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.

Dishing it out, ripping it up and taking it

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Lesson du jour: Never write anything down

I learned two things in junior high school that still come back to me in a flash, even as the middle-aged broad I am now:

  1. Never write anything down – at least nothing incriminating. I say I learned this, and I think of it all the time. But it does not always stop me from writing stuff down that I shouldn’t. I am writing here every day, and I am probably capturing stuff I shouldn’t.
  2. Everyone is insecure. This will drive each of us to do things we shouldn’t. Usually it plays out in my own life like so: a friend is devastated by life’s unfairness in some form or another; I heroically decide to take it upon myself to cheer them up; I do this by skewering the objects of the unfairness – usually in writing; someone else intervenes and decides to exploit the situation (and in doing so reveals their own mechanisms for dealing with their insecurities), and my written ‘therapies’ end up in the hands of these aforementioned ‘objects of unfairness’, exposing their insecurities.

Not to be oblique here. An example: It was junior high school (this will set the scene, of course, for how juvenile all of this is). My best friend was torn to pieces because her crush (let’s call him Kangaroo Racer) started dating (inasmuch as junior high kids ‘date’) a girl we already disliked (we shall call her Hurk). Hurk had come to the school as a new student that year and had been so unpleasant when we would actually do everything we could to be nice. But that’s the nature of junior high. People are lashing out left and right. I look back and think, yeah, maybe she was just unpleasant in general, but it’s more likely that she was insecure about being new in school, and while she didn’t give a shit what my nerdy friends and I thought of her, she was petrified about not being cool enough for the popular crowd.

When it came to light that she’d begun dating my friend’s crush (I know – this all sounds so ridiculous), becoming the object of life’s great unfairness, I desperately wanted to console my heartbroken friend, and I wrote a nonsensical caricature-poem about Hurk. I don’t remember exactly what it said any more – it was unflattering, designed as it was to make my friend feel … better? Superior? I don’t really know any more. Having committed this “poem” to paper and handing it off to my friend, it then became someone else’s property and problem. My friend gave it to another friend (the exploiter in point two above), who, through her own insecurity and desperate need to climb at least one rung higher on the popularity ladder, took the poem and gave it to Hurk. (Anyone else hearing the theme song of the original 80s Degrassi Junior High now?)

I was blissfully unaware of these exchanges until later, when Hurk herself confronted me, crying, with a pile of shredded paper in her hands, demanding, “Did you write this?” Of course I immediately knew what it was and was guilty, but I felt somehow like I had to be a sarcastic asshole in this moment, waving my hands in a condescending circle over the little pile as if to indicate that I could not possibly know what a pile of shredded paper had once been, replying casually, “I don’t know. What is it?”

That’s the thing: I first, foremost and foolishly imagined she’d never see the thing. You can never count on this: again, don’t write anything down that you wouldn’t want everyone to see. And secondly, I never imagined, even if this too was me fooling myself, that even if she had seen it that she’d care. I suppose we all do care – we don’t want to be confronted with committed-to-pen-and-paper evidence that anyone finds us that unpleasant. We may consciously know that they do. But we don’t want to see it, feel it and experience it that directly and even clinically. Eventually I admitted that yes, of course, I had written it. I did so, if I recall, clinically. I don’t even know how I excused myself. Did I apologize? Knowing who I was then, I probably even wrote (again, committing shit to paper) an apology to her. Maybe I didn’t. I vaguely recall feeling defiant about this – why should I feel badly about offending or hurting someone who made such hearty meals of being a bitch to everyone around her (at least those whose ‘approval’ she didn’t need)? But that was the adolescent and often petty me. In the years since I have reflected on this event with some shame, thinking of all the ways I tried to justify it. It was 30 years ago, and it still pokes at my conscience sometimes. And, if most of what I know about the world is true, despite how it hurt her at the time, she probably does not even remember it.

In the same vein, and during the same time period, another close friend had been going through life-altering bad times, and the intensity and closeness of our friendship led me to try to cheer her up by writing critical, disparaging, but ostensibly comical, persiflage about people who had been our friends – or people who had peripheral connections to our circle of friends. I had written these things before the “Hurk” poem cited above. Once more foolishly, I had no idea that the friend I was attempting to console with my negative causticity would hang onto those notes, and more than a year later, wheel them out as the centerpiece of a slumber party she hosted, to which she had invited all the characters who had been so maliciously maligned in my letters. The attendees phoned me as a unit to give me a piece of their minds, and strangely, I again felt defiant – I justified it to myself (i.e. all total bullshit – “nothing I said was untrue, even if I did so in the most vicious way possible“) while listening to the slumber party guests. Nothing they said mattered to me. All that mattered to me was that whatever fragile trust I had had left with the friend was gone.

But the point of recounting this now (apart from having ripped up some papers and having my memory triggered by seeing the shredded pile), again more than 30 years after the fact, is that I still realize – perhaps even more than ever – the truth in the fact that we are all insecure. Especially as the raw, dewy not-children, not-adults whose bodies and feverish minds we try to navigate in adolescence. Despite my faulty tactics and hurtful actions (I take the blame there), in some ways, my heart had been in the right place in that I was committed, at all costs, to delivering comfort and pain relief to my friends. It is not that I was not sorry – I was and am. I did all the comforting and consoling entirely the wrong way – at other insecure people’s expense – which always backfired on me in the most instant-karma means possible. But I took the knocks on the chin. I’ve never been someone who can dish it out but not take it in equal measure.

But then, most other people are smart enough, or lazy enough, or both, not to commit their insults to paper.

Thoughts on Une si longue lettre: Tout ou rien

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How long have I had this novella, Une si longue lettre, on my shelf, picking at it, reading a page or two and setting it down again and again? It’s difficult to carve out the time and concentration space to focus on reading books in languages that are not my own. I have until this year packed my life with so much (meaningless) work and ‘stuff’ that I have rarely read books faithfully in my own language, let alone in other languages, except when required.

I have demanded of myself, though, that things change this year. If not dramatically, at least incrementally – and intellectually. It is not that demanding or time consuming to read a book that is just 130 pages long, in French or otherwise. In a relatively brief and personal story, Mariama Ba provides a glimpse at feminism and equality through the lens of being both an African and a Muslim woman. Many evaluations of this book will describe it as something akin to “Africa’s first feminist novel”, a “portrait of the struggle between modernity and tradition” (the story concerns polygamy and its effects on women and society as a whole).

And the bits that spoke to me most loudly:

The book, written as a long letter, takes place after the protagonist’s husband dies, and she is forced to mourn alongside his second wife. She writes to her friend, who has done what she did not have the strength to do – the friend leaves her husband when he takes a second wife. On the endurance of friendship: “L’amitié a des grandeurs inconnues de l’amour. Elle se fortifier dans les difficultés, alors que les contraintes massacrent l’amour. Elle résiste au temps qui lasse et désunit les couples. Elle a des élévations inconnues de l’amour.”

After the narrator/protagonist’s husband dies and her former suitor returns and offers to marry her, she considers seriously and declines, asking instead for his friendship. He responds, “Tout ou rien. Adieu.”

Silencing and finding the voice

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Some time ago, apparently in 2013, I wrote the following – but then only put part of it in my blog. In fact, looking at it now, I see it might even have been a part of a letter I had written – I just don’t know. I imagined, upon finding this document, that I had published the whole thing. It comes up again now as I have had so many discussions about writing and how one lives as a writer – or accepts the label or distinction of being a “writer” – what separates those who call themselves that, those who really do it, and those who actually write something useful versus something good? And does it matter if it’s good? Is anything objectively good? And when or how, if at all, do you throw off the doubts, insecurities, past argumentation, excuses and just write and see what happens?

From Valentine’s Day 2013 (?) – Writing, friendship, finding and silencing a voice

Thinking a lot about writing. I have always been prolific and productive … words just pour out. But nothing better than mediocrity. As a child, as soon as I was capable of writing, I was writing. But nothing I wrote was careful or measured. Not that you expect an 8 year old to produce carefully crafted, well-thought-out, plot and character-driven stories. No, but I was even more careless than that. I hurried through everything in life as though it were some kind of race. Every activity in school, I wanted to get ahead, get there quickly and be finished. Finished with what, I don’t know… there was no finish line and things just went on and on. (I have only reached a place in life now – almost 40 – where I don’t feel like everything is a race.)

Spilling over into adolescence, I met a girl who was to become my best friend for several years. She declared very quickly after meeting that she wanted to be a writer and was working on a story of which she seemed rather proud. I remember the first time I went to her house, she shared the story with me. I don’t remember the story very well – only that the main character was a girl named “Kyle” (my brother’s name), and upon reflection I get the feeling this character was a lightly fictionalized version of her troubled self. I suppose like most people who invest any time and effort into writing and stake their identities and reputations on it (even if they are kids), I felt intimidated by other people’s writing, another conceit and insecurity that has fallen away with years and thicker skin. I, too, considered myself something of a writer. Both of us had apparently been tagged with this moniker from youth and had attended all the young writers’ conferences and writing courses offered to people our ages.

I suppose like most “writers” I also felt fraudulent. I was 12 and I had nothing to say. No experience. No insights. Just some random feelings and a cloudy, guessed-at grasp of what I imagined adult reality and experience might be like. I was still plagued by that sense of hurrying up – finish – move on to the next thing. But added to this was the desperate desire to be liked – not by just anyone but by this would-be best friend. I spent every evening dashing off lengthy but at-best mediocre stories for her benefit. I wanted her to read them and love them – we were the thinly veiled protagonists of these ridiculous stories. I wanted to come to school each morning and deliver a new story for her entertainment and her praise. Not because I fancied myself a writer or thought it would lead anywhere but because I wanted her to be happy.

But it didn’t matter. While she loved the stories, and I was eventually counted as her best friend (which had been my dubious, feverish-teen-girl aim – a number of us were competing for this dubious honor. No idea why – this is the adolescent girl way), the whole productive force of what I had created intimidated her. She felt insecure and suffered a crisis of confidence about her writing in the midst of the universal crisis of confidence – adolescence – because she could not keep up with the avalanche. (How many times have I hit this wall of “I can’t keep up with you” reasoning?) The sheer volume of what I had created silenced her. She believed somehow that what she imagined and created was no longer good enough because it did not exist in the same abundance.

We were 12. We did not know about “less is more” and “quality not quantity”.

The strange thing is… this is still a thing. The friend is no longer in my life. I have no idea if she later realized these truths and picked up pen and paper or a computer again and started capturing her thoughts in writing. I hope so. But I find that I have made my entire career on this ability to rapidly churn out reliably decent, mediocre text in which I have little to no personal stake. It’s called B2B marketing, and it is soul-sucking and dry and maybe just a couple of steps above used car salesmanship.

And because I produce a lot – the productivity fools a lot of people. I am somehow “so good at my job” because I create a lot of material quickly. Is it good? Not in the way I consider things good. Yes, it displays an understanding of the discipline/industry/field about which I write. Yes, it’s decent and correct. Would it win any awards (even within the marketing industry)? No. It all does its job and is better than anything a content mill produces.

But it is this volume question again that gets to me. People are deciding that I am good at what I do because I am quick and take on a massive workload.

But is that good?

Back in the years of adolescence again… I recall that I earned this reputation among all the teachers in the school and eventually the school district as a “writer”… and eventually I suppose that intimidated me and made me feel boxed in, in much the same way as my friend had felt boxed in by my productivity. Were these adults not just humoring me? Encouraging me to do something because they are teachers, adults, would-be mentors and have to encourage us? Could my writing actually stack up to anything else in the real world? Eventually I came to resent this “title” and moved away from it. I spent very little time in high school writing for enjoyment. I wrote a lot of research papers, essays, letters – in fact I still wrote all the time, for different audiences and different reasons. This continued in college. Most of my professors echoed the sentiments – that I was a really good writer. But even if this seemed more truthful and objective than earlier applications of this title, I, by then, felt out of practice. I had been writing letters and essays/analysis for so long that I had no idea how to write a story any longer.

To think that I used to write 30 or 40 pages every night without even thinking.

And maybe that is the key – without even thinking.

You can think and edit later. But for now, just write. Get all the words out, let the story flow. Follow it where it goes. But for such a long time I had been writing carefully crafted paragraphs that supported only what my evidence could prove. And this is not creative. It IS what makes me successful in B2B marketing and other similar content creation. But it is not what will lead to a readable novel.

The Terrika phenomenon

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When I was back in the US during my last holiday I became obsessed with eating Cheerios. In my adolescence, I had a big Corn Flakes habit and could have eaten them for every meal. I can get Corn Flakes in Sweden but not normal Cheerios. Once I got my hands on a giant box of the most bland of oat Os in the world, I ate them from bowls my mom has had since … probably before I was born. In junior high school my then best friend and I used to go to my house for lunch and eat ramen (chicken sesame) in these bowls, which we called “pig bowls”.

I had not really thought of the pig bowls in a very long time. I think about this friend, Terra, often. We have not talked in almost 20 years. She disappeared after we had grown apart, as friends do, but our past friendship makes up so many of my most vivid memories that it’s hard not to think of her for the smallest of reasons. The pig bowls, being back in the US to visit, watching the show House (because T and I saw Dead Poet’s Society together in June 1989, and Robert Sean Leonard – one of House’s supporting characters – and it was a very memorable day), or bumping into people from school on Facebook – people who ask me how Terra is doing since we were like, according to some of the biggest assholes we went to school with, one inseparable entity – the Terrika.