Ah, sweet mystery of friendship!

Friendship is a very OK word these days. If one wishes to boast about a marriage, the operative phrase is: "He (she) is my best friend."

"We're friends" is also, it seems, the highest praise to be paid, on either side, by a self-congratulatory parent and child.

It is as if we feel safer with the calm noun "friend" than with the stormy verb "love.'

Peering at close range into the nearest mirror, we keep asking ourselves: What does love mean? Have we ever really felt it? The word shrieks with demands, undefined.

Ah, but "friend" -- there's a nice reasonable word. A word within our competence. We're experts on friendship.

Fellows have always known what a friend is, though a fellow seldom talks about it. There are no problems to male bonding -- at least none that males will admit to.

And now women are celebrating a new capacity for being friends with other women.

Love, on the other hand, has become a somewhat suspect term, suggesting old subjugations.

The industries of marriage counselors, therapists, and hotlines -- humming night and day, as they see it, to keep the sad American state of loving from getting even worse -- speak with understandable relief of platonic friendship between men and women becoming a pattern of the future.

But now, just as the general idea of friendship would appear to have hit its peak, a suspicion is sneaking in that we may be acting as glibly romantic about friendship as we once did about moon-June love.

In an essay on "Friendship" in the New York Times, Susan Jacoby writes: "The number of women who are workaholics -- especially among those without children -- is growing. As men have demonstrated for years, absolute devotion to a high-pressure job is an absolute barrier to real friendship."

Meanwhile, in a column in Esquire, "Just Good Friends," Harry Stein also cautions us that friendship is not as easy as we are assuming -- and it's no good cheating by promoting "acquaintances" to "friends." He is so brave as to argue that, since true friendship "demands concentration and the recognition of another persons's needs, it is by definition inconvenient."

And, in case we hadn't noticed, he adds: "We are increasingly a society dedicated . . . to convenience."

Certainly the words we tend to favor these days -- privacy, independence, self-fulfillment, space -- can be heard fretting against the importuning inconvenience of Other People.

Indeed friendship, as Susan Jacoby complains, is likely to be a "sharing of feeling" by monologists a deuxm over the telephone. And one of the feelings being shared is how Other People bug us -- not you, of course, dear.

Is friendship, then, going to switch suddenly from being seen as a piece of cake of being regarded as a high-wire act, as difficult as we now appear to think love is? One can see technical specialists setting up offices for friendship counseling and clinics for friendship therapy while scribbling with grim cheerfulness best sellers about "The Joy of Friendship" and "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Friendship and Were Afraid to Ask."

When will we learn what people always knew before the machine became our favorite metaphor? Neither love nor friendship are fit subjects for time-and-motion studies.

The metaphor is more nearly organic -- a little sun, a little rain, a period of drought, and then, not without inconvenience (see Mr. Stein), a harvest that may be worth it. Above all, the whole unbusinesslike business takes time (see Miss Jacoby).

If we really want efficiency, we'll just have to opt for no-waste, no-manipulation loneliness and get it over with.

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