26 December, 2007


I've never considered myself that great at making or having friends. So it's pretty surprising when I look back through my life and find out just how many so-called friends I actually had. Although ultimately, I think the important point is the quality of the friendship. Having 'friends' doesn't make you a social person.


I don't think I had much in the way of my own friends during my earlier years. I mostly just played with my older brother and tagged along with his friends. I do remember following him around with the neighborhood kids, kind of piggybacking on his playmates. I have vague recollections of a kid from either next door or a few doors down, that we may or may not have watched Barney with, and a kid over the fence at the back of our yard. But my memories of this period are hazy, so I'm not altogether certain.

First Best Friend

Going to school was traumatic for me. I remember crying my brains out the first time my mom dropped me off at pre-school and left. The two teachers tried to console me, but I was inconsolable. I guess it got to a point where I could 'handle' it, but I never really got the hang of mingling with the kids my age. I also have similar memories of some sort of daycare - traumatic memories of being left alone in a savage wilderness of strangers more or less my age.

Considering how I was, I find it absolutely unbelievable that I was able to even make a friend in first grade, let alone such a good one as I did. I remember we took some kind of writing test, possibly on learning the alphabet, or maybe vocabulary, and the teacher had some issue with the way I wrote my answers out. Like, they were sloppy or something, and I remember there was a good reason for it, but it was something I was too embarrassed to admit to, so ultimately, the teacher punished me by making me redo it, and then she made me stay inside for the first 15 minutes of recess or so. I was sitting inside waiting, and the boy in the seat next to me made himself known. I don't remember anything concrete, but we got to talking, and from then on, we became very good friends.

For the next few years, we seemed to hang out a lot, and had a lot of sleepovers at each other's places. I remember every time his mother called up our house to ask if I wanted to sleep over, I had paralyzingly conflicted feelings. I knew it would be fun, and I wanted to go, but I was always so terrified of the idea of being in an unfamiliar house for the whole night, and having to deal with another family's customs, and surviving experiences like using unfamiliar toilets (I actually had a huge problem with admitting that I had to go to the bathroom, and asking to be excused - it was terrible, and became quite embarrassing in at least one instance). So sometimes I would end up chickening out and saying that I just wasn't in the mood. Still, we did have many sleepovers. I even remember one double-sleepover, where he slept over my house one night, and then I went and slept over his house the very next night. That was something.

Most of what we did together, that I remember, consists of either fooling around playing the kind of games that kids play, terrorizing his big sister, or playing video games. And the one video game we played by far the most was Super Mario World. We must have taken to beating that game merely as an appetizer by the end of that period. I remember being uncomfortable around breakfasts, and I guess dinners, too, when those were included in the sleepover. I suppose it was a combination of (fear of) unfamiliar table habits, and unfamiliar (and possibly unappetizing) foods. I mean, what was I supposed to do when I was served something I didn't like? (And I was a *very* picky eater as a kid). I couldn't possibly just say, "I don't like this, can you make something else?" So in those cases, I had to grin and bear it, and just try to be the best and least troublesome houseguest I could be. At least, his mom seemed to genuinely like me.

I know we had a lot of fun in those few short years. I remember we had many good times at the local pool. We were also both in the Cub Scouts, so we typically tented together (and generally helped each other survive) during the annual summer camp. I remember always being kind of scared of summer camp, but I always enjoyed the experience and had mixed feelings about going home by the end of the week. I have memories of lying in the tent at night, just before going to sleep, and we would talk about random stuff through the darkness, until one of us fell asleep. He was always first. I have a good feeling that my childhood fear of being the last person awake originated from these experiences. Of course, the fear of being awake last didn't do a lot to help me fall asleep sooner...

Somewhere around third grade, as students we were given the option to start learning an instrument. I wouldn't have bothered, but my friend wanted to try it, so I agreed that we'd do it together. Turns out his mom ended up having him repeat a grade at that time, so I ended up doing the instrument thing on my own. Since I already agreed to it, I just went through with it, and that's how I started playing violin. The reason my friend repeated a grade had nothing to with academics. We were born in the same year, but while I was born in January, he was born in the following December, so we were actually almost a full year apart. He was closer in age to the students in the grade below us, and his mom felt that he would have a better school life if he was among his age group. At least that's how I understood it. I'm sorry to say that our friendship never recovered from this arrangement. Being in different grades, at that stage, really killed what connection we had. Suddenly we were parts of entirely different groups of kids.

That's not the only factor that tore us apart. I'm not sure of the reasons, but around this time, he just started acting very strangely in a lot of situations. It became gradually worse. It was harder to hang out with him, and the rest of the kids at school began reacting to that. Maybe I was imagining it, but it sort of became a stigma to hang out with him. I'm ashamed to admit it, but later on as I was transitioning from him to some new friends, I invited him to my birthday sleepover, and I was actually embarrassed to admit to the other guys that he was my friend. It eventually got to the point where we didn't even talk to each other anymore; we didn't even acknowledge each other's existence when we passed in the halls at school anymore. Whatever he was going through, the truth remains that after not having anything to do with him for a few years, in high school, he re-emerged in my consciousness, though only marginally, as he was well-known around the school as something of a queen, with a reputation embodied by the song "I Get Around". I never spoke to him or anything; we had obviously taken wildly divergent paths in our lives. But thinking back on our friendship, and how he turned out, it does make me wonder...

The Gang

Jumping back to elementary school, I'll introduce the 'new friends' that I mentioned above. This was later, like 4-6th grades, as opposed to 1-3rd. You can't understand how utterly cool it was for me to be part of this gang. And when I say gang, I mean like a group of friends, not a gang gang. Not that our gang was particularly respected or anything among our classmates, but for me, to be part of something social like this was amazing. There were four of us, all guys. We were almost like a superhero team or something. We had nicknames, and we passed each other secret notices, and we had secret meetings to discuss secret plans. Sometimes we'd meet up after school at one of our houses to hang out and play, and sometimes we'd all walk up to the pizza parlor for lunch for a special meeting (getting permission to walk to the pizza parlor for lunch, which was right up the street from the school, was always an immensely exciting privilege). I'm pretty sure we all knew each other from orchestra. This is the group that I associated with during those days, having smaller connections to their other friends, and it was those friendships that got me invited to the two Bar Mitzvah's I ever attended, which was an interesting affair, being so different to anything I was familiar with, having been raised Christian.

The highpoint of my friendship with these guys was the school field trip to Williamsburg in Junior High. The Williamsburg trip was probably the first time since scout camp that I had a chance to kind of live among peers for a few days, without parents. We stayed in a hotel, four people to a room, and we mostly stuck together while touring Williamsburg. Being that awkward-but-exciting Junior High period of life, this was the first time I really had any sort of sense of 'letting go' with friends and just having a good time. We were fooling around in the hotel room, and I got locked out for about a minute, just for fun. Unfortunately, the chaperone down the hall, watching to make sure all the kids stayed in their rooms and behaved, spotted me, and started coming in my direction by the time I was rushing back into the room. I told the other guys that the chaperone was coming, and we all freaked out, and I tried to hide, because I knew she was gonna want to have a word with me! I hid in the other room, I think I may have even crawled under the bed, and the chaperone came and knocked on the door, and she totally bitched us out. Then she left, and we all had a hell of a time making fun of her, acting like she was a fanged monster or something, considering her insufferable temper.

I also remember sleeping on the floor of the hotel room with a single pillow and no blankets. There were two beds and a foldout couch. I wasn't particularly keen on the idea of sharing, so I ended up on the floor. It was a miserable sleep, but you gotta take the bad with the good. For the rest of the trip, I made a big deal about calling the hotel the Un-Quality Suites.

After the relatively boring Williamsburg stuff, we all got to spend a day at Busch Gardens, which was a blast. At this point, I was still terrified of roller coasters, and of our group, only one other among us was also not a roller coaster rider. He was actually the one of the gang that I was closest with, and maybe that has something to do with the fact that we shared our fear of roller coasters by spending that day riding the weaker rides together. It was still a good time. I remember actually wanting to meet up with another friend that day, though. It was someone I was just getting to know, and he had said something about hanging out at Busch Gardens, but I never did find him that day. Oh well. We still became friends for a brief period, as I started to drift away from the gang.

I think the primary reason for my drifting away from the gang was the fact that I finally quit orchestra to take computer programming in 8th grade. I had been looking forward to taking that class, and as fate would have it, it was one or the other - orchestra or computer programming - that's how the schedule was set up. So I had no choice but to quit orchestra. Granted, I had been looking for an excuse to quit orchestra for awhile, so I wasn't too shaken up about it. I just wasn't any good. I really enjoyed playing the violin, but only when I could actually play something right. And I absolutely hated practicing, so I was hardly ever able to play anything right. So it was frustrating, and extremely embarrassing during tests - we had to play a passage alone, while the entire orchestra sat in silence, listening. And then we were graded on how well we played. I remember taking a re-test once, and the orchestra teacher/conductor remarked at how much better I was playing. I chocked it up to a combination of more privacy during examination (re-tests were done more or less individually, just outside the room, while everyone else was practicing or working on something else) and actually having spent some time practicing, which I hadn't gotten around to before the first testing. That was probably the first class where I really struggled and had to make an effort just to stay in the game.

(As a side note, since I'm talking about orchestra, there's a connection here to the smart girl I mentioned in my 'Girls' entry, which I forgot to discuss there. Not only was she my math rival, but she was also my violin 'rival'. Although, we were pretty close to equal in mathematical skills. I remember testing for placement in the orchestra (like first chair, second chair, etc.), and for that we'd each go in to the teacher/conductor's private office to play a piece so he could judge our abilities against those of our peers. I remember that people were saying that either I or the smart girl had nailed first chair, simply for the reason that we were the only two people that left the office smiling (obviously a sign of confidence at our playing, right?). Well, for the smart girl it was true, since she unsurprisingly got first chair, but for me, I think it was more a matter of thinking "oh god, I'm so incredibly terrible, I can't believe I'm even in this class, this is all a big joke...". Maybe that and the fact that I had (and still have, to a degree) a habit of smiling uncontrollably when people look at me and when I'm submerged in a social environment. Either way, I got last chair (I don't even remember how many there were, but I was dead last). We were seated in pairs within the orchestra so as to balance out our skills. Therefore, as last chair, I got to sit right smack next to first chair, my crush, and we shared sheet music. Great, huh? Not so much. It was completely devaluing to be sitting there, playing terribly, just emphasizing how bad I was and how much better she was. It was torture. If it's any consolation, I think I convinced the rest of the orchestra that I was second chair, my proof being the fact that I was seated right next to first chair. My friends actually seemed to believe it, but in hindsight, they must have known how the system worked, since I'm pretty sure it was the same for violas and cellos as it was for violins, so they must have known I was last chair. Well, if that's true, I guess I respect them for letting me have my little illusion...)

(As another side note relating to my 'Girls' entry, 'The One' happened to also be in this orchestra, playing viola. But I was only casually aware of her during this period.)

Anyhow, there was a point where I was already starting to feel kind of excluded from the gang, even before I specifically moved on. Maybe it was because I spent so much time to myself, and hardly ever talked to people, but I think they thought that I had other friends, or something. Before the Williamsburg trip, the students had to choose who they wanted to room with, in groups of four. Nobody asked me, and I was way too shy to ask anyone myself. I agonized over it up to the last minute, and I still had noone to room with, but the deadline was there, so I managed to get my mom to call one of my friend's moms and ask about it, and they ended up arranging for me to join their group, displacing one of their members who had some other people to room with anyway, and their excuse (which I don't have any reason to disbelieve) was that they thought I had other friends and that I was rooming with those other friends.

Orchestra concerts were always a big deal. You got dressed up, you came to the school in the evening, and you got to show off your skills and play to an audience. It was always exciting, and incredibly nerve-racking. And then there would be the after-period. People would wind down from a good show by hanging out and partying and stuff, I guess. The gang usually went to this one family-type restaurant, and always had great stories to tell about their times there, and the crazy conversations they had. I don't think they ever once invited me. And I don't consider it a malicious action, just the sad nature of our friendship. I guess I was kind of drifting away, and even in the best times, I was so distant that I probably wasn't a major fixture anyway. Ah, well.


So this new friend (the one I tried unsuccessfully to meet up with at Busch Gardens) was a guy I met in my computer programming class. We had a short friendship, that kind of developed for a bit, then sort of stopped short at one point, for some reason. In the end, I don't think we were 100% compatible. It was probably more of a hang-out-in-class-and-goof-off-while-playing-games-on-the-BBS-since-we-finished-our-program-assignments-so-fast sort of thing. Honestly, I don't even have a lot of specific memories of him, so I'm just gonna have to move on.

The Ukrainian

There was another one-off friend in Junior High. I don't even remember how I met him (probably also from computer programming), but I do know that he was in my French class at one point. I didn't know him for very long, but I feel like he had a profound effect on my life. If I believed in these sorts of things, I might be tempted to believe he was some kind of angel. I mean, even if I didn't entirely want it at that point, he actually made an effort to help me become a better person. And most people just care about themselves, right? And he wasn't too pushy about it, so it's not like his help wasn't welcome.

The thing I remember most about him is that he liked going ice skating, and he got me to join him for the casual skate every Friday night for a period of time. It was pretty cool. I had fun ice skating (I wasn't fantastic about it, but I had taken lessons at a young age, so I could get by), and it was a major experience to actually have somewhere to go out to on a Friday night, you know?

The biggest change he made in my life was forcing me to get over my fear of roller coasters. We went to the local amusement park once with a couple other guys, and he pestered me to ride the big one. I refused, and one of the other guys with us was also afraid of coasters, so I didn't feel too out of place. But he persisted. For me, just standing in line for one of those things, knowing the inevitability of being pushed closer and closer to the thing, then being strapped in and taken for a wild ride with no escape if it got too extreme...it was terrifying. But eventually, he got the other scaredy-cat to ride the coaster, and I gauged his reaction to make my own decision. He had been afraid, like I was afraid, but after riding it, he thought it was great. So I figured, I have to get over this fear, because if I can, I'm sure I'll be able to enjoy riding these things. And that's exactly what happened. I remember, after deciding, I was standing in line and I said "I can't believe I'm doing this". But I was. I rode the coaster, and it was a huge blast. From then on, it took some time to shake off that fear of standing in line, but even then, I was able to ride it out, because I knew that once I got in the seat and the ride started, I'd be having fun.

At the end of the year, during yearbook time, when everyone was filling their pages up with friendly signatures, I was once again in that mode of extreme anxiety, desiring the simple companionship of a few nice words scribbled for posterity, but paralyzed and unable to actually ask anyone to sign my book. And of course, nobody ever seemed to come to me... In French class, I made the desperate move of actually asking my friend to sign my yearbook. As he did, he told me, as if it was something very important, that this was the first thing I had ever asked of him. Like, as if, I had this problem of speaking my mind and making my thoughts and feelings and desires known to other people, that I had some kind of barrier to being who I am and getting what I want. And of course, that is all true. I've never forgotten that comment, or the keen awareness that he had of my condition. I feel like he was the only one that was ever able to see my struggle better than I could see it myself. I wish I had known him longer, so that maybe he could have helped me even more. But I think his disappearance was the result of moving back to the Ukraine.

High School

I think friendships in high school started out relatively sparse. For me, I mean. There was the whole getting used to the system, and the fearing of the upper class bullies, who made themselves particularly intimidating in gym class. Luckily, I don't think I had any serious run-ins with them. In general, I think I was the kind of kid that people thought was cool or interesting, but didn't have any particular desire to seriously befriend. Like, all different kinds of cliques might respect me and say hey, that guy's cool, but none of them would ever actually make any sort of effort to become real friends or anything. It's kind of hard to explain. You'd think that might give me an extra boost of confidence, but it never really did. Because though it might seem that I was 'in' in certain types of circumstances, I was never *actually* 'in'. Although it could have been worse.

There are a lot of people not really worth talking about here. But one person that I became relatively chummy with, was this one kid who sat next to (or near) me in homeroom. We also had some computer programming classes together, but he always resented me for my natural skills. I'd finish my programs early, and he'd be in the lab after school, just catching up. I might have helped him a bit, but I probably spent more time mocking him. That was the great thing about our friendship. We enjoyed casually insulting each other, but I don't think there was ever any honest hatred between us. It was just a refreshingly low-stress arrangement. We spent countless minutes between classes, and in homeroom in the mornings, toward the later years, discussing the merits of rock vs. rap. Neither one of us wanted to budge, but though I've never lightened up to rap, he did eventually start taking an interest in rock. I made a compilation of good rock songs for him once or twice. We also spent a lot of time discussing casual philosophical topics.

He was actually a friend of, and part of the general clique that included, 'The One'. I remember over that winter break, so much happened from the last day of school before break, to the first day after break. Coming back, he mentioned my 'hookup', saying that he thought it was such an unexpected match. He asked me "why her?", and all I could say was that it just felt natural. I found out later that he had unresolved feelings for her.

Anyhow, he was a cool guy, in his own pathetic way. He actually came up to me once and casually mentioned how he had cut himself the night before. And I don't mean accidentally. I really couldn't understand it, and it disappointed me immensely, but that's just how he was. After moving on to college, I may have seen him once or twice - he actually showed up at "the den" once and got to see me perform a couple songs (that was the night I played The Rain Song in an alternate tuning), but that's it. I haven't seen him since then, and I'm not in a hurry to resurrect anything that connects me back to high school. With the exception of 'The One', I made a point after graduation to sever my ties to the school. No old-age high school buddies for me. Even 'The One' broke away from me, despite the commitment we thought we had to one another.

But it doesn't bother me, because I made some really great friends in college. But this entry is already pretty long, so I'll have to talk about them another time. There's still also the issue of my brothers, who have unsurprisingly played a major role in my life. All in due time.


  1. As expected, your memory is much better than mine. Or at least, it seems to be.

    I don't think I was ever a "cool" guy, but people seemed to respect me. Too bad "respect" doesn't naturally lead to "want to be friends with". I know a lot of kids held me in awe as "the smart kid" because I skipped a grade and I read at least a book a day. I was a much, much more voracious reader in school than I was in college, in part because I had more free time to read then.

    Yearbooks were always a weird thing for me. I never really had people signing my yearbook, and nobody ever really ASKED to sign my yearbook (and I knew they asked other people), so my first few are kind of... blank. Then in the middle of elementary school, my teacher threw a fit or something and the class had to pass around all their yearbooks for everyone else to sign, it was a pain in the ass... and horribly embarrassing, too.

    I mean, usually kids write lots of stuff about how much fun they had (from what I've seen of my sister's yearbooks), but mine were usually things like "You're really cool" or "See you next year", really generic stuff that you write when you're forced to sign a yearbook. I think some people didn't bother commenting, they just signed.

    I remember yearbooks were also slightly thrilling because I'd have an excuse to talk to cute girls that I barely knew... though a few of them outright refused to sign, which was harsh.

    Come to think of it, fourth grade was also probably when "slam books" became really popular. I never got to see the inside of one, so I suspect most of the kids were writing about me...

    In high school, though, I remember that a lot of people were willing to sign, and most of them wrote some complimentary stuff about my reading... I was almost famous by that point, I think.

    It's weird -- I can imagine that I see parallels between our lives when I read your friends entry.

  2. I don't think it's really all that surprising. Considering how well we seem to get along, it makes sense that we've been through a lot of similar life experiences.