friendship


My friend Rollie has died. He had an amazing life and taught me a lot. I am not the right person to describe his life and I’d decided not to describe any of his adventures here, but a quick look shows that there is really nothing online about him. So here’s a very short version of one of his typical adventures: In his mid-70s, he climbed K2. The sherpa didn’t want to let him come because he was too old, “But I was not the one who held us up… Not once.” On that trip to Nepal, he caught amoebic dysentery, which he cured himself of with a gruesome regimen involving coffee, hydrogen peroxide, bifidus, and enemas.  “That was not fun, let me tell you, but I got rid of that bug. I went back to the doctors and they said it was completely gone.”

Right now I’m thinking most about what he taught me about getting old. He was still on an intellectual and spiritual mission when I last saw him, a week before he died. (In fact, the moment I learned he’d died, I was on my way to his house with the King James Bible on an Excel file–something he’d asked me to find to help with a scheme he had for decoding the Bible.) His memory and his mind were still strong, though his body was failing. Almost a hundred years old and he would tell me to “google” stuff, like, “Oh, just google ‘swansons’–they’ve got good deals on B12.” You can continue to learn and grow for almost a hundred years. I’ve seen it in Rollie. And you can keep your body going, too, but it’s work. He would say, “Nature is basically on your side until your 70s. In your 70s, you’ve got to work at, get it down to a science. In your 80s, it’s full-time. It’s an art and a science to keep going. In your 90s, it’s between you and God.”

He’s got me thinking about isolation in old age. He had a lot of friends in the community, but he spent most of his time alone and he told me several times that the loneliness was hardest part of his life. He had no family left in the time of his life when he needed pretty constant companionship, someone to notice when he fell. I suppose there is only so much planning you can do to head yourself towards an old age full of care and companionship. There’s a lot of luck involved. But I am thinking about it. It makes a big difference

Rollie was also one of my grandfather’s best friends over the last 60-some years, and the most poignant part of a poignant funeral for me was seeing my grandfather cry. He doesn’t generally cry, and never like that, sobbing. I felt the power of that moment and realized I haven’t known anyone for 60-some years, and I don’t know what that’s like, the depth of a 60-year relationship, the kind of hole that would leave in your life. But that’s how you want it to be, right? You want to have good enough, long enough, deep enough friendships that leave you heartbroken when they die. But you also want to have a lot of other dear relationships around you to take up the slack. My grandfather has that, and I want that, too.

Thanks for everything, Rollie.

Rollie (left) with Grandpa Bob, mid-1980s

Rollie (left) with Grandpa Bob, mid-1980s

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John Gottman is a rock star of the science of marriage relationships. He studies them in great detail, minute interactions, facial expressions, heart rate, stress hormones. Using that data he can predict with a high degree of accuracy which relationships are heading for happiness or unhappiness, stability or divorce. I should say that this is prediction in a technical, statistical sense, not in the sense of prophecy. He can’t tell you if your relationship will fail, only whether your relationship behaves in similar ways to those that have failed in the past. Still, that’s a lot better than nothing, and it’s been enough for him to build an exciting theory of relationships.

In his theory, the most important, without-which-all-is-lost part of your relationship is the friendship. By friendship, he means several very specific things. Here is a summary of his summary from his newest book, The Science of Trust:

  1. Track your partner’s inner experience by asking lots of questions and remembering the answers.
  2. Make a habit of finding things to appreciate your partner for and letting them know each time you do.
  3. Notice the things your partner does and says that could be responded to, and respond positively to them. Pretty much all of them—you can miss or fail to respond to at most 3 out of 20.

If you are not doing this work, he says, you are not behaving like couples who manage to sustain satisfying, meaningful, passionate relationships, who manage conflict well enough, and who stay together longer than 6 years. Maintaining friendship in this manner is the bare minimum.