friends or… work friends?

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In almost every job I’ve had, I gained one of the most valuable possible things: not just a work best friend (along with many nice acquaintances), but lifelong friendships that developed from these close work friendships. When I look at jobs in which I didn’t make friends (particularly close ones), I recognize exactly how empty those jobs were and how much harder it was to feel as motivated. Yes, as a recent HBR article maintains, these friendships can indeed be tricky. And I suppose that is why, as the article posits, only something like 19 percent of those surveyed (Americans, by the way) reported having close friendships with a colleague. This is framed as at least partly cultural (non-Americans may be more trusting, collaborative and less “fiercely independent” or bent on personal privacy?).

I have seen some of this dynamic in action. When a global company in which I worked all came together for a global meetup in Europe, the European and Asian colleagues became a more cohesive group, while the Americans seemed standoffish, less social, more formal and “observational”. That is, two years in a row, the American contingent seemed to stand on the sidelines and make observations about how the activities we were engaged in would never be allowed in the US, how we’d have been required to sign liability waivers (in case of injury, etc.). It may also depend on other demographic features (age, etc.) but the Americans’ uniform reserve always struck me as an interesting given how “loud” and “outgoing” Americans are generally perceived to be.

But this is a diversion.

One of my best friends started off as my “office nemesis”. For a year at least, we disliked each other but eventually ‘warmed up’ to become, incrementally, friends.

Another best friend became a friend almost instantly. We went out for dinner together on her first day working in the company, and we lost track of time until the restaurant owners were staring at us, waiting for us to leave so they could close. It was an immediate and deep connection that has only continued to grow, long after our lives changed, long after we stopped working together. And we have since become colleagues again. I cannot imagine my work life – former or current – or, more importantly, my life at all – without her.

I’ve never experienced the ‘tricky complications’ as outlined in the HBR article, but I can recognize that many of the points made could be issues. I suppose for me the depth of the friendships has always been valuable and deep enough that the relationship mattered so much more than just a job. In that sense, I guess, these friendships transcend the idea of a “work friendship”. I happened to meet these people through work, but our friendships had no real connection to the work itself. And you can feel and see a difference. Another good friend, whom I met through work, is a fabulous and intelligent person, and we are still good friends despite not working together any more. But there is a sense that the piece of the puzzle that bound us together closely and gave us something in common is missing, even if we still have a great time together. The impetus and intensity can be driven by the mutual passion or misery created by a job/project.

Overall it seems interesting because friendships are reportedly difficult to make in adulthood, and I suppose they are – where else can you make them than work? Unless you are involved in activities outside of work, or end up being forced friends with, for example, your kids’ friends’ parents or something, it is not exactly like a social smörgåsbord out there. I am not particularly social but don’t feel like I’ve done too badly…

lunch

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The fight against eating easy, grey food is ongoing. As I wrote the other day, I’m striving for color. I am also playing a game with myself to see how many/much of the recommended daily allowance(s) of vitamins and such I can pack into what I eat in a day while still eating fewer than specific numbers of calories. It’s not difficult at all since I don’t eat things like flour, processed stuff or sugar. But it adds some marginal entertainment to the drudgery of coming up with and preparing food. Which I have always hated doing. These may be the only times I have ever seriously considered getting married: find the person who can cook and wants to, and I’m halfway down the aisle.

In any case, today’s lunch is a variety of cherry tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, a sprinkling of green onions, cucumber, black beans, about a half cup of the red quinoa-amaranth-buckwheat-millet mixture I wrote about before (see image below) and some salmon. This whole thing might excite others more with some dressing or vinaigrette, but I don’t like sauces and that sort of thing, so it’s just dry.

Maybe not inspiring for others, but it is nicer to look at than previous lunches, and I am meeting my daily nutritional needs, so can’t complain.

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Defiant

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The other day, reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, I was struck when reading her writing on Joan Baez by the statement:

She “…was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme.”

These words evoked for me the feelings I have long had about, and the image of, Sinéad O’Connor in the late 1980s, an embryonic personality driving and sometimes hindering a skyrocketing career and startling voice. I’d always felt back then that the well-publicized “mania” (I wouldn’t really call it this), early in her career, had unfairly stuck to her, giving her a reputation she could never outrun. She was so very young when her career took off, and we forget – today, as always – that people are still quite unformed and incomplete throughout their early adulthoods; I’d venture to say that many people continue to be unformed well beyond youth. She fit Didion’s description: a personality before she was a fully formed person.

O’Connor, though, also experienced very public controversies (which many would dismiss as publicity ploys), public identity crises and shifts, and quite gut-wrenching bouts of depression and battles with other forms of mental illness (and here I mean gut-wrenching for her fans to watch her go through; I cannot even begin to imagine or put into words what these bouts are like for her, undoubtedly something much worse than just “gut-wrenching” – maybe The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon begins to touch on some part of it, but certainly not all of it), which continued well beyond her youth, worsening with the passage of time.

Could one say she never had the opportunity to become a fully formed person, to move beyond the preternatural talent and preconceived ideas people had about her? And, given the revelations she has shared over the years about her own experiences with abuse and mental illness, how could she ever become a fully formed person? How could she not struggle, often – again – very publicly?

I thought about all of this rather without aim while plowing through the Didion writing, humming tunes from The Lion & the Cobra album to myself, overcome by memories of the summer of 1988, listening to this album repeatedly (when I finally got it on vinyl, after waiting forever), so in love with its extremes of ethereal wave and primitive scream. How, oh, how, I was asked by classmates, could I like this? (Perhaps another case of people failing to look beyond the shaved-head surface.) Eventually Sinéad gave us I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which, at least for a while, turned her into a mainstream favorite, and the masses could finally understand what I had been saying since 1987.

In one of those all-too-frequent little coincidences, it was only a week or so after being reminded of Sinéad by Didion’s writing that Sinéad herself posted a heart-rending video of herself on her Facebook page talking about her diagnosed mental illnesses and recent suicidal thoughts. It feels exploitative to post the video again (certainly in its complete form), although it’s on her official Facebook page to see. A cry for help, a need to be heard, a voice reaching out to others who perhaps felt as she did? In a way, this act felt very much like the Sinéad O’Connor who has always existed, no matter how lost she feels: she won’t be silenced; she won’t care if you, we, anyone doesn’t want to hear what she has to say; she is, despite being devastated by the effects of her illnesses and the rejection she has perceived from her loved ones, still defiant in the way only she can be. Hopefully it will be this defiance that keeps her going.

Photo by Jenu Prasad on Unsplash

dreams intact

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Amen
Álvaro Mutis
that death receives you
with all your dreams intact.
At the return of a raging youth,
at the beginning of vacations never given,
death will distinguish you with its first call.
Your eyes will be opened to its big waters, you will be
initiated into its constant wind of another world.
Death will melt with your dreams
and there recognize the signs
left so long ago
as a hunter coming back
recognizes its own prints along the gap.

Original

Amén
Que te acoja la muerte
con todos tus sueños intactos.
Al retorno de una furiosa adolescencia,
al comienzo de las vacaciones que nunca te dieron,
te distinguirá la muerte con su primer aviso.
Te abrirá los ojos a sus grandes aguas,
te iniciará en su constante brisa de otro mundo.
La muerte se confundirá con tus sueños
y en ellos reconocerá los signos
que antaño fuera dejando,
como un cazador que a su regreso
reconoce sus marcas en la brecha.

Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

As inconsequential as a fruit fly

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In trying to describe to someone how pesky another person was – not annoying enough to think about, but still there when you didn’t care for her to be, inserting herself into situations in which she had no business, I realized she had become like a fruit fly. Nothing you really notice at all unless you’re close to them (or unless they exist in a giant swarm), mostly harmless but nothing you want around either. To cap off my discussion on how I thought of her, I declared, “If I were to say another word to her, it would be: ‘Get the fuck away from me, annoying fruit fly’.”

This seemed appropriate because she wanted to be so much more consequential than that, to occupy space, time, thought. But do fruit flies occupy that much space, time, thought for most of us? No, not for most of us.

But, for science, yes. As soon as I had made this analogy of woman as fruit fly, every other story I saw on my science and tech blogs seemed to be fruit-fly related. Do I notice them now because I evoked the fruit fly in my mind’s eye? Or is there really such a sudden glut of fruit fly stories?

Everything from “Fruit fly mutation foretells 40 million years of evolution” to, perhaps appropriately in this case, “Family break-ups lead to domestic violence in fruit fly relationships”. Perhaps most relevant of all: “Too near, or too far? What fruit flies teach us about personal space”.

Yes – personal space. My human fruit fly has no concept of boundaries or personal space (so perhaps would not even be good at being a fruit fly, really). Ignoring her or trying to create some distance ignited the kind of drama that I don’t permit in my life. She could never understand that I, like most people, appreciate personal space, and she was constantly invading it. And she knew it but had no self-control. It was not that I hated her (I barely knew her), was angry at her, or never wanted to talk to her again. It was simply that with her pushing and constant presence, she was an uninvited annoyance (exactly like fruit flies), not irritating like house flies, not predatory like spiders.

Simply… innocuous and ever-present, but unwelcome.

Photo (c) 2014 ZEISS Microscopy used under Creative Commons license.

Impressing professors: Take your moment

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When I was in college I made a lot of weird blunders, especially for being the academic nerd that I am. I was not judicious in the words I chose, occasionally speaking out when I should not have, while failing to speak out when I should have, not taking advantage of many opportunities to broaden my horizons, so to speak. I never really tried that hard. Something I have written about before. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter, but when it comes to learning, it does. To say I was “lazy” does not mean I did not learn or that I did nothing. It just means that I could have learned and done and achieved so much more, had I not been in such a hurry, had I not let myself be influenced by others, had I known myself better, had I applied the full measure of intellect and drive I had to something. But I didn’t.

Still I had my own moments, few and far between, when I would stand out. I never wanted to stand out, certainly not verbally or visually, where people might let their eyes rest on me for more than a moment or two. Professors noticed me more when it counted (in writing). But still, yes, there were those moments, when a question was posed, and it seemed mind-numbingly simple what we were being asked, and yet the classroom sat in dumb silence.

A professor in my master’s degree program posed the question: “What was the main priority of American foreign policy in post-war America?” No one. Silence. “Come on, people.” More silence.

I raised my hand, wondering whether it could be as simple as I was thinking, “Containing Communism?”

“YES!” The professor looked at me gratefully, and with a respect he’d never once afforded me before. In fact, I am entirely sure I had been both nameless and invisible to him up until that moment. He favored me in a new way thereafter. It was strange: my comparative youth and silence in that course (everyone else was wading into their 50s, and I was barely in my 20s) had made me both stand out and be invisible at the same time, and he, perhaps relating better to the majority of students, closer to his age than mine, never glanced my way once before I uttered this stunningly basic reply to a basic question. Suddenly I had a voice when all my duck-and-cover-generation classmates, who should have eagerly yelled out the answer to that question, being Boomers, so close to it and the “Communism containment” directive, sat, mute, probably expecting that the answer had been something deeper or more complex than that.

I learned then that it’s not the quantity of what you say – it’s the quality. And, perhaps most of all, the timing – taking your moment.

Photo (c) 2010 EdTech Stanford University School of Medicine used under Creative Commons license.