She got sober and now she's boring!

My friend used to be brilliant and troubled. Now she's fine and ... dull.

Published March 19, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a 22-year-old student. In high school, I befriended a girl who had what I now recognize as a serious drug problem. But this is not to say she was a strung-out shell; Rosie (name has been changed) was and is extraordinarily smart. At 15 she could read a 200-page book in about 90 minutes. She saw the world completely in her own way, and was simultaneously very forceful and very funny. She had her own sartorial sense, so that even a white T-shirt seemed striking when she wore it. You're probably thinking Enid from "Ghost World"; you're not far off the mark.

For all the reasons stated above, I (and others) didn't recognize the seriousness of the situation. It didn't help that I was uninvolved in drugs, so wasn't around when things were going south. Long story short, she went to rehab and fell off the radar for a while. We grew up. We both go to college in the same area and reconnected. She's now evidently much healthier, happier, more well-adjusted and ... and boring.

Let me make one thing clear before I continue. I want Rosie to be happy and well-adjusted in life; I do not want her (or anyone else) destroying themselves, for any reason. In every other case of successful addiction recovery that I've seen, the person becomes both more interesting and more fun to be with than they were before; that's why I'm not writing letters about them.

Still, though, what's the problem? Rosie is still smart, she still has good taste in books and music, she's even more productive than before. From all outward signs she's doing well. But I realized she isn't that unusual or extraordinary. Her view of the world now seems rather uninspired, however outrageous her clothing. Her art is good, but it's local-gallery good, not Artforum good -- the equivalent of a band that's good because you know its members, but if you didn't you wouldn't listen to them. We used to have philosophical conversations on a semi-regular basis; although we're closer now than before, her observations strike me as a bit shallow. As a teen there were endless (eulogistic, and substantiated) stories about her; now she tells stories about herself that aren't interesting.

Obviously I'm not going to say anything to her about what I've just told you. I feel selfish and shallow just mentioning this to you. God knows I have faults. But as we've gotten closer it's disturbed me more and more. I missed Rosie when she was gone. I was happy when we met again. She's someone I care about, and if we met now I wouldn't care about her.

I'm not exactly looking for advice, so much as context. This might be the equivalent of seeing how much smaller your kindergarten classroom is. Maybe I bring back bad memories for her. Or maybe we've just outgrown each other, as often happens at this age.

What do you think? Should I just cut my losses and move on? Should I distance myself in some tactful way? Is there something else I can do?

Chagrined at the Boringness of my Friend

Dear Chagrined,

Before we start (and get ready, this is going to be a long one!), I want to say something that is personal but relevant. Its relevance will become apparent.

I was driving this morning to the post office to ship a book to a person who ordered it (yes, I do this myself) and I looked at the people at the bus stop waiting for a bus to take them to work. And I realized how extraordinarily rare my work situation is, because I was not sweating it out about being late, I was not dressed like somebody else, I was not spending all day doing something I'm totally ill-equipped to do, and I thought about some not-so-good days of struggling in anonymous day jobs and living in hotels and wandering the streets as a writer without an audience or a patron or healthcare or supportive colleagues or a desk or a chair or a computer to write on and realized that absolutely anything I say now about the economy, about anyone else's job prospects, about anyone who gets laid off or fired or whose business fails or who is worried about the economy ... that anything I say is going to be colored -- and yes, perhaps, undermined -- by the fact that my own situation is very rare and very fortunate. (Yet not unattainable, and that is the hard, gleaming pedagogical kernel at the heart of this expansive disquisition!) To be employed as a writer, with healthcare, and to be writing in my own way about topics of my choosing, and to have personal connections with the people I write for, and about: This is a rare case for a writer. As long as it lasts, I bear that in mind.

Furthermore (he drones on!): While all the shit and misery I have gone through trying to survive as a writer in this country was no fun, I do believe that it was also necessary and educational. So if you are graduating from college with a degree in journalism and you are frightened, dispirited, angry, depressed and confused, I do not make light of this or say, with that infuriating offhandedness that your elders have perhaps displayed from time to time, that it's "educational" or it's "nothing," or you'll "get over it," or "learn something from it."

But just so you know: All the little things I did along the way to be a writer and think like a writer and live like a writer and know other writers have been valuable. They led to this spot where well past my 20s I am driving my book to the post office and heading to the cafe to write my column. So I do not look at all the workers like they are suckers. I look at them like they are the same as me. I have worked in those same offices as a temp, as a kid in a band, as a nobody, as a confused wannabe this and that.

So if you are coming out of college into this economy I say this: Dedicate yourself to what you are trying to do. Do stories on spec. Perform anywhere. Do stories for free. Follow up leads wherever you find them. Pitch stories to editors. Befriend other struggling writers, musicians, painters, editors, critics, appreciators, fans and patrons. Keep a good spirit about you. Know that you are one of many who see things and want to tell about them or sing about them or paint about them because these things you see or know or just dream about are so interesting,  so compelling and so complicated. Keep doing it.

Now. About getting sober and becoming boring. I, too, got sober and became boring.

So let's begin with the tyranny of having to appear interesting.

No, let's not. Let's begin with screaming in a bar.

When I had been sober a few weeks one of the charming denizens of my local bar (Murio's on Haight Street) told me, her eyes sparkling with that half-drunk blurry frankness we so love when we ourselves are half-drunk and blurry, "You were more fun when you were drinking."

Here is a story about how much fun I was when I was drinking. This person who told me how much more fun I was when I was drinking is the same person in whose company I suffered my first official 86-ing, from a bar up the street from Murio's, for the reason that I had begun screaming.

Sitting at the bar with my friend, I had hit a certain note that appealed to me, not a high note, but perhaps in the mid-to-upper range for a natural tenor, and I was giving it all I had. I was getting what I considered to be some good head tones. It was a long, long note, like the interminable climax to some power ballad. I was sitting at the bar with my friend and just found myself really getting into this note, this tone. And, being an enthusiastic person who, in his art, in his music, in his writing, had found that there is always a little more in the tank if you push just a bit, having found that repetition of a riff can sometimes push you into new territory, being in many cases therefore the last guy standing, the last guy jamming, the last guy drinking, the last guy in front of the stage applauding, the last guy writing, the last guy eating, the last guy still outside the club waiting for the fun to start, it was my nature to keep screaming.

So there I was sitting at the bar screaming. I had my eyes closed and could feel the little head bones vibrate.

It must have been very loud, now that I think about it. There were other people in the bar. And there was a bartender. Also, I think if I had died then, you would have found cocaine. Cocaine had this way of increasing one's enthusiasm for the moment. So you have cocaine-induced increased enthusiasm for the moment however dumb, plus you have alcohol-induced decreased sensitivity to the disapproval of others and to the dictates of whatever might be left of your own "conscience," and you have a guy sitting at the bar yelling one long, sustained note of dubious beauty and purity. And then he runs out of breath and begins again. Perhaps he is dreaming he is Tarzan. Or a young Robert Plant. It's hard to tell.

From the perspective of, say, the bartender or another patron, what you see is one guy sitting at the bar screaming, with his friend frantically shushing him -- laughing but shushing him, grabbing his arm, which he can feel but does not see because he has his eyes closed, likewise not seeing the bartender, a very nice fellow in most respects, simply doing his duty by enforcing the universal law of bars that nobody, no matter how well liked or innocent in other respects, may sit at the bar screaming. It just isn't done. Not even on Haight Street in the middle of an otherwise boring afternoon. Not even with just a few customers in the bar.

So I was 86-ed, summarily and firmly, to my immense surprise and chagrin and shame.

I couldn't go in there for quite a while. But then, I could always go to Murio's. And Murio's was where I had my last drinks, almost 20 years ago, and Murio's was where this very same friend who had been with me in my time of screaming told me, after I had been sober a few weeks, "You were so much more fun when you were drinking."

So today I say to all the fellow brilliant drunks out there, those of us who spent our early years entertaining those not quite so brilliant as us, those with not so much leftover life to burn, with not so much surplus to waste in clubs and bars: Get boring!

I, like your friend, was an impressive drunk. I could take it farther than anyone else and then, precociously, I could come back from it in an instant! I could snap out of it. I could snap out of it until one day and then on a succession of days I discovered that not only could I not snap out of it but I couldn't even crawl out of it on my hands and knees. I was stuck in it and it was madness and I was terrified. I went from being able to snap out of it to feeling buried in it. It was asphyxiating, poisonous, frightening; I felt I was going mad.

So I became in that moment willing to be the most boring, cardigan-wearing, Mister Rogers, unhip, wide-eyed, home-by-9 and up by 6, teetotaling, pop-culture-ignorant, regular Joe ignoramus on the planet if only I could go through one day without losing my mind and shaming myself and killing myself with this compulsion to drink and take drugs and get thrown out of places.

So listen. You are very cool. If I were 22 now I would want to be your friend. I am too old to be your friend but if you are around, let me know and I will be your friend anyway. But I will be boring, too. I will be boring like your friend. I will be boring because I contain infinity. I must contain infinity because if I do not it will destroy me.

So here is what you have to do with people like me who used to be a ton of laughs and then got sober and boring. You have to hang around us and dig us and look for the glimmer. The glimmer is there. It's just reeled in.

We learn to reel it in because when you're on display like she was, you're spending it all for nothing. You're performing for free for a tiny audience. Nobody's giving you grants for your sculpture. You're flinging ideas into the ether to the applause of maybe three. You're famous to your friends but your friends aren't commissioning any works or giving you an advance. So you reel it in.

I crave your attention but I can't do the old strip-tease for free. A body's got to get paid. Truth be told I still want your whispered admiration and your secret envy of my coolness but not enough to wreck my car and go to jail for it. I have to be the boring one in the crowd of loud laughter or go down screaming to an early grave. I'll live with that. I'm in it for the long haul now. Survival is my trump card. Survival breaks scissors, cuts paper, covers rock. My premature death lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, however amusing it might sound over Jameson and darts or a deafening Damned show where anyone skinny enough to wear all black and play guitar and shoot brown heroin in the men's room can get on the guest list. Do the math.

So this is it from me to you on this day (which incidentally follows St. Patrick's Day, meaning a litany of last night's drinking tales drones on in this cafe of mine): We get sober and become boring because our brilliance deserves to live. Our brilliance deserves to be cared for. Because however brilliant we are at 22, not many of us are Picassos. Not many of us know what the heck we're doing right off the bat. We take time to condition our gift. We take decades. We take decades to learn not only the business of surviving as artists but the business of our own hearts. We are so often wrong about ourselves in the early years. Especially those of us who are really smart and really talented and perhaps even known as precocious: We take decades to figure out what is our gift, and then to find the perfect gig for our perfect gift is a rare find indeed, and much sought after by others with comparable gifts and perhaps certain strategic advantages we had not reckoned on such as irresistible personal charm and great family wealth and a slaying kind of loveliness. So we play the odds and we struggle. We keep at it, my friend. We trudge along. We get boring and we get therapy and we keep trudging along. We learn about money because if you're a brilliant weirdo in this world you'd better find a patron or build a business and stick close to those who respect your talent. And you'd better give it everything you've got, which sometimes means making it an early evening and getting up at dawn the next day to give it another shot because as good as you are there are thousands of people who could take your place and would if given the chance.

So as I look out the window of the truck at all these people standing on the corner waiting for the bus I figure half of them are brilliant artists doing a day job, husbanding their resources and waiting for their chance, and it could be decades under the lash. So I applaud your friend. I applaud her first of all because she's survived. I applaud her because she's husbanding her resources. She's caring for herself. She's living to fight another day.

And to you, my precocious, amusing and perplexed lucky friend, I say cherish her. Stick with her. Listen for the glimmer.

Addiction? Creativity? There's stuff in here about that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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