Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Marshes of Middlefriend

A couple of weeks ago, I danced the aisles of Target, singing the praises of chocolate Easter bunnies. There were two main reasons for this moment of public insanity: 1) I am insane and 2) I was in public.

Like most people, I have the glorious freedom to be myself--goofy, sarcastic, insane--with my close friends and family (Note: my best friend, Beth, was dancing through Target with me). What I didn't realize until recently is that I often have the same confidence to be myself among strangers. There is a good reason for this. What did I care what all those Target shoppers thought of me? I would never see them again. They had the same attitude toward me, I assure you. As I have matured as a person, any general acquaintance will inspire confidence in me as well. I usually have little trouble being myself with people I know, but only just barely.

It's when a relationship steps past jovial acquaintance that I freeze inside. When we are not strangers or acquaintances, but are still not close friends. That is what I call middlefriend--the uncharted, untamed, often impassable marshes of middlefriend. They are thick with expectations, muddied with embarrassment, and teeming with self-consciousness. You have moved past the season of not caring what another person thinks about you. Suddenly, what they think matters. You begin to adjust to their signals. You learn which jokes they laugh hardest over and which just go too far. You want to become comfortable with them, but the two of you haven't spent enough time getting to know each other. You will often misconstrue signals simply because you haven't a clue how the other person ticks. The goal of middlefriend is to move past the world of indifferent acquaintance and into good friend to know another person well enough that trust is mutual and shared life a priority on all sides. Middlefriend is that place where you want to trust somebody else with yourself, but you worry they will judge you or just plain flee if you do. You want the other person to want to be around you, so you hide who you really are so they will.

Most acquaintances that reach middlefriend never make it through the thick marshes of doubt, insecurity, and mistrust. There are many causes for this. First, many people simply don't notice that they have entered the marshes at all. They care neither one way nor another, as they are entirely to busy to form any more close friendships thank you very much (or any close friendships at all for that matter). Still others gauge whether the other person is worth their effort and pull away or press on accordingly. The possibility of being on the receiving end of this transaction is what makes middlefriend so nerve wracking. A third group includes those who have a whole crowd of middlefriends in tow--people they genuinely admire and share life with, but they never try to go any further on the trust scale. They wear a permanent facade.

I fall into yet another category. I hate the tension involved in being in middlefriend so much that I like to push through the marshes as quickly as possible. I risk everything, lay my whole self out on the line. I dare the other person to like me. This often results in my freaking people out. The most frustrating feeling within middlefriend is when you trudge firmly onward toward authenticity, but the other person holds fiercely to their facade. I usually overcompensate, and, again with the freaking out thing. (Note: This is not always the case. The TriMu became my best friends almost immediately.).

Middlefriend is an uncomfortable, sticky mess. I have noticed of late that when I am in middlefriend with a number of people at the same time (e.g., new church, new job, new class), I can hit humiliation overload. I can be having a great day, then say or do something stupid and end up trying to crawl under my chair to escape my shame. When you have a big group of middlefriends who are all lost in the marshes, you end up repeating the process over and over and over. I love to mingle with strangers, I hate to mingle with middlefriends.

Within the mess of my last hike through permanent multiple middlefriendship, I discovered something. In all my maddening attempts to force my reluctant middlefriends into good friends, I neglected the good friends I already have. I lost sight of how much they mean to me while I strove to attain shiny new friends. The best way to navigate the marshes of middlefriend is to 1) let people stay in the marshes if they want to and 2) remember and appreciate the real friends who already trudged through the marshes with you. It will make the mess a lot less sticky.

Because I know that if you actually read this whole blog post, you are my real friend, I just want you to know, I love you guys!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Book and the Scroll (and the Computer)

Cross posted on themodernmythmakers.com

Last week I attended a lecture entitled "The Book as Computer" given by Peter Stallybrass of the University of Pennsylvania. I thought, based on the name, that it would be a look into the future of books as they relate to the internet, ebooks, portable readers, etc. I was excited about the lecture. I was also completely wrong about the lecture. It was actually a look into the past, into the history of books.

Stallybrass's premise is that throughout history there have been two basic modes of reading -- the scroll and the book. The format of a scroll forced readers to follow the text from beginning to end. You had to scroll through it one inch at a time. There were no ways to bookmark a favorite passage in a scroll, or at least it was very difficult to do. And referencing related passages was impossible without a really good memory. Books, on the other hand, have historically allowed for more discontinuous reading. Marking passages, skipping chapters and bookmarking sections for easy reference were made simple by the book. The book also gave people the ability to index information. Tables of contents and indexes allowed readers to find the specific parts of the book they really wanted to read, what Stallybrass calls "indexical reading." The reader took control of what they read.

Many people fear that the computer is bringing about the death of the book, but Stallybrass suggests that the computer is actually an extension of the historical concept of the book. Like books, computers allow for discontinuous reading, bookmarking, and skipping unwanted information. What is Google if not one giant index? The computer is pushing indexical reading to its limits.

According to Stallybrass (but I'm not so sure about this, myself), the concept of reading a book straight though did not come into fashion until the advent of the modern novel. In fact, the early novels were criticized precisely because they took the control of information away from the reader and put it into the hands of the author. To be engrossed in a story, to be passively carried along wherever the author wanted to take you, was considered a dangerous thing. The novel, therefore, changed the way people read, not only fiction but almost everything else as well. For example, people used to read newspapers from cover to cover. In effect, the novel returned the world to reading scrolls.

Stallybrass calls the novel a "brilliantly perverse" interruption in indexical reading. Movies and TV have for many people replaced the novel as the their preferred scrolls, and people seem to be returning to the habits of indexical reading on their computers. As an audience member asked, are we witnessing not the death of the book but rather the death of the novel? I hope not. This brilliant perversion is what we writers of fiction hold dear. I, personally, cannot see novels dying, but as technology changes the novel will have to change with it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

In Praise of Buffoonery

Perfection is overrated. Most of us spend a large portion of our lives striving for perfection--to have the perfect body, get the perfect grades, live the perfect life, have the perfect reputation. Like I said in my last post, we want to keep a good standing in the lifeboat. I, for one, like to keep up perfect appearances. This week, I set out on a couple of new social situations that challenged my introverted soul to it's limit. Don't get me wrong, I love my new class and I have high hopes for the new friendships I'm forming, but I woke up with insomnia every 4 a.m. this week from either memories of a stupid thing I said or did the day before or dread of the stupidity that would occur in the next 24 hours. Playing the buffoon in front of people is a source of constant tension for me.

But something is changing. My beginnings of freedom from the lifeboat came in the form of a joke one of my guy friends told on himself. He said he didn't use the treadmills at the gym because he didn't want to be "that guy" who got on a machine between two hot girls and couldn't work the TV hook-up. I got the mental image of him watching soap operas for his whole workout. The comment was neither a big deal nor entirely true, I'm sure, but it stuck with me. I wondered what I would think of the situation if I witnessed it. I would probably laugh, but not in a way of ridicule. I would laugh because being human can be so funny sometimes. I would laugh and like my friend more for his humanity.

This idea broke something open in my soul. We all have our lifeboat moments, moments where we fail to hold onto out right to look good--and often fail spectacularly. But, I'm trying to live outside of the boat. I'm trying to dip my toes into God's ocean where our buffoonery does nothing to alter our position in life, where it is just a part of the romp. I'm starting to think the ocean looks a lot like the day Aslan made Narnia (The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis). Aslan had just finished giving the land to the newly formed talking beasts. He warned them not to return to the ways of the dumb beasts or they would become dumb themselves. The beasts all insisted that they would do as he said.

"But one perky jackdaw added in a loud voice, 'No fear!' and everyone else had finished just before he said it so that his words came out quite clear in a dead silence; and perhaps you have found out how awful that can be--say, at a party. The Jackdaw became so embarrassed that it hid its head under its wing as if it was going to sleep. And all the other animals began making various queer noises which are their way of laughing . . . . They tried at first to repress it, but Aslan said:

'Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.'

So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw . . . said:

'Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?'

'No, little friend,' said the Lion. 'You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.'"

I am far from being the first joke, but I do have the chance to be a few of the more recent ones. I want to learn to follow the Jackdaw and laugh at myself. I want to trust that others who live outside of the lifeboat will laugh at our shared humanity. And in the deep places of my heart, I cherish the knowledge that the God of all flesh, the Maker of the first joke, laughs with me too. He laughs and loves me more for my buffoonery.