Tuesday, February 28, 2006

How to Downsize Your Social Life

At the start of this year, I received a voicemail from a friend: “Helena, I just want you to know I love you deeply, I love you madly and I’ve made a commitment to spending time with you this year.” (This is how people talk in California. In England, only members of your family tell you they love you, and then only on your deathbed.) I called my friend back. He didn’t answer. I left a voicemail thanking him for his message and saying we should get together. He called back—three weeks later. He wanted to have lunch, but couldn’t pick a date. We swapped voicemails and emails, trying to come up with a plan. Finally, I emailed him, but he didn’t reply. A while later, he left a message: “Helena, I’ve realized I’m too busy to have lunch with you right now, but I love you truly, madly, deeply.” This reminded me of what they told me in creative writing workshops: “Show, don’t tell.”

My friend has decided he doesn’t have time for me right now. That is sad, but I’m OK with it. I’m not OK with empty declarations and half-hearted efforts to get together. This wastes both our time and makes me mad instead of sad.

The problem is that there is no protocol for dumping friends--perhaps because we've never desperately needed one until now. Due to increased mobility and job switching, we meet more people than ever before. And thanks to email and cell phones, it’s now simpler than ever to stay in touch with these people. It’s all too easy to acquire a surfeit of friends. But what do you do when you don’t have time for all of them? We live in the age of Evite—but no one knows how to “Dis-invite.”

There are in fact two ways to get rid of a friend. One way is to tell them directly that you've had enough of them. But then you'll have to explain why. "I feel that we're at different places in our lives right now" probably will not suffice. You'll be forced to insult them. And what’s the point of insulting someone you’re never going to see again? Your criticism isn’t going to change them (if you thought they were capable of change, you wouldn’t be ending the friendship). Honesty in this case is not the best policy.

But if you simply stop taking their calls, you don’t have to explain anything. That leaves your ex-friend free to make up his or her own reason for your silence. (Maybe you lost your phone. Maybe you went back to England for good. Maybe you’re a bitch. But whatever the reason, it’s not that you don’t value their friendship.)Thus although silence may seem a brutal strategy, in the end it is the most polite one. There may be fifty ways to leave your lover. But there is only one way to break up with a friend.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Jagged Little Pillow

At ten to six yesterday, a crowd waited in Justin Herman Plaza. As the last few minutes ticked away, a nervous anticipation built, as if we were waiting for the New Year. Some people had pillows hidden in bags and backpacks, but others were whirling their pillows in circles as if warming up for what was to come. A mass pillow fight had been announced on Craig's List and on Laughing Squid. The news had spread rapidly and hundreds had gathered. I watched as one group posed for a picture holding aloft identical lime-green couch cushions. A woman slipped by holding a pillow embroidered with a skull. (In San Francisco, of course, a city dedicated to the pursuit of whimsy, it’s not enough to show up to a mass pillow fight, you have to have a creative pillow.)

When six o’clock struck, everyone rushed together and whacked each other with savage joy. I plunged into the melee and blows rained on my head. I quickly understood why some people were wearing crash helmets. When my friend Regan and I decided to go to the pillow fight, we’d imagined that it would be sexy and fun. But a pillow fight with sleepover guests in a soft bed is very different from a pillow fight with a thousand anonymous strangers in a dark concrete plaza. This was more of a pillow war. I’d thought that the pillow fight might attract those looking for a Valentine. Now it seemed that single people had come here to vent their anger at not having one. A poet once called San Francisco “the cool, gray city of love” but last night it seemed like the cool, gray city of sexual frustration.

Soon, drifts of feathers obscured the battle scene and people paused to observe the miracle—snow in San Francisco. Afterwards, there was no pillow talk. One by one, people staggered off, looking stunned and sated. On the way home, I passed one or two people who like me had feathers in their hair and eyelashes, and we looked at each other and exchanged a small, sly smile.