I can’t stop communicating

Some people, when they are hurt and in turmoil, keep themselves occupied every minute of the day, programming even their breaks so as not to allow time to reflect.   Reflecting means only more hurt and turmoil to this kind of person, so it makes sense to squeeze in an hour of strenuous exercise in between work and a social evening, and then whatever is next on the program.

In contrast, there are people like me.  If something is torturing me, I cannot stop my thoughts until I’ve worked out some way to make the pain stop.  The process involves communicating, with myself and others, to understand as much as I can about my predicament.   This is done by thinking, writing, reviewing and running it by people I respect.  It involves getting advice, feedback and insight from others, unless there is a privacy issue involving another person’s shame or anger that prevents me from sharing it with someone who knows them.  In that case I seek out someone who doesn’t know the party, and run it by them.  It is a very helpful, healing process, I find.  You hear things you never thought of, you see things from other perspectives, you learn new things, you get other things confirmed.  Importantly, you listen to things you may not want to hear sometimes.   Those things are sometimes the most helpful.   All of these things are the result of communication.

The thing Ive never been able to do is keep myself so busy, so programmed, that I don’t have time to focus on what is eating me from the inside.   I had a friend I’ve known since we were eight.  The guy loved me and told me frequently that I was his very best friend, that there was nobody else like me in his life.  I had fond feelings for him, having known him since we were boys.  His impulse to bend the truth when in a tight spot never bothered me, because I knew he couldn’t help it and his little untruths never unduly affected me.    Like his mother, who I know well (and God bless her sharpness at 95), he always runs what my father used to describe, referring to the mother’s frantic life, as a “full flight pattern”.  He meant that since so many planes were constantly taking off and landing in her mental airport it was impossible to concentrate on any one flight for more than a moment.

A full flight pattern prevents being present, you can’t be present, it’s too dangerous, all the planes will start to crash, thousands will be killed, it will instantly become an international scandal and all the fault of the distracted flight controller.

I called this guy a few months back, after a long period of estrangement.  Told him a few revelations I’d had since we last spoke three years earlier.  He told me I’d never left his life, that, odd though it might sound, he sees me in dreams quite regularly.  It’s truly like I never left.  He was happy to hear from me and promised to tell me his revelations next time we spoke.  It took a while.  About five or six weeks later, when he had an opening in his schedule, I asked him to tell me about his new revelations.

“I have no idea what those revelations could have been,” he said, the 6:02 coming in perilously close to the 5:57, with the 6:05 already on a dangerous trajectory.

כל עכבה לטובה

Every pause is for the best.

This was written on a pocket-sized card in a small meticulous hand by the paternal grandfather of an old friend of mine. He’d write down these aphorisms to remind himself of things that he wanted to remember.

One thing was this phrase. If you are upset and thinking about doing something decisive, a bit more delay is rarely a bad idea. If you are thinking of doing something that will hurt somebody, and you hesitate, that little mercy is a good in itself.

I suppose it’s a good thing to remind yourself of once in awhile, if you don’t know what to do, if you’re in turmoil, if you feel hurt, in a tight spot, it’s not a bad idea to hesitate rather than take an action or say words that you might not be able to take back.

philosophical

Decades ago, in an ancient, narrow brick building on City College’s south campus, Wagner Hall, I think, an annex to the grand Mott Hall, if I recall correctly, (both most likely demolished and replaced by now) I took some philosophy courses.  In one of these classes the professor told us that to get into the philosopher’s club in ancient Athens a person was required to stand on a certain corner and, for one hour, not think of a polar bear (I never stopped to think how ancient Athenians would have known about polar bears).   The point was that this was a test to see if your mind was mature and disciplined enough to contemplate more important things and not be distracted by trivia, such as a random distraction it was useless to think about.  It was this kind of thing that drew me to philosophy, though, I have to say, of all the things I have read, philosophy was always the most poorly written.  Of course, philosophical treatises are full of uniquely complicated ideas badly translated, I never read Plato in the Greek or Kant in German.  It would have all been Greek to me anyway, as they say.

I’m thinking about this today because I’ve had some recent conversations during which, so long as I don’t ask the wrong question, often a very obvious one, everything is jolly and carefree.  I offer the example of a talk I had after the recent death of my old friend Les.   I’ll be writing and posting a little homage to Les soon.   Meantime, I learned of his death from some texts and emails the other night, sent and forwarded by an estranged friend, the widow of my dear friend Howie Katz, who died in 2010, shortly before my mother did.   It was Les, in fact, who called to give me the awful news about Howie.  In contrast to my mother’s long decline and struggle against death, Howie went out in a moment, painlessly, in his prime, like a candle flame winking out in a soft breeze.  While waiting at a red light at the bottom of a ramp a moment after exiting a freeway in East Bay.

I spoke to his wife fairly often in the weeks, months and years after Howie died.  It was my way of honoring my friendship with a beautiful soul, doing my best to help look after the person he loved the most, his wife Jackie.  She was in great pain and we would speak for hours at a time.  I live almost 3,000 miles from her (2,575), so these long phone calls were the closest I could come to visits.  Her pain focused on her isolation, how all of their good friends seemed to be avoiding her, as well as her ongoing, worsening troubles at work.  I listened with sympathy, condemning the friends she was angry at, agreeing that her longtime rival at work, Craig, was an evil bastard and that the rest of the hierarchy there who took his side, and kept promoting him, were spineless weasels.  Our talks kept to this format, after a quick back and forth about what was new in our lives I’d settle into listening to her detailed grievances and giving her support.

I was unable to be at Howie’s funeral, but I made sure to be at his unveiling (the ceremony in which the deceased’s gravestone is “unveiled”) a year later.  I helped Jackie shop for and prepare the food that would be served afterwards.  Exhausted after a short night’s sleep the night I arrived, I got up early, went on a shopping trip and helped out the best I could.  Preparing cucumbers and tomatoes for an Israeli salad (also known as a Lebanese salad, Palestinian salad, Turkish salad, etc. — just add minced garlic amd lemon juice) I sat in a chair in her kitchen.   She told me real chefs don’t sit, they stand, and then critiqued the size of the cubes I was cutting, way too big!  Howie found pleasure in serving and helping others, doing whatever they needed to feel comfortable.  I don’t have Howie’s grace, and probably muttered as I stood up, after protesting that I was not a real chef, and cut each of my cubes into four.  Aside from that, she was gracious about my help, I suppose.

Where Howie was gregarious, Jackie is mostly private.  Where Howie was outgoing, irreverent and sometimes hilarious, Jackie is not prone to reaching out to or entertaining others.  I’ve seen the kind of isolation in widowhood Jackie went through with other couples, including my parents.  After the death of the more socially adept partner, friends of the couple begin drifting away.   I did not want Howie’s wife to feel this distance from me.  I’d been their guest many times, loved Howie, had always had a good relationship with Jackie, who is very smart and used to have (at any rate, I remember it) a good sense of humor and a hearty laugh.

Over the years, it got harder and harder.  One thing that grated on Sekhnet (who also loved Howie and accepted Jackie for the sake of Howie) was Jackie’s ingratitude, or to put it more charitably, her difficulty expressing gratitude.   The hardest I ever worked was the week I spent before her daughter’s wedding, playing the guitar seven to ten hours a day to come up with arrangements, and making sure I was able to execute all the parts flawlessly every time, to be a one man band behind my friend who was playing the melodies on harmonica or sax.  The music came off great on the day of the wedding.  The bride, who’d asked us to play, which honored us greatly, hugged us and thanked us afterwards.   Jackie never said anything.  I understood finally that she is probably on the Asperger’s spectrum.  Eventually, after several more attempts to keep our relationship alive over the next few years, I succumbed to the numbness of unrequited friendship.

When all the texts and emails came in from her about Les being in his final hours the other night (she’d also waited til Rom was in a coma to inform me, by text, that he was in the hospital) I began responding to Jackie’s “this is not good” text when I hit dial instead and a moment later was speaking to her.   

We commiserated about our friend until, about five minutes in, Jackie began telling me of her recent struggles and sorrows, she’d had a stroke — which I hadn’t ever inquired about, or even seemed to know about — and then she told the detailed story of her father’s death, at 99, how badly he’d wanted to make it to 100 and how much harder it was for everybody that his death happened during Covid.  The pain to her sister, who’d been forced to attend the funeral over Zoom, was something she and her sister were having a very hard time with.   We spoke for about a half hour, or rather, she spoke and I responded sympathetically.  It was as if we’d talked the week before.

The polar bear popped into my head and I asked the obvious question:  We’re having a perfectly amiable chat, why is it that we haven’t talked in more than five years?

“You stopped talking to me,” she said.

I recounted the half dozen attempts I’d made to show her friendship in recent years.   Exerting myself to meet her whenever she was in NY, in spite of only finding out about each of her trips once she was days from leaving NY.   Making plans, two weeks in advance, to stay with her for a couple of days during my last visit to San Francisco, plans she cancelled as I was literally blocks from her house with my overnight bag.

“I don’t remember any of that, because of the stroke,” she said.

“So what gives you the idea that I stopped talking to you?” I asked.

“Because you stopped talking to me.  Marilyn told me that you stopped talking to me,” she said.

If I hadn’t asked the obvious question, I’d never have known, or even suspected, that it was me, once more, completely in the wrong.

The human need to be heard

I was doing my laundry the other night, at around 2:00 a.m. when the place is empty and I can use as many dryers as I like to get done quickly. When I walked in a guy was engaged in animated conversation with the long time night porter at the laundromat, a very friendly guy from Mexico who speaks limited English. After getting my laundry in the washing machine I went to sit outside and enjoy the central air conditioning that abused Mother Nature has graciously provided in recent nights.

The talkative guy came out to smoke a cigarette. I made a comment about the smoking section and how in the old days you could smoke a cigarette wherever you wanted to. He turned to me full of an expectation that was palpable. He said “can I talk to you, man? I really need to talk to somebody,and I nodded, told him it was fine.

He was in turmoil, his wife was about to leave him, because after four years clean and sober, he’d fallen off the wagon, having a few drinks on the third anniversary of his father’s death. He always used to drink with the old man on his birthday.

He told me about his life, and it turned out his wife was also in recovery as he put it. I said maybe that’s why she’s so freaked out about your falling off the wagon, she sees it as a threat to her sobriety, that the same thing could easily happen to her. He was amazed by this sinple idea, it seemed the thought had never occurred to him.

His sponsor had told him recently that he needed to start reaching out to people, for their opinions, for their insights, for help. I told him his sponsor sounded like a smart person, that it’s good to get perspectives from people who don’t know you because they have nothing to gain, no axe to grind. I had nothing to gain and no axe grind, and even though he never let me actually finish a thought, he was clearly very relieved that somebody was listening to him carefully and taking the trouble to respond with some thought.

When our clothes were dry and we packed everything up to leave, he thanked me and we exchanged a strong handshake. I told him he was on the right path looking for insight, understanding, that it was a good sign that he was reaching out. I wished him luck and I told him I was confident that he’d be okay, because most people don’t even bother looking for insight in their lives and he had a big leg up on everybody like that.

The experience reminded me again of how important it is to be heard. One of the most effective ways to stomp the living heart out of a person is to subject them to complete silence. They can speak, they can lay their heart bare, but by not saying anything in return you can make it very clear to them that they’re fucking dead to you.

Life or death. When Death finally comes we have nothing to say to it except to go. During our life we can choose the way of life or the way of fucking death. Me, I’ll take life every time.

Lesson from John Donne

I just read a rich appreciation of John Donne, recently published in the New York Times. Of Donne all I know is his poem The Flea, but, oh, what a poem that is.

The author cites Donne for reminding us all, in this world where we all must cease to exist, sometimes on little or no notice, to keep a keen eye on everything that crosses our senses and inspires wonder, or any deep feeling. I found this couplet profound:

“Nothing but man, of all envenomed things,/Doth work upon itself with inborn stings.” 

What John Donne Knew About Death Can Teach Us a Lot About Life

Neurotic

I don’t know for sure what the clinical definition of the slippery term “neurotic” is [1], though anxiety is its’ hallmark.  The following illustration comports with my understanding of what it means to be neurotic, that is, so anxious, guilt-driven and chagrined, that you often do things that sabotage your own best interests in relations with other people.

My last remaining friend from a childhood that ended more than fifty years ago was in a desperate death spiral with his wife.  It had long been a very tense, combative, distrustful marriage, and it was coming to an end.  At one point, not long before their divorce, his wife and a marriage therapist convinced him that he had to confront me for deliberately or callously trying to end his doomed marriage.  His wife didn’t respect him as a man, found him weak and contemptible, and only confronting me would demonstrate that he had any spine at all.

I was supportive as I gave him a convincing, and true, response for his wife and the idiot therapist.  He seemed relieved, even grateful.  Things continued to go from bad to worse, and finally, after months of trying, it was impossible for me to maintain my friendship with my old friend.

Recent events in my own life made me realize that I should reach out to the poor devil, a guy I hadn’t exchanged a peep with in a few years.  We made plans to talk, by text (as it is done these days) and there were a few hits and misses due to his busy schedule until we could find a mutually good time to talk.   He was very happy to hear from me.

I told him about a long chat I had with his mother, after she dreamed about me and left me a message.   I described the traumatized friend who was in the hands of a great therapist who’d provided her with some excellent rules about life.  I quoted rules 12 and 13, texted them to him afterwards.   

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.

We discussed these revelations and then he promised that the next time we talked he’d share his revelations.   He’d had some major revelations since the last time we spoke.  I told him I was looking forward to it.

“This might sound funny,” he told me, “but you never actually left my life.  I see you frequently in dreams, just passing by, or sitting around, but you are there pretty consistently.”

I paused and said “well, then I hope this was a dream conversation for you.”

He laughed, and we said goodbye.

One month ago.

[1] apparently the term is no longer used clinically, psychiatrists have replaced the squishy term neurotic with more concrete and identifiable ones. Here’s a general definition from thefreedictionary.com

neu·ro·sis (no͝o-rō′sĭs, nyo͝o-)

A mild mental disorder characterized by excessive anxiety, insecurity, or obsession, usually compensated for by various defense mechanisms.

To write or not to write

I had a girlfriend many years ago, very cute and much younger than me, I was 30 and she was 20. I was the first boyfriend she had who wasn’t a boy and she responded very well to all of my attentions. We had as harmonious a relationship as I could manage at the time.

When she was getting divorced many years later, and needed to be cheered up, encouraged as a desirable woman I suppose, she said to me “if I come to New York will you fuck me?”

My hesitation surely gave away too much, then I told her that I was in a long-term monogamous relationship, sadly, and for some reason my hand wrote on a piece of paper “if I come to New York will you fuck me?”

I folded the paper and put it in my pants pocket and forgot about it. Until weeks later, when it inexplicably showed up on the floor on my side of the bed. Sekhnet picks it up, unfolds it and reads to me “if I come to New York will you fuck me?” I give her a short, sheepish, truthful account of the call. Years later I had dinner with my still very cute younger ex and her very smart, good looking 16-year-old daughter. That was the only time I’ve seen her in all those years that I can recall, except one other time, about fifteen years earlier.

I mentioned to my friend today that there’d been flooding in her area recently and I’d thought of calling her to make sure she was okay. My friend said “and if she saidif I come to New York will you fuck me?’

I wouldn’t write it down,” I said.