“Some things work better with a friend,” declares Octopus at the opening of Jon Scieszka’s book, Cowboy & Octopus. “You wanna be friends?” Cowboy reckons back in this tale of two very unlikely sidekicks.  From a humble beginning spent figuring out the physics of a seesaw, the book goes on to chronicle, through the eyes of these two characters, the trials and triumphs that all friendships go through, and the ways we adapt and cope to make those friendships endure.

The tale presents several amusing scenarios as the two slowly inch their way toward a lasting connection.  Cowboy makes beans and bacon for his friend Octopus. While Octopus normally can’t stand beans and bacon, he licks a bean and says how good it is anyway, just to please his new friend who has gone to so much trouble. Cowboy hits Octopus squarely on the head with a hammer, the result of a humorous miscommunication between the two. Cowboy can’t understand a knock-knock joke, but ends up laughing anyway because of an unintended absurdity inherent in the joke. Octopus likes rain and Cowboy doesn’t. Both of them try on new hats, but while Octopus tries to be diplomatic and tell Cowboy that his hat is “different,” Cowboy forthrightly tells Octopus that his hat “looks like something my horse dropped behind him.” Cowboy believes being truthful is more important than faking compliments. Although there’s never a clear explanation of the glue that holds this friendship together, at the end the pair walk off into the sunset with the words “ADIOS, AMIGOS” filling the sky.

While I feel Cowboy & Octopus does a good job of explaining the basic ups and downs of friendship, I also feel that the whole friendship thing is more than just a series of clunky, comical interactions. In childhood we seem to make these insta-friends and don’t have much discernment in our choices. If someone shares our interest in climbing up the monkey bars, off we go. No thought goes into it at all. Then later we get invited to a birthday party or to hang out after school, only to find out how irritating or needy this other kid is. Still, these early interactions form the basis of our friendships as adults. Get burned a few times and you learn to become more picky. You don’t usually make friends with someone you accidentally cross paths with, just because. We start choosing friends based on common interests, but sometimes even that isn’t enough. Things like shared values start coming into play. The other person’s sense of humor factors in, as does their level of intelligence. Both of you simply liking NASCAR doesn’t cut the mustard, or maybe it does.

Ideally, we think of friendship in terms such as trust, loyalty, and the amount of happiness these people we spend time with bring to our lives. At the very foundation of it all, however, is a simple equation of balance. How much do you enjoy this person’s company? If the bond isn’t solid, you’ll start weighing that against how much of your precious time is eaten up by this buffoon. Does the good outweigh the bad?  Is your friend too intense or too sedate? Are the things you find yourself putting up with becoming more and more grating?  Do you feel stalked?  Do you feel ignored?  Do you exhibit stoicism while your friend whines about the same summertime humidity at Jamestown that the early colonists somehow survived, or the lack of beer in a dry locality like Tangier Island?  Do the fun times you’ve had shrivel in comparison to the time they flaked out on you when you were in a major jam? Did they get mad over some perceived slight and use eBay to auction off the recording gear you left at their house?  And does the camaraderie of going to shows together start to pale when your friend succumbs to the likes of alcoholism or a porn addiction??

Conversely, you might consider holding a mirror up to yourself.  Are you keeping up your end of the bargain?  Do people yawn or cringe in your presence?  Are you willing to compromise?  Do you take keen delight in wielding power over others and telling them what to do?  Love to criticize, but can’t personally take the heat?  Do you think your stuff doesn’t stink?

Have you ever considered the odds of two random people, each with his or her own thoughts, feelings, likes, dislikes, fears, passions, vision, nuances, quirks and peculiarities, forming a successful duo?  With the possible exception of Hall & Oates, it’s pretty darn rare.

We are all born alone and we will all die alone. In between, we’ll make many attempts at connections. A few will last, but most – through mismatch, annoyance, disappointment, betrayal, or the sheer horror of involuntary recoil – will ultimately fall apart.

Hope springs eternal, but reality trumps all.


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2 thoughts on “Cowboy & Octopus, or Jean-Paul Sartre on the Joy of Other People

  1. I spit at the next-to-the-last word, but loved everything else about this – including the word tags at the bottom! I hear you and I see. Saw.

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