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Joining Voices
It's virtually as good as getting together

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, February 17, 2008

A light beer, some microwave popcorn, a cozy blanket and a phone. This is nice enough, I suppose. I'm trying to be open. I'm the last of the four babes to agree to this stupid idea. It's 9:30 p.m., so I punch in the phone number Beth gave me. A happy man's recorded voice welcomes me to the "Conference Center" and asks me to enter my pass code followed by the pound sign. "If you are a participant, you may hear music until the leader activates the conference," he says.

"Hello?"

"There you are!" says Beth.

"Hey, babe," say Nancy and B.K. in unison.

I grunt, chew some popcorn. I tell them what they already know: I'm having trouble with the idea of moving our Girls Night Out into the realm of phone conferencing. "I just can't believe it's come to this."

"Oh, I think it's great!" Nancy says, and then B.K. reminds her, as one of us must, that Nancy is a person who can (and once did) turn a hernia operation into a vacation.

"Look, at least it's something," Beth says. "You want to go another four months barely speaking?" She announces the first item on the agenda: Get out our calendars and pick a night for a real Girls Night Out. This process takes nearly 20 minutes, all of us at our computers, Nancy and I cross-referencing kids' sports schedules, B.K. e-mailing her boss about the timing of a project and business-tripper Beth checking flight arrival times from Tampa.

"Okay, 7 o'clock on the 27th," Nancy says. "We did it!"

"Should we have a backup plan in case someone needs to cancel?" B.K. asks, pointing out that the last two dates we made got axed. We vote no, unanimously denying history.

Next agenda item: Why is maintaining friendships so difficult these days? We list the usual suspects -- kids, careers in full swing, aging parents, a thousand extra pounds of responsibility. I feel like one of us should put up a PowerPoint. Beth makes a common complaint: She spends more of her days fielding e-mails from people who don't, in the scheme of things, really need her attention, leaving her with little time left for the people who do. We think back on our parents at this age, wonder if our observations are accurate. Their midlife years seemed far less stressful -- bridge night, golf outings, garden clubs, community theater, volunteering at the local library. And that was before Paxil and all the serotonin miracles. That was before personal computers and conference calls and all the ways of staying connected.

"For us, it's the high-tech era backfiring," Nancy says. "We have new devices intended to keep people connected, and here we are falling apart." She speaks of her stepdaughter's plight: a college sophomore doing a semester in the Netherlands, utterly panicked because her cellphone doesn't work there. "That age group is dependent on constant communication," Nancy says. "I'm like: 'You're in a castle in the Netherlands! Go look at it!'"

"They say this new generation has a deep sense of community because of all this communication," Beth says, "but I don't buy it. Community implies to me some ingredient of altruism --"

"We're sounding old!" B.K. says. "Did it ever occur to you that the reason we don't get together as often as we used to has to do with the natural ebb and flow of relationships?"

"No!" Nancy says, which Beth echoes, but I'm still stuck back on Beth's point. "Some ingredient of altruism?" I say. That's kind of interesting. What did she mean by that? We talk over one another, some of us working hard to deny any truth to the rumor about ebbs. No! This predicament has to be the fault of somebody or something. We can't find a rationale that sticks, and pretty soon we start to sound tired and cranky and . . . lonely.

"Anybody have any new bad TV habits?" Nancy asks. Good one. You can always count on Nancy to steer us out of the darkness. Nancy confesses: "The Biggest Loser," which she watches with her 6-year-old son. B.K. and I discover we both know way too much about "Dancing With the Stars," and Beth is all "Project Runway" and "What Not to Wear." We forgive one another our stupid TV, laugh, breathe in, breathe out, relax into a shared moment of nothing important, nothing urgent, no agenda, no bullet points, no stress, the misplaced or forgotten dusty old core of friendship.

"I miss you babes," Beth says, finally. This point draws unanimous support.

Our meeting concludes around 11, way past our bedtimes. We say our goodbyes, and I am about to hang up but then I remember: altruism. I ask Beth to elaborate on her point about community and altruism. Too late. "Thank you for using the Conference Center," the happy man says. "This conference has ended." You get no altruistic anything from a machine, of course, but I don't think that was her point. Soon we'll have a real Girls Night Out, and we'll get to it. Yes, we will.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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