A Rose By Any Other Name…Friend

23 03 2017

“I force people to have coffee with me, just because I don’t trust that a friendship can be maintained without any other senses besides a computer or cellphone screen.” – John Cusack

Snapshot: Saturday afternoon, East Village, Des Moines, Iowa. My friends, Layne and Kristen are ahead of me on the sidewalk, my friend Tammy is walking beside me. I can see the state capitol behind the two leading our small pack, so I call out and ask them to stop so I can take their picture. Layne says, “It feels like we’re out shopping with our moms.” We all laugh, but I still take the photo.

We were in Des Moines visiting Layne. A few weeks ago, we were reminiscing about our friendships on social media, and I thrust this weekend gathering upon her – “Let’s all meet at Layne’s”, and she gracefully accepted the challenge of houseguests despite her busy life as a working mom whose job requires regular travel.

In these first few hours of our reunion, the pace was a bit frenetic. I can’t speak for anyone else, but to me it felt like we were meant to be jubilant in our togetherness, yet hadn’t quite shifted back into in-real-life mode, as opposed to texting and direct-messaging mode. No one said, “OMG!” or “LOL!”, though it would not, perhaps, have felt out of place.

It didn’t take long for a shift to happen. In one store, Layne said, “Let’s go home and hang out with Oliver” (her adorable toddler son) and that was all it took. The honest longing in her voice to be at home, and our willingness to move past the triteness of the “girl’s weekend” cliche of being out on the town (not that we weren’t planning an evening involving much wine and “Cards Against Humanity”, also a girl’s weekend cliche) were all it required.

Here is what wasn’t cliche about our weekend gathering: The five of us (sadly missing our fifth wheel, Tricia, who could only be with us in spirit due to family obligations) are unlikely friends. We span four decades of life – with at least one of us in each decade from their 20s through their 50s. We have a variety of academic degrees and divergent interests. Some have families, others do not. We met in our workplace, where I hired and supervised all but one of the others. Often, this alone would prevent my inclusion in the group – people may love their boss as a boss, but it is somewhat less likely that they will become the kind of friends who crash at each others’ homes.

The two youngest, whom I hired as Hall Directors right out of college, have a light in them that shines warmly. Like other millennials, they grew up reinforced and supported for their uniqueness. While many people my age lament what they see as the problematic aspects of this generation, I celebrate their positive qualities. I wish that women in my generation had been taught to stand up for ourselves, to believe in our competence, to allow our unique qualities and quirks to be more than fodder for bullying or self-shame. Since the day we met, and for the rest of our lives, I will do everything in my power to help these two hold on to that shine – despite the ways our world may work to dim it.

The middle two are literally two of the most supportive and loving women I know. Empathic and honest, they don’t shy away from those difficult places that friends sometimes to fear to go with each other. And they love to shake things up a bit, to belly laugh, to be occasionally outrageous.

For the five of us, it was a soul-satisfying adventure to work together. It remains an adventure as we maintain our connectedness while living in different cities.

One of the most surprising things in my life has been the richness of relationships: rich in variety, depth and nuance. Because of this richness, I have often been disappointed in the dearth of words to describe our relationships. We have concrete words for family connections (though everyone of us experiences the actualities differently), a few words for romantic relationships, and some for friendship. Many of these words are used so broadly, as placeholders for suck a multitude of variations, they end up lacking degree or depth.

This is why, I suspect, my younger nieces and their age-cohort tend to call whichever friend they are with at the moment “my best friend” in the comments on their Instagrams or Snapchats. It is also why, in graduate school, my friend, Cathann, and I began calling each other “comrade” – not because we shared a political affiliation, but because we felt words like “pal”, “buddy”, “friend” didn’t capture the intellectual quality of our emotional connection with one another.

What is the word for “my friend whom I love like my child except that I also get to be my totally flawed self with unlike a mother gets to be”, I wonder? Or the one for “this woman is exactly the person I want to be except that I get to keep my own stuff, just take on some of her loveliness while also experiencing it in her”? What do I call “my not-brother who makes me feel loved and protected and respected as a woman even when I swear like a longshoreman when we’re together?” The best word I can find for each of these friend.

I am grateful for the multiplying ways we are able to remain in contact with the people who offer this rich texture to our lives. But one thing the weekend in Des Moines reminded me of is that there is no substitute for time spent in physical proximity to the people we love. To see the shifting facial expressions, hear the laughter and the vocal expressions of emotion, to feel the hugs and occasional slugs on the shoulder – the sensory experience of relationship is so vitally important. And it is for this reason that, like John Cusack says, I will continue to force people to have coffee with me – or foist my company upon a distant friend. I am so deeply grateful for each and every buddy, pal, comrade, colleague, co-conspiritor in my life…for each and every friend.

“Wherever it is you may be, it is your friends who make your world.” – Chris Bradford

 

 

 

 

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Skank

8 09 2016

2016-09-05 15.46.14

I didn’t notice when the word appeared. One day I was looking at the abandoned house across the street, as I often do when I pause at my window, and something about the red paint impinged on my conscious mind. It wasn’t there when I moved in a year ago, but it is there now and has been for at least the past few weeks.

Skank.

The boarded-up house sits in the middle of the block. Of the four lots on that block, two have inhabited homes, one is an empty lot, and – smack in the middle – is the derelict: a relic of the flood that decimated this neighborhood eight years ago. My apartment building, a renovated warehouse converted into “urban lofts” sits across the street. Two floors of 8-foot high windows look out upon the other side of the block. From my shiny new apartment interior it’s hard to know who might be the intended recipient of the one-word message.

Skank.

I do not doubt, however, that there is an intended recipient. This word is a sharp weapon, used with a soft target in mind. “Derogatory term for a female, implying trashiness or tackiness, lower-class status, poor hygiene, flakiness, and a scrawny, pock-marked sort of ugliness. May also imply promiscuity, but not necessarily,” says the Urban Dictionary and all of my 1970s high school.

Skank.

One night, in my former life in college administration, a student nearly died as I watched paramedics attempt to revive her from an alcohol-induced stupor. Later, I was told, she coded in the ambulance – I was in my car waiting to follow them to the ER, but the ambulance sat for more than forty minutes before leaving the campus. She was legally an adult at 18, but the hospital called her parents anyway because they were next of kin and it was not a given she would live through the night. Later – technically the next day, but as I had never been to bed it seemed like one nightmarishly run-on day – I interviewed students about what had happened. The first person told me, “She had a reputation.” I asked what kind of reputation. “You know, she’s kind of a skank.”

Interview after interview I heard the same things. Always, first, the definition of what she was – skank, slut, ho. Then stories that made my heart break, stories that would normally have led the students on our campus to intervene or seek help for their classmate. But not for this skank. Even my usually empathic resident assistants had stood back and watched, judging but not intervening.

A lot of students felt bad after the fact: after they’d spent months sharing salacious gossip about her, but never reaching out to her; after they were forced to confront their tacit complicity with a campus-wide “freeze out”; after the skank had been returned to her residence hall, unconscious and dumped on the floor by several guys who then fled before any questions could be asked. But until she nearly died, no one questioned their indifference or compassionless judgment.

Skank.

I knew a young woman who was nearly annihilated by that word.

When I see that red scrawl on the boarded up porch across the street, I think of her. And I remember the incredible power of words. I think about the interplay of the words people use against us and the choices we make – a stranger in a car yelling “fat bitch” at me as he passed didn’t make me fat. But it did affect choices I made that day, including whether I felt strong enough to face the world, or worthy to even be in it. Over time, their accumulated impact was a wall of isolation I had to tear down brick by painful brick if I wanted to live my best life.

I hear a lot of angry rhetoric about “political correctness”, how it has harmed us, made us weak and unable to confront hard truths.

I’m calling bullshit on that.

There has, in my lifetime, been a movement away from using the harshest and most derogatory terms. A movement away from the weaponization of words to harm, hold back and harass whole classes of humans. Compassion and clarity are never misplaced, and they unify us rather than make us weak. What makes us weak? This backlash against “political correctness” being used to call forth all of our racist, misogynistic, jingoistic tendencies. Because we human beings have these proclivities – just as we have the propensity to feel empathy and care for others in distress.

Which of these tendencies do we really want to call forth in ourselves, to bring out into our world? I know which I always hope to share. That doesn’t make me politically correct, it makes me someone who consciously chooses to bring my best self to the world.

Every day I have an anonymous tagger with a can of red spray paint to thank for reminding me of that. Skank: every day, I see that word and I remember that I choose kindness.

 

 

 





Love Locks, Stickers and Disenchantment with Words

24 03 2016

Love locks on the Brooklyn Bridge

This past weekend, my brother talked me into downloading a chat app for my phone. One of the app’s most notable features is a prolific library of downloadable stickers, many of them tiny, animated gifs of strangely whimsical cartoon figures. I have to admit, I have had a lot of fun finding and using clever stickers – a donut doing push-ups; Rodin’s “The Thinker” with an animated thought bubble that says “So?”; a cartoon gladiator giving a big thumb’s up. Until I started playing with this app, I would never have understood the attraction to a set of tiny images of a horse and frog dancing sinuously together. The idea is this: why use words when the perfect gif speaks volumes?

Also, this past weekend, I was reminded of the Love Locks phenomenon. While I have never placed one, my understanding is that people use love locks as a visual memorial – whether to a relationship or to the achievement of a personal milestone. The fact that it is a lock symbolizes permanence, the lasting nature of whatever the love lock is memorializing or testifying to.

These two phenomena are very different. The stickers are momentary ephemera, created by the thousands, used a couple of times then forgotten in the rush to find newer, more amusing or creative gifs. Love locks, on the other hand, are intended to attest to the permanence of whatever they are commemorating, be it true love, friendship, or self efficacy. It strikes me, though, that while motivated by different impulses both attempt to transcend the use of words in order to communicate emotion.

Images have always spoken powerfully to our hearts. But there seems to me to be a new weariness, even a cynicism, about words residing underneath the popularity of and preference for images these days. I see much less sharing of motivational and inspirational quotations on social media lately – perhaps understandably, as overuse of meaningful quotes and well-turned phrases clashes with the lack of both inspiration and thoughtful rhetoric in our current political and cultural discourse. Mistrusting what people say, are we placing greater faith in images? Certainly, it is easier to slap a cynical cartoon sticker on something than to find words that convey what you truly feel. But is the image more true or trustworthy?

I’m not opposed to images, and these ruminations are not intended to be “against” anything. Rather, as a lover of words, I’m wondering if we are likely to miss them as we, increasingly, omit them from our communication. Words, used well, offer a precision that can be lost in images. A crying toddler is an image, but there’s a reason parents the world over say to that toddler, “Use your words!”

So, I plan to keep having fun with the app. I’ve downloaded new stickers of sushi sumo-wrestlers and I can’t wait to use them in some witty repartee with my brother. And who knows, I may one day feel the need to click a symbolic padlock shut in testament to something profound in my life. Meanwhile, I’ll continue using my words – and encouraging others to do so as well. There’s a deep connection between using your words and having a voice. I believe our voices are sorely needed in today’s world.

“Words… They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos…”

–Tom Stoppard