Invisible Friendships

A stone wall with a plant growing out of the stones.
When I was a kid, I had lots of friends, and I took them all for granted.

Today, each friendship feels miraculous. Maybe because I’m older, and have lost friends along the way. Maybe because growing up means taking less and less for granted.

It’s hard to describe a friendship. It doesn’t have the narrative arc of a love affair. There’s often no rhyme or reason.

It’s a mosaic of moments that don’t make a picture until I stand way back.

A stone wall with colorful lichen.

Lara became my friend when she showed up on my family’s doorstep one day 37 years ago. We were both 5 and lived in the same neighborhood. As my mom tells it, Lara knocked on the door out of the blue and asked if I could play.

She was shy and quiet, huge eyes in a heart-shaped face. Mom went and got me, and Lara and I went out.

There was never an objective to our time together. We would climb a tree and talk. We would hide under her bed and read.

We played Monster, a tag variation, with her little brother Brian. We had picnics featuring Ants on a Log, AKA Feet in the Mud: celery sticks spread with peanut butter, punctuated with raisins.

A stone wall running up a hill, with a forest on one side.

When we were in third grade, Lara’s family got MTV. One evening she called. “You have to come over now. They’re gonna play Beat It, by Michael Jackson, and Eat It, by Weird Al Yankovic, back to back.”

I ran all the way to her house, counting the seconds it took me to get there (about 100). In those days, if you missed a video when it screened, you might never get to see it again. We got to see both videos, each the height of cool in its own way.

A stone wall with thinner and thicker pieces.

Lara’s the only person who ever slapped me in the face. We were arguing, and I said something mean or rude. The slap was not hard or painful, but it was shocking. I knew I’d provoked it. As soon as it happened, it was over, and we let it go.

Lara was always reading. She got that from her parents. There were huge Stephen King novels all over their house. For warm, kind people, they had an affinity for horror stories.

Their house was safe enough to watch scary movies in. One night in junior high, I stayed over and we watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. I couldn’t sleep, and turned my head in the middle of the night to see a claw, like one of Freddy Krueger’s, reaching for me.

I stared, frozen. It didn’t move. It turned out to be a piece of yarn from the blanket hanging over the top of the couch, magnified to a weapon in my bleary gaze.

As teenagers, we watched Twin Peaks. Every Thursday we would convene at Lara’s house. Her mom would make treats related to the series–cherry pie or doughnuts. I don’t think I ever brought food to share. As far as I know, my selfishness troubled no one.*

Once, in high school, my tampon leaked and left a bloodstain on her family’s couch. Lara cleaned it up, flipped the pillow over, and got me additional period supplies. With other friends, I might have felt mortified. With her, I knew she wouldn’t judge me.

This calmness in the face of bodily functions turned out to be a professional asset, since she is now a doctor.

A stone wall covered with green grass.

In our adult lives, Lara and I see each other about once a year. We don’t talk on the phone, and when we do see each other, the conversation follows familiar paths: her sons, our careers, our parents’ health.

It’s rarely been a confessional friendship. Other girlfriends hear more details about my love life, my fears and insecurities, my political leanings.

With Lara though, there’s a unique bond. She’s known me for so long that I can’t pretend to be anyone I’m not.

Lara was my original friend. She will always be in my life, the same way I will always be from New Hampshire.

Our friendship didn’t grow like a tree from a seed. It feels more geological, like a New England stone wall, built from many smooth pieces. Nothing holding them together but gravity.


*After I wrote this, Lara told me that I did in fact bring doughnuts to our Twin Peaks nights. Phew!

Photo credits, all via Creative Commons on Flickr, from top to bottom:
stone wall, by Kris Chapman
Stone Wall, by Randen Pederson

06-28-08_2, by Steve
stone wall, by Siaron James
stone wall, by liz west

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Shadow of a mean girl

A human shadow on fallen leaves.When I was in third grade, my friend K and I used to make fun of another kid in our class. Let’s call him Joey.

I don’t remember why we chose to do this. Neither K nor I was a cruel or thoughtless kid. Maybe a bit smug, because we were two of the best readers in class and a bit high on our own perceived braininess.

Anyway, I remember lining up to go to the cafeteria, and if K or I were near each other in line, and Joey was close by, we would pretend to have a magic spray can and would spray each other “to get rid of the Joey germs.”

At some point, Joey told on us, and our teacher asked us what was going on. I denied knowing anything about it. In true Walter Mitty fashion, I got away with it, since I was generally a good kid and my teacher had never known me to bully anyone.

*

Now we have a bully in the White House, plus many instances of kids and adults saying really unkind stuff to each other, some of it in his name, some not. This is making me think about why we have such a strong tendency to put each other down.

We tend to malign and torment others when we feel weak ourselves. The Joey germs thing might have been K and me buying a little insurance against being considered nerds or geeks ourselves (though I totally was branded a nerd a few years later, karma being a bitch and all).

There’s a lot of discussion right now around feelings of disenfranchisement and powerlessness, and how those are impacting our society. One basic fact that isn’t getting much play is that it feels good to be mean to other people.

It really does. If it didn’t feel good, we wouldn’t do it so much.

*

There’s a multi-part thrill to being a dick to someone:

  1. It makes me feel like I’m stronger and more powerful than them.
  2. I know I’m transgressing a boundary and violating a taboo.
  3. Thus, bullying someone else makes me feel like a bad-ass, instead of downtrodden. And if others join me in that behavior, we must be right. K wouldn’t have been spraying away those Joey germs if I hadn’t been laughing along.

At my work at a disability institute, part of my job is to use accurate and respectful language. For example, the term “mental retardation” is falling out of favor, because “retarded” is widely seen as a slur. “Intellectual disabilities” is the term of choice now.

But the words “retard” and “retarded,” especially applied in instances that have nothing to do with disability, feel great to say. Growing up in New Hampshire, stuff we didn’t like was “wicked retahded.” A stupid movie was retarded. My friend’s mean older brother was acting like a retard.

And those words felt good in my mouth. They felt dangerous and tasty. They made me feel like I had the upper hand, somehow—just like with the Joey germs.

So I can imagine that for someone who feels weak and angry, calling someone with disabilities a retard, or using any other taboo or pejorative term, and hearing others laugh, might hit that same deep note of satisfaction.

*

Here’s the thing, though. The satisfaction curdles fast.

Unkindness spirals back upon us like a whip. If we put down others, we get the momentary buzz of being, socially, the stronger party. But once that fades, our weakness and fear return, amplified.

Then, the next time, it’s not enough to spray away the Joey germs. Next time, maybe I shove Joey. Or leave dog poop in his locker. It takes more and more mean behavior to make me feel secure.

In fact, the more my behavior escalates, the more I carry around what Patton Oswalt calls “a poison vein of self-loathing.”

*

I’m cutting myself some slack about Joey, since I was eight and was still learning how to be a social human being.

I’m less willing to cut adults slack when they act like this.

Part of being an adult is going for longer-term satisfaction. Life is the ultimate long game (ideally). We have to go for long-term pleasures, like treating people decently so they’ll do the same for us.

Right now, we’re being trained to think short-term about almost everything. Our phones bring us data without effort. We can download and stream millions of hours of video in any given moment.

This all discourages contemplation. It makes being alone with our thoughts—including our fear and guilt—less and less common. More and more avoidable.

*

So one way to get over this epidemic of meanness is to slow down long enough to imagine what it’s like in someone else’s head.

What’s it like in your head, reader?

Probably a lot like the way it is in my own head. Full of ideas, emotions, fear, joy, and confusion.

I’m sorry I was mean to you, Joey. And I’m sorry that I lied about it.

I hope I didn’t inspire you to go out there and be douchey to others.

I hope you’re not out there spray-painting swastikas on mosques.

If you are, I take a tiny part of the blame. And I also forgive myself.

I was a kid.

Now we’re both adults.

Let’s play the long game.

* Patton’s blog post is about being the guy who hangs out with the bully and eggs him on.

Photo by me.

On not being asked if I’m seeing someone

Graffiti of a green fish with sharp teeth

This conversation can swallow you whole.

Lately, friends and family that I see occasionally—say, once or twice a year—are getting less likely to ask me if I’m dating anyone.

This conversation point used to come up reliably. Now, it seems to be sliding farther down people’s mental lists of things to enquire about.

This is good and bad. On the one hand, I sometimes get tired of the conversations with my female friends in which we endlessly deconstruct our love lives.

Those discussions can be wonderful: fulfilling, revealing, fascinating. But they can also make me feel like my girlfriends and I don’t pass the Bechdel Test—like every conversation has to come back to some dude.

On the flip side, though, when I hang out with someone and they don’t ask me if I’m seeing someone, I’m not sure how to take that.

*

I had dinner with good friends recently, whom I hadn’t seen in several months. After we’d talked politics, movies, family, and work, one of them asked if I had updates about my love life. He said he didn’t want to bring up a sore subject, but was curious to hear the latest.

I told him I was happy that he’d asked. If he hadn’t, I would have felt like he’d given up on my ever finding anyone.

But as with anything involving human intimacy, it’s more complex than that.

I know people who have never, or rarely, mentioned a romantic interest in anyone, and have always deflected my occasional questions away from that zone. I don’t know if they identify as asexual/aromantic, or if there are other forces at play.

In any case, I’ve stopped asking. I do pose open-ended questions, like “So what else has been going on with you lately?” I figure that will invite any stories, romantic or otherwise, that the person wants to offer.

I know someone whose parents ask her, every time they talk, when she’s planning on getting married and having babies. That gets old too.

I also know people who have been single for years or decades, and who simply don’t get asked any more. Is that a relief? Or is it demoralizing?

*

It’s a tricky balance, between asking too often and not enough, showing interest and poking a bruise.

How do you all navigate this?

Photo by Merlijn Hoek via Creative Commons.