This past week the Oxford American Dictionary chose “unfriend” as their 2009 Word of the Year.
I raise my hand; I am guilty. Not in the online, social networking manner from which the word originates – though, now that I know it is perfectly acceptable to do it, there will indeed be fewer “Friends” on my Facebook page in the very near future.
No, my unfriending practices have all taken place in the face-to-face world.
I once changed my bus route to work, simply because I ended up becoming too friendly with a group of fellow commuters. I fell into the trap quite easily: one of the women waiting at the bus-stop recognized me as someone new she had seen at the airport: “Don’t I know you from somewhere? From Schiphol?” As we boarded the bus I briefly explained that I had recently become one of the airport chaplains, whereupon she invited me to sit with her to tell her more. As a lamb led to the slaughter I sealed my fate when I followed her: there, at the back of the bus was a group of three other friends of hers with whom she was in the habit of sitting. They had been doing this for years. In one swell foop I was initiated into a fellowship of extroverted bus-riders, who always caught the same bus, always sat with each other, and who knew everything there was to know about each other. After two weeks I was going crazy, dreading the commute, getting a nervous twitch in my eye on the early morning trudge to the bus-stop. I was desperate to unfriend them.
To preserve my sanity I discovered a new, and “better”, route to work. It meant I had to change buses, but it also gave me 30 minutes of blissful peace and quiet, and staring numbly out the window, something I love doing.
There is someone else I need to unfriend soon.
In recent weeks, on my morning walks with Hamish, our 10-year-old Cairn Terrier, I’ve occasionally crossed paths with a short, middle-aged woman in a red all-weather parka walking her two dogs: an older Jack Russell of the standard variety, and a wire-haired, long-legged Jack Russell puppy. (By the way, did you know that Jack Russell was apparently an Anglican clergyman who spent much of his time breeding dogs?)
From our first encounter, where I politely oo-ed and ah-ed over her new puppy, I could tell this woman was of the talkative variety who would gladly find an excuse to intercept me, high-jack my morning solitude, and yack my ear off anytime she spotted me out with Hamish. Which is decidedly not my idea of what walking the dog is all about. So I kept that initial encounter, and all subsequent ones, brief and punctilious: “Good morning; my, how your puppy is growing; good day!”
That’s where I wanted it to stay. That’s what I can handle. What I don’t need at this point in my life is a self-appointed friend barging into the quiet margins of my day even before I’ve had my third mug of coffee.
Then came last Friday. As Hamish and I approached a canal from one side, there she was, heading the opposite direction on the other side of the water. “Too far to say hello; good,” I thought. I saw her pause, call her dogs, turn around and head back from where she had come, in the same direction as we were going.
“Pure coincidence”, I convinced myself; “she must have reached the point where she would have turned around anyway. Don’t worry, that puppy will get distracted and we’ll lose them.”
Hamish and I passed into a clump of trees, most of them still tenaciously clinging to their leaves this late in the year. “Good, good; now that she can’t see us we’ll pick up the pace and not give them a chance. C’mon Hamish!” Sensing the imminent danger and my change of step, he came charging after me.
“Blast that long-legged puppy!” Emerging from the trees I had glanced across the canal to my left and discovered the little creature tearing along the path, totally focused on keeping up with Hamish, his new best friend. “Okay, one more clump of trees before we have to cross the bridge; let’s turn on the after-burners, dog.” Nearly running now, with Hamish hot on my heels, we flew through the wood and over the bridge….only to find Grandma miraculously waiting on the other side.
I can call her Grandma because I now know that she is one. And I know how many children and grandchildren she has, all the places she has lived before and how long she’s been living at her new address. I know all about the puppy’s disgusting habits, and exactly how the older dog is taking to his new buddy. I know what she thinks of the education system and public transport and finding a local doctor. I know far more about this woman, and she about me, than I would ever care to know or be known.
The saving grace is that I still don’t know her name, nor she mine. We have not gone past the point of no return. So, gently, quietly, I will unfriend her in the coming weeks. It was an incident; an aberration.
I can get through this.