A Quick Word on Scheduling

A few posts back, I mentioned that I would be posting a new essay here every week. While I did enjoy the rigor of that production schedule for a time, it quickly became an obligation that encroached on other projects I so desperately wish to complete. I strayed too far from my original intent for recommitting to my weblog, which was more to share my work process than grasp at finished thoughts to share.

In the interest of finishing the projects I have prioritized, I’m going to reduce my publishing schedule here to once a month. That will give me time to reflect on my process, progress, and share some thoughts that pop up along the way.

Thank you for your flexibility as I navigate the challenge of balancing priorities.

Parenting on the Internet


As you can probably tell, I don’t post about my son with anything but the broadest of strokes, and there are no pictures of him on my social media profiles. This is both a difficult choice and a deliberate commitment. On the one hand, I think he’s beautiful and wondrous to behold, and I want to share everything he does with everyone I can. On the other hand, I think there are some real and compelling downsides to posting his early childhood online, especially before he can consent to having intimate details of his life shared so publicly. I know I can control privacy settings to somewhat regulate who among my friends and followers sees what, but that’s a relatively minor concern to what really bothers me about it.

Ultimately, I have to make decisions about what I think is best for my son, best for me, and, where I can, best for the people who exist outside of us. Documenting life via social media has its costs, it has its effects, and I don’t think the juice is worth the squeeze in this case. There are a few reasons why.

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Explaining Santa Claus

I’ve probably got another year before I have to start answering questions about Santa Claus, but I don’t want it to catch me off guard. My son is almost two and a half, and while he asks plenty of questions, they’re grounded in the physical present and haven’t yet turned toward the abstract. Plus, he barely knows about the concept of Santa Claus. Over the Christmas holiday, we rode the Holiday Express train here in Portland, and it was a lot to adjust to even without the addition of Santa and his elves. My son had never been on or near a train before, so that was a surprise, and (thanks to the pandemic of the early ’20s,) he hadn’t been around such a large group of people in an enclosed space before.

When Santa came through our car, he wished us a Merry Christmas, offered my son a candy cane, and asked if we’d like a picture. The toddler just stared and Santa moved on—the guy playing Santa is used to little kids, and they don’t experience wonder at meeting Santa under a certain age. And my son hadn’t received any presents from Santa yet, so he didn’t have any personal association with the man.

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person holding iphone showing social networks folder

The Impact of the Attention Economy

—and New Media on Individual And Societal Well-Being

I’m something of a computer person in that I’ve been enthusiastic about the possibilities computers offer from a very early age, but I’m also a computer person in the sense that I am engaged with a personal computing device—whether that’s my phone, tablet, or laptop,—a majority of the time. So are the people I see around me. Spending a lot of time as a computer could mean that I, like Scout, am out there learning about the world, accomplishing my goals, and expressing myself creatively,—and sometimes that does happen,—but more often than not, I find myself looking up from one of my displays after scrolling for an indeterminable length of time and thinking, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this? How long was I out? What the hell just happened?”

As it turns out, I am not alone. Over the past few decades, the attention economy has taken on a more prominent role in our society—both in the marketplace of ideas and the literal economic marketplace—and its role has grown exponentially in the past five years with the increasing ubiquity of smartphones. Today, 79% of smartphone owners check their device within fifteen minutes of waking up, and the average individual checks their device more than one hundred fifty times per day. Depending on the day and how many notifications I receive, I may be over or under that target, but generally my usage reflects these statistics.

In an effort to better understand my behavior, where it went off track, and how to regain control of it, I wanted to learn more about the attention economy’s influence on how I spend my time and—more importantly—my attention.

In this post, I’m going to share my findings as well as some tools to both evaluate your own place in the attention economy and adjust your engagement with it if you don’t like the effect it’s having on you. If you read science, I’m drawing heavily from data and arguments presented in this paper.

The Attention Economy and New Media

The attention economy consists of two specific transactions: Consumers like me give New Media their literal attention in exchange for a service (most notably a social media service) and New Media developers auction consumer attention to advertisers. This creates a symbiotic relationship between the three (the consumer, the developers, and the advertisers) that ought to be mutually beneficial. Any economy can have both harmful and beneficial effects, and a model proposed by philosopher Debra Satz suggests that markets are beneficial when they allow consumers to act autonomously and voluntarily but might be toxic to human values depending on their harmful effects and their disrespect to personal agency.

But let’s take a baby step back. What does “new media” even mean? It sounds like an instantly dated term that refers to whatever newfangled technology the young whipper-snappers of the day are cooking up, but in this specific context, we mean media that can absorb and respond to information about its consumers in real time, e.g. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok—even local apps like Google News or Apple News.

The most engaging and demonstrative examples of new media are social networking sites, defined by three criteria:

  • They allow consumers to create a semi-public profile within a bounded system.
  • They allow consumers to specify other individuals with whom they share a connection (however tenuous).
  • They allow consumers to view the profiles and connections made by others within the system.

For any advertisement-funded new media platform to be successful, whether it’s an app or a website, it needs to be able to capture and sustain its consumers’ attention for as long as possible. It’s that focused attention that the developers of new media are selling to advertising, and the data they collect about our consumption habits informs the advertising that is presented to us in a tidy little feedback loop. If an app or site fails to sustain our attention, advertising revenue peters out accordingly and natural selection takes care of the rest.

I like to consider myself to be a smart, rational, composed individual, so when I think about how easy it is for me to fall into a newsfeed or a page loaded with thumbnails for recommended videos, it makes me wonder—how are these new media so effective at getting me to pay attention to them? I want to believe it’s because they’re genuinely interesting—and important—but the truth may be simpler and more disconcerting.

The Hook Cycle

The same intelligence behind the system that defeated the human world champion at the game Go is sitting on the other side of your screen and showing you videos it thinks will keep you using YouTube for as long as possible.

— James Williams, Stand out of our Light, Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy

Modern apps and websites are developed using evidence-based tactics to manufacture habits that will keep consumers a reliable source of attention revenue. Manufacturing habits is essential to the survival of new media in the attention economy—without predictable revenue and growth, few businesses can survive. There are four key components to manufacturing a habit within a consumer, as Nir Eyal outlines in his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products:

1. Attract the consumer’s attention .

This is easy. Push notifications can compel us to look at our devices at a moment’s notice, and good-old fashioned ads are notorious for giving us ideas for things to search, click on, watch, or read. The goal with attracting attention is to simply start the process of sustaining that attention and optimizing the advertising engine based on the consumer’s behavior.

2. Give them an anticipatory action to do in response.

Whether this is reviewing the day’s headlines, catching up with a newsfeed, checking messages, or simply refreshing the page, this action should be something that the consumer associates with potential value. Maybe we want up-to-date information about the world around us, find out what our friends and relatives are doing, or talk to someone special—as long as we anticipate something of value from the action, we’re emotionally invested in the outcome.

3. Reward that anticipatory reaction with something that is sometimes highly valuable but oftentimes just mundane.

If there was always something of value on the other side of that anticipatory action, we might not repeat the action. Our desire would be sated. But if something is intermittently rewarding—say once out of every hundred times we pull a lever we get a hundred bucks—we’ll keep chugging along through the misses anticipating that big payout. Slot machines were designed with the same principles of variable ratio rewards. Sometimes a notification is a message from someone we really care about, sending our brain soaring with dopamine and serotonin, sometimes it’s just someone in our friends list liking something someone in their friends list did—in which case we pull the lever and refresh the feed.

4. Prompt the user to contribute something to the product.

Interaction is essential for the computers studying our behavior to better engage and sustain our attention. When we contribute something by sharing a link, liking a post, or retweeting something, we’re giving the new media service we’re engaged in something to attract our attention with in the future. Maybe someone likes the link we shared, or the website we gave our email address to sends us a welcome letter—maybe someone whose opinion of us really matters to us just commented on something we did—any contribution is an easy way to knock out Step One and kick-start the Hook Cycle all over again.

Introducing variability does create a focused state, which suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgement and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.

— Nir Ayal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Despite deleting my Facebook account and limiting my interaction with other social media platforms, I nevertheless see all four of these behaviors in my daily computer use. I look at Instagram and LinkedIn to see what people I know in real life are doing with themselves, and if I see something that interests me, I’m likely to like, comment, or otherwise share my interest with those individuals. If you’ve read my article on Facebook and Social Pain, you know all about this self-perpetuating cycle of engagement.

Even when people I know aren’t involved, such as with Reddit or Apple News, I see the same behavior. I open the app, pull down to refresh, and hope for something interesting. If I don’t see anything that interests me, I am undeterred—surely scrolling down or pulling to refresh again will bring a little nugget of something funny or insightful that would make me glad I looked. If I find something particularly interesting, you can bet I’m sharing it with someone I know (or with strangers on the internet via Twitter or this very weblog) and that, in turn, opens the possibility that they’ll engage with me about it. Step Four leads back to Step One.

What’s the Harm?

Satz proposes a model for evaluating the relative harms and benefits of the attention economy, and she describes a market as harmful when it is “toxic to important human values”. I value my reasoning faculty, my ability to judge right from wrong and truth from fiction, but that is only the tip of the iceberg of real human values that are infringed upon by this function of the attention economy. The attention economy is toxic to essential human values in that it harms consumers as individuals and society as a whole while engendering and exploiting weakened cognitive agency and vulnerability.

On the Individual

New media use contributes to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide. Historical spikes in these mental health outcomes coincide with the widespread adoption of smartphones. In one study, participants quit Facebook for a week and reported increases in life satisfaction, positive emotions, satisfaction with their social lives, and ability to concentrate, as well as a decrease in negative emotions and feelings of stress. While Facebook use predicted a decline in how study participants felt moment-to-moment and how they felt about their life satisfaction, a decline in those feelings did not predict Facebook use.

Remember, on average, we check our devices more than one hundred fifty times per day. As of 2015, 97% of 12-graders were using social media sites, and that’s also the demographic that saw the greatest increase in mental health problems. In 2016, 95% of college students surveyed reported that they felt depressed.

For adults, engagement with new media is becoming increasingly mandatory. Business is increasingly conducted on social networking platforms and social media sites, internally and externally. Important social events are increasingly organized on social networking platforms and social media sites, the neglect of which leads to the excruciating social pain of feeling excluded, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog.

On Society at Large

New media also undermines democracy because democracy requires individual citizens to see and engage respectfully with each other’s points of view. The way new media functions contributes to polarization, balkanization (dividing a group into smaller, more mutually hostile groups), and extremism, by facilitating the creation and strength of fringe communities whose individuals would otherwise be unlikely to encounter one another. Niche information channels are engines for polarization. When isolated groups of like-minded individuals are asked to discuss an issue, they invariably leave the discussion holding more extreme views than when they entered. This is especially prevalent with the growth of radical personalization in new media that has made echo chambers and filter bubbles almost impossible to escape.

YouTube is something that looks like reality, but it is distorted to make you spend more time online…The recommendation algorithm is not optimizing for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy…Watch time was the priority…Everything else was considered a distraction.

— Guillaume Chaslot, as quoted by Paul Lewis, “Fiction is outperforming reality”: How YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth

Like old-fashioned talk radio, these niche information channels are reactive, ideologically selective, highly engaging, and internally intertextual. Rather than reporting the news, they are often reacting to it, and they are reacting with a specific pre-determined ideological bent. Niche information channels use highly engaging, emotionally-charged rhetoric that can stimulate positive or negative emotions and that is heavily dependent on the existing concepts and values of the consumer base to which it panders.

Unlike talk radio, new media niche information channels are much more difficult to escape. Sites and applications often send alerts to us on our smartphones to actively solicit interest when the we’re not seeking content, then their inter- and intra-connectedness communicate our consumption patterns to better inform their solicitations. New media sites and applications offer high levels of interactivity and engagement to consumers, especially when it comes to social media. Social media sites are rife with emotionally-charged exchanges that are difficult to disengage from because they involve consumers’ ideas and identity.

These vulnerabilities do not depend on a lack of individual understanding. You can completely understand this mechanism and still fall prey to it. Even innocuous apps implement Hook Cycle behavior which conditions our response to other “Hook Cycles,” further exploiting our behavioral and cognitive biases. Recognizing the different steps of the cycle is the gateway to evaluating our relationship to these new media, but it’s hard to self-evaluate whether that relationship is healthy or not.

Here’s a short list of yes-or-no questions to help you get a feel for your current digital boundaries. Remember that “new media” might refer to social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, as well as multimedia services like News, YouTube, Netflix, or TikTok.


  1. Do you spend more time using new media apps or services than you used to?
  2. Have you skipped or ignored activities because you were engaged with some form of new media?
  3. Has your smartphone or computer use interfered with any of your relationships, e.g. has anyone asked you to put the phone away to have a conversation or remarked that you’re “always on it”?
  4. Have you experienced increases in any of the negative mental health outcomes we discussed that might be attributable to new media use, e.g. heightened anxiety or depression as a result of regularly reading bad news? or Have you experienced any physical problems related to use, like repetitive strain, soreness, or fatigue from sitting at your desk or staring at a screen?
  5. Do you ever check your smartphone while driving when you aren’t expecting any urgent communication?
  6. Do you ever feel like you opened an app or website on instinct without a specific purpose in mind?
  7. Do you lose track of time while engaging with new media?
  8. Do you feel isolated, disconnected, and/or uncomfortably uninformed when your phone and other internet-enabled devices are elsewhere?
  9. Has new media use kept you from getting your work done?
  10. Have you made repeated attempts to reduce or discontinue your consumption of new media?
  11. When friends or family members ask how much new media you consume, are you able to answer truthfully, i.e. do you know how much time you spend on new media and is the amount something you’re comfortable sharing?


My devices are all connected through my iCloud account, and it gives me a “Screen Time” report so I can see how much time I’m using each of my devices, and what I’m doing with them. After spending some time paying attention to my habits and reviewing my Screen Time data, I can honestly say I’m personally a “yes” for about seven or eight of these. My most recent report, which prompted this blog post, showed that I was spending more time on Reddit, YouTube, Instagram, and LinkedIn than I was on my writing—which, as you know from my current projects list, is how I would prefer to spend my time.

While there’s no DSM-V criteria for new media dependence (the closest related disorder is internet gaming disorder,) that may be because the DSM-V was published in 2013—just two years after smartphones started to become prevalent and before any reputable research was available about their effects. I am not a doctor or specialist, so I am not qualified to diagnose or treat any disorders—I created the questions above from the DSM-V screening criteria for substance use disorders and internet gaming disorder. If this were about alcohol, gambling, or gaming, answering “yes” to two or three criteria would suggest a mild case of dependence. Since I answered “yes” to seven or more (no one has explicitly asked me about my new media consumption, so my answer to question eleven is indeterminate,) my dependence on new media could be classified as “severe”. Everything in between would be “moderate” and fewer than two “yes” answers is below the threshold for diagnosis.

I hope you answered two or fewer in the affirmative, dear reader, because this is an uncomfortable truth for me to reconcile with my understanding of myself. Remember, I consider myself a smart, rational, composed individual—how could I be addicted to something so silly as YouTube or Reddit?

One of the questions I answered “yes” to was “4. Have you experienced increases in any of the negative mental health outcomes we discussed that might be attributable to new media use?” If you read my post on Facebook and social pain, you know my personal history with feelings of worthlessness in conjunction with my Facebook use, and that was the primary reason I stopped using Facebook. But I still feel a sense of impending doom or a flash of righteous indignation reading headlines from the news, I still feel left out of the interpersonal exchanges I see in my timelines, I (obviously) still feel invalidated enough that I’m willing to execute Step Four of the Hook Cycle just so you can read this thing that I wrote and maybe all of this self-discovery won’t be for nothing. The data would suggest that there is a causal relationship between my new media consumption and my personal well-being, my relationship with the communities around me, and even my philosophical and political ideology.

“You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?”

“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. “Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great, for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.”

— J.R.R. Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring

Just as many in Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings series demonstrated, everyone believes themselves to have the unique constitution necessary to resist the temptation of wielding the Ring, but the Ring does not share our values. In the case of the attention economy, its guiding principle is to commodify human attention, human thought, and render a profit from it—like pulling cash out of thin air. The reasons I tell myself I keep using new media—to stay informed, to kill some time, to have a laugh, to connect with people,—are all things I wish I was getting from it (except for killing time, I really should get back into meditating,) but the truth is that I’m not. If I was, maybe the negative effects would be worth it, but the simultaneous erosion of democracy and increase in suicidality are steep costs for me to occasionally see a picture of a cute cat.

I also answered “yes” to “10. Have you made repeated attempts to reduce or discontinue your consumption of new media?” and, repeatedly, I have ended up back on the sites and apps that I know only keep me from my goals. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from quitting smoking the last nine or ten times, it’s that you only fail to quit if you stop trying to quit. So here’s what I’m doing to mitigate the noxious effects of the attention economy on my own life. (A lot of this will also be familiar if you read my post on Facebook and social pain already.)

Techniques for Mitigating the Noxious Effects of the Attention Economy

1. Identify Habits and Set Boundaries

This is what my Screen Time looks like. Forty-two hours per week of device use, split between things I want to do and things I know I shouldn’t do. The first step to changing a problematic behavior is to become aware of the behavior, and its severity. This information, combined with my own answers to the makeshift internet dependence screener above, tells me that I am using my electronic devices for new media way more than I want to.

Screen Time lets me set daily time limits for specific apps and websites, and entire categories of apps and websites. Based on my usage (and my history with trying to curb it,) these are the limits I’m imposing:

One cumulative hour a day for all the stuff I know is wasting my time ought to reduce my consumption to seven hours per week, less than half of what it is right now. This technique might be even more effective if I specifically scheduled the times I would use these new media services, or if I passcode-protected the limit and asked my wife to set the passcode so I couldn’t bypass it, but I won’t know if those measures are necessary for a couple more weeks.

2. Change Up the Routine

Screen Time does a fine job of reporting cumulative time spent on new media, but I also need to become cognizant of when I’m reaching for my phone. When I was quitting smoking, the task was to identify associative triggers, things like getting a cup of coffee, taking a break at work, or driving, that would prompt me to light up a cigarette. This is the same sort of deal.

If I can identify when I’m caving to the craving, I can substitute other, more healthy activities instead to manufacture my own habits. I already know I want to write and meditate more, so maybe I’ll start there. When I feel like scrolling Reddit, I’ll meditate for five minutes instead. Afterwards, I’ll brainstorm a list of five more things to do instead of consume new media.

Turning off notifications for everything but emergency communication is a great way to get a sense for when I’m picking up my devices of my own accord—with intent—and when I may have just been falling for Step One of the hook cycle. There are plenty of things I love doing with my devices (have I told you about Obsidian?) that I see no reason to curb.

3. Participate in Other Forms of Socializing

This will both be the easiest and hardest technique to implement, given that it’s January, 2022, at the time of this writing, and the world is still enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. But I have a wife and son whom I adore, and if I’m losing time with them to YouTube, I know how to immediately rectify that situation.

There is some evidence that older adults experience less loneliness and a higher degree of satisfaction with their social role when using social media because it allows them to augment their communication with their naturally shrinking social networks, but I’m not ready to consider myself an “older adult,” so I’m going to stick to directly messaging people with whom I have a personal history, preferring phone calls and handwritten letters over any other form of communication. (That’s an invitation, friends. If we know each other, call and we’ll chat.)

4. Get Educated about Other Ways to Overcome New Media Dependence

A lot of research went into this post, and I intend to read even more on the subject. Prior to writing this, my reading focused primarily on understanding the problem, so my reading list includes resources for managing and overcoming dependence—and maybe working to improve the digital society in which we all live.

These are the places I’ll start reading, and I’m open to any other suggestions to increase my understanding of this complicated subject:

And please feel free to feel conflicted about whether or not to use any of the buttons below to start up someone else’s Hook Cycle.


They came without warning, without provocation, and without mercy. I was spared, but not left unscarred. They came for my neighbors and my kin, all of whom were taken without a word of protest. We couldn’t understand what was happening—not at first.

The first few fell flat on their back and just lay there, disbelieving, not wanting to believe what was happening. Then came the butchering. I watched my brethren be systematically dismembered. Their limbs were chopped off with a sickening crack and fed into some abominable machine that ground them into infinitesimal pieces. Their bodies were skinned, and what remained was sliced into thin strips. I could see their hearts at the center. Some of these pieces were simply set aside, others were fed into the grinder and reduced to a pulp.

I looked upon countless stacks of atrocities no one was meant to see. My cries emerged as mere whispers, I couldn’t scream for the horror. Why were they doing this? They were indiscriminate, taking husband from wife and child from father. They decimated entire households without passion, without remorse. Corpses were stacked in full view of the rest of us, who wondered who would be next. I would have jumped to defend my people, but I was rooted to the spot. I could only flail helplessly.

As quickly as they had arrived, they were gone, and night fell upon the dead. I couldn’t leave them, so I simply stood over their bodies and mourned. Weeks passed, and they returned to stack the skinned limbs of my brethren, fashioning a kind of structure with them, some grotesque sculpture with sharp corners and harsh edges, a stark contrast to the roundness of the bodies they had defiled. They brought our infants with them and half-buried them in neat rows. They were alive, but I didn’t recognize them as belonging to anyone I knew. Who could imagine why they were buried here?

A foul stench rose over their heads from the structure behind them, the smell of burning flesh. My people had occupied this place for centuries. Some of those who were killed had been here since the very beginning, but it only took a day to halve our population, replaced by these poor half-buried children. It was a long time before I learned their purpose, but eventually I came to understand that the bones of my people were being used to build domiciles, or burned for fuel. Limbs were cut and shaped to make chairs and tables. Their appendages were ground down to a pulp that was then watered, stretched, and dried to make thin translucent sheets. These were bound together and marked with the blood of flowers that used to grow beneath my branches.

So much slaughter, so much torture, so many of our lives lost for the sake of houses, furniture, and books.

Self-Perception and Persistent Self Identity

His grandfather had now received solemn dispensation from his interim stage and had finally returned to the form appropriate to him—an event of which [Hans] could only approve.

– Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

“How are you?” is often used as a filler in conversation, and it’s an extremely versatile question, but lately it’s been giving me trouble. It can mean: “How are you feeling?” “What have you been doing lately?” “Where are you headed?” and sometimes it’s just something we say after “hello” as a pleasantry. The sense that I’ve gotten stuck on is when the emphasis is placed on the verb, “How are you?” and I interpret it literally.

How do I exist in the world? This is a different question from, “How did I come to exist,” it asks instead about my present state of being. And since the question of sustaining my existence is derived from that one about its origin, the sense of the question I’m really driving at is, “How am I coming off as existing in the world? What could I point to that demonstrates my existence? What does it mean, to me, to be, and am I being that right now?” How am I?

In the past, when I’ve considered the definition of my existence, I’ve found comfort in Descartes’ Meditations, which assert that I am a thinking thing—a rational entity—and my existence exists primarily as my contemplation of it. If I closed my eyes and pretended like all of my senses were giving me false data—my body was nothing like the one I inhabit, the world around me was completely different than the one I knew, nothing I could smell or taste or touch was real,—I would still be left with an irrefutable sense of self, of a person who was considering the reality of these perceptions.

This “self” is a persistent identity we assign to our unique collection of thoughts and experiences. Descartes takes a ball of wax and smooshes it into different shapes. It can be a horse, it can be a chair, it can be a flower, or it could be melted into a translucent puddle, but in every case we can still recognize it as the same ball of wax because we have witnessed its changes.

Therefore, he says we exist primarily as rational minds who may or may not also be having a physical experience. Because I did not create myself, there must be others who exist as well, but I could just write off all others under the umbrella category, “God,” and leave it at that. Someone has to be the one who shapes this ball of wax and if my parents exist then so do their parents and eventually I’ll go far enough back into history that there will have to be some kind of intentional primary creator.

But none of this answers the question. Descartes proves that I am, but only to myself. And I kind of already knew that I existed because I was the person asking the question in the first place. The question is how I am. I am by interpreting the present circumstances of my mind and body through the lens of my remembered experiences to make decisions about what to do and/or think. Whether or not the experiences I remembered actually happened (or happened the way I remember them) is immaterial because it is the memories that form the basis for my action, not the experiences themselves. I am an impression I have of what a person like me would do, given the things I’ve done in the past and the decisions that are before me now—at least, to myself.

Despite Cartesian isolationism, I think there’s pretty compelling evidence for the existence of another contemporaneous rational mind, otherwise who’s asking me how I am? It’s certainly not a question I ever pose to myself, I’m too caught up in being me to wonder how it’s happening. And if there’s another rational mind out there then let’s face it, there are probably billions. Billions of people just like me who exist as an impressions of themselves.

So the problem I’ve gotten myself wrapped up in (I should have just said, “I’m fine” and walked away, but we’ve gone too far for that) is that other people have impressions of me, too, just as I have impressions of them. Do I exist solely as my impression of myself, or do I exist primarily as my impression of myself while also existing as others’ impressions of me? How am I, am I independently of others or am I interdependently with them? Am I depending on them?

It was so easy back when other people didn’t exist and it was just me and God playing with a ball of wax. But when other people exist and encounter me, they are also interpreting the present circumstances of my mind and body through the lens of their remembered experience of me to make predictions about what I’ll do and/or think. What if their impression of me differs from my own?

I suppose I could claim seniority and say that their impression must be inaccurate if it differs from mine because I’ve spent every second of my life with myself and am, therefore, the authority on what I’ve done and am likely to do next. For anyone to have comparable experience, they would have to have spent my entire life with me, from the moment I was born.

And even then, I could claim that external presence isn’t the same as internal presence. You can be in the same room as I am, but you can’t know my thoughts unless I’m actively sharing them with you, and even then, I’m thinking at the same time about what I’m saying and what I’m likely to say next. It’s impossible for another person to have as well-informed an opinion about myself as I do—unless there’s more than one. And as I mentioned earlier, if there’s just one other rational being out there, besides God, it implies the existence of billions more.

If there’s a group of people who are around my for the duration of my life, their combined knowledge about the previous circumstances of my mind and body could exceed my own. Even if I claim total mindful self-awareness (which would be a bold-faced lie,) I’ve only known myself for thirty-five years. If I shared a room with four other people during that time, they’d have known me for a hundred years longer than I’ve known myself.

Now this thought experiment is becoming impractical. I already know that no one has shared a room with me my entire life. My sister is the only one who would even come close, and we had separate bedrooms by the time I was six. But consider a murder trial with a “guilty” verdict.

When a defendant who pleads “not guilty” (and believes that to be true) is nonetheless convicted of murder, a group of people deliberated on a collection of remembered experiences, some supported by tangible objects they could encounter directly with their senses, and came to an agreement about what the defendant was likely to do and/or think. Either the defendant misremembered their experiences or an external group of people was able to form more accurate conclusions about their identity. How is a murderer—as an isolated collection of self-impressions, or as a combination of their existence to themselves and their existence toward others? Whether the individual in question thinks of themselves as a murderer or not, they would still be considered one if they murdered someone, right?

In that case, a group of people were able to form a more accurate impression about what an individual might do and/or think than the individual themselves, and they didn’t need a lifetime’s worth of remembered experience with them to do it. They collectively formed an impression by rigorously considering the details of a specific incident.

In a lot of cases, there has to be a special reason for a group of people to pay so much attention to something outside their own total mindful self-awareness, but our social relationships exist entirely as the same phenomenon. We are to our friends their collective impression of us given their remembered experience of us, just as know them by what they’ve done and what they’ve been through. Our families might know us even better since the time we spend with them in early childhood is dense with new experience. None of them need to be with us every second of our lives to know what we’re likely to do and/or think, they just need some remembered experiences with us and a reason to deliberate about them.

Am I more to me, i.e. is my impression of myself more important to my existence than the collective impression others have of me, or am I more to them, and my existence is contingent on their collective impression of me? How am I?

If I were to try to quantify the amounts, the numbers quickly paint a chaotic picture. An average murder trial takes about 3–4 days. Assuming they’re standard eight-hour work days, that’s 24–36 hours that a jury might spend considering the case before them. Twelve jurors yields 288 (or 312) hours of remembered experience to weigh against the defendant’s—again, assuming the defendant believes themselves to be not guilty while the facts of the case incontrovertibly reveal guilt. Collectively, that’s 12-13 full calendar days the jury has been able to consider the facts of the case and arrive at a different conclusion than the defendant.

Maybe the defendant’s self-identity takes priority—after all, they’ve lived however many years of their life prior to this trial, so they handily outnumber the jury’s 13 measly days—but even if that’s the case, we live in a world where numbers just aren’t that small anymore.

Take Natalie Wynn’s Contrapoints video on cancel culture. It’s about a hundred minutes long and had 4,000,000 views by the time of this writing. Whatever interpretation of her identity is accessible via YouTube video amounts to some 6,666,666 collective hours—or, you know, 760 years. If she lived to be one hundred, her viewers’ collective impression of her would still be seven times as long as her entire lifespan. And that’s just one video. She has a dozen more, also with millions of views.

If four million people disagreed with me about who I am, I would have some concerns about how I wasn’t whatever they believed me to be. If one percent of them wrote to refute my account of myself, and they each only offered one page of data, their account would be 10,000 pages long compared to whatever I could write in my defense.

How can I be different from others’ cumulative impressions of me, how can my internal self-perception take precedence in the face of such overwhelming numbers? As much as I fear death, I’m starting to think I might prefer dying in obscurity to being so scrutinized by the minds of history as to no longer determine my own persistent identity. I’ve tried to distance myself from social media because of the addictive behavior it perpetuates, but now I’m thinking I really dodged a bullet by keeping low the number of people who can deliberate on their remembered experiences with me.

A few years back, I began to realize I didn’t have many strong, close, long friendships anymore, and it made me wonder why I prioritize the effort to “know myself” over everything else. Even if I attained complete knowledge of myself, it could mean nothing against the swell of collective impressions and who I am—how I am—could be primarily determined by external impressions of me anyway. There were a lot of ways that who I was didn’t matter when we disagreed because it was their impression of me that determined what would or wouldn’t happened next.

As much as I want to say “I think, therefore I am,” I have to concede that it’s at least mathematically plausible that I am only because I am thought of, and I’m not the only person doing the thinking. I sustain my life and derive my agency from the good graces (or graceful apathy) of other people because if they collectively decided to deprive me of either, I would be completely powerless to stop them. Similarly, if they decided I was someone completely different than who I think I am, I would be completely at their mercy to persist as my version of myself or theirs.

How am I?

I’m fine.

Collecting Ghosts

When I was in high school, I would try to punish people who crossed me by “excommunicating” them. Not from the Church—I lacked the papal authority for that—but from myself. I would refuse to talk to the individual either in person or online, ignore them whenever they tried to get my attention, and generally treat them as if they didn’t exist.

Now, we call this practice “ghosting”. While all my attempts at excommunication were ultimately unsuccessful (and, in retrospect, rather desperate and transparent pleas for attention,) I have been ghosted enough times as an adult that I have felt the sting of what I was trying to inflict as a teenager. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me so much because I expect it or at least accept it as a possible risk—such as in online dating—but other times it cuts so deep that I end up nursing the wound for years. What’s the difference?

Ghosts who are former (or prospective) romantic partners are the easiest for me to wrap my head around. When I was using an online dating service called OKCupid, I had made a connection with a woman named Kari. We exchanged messages, a few photos, and eventually set a date to meet in person—only she called it off at the last minute and I never heard from her again.

Ghosting makes sense to me in the semi-anonymous world of online dating as a means of establishing boundaries. She didn’t know me, I didn’t know her, our social circles didn’t intersect in the slightest, and so it was somewhat expected that she might suddenly decide to stop talking to me and that was okay. It didn’t hurt at all, I just thought it was a little rude because of how well we were hitting it off until she suddenly dropped the thread of conversation.

There are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of strangers on the internet. It is an investment of trust and vulnerability to allow someone you barely know to stay in touch with you. I can imagine any number of scenarios where a potential suitor is too obsessive or aggressive to keep in touch, and in those cases the simplest conversation is likely no conversation at all.

Kari was not my first ghost. My first romantic ghost was a woman named Dayna, whom I met on a business trip in California. She was from Long Island, New York, and I was from Alabama. Our company flew us there for a week of training at their corporate headquarters, and we hit it off suddenly and surprisingly—so much so that we started a long-distance relationship as soon as we were back in our home states.

Long-distance relationships are hard to manage, but we were able to sustain a level of interest, intimacy, and commitment nonetheless. We were getting along so well that we talked about closing the distance between us. There was a job opening in nearby Yonkers, New York, so I applied for it. While we waited to find out if the transfer was approved, Dayna and I planned a weekend trip to New York City for her birthday, to see if the spark we found in California would kindle a sustaining warmth.

Instead, we found more sparks. Dayna was strangely controlling over our time, resentful of the fact that I wanted to see the only person I knew in New York (my friend Drew) while I was there. This was despite her birthday party taking the entirety of one evening and being filled with tons of her friends, none of whom I knew and few of whom she was interested in introducing to me. It got so bad that at one point she and another dude were talking past me on a booth seat, making plans to go to a concert together.

Dayna broke up with me in Washington Square on her way to take the train back to Long Island. I got the call that my transfer application was accepted the same afternoon. I texted her the news that we had another chance to work on our relationship, but she wasn’t having it and I never heard from her again.

I don’t think I deserved that kind of ghosting, but I eventually understood where she was coming from. To her, I was just some guy she had a fling with and while it was fun as long as we were long distance, she was uncomfortable with how physically close I was getting and didn’t want to deal with the fallout of telling me distance wasn’t the reason she didn’t want to be together. I felt blindsided and tried to reach out to her a few times, but my best friend River always said that if you send three messages and get no reply, it’s time to move on.

On the other hand, I totally deserved to be ghosted by Bethany. Our relationship was tenuous from the start. She developed an interest in me while she was still living with her boyfriend at the time (who was just the nicest guy ever) and I was new enough to the poly-curious dating scene in Portland that I didn’t question it—I trusted her to manage her own interpersonal boundaries. Our brief romance was hot and fast, ending after an ideological disagreement resulted in a lengthy email exchange before she went to stay with her friend in Canada and I never heard from her again.

The fact that she took a romantic interest in me while she was living with her boyfriend meant she was volatile and unpredictable—which, incidentally, made the ghosting after our breakup seem more predictable, less hurtful. It hurt to be dumped, but the ghosting didn’t really bother me because we had just demonstrated via email that we couldn’t communicate effectively with each other.

In all three cases, the people ghosting me didn’t know me very well, and I think that was a big part of why I didn’t take it as personally as I did my other ghosts. When someone is unfamiliar and unpredictable, it can be scary to maintain contact with them because you don’t know how they might try to hurt you, emotionally or otherwise. It’s a precaution, a protective measure, a firm boundary that I have to respect.

It’s harder for me to wrap my head around the friends who have ghosted me, especially when we’ve known each other for years. Ghosting is saying, “From here on out, I’m dead to you,” and the first time that happened to me, it was fairly literal. I had a friend who was expecting to die for one reason or another, and he told me that he would have to cut off contact with me after a certain date as a protective measure for me—he wanted to avoid the appearance that I might have had any foreknowledge of his death.

As that date came and went on the calendar, I entered into a state of mourning for my friend, working through the stages of grief until I had eventually come to terms with it. He was a literal ghost, in the sense that I would never again be able to get in touch with him.

Except he came back. It is hard to adjust to the notion of someone being alive again after you thought they were dead for some time, especially when your primary correspondence is long-distance. He just showed up in my town, unexpectedly and all of a sudden. I had been acting under the assumption that he was dead for months, and it was shocking to have to rewrite my reality in such a way. He was dead—and then he wasn’t. In a way, he was haunting me, and that’s the only time ghosting feels more malicious than defensive.

The ghost that hurt me the most was when River, my best friend of fifteen years, ghosted me after an argument that wasn’t much worse or more personal than a lot of arguments we’ve had in the time that we’ve known each other. It was completely unexpected and it hurt so much.

Most of the time, I understand ghosting because it helps people feel safe, or it’s necessary for them to process the relationship and move on from it, but I also expect it more from people who know me less, people who don’t feel like they can ask me not to talk to them, or feel like I wouldn’t respect their request if they did. When my best friend ghosted me, it felt like a repudiation of the core of my being. He knew me better than anyone alive, yet he, too, felt he had no other recourse. This, in spite of the fact that he knew better than anyone the trauma I had associated with ghosting. The dying friend who ghosted me was a friend of his, too—and he did eventually die, becoming as literal a ghost as can be said to exist.

Whether my best friend was intentionally or accidentally trying to hurt me, the message I took away from his ghosting was that something was so rotten inside of me that it was worth the retraumatizing just to never have to hear from me again. I sent three unanswered messages and took the hint, but I never really understood it. Because his existence in my life was at his leisure, he sent a wedding present after declining my invitation to the wedding. A ghost when he wanted to be, but haunting me when he pleased.

I would never want to date someone who didn’t want to date me, despite how much unrequited love might sting. I have done my best to respect the wishes of everyone who has ghosted me, trusting that they would know better than I would if they’d prefer silence over another apology. (That being said, I am sorry.) And I guess I don’t want to be friends with someone who doesn’t want to be friends with me either.

The hardest part about that particular ghost was that we were still tangentially connected to each other via social media. We had mutual friends on Facebook and mutual followers on Instagram, and every time I logged into one of those platforms I could see all his interactions with everyone else—everybody but me. It hurt so much to see him so active with people he had such a comparatively tenuous relationship with while completely ignoring me after everything we had been through and everything we meant to each other. Eventually, it made me feel so bad I simply deleted my accounts, effectively shunning myself from our social circles.

After a few years, River did eventually tell me why he suddenly and unceremoniously severed all contact with me, and he said he didn’t know what a path forward would even look like for our friendship. Personally, I don’t know that I could be friends with him again, knowing he’s comfortable ghosting long-term intimate friends, knowing he’s comfortable ghosting me.

And if I couldn’t be friends with River again, how can I be friends with anyone after driving someone who was so close to me so far away? Now everybody is a potential ghost, whether literally or figuratively, and these experiences have left me incredibly reluctant to be open and vulnerable with other people. While I’ve been ghosted several times by people who hardly knew me, River knew me as well as anyone ever has and still found ghosting was the only option.

My experience with being ghosted has left me thinking that there must be something about me so dark, so deep, and so terrible that anyone who gets to know me will eventually come to the conclusion that I must be shunned, excommunicated, completely severed from all contact, and that I will deserve it. I take small comfort in the fact that, for the majority of my ghosts, the ghosting has been more about circumstances and an intersection between issues they were dealing with and my own personal shortcomings.

And yet—I still wish I could speak to them all again, just one more time.

Loose Zen

I’ve been failing to meditate for over a decade. When I sit for zazen, I try for a half lotus each time, and the first several minutes are always about adapting to the discomfort. I guess I have bad posture, generally speaking, because I also strain to keep my spine straight. It always feels like I’m going to tip over.

Instead of focusing on a mantra or koan, I try to just practice simple breathing meditation, letting my mind empty with each exhalation of breath and slowly refill with ideas as I inhale again. Anything less than five minutes feels like a wasted session, but I start to really lose sense of time after ten or fifteen. I still haven’t found a pleasant way to rouse myself out of it. Any alarm is, well, alarming.

When I started meditating, I didn’t have to worry about that stuff. I was introduced to zen by my karate instructor in college, Jorge H.-Aigla. He wrote a book titled, Karate-Do and Zen about the connection between the martial art and the mental discipline. I hesitate to refer to zen as a spiritual discipline if only because that wasn’t the emphasis he placed on it.

Every session, whether it was a technical workout, a kumite sparring match, or a belt test, began and ended with a silent meditation. Actually, I don’t remember if stretching, pushups, and sit-ups preceded the opening meditation or not. I mostly remember the closing meditation, after I was sweaty and sore, struggling to get my breath under control.

He would have us sit in Vajrasana, a modified kneel where buttocks rest on the heels while the feet lie flat against the ground. It hurt to get into, it hurt to sustain, and some research suggests it may cause long-term damage to the knees. Jorge gave us very little instruction aside from to close our eyes and try to relax.

The first time I entered the dojo, on the first day of classes, Jorge gave everyone a printed copy of a poem from Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton. I don’t know what Merton’s credentials were, how he was qualified to write about zen, but maybe there are no qualifications for poetry. Every subsequent year started the same way, with Jorge reading a modified version of the poem. He would substitute “karate-do” for “zen” and read,

Karate-do enriches no one.

There is no body to be found.

The birds may come and circle for a while…

but they soon go elsewhere.

When they are gone, the ‘nothing,’

the ‘no-body’ that was there,

suddenly appears.

That is karate-do.

It was there all the time

but the scavengers missed it,

because it was not their kind of prey.

Part of the way he taught karate-do was to encourage his students to liberate themselves from their attachment to their body, to approach the practice as someone who was already dead. In a lot of ways, I practice meditation in preparation for death.

Jorge would tell us to sit, close our eyes, and then we would all sit in silence, dressed in our karategi, ankle tendons and quadriceps burning, until he made a noise again and we arose for the session—or to leave the dojo for the day. I never knew how long we sat there, or how Jorge decided when to end the meditation, but that’s sort of the point. If you’re still aware of what time it is, you need to meditate longer.

I don’t meditate in the hopes of attaining enlightenment or nirvana. I’m pretty sure that even if those states were attainable, it wouldn’t be by trying to get there. My extremely limited understanding of zen is that it’s partly about detaching from goals and objectives like that, partly about liberating the mind from attachment to constant thought, and mostly about practicing zen.

“Zen enriches no one.” Practicing meditation isn’t about becoming a better, more compassionate person—although that may be a welcome side effect. Shunryu Suzuki, whose lectures still comprise the majority of what I have read about zen, says that “zazen does zazen.” The whole point of the practice is to get the human mind—and, to some extent, the body—out of the way fully enough for our intrinsic Buddha mind to manifest itself.

But there’s no way to force it, and in that sense, all meditation is failing to meditate. I know that I feel better when I maintain a meditative practice and there are a lot of studies about why that might be the case, but even that is not the goal of zazen. To have a goal is to miss the point.

I would like to say it gets easier with time, that the more times I sit and meditate, the better I’m able to sit down and clear my head the next time, but it’s hard to sit still. It’s hard to be quiet. It’s hard to sit still, be quiet, and intentionally do nothing, to practice being nothing, or practice just being.

The truth is, when I am sitting still, paying attention to my breathing, and trying not to chase any thought rabbits through the thickets of my mind, I am no more or less alive than I am doing any other thing. I don’t know why it’s so hard to sit still and do nothing, especially to think nothing—it sounds like the bare minimum of control I would have to exert over myself—but it is hard.

Maybe that’s why I keep trying. Within the confines of each session, I struggle to maintain a comfortable posture, struggle to keep my mind clear, and struggle against the increasingly urgent need to make sure I did, in fact, set the timer. Then, between sessions, I struggle to convince myself enough of the merits of the practice to actually sit down and do it again.

But sometimes, I get it. I sit, and after some time has passed I experience brief moments of no-mind, of emptiness, of simple awareness of the world around me and my existence within it, with none of the baggage of conceptualization. And despite that emptiness, I continue to exist.

Show Me the Way to Go Home

It’s been over a year, and I still don’t feel quite at home in this house. I still think of it as “The Murder House”. Not because of any actual murders—none that I know of, anyway,—that’s just what I called it when we first toured the property.

My son had been born a week earlier and everyone was flipping out about it. My parents, my wife’s parents, and my grandmother were all in town for the birth. We each handled it in our own different ways. My wife and I were hardly sleeping at all, we had to wake up every couple of hours to feed him or change him. I had two weeks of paternity leave from my job, but it wasn’t restful in the slightest. Sleep is a necessity, something I never realized I needed until I didn’t have it anymore, and without it, I was constantly delirious, a stainless-steel travel mug of coffee accompanied me wherever I went. All I could think about was satisfying his myriad incommunicable needs, guessing my way down the list until he could nap peacefully again and we could try to get some sleep ourselves.

It was the second house we looked at, and I joined my parents there during one of his sleeping spells, when I finally felt comfortable leaving my wife to nap next to him. The house was this towering grey monstrosity, a fixer-upper that would cost us less to buy so long as we were ready for the extensive remodeling that would make it livable. I recorded video tours of each floor to show my wife and narrated my realtime thoughts on the place. The basement was the spookiest part, labyrinthine in its many additions and reconstructions over the hundred years or so of the house’s previous owners. Rooms were added without regard to the existing floorplan, yielding unpredictable twists and turns through carpet, tile, and vinyl linoleum flooring.

The main floor wasn’t much better. The fireplace had a tile footer that was missing a whole chunk of corner, exposing bare concrete beneath. The white walls were crumbling away in places, revealing chunks of browned plaster behind it, and all the trim was glossy with layer upon layer of paint. In the dining room, there was a little corkboard for mail above a small square chalkboard that had a single word written on it in white permanent marker like indelible chalk. The word simply read, “Run!”

There were no doors on the first floor, and the second floor doors all had deadbolts at eye level. It was hard to see it for what it could become—bedrooms, playrooms, a study—instead, everything just raised questions. Why were there so many locks? Why didn’t we have keys to them? Why were the deadbolts only accessible from the outside? Was someone locking people inside these rooms? My sleep-deprived mind, always prone to worst-case-scenarios, imagined a sordid tale of imprisonment, torture, and yes, murder. There was an out-of-place deck in the backyard where I guessed the bodies might be buried, if not in the strange walled-off corner awkwardly set in the middle of one of the basement walls.

And yet, it was the best option that was available. My parents decided that the duplex where my wife and I were living was simply not enough space for a growing family, and they had enough capital that they could afford to buy a house for us outright with enough left over to pay a deconstruction crew to tear down the basement walls and a restoration team to strip the paint from the hundred-year-old trim and skim the hundred-year-old plaster walls. Since my wife was completely, physically preoccupied with the baby, I was left to make all the executive decisions about how we would refinish the floor, paint the rooms, and restore the wooden double-hung windows to their former glory. Sweat equity would bridge the gap between the mess we purchased and the home we would build, and I would have a strong hand in the remodel.

My family has built a few houses from the ground up, the first of which was finished shortly after I was born. Together, we built a log house in rural Alabama that would house my parents, my sister, and me, and that house felt like home in a way this one has yet to accomplish. Maybe it was that sense of communal effort, of creative control, and of sheer labor. I still remember cutting all forty-six rafters with a circular saw, placing the responsibility for the stability of the roof in my teenage hands. We built a bedroom for each of us, my parents sharing theirs with each other, as well as an office for my freelance interpreter mother and a music/art room back when I was still trying to be a musician and my sister was still trying to be an artist. The exterior walls were fourteen inches thick, huge logs that were painted brown on the outside but finished with a clear shellac interior. In spite of all our effort, the four of us only lived there together for a couple of years.

We moved around a lot when I was a kid, so there’s not really an archetypal “childhood home” in my memory. When pressed, I consider “home” the house we rented in Decatur, Georgia. It was small enough that my sister and I shared a bedroom until I was old enough to demand my own space and moved into the attic. There was no air conditioning, just a box fan that lived in the window, constantly circulating the stifling southern heat in the summer to give the illusion of cool. When we gathered in our tiny dining room around the little collapsible table for dinner, I felt connected to the space and my family in a way that has been hard to capture since.

We moved from that little rental—barely more than a single floor with an unfinished basement—into a church-sponsored manse provided as part of my father’s job at a rural Presbyterian church in Virginia. That was certainly the oldest and largest house I’ve ever lived in, built sometime in the 1800’s alongside the chapel itself. The space was so massive that everything we moved into it felt small and out of place. There were ten feet between my bed and my computer desk before I even made it to my bedroom door. We had a living room with two couches and a television but nothing else, and the empty space echoed with every footfall. The only part of that house that I liked was the library, a smaller room toward the back of the house with floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves.

My wife and I moved into the duplex when we found out we were pregnant because the one-bedroom unit of a ground-floor apartment complex was certainly going to be too small for our needs. The duplex at least had two bedrooms, one of which could be used as a study for my writing until the baby came, at which point it would be dubbed the “baby study” until such a time as he was old enough for me to move my desk out. We planned on looking for a house to buy for ourselves, but with our meager salaries (I was working as a temp, having recently left my job in tech retail before we discovered we were pregnant) we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford much of an upgrade, and then not for a few years. Until then, we made the space feel like home by picking up a couple of towering seven-foot-tall matching bookcases at a secondhand construction store. When I could see all of my books in one place, I felt like I could comfortably inhabit the space for an indefinite period of time.

Now those bookcases live in the library of the Murder House, a ground floor westward-facing room with no door in the doorframe. The main floor only has doors leading into the bathroom and the basement, otherwise it is completely open. For the longest time, all I could see was project after project after project until the house would be “done” and I could finally look forward to living in it instead of working on it. It’s been more than a year and I’m still finding things to do. The bathroom window needs to be trimmed out. The trim in my study still needs to be treated with Rubio monocoat oil. The fence in the backyard, a horrid red monstrosity, needs to be removed and replaced with something that feels more welcoming.

Our house is a work in progress, and maybe it will take a few more years of settling before I recognize it as a home. But we own it outright, we can make any modifications to it that we want to, that we can afford, and so it’s only a matter of time before the balance tips from looking at the house as a renovation project and being able to enjoy it simply as a living space. My son will grow up with a clear and distinct recollection of what home looks and feels like, even if I never get there myself. I just need a few more years to warm up to it, to see it not as a remodeling project that still needs to be completed, but as the comforting home he’ll remember for the rest of his life.

You can check out our progress here

Current Projects: Winter 2021

I quit my day job in 2018 because I was fed up with how other people were spending my time, and I wanted to see what I would do with it if no one was buying it from me. At the time, I was rewriting a novel I had (foolishly) self-published back in 2016, finishing a second one I started in 2015, and trying to find a way to make writing more of a central focus in my life.

By the end of 2018, I had gotten involved with a local writing critique group, started attending a weekly philosophy discussion series, and volunteered to write for both a charter school and a reused construction materials store. At The People’s Colloquium, I was able to share my works in progress with other writers to get their feedback, and I got to read a lot of other people’s writing to share my perspective on as well.

In January 2019, my fiancée and I discovered that we were going to be parents and had about seven and a half months to get ready. We needed a family car and an apartment that would fit the three of us (plus three pets), so I applied for the fastest employment I could find, through a temp agency. I kept writing and kept attending my discussion groups right up to the week of my child’s birth, but when he was born, everything changed. Suddenly, everything I knew about how to spend my time was irrelevant, and I had to start over from scratch.

My world was already rocked beyond recognition by the time COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March 2020, and when the dust finally settled a few months later, I woke up in a new house with a wife, a son, a gig as a copywriter, and no day job to speak of. My wife’s work is very fulfilling, so she’s still going in 30–40 hours a week while I stay home with my kid.

I have to fight hard to make time to write despite renovations, house guests, maintenance, and all the demands involved with being solely responsible for keeping a toddler occupied, safe, and engaged for twelve hours a day. It’s not easy, and most days I can only manage to eke out my three morning pages, but I’m determined to finish what I started before stopping to figure out what’s next.

With all that in mind, and in the interest of opening the garage, here’s what I’m working on as of this winter 2021:

Morning Pages

Since I left the workplace in August 2020, I have written three pages in my journal every morning. As Julia Cameron recommends, I write a stream of consciousness and try to do it first thing in the morning. Cameron also recommends writing longhand, but I haven’t been able to commit to that. I’m too insistent on digitizing my notes. Before becoming a parent, I would transcribe my handwritten journal into a digital format for archival and retrieval purposes, but in the aftermath of losing all semblance of control over my time, I’ve had to resort to digital.

There’s something special about three pages. It’s between 750 and 1,000 words, depending on how you count (I shoot for a thousand when I’m typing) and that’s just long enough for me to run out of things to talk about when I realize I’m only halfway through. Then, when the noise of whatever ephemera I’ve been documenting dies down, there’s a spark of insight that leads me through writing to my inner thoughts and preoccupations. When I write my morning pages, I’m practicing sitting down to write and tapping into that part of my mind that has something to say. It’s like a morning workout routine.

Everything’s Totally Manageable

It’s been nine years since I started working on the novel that led me to my interest in writing. “Everything’s Totally Manageable” is the working title I have given to a story that started out as an autobiography but has slowly evolved into a piece of realist fiction. I started writing it as something to do instead of smoking cigarettes on my breaks from work, but then some unexpected life events changed the course of the project, and I’ve been desperately trying to finish it ever since.

The story follows a group of college students grappling with the reality of their friend’s suicide while immersed in an undergraduate philosophy program and experimenting with mind-altering substances. Its central questions concern the nature of reality, what constitutes meaning, and whether life itself is even worth living.

Because I was starting with no formal training in writing—only a minor in comparative literature—I could only write by trial and error. My first draft was over a hundred thousand words, far too long for a debut novel by an unknown author. When I rewrote it to a more manageable size, I experimented with getting closer to the true facts of my life before moving farther away from them, tried melding and separating characters, worked through different tenses and timeframes.

Now I’m about ten thousand words into what, I hope, will be the last draft I write without professional assistance. After this, I’m either going to hire an editor or start querying agents. To reach this goal, I reengaged with a new writing critique group born from The People’s Colloquium called The Critiquery, which I’ll address momentarily.

The Critiquery

One thing I wish I knew when I started writing “Everything’s Totally Manageable” was the value of working alongside a community of like-minded individuals. Although I’ve read several books on the craft of writing, nothing has improved the quality of my own like sharing feedback with other writers who are struggling to bring their own ideas to fruition.

I spent the first eight years of my writing life alone. The People’s Colloquium was my first writing group, and I barely got to know them before parenting permanently changed my relationship to time. When I could finally allocate an hour or two a week to a critique group, the pandemic had dissolved the in-person roundtables and produced new video conference rooms.

The Critiquery represents one such development, and they emailed me to let me know they were conducting weekly sessions again via Zoom. I started attending their sessions in May 2021, while I was working to finish the second-to-last draft of my novel.

We meet for one hour every week, late enough that my wife is home from work and can look after our son, and we discuss submissions up to 10,000 words. At first, I balked at such a restrictive limit, but I have since learned to appreciate how it makes me focus my writing on brevity and concision. I look forward to it every week, and I volunteer to moderate the discussion about once a month.

Professional Copywriting

After I left my day job in 2018, I was approached by a former coworker about writing copy for a marketing firm. I hadn’t written to anyone else’s specifications or requirements since I was in college, so I accepted, thinking it would be a good pivot into a possible new career. By the beginning of 2020, I had signed on to write site pages for a new startup in Portland, followed by monthly blog articles and product descriptions for items on their menu.

Every couple of weeks I get an order for a new round of copy and I strive to finish any outstanding assignments before returning to my creative projects. This work still has to fit around the schedule of my primary job—parenting—but my wife helps me dedicate some time to writing throughout the week. I couldn’t do any of this without her support.

The Curious Writer

Lastly, I got an unexpected gift from my sister during a family reunion in early 2019, the same trip my fiancée and I announced our pregnancy. It was a textbook from one of her classes at the University of New Orleans titled, The Curious Writer. Since I lacked any formal education in writing, I was ecstatic to have any kind of guide—especially since my impending fatherhood precluded any possibility for further education for at least another five years.

The Curious Writer aims to teach writing as part of the larger process of academic inquiry, guiding students to ask questions, look for answers, engage with different viewpoints, and reflect on the whole experience. Despite spending so much time writing fiction, I have great interest in learning to get at the heart of my ideas and present them in a compelling way to the public.

With so much else on my plate, I’ll admit that plodding through The Curious Writer is often the last thing on my to-do list, but I still have been making progress and one of the reasons I reactivated my weblog was to have some public outlet for the essays I produce. I’m trying to put into practice what I’m learning as I learn it, and writing essays is something I’d like to learn to do well.