I am editing our next episode, which may be the start of a series “On Friendship.” We initially thought it was a simple question: “What does Friendship Mean to You?”
Nothing simple about it. Friendship is a multifaceted quality. It means different things to different people. It’s fascinating, so far, to hear the comments people have submited. It will not be an easy edit, to interweave these thoughts, to create a flowing narrative that incorporates so many smart and obviously emotional commentaries. But I will get there. Because it obviously means something to people, especially those of us who are getting older.
The process has also compelled me to consider my own ideas about friendship, and made me wonder who my friends are, how important they are to me, and how much I miss them. I miss them mostly because of the natural processes of life — you drift apart, you lose touch, your lives diverge. As you age, there is not that easy, daily camaraderie that came so naturally to most of us in our youth. I say most because I am well aware that many young people today do not have the easy-going lives that my friends and I enjoyed in the sixties and seventies. I have no idea, really, what it’s like for them today. I see them passing as I walk, in clusters, fast and usually happy — and I am frankly jealous. But I also know that many are isolated, especially since the pandemic devastated those very years when they could have been building friendships and finding themselves.
I want to reach out, sometime, somehow, to those younger people. But this is about me, now, and my own sense of isolation and — despite my great good fortune of having a partner of almost 40 years — my loss of so many friends. “Loss” for a multitude of reasons. And the more we shape this episode, the more I realize that having friends as we age is critical to our happiness, or self-esteem, our enjoyment of life. So I am trying, haltingly, to re-establish contact with many old friends.
It is not easy. I’m plagued with depression and tend to go dark, and — who needs that? I’m unlikely to share that. It’s toxic. So I’m unlikely to share, period.
But I wasn’t always this way, and old friends — from my school days — are more likely to remember my upbeat self. (Photo: Me and my old pal Angelo Rossi, circa 1979. Photo courtesy Steve Lanning Loo). That fun, confident guy is still in there — just submerged in the sediment of a long series of disappointments and difficulties. I do have my good days, and I can be funny and even uplifting — so I try and concentrate those qualities in the moments I choose to reach out. I try to add a smile to someone’s day. Facebook, where “friend” first became a verb, is not the venue for real connections. Too many of us rely on it for “staying in touch,” when it really is only really good for silliness, and photos. If you accept that, it’s fine. I like scrolling through it. But it does not really fulfill the potential of friendship. We need more.
There is definitely much more to all of us — deeper subjects, real struggles, challenges and worries — and friends are (I think) supposed to be there to listen and support one another. We can also gather, share a meal, some wine, and lift one another up — there is nothing to compare to a room full of friends laughing hilariously. Nothing.
That seemed easy, once. Once, I had no trouble being spontaneous, being funny, being goofy -- among friends. But then, so much gets in the way of such crucial conviviality. Money, for one thing. We may all start out on an even playing field, where money was our parent’s concern. But then some of us rose, and some of us fell — and that tends to divide people.
Dreams come true, and dreams shatter. If you’ve not done so well, it is hard — even on Facebook — to listen to our well-to-do friends gush over their tour of Europe or share photos of the marvels of their property. It’s painful, and that pain is directed inward, into guilt and shame and, well, isolation.
But there I am, being toxic. I don’t seek sympathy, not really. I want to continue to do something well, even after actual employment has moved on. I am going to channel my skill — mostly as a professional communicator — into this blog, and our podcast (OURGENPOD.com). I intend to contribute to the happiness and enlightenment of others, be they friends or strangers. I’ll try to stick to that path as this blog meanders on toward the horizon.
There’s a good friend I made at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York and stayed in close touch with for many years, until geography and career paths led us down diverging paths. But happily, Bryan Miller and I have recently reconnected. Bryan rose to the stratosphere of journalism as the New York Times Restaurant Critic, but I was amazed to learn that he achieved that despite a devastating decades-long battle with a bipolar disorder, about which he bravely wrote a book, "Dining in the Dark" . He conquered that demon somewhat magically, when he first held his newborn son. But we quickly realized that we have both suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Resuming our friendship has given us both a much-needed boost. At least it has for me -- and I think the feeling is mutual. I care about him. When I told him that we were collecting people’s definitions of “Friendship,” Bryan had a great response:
“A friend is someone who calls for no reason.”
Eons ago, back when we were in school, or actually once we’d escaped the pressure-cooker of that year, fora few years we kept up a rather remarkable correspondence. In our letters (typed on real typewriters!) we played a game, to see who could use the biggest words. In college, I had acquired the dubious skill of affecting a scholarly tone and composing papers bloated with an overblown vocabulary. Often, just for fun, I wrote letters laden with verbose prose that had little to do with communication. Sheer literary silliness; the true value of good writing is NOT to use big words.
One of the best pieces of advice on good writing came early in our year at Columbia, when I turned in an article reflecting that literary pretension left over from college. Less than an hour later, it appeared in my box, with these big red words scrawled across the top by my professor, Melvin Mencher (who just turned 90): "Wilson: first meaning, then words."
I guess that's why Bryan and I enjoyed the Big Word game: we were breaking that cardinal rule and just indulging in a sort of Scrabble of bunkum and balderdash. I finally killed it with the word “sesquipedalian,” which means “given to or characterized by the use of long words.”
The fun of it was trying to make sense while stuffing our correspondence with as many obscure words as possible. I took a nostalgic stab at it in response to his perfectly precise one-liner:
My Dear Friend:
Do not relish the isolation. Do not embrace the anomie. Do not savor the peace of wind chimes, fountains and bird songs….they are impermanent and unreliable.
I am going to call you for no reason.
There will be a loud, an intrusive tone — likely a loud ringing — that will set your nerves aflame. In the few seconds that it repeats its obnoxious intrusion into your carefully cultivated cocoon, you must calculate your response: if you answer, the future is uncertain. What might be transmitted might not be conducive to your ease. It may force to the surface thoughts and matters you have chosen to repress, But think: if you don’t…that silence you have chosen may fester, like a placid mountain lake succumbs to eutrophication, overtaken by algae unwelcome and depressing. Silence, for long, is seldom golden. It can become rank, and offensive to the senses.
But it will happen. The phone will ring, or buzz, or jangle — unbidden, this sudden auditory intrusion into your (I presume) quiet existence — shatter whatever concentration you have achieved on some pressing task — and will already have spewed glutamate into your hypothalamus, instantly telegraphing a chemical message down the bio-wires of your body to command the involuntary squeezing of the glands where adrenaline is nebulized like an injection of air and fuel into the pressurized engine that moves your emotions and involuntary nervous system. A jolt.
To answer, or not to answer? The decision, pressed unnervingly upon you in these few seconds by my call, is: Which is worse: to answer, or not to answer? In this you are not alone. This is a broad and pervasive quandary of modern life, where technology has compressed our responses into annoying little imperatives, reducing the time we have to assess our options. It is a microcosmic instance of Koyaanisqatsi , life out of balance, this current liminal epoch that keeps us incessantly unconsciously uneasy. We may not like it, but it exists, and we have slavishly succumbed to an autonomic obedience to the demands of technology.
But let us be realistic: While far from ideal, this imminent decision rests on the fleshy fulcrum of the see-saw of your current (albeit interrupted) homeostasis: Will this uncertainty be somehow qualitatively improved if you answer? Will it unleash a pleasing brew of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins into your synaptic river? Will the ensuing conversation lift you up? How can you know?
You cannot. Even though you most likely already know (again, through technology’s wonders we have by the tech-bio osmosis of our time made our own) that it is me within whom the motive for this call and its content resides (and already begun formulating your probable replies and interjections, the degree of truth, honesty, and enthusiasm), and thus even subconsciously ascertained the likely effect its prospect holds for the aforementioned neurochemical processes.
Thus, as we are wont to transfer all of our accumulated past knowledge into an expectation of the future, you may have by the second ring, or buzz, or jingle, incorporated this anticipated amalgam of our personalities and conversations over 50 years into your calculation, decide to answer, or to let the noise run its course, and leave you again in your private space, all chemicals and autonomous affect dissolving into your prior state (notwithstanding your feelings engendered by having ignored my call, or what my own sense of such perceived rejection might then be — a measure of your own level of empathy, whether general or specific toward me). There is no way this call will leave you as you were. I will have chosen to have some effect, and only guessed at its nature. I will have taken a risk. And you will, as in a reflection in a mirror darkly, feel some aftermath — if only to affirm your own isolation, be it pleasing or painful.
Or perhaps I will not call at all. You may deduce from that what you will.
Therein, the dilemma, and challenge, of spontaneous telecommunication in the twenty-first century.