April 27, 2020 Feature

What Difference Does It Make?

Gary Fry
There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations in this life, and at the last one pause.

—Herman Melville

I still remember him lingering on the sidelines, eyes rooted to the ground, while the rest of us were playing dodgeball. He kept to himself in class, too—not a peep. And when the last bell rang out, he shuffled back to the shelter, just a stone’s throw from the playground.

As for me, I’d swap my school bus coupon for a friend’s dime and walk home to avoid the rumpus. Besides, with that dime, I could slip into the corner market for a roll of Necco Wafers and race out with the rainbow in my sweaty little fist.

My best pal Jamie and I spent those easy afternoons playing kickball and conjuring freight trains from our red wagons, hauling my sister and the Spaniel up and down the driveway until our mothers yelled, “Dinner!” Then all snuggled in bed after watching Hopalong Cassidy on our 10-inch black-and-white television, I pulled the covers up over my head so no one would see me.

For why on earth would anyone cry, night after night, over some kid he’d never said a word to, and a strange one at that? A kid in hand-me-down clothes who bunked with a bunch of other orphans.

And yet in ways I couldn’t understand, never mind articulate, that boy stirred in me an inexpressible sadness. Was I experiencing through another my own dissimilarity from the world and the incipient feelings of longing that would consume me in the years to come?

One thing was certain: Without knowing it, I’d been awakened to the workings of power in its most basic and irreducible form—difference—in the third grade.

Why Being Perfect Mattered

A few years later, my father, in his early 40s, lost his job and never worked again. The breadwinner’s role fell to my mother and, in her eyes, my father’s failings were never quite out of the picture. Her innuendos fed the feelings of emasculation he concealed from the world. I could only imagine how he felt.

To be fair, my mother’s life as an insular 1950s homemaker had been upended. No one suspected other agents gnawing at her soul. Ours was not a happy home. My sense of the inequalities in life, certainly in my parents’ marriage, only quickened.

Like a worker bee, my antennae detected the queen’s pheromones a mile away, so keenly attuned was I to the relations of power. Both drawn and repelled, I regarded her warily.

I longed to count. A perfect report card—perfect in every respect but music—and fleeting recognition at the eighth-grade honors assembly would do the trick.

Living Deeply Through Music

The pleasant irony of that lackluster mark in music wasn’t lost on me years later, for I had all but morphed into a Yamaha grand piano, the gleaming black behemoth that shrunk my living room to the size of a pair of newly washed Levi’s—my habitual uniform.

Inspired one evening by a wonderful concert, I hurried backstage to ask the page-turner for the pianist, a fine musician herself, if she’d have me as a student. In my mid-40s, I was ready to live music more deeply. I’d make steady gains with her, honing finger technique, sculpting shapely musical lines, tuning my ear to the nuances of score. To play something on the order of a Beethoven sonata (not without flaw) is to brush elbows with the keyboard’s immortals.

I’d sink into reverie when I played Robert Schumann, the most romantic of keyboard composers, my narcotic of choice. Unlike his contemporary Frederic Chopin, whose sadness flickers behind the notes, Schumann wears his heart in full view. His exquisite miniatures—bittersweet always—were oddly soothing antidotes to my chronic lassitude. Both imbued with essence of sehnsucht, an incurable longing for what isn’t there, we were kindred spirits.

The Status the Law Provided

When the law firm I’d been a member of for 20 years self-destructed, my piano studies and dreams of leaving law for the solitudes of northern New Mexico evaporated. Midway on my life’s journey, I found myself staring into a towering mountain of debt. I’d metamorphosed into Sisyphus overnight, chained to my practice for years to come.

What had drawn me to the legal profession in the first place? It was no giddy love of the law or the power of money. Instead, the power I craved was some tangible seal of approval—status—to satisfy my hun-ger for acceptance and well-being my boyhood home withheld.

I’d hired on with a prominent law firm. I had to be up there with “the best and the brightest.” For are we not, if truth be told, beguiled by the “come hither!” allure of power, like sunflowers curving to the sun, tracing its heavenly arc?

Only I was miserable in the high-speed lane. I reeled under the punishing caseload. An off-the-charts introvert and contemplative by nature, I was a textbook type “B” personality, more laid back than my turbocharged, time-bound type “A” peers.

When their inner metronomes ticked presto con brio, mine tocked andante—an easy walking gait. Forced to scramble against my own nature, I became a cacophony of jumbled emotions, scarcely good trial lawyer material. I’d forgotten my Euclidian geometry; you can’t square the circle.

A Political Misfit

It would be years before I discovered Swedish playwright Ingmar Bergman’s personal formula for success: “Obey your own natural rhythms!” His exhortation became my mantra, only too late: I’d already moved on to another large law firm, one with pedigree and a stable of gilded business clients.

There I specialized in commercial real estate transactions, made partner, and received the coveted AV Martindale-Hubbell rating. My work product was solid, my relations with clients and other counsel re-warding. I was doing well—professionally. This time around, the rub was politics.

My new law firm was conservative to the core. I skewed center-leftward, parked at the intersection of Social and Justice. One of the firm’s elders had left practice to manage Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency. My colleagues would later scoff at George McGovern, whose mild manner concealed a brave aviator who’d flown the B-24 Liberator in dozens of missions over Nazi Germany.

My idiosyncratic way of “taking the world,” one’s working view of things, must have rubbed against the finer grain of the firm and its heavily starched clients. Admittedly strategies of defense, my pleasant irreverence and casual attire didn’t help my cause, either.

Working, Watching, and Learning

But that outer persona concealed a serious side calibrated to weigh and consider. Books were my sanctuary, sweat the release—yin and yang. I was first in line when summer job ads called for “heft” and helped put myself through college toiling 80 hours a week with migrant workers in canneries. Shoulder to shoulder, we pitched pea vines into the whirling combines, heaved back-bending crates of peaches from conveyor belt to pallet.

After harvest, I returned to my hometown to lifeguard in the Spanish-speaking Barrio Viejo (“old neighborhood”) until my college classes resumed. There I bantered with my young charges and taught them to swim; they in turn helped me with their native language and my poolside chores.

Plato tells us what we see isn’t always real, that truth is often found in the reverse of what we expect. My disadvantaged companeros were as bright as my privileged Stanford classmates. But life was teaching me that accidents of birth—pigment, pedigree, one rogue chromosome—mean that many wind up holding the short end of the stick. Growing awareness of contingency deepened my commitment to variousness or, in the parlance of J.S. Bach, to polyphony and its rich babble of voices.

Working Covertly for Change

I did my best to blend into the genteel society I’d chosen for my life’s work. But beneath my mask lay the heart’s unquenched desire for expression. No tuning fork could put me in chime with the corporate world. In hushed undertones, I divulged my sympathies to but a few friends.

Behind a scrim of tinted window glass, I ferried a family of Salvadorans up palm-lined Central Avenue in a parade to publicize the Sanctuary Movement, the mid-1980s campaign that assisted refugees seeking political asylum. (Federal law would later criminalize such Samaritan action.) My four nervous passengers had fled civil war for safe haven in a small Catholic church.

The next day, a colleague who’d watched the caravan from the top floor of our high-rise asked me wryly, “Was that your car on Sunday, the old blue one?” My tacit answer: a wan smile. Some invisible force field, a border neither could cross, divided us. He entertained his clients over lunch in the Men’s Grille and golf at the country club. I treated mine to Katz’s Deli’s special—sweet and sour cabbage soup.

Familiar with the Italian musical notation sotto voce, I more than obliged. I swallowed my voice. Feeling apart from the world around me, I constituted my own small Island of Misfit Toys. And while my legal work was helping the rich get richer and paying my bills, quibbling over the meaning of “time is of the es-sence” in a lease was becoming, well, stultifying and meaningless. Hadn’t Einstein settled time anyway with relativity?

I couldn’t turn away the homeless when I stopped at A. J.’s Fine Foods for coffee and a glance at the morning headlines on the way to work. Gary, a recently released parolee, was living on the streets after doing time for manslaughter. “Bar fight gone bad,” he said.

He showed me the dumpster in the alley where he slept on crumpled cardboard, the knife with the glistening needlepoint blade tucked in his soiled bedroll, adding, “Someone’s always trying to mess you up.” Tears filled his eyes when I gave him my home phone number and money for his insulin. One day he disap-peared. I scoured the neighborhood but never saw him again. That lonely man had sounded such a deep chord in me.

Time to Live My Truth

Meanwhile, I could no longer ignore the niggling paradox: If I’m doing so well, why do I feel so bad? “Major depression and generalized anxiety,” intoned the psychiatrist, mood disorders that had dogged me since I was 17. Presentiments of death hovered in my unsettled dreams like faceless marionettes.

My mother’s genes carried the tendencies, which would destroy her in the end and trigger in me the debilitating episodes that were to recur more and more frequently. Living in a cocoon wasn’t helping matters either, the doctor said. “You must learn to live and speak your truth openly, without judgment or blame.’’

Burnout and Zoloft were to help, along with luck. During a getaway, my wife and I spotted a for-sale sign near the San Pedro River, just minutes from the Mexican border. Once a mammoth “kill site” of the Clovis people, an early civilization, the old ranch beckoned, promising the silvery tunes of Cassin’s sparrow, a shy grassland bird. Here I could mingle with the unseen.

After winding up our affairs in Phoenix—I’d downshifted and become my own boss, free at last of the billable hour—we settled into our new home, deep in a mesquite bosque roiling with endangered species and undocumented immigrants huddling in the snake-infested brush. We never dreamt we’d be living at ground zero for Border Watch rallies of hate groups, according to human rights watchdogs. Rustic beauty obscured the nativism taking root in the desert and soon sweeping the land.

Only then did I pick up the pen. I wanted the world to know who I was after hiding for so many years. For as Ahab cries out in Melville’s Moby Dick, “All visible objects are but as pasteboard masks—strike, strike through the mask!”

An unabashed open letter to President George W. Bush was my first foray into the public glare. I challenged his crusade for the deliverance of Iraq. In various publications since, I’ve called for a ban on hate speech, supported gay marriage, pleaded for fair treatment of child refugees, and urged greater acceptance of Muslims.

Most recently, lamenting the widening gulf between the Founders’ dream for our wonderful Republic and its realization, I wrote: “Lest we become one of a succession of flowerings in history, we must reforge our heritage. This will ask of us a stronger collective sense and a politics for the public good, in times not hospitable to either.”

Now, as I lean into the narrowing years ahead and look back on the decades before me, I see two roads diverging, a turning point. A young man takes “the one more traveled by” (Robert Frost). The signpost bears one word only—“Success!” From my twilit vantage, I now understand the choice he made 50 years ago. He’ll wring from that roadside promise a balm to assuage the childhood miseries hanging before his eyes like blackened stalactites in a dark cavern.

Gone will be the long-lingering year when a 5-year-old lay in bed with “rheumatic fever,” listening to friends playing in the distance, his illness a projection of his mother’s Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Gone, too, the mother stalked by mental illness, lashing at him with his father’s belt, cursing him when he dared to speak up. And gone forever, his fear of paternal failure, of becoming a likeness of his humiliated father. His childhood will be exorcised.

Only he’ll be looking for solace in all the wrong places. Law practice in the major leagues will suck the air dry of oxygen. He’ll be of little use to the world. There will be no decisive turning away from the sinuous twistings and fitful retracings of the road he had taken.

But something will happen over time. The bonds with Schumann, his emotional doppelganger, will gradually loosen. He’ll find himself drawn to warmer timbres at the keyboard, echoes of his brightening mood, as his inner tensions meld into contrapuntal harmony.

There will be no farewell to Herr Schumann, who died in an asylum. Once in close cahoots, two old cronies will rendezvous for the coda binding past to present, the elegiac “Remembrance” from Schumann’s Album for the Young. The piece is marked cantabile assai—play as singingly as possible.

In the end, he finds peace where least expected, in his own voice—the nerve to live and speak openly. And a chance to make a difference, however small, in the lives of others, by speaking for them. For as Gandhi said, “Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it.” He is doing just that. In my own time.


Gary Fry

Gary Fry is a retired lawyer living on the border in rural Arizona with his wife, Karen, and their rescue dogs Pinta and Loki. He was in private practice in Phoenix for many years and a member of the American Bar Association until his retirement.