Truth, but I still had a hard time wrapping my mind around the notion that one might learn how to converse with one's fellow man via deliberate, written-out instructions instead of the supposedly universal impulse to connect. There's a disturbingly calculating feel to it, like conversation is always a means to an extrasocial end for these people. As negligible as it might seem to some, the gulf between asking others about their lives because you're genuinely interested and asking others about their lives because some HTML file said so seems comically huge to me.
Yet it was not so long ago that my own social skills were teh sux0r. It's not like I grew up shifting my eyes, stammering at the ground and making unintentionally creepy overtures, but it did take an unusually long time for me to recognize the appeal of that whole "other people in the world" concept. I remember regarding most social situations, outside of gatherings with my closest friends, as fruitless time sinks to be avoided, or at least to be checked out of early so as to get back to whatever comic or computer game I was making at the time. The notion that I might speak to somebody I didn't already know was so alien that I didn't even realize the extent to which I unconsciously evaded it.
By thinking back to this time in childhood — by which I mean "my entire childhood and most of my adolescence" — I can empathize to a surprising extent with those net.antisocials desperately for the flowchart with which they can achieve effective social operation. Having over-internalized the importance of honesty at an early age, I came to find that telling the truth bit me in the @$$ as often as it helped — more often, in fact. I stuck with implausible truths rather than substituting plausible lies, with the ironic effect that I probably was thought more of a liar than the average, healthily lying kid around. Hence my tendency not to ask people how they were doing or what was going on with their various jobs and families: I didn't want to know, and to front like I did would, to my young mind, constitute some form of lie. And that would be bad!
So for the longest time, I spoke when spoken to, and when spoken to, my unstated (maybe even unacknowledged) goal was to escape the conversation as soon as possible, thereby minimizing the probability of boredom and/or embarrassment. Why was I like this? Some really simple guesses: (a) growing up an only child, I didn't have to interact with peers outside school if I didn't want to, and I usually didn't want to, (b) I quickly developed penchants for a variety of solitary pursuits like drawing, reading and programming, which could have been a natural consequence of (a), and (c) I wanted to engage adults in conversation, but my attempts at statements of substance usually drew only supercilious "Out of the mouths of babes!" laughter, and I eventually stopped touching that burner. (Also, I remain unsure how extricable the condition of "not being interested in anyone else" is from the condition of "being eleven.")
Only with the awesome power of hindsight can I see that this suite of dysfunctions is responsible for 40-60 percent of the suckage — conservative estimate — that has ever seeped into my life. I like to think that I have defeated these tendencies, and 100+ hours spent in conversation with famous strangers would seem to attest to that victory. Given the strong correlation between my ability to talk to other people on my life's x axis and achievement/interestingness on its y, it's no surprise that I published, on Twitter, this advanced formula:
(technical skills)(social skills) = (probability of success)Seems true to me. Those I meet in possession of high technical skills and low social skills could make a lot happen in the world, but they lack access the channels that can use them. Those I meet in possession of high social skills but low technical skills could arrange an opportunity to do whatever they want in life with maybe three phone calls and an SMS message — but they have little of value to offer. (I refrain from trotting out the weary example of Paris Hilton.) Perhaps the two groups could work out a Freak the Mighty-style arrangement whereby the techies ride around on the shoulders of the socialites.
I know a lot more people who fall into the former group than the latter, frustrated types given to pissed-offedness at the world's never having adequately recognized their genius, their creativity, their wizardry with Python, etc. This might be a geek thing. Though my struggles to break into geek culture are well-documented, I've long since gotten comfortable with exile on its periphery, offering me as it does a slightly more objective-ish (as distinct from Objectivist) viewpoint on what happens within it. I can tell you that, if there's a primary reason geeks aren't into sports, it's that they already play one full-time: resenting the unreasonable workings of the non-geek world.
As hesitant as I am to bust out "most people" statements, most people probably fall in the "socially fluent/can't do much" end of the spectrum. You find a high concentration of this far end in sales departments of organizations the world over, or at least I do, and when I do, I can't help but regard them as I would space aliens. I'm almost in awe at people who can somehow carry on conversations with whomever happens to be around, regardless of interests, background or sensibilities. This awe is tempered by their yen for cliché, their ceaseless flogging of sports metaphors and their generalized dopiness, but neverthtless, these social creatures, even if hindered by a near-absolute lack of meaningful aptitude, go pretty far in life — way farther than the average uncommunicative whiz kid.
So the grousing about "it's all who you know" resonates on and on and on in geekier quarters, specifically among those whose geekiness-related skills aren't so incandescent that the remainder of humanity beats a path to their door to harness them. I myself have come to understand, if not enthusiastically champion, the reasons it's like this. Placing myself in the shoes of someone in a position to reward someone else for doing something — a pure fantasy, I assure you — I can't deny that, 99 times out of 100, I go for the known quantity rather than the stranger who might well do a "better" job. I'll take even a weak, third-hand pre-existing social bond over super-competence any day. When Merlin Mann says "good decisions and good relationships" make success, I don't think he's lying. When A.C. Grayling says "life is all about relationships," I don't think he's lying either.
Which brings me to clothes. Jesse Thorn, the mastermind behind The Sound of Young America and the man for whom I've written a Podthought each week for a year and a half or so, has begun a new project called Put This On. It's half a men's style blog on the order of A Suitable Wardrobe or Sartorially Inclined and half a men's style video series. The pilot episode is about denim.
Somebody started a thread about that pilot on Metafilter, which is not not a place where geeks don't not go. Some of the comments express fairly harsh opinions about the fact that anybody would create a whole series about something as insubstantial and confusing as what to wear. One opinion, which I suspect of sarcasm, runs as follows:
(Squeal) Oh! Fashion! It's Fabulous!!!11!! (end squeal)This one shows an amusing self-awareness:
Oh, yes, men. You too can become a slave to fashion! Step right up, there's no time to loose! Fashion, it's not just for women any more! now everyone can become a slave to the god of superficial appearances! Everyone who's anyone is doing it, so should you!
I'm sitting here seething that there even exists a pair of jeans that costs more than $100.00 [emphasis mine, because how could I not emphasize that], yet I just realized I have a second Firefox tab opened to a discussion breaking down the costs one would incur if one were to build his own film-quality Stormtrooper armor.And I think this sums up the attitude I'm getting at near-perfectly:
I already own a perfectly serviceable belt.This being something of a sartorially dissolute age, I wouldn't argue that the sour puss about clothes exists only, or even primarily, within geek communities. (Its wreaks equally horrific consequences in what Madelaine and I have termed the "Casual Dad" movement.) But it's as clear a petri dish as any to observe it in action.
While I sort of get the un-meritocratic feel of the social sphere, the perceived difficulty of assembling an aesthetically pleasing wardrobe and the excitement to be had in engagement with fictional narratives, I find it very difficult to hear someone bitch about how it's all who you know, assert that style is superficial nonsense to be circumvented with a pair of Costco cargo pants or rave about this one season of Battlestar Galactica that "takes the characters to some really dark places." Specifically, I find it difficult not to beat the living crap out of them, for reasons I can't fully articulate.
The lazy dresser's implicit disregard for the rest of humanity has something to do with it. I've entertained fair-to-middlin' threadular interests for years, but the rise of Put This On and the constellation of internet style stuff that surrounds it has aggressively bumped those up to middlin'-to-strong. Naturally, I have taken such extreme measures as building a personal Alan Flusser library, organized for constant reference.
But style is not achieved by Alan Flusser books alone. Only with tireless augmentation and winnowing can one's wardrobe be refined. Alas, this entails a radical change to my current clothes-buying ritual, that is, only buying clothes when I've fallen into desperate need for them. In dressing as in wildlife, once the herd thins, things get exponentially uglier as pressure increases on the remaining specimens, and I've come to sense, and fear, the approach of extinction more acutely than ever.
I can chalk one up in the "not starting from zero" department based on the fact that I occasionally get complimented on my capacity for dressing myself. Though I have never thought of myself as a particularly adept wearer of clothes, I guess I do have some points in my favor:
- I own not just one, but many a "perfectly serviceable belt," and wear them without exception (unless I'm at the gym or something)
- I wear no t-shirts emblazoned with brand ads or other gauche-y text, and no t-shirt of any kind ever constitutes my outermost layer (unless I'm at the gym or something)
- Most of what I own actually fits
- Nothing I own has holes in it, patched or otherwise
I realize this makes me sound like a fulminating, red-faced pedant, the miserable, useless kind of fellow incensed by the sight of white after Labor Day. But I'm not bothered by the way other people dress; I'm bothered by the influence the way other people dress might have on the way I dress. This falls in line with the overall attitudinal transformation of my adult life: every day, I give one less damn about everything out of my direct control, including the actions of others, and several additional damns about actions of my own. My thoughts about clothes represent this in microcosm: even if I currently dress five percent more presentably than the half-state that surrounds me, my wardrobe still feels shambolic.
This sparks a belated resolution for 2010, one designed to break the sparseness of my clothes-acquisition habits and to steadily lift the average quality of my outfit. Every weekend, I acquire one new non-shabby article of clothing. It needs not be expensive — in fact, I limit myself to fifty bucks per item — and it needs not be brand new, but it needs be aesthetically interesting and as wearably functional as possible. I've built up a comfortable buffer by acquiring a few items on the internet all at once — yes, you can successfully buy non-utilitarian, non-Reddit-y clothes here — but I'll keep myself paced from now on.
Whether you're talking about launching and maintaining good conversations or selecting and wearing good clothes, the operative issue is self-presentation. I consider that to be a chief aspect of living life in the same way that one would craft a work of art. I know that sounds stupendously fancy, but hear me out. Having accepted and even embraced, per the above, that I should only care about that which I can personally control, I arrive at the conclusion that the locus of my focus, as it were, should be the gradual iteration and refinement of what I, like, do. Both the clothes I buy and put on as well as the human interactions I execute (as opposed to the humans I execute) reside smack in the middle of this region of concern. While I certainly want to affect and create things external to myself, that will only happen as a function of my actions. If one wants to create art, it only happens as a consequence of creating oneself — and pretty much everything, I would submit, is art.
That said, does anybody know a good tailor in Santa Barbara? I don't know any good tailors.