Time is the only irreplaceable thing we have, while we have it. It is like breath. You cannot live without it and it goes on without you, time and the need to draw breath. We take our time here for granted, turn over in bed and … those who knew you are suddenly speaking of you in the past tense. One question that gnaws most of us — how to be productive in the time we are given? The closest I come is trying to learn and understand the reasons for things and setting them out as clearly as I can, in the unknowable interval that remains.
I’ve been writing here for years now, one among countless millions who keep this kind of public journal. Why put these thoughts out there? Looking for company, monkey face? Heh? Is that it, you’re looking for company in your existential isolation in Death’s well-appointed anteroom? Why don’t you take a class or something, stop wasting everyone’s time?
I am driven forward by the need to dig toward some deeper truth, I suppose, to reach some fuller, more nuanced, understanding of the nature of this complicated arrangement. I feel especially driven now, in an age when the value of all facts and every truth, such as we can grasp them, so often yields to short-term monetary/power calculations.
It’s an old story. The new pharaoh, would-be founder of an upstart dynasty, always sent his minions into the tombs of the former dynasty, to scrape their faces off the walls of history, erase them from the afterlife. History written in the blood of the passive and powerless, the helpless dead, by the supremely ambitious, the aggressively ambitious, the insane: fratricides, matricides, genocides, the movers and shakers. Oy.
I suppose part of this writing I do is a mourning process. The difficulty of accepting that certain cherished things of value, long friendships and loving relations, are actually already dead and need to be buried, their sad passing grieved. Permanent estrangements, which can be meticulously detailed and flawlessly justified — on both sides. “He feels like you don’t respect him,” says the wife of a man I finally find it impossible to respect. Just because he has an uncontrollable reflex to kick you in the balls from time to time doesn’t mean you shouldn’t otherwise respect him! Peace making conversations are futile, once the line is crossed, implacable certainty sets in like death itself, on both sides. There is no convincing the other that he would hate being kicked in the nuts as much as you do — after all, by trying to explain this to him, in your superior fucking way, you are kicking him in the same sensitive place. Plus, you don’t respect him anyway, that much is clear to everybody.
This other fellow here cannot help but lie (I’m not talking about the president now). His need to change reality to make it less shameful leads him to do things like maxing out all of his dead father’s credit cards, having the bills sent to a secret post office box, presenting the cash advances to his wife every week as commissions from his steady sales from the job he pretends to go to everyday. His wife may get mad at him sometimes, as when she discovers the real reason he is declaring a crushing surprise bankruptcy, but he knows just what to do. Threaten a bloody death to everyone. His loyal wife will later get angry at anyone who brings any of this up. Why wouldn’t she? As for the man, he is right to hate anyone who makes his wife upset. Fuck them!
People pretend for the sake of peace. Peace is wonderful, but pretend peace doesn’t last long, unless everyone agrees to keep pretending no matter what. The impossibility of being objective enough to know when you are in the right or when you’re being brutal and harsh — in its way as troubling as the sudden end of all joy, pondering and trouble. All we have is our good will toward others, until that good will is returned badly, for the unknowable stretch of time each of us has left.
I often have a hard time finding things I’ve written about on this website, even when searching by remembered key words. I write virtually every day, on several different subjects, and pieces get mixed together and buried quickly. I will try to post a digest from time to time to help readers, and myself, find some of the better things I’ve written lately. Here are a few from the past week, click the title to read on:
Here is a bit of inspiration for those who can take it. Admittedly, I’m not the typical hero of an inspirational story, I haven’t had that great heartwarming moment of underdog triumph we are used to seeing in movies, hearing about in author interviews on Fresh Air. I have achieved little in the outside world, though my inner world, where I live most of the time, is a place I can recommend highly. I offer this encouragement to follow your impulse to delve, imagine and create, and to go boldly where it leads.
We discovered this delicious soup a few weeks back in a vegetarian Chinese joint called Zen Garden. DEEE-licious broth, truly the most flavorful broth I’ve ever tasted. It is also supposed to be very healthy. This is how it’s described on the menu:
Here is a bit of inspiration for those who can take it. Admittedly, I’m not the typical hero of an inspirational story, I haven’t had that great heartwarming moment of underdog triumph we are used to seeing in movies, hearing about in author interviews on Fresh Air. I have achieved little in the outside world, though my inner world, where I live most of the time, is a place I can recommend highly. I offer this encouragement to follow your impulse to delve, imagine and create, and to go boldly where it leads.
The world will grind you down, constantly, it is a machine that seems designed to do that to most of us. It doesn’t give a rat’s cuisse about you, your thoughts, desires, what you love, what you need, what you think you deserve. It is run, down to the smallest subdivision, by the most desperately misguided, almost by definition. The most driven, entitled, selfish, forceful, corrupt and violent will often decide matters for everybody else. Look around the world, it is largely run by vicious motherfuckers who did not get to rule everybody else by chance.
At the same time, the natural world is an infinitely beautiful place – a miracle. Plants, animals, the sky, the oceans, rivers, mountains, the ground you walk on, what is under the ground you walk on, its colors, tastes, sounds and smells. Human imagination is a miracle. Unimaginable things are routinely accomplished by our puny fellow earthlings. Our ability to communicate using combinations of symbols, as you and I are doing right now– no less miraculous for being also somehow explainable. Empathy and kindness from strangers, another characteristic of the species, another kind of miracle. Is there a miracle greater than the intimacy we share with those we love?
Leave aside the destructive myths of the cultures we live in, the false values that cause untold suffering to the vast majority of us, the vain, heedless leaders hellbent on destroying the marvelous planet we all live on. Human creativity, that eternally surprising source of inspiration and hope, and the unshakeable will to do something new and amazing, are among the best parts of being human.
I’m typing quickly, I’m excited, following this thought. I’m in a hurry now, hastening to urge you, and myself, to take inspiration at every opportunity, from wherever you find it.
I’ve been listening to the remarkable Robert Caro reading his book Working. In it he collects a few thoughts about how he goes about his work, gives a few choice illustrations, assembles some notes for an intended longer memoir he hopes to write one day. He is now in his eighties, and working on the last volume of a vast biography of LBJ. Before he embarked on that work of several decades he wrote his first, now famous, ground-breaking study of power, his tome on Robert Moses, The Power Broker.
Caro has a great, down-to-earth New York accent and he speaks and reads his writing beautifully. He is a kind of genius. When he was broke, and feeling desperate, five years into his work on his first book, the study of all-powerful New York City colossus Robert Moses, he found himself, several times, almost at the end of his faith in himself as an author.
Each time he felt about to give up and go back to working for New York Newsday, at the time a crusading liberal newspaper on Long Island, he managed to catch a break. At one point it was a literary agent who got a sum of money for him and his family to live on as he continued to work on the book. Beyond that, she told him the New York literary world was already abuzz, very excited about his upcoming book and she found him the perfect editor. Later, when his faith was beginning to falter again, the stroke of good fortune was a key to a research and writing room at the New York Public Library.
This is the inspirational bit I am getting at. He was in a kind of despair that he might never be able to finish the massive book he was working on. Originally, naively, he’d envisioned taking a year to research and write it. Then it was two years, soon it stretched to five years and a million words. He was trying to get at how power works in the world, using the person of the most powerful man in New York City, an unelected public builder who ruled for half a century and inexorably shaped the city forever. He was writing a biography of Moses as a way of laying out the workings of political power.
Understanding how power works entailed learning and telling the stories of the many anonymous people screwed by the exercise of power, to get at power’s effects in the real world, on the daily lives of millions affected by it. These anonymous people were hard to find, it took a lot of work to locate them. The more research he did, the more interviews he conducted, the more he wrote, the more questions emerged and the further he seemed to be from the end of the gigantic project he’d devised for himself.
His wife had sold the family home she’d inherited, that money was gone, after some desperate days the additional advance from the literary agent was allowing them to rent an apartment as he continued to work in a tiny rented space, but his isolation as he worked was taking its toll. At the newspaper he’d been surrounded by colleagues, worked closely with an editor, got support from seasoned investigative journalists, had constant feedback and tight deadlines. Working in the tiny Bronx office he rented he was alone with his massive assignment.
He began to realize how much he missed the company of other writers, people who understood and could relate to the lonely work he was driven to undertake. He started thinking he might never finish the book, five years seemed an eternity and he was nowhere near done.
Off of the large research room at the main branch of the New York Public Library, there was a smaller room for several authors with book contracts who were doing research at the library. Caro was given a key and a desk where he could write and keep the books and other files he was working with. There were several other writers working at other desks in the room. Everyone worked in silence and for a few days he didn’t talk to anybody.
One day in the grubby library cafeteria (“grubby” I believe is the word Caro used) a writer he admired asked him about his project and how long he’d been at it. It turned out five years was not unreasonable, this writer had taken longer to research and write a book Caro had prized. Another impressive writer told him a similar story. Suddenly he was not an outlier indulging a fantasy that could never be realized, he was a working writer trying to see an ambitious project to completion.
He reports how the simple revelation of these facts by two writers he greatly respected made him feel like kissing each of these men. You can feel his relief in the way he tells the story. I take inspiration from his relief.
I don’t have Caro’s elite education, I went to public schools all the way through graduate school. I don’t have his background as an award-winning investigative journalist who spent years honing his craft under the watchful eyes of skilled editors and seasoned reporters he admired. I don’t have Caro’s prodigious work ethic, if I’m being totally honest. I work in my own imagination, in almost complete silence. Once in a while I write something that moves someone I know and they send me a quick email or text to tell me so. That is as close as I come to the world seeing me as a writer.
I write every day, as I have for many years. I’ve become good at setting things out clearly and I have a short shelf of books in mind to write. The tools are sharp, and waiting for me every time I sit down to write. I write with a great appetite to set things out as plainly as I can and I rarely hesitate to write what’s on my mind to tell.
I had a remarkable conversation with my father the last night of his life. In that confession, which I heard with the mildness of a good priest, a whole life was encapsulated, sorrows expressed with terrible regret. My father candidly said things that night that he’d fought tirelessly to deny for all the years I knew him. A nurse friend later told me this happens sometimes to people close to death, Death hovering nearby can have this truth-encouraging effect.
Searching for a way to make some money, I learned from a writer friend about a website that pays $250 for short pieces about the experiences of Baby Boomers. I’d told this guy many stories over the years, including the story of my father’s deathbed conversion. He told me to write some up and send them to the editor, that these family stories were just the kind of thing this website buys.
I sent the highly condensed story of a combative childhood, the constant war around the dinner table, the screaming every night, the verbal abuse. The call from Florida, decades later, father admitted to the hospital, time running out, rushing to Ft. Lauderdale airport. That final deathbed conversation, where my father, with almost no time left on the clock, told me he should have been mature enough to have had real conversations with his children, that the eternal, absurd black and white combat had been his fault. “You’re supposed to have some fucking insight…” he said in that raspy dying man’s voice. I told him it was OK. He died the next evening as the orange and pink Florida sunset outside the hospital windows turned the palm trees into silhouettes.
After a few back and forths during which I cut the piece from 1,500 to 1,000 words, it was published on the website and I had my first $250 check. I had a bracing moment reading it on-line. The editor had changed a few lines, swapping in a cliché here and there for a well-chosen, precise description, and in one egregious case, rewriting an entire sentence to make my narrator an insight-challenged idiot who could not understand how his mother could have loved his father, something I understood very well.
He left the next piece I sent him virtually intact, and sent me another $250, and he also loved the third, which he promised to publish soon. When I got no check for the third I inquired and he told me he thought he’d sent me an email about changing his mind. The piece was great, he wrote again, but maybe a bit too edgy for his audience. I sent one or two more but got tired of having this ham-fisted editor as the arbiter of whether my work was worth the fee. I should have begun flinging these pieces, and others, over the transoms of every magazine out there, but I didn’t.
Instead, I set out to write the book of my father’s life and times. Every day I’d make a cup of coffee and sit down to recall what I could of my complicated, difficult father. It was work I greatly looked forward to every day. A man of charm, great intelligence, dark humor, idealism, sensitivity, my father was, at the same time, a broken soul who generally acted like a merciless, prosecutorial dick to my sister and me.
I proceeded on the theory, initially, that I had to show the traits that endeared him to so many, his wit, his empathy, his championing of the underdog, his intelligent counsel, and then dramatically contrast them to the dreaded monster he turned into in private during the ruthless nightly battles over dinner. A monster! Jekyll and Hyde, something dramatic that the kids would want to buy.
After the intervention of my father, in the form of his talkative skeleton, and more than a thousand pages written over the next two years, and a year thinking more about the book I was trying to write, I came to realize that my initial theory had been crap. Irv was an ordinary, even typical, man of his generation, of many generations. His story was not about a monster but about the crushed dreams of a little boy who’d grown into a man, doing his best, but always fearing the worst. A man, like all men, who wrestled with terrifying demons, not always elegantly, not always without damaging those closest to him.
“My life was basically over before I was two,” he said with infinite sadness, yet without self-pity, that last night of his life. By then I knew exactly what he was referring to, and he knew that I knew.
The story of a life is an elusive thing, it changes radically depending on your point of view, your proximity to it, how that life affects your life. Your life, my life, how do you summarize it?
Robert Moses was very unhappy with the detailed portrait Robert Caro painted of his life in The Power Broker. He wrote a seething 3,500 word refutation of Caro’s book, based on the excerpts of it he’d read in The New Yorker. He wrote like a haughty, angry child who’d gone to the finest schools. Larded with obscure literary quotations and references to the classics, defensive and pretending not to be, from beginning to end it was the wounded cry of a man who felt he’d done great things, for millions, without a bit of gratitude. A master chef who had made the world’s most beautiful omelets, admittedly having broken a few eggs in the process, a thing impossible to avoid, and whose artistry was so unappreciated.
The half million people Robert Moses had summarily evicted from their longtime homes, destroying their neighborhoods (like my mother’s) to build his dream projects that allowed cars to drive quickly through what he regarded as former slums? “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” was how he summarily refuted that assertion by the scurrilous Mr. Caro. You can read his 3.500 words here.
In trying to fairly assess my father’s life, the valuable ideals he instilled and the terrible harm he inflicted on my sister and me, I found it necessary to talk things out with my dead father. There was no trove of documents to read through, no witnesses to interview, no writings left behind to ponder. There were only my memories, my intimate knowledge of the man, and the hints of a final conversation between us that should have started decades earlier.
That last chat was a good starting point for a relationship, then he was dead. I was glad to hear that I was no longer being blamed for the whole long series, senseless skirmishes, relieved to finally be let off the hook as the instigator of all the ugliness between my father and me, but then… poof! the suddenly reasonable man was gone. All that was left was the image of his skeleton, sitting up in his grave outside of Peekskill, piping up from time to time, giving me someone to discuss these perplexing mysteries with.
I started writing the manuscript daily in 2016. I worked on it every day through the end of 2017. Then, overwhelmed by a rambling 1,200 page draft that had not yet captured a real likeness of my complicated old man, had only touched on the damage he’d done, the deeper lessons of his life and the inspiration he left behind, I found myself sucked into the swirling toilet bowl of the ever-distracting, attention craving Donald J. Trump and his destructively transactional worldview.
Trump, for his part, was fond of saying that his father, the ruthless Fred Christ Trump, was his teacher, his mentor and his best friend. In more honest moments, the second youngest of the five Fred and Mary Trump children acknowledged that Fred was a hard man, ambitious, demanding and impossible to please. Young Trump, paid $200,000 a year from birth for undisclosed work he did for his father as a baby– his life was basically over by the time he was two.
Inspired by the example of historian Robert Caro, I feel like I’m ready to get back to work on the book of my father. Take your inspiration wherever you find it. Here is Robert Caro on the time-consuming search to get as close as we humans can come to historical truth:
The part of me that, now that I was writing books, kept leading me, after I’d got every question answered, to think, in spite of myself, of new questions that in the instant of thinking them I felt must be answered for my book to be complete. The part of me that kept leading me to think of new avenues of research that, even as I thought of them, I felt it was crucial to head down, it wasn’t something about which, I had learned the hard way, I had a choice – in reality I had no choice at all.
In my defense, while I am aware that there is no truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple either, no verity eternal or otherwise, no truth about anything, there are facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable, and the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts, through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing, can’t be rushed, it takes time. You could say that truth takes time.
But that’s a logical way of justifying that quality in me and I know it wasn’t only logic that made me think I’m never going to write about a crucial election, a pivotal moment in my subject’s life, and say that no-one’s ever going to know if it was really stolen or not until I’ve done everything I can think of to find out if it was stolen or not.
I could not track down the character who had falsely counted the votes for LBJ in that long ago local election, and perjured himself in a court proceeding decades earlier, and interviewed the now regretful old man, as Caro managed to do. All I can do is imagine and re-imagine my dead father’s life, in light of the discussions his skeleton and I have had, taking into account every fingerprint he left on my own life and on my sister’s.
Come to think of it, I haven’t heard a peep from the voluble skeleton in many moons. Probably time to wake him up, we have a lot more work to do if I’m going to get to the bottom of this challenging puzzle I’ve been assembling in this dark room.
Take inspiration from my determination, if you can, as I will also try to.
True, Hitler did send columns of determined men with guns to conquer areas where my family in Europe lived, followed by special squads of “ideological” specialists who worked with desperate, angry locals to kill everyone in my family (and their ilk) left in Europe. Not a bit nice, as my grandmother Yetta used to say about people who did awful things. Yetta herself had six siblings (every brother and sister she had) and her two parents murdered, by local Ukrainians, granted, but at the behest of specialized men who took an oath of personal loyalty to Mr. Hitler and did everything he told them to do. 
I tend to think regularly of the outsized influence this conceited little puke had on my family, by killing virtually all of them — and then I think– you know, it all took place thirteen years before I was even born. There are, after all, two sides, at least, to every story, plus all that nuance. Maybe I am just being a melodramatic little bastard by continuing to make a big deal about this Hitler business, blaming that long-dead extremist demagogue for things that had nothing whatsoever to do with him.
I mean, people in my small family here, people I actually knew well, hated each other– having nothing whatsoever to do with Adolf Fucking Hitler. A pair of half-siblings, my father’s first cousins, didn’t exchange a word for the last thirty years or more of their long lives. What had Mr. Hitler to do with that? Absolutely innocent on that count, your honor!
My fractured family, largely extirpated by men obedient to Mr. Hitler, was composed, a couple of generations back, in Hitler’s day, of a large group of hardworking poor people. They were what you call “nobodies”. Their lives fell silently into that huge statistic of dead people killed in the deadliest war in history. On my father’s side the disappeared hamlet they came from, down to its precise location in the marsh land of Belarus, was one of literally thousands of Jewish enclaves permanently wiped off the world map in those years, when men like Mr. Hitler and his kind made big, important decisions about who shall live and who needed to be exterminated.
I look at my own circumstances, ponder the epigenetics of it sometimes, the way my grandparents’ experience of being the sole survivors of large, murdered families might have shaped their personalities, how that unspoken of trauma of their murdered brothers and sisters and everyone else they knew altered the things they passed on to me without any of us being aware of it. Then I think, there you go, blaming Mr. Hitler again!
I sometimes find myself comparing the circumstances of my own family with those of the proud, accomplished Jared Kushner and his family. Jared has that haughty bearing, proud and imperious as a top SS man in the old photos. It may seem unfair to make that comparison between a very wealthy Jew and the most “ideological” of the Nazi leadership cadre (most top SS men, as they say, were “well-born”), but you have to admit, looking at the way he carries himself, that Jared is an indomitable man and appears quite certain of his superiority. Jared would never allow himself to be marched to a ravine for a bullet in the back of his head, after giving up his clothes for payment to his murderers. No way. Jared would find a way to win, to vanquish his enemies, because a guy like Jared Kushner, let’s face it, one of the President of the United States’ top advisors, is a winner. His kind doesn’t get shot lying face down in a ditch like a nobody.
You may be tempted to call it a matter of pure, dumb luck, observe that Jared was randomly born to a very wealthy family of Jews who escaped the Nazi murder machine and managed to thrive in the United States, amassing a fortune of almost two billion dollars in barely two generations. Think deeper. It is just as likely a matter of character, which is, of course, destiny. The best are the best for a reason, n’est-ce pas? If it was mere dumb luck that Jared’s grandparents arrived here and were able to build a modest family business, buying and renting out multiunit apartment buildings in New Jersey, into a thriving real estate empire in just a few decades while mine worked as hard for a fraction of the reward, then what does it all mean? What is the possible meaning of this random, merciless arrangement?
I get worked up sometimes considering questions like these and I eventually get back to blaming fucking Hitler. At the same time, I know that Mr. Hitler was merely a symptom, a purulent boil that was fated to burst upon the scene, like any inevitable destructive psychopath whose message manages to resonate with millions and spurs them to unthinking violence.
I mean, if Mr. Hitler had never lived, had never come to power in the most civilized, highly industrialized nation of his day, had never held sway over millions of Germans (36.8% voted for his party in the last election of the democratic Weimar Republic), how different would the world be today? How different would my life be? Hard to imagine. And senseless to try, really, except for the lessons I take from it, having studied Mr. Hitler and the rise of the movement he led, some might say obsessively, on and off for literally decades.
I realize, of course, that even if Mr. Hitler (I’m adopting the New York Times style here, the Grey Lady once puckishly referred to “Mr. Clapton” and “Mr. Diddley” in a piece about Eric and Bo) had never existed, most of my family probably never would have arrived here in the USA anyway. By 1924 prominent American “nativists”, xenophobes and racists, under the banner of Eugenics (a discredited sham science that the learned and unimpeachable Mr. Trump devoutly espouses to this day), had severely restricted immigration from shit-hole countries like the places my people come from. The few who arrived here came in before the land of the free largely closed its doors to immigrants in 1924, the last of them, my grandfather, sneaking in in 1923.
1924, coincidentally, was the year of my father’s birth, in an unforgiving, crime-infested slum in Lower Manhattan. Trump’s feverishly imagined Baltimore has nothing on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1924. 1924 was also the year, nine years after D.W. Griffith’s darkly influential silent film masterpiece The Birth of A Nation extolled the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan, that Klan membership in America reached its all-time peak of 2.4 million proud sheet wearing members. Birth of A Nation was the first motion picture screened in the White House and President Woodrow Wilson, who watched it raptly,  later enthused “it’s like writing history in lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true!”
What was so terribly true, in the eyes of the otherwise progressive Woodrow Wilson (aren’t people complex?), was that the former slaves down south had been completely out of control, savagely and vengefully dominating the innocent local whites and raping the women — also attaining political office in many areas with their new bayonet-imposed right to vote. As Griffith showed in his blockbuster epic, history written in lightning fifty years after the fact, a heroic band of white underdogs, modern day knights in sheets, arose to protect the glorious South from these unrestrained black beasts and protect the honor of their pure, white women.
I was exposed to a big chunk of this controversial movie by an Italian visiting professor, during my time in graduate school at City College. Almost ninety years after Griffith wrote his terribly true history in lighting, she insisted the group of us in her comparative literature seminar watch it. I was there as part of my study of, eh, creative writing. We all agreed that movie was some fucked up and incendiary distortion of history as we knew it. It also explained a lot about historical revisionism and the dramatic power of heroically presented bullshit shouted through the right megaphone.
The forces of violent, irrational hatred in the world are always simmering (open virtually any history book anywhere if you doubt this). Mr. Hitler sometimes, in the early days, when he was up and coming, humbly referred to himself as a “drummer”, the kid tirelessly banging the drum to set the cadence for the righteously marching troop parade. Like the guy on the old slave-powered Roman galley, the hortator, some poor bastard who beat a drum and chanted to set the cadence for the coordinated pulling of the heavy oars by the other slaves, as ordered by the captain.
We have a hortator, inciter, encourager, exhorter, urger like that right here, in charge of scrawling his name jaggedly across the bottom of Executive Orders, veto pen in his other hand, and though I hesitate to invoke his tiresome name (again) in a piece about blaming Hitler, well, really, who can blame me? Ah, fuck him  and the Nazi hordes he rode in on. I really do have to stop blaming Mr. Fucking Hitler, though.
 Hitler’s every word was, literally, law. The Nazis phrased it “Fuhrerworte haben Gesetzeskrafte” and it was left to an army of Nazi lawyers to put their infallible leader’s every utterance into crisp legalize and codify it into the German legal code of the time.
 I’ll try to keep the fucking toilet type adjectives and nouns here in the footnotes, gentle reader. Wilson was a racist motherfucker if there ever was one. He was the only U.S. president in history born and raised in the Confederacy, so there’s that– he grew up in besieged and eventually defeated territory that had staged an armed rebellion against the United States. In fairness to him, the famous Progressive also apparently hated Jews, a people who are not, except to certain racists, actually a “race”, though, like the Fuhrer himself (who had more than 300 “do not touch” Jews on his list) he had Jews he thought were first class. He nominated Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916– a bold and progressive move. As it was later written of Brandeis by Justice William O. Douglas:
“Brandeis was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible … [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.”
the Wiki continues:
On June 1, 1916, he was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 47 to 22, to become one of the most famous and influential figures ever to serve on the high court. His opinions were, according to legal scholars, some of the “greatest defenses” of freedom of speech and the right to privacy ever written by a member of the Supreme Court.
 Shit, sorry, gentle reader, I f–ed up. So hard to keep the fucking cuss words out of it, idn’t it?
Sometimes we get insight in a very roundabout way, only after a thing has been gnawing at us for a very long time. It can take being nibbled by a particular demon for many years before you jump out of your chair one day and say “what the fuck?!!” look down and see what is snacking on you.
At the end of several long, stressful days getting the house ready for the contractors (the lioness’s share done by indefatigable, self-proclaimed working dog Sekhnet) I went through a pile of papers (a short stack) propped helter skelter on a board laid across an open desk drawer. More than half the pages immediately went onto the recycle pile to be carried down to the bag. The rest, mostly drawings, I clipped neatly into the clipboard they were lying haphazardly on.
Not really very hard, I realized, though the volume and variety of papers here, as I glance around, is many, many times more than that short stack at Sekhnet’s I dispatched in a few minutes. Of course, Sekhnet is right — spending a half hour a day at it would make a big difference within a few days, even here, in the eye of the storm.
Another insight hit me when I pulled a page I’d printed out of the pile and began reading. It was my unsent pitch to a publisher who welcomes book proposals from unknown authors. A two paragraph evocation of the book I thought I was writing about my father, something I worked on hours every day for two years, a massive, unwieldy first draft.
I stopped reading my pitch shortly into the second “reveal” paragraph. I was glad I’d never sent the thing, it was a labored, strenuous, grunting swing at nothing but air. It did not present a hint of a compelling idea for a book.
I recently saw a best-selling author, in the windup to an ad for his Master Class on how to become a successful writer, describe the writing of the second draft as an exercise in convincing everyone that you knew exactly where you were going when you wrote the first draft. Wow. That’s precisely my challenge in putting together the book of my father’s life and then successfully pitching it.
The story of my difficult father’s life is not the tired old story of a smart idealist with an abusive dark side, fighting for justice for strangers while doing great harm to his own family. It’s not the story of a man’s triumphant emergence from childhood poverty into the middle class (along with a large cohort of World War Two vets at a unique and fleeting moment in history). It’s not the story of monstrous anger, righteous and senseless both, and a rigid inability to forgive.
Those things are part of the back story. The book is more of a meditation on the nature and substance of history itself, what we remember and what we forget, and the imagining of a lifelong conversation that should have been. That conversation with the skeleton of my father, the one that began the last night of his life, is the heart of the book, though it’s not the story I need to tell, shop and sell.
The real story is what I suspected from the start, the difficulty of forgiveness and a rare moment of grace, just before death, when an unbearable burden is lifted, the regrettable truth finally spoken and reassurance given to the dying man just before his light winks out. The story is about exactly what those regrets are made of, what was learned, and lost, how the unlikely and precious moment came to happen at all.
Twenty-five years ago an old friend celebrated my decision to become a lawyer (an ill-considered one, at best) as me finally being about to “compete”. I get what he was saying, I’ve always kept myself out of the economic competition that defines our materialistic culture, refusing to race the rest of the rats for the mirage of an illusory goal (or simply being a cowardly rat, depending on your view). I did not embrace the world’s second oldest profession, nor did I ever really compete in it, outside of plucking the occasional victim out of the meat grinder of justice, as when I saved an old woman from homelessness at the hands of zealous NYCHA attorneys.
In mulling over the anger I’ve been feeling lately I realize part of it is my chafing feeling of paralysis (not helped by painfully arthritic knees — as Vonnegut said “be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.”), of being overwhelmed by difficult things that are hard, true, but clearly not impossible. Part is anger at my resigned acceptance of a limited, frugal life, foregoing comfortable middle class options while muttering here in great, sometimes worthwhile, detail about the objectively atrocious state of things and what I have pieced together.
I’m angry about having no voice, in spite of speaking all the time (as I am silently doing right now, you dig?), and often finding and saying things I think would advance the larger discussion in a threatened world increasingly dominated by mindless bluster and vapid shouting. I’m angry that evil idiots, often born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us  rule and I that have nothing to say about any of it, no matter how well I may say it. And that others, professionals, who blow “thoughts” out of their asses, are well-paid to do it.
I’m angry about my inability to marshal my abilities to tell a story and get paid. I’m angry that I have to monetize my writing in the first place (but in an uncertain casino economy one needs to keep some money coming in) and I’m angry that I’m not getting any money for it.
I’m angry that I’m not getting paid for writing what I write and I’m angry that I’m doing virtually nothing about it. It is a frustrating cycle and it presses on because I do not confront the hard work I need to do to market and sell my work. I am, on a fundamental level (and as hard as I’ve often worked in my life) lazy, preferring at any given moment to do what I like rather than what needs to be done. Since writing itself is satisfying to me, once I have the words in final form, I never think of it as unproductive unless paid for. When I think of it that way, through the eyes of the world, it pisses me off.
I don’t mean to say that lazy is the last word on my life, it certainly isn’t (he hastily added). There is also fear, of course, long habit, the actual daunting difficulty of the uphill task, and so forth. I learned a very important life lesson during a dark time in my life — how crucial it is to be kind to yourself. I don’t pile on myself when the going gets tough and I never reduce myself to the sum of my faults.
On the other hand, this anger I’ve described is something only I can work on, a grating car alarm only I have the key to silencing. I also remind myself that I don’t need to be paid a million bucks or write a blockbuster hit, a couple of thousand dollars would be a very good start.
Sekhnet observed the other day that the therapy I’ve gone through did not touch my powerful aversion to organizing my papers, my life. Fair enough. I’ve recently come to think of my great and irrational resistance to going through old papers as an odd reflection of my fear of death, but what the fuck is up with that?
Anger at how difficult it has been for me to read the proverbial writing on the wall, about situations, sometimes about people, the bottom-line nature of the reality we are all living in, is less than useless. Anger, while it can alert us to a problem in the manner of all pain, disables the ability to see any path out of it, as anger directs all energy back to itself. Time to poke a few breathing holes in this smothering carapace of aggravation, I say.
 The well-read Thomas Jefferson, master of the felicitous phrase, stole this famous image for his final letter (shortly after the great passage about democracy “arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government”).
The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.
from Richard Rumbold, a man executed by the English for treason more than a century earlier. Rumbold delivered the line toward the end of his final remarks, moments before he was drawn and quartered :
I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.
I always loved this image of people born “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us, particularly at a moment like this — Avi Berkowitz, 30 year-old assistant to Trump Special Advisor Jared Kushner, himself the supremely unqualified son of a billionaire. is elevated, by another very important man who inherited hundreds of millions and squandered more than that, to take the helm of Trump’s secret, still unreleased Middle East Peace Plan that these born booted and spurred individuals are already boasting about.
as to Richard Rumbold, here’s some great detail:
|Note 1. Delivered in Edinburgh. Rumbold was captured after having been wounded and then separated from his companions in arms. An immediate trial had been ordered that he might be condemned before he died of his wounds. He was found guilty on June 26, 1685, sentenced to be executed the same afternoon, and was drawn and quartered, the quarters being exposed on the gates of English towns. [back]|
|Note 2. At this point Rumbold was interrupted by drum beating. He said he would say no more on that subject, “since they were so disingenuous as to interrupt a dying man.” [back]|
An old friend reminded me the other night that it is better (though not easier) to feel what you’re feeling, experience the pain of it if it’s painful, than to pretend not to feel any part of what is oppressing you. Feeling your feelings is an essential part of processing, healing, moving forward, being respectful and kind to yourself. Which seems counter-intuitive when you feel like shit. It was good to be reminded of this pillar of humaneness. If we practice not feeling what we’re feeling, how do we remain empathetic to difficult things our loved ones often go through?
I think of the choice to feel or not to feel as closely related to the choice between knowing and not knowing . I think it’s better to feel and to know. The choice not to feel a given feeling or consider a given fact is often simple denial. Repressing the feelings your soul is going through, denying things that make it go through turmoil, is a one way ticket on the Miserable Asshole Express, as far as I can tell. As they say on TV, individual exceptions may apply. I’m not certainly not advocating no anesthesia before a painful procedure, I like a good anodyne as much as the next agony avoider, but I also see the importance of feeling my feelings and having my thinking informed with as much actual knowledge — and feedback from people I trust — as possible.
What we feel is often closely related to what we know, or, just as often, to what we don’t know. I’ve been feeling mostly anger since I learned of the sudden, senseless, premature death of a once very close friend. He died alone and virtually friendless, in spite of possessing many great and rare qualities that could have made him a good friend to many. It irked me, in large part, that his mere death, a purely random event two thousand miles away, compelled me, involuntarily (as far as I could tell) to focus once more on his irremediably painful life of wasted potential. To me an important piece of working out the puzzle of anger is figuring out exactly why the hell something makes me so mad. I don’t know a better way of trying to digest things and come out the other side of anger.
I’ve been remembering viscerally, continually, the many years I tried to make the pain-filled solipsist see another perspective, how hard I banged my head against the locked door of his highly intelligent but utterly closed mind. Part of my anger is at myself, for remaining friends with such an impossible person, expecting the clearly impossible, even after ample proof of its impossibility, not accepting the futility of this abzurd expectation years earlier, not saving myself a decade or two of stressful, energy-sapping adversarial relations with a very unhappy and demanding, yea, toxic, person.
Sometimes something we learn or realize can immediately begin to change our feelings for the better. We can’t learn this kind of crucial thing without being open to learning, and to our feelings about what we learn. We can’t feel any differently, can’t get relief from hurt, without additional insight. Not that learning a better way, or discovering an objective, revealing fact that changes a story, instantly makes bad feelings go away. Feelings, bad and good, will always arise and often challenge us.
One insight I was blessed to be given was that sometimes much of what we suffer over is not remotely our fault or our doing. No less an authority than the Buddha taught that the nature of life in this world involves this kind of impersonal suffering we can’t help but feel personally, from the pain of being attached to things that can vanish at any time. I don’t know much about Buddha, but I do know that what the fox said in William Steig’s beautiful The Amazing Bone rings very true in regard to perplexing things beyond our control we sometimes agonize over: I didn’t make the world.
All we can do is live in this world the best we can, trying to be kind, maintaining the relationships we value as well as we can, until it is our time to move on, hopefully with some grace, as a final gift to those we love.
I’m thinking about this today in part because of what my friend said the other night about feeling his painful feelings and partly because of two very different reactions from two old friends to my last angry piece about the now recently cremated Mark.
One read the final email exchange between me and my relentlessly exasperating old friend and didn’t understand what was so provocative about his final response that I felt compelled to drive a stake through his grieving heart right after his mother died. His question caused me to re-read Mark’s last words carefully and write a detailed explanation. This process entailed putting my finger on exactly why it had set me off, giving him the context of my long experience that had left me with the conditioned reflex to react that way. He wrote back that he understood now, and found my explanation quite complete and sensible.
Another old friend had a much different reaction. He was troubled by the outpouring of rage, which struck him more as the reaction of a betrayed lover than a merely disillusioned friend. I wrote back that we were like siblings, bound in a constant sullenly competitive rivalry (Mark really wasn’t my romantic type, I’d have to say). I offered to send him the long email I’d already written explaining exactly where the rage came from but he declined, having read enough already. De gustibus non disputandum est. I don’t judge anyone about their appetite for the hideous details, we are all different that way.
I have an appetite for the hideous details. As, to some extent, does my friend who asked me why I’d been so savage replying to what appeared to him as an inept, clumsy, odd yet sincere attempt at reconciliation, not the final provocation I took it to be. It was a good question, I saw, rereading the awkward reply that had set me off. Sitting down to examine my anger and setting out exactly what ignited it was an excellent use of several hours. In the end I felt neither arbitrary nor capricious (nor unfair) in responding the way I had.
This can also be seen as merely my take on the endlessly justifying human need to endlessly justify our behavior and the justness of the feelings that lead us to do what we do. Sure. I made a good case for why I was angry, cited a few persuasive examples from the text. It is what lawyers do in our litigious society and I did it to the satisfaction of my fellow lawyer.
It was also an examination, for me, of the more vexing question of whether I had been fair to do what I’d done. I questioned my actions, my motives. The whole process of unraveling Mark’s maddeningly “un-unravelable” lifelong conundrum, as reflected in his final email, was some help to me. In the end I was satisfied that I’d behaved as I’d want to behave, as I’d will anyone else in the same situation to behave, if I had the power to make it so. The old Kantian Moral Imperative: act in a way that the world would be a better place if everyone did likewise.
One more annoying question and I’ll be on my way. Why write things like this and hit “publish”, why put these sometimes troubling personal musings up on the internet for anyone to find? Aren’t these private thoughts best shared among a small handful of closest friends? Couldn’t they potentially torment people who might have loved Mark and not shared my anger at him?
I write them for an invisible reader as a way of putting things that feel important to me in a more objective, finalized form. I need to provide enough general background for anyone to understand what I’m talking about. In doing this I practice sorting through everything in mind and putting it forward in a way that is most easily comprehensible. It’s not good writing if the average reader can’t follow it.
Writing it, and constantly re-editing it, allows me to go back and clarify whatever is left unclear, on the page and in my mind. In combing away cluttering words (in a way I wish I could attack my desk or kitchen table) I am able to make what I am saying, what I am feeling, clearer and clearer — to the virtual reader and to myself.
When it is as clear as I can make it, there is a feeling of completeness, the satisfaction of a job well-done. Before I hit “publish” I read it one last time, to make sure everything is in the place where it makes sense for it to be (I often continue editing an already ‘finalized’ post any time I find something confusing in it). If somebody in Kenya reads it, and it helps her see something in her life better, my work is worth it, I suppose.
[1[ Mind you, though you surely don’t need reminding, I speak merely as one opinionated, self-appointed pontiff (the better to pontificate, I say). Feel free to skip this entirely, reject my right to write it or mock away. This thinking/writing business works for me, better than the alternatives, anyway, but reading it is not for everybody — it goes without saying… just sayin’…