Tag Archives: friends

Snapshots of a Friendship

I met him six years ago in Boston. He was my officemate. We had to feel each other out a little at first, the environment being what it was. But we became fast friends: hitting happy hours, watching sports, bitching about everyone else there. I met his on-again, off-again girlfriend (she sucked), some of his friends in the area (they didn’t), even his parents at his graduation ceremony. It was a good year.

He left for a year stint in Japan before I knew I would end up there after he left. He struggled, the same way I would my first year. For him, it was mostly the long-distance thing with his girlfriend (the one who sucked). We Skyped once or twice, exchanged occasional emails. A mutual friend and I visited him out there together. We drank sake, ate conveyer belt sushi, celebrated my 30th. It was a good week.

The next time I saw him was either DC or Japan; I’ve forgotten the timeline. DC was when I stayed with him and met his new girlfriend (she didn’t suck). We chatted, drank, played with their dog. It was a good couple of days. Japan was longer. This time around, I lived out there, and he had come out to do some fieldwork. We hung out, drank too much, took a trip up to Sendai. It was a good few weeks.

We met up in Atlanta last year. His girlfriend was there; the dog didn’t make the trip. We were there ostensibly for an academic conference, but managed to sneak in a basketball game. We hung out the next night too, catching up and drinking a fair amount – while bitching about acquaintances we had been talking to just hours earlier. It was a good day and a half.

I saw the two of them again this past weekend in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was their wedding.

A year and change, a handful of Skypes and emails. It doesn’t seem like much, not in the grand scheme of things. Snapshots. But it seems representative of most my relationships these days. A past period of close proximity, sporadic reunions, but otherwise, infrequent, almost nonexistent communication – and a fundamental lack of involvement in and intimate knowledge of each other’s daily lives.*

*There is one exception, but she is truly the exception that proves the rule. I write about the rule here.

It makes me wonder about the nature of friendships, certainly the nature of my friendships. There appears a thin line between space denoting comfort and ease with the relationship and space reflecting the harsher reality that the relationship is simply no longer what it was. Proximity – or lack thereof – might appear an easy excuse, but it seems hardly determining, potentially (easily?) overcome by effort.

Perhaps though this is the natural evolution of a relationship, as friends move out in different directions, stages of life, geographic locations. It is quite difficult sometimes to disentangle the relationship from the shared life experience that created its foundation, harder still to predict whether the former can survive in the absence of the latter, especially as people themselves change.

I think about the people I consider among my closest friends and I can recognize that it has been ages since I have had a real conversation with the majority of them. We exchange sporadic texts and emails, either for the most significant of life occasions (an impending child) or the opposite extreme (fantasy sports or political commentary), with little in between, regarding for instance aspects of our daily lives.

And yet I feel even with only snapshots of their current realities I still know their essence, due either to the length of the relationship, or the previous close proximity shared, or both of these. I wonder though if that too is a mirage, akin to what I wrote of the image conceived and acted upon by family members who profess to know the “real” you. I wonder then to what degree I am lying to myself.

I hope the distance is not because I take friends for granted. I hope there exists an implicit mutual understanding that relationships persevere even as they evolve and in some cases devolve. But maybe this is all semantics. The real question has to do with the kind of friend I am and want to be and am capable of being with each individual. It is about fit and connection and love, again even as I change and they do also.

Relationships are fraught. I know this is universal, having attended the aforementioned wedding in which the best man mentioned he was surprised to have been selected as such, in which mutual friends I expected were not even offered invitations, in which there appeared nobody from the locale in which the bride and groom were currently situated. Connection is not easy – to make, to maintain.

Then again, maybe this is precisely why I went out there. Even if I am no longer involved on a daily basis, even if I do feel somewhat detached from their present realities, I still could be there for a moment of genuine significance, for an updated snapshot. And as a result, the idea that I still know his essence a little bit, that we still had some of that first year in Boston in us, doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Every relationship is different. Thus, every relationship has to be examined on its own merits. Not all of each is in my control, of course, and perhaps too often, I cede responsibility – whether purposely or not. I’d like to think that I give enough, hopefully more than that, to those who ask, those who want. But I am picky too. Maybe that’s why the snapshots mean something to me still.

(Photo by Mayaoren, CC BY-SA 3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Blood and Water

What is it about family that can be so frustrating, difficult, even infuriating? My mom sometimes reminiscences about how patient, how obedient, how “good” I used to be, wonders what changed. I tell her it’s because I’m not a child. I have thoughts and beliefs of my own, draw upon experiences and knowledge that I have acquired. And because I no longer take what she says at face value, because she no longer thinks on my behalf, I appear more disobedient in her eyes.

I wonder though if there’s more to it than that, than my growing up.

I have this image of myself as a person, an image of who I am and who I aspire to be. There’s a bit of embellishment, naturally, a bit of it skewed favorably on my behalf. I imagine that is the case with all of us. We have this slightly idealized image of ourselves, of how we present ourselves to the world. And with family, I think, their vision of us – and for us – is every bit as fleshed out, as real and fully-formed and stubborn, as our own.

My third or fourth grade class hosted an open house. On my featured art,work my family noticed that I signed my birthyear instead of the current year, and they teased me about it. I felt embarrassed and I got mad. In turn, they got mad at me for taking it too seriously. It felt demoralizing to lose control of the situation, to be painted as this goof, then a brat.

These two images of the self – the one we envision, the one envisioned by family – are not altogether independent nor irreconcilable, of course. But I think the external image held by family appears to them as more true because of its basis in history, whereas our internal self appears to them only as a tiny slice of what they believe to be true. In other words, the image we cultivate and present to the world is inevitably, constantly, and fundamentally challenged by family.

But how well do they know us, really? I’ve seen my family about three or four times in the last four years. They don’t really understand what I do, workwise. And they’ve met only some of my friends, fleetingly. Our daily realities are just so far apart, and not only geographically.

The dynamic works both ways. There’s a reason why we prep ourselves before spending extended time with family. We anticipate what is to come, because we too have fostered an image of who and what they are. We too fit their present self into a far greater narrative of what we “know” them to be – interacting on multiple levels, across myriad moments. And because of this, we not only confirm our vision and our narrative but project those outwards.

In my junior year of high school, I retook the Scholastic Aptitude Test but received a disappointing score. I got home and told my mom, and her face said enough. Before she verbally reacted, I left the house and drove around for hours, going nowhere, avoiding confrontation. It was the environment she had fostered. …Asian parents.

There’s more to it though. The relationship between the images, which interact and are inextricably linked. The fact that we can have so little in common yet still retain an elemental, intangible bond in which family appears as a reflection of our own self. The subsequent effect of seeing in someone the traits that are so familiar to what we see in ourselves – good and bad, only far more exaggerated, or at least far more obvious.

One Christmas, short on ideas, I found a little holiday gift pack for my sister: a stuffed penguin, hot chocolate mix, and marshmallows. Completely independent of me, she – needing a gift for an exchange at her friend’s party that year – somehow ended up buying that very same pack at the very same department store.

Family thus forces us to reflect. Even if we acknowledge the biased lens through which we see ourselves, we look and make ourselves out to be an improved specimen, a 2.0. Because to see any alternative suggests something far worse – a hypocrisy in which we can recognize the flaws in those who reflect ourselves the most (even if in an elemental, intangible manner) and yet choose not to address them, in effect turning our backs to self-betterment.

My mom’s martyrdom, her hard-headedness, her pettiness and long-memory, her judgmental nature and fear of so many things and self-doubt and need for validation. The way she sees love, the way she has to be all-in. All of that is me.

It feels odd, the whole of it. Perhaps the lack of choice exacerbates the frustrating, difficult, infuriating moments, with an undercurrent of feeling that we cannot be comforted, let alone rescued, by the simple recognition of agency, of effort, of desire – as we might with such moments in the context of friendships or partnerships. In contrast, family, in all but the most extreme situation, exists unquestioned and unchallenged.

A good friend made fun of me harshly at a movie theater because I thought that Finding Forrester was non-fiction. He was tactless; I was embarrassed.* I went off to the bathroom to get some space. But then I got over it. I had to, enough at least to drive him home. That’s the best analogy I have for family. Family is stuck in a car together.

*It is kind of funny to reflect on these things that seemed to matter so much in the moment.

So we question and challenge by other means. We make less effort to suppress our frustration. We act more pettily, brushing aside the image of the self they present and imposing the grand narrative over them – their every action thus a confirmation of what we already know to be true. We push a little harder understanding that there is an element of non-choice to the matter. We take family for granted.

Then again, I don’t have a relationship with my dad, so I guess family can be a choice too.

Family is difficult. It seems to get moreso. But maybe that’s just me.

Of Crushes and Loves

(1983-2015)

She was pretty and smart. And she had a unique name that I still remember. We were in first grade. But my friend declared his own crush for her first. So I kept quiet. It didn’t matter much in the end. I moved and changed schools after less than a year. Funny enough, I did run into her a couple of years later at the public library. She stood there when I came out of the bathroom, openly staring at me. I recognized her back; I must have. Neither of us said anything though. It’s hard to explain why third graders act the way they do. I suppose the idea of fate didn’t register to either of us then. Anyway, after a beat, I offered her the bathroom key. She didn’t take it, didn’t react. So I went on my way. That’s the last time I saw her.

She was a pretty freckled girl. She and her best friend were the queen bees of my new elementary school. I remember vividly how big a deal it was when the two of them got in a fight in the girls’ bathroom once. The details of the fight – physical or emotional – were a complete unknown. I developed a crush, of course. But she was always hanging around the school jock. I had no idea if they ever actually dated (this was third grade, after all), but they seemed a natural match. Her friend actually liked me for about a week. That was her thing; she had a new object of her affection every week. Nothing came of it. I moved after fifth grade, and that was that.

She was the smartest girl in sixth grade. I might have been the smartest boy. (It was a small school.) We were friends. Acquaintances, really. I remember writing in her yearbook, “don’t let your brain fry in the summer heat.” It seemed clever at the time. She playfully threatened to chase me around the playground when we came back in the fall. A budding love, perhaps. But my family ended up moving again without notice. We actually ended up at the same college though. I saw her once on campus. She was older, obviously, but still pretty, still unmistakably her. But we had never kept in touch. So I let her be. I only saw her just the once.

She was the prettiest girl in middle school. I wasn’t particularly cute or cool or anything then (or now, for that matter). We sat together in a class, at a four person table, for an entire semester. But we didn’t talk much. Still, the topic of crushes did come up once. I became the subject of scrutiny. I didn’t say anything. She started probing, listing other girls in the class, being obtuse, the way attractive people can be about their own attractiveness. I didn’t admit anything to her though, or to anyone else. Years later, I learned that she would actually become the first love of one of my best friends in high school, totally unbeknownst to me. Years later, I learned she broke his heart.

She was the smartest girl in ninth grade. Seemed it, anyway. Freckled, curly-haired. Different. The creepy social studies teacher would make comments about her and the smartest boy in the class (definitely not me) like they were peas in a pod. It only made me like her more. Regardless, I made my way to my next crush. Four years later, I did ask her to sign my high school yearbook. My big move. She wrote something so generic another friend mocked her in the message he wrote to me. The last time I saw her was after senior night. I was driving home, she was outside waiting for her ride, and our eyes met for a moment. It seemed like closure, if for something that never was.

She was the kindest girl in high school. Seemed it, anyway. I didn’t much interact with her, certainly not outside class, but I projected all of my hopes and dreams on her. I don’t know how I got to that point. Before we graduated, I wrote her an absurd email about my not wanting to have any regrets, about wondering if there might be something there. I asked for a reply in the form of her presence, for a meeting at the Observatory. She didn’t show, of course. I still cringe about putting all of that on her, 15 years later. There’s a part of me that wants to apologize, even now. But it’s a selfish desire.

She had the bubbliest personality. Smart and pretty too. I was her teaching assistant. She never gave any signs, any hints. But I plowed ahead and asked her out via email after the quarter. She never responded. Horrifyingly, she ended up in another of my classes a year after that. I felt awful. I wrote to apologize for putting her in that position. She wrote back. Somehow, we became friends. She shared a lot about her life with me, her issues. To this day, we’re in touch – emails, texts, the occasional movie if I’m in town. My crush is still there, I suppose. But it’s just so irrelevant now. I’m more concerned about her, protective of her. Maybe this is how I’ve tried to repent.

She was older, seemingly far wiser and more experienced. A friend in graduate school. We weren’t too close, partly because she was married. Then she wasn’t married anymore. By then, we lived on opposite sides of the country, so lengthy phone conversations sufficed. She came to visit eventually, her birthday weekend. My first love. I had ridiculous fantasies about us, about our future. It was different for her. A fling. It took me too long to figure that out. I visited two years later, in town for a conference. She was cold, distant. She made sure we didn’t spend time alone. We had contentious conversations about other things. Everything fell apart that weekend.

She had a great sense of humor and a nice chatty way about her, if fueled by a fair bit of narcissism. She rebuffed me on our second date, but we continued to hang out, as friends. It was unhealthy. She came to lean on me during a tough time. I accepted co-dependence in place of love. She would speak about a friend in another country who was supposedly perfect for me – ostensibly because it wasn’t her. It was patronizing. After she moved away, I realized how shitty the relationship made me feel about myself. It was nothing she said or did in particular, just the whole of it. Our conversations became less frequent. The last was, and will be, in September.

She was the sweetest girl, intellectually curious and gorgeous too. We had a cute date, great conversation, some silliness that made for a perfect story. A second date followed, then a third, and more. In that brief time, she seemed like a true love, not just a fling, and not unrequited. But she had family things going on, and fell ill from the stress. She kept me at arm’s length. Our correspondence slowed when I went for a visit home, about six weeks in. When I returned, she had decided she needed to take care of herself. I wanted to share that burden, but she was resolute. She was to leave the country in eight months. She never reached out again. In the end, I suppose it was unrequited love too, if in its own way.

(Photo by Corwinhee, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Facebook, Revisited

Three years later, I am back on Facebook.

It’s strange, bittersweet even, to see how much people I once considered friends have changed. Children appear that I knew only as infants. Children exist when they previously didn’t altogether. There are altered physical appearances, jobs, locations: some entirely out of left field. My return exacerbates the feeling I had during my time in Japan of a life in pause. More than that, it underlines the gulf in place – emerging before Japan – between my life and theirs, a mutual creation. Some former acquaintances leave my friend request hanging even as I see they remain active users; perhaps they were offended by my drifting, or are simply indifferent to my renewed presence. I’m a bit saddened by that, though it only reinforces a truth I already know.

For those who do accept my friend request, or send one over my way, I have made no additional effort to catch up. I don’t know that I will ever develop that urge. To be fair, it’s a two-way street. In the meantime, I am already being confronted again with annoying traits of particular individuals: narcissism, self-righteousness, and so forth. There is so much attention-whoring and self-congratulatory drivel and, in some instances, melodramatic self-pity.* The superficial and transient nature of it all smacks me in the face too. Maybe I’m just annoyed that I’m not fully engaged, or that I’m not winning the popularity contest. But even when I do want to share content, I’m all too cognizant about the justified criticism of echo chambers.

*Even more than can be found on this blog! 😉

Of course it has not all been unequivocally bad. On a practical level, I have been able to reach out for a quick question or chat or photoshare here and there, at times with people I probably wouldn’t have been sought out otherwise. More fundamentally, I get a glimpse – even if a superficial one – into the lives of people I was close to and still care about, at some level. It is perhaps a healthy deterrent to my natural inclination to sever completely, irrevocably. Meanwhile, for those who I remain close to and deeply care about, I get to witness another side of their personality, peer into their friendships and their past and present lives. Naturally, if selfishly, I get to show a bit more of myself to them in the process too.

Thus far though, I have largely been a passive consumer of content, forgoing the role of active producer I used to play. I reserve my activity to the sporadic photograph, status update, and ‘likes.’ There is a chance that a small handful of relatives, close friends, even lost acquaintances would appreciate it if I were to expand my presence on social media. But I don’t know that I can be that person now.* I don’t know that I have ever been that person, online or off. Indeed, one of my oldest friends told me once that I was selfish because I didn’t share more of myself with people in general. I remain convinced he overestimates both my appeal to others and – more relevant – my tolerance of others.

*For instance, sharing my Instagram seems supremely self-centered. Meanwhile, this blog is a bit too near and dear to share actively and indiscriminately with people I know, as counter-intuitive as that may seem.

Yet, there is no doubt I have different feelings about Facebook now than I did in the waning months of my previous stint. During that time, I felt the need to cleanse myself of the casual acquaintances that seemed confined to a shared – and aggressively inclusive – graduate school experience. The website seemed a reminder of all that I could not shed, of the facade that all of us were supposed to maintain. But I don’t necessarily see it as that anymore. Perhaps the time away has allowed me to feel like I have indeed moved on, or at least, like I have proven to myself of that. I can look back at those people and those relationships with a degree of objectivity, and not feel resentful that I am tethered to them without a real choice.

I am deluding myself a bit. There is admittedly a comfort to the social network, especially during a time when I feel especially vulnerable. It is nice to know that there are ‘friends’ out there – no matter how dated and loose the term may be – who will like a photo, laugh at a status update, click on a link. Who will, stripping things bare, acknowledge my existence. I don’t know what that says about me. I justify it by saying I want to reduce the burden on my best friend, on other close friends, so that I don’t become too needy, so that I don’t warp the relationships that actually matter to me. There is some truth to that. But maybe it has to do with narcissism too, with my desire to secure a little more validation. I do not deny that possibility.

For now though, in part because of the ambivalence, I feel a bit in limbo, as though I have returned to Facebook without quite committing to it all the way. Maybe this is my new status quo, the means through which I reconcile my need for the social network with my distaste for many of its aspects. Or maybe, it’s a matter of time before I decide to move on once again.

(Photo by momo – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kudumomo/5476683654, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37919316)

The Thin Blue Line

Like just everyone else, I had a Facebook account for god knows how long. For most of that time, I was supremely active on it. I would post funny videos, offer cute quips, share personal pictures. As I wasn’t one of those people who added literally everyone I had ever talked to in my life, my friend count was rather low, hovering in the high-100s They included acquaintances, high school friends, and relatives – the full spectrum of relationships. I would exchange messages, share links on people’s walls, and ‘like’ and comment on posts other people made. I even updated my personal details regularly – including favorite movies and television shows and such – and joined a few groups. Facebook became my go-to page: my wallpaper, my solitaire, my news.

I don’t doubt that I spent more time daily on Facebook than even most people my age. In part because of my personality and OCD tendencies, I was more invested in it than most healthy people. I immediately rechecked content I had posted to see if I had gotten any response, sometimes replacing it to get the phrasing just right, other times deleting it once I was more removed from the situation. I scrolled through my archives sporadically – going back years, removing items that had become broken links, no longer seemed funny, or came off as too self-absorbed or whatnot. I studiously picked photographs from my computer for a “best of” album to share. I remained ever vigilant, and in control of my content.

My discontent with Facebook emerged slowly. As an active provider of content (as a friend once classified me), the general lack of response for the vast majority of my posts became a little frustrating, if not altogether annoying. I was sharing quality material, goddammit, and not getting proper recognition. Did anyone care? The transience of Facebook content offered another challenge. Items that I posted would have the shelf life of perhaps an hour, then be relegated to the abyss of the internet forever. The site’s encompassing feature – a quality I once saw as a positive – now presented a barrier to establishing any sort of noteworthy online imprint. Original content (notes, status updates, etc.) were lost among reposted content (videos, links, so forth).

The growing lack of control over Facebook content became another thorn in my side. It became a chore to sort material on my timeline – both in terms of seeing what other people offered and – especially – in filtering what I wanted broadcast to them. I didn’t want a line every time I made tweaks to my profile details, or every time someone tagged me in a picture. I didn’t want other people to tag me in a picture at all. I didn’t want other people to know the new friends I added the moment I added them. I didn’t want to subscribe to a page for my favorite movie; I just wanted to indicate it was one. I wanted to compartmentalize each aspect of my Facebook profile. But the site kept pushing for interconnectivity. Facebook wanted everything under one umbrella.

With a lot of effort, it was possible to maintain some semblance of control over my profile – to contort privacy controls in a manner that fit my image of Facebook as social networking, versus Facebook’s image. But it seemed like these changes were constant, and every subsequent update would make it that much more difficult to keep up the facade. I blocked notifications from individual games and applications and people. I hid updates from page after page. I minimized the involuntary updates that stemmed from my own activity… though was never quite sure how effective my methods were. It was unsettling. As I became less and less visible, almost inadvertently, as part of the process, I also became less and less active.

But ultimately, the turning point in my relationship with the social media giant had more to do with offline developments than online developments. It was not until I moved across the country that I came to recognize the obvious negatives of Facebook. After all, my years on the site basically represented just one period of my life: my seven+ years in graduate school.* Moving – in real life – entailed all the social consequences thereof. I stayed in touch with close friends, sure, but came to develop a new, separate network in the Northeast: making a small number of friends, and a slightly larger number of acquaintances. It’s the transition I made from high school to college, from college to graduate school.

*I had few college friends, and my presence on the site was essentially exclusive to my graduate school network.

On Facebook, though, things remained stagnant. The vast majority of my Facebook friends were now former acquaintances. They were people who were nice enough, and friendly enough. We had even shared common experiences together, some more than others. But there were reasons why they weren’t the friends I stayed in touch with, why they weren’t the people I considered friends at all. And yet, as the months went by, I was inundated with the details of THEIR lives. I saw more pictures of them than I did of my own family members. I read about their day-to-day occurrences, knowing more about them than I had at any other point in our relationship. I was staying in touch, indirectly, with people I chose not to stay in touch with in real life.

That’s the point of Facebook, I suppose. But because my social network online had always overlapped with my social network offline, I never really quite saw it from that perspective. Certainly, I had an occasional update from a high school friend I never spoke to, or from a former graduate school colleague who had moved on with their life. But these were stragglers, exceptions. Most of my Facebook ‘friends’ were still people involved in my day-to-day life, to varying degrees. And it wasn’t until I moved myself and experienced the jolt in my real-life social network that I saw that differentiation. And as a person who is particularly selective about friends, the anachronistic nature of the Facebook account became more apparent.

As of March of this year, my affiliation with my graduate school formally ended. That social network was now officially a thing of the past. I returned to the area in March and again in August, as my family still lives in the vicinity. And each time, I informed my friends that I would be in town. I was able to meet up and spend time with almost all of them. We caught up, we hung out, we had a good time, as we are wont to do. During my August trip, I stopped by the school, and ended up running into a few familiar faces. These former acquaintances and I exchanged cordial greetings, provided broad sketches of our lives. And then we went about our respective ways.

Many of those former graduate school acquaintances are now ‘connections’ on LinkedIn. That’s the point of that website. Meanwhile, I still keep in touch with my friends. We’re still – simply put – friends. We exchange notes and videos and links and texts and phone calls. They’re my friends, obviously. In my new location. I’m working on developing new relationships, making new friends and meeting new acquaintances. But as of this last week, I permanently deleted my Facebook account. Why? Because I moved on. And after almost a full decade, I finally realized that runs counter to the entire purpose of Facebook.