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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