I have two sets of friends: There are the brick and mortar ones who I meet for dinner, spend holidays with, and text -- and then there are my virtual friends, who are the people I have gotten to know online and who I frequently feel that I know just as well.
And yes, I'm of an age where even typing that makes me feel a little weird. For someone to be a friend, don't you actually have to have seen them in person? I'm not sure anymore.
Of my virtual friends, the ones I feel closest to are the moms in the online Chinese adoption community. My two children, now ages 16 and 13, were my admission ticket to this club. I often hear envy from moms whose kids were adopted from Haiti, Korea, or Cambodia because the Chinese adoption community is so large and well-organized, and theirs is not. It's true: The Chinese adoption community is so big and so active online that it's possible to filter and just make friends from your child's specific orphanage or province. We even have subgroups for the different adoption agencies or the date you got your referral or the group with which you traveled. There are online subdivisions for moms with Chinese sons, moms with Chinese twins, moms who adopted from China out of birth order, and moms with Chinese special needs kids (often sorted by specific special need).
Without question, we are a plentiful lot and we've done a great job of connecting with each other online. I've known some of these moms for more than a dozen years. We have supported each other through the paper chase for our children, through the early years of adjustment issues, and through the more recent surge of our daughters finding one another online and expressing great surprise, as my daughter recently did, that "You know Mei's mom?!"
For our adopted children, making virtual friends with other adoptees has been a godsend. They have finally found someone who gets what it's like to grow up as a Chinese adoptee in a foreign country, someone with whom they can share thoughts about their desire to find their birth parents, or at least find out more about where they came from. And yes, we virtual friend moms talk about our kids now wanting to do those things too.
My very first online friend was Lori McCoy. She cattle-prodded me in 2001 when my engine stalled while I was filling out the mountain of paperwork that a foreign adoption requires. I had shoveled the papers to the side of the dining room table and hadn't touched them for weeks. I chalked it up to getting a case of cold feet -- until McCoy convinced me that my feet would warm, as would my heart, once I got my daughter in my arms. I moved forward because of this Internet friend, which I think makes her a kind of godparent to my daughter, who I wouldn't have had if she had not hammered me with emails back then. McCoy's own adoption journey switched direction and her beautiful daughter wound up coming from Cambodia, not China.
Then there's Jill Touloukian, an adoptive mom who united many of us. Touloukian runs an international adoption dossier service and everybody uses her because she is so thorough. She's one of those meticulously careful, quadruple-checkers who assembles all the pieces of adoption applications and makes sure you aren't rejected because you forgot to initial something. Many of us have our kids today because of Jill. She and I stay in touch on Facebook and our relationship now includes comparing Tahiti hotels.
I "know" Luanne Billstein because she and I both have daughters from the same orphanage. Luanne lives in Ohio and I'm actually going to meet her for the first time this summer when we attend an Adopteen conference that she organized. Having kids from the same orphanage makes us family; that's true for Katina Z. Jones from Georgia and Carolyn Hawkinson-Pruett of Oklahoma. We may all come from different walks of life but the mere idea that a decade ago and a million miles away, our children once shared the same crib or caregiver -- or even that they may have breathed the same air in the same orphanage corridor -- makes these virtual friends important to me. Their children are a connection to my daughter's past and she to theirs -- and we all do what we can to keep this common thread alive.
My virtual friends come from outside adoption circles too. I used to play Words With Friends with a dog rescuer I've never met. Leslie Rossell was too good a player for me and the nightly humiliation more than this writer could bear, but I feel like I know her so well that she once had to remind me that we've never actually met, even though we live in the same city.
I have virtual friends who are freelance journalists across the country; in many cases we've worked for the same editors, know the same people, have sent work to one another -- but we just have never met. There are about 25 or so of us who all worked under contract for the same now-defunct website; I've met just three of them because they live nearby but I totally "know" the others. That website was one of my all-time favorite gigs, in no small part because of the Walletpop gang.
There is only one problem with my virtual friends: There are times they seem to be overtaking my brick and mortar friends. Given the pace of life and demands on my time, it's easier to spend time with them. I can sign on at 1 a.m. and always find someone in another time zone to "talk" to me. During the day, I can take a break from work and read about what happened in the lives of my virtual friends on Facebook. A comment or a "like" lets them know I'm in touch. A direct message tells them I'm totally there for them. They require nothing more of me or our friendship.
It's harder to connect with my brick and mortar friends because it takes more time. Arranging to see them sometimes requires the skills of an event planner. I can't remember the last time I "grabbed" coffee with someone in the spontaneous sense. I'm always rushing to the next place or the next obligation and our in-person visits now involve calendar invites and sending reminders to our phones.
And no, the irony is not lost on me that I spend so much time online with my virtual friends that it has cut into the real time available for my brick and mortar friends. But it does occur to me that the concept of friendship been altered -- and that's maybe not such a good thing.
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.
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.
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.
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. Friendly Planet runs one such pairing-up service. Road Scholar 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.
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.
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.
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