Craft

I watched an excellent documentary on Frank Zappa, an eccentric musical genius and original thinker who was also a hell of a guitar player.  The film was called Eat That Question (from the title of a Zappa tune).  It struck me how devoted to his craft the almost maniacal Mr. Zappa was.

If you have something you love to do, it is a beautiful thing to hone it to the highest excellence you can reach.   That honing strikes me as a lifelong effort and it seems to me the minute you become totally satisfied with the craft you’ve attained, like, say, Eric Clapton apparently did, you go on autopilot, begin to roll backwards and start to take on a certain stink.

There is a craft, for lack of a better word,  to everything we practice.   A way of doing the thing each time we do it, with an eye toward doing it even better.   In the case of writing, for instance, it is finding a thought or feeling that is important enough for you to focus on and express.   Then you need to put it into words.   Then comes the most important part, to arrange the words so that everything is as clear to the reader as you can make it.   If you decide it’s good enough, before it is, you are not taking your craft very seriously.

(Then you will need to have another cup of coffee, shower and put your pants on, it’s already almost four o’clock.  Yee gads!)

An odd society of married men (final)

For years four married men, and I include myself, as I am as married as anyone (Sekhnet and I have been together twenty years now) would take a ferry ride to an island once a year and spend the day on the beach.   It was an annual tradition that ensured we all got to spend some quality time with a friend who was living abroad and came to the US every summer for a harried, duty-packed visit.   We’d have lunch in a small restaurant there and compare notes on what had happened from the previous year before heading to the beach.   The boat ride there and back, across the sparkling water, was always a highlight of the day.

A few years ago I had a final falling out with a longtime friend named Andy, one of the four, and it became awkward after that to convene the annual meeting.   It would have forced the two men into the conflict, made them choose between me and Andy, something they could not do.   The day was celebrated the last couple of years as a two-some, the two old friends hopping the ferry, eating lunch at the restaurant, spending the day at the beach, catching up.

It must have been one of the last times the four of us were there that the subject of Andy’s wife, Hitler, came up.   I immediately barked out my extreme distaste for her, protested that I was trying to eat and that this harshly opinionated angry little Russian Jew was not a fit subject for mealtime. Andy and I had an understanding that his noisome wife would not be discussed between us.  We’d patched up a friendship Hitler had sundered a few years earlier and not discussing his wife was a condition of our reconciliation. I found it impossible to talk about her without disputing her proclaimed right to express the full measure of her ready rage whenever she wanted to.

But during the polite lunch discussion, Rob, the peacemaker, chided me for my vehemence, for the shorthand “Hitler” (which I stand behind, incidentally) and began defending this woman, Hitler.   “If you really listen to her, and talk to her, she’s really, really smart and she makes a lot of sense”, Rob said.  He noted that she has a great sense of humor.  He said he actually has learned to appreciate her and he gets along great with her now, that he has actually come to like her and feel like she likes him too.   Andy began to laugh an unpleasant, mirthless laugh.

“She fucking hates you, Rob!” Andy said with exaggerated disgust.  He went on to flesh out that hatred a bit.   He did this with a big, humorless smile on his face.  A year or two later Andy’s sickening marriage to Hitler was heading toward a long-overdue divorce.   Andy left her during the separation, moved out of the marital domicile and into a spacious wooden garden apartment that looked like the Zen dojo he’d begun hanging out in with the little sect he’d joined.

Andy, a very bright man who’d scored a perfect hole-in-one on his SATs back in high school, would be quick to point out that a “dojo” is a place where martial artists train and he’d tell me the right word for a place where Zen meditation is done.    In response I’d point out that every place Andy practices anything is a forum for martial arts (and that the only difference between the words “martial” and “marital” is the placement of the I, how’s that for a koan?).

I recall these lunches in particular as a place where unhappily married men complained about and defended their bad marriages.  Since I am not actually married, am not legally contracted to Sekhnet, I was somewhat exempt from this part of the conversation, though, obviously, not really. Everybody has some kind of issue, conflict or problem with virtually everybody else, it’s just one of the features of being human.  

Life partnerships are certainly not exempt from this general rule, in fact, they are often more subject to conflict than less intimate relationships.   The better friendships are the ones where affection causes us to give generous allowances for the foibles of the other, and the proverbial benefit of the doubt.   We’re lucky, in this life, if we find a couple of people we can count on to truly have our best interests at heart and not fight with us too much, it seems, especially during these combative days as we wait for our home, the increasingly besieged earth, to become uninhabitable.

It struck me as a bit ironic that Rob the peacemaker, who defended Andy’s wife, Hitler, against my unfair, if not inaccurate, portrayal, probably also supported him 100% in his decision to divorce her.   It would have been hard not to be supportive of the move.  I am quite sure the divorce did not fix Andy’s somewhat broken life, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.   Rob has been at war with his own wife since shortly after they married, many years ago.  It is one of the most explosive and angry minefields of a marriage I know.   There are periods of uneasy peace surrounded by devastation that has done damage to everybody in its orbit.   I am a casualty, finally, of that toxic relationship.

There is a picture of Andy and me, dressed in misshapen suits, ties inexpertly knotted at our throats, standing on the front stoop of my parents’ house in Queens. Each of us has a bad haircut we probably hacked out ourselves.   The snapshot was taken right before we headed to Rob’s wedding.   I wonder where that photo is.

There were signs at Rob’s wedding, now that I think back, of the disaster that was about to unfold.   A sense of uneasiness and mutual desperation hung over it all, though perhaps my memories are also colored by what has come to pass in the decades since.

                                                                                 ii

To explain why Rob’s marriage was probably doomed to be a war from the start it is necessary to describe my old friend a little.  Rob is also the most important character in this little story as he was my connection to the other married men in the odd society of married men who spent a day at the beach every year.  I’d met Andy through Rob (they’d been at an Ivy League college together) and later I met the émigré, the man for whose company we’d meet at the ferry terminal every summer.   Keep that thought in mind, Rob as the nexus, and the oldest friend of each of us, since it may explain some things later.

Rob has always been a nervous person. He was a nervous boy when I met him in fourth grade when we became best friends, after he had skipped into my grade. The nervous boy grew into a nervous teenager and later a nervous man.   A very smart kid and an intelligent, thoughtful man, I have rarely known him not to be nervous about something.

He comes by it honestly, I would say.  Rob was raised by somewhat nervous parents, two people I knew quite well for decades.  After Rob and I became friends our parents became close friends too.   The families spent many holidays together.    In some families (like Rob’s, actually) I would have called his parents Aunt and Uncle.   The families were very close and I was familiar with Rob’s domineering maternal grandmother as well.    Rob and I went in different directions in High School and fell out of touch for a number of years.

At one point Rob’s mother, Caroline, came across an envelope of James Bond trading cards Rob and I had pasted on to pages and written humorous captions for, many years earlier (Sean Connery was Bond on those cards).  I’d found them in a closet and sent the collection to Rob, whom I hadn’t seen for a few years.   On top of the pile I’d scrawled a note to the effect that “someday we’ll play guitars”.   As I recall, Caroline framed that note, after weeping joyfully to my mother over the life-affirming optimism of an old friend reaching out that way to a friend he’d grown apart from.

We did play guitar a few years later, in San Francisco, where Rob was living at the time.  The cover story for his sojourn in SF, as I recall, was that he was becoming a California resident to get in-state tuition for medical school.  He was actually playing in a rock band, trying to be as close to a full-time musician as he could be.   He had already abandoned the idea of medical school and was probably working on how to best break the news of his career change to his folks.

I plugged a guitar into a large amp in the concrete warehouse room where his band practiced.  It was just Rob and me in the reverb-rich room.  I loved the sound, played some bluesy line, sustaining a note against the wonderful acoustics of that big empty room and Rob’s jaw dropped as he told me how much I sounded like Clapton [1].   This may seem a silly image to include here, but it will be useful to recall later on.

Sometime later, back in New York, we had a remarkable jam session in the basement office of a pediatrician named Dr. Geller (who turned out to have been Sekhnet’s pediatrician, she recalled his enormous hands).   Geller owned the house Rob’s parents rented, the home where Rob and his older sister were raised. I’d had many a holiday meal in that house, in the company of our two families. I’d spent massive amounts of time in that house over the years, but had never been down to Geller’s office before that night.  It was a remarkable session, with Andy on synthesizer keyboard.   It was the first time I’d played with Andy and there was a certain magic to the musical connection that first time.

But none of this explains why Rob was doomed to a combative marriage, so onward. He’d had a series of fairly longterm girlfriends over the years, but as far as I knew, for many years, none of them were Jewish.   In his mind he could only marry a Jewish woman, so this easy out kept his sexual relationships limited in a certain crucial way.   A way that eventually caused great pain, and sometimes anger, in his longterm partners.  A psychiatrist finally pointed this pattern out to Rob, when he was in his early thirties.  I remember Rob telling me about this breakthrough session when he realized, with the shrink’s help, that it was essential for him to date a Jewish girl and get married as soon as possible.   He proceeded to do exactly that.

I liked the woman, though she seemed volatile.   Her older brother (a guy Rob and I both knew in passing at Hebrew School), we soon learned, had opted out of the family, not contacting any of them for years.   This happens in families, I figured, who knows what the whole story is?   The haste with which they got engaged and married may not have been to my taste (I’m still not officially married, nor is Sekhnet planning to marry me) but it wasn’t my business, really.   Yet there was still something a little unsettling about the lead up to the wedding and the wedding itself.  An ominous foreshadowing, if you will.

There was a dinner party before the wedding, at a Mexican restaurant, maybe it was their engagement party.   Hitler, Andy’s wife,  insulted Rob’s oversensitive sister in a curt, particularly brutal manner.   I remember feeling a tension at that dinner that I can only say felt tense.

The bachelor party for Rob was also memorable for something being off about it, even for a bachelor party.   The main thing I recall is that the party was commandeered by the loud, overbearing, drunken asshole brother-in law of the bride, a boisterous clown named Eddie.   My main memory is of Eddie loudly critiquing the body of a stripper in a bar he’d dragged us to.   Perhaps her breasts or buttocks were not up to his exacting standards, although it could have been literally anything, or nothing, at that point.  He was shit-faced and somehow in charge.

Eddie would not be Rob’s brother-in-law that much longer, he and Rob’s wife’s sister divorced not long after that idiotic display of alpha-maleness.   I don’t disparage anyone for getting divorced from someone who mistreats them.  I have been divorced myself several times over the years, even if not from a marriage.   When all you are getting from a relationship is grief, harshness, abuse — time to hop on the bus, Gus.  In fact, for that reason, a terrible relationship, Rob’s wife wrote off her younger sister a few years later.  The sister, although seemingly pleasant enough, is apparently an unredeemable complete fucking bitch.

Rob and his wife finally reached the conclusion that they were better off apart.  They could not find a way out of their eternal war.   A year or two ago they sat their two sons down and informed them of their plan to split up, to divorce. Then, miraculously, they unaccountably reconciled when their younger son moved across the country for college.  It was like a rebirth for their relationship, a beautiful new springtime, though it was not very long before catastrophic sky-blackening storms swept back in.

Now this here, what I am doing now, this is what I always do.   I write about things that are nobody’s business, betray people left and right, simply for the sake of an “interesting” story, even if I don’t use their full names, or any names.  They know it’s them I’m writing about, and that’s the unspeakable thing, that I am publicly probing into things they don’t want probed into, particularly, and most unforgivably, in the public space of the internet.  I eventually write about ticklish, chafing details that make people who used to be my friends angry, defensive, sometimes vindictive.   My beloved Sekhnet, on reading part one of this piece, had a related reaction and a one word review: “flush!”

In other words, down the drain with this whole nasty subject, done with the eternal bad feelings it engenders, these sad and distasteful details of disappointing, doomed disputes with desperate people.  “Flush!” she said again when I began trying to explain why these lived materials from my life are so useful to me.

She listened as I went on about the personal experiences and lessons of one’s life being the most important things to ponder and learn from, the richest things to write clearly about, the best tools for attaining insights and for personal growth.   Plus, I pointed out, there is a great punchline to this particular story, if I can manage to tell it correctly, more than one punchline, actually.   She eventually agreed not to say “flush!” again, for this particular tale, at least.

So onward, but not today, my allotted writing time is at an end.  Part three will put the final pieces in place and hopefully provide a satisfying, if mildly merciless, punchline.

                                                                      iii

In the end, the real trouble between men is not a wife like Hitler who forbids her husband to have someone as a friend.  It is the individual who must act with integrity, or not.  Looking around it doesn’t take long to see that integrity is in short supply in our relentlessly competitive world.  It is not our fault, strictly speaking, as violence is often the rule — faced with superior force we are often stopped in our tracks. Maybe homo sapiens are doomed to eternal compromise with the killers who are always among us and some of that compromise is soul-crushing.

I do the only thing I can imagine doing from one day to the next, try to make sense of seemingly incoherent things.  I know it makes me appear to be a smugly superior asshole to some people, but it’s the best way I’ve found to deal with things that perplex me.

Much of the conflict in the world is the result of incoherent narratives, things we believe based purely on feelings. Armies march for reasons that make absolutely no sense, though a rousing excuse is always given for the slaughter, no matter how otherwise empty and incoherent the war slogans might be. The twitching man with the loaded gun does not need a rational explanation when he tells you to lie on the fucking floor so he can blow your head off.  How the west was won, how slavery was maintained for centuries, how great tracts of land have always changed hands, how fortunes have always been made. Thus it has always been among we who are made of flesh.

At the table on that holiday island we always spoke of long-time intractable problems that sometimes were better and sometimes were worse. There was rarely a perceptible change from year to year in the larger picture of this circle of problematically married men.  This is the lot of virtually everyone, this ebbing and flowing of good and bad fortune and the moods that accompany these changes. I try not to be judgmental, though I do not always succeed in this.

I got a text from Rob that he needed to see me immediately. I called and got a text not to use the phone, just to text him a time and place to meet. I asked what it was about, but he couldn’t say anything but that it was urgent that we talk face to face.

When he showed up in his car he was extremely nervous, even for him. I probed, after a session of small-talk, and learned why his eyelid was twitching. He was there to confront me, to accuse me of deliberately, or thoughtlessly, trying to destroy his marriage. I was probably out of their lives, he said, with no way to redeem myself, because what I’d done was so destructive and unforgivable. But he was going to give me a chance to save our friendship by talking my way out of my death sentence.

What had I done that marked me this way?  Made a remark to his wife, in passing, that she, weeks later, weaponized and used to whip him bloody in front of their marriage counselor. The therapist agreed that I was a malicious force in their marriage who needed to be dealt with immediately.

I walked Rob and myself through everything I could remember about the remark, which was essentially that the wife’s ten minute story about an embittering encounter between the wife and Andy made a lot more sense than Rob’s harried one minute version of the same story about a month earlier. Rob’s story made little sense, but as I have no use for Andy, except perhaps to throw him on the ground and kick him, I didn’t probe for details and we went on to other subjects. Rob immediately expressed regret for telling me anything about his wife’s run-in with Andy. The wife’s story was much more detailed and I understood things I had not when I first heard a rushed, regretted version from Rob that I asked not a single clarifying question about.

The wife seized on my “oh, that makes much more sense than the story Rob told me,” as proof that Rob’s oldest friend also says you’re a fucking liar, Rob, a fucking liar! The therapist was hard-pressed to disagree. You need to confront this person, she’d told him. His wife told them he was afraid of me. He rushed to confront me.

Another man might have reacted to the accusation differently than I did, maybe just punched him in the face, like in a western, just to make it stop.  I wasn’t raised that way, so I went through everything I could remember, a process I repeat whenever I sit down to write. I suppose it’s part of my nature to muse over puzzles, and this was one of the more piquant puzzles that my nose has ever been shoved into. Rob seemed satisfied by the end that I had not intended his marriage fatal harm, intentionally or unconsciously.  Still, he raised other issues with me, had other suspicions and accusations. He seemed intent on keeping me on the defensive.  I have to say, I hate that kind of shit.

Here I will give you a little additional information about the odd society of married men who used to assemble around a table once a year at that restaurant on Fire Island. Rob is Jewish, as am I, so his particular psychological type is familiar to me. Having grown up in the same cultural milieu I get the whole set-up, learned the same formulation of moral values that are supposed to be taken seriously and all the rest. Culturally, the other two problematically married men were always a bit more mysterious to me in some ways.

Andy is a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon version of the classic jovial passive-aggressive, from stock that one writer (Dennis Potter) referred to as “a pinched and whining breed.” Andy’s personal mix is finished with a cringing grandiosity tinged with self-hatred.  If you don’t actually hate yourself, at least a little, you will never understand it. I confess, I truly don’t understand the sick fuck. As for the émigré, you’d have to ask him yourself, he is no longer talking to me, for reasons he need not specify.

I could not simply flush this whole matter of the death of my oldest friendship, as Sekhnet urged me to do. Andy proved himself exceedingly flushable in the end, my life enriched by his subtraction from it, as Rob also turned out to be, in the end, but the part about the émigré continued to bug me.   I knew why I couldn’t be friends with Rob, it was his constant provocation and his infernal, convoluted denials about it.   What was his gripe against me, exactly?

I reached out to Rob, assuming that he’d cried piteously to his old friend about my heartlessness and that had affected his friend to cut ties with me.  It took weeks after my phone calls, and the formulation of precise questions which I emailed to him at his texted request, and a good deal of diligence and forbearance on my part, but eventually Rob gave me the three unforgivable things I had done to him. He told me he had not talked to the émigré about our falling out, in any detail, at least until I’d asked about it in one of the three emailed questions.

His wife told him I’d worn a fucking wire on him the last time we spoke, on what he admitted had been “a bad day.”  Wore a fucking wire like a fucking fuck. An unforgivable betrayal, under any circumstances.

His wife told him I’d said I’d been mad enough at him, at one point in our maddening chat, to want to punch him, throw him on the ground and kick him to make him shut the fuck up.  Unforgivable, no matter what the provocation supposedly was, no matter if I’d acted on it or not.

His wife told him I’d called him a pussy. Unforgivable!

This last bit was a slight distortion of what I’d said.  I had a revelation while she and I were speaking (she’d called to offer the choice of unconditional acceptance of a blanket apology for whatever I thought Rob might have done to me, or fucking myself– something I already periodically do). I realized toward the end of the conversation why Rob was always so competitive with me.  It was only tangentially related to that Clapton sound I could get on a guitar.

The real conflict, it came to me in a flash, was that Rob’s father had never stood up to his wife, and that Rob felt that he was unable to stand up to his wife, or to anybody, really, but that he feels I somehow hold my own in these situations, always seem able to take care of myself, somehow.

So Rob feels, on some level, like he’s a pussy, I told her, and he feels, for whatever reason, that I am not a pussy, and it makes him angry and so he provokes me and he can’t help himself or stop doing it.

“You are definitely not a pussy,” she said.  (The jury is still out on this, I think it’s safe to say).

Then she told her husband that anybody who could be friends with somebody who thinks he’s a pussy is a fucking pussy, end of story.  That’s all she wrote.

 

 

[1]  I don’t want to get bogged down in this Clapton business right now.  I love his tone, Eric’s vibrato is up there in a class almost by itself, the touch and the microtones are beautiful and subtle, etc. but he is an extremely limited guitarist. Great singer, excellent musician, can do that one thing beautifully on guitar, plus the nice acoustic blues picking, but truly, I don’t get why he is not a better and more versatile guitarist by now.  It’s like a failure of imagination, a dull incuriousness, an insane commitment to “brand,” or just an indication of a kind of rigidity, or something.   His autobiography reveals him as something of a shallow jackass, maybe that explains it.  Anyway, Clapton’s vibrato is beautiful, I’ve always loved it and I did indeed strive to master it, to the extent I ever did.

The importance of editing

I have an old friend who doesn’t understand why ham-fisted or dick-fingered editing is so maddening to a writer.  We who choose our words with care always chafe when someone swaps out our precise formulations and inserts cliches.    My friend doesn’t understand this, because, if they are paying you, don’t they have a right to decide what they like about your writing or not?   I wrote this for her.

I want to show my friend something about writing, and a little bit about my notion of honor and trust.

“Would you have any objection to me recording this conversation?”

“Yes, I would. Why would you want to record me?” she will ask.

“I want a personal record of this conversation we’re about to have,” I’ll say.

“You want to wear a fucking wire on me, you fucking fuck?”

“Not a wire,” I’ll say, “ a personal record of our talk, for only our use, yours and mine. I’ll make you a copy and you can listen to it if you like. I’m planning to listen to it, if this talk turns out to be at all interesting, which I’m pretty sure it will. I won’t play it for anyone else.”

“Call it what you want, making a ‘personal record’ is wearing a fucking wire, you fucking fuck,” she’ll say.

“I promise that only you and I will ever hear it,” I’ll say.

“You’ll write about it,” she’ll say.

“If I do, I’ll give you whatever I write, for your approval, before anybody else sees it,” I’ll say.

“I preemptively revoke my approval,” she’ll say “what is the use of this recording? It could only come back to haunt me, in some hideously distorted form. Or am I supposed to learn something from hearing my own words, is that your idiot plan, teacher man?”

“Not directly, but maybe so. If our words find their way onto a printed page you will find out a lot about the process of writing and editing. A simple transcript of the talk may not be satisfying to either of us. That’s where some tightening up, some editing comes in, and you will have final editorial say.

“Anything you object to, we will simply edit out of the conversation. Anything that would make anybody feel bad, anything that doesn’t feel 100% kosher, anything that would embarrass anyone. We simply edit it out. We may have to change a few words at the end of what the person before said, for the natural flow of the conversation to make sense, but we will only change words we both agree on and only add things that make what we’re saying more clear than when we originally said it, with the facial expressions, body language and so on that won’t be conveyed in the mere words.”

“I’m not going to sit at a computer and rewrite anything,” she’ll say.

“I’ll do all that. I’ll give you a printed copy, cross out whatever you want and I’ll read you all the changes and edits for your final approval. Plus, I won’t try to sell or post it unless I have your permission. I’m not in any way doing this to make you look bad. I think we’re going to have an interesting conversation and I’d like to have an accurate personal record of it, as a keepsake and a tool.

“Those kind of verbatim notes are invaluable if you are writing, the actual words the people spoke, not a recreation or imagining of what they said, how they spoke. Plus, like I said, you will understand the difference between good editing and shit editing by the time we are done making our talk read as smoothly as possible.”

“What topic do you have in mind?” she’ll say.

“I have in mind only where our conversation takes us,” I’ll say.

“Bullshit,” she’ll say “how many hidden agendas did you sneak in here today?”

“Only one or two, I promise you,” I’ll say.

“I don’t want you to record me,” she’ll say.

“I’ll only record myself, then, if that’s okay,” I’ll say.

“That’s even worse,” she’ll say, “you performing for the open mic.”

“At least if it’s both of us, you will get to understand, without a doubt, how good editing is a very wonderful thing and how bad editing bites and sucks with many rows of razor sharp teeth, like a shark.” I’ll say.

“I don’t really care if you record me,” she’ll say, “I was just busting your balls because you always tell me I’m paranoid. I’m not worried because, if it came down to it, I could kick your fucking ass, as you well know. Hit ‘record’ and let’s dance, Bozo.”

An odd society of married men (part 2)

To explain why Rob’s marriage was probably doomed to be a war from the start it is necessary to describe my old friend a little.  Rob is also the most important character in this story as he was my connection to the other married men in the odd society of married men who spent a day at the beach every year.  I’d met Andy through Rob (they’d been at an Ivy League college together) and later I met the émigré, the man for whose company we’d meet at the ferry terminal every summer.   Keep that thought in mind, Rob as the nexus, since it will explain some things later.

Rob has always been a nervous person. He was a nervous boy when I met him in fourth grade when we became best friends, after he had skipped into my grade.  He grew into a nervous man.   A very smart kid and an intelligent, thoughtful man, I have rarely known him not to be nervous about something.   

He comes by it honestly, I would say.  Rob was raised by somewhat nervous parents, two people I knew quite well for decades.  After Rob and I became friends our parents became close friends too.   The families spent many holidays together.    In some families (like Rob’s, actually) I would have called his parents Aunt and Uncle.   The families were very close and I was familiar with Rob’s domineering maternal grandmother as well.    Rob and I went in different directions in High School and fell out of touch for a number of years.

At one point Rob’s mother, Caroline, came across an envelope of James Bond trading cards Rob and I had pasted on to pages and written humorous captions for, many years earlier (Sean Connery was Bond on the cards).  I’d found them in a closet and sent the collection to Rob, whom I hadn’t seen for a few years.   On top of the pile I’d scrawled a note to the effect that “someday we’ll play guitars”.   As I recall, Caroline framed that note, after weeping joyfully to my mother over the life-affirming optimism of an old friend reaching out that way to a friend he’d grown apart from.

We did play guitar a few years later, in San Francisco, where Rob was living at the time.  The cover story for his sojourn in SF, as I recall, was that he was becoming a California resident to get in-state tuition for medical school.  He was actually playing in a rock band, trying to be as close to a full-time musician as he could be.   He had already abandoned the idea of medical school and was probably working on how to best break the news of his career change to his folks.

I plugged a guitar into a large amp in the concrete warehouse room where his band practiced.  It was just Rob and me in the reverb-rich room.  I loved the sound, played some bluesy line, sustaining a note against the wonderful acoustics of that big empty room and Rob’s jaw dropped as he told me how much I sounded like Clapton [1].   This may seem a silly image to include here, but it will be useful to recall later on.   

Sometime later, back in New York, we had a remarkable jam session in the basement office of a pediatrician named Dr. Geller (who turned out to have been Sekhnet’s pediatrician, she recalled his enormous hands).   Geller owned the house Rob’s parents rented, the home where Rob and his older sister were raised.   I’d had many a holiday meal in that house, in the company of our two families.  I’d spent massive amounts of time in that house over the years, but had never been down to Geller’s office before that night.  It was a remarkable session, with Andy on synthesizer keyboard.   It was the first time I’d played with Andy and there was a certain magic to the musical connection that first time.

But none of this explains why Rob was doomed to a combative marriage, so onward.  He’d had a series of fairly longterm girlfriends over the years, but as far as I knew, for many years, none of them were Jewish.   In his mind he could only marry a Jewish woman, so this easy out kept his sexual relationships limited in a certain way.   A way that eventually caused great pain, and sometimes anger, in his longterm partners.  A psychiatrist finally pointed this pattern out to Rob, when he was about thirty.  I remember Rob telling me about this breakthrough session when he realized, with the shrink’s help, that it was essential for him to date a Jewish girl and get married as soon as possible.   He proceeded to do exactly that.

I liked the woman, though she seemed volatile.   Her older brother (a guy Rob and I both knew in passing at Hebrew School), we soon learned, had opted out of the family, not contacting any of them for years.   This happens in families, I figured, who knows what the whole story is?   The haste with which they got engaged and married may not have been to my taste (I’m still not officially married) but it wasn’t my business, really.   Yet there was still something a little unsettling about the lead up to the wedding and the wedding itself.  A foreshadowing, if you will.

There was a dinner party before the wedding, at a restaurant, maybe it was their engagement party.   Hitler, Andy’s wife,  insulted Rob’s oversensitive sister in a curt, particularly brutal manner.   I remember feeling a tension at that dinner that I can only say felt tense.   The bachelor party for Rob, a few months later, was also memorable for something being off about it, even for a bachelor party.   The main thing I recall is that the party was commandeered by the loud, overbearing, drunken asshole brother-in law of the bride, Eddie.   My main memory is of Eddie loudly critiquing the body of a stripper in a bar he’d dragged us to, calling her a dog of some kind.   Perhaps her breasts were not up to his exacting standards, although it could have been literally anything, or nothing, at that point.  He was shit-faced and somehow in charge.

Eddie would not be Rob’s brother-in-law that much longer, he and Rob’s wife’s sister divorced not long after that idiotic display of alpha-maleness.   I don’t disparage anyone for getting divorced from someone who mistreats them.  I have been divorced myself several times over the years, even if not from a marriage.   When all you are getting from a relationship is grief, harshness, abuse — time to get on the bus, Gus.  In fact, for that reason, a terrible relationship, Rob’s wife wrote off her younger sister a few years later.  The sister, apparently, is an unredeemable complete fucking bitch.

Rob and his wife finally reached the conclusion that they were better off apart.  They could not find a way out of their own eternal war.   A year or two ago they sat their two sons down and informed them of their plan to split up, to divorce. Then, miraculously, they unaccountably reconciled when their younger son moved across the country for college.  It was like a rebirth for their relationship, a beautiful new springtime, though it was not very long before catastrophic storms swept back in.

Now this here, what I am doing now, this is what I always do.   I write about things that are nobody’s business, betray people left and right, even if I don’t use their full names, or any names.  They know it’s them I’m writing about, and that’s the unspeakable thing, that I am publicly probing into things they don’t wanted probed into, particularly, and most unforgivably, in the public space of the internet.  I eventually write about ticklish details that make people who used to be my friends angry, defensive, sometimes vindictive.   My beloved Sekhnet, on reading the previous post, had a related reaction and a one word review: “flush!”  

In other words, down the drain with this whole nasty subject, done with the eternal bad feelings it engenders, these sad and distasteful details of disappointing, doomed disputes with miserable people.  “Flush!” she said again when I began trying to explain why these materials are so useful to me.  

She listened as I went on about the personal experiences and lessons of one’s life being the most important things to ponder and learn from, the richest things to write clearly about, the best tools for attaining insights and for personal growth.   Plus, I pointed out, there is a great punchline to this particular story, if I can manage to tell it correctly, more than one punchline, actually.   She eventually agreed not to say “flush” again, for this particular tale, at least.

So onward, but not today, my allotted writing time is at an end.  Part three will put the final pieces in place and hopefully provide a satisfying, if mildly merciless, punchline.

(to be continued)

 

 

[1]  I don’t want to get bogged down in this Clapton business right now.  I love his tone, Eric’s vibrato is up there in a class almost by itself, the touch and the microtones are beautiful and subtle, etc. but he is an extremely limited guitarist. Great singer, excellent musician, can do that one thing beautifully on guitar, plus the nice acoustic blues picking, but truly, I don’t get why he is not a better and more versatile guitarist by now.  It’s like a failure of imagination, a dull incuriousness,  or an insane commitment to “brand,” or just an indication of a kind of rigidity, or something.   His autobiography reveals him as something of a shallow jackass, maybe that explains it.  Anyway, Clapton’s vibrato is beautiful, I’ve always loved it and I did indeed strive to master it, to the extent I ever did.

Three short summaries

For those who don’t like to wade through long posts, here are capsule distillations of three recent ones I struggled to get right (and edited numerous times for clarity before and after posting):

I was hurt for weeks over an inability to salvage my oldest friendship.  I finally composed a question to put the final pieces to the troubling puzzle in my hands.   I asked the guy what my final unforgivable act was.   He told me: my wife told me you recorded our last conversation, she told me you said you were mad enough to punch me in the face, she told me you said I was a pussy and she won’t be married to anyone whose so-called friend regards him as an unmanly coward.   link

I pondered the two most common approaches to anger: getting angry and repressing anger.   I concluded that the advantage to feeling anger, and sitting with it long enough to understand why you were angry, is that it gives you the possibility of having less anger in your life.   Repressing anger cannot lead to that place.  I provided an illustration or two of each approach.    link

An aggravating medical situation persisted for an additional week as I waited for test results that would determine whether I needed to worry about late stage bladder or prostate cancer.  The cause for my aggravation turned out to be a failure of technology (Samsung phone will not display T-Mobile voicemail notifications) and poor office follow-up with the doctor.   I learned, a week belatedly, that the doctor had promptly left me a compassionate voicemail with all the info I needed, but the message was not readily available on my phone.  His staff took days to follow-up with him and I didn’t get his subsequent voicemails until days after that. Things escalated unnecessarily as I kept receiving bureaucratic stonewalling, instead of empathy and help and the doctor kept leaving me messages I didn’t get as messages from the insane patient grew increasingly hostile.   Everything was finally resolved amicably during a short talk with the doctor.   link

That post, which began with a sentence claiming “we were both right” now begins, more precisely:

A completely avoidable misunderstanding, made possible by a design flaw and human error.  The first party did exactly the right thing, the second party was continually misinformed, by day seven both parties were right to be indignant, both parties were right to think the other a complete asshole.

Sometimes things actually shake out that way.   Both parties wind up angry, and both have good reason to feel angry, based on what they are each being told about the other.  Cutting out the unreliable “middleman” is really the only way to resolve this kind of difficulty.

 

Writing for real

I have to consider the possibility that all this writing I do is driven by a compulsion similar to what I regard as my graphomania, a sometimes uncontrollable urge to make marks on paper.   I write that sentence not to castigate or judge myself, but to view myself for a minute as others, untroubled by a need to set their thoughts and feelings down clearly in words, must sometimes view me.  

Put it this way, you can tell a complicated story to a friend who is quite interested in what you are talking about and they will always hear you out.  That same story, set out in 1,500 words, might well be unbearable for them to read.   Why is this insane bastard sending me this long section of his obsessive personal diary?   This insane bastard sings like a bird, why doesn’t he perform in a coffee house instead of madly singing to me?    We have coffee houses and clubs for singing birds, why is this bird sitting on my shoulder and singing directly into my ear?   Ewwwww…

Years ago, when I drew a lot, everywhere, somebody sitting next to me on the subway would from time to time ask me if I could always draw.   They sometimes seemed to be looking for a tip about how to draw.   I used to tell them that I always loved to draw, though I wasn’t especially good at it when I started, though I always found it great fun.   If you love something you will keep doing it and it’s natural that you’ll get better and better.   The love of the thing will keep you delighted to do it.   The delight will keep you at it and your mastery of the thing will improve.

I have often thought of this in regard to other things.   When you strike a note on a guitar, if you love the sound of the guitar, you will notice there are different ways to sound the note.   There is a great pleasure in this discovery.   If you strike the note with the soft pad of your finger the note has one sound, kind of round.   Think of the great bossa nova guitarists.   If you strike the note hard with a pick, your finger immobile on the note, you get a certain sound, you can also “attack” softly with a pick.   The kind of pick, hard or flexible, influences the sound of the note as does the gauge of the strings.   In addition to picking the note, you can hammer the note on, you can pull off to get another note.   If you fret the note below where it naturally sounds on the fretboard and bend the string up to it, you get another sound entirely, a singing sound.  You can bend the note one whole step, as blues guitarists and rock stars generally do — one distinct sound, or you can bend the note up a half step, as Django used to, a much different, and playful, sound.  There are also countless microtones you can stop on as you bend from one tone to another.   Mr. Clapton is a master of this, as is, more notably perhaps, and more masterfully, Mr. Beck,  Jeff Beck.  There is vibrato, plucking, tapping, fast picking, sliding a la glissando, harmonics, all kinds of ways to play a note.

All to say, if you love a thing, it is not work to learn more about it, to study it, to be so compelled that the thing itself is of infinite value to you.

I appreciate, more deeply than I can say, that in a robustly commercial society where all real value is monetary (and an unmonetized space, like the ad-free hold time of a business phone call, is a sadly wasted space, to those who love monetization above all else) what I have said above makes absolutely no sense.   A psychologist may agree that in terms of stress reduction, or increasing self-esteem, daily engagement in activities you do well and enjoy greatly are ‘mastery exercises’ that have mental health benefits to the individual.   Don’t found your life on them, mind you, but they have a certain value.

Found your life on your love of them at your peril, friends.   You may find yourself with excellent control of pencil, pen and brush, able to “kill an edge” with great precision in a way that will impress your friends if they are watching.   There used to be an ad on matchbooks “learn to drive the big rigs, flash a big bill-fold and impress your friends!”   If you’re doing it to impress your friends,  I completely understand.   Who am I to opine about what motivations are more noble or laudable than others?  As a teenager I deliberately set out to master a little piano, which I taught myself from what I knew on guitar, to impress girls.   It once actually worked!  She sat on my lap as I played Beatles songs with my arms around her, and the rest, a veritable magical mystery tour.

I sometimes imagine the electronic book of my life.  It would be lavishly illustrated, with some of the millions of images I continually make with no purpose except love of making the marks.  My desk is continually overflowing with them.  It is horrible in a way, this profusion of useless but largely beautiful debris.  I would select a hundred compelling images  and put them in the colorful book.  I would take a hundred pages of my best writing, maybe two hundred, place them between the pictures.   Since the technology is there, I’d add sound files, with some of the music I have come up with over the years.   You’d be happy to buy it.  You’d love it, if you were the right kind of person.

I try not to judge, though I am often unsuccessful in this.   People have very different experiences and expectations of life.  My own are eccentric in the eyes of many people, I realize that.  It comes with dancing to your own idiosyncratic rhythm section.  

I love reading well-written history books sometimes.  I love Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, a masterpiece.   She writes, about the assumption, in the Jerusalem court that tried him for his enormous bureaucratic crimes,  that Eichmann was a normal middle class German of his time:

They preferred to conclude from his occasional lies that he was a liar — and missed the greatest moral and even legal challenge of the whole case.  Their case rested on the assumption that the defendant, like all “normal persons,” must have been aware of the criminal nature of his acts, and Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.”  However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to react “normally.”   This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape.  (p.27)

As for the title of this post, real writing, at its best, makes you stop to wonder.  It changes, even for only a moment, how you think and feel and makes you consider your own life and the world around you in a different way.   It is wonderful shit.

The lesson of my father’s life

The painful regrets and too late apologies my father recited the night before he died dramatically illuminated mistakes to try to avoid in my own life.    My father had a quick wit, was sensitive, well-read, thoughtful, well-spoken.    He also saw the world as black and white, a zero-sum game that had only winners and losers.

“That’s not really how it is, Elie,” he told me in that weak dead man’s voice the last night of his life.  “I wish I’d been able to see the many gradations and colors of the world,  I think now how much richer my life would have been…”

As he was leaving the world he regretted his maniacal focus on being a “winner”, a silly abstraction in a game that everyone, in the end, must lose by giving up life, consciousness, all possessions.  Being a winner to my father meant never tolerating disrespect, and, more precisely, never losing an argument.   He was a strong, confident debater, even if he reflexively exerted this well-exercised power on his young children.   He deeply regretted this lifelong mistake and the merciless burdens it placed on his children, expressing his sorrow in a weak voice about sixteen hours before he breathed his last breath.

He came by his obsession with winning honestly, early in his life, but I think the word ‘winning’ is more properly rendered ‘surviving’ or ‘maintaining integrity’.   He’d been born in desperate poverty, raised by a cruel, violent, religious mother and a father of few words whose main concern was not getting beaten any more.   My father told me that he and his little brother were earmarked as classic losers, the sons of a brain damaged man, from day one.  Their future was decided by their uncle and his brilliant son and daughter — the Widem boys would go to trade school, learn to work sheet metal.   They were fit for nothing higher, in the opinion of the people in charge of the family.    Both made it to college, graduate school and the middle class, in spite of the odds against them.

 The fear and the indignities of their childhood never left them.  It didn’t help, of course, that all but a couple of their many aunts and uncles were slaughtered in a Belarusian hamlet that was wiped off the world map forever.  

“Elie, not to be a prick or anything,” said the skeleton of my father from his grave in Cortlandt, New York, “but didn’t you recently write over a thousand pages about my life already?   Presumably there were lessons in there too, I mean, in a sense, wasn’t that why you started the process in the first place?”    

Yes, of course.   My focus today is a little different, though.    

“Not seeing the sad parallels between my essentially solitary life and your own?   Locked in an endless battle to be conclusively right, in spite of your dedication to non-harm, or what did that little Indian guy who slept naked with his naked teenaged nieces to show he could overcome lust call it– ahimsa.   You know, you can be absolutely right and at the same time blind to the effect your insistence on being right has on others.”    

Jesus, dad, you’re reading my mind.   What I’m thinking about glancing from the computer screen to the window out into the grey afternoon, are the choices we make, how we use our time.   Not everyone is wired to think deeply on the things that vex them.    

“Well, I had a large part in wiring your brain that way, providing endless vexations for a small boy with a curious, nimble mind to brood upon.   Your imagination is a blessing and a curse.   Imagine less, sometimes you’re better off.   Look, clearly, you’re imagining these words of mine now, I am now but a long-time skeleton, a literary conceit, and maybe, at this point, also a tired one.   A rubber crutch, if you will.”

Funny as a rubber crutch, the jokes that killed vaudeville… 

“Yeah, listen, Elie, you write everyday but nobody is all that interested until a book or an article comes out of it.  Nobody you know is capable of being interested in that ton of verbiage you produce, even if most of it is well-written, even if some of it is genuinely insightful.    As that alcoholic dispatcher at Prometheus used to sympathetically tell you all the time, whenever you complained —  ‘nobody cares, nobody cares.’  

“A writer writes not for the handful of readers he or she knows, they write for people they don’t know, and they get paid to do it.  You grasp this, and yet, you are constantly disappointed that nobody you know gives a shit.  Nobody you know gives a shit, only you can care about this uncontrollably prolific output.   Trust me on this.  Get some of your writing in print and they will be very happy to be happy for you, even read it.  Were they not all happy for you when you got a few words published and paid for?”

Yes, they were unanimously happy for me, every one of them.    They read each of those hamfistedly edited thousand word pieces, loved ’em.

“I know what sent you to the keyboard to write this today.   You’re wrestling with a need to be right that suddenly seems to you uncannily like my need to be right, a need you correctly condemn as primitive and conflict-producing.   The need to be right is deeply human, it’s also at the root of most human conflict.   Most people when they begin fighting with an old friend, have the same fight a few times, conclude the other person is not worth fighting with and walk away.   The person who keeps fighting is an unreasonable jerk, not a friend.  Done.  

“You don’t do this, though, do you?   You’re always looking for some kind of deeper principle about the way friends should treat each other, why this person is not a friend but a deluded, clueless antagonist.   You write thousands of words about it, like you’re insane.  You think you are working out some dark puzzle about human nature, but, seriously, Elie, what the fuck?”

That is what I am wrestling with, all of the above.   If we are to live principled lives, isn’t it necessary to clearly understand the principles we live by?

“That depends on how many angels are dancing on the head of a particular metaphysical pin.  Yes, you’ve come to the same conclusions about particular people that I did when I was alive.   We disagreed about my need to condemn and walk away from them, and years later you came to the same conclusion I did.  So what?   Why should this concern you?   The old lady who constantly lied, taught her daughter to lie, who in turn taught her son and insane daughter to lie— where is the mystery in any of that?  The woman who did not know how to not fight kept irrationally fighting with you?   Quelle surprise, monsieur!   as we used to say in Peekskill.  What is this sudden torment today?”

I want to nail the lids on the coffins of a trio of glowering vampires.  

“God bless you, then, son, that’s what you do with vampire coffins.   Why even agonize a second about taking a stake to the undead?   Take a hammer, or a rock, and nail that shit closed, bang! done, next case!    Lights, camera, action!  Enough with the Hamlet routine– be done.”

The chill that is making the trees outside this window tremble creeps into this room.  The fading light outside a premonition, touching me lightly with Isaac Babel’s cold, dead fingers.    The imperative keeps goading me — to find a resting place for my thoughts.