Of Labels and Pieces of Meat in Friendship

When warehouse shopping came into vogue, my mother was ready for it with her gigantic freezer, rolls of waxy white freezer paper, and permanent markers. Every piece of meat that she wrapped was labeled according to the cut and the date she bought it. Our freezer was always very much like Lucy Ricardo’s when she bought that side of beef. There was always something to eat, and knowing what it was and if it was safe to eat contributed as much to our sense of well-being as the meat itself.

That’s the way it should be with meat. People are another story, though in this day and age it’s sometimes hard to remember that. Pop psychology, dime-a-dozen talk therapists and social workers, talk shows, self-help mags, and the like have taken the business of labeling out of the kitchen and imposed it on just about every human relationship.

Now, instead of being just plain interesting—or even boring—we’re neurotic, depressed, insecure, paranoid, passive-aggressive, bipolar, borderline, manic, and on and on…. We're being taped down with labels so that we can't move.

I know—I should say knew—a woman who is—or perhaps was—a great label maker. With this woman, you’re a this or a that and then you’re out with the trash. End of story. There you stay for all time in the freezer of her mind as a freezer-dried lump of meat with a curling label stuck to you.

I know or knew another woman who does or did something similar. Not to me but to my friends and family she handed my diagnosis in her manipulative, controlling, passive-aggressive way. Thus I learned through the grapevine that this woman, a failed social worker, found me to be a borderline schizophrenic lesbian terrorist.

I’ll tell you she was 25 percent right, but I won’t say which 25 percent was dead on. You’re welcome to get to know me and find out for yourself. I used to joke that I would get her to describe me to a police artist and see if the thug the artist drew bore any resemblance to me.

But it's not funny; it hurts like hell. The problem with all of this is the freezer, really. By labeling and storing human beings in the freezer of your mind, you don’t accept that people change and grow, that the part is not the whole, and that—and this is the really hard part for the gifted label makers of the world—you might have been wrong. The really really hard part: you might have some responsibility for your own negative experience of a person.

The modernists made a godlike virtue of our independence and individuality. The post-modernists wondered about that. The post-post-modernists see the folly of this and point to our interdependence. This “no man is an island” stuff of John Donne—a post-post-modernist a few centuries ahead of his time—was right. But even if each of us were an island, we would be vulnerable to the waters that surround us, the tsunamis that engulf us, the gentle birds that find in us refuge on their journeys through the air.

I have been battered by the label makers of my life. Without exception, they are manipulative game players, insecure neurotics, passive-aggressives….Just kidding. They’re human beings who have been very hurtful. Sometimes I wonder if they have or will change. They never labeled the love in my heart, perhaps assuming it would wither and die with the rest of me in the freezer. Perhaps they never wanted to see anything good anyway. I'll never know, and I no longer need to know.

So what’s a woman to do? I’m going to get me one of those daisy wheel label makers before the next holiday (Super Bowl Sunday) and label everyone I can think of. I am going to think of every good thing I can say about these people and create labels. I will tell them they are funny, kind, warm, generous, gracious, welcoming, smart, challenging, honest. I will think of all the labels that have no place in a freezer because they are seeds that can grow love and the marvelous intimacy of real friendship. I am going to hand over those labels in person.

We need each other in this interesting world, and we’ve got to keep it warm.


  1. Anonymous2:57 PM

    Sounds like you've got some real winners for friends. Nice of you to think kind thoughts about them,but why not just lose them?

  2. I don't know. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Anonymous9:11 PM

    friends? how about abusive ass holes? these women really suck

  4. Anonymous12:29 PM

    It's like you said in your post about the guinea pigs...

    "And, lucky him, he has a patient friend willing to put up with a little abuse now and again. No guilt. No shame. No humiliation."

    Friends are much kinder and much more understanding and loving than these folks you've written about.

    It's never easy to "lose them" as anonymous said. That doesn't feel good, either.

    We wonder where we failed. But the abusers are the failures. And maybe it's the person walking away who's the true, true winner.


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