Sunday, October 28, 2007

Friendship is what matters most of all

Note to readers: I wrote this as a newspaper column in 2001. I think it still resonates; I hope you get something from it.

It has been a long, long time since he’s seen his friends, the friends he grew up with.

Whenever he thinks of them, he remembers a line from the playwright Tennessee Williams, who said it first and best in “The Glass Menagerie:”

“Time is the farthest distance between two places.”

He left home to find a new home nearly 20 years ago, walking away from the people and places of his youth to try and find something for himself as an adult. Twenty years later, living on the other side of the country, he knows what he has found and knows what he has lost.

It has been more than 30 years since he and his friends grew up together in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. They shared their dreams. They talked as children do of wanting to change the world, to make a difference, to be great men. Now middle aged, most of them would be happy just to be, well, happy.

The four friends grew up within 10 miles of each other, two the sons of military men and two the sons of federal employees. Government is big business in Washington, and before the dot-com boom, the odds were pretty good the best jobs in town would be government jobs.

Only one of the four lives there now, and he traveled far from home several times only to return. He’s worked in south Florida and west Texas, but now he’s home again as producer and sidekick of a new radio talk show. He used to dream of being Larry King, and now he’s happy just to be part of the game.

The other three live a long way from where they were young. One went to Oklahoma and then to Colorado; he’s a golf reporter for the leading newspaper in his part of the country. Another went west to go to film school in Southern California, and is still hanging onto the dream of someday selling that big script and buying a house in Malibu.

The third was a wanderer, traveling from state to state working in the newspaper business before finally finding a home outside Los Angeles. He lived in seven states in 10 years before settling down, and the wanderlust still tugs at him every so often. He figures it’s in his blood.

Only for a very few of us do things work out exactly the way you dream them when you’re 17. Most of us drift along, changing our plans when need be, trying to do the right thing and usually settling just for not doing anything wrong.

It’s funny. When you’re a kid, you dream of people shouting your name from the rooftops, but by the time you reach middle age, you find you’re happy just being able to sleep peacefully at night.

The first of the four friends already has turned 50. A second will follow this fall and the other two will reach that milestone within the next two years or so. For many men, that’s the age at which they start seriously considering their mortality. It has been said that the first time a man thinks of his own death is when his father dies, and for the Virginian and the Coloradoan, that day already has come.

But dreams die long before people do.

The Virginian was married for more than 15 years. He and his wife tried to have children and couldn’t. Eventually they drifted apart and were divorced. She moved back home and he’s alone.

In Colorado, the sportswriter is still single. The women come and go in his life, but he’s still looking for the sort of relationship his parents had. “Leave it to Beaver” stuff. A real happy home. He knows time is running out, but he doesn’t want to give up.

In California, the would-be movie mogul keeps waiting for that big breakthrough. There’s big money to be made in Hollywood, but except for a year as a staff writer on a soap opera and a few scripts for nighttime dramas, he hasn’t seen it. He’s living la vida pobra in the land of la vida loca, raising a family with good values on a budget that doesn’t often balance.

The wanderer looks at life from the other side of 50, wondering about the years that are passed and worrying about the ones to come. His days as the young hotshot are long gone, and he finds himself remembering things he never thought he would.

“Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

“Hope I die before I get old.”

Sometimes he smiles at the thought of it all. Were we ever really that young? Were we so arrogant that we never considered the possibility of gray hair, sagging bellies and slowing reactions?

Of course we were. If there’s one thing it’s impossible to consider when you’re young, it’s how it will feel to be middle-aged or old.

He remembers once asking his mother when you start to feel different, when you start to feel deep inside that you have changed.

“You never do.”

His perspective is still somewhat limited, but he understands her now. There are times he feels a thousand years old, but other times when he still feels 17.

Sometimes he thinks of reunions, but he knows it wouldn’t be the same. Something about being able to get back to the place, but not the time. He thinks it was Paul Simon or Harry Chapin who said it, but he’s not quite sure.

He sees his friends one at a time once in a while, but he knows the four of them will never be together in the way they were 30 years ago.

Life is a series of arrivals and departures. We lose people along the way, and if we’re lucky we find others. But true friendship, like rock and roll, never really dies.

And say what you will, but there is nothing in the world more important than friendship – not fame, not wealth, not even happiness.

If you’re lucky, you have friends who love you.

If you’re unlucky, you rarely see them. Instead, life becomes a constant struggle to bridge time, the farthest distance between two places.


Dale Morgan said...

Mike - were you writing about specific friends?

Mike Rappaport said...

Yes, I was, although none of them were in our class. My friend Mick is 54 -- the Hollywood guy -- and teaching part-time at two community colleges.

My friend Tom -- the Colorado guy -- is a sportswriter with the Denver Post. He's married now.

My friend Bill was the third guy. He's doing radio in Florida now.