Month of June , 2008

Friendship by the Book: An interview with Alexa Young, author of Frenemies

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Some of the most painful and unexpected girlfriend breakups occur during the roller-coaster middle-school years. Alexa Young’s engaging new teen novel, Frenemies (HarperTeen, 2008) is a book that moms will want their daughters to read in preparation for this rude awakening. The book tells the story of two eighth-graders and BFFs, Halley Brandon and Avalon Greene, who have always agreed on everything. But after spending a summer apart, they’ve changed—physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually.

Alexa graciously agreed to answer my questions about her book.

Why did you decide to focus this series on middle-school girls?

Because my editors made me (!)—but with very good reason. After all, middle school is arguably the time when female friendships can really start to unravel, largely because girls go through so many life-altering changes during those years. Obviously, there are all the puberty-related physical and emotional changes, as well as all sorts of new social and academic pressures. It’s also the time when most girls really start to break away from the familiar voices of authority in their lives, to develop a more independent outlook and pursue new friendships, romantic interests, ideas about what they want their future to look like. All of these things can cause huge shifts and upsets with the people we’re closest to—and that’s what the FRENEMIES series is all about: Growing up and changing and drifting apart (and then lashing out at the people closest to you in really inappropriate ways!). Obviously, these issues don’t stop once you make it through middle school, but the tween years are typically when it all starts and when every tiny event in your life can feel like the biggest deal EVER. If your friend doesn’t invite you to spend the night, your crush doesn’t notice you, you don’t get the must-have outfit or get to go to the biggest party of the year…YOUR LIFE IS GOING TO BE OVER! It really does feel that way. I know it did to me.

Why are female friendships so turbulent during this period?

Again, I think it has a lot to do with all the changes we go through and how much that can feed our insecurities as well as spark a lot of envy and jealousy. Some girls may be developing more quickly or slowly than others, some may be getting involved in romantic relationships, some may be exploring new ways of expressing themselves—whether in the way they choose to dress or by making new friends or joining new clubs and pursuing sports or other extra-curricular activities. Some may be taking their academics more seriously than they ever have in the past. All of these things fuel a lot of excitement as well as confusion, self-doubt and—potentially—a whole host of awfully dramatic mean-girl maneuvers between supposed “friends.” Speaking from personal experience, I was horribly self-conscious about the fact that most of my friends went through puberty in middle school while I was still waiting for all those “developments,” and that they were all starting to “go out” with guys while I was pretty nervous and awkward around the opposite sex. I was a real late bloomer, and seeing all my friends advancing in physical and social ways sparked plenty of self-doubt. On the other hand, I began to flourish academically and in extra-curriculars, which helped to balance me out but definitely took me in new directions as far as my friendships were concerned.

How can a pre-teen or teen tell a frenemy when she meets one?

I think the red flags are there no matter what your age. There are the obvious acts of betrayal, like talking behind your back or stealing your boyfriend—but I don’t think those are nearly as common as some of the more subtle ways a frenemy shows her true colors. That might include talking about herself but never taking the time to listen to you; only coming to you when she needs or wants something; not supporting your interests or goals; becoming threatened, jealous or envious—rather than excited for you—when things are going your way; constantly trying to one-up you; disappearing whenever you need her (e.g., when she gets a “better” offer to do something with someone else). Most important, it’s a feeling you get when you’re around her: You don’t feel good about yourself, you don’t like who you are, you don’t feel confident being yourself around her, you feel drained rather than energized after spending time with her.

What are the lessons you try to teach in this book?

I’m actually not trying to teach any lessons at all. I think the moment you make a conscious effort to convey a particular message—at least in a work of fiction—it winds up backfiring because it’s only going to come across as preachy and moralistic. As my editors say, “You’re not writing an after-school special!” Particularly when you’re writing for teens, they’re going to see right through that kind of thing and run screaming for something less obvious. So all I’m really trying to do is tell the story with humor and heart. That’s not to say there aren’t deeper messages in there, though, because I think there definitely are—they just weren’t messages I consciously tried to deliver. Some of the takeaways that I think (hope!) shine through: That insecurities can drive us to do absurd things to the people we care about the most in our lives—and that that can be awfully unproductive; that it’s okay to pursue new interests and express yourself in new ways, and that people who’ve truly got your back will support you; that if you’re feeling threatened or uncomfortable or hurt around your friend, you need to explore those emotions—possibly with her—rather than lashing out and making the problem worse. I think the book illustrates what not to do a lot more than what to do, though! I guess that’s why, ultimately, it comes across as fairly light and humorous with subtle messages woven in, when all is said and done.

Can frenemies ever really turn into besties at the end?

It really depends on the nature of the relationship and what’s causing the tension. If one friend betrays or hurts another in an unforgivable way, then I think it’s going to be awfully hard to get past that. However, if it’s a matter of two people drifting apart and pursuing different paths, I firmly believe they can be best friends again—if and when their paths and interests and lives converge again. It may take years, even decades, for them to find that common ground…but I absolutely think it’s possible.

How can moms help their daughters learn to navigate female friendships?

Wow. Great question. As a fairly new mom myself, I think the biggest thing all parents can do—no matter how old their children are—is to lead by example. A mother who has loving, supportive female friendships in her life is probably going to do a great job of raising a daughter with the same. Beyond that, I think moms can encourage their daughters to pay attention to how they feel when they’re around their friends, and to honor those feelings and instincts. As I mentioned before, if your daughter feels insecure or unhappy or unable to be herself in the presence of her friends, that’s a major problem and something that needs to be addressed—most likely, she needs to make some new friends. Another really important message Moms can reinforce: Don’t view differences between yourself and other girls as a sign that any of you are doing anything wrong. All relationships are about the right fit—so if you don’t connect or click with a particular person, that’s doesn’t have to mean one of you is any better than the other…it just means you’re not meant to be friends. Emphasize that everybody is different—not better or worse.

About the author: Alexa Young spent the first several years of her professional life working in the music industry and subsequently worked as an editor for the now-defunct teen magazine JUMP, as well as for SHAPE magazine. As a freelance writer, she’s contributed to a number of national consumer magazines, including Marie Claire, O: The Oprah Magazine and Family Circle. She holds a bachelor's degree in Literature/Writing from the University of California, San Diego, and lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband, son and dog. FRENEMIES is her first novel. The second book in the series, FAKETASTIC, is scheduled for a January 2009 release.
 

Dear Hillary, do you need a female friend?

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Remember me? I introduced myself and welcomed you to Chappaqua in a letter that appeared in The Washington Post in 1999. You even took the time to acknowledge it, writing me a personal note afterwards. Like other neighbors in our small leafy hamlet (the way it’s referred to disparagingly in the press), we never really got to know each other.

 

Actually, we did speak briefly on three occasions that I am more likely to remember than you---at your book-signing for Living History at the Chappaqua Library sponsored by Second Story Bookshop (our independent bookseller); at a talk you gave for the Wise Wonderful Women of Westchester (held at Temple Beth El); and at a presentation you made at the Crabtree’s Kittle House restaurant sponsored by Second Shift (an organization of career-moms in Chappaqua struggling with work/life balance issues).

 

Admittedly, you’ve accumulated quite a few frequent flyer miles and haven’t had the chance to be here as often as you or I would have liked. As often happens in small leafy hamlets like Chappaqua (and enormous virtual social networking sites like LinkedIn), you only recognize many neighbors by sight and know people who know them (If it helps with the introduction, you’re a friend of my some of my friends).

 

As an aside, I might add that from the time you first moved to Westchester County and were immediately bestowed with a welcoming carpetbagger label, both you and the President have been wonderful citizens and neighbors. My now 20-year-old son, Andrew, heard you speak about citizenship at the Robert E. Bell Middle School and couldn't wait until he was old enough to vote.

 

By the time he got to high school, you were splitting your time between here and Washington, DC as our U.S. Senator and he had the privilege of being in the audience as your husband addressed the entire school body in the gymnasium at Horace Greeley High School. You’ve consistently marched down King Street in our Memorial Day parades, appeared at local benefits for various health and social causes (without any fanfare or efforts to turn it into a media event), and have made other quiet but significant, non-public contributions as a townie.

 

I think you got shafted in the primaries from every side. But then you’ve been a lightening rod for critics and naysayers ever since I first knew you (once removed) and you’ve been strong and committed enough to take it. I’m writing to remind you that there are many women in town like me who have profound respect for the road you’ve paved for your daughter and other women’s daughters. We appreciate your intellect, tenacity, and your love for your family, community and country.

 

I’m writing now because everyone knows that losing isn’t easy, particularly when you’ve worked so hard and the loss is so public. It has to take the wind out of your sails, at least for the summer. You need a friend’s shoulder.

 

Ironically, I’m completing a book about female friendships and I have never been so lonely---you and I both know what it’s like putting off friendships to focus on work. I recognize through my research and personal experience that you are a prime candidate for a condition that I call female friendship deficit disorder.

 

Women with this disorder simply don’t have enough time for female friendships---even though we recognize how vital these relationships are to our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. At this point you might be saying, “It’s kind of like sleep. We know we should get more of it, but there simply isn’t enough time!”

 

But when you do have more time, all of a sudden that hole in your life hits you hard. You’re in your house alone and feel awkward picking up the phone to call a friend whom you haven’t talked to in months or years. In short, I’d love you to come over to my house to chat over soft-scrambled eggs (which you say is a favorite of yours on your MySpace page) and a cup of cappuccino---or a glass of red wine with cheese and chocolate if it’s later in the day.

 

Leave your pantsuit home and come casually-dressed. We’ll share feelings, laugh and enjoy the beauty of spring in the Hudson Valley. We might talk about the challenges of taking care of aging moms or raising only-children, but I promise we won’t talk about politics, husbands or the state of healthcare in America. Do you need a female friend?

With warm wishes,

Irene

 

 

The unexpected gift

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It wasn’t my birthday or any other day celebrated by Hallmark people.  It was just an ordinary rainy day when a small beautifully wrapped packaged appeared in my mailbox to make the day stand out from the rest.

I found inside a pretty ceramic plaque with purple and pink painted letters that read “Best Friends bring sunshine to each day,’” along with a hand-written note. (I thought of hanging it above my desk but my desk is in the middle of the room so I quickly regrouped---finding a proper place over the kitchen sink.}


I’m a friendship author, friendship scholar, and friendship expert but ironically, like too many busy women I know I never seem to have enough time for my own friendships, to be the friend I want to be.


Anyway, good friends have a gift for knowing what to say and what to do at just the right time. Good friends quietly bestow the unexpected without asking---on a rainy day when it is most needed.

 

Reader Q & A: Help! Can collateral damage be avoided in a breakup?

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QUESTION:

Dear Irene,

I have experienced a catastrophic rift with my friend of over 10 years. "Em" and I met in college, and we've been through lots of life changes since then. Over the years, I've introduced her to all of my friends and she has become a fixture at our social gatherings.

Our relationship began to sour after I met my husband a few years ago. She is resentful that he has "replaced her" and that I am happy in life while she goes through a series of failed relationships and failed jobs. I feel increasingly that I can never do enough to be a good friend to her.

So, after she said some profoundly hurtful things to me, I decided the best thing to do is make more room in my life for my healthy friendships and relationships. The only problem is: I don't know what to do about our mutual friends. I have no intention of telling them to choose sides, because that would be childish. But I fear that she will sabotage those friendships, and I don't know how to go about protecting them while I remove her from my life.

This Thursday, there's a joint birthday party for two mutual friends. We have both RSVP'd. What do I do?

Signed,

Anonymous in Virginia

ANSWER:

Dear Anonymous in Virginia:

Of course, you should go to your friends’ birthday party. You may feel a bit uncomfortable but it won’t be too bad. Just say hello to “Em” and focus your attention where it should be---on the Birthday Girls.

Friendships change as our life circumstances change. If you met your friend ten years ago at college, consider how you’ve changed and grown since then, and all the other changes that have taken place in nearly every other realm of your life. Isn’t it natural that the nature of the friendships you need and enjoy might change as well? As one example, you met “Em” before you met your husband. Prior to that, as two single women, you may have had more in common and therefore, you may have been more patient in catering to her whims and neediness.

Now that you have insight you have no choice but to break lose. Over time, connections between close friends become tangled like vines. Friendships that begin as twosomes extend to relationships between families and groups---and the risk of collateral damage after a breakup is real.

While you may suffer some losses, my hunch is they won’t be significant ones. If “Em” is grating, she probably is just as grating on your mutual friends. (She may even be worse without you as a buffer.) Your true friends will remain your friends.

Forget the hurtful things “Em” said and let go. If anyone at the party asks what happened, say that you drifted apart without going into details. If “Em” goes on to intentionally sabotage your mutual friendships, smart women will see right through her.

Like you, even couples who split---married or not---have legitimate concerns about subsequent fallout. But if you recognize your relationship with “Em” is toxic, you have no choice but to go forward with the split---or at least a friendship sabbatical.

Please get the word “catastrophic” out of your head. Yours is not the first friendship to fracture and yours won’t be the last. The relationship with “Em” was a good one when it was more reciprocal. I know that the change still feels painful but you have lots of supports in your life and things will smooth out over time. Let me know how it goes and thanks for reading my blog.

Sincerely,

Irene

Do you have a question about female friendships that is bothering you? Please write me at Irene@fracturedfriendships.com and I’ll try to answer as many of them as I can.

 

Best Friends Day: Also a day for ladies-in-waiting

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Oops, I blinked and I missed it. I just found out that Sunday, June 8th was Best Friends Day, which completed passed me by. I don’t know how. I didn’t even pause to pay homage to my own Besties on that day. Shame on me!

That morning one of my closest friends called while waiting for her flight at an airport terminal in Tampa. I’m sure Linda didn’t know it was Best Friends Day but she seizes every moment to catch up with me when she is waiting----sometimes in the strangest of places.

This typically includes doctors’ waiting rooms; hair salons during the trip between the sink and the stylist’s chair; dentist chairs while she is waiting for the doc after her cleaning; ladies room while she is tinkling; nail shops while she is waiting for her nails to dry; and long post office lines---to name just a few. Only a few short years ago it seems, she would call while she was waiting for her now-grown son to get dismissed from school and run to her car.

Well my promised day for me, Best Friends Day, eluded me like so many others: laundry, dishes, chores and then a brunch/fund-raiser for a local NAMI group. But it wasn’t all work and no play. I met some lovely work-friends at the event. Afterwards I came home to write one of the remaining chapters of a book on schizophrenia that I’m finishing up finally (more to come in a future post). At least it wasn’t another day of writer’s isolation which has come to characterize so many recent nights and weekends as I wait to wrap things up and get back into friendship.

They say that all good things come to those who wait. Check in with me again on August 3rd, Friendship Day. Can you please remind me if I forget?

 

Graduating? Give yourself the gift that keeps on giving

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If you haven’t yet realized it, graduation from high school or college can be a friendship-killer. When you are no longer living side-by-side or seeing each other every day, it will never be quite as easy to keep up once-close female friendships or to make new ones.

With more than $55 million in domestic box office sales, Sex and the City made its mark as the highest-grossing chick flick in history on its opening weekend. Why did working women and working-at-home women leave their boyfriends, husbands, and kids behind, flocking in droves to see a movie that will likely be available on Netflix and pay-per-view in the blink of an eye? They wanted to see each other.

Sex is the ultimate excuse for a girl’s night out---something that women are desperately craving as our multi-tasking lifestyles leave less discretionary time for female friendships. The march of Stilettos to movie houses across the country was nothing short of a surge. Women clicked on Fandango and lined up for tickets because they were eager to redress their friendship deficit. Regardless of our age or stage in life, many women simply don’t have enough friends to meet their needs for understanding and being understood.

Sex, both movie and the series, hit the nail on the head when it comes to female friendships. We all covet the close friendships like the ones mirrored by Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. Women went to see Sex but they were more excited about the before and after cocktails, dinners and parties they had planned with each other. They wanted to walk in the footsteps of the foursome.

Getting back to my commencement remarks---Graduation often means going home or moving away, leaving the familiar and making new starts. As a result, it is a time when many of us lose touch with women whom we see every day and call and text in-between---both besties and entire friendship circles that are meaningful parts of our lives.

Make yourself a promise to keep up with your school chums---especially the ones with whom you have been able to share both happiness and heartbreaks. As you age and life becomes more complex and demanding, you’ll realize that you have given yourself the most wonderful treasure. A few of the basics:

1) Always make friendship a priority (right up there after family). If you need a rationale to convince you, here it is: Research shows that social support and close friendships are linked to improved health and emotional well-being.

2) Get rid of toxic friendships that are consistently negative and emotionally draining. We all have one or two gal pals that are annoying to be with, people we feel ambivalent about and who probably feel ambivalent about us. Just let go of them.

3) Find any excuse to create rituals to stay in touch with the good friends. It shouldn’t be a one-time affair. Make a plan to get together every month or at least several times a year. It can be on milestone birthdays or periodic girlfriend getaway jaunts. Or even the opening of a long-awaited chick flick!

4) In-between, use every way possible to stay connected---via cell phones, Blackberries, and old-fashioned letters until the next time your see each other.

Female graduates: Congratulations---Go forth with your friends!

 

This post also appears on The Huffington Post. Sign up to become by fan at www.huffingtonpost.com/living and receive my posts directly in your in-box. 

 

A Friend in Every Port?

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One of the nice things about traveling is that every trip offers opportunities to make new friendships or nurture old ones--if you make it a priority and take the time. You could ask an old friend to travel with you or simply engage in conversation with a potential new friend you meet across the aisle on a plane.

You can rekindle an old friendship by making plans to meet someone from your past who lives en route or at your destination (perhaps someone you knew from childhood or college).Or you can take a chance and catch up with someone you only knew virtually.

Every connection starts with one person being brave enough to make a move---to take the initiative and hope the other person will respond in kind. As scary as it might feel at the moment you do it, it usually works.

Last weekend, I was visiting family in Westlake Village, California and took advantage of a serendipitous opportunity to meet Victoria Clayton-Alexander, another writer whom I knew lived just a few blocks away. I invited her to visit me at their home and a few hours later, she arrived with a smile on her face and a box of yummy Italian pastries. We all sat around the kitchen island drinking coffee and the conversation flowed effortlessly. I soon realized that she and I had many more connections than our writing.

High on that experience, a few days later when I got to a meeting in Phoenix, I emailed another writer I had only known virtually before. Jackie Dishner, a fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, responded enthusiastically and was willing to meet at my hotel. We were soon sitting on lawn chairs drinking iced tea in the warm Arizona sun while we exchanged stories about our work and our lives.

Yes, instead of making these connections, I could have visited another museum, spent more time with my husband, gone shopping, or fallen into the trap of staying on top of my email in my hotel room, but these brief interludes turned out to be amongst the most memorable of my trip---and I have every hope that the friendships will be lasting ones.

Do you have any stories of travel and friendship to share? Have friends enhanced your travel or has travel enhanced your friendships?