I just got yelled at in a parking lot for taking too long to push my cart. The woman (not young or old) in a big white van shouted, “Get a move on!”
It’s true, I had a momentary mind lapse in front of PetSmart, my cart full of a heavy box of litter and canned food, as I watched her coming along. I couldn’t tell if she was going to stop and she didn’t seem to be slowing down, so I paused. Then for a few seconds I turned my head in the other direction to look at some new construction. When I turned back, she had sort of stopped, that is, the van was inching along. That’s when she yelled.
I pushed my cart in front of her, willing myself to remain calm and not flip her the finger. I didn’t really feel angry. I considered blowing her a kiss and shouting, “Mellow out honey buns.” But I did feel hurt and violated and a semi-humorous albeit sarcastic response was too nice for her. By the time I got to my car, I wanted to cry.
I watched the van charge ahead toward the exit, where she ran into the construction blocking her way out. She then had to zig zag back through the parking lot and through a gas station to find another driveway into the main street.
Sadly, I’m used to the rudeness. In La Jolla, mothers in big SUVS texting and cutting other cars off. Businessmen in black Mercedes not stopping in intersections. In Pacific Beach, the impatience of many young people, music booming, trucks bearing down.
But this was the first time someone actually yelled.
Admittedly, there have been times when I’ve felt impatient crawling through a parking lot behind a group of people not paying attention. Often the same mothers or twenty-somethings who tailgate or rush around on the road but amble, take … their … sweet … time, four abreast, on the sidewalk or in the parking lot aisle.
But I would not assault them with words anymore than I would with a gun.
Two extra minutes is not going to make a difference in my life. Barring emergencies, does it in anyone’s?
Why did this woman, not young or old, in the huge van, feel the need to yell?
Her words weighed on my slightly stooping shoulders the rest of the day.
What if I were really old and slow? That day is closer than I care to admit and it makes me sad, really sad, to think further insults await on the road ahead.
Reading Carolyn See, I’m sixteen again, flying with my girlfriends up Pacific Coast Highway. We are good students, serious girls, honors English, we have standards, but on Fridays after school, we are free. Bouncing along in a finned Ford or Buick, blasting our music, shouting into the salty wind to anyone who will listen, happy to be cruising to the outer limits of vast LA.
Carolyn was like that. She captured all the broken dreams and sun-baked inhabitants of an indefinable city without driving off the edge, without abandoning the zany sense that all this is nuts, but aren’t we having a great time? Her writing in all its forms – novels, memoir, book reviews – always grasped the importance of a subject, but without a pompous PhD voice. No dusty academia for her, even though she graced the halls of respected universities.
Even writing about sadness and terror – her screwed-up parents, lives, loves and worlds lost – she managed to reveal all through a lens of compassion and humor.
I knew none of this in 1980 when I went to interview her. I didn’t know who she was.
I read about her novel “Mothers, Daughters” and decided it would make a nice story for Mother’s Day. As the new feature editor of the Culver City News, it was my job to build up the Community Life section of the paper.
I reached Carolyn in her office at UCLA. “Sure, I’d love to talk to you,” she said. “Come on over!”
And so I did, little reporter notebook in hand, camera in my purse. She greeted me warmly and escorted me into her office with high windows. Unlike many people being interviewed, she seemed at ease. I liked her lack of pretention.
I soon learned that her latest novel was not a tribute to sweet mothers. No, it was a dark story about a sad woman going through a divorce. This launched us into a discussion of divorce (we had both gone through two), single motherhood (she had two daughters and I two sons), and changing attitudes. She thought it was important for women to learn to take care of themselves and give up their “lust for tragedy.”
“If I were to write it today, it would be a comedy,” said Carolyn.
In her next novel, “Rhine Maidens,” which came out the following month, her older, divorced woman character learns to enjoy life – while still appreciating children and men. “Men are too cute for words, don’t you think?”
After jotting down all I could capture, I took Carolyn’s picture, assumed I’d be leaving.
“Oh no, we’re taking you to lunch in the faculty lounge. I want you to meet my boyfriend and my daughter. We’re working on a soap opera mini-series for TV.”
And so I met her distinguished man friend John Espey and her daughter Lisa See and my story took on more layers and flavors. An anthropology professor sat with us for awhile. Carolyn announced she was anxious to get home to see how the wetbacks she hired to work in her yard were doing. “Carolyn!” the professor admonished her. But I think she knew Carolyn spoke from irreverently dark humor, not meanness.
I learned that Carolyn had first met John in the early 1960s. An Oxford graduate, writer and UCLA English professor 21 years her senior, he oversaw her dissertation. “But I was too frightened to speak to him until 5 ½ years ago,” she admitted. They were together for more than 25 years.
I enjoyed writing the story and Carolyn liked it too.
She and her daughter thought it was horrible I was stuck in an office and had to write for others. I often thought of Carolyn in the years that followed, especially after I moved from journalism into technical writing, no longer writing about people, but about machines and their software. Even though my bank account grew, my soul shriveled in grey cubicles; by comparison, noisy news rooms didn’t seem so bad.
The trio I met that day in May 36 years ago published two novels and a non-fiction book as Monica Highland. Lisa See is a successful novelist.
In the following years, I ran into Carolyn a few times at readings. I read almost everything she wrote, cried over her tribute to John when he died in 2000, her grappling with grief while sitting in The Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades. She wrote also about her failing eyesight and I could not imagine an unseeing See.
My own writing alternated between floods and droughts and I eagerly grabbed her book, “Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers,” when it appeared in 2002. She recommends writing a thousand words a day and “charming notes” of appreciation five days a week to other writers, journalists, artists. I was too lacking in confidence to follow her charming note advice, especially during drought seasons. But I had a list started, and she was the first one on it.
So I’m writing it now, my thank you letter to Carolyn. I’m sorry I waited so long.
What is it that compels people to offer unsolicited advice? I’ve written about this before but it’s worth writing some more. Unless I ask for it, I don’t like receiving advice. Most of my friends and family know this about me, so when I do get unasked-for advice, it’s from people who don’t know me well.
Recently, for example, a new woman in yoga overheard me explaining to the teacher why I shouldn’t be pushed on the lower spine (the beginnings of bone loss). I already had a funny feeling about this woman, since I’d heard her advising others and I could tell she was listening in. Sure enough, she moves in closer and starts to tell me about a magic herb cure. I cut her off, telling her I wasn’t into herbs and preferred treatments that were tested and proven safe and effective. I then walked out.
In retrospect, I wish I had calmly replied, “I am satisfied with my current treatment.” Let it go at that. The incident made me think about advice giving after a long period of being blissfully free on the receiving end. I even Googled it.
According to what I read (admittedly not totally scientific), most people do NOT like unsolicited advice. So I am not alone here. Only a handful said things like, “I am always learning so I welcome new information” or “The universe is bringing me what I need.” Whatever. If they are perpetually 15 or grew up in a cave, I understand.
It takes awhile to get our bearings in life, to figure out what makes us happy, healthy, what’s important, what work we enjoy, how to take care of ourselves. Some figure it out sooner and give out vibes – no advice needed! (Or maybe they become advice givers, personally or professionally.) Some, me included, are late bloomers and look to many sources for learning – exercise, discussion and support groups, therapy, retreats, reading, fellow travelers, pills, martinis.
I think during this blooming time, which coincided with the colorful, experimental seventies, I listened to a lot of advice! I deliberately put myself in the way of know-it-alls. Dated and even married men who recommended careers, writing styles, how I should handle my sons. Hung out with a few girlfriends who insisted I would benefit from Buddhism or EST being louder. I willingly embraced nuggets of advice, at least long enough to examine them and decide if they made sense to me.
Then I reached a saturation point. Enough already! I gradually realized I’m living the way I want to and feel content most of the time. I like the word contentment better than happiness, since it seems more realistically human, embracing self-acceptance and gratitude, even if we have days of sadness, regret or frustration. Yes, I may need a shoulder to cry on sometimes, or a sympathetic ear, but not necessarily a bunch of babbling “shoulds.”
Does this need to tell others what to do come from a good place? A desire to help a friend? Perhaps. But I also think it comes from a need to alleviate anxiety. To solve problems and thus feel in control. Men do it because they are brought up to be take-charge protectors. However, women do it too.
And sometimes those who offer advice do so because they don’t want to look inward. Easier to solve the problems of others than their own. I admit I have done this mentally, more in the past. Getting older has helped me focus on what I can do with my remaining time and less on self-righteously planning what my friends should be doing. So I try very hard not to offer advice and to ask first if I think of an idea.
And thus my annoyance, after years of being a patient listener, on the receiving end of so much blather. Shut up, already. There is room for no more. If I need help expanding my mind or improving my life, I’ll ask, but in all honesty I prefer to learn on my own.
What I really wanted to ask that woman was, “Why do you think I need medical advice? Are you a medical doctor? Do I have a sign on me that says, Know nothing. Soliciting your infinite wisdom?”
This morning as I left yoga she was busy advising the teacher on how to teach a pose.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).