John D. Spooner is an investment adviser, author and novelist. His most recent book is No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Lessons for Young Adults. Here, he responds to queries from advice seekers of all ages. Send your conundrums to email@example.com.
I know that if you have friends for a long time you see the good, the bad and the ugly. And I also know that friends talk about each other to other people—not always in flattering ways. It’s hypocritical. I’m visiting my best friend in another state soon, and I feel really guilty about mean things I’ve said behind her back. But I’ll bet she’s said mean things about me. Are we really friends? You’re not alone in this concern. Almost everyone talks to other people about friends—and spouses and lovers, too. It’s called human nature. It’s the same when it comes to keeping secrets. How many times have you heard, or said, the words “Promise you’ll never tell anyone”?
“I swear,” comes the answer. But very few people keep secrets. People love gossip, and there is a German term you should know: schadenfreude. It basically means secretly reveling in other people’s misfortunes. With some folks, happiness isn’t found in their own success, but in their best friends’ failures.
But all this aside, we need old friends. When we see people from our past—classmates, campmates—we all tend to fall into each other’s arms with shared memories on both sides. We return to childhood, mostly happy days, the sniping forgotten in the moment. And the longer you’ve known someone, after the first shock of seeing each other, the more precious the reunion. So, gossip aside, in those moments it’s all worth it. Go visit your friend. While you’re with her, the mutual therapy of old stories can be sustaining.
The other night my wife and I went out to dinner with friends. I politely asked that everyone refrain from using their phones. “No phones on the table” is what I said. It was a great dinner and we all got to engage with each other like you’re supposed to do at dinner, not staring into the blue screens of the ever-present phone. Here’s my question: Was I out of line with my request? I am now being told that I was rude, that people may have felt bullied by my request. Settle the argument for us, please. Was I wrong? It seems that nothing is off limits these days, and the constant intrusion of social media is beyond all sensible bounds. Good for you for insisting on a few hours of “time out.” Why shouldn’t you draw a line at what you think is unacceptable behavior? Your friends can object to your request. Fine. You don’t need to go out with them for dinner.
Children often push back when they’re in high school and feeling the many pressures of adolescence. Now I’m feeling this pushback when they’re out in real life, after school. I set up trusts years ago for my two children, a boy and a girl. I’ve had a dear friend, an accountant, do all of our tax work for years. Both of our kids are feeling their oats and telling me to dump our accountant because he’s charging too much and always has. This is tricky. We’ve had a close relationship and he understands family history. What do we do? There does come a time, as parents are getting older, when children start wanting to become the parents. The ultimate, in my view, was King Lear giving up his kingdom to his competing daughters. That didn’t turn out so well. Lear wandered mad and alone on the heath.
My grandfather had four children, my mother and three brothers, my uncles. They all scattered in different directions when they became adults, and my grandfather was firmly in charge of his own life and finances. He died in the house he had built in back of Boston College. He lived to be 94 and swore he would never retire. He’s my model; he loved his family but stayed fiercely independent and didn’t give away his kingdom in his lifetime.
So do two things to resolve your problem. One: Stay with your faithful accountant. But give him a lesson. Tell him of your children’s concerns and attitudes. Then tell him to pay attention to the next generation, to meet face to face with your kids and explain how he charges and why they’d be well served to give him their personal accounting work as they grow older.
Two: Teach your children lessons as well. Some things are beyond money. They should know about people who add value to our lives because of their special caring. Your accountant has been a valued adviser and friend. You’re at the top of his list of clients he cares for and to whom he is responsive. In a chaotic world, it’s worth paying a premium for real relationships.