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'Girls From Ames' teaches a lesson in friendship

Jaweed Kaleem
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

As a lifestyles columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Zaslow chronicles the business of living itself in "Moving On," a column about transitions.

His subjects have ranged from the emotional last lecture of a 47-year-old Carnegie Mellon University professor dying of pancreatic cancer to "Mr. Grandmoms" — men who are raising their grandchildren.

But few stories have been as rewarding, Zaslow says, as the one behind "The Girls From Ames" (Gotham, $26), his new book about 11 women from a small city in Iowa who have maintained a deep 40-year friendship through marriage, children, divorce, disease, death and relocation.

"I know there's great power in honest stories about real people," he writes in the introduction to "The Girls From Ames." "So, over time, I found myself intrigued by the idea of asking one articulate group of long-standing friends to open their hearts and scrapbooks, to tell the complete inside story of their friendship."

Zaslow, 51, whose book about Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, "The Last Lecture," hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list last year, says writing about female friendship was a different game. "Women's friendships are more intense than men's," he says. "I envy their friendship. I don't think I could do it as a man."

There's Marilyn, the earnest doctor's daughter who took few risks and grew up to be a stay-at-home mom in Minnesota. There's Cathy, the sassy girl who never married and became a makeup artist in Los Angeles. There's Jenny, one of the group's unofficial archivists, the last to have a child and now an assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Though the women's lives have taken different paths, their friendship has traveled a single, 11-lane road.

Zaslow learned about the group when one of them e-mailed him in response to a 2006 column about friendship. He joined the women from Ames, now in their 40s — all white, all but one Christian, most born to middle-class parents — on a reunion in North Carolina.

Over two years, he pored over diaries, old photos and letters, in the process becoming an honorary member of the group.

There are memories of first kisses, school dances, late-night keggers in cornfields, lover affairs, fights, secret code words still used today and the at once exhilarating and daunting experience of growing up.

"It was intrusive in a way. The whole thing was build on trust," Zaslow says.

The experience, he said, underscored research findings: "On every front, from your mental health to physical health to life span, close friendship is key."

Happiness, Zaslow says, could be as simple as a lasting friendship, something women — and men — increasingly need in their fast-paced, fragmented lives.

Those who are younger than the Ames circle may be more apt to keep in touch via e-mail and Facebook than letters and land lines, but "I wouldn't say friendship is dead," he says. "It's just changed."

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