The Insider’s Guide to Life: My People, Your People

ColumnOn finding your family.

I will never forget the day in first grade when we watched The Sword in the Stone. If you’ve seen the classic cartoon, you’ll remember the scene when Merlin turns Wart into a squirrel and a she-squirrel falls hopelessly in love with him. The poor kid can’t get away from the besotted rodent, until at last Merlin comes to his rescue and she-squirrel finds herself clutching at a real live boy. She’s terrified, then devastated. We see her weeping she-squirrel tears in disbelief as a relieved Wart trots away. Sucker that I am for a downtrodden rodent (but aren’t we all), I wept right along with her, a cascade of silent tears streaking my six-year-old cheeks. Her pain was my pain – and then I felt my own, actual pain, as the little boy sitting next to me started wringing my neck. I jerked away and stared at him.

Fast forward to 2004, another film, this time: Hotel Rwanda. I was in Santa Monica with a few friends who had Hollywood aspirations. If you haven’t seen the film, it is one of the most intense portrayals of the individual human spirit you will ever watch. The forceful, desperate pulse of the lead character’s will, set in the context of the horrific genocide of Rwanda, is unforgettable, and is a triumph for a small film. After two hours of the unbearable tick-tick-tick pace and scene after scene of machete-wielding violence, I walked out of the film feeling shaken, grateful, and dazed. Turning to my friends, I grasped for words to express my thoughts, but was cut off by the other woman in the group. “Well, there is one thing you can definitely say about that movie.” I waited for the heartfelt statement about the tragic violence or perhaps the awestruck compliment of the lead character’s heroism. She shook her head in pity. “Terrible production values.”

Before I could ask her if she’d just seen the same film I did, the other two concurred and they launched into a spirited episode of Shallow People Peanut Gallery, criticizing the rough editing in spots, the unpolished dialogue in others, the not-enough-blood generally. I was speechless as we walked down the Third Street Promenade, marveling at this wading pool of empathy on display, until one of them finally noticed. “I think it’s really sad that you could watch a true story about genocide and an incredible character deliver an amazing performance and the first thing out of your mouths is that the production is a little rough. That’s what I think.” With that, I marched away. These were not my people. These were not even my friends.

The best part about a clean break is that it frees up your social schedule like you wouldn’t believe. You now have plenty of wide, empty hours to find your people – and you make the twin discovery that once you find them, you just keep finding more. Or, as a friend in midlife put it, “You find one or two good ones a year, hang on to them, and pretty soon you have the whole set.”

Of course, it works both ways. Sometimes you are not someone else’s people, either. I remember the time I was on a first date with a retired fighter turned celebrity trainer. He was wrapped up in a chicken dish at a party and I’d approached him to ask him out, admiring his calm, studious physique, I mean, demeanor. My friend, John, was put off by the man, saying he could never trust a guy who eats chicken with such intensity. I rolled my eyes. This guy could totally be my people! He could even be…the one. Midway through the date, he began telling me about the new line of fitness videos he was about to debut. I smiled encouragingly and he got excited and began to tell me more. Nodding in support, I said, “Well, it’ll be refreshing to have some other LA fitness video that isn’t that obnoxious Billy Blanks. God, that guy! Could he be any more annoying? I mean Tae Bo, really? And those shorts!” I was feeling pretty pleased with my supportive attitude until I realized his fork had been hanging in the air halfway to his mouth for at least three of my sentences. He set the fork down and set his cold gaze upon me. “Billy Blanks is my mentor for this project. He taught me everything I know. In fact, he’s my best friend.”

I wasn’t his people.

There was the cut-short, alas, love who informed me blithely, “I don’t really care about the planet.” Well, then.

There was the college sorority I rushed that decorated their final party with hundreds of shopping bags, from Gucci and Tiffany’s to Victoria’s Secret and Forever 21. And they let me rush right on by.

We spend whole marriages with people who are not our people, pass through whole decades before we look up and realize we’re not holding on to a squirrel at all.

Still, I remain convinced you have more people than you realize and it’s not based on whether your feathers go together. It’s about who has your back. The Dallas socialite who votes Republican and asks you about the Fox special on global warming being a hoax happens to care a lot if Monsanto is shutting down family farms in Lubbock. She might also buy a hybrid Lexus (baby steps, baby) and put solar panels on her roof. And she might track those panels’ efficiency on her iPhone app – that is, when she’s not busy rescuing abused and abandoned dogs. That girl might be one of your best friends, in fact.

We’ve all read about the factors for success. Over the years, we’ve credited genetics, or privilege, or competitive set, or IQ. Malcolm Gladwell currently has us all favoring the spend-enough-time-at-it-and-you’ll-become-a-genius theory. (It’s appealing, to be sure.) Ten years or 10,000 hours of dedicated attention to one pursuit, and you, too, could be Bill Gates or perhaps Steve Jobs. I think there’s got to be something in all these factors, including Fate’s friend, Random Chance, but I also think there’s something more: finding your people. They are necessary these days.

It’s true that many of our great artists and talents have labored in solitude, and accomplished things that have changed the way we live and think. There are so many exceptions to the people argument, we could spend a very long column exploring them. For every star with a cast of supporting characters behind her is the virtual hermit slaving over a pending masterpiece. So I don’t mean to be definitive, but I do believe that your people are crucial not only to how you feel, but to what you get done.

Do you need to mentor yet another struggling Special Snowflake? Do you have to remind yourself – again – that your friend on Devil’s Advocate Autopilot “means well”? The friend who dismisses your change-the-world ambitions as silly or pointless or weird – you may like, even love, this person content to do not very much, but does she help you grow? He may think you’re acting like you’re too good for him. Maybe that’s because you are.

Shallow, sidelining, selling, undermining, operating, manipulating, mean girls, jealous boys. We know them all and sometimes we are them. All our pasts, unless you’re perfect, are littered with episodes of regrettable behavior towards others. The difference is that some learn and grow, while others flit. For them, life is an endless loop of hive-flocking and resume-gardening. It’s an easier life, and many perfectly decent people choose it. Of course, yours is different. You couldn’t fritter a letter to Mom, much less a life. Which is why sometimes we need to remind each other not to fritter our friendships, either. And sometimes, we just have to walk away.

This is the latest installment in your editor’s column, The Insider’s Guide to Life, exploring topics such as media, culture, sex, politics, and style. Cheers and spellcheck!

Image: Gilles Gonthier