Freedom and constraints

I.

Since I left Chicago in August, I’ve been living a somewhat nomadic life. I don’t have any long-term commitments and I have a remote job that I can do from anywhere with an internet connection.

And I love it. I love freedom. It feels amazing.

But there are pangs of something that I feel, a feeling I can’t quite describe, a feeling of wanting to be constrained. And I’ve been trying to wrestle with why I feel this way, of why despite enjoying traveling so much, I have an urge to restrict my freedom.

Here’s what I think: freedom induces anxiety because it raises choices and choices have existential implications. So when confronted with freedom, we (subconsciously) look for ways to eliminate it.

II.

What’s so great about a mortgage?

There are the obvious financial reasons and the ability to control your property. But I think there’s another psychological reason: a mortgage gives you an arbitrary goal, a way or ordering your life and making decisions.

The benefit of the mortgage is its long duration and high cost, which serve as both an organizing principle for life and a defense against the anxiety of freedom.

Want to take a new job? Well, sure, if I can still pay the mortgage.

Want to move? You can’t because you have this mortgage.

Of course people can sell their houses and move. The point isn’t that a mortgage ties you permanently to a place or situation, but that it alleviates the daily questioning of where you live.

It raises the threshold for considering a move — when you’re a nomad, you can move on any whim but when you have a mortgage, the threshold is much higher — you can move because you get a new job offer or to be closer to family or whatever, but you’re not just going to book a cheap fare to Buenos Aires and live there for a few months because you feel like it.

The defense against anxiety is key I think — life is much easier if you don’t question your purpose, if you have a shorthand rubric for every decision. Having children probably works in this way too, and I don’t mean to say that any of this is negative — people with children should probably organize their lives around the health and wellbeing of their children and if I have children I will almost certainly not be flying around the world on a whim.

III.

When I lived in Chicago and I was studying/practicing comedy, I had an organizing goal for my life: to get better at comedy, to get cast in shows, to be successful.

When I switched from theater to film, there was a similar organizing goal: to make films.

Insomuch as Chicago was the best place for me to do those things or provided the best opportunity to do those things, it was easy to stay in Chicago, even when I felt like leaving or the winters were long and freezing, or when I was just feeling wanderlust. Sure, I was unhappy at times (who isn’t?), but I had a reason to stay — to move on a whim would take me farther from my goals.

And whatever suffering I felt was easier to bear, knowing that it was in service of a longer-term goal. The structure was secure as long as I didn’t question the organizing goal for being in Chicago (studying comedy).

Once I quit performing, I went through a crisis where I had to question everything (and mourn the loss of a part of me) before settling on a new goal: making movies, which brought an organizing structure back to my life.

During the transition, I toyed with the idea of moving but it was clear that the network I had built in Chicago, combined with cheap rents, made it much easier to make movies in Chicago.

Once I made a feature film, the calculus changed. I no longer had an organizing reason for staying in Chicago. Yes, I still want to make feature films and yes, it’s still easier to do that in Chicago than it is in New York or wherever (because I have the local knowledge and contacts in Chicago and because rent is so damn cheap), but because I want to move up a budget level, the calculus is different.

The model of “work two years and save, then make an ultra-low-budget film” is not what I want anymore. Once I decided that the majority of the budget for my next project will come from investors, there’s no need to keep rent ultra-low to save as much as possible and high-rent cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are now viable places to live.

IV.

It makes sense that we would have defenses against constantly questioning our life situation. I mean, it’s probably not great to wake up every day of your life asking yourself the question “is this where I should live? is this the right career for me? is this my best life?”.

If you constantly question everything and never commit to anything, you’ll end up living in a kind of high-anxiety state of paralysis.

Completing meaningful, long-term projects like raising children or starting a company or creating a political movement or changing the culture — these all require a lot of commitment and a lot of saying no.

On the other hand, if you never question anything and just copy whatever your friends are doing, you’re liable to get stuck in a life that you don’t want.

So I think it’s safe to say that there’s an optimal mix of questioning vs. living, of commitment (and its attendant constraints) and reorganizing.

The trick I think, is to choose constraints and commitments consciously1, with regular checkpoints or a regular framework for question things and considering a reorganization of life.

For me, it seems to come about every ten years, but I wonder if I should be more deliberate in how I approach this whole question, by setting up an arbitrary time for questioning, like the last week of the year.


  1. Yes, I recognize that this is a massive luxury for privileged people 

Transgressive behavior: when is it celebrated and when is it punished by power?

I’ve been researching the life of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun. She lived most of her life dressed as (and passing for) a man. One thing in the story that has always bewildered me is why the Pope (Urban VIII for you Popeheads) would (after 30 or so years living as a man) grant her permission to continue living as a man.

The answer is complicated and goes into the way sexuality and gender were viewed in the 1600s1, but this passage from Eva Mendieta’s In Search of Catalina de Erauso, highlights something interesting:

First, we have already mentioned the importance of her virginity, verified by church authorities. This quality, which implies asexuality, was considered by society to be admirable and virtuous.

In addition, despite the fact that Erauso departed from the social norms, she demonstrated respect for and submission to both ecclesiastical and military institutional authorities; therefore her transgression neither challenged nor threatened the status quo.

In Search of Catalina de Erauso (171)

Which reminded me of TLP on Solzhenitsyn:

You keep your job at McDonalds and the system gets another data point confirming it is right. I hope the parallel between this and anything written by Solzhenitsyn is immediately obvious, if not, read anything by Solzhenitsyn. The Matrix doesn’t need you, but it will offer you a free pass if you help get the other batteries in line.

Transgressive behavior may not only be tolerated but rewarded or celebrated, if it fits into the narrative of the powerful or supports their power.

I think that if Erauso had used her position of celebrity to advance the power of women or done anything else to upset the existing military-state-church power structures, then the response to her lifestyle choices would have been much different.


  1. See Mendieta’s book for a much more robust discussion of the various factors at play. 

You get nothing but the wider world

I went to the El Caserio Museo Igartubeiti yesterday in Gipuzcoa, Spain, as I traverse the Basque Country in Spain and France doing some exploratory research for a screenplay.

In much of my reading and research, people have noted that the Basques have always been adventurers and explorers — they’ve fanned out around the world and were eager to move to the Americas and the US.

I’ve been wondering about why this is, I mean why would some cultures be more eager to move thousands of miles away from home — it’s hard enough now, but imagine doing that in 1620 when you had never been on a boat (if you lived inland, many Basques were incredible sailors and shipbuilders) and maybe had never even seen the sea and certainly hadn’t been on a long boat voyage or seen any other country or culture apart from your own.

You’d have to be pretty… crazy. Or brave. Or, maybe it was because of their inheritance laws!

I found out that they had a system where the oldest son (or daughter! imagine that!) received the majority of the inheritance. For a non-wealthy family, that would mean the land (e.g. el caserio).

So basically, one child gets the cider press and the surrounding land. The rest of the children get token items and some words of encouragement and they set off on their own, which would seem to encourage high-risk, adventurous travels and endeavors and Wiki agrees:

In contrast to surrounding regions, ancient Basque inheritance patterns, recognised in the fueros, favoured survival of the unity of inherited land holdings. In a kind of primogeniture, these usually were inherited by the eldest male or female child. As in other cultures, the fate of other family members depended on the assets of a family: wealthy Basque families tended to provide for all children in some way, while less-affluent families may have had only one asset to provide to one child.

However, this heir often provided for the rest of the family (unlike in England, with strict primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited everything and often did not provide for others).

Even though they were provided for in some way, younger siblings had to make much of their living by other means. Before the advent of industrialisation, this system resulted in the emigration of many rural Basques to Spain, France or the Americas.

Harsh by modern standards, this custom resulted in a great many enterprising figures of Basque origin who went into the world to earn their way, from Spanish conquistadors such as Lope de Aguirre and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, to explorers, missionaries and saints of the Catholic Church, such as Francis Xavier.

Interesting that the English had a similar system of inheritance and also a penchant for sailing around the world and mucking things up.

Two competing revolts

From gwern’s 2018 news:

I don’t know how many blue-collar workers they will put out of work—even if software is solved, the robotic hardware is still expensive! But factories will be salivating over them, I’m sure. (The future of self-driving cars is in considerably more doubt.)

A standard-issue minimum-wage Homo sapiens worker-unit has a lot of advantages. I expect there will be a lot of blue-collar jobs for a long time to come, for those who want them. But they’ll be increasingly crummy jobs. This will make a lot of people unhappy.

I think of Turchin’s ‘elite overproduction’ concept—how much of political strife now is simply that we’ve overeducated so many people in degrees that were almost entirely signaling-based and not of intrinsic value in the real world and there were no slots available for them and now their expectations & lack of useful skills are colliding with reality?

In political science, they say revolutions happen not when things are going badly, but when things are going not as well as everyone expected.

My speculative view is that there will be (or currently are) two competing revolts: one from the aspirational 14% and one from the working class.

Both will face disruption from automation. Both will be angry about a promised future that does not exist: the manufacturing jobs won’t be there anymore, but neither will the guaranteed high-wage jobs promised to college graduates.

I don’t think we have a way of talking about this really, or finding solutions to it that work for most of society. Something like the UBI can ameliorate the personal finance aspects of the disruption, but to me, that just feels like throwing money at the problem.

People want meaning and status through their work; they want to feel like they are important and making a contribution. Just giving people money doesn’t solve that.

AI is really funny, and maybe, creative

I can’t stop laughing at the random stuff created by AI on AI Weirdness. These lists of AI-generated change.org petitions are wild:

Bad ideas/Lost Causes:
Dogs are not a thing!! Dog Owners are NOT Human beings!!
Help Bring Climate Change to the Philippines!
Taco, Chipotle, and Starbucks: Bring Back Lettuce Fries
Filipinos: We want your help stopping the killing of dolphins in Brazil in 1970’s
Mr.person: I want a fresh puppy in my home
Simple Stats Administration: Make Another proboscis.
Officials at Prince Alfred Hospital: Aurora to Tell The Company To Send A Baby to Mars
Sign Petition for Houston’s New Fireworks to be Offensive

And…

What?
Make a mudchat
Please not punish myself with a $20 fines.
Unicorn: Stop breaking crab products
Rooster Teeth : Have Rooster Teeth Fix Your Responses To Obama
The people of Great Adventure: get lil bl00ty moose loyal to us
The People of Kashmir : Ban of Airbrushed Bamboo Trees By Pune
Barack Obama, Barack Obama, and Barack Obama: STOP PING MY HUSBERS!
Saskatoon Police Service: No more scootty
One Highway, Four Hens, Highway 1
Rhino Amish Culture Association: Cut the horns of the congon sturgeon & treat it better!

And…

Seems reasonable:
Harmonix: Increase the speed limit on Easton Road to 5mph.
Everyone: Put the Bats on YouTube!
Donald Trump: Change the name of the National Anthem to be called the “Fiery Gator”
Taco Bell: Offer hot wings and non-perfumed water for all customers
Do not attack the unions! Keep cowpies!
Anyone: Get a cat to sing on air!
The people of the world: Change the name of the planet to the Planet of the Giants
Dr James Alexander: Make the Power of the Mongoose a Part of the School’s Curriculum

These are funny in the way that those “worst answers to tests” are funny — absurd and completely surprising responses, but in the right form. They have the form of petitions, but they’re insanely playful and creative instances of petitions.

I don’t know if it makes sense to all an algorithm’s output ‘playful,’ but I think ‘creative’ does make sense, if we think of creativity as the combination of disparate things in a coherent way. That’s basically creativity, yeah? At least one form of it.

Whatever it is, AI seems to be really good at it. On its own, it might just be a high-powered amusement generator, but when combined with a human writer/editor, it could be a powerful creative tool — as a writer, it’s really hard to get out of your own way and open the mind.

It’s far too easy to get stuck on a track, to limit where your ideas are sourced from (even within your own brain), to just not be creative.

Not to mention, how often do you have access to all of the possible combinations in your mind?

My brain is pretty mysterious to me, nothing like a database. I just have to kind of get into a certain state and hope that good ideas come through, like tuning a radio to a mysterious radio station.

But if there was a scanner to make all of the ideas available… to combine the ideas to generate new ones… well, now, that would be interesting.

The phantom goodbye

That awkward time when someone is physically with you, but mentally they’re checking their phone for their ride share to come.

You can talk to them and it seems like they can hear you, but they’re not really listening, like talking to a ghost.

And then, just like that, they disappear into the night.

Travailler, toujours travailler.

Roding then took Rilke outside for a tour of the grounds. As they walked, Roding began to tell Rilke about his life, but not in the way one might speak to a journalist on assignment. He understood that Rilke was a fellow artist, and so he framed his stories as lessons that the young poet might take as examples.

Above all else, he stressed to Rilke, Travailler, toujours travailler. You must work, always work, he said.

“To this I devoted my youth.” But it was not enough to make work, the word he preferred to “art”; one had to live it.

That meant renouncing the trappings of earthly pleasures, like fine wine, sedating sofas, even one’s own children, should they prove distracting form the pursuit.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett

Exhilaration comes from naming the unnamable and hearing it named

I’m moving again and it’s time to go through books that are good enough for me to mark up but not good enough to haul into storage while I figure out where I’m going to land.

Going through The Last Self-Help Book, I found some passages that I highlighted a few months ago and now I’m wondering if Walker read Bohm because there are a lot of similarities in the way they talk about art and science describing the world as it is:

Exhilaration comes from naming the unnamable and hearing it named.

If Kafka’s Metamorphosis is presently a more accurate account of the self than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it is the more exhilarating for being so.

The naming of the predicament of the self by art is its reversal. Hence the salvific effect of art. Through art, the predicament of self becomes not only speakable but laughable. Hellen Keller and any two-year-old and Kafka’s friends laughed when the unnamable was named. Kafka and his friends laughed when the unnameable was named. Kafka and his friends laughed when he read his stories to them.

Less related but darkly comic, in that Kafka lol way:

If poets often commit suicide, it is not because their poems are bad but because they are good. Whoever heard of a bad poetry committing suicide? The reader is only a little better off. The exhilaration of a good poem lasts twenty minutes, an hour at most.

Unlike the scientist, the artist has reentry problems that are frequent and catastrophic.

Kafka’s best joke

No wonder we cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from the horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.

— David Foster Wallace from “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” (in Consider the Lobster)

Also maybe the subtext of everything I write.

Sturgeon’s Law

“90% of everything is crap.”

That’s a paraphrase of:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

— Theodore Sturgeon

Counterintuitive because most people only see at most the top 10-15% of output from any given creative field.

And the inverse:

The inverse is obviously also true: if ninety percent of everything is crap, then even in areas that are generally considered inferior (such as soap operasdime novels or fan fiction), there must be ten percent that may be worth something.

— Various Wikipedia editors working asynchronously

From Wikipedia.





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