Damon and Pythias exemplified the Pythagorean ideal of friendship.
Remember Jim Harrison’s trial three years ago, which ended up with the former legislative leader being convicted on public corruption-related charges and sentenced to prison?
I was a prosecution witness in that case. I’d have written about it at the time — after it was over, anyway — but it happened right smack in the middle of the campaign when I was James Smith’s communications director. I didn’t have time for blogging or anything else. It was very hard to take the day off to go to the courthouse and testify.
It was the only time I have ever made an appearance in court. I used to cover trials, but I didn’t participate in them. It was a very weird and uncomfortable experience. I was called by David Pascoe, who wanted me to testify about this blog post from 2006. It was about an endorsement interview from when Harrison was running for re-election, and Pascoe was interested in a quote from Harrison near the end of it.
I was not the world’s smoothest witness. At one point, I think when defense attorney Hunter Limbaugh was cross-examining me, he was asking me a series of yes-or-no questions and I thought I was responding, when the judge interrupted to say something like, “Let the record show that the witness is shaking his head to indicate ‘no’…”
Very embarrassed, I muttered something like, “I’m sorry, your honor,” and resolved to use my words thenceforth.
My testimony was brief, but featured another awkward moment. I think it was Pascoe who asked whether I considered Harrison to be a “friend.” I was at a loss. I was thinking — and worse, saying — things like, Well, I dunno, I guess he’s alright; we have dealings from time to time and I suppose I get along with him OK in those interactions.
The attorney cut me off to clarify: “Have you ever had each other over to your homes for dinner?”
And I said something like (check the court record if you want the exact words), “Well, no.” Meanwhile, I was thinking, Is THAT what it means to be a friend? I guess I don’t have any, because I almost never have anybody over…
Another, shorter, anecdote: Recently, someone I’d known for several years stopped communicating with me, and I became concerned because the last couple of times I had talked with him, he hadn’t seemed himself. I reached out by email to ask if he was doing OK, and at some point wrote that I was just asking “as a friend.” He responded that he was fine, but that we were not friends. Which surprised me. I mean, applying the Pascoe principle, he had actually been to my house once.
So I was confused. About that, and a lot of things having to do with this “friend” concept. I mean, maybe he was right.
Lately — well, for the last 19 months, I guess — I have repeatedly read stories by and about people who are just desperate to get back out there and hang with their friends. Sure, a lot of these are unmarried people who don’t have kids, and they’re still dwelling in a sort of high-school social dynamic — like the main characters of “Seinfeld” — but not all of them are. And it’s also probably an introvert/extravert thing. But still, I wonder. I think I have friends. I’m not sure, but I think I do. But while I haven’t seen them since before the pandemic, I’m happy if I don’t see them for another year or two. It’ll be nice when I do see them, but I can wait. No problem.
Which brings me to the question I’m asking this evening: What makes someone a “friend?”
There have been all sorts of models for explaining that over the millennia. For instance, we can go by the Pythagorean model, but really, I don’t find it completely satisfactory. I mean, wouldn’t Damon have been even nobler if Pythias had not been his best bud? I dunno. I had never heard of Pythagorean friendship until just the other day, so let’s move on to something I know about. Which I’m increasingly convinced is a fairly small universe of things.
Do I even have friends? I have people I see regularly (or did, before March 2020) and whose company I enjoy. But aren’t they really mainly, I don’t know, work colleagues?
I had some people over to the house in 2016 when Burl, my high school friend, came to visit. I haven’t even for a moment thought of having people over since then. It’s just not something I do. (So if you, dear reader, think that we are friends — and perhaps we are — but wonder why you haven’t been invited, that’s why.) I am blessed with a big family, and just having parties at our house on people’s birthdays pretty much fills the social calendar. And while that’s certainly not enough for me with grandchildren — I don’t ever feel like I see them enough — it doesn’t leave me looking for unrelated people to interact with. I’m not going to make like Gatsby.
I’m pretty sure I had friends, as most would define the word, when I was a kid. I was really tight with Tony Wessler when we were in the 5th and 6th grades down in Ecuador. Tony and I connected several years back on Facebook, so we are still “friends” by that medium’s definition. In fact, Tony wrote to me on my birthday Sunday to say, “HB, Brad.” I wrote back to him to say, “Thanks, Tony!” So we’re all caught up now, I guess.
When I lived in New Orleans in 7th and 9th grades, my best bud was Tim Moorman, who lived across the street. We were both Karr Cougars. We had a lot of fun there. On weekends, several of us regularly spent the night at his house. In the summers his dad, a Navy chaplain, used to drive us up to Pontchartrain to the amusement park fairly frequently. A few years later, when I was in college I think, I spoke on the phone once with Chaplain Moorman, and he told me Tim was in the Navy, or at the Naval Academy, or something like that. Haven’t heard a word since.
My wife went to a private Catholic girl’s school, and graduated with a class of 37. I know about half of them, and several years back, my wife went down to the beach for a few days with a bunch of the ones to whom she’s closest. Meanwhile, in the 47 years since we’ve been married, my wife has met two people I graduated with, out of a class of 600. One of them was Burl, and I shared with you the awful news that he died a couple of years back. The other one disappeared after the last time we saw him, back in the mid-’70s. So basically, attending my 50th class reunion this year — if there was one — never entered my mind.
Maybe it’s a guy thing. Most of the people who I hear going on and on about friends, and making friends and maintaining friendships, and talking for hours with a bestie without even any beer being involved, are women. But then, there are all those “buddy movies” featuring guys. Weren’t Pancho and the Cisco Kid friends? Butch and Sundance? Maybe it’s that we have friends, but we absolutely don’t talk about it. And if I’ve broken the Guy Code by wondering aloud about it, blame on my having gotten desocialized by COVID.
But it’s probably just me. Maybe it’s being an extreme introvert. Maybe it’s that God has blessed me with a wonderful, big family, and they fill my life. Even though I only know a tiny percentage of the 8,916 on my Ancestry tree (the ones from, say, the 13th century are strangers to me, I must confess), the ones I do know and love pretty much fill up that part of me that needs to interact with people.
Also, it could have something to do with being a Navy brat. The longest I ever lived in one place growing up was two years, four and a half months. That was in Ecuador, where I knew Tony. Friends sort of came and went, like guest stars on a sitcom. Except that unlike Ernest T. Bass, they didn’t make return appearances.
But excuses aside, sometimes I wonder, Does this make me a bad person? I don’t know. Do you ever wonder the same thing?
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it the last couple of days because on my walks — I’m trying to get my walking going again — I’ve been listening to podcasts (as I’ve mentioned, I’m kind of sick of listening to newscasts), and I’ve gotten into an “Invisibilia” series on friendship.
One of them was about a friendship an American woman formed with a Romanian woman in the early ’80s when she was there doing some kind of anthropological work or something. After they got to be besties, the woman confessed to the American that she had been informing on her to the secret police. After the Wall fell, the American requested and received that agency’s files on her — there were boxes and boxes of them — and discovered her friend’s informing went far beyond what she’d thought. There were recriminations back and forth between them, but they remained friends.
The second one told the story of a couple of women (yeah, again, it’s usually women who get deeply into this friendship thing, or at least are willing to talk about it) who became nuns in the early ’60s. Both of them were sociable types who had a terrible time dealing with the convents’ rules that forbade them to form particular friendships with individuals, because they were supposed to love all people equally. (More of a Christian thing than a Pythagorean thing. Like what I said about Damon — wouldn’t it have been nobler if he had offered to take the place of just anyone, not just his best friend? I refer you to the story of the Good Samaritan, as a contrast.)
Very interesting stuff, but all kind of outside my experience, I’m afraid.
Anyway, it’s kind of an important term, and it feels strange to have so much trouble grasping it at my age. I thought I had a grip on it in kindergarten, but it’s just gotten more and more slippery as time has gone by.
I’d be interested to learn how y’all define the term…