The world at war

We sometimes find ourselves in the middle of wars we don’t understand.  We can be under siege long before we even find out about the attempt to starve us into surrender.  Sometimes surrender is not enough, only by offering our lives will the blood debt be settled, if the enemy is implacable enough.  This has been going on for thousands of years, among Wise Apes, homo sapiens. 

At one time, within tribes, there were wise elders you could go to when you found yourself under attack by someone intent on destroying your good name and erasing you from society.  These elders would listen carefully, ask questions, pose other questions and broker peace, except when peace was impossible, in which case they’d render a judgment.   If you lyingly assassinated a fellow tribe member’s reputation you would be censured by the tribe, or sometimes sent packing.

Today we have a different system.  Nowadays we must rely on self-help.  Sometimes, we are told, we just have to suck it up if we find ourselves on the wrong end of somebody’s undying need to prevail, no matter what.   We either pretend everything is fine, or so much the worse for us if we still have the childish need to remain in pain, just because we were treated roughly, unfairly and told to suck it up and stop being a fucking baby.

Mel Brooks’s timeless truth about empathy comes to mind, when I think about others on the outskirts of the war, quietly taking the side of the righteous aggressor by taking no side:   Tragedy is when I break my fingernail.  Comedy is when you fall into a manhole and die. 

I can’t stop communicating

Some people, when they are hurt and in turmoil, keep themselves occupied every minute of the day, programming even their breaks so as not to allow time to reflect.   Reflecting means only more hurt and turmoil to this kind of person, so it makes sense to squeeze in an hour of strenuous exercise in between work and a social evening, and then whatever is next on the program.

In contrast, there are people like me.  If something is torturing me, I cannot stop my thoughts until I’ve worked out some way to make the pain stop.  The process involves communicating, with myself and others, to understand as much as I can about my predicament.   This is done by thinking, writing, reviewing and running it by people I respect.  It involves getting advice, feedback and insight from others, unless there is a privacy issue involving another person’s shame or anger that prevents me from sharing it with someone who knows them.  In that case I seek out someone who doesn’t know the party, and run it by them.  It is a very helpful, healing process, I find.  You hear things you never thought of, you see things from other perspectives, you learn new things, you get other things confirmed.  Importantly, you listen to things you may not want to hear sometimes.   Those things are sometimes the most helpful.   All of these things are the result of communication.

The thing Ive never been able to do is keep myself so busy, so programmed, that I don’t have time to focus on what is eating me from the inside.   I had a friend I’ve known since we were eight.  The guy loved me and told me frequently that I was his very best friend, that there was nobody else like me in his life.  I had fond feelings for him, having known him since we were boys.  His impulse to bend the truth when in a tight spot never bothered me, because I knew he couldn’t help it and his little untruths never unduly affected me.    Like his mother, who I know well (and God bless her sharpness at 95), he always runs what my father used to describe, referring to the mother’s frantic life, as a “full flight pattern”.  He meant that since so many planes were constantly taking off and landing in her mental airport it was impossible to concentrate on any one flight for more than a moment.

A full flight pattern prevents being present, you can’t be present, it’s too dangerous, all the planes will start to crash, thousands will be killed, it will instantly become an international scandal and all the fault of the distracted flight controller.

I called this guy a few months back, after a long period of estrangement.  Told him a few revelations I’d had since we last spoke three years earlier.  He told me I’d never left his life, that, odd though it might sound, he sees me in dreams quite regularly.  It’s truly like I never left.  He was happy to hear from me and promised to tell me his revelations next time we spoke.  It took a while.  About five or six weeks later, when he had an opening in his schedule, I asked him to tell me about his new revelations.

“I have no idea what those revelations could have been,” he said, the 6:02 coming in perilously close to the 5:57, with the 6:05 already on a dangerous trajectory.

A lie is more powerful than the truth, if needed

When someone is desperate, they will cling to a lie with the religious fervor of a martyred saint.   The lie, you see, is their rock and their foundation.  Without it, they are humiliated.  The lie protects their good name, their true intentions, their very value as human beings.  The lie becomes essential to their integrity and they will defend it as though their life depends on it.

Take the example of a woman married to a criminal.  She has been shocked and angered over and over by his criminal acts and the lies he told her to conceal them from her.  It is humiliating to her that he has never acknowledged being wrong — every “crime” he ever did was for her sake —  or asked for her forgiveness, even when his crimes, and the lies surrounding them, destroyed her dreams at the moment they were about to come true.  

Think about this scenario for a second.  If she ever said aloud what I just wrote above, how could she live with herself?  She couldn’t.  So… the lie!  It’s not her husband, it’s her fucking brother the self-righteous, unforgiving prick who is judging and torturing her entire family, always a threat to blow the lid off decades of carefully guarded shame.   He can’t keep anything secret, his mouth is an open faucet, he doesn’t care who he hurts with his pernicious moral uprightness.   He self-righteously hides behind “truth” when all he wants is to hurt people and feel virtuous being a sadistic piece of shit.

How do the sister and brother retain a relationship in this hostile situation?  They talk about books, movies, a little celebrity gossip, dogs, some commiserating about the political cesspool we are all bobbing in, their health.  Everything else, everything personal and important, is off the table.  The lie that her brother is a liar remains undisturbed. 

The brother tolerates this the best he can, which often is not very well.  His name is assassinated, since he is a threat to the children if he starts fucking blabbing and telling his precious “truth” to the kids.  The kids must be kept away from a destructive agenda-driven fuck like that. 

On the other hand, the brother must remain eternally patient, hopeful and generous.  If he ever shows frustration, or, god forbid, anger, he has shown his hand, proved the case against him and that’s the ballgame, ladies and gentlemen.

And so it goes.  You could say that a lie, if desperately needed, is more powerful than the truth.

Making amends

Making amends is trying to fix something that’s broken. If a guest’s bone gets broken, as a result of you accidentally placing a stumbling block in a place that resulted in a fall and broken bone, making amends might be contritely driving the person to the hospital to have the broken bone treated. It might be helping the person while they are hindered by the broken bone. It should include assuring the person that you will do your very best to make sure never to put a dangerous obstacle where they can trip over it and get hurt.

It doesn’t seem to me that making amends with somebody you have hurt is all that hard. Unless you consider that you must take responsibility for the pain you caused, which makes you vulnerable, which puts you at risk of being rejected by the person you are trying to make amends with. Making yourself vulnerable is the price of trying to make amends. It is also the price of meaningful friendship.

I understand it may seem a fearful price to some, but it is hard for me to understand how to retain a facade of friendship with a person who is incapable of acknowledging the pain they cause. Fake friendship with people I can no longer trust is not for me.

It is particularly hard to do during this time of year when we Jews are instructed to make amends, to speak the truth, to move beyond lies that people tell to make themselves feel righteous, instead of ashamed, when they are wrong and continue to act badly.

I understand that some people are weak, damaged and desperate to be right at any cost. If the cost is my friendship, so be it, I suppose. As long as they refrain from assassinating my good name among mutual friends. The inability to behave with emotional maturity confers no right to kill.

כל עכבה לטובה

Every pause is for the best.

This was written on a pocket-sized card in a small meticulous hand by the paternal grandfather of an old friend of mine. He’d write down these aphorisms to remind himself of things that he wanted to remember.

One thing was this phrase. If you are upset and thinking about doing something decisive, a bit more delay is rarely a bad idea. If you are thinking of doing something that will hurt somebody, and you hesitate, that little mercy is a good in itself.

I suppose it’s a good thing to remind yourself of once in awhile, if you don’t know what to do, if you’re in turmoil, if you feel hurt, in a tight spot, it’s not a bad idea to hesitate rather than take an action or say words that you might not be able to take back.

What you can tolerate will depend

We have different thresholds for what kind of treatment we can tolerate from others. One person’s tough, challenging, funny wise-ass is another person’s humorless abuser sometimes. It all depends on our personality, our experience, our other relationships and what we feel comfortable with.

To some people periodic displays of intense anger are fine, providing the person quickly calms down and becomes reasonable. It’s not hard to understand or identify with anger, we are all subject to it from time to time. We are able to tolerate different levels, displays and durations of anger, depending on the circumstances and our tolerances.

Pirkey Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, is found in the back of many Jewish prayer books like the ones that are usually at the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs I’ve been forced to sit through over the years. So as the congregation is rising and being seated, (please rise, please be seated, please rise), and praying in unison, I am scanning Ethics of the Fathers, the whole short book is in there, after all of the prayer services. I used to read Pirkey Avot looking for little bits of eternal wisdom from ancient times. There’s one about anger I’ve been greatly influenced by. It describes the four kinds of temperaments with a beautiful, clean logic.

There are four kinds of temperaments when it comes to anger and peace.

One type of person is quick to anger but quick to be pacified. His loss is offset by his gain.

Another type is slow to anger but slow to be pacified. His virtue is offset by his deficit.

Another type is slow to anger and quick to forgive. This is a virtuous person.

The fourth temperament is quick to anger and slow to forgive. This type is evil.

I always thought the Father’s (whoever the hell they were) laid that out profoundly and indisputably. My cousin Eli was quick to anger, and I made him angry many times. But because he loved me he was also very quick to be placated and we would soon move on from the thing he was so angry about a minute before. It was a beautiful thing about our relationship.

My mother had the same kind of relationship with him before I did. She would fight with Eli hour after hour, day after day and when they said goodbye they hugged and kissed and had big smiles on their faces and couldn’t wait to do it all again soon. That’s a beautiful thing.

If Eli didn’t like you he had no qualms about making a face, turning away and closing a door on you, or, if needed, making a great display of his purple faced anger, which was terrifying to see. As a young man he had no hesitation to punch somebody in the face if it came to it.

But in spite of his fierceness, and his face would be as threatening as the face of a leaping jaguar, his teeth ready to bite, foam on his lips, his face purple and his white hair trembling on top of his head, neither my mother nor later I ever backed down from his terrifying displays of dominance.

We would say “come on Eli, you have to be honest, if your daughter said that to you you would be pretty pissed off too.” And Eli would rage a bit more, give a few last groans and cries and flashes of teeth, but then he would say “fine, but I have to tell you what happened after that” and he’d continue intil the next fight.

After a few fights it was time to go get dinner, take a long time-out, to talk about other things, eat and have coffee in peace and drive back to his place. Only once we were settled comfortably back in our chairs would we resume the fights, which would sometimes go on until late in the night. Every time I left Eli we hugged and kissed and agreed to talk soon and make plans for the next time.

Eli didn’t have that kind of relationship with any of his estranged children or grandchildren. Or really anybody besides my mother, that I knew of. I certainly didn’t have that relationship with my father or mother, I mean we fought all the time but there was none of that hugging and kissing and laughing at the end of it. I guess I was lucky to know somebody like Eli, who could be infuriating, and furious, but was at the same time very easy to get along with.

Strange are the blessings and curses of this life.

A happy, healthy, sweet 5783

The first day of 5783, the new Jewish year, dawns after a night of plentiful rain.   The garden is looking very lush after its long, refreshing drink.  Tomorrow we join a group of old friends for lunch and a walk to the river to symbolically throw away our sins, our bad thoughts, our hurtful deeds, the times we gave in to our baser impulses.  Thoughts percolate in my head as every year at this time, maybe more so today than most years.

Today is the first of the Ten Days of Repentance, a traditional time of introspection for Jews, a period when we are supposed to make amends, let go of hurt and anger and repay debts.  In my experience, few people have much use for introspection.  It’s not hard to understand why.  It makes people feel like shit to spend too much time thinking about their real motivations, confronting the demons that make them act with (justifiable) brutality toward others.  We would rather feel right, just and loving than wrong, unfair and punitive.  If you think I’m wrong, unfair and punitive I’ll show you who’s fucking wrong, unfair and punitive!

Some people pray at this time of year.  I’m with Ricky Gervais on this: pray, by all means, it’s fine, but do not cancel the chemotherapy.  Prayer is between you and God, if you have that kind of relationship, have a deep, prayerful talk with your Maker.  Not for me, though.  Prayer does nothing for me.  If I talk to God at all it’s as an equal, made in the All-Merciful’s image, as we all are.

The arrogance of humans can be seen in a hundred variations, in every direction.  If you are ashamed, crush whoever makes you feel ashamed.  If you have hurt somebody, it’s their fucking fault for being an asshole.  If you are caught in a criminal act, blame others, wail about being persecuted by ruthlessly unfair enemies.  

Religion can ordain certain actions, but it cannot cause a greater truth to enter the heart unless people allow it to.  We surrender our own will to a higher will and feel righteous doing so, some of us.  Others try to live a life of fairness, expecting no more of others than we ourselves are capable of.  Then we will have a war, where both sides fervently believe God has our backs during the righteous slaughter.  Pathetic earthlings.

Best to you all for a happy, healthy, sweet 5783.  May it be much better, in every way, than 5782.

Damaged souls

Both of my parents were damaged souls, as are my sister and I.  It is a struggle to do certain things, because of the damage.  To resist anger when we feel unfairly judged is hard for everybody, harder for me and it was harder still for my parents, whose struggle with intense frustration only ended when they died.   

My parents were severely damaged because when they were young, instead of a soft hand on them when they were hurt, they got harsh blows from a mother who was very damaged and physically aggressive when angry.   In the case of both of my grandmothers, I have no idea what damaged them.   They were beating their children long before their entire families were murdered by other damaged people, following the lead of a charismatic uber-damaged person who told them to destroy everyone like my family. 

Trauma is, sadly, a common part of our experience as humans, it is also part of our shared experience and history.  Lucky are those few who grow up without experiencing any trauma.   A girl can have a wonderful childhood, grow up to be a fairly happy young woman, and one day, minding her own business, fall victim to a vicious predator, which will traumatize her, no matter that her life has been so kind to her so far.  Her trust in strangers will be snatched from her forever, she will never walk alone down a street again without fear.   

Knowing that people who act like destructive assholes are acting out of their damage is little help, of course.  Being damaged confers no right to damage anyone else, but it is also sometimes irresistible, to someone in great pain, to inflict pain on somebody else.  I’m not just talking about whipping a baby in the face, breaking a sturdy wooden stick over a child’s ass or throwing them on the ground and kicking them over and over.  You can inflict exquisite pain merely by refusing to extend mercy when it is asked for.  The beauty of this form of sadism is its subtlety

“You assume my silence means I am refusing to extend mercy, because everything is about YOU.  I am very busy, I am thinking about a lot of other things, I have responsibilities and things I have to do every day, I have people who depend on me.  Unlike you, I do not enjoy the leisure to sit and brood, and write, and draw, and play the piano, and cook, and imagine, while doing so, that I live in a better, higher world where creativity for its own sake is of great value.  I live in the real world, and in that world you suck up your childish personal feelings, you forget about things you say ‘hurt’ you and you just move on like an adult, instead of being a pathetic, dependent, needy little worm. I am strong, you are weak, why would I surrender to you?”

Of course, you will seldom get this kind of detailed response unless you press someone for it.  Once you get the indignant summary of their total innocence, and your utter unworthiness, you will know the story in better detail.  The damage done to them made them ignore you when you needed understanding and sympathy.  That’s easy enough to follow, but what do you do then?

I wake up thinking about this quite often.   Friendships seldom last a lifetime, and when they begin to fray this is the kind of thing I wake up thinking about.  Why is it so hard for a friend to just acknowledge that it was wrong to do something that hurt me, wrong to tell people an untrue story about our respective roles in the death of our friendship?   

I consider the cycle: we are all sometimes hurt, develop defenses, get hurt again, build walls, try different strategies, get hurt again, fortify our fortifications.   I think the only way out of the cycle, if we care about the other person in the conflict, is extending the benefit of the doubt, having an honest exchange, reaching mutual understanding.  I also realize the vulnerability required in this process is impossibly threatening for some people.  Too painful for those who insist they are what they are, take it or leave it, nothing fundamental can change about them, plenty of people love and admire them and that it’s your problem if you need more than they are capable of giving you.  On one level this is absolutely true.  

My father, a man who stuck to that formulation of life, had deathbed regrets about living that way.  “I think now of how much richer my life would have been,” he said in that raspy dying man’s voice, “if I hadn’t seen the world as black and white, if I’d been able to see all the nuance, gradations and colors that are actually life…” Then he died.

Personally, I think making the effort not to die that way is important.   Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.  It is much easier to act like you’re not damaged than to live with the damage done to you and trying to heal it.   That there, to me, is one of the great tragedies of the human world. 


Decades ago, in an ancient, narrow brick building on City College’s south campus, Wagner Hall, I think, an annex to the grand Mott Hall, if I recall correctly, (both most likely demolished and replaced by now) I took some philosophy courses.  In one of these classes the professor told us that to get into the philosopher’s club in ancient Athens a person was required to stand on a certain corner and, for one hour, not think of a polar bear (I never stopped to think how ancient Athenians would have known about polar bears).   The point was that this was a test to see if your mind was mature and disciplined enough to contemplate more important things and not be distracted by trivia, such as a random distraction it was useless to think about.  It was this kind of thing that drew me to philosophy, though, I have to say, of all the things I have read, philosophy was always the most poorly written.  Of course, philosophical treatises are full of uniquely complicated ideas badly translated, I never read Plato in the Greek or Kant in German.  It would have all been Greek to me anyway, as they say.

I’m thinking about this today because I’ve had some recent conversations during which, so long as I don’t ask the wrong question, often a very obvious one, everything is jolly and carefree.  I offer the example of a talk I had after the recent death of my old friend Les.   I’ll be writing and posting a little homage to Les soon.   Meantime, I learned of his death from some texts and emails the other night, sent and forwarded by an estranged friend, the widow of my dear friend Howie Katz, who died in 2010, shortly before my mother did.   It was Les, in fact, who called to give me the awful news about Howie.  In contrast to my mother’s long decline and struggle against death, Howie went out in a moment, painlessly, in his prime, like a candle flame winking out in a soft breeze.  While waiting at a red light at the bottom of a ramp a moment after exiting a freeway in East Bay.

I spoke to his wife fairly often in the weeks, months and years after Howie died.  It was my way of honoring my friendship with a beautiful soul, doing my best to help look after the person he loved the most, his wife Jackie.  She was in great pain and we would speak for hours at a time.  I live almost 3,000 miles from her (2,575), so these long phone calls were the closest I could come to visits.  Her pain focused on her isolation, how all of their good friends seemed to be avoiding her, as well as her ongoing, worsening troubles at work.  I listened with sympathy, condemning the friends she was angry at, agreeing that her longtime rival at work, Craig, was an evil bastard and that the rest of the hierarchy there who took his side, and kept promoting him, were spineless weasels.  Our talks kept to this format, after a quick back and forth about what was new in our lives I’d settle into listening to her detailed grievances and giving her support.

I was unable to be at Howie’s funeral, but I made sure to be at his unveiling (the ceremony in which the deceased’s gravestone is “unveiled”) a year later.  I helped Jackie shop for and prepare the food that would be served afterwards.  Exhausted after a short night’s sleep the night I arrived, I got up early, went on a shopping trip and helped out the best I could.  Preparing cucumbers and tomatoes for an Israeli salad (also known as a Lebanese salad, Palestinian salad, Turkish salad, etc. — just add minced garlic amd lemon juice) I sat in a chair in her kitchen.   She told me real chefs don’t sit, they stand, and then critiqued the size of the cubes I was cutting, way too big!  Howie found pleasure in serving and helping others, doing whatever they needed to feel comfortable.  I don’t have Howie’s grace, and probably muttered as I stood up, after protesting that I was not a real chef, and cut each of my cubes into four.  Aside from that, she was gracious about my help, I suppose.

Where Howie was gregarious, Jackie is mostly private.  Where Howie was outgoing, irreverent and sometimes hilarious, Jackie is not prone to reaching out to or entertaining others.  I’ve seen the kind of isolation in widowhood Jackie went through with other couples, including my parents.  After the death of the more socially adept partner, friends of the couple begin drifting away.   I did not want Howie’s wife to feel this distance from me.  I’d been their guest many times, loved Howie, had always had a good relationship with Jackie, who is very smart and used to have (at any rate, I remember it) a good sense of humor and a hearty laugh.

Over the years, it got harder and harder.  One thing that grated on Sekhnet (who also loved Howie and accepted Jackie for the sake of Howie) was Jackie’s ingratitude, or to put it more charitably, her difficulty expressing gratitude.   The hardest I ever worked was the week I spent before her daughter’s wedding, playing the guitar seven to ten hours a day to come up with arrangements, and making sure I was able to execute all the parts flawlessly every time, to be a one man band behind my friend who was playing the melodies on harmonica or sax.  The music came off great on the day of the wedding.  The bride, who’d asked us to play, which honored us greatly, hugged us and thanked us afterwards.   Jackie never said anything.  I understood finally that she is probably on the Asperger’s spectrum.  Eventually, after several more attempts to keep our relationship alive over the next few years, I succumbed to the numbness of unrequited friendship.

When all the texts and emails came in from her about Les being in his final hours the other night (she’d also waited til Rom was in a coma to inform me, by text, that he was in the hospital) I began responding to Jackie’s “this is not good” text when I hit dial instead and a moment later was speaking to her.   

We commiserated about our friend until, about five minutes in, Jackie began telling me of her recent struggles and sorrows, she’d had a stroke — which I hadn’t ever inquired about, or even seemed to know about — and then she told the detailed story of her father’s death, at 99, how badly he’d wanted to make it to 100 and how much harder it was for everybody that his death happened during Covid.  The pain to her sister, who’d been forced to attend the funeral over Zoom, was something she and her sister were having a very hard time with.   We spoke for about a half hour, or rather, she spoke and I responded sympathetically.  It was as if we’d talked the week before.

The polar bear popped into my head and I asked the obvious question:  We’re having a perfectly amiable chat, why is it that we haven’t talked in more than five years?

“You stopped talking to me,” she said.

I recounted the half dozen attempts I’d made to show her friendship in recent years.   Exerting myself to meet her whenever she was in NY, in spite of only finding out about each of her trips once she was days from leaving NY.   Making plans, two weeks in advance, to stay with her for a couple of days during my last visit to San Francisco, plans she cancelled as I was literally blocks from her house with my overnight bag.

“I don’t remember any of that, because of the stroke,” she said.

“So what gives you the idea that I stopped talking to you?” I asked.

“Because you stopped talking to me.  Marilyn told me that you stopped talking to me,” she said.

If I hadn’t asked the obvious question, I’d never have known, or even suspected, that it was me, once more, completely in the wrong.