Losing a "Friendship" I
Bill Long 6/27/07
The Difficulty of Male-Male Friendships in Our Day
Yesterday I had the experience of losing a person I thought had been a friend for about seven years. I had been doubting for some time that we, in fact, were "friends," but yesterday's exchange ended it all, apparently for all time. I spent a good deal of time thinking about what went "wrong" in it and what lessons there might be for friendship, and I offer these thoughts to you today. I will share our last, and fateful, email correspondence with you in the next two essays. This essay will "set the context" for our relationship.
Beginning a "Friendship"
When I began work as an attorney in a prestigious Portland firm about 7 1/2 years ago, I met a man about 13 years my senior who, though not a lawyer, was visiting with one of our retired partners the day I met him. This man, whom I will call John, immediately seemed to take a liking to me. He told me he especially liked the breadth of my background--in law, history, religion, philosophy and other things--and that he, in fact, was a historian and not an attorney but had worked with attorneys most of his professional career. The three of us (John, the retired partner and I), shared lunch and talked about themes in American history and law which interested us. After lunch, John asked me if I would be interested in meeting again for lunch and conversation. I said I would. My thought was that we all need friends, that John and I had a lot in common, and that we might not only enjoy each other's company but be mutually beneficial to each other in some way.
We then met about once every three weeks, and I think there was true reciprocity in our meetings. I had just gone through my divorce, and John was unfailingly helpful in making suggestions about how to "start again." He had been "single" for 20 years after his marriage ended, and had found a special woman about five years previously. In fact, I got to know his companion quite well over the next few years. We had some things in common--and she was so delighted that I had lived across the hall from the son of a distant cousin during my freshman year of college at a university 3,000 miles away that she used to tell all her friends about this coincidence.
So, John was full of good advice and encouragement, and his partner was full of good fun and stories. John and I began to read and comment on each other's work. He was working on a book which required a lot of legal and historical skills in order to write; I managed to help him sort out some of the legal tangles, and he was grateful. He wrote a nice letter of recommendation for me if I planned to put together a "file" to apply for jobs in the areas of college or law teaching. Early in 2003, when I left my legal practice for a teaching position in law in Salem, he offered to come down on occasion for dinner or some other arrangement so we could get together. In fact, I would usually come up to Portland, and we would meet either for a meal or after I met other friends. That is, I began to schedule my life so that I had a once-monthly "friends day" in Portland, where I would visit several people throughout the day in their offices, homes or other settings.
Small Questions Arise
When things go awry in a relationship they can do so by a sudden change of fortune or by a gradual change. My relationship with John changed very gradually. I can see how things changed in hindsight, much like you can see all the steps you took on a hike from the high elevation at the pinnacle of the hill you are climbing, but I didn't see them then. Here are a few things that occurred.
John was finishing his book--a rather massive tome on which he had spent nearly a decade researching, interviewing people, reading sources and writing. I, who had already written several books, knew of the crunches, pressures, editorial issues attendant upon finishing a manuscript. You always want to rework another paragraph, to confirm one more citation, to include one more quotation. But ultimately it has to come to an end. So we worked through that process together, with him doing a good job on bringing the book to a conclusion.
But, as every author knows, once you have "finished" a book, the fun is just beginning. You have to promote it with vigor if you want to sell it. Many people think that all you have to do is "put it out there" and people will come to it like people came to Kevin Costner's baseball park in Iowa in Field of Dreams. But it doesn't happen that way. You have to look for and arrange speaking engagements, to try to get reviews in prominent journals, to get an occasional review in a newspaper or other outlet which will "get your name" and book out there.
I offered to help. Indeed, from late 2005 to mid-2006, (when the book came out), I wrote a number of reviews that eventually would appear in places that would be calculated to maximize the impact of his book. In fact, I got email messages from several friends after I wrote the reviews telling me that they were planning to buy the book because they liked my review of it. I was pleased; things were working as I had hoped.
So far, so good. But then, in 2006, I think things began to change for us, though I neither pointed this out or made a big deal of it. Once his book was "out," he wanted to take a break before working up to other projects. This is normal and good, I informed him. But as he began to look for new things to work on, he began to "lean" more and more on me for help. At first I was willing to give the help, but then it became evident to me that things had changed between us. To my discredit, however, I never mentioned anything--perhaps I should have.
Here is what I mean. He would be doing some research on a technical legal question--and would want to find a particular section of a federal statute passed in the 1930s. United States laws are arranged in a codified and an "annual" fashion. The two arrangements often have nothing to do with one another. Indeed, sometimes the codification of a law takes the law passed by Congress and distributes sections all over the US Code, much like a spring wind will scatter the spores of a tree all over town. John asked me to help him find the text of a section of the reauthorized Reclamation Act of 1902 (reauthorized sometimes in the 1930s). I did about an hour work for him, found the statute and sent it to him. He seemed pleased, but didn't say anything. The next week another request came. Could I find such-and-such case that had to do with the interpretation of that statute? Sure, I said, since I had knowledge of how to find cases quickly, even if I didn't have the proper citation or even the year of decision.
I sometimes received John's requests with annoyance, but I unfailingly did them both because they didn't take long to comply with and because I was learning something in the process. When we would get together at his home in Portland, I would usually hand over the results of the work (as well as my old New Yorker magazines--he would regularly remind me to bring them to him), and then he would give me advice on women. I thought that things were getting a bit out of proportion, but I didn't say anything. We had such good times when we were together.
Until...the next essay.