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.