Tag Archives: friends

Ready to respond

When it comes to friends, people fall into two categories, those who reach out and those who respond. Some responders find it difficult to reach out because they have been emotionally hobbled in some fashion that they have yet to overcome. I know, because I am a responder.

As all fellow soul-searchers know, it is impossible to look deeply at one’s self without running smack into a parent’s influence. Since my mother is alive and well—and reading my blog—I write what follows with some degree of guilt. However, I trust that she knows that I love her and that I am not casting blame, just seeking clarity. That said, let’s start with my father’s part in my inability to reach out. (He’s alive, thank you for asking, but unlikely to read this.)

As children, my sisters and I were allowed very little time on the phone. My father, the doctor, was often on call and in the days before call-waiting he was loathe to risk the phone being busy because the answering service might need to reach him. When your father barks, “Get off the phone, I’m on call,” you learn quickly not to get on the phone in the first place. That early training accounts for my phone-phobic nature, but is not the entire story.

The fear of reaching out can also be a learned behavior.

My mother is a responder who often exhibited an unwillingness to do even that. We would give her a message, “Mom, so-and-so called and wants you to call her back,” and she’d say, “Oh yes, I really must do that,” and then wouldn’t.

After my grandmother died, I suggested my mother get in touch with her aunts. Her response was something like, “Oh, they don’t want to hear from me. I’m just their sister’s daughter.” I was, as the British say, gobsmacked. We rarely saw our extended family, but I experienced my great-aunts as warm, loving women. I am certain they would have welcomed a call from my mother.

When I was no longer living at home, I rarely spoke to my mother on the phone. I asked once why she never called me and she said, “I assumed if I wasn’t hearing from you that everything was fine and I didn’t want to intrude.”

You see the problem.

What I’m trying to say is that even if I don’t reach out, I’m here for you, as my mother is for me. I scan Facebook to see what you’re up to, read your blogs, occasionally even Google you. I cherish our shared memories. But I don’t want to impose, to bother you.

Perhaps the people I consider friends will tire of reaching out one day. Maybe you already have. Maybe you’ve always been a responder, like me. Whatever the case, I don’t judge. If I don’t hear from you for years at a time I will assume you are well and happy. If not, and you need me, reach out. I promise to respond.

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Old friends

My father-in-law once said, “The one thing you can’t make more of is old friends.” This was said in response to my pointing out that he was groaning about an impending visit from one of the same. The implications were that even though you may not have anything in common with a person any more, nor particularly look forward to seeing them, your shared history made them a forever friend. I’m not convinced.

When I complained about a friend who regularly made me sad and couldn’t commit to getting together, another friend said, “I tell my little girl that friends are nice to us and make us happy. Is she really your friend?” According to my father-in-law, the answer is yes.

And what about frenemies? According to Urbandictionary.com, the winning definition is, “An enemy disguised as a friend.” But I prefer this one (copied with all its grammatical warts):

The type of “friend” whose words or actions bring you down. (whether you realize it as intentional or not) The type of friend you ought to cut off but don’t cuz…they’re nice… good …you’ve had good times with them.

I had a very close friend in college; I’ll call her X. She was fiercely loyal to her friends and expected the same in return. The tiniest slight, perceived or otherwise, and she would cut you off and never look back. We remained close after she transferred to finish college in New York and through the years that followed.

During college, X. and I were thoroughly wrapped up in the underground rock and roll scene. It was the late seventies and punk rock ruled. Between The Rat in Kenmore Square in Boston, and CBGB’s in the Bowery in New York, it’s a wonder that either of us managed to graduate. But graduate we did, and then began the laborious process of growing up, building careers, and going to bed before 3am.

She came to visit me after I bought my first house. I was thirty, a responsible grown-up with a job and a mortgage. After admiring my home and catching up, she excused herself to go to the bathroom. When she’d been gone for a while, I tapped on the bathroom door and called, “X? Are you okay?”

She opened the door and I saw works on the bathroom sink. She had just finished shooting up in my bathroom.

I don’t remember the rest of that day, but sometime later X. sent me a card asking why she hadn’t heard from me in a while. I responded honestly with a letter about how sad I was that she was indulging in self-destructive behaviors, and how I thought she needed help. I told her I missed her, and would welcome her back whenever she was ready. She must have considered that disloyal because I never heard from her again.

I think about X from time to time. Sometimes I miss her. She was nice to me and made me happy. By one of the definitions above, that made her my friend, but was she also a frenemy? Her behavior wasn’t hurting me, although it did bring me down. At my age, someone I met in college constitutes an old friend, but if they stopped speaking to me along the way they probably don’t qualify.

I’m going to work on a word for someone you’re fond of that probably doesn’t care if you’re still alive. Suggestions welcome.

Book clubs are for more than books

When was the last time your book club discussed a book? If it’s anything like mine, discussing the book takes a backseat to socializing. My book club comprises my oldest friends. It is older than my marriage. The original, core group of members were girlfriends who worked for the same company and knew everything there was to know about one another. When we convened for book club we didn’t need to spend any time catching up; we could focus on the book. And in the beginning we read serious literature like Of Human Bondage and Sons and Lovers. We were still relatively new when we decided to include our significant others, inviting them to join us for a discussion of Our Man in Havana, a book deemed light enough for them to enjoy. The men never left, and the book choices were wide and varied.

Over time we created an algorithm for who would choose the next book. The variables included who hosted last, who chose the last book, and whose house we were going to next. It ends up being rather complicated (I blame the math majors among us) and we spend a few minutes at each meeting reviewing how it works. We also created a mnemonic to help us remember whose house we would meet at next. It would work, too, if we could remember what the mnemonic meant.

We’ve read a lot of wonderful books. I’ve bought each one, filling several bookshelves. There were also some memorable disappointments. No one made it through Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, and we still laugh about how painful The Master of Ballantrae was. We used to work hard to find books that none of us had read. A few years ago we decided it might not be a bad idea if someone had read the book that was being suggested. That way we could assert some form of quality control.

If life had stayed the way it was in those early days, we’d probably still be diligently discussing books, but that’s not the way life works. The group has had marriages and children, a divorce and illnesses. The company we once worked for doesn’t exist anymore and none of us has worked with another of us for many years. We try to meet every two months, but it probably averages out to more like three or four. We use the time to catch up; a lot can happen in three months. We spend a weekend in the fall at my family’s house in Vermont. A lot of visiting gets done around the fireplace with a few bottles of wine, when no one has to drive anywhere. And there’s an annual pilgrimage to another family’s home on the beach in Gloucester. We talk about having book club in Tuscany, but haven’t yet. No one is ruling it out though. Maybe when all the kids are out of college.

When I suggest that my husband read the book for the next meeting, he scoffs that it’s not a book club; it’s a social club. But he’s wrong. There are always a few people who have actually read the book, and however anemic, there is time spent discussing it. A good book club is about more than books. It’s about the great stories we all have to tell.

Would it kill you to email?

It’s traditional to review ‘the year that’s been’ as we prepare to enter the year ahead. The media does this with top ten lists; I do it by transferring birthdays and anniversaries to my new desktop calendar. This year I am using a Sierra Club Engagement Calendar. I bought it because they say a portion of the proceeds go “…to preserve and protect our environment.” And because I think the pictures are pretty. Ironically, I keep the calendar folded to the current week to minimize the space it takes on my desk, so I only see the pictures for a second when I turn the page.

As I perform my annual ritual, copying birthdays from one calendar to the other, I indulge in my own version of judgment day. Names that evoke a warm response, cause me to wonder how they’re doing, or make me feel happily nostalgic, get carried over to the next year. But if a name causes a negative reaction, no matter how small, then it doesn’t get written into the calendar for the coming year. (I’m not making any John Lennon-like claims about my place in the universe, but it’s hard to miss the similarity between what I do and Yom Kippur.)

My negative reactions are not the result of the person having done something to me. The person has done nothing. They haven’t written or called, Facebooked or tweeted, or even left a comment on my blog. I make it a practice to contact people I like at least once a year. When a birthday appears on my calendar, it’s a sign that it’s time to check in. (These days Facebook keeps track of birthdays, but that’s only useful if you’re satisfied dropping a three-word greeting on someone’s wall. I like to send a card, and for that I need advance notice, the kind you get when you can look a week or two into the future, on your calendar.)

Anniversaries I track include the first date Andrew and I had, and our wedding, both of which are likely to be noted until one or both of us drops dead. I also track the date we brought our cats home from the shelter. Some anniversaries have a finite run. I no longer note the date we closed on our ‘new’ house (fourteen years ago, mid-January, dang, what was the date?), nor do I any longer keep track of the date I quit smoking (which I’m pretty sure was March 10, well over twenty-five years ago).

Transferring birthdays and anniversaries (while important) is also an excuse to review every week of ‘the year that’s been.’ I revisit lunches I had with friends, meetings of my critique group, our bookclub get-togethers and dinners with friends, Hannah’s soccer games and piano recitals, holidays with my family, and vacations with the in-laws. 2010 was a year full of friends, new and old, family, near and far, and the freedom to pursue a dream. It was a good year.

May 2011 bring health and happiness to you and yours. (And don’t forget to check in with me at least once.)

5-pound bag of peanuts

I don’t do a lot of entertaining. Having friends over usually means serving dinner and I’m not much of a cook. So when I do invite people over I try to set reasonably low expectations. I may ask something like, “Do you have a Cheez-Whiz allergy?”

Sometimes the gods will be smiling on me when I invite my in-laws over for dinner. My mother-in-law will say, “That’s wonderful. I’ll bring dinner.” There’s nothing like having a dinner guest who brings the meal. She is a fantastic cook. She can whip up a meal for 30 people with a half hour’s notice and it will taste like she’s been slaving away for hours.

I also don’t watch sports (if you don’t count the opening ceremonies for the Olympics; I like the parade of nations). So imagine my husband’s surprise when I told him we were hosting a Super Bowl party this year. “To watch the game?” he asked, with a horrified look on his face. “And the commercials,” I reassured him.

There were going to be seventeen of us in all. I wanted to have enough appetizers so that everyone would be able to find something they liked. I believe what you lack in quality can be made up in quantity. I envisioned people spread out all over the house, some watching the game in the family room, some lounging in the living room, others gathered around the dining room table sharing stories while the appetizers magically floated from room to room.

The guests, however, stayed glued to the TV in the family room, where the chips and salsa, cheese and crackers, and Spanakopita from Costco were on the coffee table. The appetizers that were strategically placed in other rooms were largely untouched; a fig and olive tapenade with goat cheese, a veggie platter with low-fat dip, a bowl of kim-chee and a plate of California rolls.

We did empty a few bottles of wine and lots of bottles of beer, and everyone seemed to have a good time. So I guess it doesn’t matter that the 5-pound bag of peanuts is still a 5-pound bag of peanuts. There’s always next year.