The Woman Has Friends

Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I'm a womans man: no time to talk....

Friendships are a tricky thing; some have enjoyed creation due to proximity and convenience while others have been forged due to common shared success and common shared failure. Whether born of alliances, geography or mutual enlightened interests, the key to the entire matter is not how many friends one has but how long (and eventually rewarding) friendships remain in existence. If one loses touch because of life events, the friendship technically remains but the depth and validity of it can easily be called into question. If one gathers up friendships as easily as picking up dry cleaning, points are given for frequency but taken away for superficiality. While the final metric of friendships is still undetermined, the axioms which appear to carry the most weight are:
  • You can never have too many friends
  • Friends are better than enemies
  • Always respect the duration of your oldest friends (a sideways homage to the old saw: "Make new friends but keep the old, etc.)
  • Try to avoid friends who are crazier than yourself.
Jane Bradley was well-adjusted and patient sort with a long list of fairly good acquaintances and a few fairly close friends. Her friends had been harvested from a series of common experiences; neighbors, classmates, sorority sisters and co-workers. The list was stable thanks to her kind nature and consistent use of birthday and holiday cards and non-intrusive phone calls made just at the right time. If Jane sensed any degree of preoccupation or imbalance, she would politely excuse herself from calling and suggest they talk at a more convenient time in the future. What made Jane unique in this regard, she would follow-up with the phone call at the right time and spend the conversation dealing with pleasant topics and never ask for either a favor or present some awkward request-based obligation. She had always felt when friends were constantly needy and only contacted someone when they wanted something, that particular friendship was on its last legs. At times, she felt bad that technology was making communication easier. While a hand-written letter took more time than one could imagine, it had far more substance and thought behind it than a cut/pasted or forwarded e-mail ever could enjoy.

Jane was also very generous with her own time; while she kept her proactive phone calls and obligation-related letters to a polite minimum, she did put up with long-winded but well-meaning friends who always seemed to find themselves in social and moral quandaries. Jane rarely gave advice because too often she was correct and had to make a polite dances around the fact in which she had literally had told them so. One of her friends, a pleasant but stupid woman named Harriet, would continually get herself into jams and when finally semi-resolving those jams, would make grand pronouncements ranging from "never again" to "the lesson I learned was..." but her desire to improve her lot in life was easily upstaged by her continuous and uncanny ability to always say and do stupid things with alarming frequency and with no regard to the audience in front of her. Harriet was well-meaning but her age of fifty had stripped away any of the innocent victim labels she so desperately loved to display. Furthermore, it was obvious that she should have known better (a nine year old would have none better) but her ignorance fueled further events which again, added to her ongoing momentum of stupidity, resulted in another cycle of shame and ridicule. Issues ranging from ignoring words with many letters, refusal to follow the simplest instructions or usually, issues involving affairs of the heart. She was not one to hide behind a strict set of absolutes; her approach to desires she wanted was best described as a moral flexibility with an underlying desire to cut to whatever chase available. Needless to say, as the master of emotion cannonballs extraordinaire with a desire for guidelines rather than rules, suffice it to say that Harriet called a lot.

Jane would listen and reassure her friend with supportive and vague comments. Jane had known Harriet since high school and knew her to be kind hearted and while stupid, her stupidity was without malice or significance. Most of her pain was self-inflicted and as such, suffered more than the people around her. Jane treated her as someone who would treat a dumb animal: with support, kindness and very low expectations. She gave up giving Harriet advice over thirty years ago and decided it was better to provide an open heart then to try to get her to do something she was truly incapable of doing: thinking before acting. In all fairness, Harriet's first husband, Kevin, was a mean alcoholic with demonstrated bouts of legitimate insanity and self-loathing sprinkled liberally throughout their train wreck of a marriage. Luckily there were no children but as much as her husband was a wierdsmobile of the first order, Harriet was not a complete victim because her husband's behavior was already out of control when they first met. Jane's husband, Billy, had always hypothized that Harriet's inabilities to shut up and/or leave some things alone for a moment resulted in his actions. While a tragedy, Billy had a pretty good idea of one of Kevin's motivations to drink as much or as often as he did.

"I understand, Harriet" said Jane as she got comfortable in a chair.

Harriet had been over served and made a complete fool out of herself at a recent party. A poor drinker with a tendency for ill-timed and loud comments, Harriet was again apologizing for her behavior to her friend. Jane had spent many years positioning herself as a good friend to Harriet but constantly made it clear to Harriet that while she was a good friend, she was not Harriet's best friend. That responsibility was far too great for any one person and while Jane was a solid supporter of Harriet in the general sense, even she knew the potential of being dragging into the depths of an emotional black hole where words and acts of quiet support go in but nothing ever comes out. Harriet was not unique within Jane's world. Due to her loyalty and ability to remain in touch with people, she collected a large group of misfit friends because she refused to let go unless faced with a good reason. If a friend grew distant and detached, Jane sent handwritten notes of support and respect. If a friend grew in a different direction, Jane made a point of learning to respect the new direction with original holiday letters or a lunch planned months in advance. Compounding her choice of not disconnecting, many friends came back to her after relocations, divorces, tragedies and this time, finally appreciated her and would never go away again. When asked, Jane never seemed to have a specific answer but responded that friends were friends and should be cherished. A kind person who describe her friends in a manner similar to an island of misfit toys where others, less kind, would refer to them as a collective bunch of painted-up crazies with a blind spot for mass quantities of boxed white wine.

Jane never judged or implied any moral superiority: she welcomed old friends back into the fold with the same sincere touch she had demonstrated in the first place. Over the years, friends would show up on her doorstep numerous times with tear-soaked stories of personal upheaval ranging from looming eviction to falling in the love with the wrong person. Jane took them in, provided them with some needed support and eventually waved as they went out to try all over again. Usually, they would continue their string of poor choices and it seemed Jane was always there to brush the shit out of their hair and hand them a much-needed ear to fill with a new set of well-intentioned but doomed pronouncements of change.

Today's issue with Harriet was not unusual but she had before more and more difficult to provide valid aid. Harriet was legendary by her inability to accept advice which was compounded with her generally naive and finite approach to affairs of the heart. Always in love with being in love, she fell hard for one man after another and every time, was disappointed with the outcome. The few men who were kind and honest were always pushed out by Harriet's other character flaw: she could not shut up...ever. Jane had learned to tune her out as a defensive mechanism but it was rare to meet anyone else who could endure Harriet's never-ending chatter. Harriet would talk to herself when she was alone and when someone did fall into earshot, the only change was microscopic pauses from Harriet out of politeness to attempt to add another voice to the cacophony. She started each day with a monologue of whatever visual cues were presented to her as she rubbed her eyes (as she woke) , she talked as she ate (all three meals), she talked as she drove (the cell phone industry was primarily to blame here), talked all day at work (luckily, she was a customer service representative), talked in movies, talked during television shows and even talked in her sleep. To understand why Harriet did what she did was not the concern; the brutal truth was that she never stopped talking which caused an exodus away from her: except for Jane, the professionally inattentive and the hearing impaired.

Jane eventually got Harriet to calm down and politely ended the call as soon as Harriet took an unscheduled breath between rants. Harriet would be calling back within an hour so Jane's husband suggested they leave the house and go to an early dinner. Jane had never gotten around to getting a cell phone so leaving the house was her way of putting out a "closed" sign. The answering machine had not worked for several years and neither of them felt replacing it was a good option; because if Jane was home, the phone would ring all the time and an answering machine would only add another layer of misery by queuing up calls which were unlucky enough to occur when they were away.

"You know," said Jane. "That is a good idea. I am exhausted from Harriet's last few calls and it would be nice to relax and not talk for awhile."

The couple left the house quickly; a planned getaway still needed to be initiated as soon as the decision was made. There was no sense in planning to leave and then, due to circumstances which delayed their departure, to get pulled back into the house for yet another call. The window of opportunity was going to be no longer than five minutes and they both needed some air. As they walked to the car, they smiled at each other. Her husband Billy knew the story before they were married; the "for better or for worse" section of their vows was directed towards Jane's constant support of an ever-growing legion of friends and he accepted it as part of what he loved about her. However, while he supported it, he did not feel compelled to nurture it and made many attempts at rescuing her from her responsibilities (which she loved in a pleasantly conflicted way). Several times Billy had endured weekend visits of girlfriends like Harriet and he and the dog made themselves very scarce during these periods. The only time he was forced to cope with the never-ending discussions was during dinner and he had invented a method of only spending a few actual minutes at the table while constantly volunteering to reload drinks (or fetch more wine), tend to the grill or any activity which got him out of ear shot.

They both had left their cell phones turned off and at home. Their trip was going to be of low-risk and the need of a cell phone was quickly dismissed. Jane's needy friends also had her "confidential" cell phone and it was commonplace for the home phone to ring and if unsuccessful, the cell phone ringing immediately afterward. The cell phone was just another way to stay tethered to Jane and her inner core of über-needy gal pals wouldn't let a momentarily failure of third-party telecommunication option to dissuade them to continually attempt numerous connections as they needed her and her positive energy constantly. As the car quietly drove down the shady street, Jane let out an audible sigh. Billy smiled and said the same comment he had said a hundred times, "I suppose it is nice not to talk."

Jane, her ear still warm and exhausted from the recent go-around with Harriet, smiled and said, "Right now, all I want to do is sit quietly and let the wind blow through my hair."

"You take these obligations on yourself," said Billy. His courage growing with her momentary exhaustion. "You need to start cropping down your stable of friends or do what
Linny did last year."

"They are all important," said Jane.

"You are all important to them, I doubt if they are all important to you."

"What do you mean?"

"They have to talk to you. But I don't think you need to talk to them."

"While I think you mean well, what do you mean?"

"These women are addicted to the opportunity to yammer on incessantly about their problems, their failures and why they should be considered victims and I have never seen you say anything other than 'I understand' and 'that's too bad.'"

"I talk."

"Oh, you talk. Please don't misconstrue my comments to imply you are without things to say but what I am trying to say, is you are being used as a listening repository without any opportunity to benefit from a balanced and kind conversation. Your friends suck the lifeforce out of you and then, once you generate more energy, they come back and do it again. While your positive energy seems to be able to regenerate, some times you can't make it as fast as it gets sucked out."

"That seems a little harsh."

"Beside being true, I can only conclude one of two things: One, you want to be needed and aren't concerned about the particular outcome of their issue. You allow them to proclaim, fail, seek redemption and start over again. Or two, you don't know how to disconnect from the pattern. Either way, you have friends but the accompanying burden can be a bit daunting at times. True friends would seek a balance of your time; true friends have to give as much as they take. The other issue which concerns me more is in that rare occasion when one of your crazies actually achieves some success due to your advise, follow-through and ongoing counsel. You used to hear from whatshername every three hours and she landed that rich guy and now nothing. She never calls, you send her a Christmas card and never receive one back and I think this is going on five years. You won' hear from her until she needs something and sooner or later, Mr. Moneybags will bounce her and all her baggage on the street and the first thing she will do is call you."

Jane just thought quietly; his observations were valid and his tone wasn't fault-finding. He had never complained about the time and effort she had invested in the inner circle and he also never muttered an "I told you so" when one of them either violated any number of commandments, got a divorce, fell off the wagon or did the exact opposite of a recent epiphany. Whether it was wisdom born of pain or just a tricky day, Jane knew something had to be done fairly soon and allow Billy's insights to seep into her subconscious. While she could say that she never forced him into sharing the burden because he would always reluctantly answer the phone and quick hand it over to Jane without looking back, the time many of these friends stole would never be able to be recovered. This was compounded that a vast majority of these friends would never ask how she was doing or offering to lend an ear to some current challenge in which Jane was struggling. Most of her top tier of girlfriends knew Billy and kept their distance because of the nature of their own agenda and need. Harriet was a different story; she and Jane had shared a mutual friend who made the connection and thanks to the transitive property, automatically placed Harriet and Jane into priority friend status along with their mutual friend. This brief relationship did not last long because six months later, the mutual friend left town, leaving Jane to inherit all the heavy emotional lifting.

Billy was not the issue: most of these friends were high school and college chums who had stuck together through separate college experiences and always seemed to stay together no matter the circumstances. He had seen the evolution of her attempts at keeping friends together from both sides and always passively supported her efforts. He knew most of her projects and never allowed the frustration to be transferred to their relationship. She had met Billy in eleventh grade in an English Composition class. She was aware of him but they never had an opportunity to have a class together and as such, he fell into a generic slot in her social circle without comment or thought. However, early in the class, Billy had challenged the teacher when he was crafting examples of double negatives and won her heart.

The teacher was giving a litany of standard double negatives and said, "It is not uncomfortable in the room" and was ready to read another when Billy's hand shot up.

"Yes, Billy?"

"I don't believe that should be considered an example, Mr. Fitzke. While it could be considered a double negative with the right inflection and circumstance, I feel it can just as easily be considered just an accurate and basic comment."

Mr. Fitzke didn't know what to do. He had been listing the same examples for the last twenty years and no one had ever challenged him. He was excited to see some fire in the kid so he allowed some latitude in the discussion. He folded his paper and sat on his desk, immediately in the front of the class and said, "Prove it."

Billy smiled and started talking about spectrums of heat, the fallacy of either something having to be either uncomfortable or comfortable and the word "uncomfortable" being an accurate enough word by itself and its ability to easily handle a qualification. The discussion went back and forth for the whole hour and at the end, Billy's comment "that the shadings of one being uncomfortable or comfortable were not a zero/sum concept where one could be very comfortable" was the final nail in the metaphorical coffin and as such, Mr. Fitzke torn his list up and surrendered and agreed with his thoughts. The class was engaged and the healthy discourse was a fresh start for everyone. As a result, Billy moved up onto Jane's radar and was eventually acquired as a friend, then a boyfriend and finally a husband. Jane had never told Billy the story and felt someday he was worthy of hearing the legend which loomed within her but not today.

They went to dinner and had a very simple conversation: issues with resolutions, information gathered and shared and conclusions reached at all levels. There was a sufficient number of pauses in their discussions but there was many facts presented and harvested with no excessive emotion or guilt. They had been married long enough to be complimentary in both practice and spirit without excessively beating an issue or idea into the ground without good reason. The meal was a wonderful departure and as they stood up, Jane looked at her watch and sighed.

"I bet there are ten messages waiting for you," said Billy. "And I bet nine of them are from Harriet."

"You are probably right," said Jane. "I don't know what to do....but I don't want to hear any of your opinions. However, a broken answering machine just places those theoretical messages into the air above our house."

Billy nodded and said, "I have only one thing to say and you have heard me say this before. 'Don't give any advice." She never takes it and I think it adds to the strain. Just listen and leave it at that."

Jane knew Billy was right: it was time to start harvesting the progressively more frantic messages from crazy and needy Harriet and she only had a few moments before the phone rang so she positioned herself near the phone with a glass of water and a footstool. It was going to be a long night. She didn't know whether her involvement was just unique to her but she kept drifting back to a piece of Macbeth she mistakenly memorized as an underclassman. "This is so 'And then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.'"

Jane was brought back the present by the phone ringing. Jane reached for the phone, took a deep sigh and said, "Hello, Harriet?"

She listened for about five minutes and by the facial expressions did not even attempt at interrupting. She nodded a few times and finally raised her voice and said, "Harriet. You have to stop. I am tired and I cannot listen anymore; my ears are full."

Then was another long pause and Jane said quietly, "Thank you. I must hang up now and don't worry about it. But, do not call tonight, I can't listen anymore."

Then was one more pause and a polite but satisfying click. She was off the phone. Finally.

If you look at the tradition of the epic hero ... there is this sort of pattern that the hero delivers people to the promised land but does not see it himself.

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