Real Nonviolence is very fucking hard

I grew up in a violent home.  There was not much hitting, but a lot of rage.  I can hardly blame my parents — though in hindsight they could have done things better for themselves– because I learned of the violence they had endured as children.  Not that it excuses violent rage, but it explains it, makes an adult’s difficulty controlling their strong emotions at least understandable.

Finding myself frequently having to defend myself against anger that was often indefensible, I acquired an edge.   I learned to say something in a way to make you want to punch me in the face.  I can do this with the best of ’em.   All it takes, really, is anger, experience and a certain facial expression, delivered at the exact right psychological moment.  Strictly speaking, no words are needed to make an already angry person explode, though a few well-placed words are like the icing on the cake.

I got tired of fighting.   It’s tiring.  It’s a useless way to spend your life.  It makes for unhappiness.     If you’re attacked, sure, don’t tolerate it.   Be straightforward, make the hurtfulness clear, tell the attacker to stop.  If he doesn’t, walk away.  If you can’t get away, don’t let him hit you (if someone comes to kill you, don’t let it happen).   If he has a gun, just pretend he is the most reasonable person in the world and listen to what he has to say.  

About fifteen years ago I became very impressed with the idea of Ahimsa, “non harm”, which I’ve been trying to practice without any religious framework to support it.  Probably a hubristic fool’s errand, but at least I am conscious of not adding fuel to a fire, trying not to provoke people, not fighting when it is completely senseless to fight, when there’s another choice.  Better to walk away than engage in a battle of rage, a familiar horror I have walked away from many times now.

I think of my father’s old insistence that people, on a fundamental level, can never really change.  There is a problem with that formulation, because we can change ourselves greatly, but on a fundamental level the old man had a point.  Somebody who is constantly whipped in the face when he was a baby, as my father was, will be very sensitive to any perceived aggression in a way that somebody born into a warm, nurturing family will not be.   Burnt child ‘fraid of fire, as the old song goes (a title my father would quote from time to time). 

I was playing touch football with three other young guys (I was around 21, this goes back decades) on a gigantic field in the East Bay in California, near Berkeley.   It was two on two, one guy would be the quarterback and the other guy would race out to try to catch a long pass.   It was a delightfully cool early fall day.   I spent most of the game as the guy who sprinted, with a guy about my size and speed trying to either knock the ball away or intercept the pass.   We played for hours, until it got too dark to see the ball in the air.  

When we stopped playing I recall feeling an unfamiliar burning in the front of both of my thighs. We’d spent a long time running in short bursts at top speed then trotting back to the line of scrimmage then racing again.   We were all tired, but in good spirits, it had been a good game.

We were getting ready to leave, gathering up jackets from the ground, when my fellow receiver, a guy named Joey who drove a sporty convertible with a license plate that said JOE-WHEEEE, tackled me hard from behind.   He ran at me and knocked me down from the blind side, as they say.   I hit the ground hard and I recall literally seeing red.  In about a second I had Joey pinned under my forearm leaning my weight on his windpipe as he struggled to breathe.   He thrashed for a few long moments as I calculated if he’d had enough yet.  I let him up.   He was very hurt, telling me how violent I was.   I told him he was an asshole and that was that.

That was years before I’d ever even heard of Ahimsa.  I truly don’t know if I’d react any differently now, given similar circumstances.   It would go against my deeper belief that there’s no point to answering violence with violence, but, on the other hand, there is also a point, a kind of justice involved.   True, it’s the kind of justice that leaves everybody crippled, or missing an eye, but it goes deep in our human experience of what is fair and what is not.

I’m thinking about this because I had a dream last night about a friend who played the melody of Body and Soul beautifully, on harmonica, on a crowded elevated subway train in some city in Europe, while I accompanied him on, probably, a ukulele.  We played it something like this (though much less ornately).   Nobody in the train car noticed, but I was transported in the dream by the Larry Adler-like virtuosity of my friend’s harmonica playing as I focused on keeping the heartbeat of the music steady and pulsing.   The guy in the dream doesn’t play the harmonica in real life (he plays guitar).  I have only known one harmonica player, an excellent blues player with a beautiful tone, but he’s not talking to me anymore.

Sekhnet made the obvious connection between this longtime friend who jumped ugly with me recently and the harmonica of the dream.   I told her again why I am so perplexed at the permanent loss of my old friend, his wife, a gentle soul forced to take sides in an ugly dispute, who had no real choice.    He’d offered to do me a relatively easy favor, changed his mind and insisted he didn’t need to explain anything to me, no means no and that my stubborn refusal to accept this was, apparently, a “New York thang” — I was a pushy fucking New York lawyer Jew to press him in this prosecutorial way about something he had no obligation to explain to me.   Then he went on to browbeat me a bit, just for the heck of it, over a series of trifles.  He opined that perhaps our “personality conflict” was too great to overcome, though he loved me, man.

I let my hurt and anger cool down before I sent him my reply, but in a way my response was every bit as hurtful as if I’d returned the full measure of his anger at me right away, both barrels blazing.   I told him calmly, a week after his final challenge (and I’d savored making him wait), that since it was so important for him to be right, I’d agree that everything he said was correct.  He was 100% right.  

Then, in a few short, neatly manicured paragraphs, I told him I was not responsible for his low self-esteem (I’m not) and took it from there, bringing in his selfish materialistic values and his tragic misunderstanding of everything truly important in life.    My intent was to make him shut up.   It worked, there was nothing the fucker could have possibly said in response, but my email was exactly like my forearm across JOE-WHEEE’s throat.  

I never saw Joey again after that touch football game, but he was virtually a stranger to me so there was not the slightest pang attached to my arguably appropriate reaction.    This harp player and his wife have been good friends of mine for more than thirty years, almost fifty in the case of the wife, who I met when we were teenagers.   The guy styles himself a hipster, a pacifist, a laid back Californian (by way of New Jersey) who shuns anger and embraces the light.  Except on those rare occasions when he is provoked beyond endurance by someone who won’t fucking take “because I fucking said so, asshole” as the final answer.    

Like on a game show:  “is that your final answer?”   

My reaction leaves me, the type to think about these things long afterwards trying to extract some lesson, some insight, beyond ‘that person is something of a dick’, to wonder about my hard forearm to the harmonica player’s windpipe.

 

Some Days are Just Depressing

I don’t mean that the day itself is depressing.  Today, for example, the sky is a perfect blue and the greenery out the window is lush.   As Sekhnet’s mother used to say, about someone who was kind to her “she couldn’t have been nicer!”.  Today, for example, really couldn’t be nicer.

Still, drinking my coffee, looking at the headlines, considering various things on my mind that weigh on my life (seeming estrangement from certain loved ones, for example) — and without the balm of work (and pay — pay is not to be sneezed at) to otherwise occupy the sullen mind– I feel a bit of depression well up, like the stomach acid I’m churning with this strong black coffee on an empty stomach.    I know what you’re thinking: Christ, man, have a piece of toast with that coffee– or better yet, some steel cut oatmeal.

I sip the slightly bitter (OK, bitter) brew and consider things about my life that are not quite right.   There is no bot that can help me today, certainly not at the moment.   If suddenly 10,000 people read one of these posts today I’d feel a surge of transient hope.   After all, if your “platform” attracts a million eyeballs a week, chances are you can get a book deal, since publishers look at that when considering who to give a contract to.   If you get a book deal you can, you know, get an advance to write the book.   Paid!    We are trained that way, to react to positive reinforcement (and money is that), one reason our LIKE/LOL culture is so seductive. 

In the relative silence of this room where I type, the only real sound my fingers clattering on the keys, it is easy to imagine the best, and the worst.  Certain days are just depressing– fact of life.   On those days it’s much easier to imagine the worst than the best.   Trying times, yo.

Time marches on

Thoughts clogged, stagnant, the metal of this laptop uncomfortably warm under my hands.   It’s not the heat, I tell myself, or even this impressive humidity the fan is pushing against me, slapping stickily up against my side.   Sure it’s 99 or more up here, OK, but still.    Isn’t human imagination up to this?

Human imagination is not up to this.    When your basic needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs are not met, it’s hard for thoughts to take wing and soar.   After a while all you can think about is your thirst, if you’re parched long enough, or your hunger, if you haven’t eaten in a while.  That’s part of the hellish trap of poverty, very hard to get to the highest levels of creativity and potential when you’re urgently looking for a place to go to the bathroom without being arrested, or killed.  

At noon I was watching a summary of some of the day’s news, news of a world gone mad, in free fall, crowds chanting incoherently.   Then I stumbled on a guitar player named Josh Smith, playing the hell out of a guitar, explaining the beautiful things he was doing in a way that made only so much sense.   Left out of the explanation were the thousands of hours, and the hunger, to get all that under your fingers, into your playing.   Then there was more news about Jeffrey Epstein’s death, new details from his autopsy, apparently.   That’s what the teaser for the youTube clip said, with a picture of fucking Bagpiper Bill Barr, firing somebody, or ordering the speedy federal execution of somebody else.   Now, I see, it is 3:51, day spent mostly in this chair, and I’m as listless as I was before lunch, a delicious salad.

Imagine the place hotter still.   The ice of the great northern ice caps is disappearing at a much faster rate than predicted, shearing off cliffs of melting ice in huge chunks.   Mosquitos are now born year-round, thirstier than ever, they have even started sucking on my previously unappetizing flesh, leaving giant, itchy welts where the large veins are closest to the surface.   One species after another of the  little predators who used to eat the mosquitos are disappearing along with the sheets of ice that shear off ever smaller cliffs of it and splash into the sea to melt.  It’s all connected, all this destruction, denial, distraction. 

The world does not care, as it all crashes into the sea amid thousands of tons of discarded plastic.   Birds choke, seals drown, entire species are wiped out, every fish eats micro-plastic, which becomes part of the flesh we eat when the big fish we like to eat have eaten generations of ever smaller micro-plastic eaters.  

My teeth are shifting in my mouth, half of them already sideways and brittle as crystal made of sugar.  I think about the world people being born now are going to be living in.  I think about the unquestionable, heedless powers that make sure nothing is more important than their unquestionable, heedless powers.   I read history, helpless to cause so much as a ripple in its progress.

One day even hotter than this, perhaps, will be the last day for older people like me.  Simply too fucking hard to breathe, yo, time to give it all up.   Then the arguments over my millions will begin, by the many who will rush forward to make a claim on my fortune.   I probably should have put it into writing that it should all be invested in the building of a monument to me, for my perpetual memory, you understand.   So that one day cockroaches, the only ones left here on the earth, may wonder “what is this fucking huge thing?”.  Insect awe optional.

A Tricky Story to Tell

“You had only two uncles, me and your father’s brother,” he said.   

“Our father had a brother?” said the niece. 

“Yes, a few years older.   We only met him once, he was kind of estranged from your father and his father.   He was funny, and personable, and seemed like a very nice guy.   He was as big as your father, and had dark hair.   We sat on the back porch playing cards, at your grandparents’ house in Queens.”   

“How come we never heard of him?”   

“You’d have to ask your parents.   I have no idea.   Maybe it was the fact that they were estranged, had virtually no contact once the brothers were adults.   I  don’t know.   Maybe it has to do with his mental illness,” the sole uncle said.   

“Mental illness?” said the nephew.   

“Look, I know virtually nothing about the man, except for a pleasant afternoon we spent with him.   And that he was taking some psycho-pharmaceutical and his psychiatrist apparently had told him to have nothing further to do with the family, that it would only aggravate his condition.   And like I said, we only met him that one time, never heard about him after that.”   

“Whoa, his ‘psychiatrist’?”  said the niece.

“You know, in most families you have your pick of aunts, uncles, cousins.  You will have the ones you feel closest to, a real kinship, and many others will leave you cool, or even cold.  In our family, since the family tree was so ruthlessly pruned back in 1942, you get only one or two uncles — in your case one.   Your other uncle probably died before you were born, another reason you never heard of him, I guess.”   

“How did he die?” said the nephew.   

“That’s just speculation, we really have no idea.  He could still be alive, he’d be in his early seventies now”   

“Jesus,” said the niece, glancing at her phone.

“I can tell you what happened two generations ago, on your mother’s side, when the German army ran across the area we’re from, on their way to invade the heart of the Soviet Union.   Between the winter of 1941 and the winter of 1942 everyone in our family was murdered, except for the handful of people who arrived here between 1904 and 1923.    The areas they came from were, as they say, cleansed of Jews by the SS and willing local anti-Semites.   We know a few of their names, we know what happened to their towns, the muddy little hamlets they came from.   Everyone was executed, end of story.”   

“That would make you a little paranoid, I guess,” said the nephew. 

Claro que si, sobrino,” said the uncle.

“I can only say a little bit more, because to some people, well, this is ticklish to say… some people believe that anything that causes pain or anguish should be avoided.  The passive voice and all that.   You don’t touch a nerve that’s raw.  If it’s bad, or makes you feel bad, especially if it evokes shame or anger, don’t talk about it.  Talking about it is very dangerous,” he turned to his niece.   

“You know, when you were a baby and first learned to sit on the potty to do your business, your mother asked you once why you have no hesitation to sit there and pee but the other thing, the shitting business, you weren’t ready to do that in the potty.   She asked why.  You said, with great seriousness and conviction, and you couldn’t have been more than two:  it’s very dangerous!   

“Ha, I forgot about that,” the niece said.   

“What I hear you saying between the lines, Uncle, is that you are very dangerous,” said the nephew.   

“Yes, nephew, if you believe in making sure every source of shame and anger is completely repressed at all times, someone like me is very dangerous.   I’m as dangerous as pooping in a potty, more dangerous, actually,” said the uncle. 

 “Some people believe it’s better to lie than to expose and talk about regrettable, shameful or terrible things.   We have a president like that.  Never made a mistake, never been wrong, never had any reason to reflect or do anything differently, nothing to apologize about, anything bad that ever happened in his life was somebody else’s fault.   You know, a lot of people live that way.   I try not to judge those motherfuckers, but I can’t live like that.  If I know I hurt you, and I care about you, I’m going to try to make it right, starting with an apology.  Unfortunately, not everybody does that.”   

“This is getting a little awkward,” said the niece. 

“I agree,” said the uncle, “where are we going for lunch?”

Fiction Writing Workshop

Fortunately for Hal, who’d had a novel published to good reviews when he was fresh out of college, he came of age in an era when such things could be parlayed into a comfortable life.  Hal was a tenured professor of fiction writing by the age of thirty-two and never had to worry about making a living after that.   

When Hal’s father died, Hal got drunk.   He got the news from his sister, who’d been at the hospital when their angry, hopeless father breathed his last.  The old man was pissed off that Hal couldn’t make it back to the hospital to say goodbye one last time.   Hal had been at the hospital all day, went home to make dinner for his daughter, and his father was bitter about that last bit too, according to his sister, who had no reason to lie.

Hal told his sister he’d see her the next morning and went into the kitchen where he kept the Scotch.   He drank a good deal of that fine single malt, which the label said had been aged in a sherry cask.   The warm feeling came over him.   He sat quietly at the kitchen table, in a comfortable chair that could tilt any way he leaned.  

When Hal’s daughter came in, her father was already drunk, that familiar blank look on his face.  He changed his facial expression slightly as she came into view, but the effect wasn’t exactly a smile.  She already knew that grandpa was finally gone.   She’d had the text from her aunt.   She went into her room, locked the door, and a few moments later, tweeted that she was going to kill herself.

“This is your autobiography, Al,” his friend Tova told him, walking in through the back door, gesturing toward the bottle, the daughter’s locked door.  “As you have been telling your students for decades, even back when you were still writing, ‘all good writing is autobiography’.”

“Yeah, yeah.   I was full of shit,” said Hal.  “All bad writing is also autobiography.  A meaningless cliche, like all the other ones in the vast imaginary forests of bullshit.  Vanity.  What the fuck was I thinking?”

“You made a good living,” Tova said.  

“Yes, there was that,” Hal said.  

Tova had a notification from her phone.  She read the screen.  “You’d better call David, your daughter is going to kill herself.”

David was still seven hours away, driving through the foggy night from upstate.  Even in good conditions, it was a long and tedious drive. David was the only person who could talk to Debbie in a way that made any sense to her.

Hal found himself thinking of the family roots. His father had been the last of thirteen children, from some benighted hamlet in Poland nobody had ever bothered to put on a map.  Just as well, everybody there was dead, murdered one chilly afternoon in 1943, by people smelling of vodka.   Hal’s father was in the United States twenty years by then, the only one.  Nobody had a crystal ball, or the money to consult one, otherwise they all would have tried to come to America before that madman marshaled an army of murderous zombies.  

“Look, Hal,” Tova said, as she had many times, “I’m sorry you came from such a poor, shit family and got no rachmunis from anybody when they were all slaughtered, may they rest in peace.  I, and I don’t need to remind you, I have the papers to prove my right to be fucked up, both of my parents got checks from the German government until the day they died, as you know.  They were certified Holocaust survivors, I am a certified, official child of Holocaust survivors.  You, on the other hand, are a melodramatic self-pitying drunkard masochistically fond of brooding on history that happened while you were in boot camp.”

“I could have been Charles Kushner,” Hal had taken to saying recently, “son of two Holocaust survivors who got out of Europe in time, their assholes crammed with enough diamonds to build a small real estate empire in New Jersey.”  

Charles Kushner, the billionaire son of Holocaust survivors, begat Jared Kushner, who was so righteously outraged when his father was imprisoned briefly for simply hiring a prostitute and a filmmaker to make a video blackmailing his uncle, a man who was about to turn rat.  

The blackmail video was necessary to shame Charles’s sister, who Charles believed wore the pants in her home (and, also, appeared to be susceptible to the threat of public shame).  If she said the word, the fucking rat would not take the stand against her brother. Otherwise, her husband was scheduled to rat him out at the federal fraud trial that was about to start.  Charles had been given no choice, as he explained to Jared in the weeks before he was convicted, sentenced and disbarred.  The brother-in-law was the only witness who could really hurt him, and they seemed to be on the same page going forward, but the prosecutor flipped him.  

“Fucking rat,” said Charles, when he gave the money to the scumbag who set up the whole ill-fated prostitute and surveillance thing.

“Who knew my fucking sister was also a fucking rat?” Charles later asked a pigeon sitting on the window ledge of his cell at the federal prison.  “They never revealed if she’d worn a wire that day or not, the treacherous bastards…”   The bird nodded.

“Why is Debbie going to kill herself this time?” Hal asked Tova.    

“The tweet is vague on that,” Tova said.  

“I haven’t been much of an improvement on my old man,” said Hal.  “I have no clue how to help that kid.”  

“I’m going to make coffee,” said Tova.  

“To ruin a perfectly good buzz,” Hal said, pouring the last of the single malt into his glass.  

“Buzz-kill is what they called me in college,” said Tova.  

“You went to a top school full of smart bastards, didn’t you?”  

“Not like the place you teach, professor,” said Tova.  

“No, not like the place I teach,” said Hal, drinking up.  

“No matter, David will be here soon.”

“Let’s hope he can stay awake on the highway this time,” said Hal, tilting back in his chair.   There seemed to be no end to nights like this one, he thought.

 

(to be continued, or not)

 

Pop loved “shooting pictures”

My grandfather was a mild-mannered man.  He had big, powerful hands he used for years professionally in the delicate art of egg candling. He held an egg in front of a bright light, (a candle at one point, one supposes) and inspected it to see if the yolk had the shadow of a spot in it.  If so, this spot of blood indicated it had been fertilized and wasn’t fit to eat.  I don’t know if this was under Jewish law or American health law, but he sat with cases of eggs, in the basement of his friend Al’s  (who my grandmother once said smelled like a camel), grocery store, or Julie’s appetizing shop, picking them up in his large hands one by one, gently turning them in front of the light and looking through their shells to see if they could be sold.

The year I was born, Pop, at one time a prodigious cigarette smoker (Camels, if memory serves), underwent late stage lung cancer surgery.   They removed one of his lungs.  I was a few months old at the time and remember only what I was later told about it.   We have the snake plant that was delivered to Pop in the hospital as he recuperated from the surgery.  The plant is almost 63 years old and doing well.   Pop had an excellent recovery from the surgery and lived twenty-two years with only one lung in his powerful body.  

One of his doctors recommended that he add bacon to his diet, for health reasons.  There was some kind of bullshit rationale involved, which my grandfather explained to me at one point.   So in addition to his usual kasha, boiled flanken, boiled chicken, soup and several slices of whole wheat, pumpernickel or rye bread Pop ate a few strips of bacon from time to time, at his doctor’s recommendation.

Pop was a well-built, trim man who weighed 168 pounds for his entire adult life.  One year at his physical he weighed in at 169 or 170.   He and the doctor were both surprised.   The doctor asked pop how many slices of bread he ate a day.   My grandfather counted and told the doctor seven.   The doctor said, “eat six”.   Pop did.  At his next physical he was 168 pounds.  

The lived philosophy of that, food merely fuel for the optimum running of your body, still fills me with wonder and admiration.  Pop would eat a Danish from a bakery from time to time with his coffee, but couldn’t care less if he did or he didn’t.  He always handed my sister and me each a candy bar (it was Chunkies for a long time, a chocolate chunk filled with peanuts and raisins, then mainly Nestle’s Crunch Bars with the occasional Mr. Goodbar thrown in) as soon as he saw us.  For himself, he never ate anything just for the taste of it.

Pop was retired for most of the time I knew him. His favorite pastime in those years was watching a good shooting picture on TV.   He’d scan the TV Guide, a small booklet that came out every week and told you what was coming up on each of the seven or eight stations available in the media mega-market of New York City and later Miami Beach. When he spotted a good shooting picture, also known as a Western, he’d tune in and watch the good guys triumph over the bad guys.

“Sit down,” he’d say, if I asked him who was who on the screen, “watch and you’ll know.”  In most of the shooting pictures Pop watched, Hollywood movies of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, it didn’t take long to figure out who was wearing the white hat and who was the evil, sadistic, murdering bastard who needed killing, the one glaring provocatively from under the black hat.   Simpler times.

Pop loved Bonanza, and Gun smoke, two shows he caught every week, my parents and I loved those shows too, my sister would also watch them.  Outside of those, he’d catch every western on Million Dollar Movie, a show where they played the same black and white movie several times in a given week.  Pop would watch pretty much any movie where good guys and bad guys dressed like cowboys, (or Indians, for that matter), chased each other around in the dust of their horses and shot it out at the end.

My grandfather’s hammer

My grandfather had a ball-peen hammer [1] that I now use to drive small nails into the wall to hang baseball caps and calendars on.   Because I was a child the first time I saw this eccentric looking, thin handled hammer (without the familiar woodpecker comb on the back of the head, used for pulling nails) I thought it was called a European hammer, which made sense to me, since my grandfather was European.    I have no idea how he came to own the machinist’s hammer as, to my knowledge, he never did any type of peening at all (whatever the hell that is).

I love this hammer, because it was owned by Pop.   The smooth handle has the feel of old, well-used wood.  The small metal head is smart looking and ready to bop.   I wield it every time there is a small nail to be driven into anything.   I feel a small rush of excitement as I go to get the natty little hammer.

When I was a boy I went through a time when all I wanted was a baby elephant.   I would not let up on the theme.   One day, over dinner, Pop promised to get me one when I reached a certain age, along with, a few years later, a copy machine.   I never stopped to think that baby elephants grow to become the earth’s largest land mammals.  The baby ones are so cute.   I was a kid.   Still, I didn’t forget, when I reached those ages and had no elephant, no copy machine (at that time a gigantic thing that took up the footprint of a single bed) appeared. My gentle, loving grandfather had lied to placate me.   Et tu, Pop? 

He was trying to soothe me with these obvious lies, I realize, and I didn’t really hold it against him.   Fifty years later we’d all have copy machines on our desks and, truly, it would have sucked to have been the child owner of a baby elephant.  In the best case scenario there would have been that wrenching moment when the growing elephant would have to move away.   I never even thought of the cruelty of taking the little giant away from her mother so I could have the world’s coolest pet.  Elephants are social animals.

… And I am going to be late for my appointment with the nephrologist if I continue tapping here now.  So, if you will please excuse me, I must… be…. awwwwwn my way.

 

 

[1] Wikipedia:  

also known as a machinist’s hammer, is a type of peening hammer used in metalworking.