Practicing Optimism

Earlier in my life, in those occasional moments when I’ve felt really dejected for one reason or another, and a friend, listening to the litany of my troubles, has suggested I simply need to have a better attitude, that I should look on the bright side, I’ve usually muttered something to the effect of “You don’t understand.” When I need commiseration or catharsis, it may feel like an insult to be told that I should be more optimistic. Such advice overlooks the details of what’s troubling me and implies that I bear the responsibility for my condition: my real problem isn’t out there in the world, but rather in my mind. If I would just think differently, I would feel differently, and if I refuse to do that, then my suffering is in some sense my own fault.

It’s easy to chafe at such advice, and to reject it, particularly when you feel that the person giving the advice doesn’t really “get” what you’re going through: the confluence of factors outside your control, the unreasonableness of other people, the inescapable thorniness of happenstance.

But whenever I’ve bristled at the idea of looking on the bright side, there’s been a tinge of epistemic hubris in my position: I’m absolutely convinced I’m seeing the truth. The truth is ugly and that’s why I’m sad. To be cheerful at such a bad time would require willful ignorance. Being sad, in this view, is almost virtuous in that it involves a refusal to look away from reality, however grim, and an unwillingness to be duped by happy fantasies. Being sad is being honest.

My stance regarding “positive thinking” has changed in recent years. I’m more open to it, less likely to resist it as I’ve just described. That’s not to say I’m able to transform my perspective from gloomy to hopeful at will, but that I respect those who can pull off such a feat and I believe there’s something for me to learn here.

Here’s an argument I accept: if you walk into a room, you may think you’re seeing the full truth of the room, but of course you’re only seeing the few parts of the room you’re looking at. You could take a photograph that shows light coming in through the windows, and someone viewing this image would sense an airy, welcoming place. Or you could take a photograph that shows dust and cobwebs in an abandoned corner, and someone viewing this image would think the place is cramped and dirty. Is one photograph more honest than the other? No, they are both honest but partial depictions of a complex reality. It’s like this with any situation: where you point the lens makes all the difference. When we feel dejected it’s often because we are pointing the lens at those things that are most troubling to us, ignoring or discounting the possibility that we could point the lens in other directions too.

Photography requires skill that can be developed through practice, and likewise we can practice and improve at finding perspectives that emphasize the hope and promise in difficult situations as opposed to emphasizing only the pain. We can be kinder “photographers” of our circumstances. We can be more receptive to what might be beautiful or inspiring, and less obsessed with showcasing what’s ugly or upsetting. We can do this not by denying reality and embracing fantasy, but simply by changing what aspects of reality we concentrate on.

From those last paragraphs, you might conclude that I have consumed the Kool-Aid of positive thinking, and maybe I have. What made me do it?

I’ll mention one of the moments that brought about a shift in my attitude. It was when a critical care nurse who had just taken my blood pressure, reviewed my medical chart, and interviewed me about my various concerns told me that I needed to be more optimistic to be more healthy. I was not in an ICU; rather, I had signed up for a course in stress management and mindfulness at my local hospital, and I was having an intake session with this nurse, who would be teaching the class. So perhaps it was predictable that she would have said something about positivity. Nevertheless, it was shocking, in a helpful way, for me to receive optimism as a prescription, written by someone I viewed as a medical authority, the same kind of person who would tell you to take an antibiotic twice a day for the next two weeks, and you’d do it without question because you trust her to know what’s best for your physical health.

The nurse gave me an explanation of how thoughts can trigger a stress response or a relaxation response, and how those bodily responses in turn affect our fitness, immunity, and overall well-being. I’d heard such stuff before, but I was ready to be reminded. When a friend blithely tells you to be more positive you can be miffed that they’re not really commiserating with your pain, but when a healthcare practitioner tells you the same, quoting research and invoking the weight of a lifelong medical career, the advice carries a different weight. Where I had always viewed the tension between optimism and pessimism as private matter, a question of personal philosophy, something an individual could reasonably ponder throughout their life, this was the first time anyone suggested to me that one of those stances was an essential component of health, and the other was not.

Another thing that’s affected my outlook is that I’ve gathered enough years to look back on now, more than forty of them, and I can see that my bad moods never got me anywhere, even though in each case it seemed like being sullen was an act of protest, a way of sending a message to reality that I did not approve of its course. The message was never received, not once. I can only conclude that sullenness is not a great way to effect change.

During the nurse’s class, I wrote down my own summaries of points that were made. I’m reviewing them now as I look for wisdom to apply in the time of COVID. On one piece of notepaper, I wrote this:

Contentment comes from believing there is meaning in life and always working to find that meaning. The ability to find meaning is something that can be practiced: you get better at it the more you try. When you’re down, it’s because you’re overemphasizing negatives and ignoring positives – you’re turning away from sources of meaning – it’s that simple.

Is it really that simple? I’m not sure, but I do recognize that the times when my life has seemed the most suffused with meaning are the times when I’ve felt the happiest. I’m intrigued by the idea that a sense of purpose is not a static quality that a person might have or lack but that it is something we can cultivate as an ongoing practice.

I’m tempted to think that “looking on the bright side” is advice that applies to normal times, when you’re basically OK; in times of extreme stress, it might not be practical or reasonable to be optimistic. But I remember that the nurse who taught the class also works with cancer patients, some of whom are at late stages of disease: with only a few months to live, she would say, it’s still not too late to embrace a more optimistic outlook, and doing so could help you make the most of what time you’ve got left. Even if your day was spent struggling with the side effects of chemo, there might have been a moment when you laughed at something or appreciated a kind gesture from a friend. Focus on that moment, and savor it. Give the good things more airtime than the bad things. Doing that can only help you.

As COVID rages, there is a lot to practice. We are cut off from so many of our most natural and familiar sources of meaning. Where we find meaning in physical togetherness, gathering with friends, camaraderie, public celebration, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in travel, adventure, novelty, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in live performances, plays, concerts, sporting events, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in shared meals, we must now eat alone. We can move some of these activities online, but it’s not quite the same. As we lose the social rituals that keep us feeling connected, we may also be losing whatever economic security we have worked to achieve, fearing for our own health and those of our loved ones, and hearing daily reports of illness, death, and systemic dysfunction.

The idea is not to ignore this or pretend it isn’t happening. The idea is not to artificially think cheery thoughts. Rather, it’s to experiment with “photographing” this situation in different ways, holding the camera at angles we might not often think to use. What beauty is still transpiring in the world even as the pandemic expands? What lessons can we learn from the experience before us? What opportunities for growth and change does it present? What meaning can we find in it? Take the time to list possible answers to these questions. Even if you’re not persuaded by those answers, see how many you can come up with.

And now I come to the challenge of practicing what I preach. I will try to list a few things that have been making me feel good or giving me hope in the past few days, and I’ll try to crank the list out in ten minutes, so it’s going to be unpolished:

I’ve had some really good phone conversations with friends and family, especially my mom, over the past two weeks.

I’m glad I developed an exercise routine before the pandemic because it’s serving me well now.

I’m getting reacquainted with my music collection, listening to some albums that I haven’t heard in years.

I’m cooking every meal at home. This is the first time in my life when I’ve sustained a practice of 100% home cooking. Now that some ingredients are hard to get, I’m appreciating each meal more than I otherwise might.

I’ve still got a job. A home. A partner. A life.

I’ve watched some good movies this past week. For whatever reason, I never developed a movie streaming habit; maybe now’s the time to partake (even though, alas, streaming has a hidden environmental cost).

I’m sleeping well again.

My musical collaborator just sent me some fantastic clavichord recordings of some of my new canons. I’m eager to keep working with him and write more canons. Also, to record some of my songs. And start some new musical experiments.

Listening to those few leaders who project competence, composure, and respect for science.

I remember that by staying home, the average person is not only protecting their own health, but the health of all of us. Our isolation is a social gesture, an act of solidarity. We’re saying inside for each other.

My ten minutes is up.


March 22, 2020

Taking stock after nearly a month of isolation. My last social activities were on the first weekend of this month. I got together with some neighborhood friends for a musical jam on Feb 29 and then joined a neighborhood singing group on Mar 1. I went to the supermarket on Mar 2, voted on Mar 3, and went to the supermarket again on Mar 9. I took a short walk yesterday. Other than that I’ve been in my house the whole month. I’m over the initial wave of panic that shook me from the 12th through the 15th, and am starting to settle into life in my little cocoon. I picked my exercise routine up again this morning for the first time after completely exhausting myself with frantic calisthenics on the 12th.

In some ways, not much has changed in my life yet: I’ve been working from home and practicing my other pursuits largely at home for years. Now I’m just spending more time in that same familiar place. But it all feels different when you’re trapped there; when you don’t know when you’ll be able to see friends and family again; when you don’t know if you or someone you love might get sick; when the world is collapsing around you.

I’ve heard some people joking that for introverts, “social distancing” is a way of life whether there’s a pandemic or not. But as an introvert, I can say that nothing about today’s requirement for social distancing feels comfortable or natural. I may not want to socialize as often, or for as long as an extrovert would, but socializing is just as important to me.

I’ve been washing my hands so much that the skin around my knuckles is getting red and cracked. Perhaps all this washing is overkill because I’m not going out, so presumably my chances of having the virus on my hands are slim, but I’m still receiving packages, and handling the things from inside the packages, and with reports that the virus can live on surfaces for several days, I find it hard to judge the right level of precaution. There are articles that say you can’t get coronavirus from a package and other articles that say the virus can live on cardboard for a day and plastic for three days. As for my skin, I was going to order some moisturizer but I remembered I have two jars of coconut oil in the cupboard so I started using that and it’s helping.

I think I’ve gotten pretty good at not touching my face. When I don’t rub my eyes at all throughout the day, they feel dry and start stinging, and there can be an accumulation of goop. Showering in the morning is now the one time I really touch my face and that has become such a highly anticipated and relieving moment.

My meals these days are made from the ingredients I can order. It feels lazy to click some buttons online and have food brought to my door, but I feel better about it than I do about going to a crowded store, being closer than six feet from other shoppers and wondering what I might be inhaling.

Not everything can be ordered. It’s probably impossible to order a large sack of rice right now. I tried ordering a package of soap bars but the order was cancelled due to supply issues. Ditto with Tylenol.

I did have the foresight to place a large order of dried beans at the beginning of the month. And a few days ago I received 10lb bags of amaranth, lentils, split peas, and farro. And yesterday I ordered a 23lb bucket of rolled oats and a 32lb bucket of teff (indeed, all the rice buckets were sold out). I suppose cooking is one of the few things about the pandemic that I actually feel prepared for. I love lentils, grains, and beans, and now is the time to savor them. While I’ve always tried to buy staples in bulk as opposed to in little plastic bags, I haven’t always been consistent about it; now I’m finally doing it.

I’m running through paper towels like crazy with all the washing and hand-drying I’m doing, so I ordered 100 cheap cotton handkerchiefs and I’m planning to use them instead of paper towels from now on.

In my household, in normal times, having avocado toast for dinner would probably be considered as just a little bit of a disappointment; the kind of dinner you make when you’re in a rush, not as satisfying as cooking a full or “proper” meal, and not as fun as going out. But my partner and I had avocado toast for dinner the other day, and I wondered if we might look back on that meal as a rare luxury. The avocado came from Mexico. Are we really going to keep being able to get these delivered to our doorstep as the world shuts down? The Mestemacher rye bread came from Germany. It comes in sealed plastic bag and it has a long shelf life, so you can keep it in the cupboard for times when you’re out of fresh bread. It’s a good staple for a pandemic. But it’s selling out — last time I tried to order it, only one bag was available. The tomatoes came from Backyard Farms in Maine. They’re fresh produce and I didn’t know who handled them so I washed each one with soap. We added some mashed yam to our avocado toast. I’m not sure where the yam came from but apparently lots of US yams are from Louisiana. How easy is going to be to have yams magically appear on our doorstep as the pandemic continues? We added garlic powder, salt, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and dried onion flakes. It won’t take long to run out of all these things. Our humble avocado toast just might be one of the more extravagant and widely-sourced dinners we eat in long time. Or it might not. Perhaps the food supply chain will keep humming along as everything else shuts down, and all these ingredients will remain easy to get. Who knows what’s going to happen?

I spent an hour today putting together my next large grocery order. When I was ready to checkout, the system asked me to select a delivery date before I could continue. There were two delivery options: 1) Today: NOT AVAILABLE, and 2) Tomorrow: NOT AVAILABLE. Since I couldn’t select either of the options, I couldn’t continue. Dead end.

In a way it’s kind of refreshing for the system that promised us unlimited options, unlimited convenience, immediate gratification to break a little bit and let us feel what it’s like to not be able to click some buttons and promptly get what we want. Musing on this for a few moments, I was about to abandon my order but I decided to refresh the webpage, and when I did that, a new delivery window appeared like magic in place of “Today: NOT AVAILABLE.” Now it said “Today: 6-8pm.” So I selected that and my order showed up in two hours. And there I was in my kitchen, washing the tomatoes and rutabaga and bottles of kefir with soapy water.

My soundtrack these days has alternated between news and Gregorian chant. I’d probably be happier if I just stuck with Gregorian chant.

My neighbor, a retired cop, was out on his deck today playing soft rock on the radio, grilling, and chilling. He has a bubble machine that he likes to bring out. I could see the bubbles floating over to my deck, some of them even bursting against my window. It occurred to me that bubbles are made of soap and soap “kills” the virus. It actually breaks the components of the virus apart. So maybe if every person on the planet got a bubble machine and we all just blasted bubbles out in every direction for a few days, carrying our bubble machines with us wherever we went, maybe that would end the pandemic? Well, I can dream.



March 15, 2020

I got a good night’s sleep but I felt my anxiety returning this morning. I did some deep breathing and it helped. The key, I think, is to be conscious of the inhale and exhale, to make them slow and smooth, and to let the inhale fill the belly. It’s easy to believe you’re doing that when you’re not. In the past few days I’ve tried to use deep breathing to calm down, and it seemed not to make much of a difference. Why? Isn’t deep breathing supposed to be the most effective thing you can do for stress? I was probably too agitated to realize that my “deep breathing” consisted of shallow inhales and quick exhales. I was making enough noise to give the impression that I was doing something deliberate, when I was really just expressing panic through my breath. This morning I found it easier to concentrate on my breathing, slow it down and make it smooth, and I experienced a more calming effect from it. It works if you really do it.

I came up with a meditative exercise for this time of social distancing that completely changed my mood. Here’s how I would teach it to someone else: stand up straight. Notice your posture and adjust it until you’re standing up with comfort and confidence. Focus on your breathing and make it slow, smooth, deep. Close your eyes and reach your hands out to your side as though you were holding hands with a circle of people who you care about. There’s one person on your left and one on your right. Feel the warmth of their hands. Concentrate on this warmth until your hands feel warm too. Imagine different people from your life entering the circle. Imagine everyone is singing the same note in unison. Or imagine everyone is joining in an affirmation: “We’ll get through this together.”

I cried at the end of that. I did some singing practice against a drone, and it helped too. I have an Indian digital “tanpura box.” I switched it on for the first time in a while, and I just held a steady C against its C. I could hear my pulse in my voice.

Another thing that helped today was to think about adaptive perspectives, ways of looking at the situation that make it easier to cope. One of the most paralyzing aspects of the current situation is its novelty. Most of us have never experienced anything like this and never expected we would. There’s a tendency to think it’s somehow wrong or unfair, that it “shouldn’t” be happening, or that it wasn’t “supposed to happen.” Reality itself seems like it’s gone off course, and we want to steer it back to where it was. But resistance makes it harder to move forward. I actually find some comfort in the thought that pandemics aren’t novel. They’ve been happening throughout human history. The first recorded one happened in 430 B.C. Skipping ahead, the sixth cholera pandemic started in 1910, followed by the flu pandemic of 1918. There were other major flu pandemics in 1956 and 1960 and of course there’s the ongoing AIDS pandemic. I’m leaving out H1N1, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and so on. And there are enough viruses out there to cause pandemics for the indefinite future. So although coronavirus is turning our lives, and our expectations about life upside down, this is far from the first time people have gone through something like this. The headline of the Seattle Daily Times on Oct. 5, 1918 blared “Churches, Schools, Shows Closed: Epidemic puts ban on all public assemblies.” When we were born into this world, no one gave us a certificate saying that we’d never have to experience a pandemic. This too is a part of life for humans on this earth. I’m not sure how much comfort that will be if I or my loved ones get sick, but it’s at least comforting to me now as I read the current headlines and feel like the world is falling apart in a way that’s never happened before. Actually, this has happened before and will happen again.

One thing that compounds my anxiety about any situation is the expectation that I simply won’t be able to cope. But somewhere, sometime in the past few years, I heard it said that we often underestimate our ability to cope. We’re better at coping than we think. This observation stuck with me and has become one of the most useful items in my mental toolbox. Presented with a difficult situation, most people will find some way to deal with it. If you’re reading this now, it means that every challenge you faced in your life so far, you found some way to survive it. Every day, whether a pandemic is raging or not, brings a chance of death. But we should all assume we’ll find a way to get through this day, and the next, as we have so many days before. To reach this point, we’ve all demonstrated a capacity to deal with the unexpected, and we will again.

I’ll conclude with a photo. On 2/7 a friend of mine gave me an Amaryllis bulb. It came in a box with a plastic pot and some compressed soil. I followed the directions, adding water, planting the bulb, and waiting. By 2/23 it had done this. To take this photo, I put a piece of black cardboard behind the flower, adjusting the position so that the sun could still illuminate the petals from behind.









March 14, 2020

Since I started this blog in 2012 I’ve avoided a stream-of-consciousness style. I’ve tended to post here only when my thoughts on a topic are fully formed and I can present them concisely. But now, with the coronavirus pandemic shaking the world, and the imperative for “social distancing” keeping me from seeing friends in person, I’m looking for ways to feel, and be, more connected to the people I know, as well as to readers “out there” whom I’ve never met, so I’m going to experiment with a more personally exposed, informal style. Some posts like this one will have a date as their title and they’ll basically be personal journal entries that I’m making public. Here goes.

Thursday the 12th was the day when my mounting anxiety about the pandemic turned into full-scale panic, where I could feel myself physically trembling all the time. The thought of getting sick, or witnessing a loved one get sick. The thought of hospitals being overwhelmed, people dying without care. The bungling, confidence-busting response of the current administration. The unknown: when will this end? The thought of friends losing their livelihoods. Businesses going bankrupt. The thought of losing what I’ve invested over the years. The soul-crushing cancellations: concerts, festivals, plays shut down; museums closed; schools closed; sporting events called off. The confusion about how to respond, how to prepare. The fear of contagion: is it safe to go out? Do I need to wash everything that comes into the house?

I’m not someone who has frequent panic attacks but I’ve experienced them a few times in the past, so I’ve looked into strategies for diffusing them. On Thursday, as I was feeling a surge of adrenaline every few minutes, I tried to draw on the mental model of anxiety that I’ve gathered from a stress management class I took at the Benson Henry Institute at Mass General Hospital and from other material I’ve read about mindfulness and health:

Anxiety is energy. When I’m anxious, my body is giving me energy to respond to a perceived threat. My brain is keeping me fixated on the threat so I don’t get distracted from what I supposedly need to do: fight or flee. These automatic mental and physical processes are kicking in to help me escape a tiger that’s chasing me. These processes are “trying” to be helpful. Except it’s March 2020 and what I need to do is not run from a tiger but rather stay home, practice social distancing, cancel all my plans. The energy for fleeing a tiger doesn’t help with that.

So I had a bright idea. Why not do some exercise whenever that trembling, queasy sensation comes on? I started doing pushups and sit-ups to diffuse the anxious energy. Throughout my life I’ve taken long walks to relieve stress, but I had never done calisthenics for that particular purpose. It felt good. The relief was temporary though, and every hour I’d start to feel that tingling sensation on my skin again and my thoughts would return to catastrophes that might arise in the coming months. Cases doubling every six days. Not enough ventilators. Everything shut down. I’d do more pushups and sit-ups and squats and I’d feel better for a while. My stamina was great. I probably did more repetitions of each kind of exercise than I’d ever done before.

But I didn’t sleep well Thursday night. I was exhausted physically but my mind was still racing with the kind of fears that pandemics are so good at triggering. There were moments when I would stop trembling and could sense sleep coming on. It felt so gentle and good. I thought to myself, this is “sweet sleep” arriving, this is where the phrase comes from. Most nights I’m not aware of sleep’s onset, but Thursday night I could sense its blissful approach. I might liken it to a religious experience or to the very few times I’ve been on an opiate painkiller. A unifying calm would start to sweep over me, mollifying my agitated thoughts and making my muscles feel warm and loose. But then some kind of alarm in my mind would start ringing: you shouldn’t be sleeping now! Emergency! Then the soothing, enveloping blanket of sleep would abruptly withdraw, leaving me fully alert and focused on what might be the end of the world as I know it. So “sweet sleep” approached but never came.

Friday I was totally exhausted and more panicked than before. With no meetings on my calendar for the day and no urgent deadlines, I had trouble focusing on work. I kept turning to the news to try to make sense of the situation and figure out how I should respond. Reading articles online gave me something to do, and that felt better than being left with my own thoughts, but the articles were all horrifying, particularly anything written by or featuring a real epidemiologist, someone who studies pandemics for a living. These folks have done the math and you don’t want to hear the math.

I started feeling a mild burning sensation in my chest or lungs (I wasn’t sure how to locate it specifically) and when my partner mentioned, unprompted, that he was feeling something similar I began to wonder if both of us were experiencing the early symptoms of coronavirus. Checked my temperature. Normal. Felt I should try doing something productive so I started making an emergency checklist. What happens if I or someone close to me needs to go to the hospital in the coming months? How do we get there? What would I bring? What instructions would I leave for family and neighbors? I started making a supply checklist for the next few months. But it wasn’t a great idea to work on emergency preparedness while I was panicked and exhausted as it had a compounding effect on the panic.

The only time I’ve felt the same sense of dread at the possible impending collapse of the world was right after the 2016 election, but then it was about things that might possibly happen in the coming year, and now it’s about things that are happening at this moment: more than a hundred cases in my state of Massachusetts, some of those right here in Boston, and we’re told that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Fauci says the current numbers are like starlight – it’s not light from “now,” it’s light from however long ago it took to reach you. In other words, the cases we’re hearing about today are the ones that were created weeks ago; the number of cases today is larger by a possibly staggering amount.

I got decent sleep on Friday night, and today I’m feeling calmer. I wish I could report that some technique I had used on Thursday or Friday was particularly effective at getting through the panic. Every technique did something but nothing “cured” it.

The mental model of “anxiety as energy” is helpful, I think, as a way of separating the physical sensation from one’s ideas about the sensation. The feeling of anxiety means your body is trying to be helpful. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die. So when you feel the skin tingling, the tremor, the queasiness, don’t let it freak you out. Don’t let the sensation persuade you that something’s wrong with you, or that things are worse than they are. Helpful advice, yes, but it might not be enough to make the sensations stop — they might continue all day no matter how maturely or wisely you interpret them.

Exercise is effective, I think, but Thursday’s lesson was: don’t overdo it. In a state of extreme anxiety you might be tempted to exercise a lot more than you probably should, especially if it keeps bringing relief, but if you don’t get good sleep afterwards you’ll be doubly drained the next day. Moderation.

Deep breathing has been helpful over the past few days but at many times I’ve just been too agitated to stay focused on it. I wonder if I just needed to go through two days of shock and mental upheaval to get adjusted to a new normal. Today I puttered around and didn’t do much of anything. No shaking sensations.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in personal introspection when keeping a journal. I kept a private one from 1998 through 2010 and then it tapered off in the following years. One of the reasons I stopped is that I got tired of talking about myself to myself. Those kind of discussions can easily end up following anxieties down a rat hole. I’ll try to do something a little differently this time around and always mention a few simple things that made my day brighter, even if by just a little bit:

Oatmeal breakfast was comforting as usual.

Good weather, a few hours of sun.

Played a bit on my new instrument – a banjo — learning my first tune on it, “Shady Grove.”

Did some composting.

Took a look at our garden beds and thought about spring planting.

Wore more layers than I needed (it wasn’t particularly cold) and enjoyed the feeling of being bundled up.

Time with partner.

Life, Society

Stalling Coronavirus

Coronavirus has thrown lives, governments, and markets into a state of uncertainty, but our moral obligation in this time is certain.

It’s natural that many people are evaluating their personal risk, asking the question “Will I die?” In an attempt to calm the public, authorities keep saying that anyone who’s young and healthy will, for the most part, experience mild symptoms. This reassurance steps over the fact that almost everyone who’s “young and healthy” has a dozen friends and loved ones who are not young and not healthy, and if the “young and healthy” people catch the virus they can transmit it to those who aren’t. To put it bluntly, if you get the virus as a young and healthy person, you might not die, but you might contribute to someone else’s death. Therefore, everyone should see it as their moral obligation to avoid catching the virus for as long as possible, not only to protect their own personal health, but to protect the health of those who might inadvertently catch it from them.

There has been a lot of talk about the death rate. It’s important to understand that the death rate depends on the availability of care. If the virus is allowed to spread quickly, hospitals will run out of beds, health care workers will run out of protective gear, and critically ill patients will die because they could not be treated. But if we manage to slow transmission down and “flatten the curve,” we can buy time for hospitals to ramp up capacity, aiming for a scenario where even as the number of cases grows, everyone is able to receive the care they need.

Once you see the connection between the death rate and the availability of care, it follows that each of us has some agency over the death rate. We can help to reduce the death rate by not catching the virus ourselves, or at least by delaying for as long as possible that unfortunate time when we do catch it, keeping those emergency rooms available for the people who most desperately need them.

In life, there are so many gray areas, so many debatable points, so many requests made of us which we might accept or reject according to our own value scheme. But I feel that what the current situation demands of each person is crystal clear. If each one of us can save lives – maybe one, maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand — by not becoming a carrier of this virus, then the only moral course of action is to do everything we possibly can to avoid becoming a carrier, starting now.

Of course, we can’t see the virus and can’t fully control whether we’re exposed or whether we expose others. But there are things we can do. The easier ones are washing our hands, keeping our hands off our faces, covering our coughs, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding large crowds. Experts say we’ll need to do harder things too — we’ll need to practice extreme social distancing – we’ll need to stay home whenever possible, despite all the hardships it might entail. If we’re employers or event organizers, we’ll need to enable others to stay home. And if we’re the neighbor or friend of someone who doesn’t have the resources to stay home we must look for ways to help them out.

Should we stay home even if our own town hasn’t been placed on lockdown? As I write this on March 11, 2020, the entire nation of Italy is on lockdown but in the US it’s still business as usual in many places. We are starting to see cancellations of major conferences, cultural events, and political rallies; we are starting to see school closures; and the first containment zone has been established in the town of New Rochelle in New York. But elsewhere you might look around and never know that a pandemic is underway. Should those of us who haven’t been told to stay home do so anyway?

I’m not an epidemiologist or an expert in public health. But there are experts who say we should be as proactive as possible, shutting things down and staying home before the first cases are discovered in our area. (See this interview with Nicholas Christakis, for example, or this Atlantic piece titled Cancel Everything.)

In two weeks we will have a better sense of how many transmissions are occurring in the country right now; in two weeks we will probably wish we had done more, two weeks ago, to stop those transmissions. So let’s start doing everything we can now — before our government gives us the order — to protect each other.

Leaving Facebook

Exodus Complete

Yesterday was January 12, 2020, the day my Facebook account became unrecoverable after a thirty-day purgatory, beginning with my deletion request on December 13, 2019. So I did it! Thanks to readers who have followed along with me through this process and thanks especially to Wade Roush who set an example to follow, and who gave me the chance to participate in an episode of his Soonish podcast on leaving Facebook.

So what am I going to spend my time trying to extricate myself from now that I don’t have Facebook to struggle with? Well there’s no shortage of things, but my eyes are on my cell phone. Wouldn’t it be nice if data brokers hadn’t captured my location history over the past decade, didn’t know every place I’ve been and how long I’ve spent there, weren’t profiting from this extreme privacy invasion, weren’t applying the stolen data to opaque purposes, and weren’t still collecting it with impunity? How do I know my location information has been compromised? Well, I don’t really, because there’s no way to find out who might have it, so there’s no way to see what they have, and there’s no way to ask for it back. But my freaking out is not unprompted. I was persuaded to freak out by the One Nation Tracked series in the New York Times where they show how data brokers have amassed enough location pings from “leaky” mobile apps that it’s possible to track the minute-by-minute whereabouts of secret service agents and senior pentagon officials and celebrities, not just folks like me. They talk about how this data, bought and sold by political campaigns, governments, and malicious actors could be used for blackmail, election influence, and other stuff that compromises democratic life. So you might want to read the article. I’ve been keeping my phone in airplane mode more often, and otherwise trying to keep location services off, with no illusions that this will make a dent in the problem — but it makes me feel good!




Free Will

Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d take fifteen hundred words to describe my position on free will.

We make countless choices each day, and we feel that these choices are ours, that they originate inside the self, that they depend on personal volition, which is to say that we are free to decide one way or the other — it’s up to us — so the outcome belongs to us. But what does this mean?

If I can make a choice by flipping a coin, or I can make it for cause, where does free will come into play? If my choice is made randomly, it is an act of chance, not one of will. But if my choice is made deliberately, for specific reasons, how is this different from saying that my choice is determined by those reasons? The choice is not up to me, it’s up to the reasons! Some of those reasons, of course, may be internal ones, aspects of my unique self, but the things that are unique about me are not things I asked for. I have judgement, but I never went shopping for judgement, picking a model that I liked off the shelf — it’s the sum total of the experiences I’ve happened to have and the qualities I’ve inherited.

If we are both invited to a party and you go but I stay home, do our differing behaviors show that we exercised free will? Perhaps I declined because I’m an introvert and you accepted because you’re an extrovert, so our choices depended on our individual personalities for sure. But if we didn’t also choose to be introverts or extroverts, where’s the freedom?

True, I can step outside the constraints of my personality and do something uncharacteristic, but when this happens, it’s for a reason too, and that reason itself has a reason which I probably didn’t choose. If I overcome my reluctance and go to the party after all, because I hear that John Doe is also going and I want to see him, then John Doe’s decision to attend can be said to have determined my own decision. My personal affection for John Doe may have been a factor here, but that affection is not something I chose to possess: it’s determined by preferences that I didn’t choose to have, and attributes of John Doe that I didn’t choose for him to have. I may have been on the fence about going, and when I finally decided to go I may have been unsure why I did so, but my own lack of insight into a wavering decision doesn’t mean it was free. Surely there were reasons that swayed me without my knowing.

How can we reconcile the feeling of freedom, the sense that we are making our own choices, directing our own lives, deciding which parties we will attend, so to speak, with the awareness that our choices are determined by things that we did not choose, and that every chain of causality – the reasons behind the reasons behind the reasons why we decide one way or another – followed long enough, must extend outside the self, into the realm of what we cannot choose?

If this is a conundrum that appears unsolvable, that’s because we forget that freedom is relational. I cannot simply be free. I can only be free in relation to something that might possibly constrain me. If the party was on a Saturday, and my boss doesn’t control my weekends, then my decision to go or not go was made freely with respect to my boss. He could neither have forced me to go nor stopped me from going. But it might be true that my friend Gary insisted I go, threatening great upset if I didn’t, so my choice was not free with respect to Gary. In the country where I live, I may possess something like freedom of speech, but that freedom only exists with respect to a government that could possibly constrain my speech; at the same time, I might be tightly constrained in what I say by customs I follow, agreements I’ve made with friends, contracts I’ve signed with employers, the language I speak, and the person I happen to be. Remove all possible constraints, all possible factors that could limit or control my speech, and I would be left howling, not exercising freedom.

And yet when we think about free will we think of it as an independent quality, something that exists on its own, something we either have or don’t have. We desire free will, or claim to have it, without specifying what it is free with respect to. Did I exercise free will in going to the party? To an observer who focuses on my boss’s influence, my choice will have seemed free; to an observer who focuses on my friend Gary’s influence, my choice will have seemed constrained. The appearance of freedom depends on which circumstances the observer knows about and considers important.

Still, we are bothered by the thought of an omniscient observer, an alien possessing superior cognition who could understand all the circumstances affecting our choices and use this knowledge to predict the outcomes. Where our behavior seems free to us because our understanding of its causes is limited, perhaps it would seem deterministic to a being that knew everything about us, a being who could see the causes that are hidden to us, a being whose viewpoint was panoramic where ours is narrow. And if our deepest, most intimate decisions could be predicted by an omniscient being, even just a hypothetical one, then our sense of freedom must be illusory, right? We insist that our actions make sense, that we have good reasons for what we do, that our behavior is coherent, on the one hand; on the other, we wish for assurance that no being could guess our next moves, even in principle. Our identity is bound up in the conflicting convictions that we are both rational and unpredictable.

What is undeniably true is that we have the experience of freedom, whether that freedom is real or not, just as one may have the experience of communion with God whether there is one or not. It feels a certain way to make choices. The feeling ranges from one of open possibility and even mystery, when external constraints are few and we’re not sure which way we’ll go until the moment of decision, to one of greater confinement when we’re pressured by circumstances to act one way or another, and the chance of resisting what’s prescribed seems slim. This feeling of freedom, in all its variations, affects our behavior: we may love and seek the experience, or we may fear and avoid it. An alien who sought to predict our behavior would have to understand our emotions, including those surrounding freedom itself. This leads to something of a paradox, because if the experience of freedom depends on our limited comprehension, our ignorance of predetermining factors, how could a being with unlimited comprehension really know what that’s like?

So my position on free will is this: freedom requires a point of reference. Absolute freedom is incoherent as a concept. To say we don’t have absolute free will doesn’t mean we’re missing out on something available, unless one thinks we’re also missing out on empty cups that are full or sunny days that are cloudy. At any moment, our will is free with respect to some things and constrained with respect to others. The factors that constrain our will are different from choice to choice, moment to moment, and this swirling, ever-changing multiplicity of factors is often so complex as to be, from our mortal perspectives, unknowable. If we’re bothered by the possibility that a being with superior cognition could guess our next moves, we should remember that the experiences we hold dear, including that of freedom itself, depend on our obstructed viewpoints, on our partial ignorance. We might wish for more knowledge, but having too much would deflate the experiences that give us meaning.


Art and Weed

Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d take fifteen hundred words to state my personal aesthetic philosophy.

Although I never became a regular or even infrequent user of marijuana, my thoughts about art tie back to a few experiences of being stoned that I had in my early twenties.

Getting stoned was the first time I understood that what seems fascinating, profound, or moving to me is as much a function of the thing itself as it is of my current mental state. I remember being stoned and finding soap bubbles in the kitchen sink endlessly intriguing, or saying a word – I don’t know, “luminous” – and thinking its sounds were so fascinating that the word itself was some kind of masterpiece. One could say that my perceptions were distorted by the drug. In this view, drugs disconnect you from reality, and when a drug wears off, you realize that all the things it made you think weren’t really true. But one could also say that mind-altering substances expose truths about the self. Marijuana revealed to me that I have the capacity to find pleasure in places I normally wouldn’t find it. I have the capacity to be endlessly fascinated by soap bubbles. I didn’t know that before. What is it about weed that unleashes this latent capacity for appreciation?

I think it’s all about attention. Soap bubbles seemed so rapturous to me because, for once, I could give them full attention. Where normally I would have said that soap bubbles are pretty but I’ve got to get the dishes done, I was now free to stare at them intensely and endlessly, with no sense of time passing, no voice nagging me to focus on something more important, no inner chatter distracting me from enjoyment. Where normally, I would have said that “luminous” is a nice word, but it’s just a word, I could now repeat it again and again, loving its sounds without caring whether it was a piece of sonic art by a famous creator, or just a word. The critical side of my awareness, the side that gets bored and demands novelty, the side that gets haughty and says “This is not worthy of me!” had been subdued, allowing the appreciative side, the side that looks, listens, and thinks “Isn’t that interesting?” to have free reign of my consciousness.

If soap bubbles or a single word can be “art” to me when I’m stoned, why can they not be art when I’m in my normal state of consciousness? That’s because my normal state of consciousness is dominated by a critic who expects certain requirements to be met before he will step away and allow my attention to flow to the object in question. The inner critic, custodian of worth, helps me function in life by keeping me focused on priorities, stopping me from staring too long at any random thing that happens to catch my eye. While the critic is helpful in that regard, he also disrupts pleasure, treating pleasure as a limited resource which must be conserved. The critic expects that something called “art” should be made by an artist, and the artist should have a pedigree, and the piece at hand should have novel properties that can only be achieved through rare skill; otherwise it should not be allowed to produce enjoyment. When the critic’s requirements aren’t met, he refuses to step away and let the appreciator take the reigns.

And so, when I’m stoned, I can give my attention freely to soap bubbles and experience so much pleasure from staring at them that they seem like magnificent, intentional creations, when I’m not stoned, I require a justification for why I should give them the benefit of my time: are they worthy? Were they hard to make? How much do they sell for? Who made them and what is that person’s status?

So my aesthetic philosophy in a nutshell is this: appreciation is an inner capacity. When our internal critic is silenced, the raw experiences of color, form, light, and sound can captivate us endlessly. What makes a work of art successful for a particular viewer is that it unlocks the viewer’s latent capacity for appreciation, realizing a potential that was within him or her to begin with. It does this by conducting the viewer’s attention. We look to art to guide and control our attention in ways that we cannot will to happen. If the viewer is in an altered state of consciousness, his attention might flow so generously that the art object needn’t struggle to capture it. But if the viewer is in a typical state of conscious, his attention might be constrained by an inner critic that must be appeased. In this case, the work of art must accomplish the appeasement, and it can try for that in myriad ways.

We can divide these ways into those that are intrinsic and extrinsic to the artwork itself. On the intrinsic side, the art object can present a series of surprises, things that startle us because we sense they are rare or difficult to achieve. In a state of surprise, our experiences are heightened. You could read me your journal entry, and I might listen to it, but if it’s in iambic pentameter and all the lines rhyme, I’ll listen harder because you’ve done something difficult that holds me in a state of surprise as I hear each line. By itself, this doesn’t make your journal entry into a great piece of art, but it means I have a better chance of appreciating what’s there because I’m tuned in. If you then go on to add internal rhymes, startling but effective metaphors, and a provocative juxtaposition of topics, I’ll keep tuning in, and so the more I’m likely to notice.

On the extrinsic side, the piece of art might happen to be famous, or ridiculously expensive, or historically significant, or it might have been made by your best friend. All of these thing signal to the inner critic that an exception should be made, more attention should be afforded to this piece than to others. Even if some scribbles on a canvas don’t interest you at first, the knowledge that they are worth twenty million dollars would make you look closer in a desperate attempt to understand how its value and merit could be so utterly uncorrelated. And yet now that you’re looking, you stand a better chance of finding merit in what you see than if you had never looked. In a topsy-turvy way, the outrageous price of the art – or any other outrageous quality that might be attached to it – opens a path to appreciation. It shocks you into noticing, and perhaps looking further.

I don’t mean to imply that art is nothing but artifice aimed at subduing the viewer’s inner critic so that stoned appreciation can then ensue unimpeded. We experience art over time, and a critical voice that had been subdued in one moment might resurface in the next. Aesthetics would be a simple domain if a piece of art needed to pass only one test, once. In reality it must pass many tests over time, and it must pose tests for the viewer himself to pass, thereby fostering an interaction. It demands things from us, and those demands build our investment in appreciating it. It gives us riddles to solve. It confuses us and makes us struggle to understand. It tires us and forces us to build our own endurance. It promises and withholds. It plays hide and seek. It prompts observations and questions which we can discuss with our friends. It generates gossip that we overhear and repeat. So we should name a third set of ways that art can bind our attention: first, through its intrinsic virtues, the difficult and surprising things it achieves; second, through its distinguishing extrinsic attributes, the circumstances around it that attract our notice; and third, through the interaction it fosters, the way it involves us and makes us work.

The interaction of these mechanisms gets very complex, beautifully so, and when I promised to state my aesthetic philosophy I didn’t promise to explain the fine details. I am not addressing how human attention works, nor all the specific ways that art might engage it, nor what communication means, nor how culture and community frame interpretation. What I am offering is the conviction that when art is successful for a particular viewer, that is because it has mastered the viewer’s attention. Somehow, it has subdued the viewer’s inner naysayer and unlocked the same appreciative capacity that one might experience under the influence of a mind-altering substance. In that sense, art is a way of getting stoned.


2020 Resolution: Coin Flips

I’ve got plenty of dreams and goals for 2020 but I’m coming around to the idea that New Year’s resolutions are most effective when you only have one of them, and when it’s something achievably specific that you very much want to do but still wouldn’t do in the absence of a commitment. I succeeded in leaving Facebook in 2019 and that’s due, in large part, to it being my only New Year’s resolution, one that I publicly committed to here on this blog, on Facebook itself, in real-world gatherings of friends, and even in a podcast.

So here’s my resolution for 2020. Every time I’m about to browse the internet with no specific objective, every time I’m about to check email or news or Twitter “just to see what’s going on,” I’m going to flip a coin. If it comes up heads, I’ll continue. If it comes up tails, I’ll log off and spend an equivalent amount of time reading a printed book or magazine. Any session of aimless internet browsing usually lasts longer than five minutes (often way more), so when the coin comes up tails I’ll commit to reading printed material for at least five minutes.

Why am I doing this? Two reasons. One is to get better control of my time. Aimless internet browsing sucks up a lot of time. A lot. At the beginning of 2019 I wrote about my habit of checking news. Through the year I managed to stop checking news on my phone, and I decided to keep my phone out of my bed, meaning that my phone is no longer the first thing I interact with when I wake up or the last when I go to sleep. So that’s great. But I still work in front of a computer and check news a lot.

The second reason is that I’ve got a lot of paper books that I want to read. Maybe I’ll get that reading done if I reallocate half of my “random internet browsing” time to the task? I have a good friend who runs a decluttering business and I hired her to help me with my own decluttering needs in 2019. I gave away hundreds of books that I had been carrying around for twenty years. I was forced to admit that I just wasn’t going to read them. But there were fifty or so that I couldn’t let go of, and now they’re stacked in piles in my hallway. If something doesn’t change in my life, if I something doesn’t direct my attention to these books in waiting, I know they’ll either sit around for another twenty years or I’ll get fed up and “declutter” them as well. So maybe this coin-flipping resolution will be the change that helps.

If you ask me what I’m really looking forward to in 2020, I’d say I want to write a lot of songs, perform them at open mics, compose more canons, sing with friends, keep up my exercise routine, visit family, reconnect with poetry, write more essays, take more photographs and display them, go to more comedy shows and maybe even take an improv class, travel to a few interesting places, get more involved in climate activism…

But getting better control of my browsing habits is something I both want to do and need the help of a resolution to do. So, 2020 will be a year of coin flips.

The resolution starts now, Jan 8 at 4:45pm as I’m about to publish this post. Usually after “getting something done” like a blog post, I’ll reward myself with a break, and that break might likely be… random internet browsing. This time, I’ll flip a coin first… doing it now… and it came up tails!


Writing Songs Backwards

The most daunting obstacles we face in beginning any creative project are often the ones we place in our own way. In working on songwriting in the past few months, I’ve found myself getting tripped up by own my ideas about how a song “should” come into being. Like many people, I have a stereotype of songwriting as a kind of emotional outpouring. Someone’s passionately in love, but they can’t express the feeling in ordinary words, so they sit down and write a love song. Someone’s outraged by an injustice, but they can’t fix the injustice on their own, so they channel their outrage into a protest song. The writing starts with a powerful emotion or a deep-seated conviction, and everything flows from there. Words are written that express the songwriter’s inner thoughts, a melody is formed that captures the songwriter’s mood. I’ll call this a “forward process” because everything moves forward from the songwriter’s initial inspiration, be it a feeling of love, despair, joy, or rebellion.

In a few special moments, I’ve experienced the “forward process” working as described. I knew what I wanted to express. I felt so deeply in touch with my feelings that when I put my pen to paper, the lyrics seemed to flow effortlessly, and when I touched my guitar and started to sing, I could quickly find notes that matched. The problem is that most of the time, this doesn’t happen. I’ll have worked at my day job all day and managed to carve out an hour or two in the evening for songwriting. When that time comes, I’m not feeling a sense of communion with my emotional self. I know I want to write a song, but there’s no upwelling of sentiment that would propel me along. I’m not sure what I’m feeling at all, aside from tired. What I know is that I’ve got a block of time to make some progress on songwriting. I could give up and try again the next day, but the next day might bring the same situation. If songwriting is about expression, how can you work on it when you’re not presently haunted by a feeling that you need to express?

Because I’ve tended to think that songwriting should start with a strong emotion or conviction, I’ve spent a lot of unproductive songwriting time waiting for such an emotion or conviction to spontaneously overtake me. But what I’ve come to realize is that a “backwards” songwriting process can work just as well as a “forwards” process. In the backwards process, you don’t start with emotion, you just start with the technical nuts and bolts. You begin assembling the song without knowing what it’s going be about. If you’re not feeling a surge of inspiration, you allow yourself to proceed mechanically. A song needs some chords, so you pick some chords. A song needs a tune, so you choose a few notes that work over the chords. A song needs some words, so you create some nonsense lyrics – total gibberish is fine – that seem to go with your tune. Now what you’ve got is a little something. It’s more than nothing. You sing it to yourself a few times. You notice a way to make the tune a little more interesting. You notice a way to make the chord progression a little more fluid. As you sing through the temporary lyrics, perhaps you get an idea for a meaningful phrase that could replace some of the gibberish.

You still don’t know what the song is going to be about, but now you’re in motion. The trick is to stay in motion, to keep making these little adjustments until a direction for the song becomes clear. If you persist with this mechanical tinkering, you’ll reach a point where you know what kind of song it’s probably going to be – maybe it’s starting to sound like a love song – but perhaps the details – who’s in love with who – aren’t known yet. There’s still no wave of inspiration to propel you forward, so you force yourself to make an arbitrary choice: you’re going to be singing to your high-school sweetheart. (While I hesitate to suggest forcing anything, sometimes force is indeed necessary to overcome inertia.) Perhaps, at this moment, you’re not feeling a great sense of affection or longing for your high-school sweetheart, but you’ve made the choice to write about him or her, so you go ahead and construct some lyrics about the relationship that the two of you had. A few hours later, perhaps this direction still feels like a struggle, but now you’ve got some material to reflect on. Instead of staring at a blank page, you’re now looking at a page with scribbles. Maybe you realize that the whole thing can be restructured, not as a song about your high-school sweetheart, but as the memory of a home or other place that you left and were never able to return to. So now you begin draft two, completely new lyrics, the high-school sweetheart goes away, a few more modifications to the tune, a different strumming pattern, and you keep going.

What’s remarkable about the backwards process is that if you persist, all this mechanical experimentation can result in something that you begin connecting with, even though that connection was not present at the outset. The first stages of the process may feel soulless, as if you’re just pushing words and notes around without any guiding force, but eventually you land on something that surprises you. The words, melody, and chords start taking effect, like the ingredients of a magic potion. You had been coldly assembling a love song, and you had thought that no good song could come from such a passionless process, but at some point you sing it and notice that it does something. You think, “Wow, that’s a pretty good love song. Where did it come from?” Or, “Wow, that’s a horrible love song but there’s one phrase that really speaks to me.” Your initial challenge had been that you weren’t feeling an emotional thrust to guide you forward, but now, this thing you’ve created starts to arouse your feelings in unexpected ways. The song begins to wake you up as it wakes up. And now that this waking is underway, you can try to tune into the components of the song that speak to you most powerfully, expand upon them, and use them to set the direction for your next revision. With your feelings aroused, you can now follow more of a forward process to bring the song to completion. A process that began mechanically can be carried onward by the heart.

In summary, if inspiration isn’t there to guide you at first, forget about inspiration. Force yourself to make something, anything, not knowing what it’s going to be about. Then notice your reaction to what you’ve made. Perhaps, even though you constructed the thing mechanically, an aspect of it happens to move you. (If nothing about it moves you, keep tinkering with it until something does.) Now tune into this aspect that moves you, and proceed from there.