Posts Tagged ‘friendship’

Past Perfect


In an attempt to unclutter my life. I’ve been throwing out papers, giving away clothes and sorting through boxes.  I seem determined to keep my memories consigned to mental cubbyholes. Too much looking back  feels  unsettling.

But the past is never really past, though it may be discreetly tucked away. It seems to find me in misplaced boxes, odd phone calls,  Facebook invitations and even in neglected e-mail accounts–which is how I found myself time-traveling.

* * * * *

Fred was my first serious relationship. I was 26 and stuck in a cycle of failed connections. He was 29 and a working musician, something I was pursuing after jumping my career track (not for the last time) to pursue a career as a songwriter. I met him during a recording session in Washington DC.  Fred was playing guitar, one of several instruments he handled quite well. A big man, a member of the Marine Corps Jazz Band, he was something of an old-school musician: well-trained, versatile, capable, and completely reliable. He was never without a gig. He also bought, traded and sold guitars, maintaining one of the most impressive collection of “axes” imaginable.

I fell for him. He was my mentor, my muse, my main squeeze. I loved him, my friends loved him; even my parents loved him.

Over the next five years, we dated and then lived together in Washington and then in New York, where he hooked up with Harry Belafonte’s world tour and went on the road for two six-month periods. From there it was all downhill. A couple of outside hook-ups (his) later, he met the woman he would eventually marry instead of me and broke my heart. He played Broadway shows for awhile but eventually became a computer specialist for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation System (MTA). He had a daughter, I’d heard, and still took gigs for fun.

Several years later, I met Michael.

Michael was an aspiring playwright and lyricist. We’d been put together by a mutual acquaintance to write the score for a musical the friend wanted to produce. Michael lived in a tiny, rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, overflowing with books, folders, scripts and, oddly enough, medical textbooks. I found out later that he came from money and had gone to medical school but decided to try his hand at theater. Apparently the parents didn’t approve. Maybe they cut him off or maybe he refused their offers of help; I was never clear about that. Michael played it pretty close to the vest. I’m pretty sure he’d served as a medic in Vietnam. was forty-five or so when I met him, had a teenage son. Other details were vague.

We weren’t romantically involved; he seemed to be from a different generation; a cool cat, a Rat Packer among left-over disco divas and punk aspirants. His Scotch was neat, his cigarettes unfiltered. Women came and went and came again; some of them wanted to keep him, some wanted him to keep them. He never did. Michael was his own man.

But man, did he write: plays, poems, essays, scripts, short stories, books, lyrics—some of it pitch-perfect, some of it mundane, all of it cycled through a prolific consciousness that refused to give up. He worked mostly at night, after finishing whatever temp job he toiled at for minimum wage. He often overwrote, in the manner of someone with a large vocabulary who was a bit of a showoff. But when he led with his heart instead of his head, his lyrics were brilliant: poignant, incisive, and brave, as in this song we wrote together (my music, his lyrics).  In it, a father is trying to explain to his young son what the upside of divorce might be:

You’ll have more, I told him
Than many boys your age
And you’ll have more

I added
To help to calm the rage in you…

For all my cool, I knew I lied right through my teeth
My mouth as dry as last year’s Christmas wreath

And still the platitudes, the worn-out phrases flowed
“Your mommy’s still your mommy

I’m your dad, that never ends”
And then (get this) the capper

“You’ll be just like all your friends…”

©1985 Michael Greer and Nikki Stern

 * * * * * *

These latest e-mail communications were, strangely enough, precipitated by housecleaning: someone going through boxes came across something that reminded them of my connection to their friends and they wrote.

Fred is not dead, his brother told me. But he is not where any of us want to be. A slow-growing tumor put too much pressure on his brain and so he had surgery with what his brother calls “mixed results”–alive but with complications from a stroke; paralyzed on the left side; no more guitar playing, assisted living in Florida (to save money; his wife  stays in New York and visits every six weeks), memory loss, diabetes, morbidly obese…

Fred+NikkicOh god! I don’t want this image of an old man I once loved trapped by his own body and kept from the things he loved. I run to the basement and yank down a box to search for a picture I can use instead.  I find it: the very essence of bittersweet. Yes, we were once that young, that crazy for each other, that happy.  He was my first serious relationship.

Im unsettled but I can handle it.

Michael is gone: lung cancer; not surprising.  New York too is hard on older folks who live with stars in their eyes and little in their pockets. His friend, a woman I suspect got close to him, writes that he went quickly, but who knows? Michael always played it close to the vest. She asked me for any sheet music I might have from our musical. His friends are considering mounting a review of Michael’s work. So I head back to the boxes and find a copy of the complete score. Time-traveling again, I’m back at rehearsals.  My stomach tightens again as the bitter and the sweet have their way with me, but against all odds, I stay on my feet.

Pace, gentlemen: Peace to you. I loved you both, in different ways. Our lives intersected, then diverged. But while we were connected, didn’t we make beautiful music together?

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My 44-year old friend Natalie looks great. She is half way through her radiation treatment for a malignant tumor found so far back in her breast no self-exam would have found it. Hopefully she’ll be able to avoid chemotherapy. She had no family history of cancer, no genetic or behavioral markers. It’s true there is no way of knowing whether this particular tumor would have killed her; some cancers are so slow-growing as to be almost non-threatening. Mammograms detect more thoroughly than ever any anomoly but even when something is found to be malignant, it’s not always possible to know whether it’s potentially fatal. Natalie doesn’t care and neither do her friends, frankly. At this level, the anxiety is more than worth it.

I understand the concept of “evidence-based science” as well as the next person. Reason demands evidence, at least when it comes to issuing absolutes. Too many people are inclined to make presumptive declarations — that is, declarations that presume knowledge. So yes, show me the evidence.

I also understand that our bodies are highly complex organisms with any number of uncertainties built right into them. There may be tumors and aneurysms, clogged veins and weakened livers, and even degenerative disks, none of which are necessarily going to harm us or even slow us down. Why find out if you’re caring a potentially threatening gene, some argue, the operative word being potentially? Life is about uncertainty; some things we can’t know; others we don’t need to.

But even though I get all that, even though I believe that we must all learn to live with uncertainty, even though I realize living involves risk and  many kinds of cancer aren’t life-threatening, I cannot wrap my mind around what not being tested might have meant for my friend Natalie.


My difficulty with the recommendations has nothing to do with the politicizing of the findings, which are, after all, reissues of earlier recommendations. Trying to tie these recommendations to the “threat” of managed care is another deliberate attempt at fear-mongering. But I find the “small risk” argument to be an unpersuasive one: except for chemo, most women will tell you mammograms, sonograms, biopsies, anxiety, and even radiation are worth undergoing. Yes, evidence shows that only one in more than 1900 women’s lives were saved by early testing. But that one may have been my friend Natalie.







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I approach most holidays with an anthropologist’s mindset. I like to know the history of the holiday, I’m interested in the customs and rituals and I enjoy watching other people celebrate. Sometimes I even participate; yet most holidays don’t engage me.  For starters, there are too many of them; worse, they have mostly fallen prey to our relentless need to “retail-ize” our holidays, so that every celebration, however solemn or sacred, seems to come with its own sales and marketing plan.

However, I confess to having a weakness when it comes to Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is about food – or rather, about the preparing and partaking of a meal together, which is the penultimate social experience. Then there’s the Macy’s parade, which, yes,  I watch every Thanksgiving morning. Most significantly, I like sitting down and giving thanks.

Cynics may point out that family gatherings can bring out the worst in people; that the Macy’s parade doesn’t always benefit from the kind of perfect weather we had this morning; and that selecting one day a year to be thankful is ridiculous,  especially when gratitude competes with turkey, cranberry sauce and Aunt Deb’s stuffing.

But taking stock of one’s good fortune is a useful exercise and we need to start somewhere. So I say, go ahead and give thanks for friends, family, health, your spouse, kids or pet, or even the kindness of strangers during difficult times. Tip your hat to silly things that make you smile, like cheesy TV shows, take-out food, unexpectedly balmy skies or even a pair of comfortatble shoes. And spend a moment thanking others who are working on your behalf around the world. Wish them well and safe journey home in time for Thanksgiving next year. 

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A new University of Chicago study released recently shows that people well into their seventies are still physically intimate. This has occasioned every reaction imaginable, from a resurgence of the “elderly sex” jokes to serious advice from medical professionals (and the predictable “ewww” from a teenager I know, but he’d react that way to the idea of anyone coupling over the age of twenty-five.) I decided to conduct my own highly unscientific survey of my female friends, most of whom belong to an increasingly large group of single women between forty and sixty. A minority of those who are currently enjoying intimate relations thought the news unsurprising. These liberated (and lucky) ladies are having the times of their lives, which may account for their unbridled optimism. The vast majority of my gal pals are not having intimate relations and I wondered whether this survey gave them reason to hope or despair. Actually, it gave them reason to laugh. Apparently the idea of having sex at seventy when you’re not having it at forty, fifty or sixty is funny. Still, senior Lotharios can take heart, that is, if they intend to date women in their age range. Most of my friends think the idea of getting it on in the twilight years sounds great in theory, providing they can (a) find a partner and (b) still remember how.

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