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Cozy up to writers at your own peril.

-- Truman Capote In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.

-- Graham Greene In spring of this year I wrote about a friend (possibly a former friend now), though I disguised him pretty thoroughly, I thought. I was certain only he would recognize himself and no one else, not even his mother. I assumed (and we all know what happens when we ass-ume) that my old amigo would probably not read it, or be able to where he lived. I don't know if his mother saw it, but guess what? I keep forgetting the stuff I write is no longer just regional journalism local to San Diego. Instead of being delighted at this sort of promotion to being a national (and international) writer again, the first thing I notice is, hey, this stuff can bite me in the ass. The man I wrote about took serious umbrage. Oh, yes. I apologized by e-mail, as thoroughly as I could, but there is something about that type of communication that labors under some McLuhanesque effect or lack of effect I have not puzzled out. It is not just a matter of practiced usage of the English language. There may be a lack of emotional content so thorough in electronic mail that it might render an apology more ineffective than, say, a typewritten letter sent by U.S. mail.

For several days I went through a depression borne of the seeming truth that I had truly torpedoed a friend, and in a cowardly way. It took time and discussions on the nature of friendship via e-mail with my friend Mark, with whom I have been friends since 1985.

Mark wrote to me:

"I do think he projects what he wants to see onto you, and I don't think that is good. You aren't 'the bad boy' type, though people sometimes see you that way.... You are," [and I hesitate to quote this, but I do believe I am fundamentally decent -- with minor lapses] "a decent and troubled man.

"You cannot let go easily of [your own] past wrongs; but I have to say, people who let go of their sins too easily aren't great people.

"Everybody makes mistakes, John. Everybody. The measure of a man is what he does about those mistakes."

And then:

"You reached out to be my friend. You didn't have to do that; there was no real benefit to you. You were always polite and kind to me, even as I made still more rookie mistakes. Your friendship was so very essential to me during some very, very dark times. Laughter, understanding, and just listening. You did quite a bit of that, in between the jokes and the Jose [Sinatra] stories.

"The humor was life-saving to me, because I am naturally quite morose.

"I tell you all of this because having friends is very important to me, and I think to you as well.

"Just a couple of quotes -- how I love quotes! -- about friendship":

Don't flatter yourself that friendship authorizes you to say disagreeable things to your intimates. The nearer you come into relation with a person, the more necessary do tact and courtesy become. Except in cases of necessity, which are rare, leave your friend to learn unpleasant things from his enemies; they are ready enough to tell them. -- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809--1894)

Human beings are born into this little span of life of which the best thing is its friendship and intimacies, and soon their places will know them no more, and yet they leave their friendships and intimacies with no cultivation, to grow as they will by the roadside, expecting them to "keep" by force of inertia. -- William James (1842--1910)

And Mark again: "Friendships take work. And they do require care and feeding. And you have done those things, certainly, from my point of view. Sometimes, I think of friendships like bank accounts: a friend does something great, it is a deposit to that account. They screw up, it is a withdrawal. So the question remains, should we treat our friendships like a skinflint banker during the Depression, or like the World Bank treats Brazil? Everybody is different."

I very well realize this reads like, "I may have screwed this one guy, but my other friend says I'm okay. And do let's focus on what nice things he says about me." But one subjective fact worth mentioning is that I value Mark's friendship more highly than that of the other man and quite possibly one of the reasons is that he himself is so eloquent on the subject of friendship and it is an eloquence born of hard treatment and long nights. Had I written what I had about Mark, I would feel badly enough; and while I can't imagine doing so, I would have to wonder what it was that brought me to it. None of Mark's behavior has ever been egregious enough -- or even close -- to warrant such a thing. So I would be left pretty much with the idea that there was another agenda, an alternate, actual list of grievances I was addressing in a way that smacks a little like cowardice.

One of the interesting things about the process of writing is that it is a good way to find out what you are thinking. You would think you would pretty much know beforehand, but it doesn't really work that way. Upon re-reading the piece I had written about the injured friend, I realized I was more than a little disappointed in this man for a number of reasons going back ten years and in the end having little to do with any of the subjects at hand, which I seized upon in the column.

But I had to write it first to see what it wasn't.

My apology to him stands. I'm sorry for the way I can be, I guess. I'm sorry for all of us.

If I were a good man I would understand the spaces between friends. -- Roger Waters/Pink Floyd

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