Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

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The price of exuberance is eternal vigilance

The problem with any hobby involving personal interaction, including LiveJournal, is the problem of exuberance. Exuberance for a hobby can be a very good thing. When I was a kid, I always admired that my father, who worked hours that can only be described as impossible, could develop in-depth expertises at his hobbies to an extent I never could do. When he was interested in rocks and minerals, he actually took the exams and became a certified gemologist, even though this was a great challenge, as he is color blind. When he developed an interest in old cars, he didn't just stop at acquiring a few Model As. He and a friend built a Model T from the frame up. I remember when we went to see the man who owned that old rusted Model T frame. The owner was a World War I veteran who had moved to the deep woods and become a real life "hermit". We pulled up to his house, and my mom and we three kids had to stay in the car. The old man never showed his face; instead, he made odd "war whoops" in the distance to let us know he was about. We had to leave, and my father came back to close the purchase another day. He converted his love of reading history into several articles for historical quarterlies; one won a state-wide "best of" type prize. When asked, as some kind of officer, to write a column for the local medical society newsletter, he began a weekly column that ultimately expanded to the local newspaper. My dad had/has an enthusiasm for his hobbies that I really admire---a baseline belief that one can *do*, and not just wish, that I wish I emulated more often.

There's a flip side to exuberance about hobbies, though. I remember becoming deeply interested in playing chess just after high school. I'd played in my very first tournament, the state championship, and finished seventh in the field. When I went off to university, I spent hours some days sitting at my little chess table, playing over opening strategies, trying to refine my game. This particular exuberance, though, backfired. Rather than increasing my "chess rating" and improving my confidence, my many hours spent studying the game actually depressed me with my lack of skill, and perhaps alienated me from the other folks in my dorm--
they felt there was something weird about a guy who studies chess one-handedly. Ultimately, I did improve my rating to the high but not astronomic goal I had set for myself, but only by relaxing, enjoying the game, and studying less, but more effectively. My enthusiasm, rather than improving my experience, betrayed me.

I have had experiences when I was a fair bit younger in which I imagined that I had befriended a work acquaintance, say, only to discover I was sadly mistaken. I rememember what a relief and a revelation it was to stand in a nightclub restroom before the mirror, after some work kids that had gotten "everyone" to join them at the club for a work outing, promptly ditched everyone to head to another bar. They weren't really blameworthy--they just didn't see the social faux pas, because it was all very casual to them. I felt such a release when my hurt evaporated, as I looked into the mirror and literally told myself "Remember. These are not your friends. These are not your friends. They are just people you work with". I have never unlearned that lesson, which has served me well--don't confuse interface with intimacy.

I was on the converse side of the same phenomenon in Los Angeles.
I became involved in a chess club which organized and ran one small tournament a month. The club met all my definitions of how a club should be run. It was a bunch of folks who just got together and ran one small, successful tournament. No infrastructure, no meetings, fairly token elections (who wants to be "secretary"?), no politics, no interpersonal worries. It was like being part of a monthly clock that, with a modicum of effort, produced chess tournaments. I would get together with the fellow who was president to play casual games. He was a nice fellow, whose chess rating was hundreds of points below his true strength. He just had not found that formula to make his game results show his skil level. I guess a simpler way to say it is that he would get into "real game conditions", with those odd twin-faced clocks running, and choke. He liked playing with me, because I was rated some 400+ points higher than he was, something like the difference between a fellow who is below median, and a fellow who is one notch from an expert rating. He and I would talk together about how perfect the club was, because it almost ran itself, and had no extra commitments.

What changed over time, though, was he got the gift of exuberance, and I lost mine. He began to organize weekly "meetings" at a nearby coffee house. Soon the club was no longer a "cool way to run a single tournament", but instead just the sort of "organized thing" that I didn't want to take active part in. My friend was not to blame for this--growing a club is an exuberant, fun thing. Meanwhile, though, my own work schedule, always fervent in those days, gave me less time for the club. We also moved from the westside of Los Angeles, near where the club was, into the foothills of the Crescenta Valley, a bit of a commute. We didn't play casual games as much together.

One Saturday, when I called to tell him I couldn't attend the next day's tournament, he became very angry. From his point of view, he was entirely justified. I was an officer of this club, but I hadn't really participated at all in the new places to which he was taking the club. I had clearly hurt his feelings, because in terms of the club and our casual games, I had dropped the ball. I had not shared his exuberance. I did not, and do not, feel particularly at fault here. But I do feel badly, because I'm like most folks, I prefer to be liked, and not to alienate people.

His exuberance turned out fine. He played casual games with other strong fellows, and his rating is now just a bit under mine. He's a writer, and he's now had interviews with west coast chess masters appear in the national chess publication, Chess Life and Review. Not surprisingly, my rating slipped a bit, and I now have not played in a "serious" tournament since 1998. For a while, I substituted play on the internet in little five minute games for "real chess", thousands upon thousands of games at the Internet Chess Club. Since February, I've let even that slip away. I'll still play in tournaments as time goes on, but unless I need a retirement hobby someday, I doubt I'll ever be as good again as I once was. When I had my best run, I could see that I could, through work, have been an expert had I worked at it. I just lacked the exuberance any more.

I started this journal as a website alternative, in which I could discuss law careers. That idea of the journal lasted about one day. Soon I realized that the journal could be a place for me to
write creatively, to pontificate without shame, to record for myself just how it is I live, and to examine my thoughts on things. I set rather simple rules for myself. I remembered the P.G. Wodehouse tag about how one could write a novel one of two ways. One could either make it a sort of musical comedy, as he did, or one could get right down in the heart of things "and not give a damn" how difficult it was. This journal, I decided, would be of the former variety. I would never intrude on my wife's privacy,
nor my work privacies, nor put anything in the journal that I do not mind the world reading. This has not proven that difficult, as I can tell the world a great deal about myself without any real fear---I guess I have learned that though I am not always an "easy person to get", I am a person always willing to try to communicate who I am. Thus far, I haven't even bothered to use the "friends" mode, although I might sooner or later. I'm very pleased that I have "transmuted" my journal into a device which lets me write something again besides briefs. I can see my efforts turning into creative writing and completed projects, a true extension of the creativity and fun that at the outset of this year got me involved in mail art. Although I have written creatively for years, my output has increased since I began to journal. The journal also has a real "diary" effect--it's a real help in self-defintion. I've really enjoyed my journal.

One thing I did not expect was how much I would enjoy reading others' journals. In the early days, of course, one uses the random keys a bit, to read what other journals are like. I soon discovered that I liked the folks here--many of whom are my friends' list--who have something to say. I am not a snob, or a person interested in only one type of story, and the things my friends have to say are very diverse. I never imagined that I would find reading others' journals as interesting as I have.

One thing that has been difficult for me, though, is avoiding the dangers of exuberance. It's one thing to excessively pontificate in one's own journal(s). It's another thing altogether to excessively pontificate and emote in someone else's journal. I don't mean merely writing a lengthy comment, as this can be fun for everyone. I mean taking the journal at face value, and trying to respond to the journal as if the journalist were a person to whom one is speaking in person, rather than a journal in which the journalist does not really want that kind of interface. Livejournals are places where we all try out ideas, record emotions, trot out things we don't say in real life. We all value comments, and in my own case, I thrive on them. But I know I don't want people to feel that what I write in my journal is a series of thoughts that need the same type of interface that, say, an expression of frustration or uncertainty in a lunch with an old friend might require the old friend to give. We do make "friends" in our journals, but not that type of friend. We want our friends to read our novel/journals as novels, not as pleas for sympathy or attention. Stated, another way, we want the attention and comments of a reader and reviewer, not necessarily the sympathy of a counselor or "best friend at lunch". This is not to diminish the high quality of these "friends list" encounters. I feel "close" to people to whom I am not close at all, because they give me the gift of their journal(s).

Today, surfing around journal comments, I came to realize that my exuberance has gotten the best of me. I like that I have commented liberally when journals interest me. In a few instances, though, my comments, rather than being confined to the "literary" quality of the journal--the LiveJournal "interface" if you will--seem to treat the journalist as a personal friend describing a problem for which the journalist wanted "help" or "comfort", rather than as a person who made a journal entry to capture the moment. I have made the mistake of cheerleading or giving advice, when the journalist really wanted to create a literary experience. As my own journal is almost entirely an accurate but surface musical comedy, I should have been much more perceptive that other journals, in other genres, similarly are not intended to be taken as "pleas for help" or "quiet lunches with a real life friend". The result, my sense that I have given discomfort, and perhaps even made someone seek other avenues of expression, makes me sad, but mostly makes me ready to curb my exuberance.

I had taken comfort in the fact that my approach to my journal, and indeed, to all on line experience, is extremely non-acquisitive. I have a wife, and don't need new romance. I have a job, and don't need someone to help me earn an income. I have offline friends who care about me. I am not a "joiner", and grant myself such approvals or disapprovals as I need. I rationalized to myself that since I didn't want anything but shared ideas, and perhaps the interconnection of kindred spirits, then my exuberance was justified. Today I determined, though, that my assessment was deeply, embarrassingly flawed. I started to type "I feel horrid about that", but then I realized that this sounded needy in a way that I don't really feel. I do not really believe in disabling "comments" (the power imbalance does not appeal to me), but I'm not looking for some new reassurance or denial. I'm just recording a moment in my journal. I am tempted to make it a private post (earlier this morning, I was tempted to just delete my journal, which would simply solve the problem), but then I thought that this is one more aspect of the "musical comedy" of LiveJournal. I am now examining whether I have developed a new "acquisitiveness", the desire to acquire kindred spirits with whom to exchange ideas. In my life, I have always had such people, and I am not often prey to loneliness of any kind. But my sheer exuberance about this form of interface has led me astray, and I now realize, graphically, that this can cause discomfort in others. One example is one of my Australian friends, to whom I made a comment which, while well-intentioned, sounded almost intrusive (thankfully, on a minor, semi-rather-than fully-personal point), when I had really intended to sound jolly. Another matter is a series of comments that were little more than expressions of enthusiastic, friend-at-lunch "reaffirmation", which was mistaken for sympathy, in response to posts that did not really seek reaffirmation or sympathy. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with sympathy or with wit per se. It's that old exuberance thing. In the case of my own journal, I want people to care, but not to care. So I "get it".

I value very much that people here write their journals for their own reasons, which are in some cases very different from my own theories of my journal. I hate, and will learn from, the idea that I comment in the wrong way to anyone's journal, as causing people unintended discomfort frankly makes me feel odd about myself. I've not committed any irretrievable faux pas, I hope, but I have learned today especially that the journal experience is not a lunch with a "real life friend" who wants sympathy, but a more complex and less interpersonal thing. I am just grateful that I was able to piece together this "new truth", although, really, it's just confirmation of something about which I worried.

This has made a long, self-denigrating post. I don't really have a good conclusion to it. But I resolved today to continue to enjoy journals, but to treat them a bit more a journals, and a bit less as lunchtime chats. I value my LiveJournal friends very much; I like to think that they value me. But part of this mutual valuation is to deal with journals as journals, and not as acquisitions of posts with which one is expected to directly "help". I would hate, and do hate, to make anyone feel uncomfortable by showing an inappropriate expression of "caring" in that "friend at lunch" way. After all, we got to lunch with friend or spouse to get that kind of care, not to our journals, necessarily (I know different people are different, I don't mean to state a general rule for all journals). I am a helper by nature, which is both good and bad. But I learned today (convincingly, in black and white, thankfully, in indisputable terms--I am not much one for suspense) that sometimes I must be a better LiveJournal friend by trying to be less of the old-fashioned kind.

I've been on LiveJournal just under five months now. How did I come to feel I "knew" people well enough to say the things I have said in some instances? I'm not trying to be some self-flagellator--it's not an omnipresent problem. I have just learned that the enthusiasm to "make friends" can be an off-putting thing. Did I learn nothing from junior high? Perhaps not, but I have learned that the unexamined journal comment style is not worth having. I would hate to make anyone feel badly by expressing a sense of caring, when all that was wanted was a good reader. Be that as it may, I will continue to comment vigorously, make friends and interact with them, and plunge in. But I will try to remember that a journal has its own roles, and exuberance is not always a good thing. I brag lately that I am a good reader. I will remember that what a reader does, is read.
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