Confiding in the Void

We’ve reached the 11th month of 2018, so I can say that the theme of this year has been community. From my perspective.

What does the average specimen of Homo sapiens need to be satisfied with their group and their own prospects within it? What are we currently lacking, we atomized modern creatures? (Please read the whole Samzdat series.) I’ve been trying to figure that out, and although I’ve gained some insights, I can only speak authoritatively for myself.

The following is a personal account of anomie.

As young as I am at 24, I’m still astounded by the amount that I learn over relatively small timespans. Human nature has long fascinated me, but during the past year I have dealt with it more intimately and dwelled on it more deeply than in the past.

Notice that I use the word “it” and refer to human nature in general, rather than citing specific connections with individual people. I have deep emotional relationships with my fiancé and immediate family, but my friendships remain primarily intellectual. Even with my dear partner, I struggle to be raw and vulnerable when I’m not intoxicated. Alcohol loosens my tongue and enables me to express the sentiments that scare me.

I would say that I love my friends, and they greatly enrich my life. Yet I remain puzzled by the easy camaraderie and affection that people seem to share with each other. I don’t know how to put this into the right words, the words that would properly convey what I mean. It’s a discomfiting sensation because words are supposed to be my forte.

Over the past couple of years, I have become more familiar with that which I cannot articulate. I’ll try anyway.

Here’s what I want to tell you: I remember the profound closeness of my childhood and teenage years, when platonic intensity bound me to a handful of other girls. I didn’t fully appreciate those friendships at the time. I feel their absence acutely, and it hurts to remember, because I know what I’m missing. I still haven’t figured out how to make true intimacy part of my adult life.

I used that word earlier — I said that now I understand human nature “more intimately.” I wasn’t wrong, per se, but my peer-to-peer connections are anchored by shared curiosities rather than bare feeling. My friends and I have little bearing on each other’s hearts. If we hold more than that between us, it’s hard for me to see.

Again, I sincerely love my friends, but I don’t think that we know each other at the core. We rarely offer that level of exposure, although I suspect that most of us would readily accept it from someone else. Tossing around ideas is safer than revealing angst in less-than-sardonic terms.

I come across as an open person, as far as I can tell. People have commended me on it. I don’t think that I give the impression of being reserved. But I am; I have secrets that fill me with inexpressible shame. That’s normal. Usualness does not reduce the burden.

I think that my brethren — my fellow thinkers and discussers — tend to be afflicted in this way. We prize cleverness and abstraction to the extent that we suppress our yearnings for human-to-human communion.

On the other hand, I could be committing the typical-mind fallacy. (Is it ironic to include that caveat?)

I have a guess about why I’m pondering this subject, why I feel bereft of true connection beyond my partner and family. It’s probably because I’ve reduced my dose of psych meds. The underlying realities are the same, but how I weigh them has changed.

I’ve been taking venlafaxine for five or six years, since I was a teenager. The drug saved my life; I would be an addict on the streets or otherwise miserable without the boost that it gave me. At a time when I was mired in despair, venlafaxine restored my energy and optimism enough for me to drag myself toward adult functionality and eventually happiness.

Granted, the upgrade was accomplished with plenty of support. I still resent my parents for creating me without my consent, but the anger has lost its potency. I owe them an incalculable debt for helping to transform my life into a good one. My fiancé deserves gratitude as well.

Despite all of the complaints above, I am cheerful most days — often productive! I love my job, am thankful for my luck in finding it, and cherish the belief that I am helping to build a future where autonomy is paramount and accessible to all.

I hope that the trend will continue. I want to believe that my brain is going through some kind of chemical adjustment period and I’ll be able to come to terms with a self that has emotions surging under the skin. I want to feel what I feel without being overwhelmed.

It may turn out that I need to stop tapering. I may decide to jump back to 225mg daily instead of my current 150mg. I can’t pinpoint why I hope that my mental health won’t require a reversion.

As a transhumanist, in principle I see nothing wrong with relying on medical technology to feel okay. Apparently despite my beliefs I’ve been nursing a latent hope that venlafaxine actually “fixed” me over the past five years, as opposed to being a treatment that I will need… forever?

In conclusion: I’m glad that I wrote this blog post, but I’m slightly fearful of the reactions. Despite my trepidations (or perhaps because of them) I’m going to solicit thoughts from a few of the people I like and respect. It’s a way of being intimate — there’s that word again! — without addressing them directly.

Am I being cowardly or brave? I think the former. Laudable courage would be publishing the secrets that I mentioned before. Alas, that is more than I can offer, although I would readily accept such disclosures from others.

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Monthly Shenanigans, February 2018

Hello again 👋

Welcome back to The Newsletter Formerly Known as Exolymph! May its cyberpunk self rest in peace. The other way you’d know me is as tech reporter Sonya Mann. At some point you signed up for this mailing list on one of my websites.

Reporting ✍️

Here are the best articles I’ve written since I last emailed you:

  • A profile of San Francisco-based Republican lawyer Harmeet Dhillon, who is representing fired Google employee James Damore. [link]
  • A takedown of self-proclaimed “cryptocurrency genius” and actual grifter James Altucher. [link]
  • “These College Startups Don’t Charge Tuition Until Grads Make $50,000 a Year” [link]
  • What it was like to eat 90% meat for two weeks. People loved this one! Presumably because it’s fun to read about crazy diet experiments. [link]

Thoughts 💅

These days I’m always asking myself, “What do you want?” It’s a hard question (although not at the level of a quarter-life crisis). Also, it’s a question that I’ve asked myself many times before.

The answer varies somewhat. Usually what I want the most is to be an independent creator, along the lines of Ben Thompson. Alternately, one of those people who churn out zombie novels for Amazon Kindle users.

I’ve read the “1,000 True Fans” essay a couple of times and it’s fueled hours and hours of daydreaming. Daydreaming is easy — the hard part is committing to a particular vision and putting in the work. I sorta did that with Exolymph… until my creative juices dried up.

To be clear, I don’t feel sorry for myself. My life is charmed in most respects. I live in an economically vibrant area with good weather, near my family. I have a committed relationship and two friendly cats. Finances are comfortable. My health is stable. I am grateful for all of these things.

Nevertheless, I’m dissatisfied. I wonder if this is pure hedonic treadmill, and I’m just predisposed to wish for greater levels of achievement no matter what. Before I got my job as a full-time reporter, that seemed like a milestone that would erase my discontent. And yet here I am!

I waffle about the practical options too. Do I want to stay in journalism, despite the perverse incentives that have remade the industry? (As much as I love the internet, it’s been terrible for news businesses.) Should I jump ship to do content marketing? I’d make more money.

On the other hand, money isn’t everything. Cliché but true.

Are you where you want to be?

Bunny and guinea pig photo by Chris Parfitt.
Photo by Chris Parfitt.

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Everyday Street Harassment

Being a person whose appearance is perceived as feminine means being accosted on the street wherever you go. Usually the men who yell stuff at you fall into the “nothing left to lose” category. They’re homeless or broke or drunk in the morning — none of which is inherently bad, but those conditions give a person little reason to conform to standard social norms. Combine that with typical male entitlement, and you have guys shouting obscenities as you walk by.

Stop Telling Women to Smile poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh; photo by Jeffrey Zeldman.
Stop Telling Women to Smile poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh; photo by Jeffrey Zeldman.

But socioeconomic desperation and/or mental illness don’t explain everything. Twice in October I was literally followed by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Both of these guys seemed “normal” when judged by exterior alone — they looked like they probably had jobs and houses. Both times I had to turn around, hold my palms up in front of my body, and say, “I need you to stop.” Both times this worked, thank goodness. Both times I was terrified.

Afterward I fantasized about responding violently, about retaliating the instant I was spoken to. Pepper spray in the face. Knee to the testicles. Heel of the palm against the nose so hard that it breaks the bridge and pushes bone shards into the brain. I wanted the power of fear and destruction — the power men possess that prevents me from responding the way I imagine. When I’m scared, I can’t muster the fierceness. It probably wouldn’t have made me feel better anyway.

http://sonyaellenmann.tumblr.com/post/130896945003/my-head-is-boring

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Typical Writerly Ennui

Edit: Martin Weigert already said everything I was trying to say in his recent article “Write less while saying more”.


Illustration for Green Mansions by Keith Henderson circa 1930; via Thomas Shahan.
Illustration for Green Mansions by Keith Henderson circa 1930; via Thomas Shahan.
merman illustration
Merperson by Viola Renate.

Yesterday I wrote a blog post just for the sake of writing something. Now I feel weird about it. The itch to type and hit “Publish” was present and strong, but I didn’t have any intellectual substance to offer the world. (By which I mean you, my few and treasured readers.) If only I had the self-control to refrain from distributing useless thoughts. Even better would be the ability to conjure up worthwhile sentences at any time, on demand.

I used to think a good writer could make any subject interesting whenever they were called upon to do so. Now that idea seems naive — no person can competently tackle every topic, especially without doing research or interviews. You can’t just spout off and have it be instantly fascinating. Maybe there are rare savants who possess this ability, but I suspect it’s uncommon.

"Anita" - Keith Henderson Illustration for The Purple Land c.1930
Anita by Keith Henderson, for The Purple Land circa 1930; via Thomas Shahan.

I just finished reading The Old Man and the Sea and I resent Hemingway for being such a superb prose stylist. He constructs his statements very simply — never afraid to reuse a noun or a verb if he deems it right — and the result is highly impactful. I get the sense that Hemingway didn’t produce material just for the sake of expression. Maybe he grew out of the tendency, or disciplined it away. Maybe I can too?

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