An original song, written and performed by me, Paul.
Back when I was lonely oh I could not comprehend Why my species had decided that I was not one of them Got my diagnosis and I wrestled with my pain I made friends with my weirdness, now I’m lonely just the same
But perhaps I only serve as a reminder of the truth That not everyone is beautiful or revels in their youth And while no one will admit it we all feel it in our guts That while all the pieces fit so nicely All I do is jut
I don’t know who to talk to and I don’t know who to trust Though I’ve tried to imitate the moves the TV said I must The glow from my small candle tells the world what I’m about But its light reflects and redirects to something sticking out
Now I try to take into account my old proclivity To presume that anybody’s given any thought to me And I know that to all thoughts of hope my mind has long since shut But that filthy fucking fact remains that All I do is jut
Like a sore thumb
Now I’m a tolerable person, by now I’m sure you’ve found And you can have a beer with me when there’s no one else around But I will understand it when your real friends arrive If you excuse yourself politely and pretend I’m not alive
I could be a great companion, and a true friend to you all But no one responds to questions or will answer when I call Oh how much I’d love to reach out and pull myself out of this rut But your averted gaze confirms that All I do is jut
About a year ago, I announced my intention to complete a major writing project that I had begun, and subsequently abandoned, two and a half years before. Publicly declaring my intention to finish this piece, “The Big Thing,” was a way to hold myself accountable. I was generously granted two weeks at a writers’ retreat and the necessary time off work to bring this project into being, and my failure to actually make something out of it, no matter how well justified, was a stain on my sense of self that all great Neptune’s ocean could not wash clean.
And besides, it was about stuff that’s really important to me.
Long story short, I buckled down and finished the damn thing, and it’s now the cover story for the April-May 2021 issue of Free Inquiry magazine. It’s 11,300 words-and-change comparing and weighing two views of humanity’s future: transhumanism (we’ll all be saved and improved by technology) and “collapsitarianism” (we’ve blown it and civilization will crumble).
Why these two? Because I feel pulled toward both so strongly, despite their disparate outlooks. It’s the longest piece ever published by Free Inquiry (for which I am immensely grateful) and its editor, Tom Flynn, says it “just might be one of the most profound” (for which I am immensely humbled).
In this post, I offer an excerpt from the main article, its opening “chapter,” as it were. I do ask that you’ll take some time and read the whole thing. It’s been made free to non-subscribers of Free Inquiry, so you are welcome to simply click over, read it in your browser, or add it to whatever read-it-later service you prefer (but please do actually read it later, don’t let it just be another link you totally intend to get to someday).
It begins like this:
Not too long ago, humans believed that the stars determined their fate. Some still do. It was a belief born of naïveté, misunderstanding the nature of those diamonds in the night sky. But it was also a sign of our hubris, to presume that those lights in the firmament could have any interest in us.
Rather than feel controlled by them, we now understand that the stars are not gods or arbiters of fate but places we now aspire to explore. The knowledge of what stars actually are, and how insignificant we are in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos, has humbled us. And yet we are brash enough to speculate that one day we will be determining the destinies of stars, not the other way around.
Today it’s pretty hard to see those stars. Pollution from smog and the spillage of light from our cities obscures our view of the heavens. The haze through which we must squint to glimpse the constellations reminds us, or reminds me anyway, that humanity’s upward trajectory is not a destiny but a story. A wish.
I am torn. I am stubbornly attached to the idea that one day we’ll all be living on starships, exploring the cosmos free of hunger, disease, poverty, and tribalistic conflict. Looking around at the pace of technological advances today, it still feels possible. I want it to be true.
But one only has to consider the speed and breadth of humanity’s destructiveness to have those dreams thoroughly dashed. Whether we look to the exhausted vitality of the natural world or the buckling integrity of our modern, enlightened societies, we can no longer deny the obvious. The world we made is crumbling.
I dread a global, systemic collapse for my own selfish reasons, of course. As much as I sometimes crave the solace and remoteness of a more rustic, pastoral life, I know that when the shit hits the fan, I’ll be one of the first to die of starvation or disease or be murdered by wandering marauders. I’m very much attached to, and a person of, the current age.
I dread it for my children even more. While they’re growing up faster than I can replace their socks, I can’t quite escape the guilt I feel for even bringing them into being when things are so dicey for the civilization they will have to make their way in. I desperately want them to thrive, not merely struggle to survive in a world their parents couldn’t keep.
Vacillating between hope and despair, I have somewhat paradoxically found myself captivated by two starkly divergent lines of thought, two seemingly opposing prophecies about the fate of humanity that at different times have seemed to me equally persuasive. One camp posits that human civilization is ripe for collapse and that industry, governments, society, and much of the ecology that sustains us will soon run aground, leaving the remainder of our species to cope with a blighted aftermath. The other proposes that despite the enormous challenges before us, human ingenuity will find solutions through technology and biological enhancement, defeating not just climate change but perhaps even death itself. I deeply yearn for the latter to be true. I am anguished that the former is much more likely.
In a more hopeful time, I was drawn to the optimism of transhumanism, the PhD-riddled intellectual movement that once excited my Star Trek–saturated imagination with its often-rapturous predictions of a humanity augmented with unimaginably sophisticated technology.
More recently, however, I have leaned away from utopian thoughts and into a palpable despondency. I have since recognized this feeling for what it is: grief. I am grieving for the world I once believed existed and the future I know never will.
Just as I was beginning to acknowledge this grief, I discovered a movement known as Dark Mountain. Not a formal association or ideology, Dark Mountain is a sort of cultural banner under which those who await the fall can gather. For me, it has served as a way to process what has become increasingly obvious: collapse is coming.
And yet, all the while I have been holding onto the wish that we are mourning prematurely and that there is still something better coming.
We might very well be capable of transcending our biological and corporeal limits and achieving wonders not yet dreamed of. Or we might soon be forced to reckon with all we have wrought upon this world and then struggle to find some way to atone and survive.
Transhumanist utopianism and collapsitarian despair. They may appear fundamentally at odds, but I think what attracts me to them both is their implications of inevitability. Both presume their vision of the future is inescapable, and their adherents suggest we not waste energy fighting that future; we should instead start preparing ourselves for it. It is the overlap of “the end is nigh” and “resistance is futile.”
What I need right now is clarity. I need an honest appraisal of where we are and where we are headed. Maybe you need it too. Are we doomed? If so, let’s face that hard truth and decide what to do from there. Are we going to save ourselves? If so, how will we do it and at what cost?
In either case, collapse or transcendence, who and what will we be when we come out on the other side? To answer that, we probably have to figure out who we are right now.
This is about more than trying to guess how things will look a century from now. This is about what it means to be human and deciding whether that, in itself, matters at all.
A long time ago, I began to take a serious interest in music; that is, listening to it, singing along with it, and indulging in fantasies about being a musician. I was about 8 years old when Nickelodeon started running old episodes of The Monkees (a sitcom featuring a prefabricated band about the misadventures of a fictional version of said prefabricated band), and I just loved it. I didn’t own any Monkees records, and had no means of going and purchasing any, and it never really occurred to me that one could buy a Monkees record; I think I assumed they simply didn’t exist for some reason. I mean, I was 8.
So to satisfy this need, I took what was already at the time a gravely outdated cassette recorder, and when The Monkees aired on cable, I held the device up to the TV and hit record when a song played on the show. I did this over the course of a few episodes and soon had a decent collection of Monkees songs on my crappy little tape deck with a single mono speaker—not that this mattered, because of course I was recording from the TV’s speaker. I listened to it all the time.
When my dad realized I had been doing this, he said, “You know, we can buy you a Monkees tape.” That was really nice of him, but in my 8-year-old brain, it was kind of silly. I already had all the songs, dad!
I did eventually acquire The Monkees’ Greatest Hits on audio cassette, and I was very glad to have it. The songs were way longer on the album than on the TV show! The theme song even had a second verse! And there were a bunch of songs that weren’t even on the show! And wow, “Listen to the Band,” that one was weird!
While I also noticed that I could hear more of the instrumentation on the album than on my tape of TV audio, it wasn’t all that much different to me. I mean, it was still the same crummy old tape deck with the mono speaker. It didn’t seem crummy at all to me, as I had little to compare it to. So it was fine! When I eventually got other tapes—“Weird Al” Yankovic, the soundtracks to Ghostbusters and Transformers: The Movie, and so on—it was the same. I was just happy to have them.
I wasn’t done recording music straight from the TV, either. Over the next couple of years I would also start recording music from my video games (good lord did I love the music from Mega Man II), other kinds of music I was growing to like from MTV and VH1, and even sketches from Nick at Nite’s reruns of SCTV. These were the crappiest possible ways to get this kind of audio, but I didn’t know, and therefore didn’t care. I could now listen to those SCTV sketches over and over, memorizing them without intending to, and reenacting them on my own recordings. And I could listen to my Phil Collins and Genesis songs all I wanted, pulled right from the tinny sound in my room coming out of my tiny TV set.
At some point, I was given a portable cassette player (what I would call a Walkman, but of course wasn’t). I’d still listen to the same stuff, poorly recorded by me, totally unaware that “audio production” was a thing that mattered a lot to people who made and listened to music.
And yes, my family thought it was very weird. Especially the TV-recorded video game music. My grandfather couldn’t even fathom it. My dad summarily dismissed the music itself as “probably written by a computer.” Whatever, dad! You’ll never understand me!
As my music tastes matured, I started digging through my dad’s collection of tapes, most of which were themselves copies from vinyl LPs. Dad, himself a savant of a musician, had an extensive (and today, one would definitely say quality) record collection, and I began to avail myself of the stuff I thought I might be into. I already knew I liked the Beatles—every car ride with few exceptions was an extended Beatles session—but I had never really listened to them on my own. They were a good place to start.
At some point I had also gotten a better tape deck, one that actually had two speakers for stereo. I had no idea what difference that made because, again, most of what I was listening to was recorded from the TV speaker and into a tape deck’s built-in microphone. Also, I think around this time the “Walkman” had probably stopped working. One evening, I decided to listen to a Beatles tape—a real “dub” from a real record—through a set of cheap earbud headphones plugged into the tape deck. I don’t remember which album, but I would guess it was one that had some collection of songs I already knew; “Eight Days a Week” rings a bell, so it may have been Beatles for Sale, but so does and “Drive My Car” and “Nowhere Man,” so maybe it was Rubber Soul. But it could also just have been a mix.
I was probably 10 years old, and I still remember the sensation of hearing different instruments and different voices seeming to come from different locations around my ears. The boys sounded like they were singing into one ear, and the drums and guitar sounded like they were coming into the other ear! It wasn’t all just a mush of sounds. It was like a tapestry. Or a stage play, where you see every actor, every prop, every set piece. It was utterly transporting.
(Apparently, I was also singing along and doing a poor job of harmonizing, as my little brother would later complain, “You sounded terrible.”)
I was certainly going to raid my dad’s collection for more music. And I wasn’t going back to sounds recorded from a TV speaker.
This is not the origin story of an audiophile. But by my late twenties and early thirties, when I had a real job and enjoyed a living wage, I did begin to care much more about maximizing the quality of the means by which my ears received the air vibrations of music. I had several agonizing crises over what headphones to buy, which only became more fraught when I’d go into a store and sample headphones well outside my price range. Holy shit, I didn’t know music could sound this good!!! Every uptick in audio quality I experienced spoiled whatever I had previously enjoyed. Hell, just knowing that there were better things out there made it difficult to be happy with whatever I had.
This comes up in countless other ways. When Apple introduced “Retina displays” with the iPhone 4, screens with sufficiently high resolution that individual pixels became indistinguishable in normal use, it ruined me for all other displays. Reading text on a non-Retina screen, something I had been doing for some thirty years without complaint or problem, now felt like having my eyeballs scraped by jagged text.
At least that came from actual lived experience, wherein a demonstrably superior execution of a particular kind of product makes previous iterations look worse, because they are, in fact, worse. But I also bought the iPhone 12 when it came out while I already owned an iPhone 11. Why? Did I have direct experience with the new model, and thereby knew that my current phone was now teetering on obsolescence? Of course not. It was just new, it looked a little cooler, and the marketing all said it was better. You will not be surprised to know that a few months into owning the iPhone 12, it has not provided me a meaningfully better smartphone experience than the iPhone 11. Nor whatever phone I owned before that. But just being aware of new things, by comparing what I have to what might be, often convinces me, with great conviction, that I must acquire it. I had been fine before. Cursed with new knowledge, however, robbed me of that contentment. Or, more accurately, I let it myself be robbed. I invited the burglar in and offered him a sandwich.
I recently bought a new laptop. Or, rather, I should say I recently bought three laptops, because the first two, since returned, had flaws on their displays. Since this was intended for gaming, I had made peace with needing to settle for an eye-scratching, non-Retina display, something years of Macs, iPhones, iPads, and Galaxies had ruined me for.
But the first laptop had what seemed to me to be a lot of what is called IPS glow, the light haze around the borders of the screen. This is apparently fairly normal for these kinds of machines, but I had now been conditioned by Retina displays and quad-HD OLEDs, so it seemed unacceptable. The next laptop had a slight blemish of light bleed in the center of the display (I think that one was a reasonable rejection). The last one, the one I’m using now to type this, was just fine. More expensive, of course. It does have a tiny bit of light bleed at the very bottom corner, but I am trying to be okay with it.
This will seem like a divergence, but it’s not. I have spent a lot less time on social media in the last few weeks. Like many folks, this is in part because the world seems less on fire than it did a few weeks ago, and doomscrolling the news feels less necessary. It never was necessary, of course.
Apart from lowering my overall anxiety levels about the state of civilization (which, for the record, remain high), social media distancing has also made me feel less compelled to produce. Longtime readers of mine (all six of you) will know that I am gripped by a feeling of obligation to make myself relevant through my creative work, be it my writing, music, or other endeavors. I often feel that in order to justify my existence, in order to atone for all the things I never accomplished when I was younger, and in order to feel that I have somehow mattered, I must Become Known and cross some threshold of relevance and significance.
In recent weeks, though, I have felt this pang much less sharply than usual. It could merely be the fact that I feel very wrapped up in my gaming, which is a new thing for me. It could also have something to do with the changing political reality.
But I think that it’s mainly because I’m looking at Twitter way less.
Think back to the beginning of the pandemic. Suddenly everyone (it seemed) was part of this renaissance-of-the-remote, people writing novels and cooking and painting and performing and streaming and Tik-Tokking, and I’d be damned if I was going to be left in the creative dust. I started a newsletter. I revived my blog. I recorded some music. I made videos. I was going to matter.
I felt like I had to matter. It was a kind of race, one I had already been losing, when suddenly a lot more runners appeared on the track. Hey! Slow down up there! I was trying to matter first!
I was comparing myself and my output to what I saw from social media. But of course, what I see on social media will always tend to be stuff from those who have already broken through. Of course I was seeing things from people who were already in a position to create. Of course I would see things from people who already had the freedom to churn out content.
Yet I compared. I compared and found myself lacking. And as Dogberry says in Much Ado about Nothing, “Comparisons are odorous.”
When I was listening to the Monkees on my old mono tape deck from sounds recorded from a cable TV rerun, I had no idea what I was missing. Comparing my tapes to the stereo sounds of a professionally produced album out of actual headphones, I learned there was a deeper, more meaningful experience of music to be had. It was good that I compared one to the other. But I was also happy before.
Just because something is better (in fact or in perception) doesn’t make it necessary. Nor does it even necessarily make it a good. And it definitely doesn’t make it necessarily good for me. Or you, I bet.
I thought it was about time I gave myself permission to write about things that weren’t all that important.
We’re living through such Unprecedented Times when so many Serious Things are happening every hour, I think I started to feel like it would be irresponsible to write about things that were not directly related to the end of the republic or the plague.
But honestly, who cares what I think?
I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way. Okay, yes I do, but I also mean to say that plenty of other smart and good-hearted folks already have this covered. There are times when I do feel like my particular perspective on current events is valuable. But, you know, not all the time.
And at the same time, I have a lot of big thoughts about things that simply aren’t existentially consequential. Lately, though, I guess I’ve felt like it would be almost inappropriate to talk about anything frivolous, like superhero TV shows or gadgets, let’s say. Since no one is currently paying me to publish my thoughts on unimportant things (oh please someone pay me to do that), it sort of felt rude to do so—almost gauche.
I wrote about how cool it is that when I needed my iPad to serve as my primary personal computer, it unexpectedly filled that role really damn well. Read that too!
I also posted some fake news! Let me explain. I am experimenting with coming up with fictional news articles, not satire per se, like The Onion, but just things that aren’t true. Maybe it’s funny, maybe it’s not.
I wrote a sonnet about a TV show that’s been on for a while.
I have really been enjoying the “Arrowverse” shows, Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl. They’re so much fun, in large part because they so gleefully embrace their inherent silliness and absurdity.
I‘m hoping to get fully caught up with all of the shows in that universe before I watch the big Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event, so I was overdue to get started on Legends of Tomorrow, which debuted in 2016. So I watched the two-part pilot.
And it’s pretty dopey. I may or may not trudge through the whole series, but the pilot was definitely rougher than the shows off of which it is spun. Maybe it’ll get better.
I was looking for an excuse to write a sonnet. And I thought it would be fun to pick a subject that wasn’t all that important. And “Legends of Tomorrow” fits so well into a line of iambic pentameter. Although, it turns out I didn’t actually use the title in the actual sonnet, but NO MATTER.
Here you go. A two-part, non-rhyming sonnet. About a TV pilot. About superheroes. You’re welcome.
Let’s put aside the fact that Snart and Mick Are not endowed with any superpowers; But only have the fancy guns they stole From heroes on another show. The team To which they’ve been conscripted has been told By some time-hopping malcontent that none Of them have value on their own, and must Abscond into the past to thwart the plans Of some immortal fascist demigod Before he murders billions decades hence. It’s only then that these fantastically Empower’d also-rans will find a sense Of worth. I think that’s just a bit absurd.
There’s Ray, a supergenius billionaire Who built a suit combing powers of Mans Both Iron and Ant. The odd couple that forms Into a human conflagration? Holy crap! The oft-respawning couple with the wings Would seem to me to be a pretty damn Big deal. And Sarah Lance! She once was dead! And now she’s not! And smashing many heads. It takes a special kind of asshole to convince These Legends that they’re both of no import Yet also indispensable. Come on. I simply can’t believe how easily they’re duped. (And what was up with Martin drugging Jax?) They’d have been fine if they had just stayed put.
I am trying to disconnect without isolating. I am trying to find meaning without validation. I am trying to unburden without irresponsibility. I am trying to be aware without being overwhelmed. I am trying to be at peace without being passive. I am trying to matter without having to ask whether I matter. I am trying to fit in without being too ordinary. I am trying to stand out without jutting. I am trying to have hope without being crushed by it.
Maybe it’s that last one that needs to go.
Derrick Jensen wrote a few years ago in praise of giving up on hope. He’s talking about this in the context of his struggle to defend the natural world from decimation by humanity. To me, it applies universally. It’s not even about rejecting hope, but simply not dealing with it one way or the other. Once hope becomes irrelevant, Jensen says:
…you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems … and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.
This is not the same as hopelessness. Hopelessness implies defeat, pessimism, resignation to things getting worse. This is something else.
Here’s the part that’s both the most appealing about this idea and the most frightening:
When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they — those in power — cannot really touch you anymore. … The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.
And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are.
As someone who has wasted so much precious life trying to define himself through others’ perceptions, who could not find any value in himself without the explicit approval of everyone else, this is tantalizing and bewildering.
Later, I began to take a more nuanced view. While I must still learn to accept my unmasked, unfiltered self, there is still power to be had with intentional masking, endowing myself with aspects of an identity in order to achieve the things my unmasked self might seek. One can adapt without self-deception. One can modulate one’s behavior without imprisoning oneself. One can augment, and those augmentations are under the control of the “true” self.
But whether one is masking, passing, augmenting, retrofitting, or what have you, I wonder now if it’s hope that is still an ingredient of falseness. Maybe I can’t get free of the fetters I’ve fitted myself with, nor the ones that the culture has clapped onto me, because I maintain a delusion that meaning, peace, and validation will still be given to me by Someone Else, by some force Out There. Maybe by shedding hope, I empower myself to provide it on my own.
“When you quit relying on hope,” writes Jensen, “and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.”
In my case, “those in power” are the imaginary blessings from an amorphous other. That’s what I’ve allowed to have power over me, the wish, the hope, that at some point I’d prove myself worthy to be One of You, worthy to belong to this world.
Maybe if I give up on hope, the ache for validation, the yearning to matter, will ease.
I said there would be a podcast coming, right? I think I meant that about 60 percent seriously. Well guess what! A podcast I declared, and a podcast I have made. After a few frustrating stabs at a more “professional” sounding audio product, I opted to go for something more personal and informal. So the new Near-Earth Object podcast was recorded, audio and video, from a bench beside a river. I kind of like how it turned out, and who knows where I might record the next one.
The audio podcast is making its way through the various tubes of several podcast apps and services, (here it is at Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Podbean, to start) but I presume it will be widely available by the time you read this. I hope you like it.
I’m thinking about normalcy. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the abnormality of the crisis-buffet from which we are being force-fed, the so-called “new normal,” does not seem to be causing some kind of great awakening, but rather the “old normal” is clawing its way back.
But then the president got the coronavirus. And it dawned on me, well, of course he did. And the fact that he got it (along with all the other folks who got it with or from him) just meant that things operating, well, normally. The times aren’t normal, but the way humans react to the abnormal times, and the way natural phenomenon like viruses behave, are normal.
And even though none of this means that things are just fine, or that things will get meaningfully better, it is, weirdly, comforting. Read the whole thing.
In other news, I’ve rewatched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time in many, many years in preparation for checking out the new Netflix show Ratched. Some quick thoughts:
Go watch Cuckoo’s Nest, whether you’ve seen it before or not, and just revel in the masterful acting work being done by this ensemble without parallel.
Watching Cuckoo’s Nest will in no way prepare you for the show Ratched. Four episodes in, the only connection between the movie and the TV show is the fact that it’s about a stern psychiatric nurse with the same name in the time just before the events of the movie. The Nurse Ratched as excellently performed by Sarah Paulson in the TV show seems, at this stage, to have nothing to do with the character as so exquisitely performed by Louise Fletcher in 1975. Don’t try to square that circle. It’s just something else.
All that said, I still can’t tell if Ratched is brilliant, ridiculous, overindulgent, insipid, visionary, a curious novelty, or some mixture of all of that. But the fact that I still don’t know must say something good about it.