During lunch, my children and I have been listening to Stephen West’s “Philosophize This!” podcast. Recently we heard about Plutarch’s distinction between friends and flatterers. A friend, Plutarch (via Stephen West) says, is someone who will tell you the truth even if it’s not something you want to hear. They bank on the relationship being strong enough to stand up to the challenge of pissing you off because that’s what friendship is: a relationship that can withstand the challenge of honesty.
A flatterer, on the other hand, is someone who agrees with you no matter what to give the illusion of friendship. This is someone for whom the genuine strength of the relationship is less important than what they can get out of the relationship, be it emotional validation, financial gain, or just not being fired from the president’s Cabinet.
Plutarch suggests that you can tell if someone is a friend or a flatterer by testing the relationship. This rings true to me. All of the people I consider friends are people to whom I’ve made strident and/or boneheaded comments. They call me on it, we work through it, and our friendship is stronger for the challenge. At least it is from my side of things, but you’d have to ask them to know if they agree.
But isn’t there something between “friend” and “flatterer,” some stage of acquaintance that might or might not become either friendship or flattery? If so, how does one tell when a relationship has become a friendship or not?
Is brutal honesty from the outset a valid and efficient method of screening potential friends, or could it sabotage a nascent friendship that might have weathered the test after a foundation of mutual respect had been established? Not that it’s good to prevaricate, but maybe there’s a time in the development of a friendship when diplomacy is necessary just to get the relationship over the first hurdle. But then, how would you know you’ve gotten past that first hurdle without testing it?
I’ve got Black Water by the Doobie Brothers stuck in my head, and I’m glad about it.
For at least the past five years, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am. Consumed by my roles as wife and mother, I can’t seem to recall who I was before, and lately I’ve become more and more anxious because I can’t envision who I am outside of these roles.
Just contemplating doing a “role stripping” exercise in a book I read recently prompted a nightmare in which I was cleaning my empty house. It was a place where I used to live with my spouse and kids and now I was vacuuming white carpet enclosed by white-painted walls and afraid to turn around because I was certain there was a malevolent presence lurking just behind me, laughing at my fear.
I don’t have to pay a therapist to analyze that dream. Read More
One of my closest friends is in her 60’s. She and I have a lot in common in the way we think and in the way we see the world. She challenges me and grounds me and helps me to be my best self. More than any of this, though, I just love spending time with her.
The other day I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if Linda and I were the same age? If we could be in our 30’s together—or even in our 20’s (why not?)—and had all of that time to be friends? But almost as soon as I had that thought, I realized that even if it were possible, it wouldn’t work.
Even setting aside the differences in upbringing and cultural influences had she been born 30 years later or had I been born 30 years earlier, there is no guarantee that we would be friends at different stages in our lives. If 37-year-old Linda met 37-year-old me, would we even like each other? Would we have had any connection to one another at all? It occurred to me that maybe we’re friends at the exact ages that we could be friends, and it wouldn’t work any other way.
I started walking, so I’m told, when I was ten months old. I wrote my first novel when I was in eighth grade. I nearly left high school my senior year because I was in such a hurry to get on with things. Back then, I defined “things” as either being a circus clown or a long-haul trucker, and then whatever those things led to. Instead, I compromised and finished high school and went to college, where I overloaded my schedule and completed my four-year undergraduate degree in three years. I’ve always been in a rush to move ahead and to learn my lessons as quickly and efficiently as possible.
This was pretty much fine during school when there were clear milestones to reach, but as an adult I have trouble judging whether I’m ahead or not. Even though I’ve accomplished a good amount and learned innumerable lessons in my 37 years, I always feel behind.
But then the other day while I was meditating I had a “eureka!” moment. I know that while I’m meditating I’m supposed to just let the thoughts drift away like clouds or balloons or milkweed seeds, but this one hooked me. It’s this:
I’m in the right place right now. I know exactly what I need to know in this moment and at this age, and it couldn’t be any other way.
Although I get irritated that I didn’t learn some of my lessons at a younger age, that I’m not further ahead intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually than I am, I’m following just the course I need to be following.
Each lesson builds on the last, and maybe I couldn’t have known some of these things at a younger age. If I had fast-tracked those lessons and avoided some of the embarrassment and bad parts of learning them, I couldn’t be where I am now: mother to my specific, individual children, wife to my spouse, friends with amazing people like Linda.
Here is the only place I could possibly be at this moment. My only job is to live fully in this moment so that I’m ready for what the next moment brings.
Some pertinent thoughts from The Faces, who were wearing exactly the clothes and hair styles that they should have been wearing at that moment:
Periodically, I read posts by friends and strangers about cutting “toxic” friends out of our lives or how to deal with “difficult” people. I envision people all over the world making lists—perhaps with the aid of smartphone apps—of the toxic friends and difficult people they need to avoid for their own mental wellbeing.
I’m pretty sure I’m on some of those lists.
I know I have to be on at least a few “toxic friends and difficult people” lists because many days, I make my own list of people I’d be best to avoid.
Because let’s face it: I can be really difficult.
Like, I don’t like talking on the phone so I do everything I can via e-mail, but my e-mails are always excessively long and include way more details, asides, and parentheticals than is conducive to conveying my meaning. That’s annoying. And sometimes passive-aggressive.
I’m also constantly optimistic that things will blow over without me needing to feel the discomfort of actual confrontation. I avoid conflict for so long that when I finally do say something, it’s like I’ve sprung the whole shebang on the unsuspecting person.
Another difficult thing about me is that I like having just one or two close friends, but I’m so socially inept that I end up clinging limpet-like to poor people who are just trying to be friendly. And because who knows when I’m going to move out of state again, I feel a need to make friends fast. This sense of urgency just exacerbates this barnacling tendency.
But, contrarily, I’m suspicious of anyone who likes me too much. In high school, it was really bad. If someone expressed an interest in me—especially a romantic interest, but sometimes even just a close-friendship interest—I cut and run. I did my best to be invisible to that person hoping they would forget I existed. I’ve gotten better in the last twenty years, but that may be in part because it’s easier to be invisible as a stay-at-home mom so I don’t have to work as hard to disappear as I did when I was as a high school student .
And if someone does succeed in becoming my close friend, they get the reward of dealing with my fierce and inexplicable bad moods. I’ve tried to find a physical, emotional, or climatic cause for my days-long bad moods hoping to find a cure for them, but to no avail. I just sometimes, without warning, become a total jerk. I can see it happening, but I feel powerless to stop it.
And then there’s my flippant attitude about gifts. I know at least a couple of my friends have been hurt when they’ve given me a gift and then found it just a few months later at the thrift store. (Man, I really am a jerk…)
But I think that everyone’s toxic sometimes. (Maybe not the Dalai Lama. But everyone else.) Seeing the ways in which I’m toxic gives me a fair amount of empathy for other people who might be considered toxic. There are still people I avoid—people who are particularly creepy or consistently belligerent or holding firearms—but there are very few people I consider it necessary to avoid all the time.
Being around another person is not like being exposed to nuclear waste. Unlike with radioisotopes, with other people I can—to a point—control how much I’m affected by whatever vibes they’re radiating.
I think, maybe they’re just having a bad day. Maybe they’re feeling as awkward as I am and are overcompensating. Maybe there’s something really big going on for them that they aren’t talking about but that is coming through anyway. If all else fails, I think of them as the baby they once were; that’s almost sure to inspire gentle feelings in me and it helps remind me just how little power I need to let them have over me.
I’ve not met anyone who’s difficult all the time. They might always be difficult for me, but there’s always someone who loves them and whom they love.
Or maybe I just feel this way because it’s pragmatic. Most social interactions carry a much higher price than they do a pay-out for me, and although I need to find some way to not be a hermit, being on people’s toxic lists does help decrease the number of people with whom I need to interact. It saves me from making my own toxic list.
I enjoy crocheting (and to a lesser extent knitting and sewing), but I have a difficult time maintaining enthusiasm for projects that drag on and on. So I make baby clothes. And hats. And dishcloths. And blender scarves. Those all give me something productive to do while I’m watching movies (because heaven forbid I just sit down and watch a movie) but don’t take so long to complete that I’ve got to watch all three Lord of the Rings films plus the entire Harry Potter series before I’m done.
This particular sweater took me through A Single Man (twice), Inglourious Basterds, The Lightning Thief, 2,000 Milesto Maine (about Appalachian Trail thru-hikers), and the David Rakoff memorial shows on “Fresh Air” and “This American Life.“* I actually don’t crochet that slowly, but I screwed up one sleeve three times and had to keep unraveling it and crocheting it again. The subtitles on Inglourious Basterds also slowed me down a little. (I find it challenging to read and crochet at the same time.)
This little sweater is for the in utero daughter of a friend in California. I am pleased to announce that she was thrilled to receive it. Unbeknownst to me (until yesterday), she loves getting hand-made sweaters for her kids. Turns out our friendship is symbiotic.
When it came time to wrap and mail this gift, I even went all-out and hemmed the edges of a piece of flannel to make a furoshiki fabric gift wrap that would double as a receiving blanket.
Yeah, it looks kind of like a diaper, but I folded it that way so I’d have a little pouch to put the card into. I got the idea from the book Wrapagami by Jennifer Playford, and it seemed fitting to use Japanese gift wrapping techniques because this is the friend who taught me how to make onigiri and to roll sushi.
Frankly, it all came together so swimmingly, I’m not entirely convinced it was me who did it all. I hope I haven’t spent all of my homemaker capital, though; I still have a kangaroo costume and a lion costume to sew for my kids for Halloween.
*I highly, highly recommend these memorial shows. I love David Rakoff’s writing and his work on “This American Life.” I’m a little surprised at how emotional I am at his passing. I blogged a review of his book Half Empty a while back, if you’re interested in checking that out. It appears that I’ve actually mentioned him in five blog posts, not including my 2010 “Year in Books.” You can find them here, I think, if the link works like I think it should.
This is my photographic response to this week’s photo challenge by The Daily Post. I like taking photos, especially for this type of challenge. I find it leads me to see the world differently. And seeing the world differently is something I always find enriching.
I walked into the kitchen one day to find that my son had arranged his “friends” like this. Certainly looks to me like Pooh and Tigger are buddies.
I gave this book to page 53 because a random person (random meaning I don’t know him) on Goodreads said he gives books 50 pages to engage him. If they haven’t drawn him in after 50 pages, he moves on to another book. I’m fine with taking advice from random people when it suits me.
So, there’s my caveat: I only read three chapters of this book. I read the reasoning for the year-long weekly friend-date challenge and recaps of the first seven friend-dates, and already I feel overwhelmed trying to keep track of names and impressions and why someone who already has lots of friends is seeking a “BFF” from a pool of people she doesn’t know rather than from the people with whom she’s already friends. I am not someone who is energized by casual interaction in a public setting, but even knowing this, I was surprised at just how worn out I got just reading about how often the author went out with people (on top of being around people all day at work). Actually doing it would be like Hell to me. Not the innermost circle, one of the more outer circles (maybe the fourth?), but in the neighborhood, for sure.
Add to that the fact that I don’t think I have much in common with the author aside from the desire to be a writer and a recent relocation to an unfamiliar city (except that she went to college in her unfamiliar city whereas I didn’t set foot in mine until we drove up in our rental car with the kids and the cats and my Vitamix in back). She’s seeking to recreate a BFF experience from her childhood, a BFF experience she can access via phone calls and visits back to her home city, if she chooses to. I don’t have that kind of measuring stick (as I mentioned in my review of Claire Dederer’s Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses).
I do appreciate that she leaves open the possibility that she might not “need” a new best friend, that she’s actually happy and fine just the way she is and only thinks she needs a best friend because she’s comparing her present life to her past and to the lives of people on her favorite tv shows. While I would like to establish a stronger social circle in my newest home town, I’m mostly satisfied with my homebody existence. Despite Bertsche’s arguments that it’s impossible, I do actually consider my husband my best friend. The trouble we have is that we have so little time without the children that we rarely can have an uninterrupted conversation. When we do, we’re great buddies and chief confidantes for one another. We mostly need friends here so we have a safety net in case we need help and so we can get referrals for good babysitters. Oh, and the neighbors wandering about with chainsaws after that freak October snow storm were surprisingly helpful.
Perhaps the book gets just awesome after Chapter 3, but I’ve got A Gesture Life to pick up from the library’s hold shelf, and I’d much rather sink my teeth into some good fiction right now.
And frankly, even if the way to find a best friend is to go on one friend date a week for a year, it’s just not worth it to me; I would go batty (battier) well before the 52nd date.
Last summer, after debating it for months, I deleted my personal profile on Facebook (when I typed that word the first time, I ended up with a typo that read, “Fecebook.” Perhaps my subconscious is still not happy with my decision to return to the world of social networking).
For the most part, I liked being away. I kept my Page, and Facebook converted all of my “Friends” to “Likes” for my Page. It was fun to see my “Likes” jump so quickly (even though I realized it was artificial). I enjoyed not having a News Feed, too, since that’s where my willpower often broke down. Consumed by a need for escape, I would stay up ’til all hours commenting on everything my friends posted and reading (and…ugh…commenting on) often inflammatory posts from friends-of-friends, including the one woman who made remarks about my daughter (whom she does not know) and suggested that I might not have a bible in my possession (me, the religion minor. I counted, and I had no fewer than FIVE bibles on my bookshelf, not to mention innumerable other religious texts—from TheBook of Mormon to the Bhagavad Gita—and books about religious texts. I had to force myself to stop engaging in that comment thread). When I finally went to bed, I would lie awake for hours, agitated and anxious about the comments I’d made, sure I’d said something very, very wrong. I’m prone to anxiety and I do this after social gatherings, too, so it’s not new, but I also don’t attend social gatherings every single night.
So, not being on Facebook stopped this pattern, and that was nice.
But there were downsides, too. For one, I found myself isolated socially in a way that I hadn’t expected. When I first deleted my profile I thought, “This will be great! I’ll just go back to what we all used to do before Facebook. I’ll call friends. I’ll get together with people in person. I’ll send birthday cards and write actual, physical letters!” What I didn’t bank on was how completely everyone else’s social interactions centered around Facebook. I didn’t get notes about people having babies. I didn’t know when people had moved or lost their jobs or experienced serious illnesses. I was out of the loop.
For months I decided I would just try harder. There was a bit of improvement, but I still felt disconnected from my friends. I started to wonder if my friendships had been as close as I’d thought they were. And I started to wonder if, perhaps, I just needed to meet my friends where they were. Which was on Facebook.
This month, two things happened that pushed me over the edge to opening a new personal profile and re-friending all (well, some) of the people I’d lost touch with last summer. First, two members of my extended family passed away. At the memorial service for the first relative (which I was not able to attend; all of my family are hundreds if not thousands of miles from me), one of my cousins told my mom that she was interested in reconnecting with me after 16 years. I had no idea it had been that long. She mentioned she was on Facebook and maybe she could connect with me through my sister. But I wasn’t on Facebook anymore. I realized that when I lost access to my “Friends'” profiles, I’d also lost access to the only contact information I had for some of these relatives I’d not seen in years.
The second thing was a very pleasant hour-long telephone conversation with a friend from Utah. She told me she was getting ready to have fairly involved surgery. We talked for a long while and then she said, “Well, I’ll update Facebook and let everyone know how I am after the surgery. [pause] Oh, wait…you can’t see that stuff anymore, can you?”
That was it. I wanted back in.
My compromise was to join using a variation of my name. Anyone who knows me will know who I am, but even if my profile ends up being publicly searchable (which it’s not supposed to be based on the super-duper-lockdown privacy settings I have), people who don’t know me fairly well hopefully will feel enough doubt that if I ignore their friend request, they’ll just think I’m not who they thought I was.
So, here I am, back again. We’ll see how this goes.
The past couple of weeks I have, once again, been thinking about dropping my blog entirely. Last night I even fantasized about deleting the whole thing, closing my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and just hermiting myself away, using the internet only to help my daughter find out how many young a pine marten has per gestation, uploading photos of my kids for their grandparents, and to look up the weather for my husband (even though he already knows the weather because he checks it himself every 23 minutes, an idiosyncrasy he apparently shares with every other bike commuter in the United States (all 12 of them)).
Don’t get me wrong, I love that my friends are reading my blog. I just kind of wish I was reaching more than just the people who already know me in real life. Or that I had about six hundred friends looking at my blog each day.
When my post about bok choy was on Freshly Pressed this past spring, I first felt pride because by my skill, intelligence and hard work, I had Made It! Then I felt confusion because I had apparently “Made It” by writing about what I had for dinner, not for all of the dozens of posts in which I waxed poetic about friendship and exploration and mindfulness and motherhood.
And then I felt anxiety because I had no clue how to keep all of those readers. I didn’t want to go back to blogging obscurity, not after getting a taste of the limelight. I heard Neil Young in my head telling me, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” and I thought that the best course of action was to quit right then while I was ahead.
It’s interesting to me that both “high” blog stats and “low” blog stats cause me to consider giving up blogging.
But I didn’t quit, I just watched my page views drop off and then gradually diminish to near pre-Freshly Pressed levels over the next several months.
I think, “Well, if so few people are reading my blog, why bother having it?”
It’s possible that it would be better to give up the blog. It would leave me with quite a bit more free time and it would take away the anxiety that I feel that I might be putting things on the internet that will embarrass me and my children and grandchildren and make it impossible for me to get a job when my kids move out in twenty years.
But maybe it would be even better to hang the pretense and just blog for my friends and family. I would have the same blog and post about the same things (you’d all still have to put up with my book reviews), but I would write as though the only people who read my posts are those who already care about me and want to see me succeed and aren’t waiting to jump on me and leave nasty comments every time there’s a typo or I misspell idiosyncrasy.
Which is pretty much how it is now.
I just need to look at my page views and say, “Wow! Two dozen today! Look at how many of my friends care about me enough to read my ramblings today!”
And since I don’t want to leave my friends hanging, the average number of young a pine marten has per 7-month gestation is 1-5.
This is the third blog post I’ve started tonight. I had one about how I seem to have dropped out of NaNoWriMo this year. I had one rambling one about the homeschool co-op we visited today. And now I have this one. I don’t know what this one’s about yet.
I think it’s about how I should go to bed rather than post to my blog but that I feel compelled to post something, probably because the idea of quitting both NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo is just too much for me to handle. “Believe in something,” I tell myself.
Or maybe it’s about how I feel nervous that my daughter is behind now with making lasting friendships. Back in Utah, she had friends she’d known since she was three. Many of these friends had friends they’d had for longer (from birth, essentially), and while my daughter was late to the party, she was pretty close to getting in on the ground floor. With the move, she’s starting from scratch again, but now these girls are five and six and seven and have had friends they’ve known since they were born. My daughter just can’t seem to find her place amid these types of friendships. I’m pretty much reconciled to the fact that my nomadic lifestyle has made it so I’m essentially locked out of those super-close friendships because I have neither a friend I’ve known since kindergarten nor a twin. But it’s a little harder to let go of the hope that my daughter might have a close, close friendship. She’s starting over late in the game, but she’s still not even seven. You’d think this wouldn’t be a huge setback, but I worry it might be.
Or maybe this post is just about how I keep baking squash even though it’s clear my family doesn’t really like it. I keep thinking, “It’s high in beta-carotene!” I keep thinking, “We can put maple syrup on it!” I keep thinking, “We can toast the seeds!” All of these things are true, but they don’t make my kids (or me) like squash any more than we already do. Unless it’s in pie. And while I’m fairly comfortable flouting convention, pie for dinner is where I draw the line.