Trapped in Physics 2, or, Why We Have To Win

Content Warning: This one was painful to write, and may cause pain to people who are susceptible to empathic suffering.

I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned in prior posts, but I’m working on a paper for ALLFED, on ensuring adequate nutrition using the cheapest sources we’ve found, so as to ensure that the poorest people can still be adequately fed in disaster scenarios. Currently, I’m classifying the outcomes of various deficiency disorders by severity and recoverability, so that in situations where no optimal balance is available, we can at least aim for least bad, most recoverable malnutrition issues.

This has necessitated a fair amount of research into effects and outcomes of deficiencies, and that brought me to today’s topic. I was reading a paper, a case study on two people who’d gotten thiamine deficient (you can read it here) and subsequently acquired lifelong brain damage. Reading through it, I couldn’t help but notice how little control these people had over their situations. The female patient had been repeatedly sexually abused, had bipolar, and hyperemesis gravidarum, a pregnancy-related condition “characterized by severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and possibly dehydration.” This continued to affect her after her pregnancy, with the time leading up to her hospitalization including seven weeks of not being able to eat due to this.

The male patient in the study was schizophrenic, and was believed to have gone off his medication. This led to a belief that the local food and water was “harmful”, leading him to drink nothing but soda for at least three months.

Both of these cases are fairly stark examples of the situation we’re all in, the state I call being trapped in physics. SW, the aforementioned female patient, was instantiated on a brain with emotional disorders, handed a lot of severe abuse, and then her body kept her from eating anything. RW, the male patient, was schizophrenic, a condition that can be treated, but I’m given to understand that the medications can cause cognitive impairment themselves, and the insidious thing about psychological medications is that being on them makes you better. Since you’re better, it seems like you don’t have to keep taking the medications; you’re better, right? I’ve heard of several cases of this happening.

Neither of those people chose their circumstances. Nobody, given a totally free hand (IE perfect knowledge and a lack of constraints in hardware or soft) would choose to live those lives unless compelled. They were shoved into some of the lighter hells our reality contains, and the result was that they ended up malnourished, which resulted in permanent, severe brain damage. They both ended up with sub-80 IQs, and other specific impairments.

So, rounding this all up, reality shoved these people into hell, tortured them, and basically wrecked them; to the best of my knowledge neither of them went without needing constant care for the rest of their lives, and while I’ve never been a person who’s experienced my intelligence being fragmented and large chunks stolen away and then left to put together what’s left, I can say that Flowers for Algernon has left me with a lifelong horror of the possibility; being trapped more than we are right now, knowing that there used to be more of me that is now gone.

As the joke goes, this isn’t even the horror of reality’s final form. There are people out there in the world who undergo all of this, and worse, and don’t have medical treatment or systems that will take care of them in the aftermath. When I was a part of Origin, one of the things that we discussed was making an effort to really look at reality, to see the terrible things and not looking away, and I’ve never stopped doing that. Sometimes I look harder, sometimes I’m not specifically looking for the horrors, but when I notice one I never look away anymore, and I’m always aware on some level that reality is like that.

I said in Why I Want to Work at MIRI that death is horrible, insanely bad stuff. The destruction of a person, everything they ever knew or thought, everything they ever cared about, everything they ever wanted, every love they ever had, gone with the dissipation of their pattern. Death is, indeed, incredibly mind-bogglingly bad, but it’s not the only incredibly terrible thing our world contains.

This can’t be left to go on. There’s no person to find and bind, no ‘evil empire’ to topple. Just the vast bleakness of physics, torturing and destroying people whenever the rules get around to them. No one to fight, which is what the instincts want me to do to make them stop doing that, just the cold equations. As Eliezer says, We can’t modify fundamental physics, but on a higher level of organization we could build some guardrails and put down some padding; organize the particles into a pattern that does some internal checks against catastrophe..

Take care of yourself, dear reader. I’m going to go do some self-care things, myself.

On Failure

As the Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries says,

“Failure is not an option – it is mandatory. The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.”

If you’ve read the autobiographical posts, you know that I’ve had a fair share of exposure to the experience of failure. Honestly, any human of adult age who hasn’t been insulated by privilege and money has, but I’ve failed a lot. The Lost Decade was me deciding to let failure be the last thing I did, and The Hell Year was, at least in my eyes, me failing again – so much so that I ended it with the only solution I could see, removing myself from the situation and letting her hit rock bottom.

On the whole, it is better that I ended up going my own way; my life is significantly improved, as is my mental state, as are my prospects. From the perspective of my personal utility, it’s been quite good. Of course, this perspective requires taking a long-term view, and not taking count of what effect the experience had on her – while my understanding is that she did pull herself together, having my abandon her like that must have been crushing.

So yes, I consider that whole incident a failure of mine – I could have done far, far better. Instead, I focused on my pain, and assumed she could work out her problems herself. In light of this, I ask myself what I ask every time I observe a failure, mine or that of others: “What have we learned?”

I learned that I want to pay more and better attention to what’s going on in the heads of the people I care about. I learned that I want to be better at understanding people, and improving their situations. And I learned that sometimes, protecting people from the consequences of their decisions isn’t the best thing you can do for them.

I’ve noticed, in the last few weeks, that my depression seems to be building back up. My motivation has dropped quite a bit, I have less confidence, less faith in myself and my ability to have a positive effect on this world’s outcomes. My past failures have taught me that I don’t need to accept this as is. While I am going to and have been taking a hit on my output, I don’t have to give in to it. I don’t have to let it control me, and I won’t. I’m not going to let it turn into another spiraling failure that consumes me, because I’ve learned.

And you, dear reader? What failures have you lived through, and what have they taught you?

On Resilience

I spend some of my time volunteering with ALLFED – the Alliance to Feed Earth in Disasters. I’m working on a paper on maintaining nutritional health in the face of major disaster – a 50% drop in incoming sunlight that reaches the surface is the primary scenario we’re planning around. It’s an interesting question – how do we ensure that everyone has their caloric needs met, and also doesn’t end up deficient in key nutrients, when the foods we grow currently won’t have their needs met?

We’ve found things that will grow under those conditions – potatoes, for example, already grow at that kind of sunlight level in Alaska. They’re impressively resilient. Potatoes can be found all over the planet, from the Andes to Alaska, and they are a great starting point if you want to get people fed. They aren’t, on their own, enough to keep everyone hale and healthy, though.

That said, potatoes aren’t perfectly resilient – as we’ve seen in history, there are ways in which we can lose access to them as a crop. Most crops have at least one problem along these lines – we of course want to grow the variation of a given crop that will give us the largest harvest, which means that one narrowly genetically defined breed ends up being the one that’s grown everywhere, and when something moves into that ecological niche, it explodes. While we have fairly good methods of control, farming as a whole is not resilient.

This has led me to think about resilience in and of itself; resilient systems, resilient species, and the resilience of particular people. In some ways, I’m fairly resilient. I wouldn’t have survived the hell year without it; every once in a while I tell someone that story and they tell me they don’t know how I made it through, or that they couldn’t have, something along those lines.

I’m also fairly fragile along some axes – I recently discussed with my partners, the fact that I have some difficulty taking certain kinds of criticism. They’ve been investing some amount of skull sweat into not breaking me when there are things I need to be told about myself. Always, always, there are ways to become stronger.

It’s definitely something I want to work on, although at the moment things in people’s lives are a little bit too on fire for me to bring it up as an area to target. Soon, I hope, and of course I’ll keep digging into the resources I can work with on my own.

And yourself, dear reader? How resilient do you find yourself? What have you found that helped you become more resilient?

On Moral Relevance

I’ve been trying to decide for a while what moral relevance is made of. At the moment I have an answer that seems to serve in day to day life, but I still have the feeling that I haven’t fully resolved the question, a nagging feeling that I’m not yet capturing everything.

Backing up a step, what do I even mean when I say, “moral relevance”?

I consider a to be morally relevant if I think it’s something that I should take into account when choosing my actions. It is accounted for, so that I do not violate any preferences that it has. In short, violations of ‘s preferences is a bad thing, and to be avoided. matters.

A meaningful amount of the problem lies here. I have an intuitive felt sense of what it means to matter, and what it means for a thing to be bad rather than good, but I don’t think I could give a technical explanation of these concepts. I am in some senses a moral realist – it seems to me that there is something more than game theory in being kind to others. I don’t think that you can find an atom of good or the charge carrier of morality, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an atom of human, either, and they certainly seem to exist.

Axioms seem to be necessary to establishing systems, from what I can tell. Investigating this question, it seems that in at least some systems, with enough progress, you can then go back and prove your axioms (see this quora) but note that what I’ve found also supports another claim I’ve made – that a system with no axioms does and can prove nothing; it has no affordances with which one can do anything.

So, my moral axioms:

  1. There is an axis on which events can be measured, this axis runs from “bad” to “good”, and any given action, fully contextualized, has a location on this axis.
  2. The degree to which an event is bad or good depends strongly (although possibly not exclusively) on the degree of suffering that descends from it.
  3. Evil is a quality that bad events can, but do not necessarily have, which requires intentionality – an evil action is one where a bad event will result, the mind that initiated the action was aware of this, and either didn’t care, or (increasing the degree of evil) actively wanted this outcome.
  4. For two events identical in all respects except for the presence or absence of evil, the event which evil was a part of the existence of, is worse (“more bad”).

From this, it can be seen that moral relevance comes the capacity to suffer. Rocks are not morally relevant, because they don’t, as far as we know, experience suffering. People are morally relevant, because they do. This gets… problematic, if one considers engineered beings. Does a person who is identical to me in every respect, except that they experience suffering at twice the intensity, with their upper bound for suffering, matter twice as me? Does a person identical to me in every respect except that she has no capacity to suffer whatsoever, not matter?

I notice, once more, that I am confused.

On reflection, I think that a version of me who didn’t experience suffering at all might not be morally relevant. If she’s not bothered in the hypothetical case where I hit her with a stick as she walks past, I’m not sure where the bad lies.

Similarly, an action that hurts the double-suffering version of me is at least as bad as taking said action towards me. Is it twice as bad? She suffers twice as much, after all.

The incentive gradients are all screwy here, though. It suggests that the right thing to do is to make people who are capable of suffering as much as possible, and then make sure the world (or other people) don’t hurt them, and that seems obviously incorrect.

I need to think more on this topic, clearly, if I’m getting outcomes like this. What are your thoughts, reader?

On Misophonia

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the sounds people make while eating and drinking drive me nuts. That satisfied, “Aaah”, after a long drink, lip smacking, the sound of swallowing, it all makes me want to shout at people, or imitate them, but louder, and while glaring.

I don’t, usually. My anger management’s improved over the years, and it’s been quite some time since I chewed back at someone. That’s not to say it’s stopped bothering me, though. I don’t know of a way to make that happen – the best I’ve been able to find in years of looking into it and trying things is to have coping strategies. Good headphones make good neighbors, as does moving away from people who are eating.

On the whole, I don’t really like this as a solution set. I want it fixed, not just well-adjusted-to. I tried for a while to do exposure therapy on myself, intentionally exposing myself to people who were eating and smiling hard to manipulate my mood. A month of that didn’t make me any less sensitive, and I ended up dropping that project. From what I’ve read on /r/misophonia, it seems to be a sensory issue, like textural issues for some autistic people, in a way that doesn’t really allow for treatment the way a phobia does. Of course, we don’t have a Turing-complete understanding of the issue, so this may need to be updated, but for now it looks like something I’ll have to live with.

It’s annoying from a meta level to want to snap at people for things like open-mouthed chewing – the issue is still a thing in cases where I know they can’t help it – a friend of mine’s mouth really doesn’t work that way and they can’t chew with closed lips, but the anger rises all the same.

What cannot be cured (yet growth mindset!) must be endured, the song says, and I guess it’s true for the moment. It’s another reminder of how we’re trapped in physics, and how biology is far from perfect. In the Glorious Transhumanist Future I won’t be subject to this, but for now, I guess “Glarer at the Chewing” would be as reasonable as any of the other titles I claim when I’m feeling that particular sort of whimsy.

What can’t you help but get mad at, Dear Reader?

On Hard Work

I did a bunch of cleaning today. More than I’d do on my own, which is what makes it notable. Some friends of mine are moving, and they need the place clean in a hurry, and I need math tutoring, and with one thing and another, I cleaned a shitload of their dishes and some of the kitchen.

“But Rath, that doesn’t seem like, ‘a bunch’?”

I spent five hours at that sink / counter area. I took a few short breaks to grab a drink and rest my legs, but mostly I was on my feet and doing stuff that whole time. Considering all the relevant factors, I was making about seven times what I did when I did this as my primary job, so that was satisfying, but damn am I sick of dishes now.

Mind you, that won’t stop me from going back tomorrow and doing more dishes and more cleaning. I really need that tutoring!

Aside from that, there’s also a certain satisfaction in doing hard work. A clean dish is a clean dish. You know you’ve done something, when you’ve cleaned a dish, and that’s satisfying. There’s also a certain je ne sais quoi in having and exercising an unusual ability.

For whatever reason, dishes seem to be the bane of my weird tribe. I’m not sure why, but most rat houses I’ve been to have a dish backlog. Some people have sensory aversions, but I know that’s not everyone’s jam, and yet, somehow, dish stacks. Dish stacks everywhere.

It’s not just rationalists, either. It was a thing when I worked for Martina, and trust me, most of my fellows there were not rationalists. Yet somehow, the dishes stacked up. I spent a good deal of time cleaning dishes because I lived there, and I couldn’t just let it slide until I went home. With enough time in front of the sink, it’s honestly not that bad, and I get crawls from having dry skin after soap strips the oils from my hands.

It also wasn’t just dishes. People would go out of their way to dodge doing things that weren’t even that hard to do. I don’t know if it’s strange, or maybe unethical, to get the enjoyment I do from doing stuff that other people won’t, but there’s also a sense of, “Seriously?” confronting something someone could have done, but for whatever reason didn’t.

Maybe it’s a part of the dread disease, “Adulthood”, to find this stuff both easy to do (in the sense of having low EF costs, there’s still effort involved of course or it wouldn’t be “hard” work) and be somewhat vexed when other people don’t do the thing. I’m not sure. The idea of being an adult is still pretty novel to me – a few years ago I didn’t think I was ever going to grow up (while exhibiting the seeds of this).

However it came to be, I’m pretty happy I can do this stuff. I don’t want to spend my working life cleaning, but being capable of doing so seems pretty advantageous; it’s a decent subset of the Jack of All Trades Trait. It’s nice to be able to help friends and make gains from trade.

Sorry for the lightweight post, but I’m kinda tired ^_~

On “One Piece”

Sorry for a short, kinda fluff-y ramble this week. I’m working on a longer and more interesting post, partnered with a partner, but it’s not going to be done in time to post, so I’m writing this up instead.

“Anime was a mistake.”

It’s a troll, fictional quote, but a lot of people agree with it, and you can fairly easily get even more people to agree if you bring up One Piece. With an incredibly long backlog and lack of certain kinds of depth, one can be forgiven for thinking that One Piece was a mistake, one that’s acquired far more money and fandom than it deserves. I won’t try to argue that it’s deep and thought provoking, or that it doesn’t require an inordinate amount of time to be an active fan of.

What I will argue, and this hill I will die on, is that One Piece is great. Not everything has to be the Rifters trilogy, or Madoka Magica, or Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s okay for something to just be fun, to be about enjoying yourself and having a good time and setting down your cares for a while without worrying that a character will be [REDACTED] and then killed.

Really, it is.

I think there’s a certain tendency to dismiss things that don’t confront serious themes like this constantly as, “kid stuff”, and you can take it that way, but what’s wrong with kid stuff? When did we decide that to be an adult meant having to give up simple pleasures? Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Madoka Magica, but it’s okay to not always be thinking about self-annihilating sacrifice in your entertainment time. It’s even good for you, in ways that I’ll tie back here in upcoming pieces.

Aside from that, One Piece does have valuable lessons. Important ones, that it’s easy to lose sight of, being an adult, especially a grim and serious one.

Quick diversion – /r/egg_irl. It’s a subreddit of memes involving people denying being trans, trying to shove it off and be something else or claim they can just bury it and they’ll be fine or whatever. I was browsing it the other day and thinking about some people I know who think that it’s a negative influence, spreading the trans viral meme to people who wouldn’t have had it otherwise.

I don’t know enough about the etiology of being trans to say they’re wrong in all cases, although I didn’t catch it from anything like this. I realized my gender was broken, and then I went researching and found out about transness. I think for at least some people /r/egg_irl and other ways people become aware of being trans and what it’s like are great!


Because it’s helpful to get it rammed into your skull from several angles that, “HEY STUPID THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF YOU REALLY NEED TO LOOK AT”. I spent a few hours one evening talking to a close friend, about her feelings about things, and encouraging her to really look instead of pushing her desires aside, at the end of which she acknowledged that she was in fact trans, and started acting on it. She’s much happier now, to the best of my knowledge.

Why am I talking about a trans meme subreddit in a post on One Piece?

I watched ~ 600 episodes of One Piece during the Lost Decade and it kept ramming into my thick skull that, “HEY STUPID THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF YOU REALLY NEED TO LOOK AT” and eventually I did.

The thing that really got through to me was Nico Robin’s pre-timeskip arc. There’s a scene that I find really powerful, with the Straw Hats on one side of a gorge talking to Robin on the other. Luffy demands that if Robin is going to choose to die, that she *tell him so*, in a way he’ll believe. Confronted with evidence that there are people in the world who care about her, enough to go to war with the world, people who want her to exist, she cries out words the World Government has declared taboo for her – “I WANT TO LIVE!

I fell to thinking about how I’d love a place on the Going Merry / Thousand Sunny, to have friends like that, to have a dream to be pursuing. To have comrades and a quest. When I looked, really looked, in the way I later urged my friend to, there was a well of pain and void deep enough that it hurts now to reflect on.

I wanted to have people that I would lay down my life for, without a regret.

I wanted to have something that I wanted so badly that it wouldn’t matter if I died pursuing it, because it was what I wanted.

I wanted these things so badly that running that memory brought me to the edge of tears again now.

So dismiss One Piece because the characters aren’t rent with agony one way and another over every decision they make.

Deride it because it’s happy and colorful and silly, if you must.

But don’t you dare say it has no redeeming value. It taught me that I did want a community, that I did want a dream. This realization pushed me into joining Wildstar again and eventually saved my life. It led me to be standing where I am now, in Berkeley, with comrades brave and true, and it led me to hold the dream that I can matter, that I can help save the world. Value, and to spare.

On Dreams and Dreaming

There was a time I didn’t dream.

I say “a time”, but in fact, for the majority of my life I did not dream, in either the general or metaphorical sense.

I was a heavy user of marijuana, and a heavy user of caffeine, and that certainly accounts for the poor sleep quality that led to a lack of dreams at night. Once I quit thc, caffeine, stimulants, and other psychoactives, I’ve dreamed every night since.

Dreams of the night are odd. I’ve read that they’re for memory consolidation, for working out issues that the day brings, and for improving skills. I keep dreaming about being a cape, a superpowered human. I’m not sure what to take from this. It’s certainly true that I want to save the world, but it’s not as though I can expect to fly, or fight other capes to do so. Likewise, I am unlikely to be a bender, and manifest fire or throw rocks to that end. I’m not sure what the point of any of this is except to grind ever deeper, “Be a hero. Be a hero. Be a hero.”

The dream (ambitions) sense is a bit harder to explain. Hard to explain isn’t really the correct way to say that, unless I include the sense in which it is difficult for me to type these words, in preparation to putting them out for the world to see; the explanation is quite simple: cowardice. I had no ambitions, because to have ambitions was to invite a great deal of work into my life to achieve them, and to invite the risk of failure. To allow the possibility of putting in the work, and not achieving my dreams regardless.

Certainly, any time we form an ambition, this is a possibility. Some things are limited as to how many people can do them – there can be only one first human on the moon, or Mars. There are only so many slots open on the Lakers. There’s only one President at a time.

Others are talent or other ability limited – there are few blind great painters, few (unacquired) deaf composers, almost no paralyzed jugglers. How many teenagers have acquired a guitar, dreams of being the next Hendrix in their minds, only to learn that their ambition exceeds by far their native talent.

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about this lately, and worrying that I don’t have the talent to achieve my dreams. If you don’t know, I want to do meaningful work on the alignment problem – I want to help making artificial intelligence that wants the same kind of outcomes that humans want, as opposed to filling the universe with paperclips or tiny molecular smiley-faces or orgasmium or something. It’s not easy work, and I’m coming to it at a disadvantage – it’s not like dropping out of college twice puts you in a great place for this. Staring at math books and feeling stupid, I wonder if I’m mad to have taken up this ambition.

There are times I am vexed that the world is in such a state that I feel called to save it. I derive a lot of pain from thinking about the state of things. It’s not that…

As I’ve said, I’m grateful that, if such a time is going to have happened in the universe, I’m here, to do something about it. I think were I born into the Culture I would go through life kind of dissatisfied. I want to matter, I just don’t know if I can get there.

On the whole, regardless of the pain, I’m glad I learned to dream. It hurts not to know if I can measure up, or worse, the days I think I know that I can’t, but the grey times, with no dreams by day or night, I think they were worse. Waiting for time to pass, so that something interesting happened out in the world to hear about, or a new book I could read came, those times were so much less than now, having something to work for, a dream to chase. The pain if I can’t?


But it’s still better than the sucking void of the grey days.

If you’re afraid to have dreams, because of the fear of missing, and plunging into that pain, my advice is to risk it. Put yourself where the pain is a possibility, because to hide from it is so much worse.

On Grief

I’ve never broken a bone.

I remember talking to my mom about doing so, when I was a kid. She told me it was a very painful experience. One that would certainly make me cry.

I can’t say for sure, although these days I’ve gotten pretty good at managing physical sensations.

Crying in pain, though? That still happens.

Not physical pain; emotional. Specifically, grief.

I was washing some dishes and thinking about Martina, who I’ve mentioned here before, in Meeting Martina, and again in The Lost Decade. I’ll talk about our last year together, before we parted ways, next week.

I wish I could link her to these. I’m sure she’d love to see me writing, and posting it publically. She’d really love to hear about what I’m up to. How I found purpose, and what I’m doing with it.

But I can’t.

Spoiler alert for a few autobio pasts ahead: She died. Last November.

I didn’t hear about it until December, long enough that by the time I did, her funeral was over, and whatever happened to her cat, Richard, was out of my control, and impossible to find out. She asked me to take care of that cat so many times, if something happened to her, and every time, I assured her that I would.

I don’t know what happened to him. If someone took him in, nobody knew about it on facebook. I keep thinking about that. She was intense about promises made to the dead, and I failed in that duty.

That’s not the part that hurts the most, though. I’ve largely learned to deal with guilt.

No, it’s just the awareness; my friend is gone. I spent more hours in her presence than any person I’m not related to, or was dating. I went with her to ADAPT marches, I kept her alive during a several day power outage by having planned ahead and having a thermal emergency blanket, she kept me from being homeless multiple times. We talked of things shallow, and intensely personal, and for the latter half of our association, she swore up and down that I was psychic, because enough time spent talking to her let me predict the shape of a thing that she’d never said, and wouldn’t have, except that I could see it.

There’s a hole, in my map of the world. When I look at it, I start crying. I remember telling her that I was planning to transition (“You don’t tell people things like that when they’re eating!”). I remember waiting in a pharmacy with her to get an emergency supply of her allergy meds, as her throat slowly closed, and seriously considering jumping the counter and assaulting the pharmacist because he was taking too long. I can remember several nights of various horrible health issues, going to hospitals, and the time the ambulance left without me.

People tell me grief fades, with time. I don’t know if I’m unusual, in that I still hurt this deeply. I want to be clear, though. While I’ve spent the last ~2 hours crying about her, it’s not just her. If I look at the hole where my grandfather was, there’s grief there, too. He’s been gone ten years, but if I don’t dissociate, the pain’s still there, just waiting to catch my eye. Hey there, remember Bob? He’s still gone! (He told me to call him Bob instead of Grandpa, in case any pretty girls heard. His nickname was Happy Bob; always with a smile and a joke, he was.)

I can look another direction, and there’s a hole where my father used to be. We weren’t even that close; my parents had separated when he died, and when they were together, we didn’t get along; I suspect he’d picked up some subtle tell of my being trans, and it bothered him, and so he tried to make a man of me. Still, I can contemplate losing him, and start crying as hard as I did as his funeral. (Suicide. Fun fact: I learned about this in a meeting with therapists, caseworkers, program staff, and my mom. They’d distributed an information packet to everyone, you see, and I had the lightning reading speed trait then. Reading was way more interesting than a meeting, right up until, “[Deadname]’s father committed suicide a few years ago. [Deadname] is not currently aware of this.” I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this to Mom, so if she reads this post, that’ll be an interesting bit. Certainly I don’t blame her for this; wasn’t her printout.)

So maybe I’m different from other people, when it comes to grief, but I don’t think I really am. Neuromachinery is pretty solidly conserved across the species, to the best of my knowledge. I think what happens to most is that they feel the pain, and it hurts (so goddamn bad) and little by little, they build up a reflex to dissociate from it, automatically. Day by day, it gets a little stronger, a little more automatic, until one day they look at the hole, and can’t really feel the pain at all. This hypothesis explains my observations, and why I differ in this area – I’ve spent the last year learning not to dissociate. At one point last year I could barely feel anything. Didn’t recognize when I felt anger, (I remember being angry on Martina’s behalf, at a Greyhound ticket agent who charged both of us four times for our tickets) didn’t really feel happy anymore, and love was fading away, which was when I realized I had a problem – my feelings for my partners were moving out of my reach.

With help from various friends, to whom I am deeply grateful, I recovered. I learned to feel my feelings, and the mental move that stops dissociation from happening. I treasure my feelings now, delightful and painful alike, and I don’t want dissociation to come back in and steal them away.

But fuck, grief hurts.

On Music

Music is so absurdly good. I can, and have, gone without, when there was need, but I’d listen all the time if it didn’t interfere with understanding people. Music can deepen a depression or pull you out of one, depending on what you decide to listen to and your internal narrative.

I’ve decided I’m not going to shy away from talking about narrative. If it’s not strictly the twenty-four karat gold truth, that we are stories telling ourselves to ourselves is a very useful fake framework. I think of fake frameworks as something like…

Imagine a rickety scaffold. Not a nice steel structure, made in a factory, with precision tolerances and proof of crush tests, no. This is more like a bamboo structure, lashed together with braided vine rope. Think something Robinson Crusoe might build. And you can see people standing on it, and using it to access things that would otherwise be out of reach. They finish their work and it’s your turn. You climb up and it shifts a little under your weight, it creaks as you move around, and you know you don’t want to trust it, not the way you could trust steelwork. Impermanent and unreliable as it is, though… there are places you can’t reach without scaffolding and we don’t always have steel ones available.

Back to music and narrative – if your depressed thoughts tend towards rumination, looping around the same ideas when you’re depressed, sad music will tend to hold you down. It reinforces what you’re already thinking and feeling, and becomes one more thing keeping you in that state. If you don’t have the rumination trait, however, sad music is like a friend commiserating with you. You’re not alone, and it’s not so bad.

Upbeat, confident music can make you feel better, or if you’re already feeling good, on top of the world. Admittedly, this can be dangerous too – I would predict that some amount of unforced errors leading to car wrecks have this kind of music involved; you get really into it, the universe is with you, you can do anything. Like weave through traffic at 85 mile per hour. Maybe you even can do so, but try to remember that everyone thinks they’re an above average driver, and they can’t all be right.

I’ve heard music called an accident of evolution, and I don’t buy it. Music is complicated, and it’s universal across the species. Some of the oldest artifacts we have are bone flutes our ancestors made. Traits like that, they don’t happen in a vacuum. I think the mechanism has a purpose, and it’s for communication. I suspect it’s what we used before language, conveying emotional states, building rapport, holding the tribe together, and even keeping some degree of history, in stories that were patterns of states. Songs can tell stories without words, simply in how they make you feel, and this is particularly true when you’re part of a tribe, where you share almost all of your context with the musician.

You even process music in the same general areas as language. It’s a deeply woven part of us as a species, and it’s beautiful and glorious.

It’s also used against you, at times. Think about car commercials, or presidential campaigns, using music to touch your system one and get you on their side before your reasoning mind gets involved, so that it gets involved on their side, rationalizing why you should be for them. They’re out to hijack you, and if you aren’t aware of it, they’ll have an easy time of it.

Pay attention to what people are pushing at you (and into you!) with the music they frame themselves with. Personally, I always have headphones in when I’m in supermarkets with music. I don’t want to be hijacked. My narrative belongs to me, and is not up for commercial renegotiation. Be mindful of the language whispered in your ears, and treat it as friend or foe accordingly, but always, always, be mindful. You can be certain that whatever commercial provider is playing it was, when they picked it.