Why are you friends with her?

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!

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Relationships III

             A Plunge into the Oceans of Most Men’s Minds would Scarcely Wet your Feet.

                     The National Lampoon: Deteriorata

For nearly all of my adult life, I have labored under a profound delusion. It is unlikely to be the only one, but it is the only one I was able to shatter this summer. For me, apparently, delusions are a seasonal thing. I demolish them in the summer, then eagerly acquire new ones in the winter. During spring and fall, Sisyphus and I pass each other on the hill going in opposite directions.

By the time I entered high school, it was clear to me and anyone around me that I was an introvert.  My father, with alarm in his voice, once used the term “loner.”  Because he was gregarious and social, that his oldest son was the opposite must have caused him some pain.  A part of being a loner involved rejecting the common expectations foisted upon me by society, as I interpreted it.  Among those were the generally misogynist glorifications of male physical activity perpetuated and celebrated by the Jock Culture, and finding meaning instead in books, music, and solitude.  With only minor modifications, that has continued to this day.

A part of the fallout of this view and orientation of life has been the absence of enduring male friendships and the prevalence of female ones.  While most of my female friends through the year have not been former lovers, some have.  I would listen; they would listen.  We would commiserate.  If they were single, they would eventually move on.  If they were married, their husbands would eventually insist that I move on.  I became something of an emotional transient in a world that seemed to laud stability.  Occasionally, I would reach desperately back into the past, hoping to find someone who was still there for me in something like the way she was in the past, but none was.  Accompanying this began the pattern I identified in the previous blogs.  Failed marriages and fraudulent friendships with women were the only kinds of emotional connections I could cobble up out of the ruins of an otherwise rewarding life.

This summer’s events made me realize something I would never have dreamed possible, and reinforced the feeling I have had for some time that I am something of a dim bulb concerning the obvious.  And this was it: I have been engaged, for several years, in at least three wonderful friendships with great men.  Men, for chrissake!  The delusion I mentioned in the first paragraph was that all my best friends were women.  Now I realize what a joke that was; most of the dissatisfying and exploitative friendships, or associations, have been with women.  This is not to blame the women involved; Aristotle understood it well.  The instability stemmed from the fact that I was looking for completeness when they were looking for someone useful for the time being.  It may have been the apotheosis of foolishness on my part to think that any of the women whose moments temporarily filled my life would ever be anything but transitory.

The three men I mentioned but will not name differ from all this past confusion and heartbreak by the very elements Aristotle saw as necessary ingredients for a complete relationship, the most prominent being commitment.  I feel we are each committed to the friendship, and each other, to a degree that defies question.  We are all very different, from varying age, socioeconomic situations, and cultural interests.  I have season tickets to all the high-brow musical activities of this city.  I have only been able to coerce one of them to attend one concert I attended.  Two have an interest in spectator sports that I lack.  All may have voted Republican at one time in their lives.  My dirty little secret is that I have as well, but this was back decades ago when Republican candidates actually appeared to be from Planet Earth.

I love these men.  Each of them is married and I love their wives too, in varying degrees.  And one has a young daughter for whom I would lay down my life, were it needed, without a qualm or question.  Two of the friendships have persisted for more than 30 years; one, less than 15.  What has created this willful blindness in me for so long that I was incapable of recognizing the beauty and importance of these men, and their friendships?  Maybe one day I’ll know, but until that time, I’ll prepare a return to LA to visit one of them, and force some green beans off on another.  There is a growing roundness to my life now that is not a reflection of my eating habits.

But there is one piece of unfinished Aristotelian business.  He thought that the complete friendship would incorporate elements of the other two, incomplete forms: usefulness and eroticism.  That is because ancient Greece accepted the notion that men could have an erotic relationship with one another as an expression of the most profound and meaningful friendship, while still being married and being a father to in every meaning of the word, raising, and supporting a family.  That’s not happening with us.  Aristotle believed that usefulness to one another would arise naturally as a part of the friendship itself.  It was not something a friend has to think about.  if you do, as the late Bernard Williams once said, you are having “one thought too many.”

My sensual life is still as arid as Barstow, and that makes my relational life still incomplete, despite the delight of friends in good times and bad.  These men were there for me, and I for them, but I was strangely oblivious to how significant it was for my life until I was able to strip away and understand how superficial and manipulative were the female associations I had spent far too much energy and emotion sustaining.  This was the great discovery of the summer, and it sustains my spirit more than I ever thought it would.  If, in my advanced years, I can find a woman to develop and sustain a creative sensual life with me, Aristotle would smile.  But don’t shower with him, that’s all. 

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Relationships II

Relationships are all about character. Period. That is a durable truth Aristotle left us 2400 years ago, and it was never more true or poignant than this summer, as I tried to think about the unthinkable: the possibility that my relational life had come to an end. As I look at the past, and experience the present, deficiencies in character, primarily my own, produce a glaring, garish raspberry to some of my pretensions.

Let’s begin with Aristotle, whose thinking on this matter will provide a conceptual framework for understanding the details.  Most translations describe the topic central to Books XIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics as “friendship,” but that word has been so diluted and bastardized by the Facebook mentality and rampant self-absorption of our current times, that I feel it is no stretch to say that he was writing about what we today would call relationships, and I’ll continue on that reasonable assumption.  There are three kinds of relationship, he felt, and if we’re lucky we’ve experienced them all at one time in our lives.

The most profound, and also most elusive, is what he terms “complete.”  Not perfect, mind you, or must I send you to the final blog about LA?  A complete relationship is based upon character, both yours and the one you love — not a term that ought to be excluded from discussions of this sort.  You are drawn to someone of an admirable character motivated primarily by that fact and you wish to further the activities of that character for two reasons.  One, because you recognize how wonderful that person is, and, two, because you yourself are of admirable character.  No one of good character would want to further the aims of someone who is a scoundrel; to do so would reveal that you are deficient in character.  Character feeds character, and in this sort of relationship, your aim is to increase the good that the other is creating, and serve that good.  Of course, if the other person does truly act out of a good character, he or she will also attempt to further your good.  But because we are autonomous, and of good character, we define our own good in our own way, and it is the role of love to uncover what is the lover’s good as he or she envisions it, and act to make it more wonderful through what you do.

A tall order, I know.  Aren’t there some relationships that aren’t so demanding?  Does Dirty Don’s have expired whipping cream on sale today?  He does, of course.  I bought some.  The other two are incomplete, but that does not mean unsatisfactory.  They can produce a measure of fulfillment within the limits of their aims, but they are also prone to failure in a way that complete relationships are not.  One is a relationship based on sensuality, pleasure, passion.  You know: sex.  Aristotle says this is what young people think love is, but he is not being critical of their mistake.  Not having developed much of a character by that time, it’s all they’ve got going for them.  I take it that his view is that they ought to go for it!  There’s nothing wrong with infatuation, attraction, and rutting away like crazed weasels, a quote I never cease to enjoy employing.

Of course, the goal of such relationships is to gain romantic and sexual pleasure for oneself, and as long as it’s happening this relationship works fine.  Of course, if both people are looking for the same thing — gratification — and both are getting it, they can carry on for quite a while, and in quite a few different locales.  But this is a fundamentally unstable relationship for at least two reasons.  One is that erotic drives and focus are unstable, and a wandering eye can lead to a relationship crash.  The other is that there may be an imbalance in what each partner perceives he or she is getting out of it.  And since this sort of relationship is founded on what you want to get for yourself, when you think you’re not getting what you deserve, you move on.  It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a relationship like this, so I’ll move on to the next type.  But since both of them exhibit crucial structural and motivational similarities, I felt it was necessary to talk a bit about that one.  One thing Aristotle doesn’t spend a whole lot of time with is what I might term a hybrid relationship, which is one in which the basic features of the relationship are, say, erotic, and most of the activities are sexual in nature, but one of the partners is looking for something other than mere sex.  Maybe for him or her, it started out as just the fun of boinking but eventually he or she began to desire a more complete relationship, while the partner just wants to get mindlessly naked as frequently as possible.  At this point in my life, it sounds like a wonderful quandary to have, but differential goals eventually destabilize this kind of hybrid as well as most kinds of hybrid relationships.

The kinds of relationships, or — I think a far more accurate word — “associations” I am currently engaged in, and ones which have dominated my last few decades of connection with women, Aristotle calls ones based on “utility.”  It is coldly correct and painfully accurate.  These are associations in which one or another of the partners identifies something useful in the other that they wish to take advantage of for their own benefit, and they use the polite framework of a relationship for the impolite purpose of getting what they want at as small a cost as they as forced to pay.  These are relations of what he calls coincidence and convenience, and they have been almost my entire social life for a long time.

I don’t believe in false modesty or false bragging, but I have a few qualities that a vanishingly small number of women find useful, and maybe even marginally pleasant.  “Culture”  might be the general term under which they can be collected.  I love to attend concerts and am generous when I have an extra seat, which is always.  I have excellent taste in wine, 350+ bottles in my house, and am generous with them as well.  Rather enjoyable and interesting art hangs on the walls of my house and I am pleased to share the experience.  I cook a decent meal and am generous with that as well.  I can hold a conversation of some hours duration if necessary, and never once have to resort to a phrase like “How ’bout them Chiefs!”  I am also a good listener to voices other than those in my head that keep telling me to flee before she brings out the Glock from her handbag.  I presume that a few women find it useful to avail themselves of experiences of this sort, and it also seems to have been true in the past.

However, as it was with the erotic relationship, these associations, in order to work, need to have a kind of parity of benefit.  If I am providing something useful to you, and you wish to have it provided in the future, you need to provide me with something useful to me.  Not just something you didn’t want anyway, but something that, on my own terms, I desire and feel will benefit me.  The women in my current associations seem to have the view that their mere presence in my life is far more than I deserve, and my ingratitude, when it infrequently surfaces, is puzzling to them.  Such naïve narcissism, if that’s what it is, might be somewhat charming were the person in question a bright elementary school prodigy, but in an adult, it is nothing better than calculating and callous.  They make some sort of bloodless computation that they can get what will benefit them in they way they want it, but never have to provide anything comparable in the bargain.  These people may sport the language of friendship and even affection or love, if the occasion seems to warrant it, but it is nothing more than a cynical mask for base self-interest.  Aristotle claims that the imbalance I have described and am experiencing is also inherently unstable, and yet, in my life, this genera of association seems sadly durable.

The first sentence of this blog mentioned the centrality of character in relationships, but I seem to have abandoned it after only a couple of paragraphs.  Let me try to reinstate it.  Most of the individual associations of the sort I have been recently describing are unstable and disappear, but the phenomenon remains in my life.  Thus, the fault would appear not to be in my stars but in myself.  Just as manipulating someone for personal gain is a despicable character flaw, so is permitting it to happen to yourself at least a lamentable one.  Here is where I must invite Kant to the party, or wake, whichever it turns out to be.  He would not have acknowledged any but the complete relationship as a legitimate sort of relationship, and since I have it from a very reliable source — the Internet — that he died a virgin, the sensual variety seems to have passed him by anyway.  By regarding people as a commodity or object to be used just for the purpose of self-aggrandizement was to dehumanize them.  All human associations should aspire toward the Aristotelian complete relationship in his mind, and if you let yourself be used you are dehumanizing yourself as well.  There’s not much character in self-debasement, and if character is key, my own willingness to settle for imbalanced treatment is a defect that interferes with anything like a life with healthy relationships to sustain it.

What am I left with?  Currently, it seems like I must accept the ugly, bitter taste these associations leave in my mouth, or walk away and have nothing at all.  Those sporadic times in which I am not even exploited are lonely, devastating months.  It has begun to feel that a horrible taste is preferable to none.  But is there a third option?  In part, that’s the subject I will pursue in the next blog.  If I can find a way to develop a relationship closer to the complete one described by Aristotle, I will rinse my mouth of the bitter ugly tastes I have become accustomed to, and spit them on the ground.

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Relationships I

Perhaps living alone, somewhat reluctantly at that, has led me to take a critical look at relationships of my past and present, trying to make sense of them while I can still make sense of anything.  This introduction is meant as fair warning; if you don’t want to witness me delving into those murky waters, read no farther.  This and the next two entries will look at three separate areas of my meaningful connection with other people, and the discoveries I have come across concerning them during this summer of rumination.  The three segments will concern, first, my three marriages, and those I will discuss in this blog after laying out an introduction sure to send most of you to the exits, if you aren’t there already.  Second, in the next blog, I will talk about non-marriage relationships with women, current and past.  In both blogs, I feel I have uncovered patterns to which I am susceptible that have led to the massive and incessant failures they represent over the space of a lifetime.  The final blog will reveal a lovely surprise I have uncovered in my life, and not a moment too soon after all the horrors of the first two episodes.  If your reading survives the first two, I hope you’ll find the third a refreshing note of optimism.  It feels that way to me.  One other thing worth mentioning is that I have recently begun to reread Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, his greatest work in my opinion, and one I taught in the Rockhurst University Ethics class when I was an adjunct there from 1993-95.  My rereading began only after I came to the conclusions this blog lays out, so I did not look for explanations in Aristotle and try to shoehorn my life into his narrative.  Rather, after working things out that will come in the second and third blogs, I was reminded that Aristotle had vaguely the same kinds of things to say about relationships in Books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics.  My ideas had a bit of a Kantian shading to them, but it does seem to me that those two philosophers have more in common than Hackett Publishing Company.  The conclusions I arrived at are mine, but Aristotle helped me see how they fit into a broader explanatory pattern that is both satisfying and alarming.  Okay, fasten your seat belts, as Bette Davis would have said.  At least I didn’t marry her.

I have married three times and divorced three times.  Or, at least, I think so.  My first wife was a legal secretary in LA at the time we needed to make it official so she could marry again.  However, later searches, both Internet and through private papers, fail to show that any divorce was ever filed for or obtained.  I may have been a bigamist until she died and left me a widower less than 5 years ago, while I was at the time married to someone else.

In looking for patterns concerning why these marriages were doomed from the start, as I now think they were, some elements seem to defy any kind of pattern.  Three different races: white, black, and Asian, in that order.  Different parts of the country, and of the world, represented.  Religions?  Bland undifferentiated Protestant, shit-kicking African-American, and Buddhist.

But one fact emerged in my thinking and remembrances that refuses to be explained away as something else: each of them was trying to escape something in their present life, and I represented a way out.  That’s it.  That’s the whole thing.  But there are some nuances lying beneath the surface that have a bit of explanatory power, I believe.

Each of them was escaping something different: an oafish early spouse, an abusive family member, a failure in both business and marriage.  I knew all these elements of their lives, and sympathized completely.  But I chose to think that what was important was who they were escaping to, and not what they were escaping from.  And that choice, concocted out of vanity, wishful thinking, and selective blindness, all on my part, led to a decision to marry that seems now something of a bridge too far.  In each case, it took a few years for the truth of this to bubble to the surface of our relationship, leaving an algae bloom that would no longer support life.  As an aside, I don’t want to see that last sentence appear on Facebook in a collection of horrible inadvertent metaphors.  What I mean is that I don’t, with the most recent exception, think there was deception on the part of my wives concerning their actual motivations and goals.  There was probably gratitude and relief when we began a life together, and that may have been a masquerade of love or commitment, or a benign glimpse into a future together.  But when they put the past securely behind them, they looked at the present and, sadly, it contained me.  I may have been an improvement, but I was not what they truly wanted, and at that point, it was over.

This is not a problem I know how to solve.  Maybe I won’t need to.  But there is a deep vein in me, coming, I am sure, from my father’s influence, that needs to try to improve people’s lives.  For those three women, marriage seemed to be the ultimate way to achieve that, and they were very cooperative.  This same scenario, only slightly altered, appears in the next blog, but with a somewhat more cynical, if not sinister, side.  Okay, so I’m just pimping the next episode; it may not be as sinister as all that.  It is only in the third blog that this pathetic and destructive pattern gets broken, and it is wonderful.  Please stay tuned.

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