A month or so ago, I was told by a man that he would never treat a friend in the way I had behaved toward him. My response was that he should reexamine his idea of friendship; I regarded him as a Facebook acquaintance to whom I'd offered a job which he then did worse than badly. His sloppy work and the amount he wanted for doing it disgusted me and I wanted no more contact with him. His feeling was that I breached the responsibilities of friendship and thus was an unworthy human being.
I realized after this that my idea of friendship is a stringent one, based upon what surrounded me when I was a child. Friends were people with whom you would share your last meal and who would do the same for you. While you might be very different people, you respected each other's differences and found a common ground in humor, honesty, and a profound respect for labor. Work was what was done to stay alive; it wasn't a disposable occupation and it demanded to be done in the best way possible. A poorly placed log in the construction of a cabin or a carelessly aimed bullet when hunting a moose or a heedlessly brandished chainsaw all had the potential for tragedy. Working for wages brought the money that would keep a family alive through the winter. Jobs of any kind had a certain sacramental quality; one way or another they all meant survival. A friend was someone you trusted to help you get that job done, whom you would help in return. Friendship was a straightforward relationship in those days.
Last week I spent a couple of hours with a man I haven't seen in six or seven years. We only rarely exchanged comments on the internet; we both had a very vague idea of how the other had spent the gap of time that spread between his going-away party and the minute that I let him into my apartment. There wasn't the slightest apprehension that we weren't going to enjoy our visit and I certainly did. I'm 64; he's 33. We became friends quite improbably because we both have a bitter, ironic sense of humor, we each have a gluttonous passion for the printed word, and we respected the jobs that we did to the best of our abilities. That is enough to make this man one of my friends forever.
Another friend whom I truly love ended our initial visit together with a very direct sexual proposition. I declined, we parted amicably, and have been close ever since. Again it's print that is the primary bond between us, along with a delight in the incongruous and unexpected gifts that life offers, and a weakness for painful, unflinching honesty. We live in different corners of the planet now and see each other once or twice a year. We are quite indubitably friends.
The same bookstore that provided me with my 33 year old friend gave me one of my most enduring friendships with a woman so unlike me that we would never have encountered each other under normal circumstances. She is blonde, slender, and beautiful, with a charming, blue-eyed demeanor. I'm short, dark, and intense, with a look of reserve that can be interpreted as prickly indifference. We read the same books, we write because we have to, we both have an almost desperate curiosity about places with which we have no rational connection. We send each other sporadic emails that launch online conversations and then are silent for months on end. We talk on the phone once a year and see each other less frequently than that, but her presence in my life is a constant buttress for me, both in my writing life and in the realm of personal experience.
At a certain point, family members have to observe the same respect and consideration toward each other as friends do, or they drift far apart. I'm lucky. I have a sister who is as honest and as accepting as any of my other friends and I do my best to be the same way toward her. It's difficult sometimes because we bear many of the same scars and we know the dark and dirty corners of each other's history. Friendship between sisters takes more work than other relationships do but in many ways the results are the most rewarding. I have three sisters and I believe that one out of three is a good ratio. I'm grateful that my youngest sister and I have come through a rough patch to become friends.
Facebook has made "friend" into a verb but the word is actually a rare gift. Some of my Facebook friends are truly friends, some are very close acquaintances, including people I've yet to meet in real life, many are what I call my imaginary friends, pleasant shadows who glance across my internet life with "likes" and "shares." But my real friends? These are the people whom I rarely encounter at the ADD cocktail party that Facebook has created; we simply don't have to go there.