NO Debate!

My father, who had his soul broken as a very young child, always insisted that we can do nothing to change our innate, fundamental natures. Some people are born angry, for example, and if you are, my father argued, you will always have the reflex to rage (even if you succeed in controlling its expression) that people born with milder dispositions will never have. They may get angry, everyone does, but they will never have the innate readiness and the quickness to respond with anger that someone born with the anger tic does. As far as that simple proposition goes, I can make an argument for it, if pressed.

My father’s firm, conclusory argument, which melded nature and nurture and foreclosed the idea of ever learning from our mistakes, ever changing to experience less pain, to cause others less pain, had a larger purpose which just occurred to me. It cut off painful debate. You think you can change, I can change, but you are wrong, a sadly deluded fool, as you will learn more and more deeply, the older you get.

Framed in this narrow way, the conversation would never veer into the difficult (but crucial) subjects of what harm was done to you that you can work to fix, how you can react with less anger and violence — particularly when confronted with unfairness, the biological damage abuse does to the brain and the body, the elasticity of the human brain, the resilience of the human spirit, our powers of regeneration, how we physically and emotionally recover from our wounds, how we can learn to treat others with more care and tenderness, etc.

My father could usually argue his positions well, lay out both sides of the argument, or even several sides, in detail. It was part of his skill set, and perhaps it is part of a particularly Jewish skill set, to be able to turn an issue from several angles and make the case, with all the strengths (and admitted weaknesses), that an honest debater seeing it from each perspective would. In the matter of whether we can change ourselves to improve our lives and the lives of those we love he resorted to NO debate.

I woke up today thinking that when you fear the way a debate will turn out, or the pain the discussion will bring up (and my father was terrified of the painful can of worms this conversation would open), when you know that laying out the entire argument leaves you on the short end, an end so fragile you can crush it with a finger, you resort to NO debate. My father always filibustered to prevent discussing issues that were so difficult for him to talk about, so painful for him to consider. In the end, as he was dying, during his last night on earth, he expressed deep regrets about this kind of zero-sum thinking and behavior.

Picture any problem you can imagine. In every case I can think of now, sharing it with a thoughtful friend or family member, who knows how to listen, is helpful. Speaking aloud to another person allows you to sum up and describe a problem in a way that is difficult to do with yourself (outside of writing it out, another helpful practice, I’ve found) and often your friend or family member will have a memory, a story, an insight that will ease your mind a bit, sometimes actually help you out of your trouble.

Of course, this NO debate jazz goes for politics, as we see every day. The filibuster is not only a way to torpedo a policy your party doesn’t like, it’s a way to prevent any and all meaningful public discussion about how to solve a vexing problem we all face. Say the problem is that in some parts of the country violent mobs regularly kidnap, torture and kill people to intimidate their ethnic or racial group and keep them powerless over their lives. The solution is a national law designed to deter this murderous behavior by surely trying and strictly punishing those who take part in lynch mobs, pogroms, massacres. There is not, strictly speaking, a good argument against making the law, except that it would exact a political price for the side that has long used terror and violence to maintain political control in many areas. It is not a winning argument (except to a select few) to honestly point out that lynching helps your political party stay in power. The solution when the anti-lynching bill reaches the Senate? NO debate. Filibuster.

A conservative public-private policy to allow millions of uninsured Americans to have health insurance becomes wildly popular among the millions who were never able to afford decent healthcare. The actual argument for stopping the policy is weak, but when you see the policy about to be introduced into law there is one thing you can do– stop debate. Filibuster! NO debate. There will be no pros and cons laid out for people to consider, no back and forth on this issue, no winning the argument on the merits, you bitches don’t have the votes to stop us so we are using a legitimate parliamentary tool to insist on our right for you to have NO debate.

This was exactly what my father did whenever I tried to talk about the breaking of our souls and our hopes of doing better. There are millions of us walking around with broken souls, in various states of repair. It is very easy to break off part of someone’s soul, particularly if the victim is young. At that tender stage breaking a soul is as simple as hurting a young plant, just calmly withhold adequate water and sunlight.

Had I known the extent of the cruel abuse my father suffered from long before he could talk, I’d have had a good clue how to proceed in this difficult conversation about change, healing, doing better. Sadly for us both, I was born without this innate emotional wisdom about how to proceed with a difficult, broken person. My emotional intelligence lagged far behind what I could grasp intellectually. This is true for many of us, and I don’t raise even the tiniest whip over myself for seeing this trait in myself.

It is easier to understand facts when they are separated from strong emotions. Many of us reach higher levels of book learning than we do life learning. That second kind of knowledge comes from no book, it comes from the faces of the people we hold dear. Back to my father’s innate idea, some people are born with a better grasp of how to correctly read the people around them, and adjust appropriately, than others.

This subject of change/no change is like peeling an infinitely regrowing onion. What is “appropriate” adjustment? Your parents are angry, childish, ill-equipped to provide the water and sunshine you need to grow and thrive. Is an appropriate adjustment to try to make sure they have no reason to be angry, no cause to act childishly? Give it up, kid, they will be the way they are no matter what you try to do. I spoke to a cousin who is moving gracefully toward ninety, she is still tightly gripped by anger at her long-dead tyrannical father, her mother who passively sat by, with a frozen smile, letting the intolerable horrors of my cousin’s long ago childhood proceed.

So we can’t change our lives in any meaningful way, Dad, is that still your position?

“No, Elie, now that I’m dead, and have had sixteen long years — and they go by in a flash, as I’m sure you’ve noticed — I’ve had time to calmly consider the matter and evolve in my thinking. I think you were closer to the truth. If you regularly exhibit a behavior that harms others, and causes pain, and you examine it, and find out what causes you to act that way, you can take steps to, as you say, do better. It’s hard work, though, and painful as hell and there are good reasons many people avoid getting into the whole fucking thing.”

That was the voice of my father’s highly evolved skeleton.

“A tiresome device, Elie, seriously. I mean, that’s one thing you really have to wrestle with as you, hopefully, write a second draft of my story,” the skeleton craned his neck to watch some birds riding the thermals in the perfect blue sky over the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill graveyard.

It’s all tiresome, Dad. Watching the way the world is, exhausting. Arguing things that seem so self-evident, like weighing the right to have a voice in your own affairs vs. another person’s right to make you shut the fuck up — phew… The newspaper leads you down a dark path, if you take a wrong step, like reading the headlines. It is all Devils vs. Angels, insane shit, as the world literally burns.

“I’m afraid I have no answer to any of that. The smartest among us, as you suggest, may also be the most destructively ignorant about the larger truths in life. Is anything more important than the ability to truly love and be loved? I offer that to your giants of the Senate and your various lifetime appointees. This world of violently shifting moods is a frustrating mess, as your friend Hendrix sang, and, in a way, I’m glad to be done with it. For you, though, I urge you to keep struggling as long as you can. Keep working on my story. My story is not important because of me, I’m not personally important at all, except maybe to you and your sister. My story should be told for the light it can shed on the human ability to change, the powerful role emotional understanding plays in forgiveness, the real change for the better even the most broken of us is capable of, all the rest of that infinitely succulent jive.”

Ain’t that an ironic mouthful, coming from you?

“Yeah, ain’t dassum shit?” said the skeleton, grinning his manic eternal grin and making a puckish two-fingered hand gesture that conjured a gang sign.

My father and the Jewish Babe Ruth

My father, once a skinny Jewish kid growing up in Peekskill, NY, was a lifelong Detroit Tiger fan. That’s because when he was a boy the Tigers had a big, slugging first baseman named Hank Greenberg. Greenberg was a large, powerful Jew who hit home runs like Babe Ruth, one season almost breaking Ruth’s record. Jews reportedly went into shock when the 6’3″ athlete ducked into Yom Kippur services in Detroit — nobody had ever seen a Jew that big. I was surprised to see, after my father died, that his 1941 Peekskill High School yearbook, under a picture of my father’s thin, bespectacled face, had printed his name as Irving “Hank” Widem. I always knew he’d idolized Greenberg, I never knew he’d gone by that name in High School.

Babe Ruth was by far the greatest Major League baseball player ever. As a pitcher he was among the best to ever play the game, though he is famous for his batting. Before switching to full-time right fielder and setter of mind boggling home run records (he famously hit more home runs by himself, a couple of seasons, than other full teams hit), he also set pitching records that stood for decades.

As a home run hitter, there was really nobody to compare to him. If he’d been up as many times as Hank Aaron, who decades later broke Ruth’s career home run record in four thousand more at bats than Ruth had, he’d have hit hundreds more home runs. The current record holder, asterisk Barry Bonds, batted 1,448 more times (about three seasons for the Babe) and hit 48 more home runs. Plus, Babe Ruth hit .342 for his career (tied for sixth highest lifetime batting average among modern players).

When my father was fourteen, a decade after Ruth set the 60 home runs in a season record that would last 34 years, Hank Greenberg hit 58 in a season. I suspect anti-semitism probably played a role in Greenberg getting nothing to hit the last few weeks of that season, when he could have hit home runs 59 and 60, but, if so, that is not something that should be taught in American classrooms (as it would only serve to undermine American Exceptionalism and make beleaguered white Christian patriots feel bad…).

Maybe the most impressive number Babe Ruth left behind was his lifetime slugging percentage of .690. Slugging percentage measures how well a player hits for power, how many extra base hits (doubles, triples and home runs) he gets. Ruth averaged that gaudy number, over his long career. For comparison, superstars Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, two great Hall of Fame sluggers, 20 and 21 on the all-time list, had career slugging percentages of .5575 and .5568.

When a current player is red hot, hitting home runs in bunches, his slugging percentage may soar to approach Ruth’s lifetime average for a short time, but by the end of the season it will almost always be below .600. Many modern-day sluggers in the Hall of Fame never approached Ruth’s .690 average slugging percentage in even a single season.

Here is the top of the all-time slugging percentage list. Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles and Oscar Charleston, belated (posthumous) Hall of Famers, superstars of the Negro Leagues and victims of the racial segregation of baseball until after their careers were over, have recently been added to the list, as I learned last night after a few minutes of computer querying [1]. Check out where Hank Greenberg winds up on the very short list of baseball power hitters who have slugged at least .600 for their careers. And what company he is in!

To put that in perspective, five “white” major league Hall of Famers, Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Foxx and Greenberg have had lifetime slugging percentages of .600 or more. (Eight, if you include the other three Hall of Famers, which you should, it’s an American sin that they were forbidden play with the other greatest players of their time by a hallowed racist tradition, see FN 1; nine if you include Barry Bonds, who is creeping toward induction into the Hall of Fame after an amazing career).

* Barry Bonds, is the sixth major league player to slug over .600 for his major league career, and he had some out of the world slugging percentages in his older years .863 when he was 36 (higher than Ruth’s best one season slugging percentage), .799 when he was 37, .749 at 38 and .812 at 39, after he went on his special, controversial asterisk fitness regime. Without those final few superhuman seasons, including the 73 home run season, at an age when most baseball players are slowing down, he would havie been under .600 for his career. For those who like eye-popping stats, here are the remarkable numbers Bonds put up for his career.

[1]

Suttles, Stearnes and Charleston were three superstars of the Negro Leagues, from the openly racist decades before Major League Baseball became racially integrated. All three are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame, inducted decades after each of their deaths, posthumously honored among baseball’s immortals, as they say.

Mule Suttles was a power-hitting first baseman in the Negro Leagues from 1923-1944.

Turkey Stearnes was a five-tool centerfielder who played in the Negro Leagues from 1923-40.

Oscar Charleston, another slugging centerfielder from the Negro Leagues played from 1915-1941.

I Can’t Keep Blaming Mr. Hitler — note

I have a tendency to see Adolf Hitler as the explanation of, or at least the perfect illustration for, so much of what I dread in life. I tend to be judgmental about Mr. Hitler’s career and to blame the Nazi leader for many of the things I hate and fear. The arbitrary designation of enemies, who must be killed, the unappealable and irrational demand for absolute loyalty, breach of which is punishable by death. The long strings of words mobilized and deployed like Panzer divisions and formations of Luftwaffe bombers to convince the desperate that if only they obey absolutely, they will be saved and led to glorious victory over their hated enemies.

Hitler, for his part, started off claiming that he was just a drummer, the guy in front of the parade banging the drum to set the cadence for the march. A very modest self-portrait, I think, for a man who, just a few years later, would be celebrated as a national savior and worshipped by millions.

I apparently wrote up this note to myself back in September, 2019. You can read the post here, if you have a few minutes.

The quick point is this. I come from an average working class Jewish family that was wiped out, down to the infants and pregnant women, along with thousands and thousands of other families, in the aftermath of the German push into the Soviet Union. In the wake of this conquering army, Ukrainians and Belarusians often assisted the Einsatzgruppen, the special squads assigned to rid the world of the Jews and other poisonous threats to humanity.

So it was in the town my mother’s parents grew up in, in the heart of the Ukraine. Every surviving Jew marched from the little ghetto to the ravine on the northwestern edge of town, bang, dead [1]. You can’t even find this murder of several thousand, one airless night in August 1943, among the mass shootings committed by Mr. Hitler’s followers, it simply didn’t make the list. It’s only recorded one place on-line, a transcribed oral history of the massacre of the Jewish inhabitants of that town, and here, from time to time, on this blahg.

A cousin and I have been trying for years to find out exactly what happened to my father’s side, back in Belarus. They, and the benighted little hamlet they lived in, were wiped from the world without a trace. There were various aktions in the area, that much we’ve learned, and they were all killed in the course of those.

So I see myself as fundamentally different from a well-born ubermensch like Jared Kushner. His family had the good fortune (and the money, presumably) to escape the slaughterhouse that was Europe in the last of the Nazi years. They came here, these two poor immigrants, Jared’s grandparents, and slowly bought and operated a small empire of New Jersey apartment houses, which made them very wealthy. Their son, Charles, took this small real estate empire and greatly expanded it, becoming a billionaire, like his son Jared, after him.

Two generations after his grandparents escaped the Nazi killing machine, Jared Kushner has the haughty bearing of a young SS officer. He speaks with the absolute certainty of someone who has never been wrong, or, if he has been wrong, has never been corrected. You simply cannot picture a man like that marched to his dignity free mass execution in a pile of freshly combed dirt.

Easier, by far, to imagine him distractedly smoking a cigarette, in a long holder, as he gives the signal for the Ukrainian auxiliary police to fire the next volley, into the back of my head, and the heads of the people on either side of me.

Fortunately, Jared’s time in power did not last long enough for this important work to be completed. It took Mr. Hitler years to accomplish all that he accomplished, it was not the work of a single four year period, it took at least twice that long to get it all into high gear.

We are all poised in the fall of 1932 here (in other countries it’s already later). Here in US of A the future of our long experiment in democracy is at the mercy of two Democrats who insist there is no problem that can’t be solved if only we all just learn to respect each other and behave differently.

[1] from that transcribed oral history:

At the beginning of Elul 1943, about 10 SS men arrived from Kremenets. They gathered a large number of armed Ukrainian policemen from the surrounding area and stationed them in the shade. One SS man stood next to the great master, Mr. Shtayger, the destroyer of Vishnevets Jewry. He stood up and gave a short speech that I heard in full and still can’t forget.

He said, “Today we’re going to liquidate all the Jews in the ghetto. Go knock on each window, open it, and tell the Jews, ‘Leave your homes, you traitors, you Jewish Communists.’ Beat the Jews who refuse to leave their homes with the butts of your guns. Pay attention: you can strike to kill, but make sure you don’t kill them inside the ghetto. Take them outside town, to the designated area, and kill them there.”

I still don’t understand why he didn’t want to exterminate us inside the ghetto.

source

I get it, they didn’t want the hassle of dealing with all the stinking corpses inside the town, during a hot summer, especially since they had a nearby mass grave ready to accommodate all the dead. You have to use common sense!

Playing soothing music for my dying mother

My mother died a long, slow, painful death from endometrial cancer. She did not want to talk about death, though she often asked, rhetorically, why she felt so awful all the time. I understood that I was not supposed to mention death, or the deadly cancer eating its way out from the lining of her womb.

My mother always gave my father a hard time about his napping. He’d fall asleep a few times a day and, when I was visiting, my mother would point at him and complain. It turns out he was dying of undiagnosed liver cancer the last few years of his life, which could well explain his more frequent naps, but that’s another story.

As my mother got closer to the end, she found herself exhausted during the day and would often fall into a nap. I asked her if she’d changed her opinion of napping.

“Oh, I LOVE to nap!” she said with a big smile.

One day toward the end of her life, when she was trying to sleep off some unbearable pain, I went quietly into her room with my guitar and began playing a soft, soothing vamp, something like this one:

Her breathing seemed to become more relaxed as I played. I played softly for a few minutes, hoping to help her to sleep. Suddenly she sputtered and opened her eyes on the pillow.

“What IS that?!” she said crossly, “it sounds like you’re tuning your guitar!”

I withdrew from her bedroom and didn’t try that shit again.

No skin off my nose, pal

As the narrator of this tale, or the plaintiff in a related medical malpractice nuisance suit, I have the great advantage that you won’t need to squint or strain to see the fingernail sized permanent divot on the bridge of my nose. You can see what I’m peeved about at a glance, even in low light.

This lifetime scar gives me instant credibility as the teller of this particular story, and a bit of pathos too. Juries like pathos, if they shudder to imagine having been subjected to the same thing the plaintiff was forced to undergo.

It’s always a mistake, of course, to believe that a gratuitous scar on one’s face, inflicted by a doctor who has not performed the medical procedure he prescribed, the one authorized by insurance, is a legally cognizable injury.

Let the lawyers fight it out, I say.

“Is this scar going to fill in?” I asked the confident doctor three weeks after the surgery, a single gouge deep into the bridge of my nose, to remove a basal cell invisible to the naked eye, a large round wound which was then cauterized instead of stitched.

“No, that’s about as good as it’s going to look,” he said, with admirable candor.

My next question was based on the four or five previous Mohs surgeries I’d had to remove much more visible, deeper, more advanced basal cells (the most benign form of skin cancer). Each of these surgeries had taken several hours, as opposed to the 30 minute procedure his surgeon had done on my nose.

“I was supposed to have Mohs surgery, which removes one thin layer at a time to preserve as much healthy tissue as possible and minimize scarring. Your surgeon basically took a small, sharp ice cream scoop and scooped out all the surrounding tissue in one pass, down to the cartilage,” I said.

“Yes,” said the doctor. In that moment I didn’t have the presence of mind to say anything more. I suppose my psychic efforts were focused on not cauterizing the good doctor’s nose right then.

The doctor’s attitude about the prominent scar in the middle of my face was a slightly impatient “no skin off my nose, pal.” His body language said “are we done here? Any more rhetorical questions?” He thought for a moment then told me about a powerful prescription cream that reduces scarring.

“But your insurance won’t pay for it,” he told me a moment later. The kindly doc then sent his nurse off to find a few of the free sample tubes the pharmaceutical company rep had left him a case of. The cream, which came with no instructions except his nurse’s “apply in a very thin layer”, seemed to irritate the scar which became increasingly uncomfortable until I stopped using the stuff.

In the debate over “socialized” medicine we often hear the critique about the “rationing” of medical care not provided on a competitive, profit-driven “free market” basis. Healthcare, in Communist nations like Great Britain, Canada, Japan, France, etc. is rationed, we are told, because everyone is presumed to be equal when it comes to health care and so there is often a line for some procedures. While it’s true that the wealthy can skip the lines, even in those countries, by going to a private doctor, health care for most is still “rationed”. Here, under our system, the level of care you are “entitled” to is rationed by your ability to pay a monthly health insurance premium. The more you pay, the higher the quality of care you are entitled to, the less rationing you will be subject to.

Here in America every doctor, even the kind orthopedist I’ve visited a couple of times for the arthritis in my knees, knows exactly the level of your insurance coverage as you sit discussing medical options. “Unfortunately, your insurance won’t pay for it, though it works very well to keep the knee pain-free for six months or so while you strengthen the surrounding muscles,” she said of an injection she proposed. She nodded when I told her I’d be on Medicare soon, hopefully. Medicare will absolutely pay for the shot, she told me with a smile.

A cardiologist, who revealed himself as a mask-shunning Trumpist during the pandemic, billed almost $12,000 for each of the four procedures I had on veins in my calves. He’d told me confidently “your insurance will cover it.” My insurance paid him almost half. Not a bad hour’s work for those first three veins. I had a mirthless laugh when I got my “Explanation of Benefits” for the fourth and final venous ablation. He’d billed $12,000 and received zero. His office, apparently, had failed to renew the authorization to be paid. I guess their lawyers will have to fight it out, and good for them both.

A doctor working for a patient with low-cost health insurance (dictated under the ACA according to your declared income, the only choice a low-income patient has is to accept the offered insurance or reject it — and have none), knows exactly how much of the amount his office bills will be paid by the insurance company. This dermatologist motherfucker had every incentive, based on the small fraction of his billed Mohs surgery fee he’d receive, to get me in and out of his office as quickly as possible. Thus incentivized, I was in and out quickly. Even though the surgeon couldn’t see the tiny spot he was supposed to remove.

He called in the dermatologist for a quick consultation, they looked at the photos of the two biopsies (the second had been necessary because the first was done in haste) and concluded it was there, just next to that broken blood vessel. I had a strong reflex to hesitate, as if in a moment of precognition.

“If you can’t see it clearly, I’d rather wait a few months until it’s visible,” I said with mild panic, knowing that these slowly growing cells can be there for a long time with no terrible effect. The confident dermatologist told me that they concurred, knew exactly where the basal cell was and that there was no need to put off the surgery. Like a schmuck, I sat back and let the surgeon hurry to gouge out the entire surrounding area, taking out a circle of healthy tissue to ensure he got the basal cell.

I was in and out of the office in just over a half hour, less time than even the first phase of Mohs surgery usually takes, as I know from experience, having had the procedure now five times out of six. Cah-ching.

As for Dr. “No Skin off My Nose”, what are the odds that a patient with a scarred face, given one more small scar for good measure (and to maximize the good doctor’s billable hours) will have the ability to coherently make a case that a doctor who prescribed surgery A, had that surgery (as well as a skin graft to minimize the scar) authorized by the patient’s insurance and then provides surgery B, including the burning of the flesh around the unnecessarily large wound, deserves a little shit, from his medical ethics board and a payment from his malpractice insurance carrier for the nuisance he inflicted (I have pain at the site of the surgery months later, in addition to the small crater) to the guy whose nose he brutalized?

It may take me a little while longer, but this slick, confident operator needs his smug fucking face cauterized too, just a little. No? After all, it is really no skin off my nose.

One more about my mother

Here —-> is a link to one of two pieces I was actually paid for writing. It is about solving the mystery of my mother’s longtime distaste for Stephen Colbert, a comedian she should have loved as much as Jon Stewart, who she loved to pieces.

I have to point out that the cliche-prone “editor,” in return for the $250 his company paid to contributors, reserved the right to put asshole lines like this into my mouth:

” … found one that made me feel like a regular Sherlock Holmes.”

He’s probably also the author of this immortal phrase:

“One case I was proud to crack…”

Come on, Larry, couldn’t it at least have been a “caper”?

Anyway, this piece is mostly free of his editorial flourishes, and nothing as maddeningly meaning-altering as his idiotic improvements to my first piece.

Once I he published the first two I imagined I could get paid for a few of these every month, they were easy enough for me to write. He loved the first three I sent him and instantly published the first two (well, the first was a bit of a pissing contest before I could get paid, but he loved the piece and I managed to leap easily enough through every additional hoop he set up).

A bitter aside:

This imagined source of easy income curdled, dried up and blew away as I encountered Larry’s insistence on having the very last word on everything related to paying me the $250 fee. In the end he changed his mind about publishing the third one, a piece he’d immediately emailed to tell how much he loved and that he was publishing. Then he changed his mind about publishing it, without letting me know, though he could have sworn he’d sent me an email. After that, he was nothing but quibbles and I soon lost patience with the idiotic game we were playing.

I was told he gave certain authors a lot of shit about making endless changes (as he had on my first piece which I was forced to cut from 1,500 to 1,200 to 1,000 words), especially authors who wrote better than he did (just about anyone) and those who were not his personal friends (the rules applied to them were different, 4,000 or more rambling words were not a problem for him and a few of his long-winded buddies). Oh, well!  

There is no kingdom too tiny for arbitrary tyranny, I’ve noticed.

As to the mystery of why my mother hated Colbert, here is the full story. I felt like a regular Sherlock Holmes when I proudly cracked that caper, I can tell you for sure, boys and girls!

A few more thoughts about my mother

She would be angry about Mitch McConnell’s current plan to filibuster the formation of a January 6 Commission, the 6-3 corporatist Supreme Court engineered to outlaw a woman’s right to choose — and poised to do so, the radical nihilism of a party become a violence-embracing cult steeped in insane conspiracies. Hell, she was still upset enough about the prospect of Sarah Palin in power to ask me, hours before she died (and two years after Palin ran for vice president), to promise her that Sarah Palin would never be president. When she got really angry, my mother would cry.

She’d bellow too, don’t get the wrong idea, she could snarl and yell with the best of them. She had no problem speaking her mind, even while angry, but when talking about something that unfair, and brutal, and in the face of which she felt so helpless, in the end she’d cry. Hard to blame her, really. I can imagine exactly how Kyrsten Fucking Sinema and Joe Shit-breath Manchin would sit, crosswise, in her craw, incoherently defending the bipartisan right of McConnell to use the filibuster, which, they senselessly claim, was created to foster bipartisanship, just as Mr. Trump’s decisive loss in 2020 was actually a landslide victory and the so-called riot to Stop the Steal was the fault of angry Blacks and radicals who dangerously and mistakenly believe there is institutional racism in our unimpeachably exceptional nation.

My mother liked Tom Hanks (as most people I know do, how can you not?) and would be horrified to hear he’d been singled out as one of the elite Hollywood pedophile child-blood drinkers, viciously persecuting the innocents unlikely hero Donald Trump was chosen to deliver from this monstrous evil, from Satanists. “Tom Hanks?!” I could hear her voice, incredulous, her intonation bristling with Bronx street outrage.

In that childhood in the Bronx, growing up in a first floor apartment on Eastburn Avenue, which meets the Grand Concourse on one end, a half block from her apartment (my mother always proudly claimed to have grown up on the Grand Concourse, the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx) she learned a certain amount of toughness and also, complete vulnerability.

She was vulnerable to loneliness, having grown up an only child, a “latch key” kid, as she said, someone who came home after school and let herself into the empty apartment. Both of her parents worked and she wouldn’t see them until dinner time. She was helplessly vulnerable to the giant engines of politics, as a teenager her entire large family was wiped out in Europe, when she was twenty Robert Moses cut Eastburn Avenue in half, condemning and demolishing two blocks of her neighbors homes and stores and beginning to dig the huge canyon that would accommodate the roaring Cross Bronx Expressway, and destroy a series of Bronx neighborhoods like my mother’s childhood home.

We never spoke much about any of this. Not the family taken to a ravine on the north west of town and shot in the back of their heads, not the destruction of her childhood home by hater of the working class Powerbroker Moses. I only saw the windows of her apartment toward the end of her life, when a friend and I took a bike ride in the Bronx to find Eastburn Avenue and I called her in Florida. She was very excited to describe exactly where her apartment was, lead me to the window, on the first floor, right side next to the front entrance, where she used to look out to see who was walking up the courtyard.

It was through this window that she first saw the gangly teenager who’d become my father, a countrified hick (to her way of thinking) who arrived with his tiny mother and younger brother to visit a cousin who lived in the building. She was horrified, a few years later, after her mother forcibly ended a romance between my mother and a suitor her mother hated, when her mother proposed, and later insisted, she go on a date with the bumpkin. The bumpkin turned out to be surprisingly smart, witty, tall, dark and fairly good looking, and he made her laugh — the rest, as they say…

Her mother, my grandmother Yetta, was tough as nails, in a certain way. Very strong willed and certain about what was right (like the fact that Dinche’s cousin was the perfect husband for her daughter), she took no back talk or rebellion from little Evelyn.

Odd little detail, Yetta had named her daughter Helen, my mother, as a child, somehow had that name legally changed to Evelyn. I don’t know more than that about her name. I do know that Yetta would not hesitate to break a yardstick over her daughter’s ass, whatever the girl wanted to call herself.

I know this because both of my parents nonchalantly tossed off that Yetta had broken countless yardsticks over her daughter’s ass. They usually mentioned this with a smile, for some reason. Yetta always had a yardstick handy because, since she was a girl, she’d been a talented seamstress. Her nickname among the Jews in her little town back in the Ukraine was der schneiderkeh “the little tailor”. She was apparently so good, at such a young age, and her services were so in demand in her small town, that she employed several women to help her turn out the orders.

None of this translated in New York City when she arrived in 1921, and she had to work her way up from sweatshop worker to special assistant to the designer herself– Helena Troy, the designer’s name was. Troy would send Yetta to fashion shows to steal design ideas. Yetta had an amazing visual memory, with no notes she’d go back to the office and replicate the most interesting new designs she’d seen, which Helena Troy would make a few small changes to and pass off as her own. My mother often said of her mother that if only she’d been perfectly fluent in English (she read and wrote haltingly in English, though her Yiddish was top shelf), and American born, her mother would have been the first woman president of the United States. I don’t know about that, but I later saw one of those yardsticks. Holy shit.

The yardsticks I was familiar with were flimsy 1/4″ thick slats that hardware stores gave away. We had several with “Eisner’s” printed across them (Eisner looked like Ed Asner and ran the hardware store we could walk to from our house). You could snap them in half easily, even as a young kid. So I always pictured these snapping harmlessly over my mother’s butt, little signs of my grandmother’s annoyance and nothing more.

Then I saw one of the old, stained wooden ones, the kind Yetta used. A sturdy piece of square lumber you could only break with a saw, or by swinging it with a good deal of violence at an object you didn’t care much about damaging.

Toward the end of her life, in a last futile attempt to bring a little more understanding between my mother and my sister, each locked in a struggle with the other, I mentioned that most mothers and daughters have conflict. I named a few examples, people we knew. Then I made a dangerous mistake.

“You know, mom, you had some serious conflict with your own mother…” I began, but was instantly cut off by an angry snarl.

“I had a great relationship with my mother!” she said, her nostrils flaring and her face becoming slightly red. We were standing a few feet apart in the little hallway between her bedroom and the guest room where I stayed when visiting Florida. She was close enough to lunge for my throat, her teeth were already out.

My mother had observed, a few years earlier, how much better I’d become at dealing with my anger. It was in the middle of a fight I was having with my father about whether people can meaningfully change things about themselves. My father was angrily insisting I was pathetically misguided, and just as fucking angry as I’d ever fucking been, that I was deluded, fooling myself to believe I had changed in any fundamental way, especially regarding my violent temper. My mother passed through the room where my father and I were duking it out.

“I’ve seen a big change in you,” she said, as she walked with her coffee back into the bedroom to continue reading a murder mystery.

The second my mother roared in pain when I suggested her own mother had been brutal to her I remembered my vow not to fight with her. I’d promised myself when my father died five years earlier, as I’d promised him on his deathbed I would take care of her, that I would not make her angry as she ticked off the final years of her life. In the next moment I was as nimble as a young Fred Astaire.

“Do you want to have dinner at Lester’s or the Thai place?” I asked her.

“Oooh, let’s have Thai!” she said, as happily as a baby who’d been furious a second before, now flushed with wonder and joy, absorbed in the tinkling of the keys waving magically in front of her face.

For a bit more about my mother.

Happy Birthday, Mom

My mother would be 93 today, hard to believe. Seems like only yesterday she was a new mother overwhelmed by her two young children, me and my younger sister. Time has got to be one of the most mysterious forces out there — the more I think about it, the less sense it makes to me. We often think it flows in a straight line, from past to present to future, but there is plenty of reason to doubt the simplicity of that conception. In a blink it is fifty years ago.

My mother loved to read, appreciated good writing and was a pretty good writer herself. When she was in college she carried a notebook in which, when inspiration struck, she stopped and wrote poetry. I remember a blue, leather-bound journal that she told me contained her poems. I recall seeing it as a kid. I imagined her rushing to a bench at Hunter College, shortly after World War Two, excited to jot down a phrase or idea before it was lost, the way I will sometimes do (increasingly into my very smart phone) when I’m out for a walk.

At some point my mother stopped writing poetry, except for the occasional birthday card, and I never found the blue journal of her poems after she died. I searched every corner of the apartment as I cleaned it out, went through every box, feeling hopeful at every turn, but nada.

What happened to that poetry is probably what happens to everything else that lives and breathes. Comes a time when it fades to black. You can call it what you like, the impenetrable black is the same. It’s like what happened to that plump little solid gold heart my mother wore on a thin gold necklace when my sister and I were little. I remember it swaying over us in our beds. Now? It is nowhere.

I look over at the box where my mother’s “cremains” have sat quietly since they emerged from a Florida crematorium almost exactly eleven years ago. A religious friend called my mother’s apartment on May 20, 2010, to wish her a happy birthday. I told him she’d been taken to the hospice and had been in a coma for several hours.

“That’s a sign of righteousness,” he told me “when God really loves you he lets you die on your birthday.”

My mother, who was quite hostile to religion, had fought with this guy over and over when she was alive and kicking. She thought religion was a foolish, often destructive, lens to look at the world through and was disgusted that so many religious people were loophole surfing hypocrites.

God (and don’t get her started on that one) says you can’t eat “chumaytz” on Passover? That is, a Jew is not allowed to eat anything containing leaven during the week commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. We eat flat, unleavened bread, the “bread of affliction,” to remind us how our enslaved ancestors suffered as they fled tyranny and bondage.

Except that they’ve developed perfectly fluffy cakes and other foods to eat during this time, delicious items that taste and feel very much like the real thing, but do not contain “leavening”. They found a perfectly kosher way to observe the letter of the law while gracefully skirting its spirit. Nu, why should we have to suffer? My mother had no patience for that kind of pious hypocrisy.

And so it was that she refused to breathe her last on May 20, she waited until the following day. It was as if her last act, even in a coma, was a middle finger to orthodox Jewish religious belief.

At her memorial I told the group assembled there that it was highly ironic for us to be gathered in a synagogue, a place my mother avoided. Particularly ironic for the synagogue to be in Peekskill, a town my father immediately fled at the end of his horrific childhood there, a place he almost never visited, but where he was now buried.

The Jewish group that ran the cemetery, by the way, First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill (in whose chapel we’d gathered), had decreed that no cremated ashes could be buried in the cemetery, even if the member had paid for the grave site for 50 years, as my parents had. I pointed to the bag containing the box of my mother’s ashes, seated in the front row. She had no comment, but everyone in the room could imagine it.

“There’s no Jewish law against burying ashes,” my parents’ religious friend had told me on her final birthday “which means you can go to the cemetery and quietly bury them in her grave yourself.”

I told the friends and family assembled in that synagogue that my mother admired a Florida rabbi who wrote a weekly column my mother loved. This rabbi was fiercely liberal and wrote scathing and witty denunciations of the radical Republican party under Cheney and Dubya. Reading his weekly column was a great relief to my mother, living among Floridians, many of whom believed that Dubya was working directly for Jesus Christ, and she often mentioned this rabbi to me in our daily chats, sometimes reading me bits she particularly liked.

Her neighbor told her that the rabbi would be speaking at their local temple the following Friday night. She was very excited at the prospect of hearing him speak and went to synagogue, in spite of her lifelong reluctance to attend a religious service if she could avoid it (she almost always could.) Oddly, when we spoke after the service she didn’t mention the rabbi, or the service. I asked her how it was.

“Oh, it was awful, very disappointing. He was up there on the bima the whole time, but he didn’t open his mouth, he didn’t say a word. Not one word! He just sat there. They introduced him and he sat there and waved.”

Then, reliving the worst part of the nightmare, she said “and they read every goddamn prayer in that fucking prayer book! [1]”

It was my mother in a nutshell and everyone there immediately recognized her, and her influence on me in telling this particular anecdote in the solemn sanctuary, in front of the fancy ark that held the Torah scrolls.

Anyone observing the ease between my mother and me, and how carefully I protected her during the last years of her life, would have no doubt of the love between us. I owe a great deal to her, including my love of reading and writing. When I wrote something that moved her, she smiled with the deepest possible delight. “It’s wonderful,” she would say.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that we write for an imagined audience of one reader. In his case it was his older sister he always wrote for. He’d imagine her reaction, and that was his guide for how to write, what would make her nod, or laugh, or think, what would displease her, make her demand better. I suppose my imagined audience is my mother. It certainly is right now, as I remember her on her birthday and try to conjure just a little of her spirit for others today.

The beauty of writing is the chance, every time we sit down, to make our meaning absolutely clear. With the luxury of time, which is all we really have (ask my mother), we’re able to reread and weigh every phrase we’ve written, think further, remove any word that distracts, say what we mean to say as clear and true as possible.

Through this daily practice of writing we can learn to communicate exactly what we mean to say. That is far more than we mortals can often do in real time, especially in the heat of those moments when it is almost impossible to say exactly what we mean. Writing, for those of us who love it, is a great way to clarify what we feel and what we think.

If this practice of daily writing hasn’t helped me, necessarily (no matter how clearly you write there are always those who’ll insist you haven’t made yourself clear, or, on another level, that you’re a chump for not getting paid to write, if you think your writing is worth anything), it certainly hasn’t hurt me. In fact, it has helped a great deal, I know this every time I sit down to spend time combing through my thoughts and feelings.

I once bought my mother a blank journal for her birthday. “I have nothing to write,” she said, after thanking me for the book. I reminded her that she used to love to write, and told her if she started to do it again she’d probably find it worthwhile.

“You’re the writer, not me,” she said. “You have a million ideas, I don’t have any ideas. I have nothing to say. It’s a very nice journal, but the thought of a blank page fills me with dread.”

Nothing I could say helped her recall that once familiar moment, when she thought of something she wanted to say, and set everything else aside to work out the best way to say it. It had been so many years since this bright, opinionated woman had thought to take the extra time to more elegantly express what she’d already said that she no longer had any memory of her need to do it. She must have stopped believing it mattered what she wrote, at a certain point. Which is a whole other story, now that I think of it.

Happy 93rd birthday, mom.

[1]

She may have said “every fucking prayer in that goddamned prayer book” but even someone known for an excellent memory, as I am, can never be sure.

Change and Terror of Change

The story of life is change, a reality that can be hard to embrace sometimes. Cycles of change, and life’s adaptation to change, are the animating force of nature, and the story of human history. The only constant in life, we learn, is constant change — and, as we also learn, constant resistance to change. Most human conflict has its origins in change and resistance to change.

I recall a racist teacher at my elementary school, snarling at some of the Black students who’d been bused into PS178 starting when I was in third grade. This nasty woman was a fifth grade teacher I would later butt heads with when I was in her class, but I barely knew her as I sat in the lunchroom that day. I had a front row seat, on the long lunch table bench, to her shameful performance shortly after the first Black students arrived in our quiet little public school on a hill.

She was on lunch duty, tasked with keeping order in the lunchroom. As a teacher years later I’d learn how odious this rotating duty was. It was a thankless job trying to keep a lid on childish energy during their lunch break, a work assignment, during what was usually your own lunch hour, requiring patience and humor — neither of which this woman had that day.

I vividly remember my disgust, as a boy, watching her mistreatment of a Black kid named Adrian, who was probably ten years old. For some reason, she was telling him over and over that he’d be on Welfare in a few years. I remember his face as he shot back that she’d be on Welfare, and her face. I didn’t know, at the time, that this snobbish woman was a racist, I barely understood what that was, but I know it very well now.

She was upset about a big change, I realize decades later, and being on the losing side of what she felt was a righteous war, and she was acting out like angry people often do. Her side had lost the long battle to keep PS178 segregated. There were two armed camps in the PTA, one stridently opposed to busing kids from other neighborhoods in to integrate the school as the Supreme Court had ordered a decade earlier (this group sometimes derided the other side as “Commies”), the other faction, the “Nigger-lovers,” (in the colorful phrase used in liberal NYC in the mid-sixties) put on a Brotherhood play called the Lonely Abelonian, shortly after the school was finally de-segregated when I was in third grade.

We went to school one evening to watch the play put on by our mothers in the school auditorium. They were dressed as various animals, in pairs (my mother hopped around in a tan kangaroo outfit with her fellow kangaroo, their big ears flapping, their long, sturdy tails slapping the stage, my classmate Rani’s mother crawled on her stomach in a snake outfit alongside her snake friend played by my mother’s best friend Arlene). When the solitary Abelonian tried to join, she was shunned by the other animals. I recall my mother and the other kangaroo, turning tail and hopping indignantly away when the Abelonian asked “will you be my friend?” In the end, of course, everyone discovered the Abelonian was a lot like them, and remembered how painful it is to be lonely, and they were all playful friends as the curtain fell.

The white kids in school, as far as I recall, didn’t need the lesson of this idealistic play. I don’t remember any tension between neighborhood kids and the new students who arrived on the E, F and G buses (though, it could be, as is my prerogative as someone not the object of racism, that I didn’t see it because it wasn’t directed at me). The presence of Black kids, and their parents, was only a major problem to people like that racist teacher.

They no doubt felt that their perfect little school (it had the highest test scores in Queens, NY, possibly all of New York City, at the time) was being ruined by the forced admission of Black kids from other, less desirable, neighborhoods (with worse schools, kind of proving the whole point of de-segregation…), with all that goes with being forced to associate with people you didn’t want to associate with.

We can go down the catalogue of change in human history, and there is always this tension between those welcoming, or at least adapting to, a given change and those dreading it and resisting it by any means necessary. There are changes large and small, eternally taking place and the challenge we humans always face is adapting to our constantly changing world.

Sekhnet and I are both assailed by sometimes severe joint pain when the humidity is on the rise. When I grimace and grunt walking up or down the stairs the night before thunderstorms, she reminds me “you’re old.” I am old, and while most aspects of aging are fine, some changes are unwelcome. I don’t like having to acknowledge the wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut’s “be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.” I am also no fan of nocturia, or hematuria, for that matter.

I am constantly angry, for example, when confronted with corporate practices, routinized indignities, that are now ubiquitous in our Free Market. The people I complain to about having to wade through long recordings before you can elect to talk to a representative, the long waiting times on the phone, the constant advertising and blaring loops of muzak while you’re on hold, the endless reminders of how important my call is, and that I can get faster service on-line, and so forth … correctly regard me as a griping, cranky old bastard.

These people, I have to remind myself, never lived in a different world, have no concept that banks once paid interest to depositors, didn’t charge you a monthly fee to have an account, or every private business you deal with requiring your social security number (essential for collecting a debt against you), and an ironclad legal agreement not to sue them, no matter what, before you can do business with them.

Change is inevitable, as is resistance to change, which emerges from terror about change and/or anger about changes for the worse. Look at what’s happened to the Republican Party, as it was steadily taken over by fabulously wealthy right-wing liberty lovers like Charles Koch and associates and turned into the extremist John Birch Society.

What was the premise of the John Birch Society? It was a group of wealthy right-wing freedom lovers fighting a vast conspiracy of godless Commies who were using the imagined grievances of American Blacks, and other disgruntled Americans, to drive a stake into the heart of American society and our cherished liberties. You can visit their website today, the John Birch Society (founded by Koch’s dad a few years after the scandalous Supreme Court decision that ruled segregated schools were inherently unequal, and therefore unconstitutional), they are peddling the same pile of reeking scats right now, in our giddy age of Alternative Fact.

What is the current premise of the modern Republican Party, its hope for regaining power? That an election their candidate lost by a substantial margin was stolen by fraud, somehow rigged in a way that avoided detection, left no evidence, fooled election officials of both parties, and defrauded the American public of the one-party state we actually want, need and deserve. 70% of Republicans believe this wild conspiracy theory about a massive, vicious betrayal of democracy, no so-called “proof” needed. Alternative facts, that’s all. Let’s agree to disagree, you cheating, thieving fucks.

I heard the term Limpieza de Sangre, purity of blood, for the first time today. It came into use during the dawn of propaganda, when the Pope was using the printing press, and outfits like the Jesuits, Defenders of the Faith, to propagate the One True Faith, against the mounting Protestant incursion into Christianity. The Spanish Inquisition had made it a capital offense not to believe in the teachings of the Son of God and many of the tortures we know today were developed to torture the truth out of godless people trying to save their lives by pretending to worship and adore Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, while secretly rejecting His love.

The doctrine of Limpieza de Sangre was designed to separate Catholics of pure blood, born into a long line of devoted believers, from those who had converted from Muslim or Jewish backgrounds, simply to escape torture and death. You understand, the blood itself must be pure for your faith to be pure, as Jesus never taught.

Change is eternal, but the techniques of reaction have certain constant features. Every regime that has ever set armies to murder enemies has first had to reduce those enemies, whether civilian or another army, into hated, dangerous insects, deadly, inhuman infecters of the life blood of the rest of us. So we have the long line of insane ideas like Purity of Blood, used to justify the spilling of impure or polluted blood.

In the former slave states, during the “Jim Crow” era, the amount of Negro blood in a person’s lineage determined his or her status under law. Never mind that almost every drop of the “white” blood in a “mixed race” person was the result of rape of the darker person owned by the lighter one. You know, if you teach a disgusting thing like that to children you should be ashamed of yourself– and fired from your job!

OK, OK, calm down…

You have Homer Plessy, a light-skinned, blond-haired octoroon (one of his eight great-grandparents was Black), on an interstate train down south, sitting in a car reserved for Whites Only. His blood, you understand, made him, according to the laws of Louisiana, where his offense took place, a Negro. Looked as white as Ronald Reagan, boys and girls, but the law’s the law.

Plessy was a Negro, somebody blew the whistle on him as he sat in the Whites Only car and he had to be ejected from that car and put into the less plush Coloreds Only car. Plessy made a small fuss, I believe, and was arrested. He’d been planted there, in 1892, by civil rights activists, as was the person who outed him to the authorities, to challenge segregation under federal law (hence the interstate train, one of the few 14th Amendment rights recognized by the Supreme Court was the right to travel freely from state to state, and there was, possibly, also the Commerce Clause– federal oversight of interstate commerce).

The federal case got up to the Supreme Court where segregation was upheld, in Plessy v. Ferguson, under the famous slogan of “Separate But Equal”. Check out the photographs of the segregated south, the water fountains and bathrooms of the respective races.

Segregated Water Fountains in North Carolina, 1950 ~ Vintage Everyday

Also, consider: the southern racial blood laws were even stricter than the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws the Nazis promulgated decades later after studying the race laws of the states of the former Confederacy. Teach that in an American public school and you’re asking to be lynched, just sayin’…

Makes you think.

I think about the rash of police violence that has resulted in the killing of dozens of unarmed, mostly Black and brown, people just since the recently concluded trial of the murderer of George Floyd started. A long parade of victims, one as young as thirteen, shot dead or otherwise killed by police, leading to a series of scrupulously nonviolent protests in just about every case. Leading, in turn, to renewed urgency to pass a series of identical laws to redefine the term “riot”, making it harder for people to organize and participate in First Amendment protests without risking 15 years in prison for a newly created felony. Because, while the right to protest may be protected by the First Amendment, the “right to riot” may be forcefully prevented, and vigorously prosecuted under the criminal laws of the state.

It is, of course, no accident that these dozens of proposed anti-protest laws, like the 361 laws making it more difficult to vote, now being debated in 47 states, are more or less identical. They are drafted by the same highly partisan weasels, distributed to individual state legislators through outfits like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. “Stand Your Ground” laws, for example, a law that allows citizens to shoot other citizens in the street if they are truly afraid for their lives, were drafted by ALEC.

The influential outfit, formerly known as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators, was founded in 1973 to “counter the Environmental Protection Agencywage, and price controls, and to respond to the defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election [1]. ” You know, to organize and fight progressive policies of any and all kinds in the interest of preventing meaningful change of the status quo.

I know most Americans don’t care much for history, or a nuanced debate over every little damned thing. We are organized into tribes now, embracing the big picture emotion of our tribe and reflexively believing what the rest of our tribe believes. This tribalism has been wildly accelerated by “social media” which constantly and instantly buzzes updated, self-confirming opinion into our phones, and ads:

I get all this, it just makes me crazy, being constantly forced to hear idiotic arguments over fact-based things like which Big Lie is actually THE Big Lie — the one about the 2020 fake election results that has been supposedly proved in the courts, challenged, confirmed by recounts, by bipartisan certification, all faked — or the one the always truthful leader of the loyal 39% says is a Big Lie — that an election without “integrity” was free of widespread fraud, a lie peddled by the dangerous, radical, corrupt liars who are trying to destroy our great, unified nation by violence in the streets by claiming the stolen election was NOT stolen by these evil maniacs. You know, Communists like Mitt Romney.

[1]

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives who draft and share model legislation for distribution among state governments in the United States.[2][3][4]

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