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5 Oct 2008

Arête

Several people — several friends — have at some point or other criticized (and I mean this mostly in the (de)constructive sense) my perfectionism, my tendency to constantly expect my surroundings and things (and self) to be the best. They’re not wrong, exactly. That is, there’s definitely something wrong with needing the canned goods in the pantry organized in a certain fashion, or packing the moving truck so carefully (and slowly) that absolutely nothing could move or break even in the event of an asteroid strike. I do not, can not, maintain that everything out to be perfect at all times–though why, given the opportunity for improvement without much extra effort, anyone would fail to make said improvement, continues to baffle me. Frequently this is cited in support of some variation on the argument that I’m an android (as though the vast emotional storms inside me could be simple electronics (though I’m sure simple electronics must think the same thing)). The reality, though, seems to be direct evidence against that argued androia. I can count two serious influences in my life as regards perfectionism: my parents, and the honors college.
My parents are amazing people. Maybe all people are amazing, and my parents are not exceptional among them outside of my biased viewpoint, but they do seem special to me, and I think, even subtracting my bias, that they are exceptional. I love them a lot, and am very sorry that I am as much an android as I am, and incapable of really interrelating with them the way my sister does. My father is a miracle of intelligence and strength–so much stronger than me, he burned himself out working for 20 years to provide for us when I’m cracking after 2 (“The son son is rare who measures with his father / and one in a thousand is a better man.” II:276-77)–and my mother starts her day more tolerant than I can get after a couple beers and an hour of the Dalai Lama (not to mention all the years she worked full time and kept up all the cooking-childcare mothery things at the same time). I wish I were wasting less of what I ought to have been getting from them both. I wish I could say anything like this to them without feeling awkward and embarrassed. I think I must be a very difficult child to have, since I am a fairly distant and awkward person, and, sorry as I am at my inability to stay close to my friends, the problem is much worse with my own family.
One thing my parents did not to well is balance quality and price. Generally (and I think this has changed in the past few years, hence the tense) they preferred to buy cheap things rather than high-quality. Sometimes this is an economical choice; the difference in canned corn, for instance (I buy canned myself, though I think we always had frozen growing up) is fairly minimal, and the savings can be in the double-digit percentages (as much as 8¢!). Sometimes, it just means you end up with something two thirds of the price that lasts half as long (and thus costing a third more in the long run). Cheap clothing notoriously wears out and looks bad sooner than more expensive solid-quality cloth will. Making an economical decision means balancing quality vs. price. Blindly spending the least amount possible without regard to durabilty and quality means that a lot of the time you’re going to end up with inferior goods that need to be bought more often (see: road construction, Nickled and Dimed, all kinds of things in my parents’ house). Dealing with makeshifts (Janpack or Eastsport backpacks, say) that started falling apart the second week of school taught me this lesson very well. (Not that, I hasten to add, this meant I ever had to deal with a falling-apart backpack; my mother would never have allowed that. It just meant I had two $15 backpacks that year instead of one $25. My sister and I never lacked for anything (except, you know, coolness, which can hardly have been my parents’ fault).)
The honors college was also filled with some pretty impressive people, and, more relevantly, with a lot of concern for arête. Says the Telegraph of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “If he’d done Greek at school and knew what “arête” meant, we could have been spared most of the 1970s.” (and I think I could add, had I been introduced to the concept through some other agency than ZAMM at the age of 16 I think I might have been spared 10 years of rapprochement with Aristotle). Arête is actually a pretty tricky concept, but my understanding of it was–and more important to the subject at hand, what I took from hearing about it so often was–a sort of ultimate superlative. Arête was the best thing, according to the best definition of what was best (my current reading of the word and its place in philosophy is much more one of ultimate fulfilment than inherent qualities, something like a Platonic ideal). It became, when mixed with loads of other consumer-culture bullshit and too much T S Eliot and High Fidelity and anti-populism, something like a shopping list, for the arêtest books, music, liquor, furniture, whatever.
So I wasted a lot of time and energy getting hold of the absolute best music (Dylan) or philosophy (Aristotle) or novel (Forster) without appreciating it, without enjoying it, and without internalizing it as much as I ought to (to say nothing of all the getting caught up in fancy binding and special edition nonsense I did). It happens that Dylan, Aristotle, and Forster actually produced some pretty awesome stuff that I really do like, and liked right away, for itself, but while that may explain my continued indulgence, it hardly has anything to do with my initial encounters with them.
But now, in my house full of the best music, novels, films, etc, I am actually rather glad for that concern I had at age 19 for the best novels and poetry. I may have (I did) spent too much mental effort justifying reading and recommending William Gibson instead of Evelyn Waugh, and developed too hearty a disdain for many works good but not great, but the legacy of my conspicuous arête consumption is wonderful nights like tonight, moments like now, when, tiring of whisky and Ringworld, I can glance up at my bookshelves, at Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey, and be two books into it before I notice how incredibly lucky I am to have all of these great specimens of human creativity sitting there waiting for me and also the mind and soul to appreciate them.
I had the mind long ago–I actually read and appreciated even this particular Odyssey before–but never before with this swell of joy at the inherent beauty of the thing. As with it’s starting to seem like everything else in life, you need both opportunity and ability. Being handed these great books as an 18-year-old college freshman (or 25-year-old college senior, whatever) gave me the opportunity to enjoy them, and growing up watching my parents dismiss non-obvious quality to their detriment (as well as a packrat nature) kept me from dismissing them when instant pleasure failed to manifest itself. Life, especially the recent non-asshole paying attention to it I’ve been trying to do, is giving me the ability to seize it.
It’s a wonderful, joyous thing to enjoy art. To tie that enjoyment to something 2700 (or 50) years old, to share it with generations, is to magnify it immensely. But this bestness feeling isn’t just about ancient Greeks. I have a notebook with a list of the best songs. There’s only five or six on the list, because the best song isn’t a comparative idea. A song goes on there when it is the best song, when it feels like my entire life is wiped away by a chord change, when a single note (or my god those first two drumbeats of “Like a Rolling Stone”) will shoot my heart out and up past escape velocity so far and fast I’m not sure I’ll ever get it back in place.
Great art–great anything, great books or plants or constellations–are thrilling because of their greatness, but it isn’t just the opportunity to enjoy these beautiful, magnificent things that makes them awesome. The ability to appreciate the greatness is where the awe comes from, and the self-aware, critical appreciation of the experience turns greatness into transcendence.

Filed by shaun at October 5th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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30 Sep 2008

Devilled eggs too

I just wrote a song about what’s happening at work right now. The chorus goes like this:

Do you smell it?
It is sausage!
Do you smell it?
Summer sausage!

Filed by shaun at September 30th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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27 Sep 2008

I really need to learn to save

You know, I really hate that the control keys for new tab and reload are right next to each other. That’s an extremely lengthy post you’re not going to get to read because I wanted to check the spelling of chana masala. My wrist hurts too damned much to type it again tonight, and I’ll have forgotten most of what I was saying by tomorrow.

Filed by shaun at September 27th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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24 Sep 2008

interactivity

Philos takes exception to my use of the term “solidly passive” to describe music, objecting that any passivity in music (and in any art form) is specific to particular works, and not inherent in the form itself. He is entirely right, of course. The use of the phrase “solidly passive art forms” to describe film and music was actually something I was stuck on for a while, since it’s completely true that no art form is actually passive (in fact, I think part of what makes art art is its demand for interaction from us)–and even the recordshop boys’ appreciation, categorization and discussion of music is itself a wealth of interaction. The distinction I was after, and still cannot come up with solid terminology for, is something like Barthes’ readerly / writerly split, but broader. Generally, listening to an average piece of music or watching a film requires less involvement than does reading an average book. Not that you can’t insert your involvement into anything, but a film will deliver an experience to you regardless of whether you’re actually paying any attention. A book you’re not paying attention to (assuming it even makes sense) is going to be no kind of experience except that of being bored.
There are all kinds of reasons for this, some of them fundamental to the form (I would argue that film’s multi-media nature is inherently closer to external experience, while writing’s restriction to words makes it much closer to thought, or internal experience), some of them because our cultural expectations of and value assigned to different art forms are very different (and thus we are seldom surprised when the movie version doesn’t live up to the book). Also, I should stress the “generally” above. There are novels that couldn’t get more passive (based on my limited perusal of John Grisham’s oeuvre, I think he’s writing to help people who aren’t dead inside yet, but would like to be), and movies that refuse to tell you a passive story (Last Life in the Universe, which I saw last night, is a good example (and highly recommended)).
Music and visual art I have to put together as forms where our expectations of passivity (walk into an office building — on the wall is inoffensive, bland art, and in the are is inoffensive, bland music) are so strong that they dominate the way we experience them. Don’t you think it’s a bit strange that we use art as home decor? That we listen to art in the background while talking to friends at a bar? I think the strangeness is more invisible for music because of its populist nature (almost no one pays attention to visual art for art’s sake, but almost no one pays attention to visual art), but deeper. Satie’s furniture music was, even at the time, partly a comment on the background position role often takes (and partly an embracing of that role); its successor, ambient music, has less to say about being background because all music is functioning more as background in this era when even a trip to the grocery store has a soundtrack.
So just by actually listening to music instead of its being in the background, Rob & co. are more active in their art experience than most, more so when you include evaluating and discussing it. I’m imagining transferring them to a book store instead of a record store, and I think that saying that because they are dealing with music instead of literature they are more passive and less interactive is a) wrong, since we’re talking about great (at least to them) art, in which the inherent passivity of one form vs. another is fairly irrelevant, and b) tangential to what I meant to be my point: that they are consumers rather than producers of art, and that is the real thing changed by Top 5 Records and Sonic Death Monkey.

Side art note: this essay (via koselitz/MeFi) is great. You should read it.

Filed by shaun at September 24th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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15 Sep 2008

Dear Ike,

I want to say thank you. That windstorm you sent through last night? Very impressive. No power for a week? Heck of a job. Most hurricanes are pretty selfish with their affections and don’t send any love as far inland as Ohio, but you just kept going, didn’t you. I want you to know I appreciate all your hard work. You’ve got moxie, kid.

Filed by shaun at September 15th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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7 Sep 2008

self-help books

I am reading a self-help book. I don’t generally mention it, because I usually feel embarrassed about reading them, but I’ve decided that it’s not something I should feel that way about. Here’s why I have felt embarrassed about it, I think:
First, there’s that whole not being perfect thing. This is the dumbest thing to be embarrassed about, but a lot of people spend a lot of time feeling that way anyway. Nobody’s perfect, of course. Thinking it’s necessary to act like there’s no room for improving yourself is so stupid I can’t even articulate the reasons why.
Second, all of these books are really earnest (and frequently very cheesy), especially the motivational ones, which I don’t even read. Being earnest is dreadfully uncool, the least cool thing there is. I have been working really hard on rooting out this awful leather-jacket-and-dangling-cigarette attitude in myself, with success in a lot of areas. I am impressed by thoughtful honesty, even if it still makes me uncomfortable sometimes. I still have trouble with the cliches and cheesiness of the motivational books, but I don’t even read those, and skip the motivational sections of the books I do read, so none of this is actually embarrassing for me, even when I’m being stupid. I just think it is out of habit.
Needing help is also not cool, and I have this whole self-identity thing where I want to be self-sufficient and awesome, but not admitting and being willing to accept help when you need it is seriously lame. Being so proud that it’s OK to fail because at least you failed on your own? Yeah, that makes you a failure. Screw that.
The two real problems big are that a lot of people I do not want anyone else to associate me with (you know, people who are earnest and have problems and like rainbows and stuff) also read self-help books, and that the books themselves are not terribly intelligent.
I am big on intelligence, or even pseudo-intelligence. Self-help books tend to break things out into chapters about how you should write down your ideas as they come along, because then you can go back to what you were doing without having to worry about remembering them, and then spend three pages telling you how to do this (get a pen, and some paper is good too). (Lifehacker and David Allen are so popular I think because they tend to make this stuff feel less like Kindergarten exercises by using Cleverness, even when they’re not actually being much smarter about most of the stuff.) I don’t need three pages telling me about how to write down a bullet point. I am a fucking college graduate, and I know about pens and paper. My sense of being a goddamned misunderstood genius is seriously offended by this stuff.
(Nothing gets in my way more consistently than the fact that I am real smart, because in addition to being real smart, I am also a shallow idiot about a lot of stuff, and the smartness in other areas lets me ignore my idiocy and get away with a lot because I am fast-thinking enough to cover up my gaps. I have been working on this too. I’m really enjoying telling people when I don’t know about a thing, or have only heard the name. Shockingly, people don’t laugh and roll their eyes at me when I do this; they just explain whatever it was they mentioned as though it were perfectly reasonable that I’d never heard of it (except when this thing is “Raspberry Beret”, because apparently it is impossible not to know about that).)
The thing is, even when these books are making a series of obvious and simple points, things I could have thought of on my own, they are usually things I didn’t think of on my own. “Oh, anybody could have done that” is not valid art criticism. Why should it be any more valid an approach to advice? I guess you don’t need to be shot in the face for rolling your eyes at obvious advice the way you do when you say your five-year-old could have painted that Pollock, but they are in many ways equivalent responses. Yes, I totally could have figured out on my own that I don’t actually have to decide on one thing to do with my life, but I fucking didn’t, did I?
Barbara Sher’s book Refuse to Choose is helping me sort some things out. The 30th time it was recommended on Ask Metafilter, I actually read the first few pages on Amazon, and thought a) oh my god, stop capitalizing everything and giving it a stupid name and b) hey, that capital-letter stupid name is totally me.

Note: This was written several years ago, but never published, probably because it’s dull and childish, but I’m going through my old drafts now and publishing or deleting them. This makes me sound like such a misunderstood teenager that I’m a little afraid to read the rest of my old entries, but there are some points here that have become pretty important to me, so I’m publishing it now as written, on the date the draft was saved. Shaun, 2012/03/13

Filed by shaun at September 7th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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5 Sep 2008

the whole sad single-person culture

High Fidelity failing the Bechdel test is at least half the point, whether its creators know that or not (and I think, given John Cusack’s general awesomeness and Stephen Frears’ other movies, they probably do). High Fidelity the film is about a group of self-centered, stuck manchildren. The film knows this is what they are.
There is virtually no genuine interaction of any kind between the characters. The only examples I can think of off-hand are Dick’s asking Rob if he wants to talk about it and the sweater fight between Rob and Barry, both of them intentionally comic examples of interaction fail. The only conversations the characters care about are about music and film, solidly passive art forms. Their real thinking is limited to art criticism and introspection.
Even arts, like books, which require a little more interaction, are mostly out of the picture. As Rob says, he’s read great ones, like Love in the Time of Cholera, but prefers Johnny Cash’s autobiography. Now, I like Cash, but it doesn’t require much of you, even in the way of emotional involvement. It’s not that kind of story. Garcia Marquez, on the other hand, requires you to get emotionally involved. Love in the Time of Cholera is a story about a lot of people, some of whom are women, that you need to care about. There is a lot of interaction.
This is why it’s not what you are like, but what things you like. What things you like is a checklist, a sorting process mostly in black and white, but what you are like? that requires that we explore the depth of human character, man. So if you like the JAMs and the Beta Band, you are OK, even if you think it’s necessary to re-educate your new girlfriend about her musical tastes Stalinist style (the Dick-Anna interaction in the book is so much creepier, by the way).
OK, yes, there is interaction and power struggle and political stuff revolving around who is the best music listener, but these are all substitutes for actual human interaction. The characters are talking, but they are only listening to music. Rob spends his time obsessing about music, but what actually matters to him is his failure at adult relationships. Look at how each of the three recordshop characters find resolution: Rob attempts deep human interaction, Dick gets a girlfriend, and Barry joins a band. They didn’t find the perfect record (in the book, Rob actually does find the perfect record, and it does nothing for him) or make the best top 5 list. They are interacting with other people.
But still the women they’re interacting with aren’t exactly real. Liz is there solely to give advice and carry messages. Anna is Dick’s Girlfriend. Marie exists to be a distraction (and to confound interest in music and women). The ex-girlfriends are mirrors for self-reflection.
Laura is a little more complicated, a very difficult character. She can’t be real, since these boys’ problem (with women) is that they aren’t other people, they’re objects (in the sense that men are objects to The Rules-women, not necessarily sex objects). At the same time, she has to be real, since it is the reality of her and her life that pulls (or at least helps to pull) Rob out of his uselessness. She’s part MacGuffin and part human. The book and film have different proportions of object-vs-person, and that affects the nature of Rob’s development and the story. I find the film Laura a more developed character, but I haven’t thought about it at length, and this could have a lot to do with the literal fleshing out that is inherent on screen.
If these female characters were fleshed out more fully you’d have, I don’t know, Singles maybe—a movie about three men who are confused about life generally, not about three men who have no idea how to interact with others and have retreated into the Aspie world of intense hobbies.
There’s a spectrum of these man-in-relationships movies, with the two poles of man-and-women and man-and-the-ladies. At the man and the ladies end, the female characters are present as plot devices. This is where you’d find, for instance Beautiful Girls. It’s probably possible to make a quality movie of this type (though I can’t think of one offhand), but Alison Bechdel’s never going to watch it. High Fidelity’s about halfway long the notional scale. Its female characters are still mostly plot points, but Laura is developing some character of her own. I can’t think of any movies that would be at the far end of the spectrum, with a man and some fully (or at least as fully as their screentime allows) developed women he’s in relationships with, but I’d probably like to watch them.
I don’t think High Fidelity is a sexist movie (though it does have sexist characters). I think the women in it are as fully real and developed as they should be to tell the story, and that to develop them further would actually undermine some of the film’s strengths, since it’s a very first-person sort of movie. The trouble with High Fidelity isn’t the film itself; it’s viewers who missed the fact that Rob & crew are broken characters, and are using it them as a guide for how to live. Even in the (very friendly to this type of brokenness) context of the film what these men are doing isn’t working for them, and it doesn’t work outside of the movie either. High Fidelity is a great movie. Rob Gordon is not a great man. It’s an important distinction, especially for those of us who pull our role models from art.

Filed by shaun at September 5th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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30 Aug 2008

What is your favorite camelid? Mine is the guanaco.

Really, I don’t know what it means, but I seem to spend so much metaphor time lost at sea, in thick fog, a whirlpool, in strange waters. I’ve never been in strange waters. Aside from half a dozen trips on the ferry near Galveston and one cruise in Lake Michigan, I’ve never been in a boat. I don’t even read a noticeable amount of nautical fiction.

Nevertheless I came here this evening to tell you about my sea voyages. My gyre has been widening recently. Though–and this is a complicated thing, so don’t hold me to it absolutely–I have plenty (Isn’t this a good word, plenty? Such a lovely sound. How often do you stop to appreciate it? Good solid Latin. Plenus, Plenary. I think it would sound better without the of that follows. Is there a linguistic term to distinguish words like plenty, which need an of, and, say, many? They can’t be different parts of speech, can they? Don’t tell me that plenty is a noun here.) of reasons to be (and I am on many (plenty) levels) stressed and unhappy with all of the whatnot, a feeling has been developing (This passive voice is so on purpose. I have to tell you sometime about passive vs. active voice and other languages.) that Built to Spill may have been wrong when they said that you said that etc.

I have been learning Japanese. I was learning Japanese earlier, and I sort of slowed down. Why I am learning Japanese is another thing I should tell you about, but the high-proof version is that it seemed like a good idea at the time, and I picked this thing to be my follow-through-for-once thing, to prove I can do it (also, Japanese is (though sadly the Japanese are not always) awesome, it turns out, but that had nothing to do with the decision). That started in early January, and I got–not exactly stalled, because at most (and this is a big victory for my sorry slacker self) three days in a row have gone by that I didn’t spend at least an hour doing something in Japanese. Language tapes (really CDs/mp3s now of course), movies or TV shows, music, audiobooks (audiobook, singular, actually, the first Harry Potter (I would tell you that I finally read that Harry Potter book all you kids have been talking about, but so has everyone else, and the only interesting thing I have to say is: Cut that first fucking chapter! (Those of you who know how chary I am of exclamation points will appreciate my degree of emphasis here.) It contributes absolutely nothing to the book, plot or character-wise (the Dursleys have no character), and reads like a tin-eared, housebound Roald Dahl. Shit, I lost track of where I was with my parentheses. Really, I haven’t had that much whiskey. Also, did I have a point? Christ, that first chapter is so bad.

Right! I am learning Japanese, and lately I have gone back to actively fucking learning it with Mr Heisig, and know like 300 of the 2100 standard high-school-graduate kanji, and could totally politely enter your house and give you some chocolate cake and whatnot. I am also, shockingly, writing again (as you may have noticed), not exactly often, but oftener, which is the fault of (as far as i can tell) of Alison, (who is now writing actually often, and lately doing so about things that tap on the beaker of my supersaturated subconscious), Rabi (who has been writing about some things I wish I’d managed to write about when I was dealing with thinner versions of them), and Elyse Sewell (who was on TV or something? but managed to escape with her awesome intact). I recently wrote a song. It’s shitty, but it is an actual song, with a chord progression I did not steal from the Cure and even a TS Eliot reference or two (see: shitty). Earlier this evening when I was guitaring (the guitars sit next to the computer, and it is sometimes impossible not to pick them up and pluck a bit, but it’s not actually playing), I actually wrote a melody. It seems to be for the themesong of a Gummi Bears clone. I’ve been doing a lot of database stuff at work. On the whole, I am thinking more about difficult things, technical, cultural, and personal.

I was busy watching Ken Burns’ (Jesus, that man must have had his sense of humor surgically extracted) take on Mark Twain (Jesus, that man is funny.) when this–well, not aam at least a bit sentence more of an image–popped into my head: Lately I have been lost in much wi(l)der seas, but they are also more pleasant (this is still actually all I’ve said; I’m just a very slow typist). Maybe it’s just my brain working again, but there’s been an odd upswell (Seriously, always the fucking sea. maybe I need to Harvard-Yale me up a ship all Melville-style) of hope. I don’t think I could feel less responsible, so it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is going on, but I think it’s good.

Some things are clear. I need to go back to school (for what remains unclear). I am tired of being landlocked. I made you a CD: Here Comes the Ocean.

Filed by shaun at August 30th, 2008 under indifferenthonest
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