Thursday, February 23, 2006

A $75 Friendship

I’ve always had a hard time seeing the lines between acquaintance, colleague, and friend. Maybe it’s because I moved around a lot as a kid and always had to start over with new friends. I have always been fast to let people in and lend significance to relationships that seem like friendships to me and are probably just acquaintance-ships to others. I still tend to relate to new people from a second grade declarative nature of friendships: you meet, you connect and you announce “we’re friends now, kay?”

The upside is I always throw great, inclusive parties. The next day I inevitably hear: “I had so much fun meeting so-and-so at your shindig.” Yes, I gravitate toward people who use the word shindig. The downside is sometimes I give away unearned parts of my heart.

Once when I was living in New York and planning a wedding for a now-defunct relationship, I shared an office at a crappy job with a cool girl from Westchester. We were instant best friends and cracked each other up with goofy banter all day. We did girl stuff on weekends. She was the one I’d cab it to when Agent Man and I had had an argument. I thought she was a soul sister; my safe harbor in this scary new city. I planned on asking her to be a bridesmaid.

Soon I left for a shiny new job at a comedy network that shall remain nameless. Suffice it to say, with all the backstabbing I was to suffer there, it’s a wonder I ever came back to work in the entertainment industry. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post. On my last Friday at the old job, my friend and I said our teary goodbyes.

After my first week at the new job, I called her as usual to go for our Saturday mani/pedi. No answer. I left a message that night for a movie or cheapie Thai dinner. Nothing. I left my New York Best Friend messages for two weeks. Fuggedaboutit. I never heard from her again. I was apparently off her “can help with career” list and worth even less than an acquaintance.

Years later, I’m more understanding about people who need years to build the kind of depth of friendship that takes me months. I’m less surprised when people drop out of my life. And I have come to see the value in a friendship with some age to it. But being inherently naive, there are still those friendships and endings that shock me.

I moved to LA to go to the writing program at a Big Deal Film School. I had great teachers and maintained friendships and mentorships with them as I gathered their collective wisdom in my bag of writer tricks. I came to realize most were writers more or less like me. They just had more success and more seasoning. Though we writers can be a critical and resentful bunch, we pretty much like each other and often feel other writers are the only people really worth our time. After all, they are the people looking at the world with the same eyes we are: what makes this human animal tick and how can I capture it on paper?

So when I throw my aforementioned soirees, I tend to invite my former teachers. Often, they even come. I noticed though, that one teacher in particular repeatedly ignored my invites. I was disappointed because she was the one I identified most with and, truth be told, I wanted her to like me. Not like we had to be BFF but we could surely hang out. I thought. Truth be told, she was quirky and honest in her way and peppered her anecdotes with things she did and didn’t like about people. She was big on trust. I didn’t listen as well as I might have.

During her class, we’d developed a tight mentor-mentee rapport. I brought her my toughest screenplay problems and trusted her feedback implicitly. I was the student she turned to most often after she’d thrown a general question out to the class. She laughed at my jokes, lauded my insights and sought my opinions. I mistook this for friendship.

The thing is, with friends you are allowed to be yourself. They still like you. You are even allowed to mess up from time to time and, in my experience, as long as you apologize and do what you can to make it right, everything is A OK. Sometimes you even grow in your friendship from the molehill you’ve overcome together.

The rules of engagement are different - the mess-up quotient not so flexible where acquaintances are concerned. When only one of you thinks you are in a friendship you are on rocky ground. There are mountains to overcome indeed.

Through an absurd series of misunderstandings with this teacher I now find myself on her student blacklist. It would be comic if it wasn’t such a slap in the face. She’d sent out an invite to a lecture she was giving. I’d responded saying I would be there and asking if should I bring a check or mail it ahead of time. I never heard back so I assumed it was OK to bring a check. I showed up at the lecture, check in hand. She was surprised to see me. Annoyed even. But she took it in stride. She’d never gotten my email it turned out. That should have been my first clue.

By some random brain fart, I spelled her name wrong on the check and got a terse email informing me of this the next day. I responded with profuse apologies and immediately mailed off a corrected check. Honest mistake, right? No big deal, right?

The next day I got an indignant email requesting payment immediately. It dawned on me at this point that she was still not getting my emails and understandably upset if she thought I was ignoring her. Surely though, a friend would know I wasn’t deliberately pulling dastardly deeds. I scrambled for her phone number, couldn’t find it, and sent another email from all my various accounts again in case it was an account-specific problem. I apologized again and relayed that the payment had been sent and she should receive it the next day.

As luck would have it, the mail was delayed. The next day, I got an irate email saying she was tired of me ignoring her, she was at the end of her rope and didn’t know what to do. This time, she did include her phone number. Clearly, her email service was not my friend. So I called and left a profusely apologetic message attempting to explain the previous emails, the check sent, the delayed US postal service, and offering to come by in person that day with a replacement check.

The next day I got a resigned email saying she’d gotten my voice message and “just didn’t know what to say.” Insert Scooby Doo “Buuhhh??” noise here. You say I should come over with the check if that’s what you need. You say it’s only $75 after all and you get that it has been a crazy misunderstanding. You say you’re still my friend.

After a final, terse “Check received” email, I saw the check cleared my account a few days later. I thought everything was back to OK and eagerly awaited the next lecture to which I’d promised to send my payment well in advance. But I heard a few days later that she was badmouthing me to her new class of students, many of whom I knew. This didn’t make sense to me. Don’t friends forgive and move on? Hadn’t she known me long enough to know how much I respected her and valued her teaching? Didn’t she know I would never deliberately hurt her? I sent another check for the next lecture with a friend who later said she’d rejected it. So she was just going to shut me out? This seemed completely ludicrous to me. And childish. I felt like I was holding onto a squirming cat who’d had enough of being petted and is about to bring out the claws. The harder I squeezed, the more she’d scratch.

I was distraught. What would I do without her guidance in my writing? How could I move forward with the script she’d been mentoring? I shared with my yoga teacher one morning how scared I was and how much I needed her to be my writing teacher.

My yoga teacher looked at me and smiled. “Maybe you don’t. Maybe you don’t need her anymore if this is who she is. Maybe you’ve learned what you were meant to learn from her and it’s time to move on.”

And just like that, the spinning circus of my upset over the whole thing just stopped. It got very quiet.

I wrote the teacher a thank you letter acknowledging her for the guidance she’d given and wishing her well with her writing. I let her know I was sad this was how she’d chosen to have things but I respected her choice.

In the silence I’d seen it wasn’t me. It was her issue with money and trust. Her walls. Her cynically colored glasses. It really was just a silly, simple mistake. And my writing would go on. As the days passed, many writer friends came forward and I learned I was just the latest in a long line of blacklisted former students. All had been dismissed for similar infractions. All had been sad to lose the mentoring of this talented and insightful writer. But all realized they were probably better off. The quieter I got, the more I saw this trust issue of hers was clearly having a major impact on her life. And I got sad. Some little girl fear about trusting people runs her life and I can’t reach out to her because she’ll never listen to me again. She's the girl in second grade who refused to share her crayons because someone had once eaten the red one. So she won't make that mistake again but at what cost?

2005 was an interesting year, friendship-wise. I grew some of my LA girlfriends into some of the richest, heartfelt friendships I’ve known. I lost a friendship with a good teacher which I then learned was not a friendship at all.

And I learned that with friends as with much of life, people only see what they want to see. A good friend of mine got into a disagreement with another friend. When she wrote a letter to repair the damage and assuage the friend with apologies, explanations and pledges of how much she valued their friendship, the other friend only saw inflammatory excuses and has in effect ended the friendship. She’s not willing to listen. At least not from her heart. Likewise, I doubt my teacher saw my apology letter in a favorable light.

Part of being a writer is being able to convey your heart and get people to connect with different characters in a story they otherwise may not have. I don’t think my failure to have my teacher see things from my seat is a reflection of my writing skill. I do think it means friendship is something more complex that a second grade declaration of “we’re friends now.” In friendship, just like in good writing, listening is key.

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Blogger Brett said...

Writers are a messed up bunch of people--surely you've figured out THAT much. ;-)

I thik part of the problem (if you can call it that) is most writers have this quirky and oft-undiscussed belief in the reality of the Happy Ending. Writers always try to arrange the pieces of a story for maximum audience enjoyment, and sometimes this extends to the story of their own lives.

We want to believe that The Boy gets The Girl. That Good triumphs over Evil (at the most cinematically pleasing moment). That the protags stroll into a golden soft-focus sunset, hand in hand and heart to heart.

It happens in Reel Life far more than in Real Life.

Still, ya gotta hang onto hope with near-pathetic tenacity. Especially in these cynical times, being a fearless romantic ain't easy, but when you do it well... it can be a glorious thing.

Or so I've heard.

PS-- love your blog

8:13 AM  
Anonymous alexandra said...

WOW! Honey I'm sorry to hear you got shit and grief like that. All I can say is bizarre lady. Talk about life experiences. Is this why we haven't seen you for a while?

And Brett, if you think all writers believe in happy endings, you don't know many writers. ;-) Maybe I see things in a different light being a Brit, who knows.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Maura said...


Just a quick note to say how much I enjoy your blog posts.

Many of the issues you touch upon in this post about friendships is relevant no matter if the friend is a writer or not. One of the hardest lessons one learns in life is that accepting, lasting friendships are rare, and therefore should be cherished.

Now, I expect friendships to change over years. Some will last, grow, and mature, and others will disappear. That is the nature of life. I'm not saying this is easy, btw. It's always sad to see a cherished friend transform into a cheerless acquaintance... or worse.

Your Yoga teacher was spot-on. The point is to know when to let go. It's hard not to hold onto the past, and the nostalgic memory of how things used to be. It hurts to be ignored, or dumped, and realise your image of the relationship was not shared by your friend. Yet, if you value yourself then you know that chasing after a person who doesn't want to be your friend is both futile and undignified.

If you are true to who you are you will attract people who value that important trait.

Best of luck, Heidi. I'm sure there are plenty of people who prize you for who you are.

7:34 AM  

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