On Friends and Friendship
My best friend is in the hospital – again.
He has had a rough couple of years and faces new challenges. I worry for him.
We met as third graders, more than 60 years ago. We went through school together, were students at the University of Oregon together, shared classes, spent endless hours at football and basketball games.
I was with him in the phone booth when he called our Shakespeare teacher to say he had to miss class because his grandmother had died. It was the third time that grandmother had passed but the clueless teacher never figured it out.
I was best man at his wedding. He attended all of mine but one.
We both ended up working in media, me on the news side, he on the business side. He was an internationalist, living mostly in Europe. But we met often, frequently in exotic foreign locales or our favorite shared destination, New York City. Good food. Good drink. Fine cigars. Great jazz. Our adventures, in our mind at least, are legend.
But we have not been able to do much together in recent years. No new adventures. I am slowing down, and he has been ill.
Still, we are as close as ever, maybe even closer.
And that has gotten me thinking about friends and friendship.
Most of us have a few, maybe a handful, of best friends who go back to our beginnings. We share common history, of course, and that is part of the friend dynamic. But there often are long gaps in those shared experiences. I have not seen some of my best friends in several years and we communicate by phone or email or social media infrequently.
But they remain close to my heart. And when we do visit, it is as if those gaps never occurred.
A dear friend calls these “slipper friendships,” meaning that even as the years have passed, when we do get together it as if we each have stepped into a pair of comfy old slippers.
Such slipper friends are a life blessing. And each is irreplaceable.
Most of us have other friendships, of course.
My wife is truly my best friend and I have inherited friends through marriage to her. If they are not precisely old slipper friends, they are close. I cannot imagine my life without them.
We can make friends at work based on proximity, shared experiences, and shared professional values. In my life, a few of those work relationships have developed into life-long friendships, a few of the slipper variety. I cannot imagine my life without them. But often work friendships fade as people come and go from the workplace to find shared experiences elsewhere.
The work friendship dynamic changes when you become the supervisor/boss. As an editor, I came to suspect work friendships built on the boss-subordinate relationship. I do not mean to sound as cynical as it may seem, and certainly there were truly wonderful exceptions, but I found that many of those friendships evaporated when I was no longer in a position to advance careers. That hurt.
Social media has helped change our conception of friendship. I have social media friends from all over the world, some I have never met and never will. Some come to me through these columns. We are friends because of shared values and interests that compel me to seek them out or accept their friend requests.
But I find it fascinating that at the same time I retain social media friends who share my personal values and political leanings (and cull those with whom I fundamentally disagree), I am delighted to maintain close slipper friendships with people whose interests and values are fundamentally different.
I am not a person of faith. But several of my closest friends are highly spiritual. And some of my old slipper friends hold political beliefs that I cannot accept, though our disagreements are more than civil.
We can forgive our closest friends their perceived shortcomings (as they surely forgive mine) but generally find that impossible on social media.
As with so much in our lives, I fear I have taken too many of my friendships for granted through the years. I am terrible at remembering birthdays and anniversaries and other life-critical moments even as my best friends remember mine.
But coming out of the pandemic, I have vowed to change that.
During the lockdown, my priority (and yours, I suspect) was maintaining close contact with family. We had only so many Zoom hours to give.
As the pandemic ends, and now that I am retired, I plan to set out on a series of road trips. I want to reconnect personally with as many of my dear friends as possible, to catch up, reminisce, make plans. And I am especially committed to tracking down former teachers and mentors who helped shape my life. At my age, I understand more than I ever did as a young man, that time is running out.
So fair warning to my old friends – slipper friends, work friends, mentor friends – I am headed your way.
I hope you will be as happy to see me as I will be to see you.
And as for my best buddy in the hospital, I know we have adventures still to come. Promise.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full-time teaching at the end of May 2020. He writes a weekly opinion column. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon.