Book of Irv– improvised intro

Let’s get one thing straight before we begin — my father, the protagonist of the book you are about to read, was a horses’ ass.  He referred to himself as a horse’s ass on two separate occasions during his last conversation, in the early morning hours of the last day of his life.  

There are other phrases that are perhaps more descriptive, and I’d literally never heard him use “horse’s ass” before in any context, but that phrase will do as well as any other, to set the stage.  Horse’s ass it is, the man was a horse’s ass. 

I know that’s a judgmental and simplistic thing to say about your father, and a slightly self-hating thing for the old man to say about himself, but it is not inaccurate.   In the context of that final conversation it was fitting.  He was trying to explain why he’d been so rigid, and angry, and abusive.   He was seeking understanding and forgiveness for the damage he’d done to his nearest and dearest.  It was part of his attempt to make sense of things that made no sense, including his fatal condition, first diagnosed in an ER six days before he died.  

Fatal conditions make no sense, whether we get the diagnosis six days, six months or six years before the fact.   My father was at a psychological disadvantage, getting the deadly news only a few days before his kidneys shut down. From his deathbed in the hospital he asked the doctor if there were any restrictions on what he could eat.  The doctor smiled and told him to eat whatever he wanted, if he felt like having a fatty pastrami sandwich, he should have no hesitation to order one.   These small mercies were the best he was going to get at that point.  He had no appetite in any case, a tube draining ugly looking fluid from his abdomen into a bulging bag at the side of his hospital bed.    

Irv was this guy in his final hours, realizing too late that his life was over, understanding too late how he should have tried to live, instead of being the monster he often was.  Irv was the guy who, on his deathbed, bonded instantly with a nurse who grasped his sense of humor and dignity and was moved by it. He was also the nineteen year-old Irv, bravely smiling in an oversized army hat in the official portrait he sent back to his parents in late 1942 and signed “Love, Sonny.”   He was also a politically progressive hip-talking devotee of Lenny Bruce who could crack up a room full of smart people with his off-the cuff improvisations.   It is fitting that I’m improvising this now, because that was an art my father practiced all the time I knew him.  He was a lover of animals, a despiser of injustice, a fighter for the underdog.  He was the eight year-old with the bad haircut and a smile like Moe from the Three Stooges, squatting down for the camera, his arms around his little brother and another kid.  He was an idealist with a boundless interest in history and politics.  He was also a horse’s ass.

Reducing a person to the sum of their faults is a mean and stupid thing to do.  It was one of Irv’s specialities, but one I have tried never to adopt.  The world is not black and white, nor are any of us that way.   We all may cross a line from time to time, a line there is often no recrossing, but none of us are consistently one thing or another, of course, except for guys like Dick Cheney.  

Even Dick Cheney, I suspect, is capable of feeling some version of love or empathy, even if he has the discipline never to act on those kinds of feelings.   I don’t mean to mention Cheney in an introduction to my father, it just seemed preferable to pulling out the all-purpose rubber crutch of Hitler.   You will hear too many references in the coming pages to the New York Times’ fucking Mr. Hitler as it is, what with Hitler’s forces overseeing the murder of virtually everybody on both sides of my family.  Enough about that fuck, and Cheney too.

I spent more than a year writing down everything I could remember about my father.   At a certain point early on his voice popped up, a bit indignant, to contest something I’d written about him.   The skeleton of my father, I wrote, sat up in his grave to argue me out of something I was writing about him.   I let him speak his mind.  He was opinionated, I found, even in death.   I went with the chat with my dead father that first day, reasoning that I could always cut the hokey device in the editing room.  

Then the skeleton was back a few days later.  His voice seemed important to telling his own story.  I thought he had a right to participate in the only biography that would ever be written of this brilliant but unknown man.  More than that, I found I enjoyed talking with him, looked forward to it as I fired up the computer to write.  The skeleton even had a surprise for me now and then.   We had many of the talks he would have enjoyed while he was alive, had he been capable of having them.   He was an excellent conversationalist, even if virtually all of the more meaningful talks he and I had were adversarial in nature.  

He tried to convince me, for example, for more than forty years, that I’d been an angry and viciously prosecutorial baby from day one, had stared at him accusingly from the crib, with my big, black, accusatory eyes.   I tried to convince him of the insanity of that position, which only made him more determined to prove to me that our antagonism was all my doing.  On his deathbed he took pains to let me know he understood he’d been wrong to keep doing that year after year after year.  He added, touchingly, that he’d been aware of my many attempts over the years to reach out to him and that he deeply regretted he’d been too fucked up to reach back.

I bear the poor fucker no malice, truly.  You will see in these pages the man, as three-dimensionally as I can flesh him out, and hear his voice spoken by the introspective, fairly laid back skeleton he is today.   Creating a realistic, living portrait of my father and the times he lived through, the dilemmas he faced, the contradictions his life posed– these are my goals in writing this manuscript. Now my challenge is to rake through more than 875 pages of manuscript and find the 400 or so to polish into a compelling, page-turning second draft.  

Beyond that, of course, the challenge is to turn the story into a winning book proposal, something to convince a corporate type to give an unknown sixty-one year old author an advance to finish writing the book.  I know, I know, with that attitude what self-respecting corporate shill is going to pony up anything for my book?  I know.   My biggest challenge, outside of learning how to charm this indispensable type, will be to write the blurb, a 30 word masterpiece of copywriting that will sell the ambitious book I have been wrestling with for a year and a half now.  Or at least get me into the decider’s office.

Fortunately for me, I now have the wind at my back.  The wind, unfortunately for me, is the diagnosis of an eventually fatal disease, though it can often be cured, if not by a regime of IV steroids and immuno-suppressive drugs then with a kidney transplant.   Of course, there is also dialysis.   The point is, I have enhanced motivation to finish the book, is all I’m saying.   I feel like I have several more books in me after this one and I’d like to get on with it.  Plus, I need a job and I want to be a paperback writer, and so on.  

As every jazz musician knows, as any marginally capable wanker with a Telecaster who has ever riffed over a ii-V vamp knows, you can’t really play a wrong note.  I mean, obviously you can, you can play a note that is jarringly anharmonic.  The point is, with the right adroitness of spirit you can use that wrong note to improvise something interesting sometimes, even if the note itself is wrong.  

I love that moment of grace, when, with ineffable nonchalance, the misplayed note becomes an inspiration for a totally new idea.   That moment is also my hope, and on one level something I learned from my father, along with many other invaluable lessons, even if the long course of study was not always without a terrible cost.

The Skeleton pipes up

“Uh, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father, “I don’t mean to put any pressure on you, or speak out of turn, being long dead and all, but…are you even thinking of getting back to work on the book about me you’re 760 pages into?  Or 860 or whatever that ridiculous number of pages is now?”

Yeah, I’ve just been gettin’ ready to do that, as the kids in Harlem used to say, echoing that old overseer-placating slave meme, and I’ve been meaning to write something here.  I realized the other day that I need to start from a place I haven’t even seriously considered– putting myself directly in your situation.   I have never been poor, not for a day.  I haven’t made any money in my life, I don’t live a particularly lavish life on my subsistence income, but I’ve never been hungry, never been fearful about where I was going to sleep, never been mocked because I was a poor boy by kids whose families had a little more.   Your dire poverty until you went into the army is not something to gloss over as I discuss your obsession with making a living, being a tireless, unappreciated, angry breadwinner and all the rest of it.  

“Well, you hit something there, Elie, the utter thanklessness of my life.  I started out behind the eight ball and you never really recover from that.  I think you and your sister began to understand that when you were much older, but as kids you were pretty much complete pricks.  I was raising privileged versions of the kids who used to give me shit when I came in with those Relief glasses, the wireframe badges of extreme poverty.   Then, I finally have my own house, and a car, and suddenly there are two pricks with my own DNA persecuting me over their steak dinner every night, in that old familiar way.”   The skeleton looked off toward the Hudson River, nearby but invisible from his grave.  

“At the same time, I know it was fair play on your part.  I was a total prick to you guys.   I understood only as I was dying that I had a choice, choices, all along that I didn’t even consider.  I always felt I had to hold my rage in check, always had to be right, always in control.   I was emotionally out of control, what kind of man calls his beautiful little girl an empty-headed vain person with no character?   The things I called you are equally hard to justify.   Your mother and sister both have phobias about snakes, I don’t particularly like them, you have never held one.   What kind of father calls his son a fucking cobra and a rattlesnake?”  

Well, I always took it in the spirit it was given, as you recall.  I was like some of the lower achieving black kids who were bused into my elementary school, after a long and ugly fight against it, ten years after Brown v. Bd supposedly ended segregation.  If they were going to be treated like animals, by teachers like the racist Harriet Bluming, who I had in fifth grade and even then recognized as a deeply disturbed individual, then, fuck it, I’m going to act like an animal.  You’re scared of rattle snakes?  Let me give my tail a little shake for you, you like a little cha-cha rhythm?   

“Well, you make light of it, and I guess that’s the only way to do it, but paint the picture however you like, there’s only so much lipstick you can put on that particular pig,” the skeleton looked off into the distance again.  “Why some pigs wear so much lipstick, I’ll never know.”    

OK, listen, dad, I have to get up and stretch, get down to Sekhnet’s.  I’m having cramps in both my legs today.  In fact pains in my legs, and muscle spasms, woke me at around 6 a.m., which really sucked.  I suppose I’m being welcomed to old age.  Or maybe, undiagnosed, like you were, I’m suffering from something more ominous than the chronic kidney shit they’ve discovered so far.   These doctors, as you know, only see what their particular lens reveals.  As for the rest, go sue another specialist you should have consulted if you didn’t want to wind up in the ER, diagnosed six days before your death.  

“OK, calm down, calm down.  We’ll take this up next time.  Or rather, you will.  Go do what I should have done– stretch, relax, maybe go ride your bike a little.   We all have to go sometime, but I’m proud of what you’re trying to do before you go.  Just wanted to tell you that.”

That’s good to hear, even if I have to have you say it myself.

Who Gives a Damn About Irv?

This is the first question a marketer has to answer when evaluating a book proposal : who gives a rat’s crotch for the subject of this book, in this case an unknown man with a very bad temper?   What is the target demographic?   How effectively will this book serve its demographic’s particular needs and desires?  What will make them buy it?  Is it an uplifting tale of forgiveness, redemption?  Why would anyone care about some schmuck named Irv?

I have no answer to any of these questions.   I find my father’s life to be an endless, tragic puzzle.  He is more compelling, and his motives more complex, than any invented character in a novel concocted by even the most devious writer.  

Some friends, after hearing about my progress on the manuscript, the output of days spent mining my father’s life for lessons to apply to my own, gave me a book written by a Jewish guy who went back to Europe to find his family roots.   He sifted through the family archives, talked to everyone, traveled back to the places where his family dodged Nazis, not all of them getting away.   I read a few pages and was not surprised to learn that one of his grandparents had been very, very successful.  This charming and dynamic refugee made a shitload of money and was amazing at promoting the family business, a hugely popular brand still raking in millions today.  

The author was the grandchild and son of millionaires.  I soon lost patience with the book.  It appeared to be another story of an accomplished family who got hit hard but would not stay down.  In Europe he uncovered fascinating details of this amazing family, I have no doubt.   Some died in the Holocaust, the details are haunting– who lived and who died– but as I read all I could take in was that the author had won a lottery I did not, and he was the kind of fellow that fortune favors.   After all, who is not interested in the story of a family that triumphed over horror to become fantastically wealthy?

My family was not so indomitable, though the few who’d emigrated to America and survived the massacres were strong-willed, often raved.  They were angry, emotional, heavy drinkers.  One became a millionaire (he was not, to my knowledge, a heavy drinker), most were working class people who worked hard long after the age of retirement.  

If I had the finances and family backing to take a trip of family exploration I would find nothing in Europe.   OK, that’s an exaggeration.  I would likely find the actual ravine outside of Vishnevitz, to the northwest,  where the tortured survivors of the tiny, cramped Vishnevitz ghetto were shot in the head and buried in layers one merciless night in August 1943.   On my father’s side, the marsh across the Pina from Pinsk where, as far as we can tell, the benighted, ill-fated hamlet of Truvovich once stood, along with every blood relative on his mother’s side.   Nobody I know has ever been able to locate a map marking the location of the god-forsaken shithole.  If there are bones there still, as there were shards until recently blowing in the wind outside Vishnevitz, I’m not traveling thousands of miles in hopes of seeing them.

My father’s skeleton reminded me the other night that I have not shown, in almost 900 pages, more than a hint of his monstrousness.  

“You know the old saw from every writing class you ever attended: show, don’t tell,” said the skeleton.   “You refer to me as a monster, and I often was, sad to say, but you don’t make your reader feel the crippling punch in the stomach of that monstrousness.   The unreasoning fear of getting rage instead of understanding, ruthless adversarial opposition instead of a needed conversation.  Why were you always alone at any terribly trying time in your life?  It was preferable to you to having a skilled enemy in your corner.  Think about that, Elie.”

“Unless you make the reader feel my viciousness and abusiveness, you have no book, no story to tell.  Think about it.  I appreciate that you’ve pretty much taken the high road in the pages you’ve written.   I’m touched that you found so much good in me, after I spent a lifetime ripping your heart out, and your sister’s heart, too.   The reader has to understand the pain I habitually inflicted, has to feel it, to have any investment in the difficult journey I forced you and your sister to undertake.”

“See, you’re doing it again.  Putting the insightful take in my mouth, which has been shut now for twelve agile, fleeting years.  I’m dead.  I can’t fucking speak.   You can hear my voice, but only because you have that kind of imagination.   Think about that, Elie, nobody can hear my end of our conversation.  In fact, most people would find the whole notion of this chat ridiculous.  You are trying to make something concrete that is very subtle, hazy, almost impossible to express.  And still giving me all the good lines.”  

Well, ironic as it may sound to you, dead man, my father and mother raised me to be a good person, a mensch. 

“Oh, stop, Elie, you’re killing me!” said the skeleton of my father. “And don’t worry, you can cut that cheap laugh line in the next re-write. ”  The dead man paused to sniff the breeze.  

“The ‘next re-write’, now that’s funny!” 

A Good Life, two

A big element of a good life is gaining the ability to heal.  To heal yourself, to help heal others.   Of all the blessed work in the world, is there any more blessed than being a healer?   Is there a greater service one can perform, in a life of service, than helping others bear the burdens of this world?  

I’m tempted to have the skeleton chime in here, but he has already said goodbye, reminded me that he is dead.  

“I am,” says the skeleton of my father.  

Death, we are sometimes reminded, is not the end– as long as we live to consider those who have left the stage.   We grow, gain perspective, can see the dead differently than we did when they were alive.  We can recover things that were taken from us by people who were brutal, and died.  It takes work, work paid for with invisible coins.  

My father, too busy being a bread winner, was never released from the pain his mother inflicted on him after the brutal, unhappy woman died.   He was not released from the chilling knowledge that all of his aunts and uncles, except Aren, had been in the path of a slaughtering hoard, left dead in mass graves that were never found, somewhere near the hamlet in the marsh that was wiped from the map.  

I’m aware it probably sounds self-righteous of me to ruminate on what makes a good life.  To prescribe the steps toward true righteousness and shit like that.  I speak only for myself, using the example of my father’s life, and self-evident logic: peace is better than pain.  Maybe one can never speak for others, but as for me, I’ve been on a conscious journey to find myself at peace, after decades of senseless war.

A Good Life

“What is a good life?” is a question few people ever seriously take the time to answer.  My father never had a chance to ask it, one step ahead of countless demons every step of his life.   He spoke, every so often, about his demons, and how they drove him, without ever naming one.   He was unable to answer the question of a good life for himself, or leave me much of a clue, except by the example of his suffering.  It is a shame, although I have come to understand the reasons he was unable to ask the question.   I ask it now for both of us: what is a good life?  

One element, certainly, is being true to yourself.   Finding this true self, and serving it faithfully, is the object of long study.  Honestly addressing the feelings which must guide the inquiry is essential.   Some consider such “study” frivolous, the luxurious navel gazing of idle philosophers.  For me, addressing the question is vital to a good life.  

How is one true to oneself?    

I always think of Hillel’s famous answer first.  It is an answer I’ve tried to live by almost from the time I first heard it, when I was a boy.   Hillel was the legendary Jewish sage who lived around the time of Jesus.   Illiterate and poor until he was forty, he was uniquely qualified, among scholars, to relate to the mass of humanity.   He was renowned for his patience and kindness, and his practicality.  

A Roman, according to legend, asked Hillel to teach him the Torah while the Roman stood on one foot.  Hillel’s famously strict colleague, Shammai, had already angrily told this Roman, in answer to the same question, to fuck off.   Hillel thought for a moment and said “what is hateful to you, do not do to another person.   That is the essence of the Torah, the rest is commentary, go study it.” 

I, like the Roman in the story, admired the concise genius of this answer.  Don’t be a sadistic hypocrite.   “Love your enemy,” as Jesus was supposed to have said, seems as ridiculous to me as the miracle myth of Jesus’s mother being a virgin impregnated by God.  What is hateful to you — few things could be more clear and direct.

I know, as do you, exactly what is hateful to us.  If you hate it, don’t do it to other people.   That is a large part of being true to yourself.   You would like to live in a world where this was a universal principle, so, as the Nike ad says: just do it.  

Loving your enemies is fine for saints, but for the rest of us, not doing what we hate being done to us is probably the best we can do.  If everyone did it, how much sweeter life would be for everyone.  How can that not be part of the answer to “what is a good life?”

Do not tolerate abuse, from others, from yourself.  When you see it practiced by others, and you have the power to intervene to stop it, stop abuse.   When you realize you’re being unfair to yourself, let up.  If someone else did that to you, you’d find it hateful, so don’t do it to yourself.

Now that’s easy for a man living on other people’s coins to say, you will say, abuse is, in many situations, in most situations, perhaps, the law of the land.  It is simply another word for robust human competition, call it “abuse” if you like.  But abuse is hateful, and much different from the good sportsmanship we applaud in fair competition.  We know it when we feel abused, and, you will agree, if abuse is the law of the land, it’s a law everyone living under it would like to change. 

What is a good life?  To me, a boy who grew up in a home where rage was expressed regularly, it’s a life with as little anger and conflict as possible.   The serenity prayer is one thing, but learning to avoid conflict is indispensable.  

You can often avoid conflict in the short term by a compromise that leaves you unsatisfied, feeling you’ve got the sucker’s end of the deal.  You will avoid the immediate fight but it is not a workable long-term strategy.  Sooner or later, the unfairness of it will overboil.  

Most of us are angry about something.  There are countless reasons for it in a world run largely by the most unprincipled.   Most often anger comes from the feeling that we are being forced to eat shit.   It is natural to feel angry when you have a mouthful of something disgusting.  My father, no matter how materially successful he became, no matter how comfortably middle class his life grew, always had a mouthful of something disgusting.   This left him snarling at those he had the power to snarl at without consequences.  

A life of snarling is not, of course, without consequences. My father was unable to forgive anything.  He could not forgive others for doing hateful things, he could not forgive himself.  He died deeply regretting this attitude he admitted was seared into his soul by the time he was two. He died lamenting his lack of insight and the courage to try to change himself, for his own sake and for the sake of those he loved.  

Forgiveness is hard sometimes, but there is no substitute for it in a good life.   When someone apologizes sincerely, forgiveness is usually not hard.  Apologizing sincerely, and without conditions, is the right thing to do as soon as you know you’ve hurt someone.  But a sincere apology is sadly rare.  

Are we obliged to forgive people who tell us it is our own problem that we are easily wounded pussies?   Fuck that. No reason to get the last word, though.  Those types, once they prove themselves incapable of not being that way, are best left in the wake of your boat.  Seriously.  Fuck them.  Your life and serenity is enriched by each such sullen, defensive vampire you lose.

The loved ones we cherish are the ones we can be our true selves around.  No acting is required, no false politeness demanded.   We treat them well because they treat us well and our small kindnesses invite reciprocation.  It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle.  It’s a fairly simple arrangement, and a precious one, because it is not easy to find these kindred souls in the world.  

Love, now that I think of it, is at the center of a good life.

Doing what you love, although a luxury many people can not afford in our competitive, materialistic society, is a beautiful thing.  I have a friend who does work she truly loves, and she is a better person for it.   There are frustrations in her working life, but the work itself helps people, sometimes even saves a life, and is something she does well and loves to do.  Talk about a blessing.

If you are fortunate to have things you love to do, do them whenever you can.  It is a blessing to make yourself happy.  

Counting your blessings is also a blessing, but I have to say, in all honesty, fuck that.  

Right, dad?

Goodbye from the Skeleton

black vulture-Coragyps-atratus-001

“Listen, Elie, I can’t tell you how gratifying it’s been to have these conversations with you, talks we should have had when I was alive, but it’s time to say goodbye,” said the skeleton of my father from his grave outside of Peekskill, the cursed little town where his misery began.

 “You know, your hard work in turning these 860 pages into a book begins now, and I see you’ve been dancing around it, that look on your face, writing about this fucking reality TV huckster, and that politically adept blowjob master judge who put you through hell years ago, and everything else.   I don’t have any advice for you about how to tell my story, but I have to think that talking to me, at this point, is no help.”  A black vulture soared by overhead, as if on cue.  

“You know, now that I’m thinking about it, you should probably go back and cut just about every word you put into my mouth.  That’s probably half of the 800 plus pages right there.  Leave the characteristic things I used to say, like calling a cheap car a ‘shit box.’   Schwartzappel drove a shit box, you rode in it once, you know exactly what I’m talking about.”

“As I’m trying to give you advice I realize I really have none to give, I never tried to write a book.  Think of it like a funeral oration, maybe.  You recall how you admired the way I conjured Eli and Arlene at their funerals?  For a moment each one was alive in that hall, standing there like themselves right next to their dead bodies in the coffin.   Look, Elie, if I could have winked at you from my coffin when they took me out of the hearse and popped the lid to make sure you were burying the right guy, I would have.  You recall the shards of pottery on my eyes and mouth?   The five or six day white beard I was sprouting?  … I know I’m not helping.”  

People don’t attempt this, what I am trying to do.  

“Don’t question that, Elie, it’s in your nature, and it’s within your power.   Most people don’t spend as many hundreds and thousands of hours polishing a talent as you have with your writing.   Lives of quiet desperation, Elie, look around at the people you know, running, running, running.   I used to say of Caroline that she always ran a full flight pattern, she was always frantically taking off, touching down, taking off.   When you live that kind of frenetic life your demons take care of themselves, except perhaps when you lash out, or crash your car, or whatever.   You have slowed your life down to carefully examine things.  You may not be getting paid, but it’s not like you aren’t working hard every day.”

Fucking hard work, Brownie.  

“Yeah, listen, I get it.  You have a weirdly gigantic sort of ambition, I have to say.   Here is a father who was in many ways a monster to you and your sister, and you are paying him the respect of putting the jagged puzzle of his three-dimensional human contradiction of a life together.   You recognize the truth of what I admitted as I was dying– that by two years old my life was over.  It was true to me, because I could never recover from the brutality I experienced in the beginning of my life.”  

“Trite as it is, I offer the fucking Hitler example.   The young mass-murdering demagogue was repeatedly brutalized by his autocratic, child-beating father.  It doesn’t let him off the hook for becoming a psychopathic mass murderer, but it explains why someone with his genetic set-up, beaten regularly, became a mass-murdering psychopath while a guy like Dick Cheney just became fantastically rich and sinisterly powerful, the thousands of faceless brown people he had a hand in killing were not the point of the exercise, as it was with Hitler.”  

“You know, you try to understand your feeling of helplessness, while doing everything in your power to push the feeling out of your head.   If I could seem tough, and get people to respect me, I thought I was powerful.   It was the theory of a two year-old, kind of like this reality TV huckster posing as the president now.  If you blow shit up, and glare defiantly at the cameras afterwards, you are presidential.  Real strength, Elie, is being vulnerable, being unafraid to connect to people, relate to them as equals.  But my nerves were too flayed, too often, too young.   You go to your mother for comfort, as you see those tiny kittens in Sekhnet’s backyard do, that’s nature.  Your mother is holding an improvised whip and lashes you in the face with a look of implacable hatred on her face.  Try that one on…”

The black vulture made another lazy circle in the blue sky above the graves.  I wondered briefly what he was looking for.  I think he was a black vulture.

“Well, all this is neither here nor there.   You probably ought to finish that letter to A.G. Schneiderman, get your arguments out there to have government oversight of the unregulated health industry in New York State.  You then should finish that book proposal your old friend’s friend the literary agent might be interested in.  I notice you sent nothing out for publication or rejection, as you vowed to, by the twelfth anniversary of my death, two days ago, but that too is neither here nor there,” the skeleton waved his hand absently and looked up.  

“Is that a black vulture or a turkey vulture?  Neither here nor there, Elie.  You need to take care of your health, too.  Don’t fuck around with that kidney disease you have.  Get your skin cancers taken care of.   Eat healthy food, sleep enough and continue riding your bike.  You heard that great Moth story by John Turturro the other day, we think we are in control of our lives, but we are largely not.   In the end I have no good advice for you, Elie.  How fucking sad is that?”  

No sadder than a lot of things, dad, and less sad than some things.


Anger, like longevity, has its place

My father, like most people who were viciously abused as children, was subject to rage.   When he was treated unfairly, received shabby customer service, when he confronted the most brutal things his government was doing (he spoke less of this category as time went on) when he felt disrespected, he could be angry for days at a time.  He’d marinate in his anger and hurt, ruminate, as they say now, chewing on the indigestible cause for his righteous rage like an agonized ruminant.  

He sometimes experienced physical manifestations of his anger and frustration.  During my childhood his psoraisis, which covered much of his body, would sometimes flare up.  His skin would crack and bleed, the tar baths and light treatments he took at home would no longer help and the only relief would come in a hospital.  In the hospital, the pressures on him and his frustrations greatly reduced, with only the job of getting better to focus on and many treatments employed, his tortured skin would recover within a few days.  

Being the son of an angry man, a father who often took his frustrations out on my sister and me, with projection often coming into play (my teenaged acne was my hate and rage oozing out through my pores, for example), I made overcoming my own anger a lifelong priority.  Yet any reader of these posts will quickly see that, while I have spent a long time consciously practicing my secular version of ahimsa, I am still angry enough to, for example, wish horrible retribution on pampered people who cheer America’s military might while ignoring the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents during air strikes of dubious military usefulness.    It is not a gentle thing to opine that it will take having their own children reduced to chopped meat in a drone strike to give them any insight into the highly destructive evil they are applauding and, in some cases, profiting from.

I realize now that it is not always desirable, or even possible, to avoid anger.   We are correctly taught that the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.   Evil, injustice and indifference must be opposed.  It is best, of course, to do it effectively, without violence or escalation, without letting oneself be consumed by the anger.  Ahimsa includes speaking calmly and clearly to evil and indifferent people and being steadfast in continuing to do what needs to be done to change the intolerable situation.  One thing that is necessary for operating this way, or at least very helpful, is a like-minded community, or the whole-hearted support of at least one other person.

Driving in the rain with an old friend the other day the subject of anger came up, as it occasionally does between us.   Raised in a home where he was also subject to irrationally harsh treatment at one second’s notice, it is not necessary for either of us to make more than a quick reference to set the stage for a story of a near-confrontation with an abusive type.   We both have become better at dealing with overbearing, abusive types, but the frayed nerves and the childhood reflexes, the palpable danger of reacting emotionally to the situation, are all still very much there.  

He seemed mildly amused that I was “unable” to refrain from telling a harsh truth to a bureaucrat, the head social worker for a hospital where a ninety year-old friend of Sekhnet’s languishes in misery.   I acknowledged to the social worker that the old woman was difficult, pointed out how depressed she was, but was obliged to express my doubt that the social worker was taught in Social Work school to blame the patient for her own unhappiness.  I included this opinion in an email seeking, for a third time, an answer to a straight-forward medical follow-up for the old woman.  My friend smiled and shook his head, here I was, still unable to keep myself from throwing a little sterno on the old fire.

I spared him most of the details, just told him I was responding to a bad email written by a non-responsive jackass who was abusing a friend of Sekhnet’s and blaming an old woman for her situationally appropriate misery.

The details: instead of providing the results of the eye exam the woman had a month ago, and telling us why new glasses were not being made, as she promised, the head social worker once again promised to follow-up but spent most of the email detailing what a stuck up, miserable, uncooperative snob the patient is, how she refuses to make friends and to participate in the many monthly programs they periodically hold for patients.  A tour de force of blaming the victim, the best defense a good offense, ’twas like the breath of an unwashed asshole, venting. [1]

The old woman feels isolated and imprisoned.   She is depressed by the objectively depressing situation she finds herself in.  Many of the other patients on her hospital ward are demented, many speak no English.  The services they receive are minimal.  The food is rich in white flour and potatoes, noodles and potatoes are often served on the same paper dinner plate.  An independent, health-conscious and active woman into her late eighties, she fell and broke her hip and is now spending the rest of her life locked in this far from ideal Medicaid ward, a place she had no hand in choosing.  

Her one refuge was reading, but she can no longer see well enough to read.   After much exertion by Sekhnet and me, an eye exam was scheduled for her.  It took a few months but was finally done on March 25th.   She heard nothing further from anyone after the exam.  We followed up.  The head social worker responded that she would follow up to see what happened.  

When we followed up a second time we were treated to a long analysis of what a difficult, stuck up asshole our miserable friend is.  The question of her vision was never dealt with, except by another reference to following up with the medical department.   The social worker’s prose is appended at the bottom, read it for yourself.  She is a wonderful example of her type and very eloquent in expressing it.

This would seem to be a small evil, unless you are an old woman with no other options, kept against her will, in a Medicaid ward at a bare bones hospital on the Lower East Side.  I’d be within my rights, I suppose, to sarcastically thank the head social worker, who wrote to tell us she will no longer answer our emails since we misconstrue them and accuse her of writing things she never intended.  If you have the stomach for it, read her masterful prose poems below, judge for yourself.

I’d be within my rights, I suppose, to write, my toes still almost on the edge of the high road:  Hopefully you will never find yourself old and helpless and at the mercy of a merciless bureaucrat.   If you did, it would only be karma, and if that offends you, I deeply apologize for speaking the unflattering truth.

And cc the entire non-responsive correspondence to the director of the hospital, the hospital’s patient advocate (if any), the State Ombudsman, NYC Department for the Aging, the NYC Public Advocate’s office and anyone else who might give a rat’s ass or make this unaccountable corporate “social worker” have to defend her actions and non-actions.  

True, it seems like a lot of energy to spend, energy that might be better spent elsewhere, unless you consider the understandable despair of this abandoned old woman at the mercy of a system that clearly sees her only as a source of Medicaid payments.  Suppose she needs lasik surgery– that would probably come out of the Medicaid payments otherwise payable to the hospital for her maintenance.

The same way I find it impossible to forgive the unrepentant self-justifier, who, instead of acknowledging hurtful behavior, defends it with energetic hostility, anger at this type is still unavoidable to me.  The one thing to consider, in the case of this particular career bureaucrat gatekeeper, is if trying to hold her accountable will make things better or worse for our friend Margaret, locked up under the supervision of this creature.  

I would truly like the serenity to be able to stop thinking of galling, seemingly unresolvable, things like this, but they sit across my throat like sharp, jagged bones.  This is one of three or four such bones, crosswise in my craw right now, most related to the near impossibility of finding decent medical care at any price, and it is the only one I can theoretically do anything about at the moment.   Here the creature speaks for herself, in response to why there is still no report on the eye  exam, and then on why she will no longer answer our emails:

[1]  Ms. H_____ has rejected every attempt to have her involved in additional social situation.  She finds everything we offer beneath her.   Attempts to pair Ms. H______ with other residents (who have similar backgrounds and interest) to share stories and or for stimulation usually ends up with the other resident feeling bad about themselves because Ms. H_____ feels that they are not educated enough or somehow not smart enough for her.  I not sure what else the staff can do but continue to encourage Ms. H______ to engage and continue to invite her.

Getting Ms. H______ to attend her appointments is not without challenges.  She usually tells the staff that she will go later or tomorrow.  The staff reminds Ms. H_____ of the appointments in advance but still are faced with the stalling and delaying suggested by Ms. H_______ the day of the appointments.  The ophthalmologist has not indicated any need for eye glasses on his last consult 3/25/2017, I am asking for additional clarity as to why.  The team is aware of her upcoming appointment with the dentist on 4/20/17.

Ms. H______ is on the list to receive pet therapy, however pet therapy is a special event and not offered often.   I cannot tell you when the next pet visit will be at this time.  The recreation therapy department head is aware of the request and has assured me that Ms. H______ will be involved in the next pet visit.

her last email, which opens with a classic “if-pology”, if you are an asshole, I am truly, deeply sorry:

Good Morning

I apologize if that is how you and Ms. W______ have read into my email.   I was  stating facts of her behavior, I never blamed Ms. H_______.  Staff continues to encourage and support Ms. H_______ well-being.

Further updates to you and Ms. W______ will be done in person and with the team from now on.   I don’t want any further misunderstanding that emails often lead to.

I thank you for your response and continued support of Ms. H_____ and the Staff here at ______.

Oh, there will be no further misunderstandings, dear, none whatsoever.