#67: Hello from down here

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Good morning!

Lately I’ve been having trouble thinking about anything other than being depressed, which is making it somewhat difficult to produce interesting ideas for this newsletter. So today I am relieving myself of the pressure to say something worthwhile and am applying only the pressure to say something. To make some small attempt to keep doing something I’m committed to while all I really want to do is lay in bed and stare at the smudge on my ceiling (source unknown). I guess this will be a stream of consciousness.

I saw a TikTok recently in which a guy—I presume some kind of mental health professional, but no guarantees—suggested a tip for dealing with racing thoughts: fix your gaze. He said our eyes need to move around in order to keep our thoughts moving (think of your little eyeballs darting around when you dream), and that by slowing that movement down with intention, we can sort of reverse-engineer a response to rumination. This is a useful tip insofar as it’s much easier to control physical movement than mental movement, and what I realized when I heard it is I already do it. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by emotions, my instinct is to get comfortable and stare at the wall. I never understood why I did this, or even really noticed that I did it specifically, but now it seems obvious. Lately I’ve been doing it more intentionally, and it works.

Last year I wrote about the mysterious intelligence of our bodies and I’ve written often about “the intelligence buried under our moods.” It seems I’m preoccupied, creatively and psychologically, with inherited wisdom. This is probably because my inclination to solve every problem through brute-force metacognition is exhausting. I get sick of myself. I want to believe I don’t have to do all that—that maybe if I stopped trying so hard, life might unfold as it should, or I would end up doing the right thing without having to think about it so much. Even last week’s theory was about this: a grand order we cannot control or even see, but prevails nonetheless and even propels us forwards. It seems that on some level, my wildest dream is to cede responsibility for that process. (It’s also my greatest fear.)

About a month ago, maybe six weeks ago, a storm blew over one of the plants on our balcony and shattered its pot. The balcony is very small and strangely triangular, and so this accident rendered the entire thing unusable. It only would have taken a few minutes to pick up the shards of ceramic and clumps of soil, but we didn’t do it. In fact we left it for weeks, only going out there every once in a while to water the potless, horizontal dragon tree, as if that could possibly be enough. This neglect felt out of character for us (tidy people), but for some reason it remained a mental block.

This morning, finally, I cleaned it up. I don’t know why. It took two minutes. I’m trying to tell myself that means something—as if by finally doing the thing I’d put off, I can finally address some deeper issue going on with me. Maybe I’ve “picked up the sock,” per this essay I wrote for NYMag about depression last year:

“In its more severe forms, depression can keep people in bed for days, but my milder strain tends to manifest as an accumulation of insignificant failures. I notice a sock has fallen from the hamper, and I ignore it for days. I leave a cabinet door perennially ajar, even when it bugs me. I abandon a cup on the counter and let sticky juice coagulate in its seams. Though this sort of neglect can register as minor, it represents something fundamental: a kind of mental blindness to optimism, an unwillingness to see my actions as meaningful, and a self-defeating inner monologue that favors stasis above all else.”

I’ve been trying to take care of myself. To water the horizontal plant, so to speak. I’m not sure how much it’s helping. Maybe because I’m not sure what’s specifically wrong, or in some cases I do know what’s wrong and it seems unwieldy and unfixable—a famously depressed view. I’m trying to let go of the idea that I have to figure everything out right now. By that I mean I’m telling myself to stop trying to figure everything out right now. I’ve been around long enough to clock when I’m going through something that will only make sense in hindsight, but I’m always surprised by how much grace it requires to not panic when I’m in the thick of it. To resist diagnosis. To experience the symptoms as part of an inevitable process.

Last week a reader sent me an article from 2010 that blew my mind. It’s called “A Big Little Idea Called Legibility,” by Venkatesh Rao. In it Rao describes a simple idea: Humans crave legibility—that is, order and comprehension—and in the process of trying to make things endlessly legible, often set themselves up for failure. Citing many different sources (especially a book called Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott, which I just bought), Rao gives many examples of how this bias manifests on an institutional level: “The state is not actually interested in the rich functional structure and complex behavior of the very organic entities that it governs. ... It merely views them as resources that must be organized in order to yield optimal returns according to a centralized, narrow, and strictly utilitarian logic.” But Raos notes this view isn’t always knowingly destructive—sometimes we genuinely fail to grasp why something might function better in a less apparently orderly way (think of a messy house that makes sense only to its own inhabitant). 

Here’s how he describes the failure pattern:

  • Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city

  • Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works

  • Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations

  • Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like

  • Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality

  • Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary

  • Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly

There are so many traceable examples of this failure in modern society that are compelling to think about, but I’ve been mulling over where this fail pattern shows up for us as individuals who seek out order as a means to improve ourselves and our lives. Game plans, bullet journals, healthy habits, 10-step programs, pedometers, morning routines, diets, perfectly blocked-out calendars. It’s not that these tools never work; it’s that their primary role is to ease our discomfort with the unavoidable entropy of existence, rather than address the entropy itself.

This newsletter—my writing—can be guilty of the same misdirection. As the kind person who sent me this article put it in his email last week: “I appreciated your newsletter today and your efforts to make your world legible.” I like how this is both a compliment and a critique, because both feel right to me. I’m good at making the world legible; bad at accepting its inevitable illegibility.

I have no idea what it was called or who it was by, but years ago I read a poem about writing a poem. The poet described sensing the words floating somewhere outside of their grasp, and having to follow them out into the world, chase them down before they could get away and be forgotten. Lately I’ve been feeling the same way, only I’m the one being chased and it’s by my own depression. I’m doing okay—still have good moods, good times—but it’s there lurking, waiting for me when I wake up, pause, sit still, breathe around 4 p.m. I’ve been trying to understand what it wants from me, or what I can do to protect myself from it (go on enough walks? clean up the broken pot?), but I probably ought to accept its illegibility. Approach it like the smudge on my ceiling. Fix my gaze until my thoughts come back together in a language I understand, or else accept the mysteries unknown and move on.

  1. This HL Mencken quote, found in the comments of the above article on legibility: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

  2. Dogpig

  1. The White Lotus, about which I have mixed feelings. Will be discussing on a future Pop Quiz podcast ep!

  1. “The Afghanistan War Was Founded on Lies. Some People Are Still Telling Them.” by Daniel Bessner and “The Disasters in Afghanistan and Haiti Share the Same Twisted Root,” by Jonathan Katz, both for The New Republic. “[F]or 20 years the U.S. effort in Afghanistan has done little but enrich defense and military contractors and bolster the global heroin trade while harming a country about which Americans knew and understood little.” / “[I]t’s time for Americans to look themselves in the mirror and ask: What if we’re the bad guys?” 

  1. The definition of orthogonal (meaning “statistically independent”), which I forget over and over.

  1. “All Work and No Play,” an op-ed by Sam Adler-Bell for Dissent about why most video games today resemble work. I’m not sure I actually agree with this take but found it fascinating and thought-provoking nonetheless.

  1. A good portion of a large bin of Cheese Balls, purchased for my birthday, inexplicably not eaten by friends (?).

  1. This hood from Kule, a gift from my friend Elizabeth that will be my winter hat, pictured w/ remaining Cheese Balls.

  1. “Pictures at a Restoration: On Pete Souza’s Obama,” a sweeping piece by Blair McClendon for N+1 about the duplicitous nature of Obama-era iconography. “When power changes the image it projects, but not its function, people tend to go home and shut their doors, denying that the footfalls they hear outside are those running for their lives and those tasked with taking them.”

  1. A mounting exhausting re: getting dressed for 80+ degree weather, the least joyful dressing experience I have all year.

  1. This tweet which I laughed about for five minutes...? Why 

  1. A new mask from Graf Lantz, which will be my go-to when cooler weather hits.

  1. “Worn Out,” a piece by Drew Austin for Real Life about the intersection of fashion and technology that I found so convincing and well-done that I’ve been thinking about it for days, not just in the context of fashion but in the context of modern life itself.

  1. This true TikTok.

  1. My birthday present to myself: a massage from Life Wellness Center in Bedstuy, followed by a 30-minute conversation in the verdant back garden with one of the students who works there about what she wants to be when she grows up. Briefly cured me.

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