Monday, January 21, 2013

Long Live Pippi Longstocking: Appreciating the Larger-Than-Life Friend


Friendships, like life partnerships, are not always simply about similar goals, values and shared interests. Sometimes they’re about complementarities. There’s a category of friend many of us make in our formative years, and sometimes maintain into adulthood – the larger-than-life, or LATL, friend.

The larger-than-life friend is usually fearless – not always completely, but in areas where we may quail. The larger-than-life friend is louder, sometimes physically broader or taller, and more daring than us. When it comes to her background she is a creature of extremes: her home life is likely to have been either more loving and nurturing than ours, or dramatically more dysfunctional; her parents are either poorer or wealthier than ours. The LATL friend may be simply warm, outgoing and exuberant, but she may also have a brilliant comic streak, a sense of the absurd that we aspire to, and a willingness to challenge authority. She is often a youngest child.

The key to a successful LATL friendship is not to try to emulate her, or put oneself down for being lesser in any way. The LATL friend will be drawn to us for what we are not as much as what we are. She may appreciate our average families, our more settled and boring lives. She may gain a degree of emotional stability from our company. She may draw from us strains of humour and brightness that we did not realise we possessed, and appreciate them more than we realise. We do not have to try to be like her, but simply continue to be ourselves.

LATL friends are not always real. I have no idea whether the average imaginary friend of childhood is a LATL friend, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Sometimes imaginary friends are created by skilled storybook authors. For me Pippi Longstocking, created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren in the late 1930s – early 1940s, was the quintessential LATL friend who set the standard for the flesh-and-blood ones that came after her.

The beauty of Pippi is that she is entirely free of authority figures. In contrast to her next door neighbours, Tommy and Annika Settergren, whom she befriends and shares adventures with, she does what she pleases. She doesn’t go to school, cares nothing for social graces and is always breaking taboos.

Pippi (full name Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking) is a virtual orphan, living happily alone in a home she calls Villa Villekulla in a small Swedish village. Her sea captain father disappeared in a storm but according to Pippi is living as a cannibal king on a South Sea island. She has two pets, a monkey called Mr Nilsson and a horse called Little Old Man. She is said to have the physical strength of ‘ten policemen’ and often picks up Little Old Man and carries him from one place to another. Happy and exuberant, she is a shameless liar and truth-stretcher and is always manipulating adults into doing her bidding.

Pippi’s bizarre appearance declares her eccentricity: her tight orange plaits stick out from the sides of her head, her stockings don’t match and she towers above Tommy and Annika. Although she protects the weak and encourages rebellion she is never violent. She owns a suitcase of gold pieces so is financially independent. I’m sure reading about Pippi’s many adventures (there were three books in all) helped me handle my early LATL friendships.

Real-life LATLs, while lacking the freedom and physical prowess of Pippi, often have so much life-force that they bestow a degree of friendship on the siblings of their primary friend. I was friendly with more than one of my elder sister’s LATL friends, but it is Philippa who stands out the most. Philippa and my sister went to school together then shared an Edwardian house in groovy, inner-city Prahran in the early 1980s, playing host to a regular stream of artistic friends and boyfriends.

I idolised Philippa. Of solid build, with huge blue eyes and golden blonde hair, she had a country exuberance and friendliness that were increasingly tempered by arty sophistication, a vibrant, anarchic laugh that could be heard above the loudest party music, and a private-school accent that was inexplicable yet charming. She had a romantic history that would have filled volumes and a nurturing, motherly side that I flew towards. Philippa’s drawcard was not that she was the funniest or even the most intelligent young woman. It was her ability to extract the maximum from those around her, delighting in the humour of others and the quirks of human existence. She was studying psychology and as her social and love lives became busier she tilted dangerously between chaos and order, seeming to know instinctively where to stop the seesaw so that chaos never managed to gain the ascendant.

Once, home alone at my parents’ place, I thought I heard a burglar and got spooked. Philippa answered the phone when I rang Eleanor in a panic. She immediately ordered me over to Prahran despite the fact that Eleanor was out. Dressed in her white bathrobe she made camomile tea for us both. ‘Things can feel really scary when you’re on your own,’ she offered as she tucked her feet under her, sat down on the other end of the couch and gazed at me in sympathy. Her large eyes shone as she clutched the steaming cup and I read in them two motivations, and was perfectly happy with both: the desire to be supportive and a hunger for drama, for a heightening of life’s ordinariness.

At the time I had my own LATL friend, who could not have been more different than Philippa. Geraldine was physically taller and broader than me but it wasn’t just her size that enabled her to dominate the space around her. She was thirsty for attention, would court it and suck it up from wherever it came. She was the youngest child in a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family dogged by the twin curses of mental illness and alcoholism. Like her siblings she was brilliantly comic; for many years I kept a tape we made on one nothing-to-do summer afternoon at my place when we were about fifteen.

In the background, a telephone starts to ring. ‘The phone rings’, Geraldine pronounces in an ominous male narrator tone as she lolls on the bed. ‘Who will answer it?’ She then begins riffing on a hysterical middle-aged reaction to a dodgy television program playing in front of an imaginary child: ‘Turn—the—television off! Turn it off!’

Geraldine is long gone, taken by the evil, self-hating sprite who dwelt within her and waited to claim her at a weak moment. Like me she grew up with undiagnosed mental illness but unlike me she forged a path to adulthood for herself, having a baby in an early relationship and then meeting the love of her life with whom she was living when she died, it’ll be fourteen years ago this year.

There’s just one other LATL friend I want to pay tribute to in this blog entry; she died young too, of breast cancer. In the last year of secondary school, most weeknights I walked home from the tram terminus with my younger sister Simone and our mutual friend Kathy; boy that girl was wild. Or so it seemed at the time: in hindsight, not all the wild girls were acting out; some of them just grew up more quickly.

Kathy was fearless and from an early age she drank and smoked dope and partied and had lots of illicit boyfriends. It would have been futile to even try to emulate her but she was a few years below me at the Catholic convent we all attended, so I never felt that I had to. Neither Simone nor I would have mucked around with her at school if we had been in the same year, yet the three of us got on like a house on fire on those walks home.

I picture her walking between Simone and me, skipping slightly ahead as she relates something outrageous she’s done or cackles about some dippy teacher. I see now that her main function was to keep Simone and me from tearing into each other; she held each of us at bay, neutralising our mutual animosity, our unceasing grappling for space and attention. She never would have played this role consciously but her optimism, warmth and fearlessness did the job.

She couldn’t have cared less how she looked; she had uncombed straggly black-brown hair, a sweet creamy lightly freckled face, wild, gesturing hands, very light-coloured eyes and a body that was always curving into a dance of exuberance at whatever brazen act she had done or was about to do. Like many young women who grow up quickly she ended up marrying young, having kids, and working in unskilled jobs; and then the breast cancer claimed her. But she crammed lots of life and laughter into those years.

The LATL friend can lead our adolescent selves into frightening new territory if we let her; if not she may leave us behind. Sometimes, if the LATL friend is too reckless or self-destructive, this is inevitable. It didn’t happen with Kathy, because she was secure enough to accept Simone and me as we were: a tiny bit prissy but witty enough to keep up, and always willing to offer our admiration and sympathy.

If you have LATL friends in adulthood, treasure them but never feel that you are inferior for being less attention-getting or having more mundane problems. You and your friend may be mirroring in each other the qualities that are undeveloped in yourselves. As long as you appreciate and enjoy these complementarities, your friendship will continue to flourish and nurture you both. We can’t all be Pippi Longstocking, but that’s all the more reason to relish her company.

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