An odd society of married men (part 2)

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 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, since it will 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.  He grew into 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 the 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 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 about thirty.  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) 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.  A foreshadowing, if you will.

There was a dinner party before the wedding, at a 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, a few months later, 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, Eddie.   My main memory is of Eddie loudly critiquing the body of a stripper in a bar he’d dragged us to, calling her a dog of some kind.   Perhaps her breasts 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 get 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, apparently, is 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 own 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 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, 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 wanted probed into, particularly, and most unforgivably, in the public space of the internet.  I eventually write about ticklish details that make people who used to be my friends angry, defensive, sometimes vindictive.   My beloved Sekhnet, on reading the previous post, 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 miserable people.  “Flush!” she said again when I began trying to explain why these materials 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.

(to be continued)



[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,  or 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.

An odd society of married men

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 untainted men to choose between me and Andy, something they could not do.   It 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 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.   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 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 “marital” and “martial” is the placement of the I).  

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 more subject to it than less intimate relationships.   The better friendships are the ones where generous allowances for the foibles of the other are routinely made.   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 about 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 cut 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, though perhaps my memories are also colored by what has come to pass in the decades since.

(to be continued)


The lesson of my father’s life

The painful regrets and too late apologies my father recited the night before he died dramatically illuminated mistakes to try to avoid in my own life.    My father had a quick wit, was sensitive, well-read, thoughtful, well-spoken.    He also saw the world as black and white, a zero-sum game that had only winners and losers.

“That’s not really how it is, Elie,” he told me in that weak dead man’s voice the last night of his life.  “I wish I’d been able to see the many gradations and colors of the world,  I think now how much richer my life would have been…”

As he was leaving the world he regretted his maniacal focus on being a “winner”, a silly abstraction in a game that everyone, in the end, must lose by giving up life, consciousness, all possessions.  Being a winner to my father meant never tolerating disrespect, and, more precisely, never losing an argument.   He was a strong, confident debater, even if he reflexively exerted this well-exercised power on his young children.   He deeply regretted this lifelong mistake and the merciless burdens it placed on his children, expressing his sorrow in a weak voice about sixteen hours before he breathed his last breath.

He came by his obsession with winning honestly, early in his life, but I think the word ‘winning’ is more properly rendered ‘surviving’ or ‘maintaining integrity’.   He’d been born in desperate poverty, raised by a cruel, violent, religious mother and a father of few words whose main concern was not getting beaten any more.   My father told me that he and his little brother were earmarked as classic losers, the sons of a brain damaged man, from day one.  Their future was decided by their uncle and his brilliant son and daughter — the Widem boys would go to trade school, learn to work sheet metal.   They were fit for nothing higher, in the opinion of the people in charge of the family.    Both made it to college, graduate school and the middle class, in spite of the odds against them.

 The fear and the indignities of their childhood never left them.  It didn’t help, of course, that all but a couple of their many aunts and uncles were slaughtered in a Belarusian hamlet that was wiped off the world map forever.  

“Elie, not to be a prick or anything,” said the skeleton of my father from his grave in Cortlandt, New York, “but didn’t you recently write over a thousand pages about my life already?   Presumably there were lessons in there too, I mean, in a sense, wasn’t that why you started the process in the first place?”    

Yes, of course.   My focus today is a little different, though.    

“Not seeing the sad parallels between my essentially solitary life and your own?   Locked in an endless battle to be conclusively right, in spite of your dedication to non-harm, or what did that little Indian guy who slept naked with his naked teenaged nieces to show he could overcome lust call it– ahimsa.   You know, you can be absolutely right and at the same time blind to the effect your insistence on being right has on others.”    

Jesus, dad, you’re reading my mind.   What I’m thinking about glancing from the computer screen to the window out into the grey afternoon, are the choices we make, how we use our time.   Not everyone is wired to think deeply on the things that vex them.    

“Well, I had a large part in wiring your brain that way, providing endless vexations for a small boy with a curious, nimble mind to brood upon.   Your imagination is a blessing and a curse.   Imagine less, sometimes you’re better off.   Look, clearly, you’re imagining these words of mine now, I am now but a long-time skeleton, a literary conceit, and maybe, at this point, also a tired one.   A rubber crutch, if you will.”

Funny as a rubber crutch, the jokes that killed vaudeville… 

“Yeah, listen, Elie, you write everyday but nobody is all that interested until a book or an article comes out of it.  Nobody you know is capable of being interested in that ton of verbiage you produce, even if most of it is well-written, even if some of it is genuinely insightful.    As that alcoholic dispatcher at Prometheus used to sympathetically tell you all the time, whenever you complained —  ‘nobody cares, nobody cares.’  

“A writer writes not for the handful of readers he or she knows, they write for people they don’t know, and they get paid to do it.  You grasp this, and yet, you are constantly disappointed that nobody you know gives a shit.  Nobody you know gives a shit, only you can care about this uncontrollably prolific output.   Trust me on this.  Get some of your writing in print and they will be very happy to be happy for you, even read it.  Were they not all happy for you when you got a few words published and paid for?”

Yes, they were unanimously happy for me, every one of them.    They read each of those hamfistedly edited thousand word pieces, loved ’em.

“I know what sent you to the keyboard to write this today.   You’re wrestling with a need to be right that suddenly seems to you uncannily like my need to be right, a need you correctly condemn as primitive and conflict-producing.   The need to be right is deeply human, it’s also at the root of most human conflict.   Most people when they begin fighting with an old friend, have the same fight a few times, conclude the other person is not worth fighting with and walk away.   The person who keeps fighting is an unreasonable jerk, not a friend.  Done.  

“You don’t do this, though, do you?   You’re always looking for some kind of deeper principle about the way friends should treat each other, why this person is not a friend but a deluded, clueless antagonist.   You write thousands of words about it, like you’re insane.  You think you are working out some dark puzzle about human nature, but, seriously, Elie, what the fuck?”

That is what I am wrestling with, all of the above.   If we are to live principled lives, isn’t it necessary to clearly understand the principles we live by?

“That depends on how many angels are dancing on the head of a particular metaphysical pin.  Yes, you’ve come to the same conclusions about particular people that I did when I was alive.   We disagreed about my need to condemn and walk away from them, and years later you came to the same conclusion I did.  So what?   Why should this concern you?   The old lady who constantly lied, taught her daughter to lie, who in turn taught her son and insane daughter to lie— where is the mystery in any of that?  The woman who did not know how to not fight kept irrationally fighting with you?   Quelle surprise, monsieur!   as we used to say in Peekskill.  What is this sudden torment today?”

I want to nail the lids on the coffins of a trio of glowering vampires.  

“God bless you, then, son, that’s what you do with vampire coffins.   Why even agonize a second about taking a stake to the undead?   Take a hammer, or a rock, and nail that shit closed, bang! done, next case!    Lights, camera, action!  Enough with the Hamlet routine– be done.”

The chill that is making the trees outside this window tremble creeps into this room.  The fading light outside a premonition, touching me lightly with Isaac Babel’s cold, dead fingers.    The imperative keeps goading me — to find a resting place for my thoughts.

The Saddest Punchline I know

It’s funny how much clearer a thing sometimes becomes once it’s dead, its lifecycle complete.   It happens with people, and beloved pets and it happens with relationships gone wrong.   You see the thing whole, finally.    I recently lost a friend I’ve known since we were eight and it’s been bothering me for some time, exactly how the friendship became toxic, why it is now so intolerable to me to be treated the way he continues to treat me.

Now that our long friendship is truly dead, the whole outline is there for me to see.  Today I got the last few elusive pieces to complete a sorry picture I could not, for the life of me, truly understand.   Now I finally get it.  The punchline is deep, but about the unfunniest one I can think of at the moment.

He seemed to look up to me and often competed with me, and I never knew why.   Years ago he told me to use a certain gauge of string on my guitar “you’ll feel better about yourself,” he told me unaccountably.   His vying sometimes took insane forms.   

At some point he found he could make me angry by being provocative and steadily ignoring my mounting aggravation.  As my feelings got more unpleasantly stirred, and he pressed on stirring, I’d eventually react with anger, restraining myself each time, but barely.   This sick pastime seemed to become a tic with him.   I really believe he actually could not help himself, it gratified him, somehow, to see me angry.

His wife, who I was quite friendly with [1], was often furious with him because he was not always honest with her. The thing she hated most was a liar, which I can understand, since without trust, what do you really have with another person?   Funny to say, his occasional untruthfulness never bothered me that much, though I prize honesty more than most things.  

It also outraged her that he never stood up for himself, except against her.  I think this enraged her even more than his occasional looseness with the facts.

My childhood friend’s wife weaponized a casual remark I made to her and deployed it to crippling effect during a marriage counseling session they were having.  “Your best friend says you’re a fucking liar too!” and she took my remark, which she bent to her use, and whipped him across the face with it until he was bloody.  

“And you’re not even man enough to stand up to him!” she later told him.  The therapist apparently agreed with his wife that if he didn’t confront me, his marriage was over.

He showed up in a panic to confront me, his right eye actually twitching as he leveled his accusation:  you deliberately or recklessly tried to destroy my marriage, our friendship is probably over, it all depends on your answers.   I thought hard and explained things as best I could, as friendship demands — when you see a friend in anguish you do what you can to help.  I agreed that if I maliciously or negligently undermined his marriage, neither he nor his wife should be friends with me.  I described how my casual remark was weaponized and gave him reasonable things to tell the therapist and his wife.  I did this under pressure, but though he seemed calmed down, gratitude wasn’t in the cards any more than an apology was for the wild accusation.

I realized afterwards that things had clearly gotten out of hand and we needed to either stop the ugly cycle or call it a day on our friendship.   We spent five hours or more trying to talk it out, but he could not yield.   He would not allow that he’d been a shaky friend, put me in impossible positions, returned acts of friendship with repeated senseless provocation.  He defended his actions in detail and when I remained skeptical (it was at the end of five hours of this) told me he loved me.   I told him love is how you act when someone you care about is in pain.  Doing a dance and singing a song and telling your friend he is not really hurt when he is, none of that is  love.  Merciful action is love.

Provoking, being unrepentant, though you apologize grudgingly, explaining why you really didn’t provoke, how there was actually an implied apology that you’re lying about not receiving, well, that’s not really love.

One thing bothered me more and more.   With our estrangement I’d lost the friendship of his wife, his two sons, great young men, and a mutual friend who appeared to have taken his side in our impasse.   I wanted to know what my final unforgivable act against him had been.  I suspected it was my exasperated detailing of many the reasons I don’t respect him, twenty minutes into our five hour marathon, but I couldn’t be sure, since he never contacted me or sought to reconcile after our meeting went badly.  “It was a bad day,” he admitted today with some sadness, as close to admitting he’d been wrong in how he acted as he can get.

It took some time, and some work on my part, a series of calls and emails, but today he called me back to answer my question.  He did not want to talk about the past.  He felt it was a mistake to go over the hurtful things again, it would only lead to more and more conflict to go back over those mutually aggravating things.  It was both of our faults, even though he admitted without condition that he’d been wrong too.   His idea was that we just need to put it all behind us and continue on as if none of it had ever happened, just be friends again, like we used to be.   It struck me as an impossibly stupid idea and I told him why.  

With patience, about forty minutes in, I was able to get the answer to my original question about my unforgivable final act.   When we parted after the long talk he had no particular gripe against me, he said, in fact, he was still hopeful about saving our friendship.   After all, I had been for the most part mild during most of that long, sometimes agonizing conversation on that bad day for him.   It was after his wife called a week later to give me an ultimatum about forgiving him immediately and unconditionally or dropping dead that he learned the reasons to be furious at me.

His wife told him I’d made a secret recording of our conversation, which was a betrayal he simply could not forgive.   I explained the difference between being a fucking fuck who wears a fucking wire (for purposes of making a tape for others to use to incriminate somebody) and recording a talk, for personal use, with someone who has a famously spotty memory, is addicted to equivocation and energetic and nimble disputing specific arguable details.   This guy, I must point out, while very emotional, is also highly intelligent and skilled in the art of verbal self-defense.

The second unforgivable thing I’d done, and again, he qualified it, this was admittedly second hand, from his wife again, was that I’d told her that shortly into his bad day trying to make me accept his apology without having to take full responsibility for his actions, he’d made me mad enough to feel like socking him, throwing him on the ground and kicking him, just to make it stop.  In his opinion, and in his wife’s, that is simply intolerable to say about a friend of more than fifty years, no matter how mad you feel, no matter what the provocation might have been, no matter how many provocations in a row you’d been hit with.

I didn’t bother pointing out that I hadn’t laid a finger on him, that I used the image of violence to convey to his wife how angry he’d made me.  Fuck him, you know? Plus, of course, his wife, who I said this to (“to whom I said this”…), has felt exactly the same way about him countless times and understood the impulse very well when I said it.

Now here is the punchline, and it is as horrible as I promised.   

The real reason he was so angry at me was that I’d told his wife, and I had this insight only at the very end of a long talk with her, that the reason he always feels he’s in an unfair competition with me is that he has trouble standing up for himself and believes that I don’t.   “Rob feels like he’s a pussy,” I told her,  as it dawned on me, “and he believes, for whatever reason, that I am not a pussy, and he’s very angry about it.”    

“You are definitely not a pussy,” she told me.

Then she told her husband that anyone who could be friends with someone who says he’s a pussy is a fucking pussy she will not be married to.


It also turns out she never conveyed my conciliatory offer, made several times and emphasized, repeated once more as I said goodbye.   I told her Rob was welcome to call me as soon as he made some of the progress he promised he was striving for in therapy.   He needs to develop some insight about the often provocative effect of his actions on those close to him.   “She never told me that,” he said, sounding sad.

Lady MacBeth got nothing on this girl, nor does her husband either, for that matter.

writing as meditation

Young writers sometimes wonder where the line is between attempted self-therapy and writing that others will find worth reading.   It is a worthwhile question to ponder, though there is sometimes no bright line between writing to work out your own issues and writing to engage others.   It has a test, though, whether what you write interests somebody else in reading it.   Is there enough here, and in my own life, for me to identify with what the writer is writing about?   Does this thing I’m reading engage me enough to read on?

You are always the judge of that, reader.

At the moment I’m writing to meditate, to calm my roiled mind.  I spent fifty-one minutes an hour ago talking to a frenetic moral tap-dancer.   He could not allow, without condition, that what I was saying, though he told me he agreed with it, was actually correct because perhaps I was overlooking that other thing, you know, the thing?   Maddening, but thankfully the last conversation with this particular poor devil.   His wife apparently told him in no uncertain terms that only a “pussy” would continue trying to be friends with someone who suggested he was a “pussy”.   Thank god all that got resolved.

My next call was to the office of the urologist who cancelled my appointment on November 8 and has been silent since, in spite of my three calls, repeated promises from his receptionist that he’d call me, and a detailed email from me.  I was told, after a very short hold, by the director of urologic bureaucracy at the well regarded medical corporation, that she could not forward the email I’d sent for her to forward to the doctor, since he was not physically in the building until Thursday.   You can understand, I imagine, why this would be so.   My deep breathing facade cracked for only a moment, as I told her to keep in mind that this ongoing failure to respond to a patient’s legitimate concerns was approaching a medical ethics complaint.   She told me she’d keep it in mind.

There are many battles in this life that you cannot win.   They should not be battles in the first place, but they are.  It should not be a matter of winning or losing, but it is.  If there was a fair arbiter somewhere (there pretty much isn’t for most things) the fact that you are in the right would be weighed in your favor.  In many cases the fact that you are right, maintain your position and keep insisting on being heard, makes you a goddamned stubborn troublemaking loudmouth, a problem, a challenge, an adversary.

A Saudi prince imprisons his rivals for power, kills a few, makes himself heir to the throne, promises liberal changes in his medieval religious fundamentalist kingdom.  Suddenly an upstart Saudi writing for a prestigious American newspaper is criticizing him!   Bring him to the consulate, put a bag over his head.  Of course he will say “I’m suffocating. … Take this bag off my head, I’m claustrophobic.” (as reported by Al Jazeera, citing a Turkish reporter who allegedly heard the recording).    Suffocating, you say?  Oh, so sorry.  Here, let me chop off a few fingers for you, that should make you feel better.  We want you to be comfortable, your business is very important to us, please continue to suffocate.

How do we recover our humanity in the face of brutality?   My best bet is by sitting still, hands on the keyboard, and combing through my thoughts, setting them down as clearly as I can while I breathe.   It is not for everybody, I know, but it seems to help me.  I recommend it.   It is certainly better than smashing furniture or being mean to people.

It helps to think of justice and basic fairness, though they are both increasingly endangered in our world of alternative fact, xenophobia, race hatred and blame.   When people are in a rage, or defensive, they are not at their best.  They are, sad to say, probably at their worst.  They are capable of justifying every terrible thing and throwing the entire blame on you.   Look at the president insisting in a pre-dawn tweet that the Florida elections, though too close to call by Florida’s own laws, should be done, done now, stop counting ballots, infected ballots, while his candidates are still winning, clinging to statistically tenuous margins of victory.   

Yet, there is a sense of justice, and fairness, always alive in the hearts of people who are not enraged.  If you look at a situation fairly, and calmly, the answer is usually pretty clear.  Fair means looking at things from various angles, deciding which is the most just course to take in light of everybody’s needs and concerns.   It’s not that hard.

Unless you are an institution, with a corporate reputation to defend, or someone benefiting from a very unfair arrangement, or someone so aggrieved that you want to bash so-called fairness in its fucking face.   Blow the whole thing up.  Take explosives and make everything shred into oblivion, or do it with a gun, yeah, I said a gun!   These types often have the last incoherent word, then turn the gun on themselves.  Winners, don’t you know?

Don’t be like that, friend.  We are all better than that.

“Do you feel a little better now, El?”

ah, shut the fuck up…


Only in America, folks

Fortunately for me, I write quickly.   I dreaded having to write this note, but it took me only a few minutes once I sat down to do it.   Nobody should have to write this kind of note to their fucking doctor.  


When I was “50 years young”  (12 years ago) you introduced yourself to me as Matt and gave me a card with a number where I could text you, and you were very good about responding to the one or two I sent.   Your current card has only a generic email address [1], so I am sending this there, to the attention of Glenice, who was kind enough to confirm that I should have been able to see you during my October 25th consultation with you.

On that date I saw only Nancy S______, ANP, who ordered tests, prescribed Flomax and told me I have to begin taking it immediately.  She also instructed me how to stand so that she could give me a prostate exam, though I had one quite recently and we agreed not to do another at that time.

On October 5, 2018 my urine was a brownish ketchup color.  On the following day I painlessly passed a blood clot, and that was the end of the blood tinged urine.

Screen shot 2018-11-11 at 3.16.20 PM.png

Nancy informed me that this is called gross hematuria, a condition the Mayo clinic states is sometimes impossible to determine the cause of.   She ordered a CAT scan, which I had on October 30, and a cystoscopy.   She also told me I’d retained a few ounces of urine in my bladder and had to begin taking Flomax, no matter the side effects I complained of the last time I took it, years ago.   The cystoscopy was scheduled for November 8.  A few hours before my appointment I had a call from your office rescheduling the exam for December 6.  I called Glenice who promised me a return call from you that I have not yet had.

I understand the imperatives of corporate medicine, but I don’t think you could defend this to your urology students as good medical practice.   I have no results from the CAT scan, have been given no medical opinion, have not seen the doctor I paid to see on October 25, have had no return call from him after the cystoscopy was cancelled.   Might the CAT scan results eliminate the need for the cystoscopy?  What, if anything, did the CT scan show?    Is this isolated instance of gross hematuria something I can safely put in the rearview mirror or should I be worried about the possibility that it may be a sign of late stage prostate or bladder cancer?  

I am currently being treated for idiopathic membranous nephropathy and my initial call was to my nephrologist.   He told me hematuria is not a known effect of my kidney disease and said I should call my urologist.  I got the earliest appointment with your office.  A month later I still know exactly nothing.

You can email me, text me at ______, or call that number any time after 1 pm. I don’t think you — or anyone–  would be satisfied with this kind of treatment from your doctor (leaving aside the very long waits for a blood test– which neglected to include the creatine test required for the CT scan– the appointment with your ANP, the hours waiting for the CT scan, the month long postponement of a diagnostic test).   Please advise.


(I discovered, after writing it, that there is no place to actually fucking send it… you’ve got to admire corporate medicine, baby.  During regular office hours I can call and possibly even get an email address to send it to)

USA!  USA!!!!


[1]  Correction,  one always has to read the fine print carefully when dealing with corporate vampires.   There is no email contact information available for the department of urology, this is where the URL on the business card takes you, to the corporate not-actual-contact page of these Hippocratic oath taking corporate dickheads.   I can’t wait to get the hospital’s next solicitation letter telling me about the wonderful, selfless work they are doing, without profit, for the community.


I’ve Waited Long

I am typing in the room where my mother’s ashes sit in a box in a beautiful paper bag.   The elegant bag is in the corner, out of my view, and I haven’t looked at it in a long time, but it is a distinctive bag.   The bag is brown paper on the outside, a pure slate gray on the inside.   My mother would like the bag.   She has no worries now, nor any wishes, either.  I decided years ago that I’d scatter her ashes in the Long Island Sound at the public beach at Wading River, but we haven’t done it so far, in eight and a half years.   I haven’t been to that beach in more than fifty years, who knows if you can even get on the beach now without a resident pass?   When I was there last there were swings, seesaws and a sliding pond on the sand, and a small parking lot with maybe eight spots painted on the once black shore road.

The idea of scattering my mother’s ashes in the water at Wading River was a sentimental one.  I  think of those months in that rented green and white bungalow a hundred yards from the lapping water as the happiest summers of her life, but who knows?   She always said she wanted to live near the water, and for a couple of summers we did.   I don’t know if she was happy there or not, hearing the waves breaking at night.  What I do know is that at the moment she truly doesn’t care.   Her concern at the end was about not being eaten by worms and bugs, the thought terrified her.  I assured her it would never happen and it will never happen.  

The scattering of her ashes is more a poetic matter, really.   Every so often it gives me a pang, that I haven’t managed to scatter her ashes into the gently lapping Long Island Sound,  that her ashes are sitting there in that elegant paper bag.  On the other hand, I am positive she doesn’t mind, even if she would chide me about my long failure to do it, if she were somehow able to.

That I can sit here, a few feet from her ashes, writing thoughtfully about it in words almost nobody will ever see, is a blessing and my form of daily meditation.   Thinking these thoughts, molding them into sections that I then comb carefully for readability, focuses my spirit, clarifies my beliefs, sharpens my sense of purpose.   That I have little clue about the only thing the world understands — attaining financial success — does not distract me while I work.  The hard work of vainly striving is not a remote consideration while I concentrate on making my words express my thoughts, my heart, as clearly as I can.


I had a call just now from a one-time good friend of my mother’s, a woman a year older than my mother.   My mother would have been ninety last May, this woman was ninety-one last month, and still going strong.  God bless her, as we say.  Her mind is sharp, her language is crisp, she is upright and walking and driving great distances– still a force at ninety-one.   In the course of narrating a lot of horrors she asked me to keep to myself, while assuring me that she is up to the challenges, taking them one day at a time, she mentioned something that gave her a glimmer of hope in these dark times.

She attended an interfaith vigil the other day, the great throng of several faiths who had gathered was inspiring to her.   The hall was very crowded, with a big crowd outside also.   Somebody came through the mass of people outside and ushered her inside to a seat she didn’t want.  “I can stand, I’m perfectly fine,” she insisted, “give the seat to someone who needs it.”   In the end, she took the seat, though she felt bad about it.   Her ninety-two year-old friend, who had declined the seat in another part of the crowded hall, regretted it afterwards as her lower back tightened up painfully after standing on the concrete floor for a couple of hours.   Better to be seated than aching, I say more and more often now.

Small mercies take on a bigger and bigger significance as life goes on.   We see few enough of them in the world now, as so many nations stand on the brink of merciless horrors many of us believed were a barbaric relic of a bygone, insane age.  I’m talking about a small mercy like finding a vacant bench at the point of a walk when your arthritic knees are barking.   The relief you feel, taking the weight off your troubled bones, a gift you give yourself, provided by a merciful side of the universe and gratefully accepted.

There was a lot on this woman’s mind, and much of it I agreed not to share with anyone, so there’s that.   At one point, God bless her, she couldn’t resist giving me just a little shit about not calling her lately, after I’d spent hours on the phone last month advising her about some very vexing things– and sent her several more pages about my father’s life that she was too vexed to really take in.   


After the Saudis murdered a journalist in their consulate in Turkey last month there was a period of several weeks during which the vicious, smiling thirty-four year-old Crown Prince had his advisors and marketing folks make up and spin multiple lies about what happened to the disappeared critic of the regime.  Our president, also born to great wealth that made him feel truly exceptional since childhood, stalled along with the Crown fucking Prince of Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Islamic monarchy.   “We have to wait until  the Saudis finish investigating whether they murdered this vicious, lying journalist, which they strongly deny, look, they strongly deny it, like Justice Kavanaugh denied all those lies against him  — whatever happened to the presumption of innocence that liberals used to talk about?  Here they go, rushing to call MBS a murderer, which we don’t know, we may never know, certainly not until he’s done investigating whether he is or not, look, this kid is a gem, a great, great future king– no presumption of innocence for him?   Typical of the lying haters and hypocrites, funders and defenders of the raping, leprosy and smallpox infected terrorist hoards advancing on us …”

All we have, any of us, is the impression we leave behind on those who knew us. We are whispers, after our death, not even ghosts.   The example of how we lived is the only thing we leave to the world of people who knew us.   The power we may have wielded over others is nothing, it is how we used that power that is remembered, that lessons for the living can be drawn from.

I had an old friend who lives the frenetic, embattled life of a successful suburban citizen.   His many stresses and frustrations have few, if any, safe outlets.  It appears that I became his best option for relief.   More and more, particularly since I’ve devoted myself, from before my mother’s death, to restraining my angry reactions as much as I can, he took to provoking me.    I pointed this out to him each time he did it, but he always argued that he was not provoking me, that I just get mad unfairly, that maybe I was the one with the provocation problem, not him.    I had more than one opportunity to throw him on the ground and kick him, but I breathed and fought my way to remaining as peaceful as I could.   This restraint apparently goaded him to ever greater provocations.

In the end, he provoked me into detailing the many things I don’t respect about him.  I don’t know if I mentioned his lack of basic courage, which I think is probably encompassed in the unfortunate phrase I do recall using “moral retard”.   In the wake of this his wife called me, basically offering me an ultimatum.   You have to forgive him, she told me, because he loves you, we all love you.  

I explained why it’s impossible to forgive someone who takes no responsibility for hurtful things they repeatedly do.   Futile, really, since those hurtful things continue on and on into the future if they are not acknowledged and corrected.   The only option, to pretend everything is fine because people tell you that they love you, is not one I’m willing to take, even for the high moral cause of professed love.

Besides, I told her, love is the way you treat people, what you reflexively do when you see a loved one in pain.   Love is action, not a word.  I told her to let her husband know that I’ll be happy to hear from him once he gets some insight in the therapy he assures me he is working hard at.  “That’s not going to happen,” his wife told me, and it had the ring of truth.   He would rather lose his oldest friend than admit that the annoyingly superior fuck might have been even partially right.  Zero sum, baby, he can’t help himself.  If you don’t win, you lose.  What could be worse than that?  Ask the president.

It began to bug me more and more that because I’d taken a principled stance in regard to an old friendship I’d lost the longtime friendship of his wife and his two sons, as well as the friendship of a close mutual friend, apparently enraged at how badly I’ve hurt his troubled old friend.   I called the guy on Halloween (spooky, I know), to ask him three questions that had formed in my head.   I left a voicemail.   I heard nothing back from him, though I’d spontaneously left him the option of doing nothing, saying I’d email him the questions if I didn’t hear back.

A few hours later I rethought my offer.  What was the point of sending questions to someone who could not even reply to a voicemail?  It would only increase my aggravation if I never heard back, give him an easy, an effortless, final provocation.  I called again, left a second message, asking him to text, email or call me if he was willing to help me by answering three questions.  

Two days later, having heard nothing, I texted him, asking if he was out of town or too weak and unJewish to respond.   “Weak and unJewish”, an admittedly provocative formulation (especially to a Jew who fervently prays every morning), but, in context, restrained, I thought, particularly after two days of silence by way of reply.

I soon got the texts one would expect, explaining how he’d heard the first message and thought he’d be getting an email, and then no email came, and then, belatedly, he saw the other voicemail from me but didn’t actually hear it until after my recent text a few hours earlier and so on and so forth and so, you see, there was a rationale to all the delay, a hazard of digital communication (which is what I’d called to avoid in the first place) and, yes, please send him the three questions.

I sent this:

It depresses me that people I was friendly with and had no quarrel with, your wife, your sons, R___, have all vanished from my life as a result of our falling out.  Not to mention you.   I understand your wife and kids have to take your side, whatever it is, but still.   And you can’t even pick up the phone and return a missed call? (rhetorical question)

What was my final, unforgivable act against you?

What did you tell R____ that made him cut off communication with me?   When he left the US we were seemingly the best of friends, he was apologizing that we’d only managed to squeeze in one quick visit when he first arrived.  Then, as a prelude to complete radio silence,  I got a reference to “other developments over the last year or so” that presumably magnified the differences between us beyond the point of possible friendship.

Did you talk to your rabbi in the days before Yom Kippur and, if so, what did he tell you?    I don’t think it’s possible that a rabbi would advise someone to make no further attempt at reconciliation with his oldest friend during the Ten Days of Repentance.   I conclude you didn’t discuss it with your spiritual adviser.   I think you should consider this seven minute discussion on apology, forgiveness and atonement:

I heard back quickly by email.  He’d received my questions, but I’d have to give him a few days to answer them.

I took a breath and typed back: OK.