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Monday, September 18, 2006

Intervention: what friends are for

The other night I visited the home of old friends because their son was in deep trouble. That’s what friends are for. The couple were, like many of our generation, hopelessly confused by the impending tragedy.

They had done everything right, more than right, ideally. Better parenting skills were not possible. Not just by the book, they could have written the book.

Affection, discipline, attention, values, nurturing, education, opportunities, appropriate positive approval with rewards for good behavior and immediate and appropriate punishment for misbehavior. They were strict, yet loving. They had provided a balanced environment, made none of the mistakes their parents had made, fell into none of the traps of either permissiveness or callousness.

And now, it seemed it might all have been useless. If this child went wrong, the implications were enormous — there is no hope for any conscientious parent.

And yet here he was. Sitting across from me, smiling a benign smile, seeming oblivious to the decision he was contemplating that might lead him on a disastrous path.

When I arrived, the tension was palpable. The Mom and Dad were pathetic in their apparent despair. It was like an ER.

My strategy for this intervention was to strike quickly, a sudden slap in the face, a punch in the gut, the shock treatment.

"What the fuck are you thinking?" I spit as I enter.

He is shocked, he reels, but retains his goofy smile.

"I’m not kidding, kid, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m dead serious."

"But, like what’s wrong? What did I do?"

Good start, he’s on the defensive.

"You don’t even know you’re on the edge of a cliff, the rim of a volcano, one foot on a slippery slope to destruction."

My metaphors wound him. I feel a pang of guilt.

My friends feel their son’s pain, but steel themselves. They knew it would hurt, but it is almost too much. All their protective impulses must be stifled. This is the toughest tough love.

The kid begins to well up. But he counterpunches, gets me right in the stomach, completely unprepared.

"But you, it’s what you do.

I stagger. I’m the one who is shocked.
I look to my friends, his parents, for help, see the looks in their eyes. Me. It’s my fault. All their work was ruined because of me.

But how? Sure, I’ve known this kid all his life. Watched his growth, along with my own son’s, envied the skills his parents had shown. Yet my kid turned out okay, hadn’t made this fatal turn. So why is it my fault?

"You made it sound great! All those stories, man. And, and, like fighting the good fight, man. Its like awesome, dude."

I’m dizzy now with terror. I sputter.

"Kid, you can’t be serious. You didn’t believe all that bull, did you? You weren’t listening. Sure there’s laughs and highs. But for every high, there’s ten lows that are way lower than the highs are high. In the end you lose, you get crushed. You want to end up like me? Look at me. Take a good look, kid."

It may have worked. For the first time, the kid blinked and saw me for what I really was. Not the cool, terribly witty dude, but the old, bitter hulk, the residue of a wasted life.

He wept and his Mom enveloped him in her loving arms. His Dad grasped my hand and my shoulder.

Tearfully, "Thanks, mort, I know that wasn’t easy.

"Its okay." My breath returns. "Growing up is hard. The heroes have to be toppled. But how did it get this bad?"

"I didn’t see it coming," the Dad said.
"When he started law school, I actually supported it. I guess I wanted to believe. When he talked about criminal law being cool, I thought, okay, he could be a DA. But then, all of a sudden, he starts talking about defending, and now he applied to the public defender. I was stunned."

"I’m so sorry, pal. I blame myself."

"No, I think its okay now. Now that he sees you as you are. That took guts."

"Hey, what are friends for."


  1. Wow, very good writing. Very good. I hope he doesn't listen to you though.

  2. Anon: nobody listens to me, so don't worry.

  3. hilarious - but yeah i think we need more broken idealists in this world!