Monday, September 10, 2012

Getting an F in Friendship

Am I from another planet or something?

I just wrapped up reading MWF Seeks BFF, by Rachel Bertsche, a book about one young woman’s quest for new friends after moving to Chicago, and have concluded that either she is from another planet or I am.

It’s not that the author LACKS friends, but since leaving her two BFFs behind in New York, she wants not necessarily to replace them, but to find geographically-close friends; “girls” she can call spontaneously, say, for brunch, or on a Friday night, or for shopping, or a spa day.

I don’t do any of those things.

I’ve ranted before about “books where the author takes on a project for one year and then writes a book about how changed / inspired / wonderful / awesome / super-duper / incredible / strange his/her life has become as a result” (see this post), and indeed, this is one of those books.  The author intersperses personal anecdote with statistical studies of everything and anything – with occasionally-hiccupy segues.  I can’t hold it against her that that is the kind of book that’s doing well right now.

One of her semi-scientific tidbits is the shocking idea that, according to journalist Valerie Frankel, every woman must have “3 to 5 lifers [a friend who is as “deep and forever as family”], 5 to 12 close friends, 10 to 50 casuals, and 10 to 100 acquaintances.”  People who have friends live longer, live happier, their marriages are better, their lives are more spontaneous and all-round fun-derful.  (my word, not hers)

Now, this is tough to read given that I have no friends.  She does mention briefly those sad-sacks among us (nearly 50% of people in the US, apparently) whose only close friends and confidantes are members of their immediate family.  I guess I fall into that category, but the truth is, my sisters – while wonderful – aren’t exactly close friends and confidantes.  They have too many friends of their own, lives of their own, work of their own and live in a world of which I don’t really feel a part.

Bertsche quotes author Ann Patchett: “[Here’s] my idea of real intimacy… It’s not the person who calls to say, ‘I’m having an affair,’ it’s the friend who calls to say, ‘why do I have four jars of pickles in my refrigerator?’”  The minutiae, the instantaneous comfort, the taking-each-other-for-granted… nope, never had that.  I don’t call to say anything; there is nobody I could call tomorrow – probably even immediate family – who wouldn’t be surprised to hear from me and think it was bizarre that I was phoning at all.  If I mentioned pickles, they’d have me committed.

image I guess I was bullied as a kid, though I never thought of it that way.  I just figured I deserved to be dumped in garbage cans at recess (I was the smallest kid in school, it seemed a natural fit) .  I deserved to be told I’d killed Jesus (I was the only Jewish kid; again, totally natural).  In junior high (see left), the only un-“developed” kid in a changeroom full of busty Mediterranean girls, again – totally natural that I’d be the one they’d pester about whether I knew what a period was.  (I DID, but sadly, then as now, I was obsessed with punctuation, while they were more interested in the other kind, which I’d never heard of.)  I spent that year hanging out with my English teacher, who not only took pity on me but had me do some of her marking for her.  See the fat kid at the bottom right?  Vivien Chu.  She was the only one who’d have me over that year, including my all-through-elementary-school BFF.

You’d think transferring to a mostly-Jewish gifty school in Grade 8 would help.  Too bad I had to wear the world’s gawkiest over-the-head headgear that ever existed (this picture was not me, but it could have been if I’d had better hair).  Sure, lots of kids had the kinda-cool around-the-neck headgear, but my cut-rate student orthodontist decided the over-top kind would do the trick way better.  Oh, did I mention my favourite colour that year was mucky-mud BROWN?

Turned out mostly-Jewish meant mostly-JAP and boy, did they torment me.  I didn’t think Jews could hate me more than the goyim did; it went against everything my father had ever told me (he was raised by secular Communists who believed in the Jewish people but not our God).  My shoes were wrong (REAL Sperry topsiders, not fake pleatherish ones, and they had to be tied just right); my tracksuit was wrong (ROOTS, not Sears).  My best friend’s jeans were from Sears and his mother ironed them; there were creases up the front.  I think we bonded because we were both all wrong in some of the same ways.

Things got a little better when I found some geek friends who introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons and the movie Heavy Metal and the wonders of a little thing called the MODEM.  With the help of the MODEM, you could connect to a computer and chat with other kids… at other junior high schools and even – the ultimate thrill – kids in HIGH SCHOOL.  Well, one particular high school, but that was enough for me to know that was where I was meant to be.

And it worked!  For three years, I had friends and life was amazing and cozy and good.  I had friends when I arrived and I kept them and made more and it was beautiful.  Lots of parties, lots of hugs, lots of just sitting, shmoozing in the hallway (except we didn’t call it shmoozing).  Lots of angst over relationships starting, ending, whatnot.  And at lunch, my geek-friends and I – but it was okay!  because geek was suddenly cool! – would sit in the math classroom lined up at terminals and chat with each other.  Talk about awesome… and they say kids today can’t communicate F2F.  Ha ha ha  ha… we were doing it 10 years before the Internet was even a Thing.

Then, I left school.  Couldn’t take it anymore.  I tried other schools, but I didn’t need to make friends; I still had my friends and we hung out together evenings, weekends, whatever.  Moved to California, Calgary.  Then back – and whaddya know?  Same friends, pretty much, not wild partying, not irresponsible partying.  Just fun and young adult, and then…

…CRASH.  BOOM.  Jewish.

My first husband I tried maintaining the social life around the Jewish thing for a while, though missing Fridays and Saturdays kind of cut down on a lot of the fun.  Kosher food, too.  Still – a friend from high school was best man at my first wedding and tons of friends from those days were there.  We were Conservative in those days; that was our Conservative wedding.  And life was still fun and mostly young adult and getting a little more serious while I was studying at U of T and then…

… CRASH.  BOOM.  Frum.

But it was okay.  We had a few couple-friends, baalei teshuvah like us.  Some people from our old lives still visited us, sometimes.  And we lived in a building with lots of other young couples, and I was pregnant and had a baby and there was always lots going on.  Still lots of fun until we moved to Calgary and then…

… CRASH.  BOOM.  Divorce.

And suddenly – radio silence.  Move back to Toronto, but the couple-friends didn’t seem to want me around all that much.  And the folks with babies were nice to me but they just kept right on having babies while it certainly looked like I was done.  Life was lonely for me and my two babies.  Did I mention I was working?  That kind of kept me sane… if you’re working, you have work-friends, and at least for a few hours a day, life seems manageable.  Outside of work, I didn’t have friends, but we had “people we went to.”  Folks in the frum community who took pity on us and hosted us for Shabbos and Yom Tov.  Some of those people were wonderful; very open and welcoming and genuinely helpful.  I couldn’t have managed without them – but none of them was a friend.  And then, just when I thought my social life couldn’t get any more bleak…

…CRASH.  BOOM.  Plumb crazy.

From anything my frum friends could tell, I went completely nuts.  I stopped wearing socks / stockings, started dating a non-Jew, stopped covering my hair and… well, who knew where it would end?  (well, that was pretty much where it ended)  One person actually told me, “call when you and Ted break up.”  (we’re still together, so I haven’t called)  Two couple-friends stuck with me through thick and thin, and walked us to the chuppah when we got married.  Almost everybody else was gone by then.  Nobody from high school was at that wedding.

And when Naomi was born, I stopped working… again, the coworkers were gone, and life was busy with a newborn and now it’s 8 years later and I’m reading this BFF book (remember how all this got started???) and thinking, I must be from another planet

Brunch?  Shopping??  Phone calls to gloat or commiserate?  Would these be things I was doing if, theoretically, I actually had friends?  I really, truly, honestly, hope not.  I’ve never really had “girl” friends and never entirely trusted the conversation of women, or anyone, really, on anything but issues of substance.  I can’t stand wasting words on trivia and I get the sense that when Bertsche gets together with her friends, that’s just about all they talk about. 

Am I missing out on something precious and wonderful, if not health-giving and longevity-promoting, as she suggests?

Bertsche says friendship takes consistency.  See each other reliably, over a long time, before you can truly be friends.  Classes are a good way to get that, so’s shul, social groups, book clubs (she absolutely adores book clubs).  But in Bertsche’s book, making friends takes HARD WORK.  She sets herself the goal of 52 “girl-dates” in 52 weeks.  It’s a zany, breakneck pace.  The good news is that it pays off – somewhat.  She doesn’t have a new BFF at the end of the year (sorry - spoilers!), but she does have 22 new friends she can call or do stuff with who are on the way to fitting into those “close friend” and maybe even “lifer” vacancies.

And then there’s me:  scared.  I have nobody to call for a mani-pedi.  I didn’t even think that was a real thing people did until my sister got herself hooked on them for a while, a few years ago.

Here I am.  Lived in this house for 6 years and I barely speak to the female neighbours on either side (both lovely, smart young women).  Went to the same shul for years before attaining courage to say hi to the woman sitting next to me, and that was only because she was greeting that morning and still had on her nametag.  I have trouble with faces and get confused about people who look similar, so the people I am closest with tend to be the ones who look a little different – taller, shorter, wider; distinct, somehow. (Although – the number of people who say they have trouble with faces since a spate of recent books and articles on prosopagnosia, face-blindness, makes me think that maybe we’re just too lazy – in this digital age – to remember one another’s distinguishing characteristics.  Better to just go online and look for the photo tag.) 

I miss social cues, but more importantly, can’t say anything that doesn’t kill every conversation for miles around.  When I do impose myself, it’s so jaw-droppingly awful, and awkward, talking far too much, in too much detail, or too weirdly, that the result usually shocks me into silence.  If I don’t speak, I won’t make friends, but I can get away with seeming so mundane that people can look right through me.  After years of being despised as the small skinny sickly-but-smart Jewish kid, that feels okay.  Socially, I almost always feel like some big scary bumbly stupidhead, one up from talking to the guy on the corner begging for change.  Maybe.

So I’m scared because we’re moving to the ends of the earth, away from my family, and I’m going to be all alone and that’s too much for just Ted’s shoulders.  And maybe I’m going to be lonely, lonelier than ever, lonely in a foreign language even, and all of that is a scary thing.

My mother would probably say this is all a midlife crisis, and maybe it is.  Midlife is a time for evaluation, a January of looking backwards and moving forwards, or at least, making plans to move forwards.

There are ways to Improve myself, but I’m not sure I have the time, energy or money that it takes, if Bertsche’s book is to be believed.  And if those are the things friends do (brunch?  sushi?  hot chocolate girls’ nite parties with a DVD?  lingerie shopping?), I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a friend or be befriended.  Shopping is an unpleasant reality I get out of the way as fast and infrequently as I can.  Mealtimes are for my family.  Videos (what are those?) and movies are never, these days.  Workouts?  Not since the gym closed.

Maybe I should take out my own “personals” ad, but beyond finding a snappy acronym to describe myself, I can’t quite sum up what I’m looking for.  MJF [the J is for Jewish!] seeks… somebody.  Anybody.  Not a BFF, but maybe, someday… just an “F”?  I can always pretend it stands for “friend,” while you & everybody else will take pity on me, knowing it’s just my great big “flunk” in Social Skills 101.

And now, down from my self-pity horse.  I have onwardses and upwardses and maybe a way to turn this into a goal, or at least a “thinking point” for Rosh Hashanah a week today.

How are your social skills???  Do you have lots of friends, or just a few?  How many do I need to be happy, or content?

7 comments:

  1. I have one friend that we've been friends for 20 years even though it's a long distance friendship. Most of my other friends have lost contact pretty much. I have another close friend via email who lives a state away and a few friends locally that I get together with occasionally but we're not what you would call really close confidants. So I'm either lacking in the friends dept. or having large numbers of friends is over rated. I'm going for the latter.

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  2. And here I thought we were friends!!!

    I'm totally inviting you out for a hot drink when we get back. You're driving though...

    I don't believe you are as socially awkward as you think you are. You are a go-getter. You write complaint letters. You teach bread making. Tutor converts. Seriously, way more social than me, in many ways.

    Tricks for making friends, I've found - smile a lot, ask personal questions, give your own personal experiences, smile more, don't forget to ask for their phone number, don't forget to call and ask them out again.

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  3. @Shira - nothing personal cuz you're fantastic, but I would never, ever call you out of the blue, and I think it's true that you'd be shocked if I did. Like, "does she have a brain tumour?" (ch"v) kind of shocked.

    @kathleen - it's been way too long; pm'ing you. ;-)

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  4. I consider you a friend, in fact I feel that you are trustworthy and fascinating!
    Rachel Shifra

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  5. Ditto Shira...

    And seriously, I wouldn't think it was weird if you called out of the blue to ask me how many runs you can have in a pair of stockings before you have to trash them (for the record: it depends on the location and size of said runs, as well as the length of the skirt accompanying said stockings.)

    Call me sometime. Try it, you'll like it. We can even do something fun, maybe.

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  6. Ack, stockings?!? I am so over disposable clothing, and haven't bought stockings in many a year... I figure stockings are leg coloured, so I will just wear legs. Then again, I also believed nobody notices what socks you're wearing, but since people commented on my socks last winter, that may be a false assumption. Did I mention I was raised by wolves??? I swear, I missed the day they taught us when (and how) to use a purse, and why the heck running shoes aren't suitable for all occasions.

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  7. Oh no!?! I have to use a purse and NOT wear running shoes everywhere. Uh oh! Please be my friend then and we can be weird together...

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