Archive for the ‘friendship’ Category

No, I haven’t been watching When Harry Met Sally recently. But in the last month or so, I’ve been thinking now and then about the question of whether men and women can be friends without any sexual feelings interfering. About a month ago, a woman accused me (incorrectly) of having an “inappropriate” interest in her, and I was so deeply insulted that I haven’t been able to forgive the affront. The idea that men and women can be friends and nothing more is very much a part of me, and I have proved the fact to my satisfaction so many times that I was unprepared for someone who holds the opposite view. How, I wonder, could such a discrepancy of viewpoints come about?

I don’t deny that heterosexual men and women are always aware that someone is a member of the opposite sex. That is as true as the fact that a straight man can hardly have another man – especially a stranger – move into his personal space without an unconscious feeling of rivalry.

But what I do deny is that such awareness is automatically the defining feature of a relationship. Although I have no idea whether awareness of another person’s gender is biological or cultural (although I suspect a little of both), I don’t believe that it has to dominate a relationship — unless you let it.

Over the years, I have been in several situations in which either I was strongly attracted to a woman or she was strongly attracted to me, yet our relationships were about work or common interests. The attraction may have been difficult at first, but soon became irrelevant, if not always disappearing altogether, for the simple reason that I and the woman involved had decided, generally without any mutual discussion, that it would not be acted upon. It was really no more complicated than that.

However, I am thinking now that not every man can be friends with every woman. Those who can, I think, are largely those who do not define themselves primary by gender, but consider themselves people first.

If you are a man for whom your sexuality is primarily about your own predatorship, or a woman who believes that men see you primarily as prey, then I suspect cross-gender friendships are unlikely. The same is true, in more complex ways for some feminists (I regret to say), who condition themselves to see all interactions in terms of gender politics, or male supremacists brooding over the supposed wrongs that women have done them. In all these situations, the awareness of gender is too strong to be relaxed. Consequently, the people involved can never relax, either.

In their different ways, such people have all come to be obsessed by gender. Instead of gender being only one of many characteristics, for them it has become the dominant one. In fact, for many such people, it has become the only characteristic. At times, gender seems to be all they can see.

By contrast, those of us who can be friends with the opposite sex tend to see gender as important only in certain circumstances. The rest of the time, it is part of the background, either ignored or not considered primary. We don’t generally say things like, “Men are like that” or “Well, you know women,” because we don’t see people mainly in terms of male and female. Instead, we are likely to consider other people in terms of shared goals or common interests. For us, any initial awareness of gender generally fades as other aspects of a relationship become more important. That tends to happen even if the other person is strikingly good-looking.

In my own case, this outlook was strengthened for many years, because I was a well-known monogamist. One of the advantages of being happily married is that – unlike many single people – you don’t think about the availability of a person of the opposite sex when you meet them.  Instead, you are freed to talk about what matters to you. That holds true whether you are with your spouse or alone.

But, whatever the reasons, throughout my adult life, I have had at least as many female friends – both straight and lesbian – as male ones. By seeing women as people first, I have learned more about humanity than I would have otherwise.

That’s why, when someone declares through their actions or words that men and women can’t be friends, I always feel sorry for them. I always suspect that their experience is too limited, or too framed by popular movies and fiction, or perhaps too conditioned by a traumatic experience. I consider them narrow people, and take their insistence on their world views as a personal insult. So far as I am concerned, they are denying both my beliefs and experience – all without knowing what they are talking about.

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The concept of a friend on Facebook is (to say the least) elastic. At its loosest, it can mean someone who might be useful to know, but with whom you have never interacted. At the opposite extreme, it can mean an intimate, or someone with whom you regularly interact online. But, no matter how a Facebook friend is defined, unfriending someone is generally considered a serious step, and I’ve only done it three times.

The first time, I made the mistake of accepting a friendship invitation from a friend of a friend. A few days later, the friend of a friend started chatting with me and tried to interest me in what sounded like a pyramid scheme. I made an excuse to log off chat and instantly unfriended them.

The second time involved an acquaintance who indulges in yellow journalism. They are careless of their facts and their logic is slippery, but they expressed an admiration for my writing, and I thought that maybe if they were taken seriously by other writers, they might evolve into an effective journalist. But then they turned their tendencies on me without any warning or apology, and I decided I wasn’t about to mentor someone who wanted to tear me down in order to build their own reputation. That wasn’t what friendship was about, so far as I was concerned, so exit another Facebook friend.

The third time was more complicated. It involved someone I had known for years. A few years previously, we had quarreled, but they approached me on Facebook and, despite some qualms, I accepted their friendship invitation. I had always admired this person’s brains and talents, and I frankly hoped to get to know them – to become a friend in real life, as I expressed the hope to myself.

However, I had forgot that one of the reasons we had quarreled before was this person’s inability to keep up their side of a correspondence. From somewhere – probably a bad book on business management – they seemed to have got hold of the idea that online correspondence should be limited to two or three sentences. To make matters worse, what they did write was so stiff that it sounded cold and condescending – and I have never been able to endure being patronized. The tone killed all efforts to strike up a conversation, and I soon realized that the development of any actual friendship would require the effort put into the first six days of creation and geological units of time, neither of which I had to spare.

Even so, I might not have bothered unfriending under ordinary circumstances. But my wife was hospitalized and dying, and so was a relative of this person. I suggested (in effect) that we might give some mutual support, and received another cold reply, which indicated to me that I was just another part of their effort to compile the largest possible collection of Facebook friends.

Then my wife died. The alleged friend’s reaction? “That is so sad.”

Granted, their own relative had also died. Yet even the person’s own grief could not justify such a chilly reaction. There I was, facing one of the worst experiences anyone can face, and instead of any real sympathy, what did I get? An insincerity worthy of Dale Carnegie. Anyone else would have mustered a little empathy, being in a similar position.

“Sad?” I wanted to phone up and rant. “Rick and Ilsa’s goodbye at the end of Casablanca is sad. The farewells at the end of Lord of the Rings are sad. This is tragedy, you asshole!”

Instead, I unfriended, and – not wanting to appear a coward – sent a brief note saying that I had done so. I said that if they wanted to talk, I would, adding that they probably wouldn’t care for what I had so to say.

I heard nothing, so I knew I was doing the right thing.

Still, I admit that I regret this third and latest unfriending in a way that I never did the first two. But what choice, really, did I have? I have (and have had) friends of both sexes that have my back the way that I have theirs. I don’t need a hanger-on too egocentric to know what friendship is about.

Or do I make too much out of a word that, on Facebook, no longer retains its original meaning, except by chance?

Maybe. But all I know is that recently I am now much choosier about the friendship offers I accept.

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Near-freezing conditions in December always remind me of my decision to move out of my parents’ house. I didn’t actually move out for another eight months, but I made the decision after my visit to a high school friend in Saskatchewan.

I’d met her in Grade 12 when she attended my high school for half a semester. I was infatuated with her, and, although she didn’t reciprocate, we kept in touch when she returned home after Christmas. Since then, other love-interests had crept into both our lives, but, after five straight semesters of university, I was ready for an adventure. Somehow, travelling to see someone was more appealing than heading somewhere on my own.

Even so, the trip was an adventure to me. I was green, and knew it. But, eager for experience, a few days after my last exam, I boarded a train in the cold of early evening. I could hardly believe my own daring.

Traveling as cheaply as possible, I didn’t book a sleeper car. The trip was supposed to take 36 hours, and, being young, I didn’t see any trouble with staying up all that time, and maybe napping for a few hours if I started to flag.

Right away, I found myself thrown into a world of strangers. Seated across the aisle from me was a thin, unshaven man, obviously an alcoholic, who had a great fund of stories about working as a logger and at other manual labor. Across from me was a fat First Nations woman missing a front tooth, who suggested that I sleep first while she kept watch – a comment that made me so nervous that, when I slept, I made sure that my wallet was on the side closest to the seat so that nobody could pick my pocket when I slept. For a while, too, I shared my seat with a young army cadet. He was a year younger than me, but he seemed so fully of worldly experience that I felt about fourteen in comparison.

The train was still in the Fraser Valley when we hit snow. As we inched through the mountains, the train employees kept upping their estimates of how long the trip would take. By the time we reached Boston Bar, we were already a couple of hours behind schedule. I remember waking and descending from the train to take a couple of cautious steps, ready to bolt back if the train started moving, just so I could say that I had. It was my adventure, and I was determined to get the most of it.

We hit the Rockies just in time for sunrise – a sheet of blinding light spreading from behind craggy peaks that I can still see if I stop and remember. Another night, and we were in Edmonton, where I stepped off the train again to stretch. I thought of a penpal I had in Edmonton, and thought of calling, but concluded reluctantly that she probably didn’t want a call at 3AM on a Sunday.

In Edmonton, at least one passenger left to take a plane to Toronto. The alcoholic across the way said that the average trip across Canada took longer now than it had in the 1930s, a fact that one or two train officials confirmed.

By the time we reached Saskatoon, we were fourteen hours behind schedule, and I was cramped, and crabby from lack of sleep. Even so, I looked around the train station with undisguised awe, looking at signs promising departures to Le Pas and Churchill Manitoba that had previously only been names on a map to me. These places were real, I suddenly understood, and people could travel to them.
I found a cheap motor hotel, and got in touch with my friend. She still had exams, so, for much of my days, I was on my own. I explored the city on foot, especially the campus of the University of Saskatchewan, and even fantasized about transferring there long enough to make a couple of appointments with the advisors.

I even had the thrill of stopping by the office of a magazine that was publishing a poem of mine, and answering a question that arrived in a letter shortly before I left. Yes, I definitely meant “wondering,” not “wandering,” I told the editor from the doorway. “Oh, I was just wandering,” she replied.

At night, I ate at the restaurant attached to the motor hotel. If my friend was busy, I stayed in my room and wrote poetry. I felt very grown up, writing poetry in my hotel room, and more than a little self-consciously dramatic.

The last night of my stay, my friend invited me after dinner. We went for a drive out on the prairie, and I remember the impossibly bright stars and the seemingly endless miles of dark, flat land around us that left me disoriented and dimly frightened. As we drove, we had one of those long talks that seem so important when you’re a young adult, and she told me she was seeing someone else. Finally, she drove me back to my hotel. We held hands for a while, and I felt like telling her that I didn’t need sympathy, but for a long time I kept holding her hand anyway, enjoying the feel of her chubby fingers when she squeezed mine.

The next day, I took a taxi to the train station for the journey home. Moving to Saskatchewan was probably out of the question, I thought. But if my friend could move hundreds of miles to go to university, the least I could do, I decided, was to move out on my own. I couldn’t do much with a new semester about to start, and I needed a summer of work if I was going to pay rent, but, eight months after I returned home, I did move out. Nor, except for two weeks when I was between semesters and apartments, did I ever move back.

Somehow, after that late night car ride, I never did get back in touch with my friend. I didn’t seem to have anything more to say to her.

A few years ago, she called me unexpectedly after she had found a trove of some of my poems, wanting to apologize for having treated me shabbily. But I felt embarrassed talking to her with Trish nearby, and, anyway, I still didn’t have anything more to say. I listened and made non-committal noises, sensing that what she wanted was less my forgiveness than an opportunity to forgive herself.

I was unable to tell her that, so far as I was concerned, she had done nothing to forgive. She’d given me the opportunity for adventure, and given me an example for doing what I should have done at least a year earlier – and each of those was a gift that she could hardly have equaled even by asking me to spend the night with her.

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You can’t know what somebody else’s relationship is like. Lately, though, I am starting to believe you can tell the state of a relationship by how the couple share – or don’t share — interests.

A few months ago, I read an ex-friend’s comment that, when he and his wife went to the cinema, they didn’t always go to the same movie. Admittedly, they worked together, but this comment horrified me. Why get married if you don’t want to spend time with the other person? Because you’re in love with the idea of marriage, rather than a particular person? After such an admission, I wasn’t surprised to hear from another source that this couple had come close to divorce at least once.

An equally unhealthy interaction is common among the weight-lifters in the exercise room half a mile from our townhouse. Every once in a while one of the younger male weight-lifters will bring a girl friend with him. Inevitably, the young woman will do a couple of slow minutes on the treadmill, pedal the cycling machine half-heartedly while reading People, and pull unenthusiastically on a few weights while the young man struts with the other weight-lifters.

Except for one, who has taken up serious training, none of the young women return. However, a couple of the men have brought other women a week or two later. My guess is that the women wouldn’t have come once, except that they felt they should try to share their lovers’ interests. But they did so as a duty, making no effort to get into the spirit of what they were doing. Having one person feeling martyred and the other feeling humored isn’t exactly the best recipe for a relationship, so I’m not surprised at the apparent failure of these relationships, either.

In contrast to these two situations, I interviewed a free software advocate in a local pub a couple of weeks ago. When he sat down, he immediately pulled out a complicated-looking piece of knitting involving three needles and a couple of balls of wool. He explained that he and his wife had made a pact that they would at least try each other’s interests. His wife had learned enough to install FreeBSD for herself, and he had learned enough knitting to design a couple of patterns, and soon hoped to do more.

“How does that work out?” I asked.

“Pretty well,” he said shyly. “We’ve been married fifteen years so far.”

Well, no wonder, I thought. Admittedly, his wife might never learn to enjoy installing a computer operating system, and he might never learn to love knitting. But at the very least, they could both learn something about the other’s passions –and that has to be good for any relationship.

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If friendship went by logic, then I would hate Brother Charles. Where he is Quebecois, I am le maudit anglais. He sounds like a Boston Brahmin, while I come from a long line of dissenting ministers and trade unionists on one side and small tradesmen and farmers on the other. While he writes books on the history of rum and the papacy, my publications are articles that are here today and gone tomorrow. Worst of all he’s not only a political and social conservative while I am decidedly leftist, but he’s an ordained monk and Catholic apologist to my Protestant upbringing and adult agnosticism. By rights, we shouldn’t be able to tolerate each other in the same room without shouting. Yet, despite everything, we remain friends over the distance and the years.

Part of the reason is Charles’ combination of innocence and charm. He seems to assume — apparently with never a doubt — that everybody he meets will be enchanted by his friendliness and slightly old-fashioned glibness — and, as a result, everybody is. Time and time again, I’ve seen him draw out people from whom I’d be lucky to get a non-committal grunt. Another large reason is that he is one of the half dozen best-read people I’ve met, and can talk knowledgably and engagingly on dozens of topics.

But the main reason is that Charles is an eccentric, and in my experience that always trumps politics and beliefs. Since he’s an original, I can almost forgive him for being an imperialist running dog lackey.

I first noticed the mad monk at a Mythopoeic Conference, the annual academic conference devoted to Tolkien and other members of his circle. He had some of the better material at the roundrobin bardic circles run by Paul Zimmer, and knew how to deliver it, too. He later made himself conspicious by constructing a food sculpture and parading it around the tables during a lull in the banquet. We had a mutual friend in Paul, but, even without that connection, he was offbeat enough that we would have hooked up sooner or later.

Over the years, we’ve learned that visits with Charles are always as unlikely as our first encounters. Since he’s a monk, he can’t make women part of his holidays except in the most fraternal way — but wine and song always are, and who knows what else besides.

At another Mythopoeic, we joined forces to give long-suffering children’s writer Sherwood Smith a history as an international truffle smuggler, with a heroic pig as a sidekick, just because we thought her daughter deserved a mother with an adventurous youth. I remember we serenaded Sherwood in the hotel lobby with a tale of her adventures set to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” But maybe you had to be there.

Another time, Charles visited Trish and I in Vancouver. I still remember trailing behind him through Vancouver’s more-radical-than-thou east end with him in full morning dress and top hat on way to a folk concert. He affected a lordly disdain for the catcalls of the locals about his costume to encourage them; we shuffled behind and hoped we were unnoticed as we almost doubled over laughing.

He was in morning dress because, with his belief in the mystical power of monarchs, he had cajoled the Monarchist League of Canada into letting him be aide-de-camp to the exiled king of Rwuanda for a few days while his majesty raised money to stop the genocide in his country. Inevitably, this escapade drew us in, and we staggered out to the airport at 3AM so that Charles could greet the king as he came through customs. The king, a tall thin African who apparently lived with his secretary in a small apartment in Paris, was more than a little bemused to get royal treatment for once, and kept looking at Charles as though he couldn’t quite believe him. When we got to the Bayshore Hotel, the entire staff turned out in the lobby to greet the king while we watched our lives get a little surrealer.

That was the same visit where Charles dragged us to a performance of “Ain’t Misbehaving,” a Fats Waller revue before we had time to eat after work. At the time, few restaurants in Vancouver were open after midnight on a Monday, and, in our half-starved state, we must have reached the door of a dozen eateries just in time to see the Closed sign flipped over. We finally found a fabulous northern Chinese hot pot restaurant.

That’s another key to Charles: luck seems to attend him in the little things. Left to ourselves, we probably would given up and bought chocolate bars at a corner store, just in time to witness a holdup.

For a while, we went through a period where our main contact was our annual Christmas cards: Charles’ inevitably religious and usually depicting the Virgin Mary, and ours a joke one with “Season’s Greeting” crossed out and replaced by “Season’s Gratings” and a baggie of cheese parings.

But, last summer, he descended upon us again, and our lives became tipsy again for a couple of days. One night, we watched him charm first the waitress and then the manager of Rasputin’s, both of whom swore that he should be a standup comedian (he already had been). The next night, he used his club’s reciprocal dining privileges to treat us to dinner at the Vancouver Club, where even the formal waiters were no match for his aimiable chatter. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we would have preferred an ethnic restaurant that was more casual and had better food, although the way I discarded my shoes for sandals and shucked my tie before we went on to a Celtic Night at a local pub probably tipped him off. But the conversation was the point, and, when we dropped him at the hotel room he was sharing with his monastery’s prior, he gave us a copy of his encylopedic history of the papacy. The next day, he was scheduled to go to Victoria to give a copy of his book the lieutenant-governor of the province, so we were in select company.

Who knows when I’ll see Charles again? But, when I do, I can be assured that our conversation and relationship will pick up exactly where it left off, and, for a few days, my life will become stranger and more exausting.

It’s people like Charles who shatter my incipient misanthropy after experiences like trying to get in touch with my high school friends after my reunion. Unlike them, people like Charles know what friendship is about — and, for that, I can forgive even starry-eyed conservatism.

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“Days when we lost it laughing,
One thing was kind of clear,
Whatever it was you’re looking for,
You wouldn’t start from here.”
– OysterBand

I couldn’t wait to leave high school. It wasn’t unpleasant; it just lasted about two years too long. Come graduation, I bolted. I avoided the university that most of my classmates attended, and, within two years, I left my home city, coming back only to visit family. But last year, I started wondering whether I’d missed anything. When my class reunion arrived in October 2006, I decided on whim to go.

That’s one mistake I won’t be making again.

Like high school itself, the reunion wasn’t unpleasant. Contrary to my brother’s predictions, the event wasn’t full of people boasting of accomplishments and children — just people out for a good time. I was greeted warmly by several women who had been in my class all through school, many of them miraculously unaltered since their teen years — at least to my eye — and by men whose younger selves had been close enough to me that they still make guest appearances in the occasional dream.

I revelled in the petty vanity of observing that I was in better shape than most, and the satisfaction of realizing that people who had once secretly intimidated me were now simply tiresome. The adult version of a girl I’d often chattered at in elementary school turned out to have had a similar career path to me, and we spent about half the evening talking, and later split a cab fare. All in all, it turned out to be the most pleasant evening out I’d had in months. For a while, I even managed to believe that I had effortlessly brought my past and present together.

My mistake was thinking that the warmth expressed throughout the evening was anything other than nostalgia mixed with alcohol.

After the reunion, I tried to keep in touch with a dozen people with whom I’d spent time at the reunion. I emailed some of them directly, and others through websites like Classmates and LinkedIn.

Not one of those efforts resulted in a lasting correspondence, let alone a renewal of friendship.

One or two never responded to me. My best friend when we were growing up was uncomfortable with email and gave up the correspondence after a single exchange. A former friend I’d protected against bullies lasted two emails. Several lasted a little longer. One bestirred herself enough to suggest who might have reunion photos, but ignored a LinkedIn invitation. One said she would accept an invitation from her home address, but never did. Still others accepted invitations to LinkedIn, but without comment. Once everybody was sober and back in their daily routines, keeping in touch with somebody who was no longer part of their lives was unimportant to them. Some of them may have planned more of a response, but chose to be too busy.

(I say “chose,” because, when people say they’re too busy, what they mean is that they don’t want to shift from their habits. People who say they are too busy to read, for example, inevitably spend free time they could use to read parked in front of the TV.)

For several months, I did scrape together a correspondence with the woman who’d befriended me at the reunion, but the exchange was ruined by differences in expectations. She thought an email a week made me high maintenance, while I, after a decade among geeks, who consider email slow compared to IRC, thought that rate exceedingly casual. For my part, I was wary about what her exaggerated praise of my writing concealed. She seemed to nurse an idealized image of me that I was too full of human faults ever to match.

For her part — well, I’ll never know, now. Did she worry whether my scattergun friendliness masked deeper feelings? I’m an old-married, so I overlooked such possibilities at the time. All I know is that, faced with problems at work, she chose to be busy. Her emails became full of icy thank-yous, and the correspondence faltered. Finally, in a flash of temper — possibly caught in a lie — she formally closed the connection.

Compared to the trauma I’ve experienced and witnessed, these failures hardly register. I have no shortage of other correspondents, after all. Still, after the last failure, I deleted the emails I’d received and purged my address books. I cancelled my Classmates registration and severed some LinkedIn connections. I started working out daily at the gym. I noticed that the cherry blossoms were adding the first dash of springtime color to the city. In short, I moved on. But the experiences leave my world a colder place, and I regret the wasted time.

Most of all, I regret my quixotic efforts to look back. I should have known that I lost touch with my acquaintances for a reason. The accident of going to the same schools was simply not enough for friendship. Nobody’s to blame for that fact, but it didn’t go away because I ignored it, either.

In the end, for all my good will, my former classmates and I were like planets in eclipse. From a narrow perspective, our shadows might fall on each other, but, fixed in our orbits, we could never actually touch.

That’s why I won’t be going to another reunion. I may change my mind ten years from now, but why should I? I’ve been there, done that, and long ago worn out the T-shirt.

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Writing letters has always been part of my life. It started with a pen pal cousin in the second grade, and continued in high school with long letters about literature to like-minded girls and what at the time I thought was a steamy exchange with a girl I met on holidays in Montana. Later, emails became another form of letters for me, although I still miss the anticipatory thrill of recognizing a friend’s handwriting on an envelope — recognizing someone’s email address just isn’t the same. Yet of all my correspondences, the one I value most was my correspondence with the American fantasist Avram Davidson in the last few years of his life.

Avram was one of the best unknown writers of the twentieth century. In books like Adventures in Unhistory and The Enquiries of Dr. Esterhazy, Avram perfected a style of story-telling with a sharp ear for speech patterns, a digressive style, and a dry sense of good-natured humor. Only Avram could get away with starting a story with a page and a half of irrelevancy, or write a page long sentence with six colons and six semi-colons that was perfectly coherent, or carry off a punch line like, “I tell you what the problem is. They let anybody into Eton these days.” The rules other writers learn about what to avoid were challenges to him, and he inevitably overcame each one he faced.

What made Avram’s letters special was that they were had all the characteristics of his stories, but were private. Written, as often as not, on postcards or the backs of old posters, they were almost illegible when handwritten, and not much better when typed because Avram had a cavalier attitude about typos. But because Avram was so observant and so full of a sense of the absurd, his letters were always worth deciphering, down to his inevitable sign off of “Yoursly.” They were the sort of letters that you carried to show to other people, and that made me stretch to produce replies that would entertain him in return.

Was I outclassed? Completely. Avram was not only a genius in the truest sense of that often abused word, but had thirty-five years of experience on me. But he tolerated me, and allowed me to learn.

The letters ranged over all sorts of topics. Avram had lived briefly in Canada in the 1960s, and retained a fondness for it, listening to CBC radio from whatever small town in Washington State he was currently living in. He usually started with some insulting reference to me as a Canuck (I retaliated by calling him a DamnYankee, knowing full well he was a Jew from Yonkers), and would talk about whatever he was currently reading. For a while, we discussed the merits of him moving to New Westminister, where the difference in the Canadian and American dollars at the time would make his small income go further.

Another time, he sent me scurrying to the library (this was pre-Internet) to find whether the First Nations chief Poundmaker had ever been pursued – all so he could mention an imaginary book called In Pursuit of Poundmaker in one story. I was able to tell him that, if you squinted, Poundmaker had, in fact, been pursued at one point. I still get a small sense of ownership when I come across that reference.

But the truth is, Avram’s letters sounded so much like Avram in person that I am not sure whether many topics were raised in conversation or in a letter. Was it in a letter that Avram told me about his one attempt to learn to drive when he lived in Belize – an effort that ended quickly when he looked up from behind the wheel and saw a tapir glaring at him, about to charge, and decided that being a driver wasn’t part of his karma? That he told me why he wouldn’t accept the Grand Master Award from the World Fantasy Convention? That we discussed the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company? That I learned that, even in the 1990s, he wouldn’t ride in a Volkswagon because of the Holocaust? Of his habit of buying writers a drink at science fiction conventions when their first novel was published? Of his pride in his son Ethan, who was proving a playwright? I could probably find out if I were to rummage through his letters. But the point is that it doesn’t matter. Whether in person or in letters, Avram was an entertainer.

Remember the princess in Rumpelstiltskin, condemned to spin straw into gold? If Avram had been the princess, and the goal a story, Avram wouldn’t have needed the title character’s help. Avram could spin a story out of anything.

One of my strongest memories of him is visiting him at the veteran’s home in Bremerton one Memorial Day, and watching him hold court surrounded by a dozen guests around a table on the lawn long after everyone else had left or gone inside. All of us were spellbound, and we listened to him for hours.

Our correspondence ended in 1993, when Avram was found dead in his basement apartment in Bremerton (by mutual agreement, he’d moved out of the veteran’s home, being too eccentric for the bureaucrats to handle). A memorial service was held in Gasworks Park in Seattle. Preserving some of the industrial equipment that was originally on the site, the location was one that I’m sure Avram would have appreciated for its offbeat whimsy.

What I learned from Avram was the same as you learn from any original writer – just how good a story can be, and how often we settle for something less because it tells us comforting lies, or just because it is adequate.

But every writer who delivers that lesson does so differently. Avram’s way was to suggest that everybody, without exception, is at least slightly eccentric. Most of us, Avram proposes (and he wouldn’t exclude himself) are downright dotty, and the only thing to do is sit back and enjoy the entertainment. I’m too idealistic to share that worldview for long, but, with Avram as a guide, I still enjoy exploring it.

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“We can put you up, but you’ll have to stay in the dojo with six witches from Denver.”

That is not the start of a dirty joke, but the words with which we were invited to stay at Greyhaven, a communal house of writers in the Claremont district of Berkeley. There actually was a martial arts gym in the basement, and we did share it with six neopagans from Denver (and their harps), but that was the least of our experiences at Greyhaven.

Crowded with fantasy and poetry books, full of people coming and going, Greyhaven in its heyday was at the crossroads of half a dozen subcultures, including the Society for Creative Anachronism, Bay Area poets, Regency dancing, fantasy writing, roleplaying games, and paganism. You might risk your health in the squalor of the bathrooms, but you would never be bored at Greyhaven. On some visits, there were entire days when we never got out of the house. You didn’t have to leave the house to see the sights – they came to you at Greyhaven, in the form of people of every conceivable description.

On our first visit, we took a while to sort out who was whom, and what their relations to each other were. Take for example, Tracey Blackstone, the literary agent, who was in the process of moving out so she could get a divorce from Paul Edwin Zimmer, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s brother and sometime collaborator – not because they weren’t still close, but because she wanted to marry someone else, and a judge would have a hard time understanding why she was sharing an address with a supposedly estranged husband. Another resident was Nancy Geise, a Seattle witch, who was soon going to have a daughter with Paul. Don Studebaker, better known as Jon de Cles and Mason Powell and for his portrayal on-stage of Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, didn’t actually live there at the moment, but would descend periodically from the hills where he was living with six unruly Lab puppies and Kelson, his lover who was dying of AIDS. Up in the attic suite, confined there by ill health, lived Evelyn Zimmer, Paul and Marion’s mother, over ninety and a passionate reader; when we received permission to visit her, I felt more honored than I would have done to receive an invitation from the Queen. And somehow keeping everything running while still finding time to teach and write was Diana Paxson, best known for her Westria series and a major figure in the Covenant of the Goddess. At Greyhaven’s twentieth anniversary party in 1992, a list of other residents on the wall included over forty names, and, even then, no one was sure it was complete.

No wonder we had trouble with names and relationships. They were so confusing that when the children of the house had been asked to do family trees in school, everyone in the house pulled together to create a fictious family tree that wouldn’t shock the teachers.

“That was our nuclear family imitation,” Paul said, retelling the story. And, for once in my life, I had the right reply ready: “I thought Berkeley was a nuclear free zone.” But, clearly, we weren’t the only ones to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the lives that went on in the house.

Our invitation to stay was through Paul and Nancy. We never knew Nancy as well as we would have liked, but, when we first Paul at a Seattle science fiction convention, we’d stayed up until 3AM talking in the hallways. The next night was equally late, as Paul hosted a bardic circle, a round robin of songs, poetry, and readings. That’s how I remember Paul best: dressed in full Scottish regalia, booming out poems and choruses with expressiveness and passion, and frequently throwing back his head to laugh.

A heavy smoker with an auburn beard and wild long hair, irresistible to women, Paul was the largest of the countless larger than life figures around Greyhaven. People at conventions thought of him as a party animal, but what they didn’t know was how disciplined the rest of his life was. He lived a life defined by writing – not just composing it, but talking about it and reciting it as well. Self-educated, he would learn languages like Iroquois and Old Welsh, then compose poetry in them for recreation.

About 4PM every afternoon, Paul would stumble out of the pile of books and papers he called a bedroom (presumably there was a bed in it somewhere) and have the first cigarette of the day. Wearing a tattered green caftan, he would write through the night, periodically rising to pace or do sword mediation in the living room. The one firm rule of the house was: If you encountered Paul at night, you didn’t talk to him first, in case he was working. But, sometimes, if you were lucky, he would read you what he was working on, or describe the plotting problems he was having.

In the morning, he would eat and collapse in his room again, unless distracted by another conversation. Most of the time, I suspect, he went short of sleep rather than miss a good talk.

Did I say that Paul was hopeless about money or dealing with bureaucracy? But I’ve never met anyone who knew more about writing, friendship, and integrity. “Paul raised himself to be a knight,” his mother told me once, and that observation says all you need to know about him.

And these were just the people you could meet everyday. When Greyhaven threw its annual party — “Charlie,” as it was called – or celebrated the Winter Solstice,you never knew whom you might meet. Catholic monks, Unitarian ministers, transvestite nuns, street poets like Vampyre Mike, fantasy writers like Fritz Leiber or Poul Anderson, academics, musicians – like the Roman forum, if you stayed at Greyhaven long enough, you would eventually see the whole world pass by. You might even meet a few conventional people, although you couldn’t count on it.

For about six years, we infested Greyhaven at any excuse. Then my partner became chronically ill, and, a few years later, Paul Zimmer died of a heart attack at a science fiction convention in New York where he was guest of honor – and with him, our main excuse to visit.

I understand that Paul’s son, Ian Grey, has been raising his family in Greyhaven over the last decade, but we’ve never been back. No offense to Ian, but it wouldn’t be the same. Some memories are too important to expose them to present day reality, and my memories of Greyhaven are pure magic.

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