Ramblings

I know what face I want from him: wide-eyed interest, eyebrows raised, trying to convey mild alarm, fully engaged. I turn to look, and it’s close; he’s softened it some, no alarm today, but he’s looking. I wait, see if it’ll turn into the gaze from last week: quieter, longer hold, looking like he wants to say something to me, looking like he’s thinking about me, wanting to connect across a public space. He looks away this time. I turn back, continue the story.

It’s a nostalgic feeling, knowing the range of someone’s facial expressions, the distribution and frequency of their appearance. I almost miss the sensation, though it’s not one that I’ve had so explicitly in the past, and I have it now. Even though there nothing to miss it feels like remembrance. Like every time I see a face, it comes with situation after situation of history, feels connected across time even as we’re connecting anew. Reassurance, cement-solid, still.

“She has expensive tastes,” he tells me, and we’re talking about whether he also has expensive tastes, whether he wants them.

I’m sitting on the couch now, thinking about it, and smile as I remember he said the same thing to me months ago, back when we first met. It was in a different context, and I remember it because it was one of the first pieces of information I had.

Funny how things circle around sometimes. Sometimes people say things and they’re the thoughts they’ve been thinking for years, and they matter; sometimes they’re thoughts they had this morning, and sometimes the pattern of those thoughts matter too. Sometimes I read too far into patterns—that’s what I’m doing here, it feels like it’s a connection that’s not important to him. But that’s interesting sometimes too, finding a connection within myself, evaluating whether it feels right for the other person, dismissing it.

I know now that it’ll come up again, this expensive taste idea. I have a good guess at the context.

It’s funny to think back to the then and the now, what I knew and what I know, and that this will be a “then” sometime in the future.

I was filming a lecture and accidentally caught a bit of chatter at the end.

“Soooooooo, can IIIIIIIIIIII, come by, a little bit later?” I’m listening to the recording later, and I squint—that sort of sounds like me. Higher voice, younger than I think of myself—but I know the people who were in the room at the time, and this doesn’t sound like any of them.

“How much is later?” Daniel says on the recording, and I was definitely talking to Daniel, so this is me. I wince internally, rewind and listen to it again with that knowledge.

“Actually, yeah, probab—okay, so—we can do—maybe at like, four.”

“Four?”

“Yeah.”

“In my office?”

“Yeah.”

“Sounds good!”

“Okay, thanks, yeah, there’s a paper due today and everyone’s like—”

And I don’t say anything more from there.

There is such a difference between what was going on in my head at the time and what I can hear myself saying. The “Actually, yeah, probab—okay, so” part especially surprised me: that segment is incredibly quick, rushed, and I don’t recall saying any of it. What was going on in my head was the following: I need to get on this Skype meeting, I’m already two minutes late, how long do I think this meeting will last based on previous meetings, I can’t make Daniel wait too long, when does he usually go home, what are we covering in this meeting, need to make a decision, who will I be in more trouble with if I’m late / skip out early, I need to choose a time, um—.

And the repeated “Yeah” part—I gave this affirmatory answer in the exact same intonation twice in a row. In my memory I have the abstract knowledge that we agreed on the location and time; I have no recollection of how we did so. Those “yeah”s—so much younger, not only in words, but in voice—it’s like it’s another person on the tape. They don’t feel like me. It’s far from the “me” in my head, which grasps onto ideas, not phrasing. It’s closer to the “me” that I write in this blog, where “yeah” and “okay” frequently appear, but the me that I write also has specific catch-phrases that I don’t often use verbally. Who is this person in control of my output, who’s in charge of translating my ideas to others? What are they saying, when the memory I get back is the thoughts I think I express, the other person’s expression and how I feel about their response? Who’s in control of monitoring this output?

It cuts off with “everybody’s like—”, no conclusion. I assume I made a gesture, and he nodded. This is what’s difficult with transcripts; the expressions, the body language, the gestures need to be written, described. Yet the amount of that that can be conveyed in stylized language is astonishing as well.

I listen to what comes out of my mouth, and sometimes it’s beautifully eloquent and I’m surprised, and sometimes the word choices just grate, habits I’ve tried to pull out of my writing coming in full-force through speech.

In my head, the ideas are there, and that’s what I work with—and my internal monologue is filled with incomplete phrases shaped around these ideas. Some people, I expect, have a tighter link between their mind’s language and what they say out loud. Some people probably have looser. Mine is probably somewhat in between, because when I write I know what I sound like, and there’s a closer correspondence to how I write myself and what I hear.

It’s very interesting, the memories that form and the filler phrases. I can pay tighter control to my output when I focus on it, and I can shape what I say by having a context frame (workplace, friends I’m comfortable with, interview). But it seems like within those contexts, the exact words are mostly shaped by habit, and run on their own.

Before a few months ago, I wasn’t very familiar with “thinking” silences. Now I have occasional conversations that have the tone of therapy, with each party taking time to introspect and check what’s going on internally. (What they’re checking on, I have no idea, but whatever it is seems to work.) In therapy conversations there are a lot of long thinking pauses, though the same sorts of pauses take place within normal conversations as well.

What’s been interesting to me is when people think silently, and when people interject paced “um” noises. On the one hand, it’s more elegant when people think silently, and then come out with an eloquent answer. I try to do this sometimes, just wait on a feeling, then express something more coherent.

To my surprise, thinking quietly doesn’t work a lot of time. It turns out that if you’re just sitting there, the other person is going to be guessing at what you’re thinking or think of something to elaborate on. And then they’ll just interject those thoughts right over what you’re thinking! In MOST contexts, I’ve needed to start throwing in “ums” just to keep hold of the speaking role.

This is my personal hypothesis for why the whole “um” phenomenon doesn’t die out—people know they’re not supposed to, but unless you’re in a very specific context in which you have full control of who’s leading the conversation, you really have to do something to make sure other people don’t interrupt. The only instance in my daily life where I’ve noticed that you really just can own the silence is if you’re lecturing and stop to answer a question, where there are strong implied rules about interrupting.

You absolutely have to throw in “ums” or other thinking noises when talking with friends, and I’ve found, to my surprise, that I actually have to throw in a lot of these noises during therapy. Unless there are strong contextual rules about letting people think, it’s just really strange in most contexts to sit there quietly and watch someone else. I remember how awkward waiting felt in the beginning of the year, when I was in a conversation with someone and he took more than five seconds to reply to a question.

Nowadays, I do occasionally have conversations where the established ground rules are that you let someone reason something through. I highly recommend it, because it’s astoundingly freeing. I still feel uneasy about it sometimes, because the other person is really just there staring at you with nothing to do. But if the person actually wants to take the time to do this with you, it’s a fantastic feeling to know that they really do want you to fully try to answer the question they’ve asked, that they want to really know what you think and feel. When I’m on the other side, I’ll occasionally get bored with the silence, but this happens a lot less than I’d expect: most of the time I’m trying to predict what someone’s feeling, understand how what they said fits into my model of what they’re thinking, and try to come up with the direction of the next question. From what I’ve seen when engaging in this type of conversation, the listeners are often very engaged with exactly this type of mind-modeling, and they rarely seem bored. (If they’re the type of person who wants to talk with you like this, they’re often the type of person who’s interested in pouring a lot of energy into understanding others’ minds.)

It’s been lovely having these types of conversations, and it’s surprised me how rare they are. All hail the “ums”, I say—and especially the dynamics where they aren’t necessary :).

[Warning: I didn’t expect this chunk to be epically long, but it is epically long. It is an example of self-therapy as well, where I’m trying to report what is true for me, not necessarily what I think is true of the world. But it’s very stream-of-consciousness, so if this is tiring for you, just skip to the *** at the end :).]

A reoccurring concern that I have is my relationship to arguments and finding / expressing truth. I notice that some of my friends care a lot about reasoning through arguments and trying to find truth in the world, and then they want to spread that truth to others. I don’t have these inclinations—either reasoning to find truth, or wanting to share it—in a decent number of domains where I think I probably would like to.

There are several brands of “I don’t want to think / talk about this” that I subscribe to. (I also feel like there’s something deeper and unifying feeling / fear here, but I haven’t figured out what it is yet.) There is:

  • [low thinking, low arguing] I’m just going to take the opinion of people around me because thinking takes time and effort. (These can be strongly or weakly-held beliefs, but I’m usually pretty open to having these be corrected if someone has strong opposing arguments.)
  • [medium-high thinking, low arguing] I’ve heard a lot of the opposing arguments and I don’t buy them so this is what I’m believing. (These are often moral beliefs, they’re a little more thought-through, and they’re less open to correction.) I’m not arguing it though because I don’t think I can explain my feelings in a way that could convince you, and I don’t want to get into the hassle of trying to understand your world model because I think I’m right. (When thinking about this kind of situation I get a sense of exhaustion, because I know the actual process will be very tiring and I don’t actually care that they agree with me. Additionally, I know that I want to be able to explain arguments well and be corrected and truth-seeking, and the attitude of not-arguing-because-I-think-I’m-right doesn’t seem like it’s working towards that goal, and that conflict is tiring.)
  • [medium-high thinking, high arguing] I have high confidence that I’m right because I’ve done specific training in this and this is the consensus from experts and it really bothers me that you’re being wrong about this, so I’m going to say something and flail about and argue with you. (These instances don’t occur very often, but it turns out I’m a stickler for things like using language that indicates the mind and brain are not the same concept, and grammar, and things I’ve thought a lot about and am sure of and KNOW that I know more than the other person.)

 

  • [what I notice some people doing: actual thinking, high arguing] The expert consensus isn’t actually correct, and if you reason through from first principles you’ll see this is true, but if you just gather evidence from the common channels you’ll subscribe to some common thinking fallacy. (I almost never do this. Oh wait, I may actually do a reasonable amount of this for social protocols, but that doesn’t feel like work, that just feels like something I do naturally.) Then I’m going to convince people of this new argument. (I just don’t do this, even when I’ve thought things through. But I see friends who do this, and I’m envious, because it seems like a more truth-seeking way to be, and I like truth and logic and open-mindedness and properly-analyzed evidence.)

In my behavior, there is one brand of thinking in which I’ll argue with people, and that’s when I’m pretty darn confident I’m right and I’m the expert in the situation and they’re doing something which is deeply annoying to me because it’s not true. But even in that case, I’ll argue with someone to get them to stop doing the triggering thing (the word / phrase they’ll use that will show that they’re wrong gahhhhhh). If they stop doing the triggering behavior, even if they do it just for me and don’t change their minds, then I’ll stop arguing.

So why, if my goal is to try to spread truth (seems like a good goal) aren’t I doing so?

(At this point, I’m going to enter a dialogue with myself. Here goes!)

Me: I don’t actually believe I can convince people of things.

Question-me: Why?

Me: I don’t feel like I have good arguments for things in my head; I’ll have evidence built up over years, but I think I’m bad at marshalling arguments to change people’s minds. I also get confused when I’m talking to people because I try to understand their perspective and then trying to figure out what will convince them gets too complicated.

Question-me: Are you actually bad at convincing people of things?

Me: Well, I don’t try that hard, but right now yes.

Question-me: Why do you want to convince people of things?

Me: If you can convince people, you have actual thoughts that you’re confident of. I want to be confident in my thoughts and assertions. Also, I don’t like being corrected, and if you have true thoughts, well-reasoned, then people can’t correct you because you’re right. Also, I like being considered open-minded by myself and others, and reasoning through things seems like being open-minded. Also, convincing people of things means you’re powerful, and I like feeling powerful. It also means you’re a good speaker and thinker and I want to be considered a good speaker and thinker. That would make me feel older, too, and more sophisticated, and I want that. And smarter. I think you’re smart if you can logically convince people of things. Also it’d be good for the world if the things I was convincing people of would be hurting less people. But I’m not confident that most of the things I believe are the universally good for people. Also I want to know things, I like the feeling of knowing things, it’s like I’m in control, and it reduces all of the blank-confused-scared feeling in my head of not knowing what to do, which I reduce by knowing things. I don’t like feeling scared and not knowing what to do, and it feels like if I can know enough things I can claw my way out of there and people won’t get mad at me for doing the wrong thing, because I did the best thing I could with all of my knowledge.

Question-me: This is interesting. We can either go back to the point of this thread, which was trying to get at why you don’t want to convince / argue with people. Or we can dive into why you want to convince people in the first place, and where that’s led about how not knowing things is going to get you in trouble. I’m interested in both, but curious about the latter, frankly. Why don’t we go there. Tell me more about the blank-scary feeling of not knowing what to do.

Me: When you don’t know what to do, when you don’t know the right action… people get mad. This has happened in the past.

Question-me: Why do people get mad when you don’t know what to do?

Me: Because they thought it through, they figured it out, and I’m being stupid for not having figured it out, and not trying hard enough, and they’re going to think I’m lazy and selfish.

Question-me: Why do people think you’re selfish when you don’t know what to do?

Me: Because then you’re taking a passive role, you’re not figuring it out, you’re just sitting there like a lump and waiting for you to impart information, like a baby fish or bird or something with your mouth open, waiting, helpless, and they’re like figure it out yourself, why are you taking my time and energy and what, I expect better of you.

Question-me: Okay. But I’m still interested in being selfish. Why are you selfish if you don’t know what to do?

Me: It’s like… you’re self-focused. It’s all about you, your needs. YOU want this information, but you’re too lazy to get it, you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re just dumping yourself on others and demanding they help you. You’re this lonely, pathetic thing who doesn’t know stuff, isn’t taking initiative, just complaining and waiting on others.

Question-me: Okay. Are all people who don’t know what to do selfish?

Me: No. The thing is that there’s a lot of people who are trying who don’t know things, but who are learning as fast as they can. They’re still kind of selfish, because they’re taking others’ time, but they’re good, they’re learning.

Question-me: Can you be good if you’re not learning? And you don’t know stuff?

Me:  Um. I guess… if you don’t need to know stuff? Then you can still be good? But you need to be doing something else… enjoying life counts. You need to be doing something. Something positive, good.

Question-me: If someone were to just sit somewhere, and not be thinking or learning and not know things, could they be good?

Me: …Um, not really? Then they’re neutral. If they’re not thinking anything, or appreciating anything or something. If they’re appreciating things that’s okay. If they’re sad… no, then they’re still doing something, they’re still trying, they’re doing something active, then… then I guess maybe they’re good?

Question-me: Are they good? Is someone who’s just being sad and not thinking or learning and not knowing things good?

Me: …I …don’t know. Then they’re sad. And I don’t want them to be sad—if they’re actively sad, then they can be actively happy, and can learn things, and I want them to learn things, and I want to make them feel better. I want to do something to make them feel better so they can be happy and learn and grow, which is beautiful, it’s really beautiful when people have the freedom to learn things, that’s one of my—maybe my favorite—favorite parts of being human, the hope that we can grow and learn and become and learn and be better, better, better. I don’t want other people to have my thoughts which are wrong in their head, and I want other people to not hurt or oppress others, that’s bad, they should have their own thoughts and not inflict them on others if it’s going to be bad for them, I don’t want to make people feel bad with what I say, I want people do think what’s good for them and what will help make them happy as long as it helps makes the people around them happy too. I think it’s irresponsible to think thoughts about not trying, because then you make the other people around you think it’s okay to not try, and it’s never okay not to try, you always have to try, trying is really really important it’s what makes us human it’s what is beautiful about us I want people to try and have the opportunity to try and have the encouragement to try and not get told not to or that it’s not important.

Question-me: Why is trying important?

Me: It makes people people. It makes them individuals, it’s what gives people agency. Otherwise we’re just slaves to the impulses inside our heads, doing the same dumb things over and over when we can be better, can discover new things, do new patterns. I desperately don’t want to do what every single other person before me did, even though I know I’m mostly going to because I’m human, but I want to do something different, want to contribute something besides the same thoughts that everyone has over and over and over. And I can do that because the stimuli are different so even if you feed the stimuli into the same system the output is going to be different, but you can’t even do that if you aren’t trying, you’re not reaching—I don’t feel like a system, then, no, different analogy, I feel like you can’t just sit there and let things happen and hope you aren’t the same boring person who has terrible biases because humans have terrible biases unless they’re checked with open-mindedness and learning and willing to be wrong and… oh. I guess the next question is: is the reason you’re a terrible person if you’re not learning that you have terrible human-biases and you fall into complaining habits and no one likes you because you’re not a person who can think and overcome default human behavior? Um, that sentence didn’t go where I thought it’d go…

Question-me: Let’s check the premises. Is the default human, without trying, a terrible person?

Me: …Seems like that’s my consensus, yeah.

Question-me: All right. Does trying make you not a terrible person?

Me: You can still be a terrible person if you’re trying in the wrong way. You’re still a person though. You’re not some non-player character in a video game following base urges.

Question me: Are most people NPCs in real life?

Me: Noooooooo… I can’t convince people of things though. I can’t convince the NPCs because they don’t want to be convinced, and I can’t convince the smart people because I don’t have good arguments. A lot of people don’t want to be convinced though. Not the ones I’m interacting with, but a lot of the weariness-hopeless feeling about explaining things comes from the fact that most people don’t want to be convinced. And then for smart people I just feel bad about myself because I can’t do arguments… and I know you’re going to ask about what the “badness” feels like, and it’s, like, loss and abandonment and hopeless. Like, like… the abandonment, that’s that people were supposed to help me know stuff, like they were supposed to give me arguments in this blank-loss of a landscape where I can’t find anything and everything’s blurry and unclear, other people were supposed to give me threads to hang onto so that I can convince other people, I don’t want to do this on my own, all my arguments come from other people why can’t I pull their arguments here bring them out I don’t know what to do help me. Actually, if there are people around when I need to argue something, I’ll often try to call them over at this point and make them explain. And that’s always a huge relief, that they’re going to make that blankness go away, for me and the other person, me because even though I know the argument (otherwise I wouldn’t believe the conclusion) when I feel that blankness I get scared that I really shouldn’t be convinced of the conclusion, that I’m wrong, or, no, that I don’t know anything right, and if I don’t know anything even though I’ve spent the time such that I should that’s kind of pathetic and indicates that I’m not smart and can’t learn (which is really sad and hurtful because learning is the best thing you can do and makes everyone better, and if I can’t do that then there’s no hope for anything better) and if I don’t know anything right then I haven’t been trying or open-minded or learning.

Question-me: All right. So the reason you don’t try to convince people of things is because when you fail, you get this scary blankness which makes you feel like you don’t know things, and not knowing things makes you feel like you’re not a person who learns, and the best way to be a person is to learn things and grow and be beautiful… and how does this integrate with trying?

Me: Trying, and having goals, is what makes people people. They’re NPCs otherwise, no agency, and also indistinguishable from each other. They have the same biases, boring biases, same ways of thinking. Trying is what makes people interesting. Trying well—such that you get results—is the opposite of the scary blankness. It’s when things come out of your mouth and they mean something, they’re something new. Trying and learning are the same sort of goodness. I don’t like the scary blankness because it’s an indication that I haven’t been trying, or that I haven’t been trying well. I want to try all the time, but I like trying well, trying well is good. Other people should also try as a default—that’s all we can really ask of ourselves since we live in a complicated world.

So maybe… maybe if the scary blankness is just an indication that I haven’t been trying… maybe it’s okay to have the scary blankness? What if, what if I had the scary blankness, wasn’t going to come up with a convincing argument, and I knew that despite running into that scary blankness I wasn’t going to go look up a good argument for next time, I wasn’t going to fix the problem. Because that’s what happens. I feel like there’s too many things I need to get good arguments for, and it’s overwhelming and I feel like I can’t do it, and besides the process of saying good arguments when I have them feels utterly magical, like I’ll suddenly spew out something eloquent and I’ll be like: where did that come from? I didn’t practice that. So because I feel like I can’t prepare, and that success comes from kind of magical exposure-over-time, I just have this knee-jerk fear / loss / abandonment / guilt / defensive when I run into a blank space because I don’t know what to do and I don’t believe it’s going to get better in the future.

Question-me: What would make you feel like more of a person, in this context?

Me: Part of it’s just that I want to have better arguments available. But I feel like I can’t do that because there are too many possible arguments, and I get stuck in this overwhelmed feeling and don’t end up starting anything at all. I could just start thinking about things when they occur, with no higher-level policy that says “you need to think about everything that could possibly come up, like for a test in life” and thus avoid everything. In fact… I think, I think that’s the solution. I seem to have this overwhelmed feeling and not know what to do, but if I don’t think of the whole overarching plan, this whole problem as one problem that needs to be tackled at once, or even one whole problem… maybe a bunch of really tiny smaller problems, like—ooh, I’m going to be curious about this one thing, let me look it up—instead of—I NEED TO KNOW ALL THE THINGS IN THIS AREA, NOW. Actually, that’d probably help me a lot in research, too, because I get overwhelmed with not knowing everything about reinforcement learning, so I kind of refuse to get started on it until I have the time to read everything about it, but I never have that much time, so I never start, because it’s this massive, massive problem that I feel like I need to tackle from all sides, but really it helps much more, and I actually do things, when things are little problems and I get satisfaction from figuring one tiny small thing out. And a way to help me think of things as little tiny small problems is not to put them all under a “reinforcement learning” or “learning to argue” heading, but realize that everything I learn fits under multiple headings, and will integrate with lots of things, so they really are little tiny independent little modules. So if I’m curious about something, I can go learn about the little curious thing, instead of putting it on these massive lists I have where things just keep on building and I do none of them. So, like, the arguing thing will get better because I’ll collect little tiny bits of knowledge, and I’ll want to share them because they’re little tiny bits of knowledge, not perfect bundles of knowledge that describe everything everyone could possibly need to know about the area or could contradict or argue with, all of the edge cases, it could just be: oh, look, lots of little tiny bits of knowledge, and oh look, I can combine them in these ways in an argument right in front of you! Then I’d get to learn while convincing people, and I’d be happy to get corrected because they’re little bits I’m putting together in the moment, not vast stores that I have to remember correctly and marshal because others told me them, which means I get to be open-minded, and I get to share interesting little tidbits that I was curious about in the first place.

So, so, so, wow, okay, so when I see the scary blankness because I don’t know the right answer to the argument or rather the entire whole all-edge-cases no-possible-argument-back argument, then I can think of it not as a scary blankness but rather that I have a bunch of tiny bits of interesting things that I can turn into an argument, all floating around this space. And it doesn’t actually feel okay to fill this space… I’d rather just leave it blank, actually, and have arguments not generate the blank space, just lots of little interesting curious things. Because that’s kind of how arguments are, people digging around for lots of little curious things and being like: this is what I know, this is my argument, and then I can throw other things that I know, and see if we can change the argument. Because then I’m not convincing people, then we’re collaboratively making something, and I really don’t like arguing with people but it’s fun to give people pieces that I find interesting. Hm, interesting, seems like I don’t like thinking about it as a collaborative project, because then I’m going to start feeling guilty about whether I’m contributing enough and it’s equal… works best, tastes aesthetically good, to think of both of us contributing tiny pieces, like it’s fun. I wonder if the other person needs to be having fun for this to feel good to me. I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to see.

Question-me: Good :). One thing I wanted to check in on, to summarize, is how this relates to trying and learning making people people?

Me: Yeah, I think this feels true to me. I guess when I feel like this is threatened—like I’m taking something as evidence that I’m not trying and learning—I get scared. I think it’d be good to try to notice this feeling when it happens—that lost, blank feeling, like I’m not a person, like I don’t have hope, that I’m not being beautiful and growing and special and held and overcoming—and maybe try to notice it, break it down, see what’s going on. You can’t just dismiss the feeling, because it’s connected to truth in some way—I legitimately am bad at arguing with people and coming up with convincing arguments—but maybe find a way to make trying less scary. I’m really pleased with how this has gone.

Question-me: So how has this gone?

Me: Weirdly circular. I feel like I figured out a solution pretty quickly near the end, and that a lot of the stuff in the beginning was irrelevant, and not the problem: the problem being that I felt overwhelmed and needed to break things into smaller chunks. But I actually don’t think that’s the case—I think there’s value to the argument that you have to acknowledge each hidden emotion as it comes along, and that by uncovering that emotion you can get at something that’s behind or next to it, and then you keep on going until you find something that’s moveable. Actually, I really don’t think I could have come up with a convincing solution just given the feeling “I feel overwhelmed”. I feel like a lot of it, especially the learning stuff, needed to be acknowledged. The process feels long, I guess. I’m supposed to be (I’ve assigned it to myself as homework) trying this process in my head rather than in writing, but I get myself lost in a lot of the scary blankness where I feel like I can’t hold onto anything when I do it in my head. On the other hand, when I do it in my head I can get strong senses of relief or movement much more than when doing it on paper. Certainly an interesting exercise, and this problem is one I’ve been uncomfortable with for a while, and I’m really glad I found a solution that I can try out and iterate on. It’ll probably need some iteration, but there’s hope here I didn’t have before. Good job, me and question-me!

[*** Way to make it through, guys! Minds are a really weird place… this is a new technique I’m learning, where you set up a gentle questioner and try to figure out what’s going on in your head. I have a hard time with it because you both have to be the questioner and the questionee, and you constantly have to meta-monitor whether the thoughts are getting too circular or bogged-down, so that you continue moving places and uncovering things. It’s certainly interesting though. The practice is called “Focusing”, invented by Dr. Eugene Gendlin, and it’s something that’s taught at Rationality Camp. I haven’t brought it up much because it’s a technique that I was selectively bad at at Rationality Camp… it turns out I’m very good at repressing and reframing emotions, so that I have a hard time being open, friendly, and noticing negative emotions when they arise, which is a lot of what this is about :). I also don’t quite want to bring up the practice here because I’m not doing it in the maximally-skilled way, but as long as we all understand that I’m doing this as a novice, then I think it’s all right :). Book is here.)

Most people smile when you make eye contact with them in a group conversation. I look over, and he nods at me again. Not a stud-nod, chin jerking up—and those I laugh at, almost every time—but a serious nod, quick, eyes still.

I laugh anyway. “So much nodding!”

He tilts his head, finally a twist of a smile. “It’s acknowledgment. It’s what you do.”

“I know, but…”

We go back to looking at the fireworks. There’s too much fog to see the ones in San Francisco from here, but you can see dozens of illicit explosions and booms coloring the night, people putting on displays for their neighbors, sparks against the normal backdrop of streetlamps and nightlife.

There’s a spider in the bathtub. I like spiders—they eat bugs, they generally stay in corners and away from me, and it feels rebellious and good to like them. I think this one’s stuck, the sides of the tub too smooth to climb. I got one out a few days ago, but I wish they wouldn’t fall in.

I prod at it, try to get it on a piece of toilet paper, fail and watch it for a bit longer. I turn on the water on my side of the tub, checking up on it occasionally.

The next day it seems to have made some sort of web across the two sides of the tub, because it’s certainly hanging in midair. If it can do that, why isn’t it climbing out? It’s not safe here. I aim a little bit of water to demonstrate.

Silly little thoughts. I get out of the shower, watch myself run a thumb along a smooth surface in my room, watch the play of blue light on a table. I find many silly little thoughts interesting, these days.

It’s Pride, and the subway to San Francisco is crowded. Everyone’s close, no room to the side, and I’m gripping the rail above me, a foot behind two boys doing the same. They’ve boxed themselves in. Arms at right angles upwards; creating a space just the two of them.

The blond one—young? Middle school? High school— gets a smile in his eyes, licks the arm of the boy in front of him. Dark-haired boy, pimples, jerks away, rolls his eyes, and the blond one smiles with his mouth. Laughs down into the space between them.

Boys boxed in a crowded car, coming together.

She’s carding her fingers through my hair.

“Ooh, new sensation,” I say, eyes closed. “Like you’re gathering. Flowing river. But feels like gathering, haven’t felt that before.”

“Really?” She says. I imagine she’s stroked people’s hair before, and most people are used to it. It’s not a situation I’ve ever found myself in, though, and the fast way she’s drawing her fingers through is evoking consistent, vivid imagery.

“Mmm.”

I met someone who is capable of—and executes on a daily basis—predictive mapping of conversations. She thinks several steps ahead of where a conversation will go and tries to steer it so that it leads to positive place.

I am deeply, deeply envious and impressed. (I don’t have clear enough models or enough processing power to do this during conversations, but would love to be able to do so. She says eye contact is extremely distracting though, and she can’t do nearly as many steps when she’s making eye contact (too much information) so I guess that we can’t live the ideal :)).

He’s taking control of the conversation, and I don’t like it. I laugh a bit, raise my eyebrows, have an amused, curious, puzzled look, starrrrrreeeeeee and hold, eye contact, one, two, three.

Then I comply with his request for information, friendly.

As soon as I’m done, I demand an on-the-spot-analysis back, curious to see what he’ll do.

He rolls with it; thinks about it and delivers a good reply. I figure he’s all right [he backed down]:  I can stay here.

“…And that’s everything I have logged under the heading of ‘therapy’,” he finishes, and I grin, amused at the reveal of his strategy.

“When you don’t know what to say, you just say anything you know that’s related?” It’s not a bad strategy, for him. He knows lots of things, and lots of interesting things, and gets so enthusiastic about what he’s learned that you can’t help but get drawn in.

His other strategy of engaging is even better, which is to talk about anything he finds fascinating in the moment, especially research.

“Do you just go around the world and research questions pop into your head?”

He nods, seriously.

“Aren’t there a ton of them?”

He sighs. “And there’s not enough time for all of them.”

It’s lovely, and it’s great talking with him, always swept up in the cool idea that’s captured him at the time, constant energy, constant interest.

Kind of my idealized head-canon scientist, popped up in a real-live person who has a life and wide-eyed curiosity and fun.

And I think that’s all for the night :). I’m off to Rationality Camp x2 on Thursday, and expect it to be exhausting and wonderful. Hope you all have excellent weeks, and thanks as always for reading :).

Monica

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