Touch, remembered

Can we ever really know someone else? We can touch; we listen; we see. That smell that only she owns, precisely hers, that instantly takes you to a place that once had meaning. Was that love? That only touching her caused instant tumescence. Was that lust? Was it knowledge? Did I ever know her?

A tear in my heart, healed over, is only the memory inside of three women. They were the only ones.  The scars aren’t visible. Once painful, no more. Nothing lasts. Not this. People break apart.

Touch, I remember touch
Pictures came with touch
A painter in my mind
Tell me what you see

Snapshots of other days. I take them out of the past drawer and look long and deep into the faded technicolor, looking for a sign, something that hinted at what was missing. Late afternoon in the Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo, light streaming through the ceiling windows, an organist playing: I couldn’t stop crying, spontaneous tears that flowed and flowed in quiet sadness, provoked by god knows what—the light, the music, the mystery of faith no longer held– maybe the knowledge that so early the seeds of an end were growing and that a great mistake had been made. Another year, the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, closed, arriving too late in the rain. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t speak. I stared out of the taxi windows on the way back to the pensione on the Piazza Navona, the rain streaming, Roman streets a blur, my life a blur. My eyes as wet as the rain. Her anger had subsided; she tried to recover the moment. Silent, a great weight lodged deep inside, leaden.

Why is this on my mind, anyway? I was thinking about the frustrations and the disappointments of life, of which there are a very great many. I haven’t been entirely honest with you about that.

A tourist in a dream
A visitor it seems
A half-forgotten song
Where do I belong?

Years later we returned. Redemption? Shelley’s heart.  My heart. That day there was light, yet bittersweet , reconciling what couldn’t be put back together because it had never been of one piece.


Tell me what you see
I need something more

Kiss, suddenly alive
Happiness arrive

Another snapshot: another woman, another time. Walking in the Mission, a man stopped us and said we were a beautiful couple. We were a beautiful couple. Love was the answer, then. The only time in my life. San Francisco was a dream. She was that dream.


Hunger like a storm
How do I begin?

A room within a room
A door behind a door

I remember her touch. I didn’t need more.  Then I needed more. Happiness arrived for the first time, true happiness. Amsterdam in the snow. One time out of all time.


Touch, where do you lead?
I need something more
Tell me what you see
I need something more

Was the more I wanted too much? She thought so, said so.  It’s what she saw and it frightened her. The expectation was too heavy. It was too heavy for me, too, and nearly sunk me. JP said happiness is a small boat on a very rough ocean. The boat made it to safe harbor. That life departed, another began. Short-lived. Unlucky triad.

My own dark time, as I call it, the time of my loneliness, was most of my life, as I have said, and I can’t make any real account of myself without speaking of it.

Hold on
If love is the answer you hold

Touch, sweet touch
You’ve given me too much to feel

If love is the answer, what was the question? I was always asking.


Sweet touch
You’ve almost convinced me I’m real
I need something more

This is an important thing, which I have told many people…When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, what is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person.

Grace: free to be, free to act.  What would that look like in my life? Would I be a different man? Would I take another close to my heart? Would I choose differently? Try another way?

I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

Thanks to Daft Punk (Touch) and Marilynne Robinson (Gilead)

The Dreaded 9th

February 9th. The dreaded 9th of February. I wonder if she remembers?  I didn’t.

February 9, 2019. Today’s the second-year anniversary of the afternoon Brenda told me she no longer wanted to be married, didn’t love me anymore, wanted to be on her own. Ironically, we had been to Bobby Roper’s memorial service at the South End—ironic because it was Bobby who named the 9th of February the Dreaded 9th, allegedly the day when the water in the Bay is the coldest.

We got home from the memorial and Brenda said, “we need to talk.”

Cold water on a cold day.

And it didn’t occur to me today until a friend mentioned the cold water reference. Two years past, one in Boston. The days were long at first, the nights painful. Then the days slipped by unmarked by memory.

Regret? No, not much. The times it was good it was lovely. Then it wasn’t. I don’t think she could help it, the outcome was ordained. I chose not to see the signs, the patterns that ought to have been so evident. Only in hindsight.

Love is cancelled. Never again. And it’s okay.

Sunday Night, January 31, 2021.

Another birthday milestone passed. A new year begun with the old catastrophe worsened. Like Odin’s ravens seeking news from an oracle who can only weep at what she sees. This is the world today. I’m glad not to be young.

It’s cold tonight in Boston, low single digit temperatures. A snowstorm is predicted for tomorrow through Tuesday. Winter in New England. I’ve now been here a year, a peculiar year of pandemic lockdown. In so many ways 2020 was a good year despite the virus, a better year than the misfortunes of 2019. Adam recovered in 2020. I recovered in 2020. I settled into my small apartment, overcrowded with books and pictures and my painting easel in the middle of it all. Ray’s CDs added a wall of music. It’s warm and cozy and a bit eccentric, the way I like it and couldn’t live when sharing space with Brenda. The wounds of her memory are healed. If I were a praying man I would pray for her but I am not so I don’t. Her soul is hers to redeem which of course it always was. And since she believes in neither souls nor redemption there’s nothing left to ponder. The Chairman gathers his misguided children in mysterious ways, to the peril of those who may mistakenly fall in love with them.

Here on Bennington Street in Orient Heights I swam in the harbor across the street at Constitution Beach most days of summer and fall. Lucky for me since all the pools are closed, and Walden Pond a drive away. Many mornings Sam would join me, a strong companion as we navigated our course from boat buoy to boat buoy, a zigzag swim between the beach and the western runways of Logan Airport, empty planes from Europe descending like giant swans landing on still water. Other days I would swim alone in late afternoon after work, always the only swimmer at the beach.

It’s hard to imagine the next ten years, maybe twenty. Decline will come, perhaps not harshly. Not yet anyway. Miles to go before I sleep. I’ve been visiting my longtime friend JKD across the state and slightly south in Columbia County, New York, and take inspiration in her 93 years, never a day not working on a project, a plan, a new venture, a new idea. May I have more years with her yet.

Still, for all my creature comfort, I feel the country is at an end of time. Not that it will collapse, as social order has collapsed under Trump, but that the cataclysmic reckonings of the past years will take a toll that cannot be repaid. The divisions are too deep, the wounds too deep to heal without jagged scars.  Some will never heal and will bleed forever until the victims die.

I see this every day in the microcosm of my work at Fletcher. Civil discourse among students and alumni is a quaint memory. That diplomacy is a founding pillar of the school now stands as some kind of antiquated relic.

Meanwhile the winter storm warning is in full effect. Snow hasn’t begun to fall here in East Boston but over west in Worchester it’s coming down hard. Tufts has closed for the day; I’m waiting to hear about Hult.  My classes are late afternoon and likely will go remote. I missed these closed-in snow days in San Francisco. Living in an apartment I have no snow to shovel or cares about the roof—unlike the years in Briarcliff Manor when a snow fall meant hours of snow removal and worries about ice dams in the gutters. Here, I can simply enjoy the silent snow, watching the frenzy of house sparrows at my balcony feeder. They will be grateful for the food today.

That’s the irony of the time we’re in: gratitude within this pervading atmosphere of gloom. Today’s a day not to look too far away into the future. Stay home.  Be warm. Let the snow cover all the ugliness of this decaying world, at least for a day or two.

Notes at Year’s End

Christmas Eve, 2020

It’s my first Christmas in Boston, and the first Christmas I’ve ever spent alone. Sam and family are in Finland. Adam is in Oakland, both he and Rachel as residents on hospital call. David and family are in New Hampshire. It’s okay, even better than okay. After the heavy snow of last weekend the weather’s turned warm and wet. It’s to rain tomorrow with high winds and power outages predicted. Home cooked lamb shanks on the menu tonight.

Foregoing expectations is the sure route to a happier life.

Christmas Day, 2020

Warm rain and wind all day, at times torrential. The good news is that the rain washed away the piled and dirty remains of our two feet of snow from a week ago Thursday. It’s the way of city snow: the white and silent beauty lasts only a day or two.

On that snowy Thursday I drove from Boston over to the Hudson Valley to stay with JKD at Midwood. On Friday morning it was -4°, the river steel grey with the snow blanketed Catskills beyond looking as austere and beautiful as I have ever seen them. I can’t recall ever being at Midwood in the snow, when snow filled the landscape and set the great pink house even further apart from the less civilized world, an island of remarkable quiet and joy. Time spent at Midwood is a subtraction from the gloom of the world.

Several trips over to the town of Hudson, now so tony beyond anything it ever was. I remember back in the late ‘70’s when I lived in Pine Plains no one would go to down-and-out Hudson. Nothing but bars and abandoned houses and New York’s last brothels. Then it succumbed to drugs and gunfights before gay New Yorkers discovered its historic architectural bones and slowly began restoring the houses and buildings to their current immaculate state. A year of Covid closures has taken a toll, with many empty storefronts, but for the holidays most of the antique shops and art galleries were open and the upscale housewares stores thriving. I made two trips to my favorite shop, The Red Chair, finding its vintage French treasures too special to pass up, and adding to my collection of 19th century confit pots, perfect for small plants in my small apartment. It’s an indulgence.

On Sunday Joan invited a new friend for dinner, a young and amiable philosophy professor from nearby Bard College, and the table conversation ranged from the merits of different translations of the Iliad to the late writings of Hannah Arendt. Our new brilliant and charming friend turned out to be a poor driver however, skidding his car off the winding driveway in the icy dark. It had to be towed out of the snow bank the next morning.

In the nearby town of Catskill, across the Rip van Winkle Bridge from Hudson—all of Columbia County feeling like it just sprang from a Washington Irving tale, painted by Frederick Church– I found a gem of a used bookstore and filled a bag with must-haves including three first edition Philip Pullman’s I’ll send to Maxwell for his birthday and Nigel Nicolson’s short biography of Virginia Woolf, which I finished this morning (December 28th). As much a memoir as a biography—as Vita Sackville-West’s son he knew VW and the Bloomsbury scene well—it’s much my favorite of the many biographies of VW I’ve read over the years. Nicolson capture’s VW in all her acerbity, brilliance, wit, and compassion.

December is nearing its end, the end of a strange and unhopeful year. The wages of the pandemic, of the BLM reckoning, of Trump’s destructive energy—hardly abating despite his election loss, the loss he refuses to accept—have all colluded to make the year one of continuous stress and anxiety in day-by-day anticipation of the next calamity.

Still, beneath this atmospheric gloom, 2020 has not been personally a bad year. Moving to Boston has been a success. Work has expanded. I have avoided the virus. I swam in the harbor most days of the summer and fall. Adam recovered from cancer and Rachel is expecting a baby boy in June. A Christmas spent without Brenda’s killjoy displeasure.

My bonds with all three boys have deepened despite the inability to travel. I mourn the loss of my friend Ray, though his music fills my apartment with his memory every day. Moreover, inheriting Ray superb collection of CDs has inspired my own renewal of musical passions, building on new discoveries and adding movements of my own.

Sigur Rós’s brooding Icelandic musical saga “Odin’s Raven Magic” has been playing in a nearly continuous loop for the past week, its deeply melancholy sense of doom overlaid with rich waves of harmonics that made me cry the first time I listened to it, somehow suits the year’s ending. The poem from which this musical collaboration springs tells a Norse myth in which the god Odin sends his ravens Huginn and Muginn to an oracle seeking answers to a catastrophic future.

She can only weep when she sees what lies ahead.

Welcome 2021.

August 31, 2020

I meant to write about our last walk.

We had nothing to do but gaze—

Seven years, now nothing but a diverting smile,

Dalliance by a river, a speeding swan…

the misleading promise

to last with joy as long as our bodies,

nostalgia pulverized by thought,

nomadic as yesterday’s whirling snow,

all whiteness splotched.

Robert Lowell

One year ago today we said goodbye in her living room, me behind the leather coach, she standing in the open space reserved for yoga. She said she was sorry our marriage didn’t work out, or a few words to that effect. I said I was, too. That was all. The end lasted perhaps less than a minute. Then she was gone– as I had requested, in order to spend the last night alone before moving out forever on September 1st.  No sad goodbyes at the garage door, at least not sadder than the one we had standing in the living room.  Sad enough.

I saw her briefly twice since that August afternoon: once, fleetingly, when she handed me mail and lied to me at a South End Rowing Club members’ meeting; a second time at the South End holiday party where she refused to acknowledge my presence.

Misleading promises…that might be the swansong of our marriage. Promises never kept. Both guilty as charged. Nothing lasting with joy as long as our bodies. No joy. No bodies.

One year is a short time in a person’s life and an eternity. From that afternoon a year ago, still standing in her house, to today in my apartment in Boston, I chart a journey measured in more than the 3,100 miles that separate us: a journey of renewal.

She always said, “Plan the work, work the plan.” That’s what I did—(though she accused me of inconsistency.) The pieces fell into place, in sequence, on the schedule she allowed me to set: complete the spring teaching semester; acquire a driver’s license; take the leadership course at UCLA; undergo hand surgery; pack up all my belongings; rent and load the Pod; move out September 1st. Clockwork.

Through the exceptional generosity of friends I was given a house in West Oakland in which to live for the remainder of the year, a gesture for which I will be always grateful. The house, combined with my friends’ support, proved to be the transitional respite from the deadening despair of divorce that I badly needed. My friends understood; they knew her longer than I did and saw what I had failed to see.

Days after moving being in West Oakland took on a new significance. It couldn’t have been foreseen. On September 5th I learned from Adam that he had been diagnosed with lymphoma. Treatment was nearby at Oakland Kaiser Hospital. I was able to accompany him to the bi-weekly chemo sessions, drive him home…be there with him when it mattered most.

The autumn sped by: teaching at Hult, weekends with Adam, Adam’s Point farmer’s market, walking to West Oakland Bart, discovering open studios, swimming at the South End.  Sam visited. David visited. Thanksgiving and Christmas with Rachel’s family. Then it was time to move. I was sad to be leaving Adam during his final weeks of chemo. He was in good hands with Rachel, her family, and his Bowdoin friends.

I loaded a final lot of boxes, my bike, odds and ends, into the Pod, stored close by in West Oakland.  It would wait for shipment until I had a place to live. Work the plan.

January/February with Sam, Saga, Miki, and Ethan: a safe and comforting haven.  On March 1st I moved to my apartment in the Orient Heights section of East Boston, directly across from Constitution Beach. Purposeful for open water swimming, a walk to Sam’s, and a lucky choice once grounded by Covid-19.  I’ve suffered little if at all.

It’s the last evening in August, an evening one year ago I spent alone in a house that was never my home, least of all on that night. I had only my packed suitcases to remind me I once lived there. Tonight, while only a rented apartment, my place is truly my home. Maybe it’s the privilege of all single dwellers, that everything is ordered to one’s own taste. Sharing space can be harder than sharing a life.

I’m listening to a classic recording of Victoria de los Angeles singing Madame Butterfly. I found the CD set in a used bookstore in West Stockbridge only a week ago. I’m a sucker for the pure glorious rapture of this opera. I’ve heard it at the Met, the Berlin Opera, and the Munich Opera.  It never fails. I thank my late friend Ray, and his legacy CD collection, for rekindling my joy in music—especially now.

What have I learned during this year away from her, and my life with her, and my life in California?

That the northeast is my home. The golden hills never sparked joy or any sense of belonging. I was always an expat.

That neither Ellen nor Brenda were mistakes. But establishing these relationships as a piece of my identity was.

That my own freedom to be, freedom to act is not dependent on another.

That I love open water swimming.

That my best friends remain my best friends.

That marriage is no longer a desired state.

That being close to the geography I love is important.

That life isn’t as long or as happy as we want it to be.

That happiness begins inside.

That I miss my dog, but don’t want one on my own (as much as a solace he would have been during this novel shutdown).

Now, a year away, I’m glad not to be there. I didn’t feel that then, or even know it was possible. I think the outcome could have been otherwise had there been a will to make it so.  She didn’t have that will, and I realize now the end was inevitable.

I am back where I belong.

Late August Afternoons

The immense privilege of late August afternoons at Midwood, the wide expanse of the upper Hudson River flowing beyond the lawn, the dark hills of the Catskills, and the lady of the house seated on the great porch overlooking a view that could have been painted by one of the luminous Hudson River School artists living just up the road.

The immense privilege of these late August afternoons at Midwood: a respite from all the many ills that afflict this summer of 2020.  The Covid-19 pandemic, Trump, George Floyd and racial discord, protests, fires consuming California—the ancient Anderson Redwood Forest in Guerneville burnt to stumps some nearly a thousand years old. It’s hard to find hope in any of this. Yet, here on the Hudson River in Columbia County, time stands still. Morning mist on the river lifts to sunlit afternoons and dazzling sunsets before the stars come out at night, and the lone green channel marker blinks across the water. No other lights mare the darkness of the night horizon on the farther shore.

The immense privilege of these late August afternoons at Midwood: in this solitude I swim naked in the warm river, snaking through the water lilies to reach open water, the current at times so strong I swim in place. The rare freedom of my unclothed body only matched by the clouds floating above. Free to be, for a moment in time.

Can this be real?

Time can never relax like this again.

I’m reminded of Richard Murphy’s most beautiful poem, The Woman of the House. I’m not writing an elegy here, as he was, but I, too, am writing of a woman of the house, the woman who created this gracious home from a Livingston family legacy, a place where grace resides and beauty is a by-word of everyday living. Every time I’m here I wonder if it will be my last. The lady of the house is ninety-three. And yet another late August has come and I’m here again, participating in the immense privilege of life at Midwood.  Life is slower but undiminished. Time itself seems to have slowed down.

It was her house where we spent holidays,

With candles to bed, and ghostly stories:

In the lake of her heart we were islands

Where the wild asses galloped in the wind.

No wild asses here, but oh the wind did blow on Thursday when the sky erupted in thunder and lightning, downpour obscuring the river and mountains in a tremendous grey blanket of rain. By night the stars were back and dinner on the veranda with friends, to me one old, one new.

And those happy days, when in spite of rain

We’d motor west where the salmon-boats tossed,

She would sketch on the pier among the pots

Waves in a sunset, or the rising moon.

I’m thinking of other times here, times when I brought the women in my life to share this out-of-time experience of hospitality and warmth.  The many shad parties with Evelyn, the one with Ellen, the last time here with Brenda. Did she know then she no longer loved me, would find a way to end our marriage? It was the last thing that would have occurred to me then… but now, when I remember back it’s only the wistful end I see. I see it in her eyes, in the way she never held my hand, or showed any loving affection, the way she never touched me, never held me close. No lovemaking in our bedroom named Washburn, its antique quilt covering only a bed for sleeping.

They are gone, those women in my life. And yet I am here in the immense privilege of Midwood. Does friendship trump love? It’s lasted more than forty years—so the answer must surely be yes.

Maybe that’s love by another name.

This time I’m in the far bedroom, Bamboo, named for the eight-piece craftsman bedroom set adorned with bamboo inspired carving, a charming period piece of whimsical delight. I fall asleep at night to the sound of cicadas coming through the river -facing  windows, broken only by the occasional northbound Amtrak train.

Back in Boston this time away is a healing memory, late August afternoons in my blood. I have jam from Montgomery Place to see me through the winter (peach, apricot, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, black currant) and a small painting of the Hudson at Midwood to revive what fades in my eyes. I will paint many more scenes myself as the season wanes.

The immense privilege of late August afternoons at Midwood will last when the inevitable more ephemeral days to come alter life in petty ways that must be fought against with all the energy I can muster, a debt repaid every day.

Please one more time. One more afternoon at Midwood, with the lady of the house laying the table for dinner, with friends old and new, civilization realized, out of time, out of place in this dumbed-down, tragic world and time we live in.

Through our inheritance all things have come,

The forms, the means, all by our family ;

The good of being alive was given by them,

We ourselves limit that legacy.

August 2020

August 2019 was the last month we lived together. It was the seventh month of living under the dark cloud of our marriage dissolving.  Month by month, day by day, without much drama, the life we once had together, thin as it turned out to be, edged closed to exit. Communication ceased. The drawn-out timing was my request to which she reluctantly agreed. It was hard, maybe terrible, for both us.  As I expressed myself here as elsewhere, she retreated deeper inside the protective shell that shielded her from explanation, responsibility.  She feared quotations of the truth and went to extreme, even legal, lengths to suppress any revelation.  The truth can bear only so much sunlight.

August 2019 was a difficult month. Recovering from surgery with a bandaged and unworkable left hand, I had to sort, sell, and pack all of my earthly belongings to be ready to move out of her house on September 1st.  Tension in our house while rarely breaking the surface was in the air we breathed. I have said before thank god we had our dog Bebe-a loving distraction from the lack of love between us. It was a time of unrelenting sadness. Was what could have been ever possible?

August 2020.  I have been gone nearly a year. We have had no communication but for a few lawyer letters summing up the divorce and an impersonal forwarding of my mail. She refuses to communicate. The Covid-19 shutdown and restrictions have undoubtedly not given her the return-to-life-before-Niland she envisioned, though I’m sure she’s happier on her own. A shared life is not in her DNA, as her many marriages and broken off relationships prove. Already always leaving is a thwart to commitment.

I’m beginning my sixth month in Boston. I moved across the country to be away from her, and to be closer to roots and geography I love. The pandemic has slowed my plans, too. I rely on my friends in San Francisco, unable to begin making new friends here. I am lucky and grateful to have family, my son Sam and his wife Saga and twin boys, nearby. Since moving in January one of my three closest friends in San Francisco has died. My best friend Josh remains in close contact and will remain so. We miss one another and compensate with video calls and our book club of two. My other friend Michael while a special presence in my life is occupied with his role as director of City Center at the San Francisco Zen Center—especially consuming in these viral times.

Do I resent her for ending our marriage?  I resent her more for not being the person I thought she was. I’m better off now, on my own, in nearly every way. A loveless, sexless, judgmental marriage isn’t what I ever wanted. The 2019 upending of my life that she caused is past–the past put in the past drawer of life. The logistics all fell into place, with help of generous friends and family who provided shelter, support, and love. I was never alone.

What’s so right now is the continuing pandemic with all its attendant uncertainties; the daily horror of Trump and his sycophantic Republicans; BlackLivesMatter and social unrest. And just last week a fatal shark attack on a swimmer off Bailey Island in Maine!

Amidst this atmospheric gloom, I swim in Boston Harbor nearly every day, teach my students, paint watercolors, read, listen to Ray’s huge collection of classical CDs, attend Zoom meetings, connect with friends virtually. My life is full.

I miss my dog. I miss companionship and the intimacy that love could inspire. I don’t miss her.

Already-always listening

We talk in Creating Course Leaders about climbing a mountain with no top.

What I have discovered about my already-always listenings is that they exist in a well with no bottom.  As soon as one already-always listening is distinguished, another one is revealed, one layer beneath, down ever deeper into the person I wound up being.

I’m reminded of the final lines of Wallace Steven’s Sunday Morning:

And, in the isolation of the sky,

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make

Ambiguous undulations as they sink,

Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Downward to darkness, on extended wings: I experience an expansion of self-awareness as I dwell deeper and deeper in my already-always listening.  I have come to realize that everything I perceive is through these already-always listening multi-layered filters.

I meet another person and before they ever speak I have processed my perception of them though a complex system of signs and codes that calibrate my acceptance of their very being. Speech adds another set of filters. Prior or newly acquired background information about them fills in the gaps.  All this before actual experience.

Years ago I took a two-day interviewing skills seminar and the facilitator claimed that the majority of hiring decisions were made in the first ten seconds of an interview.

One story I tell about myself is that I have escaped the WASP strictures of my privileged white male upbringing, that I have grown into a progressive liberal man free from all the conservative stereotypes that label implies. And while this is true in a political sense, I know, now, that my already-always listening ingrained since birth is grinding away in the background. I know my hierarchies of what I regard as human acceptability.  I have been able to distinguish between openness in my head versus openness in my life.

I realize that while I may say I have few prejudices of race, sex, education, origin, style, or other markers of human potential, my comfort zone of friendship lies in a narrow range of parameters—very particular parameters defined idiosyncratically by the things and characteristics I value most, and aspire to, in my own life.

I once compiled a list of the one hundred books one must have read to be regarded as a civilized human being; and I meant it. I have preferential, already-always listening, hierarchies of colleges and universities, States, musical taste, countries and nationalities, clothes (shoes!), physical size (obese people trigger an automatic negative response: they’ve lost control of their lives), food and dining, the list goes on and on—or deeper and deeper into that bottomless well of already-always listening. All of the boxes are rarely ticked.

While once I might have characterized these traits as discriminating, in a good sense, I realize now how confining these already-always listening filters have narrowed my life experience.

Distinguishing these layers of already-always listening is heavy going, revealing layer under layer. Ultimately it’s liberating, allowing for the possibility that I can be free to be and free to act.

A final story (with due respect for our avoidance of storytelling).

Five years ago I was traveling alone on a month-long trip centered on my son’s wedding in Finland. I was visiting Tallinn, Estonia for a few bitter cold days between Christmas and New Years, having come directly from Finnish Lapland a hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. There were few tourists in Tallinn, and the nights were long, cold, and dark.  Having spent many enjoyable evenings in old-style, wood-fired saunas in Finland with the brother of my new daughter-in-law, I decided to find something similar in Tallinn.

I located a likely candidate outside the old city walls of the city. I walked through an unfamiliar working class neighborhood to find the place, hesitant to enter given its down-market exterior and sketchy environs. Nevertheless I went in. A group of guys in the undressing area were in the final stages of a drunken post holiday celebration. They paid no attention to me. I showered and entered the dark, exceptionally hot sauna, where about ten men were sitting in silent steamy contemplation.

There’s not much to know about ten naked men sitting in a sauna in a foreign country. Doctors or ditch-diggers? Professors or thieves? Old school communists or progressive reformers? No way of knowing. My already-always listening feared the worst and I was apprehensive.

After a while one guy observed, in perfect English, “you’re not from around here.”  I explained I was from San Francisco, en route from my son’s Finnish wedding. Immediately I had ten new friends: instant chatter about Obama and the American elections; the silliness of Mitt Romney, the emerging dangers of conservative politics. The men wanted to know everything about me and my life—all well-informed, in comprehensible English. With no embarrassment one man offered to beat me with his bound birch leaf branches, and I accepted. I stayed for hours. The evening turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, profoundly human, experiences of my trip.

Locked Doors

We are living in times of a global virus pandemic with no known end, a collapsed economy, and under the spiteful administration of, in the words of The Washington Post fact checkers, “the most mendacious President in U.S. history.”

Yet I dwell on the end of my marriage.  When I come to think I could care less about her—the “her” who forbids her name to be mentioned for fear her identity could reach the future ex-cons whom she’s interviewed over the past few years—something happens that makes me realize what a mistake of judgment I made.

On this past Wednesday my son Adam graduated from medical school, receiving an outstanding student award. Without comment I sent his graduation announcement to my ex-wife, thinking she would be interested in seeing this, especially given the past year Adam endured successfully battling lymphoma. She had once liked Adam, had helped him with advancing his medical prospects, for which both he and I were grateful. She didn’t respond.

There was no need for a response, and I question my emotions for being disappointed.  My own dictum has been put the past in the past. She told me about her resolve to end our marriage that she had clarity of vision, and now apparently her vision clearly tells her never to communicate with me, even to say anything about Adam.  The doors to her heart were never open, and now they’re locked.

She never regarded my family, my boys, as being part of any family unit we shared together. Family was—I assume still is—a charged, unhappy concept for her, especially one’s true family. Still, I had hoped there could have been one last moment of shared happy experience, having nothing to do with us. 

But no.

Just a boy

Apparently a joke went around in Wuhan during the current virus pandemic:

Client: My wife and I have been quarantined together for 14 days and we’ve decided to get back together. I don’t want to go ahead with the divorce. Can you refund the fee?

Lawyer: 14 days…hmmm….Let’s not rush it: I think we’re still in business.

Having lived under the same roof with my wife for seven months under the dark clouds of impending divorce, the joke is only semi-funny. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be funny, only droll in a sick sort of way. Divorce isn’t funny, ever. And neither my wife nor I saw any humor in the circumstance; it was sad and painful. The lawyer was definitely still in business.

For the past two days, continuing again tomorrow, I’ve been engaged in a refresher Landmark forum for graduates of the in-person Forum. This three-day marathon is online via Zoom, not an ideal platform for such personal work. On the whole it seems to be working well enough.

We’ve been revisiting all of the basic principles, grown “crusty” in our own practice as the forum leader puts it. Rackets, life sentences, always already listening, the way we wound up being, winning formulas, the genesis of identity. The goal—indeed, the title—of this online forum is Free to Be, Free to Act. Only transformation can achieve this. Not knowing anything, or insights, or figuring anything out. Being on the court with the reality of our lives is a lot different than being in the stands. Recognizing that the “I am” we say we are is a created identity, drawn up from our past, described in language.

Much of the material remains fresh in my mind having been core to the UCLA course last summer, and continuing with the bi-weekly reading of the 1978 Forum lead by Werner Erhard, Speaking Being. At UCLA, Werner Erhard led a third of the sessions, driving home the points in his intimate, sometimes confrontational, always compassionate style. It was an immense privilege.

I’ve been revisiting the work I did then, relevant in my life today.  I cry, still, when I read the letter I wrote to my wife about the racket I was running. That she said nothing in response, nothing at all, never acknowledging what I wrote in any way, remains a wound that can’t be healed. Perhaps she thought that any acknowledgement, even a Fuck You, would be providing some kind of satisfaction that she was so very unwilling to provide. She once told me she refused to be compassionate because she knew that’s what I wanted.

I wrote then:

Dear……,

Currently I am engaged in the Being a Leader leadership course. During the course I came to realize that I have been running, what in this course is called, a “racket” with you. I have come to see this is not a productive way of being and it has actually cost our relationship something I am no longer willing for you or me to continue paying.

While it is probably obvious to you, what has not been working for me, or you, is that my default way of being is being the “good” man in our relationship. By this I mean I have defined myself as the flexible partner, the one always trying to please and willing to compromise, as though these behaviors were admirable.

What I now realize is that the issue identified above has persisted because there has been a payoff for me in running this racket.

The payoff that I now see is that this racket has allowed me to be right, to occupy a moral high ground that when not appreciated by you allows me to be the wronged party. My racket has been based on the paradigm that there is always a right and a wrong in any situation.

What I have also come to realize is that running this racket on our relationship has cost me your trust, your love, and our marriage. 

I leave you with my word that in any new future we may create this racket will be no more.

Love always,

This racket of being the Good Man is my self-imposed life sentence, the way I wound up being. Somewhere deep in childhood I developed the idea that if I were not the good boy, I would be the bad boy. There were no boys in life, only good boys and bad boys. Bad boys lived in bad houses with bad families and did bad things.

I remember once, I must have been in fourth grade, I went home after school with the class bad boy, Eddie Messner. Funny how I remember his name to this day. He lived literally on the other side of the tracks, in a run-down house, with a run-down family. Cars on blocks outside. He was incredibly exciting. I don’t remember what we did, but at some point in the late afternoon his mother shouted out the back door that I had to go home. How I would get home had never occurred to me. There was no one at the Messner household to drive me home (that wouldn’t have occurred to them) so I set off walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood, not sure of where to go. Meanwhile my mother, having learned from one of my other friends where I had gone, had set out in her car looking for me, eventually finding me half way home, in tears. I wasn’t punished—I was never punished for anything—but firmly made to believe that something dreadfully bad had occurred, that I had skirted horrible consequences by the skin of my teeth, that befriending a bad boy like Eddie Messner would only lead to ruin. Good boys didn’t have bad boy friends.

Years later, long after I was sent to a private school where no bad boys went, I came to realize that Eddie Messner wasn’t bad, he was poor. And that to my family associating with a boy who lived in the squalor of poverty was behavior beyond the pale of their self-defined, and fragile, dignity.

To succeed in life, I would need to be a good boy, a refined boy, a reasonable boy. I couldn’t worry my mother by going off with the likes of poor Eddie Messner. At the same time my genteel mother covertly communicated that I couldn’t follow in my father’s footsteps, either. Poverty wasn’t the issue, very much the opposite. He was a handsome, successful businessman, a sportsman, hunter, fisherman, champion shot. He had played minor league baseball. He played golf. Turned out he was philander, adulterer, too. He divorced my mother to marry his best friend’s secretary. Oh no, don’t be like him.

The way I wound up being is to be the good boy, always. Good boys inevitably wind up being victims to their own scheme of life. Good boys try to please, not to provide pleasure but to avoid displeasure. Always waiting for the next shoe to drop, good boys try to anticipate where those shoes are treading, and head them off in another direction.

What I have learned from the women who have been in my life is to be fearful: fearful of their censure, fearful that they will leave. Twice I have been with women who were always already leaving, incapable of commitment. I wanted so desperately to please them, have them love me, have them recognize all the good boy attributes as something to admire, not grow to hate.

Being the good boy among other liabilities didn’t work.

It’s time to move on. No more good boy. No bad boy, either; maybe be just a boy. A man.

Free to be. Free to act.