My friends know that I'm busy and that I sometimes will not speak to them for weeks, months, years or even decades at a stretch. That doesn't mean we're not close friends. It just means I can't keep track of every little detail of their lives, such as the births of children. Many times I've called up a dear friend, someone I've known since childhood, and said, "How are the kids, if you have any?"
It's also awkward when you ask about a spouse by name and learn that the person you are alluding to was two spouses ago. I've found that it's best, after a prolonged lack of contact, to say to a friend, "Give me all your relevant data, starting with your current sexual orientation."
Having very close friends can be a little scary, because there may come a day when, through some misunderstanding, or just the natural evolution of human relationships, they'll begin to think that you want to listen to their problems. My policy is, if anyone starts to talk to me about his or her problems, I am allowed to cover my ears, close my eyes and say "Nee-nee-nee-nee-nee-nee . . ," and then leave the room entirely. With even very close friendships, you need boundaries.
Some of my friends may find this an irritating attitude, since I am happy to talk with them about my problems, and am constantly cornering them to discuss one particular issue -- whether I'm too much of a narcissist. I just need a lot of reassurance on that.
There's a longstanding truism in Washington, that no one has any friends here, just useful relationships. You always hear, for example, that Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, occupying opposite ends of the political spectrum, are "friends," but one guesses that they're not exactly Belushi and Aykroyd. A senator will always refer to his or her colleague as "my good friend from the state of [for example] Utah," typically followed by the phrase, "who is an irredeemable fascist." But to get things done, you need partners, allies, someone with whom you can trade political favors. You get the million dollars in "soft" money in small, unmarked bills; your new friend gets to drill for oil on a coral reef.
The problem with having useful friends is that they often overlap with another category: Friends You Don't Like. I have tried to have only friends that I like, and I have some friends I actually love, to the point of greeting them with licks to the face, but I also have some friends whom I actively dislike, and a very large number of friends whom I dislike inactively, just on the odd occasion when there's nothing else to do. I am proud to say that I have only a couple of friends who are in the "I spit on your grave" category. Those friendships probably need work.
There's another category, that of "trusted colleague." A trusted colleague is someone who does you the supreme time-saving favor of not trying to become an actual friend. There are other colleagues who are specifically not friends, and these kinds of relationships need to be nurtured over time, lest they lapse into genuine friendship.
During the Clinton years, the city was aswarm with "Friends of Bill," or FOBs, all these Arkansans and buddies from Renaissance Weekend, folks who had been, at some point, friendship-bombed by Clinton. They knew they could sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom and watch a movie with Bubba, and later he'd pardon them for all their felonies. But partisanship is now out of control in Washington, and this has put a strain on close friend-ships. Routinely, you'll discover that a close friend, someone you thought you could trust, turns out to disagree with you about, for example, the soybean price supports provision in the Farm Bill. You have no choice but to end the relationship.
In the Bush era you never hear about FODs (Friends of Dubya) or FOGs (Friends of George). As far as we know, the president is still trying to find someone who will be his friend. It's sad. Apparently it's hard for him to find someone who won't constantly start a conversation by saying, "So, 'bout them weapons of mass destruction . . ."
And no, you can't cheat and list, as your "friend," someone who is also your "Dad" or your "wife" or your "vice president" or your "dog." The definition of a friend is someone you can get rid of without a lawyer or a veterinarian.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.