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Sunday, August 27, 2017

I Have a Friend Named Shmuel

[This post may seem too raw or too direct or too soon for some.  It may seem to walk roughshod over the unwritten rule that one shouldn't speak ill of the dead (which, if we're being honest with ourselves really means one shouldn't speak with complete honesty about the dead).  It's partly out of a sense of fair play that these conventions have become enshrined in practice.  After all from the earliest age we are taught that if you don't have anything nice to say... don't say anything at all.  And certainly not if the person being discussed is not there to defend him/herself.  I want to be clear from the outset that this post is a labor of love and is not meant to damage or disparage anyone's memory.  It is meant to be a contribution to an ad hoc cooperative project where countless grieving people who hold only a few pieces of a complex puzzle are allowed to glimpse the pieces that have been hidden from view, and perhaps find some closure by gaining a more complete view of a person who had such a central and profound place in our lives. If you are looking for blame or excuses, you won't find them here.  And if you seek to control a legacy or shield yourself (or others) from a less than eulogy-worthy recollection of a man... please read no further.  This is a discussion for grown-ups.  Each reader will know if they are prepared for a grown-up discussion.  Lastly, I must stress that I am as flawed and biased a person as any man who has ever lived.  I am entitled to pass judgement on no man, and my opinion is worth only the value you may place on it.  Like the parable about the group of blind men grasping at parts of an elephant, their individual assessments are valid, limited and ultimately wrong.  I accept that I am basing my observations on sadly limited information, but that maybe, by sharing our impressions, in time we can all come to an honest, loving understanding of the elephant in the room, and in our hearts.]


I first met Shmuel at a camp in the Catskills where we were both in our mid 20s and scheduled to play in the band for a youth group retreat; he on drums and I on trombone.  But when we were introduced, we weren't playing... we were eating, an activity that would be almost as central to our friendship as our shared love of music.

What made our meeting particularly memorable was the fact that Shmuel sat across the table from me, trying in vain to flag down one of the teen-aged waiters for a bottle of ketchup to go with the impressive mound of hot dogs and hamburgers he had piled on his plate.  After one last fruitless attempt to obtain some ketchup, Shmuel shrugged at me and tucked into his lunch with gusto.

Exactly at the moment he finished the last morsel of meat on his plate, a harried young man in an apron ran up and plopped a squeeze bottle of ketchup at Shmuel's elbow,  Without missing a beat, he raised it in my direction as if making a toast, and tipped it back like a bottle of beer... finishing two thirds of the red condiment before slamming it back on the table.

My expression must have been one of bafflement, because by way of an explanation he said, "You can't have hot dogs and hamburgers without ketchup!".

To borrow Morgan Freeman's line from the beginning of 'The Shawshank Redemption', "Yeah, I think it would be fair to say... I liked [Shmuel] from the start".

From that first encounter and many more like it, I realized that Shmuel thoroughly enjoyed doing the unexpected.

No, that isn't exactly correct.  It was much more than that.  His very persona depended upon being unpredictable.  He was the one in any group who would deliberately defy, and more often than not, explode, any standard social convention.

He was unconventionality, writ large.

It didn't occur to me then, or even during the more than 30 years of our on again, off again friendship, that maintaining that role must have been mentally and physically exhausting for him.

Think about the person in your social group who always seems to have a joke ready... or the one who seems to have an inexhaustible supply of ecdotes handy for any occasion.  There is homework and preparation that go into maintaining those roles, even if at first blush it seems effortless.

Shmuel's role in any group was to be larger than life.

If someone mentioned spotting a celebrity or politician, Shmuel had a story about a close personal friendship with a former General, Mossad Chief or Prime Minister to recount.  A part of me wanted to call 'bullshit' on many of these stories.  But another part deeply enjoyed that two degrees of separation Shmuel afforded me to the rich and powerful people who seemed to populate his world. Make no mistake, if any of his tales lacked perfect candor, we were all willing participants in the possible deceptions, small and large. 

But the reality-gaps between Shmuel and those who knew him were far greater than that.  

We all have mortgages and do the daily financial triage in which modern grown-ups engage in order to maintain the illusion of stability. Shmuel didn't go to work (at least not in any organized or conventional sense), yet somehow he had a fabulous house, nice cars and a collection of whiskeys and wines that could only be described in Edwardian terms of quality and quantity.

Everything about Shmuel seemed a bit magical. But upon reflection, that descriptive is probably quite apt.

Just as a magician relies on careful placement of the audience and props to carry out convincing slight of hand, Shmuel artfully arranged his various social audiences in such a way that they saw only what he wanted them to see... and were hidden from the underpinnings of the illusions he created, and from each other.

To the extent that it was humanly possible, Shmuel created carefully curated groups of acquaintances (and in some cases, friends), who remained perfectly isolated from one another.  In George Costanza terms, his worlds were never allowed to touch one another.  To be clear, I don't want to imply anything sinister or intentionally dishonest.  I'm not even sure Shmuel was completely aware of what he was doing.  I think he was actually a bit of a savant when it came to setting the stage on which he performed his frequent miracles.

Most of us experience moments of discomfort when our work, home and social lives overlap.  This is because we have slightly different personas in each place, and having those worlds overlap places us in an awkward position of having to decide which persona is real, or at least dominant.  Like most other things, Shmuel simply accepted this natural internal conflict and took it to new heights.

In any event, this careful partitioning of his various worlds worked out quite nicely for Shmuel.

Until one day his worlds collided.

Those of us who populated the orbits of those various Shmuel-systems will likely debate for some time to come what led to the collision.   But from my vantage point in a warm orbit in his musician universe, it seemed inevitable. No juggler, no matter how deft or talented can keep that many balls in the air forever.

Without going into prurient details, what happened was that one day his wife was confronted with fairly irrefutable evidence of something that would be a deal-breaker for most reasonable people, and his perfect world began to come apart at the seams.

As those who knew him desperately tugged on those loose threads he had so carelessly allowed to protrude from the fabric of his carefully segregated worlds, the thin curtains that had shielded his many spheres from one another were pulled aside.

The Great and Powerful Oz turned out to be a man after all... with all the flaws and frailties inherent in the species.

As the fallout from the collision bared the framework of Shmuel's financial world, and led to the acquaintence of people who were never meant to meet, it became increasingly clear to any casual observer that smoke and mirrors played as important a role in Shmuel's apparent affluence as his considerable financial acumen.

And the more the attorneys played wack-a-mole with Shmuel's assets, the harder it became for him to maintain any semblance of solvency.  Sadly, for anyone who makes their living being trusted with other people's money, insolvency is perhaps the only unforgivable sin.

Yet, somehow, Shmuel went about building new worlds, and set them in new orbits around himself.

I was relegated to a distant Plutonian orbit... which was mostly okay with me, having been burned a few too many times by the proximity of his marriage and personal relationships as they went super-nova.  But I still missed him deeply.

Just as I said earlier that many of us gladly basked in the fame by association of Shmuel's star-studded circle of [real or imaginary] friends... we were found guilty by association by the court of public opinion as gossip mongers drove people to choose sides and assign blame. Anyone who thought they could have one without the other was quickly disabused of that notion.

But time marches on.

Shmuel met and married a new wife at the far reaches of his new universe... or so it seemed, since so few of his former friends had even glimpsed her.

Those of us who were desperately struggling to reconcile Shmuel's behavior with the person we had met and come to love years before were left grasping for straws.  Until a single word began to dominate the way I came to view Shmuel (in hindsight and in the present). It was a powerful, tragic word that was suggested to me by a mutual friend who is a physician:

The word is 'Manic'.

Rather than color the definition with his own baggage, this doctor friend told me to look it up.

According to the current standards of assessment, to be considered to have had a manic episode, at least three of the following must be present:

  • Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
  • Decreased need for sleep (e.g., one feels rested after only 3 hours of sleep)
  • More talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
  • Flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
  • Attention is easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant items
  • Increase in goal-directed activity (either socially, at work or school; or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
  • Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments)

In my unschooled, layman's assessment, Shmuel passed that diagnostic threshold with ease on more occasions than I could count.

And somehow, learning the definition of that one word was a priceless, liberating gift.

By framing his behavior in terms of mental illness instead of malice or intent, I no longer had to struggle with the idea of forgiving Shmuel (something I was having great difficulty doing), and placed him mostly beyond blame or responsibility.

I realize now (with shame and remorse), that many of the things that drew us all to Shmuel were actually textbook symptoms of an illness which I suspect contributed to his death at a tragically young age.

Reading back over this piece, I was a bit shocked to notice that I had used the present tense in the title even as I wrestled to come to terms with Shmuel's death.

The mind is funny that way; saying what we are really thinking even when it defies the facts before our eyes.

The truth is, I'm devastated over the loss of my friend.  But in many ways, I lost that friend years ago... at least in the shared sense that most people take from the word friendship.

If I'm being honest, I'd been using the past tense in pretty much all my thoughts about Shmuel for some time; pining for a time in our relationship when he was more in control of his demons and I was less in control of mine.

Now, as I mourn him and come to terms with the personal challenges he must have faced, perhaps I can allow myself the luxury of thinking of Shmuel exclusively in the present tense.  In my heart he can now safely remain that larger-than-life friend who made me feel larger-than-life when we were together.

In my heart we will be forever celebrating our bachelorhood together... our young married lives together... our fatherhood together... our new lives in Israel together.

And in my mind's eye, Shmuel and I will forever be sitting together, up to our necks in a cool stream in northern Israel, with the sun on our shoulders, sipping bourbon and pitying anyone who isn't us at that very moment.

Better times

Because as much pain as Shmuel may have caused those who loved him most in recent years... to me, the world is a poorer, duller, less colorful place without him in it.

So if it's all the same to you, I will continue to use the present tense to carry him along with me... as I try my best to carry on.

Posted by David Bogner on August 27, 2017 | Permalink


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May you find peaceful memories of your friend, and may our societies find compassionate and effective means of dealing with mental illness in ourselves and those we love.

Posted by: efrex | Aug 25, 2017 7:02:00 PM

Thank you. That was perfect.

Posted by: Moish | Aug 26, 2017 8:59:53 PM

Thank you, David for a very concise eulogy for a troubled mutual friend. Fern and I knew Shmuel from his very youngest years, many years before your and his spheres collided. We watched a very talented young man fall apart, and it hurt us to watch as it developed ever so slowly. We offered help and advice, but as you know, he had to do his own thing, no matter the consequence. We loved him, but could offer only so much. Sadly, his demons are gone, but we will always remember the young man who felt he owned the world. May his eternity be forever in npeace

Posted by: Steve Roth | Aug 28, 2017 1:36:59 AM

Thanks for sharing. Very moving.
You didn't mention that he was involved in a serious car accident in the States. Perhaps that contributed?

I disagree - or didn't understand - your saying that we were all "willing participants" regarding some of the stories. Because we listened? Or because some of us actually believed them? Not clear.

There is a minor typo here: an inexhaustible supply *if* anecdotes

Again, thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Dan Kern | Aug 28, 2017 12:42:25 PM

I'm sorry for your loss -- both times -- but so happy that you found him again, somewhere in between.

Posted by: Tanya | Aug 28, 2017 1:41:51 PM

David B - I found your words accurate and consoling !!! Thank You !!!

Posted by: Yitz Glick | Aug 28, 2017 4:05:35 PM

Thank you for this beautiful and truthful eulogy of Shmuel. You hit it right on the nail. Shmuel was larger than life and we will all miss his grandiose persona, extraordinary stories, unconventionality, and unpredictability. Shmuel, you were one of a kind!

Posted by: Ivy Dash | Aug 28, 2017 11:35:53 PM

How very insightful .... we all found out about his faults, and we all knew him (and his siblings) as being the beehive center of fun and activities for all the youngsters in his dad's shul. I feel sad for his family, which has been ripped apart now a second time. And, indeed, the world is less colorful now

Posted by: Sal Guggenheim | Aug 29, 2017 5:35:19 PM

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