Sunday, July 27, 2008

The downward “contacts” spiral

We ventured back to the zoo recently to see the baby elephant, and were fortunate to snap a photo. She was quite cute, hanging out underneath her mom and peeking out at the crowd of admirers across the fence. There was a baby tiger, too, although our only glimpse of him (through countless heads of other observers, of course) was of his furry body lying asleep on a folding lawn chair.

What with baby animals to view, and it being summertime and all, the zoo was crawling with folks. There were bazillions of kids. There were parents who spent much of the time just ticking off heads to make sure everyone was still with the group. There were moms, dads, and the inordinate amount of what appeared to be grandparents, all herding children through the park.

My old college roommate was there with her hoard.

I saw her just outside the monkey house, pushing a stroller with one child, surrounded by other small ones. I was pretty certain about who it was, as she was relatively unchanged from the last time I’d seen her a few years after we’d graduated. She looked great, slim as ever, unlined face, no bags or sags that I could discern (darn her). And then her twin sister came up behind her, also pushing a kid and leading another, and the kids were all cute and well-behaved, and this sister looked just as good as the first sister.

And I stepped back to let the masses pass, and I kept my sunglasses firmly on my face and said nothing. They never really looked at me, intent as they were on keeping the gang together, and I never spoke up or tried to get their attention.

I don’t know why, really. The last time I saw that girl, we spoke and were friendly and things were fine. We’d parted a little roughly after being roommates, that’s true; we had shared a dorm room and for the first half of the year, things were great and we had a lot in common, and then she had the nerve (tee hee) to become a Christian and suddenly we had nothing in common, she hated my music, was against all parties, was a tad aloof with my friends… Needless to say we did not room together again. But honestly, there are no hard feelings that I’m aware of. I just didn’t feel like a reunion. (Well, I’d never liked her sister much, either—she always flirted shamelessly with my boyfriend at the time, the coquette.) But seriously, it was hot and crowded and there were kids everywhere and we didn’t go to the zoo to get together with old friends; we went to see the animals, to give the kids a fun time, to be outside instead of in. We did not go to reminisce. At least that was my stance.

It’s funny—in this day and age, it’s quite common for people to switch directions several times in a life: kid-dom, college/post-school, career with multiple jobs, marriage perhaps, maybe a family, another career with more jobs… The average person has known many more people than he or she can capably stay connected to. And yet, we have more ways than ever of being in touch with people—so there seems to be this palpable pressure to keep in contact with everyone you’ve ever known. I wonder sometimes how people used to keep in touch with so many folks in the “old days” before technology enabled us to communicate so easily… and then I ponder that perhaps there just weren’t as many people to keep in touch with. We’ve created our own monster, first with frequent and speedy life changes, then with crowds of people to accompany each change and beyond, and lastly with innumerable gadgets to help you blab with someone incessantly.

Something similar happened to me last spring; I was shopping with the kid, minding my own business, and the next thing I knew someone was saying, “Mel, is that you? Mel?” And sure enough, it was another girl I’d known in college, a friend of a friend, who’d spent time in some of the same circles I had. She was shopping too, with her children, and we chatted and caught up a bit and then she whipped out her cell phone and asked for my number so we could get together sometime. I dutifully whipped out mine, too, and we exchanged numbers and parted ways with warm smiles. And that was that. I’ve never called her; she’s never called me. And it was honestly nice to see her. But that doesn’t mean we want to see each other again, intentionally.

The truth is, if we wanted to get together, then chances are good we’d have kept each other’s phone numbers handy for years prior to bumping into each other at the department store. I know there are exceptions, people lose touch or someone moves and the new address is lost, etc., but in most cases people who want to keep in contact do just that: they keep in contact. They go out of their way to talk, to meet, whatever.

I’m hesitant to admit that I have very few contacts that have remained with me through my many life changes. The truth is, I’m just not the same person I used to be. If I’d talked to that former roommate at the zoo, it would have felt like talking to someone who used to know someone I knew… but that’s all. That woman doesn’t know me any more than she knows a stranger. At least that’s how far away that world that we shared seems to me now.

Or am I just a bad friend, the one who lets the relationship slip? I know a handful of dedicated folks who still write letters to the people they knew decades ago. My own parents are still close to the same people they were friends with over 50, even 60 years ago. I try to tell them how rare that is…but maybe I’m the rare one.

I don’t know. All I know is that if I start to recall all the people from my past who I haven’t seen or spoken to for years, my head hurts and I feel guilty. And Lord knows there’s enough of that going around; I’m not going to encourage it. Now, please excuse me while I put on my dark glasses.


Anonymous said...

I have very few friends I keep in regular contact with, even if that means via e-mail these days and not actually in person (I'm not much of a phone caller). Yet, I feel lucky to have them -- for me it's more about quality than quantity. I know if I see them next week or next year, we'll still "click," even though our day-to-day lives are very different. I also think it's important for both parties to make the effort -- it never works if only one person takes the time to write or call, to set up get-togethers, etc.

Facie said...

I do agree with Chris that both parties must make the effort. I have some friends that I am the one who initiates contact. But it could just be that they would be perfectly happy to see or hear from me only once a year, and if I waited that long, they would contact me. Other than my work friends, I manage to see only one friend regularly (about 1x per month). She is one of my best friends, but so are a few others, so I am not sure why we have always made the effort.

It helps to have things in common, but I still think you can remain friends with someone, even if you are at different points in your life. My one high school friend is completely opposite me politically. She is single and without kids, and she has her doctorate. We really could not be more different, but we do manage to call each other at least 1x per year and see each other 1-2x every other year. We were really good friends in high school and college, so it is important to us to never completely lose touch. And as Chris said, we tend to pick up where we left off, even if it has been a long time.