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Sunday, 31 December 2017

Making friends with the new kid on the block

On 19 December a story appeared on the Psychology Today website and on 27 December a link to it arrived in my Twitter feed. It talked about experiments with mice.
They studied mice that were either housed together or isolated and tracked their reactions when they were introduced to a new mouse. Mice isolated until that point showed remarkably high activity in that brain region which motivated them to interact with the new mouse in the cage. On the other hand, mice that were already interacting with other mice (i.e. the mice housed together) showed a lack of interest for the new kid on the block.
As well as showing that mammals are hard-wired to seek out new companions, the story further postulates that at a time in our history when resources were scarce, being in company made us better able to survive. So, even though we are now more able to supply our basic physical needs than we have ever been before, our brains still tell us to seek out company if we are alone.

The story made me think about school friends who came from far-away places. It must have been hard for Pipi – who had come from a hot country I knew because he had dark skin and straight black hair – being in the playground without any friends. He was dextrous and good at cricket and we struck up a friendship when I was still in junior school. (In those days, you went from year one to year six in junior school then in senior school you started from year one again. Junior school and senior school playgrounds were separate.)

I don’t remember all that much about Pipi except that we were good friends. But later I became friends with David, who had been brought up in Australia but whose parents had migrated. His father had been a Sri Lankan cricketer and his mother was English and David had brown skin and curly hair. At the time David’s dad was an executive at a food manufacturing company and one day the two of us boys took a day off school and went to a TV studio to watch the making of a margarine ad featuring famous comedian Benny Hill, who we duly met and shook hands with. Like Pipi, David was good at sport – cricket, tennis, it didn’t matter – but when we were together we would usually listen to music. He played AC/DC on his mother’s stereo and we deployed tennis racquets pretending to play the guitar, stomping around downstairs at his house with the excessive zeal that young people are apt to exhibit. He lived with his sister and mother in a Paddington terrace. I would sleep over and after I had gone to bed his mother might come into my bedroom to kiss me goodnight. Using wooden blocks, David and I would lay out vast networks of roads in his bedroom – which looked out over a street at the back of the house – and populate them with Matchbox cars we pushed around the floor on our hands and knees. On Friday evenings if I was staying over we would go down to a community centre where there was more music – I remember the stereo there playing the Bee Gees’ ‘Staying Alive’ – and also a billiard table around which we would socialise with local kids.

There was an American boy named Mark who lived in Rose Bay with his mother and father. He might have had a sibling but I can’t remember. He was a good draughtsman and after he went back to live in his hometown of Seattle we would write letters to each other in an effort to keep the friendship alive. Mark illustrated his letters with the cartoon characters he was famous for at school. I would stay over at Mark’s place, and we would do silly things together animated by youthful animal spirits. Making every attempt we could to appear anatomically correct we took turns mincing around his bedroom one morning after I had stayed overnight, pretending to be girls and laughing compulsively. His mother made peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for him that he would bring to school for lunch and sometimes we would swap lunches and he would get to eat cold roast beef sandwiches instead. The American staple was delicious, I thought.

There was also Anthony, whose father was a Canadian executive in an insurance company, and who had previously lived in Caracas, Venezuela. His father’s posting in Sydney meant he got to live with his family in a big house with a garden next to it in Darling Point. I would go over to Anthony’s place and listen to The Beatles. We were mad about them. But I had a strange relationship with Anthony that meant I would ape his habits, like carrying four coloured ballpoint pens the same as he had – red, green, blue and black – in my shirt pocket. He had a copper ring on his finger and in art class one day I made a ring to put on my own finger. I even started talking in what I thought was a North American accent. Anthony’s mother was originally from Lebanon and he had a long face with dark expressive eyes and an ironic smile. Anthony was also good at drawing and we would make doodles in our exercise books to show each other during class if we were bored. The two of us started a club where we would bring ideas along to talk about if we thought they were interesting. We would write reports in our spare time when we were alone and present them at meetings we organised for the purpose. The family left the country eventually and went to Hong Kong, I believe, for his father’s next posting. We wrote letters to each other from time to time and even sent cassettes with voice recordings to one another in the post. One day, Anthony wrote to me about photos he had admired in a shop window showing people with gross physical disfigurements, and I remonstrated with him, saying their feelings would be hurt if they knew of his reaction.

And there was Barnaby, whose father was a famous painter. His family also lived in Paddington, but in an unusual house that had been modified to combine two terrace houses into a single home. The family, including Barnaby’s brother and sister, had lived in Paris before coming back to Australia where the children would complete their secondary education. Barnaby’s bedroom – where I slept when I stayed overnight – was right at the top of the house underneath the building’s sloped roof. We bought strawberry Lifesavers from the shop and threw them off a balcony at people walking in the street. Barnaby was passionate about rugby league and his enthusiasm for the Manly Sea Eagles rubbed off on me. We admired Bobby Fulton, the team’s famous halfback. On some days, we would go down to the park near his house and the two of us would play footy together on the grass, pretending to be players in League teams, feinting amazing passes to teammates while holding the football in our hands, dodging tackles thanks to skilful footwork, tackling each other manfully, and scoring tries victoriously at the end of the grassed zone near where it met the footpath.

What strikes me about these boys is that we were all outsiders, looking for companionship where mostly we didn’t find it suited our personalities. I felt this keenly a few years ago when I went to a Cranbrook School reunion. After the dinner was over I found myself outside the large mass of men milling loudly in the centre of the dining room. Instead I stood along the wall with some other men who I remembered from back in the day. We talked companionably among ourselves and swapped stories while the noise from the room wafted out the glassed doors into the evening dark on the hill above Sydney Harbour. But children lack the reserves of experience that enable adults to combat loneliness, and can fall prey to it with disastrous consequences. There were other school friends I haven’t named here but they were unlike the ones I have listed, who due to their origins were outsiders.

Nowadays it is mainly my task to keep friends already made. What came before might be a chronicle from my halcyon days but I still have three good friends I met during my undergraduate days at university, which is a good place for new friendships if you are looking for them. Enrol today and make friends for life!

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