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Friends, Lovers, or Nothing 10 min read

Friends, Lovers, or Nothing

Writings on when friendships fail, Facebook, TED Talks, Oscar nominations, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn
Friends, Lovers, or Nothing Post image

Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone out there.

Leave it to Valentine’s Day to inspire musings about the nature of love. But not solely romantic love. Those of you that have it in your lives right now don’t need to hear more on it; those of you that don’t can hardly need another reminder of its absence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship since reading Jennifer Senior’s most-recent piece in The Atlantic (see below). If that name sounds familiar, she’s the author of one of the most stunning pieces of journalism to come out in 2021, a 9/11 remembrance of the highest order.

Her latest, in the print edition, is entitled, “It’s Your Friends That Break Your Heart,” and it delves into the that uncomfortable reality of life when we lose our friends. The topic is a relevant reminder that, for most of us, that which we most desperately seek in a romantic partner is just an exaggerated version of a best friend.

Senior’s essay is a personal meditation on friendships lost. It was not inspired by the pandemic, but the pandemic (and perhaps even the presidential election before it) certainly made it a timely issue.

Many friendships were lost over Donald Trump’s presidency, reelection bid, and the casualness with which he greeted the events of January 6. The same is true of the pandemic, from those who suffered the fracturing of friendships due to differences in responses to COVID-19, from the embrace of political stances (in both directions), from the actual deaths ushered in by the virus.

Senior’s essay is brave for how nakedly she puts her own friendships under the microscope, for how open she is about not just how friends’ actions made her feel but also how she fell short of being an ideal friend. It goes out to readers who might be questioning themselves as to why a friendship had languished and slowly died on the vine or burned out in a blaze of righteous indignation.

It begs questions too numerous to recite here (and honestly, those questions will be different for each reader), but those two polarizing events of collective American consciousness spark more than few.

It’s those moments where jokes about the universal terribleness of things posted to Facebook hit too close to home: the crazy-ass commenter, posting reviling thoughts that somehow gain traction with both like-minded cretins and indignant objectors, is a friend. Perhaps you haven’t talked to them in a long time, lost track of them and the term “friend” really just applies to this flimsy designation on a social media platform earned by clicking a button to add and accept, but you can’t believe what they’ve written. That does not sound like the person you love so dearly, the person that just (insert relevant time period here) ago was your ride-or-die bestie. It’s not the person with whom you’ve spent hours alone, talking over hopes and dreams, and it’s not the person with whom you’ve shared pivotal moments of life: birthdays, graduations, reunions, weddings, promotions, familial births and deaths. THAT person doesn’t sound like that. Do they? Wait, how long has it been since there’s been one of those hours-long sessions of sitting and probing and talking and asking and arguing?

The answer to that question is usually longer than we remember, which begs another question, namely, does that love from so long ago, now frozen in time, a friendship make?

That answer, too, will change with individual circumstances, personalities, temperaments, and more. But one thing is true: Nostalgia is a powerful drug. We remember them at their best; it’s how they live on in our minds. That’s OK, for what it is: a look backwards into a different time. It is not an indication of a viable friendship, that precious and tender living thing that needs tending to like a garden.

Does that old love and inherent fondness impart any requirements on us? Are we bound to the memory of that love? I’d argue that, while it’s certainly a reason to reach back out if you’re so inclined, it’s not. People change. It’s a necessity; it’s to be expected, and often, it’s to be celebrated. And, often enough, it’s a terrible, terrible thing.

But when a friend tells you, directly or indirectly, who he or she is, it’s OK to listen. It’s not your job to rehabilitate a version of that friend that now seems to be long dead. It doesn’t mean you have to feel good about it; by all means, mourn their passing. Mourn the past. Mourn simpler times.

Then remember it’s OK. Friendships, like everything else in life, are not immune from aging, and aging always brings about its fair share of complications. Love yourself enough to know that it honestly has very little (read: nothing) to do with you.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. As I said, Senior’s essay shows more than a fair amount of courage. It’s easy to say what we think we do well as friends but harder to say where we fail. I know more than a few from this list apply to me as well: “On the negative side: I’m oversensitive to slights and minor humiliations, which means I’m wrongly inclined to see them as intentional rather than pedestrian acts of thoughtlessness, and I get easily overwhelmed, engulfed. I can almost never mentally justify answering a spontaneous phone call from a friend, and I have to force myself to phone and email them when I’m hard at work on a project. I’m that prone to monomania, and that consumed by my own tension.”

  2. My essay above in response to the Senior’s focused on those moments of confusion that comes from watching a friend, empowered by various online platforms, reveal himself or herself to be something other than you’d remembered. Something darker, something unrecognizable, something wholly unpleasant. I focused on that, not because Senior had made it a talking point but rather because I’d seen it and know many others who have as well. Anne Helen Petersen, in her Culture Study newsletter, asked a bigger, but related, question: Why are we still on Facebook? It’s a particularly resonant question as the company recently saw not growth but loss for the first time in its existence.

  3. The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle briefly summarized Facebook’s woes, which included revelations from a recent earning call that it lost half a million users in the fourth quarter of 2021 and expected loss of sales to be $10 billion in 2022 as a result of new privacy policies instituted by Apple, and drew parallels between the company’s woes and the hell it wrought on many media organizations over the past decade.

  4. I, for one, won’t be shedding any tears over Facebook’s plight. Why? It’s a mess of its own making. Consider these first few paragraphs from a recent article in The Atlantic: “If you want to understand why Facebook too often is a cesspool of hate and disinformation, a good place to start is with users such as John, Michelle, and Calvin. John, a caps-lock devotee from upstate New York, calls House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ‘PIGLOSI,’ uses the term negro, and says that the right response to Democrats with whom they disagree is to ‘SHOOT all of them.’ Michelle rails against the ‘plandemic.’ Calvin uses gay as a slur and declares that Black neighborhoods are always ‘SHITHOLES.’ You’ve almost certainly encountered people like these on the internet. What you may not realize, though, is just how powerful they are. For more than a year, we’ve been analyzing a massive new data set that we designed to study public behavior on the 500 U.S. Facebook pages that get the most engagement from users. Our research, part of which will be submitted for peer review later this year, aims to better understand the people who spread hate and misinformation on Facebook. We hoped to learn how they use the platform and, crucially, how Facebook responds. Based on prior reporting, we expected it would be ugly. What we found was much worse.”

  5. Enough about the colossal bummer that is Facebook. Here’s a complete and total palate-cleanser, and it’s the review of a 2003 Kia Spectra. It’s the work of an YouTube account called Regular Car Reviews, because why not? Anybody can see the appeal of reviewing the newest Porsche or Ferrari, but it takes a deft comedic touch to make reviews of the cars that are just background noise in our daily lives interesting and informative. I came to the channel by way of an article in The New Yorker. What struck me and the author were the depth and breadth of Mr. Regular’s references in his commentary:  “The channel’s scripts include references to the writing of Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, and Theodore Dreiser. A grandfatherly  1995 Buick Roadmaster Sedan , made uncontrollably powerful when its own transmission is replaced with one from a Camaro, becomes ‘the William S. Burroughs of cars.’ More than once, Mr. Regular has somehow managed to work in ‘Main-Travelled Roads,’ Hamlin Garland’s collection of semi-autobiographical tales of prairie life, from 1891. Such unconventional influences have allowed him and the Roman (whom he met in grad school) to develop the singular voice—deeply literate and searching, at least by the standards of YouTube car reviewers—that delivers a distinctively intense combination of both logos and techne, laced with elaborate video-game metaphors and masturbation jokes.”

  6. Smart, funny, and informative. Those were the takeaways from the Regular Car Reviews, and it made me think of other forms that check those same boxes. I read an interesting article from The Drift about the concept of TED Talks. It was recommended to me by the always wonderful newsletter, The Browser. Perhaps they don’t always strive to be funny, but smart and informative are part of the mission. I knew that as a listener (used to way more than I do now). I also learned some basics I’d never known: TED is Technology, Entertainment, Design. I’d always (lazily) assumed it was just in reference to some founder, a Turner-type media mogul who’d kicked the whole thing off sometime in the Aughts. Nope. Wrong there, too. The first TED Talk was in 1984! Who knew? The thesis of the article isn’t to simply celebrate TED for existing but to question what exactly it was and why it seems to have fallen off so sharply.

  7. One of my favorite TED Talks of all time is about nothing. It’s the TED Talk equivalent of a Seinfeld episode. It’s essentially a stand-up comedy act, but it’s also a slyly meta analysis of style versus substance and a critique of the whole TED-ian enterprise.

  8. Unrelated to TED Talks, I wanted to share some personal news that’s related to smart and dedicated people endeavoring to inform. Last weekend, the Wyoming Press Association hosted its annual convention where it recognizes the work of its various members. My colleagues and I at the Gillette News Record had a strong showing. We were recognized for: General News (2nd place); Government Issue Reporting (1st place); News-Feature Story (1st place); Feature Story (1st place, 2nd place); Column Writing (1st place); Sports News Story (1st place); Sports Feature Story (2nd place); Education Reporting (1st place); Business/Energy Reporting (1st place); Entertainment / Culture Reporting (1st place); Headline Writing (1st place); Special Section (Honorable Mention); Front Page Design (Honorable Mention), and Best Website (Honorable Mention).

  9. Speaking of awards, Oscar nominations came out recently, and I finally completed my Best Picture nominees watchlist, with CODA and Belfast as the last two to check off. Belfast, written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, is about growing up during the Troubles and was immediately heralded as Oscar bait. It’s a perfectly fine film, but I’ll admit not truly seeing what all the fuss was about. CODA, on the other hand, was one I’d just be woefully negligent about checking out, as it was sitting right there for the viewing on Apple TV+ for quite a long time now. CODA, which stands for Children of Deaf Adults, wowed at 2020’s Sundance, and it’s easy to see why. It was truly affecting and had reduced me to tears by the end. Wholeheartedly recommend it if, like me, you slept on it for no good reason. Here’s a story that NPR ran after Troy Kotsur, the father in the film, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

  10. Another recommendation I have is Amazon Prime’s new show, Reacher. Adapted from the Lee Child novels, this is a sort of do-over for those readers who were like “Reacher is supposed to be this hulking figure, and for all of the things that Tom Cruise, hulking he ain’t.” Cruise made two films of the character, but they were always lacking, especially to those who’d read the books. This series is an adaptation of the first novel, called Killing Floor, which I read after hearing The New Yorker’s David Remnick rave about the series and interview the author. The books are quick reads, and there are more than a few oddities in the language. But they’re so propulsive that you hardly notice. If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out this episode of The Watch, where Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald are joined by Jason Mantzoukas to wholeheartedly recommend the show. There’s a point in the episode where Mantzoukas says, in essence, that every network or streamer ought to have something of Reacher’s quality all the time. And they all marvel at how rarely that seems to be the case. I can’t help but agree. This is not going to be on a prestige TV shortlist; it’s not HBO-quality. But it doesn’t need to be. If you’re looking for something solid, something reliably entertaining, something consistently between 6-8 on a scale of 1-10, this is worth your time.

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been watching in the past week.

Remember: The legend for my list was stolen from Mr. Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, and Sentence Case is a TV show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

2/8: Murderville (6) (Netflix)
2/9: The Book of Boba Fett (Disney+)
2/10: Abbott Elementary (Hulu) ; KIMI (HBO Max); PANIC ROOM (Hulu)
2/12: CODA (Apple TV+); BELFAST (PVOD); RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (Disney+); Reacher (4) (Amazon Prime)
2/13: Reacher (3) (Amazon Prime); Super Bowl LVI

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