The Long Climb Up to Zero

I’m on my way back from CSICon, the skeptics’ conference put on by my organization, which took place in Las Vegas this year. One of the presentations was by Anthony Pratkanis, who introduced us to the phenomenon of “altercasting,” wherein a person can elicit desired behavior from others by adopting, and implicitly assigning, particular social roles. So for example, if he effectively assumes the social role of a teacher, we become students, and will find ourselves carrying out the behaviors that are expected of that role (dutifully taking notes if he suggests it, for example). And the power of this altercasting is such that once we have put ourselves into these social roles, we live up to them. We almost can’t help it. It’s a tool of con artists, as well as a skill that can be used for good.

On my way in to Vegas, I got a message from my wife asking if I knew what day it was. Uh oh, was my first thought. But then she reminded me: the sixth anniversary of the night I was ambushed late at night by two thugs on the street in DC, beaten to a bloody pulp, and sent into a years-long spiral of PTSD and myriad other associated problems. The anniversary date used to have a lot of power over me, almost as though the recurrence of the date would somehow “make it happen again,” which is of course nonsense. In the past couple of years, though, I’ve more or less let the day pass without realizing it, which is a small victory.

The years of therapy that followed this event, which I’m still working through, subsequently unearthed the vast array of phobias, self-loathing, weird hangups, anxieties, traumas, and other psychological baggage I’d been lugging around more or less since childhood. The PTSD diagnosis, it turned out, spanned far more than just one attack. I had been trained to experience existential terror, fight-or-flight amygdala activation, through years of bullying and abuse in my youth. In other words, I was early on placed in the social role of a subhuman target for derision. And with constant reenforcement, I lived up to it. I memorized it.

All this time, readers will know, I had been living with Asperger’s syndrome, and had no idea. I only found this out very recently, at age 38. This means I had been born predisposed to feel like an alien, unable to comprehend the behavior of the beings around me, stunted in my attempts to reach out or communicate, and often punished for it. The Asperger’s also contributed to a litany of other ways in which I experienced the world differently from neurotypical folks, so a great deal of my fears and limitations (social, intellectual, physical) were textbook aspects of the autism.

I felt like an alien for a reason, because I really was different. The misfortune of growing up in a bullying environment led me down the path of believing myself to be a bad alien, a bum unit out of the factory, a lemon, sent into this breathing world scarce half made up. To use Pratkanis’s concept, I likely altercast my social role as an unworthy to others as much or more than it was altercast upon me by others.

When one is of this mind, I’ve learned, one sort of expects to be called out, to periodically pay some kind of penance for one’s difference, for pretending to be a normal member of the species. Not so fast! We see you. In adulthood, you can go for longer stretches of time without being overtly chastised for trying to pass as human, but the dread of being revealed is ever-present. For me, it was a constant exercise of over-analysis of my behavior, my physical comportment, my speech, the direction of my gaze, my gestures, as well as kind of running apology for my quirks, oddities, and deficiencies. It’s as if to display a running advertisement to the rest of the world that says, “I know I’m not like you, I get it, and I’m sorry.”

The attack six years ago felt like one of those moments of being caught, unmasked. Ostensibly those assailants were beating me up to get my wallet and phone, but to me, they were punishing me for existing. Not so fast. We see you. In the moment of the beatings, it felt like I was finally going to be killed for it, and that didn’t seem too strange to me. I had it coming.

I now am meant to unlearn all of this. I am supposed to be working to memorize a different story about myself, to assign myself different, affirming social roles.

The Asperger’s diagnosis should be making this task easier. Before the diagnosis, this was an exercise in convincing myself I was fine the way I was, and that there was nothing about me that inherently made me unworthy of membership in homo sapiens, which is quite an uphill climb, psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. My mind had been trained to believe the opposite, and now I had to learn that I was as worthy of respect and agency as anyone else – not in spite of my various quirks, hangups, and differences, but regardless of them. Knowing now that I had been working with an autistic brain all this time should have eased this path, because it explained the majority of my differences and my feelings of alienation, giving them a name and a cause. Rather than working to accept a bubbling, undulating mass of traits, something that seemed scattered and very abstract, I now had a concrete, definitive First Cause. Whereas I had once felt that I had a torrent of faults of my own making with which I had to come to terms, now I knew I had a condition. I was born with an atypical brain, and there was and is nothing to be done about that, so I might as well just be okay with it.

But three months or so into my life as a diagnosed Aspie (which is a short time, I know), this hasn’t happened. What I hoped would be a huge relief and a license to finally accept myself as I am has proved to be much more complicated and fraught. At conferences, for example, like the one I’m leaving right now, I still default to the social role of the barely-tolerated freak, the alien who needs to at least imply apology for just being there. Awareness of my own Asperger’s hasn’t erased the limitations of that condition, so I still flail and sweat and panic my way through even the most banal interactions (especially those). Rather than accept the fact that I simply can’t perceive what others naturally perceive, I go into a kind of processing overdrive, likely coming off even weirder than I might otherwise, and certainly exhausting myself. The cascade of self-doubt, self-loathing, and shame for existing continues as it ever has. If anything, now I add to my longtime mountain of struggle the knowledge that I am being “a bad Aspie,” failing to accept and live out that reality.

So even after all this self-realization, after all this really hard work, there remains a social role I seem immune to, over which altercasting has no effect: Respected peer. It’s not as though I get no validation from friends and colleagues. Good-hearted people in my life expend great effort trying to imbue me with some sense of self-worth. But their words, their sentiments, their compassion, sincere as I assume it to be, just bounces off. It simply doesn’t penetrate. Words of encouragement and affirmation sound as absurd to me as being told I have three heads or telekinetic powers. I know it’s not so, no matter how passionately you try to convince me.

I know, I know. The point is not what others tell me, how they validate me. The goal is to start within myself, to memorize a new narrative of my own making. It’s just proving a lot harder than I thought. Understanding the core source of my alienation hasn’t erased the alienation, not yet anyway. And all I aspire to, really, is to stop at knowing I’m different. To take no further steps, either into self-loathing or even affirmation.

A mere feeling of neutrality about “the way I am” would be a goddamned paradise. But man, it’s still a long, long way up just to get to zero.

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Asperger’s, Corrective Lenses, and the True Self

What does it mean to “be yourself”? I think it means to behave as you would if you were more or less unconcerned with how others perceived your behavior, and I assume it’s implied that this being-yourself behavior is largely within the bounds of the law and socially acceptable norms.

My recent diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome has opened up the opportunity for me to let go of my self-doubt and self-mortification, and to begin to embrace my Aspie nature, within reason, without concern for how it plays. It sounds pretty exciting! A lifetime of anguish can now be discarded, and real liberation experienced! I can be myself! I can be the real me!

The problem, however, is that I’m not sure what the real me actually is. I’ve never really experienced the unfettered, unthreatened real me. Depending on the circumstance and either my comfort level or lack of inhibition, I presume have let varying degrees of “real me” emerge, be it in small drabs or convulsions of impulsivity that I have almost always regretted. But to put down all of the armor, to remove the masks, and to deactivate the constant self-surveillance, I do not know what that is. I don’t know who that is.

I mean, it’s “me,” right? But “me” is also the sum of my experiences plus the “real me” of genetics and biology. By that way of thinking, the self-loathing and self-censoring mini-golem I have been all my life is the real me.

However, now I know about my condition. I know that my brain was wired differently at birth through no fault of my own (or anyone else’s). So this new knowledge is now one of those experiences, it’s a new piece of “real me.”

Which I guess brings us back to where we were. So maybe the question is, what is the real me now?

One way to answer that might have to start with a different question: What would I like to be the real me now?

When the prospect of being prescribed things like anti-anxiety and anti-depressive medication first came into my life, I was very reticent. I was hung up on the fact that what makes me who I am is my brain, just the way it is. While taking certain medications might make me feel better in certain ways, and make life more manageable, I feared that the medication would fundamentally change who I was, by tinkering with the chemistry of my very Self.

But what I came to accept and appreciate is that if we’re lucky, life, being ridiculously short, offers us the chance to augment or repair aspects of our existence that hinder our well-being. I wear glasses to correct my vision, and I don’t consider blurry vision to be a key aspect of my true self. Having corrected vision absolutely impacts how I perceive and interact with the world, with countless internal and external implications. It’s a small thing, to wear glasses, but its effects are life-altering. But I don’t feel I’m being untrue to myself to wear them. If anything, I now consider them a part of my identity. I have adopted them into my “self,” so that “real me” is, among other things, a guy who wears glasses.

And so I decided it could be for pills to make me less sad and less scared. The real me would now be a guy (with glasses) who takes pills to make himself less scared and sad. That feels okay.

Today, I’m a guy who’s just found out he’s autistic at the age of 38. I didn’t have the benefit of this knowledge growing up, so I assumed I was faulty and subhuman, sent into this breathing world scarce half made up.

Cynthia Kim of Musings of an Aspie wrote something about self-acceptance that echoed my own experience, to a point:

When you grow up knowing that you’re different – and worse, suspecting that you’re defective – acceptance doesn’t come naturally. Too often, autistic individuals are acutely aware of the ways in which they don’t measure up to social norms. As a child, I knew that I wasn’t like most of the other kids and in the absence of an explanation, I assumed that I was simply doing something wrong.

Finally having an explanation for my differences forced me to challenge some long-held beliefs about myself. What if all these things that are wrong with me – I was still thinking more in terms of “wrong” than “different” – aren’t my fault?

Those first inklings of acceptance brought me immense joy. Decades of thinking I just wasn’t trying hard enough were cast in a new light. I wasn’t defective; my brain worked differently.

I hoped for immense joy, but it hasn’t come yet. When the diagnosis was confirmed, there was no light from the heavens that lit up my soul and freed me from my past. A burden was lifted, surely, but a different one was placed on me, one that sounded more or less like “now what?”

To be sure, self-forgiveness is coming. I now know why I didn’t “measure up to social norms,” when “be yourself” was simply not an option. And that’s very welcome. But what’s not clear yet is how to move forward.

Here’s what I do know. I want to drop the armor and masks in a pile, and walk away from them forever. I want to shut off that self-surveillance system that’s been running inside me since I can remember, and disconnect the power supply.

But I also want to know which of my Aspie quirks and predilections can be fully embraced, which I have to regulate, and which I have to bury. I know I can’t let go of all control and turn into some hyper-misanthropic live wire. I have responsibilities, and I have people I care about who need me to regulate. Who need me to put my Asperger’s traits aside as best I can, at least sometimes.

So it seems what I need to do is to start examining all these pieces one by one, and experimenting with what works and what doesn’t, which aspects of the “real me” I can run with, and which ones need to adjusted or worked against. I’ll need to discover how they work in different combinations with each other, and in what contexts. I’ll need to decide which ones I actually like, and which ones I want to curtail because of some unhappiness they might bring.

What eventually becomes the “real me,” then, will take time to emerge, and be at least in large part of my own making. I’ll be a guy with glasses, who takes pills to keep from getting to sad or scared, whose brain is wired to have some real big problems with the world around him, who also has some gifts to take advantage of, and who found out at 38 that he has Asperger’s syndrome. Somewhere, in all that, I hope I can find a real me.

And I hope that eventually I can, for the first time in my life, be myself.

A More Forgiving Lens

I have never felt like I belonged in this species. I resembled a human, and I could force myself to awkwardly ape the basic mannerisms of people, but I would always suspect that there was something alien about me, and that everyone else suspected (or knew) the same thing.

A lot of this alienation is in regard to my relationship to and interactions with other people. I’m a pretty severe introvert, that’s no secret. Being around people, even those I love and feel most comfortable with, utterly exhausts me. But I’ve always felt that there was more to it than mere introversion. For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to relate to almost anyone, unable to comprehend others’ values, aspirations, needs, obsessions, or subtexts.

As a result, I’ve been at a loss as to how to blend, to appear as though I do understand, or at the very least to keep my bewilderment hidden. So I’ve thrown an inordinate amount of processing power at figuring out how to appear normal, how to talk, stand, sit, move, gesture, and where to fix my gaze or how to modulate my voice. I pretend to value the same things other people value, and aspire to the same kinds of things they aspire to, even to the point of almost entirely convincing myself.

That alienation, this constant dissonance, was of my own making, I believed. I didn’t share the same interests as others because I had somehow failed to grasp the obvious reasons they were important or provided joy. I didn’t engage in sports or other physical activities because I was weak and afraid and unwilling to put the time in to not be that way. I had trouble comprehending instructions and directions because I was being self-absorbed and inattentive. I had trouble reading for any length of time because I was superficial and distracted. I upset people I love, not giving them what they needed, because I was negligent, self-centered, and oblivious. I didn’t want to socialize because I was a stick in the mud, narcissistic, and timid. I didn’t want to go on big adventures, travel, take big risks, or throw myself into new situations because I was cowardly and lazy. That summed up why I fared so poorly, academically and socially, throughout much of middle and high school: I was cowardly and lazy.

What else could I conclude? And having reached such a conclusion, over and over, in every circumstance from childhood to my late 30s, brought self-hate, depression, anxiety, resentment, and resignation. How could it be any other way?

I did have one suspicion, though. A suspicion that kept popping into my awareness, something that felt familiar, but also sounded too alien even for me.

That suspicion only grew, however. When I would air out loud to someone, it would be summarily dismissed. I, not trusting my own perceptions of the world, not knowing how to be a person, conceded to the dismissal. But only outwardly.

I stopped conceding. I have finally pursued this suspicion to its end, and, well, it turns out for once I was right.

Last week, at the age of 38, I was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder, along with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I have Asperger’s. I am autistic.

I’m so very glad to know. And I’m also glad that there was no hedging on the part of the doctor, the neuropsychologist who tested and diagnosed me. As my wife Jessica and I sat down in her office, the doctor mercifully began by saying, “I’ll cut to the chase, because I know you’re eager to know,” and told me that I had what she characterized as “severe” Asperger’s syndrome. Not severe in the sense of debilitation or in some kind of danger, but meaning that I’m firmly, well into the spectrum. Had the diagnosis been fuzzy, a borderline case, I’d never stop wondering and doubting. Having it be so clear-cut was a relief.

When I first began toying with the idea of getting tested, I couldn’t avoid the fact that simply knowing I had Asperger’s, if indeed I did, wouldn’t really change anything. There’s no medication to take, there’s no real treatment. I’d just go on as I had been. I had to ask myself, well, why bother?

Here’s why. The dissonance of my life – my strange predilections, my quirks, my strong and irrational aversions, my inability to read or connect with other people, my lack of interest in the experiences of life, my intractable obsessions over particular topics and utter lack of curiosity for almost anything else (phones, anyone?), my desperate need for safe and reliable routines, my spacial disorientation, my hypersensitivity to heat, sound, and light, my clumsiness and lack of coordination, my over-reliance on rules and logic, my inability to think in broad, big-picture terms, and most especially, the panic, pain, and exhaustion I experience in even the most benign social situations – I have always ascribed these things to my being a failure as a person. A lazy, cold-hearted, short-sighted coward.

Now I know that much of it (not all, of course) stems from something I was just born with. There was an actual condition that made it impossible that I could ever be and think like everyone else. My brain was literally different from theirs, and there was nothing I could have done about it.

Generosity of spirit is one of the virtues I value most, but it is never something I allowed for myself. Instead, I have tortured myself over my past, for the things I endured and the things I felt I had brought upon myself, because I had failed at some point to become fully human. I blamed myself for having neglected to learn how to be a normal person. I wasn’t just unable to cut myself a little slack for the failures and disappointments of the past, I had forbade myself from doing so. To forgive myself, I felt, would be to allow myself to continue to fail and disappoint.

Now I can reevaluate. I can look back on the story of my life through a more forgiving lens. I honestly don’t know what that might do to me.

As I sit here now and tell myself this is real, it’s hard to accept, even though it’s mostly welcome. I obviously have a great deal more processing to do. Some of that processing I’ll do here, in writing, as it seems to be the way I best understand and express my thoughts. In writing, the rules and parameters, and there are no social cues to miss or misinterpret, no eyes with which to avoid contact, no expected time frame in which to form and verbally express a thought, no expectation that I intuit the nuance and give-and-take of a real-time conversation. Here, I don’t have to second-guess my very worth as a human being.

Actually, maybe that’s the first thing I should do: Accept, finally, that there is nothing to second-guess, and that I don’t have to pretend to be normal anymore. Maybe I never did.

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The Quest for Peace, Through Headphones

Image by Shutterstock.
I am told that I am poor at being “in the moment,” and I confess it to be the case. I am nothing if not riddled with anxieties, large and small. At my worst, I am engulfed in worries, drenched in waves of stomach-sickening dread, doubt, and guilt. But normally, just going about my day, I maintain a manageable baseline of unease; the quiet hum of preoccupation with Other Things always resonating, if just barely. I am told this is bad for my health, to say the least.

I come by it all honestly, with anxious genes from my forebears, and traumatic life experiences from childhood and adulthood that have primed my lizard brain to needlessly rev itself while idle, overeager to burst into full fight-or-flight mode at the least cause, be it from a sense of physical danger to thoughts and fears of a more existential, personal, or mundane nature.

But while my limbic system is asserting itself, life is happening. There’s my wonderful family (who, in fairness, trigger not a small amount of anxiety themselves), music to be carried away by, books to be lost in, the lovely natural world that surrounds me here in Maine, Earl Gray tea, writing, bicycle rides, cool autumn air, my guitar, and even dumb video games and TV shows. To enjoy these things, I need to be there for them. I need to be “present.” Usually, I am not.

Being in the moment, being present, having a feeling of mindfulness; these things are enormous challenges for me. Elusive, to say the least, even when sincerely pursued. Being present, letting go of worries and preoccupations, takes up such time, time I could be spending being worried and preoccupied. There are all those Other Things!

The thing is, though, the worry and the preoccupation and the anxiety, it’s killing me. It’s ruining my sleep, shredding my nervous system, bruising my heart, pock-marking my brain, dampening my intellect, deadening my creativity, atrophying my muscles, and robbing me of genuine connection with my wife and kids, who I love deeply. I suffer from depression and I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, but it’s also true that I could improve things by leaps and bounds if I could just manage to make room in my life – in my mind – for one simple thing.

Peace.

All this is to say that this is why I went on a weird and frustrating quest over the past few weeks trying to find a nice pair of headphones.

You see, even though I’m a musician and songwriter, actually listening to music, escaping into it, was something I’d lost the knack for sometime in my late 20s. As the Internet and podcasts and Other Things ascended, becoming absorbed in an album became a rare thing for me. I suppose this happens with a lot of people at this age; music is something we obsess over (and spend way too much money on) as teenagers and college students, and then more or less abandon as we become Regular Adults, save for occasional trips of nostalgia.

There’s another odd sore point for me, in that listening to good music comes with the baggage of opportunities missed. I once firmly believed that I would become a singer-songwriter by trade, and make a life of writing, recording, and performing music. Now that this is clearly not going to happen, it becomes more diffiult to enjoy much of the music I used to, or ought to, for it recalls thoughts of a youth spent, talent squandered, and lessons not taken. At times I get wrapped up in fantasies of what might have been, which, for when I was young and hopeful, was an exciting dream about a future, and as an adult is now a sad yearning for what can now never be.

Nonetheless, in the here and now, it seemed to me that music might be a good way to claim some peace for myself. Goodness knows, we have such easy access to so goddamn much of it, that there’s almost infinite choice. I have music in my iTunes library that I’ve owned for over a decade and probably never even pushed “play” on. But music, and audio more generally, seemed like a good way to ease into the pursuit of peace. When I sit to read a book, as Other Things go on around me, I could put on a pair of headphones, play some instrumental music, and escape into the world the author has laid out for me. (What more often happens is I that get distracted or fall asleep.) I could listen to guided meditations and affirmations to start rewiring some of the bad connections and memorizations encrusted in my addled brain. This wouldn’t be a way to be in the moment with people or nature, per se, but it would be a start, a first step toward letting the Other Things go, just for a little while, in favor of peace.

To do this, I’d of course need a decent pair of headphones, right? You can’t achieve inner peace with crummy earbuds, right?

Once upon a time, I’d had a kind-of-nice pair of over-ear headphones. Bose OE2’s, which sounded nice and warm, and were more or less comfortable, though cheaply built and easily broken. Before my quest for peace, I’d decided they were not being utilized enough to justify holding on to, so I sold them. (I also had sold my Kindle Paperwhite, since I was reading so much on my iPad mini – a choice I now regret for related peace-pursuit reasons.)

Now, I actually think Apple’s EarPods are quite nice for what they are, and we have at least two pairs of them in the house. I know there’s a kind of geek-cultural agreement that these are risible peaces of junk, but I have found them rather comfortable and sufficiently nice-sounding to serve most of my listening needs over the past couple of years.

But I didn’t think they’d suffice for finding peace. One needed comfortable over-ear headphones for that. I mean, everyone knows this, right? For true peace, you can’t have a little nugget in your ear canal vibrating the air and your skull. What you need is a couple of cushions lovingly embracing your ears, with earphones that produce a soundscape rich with detail. That’s the only way to peace, of course.

This was the tenet I had subconsciously agreed to, anyway. So I started researching and looking for deals. I was excited to find Logitech’s UE 4000 headphones go on some crazy discount to under $20, so I snapped them up, and at first thought they were a true epiphanic discovery. It wasn’t too long, though, that I realized they were painfully uncomfortable, with a kind of mushy, heavy sound. Dissatisfied and needing to find an alternative, my hunting instinct was triggered. It was time to shop for serious.

Let me say something about this. This is a thing with me, when there is an Important Purchase to be made, something takes over and I become obsessed with the process, consumed with researching possibilities, combing the Internet for bargains, digging through enthusiasts’ message boards, and gathering opinion. I used to only do this on those rare occasions when a new computer was to be bought, but that became a lot easier once I switched to Macs in 2004. But headphones were a new way for my meticulous shopping beast to howl at the moon.

Thinking on it now, how could it not? Headphones are the perfect snare for me: they are of near-infinite variety, there are models and makes that are widely agreed by certain communities to be superior, but dizzying nuance exists not just between price points and types and manufacturers and brands, but within those brands and individual models. And then there are factors that can affect one’s decision such as the quality of the production or compression of the music in question; the source player, be it a computer, an iPod, or a hi-fi system; the earpads, be they stock or purchased separately, made from all manner of materials; one’s surrounding environs; and even that maddening myth (is it just a myth?) of headphone “burn-in.” Audiophiles can give wine aficionados a run for their money, which they need a hell of a lot of.

And it’s not as though I live anywhere near a place that sells decent headphones, and has sufficient models on display for testing out in person. Yes, Apple Stores and other such places have headphones to sample, but they almost exclusively make available cans that are far out of my price range, which was really anything over $100 (technically, there is plenty below $100 that is out of my range, but as we can see rationality was lacking throughout this quest). I was limited almost entirely to what I could actually get delivered to my house. That meant actually buying them.

I won’t bore you with the shipment-by-shipment details, but suffice it to say I spent a great deal of time on websites like Head-Fi.org, r/headphones, and deep within the lowest levels of Amazon customer reviews. And by this time I have to assume that there is a red flag over my name, or perhaps a bullseye target over my picture, at Amazon’s returns department.

My primary experience was with three models: Sony’s MDR–7506, Audio-Technica’s ATH-M40x, and Sennheiser’s HD 380 Pro.

I began with the MDR–7506, which The Wirecutter has long named its top choice, and has been a staple of Those in the Know since they were introduced in 1991. I was at first surprised by how neutral they were, with no Beats-like thumping bass or Bose warmth. But I was quickly shocked by the level of detail I could suddenly percieve. I could hear the slightest taps of Erin McKeown’s fingernails on “Queen of Quiet,” and the bass crescendos in Pantera’s “Walk” sounded like they were physically coming toward me. But they were also rather uncomfortable. After a few minutes, parts of my earlobes would begin to ache. I tried a few minor hacks with the earpads to mitigate this, but the discomfort was undeniable.

Surely, I thought, the M40x’s would be perfect. Everyone (and by that I mean a lot of tech geeks) knows the M50x is some paragon of headphone perfection, and the M40x would just be a small step down in, well, some tech spec or other. They were big, rugged, puffy-looking, and extremely well-regarded.

But to my ears, they were claustrophobic where the Sonys were expansive. The sound was meaty, focused, tight, and powerful, but somehow scrunched. I doubted my own perceptions, thinking that I might even be wanting the “wrong thing,” for how could I not like these? But on top of the sound, they too were too painful to wear for long stretches. Replacing the earpads with something softer only made the sound feel empty, drained. Off they went.

The Sennheisers were very strange to me. Rather than pressing against the ears, they completely surround them, so your lobes never make contact with the hardware. I thought that might be just the ticket for my enormous ears, but the clamping sensation on my skull was off-putting, and the sound felt slightly tinny. Bass came through strongly, but mids were weak, as though being heard, well, in a can.

During this process, I began to doubt my senses. Could I even distinguish between crummy and high-end headphones? Was any of this even worth it? One night (yes it was late) I tried comparing the EarPods to one of the contender models, and found I couldn’t tell the difference anymore. I was going a little bit crazy.

I was feeling anxiety over the time and effort and money being put into this quest. I felt guilt. I felt worry.

At one point, I returned to the Sonys. Something indeed had been lost. The vast expanse of soundstage I had perceived from my initial experiences no longer struck me. Had I simply become acclimated to better headphones generally since my first time around the block with them? Or was there really nothing special there to begin with?

Despite the wash of “wow-ness” being gone, I found I still appreciated the “true” sound they produced. Not perfect, as some vocals sometimes came through a little recessed for my taste, but they still came across as superior to the others I’d gone through. I tried out a couple of different kinds of earpads that didn’t change the sound too drastically, but made them far more comfortable.

You can clearly see what happened here.

This all began with a sincere attempt to be more in the moment, to have a taste of relaxed mindfulness, to let go of immediate anxieties and remove myself from the frenetic stresses of work, parenthood, the news, battles on Twitter, and the like. But the process became its own source of stress. I simply had to find, if not the “perfect” solution, the solution that maximized the resources I had available to me, by way of money, time, and access to the objects themselves.

But I realized I was never going to achieve some kind of zen state by way of the headphones themselves. (If there is a doorway to the sublime to be found through headphones, it is likely well beyond my price range, so I may never truly know what it is to live with a pair of $400 cans, alas.) I finally understood that I could just pick a pair that was good enough, and move on to what started all of this. The quest for peace.

As I write this, I am donning my new Sony MDR–7506’s. I have a pair of Auray Ultra Deep earpads on them, which give a little more isolation and bass, and are far easier on my ears than the stock pads. I am still choosing between those and a pair of Beyerdynamic velour earpads, which are much softer, but a little less isolated, if barely. So I suppose this leg of the quest is not entirely over. But it’s manageable. It is not suffused with anxiety, just a twinge of guilt over the additional $20 spent on whichever pads I stick with.

I can stop worrying now about all the Other Headphones that I might test out. The next step, the first real step, begins now. It begins with writing this essay, with enjoying music through the good-enough headphones I’ve settled on. It begins with knowing that my family is here in my house with me, safe and tucked in for the night, and feeling my connection to them even as they’re not in the same room with me. It begins with being in this moment right here, right now, and then it begins again with the next moment. And I can be in those moments with nice headphones, with crummy earbuds, or even, when I’m ready, with blessed, blessed silence.


 

Note: Full credit to Iyaz Akhtar for first having the idea for using the Superman-related phrase “quest for peace” in  the sense it’s used here. In fact, he has a whole show about it.

Robin Williams and the False Promise of Success

robin_williams_on_inside_the_actors_studio
I have no idea why he did it. I have no special insight into whatever darkness weighed on the heart of Robin Williams. I haven’t even seen a Robin Williams movie since Man of the Year, which was terrible. But he’s someone I absolutely idolized as a young comedic performer, someone whose career I would have done anything to emulate. He was an early example for me of a performer who was utterly beloved entirely for his performances, for his talent and energy, for the laughs and pathos he was capable of bringing about, as opposed to his looks or some veneer of “cool.”

And while I can’t know what haunted him, I can relate to him both as a comic actor and as someone who struggles with depression. I think, in the immediate shock of the news of his apparent suicide, that Williams’ death gives the lie to the idea that I, and I’d suppose that millions of others who also live with depression, tell themselves: That if we can just reach a certain level of success, if we can just cross this undefinable threshold of validation, our hangups and sadness will be cured.

I know I think this. I don’t think it intellectually, of course, but it’s there. Something deep in my own mind, where I can’t yet correct it, believes this.

Robin Williams embodied a dream I once had of who I would become. He had reached the pinnacle of that ideal. But it didn’t cure him. Whatever his demons were (and again, I have no idea as to what they were beyond what is common public knowledge), they could not be erased by popularity, acclaim, awards, a guaranteed place in our cultural pantheon, or the laughter and tears of millions – billions? – of people.

I was in the audience for his Inside the Actors Studio appearance during my brief time at that school, and it was one of those evenings where he could do no wrong. He had this huge room of self-obsessed actors (many of whom probably already considered him yesterday’s news) howling with laughter, absolutely adoring him for his sharp and quick mind, and for his humanity. Because while he was cracking us up, between the frenetic barrages of wit and energy, he would pause, and he would reveal a little bit of his true self, showing us how vulnerable he really was.

Success won’t cure us by itself. That’s not what’s wrong. We have to find another way. I’m sure he tried. I wish he’d succeeded.

The Functional Hair Shirt: The Utility of Regret

Let go of regrets, I am told. They are purposeless, serving as an unnecessary and often-overwhelming burden on my day-to-day life, my relationships, and my peace of mind. Even Toad the Wet Sprocket, perhaps my favorite band, sings in opposition to it:

Shame doesn’t become you

There are no mistakes in the final view . . .

For every path you follow there’s another left behind

Every door you don’t kick open there’s a million more to try

And for everything you’ve taught me

Here’s the one I’ve learned the best

There is nothing but the moment

Don’t you waste it on regret

(This is not to say that Toad doesn’t have plenty of songs in which regret is deeply expressed, but I digress.)

Yet I am someone who is wracked with regrets. Now, don’t get ahead of me, I adore my wife and children, and I would refuse any change in my history that turned me away from my life with them. But that doesn’t mean that I do not now live in sadness and shame over the consequences of many choices, made and unmade. In some instances I have failed miserably, shamefully, in some endeavor or other. In others, I have blundered or failed to better appreciate the fallout of particular decisions. I have been too scared to do the right thing, and I have been too brash in doing the wrong thing, and in all these cases, I am now lesser than I ought to be.

So regret, to me, feels entirely justified. And not just the tacit acknowledgement of mistakes, but the true, visceral, feeling of it. Steeping in it.

But emotional residue is one thing. Pointless wallowing is another. Or is it? Carina Chocano at Aeon argues that in a utilitarian culture that insists on a never-look-back attitude, one that treats regret like a vessel-slowing barnacle infestation, the hair shirt has its function:

The assumption is that these ruminations stem from a flaw in my character, or an unresolved trauma, or some questionable behaviourist conditioning. It’s a neurobiological glitch, maybe, or a bad habit. And all of these might apply, but I also think I’m driven by a combination of pragmatism and curiosity. Whenever I come up against a problem, or find myself plagued by questions I can’t answer, my impulse is to lift up the hood of my day-to-day denial and complacency and dive into the intricate circuitry of my past in search of whatever minor gasket malfunction sparked the powder train that eventually blew up the spacecraft. I guess in some way, I’ve come to think of regret as a deductive game that, although it’s almost never fun, will eventually unlock all of life’s mysteries. Is this what I intended to do? Could I have predicted this outcome? How did I get here?

I may indulge in the darkness of regret (okay, I definitely do — see this for example) but I do so, ostensibly anyway, as a guard against repeating mistakes. If the screw-ups of my past did not sting in the present, what would motivate me to improve? If every mistake is “just in the past,” and no longer relevant, how can we reap the advantages of experience?

As Chocano says, “The point of regret is not to try to change the past, but to shed light on the present.” And this is based in reason, rather than mere emotional indulgence. “Mixed feelings are not only what make us human, they’re what make us truly rational,” she writes. I agree.

Of course, there are degrees. As I’ve said, I am prone to wallow, to sicken myself with an overdose of regret. But those of good intentions rarely advise that I turn down the volume of my regrets so that I can better hear the lessons of my past mistakes. Usually, the virtuous thing to do is supposedly to shut them off altogether. I will try to find the middle ground: mine my past for useful data, allow the pain of regret to spur the search, but moderate my exposure so as not to become leaden with shame to the point of immobility.

Stephen Fry and the Paradox of Loneliness

Stephen Fry, one of my heroes, recently tried to commit suicide, and has since told the whole tale of his battle with depression in such a way that only he can. One passage in his latest post stands out to me, a very familiar paradox concerning loneliness, especially considering he and I are both performers, stage performers even, who prize our wit and can seem on the surface to be gregarious and light:

. . . perhaps I am writing this for any of you out there who are lonely too. There’s not much we can do about it. I am luckier than many of you because I am lonely in a crowd of people who are mostly very nice to me and appear to be pleased to meet me. But I want you to know that you are not alone in your being alone.

Loneliness is not much written about (my spell-check wanted me to say that loveliness is not much written about – how wrong that is) but humankind is a social species and maybe it’s something we should think about more than we do. I cannot think of many plays or documentaries or novels about lonely people. Aah, look at them all, Paul McCartney enjoined us in Eleanor Rigby… where do they all come from?

The strange thing is, if you see me in the street and engage in conversation I will probably freeze into polite fear and smile inanely until I can get away to be on my lonely ownsome.

I’ve chosen to be more open about my social anxiety at this stage in my life because I simply don’t always have the energy to fake it anymore, smile inanely, etc., and I also feel that I’m at an age where, goddamn it, I have to be able to stop pretending at sometime. This latter principle, however, rarely holds outside the abstract. In real world meatspace, the inane smile finds its way back. Anyway.