At the end of the movie, all becomes clear. As the credits roll you unconsciously start processing how the story was unfolded– what techniques were used to fairly or unfairly manipulate your expectations, stretch the old credulity — that willing suspension of disbelief needed to go where the story is taking you. If the story is told right, you feel satisfied that you were in good hands the whole time. If the plot has some giant holes, or the dialogue is unrealistic, if the acting rings hollow, or the direction is dumb, you will sometimes feel disgust– somebody wrote this shit, got paid a ton of money, millions were spent to make this dead dog of a movie, what the fuck. The world itself is like that sometimes, you find yourself thinking: what the fuck?
This is also true in the case of an individual human life, while it is being lived, and even more so when it is over and complete to the extent it ever will be. At the end, all of the pieces are now in place, what the person did, how they treated those they loved, how they were loved, what they said and how they acted under pressure, the demands they made, what they gave freely to others, if they ever made amends with people they hurt. We can also put together the larger story they told themselves as they proceeded and how well it matched the beliefs they held themselves to.
Put it like this, once you have the conclusive answer to a complicated puzzle, that answer seems inevitable. It was hard to discover, and you may have beaten your head against the wall in solving it, but once you have the solution it seems so obvious. That’s why “hindsight is 20/20” is such a well-worn cliche. A tune you couldn’t play a year ago, lacking the skill, that you can easily play now? In hindsight, all it took was diligence and an unflagging desire to learn it.
Understanding a complicated situation rarely comes easily, if it comes at all. The clues in this life that give real insight often come slowly, a pattern may take years to see, for many reasons. Many things keep us from seeing what later becomes blindingly obvious.
Your desire to see the best in someone, the need to feel connected to a person you seem to share many things with, will prevent you from seeing the larger, darker picture many times. If we believe in friendship, which most of us do, and bask in the wonderful, rare, intimacy of closeness, we have a great ability to be generous, and a need not to be distracted by faults that, after all, we all have.
In the case of Friedman, though his fatal flaws actually killed him in the end, in the beginning I was bothered by none of them. There were many reasons to cherish the bond we had, as teenagers. By the time we were in our forties I could not escape the fact that he was a terminally miserable bastard destined to die the kind of death any of us could have predicted for him, but that was years later.
In the beginning of my friendship with Friedman there were a lot of laughs, a mutual discovery of guitar, a remarkable meeting of two minds that were constantly reading, actively struggling to make sense of a brutal world, even if the conflict between us was also there from the start. I saw, belatedly, that in a real sense I was the cool younger brother he’d never had, somebody he felt he should be able to control. From my point of view, just out of Junior High School, there were also tangible benefits to our friendship. For one thing, the guy could drive! He also had a two track reel to reel tape recorder — unimaginably cool in 1970! We improvised our first (unreleased) album “Two Minds Working As One” in the first few weeks of our struggles to learn guitar.
The initial recognition that you are not alone in your floundering, at an awkward time in life when everyone is sometimes flapping like a fish on the floor of a rowboat, comes as a great relief. I am not alone! At the family dinner table, yes, I am alone, hunkered down as the chlorine rolls across the ground, the flashes among the barbed wire flare, the whine of projectiles mixes with the snarling arguments. In school, where I am forced to go, there are a couple of fellow misfits I can talk to. But finding a friend who really gets it, is engaged in a struggle very close to your own, comes as an incomparable relief. The kind of person you will take to as a friend is largely dictated by your life experience up to that point.
I mentioned that Mark was an unredeemable version of the worst in my father. This, I see now, was not by chance. It’s a common psychic mechanism we often use to try to resolve difficult things in our lives– acting them out with surrogates, trying to get them right. It’s not that I was not also vigorously fighting with my father, that bloody bout went on uninterrupted for most of the time my father and I were both alive and kicking. I was attempting, (it’s clear to me now) by wrangling with people like Mark, to gain skills I hadn’t sufficiently mastered, skills I needed to make peace with a tragically bellicose old man.
What was the tragic essence of my father? His need to defend himself, no matter what. I learned very late in the game that the childhood he never spoke of, beyond a few standard, snarled remarks about “grinding poverty” — and the way his little brother, my grandiose uncle, cringed around him– was a childhood of extreme physical and emotional abuse. From the time he could stand, his mother, who affectionately called him “Sonny”, would whip him in the face with the heavy, burlap- wrapped chord from her steam iron. She demanded his unquestioning submission and her absolute right to rage at him, with or without cause.
This kind of brutality, from your own mother, explains a lot about why as an adult my father could not tolerate even the slightest criticism from his ungrateful children, two entitled middle-class fuckers who had virtually never been hit, certainly never violently humiliated as he was. I was forty before I learned of the trauma my father had been forced to endure, almost fifty when I stood by my father’s deathbed calmly hearing his belated regrets, more than sixty when I finally was able to see the whole thing from my father’s point of view, after a prolonged conversation with my father’s posthumously wiser skeleton.
Granted, I’ve always been a philosophical cuss, always sat alone writing for long stretches, piecing the few things I knew together, trying to clarify things I have trouble grasping. It is a question of my nature, I suppose. I need to do this. Most people don’t, I get that, they are busy working, striving, going on vacations, returning to work, providing for others. I don’t do these things, preferring to live a materially modest life in return for having the thing I value most: the time to ponder. I try not to talk about it with others, makes me seem like some kind of scorpion, I think. But it is something I feel I should set out here, in the interest of full disclosure: I have always felt that understanding things that perplex or inspire me is about my deepest need.
Friedman, when I first met him, appeared exactly the same way. He was clearly in pain, something of an odd duck, quirky, off-kilter, trying to explain his condition to himself, to someone who would listen. We quickly developed a shorthand language, as teenagers do. In our language things that were impossible to communicate to others suddenly were capable of expression. Or so it seemed to me at 14, 15, 16. Mark was two years older, had had more time to ossify into the unhappy teenager he was. We did many of our initial drug experiments together. We showed each other things we learned on guitar, as soon as we got them. Since for most of our long friendship we lived in different towns, we wrote letters, long letters, back and forth, for years.
“We found a box of your letters to Mark,” his older brother told me, asking me if I wanted them. I told him to toss them, the thought of reading the origins of our fatal falling out seemed unbearable and unnecessary. One of the great moments of my life was reducing the endlessly caviling, insanely lawyerly Friedman to sullen silence, in a Florida diner, as the hardest rain I’ve ever seen pelted the world outside. He sat, glaring at me, hurt, finally unable to say a word in his own futile defense. That moment was the culmination of thousands of words I’d written him in recent years trying, in vain, to save a zombie friendship.
“I couldn’t throw this one out,” his brother told me, after we hiked up to the lake on a perfect October day to spread the last of the poor devil’s ashes over the lake he loved. He handed me an envelope, addressed in my long-ago handwriting, awkward, self-conscious, not quite the way I’ve come to write as an adult. On the envelope I’d scrawled “This is the most important letter of your life” or words to that effect.
“See what I mean?” he said as I tucked the envelope in my pocket. When I read the letter later I was consumed with actual horror. I was angrily apologizing for some unknown offense Friedman had accused me of, defending myself, admitting fault, alternately attacking and groveling. It was hard to even finish reading it, and when I did, I tossed it into the recycling bin, after passing it through the shredder.
A better example of live and learn I have not seen, in my own hand.