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The Apprenticeship

Posted by Manuel Valencia on February 28, 2020

In the beginning

As far back as I can recall, this part of my life experience had a murky beginning. The concept and definition of friendship was not very apparent, nor clear then, as it is for me now. A simple and humble description could go like this; friendship is a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people. (Wikipedia). By now, I have come to think of it this way; friendship is a gift I give myself.

As a child, I did not think much about it. I guess, as most mortals; I modeled my behavior by observing the members of my tribe. My parents were as dysfunctional, as I have confirmed most parents to be. My father was shy, quiet, solemn, irritable, insecure, unhappy and not the best candidate to be a parent. My mother was warm, elegant, happy, clever and generally understanding.

I am a middle child; my older sister was studious, proper, elegant, pretty and gentle. My only and younger brother was born only eleven months after my birth, eclipsing the usual eighteen to twenty four months that most infants have under the limelight. He was small and became an ally during my childhood.

As I recall my early childhood was turbulent. My relation with others was as a measure of strength, either by physical or intellectual competition, with emphasis on the former. I stretched and developed my muscles before my mind; I suppose I chose this route because it came easier to me. My early days in school showed that I could certainly be at home within the warrior class.

By the way, about my parents. My father had joined the warrior class of our nation, being the first in his family to not only pursue higher education, two of his brothers had attempted this feat unsuccessfully, but not to have actually graduated. My mother had experience as a sales clerk in one of the most fashionable stores of the day in the capital city.

The early school years

My early years in school produced grades bordering on awful. The first thru third grade were colored by not only my scholastic performance, but were also marred by my ill behavior and lack of obedience of most of the schools rules. I recall that once I was given two heaping spoonful of flour paste, I suppose they thought it would possibly shut me up for a while.

On the popularity front, I seemed to garner some kind of a bad boy reputation, this quality was feared by the weak, respected by my enemies, challenged by the strong and intrigued the opposite sex, or so I thought. After meeting a former schoolmate forty years since the last time we saw each other, he confessed that he had conveniently sided with be the first day of class, for mere protection.

This aggressive persona, came to classify as a bully, much later in life, something I am ashamed of now. My mother reminded me often, that this road was not the best to take. Several years later I would come to understand and heel her advice.

The extent of my muscle development reached its climax one day. We were changing for physical education at the locker room, a place for boys to be boys, and let out some steam. A gym ball war started. As I got ready to hurl my bag across the room at a desirable target, I noticed that it was unusually heavy, pausing momentarily to assess its contents. This nanosecond pause, allowed me to bring down my guard, and get pelted with a well aimed projectile, causing my anger to boil and hurl my bag.

It crossed the room with great velocity and struck an enemy on the skull, the kid brought down his head, clasped his hands on his head and started to cry uncontrollably. All bellicose action seized, as his neighbors were assessing the damage. Blood was flowing between his fingers and a small gash was clearly visible on one side of his forehead.

As the authorities arrived, and in the chaos that ensued, I tried, in a preservation effort to retrieve my bag and appear to not be the initiator of this melee, but just plead self defense. Unfortunately, I did not connect, in my mind, the extra weight of my gym bag with the forehead gash, and someone already had my gym bag at hand and was connecting it as the culprit with the visible damage.

The physical education teacher, who was friendly towards me, opened the alleged gym bag that caused the incident, and as he pulled his hand out, I realized my folly. He had a toy gun I had received for Christmas. It was a shiny silver Colt 45 revolver, that even though was no to scale, it had sufficient mass to produce the forehead opening.

This was a sure invitation to visit the headmaster’s office. The injured kid was taken away to the infirmary, and I was escorted as a criminal to face my judgment. I had been to this office before several times under uncorroborated charges, nevertheless convicted and warned. This time, I had the feeling that it would be serious and possibly my parents would be involved. This meant dealing with the disciplinary methods of my father, something I most likely wanted always to avoid.

My worst fears were realized, my deed had brought me closer to an expulsion from school, mainly by the accumulation of offenses. Like most awful things that have happened in my life, I have very little recollection of what ensued, suffice to say that I remained in school, and soon after changes took place.

About friendship, my social relations were not really founded on mutual respect and true caring, I do not know to this day what my concept of friendship was then.

The beginning

Suddenly, there was a change in me, I surprised myself with almost an about face in my behavior, which was confirmed by my amazing grades improvement. I had reinvented myself into what I previously considered the meek and studious class, in essence what today we call a nerd.

This change offered or forced me to relate with different people and in many different ways. This new club had its own rules, and I better abide by them if I wanted to assimilate. Belonging is a key word for me in explaining to myself the concept of friendship. I had to learn new skills, rely less on my male brain and use, or appear to use my female brain. The challenge had, and still has its difficulties. I had until then chosen a path of rebellious opposition to most foreign rules. This had already set me on a path that to this day, I am almost sure I follow.

For sometime, I believed that change was actually occurring, but deep inside it did not feel entirely genuine. I still felt like “a wolf in sheep’s clothes”. Thankfully, this anxiety did not seem to be discovered by my new peers. Later in life I heard the fable of the scorpion and the toad, which explains to me the concept of the essence of the individual. Something that I use to justify my failings in life.

A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, they would both drown. Considering this, the frog agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When the frog asks the scorpion why, the scorpion replies that it was in its nature to do so.

The fable is used to illustrate that fundamentally, nature, cannot be changed. This excerpt is provided by Wikipedia and hopefully fulfills the reader’s need for clarity about this fable. To me it was enlightening after years of frustration trying to sort these two entities and arriving at a modicum of inner peace.

I learned many things about friendship with this new association, which was slow and cautious in accepting me into their fold. Goodwill, politeness, patience, and understanding were some of the most notable qualities required. These elicited from me new and previously untapped feelings and behaviors. This was a good thing; I relished the idea of changing my old weapons for new building tools. I was on my way to becoming an upstanding member of society, and not an undesirable brigand anymore.

Not everyone was convinced of my new ways; most sectors of society are reluctantly fooled. I explain it with another fable, the straw that broke the camel’s back. My new peers, not only mistrusted my intentions, but I was requesting access to their exclusive club, asking them to share their pie with me. I knew very well, from previous experiences in battle that I could not force them, or expect them to offer their friendship willingly. There had to be something in it for them, and I had to prove myself.

This concept, also confirmed later in life, was apparent to me at an early age. It seemed to me that the allegedly exchange of goods and goodwill between mortals is a necessity for the smooth running of society. In effect, I argue that it could be quantified as trade; you could almost put a number to it. I know that most individuals would prefer to think that it has nothing to do with trade, but think about only giving and not receiving, and let me know how that goes for you.

As I had learnt with my previous experiences in the warrior class, life was still a battle. My new and still reticent peers welcomed me mainly because I demonstrated by ability to be like them, and deeply I saw it as a curiosity and a challenge. Challenge is good, as long as you can beat it, otherwise you may fail, and failure is not so good. Such as when a cat tries to play with a rat, when they usually only play with mice.

Time passed and I started to enjoy the fruits of my labor, literally. I found that challenging myself in these areas was rewarded much more than trying to fist fight my way to the top. It required different battle skills. Respect rather than fear was preferable in this habitat. There seems to be, in my mind, a not so clear boundary line between these two concepts. Don’t know when respect becomes fear, or even worse, whether fear is preferable to respect, such as wolf is to sheep in the fable.

Popularity was a welcome dividend of this enterprise. After the earlier mistrust, people starting to notice my abilities. Of course, I received the praise from those that had known my previous self. New and unquestioned acceptance also from others was rewarding as well. I decided to remain the course. I took to sports, and was above average, landing me with the honor and responsibility to become a sport’s team captain in school. My good grades and newfound obedience to the rules, also granted me access to the exclusive club of becoming a “prefect” of discipline in school. This meant that I could be relied on to maintain and preserve the order in school when asked by the headmaster.

These years were the golden years of early youth, before becoming challenged by higher education. My father had been posted twice during these years away from our home in the capital city. These experiences, even though challenging, were not welcomed. I felt extricated from my friends, and challenged to make new friendships. The first posting was hard for me; maybe I fought it too much and therefore disliked very much. My recollections of those two years are blurred. No memorable friendships remain. I was ten years old for the first.

The second, well, it was much different. I was sixteen years old. My father’s posting posed a particular situation for our family. This was to be my high school graduating year. I convinced my parents to remain in the capital and my school for that purpose. My argument centered on the concept of friendship, that my school mates had been forged with great effort, and that not graduating with them, would be damaging to the ties created. They reluctantly agreed. I was to stay with my father’s sister, under the condition that, during the summer before my last year in high school, I would join my family while they moved and lived at my father’s new post. I had no objection to that and agreed.

This decision would have unforeseen consequences for the rest of my life. As when you come to a fork on the road, you have to take it. We moved to the city of the North Country. It was summer. My father’s high position in his warrior class was beneficial to my family. We had been catapulted from obscurity in the capital to notoriety in the hinterlands. We were introduced to the high society and I was charmed by its offerings.

I was having one of the best summers of my life, when a month before my departure to return to school, my father made me an offer I could not refuse. He would buy me a car and I could travel back to see my school friends once a month, only if I agreed to stay together with the family. It was a very tempting offer, I was becoming friendly with the locals, and without thinking of the bridges I would burn, I agreed. I cannot regret my decision, since I find regrets unproductive.

I had promised my schoolmates of my return to graduate with them. I had been charmed or bought with trinkets, this may sound as regret, but I had to learn from my actions. I abandoned them. It was thirty five years later that I tried to rekindle our friendship. Of course my life might have been different, but such is the stuff of life. Without looking back, I plunged myself into this new environment.

The middle years

New city, new clothes, new identity, new car, new friends, I could reinvent myself in any way I pleased. I had also granted my parents their wish, and I felt I was being a good member of our family. While scouting for potential friends, I found that the ones that appealed to me had more of a bad boy bent. I decided to introduce myself, not anymore as a nice boy, but more closely to the bad boy I had suppressed for so long. This went well, the gang I had chosen accepted me. These boys were boys, not thugs or criminals. My car was a real hit, not many kids of that age had them. I was popular again. Met the opposite sex contingent and chose a local girl to be my girlfriend.

The friendships that I made that year were strong and forged by many experiences, such as the ones most boys have when they are sixteen. I still am friendly only with one of my pals from that year in the North Country. This, along with, all other friendships and relationships was put on hold and tested by a new posting for my father to the country in the north, not be confused with the north country.

The news of this new posting could not have come at a better time for me. I was studying in preparation to taking the admission test to an institution of higher learning, that I was positive, I could not pass. Never took that test.

The country in the north

Arriving the last day of the year at the snow covered capital city of the country in the north, I felt relief and on my way to a new chapter to be written of my life. Only two years earlier, I was granted the opportunity to make myself anew.

New everything, surroundings, weather, clothes, language. By now, I had become adept at change, and I welcome it. I left behind my girlfriend with the promise that we would try to make a long distance relationship work. I soon learned that, at least, I couldn’t make that promise ever again. This experience about promises, cemented my idea never to promise anything. I believe that since I have a hard time keeping promises to myself, therefore I cannot in all honesty make promises to others.

Again, I left behind friends, family and relationships that had taken some time and effort in cultivating. The shine of the new on the other hand was blinding. Once again, the opportunity for reinvention was granted. We were introduced to the local contingency of fellow countrymen and countrywomen that my father was to join in his work. These in turn introduced us to their friends, mainly expatriates like us, mostly the ones that shared our language, since it was preferable to communicate than not.

The early offering in terms of possible friendships was limiting and actually kind of boring, no matter, we do with what we have. These kids seemed proper, disciplined and ultimately well behaved. Soon I found other kids, more to my liking. These were very good times. The diplomatic umbrella that covered my father, also extend to the entire family. This again placed our situation in a very desirable position, at least socially.

We come not from wealth, but my father chose well when marrying my mother. She was well educated, polished and an elegant woman, unfortunately less economically well off than my father. My father worked hard and got ahead, he made his modest fortune later in life due to the fruits of his labor after retirement. My parents made a real effort in educating us, sending us to the best schools they could afford and imparting behavioral mores that were well above their station. I did not graduate from our dinner table, until; I could master the art of peeling and eating a banana with a fork and knife.

The early relationships that I cultivated were mostly circumstantial, of the moment and the place. I believe that most, if not all friendships are of this kind. It is not until one has the closeness and continuity of being in the same place with enough time, that one can form these intimate relationships, and that in the absence of these two factors, relationships, freeze, wither or die.

These pre college friendships were short lived, some individuals went away to college, returned to their country of origin or basically were unsustainable. When I entered college, with time and closeness, I was able to at least befriend people that had similar interests.

With my father’s posting coming to an end, we came again to that fork on the road. My parents wanted my brother and myself to follow them back home, we wanted to stay. At the time, we were enrolled in our first semester of college. We pleaded with them to at least allow us to finish the first year of school. This meant that we would remain for five more months on our own, before returning home. They reluctantly agreed, and with tears in their eyes, they departed. My brother and I have remained in the country in the north to this day.

The College years

I still have some college era friends; actually most of my existing friends are from my college days. I met my first wife during those days. Amorous relationships are a form of friendship on steroids. The same criteria are used to form them, possibly with some exceptions.

Physical attraction is paramount for both. You would not like to have ugly friends, it would speak ill of yourself. An intelligent, well balanced, smart and funny individual meets most requirements for either classification. You may not want to take to bed your closest friends, but you never know if this may be mutual. At least that has been my experience; remember the wolf in sheep’s clothing, or to put it differently worn by men of the cloth.

I am a fortunate person, to have almost a dozen close friends; of these eight usually meet at least twice weekly. I have been told, by several people, that we are very fortunate and that this phenomenon may be rare, to me it is not. I realize and celebrate this closeness for many reasons, which I will try to explain in the next paragraphs.

In the beginning, there was my brother and I. We are brothers, but I have to say that maybe I have not been such a good brother to him, and less of a friend. I use to be abusive with him, teasing him and physically hurting him, remember my early dark persona; he got some of that bullying from me. Later in life we had a respect that comes from some understanding and merely from a truce that holds precariously. I have apologized at least twice for my transgressions.

My brother, not having undergone the changes that I did, became a better balanced individual. He set up goals for himself, and being who he is, achieved most of them. When he met his wife, he came with the news that he was in love, it was evident. Years later he married her, his college sweetheart. In the interim he befriended in college some of the people I, and he call friends now.

We went to different colleges, made different friends and for a while we maintained the minimum of contact. When I courted my first wife, who went to the same college as my brother and his friends, we saw each other more. We tried to make our friendship work without success. You cannot fix a dish by adding more ingredients to it; actually it may ruin it entirely. So we grew apart. My brother started a family. He became a founding father of the little tribe to which I so proudly, and with hard work belong to.

He and his wife, like the center of a planetary system, with the necessary gravitational force, attracted other similar bodies to form the system that remains pretty much intact today. I, on the other hand childless, would disdain their gatherings and to this day, I am reminded of my complaints by all the childish fuzz. I am a believer that only parents should have to endure their children. Later in life I was able to pay them back when I had my own.

For years my first wife and I attempted to orbit their system without much success. Maybe the fact that we did not have children could have been a factor that soured or relation. During the following years, I would be invited to the customary events, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, Independence Day, etc., to which I would attend either solo or accompanied.

It was not until I met my present wife, that shares my nationality, and is much more adept with the social graces than I, that I made another attempt in rejoining the desired tribe. I had been exiled several times during those years due to friction for which I take full responsibility and have tried to again apologize for.

My present wife was welcome, even though I felt I was on probation, which I was able to confirm as true. The nature of my probation is agreeable to me; I would not have it any other way. After all the things I have said and done, I don’t blame them for not extending me a permanent place in their system; I am not to be trusted. In the words of Groucho Marx, “I would not want to be a member of a club that accepted me as a member”.

After all, the concept of friendship, not being one to be defined or quantifiable, and being entirely subjective, is left to each mortal to define as they wish. I know of people that expect much or entirely absurdly devotion from their friends, feeling betrayed right and left by others that do not hold those truths not to be self evident. If you don’t know if this applies to you, ask yourself the following question, why is it that I keep loosing my friends?

Somewhat of the reverse actually was my failing. My eccentric, as I prefer to call it, personality is usually regarded as feisty, confrontational, contrarian and extremely argumentative or opinionated if you prefer. But it has also been called caustic, frictional, belligerent and even anti social bordering on sociopathic. The clinical diagnose, as a sociopath is not in yet, not because it is not fitting, but maybe because it does make the mark. According to Wikipedia, a sociopath is “a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience”.

I am a very social animal, I like people, and so that on its own merit disqualifies me from such honor. As to lack of conscience, I know I have one, when I do good or harm, I know what I am doing. I do hear those voices.

When my wife and I were welcome into the fold, it took sometime to convince the members that I had undergone the necessary work, whether psychiatric, psychological and or chemical, for them to grant me entrance once again into the inner sanctum. I had to prove myself. They were not initially convinced, but after a while they commented openly and specially for my wife’s benefit, what an undesirable element I had been in the past. This of course was like music to my ears.

I had done it again. Either I had truly changed or I was again pulling the wool over their eyes. I say again, because I had done that too in the past, and was unsure if I believed my own lies. No matter, it was working. This, as I recall was about a decade ago, and since then I have mellowed out in the autumn of my years, wisdom is coming in slowly and things are looking up.

The cherry on top that cemented our membership was the birth of our only daughter. We had finally fulfilled our societal requirement of procreation. I had rejoined the human race by at least purveying a new member. Our friends were actually not very thrilled, you see, their children were in their teens, and now they were the intolerant ones of new parents with a toddler.

Nevertheless, we were granted full access to a lifetime membership, o so I thought. My daughter is twenty years old now, so we have seen many, many, many moons together, and have had many disagreements, but mostly agreements. Some skirmishes have occurred, even fights with short stints of silence have also have happened. Overall, we have been able to overcome and recover with wounds and scars, but still look forward to our twice weekly soirees.

My wife and myself joined them about two decades ago, but the tribe was formed close to four decades ago.

In the early days, they use to get together mainly in my brother’s home on Saturdays, the kids would play, then eat, during that my friends would chat, play cards and board games, and drink inexpensive red wine, such as Premiat, a medium bodied Romanian wine that very much fit their budgets. The women would feed their kids and then the adults would enjoy some homemade potluck, or order pizza.

I would join them occasionally, not to loose my connection and to enjoy their warm company. Something that bound them together in the early days was the hustle, that latin/pop rhythm that became popular in 1975, and that was popularized in the local discotheques they frequented.

They enjoyed partying and dancing, so when they planned a dancing party, I was there, as I said earlier y love both, parties and dancing. In fact, I would attend solo or plus one, and dance the night away with my friends wives. It is great exercise.

This brings me to point out the composition of this disparate group of people. My brother, my wife and myself are from the land of the Incas; there is a couple from south of River Plate, three females from the largest Caribbean island, a husband from south of the border, and another from the high plateau.

Everyone brought their personal as well as their regional idiosyncrasies to the mix, not to mention our fears and insecurities. This only could be a recipe for disaster.

At times during these decades, attempts to escape the gravitational force and the mirage that the grass is always greener on the other side propelled some members to look elsewhere for a better deal. Attrition is a well known phenomenon that affects most, if not all moving parts. There have nevertheless been lulls and storms during the history of this association.

Fault cannot be placed on anyone looking for a greener pasture, it is human nature, but to advertise your disinterest and frustration, would be best kept secret, only for the sake of general morale. Imagine that I get invited to dinner in you home, and only after the appetizer, I announce that I will finish my meal elsewhere. This could be construed as not liking the offering, and be definitely of bad taste.

Having weathered these storms, today I can attest that no desertions or ejections took place during these long decades. Attempts in recruitment were also unsuccessful. The highest standards were applied to all applicants, something I find now erroneous. Our intimacy prevented our ranks to grow, we objected to newcomers just because we could not reach the level of intimacy we had achieved. In this enterprise we were doomed from the start. How could anyone join us and miraculously be one of us? Impossible. In the end, we realized that to be futile and desisted from trying.

The mutinous ones that threatened with desertion, did tried their luck elsewhere, only to return with their tails between their legs. They could not have any better anywhere else. This was not the panacea, but it was our panacea. The parallel has been made to the golden cage. These days this is a self evident truth, and culpability is no longer adjudicated, but not forgotten. The grass is greener here.

The now and then

The last decade has seen many and more activity, given that most offspring have flown the coup, most remaining close by, to the delight of their parents. The couple from the expansive lands south of the River Plate, pursuing an old custom their ancestors brought as immigrants to their new lands, instituted a weekly gathering that is still very popular and extremely welcome by most members. It consists of a mid week, to be specific every Wednesday, of a potluck or delivery dinner with spirits.

Attendance to this recurring event is of course, like most gatherings, voluntary. Most attend weekly, while one couple has expressed that their preference is not to abuse of the time spent together, and they attend infrequently. The membership understands and supports the free will of the people, but nevertheless finds it inconsistent with its mission, mainly that of increasing the bonds of friendship. This sentiment could be better expressed in the words of John Lennon, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”.

I toast to the institution of this weekly event that I have come to warmly call “South of the River Plate Wednesday”.

Many other quorum events have taken place. Something to note, is when in the rare occasion when any of the member couples have events with strangers, feathers seem to be ruffled, and if discovered, they are confronted with charges of treason against the union, with explanations required. No dissent is allowed in this is a fragile democracy.

Members can although opt out with the proper either verbal or written notice from most events, but cannot be seen as fraternizing with the enemy. Great detail is given to replying or responding to invitations to events. Much friction has occurred because of the misunderstanding of the rules of protocol here. Some members insist in a prompt and clear response to invitations, other believe that due to the given intimacy, not replying until later should be allowed.

I understand both arguments, but the former holds more reason for me. The argument is that the inviter needs to have a head count for mere for logistical reasons, and that there is no reason for the invitee not to reply immediately, if they wish to attend. I also understand the desire to wait until the last moment to see if something better comes along. This impasse has been aired and appears to be resolved.

As indicated earlier, the regional diversity of the members has added color, as well as, momentary friction to our friendship. Alliances, beyond the obvious, such as, those by gender, have nevertheless occurred. There are only two of the ten members that are under represented, actually they are flying solo, and they are both men. Two nations have three members, while another has two. These are of course natural alliances that cannot be overlooked.

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