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Today the world ended and was reborn in an instant, out of the sheetrock and neatly filed papers, let loose in the sky, all those things that no longer seem important.

On TV, the path of a jet from Boston is traced out, over the ponds and streams and mountains and lakes where I was born, over the Berkshire Connector, over the road to Montreal.
Banking swiftly into a straight line with that feeling you get when history is ripped free of itself and the universe that had been falls away.

What we feel in the pit of our stomach, when a tsunami breaks in the quantum foam, when the underlying connections are ripped clean for an instant. And the true humanity of it all is made plain by an exodus of human beings, people walking calmly and quietly, hand in hand, helping the injured, making their way together across the bridge of time.

In memory of those who fell
And the universe they carried with them

My Friend Carl

I met Carl when I was working as a systems programmer on the “Directory and Authentication” team at The University of Iowa. It was the summer that the Iowa River overflowed its banks and we hauled computers up the hill from the Lindquist Center to higher ground. We had all relocated (permanently, as it turned out) from our old offices in that 1970s brutalist concrete bunker up to the formerly “dead mall” up the hill. My new office was a cubicle perched atop a piece of steel plate covering the old escalator shaft on the second floor of what had been JC Penneys.  You could feel the steel flex when you walked on top of it.

Part of our task at this job was to do provisioning of enterprise services. Occasionally some new person who needed early access to things would get flagged and we’d create their HawkID ahead of time and pre-provision access to groups by sticking override codes in our provisioning database. Carl was such a person – a senior IT security administrator – and I was on-call that week so I got to provision his early access. The day he arrived, something told me he’d be a cool dude, and I always wanted to make good impressions on the IT security folks. I walked his username and initial password over to him directly. He was really happy with that and we became friends immediately.  We were the ‘vintage 1978’ dudes.

Over the years, I took many long walks at lunch time or in the afternoon with him. We’d IM each other and if something at work was pissing us off, we’d say ‘fuck it’ and go for a walk and talk. That always helped us both.  When I moved away from Iowa City we drifted apart over the years.  We’d IM occasionally and he’d share his pics from his trips to Japan and Scotland.  I didn’t go back to Iowa City for a long time.  The last time we saw each other was probably three years ago.

This afternoon I got a text from a friend who worked with him: I should call back, urgently.  I called him and he gave me the news that Carl had been found dead in a park this morning.  Five minutes later another friend called to give me the same news.  I felt my heart drop into my feet.  I felt dizzy and disconnected from reality.  I still feel that way.  I will probably feel that way for days.  Life is too short and too precious.  That seems like a cliché, but it is not.  Take the time to connect with dear people and to live each moment – we don’t have that many of either.  Here’s to you, my friend. Safe travels beyond the gray curtain.  *hugs*

Soup to Nuts

I’ve had severe chronic depression since I was twelve years old. The warning signs were probably there before that, but twelve was when I first remember knowing what despair feels like.

Several people either in our family or close to it died in close proximity to each other that year.  The winter of 1990, I started compulsively washing my hands.  I was obsessed with germs, cancer, chemicals and death.  I was sure I would get cancer from some toxic chemical I was somehow exposed to.  I went to a child psychologist who prescribed Tricyclic antidepressants, which seemed to work, but made me very hungry all the time.  I binged on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  I had been a very skinny little kid, and now I started to gain weight.

The next year, in junior high, I started to become ashamed of my weight, and started to wear baggy sweatpants and hoodies because they were comfortable and easy.  A girl in my math class loudly told another girl that “girls don’t like Nick because Nick doesn’t like girls.”  I don’t remember what I did to make her say this.  I was genuinely not interested in anyone of any kind in junior high.  I went on antidepressants in the winter.  The fall of my second year in junior high, there was a mass shooting on the campus of The University of Iowa, and I remember riding in the car past the Physics building where it happened, on my way home that night, the snow quietly reflecting the police car, ambulance and fire truck lights on Iowa ave.

I took part in various talk therapy regimes in high school, none of which seemed to really help my mood or cognitive patterns.  I tried different antidepressants, and eventually ended up on Prozac, which seemed to have fewer negative side effects than the tricyclics.  I got a good group of friends, some of us computer people, some band, some journalists or debaters.  We pretty much all smoked pot, and that helped quite a bit.

The fall of my first year in college, I ate a pot brownie and had a week-long dissociative episode.  I no longer wanted anything to do with pot after that, and ended up having to get back on stronger levels of antidepressants.  I did not live in the dorms in college, instead living in a condo with a good friend, very far away from downtown.  As a result, I did not have a normal social life during college.  My friends were all coworkers, most of whom were 10-20 years older than me, at my wonderful job at a public policy center.  They were and are absolutely wonderful people.  Working there was the high point of my college experience.  I gained valuable IT skills there that are the basis for my current career.  In college, I did not take part in the usual underage/heavy drinking, but man did I eat  a lot of pie.  By the end of college,  I weighed 295 pounds.  I had never dated anyone, either in high school or college.  By this time, I didn’t think that anyone liked me or could ever like me.  My predominant cognitive untruths were:

  1. No one likes me
  2. No one could ever like me
  3. My body doesn’t matter (disdain for the flesh)

The last year of college, I did behavioral talk therapy with a very kind guy named Len.  He helped identify these cognitive patterns and we talked about how they could not be true.  The spring of my last year in college, I took a handful of magic mushrooms, and found that I could understand and visualize math in a way I had not been able to before.  I believe this was the beginning of my emergence from depression.  It took another three years of thinking about my negative cognitive patterns before something finally clicked.

After graduation, I got an entry-level job in IT at the university.  I was very fat.  I had still never dated anyone.  I was out of breath doing the most minor tasks.  In 2003, I took a photo of myself with my Nokia camera phone, and saw how fat I was.  I did not want to die early, fat, having never had any real loving relationship with anyone beyond my immediate family.  I threw the Prozac in the trash and bought a bicycle.  I started biking around the trailer park where I lived, every night, first for 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 45 minutes.  I started to walk, and then to run.  I started the Atkins diet.

By 2004, I weighed 160 pounds.  I had lost roughly 140 pounds in 10 months.  I was running every day.

In the fall of 2006, I took flying lessons and started to date.  My first three dating experiences were a fizzle, a very scary obsessive and toxic relationship, and then a superficial and uncomfortable short-lived thing.  In 2007, I got my private pilot’s certificate from the FAA, and started to work at the airport part-time.  I got stronger on that job, and flying improved my mind, my body, and my relationships.  I got a wonderful set of friends who I am proud to call friends to this day.  I met the woman who would eventually bless me with the honor of her partnership in marriage – a strong, smart, beautiful, relaxed, scientific, iconoclastic, confident and funny woman.

In 2010, I did something about my problems with my body image and had a lot of ugly excess skin removed from my stomach.  I didn’t do this for anyone but me, and it was worth it.  I was still working out every day, and I hadn’t had a need for antidepressants in seven years.  In 2012, I got married.  I was struggling with wanting to advance in my job, and not getting to where I wanted to with that job fast enough.  The late fall of 2012 brought the Sandy Hook shootings, and I remember feeling very strong depression for the first time in years, walking around outside our apartment building, smoking a cigarette and feeling that the world was a terrible place.  Then a friend and mentor called and offered me a job – what I thought was my dream job.

In early 2013, we moved to Pennsylvania for the job.  The job forced me to grow and learn in ways I cannot fully comprehend.  It challenged me.  It was a wonderful team, but we were up against truly insurmountable institutional dynamics.  We could not win.  I started to wake up at 5:30 a.m. without an alarm clock, then 5, then 4:30, then 3:00 a.m. – worried about problems at work I could not solve.  My fight-or-flight reflexes were fully charged up nearly all the time.  I sensed real danger to my livelihood, and by the late winter of my second year at that job, I found myself at the top of a parking structure after work, looking at the mountains, and considering jumping off the parking ramp.  I knew I needed help.  I immediately went to my physician and got on Paxil for the anxiety and depression, and Lorazepam for the anxiety and sleep issues.  This helped a lot – and I sought out talk therapy, which also helped a lot.  I started to gain weight again.  I gained 20 pounds, and realized I needed a change.

In the spring of 2015, I weaned myself off of Paxil.  Getting off Paxil was interesting – I had another dissociative episode that was almost exactly like the time I ate the pot brownie in college.  I felt like I was walking around 10 feet behind myself for two weeks.

I got a job that allowed us to relocate to Colorado, a place we have both always wanted to live, and where some of our very best friends live.  The sun, the less stressful job, the natural beauty and outdoor recreation, and the fact that Denver is further south all have strongly helped my mood.  My battle with depression will never be over, but now I recognize when I am at a low point, and I can do something about it.

 

Why Facebook Is No Longer Worth It To Me

When you spend most waking moments staring at your phone
When you plan parts of your day around trying to entertain others on a social network
When you spend half of dinner looking at your phone instead of talking to your wife
When you are on a hike and lament not having a signal
Facebook is no longer worth it

When you post things with strong opinions and then worry about a flame war on your posts
When you dread waking up in the morning to check notifications because half of them are going to upset you
When you simultaneously must check notifications compulsively
When you design posts to get the maximum number of comments or likes
Facebook is no longer worth it

When you let an algorithm modify your behavior
When you don’t care about invasion of your privacy
When you say things to friends and family that are deeply damaging
When you still can’t get enough
Facebook is no longer worth it

I will miss the social connections
I will miss the wonderful pictures
I will miss the connectivity to distant friends
But Facebook is not worth it

New Year Resolutions

Hopefully I won’t just ignore these.

  1. Listen to my body when it tells me something is wrong
  2. Listen to my wife more
  3. Live in a place that makes me happy
  4. Spend more time with friends and family
  5. Watch Blazing Saddles and Caddyshack
  6. Lose 35 lbs
  7. Hike a 14-er

HCF

I REALLY want to like “Halt and Catch Fire,” but the endless cute in references like characters named “Gordon Clark” and “Cameron Howe,” and “Computers aren’t the thing, they’re the thing that gets us to the thing” are extremely distracting. Come on guys, you have a good script. Just go totally original and stop snickering at your own cleverness.

Journey

Copyright (c) 2014 by Nicholas Roy, all rights reserved

I set out across the land
Knowing not where I would stop
Settling with unease each night along the way
A route through brambled undertuff
The stars to light my way

The heat of days
The salt-crust red of skin
Dust and callus hands beridged

I found along my arc through deepest steamcrossed plain
A field girded round with wire rusted, barbed in vain
No longer were the cattle bound within its mesh
Flesh had long ago made way for sun bleached scaffolding
The beat of many rays

The rhythm found
I trudged along
Not asking what to seek

The time would come when I laid down
To rest of that was sure
Parameters for marking home
Elusive as the dew

Thirst of days
No water found
Heat and ache and nothing new

Then one night, under the stars
I cast my thoughts adrift
Found peace in looking up at them
Felt rain within my chest

Driving as Zen Kōan

My car is, to most people, senselessly overpriced. It’s not fancy, it’s tactile. It’s a rear wheel drive BMW 335i. In my 20 years of driving, I’ve averaged a new car every 2 years. I’ve been conflicted about why this is so. Why do I serially abandon cars?

For years, I chalked it up to a deep seated and shameful materialism. The idea that on a reptile brain level, I was attracted to the flashiness, newness, and status that a newer, better car gave me. I rewarded myself for advances in my career with a new car — it was the odd goal I came to strive for. To my liberal way of thinking, this materialism was shameful.

I’ve reached a second adolescence — a yearning for irresponsibility in my trek to middle age. I like to think this means a bit of added maturity in the understanding of parts of myself I don’t think I’ve understood well before. I’m examining parts of my life that I felt were important in the past, questioning their importance, and asking “why?” — including why the car fetish? It’s embarrassing, and if my original narrative is to be believed, it’s a position I’ve put myself into as a way to achieve things in life.

I’m beginning to realize that narrative is false. Sure, I’m materialistic. I’ve been trained to be so by years of advertising, culture awash in symbols of success, and the odd American puritanical dream of increasing hard work and responsibility, with a reward in the form of a stable life. Instead, what is true is that I do not play sports, I do not take part in many types of normal team-based physical interaction that lots of people value. I never have. In elementary school, when playing soccer with my team, my dad recalls fondly how I would always play defense, and typically when the action was not near me, I could be found sitting down on the ground, playing with dandelions.

Instead, the physical activity I have always truly connected with has been the art of the skillful manipulation of tactile machines. Some of my fondest childhood memories are when my grandmother let me pilot her fiberglass water skiing boat across the lake and up the channel. That was my first experience with this connection to transport. When I was old enough to get my drivers’ license, I did so with more excitement and engagement than I can recall ever putting into any other course at school. I’ve driven increasingly fun and rewarding machines, including getting my private pilot’s license. I have driven, in chronological order:

  1. 1989 Dodge Shadow — terribly underpowered front wheel drive 2.5l I4 with no torque and a bulletproof but joyless three speed automatic
  2. 1986 Mazda 626 Turbo — very fun sporty front wheel drive car that was on its last legs. Five speed manual with a nearly burned out clutch. The beginning of my love of the turbocharger.
  3. 1982 Volvo 245 GLT wagon — a beautiful, luxurious, wonderful to drive beast of a car with a terribly underpowered 2.1l turbocharged tractor engine with mechanical fuel injection and a bulletproof Borg Warner three speed auto transmission with external overdrive.
  4. 2000 Honda Civic DX — a base, 1.6l, underpowered Civic with a four speed automatic. My first understanding of how well built foreign cars are.
  5. 2001 Honda Accord EX V6 coupe — a 3.0l V6 with leather seats and climate control. A wonderful car, too bad about the torque steer that plagues Hondas.
  6. 2005 Volkswagen Passat TDI — 2.0l Pumpe Duse (camshaft-driven direct injection) turbodiesel that got 40MPG and made 250lb*ft of torque. Torquey and awesome engine, nice five speed auto transmission, too bad about the mushy suspension with torsion bar rear and squishy tall 15″ tires. I learned how to make biodiesel during this time and this car ran on that biodiesel.
  7. 2006 Volkswagen Jetta TDI — 2.0l PD TDI with a five speed manual. Nice car, kind of annoying dual-mass flywheel. I put more than 50,000 miles on this car in a couple of years.
  8. 2007 Audi A3 — 2.0l FSI turbocharged gasoline engine and six speed dual-clutch gearbox. A joy to drive, I should have kept this car longer.
  9. 2009 Audi A4 — 3.2l V6 — a very comfortable, all wheel drive luxo cruiser. Terrible steering feel and somewhat numb suspension.
  10. 2012 BMW 335i — 3.0l turbocharged gasoline I-6, rear-wheel drive, eight speed Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen automatic. Silky, nearly instantaneously responsive automatic, rear-wheel-drive, torquey fighter jet of a four door sedan with a deep connection to the road via the steering and suspension. Every surface inside the car meant to instill a deep connectedness with the driver through touch.

I found, when flying light aircraft, the connection to nature via a light touch of the yoke was the most in touch with the “driving” experience I have experienced. You’re taught to hold the controls gently, with two fingers of one hand, like holding an egg. This makes flying much smoother, you feel directly connected to the flight surfaces.

The author holding his newly minted pilot’s license, with his favorite vehicle

I learned to fly in a 1975 Cessna 150 — the least shiny, least flashy vehicle you can imagine. A good one with a fresh engine goes for less than a new midsize sedan. You do not need an expensive new vehicle to experience a deep connection with an airplane. It’s also true that you don’t need a new car to experience connected driving. You just need the right car.

When I focus on driving, in the truest, most connected moment, I think of nothing else but driving. It is a zen koan, an unsolvable problem, the art of which is simply the pursuit. I still struggle with guilty materialism, but maybe now I understand a bit more of what is truly important.

Nearly Winter In State College

Golden hued white against the gradient halfblue
Comet tails of the anthropocene
Jets arc up out of Baltimore and DC
The glint of their skins lost in the crystalline winter southern sky
Over the Appalachians
Altitude so great as to become an abstraction
Passengers plying their way to Chicago, Denver or Los Angeles
Christmas presents wrapped and boxed in the hold
And on earth, at my kitchen table
I look out on the snow-covered lawns, breathing deeply
Banana bread and coffee fill the air

Alan Watts, Terence McKenna, Katniss, Peeta, Kirk and Spock

The philosophical entertainer, Alan Watts, said that every person should consider two fundamental things:

  1. Your own death – really study it in detail – the certainty that you will pass into nothingness and that everything you are doing will be washed away with the sands of time.
  2. The possibility that you are nothing but a scoundrel – that everything you do is only for your own self interest and nothing more.

These two thoughts lead to other possibilities.  If you study them, think about them, you begin to see that the only reality, if there is such a thing, is that the only reason that you are here is to be here.  To be the universe observing itself, and that the future and the past don’t matter, because the only reality is here and now, what’s in front of you, around you, the relationships you have built and the care you pay to every moment.  Worrying about the future doesn’t matter.  No matter what you do, how much you fight the natural tendency of the universe to be a certain way, things will go back to their natural ground state.  And that’s neither good nor bad, it just is.  People will continue to suffer, people will continue to experience joy, and that you can’t have one without the other.  They are two sides of the same coin, so stop trying to get one without the possibility of the other.  Just be.

Meanwhile, culture tells you that you must go to school, and then go to college, graduate school, and ratchet your way up the corporate ladder, and that in the future, there will be a reward.  And so you spend your entire life striving for that reward, which is always in the future.  And you ignore what really matters – the present moment, the relationships, the living of life.  They’ve tricked you into running a race, and the reward is either some promotion, or some nice retirement that you’re too tired and worn out to enjoy, or some afterlife which it turns out doesn’t exist – because you get there and you’re nothing.  And you’re disappointed by your rat race of a life.

The ethnobotanist, metaphysicist and entheogeneticist Terence McKenna talks about the toxicity of culture in a similar way.  That culture tricks you into doing these same things – reaching, striving, instead of actively living your life open to the possibilities of the world around you.  He believes that we have become so enmeshed in this “dominator culture” that we have lost sight of the true possibilities of the universe, that are every bit as real as our material world.  That our ancestors were in touch with these things as recently as 2,000 years ago, but that we have lost sight of getting in contact with the “wiring underneath the switchboard of reality” because culture tells us that the spiritual (in the oldest sense of the word) is not real, and that getting back in touch with entheogenic substances (literally, “generating the divine within”) is morally wrong and is in fact illegal.  Meanwhile, McKenna argues that these door-opening drugs in the form of naturally occurring substances – hallucinogenic triptamines (psilocybin, DMT) are fundamental to accessing this other reality, one that the dominator culture intentionally detaches us from to trap us in our prescribed modes of behavior.  In one lecture, McKenna talks about a dream he had which was so initially disconcerting that he believed it was not the truth, but rather a good idea for a sci-fi novel.  In this dream, a “fractal soliton of improbability” – in other words, an unlikely and singular event in the universe that in fact happened, intersects with and bisects history in the form of the “Demiurge” (a platonic/gnostic idea of the trickster artisan through whom the universe came into existence) willing itself into existence, 2,000 years ago in the Levant.  This soliton had a quantum half-charge, and it split the world into two separate realities – in one, the charge was present, and it affected the course of history in the manifestation of Christ, whose legacy is a series of ideas.  In the other reality, where the charge was absent, that idea lineage did not exist.

In other words, the embodiment of Christ in history is a bifurcating event.  On one side of that divide, we have our reality, in which Greek science was set back 1,000 years by Christianity.  In the other reality, that setback never happened, and the ideas of Christ never interfered with the evolution of mysticism either.  So in that reality, both technological and spiritual advancement were allowed to flourish in a way that put them 1,000 years ahead of us.  McKenna posits that the beings that are encountered in the psychedelic experience are actually the highly evolved humans in the other reality, trying to contact us and save us from the inertia of our own history.

Where am I going with these two lines of thought – both more or less “dangerous”, controversial or even “crazy,” depending on your point of view?  In many ways, the practice of mindfulness and meditation is a way to access the wiring underneath the switchboard of reality, without the need for exogenous enthoegens.  This is some of what Alan Watts conveys in his talks – the duality of the human mind – the split between the rational and the metaphysical, the yin and the yang, darkness and light, good and bad, the rascal and the saint.  The universe of this reality and the universe of possibility.  Watts talks about accessing this universe of possibility by giving up the ego, the idea that you are something other than nothing, that the universe is something other than nothing – a wonderful nothing from which everything springs.  To float on the water, you must relax and let yourself sink back.  If you struggle to stay afloat, you will sink.

Movies are a way for us to tell stories.  Depending on what side of the Platonic argument about memetic entertainment one comes down on, you could say that movies are “bad”, a distraction from a life of the mind, and that they create a desire for unnecessary drama in us.  I tend to believe that while movies are certainly a form of mass entertainment, distraction, profit and culture-making, I also think they serve an important purpose.  They are the modern day equivalent of the campfire, around which stories are told and knowledge conveyed – sometimes in stealth.

I believe that the core message of a couple of recent sci-fi movies (one based on literary fiction) are actually in line with Watts’ and McKenna’s world views.  In “The Hunger Games,” the protagonist hero Katniss Everdeen realizes that the only way to beat the evil and deadly game, the centerpiece of a thinly veiled projection of our society into the future, where only one contestant can live at the conclusion, is to give up.  To save her friend Peeta, she will sacrifice herself.  After all, we are nothing but our connectedness to those we love.  Through death, she will win, by saving Peeta.  But Peeta feels the same way, he cannot live without Katniss, so he will sacrifice himself as well.  When both decide to die, the game is broken, and the society itself, the sick culture, is destroyed is well.  By sinking, Katniss and Peeta both float.

In “Star Trek,” in the original storyline for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Spock sacrifices himself to save the crew of the Enterprise, and to save his friend, Jim Kirk.  With his dying words, he tells Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.”  Spock knows that, logically, rationally, to allow the others to survive, he must go back into nothingness.  This storyline is subverted by “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” in which we discover that Spock left his being, his spirit, his ego or anti-nothingness, in McCoy.  He mind melded with McCoy before he died, and transferred his essence to him for safe keeping.  When Spock’s body, devoid of his spirit, rises from death, is reborn, his being can be transferred back into his body.  This is highly antithetical to Watts’ world view – “Star Trek III” promulgates the idea that your ego is the “bus driver” of your body – that the two are not inherently connected and that only the body disappears back into nothingness when you die.  As if to put a fork in the message from the end of “Star Trek II,” at the end of “Star Trek III,” when asked by Spock why he, Kirk, came back to save Spock’s body and being and put the two back together, Kirk responds, “Because the needs of one outweighed the needs of the many.”  To this, Spock says, “it is not logical.”  Whether or not logic plays a part in it, Spock is right – it is antithetical to wholeness or holiness.   As Watts says, the holy are troublemakers – tricksters.  Sometimes, truly illustrating the reality of the world requires subverting that reality and showing the contrasting picture.  It requires drama, it requires being a trickster.  Perhaps this is the real storyline of these two core “Star Trek” films – Kirk and Spock as yin and yang, human and vulcan, emotional and logical, spiritual and physical.

This goofy and impulsive weaving together of the mysticism of Watts and McKenna with the fantasy of modern science fiction is nothing other than a whimsical thought process written down for my own delight.  I could say that I am trying to say something fundamental about entertainment and culture trying to subvert itself and poke holes in the fabric of our every day, unquestioning mental subscription to this idea we have of “reality.”  But what I think I’m really trying to do is to connect my own mundane, everyday existence up with some thoughts about how there is a middle ground between the extreme view, in one axis, of McKenna – of everything as a façade on top of a hyperspatial mushroom-reality which we have been brainwashed to forget, and between a super-concrete worldview that culture and science have evolved to demand.  Our concrete, everyday existence and the culture we are immersed in can be its own trickster.  You can access the wiring under the switchboard through cultural manifestations – poetry, the Internet (in certain places), but also through the spiritual and mindful practice of meditation.  You are both nothing and everything, a scoundrel and a saint.  You are the entireness of the nothingness of everything that ever has or ever will exist (you are made of stars, after all, hydrogen, baryonic matter which has existed since the beginning of time), and you’re also a dude or dudette, sitting on a couch, playing Bejeweled.  You are the universe wasting its own time, and that’s OK.