box of Jack

Dear Inner Critic

21:32 PDT - September 1st, 2014

The first writing challenge is to write a letter to your inner critic and fire them… What kind of bullshit is that?

My inner critic is the reason that I completely scrapped the first draft to this. I wanted to frame the letter as one of a survivor. I lived through the worst parts of my life with my inner critic as a very real crutch and now I’ve grown beyond it. Empowering! Free!

I got to 300 words before I wanted to burn my computer down.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever shut off the inner critic. I like to think I’m much more of an editor than a writer. Unbridled creativity is terrifying. How do people decide they’re going to sit down and will something new into existence? How do you put pen to paper without first knowing exactly what is going to appear? It’s so much easier to fit a mold and be something familiar.

I like to be a support person. I’d like to take others’ work and polish off the hard edges and uneven surfaces. Sometimes, the only reason I create anything is so that I can edit and refine it.

How does one fire their inner critic? How do you tell your internal tastemaker to go away? Maybe others can do that but it’s a concept that’s entirely foreign to me. You can’t just cut that piece off and start slamming away at the keyboard. It would be chaos! The beginning of end times. If we all started doing exactly what we want then nothing productive would get done.

In spite of all of this, I have been learning to enjoy the journey lately rather than fret about the destination. There have been a few esoteric programming projects that I started and promptly dropped without feeling an ounce of guilt.

One was a node.js web site that would ask you for your current weight and your target weight and then show a calendar-style interface and you could cross off each milestone as you hit it. For a future version, I thought it would be fun to combine those features with a stock tracker where you’d note down a purchase (real or hypothetical) and it would track how much you’d make if you sold it right this instant.

Why combine these features? Because in bodybuilding circles, they like to refer to bulking up as “gainz” and, in the finance world, the profit you stand to make if you sold today is called “unrealized gain”. I thought it would be a fun piece of worldplay.

The other app idea was an iOS app written in Swift. I’ve been a (very) heavy tumblr user recently but I’ve not been good about tagging things and the mobile interface is not very good for tagging. So I thought I’d write a specialized tagging client that made it easy to tag multiple posts in Tumblr and even surface posts that have zero tags. I would call it “Tag Daddy” and it would have dumb dad fashion for graphics and if it ever got popular, people would have to cringe at the awful name and how all the buttons either say “Yes, daddy” or “No, daddy”. I want to subject people to this.

I don’t look back on these two scrapped codebases as regrets. I enjoyed thinking about them and I learned a little bit of code in the process. I’m a better programmer for doing it, despite these apps having very little value. If I had ever “shipped” them, they would have been like telling a joke to an empty room.

Maybe that’s what I need to do with my writing. Make peace with the idea of telling jokes to an empty room but feeling secure that I’ll walk out of that room a slightly wiser person for the experience.

Personal Space

17:11 PDT - August 17th, 2014

When I was 19, my friends and I were out at a club. It was a pretense to get closer to my crush, to drink and dance with her. There was a lull in the evening as we sat around the quiet lobby, the bass now a dull throbbing memory in our ears. I’d settled down on a low slung lounge chair and doubted whether night clubs were something I could really ever enjoy.

My crush sifted her way through the crowd and, seeing no empty chairs, she slumped down next to me. I was excited to sit so close to her.

She stared into the middle distance. “Someone just grabbed my butt.”

“What? Like just now?” Sickeningly, I was jealous. I hadn’t gone anywhere near her butt and it was something that crossed my mind often.

“I was walking off the dance floor and someone just grabbed me. I turned around and tried to slap him but it was too crowded.”

I… laughed. I cooed at her and asked if she was ok now. She could be such a cartoon character. I might have even asked if she wanted a hug, preoccupied with how I could subtly feel her body next to mine. She brushed me off and decided to talk to someone who actually gave a shit about her.

When I was 20, I was catching the train home alone. It was peak hour and the trains were predictably delayed and crowded. I stood to the side of the doorway, trying to carve out a pocket of space. The next load of passengers boarded and personal bubbles were dispensed with. Taller people balanced themselves with one hand against the ceiling of the train car. Others adjusted their stance and found ways to lean against the crowd, with a polite shoulder and an apologetic smile.

Inside my bubble was a balding businessman, sweaty in his grey suit and functional tie. His left hand reached past me and gripped a steel pole. His right hand was at his side, wrapped tight around a binder full of papers. Like good commuters, we avoided eye contact. My eyes remained locked on the fast-moving scenery outside the window.

The train neared its next stop and his weight shifted forward. I distinctly felt the hard plastic binder press against my dick. I didn’t shift my gaze, I didn’t say anything. I made myself take up as little space as possible, pressing my body hard against the little corner of doorway, wishing I could shrink down into a tiny insect.

The brakes eased up, the man and his binder shifted back. I took the opportunity to subtly turn away from him and focus even harder on the outside world.

As the shock faded, I told myself this was an accident. Caused by a very oblivious and ignorant person. I’m 99% convinced it was. Anger replaced the shock; my breath grew shallow and my hands clenched into impotent little fists. My teeth mashed together and my vision started to blur. I fantasized about the depths of shame and physical pain I could inflict. I reasoned that I’m not an angry person but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t really hurt someone.

I never saw the man’s face. He got off the train before I did. Years later, I can still recall that anger and rage even if it is just a dull throb of what it was at the time. But despite the time and distance, I can’t see a way to laugh about it.

Learning Las Vegas

00:48 PDT - July 17th, 2014

I just got back from my fourth trip I’ve ever made to Las Vegas.

I think I’m starting to understand how to have fun in Vegas:

  1. Go with a group people that know exactly what they want to get out of Vegas (gambling, drinking, clubbing, shows, strippers, etc.)
  2. Spend time and a lot of money to accomplish that
  3. Do not stay for longer than the weekend

This most recent trip was a surprise bachelor party and it was well-organized. We used Airbnb to get a suite for 8 people at a steal; centrally located on the strip. We secured a contact in advance to help us get a small discount at the club and help us skip the line. We planned ahead for the embarrassing challenges that the bachelor had to do. And when I say “we”, I mean the best man did everything. I just showed up, had fun, and paid my fair share. (We used a cool app to track all the costs and arrange settlement.)

The Need Not to Know Yourself

15:57 PDT - June 29th, 2014

Via kottke, Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst that was interviewed for The Paris Review. He had some really cool things to say about “knowing yourself”:

PHILLIPS: Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself. And these two things–

INTERVIEWER: The need not to know yourself?

PHILLIPS: The need not to know yourself. Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way…

I was a child psychotherapist for most of my professional life. One of the things that is interesting about children is how much appetite they have. How much appetite they have–but also how conflicted they can be about their appetites. Anybody who’s got young children, or has had them, or was once a young child, will remember that children are incredibly picky about their food. They can go through periods where they will only have an orange peeled in a certain way. Or milk in a certain cup.

INTERVIEWER: And what does that mean?

PHILLIPS: Well, it means different things for different children. One of the things it means is there’s something very frightening about one’s appetite. So that one is trying to contain a voraciousness in a very specific, limiting, narrowed way. It’s as though, were the child not to have the milk in that cup, it would be a catastrophe. And the child is right. It would be a catastrophe, because that specific way, that habit, contains what is felt to be a very fearful appetite. An appetite is fearful because it connects you with the world in very unpredictable ways. Winnicott says somewhere that health is much more difficult to deal with than disease. And he’s right, I think, in the sense that everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.

We all have self-cures for strong feeling. Then the self-cure becomes a problem, in the obvious sense that the problem of the alcoholic is not alcohol but sobriety. Drinking becomes a problem, but actually the problem is what’s being cured by the alcohol. By the time we’re adults, we’ve all become alcoholics. That’s to say, we’ve all evolved ways of deadening certain feelings and thoughts. One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense–as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost.

This hits home for me because I’m convinced that I “know myself”. I’m shy. I’m afraid of approaching people. I’m bad at making new friends. I suck at sports. I hate to fail. I am not good at smiling. Etc.

Yes, there are a lot of great things to “know” about myself. I know I can dress well, I know I’m good at computers, I know my friends love me. But before I can know something new and good about myself, there has to be a space to not know. A period where I can simply be trying something with no definitive statement about me as a person. A time when I can say, “I don’t know if I’m good at this. I’ll find out later.”

The self-cure stuff reminds me a lot of procrastination. We create other issues to avoid thinking about the one we really should. Sometimes, these new issues become their own problem to run away from.

I’ve had some success in the past few months with procrastination by sitting down and willing my mind for quiet. Distraction comforts me, multitasking is a bad habit of mine. Lately, I’ve been asking myself to sit quietly for a few brief seconds and asking about what I really want. My gut tells me I should buy some new video games, but the few seconds of quiet tells me I should continue on that project I started. My gut says I should open a bag of chips, my quiet tells me I need to drink more water.

I’ve not been perfect about this but I’ve done it often enough that I feel like I’m started to develop a sense of discipline around it. I think as long as I keep exercising this muscle, it will stick around.

Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence

17:45 PDT - June 23rd, 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot since listening to Lana Del Rey’s new album, Ultraviolence. There’s a lot to unpack here just culturally and artistically. I won’t say that this album is a must-listen but I will say it’s actually pretty good at achieving what it set out to do.

Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence

Pitchfork’s review sums up my feelings perfectly.

Where her last full-length, the frequently terrible Born to Die, tried on different moods and looked at her character from a few angles, Ultraviolence finds one feeling—a seedy, desperate, hyper-romanticized sense of isolation and loss—and blows it up to drive-in screen proportions, saturating the color riding the blue crest of sadness for the better part of an hour.

To me, her first album sounds like a lounge singer trying on different styles and singing songs that aren’t her own. It swings wildly through different cliches and kind of just ends. Ultraviolence is all about how Lana has picked her favorite Instagram filter and she’s dedicated 60 minutes of love songs to it. It still feels like she’s pretending to be someone else but now she’s committed.

Whether or not you want to take this particular ride will largely depend on how much stock you put in “authenticity,” your tolerance for Del Rey’s vocal tics, and your reflexive response to her lyrics.

I think this the biggest point here. She is a grown woman but adopts a persona of a tragic flower child caught in abusive relationships where she can’t help but be utterly devoted to him. If you hate that concept or you hate that she’s not being honest, you’ll hate her music.

I had a friend once who had a habit of getting into terrible relationships with really unsuitable older men who treated her like dirt. No surprise, I introduced her to Lana Del Rey’s music and she fucking loved it.

They’re songs that would make no sense if anyone else sang them. In this way, and a few others, she draws inspiration from rap music, broadcasting her obsessions and forcing you to engage with the persona first and the content of the songs second.

This is true on so many levels; I feel the same way towards her music as I do towards the rap music I listen to. The lyrics are often nonsense and sometimes they’re repetitive nonsense but the evocative instrumentals and dramatic vocal tricks suck me in.

What I really want is someone to come along and do this way better than her. (That might actually be the 60s singers that she idolizes and tries to embody, I haven’t listened to enough music to say for sure.) But I’d love to see more competition in this genre of faux-vintage music, to evoke that nostalgia for tragic American pop culture but to do it in a way that doesn’t glamorize self-harm and abusive relationships.

And that is an honest-to-god fear I have about listening to Ultraviolence. Is that I might enjoy it so much that I’ll think there’s something incredibly cool about being in a terrible relationship or having a low opinion about myself. I’d like to leave that phase of my life behind me.