On Mean Girls and Frenemies

Ask any woman what was her hardest time growing up, and she’ll probably respond, “middle school,” which is fertile ground for mean girls, queen bees and frenemies. This not-so-pleasant period for hormonal, self-obsessed, emerging women has been subject of countless movies, TV episodes, young-adult novels and magazine articles.

 If you saw the 2004 hit Mean Girls, you may recall Regina discussing her friend Janis: We were best friends in middle school….So then in eighth grade, I started going out with my first boyfriend….and Janis was like, weirdly jealous of him. Like, if I would blow her off to hang out with Kyle, she’d be like ‘Why didn’t you call me back?’ And I’d be like ‘Why are you so obsessed with me?’ So then, for my birthday party, which was an all-girls pool party, I was like ‘Janis, I can’t invite you because I think you’re a lesbian.’ I mean…there were gonna be girls there in their bathing suits…

So, as I prepare to send my daughter off to middle school this week, I can’t help wondering how she will maneuver the cliques and how I might protect her from the Regina-like mean girls she will no doubt encounter.

I was fortunate to miss the mean girl stuff in middle school; I was fairly quiet, kept a small circle of friends, didn’t care about popularity and basically was oblivious to drama. At the same time, my former locker partner gave birth to (and kept) a baby in seventh grade, so I had more important issues to deal with.

Nevertheless, it dawned on me that I should help my girl understand what makes a true friend and how she can serve that role for others. I wanted to give her permission to walk away from back-stabbers, self-esteem killers and secret-sharers. 

I took to the internet for guidance, and synthesized a few articles and lists to come up with a dozen traits of a good friend:

A good friend is someone who:

  1. Accepts and appreciates you for who you are.
  2. Really listens to you. She isn’t texting other friends while you’re talking to her.
  3. Is happy when you feel happy, and sympathetic when you feel down.
  4. Stands by you during difficult times.
  5. Never makes fun of your weaknesses or criticizes you behind your back (e.g. on Facebook) or in public.
  6. Is painfully honest when necessary. She tries to stop you from making mistakes that you will later regret.
  7. Respects you, and who you respect.
  8. Trusts you, and who you can trust; she doesn’t lie to you.
  9. Doesn’t get mad at you too easily; a good friend is forgiving.
  10. Shows up on time, and doesn’t make lame excuses for being late.
  11. Is proud to hang out with you, and doesn’t drop your plans when someone more interesting shows up or something more interesting comes up
  12. Stands up for you when others put you down. She is brave enough to defend you in public.

Equally important is knowing how to be a good friend. As an ancient sage put it: “To have a good friend is one of the highest delights of life; to be a good friend is one of the noblest and most difficult undertakings.”

I found good advice in an article by J Dawkins, who suggests that to “be the friend we want to have,” we contemplate the following questions:

  1.  Are you a good listener? A good friend is willing to listen rather than just talk.
  2. Are you approachable? Do your friends turn to you first to share problems or seek help?
  3. Are you trustworthy and reliable? If a friend tells you something personal, [do you keep] it in confidence, or do you…tell everyone at the first opportunity?
  4. Do you avoid gossiping about others? Do you avoid spreading hurtful rumors?
  5. Are you selfless rather than selfish?

Before I proffered my advice, I decided to ask my daughter what she thought. “A good friend is someone who is nice and treats you well, who cares about you, who makes you feel better if you are sad,” she said. “A good friend is someone who stays on your side and believes you if there is a problem, who, if you tell them a secret, wouldn’t tell anybody and who makes you feel good to be around.”

She’s going to be just fine.

–  Linda Williams Rorem, 29 Aug. 2011

In the Navy

Julia (on right)

Julia (on right)

Plebes (first year students) marching in front...
Image via Wikipedia

Last week I had the great pleasure of spending time with a young woman who attends the United States Naval Academy (USNA), Midshipman 3rd class Julia Zook.

She was back in my home town for a few weeks after completing her first year at USNA.  Julia has a determined, enthusiastic demeanor and expresses herself with the earnestness of a natural leader. While happy to be home and delighted that the tough Plebe (first) year was over, she said she had relished the initial experience. Julia loved the camaraderie and friendships developed and being part of something bigger than herself.  “Everyone helps each other because you cannot go through the place alone,” she said.

I have always been a bit curious about how the military creates such tight bonds. I have read Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky’s Absolutely American about West Point, yet military academies still have an aura of mystery about them. Even though my father, cousin and nephew were all in the Navy, my images are admittedly honed by Hollywood movies such as A Few Good Men, The Hunt for Red October and GI Jane. I imagine tight formations and obedience, but I know that the military really excels at the development of teamwork. 

Julia explained that the Navy promotes cooperation and community. “Someone always has your back,” she said. “You rely on each other. You mentor and teach with tradition. During Plebe summer you are thrown into a company. You have no choice but to work together and get along. You form friendships through hardship and common experience. You need to rely on your teammates. If one person is last and by themselves, the team fails. Everyone helps each other.”

The espirit de corps created within the military is certainly essential for survival in combat situations. However the creation of close bonds is also the basis for lasting friendships. The USNA is an intense environment and the Navy has recognized that strong friendships are essential for mental and physical health as well as survival under pressure.

In addition, the Navy adds another layer of support with “sponsor families” for all Plebes.  Families and students take a survey of interests and preferences and then are matched. The sponsor families meet with the students on their free day and provide home cooked meals, a place to hang out or help with errands–basically, a-home-away-from-home.  Julia said that her sponsor family “parents,” Tami and David Burt, made a huge difference in her well-being during her first year. It appears that the Navy really understands that friendship is essential to the stated mission of the Academy:

“To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.”

Or, as Muhammed Ali said, “If you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.”

Carol Lewis Gullstad, August 22, 2011

Leap of Faith

For weeks before our summer vacation, my kids taunted me about the resort’s signature waterslide: a nearly vertical, 60-foot drop-off from the top of a replica Mayan temple, through a swift chute and a plastic tube that’s submerged in a shark-filled lagoon.

It wasn’t the sharks that scared me; I knew that for liability reasons, the resort would never expose its guests to the risk of being eaten alive.  I was troubled by the concept of losing control; of heading blindly, feet-first, off a precipice into uncharted waters.

We conceived the trip as our last family vacation before our oldest child heads to college, and we traveled with friends who also have a college-bound first-born. We were thrilled to find a resort that could entertain four adults and six kids for a week: a world-renowned water park, diverse restaurants, a bustling casino, night clubs for the kids (one for those over 18, another for younger teens), a state-of-the-art exercise facility and snorkeling, fishing and sailing activities nearby.

As the summer rolled forward, I found myself learning to loosen up on matters concerning my son. He begged for a later curfew, stopped texting me whenever he changed locations and even spent a night at a friend’s cabin, without parents present. “I’ll be on my own, making my own decisions in a few months,” my son explained.  “You need to start letting me prove I can be responsible.”

Just a few days before the Bahamas trip, I accompanied my son to his college orientation. On a track parallel to, but separate from, my son’s, I learned about dorm life, cafeteria hours, health-care options, study aids and the prevalence of alcohol, drugs and sex on campus.  (See Carol’s post on her orientation experience.)  I wondered if my son was ready to strike out on his own.

By the time we arrived in the Bahamas, I was waking up in cold sweats. During the day, my youngest two kept reminding me of the shark slide.  “I’m working up to it,” I told them.

On the first day, the six kids rushed through the 141-acre waterpark, trying every slide, sampling several of the swimming pools and watching sharks and sting rays in glass-walled tanks. After an hour-long “ride” in an inner tube on the “lazy river,” I enjoyed a beer al fresco.

At dinner that night, I learned that my friend and traveling companion Azie is a lot more courageous than I. She was anxious to master the “Leap of Faith” ride. She also seemed totally prepared for her daughter’s independence, but then again, she began boarding school in a foreign land at age 15.

Later on, I shuddered when her daughter and my son headed into the casino, drinks in hand (both legal activities for 18-year-olds in the Bahamas). I didn’t sleep soundly until my son returned to the hotel room. How will I fare when he’s 1,500 miles away?

On Day Three, I put on a brave face and walked with Azie, her younger daughter and my youngest child towards the Mayan Temple. My daughter, a very slight and tentative 11-year-old, screamed with abandon during the entire journey down the slide; I think she was truly worried about the sharks. Azie and her daughter took their turns without skipping a beat, smiling broadly from start to finish. 

Lying on my back, I paused at the top of the “temple,” closed my eyes, took a deep breath and pushed off.  For a moment, I was air-borne, not knowing when, or if, I would reconnect with the steep slide.  And then, I was careening through a tube, viewing hungry sharks through an acrylic barrier. Within moments, the exhilarating ordeal was behind me.

Tomorrow, I will take a different sort of leap of faith, as my husband and I load our son and all of his worldly belongings into an SUV and start the two-day drive to his college.

We adults kid ourselves, thinking we’ll have a captive audience for some 20 hours of “final” words of wisdom. In truth, our son will probably spend the trip texting friends, checking Facebook, listening to loud music through headphones and sleeping.

I wonder if I have told him enough about attending class, taking notes, keeping up on reading, communicating with professors and studying.  I’m concerned that he–like many college freshmen–will take too much pleasure in late-night parties.  I’m not sure if my husband and I have stressed the importance of respecting women. I’m not convinced we are ready to let go.

Leaving him at his dorm on Wednesday will certainly be a leap of faith. However, if I can stop over-thinking it, I’m sure the drop-off will feel fine.

Linda Williams Rorem, 15 Aug. 2011

Vacation Quest

Theatrical poster, illustrated by Boris Vallejo

Theatrical poster, illustrated by Boris Vallejo

The great American summer family vacation season is winding down. No longer will magazine covers be festooned with pictures of national parks, beach cabanas and advice on how to “beat the heat.”  Cooler evenings and advertisers will help turn our thoughts toward “back to school,” fall sweater weather and the “secrets” to savoring the last days of summer.

But before I let my head go there I need a vacation. It’s not that I didn’t get one this summer; I did have a wonderful one. It’s just that I need a vacation from my vacation. Let me explain.

Every year we pile four kids and the family dog into our mini-van for a requisite road trip from Seattle to Ketchum, Idaho.  My husband and I love the open road.

The kids — not so much.  We set out to amuse our kids during the journey with books, audio entertainment and games. We bring a cooler filled with bribery snacks of candy, soda and chips. There is also a promise of ice cream stops if they don’t fight too much.  

Our offspring believe they suffer greatly since we do not have a movie player in the car like “every other civilized family.”  We prefer that they look at the scenery and talk.  That means we are old-fashioned, righteous or simply idiotic for doing a 12-hour-each-direction road trip every summer with our self-imposed constraints.

Once, after a particularly long stretch in the car, we stopped by the Oregon Trail Museum to break up the travel monotony and provide a little learning.  I also hoped that after seeing the hardships of travel in a covered wagon, the Spartan mini-van would seem luxurious.  Unfortunately, the lesson was lost on my brood. At that particular moment I felt like Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Clark, on a long calamitous car trip, screams “Well I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. I’m gonna have fun and you’re gonna have fun. We’re all gonna have so much f#%* ing fun we’ll need plastic surgery to remove our godamn smiles.”

Why, then, the enforced family “fun” of automobile transportation? Well, besides the obvious economic value of driving six people instead of flying them, I love the flexibility. I can leave when I want. I can stop as often as I want.  There is no firm schedule.  I get the freedom from routine that I crave on vacation and whether the trip is fantastic or infuriating, it is burned into our family lore.

As my kids have gotten older and have moved on to summer jobs and other obligations there are fewer road trip warriors.  Yet I still believe, without apology, that this is a great way to go.

Family travel is rarely as relaxing as a great retreat with adult friends and I look forward to my girlfriend trip this fall when I won’t be Sherpa, chef and referee. However, family bonding over long drives, adventures and mishaps have made these trips a treasure.

Carol Lewis Gullstad August 8, 2011


My Sister, My Friend, Myself

During a trip to Chicago last month, I spent time with one of my best childhood friends. Back in the day, we enjoyed playing with Barbies, swinging at the park, competing in “running bases” in the alley, watching TV (especially “Medical Center,” “The Partridge Family” and “Julia”), making trips to the neighborhood candy store and cataloguing our baseball cards.

Now, we can barely converse. She wears false teeth and two hearing aids (only one of which is barely operable); carries dozens of extra pounds on her less-than-five-foot frame; sleeps through much of the day; and eats, talks and walks very slowly. In many ways, she seems like an old lady, although she’s in her early 50s.

She’s my older sister Jean, and she has Down syndrome.

I often tell my kids stories about Jean from my youth, to give them a glimpse of the adorable, vivacious, funny, hard-working girl that I called “twinnie” (for twin) or “Neenie” (for Jean, as she called herself). They love hearing how, after my mom realized her sweet child was scamming cookies off of neighbors, Jean had to wear a sign around her neck that read, “Please don’t feed me.”  Jean dutifully donned the sign every time she left the house.  Apparently I was so jealous (and unable to read the sign), I begged my mom to make one for me, too. (That’s us in a photo from that time; Jean is on the left.)

My kids laugh when they hear how Jean and I played for hours in a hotel pool, then dried our long blond hair in the sauna, effectively baking in thousands of snarls and rats’ nests. It took my mom most of an evening, and several snips with the scissors, to clean up the mess.

On family vacations, the six of us kids paired up: our oldest two brothers, an older sister and the youngest brother, then Jean and me (although in the birth order, she was two places ahead). It was always us two in the back of the station wagon; us two sharing hotel beds; us two in the pool, on the bunny hill and in the row boat.  For many years, Jean was my partner in fun and crime, and when people asked why she seemed different, I replied, as coached, “She’s special.”

I make sure my kids know that my special sister learned how to read, write and understand simple mathematics, rode her bike around town, swam like a whirling dervish, skied with the family, knew stats for every Cubs player (she still does), hung out with the crowd at her siblings’ high school parties, and, in her 20s, became “Employee of the Month” at the department store where she cleaned glass display cases and mirrors.

What I haven’t told my kids is that for a while, when I was in middle school, I was embarrassed of my sister. Somehow, I believed her retardation was a negative reflection of my family, or of me. I stopped hanging out with her. On family trips, I asked not to be partnered with Jean any more. She had a best friend from school and a part-time job in a junior-high cafeteria, and we more or less went our separate ways.

I did regret the loss, and tried to recover lost ground on weekend visits while still single and living in NYC. However, since marrying and having kids, I have found it difficult to focus on Jean during my rare and complicated trips “home,” where I need to balance time with family (especially my three nieces) and old friends. Managing my four little ones, as well as my husband, and making sure they all stay on time, on task and out of trouble keeps me plenty preoccupied.

Now, with 2,000 miles between us, the impossibility of phone calls and only short, occasional visits to Chicago, it’s difficult to relate to my sister, my former best friend.  However, I feel nostalgic about our early years together, and recognize the impact Jean had on me. As the author Toni Morrison once wrote: “A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves – a special kind of double.”

In Carol and my book (called Permission Slips, as is this blog), we provide solid research suggesting that female friendships are a critical component of one’s health, balance and renewal. We urge frazzled women—especially moms with young children—to give themselves permission for breaks and time with friends.

I’m struggling to determine what “permission” I’m seeking regarding Jean.  Is it permission to let go of a former friend, permission to stop feeling guilty about a relationship untended or permission to spend time and money away from my nuclear family, in order to resurrect a bond long severed?

I’ll keep you posted.

–Linda Williams Rorem, 1 Aug. 2011

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