Thursday, June 28, 2007

Friendship isn’t Easy

I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch Lassie, especially the movies. Lassie kept meeting new people, had amazing adventures, then had to move on. It was so sad. Why couldn’t they just all live near each other? Then Lassie could visit all of them each day. I cried every time.

Of course, life’s more complicated than that.

My first close friend was Michael, the kid who lived upstairs in the country home my parents rented when I was two. Seriously. I remember. He had a bottle collection, each carrying a fairy in the representation of a cartoon character. I couldn’t see them, but he could, and he told me. Sometimes he’d show me the flash of their sparks in the field. When my family moved away when I was ten, Michael and I continued writing and visiting each other through high school. I’ll never forget the crushing feeling when Michael’s mom, Shirley, was killed just a few days before Christmas, his twelfth birthday, on an icy road on her way to pick him up from school. The last time I visited him, we played basketball. I think he was lying about the fairies.

I had other good friends at my old house—Harold (the kid in the next house down the highway) and I were also friends for years after I moved, and although Robert (the next kid down the highway) and I weren’t as close, he always stood up for me when the school bus bullies got going.

Moving in the middle of fifth grade was not easy—back to square one friend-wise. Eventually, I became friends with Mike, whose mother edited the local paper (his dad seemed to just stay home). Mike introduced me to the game of Risk, which quickly became a passion for quite a few years. In junior high, I met Mark, a math wiz (frankly, I think cultivated by his parents to be so), and we had great fun playing logic based games, solving mathematical puzzles, and playing chess. I met Terry in Boy Scouts, and we planned a few long distance bicycle day trips (which, miraculously, our parents let us pursue independently). Terry also introduced me to sailing at scout camp, getting permission to take out the sailboat after politely but thoroughly embarrassing the boat keeper by demonstrating beyond any doubt that he knew far more about sailing than the adult supervisor.

By high school, all these friendships had fallen away (all new people again), and Les became my best friend. We met because he was the only other male flutist in the band. He was smart, and funny. We liked a lot of the same music. I had managed to join the elite Jazz Band as the guitarist when just a freshman, playing with my hero, a keyboardist with a local rock band and his excellent bass-player/girlfriend. They were seniors, though, and I taught Les to play bass (as a senior, he was the bassist for the state-wide Jazz Band). When I got too down on myself, Les would talk sense, something like, “Look, a lot of people have inferiority complexes, and they’re right, they ARE inferior, but you’re not…” and such. An AV volunteer, Les also had access to keys around the entire high school—and we made copies. We also learned how to break into locked rooms—just for the challenge of it, but when we were finally caught (my fault), administration was not amused. As high school faded away, so did the friendship.

In college, a state school, all I could afford, I met Gary, a gifted pianist who quickly became my best friend, accompanist (I was a bassoon major), tennis partner and roommate. One of those eerie connections—you know what each other is thinking, when the other calls before it happens, that sort of thing. Gary introduced me to a new, pop pianist I’d grow to appreciate, but when he brought this first album home, I asked, “Who the hell is Billy Joel?” [I introduced him to Emerson, Lake and Palmer.] We once had a long debate over Beethoven’s fifth, each wondering how the other could think such thoughts, until we eventually realized I was talking about the Fifth Symphony while Gary meant the fifth piano concerto. Entering music school, I was terrified I’d never be able to compete. Once there, I was appalled at the low quality. Finally, Gary pointed out that if all I was going to do was bitch, I owed it to myself to transfer. He was right. I auditioned, secured a performance scholarship from Ithaca College, and started my sophomore year once again a stranger.

I met Gordon in Art History class—as soon as the lights went out, so did Gordon—but he was also a music major, a trombonist, and we quickly became fast friends. Twice my weight and a foot taller, Gordon and I wrestled anyway, arm wrestled, went running, played baseball and football, quizzed each other on obscure music points (Gordon was a Stravinsky fanatic; I was a Classicist and Bartok enthusiast), and shared mutual acquaintances. We became housemates along with some other students and our friend Joe, a bass trombonist, in a complicated rental deal I put together to escape dorm life—a great year. I stayed summers at his family’s house in New Jersey, playing music festivals in the New York City area—and helping out when his father suffered a lesion in his brain.

When we graduated, Gordon hooked up with a former French horn classmate, and soon, Joe and I were invited to a wedding at her parent’s estate in Maine. The invitation included welcoming us to spend a week or two, before and after the ceremony, enjoying the land and the lake. Hey, why not?! When we got there, we found out why—we were cheap labor (which would have been OK, we were used to work), and not really particularly welcome to use the facilities, sailboats, etc. We stewed, but bit our lips for Gordon’s sake. The wedding finally came, followed by a few hours of reception before Gordon and Deb drove off on their honeymoon. Joe and I waved warmly until they were gone, looked at each other, were packed and on our way home inside of ten minutes.

I visited Gordon and Deb a few times at their home on the Hudson, but Deb and I had never been close, they had a new daughter, and Gordon was put off by my new focus on my management and writing interests for profit: “It’s like my friend is gone and replaced by this businessman.” We grew apart. Ironically, Gordon took his piano tuning college course and turned it into a piano technician business. Joe joined the Navy band and got so sick of playing that he became a CPA, got married, and moved to Oregon. He has two kids. His wife sends a Christmas card each year. I’m the only one of my classmates to fulfill our aspirations of performing professionally.

Since then, I’ve had a lot of wonderful acquaintances, housemates, colleagues, many of which I remember warmly, but no real close friends for years. Maybe I had just learned to stay aloof. [Notice that we’re just leaving girlfriends out of this discussion—another story entirely.] My career led to offers to teach music, then to teach writing, then to do so at better colleges, and those pursuits have largely been my focus.

Today, I have two people I’d count as close friends, both colleagues, both colorful characters.

Tim was an enigma from the start—a college custodian who also taught in the English department. Strange, but also well liked, easy going, with long experience, published, wonderfully clever sense of humor, Mensa member. We shared an affinity for puns, and traded several. We shared stories—Tim, the son of a Cornell scientist, had planned to become a large animal veterinarian, but severe arthritis ended those plans (Tim’s posture now resembles a question mark). We really got to know each other well when Tim broke his neck in a fall and had to spend six moths at home with a metal frame drilled into his head to hold it in place. Calm as he is, he was going stir-crazy, so since I had a regular church music job a few miles from his home, I spent each Sunday with Tim, hanging out, reading the paper, watching strange cable shows, solving the world’s problems. Since then we’re not as close—he took early retirement, and spends most of his time concerned with his grandchildren. “As it should be,” as Mary Poppins would say. We still talk from time to time, especially about gardening concerns.

Joe was an acquaintance, another affable colleague--until the day I had a long dispute with the woman then the department chair, one of these people who thinks that college means every student should be happy no matter what. “Well, here goes my career,” I only half jested, having finished the response I’d spent two weeks composing. “May I see it?” Joe asked. He read carefully, then looked up, and said quietly but firmly, “Do not send this letter. This is a bridge-burning document, and I’d hate to see that happen to you.” He spent the next three hours on a Friday afternoon helping me turn it into a still pointed but more balanced document. I deeply appreciated his help. He respected my sharing something so personal. We became friends.

Joe is also a musician, a self-trained banjo player active in the local music scene. He’s also no stranger to management—he started his own non-profit organization to bring world-quality folk music performers to the area. We’re fellow techies (along with Tim), and the first people to get asked such questions by our colleagues. Good thing we work together, though, or we’d never see each other. Joe was on the tennis team in school, and we talked about playing after classes, but we were just too busy. Ditto getting together just to visit. Then he met Kristen (I went to their wedding), and his time is mainly tied up there. And, of course, I’m certainly buried in my own work.



Two Write Hands said...

When it comes to long blog posts, I rarely hold out (it's a time issue). I keep reading yours start to finish, for what that's worth.

Writer said...

Thank you!

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