"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."
- Terence McKenna
Apocalypsopolis, book one
Civilization Will Eat Itself, Superweed 1-4, best of
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September 26. I've had some pushback from my definition of a perfect life as one with zero obligations, and I'm sticking to it, but I need to be more clear about what I meant. I wasn't talking about doing rewarding stuff that's requested by other people or demanded by society. That would be an even more perfect life, but it's wildly unrealistic, at least in this century.
In practice, almost everything I've done that's come from the outside has been a tedious and meaningless chore, while almost everything rewarding I've done has come from the inside, either indifferent to the outside world or opposing it. (Exploring the external world, including art and entertainment, is an important subject that's beyond the scope of this post.)
Of course, to master a life with no external demands you have to pass through boredom, but of all the challenges I've ever faced, boredom is my favorite. Giant blocks of empty time are the fires in which I've forged my identity and found my strength. I'm not saying everyone is like that, but I am. Some people say "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger," but in my experience, what doesn't kill me only makes me want to spend the rest of my life in a Norwegian prison. Mass killer Anders Breivik has my perfect life, and of course he hates it because he's an idiot.
There's an old Twilight Zone episode where a thug dies and goes to heaven, where he can have everything he desires, and by the end of the episode he's gone mad with boredom and it turns out he's in hell. I think I would be happy for decades, and then I would just figure out how to selectively delete memories and be happy forever. Greg Egan's Permutation City is a sci-fi novel that explores this idea with virtual reality.
An even more ambitious utopia would be a world where external demands are stuff that we want to do anyway or that we end up enjoying. Some hunter-gatherer tribes have done this, but not all of them, and we've never come anywhere close with a large complex society.
That's why I used to be in favor of a hard crash, but now I think the path is not back but through: to use the present system as a shell, an incubator, a cocoon of a better system. Individualism has gone too far but maybe not far enough: imagine if we could break society down into atoms, billions of disconnected individuals kept from dying by an unconditional basic income, and then we can put ourselves back together in a structure where every link is understood, approved, and valued by every party.
September 23. Last Thursday I began a long run of bad luck and bad decisions, and I've been spending hours and hours on a tedious and fiddly bit of car repair to try to avoid going to a mechanic, which would cost more than $500 and force Leigh Ann to bus and walk to her classes and pet care jobs on a bad knee.
Through some combination of this event, the lingering effects of my concussion, and poor timing of drug use, I've been depressed. Everything that used to give me joy gives me only half as much, everything I do feels like walking uphill, I have that dread in the pit of my stomach a lot of the time for no apparent reason, and reality itself feels like going through a razor car wash.
Yesterday I even spent some time on the depression subreddit, which is mostly unloved 20 year olds and not people with my problems. But I did find this great short video on empathy, and I do expect to get better.
Back to the subject of drugs, it's crazy how much the effects differ from person to person. Most people have to try several antidepressants before they find the right one, and it's the same with the old drugs. I was just saying in an email how alcohol doesn't work for me -- I don't like any of the cognitive effects and the body buzz is feeble compared to cannabis, which also gives me awesome head effects. Hydrocodone has an even better body high, but the head trip is nothing special and it destroys my digestion.
Two weeks ago I mentioned that I don't trip from psilocybin, but I do get a clear effect: 36-48 hours later I have more energy and it feels like my brain has been rebooted. This seems to be independent of dose size, and a big dose makes me feel like I have the flu, which is why I only microdose now. So to celebrate my birthday I took one psilocybin gel cap with some cannabis chocolate. Like my other bad decisions, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but I would have held back if I'd really thought about it. If you're going to take a drug that reboots your brain, wait until you're feeling safe and happy and not in the middle of a crisis.
I also need to be more careful with cannabis timing. Just like in the movies, using it occasionally brings wisdom and inspiration, and using it all the time makes me numb and stupid -- although it seems to work for Willie Nelson. So I'm still trying to find the balance. I'm thinking, if my life is perfect (which I define as zero obligations) I can go four nights on and three nights off, but with more stress I have to take longer breaks and face the world hard and cold.
Some more marijuana links: How weed keeps you skinny, probably by increasing metabolism, and Former NFL player says he played his best games while stoned. Finally, some great hypnotic drug music, Wreaths - Goin' Back to Haiti.
September 21. Just a quick thought on the NYC bombings. You've probably heard that the bomber's family tried to warn the FBI two years ago, and they decided he wasn't a threat because he wasn't in contact with any violent political organizations. Of course they were wrong. Their mistake, which almost everyone makes, was to assume that violence is rooted in politics, when really it's rooted in psychology.
Still, I'm not sure I'd want to live in a world where the government looks for enemies by looking at psychology.
September 19. I still don't feel like posting, but since today is my 49th birthday, here's the Hawkwind song Seven by Seven.
September 16. Have the last few days been bad for everyone, or just for me and everyone around me? Anyway, for the weekend I have some quick thoughts about watching sports. It's not necessarily a waste of time. For me the key is to not care who wins or loses. It's a kind of meditation, to just watch for the performances and the unscripted developing story, and every time I slip into a preference for one side or the other, I try to notice and come back into balance. The funny thing is that TV commentators have to do this, so there's an example, right in front of us, of the best way to think about sports, and yet almost all viewers fail to follow that example.
One thing I've learned from watching it this way: as the level of competition gets higher, success is less about atheticism and more about focusing the mind in smaller and smaller moments.
September 14. Today a reader email says what I've been thinking lately: "The older you get, the more you realize how little you can actually do in the world for the world. Even reactions to it seem unnecessary. The focus is more internal, and then upon realizing how superficial that realization is, it becomes even more internal. Then, constant surgery."
I was going to say, I've wasted so much attention on social and political issues over which I have no power, when all along there were internal psychological issues over which I alone have power.
Last night I had a thought: what we call "the subconscious" is not some kind of nebulous intelligence, just a big web of unexamined habits. Most of our behavior is stuff we don't even know we're doing, or we know but we don't see other options. And what we call the "ego" is the impermeability of the membrane between self and other. To add a new belief or behavior, or drop an old one, you have to move it across that membrane, and this is a skill you can develop.
A valuable practice, which I've mentioned a few times before, is the "not that" meditation: Ask yourself "who am I?" and keep answering "not that" and looking deeper, until almost nothing seems like a necessary part of who you are. Another technique is ordinary meditation where you try to keep your mind blank, and when you catch yourself thinking about anything you notice and let it go. This is a lot like using the task manager on a Windows computer: you look at all the stuff running in the background and think "What the hell is that? Do I even need it or is it just eating up my CPU?"
I wonder how much of our identity is just a projection of unresolved internal conflict. A line from a song says it best, and I've had this at the top of my "about me" page for a few months now: "Does a man seek his own face for the flaws in shadows beneath?"
September 12. Unrelated stray links. Last week there was a fun thread on the Ask Men Over 30 subreddit: What are the 5 things that you most would like to have?
From the same day on reddit, a long comment about Vincent Van Gogh, starting with the Doctor Who episode and ending on some personal stuff about how to live well.
I had no idea: Canadian surgeons urge people to throw out bristle BBQ brushes, because bits of wire can get stuck to the grill, then stuck in the food, then stuck in your throat and they're damn hard to get out. Have they tried really strong magnets?
And a good article about a strange musical instrument, the glass harmonica's unlikely comeback.
September 9. From the New Yorker, a long and balanced article about Ayahuasca. There's also some good stuff in the Hacker News comment thread, including a link to this Onion article, Ayahuasca Shaman Dreading Another Week Of Guiding Tech CEOs To Spiritual Oneness.
My experience with psychedelics is limited. Psilocybin gives me a hard body trip but no head trip, and I've never had a source for anything stronger. I've done a lot of cannabis, and it has opened paths that I never would have imagined without it. But you still have to walk the path. The problem with expansion of consciousness is that stuff has been blocked from your consciousness for a reason, and it's usually not because society doesn't want you to know that we are all one. More often it's because you have spent your life making terrible mistakes, and living without those mistakes is really hard, but now you have to do it because you know about it. Ignorance is bliss, and to emerge from ignorance is to climb through pain.
I'm not surprised to find the same idea in this long reddit comment about antidepressants, by someone who has studied them through both neuroscience and personal experience. Edited excerpt:
It's a tool. It'll help you in your battle if you need it. Other tools work for other people. The trick is to not rely on it as an easy fix. Depression is hard as fuck to fix. It requires embracing the source of your suffering, the ability to admit your brain is thinking bad thoughts, the ability to reality check yourself, and constant behavior changes to make sure you're setting yourself up for a good life.
September 6. I've been thinking about the meaning of life -- not the conscious large-scale stories about the reason (or lack of reason) that we're in this world, but about the unconscious stories and value systems that guide our small-scale actions. A month ago on the subreddit there was a massive comment thread about MGTOW, men who "believe that legal and romantic entanglements with women fail a cost-benefit analysis." Now it occurs to me that cost-benefit analysis is an optional, peculiar, and mostly unexamined story about the meaning of life.
I mean it can be a useful tool, but it's not a good script to have running in the background all the time, constantly guarding against getting a bad deal. And yet most of us do it. That's why we don't like being cut off in traffic, or being in the slow line at the supermarket, or not getting the best possible price when we buy stuff online. But when is it enough? When do we say, "Okay, over the whole span of my life I'm sure I'm getting a good deal so I'm going to stop caring about that." Most people never say that, because it would leave a void where there used to be meaning. Instead, normal behavior is to skew our perception so we always feel like we're getting a slightly bad deal no matter how good a deal we're getting.
This is part of what Buddhists call attachment and Eckhart Tolle calls ego, but I want to call it incompetent self-gamification. Gamification is "the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts," often by big institutions as part of creepy social control. But we also do it to ourselves all the time, turning everyday life into little games where we can win or lose based on events we don't fully control. And if we really examined this habit, we would find that the excitement of the game is not worth the suffering of losing.
But wait, isn't that a cost-benefit analysis? Maybe my point is that we apply cost-benefit analysis too much toward the outside, and not enough toward the inside.
September 2. Some fun stuff for the weekend. This silly quiz is actually a good execution of a good idea: What Garden of Earthly Delights Abomination Are You? My result strangely nails the deepest tension in my life, between my desire to simply have a good time, and my unseen role in some mysterious tale in which I'm supposed to be doing something or other, and if I try to have too much of a good time I get smacked down. I can relate even better to this 2014 Onion article: Man Hates Being Put In Position Where He Has To Think, Feel, Or Act.
And this might be the greatest joke ever told, Norm MacDonald's Moth Joke. It's actually an old joke that he puts his own spin on. Where other comedians play within the rules of comedy, Norm MacDonald plays with the rules of comedy.
August 31. Continuing from Monday, I want to say a bit more about puritanism, because it's a common affliction of young people outside the dominant culture. I define puritanism as getting a sense of meaning or value from refusing to do a fun thing that ordinary people do. This is a mistake because it's good to have fun and it's good to do more things. Also it's a denial of the power of moderation. The person who watches TV all day and the person who never watches TV have put off learning the same skill.
New subject: I just defined a word, and a long-time reader has just published a book loaded with interesting definitions of a whole bunch of words, many of them made up. Thanks Darren for sending me a free copy of The Apocalypedia. It's a lot like my early writing in that Darren seems to be having great fun striking again and again at the heart of the Beast. What really stands out to me is how thoroughly moral the book is. You can put your finger down at random and ask if the author thinks the thing he's describing is a good thing or a bad thing, and the answer usually jumps off the page. Between that and the book's thick feel and frequent use of burgundy colored text, it reminds me more than anything of a Bible.
August 29. Back when I started writing for the internet, I was already good with words, in some ways better than I am now, but my ideas were mostly kitsch, the text equivalent of Thomas Kinkade paintings and heavy metal album covers. I would just look at the biggest events and come up with the simplest and most superficially exciting stories. Over the years I've shifted my tone from righteousness toward curiosity, my explanations from epic and airtight toward complex and open-ended, and my predictions from what would make a good movie toward what seems to be actually happening. I've made some effort to explain how and why my thinking has changed, but I suppose it's karma that some readers prefer their own simple and flashy explanations.
Last week on the subreddit someone posted the old story that men lose their creative edge when they get a girlfriend. Now, I'm fascinated by creative decay because it seems to happen to everyone. How many musical artists made their best album in their first five years and how many made it after 20 years? Anecdotally, this process can be blamed on anything, but I think being with a new person is more often a source of creative renewal. Look at what Kathleen Brennan did for Tom Waits. And it's suspicious that the people who tell that story tend to be single guys, and that no one ever tells it with the genders reversed.
Anyone who has been in a long-term live-in relationship knows that it's the opposite of settling into comfort. To explain my own experience, I have to start with some deeper background.
Lately my main angle of self-improvement is to become more aware of the voices inside my head. You might think you don't have voices inside your head, but do you ever have internal arguments? That's at least two voices, and where did they come from? I used to take them as absolutes, like the rocks of the mountains, when really they're arbitrary, socially constructed, and within your power to change. It reminds me of the Gurdjieff line, that humans are so ruled by habit that psychology is basically mechanics. Also it reminds me of the Steven Wright line: "The other day I... uh, no, that wasn't me."
So we have all these unexamined habits that we think of as the "self", and we have developed them by engaging with the world. For people we know casually, or people we'll never see again, we have shallow and short-term strategies, but these are going to break down if you're living with someone for years. Probably the only social context in which you have developed and tested deep and long-term strategies is with your weird-ass family.
So, when you look for a long-term partner, you're subconsciously looking for a social environment just like your family, except now you have more power, so you can finally get the happiness you deserve without having to learn anything new. Of course this never happens. As soon as you move in together the tensions start to build, and the only way through is for both partners to grind through the process of developing new habits that hold up over time.
Specifically: I used to be more complainy, more judgmental, and more puritanical. As a writer I was able to make those habits entertaining, but they're bad habits, and as they've gone out of my personal life, they've gone out of my writing.
August 26. Today I want to write about my ongoing attempt to write fiction. First, an epic reddit comment with 74 answers to the question What's something that happens in movies, but never happens in real life?
We've just started watching a Canadian sci-fi show called Dark Matter on Netflix. The Big Idea is great: a spaceship crew wakes up with their memories gone, so on top of the usual stuff that spaceships do, they have to figure out who they are. And this show is big on Usual Stuff: the android crew member who's just like an aspergy human, the cynical selfish crew member who's also the best with guns, the hot female crew member who is invincible at hand to hand fighting, the cyberpunk space station that's like Blade Runner with no style. Bartenders know everything and you can get anywhere by crawling through ducts. I was hoping the mysterious abandoned ship with murdered crew had one survivor who turned out to be the crazy killer, but instead they went with Space Zombies.
A crew member finds a stowaway and his line is "Well well well, what do we have here?" Imagine the screenwriter making the decision to type that, and how cynical or lazy he must have been.
But it's bad fiction, not good fiction, that motivates me to write. If I'm reading a great novel like John Crowley's Little, Big, or Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or Albert Cossery's A Splendid Conspiracy, I'm thinking, why should I even bother writing fiction when I can never touch this? But then I see something bad and think, I could write circles around this shit.
But even Dark Matter is good at something I can't do at all. I can conceive big ideas and make the fine details sparkle, but I still haven't learned how to do medium-scale storytelling, to keep a multi-thread narrative going page after page. Now I'm thinking I'll have to bring in some tropes to do that, because I'm not good enough to be completely original on every level. Even my weirdest favorite song has verses and hooks.
August 24. Related to Monday's subject, Religious Diversity May Be Making America Less Religious. I think this is a semantic issue. Everybody has a Big Story about reality, even if it's reductionist materialism or a vague sense of a benevolent universe. But with more options, people are moving away from the monolithic old religions into stories that haven't been defined as "religion" yet, and may never be.
Last week there was a subreddit post about Stimulants versus Hallucinogens and how they fit with different societies. I've often wondered why I'm the only person in my family who hates having a job and feels that modern life is unreasonably difficult and exhausting. Could it be as simple as the fact that I don't drink coffee? Leigh Ann says it's because I'm INTP.
And on my new favorite subject, advanced life skills, What Great Listeners Actually Do. The article breaks it down into six levels, and I'm on level 3 right now and working on level 4.
August 22. From last December, Can You Hear Me Now? is a Ribbonfarm post about "divergentism": that humans seem to be developing in a way that makes us more different, or it makes it harder for us to find deep common ground.
Venkat sees this as a troubling permanent trend, but I see it as an adjustment to new technology, which is already finding equilibrium. When I was a teenager my favorite music and shows and ideas were all popular, simply because there was no way for unpopular stuff to get to me. Now the internet has opened up a vast landscape in which we all have the option to look for more obscure stuff that we like better.
But this isn't an unchecked drift into meaninglessness. It is constrained by our need to continue to find common ground. Each of us, when choosing where to put our attention, must find our own balance between what we love and what we can talk about with other people. Introverts will go farther to the fringe while more social people will tend to like whatever their friends like.
Still, I see two ways that a much larger cultural landscape can create problems. One is with couples, who want to be emotionally compatible and like all the same culture. This goal used to be realistic and now it's impossible, and people with more developed tastes will have to get used to feeling alone even with their partners.
The other problem is with politics. As we get more culturally diverse, it becomes more challenging for hundreds of millions of us to share one political system. Even if political systems keep getting better, they will seem more meaningless, and more people will be dissatisfied with them.