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.

 

 

Pandemic Learning

This worldwide outbreak of an incurable disease is disorienting. Nobody alive has any living experience with the last one, which was over a hundred years ago. You’d have to be 110 to remember much, and little was known back then, except, in hindsight, that a deliberate lack of good information increased the spread of the deadly plague. So today we are are trying to learn, slowly, how to operate during this hellish time of social isolation against the backdrop of a disease that has killed over 130,000 of us here in the United States of America so far. Here is something I learned yesterday that seems useful.

Get up every so often and move for five or ten minutes, throughout the day. It actually makes you feel better than sitting around for hours at a stretch.

I have a fitbit pedometer clipped to my shirt. I try to get my 10,000 steps a day and come pretty close most days. I walk after the sun goes down, since I’ve had numerous skin cancers scalpeled off my nose. I walk my five miles during the coolest time of the summer day. This little pedometer keeps track of another stat: active minutes and when you are logging them. Here is what I learned.

One of the bits of data you get at the end of the week is how many hours, during the average person’s 9 active hours per day, you have moved at least 250 steps. That’s a walk of three or four minutes. I consistently score 2 of 9 hours daily, correlating with my evening walks. That means for 7 hours of the day, I am sedentary, for no real reason except inertia.

I have been feeling a lack of energy lately, a certain resignation to everything stagnant in my life, powerless against every powerfully destructive force we are up against, a wave of futility kept washing over me. I write, read and watched news clips but I am constantly distracted, seeking distraction during my distractions. I took no joy in drawing, practicing calligraphy, playing the guitar, hadn’t picked up a ukulele in days. Yesterday it hit me: take a little walk.

I went around the block, then down the street, strolled for ten minutes or so. Came back up to the computer and continued to brood. An hour later, back down, around the block, sat on a bench. I’m in an area where there are few people on the street, so I carry a mask that I slip on to avoid infecting anybody I see approaching, though it is unlikely I have this sneaky disease that can be spread by people with no symptoms.

These little bursts of light exercise really seem to help, even just a little. A little bit of help is nothing to sneeze at when you’re feeling helpless.

I’m going to put my shoes on and walk for a few minutes now, if you will please excuse me. I highly recommend it (walking and excusing me, both).

Book of Friedman (8)

Friedman once accused me of using my friends as lab rats, making them unwitting participants in my lifelong psychological experiments. All of us here are lab rats, to some extent, as we can see by looking around at the peculiar setup we find ourselves in. Most of us, as we live and learn, calibrate the amount of grief we are prepared to accept from those closest to us in this ongoing, partially voluntary, experiment.

Since this giant and supremely predictable lab mouse Mark is no longer with us, I am drafting him to stand in for all those who, by their often self-destructive actions, give the rest of us clues and insights into why we act the way we do. In the end I can see that Mark’s tragedy was set in motion by the emotional challenge we all face: the eternal mammalian need for love in a world where everyone dies in the end. Mark’s painful life was ruled by his inability to find and return the love he needed to thrive. It’s a kind way to put it, perhaps, in the case of a supremely self-centered rodent who could never accept the love he needed (none was ever perfect enough, sadly), but I can now see clearly that his doomed quest to love and be loved shaped his painful life nonetheless.

After I told a friend part of a long, sad story of a badly frayed old friendship, languishing on a ventilator, she sent me one of her longtime psychiatrist’s rules. Rule Twelve reads:

A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

I can see quite clearly now, in light of this rule, that I spent my early teens into my thirties (and sometimes much later– as the recent case of my old friend X illustrates) facing the same unlearned lesson. I repeated the same primal scenes over and over with a cast of characters, dear friends all, who were uncannily like my difficult, defensive father in psychological make-up. In the individual cases, I was eventually able to see the ongoing harm these relationships caused. The pattern was much harder to see, and only became clear when I found myself with my back against the wall. Like Dr. House says: the lesson will be repeated until learned..

X is about the last of these stand-in for my father left in my life, and our friendship is literally hanging by a thread, there may well not be any way to salvage it (we’ll see how strong his expressed desire to fix this comatose friendship really is — see rule 13 anecdote, below) but at one time there were quite a few of these Irv stand-ins among my closest friends. A kind of intimate fifth column, undermining my progress by repeating that an angry person like me is incapable of overcoming the reflex to act out of temper, no matter what we might think. No matter how many times we may have believed we’ve demonstrated our progress.   

The lesson I needed to learn, and kept having to repeat until I began to learn it, was that somebody who is smart, and funny, and sometimes kind, but who often doesn’t listen and insists on blaming you for any conflict, is an unhealthy person to be around.  Amazing how many times I had to live through the identical storyline until I started learning to recognize the signs and take action earlier and earlier. In case after case I learned where the line was when things became intolerable and how to protect myself by acting contrary to how my programming (and I was programmed by this very type, mind you) had taught me to react.   Each time I was unable to see the mechanism, until some flare-up made it painful enough to see, bad enough for me to cut ties.   

Over the years I began to see the actual mechanism at work, always very, very similar in its operation, yet I couldn’t figure out how to get past the constant traps set by this brilliantly insane type.   Manipulative, able to convince you they really cared about you — inwardly angry and able to express it as well-camouflaged, perfectly deniable hostility (virtually all of these people were very smart, like my father was, and most also witty, in a sardonic way that could be used as a weapon, or to disarm). Part of the genius of this type is their ability to make you believe that you must be crazy, oversensitive, at fault for any ugliness that might crop up. 

The gradual learning I had with these types (virtually all of them gone from my life now) may have culminated in this one last lesson with my longtime friend now.  I say that knowing that no progress is permanent, that we always take steps backwards and forwards. In the case of X, a guy I’ve known since we were kids, I have been able to lay out the syndrome in granular detail — not only for him, but for his girlfriend, who heroically tried to make peace, for Sekhnet and for myself.  X continues to express bewilderment that I seem to have been so hurt by his mistreatment, but the two women and I can now view things with clarity.  

The things that killed our friendship, step by step, are literally there on the table, in black and white, for anybody with the ability to read to follow.   I now know the workings of the incredibly subtle (at the same time incredibly crude)  game I am up against better than I know almost anything.  In every case of a “last straw”, the final proof is only the latest example of a long list of things.  

I had a poignant email from his girlfriend, sentimental, kind, intelligent, asking me to please explain why I cannot accept that X is really trying, that he truly loves me, values our friendship, etc.   Her letter moved me, and I wrote her a long letter back, illuminating exactly how each skillfully veiled, arguably unintended, “fuck you” was constructed, made to look like a gracious statement, or a generous offer.   When I was done writing the letter explaining things to her I felt a surge of energy, of completeness.   

I felt like I’d finally mastered that particular difficult decades-in-the learning lesson.   It was gratifying to know I had set so much of it out so clearly, at last, like I was reciting the lesson, finally learned.   Like I’d completed my Masters Thesis and it had been accepted. When I read Sekh the letter I wrote to X’s mate, the would-be peacemaker,  she understood for the first time that I was not being merely being a “man”, petty, mean, proud, venting anger, manfully exacting revenge for perceived mistreatment, trying to teach him a lesson– I was only making clear exactly what was intolerable to me, the kind of no-quarter argumentativeness I would no longer accept.   

I’d laid out for his girlfriend (as I had previously for him) everything that was toxic in the relationship and recounted his defensive attempts to place his increasing callousness in the context of eternal friendship, his own bewilderment and my constant misunderstanding.  I provided everything needed for her to understand our respective roles in the conflict, how patronizing his ostensibly peacemaking emails had been, couched in polite, seemingly conciliatory language containing repeated instances of clear, snarling, yet subtle “drop deads” (arguably even unconscious on his part).   Felt like I’d graduated, being able to explain it so precisely, and also, never losing my temper while having endured more than a little abuse from X over the course of the last few months.

Mark Friedman was the poster boy for repetition compulsion, for living and reliving the unlearned lessons of his life.  I understand now, thanks to this 12th Rule (A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.) that Mark kept trying to learn something by this repetition that he was never able to get any insight into. In the end, I believe, it was his lack of insight into his misery that did him in.

How many years can one perform the same sickeningly familiar three act tragedy over and over and over, new cast each time, identical, infernal dramatic arc?   Act one: great excitement!  amazing new person, or idea, or program, nothing like it — thrilling, life changing!   Act two; ominous cracks begin to appear, imperfections, warning signs.   Act three: violent reprisal against Mark, anger, betrayal, repudiation.   

It depressed me to hear this same story a hundred times over the years.  Finally could take it no more — plus, our friendship was the same airless drama, only the longest running version of it and Act Two was being endlessly drawn out.   In the end, he never learned any lesson from his predictable misery, died a wealthy man, completely alone, having alienated virtually everyone he ever knew.

Which brings us to Rule 13, a reminder that even an asshole, if he is motivated, is not doomed to be an asshole. It also reminds us to be kind, whenever we can:

People always do the best they can.  If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

This was a big lesson I was fortunate to learn shortly before I got the sudden news that my father was dying.   A parent is a different case than a friend — my close relationships with all those friends who stood in for my father were attempts to learn the lessons I needed to be able to work out with my father without it being total war (my dad generally insisted on total war).  I had a breakthrough in psychoanalysis maybe two months before Irv suddenly found himself on his death bed with a few days left to live.   

The timing of my psychological breakthrough was very lucky.  I’d come to realize, truly, that he had not been able to do any better than he did — the truly horrible abuse he’d suffered as a baby and throughout his childhood had given him a lifelong emotional disability that prevented him from being able to do the painful work necessary to not be that way.  He did not believe anything he did or might do could change anything for him — or for anybody else, for that matter.   What he did as a father, while often not what a child might wish for, was the best he was capable of. 

That revelation– that he was sadly, truly unable to do better — allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.  I came to this when I digested how atrociously he’d been abused as a young person.  As he was dying he was full of regrets, I was able to keep sincerely reassuring him that he’d done the best he knew how, that he could not have done better.  It was a small reassurance for him — his main efforts before he died were expressing his many painful regrets. Without the insight that he’d truly done the best he was capable of, I could not have been as open with him as I was. He would not have been able to unburden himself the way he did if I hadn’t been hearing him with so little judgment in that hospital room.   

That is speaking of my father, the rare relationship where it is almost always worth the exertion to try to heal.   A friend, X for example, who does the best he can but simply can’t hear — because of lack of a role model for how it’s done, or out of an excess of myopic self-regard, or competitive mania, or whatever reason  — I won’t be around to comfort him on his deathbed as he expresses his regrets.   I don’t owe it to X, as I didn’t owe it to Mark, though I felt I should try to give it to my father, to make his passing easier.   It was a wonderful gift to both of us that I was in a position to hear him, and he to feel heard. These, rules 12 and 13, are two excellent, important life lessons to digest and put to use.   

Here they are again, for your consideration:

12: A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

13: People always do the best they can.  If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

Here is her doctor’s Rule 8, always well-worth recalling, if we are to be as merciful to ourselves (and others) as possible:

There are no mistakes, only lessons.  Growth is a process of trial and error, of experimentation.  The “failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately “works.”

Book of Friedman (6)

Years later, as Al Friedman lay dying in a Florida hospital, the oddest Mark Friedman story of all would take place. I cannot really begin to explain it, even all these years later, though I will tell it in as much detail as I can.

First I need to point out a subtle element of this story. The harmful nature of very smart, deeply damaged, people we become attached to can be very hard to see. They are able to intelligently explain why any problem you may perceive is not a problem they have any part in creating. They can often convince you, as is routinely done with children, that the problem is all in your own confused, less than perfectly rational, head.

Exactly how my father inflicted great damage on my sister and me, the lifelong actions he apologized for so miserably right before he died, took decades for me to understand. I fought against the clear unfairness and sometimes irrationality of his abuse as it was happening, but I had no real grasp of the full scope of the harm this otherwise reasonable, peaceable, politically sensitive, philosophical man was doing. The subtle nature of it, the way our father’s anger was always hidden behind some greater principle, made it a very slippery form of abuse. Much harder to understand than a sharp smack in the face. You want subtle? How about simply deploying silence when an answer to a perplexed question was requested?

In the case of my father, once I understood the unforgivable abuse he’d suffered from his mother, the face whippings, the furious demands that he have no will of his own, I could explain his desperation to myself. It made sense that he’d be filled with rage, anyone would. After enough time I came to see that, in a real sense, he couldn’t help acting the way he did, and further, that it was actually a kind of victory over his horrific childhood that he didn’t beat or humiliate his children. He merely raged at us, and made us feel it was always our fault. Bad, yes, abuse, certainly, but, at the same time, a great improvement over what he’d experienced. Silence may hurt when you are a child hoping for an answer, but a good whipping for no reason, when you are two, leaves no room for interpretation.

It was a matter of great, wonderfully-timed luck that I’d reached these understandings, digested the idea that he’d done the best he could and that anger toward him was unproductive, at best, when I got the call from my sister that he was suddenly on his deathbed. When I got to the hospital room where he’d die two or three days later I asked if he was in pain.

“Only psychic pain…” he said, his weary voice trailing off. He told me he wanted to talk to me, but that he was still putting his thoughts together.

The last night of his life we talked for hours. He talked, mostly, I asked a few clarifying questions and refilled his cup of water. He had certainly put his thoughts together. He put his impressive mind through its paces one last time, this time trying to get it all right. The organization of his thoughts struck me, obviously he spoke without notes, but he could have been reading from a thoughtfully edited essay. He had this great ability to speak off the cuff, always had. Finally he was using it to make amends. It was, as I’ve said, a blessing to us both, him making this attempt at peace, me finally in a position to hear it with sympathy instead of anger.

The day after my father died I walked around the circle in the retirement community where my parents lived. In my memory it was dawn. I’d been getting a steady stream of calls from Friedman who wanted to know how it was going, wanted to offer his support. By that time I’d begun to dread his calls. I called him back as I walked.

I was stunned by his first question after I mentioned the long talk the last night of my father’s life: “did you tell him to go fuck himself?”

I explained that there was no need, that we’d had a very productive conversation. Then, for the next forty minutes or so, as I completed the two mile circle and started around again, I heard the story of his oldest brothers’ new sports car, a beauty from the sound of it, and the beautiful, young girlfriend he had now, how things were really looking up for him, just as things had been looking pretty bad for him recently. Mark’s stories were always fantastically detailed. When he was done telling me these fabulous developments in his brother’s life I said “well, here, my father is still dead.”

I finally came to realize the difference between a struggle to come to peace with your father, or another family member and the constant vying with a friend who is a surrogate for these same people, who, while like the troubling family member in essential ways, was once a stranger and can easily be one again. We owe ourselves a certain psychic debt to figure out how to make peace with those in our family, if we can. We owe nothing to friends who insist on their right to be as vexing as the troubling intimates we are born into a family with.

The Book of Friedman

Friedman, a man with a problematic singing voice, was, at one time, a prodigious writer of highly personal songs that were often hard to listen to, sung in that difficult voice of his. A central tragedy of the poor devil’s life — to write with sensitivity for an instrument so ill-suited to music. The singer-songwriter had a good sense of pitch, it was not a matter of tone-deafness, in the strict sense. For all his skill on guitar and piano, for all of his original musical ideas, his singing was more than anything a certain lack of grace.

When he was found dead, naked in a chair last summer in his home in Santa Fe, his older brother was contacted by a Medical Examiner. “Just like on TV,” he said. The two brothers flew down to New Mexico to clear his cluttered house and settle his tangled business affairs. They lived for two weeks as guests of Friedman’s ex, a generous woman he finally rejected when he felt she’d been insufficiently supportive when he was inconsolable over the death of his mother, at almost a hundred. “She was his rock,” said his older brother, after their mother died, “he was lost without her.”

The older brother was dogged by guilt, he’d finally had it with his demanding, eternally unhappy youngest brother and had laid into him at one point. The younger brother had never spoken to him again. It had been three years. Then the call from the Medical Examiner asking what to do with the dead body. The middle brother, always a practical man, had avoided a fatal falling out with the youngest by always keeping him at arm’s distance. When an annoying email arrived, screen after screen of tortuous arguments, the middle brother immediately hit delete. He took the same approach to the clutter in the dead brother’s house. Several cartons of contractor bags, a quick look and toss the stuff.

Among the things tossed, to my great regret, were a series of letters between Friedman and the father he always complained didn’t respect him. A box of letters between father and son. They felt like voyeurs after beginning to read them and quickly tossed the collection. As a longtime student of Friedman, and someone who knew his father pretty well too, I feel the loss of these unknown letters keenly. Goddamn, I would have loved to read those letters! There was a book full of pathos and insight in that back and forth, 100%.

Another book, saved by the older brother, exists. It is the hard-covered once blank book where all of the lyrics (and probably the chords) to all of Friedman’s songs were inscribed. The definitive record of a life in music that was almost lived. If only he’d had the voice to sing them. It occurred to me recently to ask the brother if I can borrow this book for a while, to read his collected songs and use them to reconstruct his painful, illuminating life. The endlessly repeating tragedy of his life is the greatest cautionary tale I know.

Many years ago, and I mean decades now, Friedman accused me of using my friends as lab rats in my psychological dissections. I suppose he had a point, the long serving, giant lab rat, though I plead science and the expansion of human knowledge as a redeeming rationale for my experiments (as all the great monsters of history have). We are raised, many of us (and probably all of us who are subject to bouts of misery), deliberately blinded to what we are actually up against in this life. It takes determination, and openess, as well as a certain amount of blind luck, to eventually begin to see the crucial clues that are zealously hidden from us. Friends as lab rats, a small price to pay sometimes, to learn the things we need to learn to live less miserable lives.

(Cold? I don’t know. It certainly doesn’t put the narrator in the most sympathetic light. Start again.)

In telling the story of the talented, miserable, demanding, aggressively unhappy Friedman, I will try to illuminate the two paths open to each of us. We can struggle, in the darkness, to be right, always, to justify, everything, to prevail, at any cost. We can struggle to grasp what is intolerable in our lives, work to see and understand what particularly triggers our misery, seek to suffer less and inflict less pain in the world. I am, clearly, biased toward the second way. Friedman is the greatest example I know, though far from the only one, of the first way — the way of righteous anger and eternal victimhood and fatal disappointment.

Yes, we also have a president now who fits that description– a selfish, childish person who is always the victim, always right to be angry, a fundamentally unhappy person who, although already very wealthy, can never get enough. Forget him, if you can, as I tell you the story of Friedman, the youngest of three boys, an envious sibling who never got enough respect from dad or love from mom.

“OK, let me get this straight, sir,” says nobody in particular “you propose to tell the story of a remorseless, graceless asshole, with no insight into his own misery, told without sympathy, the tale of a putz famous for sweeping others into the ‘putzbin of history’ for betrayals real and imagined.”

I wouldn’t use that as my elevator pitch, no.

“Get on with it, then, why should anybody give a rat’s tutu about this so-called book proposal?”

Insight, man. Hard to come by. Look at it as I pieced it together. At one time this guy was my closest friend. Over the years I came to see, more and more unmistakably, that he was, in elemental ways, an unredeemable version of the worst of my father. Both were smart, articulate, capable of waging fierce arguments to the death, both were supremely sensitive in their own feelings and often monstrously insensitive to the feelings of others. My long wrestling match with Friedman turned out to be an attempt to get a grip on the dilemma with my own father.

“OK, so far you ain’t selling jack, son.”

Says the voice of the internalized victimizer. Look, I’ve been putting together clues for many years now. The Book of Friedman might be the most straightforward way to put them between two covers in the context of a story with a start, middle and end. Much easier to write than draft two of the 1,200 pages I’ve written as I came to see my father’s tragic point of view through his too late clear eyes.

“If you say so…” then there is the pregnant pause, more potent in its power to undermine than any words could be, “we’ll see if this idea comes to anything more than dozens of other big ideas you’ve hatched over the course of the long misadventure that has been your life here, dreamer.”

Which leaves me with this toothache of a thought: What is left of our lives here, beyond what we leave behind?

Write Every Day

Anything you care about, want to get better at, you need to do every day. This goes for music, learning languages, reciting poetry, improving your vocabulary, gaining flexibility in body or mind, mastering any skill. Daily practice is the best way to improve your skill.

More productive than a five hour session, followed by a week of inaction, are seven daily fifteen minute sessions. Constant, regular practice is the way we build better habits, better technique. This kind of daily practice helps us remember and internalize our advances and make steady improvement.

Take your 140 character tweet (I don’t use Twitter myself) and really look at it before you let it fly out into the world. Is there anything you wrote that can be written better? Fix it. Is there a phrase that could be read two ways? Turn it to the way you want it to be read.

You can say it really doesn’t matter if you write well, badly, clearly, muddily, that ignorance and sloppiness clearly rule already so what is the stinking point, Daddy-O? The point is not to lose the notion of craft, pride in your work, the pursuit of excellence, reinforcing the benefits of steady effort to make yourself better at what you love to do.

George Carlin had it right: think of how stupid the average American is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.

That does not apply to your efforts, if you are dedicated to self-improvement in any field. It is never stupid to try to do better. Also, don’t forget that half of Americans are also smarter than the average– that’s 150,000,000 people. Also, stupid people deserve the best we have too.

My two cents: put in at least fifteen minutes toward the worthy goal of making yourself better every day. If you miss a day, don’t trouble yourself, just start a new streak the next day. The improvement you will begin to see will motivate you to continue. In your small way, you will be making the world a better place.

The Benefit of Thinking

I’m currently experiencing an annoying and intermittently painful medical situation, a bit of the old gross hematuria that’s been going on for a few days.   I’ve learned not to stray too far from a bathroom, as the sudden urge to piss a little blood and a few clots sometimes becomes, in two seconds, completely unbearable.   I am assured by my urologist that this is not unexpected in a man my age and that medicine doesn’t know the exact reason I’m having these troubles (science calls such unknowable things “idiopathic”) or how long they will persist.   I’m waiting for test results that could shed more light in a day or two.   I’m told we can safely rule out all of the most scary end-stage cancer possibilities and so I’m inconvenienced, and drinking ridiculous amounts of water (a gallon and a half the other day) but otherwise not full of fear.

But enough of my medical troubles which nature will resolve, or medical science eventually will.   The reason I bring them up is to foreground the life-affirming power of wrestling a difficult intellectual/emotional/moral puzzle into comprehensibility and how the effort brings a great sense of satisfaction as it helps put physical suffering into perspective.   I find it a particularly rewarding exercise in this age when supremely confident, heedless ignorance is triumphantly strutting at the head of several of the earth’s largest nations.

I’ve spent the last few days, between hundreds of sessions straining and groaning in the bathroom, writing and thinking, thinking and writing, digging my way to the bottom of a deep, extremely vexing situation, the tragic end of a friendship of fifty years.   Thinking helps writing, of course, and writing — and rewriting —  greatly helps clarify thinking, I find.   

After many hours, I finally wrote the final words on the subject, explaining to a perplexed girlfriend (two actually, my friend’s and mine)  exactly why I could struggle no more to save something that appears to be dead.   When any doubt about my motives and my sincere efforts to resolve things was cleared away I felt a great sense of relief and release, having worked to fully set out what had been impossible for me to fully grasp — or explain– before the hours and hours I put into grappling with the thorny issues.  It was not the effort to be “right” that consumed me, it was the effort to fully understand and articulate exactly why I’d been so hurt, why the situation was so intolerable to me.

One great beauty of this process was that in the end I had something I could read to Sekhnet, that put my feelings into a reasonable frame for her.  It allowed her to understand that I had not acted out of blind anger, or pettiness, or pride or any impulse but trying to preserve a friendship that was clearly on life support while in a death spiral.  It put its finger squarely on what has become unsupportable in that friendship.

In the midst of this exercise, which took several days across several weeks, we watched an excellent 2013 movie called Hannah Arendt.   I rediscovered Hannah a couple of years ago and wrote a kind of intro to her calling her the Intellectual It-Girl for this moment in history.  She is a hero of mine and, among other things, a great analyst of totalitarianism and how it operates — how it requires ignorant faith in irrational ideas and leads to the violent repudiation of rational thought.

Her masterpiece, Eichmann in Jerusalem, is perhaps my all-time favorite book [1].  In that short book, which made her legions of devoted enemies, she gets as close as anyone to isolating and describing that irresistible impulse in some humans, pursuing a perverse but common notion of ambition and integrity, conforming without thought to abnormal new norms, to commit the most monstrous evils, while themselves being neither psychopaths, fanatics nor monsters. 

We watched the 2013 movie, which starred the superb Barbara Sukowa as the Hannah of my dreams.   Take a look at the trailer.  I was tickled all the more, watching the film a couple of days before what would have been my mother’s 92nd birthday (happy belated birthday, mom), at Barbara Sukowa’s uncanny resemblance to a younger Yetta, my mother’s mother.  We both thought the movie was great.  It showed clearly the price Hannah Arendt willingly paid to not kowtow to any particular interest group, tribe or ideology, but to get to the deeper, more difficult truth of the matter she was investigating, wrestling into comprehensibility and presenting for readers.  

To my knowledge nobody has ever written a better short history of the Nazi era than Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece.  It would certainly be hard to imagine one.   The unsettling insight that emerges from the book is that ordinary people will do unspeakable things under unspeakable conditions and that some of history’s greatest “monsters” are simply ambitious people who unthinkingly go along with their insane masters’ plans [2].

In the case of Eichmann, he unquestioningly did whatever he was told by his superiors.  First he diligently sought to expedite Jewish emigration, a good solution, he thought.  Then, in phase two, he applied himself to the forced expulsion and concentration of Jews, which was admittedly less pleasant for him, but nonetheless necessary.  He was equally diligent in the performance of his duties in the final stage, his least pleasant task: getting the optimum number of Jews on the optimum number of trains to optimize the number that could be solved, finally.

A man like Eichmann deserves to be executed, if anyone does; Arendt doesn’t flinch for a second over the fate of a blindly obedient unthinkingly murderous cog like Adolf Eichmann.  He doesn’t get a pass, because he’s a clown, for his willing participation in one of the most gruesome mass murders, certainly the most coldly efficient, in world history.   Hannah:

The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist — provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.   Some of the comedy cannot be conveyed in English, because it lies in Eichmann’s heroic fight with the German language, which inevitably defeats him.   (p.48)

She was right, the comedy couldn’t be conveyed in English, though she gave it a shot, a short parade of absurd examples of Eichmann’s limited and ridiculous powers of expression, to give a sense of it.  She concludes:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely related to his inability to think, namely think from the standpoint of somebody else.   (p.49 — in the margin I see I have written “Trump” in pencil, hmm…)

To present Eichmann as one of history’s greatest monsters — well, to her it completely missed the point.   An important point.  A crucial point.  When we stop thinking, analyzing, acting as moral agents, we become capable of unimaginably monstrous things.   Like shipping millions of Jews to their deaths while insisting you are no killer, never ordered a single killing, never deliberately hurt anyone, are not in the least bit antiSemitic, have never harbored any ill will toward anyone.

Fortuitously, a friend just sent me a link to the first article by Arendt published in the New Yorker in Febaruary, 1963  (the articles that later became Arendt’s book length masterpiece).  Read the opening, admire the mind that, fluent in English, French and German (and probably other languages) can say, without hesitation, that the German translation (the only one Eichmann and his lawyer could understand) was by far the worst.   The three Israeli judges, good men all, were originally German Jews.   They struggled at times to correct the poor German translation, to clarify things, and they did not pretend to wait for things to be translated into Hebrew before they replied.   Hannah admired these qualities in the judges as she lamented the terrible German translation that surely muddied the clarity of the proceedings.   She wonders why, with so many fluently bilingual German Jews in Israel, the German translation had been so poor.  It is something to think about — and perhaps another of several reasons Arendt’s book was not published in Hebrew, or available in Israel — none of her books were–  until 1999.  

Of course, thought is famously hard, as is expressing thought coherently, as is arguing intelligently about which thought is more profoundly thought.  Sekhnet and I loved the movie.   A very articulate and well-read critic at the New Yorker had problems with the movie, serious ones, and equally profound problems with Arendt herself.   You can read it and emerge convinced that the filmmaker and Hannah Arendt both missed the mark, badly.  In the end, the critic acknowledged that Arendt had inadvertently written a ‘masterpiece’– though he claims this happened by accident.   Take a look at the smart review if you have some time.  Or, better still, watch the movie — then read her book.   Then read this brilliant jerk-off’s well-argued opinion.

For me, the guy’s surgical critique of Arendt (and the film about her)  brought to mind words I read at the end of a short biography of Django Reinhardt, included as part of a book teaching a few of Django’s guitar parts note for note.    The writer who’d been paid to write the short bio (not the musician who lovingly transcribed what Django had composed and improvised) concluded with his considered opinion that Django had been a “near genius.”   I immediately felt the urge to contact this hack writer and correct him.  Actually, the urge was a bit more direct than that.   Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, of course, but, as someone pithily put it once: not their own facts [3].

There are facts, things that actually happened, physical things, tapes that can be played back to confirm what was said or show what was actually done, documents, there is data, ideally verifiable and reliable data compiled by scientists.  Facts make our beliefs more or less solid, basing action on fact separates considered opinions from absolute, blind faith or sheer stupidity.  The factual world, the idea of truth itself, is under attack.  No useful understanding of anything is possible without first knowing, as factually as possible, the thing you are trying to understand.

In Brazil, strongman former military junta member Jair Bolsonaro is doing the same work Narendra Modi is doing in India, the tireless work this orange-toned manipulator is doing here:  the human and scientific facts have NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING!   Bolsonaro has taken to insisting, aping his American counterpart, that hydroxychloroquine (70% of the world supply is manufactured in Modi’s India) is a miracle drug that will protect everyone from the virus, as the pandemic sweeps through Brazil’s crowded favelas, its slums, as it has been wildly spreading here in what has become the world epicenter, of the pandemic and denial of the pandemic, both.  As it is sure to sweep the crowded slums of India, makers of most of the world’s most miraculous miracle drug.    If you follow leaders like these, and carry out their orders, in spite of the shakiness of the “logic” they present, be prepared for the judgment of history — if, indeed, we will have history in the future — or any human future at all, for that matter.

 

[1]  Right up there with The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (Walter Morrison translation).   If you have not read these stories, particularly if you’re a writer pick up this out-of-print book, (you can also read this post.)

[2]   A tangentially related point enraged legions of Jews and others against Arendt.   She noted that had the Jews not voluntarily organized themselves, had their leaders not helped keep order in their ghettos and make lists of Jewish property and designate which individuals were to be deported, that fewer Jews would have died in the chaos that would have resulted from lack of Jewish cooperation — chaos that would have required massively more Nazi manpower to supervise (the Jews were forced to provide their own police forces to assist the Nazis).   People wanted her head for this, though she made this hard to dispute observation in passing while describing several desperate cases of certain Jewish elders, forced into the unimaginably hellish position of having to deal with the Nazis who were busily killing them, some of whom believed they could make moral deals with monsters, at times making decisions a few would later commit suicide over or, in at least one case, later face criminal prosecution in Israel for (he was murdered during the trial)

[3]  Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as the internets inform us.