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

white stubble

I realize it is a reflection of my luck, to have lived long enough to see this, but it gives me a small shudder every time. In the bathroom mirror downstairs, with diffused light coming in from the left, the short white hairs sprouting on my unshaved cheek and neck are unmistakable. They are identical to the ones on the lower half of my father’s face, and his neck, a few days after he died, when they popped open the plain pine box to make sure we were burying the right guy. It’s apparently true, hair continues to grow after death, he was clean shaven when he breathed his last.

I often hasten upstairs to shave. I’m not sure why. That white stubble is no different, really, than the tuft of now white hair that reaches up through the open collar of my shirt, tendrils that can only be constrained by the collar of a t-shirt. My father had the exact same tuft of white hair on his chest. I remember it from when he tried on the blue and white flowered Hawaiian shirt I brought him from my trip to those islands. Reaching up like a clump of dry grass, animated by some crazed will to climb.

Thinking of my father’s face in his coffin, I often recall the guy who instructed the gravedigger to lift the lid. He was a cheerful, ghoulish creep in a sharp black suit, a former lawyer. “I like this much more,” he told my mother and me with a big smile, as he counted the eight thousand in cash we had to bring to the cemetery before they’d release my father’s dead body for burial.

The Book of Lost Souls

As my grandmother, who loved me fiercely, was on the bed in my childhood bedroom dying a painful death from colon cancer, I went down into the basement where I slept and wrote a song one night. I was in my early twenties at the time and was certain I knew a great deal more about life than I actually did. I sang quietly there in the basement, playing some nice guitar chords against a plaintive melody I can almost remember. The lyric that I recall, the chorus, was “when you have love, you never die.” The line repeated several times, and then again as the song faded out. It wasn’t true, of course, she died a few days later and remains steadfastly so. The fact is, no matter how much love we have, we always die.

My grandmother was one of seven children born to her parents in a Ukrainian town near Kremenetz, not all that far from Khmelnitsky, a city named for a Ukrainian nationalist famous in Jewish history as an enthusiastic slayer of Jews, a major pogromnik. A talented, ambitious girl and an adventurous young woman, my future grandmother embraced the vision of universalism, equality and the brotherhood of workers she learned from the idealistic young commissars of the Red Army who took over her neighborhood of the Ukraine after a bloody civil war. She brought that vision with her, along with her dreams of some kind of personal greatness, to the United States, where she arrived, after a fairly harrowing ocean crossing, at twenty-one or so, in 1921. She was the only one of her family to leave. My grandfather, also one of seven siblings, followed two years later, also the only member of his family to get out.

As I write about my grandmother, as you read these words, a small sense of her eternal soul flickers and shimmers a bit. Her soul, while I am considering it, is not truly lost. I knew and loved her well.

Then I think of her six siblings, and their spouses and children, and my grandfather’s six siblings and their families. Of all these only her adored youngest brother, Yussele, Joe, has a name that anyone alive (me) knows. I wonder how many were still around when another group of true believers took control of that inhospitable corner of the Ukraine. One airless Ukrainian night in August, 1943 the last of them officially became Lost Souls.

What I know from a small monument in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried (erected by the Vishnivetz Benevolent Society), and from transcripts of translated witness history (the only mention of the atrocity that I have found on the internet) is that the survivors of the hastily constructed ghetto in that small town, after being starved and tortured for a year or so, were marched after dark to a ravine on the north western edge of town.

They were marched to the sound of drums, the clanging of pans and the yowling of brass instruments, to drown out the cries. The ravine had been prepared in advance, the earth softened up. Layer after layer of doomed Jews were buried there, fragments of their bones skitter in the wind to this day, according to a travel piece about the town I read in the New York Times a few years ago.

What to do about these lost souls? Have they nothing to say? No right to their tiny place in the mad story of in the world? Who am I to write about these lost souls? The only one left alive who knows any of them ever lived.

When I was a boy, and learned about this mass murder of every one of my great aunts and great uncles and all of their children, the immensity of the horror was too much for my parents to discuss. My grandparents never uttered a peep about their loss, I never heard so much as a clue from either of them that anything bad had ever happened. Everyone pretended, it appears, that everyone getting a bullet in the neck and being hastily tucked into a mass grave was normal; that bad, even unthinkable, things happen, that you clutch tightly to the people you love, even as you sometimes battle them to the death.

At one point, for two years or so, I sat every day, as I am sitting now, thinking and tapping at a computer keyboard, trying to tell a story that is, at best, a puzzle with most of its pieces missing. I wrote more than a thousand pages diving into the life of my father, holding it against him, at first, as I had for decades, that he got angry when I persisted in trying to learn more about the murder of our family. True, he called me a drama queen (or whatever the equivalent of that phrase was when I was eight years old) and accused me of trying to claim some kind of victimhood I wasn’t entitled to since the people who died were mere abstractions I’d never even met. I understand now that he had no way to process this atrocity, no way to discuss it with his young child. In the context of his own life, articulate, righteous anger was the best he could summon.

When I was thirteen, by the tradition of my religion, I read part of a holy book to the community and “became a man,” I have few recollections of that day, except that a girl from Hebrew School who I liked, who had not been invited to the bar mitzvah party, showed up anyway in that catering hall on Hillside Avenue. She spirited me away from the party, down a flight of stairs, sat on my lap on an upholstered chair under the room where the festivities were going on and kissed me on the lips a few times.

I mention this to illustrate how elusive the past is. I was there, I am said to have an excellent memory, and I remember one detail. I have a few mental images of myself in the chapel, reading from the Torah (my part was read from the same xeroxed and marked up page I’d learned it from). Mostly, no memory at all of that memorable day.

As we also learn, given enough time, a life seems to go by in the wink of an eye. Thirteen years is not very long to be alive. Thirteen years passes quickly, I’ve discovered as 13 turns to 26 then to 39 and so forth.

A few months less than thirteen years before I was born there was a terrible racket in the Ukrainian night, and then, after the ruckus was over, the silence of death. Every Jewish soul that was alive that night when the banging started — that soul was lost forever. Have we nothing to learn from this?

The Pursuit of Happiness

In these dark, threatening times we should, more than ever, be reaching out to others, sharing hope and joy; pursuing happiness. Instead, the chilling shadow of constantly predicted doom, sprayed over us by high pressure firehose, can easily darken our waking hours.

We are living through a vast war on so many fronts it’s hard to remember, through the lens of this endless multimedia blitzkrieg, how beautiful the ocean is, the sky, trees, the natural curiosity and playfulness of kids and other young animals, the faces of people we love. Happiness, it often seems now, will have to wait on a few major world factors changing for the better.

Meaning that to pursue happiness, we need to become part of the change we want to see in the world. It is on each of us now to figure out how to do our part carrying a mercilessly heavy burden to get us all to a better day. And figuring out how to remain as happy and decently human as possible while we do it.

As I was reading NY Times headlines on my phone late last night (while Sekhnet battled a little insomnia) I saw a reference to “doom scrolling”– an excellent description of exactly what I was doing, reading the newspaper at this perilous moment in human history.

It’s very scary not only here in the United States, life everywhere on the planet is imperiled, at war, trying to make sense of massive global chaos, violence and destruction — in the face of vigorous, constant, brazen propaganda, much of it insisting there’s no problem at all — except for irrationally enraged cranks intent on deception and violence. The whole problem, everyone seems to agree, is inchoately angry, vicious assholes on the other side of every damned issue!

I then, to my chagrin (since I was by then aware I was “doom scrolling”), clicked on an Op Ed that was one of the worst evocations of possible doom here in America that I’ve ever seen. Entitled Whose America is It? it makes the point that in these radically polarized times both sides see the opposing party as not only 100% wrong and despicably deluded, not only as enemies but as less than human.

We have learned over and over that dehumanization is the precondition for mass violence, you have to see an enemy as a disgusting piece of garbage before you can kick him in the face and then shoot him. It’s much harder to brutalize and kill a fellow human being, it seems.

I’ve been urged by my few good friends to disconnect from this soul-crushing cycle of violence that is the news, get out into nature, immerse myself in the preciousness of our world, refresh my spirit. I understand their point– unless I can figure out how to join with others to take effective action I am just marinating in a horror movie and spouting random opinions to nobody in particular. I vow to take a day off, enjoy the beautiful weather we’re having in NYC lately, be thankful that the air here is not toxic like on the west coast, that the pandemic is not ripping through here at the moment, that constant ambulance sirens are not shrieking by all night as they were a few months back.

I decide to start the day doing something I love. I will go downstairs to play the guitar, finish learning a musically ingenious song I’ve been working on, a beauty Louis Armstrong made popular a few years back. But, first, I’ll quickly catch up on the headlines, just for a second. In that second I see, no surprise, that this evil blowhard is pursuing his own perverse notion of happiness, making sure the world is ruled by his master’s irrefutable will, presumably a reflection of the divine will of this guy’s fervently beloved deity. Stops me in my tracks, it does.

No details really needed, here’s a picture of this dogged pursuer of happiness, from today’s news.

Presumably animated by his deep faith in the compassion and wisdom of the Christ he venerates, he gives a speech urging federal prosecution of protesters arguably exercising their First Amendment rights. He wants federal prosecutions of angry protesters under a draconian federal sedition law that allows imprisonment for twenty years for “sedition” which is, in common parlance, a synonym of “treason” [1].

Rings a bell. Weren’t the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts, designed to muzzle political opponents, the downfall of the John Adams administration? [2]

Damn this mind of mine, and its endless interest in the idiocies of our most powerful humans that are recorded as history!

As soon as I finish editing this (won’t take long) I’m going to force myself to make that unpleasant call to try to resolve a large, surprise tax bill, make an appointment to have my clogged ears cleaned, and go finish mastering “Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)” on the piano as well as guitar. Playing it in time on the piano (mainly that Bbm7-9 Eb7-9 Eb7 Ab7 sequence) is a musical challenge so far that feels very much like the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness, happiness, and justice shall you pursue.

[1]

While seditious conspiracy is generally defined as conduct or language inciting rebellion against the authority of a state, treason is the more-serious offense of actively levying war against the United States or giving aid to its enemies.
Sedition – FindLaw

Sedition is defined as words or speech that incite people to rebel against the government or governing authority. Words that inspire a revolution that overthrows the government are an example of sedition.
Sedition dictionary definition | sedition defined – YourDictionary

[2]

The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1798 amid widespread fear that war with France was imminent. The four laws –which remain controversial to this day– restricted the activities of foreign residents in the country and limited freedom of speech and of the press. Mar 5, 2020
Alien and Sedition Acts – Definition, Significance & Purpose …

Follow the link above and we see that these partisan, free speech limiting laws were brought to you by our original Federalist party (talk about yer small world!) — under the headline:

Dueling Political Parties 

The Federalist Party, which supported a strong central government, had largely dominated politics in the new nation before 1796, when John Adams won election as the second U.S. president.

In opposition to the Federalists stood the Democratic-Republican Party, commonly known as Republicans or Jeffersonians for their ideological leader, Thomas Jefferson. Republicans wanted to reserve more power to state governments and accused the Federalists of leaning more towards a monarchical style of government.

A Few More Thoughts About Time

When I got the call from my sister, during a festive meal at the home of old friends, that my father had been admitted to the hospital after being brought to the emergency room, time changed.   

“When I saw the doctor’s face I knew this was it,” my sister told me, “he looked like the malach ha mavet (Angel of Death).”  The specialists my father had been seeing regularly — cardiologist, endocrinologist, hematologist — collectively had no clue that their patient was in the last stage of liver cancer, days from death.    The ER doctor, assessing my father’s jaundiced color, difficulty moving and tapping his stomach, distended with ascites (liver-related fluid build up in the abdomen) [1] knew at once that this man was in the last days of liver cancer.

Two doctors were at the dinner table when I got the news.  When I mentioned the ascites they both told me not to worry, that ascites can be from many things [2], that I should wait and talk to the doctors at the hospital.  I consider their reassuring lies to have been a kindness, under the circumstances, and always think of their unspoken, united determination to shield me from extra worry with great fondness.

“If you have any family who want to see him before he goes, you should call them right away,” the ER doctor told my sister.

A couple of days later I arrived in Florida.   My father was attached to a bag hanging off the side of the hospital bed.  The bag was filling with the most unhealthy looking liquid I’ve ever seen.   It was the color of cancer.  It dripped away, along with what was left of his life, for the three or four days I was in Florida before my father breathed his last breath.

My father was eager to see his little brother, a man he had always bullied and dismissed.   Once, late in his life, when my father was returning from a short visit to his brother I asked him how my uncle was doing.   My father paused for a few seconds to reflect then uttered this great line:  “let’s just say, he remains unchanged.”   At the end my father was anxious for his brother to be there and his brother rushed to Florida.

I went to pick my uncle up at Ft. Lauderdale airport.   When we got to the hospital he immediately stopped the doctor, who’d met us in the hall to update us about the patient’s condition, to ask if there was any chance of a liver transplant for his dying 80 year-old brother.   I had to take my uncle by the arm to let the uncomfortable doctor get away.  The way the two brothers clung to each other at the end was poignant to see.

My uncle was a bossy man and he instructed us all, at around nine pm, that it was time to let the dying man rest.   For some reason we all left the hospital.  I even attempted to get to sleep, hours before my natural bedtime, which is around four a.m.    Suddenly I sat up, thinking “what the fuck?,” got in the car and headed back to the hospital.   

My father, who’d told me earlier in the day that he wanted to talk to me, that he was still assembling his thoughts, was wide awake when I arrived around one a.m.   He appeared to be expecting me.  I’d always had an adversarial relationship with my father, one I’d tried many times to improve, but my father was so deeply, fundamentally wounded that meaningful peace with him was pretty much out of the question.   

I’m a fairly creative person, with an active imagination, and, once I left my parents’ house, I’d tried everything I could imagine over the years to make peace with my old man.  In the end, when he angrily told me that if he ever told me what he really felt about me it would do “irreparable harm” to our relationship, I saw that his desperation was too great for him to overcome.   He would “win” by destroying what was left of our ability to discuss things beyond the weather, baseball, history and politics.   I stopped banging my head against the locked door at that point.

I am writing about time.   Two years passed from that final slamming of the vault on any hope for real dialogue with my father.  Nobody knows from one minute to the next how long the rest of their life will be.  I can measure it now:  two years elapsed from the time I became certain that no true peace with my father was possible.   

During those years I was in psychotherapy, and I finally reached a point where I was able to understand that my father was incapable of doing any better; that he was actually, sad as it was, doing the best he could.  Knowing this allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.   

Luckily, I had this revelation a few months before I got that call from my sister than our father was not long for this world.  I was ready, in a sense, in a way I couldn’t have been holding on to the pain and anger my father’s righteous prosecutorial rage inspired in me.

Now, on April 29, 2005,  it is after one a.m. on what would turn out to be the last night of my father’s life.   The first question he asked is if I’d brought the digital recorder I’d bought for him earlier in the day.   I’d left it with the nurse, got it, turned it on, propped it on his chest.   

The next thing he said was that his life was basically over by the time he was two.   He didn’t mention why, it was something I already knew (though not from him) — his angry, religious mother had whipped him in the face from the time he could stand.   Add to that “grinding poverty” and turning five as The Depression began, being the poorest of the poor in a small town as everyone in your family back in Europe is being rounded up and killed, you begin to get the picture.   Betrayal by a mother, shame and humiliation are not easily overcome.   I can’t imagine the struggle my father had, to appear strong, infallible, while making only glancing references to the “demons” we all must deal with.

Because I was no longer that angry, because my father was dying, I knew my purpose in that room was to make his death as easy as it could be.   I was not there to challenge him, I was there to comfort him.  I understood without needing to think about it that these moments were not about me, they were about him.

When he apologized for putting obstacles in front of my sister and me, making our lives harder instead of helping us in times of need as a loving father should, I told him he’d done the best he could.   

When he told me he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years, I nodded, thankful to hear him finally acknowledge it.   He lamented that he’d been too fucked up and defensive for us to have this kind of conversation fifteen years ago.   

At the time the number seemed off to me — thirty years of war, fifteen of peace?   Later I realized that fifteen days, or even fifteen hours, of this kind of honesty would have been an amazing blessing.

We spoke quietly for several hours, the door to my father’s hospital room open, everyone else on the floor asleep.   The nurse, an angel in human form, sat outside the room.    The look of love she gave me when I left I will never forget.

Early next evening, as the sun was beginning to set, my father told my sister, my uncle and my mother that since I’d arrived it was a good time for them to take a break, go to the cafeteria and get something to eat. 

As soon as they were gone my father said to me “I don’t know how to do this.”   I assured him that nobody did, that it would be fine.   The nurse helped take down the bar on one side of the bed so I could sit closer to my father.  I don’t remember if I had my hand on him, or arm around him, or anything like that, but I sat close by.   

His breathing got shallower and shallower, death from liver cancer is supposed to be one of the gentler ways to go.   After the liver goes, the kidneys shut down and you go to sleep, only forever.   

A friend later told me the Talmud poetically compares the moment of death to removing a hair from a glass of milk.  It is an excellent description in the case of death from liver cancer.

Within twenty minutes or so my father took his last breath.   I reached over and closed his dead eyes with the fingers of one hand, like I’d done it a thousand times.

[1] A 0.66 second search reveals: 

Ascites is when over 25 milliliters of fluid fills the space between the abdominal lining and the organs. It’s usually caused by cirrhosis.

[2]  It turns out they were misleading me, not lying:

But the most dangerous problem associated with ascites is infection, which can be life-threatening. Ascites may go away with a low salt diet, and with diuretics (water pills) ordered by your provider.

Best Case Scenario

Only four years accelerating the doomsday clock,
melting all the arctic ice,
giving the greediest ever more,
a few strong new laws needed to prevent a repeat

no violent second Civil War to save the Leader

fought by the same passionate men who waged —

— and never lost —

the first bloody uprising against

the tyranny of angry,
lawless
slaves.

1924 (part 4)

Back to that baby, my father, born on June 1, 1924.   It was a hard birth after a no doubt stressful pregnancy, the tiny mother struggled to give birth to a very large baby.   The mother had lost her previous child shortly after birth and must have been undergoing tremendous emotional turmoil.  The family was very poor, the horse that pulled the herring wagon may have already died, for all we know, and, if so, the breadwinner was winning no bread.  Crime was rampant on the crowded Lower East Side where they lived, violent criminals were organizing into a national syndicate to profit from Prohibition which was already proving to have been a massive mistake.

The second time was the charm for my grandparents, the big baby survived.   It was three of them now in the tiny, hot slum apartment during the airless summer of 1924.   What could go wrong?

My grandmother’s older brother Uncle Aren intervened, packed up the family’s belongings in his truck and they made the then long trek up to Peekskill, where Aren lived.  When this happened exactly is unknown.  My uncle, who was fifteen months younger than my father, may have also been a tiny passenger on that trip up the Hudson River, past Sing Sing prison.  Aren’s son Eli, freshly expelled from DeWitt Clinton high school shortly before graduation, helped the little family pack up and move.

Aren installed the little family on the second floor of a three story house he owned in Peekskill.  Little comes down to us about those first years in Peekskill, except that when Eli moved there around that time he had an altercation with the three Ku Klux Klan member sons of the guy who ran the local hardware store. 

“So you’re the new kyke from New York City,” Eli said they greeted him, blocking his way on the sidewalk in front of their store.  “I dropped the biggest one, stepped over him and said ‘Eli Gleiberman, nice to meet you guys’.  They didn’t bother me after that.” 

“Eli’s full of shit!  He’s a completely unreliable narrator and a notorious reviser of history” my father always insisted, particularly after I began visiting Eli regularly.   Maybe so, but many of his stories had the ring of truth.   Eli was menacing and physically formidable even at 85.

What we can establish, with simple arithmetic, is that my father started school just as the Depression was kicking off.   In September 1929 the boy was five.  His school career didn’t start off well since he didn’t speak any English and he was legally blind.  Outside of that, he probably had a pretty normal adjustment to school.  Here is a picture of him, one of very few from his childhood, that was taken during his early school years.   That’s dad in the middle.

young-irv-paul-herman

“Who’s that kid on the left?” I asked my uncle, sometime after my father’s funeral.

“That’s Henry,” he said immediately.   Henry moved away from Peekskill shortly after the picture was taken, my uncle said, and does not figure further in my father’s story.

We note that young Irv is still not wearing glasses.  He’s smiling, looking at the camera, seemingly everything is fine.   He’s affectionately draping his arms over his friend and his little brother.   All appears right in the world at that moment, during that literal snapshot of time.   It’s probably fine.

Three Pieces of Terrible Psychiatric Advice and their fallout

I’m reminded, by a recent chat with a woman I’ve known since I was eight, of how destructive following bad advice from experts can sometimes be.  The cliché that the craziest people often go into psychology is borne out by the experiences of my close childhood friend whose family and mine grew close as well.   I think of the damage done to them by following three pieces of catastrophic psychological advice they were given by professionals over the years.

I had a call yesterday, out of the blue, from Caroline, the soon to be 93 year-old mother of a longtime friend I haven’t been in contact with in a few years.  She told me she’s going stir-crazy during lockdown, was tired of reading (she can’t bear to watch TV these days) saw my name in her phone book, decided to call and see how I was doing.  I was glad to hear from her.

My mother and Caroline were good friends for many years, until my father eventually took a deep dislike to her, which began to come to a head when Caroline, who busily visited everybody, particularly the sick and elderly, apparently never once stopped by to see my mother when she was recuperating from cancer surgery.  “She lived five fucking blocks away,” my father pointed out.  He later added other charges, to finalize the break with longtime friends Caroline and her husband.

I’ve always liked talking to Caroline.  She’s bright and sharp and a good listener, as well as a character with an interesting take on things and the occasional cool turn of phrase (Trump, if he loses, will remain a media force and “make borsht” out of Biden).  Like all of us, she has her faults, but they never bother me when we’re chatting, as we did for a long stretch yesterday.   At one point, after she told me of her son’s soon to be finalized divorce,  I summed up the monumentally bad advice her family had followed, in desperate moments, and she immediately agreed.

ONE

Mid-1960s:  Her daughter was always a very dramatic and often unhappy girl.  At some point dad began taking her into the city regularly for father-daughter nights on the town.  They’d go to dinner and a Broadway show.  Though she seemed to enjoy the nights out, they didn’t make the miserable girl any happier.  Her unhappiness led to a threat of suicide, maybe even an attempt.  Her alarmed parents brought her to a psychiatrist.  The shrink told them to take her threats of suicide very seriously– basically to give her whatever she asked for, because if they didn’t, they could lose her.

Second opinion, anyone?  No need.  Instead they gave the teenager a credit card.   She instantly developed a lifelong taste for the finer things in life.  The bills came, the parents paid.  What could they do?  When she needed a car, she got one.  Rent?  They paid.  The young woman did not become much happier, but she was able to live well without working, at least.   In the end, she acquired  disabling drug and alcohol addictions.  Caroline agrees, in hindsight, that it was stupid, fifty years ago, to take the advice of that psychiatrist.  At ninety-two she is still subsidizing her daughter’s lifestyle.

TWO

My childhood best friend had a series of Christian girlfriends during his college and post-college years.  The relationships would fray when he informed each one he could never marry a Christian.  At thirty, feeling desperate, he went to a shrink who told him he needed to stabilize his life by finding and marrying a Jewish girl. 

He took this advice to heart, finding a Jewish girl to date (the younger sister of a guy we knew from Hebrew School), becoming engaged to her, in spite of several brightly flashing caution signs, (including vicious fights) and marrying her soon after, in a wedding notable for its openly simmering tensions.  I didn’t understand the urgency of any of this, and told him so as he reported the latest fight while rushing toward his wedding day, but the shrink had told him it was imperative to his sanity to do it, so it was full speed ahead. 

“I knew it was a terrible mistake,” said Caroline, “everybody did.”

The decision to marry was followed by thirty years of uninterrupted warfare between the spouses.   A common early war theme involved my friend’s commitment to what he hoped would be a professional songwriting career.   For some reason these activities (working with a singer, a guy, mind you) had to be carried out in secret.  The secrecy led to occasional white lies, some of which were discovered.  There was distrust, accusations of the husband being a fucking liar, screaming matches in the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom.  An active war zone it horrified my friend to know he was raising his two sons in.  He couldn’t imagine the damage he was doing to them by subjecting them to these regular explosions of violence between their parents.

“Sheesh,” said Caroline “yeah, that was some bad advice.  Well, at least that long nightmare is over.  The divorce will be finalized next week.”

THREE

This piece of bad advice led directly to me, the guy’s oldest friend, and it was also something of a doozy.   I was on good terms with both my friend and his wife, felt like I performed a kind of peacemaking function when I hung out with them.  They always seemed relatively fine when I was there.   I always liked her, though I could also see she was troubled and subject to rages.  I was only once on the business end of her anger, but it passed quickly.  Later, I found out, she weaponized something I’d casually told her to beat her husband bloody with at a marriage counseling session toward the end of their marriage of a thousand atrocities.

Her husband had told me a quick story he regretted telling midway through.  The little tale was truncated, it involved his wife and a third party I didn’t care much about it, he told me to forget it, I pretty much did.  A few weeks later, his wife called to tell me the same story, which she laid out in great detail.   For the first time the odd little anecdote seemed to make sense.  

“Ah,” I said, unwittingly slipping my head into the noose.

” ‘Ah’ what?” she asked.

Here I made my fatal mistake, being unguardedly candid.

” Ah, I get it.   Now it makes sense, when he told me about it I didn’t really understand why you stormed out at the end.”

“Oh,” she said, “what did he tell you?”   

Looking back, I suppose I could have tried to sidestep the question, which would have been the discreet, if tricky, thing to do.   Instead I spoke what I thought was a bland, harmless truth.  I recounted what I recalled of the first version of the story and stressed that he’d told me the whole anecdote in about a minute and that I hadn’t asked him any follow-up questions, so he’d had no chance to clarify what I hadn’t understood about the little story.

She probably made some comment about what a fucking liar he was.  If she did, I would have pointed out that it clearly wasn’t a case of lying, it was a quick story I didn’t much care about so I hadn’t bothered getting clarification of what was incomplete about it.

A few weeks later I had a text from my friend.  He had to see me, immediately.  I called to find out what was wrong, his voicemail picked up.   He immediately texted me that he couldn’t talk on the phone, he had to see me in person.   The texting went on for a few days until we arranged a time to meet in my neighborhood.   When he arrived in his car he texted me, I texted back what corner I was standing on.  He wrote back “got it” and, a minute later, drove right past me and turned right on to Broadway.  I hobbled after his car and caught him at a red light a block away.

He was cheerful, but I noticed his eyelid was ticking.  After a few minutes of small-talk I asked him what he needed to talk to me about.  He came to the point:  he was confronting me because I had deliberately tried to destroy his marriage.

“What?” said Caroline, as though I hadn’t also told her the story in detail at the time.

His wife told their marriage counselor that her fucking husband’s oldest friend confirmed that the guy was a fucking liar.   She weaponized my remark about her husband’s “false” account of a story involving her.   The marriage counselor and the wife told my hapless friend that he was not a man who could be respected, nor any kind of husband, if he let his oldest friend sabotage their marriage this way without confronting him.   So he arrived to confront me.   

“Oh, my God,” said Caroline.

I told her the funny thing was, in spite of the tensions between us by then, I really wasn’t that upset about the accusation.   Seeing him in such turmoil, I tried my best to help him out of this impossible jam with his impossible wife in his impossible marriage.   I gave him a reasonable account to bring back to his marriage counseling session, for whatever that might have been worth. 

“Well, he’s a different person now,” Caroline said “he’s happier than he’s been in a long time.”

I told her to tell him mazel tov on his divorce and to tell him I was gratified that my attempt to destroy his marriage had finally born fruit. 

At the end of a very pleasant ninety minute chat she asked me if she should tell her son we’d talked.   I told her she certainly should.  I told her again to tell him mazel tov on his divorce and to tell him I was gratified that my attempt to destroy his marriage had finally born fruit.     

I made a note of the date of her upcoming 93rd birthday and hope to check in with her then.