Calming a Psychopath

The psychopath will reject this title, for starters.  

“Your premise is bullshit.  There’s no need to calm a psychopath, a psychopath is already calm.  Plus, who the fuck are you to call me a psychopath, meat?   How bout I just bite your plump, tender fucking face off?  Plus, shut the fuck up.  Plus, you will keep my secrets because I said you will.   Plus, shut up.  

“Fine, I once threatened to lock my wife and kids in the house, set it on fire and kill all of them.   That was after I got back from slaughtering her parents.  Then I threatened to kill myself, when it was all over.  That last part was the genius part: I have nothing to lose, I’m going to be dead, but just after the rest of you.   Oh, yeah, like you’ve never in a moment of desperation threatened to burn two little children alive, prig.   And, of course, because you’re so mentally healthy, you miss the most important part, the only important part:  I didn’t do any of that!   A threat is just a threat, mere words, and if you don’t know the difference between a threat and an action, you are one sad, ignorant asshole.  

“And while we’re talking about you, Mr. Stable Genius, who the fuck are you to look down your long, hooked nose at somebody who hasn’t worked in years?   Last I checked you were last in court a couple of years ago, doing a fucking inquest in some seedy Bronx courtroom on behalf of some guy with a cane who provoked a dentist to call him a homo and a cabron and throw some business cards in his face.   Real important case, though it was the last time you got paid for anything.  Oh, wait, I forgot, you’re a writer now, that’s right!   You write, everyday, essential crap like this.  Setting down your precious insights like you’ve learned something deep about the workings of the world of humans.

“Brilliant insights like it’s morally wrong to lie to your children, a real rare million dollar gem you got there, professor.  Except that EVERYBODY lies to their children, on some level.  At least I know I’m lying to my children, and I do it mostly by omission anyway, so it’s not like I’m force feeding them a lot of actual lies.  Plus, I defy you to show me any way my lying has had a negative effect on either of my wonderful kids.  Both kids love me, trust me, know they can always depend on me. You have no kids, know nothing about the responsibilities of parenthood.  Easy for you to fucking pontificate, bring up every little long ago mistake I ever made.  Like you never made a mistake in your high and mighty philosopher king life.  

“I understand you’re working on a letter to me and my wife, to lay out all the so-called moral issues involved.  You call it a letter, I call it your death warrant.  You always whine about Hitler, ‘Oh, Hitler killed my maternal grandparents’ 12 siblings, Oh, Hitler wiped out my father’s people… the shithole they came from literally wiped from the map…’  Yeah.  Blame Hitler for you being an asshole.  Hitler made you a righteous asshole, I understand.  

“Here’s something you should understand: I will not be attacked, by you or anyone else.  Your catalogue of things I supposedly did is a dead letter, motherfucker.  This war has long been over.  You lost.   You don’t want to talk to me because I am a compulsive liar?   Fine with me.  Just don’t expect my kids to reciprocate your attempts to stay in touch.  They know what you are, just as they know what I am.  You want to call me a psychopath?  Fine, I’m a psychopath.  Being a psychopath means never having to say you’re sorry.

“You got time?  I could go on this way all day, don’t even need a break to piss.  I piss on you, asshole.  You see, the thing you’re missing is that gamblers who make a losing bet usually double down.  I know a thing or two about doubling down, about not being a fucking loser, like you, Mr. American Dream.  You can’t win it all back if you ain’t in it.  Life is a roll of the dice.  You never accepted this, think that you are in charge, somehow, that the ‘truth’ is some kind of magic shield against the randomness of life.  You’re powerless, with your pompous integrity and hyperbolic sense of fairness, you’re not in charge of shit.   You think your long laundry list of ‘facts’ is more persuasive than my hugs and kisses, and promises (whether sincere or made for dramatic effect)?  Think again, asswipe.  Possession is nine tenths of the law, counselor.   You can’t take what’s mine.  You can try, if you want to be crushed, in fact, I invite you to come right on.”

I brought this on myself, clearly.  The psychopath makes a good point — the indisputable facts of the case only make things worse for me.   The more reason for shame, the deeper the resolve to fight that shame by any means necessary.   I’m not holding any cards here, except for facts nobody wants to know, and there is no price too high to pay for not knowing those terrible things.






Accepting Reality

I had a random thought just now, listening to the president’s bold new plan to meet his stable genius counterpart in North Korea (something the U.S. Secretary of State himself didn’t know about as recently as yesterday) that when I was growing up we knew virtually everybody on our block.

I thought of Sam Gerwitz, across the street, who my father told me was very rich.   He must have been, he and his wife had a little statuette of a jockey, a small white fellow (his face and hands may have been painted pink during my early childhood), on their front lawn.  He held a lantern illuminating the path from the sidewalk, a path to their front door with a large white column on each side.  He was exactly the kind of little jockey Frank Zappa sang about knocking off the rich people’s lawns in his gospel-tinged Uncle Remus.  

I thought of the Meltons down the street, their daughter Joy, and Pierre, their dog. My father came in angry one day after work, carrying his battered brief case. Pierre had apparently loped on to our front lawn and left a pile of steaming cannon ball-sized turds.   I don’t remember what kind of dog Pierre was, possibly a standard poodle, but my father was outraged that the Meltons let him run wild to gleefully defecate on the neighbors’ lawns.  Melton might have smiled, observing his dog taking the Arnold Palmer putting stance and letting nature take its course.  I just remember how outraged my father was, and who could blame him?

The point of these quaint recollections is that I could go down the block, certainly our end of the street, and name every family, and family member, in every house, the Bengles, the Ticks, the Weissmans.  Such is not the case for most children growing up today.

The Good Humor man knew our dog Patches and would front her a cup of vanilla ice cream (which he dutifully opened for her and placed within reach of her tongue) until a human came out of our house to give him the ten cents. “Patches would come running, along with all the neighborhood children, when the music from that truck started,” my mother reminded us.

In those quaint days on the leafy streets of Queens, New York, we led what seemed an idyllic childhood.  My best friend Michael Siegel and I built a series of forts (in peoples’ back yards), formed the Waterbugs– a secret society dedicated to running through every sprinkler they passed– made an intricate system of dams in the street when the sprinklers sent water in rivulets down the hill to Union Turnpike, played baseball in the street.   Nobody feared the Good Humor man, or any local shop owner, as far as any of them being a child molester.  It emerged, years later, that my best friend’s father was a pedophile, but apparently such a gracious host, so gentle and loved by the boys on the block that several stood crying as the cops led him away.

Not to imply by these sentimental little vignettes that life in those days was like the Great America our imbecilic president claims he’s trying to bring back.   Yes, I grew up in a stable neighborhood of well-tended lawns, on a quiet street where I knew everybody’s name.  But, as Woody Allen’s slippery character evasively answered in The Front, when asked under oath if he knew a certain suspected Communist screenwriter: when do you really know somebody?   Did the neighbors hear our screaming fights at the dinner table every night?

The public school I attended was segregated, a decade after the Supreme Court ordered an end to the racist practice.  I remember the first black children arriving at our school, on the E, F and G buses, at the end of a bitter war I also remember, during which my mother’s friend and pro-integration comrade Mildred Rose received a vicious letter with COMMIE scrawled across the envelope.  I recall Mildred’s horror as she told my mother, gasped the word COMMIE, the look of concern that crossed my mother’s face.  The word itself was one of the funniest things I’d ever heard. My friend Robbie and I began using it daily, calling each other and everyone else Commie and laughing at how it was always so fucking funny. 

Meanwhile, largely unknown to us, our government was engaged in an existential war on Commies everywhere, in the name of freedom, had been since a decade before our births.   In the name of freedom charismatic John F. Kennedy quietly sent military advisors and tons of weapons to help a corrupt Vietnamese regime fight the Commies led by Vietnamese nationalist hero Ho Chi Minh.    An invented pretext allowed Kennedy’s successor to escalate the war, a war to prevent all the countries of Southeast Asia from falling like dominos to Communism if Vietnam was lost to the godless Commies.  The “Domino Theory,” like “Manifest Destiny” before it, was good enough to sustain an unimaginably gigantic campaign of organized violence and mass murder for years.

Here is what I am getting to about accepting reality.   The reality then for me, as I became a teenager, was if the Vietnam war had continued another year or so, I would have had to figure out how to get out of the draft, like war-loving Dick Cheney, Dubya Bush and Donald Trump had, or be sent over there to fight for American freedom by burning the villages of Vietnamese Commie sympathizers on “our” side of the arbitrary line drawn on a map when the northern part was ceded to the Commies after the expulsion of the French colonialists not long before I was born.  

Much of my childhood had been spent watching atrocities on TV, exciting war news about a war no more sensible, or justifiable, really, than the First World War.   The scores ran like obscene basketball scores across the bottom of the screen.  Yesterday we won 1,396 to 55.  We killed 1,396 Commies, they’d only gotten 55 of us.  Later we learned how the scores were arrived at:  kill any Vietnamese guy between 12 and 60, score one for us.   All presumed fucking Commies.

I remember seeing a marijuana-related piece on the nightly war news, which we sometimes watched during dinner on a small black and white TV with rabbit ears.  The piece was a brief aside about the rampant drug use by American soldiers in Vietnam (thousands came back addicted to heroin).  A couple of smiling grunts demonstrated the ingenious technique of using a gun barrel as a pipe for smoking inhumanly large lungfuls of ganga.  They’d create a burning pile of the weed at the top of the gun barrel and one soldier would blow the smoke forcefully through the gun barrel into another soldier’s mouth.  They called it shotgunning.  I remember the poor bastard who’d been on the receiving end of the shotgun, an American kid caught in an endless jungle war in toxic quicksand, falling over backwards laughing, expelling vast, thick plumes of smoke.  The news correspondent mentioned the name of the god-forsaken place they were sitting and signed off.

There was a massive anti-war movement, and I attended many mass protests as did most people I knew, but the war machine raged on for years.  Many of us marched out of outrage against what was going on, the horrors being committed in our names, and fear for our fate if this insane war was not ended.   Our leaders spoke high-mindedly about ending the war on our terms, Peace with Honor.  One slogan the anti-war folks had was “Killing for Peace is like Fucking for Chastity.”  After the American attack on Vietnam (which included vast quantities of chemical weapons like Dow Chemical’s Napalm [1], a flammable flesh burning weapon from hell)  finally ended our leaders realized an all volunteer army was better for morale, and public support of any war.  The end of the draft had the great benefit of depriving millions of a personal stake for protesting American military adventures to wipe out godless Commies (today the enemy is “terror”) wherever they might be hiding.

Accepting reality means, on one level, accepting that there is really nothing we can do about the irresistibly obscene profits of those who make weapons.  Can’t sell the goddamned things and have ’em sit in a fucking warehouse, governments ain’t going to go for that on the gigantic scale we need to make it worth keeping the factories going full-time, keeping everyone employed in the munitions industry.  Got to have wars, constantly, everywhere we can.  It’s a sad reality, but military force is the only thing these evil motherfuckers understand.  When Trump dropped “the mother of all bombs,” devastating a square mile of Afghanistan, he got a standing ovation from the spokesmen for a nation grateful that he was finally acting “presidential”.

Talking piece of shit and chief apologist for our culture of gun violence Wayne LaPierre reminded me the other day, with his snide dismissal of godless left-wing attempts to cynically exploit tragedy and manipulate the public after every single isolated and unfortunate high-profile mass shooting of school children, of a long dead activist whose name has become a snarling point for patriotic right wing pundits: Saul Alinsky.  I reserved Alinsky’s 1971 Rules for Radicals from the public library and a few days later picked it up at the branch that is scheduled for demolition, as soon as all the ULURPs are signed off on and the checks are all cut to interested parties.  

The book is a guide for practical actions to steadfastly but nonviolently change hearts, minds, practices and laws.  During his prologue Alinsky states emphatically that the revolution he advocates has nothing to do with Communist revolution, although Communists have written virtually all of the manuals for revolution in the past century.  He states several times that violence is not a sensible option for affecting positive social change in a democracy.   He points out the failures of every revolution by force, how quickly the new oppressors entrench themselves in self-perpetuating power.   He makes the point that social change, imagining and creating a better world, requires overturning many core beliefs of the status quo.  

The U.S., at the time he was writing, had produced 1,600 tons of nerve gas.   We weren’t going to use it, of course, but we needed 1,600 tons of it since the Commies were intent on converting every American to a slave.  Follow that logic, if you can.  That deadly shit, the kind of stuff that, if his forces employed it, would justify a righteous attack on the murderous Mr. Assad in Syria, is now at the bottom of the oceans, waiting harmlessly for God knows what.  Nerve gas is an inhuman, universally condemned chemical weapon, although, it must be said, the U.S. still produces and sells White Phosphorous, which burns unstoppably through flesh and bone and the use of which is considered, by many, to be a war crime.

How does the world get better?   By people of conscience organizing, imagining a better future, creating effective nonviolent battle plans, improvising smartly, using the mass media to further our narrative of how the world should be.  I have not read very far into Alinsky’s book, but it invites me to imagine the world and the kind of principled action he is talking about.   You can’t kill your way to peace anymore than you can fuck your way to chastity.  

When I was eight racist police chiefs were turning high powered hoses on blacks who were intent on voting, using public bathrooms, walking on the sidewalk instead of the street, not being lynched for the crime of making eye contact with their white superiors.  I am now sixty-one and racist government officials still fight the idea that just because significant numbers of unarmed blacks are killed by the police every year, in numbers grotesquely disproportionate to the percentage of blacks in America, that we have a systemic problem here.  The problem is not widespread racist injustice, according to these officials, it’s fucking agitators, lawlessness, troublemakers, whistleblowers, goddamned ‘citizen journalists’ with their video phones, malcontents, racist black terrorists, Commies.

Homo sapiens, the descendants of apes who now rule the planet, calls itself “wise man,” sapiens apparently meaning wise.   We are wise enough to combine in huge numbers, animated by abstract beliefs, and do amazing things.  Sadly, one of the most common and consistent of these things is organized mass violence against other groups of humans, against any species or ecosystem we choose.  We were wise enough to rise up, from an insignificant prey animal, and organize ourselves, collectively, during the geological blink of an eye, into the apex predator on the planet. 

When President Obama vastly expanded the drone killing program his people came up with something called the Signature Strike.  It might have been Cheney’s people with that innovative idea, I’d have to ask Jeremy Scahill [the program apparently started in 2008 at the end of the Bush administration– ed.]  [2].   The theory is fairly straightforward: certain actions in certain areas are the signatures of terrorists and militants.  When we detect a pattern of such things we send a drone to kill the unknown persons who are engaging in things terrorists tend to do.  When we count the dead bodies, any male body between certain ages is counted as an enemy combatant.  As simple, and effective, as the body counts in Vietnam.   You hardly need a scorecard to know that if we kill more of them than they kill of us, we are winning.

We homo sapiens are capable of amazing things, creating transcendent beauty.   We can move each other to cry using words, sounds, sights, tastes.  We can laugh, and make each other laugh, by these same devices.  We are also the most violent, insane, unbending motherfuckers on the planet.   Can you imagine a better future?  We must get busy finding others who share this vision, organizing, successfully spinning our vision of a better future correctly in the mass media, influencing the perceptions, confirming the most decent innate beliefs of our fellow citizens.  

Failing this, we’re all fucking dead, my friends.   The New York Times may put a nice spin on much of this, you know, how freedom and progress are on the march, and the world is a pretty good place, never better, really, if you can afford to buy the things that make it worthwhile, of course, but none of their bodies are on the line, until every human body on the planet is on the line.  Which, one could argue, is now.


[1] Here’s a surprise for you, gentle reader:

In the 1960s, the Dow Chemical Company re-partnered with Badische, the German company that had produced Zyklon-B, the gas used to execute people in Nazi death camps, and formed Dow-Badische. Dow-Badische created and produced Napalm-B, an updated napalm consisting of “25 percent gasoline, 25 percent benzene, and 50 percent polystyrene”.[9] After news reports of napalm B’s deadly and disfiguring effects were published, Dow Chemical experienced boycotts of its products, and its recruiters for new chemists, chemical engineers, etc., graduating from college were subject to campus boycotts. The management of the company decided that its “first obligation was the government.” Meanwhile, napalm B became a symbol for the Vietnam War.[10]

[2]  Signature strikes began during the Bush years, in January 2008, as the US intensified drone strikes in Pakistan. When Obama entered office in 2009, his administration picked up where Bush left off and exponentially increased the number of drone strikes. During his eight years in office, Bush launched 51 drone strikes in Pakistan and killed between 410 and 595 people. Obama, so far, has launched 419 drone strikes in Pakistan, alone, and killed over 4,500 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2009.   (this was as of August 4, 2015)


Moral Dilemma

I have gone on at length here about the damage done by concealing crucial information, in pubic and private life both.   It is impossible to make sense of a situation when the underlying events are secretly redacted, classified, above your need-to-know pay grade.    This obfuscation of what actually happened, what used to be quaintly called “the facts”, can be found in virtually every situation where somebody is brutally, or even gently, fucking somebody else over.   Withholding key information is necessary for the proper functioning of every abusive situation,  every betrayal and scandal, personal, political, environmental, what have you.

Removal of transparency has been institutionalized by the powerful corporate players who sponsor candidates for the legislature, it is now also the rule in the government unlimited free speech money has largely purchased.   It would not do, for example, to have the facts known about the effects of the toxic waste being produced by a fabulous company employing thousands and making billions.   Public relations firms are employed to humanistically spin the work the friendly corporation does, to direct people’s fleeting attention away from the murderous externalities the corporation seeks to conceal. 

An energetic public relations firm has been at work for Koch Industries in recent years, showing actors playing women, black people, minorities of every kind, happily employed in important jobs by beneficent, forward looking Koch Industries– making a better tomorrow today and shit.   

There is obviously no hint in these feel good Koch pieces that the toxic sludge they are piping from the Alberta tar sands they own, across the entire width of the U.S., to refineries in Houston, is the most toxic form of fossil fuel left on earth.  Or that it’s flowing sluggishly (with at least one massive spill so far) across more than a thousand miles of the American watershed.   Forget, for a moment, the raped wasteland the ‘harvesting’ of this toxic prehistoric sludge leaves behind on the Canadian lands owned by the Kochs.  The Americans who are protesting the pipeline are beaten up by privately hired goons, set upon by dogs, by Trump, strip searched and imprisoned for carrying signs stating their case about protecting the water supply.  Nothing to see here.  Koch, making the future bright, for winners.  Whatever else you can say about piping this toxic sludge, the profits it will generate for the two Koch boys will double their already incalculable fortune.

Or as you will immediately learn by googling Keystone XL: 

The Keystone XL oil pipeline will be the safest and most advanced pipeline in North America, providing U.S. jobs, energy security and economic benefits.

Wealthy criminals who are actually prosecuted can avoid admissions of guilt by signing lawyerly agreements where they pay a sum of money without an admission of guilt.  Trump and his dad did that, thanks to the rabid genius of the unscrupulous Roy Cohn, who countersued the government for defamation when the government prosecuted the Trumps under The Fair Housing Act.   Trump Inc. who had been systematically violating the Fair Housing Act long before it became law, admitted no wrong-doing and agreed to have its rental policies and practices monitored to ensure no future violations, but the government blinked.  Trump never had to admit their policy and longtime practice of not renting to brown skinned low-life motherfuckers, no matter how respectable they appeared to be.  Nothing to see here, bitches.  You didn’t prove shit and we didn’t admit jack.  Fuck you!

Political and business obfuscation is ubiquitous, too common to even talk about.   Rule one: never admit shit.  Rule two: when accused of violence, punch the accusers as hard as you can in the face, repeatedly, while kicking them in the balls.   Rule three: no disclosure.  Make me.  I know you are, but what am I?

“Yeah, we violated all 371 treaties we made with Native Americans, so?  They were fucking Stone Age savages who thought the earth itself was a god.  Fucking losers, they didn’t even know how to smelt metal.  Plus, a handful of the survivors became very, very rich, filthy rich, with those tax free casinos.  What are they bitching about?   You can’t bring back the dead.  Fucking losers….”

The moral dilemma I referred to above is in the personal arena.  It is an almost daily torment to me.   Hitler did a nice job trimming my family tree back in 1942 and 1943.  Of what would have been dozens of relatives today, from a once large family, I am left with a tiny handful, most of whom I haven’t seen in years.   The work that Hitler wasn’t able to complete, well, there are other ways to do it, yo.

“There you go again with the hyperbole, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father, popping up randomly, as he often does.  “You’re going to lose a lot of readers with this Hitler shit.  Hitler, yeah, not a nice man.  Mass murderer, twisted fuck, fine, most people know Hitler was no goddamned good.   You’re not shedding any light here by dragging his hideous face into this conversation.  My suggestion: leave fucking Hitler out of it.”

After a long pause, that included a shower, lunch and checking on the progress of Aaron Judge’s recovery from shoulder surgery, I agreed with my father’s skeleton that the best way to explore this moral dilemma was with a piece of fiction.  A lie, as Picasso put it, that reveals the truth.  And remember, total darkness is the best cover for abuse and shame.

The first time Jim met the man, the man said that Jim was a pussy, a man who lacked the balls to “confront” his girlfriend’s father.  “Confront the bastard!” he told Jim militantly as Jim’s girlfriend smiled and slightly cringed.  Jim felt no need to confront the girl’s father. He’d had dinner at his table, the man didn’t particularly like Jim, and as the father of a young woman who had middle class expectations, Jim thought the man was well within his rights to be wary of him.   Jim was idiosyncratic, disconnected from the general ambitions of the world, though smart.   Jim and his girlfriend’s father got along as well as they needed to, and the romance between his daughter and Jim was going along very amicably, in Jim’s opinion.  Jim told the man he always kept his word to the girl’s father, had her home by the hour he promised, and that preserved the peace and made everything much easier.

The guy who was lecturing Jim about having no balls was trying to convince Jim’s sister, who he’d met weeks earlier, to quit her excellent job, pack her things and run away with him to Arizona.   He was fleeing a failed marriage, it was complicated, he was deeply, deeply in love and he had no intention of meeting the parents of the pretty young woman he was trying to abscond with.

“Phew… that’s some ripe, eh, fiction,” said the skeleton.   

You can’t make this shit up, dad.   From that twisted exchange, an unneeded moral lecture to Jim about something he himself was incapable of doing, the rest followed in a straight line.   A long con game.  Soon he’d lost his job, asked Jim with a smile if he could borrow some money, just for a short time, a couple of months.  Jim was generous, Jim was foolish.   The man took advantage.  Jim became the subject of mounting anger on visits to his sister.  He was cursed as the “fucking Jew” who, years later, still came every month, driving a six hour round trip, just to collect the monthly payment they never mailed to Jim.  

The man was always more comfortable blaming others than taking responsibility for his frequent mistakes.  It is only human to make mistakes, it is inhuman not to forgive, preached the man who did many bad things without ever once apologizing to anyone.

The skeleton of my father nodded from his grave, very satisfied. 

“Nicely turned, Elie,” he said.  “I love that you didn’t even mention the many old friends he ‘borrowed’ money from who eventually abandoned the lying fuck, the several times, that we know of, that he embezzled from a boss who loved and trusted him, the year or more that he pretended to go to work every day while he was fraudulently drawing his ‘pay’ from his dead father’s credit cards.  The $10,000 he borrowed from mom and me towards the downpayment on a home he was pretending they were going to buy, two or three days before he declared bankruptcy.  Particularly heroic, on your part, not to mention the time he threatened to murder his children, his wife, me and mom, and then himself.  Like all desperate, murder and suicide threatening cowards, he could have saved everyone a lot of grief by just snuffing himself first.  So I salute you for not going there.”

Why would I go there, dad?  You know I always take the fucking high road. 

“Just one more reason you sometimes feel so fucking alone, Elie,” said the skeleton, wanly.  “I’m just sayin’… Try not to brood on lost nieces and nephews, eh?”

Waking from Unsettling Dreams

In the first dream I was in and out of a bar that was headquarters for a violent motor cycle gang reminiscent of the Sons of Anarchy.   The tough men and women in there tolerated me, nobody seeming to even notice me.   I didn’t interact with anyone, I was just there, passing through.   I don’t know why I was there, I wasn’t drinking and rarely enter bars of any kind in real life.   I returned to the bar several times in the course of the dream.   

Around me fights got out of control, people were killed.  Some of the dead bodies were displayed outside the bar in grotesque positions, reminiscent of the crucified left as grim examples to others considering defiance of Rome.   At one point in our history crucified bodies were displayed in long lines, to the horizon.   It was a terrible dream, although I felt myself to be in no danger.   

In hindsight, the violence seemed virtually random, I could have been next, except that nobody paid any attention to my comings and goings.   The bar, I realize now, was set on curving, residential Marengo Street in Jamaica Estates, a place I visited often as a child.  

The second dream shook me up in a different way.   I’d invited a former good friend over, among a group of people I’d invited to my apartment that evening.  The former friend in question, I’ll call him Andy, had demonstrated to me in real life how little our friendship meant to him, how superior he felt to me and how illegitimate and pathetic he thought my feelings of hurt were.  During our last conversation he was unrepentant and even bullying, over the phone.  He may have been equally unrepentant in person, but I doubt he would have tried to bully me face to face.

This dream was unsettling to me for reasons unlike the couple of other bad dreams I’ve had where this guy shows up.   In those dreams I am shaken up afterwards by the palpable feeling of violence I experience.  He does something provocative and I react with anger, shove him, slap his face hard, kick him after knocking him down.   This shakes me up because I am dedicated to being as nonviolent as possible in word and deed (not that I’d meekly let someone attack me, don’t get any ideas).  In the most recent dream it was much different.

He’d set fire to some things in my kitchen and several of us struggled to put the flames out.   I knew at the time that this pyromania was a manifestation of his mental illness and not anything malicious directed at me.  Like with my often vicious father, I realized he could not help himself.   Others at the gathering reacted with anger, I didn’t.  When they began verbally attacking him I told them that I’d invited him and that he was my guest just like they were.   

As I was defending him he lit another fire and I took a cooking pot and banged it loudly on the wall next to his head.  I yelled at him.  I scared the shit out of him.  He disappeared.  We managed to put out the new fire.  Then I heard sirens, which grew closer and closer.  Somebody called out that someone had called the fire department. 

I opened the door and Andy was standing in the hallway, a shattered expression on his face.  He told me sheepishly that he’d called the fire department.  I took this as the best apology somebody as damaged as he is can offer.  I patted the side of his face and a fireman stepped through my front door.     I assured the fireman that the small kitchen fire was under control, he made a quick round of the apartment, signaled his colleague and they took off. 

This dream was fucked up in more ways than I can count.  

I was fairly wide awake, after very short sleep, and I succinctly recounted the dreams to Sekhnet, who was getting ready to go to work.   I mentioned to her that I had to find a new nephrologist, most likely, to follow up with the treatment of my kidney disease.   The need to find yet another new nephrologist is likely because my fucking health insurance changed in 2018.  She asked when I was going to make an appointment to see the Integrative Medicine doctor I’d spoken to months back, a man trained to view the body/mind/emotions as a holistic ecosystem [1]. 

My kidney disease, while eventually deadly, is not serious enough to inspire big pharmaceutical research dollars to be invested in it.  Its cause is unknown to science.  The specialists I’ve visited are blind men clutching the elephant’s tail, ear, leg, penis, promising the darts they throw in a dark room have a decent chance, as high as 30%, of curing what will eventually kill me, if not cured.

Maybe that’s all the unsettling dreams were supposed to do, wake me up and remind me to find a new nephrologist, take perhaps a thousand dollars and go visit this holistic doctor.   We are all heading toward death.  In my case, this kidney disease may not even be the thing that eventually kills me.   

Having this disease is enough to wake me up, though, and not want to waste time.   Writing something thoughtful every day, until I can figure out how to get some of this organized and read, and get some money for it, seems to be the most productive use of however many days or years I have remaining to me. 

Isn’t that the challenge of every human life?  Finding a meaning that gives beauty to the colors around us, music to the sounds we hear and excellent taste to the food we eat?   Satisfaction in our work, pleasure in our play.   A sense of connection to others that makes us cherish them as beings as precious as we ourselves are.


[1]  ho·lis·tic  (adjective)

PHILOSOPHY:  characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.

MEDICINE:  characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the physical symptoms of a disease.


The impulse to self-love vs. the impulse to self-hatred

A person who is gently loved growing up matures into an adult who loves herself.  This is not the shallow self-love of the insecure egotist, it is a grounding in love that includes the self.  A person subjected to cruelty, brutality, disinterest, develops self-hatred, blames itself for the meanness it has experienced from others.  The person with love in her heart will be inclined to have a generous spirit.   The one who hates himself tends to hoard the things he holds dear, and, in bad cases, becomes an abusive person. [1]

A trait of self-love is an inclination to comfort others.   A loving person naturally helps, is protective of anyone who is suffering.   A person who has known only negativity and bitterness will be challenged to give freely of themselves.   Self-hatred hardens the heart against what each of us really needs, and, in the end, self-hatred kills.  

We live among millions of penitent monks, dragging and bearing heavy weights, living lives of unconscious penance for things they should have long ago forgiven.

I realized at one point that teachers and fellow humans break down into Encouragers and Discouragers.   It was an illuminating moment in my progress as a teacher to look at these two qualities directly.  You want a teacher who lights a spark of curiosity and fun, a sense of shared adventure rather than one who grimly gets down to business, performing a business transaction, expecting little in return.  This is not to say a teacher should never criticize, but should always lean toward doing it in a way that won’t harden the heart of the student.

Think of the best teachers you had, they gave you the confidence to learn a challenging thing, made the learning a shared adventure.   An encourager has natural enthusiasm, love of the thing they teach, likes to collaborate, gets pleasure watching progress, the development of a skill.   The openness of the encourager ensures that the interaction is play, never dull, unrewarded work.  The fun of doing and mastering the thing is the encourager’s greatest tool.  The genuine joy in the encourager actually gives courage to the timid and hesitant.

The discourager, a dogged realist, will always tell you the brutal truth, no matter what.  The discourager speaks with the voice of the rest of the world: what you most dream of doing is stupid, ill-conceived, far-fetched, preemptively doomed to failure.   The discourager has already been defeated, tried what you are attempting, is much better at it than you, and failed in spite of starting with much, much greater odds of success than you will ever have. The unrealistic wishfulness of what you are proposing, says the discourager, is just another example of your neurotic terror of life, your rigid refusal to see the world as it actually is.  Your giddy dream is just another gruesome illustration of the fact that you are, objectively, a complete loser.  

The discourager has a thousand such ready remarks, instantly popping up, since he speaks in a popular voice.  It is much easier to break a complex thing apart than to conceive, design and build it.   The discourager has the advantages of being often right in his foreboding predictions, many ideas fail out in the world, and echoing a voice already implanted in most people’s heads, the internalized victimizer.   The discourager always confirms the worst and immediately endorses your deepest fears.  

The encourager is glad to see you, happy to be spending time with you, eager to interact.  It is not merely a guitar lesson, it’s a chance to discuss the deepest matters of life philosophy.   What does it tell us about life that you can play a grooving bass line or even a solo with just one note?   The trick is to play the right note, to play it with an easy sense of time, keep it even, place it cleverly against the beat, as part of a swinging arrangement.   The encourager and the rest of the band can play many parts and arrangements against that single note.  The creative possibilities for each additional track are virtually endless.    

A discourager will remind you that less than 0.01% of all people who play a musical instrument ever become huge music stars.  For every Brittney Spears there are a thousand Friedmans and Speeds, talented, sophisticated, unique musicians, at one point energetically composing, arranging and performing beautiful music that nobody will ever hear.    Most musicians, the discourager is quick to point out, give up their instruments eventually, after their dreams of becoming rock stars die.  The stink of a failed dream will always attach itself to playing music for most people who picked up an instrument for the love of music many years earlier and dreamt of musical glory, the discourager adds.    

An encourager would hand you a guitar, or a hand drum or percussion instrument, perhaps offer you a hit, to remind you of your original love of music.   Somebody could hammer a low E note on the guitar, like a bass, and then someone overlays a rhythm lick over that, now a keyboard, with a low, thick, soft sound, a pleasing note  perfectly in the mix in that same space in each bar.   Each instrument could be playing only one or two notes, forming all the harmonies to suggest melodies.  The possibilities for the person improvising the next track are literally endless.  

A discourager would point out that in all of your long guitar and piano playing life, you had only one gig, unpaid, and that your only audition, for a wedding band in Sheepshead Bay, went disastrously.

The encourager would add:  for successful collaboration, everybody in the group should learn to be an encourager, or at least learn not discourage creativity by word or attitude.  Encouragers are the only good collaborators, really, since collaboration without mutual enthusiasm is a recipe for trouble. Invention requires risk and some of the best ideas start off as the most outlandish.  Going with a ridiculous idea is the only way to see where it might take you.   Inspired melodies often started off as ridiculous improvisations.

For the love of your fellow creatures, stay open to the impulse to create.  

When you forget to stay open to creative ideas, to being playful, you begin to die.   Death is a process that, once begun with any real determination, there is no turning back from. 

The future is a brightly colored wheel of fortune against the beautiful gradient of blue and green between sky and ocean.   Every pleasure you will ever feel, every connection, every great satisfaction, every discovery, are in that future.  There is every reason to be encouraged, if you love your life.  

If you dislike your life — be encouraged.  It is a wake up bell:  live a life worth living.

Pay no attention to the words of unhappy people who carp and cavil, barking out a hundred reasons why your expectation of happiness is stupid and unrealistic.  Seriously, yo, pay no attention to those sad souls.   Keep love of yourself and the things you love in your heart, it will keep your steps light and those around you less morose.

Be not discouraged by the words of those who tell you the lie that you are already doomed.  Their doom is not your doom. 



[1]  Note fucked up attempt to use non-sexist pronouns.  In enlightened law schools twenty years ago they taught us to use the feminine pronoun instead of the ubiquitous he, him and his of standard English.  Instead of “a person himself” we were encouraged to use “a person herself” (pretend you can picture a sentence where that phrase would be used).  It was a good idea, an important one, even, but in practice, well… you see how awkward it is to write that way.  You can see how awkward that is, right, girls?

An untenable life

I persist here almost every day, frequently encouraged by the previously adversarial voice of my dead father’s skeleton.  I write these pieces in spite of many sensible reasons not to spend so much of my time this way.   I’m often cheered by my appetite to set the words down, get my thoughts out clearly, express sometimes difficult feelings, in spite of the almost universal silence that greets this unpaid work.  Still, it is an untenable life.

I console myself: I write because I’m compelled to write, because it helps me, and may help someone else.   I assure myself that I’ll eventually sell some of this writing to support myself, however slightly, going forward.   I am better about not being pissed sitting in the middle of the almost universal silence that hisses around even my best efforts here, I remind myself.  Some days, like today, for example, it feels like an untenable life I am living.  A random page ripped senselessly out of Ecclesiastes.

My idiopathic life-threatening disease is as vague and slow-unfolding as my life itself.  Norton Juster had a character in The Phantom Tollbooth who reminds me of myself in regard to my writing life.   “Worlds tallest midget” said the sign, and a man of average height opened the door.  Around the corner was the “World’s smallest giant”, same guy.   If I wrote half as well as I do, but had twice the ambition, twice the marketing and branding skills, I’d probably be able to make a living.   If I wrote a third as well, and had ten times the marketing and branding smarts, and the unquenchable drive, I’d be a wealthy man by now.   But who am I fucking kidding?  My life is untenable.  

Look, all of our lives are untenable in the end.   Fuck– look at this guy, his lungs just went kaput.   She could have lived to be a hundred, if not for that drunk driver.    Nobody knows how this one died, put “WTF?” for cause of death.   In those last moments, given the chance to take stock of one’s life, how many take consolation in the many good business deals they made?  I have no idea, having almost never made a good business deal.

It seems to me that, except in the case of monsters, those last moments are probably spent thinking about love, shining forth from the world we are about to lose.  The thought of being loved could be a comfort, or it could be unbearable, smothering, I suppose.   That was one reason my father sent his family away right before he died.  How do you die with a small audience of people desperate not to lose you looking on?   The nurses told me afterwards that many men do this, send wives and children away before they breathe their last.  

It’s not the thought of my eventual death that bothers me now, it’s thoughts of my untenable life, a life I must continue to live today.   You can be a moral person, strive to be kind, and mild, to listen, to be responsive, use a gentle phrase to turn aside wrath.   With that orientation to the world, if you have a metrocard with a ride left on it, you can get on a bus, and probably you will be one of the nicest kids on the bus.

Years ago, as I was caring for my dying mother long distance with long daily phone calls, a literary agent was blown away by a long, convoluted story that spilled out when I arrived, soaked and dehydrated, at a party.  “If you can write that down just the way you told it, I can sell it!” she assured me with great confidence.  It was an exciting assurance.  At the time I had no clue how to write it down just the way I’d told it.  I sent her what I thought was my best effort and she responded that I was a very nice guy and that she’d like to take me to lunch at the Harvard Club, where she took her professional clients.   I never called her to arrange that lunch, nice fucking guy that I am.    

These days, having the time, patience and solitude to concentrate, I have a pretty good idea how to go about writing it all down.  Little idea how to organize it, or even review, say, the 1,200 pages of a first draft, but a much better sense that I am hitting the target pretty consistently when I sit down to write.  Nonetheless, the life I am currently waking up to is untenable. Today it is about 2,000 pounds of untenable.  

Wrestling with my themes every day, I’ve developed muscles that most people I know, people much more muscled and capable than I am in most other ways, are not aware they even have.   Today this rippling musculature mocks me, feels like an even shittier consolation prize than it does most other days.   I turn the goddamn thing I am looking at five different ways before setting it in final form.   There are subtle details that must be lit just so.  Impossible to show these things, unless you take pains to set them at the right angle, against the right backdrop, light them correctly.  Leave out a step and you might as well piss in the ocean from a high cliff.

“Schmuck,” I can hear the voice, “instead of writing about what a good writer you are, why don’t you write a great letter to a top literary agent and see what you can get them to do for you and your untenable life?  Nobody gives a rat’s toned and sculpted cuisse for your self-regarding opinions about your fucking untenable life.   Live a tenable life or die — your choice, bitch.”

Leonardo, looking for a patron, once wrote a remarkable letter to some rich guy, maybe the King of France (see letter to the Duke of Milan).  He boldly set out a highly improbable list of many things, in a dozen disparate fields, he could do for this rich guy.  The rich guy was impressed, gave the prototypical Renaissance man a lifetime stipend to live in a villa and conduct his life of contemplation, exploration and the pursuit of knowledge and excellence.   It may have been some other rich guy who eventually gave him the lifetime stipend, his letter may have had no greater effect than being a wonderful example of self-confidence and seeming hyperbole that is actually, possibly, understatement. 

“Yes, that’s what you do, write that understated, hyperbolic letter and send it to everyone you can find who might be an advocate in getting you some rich people’s money.  The people you know can’t help you, and, more to the point, cannot stand to hear about your untenable, if also highly fortunate, life.  You want silence?  You’ve got it now.”  

I’m all ears.