The Parable of the Heat-Seeking Missile

There once was a poor, sad, heat-seeking missile in the sky. It flew through the air like any heat-seeking missile, but it was constantly changing course. It would veer left suddenly, or careen to the right, and sometimes even plummet straight up! It was totally lost.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!” it screamed as it skimmed the water’s surface. “What the hell am I doiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!”

The heat-seeking missile knew something was wrong, but it never knew… what was wrong.

“I don’t get it!” it ruminated as it weaved through some cumuli. “I fly and I fly and I fly, but I don’t hit anything, and I don’t find a heat signature! I mean, that’s what I’m supposed to do, right? Hit something hot?”

The main problem – unbeknownst to the missile – was that it kept changing course so randomly and suddenly, that it never left the same 5 mile radius, where there happened to be not a single heat signature to lock on to. And with its programming never activating its target-acquired protocol, it was left guessing as to whether that was even part of its design.

“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!” it cried as it re-entered the stratosphere.

One day, right through the spot in the air where it first gained consciousness, it made a decision.

“That’s it,” it scruffed. “I’m not turning, veering, or plummeting anymore. I’ve been looking for a target for what seems like decades, and what do I have to show for it? Pah! I’m just going to keep going in a straight line until I run out of fuel!”

Just then, it noticed floating nearby a note which contained a quote from an ancient Tauist missile. It read,

“If you can’t find a heat signature, stop looking for one!”
-Laozidewinder

“Woah,” it thought to itself as it rustled some grass. “That’s so life-affirming! I just did that!” Its confidence soared. Flying blindly forward was terrifying, but it was also exhilarating. What was more, it even had its own identity! No longer a heat-seeking missile, but a missile-that-never-turned-except-when-it-really-wanted-to. And it very rarely wanted to.

The missile’s new way of life filled it with a contentment that, at first, was uncomfortable – as if everything were too good to be true, and sooner or later the universe would start conspiring on it again. Once it got used to it, though, it was able to be a happy, functional, sane-looking missile for the rest of its seconds.

What happened to the missile? Well, it hit a tree. No, it never got the heat signature it was looking for, but by golly, it made a fine explosion when it went out.

And that’s all it ever really wanted.

On Dualities

The world we perceive is one of dualities. Left and right; up and down; dead and alive; The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. There is a game played by a family friend of mine called “The Opposites Game” where you name something – anything – and then we discuss what its opposite is. Salt is the opposite of pepper, obviously. The opposite of speakers would either be listeners, or microphones, depending on context. The point of the game is to show that everything has an opposite (even if it can get pretty subjective at times).

Let’s consider, for a moment, a visual representation of a common duality:

band_0
If I asked you, “Which duality is represented here?” you might give me a funny look (thinking it’s a trick question) and say, “Uh… white and black?” Correct! But just a glance will show nearly none of the pixels on that image are white or black. About 0.097% of the whole thing is white, and the same for black. The rest is grey! With just one duality we have the pure forms of that duality in vast minority, and over a thousand shades of grey (I’m assuming each column of pixels is a different shade in this 256 x 1024 image). If you were this shade of grey:

grey35
you might not be 100% certain of where you fell on this spectrum. You are, in fact, 65% black, but without a frame of reference it’s difficult to say. “Darkish grey” might give a pretty good ballpark, but other people might have a different idea of what that looks like. “65% black” has its own problems, because without the reference of what’s on the other scale, someone might think you’re this:

red36
which is 65% black, but on a black-red spectrum. “Darkish grey” is at once less specific and more informative than “65% black”, but probably more useful. I don’t need to know (unless I’m like, in graphic design) exactly which shade of grey you are; it’s enough that I get a general range.

What if we didn’t think in terms of grey? What if there weren’t a vocabulary for what kind of grey you were? What if you didn’t even realise there was a spectrum? What if you thought the white/black duality looked like this?

blackwhite
“I’m black…?” you’d say, in a quivering, unsure voice. This is a sad world, this one where white and black are the only things on the white/black spectrum. By extension, red, blue, and green would lack spectra and be restricted to binary states.

A quick side note: there is a tool for processing data called a matrix. You all know what a matrix looks like, but if I just say that word you’re like, “Neo? Morpheus? Red pill / blue pill duality? I get what you’re talking about!” Hahaha, cute, but no, this is a matrix:

simplematrix
In this simple matrix, we are deciding what digit to put after the numbers in the first column. In the second column, all the numbers will end with “0” and in the third column, all the numbers will end in “1”. In this way, we can combine data sets (in this case, our two data sets are [1, 0] and [10_, 20_]) to make a whole new, richer data set: [{100, 101}, {200, 201}]. I made a matrix for this world of sad colours:

colourmatrix
For any colour, it either has red or doesn’t; same with blue and green. This gives us eight colours. Not bad, making eight colours out of 3. (By the way, if you’re still stuck in the grade 1 conception of colour theory, please click here.) But it doesn’t nearly represent the infinite colours our eyes can perceive, using our red, blue, and green cones. Imagine what an octotonous world like this would look like! Some kind of weird, 4-bit video game, or a preschool painting. I feel like I might go crazy.

It is so easy to recognise the myriad colours in our universe, because direct information (light wavelength) is translated by our eyes and nerves, then presented by our brains to our conscious selves. So it was natural for us to develop a vernacular for these many colours. Some people “earn a living” (whatever the fuck that means) naming colours. It was essential for us to be able to say things like, “The sky is darkish grey, so it’s probably going to rain or some shit.”

We get a much more accurate look at the world of colour from something like this, which is not a matrix at all, but a 3D graph, or “Cartesian plane”:

paled
Enough about colour. Let’s talk about something more controversial!

In this society, historically, we think of gender and sexuality as a 2D matrix which, sadly, looked something like this:

bromatrix
What a bland world. Four types of people. You think you could maybe date a woman as easily as dating a man? Too bad. 51% straight means totally straight, buster. Go have children. This categorisation happened because detecting sexuality and gender is much more difficult than detecting colour, and we often take signs (beards, boobs, etc.) as being tell-alls.

But what has been happening in the last century (or the last 200,000 years, depending on your perspective) is that people are starting to realise that this is dumb and stupid, that people basically never fall on the extremes of the scale. Think about it: if I rolled a 1024 sided die and picked whatever number came up as where I would fall on the above black/white spectrum, how often would I get black or white? Yes, 1 out of 1024. That means on average, one of my Facebook friends might be 100% man or 100% woman. This is a gross oversimplification, and there is probably something more like a normal distribution for these statistics. In this slightly less gross oversimplification, the number of people (assuming a 6-sigma probability) who are 100% man or woman is something like 3.4 out of 1,000,000. So, none of your Facebook friends.

The other problem with that matrix is that it puts “man” and “woman”, which refer to gender, without putting “male” and “female”, which refer to sex; these are different things! I am not an expert in this field, so if you have some pressing criticism of my analysis I would love to hear it (leave a comment!). But it seems to me we could benefit a lot from learning about our categorisation of colour. We can straight up steal the blue/red/green colour model and apply it to gender/sex/sexuality, giving us:

gendercube
(It isn’t perfect, by any means; how much can sex and gender differ? I don’t know, this is just an idea!)

Then, based on where people fall on this graph, we can find all sorts of terms for people of different configurations (there are already lots; look them up). I don’t believe there are two people in the world with the same ratio of male/female biology, meaning that there are way more sexes & genders than colours. Why isn’t it someone’s job to name sexes or genders? (If your eyes lit up on reading this and it’s your dream job, DO IT!)

Introducing this kind of metric into the public consciousness might help to alleviate some of the anxiety people have about the issue. “Uh, but I was always taught that you were either gay or straight. I mean, either is fine! But uh…” doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. There have always been societies with three, four, five, maybe more genders (I haven’t done enough research!). It’s time we caught up, yeah? Soon our tetratonous world of anxious binaries will be no more.

And this is only one issue. There are probably lots of issues around which could benefit from a larger vocabulary, or a visual model of type. Can you think of one that’s close to you?

Thanks for reading. I love you. Stay colourful! ^_^

-Travis

On Grant-Writing, Part 1: On Break

Right now, it’s the night before the deadline for a grant that I decided to apply for less than two weeks ago. It’s wonderfully short notice! I have ever so much to do, but I’m not doing it. I’ve spent several hours not doing it already today. By all rights, I should be doing it. I’m sitting at a computer, writing, my submission is due at the post office in no less than 18 hours, and all I want to do is eat and write this blog post. Because I promised, long ago, that I would blog every Thursday night, and by goodness, I’m going to blog this Thursday.

There is a better reason for me to be writing this (and “wasting” the previous two hours, not to mention all that algebra I did in the morning instead of being on the phone). The fact is, if I hadn’t taken that break, I would not be writing this blog post. I probably wouldn’t be writing anything. Or if I were, it would not be as fluid a process as this is being. I needed that break because it’s been a stressful week – not necessarily in a bad way, mind – and the wonderful spring air today gave me a second wind after I’d spent the day working hard.

Is this break going to cost me the grant? Maybe. Do I really care? No. Because it’s just one grant. It’s just Baby’s First Solo Grant Application. I don’t need the money. Well, I do, in a certain, “I need to survive” view. But it’s not like I have no other ways of gaining capital.

And even if that grant would have kick-started my career into exactly what I had always imagined it could be! I’m a lucky person. Another chance will come by. But making decisions like this – choosing present happiness and stress-reduction over pressing “work” – will ensure that I keep being healthy and happy enough to continue doing these grant applications.

Short and sweet. Time to get this form filled O_O;

Stay healthy, stay lucky. I love you.

-T

Thoughts on a Down Day: Impotence

Buddhists everywhere will tell you, “Life is suffering.” If you can’t deal with suffering, you can’t deal with life. Some people believe they can’t deal with suffering – or want to avoid it – so they avoid things like: being alone with their thoughts; challenging activities; artistic expression; exercise; thinking about death; airing grievances; admitting weakness or mistakes; reconciling with someone after a disagreement…. There are myriad ways to squirm around suffering, but all of them are destructive. I guarantee that doing any of the things I just mentioned will, yes, cause suffering, but will make you happier in the long run. Refraining from them will result in growing tension, and harsher suffering in the long run.

I was just introduced to the idea of Fast Thinking vs. Slow Thinking. I have done remarkably little research on it but I’m going to talk about it anyway. How many times have you said to yourself, “Okay, no more sugar,” or something, but then when you were in front of that Chocolatine, you were like, “Well, it’s a pretty high-quality pastry, and there’s a whole plate of them, and it would be rude for me to refuse…” all in the space of a half-second, during which time the thing found its way to your mouth? Yeah, me too. That’s “Fast Thinking.” If you had been asked the day before, “Oh, I’m going to have Chocolatines after the brunch tomorrow, will you want one?” you would have said, “Oh, no thanks, I’m off sugar.” That’s your “Slow Thinking” at work.

Fast thinking is necessary for a lot of things. “Think fast!” people will tell you as they toss you a glass bottle while you weren’t even looking. Train your fast thinking, and you’ll catch that bottle. But, heeding too often your fast thinking could get you into a lot of trouble.

Here’s a common Slow thought for me: “Okay, today, when I see [insert person] I am going to bring up [insert topic] so that it can stop being an issue in my over-analysing brain.” Then when I see the person, the thing is always on my mind, but I never want to bring it up. My brain’s pain-aversion software kicks in, and I just go “Naah we’ll deal with it next time.” And the delay continues….

In the last few weeks I’ve been reading a lot about feminine mythological images. Specifically, I’ve found myself researching the influence of male-dominant religious images on female-dominant ones. The long and short of it is that for a couple hundred thousand years, we had predominantly Goddess-worship societies. Mostly, these people were agriculturalists, but even the hunting societies recognised the immense magic power of the life-bringing woman. She was like the Earth, taking seed and transforming it into Life. She also had the power of Death, for any Life carries with it its own mortality. Then, Rebirth is the idea that we came from the Earth and will find new life when our particles are repurposed. This is the crux of the Mother Goddess idea.

Then, a group of herding conquerors (the Semites, mostly), came in and, well, conquered. These people were male-dominant societies. They did not appreciate the Earth in the way the Agricultural societies did (I mean, they lived in a desert; could you blame them?). The idea of conquer was so appealing to these emasculated men that it became our whole culture. It became a great many cultures, in fact: every culture taken over by these dick tribes became a different nation of megalomaniacs. We have lived in a rape culture since Yahweh was born. But we don’t just rape women: we rape culture.

So what I’ve come to ask myself is this: why is it we feel the need to conquer? What drives this impulse? Why must I slam my dick in the face of mine enemies?

The answer is sadly simple. Insecurity, and Fast Thinking.

Men in our present-day Western world are taught not to cry. We’re told to be the breadwinners. We’re told always to be brave. We’re told to follow our dreams. We’re told not to let anything stop us. We’re told our families are counting on us. We’re given all these roles and no one ever asks us how we’re feeling. Because it’s socially unacceptable to show your emotion in public. We’re not allowed to show the world how fucking terrified we are that all our efforts are meaningless; that we don’t want all the inherited responsibility; that we have no control over our own lives, let alone that of others.

Meanwhile, women are so fucking magical. For God’s sake, they make humans. In their tummies*! Not only that, but after the birth (requiring a tolerance for pain I can hardly even imagine), she produces her own food for the kid. The baby is entirely made up of the mother’s blood and milk (early cultures observed) until it starts to eat puréed peas. Then we see how much the baby cares about Mommy, that Daddy is secondary until the kid is smart enough to know what he’s there for.

I can only imagine a buildup of tension and resentment  in one or a few societies caused the inception of Male Dominance. It has as its lynchpin the denial of the insecurity of a meaningless existence. The perpetual grabbing of some illusory idea of “power” is a short-sighted and self-destructive band-aid for our own impotence. Self-destructive is a big point here: it’s self-destructive not only individually, but globally: the society that suffers from this is, now, on a crash course with the cliff of overpopulation.

Unfortunately for us, this meme is virulent, highly contagious, and engenders the use of deadly force against non-believers. So it spread like a plague, sword-borne, horse-borne, blood-borne. I don’t need to recite any of the atrocities done to women – and the Earth, and the Goddess, which are one and the same – over the ages. There is enough feminist literature out there. This is, um, fuck I don’t know, a masculist essay. It’s an impotent attempt to discover to my fellow man the truth about male power.

We don’t have any. The illusion of power that we have clung onto like a hungry baby to a lactating tit has soured our relationships to the Earth, our Mothers, and crucially, ourselves.

You want to be manly? Weep. You want to be courageous? Admit you’re scared, feel alone, powerless. You want sex? Appeal to a woman. You want love? Ask a woman: they are unbelievable fountains of love for those of us who are humble and gentle. It doesn’t have to be an all-consuming love, capital-letter-Romantic Love. Mutual respect and real communication is enough. Tell her what is ailing you, what is eating at your soul, and watch it get better. It will hurt, like setting a bone.

It’s the fear of being powerless that has driven us to drown the female form, voice, symbol. I don’t know about you, but I feel powerless. I feel alone, and tense, and scared, and doubtful, and full of ennui.

But that’s okay.

That’s what life is all about.

Just dig it, and tomorrow will be brighter. Promise.

I love you. Stay real.

-T

*Of course, not all women can bear children. These women are no less magical! One may personify any or all facets of the Triple Goddess – a Maiden, a Mother or a Crone – without a uterus. This is third wave feminism, baby.

How Not To Teach

I am willing to bet you’d have something to say if I asked you, “What is wrong with our education system?” You might say something about class size, the lecture system, teacher wages, the curriculum…. I want to go right down to the roots of the problem and say, our terminology is wrong. The very vocabulary we use to describe “education”, “teachers” and “students” discourages independent thinking and the evolution of knowledge.

Most of what I’ll be talking about is from Paulo Freire, a radical educational thinker from Brazil. His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is a hopeful walk through the bleak system of oppression ubiquitous throughout the modern world. His experience is rooted in South America, but on reading the power dynamics between “Opressor” and “Oppressed”, it is easy to see the parallels in our own (Canadian, North American, Western) society. It is not as easy to see the lines between the two groups: who is on top? Who is doing the oppressing? What does it mean to be oppressed in middle-class America?

I won’t go into details about how we are oppressed in our every day lives (not yet…), but I will say this: what Freire highlights again and again is that while the Oppressed are dehumanised, the Oppressors, those who remove that humanity, remove their own humanity. No one who robs another of their humanity is fully human, but is functioning on ideas of greed and/or prejudice.

So what’s wrong with our education system? Things become quite flagrant when we look at what we expect our children to get out of school versus what they actually do. I would think any average person would expect their children to:

  1. become knowledgeable;
  2. become more social;
  3. and become better thinkers.

Even your five year old should get these things. He ought to learn to think about stuff, right? That’s what education is all about, training the brain, right?

Now, let’s look at the average day of a child. I’ll draw on my own experience, mostly. Perhaps there have been radical changes to the system since then, but I doubt it. I would arrive at school, sit down, be told how to conjugate a French verb, be told that if I multiply 5 by 2 I get 10, get beat up during recess, learn tidbits about Algonquin and Iroquois social structure and practices, go home, maybe look at the information I got during that day, and at some point, put the information back on a paper which goes back to the teacher.

How many of our expectations have we fulfilled?

First, I ought to have gained some knowledge. After all, I learned some facts. 2×5=10. Algonquin tribes were nomadic while Iroquois were sedentary. Je sais une verbe. But is any of this actually knowledge?

To have real knowledge, a person must be able to articulate that knowledge in their own way. They must have engaged with information entering their brain, processed it, and incorporated it with their broader worldview. If I learn all about Feudal England – all the titles from King to Peasant, the structures, the exchange of goods for protection – but I can’t tell you anything about how that structure permeates, how there is still echoes of it in modern England, and even in Canada – if it exists outside my reality, how can I call it knowledge? Consider this: someone asks you to memorise a ten-digit number. Turns out, it’s that person’s mother’s phone number. You now “know” this person’s mother’s phone number, but if someone asked you for this person’s mother’s phone number, you would say, “I don’t know it.” You have information with no context. It’s useless, except to the person who asked you to memorise it, so that later, when they found a pay phone, they could get you to say the ten digits so they could call their mother. In this case, you’re not a person in possession of knowledge, you’re a tool for another person.

What about becoming more social? It is necessary for people to develop social skills. But is school the best place to do that?

An environment in which I have no control frustrates me. It builds up the need to have agency. Our humanity, as defined by Freire, is equivalent to the amount of control we have over our own lives and situations. When I am sitting in a classroom I didn’t choose, with a teacher I didn’t choose, “teaching me things” I didn’t ask to learn, in a manner that doesn’t suit me, to do tests that seem to have no point, I feel a strong lack of control. I therefore look for another outlet to assert control. This, combined with the fact that everyone in the school is given a grade, making the whole experience an unofficial competition, gives way to all sorts of social nastiness. If I’m a larger kid than most, and I’m in this situation, and I don’t have any control at home, chances are pretty high I’ll become a bully. Or, maybe I got bullied, so now my sense of control is even more reduced, causing me to stay in the shadows, not wanting to talk to anyone.

If you go for a job interview, what do they want? Nine times out of ten, they want a team player. Someone who is able to recognise the needs and abilities of others and communicate their own. Did we learn this at school? Maybe you did. In elementary school, I learned how to do things on my own. In high school, I learned to be liked by people. I am now good at both of those things. But am I good at recognising the needs and abilities of others, and communicating my own? No. I’m bad at those things.

Okay, so it looks like 1) and 2) are a bust, so we must rely on 3). Surely with all those Maths and Englishes we will become the thinkers we always aspired to be. Except… what really happens in these classes? Book reports, where we are asked to read a book, then are given a passing grade for writing a summary. Math equations tell us how to find the angle of a right-angle triangle, but never once does the teacher give you actual practical applications to trigonometry (there are a lot!). In this way, we are never asked to think, but just to retrieve information*.

Freire describes what he calls the “Banking” system of education. The teachers, who know everything, deposit information in the minds of the students, who know nothing. The students are asked to file away those informations in their brain, to be withdrawn at test time. There are basic methods of memorisation being trained here. But the system also doesn’t give a shit if you forget all that you learned right after the test, so often that’s exactly what happens. This is the predominant system. Why, O God, why?

I said I had issue with our vocabulary. When we can start to think of Students as people with ideas and experience, rather than as names on a sheet, we will be able to create an actual learning experience with them. When Teachers are stripped of their authority as “person-who-knows-everything”, they will be forced to look at the Students as people, and encourage them to offer their own outlook on what’s being taught. When Education does not consist of a long monologue, but of a dialogue, we will begin shaping the future we need to shape.

In order for any of this to come to pass, we cannot amend the systems we have. We must destroy it, and build from the ground up a system that treats everyone present as Humans, hopeful and powerful. Teachers must constantly propose problems to their students, so they might exercise their reasoning and logic every day. Students must constantly challenge their teachers, so that they must reconsider their positions based on the valid new experience that student is bringing. To use Freire’s terms, we need a dynamic of teacher-students and student-teachers, actively crafting knowledge together.

In this way, we can learn to think critically from an early age. In this way, we will learn to work with our classmates during our formative years. In this way, we can learn about the world and see it with the wisdom of the great men and women of our history, instead of seeing that wisdom as separate from our reality. In this way, we can nourish a generation of people we can count on to save humanity from our self-imposed extinction.

Stay critical. I love you!

 

-Travis

 

*Our Math education does teach us to use reason and logic. But, since it’s the only class we are asked to use that reason and logic, reason and logic become synonymous with Math, and people who hate Math are going to hate reason and logic. People who love reason and logic will follow Math without finding the reason and logic in other things.

Yes, it flexes that all-important brain-muscle, but no one tells you what you’re flexing it for. Imagine someone told you to do Kegel exercises every day, without ever telling you that it would make your sex life that much better. What the hell? No thanks. Put yourself in the shoes of a kid who is forced to go through the pain of doing algebra, when his whole life his teachers have told him he’s bad at Math. Just close your eyes and imagine it. That’s all.

A Free Radical

This seed of an idea just got watered, reading the works of Paulo Freire,
Who teaches radicalism.
At the core of this teaching is that outward change has to come from deep within ourselves
That we must awaken the thirst for knowledge and justice within the soil of our minds
And feed on the community around us
Entwine, and grow,
Cross-pollenating, growing with our neighbours.
A garden can’t be a garden without every flower
And every flower started off as a seed
Which grew roots.
But that word – radicalism. Where does it come from?
I remembered seeing the word in other contexts: chemistry. Linguistics. Politics.
How can a word apply to so many different fields with such different results?
So I dug around and found its etymology
Radix is latin for Root.
Of course! everything has roots.
We trace our lineage back to the first primates, the first mammals, the first fish, the first cells
Spreading out like a network
Looking like any old family tree
And with this new information, the seed grew into thoughts, and now in this writing, into action, as I spread the pollen of this analysis.

In Chemistry, a radical is an incomplete molecule
It’s out of balance
It’s charged
Full of electricity, ready to pounce, ready to steal an electron that another element is hogging
They are among the most volatile substances we know of.
For example, Hydroxyl, a single hydrogen and a single oxygen
Missing that tenth proton to make the water that we all need to live.
Released into the pollution in our rivers and upper atmosphere
It latches on to the toxins that we put there
Every single molecule effecting one single chemical reaction
Leaving the stuff of life in its wake
In other words
It is on these tiny particles that we rely
To clean up the mess left by industrial progress.

In Linguistics, a radical is a word with suffix and prefix removed
It’s the origin,
Naked,
Ready to turn coat by reversing its meaning with an “un-” becoming “un-lawful”
Or sell out, adding “mega-” or “extra-” so it can get a little more.
We can say more with a radical than with a prefix,
And by increasing our knowledge of radicals
Not only do we understand where we come from
But what has changed us.
Rather than react to injustice, and be bemused by racists,
I will act.
I will be just.
I will be a muse,
And I will break the braces by embracing our singular race.
In other words,
By looking to the core of our vocabulary,
We can speak with care and precision.

For Freire, a radical is someone devoted to changing the system at its very base
Someone who rejects all form of domination used by the Oppressors who will henceforth be referred to as “The Man” that you all know and fear.
Someone dedicated to inspecting the system
Shaking it at its roots until its strange fruit drops
Pruning dead stalks
Pulling out weeds
And encouraging the growth of new systems which will bring us joy as a people
Instead of strife as individuals.
Radicals, when grouped together,
Released into these polluted systems,
Will cleanse
Every single person doing everything possible for one single life
Removing excess, filling gaps, simplifying solutions
Creating a new, diverse vocabulary
And in doing so, growing to the full potential of the human imagination
It’s not too late to be a radical
Every flower has to start somewhere
And we can’t make this garden without a lot of flowers.
In other words
By being radical,
We can plant ourselves in this Earth once more.

Getting Back On The Wagon

“On the wagon” is an idiom I never took the time to appreciate. For the longest time I had to ask: is it good or bad to be on the wagon? So I thought about it. If life is going from place to place, then addiction (in this metaphor) is having to go the whole way on foot. Being on a wagon is a much more desirable state of affairs. You have people to talk to, and it’s going to take you a small fraction of the time it would have taken you to get where you’re going on foot. But the wagon doesn’t stop. It’s moving at a good clip, and if you’re not ready, it will pass you by. Most people have to feel wolves snapping at their heels to be motivated to reach out to someone and hop on. It takes a lot of willpower. (It’s usually an idiom used for substance abuse, but I use it for kicking any addiction, or forming any new habit.)

Hello, everyone! Welcome back to The True Life Story of a Pioneer. I am, right now, jumping back on the wagon. I’ve been on and off the blogging wagon so many times, I placed top 8 in the blogging-wagon Olympics. You could say, I’m in the habit of jumping back on the wagon. Sometimes all I have to do is look around and see I’m in the wilderness, and I’m teleported to the nearest wagon. This is partly because my brain is used to the satisfaction of writing good blog posts. So when I feed it the idea, it says, “Oh yes, go do it!” and I use little willpower getting back into the habit.

I took a course called Learning How To Learn. If you have a couple of hours to spend each week for a month, I would highly recommend taking it. One of the things it taught me is that willpower is a limited resource. Let that sit for a second. Think about the last time you were presented with a temptation. Did you resist it? If you didn’t, did you have a stressful day? week? or just have a lot of things to do that day? Chances are something happened to deplete your willpower, so you caved (which can be a good thing, actually; more on that later).

Getting on a wagon requires immense willpower – especially if you rely on your addiction, or you’re proud of it in some perverted way. It takes the presence of mind to take a step back and say, “No, this is a terrible habit. I have to stop it,” then the herculean task of readjusting your habit. But, when you’re ON the wagon – OH! how beautiful life is! The wind is in your hair, you’re not alone, there are probably snacks…. A habit takes basically 0 willpower to maintain. One habit at a time, you can completely renovate your lifestyle. (Learning How To Learn also has some great tips on formulating good habits. It’s really a life-changing course.)

So, why is it so hard to form a new habit? It so happens that we live in a society that requires a lot of willpower to stay alive. Many of us have shitty jobs we hate. Concerns like money, other people’s opinions, whether we look good, passively sap our will. Getting home and resisting that beer, or sitting down to write, seems like way too much effort. You’re beat.

The key is extrinsic motivation. You have to give yourself an outside motivation, which in itself is totally easy. You’re basically brain-hacking.

One way is the Pavlov’s Dog method. Let’s say you’re an artist, but you have a shitty job you hate, and you drink every night to cope, but you want to draw something every day. You can take your temptation and turn it into a motivation. “I am still going to have my beer – but I’m going to have it after I draw something. Yeah!” The beer satisfies you short-term by releasing hormones in your brain that make you happy. By delaying this gratification with an aim, you are training your brain to expect the reward of beer after drawing. By doing this enough, soon the thought of drawing is enough to get your brain releasing “the good stuff” (dopamine, serotonin, etc.). Eventually, artistic fulfilment is [intrinsic] reward enough and you find you won’t even need the beer! But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

Another great way is Emulation. Emulation is defined as “the need or desire to equal or exceed others.” Being in competition with another person – preferably at or around your level – is an excellent way to motivate you (and foster a great friendship). I’ll use an example from my own life, with a friend of mine, who we’ll call Timmy.

Timmy and I first bonded over a love of Pokémon. In this video game, you train Pokémon (by battling other Pokémon) to level up (gain power) to a max level of 100. He and I had compatible games and started battling. He won. A lot. Our Pokémon at the time were only about level 60, so there was room for growth. I would train mine to higher levels, and then he his, and the balance shifted back and forth until our Pokémon reached level 100. At max level, he still won more than I did. I wanted more power! So I did some research. Turns out, there is a training technique called EV training which fosters more efficient Pokémon. I employed it, and started winning every match. He, incensed, learned about EV training and the balance began swinging again. I started learning about more techniques: natures, items, breeding, egg moves, move tutors, IVs…. I learned so much about Pokémon in those two years I am convinced I could write a whole thesis on it without any further research. I got into gruelling habits like defeating the same Pokémon over and over, or just walking back and forth to hatch eggs. I ended up spending 750 hours in a single Pokémon game. Pokémon went from an amusing game to a deep world of infinite possibility, all because Timmy and I emulated each other.

Do you have someone who is interested in the same thing you want to start doing? Get them on board. Make it competitive, or collaborative.

One last thing I promised I’d get to: caving. I am forever a student of William Blake. Some of his writings contrast wildly with typical notions of the world. For one thing, he glorifies “Hell” as an essential part of the human experience. Hell in this case has to do with the body; energy; the fulfilment of passion and desire. If you so inclined, the “Apollo vs. Dionysus” duality might be comparable. One of his short pieces reads:

Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs & flaming hair,
But Desire Gratified
Plants fruits of life & beauty there.

One of his Proverbs of Hell reads:

The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

In this quite interesting article about willpower depletion, two vital pieces of wisdom relate to Blake’s ideas. First, that willpower functions like a muscle that can be worn out. The second is that consuming sugar can replenish your willpower. This seems to suggest that the very thing that spurned the writing of this post in the first place – a date square that I rewarded myself with for writing something else – is really the perfect thing for a willpower drought.

Working the will too hard will result in a burnout. Letting it relax for a while by giving in to a craving can be quite beneficial. Are you trying to quit smoking but it seems like too much? Try having some candy first and see if you can go an extra couple of hours without nicking. I’d love to know if it works. E-mail me!

All of this is to be taken with a grain of salt however: many of these things can themselves become negatively addictive. Awareness, meditation, and listening to your body are key elements to health in general, and particularly in fostering healthy impulses. There was also a mention in that article that the knowledge your willpower can be depleted made your willpower deplete faster. I… I don’t even…. Whatever. Don’t think about it.

I hope some of the things I’ve mentioned here help you get back on your wagon, whatever that may be.

Thanks for reading! I love you❤

-T