Sunday, December 12, 2010

Seasonal Affective

I found a link to this article waiting for me in my inbox a few mornings ago. "Thinking about you," the message said.

"Sad as Hell." It's a roundabout review of a Gary Shteyngart novel written in the style of a Pitchfork Media critique -- the book itself doesn't get so much as a mention until the ninth paragraph. It's really an essay about Internet generation malaise dressed up as a review of a book about Internet generation malaise. Some excerpts: 

I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both “keep up” with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM....

This anxiety is about more than failing to keep up with a serialized source, though. It’s also about the primitive pleasure of constant and arbitrary stimulation. That’s why the Facebook newsfeed is no longer shown chronologically. Refresh Facebook ten times and the status updates rearrange themselves in nonsensical, anachronistic patterns. You don’t refresh Facebook to follow a narrative, you refresh to register a change—not to read but to see.

And it’s losing track of this distinction—between reading and seeing—that’s so shameful. It’s like being demoted from the category of thinking, caring human to a sort of rat that doesn’t know why he needs to tap that button, just that he does. I deleted Twitter and Tumblr off my phone about a month ago. For a few weeks, I felt empowered, proactive, “refreshed.” But addicts are sneaky! Soon I was circumnavigating my own artificial restrictions, checking via Safari....

It’s hard not to think “death drive” every time I go on the internet. Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.

It reminded me of my first time reading a similar piece about the hikikomori phenomenon in Adbusters last winter. After finishing "Private Worlds" I shut my browser and took a few minutes to allow it to sink in. Then I threw on some shoes and a coat and went outside by myself. It was one two in the morning and maybe fifteen degrees. My steps took me away from the street lamps, down the hill, and into the park -- fifteen minutes, wading through half a mile of snow, to stand by myself in the middle of the woods and let the cold chew at me.

I did the same thing upon finishing "Sad as Hell." It was eleven in the morning and just below freezing, but sufficiently cold and windy to freeze the feeling from my fingers and set my ears to burning and aching. I stood on the river bank and allowed myself to feel it.


The most obvious answer is probably the most correct. I wanted to feel something that was real -- and the cold is as real as it comes. Reality is taxing and unpleasant. The Earth was not designed with human beings in mind. Scarcity, discomfort, disappointment, and longing are what you pay for the privilege of being alive, being on Earth. The digital world offers such a compelling alternative to the chillier, less user-friendly one. Unlike Earth, the Internet was designed for us, and is infinitely more accommodating. Socialization without the dashed expectations and drama attached to intimacy. Travel without expense or effort. Excitement without exertion. Engagement without effort. It is hard not to be consumed by it. The wired human starts thinking of himself less as an organism and more of an abstraction; a mind existing within the network. (I speak from experience: throughout my teenage years I felt my Internet handle was my real name and my online identity my true self. If memory serves, the time that this began to change corresponds with the period when my brain's THC receptors first became active.)

It's great, it's fun, it hits the brain like a narcotic -- but none of it is real. It's not cold enough to be real.
Ever since an incident that occurred in March 2007, I have had a penchant -- even a sort of reverence for the cold. A couple of buddies and I went on a camping trip somewhere in the ten-thousand mile (by my reckoning) wasteland between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. None of us were expecting or really prepared for a cold snap or the two feet of snow on the ground. If it weren't for Greg B. and his Eagle Scout wisdom and skills, all five of us might have died. On the second night, I came pretty close when my foot got soaked. (Did I step in a creek? I don't remember.) It was anywhere between five and minus five degrees Fahrenheit after the sun went down. My foot was bleeding heat. I removed my boot and sock, set them by the campfire to dry, and tried to warm my foot back up, but it was no use. The air was simply too cold. My foot went totally numb up to the ankle. The cold spread up my leg, across my torso, and through my other limbs. No matter what I did, I couldn't get warm again, couldn't stop losing heat.

I went into shock. My mind partially shut down and I staggered, as though sleepwalking, back to the tent, where I agonizingly shed my outer layers and buried myself in a sleeping bag and a blanket. For the next twenty minutes, before the pocket of bio-heat formed within my insulted cavity and my perceptions reverted to normal, I was convinced I was going to die. All panic ceased. Every thoughts about the past and future was eradicated; nothing existed beyond this remote and icy now. I was here, and here was all that there was. I was here and I was freezing to death. And I was perfectly okay with that. If it had to be, then what could I do but abide it?

That night was one of the most seminal experiences of the last decade of my life. Reflecting on it afterward, I felt as though I had somehow come upon a crucial discovery, but the ran into the oldest problem of the mystic: the state of mind that pushed me towards the threshold of revelation precluded my capacity to recall and articulate precisely what I found there. But nevertheless, I have always looked forward to winter since then, and make a point of going out into the cold on a regular basis as a sort of spiritual observance.
But we were talking about something else before, weren't we?

If reading either of those articles up there hit a little too close to home or put you in a crestfallen spirit, I have an experiment you could try. It might help.

Next Friday night, don't make any plans. If you already have some made, go ahead and cancel them. Wait until after midnight, then shut off your phone and power down your computer. Dress warmly, but don't insulate yourself fully: you don't want to be overexposed, but is important that you feel some appreciable measure of discomfort. Forgo that extra layer, leave those skiing socks in the drawer, keep the scarf on its hanger. Empty your pockets; all you need are your car key and driver's license. Nothing else.

Now. Get in your car and drive as far as necessary to find a forest spanning at least two square miles. (If you don't have a car, get a cab, ride a bike, take a train, twist a friend's arm into dropping you off.) Leave the car on the shoulder and and go inside. Don't worry; your eyes will adjust to the darkness before long, and it won't even be necessary if there is snow on the ground. Walk for at least fifteen minutes; the farther, the better. Walk until you cannot see any artificial light or hear any traffic in the distance. Find a spot that comes as close to complete darkness and total silence as the setting allows.

Now stop.


Don't speak. Don't even whisper, not even to yourself. Stand, listen, and wait.

Wait until your toes start losing feeling and the wind blasts your face raw. Wait until it feels like needles are pressing into your fingertips and your lips dry and crack. Wait until you are so bored from standing around and doing nothing, from lack of conversation and companionship, and from experiencing no pleasurable or distracting stimulation of any kind that you become half-crazed to march back to the car, turn up the heat, crank the radio, and drive home to thaw under a blanket with a MacBook in your lap, the TV set to "surf," and a phone pressed to your ear as you tell your girlfriend on the line what you just did and how silly it was, and what on earth could have possessed you to think it might be a fun thing to try, anyhow?

Keep waiting.

Count backwards from one thousand.

(This is not mediation, mind you. To mediate is to subdue the mind and drift along with the flow of things. What you are doing now is standing against the flow, feeling it push against you, but not letting it carry you off.)

Mind the unfurling of your thoughts; the inward shrinking and sharpening of your awareness. Feel the stinging cold bring your animal body to the forefront of your human awareness; appreciate the full width of the division between yourself and the external. There is only you and the incommunicative, unmovable silence and cold. And this is the true face of things. This is what remains when the lights go out and the wheels stop turning; when the batteries die, the cords are cut, and the chatter ceases. This is a distilled, terrestrial sampling of what's above the rooftops and radio towers, suffused throughout some 845,942,640,970,650 miles (at least) of existence beyond civilization, beyond Earth, beyond Facebook and TMZ. It is a dim, blurry glimpse of the heat death at the final destination of All That Is.

What could be more true than this?

This is Reality -- the great and awful thing from which we go to such deliberate lengths to insulate ourselves. Cold, darkness, and silence are the ineluctable facts of The Human Situation. They are the canvas upon which all other objects of existence are superimposed. To stand out alone in them, beholden to them, isolated within them, is to become closer to what you really are. When you peel away all the piddling little games of the mind -- abandon abstraction and distraction, forget what you think you are and what others say you are, lose sight of your own image, forbid yourself the luxury of vanity, toys, boasts, titles, and trifles -- this is you are left with. This is the real you; the one that gets buried beneath the bullshit. If you are religious (lord knows I'm not), this might be closer to the you that will stand alone before the Father on the Last Day.
I usually turn around after an hour or so, retracing my steps back to the electrically-lit street, back up the hill, and into a temperature controlled building to sit down, warm up, and lose some of myself again through idle web browsing, email, video games, and silly YouTube shorts that don't really amount to anything but keep my mind where it is most at ease. And I am comfortable and content.

We all have to come out of the cold sometime.

Every winter I find that I take more walks. I stay out longer. There a few obvious guesses as to why this is, but for now I will only cite the most optimistic of them: I go to remind myself, so I am less inclined to take all the wondrous things of civilization for granted, and to remind myself that everything on the computer monitor, television screen, and radio speakers are ultimately just pretend.

I think that I am all the happier for it.


  1. As a person who considers himself very spiritual (and a little religious) I have always looked forward to winter. Whether I'm in the woods or a deserted neighborhood on a snowy night the serenity of a silent snow-scape is purely unmatched. It's the kind of quiet that seems wholly natural, like you're sitting on the edge of creation. It's at these times that I don't think I've ever felt more alone in the world than at these times, and I have never enjoyed being alone more.

    I have experienced something close to the cold you described. Early in my college days I went on a dormitory sponsored snow camping trip. This was to be a fair ways up the state's tallest peak (which tops out at over 14,000 feet). The day was perfect. So sunny and warm you barely needed a coat. And the night was completely cloudless, laying out the universe's lights in one of the most spectacular displays I've ever seen.

    This is also meant it was freezing. As you tend to do camping I went to bed no later than 9:00 as it was cold and I was tired. Even sharing my tent with another guy I was miserable. I never got to sleep as I was constantly shifting around trying to generate some heat in my little sleeping bag. And while I never felt my life was in danger, I did sheepishly worry I might wake-up with frostbite. From bedtime until dawn I suffered silently, probably almost for ten hours. I don't think I have ever spent that much time alone with myself all at once, even during my solo road trips.

    Incidentally, the guy I was sharing the tent with I barely knew at the time. Now he's my best friend. I doubt any of that actually means anything but I find it interesting.

  2. I am not trying that up here in Maine.

  3. Another suggestion: Enlist.

    Except once you do you'll REALLY get the sense for how meaningless, trivial, stupid and outmoded most of our culture is, which makes it difficult to assimilate back when your tour is done. ;[

  4. Hm. Well, the maximum age to join the army is apparently 42 now. Good to know the option is on the table...

  5. Do it right. Do it Marine Corps. (Max age 35, I do believe.)