The power of honest history

The power of accurate, clearly written history writing is not the same kind of power as that threatening blunderbuss-style of power wielded by an unaccountable maniac with a childish view of life and a sadist’s keen delight in the suffering of others, but it is powerful. It cannot literally take food out of the mouths of hungry children, or a week’s pay away from their parents, as can randomly flexed presidential power when POTUS pouts and golfs while protesting the unfairness of things like the proposed name changes of military bases now honoring traitorous Confederate generals, not that it would want to. A president so inclined can mandate a national curriculum of denial of history, a historian with a conscience writes serving the opposite inclination.

A detailed, honestly told history is a powerful force in the world. Here is a prime example of it, written last night by Heather Cox Richardson, who ends with this inspiring observation:

One of the curses of history is that we cannot go back and change the course leading to disasters, no matter how much we might wish to. The past has its own terrible inevitability.

But it is never too late to change the future.

Read the rest of her powerful piece here.

A friend sent me the recent NY Times business piece about the historian’s amazing and well-earned viral internet success and her sudden wealth. The reason so many subscribe to her nightly newsletter is that she has emerged as a clear, mostly calm voice, giving the perspective of history to shed light on this horrific moment in time. Forwarding this piece to my friend last night all I could add was “WOW”. All he needed to write was “Agree”. A short read, well worth your time, particularly if you think history is a bunch of boring and irrelevant busy-work with no relevance to our current predicaments and no clues to offer about a way to a better future.

Take Care of Yourself, friend

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.

groove for Plague Mice, collaboration with PG, 5-16-20 (with thanks to Jimi for the bassline)

The Complex Difficulty of Human Affairs

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.

How To Be Right, No Matter What

There is a way to be right no matter what. Declare yourself right and walk away, or simply stand your ground and keep insisting you’re right.

It won’t work in every situation, granted. A policeman or judge (or jury) does not necessarily have to agree with your assertion that you are right. But in many, many situations, you’re free to simply argue “I’m right and fuck you!” and be done with it. If you get away with it, many people will applaud you for this ballsy “take no prisoners” attitude. Who cares what anybody thinks, based on whatever supposed evidence, when you know beyond any doubt that you’re right?!

The price for employing this technique? You’re pretty much an asshole who doesn’t listen to reason, cannot be persuaded, believes only your will has weight or value, no matter how terrible the consequences of your insistence. It marks you as a person for whom being right is the only acceptable outcome, no matter how idiotic and/or destructive what you’re insisting on might be.

It is a prerogative more easily used by a wealthy person than a poor person. A poor person can use this time-tested technique too, but there is a higher likelihood of problems flowing from it, if you are poor. Being wealthy carries some perks most people don’t have. It’s why they call having more money than you can spend in your lifetime “fuck you money.” Have enough money, you can tell anyone to take a hike, or take a long, luxurious one yourself.

It seems obvious to note that we’ve seen this hardline approach to right and wrong up close for the last four years, playing out many times every day IN ALL CAPS on our televisions, computers, phones. It’s about all everyone has been talking and texting about lately because of our dynamic social media president, a man who knows only one move: “double down”. Mr. Trump, a self-made billionaire business genius who was a millionaire by age eight, a multimillionaire by his teen years, is about the greatest example of what you can do, if you are rich and confident enough and only want to be right, no matter what.

His election mandate in 2016 was a slim 78,000 votes, in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, combined, (not much over 1% total in those three states) that gave him the Electoral College landslide of 306 votes. The large margin for his opponent in the popular vote, Crooked Hillary, was the result of Mexican zombie votes, three million cases of voter fraud. His Presidential Voter Fraud Commission would prove it. They were unable to prove that even 10 dead Mexicans voted illegally for Hillary (or one, for that matter), though they successfully referred six people for prosecution for voting fraud before disbanding after a diligent six month search. Then, goddamn it, wouldn’t you know it? In 2020, another rigged, fraudulent election, this time outright stolen from him!

Just a few of Donnie T’s greatest hits: abuse of power is not an offense for which a public official can be legally impeached (though quietly carrying out one’s duties, like Alexander Vindman’s brother, is more than adequate grounds for firing), the pandemic is fake, a mere attempt by radical Socialist Democrat partisans to hurt his presidency; asking a foreign leader for dirt on your political opponent– if they want the weapons you’re holding back– is perfectly fine; ditto engaging in a four year pattern of contempt of Congress, defying legal subpoenas, using litigation, and multiple appeals, to prolong debates over one issue after another you know you will lose, delay is the ticket in U.S. Courts as every skilled litigant (who has a lot of money) knows.

You can get upset about US government workers ripping babies from their refugee mother’s arms at our Southern border, but only if you forget that those babies are illegal alien babies, most of them mere props of terrorists, rapists and worse. Firing career public servants is perfectly legal, as is making the entire Civil Service “at will” employees who can be fired at any time, with or without cause; ditto the so-called environment– we need jobs more than we need anything else. If 250,000 more of us have to die during this pandemic, it is the will of God, the God who gave us the brave, brilliant flawed vessel of Mr. Trump, an unlikely but uncanny champion, to tirelessly fight America’s real secret enemies who would steal, rape and murder all white, Christian, children (so as to drink their blood).

Am I right, or am I right?

Searching for the Truth

“I’m searching for truth,” I admitted.

“You poor bastard, I did that to you,” said the skeleton of my father.

Things that make no sense to us can sometimes be explained after enough research and pondering. When you can lay out and understand the reasons behind something perplexing it becomes a little easier to deal with. That’s my belief, anyway. In my experience, there often seems to be a certain relief in understanding how a terrible thing actually works.

I feel like the recent years I spent, hours each day, considering and sorting through every aspect of my father’s troubling life that I could, finally gave me useful insights into his life, into my own. Many of my waking hours, during this present shit-storm of propaganda-directed anger, are spent gathering as many verifiable facts as I can. I use this information to try to construct some kind of reasonable meaning for truly awful things that otherwise make little or no sense.

History, my own and our common human heritage, is indispensable to me in this project. Our lives here are fleeting and often seem meaningless, millions of lives are regularly written off as disposable, but there is a long human history to learn from, as well as our own personal histories. Learning history can lead to the desire to try to do better, become better humans. Which is something, a considerable thing, it seems to me.

I’m aware that my long habit of “study” and pontificating may make me insufferable at times, because not only am I as opinionated in my certainty as my mother was, I feel that keeping myself closely informed (as my father always did) gives my opinions a certain weight. It also creates impatience in me for opinions based on less, or false, information. It’s hard to have a productive discussion, or influence anyone’s thinking, if your own thinking betrays any kind of feeling of superiority. “I know more than you about this so I’m definitely right” is a very weak, invariably maddening, line of persuasion.

A real search for truth requires challenging yourself from time to time, placing your own ideas into the uncomfortable position that they may be wrong. It requires, most difficult for me, considerable humility. A sense that the deeper mystery may never be revealed, no matter how much you come to understand the layers above those deepest ones.

We homo sapiens are fundamentally irrational beings, it would appear, geniuses though we are at self-justification and self-deception. Our lives here are not, as much as we may want to believe it, based mainly on rational considerations taken for reasons we fully understand. To test the proof of this — look at the passionate American fight over the use of personal protective gear during a pandemic.

As for strong opinions based on hard fact — on some level these are not fundamentally all that different from strong opinions based on faith alone. The person of deep religious faith will cite the deep benefits of spiritual faith while the believer in a world ruled by empirical fact will cite the undeniable clarity science and Reason provide. Both human opinion systems, in the end, are matters of faith, on one level. (To be clear, on another level, they are not remotely the same thing)

Do I know, for example, based on logic, with examples for proof of my argument, that there is a workable large-scale economic system better and more humane than the eternal growth model of the “Free Market” system of capitalism that rules the world today? It is not hard to find a dozen contemporary books making excellent, detailed cases for how inhumane this problematic concept of economic freedom really is in practice, how barbarous it is in many of its demonstrable outcomes.

But as I spout my fact-based outrage at a deeply flawed, unsustainable, extractive system that leaves hundreds of millions in desperate poverty so that others can be unimaginably wealthy, do I have a better idea that is actually possible? Our lives here, on many levels, are a mystery. As for someone who will challenge my dissection of the so-called Free Market and demand my better idea (one that comports with human nature, a crucial caveat in any such discussion) — I cannot point to a large scale system that works in the world today that is not based on this idea, on this transactional assessment of human nature and what motivates our behavior. My actual alternative?

“You don’t really have one, do you? Outside of your fond dream of greater justice and a more ‘fair’ distribution of resources and wealth, elimination of poverty and so on, which is a very high-minded idea, and for which I salute you– the world you dream of living in is superior to this one, I’ll grant you,” a kindly neoliberal will counter, when I am done reciting my facts. “But, sadly for us, time is money and both are short at the moment, so, back to your books, genius, back to your idealistic echo chamber with you. Unfortunately for me, I’ve got to go make some money now, so you’ll have to continue enlightening me some other time.”

I can see clearly, in my own case, that a world that made no sense to me — my family life during childhood and beyond — was my initial motivation to seek what was behind a rigid insistence on the demonstrably insane. My sister and I were frequently warned by our angry father that however much we thought we might be winning certain battles, we would inevitably lose the war.

“The war, father? Don’t you always tell us that family is the most important thing in life, the place where we are always safe, the only love we have that we will never lose? How can we four be in permanent war, around the family dinner table, father? Please explain, I’m only a boy, but I truly don’t understand.”

Sadly for my younger sister and me, I somehow did not have this enlightened dispassion within me as a seven year-old. Few of us do. People experience constant, irrational anger from demanding parents all the time. Many convert it into self-doubt, self-hatred and, in some notable cases, a driving ambition to succeed. If a brutal parent doesn’t crush you, you can sometimes convert the restless energy they’ve instilled in you into a billion dollar enterprise, as history shows. Particularly if you have limitless financial help from the tyrant parent that insisted you become a killer instead of the piece of shit you already are.

This search for “truth” is increasingly lonely work for me. Destructive things that are easily seen in others can be impossible to see in ourselves. I lost an old friendship a few years ago because a friend since fourth grade was unable to stop provoking me. He believed I was wrong to feel provoked by his actions, which he always could justify as motivated by his love for me. He believed that as sincerely as I found it intolerable to be constantly provoked.

Each of us eventually took our hurt, and our belief that we had acted with integrity, and went our own ways in the end. There is not that much solace in that kind of “resolution”, but it is better than being pissed on by someone who angrily insists you’re whining about the rain. As I say, we are all masters at self-justification, with a strong bias toward seeing ourselves as right.

I can clearly see the pathology of my recently deceased former longtime friend Mark’s life. I mention it from time to time as the clearest example I know the Repetition Compulsion-– the endless reflexive replaying of an unresolved primal battle. In Mark’s case the form was the identical three act tragedy each time, though superficial details varied. Act one: idealizing an object of love, Act two: mounting disappointment as imperfections are revealed, Act three: an unforgivable betrayal by the one time object of perfect love.

Mark was unable to recognize this inevitable story arc of every relationship he ever had. He relived it over and over, with the same hurt and anger every time. It was painfully frustrating to me that he couldn’t see it, even as we played out a years-long Act two, as my imperfections as a friend became more apparent, more galling, my betrayals more and more inevitable.

“Is this slimy?” Mark’s ex asked me, drawing back slightly, as my heart pounded against her chest. This was several months after he’d rejected her, along with the rest of his small circle of neurotic New York City loser friends, and moved across the country in search of the superior people he dreamed of meeting. The first time she’d stayed over at my place she sent me into my own bed to deal with my youthful passion on my own timetable. The second time, for some reason, she showed up in a clingy, transparent shirt, with no bra.

When she asked if what we were about to do was wrong, what choice did I really have but to reassure her with an immediate, definitive, only slightly quivering “no-o-o-o…”? Few choices I have ever made in life have been so unequivocally right. Still, you know, this was an unmistakable step into act three of Mark’s eternal play.

In each case of a long, close friendship that is no more, I can tell you exactly, step by step, how we came to the impasse that ended it. Most people simply mutually lose touch with people from the distant past they have grown apart from, I kept quite a few in my life. With predictable results, it seems. If you have a circle of fond acquaintances, updated periodically, it is easier not to fall into the illusion that you are intimate friends with somebody just because you’ve known them for decades. True lifelong friends are rare for most of us.

In every case of a friendship that is no more, I can give you a sixty second overview of why I was right to write them off, why they behaved with an unconscionable lack of self-knowledge and empathy. Does this certainty about right and wrong, and what is tolerable and what intolerable, enrich my life in any way? Is it different than Mark’s hideously repeated three act tragedy?

Clearly, I am not the ultimate judge of that — as you wouldn’t be based strictly on my account. On the other hand, nobody else is the ultimate judge, either. We can only do what we believe is right, and almost always will.

If I was writing these kinds of pieces for a sizable book or magazine-buying audience, perhaps reading this to you in a bookstore (all of us wearing masks, and keeping our distance), this daily work of mine would be rational and completely understandable. I’d be a writer, after all, perhaps even some kind of thinker as well, and a reader here or there might be moved or even awakened by some of the ideas I present. On the other hand, a guy with a blahg, who refines a piece for a couple of hours and then hits “publish” … well, you know, literally anybody could do that.

On the other hand, to me, I’m not just anybody, you understand.

Buffeted by Moods?

I woke up today fighting off a strong feeling to just stay in bed, even though I knew that wouldn’t help me at all. I could think of little else that might help me today, as I started going about my day. My reaction to stressful feelings (which I neither endorse nor reccomend), things some experience as acute anxiety, is to think of something else, focus on something that makes me feel engaged and “productive” (like tapping out these words, to organize the thoughts behind them) and worry about the anxiety-producing tasks later (three or four medical appointments — one involves finding a new doctor– and spending a few hours on the phone to take care of paying some old tax penalties).

I began thinking about a recent conversation between Lewis Black and Marc Maron (on Maron’s WTF podcast) I heard the other day. They covered a profound point about the disorienting situation we find ourselves in, and the required American response to it. Profound, but obvious, once you think about it for a moment.

Lewis Black is famous for his angry rants. He got one of the last big laughs my mother had before she died in 2010, answering his own question about whether the voting booth is a place where you ever find the name of a candidate you truly believe will do a great job representing your beliefs. “No! you pull the curtain closed and it’s two bowls of shit! And you have to pick one!”

At one point Maron says that lately, in his isolated state, in these crazy times, when the latest infuriating news story unfolds, he just feels like crawling off and dying. Black chuckles sympathetically and says “you missed the anger exit! You drove right past the anger off-ramp.”

Black tells Maron that he had never much experienced anxiety or depression in his life, but that during his first ten weeks in solitary in his New York City apartment he became familiar with both, acutely, daily, hourly, for the first time in his life.

He realized why: anxiety is an appropriate response to the terror of an uncontrollable pandemic that kills tens of thousands, especially when you’re in the epicenter of the American outbreak and in the top risk group for death (Black is 72). He noted that depression is also a natural and understandable feeling, when you’re suddenly prevented — by a legitimate fear of death — from doing many of the things that made your life enjoyable, even bearable, before the pandemic. Then Black points out the great American disconnect.

Here in the good old USA, of course, we’re pretty much required to pretend everything is pretty much fine. How are you holding up, man? “I’m fine, all things considered.”

You’re not fine, really, even if you mostly are safe. You’re also more than usually isolated, anxious, disoriented, depressed, angry, many things are legitimately buffeting your moods these days. You’re right to feel all those feelings. Sure, you’re not intubated in a hospital like thousands of Americans, not dead in a portable morgue outside an overflowing hospital, not beaten up or shot to death by white nationalists violently overthrowing the results of the most recent US election, acting to defend a president who continues to show depraved indifference to the unchecked mass death of his citizens, but are you really “fine”?

I ask you to consider the question again — are you really fucking fine?

I try to give everybody I know a wide emotional berth these days. We are all in a very, very tough emotional situation, a do-or-die daily struggle. Nobody knows how to handle this, though we manage to put together coping strategies for a very difficult situation as best we can. I spend a couple of hours writing every day, take in the news, read an article, a court decision or two, cook a meal, play the guitar, learn something on the piano, walk 4.5 miles in 75 active minutes or so. Good for me, most days. Most people I know have much different routines. Those routines are good for them, most days.

This is not in anyone’s experience, how to emotionally adapt to a quick spreading incurable worldwide airborne killer disease that appears intent on infecting people for the foreseeable future. We’re now eight months into this semi-lockdown, with no end in sight. Places that have not tried to reasonably control the spread of this horrible disease have seen huge surges in infections — those places continue to infect every place else. The federal government washes its hands of the whole deadly situation as its leader defiantly hosts super-spreader events that infect dozens of his own inner circle.

Add to it that half of our country is militant in insisting that scientists and politicians urging safety precautions based on science, are a bunch of lying, tyrannical, traitorous liberal weenie douche bags whose lying, self-serving heads should — in a more just world than this one — be on pikes. Wearing a mask is a sign of contemptible cowardice to a sizable proportion of our fellow citizens. Anthony Fauci requires government security protection due to the many death threats against him and his family.

Add to it that we have a stridently divisive president, who lost the election decisively and trials in the Electoral College 306-232, and still insists he won the rigged election while his most ardent lackeys (and more than 73,000,000 of our fellow citizens) passionately defend his decision to not give up until it’s actually indisputably proven that he actually lost the election — which many of them believe he hasn’t actually lost.

These are not any way close to “normal” times, which, lest we forget, always provide most of us many reasons to be sad, stressed, anxious, angry, depressed. These trying days are about the furthest thing from “normal” time. Conjuring this coordinated constellation of shit would challenge the imagination of an inspired writer of dystopian future novels.

If you love Trump, you’re outraged because he got robbed by corrupt lying liberals and an army of his enemies in the lying liberal media. If you hate Trump, well, you have reason for outrage, too.

Entitlement to our feelings is always in dispute, often very hotly. Much human energy is spent contesting the strong feelings of others, “unreasonable” feelings we don’t feel, relate to or agree with.

People we love, when they have strong feelings, need to be heard — it’s the very first thing they need. When they are hurt, we need to soothe them. To pretend everything’s fine so you can feel like you’re not a “loser” (whatever the hell that is) well, it may be characteristically American, but that don’t make it… I don’t know… right.

Yes, it is always good to feel gratefulness, as we all should, if we have our health, are not in danger of eviction and homelessness, are not being forced into poverty (as millions of Americans are and have been in recent months), are not mourning for dead loved ones, like millions of our fellow Americans who lost the 246,000 American loved ones already recently dead of COVID-19. If we are not directly in danger, or grieving soul-tearing loss, we should be grateful, of course. Gratefulness is a great blessing we can give ourselves.

Remember, though, you have every right to feel what you are feeling in these scarily maddening days. Seriously, if you are not, at least sometimes, feeling anxious, depressed, angry, discouraged, oppressed, disoriented– what the hell is the matter with you?

Have a blessed day.

Dying for Principle

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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?

[1] 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

[2] 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.

Echoes of Disturbing Issues from Childhood

My father, pursued to his deathbed by what he referred to as his demons, suffered unimaginable abuse as an infant that he was never able to heal from. He told me as much as he was dying. “My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” he said, by way of opening our last conversation, on the last night of his life.

At that point I knew exactly what the man whose fluids were draining into a bag on the side of his hospital bed was talking about, but only because I’d spent literally decades puzzling out the painful secret he guarded to his death. His mother had been a violent, enraged, religious fanatic who literally whipped him in the face from the time he could stand. A light suddenly went on in a dark room when I learned this.

I can hear his voice now, saying what he couldn’t when he was alive and frantic to stay just ahead of the demons that drove him to act in ways he’d regret while dying. “You don’t recover from that kind of betrayal, Elie. How do you come back from a mother who treats you as a despicable enemy from your earliest memory, from before you could even talk to her?” I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, though it is worth pondering.

Whenever I raise my voice to Sekhnet, or otherwise show frustration (something I am sadly prone to), she immediately reacts with pain. She feels unfairly under attack like she did as a girl, and I understand this.

My nastiness immediately triggers painful childhood feelings from a childhood that was harsh in certain ways. All I can do is try to always be aware of this trigger and not react in a way that hits it, a great challenge in a matter of reflex. Making matters harder, my facial expression alone will pull the trigger, even if I manage to keep my mouth mostly shut. I can only apologize when I provoke this pain in her and try better to not do it the next time. My apologies, no matter how instant or sincere, only offer so much consolation, I have learned.

I don’t mean to sound like a sniveler, but disturbing issues from childhood remain for many of us, most of us, I suspect, to the end of our lives. We do our best to be aware of and overcome them for the sake of those we love, it’s the best we can do.

The subject of childhood pain is either tedious or fascinating, to be avoided or delved into, depending on your tolerance for a certain kind of discomfort and your need for a certain kind of clarity. It is tricky, emotionally fraught terrain dotted with patches of quicksand.

There is a term for constant self-punishing brooding on painful feelings from the past, rumination. There is even a psychological disorder for those addicted to this form of self-flagellation, Obsessive Rumination Disorder:

Rumination is focused on past events. It is a preoccupation with perceived mistakes, losses, slights, actions taken or not taken, opportunities forever lost. The feelings associated with obsessive rumination are guilt, regret, anger and envy.

(two second google search: what is obsessive rumination disorder?)

Here’s a short piece on the dangers of rumination and tips on how to overcome the worst of it, and lift ourselves out of it, by a guy with the incomparable name of Guy Winch.

The harm of repeatedly chewing over and reliving past hurt, churning pain you can do nothing about, is not hard to see. The difference between torturing oneself with guilt, regret, anger and envy and thinking about and learning from past pain, moving toward healthier reactions, not remaining stuck in negative cycles for reasons you can’t see or grasp, becoming a more self-aware and kind person, is not as easy to see sometimes.

Our past experience, of course, is the lens through which we view everything. More crucially, it is the filter through which we feel everything. I see this paragraph from today’s news and am struck (by the part I’ve put in bold) by an immediate painful feeling straight out of my own childhood, beyond my adult horror at the larger meaning of this news item:

Judge Amy Coney Barrett would be Trump’s third appointee to the Supreme Court and the sixth conservative justice on the bench. During her Senate hearing, she refused to state her position on abortion rights, gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act, voting rights, climate change, family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border and presidential powers in relation to the elections.

source

Not answering specific, troubling questions by authoritatively turning the conversation away from reasonable, concerns, was a specific technique my adversarial father deployed frequently. I found myself on the short end of this technique over and over during my childhood and well into my adult life.

This move is the complete negation of the rights of the other, a calm, unappealable pronouncement that the thing you are so concerned about is of no legitimate concern whatsoever. It dismisses your concern as the unreasonable product of your own shortcomings.

It seems clear that a Supreme Court nominee should be able to state, without hesitation, that armed people at the polls intimidating voters is against the law, is, in fact, a felony in many, if not most, states. There is no political point of view expressed in stating the black letter law in answer to a direct legal question — this behavior, though endorsed by the incumbent president, violates rights guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as federal statute. It is a crime to interfere with a fellow citizen’s right to vote, by intimidating them or in any other way (not authorized by a superseding state law.)

This carefully vetted zealot nominee, about to become a sixth unappealable vote in the 6-3 majority to suppress anti-Trump votes (with or without legal justification [1]), refused to state her position even on this simple, important matter of voter intimidation on behalf of a president who exhorts violent resistance to “Democrat tyrrany” and vows to protect his followers from legal consequences. Instead of a straightforward answer to an uncomplicated legal question, Coney Barrett reserves all judicial options by standing on the absurd claim that she’d need, in a fact-specific situation, to consult with her interns and fellow legal scholars before deciding how to answer. She adds, in the politest possible tone, that the people asking such questions are simply partisans intent on “borking” her perfectly legal and proper nomination.

There are many reasons to be disturbed by the powerlessness many of us, a large majority of Americans, feel at the brazen and unstoppable bit of cynicism of appointing another extremist justice to cement a 6-3 right wing majority just days before an election she’ll have a vote on deciding, on behalf of democracy-averse corporations and reactionary billionaires. Add to this disturbance, in my case, a painful personal reminder of an ongoing childhood torment.

Here is the important distinction between what I always try to do and being stuck in the self-harming cycle of reliving pain from the past that psychologists call rumination. I recognize that there is a painful, personal echo in this news item for me. I can put my finger on it. I understand its harmfulness precisely. It does not send me into a spiral of negative thoughts from the past.

There is plenty negative and abusive about McConnell and company’s ugly, unprincipled move (several prominent votes in the 51-49 majority to rush Coney Barrett on to the bench took a “principled” stand, in 2016, against the very thing they are rushing to do now), days before a highly contested election, without this particular feature that strikes me so hard.

This refusal to address important concerns is one particularly personal component of this outrage for me, one I feel in my body and I understand why it strikes me that way. It’s as they say: the personal is political. It reminds me again how crucial it is for me not to do this hateful thing to people I care about.

It’s all we have when the going gets tough — the understanding of what hurts us the most, the desire not to inflict it on others and the knowledge that our concerns will not be brushed aside by the people closest to us.

We are living through historically tough times now, with the active message delivered over and over by our own government that hundreds of thousands of unnecessary American deaths, and untold deprivation, fear, hunger and other suffering, is the appropriate price of liberty, for certain powerful, unaccountable forces in our nation.

You can only look at the calculated ugliness of this and countless related daily outrages for so long, before you begin to lose hope, feeling, desire to even fight it. That is part of the deliberate design of overwhelming government-sponsored brutality like this– to emotionally dominate its victims beyond their power to resist. Resist we must, of course.

It is understandable that few, if any of us, are at our best in this disorienting moment of multi-faced crisis. It is plain that there are different styles of coping with the present horrors as they continue to unfold with such mind-numbing monotony. We all find our own ways to remain sane and hopeful, to balance the need for information and the need for relief from the assault of deliberate misinformation.

Tolerance for our differences is more important than ever. Only by hearing and understanding each other’s concerns is there any chance of emerging from this awful moment with our full humanity intact. Patience for the foibles of others is much harder under these worst of circumstances, when we are on each others’ nerves, locked up in small, isolated groups during these fearful days, granted. For that reason patience is even more needed. The reward for patience and fortitude is proportionately greater in scary, disorienting times like these.

[1]

The emergency ruling Kavanaugh authored in April, overturning two lower courts to prevent the expansion of voting in Wisconsin during the pandemic (with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s short, sparkling, crystal clear dissent), was one of many recent un-argued eleventh emergency rulings by the Supreme Court. Unsurprisingly:

The Trump administration has been a major contributor to the trend, Professor Vladeck wrote, having filed 36 emergency applications in its first three and a half years. By contrast, the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama filed just eight such applications over 16 years.

source

The Need to Write

People have different things they need to do most days to make themselves feel whole and intact. For many, it’s going to work, assuming your duties, being productive, doing a good job and taking home a pay check. Some good people feel best when doing something concrete to help others in need. Some love to cook for others, for example. Sekhnet loves bringing forth life-sustaining organic food from the earth, she spends hours a day working contentedly among her plants.

There are also more interior pursuits that make us feel most alive. Some people do strenuous exercise, or meditate, or pray, or chant, or read poetry aloud to themselves every day. For some it is engaging a talent or passion as fully as possible. For a musician, a great session is a life-giving tonic, nothing feels better than sounding as good as they can. For mugs who sit at computers reading and writing for long stretches, writing something coherent about the world, ideally with an original thought or two, feels very productive.

Is this writing any more illusory a daily life-sustaining routine than praying or meditating? I have no idea, though writing every day does it for me. Much of what we do lacks objective value, beyond how it makes us feel.

Reading is generally regarded as a good thing to do, though, if we are judging, we can make a distinction between reading transcripts of demented political hacks that bark to our lower natures and reading beautifully rendered prose that resonates psychologically and fills us with wonder. There is a place for each of these things, I bring them up them as an example of the solitary things we do, for personal reasons, that are not always easy to put onto a scale of value. Masturbation is another of these things, it occurs to me, self-love or self-abuse, as you wish.

I’ve had the need to write every day since I was about fourteen. I’d come to a point in my life where the confusion and anger I felt needed to be combed through somehow. I had to choose a mighty struggle to make the unbearable somehow coherent in language or an unthinkable alternative. There didn’t seem to be a better option, much of the time, than sitting quietly by myself trying to get my vexations into plain words. I found I could often talk myself calmer on the page. I always felt a bit better once I’d thrashed out a difficult situation in a way that made the clashing, senseless parts of it make more sense to me — and to a reader. There is comfort, I find, in coherence. Also, obviously, in connecting coherently with others.

My favorite writers enter into a conversation with me when I read them. The first time I heard Isaac Babel‘s writing read out loud, the cadence of his words fell on my ears with an uncanny familiarity. Babel’s writing (in the English translation by Walter Morrison, I stipulate) speaks to me in an intimately familiar voice (in addition to its unsurpassed condensed beauty). Many years later I realized he wrote some of his stories in the perfect regional accent of my grandparents, his characters spoke exactly like them. A lansman!

But, actually, it is not really the writer’s voice I’m talking about, but the conversation the writer initiates with the reader. I’m thinking now about a writer like Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, or Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money, The Dark Side and other treatments of institutionalized evil. They write clearly and directly to our understanding, individuals with important, complex stories to tell us.

When you read something that speaks to you, that reaches toward your understanding in a way that feels thoughtful… well, I don’t want speak for you, but I find this kind of writing a comfort, a direct connection to another soul. The best spoken conversations we have with people in real life feel this way — our intellect and feelings are held in high esteem and our person is treated as the unquestioned equal of whoever we are talking with.

We are living in an unprecedented shit-storm at the moment. Even without this raging, once every few hundred year plague, we would all be very much up against it.

The world, the inhabitable, non-poisoned, natural planet we’re all part of, is in imminent danger of permanent destruction. The irreversible loss of this is not really up for debate, though the “debate” about it rages on, funded by millions of dollars from the world’s greediest, those who stand to gain the most by sowing confusion while urging the world to ignore the onrushing destruction of our habitat.

The reflexive mass hatred among people, many of whom are poor, out of work, hungry, angry, frightened, was on a scale not seen in decades — before the pandemic hit. Authoritarians, the plain-talking “strong men” who arise during such times, are exploiting this fear and anger to rule the majority of the world’s population at the moment. Not just here — India, Brazil, Russia, China, Philippines, many other populous places.

Then, BOOM!, just when the stress of all this couldn’t be more crushing, the vengeful Old Testament God, right out of a bad Hollywood movie, reaches out a strong hand and smites mankind, all over the world, with a brand new deadly virus.

It’s all enough to make you run even to a job you hate, if you can, just to have eight hours of some kind of normalcy in your life. There are better and worse things to do for stress during scary times like this, and things that help others are better than things that hurt, for sure. We all have to do what we can for those near and dear to us, and out in the larger world, to whatever extent we can reach beyond those we know to help strangers. We are all we have.

In the spirit of virtual camaraderie (had no idea it was spelled that way), here’s a short bit, called New Normal, featuring Bill Burr and Kate McKinnon as a couple stressed out by this weird isolation. The sketch really hits the nail on the head about how socially, psychologically disorienting this hideous situation is. I felt a tiny bit better after watching it, another proof of how impossibly difficult this moment can feel and how an artful evocation of it can help us feel less alone in it. Hopefully it will have the same effect on you:

No Good Deed…

No good deed goes unpunished, it is often said. Usually by people trying to be philosophical about that bitter feeling when your best attempt to make something better by doing a kindness comes around to bite you in the ass. I woke up with that cliche in mind today and find myself needing to organize some thoughts about it.

I saw a cool short discussion of why so many people want to be writers these days. The little animation makes a convincing case that the desire to write stems from existential loneliness (which is on the upswing in this era of “social media” — and heightened during the pandemic, of course) — an unfulfilled need for intimate back and forth conversation all too rare in real life. To accommodate ourselves to our relative isolation, many of us conduct internal conversations on the page that we wish we could have in life [1].

I recently attempted an extended soul-draining good deed over the course of several months and got a sharp, defensive, hurt retort by email the other day. The upshot is that I am mean, vengeful, incapable of generosity– and deluded. This is the verdict of an old friend with his own emotional limitations. Though I had no confusion about where the anger was coming from at this point in our long back and forth, it’s an argument, isn’t it?

Nonetheless, it irked me, after my patient efforts to get through were all ignored, to get this shotgun blast blaming me for being a rigid, vindictive, insensitive putz. I gave an adorably reluctant Sekhnet the two minute version last night, she was sympathetic as I read part of the email, after dismissing anything he might have written to me by telling me to consider the source and the context. She was right. Nobody else I know can reasonably be expected to listen to a few pertinent takeaways as I struggle toward them in conversation. So I’m going to give it an hour or two here, make a fuller account of why this resonates with me so much.

I’m also hopefully doing a good deed by providing a discussion that might be helpful to someone in turmoil about a relationship turned sour, and to anyone who’s had to give up on an old friendship after a long struggle not to.

First, there is the matter of the good deed itself. Most “good deeds” are done for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it makes us feel better to do something nice for a person in need. I once liberated two women, strangers, who were locked in their apartment, plaintively calling out of a window overlooking an alley. Overcoming my feeling, on that dark, deserted street, that someone might be waiting behind the door to knock me out with a baseball bat and take my wallet, I entered their lobby and went to unlock their door. The women were relieved and grateful to be saved from their predicament by a sympathetic stranger. I felt good too, and a little better about mankind in general.

One person’s good deed may be another person’s self-righteous, passive aggressive kick in the groin. Strictly a matter of perspective. Think of the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Picture outgunned, desperate Jewish partisans in the Warsaw Ghetto as the Nazis were “liquidating” the population. I suppose it’s possible to say there were very fine people on both sides, everyone believing they’re on the side of the angels, especially when fighting for their own notion of freedom. Not many would say that, perhaps, but you see what I’m driving at about our point of view being key to analyzing right and wrong.

For purposes of this exercise, let’s agree that a good deed is rarely 100% selfless and altruistic. It’s just part of the nature of good deeds. They make us feel better to do them, they help somebody else — or not. When they don’t help, they can hurt. Unwanted results in such cases are to be expected, sometimes lead to punishment, as they say.

I try to practice of my secular version of Ahimsa (non-harm) and I attempt to “first do no harm.” This doesn’t always result in a peaceful outcome, though I’m doing better now than years ago. It is much more important to me these days to avoid fights than to win them. I try my best to see things from the other person’s point of view, to listen, to be fair, to phrase things in a way I think will be heard, to eventually realize when I need to accept, with as little anger as possible, that there can be no agreement in this particular case. I try to avoid the bad feelings that can easily come from these clashes. I withdraw when I see a relationship is no longer a mutual exercise in overlooking human flaws in the other. Sometimes, in spite of my efforts, I get drawn into an existential showdown anyway.

I recognize that this strong reflex to fight back is from my childhood. I was raised by an implacably angry, very smart, adversarial father. In my conscious mind, I am now taking a nonviolent stand by being direct: laying out the causes of friction with as little anger as I can and appealing to conscience when I feel somebody is unfairly accusing me of being the aggressor. To a longtime observer, my need to take this stand probably feels like “here we go again, he really, really needs to be right…”

It’s true, it’s hard to know for certain sometimes that what we think we’re doing is what we are really doing. I had a troubled friend who dramatically and infallibly illustrated this principle. He lived the Repetition Compulsion over the decades I knew him– endlessly replaying the identical, primal three-act play in every situation. It always began with great excitement and inevitably ended in betrayal, anger, sometimes violence. No matter how often he fell into the same trap, he was never wrong. Also, he could not see the pattern, had no clue that he was performing the same idiot drama over and over. Maybe I’m the same way?

Memory is unreliable, we’re ruled as much by emotion as by Reason, we believe things that turn out to be shaky, outright mistaken. The world, if we scroll through the Doom that is today’s headlines, offers unlimited proofs of the power of irrationality and delusion. I am obsessed with this issue, as you can read here on any given day [2].

So, you may be forgiven for seeing my writing here as just so much venting, a twitchy, idiosyncratic virtue dance to make myself seem righteous. People I’ve known who thought themselves the most brilliant, the most insightful, were also, in fundamental ways, the most broken. We all virtually always believe we are doing the right thing for the right reasons. Otherwise, how could people gather to do things like burning down the home of a voting rights activist?

I’ve digressed from the story with these caveats about my own reliability. Of course, I believe I am right in this case– but, of course I do! So just two or three illustrations that I think will complete the point I’m trying to make.

A longtime friend, a lawyer by profession and personal style, called after my health insurance had been abruptly (and mistakenly, it finally emerged) cancelled last January. He was angry that I seemed to be so angry about it, had written him a couple of overwrought emails and then sent him one that he called “snide and inaccurate”. He told me he was concerned about my out of control anger, worried where it might lead me. Within a few minutes he cut me off and loudly challenged me to tell him to go fuck himself, if that’s what I felt like doing.

This guy was an old friend, one of a small handful I have left. I managed to calm him down. In the discussion that followed he admitted that my email had not been inaccurate, or even very snide. It was snide, he said, by the standard of my usual breezy communications with him, which is why the snideness struck him so hard that it also felt inaccurate, which he now allowed it was not. After the call, I felt good that I’d avoided a shouting match with an old friend who was obviously going through some stressful shit on his end.

I know, “Jesus, El, this guy sounds like… well, you described it yourself.” Sure, but we had been friends for about fifty years. He is a very smart guy, good sense of humor, we shared many beliefs about the world, a taste for blues guitar, a love for good, clear writing, we went back decades and had always been loyal friends to each other. You don’t throw all that away because the guy is having a bad day and calls to take it out on you. Or do you?

In hindsight, maybe you do. It certainly feels that way in light of the relentlessness that followed. But hindsight, you know what they say about that superpower.

The crankiness continued, on a slow boil, expressed through endless challenges to most things I said in the weeks that followed. This rigorous contestation was always part of my friend’s nature — he relates by parsing, analyzing, challenging assertions, testing the strength of claims. It served him well in his legal career, if not always in his personal life. I was very slow to grasp how much he was deploying these things to … I don’t even know, destroy our friendship?

He has a dark view of the human race, seeing people as basically flawed, unreliable, deluded, incapable of not being selfish. Perhaps it was inevitable that his closest friend had to be shown to be the same as everybody else. He said I was a better person than him, at least I was struggling against my crabbed human nature, but over the years more and more bitterness crept in.

I will spare you all the ugliness of the months that followed. I isolated for my friend the two most intolerable things in our frayed friendship. These were things I thought he’d be able to see and make adjustments for, as he told me I was his best friend and that he was determined to do everything in his power to make sure our friendship continued.

The first was the lack of response to concerns I raised. He would simply ignore them, no matter how many times I raised them. I told him this was particularly hurtful to me because it was my angry father’s favorite technique for getting under my skin. I presented him with my belief that virtually anyone, bringing a concern to a close friend, would be rightfully hurt if that concern was ignored. He had no comment about this, no matter how many times I raised it.

The other thing that was intolerable was the reflexive lawyerly reframing of every issue to shift the ground of the discussion. This was another dreadful adversarial technique I knew well from childhood. As a kid I’d try to explain why I was upset and my father would cooly counter that I was conveniently sidestepping the real issue: my vicious, uncontrollable temper. Suddenly I am struggling to defend myself, and stay calm enough not to prove my father’s provocative point, the hope to get my father to understand why I was upset long gone.

Reframing is a very easy technique to use. Even a man of limited smarts like Mike Pence can do it almost in his sleep, as he did over and over the other night while talking over his female opponent for Vice President. All you need for reframing is a perceived weakness in the person you’re talking to and a desire to dominate. They say A and you immediately pivot to X, and, HA! now they have to defend why they want to put 100,000,000 Americans out of work!

In the end, after thousands and thousands of words spoken and written, and reducing the friction between us to just these two crucial points, I had no response to anything I’d raised, except for my friend’s protestations that he still didn’t understand exactly what I was asking him for. In the end, after all my attempts had come to nothing, I sent him these thoughts, before repeating, with some anger, a few of my many unheeded attempts to make peace:

Intimate friendship is rare and can be hard to maintain, in my experience.  Real mutuality takes trust, mutual vulnerability and sometimes work, including a two-way readiness to overlook a friend’s faults and to accommodate ourselves to a friend’s weaknesses and problems.  We can all be assholes sometimes, the beauty of real friendship is that our asshole side is not held against us, not tallied on some kind of ledger for future use at the worst possible time — and that we repay our friend’s generosity in kind.   

When our attempt to explain why we’re hurt is met with resistance, reluctant acceptance, impatience, then anger, and that anger is redoubled (as when a friend angrily cuts us off, hangs up the phone and texts us back to tell us he’s done with us violating him), then, for weeks, the friend stands on his right to be angry and unapologetic, and later, after multiple explanations, claims to still not understand the exact nature of his hurtful acts … I’m not sure how a friendship moves on from there.  I haven’t figured it out in my life, anyway.

It may be that like all living things, friendships have life spans.   As much as I understand from your last email that you want to somehow salvage our friendship, the idea that you’re unable to imagine, after so many years, how I feel, how I think, even what I actually mean when I try my best to be clear (let’s stipulate that I express myself with reasonable clarity), is impossible to get past.  

It turns out knowing how to take care of a friend’s hurt feelings is the most essential part of being a good friend.   Of having good friends, of deserving the few close friendships we’ve managed to sustain.  Knowing how to take care of a friend’s hurt feelings is another way of describing intimate, mutual love, which requires a reflex to mercy above all else.

I’m not entirely sure how we’ve come to this sorry pass — this brutal contest of vanities — and, outside of this little intro, I really don’t have anything to add to what I’ve written below.  Along with the sadness is a sense of disappointment at our mutual limitations, that I, in spite of exhaustive efforts, haven’t been able to figure out a way to solve this sickening moral puzzle.   It feels like a failure of my ahimsa shtick, the “first do no harm” business of being a loyal friend, and a mensch.

I balance that disappointment with the knowledge that we can only work to change ourselves, not others.   If you can’t overcome a reflex to act abusively when you feel righteously angry, even with someone you deeply care about, nobody but yourself can help you with that.   The breaking point for me is when somebody, claiming to love me, stands on their right to act abusively — fuck that.

Anyway, no need for a reply like to the other emails.  Each reply did more harm than good, in spite of the good intentions expressed in each one, each one made the hole deeper.  Your good intentions were complicated by the confusion you expressed, and the lack of confidence that you knew how to interpret the past, understand the present or move productively forward.   Your confusion and lack of confidence in our friendship are things it’s unproductive for me to grapple with at this point — particularly since you acknowledge that I’ve always been a good friend to you.

I understand you may want to have some kind of last word, but it’s not necessary.   As I’ve sat weeks (now months) with this email ready to go I’ve wondered from time to time if there’s any real point to sending it.   I’ve decided I don’t want to leave you hanging after our many years of good friendship and your last good faith attempt to salvage it.  It doesn’t seem right to finish without some kind of closure that might help you understand the impossibility of my situation, of our friendship, even if only a complete explanation of why I have nothing to add to what I wrote weeks, and now months, ago.    

I understand the impulse to have a last word of some kind might be strong.   You may feel a reply would be your last chance for a summary, an understanding, an expression of any final regret, etc., but I urge you to consider, again, out of friendship, whether your reply will do anything to make me feel better about the end of our long friendship, or go any way toward mending what is torn.  If not, just don’t do it, OK?   In any case, if you need to reply, there’s absolutely no rush.   At least hold on to what you may have written for long enough to repeatedly reread and refine it, if you need to make some kind of reply.  On my end, there’s no need.

It’s very sad, either way you slice it — eternal silence by way of final reply or a categorical final reply like the one below.  Little rehearsals for our own deaths, I suppose, these leave takings from old friends after so many decades.  On the other hand, I don’t know anyone else who has a friend from Junior High School still in their life.  Also, sadly, we all have to die, something I find myself thinking about more and more these days as the death count continues to rise in the greatest nation Jesus ever blessed.

I’m sad about the loss of our long friendship, but as I’ve seen in other situations like it over the years, it is best to be philosophical.   The most important thing when a friend is not treating you with the mercy you’ve tried to extend (and have a right to expect in return), and when nothing you say or do makes any difference in that friend’s perceptions, is to leave.   

Sad, truly, but sadder still is fragile, self-conscious, sentimental friendship, waiting for the next chance to repeat the same enraged, clueless dance and shatter into painful pieces again.  There is relief at the end, to be finally out of harm’s way.    

With that, my regrets and my immediate reply to your email of May 27

(in part that email offered many specific things I’d raised in previous emails that he’d never responded to– this is key to appreciating the last line of his first paragraph below).

Here he is, the final 10% of his long reply:

I understand well that I’ve hurt you, Eliot. I’ve told you I’m sorry. You apparently find my conduct unforgivable. I’ve asked myself (and others) many times what you might be looking to me for that I’ve failed to offer, that would demonstrate to you that I’m someone you still want to be friends with. I find no answers in your emails or elsewhere, and reluctantly  conclude you really don’t want that.

You’ve said many unkind words to me, Eliot, and I’ve been deeply hurt. When we were discussing your issues with Noam about a year ago, you said something along the lines of, when you have a disagreement with a friend, you try hard to get to a meeting of hearts and minds, but once you conclude that’s not happening, you give it to them with both barrels. I feel that’s where you’re at with me. I feel you no longer value the relationship, but value articulating your grievances and causing me pain in retribution, for whatever purpose that may serve for you. If at this point you just want to be sure you’ve “given as good as you’ve gotten, and then some,” I think you have. 

If I’m mistaken and you actually do still want to be friends with me, the door is open. If not, nothing more needs to be said.  In any case, my best to you and M.

The issue with Noam, as presented by my friend, was slickly reframed, probably by the instinct to remember something in the light kindest to oneself. It is reducible to this:

If I have a disagreement with a good friend, try my best and can’t get my friend to agree with me, I give it to them with both barrels, like the brutal, self-righteous asshole I am.

The issue with Noam was not a disagreement, except in the broadest sense of the word. Noam had picked a fight with me, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, over what turned out to be a catalogue of unexpressed resentments, as he finally admitted. It was not a “disagreement” that could be worked out with Reason, it was open hostility that could not be pacified, that had become mutual.

For anyone who has made it this far, a bit of “sorbet”. Here is the footnote (written by this same articulate fellow) that I closed my last snide, if not inaccurate, email with, his own words about the end of my friendship with Repetition Compulsion Man from many moons ago:

[FN]

Not ever having really known him –I was around him at times but have no recollection of actually exchanging any words with him directly –I could only vaguely comprehend the basis for your position. His email opens a window. Very manipulative and emotionally Byzantine, the art of placing blame while trying to appear not to have done so, but rather to have made a bold and mature gesture. Very frustrating, if not infuriating, watching someone bob and weave so strenuously to evade emotional connection and basic responsibility, seeking to anticipate and counter objections and arguments rather than open a line of communication.  I can only assume it’s infinitely more exhausting for him than it is for the recipient, and that’s saying something.

[1]

[2]

Just the other day, the Supreme Court ruled that lack of evidence of actual voter fraud is no obstacle to the South Carolina state legislature imposing its will in a democracy by passing laws to prevent a practice they believe could result in such fraud. We have a raving emotional basket case as our fearless leader. Tens of millions love him and regard him as their savior from a cabal of immensely powerful cannibal pedophiles. And so forth.

a gratuitous self-quoting headilne:

It’s very sad, either way you slice it — eternal silence by way of final reply or a categorical final reply like the one below.  Little rehearsals for our own deaths, I suppose, these leave takings from old friends after so many decades