You’ve Got To Have Friends!

Friends
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Bette Midler sang it, and oh is it true…

I moved to New York, to a wealthy suburb filled with soccer moms, (I’m neither), in 1989. When I first married, in 1992, many of those attending were more acquaintances, with a few old friends, all from my native Canada, mixed in.

Only in the past two years have I finally — thank heaven — felt like I, and my second husband, have found a strong network of good friends. I’d always found it really easy to make friends, so was surprised and hurt at how hard it was for me here. I’d only lived in one other place that was lonelier, in a town in rural New Hampshire for 18 months, that was the roughest place I’ve ever been.

No matter what I said or did, or how many times we entertained, nada. Everyone was married, pregnant, eager to become so, or a mother. I had nothing in common with anyone I met — until the very last month after we’d decided to get the hell out and move to New York when I met Penny, a funny, warm, down-to-earth single mom in the rug store where she worked. We stayed friends for a decade.

It’s not easy making new friends as an adult, once you’ve left school and especially if you, as I have for six years, work alone at home all day.

Which is why I read and enjoyed this charming new book, “MWF Seeks BFF” by a young (28 yr old) writer who went on 52 dates in Chicago in search of new friends. She writes lucidly about the challenges and how rare it is to just click! with someone new and hope they’ll carve out room in their life for you.

As I headed into major surgery, and Jose made up a list of people who might want to hear about my progress, I realized how lucky we are now to have found so many people who genuinely care about us both.

How did I meet them?

— Freelance work. Several are people I met at professional events aimed at writers. One is a woman who intelligently and sensitively edited my work when she ran a women’s magazine.

— My husband’s colleagues. He works full-time in an office at a newspaper, a place where people are really busy. But I found a lovely new friend in his department, a fellow Francophile.

— Pool aerobics. I don’t hang out with my classmates, but seeing the same women week after week for two years has created some new friendships, even if largely limited to the locker room.

— Church. I’m not at all like most of the women at our church, but the women who have become close friends have taken the time to see past what some see as my bohemian exterior. (I’m hardly a hippie, but we don’t live in a huge house, or a house at all,  and our household income is probably 30 percent of theirs.)

— Board work. Any sort of volunteer work where you have to show up regularly means you have time to get to know one another, know that you share a passion for the same issues and care enough to commit time to that cause. One of my best friends is someone I’ve been on a volunteer board with for a few years. You see one another in wholly different roles and behaviors than simply going out for drinks or a movie.

— Friends of friends. One local woman is an artist I met at a party here.

— A dinner party filled with strangers. One of my favorite women friends first sat opposite me at a fun dinner party held occasionally for 20 paying strangers at a home in Queens. Turns out her Mom attended the same Toronto ballet school and we’re both Canadian, have lived in foreign countries and both speak French.

Team sports and classes. I’ve been playing softball for a decade with a group of men and women from their 20s to 70s, including a retired ironworker in his 70s and a 30-something pastry chef. We have lawyers, a few doctors, schoolteachers, and have gotten to know one another very well on that dusty field. Athletic pals see our sweaty, exhausted, sore, injured (and triumphant) core.

— My own work colleagues. One of my new friends is someone I met through my freelance work for The New York Times, who has since moved into another full-time position elsewhere.

— Blogging. One of my new friends is a man who also blogged for True/Slant when I did, and we quickly became mutual admirers of one another’s work. We’ve read each other’s manuscripts and I love having a handsome, smart, single guy friend to keep Jose on his toes!

My friends range in age, from 30 years younger to 30 years older. Some have young kids, some have grand-kids, some have teenagers and a few, like me have no kids at all. Maybe typical of the women I find interesting, we almost never talk about kids, but about work, the news, our families.

How do you make new friends?

Taking A Break From Charm

Pink Charm 2
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Are you charming?

Do you value it in others?

I do. Only when I encounter people with zero ability — or interest in trying — to charm, do I realize how much I appreciate it.

By charm, I don’t mean flattery or obsequiousness, or schmoozing or gossip or small talk, all of which I really dislike.

And charm, without underlying character and decent ethics, means nothing. But I do enjoy the company of people, of any age, who know that many of us are shy or private or perhaps feeling a little sad or depressed and make it their job to ensure we are happy in their presence. I grew up in a family of people, several of them very accustomed to public attention, who valued this ability and so I, too, have grown to value it myself.

Having said all that — a silent retreat means a blessed break from the need to talk, smile, chat, impress, charm.

I spend a lot of my time and energy making sure the people in my life are onside: friends, family, neighbors, clients, editors, colleagues.

Exhausting!

To sit in a room, then, as we do at the retreat, mere feet away from someone — in the meditation hall or at large shared tables at breakfast — and not have to smile, nod, chat. What a relief.

There is a cultural piece to this as well.

I grew up in Canada, a more emotionally reserved nation than the U.S., a place (why?) where we all constantly being exhorted to “Have a nice day!” by people who wouldn’t pull us from a burning building. I loathe faux intimacy, and America’s confessional culture rewards it, punishing people who prefer a slower burn to the sparkly, chatty, engaging persona that marks the verbally facile and generally celebrated.

I just don’t want to know half the things that total strangers feel somehow compelled to tell me here.

(How about you?)

Many times I’ve been chided here for being “unfriendly”, and in so doing breaking the social rules everyone else follows so obediently, when it’s never been my personal goal to be friendly. I choose my friends and intimates very carefully. I don’t need or want everyone to like me. The idea, in fact, somewhat horrifies me.

A journalist since college, I’m professionally skilled at creating brief and powerful intimacy. I love that it requires me to win the confidence of strangers, of all ages and kinds, from convicted felons to elected officials (sometimes in the same person!) But it does mean I spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they feel comfortable with me, and will share with me as much as possible in the limited amount of time we have, whether by email, phone or face to face.

To not interact, to not have to manage my facial expressions or smile to cheer someone up who appears down or reassure them I am not down myself, is a release.

I’d forgotten how private I am and how much I dislike being in large groups of people I do not know well. Remaining silent and apart is a welcome break from having to — or feeling I must — charm.

Losing My Neighbor — Sigh

Neighbors (1920 film)
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Last night we had everyone on our end of the hallway in for dinner, nine of us in all. (Four couldn’t make it.)

The event? My next-door neighbor — who moved into her apartment weeks before I moved into mine in 1989 — is moving. Sob.

She’s low-key, friendly, down-to-earth. Her laughter peals through the walls. She’s let me crawl across the balcony several times over the years after I locked myself out. Last winter, I went onto the balcony in thick snow — barefoot (don’t ask) — and the terrace door slammed shut, locking me out. The windows were firmly shut.

Thank God she works at home, was home and let me in through her terrace door. With not a word of “What on earth were you doing in snow barefoot?”

Anyone who has shared walls or a floor with others for decades knows wayyyyy too much about their neighbors. The man downstairs begins every single day with coughing and spitting so loud you’d think an ambulance was iminent.

Diana has heard many “discussions”, as she discreetly termed them last night, from our home. Yesterday morning required 15 firefighters from four towns to pry open the elevator doors and let out one of our floor’s eldest residents, trapped for an hour. Two of her neighbors stayed with her the whole time shouting encouragement.

So we toasted her and gave her a card and reminisced about all the comings and goings over the years. Our new neighbors, a couple with a young daughter moving from Queens  — as Emily said sternly to her new colleague in “The Devil Wears Prada” — have some mighty big shoes to fill.

Luckily, she’s only moving a 10-minute drive north.

Here’s a fun piece in yesterday’s New York Times about some of the city’s friendliest apartment buildings.

Do you like your neighbors?

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Are Your Neighbors Your Friends?

1 West 72nd Street (The Dakota)
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I loved this story in today’s New York Times by my friend Christine Haughney:

In a city where friendships and romances traverse boroughs and continents, of the guests who had gathered on Ms. Bass’s wraparound balcony with its enviable views of Lincoln Center, nearly half of them lived right there in the same building.

Ms. Bass, 27, a speed-talking Citi Habitats real estate broker who lives at 50 West 72nd Street, has seeded its 16 floors with a loose network of college and post-college friends and their siblings, most of them now in their late 20s and early 30s.

“I try to get my friends to move in here all the time,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want to be around their friends? You always have a shoulder to lean on. You have people to go out with. If you’re having a rough time, you have them around.”

I’ve lived my entire life, since the age of 19, in apartments, and having neighbors you can count on as friends is as crucial as the next-door neighbor who shares a driveway or street.  In Toronto, I was lucky enough to make friends with my neighbors in the houses on both sides — my apartment was the top floors of a house — and across the street. I met Anne, sharing a house with several room-mates, when I held a garage sale on my front lawn and she came over to take a look. We started talking and didn’t stop until I moved to Montreal two years later.

In Montreal, I quickly made two very good new friends in my apartment building, a 1930s classic with only three apartments per floor. One was Cynthia, a shy, quiet American a bit older, working at the Canadian Centre for Architecture and another, a wealthy young woman, Jinder, who had recently become a physician.

Jinder, who I first met when she took delivery of some flowers for me while I was at work, kept raving to me about some medical student she supervised whom she wanted me to meet: handsome, smart, funny, from New Jersey. When she brought him to my house-warming party, I opened the door and fell, hard, for the guy — who became my husband six years later.

We moved around a fair bit when I was younger and having friends-as-neighbors really started for me only in my 20s.

In my current building, where I own my home, I can count on several long-time neighbor-friends should there be a sudden need for help beyond our day to day friendliness. New York is not a place that makes finding and keeping close friends easy — some people won’t even travel from one side of the city to another and many are work-obsessed.

Are your neighbors your friends? How does that affect your life?