Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Honor among rogues"?

“To say that a man is your friend, means commonly no more than this, that he is not your enemy. Most contemplate only what would be the accidental and trifling advantages of friendship, as that the friend can assist in time of need, by his substance, or his influence, or his counsel; but he who foresees such advantages in this relation proves himself blind to its real advantage, or indeed wholly inexperienced in the relation itself…. What is commonly called Friendship is only a little more honor among rogues. But sometimes we are said to love another, that is, to stand in a true relation to him, so that we give the best to, and receive the best from, him. Between whom there is hearty truth there is love; and in proportion to our truthfulness and confidence in one another our lives are divine and miraculous, and answer to our ideal. There are passages of affection in our intercourse with mortal men and women, such as no prophecy had taught us to expect, which transcend our earthly life, and anticipate heaven for us.”
- Henry David Thoreau, On the Concord River

I long have been fascinated by friendship. The concept, that is. What makes for friendship between two people, why some friendships sour and why others endure. My curiosity stems from my personal experience. At various times in the course of one's youth, alliances are formed and shifted. Bonds are forged, hurts are felt, and it all seems like a blur of speed dating or an awkward square dance until the music stops, you are 45 years old, and you wonder where your old friends went and where your new friends came from.

When I was an adolescent, I was one of a core group of four friends, memorialized in my one-act play of the same name. We had other friends as well, but we four I guess you could say had more intense adventures together, we took ourselves further to the boundaries of experience. Among other friends, it was a laugh, when the four of us were together, we were serious about what we were doing, whether it was listening to music, trespassing on a golf course at night with a case of beer and other substances, talking into the wee hours, or dreaming about forming a band. We seemed a very tight-knit group.

Yet whenever there was some kind of an issue about which there was no unanimity, our quartet would split into two dyads. And always the same two. Later, awkwardly, two of us, one from each dyad, had a major falling out, and then it became two separate trios. Actually, three, since one of us was a year older and went away to college before us. The next year, two more of us went away to college, one never did. The three in college went to the same college, but wouldn't you know only two of us, from an older dyad, stayed close. After college, nothing was quite the same. The one who stayed home found a new group of friends and the rest of us never really gelled with them.

Within a few years, we were completely splintered and then one of us died. Two who had been estranged became reacquainted. But the remaining three seem to have little left in common. We are friendly, but can we be said to be friends?

The unraveling of this group has intrigued me for a long time. I dare say it has troubled me. We seemed to have so much in common once. Had we all changed so much? Were the bonds we had shared in the past no longer valid? Had they ever been?

Aside from my play, I have tried writing about friendship over time in other stories. Until I figure it out, I'm not sure I can complete any of them. My current hypothesis is that what poses as commonality is really largely just proximity. I was friends with my friends because they were geographically close to me. We all lived just a few blocks from each other; I and my dyad-mate, in fact, were next door neighbors. We had other similarities, of course, some of them quasi-cosmic: three of us were Aquarians, the other a Pisces; the three Aquarians all had the same middle name, Mark, and the Piscean's first name was Marc. We were all Jewish, we went to the same school, and we all basically liked the same music. Personality-wise, we were far from identical, but it didn't seem to matter then.

Now it seems to matter a great deal. I won't describe us because it will only sound as though I was normal and the rest less than. Suffice to say, I don't always find their personalities so ignorable anymore. Why is that so? Again, I think part of has to do with proximity, or lack of it. We all went in separate directions professionally, we all live in different areas. I am more religious than the others and so am more connected to Jewish ritual and community. My musical tastes are broad and challenging. I am a writer, hopelessly nostalgic, yearning and dreaming of realizing my creative vision.

Of the other two, one is a Deadhead/Phishhead type who owns a small service business, and the other is a wealthy attorney. We three are very much like the archetypes outlined in a concept album by my favorite progressive rock group, Gentle Giant, in their 1972 album, Three Friends. In that album, three friends who are very close in school drift apart as they enter the working world. One is working class ("Working All Day"), one is an artist ("Peel the Paint"), one is rich ("Mister Class and Quality?").

By being part of different worlds, different communities, we have each been broadened in different ways. Further, we are all part of multiple worlds, multiple communities. We have our home domain, our work domain, as well as cultural and avocational domains. Because we lack proximity to each other, we can't stoke the core elements that once drew us together, and they become further suffused by the layers of new contacts, qualities, skills, interests, and friends that we accumulate every day. When we get together, we almost don't know each other anymore. We default to the shorthand and inside jokes that were relevant 25, 30 years ago, but those things aren't how we define ourselves today and we find it difficult to get reacquainted to who we all are now.

Maybe if we spent a week in a cabin in the woods, we would learn better who we are now. Maybe we would find even more conclusively that we are not simpatico anymore. Maybe it's better simply to sustain the tenuous thread that keeps us connected, and try neither to strengthen it nor take scissors to it. After all, it's not wrong that we grew, that we changed. Nor is it wrong that we grew and changed in different ways. Proximity served its purpose then; the lack of it also serves a purpose today. It allows us to evolve without the constraining expectations of childhood alliances.

Interestingly, I find that I have more interesting interactions with my second tier of friends, those outside the four with whom we were always friendly yet in a more general social way. I had lost touch with them as well, yet I find today that not only do we still retain meaningful bonds and values from the old days, but we are also able to successfully integrate the lives and qualities we possess now. I'm not sure why that it. Maybe my quartet was too intense, maybe we applied too much pressure to maintaining the integrity of our small group, maybe we inadvertently kept each other from doing the self-exploration that is so necessary in adolescence and early adulthood.

I look at my current friends and I don't have one with whom I share the kind of closeness I knew as a child, when two people seem to be one. I have music friends, sports friends, Jewish friends, work friends, neighborhood friends, 117 Facebook friends (several of whom I barely know)...I don't have anyone who spans the entirety of my experience. Maybe I never did. Maybe that's why I feel a certain void in my life that keeps me looking back, trying to reclaim something I thought existed.

Maybe it's not a friendship I lost that intrigues me, maybe it's a friendship I never had. If indeed it has eluded me all these years, why do I feel I need it now? And would I know if it were to come to me? And if I did, would it fulfill me?


Lazy Julie said...

This piece really made me think. Boys and girls are so different in so many ways, including friendships. I do, however, share your angst somewhat. I have wonderful friends that I talk to on the phone and email but don't see often enough because we are geographically, professionally, and situationally scattered. I miss the intensity and constancy of younger friendships. Or rather, I wish I had had the intensity and constancy throughout my childhood and not just in spurts. I moved around a lot so I had it but not the same ones for all of childhood. I also feel jealous of group friendships...even imaginary ones like on Sex and the City. Is there a boy equivalent, I wonder...? So, thanks for making me think.

Jason M. Rubin said...

I've always been envious of fictional group friendships. My favorite would be the guys in the movie Diner.