All we’ve got is time — until we don’t

I think about this more often now that I’m older, this fleeting thing our lives are actually made of – time.  The richest, most pampered person in the world, when it comes down to it, has only their time on this earth to spend.  

Some believe in the infinitely tender idea of an afterlife, a magical place where we’ll be lovingly greeted by those we’ve loved and lost.   It’s a nice idea, I can’t lie.  Fewer and fewer people, I think, are betting on heaven right now, though it continues to comfort the dying and those loved ones left behind.

We are left with the world we live in, and the time we have left to live in it.  All any of us really have, in the end, is time.   Since in the West we are conditioned to believe that time is money, well, it seems a sin to waste it, even though the most important changes we can make in our lives often take a lot of time.  For better or worse, I put no restrictions on my time or efforts these days, living frugally to avoid the thought of time actually being money.

Since I have too much time, some people would say, I talk to strangers this way (since most of my friends silently freak out when I address these musings to them) by arranging words into this parade of thoughts, feelings and ideas.  

I don’t know how I would feel, getting something like this in the mail from someone I know.   I might well feel: what the fuck?!!   What is this shit?   What does he want from me?   Am I his fucking reader, his confessor, his validator?   What does he expect me to say, that it’s good?   It’s weird and unpleasant to have this odd, heavy burden suddenly thrust on me.   Why doesn’t he just wage the long war to make a goddamned living at it and get praise from the people who really matter to a writer?

Strangers, I think, are the proper readers, to them I’m just a writer of some kind.   Sitting among these readers I also imagine people like my mother, who took great pleasure in how my writing improved over the years.

I have time, and I take a few hours of it every day to reflect.   You could call it my spiritual practice, if you like, this contemplative period of silence and tapping every day, during which my thoughts and feelings come into focus on the page in front of me.

After a joyous New Years Eve celebration with friends we returned to the quiet house Sekhnet inherited from her parents.   It is a mile from the little house I grew up in.   I often walk that mile, passing all the old places, most of which have been repurposed many times over.  

I continue past my old block to the park, where I sit on a bench and scan the gigantic sky that is impossible to truly appreciate in most cities and suburbs.   I feel the thousands of trees breathing.   Then I choose another route and head back to Sekhnet’s.

The first day of the year reached midnight and, technically, it was the second.   I checked my email and found a link Facebook had sent me to a friend’s post.   I rarely visit Facebook, routinely delete the emails they send, but this friend often links to worthwhile reading material, so I clicked the link.   Next to the new post was a short roster of people I might want to have as Facebook friends.

One of them was the widow of an old friend of mine, Melz.   Melz died of a rare soft tissue sarcoma, the same thing that killed Hugo Chavez, apparently.   He sent me a link to an article about what actually killed Chavez, a few weeks before his own long battle with this merciless disease reached its predictable end.   He had defied the doctors one last time, they predicted he’d be dead by New Years, he lived until the second day of the year.  I did not recall, as I looked over the public areas of his widow’s Facebook page, exactly when he had died.

On her Facebook page there was a picture of him leaping, hand in hand with her, also off the ground.   The photo had been snapped at the height of their leap. Melz’s free arm is thrown up in the air, his mouth is open in a joyful shout, his legs are spread wide.  He looks strong and full of life, as he no doubt was at that time.

It had been his wife’s profile picture, the two of them at the top of a leap.  Later it had been replaced by another photo of the two of them, their faces filling the frame.  They are young and both look great in the shot.   Melz, who was built like Fred Flintstone, looks dashing, confident, at peace with himself.   His head, I notice, is almost twice the size of his wife’s.   I look at these pictures for a long time.

Later that morning an email arrived from an old friend, noting that January second is the fifth anniversary of Melz’s untimely death.  This fellow had been Melz’s inseparable best friend for many years.   Like me, a very close associate of Melz’s for a decade when we were young men, he had been gently ousted from his close friendship with Melz when Melz took a wife.  The wife Melz took had her own ideas about his very close friendships, I suppose.   Though we spoke on the phone several times in his last months, I saw him only a handful of times during the last thirty years of his life.   His longtime best friend, the writer of the email, had seen him not that many times more than that, though they lived close by each other on the outskirts of Boston.

The writer of the email had conducted Melz’s funeral.  He wrote and delivered a magnificent eulogy.  The funeral was choreographed, per the wishes of the widow, a bit of the eulogy, then a designated guest would take the stage.   When he went back to his seat, our old friend looked like the exhausted star of a basketball team in the fourth quarter of the seventh game of the playoff finals.  

He was not sweating, but he looked wrung out, as we all were.  When it was his time to take the ball, he did not hesitate or falter.   He handled the ball calmly.   Every shot fell straight through the net without touching the rim.   He was in a flow state, unconscious, channeling the love so many people in that room felt for the departed.

One of the guests introduced himself as Melz’s best friend.   His oldest friends had never met this guy, but nobody doubted him.   Melz was gone and all we had now were the memories of his life, which were a kind of blessing to us.

The email evoked Melz by noting that he “moved from this world to the next on the wings of some magical keyboard five years ago today.”   Melz was a talented piano player who I’d first seen playing a hundred variations on “Sunny” in a talent show in the rec hall at the camp we all went to.   He was a fountain of improvisations, his Fred Flintstone-like fingers flickering flawlessly over the keys. 

I was off my game the other day when I wrote back to the few old friends of Melz on the email list.  I began the New Year feeling dull, disconnected, unequal to the tasks ahead.  Fucking hell, you know, which is why so many people prefer going to work, and getting paid, to sitting at home, “working” for free.   So I wrote a short email that missed the mark in several essential ways, sent it off, and instantly regretted the ungainly air ball I’d chucked up at the imagined buzzer.  I will try it again now:

Eerily, almost Melzerianly, I found myself studying these photos of Melz in the wee hours of January 2.   I rarely check FaceBook, but there I was, unaccountably, on Robin’s page.

Here is the old boy leaping with joy (note that I have cut off the person whose hand Melz is holding in a way that will be familiar to all old comrades of Comrade Melz). (photo)

And here he is looking handsomely himself in a great photo with his wife, now his widow.  (photo)

Too soon, my friends, and though his memory is a blessing, in the way of such things, a greater blessing still would be coaxing the old showman to a piano and putting him through his paces.

What I’ve Learned So Far

A caveat, first.   We don’t get to learn that much of great importance, the vast majority of us, in the short time we’re given here in this distracting, demanding world.  I’ve learned this so far, which I’ve found useful, and which I’ll write now and post.  I share it here partly out of pride that I’ve been able to learn it.  I offer it also for whatever help or comfort it may give for some of what you might be struggling to understand in your own life.

Parents don’t fail their children, in most cases, out of any kind of malice or ill-will.

This simple truth is in no way intuitive or obvious, though when you read it you might go “duh…”   As kids we hope for everything from our parents, and almost none of us get that.   The rest is on us.

There are extreme situations, of course, where insane people do unspeakable things to their children.  To the children of those outliers, I really wouldn’t know what to say that could be of use to you, having had to live through that unimaginable nightmare, outside of that none of it was your fault.  I am also not talking to anyone who survived a childhood in an actual, violent, physical war zone, a truly inconceivable horror, except to wish that your parents were heroes and that you and your family were spared the worst.   This piece will probably be most digestible to anybody raised by more or less ordinary, average, normal, regular parents living in peacetime.

Being born to parents, or a single parent, or raised by an adoptive parent, or a parent figure, who is able to give you exactly what you need in life, all the essential things, or even simply a life-affirming sense of being loved that never deserts you, is a matter of luck as great as any other lucky thing in the world.  How were the stars twinkling the night you were born, or, if by day, where was the sun, exactly?   Who can say?  Even if the stars actually have anything to do with luck in the first place, which, who the hell knows? 

My sister and I had painful childhoods, we watched each other suffer, gave each other what little help we could, even as we fought each other much of the time.   None of it could be helped in the house we grew up in.  Yet, our parents were not sadists, psychos, creeps, fools, jerks, nuts, assholes, zealots, criminals, compulsive liars or even particularly rigid people.   They were both very intelligent, sensitive, had good senses of humor,  and both loved us AS WELL AS THEY COULD.  

That is the key there, keep it handy.  

They did what they thought was best for us, always.   How were they to know that at the most crucial emotional moments for my sister and me they had literally no fucking clue how to give us what we needed?   Where were they to have learned that blessed skill?

They certainly had no role models.   Their childhoods were MUCH worse than my sister’s and mine.   I guarantee that, can see few things more clearly than I see that. And my parents’ parents’ childhoods had been worse than my parents’ childhoods and so forth, all the way back.

My father, I learned toward the end of his life, had been whipped in the face (in the face) by his angry, ignorant, religious fanatic mother, from the time he could stand. One year old, or whatever, he’s finally on his feet and — BOOOOM!!!!   In your fucking face, bitch, don’t you fucking look at me, asshole (but hissed in Yiddish).   It’s hard to imagine the horrors of her childhood, except that everyone left behind in that impoverished hamlet she came from was slaughtered in 1942.  

My mother’s mother was charming, dynamic, loved me to death as I loved her, but even as a kid I could easily see how hard she’d come down on my mother, her only child.   Countless yardsticks broken over her daughter’s ass, was the phrase I used to hear, from both my parents.   I always pictured the flimsy yardsticks I knew, with the ads printed on them, no big deal, I could effortlessly snap ’em myself as a ten year-old.  Years later I saw a yardstick from back then.  36 inches of solid squared lumber an inch thick, with numbers and lines carved into it, not those thin, light almost balsa wood jobs they gave away at the hardware store when I was a kid, with the numbers printed on.   Not much was known about my mother’s mother’s childhood, except that twenty years after she left everyone in her large family, and her husband’s, was shot and left in a mass grave in August 1943, if they hadn’t died earlier from starvation, disease, cold or other violence, in the cruel year before the final massacre.

Do I take valuable lessons from my parents?   Yes, from each of them.   I carry them with me every day, wherever I go.   Did I have to undo many curses they placed on my little soul as they ineptly tried to protect me, and love me, and make me not ask terrible questions they couldn’t answer, and encourage me, and discipline me, and praise me, and keep me humble, show me new things, and shield me from things, make me cautious, and brave, empowered, outspoken and submissive and the hundreds of other crucial things parents must constantly do well, in real time, with no notice, and that they receive absolutely no training or preparation for, or sometimes even a clue about?   Many curses that I still have to deal with all the time.  Things that in their angriest moments they never would have dreamed of wishing on me. But there it is.

Did I vex my parents?  Every single day of their lives (at least until the final years of my mother’s lonely life when I’d finally learned not to, and the sudden last two days of my father’s life on the eve of my mother’s widowhood).   Did I disappoint them?  Too many times to count.  Were they proud of me nonetheless?   More than they could say.  Did they love me?   They loved me the very best each of them could love anybody.   More I could not ask of anyone.

What did I learn?  To smile at the idiotic, dependably merciless voice that was in my head year after year, repeating the vicious, undermining things my parents hissed at me when they were too frustrated and angry to remain coherent.   How long did it take me to learn that life-saving trick?  More than thirty years, I think.  It was not quick, I can tell you for sure.  The beauty part is, after enough practice, that ugly little fucker finally pretty much shut the hell up.  What I learned, as that victimizing voice was fading, was to always be merciful to myself. 

Do I ever doubt that I have a good heart?    Never.   Do I question my motivations? Only on rare occasions, and when I find myself on shaky ground I almost always try to fix what I can fix.

But, isn’t that true of every asshole, they believe they have a good heart and that they are right all the time?   Yes.   So doesn’t that mean I’m an asshole?   Not really.

My parents, luckily, gave me the tools to work things out, though they often thwarted me as I was trying to learn to use them.   I’m not proud of the grief I caused them during our long struggle, but neither do I blame them now for the grief they caused me.   How long did balancing that unthinkable mess take, until there was no more pain or regret involved?   I don’t know, maybe forty years, and I have to keep practicing to keep it straight, but it is quite easy to practice now.

What did I learn?   That most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can, within their limitations.   The only thing we can fairly ask of someone else is not to treat us unfairly.   We have the right to demand the best of our loved ones, and we will most often get it, especially if we give ours to them, unless we are making unreasonably one-sided demands.

What did I learn?   “What is hateful to you, do not do to somebody else.”   It is easier to master that than the other formulation of the same golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.   We all, each of us, viscerally and instantly know what is hateful to us.   Love can be trickier, even as love, is also, first and last, trying never to do something we find hateful to a person we love.  And if we do fuck up, which we always do, being humble and making amends.

Do I think having finally learned that make me Jesus, or Hillel, or anything special? No.  Isn’t it true I’m just another asshole?   Fine.   But I’m an asshole who will try not to treat other people like assholes, to the extent that I can, and whenever I act with mercy toward another I feel a certain peace and a greater sense of hope for my fellow assholes on this poor, persecuted planet.  I feel like mercy for others, when I can give it, flows directly from my mercy for myself, is part of the same process.

As I told an old friend the other day, and as I spoke it surprised me to hear me saying it: I find I’ve become more patient than I ever thought I could possibly be.  Those feelings of mercy and hope, and learning to nurture myself, help others when I can (and when I can’t help, not hurting), to me, are most of the ballgame, right there.

That’s what I’ve learned.   

 

An odd society of married men (final)

For years four married men, and I include myself, as I am as married as anyone (Sekhnet and I have been together twenty years now) would take a ferry ride to an island once a year and spend the day on the beach.   It was an annual tradition that ensured we all got to spend some quality time with a friend who was living abroad and came to the US every summer for a harried, duty-packed visit.   We’d have lunch in a small restaurant there and compare notes on what had happened from the previous year before heading to the beach.   The boat ride there and back, across the sparkling water, was always a highlight of the day.

A few years ago I had a final falling out with a longtime friend named Andy, one of the four, and it became awkward after that to convene the annual meeting.   It would have forced the two men into the conflict, made them choose between me and Andy, something they could not do.   The day was celebrated the last couple of years as a two-some, the two old friends hopping the ferry, eating lunch at the restaurant, spending the day at the beach, catching up.

It must have been one of the last times the four of us were there that the subject of Andy’s wife, Hitler, came up.   I immediately barked out my extreme distaste for her, protested that I was trying to eat and that this harshly opinionated angry little Russian Jew was not a fit subject for mealtime. Andy and I had an understanding that his noisome wife would not be discussed between us.  We’d patched up a friendship Hitler had sundered a few years earlier and not discussing his wife was a condition of our reconciliation. I found it impossible to talk about her without disputing her proclaimed right to express the full measure of her ready rage whenever she wanted to.

But during the polite lunch discussion, Rob, the peacemaker, chided me for my vehemence, for the shorthand “Hitler” (which I stand behind, incidentally) and began defending this woman, Hitler.   “If you really listen to her, and talk to her, she’s really, really smart and she makes a lot of sense”, Rob said.  He noted that she has a great sense of humor.  He said he actually has learned to appreciate her and he gets along great with her now, that he has actually come to like her and feel like she likes him too.   Andy began to laugh an unpleasant, mirthless laugh.

“She fucking hates you, Rob!” Andy said with exaggerated disgust.  He went on to flesh out that hatred a bit.   He did this with a big, humorless smile on his face.  A year or two later Andy’s sickening marriage to Hitler was heading toward a long-overdue divorce.   Andy left her during the separation, moved out of the marital domicile and into a spacious wooden garden apartment that looked like the Zen dojo he’d begun hanging out in with the little sect he’d joined.

Andy, a very bright man who’d scored a perfect hole-in-one on his SATs back in high school, would be quick to point out that a “dojo” is a place where martial artists train and he’d tell me the right word for a place where Zen meditation is done.    In response I’d point out that every place Andy practices anything is a forum for martial arts (and that the only difference between the words “martial” and “marital” is the placement of the I, how’s that for a koan?).

I recall these lunches in particular as a place where unhappily married men complained about and defended their bad marriages.  Since I am not actually married, am not legally contracted to Sekhnet, I was somewhat exempt from this part of the conversation, though, obviously, not really. Everybody has some kind of issue, conflict or problem with virtually everybody else, it’s just one of the features of being human.  

Life partnerships are certainly not exempt from this general rule, in fact, they are often more subject to conflict than less intimate relationships.   The better friendships are the ones where affection causes us to give generous allowances for the foibles of the other, and the proverbial benefit of the doubt.   We’re lucky, in this life, if we find a couple of people we can count on to truly have our best interests at heart and not fight with us too much, it seems, especially during these combative days as we wait for our home, the increasingly besieged earth, to become uninhabitable.

It struck me as a bit ironic that Rob the peacemaker, who defended Andy’s wife, Hitler, against my unfair, if not inaccurate, portrayal, probably also supported him 100% in his decision to divorce her.   It would have been hard not to be supportive of the move.  I am quite sure the divorce did not fix Andy’s somewhat broken life, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.   Rob has been at war with his own wife since shortly after they married, many years ago.  It is one of the most explosive and angry minefields of a marriage I know.   There are periods of uneasy peace surrounded by devastation that has done damage to everybody in its orbit.   I am a casualty, finally, of that toxic relationship.

There is a picture of Andy and me, dressed in misshapen suits, ties inexpertly knotted at our throats, standing on the front stoop of my parents’ house in Queens. Each of us has a bad haircut we probably hacked out ourselves.   The snapshot was taken right before we headed to Rob’s wedding.   I wonder where that photo is.

There were signs at Rob’s wedding, now that I think back, of the disaster that was about to unfold.   A sense of uneasiness and mutual desperation hung over it all, though perhaps my memories are also colored by what has come to pass in the decades since.

                                                                                 ii

To explain why Rob’s marriage was probably doomed to be a war from the start it is necessary to describe my old friend a little.  Rob is also the most important character in this little story as he was my connection to the other married men in the odd society of married men who spent a day at the beach every year.  I’d met Andy through Rob (they’d been at an Ivy League college together) and later I met the émigré, the man for whose company we’d meet at the ferry terminal every summer.   Keep that thought in mind, Rob as the nexus, and the oldest friend of each of us, since it may explain some things later.

Rob has always been a nervous person. He was a nervous boy when I met him in fourth grade when we became best friends, after he had skipped into my grade. The nervous boy grew into a nervous teenager and later a nervous man.   A very smart kid and an intelligent, thoughtful man, I have rarely known him not to be nervous about something.

He comes by it honestly, I would say.  Rob was raised by somewhat nervous parents, two people I knew quite well for decades.  After Rob and I became friends our parents became close friends too.   The families spent many holidays together.    In some families (like Rob’s, actually) I would have called his parents Aunt and Uncle.   The families were very close and I was familiar with Rob’s domineering maternal grandmother as well.    Rob and I went in different directions in High School and fell out of touch for a number of years.

At one point Rob’s mother, Caroline, came across an envelope of James Bond trading cards Rob and I had pasted on to pages and written humorous captions for, many years earlier (Sean Connery was Bond on those cards).  I’d found them in a closet and sent the collection to Rob, whom I hadn’t seen for a few years.   On top of the pile I’d scrawled a note to the effect that “someday we’ll play guitars”.   As I recall, Caroline framed that note, after weeping joyfully to my mother over the life-affirming optimism of an old friend reaching out that way to a friend he’d grown apart from.

We did play guitar a few years later, in San Francisco, where Rob was living at the time.  The cover story for his sojourn in SF, as I recall, was that he was becoming a California resident to get in-state tuition for medical school.  He was actually playing in a rock band, trying to be as close to a full-time musician as he could be.   He had already abandoned the idea of medical school and was probably working on how to best break the news of his career change to his folks.

I plugged a guitar into a large amp in the concrete warehouse room where his band practiced.  It was just Rob and me in the reverb-rich room.  I loved the sound, played some bluesy line, sustaining a note against the wonderful acoustics of that big empty room and Rob’s jaw dropped as he told me how much I sounded like Clapton [1].   This may seem a silly image to include here, but it will be useful to recall later on.

Sometime later, back in New York, we had a remarkable jam session in the basement office of a pediatrician named Dr. Geller (who turned out to have been Sekhnet’s pediatrician, she recalled his enormous hands).   Geller owned the house Rob’s parents rented, the home where Rob and his older sister were raised. I’d had many a holiday meal in that house, in the company of our two families. I’d spent massive amounts of time in that house over the years, but had never been down to Geller’s office before that night.  It was a remarkable session, with Andy on synthesizer keyboard.   It was the first time I’d played with Andy and there was a certain magic to the musical connection that first time.

But none of this explains why Rob was doomed to a combative marriage, so onward. He’d had a series of fairly longterm girlfriends over the years, but as far as I knew, for many years, none of them were Jewish.   In his mind he could only marry a Jewish woman, so this easy out kept his sexual relationships limited in a certain crucial way.   A way that eventually caused great pain, and sometimes anger, in his longterm partners.  A psychiatrist finally pointed this pattern out to Rob, when he was in his early thirties.  I remember Rob telling me about this breakthrough session when he realized, with the shrink’s help, that it was essential for him to date a Jewish girl and get married as soon as possible.   He proceeded to do exactly that.

I liked the woman, though she seemed volatile.   Her older brother (a guy Rob and I both knew in passing at Hebrew School), we soon learned, had opted out of the family, not contacting any of them for years.   This happens in families, I figured, who knows what the whole story is?   The haste with which they got engaged and married may not have been to my taste (I’m still not officially married, nor is Sekhnet planning to marry me) but it wasn’t my business, really.   Yet there was still something a little unsettling about the lead up to the wedding and the wedding itself.  An ominous foreshadowing, if you will.

There was a dinner party before the wedding, at a Mexican restaurant, maybe it was their engagement party.   Hitler, Andy’s wife,  insulted Rob’s oversensitive sister in a curt, particularly brutal manner.   I remember feeling a tension at that dinner that I can only say felt tense.

The bachelor party for Rob was also memorable for something being off about it, even for a bachelor party.   The main thing I recall is that the party was commandeered by the loud, overbearing, drunken asshole brother-in law of the bride, a boisterous clown named Eddie.   My main memory is of Eddie loudly critiquing the body of a stripper in a bar he’d dragged us to.   Perhaps her breasts or buttocks were not up to his exacting standards, although it could have been literally anything, or nothing, at that point.  He was shit-faced and somehow in charge.

Eddie would not be Rob’s brother-in-law that much longer, he and Rob’s wife’s sister divorced not long after that idiotic display of alpha-maleness.   I don’t disparage anyone for getting divorced from someone who mistreats them.  I have been divorced myself several times over the years, even if not from a marriage.   When all you are getting from a relationship is grief, harshness, abuse — time to hop on the bus, Gus.  In fact, for that reason, a terrible relationship, Rob’s wife wrote off her younger sister a few years later.  The sister, although seemingly pleasant enough, is apparently an unredeemable complete fucking bitch.

Rob and his wife finally reached the conclusion that they were better off apart.  They could not find a way out of their eternal war.   A year or two ago they sat their two sons down and informed them of their plan to split up, to divorce. Then, miraculously, they unaccountably reconciled when their younger son moved across the country for college.  It was like a rebirth for their relationship, a beautiful new springtime, though it was not very long before catastrophic sky-blackening storms swept back in.

Now this here, what I am doing now, this is what I always do.   I write about things that are nobody’s business, betray people left and right, simply for the sake of an “interesting” story, even if I don’t use their full names, or any names.  They know it’s them I’m writing about, and that’s the unspeakable thing, that I am publicly probing into things they don’t want probed into, particularly, and most unforgivably, in the public space of the internet.  I eventually write about ticklish, chafing details that make people who used to be my friends angry, defensive, sometimes vindictive.   My beloved Sekhnet, on reading part one of this piece, had a related reaction and a one word review: “flush!”

In other words, down the drain with this whole nasty subject, done with the eternal bad feelings it engenders, these sad and distasteful details of disappointing, doomed disputes with desperate people.  “Flush!” she said again when I began trying to explain why these lived materials from my life are so useful to me.

She listened as I went on about the personal experiences and lessons of one’s life being the most important things to ponder and learn from, the richest things to write clearly about, the best tools for attaining insights and for personal growth.   Plus, I pointed out, there is a great punchline to this particular story, if I can manage to tell it correctly, more than one punchline, actually.   She eventually agreed not to say “flush!” again, for this particular tale, at least.

So onward, but not today, my allotted writing time is at an end.  Part three will put the final pieces in place and hopefully provide a satisfying, if mildly merciless, punchline.

                                                                      iii

In the end, the real trouble between men is not a wife like Hitler who forbids her husband to have someone as a friend.  It is the individual who must act with integrity, or not.  Looking around it doesn’t take long to see that integrity is in short supply in our relentlessly competitive world.  It is not our fault, strictly speaking, as violence is often the rule — faced with superior force we are often stopped in our tracks. Maybe homo sapiens are doomed to eternal compromise with the killers who are always among us and some of that compromise is soul-crushing.

I do the only thing I can imagine doing from one day to the next, try to make sense of seemingly incoherent things.  I know it makes me appear to be a smugly superior asshole to some people, but it’s the best way I’ve found to deal with things that perplex me.

Much of the conflict in the world is the result of incoherent narratives, things we believe based purely on feelings. Armies march for reasons that make absolutely no sense, though a rousing excuse is always given for the slaughter, no matter how otherwise empty and incoherent the war slogans might be. The twitching man with the loaded gun does not need a rational explanation when he tells you to lie on the fucking floor so he can blow your head off.  How the west was won, how slavery was maintained for centuries, how great tracts of land have always changed hands, how fortunes have always been made. Thus it has always been among we who are made of flesh.

At the table on that holiday island we always spoke of long-time intractable problems that sometimes were better and sometimes were worse. There was rarely a perceptible change from year to year in the larger picture of this circle of problematically married men.  This is the lot of virtually everyone, this ebbing and flowing of good and bad fortune and the moods that accompany these changes. I try not to be judgmental, though I do not always succeed in this.

I got a text from Rob that he needed to see me immediately. I called and got a text not to use the phone, just to text him a time and place to meet. I asked what it was about, but he couldn’t say anything but that it was urgent that we talk face to face.

When he showed up in his car he was extremely nervous, even for him. I probed, after a session of small-talk, and learned why his eyelid was twitching. He was there to confront me, to accuse me of deliberately, or thoughtlessly, trying to destroy his marriage. I was probably out of their lives, he said, with no way to redeem myself, because what I’d done was so destructive and unforgivable. But he was going to give me a chance to save our friendship by talking my way out of my death sentence.

What had I done that marked me this way?  Made a remark to his wife, in passing, that she, weeks later, weaponized and used to whip him bloody in front of their marriage counselor. The therapist agreed that I was a malicious force in their marriage who needed to be dealt with immediately.

I walked Rob and myself through everything I could remember about the remark, which was essentially that the wife’s ten minute story about an embittering encounter between the wife and Andy made a lot more sense than Rob’s harried one minute version of the same story about a month earlier. Rob’s story made little sense, but as I have no use for Andy, except perhaps to throw him on the ground and kick him, I didn’t probe for details and we went on to other subjects. Rob immediately expressed regret for telling me anything about his wife’s run-in with Andy. The wife’s story was much more detailed and I understood things I had not when I first heard a rushed, regretted version from Rob that I asked not a single clarifying question about.

The wife seized on my “oh, that makes much more sense than the story Rob told me,” as proof that Rob’s oldest friend also says you’re a fucking liar, Rob, a fucking liar! The therapist was hard-pressed to disagree. You need to confront this person, she’d told him. His wife told them he was afraid of me. He rushed to confront me.

Another man might have reacted to the accusation differently than I did, maybe just punched him in the face, like in a western, just to make it stop.  I wasn’t raised that way, so I went through everything I could remember, a process I repeat whenever I sit down to write. I suppose it’s part of my nature to muse over puzzles, and this was one of the more piquant puzzles that my nose has ever been shoved into. Rob seemed satisfied by the end that I had not intended his marriage fatal harm, intentionally or unconsciously.  Still, he raised other issues with me, had other suspicions and accusations. He seemed intent on keeping me on the defensive.  I have to say, I hate that kind of shit.

Here I will give you a little additional information about the odd society of married men who used to assemble around a table once a year at that restaurant on Fire Island. Rob is Jewish, as am I, so his particular psychological type is familiar to me. Having grown up in the same cultural milieu I get the whole set-up, learned the same formulation of moral values that are supposed to be taken seriously and all the rest. Culturally, the other two problematically married men were always a bit more mysterious to me in some ways.

Andy is a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon version of the classic jovial passive-aggressive, from stock that one writer (Dennis Potter) referred to as “a pinched and whining breed.” Andy’s personal mix is finished with a cringing grandiosity tinged with self-hatred.  If you don’t actually hate yourself, at least a little, you will never understand it. I confess, I truly don’t understand the sick fuck. As for the émigré, you’d have to ask him yourself, he is no longer talking to me, for reasons he need not specify.

I could not simply flush this whole matter of the death of my oldest friendship, as Sekhnet urged me to do. Andy proved himself exceedingly flushable in the end, my life enriched by his subtraction from it, as Rob also turned out to be, in the end, but the part about the émigré continued to bug me.   I knew why I couldn’t be friends with Rob, it was his constant provocation and his infernal, convoluted denials about it.   What was his gripe against me, exactly?

I reached out to Rob, assuming that he’d cried piteously to his old friend about my heartlessness and that had affected his friend to cut ties with me.  It took weeks after my phone calls, and the formulation of precise questions which I emailed to him at his texted request, and a good deal of diligence and forbearance on my part, but eventually Rob gave me the three unforgivable things I had done to him. He told me he had not talked to the émigré about our falling out, in any detail, at least until I’d asked about it in one of the three emailed questions.

His wife told him I’d worn a fucking wire on him the last time we spoke, on what he admitted had been “a bad day.”  Wore a fucking wire like a fucking fuck. An unforgivable betrayal, under any circumstances.

His wife told him I’d said I’d been mad enough at him, at one point in our maddening chat, to want to punch him, throw him on the ground and kick him to make him shut the fuck up.  Unforgivable, no matter what the provocation supposedly was, no matter if I’d acted on it or not.

His wife told him I’d called him a pussy. Unforgivable!

This last bit was a slight distortion of what I’d said.  I had a revelation while she and I were speaking (she’d called to offer the choice of unconditional acceptance of a blanket apology for whatever I thought Rob might have done to me, or fucking myself– something I already periodically do). I realized toward the end of the conversation why Rob was always so competitive with me.  It was only tangentially related to that Clapton sound I could get on a guitar.

The real conflict, it came to me in a flash, was that Rob’s father had never stood up to his wife, and that Rob felt that he was unable to stand up to his wife, or to anybody, really, but that he feels I somehow hold my own in these situations, always seem able to take care of myself, somehow.

So Rob feels, on some level, like he’s a pussy, I told her, and he feels, for whatever reason, that I am not a pussy, and it makes him angry and so he provokes me and he can’t help himself or stop doing it.

“You are definitely not a pussy,” she said.  (The jury is still out on this, I think it’s safe to say).

Then she told her husband that anybody who could be friends with somebody who thinks he’s a pussy is a fucking pussy, end of story.  That’s all she wrote.

 

 

[1]  I don’t want to get bogged down in this Clapton business right now.  I love his tone, Eric’s vibrato is up there in a class almost by itself, the touch and the microtones are beautiful and subtle, etc. but he is an extremely limited guitarist. Great singer, excellent musician, can do that one thing beautifully on guitar, plus the nice acoustic blues picking, but truly, I don’t get why he is not a better and more versatile guitarist by now.  It’s like a failure of imagination, a dull incuriousness, an insane commitment to “brand,” or just an indication of a kind of rigidity, or something.   His autobiography reveals him as something of a shallow jackass, maybe that explains it.  Anyway, Clapton’s vibrato is beautiful, I’ve always loved it and I did indeed strive to master it, to the extent I ever did.

An odd society of married men (part 2)

To explain why Rob’s marriage was probably doomed to be a war from the start it is necessary to describe my old friend a little.  Rob is also the most important character in this story as he was my connection to the other married men in the odd society of married men who spent a day at the beach every year.  I’d met Andy through Rob (they’d been at an Ivy League college together) and later I met the émigré, the man for whose company we’d meet at the ferry terminal every summer.   Keep that thought in mind, Rob as the nexus, since it will explain some things later.

Rob has always been a nervous person. He was a nervous boy when I met him in fourth grade when we became best friends, after he had skipped into my grade.  He grew into a nervous man.   A very smart kid and an intelligent, thoughtful man, I have rarely known him not to be nervous about something.   

He comes by it honestly, I would say.  Rob was raised by somewhat nervous parents, two people I knew quite well for decades.  After Rob and I became friends our parents became close friends too.   The families spent many holidays together.    In some families (like Rob’s, actually) I would have called his parents Aunt and Uncle.   The families were very close and I was familiar with Rob’s domineering maternal grandmother as well.    Rob and I went in different directions in High School and fell out of touch for a number of years.

At one point Rob’s mother, Caroline, came across an envelope of James Bond trading cards Rob and I had pasted on to pages and written humorous captions for, many years earlier (Sean Connery was Bond on the cards).  I’d found them in a closet and sent the collection to Rob, whom I hadn’t seen for a few years.   On top of the pile I’d scrawled a note to the effect that “someday we’ll play guitars”.   As I recall, Caroline framed that note, after weeping joyfully to my mother over the life-affirming optimism of an old friend reaching out that way to a friend he’d grown apart from.

We did play guitar a few years later, in San Francisco, where Rob was living at the time.  The cover story for his sojourn in SF, as I recall, was that he was becoming a California resident to get in-state tuition for medical school.  He was actually playing in a rock band, trying to be as close to a full-time musician as he could be.   He had already abandoned the idea of medical school and was probably working on how to best break the news of his career change to his folks.

I plugged a guitar into a large amp in the concrete warehouse room where his band practiced.  It was just Rob and me in the reverb-rich room.  I loved the sound, played some bluesy line, sustaining a note against the wonderful acoustics of that big empty room and Rob’s jaw dropped as he told me how much I sounded like Clapton [1].   This may seem a silly image to include here, but it will be useful to recall later on.   

Sometime later, back in New York, we had a remarkable jam session in the basement office of a pediatrician named Dr. Geller (who turned out to have been Sekhnet’s pediatrician, she recalled his enormous hands).   Geller owned the house Rob’s parents rented, the home where Rob and his older sister were raised.   I’d had many a holiday meal in that house, in the company of our two families.  I’d spent massive amounts of time in that house over the years, but had never been down to Geller’s office before that night.  It was a remarkable session, with Andy on synthesizer keyboard.   It was the first time I’d played with Andy and there was a certain magic to the musical connection that first time.

But none of this explains why Rob was doomed to a combative marriage, so onward.  He’d had a series of fairly longterm girlfriends over the years, but as far as I knew, for many years, none of them were Jewish.   In his mind he could only marry a Jewish woman, so this easy out kept his sexual relationships limited in a certain way.   A way that eventually caused great pain, and sometimes anger, in his longterm partners.  A psychiatrist finally pointed this pattern out to Rob, when he was about thirty.  I remember Rob telling me about this breakthrough session when he realized, with the shrink’s help, that it was essential for him to date a Jewish girl and get married as soon as possible.   He proceeded to do exactly that.

I liked the woman, though she seemed volatile.   Her older brother (a guy Rob and I both knew in passing at Hebrew School), we soon learned, had opted out of the family, not contacting any of them for years.   This happens in families, I figured, who knows what the whole story is?   The haste with which they got engaged and married may not have been to my taste (I’m still not officially married) but it wasn’t my business, really.   Yet there was still something a little unsettling about the lead up to the wedding and the wedding itself.  A foreshadowing, if you will.

There was a dinner party before the wedding, at a restaurant, maybe it was their engagement party.   Hitler, Andy’s wife,  insulted Rob’s oversensitive sister in a curt, particularly brutal manner.   I remember feeling a tension at that dinner that I can only say felt tense.   The bachelor party for Rob, a few months later, was also memorable for something being off about it, even for a bachelor party.   The main thing I recall is that the party was commandeered by the loud, overbearing, drunken asshole brother-in law of the bride, Eddie.   My main memory is of Eddie loudly critiquing the body of a stripper in a bar he’d dragged us to, calling her a dog of some kind.   Perhaps her breasts were not up to his exacting standards, although it could have been literally anything, or nothing, at that point.  He was shit-faced and somehow in charge.

Eddie would not be Rob’s brother-in-law that much longer, he and Rob’s wife’s sister divorced not long after that idiotic display of alpha-maleness.   I don’t disparage anyone for getting divorced from someone who mistreats them.  I have been divorced myself several times over the years, even if not from a marriage.   When all you are getting from a relationship is grief, harshness, abuse — time to get on the bus, Gus.  In fact, for that reason, a terrible relationship, Rob’s wife wrote off her younger sister a few years later.  The sister, apparently, is an unredeemable complete fucking bitch.

Rob and his wife finally reached the conclusion that they were better off apart.  They could not find a way out of their own eternal war.   A year or two ago they sat their two sons down and informed them of their plan to split up, to divorce. Then, miraculously, they unaccountably reconciled when their younger son moved across the country for college.  It was like a rebirth for their relationship, a beautiful new springtime, though it was not very long before catastrophic storms swept back in.

Now this here, what I am doing now, this is what I always do.   I write about things that are nobody’s business, betray people left and right, even if I don’t use their full names, or any names.  They know it’s them I’m writing about, and that’s the unspeakable thing, that I am publicly probing into things they don’t wanted probed into, particularly, and most unforgivably, in the public space of the internet.  I eventually write about ticklish details that make people who used to be my friends angry, defensive, sometimes vindictive.   My beloved Sekhnet, on reading the previous post, had a related reaction and a one word review: “flush!”  

In other words, down the drain with this whole nasty subject, done with the eternal bad feelings it engenders, these sad and distasteful details of disappointing, doomed disputes with miserable people.  “Flush!” she said again when I began trying to explain why these materials are so useful to me.  

She listened as I went on about the personal experiences and lessons of one’s life being the most important things to ponder and learn from, the richest things to write clearly about, the best tools for attaining insights and for personal growth.   Plus, I pointed out, there is a great punchline to this particular story, if I can manage to tell it correctly, more than one punchline, actually.   She eventually agreed not to say “flush” again, for this particular tale, at least.

So onward, but not today, my allotted writing time is at an end.  Part three will put the final pieces in place and hopefully provide a satisfying, if mildly merciless, punchline.

(to be continued)

 

 

[1]  I don’t want to get bogged down in this Clapton business right now.  I love his tone, Eric’s vibrato is up there in a class almost by itself, the touch and the microtones are beautiful and subtle, etc. but he is an extremely limited guitarist. Great singer, excellent musician, can do that one thing beautifully on guitar, plus the nice acoustic blues picking, but truly, I don’t get why he is not a better and more versatile guitarist by now.  It’s like a failure of imagination, a dull incuriousness,  or an insane commitment to “brand,” or just an indication of a kind of rigidity, or something.   His autobiography reveals him as something of a shallow jackass, maybe that explains it.  Anyway, Clapton’s vibrato is beautiful, I’ve always loved it and I did indeed strive to master it, to the extent I ever did.

An odd society of married men

For years four married men, and I include myself, as I am as married as anyone (Sekhnet and I have been together twenty years now) would take a ferry ride to an island once a year and spend the day on the beach.   It was an annual tradition that ensured we all got to spend some quality time with a friend who was living abroad and came to the US every summer for a harried, duty-packed visit.   We’d have lunch in a small restaurant there and compare notes on what had happened from the previous year before heading to the beach.   The boat ride there and back, across the sparkling water, was always a highlight of the day.

A few years ago I had a final falling out with a longtime friend named Andy, one of the four, and it became awkward after that to convene the annual meeting.   It would have forced the two untainted men to choose between me and Andy, something they could not do.   It was celebrated the last couple of years as a two-some, the two old friends hopping the ferry, eating lunch at the restaurant, spending the day at the beach, catching up.

It must have been one of the last times the four of us were there that the subject of Andy’s wife, Hitler, came up.   I barked out my extreme distaste for her, protested that I was trying to eat and that this harshly opinionated angry little Russian Jew was not a fit subject for mealtime.   Andy and I had an understanding that his noisome wife would not be discussed between us.   I found it impossible to talk about her without disputing her proclaimed right to express the full measure of her ready rage whenever she wanted to.    

But during the polite lunch discussion, Rob, the peacemaker, chided me for the shorthand “Hitler” (which I stand behind, incidentally) and began defending this woman, Hitler.   “If you really listen to her, and talk to her, she’s really, really smart and she makes a lot of sense”, Rob said.  He noted that she has a great sense of humor.  He said he actually has learned to appreciate her and he gets along great with her now, that he has actually come to like her and feel like she likes him too.   Andy began to laugh an unpleasant, mirthless laugh.

“She fucking hates you, Rob!” Andy said with exaggerated disgust.  He went on to flesh out that hatred a bit.   He did this with a big, humorless smile on his face.  A year or two later Andy’s sickening marriage to Hitler was heading toward a long-overdue divorce.   Andy left her during the separation, moved out of the marital domicile and into a spacious wooden garden apartment that looked like the Zen dojo he’d begun hanging out in with the little sect he’d joined.   

Andy, a very bright man who’d scored a perfect hole in one on his SATs back in high school, would be quick to point out that a “dojo” is a place where martial artists train and he’d tell me the right word for a place where Zen meditation is done.    In response I’d point out that every place Andy practices anything is a forum for martial arts (and that the only difference between the words “marital” and “martial” is the placement of the I).  

I recall these lunches in particular as a place where unhappily married men complained about and defended their bad marriages.  Since I am not actually married, am not legally contracted to Sekhnet, I was somewhat exempt from this part of the conversation, though, obviously, not really.   Everybody has some kind of issue, conflict or problem with virtually everybody else, it’s just one of the features of being human.   Life partnerships are certainly not exempt from this general rule, in fact, they are more subject to it than less intimate relationships.   The better friendships are the ones where generous allowances for the foibles of the other are routinely made.   We’re lucky, in this life, if we find a couple of people we can count on to truly have our best interests at heart and not fight with us too much, it seems, especially during these combative days as we wait for our home, the increasingly besieged earth, to become uninhabitable.    

It struck me as a bit ironic that Rob the peacemaker, who defended Andy’s wife, Hitler, against my unfair, if not inaccurate, portrayal, probably also supported him 100% in his decision to divorce her.   It would have been hard not to be supportive about the move.  I am quite sure the divorce did not fix Andy’s somewhat broken life, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.   Rob has been at war with his own wife since shortly after they married, many years ago.  It is one of the most explosive and angry minefields of a marriage I know.   There are periods of uneasy peace surrounded by devastation that has done damage to everybody in its orbit.   I am a casualty, finally, of that toxic relationship.

There is a picture of Andy and me, dressed in misshapen suits, ties inexpertly knotted at our throats, standing on the front stoop of my parents’ house in Queens. Each of us has a bad haircut we probably cut ourselves.   The snapshot was taken right before we headed to Rob’s wedding.   I wonder where that photo is.  

There were signs at Rob’s wedding, now that I think back, of the disaster that was about to unfold.   A sense of uneasiness and mutual desperation, though perhaps my memories are also colored by what has come to pass in the decades since.

(to be continued)

 

The lesson of my father’s life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Saddest Punchline I know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yow.  

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

Lady MacBeth got nothing on this girl, nor does her husband either, for that matter.