Book of Friedman (8)

Friedman once accused me of using my friends as lab rats, making them unwitting participants in my lifelong psychological experiments. All of us here are lab rats, to some extent, as we can see by looking around at the peculiar setup we find ourselves in. Most of us, as we live and learn, calibrate the amount of grief we are prepared to accept from those closest to us in this ongoing, partially voluntary, experiment.

Since this giant and supremely predictable lab mouse Mark is no longer with us, I am drafting him to stand in for all those who, by their often self-destructive actions, give the rest of us clues and insights into why we act the way we do. In the end I can see that Mark’s tragedy was set in motion by the emotional challenge we all face: the eternal mammalian need for love in a world where everyone dies in the end. Mark’s painful life was ruled by his inability to find and return the love he needed to thrive. It’s a kind way to put it, perhaps, in the case of a supremely self-centered rodent who could never accept the love he needed (none was ever perfect enough, sadly), but I can now see clearly that his doomed quest to love and be loved shaped his painful life nonetheless.

After I told a friend part of a long, sad story of a badly frayed old friendship, languishing on a ventilator, she sent me one of her longtime psychiatrist’s rules. Rule Twelve reads:

A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

I can see quite clearly now, in light of this rule, that I spent my early teens into my thirties (and sometimes much later– as the recent case of my old friend X illustrates) facing the same unlearned lesson. I repeated the same primal scenes over and over with a cast of characters, dear friends all, who were uncannily like my difficult, defensive father in psychological make-up. In the individual cases, I was eventually able to see the ongoing harm these relationships caused. The pattern was much harder to see, and only became clear when I found myself with my back against the wall. Like Dr. House says: the lesson will be repeated until learned..

X is about the last of these stand-in for my father left in my life, and our friendship is literally hanging by a thread, there may well not be any way to salvage it (we’ll see how strong his expressed desire to fix this comatose friendship really is — see rule 13 anecdote, below) but at one time there were quite a few of these Irv stand-ins among my closest friends. A kind of intimate fifth column, undermining my progress by repeating that an angry person like me is incapable of overcoming the reflex to act out of temper, no matter what we might think. No matter how many times we may have believed we’ve demonstrated our progress.   

The lesson I needed to learn, and kept having to repeat until I began to learn it, was that somebody who is smart, and funny, and sometimes kind, but who often doesn’t listen and insists on blaming you for any conflict, is an unhealthy person to be around.  Amazing how many times I had to live through the identical storyline until I started learning to recognize the signs and take action earlier and earlier. In case after case I learned where the line was when things became intolerable and how to protect myself by acting contrary to how my programming (and I was programmed by this very type, mind you) had taught me to react.   Each time I was unable to see the mechanism, until some flare-up made it painful enough to see, bad enough for me to cut ties.   

Over the years I began to see the actual mechanism at work, always very, very similar in its operation, yet I couldn’t figure out how to get past the constant traps set by this brilliantly insane type.   Manipulative, able to convince you they really cared about you — inwardly angry and able to express it as well-camouflaged, perfectly deniable hostility (virtually all of these people were very smart, like my father was, and most also witty, in a sardonic way that could be used as a weapon, or to disarm). Part of the genius of this type is their ability to make you believe that you must be crazy, oversensitive, at fault for any ugliness that might crop up. 

The gradual learning I had with these types (virtually all of them gone from my life now) may have culminated in this one last lesson with my longtime friend now.  I say that knowing that no progress is permanent, that we always take steps backwards and forwards. In the case of X, a guy I’ve known since we were kids, I have been able to lay out the syndrome in granular detail — not only for him, but for his girlfriend, who heroically tried to make peace, for Sekhnet and for myself.  X continues to express bewilderment that I seem to have been so hurt by his mistreatment, but the two women and I can now view things with clarity.  

The things that killed our friendship, step by step, are literally there on the table, in black and white, for anybody with the ability to read to follow.   I now know the workings of the incredibly subtle (at the same time incredibly crude)  game I am up against better than I know almost anything.  In every case of a “last straw”, the final proof is only the latest example of a long list of things.  

I had a poignant email from his girlfriend, sentimental, kind, intelligent, asking me to please explain why I cannot accept that X is really trying, that he truly loves me, values our friendship, etc.   Her letter moved me, and I wrote her a long letter back, illuminating exactly how each skillfully veiled, arguably unintended, “fuck you” was constructed, made to look like a gracious statement, or a generous offer.   When I was done writing the letter explaining things to her I felt a surge of energy, of completeness.   

I felt like I’d finally mastered that particular difficult decades-in-the learning lesson.   It was gratifying to know I had set so much of it out so clearly, at last, like I was reciting the lesson, finally learned.   Like I’d completed my Masters Thesis and it had been accepted. When I read Sekh the letter I wrote to X’s mate, the would-be peacemaker,  she understood for the first time that I was not being merely being a “man”, petty, mean, proud, venting anger, manfully exacting revenge for perceived mistreatment, trying to teach him a lesson– I was only making clear exactly what was intolerable to me, the kind of no-quarter argumentativeness I would no longer accept.   

I’d laid out for his girlfriend (as I had previously for him) everything that was toxic in the relationship and recounted his defensive attempts to place his increasing callousness in the context of eternal friendship, his own bewilderment and my constant misunderstanding.  I provided everything needed for her to understand our respective roles in the conflict, how patronizing his ostensibly peacemaking emails had been, couched in polite, seemingly conciliatory language containing repeated instances of clear, snarling, yet subtle “drop deads” (arguably even unconscious on his part).   Felt like I’d graduated, being able to explain it so precisely, and also, never losing my temper while having endured more than a little abuse from X over the course of the last few months.

Mark Friedman was the poster boy for repetition compulsion, for living and reliving the unlearned lessons of his life.  I understand now, thanks to this 12th Rule (A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.) that Mark kept trying to learn something by this repetition that he was never able to get any insight into. In the end, I believe, it was his lack of insight into his misery that did him in.

How many years can one perform the same sickeningly familiar three act tragedy over and over and over, new cast each time, identical, infernal dramatic arc?   Act one: great excitement!  amazing new person, or idea, or program, nothing like it — thrilling, life changing!   Act two; ominous cracks begin to appear, imperfections, warning signs.   Act three: violent reprisal against Mark, anger, betrayal, repudiation.   

It depressed me to hear this same story a hundred times over the years.  Finally could take it no more — plus, our friendship was the same airless drama, only the longest running version of it and Act Two was being endlessly drawn out.   In the end, he never learned any lesson from his predictable misery, died a wealthy man, completely alone, having alienated virtually everyone he ever knew.

Which brings us to Rule 13, a reminder that even an asshole, if he is motivated, is not doomed to be an asshole. It also reminds us to be kind, whenever we can:

People always do the best they can.  If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

This was a big lesson I was fortunate to learn shortly before I got the sudden news that my father was dying.   A parent is a different case than a friend — my close relationships with all those friends who stood in for my father were attempts to learn the lessons I needed to be able to work out with my father without it being total war (my dad generally insisted on total war).  I had a breakthrough in psychoanalysis maybe two months before Irv suddenly found himself on his death bed with a few days left to live.   

The timing of my psychological breakthrough was very lucky.  I’d come to realize, truly, that he had not been able to do any better than he did — the truly horrible abuse he’d suffered as a baby and throughout his childhood had given him a lifelong emotional disability that prevented him from being able to do the painful work necessary to not be that way.  He did not believe anything he did or might do could change anything for him — or for anybody else, for that matter.   What he did as a father, while often not what a child might wish for, was the best he was capable of. 

That revelation– that he was sadly, truly unable to do better — allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.  I came to this when I digested how atrociously he’d been abused as a young person.  As he was dying he was full of regrets, I was able to keep sincerely reassuring him that he’d done the best he knew how, that he could not have done better.  It was a small reassurance for him — his main efforts before he died were expressing his many painful regrets. Without the insight that he’d truly done the best he was capable of, I could not have been as open with him as I was. He would not have been able to unburden himself the way he did if I hadn’t been hearing him with so little judgment in that hospital room.   

That is speaking of my father, the rare relationship where it is almost always worth the exertion to try to heal.   A friend, X for example, who does the best he can but simply can’t hear — because of lack of a role model for how it’s done, or out of an excess of myopic self-regard, or competitive mania, or whatever reason  — I won’t be around to comfort him on his deathbed as he expresses his regrets.   I don’t owe it to X, as I didn’t owe it to Mark, though I felt I should try to give it to my father, to make his passing easier.   It was a wonderful gift to both of us that I was in a position to hear him, and he to feel heard. These, rules 12 and 13, are two excellent, important life lessons to digest and put to use.   

Here they are again, for your consideration:

12: A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

13: People always do the best they can.  If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

Here is her doctor’s Rule 8, always well-worth recalling, if we are to be as merciful to ourselves (and others) as possible:

There are no mistakes, only lessons.  Growth is a process of trial and error, of experimentation.  The “failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately “works.”

Book of Friedman (7)

It feels like time to take a break from this project, which, in my mildly depressed state, in this disorienting time, I am starting to see as another proof that I’m right to feel depressed. Before I give this instructive tale of the doomed Friedman a little rest, I’ll ladle out that Zen koan of a story I promised yesterday.

It can be hard to forgive someone who did you wrong if they never apologize to you. I had learned to be much less angry at my father by the time he was dying, for example, but until he explicitly asked for my forgiveness for the first time, hours before he died (better late that never) the thought of forgiving him was remote. I know that Mark never forgave his father for whatever Al’s real or perceived offenses were, though nobody will ever know if Al ever asked his troubled youngest son for forgiveness. That might have been answered in one of the letters between them that wound up in one of dozens of contractor bags, but nobody will ever know.

The facts I know for certain are these:

Al Friedman was terrified of dying. I don’t blame him at all, death is terrifying to most of us. None of us know how we’ll react when we get close to the end. He’d been treated for depression caused by fear of death, spent some time in a rehab facility for it. A couple of years later, when Al was hospitalized toward the end of his long life, he signed a Do Not Resuscitate Order. This DNR meant that if he went into a coma, no heroic measures would be taken to bring him out of it.

Mark went to Florida when his father was hospitalized. He wound up staying in Florida for weeks, if memory serves. Most of his days were spent by his father’s bedside. He reported acting as a nurse to his father, including doing some disgustingly intimate cleaning. He told me this with some resentment, intimating he’d had to do worse things than clean his father’s butt. I didn’t understand, and I didn’t question him about this odd detail. I never asked about why an actual nurse or hospital aid was not doing this sort of thing.

Al went into a coma in the hospital and remained in a coma for several long days, perhaps weeks. When he emerged from the coma he was alarmed by the DNR he signed, called for his doctor and rescinded it. He indicated the next time he lapsed into a coma, and it seemed likely he was slipping away, he wanted to be brought out of it at once. Shortly thereafter he fell into another coma, which he again awoke from, this time only a couple of days later.

I spoke to Mark one day as he sat by his father’s bed in the hospital. He told me Al had been in and out of consciousness all day, and that he was currently alert. “He’s pretty out of it though, it’s super hard to understand him, I don’t even know if he knows where he is. If you want to talk to him, I’ll hold the phone next to his ear for a minute or two.” I told him to do that.

As soon as Al heard my voice he greeted me enthusiastically, as befitted a fellow collector of off-color parrot jokes (Al did a superb parrot). “Eliot! Oh, man, it’s so good to hear your voice. How the hell are you? I guess Mark told you how I’m doing…”

I told him he had, and that I was very sorry to hear it.

“Any chance I’ll get to see you? I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around, but it would be great if you could stop by…”

I explained that I’d very recently been in Florida (during the time he was in a coma, I think, otherwise I’d have visited him and his wonderful wife) and that it was unlikely that I’d be back in the near future. He expressed sadness about this, saying he probably wouldn’t be around by the time I got down to Florida again, and then, suddenly, Mark was on the phone again.

“You see what I mean? Totally out of it,” Mark said.

I said nothing then, I don’t remember why. Maybe Mark indicated that he had to go. perhaps the doctor walked in. I have nothing to say now about it, no insight or inkling, beyond what I’ve said above. Except to describe this, the only thing in my experience I have to compare it to:

My sister has a phobia about snakes. I find them a little scary, particularly when chanced on unexpectedly, and have declined invitations to hold tame snakes when they were offered (it may have happened once), but my sister goes into full-blown panic at the thought of a snake. She doesn’t even like to use the word “snake”, she refers to them as “my friends” to avoid having to say the s-word.

One hot summer day, decades back, we headed toward the Delaware River to take a dip. My sister walked down the path first, I was behind her and my brother-in-law was behind me. We were about to head down the embankment. As my sister stepped past a clump of tall grass a large black snake reared up, like a cobra, and hissed as loudly as anything I’ve ever heard. It reared back, ready to strike, mouth wide open, its large head three or four feet off the ground. It was a truly terrifying sight, and, to my later shock, I reacted instantly and with some reflexive courage. If I’d had a split second more to think, I’d have surely hesitated.

I jumped between my sister and the rearing snake and pushed her back and away from the alarmed reptile as decisively as I could. As I altered her path and pushed her away from the snake and the river she asked “what?” and I told her the river looked too muddy today and that it would probably be disgusting to go in. Meantime, my brother-in-law, who had seen the big, black snake uncoil and make it’s get away, behind my sister’s back silently indicated the serpent’s huge size with his hands.

When we got back to the cabin where our parents stayed, my sister went into the bathroom. While she was in there my brother-in-law and I quickly told my father the story. When my sister came out her father said to her “Gee, Abby, you see an eight foot rat snake and you don’t even flinch? You’re getting much better!”

My sister turned with fury on me and her husband, as though we had somehow put her friend there. She was upset, I suppose, that we’d lied to her when she’d asked afterwards if there had been a snake back there and we both reassuringly told her there hadn’t been.

She corrected one element of the story I told about her near brush with the huge, alarmed snake. I apparently hadn’t pushed her out of the snake’s way, as I’d claimed, I had lifted her off the ground, bodily (in the manner of a panicked old lady lifting her new refrigerator and carrying it out of the house on fire) and carried her several steps back up the path. “I was, literally, a foot off the ground,” she assured me.

The point of the story though: she never saw the snake.

That’s as close as I come to understanding how Mark, arm’s length from his father during our brief chat, had heard his father’s remarks as further proof that the old man was completely incoherent towards the end.

Book of Friedman (6)

Years later, as Al Friedman lay dying in a Florida hospital, the oddest Mark Friedman story of all would take place. I cannot really begin to explain it, even all these years later, though I will tell it in as much detail as I can.

First I need to point out a subtle element of this story. The harmful nature of very smart, deeply damaged, people we become attached to can be very hard to see. They are able to intelligently explain why any problem you may perceive is not a problem they have any part in creating. They can often convince you, as is routinely done with children, that the problem is all in your own confused, less than perfectly rational, head.

Exactly how my father inflicted great damage on my sister and me, the lifelong actions he apologized for so miserably right before he died, took decades for me to understand. I fought against the clear unfairness and sometimes irrationality of his abuse as it was happening, but I had no real grasp of the full scope of the harm this otherwise reasonable, peaceable, politically sensitive, philosophical man was doing. The subtle nature of it, the way our father’s anger was always hidden behind some greater principle, made it a very slippery form of abuse. Much harder to understand than a sharp smack in the face. You want subtle? How about simply deploying silence when an answer to a perplexed question was requested?

In the case of my father, once I understood the unforgivable abuse he’d suffered from his mother, the face whippings, the furious demands that he have no will of his own, I could explain his desperation to myself. It made sense that he’d be filled with rage, anyone would. After enough time I came to see that, in a real sense, he couldn’t help acting the way he did, and further, that it was actually a kind of victory over his horrific childhood that he didn’t beat or humiliate his children. He merely raged at us, and made us feel it was always our fault. Bad, yes, abuse, certainly, but, at the same time, a great improvement over what he’d experienced. Silence may hurt when you are a child hoping for an answer, but a good whipping for no reason, when you are two, leaves no room for interpretation.

It was a matter of great, wonderfully-timed luck that I’d reached these understandings, digested the idea that he’d done the best he could and that anger toward him was unproductive, at best, when I got the call from my sister that he was suddenly on his deathbed. When I got to the hospital room where he’d die two or three days later I asked if he was in pain.

“Only psychic pain…” he said, his weary voice trailing off. He told me he wanted to talk to me, but that he was still putting his thoughts together.

The last night of his life we talked for hours. He talked, mostly, I asked a few clarifying questions and refilled his cup of water. He had certainly put his thoughts together. He put his impressive mind through its paces one last time, this time trying to get it all right. The organization of his thoughts struck me, obviously he spoke without notes, but he could have been reading from a thoughtfully edited essay. He had this great ability to speak off the cuff, always had. Finally he was using it to make amends. It was, as I’ve said, a blessing to us both, him making this attempt at peace, me finally in a position to hear it with sympathy instead of anger.

The day after my father died I walked around the circle in the retirement community where my parents lived. In my memory it was dawn. I’d been getting a steady stream of calls from Friedman who wanted to know how it was going, wanted to offer his support. By that time I’d begun to dread his calls. I called him back as I walked.

I was stunned by his first question after I mentioned the long talk the last night of my father’s life: “did you tell him to go fuck himself?”

I explained that there was no need, that we’d had a very productive conversation. Then, for the next forty minutes or so, as I completed the two mile circle and started around again, I heard the story of his oldest brothers’ new sports car, a beauty from the sound of it, and the beautiful, young girlfriend he had now, how things were really looking up for him, just as things had been looking pretty bad for him recently. Mark’s stories were always fantastically detailed. When he was done telling me these fabulous developments in his brother’s life I said “well, here, my father is still dead.”

I finally came to realize the difference between a struggle to come to peace with your father, or another family member and the constant vying with a friend who is a surrogate for these same people, who, while like the troubling family member in essential ways, was once a stranger and can easily be one again. We owe ourselves a certain psychic debt to figure out how to make peace with those in our family, if we can. We owe nothing to friends who insist on their right to be as vexing as the troubling intimates we are born into a family with.

Book of Friedman (5)

Writing in detail about so resolutely unhappy and demanding a character as Friedman brings up an obvious question: why would anybody care? I’m not sure. In the case of an equally perplexing character, my father, I found it important to highlight his many virtues, his humor, intelligence, sensitivity, sense of fairness — qualities that made him a person people regularly sought out for friendship. Otherwise, I thought, why would the one-note story of someone who regularly behaved monstrously be a compelling tragedy?

In the case of Mark, the slowly dawning realization that there was no way to influence his stubborn determination to be justifiably miserable eventually eclipsed all the things that made us friends in the first place. His great qualities were all erased for me in the end. After years of his grim determination to be right at any cost, I can’t even picture the laughs we had as teenagers. I literally can’t imagine him smiling. I see him glaring churlishly, arms crossed over his chest, implacable in his demand that you acknowledge the righteousness of his pain.

The trajectory of our long descent into estrangement was the opposite of the arc of my relationship with my father. Though it came tragically late, on the last night of his life, my father in the end came to see how wrong he’d been to be so reflexively, aggressively defensive. His regrets were terrible, but it was a blessing to us both that he had the chance to express them. That deathbed confession changed his story from a tale of senseless brutality to a tragedy that offered the hope of redemption at the very end.

Thinking about that lost correspondence between Al Friedman and his youngest son, my mind always goes to the classic example of Mark proving himself right. His belief that his father didn’t respect him had irrefutable confirmation during an exchange Mark never forgot or forgave his father for. Although I understood why it would have been painful for Mark, I could never help seeing the incident from Al’s even more understandable point of view.

First, to help you picture the full pathos of the scene, I should convey an aspect of how Mark looked. He was a giant. His hands were large and his fingers thick. Those blunt, sledge-hammer fingers made his manual dexterity all the more surprising to watch. He didn’t have a piano player’s long fingers, his hands were more like your proverbial meathooks. Yet he developed impressive technique on guitar and piano, largely self-taught on both.

At some point Mark’s retired parents offered each of their three sons an expensive gift of their choosing. Mark chose a baby grand piano, and he found a very a nice one. He also found a piano teacher in Santa Fe, a very spiritual man to whom music was a sacred calling. Meditation and centering was necessary before one could play a note properly, a period of reverent silence was required to prepare. The mindful way you struck the note, and the moments of divine silence between the notes, Mark was taught, were the most essential parts of the practice of playing from the soul. This appealed to Mark’s esthetic. He sent me the guy’s book, it was called something like The Art of Listening, or perhaps The Lessons of Silence. An interesting, even inspiring, read, I’m sure I still have it somewhere.

Mark was nothing if not artistically ambitious. He practiced piano for hours a day and composed a perhaps forty minute long opus for solo piano that he mastered over the course of many weeks, even months. He visited his parents’ home in Fort Lee, New Jersey and proposed to his father, an organ player, that they go to the home of a cousin (who had a piano) and he would play his new masterpiece for his father. They went across the river to an apartment on the Upper West Side where Mark sat at the piano, his back to his father in the small music alcove. I can’t imagine how Mark’s mother managed not to be part of the audience, but it was only father and son in that narrow room.

Mark began the long piece with silence, followed by a stately presentation of the first theme. I can only imagine that stately opening, since I don’t think I ever heard the whole piece, though I heard others. Al was going to hear the entire masterpiece, after which, Mark probably believed, the father was going to have a moment of revelation that would change his entire dismissive view of his youngest son. You can probably imagine where this is going.

After a few minutes, history does not record if it was five minutes or twenty-five minutes, Al began to get distracted, to fidget. There was a rack of CDs behind the piano, and Al apparently began browsing through them. Clack. Clack. Mark’s spine stiffened as he played. Clack. He continued playing to the end, though in a cold rage. His deepest horror was being confirmed with every click of the CD cases. The clicking of the CD cases would come to encapsulate the cool indifference of the world toward the artist.

This is what I was referring to about nobody really caring about somebody else’s talent, unless it touches you directly. Al may well have felt pride that his son had reached this level of mastery of the piano, but unless he was moved by the actual music, he was being placed in a very tight spot as the sole audience and ultimate validator of his needy son’s genius. That’s what Mark was demanding– the long denied recognition that he was an true artist of a very high caliber. I always relate to Al’s dilemma, though, having always pursued artistic projects, I could relate to Mark’s hopes too. But, shit, Al was really placed in an impossible position. And it’s not like Mark was twelve, or twenty, he was well into his thirties by then. It turns out it’s never too late to be an eternally disappointed child.

But, look, of course, on a certain level, we are all babies at times. There are moments when many of us lapse into a childish reaction, triggered by some sensitivity that was implanted long before we had any say in the matter. The adult in us, hopefully, can see this afterwards and make amends to anyone we might have hurt by acting like a giant baby. Mark seemingly never fully developed this insight. He was like the baby who could not be satisfied until he was the universally respected king of the world, then grew enraged that people laughed at a tiny king in diapers.

The thing that amazes me now is that there was probably an exchange of letters, during the long correspondence between father and son, over the clicking of the CD cases. How does that square with Mark’s often expressed feeling that his father had no respect for him? Maybe Al’s letters were a study in stubborn paternal superiority, I have no idea. But it is intriguing to imagine the letters following the deadly clicking of the CD cases, is it not?

Book of Friedman (4)

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.

Book of Friedman (3)

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.

Book of Friedman (2)

When Friedman was a boy, (and his name was Mark, a name I should also use), his family spent some time, over the course of several summers, camping near Lake Sebago in bucolic Harriman State Park. Presumably they crossed the road by the family camping area and hiked up a trail to a beautiful manmade lake (you could see the blackened skeletons of the trees on the bottom in some places) that captured young Mark’s romantic heart. Some time around his thirtieth birthday Mark became determined to get into great shape. He began swimming regularly in a public pool near his apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Then he remembered The Lake.

“Do you want to go to The Lake?” he’d ask. It was a beautiful spot, about an hour from the city, and the uphill hike was enough to get the blood pumping, up a tall hill on a rocky trail, down to a stream you cross on big rocks, up another hill, across a meadow, over a dirt road, and then, through the trees, a pristine, beautiful lake in a clearing. On a hot day, after an hour’s walk, there was nothing better than jumping into the cool, clear water of that lake. Mark used to drink the water as he swam from one end of the long lake to the other, back and forth. He would often swim for hours at a stretch, come out, eat something, have a couple of pulls on a joint, dive back in for a few more hours.

Here was the thing, though, after a refreshing dip, when you came out, there was little to do at The Lake. The rocky shores sloped toward the water, so you couldn’t stretch out anywhere without rolling downhill, or being on an awkward, uncomfortable angle on the rubble. You’d sit on a log. There were woods all around the lake and under the trees, after several hours, as the temperature began to go down, it often grew uncomfortably cool and clammy in the shade. Also, the swarm of ravenous mosquitos that hatched just before sunset, having little prey but Mark’s friend or two with him at The Lake, would joyously feast on anyone not in the water swimming.

After the first couple of trips to The Lake, unless you wanted to swim all day, there had to be a negotiation. Mark specialized in negotiations. He would offer to bring a joint, and chip in 60% so you could buy the provisions for the delicious speciality sandwiches that were eaten at The Lake, and he’d pay for gas (he drove his car up there) but you had to make the sandwiches, bring the drinks, and insect repellent, and anything to entertain yourself. There was always a negotiation with Mark, always.

He named the lake Lake PeeDee, after his older brother’s Irish Setter, a dog he convinced his older brother to give him. (Years later I’d find Lake PeeDee a map, labeled Lake Wanoksink). PeeDee, who, in his doggish exuberance would run ahead on the trail, circle back, race ahead, circle back, would dive into The Lake as soon as we arrived, his orangey chestnut coat turning a dark burgundy as he got soaked. Like me, he’d pull himself out of the cool water after paddling around for a few minutes. Unlike me, he’d shake himself dry, curl up and fall into a deep sleep.

Sitting uncomfortably on the shore, or walking around in the itchy woods, fighting the mosquitos, and waiting for Mark to finish his interminable swim was as good a metaphor for our friendship as I can think of. It was a beautiful spot, no question, but it could also become a profoundly horrible spot if you were not swimming. The relative beauty or horror all depended on your perspective on how successful the negotiation had been. The measure of Mark’s art as a negotiator was that he always got what he needed out of the back and forth, that was the only way he knew to feel whole, I suppose, by winning. So unlimited swimming time was never on the table for discussion, his right to do that went without saying. That his winning always resulted in his later much greater loss never really dawned on him. This is why his life is a cautionary tale, boys and girls.

The tale is simple and brutally consistent in its outline. It is also the greatest example of the Repetition Compulsion that I know of. I think of it as a three act play. In act one he encounters a person or an idea that will magically transform his world. Swimming was one such idea, and it became an obsession. If a person, it was the one he’d been looking for his whole life: totally unlike anyone in his loser circle of depressed friends. This person was brilliant, funny, cool, wise, hip, strong, talented, nonchalant, deeply sensitive but not in a wimpish way at all. During Act One he’d wax rhapsodic and at length about this life-changing encounter with this amazing thing or person. It was literally going to change his entire world this time.

When the curtain went up on Act Two, things were beginning to become a little less than ideal. The idealized life-changer was showing signs of not living up to expectations. He didn’t actually feel that much better after swimming for hours at a time for a couple of years. The brilliant, funny, cool, wise person had a stubborn side, a petty side, was not always that funny– sometimes not funny at all– maybe wasn’t cool at all, and as for wisdom, not very wise, it seemed. There was a desperate element of dread hanging over Act Two as he realized he was about to be disappointed or betrayed again, which gnawed at him mercilessly as he reported these nagging suspicions.

The inevitable, brutal dramatic denouement of Act Three was only a matter of time, once Act Two was unfolding. When I think back, our friendship was a mutually exciting Act One then decades of Act Two, culminating in an extreme slow motion Act Three. Act Three was always the same, always bruising, always final and irrevocable. The other person was revealed as a supremely disappointing putz, ungrateful, unreasonable, disloyal, irrationally angry. Friedman’s demanding nature, and the constant nickel and diming of his eternal negotiations, of course, had nothing to do with this dramatic arc.

After seeing the identical play many times over the years, I’d become impatient when he’d insist on describing acts two and three in great detail. Nobody listened to him, that was one of his fondest laments, and so, as his oldest friend, the least I could do was fucking listen to him and let him tell his own story. Yet, human nature being what it is, I became less and less able to keep myself from making premature, if accurate, predictions each time he told the latest iteration of his eternal story.

“OK,” I’d say, having grasped by his telling that Act Three had already transpired, “so did he rip you off, physically attack you, curse you out, slander your name, steal from your business, smash your windshield or sack your home?” This kind of question would drive him wild– who was telling the story, him or me?! He would glare, arms crossed over his chest, the picture of active churlishness. I realize now how painful it must have been to him, being constantly betrayed by vicious putzes and his oldest friend acting like a dickishly superior theatre critic, breaking in to critique a play directed by his lab rat, a play he once again hadn’t even sat through til the end.

Finally, after every detail was recounted, he’d reveal the dramatic ending: he confronted me in a rage when I chanced on him at a restaurant, loudly called me a fucking Jew, threatened to punch my face in, never paid me back the money I loaned him, or even answered my calls or emails.

OK, I’d think, better than the time he was punched in the face, called a fucking Jew, and they later broke into his business and loaded up a truck with his provisions. Better than the time they ransacked his house and stole his bicycle. Better than that wedding for one of his workers, the one he’d been flattered to be invited to, until he noticed that all the food had been stolen from his own commercial kitchen. Better than the lawsuits. If I made any of these comments he’d snarl, I was missing the point — his life was cursed, he was doomed to a parade of fucking betraying putzes! Including, it went without saying, me.

Of course, the question in your mind at this point must be, how on earth could you have been friends with someone this clueless and toxic for so many years? What possessed you to continue going up to The Lake to be miserable? Good questions, and I will begin to provide the answers that I have, when this tale continues.

The Book of Friedman

Friedman, a man with a problematic singing voice, was, at one time, a prodigious writer of highly personal songs that were often hard to listen to, sung in that difficult voice of his. A central tragedy of the poor devil’s life — to write with sensitivity for an instrument so ill-suited to music. The singer-songwriter had a good sense of pitch, it was not a matter of tone-deafness, in the strict sense. For all his skill on guitar and piano, for all of his original musical ideas, his singing was more than anything a certain lack of grace.

When he was found dead, naked in a chair last summer in his home in Santa Fe, his older brother was contacted by a Medical Examiner. “Just like on TV,” he said. The two brothers flew down to New Mexico to clear his cluttered house and settle his tangled business affairs. They lived for two weeks as guests of Friedman’s ex, a generous woman he finally rejected when he felt she’d been insufficiently supportive when he was inconsolable over the death of his mother, at almost a hundred. “She was his rock,” said his older brother, after their mother died, “he was lost without her.”

The older brother was dogged by guilt, he’d finally had it with his demanding, eternally unhappy youngest brother and had laid into him at one point. The younger brother had never spoken to him again. It had been three years. Then the call from the Medical Examiner asking what to do with the dead body. The middle brother, always a practical man, had avoided a fatal falling out with the youngest by always keeping him at arm’s distance. When an annoying email arrived, screen after screen of tortuous arguments, the middle brother immediately hit delete. He took the same approach to the clutter in the dead brother’s house. Several cartons of contractor bags, a quick look and toss the stuff.

Among the things tossed, to my great regret, were a series of letters between Friedman and the father he always complained didn’t respect him. A box of letters between father and son. They felt like voyeurs after beginning to read them and quickly tossed the collection. As a longtime student of Friedman, and someone who knew his father pretty well too, I feel the loss of these unknown letters keenly. Goddamn, I would have loved to read those letters! There was a book full of pathos and insight in that back and forth, 100%.

Another book, saved by the older brother, exists. It is the hard-covered once blank book where all of the lyrics (and probably the chords) to all of Friedman’s songs were inscribed. The definitive record of a life in music that was almost lived. If only he’d had the voice to sing them. It occurred to me recently to ask the brother if I can borrow this book for a while, to read his collected songs and use them to reconstruct his painful, illuminating life. The endlessly repeating tragedy of his life is the greatest cautionary tale I know.

Many years ago, and I mean decades now, Friedman accused me of using my friends as lab rats in my psychological dissections. I suppose he had a point, the long serving, giant lab rat, though I plead science and the expansion of human knowledge as a redeeming rationale for my experiments (as all the great monsters of history have). We are raised, many of us (and probably all of us who are subject to bouts of misery), deliberately blinded to what we are actually up against in this life. It takes determination, and openess, as well as a certain amount of blind luck, to eventually begin to see the crucial clues that are zealously hidden from us. Friends as lab rats, a small price to pay sometimes, to learn the things we need to learn to live less miserable lives.

(Cold? I don’t know. It certainly doesn’t put the narrator in the most sympathetic light. Start again.)

In telling the story of the talented, miserable, demanding, aggressively unhappy Friedman, I will try to illuminate the two paths open to each of us. We can struggle, in the darkness, to be right, always, to justify, everything, to prevail, at any cost. We can struggle to grasp what is intolerable in our lives, work to see and understand what particularly triggers our misery, seek to suffer less and inflict less pain in the world. I am, clearly, biased toward the second way. Friedman is the greatest example I know, though far from the only one, of the first way — the way of righteous anger and eternal victimhood and fatal disappointment.

Yes, we also have a president now who fits that description– a selfish, childish person who is always the victim, always right to be angry, a fundamentally unhappy person who, although already very wealthy, can never get enough. Forget him, if you can, as I tell you the story of Friedman, the youngest of three boys, an envious sibling who never got enough respect from dad or love from mom.

“OK, let me get this straight, sir,” says nobody in particular “you propose to tell the story of a remorseless, graceless asshole, with no insight into his own misery, told without sympathy, the tale of a putz famous for sweeping others into the ‘putzbin of history’ for betrayals real and imagined.”

I wouldn’t use that as my elevator pitch, no.

“Get on with it, then, why should anybody give a rat’s tutu about this so-called book proposal?”

Insight, man. Hard to come by. Look at it as I pieced it together. At one time this guy was my closest friend. Over the years I came to see, more and more unmistakably, that he was, in elemental ways, an unredeemable version of the worst of my father. Both were smart, articulate, capable of waging fierce arguments to the death, both were supremely sensitive in their own feelings and often monstrously insensitive to the feelings of others. My long wrestling match with Friedman turned out to be an attempt to get a grip on the dilemma with my own father.

“OK, so far you ain’t selling jack, son.”

Says the voice of the internalized victimizer. Look, I’ve been putting together clues for many years now. The Book of Friedman might be the most straightforward way to put them between two covers in the context of a story with a start, middle and end. Much easier to write than draft two of the 1,200 pages I’ve written as I came to see my father’s tragic point of view through his too late clear eyes.

“If you say so…” then there is the pregnant pause, more potent in its power to undermine than any words could be, “we’ll see if this idea comes to anything more than dozens of other big ideas you’ve hatched over the course of the long misadventure that has been your life here, dreamer.”

Which leaves me with this toothache of a thought: What is left of our lives here, beyond what we leave behind?