I’ve been feeling a bit anxious and insecure recently, so a writer friend, Dominica Phetteplace, recommended that I read Alan Watts’ The Wisdom Of Insecurity. And, unlike every single other time someone has recommended that I read a work of pop philosophy, I actually went ahead and did it, and I found it to be really helpful. I don’t know, maybe Watts is some kind of genius and is really able to make me see the world in a new light. Or maybe it just brought to my attention some things that I was finally ready to start thinking about. Probably a little of both.
The book is about how human beings are constantly haunted by the idea that things could go wrong. That even in the moments when we’re most happy (especially in those moments?) we think about the ways that our happiness could be taken away from us. But anxiety over losing something isn’t the bad thing necessarily. Or, rather, it’s not the worst thing. Rather, the real destroyer of happiness are the things that we do in order to alleviate that anxiety. Because each time we think about losing our happiness, the idea is so repulsive that we instinctively move towards familiar sources of comfort: we pursue cheap pleasures or we convince ourselves that it won’t happen or we ruminate endlessly in order to tease out every single detail of the imagined scenario and account for each contingency.
And that rang true to me. Because every time I feel anxious or depressed, it’s so unsettling that I’m like, “I need to feel better immediately!” and then I do one or more things that sometimes makes me happy. And if it does make me happy, then it’s only for a second. And if it doesn’t make me happy, then I feel even worse than before. And I’m not talking about drinking or binge-eating or watching mindless television. Writing and reading are the two things in my life that are the least guilty of pleasures. But I think that sometimes writing and reading can be the wrong thing to do. When I am writing out of anxiety and out of a compulsive desire to chase the high that accompanies creation, then that doesn’t feel good and that’s not a good use of my time or inspiration. And some of my most hopeless and desperate times have been the hours I’ve spent picking up and putting down books and sifting through them relentlessly in order to find the one book that maybe might make me feel better.
Watts’ book is about avoiding these easy fall-backs and attempting, in some way, to make peace with your insecurity.
Anyway, long story short, reading this book has given me a new mantra. For the past few weeks, whenever I think about something bad that might possibly happen, I just say, “Yep, that could happen.” And whenever I try and think about what I’d do if the bad thing actually came to pass, I just say, “I dunno.”
And that’s it.
I’ve been saying these things to myself maybe twenty or thirty times per day. And they help. It’s not that I’ve lost my insecurity. I still find myself needing to say “Yep, that could happen” just as many times now as I did a month ago. But at least the mantras allow me to cut off that cycle in which I seek pleasure and then become even more bereft when I can’t find it. Instead, I’m just like, “Yep, nothing I can do about this insecurity. This anxiety is real. It’s about a real thing that could happen. And there’s nothing I can do to change or ignore that reality.”
And just being able to accept that is, somehow, enough.
This new character-centered approach that I’m trying out seems like a really powerful way of structuring stories, and it’s allowing me to rethink all kinds of ideas that I’d previously shelved as unworkable (before, I always used to get a third of the way through the idea and then say, “Ugh, but what is there for the character to do?” Now I feel like I have a better sense of the answer. Instead of the plot being just about the character doing things, it can be a mix of them doing stuff and stuff happening to them, because the real motion that matters is the internal motion: what’s happening inside the character.
It’s even allowing me to write core genre-type material that I thought I could never do again. The story I’m working on right now is a secondary-world fantasy. It takes place on a mountain-type purgatory (think of the topography of The Divine Comedy) that’s full of metallic trees and robot-demons and strands of magical energy, and none of it really feels unnatural to write.
It turns out that the thing that I really objected to about the SF that I was writing was that I’d started to feel like a lot of it was pointless motion, people running around and blasting each other with lasers and swinging swords without anything really happening on a human level.
But I don’t quite have that problem anymore. Now, whenever I start to get that wheels-spinning feeling, I just go back to “what does this character reveal about the character’s psychological journey?”
On some level, it feels reductive to reduce a novel to psychological movements, because it doesn’t seem like that’s enough. Obviously there’s more going on than just that. But the psychological movement provides a structure; it’s something to ground the narrative. It gives me a reason for including some scenes and excluding other ones.
But I still don’t really feel like I can say that the writing is going ‘well.’ This is a pretty complex book, and it could (and probably will) fall apart at a moment’s notice. In fact, I suspect that’ll happen. I don’t necessarily feel as firmly grounded inside the character as I could. Unlike a lot of writers, I listen to that internal voice that says “Stop writing this shit” because I’ve found that when I ignore it, then what I produce is, well, shit.
Spent three hours in it yesterday, interviewing new roommate candidates (most of whom seemed great. I have no idea why people make such a big production out of finding housemates in the Bay Area), and I absolutely love the apartment. It is a magical place. Here is a picture.
You’re not a real Silicon Valley town unless some startup has laid claim to you and used metonymy to make your name synonymous with its brand. You’ve got Apple in Cupertino; Facebook in Menlo Park; Pixar in Emeryville; etc.
Anyway, the company that owns Mountain View is Google.
Today, I was walking around my aunt’s neighborhood in Mountain View when I found a little trail and followed it north of the highway. And then I slowly started coming upon buildings that were completely ordinary and looked just like every other office building in the Peninsula and the South Bay. The only thing that was weird about them was that there were these rainbow-colored bikes everywhere. And for some reason, the bikes weren’t locked…
I immediately had an impulse to steal one of the bikes. But I didn’t. Because I am a law-abiding citizen.
Anyway, longstoryshort, the Google campus is full of free bikes. It also has a tiny swimming pool that I assume has some kind of current or something so that you can swim in it while staying in the same place. And that was the only interesting thing that I saw. Other than that, it just looked like a massive office park. Physically speaking, there was really nothing special about it. I feel like I’ve heard so much yammering about how these campuses are amazing paradises, but at least architecturally speaking, they are not. The World Bank complex in DC, where I used to work, was a much cooler looking place. It was a ten-story building with a massive internal atrium that went all the way to the top, so the entire building was very open and airy. In fact, if you’re talking about impressive office buildings, I feel like the government has the private sector beat, because all of our nation’s most celebrated buildings–the White House, the Pentagon, the Capitol–are basically government office buildings.
I guess skyscrapers are something else, though. It’s been years since I’ve been inside a really tall skyscraper, but I imagine that those are somewhat cool. Still, the Googleplex was not nearly as cool as a really tall skyscraper (although I learned today, from Wikipedia, that Google also owns Manhattan’s third-largest office building, so there is that).
Still, there was something weirdly impressive about it. I did enjoy walking amongst all the buildings and all thin and moderately-attractive young people who seemed to be so at ease and sure of their place in the world. It was like a college that only had graduate students. And it was strange to reflect that Google was only founded in 1998 and only moved to Mountain View in 2004. All of this–everything I was seeing–was only ten years old.
There are two blog posts that I want to do my best to avoid, so I’m going to post about plastic surgery
I’m a longtime reader of blogs, and there are two surefire signs that a blog is done. The first is when the writer is constantly posting about how they’re sorry it’s been so long since they’ve posted. Notice, it’s not actually a problem to take a gap of weeks or even months between posts. What’s a problem is when all you can talk about is the gap. Because that means that even when you’re present, you’re not really present.
Secondly, I don’t ever want to post about how I’m having trouble thinking about something to write about. Because that’s also just spinning wheels. I’d rather post about something really silly or trivial than post about that.
Luckily, I have my trust fall-back when writing blog posts. Actually, I have two fallbacks. The first is to write about books. Which I can’t do, because I’ve been reading the same book for weeks. Secondly, I just overshare like crazy.
For instance, yesterday I was talking with a friend about what plastic surgeries we’re thinking about getting done. This is not a speculative conversation. We’re both seriously considering these various procedures. For me, I was saying that I wouldn’t be averse to getting my loose skin taken in surgically once my weight loss was done-ish. Because you know what? It does kind of sag. And it is not the best. I have no idea how much that costs, but I think I could maybe afford it within a few years.
Secondly, if there was a surgery that really restored your hair, I would be so on top of that! Seriously, I’d spend a lot of money to have hair. Unfortunately, all the existing treatments are a bit unsatisfactory, so I guess I’ll just keep shaving my head. But hair. My god, the guy who figures out how to really give you back your hair will be so wealthy.
I guess I’d also consider getting my eyes fixed. I have super astigmatism, so regular lasik wouldn’t do it. But there are procedures that’d take care of me. I mean, contact lenses are okay, but they’re a bit of a hassle. And I feel like glasses make me look like a goober.
Okay, gonna begin here with a trigger warning for people who’re triggered by weight loss and diet and stuff. You all should not read any further.
Anyways, via Ampersand I found the following question posted to “Dear Polly.” It’s about a woman who wasn’t attracted a man because he was overweight, but then when he lost lots of weight, she was attracted to him, and then he has sex with her and subsequently blows her off in an emotional confrontation where he calls her shallow.
But after a conversation of vague, ambiguous answers, I finally blurted out everything that I was feeling. I wanted him, and I felt like he was punishing me for not being interested in him before. He started laughing, then called me shallow. Saying that he could never date me because he “would have to get on a scale every morning” to determine if he was worthy of me. That his personality had not changed, and that a small change in physical appearance shouldn’t take my interest level from 0 to 100. He then went into lawyer mode, showing me Facebook posts from his heavy days and now; the same clever Facebook status that had gotten 30 likes when he was overweight got over 100 now that he was thin. He then became upset, near tears even, and told me that the saddest part of losing weight was that people finally complimented him on qualities he’d always had.
Now I’m not going to say that either party comes off looking good in this situation. Both the woman and the man come off as heartless and unempathetic. However, I think that both parties are also really understandable. Obviously, as someone who’s lost a considerable amount of weight, I have at times felt like that man. I mean, it sucks to be with people who you know would not have found you attractive before. And I’ve also fantasized about putting paid to the kind of person who would have rejected me before.
But I also sympathize with the woman. I am like every other human being in the world. I weed out potential romantic partners on the basis of looks. And if you’re not attracted to a guy, then you can’t be with him. And if his looks change, but all his other great qualities remain the same, then it makes sense that you’d want to be with him.
I mean, I think Polly nails it in her answer. What’s happening in this story is that a lifetime of feeling-shitty-about-himself is leaching out of that man’s system and poisoning his relationships with other people. And the reason that the woman feels so bad about this, instead of laughing it off as just one of those things, is that she’s also got hangups about her looks. She doesn’t want her looks to be a factor in her loves, so she’s upset at being reminded that that’s just not how things are.
Anyway, the reason that I posted about this story is that this the weight loss fantasy. This is what people dream about. They hope that everyone will regard them differently and that they’ll be more beloved in every possible social situation.
But I think that the reality of weight loss for most people (including myself) is that you get to the end, and you’re like…”That’s it?”
Because the truth is that I am not a supermodel. I’ll never have six-pack abs (due to loose skin, that’s literally impossible for me). And I’ll always be myopic and balding. In fact, when I look in the mirror, I often perceive little-to-no difference between how I look now and how I looked when I was 110 pounds heavier.
And as far as I can tell, people haven’t really treated me differently. I mean, I am much more popular, both in person and in social media, than I was three years ago. But that’s a result of so many things (including some very conscious changes in how I manage my social and social media lives), that I’d have a hard time attributing it entirely to the weight loss.
I have no doubt that being thinner makes it easier to interact with people, particularly strangers, and that it brings me opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. But…it’s not a world of difference. Let’s call it maybe 10-20% improvement.
And, you know, that’s pretty much it. That’s what happens when you lose weight (at least as a man–I’ve no doubt that it’s very different for women).
Oh, I am able to wear t-shirts now. I do like that. Before, t-shirts were a no-go because their shapeless cut is no good if you have chest or stomach fat. Nowadays I even wear the free t-shirts that are given to me by various organizations. Oh my god, I can even wear t-shirts from the thrift store. That’s something, I guess.
Got so dull that I engaged in volunteer work today. Yes, I volunteered at an anti-gentification non-profit. I was going to drive people to a city council meeting, but then it turned out that they didn’t need any extra cars, so I just took their new volunteer orientation instead. I wouldn’t mention it, except that helping people in any capacity (particularly political activism) is so out of character for me that it deserves mention. But gentrification appears to be the hot-button topic that people care about in the Bay Area nowadays, so what the heck?
At the initial meeting for this organization (at least I think it was for this organization…I am really not sure how all these nonprofits are interconnected), someone asked me why I was there, and I said, “Well, my friend invited me, and I didn’t have anything to do today” (It was Sunday night), and she laughed and said, “That’s funny. You’re funny.”
But I wasn’t joking. I’ve reached a stage in my life where I am doing atypical things just to combat boredom.
Speaking of gentrification, I just sealed the deal on an apartment in Berkeley. It is an amazing apartment. I am already in love with it. I am sure that over the next few years I will slowly grow to disdain it, but for now I am still in the honeymoon period.
I’m also slowly making my way through a new novel. I refuse to get excited about it, though. So many other books have collapsed on me that I’m not gonna believe this one is gonna get finished until I’m at least halfway through.
Despite the overall tone of this blog post, life is pretty good. I’m really glad to be back here in the Bay. It’s a strange place. Aside from college, I’ve really only lived here for eighteen months, but I feel really at home here. And I’ve gotten a pretty panoramic view of it over these past three months: I spent a month in Oakland; six weeks in SF; and now I’m on my second week in Mountain View (for those not in the know, SF and Oakland are about fifteen miles apart, and Mountain View is forty miles from both of them).
I don’t have the words to describe how lazy I’m feeling today, so instead of writing a post, I’m just going to copy and paste the text of an email that I just sent to a writer friend (with maybe a few elaborations)
A Meredithian plot is not a temple to the tragic or even to the comic Muse, but rather resembles a series of kiosks most artfully placed among wooded slopes, which his people reach by their own impetus, and from which they emerge with altered aspect. Incident springs out of character, and having occurred it alters that character. People and events are closely connected, and he does it by means of these contrivances.*
Unless I’m very mistaken, I’ve just found a beautiful new apartment in North Berkeley. It is ungodly expensive (I won’t even say a number, for fear of shocking you), but it’s still a good price for the SF Bay Area. Also, I get to live in Berkeley, which is a town that I love. Berkeley occupies a strange place in the imagination of the young people who live in the East Bay. People think of it as really bourgeois and dull for some reason? I don’t know.
In keeping with my epiphany of a few days ago, I spent today mapping out the plots of two novels where not very much happens: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P and The Spectacular Now. It was an interesting exercise. In both novels, you have a protagonist who needs to do one thing in order to get his life in order. And in each novel, the narrator flirts with doing that thing, getting closer and then further, closer and further. In both novels, the actual events are less important than what’s going on in the narrator’s mind. I mean, there are events, but they’re mainly important for the way that they change the narrator. They’re not important in and of themselves. This is particularly hilarious in The Spectacular Now, where the narrator does awful stuff that you think is gonna irreparably damage his relationship with the female romantic lead…but each time she forgives him almost instantly. She’s a doormat, but in her case the behavior is so dangerous that it doesn’t even seem antifeminist. Instead, it seems like the book is just saying something–something very true–about certain kinds of relationships.
Anyway, it remains to be seen whether I’ll actually be able to apply this knowledge. I am germinating an idea, but I don’t know. I just don’t know. So few of my ideas manage to survive contact with the page.