Late Night Thoughts: Richard Feynman, Flirting, Contrary People, Big Ideas, and More

(About a 13 minute read)

To oppress a mother is to oppress a democracy, for it is mothers who teach the value of democracy to their children.

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Some years ago, if I heard a pounding on my door around 11:30 on a full moon night, I could reliably guess it was Suzanne come by to demand that we go for a midnight hike in the mountains.   I always went for — after all — how often do you get to risk becoming a mountain lion’s next meal?  Besides, the mountains are magic at night.

Suzanne was, and still is, highly intelligent, creative, beautiful, and resilient.  At the time we were taking midnight hikes, however, she was also largely dysfunctional due to an untreated bipolar disorder.  That kept me from developing a genuine emotional intimacy with her, for it’s difficult to feel genuinely intimate with someone who — for whatever reason — is wrapped up in themselves.  Nevertheless, we did pretty good as casual friends.

One crisp night, we set out for a trail head, but when we got there, a noisy group of about seven or eight people were setting off down the trail, so we decided to drive on.  That eventually landed us on a dirt road high up in the mountains.  Since it was about two or three in the morning, and no one was likely to be traveling that narrow road but us, we parked the car in the middle of the road, put the top down, and threw a blanket over us in order to stargaze.

The moon soon enough went down behind the mountains.  The sky blazed with what seemed like five thousand stars, and Suzanne and I fell into silence.  After 45 minutes or an hour, Suzanne spoke.  “Why do I have to be in love with Jeff?”

“I don’t know.  Have you figured that out?”

“Not yet.  I just don’t understand why I get along with you better than I get along him, but I’m in love with him.”  After a moment, she went on,  “I love you too, of course; just not in the same way.”

Jeff was Suzanne’s boyfriend.  Like Suzanne, he was highly intelligent.  He was also abusive.  Whenever we were together, Suzanne would sooner or later start talking about him.   Usually, she spoke of his most recent outrages.

I knew, by that time in my life, that criticizing someone’s partner — even someone’s abusive partner — would most likely achieve nothing more than cause them to rally to the defense of their partner, so I carefully avoided giving Suzanne any hint of how profoundly I loathed Jeff for his abuse of her.   “That does seem strange”, I said as evenly as I could, “I mean that you get along with me better than him.”

“I do love him.”  She turned to look at me.

“Is he good for you?” I replied, looking at her and trying my hardest not to make my question sound like a challenge.  I thought that, if only she would ask that question, sincerely ask that question….

“But I love him!”  She protested.  “That’s got to count for something, right?”  She’d done exactly what I feared: Taken my question for a challenge, rather than genuinely think about whether he was any good for her.

Suzanne was twenty years younger than me.  She had yet to learn the difference between genuinely loving someone and merely being emotionally dependent on them.   Nor was there anyway I could have explained those things to her that night.  Although she never would have expressed it this way,  on some level, Suzanne believed the world was fair and just, and that Jeff had to sooner or later come around if for no other reason than she loved him so much.

In time, Suzanne came to her senses and dumped Jeff.

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Today, May 11, is the anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth.  He was born 1918 and died 1988.  Probably, I think, not only one of the greatest physicists of the 20th Century, but also one of wisest people of that century.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.  — Feynman

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I think Sarah was fifteen when I met her.  She and I were both regular customers at the coffee shop and we often enough sat together at the sidewalk tables.  Sarah was one of a small handful of girls who would keep me company even when I was not sitting with any handsome boys their own age.  She also struck me as generally cheerful, optimistic, and sensible.  The sort of level-headed, but occasionally mischievous, young person who gives you hope for the future.

One sunny morning,  about a year after Sarah and I first met,  I was sitting by myself when I happened to glance down the street towards the local high school.  About two blocks away, a woman was walking towards the shop, and though I couldn’t make out her face at that distance, there was something in the way she walked that made me recognize it was Sarah.  I think it might also have been the style of skirt she wore, for Sarah favored long, flowing skirts with a certain kind of print — almost paisley.

As I had guessed, it indeed turned out to be her.

When she arrived, she came straight to my table, and we were soon discussing her jewelry for no other reason than to pass the time of day.   “I have the worse luck, Paul.  Every piece I own has lost its partner.  This ring — see the naked man?   This silver ring had a naked woman that went with it.  That way you could divide the ring into two pieces, and give one piece to your lover.   But I lost the woman.  An ex of mine wouldn’t give it back when we broke up.”

“And you see the man in the moon in my earring? I used to have another earring just like it, but I somewhere lost it.”  She grinned.  “Now I have the moon in one ear, and a dragon in the other.”  She turned her head one way and then the other to show me.

We went on like that for an hour or two it seemed: Simply enjoying the sunny, but cool weather.  Eventually, she had to go back to school, for though her high school had an open campus policy, she was of course expected to attend classes if they were not study halls.

A few weeks later, Sarah and I were again at the coffee shop together.  At some point in our conversation, she decided to draw a dragon for me.  She explained as she was drawing it, that she had practiced and practiced drawing the dragon until she could almost draw it blindfolded.

“Ah! Well executed!  I know you like dragons.”  I remembered her earring.

“Oh yes!  Did I tell you about my dragon lamp?  I have a lamp that a candle fits inside.  When you burn the candle, it casts dragon shadows on the walls.  I love it! I use it as a night light.”

It all came together for me one evening a few months after that.  Sarah and I were once again at the coffee shop, but this time it was towards dusk.  Another man had joined us  — a guy about my age, which was twenty-five or so years older than Sarah.   He and Sarah were flirting with each other, which rather more bored me than anything else.  I became absorbed in watching the sunset.

Presently, the man left to go home, or go to his job, I don’t quite recall which now.  Sarah soon turned to me, “I love flirting with older men”, she said.  “I know I won’t let it go anywhere.  The age difference makes that impossible.  But you can learn so much!  Should I be ashamed of myself, Paul?”

I don’t remember now exactly what I said to her, but she responded by almost pouting — a very unusual expression for her — and then playfully suggesting that I was a public killjoy for refusing to flirt with people, especially with her.  That so surprised me that I felt I needed to make amends!  Hence, within a few days, I composed a simple poem just for Sarah.

She’s a woman in the grace of sixteen summers
With skirts flowing in the morning sun
And she speaks of the silver man ringed naked
A dancer who dances alone
For her jewels have all lost their partners
But the moon still laughs in one ear
And she sleeps in the shadow of dragons
With a heart uncorrupted by fear

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Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.  ― Richard Feynman

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Some “religious” people are just contrary.  They profess to be Hindus or Christians, Muslims or Jews, Buddhists or Taoists, but their real religion is simply to find fault with other people.

God, enlightenment, the Tao are to them little more than concepts that they imagine give them ultimate permission to condemn folks, to dehumanize them.  “I speak for God”, they imply.  “I speak for the Tao.”  Such strange people: Always hiding behind some pillar like “God”, peeking out only to snarl!

But such people are not confined to religions.

No, you find them in the lunatic fringes of every political and social movement, every ideology — including the better ones.  What sort of person makes it their life to condemn others?  What sort of person lives for it?

It is part of the comedy of our species that we often give them the time of day.

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The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.  ― Richard Feynman

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To me, the ultimate goal in life is neither meaning nor happiness, but to be as true to yourself as you can be in a socially and environmentally responsible way.   The way I see it, if you shoot for that, then you’ll find what meaning and happiness there is for you in life, like icing on the cake.  But I don’t see how living falsely can bring about either meaning or happiness.  Of course, all I really know is that it works for me.

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I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.   ― Richard Feynman

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Top 40 Lovers

I listen to the radio play those old two songs:
“How I love him more than life itself” and “How she did me wrong”.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple lover
If the goal’s a cosmic truth.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple friend
If we’re lawyers in the end.

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Humans are natural born cartographers.  We make maps of the world, which we call “beliefs”.   It’s what our species does.

Sometimes, our maps are more or less accurate.  And sometimes, they are fantasy maps, like the ones we made as children to show where a pirate’s treasure lay buried in our backyard.

The accuracy of our maps often matters less to us than the fact they are ours.  Because, for most of us, our maps are something we think of as us.

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I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.  ― Richard Feynman

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“Hullo?”

“Don, this is Paul.  We’re rich!”

“We’re what?”

“Rich, Don, we’re richer than our wildest dreams!”

“Are you kidding me?  What happened?  Did you win the lottery?”

“Lottery?  You can’t depend on lotteries, Don.  This is so much better than a lottery.  This is Big!  Huge!  I’ve had an idea, Don.  An idea!”

“Paul, I have always believed you are capable of having good ideas.  Which is why I am still patiently waiting after all these years for you to actually have one.  But if this is like that last ‘good idea’…”.

“Don’t worry, Don, this one can’t miss.  It’s huge!  What is the number one complaint people have about foods, Don?  The number one complaint?”

“Paul, where is this leading?”

“Don, I’ve been researching this, and nine times out of ten, when people complain about food, it’s because they don’t like the taste.  It’s a scientific fact, Don.  Nine times out of ten!”

“So what?”

“Six words, Don, six words:  Spray-cans filled with liquid nitrogen!  Zap that awful taste right out of your mouth!  Instantly!  Never worry about a bad tasting meal again!

“Don we are going to get rich here!  We are going to get so rich!  I’ve already called some architects, asked for designs on our office building.  Are you excited, Don?

“Don?  Damnit, Don!  You’re a going to have to get a new phone.  Yours keeps dying on me!”

There are no Weeds

(About a 10 minute read)

Long ago, the Coffee Shop was a hang out for many mildly disaffected youths.  They were the kids who didn’t fit in too well, who weren’t always doing what was expected of them, who often had talents no one had noticed or encouraged, or who were simply marching to the beat of their own drummer.

Kyle, for instance, was the son of a wealthy father, but he wanted to make his own way in the world.  So he had enlisted in the Army to earn money for college rather than allow his father to pay for his education.  He was passionate about poetry and wanted to teach English.

Melanie was from a much poorer family than Kyle, and her only academic interests were mathematics.  She paid for the community college by working as an erotic dancer.

Catherine was another mathematician, and she worried about her social skills.  She graduated early from high school then stayed in town to mature for a year, rather than head straight to college.

Erin was 15 when she left her parent’s house to sleep on friend’s couches.  She did her homework by streetlight for a while.  Then she met Jim, a year or two older, who convinced her school was for losers, and life lay in studying the Kabbalah.

Jody was a bit older than most, and a prostitute fascinated with the Third Reich and Phoenician glassware.  She’d scored high on the aptitude tests, but drugs, along with being raised in an abusive home, were too much for her, and she left unpursued her dream of becoming an historian.

Luke was raised in North Africa and in British boarding schools before his executive father transferred to Colorado.  He planned to leave town soon to study psychology, for he wanted to heal minds.  In the meantime, he was both too well educated and too brilliant for his high school classes.  So, like many other eccentrics, he found his way to the Coffee Shop.

In the mornings, the Shop was full of business people; by midday it held all ages and walks of life; and by evening it was the kids.  One slow Tuesday night I spent a half hour or 45 minutes carefully counting the crowd.  My count was nearly 200, most of them people I’d met, most of them kids, most of them misfits.

If anyone loved them all, it was Joe. He seemed to have a knack for it.

A month or so after we met, Joe invited me to go with him and a couple to Valley View Hot Springs.  It was the way he phrased the invitation that surprised me.  “We need a chaperon”, he said, “There might be trouble.  You’ve got to say, ‘Yes’.”

I couldn’t tell at first how serious he was about trouble.  Joe was 18 that year, strong, and could handle himself. Besides, he knew Valley View was more peaceful than most any other place in Colorado.  He’d been going there with his family since he was five or six.  What kind of trouble did he anticipate?

The trouble was jealousy, Joe explained.  He’d only recently befriended the couple, and he had not caught on to the guy’s jealousy of him.  Thinking everything was cool, he decided to share with them the most spiritual place he knew of.   The girl was so enthusiastic to go to Valley View that the guy feigned agreement, and so Joe and the couple had made plans.  But in the week between making plans and their realization, Joe was shocked when the girl pointed out to him her boyfriend’s jealousy.  That’s when Joe got the notion my presence might somehow defuse the situation.

In the years I knew him, Joe almost never allowed himself to act on any jealously he himself might feel, and I think that might have been because jealousy excludes folks rather than includes them.  Joe was all about including people.  Looking back, it seems almost inevitable Joe would fail to see the boyfriend’s jealousy until it was pointed out to him.

So, the four of us took a day trip to Valley View.  The couple had brought swimsuits, but the guy strangely refused to join his girlfriend, Joe and I in the hot springs.  Instead, he said he wanted to look for elk among the pines and scrub oak, and wandered off.  I left Joe and the girl talking at one end of the pool, and spent most of the time watching dust devils swirl across the valley below.

It was by no means a bad trip, but I think it was the worse Joe and I ever managed to take to Valley View. It seemed none of us got into the spirit of the place.   We left just as divided as we’d arrived.  A few days later, Joe and I discussed it.  After noting how argumentative the guy became on the trip home, Joe said he felt the girl had spent the afternoon at the pool in some kind of bubble; unresponsive to the beauty all around her; unable to connect with nature; indifferent even to the wind through the ponderosa.  “We might as well have gone to the mall”, he grinned.

Joe had been raised a Christian, but a year or two after the trip he committed himself to it.   His inspiration was the New Testament, rather than the Old; the life of Jesus, rather than the Ten Commandments.  Consequently, his first step was to simplify his life.  He gave away his inessential possessions and moved from his parent’s house to a shack.  Mostly, though, he emulated Jesus and the Disciples in his heart and mind.  It became clear the appeal of Christianity to him was its doctrine of universal love — he was, he told me, indifferent to heaven and hell.  Instead, salvation, for Joe, was to learn how to love the world as Christ had.

His experiment with Christianity lasted a couple of years.  When I asked him why he was no longer a Christian, he told me he still believed in God, and perhaps even that Jesus was Christ, but he could not have faith in them so long as people were sent to hell.

Joe worked at a greenhouse.  One day, Joe spoke of his growing distaste for weeding.  “They may be weeds, Paul, but they didn’t ask to be born where they’re not wanted.  It feels terrible to kill them.”  Some part of me agreed with Joe — at least with his notion that all living things have value — but I still felt weeding in a greenhouse was justified by its necessity.  I thought to myself he’d soon enough see that necessity and reconcile himself to killing weeds.

A day later, however, Joe found a partial solution.  He began transplanting the weeds.  At least he began transplanting the larger ones.  He did it on his own time, after work, because he didn’t think it was fair to charge his boss for the extra time it took.  There was a large, bare mound of soil out back of the greenhouse and he was transplanting the weeds to the far side of it, where — he hoped — they would thrive.

I was a bit taken aback.  On the one hand, it ranked among the craziest things I’d heard of a friend doing in some time.  But on the other hand, looked at a little more rationally, it wasn’t self-destructive, it was harmless to others, and it preserved life.  I didn’t think Joe’s project would last — I thought he’d grow tired of it — but I rather admired him for asserting his good convictions in a world where there sometimes seemed to be too few good convictions.

Two months passed before Joe brought the subject up again.  My first reaction was surprise he was still transplanting weeds.  But then he explained his boss had found him out.  Of course, he expected to be fired.  Yet, after he’d told her everything, she’d only laughed and smiled, and told him he was a good worker, that she loved him, and that she would find other work than weeding for him to do.

Something happened one day to make me see symbolic meaning in Joe’s actions.  It began when Laura called to ask if she could come over and take a shower.  She was a homeless kid who kept a few items of clothing at my place and sometimes dropped by for a shower or a meal.  She was heavily into drugs, and I never invited her to stay too long, because I didn’t want my things to start disappearing.

That evening, I got her fed and her feet massaged, and then sent her off to the shower.  She told me she’d been partying, and that after my place, she wanted to go back and party some more.  It wasn’t long, though, before she’d fallen asleep on the couch.   I thought about her while she slept.

Laura was nineteen, and she hadn’t a regular home since she was thirteen.  She’d never met her father, a man who left before she was born.  At thirteen, she’d gotten into a fight with her mother’s boyfriend.  He swung a chair at her.  A leg caught her in the belly and ripped a seven inch wound.  She ran from the house and never returned.

The wound didn’t get sewn up, and the scar was huge.  I’d run my fingers along it once, and somehow the memory of that furrowed, lumpy scar tissue was still stuck in my fingertips.  When I thought of Laura, I always thought of that scar.  And that’s what I was thinking of when Joe’s words came back to me: “They may be weeds, but they didn’t ask to be born where they’re not wanted.”  It was somewhat like a minor epiphany: Joe would understand the tragedy of Laura better than anyone — if for no other reason than Joe had a knack for a certain kind of love.

There is more than one kind of love in this world.  The kind Joe was most interested in is inclusive.   That kind of love does not seek to jealously wall off a little private garden for itself.  It is neither possessive nor jealous, as was the guy at Valley View.  Nor does it demand to be loved in return — for a love that wants love in return must exclude some from being loved. It was the promise of that inclusive kind of love that attracted Joe to Christianity.  It was the realization that some are excluded from God’s love that caused Joe to lose his faith.

I believe it’s rare for most of us — especially when we are young — to think of love as an excellence.  That is, as a thing one might learn how to do to the best of his or her ability.  Instead, we think of love as something requiring little or no talent, practice, or skill.  We suppose it comes natural to us, and so we spend our time waiting for it without doing much to help it come about.

Every kid at the Coffee Shop had his or her own mix of talents and skills, and many of the kids had an excellence.  Kyle, for instance, was a gifted poet.  Melanie and Catherine excelled at mathematics.  And Luke was a born psychologist.  But I think Joe’s excellence was his ability to love.

Sometime ago, Joe moved up into the mountains, where he met a woman and settled in with her.  He lives up there now, in a small mountain town.


Originally posted November 27, 2008

Neil and the Soul of an Artist

(About a 5 minute read)

Neil was raised in a tiny settlement in the San Luis Valley by artists.  The San Luis — over a mile above sea level, and the largest alpine valley in the world — is Colorado’s poorest region.

Because it’s so poor, the cost of living is moderate, and maybe it’s the cost of living that attracts the artists.  More than 500 working artists make their homes in the Valley.

Yet, because artists are quirky people, it might be more than the cost of living that attracts so many of them to the San Luis.  It could be the miles of open space, for instance.  Or the huge elk herd, the bald eagles and the sandhill cranes.  Or perhaps even the stars — for at night, the sky above the San Luis explodes with the music of light.

Neil’s parents were not religious people but they sent their son to church each Sunday.  When he was 13 or 14, he rebelled.  He told his parents he hated church, didn’t believe a word of anything he heard there, and was a confirmed agnostic.  “Good”, said his mother and father, “You’ve learned everything a church can teach you about life: Nothing.  We could have told you that ourselves about churches, but we wanted you to figure it out.  You can stop going now.”

When Neil turned old enough for high school, his parents decided he needed a better school than the one in the settlement.  So they packed Neil off to live with his grandmother in Colorado Springs and to attend Palmer High.  There, in his first art class, he met Sarah and Beth.  The three shared an intense interest in art and quickly became best friends.

It was Sarah who introduced me to Neil.  Sarah was regular at the Coffee Shop, and the two of us now and then shared each other’s company.  At 16, she was poised, sophisticated, and self-confident.  She liked to flirt with older men, even though she knew, as she put it, that she “couldn’t let it go anywhere”, and she once told me how much I disappointed her because I wouldn’t flirt.  I felt like a killjoy, and wrote a poem about her to make amends.

Sarah, Beth, and Neil spent hours together each day.  They seemed more mature than many kids their age.  For one thing, both Neil and Sarah held themselves much like adults, and all three of them would look you right in the eye when listening or speaking to you.  For another thing, there were seldom conflicts between them, and the three friends were remarkably free from adolescent dramas.

Back in those days, I heard enough adolescent dramas to fill a social calendar.  I had somehow stumbled into the role of confident for many of the kids who hung out at the Coffee Shop.  Sometimes, up to a half-dozen kids a day would confess their woes to me — pretty much one kid after the other.  Yet, I understood their need to talk and never rejected them.

Most of their stories were about sex and relationships, and some of the stories were painful to hear, because there were kids who kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  Yet, even the kids who didn’t repeat their mistakes — kids like Sarah, for instance — still seemed determined to make an allotted number of foolish mistakes, for how else do people learn?  I quickly discovered the role of confident was often more depressing than rewarding.

Through-out high school, Sarah, Beth and Neil remained as best friends, but when it was time for college, they parted ways.  Each went to a different university, and while Sarah and Beth stayed in contact with each other, Neil dropped out of the group.

I recall Neil was 22 and back from college when I ran across him one evening at the Coffee Shop.  We chatted for a while and I suggested we go to a restaurant for something to eat.

We ordered beer with our food, and were soon rambling along from one topic to the next.  A few beers into the evening, Neil decided to tell me how he lost his virginity.  “Was it Sarah?”, I asked.  I knew she’d been sexually active from the age of 16, and given their close friendship, it seemed logical to suspect her of having been his first partner.

“Not at all”, Neil said, “I wasn’t ready for sex back then, and I knew it.”

“I’m curious how you knew that about yourself.”

“I don’t make really important decisions up here”, he said, pointing to his forehead, “Instead, I go with what my soul tells me.”  He looked at me quizzically.  “Do you believe we have a soul, Paul?”

I didn’t want to sidetrack us into metaphysics, so I said, “I believe I can understand what you’re getting at.  Do you mean something like your sense of yourself…of who you are…of what’s right for you?”

“Yes!  That’s close!  I knew I wasn’t ready for sex because the opportunities never felt right to me.  None of them passed the soul test.  I didn’t want my first time to feel wrong in any way.”

“Was it ever hard waiting?”

“Sometimes.  Everyone else was having sex, and I wanted to have sex.  I was always horny.  It’s not like I wasn’t.”

“So what happened?” At that point, I wanted him to cut to the chase.

“Last year, I finally met the person I knew was right for me.  We met in a bar, but we weren’t drunk, and everything just clicked.  I knew she was the one.”

“Did you have sex that night?”

“No.  I called her on Thursday, a few days later, and we got together that Saturday.  I wasn’t in a hurry.  I knew it was going to happen.  I took her to dinner, and we went to her place afterwards.  That’s when I lost my virginity.  And I was right to wait. I was vindicated.  It was beautiful, Paul.  It felt perfect and it was beautiful.”

“Was it her first time too?”

“Oh no!  She was 26 last year — an older woman, and experienced.”

“Are you two still together?”

“No”, he said, “We never got together as a couple.  That wasn’t something she wanted or I wanted, and we understood that about each other from the start.  We’re friends now, but we’ve only had sex that one time.”

“I’m very proud,” he went on, “that I waited until everything felt right…until I knew it was right.”

“Not many people do that, Neil.”, I remarked, “Did your parents raise you to consult your soul?”  I had a strong suspicion at this point that Neil’s parents, both artists, raised him to pay careful attention to his “soul”.  It seemed like something artists would do naturally — perhaps even do necessarily.

“Very much so.”, Neil said, and he went on about that for a while.  But I wasn’t really following him at that point.

I’d begun to feel the beer and my mind was wandering back to the days when Neil was in high school and I was something of the neighborhood confident for a third of the kids at the Coffee Shop.  Neil had made the decision that was right for him and come out shining.  All in all, his story was one of the best I’d heard then or now, and I felt grateful to him for sharing it with me.


This post was originally published July 7, 2008, and was last updated April 23, 2017 for clarity.

Suzanne and the Nature of Abuse

(About a 7 minute read)

I’ve heard models described as vacuous airheads, but that doesn’t describe Suzanne unless someone can be both a vacuous airhead and an intelligent, creative, buoyant, and artistic woman.

I believe she was all of 14 years old when she first modeled lingerie for Victoria’s Secrets, the catalog and store company. She couldn’t have been much older because I met her when she was 16 and she was no longer modeling by then.

Over the years, Suzanne has revealed a persistent talent for getting fired from employments, so I strongly suspect she was no longer modeling by the time we met because Secrets had refused anything more to do with her. She’s not a vacuous airhead, but she is dysfunctional.

The story I’m prepared to tell you today concerns Suzanne, Victoria’s Secrets, and her abusive boyfriend. I’ve already introduced Suzanne and Victoria’s Secrets, so I’ll turn now to the boyfriend.

Meet Jeff*.

He’s one of those males who prey on women much younger than themselves. Jeff is 20 years older than Suzanne, and very few women his own age have ever sustained an interest in him. Jeff can be charming. He can be witty. He can be exciting. He can sweep a naive and inexperienced girl off her feet. Yet, most women see the looser in him. So Jeff has learned to specialize in the young, naive and inexperienced women he has some chance of getting.

Once he gets them, he doesn’t know what to do with them. He turns the affair into a drama, the drama into a tragedy, the tragedy into a nightmare. When you take some fish out of the water, their colors at first fascinate, then fade. Latter, the fish begin to stink. Any girl who lands Jeff sooner or later learns that in a relationship, he’s a fish out of water.

Young people almost invariably overestimate the odds in their favor of significantly changing someone, and especially they overestimate their odds of changing a lover. Maybe that’s because they are always being told by their parents, preachers, and teachers to change themselves, and so they assume it actually works when you tell people to change themselves.

In truth, the only person likely to change someone is the person themselves. And even then, seldom, if ever, is a person capable of a fundamental change: It’s not in the nature of water to become stone, nor of stone to become air.

In the few years Jeff and Suzanne were together, Suzanne wanted two things, both absurd. She wanted to change Jeff against his nature. And she wanted her own nature to bloom. The latter was absurd because Jeff had her under his thumb and was abusing her emotionally, psychologically, and physically. No one blooms under those conditions. At best, they merely endure.

If you yourself have seen a few abusive relationships, you know they are all alike, except for the details. The only detail of the relationship between Jeff and Suzanne that surprised me was that Jeff apparently never tried to keep Suzanne from seeing me.

I’m clueless why he didn’t. It’s a classic pattern of abuse that the abuser tries to prevent his victim from having any friends who are outside of his influence or control. But through much of the time she was with Jeff, Suzanne saw me almost daily. It’s true she seldom associated with me in Jeff’s presence, but we spent hours together while he was at work or off somewhere else. That sort of thing normally doesn’t happen in an abusive relationship.

Suzanne would look me up almost every day. We’d then go to a coffee shop, a movie, the mall, “The Well” — which was her favorite nudist resort — or we’d go hiking, or drive around Colorado for a few hours. Whatever amused us.

Once, we even went to Victoria’s Secrets. That was three or so years into Suzanne’s relationship with Jeff. That day, we’d gone to the mall.

When we were passing the Victoria’s Secrets store, Suzanne wanted to go in. The racks, of course, were full of lingerie, and Suzanne excitedly asked me to choose three sets for her to try on. She then took me back to a dressing room where she stripped and modeled the sets for me.

Christmas was a month off, so I asked her a lot of questions about each of the three sets, including which one felt the most comfortable — if I’m going to give lingerie to a woman, it damn well better be comfortable, especially at Victoria’s prices.

Looking at a young nude woman is at least as fascinating to me as watching a beautiful sunrise. Yet, I’m not usually more than moderately attracted to most young women’s sexuality. Their sexuality is more likely to depress me than to stimulate me, although I’m not quite sure why. At any rate, I certainly do not make a point of telling young women they aren’t all that sexy to me — I have my life to protect! So that day I told Suzanne, “This is a lot of fun for me — watching you model that sexy lingerie. If I’m having so much fun, think of how much fun it would be for Jeff! Why don’t you bring him out here?”

Suzanne didn’t answer immediately. When she did answer, her voice had gone strange. There was a tone in it I’d never heard before. In a way, it was a little girl’s voice. But perhaps it only sounded like a little girl’s voice because she was having difficulty controlling it. She said, “Jeff wouldn’t like it. If I did this with him, he’d call me a slut.”

We fell into silence. Then she began taking off the last set of lingerie in order to get back into her own clothes, but she was trembling.

When you abuse a woman, you prevent her from being true to herself. At it’s core, that’s what abuse really is — it’s unnecessarily preventing someone from being true to themselves.

Sometimes it comes out in ways that are large enough and important enough to easily describe. Like the woman whose husband prevents her from developing her musical genius so that the world looses a classical pianist. But much more often, abuse comes out in ways that are harder to see, such as when a woman trembles in a dressing room because her lover will not, or cannot, accept her sexuality whole and complete, just as it is, without condemning it.

Those harder to see ways are as criminal as the other. You don’t need to beat a woman to abuse her. You can just as well kill a person’s sense of themselves, their self-esteem, their self direction — by a thousand tiny cuts.

By the time I met Suzanne I was too old and had seen too much wickedness to harbor any fantasy that I could reason with her into leaving Jeff. I knew she was confused beyond reason, frightened into uncertainty, blinded by her feelings, and emotionally dependent on him. So, I did the only things I thought I could do, which were never that great nor enough.

For the most part, that amounted to just accepting her for herself.


*The Jeff in this story should not be confused with the Jeff in 50 Shades of Jeff: Profile of a Promiscuous Man.  The two “Jeffs” were very different people in almost every way imaginable, although they knew each other.

Note: This story was last updated on April 20, 2017 for clarity.

The Gifts of AL Remington

(About a 4 minute read)

It was difficult to beat Al. I think I only did it once. Or, maybe, I didn’t. Maybe I just came close. He was strongest in the endgame.

If you let him get that far — and it was hard not to — he had you beat.

Al said he learned chess when he was in the army, stationed in Greenland, with nothing else to do but his job and learn chess. By the time I met him, he was in his 60s, still enthusiastic about the game, and the man to beat at the Coffee Shop. He was a gentle man, reserved, modest, but exuding an air of dignity and confidence, much like a good father or grandfather. In his 60s, he drove a dark blue Cadillac on wet days and rode a Harley when the sun was out.

One day I discovered the Coffee Shop didn’t purchase the chess sets it had on hand. It was Al who did that. He would search garage sales for abandoned sets, buy them, and bring them to the Shop. He had to do that over and over again because people would loose pieces. But he didn’t mind. It was his hobby.

I think it must have been Al who got “everyone” — at least a third of the regular customers — playing chess. There were always two or three games going back then. Half the regular customers were kids and most of the kids were taught the game by Al. That is, someone else would usually teach them the basic moves — then Al would teach them the art.

Not just the art of chess, but other things too. He taught kids how to win graciously, how to loose without animosity, how to be fair (he’d spot the less skilled players a piece or two), and even how to keep a poker face. He never lost his temper, he was always encouraging, and he taught values. For instance: There wasn’t a kid at the Coffee Shop Al disdained to play, nor one he disrespected.

Several of the adults who hung out at the Shop were uncertain characters, but not Al. One man, Tim, was only there to proselytize the kids for Christ and had no other point in befriending them. Another man, Jeff, in his mid-thirties, was obsessed with getting laid by teens. A third man, who called himself Attila, dressed immaculately, neatly trimmed his white beard, and pretended to have wealth and connections. He would come every day to the Shop with his son, who he’d named Khan, and who was 15 and had lost his spirit. Attila would speak about Khan as if Khan wasn’t present and sitting right next to him: I’ve never in my life heard a more verbally abusive father. Unlike those characters, Al cared for the kids.

Al never told you he liked kids, but he did. He’d surely raised enough of them: Four biological children, two or three adopted children, and a number of foster children. I figure teaching them chess was Al’s way of raising up the Coffee Shop kids. He spoke to me several times of his belief that playing chess developed good, solid thinking skills. But he never quite said he considered himself on a mission to help the Coffee Shop kids. Saying something like that wasn’t Al’s style.

Al died at his home a couple years ago at age 72. I read his obituary to discover he was a minister. He hadn’t spoken of that; had never proselytized me; nor — so far as I know — had he proselytized any of the kids. I guess that wasn’t his style, either. Instead, he just served others.

Nowadays, I drop by the Coffee Shop once or twice a month. The kids Al and I knew have grown up and moved on. No one today plays chess. The adults sit with adults and the kids sit with kids. Maybe that’s the way people feel it should be.

I was reminded of Al earlier today by a comment Ordinary Girl left on another post. She mentioned how adults stay away from kids for fear of being thought creepy. That got me to thinking of how Al, born in 1933, belonged to another generation — one that had a stronger sense of community and wasn’t so set against mixing the ages. Yet, I wonder how kids are supposed to grow up with few adults in their lives?

Are they supposed these days to learn what they need to be a functional adult from Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and advertising? It seems to me we too often leave kids these days to be raised by the media.

Somethings we can only learn from another person. Things we cannot learn from a book, a movie, the television, popular music, or a video game. Somethings we must learn through our interactions with others. And some of those things that can only be learned through our interactions with others are very important. I discovered when I hung out with teens that many teens had what struck me then as a thirst to hang out with adults. I suspect they needed encouragement, insight into themselves, support, and affirmation, among other things. Those are not things we easily get from a book or movie.

Yet, it’s not a one-way street. I believe there can be tremendous benefits for an adult to having kids in his or her life. For one thing, watching a new generation grow up, seeing it go through the same things you once went through, can give you an invaluable perspective on life and a profound acceptance of your own aging.

I’ve come to believe any society which separates the generations will sooner or later pay a price for it. It even seems to me unnatural. I doubt any previous society has headed as far in that direction as ours. And, to me, it is all part of the larger break down of genuine community. It seems our societies are becoming increasingly fragmented, and I am unsure where that will eventually leave us. I rather hope Al’s generation is not the last to mix ages.


Note: Al was a grand- or great grandnephew of Frederic Remington, the painter.

Marah’s Hidden Love

(About a 5 minute read)

I was disappointed, when I arrived at the coffee shop many years ago, to see Chris standing outside, talking with an impossibly beautiful young woman, for I wanted to visit with him, but I was reluctant to interrupt what looked like an easy-going, friendly conversation.

Nevertheless, Chris waved me over.

After he and I exchanged pleasantries, he introduced me, “This is my half-sister, Marah”.  Marah immediately burst into a smile as bright as the day was sunny, we briefly greeted each other, Chris spoke again, and so I turned back to him.  And that was almost the full extent of my introduction to Marah.

She disappeared from my consciousness almost at once after we’d exchanged pleasantries  — disappeared until a few minutes later when, for some reason I can no longer recall, I suddenly got to wondering how old she was.

I thought it would be awkward to straight-forward ask her because the question would most likely seem to her to come from out of the blue, so I asked Chris how old he was.

“By the way, Chris, I’ve forgotten how old you said you were.  I’m 39.”   He told me he was 19, and then, after a moment’s pause, Marah pitched in, “I’m 16.”

Mission accomplished.  And that was all of it, the whole introduction.  I didn’t see Marah again for about a year.  One day she showed up at the coffee shop again, and we soon began hanging out with each other daily.

“Hanging out” consisted almost entirely of sitting together at the shop, mostly in the afternoons, and usually at one of the sidewalk tables.  Typically, we’d engage each other in idle conversations.  The conversations were so idle in fact that it took me a fairly long time to realize Marah was just as bright as she was beautiful. Not only was she bright, but she was quite level-headed, too.  Not a bit of the drama queen about her.

Yet, just about the same moment I realized Marah was exceptionally bright, she suddenly quit coming to the coffee shop again.

I can no longer recall whether it was one, or two, years before she showed up after that, but we got to hanging out again, until — once again — she disappeared for a year or more.  And so it went with her and me for several years.

Then one night, when Marah was about 24 or so, and “back in town”, so to speak, she was visiting me at my place when something very strange happened.

It began this way: First, for some godawful reason, I spent a couple hours uncharacteristically holding back my need to pee until almost the last possible moment.  Finally, I rose up from chair, intending on making a straight path to the bathroom.  But at that moment, Marah suddenly shot up from the floor, where she’d been sitting, and intercepted me.

She wrapped her arms around me in a very tight embrace, and pressed her half-turned face into my chest.  In a slightly raised voice, she said very emphatically, “I love you, Paul!  I have always loved you!”

Her words were indeed so emphatic that, even though I was quite surprised, I instinctively believed her.

Then, the dumbest words came to my mind.  And perhaps because I was in a hurry, I didn’t waste time searching for any better ones.  “I know you do.  Please excuse me for a moment.”

When I got back, I added to the mess I was making of things by deciding to pretend nothing had happened between us.  Marah waited about 30 more minutes, then said her goodbyes and left.  Afterwards, we saw each other now and then, but Marah had put distance between us.

Why had I turned her down that night?  You might suppose it had something to do with our gap in ages, but that would not be the case.  I knew even then of more than one happy marriage between couples 20 years apart, including an exceptionally happy one. While I knew such marriages have their own unique difficulties, I also knew those difficulties were not always crucial.

Most likely, it wasn’t my celibacy, either.  My celibacy has never been a matter of having vowed to be celibate.  It’s always been a matter of having felt a need or desire to be celibate.  I can’t be sure, but I think it’s likely I would not have felt a need to be celibate with Marah — had I bothered to check my heart on the matter that evening.

Rather than any of that, it was that I simply thought I knew better than Marah what was best for Marah.

When she said, “I love you!”, she said it with such emotion that I instantly believed her.

Yet, by the time I returned from the bathroom, I was suspecting she didn’t know her own heart — an adult woman who was almost certainly smarter than me, and at least possibly more insightful — only because she was so much younger.

I don’t know whether to properly call that “arrogance”, but I think it might have been close to it.  It wasn’t like I made my decision based on my own feelings and desires in the matter; I didn’t even take a real moment to consult my own feelings and desires.  No, so far as I can still recall nowadays, I decided to reject Marah solely on the basis of feeling I knew her heart better than she did because I held myself to be older and wiser than her.

Were her words really sincere?  Of course, I’m unlikely to ever know a firm answer to that because it’s unlikely now that I’ll ever be in a position to ask her.  We haven’t seen each other in years, and even if we do meet again, it’s unlikely I’ll feel comfortable bringing up that evening again.

On the one hand, Marah had given me a few hints now and then that she could be interested in me as more than only a friend.  She’d once or twice passionately kissed me, for example.  But on the other hand, they weren’t great hints, and if her words really were true, then why had she stayed away from me for such long stretches of time?

If Marah really did love me, I have to conclude she hid it even better than she hid her exceptional intelligence.   Most of us have at one time or another in our lives hidden our love — or at least hidden our attraction — for someone.  It’s quite a common thing to do.  I can’t put it entirely past Marah to have done that.  And so, it must forever remain a mystery to me what was really going on with her that evening.

Which raises a question to my mind, “When, if ever, is it a good or necessary thing to hide one’s love for someone from them?”   Your thoughts, feelings, and insights are welcome.  Please weigh in!

 

50 Shades of Jeff: Profile of a Promiscuous Man

(About a 14 minute read) 

Jeff and I had an oddball relationship.  We were not truly friends, we certainly were not enemies, but we were more than casual acquaintances.

We met at a coffee shop where we were both daily customers.   Luke introduced us one afternoon.  I noted that Jeff was a handsome, rather short man, with a somewhat deep, slightly husky voice.

A few minutes later,  a couple of people walked up to Jeff with one of them saying something along the lines of,  “Jeff!  You’re back in town!  When?”  Luke promptly took advantage of Jeff being distracted to take me aside a few paces. He whispered, “He’s always carrying. Just so you know.”

“What does ‘carrying’ mean?”

Luke very briefly looked surprised and then whispered again, this time slowly, “He conceal carries a Beretta 9mm pistol in a holster strapped under his left arm.  You will never see it, but never forget about it, because it’s always there.”  I nodded and then we rejoined Jeff, who was no longer distracted.

About a quarter hour later, Jeff said something to Luke that I no longer recall, but in response to which Luke laughed loudly and said, “You’re a sick, sick man, Jeff.  But we all love you!”

It was the first time I ever heard that cliché and so I thought Luke was being witty but serious; and it stuck in my head as a first impression of Jeff: Something was wrong with the man, but he seemed well liked.

I soon enough learned that Jeff saw himself as some sort of pick up artist.  He had a little two or three sentence long speech that he told anyone at the coffee shop who’d listen.  The part I remember went, “I lost count of the number of women that I’ve slept with at 200 women.  When I reached 200, I thought, ‘Why should I count anymore?'”

One night during the summer I met Jeff, I was sitting on a park bench at two in the morning one night, enjoying my insomnia by savoring the night air,  when two teens jumped me without either one of them making even the least discernible effort to politely introduce themselves beforehand, an appalling lack of manners that I found rather alarming at the time.

I suppose they wanted money.  Unlucky for them, I miraculously mucked my way into somehow gaining the upper hand. They fled down the street, and I –without really thinking it through — instinctively chased them for a few yards like an idiot before realizing that they were both faster than me and — after all — still outnumbered me.  I decided not to tempt the Goddess of Luck, Spontaneous Erections in Men Over 80, and Durable Chinese Goods any further.  Besides, my usual policy is to back out of any confrontation unless I’m forced to fight, then I try to fight like a wildcat and just as dirty as river mud.

The next morning I woke up with a gorgeous black eye.  When Jeff saw it at the coffee shop later that day he asked for the particulars.  I told him the story and thought it would end with that.  But Jeff wasn’t content.  “Can you tell me anything, Paul, anything to identify them?”  I described the kids as best I could recall.  Jeff pressed for more.  I couldn’t recall anything more about their looks, so I speculated about their habits, “They’re most likely local kids and night owls, Jeff.  So I bet they hang out at the Denny’s”.   That seemed to satisfy him.

A day or two later, Jeff had some news for me.  He had decided to indulge himself a bit of good old-fashioned vigilantism.  Reminding me of my speculation that the teens were night owls, he gone to the Denny’s in the wee hours of the morning.  As it happened, he’d overheard two teens talking about encountering an “old man” [Author’s note:  “OLD man”? The nerve!]  in the park the night before.

Jeff waited until the teens left the restaurant then followed.  Presently, the two split up, most likely on their way to separate homes.  Jeff trailed the boy he’d overheard claim credit for “popping one right in the prick’s eye”.  He caught up with the unfortunate boy, attacked him, reduced him to the ground, and then jerked and twisted the boy’s right arm up and in way that Jeff knew was pretty sure to rip tendons.

“I want to make this clear Paul.  I didn’t do it for you.  I did it because this is my town.  My town, my home, and I take it personally when someone messes with the quality of life around here.

“By the way, I watched which hand he used to pick up his soda glass at Denny’s.  I wanted to make sure I tore up the correct arm — the arm he used in punching you.  He won’t be punching anyone else with that arm for a few weeks now.”

That night I myself went to the restaurant.  I wasn’t looking for the teens, I didn’t think they’d be around after what had happened.  But there he was: His arm raised up in a cast.  As I passed his table he looked up at me, “Is it over?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s over”, I said, feeling an improbable empathy for him, “It’s done if you’re done.”  The boy nodded and assured me he was done.  I secretly hoped Jeff thought it was done, too.  If he didn’t, I aimed to have a word with him.

Jeff and I didn’t start hanging out daily with each other until a few weeks later.  It soon seemed to me that he had an opinion on nearly everything, and that he delivered his opinions authoritatively, as if thinking himself equally well-informed on all subjects.  I seldom more than half-listened to him.  Still, I wasn’t in the habit back then of avoiding people, and Jeff always came over to sit with me when he saw me at the coffee shop,  so we spent considerable time together for awhile.

His single most intense, sustained effort to get his opinions across to me came about due to a miscommunication.

A couple days before the incident, Becky had introduced me to her younger sister, Theresa, who was visiting from Los Angeles.  Theresa was an erotic dancer so drop-jaw, stop-in-your-tracks gorgeous that a bad night for her as a dancer was to earn only $1000 in tips.  She was also, I thought from the moment I met her, obnoxious.

I tried to hide my instant distaste for her, which was almost solely based on her use of the word “darling” when first addressing me.   But Theresa picked up on my feelings.  Instead of firing back at my momentary insanity, however,  she much more reasonably decided to simply change my mind.

The next day, she invited me to breakfast at Becky’s house.  I went, Theresa cooked a delicious breakfast for me, and I left in honest admiration of her clever “hash browns diplomacy”, and also feeling rightfully guilty for having put her to it.

Later that morning, I was sitting at a sidewalk table with Jeff and three other men when Theresa walked by, dressed for the summer weather in a tank top and tight pair of shorts.  When she saw me, she burst into a huge, friendly smile, waved, and called to me by name.  But she didn’t pause, and instead kept on walking.  Every eye at the table followed her receding figure raptly.  Then, once she was well down the street, every eye almost at once turned to me.

“How do you know her?”, someone demanded.  “Can you introduce me?”, someone else laughed.

Without thinking through the impression my words would make, I answered the first question, “That’s Theresa.  She’s a new friend, I just met her.  She made breakfast for me this morning.”  I looked around.  Everyone had knowing smiles on their faces, and some were nodding approvingly.

“She’s just a friend”, I said.  Someone mumbled, “Sure”, and there were a couple short laughs.  I decided to remain silent and thus dig no further down in the hole I’d made for myself.

Jeff had remained silent through all of it.  But the moment the last person at our table save him and me had left, Jeff stood up, removed all the chairs from the table except our own (“So we won’t be interrupted”, he mysteriously said), and then sat down opposite to me.  Leaning forward, he demanded with unusual intensity, “Truth!  Did you two fuck?”

“No!”, I was a bit pissed he’d even ask, but I added, politely enough, “I’m voluntarily celibate, Jeff.”

“Voluntarily. Celibate.”  He slowly repeated, while looking at me like I’d just then told him “roses make great lawnmowers”.

Jeff then launched himself into what can only be described as a two hour pitch directed at selling me on becoming a pick up artist.  I simple zoned out, leaving him to ramble on while I enjoyed the beautiful weather.  Today, I don’t recall a specific word of what he said, but I do remember the passionate intensity with which he spoke.

From the day forward, he seemed to feel a need to save me from my incomprehensible celibacy.  I sometimes thought he was behaving like an Evangelical preacher who can’t restrain himself from proselytizing atheists, and that I was the king of atheists to him.

One thing Jeff never did is tell anyone who he slept with.  Even if the woman herself openly claimed she’d slept with him  — and a few did — and Jeff knew she openly claimed it, he would refuse to confirm it.  I once, and once only witnessed Jeff “pick up” a woman.

I’ve come across websites that teach step-by-step methods for picking up women.  Jeff’s approach was nothing at all like theirs.  Sometimes those sites recommend that you attack a woman’s self-esteem in order to tear her down psychologically and thus make her vulnerable to your advances.  I think Jeff would have reacted to those sites like he once reacted to my telling him I preferred to be celibate.  What I witnessed  was Jeff doing the opposite of what those sites recommend.

Watching him was, to an extent, like watching a chameleon change colors.  I stated earlier that Jeff usually came across as opinionated and perhaps even arrogant.  Normally, he would talk to both men and women that way.  But all of that dropped like a mask the moment Jeff got serious about someone.

Suddenly, he was the woman’s favorite brother, or her most trusted confidante, or her most down to earth friend, or her oldest friend, as comfortable to be with as worn shoes.

Moreover, Jeff did nothing that came across to me as “making an effort to impress”.   He seem  to put his ego aside and was instead attentive to the woman.   He displayed unforced, effortless curiosity about the woman and an easy-going respect for her.

It was quite the tour de force, and it reminded me of an extraordinary salesman I once knew — a man who had broken 100 year sales records for a Fortune 500 company that he’d worked for — and who had mentored me when I was relatively new to sales.

Over the years, a small number of women  — maybe five or six — have either mentioned to me, or at least hinted to me, that they slept with Jeff.  Only one of those women had a wholly negative view of him, claiming that Jeff had gotten her pregnant.  Jeff himself claimed that he’d had a vasectomy, and he was rather proud that he’d “never left any unwanted bastards in this world”.  One woman spoke of him as if Jeff was some fondly remembered, but hopelessly crazy friend that she kept at arm’s length.  Another confessed to me that she thought herself “superficial” for wanting sex with him, but she loved it anyway.  The rest, so far as I can recall now, had wholly positive views of him.

Did Jeff really sleep with “hundreds of women”?  Naturally I don’t believe that for a moment.  But for various reasons, I suspect that Jeff slept with more than his fair share, as they say.  Yet, despite the women in his life, Jeff was a fundamentally unhappy man.

In addition to his little speech about the number of women he’d slept with, Jeff had another little speech he seemed to have memorized from repeating it so frequently to so many people.  “I’m giving myself until the day I turn 45 to get myself straightened out.  If I still cannot hack anything but a twisted, fucked-up life on that day, then I’m going to put an end to it.  One way or the other, the mess I’ve made of my life is going to be over.”

I never knew whether to take Jeff seriously or not when he’d say that.  I knew almost nothing at the time about the psychology of suicide.

What did Jeff mean by his “twisted, fucked-up life”?  I think it’s most likely he was referring to two things at once.  First, Jeff seemed unable to keep a steady job.  Mostly he did  piecework for people, such as painting their house.  There were often long periods between one job and the next.  I knew Jeff to now and then go for a few days without food, or to live in no more than his pickup truck for up to months at a time.  And I know from remarks he made to me that his instability bothered him.

The second thing you might find ironic.  In the time I knew him, Jeff fell in love with three or four women in widely spaced succession.  Each time, he tried to make a life together with her.  Get a place, keep a job, practice monogamy; that sort of thing.  It never worked out for him.  I think the longest relationship he ever had with someone he loved lasted less than six months.

Jeff took the breakups hard.  And whenever he spoke to me about them, he blamed himself.  The sad irony, of course, was that the guy who could get all the women he wanted could not keep even one.

Jeff hanged himself on his 45th birthday.  Either on that day or very near to it, so far as I can recall now. There was a memorial set up for him at the coffee shop, with a jar for donations that would go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.   For a couple weeks to a month afterwards, people brought him up in their conversations, saying for the most part the usual things that people say after someone kills themselves.  Then, the conversations about him dwindled in number, faded into time, and he became rarely spoken of.