My friend Andy and I were walking the golf course thirteen years ago when we saw some old guys in their seventies playing together. “That’s you and me in 20 years,” he said.
We then spoke about the importance of our friendship and male friendship generally and thought of who, amongst all the people we jointly knew that we’d like to have in our lives as we grow old and how best to assure sustaining those friendships over time.
“A book group,” one of us said.
“Great idea,” said the other.
So… we selected a dozen mutual friends who were smart, liberal-thinking, interested in the world, thoughtful, reflective, verbal, and liked to read.
We ended up with a varied lot: lawyers, a judge, physicians, entertainment executives, a journalist, an engineer and inventor, a media analyst and former political speechwriter, business guys, a psychotherapist, and a rabbi. Four have written books. Half are now retired. We are American-, French-, and Egyptian-born. We include a child of survivors and a Jew-by-Choice. We are all — or were — married. We’re dads and granddads. Our grown kids live all over the place including a Haredi in Israel. A few of our originals dropped out and we added two or three new guys from time to time. We’ve met consistently every other month for the last twelve years.
The first book we read was Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. Since then, we’ve read sixty to seventy books, fiction and non-fiction, from Franz Kafka’s Short Stories to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Everything we’ve read was, in one way or another, worthwhile even if some of us didn’t like the book. Our conversation was always engaging, and we genuinely like and respect each other.
This past week after fifteen months of zoom meetings, we met on my backyard patio to discuss the contemporary Irish writer John Banville’s novel Snow. As host, before we began discussing the book I asked everyone to share whatever silver lining he might have gleaned during the lock-down.
Many of us said we bonded more deeply with our spouses, children, and grandchildren, how much we appreciated a more simplified life, solitude, working from home, and grateful that we didn’t suffer financially as so many millions did around the country.
We’re between 50 and nearly 80 years old now. We noted, as Andy and I used to say on very hot summer days on the links plodding along from hole to hole that we feel fortunate to still be on this side of the grass and more or less healthy. Only one among us got sick from Covid, but he — thankfully — recovered.
After the meeting, I thought more about the silver lining during this horrendous period of Covid. I’m naturally an optimist. But, I have fewer illusions about human nature than I did. The Trump era showed how many millions of Americans are bigoted, mean-spirited, and susceptible to demagoguery, and where the injustices and weaknesses are in our imperfect democracy, but also how many more millions of people (again, my optimism speaking) are good and decent who believe in a shared society based upon justice, compassion, and respect for others and for America’s democratic traditions.
Our discussion of John Banville’s Snow had at least one relevant theme consistent with our reemergence from isolation. Set in Ireland in 1957, the plot centers around a brutal murder of a Roman Catholic Priest in the middle of a frigid winter. The book is both a mystery who-done-it and a novel. “Snow,” actually, is a key character in the book, as is the sea, wind, trees, and animals. Like all the anthropomorphisms and human characters, what lies beneath the surface is a deeper, more disturbed, and complex order of things, not nearly as pure and straightforward as they may wish to appear. Each character held secrets, and though the murderer of the Priest seemed obvious from the beginning of the story, at the end we were shocked to learn the identity of the true killer.
Of course, everyone has secrets — including us — and Covid helped bring many of those into focus. We became more aware of what we really want, need, value, and cherish, and how and with whom we wish to spend our time, energy, and treasure. For us, most of our lives are behind us in the rear-view mirror. We find ourselves, therefore, focusing more on the present and short-term future, as well as on the future well-being of our children, their partners, and grandchildren. We feel less patience for wasting our time on that which either doesn’t interest or engage us and more patience with the people we love and for meaningful pursuits.
There was much clarity spoken between the twelve of us on my backyard patio this past week. Andy and I no longer play golf weekly for all kinds of reasons, but we do have each other still and, of course, our book group. Dayenu — that’s enough for which I feel grateful these days.