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First, They Came for the Romantic Relationships…

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Conversation has become a luxury. The Conversation by Kobe de Peuter.

I think of my generation as the one in which the meaning of “love” shifted and became larger (a good thing) but also more confusing (a bad thing). My female college friends and I both celebrated and mourned the loss of the clarity that most of our mothers seemed to have about what love meant. To them, it meant marriage.

To us, it meant so many other things. For one thing, marriage wasn’t available for those among us who were gay. Yet it was becoming clearer and clearer that gay love was a reality that needed to be acknowledged. And at the same time, our heterosexual relationships were undergoing massive upheavals—marriage, though we didn’t wish to deny it to our gay friends, seemed to many heterosexual women like a “property relationship.” We wanted our love to be free, not attached to economic or child-rearing promises.

The men I knew often took perhaps unfair advantage of this. Even when what they felt was clearly not love to them, they might claim to love us, but to just not to want to participate in the strangling institution of marriage. For the most part, women still wanted to be loved. This made for a lot of broken hearts, and many women eventually “got over” their liberation from marriage. Women and men (gay, straight, and bisexual) began to redefine marriage in multiple ways that (we hope) retain the goodness of an institution of intimate commitment and jettison the woman-down or gays-denied aspects.

Not that the redefining of romantic love is over, but lately what I find shifting more radically is the meaning of friendship.

This weekend I read an article in the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche. It is one of many litanies lately about the dangers of our reliance on social networks on the Internet. Bruce also sent me a link of a TED talk by psychologist Sherry Turkle, who is mentioned in the Atlantic article and who has changed her once-upbeat take on the social network into a lament for the depth and spontaneity of real conversation.

These two commentaries bring so much to my mind. Mainly, they resonate. I myself can experience great loneliness in spite of the ever-enlarging circle of Facebook and blogging friends that I have. Blogging sometimes brings about more substantive exchanges, but even that is not real companionship.

And I have noticed that even my dearest friends no longer want to talk. Now, I am a “long-talker,” as my boss once told me, and I have tired people out for many years in that regard. But I feel more and more removed from this quick-take social interaction that has become the norm. I worry that my pleasure in and need for complex, digressive, even desultory conversation is becoming more and more anachronistic. My friends love me, and I love them, but we don’t have time to talk with each other. Conversation has become the ultimate luxury.

People don’t even like length in writing any more, as literary magazines shrink and shrink the length of manuscripts they will even consider for publication and as those of us teaching creative writing shrink and shrink the length of assignments we accept from our students because we have more and more students and therefore fewer and fewer hours to devote to critique of their work. We indeed are living in an aphoristic time.

Turkle, in her talk, reports that one 18-year-old, “who uses texting for almost everything,” told her “someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn to have a conversation.” And it is true that sometimes my students today have a hard time participating in a workshop at all. I have even had a few students so afraid that I had to coach them outside of class about how to manage to participate in class. I had to teach them how to have a conversation.

So, another thing that came to my mind is the continuing value of the creative writing workshop model. In creative writing workshops, we still talk. This may be on its way to becoming a lost art, but it may also be something that we should emphasize as part of the value of a liberal arts education. Rare skills can become extremely valuable, after all. And the magic that can sometimes happen in a creative writing workshop (the minds melding, the contributions mixing, the starts and stops coalescing into something new that no one thought of alone) will never, I believe, be replaced by even the most detailed online critique.

That some 18-year-old, who probably has hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, can have all those friends without conversations strikes me as odd. Yet I know that I have some friends on Facebook I have never met, or have met once or twice, or who simply “liked” some brief quip I made in response to someone else’s post.

And this phenomenon of friends we don’t really know is more and more being extended to relationships that have nothing to do with actual friendship and everything to do with business. I offer a mere two examples, though I could go on all day with more:

* I just recently had to purchase a new insulin pump. I’ll save the internecine details of this most recent set of frustrating health care exchanges for another time, but here I at least want to object to the constant reference by the insulin pump company to their being my “partner.” In fact, the company website refers to us as “partners for life.”

Forgive me if I view this with cynicism. I had to order a new pump because my previous one went completely kaput a few days after the warranty expired, not because I desired any of the minimally new features. (Most of which, I am finding, have created a kind of neurotic, nagging, numbing effect with lots of extra alarms.) Since the new pump takes a while to “process,” the company offered a loaner pump for the duration. However, they informed me that if I canceled my order, and didn’t buy my next pump from them, I would be charged $3600 for 90 days with the loaner.

If this is a “partnership,” it’s a coercive one.

* At least the pump company still uses a neutral word like “partner.” In other business news, however, Brighthouse has launched a new advertising campaign in which they pull out all the stops and go right to calling themselves my “friend,” your friend, everybody’s friend. That friendship could be offered to all comers for the price of subscribing to Brighthouse services totally perverts the meaning of the word, of course.

At first the only clue to the identity of who was paying for these prime-time and expensive Hello Friend ads was the combination of blue and yellow in the text portion of the ads. Now, they are gradually introducing ads that move from soft-touch pleasantries to out and out courting. Brighthouse wants to be your friend, the ads say.

How, I wonder, can anyone take this seriously?

Bruce tells me that the campaign is likely a response to the horrible customer service reviews that Brighthouse has received in the past on Internet complaint sites. “Brighthouse,” he said, “gives notoriously bad service. There are all kinds of comments like, ‘DirectTV is bad, but Brighthouse is the worst.’”

In fact, the campaign may actually indicate an actual change in policy that could be important. This would never have occurred to me if the folks who helped put in our new flower and garden beds last week hadn’t accidentally cut our Brighthouse cable. When we realized what had happened, I thwacked myself in the forehead repeatedly, cursing the fact that I’d mistakenly believed all the cables were away from our dig areas. How much would they have to dig up again, and how much would this foolish oversight cost us?

Within 24 hours, the repairman came, made a quick fix, and charged us nothing. I was so relieved not to be punished that I have to admit I felt almost like this man was my friend.

The ads, however, have made me feel simply that the world is more pathetic than ever. I wondered if it’s true that people are just getting more and more disconnected from other real humans and more lonely than ever. That such ads could be deemed effective seems to coincide with the research that Turkle and others report about heavy Facebook users being lonelier than those who use it less or not at all. And with the fact that more and more people use it regularly.

In addition, I think it’s a documentable fact that more and more of our daily needs are met through these large corporate entities. There are few family-owned corner grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, hardware stores, and pet food stores, so we don’t have even the same kind of superficial acquaintances that we know over a long period of time and that might bloom into something like genuine friendliness, even if not intimate knowledge. I visit the same stores over and over again and hardly ever see the same clerk twice because they are chains that move people around and that people leave at the next best opportunity.

We also have witnessed the rise of various kinds of stealth marketing, where people who purport to be our friends are actually (or also) trying to use us for financial ends. To me, these practices are particularly heinous because I like to know when a spade is a spade. But many young people today live lives much more merged with advertising than an oldster like me is comfortable with. They see nothing wrong with defining themselves with logos, with trying out free sample products and sharing them with friends, and so on. For them, there is no private sphere.

(And there are so many how-tos and analyses of these kinds of marketing that I can’t find a single link to represent them, but if you’re interested, the key terms are stealth marketing, viral marketing, word-of-mouth marketing. And don’t forget product placement!)

These secret agendas also exist in terms of pyramid schemes like Amway, Landmark Forum, and Stargate. Whenever someone approaches you with some ulterior motive, there’s a kind of strain. This person is not approaching with an open mind or with curiosity, but with a pre-determined agenda: to get you to join so that they can get a discount on their own self-help seminars.

One of the most disturbing trends noted by Stephen Marche in the Atlantic is this: “In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”

And so we also pay others to listen to us. Marche also reports on the dramatic rise in the numbers of psychologists, other kinds of therapists and counselors, and life coaches. This marketplace is more legitimate—at least most of the time you know what you are paying for and it’s about your own needs, whereas the stealth marketers are lying to you to meet their needs. But sometimes even that gets confusing. In my dealings with Landmark Forum, I encountered several members who had also become independent life coaches—they had little in the way of credentials I would recognize for advising others about their lives, but there is no licensing necessary for life coaching. Even in the realm of professional “friends,” the stakes can get confused these days.

What many commentators have begun to notice, including Stephen Marche and Sherry Turkle, is that what many of these online friendship forums promote is a kind of uber cheerfulness, an editing of our personal lives into success stories and personal p.r. campaigns.

I think, however, this trend goes far beyond and certainly doesn’t originate in online social networks. Landmark Forum, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Kris Carr, and the whole host of self-help gurus have over the past decade moved so deeply into the superficial tenets of positive psychology that this kind of self-editing has become ubiquitous. Everyone, nowadays, fears being a “drag,” whether in person or online.

Marche’s article thankfully makes this connection, and he cites a recent study by Iris Mauss and others at the University of Denver that finds that valuing and seeking happiness can doom people to disappointment. Mauss and her fellow psychologists all consider themselves to be working in the arena of positive psychology, and in other writings that I found, she seems a true believer, even in “positive neuroscience.” They apparently expected happiness to be like other goals—those that value academic achievement usually make better grades in school. But they found the opposite—at least in situations of low stress, the valuation of happiness correlated with lower happiness and life satisfaction and higher symptoms of depression.

So, I believe that what Stephen Marche points out about Facebook’s pitfalls is actually something that spreads beyond the online environment. I suppose it’s a chicken-and-egg question whether our online habits have created the changes in our psyches concerning friendship, but I do know that it’s not only online that this issue exists.

However, in a live chat about his Atlantic article, Marche just now referred to another article he wrote—for Toronto Life—about his institution of a Digital Sabbath. I know that I agree with him fully that simple pleasures have become filled with distraction. He mentions playing Legos with his son; for me, this shows up in a variety of ways. How often do I sit quietly with a cat on my lap without checking Facebook and email on my phone every few minutes? How many nights do I wake up and cuddle with a Scrabble game rather than with my sleeping husband? How often when I’m talking on the phone with my mother am I also answering emails?

It seems a supreme irony that we learn so much on Facebook and other online forums and yet also isolate ourselves this way. We won’t give them up, and doing so even on a Sabbath seems unlikely for many. I do hope, however, that we can strive to use them more thoughtfully. No doubt, the meaning of “friend” has changed permanently. But it’s good to remember what’s at the core of it. Else, I fear, friendship will see a worse fate than the changes wrought in the world of romantic love. Sex, after all, still cements romance in the physical world. Friendship may not have such a tangible hold.

Devious “Discretion”

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Russian pictogram for silence.


A couple of people have recently asked me if I’ll be going to a high school reunion this summer for all graduates from the 1970s. This is more likely than that I will ever go to a college reunion. My thirtieth-year college reunion occurred last summer, and I wasn’t there. I had a great education, which I enjoyed immensely, and I have donated to my college every year since I graduated. It was a time when I came into the bohemian aspects of my personality, discovered my sexuality (the pleasure meant a lot to a person who had to stab herself frequently with needles), and realized that there’s a larger world than my Tennessee hometown had indicated. I had been an odd girl in my Tennessee high school, but I fit in at Carleton.

So, why, then, am I more likely to go to a high school reunion? I mean, I was miserable in high school. But while I had high school friendships that ended, they did so simply. There were changed interests and hurt and loss involved, but never maliciousness. On the other hand, the end of my time in college was marred by the fact that a friend of mine turned rather viciously on me. I still have no idea why. After numerous phone calls and attempts to talk to her about why she’d gotten mad and would no longer speak to me—I even attempted to take a bus through a blizzard to talk with her—I retreated from an entire group that I thought at the time would be my friends for life.

None of these people would talk to me about what was going on. They said they didn’t want to get in the middle, and that I’d have to talk with her. She refused to talk with me. It was a conundrum I couldn’t solve.

La Discrétion, n.d., attributed to Claude Marie Dubufe (1790-1864). French.

One of these friends, years later, admitted that Karen had produced this effect in all of them by claiming discretion. She told others that she wouldn’t talk with them about why she had turned on me because she “didn’t want to make them think ill of someone else.” In other words, she implied that I had indeed done something terrible, so terrible that, if she told them, they would also find me repugnant. Imagination rushed in where fact was missing. Somehow, they all came to believe that I had wronged her.

Maybe even I came to believe that I had done something terrible. What else would have made her behave this way? I’m a person capable of self-reflection, and I pondered it for weeks and months, years, even, but could never figure it out. Of course, I make mistakes, like any human being. I can be harsh and judgmental without even realizing it. I can be too direct and can hurt people’s feelings by the strength of my own. Sometimes I am inconsiderate and selfish. But if I hurt a friend in some way like that, I would gladly apologize and rectify it. Not to be given a chance to do so was a huge blow to me. That my idealized college experience came to such a crashing end demoralized me for a long time.

Since then, I have, however, encountered this kind of devious discretion numerous times. Much to my chagrin most of its perpetrators seem to be women, and in my adult life they have not usually been friends but colleagues and co-workers. (I choose my friends more carefully now.) Over the years, I have discovered that there are many motivations for these people to make certain things unspeakable. It almost never has to do with the actual horrible nature of what they refuse to speak about. Rather, it’s that their reactions are logically indefensible. So they hide behind “discretion.” They work by false insinuation. This kind of “discretion” is one of the worst kinds of gossip.

Gossips, n.d., Filipp Malyavin (1869-1940). Russian. This work is in the public domain in those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 80 years or fewer.

For instance, I once had a colleague who was always saying things to people like, “Why is X so angry? Why is there so much conflict?” She acted distressed about these things, but, in fact, she created them, at least perpetuated them. If you asked her why she thought X was angry, she would say, “Oh, I don’t think it would be productive to tell you. It might hurt your feelings.” X might or might not in fact not be angry at all, and there might be no conflict to speak of other than the ordinary tension of people working together. But other people believe the underlying assumptions when people ask things this way and then refuse to give details.

It’s still amazing to me how effective this strategy is. I have fallen for it myself. Once, for instance, I failed to be as welcoming to a new colleague as I might have been because another person made vague allegations against her. In retrospect, I regret this. She ended up fast-tracking out of our shared work environment, and I later concluded that her accuser was less than truthful in an attempt to cover over her own insecurities.

It’s why my favorite rhetorical device is the enthymeme, and I always try to remember to question the unstated assumptions in what people tell me. What’s the evidence that X is angry? I try to go back a step and ask another question instead of leaping into speculation. I try to remember that the person who makes such vague allegations may be sincere, but may also be manipulating me into believing that X is angry. She may be trying to disrupt my work relationship with X or to create some false closeness to me. She may be promoting her supposedly more cheerful personality over X’s supposedly grumpy one. She may simply be a person who is herself terrified of any level of irritation or dissatisfaction. But one thing she is not doing is being, as this particular person often claimed, truly discreet or a positive, healing force in the workplace, trying to bring people together.

Genuine discretion might be that person asking X herself whether she is angry and what that is about. It would require that person to absorb what X said and perhaps to try to help X with her anger if she had some, without judging the person or situation that X was mad about. Discretion is about understanding that everyone in a situation, even an arena filled with conflict, probably has a legitimate and important perspective.

I have learned so much from my husband about this. My husband is a person who is truly discreet without ever sacrificing his honesty or his integrity. As a university department chair, he may work behind the scenes to try to benefit situations and people. He definitely does not blab about every frustration he has or every emotion he sees in another person. However, he’s very good at insisting that everyone has something good to offer and working to bring that out. He never pitches one person against another.

Certainly, I don’t mean some reverse sexist point by all this. I have certainly seen men who do pitch others against each other, and women who don’t. And I believe that women often turn to strategies like this out of a sad training that they get in childhood and in school and in their early work experiences—that directness is punished in women. I know it has been in me. I have had bosses both male and female say negative things about my honesty and integrity that I don’t believe they would ever say to a male employee.

Afternoon Tea (or The Gossips), 1889, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). English.

This has been on my mind recently as Newt Gingrich calls a woman who testified to Congress about birth control a “slut” and as Rick Santorum asserts that abortion should be illegal even in situations of rape and incest. This has all been on my mind as we cling to the remnants of feminism in a world where feminism is so often deemed by the young as “unnecessary.” Let us really think about how we teach our young women to be. Let every woman challenge repeatedly the idea that she must use her wiles as a primary source of success and dampen down her honest self.

Little Gossips, 1888, Jane Sutherland (1853-1928). Australian.

Real discretion is something I value. So is an ability and willingness to work out misunderstandings and disagreements with open hands, and to let go of grudges. Both of those things are hard to come by in the work world and sometimes even in one’s private life, if there even is such a thing anymore. I believe that these are important ways that each of us can contribute to a more genuine world.

I come back around to Adrienne Rich again, this time as an essayist. In “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” in the collection On Lies, Secrets and Silence, she notes the following:

“Lying is done with words and also with silence.”

“When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”

“An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.” [I would note that any honorable human relationship that is based on respect includes some love, and Rich clearly doesn’t mean only romantic love.]

“The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.”

“The liar has many [so-called] friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.”

Even silent stones can speak slander. The Three Gossips rock formations in Arches National Park, Utah. Photo by Tiziano Lombardi.

Thank You, I’m Alive!


Today is the one-year anniversary of my brain hemorrhage. It was not my day to die last November 14. Like Old Lodge Skins, I ended up getting up and going home. Unlike Old Lodge Skins, however, I had not set out that day to die, and, in fact, one of the things I realized after my unexpected brain hemorrhage was that I did not consider it a good day to die.

It may seem obvious that we don’t usually consider any given day a good day to die. But, as I was trundled on the gurney out to the helicopter for the flight from Altamonte to Florida Hospital South, I thought about that line from Little Big Man. It is a line that indicates a life that could be let go, even immediately, with satisfaction in having lived well. As great as much of my life was and is, I didn’t feel that way about it. I’ve spent the last year contemplating how my life (external and internal) might change so that if I do drop dead the next time, I will be sorry to go but not regretful.

One of the things that I know I would want to do is to thank the people who have helped me so much in the past year. In spite of the fact that I escaped relatively unscathed, their support has been crucial as I’ve sorted out the meaning of this event in my life and struggled to get my full strength and vitality back.

First comes Bruce, who was with me the whole way. The pain of this hemorrhage was so bad that I did reach a certain readiness for death—not out of acceptance but out of desperation. At the moment when I thought, “I can’t stand this another second,” the fear in Bruce’s eyes let me know how much he loved me. I’m glad his fear didn’t last more than a few hours, but I’m also glad it let me know that I had good reasons to withstand the pain.

I also want to thank my beautiful family of origin. We have many flaws, but they all pitched in when needed and made a huge difference in the crisis. My mother was here from Virginia in less than 24 hours, and stayed the entire ten days I was in the hospital, helping a shell-shocked Bruce and laying in the meals that we would eat for weeks after, as well as sitting with me in neuro intensive care. My father and brother put their heads together when they heard that Bruce might cancel his trip to Africa (the culmination of a year’s worth of work), and they volunteered to come and stay with me for alternating weeks after I got out of the hospital so he could go and complete this major project. My dad’s wife, Jane, was considerate enough to send along with my dad a new pair of comfy pajamas for me to wear during my weeks on the sofa.

I want to thank my friend and colleague Terry, who stepped right in and took over my most onerous class and who arranged for others to fill in for my other classes. I appreciate all who helped with my abandoned teaching duties and grading for the end of term, but especially Terry, who made all the arrangements, ran materials back and forth, and added a boatload of work to her already heavy responsibilities. Terry and her husband, Don, came to the hospital and told the nurses they were relatives so they could check on me. I thank them for their genuine involvement and caring.

I thank all those who sent well wishes and little gifts in the days I was in the hospital, the students who sent me a box of chocolate, and all those who called to get the story. I thank my many friends and other relatives from all over the country and beyond who have checked in from time to time and asked after me.

Most especially I thank my dear friends Susan, Gigi, Holly, Ivonne, and Anna (and Terry), who have been in touch even more frequently than usual to talk over the shifting meanings of our lives. They say that in a crisis you find out who your friends really are, and you do. These are people who understand the reasonable and the unreasonable in both me and the universe. These are people who overcome the fear in themselves evoked by all serious illness in others and who don’t discredit you for it. As Adrienne Rich notes, “we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” but the generosity of these friends has been plenty for me. They have all been through “things” themselves, and they have been great companions on my journey back.

I am blessed by the presence of all these people in my life, my life that goes joyfully on. I may not think that even today is a good day to die, but I would die with much less regret today than a year ago.