Wednesday, April 06, 2005

New Friends, Old Friends,

Thirty years ago I worked on a musical comedy with a world famous composer. The result of our collaboration was not a success, but we had become friendly during the two years we put the show together, and after the ill fated show closed, the elderly, ailing composer and his elegant wife asked my wife and I to be their friends. There was something sweetly innocent about such a request, and I will admit, flattering, given the fact that he was a world renowned figure in the arts, and a bit of a curmudgeon, famous for his music but not his congeniality. We never expected this request. I had worked on shows long enough to know that the close family formed by a show's company usually falls apart when the show closes and people return to their old lives and new projects, but this couple did not want this to happen to us.

The composer's wife told us that so many of their old friends were ailing and dying, and that they needed to find new, younger friends to see them through the latter part of their lives which for all their fame and wealth had become an extremely lonely time. Althought they had children and grandchildren, they knew the special value of friendship. And so we became friends. Not the friendship one has with a contemporary, someone who shared schooldays and early hopes and a common frame of reference. But friendship none the less. I call it rainy day friends, the friends we need as we face grave illnesses and disappointments, the friends who help us through our losses. The composer and his wife are long gone, but now my wife and I find ourselves their age and facing the same losses, the ranks of friends and acquaintances are thinning, every month brings a phone call with news of some terrible malady afflicting people we care about.

If one is not religious one is unable to fall back upon some notion of a divine design in the lives of men and woman, it can be a bleak and lonely time. Children are caught up in their own lives and cannot be expected to provide the companionship that only friends can give. And so we, like the old composer and his wife, cherish our old friends and search for new friends to fill in the ranks. The rich and the powerful can always find company and amusement, but company is not friendship, and amusement is more often just distraction. Reading is a great ally against loneliness, forget newspapers with their scandals and rock stars - its books that we can turn to for company, little can beat an afternoon with Proust or Tolstoy or Agatha Christie - except for a friend. Quite simply, nothing can ever replace the company of a good friend. Friendship allows that open exchange of views, the telling of joys and troubles, the sharing of a common sense of life, its pains and its pleasures, and best of all, some reckless laughter - not the telling of jokes but the recounting of those absurd, common experiences we all have as we try to get through this life with some comfort and a little warmth.

Friendship can be dangerous at any time of life, friends abandon, friends betray, a friendship gone awry can open you up to a deepening sense of loss; worse still friends relocate, die and disappear from view. In the past two years I have lost two of the most amusing, engaging people I have ever known, the novelist Lois Gould, and my song writing partner, the arranger/composer Wally Harper. With their deaths a great hole opened up in my life, both were wry, outrageous, supremely funny, full of spectacular flaws, yet life enhancing people dedicated to their art and to the art of friendship. Trust me, friendship is an art form that requires some talent and training, and like everything in life, some do it better than others.

Getting older often means you return home from an afternoon at the movies and discover that nobody has left a message in your answering machine. It means that your e-mail has more spam than a GI's sandwich in WWII. It means that you must find within yourself something beyond yourself; new work and a fresh, passionate engagement with the world, easy to desire, not always easy to accomplish. If one allows age to become a spectator sport, one is lost to life, and to new people and new ideas. One needs the courage to pick up a telephone and initiate a call; friendship requires risk, at seventy you are a teenager again, facing rejection and hurt, but a good life requires risk, even if an old friendship ends in estrangement. Getting older means taking more chances - which is not to be confused with a trip to Las Vegas.

I have been especially blessed in life by knowing the affection of some terrific, caring people, delightful people with sharp minds and soft hearts. As long as one lives, the door can never be closed to new people, new ideas, and new experience. I suppose I thought of this today when news of an old friend's illness came to me. And I have been working on a memoir, "Spotless" which covers the first seven years of my life in a family that is no longer alive, and one I treasure more and more with time. There has been something exhilarating about trying to evoke their lives again, after so many years. One can get lost in the past, so I must remind myself from time to time to look ahead and phone a friend. Just like in childhood, we need our rainy day friends.