Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Q&A with William Schwalbe- We Should Not Be Friends- The Story of a Friendship

July 26th, 2023
Books & Authors

From the best-selling author of The End of Your Life Book Club–  a funny, charming, poignant and wise book about an unlikely college friendship that lasted 40 plus years. We Should Not Be Friends, the Story of a Friendship takes the readers on a journey  as these two fascinating and very different men move from age 20 to 60, facing the challenges and successes that life hurls their way. Through it all, despite some years when  they don’t speak and instances where they get frustrated and annoyed with each other, the bond survives and grows.

William Schwalbe begins this story of a great and improbable friendship by telling us in chapter one “Nerds and Jocks’ that by the time he was a junior in college in the early 1980’s, he’d met everyone he wanted to know- the gays, the lesbians, the theater geeks, everyone in his eccentric major- Latin and Greek- and ‘an assortment of other obsessive quirky characters.”

He also knew exactly who he didn’t want to know, the jocks. He found them obnoxious, loud and smug. He wasn’t sure they thought about him much at all – a gay guy with permed hair and a lot of Matt Dillon posters in his room. Then he met Chris Maxey, better known as ‘Maxey’ to his jock friends. “From the start it was clear that Maxey and I should not be friends.”

But friends they became thanks to a little-known secret society at Yale where 15 rising seniors were chosen each year precisely because they were so different. They had to meet twice a week for a year for dinner and give a full unabridged ‘audit’ of their life to the other members. There’s also a lot of drinking involved, but hey they were young and thirsty.

Here are some of my questions for Schwalbe:

I loved your quotes at the beginning of the book:

All friendships of any length are based on a continued mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.” – David Whyte

When during your 40+ year friendship with Maxey did you really understand that tolerance and mercy are a vital part of the equation?

Maxey and I understood the full truth of this quote only in the last few years, partially because finding the quote itself caused us to talk about tolerance and mercy in a way we hadn’t ever done before.  But in doing so we realized that we had been forgiving each other over and over again, right from the start. At one key point in the story, Maxey utters a fairly common (at the time) homophobic slur that saddens me hugely. But I realized over the course of just a few weeks that I didn’t want to be mad at Maxey. So, I didn’t let it interfere with our growing friendship.

As for Maxey, it rankled him that I had trouble letting go of my first impression of him—obnoxious jock—long after it was clear that he was so much more than that. Still, he never let that interfere. There are so many more examples, almost all of them unconscious. And that’s the one of the great things about tolerance and mercy: you don’t have to be conscious of them for them to work their magic.

I also liked this quote:

The only way to have a friend is to be one.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sounds so simple. What was your biggest challenge in being a friend to Maxey? Beyond the hugging.

Ha! Yes, the hugging is a big challenge. Maxey still insists on hugging me and his whole family does the same. They all give me huge bear hugs. Even though I still hate it, it also always makes me smile.

Beyond that, my biggest challenge has been simply one of energy. Maxey is an extrovert and is like the Eveready bunny. He just keeps going and going. I’m like the other bunnies in those commercials, the one powered by inferior batteries. It’s no longer that much of a challenge because I’ve learned to be honest: I tell Maxey right away when I need to relax and recharge. This has the huge benefit of allowing me to be fully present as a friend whenever we’re together.

You can read the rest of my interview with Schwalbe here in 26’s July newsletter.

Happy summer

July, 2023

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