1924 (part 3)

My grandfather, Eliyahu/Harry, was, I’m told, a tall, strong man.   On the Lower East Side, in the early 1920s, around the time my father was born, he had a job delivering barrels of herring to the shops.   He drove a horse drawn cart through the cobblestone streets, the horse would stop, Eliyahu would wrestle a barrel of herring off the flatbed and hump it inside the store.  He’d collect the money for his boss, get back on the cart and he and the horse would go to the next stop.  He did this for some time and all went fine.  Until, one day, the horse died and they hooked up a new horse to the wagon.

Eliyahu had no idea of the route, had never paid the slightest attention, the experienced old horse had known all the stops.  Eliyahu rolled aimlessly through the streets of Lower Manhattan behind the new horse, not recognizing any landmarks, unable to read the street signs or the addresses on the invoices his boss had given him.  At the end of the day he returned to the warehouse, cart still loaded with barrels of herring.   That was his last day of work. 

I learned this tale about fifty years after my grandfather died, from my father’s first cousin Eli, who told me most of what I know about my father’s childhood.   Eli was seventeen years older than my father, and so was a young adult during my father’s early years in Peekskill.  To the end of his days my father loved and feared Eli, a rough but loving customer (if he loved you), and Eli loved and was proud of my father.  In the end, he exerted himself to try to help me understand my father.  Eli turned out to be an indispensable source of family knowledge I’d otherwise have only guesses about.  

In the last years of his long life I visited Eli regularly, in his subsidized retirement cottage in Mount Kisco.  We spent hours talking about the long ago past, many times long into the night.  He was a great storyteller and a wonderful host (if he liked you — if he didn’t, all bets were off).   He was somewhat estranged from his three adult children, kids he’d famously ruled with an iron hand.  His tyrannical child-rearing was something he told me he didn’t regret, by the way, considering the fine people they grew up to be.  In fact, he gave a speech to that effect at a family gathering, where he allowed that his treatment may have amounted to abuse, if you will, but still, he felt vindicated by how well everything turned out.   He handed me the speech he delivered to look over.   

“Not one of them accepted my fucking apology,” Eli told me indignantly.  I read him back his words, pointed out that it was hardly an apology, the way he’d phrased it, the complete lack of remorse, and we proceeded to fight it out, the way he and my mother always fought.  He was fierce when angry, his leaped up, his face immediately magenta, veins popping, the white hairs on his head quivered, foam formed on his lips.  He had the menacing aspect of a panther when he was angry.  After the fight, like at the end of every one of the many fights between Eli and my mother, there were no hard feelings, we hugged goodbye and I headed down the dark, twisting Sawmill River Parkway to my apartment.

I wanted to learn more about my grandparents who’d died before I was born, people my father said virtually nothing about.   I wanted to know about my grandmother, Eli’s beloved Tante Chava, who Eli loved above everyone else and, even more so, my grandfather, a mysterious, silent character whose wry smile I’d seen in the two photographs of him that exist.   In one he is in a dark interior space, probably the synagogue, with his wife and younger son, my Uncle Paul,  at that time about sixteen.   Eliyahu is in a dark suit, wearing a fedora with a wide, downturned brim, smiling a wry and utterly incomprehensible smile.

While Eli had many stories about beautiful, hot-tempered Chava, my grandmother, he struggled to describe my grandfather to me.  He used a Yiddish word, fayik, I’ve never met anybody who could translate (or had even heard of), in explaining how hard it was to describe him.  Google Translate translates fayik as “fayik”.  I have only found one reference to the word on the internet, this frustratingly short fragment:  “The root, fayikmeans. creative, skilled or …” summarizing a link that leads nowhere. 

“People say he wasn’t fayik, but it wasn’t so, he was just very quiet, very withdrawn … he had a sense of humor, he was very funny, I may have been the only person who realized how funny he was, because it was so subtle and always done with a completely deadpan face…  no expression at all… He always called me ‘big shot’ ” he struggled to describe the man’s face.  Then he came up with a kind of beautiful haiku. 

“His face was just two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” and he imitated the face, staring straight ahead, like a mask, making a zipping  motion over the straight line of his mouth, to indicate how rarely Eliyahu spoke.

I quickly got the sense that he’d kept his mouth shut to avoid getting socked in the head.  I’d always wondered how my grandfather’s English name was Harry and his brother, one of my father’s uncles on his father’s side, was also named Harry.  The two sons named Harry was like a Polish joke until Eli gave me the obvious explanation.   My grandfather’s mother died and his father remarried.  The woman he married had sons named Peter and Harry.   This evil step-mother did not tolerate the second Harry, hitting him hard in the head with whatever came to hand, including sturdy pieces of wood.   

“So, I guess he just checked out after a while, his whole life seemed to be devoted to not getting cracked in the skull, and Chava could be tough too,” Eli told me.

While many apparently considered my grandfather mentally deficient, Eli saw his dry, deadpan sense of humor, his wit — his hidden fayik nature.   He finally dug up an example.  Eli’s father, my great-uncle Aren, ran a garage in Peekskill.   He hired Eliyahu to work in the garage, he fixed cars and provided parking for others, but because Eliyahu couldn’t drive he was limited to releasing the brake and manually moving the cars around.   Eli took him out one day to teach him to drive, it had become clear it was senseless to keep him at the garage if he couldn’t drive.   

“Peekskill is hilly country,” he said, “and we’re going up a hill and the car starts losing power, and your grandfather is just looking ahead with that face and I say ‘Uncle Harry, give it gas!  Give it gas!” and a second before we start sliding backwards he turns to me and says ‘gas costs money’ and we start going backwards down the steep hill, we’re about to get killed.  I managed to get my foot in there and downshifted and pulled the car over and told him to get the hell out and that was the end of his driving lessons.”

It appears Uncle Aren (who ran my father’s little family) made the right call sending his little sister to explain to the school authorities why her son spoke no English when he started school.

1924 (part 2)

On the first day of June, 1924, Israel Irving Widaen was born in a crowded slum on the lower east side of Manhattan Island.  He was named after his mother’s father, Azrael.  According to Jewish tradition, which frowns on naming a child for someone still alive, this means that my great-grandfather Azrael was already gone by June 1924.  The baby’s last name, at birth, was Widem, shortened a few years earlier, likely by a harried attendant on Ellis Island, from Widemlansky.  It was rendered on his birth certificate as “Widaen”, a spelling my grandmother, who didn’t read English, apparently signed off on.  My father’s father also didn’t read English, and so the mistake stood when my father, who until the age of eighteen was known as Irv Widem, was drafted into the US Army as Israel Irving Widaen.

Here is a key, basic, highly determinative, never considered detail of my father’s early life that didn’t dawn on me until years after my father’s death: he was born legally blind.  For most of his life, up to a few years before he died, when laser eye surgery became common and effective, he had 20/400 vision, vision he said qualified him as legally blind without his glasses.   20/400 means that what the average person can see clearly at twenty feet looked four hundred feet away to the newborn Israel/Azrael.

His mother’s face, for example, after the tremendous exertions this tiny woman endured to give birth to a huge baby (by a husband in an arranged marriage, a man she hated), would have appeared hazy to the uncomprehending infant.   That she may have come to treat the baby as unresponsive, stubbornly, aggravatingly retarded because he was basically blind, never seems to have occurred to anyone.   The effect of this unknown blindness certainly didn’t occur to me until weeks or months into writing every day about my father.   Think of the effect on your life, on your self-image, if nobody caring for you realizes you are legally blind until you are six or seven years old.

I have a picture of my father reading on the couch before dinner, after his day job, before his night job, his thick black-rimmed glasses up on his forehead, or on a nearby surface, the New York Times held a few inches from his face.  He was nearsighted, like the famous Mr. Magoo, but unlike Magoo, he wore powerful corrective lenses that allowed him to drive on the right side of the road, serve in the U.S. military, lead a fairly standard life.   If he wanted to read something he could easily read without glasses, as long as the print was very close to his face.  He eventually settled on bifocals, which allowed him to read through his glasses, holding a book or paper like anyone else.

As he was dying he insisted he’d been the “dumbest Jewish kid” in Peekskill.  This was incomprehensible to me.  Whatever critiques could be made of this often contentious man, it is impossible to argue that he wasn’t highly intelligent, well-informed, quick witted.  In the hospital room that last night of his life I questioned his assertion that he was the dumbest Jewish kid in the small town he grew up in.  “It’s impossible for me to believe you could have possibly been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill,” I said.

“By far!” he insisted, with a “humph!” hours before the end of a long life as a well-read, highly articulate intellectual.

Picture now being born in 1924, a year when the resurgent Ku Klux Klan reached its high-water mark in registered members, with 2.4 million nationwide. It was early in the ill-fated experiment in Prohibition, when murderous gangsters ran neighborhoods like the one where my father was born.  There were no federal child labor laws on the books.  A president sympathetic to the Klan and other xenophobes had signed a restrictive immigration bill into law, imposing strict quotas which effectively meant that the rest of the family in Europe was doomed to whatever Fate had in store for them.   Your little family is bitterly poor, and, try as you may, you can’t make out the details of anything in the world around you.

Infantile blindness and its lifelong effects would have been an interesting subject to follow up with the baby who grew up to be my father, an old man who still believed he’d been dumb because everyone around him, teachers and classmates whose faces he couldn’t make out, laughed at him and called him a big dummy. Another subject I never got to talk about with the man who belatedly apologized for senselessly fighting with me my whole life.

There was a glancing reference to my father’s early struggles in school in the very limited family lore about his childhood.  Like most of the details I know of my father’s difficult early life, this was humorously recounted by that great story-teller Eli Gleiberman, my father’s first cousin, Uncle Aren’s first born son. Aren had saved money and sent for his youngest sister right around the time World War One started.   Eli reported that his tiny, red-haired Tante Chava (many years younger than Aren) was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and that she and young Eli had experienced mutual love at first sight when he and his father went to pick her up from the boat.  Eli was a good-looking kid and, according to him, his aunt’s lifelong favorite.

The story goes that my grandmother Chava was called to school after my father, the oldest, biggest kid in his class, (in addition to being odd in his expressions, presumably) showed up for school without a word of English in his head.   The school sent for her to find out how it was possible for a child born in America to grow up to the age of five or six without learning English.  The answer was that they only spoke Yiddish at home, but that answer really answered nothing.  Eli, by then in his early twenties, probably taught Chava the line she delivered in response to the school authorities.  In a heavy Yiddish accent, when confronted by the school authorities about her son’s lack of English, she said “hee’l loin.”  Eli’s face would light up in his devilish grin when he told that story.

The boy would indeed learn, and become a voracious reader with a vast English vocabulary.  He would go on to graduate from Syracuse University and later get a Master’s Degree in American History at Columbia, one unfinished dissertation short of his Ph D. That would only happen, as it turns out, once someone at the Peekskill elementary school discovered that it was not mental deficiency, but legal blindness that made it impossible for this odd boy to learn his letters.

A related question arises, when I think things over now in the cool light of all of my detective work over the years. My father’s father, Harry, (for whom I’m named– his Hebrew name, Eliyahu, is my name) the “illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world,” I learned not long before Eli died, spoke English with no trace of a foreign accent.  He’d come over from Europe as a baby and picked up unaccented American English, somehow.  Go figure.  Why didn’t he go to school to talk to the authorities? Because he was an illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world, I suppose.  His sphinx-like presence, and his mysteriously unaccented English, would have no doubt made things even worse, Aren, the small family’s patriarch, must have reasoned.  He was probably right.

1924 (part 1)

Some time around 1922 or 1923, a year before the Immigration Act restricted the entry of people like my grandparents, in the crowded, polyglot slum of New York City’s Lower East Side, my father’s mother gave birth to her first child, a girl. The baby did not live long and the whereabouts of her tiny corpse are unknown. In fact, I’m not sure how I even heard about this poor child, born of two desperately poor immigrant parents. Probably from my father’s first cousin Eli, source of much of what I know about my father’s early life. History records that on June 1, 1924, my father was born in that same slum, moved to Peekskill as a toddler (in his Uncle Aren’s truck) and later lived, as a middle class homeowner, to be almost 81. I was there to close his eyelids after he took his last breath.

My father never went into the details of his years of grinding poverty. He always used that term, “grinding poverty,” spoken through gritted teeth, to evoke the circumstances of his hard life before the army. Of his mother, who turns out to have been a savagely unhappy little woman, all he ever said, in Yiddishized Hebrew, was “may she rest in peace.” He said the same about his father, about whom even less was ever revealed. A few hours before his death, my father described his father, in his breathy dying man’s voice, as “an illiterate country bumpkin, completely overwhelmed by this world.” He did not speak of his mother. I knew by then pretty much why.

The rest of my father’s large family, outside of his mother’s brother, Uncle Aren, the American patriarch who’d fled the Czar’s army in 1904, disappeared into the fog of war, literally. Their muddy hamlet in the Belarusian marsh, somewhere between Pinsk and Stolin, was erased from history, wiped off the maps, if it ever was on any map. That little town met the fate of hundreds of other little Jewish towns in those dark years when Hitler was restoring Aryan honor to Germany. After the German occupation of those areas the towns and their inhabitants simply ceased to exist.

The family in Europe was disappeared while my father was training to fight in what would become the Air Force. The immensity of this loss was something my father never spoke about, outside of dismissing it as talk of “abstractions” when I got old enough to know and be deeply disturbed by it.

The arc of my father’s life is almost unimaginable today, an impoverished boy from the slums growing into a well-educated, solidly middle class burgher. He worked hard, two jobs, followed the rules, took advantage of the GI Bill (which worked wonders for white vets, not so much for other vets) and a rare moment in history when the American Dream of a life of financial comfort could actually be lived by children born in extreme poverty. He made this transformation along with tens of thousands of the generation who fought World War Two.

My father, according to my sister, never had a happy day in his life. It’s an interesting question, because, though he had all the tools for happiness, she might be right. He found the humor in things, he was quick, he had a dark take on things (though he loved animals and small children), was beloved by his few close friends, was an avid reader with a deep interest in history and justice. He made his friends laugh and often his family as well. He could also be cold, hard, unbending. He died with terrible regrets, he’d learned basic lessons too late to put them to good use. At the very end all he hoped for was one actual conversation before he died, one that wasn’t a death match. We managed to have that talk, and then he was dead.

Years later I took many months, a couple of years back, writing an unwieldy first draft of “The Book of Irv,” an attempt to fully think his life through. My idea was to put a tricky story into perspective, letting nobody off the hook, but at the same time, taking pains to also not vilify or punish anyone. To my amazement, this long exercise in trying to see the whole picture left me with the ability to see my father’s life and sometimes troubling attitudes and actions completely from his point of view. Seeing his viewpoint clearly doesn’t make me agree with the worst things he decided, but I can understand them, even empathize. A few years earlier, before my long exploration of his troubling life, the thought of reaching that understanding was unthinkable.

Because my father was often harsh to me and my sister, I was usually harsh in my judgments of him.  There are certain things I took him to task for that I understand now were completely reasonable and within his rights.  This understanding emerged only after I became able to see the position from his viewpoint. As a boy and a young man, I was hard on him for the way he permanently banished good friends who hurt him. People we once enjoyed the company of, laughed long and loud with, were suddenly dead, simply dead.

He was famously unable to forgive, in the end unable to forgive himself for the rigidly black and white way he’d seen the world, for how that worldview often made him act toward the people closest to him. I see now that those two traits, cutting friends dead and being unforgiving, don’t necessarily add up to an unreasonable position; although a fault may come into play it doesn’t always negate a perfectly understandable motive.

I’ve learned about that terrible moment when it becomes clear that friendship is returned grudgingly (if at all) and looking away only prolongs the estrangement that is already well underway. This is not merely a matter of being unforgiving, sometimes it is simply the way it is between humans who have long been close but who have stored up grievances against each other. As I observed in my own life, and learned from my father’s steady example, there is sometimes a point of no return, even in once close relationships.

To tolerate painful treatment from someone you trust is being a party to your own abuse and there is no healthy reason to do it. Abuse is where you have to draw the line, in every case where you have choice in the matter. If you point out to a friend that they are hurting you and your friend says “I am not, you have a problem and your vicious accusation is yet another example of it” it is probably time to use the door. The old man was not wrong about that, however quick he might have been to slam that door, to shut friends into eternal darkness when they hurt him.  The timing of this inevitable moment, one you see it, now seems to me a matter of pulling the bandaid off quickly or slowly.

My father’s skeleton has been quiet, outside of remarks he made over the course of a few months, a couple of years ago. Those unexpected conversations with my father’s skeleton often had moments of real surprise for me, as if I really was hearing things for the first time, things my father would have said if that conversation the last night of his life had continued. Somehow I knew that it wasn’t merely my imagination conjuring these responses, they made organic sense to be coming from my father’s now wiser skeleton.

If the voices of my father’s parents, the ancestors he never saw, ever spoke to him, or cried out to him, I cannot say. He rarely spoke of either of his parents, and if he did, it was only to comment that they should rest in peace. If the murdered souls in that unlocatable marsh near Pinsk could call out to me, it would be in a language I can’t understand. The closest I can come to imagining them is the few of them I knew, and the lessons of those lives are the stories I am interested in telling now, before the clock runs out on my time to tell them — before the next personal extinction arrives.

 

 

 

Book of Friedman (6)

Years later, as Al Friedman lay dying in a Florida hospital, the oddest Mark Friedman story of all would take place. I cannot really begin to explain it, even all these years later, though I will tell it in as much detail as I can.

First I need to point out a subtle element of this story. The harmful nature of very smart, deeply damaged, people we become attached to can be very hard to see. They are able to intelligently explain why any problem you may perceive is not a problem they have any part in creating. They can often convince you, as is routinely done with children, that the problem is all in your own confused, less than perfectly rational, head.

Exactly how my father inflicted great damage on my sister and me, the lifelong actions he apologized for so miserably right before he died, took decades for me to understand. I fought against the clear unfairness and sometimes irrationality of his abuse as it was happening, but I had no real grasp of the full scope of the harm this otherwise reasonable, peaceable, politically sensitive, philosophical man was doing. The subtle nature of it, the way our father’s anger was always hidden behind some greater principle, made it a very slippery form of abuse. Much harder to understand than a sharp smack in the face. You want subtle? How about simply deploying silence when an answer to a perplexed question was requested?

In the case of my father, once I understood the unforgivable abuse he’d suffered from his mother, the face whippings, the furious demands that he have no will of his own, I could explain his desperation to myself. It made sense that he’d be filled with rage, anyone would. After enough time I came to see that, in a real sense, he couldn’t help acting the way he did, and further, that it was actually a kind of victory over his horrific childhood that he didn’t beat or humiliate his children. He merely raged at us, and made us feel it was always our fault. Bad, yes, abuse, certainly, but, at the same time, a great improvement over what he’d experienced. Silence may hurt when you are a child hoping for an answer, but a good whipping for no reason, when you are two, leaves no room for interpretation.

It was a matter of great, wonderfully-timed luck that I’d reached these understandings, digested the idea that he’d done the best he could and that anger toward him was unproductive, at best, when I got the call from my sister that he was suddenly on his deathbed. When I got to the hospital room where he’d die two or three days later I asked if he was in pain.

“Only psychic pain…” he said, his weary voice trailing off. He told me he wanted to talk to me, but that he was still putting his thoughts together.

The last night of his life we talked for hours. He talked, mostly, I asked a few clarifying questions and refilled his cup of water. He had certainly put his thoughts together. He put his impressive mind through its paces one last time, this time trying to get it all right. The organization of his thoughts struck me, obviously he spoke without notes, but he could have been reading from a thoughtfully edited essay. He had this great ability to speak off the cuff, always had. Finally he was using it to make amends. It was, as I’ve said, a blessing to us both, him making this attempt at peace, me finally in a position to hear it with sympathy instead of anger.

The day after my father died I walked around the circle in the retirement community where my parents lived. In my memory it was dawn. I’d been getting a steady stream of calls from Friedman who wanted to know how it was going, wanted to offer his support. By that time I’d begun to dread his calls. I called him back as I walked.

I was stunned by his first question after I mentioned the long talk the last night of my father’s life: “did you tell him to go fuck himself?”

I explained that there was no need, that we’d had a very productive conversation. Then, for the next forty minutes or so, as I completed the two mile circle and started around again, I heard the story of his oldest brothers’ new sports car, a beauty from the sound of it, and the beautiful, young girlfriend he had now, how things were really looking up for him, just as things had been looking pretty bad for him recently. Mark’s stories were always fantastically detailed. When he was done telling me these fabulous developments in his brother’s life I said “well, here, my father is still dead.”

I finally came to realize the difference between a struggle to come to peace with your father, or another family member and the constant vying with a friend who is a surrogate for these same people, who, while like the troubling family member in essential ways, was once a stranger and can easily be one again. We owe ourselves a certain psychic debt to figure out how to make peace with those in our family, if we can. We owe nothing to friends who insist on their right to be as vexing as the troubling intimates we are born into a family with.

Book of Friedman (3)

At the end of the movie, all becomes clear. As the credits roll you unconsciously start processing how the story was unfolded– what techniques were used to fairly or unfairly manipulate your expectations, stretch the old credulity — that willing suspension of disbelief needed to go where the story is taking you. If the story is told right, you feel satisfied that you were in good hands the whole time. If the plot has some giant holes, or the dialogue is unrealistic, if the acting rings hollow, or the direction is dumb, you will sometimes feel disgust– somebody wrote this shit, got paid a ton of money, millions were spent to make this dead dog of a movie, what the fuck. The world itself is like that sometimes, you find yourself thinking: what the fuck?

This is also true in the case of an individual human life, while it is being lived, and even more so when it is over and complete to the extent it ever will be. At the end, all of the pieces are now in place, what the person did, how they treated those they loved, how they were loved, what they said and how they acted under pressure, the demands they made, what they gave freely to others, if they ever made amends with people they hurt. We can also put together the larger story they told themselves as they proceeded and how well it matched the beliefs they held themselves to.

Put it like this, once you have the conclusive answer to a complicated puzzle, that answer seems inevitable. It was hard to discover, and you may have beaten your head against the wall in solving it, but once you have the solution it seems so obvious. That’s why “hindsight is 20/20” is such a well-worn cliche. A tune you couldn’t play a year ago, lacking the skill, that you can easily play now? In hindsight, all it took was diligence and an unflagging desire to learn it.

Understanding a complicated situation rarely comes easily, if it comes at all. The clues in this life that give real insight often come slowly, a pattern may take years to see, for many reasons. Many things keep us from seeing what later becomes blindingly obvious.

Your desire to see the best in someone, the need to feel connected to a person you seem to share many things with, will prevent you from seeing the larger, darker picture many times. If we believe in friendship, which most of us do, and bask in the wonderful, rare, intimacy of closeness, we have a great ability to be generous, and a need not to be distracted by faults that, after all, we all have.

In the case of Friedman, though his fatal flaws actually killed him in the end, in the beginning I was bothered by none of them. There were many reasons to cherish the bond we had, as teenagers. By the time we were in our forties I could not escape the fact that he was a terminally miserable bastard destined to die the kind of death any of us could have predicted for him, but that was years later.

In the beginning of my friendship with Friedman there were a lot of laughs, a mutual discovery of guitar, a remarkable meeting of two minds that were constantly reading, actively struggling to make sense of a brutal world, even if the conflict between us was also there from the start. I saw, belatedly, that in a real sense I was the cool younger brother he’d never had, somebody he felt he should be able to control. From my point of view, just out of Junior High School, there were also tangible benefits to our friendship. For one thing, the guy could drive! He also had a two track reel to reel tape recorder — unimaginably cool in 1970! We improvised our first (unreleased) album “Two Minds Working As One” in the first few weeks of our struggles to learn guitar.

The initial recognition that you are not alone in your floundering, at an awkward time in life when everyone is sometimes flapping like a fish on the floor of a rowboat, comes as a great relief. I am not alone! At the family dinner table, yes, I am alone, hunkered down as the chlorine rolls across the ground, the flashes among the barbed wire flare, the whine of projectiles mixes with the snarling arguments. In school, where I am forced to go, there are a couple of fellow misfits I can talk to. But finding a friend who really gets it, is engaged in a struggle very close to your own, comes as an incomparable relief. The kind of person you will take to as a friend is largely dictated by your life experience up to that point.

I mentioned that Mark was an unredeemable version of the worst in my father. This, I see now, was not by chance. It’s a common psychic mechanism we often use to try to resolve difficult things in our lives– acting them out with surrogates, trying to get them right. It’s not that I was not also vigorously fighting with my father, that bloody bout went on uninterrupted for most of the time my father and I were both alive and kicking. I was attempting, (it’s clear to me now) by wrangling with people like Mark, to gain skills I hadn’t sufficiently mastered, skills I needed to make peace with a tragically bellicose old man.

What was the tragic essence of my father? His need to defend himself, no matter what. I learned very late in the game that the childhood he never spoke of, beyond a few standard, snarled remarks about “grinding poverty” — and the way his little brother, my grandiose uncle, cringed around him– was a childhood of extreme physical and emotional abuse. From the time he could stand, his mother, who affectionately called him “Sonny”, would whip him in the face with the heavy, burlap- wrapped chord from her steam iron. She demanded his unquestioning submission and her absolute right to rage at him, with or without cause.

This kind of brutality, from your own mother, explains a lot about why as an adult my father could not tolerate even the slightest criticism from his ungrateful children, two entitled middle-class fuckers who had virtually never been hit, certainly never violently humiliated as he was. I was forty before I learned of the trauma my father had been forced to endure, almost fifty when I stood by my father’s deathbed calmly hearing his belated regrets, more than sixty when I finally was able to see the whole thing from my father’s point of view, after a prolonged conversation with my father’s posthumously wiser skeleton.

Granted, I’ve always been a philosophical cuss, always sat alone writing for long stretches, piecing the few things I knew together, trying to clarify things I have trouble grasping. It is a question of my nature, I suppose. I need to do this. Most people don’t, I get that, they are busy working, striving, going on vacations, returning to work, providing for others. I don’t do these things, preferring to live a materially modest life in return for having the thing I value most: the time to ponder. I try not to talk about it with others, makes me seem like some kind of scorpion, I think. But it is something I feel I should set out here, in the interest of full disclosure: I have always felt that understanding things that perplex or inspire me is about my deepest need.

Friedman, when I first met him, appeared exactly the same way. He was clearly in pain, something of an odd duck, quirky, off-kilter, trying to explain his condition to himself, to someone who would listen. We quickly developed a shorthand language, as teenagers do. In our language things that were impossible to communicate to others suddenly were capable of expression. Or so it seemed to me at 14, 15, 16. Mark was two years older, had had more time to ossify into the unhappy teenager he was. We did many of our initial drug experiments together. We showed each other things we learned on guitar, as soon as we got them. Since for most of our long friendship we lived in different towns, we wrote letters, long letters, back and forth, for years.

“We found a box of your letters to Mark,” his older brother told me, asking me if I wanted them. I told him to toss them, the thought of reading the origins of our fatal falling out seemed unbearable and unnecessary. One of the great moments of my life was reducing the endlessly caviling, insanely lawyerly Friedman to sullen silence, in a Florida diner, as the hardest rain I’ve ever seen pelted the world outside. He sat, glaring at me, hurt, finally unable to say a word in his own futile defense. That moment was the culmination of thousands of words I’d written him in recent years trying, in vain, to save a zombie friendship.

“I couldn’t throw this one out,” his brother told me, after we hiked up to the lake on a perfect October day to spread the last of the poor devil’s ashes over the lake he loved. He handed me an envelope, addressed in my long-ago handwriting, awkward, self-conscious, not quite the way I’ve come to write as an adult. On the envelope I’d scrawled “This is the most important letter of your life” or words to that effect.

“See what I mean?” he said as I tucked the envelope in my pocket. When I read the letter later I was consumed with actual horror. I was angrily apologizing for some unknown offense Friedman had accused me of, defending myself, admitting fault, alternately attacking and groveling. It was hard to even finish reading it, and when I did, I tossed it into the recycling bin, after passing it through the shredder.

A better example of live and learn I have not seen, in my own hand.

The Book of Friedman

Friedman, a man with a problematic singing voice, was, at one time, a prodigious writer of highly personal songs that were often hard to listen to, sung in that difficult voice of his. A central tragedy of the poor devil’s life — to write with sensitivity for an instrument so ill-suited to music. The singer-songwriter had a good sense of pitch, it was not a matter of tone-deafness, in the strict sense. For all his skill on guitar and piano, for all of his original musical ideas, his singing was more than anything a certain lack of grace.

When he was found dead, naked in a chair last summer in his home in Santa Fe, his older brother was contacted by a Medical Examiner. “Just like on TV,” he said. The two brothers flew down to New Mexico to clear his cluttered house and settle his tangled business affairs. They lived for two weeks as guests of Friedman’s ex, a generous woman he finally rejected when he felt she’d been insufficiently supportive when he was inconsolable over the death of his mother, at almost a hundred. “She was his rock,” said his older brother, after their mother died, “he was lost without her.”

The older brother was dogged by guilt, he’d finally had it with his demanding, eternally unhappy youngest brother and had laid into him at one point. The younger brother had never spoken to him again. It had been three years. Then the call from the Medical Examiner asking what to do with the dead body. The middle brother, always a practical man, had avoided a fatal falling out with the youngest by always keeping him at arm’s distance. When an annoying email arrived, screen after screen of tortuous arguments, the middle brother immediately hit delete. He took the same approach to the clutter in the dead brother’s house. Several cartons of contractor bags, a quick look and toss the stuff.

Among the things tossed, to my great regret, were a series of letters between Friedman and the father he always complained didn’t respect him. A box of letters between father and son. They felt like voyeurs after beginning to read them and quickly tossed the collection. As a longtime student of Friedman, and someone who knew his father pretty well too, I feel the loss of these unknown letters keenly. Goddamn, I would have loved to read those letters! There was a book full of pathos and insight in that back and forth, 100%.

Another book, saved by the older brother, exists. It is the hard-covered once blank book where all of the lyrics (and probably the chords) to all of Friedman’s songs were inscribed. The definitive record of a life in music that was almost lived. If only he’d had the voice to sing them. It occurred to me recently to ask the brother if I can borrow this book for a while, to read his collected songs and use them to reconstruct his painful, illuminating life. The endlessly repeating tragedy of his life is the greatest cautionary tale I know.

Many years ago, and I mean decades now, Friedman accused me of using my friends as lab rats in my psychological dissections. I suppose he had a point, the long serving, giant lab rat, though I plead science and the expansion of human knowledge as a redeeming rationale for my experiments (as all the great monsters of history have). We are raised, many of us (and probably all of us who are subject to bouts of misery), deliberately blinded to what we are actually up against in this life. It takes determination, and openess, as well as a certain amount of blind luck, to eventually begin to see the crucial clues that are zealously hidden from us. Friends as lab rats, a small price to pay sometimes, to learn the things we need to learn to live less miserable lives.

(Cold? I don’t know. It certainly doesn’t put the narrator in the most sympathetic light. Start again.)

In telling the story of the talented, miserable, demanding, aggressively unhappy Friedman, I will try to illuminate the two paths open to each of us. We can struggle, in the darkness, to be right, always, to justify, everything, to prevail, at any cost. We can struggle to grasp what is intolerable in our lives, work to see and understand what particularly triggers our misery, seek to suffer less and inflict less pain in the world. I am, clearly, biased toward the second way. Friedman is the greatest example I know, though far from the only one, of the first way — the way of righteous anger and eternal victimhood and fatal disappointment.

Yes, we also have a president now who fits that description– a selfish, childish person who is always the victim, always right to be angry, a fundamentally unhappy person who, although already very wealthy, can never get enough. Forget him, if you can, as I tell you the story of Friedman, the youngest of three boys, an envious sibling who never got enough respect from dad or love from mom.

“OK, let me get this straight, sir,” says nobody in particular “you propose to tell the story of a remorseless, graceless asshole, with no insight into his own misery, told without sympathy, the tale of a putz famous for sweeping others into the ‘putzbin of history’ for betrayals real and imagined.”

I wouldn’t use that as my elevator pitch, no.

“Get on with it, then, why should anybody give a rat’s tutu about this so-called book proposal?”

Insight, man. Hard to come by. Look at it as I pieced it together. At one time this guy was my closest friend. Over the years I came to see, more and more unmistakably, that he was, in elemental ways, an unredeemable version of the worst of my father. Both were smart, articulate, capable of waging fierce arguments to the death, both were supremely sensitive in their own feelings and often monstrously insensitive to the feelings of others. My long wrestling match with Friedman turned out to be an attempt to get a grip on the dilemma with my own father.

“OK, so far you ain’t selling jack, son.”

Says the voice of the internalized victimizer. Look, I’ve been putting together clues for many years now. The Book of Friedman might be the most straightforward way to put them between two covers in the context of a story with a start, middle and end. Much easier to write than draft two of the 1,200 pages I’ve written as I came to see my father’s tragic point of view through his too late clear eyes.

“If you say so…” then there is the pregnant pause, more potent in its power to undermine than any words could be, “we’ll see if this idea comes to anything more than dozens of other big ideas you’ve hatched over the course of the long misadventure that has been your life here, dreamer.”

Which leaves me with this toothache of a thought: What is left of our lives here, beyond what we leave behind?

Write Every Day

Anything you care about, want to get better at, you need to do every day. This goes for music, learning languages, reciting poetry, improving your vocabulary, gaining flexibility in body or mind, mastering any skill. Daily practice is the best way to improve your skill.

More productive than a five hour session, followed by a week of inaction, are seven daily fifteen minute sessions. Constant, regular practice is the way we build better habits, better technique. This kind of daily practice helps us remember and internalize our advances and make steady improvement.

Take your 140 character tweet (I don’t use Twitter myself) and really look at it before you let it fly out into the world. Is there anything you wrote that can be written better? Fix it. Is there a phrase that could be read two ways? Turn it to the way you want it to be read.

You can say it really doesn’t matter if you write well, badly, clearly, muddily, that ignorance and sloppiness clearly rule already so what is the stinking point, Daddy-O? The point is not to lose the notion of craft, pride in your work, the pursuit of excellence, reinforcing the benefits of steady effort to make yourself better at what you love to do.

George Carlin had it right: think of how stupid the average American is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.

That does not apply to your efforts, if you are dedicated to self-improvement in any field. It is never stupid to try to do better. Also, don’t forget that half of Americans are also smarter than the average– that’s 150,000,000 people. Also, stupid people deserve the best we have too.

My two cents: put in at least fifteen minutes toward the worthy goal of making yourself better every day. If you miss a day, don’t trouble yourself, just start a new streak the next day. The improvement you will begin to see will motivate you to continue. In your small way, you will be making the world a better place.

The Benefit of Thinking

I’m currently experiencing an annoying and intermittently painful medical situation, a bit of the old gross hematuria that’s been going on for a few days.   I’ve learned not to stray too far from a bathroom, as the sudden urge to piss a little blood and a few clots sometimes becomes, in two seconds, completely unbearable.   I am assured by my urologist that this is not unexpected in a man my age and that medicine doesn’t know the exact reason I’m having these troubles (science calls such unknowable things “idiopathic”) or how long they will persist.   I’m waiting for test results that could shed more light in a day or two.   I’m told we can safely rule out all of the most scary end-stage cancer possibilities and so I’m inconvenienced, and drinking ridiculous amounts of water (a gallon and a half the other day) but otherwise not full of fear.

But enough of my medical troubles which nature will resolve, or medical science eventually will.   The reason I bring them up is to foreground the life-affirming power of wrestling a difficult intellectual/emotional/moral puzzle into comprehensibility and how the effort brings a great sense of satisfaction as it helps put physical suffering into perspective.   I find it a particularly rewarding exercise in this age when supremely confident, heedless ignorance is triumphantly strutting at the head of several of the earth’s largest nations.

I’ve spent the last few days, between hundreds of sessions straining and groaning in the bathroom, writing and thinking, thinking and writing, digging my way to the bottom of a deep, extremely vexing situation, the tragic end of a friendship of fifty years.   Thinking helps writing, of course, and writing — and rewriting —  greatly helps clarify thinking, I find.   

After many hours, I finally wrote the final words on the subject, explaining to a perplexed girlfriend (two actually, my friend’s and mine)  exactly why I could struggle no more to save something that appears to be dead.   When any doubt about my motives and my sincere efforts to resolve things was cleared away I felt a great sense of relief and release, having worked to fully set out what had been impossible for me to fully grasp — or explain– before the hours and hours I put into grappling with the thorny issues.  It was not the effort to be “right” that consumed me, it was the effort to fully understand and articulate exactly why I’d been so hurt, why the situation was so intolerable to me.

One great beauty of this process was that in the end I had something I could read to Sekhnet, that put my feelings into a reasonable frame for her.  It allowed her to understand that I had not acted out of blind anger, or pettiness, or pride or any impulse but trying to preserve a friendship that was clearly on life support while in a death spiral.  It put its finger squarely on what has become unsupportable in that friendship.

In the midst of this exercise, which took several days across several weeks, we watched an excellent 2013 movie called Hannah Arendt.   I rediscovered Hannah a couple of years ago and wrote a kind of intro to her calling her the Intellectual It-Girl for this moment in history.  She is a hero of mine and, among other things, a great analyst of totalitarianism and how it operates — how it requires ignorant faith in irrational ideas and leads to the violent repudiation of rational thought.

Her masterpiece, Eichmann in Jerusalem, is perhaps my all-time favorite book [1].  In that short book, which made her legions of devoted enemies, she gets as close as anyone to isolating and describing that irresistible impulse in some humans, pursuing a perverse but common notion of ambition and integrity, conforming without thought to abnormal new norms, to commit the most monstrous evils, while themselves being neither psychopaths, fanatics nor monsters. 

We watched the 2013 movie, which starred the superb Barbara Sukowa as the Hannah of my dreams.   Take a look at the trailer.  I was tickled all the more, watching the film a couple of days before what would have been my mother’s 92nd birthday (happy belated birthday, mom), at Barbara Sukowa’s uncanny resemblance to a younger Yetta, my mother’s mother.  We both thought the movie was great.  It showed clearly the price Hannah Arendt willingly paid to not kowtow to any particular interest group, tribe or ideology, but to get to the deeper, more difficult truth of the matter she was investigating, wrestling into comprehensibility and presenting for readers.  

To my knowledge nobody has ever written a better short history of the Nazi era than Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece.  It would certainly be hard to imagine one.   The unsettling insight that emerges from the book is that ordinary people will do unspeakable things under unspeakable conditions and that some of history’s greatest “monsters” are simply ambitious people who unthinkingly go along with their insane masters’ plans [2].

In the case of Eichmann, he unquestioningly did whatever he was told by his superiors.  First he diligently sought to expedite Jewish emigration, a good solution, he thought.  Then, in phase two, he applied himself to the forced expulsion and concentration of Jews, which was admittedly less pleasant for him, but nonetheless necessary.  He was equally diligent in the performance of his duties in the final stage, his least pleasant task: getting the optimum number of Jews on the optimum number of trains to optimize the number that could be solved, finally.

A man like Eichmann deserves to be executed, if anyone does; Arendt doesn’t flinch for a second over the fate of a blindly obedient unthinkingly murderous cog like Adolf Eichmann.  He doesn’t get a pass, because he’s a clown, for his willing participation in one of the most gruesome mass murders, certainly the most coldly efficient, in world history.   Hannah:

The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist — provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.   Some of the comedy cannot be conveyed in English, because it lies in Eichmann’s heroic fight with the German language, which inevitably defeats him.   (p.48)

She was right, the comedy couldn’t be conveyed in English, though she gave it a shot, a short parade of absurd examples of Eichmann’s limited and ridiculous powers of expression, to give a sense of it.  She concludes:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely related to his inability to think, namely think from the standpoint of somebody else.   (p.49 — in the margin I see I have written “Trump” in pencil, hmm…)

To present Eichmann as one of history’s greatest monsters — well, to her it completely missed the point.   An important point.  A crucial point.  When we stop thinking, analyzing, acting as moral agents, we become capable of unimaginably monstrous things.   Like shipping millions of Jews to their deaths while insisting you are no killer, never ordered a single killing, never deliberately hurt anyone, are not in the least bit antiSemitic, have never harbored any ill will toward anyone.

Fortuitously, a friend just sent me a link to the first article by Arendt published in the New Yorker in Febaruary, 1963  (the articles that later became Arendt’s book length masterpiece).  Read the opening, admire the mind that, fluent in English, French and German (and probably other languages) can say, without hesitation, that the German translation (the only one Eichmann and his lawyer could understand) was by far the worst.   The three Israeli judges, good men all, were originally German Jews.   They struggled at times to correct the poor German translation, to clarify things, and they did not pretend to wait for things to be translated into Hebrew before they replied.   Hannah admired these qualities in the judges as she lamented the terrible German translation that surely muddied the clarity of the proceedings.   She wonders why, with so many fluently bilingual German Jews in Israel, the German translation had been so poor.  It is something to think about — and perhaps another of several reasons Arendt’s book was not published in Hebrew, or available in Israel — none of her books were–  until 1999.  

Of course, thought is famously hard, as is expressing thought coherently, as is arguing intelligently about which thought is more profoundly thought.  Sekhnet and I loved the movie.   A very articulate and well-read critic at the New Yorker had problems with the movie, serious ones, and equally profound problems with Arendt herself.   You can read it and emerge convinced that the filmmaker and Hannah Arendt both missed the mark, badly.  In the end, the critic acknowledged that Arendt had inadvertently written a ‘masterpiece’– though he claims this happened by accident.   Take a look at the smart review if you have some time.  Or, better still, watch the movie — then read her book.   Then read this brilliant jerk-off’s well-argued opinion.

For me, the guy’s surgical critique of Arendt (and the film about her)  brought to mind words I read at the end of a short biography of Django Reinhardt, included as part of a book teaching a few of Django’s guitar parts note for note.    The writer who’d been paid to write the short bio (not the musician who lovingly transcribed what Django had composed and improvised) concluded with his considered opinion that Django had been a “near genius.”   I immediately felt the urge to contact this hack writer and correct him.  Actually, the urge was a bit more direct than that.   Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, of course, but, as someone pithily put it once: not their own facts [3].

There are facts, things that actually happened, physical things, tapes that can be played back to confirm what was said or show what was actually done, documents, there is data, ideally verifiable and reliable data compiled by scientists.  Facts make our beliefs more or less solid, basing action on fact separates considered opinions from absolute, blind faith or sheer stupidity.  The factual world, the idea of truth itself, is under attack.  No useful understanding of anything is possible without first knowing, as factually as possible, the thing you are trying to understand.

In Brazil, strongman former military junta member Jair Bolsonaro is doing the same work Narendra Modi is doing in India, the tireless work this orange-toned manipulator is doing here:  the human and scientific facts have NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING!   Bolsonaro has taken to insisting, aping his American counterpart, that hydroxychloroquine (70% of the world supply is manufactured in Modi’s India) is a miracle drug that will protect everyone from the virus, as the pandemic sweeps through Brazil’s crowded favelas, its slums, as it has been wildly spreading here in what has become the world epicenter, of the pandemic and denial of the pandemic, both.  As it is sure to sweep the crowded slums of India, makers of most of the world’s most miraculous miracle drug.    If you follow leaders like these, and carry out their orders, in spite of the shakiness of the “logic” they present, be prepared for the judgment of history — if, indeed, we will have history in the future — or any human future at all, for that matter.

 

[1]  Right up there with The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (Walter Morrison translation).   If you have not read these stories, particularly if you’re a writer pick up this out-of-print book, (you can also read this post.)

[2]   A tangentially related point enraged legions of Jews and others against Arendt.   She noted that had the Jews not voluntarily organized themselves, had their leaders not helped keep order in their ghettos and make lists of Jewish property and designate which individuals were to be deported, that fewer Jews would have died in the chaos that would have resulted from lack of Jewish cooperation — chaos that would have required massively more Nazi manpower to supervise (the Jews were forced to provide their own police forces to assist the Nazis).   People wanted her head for this, though she made this hard to dispute observation in passing while describing several desperate cases of certain Jewish elders, forced into the unimaginably hellish position of having to deal with the Nazis who were busily killing them, some of whom believed they could make moral deals with monsters, at times making decisions a few would later commit suicide over or, in at least one case, later face criminal prosecution in Israel for (he was murdered during the trial)

[3]  Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as the internets inform us.

The Last Song is Always the Same when a Friendship is Dead

One of Charles Bukowski’s swarm of trivialities, the accumulation of which send a man to the madhouse and can kill quicker than cancer, is people who insist they’re your friends.   Friendship (I’m referring to the kind of close, hopefully lifelong, friend we rely on) requires mutuality, above all else, a common desire to treat the other person’s feelings gently.  Sometimes a relationship becomes heavier on one side than on the other and after a time things become insupportable.  If both friends are not trying their best to keep things mutual, in balance, things will eventually go badly.  The end of a friendship tends to be the death of many small cuts.   The music it goes out on as it dies is always hauntingly similar, as I have noticed over the years.

Maybe because I was raised in a house of hissing rivals, the comfort of friendship has always been very important to me.     Friends, they say, are the family we choose.  A parent may be an unhappy, demanding, critical person who reflexively crushes any sign of excitement or spirit in the child, but friends, the kindred souls we find and choose to befriend, hopefully don’t act this way.   A good friend, of course, will never knowingly crush your dream or piss on your enthusiasm, never withhold sympathy when you are in a tight spot.   

When a friend sees you’re hurt, they will be quick to find out why, see what they can do to make you feel better.  Until that sad day arrives when, for reasons that are always complicated and impossible to know for certain, that is no longer the case.   Your friend, for whatever reason, may decide that nothing you say or do can change anything that is bothering you in the relationship.   This unresolvable conflict will inevitably escalate until the friendship is a shambling zombie devoid of the soul that once animated it.  Cue the end music, which is always familiar.

I’ve been through this sad cycle enough times over the years that I’ve come to consider myself something of an expert (I’ll come to that in a moment).   I can recognize the familiar signs now, and know, after a certain point, that my efforts will probably be in vain, though I always try to save a moribund friendship, apparently I can’t help myself.  Call me sentimental, I’ve tried, try still, to hold on to even very frayed friendships — a thing not always possible or desirable.  The death of good will is something I have a very hard time grasping, it seems.  It’s a sad thing to resign yourself to not being able to work things out with someone you once shared a great relationship with.  But it is far sadder to remain in a relationship that is no longer mutual, has become intolerably troubling.

I used to condemn my father for the way he cast his closest friends over the side, to the sharks.  If they hurt him, they were dead.   As a kid this struck me as typically immature behavior on my father’s part — people we loved and laughed with many times were suddenly as absent as the dead.   When I’d ask the old man about the latest casualty, he’d snarlingly describe how they’d shit on him.    He was an insecure and hard man, quick to condemn and unable to forgive, and it always struck me as just part of his weakness to cast dear friends out of his life that way.   I’ve come to realize that sometimes ending a friendship that has become toxic is the most merciful thing you can do for yourself.

The song at the end of every long, intimate relationship remains uncannily the same, the hints of the refrain in the lead up and its final statement as the last music you will hear from that particular person.   At the end of most of my long friendships that eventually had to be put out of their misery: an indignant protestation of love.   That’s the common theme in virtually every friendship I’ve watched die, in spite of my efforts to keep it alive.  The friend swears they love me, but that I am a vicious, unloving fuck.   I think about this problematic statement of love each time I pick up the hammer to solemnly drive the stake through a heart and move out of the moldy graveyard.   

“You complain that I have mistreated you,”  says your aggrieved old friend “and you go into this long description of something that, frankly, I can’t even begin to understand, let alone take responsibility for — and I also dispute it — but you can’t end our friendship, pal, because I LOVE YOU.”    This desperate trump card comes out when all else fails, and it is a tell.    “You can’t be hurt by me, as you irrationally claim you are, BECAUSE I LOVE YOU, man!”

The first of these several sad standoffs came about twenty years after high school.   A close high school friend named Tom, a young man damaged beyond repair, apparently, by his father, an uneducated man who nonetheless had no respect for his son’s educational achievements or his professional career, somehow placed me in the position of being the approving father he never had.   

We do this sometimes, place new, more sympathetic people in the roles of problematic family members who did us wrong.   There is nothing inherently unhealthy about this desire to make a painful past thing right by reenacting it in more sympathetic circumstances, except that much of the time it doesn’t work out the way we might have unconsciously planned.  

I had no idea, until very late in the game, that Tom was expecting the validation from me that he never got from his affable but ignorant, crushingly opinionated father.   I had no hint that this could remotely be the case, until it was way too late, when he revealed this was why he was so furious at me.  Tom began a series of escalating passive aggressive moves, until I could finally not miss how enraged he was.   I then learned how I had failed him.   Never ONCE did I validate him for his educational or professional achievements!  Not one fucking time!   Then, too late, I made the connection, and only after the mad idea had been stated out loud.   

When I realized the friendship was over, I told Tom the reasons why.  I immediately got a letter from Tom (this was decades ago, when we still wrote words on paper), telling me that nothing I could do could end our friendship.    He understood that I was trying to pretend we were no longer friends but that, no matter what I did, we would always be friends.  I used a photocopying machine to enlarge and print out his memorable line, decorated it with a nice, floral frame, and hung it on the wall in my kitchen:  “sorry, pal, but it’s not in your power.”

How right he was.  

Last fall I spread the ashes of the most unhappy, demanding, manipulative person I have ever known.   We’d been friends for years, close friends.  Over those years I saw Mark make and lose countless friends.   His most compatible girlfriend (the only one I knew who was funny, likable and fairly sane) was not good enough for him — something about the unworthiness of a club that would have somebody like him as a member.    When he changed his mind, years after dumping her, she considered carefully and then declined his offer of eternal love.   Another great betrayal in his life, a betrayal I played a supporting role in.   

Everyone Mark ever knew ultimately betrayed him.  I finally wrote him off years ago, after a long, doomed struggle to fix things.   One day his brother, Gary, got a call from the medical examiner, they’d found his little brother’s corpse, in a chair in his house.  Gary flew down to supervise the cremation and tie up the dead man’s business affairs.   He felt terribly guilty, having not spoken to his estranged brother in three years.   I hadn’t spoken to Mark in maybe 15 years.   Gary acknowledged that Mark had had no other friends, and that if I was willing, he’d appreciate the company as he went to spread the ashes (he also needed a guide to show him where the lake was).   He and I trudged to the guy’s favorite lake, on a gorgeous day, and spread the poor fuck’s ashes in that sparkling, clear water.  Then we had a nice lunch on the lake, exchanging illuminating stories about the unhappy departed as we ate our sandwiches.

We humans all carry pain, and anger, and grief, and other things that are hard to bear alone, like loneliness.    Many of us did not have the nurturing childhood we would wish for people we care about.   We can sometimes come to understand the limitations of our parents, the great difficulty of becoming your own nurturing parent, the necessity to move past anger about things we did not receive when we needed them as vulnerable children.  Things, by the way, that sadly our parents were incapable of doing for us any better than they did.   

Coming to grips with these painful things is very difficult.   I understand that not everybody is cut out for this kind of work.   Forgiving the unforgivable seems like an impossible task, to those who despair of the effort.   No matter how much progress you may think you’ve made, or may have actually made, there will always be pain there, and the chance that strong emotions will flare up, however profound the understandings you may have reached.   This is our fate as sentient beings.

Here’s a common mechanism I’ve seen a few times, for how the combustion of a friendship can come about, and it usually seems to be, at least in my life, centered around who has the right to be angry or hurt.  Express anger or hurt, about anything, to somebody who has learned only to swallow and repress anger, deny hurt, and you will often provoke anger in return.  This anger tends to be wild and rage out of control, since it is so threatening to the person that they spend their whole life choking it down.  The rage of somebody who almost never expresses anger is truly terrible to behold.   

The way this cycle of anger works is not hard to understand, in hindsight.  They have plenty to be angry about, much more than you do, actually, and you don’t hear them whining about it.  Yet you go on and on, self-righteously ranting about an intolerable injustice you have suffered, casting about for a remedy that doesn’t even exist, outside of the realm of creative imagination.   Even if it is a clear injustice you’ve suffered, even if you have a right to be angry about it– you have no right to tell them why you’re so angry, even if they ask.   They don’t get to tell anyone about their anger or their pain.  Never.   

So they will question whether what you’re angry about is really that bad.  They may point out that Job, in the Bible, suffered far worse than what you claim to be going through.   They will suggest that not everyone would be so mad, just because they were arguably the victim of something that could make a person angry.   Just because something happened that made you angry, that might make someone else, even most people, reasonably angry, does not give you the right to be this angry.   And just because I impatiently question your right to be angry doesn’t give you the right to be angry at me for reasonably questioning your unreasonable right to be mad!

You could see this as neglecting the first law of friendship when you see a friend upset — listen to her, hear her out,  sit with her until she’s calmer.  Friendship 101:  first do no harm. 

Recently my oldest friend, who I’ve known since Junior High School,  called to challenge me about an email I wrote him that he’d found uncharacteristically snide, and inaccurate.    What right did I have to write him a snide, inaccurate email, he wanted to know.   We argued about the extent of the snideness of my email, which he eventually conceded had been small — and the email had turned out not to be snide and inaccurate, but merely snide–  but still strikingly snide, coming from me, a person who generally refrains from snideness, at least as directed toward him. 

He told me he’d called because he was worried about how disproportionately angry I seemed to be, simply because I’d had my health insurance suddenly terminated without notice.  He argued that I was excessively, unhealthily, irrationally angry.  After an hour trying to convince me of this, and growing frustrated, I imagine at the irrational persistence of my anger, he screamed at me, challenged me to tell him he was an asshole and to go fuck himself.   I took a gentler tack and by the end of the long call we had worked things out.  He told me he loved me, apologized for making me angry.    We seemed to be on the right path.  But, of course, if I’d paid attention to the background music, I’d have known this reconciliation would turn out to be an fond illusion. 

Then his next offer to help came, in any way I specifically requested, in figuring out how to right this injustice I complained of.   Of course, if I was not 100% specific in my request for help, he kept pointing out, he couldn’t really specifically help me.  Our emails went back and forth in this way, two lawyers making distinctions, splitting hairs, seeking clarification, reframing what we were actually really discussing, and so forth.  He constantly restated his desire to help in any way he could.   

When I told him, after many annoying questions, that the greatest help I needed was not being forced to debate every point of how he could help and how he couldn’t,  He said I was being unreasonable.   When I pointed out that professions of incomprehension of my anger and his endless, cool, clarifying devil’s advocate questions had inadvertently hurt me, he said that because the harm he’d inflicted had been inadvertent, as I myself had conceded, it was wrong of me to hold him responsible, or even point it out to him.   And so forth.

Things escalated, as they do in these sorts of impasses.   He apologized in an email for accidentally hurting me and then proposed we talk on the phone again.  I called.  Within fifteen minutes he was so enraged he cut me off to yell “you think I’m an idiot, I’m a fucking moron!  I’m an asshole!”    Then, as if resting his case, he hung up on me.   He clarified by sending me a text informing me that he no would no longer tolerate being “reamed” by me. 

So be it, all clear enough now.   A few days of writing and thinking it through, I pretty much understood what had happened, that there was nothing further I could say or do to fix this broken thing.  The matter of our friendship was out of my hands.

Then, as often seems to be the case in a long friendship in this digital era, a long email.  Not mentioning his angry childishness, but defending himself a bit, telling me how important my friendship is to him, and asking me to consider this decades-long friendship and asking me to get back to him when I felt able to. 

He also pointed out, I’m not sure why, that his apology in that long, angry phone call about my snideness, had been a desperate attempt to calm me, since I was so out of control, and that he’d “abjectly capitulated” not because I’d made a strong case for why he should, but merely because I’d been so upset and he saw no other way to continue the conversation.   He’d greatly appreciate my reply he wrote, as he considered me his closest friend, and would continue to hold me in that high esteem until after he heard from me that I wasn’t his friend.

I thought of my buddy Tom. 

I waited a couple of weeks, and, goddamn my better nature, wrote him the most thoughtful analysis of our impasse I was capable of.   I spent a few days carefully combing out any formulation I thought might offend him.  In the end I was fairly proud of the piece, one of the best things I’ve ever written, I think.   

It described Complementay Schismogenesis, a dynamic that our impasse was a vivid illustration of.   Two very different types locked in a conflict, the respective efforts of each of them to resolve the conflict makes the schism deeper and wider.   It went into the infernal lawyerly habit of reframing: taking the discussion in a completely different direction so as to change the subject away from the issue at hand.   It talked about the first requirement of friendship: to listen and try to understand before responding.   I reminded him of my particular vulnerability: the hurtfulness of getting silence as response to my question or concern.   It was as deep a discussion of our particular friendship as I could have written. 

I urged him to take his time considering everything I’d written, that there was a lot to think about, a lot to consider, that our friendship was clinging to life at this point.   I reminded him that there was no need for a quick reply, that a rushed or emotional reply would not be helpful, with our badly damaged friendship on the line, as it clearly was.

Naturally, two days later, I got his thoughtful, unfailingly high-minded email.  A friend gratefully replying to his oldest friend’s attempt to get their friendship back on solid ground.    He thanked me for my thoughtful reply and the clear effort I’d made not to hurt his feelings.  He told me he appreciated how I tried to express my feelings.   I couldn’t help noting, as I read, that he’d not responded to a single point I’d raised, or even mentioned one, beyond what is embedded these two perfectly reasonable, well-written paragraphs (note the reframing, by the way):

I know you’ve tried earnestly to educate me as to the nature of the various flaws you perceive in me, and I appreciate that. I know you’re trying to help me be a better person as well as a better friend. I’d like to be able to tell you that, thanks to you giving me a good shaking, I now see the light, and painful though personal growth may be, I see the situation and see myself as you  do.  I’d like ti telk (sic) you I’m confident that I’m on my way to being the better person and friend you’d like me to be. I’d like to be able to say that I can therefore offer you assurance that you need not be concerned that I will again act in a manner that hurts your feelings in a similar way. This would indeed be a happy outcome to all of this. I value our friendship, and know that neither of us is pleased with the prospect of such a long and rich friendship coming to an end. 

At the same time, I have too much respect for you, and too little ability to knowingly try to con a friend, to feed you a line just to smooth over a rough patch. I can certainly assure you that you’ve given me much valuable food for thought, and that I take very seriously everything you’ve said to me. I can assure you that in whatever interactions we might have in the future, I will strive be more aware of how my actions might affect you, and strive to avoid causing you pain. Yet, I understand that we all will determine for ourselves the sorts of behaviors we will tolerate, and the sorts of people we want as friends. So if the person I am at this point in my life isn’t someone you feel you can trust, or my various assets and liabilities just don’t add up to someone you want as a friend, it will sadden me greatly but I’ll understand. You deserve to surround yourself with people who make you feel good. If you conclude that doesn’t include me, my best to you, and thanks for everything–is (sic) been a great ride in countless ways. I’ll hope that at some point you change your mind, and I’ll be here if you do. 

This time there was no need for further delay, my last words on this great ride of our long friendship went back to him at once:   

I understand that this patronizing gloss of a response allows you to believe you’ve acquitted yourself with fairness and integrity, subject to whatever admitted emotional/moral limitations may be in play.   I have too much respect for you to pretend otherwise.  From my point of view, silence would have been infinitely preferable to this last gust of your familiar, unerringly rational superiority, so impeccably polite and correct you can hardly smell the seething, or the fear.

Style tip: the undeniable pathos of it aside, the tell-tale, suck-my-ass bitchiness of lines like these kind of gives the emotional game away:

And, I’m aware that this pain is on top of a lot of other stresses with which you’ve had to contend over the past months–health issues, sudden loss–twice–of health insurance, the pandemic, dismay over the sorry state of our government and our predatory economic system, conflicts in other personal relationships, and so on. I can only imagine how difficult it has been for you.   

I suggest next time you feel called upon to respond to a detailed, vulnerable, emotionally nuanced attempt to save a valued friendship you have already evacuated on, from an old friend you claim to love (and who refrained from lambasting you for acting in the childishly dickish way you unapologetically did the last time we spoke) you follow this template, which works exactly as well as what you’ve written and has the advantage of brevity:     

 
Eliot,
I did appreciate what you wrote last year. I apologize for not writing sooner. I do not however wish to continue dialogue or be in a relationship with you at this time.
Please respect my feelings and refrain form further contact. I honestly wish you well. 
Noam

You have my sympathy, I suppose, for the indigestible lack of nurturing in your early life that left you this rigidly implacable.  You win — your indomitable, bullying father did a more thorough job on your psyche than poor old Irv ever could on mine.    Please tell R_____ I wish her the best of luck, and my best to your sons.   

We’ll have to allow those last words you said to me, before hanging up in rage back in April, to be the final zero-sum words on this matter — true and complete they turn out to have been.   

Then, the stake driven, I put down the hammer and noticed, to my relief, the silence, that fucking music had stopped.   Now all that was left was to digest how my accursed better nature had once again allowed me to believe it was in my power. taking somebody at his word, to carefully think things through, state them as clearly as I am able and have a positive effect on an unresolvable impasse.

What is wrong with us, America?

The New York Times, a highly literate, aspirational outlet for its liberal-minded, well-to-do demographic, sometimes publishes extremely well-researched, important stories.  I have serious concerns with the many things they do not report, their reflexive decision to couch every story, no matter how outrageous, in reasonable-sounding terms, the way they have sometimes directly colluded with the worst things our government does (often simply by agreeing to silence), the massive influence they exert in allowing a murderous status quo to function smoothly and efficiently, but I appreciate that they are also a vital and important news source.   They ran this headline yesterday:

Screenshot_20200506-212539_NYTimes (1)

This widespread child hunger, among young children, in the wealthiest country in human history, is happening as American farmers are destroying massive quantities of food, plowing it into the ground, dumping it, trashing it.   Thousands of tons of edible crops, eggs, dairy products, disposed of because the market for these foods has been eroded by the mass closures necessitated by our efforts to control the pandemic.  

A caller to a radio show recently asked a supremely reasonable question on-air: can’t the military or the national guard send trucks to collect this food and get it to hungry Americans who are already lined up, waiting for it?   The earnest politician she was asking spoke of a few related matters, but they ran out of time for him to answer that specific, excellent question.  I’d love to hear a good answer to why that isn’t being done, as at least one in five young children in America is malnourished and farmers are destroying vast quantities of food.

Presumably shipping that food directly to poor people would be Communism, an unAmerican affront to freedom and liberty.   Indecent, unAmerican, to distribute free food it is much more cost-effective to simply destroy on the spot since it can’t be profitably sold.  

In any case, the president clearly does not care how many low-income Americans have to die, as long as his ratings stay above 38%, the stock market remains upbeat and his chances of winning reelection are viable.   Don’t forget, he registered his 2020 re-election campaign on the day of his inauguration in January, 2017.    

One in five young American children are hungry in our land of food abundance, reports the New York Times.

What is wrong with us as a people?

Low-paid workers, many of them migrants, are recently ordered by the president, by scrawled Executive Order (as he refuses to use the Defense Production Act to order companies to produce needed personal protective equipment, tests, ventilators and other things vital for combating the plague), to show up for their shifts in American meat processing plants.  Never mind safety, never mind health, to hell with the pandemic — the nation needs warriors, says the president, to hack up those slaughtered animals and turn them into meat!   No matter, really, if  he winds up having to walk back this or that particular order, edict or pronouncement, he will announce he was being sarcastic, or meant the exact opposite of what he said.   He’s playful as a puppy!

The same cannot be said for the strongman of the Senate, the man who takes grim pride in his nickname, The Grim Reaper.  He is the proud, rictus-faced murderer of any humane bill that reaches his desk, he simply leaves them on his desk to die of neglect.  No vote, no nothing, make me do it, loser!   This well-married son of a couple of non-entities is not going to let any Commie-style legislation past him.   Getting a law past him that favors the average person over the extraordinary persons he represents, those well-funded corporate persons who keep him in power, is harder than getting a pork chop past a hungry wolf.  

You can read about what motivates this sick, destructive, unprincipled, soulless fuck in great detail in  How Mitch McConnell Became Trump’s Enabler-in-Chief  an exhaustively researched article by the great Jane Mayer.   He is presently seeking to pass legislation to protect our largest corporate persons from that fearsome army of aggressive plaintiff’s lawyers always ready to frivolously sue any business who negligently kills anyone or doesn’t protect their imagined health or rights sufficiently.  Shades of the legislation, at the dawn of the eternal War on Terror, to immunize mercenaries and other military contractors for things like torture and collateral damage.

Lewis Black got several of the last great laughs out of my mother that she ever had, in his one man show from the Kennedy Center, which we watched together on TV in the spring of 2010.  A big laugh came when he aptly described our electoral process. He asked the audience:  when was the last time you went into the voting booth and cast your vote for somebody you really believed was an excellent person for the job?    (For my parents it might have been Adlai Stevenson, who lost against Eisenhower a couple of times and then lost the 1960 Democratic primary to JFK)   No, said Black, you don’t get to vote for that person, ever.  You go into the voting booth, pull the curtain  AND IT’S TWO BOWLS OF SHIT, YOU GOTTA PICK ONE!

Our current reality TV-star, largely ignorant, compulsively  “sarcastic” president ran against Hillary Clinton, a highly competent but problematic politician.  The Democrats went with her because it was “her turn”.   During the lead-up to the 2016 election I heard that Donald and Hillary were the first and second most hated politicians in America.  Sounded about right to me.   I don’t recall which was number one most hated and which was number two, (both smell like number two to me) but, apparently, the best man won, by 78,000 surgically applied votes in every county in the three or four states the big man needed to win the Electoral College.

The bowl of shit the corporate Democrats are proposing as their candidate to beat Trump “like a drum” in 2020 is a vain, surgically enhanced old man with a famously winning televangelist smile and a dodgy political past featuring a lot of right-wing compromises.  He was the long-time senator from Delaware, the corporate incorporation capital of America, after all.  

To be clear, as I did with Ms. Clinton in 2016 (and her husband before that), I will vote for the clear lesser of two evils, hold my nose and choose the bowl of shit not labeled “Trump”.  I will urge everyone I talk to to do the same.   I won’t pretend, though, as the New York Times will, that President Biden will bring about a return to decency, make everything normal again here in the land of the feee and the home of the brave.  He will be a better president than Trump, without a doubt, but so would almost anybody.  After all, Trump is the worst president in American history by a country mile.  How bad?   He makes people, even on the left, nostalgic for his runner up as worst-ever president, George W. Bush.

May we be objective here for a moment?   The smiling blue collar Biden is something of an unapologetic jerk.   He charms his way out of the worst accusations thrown at him, using folksy, workingman’s humor.  After he was publicly admonished for touching women who didn’t want him to touch them he made a joke, putting his arm around a male on the stage with him.   “Look, I asked his consent, he said it was OK,” Biden said to the crowd, who gave him a hearty laugh.   It was probably less funny to any woman he’d been inappropriately handsy with.    Listen to Jeremy Scahill’s excellent analysis of the giant turd in the Biden/Democratic punch bowl

Trump is an absolute pig who takes pride in being that way and has threatened to sue every woman who ever accused him of being what he undoubtedly is, (particularly the ones who are not his type, women he wouldn’t rub against with Mike Pence’s dick).  He was lying about suing them all, it turns out, but then, that’s just his way, he’s litigious, full of puffery.   On a more sincere note, he nonchalantly indicated he’d like to have sex with his daughter Ivanka, you know, if he could get away with it.   He said it like a joke.   “I’d definitely date her,” he said, as his favorite daughter cooed uncomfortably next to him during the TV interview.   He said many other things about women much worse than that.   If you have no problem with a guy like him, he’s probably your man.  Join that solid 38% who love him no matter what he does.

But Joe Biden, self-proclaimed champion of women, has got some serious credibility problems of his own in the matter of his treatment of women, including his occasional unwanted shows of physical affection to women he interacts with.  I thought Jeremy Scahill’s was the best presentation of this truly perplexing situation that I’ve heard yet.  His recent interviews with journalist Melissa Gira Grant and former Nevada lawmaker Lucy Flores were detailed and thought-provoking.

We don’t always stop to think that when a powerful man says, of an accuser’s allegation, “it never happened” it also means “she’s lying.”   Joe Biden says, unequivocally that it never happened, that he never pushed his aide up against the wall and shoved his hand up her skirt and down her panties; therefore, the then young aide, Tara Reade, is lying, she’s a vicious liar.  

The Democrats have been insisting loudly, especially during the administration of a proud serial sexual violator,  that we must give women who complain of mistreatment by powerful men the presumption of credibility (ask former Senator Al Franken, lynched by zealous members of his own party).  As Biden himself said during the Boof Kavanaugh hearings:  

“For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real.” 

Which, of course, is quite different from what he’s saying now, about Tara Reade’s allegation — in her case, she’s simply lying.

Recall his words and actions as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Anita Hill made allegations against now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  Note that Biden did not even support Thomas’s nomination, he was among the 48 who voted “nay” in the 52-48 confirmation [1].   He chaired that committee around the time he is accused of feeling up his young aide in the rudest possible manner.  

He allowed Anita Hill no corroborating witnesses, allowed her to be roughed up by the men of the committee who were allowed to ask her to tell them repeatedly exactly what she claimed Clarence Thomas had said about her lovely breasts and the pubic hair on the Coke can, and how she felt, (was she really humiliated or just flirtatious and later feeling scorned, as women do?)  and why she made no complaint,  and then was forced to tell the same shameful things again, and grilled about why she continued to have a professional relationship with her former boss if he had actually sexually harassed her and made her feel so humiliated, why she didn’t use the brand new sexual harassment laws to bring him to court and humiliate herself … etc.   Biden chaired the circus, which Thomas indignantly called a “high tech lynching”, Biden held the gavel, had the power to make the abuse of Anita Hill stop at any time [2].  

Biden never apologized to Anita Hill, beyond saying, around the time he threw his hat into the ring to be the 2020 Democratic bowl of shit, that he wished there was more he could have done to stop what was done to her.  (Note the lawyer’s use of the passive voice– what was done to her– not what he, or anyone else did– nobody actually did anything, it was simply done, shit happens, gosh…).  It’s not as though he had the power to do more than he did … it isn’t like he was the chairman of the committee, representing the majority on it, or anything like that…

Besides, as he points out, this lying woman, Tara Reade, is talking about something that never happened twenty-seven years ago!   Where was she with her false claim all these years when he was being vetted over and over again?   Since she said nothing all those years, why believe her now when it’s very politically convenient to suddenly come out with this smear?   Biden’s most visible female surrogates, vice presidential hopefuls all, are forced to point out that they believe Joe and that the New York Times reported, about Tara Reade, well, she, there were some holes in her story, and other reasons to doubt she was the most reliable historian… and… and… the New York Times did a thorough investigation several weeks ago and determined…

Get ready to hold your nose, folks.   Joe Biden is the man Tom Perez, Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic brain trust have chosen for you, brought back from the dead on the eve of his defeat, by the coordinated Super-Tuesday eve efforts of a united national party intent on not allowing a vigorous debate about the future of America, the minimum standard of decency we citizens actually deserve, what protections for human citizens are actually needed against merciless corporate persons.   We’ll chose the bowl of shit the Democratic party puts in front of us, if we know what’s good for us.   What choice do we really have?   Do we really want to wake up in November living in the Fourth Reich?  I don’t think so.

What is wrong with us, America?

 

 

[1] The ultra-conservative Thomas received 8 confirmation votes from Democrats; one each from Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia; he got both motherfuckers from Louisiana and Georgia.   Proving how much times have changed her in American race relations, even white southerners recognize the value of putting a black klansman on the nation’s highest court for his lifetime.

[2]  The Republicans who confirmed temperamentally unsuited right-wing extremist Boof Kavanaugh to his lifetime post on our highest court, learned a valuable lesson from the Thomas/Hill shit show.   They enlisted a woman to sympathetically grill Kavanaugh’s main accuser, Christine Blasey-Ford.   As a result, Blasey-Ford’s testimony was heard in full, and believed by most Americans who heard it.   During the break FOX news was in despair, it appeared to be over for choir boy Brett.   It would be up to the angry white Republican men on the committee, led by a crying Lindsey Graham,  to support the indignant, snorting, crying Kavanaugh so he could be confirmed.   Fucking babies.