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Mutterings from 
The Man Behind the Curtain

Rob Wilson, Co-Producer, Director

  • Writer's pictureJulian G. Simmons

By Julian G. Simmons

Last year on Independence Day we released an episode in our series on Civility in America based on a pamphlet written by a young George Washington, "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior." It is a tongue-in-cheek dramatic reading from a list copied into his notebook when he was just a schoolboy. It's a fun episode, with its many anachronistic ideas about proper behavior seeming slightly absurd today, but it also gives us insight into the character of the man considered the father of our country. There are also links to music of the period, and a metaphoric mouse who chewed up parts of the manuscript.

Many of his "rules" still apply, and do indeed define civility, and illustrate how far we have come from a time when decency, good manners and civility were essential. However, Washington's list steps around one profoundly uncivil behavior: the fact that Washington was a slave owner.

The episode stirred up some serious discussion of that fact, with some listeners feeling it negates his legitimacy as a role model. We feel compelled to address that perspective, and why we still feel the episode has value and relevance.

Much of the criticism was based on current revisionist politics, the application of today's values and standards to the past. Historical revisionism itself is controversial; is it fair to judge past behavior by today's more evolved ethics? We can only talk about slavery in the past tense and through the historical records that were left, simply because we weren’t there. We know now that the very idea of owning another person is a horrendous wrong, no matter the circumstances. We can question how any "decent" human being could possibly have thought otherwise. We can agree that it was a major character flaw, an egregious error in judgment by Washington. Instead of setting an example for the new nation, he merely accepted the status quo and gave his tacit approval to one of our most shameful legacies.

But we weren’t privy to Washington's thoughts. His achievements -- rising from a middle-class farmer's son to lead the Revolution and become our first President -- largely depended on political calculation and his deft navigation of society and its limitations. We do know that one of his closest confidantes was his slave/personal assistant, William (Billy) Lee, who was freed upon Washington’s death. His other slaves were all freed upon Martha Washington’s death.

In fact, according to the Mount Vernon Library historical record, Washington's views on slavery evolved, and privately he was opposed to the practice and wished it could be abolished. As reflected in the Mount Vernon records,

"George Washington began questioning slavery during the Revolutionary War, when he led the North American colonies’ battle for independence from Great Britain.

"As a young Virginia planter, Washington accepted slavery without apparent concern. But after the Revolutionary War, he began to feel burdened by his personal entanglement with slavery and uneasy about slavery’s effect on the nation. Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, Washington stated privately that he no longer wanted to be a slave owner, that he did not want to buy and sell slaves or separate enslaved families, and that he supported a plan for gradual abolition in the United States.

"After the Revolution, George Washington repeatedly voiced opposition to slavery in personal correspondence. He privately noted his support for a gradual, legislative end to slavery, but as a public figure, he did not make abolition a cause.

"I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase: it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in the Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees." -GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1786

"When he drafted his will at age 67, George Washington included a provision that would free the 123 enslaved people he owned outright. This bold decision marked the culmination of two decades of introspection and inner conflict for Washington, as his views on slavery changed gradually but dramatically. "Yet, Washington did not always act on his antislavery principles. He avoided the issue publicly, believing that bitter debates over slavery could tear apart the fragile nation. Concerns about his finances, separating enslaved families, and his political influence as president led him to delay major action during his lifetime. Ultimately, Washington made his most public antislavery statement after his death in December 1799, when the contents of his will were revealed.

"Washington stipulated in his will that elderly slaves or those who were too sick to work were to be supported throughout their lives by his estate. Children without parents, or those whose families were unable to see to their education were to be bound out to masters and mistresses who would teach them reading, writing, and a useful trade, until they were ultimately freed at the age of twenty-five. Washington’s will stated that he took these charges to his executors very seriously:

"And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled ...without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm."


My own basis for my beliefs is that we live in an imperfect world and that instead of denying or changing the past, we should let it stand as an example of what to admire and what not to repeat.

In my own heritage, I can think of some very distinct examples of what was once acceptable and is no longer, and see that the world is a better place for the change. I reject revisionism. I believe it is important to acknowledge that the world my ancestors lived in is not the world we live in now.

Back in the early 1900s, my maternal grandmother was married at 14 to my grandfather who was 19. Today, my grandfather could be arrested for sex with a minor or worse, but in his time, it was not unusual for girls my grandmother’s age to marry. To judge my grandparents by today’s laws and morality is flatly unfair. In doing so, we commit a disservice to them and us. We corrupt a clean understanding of history, confusing what life was like then with what we consider "normal" today.

It was also not unusual for children to work in the 1800s and early 1900s. Historically, children were bred and raised to help in the house or with the chores. Childhood was short and not often sweet, because they were afforded none of the luxuries children have today, where a child is offered time to grow at their own pace, to play, to go to pre-school, or school at all, so they can prepare for college and a career beyond. Those things, those dreams simply didn’t exist for working-class children. Now, we consider that deplorable ... but the fact is that was simply the way it was.

Facts matter. Yet historical revisionism often erases established facts, and can gloss over the darker truths of our history, like today's movement to banish books that reflect our racist past, or the "Don't Say Gay" policies of Florida's governor. Clearly, putting blinders on our educational system to suit the myopic morality of today's religious right is a dangerous trend. I believe that progress can only happen when we are honest about our mistakes and learn from them. We grow stronger only when we own up to our errors and correct them, not pretend they never happened.

I am painfully reminded of the 1980s when President Reagan could not bring himself to say the word "AIDS" and would often make jokes about homosexuals as if they weren’t worthy of being called human. His cruel negligence translated into a delay in the development of treatment, while hundreds of thousands of young, talented, gay Americans needlessly died, made into pariahs by our own president, one of whom was my own beloved brother.

As repugnant as Reagan's behavior was, should he be erased from the history books? Should we teach our children that Hitler did not exist, that the Holocaust never happened?

No. I believe that we must be constantly focussed on the facts of history, and that the truth -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- must remain inviolate for us to advance. In the words of the writer and philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Auschwitz Memorial cautions "Never Again." If we deny the evil embedded in our evolution, it will return. There is always another dark-hearted person waiting to lead.

With some notable exceptions, most leaders possess both astounding strengths of character, as well as weaknesses. In the end, I think a fair view of history rests on the fact that we are imperfect as human beings. Yes, we do expect better of our leaders, but at the end of the day, I am happy if they can be most things for most people. Asking them to be everything is simply not possible. In the words of poet John Lydgate, later adapted by President Lincoln, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time".

But back to George. Washington was a man of his time, an imperfect man in an imperfect time. He knew it, too; he never wanted to be our first president, but was pressured into two terms by his fellow Founding Fathers.

I hope this Independence Day you'll listen to this episode, which is a useful and amusing example of what was considered Decent and Civil during Washington’s time and is ingrained in our national character -- just as slavery was.

Thank you and Happy Independence Day!

A gathering of some of my oldest friends -- including Todd Taggart and his wife Mary -- on my 60th Birthday

Right now, we are working on our next episode -- on Friendship. It turns out this is a subject of deep importance and very much on our listeners' minds. The impetus for this series was a suggestion from Todd Taggart, a very good old friend. Todd wrote that as we age, friendship rises to the top of our priorities. This excellent entry is written by him.

Todd Taggart is a wonderful fellow. He's brilliant, witty, talented, modest and loyal. We miss him and his lovely wife Mary terribly since they moved east to Stowe, Vermont. It was an email from Todd that turned our minds to Friendship, and what follows are his thoughts on the topic.

On Friendship

By Todd Taggart

The topic of friendship is not an easy one to write about or discuss. When I began to think more about it, I found it more complicated than I wanted it to be. I can do some research and see what others have said over the years, but there are a lot of ideas that pop up, and make it seem like it’s nearly impossible to have the friendships we’re expected to have! I did read that the word “friendship” comes from the word “love.” And love is also a complicated topic—Everyone wants love and would like to offer love, but we don’t always know just how to get there. Perhaps friendship and its relationship to love only complicates matters.

Let’s face it. There are few things better than friendship, and certainly friendship includes one’s partner or spouse. What is more important than friendship? You can live without friends, just like you can live without art, but without them, is life worth living?

It seems that when something beautiful is shared with a good friend that the thing is far more beautiful. A beautiful sunset or vista when viewed alone is still beautiful, but when shared with a friend it’s many times more beautiful, and not just twice a beautiful—it’s not an arithmetic progression, it’s logarithmic! And similarly, when one is full of sadness or sorrow, after a death of someone dear to you, or whenever the overall feeling is one of despair, the pain is deep. But when friends are supporting you, the pain feels like it’s spread among them, and it helps to make it almost bearable.

On the one hand, I feel like I have quite a few friends, but on the other hand, very few that I can really talk to the way I’d like to. How many of us have “best” friends that we can talk to about anything? I have before, but I don’t these days. And there are levels of friendship. Those friends you might consider your besties, other friends that you enjoy, but for whatever reason they are not the ones you’d call when in a pickle, or when you want to share some news.

Lately, there has been some talk in news about the crisis of friendship among men, and about loneliness among both men and women. When I first saw this news, I wondered among my friends, how many thought they could include themselves in the “crisis.” I wondered, how many felt as I did, that there are lacks in my friendships, that they could be stronger, and therefore better.

Friendship could or should be a source of support, joy, fun, happiness, understanding, or a source of solace in a time of misery or pain. How many of us can get up in the morning and look forward to checking in with a friend, any time of day, and know that they appreciate and welcome your contact, or conversely that they do the same, and with some constancy. That it’s not another item on their daily chore list to cross off. I’m not one who can say that, but I’d love to be! At the same time, I’m aware that as people age, the meaning of friendship can change. It can become more valuable, as it often represents a longer history and deeper connection, while at the same time, the number of close friends can decrease as priorities and life circumstances shift.

I grew up in a small Mormon community in Wyoming. Everyone knew each other, and almost everyone was related. Of course, best friends knew each other intimately, and could talk about anything. When I went to California to college, I met people whose best friends seemed to me to be more removed from each other than what I had known in my community. And as these people became my friends, I never quite felt the intimacy that I had known where I grew up. I’m willing to admit this could just be me, and it could have been simply related to age. I’ve not researched whether this is a thing! (Friendship in small towns vs. metro areas.) I’ve also spent many years in a 12-step program, and I won’t reference it in any way, other than to say I continue using what are called the “tools,” and particularly the principle of “humility,” which in 12-step speak means “remaining teachable.” It’s critical to any growth I hope to have.

With this opportunity to examine friendship, I hope I can help clarify for myself where I sit with my friends and maybe even chart a path to improve my relationships. My own inclination is to assume that most people would want good friends, or might want to improve their relationships with friends, but I’m quite aware that some may feel they have everything they need with immediate family or otherwise.

I read somewhere that whoever looks upon a true friend, looks in a sense at an image of himself. This makes sense to me, because I would prefer a close friend to treat me the way I’d hope and expect to treat him.

And with that, I offer my first failing: taking friendships for granted. I had a friend who died three years ago. He was a friend I took for granted. He was from the States but lived in Spain and would call me about once or twice month. I wonder if I ever called him. (I was the only friend from the States who ever visited him in Spain—I mention this to perhaps allay a little guilt?) But we always had plenty to talk about, and he would ask about everything in my life, how I was doing, how my wife was doing, how the kids were, and we would talk endlessly about music. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was one of my best friends! I was pretty good about asking the same of him. I really miss our conversations! I try to maintain some connection with him by regularly communicating with his wife by email. And I try now to not take the friendships I do have for granted. But I do not work enough to strengthen them!

There are times when we meet friends of friends and they become our friends, but often on a different level than the friends we might have come to know on a more organic way. I think our closest friends often share our perceptions of reality and share a similar sense of humor. For me these two things humor and perceptions go hand in hand. The beliefs we have in common are probably closely related to these two things.

In theory, one should be honest and trusting with a friend. I think under this good trait, I might need to examine how my behaviors are. If I were completely honest with all my friends, I probably wouldn’t have any. However, I could be completely honest if I withheld all judgement, which is an ongoing work in progress. I realize it’s a very high station to relinquish judgement, but it is for the best. When one judges, one is judging oneself at the same time, and it usually does not provide the relief or peace we seek. I can be trusted not to betray a secret, although there have been times when I’ve shared something that I should not have, and usually the case has been that I forget that it’s supposed to be a secret, and I often don’t see why my friend would want it kept a secret. Perhaps because of my own lack of certain boundaries—some share any and everything, others share very little or nothing of themselves.

I do expect empathy from a good friend, just the way I expect to provide it to a friend in need. And I think this requires good listening skills and active engagement. And this requires a certain self-awareness that most of us could use. To illustrate: One of my fellow 12 steppers and I decided to take weekly walks and talk about how our “programs” as they call it, were working. My friend started out by saying that he tended to interview people and ask them all about themselves, and then he would find they would never ask him about what was going on with him. So we decided that each of us would speak for about five or 10 minutes without interruption, and then the other person would do the same, and we would go back-and-forth. I realized very quickly that this was easier said than done. At first I continually interrupted him with “Oh, I know exactly what you mean, that happened to me…, etc.,“ but he reminded me of our agreement and kindly cut me off right away. That was a quick lesson for me on how difficult it is to just listen to somebody and really hear someone.

I can also mention that I have friends, where I’ve had long conversations by phone, and it has been like my friend above mentioned. I interview, and listen, but I do not get the same courtesy. I’m always surprised when someone I consider a good friend never asks about what’s going on for me, how my family is doing, etc. For me to not ask a friend about how he or she is doing, or not ask how their kids are doing, well, I may as well not have made the call. And it’s not because of good manners. How can you want to know someone well, and not know their immediate family?

A good friend is ready with support and encouragement, and I find few friends that would not provide it. However, I find it’s quite difficult to ask for it. Another illustration: I was working on reconfiguring a workspace, and I had little construction knowledge. I asked a good friend in the construction industry for some advice. He provided far more than advice. He not only drew up a plan, but came in and physically helped demo, and rebuild. The experience was eye-opening for me. It not only felt completely non-transactional, it made me realize that people like to be asked for help, and that asking for help is just as important as getting the help! Of course, there are many kinds of support and encouragement, but to share in the experience of “support and encouragement” with the friend is extra rewarding, and I hope, to both of those involved.

In considering my friendships, I’ve probably failed to respect some boundaries. I’m good about respecting other people’s time and priorities, the frequency of communication, although I usually would prefer more communication than my friends do (well, as far as I can tell). I’m aware that many friends and many whom I’m close to in my family have different opinions and I’m careful not to push mine, or even argue mine, but that could be due to laziness. And I’ve come to believe that the strength of one’s opinion or at least the volume with which the opinion is expressed is inversely proportional to the soundness of the opinion. I’ve also seen where lack or boundaries can cause heartbreak, as in the case of a relative of mine. She cannot help but ask questions of her daughter that do not need to be asked. If she would only stop and reflect but for a moment and ask herself why she’s posing the question that would be enough. Her curiosity, maybe even nosiness, has driven a wedge between her and her daughter!

Physical boundaries only take an experience or two to figure out: I have probably been guilty of hugging someone who would prefer not to, but I think it is generally a good to do when greeting friends. (8 hugs a day, they say, will put you in a better mood.)

Just as I do my best to be reliable and dependable for any friend, in the best friendships I hope for the same. There is “predictable,” which isn’t quite the same as “reliable.” I have plenty of friends that I would say are reliable and dependable, but that doesn’t mean punctual. An effort to be somewhat punctual is another level of reliable/dependable. When I’m waiting way too long, I would consider punctuality a higher level of reliable! It’s more thoughtful and considerate. My time is as important as yours, etc. Not all my good friends are aware of this. And of course, any time I point these things out, I’m aware that I have failed at some time or another with this as well. I do strive to improve.

As with any relationship, effective communication with friends is always helpful. I’m not the best communicator, an area I need to work on. I do think because of my Wyoming background, where adjectives are not used, there is a tendency to get straight to the point. Sometimes the point is subverted by humor if it’s a difficult one to discuss. And sometimes the humor can be both passive aggressive and/or sarcastic, as an old therapist called it “sideways speak.” At the same time, I have friends who often speak around a topic, never actually addressing the topic, and I find myself wondering why. To wit, I have one friend, who I chatted with recently. He lives overseas, and we haven’t seen each other for many years, but we stay in touch. At the beginning of the phone call I said that I have some questions that I’d like to have answered in a direct fashion. He has a tendency to dissemble and not stay on topic, and for several years I’ve had certain questions of him. Like how is his ill wife doing? How and where are his kids? Does he work because he has to (he’s 72) or because he wants to? etc. After two hours of listening I almost got my questions answered. Another friend who knows this person-of-the-long-conversation asked why I stayed on the phone for 2 hours with him. I told him because he was a friend!

There does seem to be an unspoken bond with those we’ve grown up with or met early in our lives. Even if we have gone in different directions the pull of shared experience and memories can be much stronger than what we can objectively make sense of. Sometimes, even with friends we currently consider to be close friends it’s really the shared history and not necessarily the camaraderie or the enjoyment of companionship that keeps our friendship going. I’ve been to two funerals in the last year where I saw many of the people I grew up with. The feelings I’ve had at these “events” are hard to describe, other than to say very warm. And it has a lot to do with shared experience and memories, and of course, people are vulnerable, open, and warm at most funerals, or at least at those I’ve been to in my old stomping grounds. But these are not friends where I’ve had continually cultivated a friendship.

Understanding a friend is critical and this includes understanding his background so that I can understand why he thinks the way he does. I have friends whose politics are completely different than mine, and while I can’t really seem to understand how they could arrive at a vision of reality not square with my own (and therefore of the world as we know it😊), I can understand why they might think that way based on their background, upbringing, and experience. And the only way to keep them as friends is to forgive their thinking, and to forgive my own thinking—that I know better.

For me celebrating a friend’s success, means only to appreciate them for getting through life relatively unscathed. I have few friends who have won accolades or awards, but when they do, I am genuinely glad that they did, and glad to be in their company. At the same time, I see some friendships where competition gets in the way of real emotional connection. I can see how a little competition might bring energy and excitement to the friendship and help to strive toward goals or to improve in some area, but it also starts to wear, and makes the friendship feel forced and tense. It makes one feel on guard. Friendly competition, where it is all in wholesome fun, is one thing, but when so much of the relationship seems to spark unwarranted competition, it’s time to reevaluate the friendship, or to have a very frank discussion. I suppose, I could mention schadenfreude, thankfully is not something that has consumed much of my energy. I’ll admit that there are times when I see someone who never seems to suffer any kind of hardship, and seems to live just to have a great time, I can get a little judgmental. Mostly, however, I do not have friends that fit into that area. The one person or couple I thought lived an enviable life suffered a tragedy shortly after I made this comment to my wife. At that point, and this was about 30 years ago, I could say that there was no one I knew that I envied. And that still remains the case. And of course, anyone who has lived 72 years has suffered some pain, and it’s not hard to extend oneself to comfort a friend who is going through a difficult time. We know how wonderful it is to have support when we need it, and how wonderful it feels to be able to offer it.

To me one of the most admirable qualities in a friend is loyalty, and I have to admit that on this matter my better angels have often been on vacation. Of course, I realize now that between my projection (let me give this character flaw of mine to someone else, I don’t like it in me) and insecurities, that talking smack about a friend is more about me then them. When I was less mature on these matters and saw others whose loyalty was steadfast, I only saw them as being insensitive to the perceived offense. I remember reading years ago, when working on a paper for a Shakespeare class that the only value that Shakespeare seemed to hold as sacrosanct was loyalty. I wish I remembered more, but at least that’s something worth recalling. Loyalty should mean more to me than it does, but I tend to conflate it with blind loyalty, such as one might have to a political party, or even a country. Even so, I have to agree with Shakespeare, loyalty in a friend makes one want to be worthy of the friendship, and perhaps is even impetus to be a better person and friend. And maybe this is one more way of saying that whoever looks upon a true friend, looks in a sense at an image of himself.

It still seems like there is so much more to the topic. And as I reread everything I’ve said, I feel like there are so many exceptions. Some of these topics could be taken much deeper; there are sub-topics to explore: friendship at a distance, old age and friendship, making new friends, is friendship important to everyone, friends on the spectrum, etc., etc. But this is it for me, for now!

I am editing our next episode, which may be the start of a series “On Friendship.” We initially thought it was a simple question: “What does Friendship Mean to You?”

Nothing simple about it. Friendship is a multifaceted quality. It means different things to different people. It’s fascinating, so far, to hear the comments people have submited.[1] It will not be an easy edit, to interweave these thoughts, to create a flowing narrative that incorporates so many smart and obviously emotional commentaries. But I will get there. Because it obviously means something to people, especially those of us who are getting older.

The process has also compelled me to consider my own ideas about friendship, and made me wonder who my friends are, how important they are to me, and how much I miss them. I miss them mostly because of the natural processes of life — you drift apart, you lose touch, your lives diverge. As you age, there is not that easy, daily camaraderie that came so naturally to most of us in our youth. I say most because I am well aware that many young people today do not have the easy-going lives that my friends and I enjoyed in the sixties and seventies. I have no idea, really, what it’s like for them today. I see them passing as I walk, in clusters, fast and usually happy — and I am frankly jealous. But I also know that many are isolated, especially since the pandemic devastated those very years when they could have been building friendships and finding themselves.

I want to reach out, sometime, somehow, to those younger people. But this is about me, now, and my own sense of isolation and — despite my great good fortune of having a partner of almost 40 years — my loss of so many friends. “Loss” for a multitude of reasons. And the more we shape this episode, the more I realize that having friends as we age is critical to our happiness, or self-esteem, our enjoyment of life. So I am trying, haltingly, to re-establish contact with many old friends.

It is not easy. I’m plagued with depression and tend to go dark, and — who needs that? I’m unlikely to share that. It’s toxic. So I’m unlikely to share, period.

But I wasn’t always this way, and old friends — from my school days — are more likely to remember my upbeat self. (Photo: Me and my old pal Angelo Rossi, circa 1979. Photo courtesy Steve Lanning Loo). That fun, confident guy is still in there — just submerged in the sediment of a long series of disappointments and difficulties. I do have my good days, and I can be funny and even uplifting — so I try and concentrate those qualities in the moments I choose to reach out. I try to add a smile to someone’s day. Facebook, where “friend” first became a verb, is not the venue for real connections. Too many of us rely on it for “staying in touch,” when it really is only really good for silliness, and photos. If you accept that, it’s fine. I like scrolling through it. But it does not really fulfill the potential of friendship. We need more.

There is definitely much more to all of us — deeper subjects, real struggles, challenges and worries — and friends are (I think) supposed to be there to listen and support one another. We can also gather, share a meal, some wine, and lift one another up — there is nothing to compare to a room full of friends laughing hilariously. Nothing.

That seemed easy, once. Once, I had no trouble being spontaneous, being funny, being goofy -- among friends. But then, so much gets in the way of such crucial conviviality. Money, for one thing. We may all start out on an even playing field, where money was our parent’s concern. But then some of us rose, and some of us fell — and that tends to divide people.

Dreams come true, and dreams shatter. If you’ve not done so well, it is hard — even on Facebook — to listen to our well-to-do friends gush over their tour of Europe or share photos of the marvels of their property. It’s painful, and that pain is directed inward, into guilt and shame and, well, isolation.

But there I am, being toxic. I don’t seek sympathy, not really. I want to continue to do something well, even after actual employment has moved on. I am going to channel my skill — mostly as a professional communicator — into this blog, and our podcast ( I intend to contribute to the happiness and enlightenment of others, be they friends or strangers. I’ll try to stick to that path as this blog meanders on toward the horizon.

There’s a good friend I made at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York and stayed in close touch with for many years, until geography and career paths led us down diverging paths. But happily, Bryan Miller and I have recently reconnected. Bryan rose to the stratosphere of journalism as the New York Times Restaurant Critic, but I was amazed to learn that he achieved that despite a devastating decades-long battle with a bipolar disorder, about which he bravely wrote a book, "Dining in the Dark" . He conquered that demon somewhat magically, when he first held his newborn son. But we quickly realized that we have both suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Resuming our friendship has given us both a much-needed boost. At least it has for me -- and I think the feeling is mutual. I care about him. When I told him that we were collecting people’s definitions of “Friendship,” Bryan had a great response:

“A friend is someone who calls for no reason.”

Eons ago, back when we were in school, or actually once we’d escaped the pressure-cooker of that year, fora few years we kept up a rather remarkable correspondence. In our letters (typed on real typewriters!) we played a game, to see who could use the biggest words. In college, I had acquired the dubious skill of affecting a scholarly tone and composing papers bloated with an overblown vocabulary. Often, just for fun, I wrote letters laden with verbose prose that had little to do with communication. Sheer literary silliness; the true value of good writing is NOT to use big words.

One of the best pieces of advice on good writing came early in our year at Columbia, when I turned in an article reflecting that literary pretension left over from college. Less than an hour later, it appeared in my box, with these big red words scrawled across the top by my professor, Melvin Mencher (who just turned 90): "Wilson: first meaning, then words."

I guess that's why Bryan and I enjoyed the Big Word game: we were breaking that cardinal rule and just indulging in a sort of Scrabble of bunkum and balderdash. I finally killed it with the word “sesquipedalian,” which means “given to or characterized by the use of long words.”

The fun of it was trying to make sense while stuffing our correspondence with as many obscure words as possible. I took a nostalgic stab at it in response to his perfectly precise one-liner:

My Dear Friend:

Do not relish the isolation. Do not embrace the anomie. Do not savor the peace of wind chimes, fountains and bird songs….they are impermanent and unreliable.

I am going to call you for no reason.

There will be a loud, an intrusive tone — likely a loud ringing — that will set your nerves aflame. In the few seconds that it repeats its obnoxious intrusion into your carefully cultivated cocoon, you must calculate your response: if you answer, the future is uncertain. What might be transmitted might not be conducive to your ease. It may force to the surface thoughts and matters you have chosen to repress, But think: if you don’t…that silence you have chosen may fester, like a placid mountain lake succumbs to eutrophication, overtaken by algae unwelcome and depressing. Silence, for long, is seldom golden. It can become rank, and offensive to the senses.

But it will happen. The phone will ring, or buzz, or jangle — unbidden, this sudden auditory intrusion into your (I presume) quiet existence — shatter whatever concentration you have achieved on some pressing task — and will already have spewed glutamate into your hypothalamus, instantly telegraphing a chemical message down the bio-wires of your body to command the involuntary squeezing of the glands where adrenaline is nebulized like an injection of air and fuel into the pressurized engine that moves your emotions and involuntary nervous system. A jolt.

To answer, or not to answer? The decision, pressed unnervingly upon you in these few seconds by my call, is: Which is worse: to answer, or not to answer? In this you are not alone. This is a broad and pervasive quandary of modern life, where technology has compressed our responses into annoying little imperatives, reducing the time we have to assess our options. It is a microcosmic instance of Koyaanisqatsi , life out of balance, this current liminal epoch that keeps us incessantly unconsciously uneasy. We may not like it, but it exists, and we have slavishly succumbed to an autonomic obedience to the demands of technology.

But let us be realistic: While far from ideal, this imminent decision rests on the fleshy fulcrum of the see-saw of your current (albeit interrupted) homeostasis: Will this uncertainty be somehow qualitatively improved if you answer? Will it unleash a pleasing brew of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins into your synaptic river? Will the ensuing conversation lift you up? How can you know?

You cannot. Even though you most likely already know (again, through technology’s wonders we have by the tech-bio osmosis of our time made our own) that it is me within whom the motive for this call and its content resides (and already begun formulating your probable replies and interjections, the degree of truth, honesty, and enthusiasm), and thus even subconsciously ascertained the likely effect its prospect holds for the aforementioned neurochemical processes.

Thus, as we are wont to transfer all of our accumulated past knowledge into an expectation of the future, you may have by the second ring, or buzz, or jingle, incorporated this anticipated amalgam of our personalities and conversations over 50 years into your calculation, decide to answer, or to let the noise run its course, and leave you again in your private space, all chemicals and autonomous affect dissolving into your prior state (notwithstanding your feelings engendered by having ignored my call, or what my own sense of such perceived rejection might then be — a measure of your own level of empathy, whether general or specific toward me). There is no way this call will leave you as you were. I will have chosen to have some effect, and only guessed at its nature. I will have taken a risk. And you will, as in a reflection in a mirror darkly, feel some aftermath — if only to affirm your own isolation, be it pleasing or painful.

Or perhaps I will not call at all. You may deduce from that what you will.

Therein, the dilemma, and challenge, of spontaneous telecommunication in the twenty-first century.


[1] You can send in your VOICE answer to “What does Friendship Mean to Me?” on our COMMENT PAGE at


The Blog was initially  intended to be a place for me -- "The Man Behind The Curtain" -- to add my two cents to the topics we cover in the podcast, where my role as Director and Editor is hidden behind the curtain (a reference to "The Wizard of Oz, "who as we all know is no Wizard at all -- just a puller of levers and a facilitator of others' better angels).


Due to my responsibilities to generate income and keep the wolf (aka The Landlady) from the door and ther high anxiety that has caused, I have been slow to contribute to this section, so I have opened it up to Guest Bloggers. If you have something to say about one of our episodes, or wish to contribute your writing on any relevant topic to the Blog, by all means send it to me at

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