The Wisdom of Others
Concerning Character

"Nature magically suits the man to his fortunes, by making these the fruit of his character."

~~ Emerson (1860)

"Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs."

~~ Joan Didion

"At Home in Locales Beyond Oaxaca"

"[social interest] must be trained, and it can be trained only if one grows up in relation to others and feels a part of the whole. One must sense that not only the comforts of life belong to one, but also the discomforts. One must feel at home on this earth with all its advantages and disadvantages."

~~ Alfred Adler, founder of Adlerian psychotherapy.
His name was Herb. Since he came from the same humble beginnings as nearly everyone does, he would say it was irrelevant to go into detail. Herb resembled Albert Einstein, but he stoutly maintained that this was mere coincidence. And he was not the type to force his brand of psychiatry or mezcal down anyone else’s throat. He poured glasses of philosophy; if you chose not to drink, he’d leave the concoction sitting there until the condensation on the glass would form a permanent ring on the table. Rings were good, Herb said. They gave some indication of what had been, what had gone before. Rings, like strings tied on fingers, made you remember. He refused to refinish furniture and risk removing valuable historical references.

Herb drove his battered green Ford convertible to Oaxaca many times. He loved to experiment not only with peyote there, but with social mores and human behavior. He flew through the back roads alone, always with the top down and always with his expensive camera equipment left unsecured in the back seat. Parked it in places where people knew the pitiful buying power of fifty cents for a day’s labor. “You know – that’s really stupid, Herb,” I announced. Herb loved it when people like me pointed out the obvious. He would stop swishing the brush in the toilet bowl long enough to explain what wasn’t so evident. Sure, he’d instruct, he’d lost a lens, maybe even an entire camera once or twice. He decided that whoever stooped low enough to steal those things most likely needed them more than he did. Think of it as direct charity, he would say. More efficient than the American Red Cross for getting donations to those in need of disaster relief. Herb was an expedient humanitarian, I must admit. It was also pretty amazing how many times no one ever disturbed his belongings.

Herb was the one who taught me what trust and love were all about. One particularly hot day about twenty years ago, Herb and I were drinking iced tea in his bar. He added just a touch of mezcal and logic as refreshing as ice to cool that tea. I was complaining as I always did to Herb because he was so matter-of-fact when it came to airing grievances. I told him I’d just been dumped by a lover, that love sucked. Just as Herb was expedient, I was eloquent. That’s when Herb changed my glass of tea from half-empty to half-full without spilling a drop. He hit me over the head with this instead of his wet bar rag. Two people are involved in a relationship. She loves; he decides her love is not his glass of iced tea. He walks away thirsty. Which one loses more, Herb asked? The one who still has a whole pitcher full of love-spiced tea to offer to the next guy or the one who poured that tea down the drain? He lost someone who loved him; she lost someone who didn’t love her. It should be clear who the real loser is. Trust love, he said. It should come from a pitcher that doesn’t sour and never empties. “Why would you want to hang around someone who doesn’t love you?” he asked pragmatically. Seems pretty simple when Herb explains it.

Then Herb hugged me, which wasn’t unusual because he hugged everyone he met whether he knew them or not. Hugging was just another one of his experiments into the dynamics of human social behavior and personality development. He enjoyed watching people squirm. Like when he installed a sign on the men’s room door in his bar that said “Ladies’,” with a hand underneath pointing toward the ladies’ room door, and a “Men’s” sign on the ladies’ room door, complete with hand pointing back to the men’s room. He also built a set of bleachers right across from the restrooms so the regulars could sit there and watch the newcomers struggling to decide which restroom was which. Enjoying the free show was more fun than getting drunk on his Don Agave.

I lost touch with Herb over the years. My aunt just sent me his obituary. It said all the things that you’d expect to read – where Herb had been born, what prestigious degrees he’d acquired, how he died, who survived him, where you could send flowers if you were so inclined. It failed to mention why a man with a medical degree from Harvard would abandon his psychiatric practice and buy himself a bar. But I knew because Herb told me. If you were smart enough to ask, he would share his heart. He said, “When the shingle outside read, ‘Herbert B. Ryder, M.D., Ph.D., Diplomate American Board of Psychiatry,’ no one came, no one talked. When I put on this badge that says ‘Bartender,’ people just wouldn’t shut up. Getting patients to present is the number one obstacle, you know.” What the obituary also failed to elaborate on was how much Herb embodied all those simple principles of humanity – trust love, donate to the needy, always give the rings left on the furniture the respect they deserve, and when you’ve really got to pee, chose any door. Someone stole Herb right out from under us. I guess Herb would have said he was needed somewhere else, that’s all. Anyway, he had a few things to teach Adler about feeling at home with the spiritual benefits of psychotropic drugs in locales much more exotic than Oaxaca.

© 2000 MJM


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