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On Cronies, Buddies, Gal Pals and Chums

September 16, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN

What with Yasser and Yitzhak shaking hands, maybe the '90s will be known as "the friendly decade."

Friendship, though, tends be a bit like a favorite back yard tree. It's wonderful and comforting and all that. But for the most part, it's just there. And efforts at appreciation are, as a rule, syrupy, sappy, wooden, and not worth the Hallmark stock they should have been printed on.

Still, there's something to be said for occasionally pondering such important matters, and the September-October Utne Reader does just that.

As one editor's note in this package says, we generally take friends for granted, "giving our best time and attention to family, lovers and jobs, fitting friends in between the cracks, assuming they'll still be there for us when we need them."

Even the earliest playground pairings prove crucial.

"What makes friendships in childhood and adolescence so poignant is that we need the chosen comrade to be everything in order to rescue us from the gothic inwardness of family life," Phillip Lopate writes in the intelligent lead essay.

Aristotle, Lopate says, spoke of three types of friendship. The finest and rarest is "perfect friendship," based on admiration for another's good character.

Cicero agreed that what brings true friends together is "a mutual belief in each other's goodness."

This standard seems awfully demanding, Lopate remarks: "Who, after all, feels himself good nowadays?"

Still, he sticks to the integrity test. He disagrees, however, with those who see like-mindedness as a criterion: "Trust builds through the courage to assert disagreement, through the tactful acceptance that differences of opinion will have to remain."

In this era of diminishing economic returns and a fraying of the intergenerational family, urban friendship is an odd thing, requiring "a good deal of intentionality and pursuit"--and forgiveness.

Still, friendships may be more important than ever now. If this essay has a fault, it is in underestimating friendship by a degree. True, as Lopate writes, friends can't replace family or lovers.

But his dubious contention that they can't replace psychiatrists should be considered in light of where this book excerpt originally appeared: Family Therapist Networker magazine.

Another essay, taken from a 1986 issue of Ms.--a kinder, gentler era in that magazine's history--discusses the social responsibility of friendship.

Author Diane Cole recounts a famous scene from "Remembrance of Things Past," in which the Duchess of Guermantes, while heading off to a party, flightily sets a date with the obviously ill Charles Swann.

"But, my dear lady," the gentlemanly Swann replies after a pause. "I shall then have been dead for several months."

The impending death of Swann does not slow the duchess's exit. Only noticing that she is wearing the wrong colored shoes is important enough to make her go back.

Similarly, Cole recounts a friend who, upon hearing of the writer's miscarriage, immediately turns to her own minor workplace travails. People of this sort, Cole says, out of fear, ignorance or indifference "seek to escape the demands made by friendship and love. Their hearts remain closed; their imaginations refuse to reach outside narrow limits."

Other pieces lament such modern setbacks to friendship as the fact that letter writing is rare and "dropping by" for a visit almost extinct.

But the most fun part of friendship package is Jeff Reid's brief advisory on networking--a '90s substitute for more meaningful bonds.

Traits that suggest you may be among this growing breed: "You can no longer distinguish between 'good people' and 'people who are good to know.' "

If you're caught doing lunch with a networker, Reid advises, "Slap your forehead and say, Geez, I forgot I had a meeting with Johnson--I gotta go. While a pal might get miffed at such cavalier treatment, networkers will take it in stride, and probably admire you for it: They understand the importance of blowing people off for business reasons."

Few things, Reid says, are "more annoying than thinking you've found a new pal when you've really just found another amiable hustler on the make, calculating a career move. . . . It's disconcerting to feel so blatantly Rolodexed."

Required Reading

* Ten years? Yikes!

It hardly seems possible that the new Vanity Fair has been around since the first Reagan Administration--although the anniversary issue's annoyingly loquacious rehash makes it seem like centuries.

Still, there is plenty to celebrate, from the photo of Tom and Roseanne Arnold mud wrestling, reprinted in all its glory, to the catalogue of journalistic masterworks, merely enumerated: T.D. Allman's travels with Arafat, Myra MacPherson's study of Ted Bundy, Marie Brenner on BCCI and, later, Ross Perot, Ron Rosenbaum on Dr. Death.

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