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Faux Outrage

Literally the most important blog in the universe since 2010.

Relationships are basically a series of woulds.

In order to objectively measure what is normally understood to be subjective concept (“friendship”), we simply add up the number and value of the behaviors that we would engage in for another at a particular moment in time.  Of course, doing so would be a hideous waste of energy (and kind of creepy), but it could theoretically be done.

Ideal relationships (friendship or otherwise) exist when the two lists overlap perfectly, where both parties are equally beholden.  I say “equally beholden” as opposed to “entirely beholden” because relationships can be ideal without being huge emotional investments.  What matters is that two people agree on and bind themselves to equal terms of the relationship, and whether those obligations are particularly difficult to follow through on is entirely beside the point.

Venn Diaphragm (wikipedia.org)

But usually, since life is not often described as fair (as opposed to both “love” and “war”), it seems proper to assume that any understanding of Person1 vis-à-vis Person2 at TimeX contains two lists with columns of uneven lengths and weights.  We are a different sort of friend than our friends are to us.  And since what we do for another — by simple virtue of being a different human being — differs from what that individual would do for us, we begin to understand why Mr. Venn was so keen on inventing his precious Diagram.

Of course, all of this this does not mean that our goal should be to find the greatest number of people who are willing to perform the greatest number of actions for us at any given time.  I am certain that you would rather have a friend that you like meeting for coffee exactly once per week who only likes to meet you for coffee once per week than a friend that you like meeting for coffee once per week who wants to have dinner with you every night.

And vice-versa.

Yet for better or for worse, we are not in a constant state of awareness of the specific nature of our relationships.  I don’t always know specifically what you would be willing to do for me just as you are not always sure what I would do for you.

For non-crazy people, none of this is a problem.

We don’t literally have lists.  We don’t know which list is large or which is small, and we don’t even know which list is bigger (and no amount of time spent in the locker room would aid us in answering this question).  But, because we are human and because we have a reasonably solid sense of the world around us, we are usually vaguely (and sometimes even keenly) aware who is worthy of our attention, and which of our acquaintances would be willing to pick us up from the airport at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Now, this is the point where I feel compelled to admit that the calculation of friendship would actually be much more complicated than the simple construction of a numbered “list.”  Certain behaviors we no doubt value more highly than others.  Allowing a person to borrow your pen certain should be weighed differently than allowing that same person to borrow your car.  Obviously, in any fair calculation, those two circumstances should be weighed differently.  Likewise, telling your friend that it’s okay to date your ex-girlfriend is a completely different situation than telling your friend that it’s okay to date your ex-girlfriend and actually meaning it.

Another glaring weakness of this analysis is that we are never completely aware of the actions we would be willing to take in a particular set of circumstances.  We are quick to criticize bad actors, bystander apathy, and unfaithfulness, but are often ourselves the worthy target of criticism.  Whether we are capable of, for example, standing up for – or commiserating with – a friend is quite easy to believe, but sometimes a little tricky to carry out in practice.

Only if you are lucky are you provided with an opportunity to prove to a friend that you are there for them, that you are a martyr for them — that your list of “woulds” is long and proud!  And as I learned many years ago, one of those “lucky” opportunities to display your martyrdom (a martyrtunity!) could come at any time, even if you find yourself confined within the pock-marked brick walls of French Road Elementary School.

And so in 1992 I learned just how long a list of woulds could go.

You probably know that fourth graders are trained to be Jacks (or Jacquelines) of all trades.  Though the harsh reality is that the vast majority of us were wasting our time – from a purely professional standpoint – in art, music, and gym class, we were nonetheless asked to become at-least-barely-proficient in self-portrait drawing, the glockenspiel, and dodgeball.  (Interestingly, “I hope nobody notices what I’m doing here” is the proper way to make it through all three of these skill sessions.)

First let me start off by pointing out that although this story takes place in an art classroom, my hopes of embarking on an artistic career ended about the same time my literal taste for uncooked macaroni subsided.  Once I was no longer interested in eating the stuff, gluing it to construction paper began to seem like a bit of a chore.

My classmates and I were milling about in art class, learning how to draw faces, or trees, or shadows, or…something with pencils.  And while my usual instinct here is to blame my lack of specificity on a poor memory, the truth is that I am probably as aware now as I was back then about the art topic de jure.

All I know is that pencils were the focal point.  My focal point, anyway.

We were never specifically instructed on the art of keeping pencils sharpened (mostly because it was not — and has never been — an art), but I considered pencil-sharpening my main function in the room that smelled as though a truckload of Crayolas had just detonated.  And I was good, real good.  The trick was knowing exactly how hard to push a standard pencil into the (manual!) sharpener so as to not to damage the critical point.  There is an upper limit on how sharp a pencil can become, and though there were times when I would channel Icarus and sharpen a bit too long or a bit too hard – flying too close to the sun – I was always ready to give it another go.

An artist, if he is to perfect his art, must above all be resilient.

One afternoon, following a particularly fortuitous pencil-sharpening experience, I began my march back to the paint-and-permanent-marker-stained seat I left only minutes earlier.  My friends were waiting for me.  I glided between desks, clutching my prize, a razor-sharp Number 2, stunning graphite point safely tucked inside my tiny fist.  The flesh-toned eraser stuck proudly outward, guiding me towards my destination like a paralyzed compass pointing due north.

And then I crashed, eraser first, directly into a table, cramming the graphite tip unapologetically into my palm.

It hurt, a lot.

Meanwhile, my friend Erik, who witnessed this whole ordeal from start to finish, had — so far as I could tell — a few options.  He could:

  1. Offer words of support
  2. Offer first aid
  3. Offer to escort me to the nurse’s office
  4. Offer a knowing joke at my expense

What Erik chose to do, however, in a moment of idyllic solidarity, was quickly find a loose pencil and jam it into his own hand.  Today, though our relationship is best defined by the words, “Facebook friends,” we have matching scars — tiny gray dots in our palms — to remember the time I decided to give up my pencil-sharpening hobby for good.

Since then, though I am certain that I have at least satisfactory number of friends that who would do any number of things for my benefit, I only know for sure of one friend who has ever included on his List of Things That He Would Do, the entry: “Intentionally stab self with pencil.”

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