A Periodic Fable of Elements

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Anyone who has ever been a girl scout knows that new friends are silver and old ones gold. This makes perfect sense. Both metals are highly malleable, strong, flexible, and of significant weight and substance. All friendships should have those qualities. But silver is also lighter, shinier, and a better conductor of heat and electricity; new things are always more exciting than old ones.

Relating friendships to metals is especially apt when you consider the properties of non-metals. Non-metals are not shiny, are generally poor conductors of energy, are brittle (if solid at all), and most tellingly become transparent when stretched thin (whereas metals remain opaque). We all have those people in our lives who seem like friends but suddenly disappear when the pressure is on. Many of them are also giant gas bags – or at the very least full of hot air.

So our friends are precious metals and the rest are not. But surely there are more types of friendship than just “new” and “old”. In my experience, the flavors of friendship are as distinctive and varied as the elements themselves.

Iron, for instance, has the most stable nucleus of all the metals, and that same configuration of electrons makes it highly magnetic. A stable core with a strong attraction? Sounds like a life-long best friend to me! Iron may not be as pretty or shiny as gold and silver, but it makes a hell of a lot better support beam.

Speaking of support, a friend recently commented to me that it is never fair to expect anyone to be supportive all the time, because no one person ever will be. Never mind that her argument was a blatant excuse for her refusal to be inconvenienced by rides to the airport or help with moves, she is wrong because I know personally those bonds do exist. These friends are platinum, which is rare and resists corrosion of any kind – even airport pickups. If you are lucky enough to have one, they are also the only accessory you need.

Long-distance friendships are copper; they can be stretched very thin and yet remain incredibly strong, and are excellent conductors of energy – as they have to be to sustain the necessary work. Still, we have to be careful. Copper can tarnish easily, probably because sarcasm doesn’t translate well over email. Emoji’s can only do so much – call your long-distance friends!

On the other end of the spectrum are titanium friendships, which conduct very little electricity or heat but have a high strength-to-weight ratio. These are our acquaintances or “outer circle” – people we don’t actively seek out, but always enjoy when we find ourselves in their company. The majority of friendships are titanium, which may sound cynical but isn’t. Titanium can be just as attractive as silver or gold, and if everything we had was a heavy metal nothing would have any relative value.

It is the “Facebook friendships” that are cheap aluminum. Aluminum is the most abundant metal on the planet, which is how that jackass from high school can have several thousand Twitter followers, and it resists corrosion – something far easier to do when you can just “hide” a person any time they get a little unpleasant. Much like any online comments section, aluminum is an excellent conductor of heat, and its extreme malleability is why we can crumple it up and toss it as soon as it has served its purpose. The internet: best for baking corn and potato heads.

Beware of lead friends, who do nothing but weigh you down, and of “frenemies”, who are made of whatever Sauron used for the One Ring. But do take up tin friendships; gay-straight bonds are tin not just because the Tin Man was totally effeminate, but because tin is immensely useful and valuable (especially during wartime) while still presenting some potential hazards. For one, tin can be polished to a shine much greater than its natural state, and it is also often used as a protective coating over other metals. There is a reason it took Will and Grace eight years to find other relationships.

Which brings us to friendships that have to deal with extra attraction between the two parties. Harry and Sally demonstrated quite clearly that men and women can be friends, but it is also true that romantic attractions complicate things a bit.

Mercury relationships are when the attraction is one sided and nothing ever progresses beyond friendship. Mercury is not a good conductor of heat (though certainly of electricity), is liquid, and is slippery – and navigating such an imbalance can be quite tricky. Also like mercury, an over-abundance of these friendships in your diet can be toxic.

The flip side is two people who were once romantically involved but are no longer. If the relationship ran its course for both parties, an incredibly strong bond can result. These friendships are tungsten, which is rare and extremely hard. Tungsten has the highest melting point of all the metals, but can also be brittle – especially if someone’s new partner is a jealous crazy person.

But if the relationship ended before one party was ready, that’s where we move away from metals into metalloids. These relationships can be mistaken for friendships, but are not really. Trying to be friends with an ex who broke your heart may seem essential, may even be prescribed as a bit of healthy medicine, but in truth is a situation that is brittle, toxic, and easily fatal. Like arsenic. Which, not coincidentally, is an element commonly used in pyrotechnics. Sparks fly; people cry.

There is some hope, though. When arsenic is added to copper (distance), the result can turn out to be bronze – a strong, hard metal from which great art can be cast. So the next time you need help not texting that person who recently left you broken, just go to an art museum and admire the bronzes.

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