I’m A Terrible Friend

friends

I have a confession to make:  I am a terrible friend.

I realized this the other day when I received a Christmas card in the mail from a friend who I haven’t been in contact with for nearly two years.

He doesn’t generally send out Christmas cards, but I had a pretty good idea that I’d be receiving one from him this year because he recently messaged my wife on Facebook and asked for our address.  This makes sense because he had no idea where we are living and he is aware that I do not do Facebook.  I suppose he could have emailed me, as my email address has not changed.  He may not have it in his computer’s address book, though.

The last time my friend contacted my wife on Facebook to ask for our address was because he wanted to send us a wedding invitation.  We were unable to attend the wedding due to the distance involved, but we did send a gift.  I hope he received it.  I wouldn’t know, as we never received any kind of acknowledgment.

Of course, I could have called him to ask whether he and his wife received our gift.  But I didn’t.  I figured it didn’t really matter.  Usually, when you send something, it does arrive.  So I’d just make him feel bad about not sending a thank-you note, and I wasn’t about to do that.  I always hated being forced to write thank-you notes as a kid (usually for gifts I didn’t even like) and there is no way that I am going to hold against someone the fact they choose not to participate in this outdated social nicety.

As I see it, there isn’t anything all that unusual about losing touch with someone for two years or even a whole lot longer.  I’ve always believed that it’s a natural thing for friendships to wax and wane; people come into our lives and go out of them and sometimes return again.  We all have our own problems to handle and staying in contact with old friends and acquaintances is not necessarily a priority.  I’m not going to give you an autograph book to sign “2 sweet 2 b forgotten” and vow to be your BFF on Facebook.  I graduated from junior high a long time ago.

We need to accept that life has its ebb and flow.  We need to ride those waves rather than becoming sucked into the mire of the past.

However. . .  It is just possible that this attitude is one of the reasons that I have very few friends.  Despite the fact that I write a blog that is shared with people who live in countries I’ve barely heard of on the other side of the world, I am basically an introverted person who does his own thing and doesn’t feel the need for regular socializing.

My wife, on the other hand, has what I suspect is a more healthy approach to friendships.  She has friends from one end of the country to the other.  I’m not just talking about sending messages on Facebook, either.  They may be 3,000 miles away, but my wife and her friends still call each other during the day, during breaks at work, during the evening commute, on weekends.

I’ve wondered for a while whether some of this dichotomy may be attributed to the gender divide.  I pondered about this in “On Friendship,” one of my very early posts to this blog.

But if I am to be perfectly honest with myself, I must admit that I am a terrible friend.

You think I’m kidding?  As if not contacting my friend for two years isn’t bad enough, when I did receive his card and letter, he started out his message by informing me of his recent separation and impending divorce.

Okay, now I feel like a crud for sure.

I am tempted to make myself feel better by saying, hey, he could have called or emailed me to let me know what was going on.  If he wanted advice or sympathy or another opinion or just a listening ear, he could have called or emailed me.

But I’d be fooling myself by taking this approach.  The real truth is that I would have known what was going on if I had made even the slightest effort to keep in touch.  And this I did not do.

Sure, this is a friend who asked for my address once to announce his wedding and a second time to announce his divorce.  But at least he felt enough of a connection to me to share these life-changing events.

I like to think that distance is a factor.  For four years, we lived in the same city and met over a Scrabble board nearly every week.  We made more than a few out-of-state road trips together.  But then I lost my job and had to move eight hours away when I found another one.  Now we live only about 3½ hours apart, but that is still too much of a distance for a normal relationship.

Or is it?  This takes me back to my wife’s friends on the other side of the country who call her on their lunch breaks or while driving home from work.

I don’t know whether the error of my ways is a man thing or an introvert thing or just a me-being-an-ass thing.  But I do know that there has to be a better way.

So I hope I can somehow make this right.  Within an hour of reading my friend’s letter, I sat down and wrote him back.  And I plan to visit him next week.

This can never make up for my two-year absence, but at least it’s a start.

Lewis, you have the address of this blog now.  I hope you read this post.

 

On Friendship

hands

I’ve been thinking about friendship a lot lately, and I have a few questions.  What does it mean “to be friends with” another person?  And why is it that men and women seem to have vastly different concepts of friendship?

I ask these questions because the whole friendship thing remains a mystery to me.  I’ve always been more of a loner type, like my father.  The idea of willingly spending large amounts of time in the company of someone of the same gender has never really rubbed off on me.

In my Jewish elementary school, I had a few friends, but my mother urged me not to call them that.  “They’re not your friends, they’re playmates,” she’d insist.  In third and fourth grade, my favorite playmate was Chaim, but the next year we had a fight over some trivial thing, started pulling each other’s hair, and that was pretty much the end of it.  It would never have worked out anyway.  I hear he became super Orthodox, while I defected to the secular world.

Back then, it seemed that friendship was a kind of bargaining chip, coin of the realm that could be spent to purchase favors.  “I’ll be your best friend” was often the whining refrain when one kid was trying to coax another to do his bidding.

I had what I thought was a good friend in sixth grade, but then came the macrocosm of junior high and we drifted off in separate directions.  Even in high school, a year seemed to be the statute of limitations on anything approaching friendship.

I guess I’ve always done my own thing.  I never wanted the kind of commitment that friendship implied.  It was just too much work.  Why would you want to waste hours of precious time allowing another to cry on your shoulder?  Get a life, I would think.  If you need to unburden yourself of your problems, find a good therapist.  At least they get paid to listen to your insipid whining about your evil boss and your even more evil mother-in-law.

I do realize how fortunate I am.  I have a wonderful boss and a delightful mother-in-law.  I’m sorry that you don’t.  Sucks to be you, but I really don’t want to hear it, certainly not when it’s the same dumb thing over and over again.  I don’t mean to sound cruel and heartless, it’s just that I have problems of my own and I lack the emotional energy to deal with yours also.

I must say that, despite how cliché this has become, my wife really is my best friend.  She understands me on a level that no one else does.  She knows what I’m thinking almost before I think it.  I don’t feel comfortable making any decision without consulting her — not because I feel the need to ask for permission (although it doesn’t hurt!), but because she consistently has insights that never would have occurred to me.

The funny thing about my wife, though, is that, unlike me, she has many friends.  Some of her friendships stretch back to childhood days while others are of more recent vintage.  Either way, she has the knack for the proper care and feeding of a friendship so that it stays healthy and matures over the years.  I am envious.

The gender stereotypes surrounding friendship are many.  Men friends watch sports together; women friends go shopping together.  Men friends pump fists, arm wrestle, borrow each other’s tools and go out drinking together.  Women friends gossip about mutual acquaintances, swap kid stories and meet at Starbucks to get away from the house and console each other regarding their mean ol’ husbands.

Aha!  It’s obvious now.  Male friendships are largely physical, while female friendships are largely emotional.  No wonder women’s friendships are more sustainable.  The physical can only last so long.  The emotional, on the other hand, is much deeper and has the potential to continue indefinitely.

The problem with stereotypes, however, is that they are usually false, even when accepted to the point of becoming conventional wisdom.  Lately, I seem to keep running across guys who serve as emotional support for one another.  You see this on TV all the time, from the 1980s show thirtysomething to the current Mad Men.

Perhaps I am just a sexist old fart, but despite the feel-good man buddy stuff on TV, I believe that women tend to have longer, stronger friendships because they are often better communicators.  Even in this modern age, there are still plenty of men out there who don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings.  In my experience, it is more common for women to be willing to share openly with others and to have the kind of empathy that is the stuff of which good friendships are made.  A lot of men could take a lesson from this.

As for myself, I am forced to conclude that my lack of long-term friendships is a product of self-centeredness.  Any type of relationship is an equation in which the two sides must balance.  In terms of quantity, you only get out of it as much as you put into it.  Or in terms of quality, the GIGO rule applies (garbage in, garbage out).

On the other hand, I don’t feel as if my life is in any way diminished by a lack of close friendships.  Between our extended family and my many acquaintances at work, there are more than enough significant people in my life already.

But I still admire those who cultivate friendships early and then nurture them for decades.  Somehow, that seems like something special.

 

The Big C

Letter C

I work in a very small office, so it was nothing short of shocking to me when two of my coworkers recently shared with me, in the same week, that they had just been diagnosed with cancer.

Now, what exactly is the proper protocol for this situation? First, pretend not to be shocked so that you don’t make the other person feel worse than she already does. Then say something. But what?

“I’m sorry” just doesn’t seem right even though, of course, you are. That’s what you’re supposed to say when someone tells you her Aunt Mabel passed away in her sleep at the age of 92.

Gasping “Oh no!” and covering your mouth with your hand doesn’t cut it either. An overt expression of shock makes it all about you.

But it’s not about you; it’s about the sick person. Wait, now I’m using my coworker’s disease as a label. Suddenly, she’s not “my friend in accounting” or “Joan, the funny one from work I was telling you about,” but “my sick friend.”

You can ask your coworker how her doctor appointment went and when she’s having her next MRI and what kind of treatment they’re talking about. You can commiserate about what idiots the insurance company is. You can offer to drive her to her first radiation session.

You can also cry. I mean, how can you not cry, right?

No, no, you have to be strong. Only the sick person is allowed to break down. If you get all emotional, how do you think that will make her feel?

You can hug. Hugging is supposed to be healthy for all parties involved. Hugs can make both of you feel better. There is one little problem, however. Hugging doesn’t come naturally to men. Well, not to me, anyway. It kind of seems forced, like I’m doing this because I think I’m supposed to but I feel really uncomfortable so can we stop now? Also, when you’re a man, the specter of sexual harassment perpetually hangs over your head. Do the wrong thing and your job is toast.

As my nieces and nephews are quick to recognize, I am not a with-it kind of guy. (The very use of the term “with-it” shows how hopelessly old-fashioned I am.) So would someone please tell me what the manly equivalent of hugging is in the modern age? What I mean is, I don’t exactly expect to shake your hand when you’ve just told me you have cancer.

So I end up staring at my hands, staring at the floor and generally looking like a Class-A dork (or whatever term they use these days to refer to an oafish idiot with the social skills of a flea).

Inevitably, I return to my first instinct: Just be supportive. Lend a willing ear. Sympathize. Offer to help in any way you can. Ask about her family. Help to take her mind off her bodily woes by discussing her interests or joking around about office politics or funny things in the news or American Idol, like you always do.

Don’t pretend that nothing has happened, but don’t dwell on her illness either. As they say on TV, “you have cancer, cancer does not have you.” So whatever you do, don’t define someone by their illness. While it certainly looms large right now, it’s only a small part of her world. What she’s really thinking about is what to make for dinner and whether she’s supposed to bring cupcakes to her son’s school on Wednesday, or was it Thursday?

Emphasize the good stuff, the fun and the family. After all, that’s what’s going to get her through this. That and friends like you.