Writing and Reading: Miraculous

We take it for granted, these days reflexively using our thumbs to tap out a msg somebody will immediately read and LOL, ROTFLMAO!   Or we can compose a serious tweet, if the very idea of that has not become ridiculous with our gold-plated mad king tweeting a pouting stream of unintelligible absurdities.   A text: be there in fifteen, all the necessary information in four words.   We take for granted our ability to put symbols in a line and have them speak for us.    It is a miracle, when you think about it, to see a thought spelled out in syllables.

Reading and writing have always been regarded by tyrants as something to fear.   A slave with a book was said to be more dangerous than a slave with a gun, for obvious reasons.    Teach a child to read and you give her the key to open her mind to unimaginable things.   Imagine the utter chaos if the immiserated billions we are keeping down could read, and write, and organize behind coherent ideas.

In Margaret Atwood’s great dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator is handed a pen by the powerful man she is supposed to conceive a child by.  Writing has been banned, along with reading and thought itself.   But suddenly she is holding a pen:

The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains.

Dig it. 

The tome of the unknown soldier

Thinking about the fate of this impossibly long manuscript I’ve written about my father’s life during the last couple of years, I realize I can’t put it into final form until I really focus on what the book is about. It’s not a book about a man being a monster, it’s a book about the way his little soul was destroyed, yet how a spark remained, which burned brightly at the very end.   It’s not about history, and disappointed idealism, and powerlessness, or about the damage done by abuse, it’s about gaining perspective and learning from our worst mistakes.   It’s about the roots of rage and, in the end, forgiveness, once the heartfelt apology can finally be made.

One problem I have to ignore, I am writing the story of an unknown man, and I am an unknown man writing this story.    This is something I have to put out of my head, because it makes the entire project feel insane to me.   If my father had kept children chained up in the basement, and had been prosecuted in a famous trial– well, there would be a good chance a publisher might be interested.   If he’d taken bold risks to make a shit ton of money, again, an American fable you might find on the big book table at Costco.   If I’d been a celebrity, the story of my father would have a certain interest to my fans.   Etcetera.   I have to ignore this, entirely.   Otherwise it will sink this little paper boat I am attempting to steer across the cold sea.

Reading Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece Eichmann in Jerusalem, as I occasionally do, I’m reminded again that prominent Jews often had a much different fate than the masses of anonymous Jews, who also tended to be fairly poor, when it came to the final destination of their train rides.   It’s no surprise, of course, to learn that the Nazi regime treated rich and poor Jews differently, or even that Jewish criminals sent to the death camps often survived their terms while tailors, shoemakers, teachers, small merchants, small town rabbis rarely did.    Hitler had 324 Jews on his  “do not touch” list, which is really no odder than many other things about the twentieth century’s most popular psychopath.   Nobody on my family was ever close to being on such a list.

If you are prominent, of course, you will always have advantages that those who are not prominent will never have.   That is simply how it is and how it has always been.  This is something else I need to ignore, constantly.

I am thinking of this in terms of my father’s life, of the tome I have written a long, endless draft of.  The tome of the unknown soldier.    The man was one of 16,000,000 Americans who served in the armed forces in the desperate days between December 7, 1941 and August 1945.   Sixteen million!   My father, Irv, was one of that vast army of young Americans who fought monsters in Europe and Asia.

Did my father fight gloriously, killing die-hard Nazis and regular Germans drafted into the Wermacht and ordered to fight for commander-in-chief Hitler?   Irv was not in combat.   He was an aircraft mechanic, in spite of his lack of mechanical aptitude.  He explained that he’d been the only guy in his outfit who could read the manuals to the men who did the actual repairs, tell them which parts they needed.   Young Irv was not stationed in Europe until the very end of the war, after Hitler had killed his wife, his dog and himself.   What was it like for a twenty-one year old Jew who had lost most of his family to the madness enflamed by the murderous Mr. Hitler?   He never gave a clue, really.

“So, wait, wait.  You are writing a long, tortuous book about the life of a man who was not famous, not prominent, not a hero, who said nothing about possibly the most interesting time of his life?    You wrote in his eulogy that he had traveled, with an escort of NYC policemen, to address hostile crowds about the necessity to integrate New York City schools, and you added that he never mentioned this to you, that you found it out from your mother, his wife of 54 years, who told you about it as you were writing the eulogy.   I don’t understand who you think the audience might be for this book about such a distinguished nobody.”

If I would sell this manuscript I have to make it clear why you will care about the life of this man.   It has thus far been almost impossible to describe why you should give a rat’s ass about the lessons I may or may not have learned from this anonymous fellow.   You should have met him, the whole project would make more sense to you.   Now, if my work succeeds, you will have to depend on me as your reliable narrator, no matter how unreliable I may also be.    As my father might have said “ain’t dassum shit?”

Why I Hate the Rich

There is only one game in town for real success in America.   The game is won by the person who acquires the most money, and fame, along the way.   To finish respectably, you have to have, at minimum, by the time you’re old, more money than you will ever need.    Ensuring yourself of this uncertain amount is a tricky proposition in an eternally insecure culture that operates on the casino model — big rewards for big risk but you can lose everything on a bad turn of the wheel.   (That’s why you diversify, schmuck.)   It’s also why, all other things being equal, it is best to inherit a hundred million dollars or more from your parents, who inherited it from their parents and on back several generations.  Old money, there is nothing that smells quite like it.

I am a bitter man when it comes to the fucking rich and their endless privilege.  I am disgusted by how their distorted worldview and values play an overly large role in public discourse, the laws we live by and the brutalizing poverty many must live under while others enjoy unimaginable luxury.  Not content to enjoy their vast wealth and leave others alone, they frequently extend their slimy tentacles into the personal lives of millions upon millions of people who will never meet one of their filthy rich ilk.   What the fuck is up with that?   I’ll write more about my specific reasons for hating these supremely entitled fucks as soon as I set the stage a bit.

Hard-working friends with solid middle class lifestyles (a vanishing breed here in the land of the free) remind me from time to time that I made a conscious choice not to compete for wealth, not to dedicate myself to doing the hard work to advance a career, not to endure even a small amount of abuse in the interest of making good money, not to put in the long years to get a pension, a decent Social Security payment and all the rest.   They suggest that I’ve made a choice they can respect, abstractly, but one that, sadly, identifies me as a cipher, an individual whose life, fundamentally, makes little objective sense in the larger ocean we are all splashing in.  Condensed to a simple question:  if I am so smart, and so talented, why choose to be poor?

It is not easy to explain, even to myself.   Whatever I write here, for example, so much belly aching, no matter how well-written some of it may be.   If someone paid me for it, as happened a couple of times when a guy bought short pieces for publication and swapped in a bunch of random cliches for phrases I’d carefully chosen, well, that’s a different story.   The congratulations emails come flying in when the compromised prose was published.   But this endless stream I produce in my daily writing?   Well, it kind of speaks for itself, duddn’t it?

People literally don’t know what to make of anything we might think of as “artistic”, or even just expressive, unless it is monetized.   If you see it in a museum, it makes you think, provokes a certain awe, you can read learned glosses on the work of art you are experiencing, the depthless insights of the artist, his influences, his place in art history.   If you see something very much like that art work in your friend’s sketchbook, truthfully, what can you say?   “I like the colors,” or “is that supposed to be anything?”  or “is that me?”.   If it arrives in the mail, you can just look at it and shrug it off with a quick shudder.  What the hell is it supposed to mean?

Look, I say god bless you to anyone who doesn’t have artistic pretensions.   My grandmother fucked me up good with that fevered dream of a genius so prolific and undeniable I’d be able to draw on a table cloth at the most expensive restaurant in Paris to pay my bill in full, with a thousand dollar tip.  She didn’t factor in the magnificent ambition and entrepreneurial genius necessary to achieve a fame as vast as Picasso’s, the fame that enables a few brushstrokes on a linen table cloth to create an objet d’art worth the price of a hundred gourmet meals.

To my grandmother’s great chagrin, I was never ambitious or entrepreneurial, I just loved to draw.    At the same time, ever since I was a kid, I realized, on some level, that time is the only real wealth we have.   If you have the treasure of time you can invest some of it in learning to express yourself.   This expression, it always seemed to me, was as crucial to develop as the ability to really listen to other people.   Just to say, I suppose, that I have always had some kind of artistic pretensions about the meaning of my life and my abilities.

Which brings us to the arbiters of who is an artist and who is merely a pretentious person who wants to be one.    Let me say, first, that I have no problem with these arbiters, no burning desire to see my casually scrawled signature painted, 100 times its normal size, on a tastefully lit white museum wall at the threshold of a lifelong retrospective of my work (unless, of course, I had to exert myself in no way and there was a huge cash payment to me when the museum mounted the show).  Years ago it bothered me beyond describing that the “art world” was the province of a cliquish group of born-wealthy connoisseurs who were the gatekeepers of what is High Art and what is, well, simply neuroses made visible.   Let them keep the gates, the palaces of art, the incomprehensibly priceless objets d’art and all the rest.   I can’t use it.

Please believe, it is truly not bitterness about art.  I have as little use for high art as I do for the catalogue of a show I saw as a teenager.   Or my vast collection of Mad Magazines, long ago shipped to the son of an old friend who was also a great lover of the “usual gang of idiots” over at Mad.   Or anything else, really.   Being blessed is its own reward and I consider it a blessing to have these things I love to do, things that enrich my life, that make spending time doing them a blessing to me.  I’m not grasping for any additional blessings, I’m just trying to explain myself.

 Writing, it seems to me, is the most accessible form of expression.   Everybody I know reads, many actually love to read.   A well-written paragraph can break the heart or give a surge of hope.  A handful of times over a long life someone will tell you “that was beautiful,” or “you made me cry”.    Bingo, like a kamakaze finding the smoke stack to fly down, the explosion, the ship sinking, everybody on board killed.

I didn’t start writing this to talk about self-expression, though it is sometimes hard not to.   We have time and we have the expression of our thoughts and feelings.   Picture your life without either one.   How was your day, dear?   I had no time and nothing to say about it.

Onward, then, why I hate the fucking rich.

If you are born into great wealth, you will be given every chance in the world to grow up to be whatever you dream of being.   You can be a contemplative, reading widely and listening deeply and, instead of merely speaking, writing your thoughts on the most beautiful 100% cotton paper available, in fantastically rare ink drawn through an exquisitely perfect writing instrument.    You can go into business, whichever ones you like, with plenty of capital to support you in failure or success.  You can be a lout, a spoiled rich idiot who simply follows his every impulse, shoots endangered animals, fucks people over, has lawyers pay ’em off to shut the fuck up, etc.  If you are born rich, outside of murder with multiple eye witnesses (who are not members of your rarefied social class), there is little in your life that you will ever be held accountable for.

This kind of upbringing, in most cases, results in an individual who believes, as Ivanka Trump apparently does, as does her husband Jared, that anyone who works hard can become a success.   The corollary is that failure is a vice of the lazy, the weak, the unworthy.    If I managed, with a mere few million dollar loan from daddy, to launch a fabulous international brand, what is to stop these whining parasitic takers from doing the same, instead of bitching about how unfair life is?

Chris Hedges uses the phrase The Pathology of the Rich to describe the worldview of people born into vast inherited wealth.   “Pathology” might seem a little unfair, even though I can clearly see the thing he describes, the thing I hate, as a disease.   The simple cause of their rarified, if myopic, view of the world is not hard to see.   If you are born rich you do not have the same experience of life as 99% of the world does.   Hardly anybody can identify with frustrations they have never personally experienced.   If you are sheltered from the most common frustrations of poor people, how will you have any way to relate to them?   The result is a worldview that makes a certain twisted sense.  Hard work equals good fortune equals being rich.   Laziness equals poverty and self-pity, with all the other pathologies appurtenant thereto.

A rich fifteen year-old in an elite boarding school who happens to once make the childish mistake of using an eight year-old boy as an unwilling sexual partner?   No need to ruin the boy’s life, either one of them!  These things are worked out privately, discreetly, no call to get the police and the courts involved, destroying lives and reputations over a youthful mistake.   A few words among gentlemen, the families both need to be consulted, there is a win-win resolution to be negotiated here.   Otherwise the boys will both be shamed and the families’ good names dragged through the mud.   Unthinkable.   The young pederast will be forever tarred a pervert and sex offender simply for one youthful indiscretion.  A terrible outcome, we can all agree.  

If the young pederast had been a scholarship student, from a family of working class swine, well… we rest our case, that’s clearly a different story.  Expel him immediately, after a call to the local constable.  How dare he sodomize his social superior?!

Let the same outrage occur among the poor– these same enlightened philosophers on the board of the elite boarding school will set up a howl for the swiftest and most severe punishment of the savage young child-rapist.  Society must never tolerate such perversion, such predation! How dare they?!

So far it has all been the hereditarily wealthy I’m railing against, but what of the people who, through their own tireless and heroic efforts, acquire vast, self-made fortunes? Some become so wealthy, mind you, that their excrement ceases to emit a bad odor. Universally, it seems, this type is admired and shown as proof that anyone who is talented enough, and dedicated enough, who works hard and smartly enough, can acquire a fortune.  Anyone who makes a billion dollars is automatically considered a genius and a great authority on all matters, often the best possible expert on how to help the children of the poor and dispossessed.

It is no impediment, of course, that most of these self-made successes had many advantages growing up– the best schools, elite universities, crucial business connections, strokes of good luck including excellent timing.   But forget that, these supernovas soon become just like their fellow twits in the highest branches of that cuckoo tree that is super-wealth.  The best of the best.  The only thing they require is vast returns on their already vast fortunes and the lowest possible tax bills.

Rich people necessarily divide the world into people like themselves, the very best people, and that vast and hopeless hoard of mankind who does not share their work ethic, drive, values, faith, native optimism.   I can understand that.   The part I don’t get is why these fantastically fortunate fucks are not content to enjoy their wealth without exerting power over the rest of us.   What business is it of the super-rich if the children of the poor are able to attend excellent public schools?   How are they actually affected if poor people are allowed to have access to affordable health care?   If poor women are able to get an abortion if they find themselves in a difficult spot where they have to make that agonizing choice?

Why can’t these rich fucks just stay in their beautiful enclaves and be content to run the art world, the philanthropic world, corporate board rooms, high culture?   If they could simply do that, I’d have no beef with them.   But they can’t, can they? They need to make educational policies, and environmental laws, and human rights enforcement decisions for all of us.

They want to rule the world.   They do rule the world.   I have always hated the heedless, entitled motherfuckers who dream of nothing but more wealth, more luxury and more power.  Yes, I know there are a some good ones, and just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you’re a grotesquely privileged, empathy-challenged piece of shit, though wealth beyond a certain point is strongly suggestive of it.  I hate the rich for their ability to fuck up without consequence while haughtily judging everybody else.   Fuck them and the whores they rode in on.

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.