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in some mysterious way, my friends and I have come to divine that we are changing, growing apart, irrevocably–and have withdrawn from each other, to set out on other paths, cutting our costs as we do so.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.

A Pleasantly Illegal Side-Effect Of A Humanized Interaction

For almost three years now, during those weekdays that I spend in the CUNY Graduate Center library trying to get some reading and writing done, I have, on occasion, been a participant in the following ‘encounter’ or ‘exchange’: I pour myself a cup of coffee at the dining commons and on arriving at the cash register to pay for my ‘purchase,’ I am waved through by the lady who works there with a cheery ‘you good babe.’ The coffee is on the house. I have not seen this ‘favor’ extended to any other customer of the dining commons; this ‘gift’ is sporadically given, with no regularity to it. Quite simply, every once in a while, I get a ‘free coffee.’ I know the worker in question: that is, I know her name, which is written on her name tag. She does not know mine; she has never asked me for, and I have never volunteered it. I feel unsure about whether she knows that I’m faculty or whether she thinks I’m a graduate student. We do not really know each other; we are acquaintances of a sort. I wish her a ‘good morning’ when I enter, and occasionally ask her how her vacation or days off went. She answers with a brisk ‘all good!’ Once in a while, in response to her asking me how I am, I mutter something about my lack of sleep. When I receive my ‘gift’ from her, I beam and say ‘thanks’ and wish her a good day; she reciprocates. I sometimes wonder, uneasily, about whether what we are doing is ‘legal;’ it clearly is not. I do not know why I am the beneficiary of this minor largess.

But I can venture a guess. My ‘donor’ is used to anonymity in her job; she rings up purchases, gives back change and receipts. Her interactions with her customers are brisk and efficient; they can easily shade into brusqueness. Customers walk over to her counter with food; they pay, they move on, perhaps offering a quick ‘thank you’ before they leave. There are few to none conversational niceties visible in these interactions. I did not follow this template in my initial interactions with her; I used her name, smiled, inquired into how her day was going, and then thanked her as I left. My interactions with her were perfunctory and still remain so to this day, but in retrospect, they strike me as being orders of magnitude more personal than the interactions she might have been accustomed to. I would like to think the little freebie I receive on the side every once in a while is an acknowledgment of the slightly elevated personal level of our encounters with each other; tiny islands of recognition and greeting and response in a sea of anonymous exchange.

My ‘friend’ works, like most people do, in a job that renders her faceless and nameless even when surrounded by thousands of fellow human beings; like them, she acts to dispel her workday state of affairs with little affirmations of her humanity. I’m ready to aid and abet her–for partially self-serving reasons–in the commissioning of the minor illegality her so acting entails.

Shyness, Introverts, And Receding To Older Personas

A few days ago, I wrote on my occasional avoidance of company and/or conversation–with friends, acquaintances, and implicitly, of course, with strangers. In concluding, I wrote:

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human.

This “shy person” was far more visible when I was a child. Then, I was considerably uninterested in entering my peer groups, and was also reluctant to spend much time in the company of adults other than my parents. My friendships were almost invariably made, not with groups, but with other lads who seemed similarly afflicted with a case of shy-itis. Two years spent in a boarding school forced me to emerge from this self-imposed shell, inducing a change that was visible to many who had previously known me as  a tongue-tied resident of social margins. (c.f the stuttering phase of my life.)

Moving out from home and migrating–two events that were rolled into one for me–further imposed a veneer of extroversion upon the older introverted self. I was forced to advocate for myself, to seek new relationships, and of course, I responded, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to explicit and implicit pressures to assimilate.

But I don’t think I ever felt wholly comfortable with these changes. Even if the transformation which they seemed to have induced was so comprehensive that my suggestion that I was ‘essentially’ a shy person was invariably greeted with skepticism and disbelief. And more unkindly, as a kind of posturing.

Over the years, I have noticed a creeping exhaustion with the effort required to maintain this persona–which you would only describe as being ‘inauthentic’ if you insisted on being reductive–of the gregarious extrovert. Even if that maintenance brought in its wake many goods. For instance, I have made some very good friends, relationships with whom have endured over the years;  I have been able to enter into a long-term, stable romantic relationship (which is, obviously, challenging, as these things invariably are); and of course, I have been enriched a great deal,  intellectually and emotionally, by the many conversations and personal encounters that I have experienced over the years. (Almost all of my academic work is co-authored; my collaborations were essential to my work. I find myself thinking aloud, in company, in ways unknown to my solitary self.)

But these ‘gains’ have not been earned easily. And much like an athlete might find it hard to persist with high levels of excellence in her performances over the years, so do I find myself disinclined to push myself as hard as I  once did, to persist with an older energy, in a kind of ‘social performance.’ I look, occasionally, at the sidelines, at the benches, where some relief from the burdens of social expectation awaits. I feel, ever so gradually and yet distinctly, an ebbing, a receding, a return, to an older place of repose and comfort.

This does not mean, again, that I disdain human company. I think it just means that I’ve become more selective about the avenues where I will expend my social energies.

On Avoiding Company And Conversation

Yesterday afternoon, after I had finished teaching, as I hurried to the Flatbush Avenue subway station to catch a train for my evening workout, I saw a Brooklyn College colleague out of the corner of my eye. I walked on; I did not want to say hello; I did not want to stop and talk. This was not because I disdain the perfectly pleasant company of my fellow academic; rather, I simply did not have the energy to engage in conversation. Conversation would entail: first, the exchange of pleasantries and niceties, and then later, quite possibly, an intellectual engagement on which I would have to stay on my toes. Conversations can be exhausting. At that moment, all I wanted to do was sink into a seat on the subway and read a book. I meant no insult or rejection to my colleague. I just wanted to be alone.

I indulge in this sort of ‘anti-social’ behavior  quite often. Sometimes, I will see a neighbor on the street, and will walk past them if they have not seen me. Sometimes, I will carry out the same avoidance on campus, briskly threading my way through a gaggle of students that now provides cover for my escape. Sometimes, at that same Flatbush Avenue subway station, I will see a colleague sitting in a subway car, and will walk on to the next one. (Not always, of course; often, I enjoy catching up with friends whom I haven’t seen in a long time.) This avoidance behavior seems to occur the most often on trains; I suspect this is because my time on trains affords me some precious reading time and I’m loath to spend it on conversation. On occasion, it’s easier to justify this shrinking from social encounters: I enjoy varying degrees of comfort with the many acquaintances in my life, and with some of them conversations can suffer from some awkwardness, some shuffling of the feet, some looking for a quick way out. In those cases, it’s easy to justify my turning away, my pressing on.

I feel some guilt about this behavior. I seem to be disdaining encounters with fellow human beings, preferring my own company; I seem to prefer remaining lost in my own thoughts, my own reveries; I seem to prefer solipsism. It’s entirely possible that some of the folks I ‘ignore’ have seen me despite my attempts to remain incognito and have been offended. I may have insulted and slighted the more sensitive of my friends. I mean no harm, no offense. I’m a man of limited resources–emotional and intellectual–and conservation comes easily to me in these circumstances.

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human. Sometimes, I’m just too tired to talk, too tired to navigate the shoals of social encounters. Sometimes I’d much rather read.

Once again, no offense intended.

On Meeting a Veteran

I have lived in New York City through the ten years that the twin wars of our time, the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been waged. In that time, I’ve met a few members of the armed forces who have served in those operations. (Their willingness to talk about their experience has varied: some reticent, some garrulous.)

I met another war veteran last week. He had served in Afghanistan, done his time, come back home. Back to high school friends, a girlfriend that is now his wife, and perhaps even the life he left behind. The war hadn’t left him alone. It had extracted its very particular grim price. Both his feet were gone, blown off by an improvised explosive device that had sent him flying twenty feet away. The military doctors had removed one foot almost immediately; they had fought hard, for weeks, to save the second foot before eventually giving up and removing that one too. The feet–and the legs till halfway up to the knee–had been replaced by prosthetic limbs. They  looked new and high-tech, marvels of science and technology, the products of the latest materials science and bio-medical engineering. He was already comfortable in them; he drove a truck, and casually crossed his legs as anyone else might.

When you think of ‘veteran’, you think perhaps of old men, grizzled types with blazers, medals, regiment caps, fading memories, reunion dinners and back-slapping bonhomie about postings to far off lands and the now-memorable discomforts of barracks life. What you might not immediately associate with ‘veteran’ is young, barely-twenty men with missing limbs who are expected to carry their experiences lightly, who might attempt a studied nonchalance about their catastrophic encounters with fate.

When you think of the costs of war, you often think of the trillion-dollar budgets and cost overruns that threaten bankruptcy and the straightforward, now numbing, numbers of the dead. You tend, sometimes, to forget the injured, those who returned, altered forever by what the war did to them. They are back, traveling along the modified trajectories of their new lives, leaving ripples around them in their families and communities,

I had traveled to Ohio, to the American Midwest, to attend the celebration of Eid, the Feast of Breaking the Fast, with my wife’s family. During the day, as the eating progressed, her cousin decided to expand the celebration by inviting his high-school friend–the vet–to come and partake of the lavish spread of curries, rice, sweets, and salads that we were noshing on.  M___ showed up; he had always liked these slightly chaotic, well-fueled gatherings that his friend had called him to for years.

We greeted him, we chatted; he ate a bit, and then stepped out on the porch to smoke a cigarette with his friend, my wife’s cousin. As I watched him from inside the living room, I was struck by how the weekday flirted with the dramatic: two friends sharing a quiet, utterly unremarkable moment together, one that could still be placed into a radically different context.

Of Pugilistic Encounters and Uncanny Resemblances

In high school, I boxed for a year in the flyweight division. In the year-end boxing tournament, I lost in the final. To my best friend’s identical twin.

Most people who I recount this story to are struck by the apparent weirdness of fighting an opponent that bore a striking resemblance to someone who I counted a near and dear one: Did it prevent me from landing blows? Was I afraid I would hurt him? Was my mind confused by seeing a supposedly friendly face contort into the determined aggression of a fighting counterpart?

The answer to all those questions is a ‘No.’ I wasn’t thrown off by the resemblance. I lost because a) I didn’t throw as many punches as my opponent did, and b) the referees forgot that punches that land are more valuable than ones that are aimlessly thrown and don’t make contact. I think I wuz robbed. When the fight was over, and we had retired to the changing room, my fellow boxer walked over to me and said, ‘You should have won that.’ Right.

There was another complication. My opponent was not a popular boy in my school; I had been urged, by many, to beat him, to teach him a lesson. But thanks to my father–a school boxing champion in his time, who disdained the idea of the boxing ring as a place to settle scores–and my coach–a former Navy boxer who stressed the ‘sweet science’ aspect of boxing–I felt uneasy about any such agenda. More to the point, I had learned enough from my coach to know that the way to box was to stick what I did best: moving quickly, defending well, looking for openings, sidestepping, jabbing, and landing straight hard lefts when I could. And to not confuse myself with thoughts of exacting retribution on the behalf of others.

But on the day of the fight, I did some things wrong. I didn’t attack enough. I was too defensive. I was content to wait and watch for openings. I landed the two best punches of the entire fight, ones that glazed my opponent’s eyes and hushed the watching crowd momentarily. But I didn’t move in after that; the fight was there for the taking. Somehow, I had become too invested in not losing control, imagining that I could just calmly pick off my opponent, scoring points casually, racking them up on my way to a unanimous points decision. That strategy didn’t work. It would have helped if my seconds had alerted me to what was happening but instead I was told, rather confusingly, that all was well.  The referees rewarded my opponent’s aggression. I had assumed they would reward me for the greater percentage of punches that landed from my side. They didn’t. I had left too much to them.

Some thirty years on, the defeat still rankles, a classic missed opportunity. I never boxed again after that; I changed high schools, moved to a school with a better academic program but a non-existent sports one. I dreamed often of getting back into the ring, but by the time the opportunity arose again, too many years had passed. I had been out of the ring too long.

I can still jump rope and shadow box; tiny leftovers from a memorable year that ended in crushing disappointment.