Can brothers be best friends?
Tom and I shared a birth canal, but it was up to us to discover each other later.
I talk to my brother Tom via FaceTime every day. I can’t pinpoint why or when that started. It had to be after he retired from his full time consulting position at AIG. But the convos became longer and more intense the farther I moved from him, first Venice, Florida and then Moscow, Russia.
Just when it seemed like we might be settling into “best friends,” he ups and says, “If you were choosing a best friend, it probably wouldn’t be me.”
It always seemed to me that the position of brother ranked well above that of best friend. Because of my work, I have many close male friends, but none that I even talk to once a month. But none of them are retired.
A best friend isn’t chosen; it just happens. It creeps up unawares. Suddenly one realizes, not only do I talk to this person every day, but I need to talk to him or her. Yes there is much in common, but there are also complementary qualities. Together you are a better person than alone.
A relative could fill the bill. When that happens, there is a history of closely shared experiences and parallel lives as well. And when your moms and dads coincide, you have an emotional weight that would collapse a psychiatrist’s couch.
All friends are circumstantial. They cycle in and out of one’s life as needed. Even a best friend isn’t forever, though many have experienced reconnecting with that grade school pal as though the continuum of your relationship was never broken. There a real affection there, mostly nostalgic.
And what about a relationship that briefly sparked and when revisited bursts into a full flame that indicates “love.”
I believe love is a necessary aspect of a best friend relationship. I’m not referring to the BFF on social media that’s more like a classification system. However, I don’t want to deny that best friendships emerge in disparate situations.
In the case of my brother Tom, ours was a late blooming relationship. There were some complicating wives in the mix. But now we have wives that are probably relieved that we are best friends - reducing the pressure on them to fill all needs without help.
The nice thing about brotherly best friends is that we can share small talk, strolls down memory lane, baseball talk … and even long silences (on my part and not Tom’s). So glad he can fill the gaps so we’ll.
Tom and I are very different. As our mom put it, “Tom’s good with numbers and Andy knows words.” There seemed to be an implied inferiority in that distinction that probably went with being the older brother. And maybe we both believed it for a second, but it did set us off on different paths.
Tom’s first jobs were in banking. Even when he joined the Air Force, his assignment was in payroll. He came back to Brooklyn College, where he majored in Economics/Accounting. His first two big jobs were with the Community Service Society and later in the executive training program for United Parcel Service (UPS). Meanwhile, I was writing and teaching journalism. But the twain eventually met.
Tom transitioned into a job at LOOK Magazine where he organized the details of production and distribution. It was the 1960’s -70’s, the golden age of New York publishing and mergers. His career took him through HOLT RINEHART & WINSTON, PAPERBACK LIBRARY, WARNER BOOKS, BALLANTINE BOOKS, RANDOM HOUSE, CLUBHOUSE BOOKS, RAVEN PRESS, SCRIBNERS, McMILLAN, WEIDENFELD, and GROVE PRESS - at the highest management levels. A better pedigree than that is hard to find. His strong point was systems development because he had the foresight to enroll in a few programming courses at NYU well ahead of his peers.
But his favorite activity was interacting with the editors and alerting them to the fiscal implications of editorial decisions. His wife, Pam, was an extremely impressed Grove editor.
So in the end, we were both in the same field. I on the input side of words, he on the output.
Intellectually we had similar tools, coming out of boarding schools and liberal higher education. We just applied them differently. I think our low expectations of ourselves kept us from reaching the highest levels of our professions. Tom would have been great book publisher and I had repressed hopes to edit a major daily and later head an innovative journalism school.
The bittersweet satisfaction of having lived on the edge of greatness supported our emergence later in life as confident analysts of the world around us. While I am prone to sharp judgements concerning the state of the world, Tom’s gentler personality results in a more sanguine outlook. He interprets the world in a cyclical way, a giant pendulum that alternates between dominant factors. As opposed to his entropic view, I see new worlds emerging from the ashes of the old in an evolution toward perfection.
This is where the complementary aspect of being best friends is activated. Between us we have one really good mind.
Often we fantasize about the lives we might have lived under different circumstances. Tom sees himself self as a photographer or cinematographer or better yet as a director in movies. My younger self envisioned my mastery of the knuckleball as projecting to the highest levels of MLB. But since one can’t pitch forever, I felt my good singing voice could have been the basis for a career in performance. And there stands the elemental difference between Tom and me: he behind the camera and me in front.
In our conversations, we recall a past whose main influences came from outside the home. As Tom puts it, “We learned how to be good nuns.” Today religion does not mean much in our lives, and we muse together about the existence of an afterlife, but there is a lasting residue of ethical behavior that seems innate. Where we agree strongly is that the welfare of human beings must supersede any ideology or world view. And that sets us squarely in the liberal camp.
But we thrive on divergence. Tom’s pendular outlook places him squarely at the patriotic midpoint. I am always at the apex, looking outward toward the inevitable unknown. He tends toward the comfortable, proven safe spot, while I exhilarate on predictive possibilities. It all makes for interesting heated conversations if we choose to engage, which usually we wisely do not.
Best friends does not mean two peas in a pod. It does mean a deeper and enlightening satisfaction through regular engagement. Right now baseball and movies seem to dominate. Recently it was colleges and finances as his late-in-life daughter prepared to leave high school. Interesting that her choice was a values-centered college, Villanova, while my grandson chose Loyola (Md.), another Catholic school.
These generalities about the best friend status of the relationship with my brother, glosses over much of the nitty- gritty. Our absent mother was none-the-less a strong influence in our lives, though my brother is more forgiving. Tom is really a family guy. Nothing gives him more pleasure than bringing relatives together in ritual celebrations, or doing something small, like alerting his older daughter and her husband to surprise me and my wife Olga celebrating her birthday at a nearby lobster house.
To be sure, it is easier to consider good friends as “brotherly,” such as John Caputo, Ned Balbo, George Miller, Fred Epstein, Jim McCarthy and Mike Dorsher, and even sisterly like Rachele Kanigel and Melody McCloud - all readers of this column. Getting to be a best friend is higher mountain to climb.
I hope my brother is enjoying his view from the top.