Two of my close friends died this week. Both changed my life for the better. (You may ask if there’s another kind of friend. If you’re relatively stable there isn’t.) Still I’m talking about true blue friends. One was a vibrant, outspoken, tough minded, wheelchair riding disability activist. The other was a vibrant, outspoken, tough minded literary agent. These two never met but they’d have liked each other. Both were New Yorkers with big hearts who were hard and sharp as nails. Respectively they knew how to get past locked doors whether figurative or literal.
As a matter of friendship neither of these souls expected me to solve their problems. This is rare in America nowadays when talking about one’s feelings has largely taken the place of adult discourse. Neither of these souls thought friendship was about the talking cure. If they wanted my advice they asked for it but never was the request framed as a matter of solving life long ills. Each talked fast and knew also how to stop and listen. Both hated bureaucrats, school principals, party hacks, self-aggrandizing academics, facile literary writers, and the New York Yankees.
I’ve been lucky to have had some good friendships. I say lucky because I’m not an easy person to know. I’m opinionated, contrarian, suspicious of cant, disposed to a generalized distrust of earnestness. I don’t believe in “theory” when applied to literature or culture. LIterary theory is just opinion that hasn’t been subjected to serious rhetorical analysis. Jacques Derrida on animals is not worth the read. Sara Ahmed’s work on happiness is nonsensical. You can critique anything. This doesn’t make the activity sound or valuable. As I say, I’m not easy to know. I suspect I’d have gotten along well with the late Neil Postman.
When I was 15 years old and staying at a Key Biscayne resort with my father (who was on a business trip) I found myself alone in an elevator with Melvin Laird, Nixon’s secretary of defense. The year was 1970. My hero was John Lennon. I looked at Mel and said, “How’s your war going Mr. Laird? Are the body counts where you’d like them?” I was anorexic, stringy haired, and rebarbative. He glared and said nothing and bolted when the doors opened.
I’m not easy to like. Unless you’re against war, social hypocrisy, and all the “isms” as we say.
But then again I like those who have learned to like themselves.
My “gone” pals knew who they were.
Which means knowing also who you are not.
Which means knowing what Bob Marley meant when he said:
“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger