A Childhood Friend Passes

I said a final goodbye to a longtime friend recently. He was intensely private and not at all a fan of social media so I won’t name him here. I do feel the need to write about him, so I hope I am in-bounds handling this in the abstract.

We actually lost him during Covid, but the logistics of his memorial had to wait for travel arrangements. He wasn’t a Covid victim, perhaps just the timing. He had other medical issues that lasted all his life. I have known this person since we were 11 years old, which I believe makes him the longest-standing friend I have maintained. I didn’t do a great job of maintaining that friendship, but luckily I did visit with him right before Covid. He gave me a reasonably rebellious book right in line with his lifelong wit and irritation with the unreasonable. I gave him a copy of my last book. We never got to discuss either.

The medical condition that haunted him dates back to our earliest conversations. He never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him, but if you were in his circle, he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. It was a neuromuscular disease and although his entire life would be linked by operations and treatments, he refused to let his life be defined by it. It was existential. He understood existential.

Several years ago I wrote a tribute to Jerry Lewis when he died. I had been involved as a supporter and volunteer of the Muscular Dystrophy Association since childhood and strangely always felt a connection to Jerry. I remember discussing this with my friend in childhood. He had a mixed reaction to MDA. He appreciated all the donations that Jerry inspired to invest in research, but he was troubled by all the photoshoots and poster children. This friend was sufficiently progressive but never woke. When I wrote my piece on Jerry he wrote to me after a very long stretch of absence, almost out of the blue, a brief email to me that began:

“So I don’t get a mention in the Jerry Lewis post? I cried when he died. Loved him as a funny man.”

He then went on to blast MDA, a very harsh critique. You see, this friend understood the nature of a mixed bag. He could see light and dark in the same moment. Dark was really dark but light was talent, accomplishment, connection, selfless commitment.

Yes, a mixed bag. Aren’t we all? Particularly a half-century past the day we meet a childhood friend.

There were phases to our friendship following our seven years together leading to high school graduation. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had nowhere to live, no money, no job. Just a college degree and hope. My friend was still in college here and welcomed me to sleep on his sofa until I could establish credit and find a place (it was actually his sister’s apartment, although he deftly negotiated my path in the door). I used to comb through the L.A. Times each day looking for apartment rentals and employment. Soon enough those came together and I moved on. I don’t forget that sofa. It was a symbol of friendship. I drive by that apartment every once in a while. Yes, the proverbial launchpad.

Years later when I was immersed in a writing assignment and seeking his feedback, he told me that someday he might want to write a movie or book. He wasn’t completely sure what he wanted to write about, but he told me with certainty he knew what the last line would be: “Let’s go home.”

There is a lot of resonance in those three words. Home for him was not specifically a place or even a metaphor. It is an idea, an aspiration, a Platonic Form.

He enjoyed a celebrated career in architecture and co-founded his own firm. He was a master of sculpture and ceramic design. He cherished historic structures and the learning to be found in the history of art. The notion of home was alive and well in all his aesthetic constructs. He clearly saw the natural extension of people into the curious things they chose to build, not always successfully, but hopefully with conviction.

Sometimes when I am getting to know someone, I ask them what three words they would most hope someone else would use to describe them. I never asked this friend that question because when your connection reaches back to childhood, you have a lot of time to think about it.

He was resilient. He was uncompromising. He was nuanced.

Resilient—because no matter the physical or character challenge he faced, he never backed away from it, never let it be an excuse or obstacle, never complained that he wasn’t dealt a fair hand, never asked for a different set of rules.

Uncompromising—because if you were wrong, he would tell you so, and even when you argued coherently that you weren’t wrong, he’d explain what you were missing in your evaluation and help you see why a counterintuitive approach might create a bridge to his logic.

Nuanced—because he knew wherever light entered a prism, its refraction could not be contained, mixing light and darkness in most forms of thought, the beautiful and the sublime in most expressions of art, good and not-so-good outcomes in too many of our intentions, however noble our purpose.

Our touchpoints form a pastiche of separately evolving but forever interconnected lives. A love of the water, whether on the natural coastline, an inelegant water skiing loop, or a boat shared with friends at sea. Political fairness and equal justice in limitless dialogue. The intersection of historical philosophy and pragmatic psychology. A belief that the courage to choose honest words matters more than our ability to perfectly craft them under pressure. An ardent shared defense of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. These are bonds time cannot undermine.

Lives together and apart twist and weave. Our relationships with each other are fluid. We don’t realize that when we come together and separate, but it is the course of things.

This particular friend’s family had a vast impact on me. Counsel from his father set my life on a course that has let me be who I am today. I wouldn’t be the same otherwise. It’s not just your friends who transform you. It is their circles and the circles you cannot imagine are forming in the background of your journey. When you look back, it is all so clear. At the time, it seems like just hanging out.

Sometimes I think there is no such thing as just hanging out. Everything can be consequential. You don’t know that at the time. That’s the scary part. We’d best pay closer attention all the time.

There are few realities more absolute than mortality. It is the universal link that humbles us all. It translates directly to the impermanence of our time together. That can be hours, days, years, decades, or most of a lifetime. We seldom understand it that way, because time does not reveal itself that way. The passing of time is certain, but not our shared intervals.

When we lose someone, we are reminded both of our own insignificance in the continuum of earthly events and our enormous significance in the impact lives can have on each other. I am thinking about that now in the span of a half-century, about what I did right and wrong in this friendship, what I could have done better, and how I am changed and shaped by this remarkable individual’s authenticity.

He left us with the perfect ending.

Let’s go home.

_______________

Photo: Pexels

The Compartments We Devise

 

We never know the full story when we look into someone else’s eyes. It doesn’t matter who it is. Our spouses, our children, our friends, our business colleagues—we all have chapters in our stories that are as yet untold or never told. It will always be that way. The best we can do is get better at listening, remain open to compassion, and craft compartmentalization strategies to balance the myriad conflicts that attempt to overrun us even when we appear to be at our best.

Appearance is always deceptive. It’s why writers have something to write about. It’s why most of us like to read stories, see plays, and watch movies. We trust storytellers to reveal to us the points of backstory we need to piece together a coherent narrative. Sometimes we call that entertainment. Other times we call it the awakening inspired by a cautionary tale.

Life instruction is much harder. Think about the people you will encounter this week. Which of the following might they be experiencing and trying to integrate into the disjointed career demands of their workplace and the to-do lists filling their calendars:

  • Might they have a dear friend in the hospital with a terrible disease?
  • Might they have just learned one friend is getting divorced and another divorced a year ago in silence?
  • Might they be looking for ways to support people living far away whose lives are being devastated by a natural disaster?
  • Might they have bet heavily on a seemingly safe investment and lost enormously in its bankruptcy?
  • Might they have heard from the IRS that no matter how careful they were on their tax filings they are being audited?
  • Might they have recently discovered their retirement savings will not sustain them as they had planned for decades?
  • Might they have signed up for a critical deadline at work that is no longer achievable?

Don’t fret; odds are not all of this is likely to happen, at least not at the same time. Yet no matter how well things may be going or appear to be going for someone, you can be assured strife of some sort is lurking behind the curtain. None of us are invincible. None of us can entirely hide from adversity.

You never know any of this is happening to someone until it is revealed—and often it is never revealed, or revealed so long after it occurred you can be of no help. Other times it is you who are overwhelmed by the conflicts hidden from others. Life’s twists and turns find us all. We all have stories no different from tales we read, built on conflict, secrets, revelations, and resolutions.

Some people are better at maintaining the status quo no matter how hard they are being side-swiped in the dark. You know that person at work who seems superhuman, who just keeps delivering and never utters a peep about any kind of distraction or digression. You ask yourself how that person pulls it off. You wonder if such stoicism is sustainable.

Often these “superheroes” (or robots) are not as bulletproof as you think. They might just be very good at separating their life into components, ruling out clouding aspects of conflict to focus on the task at hand. That’s a skill, one that can be developed. Those who are particularly good at it know one thing for certain: it is not a magical power. It does not come with unlimited gas in the tank. It’s a bridge, and while it can be a long one, the beams supporting it are not infinite in strength.

Devising compartments is a coping strategy. Almost everyone figures out how to do this to survive, some better than others. When someone is too good at it, we might think them cold-hearted. That may seem an apt critique in the throes of emotional exhaustion, but it may not be a warranted conclusion.

When we segment our lives into compartments, we attempt to deal with difficult things separately, one at a time, one hour and one day at a time.

The problem with these compartments is that no matter how well we think we construct them, they all have not-so-secret wormholes connecting them. They send messages to each other through an impenetrable network. They shares walls of the same real estate. Those walls are thin by design.

Compartments are awkward. The storyteller knows this, which is why we listen to the storyteller. When the storyteller is ourself, there is all the more reason to listen.

Sometimes I think of song lyrics that have resonated with me and helped me develop perspectives on the compartments of my own life and those I observe in others. In his first solo album in 1984, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd wrote a very simple phrase that has stuck with me:

I recognize myself in every stranger’s eyes.

These simple words of reflection and contemplation put us all on the same playing field. When you take in the faces you pass along the street, each one constitutes a life that likely contains the same levels of success and failure, bonding and betrayal, health and illness, triumph and capitulation. The same holds true for school, for work, for community service, for the organizations you join for camaraderie and insight.

You don’t know the stories of the people around you any more than they know yours. Those stories are difficult and complex. The question is whether the obstacles in those stories will be overwhelming.

Sometimes you can help. More often you really can’t. When you integrate the compartments of your life with theirs, you can always move toward a path of shared understanding.

If you recognize the breakdown of artificial deconstruction in tales of fiction, you can recognize it in the real people around you. More important, you can trust yourself to see it in your own machinations. When you acknowledge the connections in your own compartments, they cease to be traps. That’s when compartments become shared spaces. That’s when real character building begins.

_______________

Photo: Pixabay

Legacies Matter

We’ve just finished producing a new short video for the Hathaway-Sycamores Child & Family Services Legacy Society. I’d like to share it with you and then I’ll briefly tell you why. You can view it here:

I write from time to time about the work we do at Hathaway-Sycamores and the 7000 lives we touch each year in the greater Los Angeles area. The work we do with families in communities throughout southern California is complex, demanding, dynamic, and unending. Our program staff offers selfless expertise in residential treatment, foster care, adoption, transitional independent living, mental health counseling, and educational enrichment readying youth to lead forever productive lives.

I have been involved with this vibrant organization for more than 15 years, and my volunteer work in supporting children’s services has paralleled my business and creative work all the way back to my school years. There’s a reason. This work matters. This work is important. The impact we have on bringing hope to young lives is as vital a part of my life as anything else I do.

If you find yourself with the opportunity to make lives better — lives they may not have had the kindness, nurturing, or healthy upbringing many of us take for granted — then you may at some point feel the way I do. We have a precious, brief amount of time to spend wandering the earth. What we choose to do in the course of our journey ultimately becomes our legacy.

A legacy is not something we can entirely control, because people will remember us in different ways for different reasons regardless of what we accomplish or how we go about accomplishing it. The part of our legacy that we can control revolves around the wishes of others we choose to help realize while we have the opportunity, and the carrying out of our own wishes after we are gone.

HS LegacyTo say that it all boils down to money is only the tiniest part of the picture. Money is a commodity. It only has value if we ascribe value to it. We can gain it, lose it, make it work harder through better decision-making, waste it on the frivolous, or share it with those who matter to us. We can save it or spend it, invest it or stockpile it, struggle when we are without it, or earn the ability to direct its impact. I think when we care enough about those who have less than we do, our lives begin to matter more, if only in the briefest of moments. Intentions are important. Good works that arise from positive intentions can outlast those brief moments for generations, possibly forever when the proceeds of our gifts compound and carry forward our intentions way beyond the scope we could ever imagine.

We have that chance in life, to leave a legacy. That’s why I committed to help in building the Hathaway-Sycamores Legacy Society, and why I produced this video. I want you to feel what I feel about the pure joy of giving, of having an impact on the world that outlasts our own days, and turning ideas into actions that improve the lives of those around us whether we know the recipients or not. You many not have a fortune to give, but that doesn’t matter at all. Give what you can, do what you can, and you can leave a legacy that is yours alone. Your reward will be beyond anything my words can describe. It will be pure, authentic, and real. It will be yours.

Every single one of us will leave a legacy of some kind or other. What’s yours? What do you want it to be? What are you doing right now to make that happen? Time escapes us every day, but our legacy is forever. You can’t craft it in its entirety, but you can shape it to be a reflection of the values you cherish.

I’d love to see you join us this year at Celebrating Children. I’d love to see you join our Legacy Society. Most of all I’d like you to think about what your legacy will be, and how you can have an impact on the lives of those in need well beyond the years it took you to get where you are.

It’s not an easy choice. It’s not an easy subject. Nothing that really matters is ever easy. You matter. Your intentions matter. Your actions matter.

Every legacy matters.

Let’s Ask Dad

GMP DadsThis year at The Good Men Project, we have committed to a number of strategic initiatives developed to better engage our community. Original video programming where our distinct voice can be well-expressed continues to be a key focus for our creative team.

Our latest shoot which I helped produce got me thinking there’s a reason some things change while others stay the same. Our increased use of video may be new, but at its heart, it’s just another tool for telling the stories we so love to share. Many of those stories this month are about dads, not surprisingly with Father’s Day on the horizon.

We interviewed seven dads across a spectrum of different backgrounds. They were different ages, their children were different ages, some had one child, some had several. They came from different backgrounds, different income levels, different commitments to faith, and different hopes for the future. What they had in common was profound love for their children, deep reflection on the impact of their own fathers on their lives, humble concern about wanting to make consistently good choices for their children, and hope that their children would grow up resilient and caring in a world with unnerving obstacles at every stage of life.

As I sat in the studio and got to know each of these fine men through their detailed answers to our deceptively simple questions, I was struck by the commonality in their integrity, candor, introspection, and keen insights into the forever moments of parenting. Any single moment of a child’s development might or might not become a memory, but the memories each of these individuals recalled with resonance were as different as they were as human beings.

One father struggled to explain where a very young child’s grandparents “went” when their lives had come to an end. Another father lamented how the sad sarcasm his child learned to express was a direct result of the same sarcasm he wished he never expressed to that child in moments of exhaustion. Yet another wished that he could provide more material comforts to his children, yet hoped his child understood how hard he worked for what they did have.

There were so many emotions expressed in such a short time during the course of our interviews, I wondered how the clichés of men retreating to the silence of their insecurities ever became so widespread. The dads we met wanted to talk, wanted to share, wanted to explore, and most of all wanted to be the best dads they could ever be. They wanted to exchange ideas, hear what each other had to say, learn from each other, and find community in the complexity of fatherhood where definitive textbooks don’t exist and the future impact of their choices is as abstract as the roadmap that brought them to the present.

When you get a dose of honesty that concentrated and expressed with unlimited pathos, the mirror of your own life reflects vividly and without filter. We see ourselves in each other’s eyes, and we learn many of our lessons in seeing our own successes and setbacks in the similar acts of our peers.

It is very much our mission at The Good Men Project to further the conversation no one else is having, and while video in this form might be historical artifact, when placed in a give-and-take context it very much can inspire dialogue. That’s what we set out to do with this bit of storytelling, not just record the stories of those talking, but lay the groundwork for others to react to these truthful moments as starting points in diving into their own personal histories.

Dad relationships are complex, we all know that. One way to start making sense of the father-child bond is to listen carefully to expressions we might not otherwise hear, think about our own answers and actions, and then see where the conversation takes us. Empathy can be a strong force in course correction. Celebration can be an even stronger force in replacing strident self-critique with simple moments of approval and acknowledgment.

Fathers are not simple entities, there is no reason to pretend they are. We all may not have one active in our lives, but if we do, there’s no time like the present to celebrate the dialogue we can still enjoy. If that is not an option, then listening and sharing with others might be another path to awareness and bonding. Mistakes are plentiful, but forever moments matter more.

Enjoy the videos. Enjoy the conversation. It only works if this is a starting point, not an archive. Let us hear from you. Let your children hear from you. Listen to their prying questions and find their hearts in your heartfelt answers.

We’ll be adding more video to this page and our YouTube channel on an ongoing basis, so check back frequently as the story unfolds. The more we add, the better the conversation — but only if you become a part of it.

And hey, an extraordinarily Happy Father’s Day to our entire community from everyone at The Good Men Project!

_____

Here are the questions we asked in the interviews. Just click on the questions to launch the video answers.

How has the word “love” changed now that you are a dad?

Are your children more like you or more like their mom?

What’s the best advice your father ever gave you?

How would you describe your dad in a sentence or two?

What advice would you give to new dads?

In your family what are dad tasks and what are mom tasks?

What was expected and unexpected about fatherhood?

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.