Choices

The icy river far below.
The winter wind that warns of snow.
The angry iron stormclouds glow.
The bridge goes everywhere.

The city skyline sparks and burns.
The hungry heart escaping yearns.
A vulture makes its lazy turns.
The bridge goes everywhere.

The shattered pillars shriek and groan.
The marching dead reclaim their own.
A million prayers cannot atone.
The bridge goes everywhere.

They say the bridge goes everywhere,
And takes each soul a separate path.
But I have found the same despair
In every choice; the aftermath
Of chasing futures o’er the span
And never looking back to see
The desolation I outran.
The bridge goes just one place for me.

Possibility Days

I had one of those weird bursts of inspiration and wrote most of the first chapter of a potential novel. Nothing is likely to come of it as I don’t really know where to take it from here, but I’m pretty happy with the prose and the mood, so I figured I’d share. It is definitely a bit on the odd side of course, I hope you’d expect that from me by now. Anyway, here you go, chapter one of Possibility Days:


There were days when the world was empty, when time stood still, and when accomplishing anything seemed almost as monumental as accomplishing nothing. There were days when the world was on fire, when the edge between success and failure seemed thin and sharp, and when the only possible emotion was a panicked, manic, make-believe optimism.

There were days in the middle.

As Andrew woke up each morning, he always had a gut feeling about what kind of day it was going to be. Those feelings weren’t always accurate of course; the days always seemed to be playing tricks on him worse than the weather forecast. But it made him feel better to pretend he had some control over things. Today, for example, had started out like a distinctly middle day, but had unexpectedly sagged towards the end before picking up sharply at the last minute. The pattern reminded him of the bass drop in a particularly formulaic pop song.

Now it was starting to sag again, but that was OK. It was late, he was tired, and as long as he didn’t fall all the way into paranoia a little bit of fade at the end of the day made it easier to get to sleep. It was probably natural, something to do with melatonin or testosterone levels or some other hormonal thing.

Standing in the bathroom brushing his teeth, he made half an effort to recall all of the things he had accomplished today, but the idea seemed just a little out of reach; he was fading fast then. Some of those things had seemed interesting or valuable at the time, but now they were just… there. Mechanistic results of a boring, predictable universe. Like the toothbrush, travelling hypnotically back and forth over his teeth, its position ever-changing but its motion always exactly the same. Andrew paused, and spit, then rinsed off the toothbrush, gargled briefly, and spit again. Tomorrow would be different, he knew, even if it would also be exactly the same. Life was funny like that.

As he made his way out of the bathroom and into the big, open, mostly-empty room that served as his bedroom, his hand batted the wall near the bathroom light switch. He hit the fan switch by accident, turned that off again, then fumbled left automatically until he could kill the lights. The room was plunged into grey, the glow of the city still sneaking around the edges of the big bay window.

Everything about this condo had seemed like a good idea originally: the massive rooms, the floor-to-ceiling windows; even the oddly-located light switches had seemed more cool than frustrating. It was still an impressive place to show off to friends and family, but if he was being honest he’d trade it all back for a bedroom that got properly dark at night. The simple things were underrated.

Crossing the shadows to his bed, Andrew knelt to pray and tried to sink into the comforting thought of all the other people who were praying at that moment. They formed a vast network of humanity in his mind, united by ritual, and reaching out toward something greater than themselves. Andrew didn’t even believe in god anymore, and hadn’t for a long time, but he still believed in the universe, and in humanity, and that was enough to pray to in his opinion. No matter what kind of day it had been, the reminder that he was somehow not alone in the world was usually a comforting one.

This night, praying to the universe quickly turned into a muttered reassurance that tomorrow would be another day, and that things always seemed brighter in the morning. It was time to stop. Giving up on the universe for one more day, he unbent his knees and crawled into bed, pulling the covers up to just under his nose and folding his hands over his stomach. The day finally complete, Andrew waited for sleep to come.

Book: The Need for Roots

The true definition of science is this: the study of the beauty of the world…

That being so, how should there be any opposition or even separation between the spirit of science and that of religion? Scientific investigation is simply a form of religious contemplation.

Simone Weil

Just about done reading this book (written by Simone Weil, translated by Arthur Wills). It’s a fascinating book for a bunch of reasons: Weil packs a ton of insights into a fairly unstructured text, often without much justification. And yet, the whole thing hangs together in a remarkable way. It would be easy to bore oneself by picking nits with the wild leaps of intuition every other sentence, but as soon as you get on board then you find yourself looking back at a path whose every step was actually correct, given the whole picture. Perhaps it is simply history being kind in validating many of Weil’s intuitions after the fact, but that does not detract from the fact that, justified or not, she speculated correctly on many facts of human nature and social behaviour which are only recently being proved out.

I am willing to cop to some significant bias in that the topics she discusses (the nature and construction of healthy human communities, and how people needs roots in such a community to be happy), are under-served in modern discourse in my opinion. And there are definitely claims and sections long past their best-before date which would not survive modern scrutiny. Still, The Need for Roots goes up beside The Righteous Mind (Jonathan Haidt), and The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) as a book that more-or-less captures another critical aspect of human nature.

Oddly, the book it reminds me most of is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, or more accurately the non-fiction summary Beyond Civilization that Quinn wrote a decade after exploring the ideas in Ishmael more fully. What’s also oddly fascinating in The Need for Roots is the extent to which the political and socio-ethical concerns Weil presents are just as evident today. Widening economic inequality, the urban/rural political divide, and a general dissolution of national spirit are maybe not as new as I’d previously assumed.

This has been a rather unstructured summary, but I think I can wrap it up fairly succinctly anyways: Simone Weil was exactly my kind of crazy.

Narrative Distress and Reinvention

This is the third post in what has been a kind of accidental series. Previously: Narrative Dissonance, and Where the Narrative Stops.

While my previous two posts on narrative identities were fairly broad in scope, exploring some general cultural patterns, I now want to focus in a little more closely on what it feels like to not have a narrative. Unsurprisingly it can be quite distressing, so I’ve been referring to it mentally as “narrative distress”. This is importantly distinct from “narrative dissonance”, where you have a narrative but decide to do something counter to it, although dissonance can also be distressing in its own right.

In Where the Narrative Stops I wrote a lot about how the default narratives are breaking down under modern society’s emphasis on individualism, and how that can be harmful for young adults who haven’t yet discovered an overriding passion. When I wrote that post I was a step away from the problem; I knew a lot of people in this situation, but I had been living the same narrative for most of my life at that point so it was all a bit abstract. In the six months since I’ve had the most peculiar experience of, in some ways, running out of the narrative I was living. Every story has an end, and when you unexpectedly achieve that ending (or, as in my case, realize you no longer want that particular ending) then you suddenly find yourself without a narrative at all.

Finding myself without a narrative after so long living in a very specific direction was a remarkably weird feeling. It felt in a lot of ways like being burnt out; general disengagement, ennui, etc. Unsurprisingly it produced a very existential feeling of “now what”, but more surprising to me it also produced a significant amount of anxiety, because without a narrative to guide me, every single decision became the seed of a new identity crisis.

Fortunately, once I finally realized what had happened it wasn’t terribly difficult to reinvent my narrative in the shape of something that was still ongoing. This was reasonably easy for me because I’d already done a lot of thinking about what I value in the abstract, but of course that can be a major project in its own right.

Naturally, it’s not quite as simple as just picking a new narrative and pressing “play”. As I discussed in Narrative Dissonance, our life narratives are tied up in our identities and every single one of our choices; it takes time and commitment to gradually shift something like that. So that part of the project for me is still ongoing. But such is life: a constant process of change and growth.

Naming Feedback Loops

I’ve often thought that the terms “positive feedback loop” and “negative feedback loop” are poorly named. The words “positive” and “negative” have such strong emotional valences that it’s hard not to get confused when trying to talk about, for example, the positive feedback loop of a being in a bad mood. Instead, I’d rather use the terms “explosive feedback loop” and “stabilizing feedback loop”. They seem to capture the relevant characteristics more clearly.

I care about these words because I’ve found myself stuck in a couple of explosive feedback loops recently due to meta-emotional worries. I notice myself feeling bad for one reason or another, and this worries me, and the worry makes me feel even worse. Rinse and repeat. I’ve poked at this behaviour before (primarily in my post on worrying two years ago), but it’s reared its head again recently, and I’m finally noticing the same general pattern in other aspects of my life. For example, I’m not typically a hypochondriac, but as soon as one aspect of my health comes to my attention it’s a short spiral to internalized histrionics.

Typically self-awareness is counted as a positive trait, but there is a very real sense in these situations where it is an active problem. I’m self-aware enough to send myself into these meta-emotional spirals, but not generally self-aware enough to pull myself out of them. The fact that I’ve noticed it as a pattern now produces some measure of hope, but honestly I noticed it two years ago in that other post as well, and I don’t think I’ve applied it once since then. In a lot of ways, half-way up the mountain is the worst spot to be.

I meta-worry about all my worries and then I worry over how to stop meta-worrying and then my head explodes.

Me