Monday, March 12, 2018

The Perfection Requirement

Enjoy another hulking mound of buried ledes and disparate half-baked thoughts, all weirdo stuff no one else has seen fit to point out.

Having learned, early in my writing career, to draw readers into highly polished, easily-digested narratives, I continue to go the opposite way, assembling insightful hairballs requiring multiple re-readings and sustained reflection. It's not self-indulgence, as I work hard to ensure every lock is provided a corresponding key. But, dammit, the present-day conviction that everything worth knowing ought to be effortlessly swallowed is just wrong. The contemplative approach may be a poor fit for this iPhone age, but stubborn fools persist.

I hated slogging through difficult, dense writers like Kant and Hegel in college, which inspired me to develop a crisp, immersive, entertaining writing style, painstakingly primped to coax readers into sleekly gliding though, like butter. But we've all been butter-gliding for way too long. Much of the human condition remains unexamined, thanks to our mulish disinclination to closely observe, analyze, and integrate.

I've always assumed there were smart, insightful people working that end of things, so I contented myself, for years, to kvell over stroopwafels. But as I've gotten older, I've observed, with horror, that the ball's largely been dropped. So I keep slogging for the handful here who haven't yet been repulsed. Perhaps one day the tide will turn and this sort of writing will become interesting again. As-is, I'm embarrassed by it, but I do feel compelled to persevere.

It's happened literally thousands of times. I say something unscripted that contains some cleverness, and someone - who'd previously assumed from my lack of gravitas and pretension that I'm some goofy asshole - cocks an eyebrow.

Wait a minute. What on earth was that? That was either the craziest thing I've ever heard, or else I've misjudged this guy!

They look more closely, trying to decide: crackpot or sage? But they see before them nothing but goofy asshole, with no detectable deeper nuggets of magnificence. I bemusedly watch their mental gears turn (any process observed thousands of times affords what might be mistaken for superpowers of intuition), and the result is inevitable: "Ok, yup. Crackpot!" Attention dissipates, and there's literally nothing I could say or do to stir them from their permanently settled disinterest. I could levitate and spit gold coins from my ears, but, please, they've had quite enough of this guy's goofy nonsense.

Yet sometimes not. Sometimes someone projects the existence of some nugget. It must be projected, because there truly aren't any, because I am merely (and proudly) a shitty river. Per the footer here:
Life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. And so it is with Edison's "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." That quotation used to conjure up images of wild-eyed fanatics banging hammers in garages in the middle of the night. But it's just a matter of normal people blithely but indefatigably putting out. The Colorado River, etcher of the Grand Canyon, is just some shitty little river. The best among us are shitty little rivers. To me, that's what Edison was saying.
But this time, for whatever reason, someone has begun to pay closer attention.

Understand that this is a very rare occurence. At this point, we've lost the 90% who weren't listening in the first place, the 75% of them who listened while lulled by their own inertia of boredom, low expectations, and the sing-song surface of what's being said - and are distracted by eagerness to find offense, to narcissistically connect everything to their own drama, and to catch you unwittingly falling into some deprecated meme. If you can emerge from this asteroid belt of random chatter, dull inattention, and poison, a bit of consideration might occasionally be paid even though you decline to push the buttons that normally command attention.

That last part is a big thing. People who demand attention - and learn to push buttons to get it - are seldom worth any actual attention. Demanding and deserving are very different gigs. I once wrote this about intelligence:
The most impressive intellects are not always fast or flashy. Not, in other words, impressive-seeming. And it takes ample intelligence to be impressed by actual impressiveness rather than by mere impressive-seemingness. Most truly intelligent people I've met aren't very impressive-seeming, because if you've got the goods, you tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it.
The seeming/being disjoint applies beyond intelligence into every realm of the human experience. We register merit via the most superficial and fake-able of indications. Consider: we all have a super-nice person in our circle. This is the person who gives lots of shoulder rubs, and always has a kind word and bubbling positivity. They have 3000 Facebook friends, and if you ever really need them, they're nowhere to be found, because their thing is seeming nice, not being nice.

Genuinely kind people have no reason to manipulate people into deeming them kind. Where's the kindness in that?!? They don't offer shoulder rubs, and they don't effusively coo at you, but they'll go out of their way to help if you're in trouble, without expectation.

Again: if you've got the goods, you tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it. But our phenomenally superficial society rarely looks beneath the Seeming. This presents an enormous problem for secure people who don't anxiously tend to their facade. Insecurity and fakery are rewarded, while security and authenticity are overlooked.

So let's say (quoting from one of the links above) you're not a pompous, boastful, stuck-up "Do You Know Who I Am?!?" prick, leading with your accomplishments, playing the part, and prepared to pee at least as hard and as far as any alphas in your midst. And you are therefore seen as a goofy asshole. But you've just said something clever, and the rare person has not only caught it, but stirred from their reverie long enough to ask themselves whether you're a crackpot or if you're really on to something. And they're tending toward the latter.

What then? This has to be the happy ending, right? Victory?

No, this is where it gets really weird and counterintuitive. We do things at this juncture that we don't consciously realize we do.

We begin to scan for flaws. We wait, with baited breath, to hear something dumb, or wrong. Like good scientists, we scan for contrary evidence. How are we supposed to admire perfection if we haven't thoroughly scanned for flaws?

So a timer starts, and the longer we fail to find flaws, the more excited we become. We've finally found That Perfect Person! And the more excited we get about it, the more attention we pay. Our admiration is inextricably entwined with our flaw-scanning. This is because our heros have always been those we've deemed flawless. (Why are there no heroes anymore? Because we've all grown way more sophisticated in our flaw detection!)

On the other end of that equation, it feels like a high-energy laser blasting at you, measuring and modeling your every cell and pore, hellbent on detecting every iota of fraudulent inadequacy. The attention level of someone who suspects they've found a hero is thirty kajillion times greater than everyday attention. Attention multiplies via emotions like hope and awe. Finding themselves shocked on unfamiliar ground, people give it all they've got. Flaw-scanning and admiration, admiration and flaw-scanning, the two create a vicious circle.

Have you ever met a stunningly beautiful person? Not just someone made up to look attractive, but blessed with an appearance that draws you into a far deeper place than you normally go? You can't stop looking at them. If this person were to laugh an uncomposed laugh, revealing some unconscious ferile, unrefined quality, the spell would shatter. One tiny scar, one piquant fart, and, suddenly, nope. Just another damn person. You'd immediately and intractably lose appreciation for the asymptotic beauty you'd previously registered. The person would descend to a status beneath mere prettiness.

This is why we feel such sharp scorn for our exes, after the momentous come-down from the impossibly lofty elevation of infatuation.

So when I encounter the one in a thousand who's able to hear, process, understand, and appreciate some bit of cleverness, and their attention turns fully in my direction, the clock begins ticking. Like a NASCAR racer, the seemingly admiring crowd relishes the prospect of a juicy crash. With the first disappointing thing I say (and I say many dumb things, because it's never been my intent to construct an image of omniscience), the spell will be broken, attention dispersed, and the primordial question reappears: "sage or crackpot?" Heads nod. "Yup, I thought so. Crackpot!"

Sometimes it takes a few seconds, sometimes a few hours. When expectations rise, and there's a failure to be perfectly wise, perfectly insightful, perfectly equanimous (or even if one manages those things, but in an unexpected, unrecognized way), the value of everything previously said and done plunges to near zero. Remarkableness is not appreciated in the absence of perfection. Dabs of mild talent and cleverness, no problem. But once a higher level registers, the clock starts ticking.

A couple quick examples:

Steve Jobs was such a fucking asshole, amiright? I mean, obviously, all of us can be pretty rude, impatient, stubborn, and arrogant. That's just human nature! But Jobs was supposed to be, like, great, and if you've heard the stories about the dozen or so times he behaved poorly, you know the real truth! And JD Salinger, who stopped seeking publicity and engaging with random strangers - who led the same private life as anyone else - was obviously a crazy, bitter old shut-in!

Three addenda:

1. This explains this.

2. Beware of anyone projecting an image. Remember: those who've got the goods tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it. There is a reason, for example, that so many spiritual gurus, aiming to build a following, have been cinematically bearded and smiley...and secretly scandalous. The cranky random dude who sells you your cigarettes might be the real deal.

3. Stage magicians wear perfectly pressed tuxedos. Each gesture is suave, and every result is polished to amaze. And it's all fake. Real-life magicians are everyday slobs with problems and issues, doing their utmost to help and delight, not to impress. Real magic - which is subtle and not physics-defying, and rife with creativity - is messy, never shiny.

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