Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Can I Still Win Friends and Influence People?

I'm not sure what we were discussing at the time. Possibly movies. Maybe men. Or perhaps the thought provoker simply arrived in my Outlook inbox a few weeks ago from out of the blue? My friend Nancy in L.A., the one who's always forcing me to take long, hard, uncomfortable looks at myself, sent me an email asking if I find it harder, if not impossible, to make new friends as I get older.

Her question sent a shiver zipping right down my spine. In posing it, she had poked a hibernating bear with a stick, forcing me to address a perturbing aspect of my evolution from young upstart journalist in New York City to middle-aged citizen of the world in one sentence. What had once been as easy as walking into a room and working it, has become, well, work -- hard work: scary, challenging and often fruitless. My current motto regarding friendship (borrowed, like so many things in my life, from a song by The Smiths): Don't go to it, let it come to you.


Alas, it's hard for friendship to find you when you're happiest at home sitting on the couch. I was a loner in New York City, but I was a far more accessible and contradictory one. Though I was fully immersed in my inner world, I lived to hit the town and meet new people. As my big brother Alexi so beautifully put it in the mid-'90s, I was a "recovering introvert."

I was a 23-year-old reporter at People magazine and in the thick of my awkward-social-butterfly phase, which had begun toward the end of high school, when I met Nancy. It was our first day as colleagues, and I was training her to fact check People's Passages section. That night, when everyone else was complaining about the magazine's ungodly Tuesday night closing schedule -- You were lucky if you made it home before 3am -- I breathed a loud sigh of relief. At least it was only Tuesday.

"Time magazine closes on Friday night?" I repeated Nancy's statement as a question. "I could never imagine having to work under those conditions. You could never go out on Friday night. I would die if I couldn't go out on Friday night." Friday and Saturday nights were sacred to me at the time.

Nancy looked at me like I was insane. She was only a year and half older than me, but clearly she'd settled into an adult life where weekends weren't just an excuse to go out, get drunk, meet new people and forget about most of them by the morning after. We were opposites, and we almost immediately attracted. It was that easy for me to make new friends back then.

My congenial ways continued in Buenos Aires, winning me friends and influencing people. If I hadn't grown so weary of the city and its insufferable bureaucracy over the course of four and a half years, leaving BA might have been as difficult as leaving New York City had been. I'd made some wonderful friendships there, ones that continue to this day, thanks in large part to the uniting and reuniting power of Facebook, which recently has been bringing former BA flames out of the woodwork in blazing droves.

When I moved to Melbourne in March of 2011, I had a decent social foundation. I'd been introduced to several fantastic people there by mutual acquaintances during my first visit several months earlier, and a guy I'd met during the final days of that holiday quickly became my new boyfriend. So while I didn't have quite the social life that I'd enjoyed in Buenos Aires, I never wanted for company, or a warm boy beside me. And Australians are so friendly and welcoming, I rarely felt alone with everybody there.

During the seventh to the final one of my 17 non-consecutive months in Bangkok, which began in March of 2012, a new sensation took over me. It was a burning desire to stay home. On the rare occasions that I did venture out socially, the few friends I'd made during my first six-month stint in Bangkok would greet me as if they were looking at a ghost. "Where have you been? Are you dating someone or something?" Apparently, in Bangkok, the only reason to stay home is to cuddle up to someone.

I usually offered some excuse about how I was busy working on my book, but the truth is, I couldn't be bothered. Jumping into the shower and getting ready to go out required too much of an effort. So did hanging out with people and trying to make conversation.

And so it goes in Cape Town. As I told my friend Rob, who will be arriving here with his boyfriend the weekend after next, I can still stay out late and be the life of the party -- when I bother to go out. I spent a long time blaming my lack of regular communion in Cape Town on my happy-homebody status, or the fact that I don't have a full-time job, an office to go to where I'm forced to fraternize with people who end up becoming my friends more out of force of habit than anything else.

But if I'm being completely honest with myself, it's probably me. Cape Town is a diverse city with so many interesting points of view, and I meet cool, intelligent people all the time, but as I get older, it's easier for me to appreciate a great conversation as an isolated experience and not necessarily the beginning of a wonderful new friendship. I no longer feel the need to try to make lightning strike again and again. If it happens, awesome, but I no longer feel compelled to make it happen.

On a less positive note, a life time of disappointment has made me warier of people and less willing to put up with their issues. Someone I thought might have potential to become a good friend recently went off on me unprovoked. In the past, I might have tried to salvage our budding friendship, or at the very least, defended myself.

In the present, I couldn't even muster up the energy to tell him off. "Well, that's that," I said to myself after griping about it for about a half hour to an old friend from BA who lives in Cape Town now, and moved on. In an attempt to protect myself from hot-and-cold temperaments and unexpected wig outs, I keep people at arm's length like never before. It's safer that way.

My best friend Lori says I shouldn't worry. In a way, I might be psychologically preparing myself for fatherhood. Being a parent can be a largely isolating experience, which leaves you little time for previously taken-for-granted activities like bonding with adults. Without realizing it, I might actually be preparing for the focus that being a parent requires. I like this theory because it means that I'm not merely becoming increasingly all about me (though this blog and the fact that I've spent the last two years working on my memoirs might suggest otherwise).

But then, maybe it's not completely by choice, which is a nice way of saying that even if I were to embark on a crusade to make friends and influence people, the moral majority might shun me. Just this morning, Nancy, who, at the moment, is reading my book, told me that she doesn't find me to be a sympathetic character at all. My first thought was this: Wow, I'm a character. I've finally made it. My second: Well Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City and Hannah Horvath on Girls aren't exactly sympathetic either, so maybe it's a writer thing.

Apparently, according to Nancy, who didn't actually allude to Sex and the City, Carrie and I have a lot in common: "Were I a reviewer, I'd be wondering how a guy who is such a bad judge of lovers gets such great friends."

Oh, yeah. I choose the wrong men. Just like Carrie. Sadly, my poor choosing skills have yet to result in a one-night stand with Jon Bon Jovi, though I did once get to fly with him and the band in their private plane from New Jersey to a gig in Pittsburg and back again, the latter leg taking us through a terrible thunderstorm that forced us to land at an alternate airport. ("Don't worry," Bon Jovi calmly said as Richie Sambora took my hand. "I would never die in such a glamorous way as a plane crash.")

Beyond forcing me to question my own congeniality, Nancy's comment made me realize that not only did I at one point have the capacity to befriend, but I also had the ability to choose the cream of the friendship crop. It reminded me of a time when friendships were everything to me, so much so that I wanted to know about everyone else's.

Years ago, during an interview with Patti LaBelle in her New York City hotel suite, I asked her a typical twentysomething-journalist question: " Who do you hang out with?" She looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. "First of all," she said. "I don't hang out. When I'm not recording or on tour, I'm at home." While she had many acquaintances and people with whom she was friendly, they had their lives and she had hers. I can't say I really understood where she was coming from at the time (How could such a friendly, outgoing woman keep herself cooped up at home?), but now I do.

There's no place like home. And since I live alone, it means being alone with my own thoughts, obsessing over every physical sensation, thinking about mortality, the meaning of life, the meaning of my life. When I do get out and talk to other writers or people who are interested in what I do, I often find myself explaining why I occasionally (two or three times a week) have to force myself to do the writer-in-a-Cape Town-cafe thing. It's that or be completely engulfed by my encroaching reclusiveness.

I certainly don't expect to meet new people who will eventually become my friends while tap-tap-tapping away at Cafe Mojito or Fatcactus, but I'm not above it. In the meantime, I'm comfortable in my party of one. When I'm ready to go home, I can just go home. No awkward goodbyes. No coming up with excuses for my abrupt departure, no coming up with excuses period. The other day I actually breathed a sigh of relief when I felt a migraine coming on because it meant that I had a valid excuse not to go a gathering I'd RSVP'd to.

It may have been a perfect opportunity to meet new people, maybe even make a friend, but frankly, I'm not so sure how to do that anymore. It probably requires calling people up and making plans with them, and who has time for that? Well, I do, but it's so nice here on my couch.

I know. I know. Friendships don't just happen. You have to make friends. Sometimes people talk about romances that just come from out of nowhere (a development that's never happened to me). One day you're single, the next you're in love. Nobody talks about friendships like that, but I wish they would. That would give me hope.

Or maybe I don't need hope. Like Nancy said, I already have so many great friends. Who could ask for anything more?
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