Monday, December 03, 2007

December 2007 email newsletter, No. 044

My dad thought he heard music, from time to time, coming from far away. He is deaf enough that, even with his hearing aid, we sometimes have to say things twice or three times for him to understand. He’s been a country musician since fairly early childhood, so that’s a double shame. Even a damn shame.

The music he heard was, indeed, music. It came from the CD in my car that played very low (I seldom heard it myself) as he drove him to the hospital to visit with my mother and his wife of nearly 64 years. They couldn’t marry until she turned 18, which she did on December 22; the wedding was Christmas day and they’ve been apart very few days since then. The doctors say her surgery went very well; she should be home in a few days.

The CD was a new Wynton Marsalis collection of jazz standards from some of his earlier CDs. I turned it up loud so he could hear it. After a while, he cocked his head and offered a neutral observation about Marsalis’ trumpet: “It sounds like he’s making it up as he goes along.”

I said, “Yes,” and talked, to the best of my ability, about improvisation in jazz.

I thought, yes, that’s like friendship, too. We make it up as we go along. Some guidelines exist, but as we record our songs together, we improvise a lot.

Three questions: Can a man and a woman really be friends? Can an older man and a younger woman really be friends? What are friendships “for”? Certainly, a man and a woman can be friends when they are able to deal honestly with the physical attraction part of it, and reach the emotional and intellectual levels. Certainly, an older man and a younger woman can be friends, although it’s more difficult. And friendships aren’t “for” anything. They just are, or are not. To be real, they need work and patience.

Without getting into too many details that aren’t anyone’s business, including, in some cases, my own, I write now about another one of the young women I know. I believe I’m attracted to them because of the promise and peril I see in them; the promise of so much potential and the peril of so much that can happen to them. Every week or two, I stop by a small take-out pizza place and sit at one of the two tables and eat two-thirds of a small cheese pizza with light garlic butter spread on it. I talk to the owner if she’s there, or whichever young woman is working that night. One of the young women, the daughter of two teachers, is 20. Her boyfriend is a 17-year-old dropout; he seems okay, although I’m not crazy about what I see, or suspect, in some of his friends. The young woman has no interest in college but recently won her massage therapist license.

Her brother, or one of her brothers, I’m not sure which, debated in high school and, I think college. She can hold her own in an argument, and relishes doing so. She and I disagree about a lot. Her beliefs are much more conservative than mine, which is okay. She believes, or believed, because someone in her church once told her so, that she could never vote for Barack Obama because he’s “half Middle Eastern,” that 90 percent of the people in Africa have AIDS, and that not everybody who calls himself or herself a Christian actually is. She believes in George Bush. I agreed with her that not everyone who calls themselves Christians really is.

We find other things to agree. And stories to share.

For several months as her belly grew, she didn’t mention her pregnancy so I didn’t either.

Once, as I was leaving, I stopped at the door, turned back, and asked, “Are you okay?” She hesitated only briefly, and said yes.

Once when I came in, she seemed very self conscious. The last four or five times since then, she talked almost non-stop.

About three weeks ago, she volunteered, “I’m mad at my president.”

I asked, why?

“He thinks he’s president of the world.”

I mentioned a meeting I’d had with the mayor of this small town earlier that day and said he probably calls himself a Republican today but that 30 years ago he might well have called himself a conservative Democrat. She admitted that she might be pretty close to being a conservative Democrat, too. She said she doesn’t believe in Medicaid or Medicare, but that she couldn’t have her baby without it.

A couple of weeks ago, just about the time her baby was due, she and her boyfriend rolled her car three times trying to avoid a dog that ran into the road. I don’t know who was driving, but whoever it was, was likely going too fast. He was banged up a little; she and the baby were fine.

On her last night at work, a week after the baby was due, I told her how much I always enjoyed talking with her (which was obvious and, it seems, mutual), and that if there were ever anything I could do for her she should not hesitate to ask. She said she still had the business card I gave her, and that she’d been thinking about emailing me when she set up an email account. I’ll probably not see her again; I’ll probably find another one. She offered to give me the pizza free that night, which I declined although I probably should have, on principal, accepted.

Once, weeks ago, she told me, “I’m smart, but I’m not always wise.”

I smiled.

On her last night, I asked if I could photograph her. She said yes, smoothed her hair a little, looked directly into the camera, and shared a warm, direct smile. In the background of my favorite shot, the writing is on the wall: promise and peril.

What’s the line between friendship and acquaintance? What’s the nature of friendship, even at a distance and despite the odds? What’s the nature of connection? I know that friendship does not demand.