Archive for the ‘The Friendship Series’ Category

The Friends And Family Plan

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Today’s post is the fourth and final installment in my friendship series.  To read the previous installments click here, here, and here.

When I was pregnant with IEP we did not reveal our chosen baby names to anyone.  I was anxious about dissenting opinions and well-intentioned meddling.  So we kept them under wraps.   But we did give hints.  And one of those hints was that the middle name was a family name.  In actuality the E comes from our best friend.  It is his middle name, and we thought it perfect for IEP. 

This friend was the best man in our wedding.  GAP was the best man in his.  We have driven and flown long miles to see each other – both in times of crisis and times of leisure.  We have seen each other through hook-ups and break-ups.  We have spent weekends together laced with wine, beer, and witty banter.   We have braved first jobs, unemployment, graduate school, and cross-country moves in each other’s embrace.  We value and trust each other immeasurably. 

And so, in offering the hint of a family name, I didn’t really factor it in that our friend is not technically our blood relation.  He may not be.  But he is still our family. 

Similarly, GAP and I are both fortunate enough to come from happy and in-tact families; families who are indeed our friends.  I talk to my mother, father, and sister multiple times weekly.  GAP is slightly less communicative, but still talks with his parents and siblings regularly.  We also have extended family members whom we consider friends, despite longer breaks between visits.

Now this is all quite lovely: friend = family and family = friend.  Très charming…  But I wonder about the boundaries of family and friendship.  I’ve been blessed with a family whom I love and enjoy.  But, like most people, there are a few outliers; people I don’t know as well, can’t relate to, don’t quite know what to say to.  What’s a girl to do with these folks?

I sit here and say that I value family.  I believe they are important.  I believe they are worth sacrifices.  They merit a not-altogether-insignificant amount of time, effort, and expense toward the end of nurturing the familial bond.  They are relationships that cannot be replaced, and they should be treated as such.

But yet, when I look at the family members to whom I’m closest, they are the ones whose lives most closely resemble my own: similar ages, similar lifestyles, similar interests.  And once some imaginary threshold of difference is met, my efforts to nurture and build that relationship diminish.

So I worry about being two-faced and duplicitous.  I worry about where I draw the line.  I worry about whether or not I should match the level of effort I extend to certain relatives to the entire lot of them.  But it’s not a small group of people.  So I then worry about how quickly I might go positively batty if I did go down that equitable path.

A few generations ago the family – both nuclear and extended – was the lynchpin of society.  Before the interstate highway system was built; before transcontinental flights took off from every airport hub many times daily; before cell phones and the internet made us accessible at all hours of the day and night; before all these things came about, the radii of our lives were shorter.  We stayed closer to home and closer to our relatives.  And these questions of how awkward to feel upon seeing a family member who is indeed your blood relative but whom you hardly know were rarely asked.  Similarly, less frequently did we all jet-set about the country (or world) for the purposes of career, climate, or courtship.  So less critical was the need to develop friends who became stand-ins for our families.

It seems disingenuous to say that these two relationships – friendship and family – are interchangeable.  In some nuanced way each relationship is distinct.  But I struggle to discern what that distinction is.   Where do the lines of friends and family become blurred?  What does each type of relationship lose (if anything) by being labeled as the other?  Do we overload friendships with pressure and commitment by thinking of them as family?  Are family relationships undersold by being outlined with the same, sometimes fickle, brush strokes as friendship?  And further still, such questions presuppose that the family bond is always stronger than friendship.  But history has borne witness to far too many family feuds for the family bond to masquerade as invincible.

I do not know the answers to these questions.  Frankly, I’m not sure what answers would bring to the table.  We are all different; in our families; in our friendships; and in the ways we bridge the gaps between the two. 

What I do know is that as human beings we need both; or at least people who fill both roles.    We need people whose bond to us is temporary, allowing us to learn, grow, and move on in our lives.  Not all relationships are meant to last forever.  But we also need people whose ties to us are enduring and permanent.  We are social animals, in need of many forms of companionship. 

I am lucky to have been blessed with both friends and family.  Not only that, but friends and family who defy the boundaries of conventional labels.  This doesn’t mean that I have perfect relationships; that I don’t sometimes still feel lonely or isolated.  But it means that when I do have those feelings I have people to share them with.  And whether it’s the door of a friend or a family member that I knock on, the presence of the door itself is what matters the most.

Facebook Friend: An Oxymoron?

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Today’s post is the third installment in my four-part series on friendship  For the first two posts, click here and here.

Last summer, after many months of reluctance, and mostly out of morbid curiosity, I joined Facebook.

I don’t know what I was looking for or what I expected to find.  But I joined.  And for the most part I haven’t regretted it.  I have gotten back in touch with people from my past.  And I have stayed up to date on current real world friends whom I don’t necessarily talk with every day.

But since joining I have been perplexed with the concept of the “Facebook friend.”  I imagine most of you know what I’m talking about.  When you label someone with the surprisingly pejorative “we’re Facebook friends,” it diminishes the relationship instantly.  It’s understood by anyone familiar with the site that Facebook friendship isn’t real friendship. 

Yes, many of us have Facebook friends with whom we are also real world friends.  But we don’t refer to those people as FB friends; we just call them our friends.  No, the “Facebook friend” is a different animal altogether.  “Facebook friends” means “I’ve met this person in real life at least once and I didn’t find them objectionable enough to proactively exclude them from the banalities that show up on my FB page.”  Hardly a ringing endorsement. 

So, if FB friendship is so contradictory, why do we bother?  What value does FB bring to our lives that wasn’t there already?  And what are the criteria by which we select our Facebook friends? 

As an example, here is a list of people who are my FB friends:

  1. My sister
  2. My son’s godparents
  3. Some friends from childhood whom I haven’t seen in ages but still genuinely care about
  4. Little brothers of friends from childhood with whom I wasn’t really friends back then either
  5. Former coworkers (only a few… I’m choosy)

And here’s a list of people who are not my FB friends:

  1. My parents (they’re not on FB)
  2. My husband (he won’t accept my friend request and thinks it’s hilarious…)
  3. Our nanny
  4. My in-laws
  5. Any current coworkers (I have to keep some boundaries)

So clearly, there is no correlation between FB friendship status and real world importance in my life.  Zero.  Zip.  Nil. 

But yet, I joined.  And I log in.  Daily.  I don’t post all that much (confession: I’m a bit of a FB lurker…) but I enjoy knowing what’s going on in the lives of my “friends.”  And, honestly, Facebook is about the only means by which I could stay updated on such a broad swath of people at the same time.

To wit, through FB I have reconnected with a dear childhood friend.  I knew when her daughter dislocated her elbow and saw pictures when she turned two.  I had a good friend in college and we lost touch ten years ago when he graduated.  But he and his wife just adopted the most darling little boy and I have quietly stayed abreast of the process via the updates and photos he posted on FB.  Without FB I’d never have been privy to these events, and I was quite happy that I was.  So I will concede… there is value in Facebook.

But how much?

Well, that depends on how you use it.  I’ve come to realize that there is a “wheat from the chaff” process that FB requires.  If your threshold for “friendship” is low you’ll be inundated with a barrage of updates on people and events that don’t matter to you.  But! If you are more selective in your “friendship” habits, Facebook can become a valuable method of staying connected to the people in your life who genuinely matter to you, but whose paths don’t cross yours on a regular basis.

It’s this latter path that I’ve tried to take.  I admit that sometimes it’s hard not to lower the proverbial bar.  Sometimes that morbid curiosity takes hold and I’m tempted to accept a friend request merely to satisfy it.  (And sometimes I do cave…)  But for the most part I have been selective in my Facebook choices and am glad of it. 

So, for me, Facebook serves the role of a relationship butler of sorts.  I tell him who I want to hear from versus who doesn’t make the cut.  And he delivers sometimes charming, sometimes witty, sometimes juicy, sometimes informational, and sometimes fantastically boring (they can’t all be winners…) updates and photos about these people right to my virtual front door.  When I’m particularly struck by such an update I can reach out with a more personal communication.  And the rest of the time I can quickly ingest the information, resting assured that all my cyber-buddies are in good shape, and get on with my day.  And that isn’t such a bad deal after all.

Trial by Fire

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Today’s post is the second installment in my four-part series on friendship.  You can read the first installment here.

Sometimes I’d just like to throw a punch and get it over with. 

Not at you, clearly.  Well, probably not you.  Do I have any reason to be mad at you?  Because if I do then you had better watch your back.  But once I punch you I promise I won’t be mad at you anymore.

Actually, I take that back.  I don’t have the nerve to punch you.  And honestly, I probably don’t even have the nerve to tell you that I’m mad at you.  That is, if I’m mad at you in the first place.  Which I’m not.

So here’s what brings me to this question of fighting.

GAP has deep friendships.  They are friendships that have been forged over time.  He and his friends have shared athletic glories, professional accomplishments, and nights of folly;  mitigated crises, earnest discussions, and gut-busting laughter.  They have withstood each other’s long political rants and blustering hubris; bailing buddies out of jail, fights about girls, and fights about fraternity house roommates; time, distance, and the inevitable evolution into slightly different people than they were when they met.  GAP can go months without talking to some of his closest friends.  And yet, when they reconnect, the bond has not withered for lack of care and feeding.  It is that strong.

And as I watch from the sidelines, I envy him these friendships.  I think of my own friendships and wish they could similarly prove their mettle.  Because, while some of them are quite strong, I don’t think any of my friendships has been subjected to the same trial by fire that his have.  But why not?

Mostly, I suspect that as a woman I have learned to fight differently than he has as a man.  I think back to junior high and the way that we acted as girls.  Placid smiles veiled venomous gossip.  Sabotage and subterfuge and the elusive defenses against each were all well known to me by the age of thirteen.  Discrimination was swift and unjustified.  And more times than not my only course of action was to find my bravest face and wait for the next unsuspecting adolescent victim to fall so that I could rejoin the fray.

The boys, on the other hand, always had it out in the locker room, or on the football field, or in an alley somewhere.  And then it was over.  No grudges.  No backlash.  Done. 

But here’s the rub.  With age and maturity we women come to realize that these strategies and tactics are heartless, scathing, and not particularly productive (not that back-alley punches ever achieved world peace either…).  And so, mercifully, we leave them behind.  But they are the only arrows in our quivers.  What methods do we have left for dealing with hurt feelings or betrayed trust?  How, as adults, do we marry maturity and confrontation?  I’ve never done it.  Well, not very successfully anyway.  And so my usual tack is to avoid the issue in question until I feel the friction has subsided and then pretend that nothing ever happened.  Sometimes I’m able to let these things slide out of my memory.  But sometimes they linger longer than I’m comfortable admitting. 

So I am prone to wonder.  What would happen if I were forthcoming with my hurt or frustration or anger?  Now that the hot-headedness of adolescence is behind me such situations don’t arise often.  But from time to time one does still rear its head.  So what if I just threw that punch (metaphorically speaking, of course), and stated that I was angry?  Would my friendship withstand the conflict?  Or would it dissolve in front of me?  And if it did dissolve, was it much of a friendship to begin with?  And if it didn’t, does that automatically mean it is something of particular value?

Truth be told, I’m pretty sure GAP hasn’t thrown a punch in the ten years since we started dating.  And most of the other arguing was left behind in undergrad as well.  But the friendships that were formed and shaped before we outgrew the immaturity to fight are of a different caliber than those that have evolved since.  And I am left wondering, how do I bridge that gap?


Monday, January 11th, 2010

Today begins a four-part series on friendship.  For the next four weeks I will dedicate one post each week to exploring the many facets of friendship.
There are many kinds of friendship.  Probably as many as there are people in the world.  And I don’t claim even to begin to understand them all.  But throughout my life, my own friendships have tended to fall into one of two categories: immediate and intimate, or slow and superficial.  Perhaps I should elaborate.
Immediate and intimate.  I call these the summer camp friendships.  A strong bond is formed early and they develop quickly after that.  Intimate depths are explored.  I feel like I’ve known this person all my life, but yet wonder how I’ve made it this far without her.  Given the ferocity of the connection, and the intensity that develops over a matter of mere weeks or months, I’m always quite sure that this will be an enduring friendship; one for the ages, for certain.  And yet, the summer camp friendship almost always flames out.  You leave camp, or Yellowstone National Park, or your summer internship, and without the artificial trappings that birthed the friendship, it fades.  Perhaps you stay in touch via e-mail, or if you (and the other person) are very dedicated, a periodic phone call.  But ultimately you go back to whatever your normal life is, and that person just isn’t a part of it.  And you aren’t a part of theirs.  And the friendship that seemed so elemental to your life just a short while ago, has become nothing more than a BFF at the end of a letter written in four different colors of pen (if you’re 12 and just got home from camp) or an annual Christmas card or birthday phone call (if you’re 32 and BFFs are a little passé). 
Slow and superficial.  This category holds the majority of my friendships.  These are the friends from school and from work, the neighbors, the people you see regularly.  And you trade books, recipes, parenting tips, and birthday lunches.  These friendships are reliable and consistent and throw very few curve balls.  And everything is polite and pleasant and really there’s nothing to complain about.  But yet the friendship lacks that visceral connection, that feeling of simpatico.  You want to dive into the summer camp friendship depths – to confess your biggest dreams and frailest vulnerabilities.  But you’re afraid.  You don’t want to walk out on that limb alone.  So you continue to play it safe, and so does the other person.  You appreciate the steadiness of the friendship, but you yearn for it to be more.
And so it is that I have come to accept female friendship as one of the great challenges of my life.  I find intimacy that flickers and fades.  Or I find something on solid footing that never digs deep.  And I struggle with how to bridge the two.  Should I work to elongate the summer camp friendships into something more enduring?  Or should I take a leap with the everyday friends and hope I don’t cross some unstated line of propriety?  The fears either way can be paralyzing.  With regard to the former, it goes something like this, “What if it didn’t mean as much to her as it did to me?  What if she’d rather just leave it behind?  Do I seem needy and desperate if I try to sustain it?” And with regard to the latter the monologue goes, “What if she doesn’t want this kind of friendship?  What if I freak her out?  What if I put myself out there and she doesn’t reciprocate?”
Despite one or two valued and enduring friendships, it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve had any success with a happy medium.  I have a group of girlfriends from graduate school with whom the gradual evolution of the friendship has taken on more depth and significance with time.  Perhaps this is due to a greater level of maturity in our 30s than what I experienced as a teenager and younger adult.  Perhaps it’s because pregnancies, childbirth, career transitions, and all other manner of joy and strife have put us through the trial by fire which forges something true.  Like most of my friendships, I don’t entirely understand why it works or doesn’t.  But it seems to work.  And for that I am utterly thankful. 
I continue to wonder what other people’s experiences are in this realm.  And I wonder if it is something specific about me that has led to this set of experiences, or is it more universal than that?  I’m sure I’ll continue to search for the answer, even if the search continues to be fruitless.