Live and learn, I say. What did I re-live while reading the “most important letter” of Friedman’s life, what did I learn in the years since I wrote it?
The same vital lesson I eventually had confirmed for me, as my father apologized right before he died, years too late you could say, for his absurdly black and white view of the world, his reduction of everything to “winning” or “losing” and his desperate determination to win at all costs against his adversarial son, no matter what the fight. The lesson: sometimes people who are wrong will fight to the death, with great skill, and preying on your particular vulnerabilities, to prove that you are wrong. If the world is black and white, one is either right or wrong — there is no middle ground available.
“The world’s not like that, Elie,” my father finally said to me, in that ragged dying man’s voice he had at the end, full of remorse. “I think now how much richer my life would have been had I been able to see all the gradations and nuances of life, instead of constantly fighting to be right.”
Reading that old letter to Friedman I saw, unmistakably, that I’d been forced to fight that identical, senseless, zero-sum fight. One side wins, the other side loses, simple as that. In Mark’s case, he felt he’d always lost every essential fight he’d ever undertaken. He was certainly the least appreciated of the three Friedman boys, if also the most remarkable, to hear him tell it. Could I possibly understand how painful it was to find yourself born into that unwinnable position? Nothing I had been up against could compare to the anguish of that.
“What was in that letter?” Sekhnet wanted to know. Fair enough.
I was apparently reacting to a lambasting in Mark’s previous letter for being uncool, violating some ill-defined but fundamental precept of being a cool guy. Over the years, in spite of his real respect for me in many ways, Friedman would level this same accusation. I was a fake, as elementally, irredeemably pathetic, as he was.
The essence of his denunciation was that cool people were truly cool, and that while I appeared cool in certain ways, he had endless proofs that I was actually uncool, only pretending to be cool, posing to pass, which was truly pathetic and the polar opposite of cool. Even as I write these words, I have no idea what “cool” means, only that it could be used as the ultimate whip against an adolescent who very much wanted to be seen as “cool”. A guy who never felt cool could use it to lash somebody he once fleetingly thought was cool, who he could prove, systematically and irrefutably, was actually as uncool as he was.
So in the letter I quickly read and destroyed, I admitted that I could see why he’d accuse me of being uncool, granted him a few particulars of his case against me. Then it’s as if I’m suddenly seized by a rage at the sick and unfair ridiculousness of a friend putting me in the impossible situation of having to justify my essential worth as a human being. I snarl for a few lines, then calm myself, try to see it from his point of view, make another concession, then get worked up again.
From the vantage point of decades later, I can clearly see why a fifteen year-old would react with that kind of confused mix of self-recrimination and anger. I was writing to someone I believed understood me better than just about anyone, and yet, here I was in a sickeningly familiar emotional trap, fighting for my life against a broad charge of unworthiness. It would be years before I saw this existential death match for what it was: an existential death match. Seriously, not only did my closest friend not have my back in any real way, he could only feel worthy at the expense of my feelings of self-worth. It’s like we were on a psychic seesaw.
I find myself thinking of this in the context of a family with more than two kids, something I didn’t experience. I have only a sister, twenty-two months younger than me. As the first born, though I was forced to fight daily, I received a certain kind of grudging respect, if only the backhanded respect of being treated as a dangerous adversary from an absurdly precocious age. I understand now that birth order can play a profound role in a person’s development and lifelong view of her/himself.
For example, if your father is grooming your oldest brother to take over the family business, and everybody admires your older brother, if he’s popular and good-looking and a great athlete, and has many good friends, it is natural, as much as you might admire him, to also feel disparaged, disrespected, belittled, neglected, or simply jealous. If only you’d been born ten years earlier, you’d be the next in line for all that glory. Instead, the youngest of four, you are forced to wait, and finally, when, with luck, a little brother comes along, you have somebody to take out all of your hurt feelings on.
His father never respected him was the story I always got from Mark. Sad story, sure, but I found it to be largely bullshit. I mean, I didn’t particularly respect Mark, a selfish prick for his entire life, the master of nickel and diming, both with real money and in emotional terms. He had musical talent, sure, but he didn’t write the kind of music anyone I knew really loved. There was one guy, a former tennis pro and good drummer, who considered him a genius, but that guy was a bit of whack job. More than a bit. And, anyway, de gustibus non disputandum est, as they say. We might be the best of friends and I might recognize your musical talent, and your music might still leave me unmoved.
That’s a fundamental thing. Nobody gives a shit about your talent. It is a baby’s shitty diapered view of the world to think that anyone should care about the expressions of your innermost soul. The only reason anybody would care is if you touch their life directly.
I love this story about Jimi Hendrix, my original musical hero. Somebody ripped off the book where Jimi made notes of songs he was working on. He became emotional about it at a party where a friend of his told him to shut the hell up, that he had a million ideas and the loss of this notebook was nothing, stop whining about it. Jimi jumped up and grabbed the guy by the shirt. The guy screamed “don’t fucking touch me!” Jimi released him saying, softly, “I’ll always touch you.”
Can you play guitar like Jimi? Nobody cares. Here and there you may find somebody to impress, because they wish they could play like that, or they are moved by it, or whatever, but as life goes, outside of how good it feels to play something you love (no small thing, actually) it’s meaningless. This is something Mark could never grasp and his bitterness about not being appreciated was without bottom. That’s one reason I’d have been so interested in reading his father’s letters to him. A stack of letters from a man who never appreciated him — wow. I knew Al, his father, pretty well and yet I cannot imagine one sentence of those letters.
In the end, all of this kind of work is an exercise in imagination. Does it feel true to you, and important in some way? That’s the only mark of how you will take it in. The rest is just an angry baby, inconsolable that the world treats its poop like so much crap.