Things left unwritten, a follow-up
The detritus of unpublished writing, or, excerpts from posts I never published
Last year around this time, I wrote in a post called Things left unwritten:
What remains, as I turn forty, feels mainly like a choice: what is left to be done vs. what is left to give up. Sometimes, when I feel as if I should write or publish but do not have a particular topic in mind, I go to my Substack and look at the list of drafts started but not finished. The list grows longer and longer… There are thousands of words still unpublished waiting in those drafts. Ideas to be developed. Or abandoned.
Indeed, this past year the list did grow longer. My list of Substack drafts is a placeholder for ideas undeveloped, pieces half-written. I also have a little notebook that I’ve kept for nearly a decade, in which I jot ideas offline: business plans, life goals, ideas for the future, paths I might pursue. To look back over these two records of thought is to have a window into the historical detritus of my scattered thinking.
Today, I want to clean up that list.
But, like the historian I was trained to be in undergrad, I’m not inclined to simply hit delete. Instead, I want to share a record of some of these half-baked ideas. After all, the unpublished ideas were also important to the development of the pieces I did ultimately publish. Unfinished writing is still writing, and writing is thinking.
I admire a lot of great writing, but it’s easy to forget that a lot of work was scrapped before the good stuff was published. Perhaps this post is some small corrective to the idea that my writing is, as one family member below remarked, “seemingly effortless.” I assure you, it is not.
So, here in chronological order are some of the pieces I never finished, offered as both a window for you, dear reader, and a purging for me.
Are we living in the matrix? David Hume edition
In response to one of my very first posts, a friend wrote me an email:
A phrase that always sticks with me is: “You make the decision or the decision is made for you.”
Do we have free will? Do any of the choices we make change the direction we are going? If you quit, would you have felt better than getting laid off, even though it’s a similar end result?
Eckhart Tolle has a saying to paraphrase “If you are wondering why you are in this situation it’s because you are meant to be in it” You were always going to face this choice, the story just brought it to you before you could decide to go to it.
The answer is, no, we don't have free will.
But it sure feels like we do, and maybe that's what actually matters :)
I tend not to explain things away as Tolle does, that whatever happens is what was meant to happen. Regardless of the truth of the matter (e.g., maybe there is a benevolent God playing out his/her plan for me), I proceed as if I am in control of my own decisions. I proceed as if I have free will, even if I really don’t.
Still, I reserve the thought that we are all just brains in a box receiving inputs and that we are in fact all in a giant matrix of some kind. David Hume hypothesized as much long before Neo woke up from the Matrix.
Making decisions amid uncertainty
Covid presents a genuine moment of uncertainty, combined with the need to make potentially very consequential decisions about your life.
We react to uncertainty by grasping for certainty: where are the authorities we can trust? Is it a scientist, an institution, a politician? When it seems no one knows what’s going on, it’s tempting to just pick an authority and trust that.
More anxiety. Search for control, baking, home renovation—all are our search for certainty: a recipe is comforting. If I do this, that will happen.
Unfortunately, there is no recipe for what to do now. College? No recipe. Going to buy groceries? Lots of uncertainty. Do I need to disinfect groceries? Don’t know.
There are two things you always have to keep in mind though, and one is often forgotten amid the other. Thing #1 is what are the chances of something happening? E.g., what are the chances I catch covid if I go on a hike with a friend? But thing #2 is this: how sure am I of that percentage?
Custody agreements during global pandemics
Much of my thinking the past few weeks has been dominated by my kid’s custody schedule, or rather, lack thereof. As I was on my way to DC for a job interview, Maryland announced it was closing schools for two weeks, so his mother and I decided I would pick him up and take him back to New Hampshire for the first week. Then, after I got back to New Hampshire, my son’s school announced it was closing through the end of Spring break, April 14th. This meant it made sense to keep my son a while longer.
Yet with each day came new news that suggested schools would be closed even longer, and the longer schools are closed the more it made sense to hold on to my kid as we waited out the virus. At the same time, the possibility of state- and nationwide shelter-in-place orders seemed to grow with each hour, such that I might be prohibited from leaving my house if only to return my kid to his mom.
As the week came to an end, she told me she was scared he might be trapped here in New Hampshire. And I of course had the same fear in reverse: if I brought him back to Maryland, and shelter-in-place orders came down, he would be trapped there, and meanwhile, he would be out of school the whole time.
There really is no playbook for how two parents who are separated and co-parenting are supposed to deal with a global pandemic.
The goal is to split time, but with as little travel as possible, and meanwhile, we would simply have to trade off worrying that our son would get stuck in the other parent’s house for months on end as a killer virus spread across the country and the healthcare system collapsed.
The good of humanity; the rot of institutions
Scrolling through the headlines and social media and the rest of the interwebs I can see all the good that is being done: the crowd-sourced coronavirus tech handbook, indexed and footnoted with more information than I could consume in a year; the Plymouth Area Democrats’ mutual aid sheet, where you can volunteer to help those in the surrounding Pemi-Baker valley; the friend on Facebook who offers to deliver food for her neighbors; my kid’s school sending out knitting patterns for parents to produce homemade masks; the governor asking those who can to go donate blood to alleviate a nationwide shortage.
Humanity is mostly good when we’re not trying to destroy the planet or each other. It’s our institutions that are in a state of decay, like a colossal wreck. They have been rotting for some time. Those invented entities which are meant to perform tasks larger than the individual, designed to build things too big for any one person, or tribe, to build on their own, or, in times of crisis, do the hard work of governing a nation. These invented entities, to which we have given the boring and maligned word of institutions, are simply not up to it.
How to write about yourself
If you came here looking for memoir, go by read Mary Karr.
Seriously, write your truth. Don't imitate. Don't sell. Passion can't be faked.
What the pandemic is teaching me
Perhaps if there is a thing that the pandemic is teaching me, it is that I am, after all, a writer. It’s just not in the romantic sense. I do not sit alone in a room, hunched, furiously pounding onto my Olivetti typewriter, a cigarette burning itself down in an ashtray beside me, a single beam of light illuminating the scene as a dissonant piano score plays in the background.
No, that is not it at all. The Olivetti is where it has been since I bought it off eBay, sitting inoperable in its case on my bookshelf awaiting repair. I don’t smoke, and rather than piano, there is the sound of the kids on the Playstation, home from school, and only tangentially conscious of the scale of what is going on. There is no internal muse, nor any sudden bursts of inspiration. There is only my self-chastising for not sitting down to write more often, as any working journalist must now do in order to bring us the day’s coronavirus news.
Two days ago I came across this on Twitter:
I am a writer in the sense that I can pull it together, sit down, and write. To the print reporters to whom I referred in the Tweet, the ones reporting and writing every day on what is going on, I say that you are in the arena, spending your time on a “worthy cause” if ever there was one. The same to the doctors and the nurses and the farmers and, in this crisis, the food delivery drivers and the ones in the grocery stores restocking the shelves.
There is ample purpose to be found in the world right now if you look for it and are willing to work. I cannot sew masks, nor can I intubate patients. I’m a bad community organizer, and my one acre of land in New Hampshire is yet far from being a working farm.
But I can write.
I think we will find, when this is all over, that at least we have a better sense of what is important to us, which is a very easy thing indeed to forget when times are good and the stock market is up and the paychecks arrive regularly in our white collar bank accounts and the biggest argument of the day is over whether the Super Bowl half-time show was too racy. Ah, good times. They are over, at least for a while.
Substitutes for religion
First, I will argue we desperately need a substitute for religion.
The cult of work: meaning, purpose, and identity all come from your job
Crossfit: community, mission, principles.
The fundamental idea of science is to see if something is True by seeing if it is replicable and/or predictive, as well as to revise our beliefs about Truth when new evidence comes along.
Religion simply does not have these qualities. Few things can be proven because to prove something would mean capital T, which is a VERY high bar. Darwin’s theory of evolution is just that—a theory. It hasn’t been proven in any sense, because imagine what kind of million-year experiment one would need to run in order to do that. But it is predictive and explanatory of what we can observe in a way that no other explanations can, religious or otherwise.
Religious small t truths, meanwhile have a ridiculously low bar: if an ancient book says it, or in some cases, if a high-up enough clergyperson says it, then it it is true. That’s hardly the bar I’m looking to clear in my life.
But Russell, all you progressive relativistic cross-sectional identitarians out there may be thinking, we each have our own truth. How can you claim that there is one, big Truth out there, that is the same for everyone?
To which I say: if the Truth is relative, show me with evidence. Develop an experiment that demonstrates that I am observing a square whereas you are observing a circle, and then demonstrate that each of those observations is in fact reality, and not just one of us being on psychedelics. Show me evidence that in my world, e=mc squared, but in your world, e equals something else.
To claim that truth is relative to the individual says more about the individual’s gigantic ego than it says about Truth. To suggest that each of us have our own “reality” is simply to say that we perceive what our brain gives us to perceive. It does not say anything about the Truth of the world outside your perception.
In some sense, we are all just living in the bubble of our own perception. There is nothing but consciousness and its contents, as Sam Harris would say. And still, I want to know what is outside our consciousness. If we are all just brains in a jar, unable to distinguish between the electrical signals our brain is generating for us and the reality of what is really going on inside us, fine: I want to know what is outside the jar. If we are all plugged into the Matrix, fine: I want to be woken up.
Of course, not everyone does want to be woken up. There are many who wouldn’t want to live in the hellscape post-apocalyptic reality that may exist outside the jar — anyone remember this moment from right after Neo wakes up in the “real world”?
I do. It was freaking terrifying when I first saw it in the theatre in high school. And, in a way, exhilarating. One of the many joys of that 1999 Keanu Reeves film is grappling with the suggestion not just that our perceived reality may be completely different from the Truth, but that waking up to discover that, no matter the horror, no matter the difficulty, may actually be empowering.
Many of us humans would have preferred to stay in the dream world. Not me.
Revising priors on Coronavirus
One thing I learned today:
Society will be changed, perhaps different. But we’ll be ok.
Um… I’m not sure about that. Food shortages, anyone? My propane didn’t show up today. It’s cool, I’ve got backups for cooking and heat, but others don’t.
What happens to a society when everything goes wrong all at once? We really don’t know. A security guard was shot outside a Dollar store because he told a customer to put on a mask.
The point of social distance is to “flatten the curve.”
But… it doesn’t appear that hospitalization significantly helps save lives. We’ve gotta talk about the marginal benefits, at best.
Keeping the places where people congregate closed is the safest course of action.
Well… not if it self-defeats because it pushes people into other areas. The benefits of open air, sunlight, and exercise are completely known; the benefits of social isolation are not known, but increasingly seem likely to have massive consequences (increased suicides, deaths by stroke, heart attack from people staying home, mental health crisis worsening, etc.)
The virus is both less deadly than we thought, AND more contagious. Meaning measures we thought would stop it, likely won’t. This means we need to revise all our priors, and yes: become comfortable with the idea that this will only end in global herd immunity.
Notes from a Zoom parent night for remote school
What a comedy of errors.
The leader of the call, my child’s teacher, suddenly froze and dropped off the call. Another parent took a phone call during the zoom and didn’t mute herself. “No, tell me YOUR phone number,” she shouted repeatedly from off-camera.
“We’ll have social bumps this year,” she said, in the understatement of the school year. And then she proceeded to describe to us the particular stage of social development our kids will go through this year.
“Again, this is a part we haven’t completely sorted out.”
Friends were in touch with friends. But the class was very far apart from each other.
What is your legacy?
The first season of the Netflix show Street Food is a masterclass in benevolent misdirection. You go into it thinking you’re watching a show about food. But really you’re watching a show about legacy. The legacy of the individual vendors.
I admire them because it was street food. If they’d built a fancy empire of Michelin-rated restaurants serving $65 duck entrees paired with $32 glasses of chardonnay I could care less. I don’t care how many NY Times write-ups they got, how rich they were, or what new fusion cuisine they introduced to the rich folks.
It doesn’t help that nearly every fancy restaurant I’ve ever eaten at served me half the food at three times the price, with perhaps slightly-above median-level quality.
But street food: it’s cheap, it’s for everyone, and it’s filing, and it’s good. That is legacy.
How to overcome writer's block during a pandemic
After my last post, a family member wrote to tell me that it appears my writing has “become seemingly effortless.”
I wrote her back: writing has been grueling.
I’ve got a lot of unfinished drafts in my Substack queue, which got me thinking about something: how does one overcome the stress, the constant anxiety, and the mourning for things lost and people lost which are fixtures of pandemic life, and then actually sit down to produce writing?
Well, you sit down. And then you start. That’s how.
Look, I’m not going to over-complicate things here. And I’m not so much into the wishy-washy woe-is-me stuff, as any ex-girlfriend of mine could tell you.
Once you’ve been a daily newspaper reporter for any amount of time, you realize that writer’s block isn’t really a thing. Or rather, it is a thing, but only if you are privileged enough to not be making your living from your writing. Then you can romanticize the production of words on the page all you like.
When I was a reporter, however, my writing was my work. It was the thing I was paid for, and every night at 10:30 it had to be in and on deadline. In three years of working for a daily newspaper, I never once suffered from writer’s block.
So now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let me say this: writing during a pandemic is tough. But it’s not because of writer’s block.
What if I gave up everything I don't want to do?
I wonder sometimes: what if I just stopped. Doing. Everything.
There are a lot of things in my life I would just assume not do, but for some reason or another, I feel I must continue to do. Humor people I don’t wish to humor. Plan things I don’t wish to plan. Tweet. Or, really just about anything social media-related.
Self-deception and Love is Blind
The show is like a series of case studies on self-deception.
…“this is crazy” comments
Show self-selects for self-deception: people ready to tell themselves a story, to construct a narrative.
Salvatore deluding himself that Shaina is a good match
Jarred deluding Ayanna that she’s not playing second fiddle when clearly she is.
In shows like this, it’s always refreshing to see the people who know themselves, if not well, at least better than everyone else: Shaina. She removed herself from Cabo. Then she clearly and definitively ended the relationship.
Minimalism and simplicity in climbing
To show people what you see and who you are, that’s a risk. But that is art. I couldn’t imagine a life without it. - Sam Elias in The Artist
A climbing documentary… note to rewatch
I think he looks at the world differently he really wants to show that to people. Because he really truly looks at the world differently I think. He loves showing that through his photos, coming up with a different perspective fo the world to look at.
He very much is about reductionism with his photography, with his art, and with our relationship too… He starts at the top and then slowly, slowly, slowly gets to what he thinks is the real issue. Until it’s the truth, until it’s that kernel, he won’t stop.
-Chris Baily Speed
Somewhere new vs. somewhere comfortable
My first trip to the Dominican Republic was in 2011 to learn how to kitesurf. Over the next eight years, I went back three times. The place just felt like home.
In 2019, after my last trip there, I kind of broke up with the DR (I recorded a podcast about it)—but the goal wasn’t to go kitesurf every great beach in the world. The goal was to find another place that felt like a place I wanted to keep going back to over and over.
At some point in my 30s, I stopped thinking of travel in bucket-list terms and started thinking about it in terms of finding those places that really moved me, the places I truly loved. Lisbon felt that way. The DR, for a time, felt that way.
Maybe it’s because my childhood was kind of rootless (we moved around a lot; there was no, one childhood home), but in the last 10 years, I’ve become intensely preoccupied with the larger questions of how to find home in the world. If you are lucky enough to choose where you live, and if you have the good fortune to have arranged a location-independent income, where then should you choose to go?
For most digital nomads, the answer is: somewhere new.
But take it from me: after a while, the constant search for new gets old.
Europe is better at "it takes a village"
This climbing trip, what has my son done? Who is he around? What does he do with his days?
A month ago, he broke his wrist — so no climbing. Accordingly, the first day he was quite bored at the crag. I extended his screen time on the iPad, but couldn’t shake the feeling that this would be the pattern the rest of the trip… Him bored, asking for more time on the iPad, and me and my friends climbing (and perhaps quietly judging the kid spending all this time on the iPad).
Thankfully, it was not the case. My son made friends. My friends took a liking to him — he’s an easy kid to like, after all. Some played chess with him. Others kicked around the soccer ball. He started making bets with the climbers on what they’d be able to flash, on-sight, or send. He started getting interested in doing everyone’s hair—he made mine into a mohawk right after I got out of the shower one night, but he kept at the women, first trying to braid, then trying to put their hair into various buns.
He kept his eye on the World Cup, becoming like a broken record about who was playing, when, who had won, and all the knowledge of soccer he’s accumulated over the past 6-12 months of extreme fandom.
It was a trip in which I chose my son’s peers, if only for a short while—climbers all, anti-materialistic, likely to fist-bump anyone who says they’ve chosen to live in a van, because living in a van means they’ve chosen a life devoted to their passion, and not to the accumulation of wealth and status.
Why are you really doing this?
Is Post-Nomad about anything more than travel, climbing, and our attachments to place? Emphatically yes: it’s about finding meaning in a post-modern world.
My meaning is for me: outdoors, climbing, community, etc. The post-modern world I’m describing is the one that holds that all values are relative, that it doesn’t matter what you do or how you spend your time on this earth, because it’s all meaningless, lol. But since I’m not qualified to take on all of post-modernism (or maybe I am who really knows anything after all?), I zero’d in on the part I’m personally grappling with, which is the struggle to find home when we increasingly feel untethered to place, whether because of remote work, the creator economy, digital nomadism, etc.
All these things are expressions of Nowhere-ism, which is a kind of hyper-individualized selfishness, a pursuit of pleasure and newness for their own sake (see: how many countries is enough countries?)
The original name for this newsletter was What Really Matters, and in a sense, I’m still writing about the same topic, only now framed through the particular lens of attachment to place (or lack thereof), and written specifically for an audience of location independent people who may struggle to find meaning in their work and lives when they can go virtually anywhere or do virtually anything.