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.
Never weep, never weep. With clear eyes explore the pit.
Sometime at the last gasp comes peace To every soul. Never to mine until I find out and speak The things that I know.
Welcome to Near-Earth Object, a website, newsletter, and podcast (coming soon!) by me, Paul Fidalgo. These are the falling years.
First, an introduction.
This is a project through which I, an odd duck, work through the problem of how to be a person in the world. That’s it. Through written and spoken words, my own and those of others, I try to figure out what to think, what to believe, and how to feel. And then I publish it for the public, which is frankly the most dubious part of this whole enterprise.
As I hope you’ve guessed, the name Near-Earth Object is not about things that float in space. It’s about the experience of being part of something — be it a family, a society, or a species — while also being slightly outside of it. It’s about being part of a cosmic system, but in an erratic orbit.
This newsletter is intended to serve as a regular conduit between me and whoever else out there who might find value in watching this process unfold. I’ll certainly highlight my own work and happily direct you to it, but it will also be an opportunity for me to share thoughts and ideas I’ve collected from other sources, old and new. The format is known as a “newsletter,” but it will not be “newsy.” While commentary and reflection on current events is unavoidable, my hope is that any edition of this publication could be read by someone in the far future and found as worthy of their time and attention as it would be the day it was published.
Speaking of these times…
The tagline of this project, “These are the falling years,” and the lines — that appear at this newsletter’s opening — I read at the show’s opening, all come from a poem by Robinson Jeffers written around 1940 titled “For Una.” In it, Jeffers writes about a stone tower he had built for his wife, a place of solitude and sanctuary for the two of them and an expression of his love for her. But he is writing while processing the apocalyptic horrors of the Second World War, which at the time must truly have felt like the end of all things.
I’m beginning this project in the autumn of 2020, the Lost Year. This is my personal creative endeavor, and it’s happening against the backdrop of the anxiety, fear, disappointment, disillusionment, and despair of our current age, and there’s no getting away from that. These truly are falling years.
And though I am an odd duck, I am not a young one. According to actuarial tables, I’ve just kicked off the second half of my life, meaning I have fewer days ahead of me than I do before. I am a near-Earth object in a descending orbit. These are *my* falling years, too.
“Never weep, never weep,” wrote Robinson Jeffers. Well, I certainly won’t tell you not to weep. But there is much to see and much to say in between the tears.
Thanks for taking the time. If you’re still interested, read on.
Oh, and, of course, subscribe. Please. And then tell everybody to do the same.
I have this idea about the relationship between courage and laziness.
Courage, as I define it, is when a person acts out of principle, knowing that the act will cause them suffering. John Lewis knew he faced beatings, imprisonment, and possibly death when he marched. Susan B. Anthony knew she faced scorn, jail, and infamy if she cast a vote. Steve Rogers knew he’d be blown to bits when he leapt on that grenade that turned out to be a dud. (Fictional examples are helpful and illustrative so back off.)
I have lamented on countless occasions my inability to choose a Major Project of some kind and see it through to fruition. (One Major Project I actually did, finally, complete, and I will eagerly share it with you when it comes into full being sometime next year.) I’d like to write a novel. I’d like to start a theatre troupe. I’d like to write nonfiction books on a number of subjects and in a number of styles. I’d like to host a podcast, write and record an album of new songs, play my music live for audiences, get into voice acting, write a newsletter, make a satire news site, and so on.
Rarely do I even begin on these fantasy projects, let alone stick with them long enough for them take flight. Why?
Sometimes, a project just isn’t the right fit. It doesn’t interest me as much as I’d hoped, or it involves commitments I am simply incapable of making. That’s no reason for anyone to beat themselves up. I mean, I will still beat myself up about it, but I shouldn’t.
But more often than not, I think what holds me back is what I’ll call laziness. That might not be an entirely fair word to use, but I want to make a point. When evaluating a Major Project, any number of factors can weigh on my mind and convince me it’s not worth beginning, or not feasible. It could be that I don’t think I have the time, or that I don’t really know how to get started. It could be that I don’t see a market for what I’d offer, or that said market is already flooded. It could be that it would require that I ask for help or collaboration with others, possibly even strangers, and my intense wincing at the thought of being socially entwined with anyone drains my resolve. It could be that I perceive that it would require a financial commitment that I can’t make, or am unwilling to try to fulfill.
All of these are justifications for inaction. Reasons not to start. Reasons not to try. Some of them might be really good reasons! Some of them might be sober and realistic assessments that lead to the reasonable conclusion that something is just not worth taking on.
Some. But not most.
Mostly, they’re about unwillingness. A lack of will, all because of an imaginary cost-benefit calculation that I have made based on a slew of unknowable factors. It’s bad math. And because the result of actually making the effort to see something to its fruition is more likely to be a valuable end in itself, regardless of anything else, it really is, for lack of a better word, laziness.
To take the first step in a new enterprise, and then to take as many additional steps as possible, is an uncomfortable thought. And each step brings with it the possibility of stubbing one’s toe, tripping, or stepping on a rake. One could take a few steps very awkwardly and wind up looking ridiculous for several paces. One could walk for a very, very long time and get very, very tired, or run out of energy entirely and collapse to the ground. One could even reach the ultimate, dreamed-of destination and find that it actually kind of sucks there. All those things could be true, and most of them almost certainly will be true.
Then what is required to do it anyway? Courage. To undertake an action of importance even though we know that a lot of the experience will be negative, even though we might not even finish it, even though what we make in the end might be kind of crappy. To work in spite of those possibilities takes courage. To put aside precious free time and resources that we may never get back takes courage. To allow oneself to be vulnerable and entreat others for help and collaboration is risky and, to me, terrifying, and it takes courage.
Yes, it’s free for me to use, but the only way I can make any money from it is by affirmatively placing my work behind Medium’s paywall. For folks who don’t subscribe to Medium, should they stumble across something I wrote after they’ve already clicked on five other Medium articles, they don’t get to read it. In that scenario I not only lose a potential reader (though not any income because they weren’t subscribing to begin with), but any potential new readers I might have gained from the that person sharing my work. It just stops at the paywall.
If I publish outside the paywall, of course, anyone can read it and share it, and that’s great, except the part where I don’t get paid.
Then the question is just how much I stand to lose by not posting behind the paywall. And the answer is: Usually nothing. Prepare yourself to be shocked, but, alas, I do not command a huge readership. So the vast majority of my articles wind up generating me something between about 20 cents and a buck and a half every month.
That makes it sound like an easy trade-off. Do without the pocket change and potentially get your material in front of far, far more people! That’s the way to go!
Except! Medium isn’t going to highlight material that’s not behind its paywall, suppressing any “organic” discovery of my work by the platform itself. I’m also not going to get picked up by any Medium-based publications with their own followings.
Also! Once in a blue moon, one of my Medium pieces does strike a chord, either with readers or Medium editors, and it catches fire, generating tens of thousands of eyeballs and a little bit of extra cash for me. (Nothing that would ever change my life, but a nice little bonus.) This has happened to me two or three times, ever. I’d like it to happen more.
So I do really think that most of the incentives point toward posting behind the paywall. There’s more potential for Medium to promote the piece, other publications are more likely to pick it up, and a little lightning in a bottle can, once in a long while, bring a little attention and compensation. But I don’t know for sure that it’s the best way to go. I have no way to quantitatively determine what is the most “optimal” route for me, post by post, short term or long term.
For now, I’ll keep favoring the paywall, because I don’t know what else to do. But every time I click that box to make it a premium article, I shudder a little, wondering what I might be losing as a result.
If there is a point to being alive, a reason for existing as a self-aware organism in the Universe, it is probably to solve problems. I don’t actually think there is a reason for us or anyone else to exist, nor do I think that the Universe itself provides or requires any inherent meaning or purpose. But if there is any purpose, or if we can impose meaning post hoc, sans propter hoc, then I think the whole point is the solving of problems.
Let’s get this out of the way, just for total clarity: There was no “intent” on the part of the Universe or any other entity that a particular species (or any number of species) should emerge and go about the business of fixing things the Universe couldn’t fix on its own. That’s fantasy stuff. The Universe has no will, nor does it perceive that it possesses imperfections to be repaired. It doesn’t perceive anything, except inasmuch that the beings in it, and therefore of it, perceive things. But the fact that they do perceive anything is accidental, not purposeful.
By problem-solving, I mean something far more mundane, localized to the individual organism. One has the will to maintain one’s own existence because of the impulse, built into a being by natural selection, to seek out opportunities to overcome deficiencies, fulfill needs, create novelties, experience pleasures, and relieve suffering. Examples can range from achieving world peace to fixing a leaky faucet. From creating a great work of art to cleaning up a spilled drink. From being elected President of the United States to sending routine a work email. From filling one’s head with the knowledge gained from the reading of a book to filling one’s belly with a nice breakfast.
So what? Good question. “So what” indeed.
I first encountered this simple idea from a rather unscholarly source, Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F✻ck. It was quite revelatory in that it stripped away the various layers of made-up meaning we humans apparently need to heap onto everything. Manson’s point was more specifically about happiness, that rather than being a state, happiness is a process that comes from the solving of problems that a person wants to be solving. The anticipation, planning, and execution of solving those problems are what brings about actual satisfaction with one’s existence. Not glee or joy, per se, but contentment. Purpose.
In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright writes that the Buddha already knew this. And while On the Origin of Species was still a good two-and-a-half thousand years after the Buddha’s time, his way of understanding human existence squares pretty well with what natural selection has wrought in us.
“Yes, as [the Buddha] said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied,” says Wright. “And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. Natural selection doesn’t ‘want’ us to be happy, after all; it just ‘wants’ us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.”
We have evolved to want to solve for x, to take pleasure in attempting to solve for x, and to take more pleasure in having solved x, but not so much pleasure that we feel like we shouldn’t now move on to y and z.
Despair comes from one’s problems being unsolvable or from having no problems that one deems worth solving. It’s always about pursuit of that which we do not yet have, be it material or informational. I was reminded of this again when reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in a passage from when Genry speaks to the mystic Faxe.
“The unknown,” Faxe tells Genry, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. … But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion… . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable — the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”
Genry responds, “That we shall die.”
“Yes,” says Faxe. “There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer… . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
Purpose, meaning, contentment, all of it comes from the day-to-day, moment-to-moment business of solving for x.
Again: So what? I don’t know. But maybe I can work with that. Maybe you can work with that. At the very least, maybe you can find some purpose in solving for that x.
During the pandemic era, here in the Lost Year, we have been given a reprieve from the stigma attached to excessive video game playing. The experts have told us, as conveyed to us through the most elite media outlets, that being forced under the fat thumb of the socially-distant lockdown-quarantine absolves us of any anxieties we might have about wasted time, lost productivity, or rotted brains. For the age of COVID–19, video games are now good for us. Hooray!
So now I can spend hours exploring, battling, spell-casting, smithing, concocting, and acquiring inside the metauniverse of Skyrim, free of any worry that I ought to be doing something more worthy of my time. We’re all stuck at home, after all! These are extreme, extenuating circumstances! There’s a goddamn killer virus out there, for god’s sake!
Oh, but here’s the thing. Just like everyone else on Planet Earth, the pandemic has upended many aspects of my life, but one thing that has remained unchanged is my location in space. As a socially-averse autistic already working from home for the past decade, I was already not going anywhere. Not even the coronavirus could disrupt a life outside the home if it didn’t exist to begin with.
Nonetheless, when the Great Lockdown began in March, it still felt to me like a doctor’s note authorizing me to indulge in video games again.
(An aside for some context: I say “again” because I have had spurts of game obsession at different times in my adult life, starting with games like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII near the end of college. Later, as time for games became scarcer, I would go through periods of serious Civilization addiction for installments III, IV, V, and especially VI, which Steam tells me I have played for almost 1400 hours, which doesn’t even count the additional hours spent playing it on my iPad. More recently, I became enamored with The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and, my current alternate-universe-of-choice, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, all on the Nintendo Switch.)
Since the vast majority of my time playing video games is solitary (save for when my semi-interested partner happens to be in the room), I have always perceived playing them as a way of sinking into my own little world. But I think being exposed to so much positive social reinforcement regarding quarantine video games made me feel like I was doing something with a speck of social value. It wasn’t just me being a weird 40-something dude manipulating cartoon characters in fantasy worlds all by my lonesome. Now I was in with the in-crowd. Everyone was doing it. We were being alone together.
But despite this absolution, I knew that I couldn’t claim to be leaning on video games to get me through the pandemic. I wasn’t being kept away from my job or unexpectedly burdened with truckloads of free time I didn’t know what to do with. If anything, my job got busier, my kids were home with me more often, and I actually find I have less free time now than I did in back the Long, Long Ago. I’m not killing excess time by playing video games. I’m frittering away the precious little time I have.
So really, I shouldn’t overstate how much time I actually spend on these damn things. The fortnightly Saturday evenings and Sundays I don’t have my kids at home are really my only opportunities to truly binge on pretending to be a Destruction-magic-specializing Wood Elf. (One who just became Arch-Mage of the College in Winterhold, what-what!) All week, I’ll look forward to long, uninterrupted play sessions that will allow me to fully commit to some major quest within the game, rather than settling for less time-consuming side tasks or level-grinding. But when I finally get to dive in, it isn’t long before the Guilt sets in.
I should be doing something more productive, the Guilt says. I should be doing something more creative. I am wasting my precious waking hours and living days on an experience from which I will derive no benefit beyond the temporary sensations of escapist hedonism. That’s fine for a little break from the workaday world, says the Guilt, but it’s no way to spend an entire day.
And maybe the Guilt is right. I’m a writer, a performer, and a composer, and I have the extraordinary privilege of being safe, employed, fed, sheltered, and loved during a major crisis, and I could be using it to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways. Even though very few people will ever read this piece, for example, and only some fraction of them will have found it valuable, creating this piece of writing at least adds something to the world that wasn’t there before. Hours and hours spent in Skyrim, Hyrule, or Duckbutt Island (my Animal Crossing domain) have no impact on the real world outside my video game console, except in what they prevent from coming into being.
It’s probably futile to attempt to quantify, even vaguely, what is lost or gained by spending time on video games. Because I could just as well speculate that the games might be a way for me to build up the reserves I need to create things to begin with. Perhaps they are addressing something in me psychologically, such that they become a net-benefit. Before writing this, I read a number of pieces asserting just that.
“I suspect that the total intensity of the passion with which gamers throughout society surrender themselves to their pastime is an implicit register of how awful, grim, and forbidding the world outside them has become,” writes Frank Guan in the conclusion to his wonderful 2017 (pre-pandemic) piece on video game obsessives in Vulture. Earlier in the piece, he says, “We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.” Well, for me, the world was definitely grim and forbidding before COVID–19 came around, and Placelessness, USA has always been my hometown. So maybe it’s a wonder I haven’t gone whole-hog on video games sooner.
The point is, though, that I don’t know, and I do know that time spent in a game is time not spent on literally anything else. And I’m not smart enough to know whether or not that’s okay.