MWF Seeking BFF

MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertshe

Rachel Bertsche moved to a new city for her husband’s job, and found herself without any close female friends in town. So she made an audacious goal of going on “dates” with one new woman every week for a year, in the hope of finding a girl-soulmate. Over the course of the year, her goal changed. At first she thought she wanted someone she could call to meet for coffee or drinks at the drop of a hat, but then she realizes she actually doesn’t like last-minute plans. As she got to know new women and made choices about which ones to keep in touch with, she refocused her goal to a different definition of a good friend, one that’s more about how comfortable she can be with that person. She also lets go of nostalgia for childhood friendships and the lifestyles that enable them, which to me seems a more difficult than the other redefinition. The book reads like a journal of her year, and by the end, she describes feeling confident, adventurous, busy, and in-demand. 

The friendships we make as children and teenagers are intimate and easy, partly because kids have lives that enable the quick formation of strong bonds. Teens are in daily contact with people their own age, in environments (school, team sports, extracurriculars) that encourage them to put down their guard. Adults isolate themselves in houses and cubicles and don’t spend as much time in such friendship-conducive places, unless they consciously seek them out. It’s easy to wish adults lived more like teens in some ways, that we lived closer together in communities, and had social norms that allowed more casual contact with strangers and acquaintances. But short of building a commune or a time machine, that would be hard for an individual to accomplish.

Recognizing this reality, Bertsche gives a lot of great ideas for getting to know new people and building friendships that fit into adult lives. For example, I appreciated reading about “social identity support” because now I know the words to describe this phenomenon that I’ve seen make and break friendships. Many people like to have friendships that provide support for their own social identity, so they surround themselves with people who are in the same ‘life stage,’ or who have made many of the same major decisions about their lives. It helps to have people around who affirm your life stage and life choices just by being who they are, especially if you feel at all unsure or ambivalent about your decisions. It’s also simply convenient, as schedules are more likely to align. The lack of this social identity support is why friendships often founder when one person gets married and/or has kids and the other doesn’t. Not all friendships have to have this element, but it can make things easier for a new friendship. In some cases not having that social identity in common, especially during a vulnerable transition time, or for a person who is especially insecure, can jeopardize a relationship.

My favorite part of the book might have been the concrete suggestions and guidelines that came from Bertsche’s research about the psychology and sociology of friendship. It’s good to have rules of thumb to help you make decisions when wracked with insecurity and self-doubt. Here were some of my main takeaways: 

  • If you really intend to follow up with a potential new friend, make the date soon, ideally before the first date is over.
  • Storytelling is key, and much better than “interviewing.”
  • Face-to-face > phone > email > facebook
  • Loneliness ≠ depression.
  • To become friends, you need to meet up with someone twice a month for 3 months.
  • Anthropological research says that each of us has enough room in our lives for about 150 relationships at any given time.
  • A simple definition: “Friendship is consistent, mutual, shared, positive emotion.”
  • Emotional closeness between long-distance friends declines about 15% a year.
  • Sharing secrets builds trust.
  • Facebook has made high school reunions obsolete.
  • Shared history is why lifelong friends are impossible to replace.
  • But on the other hand, new friends know only the current version of you, won’t pigeonhole you or tie you to your past, and don’t have the baggage old friends do. Also, childhood friendships are often formed out of convenience (she was your friend because she lived next door, not because you had anything in common with her), while adult friendships are formed by choice and mutual interests.
  • Laughter creates friendships.
  • Does real comfort and intimacy in a friendship mean being able to talk about the Big Stuff, or the minutiae of daily life? Or both?
  • Four necessary behaviors for making friends: interaction, positivity, self-disclosure, supportiveness.
  • Social media can make loneliness worse if you use it as a substitute for interaction and as a basis for social comparison.
  • The familiarity principle: the more you see someone, the more you like her/him.
  • The best relationships are synergistic: both people get more out of it than they put in.
  • “Couple-friends” are 2-4 times as hard to make as one-on-one friends.
  • Click accelerators, things that make people bond quickly: similarity, proximity, vulnerability, resonance, and a safe place.
  • Doing new, novel things together helps build relationships.
  • Carpe diem! Most people will not think you’re a creepy stalker if you admit to wanting to be their friend or express interest in getting to know them better. They’re more likely to be flattered.

I sympathized deeply with Bertsche’s quest and the loneliness fueling it. Like her, I moved to a new city for love in my mid-to-early 20’s and found myself disconnected from the social ties that had been most important in my life. Actually, her move and mine happened almost at the same time. I wish this book had been written back in 2008. It’s an inspiring read that could really motivate you to put more time and effort into making and keeping good friends. Her goal of one friend-date a week is ambitious and incredibly time-consuming, but even a smaller scale version of her quest could be a great way to enrich your life with new friendships! A possible New Year’s resolution?

Hunger

Hunger: A Memoir of My Body by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a novelist, essayist, and cultural critic that I was honored to meet in the summer. I already knew the outlines of Gay’s life story from reading Bad Feminist, but this book lays out her trauma and its aftermath in detail. It was heavy and hard to read at times. Gay describes in excruciating detail what it’s like to live in her body, the physical discomfort, the social stigma, the loneliness.

Gay talks openly about her struggles to fit into a world made by and for smaller people, her hesitations about going in public and doing things I find normal and simple, the planning and accommodations she has to make to get around her body’s incompatibility with our physical world. I was already on board with body positivity and fat acceptance, but reading this book made me realize again how wrong it is to make moral judgements based on body size. I also think that conversations about fat acceptance sometimes limit themselves to people who are overweight or even obese, but who are not so big that they have trouble fitting into standardized clothes or furniture.  “We’ll accept fat people,” people say, “but not if they’re THAT fat.” Which obviously completely undermines the point. Gay offers readers a lesson in empathy for those we are much too quick to judge and dismiss. You never know what someone else has gone through, the deep reasons why they are the way they are.

The book doesn’t really have a happy ending, but instead a brave look to Gay’s future, where she will work to approach happiness. I so admire her, her spirit and determination to move forward despite everything that happened to her, and her courage to look unflinchingly at the ugly things weaker people would have to repress or ignore just to survive, and then to say them to the world.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie lost his mother in 2015, and this is the book he wrote to deal with his grief. He writes about his difficult childhood living on the Spokane Indian reservation, his volatile relationship with his mother, and the secrets his family kept for years. This book was an education for me about Native Americans and the effects colonization has had on their lives and families. Alexie also writes about his experiences of racism and his reaction to last year’s election. The form of the memoir is fragmented and disconnected personal essays, stories, and poems, stitched together like one of his mother’s quilts.

I knew The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was autobiographical, but I didn’t realize exactly how closely that story parallels Alexie’s real life. In some ways, reading this book was like reading a sequel to that novel, written by its protagonist as an adult. Grown-up fans who read Alexie’s first novel years ago will enjoy this book as well.

Alexie is a gifted performer and an amazing reader, so his audiobooks are a real treat. He communicates so much more with his voice, adding accents, singing, and tearful emotion. I think if you read his work in print, you’re missing out.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

This book fits into a subgenre of memoir that I call, “Why I Am the Way I Am.” In these books the authors explain their various quirks in charming and endearing and self-deprecating ways. They spend a lot of time listing their various likes and dislikes and tracing these preferences back to childhood experiences. In this example, Felicia Day connects her homeschooled upbringing to her adoption of unusual hobbies and her ability to throw herself single-mindedly into them. As a fellow recovering valedictorian, I related hard to Day’s perfectionism, her craving for external validation, and her people-pleasing teacher’s pet behaviors. When she described her honest-to-God addiction to World of Warcraft, I had to pause a moment and cross myself because I have played some MMORPGs in my day, and “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I was surprised that Day didn’t talk more about her time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long. (It would have been natural, Joss Whedon did the foreword!) Instead, the narrative concentrated on her childhood, her introduction to video gaming, and her creation of the web series The Guild. All of the stories she told were interesting and funny, but I wondered about those other stories that didn’t make it into this book. All that is to say, “Psst, Felicia, I think you have another book in you!”

Day’s story is an example for me of how sometimes success comes from the luck of being an early adopter. She got in on the ground floor of video game fandom and web videos. I don’t think it’s so much that she was prescient, predicting that these passions of hers would gain a huge following, as that she was just doing what made her happy, and the zeitgeist happened to align with her. She was lucky enough to have a weekly group meeting with a woman who had made one of the first viral youtube videos, and got her help to create The Guild. Day did crowdfunding before Kickstartr existed. The story also shows in excruciating detail how hard she worked, but luck plays a role in any success as big as Day’s.

You’ll Grow Out of It

You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein

This memoir is in the same vein as others by Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, and Amy Pohler, though Jessi Klein is not as famous as they are, and she’s somewhat less bombastic than these other comedians. Klein is a writer for comedy shows, most recently and successfully for Inside Amy Schumer, and has been on camera for shows like VH1’s Best Week Ever. But for the most part she seems a little bit more down-to-earth than these other stars, and few of her essays are about show business.

I related to this book so hard. It was like Klein had looked inside my head and seen all my insecurities. Her take on the problem of female beauty–especially what it’s like to long to be effortlessly gorgeous without that natural gift–really hit home for me. She is about eight years older than me–reading this was like a long sleepover with an older cousin whose life has closely mirrored my own, in themes if not in exact events. Klein’s humor is mostly self-deprecation over her own pathetic life. She writes about allowing herself to be treated poorly in relationships, about a nasty breakup, her engagement, wedding dress, fertility problems, aging, and how long it took her to have the courage to make a leap in her career. Her analysis of cultural phenomena like Anthropologie, The Bachelor, porn, and New Age retreat-spas is spot-on and hilarious. She reads the audiobook herself and delivers her writing with irony and sadness. I strongly recommend it to any woman who has ever felt not good enough.

The Year of Yes

The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes

This memoir by a TV goddess is empowering and just as funny as I expected it to be. I really enjoy Shonda Rhimes’s TV writing: Scandal, Gray’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder are addictive and brilliantly plotted. I recognized some of the sentence-level pacing and style from her shows; it works just as well in this format. The gimmick of the book is that in the year 2014 Rhimes made a resolution to say yes to things that scared her. The end result was that she moved from hiding in the writers’ room to taking the spotlight herself, and feeling more comfortable there. She made several intimidating TV appearances and a few public speeches, including her Dartmouth commencement speech. Her stories about working motherhood and the mommy wars. losing weight without self-hate, learning to accept compliments, and taking time to play were perfectly expressed, and just what I needed to hear.

How Should a Person Be?

How Should a Person Be? A Novel From Life by Shelia Heti

heti-sheila-how-should-a-person-be

When this book came out, there was a lot of talk about it, so I put it on my list. People were saying how it’s a book about female friendship and the struggle to produce art, topics which certainly appeal to me. A lot of people didn’t like it and called it navel-gazing, and others responded to that criticism with accusations of sexism: “You’d like it if it were a man doing the navel-gazing.” Because I know where I generally stand on those debates, I was fully prepared to like and enjoy this book, and was disappointed when I didn’t so much. It wasn’t because female friendship is boring or because a woman writing about her own life is objectionable to me (obviously), but just because I guess I didn’t like the particular things Heti had to say about her life, or the way she said them. Heti (or her character) divorces her husband for reasons I didn’t understand (I didn’t understand why she married him either), and has a relationship with a creepy guy who likes to make sex as degrading for his partners as possible. It takes her way too long to dump him. She moves from Toronto to New York because statistically it seems more likely she’ll make her way into the canon if she’s there. The story (not that there’s much plot) is framed by an “ugly painting” contest that Heti’s friends participate in. Heti’s friend Margeaux is a central figure, and the effect both have on each others’ art is a key question.

I’d compare Heti to Lena Dunham in that they’re both privileged white women making art and focusing on relationships between women. Both also explore relationships with men that are at least borderline exploitative or abusive. Dunham is a decade younger, a lot funnier, and has some important things to say about date rape, women’s bodies and representation, while Heti is more esoteric and existential, and less concerned with social justice. I’m between the two in age, but I think I prefer Dunham.

Best Books of 2015

I picked out my favorites of the books I’ve read and reviewed this year. Here they are below, separated by genre:

Best Fiction

Sevenwaters series by Juliet Marrilier

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobbs

Best Memoir

Poser by Claire Dederer

Yes Please by Amy Pohler

Best Nonfiction

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Best YA

Winter by Marissa Meyer

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Worst

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Poser

Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer

Poser-2This is one of my favorite memoirs I’ve ever read. Dederer describes the pressures of hipster parenting incredibly well. The story spans several years as she has two babies, moves from Seattle to Boulder and back, and becomes increasingly interested in yoga as exercise and philosophy. She also deals with some issues from her family of origin: her parents separated without divorcing in the 70’s, and her mother went to live with another man. I really related to her struggles with perfectionism. Here’s a great long quote that kind of encapsulates the central problem Dederer begins the book with:

We were a generation of hollow-eyed women, chasing virtue. We, the mothers of North Seattle, were consumed with trying to do everything right. Breast-feeding was simply the first item in a long, abstruse to-do-list: cook organic food, buy expensive wooden toys, create an enriching home environment, attend parenting lectures, sleep with your child in your bed, ensure that your house was toxin-free, use cloth diapers, carry your child in a sling, make your own baby food, dress your child in organic fibers, join a baby group so your child could develop peer attachments. And don’t quit your job. But be sure to agonize about it. And enjoy an active sex life. But only with your spouse! Also, don’t forget to recycle.

Goodness ruled me. I was thirty-one. All the moms I knew, at least the ones who were my age and lived in my zip code, lived by this set of rules. It was a variant form of that oldie, perfectionism, but without the hang-ups about appearances. We didn’t want to look good. We wanted to be good. We wanted a kind of moral cleanliness to touch our lives.

When I read those lines I was hooked. By the end I felt like I had learned and grown alongside Dederer, and that’s a feeling you love to get from a memoir.

The yoga stuff, though it was so central to the story and to Dederer’s evolution, was probably the least interesting part of the book to me personally. Especially Dederer’s hand-wringing about whether Western yoga is cultural appropriation. Mostly the classes she attends and the poses she describes seem to serve as a metaphor for releasing the tension in her life. As a metaphor it worked pretty effectively. I guess I’m proof that you don’t have to be interested in yoga to enjoy this book.

Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass

Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir by Annita Perez Sawyer

51fsSOypEeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

A teenage mental patient endures dozens of shock treatments that cause her to lose all her memories. Years later, as a psychologist herself, she uncovers her medical records, which leads her to rediscover the traumatic memories that triggered her collapse as a young adult.

One of the fascinating things about memoirs is the idea of reading a true story, of connecting not with a character, but a real person whose experience you can share. Sawyer takes us into the depths of the disturbed thinking caused by her illness and trauma. The beginning of the book is kind of hard to read because it’s so upsetting to see someone treated this way by doctors and by her own mind. Later in the book, it’s great to see Sawyer triumph over her illness and win professional and personal success. She makes a narrator who’s easy to root for and care about.

In this kind of writing, the writer always has to make tough choices about which events to emphasize and which to leave out entirely, and those choices can never exactly meet up with the interests of all readers. I was interested in Sawyer’s family life and her relationships with her patients, but the focus of the book was on her own journey of understanding her past.

Despite the intense subject matter, this story feels less raw than other memoirs I’ve read, almost sanitized at times. I think that difference is partly generational. Sawyer is a little older than the Baby Boomers, so she doesn’t share that generation’s extravagant personality. For example, Boomer Jeanette Walls also writes about her family’s dysfunction, but the alcoholics in her family were a lot more flamboyant than the secretive ones in Sawyer’s. Also, Sawyer’s particular issues have to do with repression and dissociation, which naturally don’t lead to wild tales of acting out a la Cheryl Strayed (a Gen-Xer).

This story is about the courage it took for Sawyer to analyze herself, to look at her former self the way she looks at her patients, with empathy and kindness. One message of the book is for those who work in mental health, to be wary of misdiagnosis and projection. But beyond that, Sawyer writes with compassion about a lesson many of us need to learn at some point: how to forgive ourselves for what happened to us as kids. The ending of the book, as Sawyer begins to remember the truth about her childhood, is absorbing and disquieting.