by James Wallace Harris, 8/14/21
Lately, I’ve been meditating on the concept of friendship. We all live alone in our heads, spending our entire lives struggling to make contact with others who live alone in their heads. It’s a shame we don’t have telepathy, because we all so badly want to express ourselves. What kind of friendship activities are there that let’s people communicate effectively?
As marvelous as language is, it still fails us most of the time. I’ve been looking back at how well I communicated with different friends at different stages in my life. What worked, and what didn’t, and why.
My first friends should have been my parents, but I was too immature, my father wasn’t around much, and my mother had a philosophy of kids should be seen and not heard. There was definitely a generation gap that didn’t communicate. I did much better with my sister Becky. That’s because we played together.
When we were still rugrats, during the years before school, Becky and I could be thrown in with any kids and we played happily together. But often this was parallel play, or group activities where we didn’t think about what the other kids were thinking. We focused on hitting or catching the ball, or throwing the dice to get the number we needed in Monopoly.
Because my family moved around so much, Becky and I had to make a new set of friends every year or two. Up to junior high, friends were always the kids who lived on our street, or the ones we played with at recess. The activity determined the friendship. Communication was minimal.
Starting with 7th grade, I got good at finding a best friend fast wherever we lived. The key was to seek someone who liked the same games, toys, books, TV shows, movies, and bands I liked and not be shy. This shared interest technique is really the lowest common denominator of friendships.
The dynamics of friendship changed when I started dating. Then it became more about how well I paid attention to her and her interests. Years of dating, over forty years of marriage, and decades of friendships with women has taught me a whole different kind of communication. Not to sound cliché, but this was often about feelings and emotions, a language I was never good at. However, I learned to listen. But relationships were about getting what we wanted by helping someone else get what they wanted, and isn’t that a higher form of communication?
Work brought about another kind of communication. Fitting in and working together towards a common goal is a whole other kind of interaction and relationship. You didn’t have to know or like a person to work well with them, but you did have to know how to cooperate, take orders, or sometimes give them. There is a dynamics to that type of communication that’s not found in personal friendships, or romantic relationships.
Now that I’m retired I think about new types of friendships. When I worked I felt like I had dozens of friends, but nearly all of them disappeared when I quit. Susan and I spend a lot of time at home, especially since the pandemic. I mostly keep up with friends via the telephone. And most of my friends are people I’ve known for more than twenty years. This is back to the level of shared interests.
I have made one new kind of friend in recent years, and that’s internet friends. For example, I work with a guy from South Africa and a guy from Great Britain to run a short story reading group on Facebook. We are building a long distant friendship based on our love of old magazines and anthologies. It keeps us busy, and our group has grown to over five hundred members.
This has got me to wondering. What activities in the last third of life would make for interesting friendships? Of the retired people I know, many of them talk about maintaining old friends because they aren’t making new friends anymore. But don’t we have to make new friends? That’s one reason why I thought moving to The Villages in Florida would be fun. There are thousands of organized activities for retired people.
My friend Linda and I have accidently hit upon a new activity. We call it a two-person book club. We pick a book, then divide it into sections that we can read in a week. Then once a week discuss the section on the phone for an hour or two. This makes me feel much closer to Linda because we’re working on a specific wavelength. We don’t read ahead because we focus only on the ideas in the defined section. This forces us to think about the same things at roughly the same time.
When Mike, Piet, and I were working on a new version of a database about science fiction, I thought having that project put us on a shared wavelength for several weeks. That made for an interesting kind of friendship. I miss having that kind of project now.
This has gotten me to think about other projects or activities that bring me together with the people. For the four years while Trump was president, it created a bond of shared hatred with some friends. That was different. From the 1990s until 2020, I had a several friends I went to the movies with at least once or twice a week. Also before Covid-19 Susan and I were developing a group of friends with game night. Those two bonding activities haven’t been reestablished yet. Susan and I have developed a new connection when we got the cats. Because we don’t have kids, we’re missing out on a lot of social dynamics that some of our friends have.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if there are activities that bring about closer forms of friendship than just shared interests. Ones that promote higher levels of communication. I’m reading The Code Breakers by Walter Isaacson about the scientists competing to make CRISPR into biotech companies. These scientists don’t all like each other, but their work and competition has forced them to communicate at an exceptionally complex levels.
This leads me to see two kinds of friendships. Consumers and creators. Most of the time we communicate with our friends about the things we consume. We’re looking for common interests and loves. But if you’re in a partnership or on a team that’s building something, you don’t have to like the other people, you can even hate them, but you cooperate and communicate at a much higher level of complexity to achieve a common goal. I keep thinking about Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs creating Apple Computers, and John, Paul, George, and Ringo creating The Beatles. I’d say those were two examples that required communication just short of telepathy. I also say that Walter Isaacson achieved an extremely high level of communicating when interviewing people to write The Code Breakers.
I doubt I’ll start a business in my seventies, but I wonder if there’s a project I’d like to start with other people. That could be volunteer work, but I’m thinking along the lines of building something. Maybe something with computers.