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Posts Tagged ‘life’

Attitude

To the extent that I’ve ever succeeded at anything, one thing that’s been of invaluable assistance has been my attitude that I can change things for the better if I really try.

Now, that’s a more Ayn Rand-y sentence than I’ve started a blog with in a while (note to self: “Ayn Randy” = erotic fanfiction character, terrifying Hallowe’en costume), but it’s honestly not meant to be smug and self-aggrandising. I’m not claiming any innate virtue which makes me an inherently superior being. It’s not that I’m doing something better than anyone else. It’s actually just another way I got lucky.

Certain things about my life recently have been irritating, and many are deeply sub-optimal. But I’ve been working to improve them, and making a lot of progress in establishing a life I’m pretty happy with. Not universally, but often enough, these kinds of problems feel like they’re within my power to fix, and I feel empowered to do something about them. Or when I don’t, I know myself well enough to recognise what kind of self-care I need to indulge in, before having another shot at tackling my problems later.

The reason I call myself lucky isn’t to do with the fixable nature of my problems (although I’ve had my share and then some of good fortune from that direction too) – it’s because of the way I’m wired to see these problems as fixable, and to be stirred to action by them, rather than beaten down into depression and apathy. The lessons that have been drilled into my brain over the past few decades, and shaped the way I see the world, have led me to this point, where challenges are things that can generally be overcome if I knuckle down and apply myself to them.

It’s not been a flawless and uninterrupted lesson; I can’t claim I never do the depression and apathy thing sometimes too. But I’ve had a pretty good deal, in terms of what my life experience has taught some unconscious part of my brain about how the world works. It’s been more empowering for me than not.

And being aware of this makes it all the more noticeable that some people haven’t been taught the same lessons. Life hasn’t told them that their circumstances can be improved, or that hard work pays off. For a lot of them, it’s taught them that you’ll just get shit on whatever you do so why fucking bother.

I’ve gone kinda from one extreme to the other there – obviously most people are somewhere in the middle, and I’m definitely not the unambiguously go-getting powerhouse of productivity and proactivity I’ve kinda painted myself as. I just noticed that my worldview in many regards is more positive and empowering than that of other people. And then I realised what a crapshoot that is and how I’ve really been lucky in this point, as well as in so many others.

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Man, this place has been turning into one big, clunky obits column lately. Stay with it though, I’m making a different point this time.

Jay Lake was a widely acclaimed and fairly prolific sci-fi and fantasy writer. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Science Fiction the year he turned 40, cranked out ten novels and literally hundreds of published short stories, and died today of cancer, just shy of his 50th birthday.

This isn’t another of those “personal reflections on death” posts that I’ve done for beloved pets in the past. I didn’t know Jay at all; my reaction on learning of his death was an “Oh yeah, that guy… I think.” I’ve not read his books; I vaguely recall quite enjoying some of his stories being read to me in the past, but I never explored him enough to call myself a fan. He’s remembered with admiration and respect by people whom I respect and admire. By all accounts he was a great writer and a fine chap, and my thoughts are with his family.

Some of my thoughts, anyway. Other parts of my brain are more self-interestedly and internally directed right now.

***

I’ve been saying for a while now that, whether or not writing is the thing I truly and honestly want to dedicate my life to and try making a career out of, I’m determined to at least give it a go. To spend six months or a year seriously putting the hours in, devoting myself to actually working on this as if it were something I were passionate about, and see where it takes me.

It may not work out, and I may just officially draw a line under it after a brief burst of effort. I might decide, you know what, it’s a fun pastime, there’s some pleasure to be had doodling a few paragraphs of a germ of an idea now and then, but it’s not worth making this The Big Thing. There are other things I’d rather be doing with the bulk of my time.

That could be the end result – but at least then I’d have tried. Not even having a go, to see if I could make a success out of it, is what I feel I’d regret most, years or decades down the line.

Sometimes I think this is a more intellectually honest approach to going about finding one’s vocation. Other times, I feel like I’m hedging, downplaying things, in case I try and I fail and I feel embarrassed at how much I talked about committing to my creative dreams from which I’ve now bailed out in shame and ignominy. Eh, I dunno. The point is, wherever it goes, I’m going to try and do this.

Starting, like, now.

***

I’d been putting all this off until after the move. We’ve been waiting months for the solicitors and mortgage underwriters – and all the other hordes of people who apparently need to get involved when you decide you’d like to go and live somewhere else – to get their shit together, and things are definitely making progress. But my plan to wait until I’m all settled into my nice new study, to arrange everything neatly once life has calmed down a bit, and then start working on the stuff I want to achieve with my time on earth, is a bullshit idea and I’ve always known it. This is the broken, backwards logic of people who buy exercise equipment and then start trying to induce in themselves a habit of regular exercise.

Smokers are more likely to quit successfully if they just arbitrarily pick a moment and say “Right, I’m done,” than if they plan for some point in the future after which things are going to change, and imbue that moment with significance (New Year’s Resolutions are the worst, you guys). Well, this is my arbitrarily chosen moment, somewhat inspired by Jay Lake’s passing, in a way that I hope isn’t crass or insensitive to connect to him. I’m not setting myself up as some kind of spiritual successor of his; I’ll consider myself gloriously lucky and undeserving if I ever approach his levels of success and productivity. This isn’t really about him, after all, and the eulogising should be left to those who knew and loved him.

But it so happened that he was the final domino which stirred me to action. Regardless of what prompted it, I think it’s about damn time. I’m convincing myself I’m busy making other plans, and meanwhile life is happening to me. So I’m starting this today. Because it’s not quite as good as yesterday, but it’s better than tomorrow.

***

It’s important to note that I still mostly suck as a writer. I might be able to decide spontaneously that I’m going to start trying hard, but I can’t apply the same resolve to instantly become good. I’ve got a lot of work and a lot of learning to do, and chances are good that the first results anyone will see of this bold, energetic, self-indulgent tirade about committing to this project, will be a few more badly thought-out blog posts a couple of hundred words long, and regular complaints about how I’m tired and everything sucks, none of which will in any way justify all this hot air.

I will be entirely with you as you inevitably ask: “Really, that’s it? You bluster about grabbing your creative energies by the allegorical balls, and this is the output you were so excited about?”

I’m going to write a lot of unremarkable shite, which should have everyone wondering if I wouldn’t be wasting my time less if I were studying for a qualification that might further my accountancy career prospects instead.

I anticipate that I will be asking myself that a lot, over the coming months.

And I’m going to keep writing it anyway.

Because what if I can fight my way through the amateurish quagmire of mediocrity, and make it out to the other side? What if, after putting in enough effort, I could eventually approach that glorious realm, that promised land: the world of being a writer who occasionally stops feeling like they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, and whose output is total crap only like ninety percent of the time, maybe even eighty-five?

I can’t pass up the chance to at least try reaching for such a beautiful dream.

***

It starts here. I’ve read enough books and articles on procrastination and creativity to know all the tricks and mind-hacks, at least on an intellectual level, and I’ve made enough notes to remind myself of them whenever I fail to put them into practice (which will be always).

I’m going to get myself a notebook, so that I can always be writing wherever. And also, I don’t know, bigger pockets to carry it in, or something. Actually I can probably type on my phone as fast as I can scribble awkwardly on a notebook while hunching over to lean on my knees as I write. Scratch that one.

I’m going to stop letting thoughts go unrecorded, no matter how banal. Following through on the banal is how you nurture your capacity to pour out the barely above average.

I’ve deleted Candy Crush from my phone exactly two days after installing it, because I’ve learned for about the seventh time that I can’t be trusted to use things like that solely for passing idle moments which would not otherwise have been productively spent, without letting them turn into time-sinks of their own. (See also: Kongregate. Or rather, don’t, if you have anything you need to get done ever again.)

I’m going to have a grown-up and useful and awesome conversation with my wife, about adapting our shared daily routine somewhat around my new stupid obsession in a way that suits both of us, because we totally win at being married.

And most importantly of all, I’m going to reward myself for writing all this with a cup of tea and a biscuit right now.

And then I’ll come back and write something else. And so on.

Seeya.

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Still alive

I’m not writing anything at the moment.

Not working on a book. Not scribbling notes of any short stories. Not blogging about the many things that have interested or annoyed me in the past couple of weeks. (One obvious exception notwithstanding.)

I’m not doing any of the “making sure I always find time to eke out some words every day” thing. I’m not staring blankly at the scene-by-scene layout of a half-baked zombie detective novel, trying to organise all the sub-plots and ongoing threads in a way that’ll let me tie all the scattered fragments together into a continuous narrative. And I’m not wishing I had the energy or motivation to do all these things with all the free time I’m currently spending on the sofa.

I’m painting the kitchen. I’m watching Game of Thrones. I’m reading graphic novels about Nazi cats. I’m failing to train my own probably-not-a-Nazi cat not to bite my ankles or start knocking things off the dresser at 5.30am, because if you spray her with a water pistol she looks at you curiously and then comes over and licks it, even if you keep firing it right in her face at point blank range. I’m having a pretty quiet family life at home while not in any way being a writer.

It’s quite nice.

This isn’t some especially dramatic shift. Clearly I’ve not given up entirely, and clearly it’s not been completely off my mind this whole time, given that it’s the first thing in ages I’ve been motivated to write about at some length. There’s still a lot I feel I could achieve in that direction; there are many stories I don’t just want to leave unfinished; it feels incredibly rewarding when it’s going well; and there are times when my contribution feels like it has the potential to even matter a little bit.

And doing some proper, serious writing, enough to actually maybe get fairly good at it, is the thing I can most imagine regretting if I never got around to it, decades down the line. If I never touch a piano again, maybe I’ll miss that from time to time, but there’ll be no particular heartbreak there. But if I give up on all my half-started books, and never really have a proper go at being single-minded and crazy enough to make some notable progress at being a writer… that seems like something that would make me sad, looking back.

I might try an experimental few months next year, of being a properly secluded crazed hairy creative type. My other responsibilities will be few, I won’t be in this lethargic semi-hibernation which is how I apparently react to winter, and I’ll give the wife strict instructions to hide the cheesecake and withhold further lasagna until I’ve been sufficiently diligent at words. After a few months of actually committing to that, I ought to know whether I was getting enough out of it to keep some sort of routine going, or whether I’d actually be happier if I just relaxed with all this lovely spare time instead.

Because, you know, not putting any effort into it at all, for a nice long stretch of more than just a day or two in between forced bursts of activity, is really nice.

So, I don’t know. My wife’s been telling me I need a hobby. Something to do with my hands, something that’ll occupy my brain while she’s crocheting a hat on the other end of the sofa. I’m not arty at all, but I like having something to do with my hands. I’m enjoying painting the tiles in the kitchen, for some reason.

Oh god. I’ve become one of those people who doesn’t post to their blog for ages then updates with some self-indulgently pointless musing about why I haven’t written much lately or the nature of creativity or some shit like that. I used to be topical and share crafted opinions or sensibly balanced reporting on interesting news. Now look at me. I’m probably going to title it “Still alive” or something insufferable like that, aren’t I? Christ, I’m a wanker.

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Hey look, my face is back. Did another one of them video things. Went a bit more click-bait-y with the title this time. Maybe it’ll help.

Not sure how well it works. The satire’s not exactly opaque, and it’s not really too on-the-nose either, but neither is it entirely satisfying. Ah well.

Also, here’s an XKCD cartoon which sprung to mind when considering the kind of “but your life is pointless!” arguments I’ve been hearing a lot of lately. It came to me too late to do anything with in the video, but yeah.

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I’ve been instructed to have opinions.

But I’ve got a note from my mum which says I’m not a proper grown-up and am therefore excused any difficult adult conversations that might challenge my illusions that real life is still something I can put off indefinitely. Look, here, it’s in totally-not-forged handwriting, and it says this is all too much for me and I’m allowed to just go and have a sit down and watch cartoons.

*tries to shuffle away but is shoved forcefully back onto the sportsfield (of LIFE (it’s a metaphor))*

Oh, bum. Okay then.

Hello, by the way. I hope you all had a good thing over the festive thing. Happy new thing, and all that. Now, back to work, 2013’ll be half gone before you know it.

So. Opinions.

I’m nearly thirty years old. I graduated university six and a half years ago, and have lived independently and supported myself financially for nearly as long. I’ve been in my full-time job for six months, and actually have what seems like a career for the first time in my life. I’m cohabiting in a house with a mortgage. I’m getting married this year. I’m getting double glazing and a new bathroom fitted. I have a cat. I have a beard.

By my stage in life, Einstein had long since published his “Annus Mirabilis” papers, several of the most ground-breaking works in the history of science. Ramanujan had filled countless notebooks of ground-breaking mathematics, some of which are still only just being understood today, and was almost ready to die of TB. Galois had been killed in a duel nearly a decade ago, after inventing a new branch of mathematics that I struggled to get my head around in the final year of my Master’s course. Kurt Cobain and the rest of The 27 Club had moved on from composing to decomposing over a year ago. Orson Welles had had plenty of time to get over his follow-up film to Citizen Kane being a financial failure.

You get the picture. Other people have achieved a lot of stuff by my age. Even when you don’t just focus unhealthily on the outliers, a lot of people have been comfortably getting on with the grown-up parts of their lives for quite a while by this point. I’m a grown-up.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. I’m nearly thirty. Of course I’m old. What the hell did I think was going on ever since I stopped being a teenager?

And I don’t even mind. The job and house and fiancĂ©e and cat are all good things. They’re great. This isn’t just about facing up to the horrifying realisation that I’m not a child any more. I don’t miss all the Nintendo games, and I get to stroke a kitten whenever I want and listen to Radio 4 as I commute to my nice job where I earn money to buy lots of fancy cheeses. You can’t make any of that less awesome by slapping a label on it that says “grown-up” and expecting me to be terrified.

And yet…

And yet some things feel like they mark a Significant Change from the life I’m familiar with. Some things don’t seem to be compatible with me, without requiring me to drastically change who I am and how I define myself. Some things I can’t even persuade my brain to really understand and contemplate how they could possibly be reconciled with my own future. Some things still seem like things that other people do; other people with more of a grown-up handle on life than me.

Yes, babies, I’m talking about you.

My nearly-wife has a very different perspective on these things. She’s about to start training as a midwife, for a start, so she’s been studying the manual. But she’s also, I have noticed, a woman. As she’s pointed out:

For a woman having a baby, pregnancy and childbirth are massively disrupting in a way that they just aren’t for the partner in the equation, whatever flavour the non-pregnant individual comes in. You’re the one with a tenant for roughly 9 months, the one who gets kicked from the inside and stretched into odd shapes. You’re the one who has to get the smaller person inside you, outside of you through a not massively accommodating exit. You’re the one who naturally produces sustaining foodstuff from your frontal funbags (yeah, funbags) and who is basically sloshing about in all kinds of hormonal soup for months and months.

When Kirsty thinks about babies, the first stage is all the physical stuff where there’s a thing growing into a person inside of her; long, gruelling, gradual, and with the birth itself as a gloriously rewarding end-point. I sort of get to skip all that first bit, so to me “having babies” means there’s suddenly this small person around who I’ve never met before, who’s not great conversation, and who depends on us entirely for everything for the rest of the foreseeable future. Which just doesn’t fit into the model of reality I’ve spent nearly thirty years building for myself. It’s a sudden, massive, Significant Change, profoundly and qualitatively different from anything else I’ve ever experienced.

Which is why it’s quite scary and difficult to think about, and my darling love has to gently coax me into giving serious consideration to something increasingly important to her.

Except… is it really that different and scary?

The cat’s a tiny life who depends on us, more or less. We love her and watch her grow and try to keep her out of trouble. Kirsty assures me that babies are basically the same, and she’s read a book so she must know what she’s talking about. And I’ve been around actual human infants for brief periods of time in the past, and nobody’s exploded. We’re clearly not wholly incompatible.

Maybe it’s all just a big mental block I’ve got. Maybe this Significant Change is actually no more of an unbearable, unimaginable, impossible impasse than any of the other standard grown-up indicators that I’ve breezed through these past few years. Maybe I just shouldn’t have believed the hype.

Because when it comes to children, hoo boy is there ever hype. Just about every source of art or entertainment or media output that ever touches upon the subject of children is mandated to emphasise how they’re the most important, world-changing, heart-wrenching, meaning-imbuing thing in their parents’ lives. Or if they aren’t, they should be, you monster.

Having kids is about the biggest deal any TV or movie character can go through. And I’ve been a passively avid consumer all my life. My expectations have been warped by Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry. I can’t separate out what’s been drummed into me repeatedly from supposedly authoritative sources, from what I actually think.

My mind is no longer my own. My consciousness has been broken down and assimilated. I do not know who I am. Thanks a lot, babies.

I don’t know how to draw any of this together into a coherent conclusion. I don’t feel like I have any sort of insight into the conceivable possibility of forthcoming parenthood, either as a man or just in general. I just know it still feels like a distant, alien thing to give any thought to. It’s not something I know how to have opinions on.

But maybe I’ll get better at it if my girlfriend/wife keeps talking to me about what she’s been up to at work, delivering other people’s babies, over the coming months and years. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was her plan all along.

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Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind Dilbert, posted a thing yesterday.

He was considering a step-by-step argument, which seems to result in the likely conclusion that life on Earth was the result of a deliberate seeding operation by aliens. Read it through on his blog before deciding it’s nonsense. I’ve summarised it very coarsely, and it’s more lucidly reasoned out than you might think.

His point, though, was to ask his readers to spot the flaw in the logic, which he finds himself unable to do, despite assuming apparently a priori that there definitely is a flaw. He doesn’t lay out explicitly why he’s unconvinced by what seems to him like watertight reasoning, and you may in fact be in agreement with the conclusion yourself.

But, a few problems with it did occur to me as I was reading, so I thought I’d try fleshing them out here, in a purely speculative and thoroughly uninformed manner.

– Firstly, I think the principle of indifference may be being inappropriately applied.

This is a mathsy thing. The idea is, you can basically guess equally between a number of possibilities when you don’t know anything about what’s going on, and simply have a number of options presented to you. If I ask you to guess what playing card I just randomly picked out of a deck, for instance, you might just as well say the nine of diamonds as the seven of spades. Nothing stands out about any one option, so you can apply the principle of indifference, and treat them all as being equally likely.

But sometimes it’s inappropriately applied. One way I’ve seen this done before is to argue that our Universe is likely to be only a simulation. We think we live in a reality that really exists, but as we approach a time when it’s feasible to create a Matrix-like simulation in which conscious beings could live unawares, we have to consider that maybe we already exist in such a simulation.

But maybe the reality that’s simulating us is itself only a simulation, within a reality which is also only a simulation, and so on, Inception-style, with as many layers as you like. Then, the possibility that ours is the real reality, and we just haven’t created any universe simulations ourselves yet, is just one among indefinitely many. So (the fallacious argument goes) the odds on that being the case are vanishingly small.

The reason it’s not convincing is that all the various options – that our reality is real, or that we’re the first simulation, or the second, or the seventy-fourth – should not be treated as equally likely. The idea that our reality is real makes fewer assumptions about the plausibility or the existence of colossal universe-simulating machines, and can legitimately be given a greater weight than the other options.

Scott’s argument may suffer from the same false application of this principle. It says: we could soon be the first species ever to send spaceships to other planets and “seed” them with the building blocks of Earth-like life – or we could be one of many stops in an indefinitely long chain of other species which have already done that. That is, Earth may have been seeded by an alien civilisation, which itself was seeded by another, and another, and so on.

If you consider that we could be at any point in the chain, and treat them all with the principle of indifference, then it may seem unlikely that we just happen to be the first, “unseeded” life-forms in the cosmos. But there are different assumptions involved in “It’s already happened” than “It hasn’t happened yet”, and so, barring any other evidence which directly supports it, I don’t think we’re obliged to give the possibility that our own world was “seeded” so much weight.

– Because, don’t forget, there is no other evidence directly supporting the idea that this seeding is what’s happened here. However solid the arguments might be that it could happen, or that it’s virtually inevitable to happen with any life that reaches a certain threshold of intelligence, it’s all just speculation. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the same thing as empirical data. However unlikely you want to argue that the “unseeded Earth” possibility is, it’s entirely consistent with the current data, and it makes fewer assumptions about the Universe than the alternatives.

– I’m also not fully convinced that any intelligent life-forms would necessarily reach the point where this seeding of other worlds becomes both practical and desirable. There are various assumptions on which this rests, like our (or other life-forms’) ability to get that far technologically without destroying ourselves; the superior plausibility of the seeding option over any other methods for sustaining life; the eventual success of even a well planned seeding mission in giving rise to intelligent life again; and the timescale necessary for this to happen. (We have pretty good evidence that life on Earth has been evolving slowly for about a quarter of the age of the Universe. It can’t have happened that many times, going by this iteration rate.)

– We also have no idea how likely the possibility of alien life actually is. There’s so much uncertainty over so many variables of the Drake equation, that whether or not any other life has yet been able to arise anywhere else in the galaxy is still deeply contentious. A lot of things needed to be exactly right on Earth for life to get going and start becoming complex and interesting, and we don’t really know how rare those conditions are. The scenario of other aliens having got there before us is far from being a given.

Leave a comment if there are any more obvious points leaping out at you which demonstrate that one of us is going wrong.

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Why bother?

If you’re an atheist, then you know as well as I do that life is a yawning chasm of despair and hopelessness, and you surely long for sweet oblivion to finally put an end to the whole pointless charade. But fret not! Spit out that handful of pills, put down the razorblades and step away from your wrists! Life doesn’t have to be empty and without meaning just because you don’t believe in a god or an afterlife.

Let’s look at this supposedly miserable atheistic worldview. We’re all going to just die, and then that’ll be it. All our feelings and emotions, and everything else that makes us who we are, will one day come to an end. We will effectively become nothing, and so will everything else. The effects of every single event that has ever occurred will eventually be nullified. Nothing lasts forever, and all will one day be forgotten.

Seriously, put down the razorblades, I’m going somewhere with this.

Although this might sound rather bleak, does it really change anything all that much if you insert God into the mix? Assume he comes pre-packaged with that “eternal life” deal he’s often said to provide, for all those “souls” he apparently dishes out left and right to just about anyone with the sense to be born. If that’s really true for us, how much does it actually affect the purpose of our lives?

In this scenario, we’ve got an eternity stretching out ahead of us – Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, some combination of the above, or something else entirely. Why would this add significance to anything we do in this particular life-span? Things which have profound and hugely affecting resonances in this world will, presumably, be forgotten and rendered moot in an insignificant sliver of time, compared with our infinite future. Although it might seem like a big deal now if I murdered your family, they were all immortal anyway; it’ll only be a short wait before we’ll have countless trillions of years to stop caring about anything that happened in this lifetime.

I really can’t fathom any good reason why people should believe that only a universe with a god can provide our lives with any purpose, except as a knee-jerk reaction to the scary idea that we might one day cease to exist. Feel free to chip in and tell me what I’ve failed to consider.

Changing tack a little, I know some people who both believe in God, and like eating cake. Let’s call one such sweet-toothed churchgoer Mabel, because I think it’d be cool to have a friend named Mabel. When Mabel’s chomping away on some gateau, is there anything involved in her enjoyment other than the chocolatey goodness? Does she have any long-term goals in mind, relating to the fate of her immortal soul? Would it sadden her, and destroy her ability to enjoy her baked treat, if she believed that one day there would be no more cake? Is there likely to be anything even remotely connected to her religious convictions on her mind while she helps herself to another slice? Or is she simply delighting in how delicious and moist it is?

The world has so much for us to take pleasure in, of which cake is only one small part. We can ascribe value and meaning where it suits us, without being ordered to suck up to the Big Guy in the clouds and told that this is the only way we can make our existence worthwhile. We can live this life as if it were our last, without having to be constantly watching and moderating our behaviour with some uncertain eternal future in mind. Whatever seems like a big deal now, is a big deal. We can make things matter to us. We can make our purpose.

And when we die, maybe that’ll be it. Hopefully we’ll have found some fulfilment, however we defined that, and left some worthwhile legacy for the people who helped give our lives that purpose. Or maybe that won’t be it, in which case we’ll see what happens next. I’ll be fascinated if it turns out that there’s more to come, but if not, I’m enjoying myself while I last.

I’m hungry now. Anyone got any cake?

Or pie? I could settle for pie.

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