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Friendship Terminators: “You made a mistake! You’re history!”

This past week my client Joanna told me about a painful run-in she had experienced with a friend of 20 years. I think it’s an important example of a pattern of interaction that destroys friendships.

The back story: Five years ago her friend Lonnie, after many unsuccessful attempts, finally managed to break up with Steve, her longtime boyfriend. Apparently, he had been both charming and abusive—a deadly combination—and Lonnie had been addicted to the relationship despite knowing better. While going through the frequent breakups and reconciliations and airing her complaints to friends, Lonnie often referred to Steve as “the devil,” saying she needed to “exorcise” him from her life.

Skip to the present. Lonnie has been living alone for the five years since the breakup and has unfortunately been trying to cope with the loneliness of single life by numbing out with alcohol. She now has a serious drinking problem and is defensive and socially withdrawn. Joanna is her only remaining friend.

This past week, Joanna invited Lonnie to lunch and during the meal, Joanna said, “Lonnie, I’m thinking about joining a gym and working out. Why don’t you join too and we can begin exercising together. It’ll be fun.”

Lonnie, wide-eyed and instantly full of rage, stood up and screamed at Joanna, “How dare you say that to me. How dare you taunt me in this way.  What kind of friend are you? I would never do this to you.”  Joanna, mystified, asked, “What did I say?  What did I do? All I’m suggesting is that we exercise together.” Lonnie, still screaming, said, “My god, you did it again. I can’t believe you would use the word ‘exorcise’ with me.  You know how painful my breakup was with Steve.  You’re rubbing my nose in it.  I can’t be friends with you anymore.  I’m out of here.”  She then left the restaurant.

Joanna, perplexed and sad as she related the story to me, said, “I can’t believe she interpreted an innocent suggestion that we exercise as taunting her about her “exorcism” of Steve. My god, it seems like an almost insane assumption on her part. I feel horrible and yet I know I haven’t done anything wrong. I called her to try and explain things but she said our friendship is over, ordered me to never contact her again, and then hung up on me.”

I explained to Joanna that Lonnie’s alcohol addiction has apparently reached the stage where it now affects her ability to accurately perceive reality. Such distorted perceptions are not unusual during the middle and later stages of drug addiction and often prevent the building and maintenance of stable friendships.

Joanna understands this but is having difficulty accepting that she has most likely been permanently written off by her longtime friend for no good reason. Such rejections are painful because in addition to the loss of the friendship, there is always a lingering fear that one has somehow actually caused the break.

While Lonnie’s abrupt termination of her friendship with Joanna is complicated by her alcohol abuse, it is also most likely a long-term pattern. I refer to individuals who end friendships so abruptly and without first trying to fix things as “Friendship Terminators.”  Such folks usually have a history of abruptly ending friendships. The core problem is often a poorly developed ability to effectively resolve conflicts.

It has been my experience that “single children”—that is, individuals who were raised without siblings—often do not have good conflict-resolution skills. Because they did not have the benefit of the unavoidable and repeated arguing, forgiving and forgetting with siblings, they tend to hold grudges and to simply end friendships when someone hurts their feelings or says something thoughtless. They tend to take such mistakes far too personally and to overreact as a result.

Additionally, folks who have led entitled lives (e.g., star athletes, unusually attractive people, wealthy or famous people) with little experience bending or negotiating are more apt to write people off if they perceive them as not meeting their expectations.

This piece is designed to enhance your awareness.  As I keep stressing on this site, building and maintaining friendships is all about awareness and skill building. If after reading this, you determine you’re a “Friendship Terminator,” don’t be discouraged. It is a habit, not a fixed character trait. So, here’s the good news: If you learned it, you can unlearn it.

I explain in detail some of the skills necessary for conflict resolution in other articles I’ve posted. For starters, check out these: Disagreements and Humor, Feeling Messages, Friendship Basics, and Rules of Friendship.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

Comments: 1

A Friend’s Birthday

I spoke yesterday with Clair, a longtime friend. He was celebrating his 88th birthday and I called to congratulate him. We can always pick up where we left off despite long periods without contact.

I asked him how he liked being in his late 80s and he said, “Speaking as someone who’s always needed to have a project, I’ve recently decided to end all achievement for achievement’s sake and relax. I find it’s nice for a change to stop swimming so hard in life’s ocean and to sit on the shore and just observe it.”

I asked him what he was doing for fun. He said, “I’m dancing free-form to modern music three or four times each week. I’ve been doing this for years, and over that time, I’ve learned to dance with abandon—without feeling self-conscious. I let the music take my body where it wants to. I simply react to it.”

I said, “That sounds like a freeing experience.” He said, “Yes, it truly is. However, someone in the dance studio videotaped me a few weeks ago and posted it on YouTube. When I watched it, I was shocked. I saw this white-haired guy with an old body doing this strange dance. I was struck by the difference between how I feel when I’m dancing and when I observe myself doing it. The discrepancy is shocking.”

Clair laughed with good humor as he shared his experience and I laughed with him. He was not at all embarrassed about it; he simply found it fascinating and thought provoking. I knew exactly how he felt because I had a similar story to tell. 

“Clair, two years ago, my daughter, a fine singer, asked me to play drums with her band at a jazz concert. As I played with her, I felt the same musical experience I did when I was a young man playing drums full-time. I felt like a hip young musician playing swinging music. Then, my daughter sent me a DVD of the concert and I watched it. I liked the way the music sounded, but I was shocked to see a white-haired, portly H & R Block salesman sitting in my place behind the drums. Like you, I was surprised at the discrepancy between the person I imagined playing drums and the reality.”

Clair said, “Exactly! That is it exactly!” We laughed and commiserated, and then we went on to other topics and enjoyed a nice chat. After I hung up the phone, I felt the warm and pleasant sense of having reconnected in a satisfying way with my good friend.

When I met Clair, he was 58 and I was 42. Like a mature jazz musician, Claire has moved with life’s flow and has gracefully improvised in reaction to its ever-changing demands. Conversation with him is always interesting because he’s connected to the present in a creative way. It has been a joy to share his journey and an inspiration to see how he has embraced growing older. 

As my exchange with Clair demonstrates, one of the great gifts that a long-term friendship offers us is the fun of sharing the aging experience. When Joe Williams, the great jazz and blues singer, turned 80, I asked how he was handling aging. Laughing, he said, “As the saying goes, it’s not for sissies, but I must say, it sure beats the alternative.”

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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Confronting a Liberty Taker

This past week, my client Anna came into my office extremely upset. “I’m feeling really hurt,” she said. “Lucia, one of my best friends, just reamed me out on the phone, and I’m all uptight and confused.” I asked her why her friend was so angry and she told me the following story.

“Lucia has a daughter the same age as my little girl. Since Lucia works days, I have her permission to take her daughter, Tierney, and Tierney’s nanny on playdates with me and my daughter. I’ve been doing this for the past few months and there haven’t been any problems.

“Then, a few days ago, I met her next-door neighbor’s nanny and little girl, Allison, who is also the same age as my daughter. I invited them along and the six of us went to the park for a couple of hours. The three girls played together nicely while I chatted with the two nannies. I particularly enjoyed talking with Maria, the neighbor’s nanny. She’s easy to be with and she taught me several things about child rearing.

“Because we hit it off, I asked her if she and Allison would like to join me and my daughter the following day at the park. She said she would, and the four of us had a great time.

“Today, I got a phone call from Lucia and she was very mad. She told me that I had no right to go to the park with her neighbor’s nanny and child without including her own nanny and daughter. She said I’d better not do it again because it was wrong of me to exclude her daughter in this way. I told her I disagreed and that I hadn’t done anything wrong, particularly since I didn’t schedule the playdate in place of the usually scheduled one with her daughter and nanny. At this point, she began yelling, so I hung up. She called back and continued her rant, accusing me of being mean to her daughter and her nanny. I finally said, ‘Let’s talk about this later. You’re too angry and it’s not good to talk about this now.'”

When I asked Anna how long she and Lucia have known each other, she said they’ve been friends for many years. Then I asked if Lucia had ever acted in this insulting, accusatory manner before. Anna said it happens once or twice a year and added, “I’m always wary of her. She can get very angry for no reason. Sometimes being with her is like walking through a mine field.”

I reassured Anna that from my perspective she had done nothing wrong. I asked her what she thought the chances were of Lucia calming down and “agreeing to disagree.” She said, “Lucia has never ever apologized or changed her mind about problems between us. To keep our friendship together, I’ve always been the one who apologizes. But I don’t want to apologize ever again for something I haven’t done. I feel too resentful when I do it.”

Anna then asked me how she could try to make Lucia see her viewpoint. I suggested writing Lucia a letter. She agreed that would be safer than talking face-to-face or over the phone. I pointed out she was dealing with two issues: the long-term pattern of Lucia’s verbal liberties and the nanny problem. I suggested she try to address both issues in the letter since they were related. With some help from me, she put together the following list of points.

Lucia:

  • It’s unfortunate that you and your nanny felt excluded but, in fact, I scheduled the playdate with your neighbor’s nanny on a different day from the usual one with your daughter for that very reason. I really don’t feel as if I’ve done anything wrong.
  • Since we have such different views about this incident, I believe we need to agree to disagree to put it behind us.
  • I feel very uncomfortable with your belief that you have the right to tell me who to spend time with.
  • I am writing this letter in place of a face-to-face discussion because during our phone call, I felt chastised by you and that is not a good feeling. I’m hoping you will read this letter a couple of times, give it some thought, and consider the points I’m trying to make.
  • I value our friendship but we won’t always agree about things. If we can’t learn to agree to disagree without hard feelings, I’m worried about the eventual effect it will have on our friendship. I would be saddened if our friendship ended.

Since Anna hasn’t sent the letter yet, I don’t know how it will turn out, but this situation offers a number of important lessons about friendship.

Lucia has taken verbal liberties with Anna over the length of their friendship. She apparently is not very good at voicing her concerns in a respectful, “we-are-equals” manner. It seems that when she perceives threat or rejection, instead of talking about her fears, she attacks, raises her voice, and calls Anna names. And even when she calms down, Lucia doesn’t apologize for taking such liberties.

Because Anna hasn’t confronted Lucia about this pattern, it has gone on for too long. As a result, Anna has built up resentment toward Lucia.

Additionally, Lucia believes that she has some sort of “geographical rights” over her neighbor’s daughter and nanny. Her ruling that Anna is not to spend time with them is illogical and high-handed, and is a blatant boundary invasion. Anna must establish clear boundaries to maintain equality and protect herself from further invasions. The points in Anna’s letter to Lucia are designed to do just that.

If we look at this incident from Lucia’s perspective, the best we can say for her is that she’s overprotective of her daughter and is trying to ward off hurt feelings. Lucia’s overreaction is motivated by her love for her daughter, so we can assume she’s simply trying to be a good mom. But, she’s assuming the worst about Anna and acting on that assumption. As already explained, she had a more proactive option available for handling this problem: She could have shared her feelings with Anna, and the blowup might well have been avoided (see this post for an introduction to feeling messages).

For example, Lucia might have opened up a dialogue if she had begun by saying (notice the feeling message in bold),

“Anna, clearly you have the right to spend time with whoever you wish. I worry, though, that my daughter and nanny will feel rejected by your decision to have a playdate with the neighbor’s nanny and daughter instead of with them.”

Anna could have allayed Lucia’s fears by responding, “I did think about that. That’s why I scheduled it on a different day and why I met them at the park rather than meeting them next door, close to your home.”

Such an initial exchange could have led to a fruitful discussion and possibly a reasonable solution. Unfortunately, Lucia’s fears motivated an unreasonable attack on Anna and now they are stuck trying to work through a problem seriously clouded by anger.

Once again, the major lesson here is the importance of learning and using appropriate, respectful communication techniques when resolving troubling issues with your friends.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

Comments: 3

The Drummer Who Would Not Share

I once took drum lessons from a technically talented, analytical drummer. He was both patient and articulate, and I felt I was learning a lot.  Over time, we began to socialize after my lesson, and he’d play tracks of different drummers’ recordings to demonstrate certain techniques that he either did or did not admire. 

One day he played a track of something he had recorded of himself performing with a band.  One of his drum licks really grabbed my attention, and I asked him to show me how he played it.  He refused, saying, “That lick is mine and I don’t want to share it.  If I show you how to play it, then it won’t be mine anymore.” I didn’t argue with him, but I remember thinking, “He must not have any confidence that he can come up with new licks if he’s so protective of this single one.”

Not surprisingly, he was an emotionally isolated jazz player. Although he was a fine technician and an accomplished sight reader and his playing was professional and competent, he seemed unwilling—or unable—to emotionally mix and bend with other players. He once said to me, “It is the drummer’s job in any musical setting to establish the metronomic time.  If others don’t agree, he has to force them to.”  There is some truth to this in a big band, but in a small group, this approach runs contrary to the entire jazz premise.  The jazz dialogue is a conversation between friends, not a contest of wills.

This drummer retired from playing in his late 50s.  I suspect that because he led a fairly lonely and isolated musical life, never really connecting with others in a musically satisfying way, he found little joy in the jazz interaction.  I think he often saw other musicians as threats, not as fellow travelers exploring and sharing a fascinating, creative journey.

I have thought often about this incident over the years because it has implications for friendship’s place in our lives.  Life is a journey to be shared with others that we meet along the path.  Our friends take this journey with us.  Don’t we want to make it as spontaneous and as loving and as generous an experience as we possibly can?

Not so incidentally, accomplished jazz players rarely retire voluntarily.  They become so addicted to the intimacy and emotional connection resulting from the ongoing exchange of ideas tied to the jazz dialogue that they play until they’re no longer able. Some play into their late 70s and early 80s with good facility, still improvising and communicating. 

I believe the same is true for our deep and real friendships.  They can last as long as we are alive and able to enjoy the free and easy, improvisational nature of our shared adventure.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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Swayed by Our DNA

Some recent developments in medical research indicate that our genes strongly influence the nature of our friendships and can adversely affect the health of our friends.

The findings of a study of fraternal and identical twins suggest that identical twins (those who come from the same egg) are more apt to choose friends who have similar characteristics than do fraternal twins.

Another study of identical twins suggests that our genes push us to select friends who are more like us than not. It found that identical twins pick friends who are similar to their wives and family members.

The results of a third study in the U.K. combined with those of a fourth in the U.S. show that our DNA can be hazardous to our friends’ well-being.

British researchers discovered a “fat gene” (i.e., mutated FTO gene), a single one of which can raise the probability of a person becoming obese by 30 percent. If a person has two such genes, the probability of obesity occurring increases to 70 percent.

And Americans found that if you have friends who become obese, the probability of becoming obese yourself jumps by 57 percent. Friends apparently are more affected than relatives. If someone becomes obese, his or her siblings have a 40 percent increased risk, and a spouse, a 37 percent increased risk.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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An Act of Friendship

During his later years, my father liked to periodically tell a story that made a powerful impression on me. It had to do with an act of friendship—one that changed the course of his life.

In 1940, when he was twenty-seven years old and living in New York City, he was in bad straits. With only an eighth grade education and no trade or employable skills, he was struggling to make a decent living. He felt pressure to improve this situation because he had a wife and a four-year-old son to house and feed, and very little money to do it with. A hard worker, he had been going from one unskilled job to another, trying to keep his head above water. He had pushed clothing carts and loaded boxes of dresses onto trucks for a garment company, delivered telegrams for Postal Union, and worked as a delicatessen deliveryman. At the time of this story, he was pumping gas at a Sunoco service station.

But the service station job simply didn’t pay enough, and he was steadily falling behind on his bills. He turned to the newspaper’s help wanted section and spotted an ad for a machinist placed by a plastics company named Bishures in Astoria, Long Island. Even though he had no experience for the job, he was desperate. He set up an interview and presented himself as a skilled machinist. Miraculously, the person conducting the interview failed to see through his charade and hired him.

The foreman of the machine shop recognized during Dad’s first day that he had no machine shop skills and easily guessed he had bluffed his way in. He called Dad into his office and told him that he couldn’t keep him and asked him why he had lied to get the job, certainly knowing he would have been found out. My father answered truthfully, “I have a wife and child, and I need to learn a trade so I can feed them. I was hoping I could somehow last long enough to earn my keep-then I’d have a job I could count on. I’m sorry I wasted your time but I’m desperate.”

Apparently moved by my father’s story and honesty, the foreman decided to give him a break and let him stay on the job. He said, “If you work hard and are reliable, I’ll carry you until you’re able to earn your way. I’m going to teach you how to work on the lathe today, and if you catch on and do a good job, I’ll keep you busy on it while I show you how to do other things.”

The story has a happy ending. My father became a fine machinist. Then, over the next few years, he worked his way up to the next level and became what he proudly referred to as an “A-1 Mold Maker.” Plastic mold makers were graded by their skill level and A-1 was the best you could be. Ultimately, he began his own mold-making and plastic injection company, and built it into a thriving business.

While Dad and the foreman at Bishures Plastics never became close friends, they enjoyed a warm relationship for many years. Because the man had bestowed such kindness at a time when my father needed it the most, he always talked about his old foreman with respect and appreciation.

Sadly, although my father told me the foreman’s name, I can no longer recall it. Since there are no family members still living who might know his name, it’s lost to me. But, he’ll remain an important part of my father’s history, and his generosity will not be forgotten.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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An Email from a Reader

The following is an email I received from James, a visitor to this site.

Dr. C.,
I found “Tell Me About Yourself: The Power of Curiosity” very interesting. As I was reading it, I realized that when the opportunity to talk with others presents itself, I tend to dominate the conversation: “I-ME-MINE-yadda, yadda, yadda.”  It takes a conscious effort to hold back and allow those who are engaging me to improvise as well. I have difficulty allowing conversations to unfold because I tend to talk non-stop and hold forth.
 
Since reading your blog, I have made a commitment to listen to my wife, and I’ve been offering her the time to “unload” after her workday is done. I have no idea if it makes any difference to her, but it has become my first priority to ask her about her day and to block out all interruptions until she’s finished filling me in.
 
She and I have not been close for a while, and I figure at the very least I need to offer my interest. I interject as little as possible, and only then to display understanding and empathy or whatever. I make a supreme effort NOT to interject anything about me or my day unless asked. Then it is just the facts and back to what she has to say. So far it hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference in the way she feels about me, but still, it’s been kind of a cool little experiment.

James,
You’re really on to something important and you’re not alone.  A lot of folks have to learn not to dominate conversations (Hey!  Is there anything quite so lovely as the sound of our own voice?).  The experiment you’re running with your wife is a really good one. Over time I would guess she will come to appreciate your efforts.  Given that there has been some distance between the two of you, I’m not surprised at her lack of immediate appreciation.  She probably has her guard up. I suggest doing your experiment without expecting anything in return.  Dropping your expectation is difficult but essential.  People always know when another’s behavior is designed to get something in return, and they’ll resist the pressure to do so. Good going, James.    

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   
 

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Tell Me about Yourself: The Power of Curiosity

In a fascinating recent study, neuroscientists (one of whom is a jazz saxophonist) at Johns Hopkins University hooked up jazz musicians to an MRI machine and recorded their brain activity while they played. They discovered that the part of the brain used when musicians improvise is the same part we all use when we respond to the request “Tell me about yourself.” Specifically, the medial prefrontal cortex area of the brain lights up when we improvise while speaking and problem solving, and when we’re dreaming.

They also found that during jazz improvisation, the part of the brain used for planning and self-censoring (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) shuts off. They concluded that during such brain activity “you are sculpting your own identity [and finding] the voice you’re going to use.” This makes sense because by cutting out the critic, we find it easier to experiment with different ways of being.

These findings strongly support my contention that there is an improvisational, jazz-like quality to open-minded inquiry and talk between friends, along with a kind of magical personality change that occurs because of it. When someone asks about us and shows genuine interest, we feel free to not only share ourselves, but also react to life in a more open, spontaneous manner.

Expressing curiosity can promote feelings of trust and safety that, in turn, promote authentic interactions and lasting relationships. In last weekend’s Parade magazine, a reader wondered if actor Chris Cooper and actress Marianne Leone were happily married. He responded, “Our [25-year] marriage has avoided falling flat. We respect each other’s space and still are curious about each other.”

Being Witnessed
A good friend of mine believes that one definition of friendship is the sense that each of our caring friends has the power to witness and validate what we do, giving our lives meaning. I agree to a great extent. (My only minor caveat is that we need to avoid relying too heavily on what others think. We need to be able to self-reinforce and determine the rightness of our own pursuits and accomplishments.)

As a former full-time musician, I’ve experienced many improvisational jazz interactions, and I can verify that after taking part in a jazz dialogue, I do feel the sense of having been “witnessed” by the other musicians. The musical exchange and degree of interpersonal musical inquiry is so immediate and powerful that I feel emotionally exposed before my colleagues, and at the same time, I feel validated by them.

It is important then to remember how we can positively affect our friends when we ask about them. We free them to improvise their response and to clarify what they are about, and we confirm their way of being in the world. And now, science has the brain scans to prove it.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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“Now THAT’S Funny!”

Two of the most difficult things to do in this world (besides hitting a major league curveball) are playing a well-constructed, swinging jazz solo and succeeding as a stand-up comic.  Both call for experience, the will to transcend fear of failure and the ability to learn from mistakes.  Additionally, and perhaps most important, they require an exquisite sense of timing and rhythm.

It is for this reason musicians and comics generally hit it off well socially.  Comics recognize and admire the timing that music requires and so look for musicians’ respect.  They also know experienced musicians have heard scores of professional comics perform and can distinguish funny from unfunny.  Thus, if they can make the guys in the band laugh, their jokes are probably solid.  It is not surprising that a number of successful comedians—e.g., Jack Benny, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Pete Barbutti, Marty Feldman, Morey Amsterdam, and Dudley Moore—began their careers as musicians.

During my 30 years as a working musician, I had occasion to back many professional comics.  If you watch a “physical comic” (one who relies on slapstick) backed by a musical group, the drummer is often asked to accent his key physical movements and punch lines.  The manner in which a drummer accents the comic’s punch lines can make the difference between an audience merely chuckling or actually laughing out loud.  Such interplay between a comic and a drummer is a subtle dance, and once a comic trusts the drummer, he will loosen the reins and allow more drum interplay because it strengthens his act.

I have a reputation as an amusing storyteller among my friends and family but I have discovered that getting a laugh from those who love us is a lot easier than getting one from a professional comic.  I learned this the hard way while working with comedian Pete Barbutti. A funny and creative guy, Pete is also a talented trumpet player and pianist.  I enjoyed working with him because his humor is very hip.  His act included quirky things like playing “jazz broom” which he “tuned” by pulling out pieces of straw.  He also did a bit called “A Bad Magician with a Good Drummer,” during which he would imitate all the typical, slick professional magicians’ hand moves while accomplishing no magic.  While he did this, my job was to busily highlight his movements by playing a host of accompanying drum rolls, cymbal crashes and bass drum bombs.  I sometimes laughed so hard during this bit that I struggled to play the drums.

One evening, over coffee, I foolishly tried to tell Pete a joke I thought he’d appreciate.  When I finished, Pete looked at me without smiling and in a level voice said, “Now THAT’S funny.”  I knew immediately he had not found the joke at all amusing.  He had used a tactful technique for getting around the difficult alternative of manufacturing a phony laugh.

Some months later, I made the same mistake (I am a slow learner) while sitting over coffee with another talented comic, Jackie Gayle, whom I was backing in the lounge of the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel.  Like Pete, he listened patiently to my joke, and when I finished, he said with a straight face, “Now THAT’S funny.”

At that moment, it dawned on me that comics talk among themselves about how to deal with non-comics who tell them unfunny jokes or ruin good jokes with bad delivery.  Apparently, back in the day, a professional funny man came up with the line “Now THAT’S funny!” as a workable solution, and it has been passed down through generations of comics.

How does this relate to friendship? At one time or another, we are all faced with handling someone’s clumsy attempt to entertain or impress us.  How we handle it is a reflection of how we choose to relate to others.  We can be charitable or we can be brutal.  I have tried to take a cue from my comic friends who, upon hearing my weak attempts to be funny, let me down gently and respectfully. 

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.   

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The Non-Drumming Drummer

I recently went to visit with a kind-hearted friend of mine. He has a habit of letting assorted people stay at his big San Francisco home, which is a haven for folks who are either down on their luck, traveling on a limited budget, or are friends or friends of friends of any of his five college-age children. 

While there, I was introduced to a young man of about 20 who, in response to my inquiry about his activity, said in a surly voice, “I’m Bob. I’m on a walkabout, traveling the United States.” We chatted a bit, and I asked him if he was a college student. He replied, “No, college is a waste of time. It’s the safe route taken by frightened people. I’m an artist, a jazz musician.” I asked him what instrument he played and he said, “I’m a jazz drummer.”

I told him that by coincidence I was also a drummer and asked him who he had studied with.  With a strong note of defensiveness, he replied, “I didn’t have to study with anyone. I learned on my own.” Trying to be tactful, I said, “That’s brave of you. I was unwilling to try and learn on my own. How is your playing coming? It must be difficult to find opportunities to practice and places to play with other musicians while traveling.” Sneering, he said, “There is no need to practice. I do all of my learning by listening to jazz and imagining it all in my head. I said, “But, I assume you’ve learned the basic drum rudiments such as paradittles, flams, and the like?” He answered, “That’s all old, corny stuff and absolutely unnecessary. I learn by imagining and picturing the drum set and playing it in my mind.”

After asking more questions and suffering the insults that went with his answers, I discovered that Bob had never owned a practice pad, drum sticks or a set of drums, and that he had no idea what music notation looked like. I was further shocked to learn that he had never once played with a musical group of any kind. I was not surprised to find, after further inquiry, that he was the only son of wealthy parents and was traveling on their dime.

Given that he was such an insulting and arrogant young man I decided to push him a bit. I said, “So, let me get this straight. You have never practiced, you have never played on a set of drums, you have no idea how drum technique works, you have never trained your hands to play the instrument, you have never played with another musician or band, but you advertise yourself as a jazz drummer. How do you justify this?”

Raising his voice, he said, “You’re like all the old farts. You do everything by the book. I’m taking a free, unfettered approach to jazz drumming. I can sit in right now with the best jazz groups and play as well as anyone. I’ve learned everything I need to know by listening. You’re a slave to an orthodox, stodgy, old-fashioned approach to playing drums.”

I read his face closely because it occurred to me at that moment that he might have been working a beautifully delivered put-on. But, sadly, he was not teasing me.  His self-delusion was real. At that point, I decided that he was getting too worked up and further pulling of his covers would only lead to unwanted and unnecessary tension in my friend’s house.

I believe this young man—I think of him as the “Non-Drumming Drummer”—is an excellent example of someone who has difficulty forming friendships because he doesn’t have the necessary interactional skills.  He is so frightened interpersonally he spends most of his energy defending himself by going on the offensive.  We can safely assume that his jazz-playing skills are on a par with his friendship skills.

A young man without much of a work ethic, Bob doesn’t feel good about himself because he hasn’t learned to apply himself and succeed at anything.  In place of legitimate and satisfying achievement, he is trying to find respect from others by falsely assuming the role of an artist-jazz musician. However, you cannot be a jazz musician without first learning the rudiments of the instrument.  It is only after mastering the instrument’s basics that you can interact appropriately with other musicians.

Similarly, it is only after learning the basic listening and verbal skills that allow you to effectively interact with others that you can build effective and long-lasting friendships.  Such friendships are built on mutual respect and equality.  This young man had no clue, and it was sad watching him interact so inappropriately with the other guests at my friend’s house.

Over the course of the weekend, Bob alienated most of the other guests and created much social tension.  When he left to continue his “walkabout,” he didn’t say good-bye.  I felt for him because it was clear he was many months or years removed from finding the personal satisfaction that accompanies both achievement and friendship. 

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.      

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