Far Too Detailed Review

Why you like art is never solely about the art but also about what is happening in your life during its consumption. Read a book in a certain mood, in a certain life phase and it does nothing. Read it again in a different mood, in a different life phase and it profoundly moves you.

So it is that your card hit me at just the right time that I woke up today and the idea appeared to respond with a hilariously not-normal 2020 review. By not-normal, I mean that reviews of any sort between friends who see each other infrequently rarely touch the most interesting parts of human experience. Usually, you spend all the time retelling all things you’ve been up to, happenings your friend genuinely wants to hear and that you genuinely want to tell, that the clock runs out before emotion, philosophy, and messiness is revealed.

I absorbed and believed the dogma, just as basically any thinking person does. More importantly, I actually thought I lived it some impressive percentage of the time. Instead of delaying joy for the future when all the things I don’t currently have are magically mine, I was focused on Now and its endless supply of happiness. But like how an ostensibly “fit” person suddenly realizes his utter lack of fitness upon being thrust into competition with CrossFit pros, by dramatically changing my environment during the last 15.5 months, the delta between my assumed mental discipline to the present moment and my actual performance was exposed to be quite vast.

There I was on a Tuesday, which may have well been a Friday since day distinctions now carried little meaning, having stripped away much of modern existence. Nobody counting on me. Nowhere to be. No need to make money. If an idea appeared, I could instantly follow it with zero concern. This is the type of setup frequently imagined when chained to a desk, a host of social obligations, and general responsibility: if you could smoothly escape and fully be the real you free from external demands, all would be well. This daydream exists even if you like your job and responsibilities, because there is no more intoxicating daydream than the hope that some “better state” exists. And voila!, I had it. Liberation it was not, though. It was, well, nothingness.

Go back to an earlier Tuesday (pre-15.5-month odyssey) sitting comfortably in an expensive chair on the 53rd story of a towering NYC skyscraper. It’s the middle of a workday and I’m feeling less than ideal for unknown reasons. Without conscious effort, I’d rescue myself from that present darkness by looking forward: I’ve got that fun concert on Thursday; I’m going to sleep in on Saturday; I can’t wait to play tennis tonight. It happens so effortlessly that in less time than a Brian Westbrook 40-yard dash, I’m peacefully back to work. The process may even feel productive, like some form of self-care. More importantly, this process was rarely being repeated with “big things” – the wanting of a better job, better house, better bank account, better friends – and I could truthfully claim joie de vivre, so I was gold, right?

“If you aren’t happy now, you’ll never be happy.” That’s the dogma I trusted. And here I was in a tent in Iowa not feeling very happy at all. The same random less-than-ideal feeling on a random Tuesday had hit, and now there was no way out since I was already getting to do everything I wanted to do – If only was implausible, even for a credulous mind anxious to avoid harsh conclusions. The harsh conclusion: my mental shortcomings had merely been obscured by a “normal” environment brimming with so much distraction that I’d fooled myself into thinking I was golden when I wasn’t. I actually remember laying in that tent wanting so desperately the crutch of looking forward that I thought about a wedding I was attending in some 50 days. Well, that will be fun. Unlike looking forward to a concert two days away, this did not feel like self-care; it felt like a comical attempt by an unhappy person to deny reality (as was true, I now appreciated, about the concert longings too).

I sat in this state of not-looking-forward-because-there-is-nothing-to-look-forward-to wondering if it was even possible to exist like this. Was the gospel of ­live-in-the-present-moment wrong? Was my anti-materialism wrong since wanting to buy ever nicer stuff was a lifetime’s mission that could always occupy the mind given the challenge of the task? As much as one may complain about having so much to do, would you actually want the opposite? Would you want to have an empty checklist? Maybe procrastination is admirable because hopes and dreams are so preferable to acting and discovering the hope was false?

It cannot get any better than this. What a potentially sad and empty conclusion, but there was no escaping the brutal logic that getting to do ANYTHING I WANTED necessarily rendered If only obsolete. One might accurately say that I couldn’t actually do anything I wanted, since some desires relied on other people or other factors out of my control. It is indeed true that those desires existed, and that for some time in hopes of not losing If only I saw these reliant desires as a vital bulwark, but with endless time to think and do whatever else I wanted, I saw those desires as merely a different way to reach the same peak, not as a pathway to a higher peak, and thus not a cogent guarder of If only.

To be clear, It cannot get any better than this is not always a sad and empty conclusion. Peaks really are peaks, and I happen to be someone who is naturally filled with delight, excitement, and amusement so as to enable greater peak quantity. Here’s a day I recall in Missouri:

Each day brings a new high that feels better in the instant, but is rather just another, different peak in a chain of never-ending climaxes. Smart money would have set today as a rare valley. It was cold, gloomy, and rainy – top was up for the first hour of driving. But wait, I can go anywhere, do anything. So south, not north as I planned the night prior, I went. And the reward was pure sunshine and rolling, picturesque hills. (Picturesque has also lost meaning as I’m constantly confronted with glorious photo-ops. I would never cover any ground if I seized them all.) These hills were so isolated from “normal” civilization that one feels comfortable driving excessively fast such that the vehicle launches off tops almost becoming airborne and rips down backsides to deliver “stomach losses.”

But even with that tailwind, a descent is inevitable (it came when I couldn’t close the xxxxxxxxx top, which was an ongoing problem that led me to hatred, panic, and, ultimately, a massive accomplishment when I figured it out after desperate research in what’s got to be the world’s smallest library), and it’s hard not to let that fact creep into the in-the-moment thrill by thinking It cannot get any better than this … Wait, why don’t I feel a bit better or stronger or energized? This is really IT? Then IT’s gone.

The other problem, at first, with that Missouri peak is that it was unplanned. I can look forward to the concert I know of, not some beautiful hills I don’t know exist. While there was randomness in my old life, there was also always a list. Here, however, with complete ownership across 24hrs to satisfy my desires, any checklist was crossed-out quickly, especially given the fact that I entered the entire life phase without a plan. Getting to do anything becomes a sort of prison when you don’t know what you want to do.

Given enough time painfully grappling with this massive shift and the experience of enough unexpected peaks, I adopted a philosophy that now seems so obvious: just do whatever seems interesting and, whenever possible, do NOT add it to a list. That is to say, do it now. Like, in Utah it became clear that my stereo system would substantially benefit from an amplifier.[1] My first impulse was to do some research and solve the “problem” in a few days. Why wait a few days? Then I’d have something to look forward to. Ha. Once I noticed that, I was in the Best Buy parking lot for three hours working on the install the next day. Or:

My no-plan plan is working out exquisitely. I chase the sun, seek interesting roads, and follow my whims. That’s basically it. I usually wake up not knowing where I’m going or doing (outside of the necessities). Much of the “doing” comes from a simple observation that something looks cool and is worthy of exploration. For instance, today I’m leaving a campsite when I notice a park sign for “Beach.” Who doesn’t like a beach? So, I pivot and take the turn. A totally vacant, totally beautiful beach welcomes me. I guess I’ll go for a swim. I change into my trunks and embark down the long staircase to the water when a sign “Lake Trail 2.1miles” catches my eye. So, I pivot again and decide to hit the water after a trail run. It was all uniquely invigorating, yet similar stuff keeps happening daily. It sums to an existence that is largely free from expectation and, as the simple formula of reality minus expectations = happiness would necessitate, brimming with happiness. Is this merely the product of the abrupt life change? Or am I learning something that is more sustainable? Either way, I’m currently touching present moments in a powerful way, and I shall continue to appreciate them. 

It’s relatively easy when stuff keeps working “exquisitely,” or when you are bathing yourself in novelty, as I was for two months, but it won’t always work out so well and perpetual novelty is not ideal, even for me.[2] That’s fine. Soberly acknowledge that clean, consistent “happiness” doesn’t exist. There are lulls within great days. Two, 10, 22 days in a row will blend together and rapidly be forgotten. You’ll think you’ve discovered the activity that really does it for you, only to find it boring a week later. This is all unavoidable and no cause for alarm. Once one accepts this texture of reality, a necessary resetting is possible.

Consider the estimation of travel time. In the past, you have arrived at Jackson’s house in 30 minutes, and you have also arrived at Jackson’s house in 1.5 hours on a particularly unfortunate day. Jackson asks you when you’ll be at his house. What do you say? Most will say, “About 30 minutes,” then hop on the train and suddenly remember that there are always delays on weekends, arrive at Jackson’s in 52 minutes, and shriek, “It’s criminal that I pay all these taxes and they can’t fix the goddamn train!” This happens once, whatever. When, however, next weekend arrives and our protagonist again plans on visiting dear Jackson, do you think a more accurate travel projection will be delivered, or will, again, the best-case-scenario be used as the norm?

This is the place where the reset is critical. Jump back to daily life from this travel analogy. You can either see great moments – when the coffee is fresh, when your legs are strong on the run, when that stranger smiled a lovely smile – as expected and normal or as gorgeous leaps up from your baseline. Taking the latter path is not surrender or giving up – it’s being realistic.

We verbally acknowledge that IG is fake and that everyone probably has problems and that happy-seeming people commit suicide, but too often those words aren’t seeping into how we actually live; the expectation is roses and anything less is disappointment. What I’m suggesting is to look back at the past, say, 60 days and get an accurate sense of the good/bad ratio. Historical measurement may be corrupted by the “rosy remembrance” phenomenon, so you can also score your next 60 days. The point is that you’ll likely see lots of subjectively “bad” days, just as honest review of travel times will show most trips took close to an hour. This makes sense if the lead sentence of this paragraph has any purchase.

Now, I want you to switch “bad” with “normal.” It’s tempting to think that gratitude for grand moments is the key to the reset. It’s not. The key, in fact, is to remove the negative affect of “normal” days, because it’s “normal” days where much of life will be lived. This is true even in the unlikely (read: impossible) world where all your If onlys are satisfied. There’s a delicate line here between beneficial acceptance and punishing resignation. For someone with motivation, “bad” is unacceptable in a way that “normal” is not. So, it could seem that calling something “bad” is a useful corrective, but “bad” is likely to carry with it If only, and that makes the strategy too risky.

Does this sound good? Does it make sense? Sometimes I can see Acceptance and Growth not as mutually exclusive, but as simpatico. Other times, well, it’s a grasping sensation that yields something seemingly perfect in one moment, only to turn up nonsense in the next.

And then the less ethereal thoughts of existence interceded. For maybe the first time I was aggressively confronted with the consequences of my nontraditional choices. I’ve always lived with an I-can-figure-out-anything ethos, and this confidence permitted me to ignore what others deemed prudent. It was as if I wanted to prove so badly that I could live radically different that I’d even reject easy, positive-sum actions. I wouldn’t care about my work title just as I’d intentionally avoid anything else that smelled of resumé-padding. I was here to do things for the right reasons as I defined them. If there was something, like mentorship, that I could do with pure intentions and yet most everyone else was doing for impure intentions, I would pass for fear of my intentions being confused. Some part of me wanted to demonstrate that everyone else was doing it was wrong. Not just wrong, but dishonest. They were pretending to care, to pay attention, to like things they actually hated all in the name of getting ahead. FUCK THAT SHIT.

However, eight months into not working and staring down what figured to be an economic collapse, Starbucks baristas were drawing my admiration. They were nice, attractive, and, it seemed obvious to conclude, smart. I felt no better than them. Their inner lives, I guessed, were filled with dreams, plans, and goals all in effort of a better job and a better life. I saw no reason why I was more entitled to this than them; I struggled to generate reasons that anyone ever paid me more than $15/hr. Hell, was I even capable of being a barista? It looked hard. Similar thoughts struck me upon entry to all of America’s finest retailers, or even when I encountered homeless people.[3] This was me fully feeling You are no better than anyone else. Was this a low point? A high point? Whatever it was, I vicariously witnessed a certain hollowness of the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy. Like, what if everyone was already trying as hard as they could? These people (homeless people excluded) didn’t seem lazy at all. They, actually, seemed borderline excellent. How unfortunate for me that they are my competition.

I wondered if I could make it as a postman. Get to walk around all day outside and meet people. Or, I’d watch a movie, see characters spend money, and I’d legit ask myself, “What if I never make money again?” My once towering confidence had vanished. In this foreign state, I comprehended how an ongoing series of nontraditional life choices are cool … until you covet traditional (defined, in this case, by the low standard of 40hrs of weekly W2-labor). If this potential shift never occurs to an outsider, it’s only because things are going so well.[4] The probability of this outcome is, like, 0%, but even if things are truly going well and everyone thinks you are oh-so-interesting and you are stacking adventures upon adventures, doubts reflexively creep in if only because you exist in a world filled with traditional choices. You can look down at those people all you want, just as you can shrug off overbearing advertising as having no effect on you, but wondering Am I doing it right? is as inescapable as is the fact that advertising influences your desires and actions. True, Am I doing it right? isn’t reserved for only outsiders, it’s just that outsiders face a harsher strain since being wrong with the masses is defensible – you jumped off the bridge because 98 other people did – in a way that outlier errors are not – why in the hell did you jump off the bridge when nobody else did? Furthermore, if you build everything toward being the 1 in 100 who knows the “real way” and you end up being wrong, you carry a CV under-optimized for a jump back in with the 99.

I never came close to truly believing the 99 were right; I did, though, fully appreciate the predicament I’d put myself in. The frictionless path was always there for me, and I’d voluntarily decided to jam myself into a tiny box with diminishing oxygen. For what? Challenge? No doubt. Confidence to get it done? Most of the time. I’m no better than others sounds like a positive revelation. And, in some sense, it was – growth often follows a humbling. But while I have no more inherent worth as a human than anyone else, I am better in terms of my ability to deliver economic value. There is a special comfort in believing that last sentence that simply doesn’t come with playing guitar, running fast miles, writing, and reading. Which made it all the more disquieting when I questioned if my economic-value edge still existed, usually less because I feared my abilities had atrophied, but more for fear that the traditional world wouldn’t be able to appreciate them.

Mercifully, this death spiral of questioning was rare.[5] I could center myself with:

Wait, you are getting to do anything you want. If that doesn’t set you straight, you are hurtling toward regret, since Freedom! will be reduced in the future (not only because you’ll need to make money, but because Freedom! shouldn’t be a permanent state – responsibility is a necessary part of development), and when you reach that future, you will see how you squandered an incredible opportunity. No more midday phone calls with friends. No more swimming in any non-toxic body of water. No more odysseys to fix cars. No more herculean walks, or chances to spend four afternoon hours reading Harry Potter fan fiction, or flag football practices at 5PM, or boat rides at noon, or half marathons on a Tuesday. No more deciding to acquire a musical skill in middle age.

When people claim I don’t know how I feel, do know that they are lacking basic observational skills (or, more likely, they are lying about disordered emotions). You might not like the feeling or see it completely, but make no mistake, you invariably have some meaningful sense about how you feel. All you have to do is observe your first-second reaction to learning anything – Lebron scored 100 points, that girl has a crush on you, you got rejected from your dream school. Happy? Sad? Determined? Scared? Excited? Frustrated? On and on. There’s always something important in one’s involuntary responses. So when I suddenly came rushing back to the traditional world after 15.5 months of self-imposed exile, I listened and watched myself fill with … pride.

Nearing the conclusion of a life period, the extreme reactions are to wish it would end, or to wish that it would never end. Lurking beneath either desire is usually some form of regret, since endings have a way of focusing attention on what should have, could have, would have been done if we knew then what we know now. It was in this moment of semi-omniscience – clearly seeing what the new life period would lack – that I knew I had appreciated the 15.5 months for what they offered and could be proud about what I did with them. This did not mean that I performed perfectly, but I honestly couldn’t generate any major regrets. I did what I wanted to do, which was sometimes exciting and sometimes wasn’t (happiness isn’t clean or consistent). I challenged myself, which was sometimes rewarding and sometimes incredibly frustrating (growth is not linear). And I deeply probed If only and my weakness (the inner voice urging me to be less than), sometimes with great success and insight and sometimes with the cold desperation of What am I doing with my life?

In one sense I’m less sure of myself because I can never unlearn these thoughts and experiences, and because hyper-certainty only seems possible when you know a little bit, not the big, untidy bit and its complexity. In another sense, though, I’m more sure of myself than ever because I managed to get out of the box.

[1] One must be on guard against desires like this becoming If only. I happen to be so preposterously parsimonious and so good at cherishing my limited possessions, that I’m less at-risk.

[2] “To be everywhere is to be nowhere,” wrote Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

[3] Feels like the easiest decision ever to undo the ordinances enacted in certain American cities that allow camping IN the city. Like, right there on the sidewalk next to billion-dollar companies. Am I missing something? Do I need a law degree to understand what’s happening here? Or is it as truly ridiculous as it appears?

[4] Yes, I get how some may view me, xxxxxxxxx degree and all, as the consummate insider.

[5] Also, I never capitulated to it by attempting to find work.