My friend isn’t gone; she’s still setting me straight

Over the past couple weeks I have felt a frightening loneliness. I was angry for digging myself into a hole that felt catastrophic.

I take that back, wrong metaphor. There was no digging; that would imply effort. Rather, I invited the loneliness in, a charming bully that posed as solitude.

I needed someone to help me make my oppressor leave. I couldn’t tell my friends at work, even when they noticed a change in me.  I couldn’t bear the way they would look at me. I said I was tired, hadn’t been sleeping, which was true. I talked to my wife, vaguely, and she gave me answers. I got angry. Strangely, I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer.

I instantly knew who to call. My friend Carol. As sudden as the thought evaporated, I wept. IMG_0734

The same day that the loneliness moved in, I received a photo of Carol’s newly completed grave stone.  Her family had gracefully designed it with the words “I love you more than bunnies,” chiseled in script beneath the names of her children.

It has been two weeks since I received the photo. Carol died a year ago yesterday. I’m not sure how I didn’t see the connection.

When Carol died, I had the word “surrender” tattooed onto my forearm in her memory. It’s situated so that I see it continually throughout my day. Each time, I think of her. Surrender is central to recovery and most daunting. It’s scary to admit that one’s life is unmanageable and to trust people who say that giving up control promises freedom. Carol and I talked about surrender a lot. She had moments of clarity, but then someone or something would descend and fill her with fear. She grabbed control with both hands and tied a knot.

I believe Carol did ultimately surrender, in her last days, while in a coma. She held on with all her might but after nearly two weeks a change came over her. She found someone to trust. The children she had raised—she was often astonished by how much she loved them—would be alright. It might take time and suffering, but she trusted them. Then she surrendered her life.

Surrender has  transformed my life. Accepting life on life’s terms, finding comfort in mystery, learning  to loosen my grip on life, not asking too many questions about what disturbs me, these practices have not always made life better but they have certainly kept it from getting worse.  However, I confess, I have not accepted that compulsion and fear loosened their grip on me but took  Carol. I am not comfortable with that mystery. I have too many questions and no one to ask. I am angry at this disease.

When I stood in my bedroom on that day when  I received the photo of Carol’s gravestone, it felt  like she was standing next to me, gushing about her children. Our friendship was an adventure of unbearable pain and intense joy, deep truths and shallow deceptions. I did a lot of talking–too much–trying to reach my dying friend. But then, Carol would come back with a gush of wisdom. When I was insecure, overwhelmed, afraid she set aside her greater suffering, even hid it, to point out my foolishness and hubris.

We listened, argued, talked over one another, then she would silence me with a cheap shot, using my own words against me.  Or she would blurt out something snarky that made me laugh and and touched my heart at the same time.

I felt Carol in the room with me again earlier this week. She told me to get off my ass, stop blaming lack of sleep, my introversion, my “disconnected” feelings and go out and make friends. Stop feeling sorry for myself.

I did what she told me. I talked to a friend with one of the most generous hearts I have ever encountered. She makes my days better simply by being in the same building. Like Carol she minimizes her own hardships to lift my spirits. She thinks I don’t notice.

I talked to another friend who is working so very hard to recognize those moments of clarity in her own unmanageable life. We are tight. Our conversations are profane and profound, hilarious and honest, and filled with much love.

At the end of a rough day yesterday, I stopped on the way home to get something to drink. I walked past the beer section and grabbed a Coke.

As I opened the cooler, I saw the word “surrender” on my arm.

Thank you, Carol, for being there for me.

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An open letter to my friends who support Trump: Don’t be sure you know my mind

I don’t believe you are a bigot.

We have been friends for too long. If you think that I suddenly have condensed you — our history, our experiences, the memories we have made, the struggles we have overcome together–to a crude stereotype, than you never really knew me.

But you voted for a bigot. And that scares me.

You say you are insulted by my words. You are angered that I don’t accept the election and move on. You call me a sore loser. Most disturbing, you say I am personally attacking you. fear-615989_640-1When I post articles from NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post recounting a tidal wave of hate and violence unleashed since long before the election– in the name of the man you voted for–I am sharing facts. Facts that are terrifying. When I join the cacophony decrying Trump for appointing  people  with direct ties to white nationalists to his cabinet it should be predictable to anyone who knows me. We have been friends for a long time. Politics, religion, guns; they didn’t tear us apart. But was I ever quiet about any of those issues?

Are you really surprised that I am screaming into all four winds about what is happening now?

What are you for?

I don’t believe you are a bigot. But you must take ownership for one.

Throughout this election I have not heard you say one word of criticism against your candidate’s bigotry. When he called Mexicans rapist — silence. When he called prisoners of war, veterans you claim to revere, losers for getting captured– silence. When he called for a registry for Muslims — silence. When he declared that he will turn back the hard-won rights of my LGBTQ friends — silence. When he called women, like my wife and daughters, pigs, or bragged about grabbing their genitals.

Silence.

What are you for, what do you favor? You are against Hilary, immigrants, Muslims, Obamacare, ISIS… You want change, but that isn’t very specific. I haven’t heard a specific policy–a policy with detail. A wall, deporting 11 million people, bringing back jobs, putting Hillary in jail. Those are slogans not policies. Don’t be offended. Most Americans prefer to be against things. It makes for better rallies and Facebook comments sections.

For the past eight years I have heard terrible things said about President Obama, who I voted for. I considered it rude and disrespectful for Republicans to heckle him during a State of the Union Address. I thought it was ridiculous to say he wasn’t a legitimate president, especially after winning reelection. I have seen you post images of him on toilet paper and in borderline racist images. But never did I take it as a personal insult. My feelings weren’t hurt. The president’s a big boy. He can handle himself, and he has. So your posts and comments didn’t damage our friendship.

Lest you think I am homer, I saw the guy I voted for with clear eyes. I criticized President Obama for his lack of transparency and the way he neutered the White House press corps. I believe Obamacare was a flawed program that needed to be reformed. I sometimes criticized his use of drones and his failures in negotiating with the obstructionist Republicans at the beginning of his administration. I think his administration’s failure to prosecute a single executive responsible for the crash of the economy was very disappointing. I didn’t like Hilary’s insistence on no-fly zones in Syria. She’s too much of a hawk for me. Though the emails were overblown, she could have handled the issue much less clumsily from the beginning. And I think she took the working class for granted.

It is personal

Will you call out Trump’s hate-mongering, or am I wrong about your true heart.

I am giving you the benefit of doubt. I don’t believe you think I should have been punished when Obamacare literally saved my wife and I from homelessness. And you aren’t the person at a gas station who called my friend a Mexican bitch and told her to get the fuck out of the country. You are probably horrified by that. You probably feel compassion for the children I know who are terrified that their parents are going to be taken away in the night. You would probably ache for the the man I met living in his car with a family of six. He faces the heartbreaking dilemma every morning at 3:00 of kicking his wife and kids out of the car so he can drive to work to support them. I imagine you care about these people.

Or maybe not.

The man you voted for doesn’t. Please speak out. Say you disagree with him.

I’m not optimistic. All evidence says we’re in a time when winning trumps compassion, decency, even ones own best interest.

Maybe we’ll never agree on guns, on women’s rights, that most people experiencing homelessness and poverty are working hard to improve their lives. Maybe we’ll never agree that work is a privilege or that healthcare is a right. Maybe we’ll never agree that government programs are helping people everywhere from the mentally ill and addicted to poor families to farmers. But if you win, that’s too sweet for you to critize the Uber wealthy and corporations, whose “welfare”has drained the blood of the middle class. But for me to have any hope, I have to believe that my friends and I agree on human decency.

When you attack who I vote for, when you call Hilary a criminal or a bitch. When you call Obama a Kenyan, the worst president ever, or when you can’t talk about minority’s without a hint of racial stereotype hanging in the air, I do not take it as a personal insult—even I feel I need a shower.

Do not expect me to stop attacking this man you have put in office. If you cannot separate yourself from the man, than I am worried about you.

It breaks my heart, but I’m worried about us.

How to win an argument

Pulling into the stop light I scrolled through the third page of a text from my ex-wife lecturing me about my anger.

Whenever my ex tells a story, she has a way of going about it that starts way back at the beginning and takes a while getting to the point. She’s building dramatic tension. When she’s lecturing, she use my name a lot like she’s scolding a little boy. “Danny, my attorney and I agree that you need to do better…” On this particular night, she was inspired, letting me know that I could learn from her and how she had moved on. If I couldn’t figure out a way to handle my anger, she and her attorney were going to have to take severe measures against me. Then she repeated her “concerns” and informed me again how angry I was.

Sitting there at the light the giggle started deep inside me. By the time the light turned back to green I had clicked my response into the night.

“Fuck you!”

I was still grinning when I pulled into my driveway 15 minutes later.  I was told later by a friend that I was immature. My defense: “It was funny.” Well maybe not to everyone. Certainly not to my ex wife…and her attorney. I considered the maturity of my text before I sent it, but the sudden halt to her lecture was a victory of brevity over verbosity and too tempting for the writer in me.

I haven’t lobbed an F-bomb at my ex-wife again since that night. First, I could never capture that spontaneous spark– it wouldn’t be funny. But more important, it wouldn’t be good for me.  Where would I be if I went around saying “Fuck you!” every time someone bugged me? Disciplining my children would certainly be a different experience, and I don’t even want to think about traffic stops.

I don’t like my ex-wife; that’s why we’re not married anymore. Manipulative relationships feed off of emotion,  whether anger, tears or domination.

So, how do you win an argument?

The right answer is “You don’t.”

Early in my divorce — no, long before it — I wanted so bad to win arguments. I would seethe that she couldn’t get it through her thick skull, whatever it was. Later, it became serious–the custody of our precious children — and how those children perceived me, even how other people perceived me as their father. It became a danger to my soul. That’s when the battles changed into crusades–obsessions that threatened to change the essence of who I was. I was fortunate enough to have people around to remind me sternly and often how much was out of my control — and that I should be grateful for that. I was reminded that winning should not be my goal, that anger is not only bad for me, but fatal. Righteous anger, perhaps the most seductive, is the most poisonous.

I heard the words, “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” I longed for that, the comfort with people who loved me and the ease of irrelevance with people who judged me. It’s easy to talk it, but walking it with easy confidence still eludes me.  It takes daily practice and my gait still has a hitch in it.  It requires listening over and again to people who have walked there before. It means sitting down next to that person who seems to have it down. That guy who shrugs and says, “Eh, what are you gonna do?” when you bitch about something that’s eating your lunch. It requires seeing yourself honestly in those who are sputtering and raging and finding peace in the fact that you really aren’t so good at this after all, but knowing, too, that you aren’t alone.

I’ll admit, in the beginning, I wasn’t exactly in the right spirit. I would let my ex or whoever else was disturbing me have the last word in conflicts, not out of magnanimity but because I enjoyed the thought of leaving them dangling. I imagined them wondering when I was going to respond to their meanness. They weren’t quite irrelevant. But now I look back on that as a good start. I was still playing games, manipulating, but less so. I was practicing, getting my reps, for truly letting go.

There is such freedom in not having to win. It doesn’t serve very well in coaching basketball, but it ain’t too bad between games. In daily life, conflicts with other people, concerns over performance or appearance, judgments of the behavior of others, what is to be gained? I have found that being right isn’t worth a damn in the long grind. Trying to pick up nuggets of healthiness from those people and passing on as much of it as I can is a more worthy pursuit. Let anger and discord drift out of my life like a bad storm along with the people infested with it– be they old friends, family, or strangers on the highway. When it bubbles up in me, I try to make amends with conviction and integrity and do the next right thing. If I miss my chance, not to worry, it will come around again. My kids and I have good relationships. I don’t lie to them, even when I look the fool. I apologize, a bit too much my daughter tells me. We talk about deep things in their lives and sometimes they don’t talk to me at all, as it should be. I am not the slightest bit cool. I don’t believe I’m mean or dishonest or perhaps even interesting. There was a time when I could be all of the above. I never demand that they respect me. I figure once I start doing that the good fight is lost.

I don’t need to win anymore. If you’ve read this space before, you might know I used to drink a bit. I have a new drug of choice. It’s a lot like booze. Anger can feel good. I drink it down easy with a burn and a shudder. It comes on with a rush akin to joy. When I’ve decided to stay with it for the evening, I can marinate. There is a singular pleasure in the fearlessness of turning an anger drunk on some deserving soul. But the buzz never lasts. The high subsides and as with whiskey, fatigue comes on and then regret. Why, oh, why did I say such things? There is even the hangover. Next morning I might even avoid the target of my drunkenness, ashamed, acting like the night before never happened. Then resentments. Hold on to those long enough, I’ll be back with my old D.O.C.

Like I said, I used to like the feeling of letting someone have the last word for the wrong reasons. In some arms-length way, I was still fucking with them. And it worked. I don’t mean it worked on them. It worked on me. Believe it or not, I was growing. Pretty soon that habit evolved, somewhere between my old ways and the new. Pretty soon, conflicts weren’t worth the price of my serenity. Soon enough, I grew intentionally more concerned with my response to troubles than with the troubles themselves.

Oh, I still get pissed off. Especially when people hurt someone close to me. But there’s a beautiful sliver of time called the “million dollar pause.” In that moment– which sometimes can last a few precious minutes or at other times deep into the night– I may sit in stillness or talk with my wife until I’ve talked myself out of something stupid. It is worth more than a million dollars. It has saved my relationships with my children,  my sanity, my life. If I take this pause, without fail, I come out the other without anguish, anxiety and fear, understanding that the reason I needed it has lost all power over me.

“Whoever angers you controls you.”

I don’t know who originally said this, but it has been repeated to me time and again, and I have likewise repeated it to my children.

One night, on a darkened playground, I shot hoops with my son as he raged against his high school coach. I pointed out to him that on that night, at that moment, the coach who incensed him was the most important person in his life. More important than his girlfriend, his family, his friends. “Is that what you want?” I asked him. He slowed down. His voice quieted. In his own way, I think he paused.

How do you win an argument with someone you despise? To be honest, I’m not the right one to ask. I am grateful to be out of practice.

I’ve thought about that text I sent to my ex-wife those years ago. I still think it was good comedy. But not good sense.

If I had waited until the next stoplight, maybe I wouldn’t have sent it.