Colluding to pretend all is well

We always have the option to pretend that the things that hurt us are not that bad. You can have a heavy history of sour battles with someone, and pretend it all weighs nothing.   The fear is that allowing the feelings that cause the conflict into view and trying to work things out will inevitably lead to more conflict, a fight to the death over who is the bigger asshole — who is to blame for everything.  

To accommodate yourself to this internal dilemma you need to stop caring as much about the person, since if you cared too much it would be painful to sit with somebody who may be compelled, when the moment is right, to stick a finger into your deepest wound.    This “compromise” agreement not to talk about the 600 pound gorilla in the room is a powder keg situation, both parties sitting on the explosive keg smoking cigarettes and acting as if there is no possible harm to any of it.

It is strenuous, wearying work, I find, to pretend that a relationship with someone who can’t help being insensitive, suspicious, antagonistic, untruthful (or worse) is actually fine.    In psychologist Jeanne Safer’s book about sibling conflict, Cain’s Legacy, the author talks about what she calls “sibspeak”, the intimate language siblings speak among themselves, full of code words and often silent agreements not to acknowledge the painful sources of fundamental conflicts.  

Avoidance is common in the secret language many siblings speak to each other, since there are often primal conflicts going back to earliest memories, things that trigger real hurt, fear and anger.  Avoidance produces only caution, I find.   I read the book, which describes numerous troubled sibling relationships,  with interest.   Reading her conclusions, the general principles she sets out,  a series of steps to take for better communication with a sibling, this one jumped out at me.

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This collusion to keep the dark, fearful, enraging things hidden is a trap.   It requires ignoring strong feelings that are telling you important things. Things like: when somebody tells you angrily that they want to kill you, believe the strength of their feelings.  Things like: after somebody hurts you, an apology — an expression of empathy, remorse and vow to do better–  is necessary before reconciliation and forgiveness can happen.    Things like: if even a small breach of this “agreement” not to talk about  painful things leads to accusations and rage, there is a major problem.

Of course, you can always nonchalantly cross your legs again, after fishing out your lighter, and putting the flame to a new cigarette, being as careful as one can be sitting on a keg full of explosive powder talking about everything else in the world.

Hereditary Trait — war between siblings?

Years ago I had a terrible fight with my sister.   A few days later I was visiting my father’s first cousin Eli, a rough character as capable of tenderness as he was of socking somebody with one of his hard fists.  The old man thoughtfully listened to my description of the fight.  He paused to take it all in, then gave me his advice.

“Look, she’s your sister, I hear what you’re saying about the fight but don’t let the bad feelings linger.   You have to swallow your pride, tell her you’re sorry you two fought, you don’t have to apologize for starting the fight or not starting it, you’re just sorry about the whole thing.   Tell her you want to make up, put it behind you, tell her you love her and you feel terrible and you want it to be over.  Don’t let your pride stand in the way of making up with her.  Do it sooner rather than later when it might be too late.”

I told him it was good advice, and that I appreciated it, but that I was still too hurt and angry to make that move, and then, taking a page from my mother’s book, I told Eli it was a little ironic coming from him, a man who hadn’t spoken to his own sister in over thirty years.   This got the same reaction my mother’s challenging comments always got from Eli.  His face immediately turned magenta and he leaned forward menacingly, ready to attack.

“My sister is a completely different story!   There is no comparison between my sister and your sister!   My sister is a complete bitch!” he yelled in a cry of pain and anger, as acutely stung by the painful falling out they’d had decades earlier as if the unforgivable offense had just happened.

Fast forward three decades.  I get a call from Eli’s daughter.  She and her sister are visiting the cemetery where their parents and mine are buried.  She asked if I’d like to meet them, it’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.   I took the train up to Peekskill and we drove over to the cemetery.   It is a Jewish tradition to take a small stone and place it on the gravestone of the dead person we are visiting.     We gathered our stones and walked among the graves.

At their parents’ grave we put our stones on Eli’s side of the large headstone and then, as I put a stone on their mother Helen’s side, I said “she was a sweet lady.” That was my memory of her — long-suffering, hospitable, kind smile.  I was a boy when Helen died young, but I remember her pretty well.  Neither of her daughters said anything when I said their mother had been a sweet lady.

Afterwards, over lunch, they told a couple of stories involving their mother, as though to set the record straight, letting me know that their mother, in her way, had been as problematic as their emotional, sometimes violently opinionated father.

If your father is tyrannical, as the beloved Eli also was, and your mother always goes along with the tyranny… well, an ally of your enemy is also your enemy.  I know this well from my own childhood.  Helen always seemed sweet to me, she’d smile warmly and bring us good things to eat.   She was quiet and kept herself busy being the perfect hostess during our visits, she laughed easily.  She died of cancer when I was about 11 or 12.   Why wouldn’t a boy remember her as a sweet person?   Particularly if his own parents often attacked him, sometimes quite savagely.

We can think of these childhood observations without attaching value judgments to them, somehow, but it’s not easy, or even always a great idea, I think.   Value judgments are our assessment of what’s the right way to act and what not to do.   Even the doltish Nazi Adolf Eichmann, the subject of Hannah Arendt’s brilliant book on his trial in Israel, was able to accurately summarize Immanuel Kant’s view on this, the Categorical Imperative.   When pressed by the judges at his trial he defined it: to act in such a way that you could will your actions to be universal principles.   Would the world be better or worse if everyone acted like I am acting now?

I think of this as another statement of Hillel’s famous summary of morality: what is hateful to you, don’t do to somebody else.   Loving your neighbor as yourself is a difficult golden rule to follow.   Phrasing it the way Hillel did cuts through difficult theory to practical practice.   It’s a simple matter to know what you hate, you hate it instantly, always, it’s like a chemical reaction.  

You can do something hateful to you to somebody else, if you don’t expect that person to treat you any differently in return, but what kind of world would it be?  If everyone treated everyone in this hateful manner we’d have a state of constant war, each against all.  If we all stopped ourselves from doing things to others that we hate done to us, that would be a huge step toward solving problems before the oceans rise to drown all of us not turned into desperate climate refugee/cannibals determined to not to die by water.

But back to my original thought about whether we inherit certain idiosyncrasies regarding siblings (begging, of course, the equally valid question of whether we learn them as children).   Eli didn’t talk to his sister for the last 30 or 40 years of their long lives. He lived to be almost 90, his sister to 103.  I believe their final dispute was related to sharing their father’s modest inheritance, more than 40 years before Eli’s death.    Eli’s daughters have a younger brother I haven’t seen or heard from in years.  When I asked his sisters about him they said he was fine.  I got the feeling that they haven’t talked to him for a long time.

Although I often ascribe this family harshness to the brutal pruning of our family tree back in 1942 and 1943, and the centuries-long culture of persecution my surviving family comes from, I suspect these estrangements between siblings happen in many cultures.  I just read a book about sibling strife by psychologist Jeanne Safer,  Cain’s Legacy.  She states her credo at the start of the book:   “Cain’s Legacy reflects my passionate conviction that it is essential not to gloss over the dark side of life.”   She states my credo as well.  

I have to peer into the darkness until I can see the fucking thing, I can’t stop myself, nor do I want to.   I need to understand what is there.  If it can be fixed, let’s fix it.  If it provides a lesson, let’s take the lesson from it.  If it is too monstrous to survive in the light, we’re better off leaving it there in the dark and both walking away from it.  To pretend it’s not there does not seem to be a life-affirming option.

The common peace-seeking instinct is to move toward the anodyne, the inoffensive, compromise version of conflict that blames nobody.  An explanation that lets everybody off the hook, you dig.  This is the purportedly non-controversial version of sometimes unbearable things we often hear from those who urge us that both sides always have an equal right to their opinion and that we should not judge.  We always judge, it’s part of our nature.  It’s how we survived as a species, as individuals.   It’s what we’ve learned to do from the experience of our lives, to the extent we ever really learn anything.

My father’s brother was younger, sickly as a boy and mom’s favorite.  Where my father was literally whipped in the face by mom, from the time he could stand, his brother was coddled.   Neither one emerged from their childhood without deep emotional scars, although my father’s problems are easier for me to understand now than my uncle’s.  My uncle, to his credit, spent years in psychoanalysis.  His son, my first cousin, would scoff to read the reference to his father’s long exercise in denial, dressed in a suit, lying on a shrink’s couch week after week, gaining so little insight. What did he learn?  When the mood struck, he remained tyrannical in his rage until the end. My father, for his part, had a lifelong scorn for people so weak they needed to whine to a shrink about the demons all of us must battle in our lives.

My uncle, much smaller than my father, often cringed around his brother, like a younger brother who’d often been sucker punched by his older, bigger, stronger antagonist.  One of the few stories my father ever told us about his brutal childhood of grinding poverty was the time he stuffed his little brother’s mouth full of raw chopped meat.   He told us the story more than once, chuckling each time he did.   The brothers had a strained relationship throughout their lives.  One time my father stayed at his brother’s overnight and I asked him over the phone how my uncle was doing.  I wrote his immortal reply on the page I was doodling on:  “let’s just say he remains unchanged.”

Yet, check this out– when my father was dying, he kept asking for his brother.   I picked my uncle up at the airport and the two brothers clung to each other morning to night for the last couple of days of my father’s life.   It was incredibly poignant to my sister and me.  After my father died his brother sat with his dead body (along with my brother-in-law) until members of the Chevre Kadisha (the Jewish burial society) claimed the body to watch over it and prepare it for the funeral.

My paternal grandmother, a savage little woman who died before I was born, used to yell at her sons when she saw them at each other’s throats.   “Seenas Cheenum!” she would shout — baseless enmity!   No reason on earth for these boys, growing up in extreme poverty, one beaten, the other coddled,  to be at each other like that!  I can imagine my grandmother grabbing my father roughly, pulling him away from her beloved younger son.   This kind of thing is detailed in the Old Testament where sibling treachery abetted by mothers and deadly fights between brothers are reported multiple times.  

This tendency for eternal ruthless war between siblings appears to wind up in the blood.  A combination of nature and nurture,  I suppose.  It is seemingly replicated down the generations.   Without insight into it, we remain prisoners of strong feelings we cannot understand or get past.  We pick up a rock and slay, sometimes.  

This unreasoning, murderous side of us lurks in our wounded hearts– there are circumstances that will bring out this rage.  The challenge is never to pick up a rock and slay, or maybe, to learn, without a doubt, that the wisest thing to do is to remove yourself from a situation so emotionally fraught that, under pressure, it will inevitably yield to the impulse to pick up the rock.   

Opaqueness vs. transparency

Life is complicated.  People stay in horrible situations until they are destroyed, even when they know they are being destroyed.  Solid information is often available to help them make better choices, but … it’s complicated.   Some facts are just plain painful, and who wants that?  No reason to obsess over the image of frogs in steadily warming water, realizing too late that they are already partially parboiled.   

“How long do we have to get out of this before it’s too late?” asks a dying frog of another profusely sweating frog who is holding a thermometer and wearing a watch. 

“How the fuck should I know?” says the other doomed frog.  “I’m fucking dying here and you want to ask me stupid, hypothetical questions?  Asshole!”

One thought, if realized before they were goners, would be to check the temperature on the thermometer and use the watch to find out how fast the heat is rising.   190 degrees Fahrenheit is dangerously close to the 212 needed to make frog soup.   It’s 194 now, boys.   195.  There are certain objective facts here, fellows, verifiable information we can… oh, shit, 197.

Seldom, of course, is anything this simple, if simple any of this is. 

I think of the mother who told me her children had no idea how angry she was at the children’s father.   She had many good reasons to be angry as hell at the lying, thieving, death-threatening, fraud-committing, bullying bastard.  So angry, in fact, that she slept in her young son’s bed for several years after a particularly brutal betrayal by her husband.   

I urged her not to let her children stay in the dark about the many perfectly understandable reasons for her anger.  I told her the lack of reason would harm her children in ways she couldn’t imagine.  I offered to mediate an honest family discussion where these things could be placed on the table, a teachable moment for the kids about taking responsibility for one’s actions and the feelings.of those you love.   She declined, telling me that everything was fine, assuring me that the kids were none the wiser.   I told her not to delude herself, that the kids knew very well that she was furious at their father, though they had no clue why.

A couple of years before her young son finally kicked her out of his bed, saying “mom, this is weird…”, she told me I’d been right.   

“They know,” she told me finally, and recounted the conversation she overheard as she washed dishes and her children talked to another kid under the kitchen window.

“Our dad loves our mom, but our mom hates our dad,” she heard one of her observant young children say to their little neighbor.

My thought remained the same.   The kids have to know why you are angry at dad or else you are just an irrationally angry, grudge-holding person who finds it impossible to forgive things nobody has any idea even happened.   What effect does this untruthfulness have on your children’s forming understanding of the world, of intimate relationships?   Dad just shrugs, hugs and kisses the kids, pets them gently, says “hopefully one day your mom will realize how much I love her and love me back again and everything will be fine.  What can I do?  You want another ice cream cone?”

The kids will eat their ice cream with dad, laugh at his carefree shenanigans, thankful that they have at least one parent who is not a tense, joyless, implacably angry person.

I grew up in a home where certain things could never be discussed.  This included a variety of vexing things verified for me by my father on the last night of his life, after decades of his angry denial.   I know very well the effect this long zero sum battle against obstruction had on me.   To this day it sets me grimly against anyone who would be right at any price– these often escalate into battles to the death.    It cost me the ability to shrug philosophically when I am unfairly accused of something, in a conclusory way.   It haunted my working life, I can tell you for sure, my inability not to eventually tell an overbearing asshole boss to fuck the hell off.

There are things that actually happen in the world.  A bankruptcy, a death threat, an insurmountable gambling debt, unpaid loans, marital infidelity, provable fraud — these are things that either happened or didn’t happen.  There is little ambiguity about these kinds of events, some are even matters of public record (even if otherwise hidden).    If they happened, shameful though they may be to the party involved, they need to be discussed with the people directly affected by them.   Otherwise, life is a trial based on guesswork, without witnesses, evidence, any process of truth finding that allows the jurors to decide based on anything but prejudice.

In the name of love you will cripple those you love by making them live a lie they have no idea is anything but the truth, the whole truth and nothing but that arguably better than lying thing.

 

Never Wrong

We all know people who have never been wrong.   The Pope, for example, has long been considered infallible, at least by the faithful.   That includes centuries of Popes who said, infallibly (before the Church revised its infallible dogma in recent times [1]), that the Jews collectively were eternally responsible for deicide, the murder of the Son of God, and should be eternally despised for having the blood of the Lamb on their murderous Jewish hands.   

Leave aside Popes, godly men who are so close to the Lord that their every opinion is beyond any possible reproach (if you are faithful to the one true faith).  We all know people in our lives who have never made a mistake.  To those of us who have made various mistakes, felt regrets and tried to make amends, these people may be hard to understand.  I will offer the example of some of the folks I know who have shown this sturdy belief in their own infallibility, sometimes in the face of impressive evidence to the contrary and at significant personal cost to themselves.

Famously, in my life, perhaps the single most unhappy person I’ve ever known was also the most certain in his eternal moral correctness.   An exemplar par excellence of the Repetition Compulsion, he was compelled to live the identical, miserable three act play over and over.  Act one: great excitement at having finally encountered an amazing person or thing.  Act two: ominous cracks appear in this idealized facade.  Act three: betrayal.

The salient thing about this little play, repeated over and over with countless new cast members, was that it illustrated the most important thing in this fellow’s life: that he was right, and always acting in good faith, and that the world was unjustly ready to kick him hard in the balls.  Always being the unfairly betrayed victim allowed him to always feel justified.  It didn’t really make him happy, and it left him without a single friend, but it made him feel righteous, I suppose.

I had a good friend from childhood, a very good musician, who wound up in a decades-long nightmare marriage.   I understand they finally separated, but a lot of severe damage was done to their children, and to their other relationships, over the course of the long, brutal war that was their marriage.   My friend commented once about certain innate abilities I had in music that he felt he lacked.  I noted a kind of envy sometimes as we played.   I suppose his feeling that he lacked the innate abilities I took for granted ate at him more and more over the years, that he felt himself to be in some kind of unfair competition with me as a guitarist [2].   He could not refrain, for this and other reasons, from provoking me, as his life got worse and worse.   

In fairness to him, he knew that no matter how much he provoked me I’d never slug him.   Neither of us is that kind of guy.   I asked him many times to back off when he was provoking me, as I was becoming aggravated by his superior tone and refusal to yield on any point.   He always denied he was provoking me, always insisted that the problem was mine alone, I was just an angry asshole easily provoked by totally innocent behaviors.  I tried for a long time to save a doomed, zombie friendship that dated back to fourth grade.  In the end he could not admit to ever having done anything that could have made me angry, claiming sullenly that his apologies, for whatever it was I thought he’d done to me, were never enough for me.  His wife, irrationally, insanely angry at him for no reason whatsoever, another case in point.

Is it that hard to admit having done something insensitive, dumb, wrong. something that irks the shit out of somebody else?  To some it appears to be impossible.   As close as we get to an acknowledgement from this type is the if-pology (tip of the yarmulke to landsman Harry Shearer):  IF I did something wrong, I apologize.  IF you are so oversensitive that you feel hurt and need an apology for something I didn’t even do, I apologize.  IF you can’t move on, pussy that you are, without my saying I’m sorry, well, if that’s the case, I’m truly sorry.  Asshole.

When you wrong somebody you love, in a moment of anger, say by threatening to murder their parents, their children and them, the proper, humane thing to do afterwards is to humbly apologize.   Without a show of repentance and the reassurance a sincere apology can provide, the threat stands: justified by the extraordinary circumstances that forced me to threaten you.  Preserving the option to do the unregretted thing next time and the time after that.   I always see the stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing, no matter what, as the cardinal mark of the pathetically insecure asshole.

The people we allow to stay in our intimate lives are those we trust not to behave hurtfully toward us.   We hurt each other sometimes, in thoughtless moments, it happens often enough in life.   We trust each other to consider hurtful actions and make amends when needed.  When we are aggrieved, a sincere apology can make a big difference in how we feel.  The same people, it seems, who can never be wrong often find it impossible to accept an apology once they’ve been hurt.   Go figure that one out.

We can argue about whether strapping someone to a board, gagging them and pouring water down their throat until seconds before they drown is barbaric torture or legally justifiable “enhanced interrogation”.   We can debate the difference between a political assassination and “targeted killing” and which is legal and which is not.   The only thing to remember is that those who would use any means to dominate others don’t care about the niceties of these “debates.”   They care about being right, winning.  And if I’m wrong?   FUCK YOU — you asked for war — Havoc! motherfucker, and let slip the fucking dogs of fucking war, asshole!

 

 

[1]  Wikipedia:

In the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI repudiated belief in collective Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus.[4] It declared that the accusation could not be made “against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today”.

[2]   This is a well-known syndrome among many guitar players, sadly.  There is something of a gunslinger mentality at jam sessions sometimes, a sorry macho holdover from a more brutal age.   Or maybe this age is simply as brutal as any other.  I’ve seen this competitive shit with guitar players over the years and it seems to miss the entire point of why we play music. Go fucking figure.

The Body Knows

In the same way that animals instantly know when a tsunami or other natural disaster is about to happen, and begin fleeing the soon-to-be killing zone, our bodies know many things before we are aware of them.

Years ago I watched my father bully his granddaughter, my niece.   She was about five, it was the evening before her birthday and my father asked her where she wanted to eat the next day to celebrate.  She told him and he shook his head.  No way.   When she tried to argue a case she shouldn’t have needed to argue, her grandfather cut her off with a smiling “you show me a girl who insists on going to Shells and I’ll show you a girl who doesn’t get the bike her grandparents bought for her.”  This bike, by the way, a sparkly little purple number with training wheels and girlish streamers coming out of the handlebars, long coveted by the birthday girl, had already been purchased.

The girl’s parents remained silent.  I tried to reassure my niece that we’d go wherever she wanted, but she ran upstairs crying.   A few minutes later, when I went up to say goodnight before heading back to where I was staying with my father, the bully, my niece smiled and pretended she was fine.   She’d been taught to do this and was already, at five, a master of the fake, but very ingratiating, smile.  I later learned that as soon as we left she ran into the bathroom and vomited.    She was 100% right to vomit.   She couldn’t have articulated, perhaps, the exact reason she was puking her guts out, but any observer of the scene with her mean grandfather and her silent parents could get a pretty good idea of what had upset her so much.  Her body had no hesitation to vividly express her feelings for her.

Five or six weeks ago I pushed myself a little too hard on a nine mile hike that, with my arthritic knees, was a little too strenuous.   The hike was beautiful and painless, except for the steep, rocky descent and climb back up which were very painful for my knees (the descent had been particularly excruciating).  I needed to rest after the climb, as I’ve learned to do periodically when walking, to take the stress off my knees for a few minutes, but my fellow hikers, none of whom have arthritis, continued happily on and I grimly struggled to catch up over those last few miles.  

I felt fine after the hike and woke up the next day, after a long sleep, feeling fine. That evening, in the car, I suddenly found myself unable to speak.   The sounds I made were the incomprehensible sounds of nonfluent aphasia.   One syllable expletives, expressing my frustration at not being able to speak, were about the only intelligible things I could get out.  

By the time we got to the ER, a few minutes later, my episode of transient nonfluent aphasia was over.  I was able to explain exactly what I’d experienced during those twelve to fifteen minutes of not being able to speak.   Sekhnet reminded me, in telling the doctors, that I’d maintained my ability to say “fuck” and “shit” and things like that.   I was rushed through several tests to rule out an ongoing stroke and determine the severity of this TIA, transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke.   None of the tests showed any reason to keep me in the hospital, I felt fine, my blood pressure and heart rate were normal.   They gave me a pill to take, an anti-coagulant called Plavix (clopidogrel to you and me) that is apparently part of the post-stroke protocol.   I swallowed the first dose in the ER, as instructed, and filled a prescription for the drug the following day, as I found a neurologist to follow up with.

Before it was time to take my second dose of clopidogrel (where do they get these names?) I had dinner and went for my customary walk.   About a mile from the house I suddenly experienced severe abdominal cramps.   I stopped and waited for the rumbling to pass, googling the side effects of clopidogrel (prominent among them were bloating, cramps and diarrhea), and, in the moment that followed, learned the terrible truth of the cliche about when you’re old never pass a bathroom and never trust a fart.  I have long understood the first part of that adage, and I live by it.  The wisdom of that odd bit about never trusting a fart suddenly became clear to me for the first time.

The back of my pants suddenly felt damp and, I’ll be damned, there was a little wet spot,  quickly becoming a cold wet spot.  I shook off my horror and headed home in mounting discomfort, my intestines groaning as I made my way through the residential neighborhood I walk in, where, I thought ruefully, every house I passed has several bathrooms.  As I got close to the house I called Sekhnet in panic, telling her to unlock the door and clear the path to the bathroom.  It was one of the most terrible miles I’ve ever walked.  Arriving at home at last, I pulled open the unlocked door, climbed the first step, and as my foot hit the second, learned the sinister Latin meaning of Plavix:  “explosive diarrhea while walking”.

The neurologist I consulted told me to discontinue the aptly named clopidogrel and I did.  The trauma to my excretory system persisted, day after day, week after week.  Clopidogrel had apparently ripped the hell out of my insides.   This side effect is only experienced by a statistically very small number of patients, and there appears to be no lawsuit related to it among the many against the makers of the drug for several other terrible, even deadly, side-effects.   If I’d had a serious stroke or heart attack, most doctors would have insisted I take this drug.  For a suspected mini-stroke, the protocol apparently requires it.   But it’s some fucked up shit if you fall into that statistically insignificant category who get 100% of side effect number 26, I can tell you from hard personal experience.

As the sudden spasms in my colon continued, punctuated by stirring episodes of what can only be described as a spastic colon, I began a liquid diet.  After 48 hours without solid food, the spasms eventually subsided.   I cautiously began introducing solid foods, noting on paper what I was eating every day.  Brown rice was fine, so were carrots, oddly enough and popcorn, steel cut oatmeal and whole wheat bagels were fine, even with tofu spread, tofu was also fine, persimmons and grapes were OK, raisins immediately brought back all of the symptoms.  

This has been an ongoing dance since October 21.  It’s been improving slowly and by Thanksgiving I ate virtually everything (our host made everything vegan, except for the turkey), in moderate portions, and I was fine.   Even the fine scotch went down without any problem.  I figured I was finally OK again.    Last night, throwing yer proverbial caution to the proverbial wind, I ate a normal dinner with friends, celebrating Sekhnet.  A few hours later my colon announced, with an unmistakable lack of ambiguity, that I’d once again be paying certain prices for my imprudence.

It occurred to me the other day that my colon is absolutely right to be freaking out, roiling and lashing out spastically.  

I follow the news closely and even do a little side reading to get some of the backstories.   The most recent post here, for example, is about the little side story that 3/5 of the president’s original campaign brain trust are now convicted felons.   The fourth was fired early on and was not directly implicated in any improprieties or illegal acts.   The fifth, a pugnacious, crew-cutted twat who should have been held in contempt of Congress for his open contempt, started a lucrative lobbying business across the street from the White House with direct, friendly, personal access to the most “transactional” president in history.   Presumably he is now very wealthy– and loyal to his president beyond question.

The Democrats, we hear, are reluctant to bring the damning conclusions of the Mueller Report (based on specific sworn testimony) into Trump’s impeachment.   (My colon tightens slightly as I write these sentences).  Their reasons for this are practical.  They cannot prove, without sworn testimony from those same witnesses, that the president engaged in the pattern of obstruction Mueller laid out because — the president continues to obstruct access to all fact witnesses who testified to Mueller under oath and all related documents.  It could take more than a year for the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the president’s clearly obstructive behavior.  (An abdominal sonogram ruled out an obstruction in my digestive system, by the way).

This ongoing obstruction by Trump and his myrmidons continues the pattern of the president’s successful obstruction of the original investigation into his campaign’s collusion in massive Russian interference in the 2016 election.  Trump interfered enough, by continually denouncing the “witch hunt” “hoax”, refusing to cooperate, giving “inadequate” evasive, lawyerly written answers and intimidating, praising and floating pardons to witnesses, to ensure that the investigation produced “insufficient evidence” of criminal activities, though Mueller’s report also, explicitly, if almost silently, did not exonerate him of the crime of obstruction of justice.   Mueller’s investigation also put several of Trump’s closest associates (3 of the 5 originals) in prison for felonies related to this obstruction.

My gut correctly points out that it is not intemperate, nor hyperbole, to call the aggressive, diehard, fact-denying followers of Mr. Trump Nazis.   Nazi officials under Mr. Hitler were supremely ambitious men guided by only one principle: das Führerprinzip, the “leader principle” [1].   This meant their supreme duty was loyal, absolute obedience to the will of their leader, their Führer.  As Nazis themselves would put it, even the fine, decent Nazis our president praised after their march in Charlottesville: Führerworte haben Gesetzkraft — the leader’s words have the force of law.   Keep repeating any theory Trump spouts — that is the surest ticket to the leader’s approval and support.

Check out the party of Lincoln now, says my twisting colon.  It’s the party of Trump. We read that he now actually controls all the money the RNC raises, he decides which candidates get party funds for their campaigns and how much they get.   The party strongman is unprincipled, uncurious, viciously opinionated, vindictive, petty, cruel.   The perfect kind of man to blindly obey, if you are an ambitious Nazi.  When Nazis are ascendant, and “facts” no longer even exist, guys like me start getting the heebie jeebies.  So I don’t blame my guts at all for being in an uproar, even as I do my best to calm them.

I sip my broth and think about making a cup of tea.  Yes, my twitchy colon says, a little pineapple chamomile sounds about right.

 

 

{1]   The Führerprinzip [ˈfyːʀɐpʀɪnˌtsiːp] (About this soundlisten) (German for “leader principle”) prescribed the fundamental basis of political authority in the governmental structures of the Third Reich. This principle can be most succinctly understood to mean that “the Führers word is above all written law” and that governmental policies, decisions, and offices ought to work toward the realization of this end.[1] In actual political usage, it refers mainly to the practice of dictatorship within the ranks of a political party itself, and as such, it has become an earmark of political fascism.

 

Take Your Inspiration Wherever You Find It

Here is a bit of inspiration for those who can take it. Admittedly, I’m not the typical hero of an inspirational story, I haven’t had that great heartwarming moment of underdog triumph we are used to seeing in movies, hearing about in author interviews on Fresh Air.  I have achieved little in the outside world, though my inner world, where I live most of the time, is a place I can recommend highly.  I offer this encouragement to follow your impulse to delve, imagine and create, and to go boldly where it leads.

The world will grind you down, constantly, it is a machine that seems designed to do that to most of us.  It doesn’t give a rat’s cuisse about you, your thoughts, desires, what you love, what you need, what you think you deserve. It is run, down to the smallest subdivision, by the most desperately misguided, almost by definition. The most driven, entitled, selfish, forceful, corrupt and violent will often decide matters for everybody else. Look around the world, it is largely run by vicious motherfuckers who did not get to rule everybody else by chance.

At the same time, the natural world is an infinitely beautiful place – a miracle. Plants, animals, the sky, the oceans, rivers, mountains, the ground you walk on, what is under the ground you walk on, its colors, tastes, sounds and smells. Human imagination is a miracle. Unimaginable things are routinely accomplished by our puny fellow earthlings. Our ability to communicate using combinations of symbols, as you and I are doing right now– no less miraculous for being also somehow explainable. Empathy and kindness from strangers, another characteristic of the species, another kind of miracle. Is there a miracle greater than the intimacy we share with those we love?

Leave aside the destructive myths of the cultures we live in, the false values that cause untold suffering to the vast majority of us, the vain, heedless leaders hellbent on destroying the marvelous planet we all live on. Human creativity, that eternally surprising source of inspiration and hope, and the unshakeable will to do something new and amazing, are among the best parts of being human.

I’m typing quickly, I’m excited, following this thought. I’m in a hurry now, hastening to urge you, and myself, to take inspiration at every opportunity, from wherever you find it.

I’ve been listening to the remarkable Robert Caro reading his book Working. In it he collects a few thoughts about how he goes about his work, gives a few choice illustrations, assembles some notes for an intended longer memoir he hopes to write one day. He is now in his eighties, and working on the last volume of a vast biography of LBJ.  Before he embarked on that work of several decades he wrote his first, now famous, ground-breaking study of power, his tome on Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

Caro has a great, down-to-earth New York accent and he speaks and reads his writing beautifully.  He is a kind of genius. When he was broke, and feeling desperate, five years into his work on his first book, the study of all-powerful New York City colossus Robert Moses, he found himself, several times, almost at the end of his faith in himself as an author.

Each time he felt about to give up and go back to working for New York Newsday, at the time a crusading liberal newspaper on Long Island, he managed to catch a break.  At one point it was a literary agent who got a sum of money for him and his family to live on as he continued to work on the book. Beyond that, she told him the New York literary world was already abuzz, very excited about his upcoming book and she found him the perfect editor. Later, when his faith was beginning to falter again, the stroke of good fortune was a key to a research and writing room at the New York Public Library.

This is the inspirational bit I am getting at. He was in a kind of despair that he might never be able to finish the massive book he was working on. Originally, naively, he’d envisioned taking a year to research and write it. Then it was two years, soon it stretched to five years and a million words.  He was trying to get at how power works in the world, using the person of the most powerful man in New York City, an unelected public builder who ruled for half a century and inexorably shaped the city forever.  He was writing a biography of Moses as a way of laying out the workings of political power.

Understanding how power works entailed learning and telling the stories of the many anonymous people screwed by the exercise of power, to get at power’s effects in the real world, on the daily lives of millions affected by it.  These anonymous people were hard to find, it took a lot of work to locate them.   The more research he did, the more interviews he conducted, the more he wrote, the more questions emerged and the further he seemed to be from the end of the gigantic project he’d devised for himself.

His wife had sold the family home she’d inherited, that money was gone, after some desperate days the additional advance from the literary agent was allowing them to rent an apartment as he continued to work in a tiny rented space, but his isolation as he worked was taking its toll. At the newspaper he’d been surrounded by colleagues, worked closely with an editor, got support from seasoned investigative journalists, had constant feedback and tight deadlines. Working in the tiny Bronx office he rented he was alone with his massive assignment.

He began to realize how much he missed the company of other writers, people who understood and could relate to the lonely work he was driven to undertake. He started thinking he might never finish the book, five years seemed an eternity and he was nowhere near done.

Off of the large research room at the main branch of the New York Public Library, there was a smaller room for several authors with book contracts who were doing research at the library.   Caro was given a key and a desk where he could write and keep the books and other files he was working with.  There were several other writers working at other desks in the room. Everyone worked in silence and for a few days he didn’t talk to anybody.

One day in the grubby library cafeteria (“grubby” I believe is the word Caro used) a writer he admired asked him about his project and how long he’d been at it. It turned out five years was not unreasonable, this writer had taken longer to research and write a book Caro had prized. Another impressive writer told him a similar story.  Suddenly he was not an outlier indulging a fantasy that could never be realized, he was a working writer trying to see an ambitious project to completion.

He reports how the simple revelation of these facts by two writers he greatly respected made him feel like kissing each of these men. You can feel his relief in the way he tells the story.  I take inspiration from his relief.

I don’t have Caro’s elite education, I went to public schools all the way through graduate school. I don’t have his background as an award-winning investigative journalist who spent years honing his craft under the watchful eyes of skilled editors and seasoned reporters he admired.  I don’t have Caro’s prodigious work ethic, if I’m being totally honest.   I work in my own imagination, in almost complete silence. Once in a while I write something that moves someone I know and they send me a quick email or text to tell me so. That is as close as I come to the world seeing me as a writer.

I write every day, as I have for many years. I’ve become good at setting things out clearly and I have a short shelf of books in mind to write. The tools are sharp, and waiting for me every time I sit down to write.  I write with a great appetite to set things out as plainly as I can and I rarely hesitate to write what’s on my mind to tell.

I had a remarkable conversation with my father the last night of his life. In that confession, which I heard with the mildness of a good priest, a whole life was encapsulated, sorrows expressed with terrible regret. My father candidly said things that night that he’d fought tirelessly to deny for all the years I knew him. A nurse friend later told me this happens sometimes to people close to death, Death hovering nearby can have this truth-encouraging effect.

Searching for a way to make some money, I learned from a writer friend about a website that pays $250 for short pieces about the experiences of Baby Boomers. I’d told this guy many stories over the years, including the story of my father’s deathbed conversion.   He told me to write some up and send them to the editor, that these family stories were just the kind of thing this website buys.

I sent the highly condensed story of a combative childhood, the constant war around the dinner table, the screaming every night, the verbal abuse. The call from Florida, decades later, father admitted to the hospital, time running out, rushing to Ft. Lauderdale airport. That final deathbed conversation, where my father, with almost no time left on the clock, told me he should have been mature enough to have had real conversations with his children, that the eternal, absurd black and white combat had been his fault. “You’re supposed to have some fucking insight…” he said in that raspy dying man’s voice. I told him it was OK. He died the next evening as the orange and pink Florida sunset outside the hospital windows turned the palm trees into silhouettes.

After a few back and forths during which I cut the piece from 1,500 to 1,000 words, it was published on the website and I had my first $250 check.  I had a bracing moment reading it on-line.  The editor had changed a few lines, swapping in a cliché here and there for a well-chosen, precise description, and in one egregious case, rewriting an entire sentence to make my narrator an insight-challenged idiot who could not understand how his mother could have loved his father, something I understood very well.

He left the next piece I sent him virtually intact, and sent me another $250, and he also loved the third, which he promised to publish soon. When I got no check for the third I inquired and he told me he thought he’d sent me an email about changing his mind. The piece was great, he wrote again, but maybe a bit too edgy for his audience. I sent one or two more but got tired of having this ham-fisted editor as the arbiter of whether my work was worth the fee. I should have begun flinging these pieces, and others, over the transoms of every magazine out there, but I didn’t.

Instead, I set out to write the book of my father’s life and times.  Every day I’d make a cup of coffee and sit down to recall what I could of my complicated, difficult father.  It was work I greatly looked forward to every day.   A man of charm, great intelligence, dark humor, idealism, sensitivity, my father was, at the same time, a broken soul who generally acted like a merciless, prosecutorial dick to my sister and me.

I proceeded on the theory, initially, that I had to show the traits that endeared him to so many, his wit, his empathy, his championing of the underdog, his intelligent counsel, and then dramatically contrast them to the dreaded monster he turned into in private during the ruthless nightly battles over dinner.  A monster! Jekyll and Hyde, something dramatic that the kids would want to buy.

After the intervention of my father, in the form of his talkative skeleton, and more than a thousand pages written over the next two years, and a year thinking more about the book I was trying to write, I came to realize that my initial theory had been crap.   Irv was an ordinary, even typical, man of his generation, of many generations. His story was not about a monster but about the crushed dreams of a little boy who’d grown into a man, doing his best, but always fearing the worst. A man, like all men, who wrestled with terrifying demons, not always elegantly, not always without damaging those closest to him.

My life was basically over before I was two,” he said with infinite sadness, yet without self-pity, that last night of his life.  By then I knew exactly what he was referring to, and he knew that I knew.

The story of a life is an elusive thing, it changes radically depending on your point of view, your proximity to it, how that life affects your life. Your life, my life, how do you summarize it?

Robert Moses was very unhappy with the detailed portrait Robert Caro painted of his life in The Power Broker. He wrote a seething 3,500 word refutation of Caro’s book, based on the excerpts of it he’d read in The New Yorker. He wrote like a haughty, angry child who’d gone to the finest schools. Larded with obscure literary quotations and references to the classics, defensive and pretending not to be, from beginning to end it was the wounded cry of a man who felt he’d done great things, for millions, without a bit of gratitude.  A master chef who had made the world’s most beautiful omelets, admittedly having broken a few eggs in the process, a thing impossible to avoid, and whose artistry was so unappreciated.

The half million people Robert Moses had summarily evicted from their longtime homes, destroying their neighborhoods (like my mother’s) to build his dream projects that allowed cars to drive quickly through what he regarded as former slums?  “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” was how he summarily  refuted that assertion by the scurrilous Mr. Caro.   You can read his 3.500 words here

In trying to fairly assess my father’s life, the valuable ideals he instilled and the terrible harm he inflicted on my sister and me, I found it necessary to talk things out with my dead father. There was no trove of documents to read through, no witnesses to interview, no writings left behind to ponder. There were only my memories, my intimate knowledge of the man, and the hints of a final conversation between us that should have started decades earlier.

That last chat was a good starting point for a relationship, then he was dead. I was glad to hear that I was no longer being blamed for the whole long series, senseless skirmishes, relieved to finally be let off the hook as the instigator of all the ugliness between my father and me, but then… poof! the suddenly reasonable man was gone. All that was left was the image of his skeleton, sitting up in his grave outside of Peekskill, piping up from time to time, giving me someone to discuss these perplexing mysteries with.

I started writing the manuscript daily in 2016. I worked on it every day through the end of 2017. Then, overwhelmed by a rambling 1,200 page draft that had not yet captured a real likeness of my complicated old man, had only touched on the damage he’d done, the deeper lessons of his life and the inspiration he left behind, I found myself sucked into the swirling toilet bowl of the ever-distracting, attention craving Donald J. Trump and his destructively transactional worldview.

Trump, for his part, was fond of saying that his father, the ruthless Fred Christ Trump, was his teacher, his mentor and his best friend.  In more honest moments, the second youngest of the five Fred and Mary Trump children acknowledged that Fred was a hard man, ambitious, demanding and impossible to please. Young Trump, paid $200,000 a year from birth for undisclosed work he did for his father as a baby– his life was basically over by the time he was two.

Inspired by the example of historian Robert Caro, I feel like I’m ready to get back to work on the book of my father. Take your inspiration wherever you find it. Here is Robert Caro on the time-consuming search to get as close as we humans can come to historical truth:

The part of me that, now that I was writing books, kept leading me, after I’d got every question answered, to think, in spite of myself, of new questions that in the instant of thinking them I felt must be answered for my book to be complete. The part of me that kept leading me to think of new avenues of research that, even as I thought of them, I felt it was crucial to head down, it wasn’t something about which, I had learned the hard way, I had a choice – in reality I had no choice at all.

In my defense, while I am aware that there is no truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple either, no verity eternal or otherwise, no truth about anything, there are facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable, and the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts, through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing, can’t be rushed, it takes time. You could say that truth takes time.

But that’s a logical way of justifying that quality in me and I know it wasn’t only logic that made me think I’m never going to write about a crucial election, a pivotal moment in my subject’s life, and say that no-one’s ever going to know if it was really stolen or not until I’ve done everything I can think of to find out if it was stolen or not.

I could not track down the character who had falsely counted the votes for LBJ in that long ago local election, and perjured himself in a court proceeding decades earlier, and interviewed the now regretful old man, as Caro managed to do.  All I can do is imagine and re-imagine my dead father’s life, in light of the discussions his skeleton and I have had, taking into account every fingerprint he left on my own life and on my sister’s.

Come to think of it, I haven’t heard a peep from the voluble skeleton in many moons. Probably time to wake him up, we have a lot more work to do if I’m going to get to the bottom of this challenging puzzle I’ve been assembling in this dark room.

Take inspiration from my determination, if you can, as I will also try to.