In the underlying letter I complain to my nephew about Louis DeJoy, too busy sucking his own ass to deliver the hand-written letter I sent the young artist weeks ago, lost for good, it appears (after more than three weeks), irretrievable as the millions of undelivered Trump ballots that resulted in such pain and violence, disappeared as if by angry mouth-breathing Anti-maskers, into the mist of crude Nazi fog machines.
One from the Random Acts of Senseless Creativity files. After I thought about this track an hour ago I went looking for it, a journey through a labyrinth of old emails and various digital booby-traps. After a few small wrestling matches with the technology, I was able to place it here, where it can be found easily next time. I was happy to locate it and I’m glad to pass it on.
The underlying track for this is called Dog on a String, composed and performed by Paul Greenstein sometime after the turn of the twenty-first century, if memory serves. This was an improvisation I recorded, back on April 14, 2006, apparently. All parts were played for the love of making the track and for that reason alone.
For me this over-the-top jam captures the thrill of interactive invention — the joy of improvising over a groove you’re really digging.
Our ability to find joy and improvise has been sorely tested in the isolation of this COVID crisis. Mutual, playful improvisation, a vital part of human interaction, a free delight of life, fades during dark times, the habit of playing happily — another casualty of the pandemic. Playing together gives us joy, undeniable but easy to forget, sometimes. This track reminds me of how much fun play is.
Paul’s track was a delight, I greatly love that mysterious, soulful Indian singer, all of Paul’s parts are superb (if several lovely ones were drowned out by the overloud distorted guitar, sorry about that). It is also beautifully engineered, everything is exactly where you want it to be in the mix and the EQ. I’ll ask Paul for the original track, so I can post that beauty for you to hear.
Listening to this track I hear my excitement, the enthusiastic variations inspired by the sheer fun of following a wildly idiosyncratic groove.
Sensitive Dog starts with a dog lover’s question for Cesar Milan, who then considers the best way to interact with a dog who is very sensitive. Odd to say, I couldn’t tell you what key it’s in, I had no idea when I was playing it, most unusual for me, I followed the singer as best I could.
There are suboptimal notes, which I can’t begrudge someone inventing parts over a track he is greatly loving as he plays. If you don’t let yourself be distracted by the mistakes and take in the entire 1:56 as a piece, I think you’ll get what I’m talking about.
My only regret is the mix. If someone had been sitting at the controls (there were no controls, the overdub was recorded off the small amp that was also playing Dog on A String) and adjusting the volume on the distorted guitar, to allow Dog on A String’s many subtle nuances to be appreciated, the track would be infinitely better.
To me, the track is still cool, instant time-travel to a moment of great fun. A reminder of a vital thing, sadly easy to forget during dark days — the joy of carefree play with someone you enjoy. I hope you find it so too.
As universally hated Lyin’ Ted Cruz and now eleven other brave Republican Trump supporters in the Senate (the most highly placed members of the Sedition Caucus) call for an emergency special commission to immediately audit undisputed votes in an election certified in every state (and recounted a few times in several) that only Trump the Kraken insists was rigged, stolen, corrupt, fraudulent, a lie, a big fat complete Communist con job, #StoptheSteal! I wonder “what am I going to write about today?”
I certainly ain’t writing about Lyin’ Ted, the despicable guy with the unsexy wife, whose father killed JFK and whose ancestors, people are saying, nailed up Jesus. Fuck him and his vile, seditious crew (note, this may be the first time the wildly unpopular Cruz is the leader of any crew, way to go Ted).
I’m also not going to mention the provision of the National Defense Authorization Act, vetoed by Trump in the first Trump veto overrode by the Senate (never too late to do the right thing, I suppose), that makes it criminal for federal law enforcement agents to cover their name tags while performing their duties or otherwise operating as unmarked, unaccountable thugs . Who’d have thought such a measure was needed in our nation of law?
This was likely one provision of the military budget bill that outraged the easily angered Trump — if former Attorney General Barr says it’s perfectly legal and reasonable to use chemical irritants, batons and a horseback charge by mounted federal law enforcement, with covered name tags, to break up peaceful protests (Washington D.C.) or to have heavily armed, generically uniformed goon squads jump out of unmarked rented vans and grab dangerous anarchist, God-hating protesters off the streets, force them into unmarked vehicles, without identifying themselves as law enforcement (as federal agents did in Portland) who is the goddamned Congress to usurp the massive powers conferred by Article Two? Fuck that noise, everyone knows Trump wishes he’d been a real dictator, instead of a Twitter dictator. Today is Sunday, a day of rest.
So, like, what do you want to talk about?
Is this an example of you talking to yourself?
Hah, no, it’s an example of you talking to yourself.
You got me there, comrade.
You’ve been noted, around the house, because, during this tyrannical COVID lockdown you no longer live alone in your apartment where passersby in the hall and in the airshaft have no inkling you’re not muttering to somebody else, that you are, in fact, carrying out grunted conversations with yourself…
Nay, that would be YOO, muchacho.
Hah, OK, you got me there! Anyway, she mentioned these grunts I seem to make as being pretty regular, constant, apparently. From the other room she hears the conversational-sounding grunts, she says.
Hmmm, we always imagined that these internal conversations were in your head, my head, our heads.
Well, that’s imagination for ya!
By the way, I admired your restraint above in not mentioning fucking Acting head Homeland Security stooge Chad Wolf, declaring that unrestricted federal military force was necessary in Portland because violent anarchist terrorists were out of control (he used the term “violent anarchists” 60 times in a short speech when he got to Portland), including those hundred or more bitches, the mothers of these violent anarchists, who came out to form a peaceful barrier between unmarked assault-attired federal officers and their fellow citizens. And, you know, got gassed, the wall of mothers.
OK, OK, calm down. “‘No reason to get excited,’ the thief he kindly spoke.”
Yeah, I suppose that’s true. Good to have you here to calm me down sometimes.
Yes, yes indeed, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Neither would I. By the way, it was determined by the government office that determines these things that fucking Chad Wolf had been in the “acting” role longer than was legal and that his authority was now being exercised contrary to American law.
Look, you know better than most people, when you’re dealing with childish, irrational assholes with authority accountable only to somebody exactly like them, you just have to cut them infinite slack.
I know, I know…
Fuckface likes “acting” loyalists in charge of everything. “I like ‘acting’,” he said nonchalantly, with his characteristic frankness. They don’t have to be vetted or confirmed, their lack of credentials for the job is immaterial, they are accountable only to his moods, can be used as needed and discarded like the disposable toilet paper they are, you can fire them at will and nobody will even care!
Right! I did cook a nice variation on Divya Alter’s delicious mixed vegetables in cashew curry sauce an hour so so ago. Came out really delicious, creamy, with a nice mushroom accent.
Let’s not talk about that, you ruined lunch, you heartless fuck.
OK, well, anyway, it was nice talking to you, as always, I have to get on with some random creative pursuit now.
There seems no way to stop it these days.
Have a nice day, man.
You too, bubba! Nice talking to ya.
OK, obviously not “criminal” but Congress stated that federal authorities must “visibly display” their name tags when operating in public. Clearly there is a great deal of play in the word “must”.
The Age of Reason was an age of optimism, unfounded in many ways, as an insightful psychiatrist named Frank Yeomans observed. We like to believe that we “wise apes” act based on the intelligent use of actual knowledge — the wisdom gained through experience. We also like to believe that Death will never actually come for us. Look at any newspaper for a glimpse into the role of Reason in our world today and compare its effect to the workings of terror and anger.
In these days of increased isolation caused by this raging pandemic I sometimes find myself thinking back to a series of lost friendships, looking for a common denominator. The common trait in every friendship of mine that went to shit, I can easily see now, is rage — anger and disappointment that wound up being mutual. Good luck reasoning with that force of nature.
My friend Mark, one of the first close friends I finally had to cast over the side, was frequently in an agitated depression but if you pointed out that he was angry, as shown by the harshness of his judgments of himself and others, he’d hotly deny it, quickly become enraged. I am prone to expressing my anger when it flashes, a trait I’m not proud of, but my anger is often there to be seen by others when I am hurt.
Most people do not readily display this unseemly emotion, carefully covering the embarrassing lack of control it reveals. It doesn’t mean they don’t get angry, of course, they just don’t readily express it most of the time. I’ve done better, recently, sometimes, not reacting with anger when something irks me beyond endurance, but the strong reflex is always there.
What I’ve learned, at great expense, is the value of breathing and keeping quiet when the impulse to say something cruel is strong. Quickly apologizing is also a necessity after angrily expressing harshness toward someone, I’ve found, not that it will always be the healing balm it is intended to be. One or two sincere apologies will often be accepted, and I quickly accept the sincere apologies of others, but once the need to apologize becomes a pattern, it indicates something deeper and, well, good luck to you and your friendship.
My father, a man prone to outbursts of anger, always insisted that we cannot change our fundamental nature, our reflex to act a certain way. He’d point to babies born with an easygoing nature, placid and easily contented from day one, and others, like me, that fussed all the time, rarely satisfied, defiant from the day they first focused their eyes to glare accusingly. There is a certain amount of truth in this, the over-the-top surrealism of the description of the second baby aside.
You can see the truth of this principle illustrated in every new litter of feral kittens. Some baby cats are bolder and more trusting than others, others more prone to flee, to bite, to cower. This behavior was not learned, they were born with a certain predilection, a fundamental nature that will not change that much. The reflex to be petted or to cower will always be there to a certain extent, no matter how much they may learn about the tender intentions of the people who take care of them.
A friend of mine cheerfully reported on an article she’d read about the discovery of a suspected “happiness gene”, a bit of DNA that predisposes one to optimism and contentment. She looked across the table with her sly smile and observed to her fellow happiness gene recipient, Sekhnet, that her husband and I sadly did not seem to have much of this gene. I told her to fuck her so-called fucking happiness gene. But the point is made again, we are born with certain traits that are then pounded into more or less permanent form by how we are treated while we are malleable little lumps of clay.
I think back to the list, now considerable, of former friends, people with whom I shared confidences and a love of badinage . All affable, smart people, articulate, many quick with a witty comeback, most of them connoisseurs of dark humor. One other common factor I saw only too late: each had a deep reservoir of rage and an inability to forgive.
I understand the workings of the Repetition Compulsion, to some extent. Some of us are compelled to recast and repeat painful relationships, the dynamics of which we don’t understand, in an unconscious effort to have a better outcome. It’s called a compulsion because it is not something we choose, those of us who do this must do it. I saw it clearly in my old friend Mark’s life– he endlessly repeated variations on the identical three act drama: idealizing, being disappointed by, violent betrayal. Easy to see in someone else, if you are around long enough. In our own case, it’s hard to see if we’re behaving reasonably or out of some kind of compulsion.
So, take my case, say you were raised in a long war with your parents. Your father is angry just about every evening at the dinner table, raging, making ugly pronouncements, baleful predictions. Your mother, for the most part, indignantly takes your father’s side. Her mother once famously said of her, in Yiddish, “you stick to his ass like a wet rag!” Both parents, at the same time, are smart, avid readers, expressive, love to laugh, enjoy the old badinage, are connoisseurs of dark humor. When searching out friends to commiserate with about your often painful life at home, it is not surprising that you would always be attracted to people who had these fine, cherished qualities.
It may seem funny to write this, but witty repartee with friends, which used to mean so much to me, now means little. I like to laugh, of course, I’ll often toss off an absurd take on something ridiculous (the menu of such things is comically gigantic), but whether you are a wit or not means little to me these days. My friends are funny, sure, but that back and forth of smart rapid-fire commentary doesn’t seem to play a large role in my life these days. The release of humor, it seems to me, was necessary in those years to protect me from the painful darkness all around me. Now that I’ve emerged from the worst of that darkness (for the moment) that need for banter just seems funny, if you follow me.
What we want in a friend is a person who will give us the benefit of the doubt. If a friend snaps at us, they will immediately express their sorrow as soon as they calm down. The larger world does not operate this way, neither does nature. This good will is what separates our friends from everyone else. The loss of good will, the benefit of the doubt, the lost impulse to quickly overlook a friend’s bad moment, is painful. Once good will is gone it is almost never coming back.
When I go down the list of people I once shared intimacies with I see that despite variations in their personal styles, they were all capable of titanic anger (maybe everyone is, but each of these bastards sure was).
The more introverted, quiet ones were no less given to implacable fury than the more extroverted ones. In fact, the reservoirs of rage in those who rarely expressed any sort of displeasure was perhaps the deepest of all. Keeping that existentially threatening anger inside at all times means that when it finally explodes, it’s going to cause an avalanche, helpless villagers running in terror.
Then silence again, which in friendship is the deadliest and most final expression of eternal anger.
There are things you love to do. You should do them. When things are at their worst, at their scariest, when life on our planet is teetering on the brink of extinction, it is imperative to remember to cherish the things we love and to do them often.
The people we love too, of course, of course, we have to try extra hard to take good care of them. It is more important now than at other times to show them as much mercy and kindness as you have in your heart, and that goes for mercy and kindness toward yourself too in this terrifying, aggravating time. But what I am talking about now is doing the things that make us happiest, that restore us to ourselves. It is super important now to remember them, and do them often.
I love to play music. I am a good guitar player and a limited, though functional piano player. Few things I know compare to the pure joyful relaxation that takes over once the guitar is staying in tune (cold weather, and sudden changes in temperature, can really mess with the strings), the instrument is warm in your hands and the musical sounds emerge as beautifully as you can make them. Take a beat, if you like, swing another beat against it. It’s probably as close as I’ll ever come to taking off and soaring on thermals, or gliding a mile under a perfect ocean.
The words you are reading now, something else that gives me great pleasure to put together. Obviously, I spend time every day doing this. I am compelled, but, also, I love to do it.
Cooking a tasty, healthy meal, something I’ve always liked to do, has taken on more meaning to me during this lockdown as Sekhnet feels up against the daily horrors and it is a comfort to us both to share a fresh meal that is actually good for us. I am starting to love the whole process of making a pot or pan of something good.
Walking is something I’ve always liked to do. Now that I have arthritis in both knees, it has become a necessity for me to walk throughout the day, to avoid pain. An hour or two in nature, breathing in the trees, is always a beautiful thing. I love certain moments of my long daily walk. There is a time, after walking long enough, when the stiffness and soreness in my knees melts away. The pleasure of sitting on a bench after thirty minutes of purposefully striding along — I love it.
Odd to say, though I’ve always loved to draw, and make all kinds of marks on paper, have always carried a drawing book with me, and several of my favorite pens and pencils, I’ve done virtually no drawing or calligraphy during this pandemic nightmare.
I showed a friend’s super-talented granddaughter how to do simple stop frame animation the other day. Under the mounted camera I drew a simple face and quickly showed her the principle of making animation out of two or more carefully registered drawings (or in this case, two stages of the same drawing).
I explained to her that you can later make the drawing as colorful or detailed as you like, photograph it and add the changes to the animation. (We were working outside in a park, so our art supplies were quite limited). At home afterwards I decided to refine the drawing above to demonstrate this idea to her. You will understand at once, I think, why I decided not to send her the drawing.
Who wants to look into those bizarre, hopeless, death-haunted eyes? Certainly not a sensitive seven year-old who is living through one of the worst periods in recent human history.
Shoot, maybe that’s why I’m not drawing these days. More than in anything else I do, my subconscious emerges most freely in drawings. I can play a stiff version of a beautiful tune on the piano, it’s not great music, but it doesn’t have even a hint of the terror in the face above. Perhaps I’ll try a bit of calligraphy later.
For now, do yourself a kindness. Think of something you love to do, maybe have forgotten about in your overwhelmed concern about the simultaneous and intrusive plagues that are upon us now, and do it. You will thank yourself afterwards, I’m pretty sure. Even if you don’t thank yourself (ingrate!) time is never wasted doing something you love to do.
Note: the title of this piece is probably about as true as any of Mr. Trump’s assertions — this subject is one my thoughts inevitably return to from time to time . Fascinating and terrible at once, it’s hard for me to keep from periodically chewing on the perplexing mystery of losing old friends. I will try to add a few thoughts to a piece I posted the other day called The Complex Difficulty of Human Affairs.
Zora Neale Hurston, toward the end of her 1937 masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, wrote of two women sitting together under the night sky sharing that “oldest of human longings — self-revelation.” The desire to know and make yourself known to another in an authentic way ideally leads to acceptance — you will know all these things I share and give me similar things in return and neither will judge the other. It strikes me as a profound comfort human beings often seek in a world that is often indifferent, in a life that inevitably ends in death.
It is foolish, of course, to seek this profound connection in every relationship. Mutual self-revelation, on more than a minimal scale, is a rare thing. The good news is that good friendship can be based on many things, without any express self-revelation as such. We know each other by our deeds, our mutual willingness to help, our desire not to hurt. When you need my help, I’m there, when I need a hand, you won’t hesitate to lend one.
In thinking about the end of my long correspondence with Karl, a short, politely worded email about the impossibility of continuing our almost daily writing, I have to think about our very different expectations of life. Also, Karl as part of a troubling pattern over the course of the second half of my life — fatal estrangements. As a friend noted recently, finally putting these terminal friendships out of their misery helps me sleep at night. On the other hand, the mystery of why I’ve experienced so many of these fatalities remains. Is it not better to let friendships that have outlived their lives simply drift away?
It is a mild spring-like day outside, and an argument could be made I’d be better off vigorously exercising out there than rattling the keys here in a dim room overlooking Sekhnet’s garden. We each have our own way of doing what we need to do. I’ll take a long walk with Sekhnet when the sun is low in the sky.
I’ve written about my now deceased former friend Mark and his eternal three act tragedy. Mark, a man with high expectations, was compelled to relive the same excitement, deterioration, betrayal pattern in every relationship he ever had. It was easy for me to see, easy for anyone I mentioned it to to recognize, there were countless examples, stories with the identical dramatic arc. Mark had no insight into his need to idealize, criticize, alienate. He lived an unhappy life and died alone, probably of a broken heart, naked in his chair.
Looking at the many friendships I’ve had over the years, relationships that I no longer have, I must recognize the possibility that I am as blind to my role in their inevitable deaths as Mark was to his role in driving people he once loved away. After all, it is not one person who has angrily attacked me for being angry, or considered himself so intolerably provoked by me that he had to strike back hard, or felt the need to use deadly force to defend himself against a detailed list of “intolerable” offenses I insisted on “resolving”.
It could simply be that the many subtle ways I learned to infuriate my father during our hundreds of senseless fights to the death are something I cannot control. I believe, when I reach my breaking point with someone I’ve known for years, that I’m being logical, fair and humane, that I am presenting reasonable needs calmly; the recipient sees only a death ray. I do not discount the possibility that to them I show every aspect of a raging, over-sensitive asshole, though I also don’t accept that view as necessarily true.
I can also see that the people I wind up estranged from fit a certain personality type, not unlike my father on a fundamental level. They are people who will never back down when they feel cornered, no matter how gently one may have “cornered” them. This kind of casting is a feature of the Repetition Compulsion, placing others into the role of a primal trauma-inducer in an attempt to replay the psychological drama to a better outcome. It’s a game for suckers, that, a game we play unconsciously. I can also see, in hindsight, that over my life I’ve chosen many friends for their intelligence, wit and, often subtle, similarity to my combative father’s desperate zero-sum mentality. We both can’t be partially right and come to an understanding based on compromise of any kind — one of us has to die.
There is a small counterbalance to be had, looking at the subsequent lives of people I could no longer maintain friendships with. Raj and his wife finally divorced, his old friend I fell out with years ago (former husband of a woman I recall as Hitler) and Raj are no longer friends, Pavel told me I was by far his closest friend (before I unfairly accused him of insensitivity when he was only being cooly analytical about my vexing medical insurance situation) Karl lives an isolated life in Poland swallowing anger and serving a strong-willed second wife, etc.
I can look at each of these largely unhappy guys and think — we couldn’t help each other when we needed support the most. It happens. It is not the fault of anything but our respective human natures. The miracle is not that we finally went our separate ways, but that we were friends for so many years.
What expectation do I have of the world? To try to be patient listening to and honestly discussing the worries of my mate, without making her feel worse about things that already bother her. To have her listen to my troubles, without rushing to offer solutions before she’s heard the entire problem. To immediately make amends when I know I’ve hurt somebody. I have to admit, I eventually find these things, when they are missing, intolerable.
What expectations does Karl have of the world? I have no idea, but his worldview seem fundamentally more pessimistic than mine. Life is brutish, unfair, short, I suppose. In his case, it strikes me as a characteristically grim Protestant view of our duties to each other here on the earth. Impossible in the end, perhaps, for a humanistic Jew like me to fully grasp and appreciate, just as my outlook must seem absurd to him.
What expectations does someone who will only offer an apology when forced into it have? It seems they’d be unlikely to expect an apology if they were hurt — though perhaps they would expect it more than most. It is largely futile trying to imagine what is in the head and heart of somebody else, unless they work to reveal it to us. In most cases, the inner lives of others are a mystery.
As we can see all around us, people will construct whatever meaning they need to live as they see fit in our troubled world. A candidate they back can lose an election by more than six million votes and they can honestly insist he didn’t lose — the states that returned majorities against him were in on a conspiracy to steal the office from him. Proof or lack of proof do not come into strong convictions that will cause righteous armies to march — they feel the truth of it boiling in their blood.
So it is with people I’ve been close with, who, in several cases, I have had to behead in the end. They will believe, with the irrefutable proof that I wielded the sword that felled our friendship, that I am a vicious and unforgiving hypocrite who talks about not causing harm but who is as destructive as end-stage cancer. In my estimation, they were not capable of the kind of honesty that is a bottom line in my own life: if someone tells you they are hurt, hear them out before dismissing their complaint as the whining of a weak, corrupt, spoiled, hypocrite bastard.
On the other hand, and, of course, I may simply be a whining, weak, corrupt, spoiled, hypocrite bastard. Something like that is very hard to ever know for sure, no matter how certain we may feel in our bones.
A murdered darling I couldn’t totally delete, I’d originally added: as a dog returneth to his vomit.
Which is part of that great, largely meaningless, proverb:
כְּ֭כֶלֶב שָׁ֣ב עַל־קֵאֹ֑ו כְּ֝סִ֗יל שֹׁונֶ֥ה בְאִוַּלְתֹּֽו
As a dog returneth to his vomit, so is a fool who repeateth his folly.
A few days ago I read a few pages of that eternal provoker of thoughts, Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece Eichmann in Jerusalem, a book I pick up and open at random from time to time — most of the time finding something I didn’t notice in the previous readings. Read a section on the Israeli judges asking Eichmann, who knowingly and diligently sent countless people to their deaths, about his conscience. Arendt then shows how he actually exercised a kind of conscience, at first (a little) in diverting a trainload of Jews and Gypsies to a ghetto instead of a killing center (they were still using bullets at that point) and then how quickly (four weeks) his conscience reformed itself into a standard loyal Nazi one.
That gave me a fleeting thought about former buddy Karl, American expatriat in Poland (the action on the page had taken place in the Nazi Protectorate, near Lodz) and my childhood friend Raj’s concern a few years back that his childhood friend Karl was becoming a fascist (I’d also noted a slide to the nationalist right in Karl).
Which led me to this thought, in regard to someone like Karl being angry enough to silently write me out of his life forever (for my offense of no longer being friends with Raj, I suppose, since Karl and I never had any argument I can recall). This is that area of human life that makes knowing anything for certain tricky — for we are all very certain of our justifications when we act decisively. When we write somebody off there is seldom any doubt in our mind that our decision was a righteous one.
To Raj, I was heartless not to keep forgiving the inadvertently aggravating things he may have sometimes, even often, done. He was angry that I wouldn’t let an ongoing bygone be a bygone. To me, Raj’s habitual passive aggression was as intolerable as his “I know you are, but what am I?” insistence that he was not doing anything objectionable, that I was the one who was being unreasonable in trying to get him to refrain from doing things that, in his mind, I constantly overreacted to.
Karl seems to have written me off out of simple loyalty to his childhood friend, tartly dismissing whatever we’d observed about the difficulty of dealing with Raj’s neurosis. Karl, in Poland, had little regular contact with Raj and as for their once yearly visits, things were as cool between them as between Karl and any of his other longtime friends in the USA.
I’ve always tended to express my feelings more than most people I know. This leads to my not unfair reputation as a belly-acher, a tendency I’ve tried to dial back in recent years — with mixed results. I get this largely from my mother, I think, this sometimes plaintive expressiveness. I’ve also always had more time and inclination than most people to ponder and more ways to express myself– as well as a greater need to do those things than most. My friends know pretty much exactly how I feel most of the time. I’m interested in their thoughts and feelings too, and I try to listen to them with the same engagement and empathy I hope for from them. Because we are all homo sapiens, this does not always guarantee a good result. That’s where mutual compassion becomes indispensable.
We are lucky if we have one other person in our life who we can safely have this kind of mutually vulnerable exchange with. With a close friend there should never be much mystery about how the other feels about things that are important to us, and it’s a big part of the strength and resilience of a close friendship — managing to listen with engagement even when the other person’s feelings might not be like our own in a similar circumstance.
A rare and extremely valuable thing, that. It goes a long way to reminding each other we’re no more insane than the next person, no matter how shook up we might have felt before discussing the thing, and, importantly, it may be the only assurance we get of that from anyone.
Here’s the thought that dawned on me, taking Karl as the example. He’s very bright, an excellent writer, introspective, sensitive, dry sense of humor, fine piano player (though he rarely plays in recent years). Karl has been married to two women (divorced from the first after her traumatic open infidelity) who are strong-willed, demanding and make all the life decisions. He is very devoted, but also chafes under their tyranny, while not allowing himself to talk about it except in quick, bitter asides — and suffers what he recognizes as regular repressed-rage symptoms from digestive, to migraines, to sometimes crippling nerve pains in back, neck, legs, hands, to other ailments.
What could be more infuriating to a man who constantly swallows his anger than watching somebody else assess an unfair relationship, identify exactly what is intolerable about it, make several attempts to fix it and finally throw up his hands and say “so be it, asshole, adios” ?
I don’t know why the Eichmann pages made me think of this, exactly. The insight about Karl here is not new, it just popped into relief somehow. You can sometimes trace a conflict to a fairly simple root. Karl, of course, will have an equally compelling story behind his brief formal email telling me not to bother writing back, ending an almost daily correspondence of several years.
There is also this about Karl. He is a fine writer who no longer writes (except to confide to his journal), an excellent piano player who doesn’t play. It is not surprising that he might well take a bitter view of a lesser writer (such as myself) who writes a “public” journal every day and although not a good piano player, plays contentedly several times a week.
We’ve had a recent whiff of totalitarianism here in the USA, where we have came sickeningly close to a fascist overthrow of an election that went against a strongman, members of his party looking for ways beyond the law to nullify the clear will of the voters. It inspires nothing but horror in me (horror and a strong desire to stand with others against it). Karl’s drift to the right, his support of a nationalistic autocracy in Poland, seems an apt illustration of Hannah Arendt’s portrait of the ideal supporter of totalitarianism.
The “fascist” angle, Karl’s lurch to the right, seems to confirm to me that an inauthentic emotional life like the internally dishonest one Karl leads is fertile ground for a politics of grievance like Polish Nationalism, whatever the hell that entails. Arendt makes this profound point about those who embrace totalitarianism, they are isolated and emotionally hollowed out, finally incapable of comparing things intelligently and making humane decisions — preferring membership in an orderly, militant hierarchy of (even insane) beliefs to the terrifying uncertainty of their emotional isolation.
This feeling gets stored up for release as hostility, saved for when the friend is in a tight spot. I was in a spot like this when my old friend Pavel expressed his curiously neutral concern when I was angrily flailing, again suddenly and unfairly without the health insurance I’d already paid for, during a pandemic, trying to find the laws governing termination of a policy under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act– laws nobody in the world can find, as it turns out.
Karl, Raj and Pavel had something in common, all three spent years in combative relationships with their womenfolk, marriages that ended badly, as so many do. I watched the ugliness up close with Raj, heard tales of an insanely bitter divorce from Pavel and had many examples of subtle one-sided warfare from Karl. Sekhnet and I have our share of conflict, but here’s a funny thing about our relationship — how good it must look to guys who are in constant war with their partners.
Sekhnet is hard-headed. I say this with a mix of admiration and vexation. Sekhnet is as loving a hard-headed woman as you will find anywhere. She is also funny, cute, smart and a great actress in social settings (as many of us are, but she’s really good). From the point of view of somebody battling hourly with his significant other, in a war that will eventually end in an ugly divorce, I seem to have an almost ideal situation that I often seem to be ungrateful for. From their vantage point, watching Sekhnet and me interact, I am a lucky bastard who enjoys a stress-free, relaxed relationship with a supportive, delightful, loving mate with a great sense of humor.
So how intolerable must it be to them that I’m constantly belly-aching about my hard life, while men like Karl manage to manfully keep their fucking mouths shut and don’t trouble others with their personal problems, which are many times worse than my pampered whining about how hard it is being carried from pillow to pillow?
Which leads finally to the fuller answer to my old friend’s good question from the other day — why is it often necessary to kill them in the end?
There comes a point in the frustrating back and forth, after a once close friend’s hostility has become impossible to ignore, after they insist that they love me (Pavel, and his new girlfriend, and Raj and Raj’s wife, all insisted that because they “loved” me that I was being a complete vicious asshole not to forgive them, an assholishness which would justify them hating me if I didn’t immediately forgive them) when I am handed poison to swallow — in Raj’s case that I am wildly oversensitive to imagined “provocation” and an unforgiving monster insanely determined to be right and “win” at any cost, I demur. When poison is splashed into my mouth, I have to spit it out, cat with a hairball style, as I would pantomime for you if we were not interacting on a page.
Part of the process, sometimes, is severing the insistent hand that is holding out the familiar poison, to prevent another attempt to force it on me. It is a move I had to use many times during childhood as I battled my poor bastard of a flailing father, who regenerated more limbs than a thousand embattled crabs and octopuses — a move, ironically, he implied at the end was right and appropriate when somebody is doing that to you. I don’t relish the brutality, but once it reaches the point of irreconcilable war, all attempts at peace dashed, it is preferable to the taste of poison in my mouth and I sleep better once it’s done.
It has been said that the mark of a life worth living is being willing to die for your most deeply held beliefs, your principles. This sounds like a profound formulation, but the jury, as far as I can see, is still out on this one. If someone is coming to kill you or someone you love, and you have the means to fight back, by all means, defend yourself and your loved ones, to the death. But it is rarely this simple.
Usually, in matters of principle, there are no lives directly in the balance, but, equally important principles, larger than any individual life, at stake. You can see the problem right away of willingness to die for your beliefs as the mark of a life worth living: the nineteen Al Q’aeda suicide bombers forced those planes into buildings for their deeply held principles, their most fervent beliefs. Does it make them admirable in any way?
My father considered himself a man of principle, and in many ways he was — in the best sense of the word. As he was dying, he exerted himself to take one last principled stand. It was important to him, before he breathed his last, to apologize, at least to his son, for being such a relentlessly combative father. Everything in life was a matter of principle for him, though sometimes the principle was that he was simply emotionally unequipped to do what he knew deep down he should have done.
As a father he believed he was always acting out of love, and duty to his children’s best interests, but he realized, as death came for him quickly, that his black and white view of the world was not only stupid (he lamented missing the nuanced palette of gradations that would have enriched his life), but had exacted a terrible price on those he loved.
“Life is hard enough,” he said, in a dying man’s voice, “and instead of helping you, like a father should, I put even more obstacles in front of you and your sister, made your lives so much harder…” He then apologized for the only time in memory.
The forces of our personality that we can’t see are the ones that bite us the hardest, this also goes for the hidden obstacles in our path, the things that infallibly trip us up. They are truly the most destructive demons we must battle in our effort to learn from our mistakes, to become better people.
In the last few years I’ve made a close study of my father’s life, looking for lessons for my own. I may have stumbled on an important one recently that had been impossible for me to see until the other day. It was a painful thing to realize, for the first time, at 64, and it hit me with some force. It also gives rise to a great irony of my long, solitary attempt to create a meaningful public memorial for my parents and their erased ancestors, as I will try to explain.
My father was an intelligent, well-read man with a grasp of history and a good sense of humor who fought like the devil his entire unhappy life. He believed people cannot change, because he could never change, never hope to heal from or overcome the deeply instilled pain of a childhood of abuse. In the end he had to acknowledge, in the face of my mildness as I listened to his final confession, as I did my best to reassure him, that he’d been wrong to reject the idea of working to change himself in any way.
He resisted the idea that people can work to change themselves as as a matter of principle, mind you. He was honestly looking life in the face, as he saw it, while weak people who indulged in endless therapy were deluding themselves, and the victims of pathetic quacks working in a field where even the supposed experts wildly disagreed about the fundamentals of what worked. His unshakable belief that our inborn traits and traumas mark us for life was always argued as a matter of principle.
It was insane, he insisted, to think that we can meaningfully change our natures, natures unknowable to ourselves that are largely innate and then baked in before our consciousness is even fully formed. It was no doubt sobering to him to see his lifelong adversary standing by his deathbed without any trace of anger or judgment, without recriminations.
We have too many examples of this kind of mad belief in “principle” to need more than a reminder. Look around, everything in public and private life has been reduced to inarguable zero-sum matters of black and white, non-negotiable “principle”. The principle, for example, that liberty itself depends on defense of the personal right to infect whoever you want during a raging pandemic. To insist that everyone take simple, easy to follow, proven effective precautions to slow the spread of a deadly disease, supposedly for the common good, is AN ACT OF INTOLERABLE TYRANNY that must be resisted!
If you are acting on deeply held moral principle there is little room for discussion with unprincipled people, compromise is certainly out of the question. In my father’s case he saw the world, as billions now do, as a raging, merciless war zone; perhaps not an unreasonable view in many ways.
The harder to defend part was his view that the family dinner table, too, was an eternal battlefield, bloody and savage, where in the end, he warned his young children angrily, no matter how many battles they might think they’d won, they would “lose the war”. In the end he would prevail. It was a matter of principle. An insane principle, perhaps, but a principle nonetheless. Also, of course, the bit about losing the war was a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways.
Fighting in this senseless war of principle every night shaped me in ways I can see and ways I can’t see. I am like a former child soldier, in some deep recess of my soul I was shaped and scarred by the brutality that was a regular feature of my life at the dinner table war zone, night after night. My sister considers that I suffered more than she did, because while she often kept her head down and endured the attacks, I always fought back. I have the opposite view, though both sides of the argument have merit.
I learned how to use my intelligence to cooly inflict maximum harm on the old man when the fighting got ugly. I learned how to provoke him to rage with a slight shift of my mouth, the look in my eyes, a half turn of my torso, an inhalation of breath.
These skills did not serve me well in the world. Confronted by a bully at any point in my now long life, I was helpless, I could not avoid a confrontation in the end. Once I recognized an unreasonable person craving some kind of violent domination I’d eventually smirk and say the very worst possible thing “you’re an unreasonable person, craving some kind of violent domination, you know you’re a weak, contemptible bully, don’t you, asshole?”
It was not in my skill set to smoothly back away from someone who made it clear they wanted to fight for no discernible reason. It is still hard for me to do when suddenly confronted with this behavior, as much as I strive to avoid confrontation with unreasonable people these days.
It turns out a lot of change is possible with hard work, self-acceptance and the blessing of supportive friends, while other, deeper changes are very, very difficult to make.
You can learn to recognize when you are getting angry, what is about to make you angry. You can take steps to resist getting angry, to allow your breathing to calm you a bit, to control your reaction, to not blurt out the regrettable words that can’t be taken back. There are many things you can learn to do to have a less angry, less violent life.
My father may have been right about one thing – you may never be able, once the hateful game is afoot, to lose that provocative set of your mouth, the look on your face, the exaggerated intake of breath that makes someone want to slug you – it’s baked in, it’s yours to keep forever, no matter how hard you might try to disown it.
Once you do any of those angry moves, it instantly proves the point of the person who insists you’re a ruthless killer, no matter how hard you try to deny it, no matter how patient you’ve already been, no matter how much better you might be doing at self-restraint than before.
I can’t help thinking of political oppressors in the same way. Provoke a hurt response and then punish the person for that response. Keep a knee on somebody’s neck for years. When the person gets up, and is angry about the mistreatment, it proves the oppressor’s point. “That’s why I had to keep my knee on your neck. Look how fucking angry you are!” Bill Barr is a master of this particular despicable trick.
Of course, the beauty — and horror — of being human is that anyone can convince themselves that they are only acting for highly principled reasons. It’s the other side – you know, that is doing all the hating, cheating, obstructing, killing, drinking the blood of murdered child sex slaves. We are only doing these things because THE OTHER SIDE IS DOING IT ALREADY! It’s a matter of principle – and survival.
Here’s what hit me hard the other day. I decided at a certain point a few decades back that I will not tolerate abuse in my personal life. I try hard not to abuse anyone’s feelings, and if I do something that I learn hurt somebody, I am quick to try to make amends, first by apologizing. I’d will this to be a universal principle. I saw the other day that this is only a first step, that it really prevents no part of your lowest nature from coming out if the provocation is sufficient. You can read these posts over the years for several examples of fatal fallings out I’ve had with longtime friends and acquaintances. Here are three off the top of my head. Bear in mind that each of these characters has their own version of these dramas that make me as much the irredeemable villain as these may make them appear to be.
I had an acquaintance I used to see once or twice a year. A writer by profession, a great storyteller with a merry aspect, always good for several hours of spinning interesting tales back and forth and having some knowing laughs. We weren’t friends beyond that, but we liked each other. When I was first working on the book about my father we discussed it over dinner and he seemed intrigued. He told me to send him some pages, he’d give me his two cents. I sent him some pages, didn’t hear back, sent a few more, didn’t hear back, asked him about it, didn’t hear back.
Was it unreasonable of me to feel hurt? Probably not. Was it unreasonable of me to expect a working craftsman of a writer who had never published anything of a personal nature to have any meaningful input on my first draft of a highly personal memoir? Maybe yes, maybe no. Writing is writing, you could say.
In my mind, his year-later defensive email that I was being an asshole to hold it against him that he may or may not have ever commented on pages he doesn’t even remember if he ever read, and that if he had read them he’d almost certainly have written back about, was abusive. Perhaps not everybody would interpret this response, or the ones that followed, as abusive. I did. The gloves I’d carefully kept on came off, I ripped him into several bleeding pieces and walked away . Proving to him, as well as to his ex-wife, that I was indeed a vicious, unreasonable asshole. Case closed, end of story.
Many people might have had a different reaction than mine. OK, they might reason, he was the wrong person to ask for this feedback, even if he offered it. OK, we were never really friends, just acquaintances, it was unreasonable of me to expect him to be able to react to these deeply personal pages. OK, he admitted, toward the end, that he was raised to be insanely competitive, maybe these intensely personal pages were something he felt overwhelmed by, that he felt he could not compete against. I don’t know. I do understand now, that only someone raised in a war zone would calmly slash the guy five times with a sharp sword over it, making sure he knew why he was good and dead, before walking away [again– 1].
Same with the longtime musician friend who offered to do me a favor, then changed his mind, then insisted I had no right to ask why he’d changed his mind, then admitted he did it because he’s been harboring a lot of anger and resentment against me and this was his way of telling me “fuck you.” Many people might file this somewhere, lower their expectations, no longer think of the guy as a friend – maybe even write the guy off. Not everybody would feel compelled to cooly and methodically remove each of his limbs and pile them in front of his head and torso in order to ensure he’d be hurt enough to shut the fuck up .
One last, most recent one. A very good friend, since late childhood, and I came to (figurative) blows a few months back. He’s a very smart guy with a dark sense of humor and we’d known each other since Junior High School. In hindsight, most of our intimate conversations were about my troubles. He told me once that he doesn’t like to complain about his life. He always seemed to have a good appetite for my troubles, though. In the latest round his efforts to help wound up antagonizing me, several times in a row. The more I tried to explain why, the more he told me I was wrong, not making sense, that he still didn’t understand. The clearer my explanations became, the more he asked me to please explain further, more clearly, since he was finding it impossible to understand what I was talking about.
A game for suckers, no doubt, and by then I should have recognized it and gracefully written him off, reduced my expectations to near zero, preserved what I could of our long friendship, if only for the sake of our mates. Something was rotten here, clearly, but I kept trying to explain what he kept telling me he still couldn’t understand. I kept believing in this mutual good faith effort we were not managing to make.
He got angry a few times, snarled and even hung up on me during a tense conversation after gruffly apologizing, although he really wasn’t sure what I needed an apology for or why the hell I insisted on shoving him into a corner when he’d done nothing any other good friend wouldn’t have done in his situation.
It is what happened last that lingers for me. I eventually saw that this was an emotional impasse I could not get him to understand with his fine and subtle mind. Emotionally, he was unable to recognize or take responsibility for the hurtfulness of his actions. He waited weeks to apologize for his little temper tantrum, and the follow up text that he was done being “reamed” by me, even as he wrote me several long emails attempting to be conciliatory and expressing a desire to do everything possible to save our friendship.
In the end he once again insisted he didn’t understand why or how I could have been so hurt by anything he might have done, though he apologized again, for whatever it might have been. He made an unusual complaint: since my communications had been so mild mannered he’d had a very hard time realizing how much I’d been hurt by his inadvertent acts. If he accidentally stepped on my toe and I didn’t cry out, how could he possibly be expected to know how much it had hurt me? When in the end I did cry out, he was inconsolable.
Again, why bother crying out at that point? It was clear, over and over, that my old friend did not have the emotional bandwidth to understand what was missing in our friendship. He insisted I was his dearest friend ever, that he loved me and would fight to remain friends. It was equally clear that he had much different expectations of a lifelong friendship than I did. My crying out, upon request, by going through several emails and pointing out the seamless folly of our back and forth, struck a fatal blow in the guy. It was unkind and hurtful of me to make it so clear that there was nothing further to discuss, he wrote. In the end, he couldn’t fathom my unprovoked viciousness.
In each of the above cases, an argument could be made that, after all my attempts to be reasonable, I did nothing to regret in writing a suitable ending to each of these dramas. In one, an acquaintance set me up for a cruel disappointment he then blamed me for. The musician friend had a long list of unspoken reasons to tell me, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck myself. My old friend’s limitations only finally overwhelmed me when I was in a tight spot and his inability to empathize kept making it tighter. In each case, not much to salvage, whether or not I insisted on having an unkind last word.
In each case, yes, in the end I was categorical in stating the obvious. I seemingly could not stop myself. The other party felt brutalized by me. All unfortunate, in a better world than this one.
The insight for me is how hard it is to root out this final urge to kill someone who insists on their right to hurt you. Perhaps I am setting an impossibly high bar for myself, but this reminder that I am still helpless against certain specific emotional circumstances, was an unwelcome one.
If someone accuses you of being angry, and you remain mild, and they keep insisting you are irrationally angry, and you start to become frustrated but hold yourself back, and they redouble their efforts to prove you are an implacably angry bastard – well, a wiser person would manage to get out of the loop before he explodes in anger. This trap is one of the obstacles my father apologized for putting in my path. How I never saw it before a few days ago is a mystery to me.
The irony I mentioned about the seeming impossibility of completing the public personal memorial to my parents and their erased ancestors: it seems impossible to me for the very reasons I’ve discussed above. A sense of futility was instilled in my sister and me, from a young age, seeing there was nothing we could do to avoid eternal war with the father who always blamed us as the aggressors.
“I can hear you whining to the fucking shrink about how your parents ruined your life,” our father would predict from time to time. A pretty judgmental way to put it, perhaps, though not unreasonable, given the hard work he was putting in to make it so.
So, granted, my father had many great qualities, along with a few tragic failings, that would make him an excellent protagonist for a memoir. I’ve written at least 1,300 pages of an unwieldy first draft of his story. Granted, the vast majority of my family, on both sides, were lost in the cold fog of history, mere statistics, victims of Hitlerism without names, their mass graves and even the godforsaken hellholes they came from erased from human memory. I’d like to write and leave a living memorial to them, before I fold up my tents here and cash in my chips. The irony?
The obstacles my father unwittingly placed in the way keep me from feeling able to complete this gigantic task I have set myself, a task I have probably already come more than 80% toward completing. So those obstacles will prevent my father, his life, the world he came from, from being memorialized in a book strangers can read, to ponder the difficult, important lessons I’ve been grappling with since I was a young child.
Ironic, eh wot?
 to be clear, this bloody act came in the form of a blahg post methodically dissecting and dismissing his maddening if-pology, phrase by phrase
 This gruesome dismemberment took the form of three stinging paragraphs, responding to his “personality conflict” conclusion. I corrected it to a worldview conflict — the first paragraph savaged his vanity and materialism, the second disclaimed responsibility for his inferiority complex — the third I don’t recall at the moment, but it was apparently as hurtful as intended.
A friend who knew a lot about cats told us it was a shame the wild little beauty who was sitting at our feet, just out of reach, had been untouched by humans for the first months of her life. Once they are feral you can’t really get too close to them, she told us. This kitten came to trust us and eventually love being petted by us (when she felt like it, of course). She became our outdoor pet.
One day, in the first spring of her life, before she was even six months old, she marched her first litter of tiny lookalikes out of the bushes, to show Sekhnet to them. She will feed you when I’m done, she told them, and it came to pass.
Sekhnet was horrified when Mama Kitten chased her first kittens out of the garden. They’d been weaned, and learned to get food from humans (and to hunt a bit as well) and suddenly Mama was driving them away, quite savagely. What a bitch! said Sekhnet. We started to learn about cats in nature, nature which is as cruel as it is kind.
Mama Kitten was tough. She had to be to survive out there. She gave birth to her next litter shortly after banishing her first.
Over the next three years she gave birth to many more, producing more than twenty beautiful little kittens in her first four years of life. Few survived very long — five that we know of.
We hesitated to give them names, because it would create more attachment and make their deaths more personal, somehow. Sekhnet began giving descriptive names only, so we had a way of referring to them as they had their adventures in the garden.
Of Mama’s second to last litter of four, two daughters, Little Girl and White Back, survived. They occupy the garden to this day. The girls stood together, refusing to be intimidated by their mother, the first to do that, and both survive.
In the end, with the help of an almost insanely dedicated cat rescuer, we were able to trap Mama Kitten and the others and have them spayed, and the father (we assume) neutered as well. For a year and a half we’ve had a stable little colony in the garden. It was disrupted briefly a couple of months ago by five adorable little ferals whose mother abandoned them by the best cat buffet in the neighborhood. We managed to catch, domesticate and find homes for all five.
One day, not long ago, Little Girl, who always stayed close to her mother (they were known as the Driveway Bitches for their ruthless shakedowns for treats) and had always deferred to her mother in all things, snatched some food from her. I instantly intervened, and Mama finished what she was eating, but the writing was on the wall.
A day or two later a friend noticed one of Mama’s eyes looked a little funny. A few days later she lost interest in food, even the favorites Sekhnet brought to her. She took to one of the houses we made, staying warm. Then, one rainy, miserable night a couple of days ago she disappeared. Little Girl was now sleeping in her house.
We figured Mama Kitten had crawled off to die somewhere, probably in the nearby strip of wooded area across the service road. She was not yet six years old, but feral cats live much shorter lives than pampered indoor cats.
I had intended to write about her death yesterday, but somehow I didn’t get to it. Last night, after we moved the car for the firs time in a few days, to do some shopping, we found out what happened to Mama Kitten. She’d made it as far as the narrow space behind the car, before breathing her last. I put her in a box, closed the flaps carefully, and carried her a short distance to a wooded area where Sekhnet covered her coffin with branches full of dry leaves.
We spent the next few hours looking for photos of this beautiful cat. Here is the hero shot:
I thought at first that the lesson of Mama Kitten’s death was the simple reminder that we all must die, that it is part of nature and that a creature who showed no signs of being sick (she could jump up on to her petting table until the end) knew when to accept the approach of Death and when to go gracefully with it.
During these fearful days when the possibility of our own deaths is closer than usual, I’ve been thinking about death a lot. Mama Kitten’s death was a reminder of the pain for those left behind. I feel it clutching at my chest as I try to conclude this post with some thoughtful words. The pain is great for this stray cat we cared for, who crawled off to die, and didn’t make it to the woods.
How much more immense is our pain for a human we have known, who has touched our lives, made us laugh, held us when we were afraid?
This long-dead poet says it best, as I recalled with tears when I found it among my emails last night, searching for pictures of Mama Kitten, in her prime.
There’s a point in a serious, hard to resolve conflict where nothing you can say or do will avert a terminal impasse. It is no longer possible to talk about objective things that actually happened and find any agreement, we’re in the realm of feelings – hurt feelings, at that – so, everybody gets to be right.
Everybody gets to be right. You get to have very fine people, on every side of every issue. You get to have courts rule in your favor with or without evidence, if you have the power to make them feel the way you do. You get to be right, no matter how strong the case is that you’re wrong.
Among people who care about each other, things can be done to soothe hurt feelings. The first thing we do for someone is listen, without trying to correct anything the person is feeling. Between people who despise each other, or have hurt each other beyond caring, hurt feelings are their just desert for being assholes — you know, fuck ’em.