I got the rare chance to spend an hour talking to one of my oldest friends last night. We text and drop facebook comments regularly, but actual conversations are exceptions to the rule… and that’s ok, because we’ve known each other so long now that we can basically pick up exactly where we left off no matter how much intervening time is involved.
Because we are who we are, the conversation almost immediately turned to politics. Even though he’s somewhere left of center and I’m somewhere to the right, we somehow managed to talk about the most divisive topics of the day without the whole thing devolving into a shouting match. It’s how I remember people talking about politics when we were young and dinosaurs roamed the earth. It’s what adults use to be able to do.
It turns out it’s still possible when you’re not keeping score or determined to get in one more zinger. It’s literally possible for two grown adults with differing opinions to talk like decent human beings and still like one another at the end of the conversation. You’d never know that from much of the discourse taking place in the social and professional media.
That state of the world may have been the topic of the day yesterday, but the conversation really could have been about anything… or nothing at all. As nice as it was to have a conversation about the world that wasn’t being shouted at full volume, sometimes, especially on a hard day, the more important thing is just hearing a voice from the past.
A few nights ago, I was wondering what someone was up to and realized we hadn’t talked in a while. This was a friend from way back there and back then, one who once might have almost been something more, but for unlucky timing, fate, or whatever interceding. It wasn’t all that long ago we carried on endless late-night conversations, just talking about the day that was or what we hoped for tomorrow. Maybe it wasn’t Big Love, but there was a connection there, a real friendship if nothing more.
I guess I was surprised to find we’re not even electronic “friends” anymore. That’s fine. People don’t really change, but circumstances do. I don’t have any expectation of ever knowing or standing to ask for the what or why.
I’m not angry, but I am just a little bit sad.
I’m not the kind of guy who runs out and makes new friends. I don’t have the energy or interest. It’s why I’ve always put a premium of hanging on to the old ones.
I don’t suppose they’ll ever see this, but I hope our paths cross again someday. I miss their insight and honesty and trusted counsel from someone who always seemed to get what oddities were floating around in my head.
I’m not a towering example of modern, overly emotional masculinity. I’m good at anger and its derivatives. I can even pull of contented without much trouble. The various subtile shades separating those two poles, though, mostly fall into the category of things that must be jammed down and best left unobserved by the outside world.
I had Maggie and Jorah out during my lunch break this morning. They were mostly out lazing around the yard – occasionally ginning up enough interest to chase off an intrusive bird or butterfly. Mostly they were content to lay around. I just happened to be looking in the right direction when Jorah plopped his chin down on Maggie’s back as they laid there in the sun. For the briefest of moments, it wasn’t Jorah I was seeing, but my dear old Winston. They’d laid in the same position for hours in the yard, looking out the sliding door, or piled together on the living room floor. It was the kind fo thing I’d seen a thousand time over the last ten years – but not once in the last six months.
It took my breath away.
At least it did before some dust or grit happened to blow into my eye and I had to struggle mightily not to make a spectacle of myself to any of the retired neighbors who happened to be nosy enough to wonder what I was doing home on a Monday. Even so, there may have been a little bit of emoting.
Winston’s been gone now almost seven months. The days are busy. The herd demands my attention. But there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think of the snorting, shuffling bulldog who use to be with us. Most days now, it’s with a smile… though it turns out it can still be with big wet manly tears, too.
1. The closest gator. It’s just human nature to try killing the alligator that’s closest to your boat. Just by virtue of its proximity it’s the one that should pose the most danger. Most of the time your natural assumption is probably right. Every now and then, though, that gator that just happens to be closest is just swimming past… and while you’re focused on him the big, ugly sonofabitch swimming up behind you is the one that’s going to take a bite out of your ass.
2. Not being elsewhere. It’s a rare day when I don’t want to be home above all other places. Just this once, though, I wish circumstances would have allowed a bit of leeway so I could have found myself, for a few hours, in Rock Island, Illinois. Today was a live demonstration that that a certain big government agency can manage not to trip all over itself in pursuit of elevating someone eminently qualified into the ranks of senior leadership. I just wish I could have seen that shit in person, you know, just to prove in front of my own two little eyes that such a thing is actually possible.
3. Bordering on exhaustion. It’s not lack of sleep. Thank God my brain disengages as soon as I turn the lights off and lets me drift off to sleep on demand. The problem comes in those 19 intervening hours, when it’s busy jumping from point to point. I usually have a pretty good capacity for leaving the work over on the other side of the river, but for these past few weeks and another few to come, it seems to be following me. Even when I’m not thinking about it, a few ideas are churning in the back of my mind. It’s probably a necessary evil for the time being, but lord it’s wearing my ass out.
There’s nothing like the sobering presence of death to help bring your day into focus. That great equalizer of men and kings comes to us all in time. It’s one of the very few common truths that we all share between us – the grand irony of that being that it’s one of the few things we as a culture don’t talk about in anything more than a whisper.
Despite the outward appearance of building briefings and fidgeting with memos all day, what I’ve really been doing is processing; adding new facts to what I think I know about the world and the people in it. What I really came up with is that on balance I’ve been a bad friend to so many who have deserved better.
We grew up together or grew into adults in one another’s company. We met for a time and parted company. We shared secrets deep or dark. We laughed, cried, then laughed again. We took long draughts from the tap in crowded rooms or passed hours in companionable silence.
Life happened. We moved on or moved apart. We had kids or didn’t. Our careers took us around the world or brought us back home to the mountains. We had different politics and wildly diverging interests.
Even though Facebook helped, we did a shit job of keeping in touch and staying engaged. That’s the part that hurts – the ease with which we could have picked up the phone or sent an email, but didn’t because there would be time for that tomorrow or the day after. Maybe we’re all wild eyed optimists believing against all outward evidence that there will always be a tomorrow.
I’m a bad friend. I freely admit it. I’m the first to want to race home from wherever I am and whomever I’m with and slam the garage door shut. I should have done more to keep the lines of communication open and didn’t.
Know this, though, if you were my friend, you are my friend still. Despite years or circumstances I think of you often – and mostly smile or chuckle at the thought. I may occasionally roll my eyes. In my mind we’re all still at some vague age between 17 and 23 and have only been parted for a moment no matter how the years have intervened.
I carry you with me always. In the moment that doesn’t feel like much, but it’s something and occasionally something has to be enough.
I found out this week that one of my oldest friends was going to be in the area over the weekend. Of course I’m using “in the area” here in the broadest possible sense of the word to mean somewhere within a three hour radius. There are precious few things that might tempt me out of the house, but the chance to nosh on steaks, have a few cold beverages, and shoot the shit telling stories about the olden days is just too good an opportunity to pass up.
From that long ago day – almost fourteen years past now – when we met as interns at a Shoney’s in Petersburg, Virginia to a few golden years in the District to the misadventure that was life in west Tennessee to our continued years in service to the great green machine there’s plenty of ground to cover. He’s one of the very few people from back there at the dawn of time who I’ve managed to stay in contact with. Even more important, he’s one of the few living human beings who I’ve learned to trust implicitly.
When we last parted company, I remarked that I always counted myself fortunate to play the role of Sherman to his Grant. I still do… and just now I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than sit down and rehash our war stories. Think of it as a mid-career assessment of just what the hell we’re doing and the long strange road that got us here. It’s a hell of a long way from where the story started.