Middle-Aged Laments: Changing, Disappearing, Friendships

I feel old friendships changing, some diminishing in affection and interest, some fading in that crucial dimension of the interest we show in each others’ lives, and thus, threatening to vanish into insignificance. Some because of lack of attention, of the tender loving care that is needed to nurture relationships; some we have tried and tried and strained to keep alive, only to find them sputtering out, impervious to our ostensibly tender affections; some because, somehow, in some mysterious way, my friends and I have come to divine that we are changing, growing apart, irrevocably–and have withdrawn from each other, to set out on other paths, cutting our costs as we do so. We have been exposed to the–possibly clichéd–wisdom that friendships, like other relationships, take us from one station in life to another, and we sense the destination station is at hand. And then there are physical barriers of time and space; sometimes thousands of miles and multiple time-zones, sometimes even with the same city or country or state; I have lived in three countries, my reach extends, bringing me the joy of contact with the far flung, but also the melancholy of separation. I am growing older; I am a parent; at home, a human demands nurturing and rearing; an involvement that makes unprecedented demands on my commitments in time and energy. I willingly acquiesce. This sucks up the oxygen from other quarters; I do not seem to mind. There are new relationships now, ones demanding their own special species of nurturance.

This is a familiar, middle-aged lament. I’ve heard variants of it before; now, it’s my turn to join the chorus. This is not a wholly unfamiliar place to be; I’ve experienced variants of it before, at my life’s previous ‘stages.’ If there is a novelty to the precinct I have now entered, it is because my current melancholia–and I suspect that of others who make observations similar to mine–is infected with intimations of mortality. There might be no time for ‘reconciliation,’ for ‘rebuilding’; perhaps the changes we have observed in our relationships are irrevocable. It was a pleasant fantasy of years gone by that mistakes and catastrophes could always be put right somehow, that there was time and energy aplenty at hand. That illusion is no longer sustainable; our bodies have sent many intimations informing us of their lack of fidelity to our avowed goals; time has speeded up alarmingly; we now know that many of the farewells we will bid others will be final ones. (I suspect some of the notes I strike here might be a little overwrought; I am, after all, not confined to a retirement home or a hospice. Still.)

If there is a consolation in this state of affairs, it is the joy of new friendships; they do not replace the older ones, but fill my life in other ways. They address my changing person; they inform me of what I am becoming. And what I’m leaving behind.

Children Meeting Children: Observations from the Field

Last night, I attended a birthday party for a one-year old, extremely cute, daughter of friends of mine. Watching her vigorous, always entertaining, even if occasionally tearful, interactions with her two-year old cousin prompted some thoughts on how children exist in an interestingly idiosyncratic universe, one observable by, and sometimes even participated in, by adults,  but one that remains resolutely distinct and sometimes distant. It has its own physics and its own moral codes, its own peculiar understanding of property rights.  It is unclear how much of this behavior is learned, how much instinct. But its broad parameters are roughly similar across a wide variety of cultures, times and places and provide ample fodder for speculation, entertainment and theorizing.

For one thing, children are acutely conscious of each other in a way that they are not of adults: their attention seems almost exclusively concentrated on their counterpart(s) from the World Of Children.  This almost laser-like focus is attained quite soon after entering a domain populated by both; the visitor quickly notes the presence of another child, and from that point on is locked on to its ‘target.’ This locking-on results in a series of encounters that are regulated by a set of peculiar dynamical laws pertaining to children’s bodies: arms, legs, hands, faces, chests make contact with each other in a manner that sometimes evokes cooing admiration from observers and sometimes alarm. For all their delicacy, children can sometimes display the roughness of hardened wrestlers. At these moments, watching adults are reminded of how the vocal chords are capable of sudden amplifications of sound, rising sharply from gentle murmuring to anguished shrieks and wails. Then too, the arena of interaction might require intervention: a pulling-apart, a temporary separation, a cease-fire and truce of sorts. But normal service, with its complex entanglements and encounters, soon resumes.

And then there is the business of property: ownership of physical goods is quickly asserted and a set of non-sharing principles explicitly articulated. These are subject to negotiation, but almost always require external participation–by adults–in order to evolve to more co-operative and generous forms. Otherwise, children deploy an impressive armory of body parts and sounds to maintain and defend their possessions. Here again, vocal chords may be employed in impressive fashion and rapid, reflexive, almost instinctive  motions are on display as movements to seize property are foiled with vigor and panache.  Sometimes the authorities may be complained to, but in general, children display an impressive autonomy in their assertions of property.

There are, at times, temporary withdrawals from the field. Prompted by unsatisfactory encounters with the Other, children may retreat to the sanctuaries of their parents for revaluation of their prospects, for a sizing up of losses and gains. But these respites are very often found to be unsatisfactory, and soon, they emerge again, to enter yet another round of making contact. The adults on the sidelines, meanwhile, resume their observer positions, ready to intervene, cajole, comfort, and occasionally, vainly, to modulate the Brownian motion on display.