Between the Lines: Weak Ties That Bind

Melinda Blau and I are consequential strangers.

At least, I suspect that would be Blau's term for our relationship. We have a friendly connection—a professional symbiosis from which I've gotten some interesting stories and Blau has gotten some publicity for her books—but we're not intimate friends. Nevertheless, she still regards me as consequential, a significant person in her "social convoy." I feel the same way about her, though I might not have thought of it until now.

While I'm not a close friend of the Northampton-based author, whose past books include the popular parenting book Secrets of the Baby Whisper, which she co-authored with Tracy Hogg, I feel connected to her. I profiled her for the Advocate 15 years ago, and our paths have crossed a few times since. Our most recent contact has been in regard to her new book, Consequential Strangers: The power of people who don't seem to matter… but really do, which she co-authored with psychologist Karen L. Fingerman, Ph.D. I received two copies of the book sometime in September.

I get dozens of books every month, each one by an author seeking media coverage. A few get some play, but most end up in a pile awaiting and rarely receiving attention. If I didn't know Blau, if I didn't know that, despite its self-help-sounding subtitle, her book would contain as much pathos as practicality, if I didn't already regard her as a smart, intellectually energetic and adventurous, articulate and charming writer, her book might have ended up in the big pile. Instead, I set the book on top of the small pile—the pile I plan to get to and sometimes actually do.

When Blau called me in late October, we talked about the book only briefly—I hadn't read it yet—and only with regard to the application of her thesis to contemporary political behavior and how people vote based on much input from the consequential strangers in their lives. We spent more of the time just catching up, talking about her coming trip to Paris and my reaction to the election of Barack Obama. She invited me to her reading at Booklinks in Northampton on Dec. 3 (6:30 p.m.) and said she hoped I'd read her book. I wished her a bon voyage.

When I finally sat down to read Consequential Strangers, I initially struggled with some of the internal headlines that (arguably) lend structure to Blau's story. "Expanding Our Vocabulary of Relationships" and "The Culture of Continuous Connection" struck me as cloying psychobabble, exactly the kind of stuff that turns me off about New Age "relationship" literature. Out of respect for Blau, I pressed on, ignoring the section headers and focusing on the story—make that stories—Blau was telling. I'm glad I did.

Consequential Strangers is really three books in one: one part carefully observed reporting about the lives of various people, some famous, some not, for whom the impact of mere acquaintances turns out to be more life-changing than that of their closest friends and family; another part grounded in psychology, offering scientific insight into the way various types of relationships affect people; and another part pedagogical, offering suggestions on how to apply new ways of thinking about who and what makes us healthy and happy.

The first part—Blau's reporting, including bits of personal memoir—holds the whole thing together. Whether she's writing about former NFL great John Makey, who suffers from dementia, and the role that strangers play in his and his wife Sylvia's increasingly difficult lives, or Graham Spanier, the president of Pennsylvania State University, who, rather than walling himself off from students in his ivory tower, "positions himself at the center" of student life and "routinely spends the first week of school living in the freshman dorm," Blau's compelling anecdotes reinforce the idea that the most important contributions we get from others don't always come from the people we rank as most important to us.

Consequential Strangers appeals to my sense of egalitarianism, much the way the work of Studs Terkel does (Blau writes briefly about Terkel in the book). It also relieves me of some of the anxiety I feel when I find myself paying more attention to the transient people in my life than to my family and closest friends.

I still recall my first interaction with Blau 15 years ago. She'd just arrived in the Valley by way of New York City; I'd just arrived from Boston. We shared our feelings, equal parts excitement and trepidation, about our new home and the various aspects of the location that had attracted us. That chat with a perfect stranger somehow reassured me that I'd made the right choice to move here, and for that, I am still grateful.

Author: Tom Vannah

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