Writing for real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I try not to judge, though I am often unsuccessful in this.   People have very different experiences and expectations of life.  My own are eccentric in the eyes of many people, I realize that.  It comes with dancing to your own idiosyncratic rhythm section.   I love reading well-written history books sometimes.  I love Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, a masterpiece.   She writes, about the assumption, in the Jerusalem court that tried him for his enormous bureaucratic crimes,  that Eichmann was a normal middle class German of his time:

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

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

The lesson of my father’s life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fairness to POTUS

The president once again displays that he is at least as non-partisan, fair-minded and democratically inclined as his recent Supreme Court pick, Justice Kavanaugh.  If you need proof of this, look no further than his latest prophecy:

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The wags on the internet are saying the only university that might study this would be Trump University.   Fake news fucks…

On a more serious note, who on earth is Peter S, and why are those vicious crooks defending him?  Sounds sinister indeed!

A Modern Tragedy

A completely avoidable misunderstanding, made possible by a design flaw and human error.  The first party did exactly the right thing, the second party was continually misinformed, by day seven both parties were right to be indignant, both parties were right to think the other a complete asshole.  It took seven days for these things to shake out, once the truth became clear, and it is a modern tragedy completely of the digital age.  The whole ugly thing could have been avoided, but for a failure of technology (and, failing that, human follow-up).

When I was fifty my mother and Sekhnet ganged up on me to make me buy private health insurance [1].   One of the first doctors I saw was wiry a young urologist who introduced himself, with a firm handshake, as Matt.   He looked at my records, smiled and said “fifty years young.”   He was probably thirty-one at the time.   Matt was very good about returning an email.   If I had a concern or question I had his return email within a very short time.   This alert responsiveness to a patient’s concerns is an excellent trait in a caregiver.

Five weeks ago I had a single two-day incident of gross hematuria, blood in the urine (with clot).   The second day I painlessly passed a soft blood clot half the size of a Q-tip and that was the end of the bloody urine.   I went to Matt’s office and had a CAT scan and blood and urine tests at the end of October.   My last test was a cystoscopy (google it) on November 8, when I would also get the other test results and some medical insight, but the cystoscopy had to be postponed at the last minute, for a legitimate, unforeseeable reason.   My new test was scheduled for a month later.   I wanted to know the results of the CT scan and other tests, to know if those tests had ruled out the possibility the hematuria was a final symptom of late stage bladder or prostate cancer.

When the cystoscopy was rescheduled I called to ask Matt the results of the previous tests.  His receptionist told me he’d get right back to me.  When I didn’t hear back, I called the following day and the receptionist expressed surprise, told me she’d given him the message, that he was very good about getting back to patients.   I called back twice more over the next few days and on day four I asked for Matt’s email address to follow up (my last email to him was maybe ten years back and they’ve changed email addresses).  I was told they don’t give out personal email addresses for doctors.  I persisted and was reluctantly given the email address of  the director of the urology office.  She would forward the message to Matt, which was better than nothing.  I sent a detailed email.  I knew once Matt read the email he’d get right back to me.

On the fifth day, still having heard nothing, I was connected to the director of urologic delay who told me she wouldn’t be able to forward the email to him until two days later, when he was physically in the office.   This was some kind of semi-rational but inviolable protocol at the corporation that employs Matt.   When she told me this I restrained a snarl and told her to keep in mind that the next step for me, if I didn’t hear back two days later, was filing an ethics complaint.

In the late afternoon of the day the email was supposed to have been forwarded to Matt I found the number for the Patient Services Administration.   The woman I spoke to placed me on a long hold to speak to the urology department.   I hung up and waited for her return call, which came a few minutes later.   I was promised a call from her supervisor, probably the following day.    A few minutes later I got a call from Matt’s receptionist, telling me the doctor wanted to speak to me.   She put me on hold.  After a minute or two on hold I hung up.  Matt called back, but his number kept coming up “Scam Likely” on my phone and I ignored the first couple of calls.  Thankfully, he persisted.  

He was plainly aggrieved, since he had already done exactly what any patient would have wanted him to.  He didn’t know what was the matter with me, why I was threatening an ethics complaint.  An ethics complaint, seriously?   He told me he’d left me at least four messages since day five, the first time he’d heard that I’d called.  He had all the date and time stamps of his calls on his phone, in case I needed proof that he’d called me numerous times.   He then made an excellent, very cogent argument defending his behavior and questioning mine.  

I told him I’d had only one missed call from “private”, early in the morning of day five, but no message.   I get notifications of missed calls and I’d had only that one.   He told me that I need to learn to use my phone, because he’d left at least four voicemails.   He told me I should perhaps get a “second opinion” from another urologist.   He was clearly hurt and pissed, felt unfairly attacked.  We patched things up, he told me the tests had come back fine, gave me his email address (in violation of hospital policy, he noted), and we said goodbye.

There is a known issue with voicemail on my phone that is now also known to me.  It is known to Samsung, who makes my Galaxy S-8 phone, and known to T-Mobile, the company that provides my cell phone service.   It is impossible to get notification of new voicemails, somehow.   Frustrating, yes, and there are youTube videos and user forums about it, but nobody, including the tech experts at either company has a solution.   I spent almost two hours with experts at both companies and searching the web.   You can’t fucking do it.   Unless you periodically check for voicemail you have no way of knowing if you have any new messages or not.   I didn’t fully grasp this until Matt chided me for not retrieving his several messages.  I rarely check voicemail, most of them left by robots, because people who need to reach me send a text, an email or a WhatsApp and I get right back to them.

I went through my most robotic voicemails and found his first, not from five days after the postponed cystoscopy, as he’d told me, but from the moment I was supposed to have been having the procedure, less than half an hour after I spoke to his receptionist. He informed me that the CAT scan was fine, the urine cell test showed nothing suspicious, that to be thorough he needed to take a two minute peek into my bladder, but that there was nothing to worry about.   He said he knows how anxiety producing this kind of thing can be but that I should be reassured that the tests had all come back fine and there was no likelihood of a worst case scenario.

Now, a full week later, he was peeved because an insane patient, probably driven mad by unwarranted anxiety, kept calling, sent a controlled but clearly angry email and was escalating things in the bureaucracy and threatening to put him in front of an ethics board.    I was peeved because I kept being told that the doctor had my message and that I simply had to put my thumb back up my ass and continue waiting for his call.  

He was right to be peeved, since not only had he done nothing wrong, he had done the very thing you want your doctor to do, and he’d been compassionate in his message as well.   I was right to be peeved, because as far as I was being told by his staff, Matt was now simply acting like the bureaucratic, liability alert, ass-covering institution he works for and there was nothing I could do about it, except to stop bothering them.   Nobody I spoke to apparently even bothered to follow up with him until day five.  If his receptionist had talked to him the first time I called back, he would have told her to have the patient check his voicemail.  And — done.  I’d have left him a thank you note.  As it is I sent him an email clarifying and apologizing, though, based on what I was told every time I called his office, I hardly knew what else I could have done, given the information I was getting.

A modern day tragedy, seriously.   Each of us assumed the ubiquitous technology was working as designed, each of us assumed the other was acting badly.   The only saving grace that kept things from getting really ugly is that the doctor I was dealing with is a mensch, something that I also strive to be.

 

[1]  It was fairly expensive, even at the discounted rate for my low income, and my premiums increased by 10% to 20% every year, doubling within a few years.    I pay much, much less now under the Affordable Care Act.

Two Approaches to Anger

Anger is a complicated emotion most often triggered by feeling unfairly treated.   I don’t know that the exact recipe for anger can be arrived at, since it is a protean emotion that comes in many distasteful flavors.   A feeling of aggravating powerlessness is probably always present, as is fear and the associated fight or flight chemicals — and feeling hurt.   Having unfair things done to you that increase your feeling of powerlessness, of being disrespected, will almost certainly make you angry.

I knew a couple who rage at each other constantly.   When their children were young the man agonized about the damage they were doing to their growing kids by openly warring in front of them all the time.   Apparently they couldn’t help it, when the rage built to a certain point they simply had to start screaming at each other.    Unfortunately, this kind of thing sometimes happens in families.   I saw a lot of rage in my childhood home and, in spite of a lot of hard, conscious work, I am still not entirely healed from it.   I am 62, by the way, and have come to understand there is no complete healing possible, if you’ve been scarred enough by violence. You might learn to do much better, but that’s the best you can do.  The damage is always there too.

There are two common approaches to anger.   One involves feeling and expressing it and the other’s main concern is repressing it.   Anger is a supremely threatening emotion, and either way, express or repress, there is a cost.  

The only productive use for expressing anger in a relationship, it seems to me, is to let someone know (and this only works if the person cares about your feelings and is not enraged themself) why you got angry.   If you can make the reason you’re hurt clear, there is a chance the other person, being aware of your sensitivity, will do better to avoid doing the specific thing that hurts you and makes you angry.    That is the best case scenario.   It is hard to do, and is only effective if you can express what you need without anger.   That’s another good reason to calm yourself before attempting to talk to someone who has made you mad.   Feeling anger and being able to calm yourself enough to talk about the underlying issues is hard to do, hard to learn, takes a lot of practice.

I understand that this path requires sitting with a painful emotion, deep thought, difficult introspection, digesting how much of the anger-producing situation might be your own doing, figuring out what you could have done differently, better.  It means engaging with an extremely unpleasant emotion.   The upside is that if you can express your needs clearly and sensibly, and the other person is mature and not a jerk, things might be better in your relationships.  

The way of repression, suppression, denial is a lifelong trap, it seems to me.  When my warring friends make up they scrupulously pretend that everything is fine, speaking softly, walking delicately on yer proverbial eggshells.  The underlying things each does to provoke the other to rage are waiting, poised, sly, opportunistic, always at the ready.   They leap out at each other with teeth bared, ready to fight to the metaphorical death.   This couple has learned nothing about their mutual rage over the course of many years, except that pretending everything is fine is preferable to looking directly at the monstrous emotions that make them want to kill each other.  Until those emotions take over again and they are screaming at each other while their now adult children wince.

If you become adept at suppressing anger you inevitably suppress other emotions that make us human.   If you don’t allow yourself to feel the common human emotion of anger, something each of us has to struggle with, you also deny yourself the mercy to forgive, to fully and freely feel the many changing emotions that are part of life.  You must be eternally vigilant against anger, clamp down on every other strong emotion in the interest of repressing anger.

The most positive, grateful, peaceful person in the world will, from time to time, encounter aggravating and frustrating situations and people.    You don’t have to always express anger, it’s better to remain mild, sure, but you really do have to feel anger to learn to deal with it better.   Training yourself not to feel anger no matter what will make you a kind of monster.   That is because the anger is actually impossible not to feel once provoked and the feeling has to go somewhere.   If you suppress it, the anger can only go inside.   Anger turned inward produces depression, anxiety, self-justifying assholishness of every kind.

I knew a guy whose best friend in college, a writer he looked up to in the writing program they were in, was screwing the guy’s longtime girlfriend on the sly.   Apparently turned to him in a bar one night, smiled and sang “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” to him before he quietly went off and seduced the young woman.   This guy wrote a reality-based novel about his college days, and his narrator agonizes for chapter after chapter about why his girl has suddenly, unaccountably given him the cold shoulder.   After page after page of self-torment it turns out the novel’s charismatic protagonist, the writer friend, had turned her into a party girl.    She was no longer interested in the bookish sidekick, she moved on while this guy wrote a doorstop of an unpublished novel about it.  

I asked the guy why his doppelganger in the memoir-based novel wasn’t at all angry when he found out the reason for his months of unbearable misery, the double betrayal by his best friend and his lover.   He told me he simply wasn’t mad, that’s what actually happened.  Not very satisfying from a narrative point of view, I told him.  But it’s exactly what happened in his life, he said, defending his choice to write an accurate, if thinly fictionalized, account of what actually took place.  Forty years later, he’s still good friends with the now professional writer, though he himself no longer writes.

This same guy suffers frequently from a particularly active case of Tension Myoneural Syndrome.   That is crippling pain, usually in the spine, that is (according to Dr. John Sarno, this man’s guru)  the body’s dramatic attempt to distract the consciousness of the sufferer from crippling, terrifying rage.   My insistence on talking about anger, and working on reducing its power over my life, has made this man decide to write me off as a person not worth knowing.    I have to laugh, though it’s not a pleasant laugh.   Fuck the guy’s wife, you’re cool.   Engage the subject of the anger that torments most of us, that actually physically cripples him regularly, and you are fucking out of bounds, sir, completely fucking out of bounds!

Oh.  So sorry!

Another sad illustration of one the many ways undigested anger can fuck you up.  

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The Saddest Punchline I know

It’s funny how much clearer a thing sometimes becomes once it’s dead, its lifecycle complete.   It happens with people, and beloved pets and it happens with relationships gone wrong.   You see the thing whole, finally.    I recently lost a friend I’ve known since we were eight and it’s been bothering me for some time, exactly how the friendship became toxic, why it is now so intolerable to me to be treated the way he continues to treat me.

Now that our long friendship is truly dead, the whole outline is there for me to see.  Today I got the last few elusive pieces to complete a sorry picture I could not, for the life of me, truly understand.   Now I finally get it.  The punchline is deep, but about the unfunniest one I can think of at the moment.

He seemed to look up to me and often competed with me, and I never knew why.   Years ago he told me to use a certain gauge of string on my guitar “you’ll feel better about yourself,” he told me unaccountably.   His vying sometimes took insane forms.   

At some point he found he could make me angry by being provocative and steadily ignoring my mounting aggravation.  As my feelings got more unpleasantly stirred, and he pressed on stirring, I’d eventually react with anger, restraining myself each time, but barely.   This sick pastime seemed to become a tic with him.   I really believe he actually could not help himself, it gratified him, somehow, to see me angry.

His wife, who I was quite friendly with [1], was often furious with him because he was not always honest with her. The thing she hated most was a liar, which I can understand, since without trust, what do you really have with another person?   Funny to say, his occasional untruthfulness never bothered me that much, though I prize honesty more than most things.  

It also outraged her that he never stood up for himself, except against her.  I think this enraged her even more than his occasional looseness with the facts.

My childhood friend’s wife weaponized a casual remark I made to her and deployed it to crippling effect during a marriage counseling session they were having.  “Your best friend says you’re a fucking liar too!” and she took my remark, which she bent to her use, and whipped him across the face with it until he was bloody.  

“And you’re not even man enough to stand up to him!” she later told him.  The therapist apparently agreed with his wife that if he didn’t confront me, his marriage was over.

He showed up in a panic to confront me, his right eye actually twitching as he leveled his accusation:  you deliberately or recklessly tried to destroy my marriage, our friendship is probably over, it all depends on your answers.   I thought hard and explained things as best I could, as friendship demands — when you see a friend in anguish you do what you can to help.  I agreed that if I maliciously or negligently undermined his marriage, neither he nor his wife should be friends with me.  I described how my casual remark was weaponized and gave him reasonable things to tell the therapist and his wife.  I did this under pressure, but though he seemed calmed down, gratitude wasn’t in the cards any more than an apology was for the wild accusation.

I realized afterwards that things had clearly gotten out of hand and we needed to either stop the ugly cycle or call it a day on our friendship.   We spent five hours or more trying to talk it out, but he could not yield.   He would not allow that he’d been a shaky friend, put me in impossible positions, returned acts of friendship with repeated senseless provocation.  He defended his actions in detail and when I remained skeptical (it was at the end of five hours of this) told me he loved me.   I told him love is how you act when someone you care about is in pain.  Doing a dance and singing a song and telling your friend he is not really hurt when he is, none of that is  love.  Merciful action is love.

Provoking, being unrepentant, though you apologize grudgingly, explaining why you really didn’t provoke, how there was actually an implied apology that you’re lying about not receiving, well, that’s not really love.

One thing bothered me more and more.   With our estrangement I’d lost the friendship of his wife, his two sons, great young men, and a mutual friend who appeared to have taken his side in our impasse.   I wanted to know what my final unforgivable act against him had been.  I suspected it was my exasperated detailing of many the reasons I don’t respect him, twenty minutes into our five hour marathon, but I couldn’t be sure, since he never contacted me or sought to reconcile after our meeting went badly.  “It was a bad day,” he admitted today with some sadness, as close to admitting he’d been wrong in how he acted as he can get.

It took some time, and some work on my part, a series of calls and emails, but today he called me back to answer my question.  He did not want to talk about the past.  He felt it was a mistake to go over the hurtful things again, it would only lead to more and more conflict to go back over those mutually aggravating things.  It was both of our faults, even though he admitted without condition that he’d been wrong too.   His idea was that we just need to put it all behind us and continue on as if none of it had ever happened, just be friends again, like we used to be.   It struck me as an impossibly stupid idea and I told him why.  

With patience, about forty minutes in, I was able to get the answer to my original question about my unforgivable final act.   When we parted after the long talk he had no particular gripe against me, he said, in fact, he was still hopeful about saving our friendship.   After all, I had been for the most part mild during most of that long, sometimes agonizing conversation on that bad day for him.   It was after his wife called a week later to give me an ultimatum about forgiving him immediately and unconditionally or dropping dead that he learned the reasons to be furious at me.

His wife told him I’d made a secret recording of our conversation, which was a betrayal he simply could not forgive.   I explained the difference between being a fucking fuck who wears a fucking wire (for purposes of making a tape for others to use to incriminate somebody) and recording a talk, for personal use, with someone who has a famously spotty memory, is addicted to equivocation and energetic and nimble disputing specific arguable details.   This guy, I must point out, while very emotional, is also highly intelligent and skilled in the art of verbal self-defense.

The second unforgivable thing I’d done, and again, he qualified it, this was admittedly second hand, from his wife again, was that I’d told her that shortly into his bad day trying to make me accept his apology without having to take full responsibility for his actions, he’d made me mad enough to feel like socking him, throwing him on the ground and kicking him, just to make it stop.  In his opinion, and in his wife’s, that is simply intolerable to say about a friend of more than fifty years, no matter how mad you feel, no matter what the provocation might have been, no matter how many provocations in a row you’d been hit with.

I didn’t bother pointing out that I hadn’t laid a finger on him, that I used the image of violence to convey to his wife how angry he’d made me.  Fuck him, you know? Plus, of course, his wife, who I said this to (“to whom I said this”…), has felt exactly the same way about him countless times and understood the impulse very well when I said it.

Now here is the punchline, and it is as horrible as I promised.   

The real reason he was so angry at me was that I’d told his wife, and I had this insight only at the very end of a long talk with her, that the reason he always feels he’s in an unfair competition with me is that he has trouble standing up for himself and believes that I don’t.   “Rob feels like he’s a pussy,” I told her,  as it dawned on me, “and he believes, for whatever reason, that I am not a pussy, and he’s very angry about it.”    

“You are definitely not a pussy,” she told me.

Then she told her husband that anyone who could be friends with someone who says he’s a pussy is a fucking pussy she will not be married to.

Yow.  

It also turns out she never conveyed my conciliatory offer, made several times and emphasized, repeated once more as I said goodbye.   I told her Rob was welcome to call me as soon as he made some of the progress he promised he was striving for in therapy.   He needs to develop some insight about the often provocative effect of his actions on those close to him.   “She never told me that,” he said, sounding sad.

Lady MacBeth got nothing on this girl, or her husband either, for that matter.