Monday, October 27, 2014

Friendship and its discontents

Actually, I'm not going to talk too much about the discontents of friendship; but thanks to a first-year class at Bard College, I tend to love adding "and its discontents" to almost any noun in a title, the more abstract, the better. Try it, it's fun:
  • Education--and its discontents
  • Love--and its discontents
  • The Gift Economy--and its discontents
What I'm actually going to talk about here comes from a recent Judge John Hodgman podcast on friendship, where the dispute was over this one woman's very precise--and open--way to rank all levels of acquaintance, while reserving "friend" for those particular relationships that merit that honor. 

Which might sound silly (but then, I'll spend hours reading about the history of post-apocalyptic pen-and-paper roleplaying games, so "silly" is a relative term), but John Hodgman made some very cogent points about the abuse of "friend" both as a term and as a concept. 

To wit, with the intimate-seeming nature of online interactions ("John Hodgman told me what he's thinking! By tweeting his thoughts!") and the narcissistic loss of non-friend relationship markers ("It's not enough that I work with my colleagues, they also have to love me!"), we've impoverished and cramped our notions of potential relationships. In sum, "What's wrong with calling someone an acquaintance?"

He's got a point; but in fact, I'm mostly writing this blog post because I so liked Hodgman's principles of friendship that he tossed off and I wanted to write them out (as best as I could hear them). This probably deserves to be made into a video or a needlepoint pillow, so hopefully someone will find it:

John Hodgman's Principles of Friendship:
Try to be around people who make you genuinely feel happy and not anxious, or sad, or weird or whatever.
Gently disengage from people who make you feel bad and don't care at all about how you feel--and don't care about those people anymore.
Do more favors than you ask for--remember it always hurts to ask.
Let people know when you are genuinely thinking nice things about them. 
But be alert to the more frequent times when you are not thinking about anyone but yourself at all. 
And then remember that we're all like this, we're all mostly thinking about ourselves. 
So if someone lets you down--
--let them off the hook. 
You're letting plenty of people down all the time in small and big ways and it's just how it goes being an individual human being. 
Don't sit on the same side of the booth at a restaurant, even if you're lovers. 
Don't leave a lot of voicemails; please don't write long emails.
And be nice.
And that's all you need to do.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 249: Seabury Quinn, The Curse of Everard Maundy (#249)

Seabury Quinn, "The Curse of Everard Maundy" (1927) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

Not much to say about this: at first, I thought to crow over Halloween, when everyone else comes around to the idea that horror/fear is an important part of our emotional register. But this story, while it might have worked in 1927 in the pages of Weird Tales, feels a little flat in all the wrong ways.

For instance, I really like paranormal investigators; I really like the standard genius-and-ordinary team (Holmes and Watson); and I don't mind the "genius explaining" scene. But Quinn (who was a very popular writer of the time and whose stories I have run across before) doesn't really do much more with those characters. When the genius detective whips out a sword cane, I didn't feel any thrill. I felt "I was waiting for that to happen."

There are some things that set this story apart: for instance, the potshots at spiritualism; the two-three instances of same sex friendships/crush (the genius saves the ordinary from a nightmare, then gets into bed with him to watch out for more monsters); and the ending wherein the genius totally mutilates and hides a dead body. Which is at least something we never saw Holmes do.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Oh, well, about that blog...

Perhaps you've noticed that I've missed my usual Monday morning blogging?

What's that? You didn't notice? Oh, well...

That's probably because you've all been reading my coding- and programming-related blog over at Incremental Code.

I've been blogging there daily, at 9am every day, covering the previous day. And while it started with a pretty narrow focus on the code, it has grown to include some of my thoughts and feelings about code. And since code is pretty much all I do these days, I haven't got a heck of a lot to say here. I mean, it's not like I'm watching a lot of movies or going out to a lot of bars or etc.

But that doesn't mean I'm abandoning this blog. Soon--very alarmingly soon, in fact--I will be done with the 12 weeks of MakerSquare, the intensive boot camp. Then I will stop my insane and bizarre habit of blogging every day over there. (Perhaps I will be able to cut myself back to twice a week.) I also hope to go see some movies and start doing some other things that aren't coding.

(Though, let's be honest, coding is really interesting, so I'll probably be doing a heck of a lot of that. And talking about it, either here or there.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 248: Mark Twain, Playing Courier (#248)

Mark Twain, "Playing Courier" (1892) from Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels:

Let's talk about the word "lesser" as it pertains to writers' work. When I say a story is "lesser Hawthorne" or "lesser Lovecraft" or "lesser Poe" (which I would never say, since Poe is never lesser), I generally mean something like:

  1. this story isn't as stylistically or technically perfect as their other work; or 
  2. this story doesn't capture some theme that seems important to the core of the author's work; or
  3. this story doesn't add anything new to what we see elsewhere.
Now, if you squint, (2) and (3) can seem a little contradictory. Take, say, Lovecraft: if you think of his work as being irreducibly about cosmic nihilism (that's a core theme in his work) and then you read, oh, I don't know, let's say "The Cats of Ulthar," with its story of revenge against people who are mean to cats. Not so much cosmic nihilism in that story (unless you think that cats are avatars of cosmic nihilism, in which case, you are correct). In fact, you could say that "Cats" does add something new that we don't see often in Lovecraft: a sense of cosmic justice.

So, on one hand, it misses something core to Lovecraft; and on the other, it adds something that seems peripheral--but it's still added. Is "Cats of Ulthar" "lesser" or not?

Which brings me by a roundabout way to talking about Mark Twain's story of European misadventure, "Playing Courier." This story/anecdote is about a time when Twain tried to move his family along on their European travels and failed. It's apparently fictional, but you could've fooled me.

You couldn't have fooled me if you told me this was an important work of Twainiana. It's not that this is a badly written story. I mean, this is Twain: he is almost always in control of his technique, and if nothing else, his use of under- and over-statement can get a smile.

But there's just no there there to this story. The narrator bumbles around, failing to deal with train tickets, trunks, cabs, local authorities, and etc. And then there's some more bumbling around. Followed by a little more. Some of it is humorous, but ultimately... yeah, it feels like lesser Twain.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 247: Sherwood Anderson, Mother (#247)

Sherwood Anderson, "Mother" (1917) from Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories:

By and large, I have loved the Sherwood Anderson stories presented by the Library of America:

"Mother" falls somewhere in that range. It's Sherwood Anderson, through and through: a mother with thwarted ambitions, who seems to live just for her son (shades of "The Egg"); not a lot of plot but a lot of feeling; a father marked by failure; small town romance, broken into tiny shards.

But I don't have a lot to say about it right now. It's not my favorite, but it's so Anderson-y that I have to assume some of my reaction has to do with me right now. (Right now, I'm immersed in an accelerated web development bootcamp--that I am also writing about.)

It doesn't help (me) that the headnote includes a paragraph about how Anderson felt about his mother, which really makes this story seem more autobiographical than anything else.

(Though the headnote also goes into how some people hate hate hated Anderson's work for being so squalid, which is a fascinating little time capsule. But it's not like they missed the point: his work does tend to be squalid and sad. It's just that squalid and sad is kind of our thing these days.)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 246: Louisa May Alcott, Anna’s Whim (#246)

Louisa May Alcott, "Anna’s Whim" (1873) from Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings:

There's a rather standard story-trope where a woman says how much she wants to be treated as a man; then she is treated equally and discovers that it's terrible. Where's the chivalry? Where's the protection and worldliness of a man to shield her delicate sensibilities? Because, sure, women may be oppressed and limited, but at least there's someone to open the door for them, and isn't that the best?

Louisa May Alcott is too smart to fall into this trap--and so smart that she includes some notes of this expected story. Here, Anna has a crazy whim: what if women were treated equally? And, true to form, Anna finds a man who will treat her equally--an old friend named Frank, now all grown up--and it has all sorts of problems. Frank doesn't help her to row unless asked directly or spend too much time making sure she's entertained. Boy, that experience sure shows Anna that it's better to be in a gilded cage than free, right?

Not so fast there, legacy-of-patriarchy. Yes, Alcott does describe some of Anna's distaste for this situation at first. But then Anna goes on: she has trouble following the serious topics of the day because her education didn't prepare her for discussions of moral and political economy. Anna may react to other women negatively--as if they were all hunting for the same scarce resource (husband material)--but ultimately, she affirms what she says at the beginning, that there's a lot more to life than being someone's wife.

So many other writers would use this story as a means to punish the rebellious woman. Alcott takes the opportunity to write a realistic woman who comes into her own.