Parent and child

I recently spent two years, every day, writing about my troubled, troubling father. Many of the sessions were spent in a kind of dialogue with the skeleton of my dead father. We had some excellent and revealing chats, picking up where he left off the last night of his life. Most days our talk seemed genuinely like an actual conversation with a wiser version of the droll, insightful person I’d been raised by, reflecting the realizations he’d had right before his death. The skeleton was humbled by his death, and looking for reconciliation.

I did this every day for two solid years, thinking about the project when I was not writing, imagining my father’s earlier life, trying to get to the bottom of how damaged my father was and the often subtle, but in many ways disabling, harm he inflicted on my sister and me. It was a great project and I actually learned a lot, whether or not I eventually rewrite the pages into a marketable book. The most amazing and unexpected outcome is that now I can see everything from his point of view, though I still disagree with most of the harmful things he did.

The other day I suddenly realized that some of the best men I’ve ever known have struggled (though much more successfully than my father) to be good fathers, some of the best women struggle with being unfailingly good mothers. Children who have wonderful parents and enviable childhoods sometimes grow up to be tormented, anxious, selfish, insecure, vain, perplexed. This point likely seems too obvious to make, perhaps, to anyone who has raised a child, who lives as a parent, but to me, having no children, it was a long time dawning on me what difficult, sometimes thankless work it is to always strive to be generous, to do one’s best, and still experience that sharper than a serpent’s tooth-inflicted pain that comes from an ungrateful, angry or oblivious child. We all have better days and worse days, and there is no real training on how to be a parent or how to be a child.

I knew a young mother, who’d been raised by difficult, immature parents, who decided to be the opposite of the way she saw her own mother. During her pregnancy she fell under the influence of a group of women called the La Leche League. According to her, their theory is that babies never manipulate a parent, they only ask for what they truly need. A child who is breast fed whenever they ask, and given every bit of affection and attention they seek, will grow up to be strong, confident and self-motivated. She breast fed her first child until the baby was three or so, then weaned her when the little brother arrived. He nursed until he was able to say things like “mom, I need to nurse now, if that’s OK with you.” It was a great bonding experience for the mother, and I have read that the oxytosin released during breast feeding can be quite addictive. What’s not to love about perfect love?

This young mother was fond of pointing to how wonderful her children were, the proof that she had learned mighty lessons from her own childhood and become the kind of 100% nurturing mother she never felt she’d had. “The proof is in the pudding,” she would say with a proud smile, pointing at her perfect children, who had never wanted for unconditional love and were clearly both amazing children as a result. I lost track of the family after a while, but the last I heard, the daughter is, according to the mother, a fearless genius and the son, also a genius, is a very insightful young man and something of a saint.

This young mother once spent the day with her husband and two year-old daughter, visiting old friends of mine. The next time I saw my friends I asked how they’d gotten along (I’d introduced them). They told me it had been an extremely long couple of hours, that they’d found the young parents’ zealous belief that they’d created the perfect child hard to bear. “Parents are one factor, one factor in dozens, as to how your child turns out, parenting doesn’t have that kind of one-on-one correlation with how the kid turns out in the end,” my friend told me. “To think otherwise is a kind of madness bordering on megalomania,” the other friend added.

I think of this now in connection to my own father, and his often problematic parenting. He was one factor among many in how I turned out, though he always loomed as a supremely difficult one. A parent who is often angry, and takes out their frustrations on their child, tends to be a large factor in how the kid grows up to see the world. Just as I am sometimes unable to disentangle myself from the abuse I suffered at his hands, in his life, and the reason he often lashed out at his own children like an injured two year-old, is that he had actually been a deeply injured two year-old.

One of the first things he told me when I returned to his hospital room around 1 a.m. that last night of his life, in that weak, croaking voice dying men often seem to have, was “my life was basically over by the time I was two.” I knew the bones of his story. I had learned them from a witness, an older first cousin, my father’s references to his harrowing childhood were always oblique, opaque.

His mother, a tiny, bitter, deeply religious woman with an unquenchable temper, living in a viscerally unhappy arranged marriage to a very poor man, used to whip her tiny son across the face, from the time he could stand. Picture that, and how much worse it is for a baby than verbal abuse, neglect, icy silence in the face of expressed concerns, or sarcastic dismissal.

Each of my father’s techniques for keeping his children, and his own demons, at bay were less atrocious than taking the rough, heavy cord of an old fashioned steam iron, and whipping your tender young child in the face, from his earliest memory. I finally concluded he did better than he’d experienced, though he admitted late in his life that verbal abuse is as damaging as physical abuse.

Over the years I sometimes thought beatings would have been preferable, since at age fifteen or so, skinny as I was, I would have started fighting back (he already showed fear of me by that age) and soon been able to kick the shit out of him if he lifted a hand against my sister or me. But that is a surmise I rarely think about.

What I think about more and more is how to take the lessons of my troubling childhood and lay them out clearly for others, in the name of becoming more forgiving, of oneself and the people you love who have hurt you. To explain simply, for the possible benefit of any reader who has been struck by the sharper than a serpent’s tooth cruelty of an unfairly angry parent, how I went from hardening my heart against an asshole father, to learning about and understanding the humiliating abuse he’d suffered in a truly hellish childhood, to opening myself, as he was dying, to simply listen to his deep regrets, and encourage him to say the things he felt it so important to say that he used his last breaths to say them.

Remember to be thankful today

It’s easy to forget, living in the overblown shit show we all have front row seats for, that we have a lot to be grateful for. A short anecdote for Thanksgiving and we’re off to spend the day with cousins.

I was working as a bicycle messenger, fighting New York City traffic and the me-decade of the 1980s, angry all the time. I had big dreams for my life, and being a cog in a corporate wealth machine was not part of those dreams. I found myself wasting time waiting for a slow elevator in a small building where some successful person had an important business that needed an important package immediately delivered to another office, it was a super rush. Time was literally money for me too, I didn’t get paid to wait around, I made money by being fast (which also allowed me to work as few hours as possible).

When the elevator finally arrived I got in and there was an older Black woman (probably younger than I am today) already in it, she had been delivered to the lobby for no reason. We watched the doors slowly close and the elevator began to lurch slowly upwards, then stop, then lurch a bit more. I muttered that it was not my day.

“Never say it’s not my day!” the older woman said, “if you’re alive, it’s your day!”

I nodded, attempting a smile that was probably more like a Clint Eastwood grimace. The old lady was 100% right though, and I salute her now, many decades later. It is good to take a moment to remember to be thankful sometimes, for something as elemental, and irreplaceable, as simply waking up alive in this precious life.

A gas chamber looks better by gaslight

I offer this anecdote to illustrate how even a very smart person, perhaps especially a very smart person, can create a world of shit simply by selectively using their intellectual gifts. You can turn anything into anything else, with the will and the skill. We see this all the time in public life now, not even done skillfully much of the time, but it is also sadly prevalent in personal life.

The common phrase for somebody pissing on your leg and dismissively insisting it’s raining is gaslighting. That term is based on an old movie where a guy, to drive his wife insane, makes the gaslight dimmer and dimmer and, when the wife keeps commenting on the increasing dimness in the house, insists the light is the same as it always was, and that the wife is insane, which eventually breaks her, I think.

I once worked for a brilliant man who had a very smart assistant and an armed guard in the room where he presided. He had a good sense of humor, and of the absurd, but he was also used to being listened to, respected and having the final word.

He had a theory about why so many people act out in our society, and a term for it: Honor Anemia. In this country we are not listened to, given even the minimal respect or recognition that every human being needs, so we are constantly seeking it, sometimes by acting out, even becoming criminals. The theory made a certain amount of sense to me.

We were having lunch one day, in the crowded outside area of a restaurant near the meatpacking district. He asked me if I had any theory about why child molesters, of all criminals, are so universally despised, even by rapists and murderers. I said it was probably because they prey on the most vulnerable of victims and pretty much destroy their young lives. This answer didn’t satisfy the philosophical man, who continued to probe.

Wasn’t it possible, he asked, if the adult truly loved the child he was sexually involved with, and always gentle to and considerate of, that the relationship wouldn’t harm the child? I told him that could theoretically be true, but even if it was true in 50% of cases, it didn’t account for the terrible wound it inflicted on the other 50%. Putting the traumatic damage to the kid on a coin toss, for the sake of sexual gratification for the adult seemed a very callous bet, to me.

I pointed out that the likelihood of lifelong harm to the child was probably closer to 99% than my hypothetical coin flip. I also said that if the adult truly loved the child he wouldn’t risk destroying the kid’s life to have sex with the child, he would wait until the kid was an adult to begin a romance. He chewed on this and we continued to talk.

It became less and less clear to me what he was talking about. Whenever I’d ask for clarification, he would nimbly digress to some other point I couldn’t grasp. I finally told him “look, I’m happy to talk about whatever you want, and I’m not squeamish about this subject, or any subject, it’s just that I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about at this point.” He thanked me, for being willing to talk about the taboo subject, telling me that nobody else had ever let him discuss it so frankly. I told him he was welcome, but that, really, I hadn’t gotten the point he was trying to make.

As we left the restaurant, walking over to meet his wife, he asked me what I thought of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, two whistleblowers who had been much in the news. I offered a tepid defense of both of them, pointing out that whatever their criminal exposure, both of their revelations, which had required great personal courage to disclose, had been of immense public importance. He immediately began to snarl that they both had committed textbook treason, then raised his voice, denouncing me as an idiot, as someone obviously unaware of the findings of a series of great sociologists and political scientists of yesteryear that I’d never heard of, let alone read.

He raged at me so long that his wife, an intolerable termagant, a harping harridan, told him to let me get a word in. He did not. We were in his car, crossing the bridge back to Queens, then on the highway, I was a sitting duck.

I was no longer working for him and had no reason to forgive or forget his merciless tongue lashing. He called to apologize, then asked me to do him a favor, procure a bit more of something for him that was then still illegal in New York State. For reasons I can’t understand now, I did him this one last favor. When he came to pick up his contraband I foolishly accepted a ride to Sekhnet’s with him. Now he wanted to take me to dinner. I only wanted to not interact with him anymore, already regretting the favor I’d done. I declined his invitation, he insisted.

It was important that we had a good meal and talk everything over, he told me, we were friends. Friends, I pointed out, don’t mercilessly bully their friends over a difference in opinion. No, he said, we have to talk this out, over dinner. He pulled up in front of his favorite restaurant. I started heading for the nearest subway, but he grabbed me in a bear hug. “Please,” the large man said, “let me treat you to dinner.”

I was in my fifties at the time, he was in his early seventies. If you wound the clock back a few decades, he would have been in his thirties, I would have been around ten. None of this escaped me as I disentangled from his embrace without shoving or striking him. For reasons I also don’t understand, I went into the restaurant, ate a meal, and we had a talk I recall not a word of. It was like talking to a mummy, I suppose.

The next time I ran into the purveyor of contraband he asked me about my former boss, who’d been a good customer of his. I told him the story; the incomprehensible shift from thanking me for listening to his odd rambling meditation on child molestation to his rage that we disagreed about the nature of what Snowden and Manning had done.

“Psychology 101,” he said “he revealed that he was probably a child molester, and you’d been understanding in some way, and he hated himself for that and had to immediately make you hate him too.”

Though my neighbor is not generally known for his psychological astuteness, I thought he put things in a very insightful nutshell. If I had any doubt about my former boss’s intention in the odd discussion of child molestation, it was removed when he bodily intervened to prevent me from leaving him at the restaurant. It was a distinctly rapey move. Another kind of man would have roughly shoved him away, told him to fuck himself, slapped him hard if he persisted, knocked him to the ground, if necessary. I ate a plate of linguine and watched his mouth move without hearing anything he said, then it was all over.

Fifteen years


Fifteen years is long, for a prison sentence.  Fifteen years for the rest of your life seems like the wink of an eye.  As my father was dying, talking to me suddenly as his beloved son and not a lifelong adversary who’d gotten his young father’s back up by staring at him accusingly from my crib, he expressed a feeling that stays with me.

“I wish we could have talked like this fifteen years ago,” the dying man told me, after getting a lot off his chest, with no grief for either of us.   

At the time I thought “seriously, you’d settle for fighting like rabid rats for 35 years and then 15 years of peace?”   A sadly modest request that fifteen years seemed to me.

He died the next evening and I suddenly understood that fifteen years to speak humanely to each other would have been a great blessing to everyone.   So would fifteen months have been, or fifteen weeks, or fifteen days, or even fifteen more hours.  

When the other person breathes his last, there is only the silence and the love that might have been. 

Tech Support and BIRD WINS

About a week ago I went to post something on this blahg, which I rent from WordPress (they never fail to thank me each time they automatically bill my credit card), and got this message:

Currently, my laptop won’t allow me to so much as visit my blahg, out of an overwhelming concern for my privacy. There was no way to overcome this uncompromising protection of my privacy to post on this blahg, or even visit, except on my phone. I contacted WordPress (email only) and was told I probably need to update my macbook operating system. I noted:

I resist doing the updates on the macbook because Apple, in its infinite greed, is notorious for disabling useful features of their native programs with each update, clawing back once-included capabilities so they can sell them back to you.   

A few days later I was given three things to try, by Happiness Engineer Tish, (the second idea was overcoming my reluctance to have all programs reformatted and some randomly rendered useless) and wrote back:

Hi Tish,

Took a weekend away from technology.   Now I’m trying your suggested fixes.

1- clicking this link got to the same message as the screen shot I sent a few days ago, Your Connection is Not Private!

2– still reluctant to have all of my programs reconfigured/disabled by Apple as they have been every update since at least 10.6.7

3– installing Firefox now (unless I get a Connection Not Private! message preventing it),  Here you go:

There used to be a game in the Chinatown Arcade in NYC where a live chicken would play all comers at tic tac toe for 50 cents a game.   The bird went first.  If you played well you could tie, but I’d never seen anyone beat the bird.  After the bird beat the sucker, right after its victory dance (the disk it stood on would wobble and it would exert itself not to fall over) it would frantically claw for a couple of kernels of dry corn, literally two or three, that were its reward.  While this was going on a big lighted sign flashed BIRD WINS.

Perfect parallel for technology companies of all kinds.   You want the feature you’ve always used?  Tough.  We had a team of geniuses redesign it completely and it’s what you want now.  Choice is for the people who bring you this miraculous technology, they know better than mere “users” what is actually desirable in the product.  Capitalism runs on eternal “improvement” and built-in obsolescence.  Tech companies, even a nice outfit like WordPress, are the masters of this.  New design, new world order.   Read Shoshanah Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” and shudder for the amazing world of crushing pressure to conform kids are growing up in now, ushered in by “social media” and unlimited, ever more thorough data collection from “users”, in the name of… well, profit, mostly.

Anyway, thanks for your help.  I’ll probably wind up updating this machine and using it just as a word processor, as nature intended.

Eliot

P.S. Before I sent this I tried one more thing.   DuckDuckGo just fixed it, I can get to the innovative (and, like, totally improved, even if the theme I use is now “unsupported”) WordPress block composer from there.

I did not bother to add, for Tish, a complete stranger, that I am clearly, as my father more than once noted, the kind of person who’d complain if he was hanged with a new rope.

Punchline, which I sent to “tech support”:

DuckDuckGo allowed me to get on the WordPress site, write and post an entry.  Once.  Now I get this again:

BIRD WINS!

NOTE: had to add this using my phone

when you try to defeat this unwanted “protection” you get this message:

gratuitousblahg.com normally uses encryption to protect your information. When Google Chrome tried to connect to gratuitousblahg.com this time, the website sent back unusual and incorrect credentials. This may happen when an attacker is trying to pretend to be gratuitousblahg.com, or a Wi-Fi sign-in screen has interrupted the connection. Your information is still secure because Google Chrome stopped the connection before any data was exchanged.

You cannot visit gratuitousblahg.com right now because the website uses HSTS. Network errors and attacks are usually temporary, so this page will probably work later.

Or, if you prefer, Go fuck yourself. Have a great day!

Restraining heartlessness

Dean Joan R.M. Bullock:


Thank you. Well, I will just end with the quote from Martin Luther King, who said, “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” And what I want us to — as the takeaway — is that whatever the rule is as it relates to the meeting of the minds must be of one set that applies equally to all and that the heartless, those who govern by rules which they would not prescribe for themselves, must be restrained in that situation. And if we do, at least, restrain the heartless– we might not be able to change the minds and the hearts of everyone, but if we can restrain the heartless and have everyone under one set of rules, we will indeed be a people that are equal under the law.

Bullock, Joan; Fain, Constance; Weeden, Larry; and SpearIt (2021) “Panel III Discussion: The U.S. Constitution: Reimagining “We the People” as an Inclusive Construct,” The Bridge: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Legal & Social Policy: Vol. 6 , Article 5. Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University.

“Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

Rules, agreed to and abided by, with enforcement when needed, can restrain heartlessness. A strictly enforced law against lynching may not change the hearts of those who feel most alive as part of a righteous, muscular mob hauling some guilty chickenshit bastard off to be tortured to death, but the certainty of severe punishment for the merciless act can restrain the heartless. That King quote cited by the law school dean begins with a beautiful sentence: It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.

My oldest friend summed up a terrible and common human dilemma: it is humiliating to have to ask for what you should be given freely, but it is also something we must do. The context was close personal relationships in which the other person treats you unfairly, or even with a nonchalant brutality sometimes, instead of giving you the benefit of the doubt and the steady mercy we all require from our loved ones. We grow up with the beautiful idea of unconditional love, being loved simply because we are a soul that deserves love, not because love, like respect, has to be earned. All love, it turns out, has conditions attached. It can only flourish when the humiliation of having to ask for what we need is not constant, doesn’t become a heavier and heavier burden. Love by itself, clearly, is not the answer to every terrible question.

The essence of morality, expressed by the ancient Jewish sage Hillel when he was challenged to state it, is “what is hateful to you, do not unto others.” To me the simple practicality of this statement stands by itself as an indispensable guide to a moral life. We all know, more intimately than almost anything else, what we hate. If we hate it when it is done to us, we should be aware that others would hate it too and refrain from doing it to them.

It has taken me many years, but I finally understand the empathy-related problem with even that insightful expression of the Golden Rule. Its limitation is our human limitation on feeling empathy automatically, unless someone else’s vexation is identical to, or very close to, our own. This is a universal limitation on our powers of effective real-time mercy. What is so hard about the seemingly straightforward “what is hateful to you do not unto others” is that we humans naturally understand things from our personal perspective and are geniuses at framing things so we are blameless.

“No, I wouldn’t hate that, no, you just have a problem with someone making a perfectly reasonable demand,” is much easier to say to an aggrieved loved one than, “you know, now that you’ve explained yourself clearly, without making me feel defensive — thank you for that — I would feel terrible if somebody treated me like I just treated you and I’m truly sorry and will try my best not to do it again. Please let me know whenever I start to do it so I can be more aware of correcting that fault in myself.”

That second answer is for fairy tales, in the society we live in, or only possible between two people who love each other while honestly, openly accepting each other’s faults, a rare thing. Easier to shift the blame off yourself, particularly in a highly competitive culture like the one we live in, where one is expected to defend oneself at all costs.

We have not been raised in a generally cooperative society, we don’t solve mutual problems as a group, (ironic in a democracy, that), but see and are forced to accept unilateralism daily in our own lives, in the workplace, we can hear it reported in the news every day as part of public life. One unmovable person, in the right strategic position, has the power to hold up a solution for an entire family, or, in the case of government, thwart a solution for the unmet needs of millions.

We also don’t have a social support system in America for, or a history of, group problem solving, no respected wise elders available for advising on disputes between loved ones, outside of family court and the ever-popular divorce court. In our combative society we’re rewarded for playing hard and winning, not for daydreaming and refusing to compete.

A glance around, at the boiling hatred that animates so many of the world’s billions right now, shows us that a conversation based on the need for love will not get very far. If you are a Muslim in India, ruled as it is by a hard-line Hindu Nationalist party, you do not expect love, or even respect, from your government. Love is for the immediate family, the tribe, and people everywhere are always ready to fight for that. For outsiders, the Other, all bets are currently off. The question is: how do we best restrain heartlessness?

Seeing how hard it can be between individuals who care about each other to always show kindness, we can multiply the difficulty of mitigating group heartlessness by a million or so. The common, grim view of humanity is that we are all flawed, corrupt, out primarily for ourselves, and that we, if given the power, would fuck others we don’t care about as nonchalantly as those in power routinely do to the powerless. Given this view, held by billions, the best we can shoot for is limiting the heartlessness of those with the power to inflict humiliating conditions on others.

The dean quoted at the top obliquely references Hillel’s Golden Rule when she notes “that the heartless, those who govern by rules which they would not prescribe for themselves, must be restrained in that situation.” A wealthy legislator who lives on a yacht, rakes in a tidy sum from his coal interests, and is well-funded by the nation’s greatest toxic polluters, does not consider himself heartless just because he opposes any law that would hurt his family’s bottom line. He simply loves his damned family and wants to make them wealthier! A woman who campaigned as a progressive, promised to fight for fairness and equality, be an advocate for the oppressed, and then takes $750,000 in campaign donations from pharmaceutical corporations that benefit from the current health insurance laws in the US, does not consider herself heartless, or hypocritical, when she opposes any changes her generous sponsors would not like.

When you ask a proven heartless partisan like Mitch McConnell, as Chuck Schumer did the other day, for a procedural compromise to prevent the scorched earth that McConnell’s threat to filibuster raising the debt ceiling will inevitably produce, you will always get some variation on this: “There is no chance, no chance the Republican conference will go out of our way to help Democrats conserve their time and energy, so they can resume ramming through partisan socialism as fast as possible.” 

Politics in the USA as usual. The heartless (and ridiculously exaggerated) claim here is that Democrats are attempting to ram through a hateful, partisan, socialist agenda, including securing the ability to continue paying for a debt that McConnell’s party increased by 25% during the four years of a popular, angry, incompetent game show host’s presidency. That McConnell’s claim is incoherent makes it no less compelling in today’s heartless, zero-sum, sound bite-driven polity. I’ve got no solution for this, except to urge strength to the arms of those in power who find themselves in the humiliating position an incoherent set of loudly amplified self-serving lies has placed us all in. Love them or hate them, the heartless must be fought and restrained with everything we have.

Be very careful what you say when you’re hurt

“I don’t know what I did to make you treat me so unfairly and so disrespectfully,” while possibly accurate, is probably not the best line of approach when someone you love has treated you hurtfully.

If you have degenerative arthritis, say, and did not qualify, until a few weeks ago, for palliative injections that will allow you to exercise for six months without pain while building up surrounding muscle, why is that really anyone’s concern besides yours? Why would you expect automatic acknowledgment of your physical limitations and the empathy that follows from considering a loved one’s disability?

Say you feel wrongly accused of a flaw you try not to have, say in addition to an unreasonable expectation of sympathy, there’s the perception of your habitual comfort inconveniencing everyone around you. You like to sleep all day, so nobody can even be on the road for a vacation workout by a reasonable 10 a.m.

All these feelings, after someone shows you an implacable face, must be put to the side as you figure out the best way to restore trust and mutuality. It may take more patience than you have, particularly when you feel hurt, but that’s a separate question.

The real question is how to convey to them how hurt they would feel, placed in the unfair situation they’ve placed you in. That is not the work of a few minutes or a few hours, of simply choosing the right words. It requires a supremely patient telling of the right story, framed sympathetically, to keep everyone calm and help them understand.

It may take more patience than you feel you have. It becomes easy to think up past wrongs echoing the latest and be hurt by the confirmation of callousness, but making this list carries the risk of making you sound petty and prosecutorial. Best to focus on understanding, clarity and directness, toward a more loving future.

Otherwise, speaking out of pain, you are much more likely to do harm than to say anything that will contribute to healing or empathy.

Try writing the situation out first, it may help you grasp things better, to be more clear and better able to stay out of the many deadly traps hurt will steer you towards.

Best of luck, there is no harder work I know than remaining mild when you feel deeply hurt. It is worth the price to master this supremely difficult skill. In the meantime, be very judicious in what you say while still smarting.

Meditation on 5782

Today is the first day of the Jewish year 5782. The most religious Jews believe that HaShem, according to Jewish tradition, created the universe by performing the miracle of dividing light from darkness, land from waters and creating life 5,782 years ago, literally, as it is written. Thus Jews believed two thousand years ago and, so it is, to the most fervently religious, to this day. Other Jews see 5782 as a symbolic number, the bit about God creating all the plants and animals one by one, culminating in his masterpiece, his special children, humans, woman created out of the first man’s spare rib, as so much Biblical poetry.

Religious belief has never interested me, I have no talent for it. My first thought is armies of the fucking righteous, putting the faithless to the sword, century after century. Virtually every religion has had a turn at Holy War. The most righteous of every creed recognize that the reward of an ethical life, some version of heaven or enlightenment, belongs to the righteous of all nations, when they are not slaughtering them.

My second thought is the hotbed of anti-Semitism that was Hillcrest Jewish Center, where, for several years, I was forced to attend classes after the regular school day was over.

Beyond the “fuck that” of a kid who’d just been sprung from jail having to report to another jail for a few hours, especially on beautiful days when playing baseball was much closer to God than learning to parrot prayers, in an unknown language, that were never translated or explained, there was the silencing of all questions. The blotting out of critical thinking was the most intolerable part of the Hillcrest Jewish Center religious experience. It was a gaslighting similar to what I experienced at home, where my very clever father endlessly fought me over everything, generally by recasting whatever else we were talking about as a damning referendum on my character.

Trips to the principal’s office, fucking Frieda Berkman was her name, did not cure me of my need to question things we were supposed to believe, rites we were supposed to perform by rote, mouthing prayers we didn’t understand. After Berkman got sick of having me wait in her tiny outer office day after day under a poster that said “a teacher attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with the desire to learn is hammering on cold steel” (I asked her about that one, she didn’t like my disrespectful question at all), I was sent to wait in the plush outer office of the rabbi, Israel Moshowitz by name. Moshowitz was photographed shaking Nixon’s hand, of course. He was a big deal. I have no recollection of the pious speech he eventually laid on me about being a good Jew and just doing what I was told. I’m fairly sure it involved the Holocaust.

It took me many years to get over the antiSemitism that was instilled in me by my early religious miseducation at Hillcrest. I used to recoil from the well-dressed swarm of once-a-year hyper-religious Jews who congregated at the Yom Kippur service (the Day of Atonement is ten days from Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year). I’d feel real disgust watching them hurry home to break their fast, in a huge hurry, all full of the righteousness of not having eaten in 24 hours. I’d walk to the synagogue to meet my father, shouldering my way past these hungry, rushing, bad-breathed creatures, and walk him home to break our fast.

I had no patience for the meaningless “please rise, please be seated” ritual of the Hillcrest gymnasium, where cheaper seats for High Holiday services were made available to those who were unable or unwilling to pay top dollar for an expensive seat in the sumptuous main chapel. Once in a while, in the gym, people would faint, and fall off their folding chair on to the lacquered wooden floor where, on other days, I’d played basketball.

No need to mention the vengeance of Frieda Berkman, who snarled at me over a loudspeaker during assemblies, or the united fucking by the synagogue itself, first in not presenting me with the Bar Mitzvah kiddush cup I had earned by reciting a few lines of Torah when I turned 13, and then by inviting me to a special service, in the Ferkauf Chapel, where, I was promised, I’d be presented with my kiddush cup. I put on a suit, went down there, “please rise, please be seated, please rise, please continue to stand,” and, at the end of the ponderous droning, there was no kiddush cup. I think of this every time I celebrate shabbat with friends who have their own, and their adult children’s, kiddush cups on the table filled with wine. I also think of how telling it was that my parents never intervened on my behalf.

So ritual for me, for the most part, so much contemptible horse shit. I say this with God Himself looking down on me, only slightly hurt. Worse things have been said by Jews, by Christians, by the otherwise righteous of all nations. If you experience a sense of community and spiritual completeness by sitting in a temple with others of your faith, God bless you, more power to you.

For me, religious ritual just reminds me of the super-religious Amy Coney Barrett, quickly ruling that religious gatherings during Covid-19 must be exempt from all health regulations, because God requires worship, and then, a short time later, ruling that an unconstitutional abortion ban in a state with a notoriously high infant and maternal mortality rate, a law designed to kill more poor women by forcing them to give birth whether they want to or not, is perfectly fine because the unconstitutional law is administratively complex. You can keep the ritualistic, inhuman religion of fanatics like Amy.

I emerged from a scarring childhood of incoherent religious idiocy, years later, to separate the moral teachings of Judaism from the empty rituals. There is a moral core to the teachings of the rabbis that is worth embracing. If you hate something, don’t do it to others. Be not intimate with the ruling authorities. Remember that you were a slave, do not tolerate the enslavement of others – freedom demands it. If you hurt somebody, do your best to make amends. A pretty good set of core principles, I believe.

These are moral precepts I have gleaned, some during interminable services (bar and bat mitzvahs, usually) where I flipped to the back of the prayer book and read Pirkey Avot, Selections from the Fathers, a short collection of pithy sayings that is part of the Mishnah, a vast book explaining every aspect of God’s laws. “Be not intimate with the ruling authorities” is in there somewhere, and it makes a great deal of sense to me. “What is hateful to you, do not unto others” is Rabbi Hillel’s famous formulation of what would later become Jesus’s Golden Rule “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and, to my mind, it provides a much more concrete guide for how to live an ethical life. If you hate something, don’t do it to somebody else. We humans know few things more deeply than what we hate.

Love, on the other hand, while precious beyond poetry, is a much shakier guide for how to act. A woman I used to know, who loved me, once gave me some counsel I argued against following. She countered that she wasn’t telling me anything she wouldn’t tell herself. I told her I knew that, but pointed out that in the past she had told herself to shut all the windows, turn on the gas and put her head in the oven, something I would never consider doing myself. In fact, I’d fight somebody who tried to insist I kill myself. She had the grace to concede that I had a point. Love is slippery as hell, and many of us don’t love ourselves as unconditionally and faithfully as we should, making it hard to love our neighbors as ourselves in the kindest possible way. At the same time, we, and those we love, are all we really have.

So I was happy today to see my smiling friends, regular synagogue goers, video me from a beautiful beach where they are celebrating today. “The beach is our shul this year,” my friend said, smiling from her beach chair, a light breeze tickling the shade umbrella under a perfect blue sky. I told her how beautiful their shul was, as she got up to take a panoramic shot of the sand, sky and ocean, and stop filming our other friend, who’d said hello but, like me, had had enough of the video conference after a short time. “Please be seated,” I should have told her.

Cover note to a former close friend

I will fold this up, put it in an envelope, and send it to this longtime friend who told me he loved me like a brother, before repudiating me forever. Oh, well. I don’t write it for him, I write it for myself. You be the judge:

Maybe friendship, like everything else in nature, has a natural life span. On the other hand, long, close friendships that end in mutual enmity, while both former friends are still alive, reflect an unwillingness (or inability) to reach a humane understanding. Not that humans are primarily rational, of course, as we see on the world stage daily, and friendship is not an entirely rational thing. On the other hand, concluding that a person you once loved and trusted is an irredeemably hurtful asshole reflects a fundamental emotional/intellectual disconnect, an irreconcilable battle with your past self. Most tragically, in a world where we’re lucky to connect with a few kindred souls over the decades, this fatal falling out cuts off all possibility of redemption, a more nuanced understanding that leads to reconciliation and a better life. The traditional image of heaven, old misunderstood enemies tearfully embracing — not for chumps like us.

To clarify, I’m not trying to change your mind about anything. It’s pointless to go over the angry phone call when you rang to confront me about what you said was my dangerously out of control anger. If nothing else, your aggravating show of “concern” was a reflection of emotions that had long been simmering in your heart. We’ll agree that your inability to understand why I was so upset when you dismissed my right to have strong feelings about a screwing you couldn’t personally relate to was genuine.

We can safely assume I’ve always been the kind of vicious, hypocritical, ruthlessly angry hurtful fuck you now conclude I’ve always been, regardless of my protestations of patience and mildness, and that you’ve always been a hectoring bully confidently pessimistic about the possibility of real human growth. Not a problem. I try to learn lessons from things like a falling out with a friend of fifty years. I know saying that is provocative, especially to someone who doesn’t believe people are capable of truly learning from pain, or making meaningful changes in their emotional lives. It is one more of my irrationally superior tics, something that makes a lazy lost soul like me so despicably infuriating.

Here is a bit I wrote the other day, trying to work out some more lessons from life, as I wait for the update on whether or not I am dying of prostate cancer. Have a great day, man!

With the benefit of hindsight

Sometimes it is impossible to see a thing clearly, if you you feel a certain way about it, until you can look at it with the benefit of hindsight. Something you had no way to understand as significant when it happened can become clear as part of a pattern you can only see looking back. A seemingly small thing you didn’t see as any kind of problem can come into focus as an important clue to what went wrong, once the entire situation is in the past tense.

I used to be good friends with a cheerful madman, hospitalized periodically for bouts of mania, who inflicted terrible, fatal damage on his old friend’s beautiful Gibson ES-335 (BB King’s Lucille was an ES-335). The lovely guitar, a pleasure to play, had its F-holes gouged out with a file, its mellow Humbucker pickups pried out, it’s perfectly formed, smooth mahogany colored hollow body partially bashed in. The neck was violently pried off, splintering some more great wood. Its remains were then left floating in a bathtub full of soapy water covered with hair the nut had maniacally clipped from his partially shaved head. The guy in the guitar shop just shook his head sadly when he saw the brutality of what had been done to this wonderful instrument. He pronounced it dead.

With hindsight I came to understand how deep my friend’s reservoir of rage was, but that was a lesson I’d learn much later. As for the guitar he destroyed, I knew the back story right away. It makes no sense in the cold light of pure Reason, but I understood part of the rage that made the gleeful desecration seem momentarily justified to my out of control friend. The occasionally crazed man was a fairly good musician who could sometimes come up with cool parts for the songs of his friend the songwriter. He often added inventive keyboard parts that greatly enhanced his friend’s songs. The songwriter always viewed his friend as a side kick, his loyal accompanist. The songwriter, like Lennon and McCartney before him (when they gave Harrison no credit for his many great arrangement ideas and melodic contributions, like the brilliant, soulful song-making opening riff in “And I Love Her”) never gave him any songwriting credit. It wore on him over the years. Finally in a bout of mania he fucked up the guy’s expensive, vintage guitar (this guy I’m talking about, not George Harrison).

Footnote: credit or no credit was purely academic since not one of the songwriter’s songs was ever published, let alone performed and monetized. As a sign of respect and friendship, the songwriter would have been well advised to give some credit to his friend for his major help on a bunch of his tunes. Particularly in light of how things ended for that beautiful guitar, and their long friendship.

I had a friend, since Junior High School, who became a locally well-known lawyer. He explained to me, when we were adolescents, that he had to work hard in school, to graduate at the top of his class, to maximize his chances for getting into a top school that would be a ticket to professional success and ultimate happiness. His vision of success, he explained (as I smoked a joint he would no longer share — he had extra credit homework to complete), was coming home every night to a beautiful home where his beautiful wife would hand him a perfect drink as he relaxed, admiring his sunset view, as the final touches were put on his gourmet dinner. It struck me as a shallow vision of the good life, even at fourteen, but who the hell was I to judge? To each his own, or as we learned to say in our Junior High School French class “a chacun son gout“.

He worked hard, graduated at the top of his specialized high school class, went on to Harvard and then Columbia for his law degree. He got a highly paid job at a prestigious law firm which involved, among other things, defending toxic polluters against lawsuits from tree huggers. After a relatively short time, he changed sides. He took the litigation skills he developed at that corporate law firm and, taking a big cut in pay, went to work defending the environment as the lead lawyer in a branch office of The Earth’s Law Firm, fighting the same powerful world destroying scoundrels he used to represent. This move was the right thing to do, and as far as I know, he never regretted making it.

We remained close friends over the years. He didn’t like to talk about personal troubles of his own very often, feeling that the world is a bitter enough place without adding his complaints to the conversation. He seemingly enjoyed talking about my personal troubles, though, probing for the intimate details, playing devil’s advocate to show me that, arguably, the person I was having trouble with no doubt saw me as the culpable asshole, and not without reasons, which he would lay out and I would counter. I took all this in the spirit of what I thought of as friendship, in accordance with the emotional limitations of what this unhappy, critical old friend was capable of giving.

Until one day not long ago, when he called me in agitation, to challenge me about strong feelings I’d expressed to him in an email. He was very concerned, he said, that I seemed to be so disproportionately angry about a relatively small thing that had happened to me (the illegal termination of my ACA health insurance in January 2020). He was angry, in fact, that I seemed so irrationally angry, and was worried that I was going to kill myself with unhealthy rage. It appeared to him that I was full of destructive self-pity, seeing myself as the only person fucked by a giant fucking machine he was up against every minute of his life, as was everybody else. He eventually challenged me to tell him to go fuck himself. I declined, which, in hindsight was a mistake. Within a few months, after a lot of futile effort to avoid it, I essentially had to tell him that anyway.

But here’s the thing that hit me so clearly, looking at it in hindsight the other day, out of the blue, as I kept a steady pulse with a few simple chords on my guitar. I’d visited him at his new girlfriend’s house in California. He had two nice guitars and I began playing a steady, easy to improvise to rhythm part on one guitar. He began soloing over the simple changes on the other guitar. His girlfriend passed by with a big smile, commenting on how good we sounded. I played rhythm guitar behind him for the whole time we played together. The sound of a few notes in harmony, placed just right against the beat, and keeping the pulse steady as a heartbeat is the soul of guitar playing, to many of us. I never mind playing accompaniment behind a singer or another instrumentalist.

We’d both been playing since we were fourteen, he’d started a bit before me. He had been a hardworking lawyer while I’d spent those same working years, as a lawyer, working as little as possible, mostly as a low-paid court appointed piss boy, and before that, a teacher. I see now the great advantage I’d had over the years in the music department, because I loved guitar I’d spent countless hours of my life of leisure learning to play it. In his busy life of great responsibility, with much less time to play, he focused on mastering scales and modes, to solo. His soloing sounded pretty good.

After an hour or so I asked him to play a three or four chord vamp, so I could show him a bit of Gypsy guitar I’d learned. He said he couldn’t do it. The chords were simple, I don’t know what his reason was, but I didn’t press the matter. When it came up later, I told him it was fine, I’d had fun accompanying him, he sounded good.

Now, in the cool light of hindsight, this odd refusal to do a simple thing makes a certain amount of sense. Since reading the fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant together in ninth grade French class, my hardworking friend often referred to himself as the Ant, while I was, clearly, the Grasshopper. In this morality play the Grasshopper played violin all the time and wanted nothing to do with his fretful friend the Ant’s constant neurotic reminders that winter was coming and that he’d better start gathering food for those long cold months. The Grasshopper mocked the Ant, played some fancy violin, and the Ant furrowed his brow and went back to work. When winter came, and food became scarce, the Grasshopper, starving, finally swallowed his pride and went to ask his friend the Ant for food. The Ant, who had worked his ass off and had no time to “enjoy” life in the reckless manner of the self-indulgent Grasshopper he had tried to warn, tells the Grasshopper to fuck off. The Grasshopper starves to death. FIN.

In that context, my friend’s anger at my anger is as understandable as his claim that he couldn’t play a D, G7 and C chord, the chords every guitar player learns in the first week of playing. He has always been a competitive man, number 26 in his highly competitive graduating class in HS, degrees from two top Ivy League schools. I have always been an under-achiever, trying my best to gain insight and become a better person. To him, as to many ambitious people, achievement and success are the only measures of self-worth, and trying to become a “better person” is an illusory pursuit, a foolish exercise in self-deception. To me, doing what I love as well as I can and treating myself and the people I care about gently seem to be my top two loser priorities.

So, picture this — he’s playing live music, with a friend who plays a steady vamp that is open and easy to improvise to, and his girlfriend loves it. Why would he start playing possibly shaky rhythm guitar, which he hasn’t spent decades perfecting and polishing (as the fucking Grasshopper, in his life of infinite leisure, has) so that his shiftless friend can start improvising in a way that could, possibly, make him look bad? It’s lose/lose for him. So he simply says “I can’t do that.”

Seen in this new light I’m tempted to drop my old friend a line, tell him concisely how contemptible and ultimately self-destructive his reflexive competitiveness is, using this petty but telling example of his inability to play three simple chords for two minutes. I’d follow up with a couple of choice politically incorrect insults from our adolescence characterizing the unfair, childishly insecure type who is afraid, in front of his girlfriend and the best friend he ever had (“I love you like a brother”) of “looking bad” somehow — or worse, letting his unworthy friend look good. Because, as every successful person knows, playing music is actually about proving your dominance over the other players…

Funny, in the moment, most of us tend to let these kind of things slip by, in the spirit of not sweating the small stuff, not making a friend uncomfortable for no reason. Those of us who are not, by nature and long habit, carping, argumentative, super-competitive douche bags (his favorite phrase for worms, from back in the day), at any rate.