Last Essay for February

Last Essay for February

Writing an essay a day is an easy thing to do. Writing an interesting essay a day is not, at least not for me. The month of February was an excellent exercise in cutting the chaff from the wheat, and I’m glad that I did my essay-a-day project.

Observations that I’ve made about the past month’s worth of writing:

  • I often did not know what I was going to write about until a few hours before I had to write it. This produced some pieces that were uninspiring to me, but also generated some of my favorite essays. As with fiction writing, sometimes you just have to trust the process.
  • I have a tendency to pick theses that are too ambitious for short essays. Many times during February, I would be two or three thousands words deep into an essay and realize that it would require thousands more to properly address its thesis. I would then have to set that essay aside and think of something else to write that could be properly confined to 500-1,500 words.
  • I didn’t anticipate so many pieces that were inspired by, or incorporated, music. My writing in the past hasn’t done this, but I’ve found it to be valuable to me (and hopefully anyone who reads the essays). I’m not exactly sure how I’ll incorporate music into future writing, but it’s exciting to have a new tool.
  • I’ve always written consistently, almost daily. But the writing would be very short notes and to-do lists in one notebook or another. After this February, the notebooks will likely contain more essays. I find myself drifting into the David Sedaris pattern of writing, although I know he didn’t publicly post most of his notebook scribblings (I actually haven’t either—there are piles of filled notebooks in my room right now).

I think I’ll do another essay-a-day project later in the year, but definitely not before June. I have a book to finish writing.

Cat Tatt

Cat Tatt

I ordered a temporary tattoo that should last somewhere between one and three weeks. The tattoo is of a cat. I am excited.

There’s not much that I have to say about the acceptability of tattoos that I haven’t already said in “Blue Hair, Don’t Care,” but, as with my blue hair, my tattoo will be temporary.

I don’t care to have permanently colored hair or inked skin; that doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to the idea in general, just that I prefer optionality. Why have blue hair forever (or until the dye wears out), when I can have blue hair one day, and green hair the next, and my natural hair color the day after?

Now that I’ve walked around Cambridge and Boston with colored hair for a bit, I’ll be interested to compare its reception to the cat tattoo’s. The colored hair drew a lot of slanted eyes, and I was looked at askance on multiple occasions.

Perhaps part of the reason for this was that, apart from my hair (which was itself styled in the fashion of a Harvard cut), the rest of my self-presentation was remarkably plain. I usually wear mostly blacks, dark blues, and olive colors in the winter, and these are always the colors of sweaters, slim-straight pants, and vests. Maybe the looks were just a result of the contrast between the atypical hair color and the very typical everything else.

But some of the looks definitely weren’t, which I hadn’t expected in large numbers. Being surprised that someone is atypical in some manner of self presentation in Cambridge is like walking around Hell and being surprised that people are being poked with pitchforks. It’s just how things are done here.

So, given that, even places like Cambridge have a long way to go before reaching blue-hair-don’t-care status.

But the cat tattoo will be different in a few ways:

  • I will deploy it in a few weeks when it’s consistently warm enough to wear shorts on my outdoor runs.
  • I will place the cat tattoo on my calf muscle.
  • Images of cats, generally, portend whimsy. Brazenly colored hair does not—if anything, the connotations associated with that are slightly negative on balance.
  • Even though no one will know my tattoo is temporary upon visual inspection, a cat tattoo is sort of in the category of a tattoo with “Mom” written on banner that encircles a heart. Yeah, it’s a tattoo, but it’s not a skull or even just barbed wire. It’s. A. Cat.

Of course, I’ll have to wear the cat tattoo by itself for a few days, and then also color my hair to see what the joint impression will be. I will be delighted and overcome with the aforementioned whimsy, and I hope that others can be as well.

Dating and Friend Making

Dating and Friend Making

In recent history I’ve deliberately changed my approach to finding prospective long-term romantic partners. Normally, this process is facilitated through the dating process, which entails a series of interactions that, usually within the first several, begin to incorporate physical intimacy on some level (from hand-holding on up).

In contrast to dating, there is the friend-making process. The adult friend-making process (for many) begins with a few small interactions that are very gradually scaled up over weeks and months—perhaps longer.

If your potential new friend is a coworker, this process can be made easier by virtue of the repeated daily contact. If they are not a coworker, but perhaps just another frequent visitor of your favorite coffee shop, the process can take longer to get off the ground.

But, eventually, should you acquire a sufficient amount of mutual knowledge and trust, you will start to share increasingly intimate information and experiences, like going out to eat together, seeing movies, visiting each other’s living quarters, or taking trips together.

I am generally reluctant to voluntarily spend a lot of time with someone I don’t know a lot about, especially if early signs indicate that we don’t get along sufficiently to justify the volume of interaction. So if I make a friend that I dedicate much outside-of-work time to, it’s because I know a good deal about them, and I like what I know. And it’s only at this more advanced stage of knowing them that I willingly share a lot of personal information about myself in the hopes/dreams/fears department.

The friend-making process as described above is designed to scale: you begin with a little interaction and information sharing, and gradually increase over time if warranted. After this has gone on long enough, the friend becomes a sort of best friend or confidant.

This is the opposite of the standard dating model, and is the reason that I jettisoned “dating” as I’ve traditionally done it.

The traditional trajectory of dating for most people, and my historical self, has been: spend lots of time with someone you just met (or, at least more than you normally would), and introduce physical intimacy relatively early on in your relationship; this doesn’t have to be sex—it can be something like kissing.

I would never make a friend in that fashion, and the reason why is the same reason that I’ve stopped trying to forge an enduring romantic connection that way: it allows emotional intimacy, by virtue of brain chemistry, to disproportionately outstrip the growth of conscious friendship building—and to cloud one’s ability to even do that. Oxytocin is a tricky thing, and introducing it too early is the same as voluntarily retarding your ability to accurately evaluate relational compatibility with another person. This increases the chances that you will devote more time to someone who, absent the bonding chemical, you would have otherwise left behind.

Since I want any man that I form a romantic connection with to also be my friend, friendship building must happen first—and only then can romantic connections be established.

This approach isn’t novel in human history by any means, and I wouldn’t imagine that what I’m doing would be right for everyone—although I think it might be right for many people. This also doesn’t preclude casual romantic encounters for a variety of reasons—it just requires that I recognize the dimming effects that they will have on my evaluative powers and control for them. This shapes the nature and context of those encounters, but that’s for another essay.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Technical Skill Applied to Terrible Ends

Technical Skill Applied to Terrible Ends

In the past few weeks I’ve attended several musical performances; I enjoyed some, but not others. One thing that they all had in common was that each featured performers with high technical skill and mastery of their instruments. This commonality made the enjoyable performances better, as one would expect, but made the unenjoyable performances—not necessarily worse, but interesting in a way I hadn’t thought about.

In general, I think that competent execution of a task or skill is an attractive thing to watch. The spectacle of a concert pianist’s hands is a performance in its own right, apart from the sounds that they provoke.

But what happens when the sounds that those expert hands produce is a carefully orchestrated cacophony? Here, I’m not talking about discord that makes contextual sense (it sets the stage for resolution into some kind of harmony, or relief of tension, or something). I’m talking about ugly sounds that exist as the primary focus of the performance, absent context that would give them relevant meaning.

In competent hands these sounds have a complex structure, and often as a result hint at some kind of resolution or context—but never provide it. In addition to aural displeasure, the music is a repeated shattering of expectations and refusal to provide relief.

If it is a musician’s goal to produce exactly those emotions, then, while the music won’t necessarily be pleasant, it can be potentially interesting in the context of a musician’s goal. Sometimes the point of music is just to stimulate emotion, and exploring emotions, even the kind that correspond to “repeated shattering of expectations” can be an interesting exercise. In the same manner, I might see a horror movie—in that space it’s safe to explore darker emotions and fears.

But not all art is good, or is done with good intentions (which I know is controversial to some), and that can include music.

Bad art, when paired with—and produced by—competent displays of technical mastery, is emotionally confusing. I’ll come back to the piano: watching a skilled pianist’s hands, absent sound, is sufficiently wonderful for a show. But if they produce bad music, I can’t turn away as easily as if some toddler were mashing their hands down on the keys—it’s a different kind of bad, one with delicate structure. I’m not sure if it’s like a car crash—I can’t look away because I’m sort of incredulous that such a thing is happening—or because I wish that somehow the competence of execution would bleed over into the aesthetic and aural quality of the music. To be determined, I suppose.

In any case, I would gladly just put on noise cancelling headphones and watch such a pianist play.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

Personality Tests & Alignment

Personality Tests & Alignment

The game Dungeons and Dragons has a schema used to determine a game character’s moral and personal attitudes, which are summed up by its “alignment.” Alignment is derived by a point on a Cartesian plane, the two axes of which are “good vs. evil” and “law vs. chaos.” For the sake of this essay, assume that good and evil are on the x-axis, and law and chaos are on the y-axis, as below.

As you can see, there are nine principal alignments that are produced at the extreme points of the axes:

  1. Lawful Good, “Crusader”
  2. Neutral Good, “Benefactor”
  3. Chaotic Good, “Rebel”
  4. Lawful Neutral, “Judge”
  5. True Neutral, “Undecided”
  6. Chaotic Neutral, “Free Spirit”
  7. Lawful Evil, “Dominator”
  8. Neutral Evil, “Malefactor”
  9. Chaotic Evil, “Destroyer”

To read the details about each one, go here.

But, as you could also imagine, there are many more points than just these nine—there are as many other points as the Cartesian plane would permit, which approaches infinity.

Although I don’t think this schema is incredibly profound, I think it’s useful and fun for thinking about my own tendencies and personality traits; for the same reason, I don’t think that Myers-Briggs personalities are dispositive, but I like the mental exercise that their contemplation engenders.

In practice, this kind of introspection can go in one of two broad directions:

  • You can pick one of the nine on the list you like best for yourself, thinking it correctly represents the ideals you hold, or
  • You can pick the one of the nine that actually represents how you are, which may or may not line up with the ideals that you hold.

The first kind of introspection isn’t really introspection—it’s wishful selection based on what we’d like to find upon actual introspection, although individuals who do it aren’t typically explicit about the fact that they’re doing it. Others have called this belief in belief,” and I’ll keep that terminology. It’s what’s at work when someone says, “I’m a [person who believes in this or that deity/religion]” while the rest of their thoughts and actions contradict that belief.

The second kind of introspection can be done with varying levels of quality, but it does require that an individual be able to examine what is happening in their head, and why. Unlike the first kind, the second kind does not pick a conclusion beforehand—it picks one after examining the metrics for selection and accepting where they point.

Put otherwise, the second approach asks, “Do I really think that? Do my actions line up with that?” instead of doing what the first approach does, “I’m that one!”

Take the alignment schema for a whirl. I think it’s an interesting way to conceptualize various personal tendencies. In general, it seems like I tend toward “chaotic good,” although I’m not on the edge of the Cartesian alignment graph.

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

You Can’t Make Old Friends

You Can’t Make Old Friends

Sometimes when you meet someone new, you feel a strong connection to them. This can happen for a variety of reasons. But for me, the feeling of connection is always accompanied by a feeling of frustration. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is at the heart of me making friends as an adult.

The frustration results from the new potential friend not knowing anything about you (and vice versa)—despite an excellent first encounter, they don’t know your history or your true level of sincerity about anything. I always have a strong desire to explain myself to these rare people—but this explanation isn’t justification, it’s evidence.

This frustration is similar to this one: you love a thing, whether that is a TV franchise, a book series, or whatever. You’ve loved it forever, and you know everything about it. You love to discuss it. Then, one day, one of your friends begins to also enjoy that thing—they watch the first episode, read the first book, or whatever—and all the sudden you want them to just be done with it. You don’t want to rush their experience, but you want to share your full one with them and enjoy it together.

The same holds true with people: until you know a great deal about them (“watched the series of their life,” so to speak), and they know a great deal about you, you can’t forge a truly deep (Aristotle’s friends of the good) relationship with them. This process, unfortunately, cannot be rushed. In my experience, it takes me about two years to go from actively deciding to be friends with someone to platonically loving them.

This might otherwise be called the frustration with acquiring old friends. You can’t just make an old friend who’s known you for a while, and consequently understands you more than others might (and vice versa). If you want more friends like this, you have to start today and let them mature over the course of years.

There’s nothing to do about this frustration—good friendships take time to build, even with someone who is remarkably like you. But being aware of the emotion, and why it exists, is beneficial nonetheless. It primes me to cultivate new friendships when opportunity strikes, and to continue to cultivate friendships that I’ve made.

There are too many stories of friends falling out of touch, and not because of any bad reason, just because one moves away or something—I’ve had a few of these. But I will conscientiously avoid having them in the future. To give up a friend also means losing someone who shares a piece of your life that perhaps no one else will understand, having not witnessed it. Assuming that this friend is a good person, I generally think it’s worth the work to keep up with them (there are qualification to this, of course, but those aren’t the subject of this essay).

Note: for anyone who’s read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, I would call the corollary of this frustration Claudia syndrome, per this line said by Armand to Louis:

“She’s an era for you, an era of your life. If and when you break with her, you break with the only one alive who has shared that time with you. You fear that, the isolation of it, the burden…”

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.