed me as “kind sir” or whatever it was.  It would have been very easy to get my same old address or phone number, you didn’t need me to email it to you, except as a sign that I was game to play a game I’d already told you I was done with.  I didn’t send a thank you card for your birthday CD of your newest composition in 2006, true. 

But to say I never responded when you reached out is just rewriting history to make yourself the victim and pretending you don’t recall any of the many long discussions and long letters, over an extended period, that finally led to our not being friends any more.  

I contacted Greenstein when I heard your mother died and gave him the option of contacting you again, as I’d done years back, another time you’d written him off as a putz and were planning on not visiting him while in London.  He magically called you on the eve of your trip, you may recall, just as he magically wrote you shortly after your mother died, in spite of your having written him off again.  (Not to say that he and I have remained close, sadly, though it was looking good for a while a few years ago.  I think Gill doesn’t like me.)

Very sad that your mother died, but she sounded about ready to go, I think, she died peacefully in her sleep as we’d all choose to go and she was very old, after a very long life of mostly excellent health.  Few people have their mother until they are sixty years old.  Most would be grateful for that luck, but gratitude is a tricky thing, at best. 

Your email made it clear that you’re still determined to be the blameless victim, the only one who suffers at the hands of others and seemingly always for no reason at all.   You may have the least insight into your own role in your repeated miseries (and a remarkably consistent, predictable story arc virtually every time) of anyone I’ve ever known.

I don’t know what to say about that, except that the only possibility for change is if you start to do the hard, painful fucking work of dealing with your consuming anger, developing empathy and, also, kindness to yourself.  The world is cruel, a merciless slaughterhouse, and then you age, decline and die, if you’re lucky.  Otherwise you’re sitting in your car and a drunk in an SUV kills you, or cancer does, or you die at 58 like Howie — another person you wrote off as a putz, and the closest to a saintly person I ever met– waiting for a light to change.

Since you were hurt that I didn’t write to you personally when your mother passed on, I have rewritten the email Gary forwarded to you.  Your mother was a remarkable woman and this remembrance of her was about the easiest thing I ever sat down to write.

Dear Mark:

I heard an echo of your mother’s graceful style in the way Gary broke the news:

My Mom and your buddy passed away peacefully in her sleep Wednesday am.  She got this, her final wish, a royal death.

Sekhnet cried when I read his email aloud to her.  She agreed that when we talked to your mom a month or so back, it was the first time we’d heard her voice any kind of weariness.  I guess it was her time, and a blessing that she got her royal death after a long, full, royal life. 

I realized that I am older now than she was when I first met her at 807 Edgewood Lane.   If I could live the rest of my years as well as she did those 40 plus that remained to her when we met, I would be very blessed.  

She was, as Gary said, your mom and my, and Sekhnet’s, buddy.  I realize she could be vexing at times to you kids, demanding and so forth.  All mothers cause some vexation to their children, as, sadly, we all do to our mothers.  Though I could see what could be vexing about her as a parent, I was privileged to never experience it personally.  

“I want to be Sophie when I grow up,” Sekhnet said often.  If talking to Sophie she’d say “I want to be you when I grown up!” and Sophie would laugh the easy, distinctive laugh she practiced often.  What Sekhnet meant was Sophie’s joy for life, her sense of adventure, her ready embrace of the good side of whatever else the thing might be.   Her robustness and optimism, the way she drew people to her by these qualities.

She became friendly with my parents in 1999 when they met for the first time.  You will recall that my parents came up from Florida for my law school graduation in the spring.  The graduation was in Newark.  You mom emailed my parents, inviting them to stay with her and Al.   The email was typical of Sophie — charming, well-written, mischievous.

She laid out the many advantages of staying in her home and stressed what a pleasure it was for her and Al to be able to offer this hospitality, and how small an effort it would be for them.  “If you say no, we’ll say you’re being stubborn,” she ended, closing the deal.  Our parents became friends at once.

Not long after Al died, my father was hospitalized suddenly with only days to live.  Your mom was then close to ninety and didn’t drive on the dangerous Florida speedways, but she wanted to say goodbye.  She took local streets, Military Trail, State Road 7, etc., a trip with traffic lights that took several times as long as going by the turnpike, and a journey much longer than any she’d driven in years. 

I will always remember her face as she sat by my father’s bed a few hours before he died.  It was like the sun.  She beamed a smile on him as he feebly gestured and made such small talk as he could.  She showered him with love and a huge smile in a room where everyone else was frowning and fretting.  It was about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.   She stayed a short time, hugged and kissed us all, and made her way back the way she’d come, while there was plenty of sunlight to navigate by.

A few years later she and my mother booked an apartment in a residential building in the West Village, the Chelsmore, that was rented out as a cut-rate B & B.  The two of them were going to share a place for a week and then my mother would move to a studio apartment for the second week of her last visit to New York.  

I brought them to the apartment and when they opened the door my mother looked around and let out a gasp. “Oh, my God,” she said to Sophie, looking around at walls that needed painting, almost no furniture, a mattress on the floor in the living room “what a dump!”.  My mother turned her expressive face to Sophie– the expression was of someone about to throw up.  This cracked Sophie up.

“Oh, Evelyn!” she laughed “it’s an adventure!”  She immediately offered my mother the better of the bedrooms and they had a very nice little adventure together in that perfectly adequate semi-shabby apartment on West 15th Street.

Walking with them during that visit illustrated another contrast between my mother, a glass half-empty gal, and Sophie, for whom the glass was always, at the very least, half-full.  My mother walked with a cane at that point and would walk quickly until she had to stop, breathless and feeling she was about to die.  “I can’t breathe!” she’d say with some degree of panic, “I can’t breathe, I have a sharp pain…” she’d point to her heart and double over slightly as she struggled to catch her breath.   I’d calm her as she caught her breath and then she’d be fine, dash off on her next sprint.   Sekhnet and I switched walking partners after she and Sophie caught up to us.

Your mother walked slowly and deliberately at 92.  She would take your arm and cause you to walk at her pace.  She would converse, and observe, and laugh, never running short of breath, walking at a slower than average NYC pace, but steadily onward.   She made the whole process of being old and wanting to see and do everything seem effortless.

One trouble with living long and having old friends is that eventually they all die.  Your mom kept up with the children and grandchildren of old friends and continued to make new friends everywhere she went.  She was an inspiration, my life was enriched by knowing her, watching her remarkable example.  I hope very much that Sekhnet gets her wish and grows up to be her.

May her memory be a blessing,
Eliot

Mark’s well thought out email reply, sent four hours later (I have inserted some paragraph breaks where Mark should have, to make the going a little easier):

Jeez, “fighting.” that’s the last thing I want or am thinking of, my intention was the exact opposite of that.  Feeling that may be the clearest indicator of an impasse that does deserve to be honored.  It seems that that feeling came up for you because you felt I was presenting you with inaccuracies, which reveal the un-unravelable tangle, to embark upon which yet again would be soul-wearying & fruitless, plus feel like a fight.  

This has previously come up frequently, has been an intrinsic part of this impasse.  Me responding to things where the theme is “misunderstood, misinterpreted” — which feels like an argument to you, thus untenable–and a Catch-22 for me, not allowed to respond to what feels like erroneous perceptions. That is an impasse indeed.  

Do not think I reject your critical observations out of hand, I certainly have issues & difficulties  — and can be difficult, not the blameless victim at all.  You are capable of a rare degree of insight, though often so stabbing as to be painful, and vindictive-feeling, though that could very well be a self-protective misinterpretation.   And I’ve certainly had a lousy repeating pattern, that I may never unravel. Hopefully I’ve made some progress.  

Which you of course wouldn’t know about.   For what it’s worth –and please don’t construe it as “fighting”  or even arguing — just allow me to revisit the few things you mentioned to describe the view from my shoes.  Most importantly, this thing of “you not responding to my previous reach-outs” which I’m guessing is the crux of what put you off to my note — what seemed like a rewriting of history so as to maintain my fatally erroneous, eternal blamelessness.   I could have gone into detail then but didn’t feel it appropriate, possibly alienating.  But hey, I managed to alienate you anyway, so now here it is, for what it’s worth.  

You wrote me back a really nice letter to my letter following your Mom’s death.  And yes, you certainly had responded to previous “reach-outs” that had given me hope that the break might not be permanent.  That very nice & full letter was different — by far the strongest suggestion of that, possibly the first strong one — in those difficult years of struggling with this soul-blowing break & hoping it could be gotten past.  

Given that whiff of what I hoped was an open door, I wanted to eagerly go for it– for which my antipathy towards this e-medium made it feel not appropriate.  Something my Mom said had suggested that you had given up the Seaman apartment, so I simply wanted to know where to send a proper letter.  And that there is the sum total of the “no response” feeling– I asked several times & finally had to conclude the obvious, that you did not want me to write you.  

Which, by the way, I did not envision as simply taking up the rounds of this wearying wrung-out back & forth issue.  If there were to be any hope whatsoever, it’d have to be putting it behind, which I was prepared to try to do, but never got the chance.  I really did not know any other way of ascertaining your address, plus it wouldn’t have made sense to even think of ways to get it elsewhere– if you didn’t want to give it to me, that spoke for itself.  I certainly had no “game” in mind, don’t even know what that game could be, it was just the simplest of logical questions.

The way you’ve contacted Greenis on my behalf demonstrates great consideration, soul & graciousness, and I thank you for it, you have eternal respect & gratitude there.  I don’t recall ever thinking of Howie as a putz– I always think of him with love & respect — or of ever writing Greenstein off (since the recontact 20 years ago).  

No, the epicenter of my problem is being overly-sensitive to perceiving that it’s ME that’s getting written off, and having a horror-aversion to imposing myself where it seems I’m not wanted, and reacting too quickly & strongly & overly-sensitive to that perception (and to go forth trying to be a performing artist with that personality trait is downright comical & ludicrously misguided.  Plus it leads to others often getting a feeling of overly-demanding expectations, need for reassurement,  hence off-putting, hence leading to pulling back, hence the vicious cycle, the self-fulfilling prophecy).  

Perhaps in the midst of what seems to be a disengagement of that sort it’s certainly possible I could’ve uttered an untoward epithet, out of pain & self-defense, but that’s a small picture thing.  Greenstein I’m at my wits end about, it’s been a 30-year occasional dialogue-about-dialogue that he certainly hates & so do I, but I’m at a loss for what else there is to say in the face of resolute non-initiating.  His thing is “I just don’t have that communicative urge or need , but I’ll always respond” & my thing is “if someone never initiates, indicates a personal interest, lets it go for years, what does friendship even mean?” (an ironic flip-image of one of yours & mine past main issues)  

And then the next level of that, friendship consisting of encompassing & honoring this dialogue as a means of learning what bothers each other & with the basic premise that there’s caring, accommodating accordingly–well, there’s none of that, it’s his way or the highway, what to do at that point?

Finally, I don’t know how you read into my barely-mentioned reaction to my mom’s death as being “the blameless victim suffering at others’ hands,” how you made that leap.  And how as if I don’t recognize the blessing of having had her so unusually long, as if because of that blessing and her great life, it’s wrong to be extremely sad & somewhat unmoored by the loss of that constant presence, love, anchor, rock, support, orientation point?  You’re even criticizing me about my reaction to my mother’s death?  Did somebody mention anger?

There were many wonderful touching & expressive heartfelt notes we got, but your eulogy was way far above & beyond any of those, a whole other league. Which was no surprise– you are a true writer  & extremely sensitive soul, and I hope you’ve continued, and will continue, to find suitable ways & outlets to have that artistry make its deserved impact on many other souls.

MF  [3]



[1]   and, as a friend wisely pointed out to me, feelings themselves cannot be wrong or right, they are how you actually feel.  The trouble comes when your persistent feelings cannot be changed by anything, not by looking more objectively at what upset or excited you, not by realizing the importance of seriously listening to people who love you, not by working on your perceptions to avoid feelings that have little or no basis in what actually happened.   

[2]  These two friends nailed a lot of truth in their comments about the first email from Mark, which I’d forwarded them as I tried to formulate a reply:

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.

and

The man’s style is insufferable and unparsable.  An interesting read, I suppose, in the sense that a fatal six-car pileup is an interesting sight.  No pardone necessary, though.  I think it’s been established by now that communication ain’t always pretty, and besides, since MF (hmm, suggestive initials) has figured in your narratives from the get-go, it’s instructive for me to get some verbiage straight from the source.  Your characterization of it as a fly-covered turd strikes me as accurate, erring, if at all, on the side of charity.

[3]  I’ll leave that lovely, generous observation as Mark’s last word.   

I replied to his last email by removing all ambiguity about where I stood, in the end thanking him for his buried lede about how much he appreciated my words about his mother.

As I wrote to another correspondent at that time, still fuming over Mark’s “response”  email:

The punchline he predictably sent back stuck sideways in my craw, going on 8 hours or so now.  If I could only see him for a minute it would be enough.  [account of bar room style violence deleted]    Then, nothing but ahimsa for me going forward.

MF and the pursuit of happiness

Mark’s death a week ago (a former close friend I hadn’t seen in almost fifteen years)  has brought  up a surprising amount of emotions, varied but mostly perplexing.    I’m left, as often while he was alive, shaking my head over the unremitting and ultimately downhill tragedy of the guy’s life.  

He was a classic example of the Repetition Compulsion, the perfect illustration of doing exactly the same thing over and over firmly believing it was going to be completely different this time.  Every new relationship, or pursuit, began with unlimited excitement and optimism.  It was the greatest!   Nothing could be better, he’d found the ultimate, the secret to happiness. He’d be euphoric reporting this excitement in great detail, often in a way that made unflattering comparisons between this truly amazing, talented, nonchalant, comedic, wise, warm, amazingly cool new person and the cursed losers he already knew and had mostly written off.   Myself included, of course.

Then, as predictably as night follows day, Act Two.   Within a very short time cracks in this perfection began to appear, something was starting to smell bad.   In Act Three, every single time (with almost no exceptions), the innocuous prop left on the stage in scene one would be wielded to deadly effect by a suddenly irrationally enraged putz after some horrific betrayal by said putz.    Along the way, and invisible to himself, the common feature to every similar three act story was that Mark was only concerned with his own happiness, a tragic and hopeless version of it, as it turns out.

He was the youngest of three boys, felt disrespected by his father [1]  and never loved enough by his mother.  Very much like Trump in that way (although young Donald had a little brother to take it out on before he moved his sadism on to larger and larger stages).   In fact, Mark was very close to that zealously controlling, eternally scowling, nickel and diming archetype of the ever-victorious Artist of the Deal.  The euphoria of “winning”, judging from Mark’s unhappy life (not to mention our current national disaster’s life), appears to be an illusory thing and seems to provide little real happiness, it turns out.   

Mark had a uniquely complex style, and I will dig up some more nuggets of it to share here in the coming days, I suspect.   Few things were ever straightforward for him — other than the bottom line, that he needed to somehow prevail in everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.    This applied in every facet of his life, was the price you paid to interact with him,  and was at the source of his general misery.

I was close friends with this increasingly classic energy vampire for literally decades.   We met in camp in 1970 and were in constant contact from that time until some time after 2005.   A long run for a friendship.  In the end, an exhausting run.

It is no surprise, I guess, that I am feeling a variety of emotions on learning of his sudden and untimely death.    A wealthy man, a very smart man and a talented musician;  if he’d been at all generous, a bit more empathetic,  he could have had rewarding interactions with anyone he met and shared his good fortune with friends.   Sadly, his generosity, like so much about him, was largely transactional.   He wouldn’t give without some guarantee of an even larger return.  Some would not recognize this as generosity at all.

 

 

[1]  I’m very interested in reading the correspondence between Mark and his father though it will probably be a tough read.  His brother is checking to see if the box was tossed already.    I have authorized the recycling of many dozens of long letters I sent to Mark over the years, found among his piles of possessions.  I have too much goddamned clutter here as it is.

Further thoughts on departed Mark

I called Mark’s older brother yesterday, the day after his text that Mark had been found dead of a cardiac event of some kind.   He was in New Mexico with his middle brother, at Mark’s squalid ranch house, going through the vast accumulation of things.   Signs of serious depression, he reported, the place was a garbage heap, Mark apparently never threw anything out.  On the overflowing desk the two surviving brothers collected and opened envelopes containing $30,000 worth of uncashed business checks.   Mark ran a food business, with several employees still at work to fill ongoing orders, and the brothers are trying to figure out how to keep those poorly paid green card workers employed (Mark made a little extra by paying them half by check, half in cash) while they arrange to sell the little food company.

Turns out Mark hit gold by investing, early, in an arts company called Meow Wolf, an investment that apparently paid off many times over. “He died a wealthy man,” his brother told me.  We exchanged a few short observations about Mark’s famous tightness with a dollar.   “When he was a kid he’d hide his candy bars, he was afraid we’d steal them.  At restaurants he always ate fast, to make sure we didn’t get anything off his plate.   When he was older he’d go through the bill and say ‘I didn’t order that, I’m not paying for that.'”  I reported having to top off the tip every time I split a bill with him.  His 12% on his end, calculated precisely to the penny, never amounted to anywhere near half the tip, but that was how it was.

He also mentioned that Mark hadn’t spoken to him in three years.   They’d had a fight and that was that.   His brother reported that it was his fault, that he’d blown up at Mark, wound up screaming at him, and that he felt terribly guilty now.   Natural to feel that way, I told him, but everyone has a breaking point.   Mark broke virtually everyone who ever met him, if given a chance.

They found a box of letters between Mark and his father, Al.   They’d only read one or two before they felt like voyeurs and closed the box.   In one of the letters Al, seemingly broken like everyone else by Mark’s stubborn resolve, chided him about wasting his great potential and telling him it was time to rouse himself from his lifelong solipsistic self-pity, or words to that effect.  Neither of us had any idea that Al had exchanged many letters with his unhappy youngest son.   I told his brother an iconic Mark and Al story he’d never have heard.    

Mark composed an opus for the piano on the grand piano he had in his living room. This piece was perhaps forty minutes long and had several movements, going through a gamut of styles and emotions.   Mark was nothing if not ambitious.   The piece showcased everything Mark had learned about music and playing the keyboard.   He’d probably worked on it for a year or more, learning to perform it perfectly with his gigantic, surprisingly nimble, fingers.  On a visit to his parents in New Jersey he described the piece to his father and arranged to perform it for him at the NYC apartment of a cousin who had an electric piano.   Al was an organist — the family had an organ in the den, though I don’t recall ever hearing Al play it.

They drove over to the city.   Mark sat at the piano in the small room, with his back to his father, and Al sat behind him as he played.  Within a few minutes Mark heard a clack and another clack.   Al was apparently glancing through a collection of CDs on a shelf.  Mark’s spine stiffened as he continued to play, his blood chilling in his veins.   He was instantly filled with the old rage of being dismissed by his father, and he played the entire opus to the end, with great emotion.    The incident proved to him everything he’d ever believed about not being taken seriously, not being respected, not being recognized for the great talent that he was.   

What it really illustrated, as his brother grasped at once, was that Mark was incapable of ever putting himself in anyone else’s position.  Only his needs were real.   Was Al supposed to have sat, hands folded, eyes closed, paying rapt attention to every nuance of the entire recital?   Mark and I used the “clacking of the CD cases” as a shorthand for the indifference of the world to even one’s greatest attempts.    The world, truly, and I say this almost without bitterness, generally does not give a rat’s armpit about the things we create, no matter how otherwise wondrous.

There is another Al story that is a mystery to me to this day.   The clacking of the CD cases is easy to grasp both sides of — why Al could hardly have been expected to do much differently (he could have perused the CDs silently, I guess)  and why Mark felt the way he did.   This other story remains a mystery to me almost twenty years after I played my little part in it.

Al was terrified of death when he got old.   So frightened that he’d breathlessly wake his wife several times every night out of fear that he might slip away while she slept.   Within a short time she was exhausted and at her wits’ end.   Their sons arranged to have Al taken to a nearby, nicely appointed rehab center where he was treated for depression.   Sophie was able to sleep, between daily visits to Al.  Sekhnet and I visited him there, and went out to dinner with Sophie afterwards.  I wrote Al a letter he was very grateful for.  

In hindsight, my letter was asinine, comparing the dysthymia of a healthy thirty year-old (me) to the death-inspired depression of a man almost ninety, but he told me he loved the letter.   He said it gave him hope, reminded him that depression passes, as it seemed to have in the end in his case.   He had a few good years after that and, thanatophobia apparently at bay,  stopped waking his wife every night.

They moved to Florida where he was eventually hospitalized for something serious and fell into a coma.  Mark came from New Mexico to sit by his bed.   On the wall was the Do Not Resuscitate order that Al had signed before slipping into the coma.   He was in a comatose state for a long time.  One day he woke up, and speaking to the doctor, told him urgently that he wanted to revoke his DNR, which they did.  Shortly afterwards he fell back into a coma.   Mark sat by the bed, day after day.  

He called me one day to tell me his father was awake and semi-alert and asked me if I’d like to speak to him.  He said his father was pretty incoherent, but that he’d hold the phone next to his ear for a minute or two if I wanted to say anything to him.

When Al heard my voice he practically chuckled.  “Eliot!” he said, “oh, man, it’s great to hear your voice.  How are you?   Any chance you can get down to Florida to see me?   I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around but I’d love to see you…” I told him unfortunately I’d just been to Florida a couple of weeks earlier and wouldn’t be back for a while.  He sighed philosophically and began to say something.  

Then Mark was back on the phone.  “See what I mean?” he asked, “totally incoherent… well, it was nice of you to talk to him…”

As many times as I think about this, and I have returned to it several times over the years, I barely have a theory about what the hell that was.

His brother and I spoke for a while (I didn’t bother to tell him the second Al story), both concluding that Mark’s life had been a tragedy.   A complete fucking tragedy and a waste of a brilliant and talented mind.   There was an undocumented Moroccan woman in the house, Mark’s roommate, thirty years younger than Mark. “He was her sugar daddy, apparently,” his brother said.    Very sympathetic, apparently, and expressing gratitude to Mark, saying she loved listening to his stories.  “And you remember what his stories were like, they never ended…” said his brother.   Fatima said she learned a lot of English from Mark’s stories.  

“He could certainly teach you English,” I said.  

She’d called at 5:30 when she was on her way home last Tuesday and Mark said very good, he’d see her then.   When she arrived at 6:00 she found his corpse.  The Medical Examiner had called the brother Mark hadn’t talked to in three years.  

“The Medical Examiner,” said the brother, “just like on TV.”