Pleasure

There have been many times in my life where I’ve felt the realization that I don’t enjoy anything. There were times that felt awful and times that didn’t but for years nothing felt over the baseline of existence.

I’ve been on my diet for a month now and one unexpected effect is it made me enjoy eating. Which I know is something other people enjoy quite naturally. I’ve always eaten like a hedonist – I’ve always chosen the supposedly sinful foods over the supposedly clean but I didn’t really notice that I never cared. Eventually I was just eating peanut butter sandwiches everyday because nothing in the realm of food mattered to me.

Once I started working out I learned how to not work out, what to do in recovery time to prevent the soreness and injuries that come with really any lifestyle change. And eating was part of that.

As a result I came to enjoy food because I wasn’t doing it for enjoyment, it had my most desired of all notions – purpose. Eating became rewarding because it was part of something bigger.

My mind is now focused on eating for nutrition during the week and then gets to cut lose and eat for pleasure on the weekend. And I enjoy both.  Because of how dopamine works you’ll notice that you often feel better looking forward to something than after you’ve actually gotten it. Most of the time in life – Anticipation is the reward. Enjoying food isn’t about constant hedonism, it’s about perspective.

I do the same thing in squash. Whenever I’m on a streak of bad returns I will mentally drop everything, physically relax, and take pleasure in the game, the room, the friends, everything… my life, I take pleasure in the skill of my opponent, the sound of the game. The enjoyment of the game is the game itself, not it’s consequences.

I wrote before about the Done Vs Doing problem, admitting the difference between things you like to do and things you want or need to get done. I think being aware of that difference let’s you eliminate that difference. If you want the dishes done then being mindful let’s you take pleasure in the fact that you’re doing them, they are getting done. Congratulate yourself one scrub at a time.

Movies and Television have fallen onto the wrong side of the Done Vs Doing problem. People say they have to see this movie, or haven’t seen this movie yet, they’ll get around to watching this show. This is the language of chores. And it’s because the producers in the medium learned they can hook us better with empty ongoing plot than they can with high level writing or directing. Watch any Hitchcock movie and notice how many times you think what a wonderful shot, then watch a marvel movie and notice that you never think that.

I think it’s a flaw in our culture that we try to distract our way to pleasure. Everyone’s accustomed to doing chores with Netflix on now, having one ear bud in at work, cradling your phone for an entire journey on transit. It doesn’t make us any happier, it just makes us stop wanting. Our urges aren’t satisfied, they’re just numbed.

When you live that way you’ll notice you feel empty at the end of the day and yet when you climb into bed rather than think you should change something you need yet another distraction to go to sleep. You haven’t given your mind any time to be itself and when it tries to catch up alone in the dark of your bedroom you block it then too.

You can self-diagnose insomnia all you want, but unless you do something about it you’re really missing one of the T-balls of life.

If you live slightly above the poverty line on this continent you live like a god compared to the most grandiose kings of history. Yet unfulfillment has become our norm, all our lives and stories revolve around it.

And it because we’ve been sold the idea that pleasure should be effortless. That life is mostly toil and pleasure is the remainder, the other, the thing that happens after.

I think we often make a contract with ourselves to be unhappy whenever we’re not getting exactly what we want and we combine with the notion that if we have to put effort in enjoying something then it isn’t authentic.

Both of which are bullshit. Happiness is a skill and like all skills, once you start learning it you’ll see it’s applications everywhere.

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Posted in Pop Culture

I was worried

I don’t think any of us are ever in denial about a friend’s depression. We all see it happening, what’s weird is when I see people playacting denial about a friend’s depression, as if it were a strategy.

A phrase I’ve heard a lot in my time is I was worried about you. Some of my close friends seem wait out my bouts of depression and be relieved when it’s over. Which is natural I suppose but to then say I was worried about you kind of feels like they want some credit, they want to be noticed for noticing.

I think it’s better to honestly say I’m worried about you during the period of worry because if you’re wrong it will be obvious in their reaction but no harm done, no matter what they’ll be glad you’re thinking about them, and if you’re right to be worried the subtleties of their reaction will be the answer you need and you go from there. I guess having a conversation after a depressive period is easier than during.

I hate doing a post op with a depression with people who were witnesses to the depression and didn’t do anything during the time. It feels insultingly like they flipped a coin and feel proud it came up the way they wanted.

And yet I don’t know what else to add to this. I’ve parsed the skill of talking about depression pretty firmly over the years on this blog but almost all of what I’ve done is identify what doesn’t help, what bothers me personally.

Which I’ll recap anyway: Saying talk to me or talk to someone just sounds like fix yourself because it feels like the depressed is supposed to bring something to that conversation and if we knew what to bring we’d be halfway to better already. We’re already running every possible conversation in our heads anyway and they always turn out bad. The vague notion of talking to someone when you’re depressed feels like being told to do your half of a job interview without knowing what you’re applying for.

And now we’re adding to that list I was worried. Another negative connotation I’ve felt with that phrase is like they’re saying all the work is done. I was suicidal for 30-odd days and when I tell you I’m feeling not-suicidal for one instantly you dust your hands like it’s all over, beat the final boss, roll credits, simple happy ever after. I was worried means I’m worried no longer, means everything’s good. So you did nothing during the crisis and now you’re doing nothing during the recovery. You’re like FEMA.

So yes, tell people you’re worried about them when you’re worried about them. Do not say that they’re scaring you, though. That was another of the most annoying texts of my entire life.

Posted in Uncategorized

Identity statements

I used to be able to describe myself confidently, no matter who asked, with one compound word – songwriter.

I had very deliberately not cultivated any other identity.  Partly because everyone I saw with one foot in music and one in any other interest was a terrible musician. Anyone doing it on the side of their normal life played like 8th graders because that’s all the time they’d put in.

I shut out every other avenue of life because I thought that’s what you have to do. I thought I was clear and efficient. I knew exactly who I was, I never hemmed and hawed when talking about myself.

Nowadays I’m back to saying I don’t know what to say. I mention cooking for a living, writing, music, squash, memorizing the Great Gatsby, infusing liquors. I live wide now rather than narrow and tall ans sometimes I overwhelm people with the range of fixations. And I hope I come across as a neat guy and all but I can’t say it’s a bold enough identity to satisfy the young me still lurking in my head.

I feel like a former. A former depressive obsessive singer songwriter, a former all black wearer, a former young person. I’m not the next thing I’ll be yet and I don’t know what it will be, I don’t know if it’ll be anything. What if I stay a ghost forever?

That’s no longer the worst thing I can think of, I’m not unhappy. I’ve been getting happier this entire calendar year so far, so why worry that I’ll suddenly be unhappy if I can’t pin down my epitaph again?

Especially when I wasn’t happy as a songwriter, I was just manic. I was focused but I still felt lost, I was driven but spinning my wheels, everything was life or death. When I looked in my mental mirror and saw anything other than a young Springsteen I was suicidal.

Why did I pride myself on that? Why did I think that was the secret to success? More importantly, why do I wish I still thought that? I always assumed I’d be a somebody singer songwriter but now I’m not even a nobody singer songwriter.

I heard a great quote that said “Desire is a contract we make with ourselves to be unhappy until we get what we want.”

It’s okay (in the layers of my mind) for Springsteen to put music on the back burner at 27 because he’s miserable. He’d come off a string of the most important albums in American music history. To use fixation to get to the top and still be unhappy is fine by me, go ahead and look for other ways. But to miss the mark and start trying other ways to be happy feels like cheap compensation.

And again, maybe there’s nothing wrong with compensating for happiness. If one restaurant is closed you don’t turn your disappointment into defiant starvation, you go eat somewhere else.

Tim Ferris makes a point about losing money on a house. He bought a condo and was never going to be able sell it for more than he paid, or even close to what he paid, because of the housing market crash. It was stressing him out and he was trying to come up with a way to not lose money, he was focusing so diligently that he was distracted from the successful business he was running. Which made him realize that it was just pride keeping him working on the house problem, he was already earning enough money – more money than he was making when he bought the house – to cover the loss. He coined the phrase “You don’t have to make it back the way you lost it.” Lose money on a house but make money on stock, you’re still at baseline unless you let the loss nag at your pride and you end up sinking more and more into it.

I think the same thing applies to relationships of all kinds. I’ve had my ego bruised in love and watched myself sink all my emotional resources into toxic affairs because I didn’t want to cut my loses. I was scared of having to start over again romantically, scared no one else would ever love if I couldn’t make this person stay in love with me.

But while it was crashing I looked around and saw that I had a lot of great friends, and co-workers, and a great boss, and more than ever before in my life I had myself that I could count on.

I had to learn to stop pinning my identity on one thing at a time, whether it was my band or romantic affection.

It doesn’t feel like a win though, it feels like a draw. I’m part of everybody now. A great part to be sure, but still just a storyless ghost among the billions.

 

Posted in Depression & Suicide, Pop Culture, Pragmatism

Seriously

“The more seriously you treat it, the more fun it is.”

I overheard that phrase a long time ago and I think it describes me perfectly. I suck at doing things for fun, for hedonism, however I get a lot of satisfaction from taking things seriously.

Squash is my big thing right now so I have to use that as the example. I played squash once, while drunk, because I believe it’s important to say yes to things. And I instantly committed to playing twice a week and bought a racket. I watch squash videos on YouTube, I keep my racket by my bed so I’ll dream about squash and practice in my sleep.

Yet I don’t care whatsoever about winning matches. It’s nice when I win because it means I’ve improved but a game I win isn’t any more fun than a game I don’t. I just want it to be a good game, lot’s of rallies, lot’s of good moves, lot’s of learning.

My notion of taking squash seriously, of taking anything seriously, is to think like a pro. Pretend there’s a million dollars on the line then pretend not to think about it. If you lListen to a world class athlete talk about their game, they talk about focusing on the game, on the skill, on looseness and joy, they don’t fixate on the outcome, they keep the pressure off.

It’s how I work – I take my job seriously by focusing on having fun,  it’s why we have a bacon rolling record, it’s why I get annoyed if anyone else makes burger patties. I’m indulging my team mates and my craft to do better for the sake of better. I hate thinking about money, I hate thinking about obligation.

One of the most important lessons of my life that translated nicely into sports and metaphorically into everything else comes from singing lessons. I was taught “Don’t put tension anywhere you don’t want it”. Singing is about keeping most of your body consciously relaxed so you don’t choke your power. I took that lesson to sports and always make sure I’m not putting tension anywhere but where I need it, no misdirected energy, no choke points. I’m completely relaxed during my serves in squash and I get tons of power whereas I see guys tensing every muscle in their body trying to force power, being boxy and rigid, and all that energy is wasted and often the serve goes wrong.

At work if the situation gets stressful I focus on not giving the stress any of my focus. All my energy is mine to spend as I see fit and I won’t waste it on frustration. The same way tense muscles are a choke point when you’re singing, a tense mind is a choke point for my skills. And being the frustrated one makes you the choke point for the team.

Taking things seriously doesn’t mean stressing about them, it means taking them seriously enough to not stress about them. Relaxing and letting greatness flow.

When you see someone getting angry about something you think is trivial, don’t say they’re taking it too seriously, say they’re acting like an amateur.

Posted in Pragmatism

We are what we pretend to be

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be

It’s a quote from Kurt Vonnegut that I think about often. And I mostly thought about it in the negative. I spent my childhood pretending to be more hurt than anyone else, I spent my teens pretending to be a tragedy of limitless potential, I spent my 20s pretending to be a barfly, all the while thinking I was something deeper and truer than my behaviour. Meanwhile I saw a lot of people pretending to be hardcore, pretending to loved drugs, pretending to be little criminals for the teenage social carte blanche and now they’re mostly in jail and some are dead.

But it can work in the positive too. Think about bravery: if you can pretend to be brave when you’re afraid then that’s what bravery actually is. If you can act tough when you’re endurance is waning then that’s what toughness is.

It’s works well with a quote from Jocko Willink that I like, he says if you want to be tougher, be tougher.

This ideas builds character rather than building you into a character, which is what a lot of people do with their aspirations. They try to act like what they want to be, without going through what it takes to actually be what they want to be.

To paraphrase Jocko – if you want to be smarter, be smarter – but you can’t just pretend to be smart. That’s make you look stupid. If you want to be smarter you have to get smarter. You can’t, to use a phrase which disgusts me, fake til you make it; and in fact, faking it will ensure you never make it.

So if your ideal self is smart you can’t think of yourself as smart, you have to think of yourself as learning.

I read about a study with children who received good grades on a test. Half of them were praised for being smart and half were praised for having studied hard. The grades of the children in the smart group went down in the future. They expected to know things without studying, they got scared to admit when they didn’t know things, the persona of smart had expectations they couldn’t meet because smart isn’t actually a thing.

I get told a lot that I’m smart and I reminded myself that I’m not smart, I’m insightful, I’m curious, I’m patient about exploring ideas. Those things are all processes to go through not just a label.

Time for a squash analogy: If I play against someone and beat them easily because it’s there second game I get labelled good at squash, if I then play Karim Gawad and get crushed I’m not a good squash player. Therefore that ‘good’ label meant nothing. It doesn’t quantify my ability in any way.

And so it is with people who want to be smart, who think they can intuit any situation. Even if they’re right it’s only a coincidence because it isn’t built on anything.

They live behind a one-way mirror in their own lives, seeing through their own persona and hoping you don’t see the real them behind it. They’re trying to superimpose an ideal personality onto themselves and it doesn’t quite work because it’s apparent when they don’t have the foundation.

These people are highly susceptible to advertising. They want to be connoisseurs and they have no palette so they buy whatever they’ve been given the impression is fancy. They want to have educated opinions so they mimic the strongest sounding opinions they’ve heard.

With that said I think there is still a place for pretending-as-growth.

I sometimes wear bright colours, or colours at all for that matter, and it changes how I know people see me. And rather than telling myself this isn’t me because I naturally love dressing in solid black I tell myself that it’s okay to be playful, that it’s okay to be slightly someone else.

I think there’s a terrible danger in thinking you’ve found your true self because it limits your own behaviour. If you think I’m not a sports person then you won’t play sports even on the day you get invited and think yeah, you know what, something inside me does want to go throw a football around.

We’re under no obligation to be the same person internally or ex on any given day. Sometimes just some anonymity can tell you who you wish you were. As a meditation go to a bar where no one knows you are and ask yourself – what do you want them to be seeing when they look at you? What story unfolds in your head when you’re free from being the character you’ve been?

Posted in Depression & Suicide, Pop Culture, Pragmatism

Be careful about narrating your life

There’s a tendency among creative, daydreamy people to narrate their lives to themselves as they live them.

When something good and interesting happens it feels like the start of something, the begin of a chapter, a turning point.

Which is never true and usually not helpful.

People prone to catastrophic thinking and unable to handle set backs are projecting everything forward like you would for an event in a movie.

And using a story arc as a metric for success is really bad.

In stories, anyone who loses 3 times is a loser period.

In stories everything gets to a final confrontation immediately after things look the worst. Whereas in life we tend to get better slowly, we lose at things for years before we pivot and get good at something else. No victorious final confrontations, just realizing you moved on.

In story things happen to the protagonist at first, something unexpected kicks off events. Even in biography we frame things that way. Springsteen dedicates 8 pages to the miracle of seeing Elvis and the Beatles on Sullivan and 2 paragraphs to how much he sucked when he first tried to play guitar. An entire chapter to the hopeful struggle of getting out to California and one page to coming home tail between legs.

We love potential, we love single turning points, people who find religion later in life tend to find it really strongly because they’re tired of slowly struggling to build an identity and religion gives them one ready-made.

I wrote a long time ago when I discovered the concept of resume virtues and eulogy virtues. We’ll I also think there’s narrative events and character events in one’s life.

In story an act change comes when a character makes an irreversible decision. Character is developed when a character is tested and doesn’t change.

We live in a time obsessed with meaning because everything is so clearly meaningless and we try to create meaning by making strong, irreversible choices. Everyone wants to quit their job and do Europe, do yoga, fuck someone half or twice their age, get tattooed, become a chef, and golf with Bagger Vance.

It fits our love of immediacy.

What we can’t fathom is that you can be living your story, becoming someone great, by adapting to flourish where you are. That’s what back ground characters do.

The thing is, you are a background character in life. When you die all you are is described. In fact, in life most of what you are is described because you are telling yourself the story of yourself 10 times more than anyone else is talking about you.

And background characters aren’t less. All the best characters are background. Good back ground characters have to grab you in 2 seconds and never fully explain themselves.

People think they don’t matter because they don’t arc, they don’t beginning middle end so we can love them but we won’t identify with them.

Everyone tricks themselves into wanting to be a good story instead of wanting to be a good person all along, we’re taught that goodness is something that comes after, comes at the end of trial.

But the turning points don’t really come, we don’t change by revelation, everyone falls off the wagon. And the story you’re telling yourself about the future starting now isn’t going to jive with the story you tell yourself about the past when you look back.

Keep a journal for a while. When you read it back years later it won’t tell a story, each entry will be written by a different self part way through a different story.

This will feel like everything is meaningless. Because it is. The plot points of life only make arbitrary sense looking backward, while the character tests of life are happening all around us and we’re failing them.

So stop trying to live the story of your life and start being the character you hope other people think you are, let the narration take care of itself.

Posted in Depression & Suicide, Pragmatism

A dream of a world with authentic advertising

Cheese is bad for you and it’s delicious. I think it’s important to say and instead of but because the statement ‘cheese is bad for you but it’s delicious’ causes you to focus on the word delicious and excuses and downplays the first half of the sentence.

That’s what I would think of as an authentic advertisement about cheese.

So it’s sucks there’s a billion dollar industry and a million livelihoods dependent on people eating cheese as much as possible, or at least buying as much cheese as possible. There’s a fucking cheese ‘council’ which is just a marketing gimmick designed to make people think there’s something official and governmenty about cheese.

I was in a drunken argument this year where I declared that laundry soap should look like poison and not be marketed half like candy. Of course I was met with the counter argument that it’s the consumer’s responsibility to keep poison away from children; and furthermore, that everything is the personal responsibility.

This notion seems so obvious that people don’t look into it’s underlying assumption, that advertising is like the weather – it simply exists uncontrolled and uncontrollable and wisdom is in adapting to it.

Which, considering the number of people killed every year by irresponsible, uniformed use of consumer products, is kind of like taking an eh, shrug, it is what it is approach to the Nazi’s in ’39.

From guns to porn to cleaning poisons to foods-that-are-technically-poisons we take it for granted that no one has your best interest at heart, in fact, we assume they’re out to fuck you and we let it slide because we’re each convinced we’re wise enough to overcome and get to look down on anyone who isn’t.

Which, firstly, seems off balance to me. Advertising pits millions of dollars, teams of top psychologists, the power of repetition, the force of celebrity, and social pressure, all against your lone will power and the insight no institution has encouraged you to have.

No institution except Concerned Children’s Advertisers, that is, with their beloved House Hippo and drug puppets.

Predatory advertisers want access to you from the minute you’re born and we as a culture sort of try to protect you from it (and sort of act like advertisers have a right to advertise to babies, which I also find insane) because we’re fully aware that it’s brainwashing; and yet, as adults we don’t do anything to protect ourselves from something we all consider a nuisance.

because they’ve already swung your parents and your parent’s parents the other plebs will criticize your integrity if you don’t believe yourself infallible in the face of this enemy.

This seems like a trite waste of will power on both sides. Before advertising even gets the consumer the business itself thrives on coercing employees into poisoning their own minds and motives. Imagine working for coca cola. Before convincing other people that useless poison sugar water is something they should drink multiple times a day, you’d have to convince yourself that they wanted to, that you wanted to. I can barely think of a stupider way to pigeonhole a human mind.

But everyone accepts that it’s just shit all the way down and we have to fend for ourselves because we believe nothing besides capitalism ‘works’ and therefore it gets to do whatever it wants.

The marketing landscape has changed a lot though, from the death of television and radio especially. You’ll notice you don’t see commercials for a lot of new companies. You don’t see TV spots for Uber. The anonymity of mass marketing became a liability. It became so ubiquitous that parody lost its impact and humour had to become completely absurd, and complete absurdity has the most diminishing returns of all humour.

And speaking of comedy I think it (the art of comedy) heralds the way forward. The comedy of the 90’s was all insincere, the jokes came from characters saying one thing while thinking another. That captures everyone on Fraser, Friends, and everyone on Seinfeld except Kramer who was the crazy oddball for acting inline with how he felt and what he wanted. Nowadays characters in comedy are all sincere weirdos. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is the sociopathic Seinfeld of our time and even they have to play the audience’s desire to see people actually feel things.

And since commerce imitates art advertising will have to somehow go that way too. Like a deodorant ad that said:

This is mostly phosphorus, it won’t make you happy, it’ll make you not stink. It won’t make you cool, you’re already cool in your own way.

That’s a free idea, someone in marketing take it.

Posted in Pop Culture