"You know, I'm sick of following my dreams, man. I'm just going to ask where they're going and hook up with 'em later."
- Mitch Hedberg
May 1. A reader correctly pointed out that my mental struggles are situational, not chronic. I was a happy little kid, and I'm confident that I'll regain my full capacity for pleasure, and adequate motivation, when I get some stuff sorted out. So don't worry if I go deeper into the subject of depression by writing about suicide.
Super-smart blogger Sarah Perry, who lately has been posting on Ribbonfarm, wrote a pro-suicide book called Every Cradle is a Grave. It's mostly philosophical arguments that don't work for me -- and yet I agree that suicide should be fully legal and fully socially accepted.
My argument is practical. If suicide is normalized, it will become a very powerful form of social protest. Right now I can think of only two contexts where suicide is an effective protest: when a teenager is being bullied, and when a Buddhist monk sets himself on fire. But when tens of thousands of Americans with shitty lives overdose on opioids, everyone blames the drugs. It's not acceptable for us to say, "Despite having all these doodads of progress, my life is psychologically so hopeless that my best option is to gamble with death."
Imagine if suicide were part of the toolkit for making a better world, like a more drastic form of going on strike. Citizens could tell the government, workers could tell employers, kids could tell parents and schools: meet our demands or we'll check out. Now, maybe meeting the demands would just move the pain somewhere else. But we would all quickly stop arguing about stupid symbolic measures of quality of life, and start looking hard at subjective happiness.
Yes, I'm being glib about death. I have a strong feeling that death is better than a bad life, and I think this world has gone all the way to the other extreme, making death so forbidden, and making life so painful for so many people, that it's almost like a big torture prison. Only in this bizarre local anomaly could we entertain the philosophy that nonexistence is generally better than existence.
My favorite argument against suicide is that certain moments are worth staying for. From a reddit thread last year:
A sunny spring day, and the rain clouds were moving in. I went past a daycare where a little girl was dancing around, away from all the kids, by herself. You just never know, I thought to myself. What if I had killed myself, all that long time ago.
April 27. Yesterday I left out something important. I think the main thing I'm in withdrawal from right now is what people call "time-wasters", but they would be more accurately called something like "non-creative micro-scale reward activities". Not only have I quit playing Lords of the Realm II and Minesweeper, I'm not even checking Ask Reddit, or giving in to any temptation where just pushing a button brings the anticipation of a reward.
And I don't want to blame high tech. A few weeks ago I experimented with jigsaw puzzles, and they felt mentally like any computer strategy game. Late at night I'd be thinking, "Just one more piece and I'll go to bed." My grandmother spent hours every day doing crossword puzzles, and sometimes she bought new clothing to avoid doing laundry. Thousands of years ago the Buddha warned against dice games. It's a reasonable argument that we have a limited capacity to feel reward, and we shouldn't waste it on stuff that's not an investment in future happiness.
Here's a horrible thought: What if daydreaming is bad for us? My usual ritual when I'm falling asleep at night is to count wishes, or to compose a numbered list of what I would do if I had omnipotent power. It's really fun and it really works -- I rarely make it past number ten. But now that I'm in a full war economy for mental health, I've switched to the puritanical practice of falling asleep by blanking my mind and focusing on my breathing.
I also want to say a little more about psilocybin. Strangely, less than a tenth of a gram affects me basically the same as more than three grams: the urge for silent darkness, an hour or two of mild delirium, then an extended body glow and a couple days of good physical energy. My bad dream trip on Tuesday night was actually the most acute effect I've ever had, on the smallest dose. I can't tell if it's helping, but I'm going to keep trying a dose every four days, and here's an article, Everything You Wanted To Know About Microdosing.
April 26. My mental state for the past week could be diagnosed as depression, but I don't exactly believe in depression. I think it's the mental equivalent of the disease they used to call consumption, which turned out to be a bunch of different things with similar symptoms.
I'm not looking for advice because I feel like I've already seen all the advice for this very common problem. But if you're curious about my symptoms, I'm sleeping more than ten hours a day, lots of things that used to make me happy now feel empty, and my new motto is "If it feels bad, do it." That's how I continue to do things that need to be done, and my life has become a weird hybrid of a Hollywood self-improvement montage and a self-flagellating monk.
I've also become aware of how American culture, and maybe human culture, is saturated with moral judgments. If I admit to being unhappy, someone will think it's because of something I'm doing wrong that they're doing right. That's called the Just World Fallacy. But then, during happier times, I've been accused of being happy through immoral disregard for the suffering of others. There is no attitude you can present to the world where someone won't take it as evidence that you're a bad person. And if there is, then anyone presenting that attitude will be suspected of faking it. So we might as well be honest and bear the inevitable weight of clueless judgment.
I'm not taking any drugs, except one. I have a rule that I won't use drugs to raise myself from feeling bad to feeling normal, because I fear dependency. In other words, recreational use is okay but not medicinal use! So I've been off cannabis for more than a week. But I've started microdosing psilocybin, which has never been linked to dependency, and is good for rebooting the brain. Last night I ate a quantity about half the size of a pumpkin seed before bed, and dreamed I had a bad trip. Does that count as an actual bad trip?
April 24. A personal announcement: Leigh Ann will be attending Washington State University in the fall, and I'm planning to move down there with her. That means I have fix up the house for renters and sell a ton of stuff. Those are the chores I mentioned last week.
My latest thought about motivation, and why it's sometimes so hard to do physically easy stuff, is that it's about retooling the mind. You know how painful it is to do your taxes (if you're American) because you have to shift your whole being to an alien way of thinking. It's the same with washing the dishes or even brushing your teeth. You have to pass through pain, and the length and severity of the pain depends on how large and complex the new task is. Brushing my teeth takes only a few seconds of pain before I get in the flow of the task, but getting in fix-up-the-house mode has taken days and I'm still not all the way there. Yesterday, just walking around, I felt physical resistance like walking through syrup -- that's how much the mind can affect the body.
Rehab from an addictive substance must be the same basic process, retooling your mind for a different universe, and it takes even longer. And the hardest thing is if you've somehow developed an entire personality that doesn't fit the world. But that raises more questions, because if your personality is right and the world is wrong, then you should be able to fight the world and carve out a space where you can still be yourself -- but how do you know? What is the deeper test of "right" and "wrong"? That kind of question has led me to Taoism.
Anyway, today I was just installing two light fixtures, but there were complications within complications and it ended up taking hours, including a trip to the hardware store to buy two 14 cent screws. I was thinking about how different that world is from the world of playing video games and writing words on the internet, and my first thought was to distinguish between the universe of information (easy) and the universe of physical stuff (hard). But then I thought about Legos, which are physical but simple and gamelike, and programming, which is information-based but deeply complex and difficult.
So my next thought is to distinguish between worlds that are modular and fiddly. Modular is plug-and-play and fiddly means there's no telling how deep the rabbit hole goes. Going from fiddly work to modular work is like coasting downhill, and going from modular to fiddly is like climbing a mountain -- unless it's something I'm obsessed with, which is a whole other subject.
April 21. So on 4/20, instead of a day of pleasure, I took a day of pain, digging into some chores I'd been putting off. It was worse than food poisoning. As a thinker, I like to tackle hard subjects, and motivation must be the hardest subject there is, otherwise Einstein would have loved doing laundry. But I'm not going to write about it on a Friday.
Last weekend the NWSL started a new season. Among the many things I like about women's soccer, one is that it's still so under-analyzed that I can discover stuff on my own. If you follow the NBA, everybody already knows what Russell Westbrook is good at. But I've never heard anyone say that Sydney Leroux's great skill is her one-touch hair-trigger striking, or that Rachel Daly is really good at nailing the upper corner from a distance. Here's a bullet from last summer, and a curler from last weekend.
Music! This reddit comment explains in detail why The Velvet Underground were so important. Basically, when the trend was toward middlebrow music with increasingly sophisticated production, the VU merged high art with crude production, and redefined music as being about creativity rather than polish. What if human society was about creativity rather than polish? Anyway, I now believe that the greatest VU song is Venus in Furs.
The other day when I said I normally wouldn't link to such a weird sharp-edged song, I lied. Here's an even more challenging song that I just discovered, a feral chant by four Japanese chicks, OOIOO - Ina. I stand in awe of its luminous rawness. Another great song by the same band, Be Sure To Loop, sounds like Hawkwind produced by Joe Meek.
April 19. Tomorrow is 4/20, and I'm continuing to experiment to find the best pattern of marijuana use, but it's strange how little has been written about it. On reddit, there's Trees for everyday stoners, and Leaves for people trying to quit forever, and the much smaller Petioles about how to use in moderation -- but it's almost all about self-control. I have good self-control but it's still a massive challenge to figure out the timing, the resonant frequency that brings the best pleasures and benefits of being both high and sober.
I don't use drugs to numb pain but to harvest transcendence, and transcendence tapers with time. The second day might have as much as the first, but the third day always has less, and by day four it's almost all numbness, plus I'm frazzled from low-quality sleep. So that's 1-3 days on, and how many days off? I've found that 48 hours is the worst break, because I go through withdrawal without ever getting fully sober. Right now I'm experimenting with a break of 72 hours, or two calendar days. And I noticed something interesting.
On day one I'm high (typically eating cannabutter with lunch) and in terms of pleasure it doesn't matter what I do, because everything is wonderful. Last summer I would lie in the backyard hearing the traffic noise as music. On day two, getting sober, I pass through anhedonia, and it doesn't matter what I do because everything is bleak and empty. Yesterday we had a thunderstorm and a rainbow at the same time and I felt nothing. Today I'm pretty much back to normal, which means it's possible to do one thing while wishing I was doing something else.
There's a cartoon: in the first panel, a guy is sitting at his desk at work with a thought bubble over his head, daydreaming about playing golf. In the second panel, he's playing golf and thinking about sex. And of course in the third panel he's having sex and thinking about work.
The normal mental state of modern humans is to be holding tension between where we are and where we want to be. In a tight cycle of THC, I'm out of that state in one direction, fully present in bliss, then out of that state in the other direction, fully present in pain, then back in that state, but not quite. If I'm spending less than half my time in modern disconnection, it feels accurately peculiar.
A techno-utopian footnote: Will science ever cheat withdrawal? Could you go on a drug bender, and when it starts to get ugly, you just take a shot of brain-cleansing nanobots and you're painlessly clean and sober and ready to start again? In materialist metaphysics, this is totally possible -- we just have to find the right configuration of matter that generates perpetual bliss on the level of mind. I don't think it will ever happen, and the longer it doesn't happen, the more it suggests a level of consciousness beneath matter, in which pleasure must be balanced by pain. But I do think it should be possible to bunch the pain, so instead of days or weeks of grinding through rehab, you could reset your pleasure with a few minutes of agony.
April 17. This week I think I'll just do short posts about fun stuff. A reader sends this hyper-trippy video, Deeply Artificial Trees. Here's an article about how it was made, This is what AI sees and hears when it watches The Joy of Painting. Basically they trained an AI to see faces and animals in meaningless shapes, and to show us what it sees as it watches Bob Ross videos. Everyone says it's like LSD. Having never used LSD, it reminds me more than anything of Hieronymous Bosch.
I find the audio track boring -- it just sounds like backwards speech but more scratchy. So I tried out some trippy music, and normally I would never link to this weird sharp-edged song, but if you play it with the video it almost sounds normal: Big Blood - Sequins.
From a philosophical angle, when some idiot sees Jesus on a tortilla, we imagine that's a human weakness from which the logic of machines can protect us. But it turns out that machines can do it much better than us. And if machines are better than us at finding nonexistent meaning in noise, then they're also better at finding deeply hidden meaning in noise. But which one is it? In the future, we might wonder more and more often: Does the computer really see something, or is it crazy?
April 14. I was talking with a friend about drugs, and how some people "on a spiritual path" have rules about what drugs they use and don't use, and it's hard to tell where the rules come from. One person might not drink any alcohol, but chain-smoke cigarettes, while another person might use hard psychedelics but no cannabis.
Then I had another thought. What's the difference between a spiritual seeker and a hedonist? It's mainly in what they tell themselves. The spiritual seeker thinks "Verily, I am doing something meaningful," and the hedonist thinks "Woo-hoo, I'm having fun." But either one might succeed or fail at raising their awareness or becoming a better person. A year ago, vaping weed with the goal of listening deeply to music, I stumbled on some troubling and valuable insights about my hidden self. So my general rule for drugs and life, is first to have a good time, and then be open to whatever happens, even if it's unpleasant.
People who say life has no meaning might have the right idea. I think life does have a meaning, but it's not something the rational mind can pin down, so by telling yourself that there's no meaning, you can keep your rational mind from blundering onto your path and holding you back.
Loosely related to drugs, here's a fun little thread on the psychonaut subreddit, Ideas on death, parallel universes and past lives.
April 12. Monday I said I want to distance myself from people who scan the world for wrongness. Today I want to distance myself from doomers.
One reason is something that comes up on this page, Subreddit Similarity and Algebra, where you can add or subtract reddit communities. So if you put in "ranprieur" minus "collapse", you get a list of subreddits that are unusually likely to have subscribers who are also subscribed to ranprieur but not to collapse. And the result is some really cool stuff, including cryonics, neurophilosophy, two European subreddits that I can't read, and best of all, a subreddit for music that sounds like Blue Oyster Cult.
Anyway, it's tricky to say where I disagree with the normal collapse idelology. I agree with a lot of the details, for example that economic growth can't continue on a finite planet, and that modern life is a worse fit for human nature than most of the ways we lived in the past. But I don't think the human response to these crises is limited by my own imagination, that just because I can't see a way through, billions of people at the edge of survival will just roll over. I have a lot of respect for unknown unknowns.
Also, I frame the story differently. Western culture likes to tell stories with a tight structure of conflict, buildup, climax, and resolution. We like stories where something bends and bends and then it breaks, and we're either dead or in heaven. I don't think reality works that way. History neither circles nor ends -- it just rambles around like a picaresque novel.
April 10. I've been thinking about my relation with my audience. Content creators who need to make money are always thinking, "What do people want, and how can I give it to them?" That's just not the way I think. I mean, I can go into that mode, but my default narrative, in both writing and life, is "What can I get away with?" How much can I be honest and transparent, how much can I feel good and have fun, how much can I relax and let things slide, before I get smacked down?
My writing starts and ends with what I like to read myself, but in between, feedback from other readers is powerful. Sometimes I'm given new ideas, sometimes I see that I was wrong and change my thinking, and sometimes I pull back from writing about certain ideas or even whole subjects.
Back in the 90's I was totally into "conspiracy theory", but the emotional tone of the community changed, from marveling at strangeness, to compulsive paranoia, and finally to a religion of despair, in which your imagined enemies are so powerful that whatever happens is exactly what they planned.
Over the last year I've sensed more toxicity when I go online. Maybe I just got better at noticing it, but that's why I'm trying to quit writing about what's wrong with the world. My working theory is, thinking about what's wrong with the world is linked to a general attitude, a subconscious habit of constantly scanning for wrongness, and it's like a dark universe that I'm trying to escape.
Why do I even make my writing public? Because I feel like a castaway on an alien planet, or a prisoner tapping messages on pipes. What exactly am I trying to accomplish? I don't know, and increasingly I don't feel qualified to know. The best things in life seem to happen through serendipity rather than goal-setting.
April 7. For the weekend, music. My favorite album of 2017, so far, is
America's Velvet Glory by The Molochs. The singer reminds me of Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes, and the songs remind me of Camper Van Beethoven or the Kinks. Their most interesting song is Charlie's Lips.
Most of the reviews are like "This is good but sounds like old stuff," which leads me to this theory: music has entered a post-novelty stage. I mean, eventually we'll get a revolution so alien that it makes rock and jazz sound the same, but for now, there are no more good new ideas. Critics need to adapt by not considering novelty at all, and just looking at quality -- which of course is much harder to pin down than novelty, so we're also in an age of greater subjectivity.
Also, sports. The one sport I'm really into right now is women's soccer, and Rose Lavelle has dazzled in her first few caps with the US national team. Highlights from last night's game: Rose Lavelle vs Russia. Jump to 2:42 for an astonishing back heel pass.
April 5. Free Roaming is a fascinating essay by a guy who loves to wander around open world video games after all the quests have been completed:
This part of the game -- the illicit, post-story part -- is better than anything that might have preceded it in the name of story. In a world empty of fate, gone slack without a narrative, my character, alone and aimless, has a life for the first time.
The weird thing is, most open world games allow you to wander around without doing any quests at all, or just enough to level up so you don't get killed. Why does he have to exhaust every scrap of content before he feels "free at last"? This has something to do with the world outside games -- I don't want to call it "real" -- where we do stuff to "get stuff done", but like waiting for a river to flow past, we never get to the end of it.
What the author is seeking is not the freedom to wander, but a higher-order quest, where the reward for getting stuff done is not the character's satisfaction that Skyrim is free of monsters, but the player's satisfaction, impossible in his own world, that he has come to the end of getting stuff done.
Now I see two angles. One is practical, that we're always being told to do stuff we'd rather not do. The solution is to work toward a post-scarcity utopia, like the pre-scarcity utopia in Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept, where the right to say no is so powerful that it's forbidden to even ask someone to do something.
The other angle is philosophical, and I don't see any solution. In games, the meaning of life is a set of clearly defined tasks, and if you're not doing those things, you're in a space that is clearly defined as having no meaning. In our own world, we can never be sure.
April 3. Another angle on the value of myth: For me, the world inside my head is pillows, and the world outside my head is knives. Or, the inner world is rainbows and the outer world is shit (mainly human society). We all want a tangible, persistent outer world rainbow, but that's not how it works.
Beauty in the outer world is subtle and obscure. The divine manifests every day as a weed in the cracks, crushed by people who imagine the divine coming with trumpets in the sky. The most beautiful sound I've ever heard was a cacophonous flock of tiny birds in dead winter.
It's hard to even talk about this in English. How would someone say it who had experienced the unity of inside and outside? Something like: Inner light and outer light are two halves that come together with suspension of the self. And Utopia is not a perfectly luminous outer world, but a world that fits.
I wonder how many people have had their inner light so snuffed out that they can only find it with drugs. My favorite line about drugs is from the Tao Te Ching, 52.3: "Use the bright light but return to the dim light."