This is what I love the most about letters: through them, we are a part of each other’s daily lives in a profoundly intimate way. We see what the other sees—think what the other thinks—in a way that would be impossible through any other form of communication. Different even than when we were together having the same experience, filtering it through our own perceptions. It’s a profound intimacy, profoundly comforting.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made a character of myself in our correspondence, and of Amy. I realize, returning now to the letters, that my voice there is different than anywhere else. The diction is a little higher; I use less contractions and slang. They are intensely personal, and yet strangely formal—another effort, made unconsciously, to elevate the contents.
But that elevation isn’t a writerly embellishment; it’s the dignity demanded by the subject. Sometimes in recreating and narrating an event for Amy, I’ve finished with my heart literally racing at the beauty and significance of the moment I’ve described. But it isn’t merely that I’ve enriched the moment’s meaning by writing it. No—in writing it to her, I’ve uncovered the meaning that was hidden there all along.
We assemble relationships because we need them, but many of us -- particularly men -- shrink from intimacy, generating the modern dilemma of dense social networks afflicted with loneliness. Allan Bloom indicates this in "Love and Friendship": "Isolation, a sense of lack of profound contact with other human beings, seems to be the disease of our time." He decried the word "relationship" as "pallid" and "pseudoscientific," itself an obstacle to genuine intimacy.
My 298 Facebook friends aren't the ones who remember our dead daughter's birthday or leave flowers at her grave. Nor among them is the pastor who baptized each of our children and waged a personal holy war to keep our marriage from crumbling years ago. We have these deeper friendships because we've tried to build a life in one place. They sprang up because the stuff of life happened to this cluster of us living near one another, and much of it was too joyous or heartbreaking not to share with someone. If friendship is the key to happiness, then maybe this is the key to friendship, to be enmeshed -- not just tangentially or voyeuristically, but physically -- in the lives of others.
Six of my nieces will head off to college over the next several years. Some have been Facebooking since middle school. Even as they leave home, then, they will hang onto that “home” button. That’s hard for me to imagine. As a survivor of the postage-stamp era, college was my big chance to doff the roles in my family and community that I had outgrown, to reinvent myself, to get busy with the embarrassing, exciting, muddy, wonderful work of creating an adult identity. Can you really do that with your 450 closest friends watching, all tweeting to affirm ad nauseam your present self? The cultural icons of my girlhood were Mary Richards of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Ann Marie of “That Girl,” both redoubtably trying to make it on their own. Following their lead, I swaggered off to college (where I knew no one) without looking back; then to New York City (where I knew no one) and San Francisco (ditto), refining my adult self with each jump. Certainly, I kept in touch with a few true old friends, but no one else — thank goodness! — witnessed the many and spectacular metaphoric pratfalls I took on the way to figuring out what and whom I wanted to be. Even now, time bends when I open Facebook: it’s as if I’m simultaneously a journalist/wife/mother in Berkeley and the goofy girl I left behind in Minneapolis. Could I have become the former if I had remained perpetually tethered to the latter?
His name was Peter, and he carried an L.L. Bean canvas bag, monogrammed and trimmed in forest green. It was December 28, 1988, and I noticed him at the gate. Preppy, but kind of cute. And then we boarded, and he took the seat next to mine. American Airlines; JFK to SFO; a DC-10, which meant a layout of two-five-two. I had the window, and he the aisle. We gave each other brief, courteous nods, he stashed his L.L. Bean bag, and I turned back to my book, sneaking an occasional glance his way.
The flight attendants did their familiar demonstration. The plane pulled away from the gate and taxied onto the runway. The plane stopped. The captain came on and made a lame joke. Peter (although I didn’t know his name yet) and I exchanged glances, rolling our eyes in shared wariness. He said something, I said something, and we didn’t stop talking for the next six hours, during which I didn’t look at my book or attempt the movie.
By the time the plane landed at SFO, we knew each other’s names, hometowns, employers, current neighborhoods, and how our mothers didn’t approve of the people we were dating—in my case, because the guy, in Mom’s words, “acted like a kindergartener,” and in Peter’s because the woman wasn’t WASPy enough, a fact Peter underlined by gesturing toward the L.L. Bean bag at his feet.
In a recent California Supreme Court case (Bernard vs. Foley), the court decided that friends who care for their elderly or infirm counterparts cannot take gifts or bequests without some special proof that they didn’t unduly influence their friends into making the donation. Perversely, if you take care of your friends when they most need you, you may be disqualifying yourself from accepting their largess.
For a while, lower courts found a way around this awkward burden in the case of “pre-existing” friendships, creating a special exemption from the “custodial care provisions” that the Supreme Court recently interpreted. But the Supreme Court simply thought the pre-existing friendship exemption carved by the lower courts could not be justified by the statutory language.
In my work on friendship and the law, I took the modest position that the lower courts had the right instinct — and that it would be a good thing if friends didn’t have to worry about disqualifying themselves from accepting gifts and bequests merely by trying to care for their infirm counterpart. It is good to see that the Commission, after having read my case, is supportive of the Legislature changing the rules.
There’s a lot to say about why we don’t want the law getting too involved in our friendships. But this is a simple way to help protect friends and encourage the care they can provide for one another — and more cheaply than Medicare, to boot.