So this happened yesterday:
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It’s 2019 and it’s late at night a couple of weeks before Christmas. In each room of my house are the people I love. But I feel alone.
I’m watching Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood on my laptop in bed, while my wife Allison sleeps next to me. It’s about a struggling TV star Rich Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his longtime stunt double friend Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. And it’s about how the industry is changing around them and they’re not getting any younger. Also, it’s—spoiler alert—an alternative history of the murder of the real-life actress Sharon Tate, but we’re not here to talk about that part of the film.
Partway through, I start to feel this odd sensation. A lump is forming in my throat and my eyes start to get watery and I realize that I’m starting to weep about the friendship between two fictitious characters. Their relationship is beautiful. And sad.
I don’t think Quentin Tarantino pitched the script to the studio and with his goofy laugh said, “Mark my words, this is going to make some lonely married guy cry right here.” Or maybe he did. At its core, it’s a movie about friendship, albeit a friendship that has a financial component to it. But their friendship endures the lack of funds coming Dalton’s way. The characters are attached at the hip and have been for decades. It's all they’ve known for so long.
Is this a thing that people actually have these days?
I don’t think I’ve had a best friend since first grade. You know, like that friend who’s been by your side since forever ago, through thick and thin?
Nowadays, I have so many friends. But I also feel like I don’t have any friends at all.
When we’re kids, we make fast friends with just about any other kid around the same age who’s in close proximity to us. School is a large driver of friendships, naturally. And parents inadvertently play the role of matchmaker by setting up playdates so they can get some peace and quiet for once. Those friendships can last for a long time if you don’t go your separate ways eventually.
In high school, I wasn’t really a popular kid, but I wasn’t unpopular either. I was just sort of...there. I was good at baseball. But I was the starting pitcher who threw junk pitches like a knuckleball and not the all-star flamethrowing pitcher who was also homecoming king and also voted most likely to succeed—which is funny now because we all know those guys are certainly not the most likely to succeed.
I dealt with only fairly mild bullying, like the time one of the bigger guys on my varsity baseball team stepped on my—thankfully non-throwing—left hand with his metal spikes. Or when I was being verbally berated by one of my most annoying friends on the basketball court during lunch and I got so frustrated with him that I threw the basketball in his face and gave him a bloody nose. And, no, I didn’t pass out from seeing his blood.
After high school and a short stint in junior college, I was off to UC Santa Barbara, which is a solid four-and-a-half-hour drive from where I grew up in San Jose. None of my friends from San Jose came with me. But once again, I made friends quick. That’s part of what college is for, right? Yet, I barely keep in touch with any of those friends now. Even though they were the kind of friends who would’ve fought other people on my behalf at the time. And now... nothing.
You probably know the rest of the story because some version of it has happened to you too. Completing school, moving multiple times, getting married, divorced, getting remarried, leaving jobs, starting new jobs, and having kids—all of these contribute to less close friends and I’ve done them all.
Finding a new close friend at this stage in life feels like winning the lottery.
In 2009, the radio show and podcast This American Life aired an episode entitled “Somewhere Out There” about the odds of finding true love. The prologue of the episode has stuck with me ever since.
In it, NPR correspondent David Kestenbaum tells host Ira Glass a story from when he was doing graduate work in physics at Harvard. He and his physics buddies were talking one day about how none of them had a girlfriend. And, because they’re physicists, they wanted to figure out the mathematical likelihood that they could each find one. To do so, they came up with a variation on the Drake equation, which is used to estimate how many planets in the observable universe might have intelligent life on them.
Here’s how they adapted it for their girlfriend search:
First, they looked up the population of Boston, which was a little under 600,000 at the time. But they immediately cut that in half because they were only interested in women. Now they were at 300,000.
But some of those people were too young or too old. To narrow it down, they used an age range of twenty to forty years old, which ended up being roughly one-third of the population. They were down to 100,000 now.
They also wanted their potential girlfriends to be college-educated. About twenty-five percent of Americans over twenty-five years old have a college degree. That knocked them all the way down to 25,000.
But hold on a second, not all of those 25,000 women are single. They estimated and cut the number in half again. 12,500 now.
Then they got into things such as whether you find the person attractive, religious beliefs (or lack thereof), politics, humor, and so many other things. At that point, the number was steadily dwindling down to almost nothing.
The next thing they knew, their professor walked in. She was single too. So they started to run through the same equation for her. She was only interested in men, so down to 300,000 again. They narrowed by age range again. She wanted the guy to be taller than her, but she was fairly tall which knocked the number down considerably. She also wanted the guy to be smarter than her and she was a Harvard physics professor. Eventually, they whittled down the equation and came to the conclusion that there was nobody for her in the Boston area.
Thinking about applying the Drake equation idea to my friendship dilemma is daunting.
When I daydream about this hypothetical friend, I picture a guy around my age. We’re talking daily, writing together, starting a podcast, playing golf, watching movies, laughing, pushing each other to grow professionally, and talking late into the night. And this guy should at least be a parent, and ideally, be a parent of a special needs kid so he better understands what I’m going through with my family.
Oh, and he needs to live somewhat close to me too. I live in the City of Sonoma, which is tiny and only has about 11,000 residents. If I expand the circle to all of Sonoma County, there are just under 500,000 people. But as I add more and more of the specifics about my ideal friend, the number of people gets cut down to essentially zero very quickly.
The more I consider it, the more I realize I need to completely rethink my concept of a close friend. Is this friend really just... me? Is the answer that I need to look inward and love hanging out with myself more?
No. The key is to not put so much pressure on finding this unicorn of a person.
What makes friends—and people more broadly—interesting and fun to get to know are their unique differences. Many friends over the years have opened up my mind to different viewpoints because they see the world through different lenses. They’ve also been good at providing perspective and calling B.S. on the story I’m telling myself about my own life.
Just recently, I was on a Zoom call telling a newer friend about a potential writing-related job opportunity. I was excited about it because I thought it could help me appear as a more legitimate writer to potential new readers. He stopped me and said, “Dude, you already are a legitimate writer. You’re doing it and putting it out there every week.”
This year-plus-long pandemic has forced us all to adapt and change how we foster friendships, both old and new. It has shown me that I can nurture friendships beyond the geographical constraints of where I live. I’ve joined multiple writing groups online where I’ve met some amazing people who’ve taught me a ton about writing, work, and life. My friendship Drake equation is looking much more solvable now.
Sure, these online friends can’t show up at my doorstep in Sonoma unannounced like Cliff showed up at Rich’s house in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. But they can send me a DM, comment on this piece (hint, hint), reply to a tweet, hop on a Zoom chat, or any number of other online interactions. And I can do the same for them.
Making friends as an adult is not like winning the lottery. It’s more like investing. Building long-term, deep friendships takes a ton of time, energy, and intentionality. We’re not in first grade anymore. We all have families, jobs, responsibilities, and seemingly no time left in our days.
But I believe there’s someone out there for all of us.
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Wow. This really hit me. I thought I am the only one struggling with friendships. Friends vs. acquaintances.
I’m glad we met, friend.