That Person

Not gonna lie, this was not a great few weeks. 

A weekly blog that covers the intersection of pop culture and social issues is probably not the best place to tell you my dear friend of 50 plus years died quite unexpectedly two weeks ago.

But what the hell, she did and I’m devastated, angry, sad and grateful to have had her in my life at all.

And yes, to you lay therapists out there, I am feeling all of those feelings – at the same time.

Of course, those feelings won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has ever experienced the death of a loved one – be it friend, family or a little bit of both.

And my dear Deb was A LOT of both, and then some. 

Actually, she was much more than that. 

She was fun and bold and brave and saved teenage me from a life of denial, depression and, well, utter dullness.

As teenagers who would both grow up to be gay, we became best friends way back when and then, some years later, eventually… dated???

Well, sort of.

That was a teeny segment of our relationship, but one that many gay men and lesbians of a certain age will identify with.  The best friend who somehow was thought of as, or became, your “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” when you were a teenager or even in your very early twenties. 

Except that, well, a relationship that works perfectly on every level except the sexual one pretty much ensures they’re not your girlfriend, and definitely not your boyfriend. 

What they become, after some growing pains and years of therapy and a lot of luck, is that person.  Your touchstone.  The one.  That enduring extended family member who knew you then, chose to grow with you, change with you, endure you and love you in a way no one else really could (or can) because they’d never have the history and, certainly, not the context.

There’s a shorthand when you know someone this long.  Memories that ebb and flow, some really good or even great but none of them, even the most mundane or unsavory ones, ever truly bad because by this point you’ve weathered the storm and gotten through all the shit that comes at a person in more than five decades.

If you’re fortunate enough to still have that person in your life you get to laugh at the ridiculousness of what you thought so many times was the end of the world while remaining bonded in the reality of having both survived, this long, together, with any shred of sanity and humor left.

As it turns out, you realize together, you were nowhere near as insane as you both knew you were back then (and even sometimes now).  As for humor, being funny is what got you through and allowed you to survive.  What a gift it is to still be able to make each other laugh by saying so little.   The appropriate eyebrow raise or mind read at an oddly opportune moment will more than do. 

But only with them. 

The one who saw you for who you really were, long before you chose to, and decided to stay and find how it would all turn out.

Loving you for who YOU were every step of the way.

Of course, this is a two-way street.  You don’t get to have a person like that for so long unless you are willing to love them and see them for who they really were.

But that’s the easy part.

The hard part is when one day they’re not around for you to do it anymore.

Yeah, they’ll always be with you, all those memories make you one of the fortunate ones and blah, blah, blah, life goes on.

But not in the way you knew it. 

Deb and I both loved theatre and among our favorite plays was Our Town.  Yeah, we both particularly loved Albee and Tennessee Williams but there was something about that much-maligned Thornton Wilder classic that truly spoke to us and, in some hipster crowds, we took a lot of crap for it.

So it is not lost on me right now that all I can think about is the ghost of Emily, the young (Note: Spoiler Alert) dead girl in her grave at the cemetery at the end of the play, looking and marveling at her simple family and town going about their mundane tasks on a typical day in their mundane lives.

And her disembodied voice, as she asks that iconic question —

Does anyone ever realize life while they live it… every, every minute?

Followed by the Stage Manager answering —

No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.

And Deb taking it in, nodding along, and helping me, as usual, to make sense of it.

See, that’s the thing. At the moment, none of that makes a whole lot of sense.  Even though we talked about it a million times.

Bette Midler – “Friends”

The One Where I Finally Understand

I have an on and off relationship with the TV show Friends and that is as it should be. 

Or, to put it in the lexicon of the series, I’m never quite sure if we truly love each other or are just taking a break.

I see what you did there!

As its creators Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin S. Bright recalled in the new HBO Max special, Friends: The Reunion, the one-line pitch to network executives about the series was always this simple:

That time in your life when your friends are your family.

So naturally there comes a point when you move on, other priorities take over and you begin creating your own family

At least that’s the way Kauffman put it in a series of interviews sprinkled throughout the special.

Hearing it said out loud in such stark terms I finally understood all these many decades later, in the 20-twenties, why a television series that became an international phenomenon from 1994-2004, and continues to this day, and will likely continue for generations to come, was never MY story.

Let’s unpack that Chairy…

I’m one of those people who never thought of moving on from my really good friends.  I knew early on I didn’t want to have kids and wasn’t going to have kids. I knew my real family would be my friends, and whatever relatives I chose to stay in touch with.  I didn’t make a distinction because there NEVER WAS a distinction.

I knew that I could create my own family any way that I chose to.  It would not even for a millisecond occur to me that the people in my life closest to me, who I’d love most in the world, could NOT include those who were my dear, dear friends.

Some of this has to do with being gay and of a certain age.   Many of us LGBTQ baby boomers simply didn’t fit into the hetero-normative margins of the straight world so we fashioned an even more fun, kind and loving one comprised of OUR friends. 

You didn’t necessarily have to be queer to be part of that world.  You just hand to get it, be there and love us.

Sound familiar?

Phoebe gets it

It is important to note this was done not out of resentment but of choice.  If you grew up the way I did, at the time I did, moving on wasn’t on the table.

To have a real, true friend meant you had a forever family.  Especially if you had lived through the eighties and early nineties period prior to when Friends debuted.

A reminder of how painfully 90s Friends is

It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and by 1994 each day was like climbing through the rubble of a nuclear holocaust if you were one of my friends.  Who was alive, who was dead, who was depressed, who was doing well and who was just generally in denial or drifting or drinking/drugging themselves to death?

That was a daily occurrence and just about the only thing you knew is that your friends that remained would be there for you.

Oh Chairy.. ya did it again!

But miraculously here’s what each day also brought you —

Dumb jokes and dumb jobs; hilarious and heartbreaking dates that might or might not turn into love affairs; mortifying moments of embarrassment and secret vices that your good friends would be more than happy to publicly rag on you for…

Terrible fashion choices, silly haircuts, weight gains and weight losses, and relatives who could swoop into town and undo every neurosis you had spent years getting under control in one quick visit.

You wouldn’t think this would be the case at the time but it’s true.  It was also what made Friends work, even for those of us who didn’t quite always get it.

Well we all get bad haircuts…

Unlike other network sitcoms of its era:

  • It was funny, it was clever, it was silly and, every so often, it tugged at our heartstrings.
  • It had six of the most charismatic and adept casts in all of sitcom history – Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc – who even now, reassembled together again onstage at the Warner Bros. lot, some 17 years later, seem incapable of phoning in a false or phony note when it comes to their interrelationships.
Dare we say.. authentic?
  • It has even managed to rise above all types of the usual show biz b.s. antics since its been off the air, those that have eclipsed and nearly swallowed up the afterlife of almost every other late 20th century show.  To whit:

a. Yes, we knew the actors all got paid a record-setting one million plus per episode and more towards the end of its run.  We were HAPPY for them.

b. Yeah, we know to this day it’s reported the EACH make $20 million per YEAR in residuals and the show STILL generates about a billion dollars a year for WB TV.  We can live with that if it means we get to sometimes see it.

I’m with Janice here #wow

c. Uh huh, we get the friends each received about  $2.5 mill for this special alone; that there’s a lot of cosmetic “enhancements,” and hair dye, to keep them so dewy-looking; that the “girls” are closer than the guys; that some of their careers have fared better than others; and that Matthew Perry, in particular, continued to struggle with severe substance abuse and other health issues that plagued him throughout the run of the show.  Whateva and we’re rooting for him.

But nothing truly tarnishes the juggernaut that is Friends.  And if you don’t think so consider…

a. What other cast would get paid that much money to reunite?

b. Which other show has a worldwide audience ranging from Nobel Prize winner Malala to one of sport’s GOATs David Beckham?

c. And how many nineties sitcoms could get Justin Bieber to dress up live as a potato or Lady Gaga to do a duet on a song called Smelly Cat for no billing on a reunion special?

100% would watch this show

Friends, like our friends, our families, is far from perfect.  Yeah, I wish it was more multi-cultural, economically inclusive and LGBTQ positive, too.  And, um, please, no WAAAAAYY could they have afforded that apartment at that time – grandmother or not.

But I think of everyone interviewed  Matthew Perry got it exactly right when trying to express what Friends continues to mean and how it endures.

He said no matter what party you went to years later, if you ran into another cast member, you were probably going to spend the evening with them.  You apologized to whomever you were with because all bets were off.  You knew, in that moment, you could talk for hours and very likely would do so, as if no time had passed.

The indefinable pull of that type of relationship is what makes real friends.  And what made Friends.  Whatever either of their drawbacks.

Friends Opening – Season 1