July - October, 2016

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July 19. Yesterday I wiped out on my scooter. I took a turn too fast, leaned over too far, and the scooter caught on the road and fell over at 20-25mph. I was wearing a helmet, but it was not a full face helmet and my visor was up, so did a hard faceplant into the pavement. Here's a gruesome photo of my mangled upper lip and cracked teeth. My body is really good at self-numbing, so it was barely painful, and otherwise I felt okay, so I almost sent the paramedics away and went home. Then they asked me what month and year it was, and I didn't know if it was June or July or 2015 or 2016, so I got in the ambulance.

My experience with the medical system was better than I cynically expected. Of course the attention slowed way down when they confirmed I wasn't dying, but everyone who worked with me did a great job, and I wasn't even at Spokane's best rated hospital. A CAT scan showed that my skull between my teeth and nose was broken (alveolar ridge of maxilla) so they got me into surgery about seven hours after the crash. On the first night of the Trump convention, my surgeon's name was Omar Husein. Also, this was the first time I've ever been unconscious. I remember waving goodbye to Leigh Ann as they wheeled me toward the surgery room, and the next thing I knew I was totally tripped out in the recovery room. Someone behind me was making noise with gurneys and I thought I was hallucinating. Is there a recreational drug that allows me to keep getting raw sense experience without any way to put it context or any sense of who or where I am? Because for me that's total bliss and I would pay a lot for it.

Anyway, now I have temporary braces on my front upper teeth and have to chew with only my molars for a few weeks. They prescribed me hydrocodone, and last night was my first experience with serious opiates. I took a single M365, and I don't think it reduced my already minimal pain, but wow, I'm good at sleeping and I've never experienced such easy and euphoric sleep. Still, overall, I prefer high-CBD cannabis: it gives me a better morning after body high, it's much easier on my digestion, it's not physically addictive, and it's legal.

If I didn't have insurance through expanded Medicaid, I wouldn't have been riding a motorcycle in the first place -- thanks Obama! So I expect the medical bills to be tolerable, some of my scooter parts will need replacement, and I'm already shopping for a full face helmet. Because of the concussion, I'll be taking a break from heavy thinking on this blog.

July 20-22. Monday night leaving the hospital I noticed something weird. Lifting my right arm was normal, but lifting my left was difficult, like it was holding a big weight, but there was no pain. It turned out the pain just hadn't set in yet, and it has continued to appear in the same order that my body hit the ground. First it was just in the scrapes on my arms and knees, then in the muscles and joints that absorbed the impact, and I'm still waiting for the headaches.

I eat like a baby bird, dropping the food past my lips and front teeth, and keeping my head tilted back so it stays in the back of my mouth as I chew it. The braces were cutting up the inside of my upper lip but I fixed it by stuffing some gauze in there.

I'm thinking of this as an opportunity to change my identity. According to this article about transformative concussions, "A single blow to the head can make a creative, linguistic, or mathematical savant out of a mental nobody." And if gut bacteria influence the brain, then maybe antibiotics can reboot the brain by forcing a reboot of gut bacteria.

My goal is to be less like Isaac Newton and more like William Blake, but it's not like we can just decide to be whatever kind of person we want. As Ben mentioned last week, personality is not something apart from the world, but something that develops at the interface between inside and outside, and I think a good personality is just one that continues to fully honor both the inside and the outside as they continue to change.

August 3. A couple months back, a question on the subreddit got me thinking about the quote at the top of this page: "The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed." I think in the original quote, from one of Terence McKenna's recorded talks, it was "the bonfire of understanding," but the question was: Why a bonfire?

I think it's a great metaphor for a few different reasons. 1) It's primal. For a million years our ancestors sat around fires at night wondering what was out in the darkness. 2) It puts the darkness in all directions, and endless. Compare it to the metaphor of peeling an onion, where under each layer there's another layer, but soon you come to the center. With a fire you're peeling outward forever. 3) Like understanding, a fire can be any size, and it gets bigger incrementally. 4) A bonfire is the biggest controlled fire that most of us have seen. He could have used a candle, but imagine the size of a bonfire and all of that darkness.

August 19. My new favorite thing to do is lie out on the back patio, on cannabis, and just listen to the sounds of the neighborhood: cars passing, their noise now distinguishable into the throb of the engine and the hiss of tires, the hum of air conditioners, a flutter of bird wings, a TV through a window, train whistles and airplanes, crickets and bits of voices. I can drift away into thoughts and come back to it, and it's always there, like an endless symphony.

August 29. Last week on the subreddit someone posted the idea that men lose their creative edge when they get a girlfriend. Now, I'm fascinated by creative decay because it seems to happen to everyone. How many musical artists made their best album in their first five years and how many made it after 20 years? Anecdotally, this process can be blamed on anything, but I think being with a new person is more often a source of creative renewal. Look at what Kathleen Brennan did for Tom Waits. And it's suspicious that no one ever tells the story with the genders reversed.

Anyone who has been in a long-term live-in relationship knows that it's the opposite of settling into comfort. To explain my own experience, I have to start with some deeper background.

Lately my main angle of self-improvement is to become more aware of the voices inside my head. You might think you don't have voices inside your head, but do you ever have internal arguments? That's at least two voices, and where did they come from? I used to take them as absolutes, when really they're arbitrary, socially constructed, and within our power to change. It reminds me of the Gurdjieff line, that humans are so ruled by habit that psychology is basically mechanics.

So we have all these unexamined habits that we think of as the "self", and we have developed them by engaging with the world. For people we know casually, or people we'll never see again, we have shallow and short-term strategies, but these are going to break down if you're living with someone for years. Probably the only social context in which you have developed and tested deep and long-term strategies is with your weird-ass family.

So, when you look for a long-term partner, you're subconsciously looking for a social environment like your family, except you think you'll have more power, so you can finally get the happiness you deserve without having to learn anything new. Of course this never happens. As soon as you move in together the tensions start to build, and the only way through is for both partners to grind through the process of developing new habits that hold up over time.

Specifically: I used to be more complainy, more judgmental, and more puritanical. As a writer I was able to make those habits entertaining, but they're bad habits, and as they've gone out of my personal life, they've gone out of my writing.

September 6. I've been thinking about the meaning of life -- not the conscious large-scale stories about the reason (or lack of reason) that we're in this world, but about the unconscious stories and value systems that guide our small-scale actions. A month ago on the subreddit there was a massive comment thread about MGTOW, men who "believe that legal and romantic entanglements with women fail a cost-benefit analysis." Now it occurs to me that cost-benefit analysis is an optional, peculiar, and mostly unexamined story about the meaning of life.

I mean it can be a useful tool, but it's not a good script to have running in the background all the time, constantly guarding against getting a bad deal. And yet most of us do it. That's why we don't like being cut off in traffic, or being in the slow line at the supermarket, or not getting the best possible price when we buy stuff online. But when is it enough? When do we say, "Okay, over the whole span of my life I'm sure I'm getting a good deal so I'm going to stop caring about that." Most people never say that, because it would leave a void where there used to be meaning. Instead, normal behavior is to skew our perception so we always feel like we're getting a slightly bad deal no matter how good a deal we're getting.

This is part of what Buddhists call attachment, but I want to call it incompetent self-gamification. Gamification, according to Wikipedia, is "the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts," often by big institutions as part of creepy social control. But we also do it to ourselves all the time, turning everyday life into little games where we can win or lose based on events we don't fully control. And if we really examined this habit, we would find that the excitement of the game is not worth the suffering of losing.

But wait, isn't that a cost-benefit analysis? Maybe my point is that we apply cost-benefit analysis too much toward the outside, and not enough toward the inside.

September 9. The problem with expansion of consciousness is that stuff has been blocked from your consciousness for a reason, and it's usually not because society doesn't want you to know that we are all one. More often it's because you have spent your life making mistakes, and living without those mistakes is really hard, but now you have to do it because you know about it. Ignorance is bliss, and to emerge from ignorance is to climb through pain.

September 14. Last night I had a thought: what we call "the subconscious" is not some kind of nebulous intelligence, just a big web of unexamined habits. Most of our behavior is stuff we don't even know we're doing, or we don't see other options. And what we call the "ego" is the impermeability of the membrane between self and other. To add a new belief or behavior, or drop an old one, you have to move it across that membrane, you have to turn self into not-self or not-self into self, and this is a skill you can develop.

I've mentioned the Undercover Boss show (which I've never seen) as a metaphor for meditation. Another metaphor is using the task manager on a Windows computer: you look at all the stuff running in the background and think "What the hell is that? Do I even need it or is it just eating up my CPU?"

I wonder how much of our identity is just a projection of unresolved internal conflict. A line from this song says it best: "Does a man seek his own face for the flaws in shadows beneath?"

September 28. I've just had a bad couple weeks, but it's been good for me.

Twice a week I drive Leigh Ann to physical therapy for her torn patellar tendon, so she can take Vicodin and not have to drive home, and I wait in the parking lot of the medical clinic building. Monday I forgot my book, so I just sat and watched the people go in and out, many of them in bad shape, patiently led by family members, or driven by people who waited in cars like me. Before that procession of the damned, I was overcome with the beauty of human persistence in the face of the tragedy of life.

Later, when someone on Reddit suggested that homeless people should be required to pick up litter, I realized, this person has never had a bad day. They might think they have, but if they really had, they would understand that anyone in the world can end up on the street if they don't have money or a support network and life deals them too many low cards in a row.

I hold my energy closer to my body now. It's hard to explain, but suppose I'm walking across my bedroom to pick up my shoes. There used to be part of me that reached out to grasp the shoes ahead of my hands, but now I feel that I could stumble on something before I get there, or I've mistaken something else for my shoes which are actually lost forever, or I'll be stopped by some other thing that I've forgotten or never imagined. So I try to keep my attention centered on where I am, not an inch or a second farther.

One song lyric, which you've all heard a hundred times, turns out to be a powerful mantra when things are going badly: "Hold your head up, movin on, keep your head up, movin on."

October 4. When I said that a perfect life is one with no obligations, I was trying to get at something more fundamental, but so obvious it's hardly worth saying: a perfect life is one where every action is intrinsically rewarding. And a perfect society is one where every action by everyone is intrinsically rewarding.

This is not as unrealistic as it sounds. At the beginning of his book In Search of the Primitive, Stanley Diamond argues that many tribal cultures, said by anthropologists to make no distinction between work and play, would be more fairly described as doing no work. Of course they do lots of stuff that might feel like work to us, but they carefully maintain a cultural and psychological context where everything necessary to keep the tribe going feels like what we would call play.

How did we get from there to here, where we spend half our lives doing useful chores, and the other half having useless fun, with almost no overlap? This is how I imagine the Fall of Man: not that we were lured from innocent righteousness by wicked fun, but that we were lured from fun by stodgy pragmatism, when someone said, "I don't care if you don't feel like doing it, you're going to do it anyway." Or maybe it started with prehistoric slavery, and once it became normal to separate useful activity from freely chosen activity, it got locked in, and it spread.

October 19. This reddit comment diagnoses Trump as hypomanic, and it mentions a book called The Hypomanic Edge, in which the author "surveyed leaders in Silicon Valley and they almost universally agreed that the clinical description of hypomania matched what they thought was needed from the most successful startup CEOs."

I'm thinking, suppose we went back millions of years to our primate ancestors, or not so far back to the most brutal groups of humans. In that world, the largest and most aggressive males are the leaders. In our own world, being physically large and aggressive is still good for certain niche roles, but nobody thinks Ndamukong Suh has the right skillset to be a president or a CEO.

My point is, hypomanic people don't either. There is no correlation between hypomania and making good decisions. The correlation is with speed, having the sleepless drive to make a large number of decisions in a day.

This is only a factor because of our extremely fast-paced society. And it's a factor in other jobs too. Peter Higgs, "the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today's academic system because he would not be considered 'productive' enough." There are people out there who would make great leaders, scientists, house builders, chefs, you name it, but they can't hold those jobs because they're not fast enough.

I dream that this will change. If more speed-dependent jobs are automated, if an unconditional basic income moves more jobs into the realm of volunteer work, and if our culture slows down to match the end of economic growth, we might unlock the vast contributions of high quality slow workers.

October 24-26. This book excerpt, Science and the Compulsive Programmer, has given me lots of stuff to think about. It's about the differences between two kinds of programmers, one described as "professional", "hard-working", "careful", and "sensible", and the other described as "disheveled", "transfixed", "possessed", "frenzied", "grandiose", "incestuous", "aimless", "disembodied", and "monastic".

My first instinct is to read against the text: the book was published 40 years ago, and it's firmly in the mid-20th century industrial mindset where getting things done is intrinsically valuable and how we feel about it is secondary. As a 21st century reader, I see human psychology as the only hard problem, and the compulsive programmers have solved it in the most direct way: while responsible programmers are dutifully supporting a tech infrastructure that may or may not make anyone happy, compulsive programmers have simply found happiness.

Look at wild animals, and I'm thinking of species you can watch in the city like grey squirrels and house sparrows. While doing what they need to do to survive, they are in a permanent state of flow. Have compulsive programmers achieved this?

Probably not. I was thinking it was a micro-brain thing, where compulsives happen to find the details of programming more rewarding than other people. After a conversation over email, now I think it's a whole personality thing, where compulsives do not know how to take a step back and rebalance, how to shift their minds from narrow focus to wide focus.

That fits with a general line of my thinking lately, that a lot of life skills come down to something like a mental transmission, where if it's working right you can smoothly shift gears from one mental state to another. I think that's why I feel so much pain around doing small jobs to fix up the house, because that mental state is so far from the one I'm in normally.

Last night (on cannabis) I came up with a promising idea: we negotiate mental adjustments through inner dialogues, and when I struggle with mental adjustments, it might be because my inner dialogues are too serious, and I need to make them more playful.

October 28. Google's former happiness guru developed a three-second brain exercise for finding joy. Well, it's not something you do for three seconds but something you do all the time: be on the lookout for "thin slices of joy" and appreciate them. This fits with a general principle that keeps coming up for me: the frontier of self-improvement is at the micro scale, paying attention and doing the right thing in smaller and smaller intervals of time and space. It reminds me of the advice that Steve Largent gave Doug Baldwin about catching a football, that instead of keeping your eye on the whole ball, keep it at the tiniest leading edge.

October 31. From the subreddit, a comment on creepy clowns. These are my favorite bits edited together:

What particularly intrigues me is that the clowns increasingly tend to be spotted on the edge of the forest. The forest is traditionally the place where the supernatural exists. Our European folklore has magical people that live in the forest, who frighten young children. So in other words, the clowns hover on the border between the natural and the supernatural.

We live in a very stiff era, where we're looking for a trickster figure who can shake up the established order that's failing to work. The creepy clowns are quite literally possessed by Loki, or Anansi, or whatever name your culture has for this phenomenon. They are the collective manifestation of our subconsciousness that the supernatural takes in an era that has a strong yearning for an external source of disruption that allows it to shake off its pathological routines that it finds itself too handicapped to shake off in a conscious manner.

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