Friends After All

Steve Abramowitz

FLAPJACKS IS LITERALLY on the other side of the tracks. The place is a throwback to the diners of the 1950s, when waitresses wore white aprons and took orders on little green pads, and where the red vinyl seats were cracked.

Charlie and me. I’ve been meeting Charlie at Flapjacks for weekly pancake breakfasts since I partially retired seven years ago. I spot him in our back booth and slide in across from him. He’s staring at his iPhone like it was a crystal ball.

“Charlie, what are you trying to find out? You’re not into individual stocks and your mutual funds don’t trade during the day.”

“Hey, Steve, I’ve been checking on Windsor Fund’s closing price a lot lately. I’ve hardly even looked at it for many, many years, but my first required minimum distribution is coming around. I thought I should get familiar with it again before I do anything.”

“Vanguard Windsor? Holy smokes, are you still in that thing? I told you about it 50 years ago. You must be a millionaire by now.”

Charlie leaned over and gave me a high five. “I started putting in dribs and drabs in graduate school and then used it in my traditional IRA after I got that hospital job. Steve-o, you must have made out like a bandit—you got in even before me.”

“No, not so, Charlie. Too many lunch-hour burritos at Schwab. I was a latecomer to the party.”

“Why did it take us until retirement to become such close friends, Steve? We have so much in common—backgrounds, interests, profession.”

“Charlie, you’re forgetting how I was front and center at the ethics review that almost got you suspended.”                                     

“Yeah, it’s still hard for me to go there. And there was something else, too. You knew a lot about real estate, as well as the stock market. It was intimidating.”

I was shocked. “Same for me. Remember when you looked at a hairline crack in the foundation of one of my duplexes? I was afraid I was in for a $15,000 repair. You immediately saw that the drainage problem causing it could be solved for less than $1,000. No doubt about it, Charlie, you’re the son my father always wanted.”

All relationships are imperfect and frequently have a checkered history. In retirement, we have the opportunity to renew them—and the perspective needed to understand the obstacles to doing so.

Betrayal. “Hi, Steve, it’s Jennifer from Dr. Houston’s office. Something important has come up, and Ken would like to have you stop by.”

Oh, great. You’re a psychologist and the psychiatry chair invites you in for a visit. You never know when the boom is going to be lowered.

“Steve, I’d like your input on what looks like something unethical. Ken handed me the form that faculty use to change a student’s grade. Is that your signature? Jennifer thought it looked off.”

My breath cut short. The form was all filled out. Charlie Seibel’s B in my psych stats course had been changed to an A. I was about to blemish a person’s career and maybe his whole life. “No, I didn’t sign that, Ken.”

Later that day, Charlie admitted the signature was his. Jennifer hastily arranged a meeting to consider whether this ethical breach warranted his expulsion from the medical school.

All of us have to endure violations of our trust. We shouldn’t deny the anger and hurt. But we should also ponder the impact of any disciplinary measure on the offender’s life.

The tribunal. By the time I arrived, the three other faculty members assigned to determine Charlie’s future were already seated around a small conference table. They were Ken, Elizabeth the head of psychology training, and Harris the dean of the medical school.

Ken opened things up. “An unhappy situation for everyone. Let’s see if we can reach a consensus on where to go from here.”

He turned to Liz. “I’m dumbfounded and outraged. He’s an embarrassment to my program and my students. As far as I’m concerned, Charlie has to go.”

Harris was regarded as thoughtful and measured. “I’ll chime in with a less-dire idea. We’ve all lied or cheated at some point in our lives. Truth be told, I veered off track earlier in my career and that, of course, appeared in my file. I had to explain my lapse in the interview for my current position. Charlie’s a good student with no previous instances of ethical frailty. I would favor a stern warning letter and probation through his graduation.”

Harris then swiveled to face me. “I’d like to hear from you, Steve. After all, you’re the aggrieved party.”

“Harris, I really don’t feel violated. This wasn’t about me. It’s something inside Charlie. As I teenager, I plagiarized part of a book review of The Grapes of Wrath from CliffsNotes. Mrs. Goldman caught it and scolded me in class. My embarrassment still lingers.”

I leaned toward leniency, but knew I had to take into account Liz’s preference for a more severe punishment. “I’m thinking a record in his file, a year’s suspension and then extended probation. And, of course, we’ll strongly encourage therapy. Can everyone feel comfortable with that?”

Liz had me in her sights. “I’ll relent on one condition. We require a diary of remorse and personal growth that we review after the year of suspension. Then we make a final decision.”

The rest of us nodded in agreement. I left the conference room feeling relieved, and hoping we had discharged our responsibility with accountability and sensitivity.

Morality can be relative, so be mindful that others may reach a different conclusion than the one you draw. Charlie returned for his doctorate and has become one of the area’s leading authorities on eating disorders.

Thrown out trying to steal. “You better not leave the store with those, son. I could call the police, but I’d rather call your mother instead.”

I immediately ran to put the packs back in the box. “Oh no, please don’t do that. I’m sorry, Mr. Thurman.”

“You’re Stevie, right? Your grandma comes in here all the time to get you kids baseballs because you’re always losing them in the bushes. I don’t think your folks will be happy to hear their oldest was caught stealing baseball cards from Thurman’s Toyland. What’s your phone number?”

Mr. Thurman had already called by the time I got home. My mother was waiting at the door. “Stevie, how could you do that? It’s so wrong. I’m going to have to tell your father.”

Awareness of blemishes on your own moral record should promote humility when judging others. Empathy need not mean naivety or shrinking from delivering a deserved punishment, but rather the capacity for restraint. We shouldn’t blindly retaliate.

Friendship is not a right. You have to work at it through self-examination and forgiveness, knowing that the wounds the perpetrator suffered early in life may be deeper than yours.

Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.

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