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.

 

All we’ve got is time — until we don’t

I think about this more often now that I’m older, this fleeting thing our lives are actually made of – time.  The richest, most pampered person in the world, when it comes down to it, has only their time on this earth to spend.  

Some believe in the infinitely tender idea of an afterlife, a magical place where we’ll be lovingly greeted by those we’ve loved and lost.   It’s a nice idea, I can’t lie.  Fewer and fewer people, I think, are betting on heaven right now, though it continues to comfort the dying and those loved ones left behind.

We are left with the world we live in, and the time we have left to live in it.  All any of us really have, in the end, is time.   Since in the West we are conditioned to believe that time is money, well, it seems a sin to waste it, even though the most important changes we can make in our lives often take a lot of time.  For better or worse, I put no restrictions on my time or efforts these days, living frugally to avoid the thought of time actually being money.

Since I have too much time, some people would say, I talk to strangers this way (since most of my friends silently freak out when I address these musings to them) by arranging words into this parade of thoughts, feelings and ideas.  

I don’t know how I would feel, getting something like this in the mail from someone I know.   I might well feel: what the fuck?!!   What is this shit?   What does he want from me?   Am I his fucking reader, his confessor, his validator?   What does he expect me to say, that it’s good?   It’s weird and unpleasant to have this odd, heavy burden suddenly thrust on me.   Why doesn’t he just wage the long war to make a goddamned living at it and get praise from the people who really matter to a writer?

Strangers, I think, are the proper readers, to them I’m just a writer of some kind.   Sitting among these readers I also imagine people like my mother, who took great pleasure in how my writing improved over the years.

I have time, and I take a few hours of it every day to reflect.   You could call it my spiritual practice, if you like, this contemplative period of silence and tapping every day, during which my thoughts and feelings come into focus on the page in front of me.

After a joyous New Years Eve celebration with friends we returned to the quiet house Sekhnet inherited from her parents.   It is a mile from the little house I grew up in.   I often walk that mile, passing all the old places, most of which have been repurposed many times over.  

I continue past my old block to the park, where I sit on a bench and scan the gigantic sky that is impossible to truly appreciate in most cities and suburbs.   I feel the thousands of trees breathing.   Then I choose another route and head back to Sekhnet’s.

The first day of the year reached midnight and, technically, it was the second.   I checked my email and found a link Facebook had sent me to a friend’s post.   I rarely visit Facebook, routinely delete the emails they send, but this friend often links to worthwhile reading material, so I clicked the link.   Next to the new post was a short roster of people I might want to have as Facebook friends.

One of them was the widow of an old friend of mine, Melz.   Melz died of a rare soft tissue sarcoma, the same thing that killed Hugo Chavez, apparently.   He sent me a link to an article about what actually killed Chavez, a few weeks before his own long battle with this merciless disease reached its predictable end.   He had defied the doctors one last time, they predicted he’d be dead by New Years, he lived until the second day of the year.  I did not recall, as I looked over the public areas of his widow’s Facebook page, exactly when he had died.

On her Facebook page there was a picture of him leaping, hand in hand with her, also off the ground.   The photo had been snapped at the height of their leap. Melz’s free arm is thrown up in the air, his mouth is open in a joyful shout, his legs are spread wide.  He looks strong and full of life, as he no doubt was at that time.

It had been his wife’s profile picture, the two of them at the top of a leap.  Later it had been replaced by another photo of the two of them, their faces filling the frame.  They are young and both look great in the shot.   Melz, who was built like Fred Flintstone, looks dashing, confident, at peace with himself.   His head, I notice, is almost twice the size of his wife’s.   I look at these pictures for a long time.

Later that morning an email arrived from an old friend, noting that January second is the fifth anniversary of Melz’s untimely death.  This fellow had been Melz’s inseparable best friend for many years.   Like me, a very close associate of Melz’s for a decade when we were young men, he had been gently ousted from his close friendship with Melz when Melz took a wife.  The wife Melz took had her own ideas about his very close friendships, I suppose.   Though we spoke on the phone several times in his last months, I saw him only a handful of times during the last thirty years of his life.   His longtime best friend, the writer of the email, had seen him not that many times more than that, though they lived close by each other on the outskirts of Boston.

The writer of the email had conducted Melz’s funeral.  He wrote and delivered a magnificent eulogy.  The funeral was choreographed, per the wishes of the widow, a bit of the eulogy, then a designated guest would take the stage.   When he went back to his seat, our old friend looked like the exhausted star of a basketball team in the fourth quarter of the seventh game of the playoff finals.  

He was not sweating, but he looked wrung out, as we all were.  When it was his time to take the ball, he did not hesitate or falter.   He handled the ball calmly.   Every shot fell straight through the net without touching the rim.   He was in a flow state, unconscious, channeling the love so many people in that room felt for the departed.

One of the guests introduced himself as Melz’s best friend.   His oldest friends had never met this guy, but nobody doubted him.   Melz was gone and all we had now were the memories of his life, which were a kind of blessing to us.

The email evoked Melz by noting that he “moved from this world to the next on the wings of some magical keyboard five years ago today.”   Melz was a talented piano player who I’d first seen playing a hundred variations on “Sunny” in a talent show in the rec hall at the camp we all went to.   He was a fountain of improvisations, his Fred Flintstone-like fingers flickering flawlessly over the keys. 

I was off my game the other day when I wrote back to the few old friends of Melz on the email list.  I began the New Year feeling dull, disconnected, unequal to the tasks ahead.  Fucking hell, you know, which is why so many people prefer going to work, and getting paid, to sitting at home, “working” for free.   So I wrote a short email that missed the mark in several essential ways, sent it off, and instantly regretted the ungainly air ball I’d chucked up at the imagined buzzer.  I will try it again now:

Eerily, almost Melzerianly, I found myself studying these photos of Melz in the wee hours of January 2.   I rarely check FaceBook, but there I was, unaccountably, on Robin’s page.

Here is the old boy leaping with joy (note that I have cut off the person whose hand Melz is holding in a way that will be familiar to all old comrades of Comrade Melz). (photo)

And here he is looking handsomely himself in a great photo with his wife, now his widow.  (photo)

Too soon, my friends, and though his memory is a blessing, in the way of such things, a greater blessing still would be coaxing the old showman to a piano and putting him through his paces.

What I’ve Learned So Far

A caveat, first.   We don’t get to learn that much of great importance, the vast majority of us, in the short time we’re given here in this distracting, demanding world.  I’ve learned this so far, which I’ve found useful, and which I’ll write now and post.  I share it here partly out of pride that I’ve been able to learn it.  I offer it also for whatever help or comfort it may give for some of what you might be struggling to understand in your own life.

Parents don’t fail their children, in most cases, out of any kind of malice or ill-will.

This simple truth is in no way intuitive or obvious, though when you read it you might go “duh…”   As kids we hope for everything from our parents, and almost none of us get that.   The rest is on us.

There are extreme situations, of course, where insane people do unspeakable things to their children.  To the children of those outliers, I really wouldn’t know what to say that could be of use to you, having had to live through that unimaginable nightmare, outside of that none of it was your fault.  I am also not talking to anyone who survived a childhood in an actual, violent, physical war zone, a truly inconceivable horror, except to wish that your parents were heroes and that you and your family were spared the worst.   This piece will probably be most digestible to anybody raised by more or less ordinary, average, normal, regular parents living in peacetime.

Being born to parents, or a single parent, or raised by an adoptive parent, or a parent figure, who is able to give you exactly what you need in life, all the essential things, or even simply a life-affirming sense of being loved that never deserts you, is a matter of luck as great as any other lucky thing in the world.  How were the stars twinkling the night you were born, or, if by day, where was the sun, exactly?   Who can say?  Even if the stars actually have anything to do with luck in the first place, which, who the hell knows? 

My sister and I had painful childhoods, we watched each other suffer, gave each other what little help we could, even as we fought each other much of the time.   None of it could be helped in the house we grew up in.  Yet, our parents were not sadists, psychos, creeps, fools, jerks, nuts, assholes, zealots, criminals, compulsive liars or even particularly rigid people.   They were both very intelligent, sensitive, had good senses of humor,  and both loved us AS WELL AS THEY COULD.  

That is the key there, keep it handy.  

They did what they thought was best for us, always.   How were they to know that at the most crucial emotional moments for my sister and me they had literally no fucking clue how to give us what we needed?   Where were they to have learned that blessed skill?

They certainly had no role models.   Their childhoods were MUCH worse than my sister’s and mine.   I guarantee that, can see few things more clearly than I see that. And my parents’ parents’ childhoods had been worse than my parents’ childhoods and so forth, all the way back.

My father, I learned toward the end of his life, had been whipped in the face (in the face) by his angry, ignorant, religious fanatic mother, from the time he could stand. One year old, or whatever, he’s finally on his feet and — BOOOOM!!!!   In your fucking face, bitch, don’t you fucking look at me, asshole (but hissed in Yiddish).   It’s hard to imagine the horrors of her childhood, except that everyone left behind in that impoverished hamlet she came from was slaughtered in 1942.  

My mother’s mother was charming, dynamic, loved me to death as I loved her, but even as a kid I could easily see how hard she’d come down on my mother, her only child.   Countless yardsticks broken over her daughter’s ass, was the phrase I used to hear, from both my parents.   I always pictured the flimsy yardsticks I knew, with the ads printed on them, no big deal, I could effortlessly snap ’em myself as a ten year-old.  Years later I saw a yardstick from back then.  36 inches of solid squared lumber an inch thick, with numbers and lines carved into it, not those thin, light almost balsa wood jobs they gave away at the hardware store when I was a kid, with the numbers printed on.   Not much was known about my mother’s mother’s childhood, except that twenty years after she left everyone in her large family, and her husband’s, was shot and left in a mass grave in August 1943, if they hadn’t died earlier from starvation, disease, cold or other violence, in the cruel year before the final massacre.

Do I take valuable lessons from my parents?   Yes, from each of them.   I carry them with me every day, wherever I go.   Did I have to undo many curses they placed on my little soul as they ineptly tried to protect me, and love me, and make me not ask terrible questions they couldn’t answer, and encourage me, and discipline me, and praise me, and keep me humble, show me new things, and shield me from things, make me cautious, and brave, empowered, outspoken and submissive and the hundreds of other crucial things parents must constantly do well, in real time, with no notice, and that they receive absolutely no training or preparation for, or sometimes even a clue about?   Many curses that I still have to deal with all the time.  Things that in their angriest moments they never would have dreamed of wishing on me. But there it is.

Did I vex my parents?  Every single day of their lives (at least until the final years of my mother’s lonely life when I’d finally learned not to, and the sudden last two days of my father’s life on the eve of my mother’s widowhood).   Did I disappoint them?  Too many times to count.  Were they proud of me nonetheless?   More than they could say.  Did they love me?   They loved me the very best each of them could love anybody.   More I could not ask of anyone.

What did I learn?  To smile at the idiotic, dependably merciless voice that was in my head year after year, repeating the vicious, undermining things my parents hissed at me when they were too frustrated and angry to remain coherent.   How long did it take me to learn that life-saving trick?  More than thirty years, I think.  It was not quick, I can tell you for sure.  The beauty part is, after enough practice, that ugly little fucker finally pretty much shut the hell up.  What I learned, as that victimizing voice was fading, was to always be merciful to myself. 

Do I ever doubt that I have a good heart?    Never.   Do I question my motivations? Only on rare occasions, and when I find myself on shaky ground I almost always try to fix what I can fix.

But, isn’t that true of every asshole, they believe they have a good heart and that they are right all the time?   Yes.   So doesn’t that mean I’m an asshole?   Not really.

My parents, luckily, gave me the tools to work things out, though they often thwarted me as I was trying to learn to use them.   I’m not proud of the grief I caused them during our long struggle, but neither do I blame them now for the grief they caused me.   How long did balancing that unthinkable mess take, until there was no more pain or regret involved?   I don’t know, maybe forty years, and I have to keep practicing to keep it straight, but it is quite easy to practice now.

What did I learn?   That most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can, within their limitations.   The only thing we can fairly ask of someone else is not to treat us unfairly.   We have the right to demand the best of our loved ones, and we will most often get it, especially if we give ours to them, unless we are making unreasonably one-sided demands.

What did I learn?   “What is hateful to you, do not do to somebody else.”   It is easier to master that than the other formulation of the same golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.   We all, each of us, viscerally and instantly know what is hateful to us.   Love can be trickier, even as love, is also, first and last, trying never to do something we find hateful to a person we love.  And if we do fuck up, which we always do, being humble and making amends.

Do I think having finally learned that make me Jesus, or Hillel, or anything special? No.  Isn’t it true I’m just another asshole?   Fine.   But I’m an asshole who will try not to treat other people like assholes, to the extent that I can, and whenever I act with mercy toward another I feel a certain peace and a greater sense of hope for my fellow assholes on this poor, persecuted planet.  I feel like mercy for others, when I can give it, flows directly from my mercy for myself, is part of the same process.

As I told an old friend the other day, and as I spoke it surprised me to hear me saying it: I find I’ve become more patient than I ever thought I could possibly be.  Those feelings of mercy and hope, and learning to nurture myself, help others when I can (and when I can’t help, not hurting), to me, are most of the ballgame, right there.

That’s what I’ve learned.   

 

An odd society of married men (final)

For years four married men, and I include myself, as I am as married as anyone (Sekhnet and I have been together twenty years now) would take a ferry ride to an island once a year and spend the day on the beach.   It was an annual tradition that ensured we all got to spend some quality time with a friend who was living abroad and came to the US every summer for a harried, duty-packed visit.   We’d have lunch in a small restaurant there and compare notes on what had happened from the previous year before heading to the beach.   The boat ride there and back, across the sparkling water, was always a highlight of the day.

A few years ago I had a final falling out with a longtime friend named Andy, one of the four, and it became awkward after that to convene the annual meeting.   It would have forced the two men into the conflict, made them choose between me and Andy, something they could not do.   The day was celebrated the last couple of years as a two-some, the two old friends hopping the ferry, eating lunch at the restaurant, spending the day at the beach, catching up.

It must have been one of the last times the four of us were there that the subject of Andy’s wife, Hitler, came up.   I immediately barked out my extreme distaste for her, protested that I was trying to eat and that this harshly opinionated angry little Russian Jew was not a fit subject for mealtime. Andy and I had an understanding that his noisome wife would not be discussed between us.  We’d patched up a friendship Hitler had sundered a few years earlier and not discussing his wife was a condition of our reconciliation. I found it impossible to talk about her without disputing her proclaimed right to express the full measure of her ready rage whenever she wanted to.

But during the polite lunch discussion, Rob, the peacemaker, chided me for my vehemence, for the shorthand “Hitler” (which I stand behind, incidentally) and began defending this woman, Hitler.   “If you really listen to her, and talk to her, she’s really, really smart and she makes a lot of sense”, Rob said.  He noted that she has a great sense of humor.  He said he actually has learned to appreciate her and he gets along great with her now, that he has actually come to like her and feel like she likes him too.   Andy began to laugh an unpleasant, mirthless laugh.

“She fucking hates you, Rob!” Andy said with exaggerated disgust.  He went on to flesh out that hatred a bit.   He did this with a big, humorless smile on his face.  A year or two later Andy’s sickening marriage to Hitler was heading toward a long-overdue divorce.   Andy left her during the separation, moved out of the marital domicile and into a spacious wooden garden apartment that looked like the Zen dojo he’d begun hanging out in with the little sect he’d joined.

Andy, a very bright man who’d scored a perfect hole-in-one on his SATs back in high school, would be quick to point out that a “dojo” is a place where martial artists train and he’d tell me the right word for a place where Zen meditation is done.    In response I’d point out that every place Andy practices anything is a forum for martial arts (and that the only difference between the words “martial” and “marital” is the placement of the I, how’s that for a koan?).

I recall these lunches in particular as a place where unhappily married men complained about and defended their bad marriages.  Since I am not actually married, am not legally contracted to Sekhnet, I was somewhat exempt from this part of the conversation, though, obviously, not really. Everybody has some kind of issue, conflict or problem with virtually everybody else, it’s just one of the features of being human.  

Life partnerships are certainly not exempt from this general rule, in fact, they are often more subject to conflict than less intimate relationships.   The better friendships are the ones where affection causes us to give generous allowances for the foibles of the other, and the proverbial benefit of the doubt.   We’re lucky, in this life, if we find a couple of people we can count on to truly have our best interests at heart and not fight with us too much, it seems, especially during these combative days as we wait for our home, the increasingly besieged earth, to become uninhabitable.

It struck me as a bit ironic that Rob the peacemaker, who defended Andy’s wife, Hitler, against my unfair, if not inaccurate, portrayal, probably also supported him 100% in his decision to divorce her.   It would have been hard not to be supportive of the move.  I am quite sure the divorce did not fix Andy’s somewhat broken life, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.   Rob has been at war with his own wife since shortly after they married, many years ago.  It is one of the most explosive and angry minefields of a marriage I know.   There are periods of uneasy peace surrounded by devastation that has done damage to everybody in its orbit.   I am a casualty, finally, of that toxic relationship.

There is a picture of Andy and me, dressed in misshapen suits, ties inexpertly knotted at our throats, standing on the front stoop of my parents’ house in Queens. Each of us has a bad haircut we probably hacked out ourselves.   The snapshot was taken right before we headed to Rob’s wedding.   I wonder where that photo is.

There were signs at Rob’s wedding, now that I think back, of the disaster that was about to unfold.   A sense of uneasiness and mutual desperation hung over it all, though perhaps my memories are also colored by what has come to pass in the decades since.

                                                                                 ii

To explain why Rob’s marriage was probably doomed to be a war from the start it is necessary to describe my old friend a little.  Rob is also the most important character in this little story as he was my connection to the other married men in the odd society of married men who spent a day at the beach every year.  I’d met Andy through Rob (they’d been at an Ivy League college together) and later I met the émigré, the man for whose company we’d meet at the ferry terminal every summer.   Keep that thought in mind, Rob as the nexus, and the oldest friend of each of us, since it may explain some things later.

Rob has always been a nervous person. He was a nervous boy when I met him in fourth grade when we became best friends, after he had skipped into my grade. The nervous boy grew into a nervous teenager and later a nervous man.   A very smart kid and an intelligent, thoughtful man, I have rarely known him not to be nervous about something.

He comes by it honestly, I would say.  Rob was raised by somewhat nervous parents, two people I knew quite well for decades.  After Rob and I became friends our parents became close friends too.   The families spent many holidays together.    In some families (like Rob’s, actually) I would have called his parents Aunt and Uncle.   The families were very close and I was familiar with Rob’s domineering maternal grandmother as well.    Rob and I went in different directions in High School and fell out of touch for a number of years.

At one point Rob’s mother, Caroline, came across an envelope of James Bond trading cards Rob and I had pasted on to pages and written humorous captions for, many years earlier (Sean Connery was Bond on those cards).  I’d found them in a closet and sent the collection to Rob, whom I hadn’t seen for a few years.   On top of the pile I’d scrawled a note to the effect that “someday we’ll play guitars”.   As I recall, Caroline framed that note, after weeping joyfully to my mother over the life-affirming optimism of an old friend reaching out that way to a friend he’d grown apart from.

We did play guitar a few years later, in San Francisco, where Rob was living at the time.  The cover story for his sojourn in SF, as I recall, was that he was becoming a California resident to get in-state tuition for medical school.  He was actually playing in a rock band, trying to be as close to a full-time musician as he could be.   He had already abandoned the idea of medical school and was probably working on how to best break the news of his career change to his folks.

I plugged a guitar into a large amp in the concrete warehouse room where his band practiced.  It was just Rob and me in the reverb-rich room.  I loved the sound, played some bluesy line, sustaining a note against the wonderful acoustics of that big empty room and Rob’s jaw dropped as he told me how much I sounded like Clapton [1].   This may seem a silly image to include here, but it will be useful to recall later on.

Sometime later, back in New York, we had a remarkable jam session in the basement office of a pediatrician named Dr. Geller (who turned out to have been Sekhnet’s pediatrician, she recalled his enormous hands).   Geller owned the house Rob’s parents rented, the home where Rob and his older sister were raised. I’d had many a holiday meal in that house, in the company of our two families. I’d spent massive amounts of time in that house over the years, but had never been down to Geller’s office before that night.  It was a remarkable session, with Andy on synthesizer keyboard.   It was the first time I’d played with Andy and there was a certain magic to the musical connection that first time.

But none of this explains why Rob was doomed to a combative marriage, so onward. He’d had a series of fairly longterm girlfriends over the years, but as far as I knew, for many years, none of them were Jewish.   In his mind he could only marry a Jewish woman, so this easy out kept his sexual relationships limited in a certain crucial way.   A way that eventually caused great pain, and sometimes anger, in his longterm partners.  A psychiatrist finally pointed this pattern out to Rob, when he was in his early thirties.  I remember Rob telling me about this breakthrough session when he realized, with the shrink’s help, that it was essential for him to date a Jewish girl and get married as soon as possible.   He proceeded to do exactly that.

I liked the woman, though she seemed volatile.   Her older brother (a guy Rob and I both knew in passing at Hebrew School), we soon learned, had opted out of the family, not contacting any of them for years.   This happens in families, I figured, who knows what the whole story is?   The haste with which they got engaged and married may not have been to my taste (I’m still not officially married, nor is Sekhnet planning to marry me) but it wasn’t my business, really.   Yet there was still something a little unsettling about the lead up to the wedding and the wedding itself.  An ominous foreshadowing, if you will.

There was a dinner party before the wedding, at a Mexican restaurant, maybe it was their engagement party.   Hitler, Andy’s wife,  insulted Rob’s oversensitive sister in a curt, particularly brutal manner.   I remember feeling a tension at that dinner that I can only say felt tense.

The bachelor party for Rob was also memorable for something being off about it, even for a bachelor party.   The main thing I recall is that the party was commandeered by the loud, overbearing, drunken asshole brother-in law of the bride, a boisterous clown named Eddie.   My main memory is of Eddie loudly critiquing the body of a stripper in a bar he’d dragged us to.   Perhaps her breasts or buttocks were not up to his exacting standards, although it could have been literally anything, or nothing, at that point.  He was shit-faced and somehow in charge.

Eddie would not be Rob’s brother-in-law that much longer, he and Rob’s wife’s sister divorced not long after that idiotic display of alpha-maleness.   I don’t disparage anyone for getting divorced from someone who mistreats them.  I have been divorced myself several times over the years, even if not from a marriage.   When all you are getting from a relationship is grief, harshness, abuse — time to hop on the bus, Gus.  In fact, for that reason, a terrible relationship, Rob’s wife wrote off her younger sister a few years later.  The sister, although seemingly pleasant enough, is apparently an unredeemable complete fucking bitch.

Rob and his wife finally reached the conclusion that they were better off apart.  They could not find a way out of their eternal war.   A year or two ago they sat their two sons down and informed them of their plan to split up, to divorce. Then, miraculously, they unaccountably reconciled when their younger son moved across the country for college.  It was like a rebirth for their relationship, a beautiful new springtime, though it was not very long before catastrophic sky-blackening storms swept back in.

Now this here, what I am doing now, this is what I always do.   I write about things that are nobody’s business, betray people left and right, simply for the sake of an “interesting” story, even if I don’t use their full names, or any names.  They know it’s them I’m writing about, and that’s the unspeakable thing, that I am publicly probing into things they don’t want probed into, particularly, and most unforgivably, in the public space of the internet.  I eventually write about ticklish, chafing details that make people who used to be my friends angry, defensive, sometimes vindictive.   My beloved Sekhnet, on reading part one of this piece, had a related reaction and a one word review: “flush!”

In other words, down the drain with this whole nasty subject, done with the eternal bad feelings it engenders, these sad and distasteful details of disappointing, doomed disputes with desperate people.  “Flush!” she said again when I began trying to explain why these lived materials from my life are so useful to me.

She listened as I went on about the personal experiences and lessons of one’s life being the most important things to ponder and learn from, the richest things to write clearly about, the best tools for attaining insights and for personal growth.   Plus, I pointed out, there is a great punchline to this particular story, if I can manage to tell it correctly, more than one punchline, actually.   She eventually agreed not to say “flush!” again, for this particular tale, at least.

So onward, but not today, my allotted writing time is at an end.  Part three will put the final pieces in place and hopefully provide a satisfying, if mildly merciless, punchline.

                                                                      iii

In the end, the real trouble between men is not a wife like Hitler who forbids her husband to have someone as a friend.  It is the individual who must act with integrity, or not.  Looking around it doesn’t take long to see that integrity is in short supply in our relentlessly competitive world.  It is not our fault, strictly speaking, as violence is often the rule — faced with superior force we are often stopped in our tracks. Maybe homo sapiens are doomed to eternal compromise with the killers who are always among us and some of that compromise is soul-crushing.

I do the only thing I can imagine doing from one day to the next, try to make sense of seemingly incoherent things.  I know it makes me appear to be a smugly superior asshole to some people, but it’s the best way I’ve found to deal with things that perplex me.

Much of the conflict in the world is the result of incoherent narratives, things we believe based purely on feelings. Armies march for reasons that make absolutely no sense, though a rousing excuse is always given for the slaughter, no matter how otherwise empty and incoherent the war slogans might be. The twitching man with the loaded gun does not need a rational explanation when he tells you to lie on the fucking floor so he can blow your head off.  How the west was won, how slavery was maintained for centuries, how great tracts of land have always changed hands, how fortunes have always been made. Thus it has always been among we who are made of flesh.

At the table on that holiday island we always spoke of long-time intractable problems that sometimes were better and sometimes were worse. There was rarely a perceptible change from year to year in the larger picture of this circle of problematically married men.  This is the lot of virtually everyone, this ebbing and flowing of good and bad fortune and the moods that accompany these changes. I try not to be judgmental, though I do not always succeed in this.

I got a text from Rob that he needed to see me immediately. I called and got a text not to use the phone, just to text him a time and place to meet. I asked what it was about, but he couldn’t say anything but that it was urgent that we talk face to face.

When he showed up in his car he was extremely nervous, even for him. I probed, after a session of small-talk, and learned why his eyelid was twitching. He was there to confront me, to accuse me of deliberately, or thoughtlessly, trying to destroy his marriage. I was probably out of their lives, he said, with no way to redeem myself, because what I’d done was so destructive and unforgivable. But he was going to give me a chance to save our friendship by talking my way out of my death sentence.

What had I done that marked me this way?  Made a remark to his wife, in passing, that she, weeks later, weaponized and used to whip him bloody in front of their marriage counselor. The therapist agreed that I was a malicious force in their marriage who needed to be dealt with immediately.

I walked Rob and myself through everything I could remember about the remark, which was essentially that the wife’s ten minute story about an embittering encounter between the wife and Andy made a lot more sense than Rob’s harried one minute version of the same story about a month earlier. Rob’s story made little sense, but as I have no use for Andy, except perhaps to throw him on the ground and kick him, I didn’t probe for details and we went on to other subjects. Rob immediately expressed regret for telling me anything about his wife’s run-in with Andy. The wife’s story was much more detailed and I understood things I had not when I first heard a rushed, regretted version from Rob that I asked not a single clarifying question about.

The wife seized on my “oh, that makes much more sense than the story Rob told me,” as proof that Rob’s oldest friend also says you’re a fucking liar, Rob, a fucking liar! The therapist was hard-pressed to disagree. You need to confront this person, she’d told him. His wife told them he was afraid of me. He rushed to confront me.

Another man might have reacted to the accusation differently than I did, maybe just punched him in the face, like in a western, just to make it stop.  I wasn’t raised that way, so I went through everything I could remember, a process I repeat whenever I sit down to write. I suppose it’s part of my nature to muse over puzzles, and this was one of the more piquant puzzles that my nose has ever been shoved into. Rob seemed satisfied by the end that I had not intended his marriage fatal harm, intentionally or unconsciously.  Still, he raised other issues with me, had other suspicions and accusations. He seemed intent on keeping me on the defensive.  I have to say, I hate that kind of shit.

Here I will give you a little additional information about the odd society of married men who used to assemble around a table once a year at that restaurant on Fire Island. Rob is Jewish, as am I, so his particular psychological type is familiar to me. Having grown up in the same cultural milieu I get the whole set-up, learned the same formulation of moral values that are supposed to be taken seriously and all the rest. Culturally, the other two problematically married men were always a bit more mysterious to me in some ways.

Andy is a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon version of the classic jovial passive-aggressive, from stock that one writer (Dennis Potter) referred to as “a pinched and whining breed.” Andy’s personal mix is finished with a cringing grandiosity tinged with self-hatred.  If you don’t actually hate yourself, at least a little, you will never understand it. I confess, I truly don’t understand the sick fuck. As for the émigré, you’d have to ask him yourself, he is no longer talking to me, for reasons he need not specify.

I could not simply flush this whole matter of the death of my oldest friendship, as Sekhnet urged me to do. Andy proved himself exceedingly flushable in the end, my life enriched by his subtraction from it, as Rob also turned out to be, in the end, but the part about the émigré continued to bug me.   I knew why I couldn’t be friends with Rob, it was his constant provocation and his infernal, convoluted denials about it.   What was his gripe against me, exactly?

I reached out to Rob, assuming that he’d cried piteously to his old friend about my heartlessness and that had affected his friend to cut ties with me.  It took weeks after my phone calls, and the formulation of precise questions which I emailed to him at his texted request, and a good deal of diligence and forbearance on my part, but eventually Rob gave me the three unforgivable things I had done to him. He told me he had not talked to the émigré about our falling out, in any detail, at least until I’d asked about it in one of the three emailed questions.

His wife told him I’d worn a fucking wire on him the last time we spoke, on what he admitted had been “a bad day.”  Wore a fucking wire like a fucking fuck. An unforgivable betrayal, under any circumstances.

His wife told him I’d said I’d been mad enough at him, at one point in our maddening chat, to want to punch him, throw him on the ground and kick him to make him shut the fuck up.  Unforgivable, no matter what the provocation supposedly was, no matter if I’d acted on it or not.

His wife told him I’d called him a pussy. Unforgivable!

This last bit was a slight distortion of what I’d said.  I had a revelation while she and I were speaking (she’d called to offer the choice of unconditional acceptance of a blanket apology for whatever I thought Rob might have done to me, or fucking myself– something I already periodically do). I realized toward the end of the conversation why Rob was always so competitive with me.  It was only tangentially related to that Clapton sound I could get on a guitar.

The real conflict, it came to me in a flash, was that Rob’s father had never stood up to his wife, and that Rob felt that he was unable to stand up to his wife, or to anybody, really, but that he feels I somehow hold my own in these situations, always seem able to take care of myself, somehow.

So Rob feels, on some level, like he’s a pussy, I told her, and he feels, for whatever reason, that I am not a pussy, and it makes him angry and so he provokes me and he can’t help himself or stop doing it.

“You are definitely not a pussy,” she said.  (The jury is still out on this, I think it’s safe to say).

Then she told her husband that anybody who could be friends with somebody who thinks he’s a pussy is a fucking pussy, end of story.  That’s all she wrote.

 

 

[1]  I don’t want to get bogged down in this Clapton business right now.  I love his tone, Eric’s vibrato is up there in a class almost by itself, the touch and the microtones are beautiful and subtle, etc. but he is an extremely limited guitarist. Great singer, excellent musician, can do that one thing beautifully on guitar, plus the nice acoustic blues picking, but truly, I don’t get why he is not a better and more versatile guitarist by now.  It’s like a failure of imagination, a dull incuriousness, an insane commitment to “brand,” or just an indication of a kind of rigidity, or something.   His autobiography reveals him as something of a shallow jackass, maybe that explains it.  Anyway, Clapton’s vibrato is beautiful, I’ve always loved it and I did indeed strive to master it, to the extent I ever did.