Sunday, November 16, 2014

Disliking Gravy: A Friendship

"Madam, I've been looking for a person who disliked gravy all my life; let us swear eternal friendship."
-Sydney Smith

This is the story of a friendship.

Owl spent last year at journalism school. She was absolute pants at it. Columbia has some mysterious definition of an ideal journalism school student. Owl never managed to figure out what exactly it was, except that she wasn’t it. She read too much fiction; she’s all about emotional truths; and talking to strangers upsets her.

She was also pants at making friends with her fellow classmates. They were well-informed, well-dressed, and well-spoken. In contrast Owl was two-steps behind on the gossip mill, never combed her hair, and was, you know, awkward. Owl felt like a beached whale attempting to frolic with seagulls. Often she wondered what she was doing at journalism school. 

In the spring Owl scored a place in book writing class. Book writing class, Owl had heard, was THE class. You apply by proposing a book topic (memoir not allowed) and if you get in, you spend a semester pegging away at a book proposal. The professor puts the living fear of God into his students. Book writing class is like going through the forges of hell. You get burned, you come out stronger, and afterwards nothing can destroy you. The gift you leave with is the conviction that you will write a book, so help you God. 

Owl stumbled across Shep in the dining hall of her dorm after the first bone shaking class. Owl recognized him from class: he’d seemed unusually serene while Owl wanted to be sick all over the table. But, they were both half-Chinese and both living in the same dorm. Owl figured this was enough grounds for a friendship and plunked herself down next to Shep. Then she started wailing. Her book was a memoir masquerading as a social history of Asian immigration and she had a nasty feeling she was going to get booted out of class if she admitted she wanted to nix the Asian immigration part and just write a memoir.

By contrast Shep had everything under control. His book proposal was about an imprisoned Chinese Democracy activist. He’d stumbled upon the family at a rally during his first semester of school. He’d already gotten the story on a radio show and had interviewed most of the immediate family. Shep was wearing a button down shirt, had his hair slicked back, and had accessorized with a newspaper or four. (Owl would soon learn this was a typical Shep uniform.) Shep was doing the two year journalism school track instead of the one year so he could pick up a side degree in computer science. In other words, Shep was everything Owl should have been.

Shep had very little sympathy with memoir writing and Owl's wailing. He wanted to know why Owl couldn’t suck it up and write a history of Asian immigration. Owl managed not to thump him. She’s noble like that. (Very noble. Shep requested the nickname Shep because he thinks his spirit animal is a majestic German Shepard. Owl is privately of the opinion a grumpy beagle would be more accurate.)

Somehow they agreed to edit each other’s essays before class on Monday. When she handed Shep her essay, Owl wanted to disappear. She’d written a piece about her father. It was a small, quiet essay that skated horribly close to being memoir instead of some glorious reporting odyssey.  

When Shep finished reading, he put it down and choked. “I can’t believe I got into the class when you can write like that,” he said. Owl sat a little straighter. She was still terrified of class, but she walked in the next day, comforted in the knowledge that someone thought she had value.

Editing became a Sunday night tradition. Shep would lecture Owl on being a better journalist and clean up her erratic punctuation. Owl would rip apart Shep’s structure and attempt to psychoanalyze him which met with varying results. They never stabbed each other with pens which is a victory. A lot of times editing turned into meandering conversations featuring serious gossip, the strange loneliness of growing up a little bit different, and country music. (Shep spent time in Kentucky which warped his musical taste.)

And somehow this became a friendship. Most of Owl’s friendships are built on the easy outpouring of emotions. Listen, share, validate, rinse, repeat. Not this one. If it’s after 2:00am Shep will occasionally share about his emotions. He shuts up rapidly if Owl is too validating and gets cranky when Owl tries to couch criticism in compliments. “Stop sugar coating everything,” he told her. He means it. Shep has told Owl off for being un-American, reading fiction instead of the news, and having no journalistic instincts. They squabble.  

But they have each other’s backs in a way that Owl’s never quite seen before. Every Sunday night before book writing class Owl edited and re-edited Shep’s drafts on-call. The night before the Columbia career fair, when Owl was hyperventilating about being useless and unemployable, Shep sat down and tutored Owl on spinning her resume. Then he handed her a stack of his old newspapers and subscribed her to his weekly media round up. Owl walked out of the career fair with two internship offers. 

Later, when Owl got stuck on a story during her internship, Shep was there with angle suggestions and sources. And still later, Shep passed on freelance opportunities and job tips. When Shep gives Owl a compliment she believes it. Shep doesn’t deal in fluff.

And then Owl got hired and moved to San Francisco. And she wondered what happens to the strange alchemy of friendship when you up and away. Can you still be friends when the structure the friendship rests on fades away? Owl has friendships that are based entirely on conversation, she’s capable of spending six hours on the phone with her friends, and once pulled an eight hour conversation with her boyfriend, but she and Shep are more about sticking up for each other when life gets hairy than serious soul spilling ad infinitum. 

Owl moved. Owl messaged Shep about having no friends. Shep arranged for her to hang out with a friend of his and called to ask how it went. Owl gave Shep the down low on his lineup of professors and told him he absolutely would get a job when he was having a bad day. 

Last week Owl was attending a tech conference and peacefully scribbling down notes during her lunch break when she got a text from Shep. My life is so hard, it said. Attached was an invite to the National Book Awards. Shep had been invited by the president of the dorm, because that’s typical Shep. The text message exchange went something like this:

Owl: …I’m sorry, excuse me, WHAT?
Shep: I have class at the same time. 
Owl: Ursula Le Guin. Louise Gluck. Mark Strand. Marilynne Robinson. URSULA LE GUIN. FORGET CLASS.
Shep:  Who?
Owl: If you don’t go, I will gut you and eat your entrails. I’ll go. I’ll pretend to be you.
Shep: Okay, okay.
Owl: Can I come as your plus one? I’ll carry your tux tails and everything. Seriously, I’d fly from San Francisco.
Shep: Okay, if it means that much to you. Let me ask. 

Ten minutes later Owl’s invite was confirmed. 

 Friendship: when you move across the country but the essentials stay the same.

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