June 18th, 2013

purple hair

Relationships among the incompatibly neurodiverse are difficult; film at 11.

For many years, one of my rules for dating me has been:
I do not date anyone crazier than I am. Note that I am known for singing in public and juggling fruit in the grocery store, so by "crazy" I do not mean "weird"; I mean "mentally unstable in ways that make it difficult for you to conduct your day-to-day life". Broken is okay. Demolished is not.

(N.B.: This rule is not symmetric. Sure, I'll date people whom I'm crazier than.)

I'm coming to realise it's time I revised this rule, though it's going to be hard to articulate it quite as succinctly as "no one crazier than me." Terseness of expression is often used as a proxy variable for elegance, but if used as the only proxy (which is an oversimplification of the computer-science lines-of-code heuristic), it has a huge false positive rate; an elegant description must also be correct, so a short rule that erases nuance is less elegant than a longer one that preserves it. Terseness is wonderful for readability, and certainly in a marketplace of ideas where the unit of account is your attention, the incentive to sacrifice clarity for eyeballs is enormous. But let's be realistic here, this is my D-list personal blog that has always been more for my benefit than for yours, Gentle Reader, and in any case I have always been more interested in being correct than being popular. So let's see if I can come a little closer to the former.

I was up pretty late a few weeks ago, talking with a close friend about Len. She'd been wanting to have this conversation since roughly around the time he died, but one thing or another had always gotten in the way of it, leading me to anticipate something particularly fraught and minefieldy -- I certainly don't put off a discussion for that long unless I expect it to explode on contact. So I was surprised when the upshot of the whole thing turned out to be Len was a difficult son of a bitch to deal with sometimes.

That might come off as dismissive, but really, once it got underway, the entire conversation was roughly five hours of this:
FRIEND: So this shitty unresolved thing happened once. [describes]
maradydd: Yeah, that was really shitty and unfair. Here's an experience I had that was similar. [describes] I think both experiences have to do with [reasons].

on repeat. No bombshells, no deep dark secrets -- one or two things I hadn't heard about while he was alive, but everything she brought up was completely consistent with my still-operational model of Len over the eight years I knew him.

I was relieved, in the weeks after Len killed himself, that none of the obituaries or eulogies tried to canonise him in the way that eventually happened to Aaron Swartz. Eleanor Saitta, for instance, wrote:
Len Sassaman had struggled with depression for a long time, but he’d struggled against other things too. Len was a cypherpunk. He worked to give people tools to communicate securely in the face of government oppression and corporate oligarchy, whether that government is in China, Iran, Syria, America, or here in the UK. Len was brilliant, but he also saw this oppression in very immediate terms, even when the signals were less obvious than they have been in past months.

This made him, to be frank, difficult. He framed the world as he saw it, very starkly, and you were either with him or against him on every issue. He spent a decade and a half fighting a war that no one else saw, and it killed him.

Obviously this doesn't touch on his personal life, but it's not a far stretch to conclude that someone who saw the broader social sphere in black-and-white might also see the narrower one the same way, and in Len's case you'd even be right. Gentle Reader, I invite you: if you thought Len was a handful on the Internet or at conferences, imagine living with him.

I suppose in my case, it helps that I have my own mile-wide cantankerous streak, fit to the task of locking horns with any curmudgeon this side of Walter Matthau's character in Grumpy Old Men. Not everyone has this tendency, and not everyone who does embraces it as a defining character trait. (I also invite you to consider, Gentle Reader: in light of how much I argue with other people, imagine how much I argue with myself.) This is tempered by things like what feels like an innate drive to be kind to people I like, and some internal incentive reorganization linked to the realisation that the frequency of my indulgence in what can be an enjoyable pastime but whose rewards are usually transient (arguing) was detracting from my effectiveness at pursuits which, while more time-consuming, also produce more enduring rewards (generally: building things); still, I will never mute it to the point where I don't object to unreasonable or unfair propositions, even from people I care about, because dammit, that behavior is useful and more people should have it interpersonally.

My friend does not, with respect to people she cares about; she also has a mile-wide caretaker streak, and Len was both depressed and chronically ill. You do the math. I get lots of pent-up resentment as her outcome, which squares with her self-reporting, and Len doesn't feel anything because he's dead1. Now, I don't think anyone regards "being a pushover when it comes to your friends" as a form of mental illness, myself included, and nor do I think it should be. But it is a way of being that can lead to significant unhappiness if one has friends who are abusive or even just overly needy; even the most devoted caretaker still has other things to do every once in a while. As such, I think it's not unreasonable to say that her personality and his were simply incompatible with respect to this, despite all the other things they were so compatible about, and that they were either going to need to make some contextual behavioural changes (he stops asking her for help, or she stops offering, or both), or to stop interacting at all.

This gets a bit more difficult when the incompatible traits are somewhat more fundamental: things that a person doesn't want to, or can't, or believes they can't change about themselves. Often these traits aren't especially evident until people have spent a couple of years getting to know each other, or they're not very easy to articulate until people have spent a couple of years trying to put words to them. And I've been staring at this paragraph for a couple of days now; it's becoming clear to me that I'm not ready to write this part right now. So I guess I fail at correctness, since correctness requires completeness.

But one last thing before I go; it's important.

My friend was reluctant to have this conversation with me at all, despite clearly needing to, because of a reluctance to "speak ill of the dead." I can understand not wanting to inflict emotional harm on the family of a recently deceased person, but for fuck's sake, people, "don't speak ill of the dead" is not a categorical imperative. If someone is dead and there is something you need to get off your chest about them, do it. Exercise reasonable discretion about other people's internal states (like, don't go bitching to a dead person's mother about what a terrible neighbour they were a week after the funeral), but fucking talk to somebody. The dead person is dead and cannot be hurt any further. Be kind to the living, but don't forget that you're one of them too.


1If you are sensing some bitterness here, your senses are calibrated correctly.