Denial or Contentment

I consider myself a student, learning something cool is exciting to me, even at my reasonably advanced age.   I try to learn what I can, understand as much as I can digest.    Much as I often devote myself to trying to master facts, read critical histories, acquire actual knowledge on which to base my strong opinions, I also see more and more that the world we move through is ruled by emotions, not facts, history, the wisdom of the ages.  Emotional learning is as important as anything, more important than most things, in fact, but it can be tricky, since we have mainly our feelings about our emotions to go on.

We are always at the mercy of emotions, our own and the emotions of others.   Emotions are beautiful, terrible, life-affirming, deadly, limitless in their kinds, shades and intensity.    There is nothing inherently good or bad about them, for the most part — only the actions (or inaction) they cause are of urgent concern.   Our feelings are the biggest part of what makes us human, what makes us hopefully humane.  It’s better to be motivated by feelings of empathy, mercy and generosity, on balance, than by selfishness, ruthlessness and jealousy.  The mind comes into it, always, to justify the moral correctness of what we already feel.   Who wants to feel like a selfish, ruthless, jealous person when they can feel virtuous instead?  [1]

It is an idea, seized by emotion, that animates all human belief and action.  One of the cruelest things you can do to somebody is destroy their idea of real hope for anything better.   This was the central tragedy of my father’s life — true hope had been ripped from him as a baby.  It is the idea of being able to improve our situation that sustains us in our worst moments.   Remove this idea and you’re done.    The ideas we embrace are crucial to how we live.

There are countless examples of how this idea framing shapes the emotional world, and human history. Take a look at Mein Kampf for one example.   In his chapter on Vienna, its author describes how logic and reason, in the crucible of the “poisonous snake” that was the city of Vienna, finally convinced him of a truth his tender heart did not want to consider: that Jews were the cause of all of the evil in the world and must be exterminated.   Fair enough, if you believe that shit.   Millions did, millions do.

My mind turns to politics when I think of examples of this idea/ feeling connection, since we’re living in emotionally-charged, pivotal, make-or-break times, close to where the world was in the 1930s with the additional pressures of an overpopulated natural world on the verge of vast climate catastrophe and global capitalism running nakedly amok, in the name of unlimited profits for the few while increasing billions have little or no prospect of anything good.    You’ll forgive one more “political” example and then I’ll turn to my larger point.

The radical right’s ascendance in America in the last few decades was founded on their shrewd understanding of the principle that ideas lead to emotional acceptance and then to unified political actions.   You frame the discussion, change the way people are talking about things, get public opinion on your side, et, voila, representative government is the real enemy of the People.    

It may be the same government that sent federal agents into the most overtly racist states to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan and stop a century of terrorism, that passed laws banning child labor, created standards for workplace health and safety, created a vast infrastructure that facilitated great wealth, passed laws designed to remedy centuries of racism, sexism and xenophobia at law, created food and drug safety agencies, an agency to protect our environment and one to protect citizens from financial fraud, administers vast medical programs for veterans, poor people and retirees, created a social safety net for children and old people, on down the list… this same democratic government is a tyranny that brutally coerces people to give up their most important possession–  liberty.   The essential liberty not to be coerced by majoritarian mobs for the benefit of “takers”.

Frame anything strongly, particularly to someone already inclined to believe your story,  and you will see emotions confirmed, certainty and vehemence increased.   The entire debate is in the framing.  Guns — constitutionally protected freedom.   Guns — murder weapons regularly in the hands of murderous maniacs.   Abortion– the vicious murder of unborn souls, an abomination God hates more than He hates homosexuals.   Abortion — a difficult choice women often agonize over but something preferable to bringing a rapist uncle’s unwanted baby into the world, or dying in childbirth.    Global warming — a vast conspiracy of freedom-hating Takers who just want to punish wealthy Job Creating Makers.   Global warming– increased atmospheric CO2 levels, largely the result of a century of burning gasoline and our vast meat/dairy industry — warming the earth quickly with disastrous and readily perceivable results: wild fires, droughts, floods, other catastrophic weather events, mass extinctions, etc.

OK, that’s enough of the political applications.   What I am really thinking about today is our moods, my mood.   The ever-shifting continuum of how we feel about the things around us, what we’re doing, the progress we are, or are not, making. Talk to me Monday and my idiosyncratic life is impossible to justify.   If I am such a good writer, why am I not seriously figuring out how to brand and market my work, get paid for it?   Where is the line of customers telling me how important my writing is to them?   I look at my seeming paralysis about doing simple things, like spending thirty minutes a day taming my uncontrollable desk and kitchen table.   What the fuck is that about?   That thought’s enough to send me into a funk, on a given day (though not enough to spur me to action organizing my jungle of papers).

Clearly, logically, if I spent even fifteen minutes a day going through that haystack of papers, shredding most of it, within a few days I could have the full use of my kitchen table, my desk, find my passport, the extension to the adapter for my laptop, missing photos, that roll of orange cloth tape I’ve maddeningly lost, other things I’ve been unable to locate lately.   Can’t seem to do it.   Once in a while this irrational paralysis torments me, colors everything in my life, makes me appear monstrously weak to myself, terrifying to Sekhnet.   I see the world through this vexing inability to do something every idiot in the world knows how to do and I feel bad.  At the same time, I clearly see that it is one perspective, and a merciless one at that, causing me to see my life so harshly, if not entirely unreasonably.  On a given day we may feel discouraged or encouraged; on discouraging days, courage is hard to find.

Talk to me Tuesday and I’m relatively carefree.  I have reason to be.   I sleep almost eight hours most nights, spend an hour or so every day walking, often in parks, have a few good friends, a loyal life partner, and many things I love to do.  I’ve become good at a number of these things I love to do (which tends to happen with things you love, if you have the time to do them).  

If you love to draw, and have all of your favorite drawing tools at hand, and paper you like– shit, that’s a blessing that’s hard to explain.  Same with a musical instrument you can pick up and make sing.   Bending the strings to give the instrument a beautiful voice  — what could be a more blessed thing?  I also write almost every day, a contemplative stretch of a couple of hours that makes me feel productive and very blessed indeed.   Whether there is a God that blesses us in these moments, or a spirit, or someone named Dave, these are all net benefits, blessings of life, doing things that bring us pleasure, that allow us to see our progress.

An idle thought started me off today, idle, though also tricky and maybe important — how much of my good feelings on a good day are the result of simple denial and how much is actual contentment with my, admittedly, unconventional, random, disorganized-seeming life of chronic non-achievement?

It’s very easy to see the denial in somebody else.   They might tell you they are not angry, then suddenly refuse to interact in a friendly way, then fly into a rage when asked about this, then admit that maybe they were a little angry, then tell you again that they are not angry — you are.    This is classic denial, and easily observed in the world.    Our current president is a reflexive practitioner of this — he says something, denies he said it, is shown a video of himself saying it, claims it’s a fake video, says the opposite, then says the original thing.  It’s all the same.  Whenever somebody points out something that might annoy, anger or embarrass you just say “you’re lying.  I never did what I just did — you did it, ass-breath.”

One thing I learned from a very scary period of waking every day in a black hole, seeing no way out (not strictly the case unless you wake up in an actual black hole, held prisoner by some sadist or some State):  the inescapable black hole is in your mind, your spirit, your feelings.   It is your feeling of being in a black hole, not an actual black hole you are forced to stay in.   It’s very real when you wake up in it– nothing could be more real in that moment than your certainty that you are trapped — but it is a feeling of being in a desperate place, as opposed to a physical reality.  

The phone could ring, a familiar wise-ass on the line, and you will find yourself falling right into the rhythm of the familiar wise-ass chat. End the chat and fall back into your black hole, as often or not, but there is a lesson in knowing we have some control over the feeling.   Next best thing is simply remembering that these feelings generally pass, as long as there are enough good things in your life as well.

We are all of us alone, fundamentally, particularly in the moments we feel desperate.   We, and everyone we love, we all must die — a terrible thing to consider. Does feeling a sense of connection with a writer who touches you qualify as a denial of your essential apartness, the unbridgeable actual gulf between you and the mind of the writer, or is it part of a larger sense of connected contentment as when you discover something new and familiar at once?    

A feeling of connection is better than isolation, in most cases, so why not smile when recognizing the brilliantly expressed humanity of a Shoshana Zuboff, an Isaac Babel, a Steven Zipperstein?   This abstract feeling of community is a great thing, it imbues us with admiration for our fellow beings and hope for the future.   The lack of this feeling, a sense of eternal, existential disconnection, is at the core of every destructive movement in the world.

You feel isolated, you have no prospects of anything much better, you are suffering alone and you are going to die.   The world is ruled by (insert your hated group of powerful psychopaths) and you are utterly helpless against it.  You need to take these horrible feelings out on somebody.    These strong feelings will cause you to look for others who feel this way.   There are literally millions of them.  You can find their avatars on-line.     There are no guarantees on the internet, of course, boys will sometimes find themselves talking to a fifty-year old pervert who calls himself adorable twelve year-old Vicky.   Part of the danger, but not that much different from being in a crowd of fist-pumping fans who do not stop to think about what they are actually cheering.

Contentment is sometimes elusive.   I am not content when I see all the horrible things done in my name, when I consider the sick values promoted by the exceptional society I am part of, when I feel myself treated unfairly, when I think of the misery sadistically inflicted by the spouters of meaningless slogans.   When I see the pugnacious face of thirty-three year-old Jewish Nazi Stephen Miller.    I can’t be in denial about any of these feelings, and I can tell you about any of them in detail and why I feel that way.

On the other hand, when I find the clip of Nature Boy on youTube is in the key I know it in, D minor, and I can immediately play along without having to tune the ukulele, I’m quite content.   If it’s in E minor, I’m content. G#minor… less content. 

Or maybe I’m in denial.  So many of us are. 

 

[1]  The obscure Colorado libertarian school Charles and David Koch attended (after their graduate degrees at MIT) for some lectures and later funded was devoted to the idea of liberty and the righteousness of the born-powerful.   Its founder and head lecturer taught that the “Gilded Age” was actually the greatest period in American history, there was no shame in using brutal advantage to increase your own vast wealth, and that the “Robber Barons” were, in fact, heroic builders of our great nation, the greatest Americans of all time.  

RIP, David, give my best to Roy Cohn.

King of The Jews

Our world-savior president, Donald J. Trump, recently embraced the exalted new name bestowed on him by tweet (by an impressive maniac in his own right) and doubling down on that inspired compliment (Trump’s only move in any situation) referred to himself (with a point at the heavens above) as “the Chosen One.”   Done and done.  The best friend the Jews ever had, since Reinhard Heydrich, and I say this as a Jew. 

The messianic president should be on guard now, I think.    I say this as a Jew, as a loyal American, as someone with Google on his phone.    Last I heard, things did not go well for the last person to wear that “King of the Jews” crown (which was made of thorns).   Y’all remember Jesus of Nazareth, “King of the Jews”?    Just type “King of the Jews” into your smartphone and you get this:

The acronym INRI represents the Latin inscription IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDÆORVM (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum), which in English translates to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).         source

That mysterious INRI on the sign shown in many old paintings of Jesus being crucified stands for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.   It was a final vicious mockery of the Prince of Peace, a flicker of that old Roman sense of humor. 

Likely suggested, as we are told by devout men, by the hateful “disloyal” Jews of the time, Jews that Christians soon blamed for the crucifixion of God’s son (the alternate story, that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities, would not have been popular in Rome — and Rome controlled most of the world’s known population at the time).   Hey, it’s all about P.R., after all, if you plan to proselytize widely and become a major world religion.

It is not known whether the crucified in 33 A.D. King of the Jews had a sense of humor.  I like to think Jesus did.  It is a mark of a gentle character, to see the humor in things.  Laughing together is a beautiful way of bonding, a blessed moment of relief from oppression of every kind, a gentle reminder to be humble.   Of course, a talent for laughter is also the mark of a good Nazi, the comradely ability to see the undeniable humor in the wretched humiliation of a hated enemy.   The jury, I suppose, must be eternally out on whether INRI had a sense of humor.

A thought about humor, and who laughs, and why:  

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” [1]

Humor is clearly a double-edged sword. 

Seriously, then, our president, The Chosen One, an “extremely stable genius” (with an historically gigantic member), tweeted that he is not going to Denmark next week because he was insulted that his ridiculous proposal that the United States buy Greenland was characterized by the Danish prime minister as “abzurd”.   Greenland, by the way, is one of the places on earth where global warming is happening at a disastrously higher rate than predicted.

“‘Abzurd’,” the president repeated in disgust, quoting the mortal insult again, a moment before characterizing the Danish prime minister, a woman, as “nasty”.   

Donald King of the Jews knows a lot about nasty, vindictive, hateful bitches, always the victims, always blaming him because they are sexy, or good looking, or ugly, or powerful, or smart, or incisive, or use a word, or a tone, that wounds him.  The real victim is always the savior of mankind, about to be crucified by really unfair, totally conflicted, disloyal, nasty witch hunting bitches of both sexes, of many sexes.

I would love to be undistracted, to concentrate, back inside my imagination and my memory, on the things I need to write.   There are things in my mind much more compelling than the most recent ass-tweetings of an unstable attention-craving idiot.

My sister, for example, at the age of three or so, grabbed the largest pointed knife in the kitchen, a long, sharp meat slicer with a white handle, and plunged it toward me.  I backed away quickly without turning around, backpedalled out of the kitchen, five years old myself.   She followed a step behind, holding the large knife in front of her, tottering unsteadily forward on her tiny feet as fast as she could.   I was afraid to turn my back on her to flee up the stairs.   The pursuit ended in the front closet, me somehow backed inside it, against the coats as my sister brandished the knife, thrusting it forward, smiling fiendishly.    Why did I not simply overpower her, take the knife?   I was afraid of blood, of the aggression of this tiny child, afraid that either of us might be spouting blood out of a severed artery if a struggle over the large knife took place.  Afraid.

A friend told me that some of my writing in the first draft of the memoir of my father was “extreme”.   She was hard pressed to explain why she felt that way, beyond that it was just too brutally honest, and the conversation veered into other subjects before I could learn more.    Weeks later I read an old piece that was pretty good, but contained an objectively extreme phrase, describing my father’s angry stare as “the unblinking mask of a psychotic” or something like that.   Extreme.  My father was not psychotic, not by any definition. 

Not only was it not a good description of his face at that moment, it was a weak and distracting one, a lazy one.    It betrayed unrestrained emotion, undermined my credibility and instantly pulled the reader away from the more important truth I should have been establishing: my father, a good man, smart, funny, sensitive and idealistic, was eternally desperate and it was this desperation that kept him on guard and frequently enraged at his children.   

How the story is told is very, very important for passing on the intended message, the discovered insight.   One sloppy stroke and the reader is rightfully distracted, shakes her head “fucking guy, pretty interesting piece, but he lost me there” and then on to the next link.

Instead of making forward progress in my own life of leisure and genteel poverty (I can live without working as long as I don’t spend much money), I drink my coffee while reviewing a few events that made the news since last night.    The NY Times reports that the president called any Jew who was prepared to vote against him “ignorant” and “very disloyal”.   I know this guy simply talks out of his face and his ass interchangeably (no comment about his breath) but found that I had to read a little about it.  Which led to a youTube clip, which led to another, which led to an article and so on.

Back to the King of the Jews and disloyalty to him.   My father had a colleague and good friend named Evelyn, who later became a hated former friend and former colleague.   I  looked her up decades later and we began a correspondence.  Evelyn had converted to Judaism in the intervening years and was trying to convince me that then-presidents Bush and Cheney, the neoCons and the Evangelical right, were the best friends of Israel and all Jews.   The invasion and occupation of Iraq was very good for Israel, she argued.  The one-time socialist scholar was not very persuasive, she was unsuccessful in her mission to convert me to extreme right wing politics, in the name of Judaism and what is best “for the Jews”.   An  old saw:  two Jews in an elevator, five strenuous differences of opinion.  

An old joke, by way of  illustration:   Two Jews are stranded on a desert island for many years.  When the rescue boat finally arrives the rescuers find the two Jews have built three synagogues on the island.  “I don’t understand,” says a rescuer, “there are two Jews, why three synagogues?”   The Jews point to the third synagogue and answer, in one voice, “nobody goes to that one.”

There are Jews today who, to me, are indistinguishable from Nazis in their core beliefs, which include a righteous, well-justified refusal to regard “enemies” as human beings.   If you sincerely believe that every Palestinian two year-old is a hate-filled terrorist you might as well let them live in open air prisons until they are old enough to shoot with live ammunition at the border fence.    

If you believe, as Jews have long been urged to do by our tradition, in the importance of protecting the weak, being hospitable to the stranger among us (a tradition modern-day desert nomads still practice), you will have a much different attitude toward the suffering of any child, Palestinian babies, Israeli babies or the tiny children (and their parents) in the privately owned for-profit hell-holes that Trump’s ICE uses to keep stinking, unwashed human asylum seekers in cages.  

It is only a Nazi type who justifies inflicting  this kind of suffering on others, wholly innocent of anything themselves, insisting their victims deserve their cruel fate because they are part of an infestation of an invasive species of subhuman.   That’s Nazi shit, my friend.

To me, speaking as an American Jew, this self-appointed King of the Jews, seriously, is more like the fancy King of the Very Fine Nazis, the finest Nazis, some very, very fine Nazis.  Hey, what a cool idea: a King of the Nazis!  I guess you could also call that heaven appointed ruler the Fuhrer.  Got a nice ring to it, I think.

Nazi fucks…

 

 

[1]    Senator Leahy:  “You’ve never forgotten them laughing at you.”

Blasey Ford “They were laughing with each other.”

Leahy:  “And you were the object of the laughter?”

Blasey Ford  “I was underneath one of them, while the two laughed.”

source

The Right to the Future Tense

This is from Shoshana Zuboff’s important “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”.  These first few paragraphs of the chapter called “The Right to the Future Tense” leaped out at me as a profoundly evocative description of a writer’s world:

I wake early.  The day begins before I open my eyes.  My mind is in motion.  Words and sentences have streamed through my dreams, solving problems on yesterday’s pages.  The first work of the day is to retrieve those words that lay open a puzzle.  Only then am I ready to awaken my senses.   I try to discern each birdcall in the symphony outside of our windows: the phoebe, redwing, blue jay, mocking bird, woodpecker, finch, starling and chickadee.   Soaring above all their songs are the cries of geese over the lake.  I splash warm water on my face, drink cool water to coax my body into alertness, and commune with our dog in the still-silent house.   I make coffee and bring it into my study, where I settle into my desk chair, call up my screen, and begin.   I think.  I write these words. and imagine you reading them.  I do this every day of every week– as I have for several years, and it is likely that I will continue to do so for one or two years to come.

I watch the seasons from the windows above my desk: first green, then red and gold, then white, and then back to green again.   When friends come to visit, they peek into my study.   There are books and papers stacked on every surface and most of the floor.  I know they feel overwhelmed at this sight, and sometimes I sense that they silently pity me for my obligation to this work and how it circumscribes my days.  I do not think that they realize how free I am.  In fact, I have never felt more free.   How is this possible?

I made a promise to complete this work.   This promise is my flag planted in the future tense. It represents my commitment to construct a future that cannot come into being should I abandon my promise.   This future will not exist without my capacity first to imagine its facts and then to will them into being.  I am an inchworm moving with determination and purpose across the distance between now and later.   Each tiny increment of territory that I traverse is annexed to the known world, as my effort transforms uncertainty into fact.   Should I renege on my promise, the world would not collapse.   My publisher would survive the abrogation of our contract.  You would find many other books to read.  I would move on to other projects. 

My promise, though, is an anchor that girds me against the vagaries of my moods and temptations.  It is the product of my will to will and a compass that steers my course toward a desired future that is not yet real.  Events may originate in energy sources outside my will and abruptly alter my course in ways that I can neither predict nor control.   Indeed, they have already done so.   Despite this certain knowledge of uncertainty, I have no doubt that I am free.   I can promise to create a future, and I can keep my promise.  If the book that I have imagined is to exist in the future, it must be because I will it so.  I live in an expansive landscape that already includes a future that only I can imagine and intend.   In my world, this book I write already exists.  In fulfilling my promise, I make it manifest.  This act of will is my claim to the future tense.  

To make a promise is to predict the future; to fulfill a promise through the exercise of will turns that prediction into fact.  Our hearts pump blood, our kidneys filter that blood, and our wills create the future in the patient discovery of each new sentence or step.   This is how we claim our right to speak in the first person as the author of our futures. (…)

 

from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism:  The Fight for A Human Future at the New Frontier of Power   (pp.   329-330)   (c) 2019  Shoshana Zuboff  —  published by Hatchette Book Group

 my “review” of this masterpiece by Shoshana Zuboff

Manoir de mes reves

I don’t recall the first time I heard Django Reinhardt, the visionary Gypsy guitarist and composer.   It may have been in the sitting room of my friends’ home, I remember hearing that virtuosic guitar crackling out of their phonograph one night.   Although, it sounded quite familiar that night.  Over the years since learning his name I’ve listened to hours of Django, always inventive, ingenious, always pulling new surprises, always swinging and soulful, often devilishly mischievous.   I didn’t have the reaction that Django had when he first heard Louis Armstrong (he happily sobbed “mon frere!”)  but I always loved his playing, and later his songwriting and arranging.  I am not alone in this love, there are many great players out there now playing in Django’s style, inspired by his musical example.

At some point, after his dreams of international stardom were dashed when he started talking sports and drinking with a French cabbie, lost track of time and missed the Carnegie Hall concert where he was Duke Ellington’s featured soloist, he hung up his guitar and painted.   He lived in a small town outside Paris and spent his time fishing in the river and painting.   

After a couple of years he began composing again and assembled a group to record several of his new tunes.  These were astounding and beautiful compositions, including the ethereal Anouman  [1].   His playing on the tracks is superb, as always, but he functions in the group as a kind of guitar-playing conductor for the most part, driving the rhythm, laying down colors and emotions, giving the melodies to other players.  His brief solo on Anouman strikes like a chilling premonition of his own sudden death, not long off.  It is well worth hearing.

He keeled over while drinking coffee in a cafe not long after recording those tracks.  They sent for the doctor but he did not arrive until many hours later.   Django’s last words were “so you’ve finally come, have you?”  He died at 43.

And yet…

                                                                       ii

I’ve been banging my head against the wall lately.  It is hot, and airless, which certainly doesn’t help matters.  I should buy an air-conditioner and get a good night’s sleep, but I don’t have a car and haven’t gotten it together to secure one.   I’ve been listless during this heat wave, as the planet itself melts down.   

The reasons for despair are many — the arctic ice is melting at a faster rate than predicted, we have psychopaths and shills making policy, vengeful incompetents doubling down on the destruction of the biosphere for the continued profits of their fellow earth-raping plunderers.  We have a government that serves only a tiny percentage of our citizens; we’re essentially one re-election away from actual fascism and the spineless opposition party, also corporately financed, is too fearful of political backlash to take a principled stand to hold anyone accountable, as the law requires.   

Reading history is little comfort.   We had a civil war in this country that was basically over the same issue in play now — the right of a tiny group of super-wealthy autocratic landed aristocrats to rule over blacks (and the masses of disenfranchised inferior illiterate whites) as they saw fit.  In the process of creating this genteel southern plantation society they destroyed the soil (among other things).  Millions of acres of soil were exhausted and rendered useless by the constant planting of lucrative monocultures cotton and tobacco.    America’s bloodiest war ended, the history of it was rewritten by the children of those same landed autocrats, and those same forces today are insisting, loudly and effectively, on their right to ride the rest of us, since they were born booted and spurred to do so.     

You can read about how things escalated in Germany leading up to World War II.  It’s famous: first they came for these guys, but I said nothing, because it wasn’t me — then they came for these guys, but I said nothing– when they eventually came for me, there was nobody left to speak up for me.  It’s horrible that desperate asylum seekers are treated as dangerous and despicable criminals, but right out of the fascist dictator’s playbook. 

They flee from one horrible, violent place and wind up crushed into cages, left to stink, unwashed, they are vilified, scapegoated and, it must be said, persecuted in the fabled land they hoped would provide a refuge from the horrors they fled.   We see the brutal hand of the militarized Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents grabbing these vicious aliens, ripping their children away from them, wearing masks and holding their noses at the stink in the overcrowded cages.   It gets everyone ready to consider this sort of thing normal, moves the Overton Window inexorably towards cruelty as simply the way things are, have always been.

The unhinged narcissist president and his unprincipled Attorney General, taking a short break from their full-time obstruction of justice (NO DO-OVERS!  I KNOW YOU ARE, BUT WHAT AM I?   MAKE ME!), revive the federal death penalty, opening the door to executing enemies of the state under cover of law.   If you violate the 1917 Espionage Act, for example, you can be made a bloody example of.  Nothing shuts up critics like a couple of public executions.   Public cruelty changes behavior.

On a personal level, I find myself wondering about the long pattern of estrangement from people I once considered my closest friends, my family.  In each case the person, after years, sometimes decades, of friendship, became a lifelong enemy and I can give you a full and reasonable-sounding account of exactly how this state of final war came to be.    You can read several accounts here, as I’ve written out a few over the years, but the long and short of it is, people decide, based on my reaction to their totally innocent behavior, that I must be fought to the death, that they cannot yield an inch, that I must be given no quarter.   

In my view, this is a choice they made, based on their insecurities and anger, they are, one and all, people who have forfeited my good will by not returning it, earned my eventual disdain by their hard and determined work.  They no doubt feel the same way about me.    In their view, of course, it was me, being my intolerable self, a self-righteous if talented prig with a vicious turn to my humility, I suppose, who gave them no alternative but to fight me to the death, whoever may have started the fight.   The larger, more perplexing question, is why.  Am I actually exactly as insane as my poor persecuted father?

So coming to the point where virtually all action seems futile, or at the very least overwhelming, I hear this  solo rendition of Django’s beautiful Manor of My Dreams  (the tune is often called “Django’s Castle”)   This short solo take of this dreamy tune reminded me at once of many miracles I’ve forgotten about.

When Django puts that Bb in the bass of an A13 chord, and follows it with that D-6-9 chord … words are of no use.   The way one gorgeously harmonized chord plays off against the other, makes you want to hear the other one, leaves open a lilting universe of soulful possibilities for improvisation …  there is no explaining the miraculous, really.   And playing these chords to that slow, relaxed dreamlike pulse, as I try to learn the architecture of the rest of the tune by heart and by ear, the way Django and the Gypsies have always done it, another kind of miracle. 

God bless you, mon frere.

 

[1]  Here is a gorgeous guitar version of Anouman by Stochelo Rosenberg and his great trio.   Stochelo’s playing is, as always, sublime.   Somewhere Django smiles.

A Tricky Story to Tell

“You had only two uncles, me and your father’s brother,” he said.   

“Our father had a brother?” said the niece. 

“Yes, a few years older.   We only met him once, he was kind of estranged from your father and his father.   He was funny, and personable, and seemed like a very nice guy.   He was as big as your father, and had dark hair.   We sat on the back porch playing cards, at your grandparents’ house in Queens.”   

“How come we never heard of him?”   

“You’d have to ask your parents.   I have no idea.   Maybe it was the fact that they were estranged, had virtually no contact once the brothers were adults.   I  don’t know.   Maybe it has to do with his mental illness,” the sole uncle said.   

“Mental illness?” said the nephew.   

“Look, I know virtually nothing about the man, except for a pleasant afternoon we spent with him.   And that he was taking some psycho-pharmaceutical and his psychiatrist apparently had told him to have nothing further to do with the family, that it would only aggravate his condition.   And like I said, we only met him that one time, never heard about him after that.”   

“Whoa, his ‘psychiatrist’?”  said the niece.

“You know, in most families you have your pick of aunts, uncles, cousins.  You will have the ones you feel closest to, a real kinship, and many others will leave you cool, or even cold.  In our family, since the family tree was so ruthlessly pruned back in 1942, you get only one or two uncles — in your case one.   Your other uncle probably died before you were born, another reason you never heard of him, I guess.”   

“How did he die?” said the nephew.   

“That’s just speculation, we really have no idea.  He could still be alive, he’d be in his early seventies now”   

“Jesus,” said the niece, glancing at her phone.

“I can tell you what happened two generations ago, on your mother’s side, when the German army ran across the area we’re from, on their way to invade the heart of the Soviet Union.   Between the winter of 1941 and the winter of 1942 everyone in our family was murdered, except for the handful of people who arrived here between 1904 and 1923.    The areas they came from were, as they say, cleansed of Jews by the SS and willing local anti-Semites.   We know a few of their names, we know what happened to their towns, the muddy little hamlets they came from.   Everyone was executed, end of story.”   

“That would make you a little paranoid, I guess,” said the nephew. 

Claro que si, sobrino,” said the uncle.

“I can only say a little bit more, because to some people, well, this is ticklish to say… some people believe that anything that causes pain or anguish should be avoided.  The passive voice and all that.   You don’t touch a nerve that’s raw.  If it’s bad, or makes you feel bad, especially if it evokes shame or anger, don’t talk about it.  Talking about it is very dangerous,” he turned to his niece.   

“You know, when you were a baby and first learned to sit on the potty to do your business, your mother asked you once why you have no hesitation to sit there and pee but the other thing, the shitting business, you weren’t ready to do that in the potty.   She asked why.  You said, with great seriousness and conviction, and you couldn’t have been more than two:  it’s very dangerous!   

“Ha, I forgot about that,” the niece said.   

“What I hear you saying between the lines, Uncle, is that you are very dangerous,” said the nephew.   

“Yes, nephew, if you believe in making sure every source of shame and anger is completely repressed at all times, someone like me is very dangerous.   I’m as dangerous as pooping in a potty, more dangerous, actually,” said the uncle. 

 “Some people believe it’s better to lie than to expose and talk about regrettable, shameful or terrible things.   We have a president like that.  Never made a mistake, never been wrong, never had any reason to reflect or do anything differently, nothing to apologize about, anything bad that ever happened in his life was somebody else’s fault.   You know, a lot of people live that way.   I try not to judge those motherfuckers, but I can’t live like that.  If I know I hurt you, and I care about you, I’m going to try to make it right, starting with an apology.  Unfortunately, not everybody does that.”   

“This is getting a little awkward,” said the niece. 

“I agree,” said the uncle, “where are we going for lunch?”

Perspective and Losing It

Perspective:

I am a grown man, sitting in my shorts, tapping at a computer pretending I am a writer, though I make no effort to market and monetize my work.  A tiny handful of people ever read even the very best things I write here.  It is easy to see me as a sadly overgrown perpetual kid with an overactive imagination, childishly playing at being a serious adult writer.  This is the case, of course, with anyone who doesn’t actively compete in the actual professional marketplace to find an audience and get paid for what is actually hard work.  I write to communicate with others, I don’t write purely for myself, but this blahg is the next best thing (to writing purely for myself).  My name is not even attached to these pieces.   WTF?

I set up this blahg years ago (2012) in order to gain access to what turned out to be a very disappointing archive of so-called source material for Manning Marable’s problematic late 2011 biography of Malcolm X.    Without giving it any thought, I set it up under my cat’s name, Oinsketta, and that is the author’s name you will see displayed here instead of my own.  I don’t know how to change that, haven’t even really exerted myself to find out if it’s possible to change it.   Even if you like these posts you will have to do some work to even figure out my name, something every writer in the world must promote.

All that is true.  On the other hand, I generally see it from another perspective.

I live a contemplative life.  It is not an ideal life for everyone, but my inner world is quite compelling to me.  I can honestly say I don’t know what it feels like to be “bored”.   I play guitar, ukulele and guitarlele (a very cool little six string guitar with a high voice– a 4th above guitar range) just about every day.   Music is an important part of my life, playing it, keeping steady time, making each note ring as true as I can.   I draw and lately have been practicing an idiosyncratic kind of calligraphy.   I cannot refrain from this long graphomaniacal habit, nor do I know what to do with the output, and so every place I sit I am surrounded by an uncombed tangle of drawings.  Both of these things, I guess, are forms of meditation.  I think about nothing in particular as I play, and that is a beautiful thing.

When I write I am writing for you, the reader.  I have something in mind whenever I sit down and I try to make it as clear as I can.   I focus my thoughts in the most concentrated way I know, cutting through vagueness as well as I am able, editing with care to eliminate confusions that careless words can create.  

There is value in the exercise for me, independent of the possible value to anyone who reads these posts, unrelated to money or fame.   I am silently thinking out loud, really, when I sit here tapping out my thoughts and feelings.   I have no need to burden people I know  with something that vexes me, once I write it out to my satisfaction here.   If someone is interested in my view I can send them a link.   Writing itself, in order to put your thoughts in order,  is a useful practice.  I recommend it.   We all know how to use words, this is an excellent use of words.  

Most days this second way of thinking of my situation is my perspective as I sit down to write.

Today I just feel like a listless, immature 63 year-old asshole sitting in my shorts, writing nothing, for no reason, for nobody.    

Luckily for me, I know this feeling will pass the next time I sit down with something burning me to work through and set out as clearly as I can.

 

writing the anodyne version

I had a thought the other day about my massive on-line manuscript for the book about my father — write a detailed, sanitized version that gives only the many reasons to like and admire the man, as a preface to the whole deeper portrait.    Write the anodyne account, the one anyone could read with no fear of being confronted by anything unsettling or upsetting.  No harm in that.

The original first draft of the manuscript included everything I could remember about my father and his life, the noble things he did and the traumatic harm he also perpetrated — along with the unspeakably terrible details of the horrific childhood he survived.   I conducted a two year-long interview with my dead father (seriously) to help me speculate about things I knew almost nothing about — for example, a black and white photo, taken some time after World War II,  of him looking happier than I’d ever seen him.   To my amazement some of the things my father’s skeleton “told me” took me by surprise.  These revelations, spoken to me in his voice, furthered my understanding and changed my evolving view of this complicated and challenging person, dead now fourteen years.  

People who loved my father could easily have been horrified, on his behalf, at my first draft’s open recitation of some monstrous behavior, always done in the privacy of his family home.   Airing this kind of “dirty laundry” is generally frowned upon.   Every family has it, it always stinks, why wave it around?   Nobody wants that.   Unless, of course, you are determined to understand the forces that shaped your own challenges.

I realized the other day that it’s possible, perhaps even desirable, to write an andoyne version of my father and his life — one that shows only the many good sides of my complicated old man, only hinting at the understandable human foibles that we, all of us, are subject to.   Picture reading the inspirational story of a person born into unimaginably desperate circumstances who simply would not allow the past to hold him down.  Someone imbued by the privations he suffered for the first eighteen years of his life with a hunger for justice, a better world for everybody.   A man intimately connected to a sometimes terrible history, who did not shrink from doing all he could to help bend the moral arch of history towards justice.   

As any writer who seeks to seduce a reader knows, we must draw the reader over to our point of view by giving her (at least at first) treats she can readily chew on and digest.   My father was funny, clearly very bright, an idealist.  You see, here he is again being bravely idealistic, pelted with rotten vegetables as he speaks to New York City parents and teachers about the importance of de-segregating the schools in the mid-1950s.   Here’s a throw away line of his that always got a chuckle.  Look how tender he always was with animals, how playful with little dogs and young children alike!   Now we’re talking.