“Disconnect” – Identity, Surveillance & Mediated Realities

Michael Bluth (aka Jason Bateman) gets serious online.

Michael Bluth (aka Jason Bateman) gets serious online.

The opening moments of the new film Disconnect are confusing enough to reel you in, as you try to make sense of the scenes unfolding before you.  With the help of a naked woman in an animal mask, stacks of pumped up kicks, a cool P.O.V. shot from a camera mounted under a skateboard, and (wait for it…) urine in a protein shake, writer Andrew Stern and director Henry Alex Rubin get their hooks in the audience quickly – and then dare you to look away.  You won’t be able to.

Billed online as “A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today’s wired world”, with the tagline ‘Look Up’– Disconnect seems, at first glance, to be a call to the audience to pay attention to the relationships and human beings who share our immediate physical environment (I mean, how often have we kept company with the tops of peoples heads as they play on their phones?).  At it’s most basic and overt level the film is about how technology brings us together and pulls us apart – but that’s not really anything new or different (nor is it the most important message of the movie). One of the things about Disconnect that is different – or rather, one of the more captivating aspects of the film – is how these moments of rupture and repair are authentically captured and conveyed in a way that makes the audience complicit in the downfall or redemption of the characters.  This strategy works to further blur the line between truth (the audience) and fiction (the film) in a way that often mirrors our virtual experiences.

Allow me to explain: In nearly every scene where a character is texting/Facebook messaging/I.M.ing/etc. we are spared the typical over-the-shoulder P.O.V. shot where the character is off to the side while the camera focuses in on the computer or telephone screen.  More often, in this film, the characters are shot head on, looking down (of course) at the computer or phone, with the words they are typing written out in real time on the left side of the movie screen.  So the words are – literally – inscribed onto the film itself – adding one more nicely fit layer to the onion of mediated versus unmediated interactions that the audience must peel away.  And this is part of how the audience is made complicit: we must actually watch the words as they come up on the screen, as if we ourselves were the one composing – or getting – the message.  In this way we are forced to be both the sender and the receiver, as the words unfold on the screen and the director alternates head-on shots of each of the two communicating characters.  It’s a nice little cinematic sleight-of-hand – a way of making us identify with the characters who are each struggling with their own identities (both in real life and online) even as the lines between these identities become necessarily blurred and crossed.

And identity is important in the film.  We get to see how characters (and by extension -we ourselves) create online identities – like in the scene where two girls are reviewing photos on their computer, selecting which images to put online (which ones will ‘fit’ their online identity), and one character admonishes the other as she walks out of the room saying, “don’t post that picture!” – a phrase I’ll wager you’ve both said and heard many times.  In this way, we have some level of consciousness about our online identities – and control over them – in ways we often do not in real life.  I believe that the film addresses what happens when we lose control over our mediated identities as a means to get us to meditate on our real world identities – and the way these play out in our relationships to one another as husband/wife/daughter/son/mother/father/brother/sister.

In this way, the film uses technology and our online identities as a vehicle for talking about identity writ large because it highlights how our online identities are things we craft and create.  Of course, we do this with our ‘real’ or non-virtual, un-mediated selves and identities as well – though this fact often exists on the periphery of our consciousness.  Still, regardless of the story arc for each of the three intertwining main plot lines, it is only in the non-virtual un-mediated moments –through real-life human interaction and physical contact – that any given character is redeemed.  Without giving anything much away (so I’ll skip the gender analysis I want to do & that this film desperately needs), I’ll just say that the one character who is not redeemed is the one who lacks the real world support system or human safety net that the other characters have managed to create for themselves even in non-traditional, non family-of-origin, ethically ambiguous and quite possibly illegal ways.  The message perhaps being that while the internet allows for connections and disruptions – it is only the interactions we have in real life that have the potential to truly save us.

And it is for this message that the film has been taken to task in reviews that claim the filmmakers are hitting us over the head with their moral lessons and over-worked clichés (like the fake Facebook profile that ultimately allows for real connections, the online support group that pulls a family apart, etc.) but I think that this critique is missing something important about the film – and that, to me, is the larger, more subtle yet inevitably more crucial message of the movie: We Are All Surveilled.

When we watch Disconnect with this message in mind (rather than the somewhat tired ‘is the internet bad or good’ question) we are privy to what I believe is the filmmakers much more refined analysis of larger, more systematic and social questions regarding privacy and surveillance – not at the level of parent and child but between individuals and The Man (whether you think “The Man” is the government or large corporations or some hidden Illuminati-type group of actors).  Clearly, this is a bigger issue than the film can address but I contend that this is the (not-so-hidden) message in the movie.  The film’s catch phrase “Look Up” could also be read in this way – as in look up the power structure, see who is really in charge here and who is watching us.  Even the promotional poster for the film points to this reading: in a busy city square where everybody is going about their business, Jason Bateman is looking up – ostensibly at a surveillance video camera that the other people in the square are seemingly oblivious to.

Granted this message isn’t really hidden in the film, it’s actually central to each of the main story lines – that whatever virtual reality the main character inhabits (or plays with, or acts through) is under surveillance from another ‘governing’ body (be it parents or the FBI).  But what is important – and largely unspoken in the film (except in a few playful moments) is that in each of the stories the characters have this sort of suspension-of-disbelief about the fact that they themselves have consented to this surveillance (and here I’m working hard to try to NOT talk about hegemony.  You’re welcome.)  But this consent is really key –WE create that Facebook profile, WE sign up for online payment systems or cell-phone banking (it’s so easy!), WE use GPS to get from point A to point B (which means of course, that WE not only arrive at our destination but are tracked on our way), WE give all those apps “permissions” (literally: permissions) to do a range of things on our fancy little phones (this is a larger issue that I’ll pick up in my next post in this series).  And then we are a little surprised (or completely shocked) when our privacy is compromised.

We are participants in our own surveillance, uploading scads of personal information, largely because it makes our lives easier – but what happens when the reality of our lack of control over this information sets in?  This is nicely illustrated in Disconnect between the ease of setting up a Facebook account and the near-impossibility of trying to deactivate it: the two character’s commentary in this scene is hilarious as they complain about how difficult it is to delete a profile, making comments like “they make you fill out so many things”, “they really don’t make this easy”, and finally “ugh, we have to put down a reason”.  The reason they select, by the way, being “I don’t feel safe online”.  Brilliant.

Brilliant, if not a little too obvious.  At times – like in the Facebook account deletion scene – the movie seems to be hitting us over the head with the message.  But then again, the filmmakers even seem in on that joke too – as in the very next scene that boy is wearing a t-shirt that reads “Overkill by Insight”, and the other boy wears a shirt that says, simply, “Overkill”.  Yeah, alright, turns out Overkill is a skateboard-based clothing collection, but its placement in the film is not an accident.  Neither is the impersonation of the Grim Reaper by a main character during a beautifully shot sequence towards the films end (I really want to talk more about this scene, but I don’t want to ruin it for you).

This issue of privacy and policing, and the ways in which we are complicit in our own online surveillance is the topic of a new series on this blog.  Watching and writing about Disconnect was a good way for me to begin to think through these issues.  Because it’s a film about ‘who we are’ and ‘what we do’, the ways we construct our identities, both online and IRL – but it’s also about a lot more important things that we need to be thinking about.  Needless to say, the film doesn’t give an answer, it just asks a lot of questions – the kind that Google can’t answer for you.

Friend, Interrupted Finale: Chap-et Friends, Long Haulers & Dealing With Conflict

remember when you had fun with your friends?

remember when you had fun with your friends?

Ok, dear readers, so ideally now that you’ve crossed those Heathers and Sudden Deathers off of your friendship list, I want to end this series with a post on two special kinds of friends – the Long Hauler and the Chap-et Friend – and some advice on making these friendships last.

*Your Chap-et friends:  Right off the bat I have to say that this is a term I’m borrowing from someone I once knew who referred to telling the ‘Chap-et version of stories’.   As she explained it to me some 15 years ago (so I’m paraphrasing here): there is the normal retelling of a story like, “I went on a blind date last night” and then there is what she called the ‘Chap-et’ version, where no detail is spared: “so I had this blind date last night and when I was on my way to meet him, and I was running five minutes late, but I had really chapped lips, I stopped into the convenience store to buy some Chapstick, but they didn’t have any, so I ended up buying Chap-et, I got the cherry flavored one…” and the story continues on with the same level of minutiae. Clearly, the Chap-et version of a story is saved for one’s closest friends, the ones who actually want to hear every last detail of your experience.  To this day my friends will still use this term in response to me giving a Readers Digest-esque synopsis of a story, like, ‘okay, Kaila, I’m going to need the Chap-et version of this’.  So I’ve borrowed from this old acquaintance to name the friends who get the Chap-et version of your life stories your ‘Chap-et Friends’.  These are rare specimens.  If you have even one Chap-et friend in your life you are very, very lucky – treasure these folks.

*Your Long Haulers: Friendships, like any relationship, ebb and flow over time, space, distance and life changes.  A ‘long haul’ friendship is able to endure these fluctuations – without assigning blame and without severing the friendship altogether.  I am lucky enough to have a few of these friendships – women who have been important friends in my past who are now in a different place than I am (be it actual geographic location or simply our positions in life).  These are the women I might not get a chance to see in person – or even talk on the phone with – for months, maybe even years, but I know that when we do manage to connect there will be no hard feelings, no accusatory ‘where have you been’, instead just a genuine gladness to reconnect and fill each other in on the twists and turns of our lives in the period since we have spoken last.  These are friends that are no longer in my life on a daily basis, but they are friendships that I cherish, that have sustained me in different parts of my life, women whom I respect and adore, and who somehow have managed to stay in my life – even peripherally – for the long haul.

In my experience, both the Chap-et and the Long Hauler friendships tend to have something important in common: they can survive conflict.  As I said in my last post, conflict is inevitable – in any kind of relationship. Be it a disagreement over politics, jealousy over personal choices, or just a hiccup in communication – you will face conflict in your friendships.  But that doesn’t mean that the friendship has to end.  It also doesn’t mean that you and your friend have to ‘process’ each and every disagreement you come to (because that is just exhausting).  In fact, there is a simple two-step practice that can get you – and your friend – through any conflict. First, determine how much space this conflict is going to take up (yes, it is a conscious decision) and then secondly, open a dialogue.  In the world of self-help these steps are easy, but IRL it can be really difficult.  Still, it’s worth it.  Allow me to explain.

Let’s say that a conflict arises because we hear that a friend of ours is talking shit about us.  If we are like most humans, we will have a visceral emotional and physical reaction to this information.  We might be angry, we might be hurt, but either way we are often thrown into an immediate ‘fight or flight’ situation.  The second option – flight – is what leads some folks to choose to end the friendship.  If we choose the first option – fight – we put up our dukes, get righteously defensive and, with the help of some instant gratification technology, we text/call/email/Facebook/Tweet-at our so-called friend with the intention of confronting her.  Neither of these responses is ideal (though at least with the fight model the potential of dialogue is present – a potential that is completely shut down once we go into flight mode).  If you want your friendships to endure, my suggestion is that when conflict arises you should aim to land somewhere in between ‘fight or flight’.  To wit:

  1. Go flight (but not far).  Rather, think of flight in terms of space, taking a step back, and sitting with the information for a little while (I would say that one day is the absolute minimum).  This will not be easy, because sitting with uncomfortable feelings is really difficult.  But if you can do this – even if you have to set an alarm on your phone to mark when the 24-hour ‘cooling off’ period is over – you stand a much better chance at reacting with a level head.  So my advice in these moments is to sit with the information for at least a day and then ask yourself how big of a deal this conflict is to you.  If it isn’t a big deal you will know it because 24 hours later you kind of won’t care about it anymore.  If that’s the case, great – let the issue go, chalk one up to human nature, and pat your self on the back for waiting it out and letting reason win.  But if, on the other hand, a day later you are still stewing and you decide that it is, in fact, ABIGDEAL, then…
  2. Go fight (but be fair).  In fact, instead of ‘fight’ think about it as having a conversation – only after you’ve calmed down, preferably in person, and absolutely while giving your friend the benefit of the doubt. This last piece is especially important in maintaining any relationship – after all, there is a reason why the two of you are friends, and friends deserve the benefit of the doubt.  By going into the conversation with the belief that your friend never intended to hurt your feelings, you allow the space for your friend to explain herself/her actions/her words without having to go on the defensive.  It also conveys to her the idea that your friendship is important to you and that you trust her.  As hard as it is, this actually goes a long way towards helping you keep things in perspective and avoid sudden deathing your own friends in a heated moment of overreaction.

Because – let’s face it – we all have the ability to get really sensitive, take things personally, blow things out of proportion, and act like giant douchebags (yes, I’m talking about you, not just your friends).  But if we can catch ourselves in these instances we can prevent our ‘in-the-heat-of-the-moment’ selves from doing something stupid, like trashing a good friendship.  And if we use the two-step process described above in order to clear the air with friends in a rational and calm way then we can avoid the build-up of weirdness – like, say, when we hide next to our beds eating Cool Whip rather than face the friend who has come to check in on us even though we haven’t been on the best terms lately (ahem, Hannah & Marnie).

So relax a little, give your besties the benefit of the doubt (as you will inevitably need them to do the same for you sometimes), talk about it so you don’t find yourself knee-deep in the un-said, but don’t over-talk it so that you can still have FUN together and not just process all the freakin time.  In other words, dear readers: Keep Calm & Friend On.

Friend, Interrupted Part 2: Sudden Death

yep, this happens.

yep, this happens.

Prior to working on this series on female friendships I believed, wrongly as it turns out, that the end of friendship is something we don’t often discuss.  But even a cursory Amazon search will yield a host of books about this very topic  – and often, specifically about women’s friendships.  You can check out famous female authors writing about this in The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women’s True Life Tales of Friendships that Blew Up, Burned Out or Faded Away – or a clinical psychologist’s advice on this issue in Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.  But since friendships, like romantic relationships are complicated, not all friendships end in the same way.  In particular what I want to talk about today is something that is often taboo for us to discuss but is also – unfortunately – a very common experience.  It’s what I call the ‘Sudden Death’ friend – the person who cuts you out of their life completely, unexpectedly, and without explanation.  Maybe this quote from Liz Pryor’s book What Did I Do Wrong? What To Do When You Don’t Know Why The Friendship Is Over, will sound familiar:

“It happens without warning, and it devastates you: Your closest girlfriend cuts you off completely. No more late-night phone calls and emails, no more catch-up lunches and dinners. She has decided for whatever reason to move on with her life and has left you to try to make sense of what happened. The experience can be as painful as the death of a loved one and as confusing as an unexpected breakup with a significant other.”

I have – for better or for worse – had more than one very close friendship end in this manner.  And it is heartbreaking.  It’s taken a lot of time to get over them.  I’m still getting over them.  But I’ve also started to see a pattern in these friendships – one that I’m hoping will help me avoid such a tragic scenario in the future – or at least, to get over it with less anguish if it happens again.  Because – as I have learned – friendships that end in this way are not about me – they are about the other person.  Now, this does not mean that I am either ‘innocent’ or a ‘victim’ – as a relationship of any kind takes two people.  However, the decision to cut someone out of your life with no explanation at all  – that takes only one person.  And that’s what sucks about it so much.  When we get dumped (by friends or romantic partners) if we can talk to the person and try to see where they are coming from and why the relationship needs to end for them – well, it can help us process it much better.  In the sudden death breakup the person who did not make the choice to end the friendship is robbed of a very basic human need: understanding.

But here’s the thing – understanding the type of people that end friendships without warning and without explanation can help you heal your way through these breakups.  Because in my experience sudden deathers have two basic things in common: first and foremost, in general these people have cut off – or Heathered – other close friends in the past.  And secondly, these sudden deathers often have difficulty addressing conflict in relationships.  Because we are human beings first and foremost, conflict is inevitable and knowing how to deal with conflict is potentially the most important tool for crafting healthy friendships (it is also the topic of my next post in this series).  So if you learn that a friend has a history of Heathering and seems particularly uncomfortable with/unable to address conflict or interpersonal issues with other people…tread carefully.  As I quoted in my last post (and am likely to repeat over and over): “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior”.  Sorry.

Just as it is important to suss out the type of friends who are apt to be sudden deathers – and distance yourself accordingly – it is also a good idea to understand how to react and process the situation if you find yourself suddenly and inexplicably cut off from a once-close friend.  If that happens to you, and I hope that it doesn’t, what follows is my advice on how to navigate these shark-infested waters.

Now somebody once said that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can please some of the people some of the time.  But what I have learned – the hard way it seems – is that there are some people you can’t please any of the time.  No matter how hard you try.  No matter if you forgive and forget and try to embrace them with love.  “But I didn’t do anything wrong” – it’s a line I am known to say in certain moments – a plea in situations where I want the outcome to be different.  But what I’m realizing is that sometimes – even when you don’t in fact do anything wrong – there will be people who will still find a way to be angry at you, to not like what ever it is you did – even if you did nothing at all – and cut you out of their lives entirely.  And with those people, there is nothing you can do to change that.  Repeat: there’s nothing you can do to change that.  (Sorry again).

Most of us are familiar with that old Alcoholics Anonymous prayer which asks for the “serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Of all three parts I think it’s the last one – the wisdom to know the difference – that is most crucial thing.  It is also the hardest.  And for some of us, it’s even harder than hard.  Those of us that – by intention, by design, or by happenstance and history – find ourselves wanting to ‘save’ other people (even when it costs us our selves) may have the hardest time of all with this.  And when I say people who want to save others I don’t just mean doctors and firefighters –I also mean activists and teachers and social workers and community builders – all those well-intentioned people who see a broken system and want to fix it, who want to give people who might not otherwise have had it a chance to succeed in the world.  As a vocation, this is noble.  In personal relationships it can be devastating.

We all know what I mean, and I would wager we’ve all known someone like this in our past (or our present) – someone who we thought was so amazing and brilliant and perfect if only they would “X, Y or Z”.  And it really doesn’t matter what the XYZ is – sometimes it’s drinking too much, sometimes it’s lying, sometimes it’s just laying around/not living up to their potential, sometimes it’s a physical issue, other times it’s using certain words or volume and tone of speaking, or just taking things personally, or getting defensive.  But whatever it is – I’m here today to tell you that it doesn’t matter: YOU CANNOT MAKE SOMEONE STOP DOING X, Y OR Z….BUT YOU CAN SPEND A LOT OF TIME AND A TON OF EMOTIONAL ENERGY TRYING.  And if you do, here are the two things I can promise you: 1) it won’t work and 2) you will never get that time or energy back.  And this next one isn’t a promise but it’s damn likely: that person you were trying to change will probably end up resenting you for it – and you will probably end up resenting them too.  This includes people who are wont to end friendships suddenly and without explanation.  You can leave these folks a million teary voice mails, you can stalk them, ask mutual friends why they defriended you on Facebook, and I can almost money-back guarantee you that it won’t work, they won’t respond, and you will not come any closer to understanding why they walked away.

So if you are on the receiving end of a sudden death friendship here’s the best I can tell you: It will hurt – let it hurt.  Grieve the relationship – don’t let the person who walked away rob you of that.  But grieve it on your own.  Don’t go after that person, send them countless emails or leave messages begging them to just explain what happened – because it won’t bring you any closure.  As Wiz Khalifa said, “I don’t chase after anyone, If you wanna walk out of my life, then I’ll hold the fucking door open for you.”

Maybe it sounds harsh, but in the end you can give yourself the closure you need (that all healthy people desire) by realizing you are – or you will be – better off without that person in your life.  Even if it hurts.  Actually, because it hurts.  Since that hurting lets you know that you really cared about that person, and you are operating within the bounds of normal and healthy ways of connecting with others.  And as you go forward that door someone walked out on you through will be the same door a new friend – one who can love and care right back at you with the same devotion and generosity and kindness that you give to others – will walk into your life through.  So stay open to that – and as friends come and go through that doorway, and no matter how badly you may want to – don’t ever turn the lock.

Friend, Interrupted Part 1: On Heathering

the heathers

the heathers

In this piece in my series on female friendships I want to talk about a very particular type of friend that many of us have had – she can make us feel like we are part of a very elite group but without warning she can flip a switch and ice us out completely.  Her name is Heather.

I learned about this type of friend when, as a preteen, I was obsessed with the movie Heathers starring Winona Ryder (before she was a shoplifter) and Christian Slater (when he was actually cool).  I watched Heathers so many times that my then-best-friend and I had memorized one of the bitchy fight scenes between ‘Veronica’ (Ryder) and one of the Heathers, which we would randomly act out while in public.  If you haven’t seen this movie you should probably stop reading and go watch it immediately.  But if you don’t have time for that let me give you a quick synopsis.  The film centers around a very popular group of girls who are all named Heather (with the exception of Veronica).  Needless to say, the Heathers were awful awful people – obsessed with looks and popularity and (spoiler alert) ultimately punished by deadly revenge enacted by Veronica & J.D. (played by Slater in a not-so-subtle reference to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye).  Of course, this movie – and it’s final climatic scene of outsider revenge came out decades before Columbine or any of the other school shootings that made the sexy outsider far less appealing.  But that’s not the point – the point of that film for me was really about the damage that friends can inflict on one another.

Later we would see similar stories of female friendships blow up and play out in movies like Mean Girls or in episodes of Sex And The City (which, contrary to popular opinion, did not coin the term ‘frenemy’, though it may be credited with its popularity in our modern vernacular).  But back in the 90s we just had Heathers, and their special brand of ‘friendship’ – one that is far more common in females (though not exclusive to them) and one that I would also like to say is more common in high school, though my experience as a woman in her thirties has taught me differently.  If you need more evidence of adult Heathers, and you happen to live in L.A., you can check out Alice Johnson Boher’s one-woman show “How to Break a Bitch & Other Lessons In Female Friendship”.

I’ll wager that many of us have known Heathers – the female friends that smile to our faces and then talk mad shit behind our backs.  Heathers are everywhere, and they are a big problem.  Yet more problematic is when they turn and enact a verb: Heathering – when one Alpha Heather in a group of friends ups the ante by not only shit talking about a targeted ‘friend’ but also using her power to get the other group members to end their friendships with the target.  Now, I don’t think I have to tell you this but usually Heathering is about jealousy.  In high school it was jealousy about a prom date, a good grade on a paper, or even over said target shopping exclusively at Benetton (what.a.bitch!).  Unfortunately, these Heathers graduate from high school, and bring their special brand of jealousy into adult life.

Now, under normal circumstances one would imagine that our friends would be happy for us in these situations, but many of us have experienced the opposite.  Our successes make our friends jealous and they can lash out – talking behind our backs about why we didn’t deserve that marriage proposal, job promotion, academic grant, or other professional successes.  And it’s not just frenemies that do it.  Sometimes it’s your best friend in the world – your ‘ride or die’ (as my young friends coin their besties).  A good friend of mine told me recently some sage advice that she said I wouldn’t like to hear: “no one wants to see you happier than they are”.  After a lifetime of interacting with Heathers, I think she might be right.

Now, I haven’t seen this dynamic play out in male friendships, but I know better than to make sweeping generalizations.  What I do know, however, is that many women in our culture are taught to compete with one another from a young age.  Is there competition among boys?  Absolutely.  But somehow that seems to play out differently.  And perhaps it is because for generations boys have been taught to channel aggression and competition into their athletic pursuits (something that was offered much later to our young women and girls).   Indeed many scholars have written about how sports can help men channel that competition into healthier venues (though of course there is also a critique of sports and the culture of aggression and violence it engenders (no pun intended) as well).  So whether it’s about sports or not, there is something different about how boys and girls are socialized around issues of friendship and competition – something we can recognize even if we can’t name.  It’s the reason why Heathers or Mean Girls don’t really have male equivalents.

It’s also the reason why the following happened on a recent episode of Go On.  On that (hilarious) show, radio sportscaster Ryan (Matthew Perry) and his producer Steven are talking to Ryan’s assistant Carrie about her beautiful friend that Ryan would like to date. Carrie says a few negative things about said friend, to which Steven meows (because any critique of a woman by another woman in our culture is automatically dismissed as cattiness).  And then this happens:

Carrie: “I am not being catty, it’s just…complicated to be her friend, okay?  She wins at everything and sometimes I don’t like myself when I’m around her.”

Ryan: “Yeah, I totally get that.  Steven, you know our friend that we hate because he makes us feel bad about ourselves?”

Steven: “No”

Ryan: “Right, guys don’t do that because it’s deranged.”

Guys might in fact do that, but in my experience at least, they don’t do it nearly as often as women do.  And not because women are deranged and men aren’t, but because jealousy isn’t the same in male friendships as in female ones.  I can’t explain it, but I can say – from first hand experience – that it is toxic.  So in the interest of weeding out toxic friendships here’s a handy guide to figuring out if your friend is a Heather:

*She comes to the rescue when you are having a hard time (going through a breakup, losing your job, etc.) but disappears when things are going really well for you.  This is clue number one.

*Clue number two: she has Heathered other people out of a friend group before.  In the otherwise unimpressive movie Side Effects, a character said a line that I haven’t been able to shake from my consciousness (and so you’ll probably see it repeated in future posts): “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior”.

*And finally, your friend is a Heather if she regularly talks shit about her other friends (note that this is the biggest clue).  Furthermore, if your friend is talking about someone else to you then you can put money on the fact that she is talking about you to someone else.  Now, we all talk about our friends – so what is important is to fetter out those folks who talk about others in malicious ways designed to get you to agree with their own negative assessment of these people (as opposed to just sharing information among friends in a positive way, like, ‘Oh my god, did you hear that Ann is engaged?  Isn’t that awesome?’ or ‘I’m so happy that Margie got that grant for her research – she really worked hard on her application’).

So, if you find that your friend is a Heather here’s what you should do: back away, and find some new friends.  Sorry – I wish I could tell you there was another way, but there really isn’t.  And be aware that as you distance yourself from your Heather you will inevitably get Heathered by this individual (and anyone she has under her thumb).  That’s ok.  Know that it isn’t about you, and that by eliminating these people from your life you can make room for more positive influences, and friends who are truly happy for your successes.

[Next up in the series is one more bummer post about a certain type of friend you’ll want to avoid, but after that I promise to post a thing or two about how to create and maintain positive friendships.  In the meantime, if you have a story about your own Heather, or a request for a topic about friendship you’d like to see covered here, post it in the comments below.  Thanks for reading, and happy friend making!]

Girls Gone Wrong: Galentines, Valentines, Blah Blah Blah

Long before Amy Poehler claimed the best zinger of the 2013 Golden Globes when she referenced the Zero Dark Thirty/Kathryn Bigelow controversy noting that “when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who was married to James Cameron for three years”, Poehler’s character on the hilarious Parks & Recreation invented a new holiday: Galentine’s Day.  As Leslie Knope explained it:

“February 14th, Valentine’s Day, is about romance. But February 13th, Galentine’s Day, is about celebrating lady friends. It’s wonderful and it should be a National Holiday.”

This holiday has been warmly received by many, boasting it’s own Wikipedia entry, a tumblr, and numerous blog posts.  And it’s no wonder.  Because ever since Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw uttered the famous sentence “Maybe our girlfriends are our soulmates and guys are just people to have fun with” many women have embraced this idea – on February 13th and beyond.  And that’s cool.  It’s important for us all to celebrate our friendships and not just our romantic relationships because – for men and women alike – our friendships shape who we are as people, and they can define us in important ways.

Now, if you think that I’m taking this opportunity on Valentine’s Day to talk about the magical, My Little Pony-esque, slumber parties and mani/pedi types of friendships between women I’m sorry to disappoint you.  Rather, today I’m introducing something decidedly non-Cupid inspired: a short blog series on women’s friendships, and in particular, what happens when these friendships end.

Because if it’s true that as women our female friends are our soul mates, then our breakups with friends (and we’ve all been there) – can be as, or even more devastating than a breakup with a romantic partner.  And it’s something we need to talk about, even if we may not want to.  So stay tuned, dear readers, for a little thing I like to call “Friend, Interrupted” – a series about how to get over breakups with our closest female friends without Ben & Jerry’s and without losing our faith in the power of friendship.

Wallowing In Joy

The Big Leap

An impartial outsider might think that joy is an easy, welcome feeling – while sadness or grief is something to be avoided at all costs.  But when, in a recent interview, Dr. Brené Brown said that, “joy is probably the most difficult emotion to feel – it’s hard to feel joy because we are so keenly aware that it’s fleeting,” she tapped into something that resonates so deeply and, I think, rings true for many of us.  And it holds us back.  Everyday.

If Dr. Brown is right, then feeling joy, allowing ourselves to sink into the deliciousness of a moment – fleeting as it may be, as it inevitably is – is a brave act.  And yet we seem to have no problem wallowing in the absence of joy.  Sadness and grief and despair – when it hits us it swallows us whole – and even though it is so painful, there is something about its depth and hold on us that, ironically I think, provides us with an easy place to land.  It’s not easy in the sense that it feels good – no, just the opposite – it feels so overwhelmingly bad that we become prisoners of that feeling.  We spend so long trying to avoid pain and hardship that when it hits it takes the wind out of our sails, it knocks our knees out from under us and we are forced to submit.  We wail, we sob, we beat our breasts, we scream and throw and break things and in that moment we are given permission to lose ourselves, all sense of ‘right and wrong’ behavior, all we know about being human, all these rules and regulations are lifted in the presence of despair – and in that there is some kind of perverse freedom.  When we are undone by grief we are untethered – allowed to lose ourselves and run amok in the swirling storm of sadness.  It is terrible – it is scary – and it is liberating.

When what we are struggling with is not a life or death situation we can find a home in sadness that can be strangely comforting.  A breakup, for instance, can be emotionally devastating but the fact that the pain is fleeting gives us all the more freedom to wallow in each and every moment and who can blame us?  We are too sad to go about the daily struggle of adulthood – and we are allowed.  We can call out sick from work, we can withdraw from social obligations, we can retreat to our beds and find comfort in a pint – or three – of ice cream or endless watchings of romantic comedies as we pull tissue after tissue out of the box and proclaim that we will never meet our own prince (or princess) charming.  But somewhere in the back of our minds I think we know that that is not true.

It’s like Emmylou Harris sang in Boulder to Birmingham, “the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive” – that there will be a time when we are whole again, where we can climb out of bed and face the real world.  It’s fleeting – even when it doesn’t feel like it is.  And knowing that allows us to sink deep into the mud and muck of each tragically terrifying feeling.  I’ll wager (and I think Dr. Brown is saying) that the same awareness is true when we find joy. We know that it won’t last and so – rather than allow the feelings to wash over ourselves we shoot our arms out to the side and try to hold up the walls – try to make everything stop, stand still, stayjustlikethis so we can feel this way forever.  Brown contends that we are too scared to sink into joy because we fear the loss of that very emotion – which is, as it turns out, absolutely inevitable.  As an old therapist of mine told me once – “that’s why they are called ‘eMOTIONS’ Kaila – because they move”.  So yes, joy is fleeting – just as grief and anger are too.

I read an article recently that talked about how often we make choices out of fear.  So many of us avoid taking what Martha Beck discusses as ‘leaps of faith’ in our lives because we are scared of the free fall.  Even if we aren’t in love with the life we live now, there is comfort in the familiar, and there is no pit in the stomach that comes with the fall after the leap.  I recently made such a leap – deciding to move out of the community I’ve called home for 14 years.  It was a decision I put off for a long time because it was easier to be stuck and stagnant but comfortable than it was to risk the familiarity and move – literally and figuratively – out of my comfort zone.

Lots of people exist like this because, as Brown says, “it is easier to live disappointed than feel disappointed”.  But if we remember that every feeling is fleeting – every emotion will move through us eventually – then maybe we could get on with the business of wallowing in the joy, of taking risks and daring to step off the cliff of comfortability.  That takes guts.  It also takes faith.  Because as it turns out – and as we know deep down in our souls but so often find it impossible to remember – we always survive those leaps of faith.  As Martha Beck wrote, “You’ll live through every leap except the big one at the end.  And even if you never leap, you’ll die anyway.”

So, my dear readers, what do you have to lose?

It’s a brand new year

Dear Readers,

2013 has gotten off to a VERY interesting start and amid all the new and crazy things that have transpired I have been woefully neglectful of my blog.  I actually went on my website for the first time this year a few days ago and was greeted by my “2012 Annual Report” generated for me by the kind folks (or computer programs) at WordPress.  The best part of this report was the map they included which shows where in the world people have viewed my blog.  Check it out:

going global

It’s not the number of views I was paying attention to but rather where the views occurred that captured my attention.   All in all my blog has been viewed (well, hopefully read) in 19 countries – including Nepal (!!).

Seeing that map was completely inspiring.  It reminded me of the power of the internet to connect people and ideas on a global level, and it also reminded me that so many people have supported my writing and taken the time to check out my blog when they could have been on Facebook or following the never-ending twists and turns of the Kardashian family.  So, dear readers, this is just a brief post to say thanks, to let you know that I haven’t forgotten about you, and to say that I’m back and ready to blog my way through 2013.

I’m switching things up a bit this year – there will be the usual rants about politics, culture and the world-at-large, but I’ll also be writing more about media, movies & T.V. (because let’s be real, at the end of the day it’s more fun to focus on FLOTUS’s new bangs than Benghazi).  Last but not least, I’ll be writing a little more about my own life.  You’ll get to join me on a new adventure I’m about to embark on, and you might even get to meet a few of the kooky characters that make my family and friends the most entertaining group of folks that I know.  That’s right, it’s about to get personal up in here – but I promise to do my best to make it funny, worth your while and not too damaging to anyone’s reputation :).

Thanks for joining me in the blogosphere so far – and here’s to a great 2013!