A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Whole-grain friendship

“She doesn’t watch TV…” said Lizzy.  “She’s a really good reader… and she isn’t into stuff like pink and princesses all the time…  she likes riding bikes and being outside… “   She thought for a moment longer.  “One thing I like about her is she doesn’t eat just a white-bread sandwich.  She has a real lunch.”
Well, that clinches it: this isn’t just any old friendship -- it’s a liberal, outdoorsy, intellectual, WHOLE GRAIN friendship!
Is it possible for half of my brain to giggle gleefully while the other half cringes?
On one hand, what parent wouldn’t be pleased that her twins had managed to find an official Best Friend with delightful manners, precocious academic prowess, and a penchant for consuming fresh, locally grown organic produce?  On the other hand…  Oh my god.  I’ve totally brainwashed my kids. And on the third hand (yes, parenting requires growing a third hand) -- do I really have a better grip than my second-graders do on what true friendship actually entails? Should I be surprised, given my own selective proclivities, that they are choosing to hang out with bookish, intellectual, middle-class [knee-high] liberals?
From other conversations with Molly and Lizzy, it has become clear that the nascent social partitioning among the seven-year-old set is amusingly – and horrifyingly – advanced. The kids are figuring out the religious beliefs of their peers, their environmental commitment (or lack thereof), and their politics.  That’s right: although my children have trouble remembering whether Alaska is a town, a state, or a nation, they are attempting to parse the nuances of the political spectrum.  And, apparently, they are also bread snobs.
This social parsimony seems particularly startling, given that neither twin has ever been what you might call extroverted -- or, to be honest, socially skilled.  The two of them have played with each other since they were old enough to toddle, but they’ve always tended to hang around the edges of playgrounds.  One twin in particular received preschool reports full of kindly, euphemistic phrases such as, “Does not initiate play with others.”
Thus, I was thrilled when, back in kindergarten, Lizzy told me that maybe (just maybe) there was a girl in her class she liked.  What?  You’re actually interacting?  Hooray!  A birthday party invitation was issued.  Playing took place.  The little girl’s family seemed delightful.  In fact, they seemed like people I might have sought out as friends without the helpful aid of my small children.  That is… um… bookish, intellectual, middle-class liberals.  She has a real lunch.
The following year, the same child – I’ll call her “E” – was in Molly’s class, and the triumvirate Best Friendship was cemented. 
But what, exactly, does friendship entail in second grade?
Well, it seems that in addition to appropriate bread choices, literary discussion is important.  A few weeks ago, I swung by E’s house at the end of a playdate, and found that the kids had attempted to dress themselves as characters from The Mysterious Benedict Society.  Moreover, they had been busy with letter magnets belonging to E’s little brother.  They were spelling out the names of their favorite authors.
Well… close enough.  The little brother (given the spelling of his name) was not willing to budge on the issue of L-sharing.
I loaded all three girls in the car to head back to our place for the ensuing sleepover.  Our guest’s mother offered a fond farewell and a classic reminder to her daughter: “Don’t forget your manners.” 
As we pulled out of E’s driveway, there was silence from the back seat.  At last, Molly spoke up.  In cheerful, confident tones, she told E, “You know, at our house, you don’t actually have to have manners.”
Come on over, eat with your hands, and make fart jokes!  Yup.  Best Friendship, second-grade style. They’re a trio of solidarity, for sure.
 It might not have been this way, though.  It almost wasn’t.  At the beginning of second grade, E was missing.  Her family had moved to a bigger home.  The move placed her in a different local public school.  The twins missed her sorely.  Every day.
“You’ll make other friends!” I chirped.  “There are lots of nice kids in your classes!”  But Molly and Lizzy bemoaned her absence.
E attended that new school for about a week.  And then she came home with this poster:

Although the two schools were academically equal by all accounts, her parents shifted her back.  They committed themselves to driving her to and from school, every single day -- to be with her friends.
I was touched.  But, at first, I was also taken aback.  Really?  Someone is going to haul their second-grader across town?  Just to be with my kids?  Haven’t they noticed that my delightful little angels tell fart jokes?
I felt a little odd, and a little guilty about the whole thing.  Is it really worth it?  The three children – Molly, Lizzy, and E – ended up in three different classes, thus covering all of the second grade teachers in the school.  They only saw each other at recess and in reading group.  How important, and how permanent, I asked myself, is a friendship between kids whose biggest concerns in life include tooth fairy earnings and who can build the coolest Lego structure?  How meaningful is a friendship based on lunch choices, Beverly Cleary, and bikes?
Then again… books and bikes are kinda high on my list of friend-attributes, too.  I’ve got my very own set of outdoorsy, nerdy, non-princessy buddies (well, okay, maybe some are a little bit princessy).  I have WHOLE GRAIN friendships! 
I found myself squirming a little, mentally.  Yeah, my own choices are so adult, so diverse, so darned nuanced!  Just how thrillingly deep do I think I am, compared to my second-graders?  What is friendship supposed to be about?  And what, over my almost 42 years of existence, has friendship actually entailed?
I found a Best Friend when I was seven, too.  Like my kids’ Best Friend, mine was (and still is) a lot like me: bookish, intellectual, and middle-class-liberal.  Together, we created complicated treasure-hunts full of cryptic clues.  Together, we built obstacle courses in the back yard.  Together, we studied for Advanced Placement exams.  We went off to Ivy league schools.  We both eventually became professors. 
But in other ways, we weren’t so alike after all, my Best Friend and I.  I was the scabby, grubby, always-up-in-a-tree one.  She was cleaner, quieter, shyer, and definitely sweeter.  Her family put up a menorah when mine (somewhat arbitrarily) put up a Christmas tree.  As adults, she settled in suburban New York and became a swing-dancing expert, and I went to live in an unplumbed cabin in Alaska and took up odd hobbies such as hundred-mile wilderness racing on skis or snow-bike. 
We were alike.  We were different.  We stuck by each other through some horrible teenage crap that I’m no-way-in-heck going into in this blog post.  We grew up together.
In college, I found a Best Friend who was, again, bookish, intellectual, and middle-class liberal.  Together, we made a valiant – and inexplicable -- attempt to learn Esperanto; we sweated over multi-variable Calculus; we imprudently decided to climb down a fire escape and explore the steam tunnels; and we made loud jokes about phalli. 
Again, my Best Friend was so terribly, achingly like me – and yet not like me.  I spent summers wielding an axe and heaving rocks about, while he did research projects.  He was publically exuberant and affectionate, and I didn’t know what to do with a hug.  He reveled in geographic trivia; I barely knew my lats from my longs.  He faced the desperate struggle of a being teenage boy coming out as gay to friends and family, while I’d barely considered what life would have been like had I not been conveniently straight. 
We were alike.  We were different.  We stuck by each other.  We thought we were already grownups, but of course we weren’t – so we grew up together, too.
Of course, no one is ever all the way grown up –or, if they are, I’m crossing them off my list RIGHT NOW.  We still – and always – need people to keep on growing up with us.  To me, a true friend – a Best Friend, if you will -- is someone who does that growing in concert and in synergy with me, but also in a state of constant challenge – stretching me, pushing me, extending me.  A best friend is someone who can get me to ski a hundred miles or write a novel, not by goading or nagging me, but simply by believing I can.  He or she is the keeper of a lost piece of my brain – someone who makes the inside of my head a less lonely cavern, someone with whom to share not only thoughts and adventures, but also hidden shames and peculiar joys.  You feel that way too!? Holy crap, I thought no one else ever felt that way in the whole history of the universe.
That friend and I can run our brains sometimes in parallel and sometimes in series.  We can create a devil's-advocate spark, and set alight an intelligence, humor, and joy greater than the sum of its parts: friendship as emergent property.  We can go on a six-hour hike, talking non-stop, laughing about everything, from profound to profane.  We can share obscure, nerdy jokes predicated on Latin roots or imaginary numbers.  We can wax lyrical about physics, in the next breath quote Beowulf, and in the breath after that make some kind of pun so filthy that it would make a nun's hair fall out in an instant.  Or we can be silent together – comfortably, slowly, deeply silent.   
Maybe my connection with my own close friends isn’t any more cosmic than my little girls’ connection with theirs.  Life, after all, is mostly built of small moments, not Epic Events (although I manufacture a few of those, to keep myself feeling important). A true friend is the person who knows too much about me, and judges too little.  She’s the one who eats the other half of the box of Girl Scout cookies at midnight, helping me to drop crumbs into my textbooks.  He’s the one who swings by for a game of Scrabble even though I’m not very good at shuffling my tiles while nursing twins.  She’s the one who knows which book I’d like, and leaves it in my mailbox, and never asks for it back. He’s the one who drives to the airport in the middle of the night to whisk me – and my horribly jet-lagged kids – to a nearby Chinese restaurant, so we can catch up, and reminisce, and laugh together over our trumped-up fortunes.
True friendships last.  Nonetheless, old friends scatter, and are seen only rarely -- and new Best Friendship is harder to find, for middle-aged individuals such as the person that I have somehow unexpectedly become.  Sociologists note that development of true friendship requires frequent unplanned interactions and a relaxed setting.  In addition, although kids (and adults) should all learn to foster empathy, respect, and affability across even the most yawning gulfs of diversity, close friendship requires a sense of commonality – shared interests, shared beliefs, a shared quirky twist on this screwy thing we call life.  It also requires a significant and continued investment of time.
Proximity.  Commonality.  Time. 
One day a few weeks ago, I picked up the kids from school.  This is rare for me (Buses!  Public Transportation!  Yay!), but we had a dental appointment scheduled.  I loitered uncharacteristically by the neighboring doorways of Molly’s and Lizzy’s classes.  When they emerged amidst a welter of bouncy little bodies, I accompanied them down the hall toward the exit.  A few doors down, we passed E’s classroom.  It had already emptied out.  But one tall, dark-haired girl was standing there, waiting.  She fell into step beside her friends.  For the hectic two or three minutes that it took us all to reach the snowy curb, the three of them quickly caught each other up on Important Stuff.  We’re going to the dentist!  And I realized that, unseen by me, this happened every day.
Proximity.  Commonality.  Time.  She’s a really good reader…  She likes riding bikes and being outsideshe isn’t into stuff like pink and princesses all the time. E is not the same race/ethnicity as the twins.  She prefers scarier books than the ones they choose.  She plays hockey and soccer, while they eschew team sports. But… She doesn’t watch TV.  She has a real lunch. At that moment, I understood.  They are alike.  They are different.  They stick by each other.  Maybe they will grow up together, and maybe they won’t.  But they are in the same school again.  With our two families, they hiked over thirty miles together, and skied many more, this second-grade year.  They wait for one another, to catch those tiny moments in the hallway.  They are being given the chance.
In all likelihood, my kids don’t yet fully understand what a Best Friend really is.  Maybe their bonds and their memories won’t last.   Then again, maybe thirty years from now their childhood friend will be strong-armed into playing Monopoly with their own kids -- or editing their blog posts for them (um, thanks, Childhood Friend).  But, regardless of the outcome of this particular friendship, learning to make those individual, quirky, hard-won, joyful ties is as important as all the other skills they are learning and practicing in second grade (reading, subtraction, fart jokes).  No, it’s not just important – it’s crucial.  Even for the most independent or introverted among us, what would a life be like, without strong, meaningful human connections?  
I can only offer my kids the same thing that – I now realize – I owe to myself: time for friendships (carved out of the packed strata of life) and proximity to a wide range of potentially mind-meldingly, challengingly, hilariously, brilliantly, fabulous friends.  From there, it’s up to each of us to find the connection, the bond, the spark, the glorious commonality.  And if, for my seven-year-olds, that means a whole grain friendship… well… I can count myself lucky to have some of the same.

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