Saturday, October 25, 2014


I'm a crappy friend. I never reach out, get in touch. I don't remember what is going on in your life. I make no effort. My friendships start out well enough, but I have no staying power. The getting to know each other phase is typical enough, but the connection rarely matures, never solidifies. And then the friendship simply dwindles away. If we are friends today, the chances are high that in five years we won't be anymore.
At this point in my life my only successful relationships are with my wife, Susan, and my kids. I manage to stay cordial with my father though weekly phone calls, but after that, it is mostly a void. A long string of people who were once my friends. My brothers included. There are many people I consider friends, but in a very surface way. Friendly at the gym, friendly at the market. More of a "hey, how ya doin?" Not an attempt to catch up on their lives. I never make plans to hang out, get together.
I wasn't always like this. For thirty-some years, friendships came easily. As a teen, I had a tight group. A motley crew of geeks, stoners and second-rate athletes. Hanging out at school, after school, nights, weekends. Constant connection. Into college, a large circle of friends, spending time together in the way only college students can. We moved as a unit. To class, to meal time, to parties. I know that this level of connection doesn't last. Isn't supposed to last. It is what made the show "Friends" so popular. Adults hanging onto the high school/college friendship-model through their twenties, into their thirties. Proof that many adults feel isolated, living vicariously though their TV chums.
Susan is much better at this relationship game. She works at it. Makes plans to see her friends weekly, plans for us to get together with other couples. I'm a liability. Along for the ride, but no effort in the planning. When we are out with a group or entertaining, I probably do my share, an enjoyable presence. But then I shut down. I practically ignore those same people in any other situation. A warm evening of discussion, jokes, drinks, connection. The next day I run into them at the gas station, all they get from me is a smile and a nod.
I'm not rude, just awkward.
For the past few months, I've been working to improve my ability to mingle. To fit in and be friendly in unscripted encounters. With people I know, but don't know well. I joined a runners group – the beer runners. A short to mid-distance run then an evening in the bar. I thought that this would help me make some new friends, sort of start over. And to develop some ease in social situations. Maybe some of these new friendships would mature. This has been partially successful. I have actually gained some skill at chit-chat. I'm much better with one or two people, but passable in a group. But as I delve into the topic, I realize that this approach is misguided. My problem is less about making the friends but fostering the friendships once I have them. These new friends at my runners' group, we'll never get together except for a run and a beer.
It's much easier hanging out with women. I'm a one-on-one communicator, and women seem to be more comfortable with this. Also, guy-talk typically revolves around sports, and I'm uninterested. I haven't watched a football game in years. Baseball is relaxing at the ballpark, but we don't live near one, so I'm ignorant on that topic too. Basketball and Hockey? No interest at all. I can't even fake it. I don't know the players names. I like to talk about books, kids, societal issues. But I'm married. These women are married. It comes off as weird. I was in a writers' group with two women. The three of us would get together to discuss each others' efforts. When one woman dropped out, the meetings had to end. It was too much like a date. Unfair to our spouses.
Last weekend, I received a letter from a friend. My oldest friend, Brian. We met the first week at college, and we hit it off immediately. He got married on Saturday, and the take-away gift for the guests was a handwritten letter from the couple, really a letter from each of them. They each took a side of the sheet. Over the years, I've been surprised that my friendship with Brian has lasted. True to form, I make limited effort. Months will pass without communication and then Brian will reach out to me. Give me a call at work, send a catch-up email. And when he does this, he makes it seem like we are continuing a conversation from yesterday.
Brian's life has been one of actualization. Divorced at twenty-four and never had kids, he has made it a point to continually learn, continue to grow. Employed by an impressive university, he is able to take classes for free. And he hasn't wasted his time pursuing a program that tacks fancy letters to the end of his name, bolsters his resume. Something like an MBA. He takes scatter-shot courses on whatever topic interests him at the time. And all of these interests, all of this education makes him a fascinating person. He is filled with knowledge, but more importantly, he is filled with curiosity. Talking with him is like talking to a sun-rise. He seemingly glows with excitement.
For the past few years, Brian has repeatedly commented that my friendship is immeasurably important to him. Hard to believe. I would expect our friendship to be one of the most frustrating things in his life. He does all the work. I seemingly take him for granted. We live about ninety minutes apart. He is the one who calls to make plans. He is the one who travels to get together. I always have an excuse. Kids, vision problems, work events. And when we do get together, I can't believe it is very rewarding. Our kids are just getting to the point where they can take care of themselves. For the past twelve years, most of our visits with Brian have included the presence of children. Very distracting. Hard to have a meaningful conversation. When he leaves, I feel dull, ordinary. I feel like I've let him down, again.
But here's the thing, twenty-five years ago – before I lost my skill at friendships, when deep personal relationships were still second nature for me, before I lost my ability or desire to connect with the people close to me – I stood by Brian during a hard time in his life. When Brian was getting divorced and coming out as gay, I remained his friend. This is what Brian wrote in his wedding letter to me. He referenced a time when I took him out for dinner and drinks when I learned he was home alone on his birthday. Apparently, I've earned a lifetime of of marginal effort by simply taking advantage of a fun party night on the spur of the moment.
I'm not completely sure what my problem is. When I became aware of the decline in my ability to connect, two significant changes had taken place in my life. I had recently survived a serious bike accident, and I changed the way I drink alcohol. The crash got the blame. Massive internal trauma and a serious concussion. Eighteen hours with no memories. More than a year of recovery. Convalescence, follow-up surgery, physical therapy and PTSD. A lonely, painful, uncomfortable time. It's easy to point to this as a personality changing event. A head injury so severe, it changed my essence. But with years behind me, lots of thought on the subject. I think it is the alcohol. Prior to the crash, I was a partier. Nightly drinking, several nights each week completely drunk. Lots of time out with friends. Mingling in bars. Funny and fun. The life of the party.
I'm an introvert by nature, but an extrovert with a drink in my hand. I leaned on alcohol for so long that I forgot how to be comfortable without it. Too self-conscious, not funny enough, sharp enough. It's not surprising that I do fairly well after the beer-run. I'm relearning the skill of being engaging while drinking. Chatting up strangers over alcohol.
I don't remember Brian's birthday incident. I told him he put way too much significance on my behavior that night. But he says no, it was just an easy to write example of my non-judging, unquestioning friendship. An anecdote to show how I put our relationship above all else. This isn't me anymore. Or at least this isn't me right now. I'm not talking about the judgement, I'm still pretty good at not judging, or at least accepting. But the importance of friendship? I feel it, for sure. And I miss it. But I just can't find it. It is something I want to regain. I want to connect with the people in my life.

I realize that standing around soaked in sweat and downing beer with acquaintances isn't the way to find soul mates. BFFs to replace the ones I've squandered over the years. But these new surface-relationships are easy. At least easier than reaching out and making an emotional connection with the people I already know.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Social Media

‘cause we zig and zag between good and bad
stumble and fall on right and wrong
‘cause the tumbling dice and the luck of the draw just leads us on

A beautiful lyric from Camper Van Beethoven’s "When I Win the Lottery." A Christian lyric. Calvinist. An attestation to John Bradford's "But for the grace of God go I." God is in charge. God sets the agenda. We're along for the ride. "Lottery" is a clever song about a ne'er do well who dreams of buying glory though his predestined lottery winnings.
… Or…

"No Fate but what we make."
The theme of Linda Hamilton's "Terminator 2". The future is unwritten. Destiny is in my control. I set my path. I create my lot in life. In complete opposition to the CVB lyric. Empowering, but also frightening. Makes us feel small and alone. T2 was the high-point of the Terminator series. After a twelve year hiatus, T3 came along and showed us that the future was in fact already decided. I realize this was necessary to continue the franchise, but it nullifies the whole point of T2. It destroys the essence that set T2 above the action movie genre as something unique, something deep.

I fall squarely in the No Fate camp. I believe in God, but I believe God is irrelevant to the world around me. The intelligent designer who set things in motion a bazillion years ago with the big bang - and then off to other projects. Maybe checks in every few millennia to see how we're doing, but not in control, except maybe in some macro way that only an astrophysicist could understand. Impossible to track or steer the quadrillions of lives in all of the various universes, dimensions.

There is a danger using pop culture references to guide our philosophy. Pop culture it trite. It keeps things simple, easy. It is almost always black and white, but that appeals to me. The Yin/Yang should be my symbol, but not in the positive balanced way it is intended. Good/bad, light/dark is the way I see everything. I try to remind myself that there are no clear lines, that everything contains various shades of grey. But at my center, at my base, my knee jerk reaction is always right/wrong.

One of my yes/no lines in the sand is Social Media. I have studiously avoided it from the start. I never saw the point. Platforms like Facebook seem to give people the impression that they have relationships where none exist. Connecting with long lost friends, but not in a direct manner. Not like a exchanging emails, or a phone call, or getting together. More like a voyeur, peaking in on each other's life. Connected, but without any real connection, any effort. I created a LinkedIn account a few years ago. A nod to convention during a job hunt. From time to time I get "connection requests" from people I know. And after we connect? Nothing happens. When people ask to connect with me, I always accept. I'm now connected with dozens of people, but nothing has ever come of it. LinkedIn is constantly sending me emails suggesting connections with other people. I ignore them. LinkedIn reminds me of people I knew in the eighties. A desk drawer full of business cards mixed in with used plastic forks and spoons. Social Media, in my mind, is a giant waste of time.

Without realizing that it was happening, I got sucked in. Google+. It started with my blog. Ponderous essays on a variety of topics. Not slapped out in twenty minute bursts, but wrought through several sessions – hours of work each. And a lot of what I write is pretty good. Some of it is very good. This is not just my opinion, feedback from my writers’ group, feedback when I publish an Op Ed in my newspaper. I created my blog page. I posted an essay that I just completed. I posted a couple of older ones that I thought were above average. And then I waited. No one visited my page. I added labels, tags. More essays, good essays. Still no one visited. And then I learned about Google+ communities.

Bicycling, running, mental health, punk music. These are the topics that interest me. When I created a presence in these communities, people found my blog. Actual followers. Small chunks of readership in a variety of countries. Turkey, Germany, Russia. Ukraine is the biggest and most consistent. And I'm not sure why. Ukrainians have been reading my months-old blog-post "Validation" steadily for weeks. I would think folks in Ukraine would have more important things to worry about right now than what I have to say. My kids think this is cool. They are of Ukrainian descent. My wife, Susan, a first generation American.

But those Google+ communities. This media actually is social. I'm not hanging onto old, dried up relationships, I'm creating new ones. Back and forth commenting. Reading updates on people's lives. Joking, sparring, some honest-to-God arguments. I know their kids names, the city where they live. Their goals, their interests, their achievements. It's a platform that no one ever talks about. Not in the news like Facebook, twitter, et al. And because my communities are one-dimensional, focused specifically on trail-running, or fixed-gear bikes, or OCD, or Tourette's Syndrome, the people I'm connecting with are far more diverse than my flesh and blood friendships. We intersect and bond over a narrow band of interest. The remainder of our lives, our hobbies, our activities, our professions are varied and random.  

I spend a lot of time looking for well written blogs. Blogs on topics meaningful to me. Mental health, broken spirits, that sort of thing. Many of these bloggers are Christian - very. Not surprising, folks struggling with problems often need someplace to turn. These blogs are primarily on the community’s subject matter, but they often include the theme that God is in control. God has a plan. If I put my faith in God, everything will be all right. I've never tried to do this. I have a natural distrust of authority figures – those in a position to set the rules. And who could possibly have more authority than God? But these bloggers, they are some of the people I’m meeting, my new friends, the ones I’m just getting to know.  

A year into the game, I now find myself worrying about offending some of these new friends. I am accepting of others beliefs, but are they accepting of mine? Like the new kid in school, I want to fit in, but I want to be myself. In my essays, I lay it all out. Nothing is hidden. My deepest thoughts and secrets. It is so personal that only a handful of my friends even know about my blog. It isn't information I'm comfortable sharing with the people I see every day. People at my work. My family. Long lost friends.

The comparison of quotes at the start of this essay gets to the heart of my fear. Will Calvinists accept my No Fate philosophy? Can Christians accept my beliefs in reincarnation, my rejection of Christianity? Can anyone in Europe accept that I'm an American? Many of my connections revolve around rock music, bicycles and running. What do these people think of my OCD? Tourette's Syndrome? Past drug use? Do they care? My tendency in the flesh and blood world is to avoid unpleasant topics. They make people uncomfortable. I don't stand on the street corner and rant about my kids' teachers. Or bemoan my struggles with alcohol. On-line, as Charley Rider, I tell the truth, my truth. For the past year, it hasn't mattered what anyone thought. If someone was offended, well, I didn't even know who they were. I'm starting to know. I'm starting to worry. It has begun to matter. I'm starting to care about the faceless people I'm meeting on Google+.