Sunday Selection 2020-08-23

All of a sudden, summer seems to be drawing to a close. Schools are reopening (somewhat), the days are not quite so reliably hot, and it doesn’t stay bright until well after dinner time anymore. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you where the past few months have gone. A combination of continuing pandemic isolation, still unfinished moving stresses, and just the general existential dread of life in these times makes it feel like Spring was both yesterday and a lifetime ago.

But in the hopes of achieving some semblance of normalcy, no matter how shaky, I’ve decided to take up some writing and sharing again. So here we go:

Around the Web

The Riddle of Solitude in the Age of the Coronavirus

For me, a large part of the pain in the early phase of isolation was the complete breakdown of a social life. After a year in a new city, I was just starting to build a circle of friends and regular activities, and all that came grinding to a halt (as well as the regular interactions with coworkers). But oddly, six months in, not only do I find myself getting comfortable with solitude, but wanting even more of it. Part of it may be due going in to a library at least once a week, getting in to the city, and absorbing some of its populous nervous energy. Part of it might be the desire to get away from roommates, who while lovely and wonderful, have been entirely too close for too long the last few months. Thankfully, we just moved to a much larger place with enough space for each of us to ignore all the others. Perhaps what this highlights more than anything is the need for balance. Too much of anything can be a bad thing.

The Semi-Satisfied Life

The challenges of the last few months have been compounded by the fact that most of my usual coping mechanisms of museums, bookshops, dinner and drinks outside, have been gone. Though they are gradually coming back (for now), I’m trying to make something of being forced to pay attention to my inner self and mental state and rely on mostly that for some sense of relief. Schopenhauer, I think, was on to something when he realized that happiness is not just the absence of suffering, but actually paying attention to that absence and realizing that things could be much worse.

Social Media: It’s Worse Than I Thought

Continuing the theme of isolation and paying attention, I have been noticing that social media continues to get increasingly intolerable. I am not (perhaps thankfully) on the TikTok bandwagon, but Instagram seems determined to push people I don’t follow, rather than showing me posts from people I do, and YouTube’s intrusive advertising has gotten to the point that it’s very off-putting to watch anything at all. More than ever, it is clear that our attention has been harvested and weaponized against us, and perhaps the only way to win this game is not to play.

Books

For the first time in an embarrassingly long time I picked up a book again: Intimations by Zadie Smith (thanks to a recommendation from Brain Pickings). This is short book of essays, all of which are very relatable, and very relevant to our current times. Smith explores everything from mindsets for coping with isolation and disruption, to how viruses can be both biological and social, and what that means for the notion of herd immunity. This is the first time I’ve read anything by Smith and it makes me want to go read everything else she’s written.

Television

Chef’s Table: BBQ

Chef’s Table is perhaps the antithesis of everything that social media represents. It’s deep, fulfilling, quiet, but also arousing, invigorating and inspiring. The episodes with Jeong Kwan and Gaggan Anand are some of my favorite things to re-watch when I need a pick-me-up. So it’s no surprise that I am very excited for this new season and really looking forward to it.

The Internet as Mindspace

Photographer and bookmaker Craig Mod is one of my favorite writers on the web, and his Roden and Ridgeline Newsletters are among of my favorites. In the most recent issue of Roden, entitled Book World, he features an excerpt from Odessa Moshfegh’s new book Death in Her Hands, talking about some kids at computers in the library:

They looked like Benedictine monks sitting there tapping at their keyboards, faces wan in the cold blue glare of their screens. I stood and watched them impatiently. Each of them was agape, mesmerized. I could see that they were connected to something that had immense power over us. This was what happened when the mind-space was the Internet, I thought. One loses one’s sense of self. One’s mind can go anywhere. And at the same time, the mind becomes lame when it is connected to something so consuming.

This all struck close to thome, especially in the current time when most of my socialization and relaxation happens also happens over the Internet in some form or another (which I am not happy about). For me, “Internet as Mindspace” is an idea that didn’t occur to me until I read Moshfegh’s description of it, but as soon as I did it seemed blindingly obvious.

I think at some level, most of us know that being tethered to the Internet in the way described isn’t healthy. Even without being told, we can tell that doomscrolling is slowly eroding our mental health. We can feel, in some subconscious, visceral way, that our ability to process information is quickly reaching a saturation point, that our minds are getting dangerously close to some kind of informational breaking point. We know that we are slowly but surely (and then all at once) losing our sense of selves under a barrage of messages, notifications and stories fired at us over algorithmic feeds. Perhaps we realize that humans have not evolved to be connected, but at a distance, in this way, at all times, and that even though we are very good adaptation machines, maybe we don’t actually want (and shouldn’t have to) adapt to this digital environment.

I know, I know, this is all rich coming from an academic computer scientist who has a PhD in building better networks.

So what are we to do about this situation? Unlike some, I am not of the opinion that we need to disconnect wholesale, that the only way to win this particular game is not to play it. Though our social networks may be digital and intermittent and virtual, they are still our social networks, and for many, our primary or only social ties (whether or not that is a good thing and how to deal with it is a rant for another time). While drinking from a firehose is probably never a good idea, one still requires 8-10 glasses of clean water a day for health and survival.

For my own part, framing connectivity as being tethered to an immensely powerful mindspace seems a step in the right direction. It’s all too easy to pick up the phone and start scrolling until the feed seems like an extension of your mental processes. And having a reminder that your mind is indeed a separate space that can be intentionally disconnected is a step in the right direction. Solitude is not just a case of physical separation, but perhaps more importantly a subjective state in which we are isolated from the products and influences of other minds.

Talking of phones, I now keep Facebook, Twitter and Instagram only on an older phone that lives away from the couch and away from my desk. I still check them on a daily basis, but now I have to actually decide to do so, rather it being the default in the moments my mind has nothing better to do. Does it make posting and using them to stay on top of them harder? Yes, but I find the amount that I actually want or need to do so is actually quite small. Your mileage may vary.

Apart from social media, I’m trying to keep my reliance on the browser to a minimum. As I’ve noted before, I like having as few tabs open as possible. Over the last month or so I’ve also started using a desktop app instead of a browser app where possible (email, Facebook Messenger and Slack are the main ones). It’s good to just shut down something when it’s not in use, clearing up space, both mentally and computationally. My current phone, which gets all my non-social media notifications, stays close, but not too close. It’s about an arm’s length, sitting on my bed, outside my usual field of view when I’m working. It’s close enough that I can turn my head and take a look if I’m not doing anything else, but far enough away that I don’t see it when I’m focused on something else.

As an addendum to Moshfegh, the Internet is not a single mindspace, but a whole bunch of connected and overlapping ones, some more powerfully enticing than others. And with care we can pull them apart, choose to inhabit the ones that matter, the ones that have the most meaning and value to us. I’m a technologist who still believes that technologies can and should be used for personal and societal good. As such, I believe the Internet mindspaces still have value, but we have to know when to step away from them, and learn to keep them separate from our own minds.

Social Distancing Day 62

The weather here has been crazy the last few days. We had a few days of sunny, almost-warm weather followed by a big rainstorm with high winds. Meanwhile, number of new COVID-19 are on a gradual but continued decline here in Massachusetts, and there are murmurings of a gradual re-opening. Of course, the rest of the United States is not doing nearly as well.

After spending a few days of letting myself grieve over the state of things, and the great expectations that won’t come to pass, I’m starting to focus on the small things. I’ve been focusing on making breakfast, experimenting with eggs, bacon, sausage, bread and butter, and doing my best to stay calm and mindful through it all. My local Zen group had their online meditation session together yesterday. It’s been good to have a point of stability in a time where each day is somehow largely the same, but differently chaotic.

Talking about grief, I’ve been reading Nick Cave’s blog The Red Hand Files, where he talked about a different sort of grief. One paragraph seems to summarize so much of our current situation:

In the end, grief is an entirety. It is doing the dishes, watching Netflix, reading a book, Zooming friends, sitting alone or, indeed, shifting furniture around. Grief is all things reimagined through the ever emerging wounds of the world. It revealed to us that we had no control over events, and as we confronted our powerlessness, we came to see this powerlessness as a kind of spiritual freedom.

While powerlessness (and it’s distant cousin, learned helplessness) are things I wish only on my worst enemies, there is a certain freedom and peace in narrowing your focus to just the things that are immediately within your grasp. While it’s hard to stay focused on making breakfast, doing my work, eating dinner with the roommates, and keeping a proper bedtime, the days I successfully do it, I feel better and stronger. While it’s ok to give productivity a pass, activity seems to be good for the soul.

As I’m sure I’ve said before on here, there isn’t much that most of us can do in this time. But most of us can stay at home and away from other people. And all of us can wear masks, wash our hands, keep proper distance, stay safe, stay sane, and take care of each other.

Social Distancing Day 55

It’s been about three weeks since the last post, almost two months since we started this collective experiment in self-preservation. I stopped writing in part because it seemed like all I could do was say the same things over and over, and in part because the situation has been doing a number on my mental health, as I suspect it has been doing on many of yours. In the beginning of all this, I kept telling myself that I was in a better situation than most. That’s still more or less true. I’m younger and healthier than most. My employment and income seems secure for the foreseeable future. The state I live in, Massachusetts, has been doing a fairly good job at containing the outbreak, and ramping up testing. And the weather is slowly but surely getting better.

At the same time, I can’t pretend that large parts of the situation don’t suck. I had plans for this year: I wanted to be more social, meet new people, exercise more, go to a friend’s wedding in Singapore. Most of that is not happening, at least not anytime soon. I really miss not being able to go out to restaurants, I miss not being able to work from coffee shops, I miss not being able to just pop into a library or bookshop when I’m feeling down, I miss going to the gym. Hell, I even miss being able to take the subway to work. And many of these things are probably not coming back anytime soon. As much as it’s good to look on the bright side and be grateful for whatever good there is in this situation, it’s also healthy to admit that there is a deep and continued sense of loss that we mostly can’t do anything about.

Ok, collective deep breath.

While this crisis is not doing my mental health any favors, it is making me take it more seriously. As an academic, my mind is my means of production, as it were. I also need to use my mind to take care of my mind, which puts quite the spin on “self-care”. But having to do that has also been a learning experience, making me pay attention to what I need, what is good for me, and what is not. And it’s helping me un-learn heaps of learned helplessness, which I suspect will be good in the long term. I’m regularly thankful for a good therapist and a strong local Zen community to help navigate all of the above.

The last week or so has been an exercise in picking myself up off the floor, metaphorically speaking. I suspect that maintaining some semblance of sanity over the next few weeks (months?) will require both looking at the bright side, but also acknowledging the bad, even if part of that is trying to make peace with not being able to actually do very much about it.

All that being said, there are things that I am enjoying and looking forward to. The days are getting longer, and the weather is getting better (seems like we’re now allowed 2 days of sunny weather in a row now). I’m looking forward to spending more time on the balcony. My roommates have turned much of the balcony into a garden, and we’re looking forward to a steady supply of fresh flowers, herbs and leafy greens, as well as some amount of tomatoes and peppers in the near future. And I’m enjoying all the Nature is Healing memes.

Social Distancing Day 34

Apologies, it’s been almost two weeks since the last post. To be honest, we have gotten to the “every day is the same” stage of the pandemic. In many ways, the ones for whom that is true are the lucky ones. We have stable income (so far), do not have immediate contacts who are getting sick, or hospitalized, and we haven’t had trouble getting supplies.

I’m doing a fair number of video calls per week, both for work and socialization. I’ve also been trying to focus on work, and developing a routine that leaves time to relax, check in with people and get lots of sleep. My roommates have been cooking up a storm, and I’ve been enjoying the benefits. I don’t personally find cooking or baking a relaxing or de-stressing, so I’m not particularly motivated to do more of it in the middle of a pandemic.

The weather has been starting to get better here in Massachusetts. I’ve been managing to spend a couple afternoons on the balcony, enjoying the sun and warmth. On the other hand, today has been very rainy and windy, and most days have been quite cloudy. I suppose Spring in is the air, but most days I am perfectly happy to be at home. I assume that will change over the next few weeks, so we’ll see how I feel about being cooped up at home then.

I started playing video games again, for the first time in about a decade. I’ve been playing Age of Empires 2, both single player and multiplayer, and I’ve been working my way through Doom 2016. It’s a good way to disconnect and escape at the end of the day, but I have to be careful to not overdo it.

I hope you all have been staying safe, staying sane, and taking care of each other. More tomorrow, and let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to write about.