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.

3(ish) Rules for Life

I realize I’m quite late to the party with this one, but I finally got my hands on a copy of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”. My initial verdict is that it’s neither quite as insightful nor as ethically terrible as the controversy around it had let me to believe. Peterson has a very flowery writing style, with extended metaphors and a lot of repetition. I’m sure the joke’s been made somewhere already, but this really could have been just a list of the twelve rules, with maybe a paragraph of explanation each and a few footnotes to the relevant studies.

All that said, insight is somewhat a matter of perspective. I’ve dug enough into philosophy and psychology already that some of his points which I took as given are probably surprising to a good chunk of the population. And per the title of this post, I did take away three ideas that genuinely changed how I think in minor ways. Not that two of them were actually from the titular rules, but still.

Rule #1: Risk violence to assert your preferences.

This is not one of Peterson’s twelve, and the wording is distinctly counter-intuitive, but it captures two related ideas that Peterson puts a lot of emphasis on throughout his book (largely in rules #1, #8, and #10). First, it captures the idea that all conflict is founded on the threat of violence. Without that threat looming in the distance, there is never any incentive to back down, and no way to escalate. No conflict would ever resolve.

Second, it captures the idea that people need to assert their preferences to be happy, and thus occasionally cause conflict. This is, I think, fairly trivially true, though of course Peterson goes into some depth on the psychological problems that occur when somebody never asserts their preferences and becomes a complete and total pushover. It was still interesting to me, because despite being fairly obvious-sounding, a lot of the examples and verbiage he used to back up his point didn’t harmonize with how I view myself. So this one triggered an examination of how often I stand up for myself and assert my preferences, which has been interesting.

Rule #2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

This is straight from Peterson (and in fact it is conveniently his rule #2 as well). This is the only one of the titular twelve that directly made me sit up and metaphorically smack myself on the forehead in dramatic fashion. For those of a slightly more analytical bent, he also rephrases this as the idea that the so-called golden rule (“treat others as you would like to be treated”) in fact works in both directions. This one is straight from the text, so I won’t elaborate here.

Rule #3: Be prepared to change your goals.

This isn’t straight from the titular twelve, and it isn’t really a theme throughout either, it’s just a throwaway mention in the middle of Peterson’s rule #8. He’s talking about lies, and the concept of a “life lie”, and writes that “a naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie”. This is just mumbo-jumbo for the idea that the goals you set yourself today might not actually be goals you still want to accomplish in five years, and that clinging to those goals eventually results in simple unhappiness as you push yourself to do things you don’t really want to do.

Again, it sounds fairly obvious but the extended examination of it in the book made me re-examine a few of my own life goals in a slightly different light.


I’ll leave you with a bonus extract which isn’t really a rule so much as a pithy paraphrase of an observation that Peterson makes off-hand in the midst of rule #10: a happy couple is two people animated by a shared adventure.

There’s a lot more that I could write about this book, but this post will have to do for now.