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creativity Essays personal

Self-Loathing in the Shadow of the Unfinished Work

A couple years ago, I had the chance to be a real writer, and I blew it.

Way back in 2017, I was asked to spend two weeks in October at a writers’ retreat in Northern California. This had nothing to do with any books I had written (for I had written none) or high-profile publications in which I had been published (for I had not). But because this particular retreat offered a very particular fellowship for writers in a very niche subject area, the previous fellowship recipient kindly recommended me to be his successor. I’m guessing there also weren’t many other folks to choose from, or perhaps they were busy.

The point is that I got to spend one whole fortnight in a gorgeous, rustic home, surrounded by natural beauty, doing nothing but working on my craft.

The problem I immediately faced upon accepting this fellowship was that I had nothing to craft. One was expected to come to this retreat to work on a specific project, usually a book or lengthy article in progress. I had no such project, in-progress or otherwise. I had to come up with one.

So I did. The formulation I made was simple. I took the two areas of thought that were of the most interest to me at the time and decided to mush them together, comparing and contrasting, wrestling with their implications, and working out what epiphanies, lessons, or truths I could extract from the whole enterprise.

It would be a big magazine article, intended for publication in the journal published by my employer. In this way, it would help justify my two-week absense from work, which, I must add, my employer happily and generously granted. It would be a big piece. A “longread.” Perhaps it could turn into a book.

At the retreat, I worked dilligently. Not one for sightseeing or communing with nature anyway, I made the most of this precious allotment of uninterrupted time. I dug deeply into the subject matter. I collected research materials, I interviewed experts over email, I took meticulously sourced and cited notes, I jotted stray thoughts, I sketched outlines, I worked in feature-laden applications for Serious Writers working on Major Projects, and I drafted sections and subsections and introductions and transitions and reflections.

I did not expect nor intend to finish the entire project during my residency, but by the time those two weeks were up, I had a piece that had grown to something like 13,000 good words.

But I still blew it. I never finished it. Two and a half years later, it’s still unfinished.

There were some contributing factors.

For one, during my time at the retreat, something went haywire in my ear. My existing tinnitus worsened exponentially, I began to go through spells of vertigo, and I lost some hearing. This was something of a distraction. It never stopped me from applying myself to my work, but obviously there was a good deal of mental energy that was inevitably spent on this emergent crisis on the right side of my head.

For another, a few months after my return, my marriage ended. You can imagine how that might drain one’s will to work on projects that are largely extracurricular.

These are fine excuses for why it became much more difficult to me to finish to project, but really, I never finished it because I never decided to finish it.

There was never going to be a mystical space carved out of my normal life to make room for plowing ahead with this work. My job resumed, my kids needed their dad, and I needed to manage a monumental and traumatic life transition. But even with all that, I failed to make the decision to sit back down at the computer and write.

Months passed. Then more months passed. In my mind, the Major Project became a queasy source of regret and shame. And the further time progressed from that autumn of 2017, the more I perceived that project as an unmanageable and outdated mess. I think I almost felt like it was angry with me.

But of course, it wasn’t. Nor was it unmanageable; I needed simply to decide to manage it. Nor was it outdated; I needed merely to decide to refresh it.

Nor was it a mess. I was.

A few months ago, I decided to return to it. I even announced it so that I could give myself at least the illusion of public accountability. And over the last several weeks, I have indeed been working on it.

It’s not finished. It begs for merciless refinement, and I don’t mean some tweaks for consicion. It needs some real horror-movie chainsaw violence done to it. I need to detatch myself from feeling precious about certain passages or turns of phrase that simply to not contribute to the larger goal of the piece. I need to rethink the way it’s framed in the opening section so that the reader is better ushered into the subject matter. And I need to find a path out of it, a way to merge its various tributary streams into a single current.

I need to figure out what it really is.

And I will. I haven’t yet, but I will.

I don’t know what this product will be when it’s done. It might yet be that magazine piece I promised my employers back in those innocent days of 2017. But perhaps it’ll be better suited to a series of blog posts. Or maybe it’ll cry out for expansion into a book. I can’t yet say.

Part of what makes this project loom so large in my psyche, and why it still provides a steady drip of regret into my heart, is the weight of validation I placed upon it. By being given this fellowship at this beautiful retreat, even if it had been a strange fluke of circumstance, I had the chance to be a real writer.

Let’s not get technical, now. I know that I am, indeed, already a writer. I constantly churn out written work for my job, I have written for several websites, I been published in a couple of journals, and I write for my own blog.

But you know what I mean. I sought the imprimatur of a real writer, someone whose byline is recognized and sought. Someone who is asked to be on panels at conferences. Someone whose name graces the spine of a book. Someone whose writing actually matters.

I’m not that guy. I might never be.

I definitely won’t be if I don’t decide to write.

And even in the best possible circumstance, in which this piece catches lightning and earns me some amount of approval, it still does not have the power to make me what I already am.

In fact, I may never publish it at all. It may turn out that its entire premise was ill-advised, and that it simply can’t be worked into something that is worth putting out into the wider world.

I don’t know yet. But even if another soul never reads a word of it, I promise myself this.

I will finish it.

Categories
creativity Essays media personal

Animal Crossing and the Joy of Bucolic Drudgery

Me, in jester’s hat, superhero mask, and business suit, with the quetzalcoatlus skeleton that looms over my property.

Why did I play Animal Crossing for four hours today?

About a month ago I became one of the bajillions of people of all ages enthralled with Nintendo’s bucolic-drudgery simulator, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I never expected to be. When the game was announced, having no frame of reference for the previous iterations, I was utterly uninterested. Then I saw the deluge of fawning coverage and player testimonials about how this game, this experience, was keeping people sane during the COVID-19 lockdown, and I decided to give it a shot.

Now it’s the center of most family activity and interest at my house. My kids can’t stop talking and thinking about the game, and even my partner, who never plays any video games whatsoever, is utterly devoted to it. (She plays more than any of us!) The four of us are constantly dishing about the other island residents and trading gossip about their quirky behaviors (we all just love Zucker), and we cheer each other on for our successes. (“I finally caught an oarfish!”)

My partner Renée with her big catch. I have a heart attack every time I pull one of these monsters out of the water.

But, you know, why?

I do understand the general appeal of the game’s overall shtick. After all, I spent a great deal of time, circa 2000, enriching the lives of my Sims (or making them suffer unthinkably), and more recently I have easily logged around 1500 hours fashioning empires in Civilization VI. And while I’ve never really gotten the hang of Minecraft, I can at least appreciate how its limitless palette for creativity is so engrossing. I’ve even dabbled, rather tepidly, with Second Life. Animal Crossing boasts many of the elements that made Minecraft, Second Life, and the Sims and Civilization franchises appealing. And it’s way cuter.

But viewed from another angle, playing Animal Crossing can seem a lot like the equivalent of doing manual farm labor for a cult leader. Tom Nook is Joe Exotic and we are all his expendable underlings being paid in fake currency and expired meats.

For example, I can spend an hourlong game session just pulling weeds.

Let me slightly rephrase that. I choose to spend an hourlong game session pulling weeds.

And the crazy part is that I love it. With every clump of vegetation I yank from the ground and stuff into my “pockets,” I have made my little island home (which is called Duckbutt Island) just that much more beautiful, and made a larger canvas for me to do with as I like. The methodical, somewhat rhythmic pulling of the weeds is rather meditative, much like real gardening can be (but without the real dirt or real bugs). Even the sound that comes from each weed-pull, a sort of squirty “yoink,” is weirdly satisfying.

I’m not kidding here. When I go on a jaunt to a “mystery island” or visit my kids’ domain and I see a lot of weeds, I think, and perhaps shout out loud, “Oh boy! Weeds!

Later, I can store all those weed clumps away and wait for Leif to come back to Duckbutt town square and purchase them at a modest markup.

Planting flowers, shaking trees, whacking away at rocks, collecting seashells — all of it is tedious, and yet it’s the tediousness that’s often the most appealing part for me. I do also enjoy the creative customization, designing one’s avatar and dwelling, and I have fun checking the boxes that qualify Animal Crossing as a “game” by hitting certain milestones, fulfilling necessary tasks, and upgrading life on Duckbutt. Those things all help Animal Crossing feel like it has a “point.”

But even without those things, it’s remarkably soothing to simply wander one’s island and gently tend to it.

Me in my red outback hat, dress made of cherries, and recycled boots, livin’ life like it’s golden with the boys — my two giant snapping turtles.

In this way, Animal Crossing is less a game, and more of a place to go — which is especially valuable at this moment in history. Countless other games offer this kind of escape, of course, from Fortnite to World of Warcraft to, well, name your MMORPG of choice. None of them, however, have appealed to me the way Animal Crossinghas…with perhaps the exception of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which, while not a “sim” by any means, provides so rich and wide of an experience that one can simply wander and putter about delightedly for hours. And believe me, I have.

Zelda aside, perhaps it’s those other games’ sprawling complexity that suggests to me that the effort to master them wouldn’t be worth the time and energy.

Animal Crossing has many layers of complexity, but they all feel very optional. One can advance and upgrade at one’s own pace, and in the meantime there is always something to do, harvest, beautify, design, or craft. And, importantly, as you meander and dawdle, no one will be out to get you.

However, one aspect of Animal Crossing that has really solidified it as a breakout phenomenon at this moment is its social component. Players can visit the islands of friends or anyone on the internet who opens their island to visitors. I’ve played online with my kids while they’re at their mom’s house, but otherwise I have interacted very little with anyone else. What am I missing here?

I suspect it has more to do with me than the game. My reticence and anxieties over social encounters in meatspace seems to carry over to Animal Crossingin strikingly similar ways. Just like in the real world, I worry over what to say or how to behave around another player, and feel exhausted in advance by whatever expectations they might have of me. I feel pretty confident of my ability to cultivate lasting friendships with Zucker the octopus and Truffles the pig. And Blathers, well, he is my true soulmate. But actual humans are another story.

At least on a computer generated island, no one expects our avatars to make eye contact.

Categories
Essays personal

Neurotypicals Keep Feeling Things At Me

Here’s how Stephen Colbert helps explain how I, as someone with Asperger’s syndrome, am in a constant state of anxious bewilderment at this current moment.

The introduction of truthiness to the American lexicon by Stephen Colbert in 2005 was something of a cultural watershed, the moment when we all finally had a way to describe the semi-facts and quasi-reality we experienced consuming political punditry. Overwhelmed as we are today with outright lies and misinformation, the George W. Bush era of truthiness seems almost idyllic.

But remember that the driving force behind the phenomenon of truthiness was not the relative veracity of a claim, or even the convenient massaging of facts. Truth was not really the point at all. Emotion was. In coining this neologism, I think Colbert may have inadvertently prophesied our current dystopia.

“Face it, folks,” said Colbert as his “Stephen Colbert” character on The Colbert Report. “We are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or Conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No. We are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.”

And here’s a kicker.

“Anyone can read the news to you,” he said. “I promise to feel the news atyou.”

Remember that.

I recently happened upon a piece from Psych Central by Ivy Blonwyn about her experience counseling a married couple wherein the wife was neurotypical and the husband was very likely an Aspie. Blonwyn writes:

We neurotypicals cannot begin to fathom how hard it is for Aspies to exist in a culture we dominate. We set the rules. We design society. We define social norms. Even something as fundamental as the rules for manners and polite conversation are foreign to an Aspie. They may behave ‘normally’ (as NTs [neurotypicals] define it) but that’s because they’ve memorised how to follow our seemingly nonsensical rules by rote. It’s a script for them and a senseless one at that.

For example, when Dan was breaking eye contact, waving his hands and gasping, I had been talking about a movie that quite interested me. A neurotypical who had not seen that movie as Dan had not would automatically realise the important part of the conversation is not the movie. It is how the speaker felt about it.

An Aspie on the other hand, cogitates on the movie (they haven’t seen) and having nothing to contribute to the subject of the movie, wants to advance the conversation to something they enjoy talking about. Hence the appearance of impatience and disinterest.

It never occurred to Dan that I was telling him about my feelings. He thought we were discussing the movie. ‘No, I was telling you about me’, I told Dan.

‘Then why didn’t you say that?’ he retorted.

As a neurotypical, I thought I had. It was implied. So obvious, that it never occurred to me to verbally express it.

But Aspies don’t make assumptions so hard-wired in NT minds that what we really mean is usually left unspoken.

I experience this kind of interaction all the time. Someone is telling me something about their day, something they’re going through, or something they experienced, full of details and observations, and I can barely maintain my attention. If what I’m being told has no direct relevance to me, is about something of which I have no experience myself, or is out of my control to do anything about, my brain desperately seeks to abandon it.

Particularly if the speaker is someone I care about, I make my best effort to be attentive and engaged, and I think I usually succeed. By now I know that to appear to lose interest is hurtful and offensive. I want to be supportive and useful to the people I love, so I do my best.

But I also don’t quite get it. Why would I want to know about the plot of a TV show you watched? Why would I want to know about a casual conversation you had with your coworker? How can I possibly be a part of a conversation in which I have no frame of reference? What’s the point?

It’s because the speaker is really telling me about themselves. They are not reading the news to me, they’re feeling the news at me.

And that’s just what neurotypical people do and it’s perfectly normal. For them, it’s necessary.

The propagandists of our current informational hellscape, such as Fox News, the president, and the great heaving mass of conspiracy theorists, all of them are feeling at us, and people are responding.

But even the “good guys” in the reality-based community, such as progressives and the otherwise-sane folks I follow on Twitter, are doing the same thing. They may be working with actual facts that are actually true, but the outrage-tweeting they engage in operates under the same priciple. They, too, are feeling the news at us.

And that’s why I can’t deal. When opponents of the president shame-tweet his latest outrage, I keep appending the question, “So what do we do?” No one ever answers. Not necessarily because they don’t know what to do (though I suspect they usually don’t), but because that’s not the point. They came to emote, not to cogitate.

My neurology is ill-suited for this moment. I do not find satisfaction or connection from this mode of communication.

If someone I love tells me how bad their day at work was, I will likely try and brainstorm solutions to each problem they faced, when that’s not at all what they wanted from me. They were feeling their news at me, not looking for answers.

I’m looking for answers.

For those I love, I will try to be better at accepting what they share with me, what they feel at me. I will try to better understand that they are trying to share themselves, their souls, not their raw data.

For everyone else, I will try to ignore the firehose of feelings, and seek answers elsewhere.

Categories
Essays personal politics

Nothing to be done

The part of all of this that most fills me with despair is the fact that those with the power to do something simply won’t.

My experience of Twitter right now is one of being told over and over to be outraged about every offense committed by the president, Republicans, right-wing media, or their followers. And I am! Good lord, I am. Trump constantly lies, promotes self-serving misinformation, and foments civil war. His allies and defenders fall in line. The parade of fanatical ignoramuses react, predictably, with garish displays of jingoist hate. Their cells become food for viruses.

And so the Important People on social media do their duty and Point it Out.

Fine. What I’m not seeing, and what I desperately need, is for someone to do more than Point it Out, but to offer a solution. The dead horse I continue to beat comes in the form of quote-retweets in which I ask, “So what do we do?”

Trump encourages insurrection: “So what do we do?”

Trump refuses to give aid to states who don’t kiss his ass: “So what do we do?”

Trump ignored warnings about the pandemic, and now pretends he was always on top of it: “So what do we do?”

Maybe, in a previous era, reporting on the wrongdoings of a president or other public official would at least get the ball rolling on getting that leader to change course or be held accountable. But, surely, now it must be obvious that this is no longer the case! Everything we all got used to, the idea of “scandals,” exposés of corruption, and various career-ending “-gates,” none of it matters anymore. We can Point Out and Be Outraged over every appalling example of nogoodniks nogoodnicking until we run out of tears and our fingers can no longer tap out our replies and retweets, and none of it will change a thing.

Those who believe what the president says will believe him until their dying breath, even if it’s a breath gasped without the help of the ventilator they needed but couldn’t get because of the president they loved. If reporting, explaining, and shaming had any impact whatsoever, Trump would already be out of office, Pence would be under investigation, and far, far fewer people would be sick or dead.

So, I’m asking, what do we do?

The Senate could have done something. We know how that worked out.

Pence could do something. He and other members of the cabinet could agree among themselves that the president is a danger to the country, invoke the 25th Amendment, and remove him from power, even if only temporarily. But of course, they won’t.

Is there something more the news media could do? I honestly don’t know. Again, merely reporting the many crimes of the moment isn’t enough. Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper can fume into the camera over the president’s lies and the exponentially rising body count, but everyone who is watching already agrees that this is all an outrage.

Can voters do something? If they can, they have to wait until November, and then you have to assume that they will be able or allowed to vote. And because of how the Electoral College rigs the system in favor of the Candidate of the Fanatical Ignoramuses, it may not matter anyway.

Could well-intentioned billionaires and business titans do something? I don’t know! Governors? Celebrities? Anyone?

It’s hard for me to psychologically accept the idea that there’s nothing to be done, that we’re just hostage to the madness of an idiot cult leader, and that’s that.

I suppose what it comes down to, short of something even more destabilizing or dangerous, is that enough people will have to demand change in any way they can. But by “enough,” I don’t mean an motivated plurality or even 50 percent-plus-one. Overwhelming numbers of Americans will have tell those in power to fix this shit, but do it through some means that doesn’t require them to “take the the streets” like the Fanatical Ignoramuses protesting stay-at-home rules.

But there isn’t enough of us. This won’t happen.

So what do we do?

Categories
creativity Essays personal

An Actor, an Introvert, and a Universe of Possibilities

The author in 2006.

People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.

To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.

When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”

I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.

People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.

To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.

When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”

I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.

I don’t even have to decode any social signals or read between the lines of what others are saying in order to know when to speak, because it’s all been planned out in advance. I am forbidden from speaking until my own lines are cued. That limitation is indescribably liberating.

I don’t have to know what to wear. I don’t have to know where to stand or how to behave, because all of that will have been worked out in rehearsal. If the play doesn’t call for my presence in a scene, I don’t even have to exist.

But there’s another way to explain the apparent incongruity of my personality that flips all of this on its head, and I didn’t even realize it myself until I had it explained to me in an article by a true master of the theatre from several years ago.

I recently came across an essay published in The Nation in 2011 by the great actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, who most folks will know as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, Grand Nagus Zek on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or the voice of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Toy Story movies. Maybe you know him from the 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. Oh, and he was just in Marriage Story, so that might help.

In his essay for The Nation, which is a truly beautiful piece of prose in which he explains how his art leads him to consider himself a socialist, Shawn writes:

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.

In one version of my explanation for why such a loud, animated performer like me could be such a severe introvert is that I alone am too small and too vulnerable to be comfortable in my own skin in the midst of other humans. But what Shawn helped me to see is that this disconnect also stems from the fact that my singular, real-life self is also near to bursting with thoughts, ideas, fears, ambitions, impulses, and possibilities.

The potential energy bottled up and pressed down into this small, delicate body is overwhelming. Letting any of its pressure out brings with it the risk of humiliation, regret, misunderstanding, or bewilderment. So a single, inoffensive persona must be adopted, a safe and broadly acceptable packaging must be applied.

The stage does not solve or sort all of these parts, but it does allow them to manifest in meaningful, productive, and satisfying ways. In this way, an actor’s role is sort of like Mjölnir to Thor.

In Thor: Ragnarok, the Asgardian Avenger has lost his legendary hammer, Mjölnir, and at the edge of utter defeat, he hears the voice of his late father Odin, who asks him, “Are you the god of hammers?” Odin explains that Mjölnir was not the source of Thor’s power, but merely a means of focusing and controlling it. The real power, the “thunder,” is already inside him, coursing through him.

That’s what a role in a play is for an actor. It harnesses the lightning and thunder inside us and allows us to wield it. Shakespeare himself even wrote of “youths that thunder at a playhouse.”

It is true that for me, and I suspect for many actors, taking on a role is a way of protecting ourselves, providing armor for our fragility. But it is also a means to show our strength, to unleash a power within us that in most other circumstances would be too dangerous or destructive.

As Wallace Shawn says, we have within us a universe of possibilities. The stage allows us to live some of them out.

Categories
creativity Essays personal

A New World Without Loss

Arthur C. Brooks writes about how Ludwig van Beethoven dealt with his gradual hearing loss, which, while crushing to a genius composer, ultimately lead him to new heights of greatness.

It seems a mystery that Beethoven became more original and brilliant as a composer in inverse proportion to his ability to hear his own — and others’ — music. But maybe it isn’t so surprising. As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head. His early work is pleasantly reminiscent of his early instructor, the hugely popular Josef Haydn. Beethoven’s later work became so original that he was, and is, regarded as the father of music’s romantic period. “He opened up a new world in music,” said French romantic master Hector Berlioz. “Beethoven is not human.”

Brooks takes this as a lesson in loss. He says that here Beethoven shows us how losing something precious can open up new possibilities and ideas, and all of that is true. But that’s not the lesson I take.

When Beethoven lost his hearing, he could no longer be aware of what others in his field were doing. Whatever music was being lauded or pilloried at the time, Beethoven had no way to know what it sounded like. He had no way to compare his work to anyone else’s. All he had were his memories of what had come before.

To me, the lesson isn’t how Beethoven turned the tables on fortune and made something beautiful out of loss. (And I do have my own, albeit far less severe, experience of hearing loss to draw from here.) The lesson is that his loss meant that he was no longer burdened with his own perception of what great music is supposed to be. Beyond what he could still hear in his own mind from his musical memory banks, there was nothing for Beethoven to compare himself to. The energy spent and wasted on anxiety and self-doubt brought on by the desire to suit the tastes of the time, his genius was liberated, freeing him to make the best music he was capable of at that moment.

Before I sat down to write this, I caught myself wondering whether the traditional early-2000s-era blog format was still viable, whether anyone would want to read a post by a relative nobody responding to an article by a relative somebody about an indisputably significant somebody. I worried whether the format would make me seem unhip. I worried that whatever I wrote might better suit a magazine essay, which would never be written (nor published if it were), or if it might be best to simply tweet a condensed version of my thoughts, and leave it at that. In other words, I wasted time and energy on anxiety about what my writing is “supposed” to look like.

Imagine that I came to this piece with no preconceived notions of the form my thoughts should take. Imagine I had no respectable essays, eye-catching blog posts, or pithy tweets to compare myself to. Imagine that all I had were my thoughts and my skills as a writer, whatever they happened to be at this moment.

Beethoven’s loss forced him into a position of ignorance. His deafness gave him no choice, but that ignorance freed him. His earlier work sounded like somebody else’s, the work of people he thought were “doing it right.” When he could hear no one else, “doing it right” meant only what was right to him in his own mind.

I, and we, do not have to wait for loss. We do not have to be forced into a kind of ignorance. We can choose to learn from what others have done, build on what we have already accomplished ourselves, and then let everything go. Then we can be free, and we can know it, too. We can open up a new world without loss.

Beethoven is not human, and neither am I. Thank god.

Categories
creativity Essays personal

Purposeless on Purpose

The_Night_School_1660_Geard_Dou

I seek to be at peace with my own irrelevance.

In earlier, less distracted, and less accountable years, I was a fount of creative energy. Free time was often spent on writing songs and recording music or writing essays and blogs. I have always been driven to create. That drive formed my earliest sense of identity.

Today, in my forties, raising two kids, and working at an intellectually demanding job, my sparse remaining energy usually feels insufficient for extracurricular creativity. Fumes make for a poor muse.

So I don’t write nearly as much anymore. I rarely pick up an instrument. Songwriting is now filed away in the dusty archives of my persona as ”something I used to do.”

But while the fatigue of existence is real, and my drive to create fires on fewer cylinders, these aren’t the real obstacles to creating. Nor can I lay the blame on the easy abundance of distractions provided by the internet, a phenomenon that had yet to saturate the culture when I was in my prolific twenties.

It used to be that as I worked, with every paragraph or stanza, I believed myself to be building toward something. I was laying the foundations of my career, one in which I would not just be a creator, but one that mattered. “Fame” isn’t quite the right word for what I was after (though I would not have shunned it by any means), but perhaps “prominence.” I would be known.

That didn’t happen. It’s not going to happen, either. For years now, this has been an inexhaustible source of regret and self-loathing. I’ve been dedicating a great deal of thought and work toward being at peace with the fact that whatever meager level of renown I’ve scraped together at this point is about as good as it’s ever going to get.

What does this mean for the creative drive I claim to still possess? Nothing good, I’ll tell you that!

I might become more accepting of my irrelevance to the wider world, but that very acceptance starves me of much of what once served as creative fuel. Why write an essay that only a handful of people will ever read, for which I will not be compensated, and which doesn’t lead to my work being discovered so that I can be placed into the demi-pantheon of People Whose Writing Matters?

In other words, why bother?

The wall of “why bother” is a big one. From any distance, its summit visibly looms over the top of my laptop’s screen. Large, white letters adorn the wall like the Hollywood sign promising “NO ONE CARES.” The letters are much brighter than the display on which I type.

One is not supposed to see things this way. Creation is supposed to be for its own sake. I have always had a great deal of trouble with “supposed to’s.”

So I seek out wisdom. In Zen and the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel questions his master about the purpose of his archery training. The master insists that Herrigel take no note of the target. The master insists that he not consider releasing the arrow. For what feels like ages, the master keeps him focused only on drawing back the bow, and nothing else. And Herrigel is utterly flustered. He says to his master that he is unable to lose sight of the fact that he draws the bow and lets loose the arrow in order to hit a target. There is a reason for all of this effort:

“The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”

They debate this point for a bit, and Herrigel asks:

“What must I do, then?”

“You must learn to wait properly.”

“And how does one learn that?”

“By letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.”

“So I must become purposeless — on purpose?” I heard myself say.

“No pupil has ever asked me that, so I don’t know the right answer.”

The idea that art, creation, is purposeless, is very difficult for me to internalize. I can intellectually understand and even appreciate it, but I can’t seem to accept it in my heart. The words “why bother” still ring in my head, and the “NO ONE CARES” sign still leaves a visual trace on my retinas when I close my eyes.

“You will be somebody, the second you make peace with being nobody,” Heather Havrilesky has written. “You can create great things, the second you recognize that making misshapen, stupid, pointless things isn’t just part of the process of achieving greatness, it is greatness itself.”

Being purposeless on purpose is, itself, greatness? I want to believe. The idea that a creative work is supposed to be purposeless is a claim without evidence. It is less a truth than it is a statement of faith. One has to decide for oneself that the work itself is enough.

“Let go of the shiny, successful, famous human inside your head,” writes Havrilesky. “Be who you are right now. That is how it feels to arrive. That is how it feels to matter.”

I do believe that. I can work with that.

But she also says, “Being a true artist merely lies in recognizing that you already matter.” That, I don’t understand. How does she know what qualifies one as a true artist? How does the archery master know that one’s aim must be aimless?

Like many statements of faith, I suspect the value of the claim that art is purposeless lies less in its veracity, and more in the behavior it induces. Its value is in the discipline required to live that ideal. It may or may not be true that creative work is “supposed to” be purposeless. It may or may not be true that writing this essay right now, or any other, is a meaningful end in itself, regardless of whether it is ever read or appreciated by anyone.

I don’t know if these things are true. I doubt that they are. But I might need to take the leap of faith and live as though they are. Doing so will take a good deal of practice. Discipline. But unlike art, it would not be purposeless. For if I can manage it, I may begin to believe that I do matter right now, and that mattering right now, and at no other time nor to any other people, is enough.

Categories
Essays personal

Hearing, Loss

It’s the late autumn of 2017, and I’m in Point Reyes Station, California for a two-week writers’ retreat. I was walking down a remote road, taking one of my regular strolls into town for supplies, a bit of exercise, and to take in the landscape, which was stunningly beautiful. The weather was nearly perfect, and being so removed from everything, cars and other pedestrians on the road were quite rare. I was alone and enjoying the movement and the environment.

The wind picked up a little and it whooshed deeply in my ears. You know the sound, the low thup-thup as the air pummels your earlobes. Maybe I hear it more than others because my ears are little on the bigger side, so they scoop up a bit more air.

Only something was off. The whooshing sound was there, but it was only coming in on the right side of my head. That was weird. I must have just happened to be facing in such a direction that the wind was hitting my head at that particular angle. So I checked.

I pivoted my head in different directions, while walking, while standing still, and nothing changed. I walked to different parts of the road with different landscape features; fewer trees, fewer houses, atop an incline, then toward the bottom. Still the same. I wasn’t hearing the wind in my right ear at all.

I snapped my fingers in both ears, and noticed no meaningful difference. I rubbed my finger along the surface of my earlobes and ear canals. In the left ear, I could hear the deep rubbing and rumbling sounds of the friction. In my right ear, I heard a faint and wispier sound, like something soft brushing on paper, at a distance.

I got out my headphones and attached them to my phone. I played some songs, and only listened through one earbud at a time. In the left ear, the full, rich sound came through that I had come to expect and enjoy from this particular pair of headphones. In my right, the bass and mids were, alarmingly, almost nonexistent, save for the high-frequency sounds of strings being scratched or plucked. All I heard were higher-end sounds, such as vocals, snares, and cymbals, only much tinnier, thinner, weaker.

Finally, I tried listening to a voicemail to see if I could hear a phone call. Again, the expected normal sound of the voice came through the phone’s little speaker into my left ear. Putting the phone up to my right ear, the voice sounded like it was coming from a tin can stuffed with cotton. I could hear the voice, but barely.

This was unmistakable. I wasn’t being paranoid. I had lost hearing in my right ear.

*

It’s the spring of 1994 in Absecon, New Jersey. I’m a 16-year-old junior in high school, in an exurban basement. It’s the house of one of my friends from marching band, Chris, and by way of some now-forgotten confluence of agreements and compromises, I have formed a crappy little band with him and two other friends; Chris on drums (talented thrash metal devotee), my best friend Rob on bass (had never played, and was borrowing my dad’s sort-of vintage bass guitar), me on lead guitar (I had no business being a lead guitarist but I could play chords and learn songs by ear relatively easily), and one guy I met through Chris, Corey, our lead vocalist, a kind of Axl Rose/grunge type (and who was tone deaf).

I told you it was a crappy band.

Nonetheless, it was my band, and my sole outlet for playing with a full set of musicians on a few songs I really liked (and some I really didn’t, but like I said, agreements and compromises). In the year or so we played together, I don’t know that we ever got to the point of being “good,” but we did manage to scrape together a handful of songs that we could enjoyably hack our way through. It was fun, at least some of the time.

On this occasion, we’ve been a band for a few months, and Corey and Chris have brought with them a friend of theirs, another guitarist who was straight from the Metallica/Megadeth school of metal. He had the requisite long hair and patchy teenage facial hair, including that mustache so many of those guys wore back then that usually signaled to me, for some reason, that I should be wary of them. I don’t remember his name, so let’s just call him “Patchy-stache.”

Apart from having some obviously advanced skills in metal lead guitar, Patchy-stache also brought with him something else we didn’t have: a giant-ass stack of huge amplifiers. For our usual rehearsals, I hauled back and forth my dad’s ancient Vox tube amp and a very small beginner’s amp that I’d gotten as a birthday present. Corey had a decent amp and PA for his vocals and occasional guitar playing. With what we had, we could barely hear ourselves over the astounding pound of Chris’s drums. That guy did not mess around behind that set. Usually I wore earplugs to protect my hearing, though not always. I was afraid it made me seem like a wuss.

So here we were in this small space, enclosed in concrete, with our usual collection of aspirationally loud shit. And now here’s Patchy-stache with his menacing obelisk. When he played through it, the obelisk emitted these teeth-rattling, piercing riffs, filled with stabbing licks and needle-like harmonics. It was painful. I of course didn’t know at the time that I was autistic, and already wired to be overwhelmed by stimuli like noise, and I didn’t have my earplugs in.

But I dared not show my discomfort. Checking for the other guys’ responses to this sonic assault, they seemed totally unfazed. I tried to indicate that this decibel level might be a bit too much with some humorous gesticulations of my ears exploding. It got me some smirks, but nothing else. It was really quite awful, but if there was one thing I found more excruciating than a storm of stimuli, it was the threat of social rejection, of being called out as lesser than the others. So I endured.

That night, I of course had ringing in my ears, like anyone would after a loud concert or something. But in addition to the ringing, there was also a low humming sound in my right ear, which happened to be the ear that was more directly facing Patchy-stache’s amps. It had clearly taken the brunt of the abuse.

The next day, the ringing had left both of my ears, but the hum remained. And it stayed. Forever.

*

I got used to it. At first it drove me nuts, and I had trouble sleeping. But I think it was only a few months before I’d learned to manage it. When there was sufficient ambient sound, the humming almost “turned off.” It weirdly just seemed to stop when there was enough sound around, not just fade to the background to become less noticeable. Whether that’s true or not is kind of academic, since tinnitus (the name of the condition) is mostly about the brain responding to a trauma. It’s a kind of illusion, but also not.

I’d learned to sleep by having music on at night, and that became a years-long habit regardless of my tinnitus. Throughout high school and college, most of my music listening happened in bed, where I’d fantasize scenarios in which I and my friends, all of us now musical virtuosos, were the ones performing these songs. I loved those fantasies. Now they just hurt, but explaining that is for another time.

Going into full adulthood (assuming I have actually done that), the hum became a total non-issue. It was always there, and I was aware of it, but it no longer troubled me at all. It was just part of the sound of being alive.

The right ear remained sensitive, however, so I’d shrink from blasts of sound directed at it. I’d had a few scares after, say, acting partners or overexcited children would inadvertently scream in my ear, causing me acute physical pain, but it always subsided and things went back to normal. And if the stabbing that Patchy-stache’s amps perpetrated on my ear had reduced my hearing at all, I couldn’t tell. For over two decades, I enjoyed the full scope of stereo sound, and as far as I could perceive, heard equally well out of both ears.

I didn’t appreciate it like I should have.

*

It’s the early autumn of 2017, a few weeks before I’d go to the writers’ retreat in California. My sinuses feel a little plugged up, which is not at all unusual for me. The usual pressure, the usual feeling of crud in the back of the throat, but it’s all very mild. I don’t even really notice it.

What I do notice one evening is my tinnitus. As I said, I have a baseline awareness of it as a matter of course, but I don’t often “notice” it. Well, now I did, a lot. The subtle hum was now blaring in my ear, several orders of magnitude louder than usual. Though this was unpleasant, it wasn’t totally surprising. Once every long while, some nasal or sinus related thing will make it sound a little more present in my head, and it always passes, returning to normal.

But jeez, this was really quite loud.

Days went by, and it wasn’t getting any better. If anything, it was getting worse. The sound was even louder, producing a sensation that was kind of like something pressing against my face. It felt like I had my head flat up against a some sort of enormous air compressor, subtly pushing into me. Or like the hum of all the electricity in the world was behind a wall to which my ear had been affixed with superglue.

My doctor said it was probably just a sinus infection affecting the existing tinnitus, and that would hopefully clear up with some antibiotics and decongestant. This felt particularly urgent, given that I was about to head off to California for my fortnight of writing. The last thing I wanted while trying to enjoy the peace of staring out over the San Andreas fault was to have the sublime state constantly interrupted by the jet engine in my head.

Unfortunately, by the time of my trip, the problem still persisted. The sinus treatment had no effect. I had some hope that maybe the shifting air pressure of my upcoming flights might sort of pop the problem out. But, of course, no. So I just had to cope.

A few days in, I noticed that I couldn’t hear the wind in my ear. A couple of days after that, the sound amplified yet again, out of nowhere, to the point that it physically hurt, causing me to experience a little vertigo. I saw a doctor in town and was prescribed some ear drops as a kind of shot in the dark, which also did not help.

Shortly after my return home, I saw a couple of specialists and had my brain scanned. The audiologist was the only one with any news, and it was not really news. I had indeed lost much of my ability to hear the low and middle frequencies of the sound spectrum in my right ear, and the tinnitus was my brain’s misguided attempt to investigate and compensate for the loss. Because they were happening at the level of the brain and inner ear, both were almost certainly permanent.

Both are permanent.

*

I have lost very little, really. I’m not by any means disabled. I’m not even a good candidate for a hearing aid. Someone whose pinky was cut off in an accident will struggle far more with their loss than I will have to with mine. With all the things that a human could suffer, with all the debilitating diseases, injuries, and accidents of fate that could befall a body, this doesn’t even approach the status of “big deal.”

But it’s still a loss, isn’t it? A little one. And sometimes little things matter a whole lot.

There is a space in the constellation of sound that one of my ears won’t ever experience again, not meaningfully. It’s just gone.

When I’m working on a recording for one of my songs, I’ll no longer be able to rely on my own senses to find the right blends and mixes of sounds that will bring the music to life. One side of my head will be missing way too much of it. It would be like directing a play with the lights dimmed on half the stage.

(I guess I could produce everything in mono. I mean, the Beatles did for a while.)

The other ear is fine. The full sonic palette remains available to it. But both ears, of course, will now only get worse as I age, because that’s what happens to human bodies. More colors will dry up or be scrubbed off my palette.

And then there’s the hum. Or rather, the droning. That’s a new reality that must be accepted as well. I became so accustomed to its first manifestation over the past 23 years, that I had the luxury of giving it almost no thought at all.

Now it’s a different story. This new, louder sound is always there. Even when I’m distracted by other sounds, ambient or otherwise, I remain aware of the droning. And because it pulses erratically in tone and intensity, it’s as though it’s not satisfied to merely exist. It’s like it wants my attention. It wants me to feel menaced by it.

It might yet become tolerable or even of negligible concern as the years go by. I kind of doubt it.

But I’m fine. As far as da-to-day obstacles, the hearing loss just means I’ll have to say “what?” more often, which will at times get a little frustrating for me and the people around me, and that’s really nothing. The droning, well, that will bother me exclusively.

Regardless of the relative severity (or lack thereof) of the loss, I’m grieving it. I’m sad and angry about the fact that I’ll never experience music and sound to the full, rich extent that I once did. That I so loved. That filled me up and saved me. Most of it is still there, but it will never be the same again. And I’m going to mourn that.


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Categories
creativity Essays personal

Writing Without a Mask

Clearly, there’s something I’m not doing right.

It is my third full day at the writers’ refuge and I am researching my article’s topic, the muscles in my neck and shoulders simultaneously taut and compacted such that I find my range of motion constrained.

IMAG1268.jpgI am in a veritable paradise, with astounding natural beauty, a sublime and comfortable writing environment, surrounded by books and supplies and various corners and nooks into which I can settle and work my craft, smart and friendly people around who are both few in number and fully understanding of my need for solitude, but also interesting and enlightening when I do get into conversation with them, and two weeks to pursue this project in any way I please. Oh, and I am right now looking at a different tectonic plate than the one on which I stand. Seriously, it’s right there. Also, deer aren’t afraid of us, and they hang out and eat apples. Oh oh oh and there’s a hawk that flies around my part of the house, sometimes so close I can look into its eye.

And I’m lost. Whereas I had begun this retreat with a lot of enthusiasm for this project and eagerness to get it going, I’m now overwhelmed by the breadth of the topic, unsure of the degree of depth that is most appropriate, ignorant of the best practices for this kind of work, anxious about the unwise use of my time, and generally feeling beneath the task. I even think I broke the electric kettle in the kitchen.

I am being treated to more privilege than billions of people will ever experience, and here I am, angsty. I hope I at least get credit for recognizing the absurdity of my own hangups.

I know there is no right way to go about this. That’s really the point of this retreat, to give writers the space and time to take things at a pace and within a structure that suits the writers themselves. I’m so accustomed to stop-and-start times, specific formats and styles for particular written products, and an established approval process, that this freedom, this liberation, is bewildering.

But now that I think about it, I suspect that what’s really going on is very similar to the distinction I make between performing as an actor on stage in a play and giving a presentation on a real-world topic for my job. There is too much of me riding on it.

Let’s begin with the theatre/work-presentation distinction. Upon learning of my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, many people who know me from my theatre life are in disbelief. How can I feel anti-social, afraid of human interaction, uncomfortable in crowds, and oversensitive to stimulation and also thrive on stage? It’s a perfectly reasonable question (though I bristle at the skepticism of my diagnosis that it implies), and one that took some time to for me to understand myself.

When I’m performing a role in a play, there is no question as to what I will talk about. My words are predetermined, and not just for what I will say, but when I will say it. The play will also have been blocked, meaning that where I am in space will also have been set and rehearsed well in advance. Through the rehearsal process, it will be determined how I will say all these words, how I will conduct myself physically, and even how I will imagine my character to have reached those various decisions. There is always room for change, iteration, adjustment, and depending on the production, sometimes even improvisation, but the structure is always there, and it is firm. Most importantly, I am not me. I am someone else. Not literally, of course, but there are sufficient layers between me and the audience (and even between me and my fellow actors on stage) that the excruciating discomforts associated with my autism are, if not wholly eliminated, sufficiently dampened. The role is a mask.

But take me out of the world of the performing arts, and into the world of speaking on behalf of an organization or a cause, and those layers are stripped away. If I am, for example, expected to give a talk about communications work, I know I will be utterly exposed. Not only can I not play a character (try as I might), but the “real me” must also lay bare whatever degree of expertise I have, or claim to have. “I’m Paul, and this is what I know.” My words, my physical comportment, my inflection, my gestures, and even the very contents of my brain are open to public scrutiny. There is no mask. That is unbearable.

So let’s apply this basic idea to writing, and, in a way, the dynamics flip, with two different areas of my life producing opposite results. As I mentioned, my writing for work is routinized with established formats and processes. As with a public presentation, I am the one producing the words, but I am rarely writing them in my own voice. In a very real sense, when I write press releases, emails to supporters, and newsletters, I am writing “in the character” of the institution I work for. I’m playing the role of my organization. My job title and the institution’s logo, they are my masks. Those layers are sufficient, once I am settled into the given employers’ needs, processes, and, importantly, voice.

Here at the refuge, I am attempting to write a long form magazine article on a topic of great interest to me. But I am not writing or “reporting” it in the voice of my institution, nor in the voice of the publication in which it will appear, as one might do with a straight-news newspaper article. With this project, the speaker is me. The facts I present, the sources I’ve chosen to mine, the people whose perspectives I’ve sought, the conversations and quotations I’ve initiated, the things I’ve chosen to omit or gloss over, and the conclusions reached, they’re all me, in my own voice. Whatever is wrong or unsatisfying or weak about the final product is a reflection of me, with no mask to hide behind. That, I tell you, is dizzying.

Now, one might then wonder, hey Paul, you seem to have no trouble opening every one of your precious little wounds and examining them in detail on this little blog of yours. Too true! And I’m not certain why this kind of writing that I’m doing right now doesn’t make me feel just as vulnerable. But I suspect it’s because I’m rather sure of the topic at hand, that being myself. Even if I’m completely deluded about what is going on within my own tempestuous morass of a psyche, there’s no one else in existence who can claim a greater level of expertise or comparably intimate knowledge. There is relative safety in that. Whatever the reason, exposing my inner thoughts and struggles is far less perilous than claiming the authority to expound upon an external subject.

So perhaps a healthy approach, and even a more fruitful approach, is to lean into my own inclinations and preferences, and tackle the subject of this project through my own lens. In other words, rather than present facts and an argument impersonally, maybe I can chronicle my own experience of the subject as I absorb it, and recount for the reader my intellectual journey to better understand it. The cliché is that one ought to “write what you know,” but I really don’t know much. So maybe the best thing to do is to write what I am coming to know – of the project’s subject and of what it comes to mean to me personally.

Okay, maybe I can do that. Take it easy now, oh knotty neck muscles of mine. Let’s get a few deep breaths in. Let’s take in the vast scene of nature around us and indulge in its otherworldly peacefulness. Let’s let the brain soak up what it’s learning and let the new information bounce off the thoughts and values that are already there.

And then, let’s write.

(And pay for the kettle I broke.)

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