Monday, May 09, 2011

The cruise ship Friendship

I don’t have any lifelong friends.

That thought occurred to me this morning as I responded to all of my birthday greetings on Facebook. The friends come from all walks of life, from childhood to today. And while many of them are close friends, none of them qualify in my book as lifelong friends. (This also applies to many relatives, who I’ve often gone years without seeing. But I do appreciate them more when we reunite.)

I can think of one guy who I attended school with continuously from kindergarten through 12th grade. But while he and I were close friends in our early years, we hardly ever crossed paths after 6th grade. He’s now married and living in another state. I haven’t seen him since high school graduation (assuming I saw him that day), and we’ve never talked online. But even if we stayed in touch the whole time, he technically wouldn’t be a lifelong friend, because I attended Head Start for a year and a half before starting kindergarten. And in those days, I thought those kids would be my forever pals. But no one has ever been.

It’s not as if this is an unexpected phenomenon. As a young child, doctors misdiagnosed me as a slow learner before I tested into gifted classes. Because of this wide curricular spectrum, I jumped from school to school more than average. From 3rd through 8th grades, I didn’t attend the same school as my brother (who is two years older). Later, the combination of college, online involvement and working in the transitory media field ensured that everyone I knew would never be in the same place. And that I wouldn’t always know the same people.

I first realized this in a big way in high school. My high school housed the parish gifted program, but was also in my home zone. This meant that I’d be going to school not only with my gifted classmates from the past three years, but also friends from a more distant past. About halfway through my freshman year, it occurred to me that I’d gone through maybe one group of friends from 6th grade to 8th, but about five groups in 9th grade alone. (Considering how many of my earliest high school friends later got arrested for drugs, robbery and rape, that was probably for the best.) I eventually adopted a tight group of friends for 9th, 10th and 11th grade, but that shifted radically in 12th grade. Looking back on high school, I can say that very few good friends went the distance. The ones I stay in touch with today I met mostly later, when I had a better sense of who I was as a person.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become far pickier about what makes a true friend. It’s not that I’m being discriminatory by any means; it’s more of a subconscious thing I think we all do. When you’re a kid, your best friend could be the boy who sits next to you in the lunch line. Because your friendship pool is so small and you tend to share the same experiences, it’s faster friendship. Middle and high school are more exotic because you meet peers from other neighborhoods. That’s laughable to me now, but it was a big deal then. For me, high school was the beginning of my really solid friendships.

(My experiences in preschool and in my neighborhood did shape me permanently in one respect: I had a lot of minority friends from the age of 4 onward. My first best friend, in preschool, was a black kid named Frederick. Affluent white suburbia was something that took me a while to comprehend. And longer to like.)

These days, I don’t care where someone is from or what they look like, so much as how good their heart is. Politics is important to me — not because I think they should agree with me, but because someone with mean politics tends also to be a mean person. The friend should be fun, inclusive and someone equally at home having fun and shooting a smart breeze. They should make me want to be a better person. These are the kinds of things that make adult friendships worthwhile.

Still, the friendship flux seems to happen even faster as an adult. In graduate school, I had a very tight group of friends with whom I’d study, play games or just lie out underneath the stars discussing the nature of life — everything I wanted in friends then and now. I knew that group wouldn’t last past the summer of 2005, because that’s academic life. Still, I was surprised at how it seemed to evaporate even before my graduation. I barely talked to any of them after that, and the few that I’m friends with on Facebook now only came aboard much later. I guess that was inevitable, but for a while it made me wonder how good of a friend I actually was.

With my move back to Louisiana from Missouri, it’s happened again. This time, it was a lot harder because I spent a much longer span of time with people to whom I was even closer. And unlike every other instance, there’s virtually no chance of me seeing them together ever again. Many moved away before I did, and others eventually will. Fortunately, social networking will help establish continual contact. This is the first chance I’ll have at trying that and, with it, the first chance in a very long time of enjoying continuous friendships with people.

Not that I feel like I missed much by not having lifelong friends. I know lots of people who have been close friends since they were practically babies, and I can never picture myself having that kind of bond. I don’t think I’d even want it. As much as this blog might seem like an overshare, I don’t feel like I could open up to one person for a particularly long time (though I’m getting better at it). That might also explain why I’m unmarried at 31.

In any case, I appreciate every one of my friends, acquaintances, etc., regardless of when you’ve come into my life. The nature of friendship is by far the most important metric. Everything else is just statistics.

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