Tuesday, July 14, 2015

One is silver and the other gold

As I move out of the region where I've lived for the past nine years, an old friend is moving back in. Evey was my first friend in Cha-Cha City. We moved here at the same time, both starting tenure-track jobs, both in long-distance relationships. Her best friend from grad school was a reader of my blog, and she set us up. She thought we might like each other.

And oh, we did.

But after a few years, Evey got a job at her partner's institution. We kept in touch and managed to see each other almost once a year, but getting together was tricky: we lived a long day's drive apart, in places that neither of us had any other reason to visit. Then this spring Evey and her spouse got offered jobs at a university an hour away. Last week we had dinner with them; this week, she's having dinner with us.

This has all been a little disorienting. On the one hand, I'm sad to be moving just as she's returning. But we'll still be much closer than we've been for ages, and we'll each have reason to pass through the other's city multiple times a year. I never expected to have that kind of proximity again.

I've written before about how tough academia is on friendships: though other highly-educated professionals may move for work and may live far from family, it's rare for them to move to a place where they know literally no one--and rarer to do it past 30, and rarer still to keep doing it. Moreover, academics tend to move to communities that don't have a lot of transplants, where the natives have deep roots, and where it's hard to form friendships with people who aren't themselves transplants.

I hate that my first in-town best friend moved away, and that I'm now moving away from my second. I hate that one of my favorite colleagues left, and that I'm leaving two or three others. It took almost nine years to build the social circle I wanted here.

But maybe grumbling about all the friends I'm leaving--or who left me first--is the wrong way to think about it. Had I not moved to a random city where I knew no one, I'd never have met most of these people in the first place. And if I weren't moving to Cosimo's city and hadn't already been living there part-time, I wouldn't have the few burgeoning friendships I have there, or whatever other friendships I may later develop.

A few years ago everyone I knew was buzzing about this article on the difficulty of making new friends past a certain age. The argument is that at some point in our thirties we're all so busy, and have such well-established lives and routines, that even when we really hit it off with someone new it's hard to escalate to the kind of intimacy we might have developed in our twenties, when our lives were less structured.

The argument makes sense, and I'd be lying if I said there were no people I saw as missed friend opportunities--but that's always been true. More to the point, I'm a forty-year-old introvert who's never stopped developing close friendships, perhaps because the vagaries of the academic job market have forced me to it. And mostly I've made friends with other academics: other transplants, other people with shallow roots. When everyone lives hours from their closest friends, they're definitely still in the market for new ones.

In some ways, then, academia might be said to foster the building of new friendships well into adulthood. In addition to having very little control over where the job market sends us, we're constantly meeting interesting new people at conferences. And conferences are basically incubators for intense interpersonal connections. Like sleep-away camp or like a college dorm, conferences pluck us out of everyday life, deposit us into a closed and artificial environment, and leave us there, face to face, for 16 or more hours a day.

Every conference I come away having fallen a little in love with at least one new person--or having deepened and reaffirmed my existing love for two or three people whom I see only at conferences, but whom I inevitably wind up talking to late into the night, or over a long lunch or coffee break. And as at camp, intimacy comes fast.

So though I'm still mourning the people I'm leaving behind, I'm going to try to have a better attitude about academia and what it does to friendships.

After all: it's how I met all you lovelies, now isn't it?


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I was just saying to hubby how hard it is for me to make friends outside of work or conferences. It seems when I do make some friends -- like parents of the kids' friends -- it's hard to maintain those relationships because those people don't understand our very busy lives. For instance, one friend is a nurse, and she works 3, 12-hour shifts per week, meaning she doesn't work 4 days a week. She spends that time with her garden, her children, and working on her house, among other things. She doesn't understand how I barely see my children and that I travel without them often (for conferences) and doesn't understand how I could accept/participate in/enjoy a career that doesn't allow me for much family time. Other academics get it. Non-academics don't. I feel really judged by non-academics about the non-academic parts of my life.

Flavia said...


I hadn't thought about that as a potential problem--almost all my college friends are non-academics, but they also have busy and complicated work-lives and struggle with family/work balance as much as my academic friends--but you're right that when there's a real mismatch on that level it's hard to get close. No one wants to have to explain the basics of why her life is organized the way it is!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I've been somewhat fortunate by the fact that I've stayed in ("been stuck in" I would have said once, but no more) my first and only TT job for well over a decade now, so friendships have had time to ripen. And I'm unpartnered and childless, so I have time for unstructured things.

That said, every time one of our close circles of friends confesses to having put in a job application somewhere, we always wish them well, and let them know how important they are to us. And we all understand that both of those things are true. The new close friends we make in our 30s and 40s are precious because they tend to be fewer.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, just saw this post, but it resonates. Four years ago, I moved to a fancy new job at a giant university after nearly 20 years at a smaller comprehensive university. There I stIll have deep and important friendships, but I haven't made those equivalent friendships at my new place. I'm sort of relieved to learn my experience isn't unusual, although I'd still like to find a new BFF.