Said and read – November 2018

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“I love the idea of reading books as a brotherly, sisterly moral obligation to one’s people.” – Flights, Olga Tokarczuk 

Has November spawned a monster? I’m at the threshold of two major submission deadlines (and several smaller ones) in one study program (by the time I publish, all of this will be submitted) and should be polishing off a master’s thesis in another study program – both of which, it should go without saying, have required time, thought and a lot of reading. I will get through all of this but wonder at my own motivations. Why would I believe this was a good idea?

I am tired, possibly dispirited (which I know is temporary and largely tied to the moment in which I write this… update, yes, in fact, it was temporary… by the time I started to finish this, my mindset was completely different), and even though a couple of things will end in December, new things will start. I will not take the luxury of resting. I feel a certain dread about that. (Tomorrow I will probably feel elated about that.) The momentary dread arises because it’s all quite unknown, less because I don’t get a break. It’s still reading I turn to for “breaks”.

I don’t always read something ‘easy’ – in fact, I rarely do. But it makes me happy, regardless of the subject matter. I don’t think it’s the topic that is uplifting necessarily. And I stumbled across an article from 2015 that nods along with this assertion: reading may contribute to your happiness (I had no idea but apparently there’s something called bibliotherapy, but it’s a fascinating discovery for someone who is delving into psychology and therapeutic approaches to mental health. It’s an awful play on words perhaps to say that I found this particular approach novel).

If you find yourself curious about what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating and all the rest throughout 2018… here’s your chance to find out: October, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for November:

In November I found that I read much more than expected, perhaps something like 50 books. A couple of months ago one of my university classmates got in touch to discuss my blog posts on reading/literature and share his thoughts on reading Russian literature (we were in Russian studies courses together), and this brought many memories of that period in my life flooding back. Actually, it’s truer to say that being back at a university and interacting with people who are young (as I was then) started me on this trajectory, but that ended up being the first of the nostalgia triggers that led me to some unsettling news as November ends.

In September after I’d begun studying, a young woman asked me if I am still in touch with friends from my undergraduate years. I don’t think she realized that my undergrad years are almost as far away from us in years as her entire lifespan so far. It dawned on me that, no, in fact, I am friends now with only one woman from college. I formed a few very close but very brief friendships during that time, which, if I am honest, were, in the sum of it all, painful. One such friendship developed during the same time as/in the course of the Russian studies, and it ended with what I can only now call “ghosting” even if I could see the ways she backed off from me.

When I exchanged a few messages with the guy from the class, it opened the door to this distant past. It made me think of the Russian class, of very detailed memories of that whole period – the foods, the characters, the schedules, particular moments and vignettes, and most powerfully, I remember the fragile, vulnerable nature of a classmate/woman/friend, K, who hid beneath her retiring exterior a fierce intellect and emotional abundance. I wrote a few years ago about a few very specific memories – a day that our very small Russian class took a field trip together to Victoria, BC, Canada – and as those flooded back to me, I found myself revisiting some of the Russian readings, the music from our field trip day (Cowboy Junkies), and finally, today I thought that I’d look K up. I had tried once or twice to find her online in the past, but it seems all the friends from my past who disappear tend to be the types who have absolutely no online presence. As such, I never found K in my previous searches.

Until last night when I did just a small amount of digging and found…

She died two years ago.

And I was, to borrow a word from someone with whom I shared this, “floored”.

Worse yet, as I was processing this information, I happened to learn that someone else I had just been talking about had recently passed away. Learning about this kind of death – something about someone who is now distant but who was once a vital, important, daily fixture, someone who was once so meaningful – is like immersing one’s entire head in ice water. I am awake, so aware of my limitations and the limitations of time. But is it changing how I do things? Is it making me any less selfish?

Living’s mostly wasting time/and I waste my share of mine/But it never feels too good/ so let’s not take too long…/I’m soft as glass/and you’re a gentle man/we’ve got the sky to talk about/and the world to lie upon/days up and down they come/like rain on a conga drum/forget most/remember some/but don’t turn none away/everything is not enough/nothing is too much to bear/where you’ve been is good and gone/all you keep’s the getting there” – Cowboy Junkies (covering the late, great Townes van Zandt)… a song that will always make me think of K (1974-2016).

Highly recommended

*Application for Release from DeathTony Hoagland 

I started reading Hoagland last month (and loved that book also). It turns out that I started reading around the same time that he died (October 2018). I’m going to read the rest of his work in in December. Poetry, of course.

*Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World – Suzy Hansen

I can’t say enough about how good this book is for challenging American blindness and brainwashing about the world and the American(‘s) place in it.

*Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs – Johann Hari 

I’d intended to read Chasing the Scream for over a year; I was going through a phase of reading books on addiction and new takes (scientific and otherwise) on the nature of addiction. Somehow I never quite got to this one until now. It’s extraordinarily well-written in a gripping narrative form, and it ties, strangely, to one of the books I read this month and hated (The Culture of Narcissism – see below). I am not drawing a parallel between addicts and narcissists, if that’s what you’re imagining. No, instead, I think of some points Lasch made in The Culture of Narcissism and see their applicability.

From Hari’s book:

Bruce came to believe, as he put it, that “today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel social[ly] or culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction . . . because [it] allows them to escape their feelings, to deaden their senses—and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.”

and

Bruce says that at the moment, when we think about recovery from addiction, we see it through only one lens—the individual. We believe the problem is in the addict and she has to sort it out for herself, or in a circle of her fellow addicts. But this is, he believes, like looking at the rats in the isolated cages and seeing them as morally flawed: it misses the point. He argues we need to refocus our eyes, as if staring at a Magic Eye picture, to see that the problem isn’t in them, it’s in the culture.” 

and

If we think like this, the question we need to answer with our drug policy shifts. It is no longer: How do we stop addiction through threats and force, and scare people away from drugs in the first place? It becomes: How do we start to rebuild a society where we don’t feel so alone and afraid, and where we can form healthier bonds? How do we build a society where we look for happiness in one another rather than in consumption?” 

* Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book – Susan M. Love

I wish I had been able to read this book a long time ago. Detailed but simplified for the layperson. It is also sad to see the part on practical considerations, e.g., about American health insurance and financial constraints. That is, can you afford your treatment, and whether you can or not, are you one day away from being unscrupulously discriminated against for having cancer? Ugh.

*Le sanglot de l’homme noirAlain Mabanckou

A series of essays/reflections on being black, on prejudice, on colonialism.

Tu es né ici, ton destin est ici, et tu ne devras pas le perdre de vue. Demande-toi ce que tu apportes à cette patrie sans pour autant attendre d’elle une quelconque récompense. Parce que le monde est ainsi fait : il y a plus de héros dans l’ombre que dans la lumière.

Good – really good

*Sarajevo MarlboroMiljenko Jergović

There’s no point in not letting a fire swallow up things that human indifference has already destroyed.

Stories of Sarajevo and the diversity of life found there.

Life is only valuable because you know you have it. Death always finds you unprepared, without tangible proof that you ever lived.”

*The Panther and the LashLangston Hughes

*HumJamaal May

*HiveChristina Stoddard

I loved all the references to the Pacific Northwest (Tacoma and surrounding environs!)

*Search Party: Collected PoemsWilliam Matthews

Because poetry, as always. It doesn’t really need much more explanation than that (particularly if you read this blog; I rarely post my own writing on a regular basis, but I post a poem daily).

*This Boy’s Life: A MemoirTobias Wolff

I can’t really say why I read this or why it makes my list of something I really enjoyed. It probably comes down to how characters and scenes are described, which is the only way a piece of writing comes alive.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Flow: The Cultural Story of MenstruationElissa Stein

*New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of MenstruationChris Bobel

Technically I finished both of these right at the end of October, so they didn’t make it into my October write-up. These are not necessarily books suited to everyone but they formed part of my thesis research on period poverty and thus were informative and might be useful for people (particularly men) who have no clue about menstruation and the unequal economic (and other) burdens it places on women. Most surprising to me is how many women know so very little about their own bodies and the economic situations of others (i.e., period products are taxed in many countries as non-essential luxury items, meaning that a lot of women struggle to afford them and are often making choices between tampons or food).

*Communication and Social Change: A Citizen PerspectiveThomas Tufte

This was something that informed my thesis work, but as someone interested in how we communicate about and for social change and justice, this is an essential volume.

*Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be StoppedGarry Kasparov

Kasparov’s work really speaks for itself. The only issue I had was minor and factual; the book made the mistake of confusing Slovakia and Slovenia, which had nothing to do with the overall content of the book. But a basic fact check or proofread should have caught this.

And there are valid, timely warnings for what we’re going through now.

“Despite the attempt to rebrand the method as “engagement,” the smell of appeasement is impossible to mask. The fundamental lesson of Chamberlain and Daladier going to see Hitler in Munich in 1938 is valid today: giving a dictator what he wants never stops him from wanting more; it convinces him you aren’t strong enough to stop him from taking what he wants. Otherwise, goes the dictator’s thought process, you would stand up to him from the start.”

When I am asked if Putin was inevitable, this is why I say you have to start ten years before anyone knew his name. By the time Yeltsin made Putin the heir apparent, Russians were demanding stability and looking for a tough guy to stand up to the criminals and to the Western influences they’d been told were damaging the country and their pensions. To prevent Putin, or a Putin, from coming to power, the 1990s would have required a very different script with less appeasement of Yeltsin and his entourage and stronger support for democratic institutions.”

*BecomingMichelle Obama

I had seen all the publicity around this book and had no intention of reading it. But one Saturday or Sunday morning, tired of reading social psychology papers and even more tired of the embarrassing, frightening circus that is the contemporary political landscape,  I decided to latch onto the bittersweet nostalgia of the Obamas via the former First Lady’s autobio. While it mostly read as expected, the moments around the first Obama presidential victory re-awakened the emotion I felt on election day 2008. I want to scream about our current dilemma/disaster, “How did we get here?” except that I know the answer: we were always here.

Coincidences

*The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic OrderJoseph R. Gusfield

This is not exactly a coincidence, but more of a “crossover”. I suppose it’s inevitable that if you’re doing two study programs simultaneously, even if they are in entirely different disciplines, you will stumble across topics and theories that have some applicability (even possibly novel applicability) in the other. I have to say that the vague, esoteric nature of one of my fields has made it more difficult to engage fully with and apply theory adequately, but the much more grounded and detailed nature of psychology studies (and research methods) has helped. I came across Gusfield in some of my psych readings and realized that there are aspects of his work on making private/individual problems public that could be an interesting angle for my other line of inquiry…

I had never really thought about drinking-driving, as he refers to it, in the way he frames it. While I certainly do believe that the individual does have responsibility for drinking-driving as a choice, I can appreciate Gusfield’s analysis that the rest of society has been built in a way that doesn’t offer many choices. (It’s more complex than this, of course, but that’s why the book was worth reading.)

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I read quite a few independently published books of poetry this month, and most of them were pretty disappointing. I won’t call any of them out because they all offered something worthwhile even if, on the whole, I wouldn’t buy these books again.

Also, I was writing a paper about narcissism and democracy, and found a book that seemed like it might be interesting as background information:

*The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing ExpectationsChristopher Lasch

The narcissist has no interest in the future because, in part, he has so little interest in the past. He finds it difficult to internalize happy associations or to create a store of loving memories with which to face the latter part of his life, which under the best of conditions always brings sadness and pain. In a narcissistic society—a society that gives increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits—the cultural devaluation of the past reflects not only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but the poverty of the narcissist’s inner life. A society that has made “nostalgia” a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.”

I was wrong. It had interesting parts but I suppose I had bigger expectations for it than it could have lived up to and had no applicability to the paper I was trying to write. To find the good points, you’d have to read very carefully and ignore a lot of unsavory moralizing.

It’s my own fault for not looking at anything about Lasch before reading it – he leans heavily conservative on social issues, and many good points are masked by this moralistic tone. For example, he argued that the unshakeable and often unrealistic American clinging to the idea of “Progress” (and its inevitability) makes Americans deaf and resistant to (his) warnings or ideas – but frankly, it, by extension, makes Americans deaf and resistant to all ideas that don’t fit in with this uniquely American and blind construction of the world.

A denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future.”

quietly in a room

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“All human miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” –Sepharad, Antonio Muñoz Molina

I have never been one to make grand declarations about my plans or hopes (at least not since reaching the trials of adulthood, watching hopes and plans be beaten like a piñata – what you end up with in life is some of the candies and tchotchkes that fall from the piñata. Pieces of your hopes and moments of sweetness in unexpected flavors that you’ve scrambled to pick up before someone else does), knowing that change will come regardless of what I do. I might be able to guide the changes that occur, making decisions and taking actions that will influence outcomes. But claiming – ‘everything changes and is different from today’ is a dangerous and foolhardy path. And yet, without sometimes taking leaps, if not always the grandest or furthest, palpable change isn’t possible. Sometimes to agitate movement, you have to force things through. Sometimes you have to do things that are uncomfortable or that hurt.

And this week I’ve had to do something that I long ago should have done – something that does hurt, but the longer-term effects of not taking this course of action will hurt much more. The last three years have been a long process of slow change, acceptance and finding contentment. Now, the trick is to move forward with longer, faster strides – and this is not possible with lingering elements grabbing at my ankles and trying to trip me up.

I can and do sit, happily, quietly, in a room alone. I can no longer invite those who cannot into my room with me.

The other day I was thinking about the creation of “victim selfhood”. I know a lot of people who create their own miseries (in a host of different ways). I think and write a lot about this, but reflect also on the fact that it’s not as though I am immune. We can all see our own actions and behaviors through a prism that relieves us of blame or absolves us of responsibility. I try exceptionally hard not to do this now – possibly even to the point of being annoying to the people around me who would rather that I not analyze my own actions and motivations in such detail.

Looking at youth (and this could be anything between childhood and one’s early 20s), in particular, we can, in our naivete and inexperience, really believe we were in the right and not reflect on all the things that we did wrong, excusing them, if acknowledging them at all, with mild self-exculpations: “I was a child. I didn’t know what I was doing.” I’ve written my side of many stories involving my long-ago friends, examining my own feelings and reactions – but not necessarily divining all the details of things I did to set things in motion. Yes, for example, I was competitive with others for the attentions of the one friend we all wanted to love us best; yes, I was messed up and trying to escape in my own way, leading me to slip in and undermine a close friend in a situation neither one of us should have been in at all, and then, to my own detriment, took that situation further, creating a reality that was not real, doing all kinds of things that, while they seemed innocuous to me at the time, still surface and haunt me and make me want to apologize to people 30 years after the fact. (In fact I already have – years ago, even if there is some part of me that realizes as a 40-something woman that children cannot be held accountable for emotional repercussions that they do not have the maturity and experience to understand.)

But on some level, of course we know what we are doing. But being young and inexperienced, I didn’t comprehend the seriousness of the things I did – not just in the moment, how some of my actions could lead to perilous consequences, but also further-reaching repercussions – toying with the psyches of fragile, damaged, middle-aged men (for example), but in truth, despite living with one of the most troubled, damaged people I have ever known and seeing other evidence of it all around me, I somehow didn’t really believe that adults could be that fragile – and felt that the silly games of a bored 13-year-old girl couldn’t possibly wound anyone so very deeply that it would matter and would in fact harm the trust they were able to place in all the future relationships they tried to build. It is almost as though the life I led, that all people led, before adulthood, wasn’t even real life. So much of life during that time felt surreal and out of my hands and control, that the things I could control – as destructive as they might be – were seized, eagerly, giving me a (false) sense of maturity and power.

It’s rather stream of consciousness, this whole thing. I am just coming to terms with finding strength in considering these flaws and mistakes of youth – borne as they were of youthful insecurity (wanting to be liked?), fear and fragility. It’s a strange dawning – daunting, even – to recognize how fragile people are. And how willing they are to put their fragility on display.

“How could she allow herself to break down like that, in front of everybody? Jane had never understood this willingness on the part of these from-aways to peel up the scabs of their emotions and let everyone see their festering sores. They were like children that way. They had no shame and even less self-control.” –Red Hook Road, Ayelet Waldman

Even the strongest ones. But the strongest ones have ways to cope and get through; they have people they can turn to. The weakest, well, they don’t have reserves to deplete. And some of them, like parasites, move on to deplete others of their reserves. Once depleted, though, there is just nothing left. Each experience leaves us empty, feeling as though we will never feel again. Sure, we will feel. We will make long strides. We will sprout a joystick. We will feel enthusiasm and excitement and stirring.

But to get there, we (I) must (know how to) walk away, whatever it costs. And sit alone, quietly, in a room.

the current

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“Most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we’ve made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we’re also formed by the decisions we didn’t make, by events that could have happened but didn’t, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine

“No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine (more or less the same idea as Kierkegaard: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”)

My father gave me only one piece of valuable, if obvious, advice in life, and it happened many years ago. Nothing he said before or after that has been useful or indeed true. Long ago I had a friend – a best friend, whom I loved to pieces. But this friend was also, possibly, the most unreliable person I have ever known. Once, after a particularly harrowing series of experiences that tripped over each other in their increasing lunacy and inconvenience, much of which blew up because of this friend’s inability to commit or follow a plan (and these kinds of debacles happened often enough that I found myself exasperated more often than not), I complained about it to my dad. I never have conversations with my father; the fact that I spoke to him about this indicates the level my frustration had reached. Before I got very far into my spiel of disappointment and anger, he stopped me and said, “Look, if you want to continue with that friendship, if you value the good parts more than you are put out by the bad, you have to accept that this is the way it is.”

I think of this frequently because it’s true in almost all cases with people in our lives. I’ve struggled, like all people, not to be judgmental – not just in the sense that I don’t want to judge other people’s flaws, faults, journeys, decisions or lack of decisions – but also in the sense that I don’t want to attach expectations to their lives and ‘progress’. For example, while I don’t judge an alcoholic in my life for being an alcoholic, for struggling with it constantly, and ‘falling off the wagon’ repeatedly, I also have to let go of any idea that change is required in order to care for him. He tries; he makes incremental steps in a positive direction, but this progress is constantly undermined and undone because after a month, or three months, or some period of sobriety, he slips back into old habits, and the drinking begins again and erases not just the sobriety but the stability he achieves on other fronts in his life (the parts I invest a lot of time in helping him with). It’s always back to square one, and this is inevitably disappointing.

But then I realize: this is its own form of judgment. I have to, if I continue to be a support to this person, discontinue all notions of ‘square one’ and ‘progress’ because, for him, it really is literally one day at a time. (“Self-regulation does not refer to “good behavior” but to the capacity of an individual to maintain a reasonably even internal emotional environment.” – Gabor Maté) I can’t hold these ideas about how he was doing ‘so well’ up as a kind of yardstick, measuring how far he has moved forward from last week or last month because it can all be wiped out in minutes. It’s that precarious, and no one hates himself more than he does when it all goes awry.

Life (and its series of relationships) is defined by, as we are aware, our choices. The alcoholic chooses to drink, even if there is something that drives him to do it that is beyond his control. My friend from years ago chose somehow not to be reliable, or at least not to be reliable for me. I choose, for example, to be (hopefully) an enduring friend, even to those who may not ‘deserve’ it (if I were tallying up some sort of score card). I choose to eliminate any notion of a score card or insistence that friendship always be a two-way street. I have written about it many times – there is often an imbalance, but to be a good, compassionate person or friend, it is not about what you get back from the people in your life. In an ideal world, you would not just give and give without getting something back. But it is not an ideal world, and as it happens, you get what you need from other sources.

Life is also defined by our non-choices, which is something we don’t consider much until we get older. I have had many conversations on this topic recently. In my younger years, I actively chose to continue difficult friendships, even when they were painful. I chose to believe in things that I knew were doomed. But each choice concealed a non-choice. I didn’t choose my own comfort at every turn. I didn’t choose to pursue or complete specific actions, which let outcomes float aimlessly toward wherever the current pulled them. I have been carried by life’s current to places I would not have consciously chosen if I were trying to make a plan.

Sometimes this path has been enlightening and joyful, and sometimes quite painful. And often leads to considerations of the paths not taken, by chance or by choice and all the infinite possibilities those paths pose(d).

 

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

into the friendly fray: uses, excuses and replacements

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Randomness on friendship…

What day passes without my reflecting on friendship and its concomitant challenges? Friendship is not so challenging any more, now that I am a seasoned old lady, but I think back to when every slight felt like a lashing, and I was too insecure or scared to call people out on their bullshit. (And when I did, it was often a disaster.) It is now whatever I decide it is. It’s a little bit like when people tell you that you can’t control other people’s reactions or behavior, but you can control yours.

Not that I put all the bitter bits away when I reached legal adulthood. The game goes on as long as one lets it. But perhaps now that I am this wizened, though not unwise, hag I can more easily accept the frailties and failures of all people. We are, after all, just people, mostly trying to do our best. I can’t count how many times I’d heard and hated this expression in the past, which seemed ready-made and packed with excuses: I did my best. But now, having blinked my way through enough days, enough experiences where I didn’t reach my potential or didn’t fulfill expectations I’d set and thus disappointed others (and how many times have I disappointed others without knowing it?), I feel a certain measure of compassion for those who employ this phrase, even when it is used with nonchalant insincerity.

I do still wonder if people know how to be friends; it seems like the most natural thing in the world, to meet, discover and bond with people, forging strong connections with some and transient or momentary connections with others. Because we don’t formally learn how to be friends, or learn how to treat other people with care, and instead do so by inference, can we ever really say we did the best we could? Or… is that all we can truly say?

Occasionally, vivid memories bubble to the surface; nostalgia burns and makes one long for the ability to cut through the overgrown fields of the past to return to specific moments, which always include the blinding, shining specter of some friend or other. For me, it is almost always one single person, T, a friend about whom I have written at length (which does not even begin to convey the amount of time I’ve spent thinking and dreaming about her). I don’t have any control of how much my subconscious mind dredges her up, even after 19 years passing without a single word or contact. Most days, most moments, she is completely absent from my mind, and the more time passes, and the longer my life, so far removed from that adolescent whirlwind in which we spun together, goes on in some entirely different context, the more remote she becomes.

But those memories we form in youth, so packed and powerful, bursting bright and flavorful, exist so indelibly that very little that has happened since competes in intensity. And the triggers, especially through the increasing sentimentality of age, mine every step, exploding in emotional outbursts. I can’t explain why the heart rate ratchets itself up ever so slightly every time I hear, see or experience something that I wish I could share with her (or could have shared with her). Here I mean everything from the recent TV show Derry Girls, which is something we would have died to watch as girls, to seeing and meeting all these bands and musicians that we adored, to planning St. Patrick’s Day baking and thinking about how insane we became about St. Patrick’s Day (who knows why?). The selectivity of my nostalgia makes me imagine that she’d feel as thrilled at being touched by these memories as I am. But this selectivity censors out the whole ‘drifting apart’ segment of the relationship, and all the empty and silent years that have happened since our last conversation.

A series of events kicked this latest reverie into motion. First, I’d seen the aforementioned Derry Girls. Next, out of nowhere, I got an email from a Polish exchange student (JK) we’d had at our high school. She and I had been friends and had been partnered up on various projects during her stay in the country. I had somehow forgotten that her presence, and my teachers’ enthusiasm about pushing the Polish girl and me together, had irritated T. I suddenly recalled T commenting, “Of course they let you be with JK because you study Russian, but no one else will get a chance to be friends with her” as if it were somehow my fault. (And I know – as if studying Russian has anything to do with the girl being Polish, but I imagine that in my teachers’ minds, it did.) By this point in our friendship, in our lives, in that end-stage of public education, I think T had felt academically blocked by me in so many ways (at least that is the only conclusion I can come up with? Now I am making assumptions), but I still don’t get it. So much of what happened and who we became was formed by what others (i.e. people, friends, teachers) assumed about us, sometimes pushing us together when we did not want to be, and other times creating situations that should not have been remotely adversarial but became that way. T is not the last friend who has tried to subtly undermine me, either out of envy or insecurity or whatever, but she is the only one who has stuck with me emotionally.

That’s not to say that it was surprising. Very early in life, I learned that friends are fickle, and people are often jealous, have a short attention span, or easily grow apart. Does that mean that I accepted those things? No, that came much, much later. All the many times I cried inconsolably as a kid, my mother kept telling me, “This won’t help you now at all, and you won’t believe me, but kids don’t know how to be real friends.” She was mostly right. It didn’t stop me from crying, but it certainly made me feel tougher later on when friendship didn’t withstand time or change.

“She had done it on her own, while I hadn’t even thought about it, and during the summer, the vacation? Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?” My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

I recently read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which I had long been resisting (always have to buck the popular trend, of course). It was no great literary work, but its ability to slice right to the heart of conflict in female friendships affected me immediately. Ferrante’s ability to convey the teeter-totter nature of our fragile friendships made me surrender my resistance to the book, at least. Most of all, the push-pull feeling of envy we get about our friends’ accomplishments and achievements, their loves and attention they get. That is, we envy them at the same time as being happy for them. We love and seethe at the same time.

We constantly change places – one friend leading the way and the other worrying furiously that she will fall behind. How many times did this happen between T and me? So many times I went off on all kinds of strange and new musical paths, and each time, T felt left behind and left out until she finally “caught up”. How many times did she acquire things and travel places that I could never have afforded to have or to go? I remember when she spent an entire summer abroad, and I was happy for her, but I was filled with envy, knowing that I was not going to be able to go anywhere – in truly, overly dramatic teen fashion, I was sure I was NEVER going to be able to go anywhere. When she sent me a letter telling me she was homesick, unhappy and wished she were home with friends for the summer, I felt a tiny pang of glee that it was not all magical as she had hoped. But the bigger, more gracious part of me, felt my heart ache for her, wanting to do anything in my power to ease her feeling of being out of place. I jumped into action and wrote what I thought was the most brilliant, funny and reassuring letter ever and posted it immediately. And it helped her. It cemented our friendship. But is there that intense a friendship without these stakes?… The taking turns, unwittingly, at being the leader, with all the normal acceptance and suffering that that entails… always with the distractions (other friends, unknowing competition, growing apart). With the fickle way of one minute wanting to spend every waking and sleeping moment together, and the next repelled, finding yourself feeling completely left behind, but not knowing how to voice it without making yourself look weak, unequal and vulnerable.

A tribute to her: she was always a lot better at making her feelings known and clear; when she felt left behind, she said so. And I felt warmer toward her for her honesty and willingness to be vulnerable. I think, at least when it came to her and her alone, I felt a need to maintain some ‘coolness’ – ha! as if I could even pretend to have a shred of that – never admitting until so much later – that I’d felt just as remote at times, that we had both slipped in and out of these roles, always returning (at least back in those early days) to a world of mostly just the two of us – in which we were the most important parts – “I no longer felt that she inhabited a marvelous land without me” (Ferrante). But then, just as Ferrante shrewdly points out, there’s none of that warm togetherness without a pinch of the sense that you’re gaining ground … “Or maybe it was only that I was beginning to feel superior.” That is the delicate balance.

These things have been mummified for so long in me that it was strange to have the tomb reopened without warning by this book and other smaller triggers. I am reminded that things change – I have changed – when I am confronted by a (former-ish) friend I made in adulthood but with whom I’ve had a relationship fraught with ambivalence. It would be fair to say that we are not really friends now. We were once very close, and then everything came to an abrupt end. This end happened to coincide with the end of some rather big needs for her, leading me to believe that I had been convenient and then a casualty once I was no longer needed. For once, maybe because I was by this time an adult, I decided to confront, and she confirmed that she had backed off and regretted that it appeared as though she had used me (but she didn’t deny it, even though I am sure it was unconscious, even if she did). Having the confirmation or closure or whatever you can call it, I felt content – it’s the not knowing that makes things difficult. We have had extremely limited, sporadic contact – very cursory, surface level – over the last decade. Nothing I could call ‘friendship’. And then she turned up recently, asking for a favor. Not a big favor, and nothing really taxing. But all I could do was laugh, comparing how things had been left and how they were, very momentarily and casually, resumed. With need. And now it was up to me to determine how to feel about or interpret that need – do I feel used? Or do I decide that I can be the casual acquaintance I am and happily help?

The funny thing is… it can hurt, but when you figure it out (“it” here being friendship), you can walk away, or you can just accept the form the friendship takes and the role you play (or not).

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…

The Pen Is – the controlled leak

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Fountain pens are like people,” says Richard Binder, a nationally recognized nibmeister, aka a master pen repairer. “Every one has a unique personality.”

Talking briefly with a dear old friend, JEB, I was pleased to hear how many things were glowing brightly for him in 2017: new job, new relationship.

In reference to the relationship, he explains that she is “pretty wacky in a way that’s compatible with my own strangeness”.

I ask: “Do you really have so much strangeness?”

He replies: “Oh yes. Few can appreciate it.”

Me: “I guess that’s a weird question – we all have some strangeness, at least to someone.”

Him: “Yes, but with the right person the strangeness is normalcy. I mean a lot of people find me likable, but I only show the wacky stuff to select few. Like the fact that I obsessively listen to a podcast called The Pen Addict.”

Was this perhaps the third (?) time he’s reminded me about his obsession with pens and the Pen Addict podcast? I knew someone else briefly who was obsessed with pens, and now for the life of me cannot remember if he had ever mentioned this same podcast. I feel like he certainly did, but my memory, which so rarely fails me, has misfired in this case. JEB has apparently turned his girlfriend into a pen addict as well, prompting her to ask him, laughingly “What have you done?” She took him to his first-ever pen show in Barcelona, and I somehow marveled at the fact that there are pen shows. Then, I am not obsessed, so it would not necessarily have occurred to me. My friend assures me that I should try it because it is as addictive… as all the addicts have assured me it is. Not that I doubt it.

He enthuses: “It’s the infinite customizability. You can marry any ink and any pen and have a new experience few have had. I highly recommend it.”

I halfheartedly reply: “I will look into it.” And then remember the years-ago ‘story’ I shared with him about overhearing a Russian lady at the ticket booth of a lecture hall in Iceland, just before a Mikhail Gorbachev event, telling the ticket seller in English, spoken with a thick Russian accent, “I will think about it” before walking away. Naturally I then amended my response to him: “I will think about it.

We laugh, remembering the event and those long-ago Iceland years that we two willing exiles experienced.

the real deal

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If she were a less intoxicating person, it would be easy to envy her. To envy the effortless and easy flirtation that she uses to bend virtually everyone to her will. She is open, gregarious, social, saying everything and anything that comes to her mind, still coming across as hilarious, charming, self-deprecating and beautiful, and she gets her way. But no one ever feels manipulated or put upon, as she flashes a giant smile and peals of her infectious laughter float behind her as she walks away from her every encounter.

It’s in this way that she gets the inside track and makes connections that pay off in one way or another.

I have realized, though I have always suspected, that this “charm offensive” brand can also be a handicap. She can never truly read another person; she can never really get to know them. Me: No one is trying to snow me, get me into bed, impress me or flirt with me. It’s all very business-like and serious. It might not be fun, but I quickly get the real read on the people I meet, talk to and work with. When she comes to me and rhapsodizes about how helpful, nice, smart, funny, “moral” or great someone is, I take it with a grain of salt and have often already got the goods on how they really are. As a team, she and I are unstoppable because I can suss out exactly who we are dealing with and their strengths, weaknesses and what they have to offer, and she can go in for the kill – either with sweetness and light or with her brilliant “I don’t realize I am being bulldozed by this smiling woman, but I am and can’t help it” tactics.

In just minutes, I have seen how weak in the knees some go, melting around her, softening like butter, becoming overly tactile octopi when they had been distant, prim characters only moments earlier. She has that effect on them. But as honest a reaction as they display to her, they certainly do not show her their true colors, real selves or what their intellect offers (or doesn’t). They are always putting on a show for her and rolling out their best. And I get the unvarnished truth.