Thanksgiving this year, as in most years, required a visit to my stepdaughter, Kim, and her in-laws, in Norman, Oklahoma. Everyone makes me feel welcome, and I always cook for a couple of meals and bring a lot of wine with me, even though most attendees are canned vegetables and Bud Light kinds of people. No reason for complaint from me or any other quarter, but sometimes I like to be alone with my thoughts, and that is difficult with an overflow of dimly recognized family. However, Thanksgiving dinner is served across the street from Kim’s house, at the home of the matriarch, Ruth, now in visibly failing health.
Once I felt the tryptophan-induced nap began to fight my consciousness for the upper hand, I excused myself from the festivities for some solitude at Kim’s. The turkey and its chemical components were overrated this year, or maybe I was preoccupied, even for a nap, but I got up and went into the living room to dial in some TV after a few impatient tosses and turns on the guest room bed. What I found was Woody Allen’s acclaimed film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Several philosophers I know like to assign the watching of it to students in an Ethics course, or the section of a general philosophy course that deals with moral reasoning and judgment, but I am not at all enthusiastic about it in that way. It seems to me to overemphasize guilt and its agonies as a part of the moral process, and I find that not integral to it at all. Guilt and self-loathing are preventable elements that don’t necessarily accompany even difficult moral decisions. Worse, they are like to predispose one to avoid tough moral situations or judgments for fear of the psychological consequences. Maybe I should write more about this at some other time, but it arises from my rekindled relationship with Stoicism, about which I certainly will write next year.
One character in the script is Professor Levy, a philosopher, seen only through excepts of a filmed interview the Allen character intends to turn into a documentary film. Eventually, Professor Levy kills himself, leaving Allen’s character in both existential and financial limbo. Before his demise, Levy is recorded saying something to the effect that everything depends on love. Without it, we cannot make life have meaning. That’s a very rough précis, but his death follows not long after those words, and the message seems clear, at least as it might apply to the fictional Levy life. This utterance of the primacy of love over other motivations in life struck very true, since it reinforced, in an odd way, conversation I had the previous day with Sufei, my wife. Had I neglected to mention a recent marriage? Sorry. Maybe later. It’s a long story, and a pleasant one. How does next year work for you?
This year Thanksgiving also coincided with my birthday, and Kim and Scott, her husband, were warm and generous about it, and we even continued our own Black Friday tradition, bowls of pho at Mr. Pho in Oklahoma City, adjacent to the biggest Asian supermarket I have ever seen outside of Japan. But Wednesday was a work day for each of them, so Sufei and I went out to buy a few ingredients for my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner, Adult Macaroni and Cheese, as well as magnums of Anchor Brewing’s legendary Christmas season ale. While we sat in Kim’s kitchen, my cell phone pealed out the ringtone I have favored since I owned a BMW 528i, “Ride of the Valkyries,” by Richard Wagner. Even though I now drive a Honda Accord, I cannot flush the teutonic impulses from every atom. Luckily, it wasn’t Frau Brueghel on the other end, lest the stability of the equine population of Norman be endangered needlessly.
Instead, it was my sweet friend, Jessica, former student and all-around splendid person. She began by singing birthday greetings to me a day early, and I was both surprised and truly touched. My iPhone records that we talked for 7 minutes and I enjoyed it very much, as we inquired about each other’s plans for the week and promised to get together during the busy holiday ahead. Sufei was sitting adjacent to me during the entire call and, apparently, paid attention to the gist of it she could glean from hearing only half of it. After I put my phone away, Sufei asked something like the question that gives this blog its title, “Why are you friends with her?”
First of all, she did not ask it in an accusing tone of voice, or intending to convey suspicion or dread. In the two years we have known each other, Sufei and I have made a good beginning solving the endless puzzle of human meaning conveyed through words. She was genuinely curious concerning why Jessica and I were friends. She reinforced my understanding of what she meant by adding another question. What qualities or characteristics do I look for when I decide to consider someone a close friend? It really was quite a good question, and she had reason to ask it. She had met Jessica, and her husband, Jordan, a total of three times, the first of which was at our wedding in September. I invited them to lunch in early November, and they stopped by a week after that for a brief visit. Jessica is 28, I am 74. We don’t seem to visit he same circles or share many activities in common. She’s trying to create some long-term coherence in her life; I feel I have found a rewarding rhythm and gladly dance to it. She was my student a couple of years ago, and the transition from student-teacher relationship to the parity of friends is not an easy one to make. It quickly appeared as if we had very little in common.
The question intrigued me, and because it was a serious one from Sufei, it required my serious attention. To reason about it, I decided to go to unquestioned instances of friendship in my life: the three men I talked about in a summer blog. One is sadly deceased, and still mourned. When I toted up the qualities and characteristics that were most important in my life, and compared them with those of my friends, I found something I knew was there all along: a meager inventory. I love concerts and classical music; few of them would be caught dead at anything but a burlesque house, or Arrowhead Stadium, which is much the same thing. Two of us met through my interest in wine, but Bill had quit drinking at the end of his life, and even before that his taste had eroded to whatever cabernet was cheap and available in large quantities. Two had roots in rural America, one in wealth and social prominence. None held philosophy in especially high regard. The number of marriages I have been a party to equaled the number all three of them, combined, had undertaken. Can friendships created by chaos theory really last? Well, yes. They can, and have. Chris and I have been close for nearly 35 years, and Bill and I had reached 32 years when he died. I am certain William and I will be inseparable until one of us dies, or kills the other over an ill-weeded zucchini patch.
What accounts for the longevity of these mismatches? Even before I heard from Professor Levy, I knew the answer. I knew it almost as soon as I understood the question. Love. I am attached to these guys through my heart, and the descriptive discrepancies are what we work around. I am delighted when any of them steps into my world and shares my interests from time to time. I am very pleased when they invite me to do the same. Sometimes interests can open the door to the heart, but sometimes they merely remain descriptive rather than affective. There are people who have been in my life with whom I shared much commonality, but we remained personally distant. This has always been a troubling thing to me. Why do people so well matched, male or female, in many areas of their lives, find it impossible to become friends? Or am I such a difficult friend, requiring something of an emotional commitment before I’ll trust myself to be myself with them? Perhaps my demands are in excess of what most people are willing to part with for my dedication.
So, do I love Jessica? Of course I do! Not in the sweaty, soil the sheets way, an activity I feel I must, for the record, state we have never even attempted. But I feel we are attached to each other by bonds of what Aristotle would have described as virtue. I find her to be a person of great character. She is admirable in her generous, thoughtful, and courageous ways. These are not just descriptions of some objective properties, like mass and shape, but habits of the heart, as Robert Bellah described a somewhat different phenomenon. And, as habits of her heart, they can bypass of the trivia of the external self, and find a cozy spot in my heart whenever refuge is needed. Same with the guys. Same with a few others, unmentioned.
What is reputed to be a Chinese proverb suggests this: place a green bough in your heart and the singing bird will come. It’s an aphorism I use frequently, probably did earlier in this series of blogs. Apparently I have done what it bids, as well, since on November 26th of this year, I was visited by a singing bird. Perhaps my green bough has a small capacity, but singing birds are encouraged to visit. Free suet!