Best Man: Remembering Joe Pribyl

In a world rife with helplessness, an old friend comes to mind. His memory provides one answer to the question of life’s meaning in a moment suggestive of a heartless and strange cosmic order.

You would not think Joe Pribyl a remarkable man upon first acquaintance.

Some people possess an arresting presence. Joe did not. A stocky man, a bit under average height, he had graying hair and lacked whatever grace or style makes some people appear to be wearing a custom-made suit instead of a borrowed wardrobe.

My friend’s facial features didn’t betray high distinction either, except perhaps for deep vertical creases and old acne scars, of which Joe possessed more than a few. Yet it did convey warmth and approachability, more appreciable than any sculptural handsomeness.

At the start, I thought his everyman quality diminished him. Before the end of his life, however, I realized the inseparability of his nature and goodness from the human community.

He placed himself with and for every one of us.

Joe was a man of faith, admired by a faithless soul like me. Roman Catholic from start to finish, living his Sunday-service-beliefs every day. His grace came not from appearance, but kindness toward others, from waitresses to total strangers. The essence of his being was on display, fully himself, the rare unselfconscious human with nothing hidden.

He volunteered. He served. He raised his hand.

For years this therapist and his wife, Mary, also a psychologist in the practice they shared, organized a mission to Central America. The well-matched couple brought books to educate the sea of dispossessed, illiterate, and impoverished brown youngsters most of us don’t consider.

Doctor Pribyl did not consign a remedy for the world’s ills to someone else.

Brave enough to display tears, my friend never wept for himself, but others. Yet Joe was one of the few people I ever met who was content.

The healer displayed remarkable equanimity and courage in dealing with the near-death experience of a heart attack in a foreign and ill-equipped land. Later cancer stalked him, hanging around, as it sometimes does, never quite vanishing. Joe integrated the latter disease into the fabric of his existence as a natural event, not a matter of personal unfairness or rage.

On display was all the towering distinction my friend’s physicality lacked, but only if you focused hard, long, and understood him well.

Death came, a bigger than life opponent with an undefeated record, but not before Joe tricked the grim reaper into allowing additional time for attention to his patients, the woman he loved, the family dearest to him, and his lucky friends. I’ve never witnessed a better magic act.

In the overtime, extra-time of Joe’s life, I talked with him about my new grandson, almost two-years-old when the therapist passed. Grandparents wonder what the future holds for the little ones, who they will become.

I’m sorry Joe isn’t around to represent what one man can be, can do. If my grandsons were older and Joe still alive, I might point to him and say, “Look, look at this fine person. Look beyond appearances. This is a man. My friend is what a man should try to be.

This gentile soul, dead almost two years and a confidant for half my life, was a quiet fellow with an easy laugh. He didn’t come to impress you. While some people converse to be heard, he came to know you. There was little judgment in him.

His self-effacing way, at first, made me think nothing of his offer of friendship. Before the end, I recognized him as one of the great gifts of my life.

Thinking about Joe this morning, I reflected on the question with which I began this essay.

How do we persuade ourselves of a just deity in the face of all the world’s casualties? I imagined myself, a non-believer, asked to defend God in a criminal proceeding.

The reel of my imagination unspooled as a trial would.

First, the prosecutor made his case, piling up the innumerable instances of tragedy, natural and human. Of disease and murder, duplicity, betrayal, racism, slavery, and wartime. Of geological catastrophes sweeping the multitudes away, Jehovah’s Old Testament, self-created flood included.

The lawyer went on for hours and even cut short the presentation, convinced his case irrefutable. I doubted my argument in God’s defense: Joe’s life as an example of God’s best work, best man.

My turn came, the Lord’s defender. I told stories about my friend, including much of what you now know. I didn’t go on for long.

The verdict came from the bench, not a jury. The female presiding wore a blindfold, as Justice is supposed to. She gripped the scales in her right hand, on one side piled high with the prosecutor’s evidence.

On the other sat Joe, since no graven images or likenesses of the Almighty are allowed us. My friend’s figure lay in the shadow of the towering count of accusations against the God of his belief. The adjudicator would soon release the balance she maintained, allowing the evidence to determine the outcome.

A courtroom full of eyes were on the apparatus, waiting for its pivot, though I couldn’t watch. I’m told for a moment nothing happened, then the scales of justice shuddered and a grinding, terrifying sound came out of nowhere.

I looked up. One side plunged.

I cannot tell you how I knew, but beneath her blindfold, I’m certain Lady Justice was winking at me.

What the Coronavirus Taught Me About Love

When I practiced therapy, I reminded myself to bring intensity to my work. Every day, every hour.

Each patient was a kind of wayfarer. His journey had reached a sticking point. He was faltering with sadness, loss, or anxiety, guilt or helplessness.

A bit like a pilgrim, the searcher hoped to find a balm for the soul.

Life brings routine. We create routines to make it easier, more efficient, to avert the wasteful reinvention of our daily tasks.

But routine deadens, too. A therapist must make the work fresh.

The healer must be present, concentrate, note the body language, and not offer words far from the point, missing the point. I tried to give each meeting “life.I didn’t always succeed. No one can, but the next time my patient visited offered another chance to join him in searching out an oasis: a green, peaceful, and certain place, where refreshment might bring renewal.

The aging of my parents brought home the recognition it always does. One never knows when the last time will be. The twilight handshake, the final moment of laughter, the embrace of someone we love.

I made sure to part from my folks with an “I love you.Now my children and grandchildren do this with their parents and grandparents.

These parting words are never enough by themselves. The pandemic tells me so. Its voice calls out, “There is more to do.

Why do I hear this now? Because I can’t do more, I am separated from so many, as you are. What, then, does “more” mean when the opportunity comes?

The voice did not say.

Here’s my answer.

The heartbreak of a goodbye must be balanced by delight in a hello. We must treat each new contact as a gift, greet the friend or lover, the father or a brother as though it were the first time: the moment we discovered something unique in him. Graceful, beautiful, kind — it does not matter. Strong, faithful, wise — whatever are the qualities embedded within him.

We need to try to sum up the other’s every sacrifice for us, all the touching words they said to us, their thoughts and prayers for us and approach him anew. With gratitude.

In another dreadful historical moment, Abraham Lincoln said, “we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew.

The virus teaches us the day is short, no matter how long the sunshine lasts. The message is the same, regardless of the time or place. Since we do not have eternity, the moment and the people must be grasped, held close.

If we safeguard ourselves and others, and if we are lucky, a reunion yet will come.

When you see loved ones again, remember: speed to them as if it were the first time and the last time, every time.

—–

The photos above come courtesy of Laura Hedien, a gifted and generous photographer. They are The Look and Splashes. Much more of her work can be found at: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

 

 

What Were You Doing Twenty Years Ago Today?

On January 1, 2000, my old buddies and I visited a weathered Chicago landmark.

Would you like to know why?

The story behind the
men on the museum steps

by Bob Greene, Chicago Tribune, January 10, 2000

WHEN YOU MAKE AN APPOINTMENT, you’re supposed to keep it.

Of course, if you’re 16 or 17 years old when you make that appointment, and the appointment is for 37 years in the future. . . .

The year was 1963. There were 10 of them — juniors at Mather High School, on the North Side of Chicago. They weren’t the most popular bunch of guys, they weren’t the biggest sports stars. They were. . . .

Well, they were best friends. Ten guys who, during the course of their high school years, became each others’ best friends.

They even had a name for themselves. They had planned on calling themselves the Culligan Men — they had a summer softball team, and they asked the Culligan bottled-water-and-water-softener company (whose advertising slogan was “Hey, Culligan Man!”) to sponsor the team, pay for the softball jerseys. But for whatever reason, the Culligan company said no. So the 10 guys decided to name their team — to name their group of friends — after a chemical that one of them recalled learning about in class. Zeolite, the chemical was called. If they couldn’t be the Culligan Men, they would be the Zeolites.

One day junior year — they were eating lunch at the table they always shared in the Mather cafeteria — one of the 10 came up with an idea. He said that the 10 friends should make plans to meet up again someday far in the future — that no matter what they were doing or where they were living, they should agree to meet on a specific day at a specific place.

They wanted to choose a day that would be easy to remember. They came up with Jan. 1, 2000 — the first day of a new century. They set noon for the time. And for a place, they wanted to choose somewhere that, even in 1963, they could be pretty certain would still be standing 37 years later.

They chose the Museum of Science and Industry — specifically, the outdoor steps of the museum.

How serious were they, that day at the lunch table in ’63?

“Well, we meant it,” said Gerald Stein, who was one of the Zeolites at the table, and who now is a clinical psychologist in the Chicago area. “But we didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about it.”

Because they thought that none of them would really show up?

“It wasn’t that,” he said. “It was just that we knew that, on the first day of the 21st Century, we would all be 53 years old. We could never picture ourselves being that old, so it didn’t seem real to us.”

They graduated from Mather in ’64. They went out into the world, and did not stay in especially close touch. They moved to different parts of the U.S., took different kinds of jobs. There were marriages, children, some divorces, more children. Years would go by between the times they spoke to each other.

But they never forgot. They never forgot when they were best friends, and when they made the appointment for Jan. 1, 2000.

During the year just past, they began to make contact with each other. They were, in fact, 53 now; it no longer seemed to be such an impossible age.

And they made their plans. Vacation days were put in for; airline reservations were made.

One of the 10 had to be at work on New Year’s day — he worked in the computer industry in Texas, and was assigned to Y2K duty. Another simply chose not to come — he was going to be on a vacation with his family.

But the other eight — the eight would-be Culligan Men, the eight Zeolites–were there. They wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Three live in Illinois; two flew in from California, one from the state of Washington, one from Connecticut, one from Michigan.

And at noon on the first day of January — at noon exactly — they walked together onto the steps of the Museum of Science and Industry.

“There is nothing in the world that feels better than being with people who remember the same things you remember — who remember the reasons that you liked each other in the first place,” Gerald Stein said.

The meeting on the museum steps didn’t last all that long — they had meals and other activities planned for the weekend. But the steps were what mattered — keeping the appointment they had made when they were 16 was what mattered.

“The people you can laugh with,” Stein said. “The people with whom you don’t feel the need to be guarded — how many people do you find like that in your life?

“We said we’d be there. And we were there.”


I promised you a sequel. Thanks to a surprise gift of $2,000 from the Culligan Corporation, we began the Zeolite Scholarship Fund. Eight of us pitched in to match Culligan’s donation and gave a college scholarship of $4,000 to a Mather High School senior.

As time passed, we reached out to many of our former classmates. Thanks to them, the Zeolite Scholarship Fund eventually awarded approximately $250,000 in additional college tuition assistance to more of Mather’s graduating seniors.

The fund also honored former teachers and accomplished classmates. Many of them returned for our May scholarship dinners during the approximately 16-years of the charity’s existence.

The men on the steps 20 years ago were: Rich Adelstein, Jeff Carren, Harmon Greenblatt, Steve Henikoff, John Kamins, Bernie Riff, Neil Rosen, and yours truly. Ron Ableman (aka the High Potentate) joined us by phone from Texas.

On that day, and every day we awarded scholarships, we felt like the luckiest people on earth.


The photography above was donated by a most generous and talented classmate, Michael Kaplan. The bottom photo is of Ron Ableman and Neil Rosen, left to right.

What Your Therapist Didn’t Tell You

Many therapists spend most of a session without uttering a sound. The more they talk, the less they are heard. The more they speak, the less the patient does his own emotional processing.

The more they offer answers, the less the client claims ownership of his happiness, responsibility, and control.

When treatment works, the seeker isn’t passive but active. The new thought is taken, not given. He grasps the reins, a voluntary effort.

Clinicians should rarely propel the train, though they may clear some of the tracks. Persuasion and insistence have limits. A parental, authoritative position creates a struggle for power or dependency.

Repetition is tiresome. Some people won’t change. They sought a remedy with the wish for someone else to do something.

We are not surgeons who administer an anesthetic so you can be redesigned while unconscious. If we possessed a storeroom full of magical potions, we’d be drinking them ourselves.

The counselor asks questions, points in a direction, and monitors the strength of the resistant wind. He manages the temperature and allows hope to enter the room.

Who will reach for it? Not all do.

Like marriages and friendships, there are signs of trouble. The sessions drag, the medic becomes a debater, misunderstandings occur. The analyst drains his life force; perhaps he dreads the next appointment. The psychologist tries too hard, his counterpart too little.

Though the lesson is unwanted, the other’s life is not ours to reshape. The patient has the right to stay where he is, no matter the suffering.

The only adult we can alter is the one in the mirror. The man reflected in the silvered glass must reflect, claim his own agency, and act.

Mallets won’t hammer others to the shape desired. We are not sculptors or portrait painters. Sometimes the best we can do for another person is to give up on our capacity to do him good.

At least this permits him to take back his life.

Some people, including a few “helping professionals,” listen to be heard, to make pronouncements. They do better to listen to understand.

We all have limits. We all have goals and choices. Regarding the latter pair, here are mine for 2020:

To better understand myself and others. To discover an enlightening idea, an unexpected sight or sound.

I choose to search for these; and perhaps to change the world.