Pop loved “shooting pictures”

My grandfather was a mild-mannered man.  He had big, powerful hands he used for years professionally in the delicate art of egg candling. He held an egg in front of a bright light, (a candle at one point, one supposes) and inspected it to see if the yolk had the shadow of a spot in it.  If so, this spot of blood indicated it had been fertilized and wasn’t fit to eat.  I don’t know if this was under Jewish law or American health law, but he sat with cases of eggs, in the basement of his friend Al’s  (who my grandmother once said smelled like a camel), grocery store, or Julie’s appetizing shop, picking them up in his large hands one by one, gently turning them in front of the light and looking through their shells to see if they could be sold.

The year I was born, Pop, at one time a prodigious cigarette smoker (Camels, if memory serves), underwent late stage lung cancer surgery.   They removed one of his lungs.  I was a few months old at the time and remember only what I was later told about it.   We have the snake plant that was delivered to Pop in the hospital as he recuperated from the surgery.  The plant is almost 63 years old and doing well.   Pop had an excellent recovery from the surgery and lived twenty-two years with only lung in his powerful body.  

One of his doctors recommended that he add bacon to his diet, for health reasons.  There was some kind of bullshit rationale involved, which my grandfather explained to me at one point.   So in addition to his usual kasha, boiled flanken, boiled chicken, soup and several slices of whole wheat, pumpernickel or rye bread Pop ate a few strips of bacon from time to time, at his doctor’s recommendation.

Pop was a well-built, trim man who weighed 168 pounds for his entire adult life.  One year at his physical he weighed in at 169 or 170.   He and the doctor were both surprised.   The doctor asked pop how many slices of bread he ate a day.   My grandfather counted and told the doctor seven.   The doctor said, “eat six”.   Pop did.  At his next physical he was 168 pounds.  

The lived philosophy of that, food merely fuel for the optimum running of your body, still fills me with wonder and admiration.  Pop would eat a Danish from a bakery from time to time with his coffee, but couldn’t care less if he did or he didn’t.  He always handed my sister and me each a candy bar (it was Chunkies for a long time, a chocolate chunk filled with peanuts and raisins, then mainly Nestle’s Crunch Bars with the occasional Mr. Goodbar thrown in) as soon as he saw us.  For himself, he never ate anything just for the taste of it.

Pop was retired for most of the time I knew him. His favorite pastime in those years was watching a good shooting picture on TV.   He’d scan the TV Guide, a small booklet that came out every week and told you what was coming up on each of the seven or eight stations available in the media mega-market of New York City and later Miami Beach. When he spotted a good shooting picture, also known as a Western, he’d tune in and watch the good guys triumph over the bad guys.

“Sit down,” he’d say, if I asked him who was who on the screen, “watch and you’ll know.”  In most of the shooting pictures Pop watched, Hollywood movies the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, it didn’t take long to figure out who was wearing the white hat and who was the evil, sadistic, murdering bastard who needed killing, the one glaring provocatively from under the black hat.   Simpler times.

Pop loved Bonanza, and Gun smoke, two shows he caught every week, my parents and I loved those shows too, my sister would also watch them.  Outside of those, he’d catch every western on Million Dollar Movie, a show where they played the same black and white movie several times in a given week.  Pop would watch pretty much any movie where good guys and bad guys dressed like cowboys, (or Indians, for that matter), chased each other around in the dust of their horses and shot it out at the end.

My grandfather’s hammer

My grandfather had a ball-peen hammer [1] that I now use to drive small nails into the wall to hang baseball caps and calendars on.   Because I was a child the first time I saw this eccentric looking, thin handled hammer (without the familiar woodpecker comb on the back of the head, used for pulling nails) I thought it was called a European hammer, which made sense to me, since my grandfather was European.    I have no idea how he came to own the machinist’s hammer as, to my knowledge, he never did any type of peening at all (whatever the hell that is).

I love this hammer, because it was owned by Pop.   The smooth handle has the feel of old, well-used wood.  The small metal head is smart looking and ready to bop.   I wield it every time there is a small nail to be driven into anything.   I feel a small rush of excitement as I go to get the natty little hammer.

When I was a boy I went through a time when all I wanted was a baby elephant.   I would not let up on the theme.   One day, over dinner, Pop promised to get me one when I reached a certain age, along with, a few years later, a copy machine.   I never stopped to think that baby elephants grow to become the earth’s largest land mammals.  The baby ones are so cute.   I was a kid.   Still, I didn’t forget, when I reached those ages and had no elephant, no copy machine (at that time a gigantic thing that took up the footprint of a single bed) appeared. My gentle, loving grandfather had lied to placate me.   Et tu, Pop? 

He was trying to soothe me with these obvious lies, I realize, and I didn’t really hold it against him.   Fifty years later we’d all have copy machines on our desks and, truly, it would have sucked to have been the child owner of a baby elephant.  In the best case scenario there would have been that wrenching moment when the growing elephant would have to move away.   I never even thought of the cruelty of taking the little giant away from her mother so I could have the world’s coolest pet.  Elephants are social animals.

… And I am going to be late for my appointment with the nephrologist if I continue tapping here now.  So, if you will please excuse me, I must… be…. awwwwwn my way.

 

 

[1] Wikipwedia:  

also known as a machinist’s hammer, is a type of peening hammer used in metalworking.

Thoughts on the end of a long friendship

Good friends enrich our lives, make us feel optimistic, are people to share life and intimacy with.  There are few things more valuable than a good friend, particularly a lifelong friend.  Sadly, for a variety of reasons, friendships sometimes stop being enjoyable and mutually beneficial.  Friendships that sour, if they cannot be saved, are worth ending.   The signs that a friendship has reached this point are relatively straightforward, though they may be tricky to recognize.   Here is my view, for whatever use it might be to you.

If you are born to angry, fighting parents, or parents at war with others who take out their frustrations out on you, or parents unable to cope in some essential way, it is difficult, seemingly impossible, to learn certain skills needed for living peacefully in the world.   The things a child needs, and doesn’t get from parents, will be sought from others.  Sometimes this works out beautifully, often it doesn’t.

I stumbled through this dark obstacle course landscape for many years, making friends with people who stood in for my parents, trying to reconcile things through these chosen relationships that may never be reconcilable, working haphazardly with surrogates standing in for difficult parents.   The people I found mutual affinity with were often as damaged and incapable as I was of even knowing what it was we were lacking.   Some of these folks remain my closest friends today. Many of these friendships ended unhappily, which, in hindsight, could have been predicted.  

These relationships, on one level, bore the heavy psychological burden of trying to fix things I needed to find ways to heal in myself.  I eventually came to see a common pattern in the demise of these relationships.   I present the most salient warning sign that a friendship is moribund, for whatever value my observation may have to you.

The relationship with your parents is central to all other relationships, and the better you can grasp what you got and what you didn’t get from the people who raised you, the more clearly you will be able to see and understand yourself, what you need and what you have to give others.  

We can only give someone else what we actually have ourselves.   If you never learned mercy for yourself (a crucial thing to learn, in my experience), you can’t really extend mercy to anyone else.   Mercy to others, when we give it, flows from mercy to ourselves.  Not everyone is capable of mercy, sad to say.

People who sincerely insist they love you, if they hate themselves, can only give you the version of love they have.    People who never resolve the painful contradictions many of us get from inexpert parenting, from being raised by people who haven’t resolved their own childhood hurts, can only blindly pass on what was done to them.   At least that’s how it looks to me, in so many cases I’ve seen.  

Parents often inculcate painful conundrums in their children, in ways they are unaware of, starting at an age when the child’s psyche is supremely malleable.  In order to see themselves as moral actors, they usually continue to defend this unconscious practice as having been in the best interests of the child they love, no matter what harm they may have done.   We need to make peace with what was done to us by parents who truly believed they loved us more than they loved themselves.

In friendship, the psychic imperative to solve essential riddles like the ones implanted by inept parenting does not operate with the same urgency.  Friends can sometimes help, but not always, and care must be taken not to unduly burden friends with such difficult psychic matters.  People who have massive, unquenchable expectations of friends are called ‘energy vampires’ and need to be dealt with in the manner of regular vampires, with a stake and a heavy hammer.

Friendships are voluntary and can end at any time, for many reasons or for no good reason.  A friend who claims to love you, but will not yield an inch when you describe hurt they’ve caused you, obviously is not someone you need to keep in your life.  In friendship there is a much better option than letting yourself be mistreated and tested over and over.  There is no reason to tolerate merciless treatment, having your friendship, and your character, continually tested.   Addition by subtraction is almost always a relief in these cases.

A sure sign that a friendship is over is when there is no good will left in the relationship.   The benefit of the doubt stops being extended back and forth for the annoying little things we all do. These things become intolerable, insurmountable, indefensible, though everyone usually gets very defensive.  

This happens when, for whatever reason, one party stops listening to the expressed needs of the other.   In my experience, there is really no way back from that, once the pattern of one person minimizing, attempting to rationalize away, the other person’s discomfort becomes clear.  

Seeing the pattern clearly will depend on how confusingly we were raised, how murkily our expectations of fairness, reciprocity, mercy, were instilled in us.   Having anger directed at you every day as a child will distort your notion of what you deserve.   Seeing anger constantly flaring between parents will distort your view of what a loving, mutual relationship is supposed to be.   If one partner tells the other “it hurts me when you do X” and the other one, every time they get angry, does X– there you have the perfect illustration of a relationship the ignored partner needs to leave.  

When you tell someone they’re hurting you, and they insist that they are not, that it’s actually your fault you feel hurt, not their’s, there is no clearer sign that the moment for addition by subtraction is at hand.  

It is a sad and painful moment, particularly for that sentimental side we all have a bit of, but once you add by subtracting (all attempts to make peace having failed), you will wake up the following day feeling a bit lighter in your soul.

My mother in 3,500 words

As I struggle to figure out how to successfully package and sell the long-shot story of my father’s anonymous long-shot life, after years of detailed conversation with his skeleton,  it occurs to me that my mother, once a very opinionated and vibrant person, has been mostly silent.   To be expected, of course, she died almost ten years ago.   Her ashes are in a plastic bag in a corrugated paper box in a beautiful shopping bag.   She would like the bag, it is actually elegant.   A sturdy old fashioned brown paper bag on the outside, made of heavy paper, with two sturdy handles, slate gray inside; gorgeous.  It’s not like her to have been so silent all these years, she loved a good story, hearing them and telling them, and she had strong opinions about everything and never hesitated to voice them.

Her body was reduced to ashes according to wishes she made known two or three times over the five decades I knew her.   She was not one to talk about death.  I reassured my mother, when a sudden terror of being eaten by bugs and worms gripped her not long before the end, told her to have no fear, that I’d make sure that would never happen.   After she died I made arrangements to have her cremated.   My father’s written instruction, for both he and his wife, was earth burial.   Accordingly, he’s a skeleton, buried in their double wide grave at the top of the hill at First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill cemetery, and my mother is a spirit whose mortal remains dwell in a beautiful bag at the farm where I do most of my unpaid work.

It struck me tonight as ironic that my father, who was a complete pain in the ass most of the time, what he would call a prick, has taken up so much of my energies the last few years while my mother, also a pain in the ass, but a loving one– which makes all the difference, really — has been hanging out quietly, off to the side, seemingly waiting her turn.    It seems only right to try to publish a few words about her before I start back in on figuring out how to package the long story of my relentless, tragic father.   After all, I have my mother to thank for the pleasure of reading for pleasure.

Growing up I remember my mother telling me that she was a poet when she was younger, when she was an English major at Hunter College.   She’d write the occasional rhyme for an occasion, even late in her life, but the blue covered notebook of poems I’d seen once or twice when I was kid was never seen again.   It was not among her things when she died.  I looked on every shelf, in every box, but nothing.  I was disappointed.   One poem, written in her distinctive hand, remained, I found it among her papers after she died.   My sister blushed at the passion of that poem, noting that it was definitely not written about our father.  Though my mother stopped writing poetry at some point, she had a poet’s heart, a lifelong flair for colorful exaggeration. 

My mother loved words, even if she didn’t always use them to seek deeper truths. There were good reasons for this, I suppose.   I remember how it felt, struggling against the painful limits of my power to express myself, when I was a kid.  My inability to have my questions heard burned me, provoked me.   As it turns out, the most eloquent, clear-speaking poet in the world, accompanying himself on a lilting samba guitar, against a lush, evocative painterly backdrop, could not have expressed what I needed to express as a child.    

The situation we were living in in that little house was insane, nobody could have made sense of it.  It was also devilishly subtle, the overarching madness of it, the way it posed as a perfectly normal middle class life and snappishly thwarted all analysis.   It wasn’t as if the rest of our once large family had been slaughtered during a particularly hellish period in human history, their letters just stopped arriving.   It wasn’t as if her mother’s many beatings had anything to do with my mother’s sometimes volatile temper. There were many things like this, things you simply had to suck up because, no reason — put your pajamas on!  

I always loved to draw, though it’s a famously confusing way to communicate.   “Who is that supposed to be?   What does this picture mean?” became as tiresome as the concerned look on the face of the person asking.   Writing was a clearer path forward — more perfect speech.   As I learned to write better I was able to get through to my mother’s intellect, sometimes move her with my words, which was always gratifying, to see her happily transported like that.  

My father, who could write well but used the skill only for readily practical purposes,  read whatever I handed him looking for what he needed to defend himself against.  He’d read the telltale words aloud, hum the first bars of his rebuttal.

My mother read like a real reader, if she liked the writing she’d follow the words wherever they were trying to take her.  She liked to suspend her disbelief, if she found the writing credible.  My father read more for information, my mother read for the journey.   I have my mother to thank for my love of reading.   I first saw by the way she read, how she read aloud to us, that worlds can be conjured with words, worlds more interesting, more vivid, more immediate than the world that is constantly around us, things endlessly happening, very few of which make great stories.  

She died a day after her eighty-first birthday, of a cancer that took its sweet time finishing her off.   Cancer of the endometrium, the walls of the womb my sister and I came of age in, took twenty-three years to kill her.   She never liked to consider this fact, that she was actually dying, that her unfathomable, indescribable pain toward the end was a not subtle signal that she was dying.   She fought the knowledge that she was being killed by a relentless disease with no cure, particularly toward the end, when she lost a lot of weight, lost the taste for even her favorite foods and there was nothing more the doctor could do.  

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me!  I never had pain like this,” she often said in exasperation during those final weeks. Though I am not a big fan of denial, I always considered it a duty of love to play along with her denial of death.  She was the one who was dying, I saw it as her right if she didn’t want to make it worse by acknowledging  it.

She fought the cancer to a standstill for more than two decades.  If we can say anybody can fight a monster like cancer, no matter how proactive and positive of mind and body they are.   My mother was fortunate, her body responded miraculously to a new treatment they had just come up with, a synthetic hormone called Megace that had shown some promise and was kind of a last shot for my cancer riddled mother, by then the cancer was everywhere.   She got lucky and had about fifteen years of remission, not that she was ever overwhelmingly grateful about that new lease on life, though she had many things she loved about life.  In the end, there was no treatment available, just a series of discussions to be had.   She had no taste for these kinds of talks.

My sister and I took her to the oncologist, maybe a year before she died.   She saw the handsome little silver-haired doctor’s face and immediately said “I don’t want to hear any bad news!”   

“It’s been nice seeing you, then, Evelyn, always a pleasure,” said my imagined version of the doctor, though the dapper oncologist was unable to be quite so breezy, nor would it have been possible to be, in his place, I suppose.  So, isn’t it really better to say that he was just cool and witty, made a quick, dashing joke out of the whole thing?   We all had a laugh, instead of deathly news, and went to a new restaurant and had a delicious lunch.  

My mother would appreciate my improving the story that way.   It’s not what happened, precisely, but it’s pretty close and why not give the doctor a better, jazzier line than the one he uncomfortably came up with?   It’s got to be brutally hard, breaking the bad news to a patient who doesn’t want to hear it.  Might as well have the doctor play along with a wink, we all know the score here but, damn it, Evelyn, you’re right, no reason to lay the terrible details out like that.    

My sister, who had many more dealings with him, was angry at the oncologist by the time he retired, about six months before my mother died, after he’d said an awkward goodbye.   My sister had been unhappy at the way he seemed to lose focus. The visit before he’d apparently asked my mother to take off her shirt so he could examine her breasts.

“She has endometrial cancer, doctor,” my sister reminded him, shaking her head slightly, signaling to her mother that this guy was as cuckoo for Cocoa-puffs as she was.

                                                                                   ii

During her final days, when I was staying with her, my mother would call me in every night to watch Jon Stewart with her.  My mother loved the bright, adorable comedian.   As much as she loved Stewart she hated his equally brilliant protégé Stephen Colbert.  As soon as Colbert’s over the top show began she’d quickly switch the channel to a rerun of some old show.

 I got why she loved Jon Stewart, I felt the same way.   He made her laugh and think, he informed her of unfolding events with trenchant irony, his wit and his perfect facial expressions made the horrible news easier to bear.  He, almost alone among the media in the years of her widowhood, gave her hope that not everyone in the world had gone insane.  

She was a secular Jew from the Bronx, had been raised to believe in equality, human rights and social justice.  I recall her telling me when I was a young reader that she didn’t think much of Howard Fast as a writer, but that the idealistic man who’d been blacklisted as a suspected Communist had his heart in the right place.  As an old woman she was depressed by the many signs that our country did not always have its heart in the right place.  She would clench her teeth every time President George W. Bush came on TV.  

She regarded him as the worst American president, definitely the worst of her lifetime.  One of the last things she said to me on her deathbed at the hospice, spoken urgently:  “please promise me Sarah Palin will never be president of the United States!”  

I promised her, thinking to myself “at least not in your lifetime, mom.”  

As much as she loved Jon Stewart, she had an almost visceral dislike of his gifted protégé Stephen Colbert.  As soon as Stewart’s show ended, even before Colbert’s American eagle swept, beak and talons first, toward the camera, she had the remote in hand and was looking for something else to watch.  I never understood this.   She couldn’t explain it, she just couldn’t stand him.  

“You realize that the overbearing right wing blowhard persona is parody, he’s playing a character.  He’s hilarious, mom.”  

She shook her head.   “I know.  I don’t know what it is, I can’t watch him.  I know it’s a parody, I just can’t stand him.”

So it wasn’t that she was like President Bush’s team who’d hired Colbert to do the Correspondents’ Club dinner, apparently in the mistaken belief that he was a fellow traveler, a very funny, popular comedian who happened to be as patriotic as Sean Hannity and a true believer in the unquestionable greatness of America and the Unitary Executive, right or wrong.  In 2006 nobody in the media was saying too much out loud about the Bush administration’s many excesses.

I showed my mother the video of Colbert fearlessly skewering the president at the Correspondents’ Club.  I recall at the time feeling great admiration for him, he was about the first person to publicly suggest that the Emperor and those around him might not be dressed as splendidly as they imagined.   He showed impressive sang froid by doing it, literally, in the president’s face.  My mother admitted it was a great routine.  He began:

Mark Smith, ladies and gentlemen of the press corps, Madame First Lady, Mr. President, my name is Stephen Colbert and tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.

Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument.  (the rest is here)

President Bush is still smiling gamely at this point, but his smile becomes more and more brittle until it falls off his face after a few moments.  Good sport and nice guy that I’ve often heard George W. Bush is, his politics aside, I’m pretty sure he shook Colbert’s hand at the end, probably told him he’d done a heck of a job.   But he clearly understood in pretty short order that he was being roasted by a merciless chef in a bullet-proof apron.  My mother loved it.

I tried to get her to watch Colbert’s show a few times after that, but she never lasted through the opening, switching to an in progress re-run of NCIS, CSI or other murder mystery as I left, befuddled.  

One night I was going through a shoebox of black and white family photographs.  I found a photo that made me feel like the protagonist of one of her detective novels.   It was a shot of my uncle, my father’s younger brother, as a young man, dressed in a well-fitting suit.  It could have been a photograph of Stephen Colbert, in character as the rooster-like right-wing talk show host.   My mother strongly disliked my uncle.  She found him narcissistic, tyrannical, unreasonable, demanding and petty.   In a word, Colbert’s character on the show.  

 She once desperately offered me a huge monetary bribe to spend a week in Florida when my uncle and aunt planned to visit her, after my father died.  She kept upping the dollar amount as I hesitated.

“Please,” she begged over the phone, “you can’t leave me alone with them!  For a week!  A week, Elie!  There will be bloodshed.”  

I rushed into her room with the photograph of my uncle.

“Is this why you hate Colbert?” I asked, handing her the photo.  

“Oh, my God,” she said, staring at the picture, “oh, my God!”  And then she began to laugh.  Another mystery satisfyingly solved.

 

                                                                                iii

I would not say that my mother was a mostly happy woman, though she had several things that gave her delight, things she loved to the end: opera, thoughtful conversation, well-plotted ​murder mysteries, dogs, intelligent comedy and good writing.   

When she was alone, which she was most of the time in the years after my father died, she was subject to dark mood​s. This is no surprise, considering she was alone day and night for the first time in fifty-four years, with a gnawing cancer increasingly determined to do her in.  Also, sorrow had always been as large a part of her life as her robust sense of humor.

After she died I was referred to an excellent book called Death Benefits (by Jeanne Safer) which points out that the life of a loved one, once over, can be seen as a whole and valuable ​life ​lessons should be drawn from it.  I made a list of the things I’d received from my mother, there were many good things on there.  

One that I remembered to add after I spoke off the cuff at her memorial service was: have no fear to shock a little if the truth also makes a good story and nobody is really harmed by it.

At her request we had her cremated.  The woman at the Florida crematorium insisted on calling the ashes ‘cremains’, which gave my sister and me a few cringing laughs.  I brought the cremains up to Peekskill, the haunted little town where my father’s unspeakably miserable childhood unfolded.   We gathered in the beautiful new chapel of the synagogue up there for a memorial service.   

My mother’s cremains were in the first row, sitting unobtrusively in a box in their fancy shopping bag.  We’d already been informed by the rabbi that her ashes could not be buried in her funeral plot next to her husband of 54 years.

S​everal people were ​ready to speak, a looping slideshow showed photos of my mother at different ages, and the people she loved; a recording of her reading some of her favorite Edna St. Vincent Millay poems played over improvised ambient music.  She was an excellent and expressive reader and it was eerie and oddly comforting to hear her living voice in that setting.

I changed into my suit behind the folding wall.  It was a hot day so I left my sandals on instead of putting on shoes and socks, something I needlessly pointed out ​to the assembled guests (most of them couldn’t see my feet) ​and apologized to my mother for.  My mother would have certainly ​given me grief for not putting my polished black shoes on, and done so sincerely, but in the end she would have probably written the offense off as me, as always, having to be me.

The chapel was full, I cued the recorded music to go down, a singer friend and I played September Song.  Then I began what were to be short remarks before my beloved partner read the beautiful eulogy she’d written.   I had a digital recorder in my pocket, but I forgot to hand it to someone to record the service, so memory, as so often, is the only available guide.

“My mother would not have missed the irony of having this memorial in a synagogue in Peekskill, of all places.  Not only did she have only the most tenuous connection to this small town, having visited it only a handful of times, but my father, who’s buried here, left at the first opportunity and never returned.”

​”It is even more ironic, of course, that we are gathered in a synagogue. Outside of the occasional wedding or bat mitzvah, my mother did not set foot in synagogues.  She had no use for the rituals of our religion, although she proudly identified as a Jew, in fact, you know, she couldn’t have been mistaken for anything else, except perhaps Italian.  Now that I think of it, she was last in a synagogue about a year ago, for a Friday night service, of all things.”

“There was a left wing rabbi in South Florida whose column she read every week in the local paper.  She was largely in despair about the tidal shift to the ​right in American politics​, how even supposed liberals like Bill Clinton, who called themselves Centrists, were in many ways to the right of Eisenhower.   So she loved this fiery liberal ​rabbi who stood for all the things she believed in and wrote fiercely about his values.”  

“She was excited to read that the rabbi would be speaking at the local synagogue.  She went to the Friday night service with a friend to see and hear him in person.”

“I asked her afterwards how it was.  She told me, with characteristic animation, that it had been horrible, awful.  Her rabbi was on the bima, seated, was introduced to the crowd, waved and did not say a word.  Not one word!  Not only that, she said, ‘they read every goddamned prayer in that fucking prayer book!'”

Those assembled in the chapel laughed heartily at this evocation of my mother, a refined and earthy woman from just off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx of the 1930s and ’40s.  I hadn’t really intended to tell this particular story, but as I stood there it became an irresistible opening to my remarks.

My mother would have been only fleetingly embarrassed, had she been there in more than spirit.  She would have immediately protested before laughing herself, any embarrassment quickly wiped away by the love she got from those assembled to remember her distinct and unique personality in that godforsaken chapel in the little town that had formed the backdrop for her beloved’s traumatic childhood. 

You Are Not Allowed Those Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Death Squads

Trying to take a break from the coverage of our petulant president’s vain and self-created “crisis”, his vanity project of a gigantic wall, and his unprecedented use of extremist “Tea Party” tactics, a president vetoing a bipartisan bill in order to force a government shutdown hostage crisis, I wake up today thinking about death squads, damn it.  

History is written in blood, much of it, and that blood is rarely the blood of kings, lords, popes, princes of industry and finance.  The tree of liberty, according to an eloquent slave owner who rebelled against British tyranny, is supposed to be occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots, though it’s often hard to sort the tyrants from the patriots without a scorecard.   The tally of blood spilled is probably a few dozen tyrants against millions and millions of voluntary and involuntary patriots, not to mention millions of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.  Tyrant blood is very, very expensive, it turns out; the rest of our blood, incalculably cheap.

It’s easy to see how this works, it is done the same way over and over throughout human history.   You create a story in which people who think like you, or who belong to your identity group,  are good, and people who don’t think like you, or don’t look like you, are evil.   Then it’s all black and white.  You can send troops in to clear things up, kill the evil people while lovingly protecting, even sacrificing their own lives, for their brothers and sisters in arms.  Somebody called this selective empathy, and it’s a good way to think of it, infinite mercy for my beloved siblings, only death and destruction for evil motherfuckers like you.

In the war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, it was often impossible to know who was “good” and who was “evil” just by looking, and often the only glimpse you got, seconds before somebody’s death, was fleeting.   The population was mixed, like every population is, many of them simply trying to avoid death during a war, enemy and friend were often impossible to tell apart.   That at least two of the three major recent American wars were based on lies, or faulty but often chanted theories (the Domino Theory, WMD) makes it even worse, but not that much worse.

War often brings a nation together, no matter how much we learn about it afterwards, no matter how cynical the calculation was, no matter how deadly and destructive war always is.   Dubya Bush had very low popularity numbers until, after the attacks on 9/11, he became a war time president.   His popularity soared.   A war time president is usually popular, particularly in a nation where military service is not mandatory and anybody who doesn’t want to die or be maimed in war can safely stay out of it.    Would I put it past this grandiose, increasingly beleaguered autocrat to start a war to goose his popularity above 40% ?   I’d put nothing past him, how could I?   I’d be surprised if he didn’t launch something huge.

Why Death Squad?  It’s how unpopular governments always maintain power, through brutality and terror.   You, priest, you gave a powerful speech talking about how strongly Jesus would denounce our regime’s torture and disappearance policies?   How about we crucify you to the door of your church, padre, for everyone to see how effective those policies actually are?   You want to save poor children?   How about we leave a pile of them, drenched in blood, at the feet of your crucified body?   

I have friends who sometimes poke me about seeing Nazis everywhere.   I come by this wariness somewhat honestly.   The town where my grandparents, my mother’s parents, came from had a mixed population with about 4,000 Jews, few survived the cold winter of 1942 and the final deadly night in August 1943, when the Nazis decided their fate.  

The town was in the Ukraine.  The Poles controlled it for many years, and Ukrainians, who remained nationalistic, worked with the Poles.   World War One was rough in that town, and then, after the Russian Revolution, the Red Army marched into the area and put up the flags of the USSR.   The Ukrainians hated the Russians who, in turn, once Stalin came in, starved literally millions of Ukrainians to death, right before World War Two was underway in earnest. 

My grandparents got the hell out while the getting was still possible.   My grandmother came to America in 1921, my grandfather in 1923.  It was a good thing, because in 1924 strict immigration quotas were put into effect, reducing the numbers from that area to a tiny trickle.   

Then my mother was born, in the Bronx, and my father, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.   As they grew up the world was marching inexorably through the Great Depression toward the second act of the Great War.   Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death while taking all their grain.   Hitler launched his invasion of the USSR.   German troops marched eastward, and behind his troops, einsatzgruppen, death squads.   These death squads were mobile units of the Security Police and SS Security Service that followed the German armies to Poland in 1939 and to the Soviet Union in June, 1941.   They rounded up and shot partisans, intellectuals and any Jews they encountered.   They experimented with gassing, using carbon monoxide from their trucks and vans, but it was inefficient and there were just too many people to kill that way.

Have your captives dig a huge ditch, have the people stand next to it, their clothes neatly piled somewhere else, and take aim at their heads, which pop like pumpkins or melons if you hit them just right.   It was a hard job and even dedicated SS men had a hard time doing it for very long.   It was the kind of work that could drive a person mad, no matter how strongly that person believed they were doing the right thing.

In my grandparents’ town in the Ukraine the einsatzgruppen were not, apparently, involved when the time came to cleanse the town of its remaining Jews .  By August 1943 you had trains running constantly eastward toward huge industrial killing facilities.   Jews would be concentrated in various ghettos and camps which would eventually be liquidated by sending them to death camps in long trains of cattle cars.  From the Nazi perspective this was a much better arrangement all around, what with the millions of Jews who needed to be eliminated.  Then there were small pockets of Jews, in fairly out of the way places, like the survivors of my grandparents’ town.

So the Jews of this Ukrainian town were forced to build a fence between their new ghetto and the rest of the town, while the Nazis took a few hostages, including a brother or nephew of my grandmother’s, to ensure the job was done quickly.   The Jews were persecuted, starved, frozen, beaten, many died during the harsh winter of 1942-43.   Everybody left in my grandmother’s family, and my grandfather’s (and each was one of seven siblings) was eventually marched to a ravine on the northwestern edge of the town, one night in August 1943.   There local Ukrainians, under the guidance of SS officers, took care of the surviving Jews, in the way that killers “take care” of their victims.  They acted as an ad hoc death squad, while the SS supervised.

None of this was ever discussed in our home.   My grandmother drank to excess as she got older, my grandfather was fearful and sometimes a little withdrawn, but they were otherwise fine.   I learned nothing from them, or from my parents, outside of the indigestible fact that everyone left behind in Europe had been killed.   It would be decades before I’d get the details, from an indispensable web site, which collected (and translated) the eye witness accounts of survivors, including an account of the schools in that town by a first cousin of my grandfather’s, a guy named Henry, who lived in Baltimore and who I met more than once when I was a kid.  His wife was named Goldie.

There was also, amazingly, this account, by either my grandfather’s youngest brother, or, more likely, a nephew.   Identified only as Y.   Through an amazing, twisted series of misadventures, he was spared the fate of everyone in his family, outside of my grandparents and Henry, who must have emigrated around the time my grandparents did.   A horrific story, the wartime experiences of Y. Mazur, but he lived to tell it, went back to his hometown and, after a long court fight, got paid for the family home and made his way to the new state of  Israel.  I had no idea.

I have searched in vain, as have other family historians, for the exact location of my maternal grandmother’s town, in the marsh south of Pinsk.  Wiped from the map without a trace, along with everybody there, like thousands of small hamlets where poor Jews made their homes in that part of the world.

So it never leaves me, the very real idea that when a death squad comes, you’re fucked. There is literally nothing you can do, outside of trying to escape.  By the time the death squad is on its way, good fucking luck to you, collateral damage.   If a maniac wants to kill you, they usually will.   Particularly if it’s nothing personal, you understand.