SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
By John Stark
They say old friends are the best, and I agree. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I did a lot of hanging out with people who were the age I am now, and beyond. I had, besides older friends, plenty of young ones, too — people my age.
But my two sets of friends were different.
My older friends reminded me of thick novels. Their lives had chapters that were filled with intrigue, tragedy, pleasure, success, survival — you name it. My younger friends — me included — were more like short stories. Or rough drafts still waiting to be shaped and developed.
My old friends took their time revealing the events of their lives. They didn’t feel that every little aspect of their day was worth sharing. They only asked that I be a willing listener, and I was.
Their stories evoked other eras that were populated with legendary characters. My friends Carl and Bernice, who were married, used to have me to their house on Sundays to play Scrabble, eat dinner and drink “martoonies,” as Carl called them. In his 80s, he still had a full-time job writing headlines at the San Francisco Examiner, where I worked. He didn't need the paycheck. He just liked being vital.
One afternoon at his home, Carl opened his desk drawer in his den. “Look what I came across the other day,” he said, handing me a typewritten note. It was from F. Scott Fitzgerald, thanking Carl for returning the umbrella to him that Zelda had left in a bar a few nights before. “I got drunk in Paris with them one night,” Carl told me, before returning to the Scrabble board, beating me yet again.
The stories that my old friends told me were more than pure entertainment, though. They contained universal themes and lessons for living. I was too young then to grasp many of their deeper meanings. My old friends didn’t come with Cliff Notes.
Their Gifts Live On Within Us
Most of them are gone now. But I think about them a lot, especially since I’ve gotten older. Every so often I’ll have an epiphany about something one of them said to me. When I do, I feel their presences.
I wasn’t BFF with just any old person I met, mind you. They all had led — and were still leading — active lives. Some, like my friend Caroline, had money and lived in fancy neighborhoods. She, like Carl, also worked a full-time job at the SF Examiner long past her retirement age. The older she got, the more beautiful her writing became, winning her awards. In her mid-70s she traveled to Cambodia, Mongolia and Iraq, writing stories about each locale. Her philosophy of life, as she once explained it to a colleague of mine, was, “I get up, put on my dress, and say yes to everything.”
Once when I was living in New York, I left her a voicemail on her home phone. "Join me in Venice," I said, "I'm going there on vacation." She did, too. "Don't ever invite me somewhere unless you're serious," she said to me when I met her a week later at the Venezia Santa Lucia train station on the Grand Canal.
Some, like my friend, Lelane, had to watch every penny. She had been a soprano at the New York Metropolitan Opera in the 1930s, singing under her real name, Lillian Clark. But when her top notes left her, and her husband, too, she fled to Argentina. She returned to New York as a Latin, Carmen Miranda-like diva in tutti-frutti hats. As Lelane Rivera, her new name, she spent the next 20 years singing, dancing and playing the piano in nightclubs and cruise ships. “When you make a big decision in life,” she once told me, “kill the alternative.”
My Scrabble pal Carl had once been a gag writer for Groucho Marx. "You can make a joke about anything," he once told me, "as long as the wit overcomes the vulgarity." Whenever I start to write something that I think could be offensive, I invoke his words.
Each of my old friends had suffered the tragedies and losses that come with longevity. Still, they didn’t become bitter old cranks or stay-at-home recluses. They managed to combine a childlike joy for living with mature judgment and wisdom. Now that’s a formula I’d like to bottle.
I was having dinner the other night at a trendy Thai restaurant with my friend Karie, who’s half my age. We spend a lot of time together. Every Sunday night we watch Breaking Bad while eating ice cream. During dinner she took out her smartphone. I guess my conversation is boring her, I thought. Just then Karie snapped a photo of me and the pad Thai.
“Hangin’ out with John!” she tweeted to her young friends.
Who knows? Maybe when she’s my age and I'm long gone, she’ll remember something I once said to her — perhaps it was something imparted over a dish of Ben & Jerry’s, or Asian noodles. As my older friends taught me, “The End” doesn’t mean the novel’s over.
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Geography Counts, So Stay Local
What you want is someone to hang with near where you live. Approach this scientifically. Having a friend who lives an hour's drive away will mean you won't see them as much as the person who lives closer. So think global, but stay local. That means your local coffee shop, the local branch of the public library, they local chapter of the Sierra Club, or the local college that offers evening courses.
Follow Your Interests
If you play tennis, join a club or take a few lessons at the community center. If you like to throw parties, volunteer to run the annual fund-raiser at your synagogue or church; when the board thanks you publicly at the dinner, everyone will learn your name. If you hike, join the Sierra Club. If you bicycle, join a biking group or enter a race in your age category. Here's the one caveat about following your interests: Nobody ever met anyone while watching "American Idol" from the couch.
Friends Come In Various Packages
Be open to the idea that it's OK to have friends who are older or younger. The fact that they are in different stages in life just means they bring a different perspective to the table. While a 14-year-old won't be interested in socializing with a toddler, that 10-year age gap dissipates when they get older. Why not say yes to the 30-somethings who invite you to join them for drinks after work? Invite them over for dinner with their families and get to know their kids. Their views on the world may not match yours precisely, but variety is the spice of life.
Travel With Strangers
If you are post 50 and uncoupled, you might find that traveling isn't as much fun. Call it the Noah's Ark theory, but in general, we like to go places paired up. There are services that will help you find a travel room-mate. Not only does this give you someone to talk to over dinner, it cuts down those single supplements that some tours and cruises charge. <a href="http://www.friendlyplanet.com/faqs/find-roommate.html" target="_hplink">Friendly Planet</a> runs one such pairing-up service. <a href="http://www.roadscholar.org/" target="_hplink">Road Scholar</a> offers many active adult adventure vacations here -- offers to find you a roommate if you want. Their programs and generally educationally based and draw a well-heeled and educated crowd. Cruise ships do a pretty good job of making sure solo travelers find people to hang out with; group dining arrangements go a long way toward conversational icebreaking.
Become A Joiner
Even if you've never been a joiner, now may be the time to get yourself out there. Got a new puppy or an old dog who needs some new tricks? Find a community dog-training class. If you like to cook, take a cooking class. Participate in the 5K run for charity, even if you walk the final three.
Keep your smart phone with you and ask for numbers. Sure it may feel a little awkward to say to someone you just met "Hey, I really enjoyed talking to you on this Sierra Club hike but the next one isn't for two months. Would you like to get together for a hike before that?" Worst they can say is no.
Keep Up With Old Friends
With Skype and apps like FaceTime, it's easier than ever to have face-to-face visits. Don't assume your old friends are too busy to talk to you on the phone. Most cellphone plans include free long-distance calls and for those that don't, there's Skype. Invite friends who live a great distance to come and stay with you. Show them your city. Friendships are like gardens; it's often easier to tend to an existing one than grow a new one from seeds.