The Universal Notebook: Are you really my friend?

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Every once in a while it occurs to me that I don’t really know many of the people with whom I interact regularly. I work for a number of newspaper, magazine and book editors, for example, whom I have never met in person. We have cordial professional relationships online, some of which go back a decade, but I wouldn’t know them if I bumped into them in the grocery store. Such is the nature of modern friendship.

I conduct a lot of my work life electronically. I research online, interview on the phone, write on computer, e-mail my articles and read them online. I even get paid via electronic funds transfers in some cases. Ah, the virtual life.

The average American knows about 600 people. Of course, I’m not sure what “knows” means. Knows well? Knows who someone is? Knows the name? Knows to speak to? Known by the person as well? There are friends, neighbors, acquaintances and associates, all of whom we “know” in different ways.

I have no idea how many people I actually know, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than 600. I’d estimate there are about 3,000 names, for example, in my e-mail address book. Two-thirds of those names are probably professional contacts. Then there are odd lots of names from having served as secretary of the soccer boosters groups, clerk of the congregational church and member of the reunion committee for my high school class. So maybe I flatter myself. Maybe 600 is about right.

In my address book there are 48 Johns, 35 Steves, 31 Michaels, 31 Susans, 29 Peters, 26 Sarahs but only one Tanja. That’s photographer Tanja Alexia Hollander, whose Facebook “friends” project – “Are You Really My Friend?” – has received national acclaim. The average Facebook user has 338 “friends.” Tanja Hollander is among the top 15 percent of Facebook users who have 500 or more. Her conceptual portrait series is an attempt to photograph all 626 of her Facebook friends.

What impresses me about “Are You Really My Friend?” as much as the photographs is the way Tanja is transforming Facebook “friends” into actual friends by visiting and photographing them. Some, of course, were existing family and friends, but some were people she had never met, who were simply attracted to her art.

When I e-mailed Tanja to ask her what she had learned about friendship while working on the Facebook project, she replied, “It is not how you met someone, but the quality of communication that matters. I don’t differentiate between FB friends or IRL friends. It’s one continuum.”

I’m not one of Tanja’s Facebook friends because I’m not on Facebook, but I do consider her an in-real-life (IRL) friend. We have a very personal connection through the Portland house where she grew up. My grandparents owned it for 47 years before the Hollanders bought it. Tanja’s portrait of her parents is taken in the dining room where I ate Thanksgiving dinner back in the 1950s. In the sunroom behind them, my grandfather naps forever in my memory with his grumpy old coon cat.

I rarely run into anyone anymore who knew my grandfather, who died in 1971. Ed Beem had Met Life associates, Kiwanis and Masonic Lodge friends, church friends, hunting buddies, poker buddies and Little League buddies, but he never had any Facebook friends. Not only did he live before the personal computer, he never even had an answering machine. For the most part, if you wanted to talk to Ed Beem you had to go find him.

My father probably knew as many people as I do, but Al Beem had very few friends who were not family. My mother had golf buddies and bridge buddies, but Dad’s friends were his brother Gordie and my mother’s brother Bill. That was about it. During the last couple of years of their life, when they were in the nursing home, only a handful of people other than family came to visit.

So how many real friends do I have? Who will be there in the end? There are about 30 people in my family. There are 61 people in my prayers. But I figure I’ve only got five or six close friends, people I can count on to still be there when I’m muttering and drooling. One of those people is my lovely wife Carolyn.

Carolyn was just a teenager when I first laid eyes on her and only in her 20s when we met and married. We became lovers, parents, partners, homeowners, breadwinners, soulmates. Then we became friends. Real friends. And that’s been the best part of marriage. Happy birthday, sweetheart. You really are my best friend.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.