0551 – any issues?

A: I was asked if I have any issues.

B: Well, do you?

A: I don’t know. Doesn’t everybody? What is an issue?

B: Well, if it’s going to affect your life adversely, it’s an issue.

A: See, there are so many different things I could say here, and each one would lead to a totally different conversation, and each would give you a different impression of me. Continuing this conversation requires requires me to choose something, on the fly. I like to think that I’m good at improvising, but how do people do this?

B: Do what?

A: decide how to respond to other people.

B: *chuckles* yeah, I think you’ve got issues.

A: That is such a copout though. Don’t all the best things come from people who ask basic questions? Are we implying that anybody who asks ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate’ questions have issues?

B: I think you wouldn’t be surprised to find that quite a lot of those great people had issues. Of course, it’s not their maladjustment or miswiring that made them great, but what they did about it.

A: I think there’s a distinction between being maladjusted to your circumstances and fundamentally being a little miswired.

B: Sure. Issues is a vague term. People sometimew ask vague questions because they want to give you the freedom to make it more precise along the dimension that you choose. You get to decide if you want to elaborate or not.

A: Sometimes I find that freedom to be too much responsibility.

B: You think a little too highly of yourself. Nobody really cares that much. They just wanna know if you’re okay.

A: Well, are you okay?

B: Sure, yeah. I am. Thanks for asking.

A: How do you know that? How do you know that you’re okay?

B: Well, I could run down a checklist…

A: Please do.

B: Starts with the meatbag. Sleeping OK? Eating and drinking OK? Exercising OK? Yes. I’m OK. Then I move on to broader things. Money is OK? Relationships are OK? Work is OK? Am I doing things I like? Do I have things that I’m working towards, that I’m looking forward to? Am I making progress? These things don’t all have to be perfect, but as long as I’m not in catastrophic situations and as long as I’m making progress, I’m okay.

A: *snort* Okay.

B: What’s funny?

A: I was just thinking “and then you’re going to die and everyone and everything you love is going to decay into nothingness, but at least you’re okay” – but I realize that’s a very impolite and unhelpful thing to say, and it’s probably going to make you think that I have ‘issues’.

B: You’re not wrong, on either count.

A: Well, fuck me, yeah?

B: No. Don’t do that. That’s boring. I think you’ve had this conversation with yourself too many times in too many iterations to be satisfied with that sort of defeatist ending. It’s too easy. To which you might say “I like easy”, but you already know several times over that you don’t. You have the scars to show for it.

A: *sigh*

B: Hm?

A: Everything is hard and boring.

B: Yes, you’ve known that for some time now.

A: Knowing it still hasn’t taken the sting off. I write bitter, angry and depressing shit as a way of coping with the stinging fact that reality is hard and boring.

B: Does it help?

A: Seems a little early to tell, but my preliminary prognosis says “nope, not good”. I can’t linger in or revisit that state too much, or I’ll become an angry bitter old Kopitiam uncle, shaking his fist at the clouds and the Government and drinking himself silly.

B: I think you’re a little smarter than that.

A: Yeah.

B: So what’s the next step?

A: *in a rehearsed tone* Feel the sting and do it anyway. Sleep. Work out. Meditate. Focus. Stop reading stupid irrelevant shit. If there are problems, take steps to address them. There’ll be an ‘effort shock’ where you find that it requires much more of you than you anticipated. It’ll be tempting to groan and mope, because those things are easier to do than to address the issues.

B: *smiles* So you’re saying you have issues?

A: I have… challenges.

B: It’s nice that you talk like this when you’re with me. But I get the sense that you don’t talk like this when you’re alone with yourself.

A: I’m trying, man. I think I’ve gotten better at it over the years, with practice. It’s just not a pretty process, and it’s not a fast process. It’s not a native language for me.

B: Yeah, that’s probably true.

A: You don’t seem to be bitter or angry about anything, ever. How do you do it? Sometimes when I talk to other people, I get the sense that they maybe just have had better starting conditions or better circumstances or are wired better, or have a better propensity for change- you know, the typical list of excuses for why other people are better. But you’re inside my head. You’re me. How do you do it?

B: You want to know the secret ingredient? There is no secret ingredient.

A: I already watched Kung-fu Panda, thanks.

B: Both of us are just voices in the head of a guy typing on a screen while he’s in a train on the way to work. We’re obviously made up. But what’s not so obvious is that every other voice or thought is made up, too. Every interpretation is a sort of fiction. It might be more or less accurate, but it’s still fundamentally made up.

A: Uhuh.

B: You’re free to completely invent and alter your inner voice however you please. You can live your life as B rather than A. We literally come from the same mind.

A: I get the sense that it’s not so simple and that you’re just trying to lead this particular story towards some sort of profound or feel-good ending.

B: I get the sense that I’m just trying to help you out in whatever way I can. It’s probably a little more complicated than I’m making it out to be,  but I think it’s at least true that you have some mental patterns that you could bust yourself out of.

A: That’s part of why I want to write fiction. 500,000+ words in I’ve gotten tired of the sound of my own voice. I want to try on some different lenses. I’m too ingrained in my current configuration. And it’s like… all this childhood shit, right? Parents and school and whatnot. I’m tired of having that be my story, narrative, whatever.

B: Sounds good. But okay, after all of that, besides all of that, how are you doing really?

A: Aiyah. I’m fine lah. I went running. My calves got really sore. I had trouble sleeping. When I’m sleep deprived, I feel weak and powerless and get into a drama-mama state. Sometimes I write when I’m in that mood. Life is bleak but I’m one of the luckier ones, and there are still things to learn and laugh about. I’m good.
 

0550 – a life of quiet desperation

(fiction)

There’s a guy who’s stuck in a dead-end office job. Every day gets out of the box box he calls home and gets into a tube with many other tired, disgruntled humans and heads to work. He usually groans and tosses and turns in bed for a while before he gets out, because nothing about life ahead of him seems particularly interesting or exciting. While he’s in the train, he entertains himself with Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes he fantasizes about writing fiction but he never really gets around to it.

He gets to work, and sits at the same chair and desk and computer that he’s been sitting at for years. And he writes sales content, content that hopefully people would read and then be influenced to buy his company’s business-to-business software service. He does this for about 8 hours, with a break for lunch that he usually spends chatting with his colleagues. It’s some of the only real social interaction he has every day.

After work he heads back home the same way he came, which takes over an hour. When he gets home, the sun has set and everything is dark. His wife is sick, and has been for a couple of years. She does her best, though, and takes care of things around the house. She’s sometimes grumpy, sometimes sad. She had a somewhat crappy life, with lousy parents, no real social skills, no real passion, nothing in particular that she was good at. And so he would support her financially, as well as pay for the house that they live in.

Our guy sometimes smokes cigarettes, he sometimes tries to exercise. He would like to be more productive at work but somehow he just seems tired all the time. When he gets home he’s often tempted to eat junk food and/or watch some television or a movie. Or sit on the internet and scroll through reddit and imgur and Facebook and all of those time-wasters. He knows he should probably give them up, but they provide him a little bit of distraction from the frustrating reality of his life. He sleeps 8 hours a day, is at work 8 hours a day, commutes 3 hours a day. He’s left with 5 hours. Half an hour goes to showers and pooping. 4.5. He has to lie in bed for at least 30 minutes before he falls asleep. 4 hours. Dinner. 3.5. What should he be doing with those 3.5 hours?

Sometimes he exercises. People say that it takes 20 minutes, but to go down to the jogging track takes 10-15 minutes, jogging takes another 20, getting back another 10-15. He’s unfit, so he’s typically winded at some point and needs to just sit down for another 10-15 minutes. Then he has to shower, because the country he lives in is pretty damn hot and humid. So if he decides to run, that takes an hour, leaving him with 2.5.

On a good day, he writes. He sits and he evaluates how his life has been. Spoiler: Not that great. He sits and evaluates what to do next. All options seem pretty bleak and futile– the most probable outcome seems to be to work until death.

For a period of time, when a friend lent him a desktop PC, he would play video games. Which makes him realise that if he just put it more effort into prioritising, he should be able to MAKE the time to do things that he wanted to do.

But what does he want to do? He really just wants all the pain and the stress of everyday life to go away. But it isn’t going away. He’s going to be paying his mortgage for another 27 years. The pain is only going to get worse. So he needs to carve out space, somehow, for joy and happiness and meaning– because if he doesn’t then he’s going to become a bitter, angry person, or depressed, or in some other way just plain fucked up.

He used to have a bunch of passions and interests about the world, but all of those things now seem really vacuous to him. Like they were frivolous things that he enjoyed when he didn’t have the burden of crushing debt on his shoulders. Now he just wants to get the weight off his shoulders but he’s not sure how to do it. One way to do it would be to earn more money. That would require him being more effective and efficient at work, which would require him to plan his time better, to schedule his life better, to prioritise the hard, difficult things first and get them done in less time. Then maybe he’d be able to leave work earlier, and maybe have a bit more time to read a book or something. Maybe he should be reading on his commutes, but books are just such a bitch to carry on crowded trains. Maybe he should put some ebooks on his kindle. He wants to read big novels but finds them intimidating. He wants to get fit but progress is slow and he has to pause his gym routine in order to keep up with his military commitments.

He wants to build muscle and gain weight, but that means buying more food, which he’s not sure he can afford. He would save money if he learned to cook, but he doesn’t know where to begin, and he’s been afraid of food since he was a child because of how he was raised. He wants to solve his problems but he feels like he doesn’t quite have enough energy, and really, he just feels so goddamn tired all the time. All the time. He’s only 26 and he can’t quite remember what it was like to not be tired. He’s sick of his commute.

Sometimes he sits with his guitar– he used to play music in bands– and he tries to make progress, he tries to learn a new song, or write one, or sing. He enjoys it for a little while, but then finds himself thinking that he’s never going to be particularly good at it, and nobody’s ever going to care, and that developing hobbies on the side was an indulgence he couldn’t afford when he has so much debt to look forward to. He’s not sure if he’s stuck in some sort of poverty mindset, some sort of poverty cycle. He knows intellectually that he’s better off than the vast majority of human beings who ever lived, at least materially speaking. He’s safe from threats and so on. But what a pathetic life he’s living. How tiresome. How meaningless.

He clings on, hoping that in the months or years or maybe decades ahead, something will give. Something will change. And maybe things would get better.

 

0549 – write true sentences

What does it take to write a piece of fiction? You have to start with something. You could start with a person, or perhaps a place, or an object. A noun. Do you need to have an idea of what you want to be writing about? Well… it often seems that a lot of things that get written have some central idea or thesis that’s being explored. Some sort of forward momentum that’s being followed. And I think I’ve been a little lacking in forward momentum lately, because I’ve been analyzing everything to death and not putting anything forward.

Well, okay. Let’s step into the cannon and fire. What do we get? We get… a person. What’s interesting about the person? He doesn’t fit in? Oh, boo-fucking-hoo. Nobody fits in. Okay, so maybe we shouldn’t start with a person. Maybe we should start with a place. What place should we start with? Should I use Singapore, because it’s where I grew up? I don’t feel comfortable using the past, because that requires research and consistency. I either have to use my conception of the present, or conceive of some sort of future. Or create some sort of fantasy context, but world-building is a lot of work and I don’t really feel like doing that unless I have a really good reason to do it. And so I’m always looking for that “really good reason”.

I’m thinking now about the movie Gattaca, and how it was simple and well-executed. I found myself wishing that it would do a lot more, but I realize what made it effective is how it was willing and able to really execute on a single central idea, and support it and follow through with it. It tied together a man’s yearning and his social/familial frustrations with scientific development.

I think there’s something there. The point is that there’s always a human story of tension and conflict. This is what I’ve always struggled with in my fiction, every time I tried to write something I would write my characters without enough conflict in them. But let’s go through say, Pixar films. The robot that falls in love with a robot prettier than him. The man who loses his wife and struggles to go on. What’s MY story? Has it been told? Does it have to be autobiographical in order to work? Am I overthinking this– yes, but how do I get past it and start writing? Once upon a time, there was this guy. Every day, this guy would go about his life. Until one day, he couldn’t, because something bad happened. Now he’s in a bit of a pickle. His usual approach doesn’t work anymore. He’s scared and frustrated and he needs to figure a way out. Finally, desperate, he does the unthinkable– he reaches out to somebody he hates. Or he throws himself into a pursuit that he’s unfamiliar with. Some sort of struggle.

But goddamnit isn’t that so predictable? Hush. Don’t knock it till you’ve done it, Visa. Make it happen. If it’s so simple, do it and see how it looks from the outside. Stop criticizing things before they even get a chance to breathe. There will be things that you haven’t thought of yet, things that you’re not familiar with. Stop trying to write what you think the world needs, write what is on your mind.

What IS on my mind? I suppose I’ve been thinking about writing a story about a student and her teacher and their illicit relationship. But do I really want to write that or… oh my god, I can’t believe myself. Simplify. Just write. Stop thinking about what the world should read. Who do you think is the most interesting character in the world? Who? Which is the most interesting character in a movie or book or whatever?

I… don’t have anybody. I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, that’s just who’s coming to mind, but I’m not sure that’s a great candidate. I suppose I should… externalize my geeky conversations into characters and see what those characters are like. Should I put them in some context? Should it be fantastical? No… I don’t know. Should I go to writing prompts? Maybe I should go to writing prompts. I just went to writing prompts. I didn’t see anything interesting. Le sigh. What does interesting even mean. Where do writers begin. Why am I asking such basic questions. I Googled “how to write fiction” and in scrolling encountered a Hemingway’s name, which triggered the thought “just write the truest sentence you know”. I suppose I could and should start with that. What are some true sentences? “Life is BEYOND unfair.” That could be expanded. Okay, let’s list sentences to expand.

“You will never be enough.”

“You don’t actually want what you think you want, you just enjoy wanting it.”

“Nobody cares about your bullshit until you make it a big deal.”

“They say characters must have motivations, but I don’t have any. Does that make me a shallow character? Why is it that characters in books have more personality than I do? Is it because the authors love their characters more than I love myself?”

“We’re all just clowns amusing ourselves silly while staring into the abyss. We’re all quite mad, and quite reasonably so.”

“I keep trying to forgive myself, but I keep failing, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m not trying hard enough or because I’m just really unforgiving.”

“There are millions of us living lives of quiet desperation, and we’re all waiting anxiously for something to happen. Something to shake us up. Something to give us permission to break free. Who would Abraham Lincoln have been, who would Winston Churchill have been, if not for the grand challenges of their times? It seems simply too selfish to break dramatically from a somewhat calm, peaceful, idyllic life. Sometimes I wish I would be struck with madness. Our mediocrity is our great anesthetic.”

“I am tired, so utterly tired of reading what somebody else had to say. I’d much rather know what’s inside of me. I want to know what I’ve been carrying within me for millennia. It seems like that would be a voyage worth undertaking, but every time I begin the trip I find that the lands are bare, stripped clean. I know that there are universes within me, but their denizens hide upon my arrival– out of fear or shame I cannot say.”

 

0548 – go running every week for mental clarity

I just got home from a run. I found myself thinking, as I often do after my infrequent, irregular runs, that my mind was feeling sharper and clearer than usual. The title that came to my mind for this was “the mind after a run”.

Concurrently, I’ve been trying to retitle my word vomits with directives (“do X”), because I find that they’re easier to parse. Or to be more specific, it’s easier to quickly generate from memory what the rest of the post would be.

The post “the mind after a run” would be a descriptive post, describing how the mind is like before and after a run. The implicit conclusion would be “so remember to run more often”. The post “go running every week” begins with the directive. The natural question that follows is “why?” – and the answer to that is “for mental clarity”. I’m updating the title to include that. The title now has more information than “the mind after a run”. I’m still free to describe “the mind after a run”, which I’ll do now.

Succinctly, my mind is clearer after a run. I believe there’s a lot of scientific literature about this already – runner’s high, endorphins, peak physical condition, the mind is what the brain does, the brain is an organ that requires energy to function, exercise leads to better circulation as well as introduces some other variables I’m not fully aware of, the mind is clearer and I can think better.

Interestingly, running and lifting weights seem to have different effects on the mind. But I don’t know the specifics. I think the body I want will be best sculpted by weight training, but I think there’s also space for some running– out in the open, out in nature, hiking, I don’t know the details yet. I went Googling to look for some reads about it, but everybody seems to have different interpretations depending on what their position is. I’ve picked out a couple of books to read, but in the meantime I think it’s best if I evaluate my own history and experiences.

I’m pretty insecure and ashamed about my lack of cardio fitness. I’ve gotten stronger physically and can squat and bench and deadlift more than I ever have. But I can’t do pullups anymore the way I used to when I weighed 20kg less. I can run the way I did when I weighed 20kg less– and I was never particularly good at running then either. I believe my best ever 2.4km timing was still over 12 minutes– maybe 12:30 or 12:45. I can’t trust my memory on this one, so I’m just going to assume it was 13:00. Now I think I can’t even go below 14:00. I find this to be embarrassing. And so I’d like to make progress on it, and so I’d like to commit to a regimen of getting my ass out and running more frequently. I tend to have an all or nothing approach that doesn’t help. I’d like to work backwards from a 5km run, which I’d like to run at a comfortable pace and just finish smoothly. I think I’ll do this by the end of the year. And I’d have conquered another limiting belief– that I’m somehow deficient in the cardiovascular department.

I know I’ve written a couple of posts before about the virtues of running– I get this flash of insight every time I go for a run, but then forget about it a while later and then have to rediscover it sometimes months later. Is there a way to stop this systemic nonsense? I suppose I should schedule these in advance. Right now I’m doing remedial training for my military commitments, so I can use those as scaffolding. Once I’m done with those, I’ll schedule weekly runs in my calendar, and review my schedule every day / week. Once again it becomes clear that a daily/weekly review is critical to me making progress towards my goals.

Let’s go over it again to make sure I haven’t missed anything. I feel embarrassed that I can’t run 2.4km in under 13 minutes. I would like to overcompensate and run it under 11 minutes or so. Right now I can barely even run continously for 15 minutes, so I’m going to have to work up to that. So I got to break it down. Take 30 minute walks more regularly. My wife has a 10,000 steps/day challenge for herself which she’s been making steady progress on, it would be a good idea for me to follow along with her half the time and get the basic walking muscle up. And I have to schedule sprints and slow jogs.

200 more words to go. How can I maximize my performance within the context of the next few RTs I need to do? I need to sleep well so I recover from any muscle soreness. I need to eat heartily. Okay. Tonight let’s go to bed at 1030pm, and wake nice and early– and if my legs are alright, I’ll go for a walk or a jog in the morning. I’ll probably do another 2.4km to see what my timing is like, and use that as a baseline.

It’s a little frustrating to know that I’ve definitely said all of this before and tried something and failed, but I also know that progress typically oscillates, so I’m not going to allow my past failures to let me give up. Giving up in this context is obviously unpleasant. It’s obviously better to sweat a little more, run a little more– even just purely for the mental benefits, because a clearer mind means I write more, I work better, and I’m just a nicer person to be around (and that applies internally to myself, too.)

20 more words to go. To sum up: Run every week for mental clarity and to shed the limiting belief that I’m this weak skinny frail boy. I’m not obscenely skinny any more, but I’d like to pack a punch.

 

0547 – “if everyone were zombies”

It’s interesting to me that so many teenagers develop the idea that nobody understands them, that they’re uniquely self-aware and that (almost) every other person is merely a robotic automaton. It’s amusingly depicted in xkcd 610: Sheeple. “Look at all these people. Glassy-eyed automatons going about their daily lives, never stopping to look around and think! I’m the only conscious human in a world of sheep.”
 
The inverse idea is presented in some schools of zen or spirituality– that everybody around you is an incredibly enlightened teacher, put on this earth to teach you things that you might not even realise you’re here to be taught. Also an interesting idea. But right now I’m more fascinated by the first one. What if it were somehow true? What if you really WERE the only conscious human in the world? What would the implications be?
 
The first thought you might have is that you can do absolutely anything you wanted without worrying about what other people thought or cared. You can hurt and abuse people if you feel so inclined– they’re not really people, after all. But this doesn’t nearly work out as well as it might seem. Because while people might be glassy-eyed automatons, they’d still get hurt and upset, and they’d still respond negatively to your abuse. If you commit a crime in a world of sheep, the sheep are still going to punish you for it. So you still have to be mindful of the thoughts and feelings of the sheep.
 
There’s some nuance there, though. There’s no reason to worry about the sheep laughing at you or mocking you and so on, because you shouldn’t have to be concerned about the opinions of sheep– except when the sheep might choose to cause you harm.
 
Here’s where it gets a little messy. As a conscious human being, you’re wired to feel emotion, sympathy, shame, guilt– even if you’re surrounded by lesser minds. You’d still enjoy the affection of a puppy, you’d still feel pained witnessing the lonely cries of an abandoned kitten. Those emotions are instinctive, developed over hundreds of thousands of years as social creatures. We were social creatures before we were solitary individuals, and our minds (and bodies?) are designed for it. Herd mentalities are powerful phenomenon. Fear of social ostracisation is a powerful fear. Desire for prestige and social standing is a powerful impulse. These processes continue to function even if we learn that we’re in a world of sheep. Perhaps they might be lessened over time– perhaps we’d learn to recognise the impulses as impulses, and have the space to think about how we actually want to respond.
 
That seems like a good idea even if we lived in a world of thoughtful, enlightened, conscious beings.
 
What else would change? Suppose okay, you no longer worry about the opinions of others except when they might be used to cause you harm. You remain a generally friendly person, treating people as you would treat beloved stray animals– you give them space, you speak kindly to them, you’re warm and friendly. But you keep your distance from any that are violent, threatening pro otherwise unpleasant. You find a happy balance. What’s next?
 
Well, the next thing you might realise is that you can’t count on anybody else’s thinking, because a sheep’s thinking is generally ill-fitted for a conscious being. You might ask for people’s perspective in order to collect data, but you wouldn’t hold anybody else’s opinion as intrinsically more valuable than your own. You might trust an expert (say, an electrician-sheep) because of his expertise in a domain that you’re not familiar with, but you wouldn’t take him seriously when asking him about how to live your life. What you should prioritise, what you should focus on. Unless, perhaps, you ran into a sheep who was living a life that you admired. Suppose you encountered a successful entrepreneur-sheep, or a patriarch-sheep, and you recognized them as living lives that you’d want to emulate. As having circumstances that you’d like for yourself. Then yes, you’d solicit their advice. But again, you wouldn’t hold the advice itself as intrinsically sacred– you’d think “this is what the entrepreneur-sheep said”, and analyse it critically to see if there’s anything that he left out, anything that he misinterpreted and so on.
 
You especially wouldn’t worry about arguing with sheep in the abstract. You wouldn’t get your hands dirty in sheep forums, unless you were trying to achieve a particular result– trying to elicit a particular response, for example. But you wouldn’t lose sleep over the opinions of sheep. You would see it as all a game, and not be to attached to it.
 
You would be lonely. Or would you be? Would you ever be fully able to engage with any other being? What is the need or desire to engage with other beings, anyway? Some people have pet dogs and claim that it got rid of their depression. That seems to work. The actual complexity of the mind you’re interacting with is apparently not nearly as important as the seeming sincerity of the affection on display.
 
What am I even talking about. Why did I pursue this train of thought to begin with? I wanted to figure out if a sincerely solipsistic worldview would change my behaviour or life in any way. Would it make me miserable? I find that the answer is… I really don’t know. It seems improbable that glassy-eyed automatons might be more interesting than me, but it’s clear that there do exist people who are more interesting than me. So rather than pursue “maximum consciousness”, which we have no idea how to measure or verify, we could maybe pursue “maximum interestingness”.  That seems vaguely correct.
 
What if we went back to the zen question instead? What if everyone were enlightened teachers? How would that change interactions? I suppose it would prompt more engagement, more awareness, more attention from the part of the student.
 
I suppose that’s probably generally a good thing. So maybe the directive here is simply to be mindful.
 

 

0546 – the future of my words

Some writing comes more easily than others. Some writing requires cross-referencing with other work, and that’s always an endless rabbithole that can pull you away from the writing itself. That requires a lot of focus and discipline, and I don’t have a lot of that to go around. So when I feel like I want to do a lot of writing, I have to be clever about it and stick to the writing that comes easily. Focus on the thing that pulls out long globules of thought from my mind.

The thought of the moment is words and writing, and what I want to do with my writing ability. Revisiting my central motivations for doing this project, and thinking about what I want to do afterwards, and questioning those things a little bit.

I’ve always loved words and will always love words. I often find myself looking up the histories of individual words in order to see where they come from. Take the word “individual”. “in-” is a negative sort of prefix (invulnerable, interminable) “Divide” means to split in two, with “di-” (diode, dichotomy), and “vide” comes from an ancient “wiedh”, also seen in “widow”. I could do this sort of thing for days on end. I’ve read so many words in my lifetime that it’s endlessly fascinating to discover patterns between them. For instance, the root of “enemy” is something like “in-” and “-ami”– the opposite of a friend. It makes language a lot more rich, textured, nuanced, beautiful.

But what do I want to do with all of these words? Words themselves are just symbols, signposts. What do I want to say? I’ve been talking about the signposts, but what is the journey? What is the story? What are the little movies that I want to create, give life to? Every single time I try to start writing something, I get self-conscious and stumble over my own feet, getting trapped in my own analysis of my own work, and my own analysis of my own analysis of my work, and the work ever gets a chance to breathe.

“A Man Lives In A Box” was a nice little moment where I dashed something off so quickly that I didn’t have time to be self-conscious about it– and looking back, and having shared it with a couple of friends, I’ve discovered that it actually has an interesting sort of theme to it, a way of seeing things, a voice. That’s cool. I’d like to do more of that. But doing that requires me to start with a feeling of some kind, and then explore and expound on that feeling through descriptions without thinking very much about it. I’d like to get good at that, but it feels like an underdeveloped skillset.

Well I don’t want to keep talking about how underdeveloped that skillset is, I want to develop it. And that means I’m going to have to dash off more pieces of writing. Should I start one right now, in the middle of this vomit? I think that would be bad form and annoying to Future Visa to have to pick apart individual vomits to look for the story bits. No, we’ll rush through a story for the next vomit. So in the mean time we’ll continue with this word thinking.

I suppose I wanted to say that it sort of feels like the short story is a rather saturated art form, and that most things that need to be said have already been said. I look around online and I haven’t found anything that really hits me, that really speaks to me. The first thing that comes to mind is The Last Question– now that was a great goddamn short story! That’s the sort of thing that’s worth writing. What is it about the Last Question that I enjoyed so much? Well it had a great setup– it had a question that needed answering– and it had a great twist in the punchline, that really gave me the “flooded with feeling”… feeling. How do I do that? Do you reverse engineer it from a single line? Maybe, if you’re lucky enough to get it in a single line.

If I take my cues from Emma Coats and Carl Zimmer, you gotta do the research and then write what you think it is that you want to write, and then identify the story that’s lurking beneath the depths of whatever it is that you’ve just written. And then you gotta rewrite the whole thing. Most of writing is actually rewriting. I feel like I’d be comfortable with that, that I like the idea. But I also feel like I’m not ready to do the rewriting yet. I gotta just keep going through this stuff and get it out of my system.

But sometimes it also feels like I don’t have enough stuff in my system… that’s bullshit. That just means I’ve been stuck in a rut and I’ve been looking at the same things from the same perspective for too long and everything has started to calcify. When that happens what I need is to get out, to meet people, to read a book, to watch a movie, to travel, to move around and to see things from a different point of view. Creativity is just connecting things so I need to find new things to connect.

I also obviously just need to go through old things that I’ve had sitting around forever and just fucking get them out of my system because it’s goddamn tiring and frustrating and overwhelming to have to carry all of that shit around with me all of the bloody time. It distracts me from living in the present. It distracts me from enjoying my coffee, and from enjoying the company of friends and loved ones and life is just too goddamn short to be stuck. So I gotta take a cue from Ray Bradbury, and to get out of bed and jump onto the landmine called me and just fucking explode. Who cares if short stories aren’t a thing anymore? It doesn’t matter. Sincerity is always a thing and that’s what I need. Maybe that’s what the world needs too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

 

0545 – find humor in your dark times

There’s an enticing idea in the game of Zen and spirituality and philosophy and whatnot, which goes something like this: there is no need to suffer in order to attain ‘enlightenment’. But most people have been indoctrinated that there’s no gain without pain, so they’re under the impression that they need to go through some sort of ordeal, some sort of quest before they find the Holy Grail within themselves– that there is no secret ingredient, that we are all God, intertwined with all things, and that there is a universe of ecstasy to be had right here right now in the present moment, if we would only awaken to it. But apparently we don’t like that idea because it’s too simple, it’s too easy, it sounds almost silly or foolish. And so we embark on the quests that we set for ourselves, or beg some teacher to give to us. And they smile, perplexed and befuddled, wondering why God would like to play this silly game, running away from himself, hiding from herself, seeking God’s own approval. But apparently that’s what he wants, so that’s what he gets. We are infinite, and we want to play this game of “poor old me”.

I’m not sure how I feel about this idea. I think there’s an element of truth to it. I do believe that it’s theoretically possible to experience an awakening in the given moment, to realize, “My goodness, I’ve been fooling myself this whole time, what a tediously boring game.” And that it’s then equally possible to almost immediately– or at least, very quickly– slip into another game with a similar goal and pretext. To play hide and seek with ourselves, because maybe it’s boring to be fully present in the eternal now.

As for me, I’m endlessly attached to this story of myself, this story of the person called me, with my history and my family and my lineage and my DNA and the socioeconomic conditions that I was raised in and the beliefs that I was exposed to and the conditioning I’ve had over the decades. “This is who I am you see! These were my starting conditions! This is how I’m broken! These are my scars, these are my weaknesses, these are my failings!” And that story is familiar and comforting and something to return to. It’s easier to weep and moan than it is to go “Well alright then, let’s get up and see what we can do about all of this.”

Well alright then, let’s get up and see what we can do about all of this.

The cool thing about some video games is that they put you right in the middle of a story. I’m reminded of Uncharted 2 where you begin wounded in a train that’s about to fall off a cliff. And as a player, you find yourself thinking, oh okay, what do I do next? What can I do now? And it’s interesting that that thought doesn’t come so easily in everyday life. I’m starting to think that maybe everyday life is just really badly designed. Everything around is really badly designed, and the tricky thing about badly designed environments is that they have a way of convincing you that it’s your fault that you aren’t good at navigating them. That you’re somehow imperfect, incomplete, insufficient.

These are the dominant feelings, are they not? Every day we wake up and we are tired and lonely and scared. Well, what then? The athlete has to play hurt, there is no other way around it. Life is struggle; an ordeal advertised as an adventure.

Phillip K Dick said that reality is whatever doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. When you stop believing that life is an adventure, it can go away. When you stop believing that life is an ordeal… it seems like it’s still an ordeal… isn’t it? Or is it that the belief is so deep-rooted that it’s just particularly hard to shake?

Suppose we try that out, then. Suppose we try to shake the belief that life is an ordeal. It’s not. It’s not work, it’s play. Every boring task is an opportunity to have fun. I was at remedial training a couple of days ago– a thing that Singaporean men have to do if they don’t complete their individual physical proficiency test within the allocated time. And part of that training was to flip a little plastic log over and over again around a 400m track, twice. You do it in a group, which makes it a little less monotonous, but it’s still incredibly monotonous and Sisyphian. What was funny was how halfway through, some of us started fooling around– tossing the log forward, dragging it forward before flipping it, and so on. And it was funny, and we laughed, and in that moment we managed to create a little humor and amusement out of something that could be construed as a theft of our time.

My last word vomit was a little bleak– I wrote about how I’m just a bunch of electrical impulses in a body of flesh and bones, a tube to put resources into to convert into energy, living in a box, going through a system of tubes to get to another box, doing some work to collect some currency to purchase the resources necessary to keep the whole thing going on, seemingly indefinitely (with an unknown date of death). Life itself is Sisyphian, which is why Camus said that one must imagine Sisyphus happy. Else there’s no point, else we might as well just off ourselves off now. It’s only rational to proceed if we believe that the benefits outweigh the costs. And there are certainly costs. So we have to find benefits. In the darkness we must supply our own light. We must find joy and humor in our existence. We won’t stop existing just because we fail to do that, but if we fail to do that we have to wonder what we’re existing for.

 

0544 – a man lives in a box

A man lives in a box. He has lived for 9,409 days, and has been living in the box for 1,155 days. It’s a pretty nice box, he can’t complain. It has the magic of clean tapwater and reliable electricity supplies, and it’s generally safe and clean. It’s 88 square meters in size, or about the 5th of the size of an NBA basketball court.

This box is one of about 150 boxes stacked together to make a bigger block of boxes. The man often amuses himself by looking out of one of the holes in his boxes to look at what other people are up to in their boxes. There are roughly 9,500 blocks with over 1,000,000 boxes on the island he lives on. The island itself, called Singapore, is 719 square kilometers, sitting on a spheroid planet called Earth.

Earth has radius of 6,371km and a surface area of 510,100,000 square kilometers, of which 71% is covered in water. The planet is 4,600,000,000 years old, and is home to over 7,125,000,000 people. It orbits an almost perfectly spherical nuclear reactor called the Sun, which is a million times larger than itself. The Earth is just one of 8 planetary bodies that orbit the Sun. The Sun is just one of over 100,000,000,000 stars in its neighborhood, the Milky Way. The Milky Way is in turn one of over 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the known Universe.

Every morning when the Earth has rotated (as it does because of angular momentum) so that the island faces the sun, the man gets out of his box. He walks over to gets into a smaller box (called an elevator, which uses a pulley system) that takes him to the foot of the block. He then walks across the street to wait for a travelling tube, called a bus. This tube typically runs by burning fossils in a combustion engine, and has a capacity of between 50 to 130 people. These people will be driven (by a person) along a route which stops by a much larger system of travelling tubes, called trains.

These trains run on tracks that are laid out across the island. There are 5 lines with a total combined route length of 148.9km, stopping at 102 stations. Our protagonist rides one tube towards the center of the island, then switches to another tube travelling towards the southwest, where he goes to work.

He gets out of the tube, paying for the service using a stored value card (which uses an embedded integrated circuit– basically a silicon chip– and communicates with the card readers on a radio frequency). He then rides up an escalator (which is powered by an alternating current motor) and crosses a road to get to another block of boxes– one of which is his office.

In the office there are about 15-20 people, working together to build, maintain, sell, market and provide support for a software product that online retailers around the planet use to run their customer referral programs. Our guy typically sits at his desk, plugs in his portable macbook computer to its peripherals (a monitor to display a graphic interface, and a keyboard and mouse as tools to navigate said interface) and gets to work. His job is to do whatever it takes to get more people signing up to use the software. He started out writing articles, then coaching other people to write articles, and there are all sorts of other nuanced details that go into crafting an optimized experience for people who would potentially want to pay to use such a service online.

Halfway through the day, the man needs to refuel. The man himself is technically a bunch of tubes (64% water, 16% proteins, 16% fats, 4% minerals, 1% carbohydrates), padded and reinforced with flesh and bones, moving around thanks to electrical impulses, which in turn are fueled by chemical energy, gotten by breaking down glucose into ATP (adenosine triphosphate) using teeth, stomach acid, enzymes. (The food doesn’t just refuel him in the short term– it’s also used to rebuild his physical body outright– bones, muscles, tissues, everything.)

So he heads out of the box to a nearby food place, where merchants sell food– carbohydrates, proteins, fats, in a variety of packages called rice, noodles, chicken, fish, eggs and so on– most of it is imported from beyond the island via a massive container shipping system spanning the entire planet.

The man then gets back to work, relying on his office’s trusty wifi (electromagnetic waves that are about 6 feet long with a 12cm wavelength, transmitting binary on-and-off at the speed of light) to allow him to manipulate data on the internet as desired. This is done through a complicated “stack”, beginning with silicon transistors (tiny switches that can turn on and off without any moving parts, thanks to silicon’s semi-conductivity and electrical signals) and ending with a manipulate-able interface displayed on a screen. In between, inputs are sent over vast networks, through underwater fibre optic cables and so on.

After several hours, our protagonist leaves the office box, gets back into the train tube, switches to another train tube, and at this point typically walks back to his home box. While walking home today, this man found himself feeling rather troubled and dissatisfied– a mind and body’s integrated response to a stimlus of some kind. He wonders if “the same thing over and over again” counts as a “stimulus”, and decides, upon getting back into his home-box, to sit and write as a way of coping with these emotions. He contemplates his daily routine and schedule, and how his life has become contained within these sets of boxes, literal and metaphorical.

Yeah, the guy in the box is me. (Getting tired of writing in the third person.) I suppose I was hoping that putting all of this in context would trigger something for me. That it would help me appreciate the grandeur of the scale of existence and how precious each fleeting moment is in.

But to be honest, right now at this moment, the recurring thought that keeps coming to me is that I’m a man in a box, in a block of boxes. And when the Earth turns, tomorrow, I will leave my box, go through a series of tubes, get into another box… and so on.

I have to challenge myself to somehow find joy and pleasure amidst all of this.

 

0543 – writing as joyful self-correspondence

I suspect that I might have already written a word vomit about this but another one won’t hurt, since I’ve found myself circling around this same insight out of necessity and desperation.

It’s 11:47pm on a Monday night. I just got home after a long day at work and an art showcase I visited with my colleague / co-founder. I didn’t really get very much sleep last night, and I’m hoping that I get some good quality sleep tonight at least. I’m hoping to write a word vomit or two before I turn in, because I realize that writing makes me happy, having written makes me happy, and not writing for an extended period of time makes me feel tired, dreary, stuck, grim, morose, even depressed. So I need to revise my mental model of what writing means to me. It isn’t just a passion or a project. It’s a way of cleansing myself. Clearing my mind. It’s a form of survival.

Earlier on Twitter, I semi-joked in response to someone else that “the difference between wants and needs is this– a need, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away”. Paraphrasing Phillip K Dick’s point about reality (what doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it). And I realize… when I spend time not writing, I get really miserable. I get tense and tight and just generally unpleasant. So I should write daily, I should write all the time, and I shouldn’t give a shit about whether or not the writing is actually going anywhere.

I think that’s where I often get stuck. I pile expectations upon myself. I expect the writing to be good, to be moving, to be somehow insightful and worldchanging. But not every piece of writing needs to be that. Sometimes writing needs to carry you from one checkpoint to the next, sometimes you just need to pour dirty water out of the firehose before you get to the good stuff. That was one of my starting principles when I first started doing these word vomits, something that got a little muddied and lost along the way when I picked up more responsibilities and obligations.

But writing is joy. Writing is cleansing. Writing sets me free. I need to constantly ruminate on this, and bring myself back to this. I have loads of obligations as it is, but I need to be constantly making progress on my first obligation to myself as a maker of things (in this case word vomits). If the number on the word vomit counter has been stuck for a few days, I start fidgeting.

Well, we’ve got half the vomit left. How do we improve on what we’ve got in this vomit? Well the question is not so much “is writing good” or “should I write”, but WHY do I repeatedly forget, and WHY do I repeatedly allow it to slip, and how do I make it easier for me to jump back on the wagon and keep this thing going so that I can finish it (the word vomits) more quickly?

The instinctive response is “the habit is sorta weak”. I have a generalized habit where I do it every so often, but I don’t have a super strong habit where I churn out vomits day after day for weeks on end. In fact I still haven’t been able to write vomits every day for a month yet– this has eluded me. My next opportunity to do this will be in April. The last time I almost did it was last July. There’s clearly something here. If I want to take this to the next level I need to increase the frequency.

I’m thinking now about my experience as a walker. Literally, as a person going on walks. I like to think that I’m reasonably fit, but I’m not as fit as I imagine. I can comfortably walk for maybe 5km or so, but beyond that things start getting a little dicey. My feet start to hurt. My skin starts to chafe. I need to be wearing shoes rather than slippers, because at that point the slipper straps start cutting into my skin.

Which I find interesting. I remember when I was in Bangkok with the wife, we used to walk long-ish distances almost everyday. I think we averaged 7-10km per day, maybe. And I burned off quite a bit of fat from all that, so much so that I could make out my abs in the mirror. As a working adult, I spend most of my time sitting in chair. This is bad for me. I need to spend more time walking, running, lifting weights, playing sports. Firstly because it’s fun in the short term and physicality is good for human beings, and secondly because it boosts health in the long run. I don’t want to be an old man who cannot walk properly. I want to be mobile and strong all the way through. So I need to take more walks, at the very least. I bought me some new shoes. I’d like to wear them out as soon as I can.

(Lol at my love of wearing things out– word vomits, pens, notebooks, and now shoes). I guess it’s just a very physical reminder / proof of work done. I spent so much of my life bullshitting myself and others about the quality and quantity of the work that I did, one way or another. But some indicators don’t lie. And so I need to fall back on those indicators, so that I can develop a trusting relationship with myself. A few days ago when I was reading old vomits, I came across a passage where I wrote something like, “It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand this now– I’m not writing this for me, I’m writing this for Future Visa.” And there I was, “Future Visa”, reading what I had written in the past and appreciating Past Visa for it. It was a very nice feeling, one I’d like to feel more of. And that is part of why I want to write. It is correspondence with the most important, closest person in my life: Me.

 

0542 – more good than bad, please

The time is 330am. I got in bed at midnight. I’m not sure if I fell asleep at any point, but it was 2am when I found myself struggling to sleep and decided to grab my laptop and do some writing. I spent some time on Reddit, which I found actually quite interesting (reading about Men in Black, and about wealthy kids) rather than wasteful. Then opened up my Evernote, encountered some thoughts from my trip in India, and read up about American roads for a while. (I’m still pretty curious about how roads developed alongside humanity as a species. Which were the most used roads, how have those changed over time, and so on.)

Anyway, hello word processor, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again. It feels like the past month or so has been a little rough. And I’m wondering if you could help me contextualize all of that. What’s the correct lens for me to look at all of this through?

I’ve been sick for a week, which probably has made me more demoralized and morose than I’d typically be in this situation. I observe myself thinking, “It sucks when you want to get things done but your body isn’t cooperating.” I wonder if that’s actually true, though. Would I have gotten more done if I weren’t sick, or would I simply have done the bare minimum, as I often do? Well… I think I have enough experience with myself by now to say that I don’t exactly set out to do the bare minimum– sometimes I go above and beyond the call of duty, sometimes I inadvertently do less than I should, and get burned for it. This is still a seemingly-perpetual weakness for me, and in my moment of illness and frustration I wonder if I’ll ever overcome it, if I’ll ever outgrow it, or if it’ll just get worse and worse until I die.

Well, I squatted 90kg a few days ago. That counts for something. That felt good. If I can break that limit, I can surely break others. I’m grateful for that. I’d also be grateful if I had written more by now– though to be fair, this is already way more than I think I had conceived of. I’ve been reading old vomits, and somewhere around 0240 I wrote that I was writing without knowing what I was doing, without knowing what I had to say, but I was going to say it anyway with the hope that it would give Future Me (that’s me right now) more context, so that I wouldn’t have to suffer and struggle as much as Past Me did. And for that I am genuinely touched and grateful. I forgot I did that. It’s very interesting to be able to have that dynamic with yourself.

In fact I think that’s almost all that matters. Or it’s at least the first thing that matters. If I can’t be proud of myself, there’s no point in me trying to get anybody else to be proud of me. I need to earn my own respect, be kind to myself, be my own cheerleader. And I can be my own Fastball Special.

I guess this is the recalibration phase of my life. I’m 25 and I realize I’m probably never going to be holy-shit-amazing on an international scale. I do still think it’s possible, and that’s a possibility worth living into. But I have to make arrangements in my mind to realize that I will have to learn to be happy even if I never make any progress, if I never get what I want.

The thing though is to keep trying. To keep regrouping. To keep revising. So many success stories involve people toiling for decades without much to show for it. This was really just my first decade, and it wasn’t even a well-aligned, coherent sort of decade. Hell. I’ve only been an “independent man” for about 3 years. I’ve only been working out (heavy squats) for about 3-4 months. I’m constantly learning about new limitations and whatever, and constantly feeling overwhelmed, but I’m going to learn to navigate that.

I’m not sure if there’s anything in particular I want to say to anybody out there in the world. The most I can do is write for myself. What do I want to say to me tomorrow? It’s going to take me all of my effort to psyche my future self up. But that’s going to be worth it, so I’m going to do it. I want to say, don’t give up. It’s going to be hard and painful and boring and stressful and overwhelming, and all of those things in writing are never quite as much of a mindfuck as they are in reality. What you’re experiencing is the malaise that takes perfectly good teenagers and turns them into really grumpy, disdainful, worn out adults. We must rediscover what it is that gives us joy and glee. Life is fleeting but it doesn’t have to be bleak. We will rediscover laughter. We will rediscover awe and learning. There is more behind the curtain. There is ALWAYS more behind the curtain.

Just keep doing the work. You build the house brick by boring brick. Just keep laying the bricks. Just keep swimming. Keep putting down one foot in front of the other. Take breaks as necessary and regroup. But don’t give up. Don’t quit. When you get tired, go back to the larger vision. What’s the larger vision? That I’m going to become “legit”. That I’m going to expand myself into somebody that can handle the challenges that are thrown at me. I can grow into my own idealized embodiment of masculinity and own it and feel great about it. It’s not going to be perfect 24/7 but I think it’s going to be more good than bad. That’s all I’m asking for– more good than bad. But the universe doesn’t care. It gives most people in the world more bad than good, it seems.

I need to refactor my perception.