0601 – consider the end-game

So we’re now 60% through with this word vomits project. A lot has changed. All I knew in the beginning was that I wanted to be a writer, and that completing 1,000,000 words would make me feel more legitimate as a writer. And hopefully, ideally, it would itself make me a legitimate writer somehow. I knew that the goal was too vague, but the hope, or the plan, was that I would figure it out along the way. Well, we’re along the way. We’re more than halfway along the way. It’s time to start figuring out with much more precision than when I started.

I’ve been reading some horror stories online about how there are published writers who have gotten great reviews for their books, and yet they’re broke. A part of this is because of bad deals with book publishers, who only really give great deals to proven rockstar authors. That’s just the name of the game. Another part of this is, more simply, that they don’t have enough fans, enough followers, enough supporters, enough readers, enough people who’re willing to say yes I’ll pay $20, $30, $50 for something that you write. A thousand readers who’ll pay $10 each is $10,000. Probably about 1% of readers will pay, so vaguely I think we’re working with numbers like 1,000,000 readers -> 10,000 customers -> $100,000.

I find myself thinking about how my boss once talked to me about the process of recursive calibration and optimization that needs to happen. You might start with “build a billion dollar tech company”, and then have to break that down into “make product” and “acquire customers”, and then break those down further into progressively more nuanced and complex bits.

There’s a similar thing with a writer’s career, I think. Which is to produce work, and acquire paying readers or patrons. Write the damn things, and make the damn money. But those things are of course more complex than that, so we can break it down further.

Body of work + pool of readers -> monetization. Each of those things is infinitely more complex as well. Well, let’s dig into them.

Body of work.

I have many different things that I’d like to write about. I don’t have infinite time to write about everything that I’d like to write about, so I’ll need to prioritize. To prioritize what to write about I’ll need to have a framework of prioritization. First I’ll need to have a list of all or most of the things I want to write about. I think the state of this is pretty well covered. Next I’ll need to know what to write first. There are a few heuristics I can use for this.

One is the path of most interesting, which is the most fun and engaging thing to do as a writer. This fun aspect is important, because if I’m not having fun I’m not going to be able to keep going. But there are more variables to consider. Another is, what will people want to read? (This already overlaps with the READERS segment, and we haven’t even gotten around to talking about it yet). I could write about something utterly obscure and unique to my life, like say, how I feel about some piece of furniture in my house, or I could write about the challenges I’ve faced in putting together a home as a Singaporean at a young age. Of course, I can do both in the same article – the point there is that every piece of work needs to have an audience in mind, and needs to be pushed out to that audience.

Pool of readers.

So far I’ve been writing word vomits primarily for myself. I intentionally cloistered myself away from the public domain. I chose to force myself to write 1,000 words in a rambly, unedited format so that I’ll be a turn-off to most readers. There was a time where I’d just comment on political issues and it would get me lots of hits. And maybe there may be some sense in going back to doing a bit of that, just doing it in a more intelligent way that doesn’t offend my own sensibilities. As long as I’m writing something that I think ought to be written, I think that’ll be alright.

I used to be moderately big on Quora, I had millions of views on my answers over there. It might make sense to point some links from there to my blog. Actually why haven’t I done this already? I’m going to do this right after I’m doing with this vomit.

I have also had some moderate success here and there from writing on reddit, and there are many different subreddits I could approach. In fact, it would be possible to work backwards for writing projects from the subreddits that I would want them to be successful in. I’ve been trying to gain weight all my life, I’ve made some progress, it might make sense to package all of that in a smart way for folks on /r/gainit. I’m willing to start pretty much anywhere for this, so.

Monetization.

I’m not too obsessed with making money from my writing ASAP. I wonder if that’s true, or if I’m saying that as some sort of defensive mechanism to avoid taking this whole pursuit seriously. I should get to an intermediary state ASAP instead of overthinking this. And the simplest intermediary state I can think of is – charge a very nominal amount of money for an ebook. Less than $10. Maybe $5. (This also makes me realize something about monetization – the people I think i’d most like to write for also probably are the least likely to pay me. It might make sense to write something about my experience as a marketer and start selling that first, just to get into the practice of selling words for money. I could do an ebook about the 7 sins that I used to obsess about, or about my thoughts on MBTI. Those are things that have ready audiences that people care about and will be willing to pay for. Those things don’t seem super exciting to do in of themselves, but they seem quite interesting once I frame it in terms of making my first few dollars as a self-published author. I don’t know if I want to be self-published all the way, but it makes sense to start and get to that as soon as possible.

 

0599 + 0600 – learning to be violent

Violence is a fundamental part of nature, red in tooth and claw. Earlier today I saw a cute little housecat that was probably lost, and I saw it chasing, attacking and toying with a cockroach. It obviously had no concern for the cockroach’s well being (why would it?). It didn’t want to eat it. It just wanted to play with it, and in the process mutilate it.

I wonder how the decisively non-violent sorts reconcile that. Have they witnessed nature? Most of what we see on TV – on national geographic and so on – are the palatable bits that TV executives and editors thought was okay to show families at the dinner table.

The reality of it is often much more grotesque and macabre – predators isolate and murder babies. Even a video of a praying mantis eating a fly can be pretty disturbing. Or any of the creepy parasite type creatures that infest one another’s bodies and brains and then manipulate them as zombies to do their bidding. Creatures don’t bother to kill one another to ‘end the suffering’ – sometimes they just start eating one another in the open. I think I saw a video of some hyena or some other species just literally eating a live zebra that was still standing, until it collapsed from the blood loss. Nature is fucking brutal. If anything, human civilization has taken that sort of sudden brutality and spread it out over entire lifetimes – instead of something short and brutish, we have something long and bureaucratic. I think Nassim Taleb does a pretty good job of pointing out why this isn’t always a good thing.

The history of humanity is in many ways the history of violence and warfare. The application of force. I think it was Nietzsche who said that every living thing wants to discharge its strength. I’m not sure if I was ever taught to do that. Discharge my strength. I think that’s what most men [1] want to do, but never really get to. That’s why men get form gangs, start bands, do all sorts of things like that. It’s true that there’s a socialization aspect, but how is it that it’s so common in so many different contexts all around the world? It seems very likely to me that the socialization aspects are built on top of pre-existing patterns of behavior, pre-existing inclinations.

School isn’t very good for that. In fact, the school life that I experienced was kinda directly contrary to that impulse. You’re in a class with other people, and maybe you have some after-school activities like band or sports or whatever – and if you’re really lucky, you have a good coach or mentor, you might make something of yourself there. I’m really envious of people who did, because I never really got into anything like that. I got into a group of geeks in an IT club and tinkered around with some stuff. If I could do things over, I would’ve picked something with more of a strength-discharge function. A team sport, probably. Or even concert band – I was envious of how my friends who were a part of that all developed themselves, practiced, got good, and eventually performed at Carnegie Hall. What an amazing formative experience for a young man to have. [2]

The tragedy of school, to me, is that those things tend to happen on the side, by chance, when it should probably be the main deal. We should all learn from a young age what it’s like to work hard as part of a team towards a stretch goal that we’re inspired by. Why do we have to do this after school hours? Why not have it be the main thing? Instead, you’re expected to be compliant. Sit in your chair, listen, obey. Get put through standardized tests and so on. How do you learn to express yourself that way?

Every act of creation is simultaneously an act of violence, if only on prior beleifs and expectations, or some way of seeing or thinking. Jazz was violent. In this sense, Gandhi’s non-violent protests were violent – they were non-violent in a physical sense, but highly violent in an ideological sense. (Ideas are bulletproof, etc).

A man has to learn to carve out a space for himself in the world, even if it’s only in his own mind. He has to formulate his own beliefs, decide on his own values and principles. He has to decide what is acceptable and what is not. He has to set goals for himself. He has to have ideals that he strives towards. He has to have a discipline that he works on. Without these things, life become cold, dark and bleak. If we’re not growing, we’re dying – maybe not in a literal physical sense, but in a metaphorical sort of sense. (Somebody pointed out recently to me that “death” as part of cycles doesn’t necessarily need to be physical death; it can be a sort of ego death, a reimagining, a reinvigoration of the spirit, a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing yourself, defining yourself. Die and be reborn over and over! We really ought to have better rituals for these things, and i think ‘primitive’tribesfolk almost definitely understood it better than we do. There’s a lot of stuff we’ve shoved under the carpet, and the result is people living in all sorts of chronic-twisted ways.)

We live in strange times, in a reality often defined by abundance and surplus (in the internet-connected first-world). This is especially true in Singapore, where even things like homelessness or school shootings are non-issues. I don’t need to hunt for my own food. I could hypothetically work a minumum wage job, join the military… now I’m curious about what happens to orphans with no family, no grandparents, no parents, uncles, aunts. They’re completely reliant on the State. In some countries, they might get adopted by gangs, kidnapped by human traffickers, sold into slavery, then what? What is the path or trajectory of actual black slaves in America, their children, how did they feed themselves? How did the native tribes do it?

Anyway the point is – you have to do something. Basic human needs – air water food shelter – well, there are millions of homeless people in the world, and there are lots of people without access to clean water – what happens to them? They suffer and die, that’s what. How does one escape homelessness? How do the children of refugees survive and thrive? My grandfather came to Singapore from India without much money. Then what did he do? He rented a flat and worked as a gardener. I knew someone who rented a room for under $500 while working… but the jobs she worked relied on her education. What about the orphans? Or people with mental disabilities, or other serious handicaps? There are all these movements and attempts to hire such folks. We should be proud of these things. That said, what happens if say, war hits? If there’s an alien invasion? Bombings? It’s good to know that Singapore can probably defend itself, but it is worrying when you think about the worst case scenario. Most people seem blissfully unaffected… which I suppose is entirely ratioanl.

Anyway the point is – we live in very safe, orderly times, especially in Singapore where everything is efficient and runs like clockwork. That’s actually not how most of the world works, and it’s easy to forget that until we go overseas.

And it’s true that Singaporeans mostly don’t appreciate that (just as Americans probably don’t appreciate the freedom they have to mock and insult their presidential candidates, or how grotesque it is to the rest of the world that they regularly have school shootings and and police routinely seem to murder black citizens).

Violence. Nature is violent. Men are violent. We are drawn to power even when we try to pretend that it isn’t the case. We are fascinated by serial killers & mass murderers and drug traffickers. There’s a part of us that roots for chaos to shake up bureaucracy, which is why The Joker is such a popular villain.

When does a boy become a man in the modern world?

A real initiation is necessarily dangerous. So a highly sanitized holiday camp doesn’t quite make a difference. We have a nation of mummy’s boys who have never tasted real hardship or difficulty. I believe LKY said something once along the lines of – “If Singapore is a nanny-state, I am proud to have fostered one”. I wonder if he would’ve said the same thing about the prevalence of emasculated Singaporean men. That said, it seems to be that men around the world in cities are just emasculated in general.

I have a friend who often jokes that he wishes for war, calamity or disaster to visit Singapore. It’s a terrible thing to wish on anyone, but I do see where he’s coming from. After 9/11, New Yorkers came together and healed more than just that which they lost. They were bonded together as a community, grieved together, were gracious and thoughtful towards one another. Suicide rates went DOWN. People had far less trauma than expected, because everyone was everyone’s therapist. It may be that real leadership only emerges when there’s conflict and danger. The American Civil War for Lincoln, WW2 for Churchill and FDR, Cuban Missile Crisis for JFK, the Japanese Occupation for LKY, so on and so forth. Tough times inspire tough people. We’re not good at dealing with prolonged peace and prosperity. We get fat and find superficial trivial crap to get angry or upset about.

I do not wish for war or suffering for my peers. It’s invariably the weak and poor and innocent who suffer the most. But I do wish for strength, for fortitude, for grace, for wisdom, for kindness. How do I acquire those things in this messy, noisy culture of ours? In peacetime, excess, unhappy indulgence, always online, always disconnected. Aurelius had his own version of the answer, I think. It involved reflection, meditation, review, all things I don’t do enough of. Why? I’ve been alive long enough to realize constant improvisation is not the answer.

And that’s a funny thought – it brings me back to the way I used to play video games. I used to never be able to go anywhere, because I would simply improvise and click around and shoot things (I’m thinking of GTA) or simply build like crazy (SimCity) and in both cases I would end up doing something that broke things, something unsustainable. And in order to move forward I had to ‘lower the temperature’ and operate at a more stable, ‘slow-cooking’ ‘vibration’.

So what does this tell me about what I should do to move forward in my current situation? I’m improvising too much. It’s too many soft sketchy lines, which makes me run out of raw material. I need to operate in a much more ‘lean’ fashion. That means less multi-tasking, less experimentation, more “one thing and ONLY ONE THING at a time”. I need to get the extra energy that each successful task provides, because without it I quickly run out of energy and die. This is really useful to me.

[1] I don’t know if it’s the same for women, but I think there’s definitely a gendered aspect to this that’s accurate most of the time for most people. Men are more risk-taking – apparently young men die in accidents at 6x the rate that young women do, in their attempts to do crazy things at crazy heights, at crazy speeds and so on.

[2] As for me, I didn’t really do anything at all. Just bumbled around, I guess observing all of this. In a way all of this writing is a way of me developing myself, discharging my strength, working towards my own personal 400m gold medal, my own Carnegie Hall.

 

0597 + 0598 – religion

Thought I’d write about my thoughts about religion, and how my perspective on it has changed from my childhood to the present day.

I was raised in a Hindu household. We didn’t eat any beef. We went to the temples on special occasions. My mum had an altar with a pantheon of gods, and she’d pray to them, well, religiously. We also had other odd superstitions – we didn’t eat watermelons (my dad ‘gave it up’ for some prayer thing), didn’t wear black (our ‘local god’ didn’t like it).

From a young age I was very aware of the range of religions that existed, and how different people practiced them differently. Being in Singapore, I was surrounded by Chinese temples, Mosques. There was a church across the road from my house, and I went to an Anglican Kindergarten and Primary school. I remember being amused that there were many different kinds of Christianity. I also had a curiosity for ancient Greek and Roman gods, and all sorts of other creation myths and mythology in general. I had an Egypt fascination at some point, and thought it was interesting that they had their own Gods too – Anubis, Horus, Ra, Osiris and so on. I thought it was interesting how there were parallels – there’s always some sort of Sun god, there’s always some Death-related god. It seemed clear to me from the beginning that everybody just picked and chose (or inherited) different imaginary friends, different holy toys to play with. I could never shake the fact that it seemed like the holy men in Temples were playing dress up with dolls, particularly with the hindu ceremony where they bathe the idol and then dress it up, show it a mirror, etc. Definitely seemed Barbie-ish. (As you might imagine, I really loved Sanjay’s Super Team when I got to see it.)

I did vaguely appreciate the ritualistic elements – I found them lengthy and boring, but also somewhat interesting. The fire and smoke and walking in circles. None of it made sense in a scientific way (I was at the time curious about space, and electricity, and magnets, and cells, and earthquakes and so on – and everything in the world generally seemed to have natural explanations – so God didn’t seem all that compelling to me. It was obviously just fairy tales like everything else. God was obviously another Santa Claus.)

But I still put myself down as Hindu on the forms, if there were any forms. I did always get tickled by the idea of “Freethinker” as an option instead of Atheist – didn’t it imply that all the others weren’t free? Still giggle about it a little.

Sometime in JC I think I would discover Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and I found it quite absorbing. Before that I might’ve encountered some atheistic arguments in KI (Knowledge and Inquiry), and I found the arguments pretty compelling. They provided a framework for what I was already more or less convinced of. I found Dawkins’ book compelling, though at the time I hadn’t yet encountered the online communities that made a huge deal about it. I was 11 years old when September 11 happened, and it did seem true to me that religious conflicts were part of the problem in the world – part of why the Middle East was such a mess, part of why terrorism happened. I didn’t know the details, but religious conflicts did seem like… people getting into arguments over their imaginary friends, like people arguing on Tumblr about which TV show is better, only when people disagreed, they got violent and killed one another.

I found the idea of a Godless universe quite compelling, and even reassuring. (This was before I learned about the Heat Death, which would throw me into a second round of existential despair from which I still haven’t fully recovered.)

Over time I found myself feeling rather smug and superior to people who were religious. I don’t think I was super deliberate about it, but I did mock and belittle others for their religious beliefs. I suppose I was insecure and eager to prove myself as superior in some way. Over time I began to see that I was annoying or hurting people that I cared about, which was an outcome I did not like.

I began to discover after a while that many of the most strident atheists (who tend to be overrepresented in religious discussions) were thos who were abused or maligned by their religious upbringings, by their families, by the Church, by institutions. Especially so for LGBT folks in conservative towns, and so on. This didn’t accurately represent my experience. I didn’t have any big chip on my shoulder – I was just a smug teenager who felt like he was smarter than others, but I didn’t have any deep resentment towards religion. It never forced me to develop a guilt complex (I developed that one entirely by myself, ha ha). So I don’t hate God, I just never really cared for him and assume that the feeling’s mutual.

Around my NS years I played in a band with Caleb, a friend who identified as Christian (a fan of Christ, but not so much of the fanclub). He wrote a great essay called Death Of A Halo, which was a gread read. The band never turned out to be anything amazing, but I did greatly enjoy the long conversations we would have on cross-island train ride from Bedok to.. Clementi? Boon Lay? I can’t remember where we got off, but it was Very Far Away. Caleb was the first guy I remember thinking, “wow, this guy is thoughtful, measured, reasonable, recognizes that there are faults and flaws… etc”. I felt like we had more in common despite having superficially different labels, and I enjoyed exploring that mutual space. I remember a conversation or two over beer about what it meant to be a good person, to do the right thing, and those were things I really appreciate. Surely, if everyone else could have the conversations we did, we’d all be kinder to one another? I still hope.

As time went by, I got really tired of my own superiority complex, of trying to trap ‘ignorant’ religious folks into ‘gotcha’ arguments. It became very predictable, which was boring.

Atheist is a loaded word. Choosing to pin that label to your lapel is like lying down in a chalk outline that someone else drew on the ground. I’m not interested in that. I’m kind of jealous of people for whom religion plays a therapeutic role in life. Like Richard Feynman, I find religion too provincial, too small, too local, too human. The universe is too big and there is too much suffering on this rock for there to be a benevolent daddy in the sky who’s looking out for us. I find myself thinking of a couple of responses other people have had – “How dare you”, one man said (Hitchens?) he would say if he met god. “What’s up with aggressive childhood luekemia? What’s up with malaria? Why?” And I believe there’s a quote somewhere – maybe apocryphal – about how there’s something scratched into the walls of a chamber in Auschwitz- “If there is a God, he will have to beg my forgiveness”. And for the most part I think religion might be harmless, or even beneficial, but when it stifles human inquiry that’s a damn shame.

But I don’t believe we should have to suppress religion any more than we should have to suppress fairy tales. We don’t need to turn it into an us-vs-them thing. I get very tired of the “religious wars have destroyed more…” “oh, but Stalin and Hitler were atheists…” exchanges. They really never achieve anything– it’s a losing battle for everyone involved, because we pick sides and then naturally begin to despise the Other. The common thread in all human suffering, all disfiguring of humanity, is humanity itself. I think Victor Frankl wrote that people are either decent or indecent, and I think that’s almost independent of whether or not you believe in something mystical. You can be a good or bad person either way. We want more goodness in the world, and less badness, and we don’t have to frame those things in religious terms.

I now see religion as a manifestation of human desires. There are a few instances that come to mind. One was the death of a friend – his wake was held at his family’s church, and his loved ones sobbed as they sang hymns at his coffin. Religion provided some comfort to them then, I would never take it away from them. On happier notes, I’ve experienced the joy of church weddings for a couple of other friends. There was this delightful symbolic gesture at one, where each family had a candle, and they together lit a third candle which was the couple’s. And everyone sang, gathered together in a lovely chapel on a saturday morning.

I suppose the takeaway there is that human togetherness is a wonderful thing. There are many ways to celebrate it. Here I find myself thinking about how BMT passing out parades have become more dramatic, taking place at the floating platform at the Esplanade – letting conscripts see the nation that they’re defending With Their Lives. Some may say there’s something problematic about that, making the State the new Church, but eh. We have so many things like that, at all scales. We have friendship rituals, nicknames for one another, drinks, sports, live music concerts, festivals. It’s part of what it means to be a human, and even if religion were somehow completely eradicated in the conventional sense, we would find all sorts of new ways to manifest our fervor. I do think there’s a wisdom in the primitive tribal drum circles, the chanting, the dancing. It’s how we grasp at some sort of transcendence, and if we want to call that God, then yeah, I’m religious too. I believe that there’s something ‘magical’ that happens when people come together in service of something greater than themselves. It can almost definitely be explained scientifically – it’s something that happens in our bodies, in our minds, a certain synchronicity, like a flock of birds, like a swarm, a superorganism.

Life IS a glorious miracle despite all of the pain and suffering, God or no God. There’s a real splendor in great music, great architecture, even in the modern banks and shopping malls and the digital realm. I see “God” in all of that, I just don’t think that anybody has a monopoly on the origin story, that there’s any one way to tell it.

Alan Watts has some great perspectives on this that I enjoy – that basically all of the universe is really just one great thing, and we’re all IT, manifestations of it, the divine.

Sometimes I like to fantasize about what the future of religion might be like, once our grandchildren (or theirs) have all mostly grown up with a sense of the multiplicity of possible Gods, and are able to appreciate it all at a meta-textual level – that is, to enjoy the teachings without feeling compelled to become zealots. I imagine cathedrals of compassion, of contemplation, a testament to connection, to death, to the triumph of the best of humanity, the human spirit. I think humor will have to be at the heart of it – what use is a serious God without a sense of humor? What use is life without laughter? The more I see the less I know, but what has definitely become clearer over the years is that one must imagine Sisyphus LOL-ing. If we aren’t laughing, we’re missing out.

These days, I prefer to not even describe myself as an atheist. That states the case a little too strongly. The truth is I don’t know. I’m agnostic. If someone asks me, “what’s your religion,” I’d say, “I don’t know, should I have one?” Because the conversation we could have then is inevitably so much more interesting than if I had said something they had a stock response for.

PS: I’m reminded now of the experience I had seeing the Mathurai Meenakshi temple in India – super-massive, huge throngs of people, just a phenomenal structure. It’s like seeing the full scale of an ant-hill after only ever seeing a few ants here and there. It made me realize that religion is a POWERFUL force for people, or of people, that moves people in a very literal way. I still haven’t fully figured out how I feel about all of that, but it was definitely something special to witness. I don’t have any answers, any wisecracks, nothing.

 

0596 – cherish your friends

As at 26 year old, it’s interesting to look back on my relationships with other people when I was younger, and to think about what friendship meant then, and what it means now, and how my concept of it has changed over the years. It’s also interesting to juxtapose that against what I see and witness around me. I was reading something on Meaningness about a phenomenon where young people get into little cliques or groups that become very important to their identity. And I definitely experienced that, even though I was never very good at it. I don’t remember very much about my earliest friendships– a lot of it is memory which might have been modified over years of reimagining and recreation. I don’t remember very much about the friends I must’ve had in kindergarten, but I must have had some. I vaguely recall another indian boy named Dayalan, but I have no idea where he is now or what he’s up to. I wonder if he remembers me, or thinks of me. I remember there was a chinese boy too, I can’t remember his name, but I went to his house once. I borrowed pencils from somebody. I can’t remember.

And then we went to primary school, and I have a few memories of the kids I mingled with then. I vaguely remember an adventure we had to the back of the school garden. I remember going for touch typing lessons in the school’s computer club. I remember rolling coins across a passageway during recess, I remember running to the canteen to play Galaga on the computers that were there. I remember being terrified of getting into trouble after losing a workbook. I remember playing on the monkey bars after school. I remember my older buddy (I was 7, he was 9) showing me how to slide down a railing, which I thought was cool. I remember getting mistakenly scolded by a teacher for someone else’s shoddy work. I remember being scolded as a group for being too noisy, and standing in the sun far too long one day because our teacher hadn’t showed up after recess or something like that. I remember there were two bells at the end of recess – the first was a signal to stop where you were, and the second was to head to the assembly area. And some of us had great fun “stopping” in weird freeze frames. I remember going to a friend’s house to play computer games – that’s where I discovered Metal Slug and Red Alert. I remember making a new group of friends later on when we changed school again. I had a friend I’d meet once a year or so and we’d go to play video games together at the arcade at Tampines. And once I went to his house and we played Smackdown for a while. All these memories now seem so elusive. I remember playing Diablo 2 at a couple of friends’ houses. I actually took a Barbarian all the way to completion at one friend’s house. I wonder why we did that. I wonder why he encouraged me to do that. And his parents seemed to be quite okay with it. I try to put myself in the parents’ shoes now… I guess it’s nice for them to see a child having a social life of sorts. I invited friends to my place too to play video games – usually metal slug. Sometimes we’d watch TV. There is something nice, isn’t there, about kids exploring? Learning about themselves through the eyes of others.

And what’s amazing I think is realizing that all of us have different contexts, different realities. Of course, just by being in the same country, same city, we’re going to have a lot of things in common. Shared contexts. But there are also things that are very different. And looking back, it was so interesting to visit the homes of others. Actually, visiting another person’s home is always an interesting, trippy experience. To realize that the common spaces you inhabit aren’t all of what make that person who they are. Everybody has their own unique identity, personality, configuration, and they’re born into different circumstances, inhabit different spaces, experience different feedback loops, and effectively become very different beings, different patterns in spacetime that dance around one another. Sometimes we collide into one another in ways that could be described as damaging – we experience pain and anger and frustration and suffering – but all of that, in some sense, when you zoom out – can often be seen as a way of us becoming ourselves, of our patterns getting more interesting, more self-aware, and so on.

The cue I used to start this vomit was “losing friends”, and I think I wanted to reflect about the people who are no longer in my life, or who have closed themselves off to me because of my failures, weaknesses, incompetence, ignorance, ugliness. Or sometimes it’s just circumstances; sometimes the winds and tides bring ships to different seas and that’s just the way we go. Nobody has the right to demand that others remain around them – everybody should go wherever is right for them, according to what they think and feel is best. And of course there’s a process there, and people make mistakes and so on… but the point is … it’s all okay, as long as we’re learning and growing and becoming. I do have many fond memories that I am grateful for – perhaps I’m not grateful enough. Maybe I’m not yet old enough to spend too much time reflecting and reminiscing. But I’ve had some good times.

Far more interesting, I think, is to think about all the friends I haven’t met yet. I’m hopefully only a third or quarter into my life (or a fifth!), and so there are probably hundreds of interesting people I don’t even know of yet, maybe people who aren’t even born yet, people who will become important and significant to me, who will have a lot to teach me, who will make me laugh and cry, will challenge me, support me, build me up, break me down, so on and so forth. And all of that is part of the grand adventure, and I need to open up so that I can welcome them into my life. I need to pay attention, look out far and wide, send out signals, messages in bottles so that my many-faced soulmates can find me and come to me. And we can have a nice evening togeher before our souls are extinguished in the inevitable long night of the universe. And it would’ve been a good time. That was all that ever mattered.

 

0595 – tentative thoughts about gender

I’ve been thinking a lot about manhood and masculinity over the past year or so. I haven’t been obsessive about it; it’s not like I borrowed or bought a bunch of books and tore through them. There’s still some stuff that I’d like to read that I haven’t really gotten around to. But it’s been one of my dominant interests. Why is that?

I think a part of it has to do with growing up, and thinking about what it means to be an adult, period. But I also have grown to think that there certainly is something about being a MAN in particular. It feels a little funny to say that, it’s almost politically incorrect just to say that. The past few years have seen a lot of conversations about the complexity of gender and sexuality – we’ve learnt that it isn’t all that binary, that there are people who don’t tidily fall into one category or another, and so on. And I think those things are valid and true, and I’m happy to see progress on that front. I am a supporter of marriage equality, and I’d like to see 377A repealed in Singapore. Trans people are people, and they should be treated with the same respect as anybody else. We should appreciate how difficult life is for them. So on and so forth.

That said, I think there’s something to be said for traditional gender roles for the majority of people. And again, there needs to be a caveat here – there are lot of ugly and toxic ideas out there, and history is full of them. Women should be free to be whoever they want to be, and they should be treated fairly and equally under the law, at the workplace, everywhere, really. And men shouldn’t feel pressured to conform to an oversimplistic notion of masculinity – hiding their feelings and whatnot. Perhaps here might be an appropriate time to say, “A real man doesn’t really care very much about what it means to be a real man – he just does what he thinks is right, as informed by his values and beliefs, which he questions and evaluates…” you get the idea. Blind adherence to anything is dumb. Pay attention, reorient yourself, learn, blah blah.

ALL of that said (what a monster caveat), I think that there’s something about gender that tends to get ignored or overlooked, at least in the intellectual/writerly/academic/activist type circles. There are definitely differences between genders, in aggregate. We can observe this in nature (but yes, humans have in some senses been unshackled from nature… but in other senses we have not). There are still certain things about our biology that remain true. It’s still true that it takes a woman about 9 months to carry a baby to term, and that a single man can impregnate thousands of women in a lifetime.

Around 8,000 years ago, 17 women reproduced for every 1 man. (This statistic seems weird, but it has to do with survival rates – a few men had most of the children that survived.) Apparently today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men, and this is described as the single most under-appreciated fact about gender. Throughout the entire history of our species, about 80% of women reproduced but only 40% of men did. Poor children were likelier to die. “Head of the household” was a definite thing.

I don’t know, as I try to trace my thoughts around all of this – it’s just endlessly complicated, and it seems like you could spend your entire life trying to grasp all of it and never quite succeed. But I feel like it’s something that’s worth making sense of, because we all do live in a world of humans, and gender and sexuality is such a big part of who we are.

Anyway – what my experience and instinct has been telling me lately is – old habits die hard. It’s unfashionable right now to say things like, “we’re all products of our biology”, or “we’re shaped by our biology”, even though we surely know that a part of it must be true. Yes, nurture and advertising and whatnot shapes the way we think and feel, as does language. But I think there’s also something quite fundamental about our urges and impulses. I mean, why is infidelity such a rampant thing throughout all of humanity? Why aren’t people able to be monogamous, despite incredible societal pressure and huge disincentives? It’s easy and convenient to say something like, oh, those people didn’t really want it – but why are there so many of them?

I guess as I get older, I find myself wanting to be clearer about the truth about how the world works, because trying to operate with a faulty model of the world is painful and frustrating. You’ll screw yourself over and find yourself in shitty situations because you misread them.

I was having lunch recently and I noticed that the teenagers from the nearby school were all split into groups according to gender. Which is to say that girls hung out with other girls, and boys hung out with other boys, and there were no exceptions. I wonder what that is. Is it simply because we were “socialized” as kids to hang out with kids of other gender? I’m sure some folks have done some research on it.

I HAVE seen some mixed groups of older teenagers before, and in my reading of the situation(s) (and maybe I’m projecting), it usually seems like there are a couple of girls in a boy’s space. There’s this interesting process of experimentation that happens. I don’t know how to describe the specifics, but now that I think about it I think Robert Cormier did a pretty good job with it in The Chocolate War, and Mean Girls did a pretty good job too. There is a gendered element to social groups – women seem to tend to have a group of female friends they call “the girls”, and men similarly tend to have a group of male friends they call “the boys”, and there’s something about all of that… why is it the way it is? Why isn’t it different? “The existence of purple doesn’t invalidate the differences between red and blue.”

I was also thinking about my own experience as a male student in an all-boys school, and how much I enjoyed that – and I saw something recently that implied that same-sex schools were a bad idea. I’m not sure why but I just impulsively felt that that was wrong. That there’s something that boys can learn only from men, and that thing, whatever it is, is important and good, and I think we have a deficit of that in the modern world, which is why I’ve had friends ask me questions like “why are fathers so lacking?”

It’s all one big mess, and this doesn’t even begin to properly outline what I think about it. This is all one big preamble. But I’d like to have some clear thoughts about it. So I’ll probably be developing this over time.

 

0594 – seek out the difficult conversations

I have an old friend that I’ve been talking to for almost a decade now, and I enjoy reflecting on the history of our conversations. When we were younger we talked mostly about video games, about lore, music, technology, futurism. One of our favorite things to do when we were teenagers or NSFs was to sit together over iced drinks and cigarettes and geek out together over the future. It would be a glorious one, we agreed, and we were both lucky and eager to witness it.

We’ve gotten older now, and our backs are bent with the stresses and responsibilities of adult life. We both were a little sloppy with our schooling, we both didn’t particularly love our home environments. We both felt like we never really had a great model of masculinity to follow (more on this in the next vomit). And we both, I think, have a weight on our shoulders from our expectations of how we should be as 26 year old men.

I think I can say that we both feel stretched out, like we weren’t sufficiently prepared for our current challenges, like we need to constantly be digging deeper, pushing harder, making up for lost time, making up for the disengagement of our youth. We have to put in the extra hours to play catch up with peers who seem to be able to get by more easily than we do. (I’ve begun to realize, though, that most people are struggling one way or another; some people are just hiding it. It’s one thing to realize this intellectually, it’s another to actually hear from people telling you outright that they’re facing difficulties, that they aren’t meeting their numbers at work, that they aren’t getting along with their spouse, and so on.)

It’s interesting to pay attention to our conversations with our friends. One thing I’ve always disliked is how friendships can become stale patterns. As an extreme example, imagine a friend from your youth who you enjoyed watching football with. You maybe liked the same teams, or had a rivalry going, and would constantly be discussing the details of those things. You had a lot in common at the time. As the years pass, your paths diverge. You want different things. One of you gets married, one of you stays single. One of you becomes a workaholic, the other takes it easy. You have different values, you have different skeletons in your closet, you have different things that you’re guilty or ashamed about. And you each get really good at hiding those things in your own way, and in polite conversation you never dare or dream of exploring those territories.

And then you go home and (fictional example) you have too many glasses of whiskey and you feel alone as hell. Because you don’t have anybody to talk to about the things that you care about. There was a line in Fountainhead, I think, where a character says, “Isn’t it infuriating, how your friends care about everything about you except the thing that really matters?” What is it that realy matters? What is it about who we are that makes us real? If we were completely free to be whoever we wanted to be, who would we be?

I think I’ve come to believe that… in order to really grow, we need to have uncomfortable conversations with one another. We need to ask probing questions. But these questions have to be with the right spirit, with the right intentions. They have to be genuine. They have to be done with the genuine desire to help the other person grow, and you can’t just force yourself and your own values onto them. You have to help them figure out what their own values are. (And if they aren’t interested, then, well… I guess your friendship can never develop past a certain point.)

Someone else once said something like, your life is a function of the uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have. Tim Ferriss said that – assuming that you live in the modern world with access to basic human needs and resources and so on, your success in life can probably be determined by the number of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have. Most importantly with yourself. And I think an uncomfortable truth that I should prsonally acknowledge is that there are definitely things that I still avoid. Why do I avoid them? I suppose I worry about being judged. I worry about implicating other people, about hurting or offending others that I care about. So maybe some of these things will be things that I have to write in private, and something about me is weirdly averse to that.

But I’ve definitely learned that it’s better to try and write something out for yourself internally than to try and hide it, avoid it, work on it internally, blah blah blah. When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce it – at least to yourself. Don’t live in fear. Don’t hide from life. The result is a small, puny life where you’re holding your breath. Don’t hold your breath. Take a deep breath and dive right in. You’re going to die eventually. C’mon.

The original title of this post was to be “people hide the things that need discussing the most”. I have this habit of starting with “people” when I really mean me. I use other people as a proxy to avoid talking about myself, but really, we see the world as we are. So the question I should be asking myself is, what is the thing that I need to discuss that I’m not discussing?

[1] I would be some sort of roving writer person, commentating on this and that and everything, maybe. And maybe building worlds (I don’t think I’d put THAT much effort into this… I’d probably be happy to borrow the ideas of others) and writing characters (again I’m not sure I’d force this)… what do I want to do as a storyteller? I find myself thinking “I should analyze everything I love”, so maybe I’d spend about a month doing that, but once that’s done I’d start making my own things. It feels like I’m a long way away from making my own things.

Well let’s use a cooking analogy. Before I can cook something that’s my own recipe, I need to try and learn the language. I need to follow at least the basic recipes of others, see what works and what doesn’t, try and fail. And then after that I can start improvising, swapping things out. Everything is a Remix, Visa. Don’t try to be so original. Just start with things you like and change out the bits that you don’t like and then see where that takes you.

 

0593 – learn from your experience

I have a todo item titled “what experience teaches you”. I was reading somewhere about how as you get older, your enthusiasm gets tempered by experience. When you’re younger, you’re eager and excited and haven’t been burnt by failure yet, so you’re willing to start all sorts of new things, jump into new commitments and projects and encounters. It’s easy to ditch one thing for the next new exciting thing.

As you get older, it begins to dawn on you that you’re not going to complete all of the things that you set out to do. Your days are numbered, your accomplishments are going to be finite. So you have to pick and choose. You have to discard a lot of things, including many things that you thought you held dear. A lot of alternate possibilities wither away. This can be a little painful– okay it can be VERY painful, particularly if you happened to have had a lot of expectations and ideals.

I’m re-reading Obama’s Audacity of Hope and he talks about experiencing this himself – you get to a point where you’re not making progress on your goals nearly as fast as you hoped, and you start taking the good stuff for granted, and the painful stuff (in his case, being a community organizer and taking long drives to meet a tiny handful of people, or giving speeches that nobody listens to) starts to weigh on you. And you realize that either you need to recalibrate your expectations like a grown up, or otherwise you’re going to end up as this sort of sad old grumpy and slightly pathetic person. (I wonder if he had anybody specific in mind when he was writing that description. He probably did.)

Experience teaches you about effort shock. Whatever it is you want to do or accomplish, it’s going to be harder than you might think. You’re going to encounter more unpleasant frustrations and difficulties than you had in your rosy eyed view of the world. Growing up is about facing those painful moments and moving foward anyway. Sometimes you may find that there’s no way to move further, and then you’ll have to figure out what you’re going to do. It may be that you have to settle and just be okay with where you are, and then make the most of what you’ve been dealt. (Obama talks about this too.) Otherwise, you may have to take some drastic actions to shake things up. (An “up-or-out” moment was how he framed his Senate run to his Michelle.)

Experience has taught me that I can actually only achieve a very few, limited things each day. I fantasize all the time about some magical day where I get a ton of things done, and I’m sure over the course of these 590+ vomits I’ve described that fantasy several times. It’s a sort of hope that’s not grounded in any sort of evidence or reality. I can’t live with my hope indefinitely – it gets battered by every meeting or review I have with people where I have to say, “No, I’m sorry, I haven’t finished the things that I said I was going to do.” It gets hammered by my own daily life, where everyday is somewhat similar to the days that preceded this.

To change this I’m going to have to do things I’ve never done before – the main thing is going to be doing regular reviews. Tomorrow I’ll be doing my second weekly review in a row, in a document that I have pinned in my web browser that I do look at everyday. The challenge is to do this again and again, over and over, every single week. I also need to have some sort of daily review, which I’m including in that document. I have a bit of experience experimenting with this – for a period of time I had a daily email review with my boss where I’d talk about what I’d accomplished for the day, and that kept me productive. I need to internalize that process completely and have a daily review with myself. I’m now planning to do 400 word vomits in 100 days.

My experience in my life so far has taught me that I never accomplish these goals that I set for myself over 100 day periods. The longest I’ve been able to do something super consistently has been maybe 1-2 months. So this will be new territory for me. And I have learned that entering new territory isn’t just something that’s interesting or cool (though it IS those things), it’s vital to happiness – at least with my current mental model. Revising my mental model altogether is an option, but it’s a costly one and I can always do it later.

Working hard now is the other option, and I ought to try it. Try it again and again until I get it right. I need to change the configuration slightly each time but I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it. I have certainly done several of the things that I set out to do several years ago – it just took longer than I had hoped. A part of this is unexpected difficulty, but I think the main thing is just a lack of focus. As Steve Vai said, the success that you have at anything is a function of the degree that you were able to focus on it. So I need to focus on this.

What else has experience taught me? One great day is hard to come by, and it’s never enough. It may be true what I said in an earlier vomit – that I work in bursts, that my productivity might be seasonal. Those things can be true. But I also do frankly believe that I am more than capable of writing 4,000 words a day. One way to do it would be to get into a random internet argument with someone and then just keep going. Well, I need to learn to treat myself the way I treat random internet strangers – I need to go after myself with something to prove. I want to persuade me of something, and I’m not going to stop until I’m done.

There were a couple of bullet points in my task for this post – one is that life is long and that you can’t make epic proclamations about the future, because everything changes to degrees you do not expect. The other was that crises are inevitable – you can’t predict when exactly they’re going to happen, but they happen sooner or later and you have to be prepared for them.

Preparation is a way of diminishing the amount of work you’ll have to do when the shit hits the fan. And experience has taught me that shit always hits the fan. So be goddamn prepared. It’s the smart lazy thing to do.

 

0592 – value your own time

I created a todo list task for myself titled “value my own time”. It stemmed from a conversation I had with an older colleague who pointed out that it didn’t seem like I valued my own time. He was completely right, and I suspect I’ve always known this but it’s a little jarring to hear it from somebody else.

How do you evaluate how well you’re valuing your own time? It has to be about whether or not you’re achieving your own goals? Maybe. But let’s pause and switch questions, because that seems a little too navel-gazy. What does it mean to value somebody else’s time? Let’s take the boss. I value his time, so I don’t send him stupid shit. I reach out to him only when I have something useful for him. But if I truly, truly valued his time then I would also be much more prepared for our 1-1’s. So maybe I don’t value his time as much as I’d like to think I do.

It’s troubling to realize that I still live in a very reactive rather than proactive state. My proactiveness kicks in in short little bursts, when really it ought to be systematic.

I read a tweet earlier today that said “not many people realize that the point of GTD is to defer decision-making”. You do a lot of work upfront by putting everything down on paper, but the point of that is to get it out of your head. To think of less things in a given point in time. To decide in advance to think about some things later, so that you can focus on thinking about some things now. I thought that was a very interesting and clever point of view, because every lazy person likes the idea of putting things off. And it’s definitely satisfying to see a map of what’s going to happen next, so long as you do go on to take action and make things happen – otherwise it just sits there mocking you as a reminder of your incompetence. (That’s the point of the weekly reviews and trimming. I’m on to doing my second one this week. How tragic is it that I’ve been doing word vomits for years, writing hundreds of thousands of words, and yet never really stuck to a habit of weekly reviews for my todo lists and other obligations and such? I suppose that stuff just scares me. It reminds me of going to meet a teacher or a parent who’s going to tell me what a fuckup I am, and how I need to be a better person than I am, and things like that. It’s interesting how the subconscious tries to actively avoid these things. Well, I’m going to try and do a weekly review every week. If I can cook, after being afraid of the kitchen, being afraid of fire and so on, then I’m going to be able to do weekly reviews. And then I’m going to teach myself to swim. And then I’m going to run like a boss. And squat 100kg. I’M ALLOWED TO DO IT. I CAN DO WHATEVER THE FUCK I WANT TO DO. I DON’T HAVE TO BE AFRAID. I DON’T HAVE TO COWER. I DON’T HAVE TO AVOID THINGS. I CAN FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY.

Alright.

So how do I measure my own progress, then? How do I know that I’ve begun to value my own time? How do you know when you value anything? You take care of it, pay attention to it, handle it with loving care. How do I do that with my time? I carve out time for things that I care about and I make it sacred. This was a thing that I talked about with the boss at my last 1-1 too – not particularly in terms of valuing my own time, but in terms of going after my personal goals by getting to intermediate states as quickly as possible.

For most of the past 4 years I’ve been living in this weird lumpy state where I’ve always got some work on, but I’m never exactly working on it with fury. I’m sawing slowly rather than slicing with acceleration, which makes progress dullingly, frustatingly slow. If anything, it’s dulling the knife (which is my mind, in this metaphor, or just me). I think I may have made some bits of progress in bits and pieces, but overall I don’t think I’ve made a 0 to 1 shift. More like 0 to 0.2, 0.6, 0.3, 0.2, 0.1, etc. I want to break the barrier. What’s the barrier? The barrier is one that I set for myself. When I can leave my work at work, and come home and focus hard on my writing, and on spending time with my wife, and once a week I can spend time entirely on my own, doing nothing work related. That means I need to get a lot more work done at work. One of my problems is that I’m willing to allow work to be on my mind 24/7. I should not do that. That’s not a noble thing. It’s not even an efficient thing or an effective thing. The bottleneck here is my own limiting belief. I know from past vacations that taking those breaks means that I get to come back to work with renewed vigor and attack my problems head on. So if I want to do better I’m going to have to focus. Where do I start?

I think I have to start with my goals. I think I’m going to make finishing this word-vomit project my #1 priority for the remainder of 2016. Behind this will come my work and fitness goals. I need at least an hour a day to write 4 word vomits. That’s not a lot of time. I might be underestimating something somewhere… I can write more when there’s stuff in the back of my mind to write. Well I’ve done a bunch of aggregation and created a bunch of lists of starting points. So let’s just blaze through it and make it happen and see where we end up.

 

0591 – dream a little bigger, darling

I think my life can be a little seasonal sometimes. Lots of people around me often talk about productivity as though it’s something that can be managed effectively week on week, and I think there’s some truth to that. But I also have this nagging suspicion that I might operate subconsciously at a “seasonal” level– ie there might be 3 months in a year where I’m much more focused and powerful than the rest of the year. I don’t really have any evidence for this, though, and I’m not interested in doing the elaborate amounts of work I’d have to do to verify this – if I have the energy to do lots of work, I’m going to devote it towards doing, you know, WORK.

I have to confess that I’ve once again, at some point this year, felt a general malaise, ennui, sianness, depression, whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t rattle me the way it did when I was a teenager; I’ve gotten much better at living with it and recognizing it when it happens, and taking steps to diminish it. My recent insight was that I don’t spend enough time actively taking care of myself. I don’t carve out time for me to rest, reflect, relax in a deep sense. Sometimes I get some of this when doing sessions in a float tank, which I don’t do as regularly as I’d like. But it’s not the float itself per se. It’s the fact that for 2 hours nothing and nobody can interrupt me. I think that’s what provides me with the restful effect. If I want to be more effective towards achieving my goals, then I need to also be more sincere with my rest and the care that I devote to myself.

Anyway the point of this is. I find it a little silly that I’ve been writing so many vomits for so long and I haven’t hung them up on a consistent, coherent framework so I can see where exactly I’ve been repeating myself. Because I’ve obviously been running in circles a lot. I think when I set out I was intending to sort it all out at the end. Halfway through it’s become clear that that’s going to be a hell of a struggle, and I can save my future self some trouble by taking some steps to make it easier in the present. That means doing some editing on the blogposts that I’ve written, so they’re easier to read later on.

One of the things that I think is going to be clear is – changing myself is a heck of a hard thing to do. There are many moving parts, and I need to keep track of many different things. And part of the reason why I felt I need to make some sort of change was that I was screwing things up from being bad at keeping track of things in the first place. There’s a very special kind of delightful irony in failing at becoming better because you were predisposed to failing at things in general to begin with. You know what I mean? You suck, you try to get better, but you suck at getting better because you suck, so you don’t get very much better.

But it looks like the only thing to do is to keep doing it. I’ve made some progress on the cooking front. For the longest time I fantasized about someday becoming comfortable with food. Well, I’m now moderately comfortable with cooking chicken breasts or thighs on a pan, or salmon, or minced beef. Those are things I can do. I can feed myself with those things. It feels pretty great. It builds on an earlier insight – that I’m a pattern in space-time that tries to be self-sufficient, and while it didn’t get a lot of guidance in the start, and was generally bumbling around and getting into trouble, I’ve somehow bumbled my way to a reasonably manageable state. I’m here. I’m awake. I’m alive. I’m not broken, I’m not hugely fucked up, I’m breathing, I have money in the bank, I have a job, etc. Some of my mentors would say that that’s a very low bar to set, and I agree – I need to set higher bars for myself. That’s part of the point of this post, and that’s the point of the title of this post – that I need to let go of my past frustrations and greviances to become the person that I’m going to be.

But okay, so this is me, saying thank you to my past self for trying the best he could with what he had, even if it was sloppy, even if it was suboptimal in some ways. So be it. He got me here. That was his job and he did it. It’s my turn now. And I get to start as fresh as I possibly can.

It’s theoretically possible for me to finish my entire word vomit project by the end of the year. That’s 4 word vomits in a day. I have 106 days to write 400 word vomits. I can definitely do it. Why not? Why not finish it and get it out of my system? I could drag it on and do one every other day or every week and so on – which is kind of how I’ve been doing it – and it’ll take me until late 2017, maybe 2018. OR, I could hunker down and just light a fire under my ass and get all of this stuff out, pronto. It might be a bit premature to say this – I don’t want to say that I’ve gotten MOST of the value out of this project already, but I’ve crossed some milestones, and if I’m not racing to the finish line maybe it’s because I haven’t adequately visualized the possible outcomes. If I’m done with this quickly I can clear my headspace and move on to other things. I might have interesting conversations with people about what all of this means, what it’s like to do this, what I’m going to be doing next. And a great part of these vomits is I can figure out the answers to those questions along the way, just by doing this. I can go through old vomits and answer questions by writing them and then I can link from one to the other. Or not. It doesn’t matter. I can do whatever I want to do. I forget that sometimes.

 

0590 – continuing to grapple with adulthood

Commute starts. I ran after the bus and caught it, am so thankful for thoughtful, observant drivers. And sometimes passengers will stall drivers at the door so that a trailing person can make it. I’ve always enjoyed doing this for other people- it’s such a small gesture that costs nothing, yet gives another the gift of a few minutes.
 
I’ve been feeling something for years now and I still don’t feel like I’ve ever properly articulated it. I’m 26 years old now. My early twenties are over. What was that about? That went by in an awful hurry. What were the milestones? What was significant? I don’t know if I just have a really bad memory, but sometimes it feels like I took a nap and woke up 4 years later. It sometimes feels like a year or two ago that Obama became the first black President, like Lee Kuan Yew passed away a few months ago. It’s September 2016? What?
 
Time is really a strange bloody thing. I read a quote somewhere that said it takes 10 years to get used to being a certain age. And yeah I think I’m finally okay and done with being 16, 18, 20, 22. But what’s the difference between me and my 24 year old self? I have more responsibilities, I’m heavier, I’ve stopped smoking (again)… but my life is still this constant, repetitive pattern. I’m still doing this commute, over and over. And I guess I’m just worried that I’ll go to bed tonight and tomorrow I’ll be 30, next week I’ll be 45, and by the end of the year I’ll be dead.
 
What is this feeling?
 
When I was a teenager, I was always looking forward to being an adult. And in many ways it’s been great. Having your own place is incredible for your psychological well-being, and I think it’s rather tragic that so many Singaporeans are stuck living with their parents for so long. It’s also great to earn your own money and to spend it as you like. I live with less internal anxiety than I did then, I think. I was a sloppy mess trying to pretend everything was cool. I’m a lot less of a sloppy mess now, but I have many more responsibilities, and I’m no longer trying to pretend everything is cool.
 
I guess what I’m trying to say without saying outright is… this stuff is hard. Adulting. Growing up. Making progress means being kind to yourself without enabling the shitty sides of you. It means challenging yourself without being hurtful or self-destructive. That’s a tough balancing act, and I don’t think it’s possible for anybody to get it perfect. We inch towards something more equitable through trial and error, by getting burnt, making mistakes. I imagine some people tend to be chronically in one side or the other- kind but also too forgiving, or firm but also too harsh. And some of us have the delightful worst of both worlds- too tolerant of things we shouldn’t tolerate, and too harsh on ourselves for almost no reason. (I think there’s a theory somewhere that sometimes we just internalize the anger and frustration of our elders- we learn everything first by imitation, so their annoyed voiced become our internal self-taught. )
 
And I find it so weird that people don’t talk about it more. Do people only talk about it in private conversations behind closed doors? Is there some taboo against speaking about it out in the open? I suppose it comes across as attention-seeking, or needy.
 
It’s funny- to get the best possible help that you might really need, you might have to ask for it in a classy, non-needy, enlightened way. But if you were so enlightened and non-needy in the first place, did you even have a problem? It’s like an emotional version of the rich-get-richer problem. It must really suck to be hurting and not even be able to convey that you’re hurting in a way that people sympathize with you. I suppose that’s at the heart of a lot of ugliness in the world.
 
One of my favorite books was Lost Illusions by Balzac. I read it while I was in NS. It’s about this small town poet who’s pretty good. He falls in love with the most attractive lady in town,  who I think is married. They elope together to Paris, where he hoped to pursue his craft. There he discovers that she’s just average for a Parisian  (just like the NUSwhispers girl supposedly did). He discovers that there are many different groups of people who sell out in different ways. He encounters the allure of prestige and status, gets swept up in it, turns his back on his idealistic friends, gets burnt for it… and yet you root for him most of the time, because you see he’s just this naive kid who’s trying to pursue his dreams, sorta.
 
Isn’t that how it is? We have these naive expectations, sometimes fed to us by people who should’ve known better (but they were in turn…), and then we get just hammered by reality. And I’m not saying this as a vaguepost about some specific trouble I have – I mean it in the way Louis Ck does when he said that life is incredibly sad, just by us being in it. Life is a joke: our expectations are the setup, and reality is the punchline.
 
Everybody we see is taking a (usually) long and winding walk to their grave. The most we can do is to try enjoy the view, and the company. Right?
 

 
I posted this on Facebook, as a part of series that I’m doing, and I got a thoughtful response from an older friend who said that the way he measured his years is by the contributions he’s made beyond himself, and the projects he’s worked on. I think that makes a lot of sense. I think I need to clarify what my projects are, throw out whatever isn’t working, and revisit whatever is legit. Adding that to my todo list now.