I was surprised by his attitude but the more we talked about it, the more it made sense. Friends eat up your time, make you self-indulgent, exert peer pressure from early on, so you won’t succeed in work. I know many people who flunked out of school thanks to spending time among friends. A friend of mine in Belgrade had a choice once, to play a game of chess with another friend, or to go to the final exams in the school of architecture. He was ready for the exams, but on the whim of a moment, he decided to play chess, and he didn’t show up for the exams, and so he flunked.
Many people start smoking and develop other bad habits because of hanging out with their friends. When I am around friends, I tend to drink too much. In fact, right now, while writing this essay, I have a headache because I drank too much wine with my Russian friend Misha last night. Now I wish I hadn’t stopped by in Albany to see him. He even brought out Cuban cigars, so we could hurt our lungs, for old times’, friendship’s sake.
I know friends who have stolen each other’s girlfriends and run off with them. I still think a childhood friend of mine stole my father’s Swiss watch, my only patrimony.
If friendships tend to be so bad for us, why do we have them? Right now I think I’d be better off without friends. I would be writing a novel this minute but because of friends, I have a complaint, and I am laying it out here.
If something is bad for you but you keep doing it, it’s a habit, and if you know it’s a habit and try to get rid of it but fail, it’s an addiction. I am addicted to friendships. That is almost the only explanation I have.
Well, I’m not quite serious about trying to quit friendships. I like them too much. That’s the stage of addiction where there’s no way of quitting since the will is not there. I can’t will not to have friendships; I like them, and enjoy them, and when I don’t spend time with my friends, I become restless, I think of giving them a call or emailing them. Still, what are friends for? You can do anything you can think of better with someone else. You can work better with a colleague. You can confess to your priest or psychologist better, without having to feel embarrassed or ashamed. You can be more intimate with your spouse or partner. You can fight better with an enemy.
In terms of personal development, sure, friendships play a role. You go out into the streets and learn how to run with the pack. You figure things out, learn your relative strengths and weaknesses. You get to know who you are, what you like, and who likes you.
Friendship was good and important in my childhood when I needed to figure things out for myself and establish an identity and a sense of who I wanted to be. I was caught between the crossfire of the atheist school and a Baptist church and family. Both had a prescription for how I was supposed to think and behave. On most points, they actually agreed. I was supposed to be clean, have short hair, talk modestly, listen and obey, never fight. Consequently, I was slovenly, grew long hair, and fought every day. I fought even with my friends, just to figure out who was stronger and to what extent, and whether there was a way to become more skilled as a fighter.
As a kid, I could practice honesty and equality with friends, moreso than with my brothers and sisters. My brother was two years older than me, so there was no equality there. He was stronger, and we fought almost every day, and while I grew more and more difficult for him to beat, he stayed stronger in our early years. He could ski better. I found areas where I could beat him, such as chess, but overall, he was above me in age and in social status, from what I could tell. He had his friends, and I wasn’t allowed to be with them because I was too young. At one time, I almost killed him, which improved our relationship almost to the point of friendship as he quit bullying me as a pastime. Once, when he was threatening me, I picked up what at first I thought was a stone, but it turned out to be a chunk of rusty iron, half the size of a grenade. When he didn’t heed my counter-threat—One more step and I will throw this at your head!—I threw the iron ball, struck him right below the hairline on the forehead. He went out cold and had to be taken to the hospital, and to this day he has a scar.
I made a friend on my own. A boy named Ljubo moved to our neighborhood, and we examined each other over the fence. I’m stronger than you, I said. No, I’m stronger, he said. I jumped the fence and we wrestled. It turned out I was stronger but he could do many things better than I, such as catch frogs and snakes with his bare hands. Anyhow, there was a sensation of equality, and I could tell him anything on my mind and he told me anything on his mind, such as which girls we liked. We compared notes on our development. I could talk to him about things I couldn’t mention to my brother or my mother.
Visiting my friend also gave me a glimpse of another world. My family was strictly religious, Baptists, and his, Serbian Orthodox, wasn’t. In his yard, I watched plum brandy being distilled, parents drinking.
My friend gave me an opportunity to be bad, that is, free. When we were eleven, we walked into his father’s room. He collected the one-ounce bottles of various whiskeys and brandies. We tasted them, and though we hated the scorching taste, we challenged each other to see who could drink more. In a week we emptied his father’s collection, but so we wouldn’t get caught, we filled the bottles with our urine. We admired how similar the urine looked to Johnny Walker, and we were sure we wouldn’t get caught. The father, Ljubo claimed, kept those just to look at, not to drink. Well, he was wrong. The father found out our misdeed in a painful way, both for him and for my friend, who got a solid beating.
We also smoked for the first time together. He stole a pack of cigarettes from his mother, and not to be worsted, I stole a pack from a hotel. We hid in my attic and smoked and coughed, feeling like Indians, who smoked a peace pipe. He became addicted to smoking right after that and never quit. I perhaps would have become addicted if we hadn’t gone to the coast. There we discovered a nude beach, and for three weeks, we visited it every day. I found the naked bodies of adult women so fascinating that I forgot to smoke a single cigarette the whole vacation, and after it, I found that I had lost the smoking habit.
When he moved to another end of our town, our friendship diminished, and I made other friends. I moved to the States, and he stayed home. During the Serbo-Croatian war, he became a Serbian soldier, and I heard reports that he participated in the bombing of our hometown. That friendship seems to be ruined; it is hard to forgive something like that—anyhow, it will take a couple of decades perhaps. On the other hand, maybe the rumor is not true. And maybe I made his childhood bitter, who knows; maybe it was partly because of me that he resented the town.
I made an unusual friend whom I respected. He was physically relatively weak and suffered from scoliosis but he was tremendously intelligent. Darko (not his real name) got a telescope and invited me to see the sky from his rooftop. He dazzled me with his astro-knowledge. He also excelled in courage—he drove a motorbike without a license in daredevil style. And he read Dostoyevski and Nietzsche. We argued about Christianity, Hinduism, Marxism and all sorts of things. His conversation was stimulating, if sometimes overly rhetorical and pushy. Many people found him intimidating intellectually. He played the piano, and won the Yugoslav competition for conservatory students of the piano by playing Tchaikovski’s First Piano Concerto.
At the time, I planned to go to medical school to become a psychiatrist. I was also tempted by philosophy. There was a bit of competition between us, and although he was much more successful than I was so early on, he always treated me with respect. My going to the States to study, he said, gave him courage to do likewise. He came to the New England Conservatory of Music. I visited him in Boston several times and he visited me in New York.
In some things he was a late bloomer, intentionally so, even claiming that sexuality was terrible for spirituality. So, while visiting me in New Haven, when my girlfriend moaned at night with me in bed, he, as a good guest, got worried, so he brought her water with aspirin, and only when he saw us scrambling for covers did he understand the nature of her pain.
Later, he had a playboy stage, working as an accompanist for the Boston Ballet Company. When I visited him there, he grinned from ear to ear, surrounded by ballerinas, more pretty women than would ever surround me, and he dated some of them. We got married around the same time, and have children about the same age. Well, his son is one year older than mine, and my daughter is one year younger than his younger son. Now the competition has transferred to our kids.
His kids have been trained in the piano and cello just like my son. My son enjoys playing Bach suites; occasionally, I remember Darko talking about celestial harmonies and Bach. And his kids excel at languages, just the way I did. Darko has become religious and he practices various forms of mysticism, something I tried to do in my adolescence. I cannot claim that I have crucially influenced him but together with my older brother I have played a significant catalytic role. And he has done likewise for me. I have not become a psychiatrist, but a writer, a composer of words, something similar to being a musician. Actually, I cannot ascribe to his influence my bad choice of career.
Although we competed in many ways, he wasn’t the mean kind of friend who would talk badly behind your back. He read some of my stories and claimed that he liked them and praised them to others. Now, that was something unique because I had some other friends who, when they read my stories, looked only for weaknesses and reflections of American corruption and simple-mindedness. So Darko proved to be a genuine friend, rejoicing in his other friends’ excellence and achievement. One thing about him, he was a Serb but managed to stay in Croatia and keep his job during the nationalistic regime. Even amidst the war, our friendship didn’t waver. I could tell that his sympathies were with Belgrade certainly more than mine were, but we managed to overcome our differences through a sense of humor, irony, and satire. We shook our heads at the overall stupidity of the wars and nationalism, and proceeded to play music and read stories. He wrote, too, several reviews of the contemporary music scene, and I admired those. I could tell that he had the attitude, I could do what you do if I chose to.
Friendship helps us gauge where we stand. It reminds us of our earlier promises, and gives us continuity. We calibrate our performance in many areas and even overall through how we are seen by friends, and by how we see them. Each time I visit Darko after an absence, he gives me a summary of his life, his achievements, his philosophy, even the material state of affairs, such as how many apartments he possesses, and how many miles his Mazda has accumulated. He goes overboard that way, so on the last occasion, he talked for hours about himself. He got a black belt in karate, he could swim that far, he could lift so much weight. Now that was truly wonderful—through discipline and exercise, he had overcome his childhood scoliosis, and now had the athletic body of a twenty year old. When we got out and met a well-known Croatian writer together, Darko recounted his physical success story, and wanted us both to feel how big and hard his biceps were. That was simple and charming and impressive. He had worked hard to get to this point, starting as a sickly boy and now in his middle age he was a healthy and strong man.
But he kept going, and talked all evening about himself.
He gave me newspaper reviews of his piano performances in Austria and Italy. He talked about renovating his apartment on the coast.
Finally, I managed to squeeze in a word, a question, Well, don’t you want to know what I am up to?
Sure, go ahead, shoot.
I’ve just got a two-book deal with HarperCollins, with foreign rights sold in several countries.
Wow, he said.
At first he seemed happy, but then he sank into silence and depression for most of the evening, and he talked about what a failure it was to stay in Croatia, how limited the country was, how a CD he made there had no chance of seeing the world, how it was only local, and how even locally, classical music was dead, and so what’s the point? I’m sure he’ll get over it all, and we’ll be friends as before, although it appears that the friendship has to be a balancing act of commensurate achievement. I don’t think my achievement is any better than his—it’s different. Still, it felt as though we had played a tennis match and I carried the day, and I must say, I did get some satisfaction from that. On the other hand, I hoped I hadn’t set up the stage for another evening of his talking too much when I visit Croatia next time.
In the meanwhile, Darko and I admired a friend of ours, whom neither of us had seen in a while because he’d become more successful than we. He was a minister in Croatia, and now had become an ambassador to Russia. When I saw Kovacevic last, he had just become a minister, and unlike before, when he retold many jokes and scintillated with brilliant expressions of thoughts, he was now slower, more self-assured, almost bored. He clearly didn’t feel any pressure to prove anything. He used to be a writer and professor and editor, but now, it seemed, he was beyond that; his arena of play was bigger, he was a true pro. Maybe he’d become too successful for our friendship to resume. If it can’t resume on approximately even footing, it can be suspended for a while. The question is always, What can we do together? If we can only talk of what we do and we do dissimilar things, and not play some game or work together, we have lost the basic groundwork for friendship.
Maybe friendship stems partly from the psychological aversion to lonesomeness. Mind detests a vacuum. There has to be another mind to communicate with dialectically, bounce ideas, improve them, have a dialogue and dialectical games. Of course, in writing, I need precisely an ability to endure lonesomeness, so when I call a friend, sometimes I shirk my work, and I feel weak. The very act of friendship puts me in the loser role. It would be perfect to be self-sufficient and to write twelve hours a day; I would be rich and famous then. Maybe it’s best simply to have a memory of friendships, and to write about them, the way Proust did, who thought that he was enjoying his friendships more intimately when writing about them than when being with the friends directly. So, strangely, I practice my Protestant guilt through indulging in a few vices—having the third glass of wine, rather than limiting myself to the sanctified second, and spending the third hour with a friend, rather than limiting the get-together to an hour or two. There’s this lazy effect of lingering, of excess. Friendship is excess. You can’t be friends without that potlatch of time-sacrifice; there’s no such thing as instant or five-minute friendship. It’s not a quickie. It’s a protracted trench warfare, in which you stay in the same trench, dug up against the world and world wars; in the trench, we create an impression of independence and freedom, of an alternative to the world gone astray, precisely through our going astray. There’s always that sensation of smoking cigarettes for the first time in being somehow bad and therefore independent from the world—but at the same time, dependent on the friend for all that.
I think I’m addicted to that sensation of freedom to be slightly bad—to say something provocative, to tell a bawdy joke. And of course, to get feedback on how I’m doing. I want to know that I am doing well, that I’m strong enough, clever enough. I’m addicted to that assessment aspect. What is success if your friends don’t recognize it? Isn’t the whole point of success this, that your friends would respect you?
But here it becomes a delicate balancing act. You don’t want to be much more successful than your friends, or at any rate, to boast of it.
That your friends may not always delight in your successes I found out on several occasions. I was twenty-five when I got my first writing fellowship, ten thousand dollars, a lot of money then, in 1984. I immediately rushed off to see a friend of mine at Yale, son of an American diplomat in East Germany. He was a brilliant mathematician and pianist who loved to play Goldberg variations, and if anything, I was inferior to him in terms of achievement. Our friendship was partly predicated on my admiring his mathematical and musical genius, and I was more of a joker than he was. When I told him I got first recognition for my writing efforts, I was laughing for joy. Mark reacted with disbelief at first and then he was visibly upset. Good for you, he said, and the way he said for you sounded like, but not good for me. He began talking about himself, how he should have entered piano competitions but didn’t. We didn’t go out to have a beer, not that time. The timing was bad for Mark. He was graduating, and he didn’t apply to pursue theoretical math or piano studies as he had planned earlier, but rather, in a bout of self-examination and practical pressures, he’d signed on for an actuarial traineeship program at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, a line of professional work which would assure him excellent income and a stable future. He had already felt that he had betrayed his talents, and there I was, coming out of left field, taking a risk by abandoning anything practical to pursue my imaginary talents and seemingly getting somewhere. I did not know we were both competing somehow. After that, my friend married, and then envied me that I wasn’t married, and I began to treat him as a joker, and he admitted that he hated my humor and jokes, so we ceased to see each other. Years later, he constructed a mechanism by which he executed himself, a form of strangulation.
It seems to me that male friendship is so much predicated on the potential for comparison and competition that we end up making friends in our fields, where it’s easiest to compete.
I have a friend now, Dave (a pseudonym), who is an excellent writer. He has many virtues; he tells funny anecdotes, throws good parties, and when I was dry-walling my studio he came over and helped me finish the job without wanting any compensation for that. He is a hard worker and he doesn’t detest work, unlike me.
Although we are different from each other in many ways, we compete, somewhat playfully. He’s thinner than me, and he pokes me in the belly to remind me that I’m losing there (gaining pounds but losing the battle). He just ran a marathon. If we go out for a beer, he likes to flirt with waitresses, meaning nothing serious; he simply perhaps wants to prove that he’s more noticeable than I am; or maybe he wants to appear “bad” in a good, sporty way. I smile at this benevolently; I publish more and win more awards and fellowships. For the time being, I’m winning the writerly game (of course, that can change any day), but he wants to prove that he’s winning most everything else. If we talk about literature, it turns out that he’s read more and remembers more than I do. Sometimes I get tired of that, and I say, How can you read that much crap? I choose my reading more carefully.
He just got married to a woman much younger than himself, for example, and they have athletic vacations, hiking in the mountains, and so on, while I stay at home with my kids. Of course, I’d probably give him one of my books if I could be in such good shape physically as he is, and it seems to me he’d gladly put on some weight or whatever if he either had my book contracts or children the way I do.
I have bought a house in the hills in central Pennsylvania, at sixteen hundred feet above sea level. I enjoy the country. Dave has just bought a house in the Rockies, at seven thousand feet above sea level. He is literally superior to me in habitation even if it’s terribly impractical for him, for, after all, he teaches in the Northeast, not Colorado. Of course, he got the house on such a high altitude not out of competition with me but out of his love of mountains and heights, which of course is a metaphor for achievement.
Some friendships are based not only on comparison but even on imitation. When I was a kid, I had a friend who imitated me. I had a girlfriend early, in sixth grade, but because of going through a religious phase and being under churchly supervision in our small town, I couldn’t invite her to the movies to make the moves, and she was upset with me that I didn’t progress with her, that I had no ideas about what to do other than take walks. So, while we had a quarrel, my friend talked with her and they began to go out and to the movies. I didn’t want to be beaten there, so I pretended I was not interested in the girl, but for that reason, I punished my friend by beating him in ping-pong and chess, and though he was a better swimmer, I won a swimming race with him. I even out-argued him in theological arguments, or so I thought. But during it all, it seemed to me he was smug, with an attitude, Sure, you can play chess better, but so what? I got the girl. Eventually, they broke up and he went to England. Now at that time I was the best student in English at our high school, and his going to England seemed to me perhaps partly inspired by a desire to be better than me in English. Of course, there were many other things involved, and maybe it’s too egocentric of me to think that. Still, when I got into writing, he outdid me in a way, by getting a Ph.D. in English literature. I never went that far. Anyhow, in our boyhood, I liked him better in another country. I was still too shy with the girl, and never got together with her. When I saw him next, she already had another boyfriend, and now we had that in common, that we weren’t with her. I didn’t have the need to beat him at anything anymore. I read part of his diary which he showed me, in which he wrote about the suffering some of his friendships caused him because they seemed to be based on a relentless desire to defeat him and to put him down. He made a few friendships in England, with Icelanders, who didn’t seem to play by that rule of vicious competition. Even later, when we visited each other in various cities, Branko would want to prove to me that he was better than me in many things—healthier, thinner, faster, more adept with mushrooms, and so on. In New York, when I lived there for a few years after college, he visited me, and we went out. I was seeing a French woman, and we all went out for a drink. Later, she told me, What’s wrong with your friend? He was playing footsie with me, and under the table he put his hand on my knee, and when you were in the bathroom he wanted my phone number and a date.
Oh, don’t mind him. That’s just Branko. If I have a girlfriend, he wants to have her. That’s his way of trying to be better than me.
How mean! she said.
It’s the simple psychopathology of early friendships. In some cases it never ends.
Friendships, however, don’t only propel you to excel in competition; they can propel you to stagnate for the sake of equality. Peer pressure was based mostly on that in high school; I had to pretend that I was studying less than I was, just so I wouldn’t appear to be a nerd. I spent hours talking with friends when I could have been studying, and of course I was learning how to be bad, smoking cigarettes, drinking wine on vacations (we didn’t have to be eighteen to walk into a bar and order wine). The competition became: who could drink more wine and not vomit? Some of the friendships became such downward pulls that I resorted to a famous saying: With friends like these, who needs enemies? Eventually, I improved the saying: With friends, who needs enemies? Enemies keep you alert, competitive, and friendships lull you into mediocrity, and through peer pressure, keep you back and down, and eventually, down and out. Some of the most excellent friends I knew in my hometown became alcoholics, and true enough, they are fun to talk with, telling jokes and anecdotes, but they sacrificed their lives to their friendships, proving that they were fun, that they were not betraying friends by leaving hometown for large cities and countries and professions.
It seems to me that without so many friendships, I would have written more, and I’d be healthier, but then, maybe not. Who would I be trying to impress now, if not my friends, or at some level, surrogates of friends, colleagues?
Yes, it’s true, I’m a male-friendship addict. Some of my friends now are too well-established and too family-oriented to have that sense of time and timelessness that hanging out with friends requires, so I have noticed lately that I make friends with younger men, sometimes a few years younger, and other times, a whole decade and even more. There’s that fresh element of the joy of drinking, or the joy of anecdotes, or writerly competition, and in some ways, a sense of revisiting the past, because after all, these friendships have been fun, lively, unpredictable, one of the best parts of life. There are more mature and wiser friendships that I could have with people a bit older than me—and actually, I have a couple like that—but the immaturity and vitality of a new friendship is an enlivening and rejuvenating deal.