Get out of the car

Build and breakdown are the two work-filled bookends between the fun of the week at a burn-style festival. Build is the chaotic ascension and creation; breakdown the strenuous push to clean up for a return to the default world. It is not easy, moving heavy objects in the sun and repacking after a week of poor sleep.

At Nowhere Burn 2018, no one was in especially high spirits. Breakdown meant our shade structure was going down as well, and the oppressive and unavoidable sun drained us all. Eventually, things were packed and we filled up our rented Peugoet to the brim with trash, tents, and people. Four of us in one car. Finally, we could be on our way out of the scrublands and back to Barcelona.

There was a 30 minute dirt road between the festival site and the highway, and after that, it was a clear shot. Barcelona was no more than a 3 hour drive, and there was an AirBnB full of friends waiting for us when we got there.

I sat in the front passenger seat, sleepily watching the road. As we went down the highway, the car was drifting, wiggling the lines more than normal and taking the turns with more style than necessary. And then the center line in the two-lane highway was crossed. For a second, it looked like the normal… if not premature… passing maneuver to get by the van in front of us. And then we kept going, leaving the center line behind and floating towards the left edge of the road when one of us yelled out but no, we kept going, drifting over the edge of the road and down the ditch and didn’t stop, at the steady clip of 110 kmh (70 mph).

GET OUT OF THE CAR.

I wasn’t scared of death, so much. It was horror: the pounding, the crunching metal, the smell of gasoline, the sound of my screaming. (If there ever was a time to scream, it was then.)

The car nosedived in the ditch and didn’t stop, flipping, every bump with the ground announced with noisy crashing and black smell of burning plastics (I can smell it as I type it). The bursting of the airbags, the ground as it crashed about somewhere, cracking windows and metal crushing—I couldn’t see anything but chaos out the window as the world turned.

Horror. Fear is for ordinary things. I could not believe what I saw around me, not as it happened.

The car heaved over, its momentum spent. It came to a stop.

I thought I would look over and find the person in the seat next to me dead, but I couldn’t see him at all. My fear and worry that he would be dead joined my terror of being trapped in the smoke and darkness, hanging upside down by my seatbelt.

GET OUT OF THE CAR

I couldn’t get out of the car. I didn’t know if I had broken ribs. In shock, I couldn’t evaluate that. I scrabbled at the door, at my seatbelt. My breath was panicked, too fast to think. Gravity was pulling me some way, and I couldn’t tell up from down. Relax. Evaluate. A few moments later I found enough breath and grounding to unbuckle my seatbelt, falling onto the roof of the car. The car door wouldn’t open. Trapped in the smoke and wreckage, upside down. I looked around for another way. No one was in the driver’s seat next to me, but there was a faint, crushed window to bright light and air.

This all took place over one minute, maybe. I don’t know how many times we flipped. It felt like the end, heavy and adrenaline-filled and alive. More alive than I’ve felt in a while, compressed into a lengthy minute.

There is one nice thing about car crashes. When I don’t die, I find myself more alive and awake than I have been ages.

GET OUT OF THE CAR.

I crawled out that window and onto the grass, screaming, clutching my abdomen, last one out of the upside-down car. An ugly rebirth.

We had flipped two or three times as we ran off the road at 110 km an hour. Somehow, we four in the car were mostly okay. One friend who had been sitting in the back had a face covered in blood that dripped from his forehead. He was okay. The other had a broken ankle. That will heal. Blood, not mine, got on my ripped clothes and skin. One friend was in severe neck pain and we held each other and shook in the horror of what had just happened to us. A compression fracture that recovered fully.

We were lucky. I feel awe when I consider the design process that brought such a relatively safe death machine into existence.

The shock took its time in fading. We sat on the grass next to the broken car, dreamlike. The car behind us stopped and helped us to the other side of the road. They called an ambulance. My copilot and I sat on the side of the road and cried together at the confusing pain and upending of our worlds, waiting for the ambulance to come. Its arrival was not the end of this story.

The trip to the hospital and the few days after were some of the most challenging days in my life. I got my first IV in a hospital where one or two of the staff spoke English. All of my stuff was stuck in the smashed trunk of the car. My phone was soaked with water when the firefighters sprayed the car to prevent it from exploding. They gave it to me anyway, dripping wet with the faint smell of petrol, and I got to watch it fizzle and die over the next hour.

My ankle swelled up to a balloon over the next day, and every step was pain. The burden of a backpack didn’t help—at least I didn’t lose that too. No phone, no money, and no passport or ID. All stuck in the smashed trunk of a car.

I didn’t choose these challenges, and because of that, things I faced damaged me further rather than built me up. Things like having to ask strangers for internet access, speak poor Spanish to doctors while choked with anxiety, or ask friends for euro. There was a lot of pain there.

I could barely walk. Getting pushed on a wheelchair through the airport to get back home was one of the most relieving things I’ve experienced. At home, I found out just how unfriendly my upstairs house was for a wheelchair. It was easier to just stay in one place, sitting on my mattress alone.

Several months later, I was still having trouble walking. I fell into a numbness and depression of several months, being incapable of doing all that I had before. Walking several miles a day is key to my health and emotional wellbeing, and I was unable to find a replacement for it but numbing and video games. During that time, I was not as nice a person as before. I was not a happy person.

Usually, I find that pain contains important lessons. This pain though kept going and going, without offering much learning to squeeze out of it at all. I had to accept that the amount of learning and the amount of pain do not go hand in hand.

Today is the one year anniversary of my car crash. My ankle injury is minor in the scheme of things, but it continues to limit how I live my life today.

I could have prevented the car accident by speaking up when things felt unsafe. I felt disgusted at myself for that even after I almost died, I still had trouble speaking up for myself. More, actually, in my weakened and depressed state. Self-disgust, though, isn’t an effective motivator.

I’m happy to say that as I healed, I have gained the capacity to speak up more, especially when in cars. It is frustrating that it took so long.


Somewhere, mid-somersault of the car crash, I realized that yes, I do want to be alive. I knew that before, and I know it more now. I would have done so much to avoid that moment of realization as we hung in the air between one bounce of the car and the next crunch. At first, I worried a lot about alternate universes where I died, such as if I had grabbed at the steering wheel and shunted us into a more dangerous sideways roll.

I feel for the tragedy of those timelines. Only later did someone point out that the accident followed classical mechanics, and there was likely less uncertainty and branching than how it felt. To my human mind, though, I feel I could have made choices differently. To physics, it always would have been the same.


(Poetic inspiration goes to Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person)

Levels of Players

In the big infinite game, our lives in the world, there are many levels of influence one can have. I tend to track it in 6 stages, originally inspired by the White Wolf RPG stats of Gnosis / Arete.

What I mean by influence is the amplitude and reach of a person’s goals and energy. This can change over time. I count the level someone is at by their latest projects or output over the last few years.

Why use this framework?

This is about tracking what’s going on in reality, not about making people feel bad about where they are. This is useful for de-celebritizing people at a higher level than you. Don’t get jealous, get motivated. Study them. They have knowledge and skills that you want.

This isn’t to cast moral judgements. People are at different places in the game. Don’t judge yourself, either. If you don’t like where you’re standing, take action and move up.

Impact 0: Your existence or nonexistence is basically irrelevant

Everyone starts here! The impact at this level is mostly limited to just you, but does slightly affect the people close to you as well.

Interventions that are aimed at making your existence not matter are Impact 0. Not doing things, like not having a carbon footprint and not having kids, are good examples.

Examples: Go vegan, write persuasive comments on Facebook, get married, go to a protest, vote, get good grades, commit petty crime, join the HOA, vote with your feet

Impact 1: You’ve had some local impacts, on a scale of a small town or community

Many jobs that have moderate responsibility will put you in this category. To reach the people around you, there has to be at least some actions that are one-to-many. This can be on a small scale, like face-to-face in a classroom or with a group of friends.

Examples: Throw a big party, perform improv in your city, save lives as an EMT, teach elementary school children, manage a few people, have children, Instagram fame

Impact 2: You’ve had some substantial impacts, on the scale of a company or city

This can be done single-handedly with the right skills, but at this point it is more likely that organizations or small movements are needed to assist. One-to-many-to-many (some virality).

Examples: Help form a movement, get your idea patented, become a popular musician in your country, become mayor of a city, give a TED talk, coin a new word

Impact 3: You’ve had some major impacts, on the scale of a nation

Usually has the leverage of at least a small team of people helping maximize the magnitude. Good understanding of cause and effect and what they’re doing in the world.

Examples: Speak at a Senate hearing, invent and market a new type of meat replacement that some people use, create a new genre of music, write an inspiring bestseller

Impact 4: You’re one of the key players in some large subdomain of the world

Probably have a very good grasp of the big picture, or they wouldn’t be here. Likely to be highly intelligent: Domain smarts plus world smarts.

The inaccurately-named list, TIME 100: Most Influential People, mostly contains people in this category.

Examples: Found or steer a major company, play a role in designing the internet, help allocate billions of dollars as a part of a government, write of new bills in a major country, create of a major cryptocurrency

Impact 5: No doubt about it, you’re one of the key players period.

They’re rare. Getting to this point is not an easy task, so many of them are older and have strong teams and a lot of resources.

The people we view as the Great Movers of history. Their actions ripple across the world and into the future. They understand the world well, have an ambitious vision, and have the means to implement it.

Examples: Create a country or religion, lead a revolution, build a rocket, determine global policy, build software that changes how we all live

Other considerations

Is the power borrowed or owned? Borrowed power is like if you were the acting arm of a larger institution or helping a more powerful person. While their impacts are high level, they might be a replaceable cog in a larger machine of agency. Idea from Samo Burja in Borrowed power vs Owned power.

Is the impact on target? The amplitude of an intervention is no promise of its benevolence or ability to strike a target. Whatever level of impact someone is at, they should make sure it’s a positive one before trying to move up to more firepower. Direction isn’t guaranteed, and one must take care to have good aim.

Actually Making a Decision

Making a decision is hard work. Normally, we act out of habit or on the spur of the moment, or simply do things without thinking about it.

I have a story about making a decision. It’s about a bag of cheesy-bad-snack.

That day, I felt like a slug: slow moving, passive, and mildly uncomfortable with existence. I munched on a snack that reminded me of the glorious superstimulus of cheesy-bad-snack. Which meant that now I couldn’t stop thinking about cheesy-bad-snack. Yum. Oh no.

Why? Well. I haven’t had it in a year. Part of me remembers that every time I had it, I felt sick in my stomach afterwards. But that was a year ago! Maybe things were different now. And I already felt bad, so I might as well do more things that would make me feel bad. Bad feelings don’t stack linearly.

I checked in with myself. My stomach said ‘no’, my mouth said ‘yes’, and my mind felt weak.

I walked to the store. I stared at the bag of cheesy-bad-snack. My mouth began to water. I considered both futures, one with cheesy-bad-snack and one without. I grabbed it off of the shelf and walked around the store. I set it back down, considering what I really wanted. And then I left the store without the cheesy-bad-snack.

Well, you can always turn back. At any point and in either direction. And there is no shame in turning around. I walked out of the store and halfway down the block before I began to feel regret. Sitting on a bench, I thought for a minute.

I turned around and went to buy some cheesy-bad-snack after all.

I ate it.

I paid a lot of attention to how it tasted. It didn’t taste like guilt this time.

Making this decision was difficult. It took more than twice as long as just buying the snack and getting it over with, or just sitting in my house and doing nothing about that urge. It took a lot of energy to introspect rather than run on heuristics.

I felt mostly content with my decision, especially in how I chose to make it. By taking my time, I avoided the counterproductive impulse to buy the cheesy-bad-snack quickly while hoping the rest of me doesn’t notice as I slam it down my gullet. It’s a shame when that happens. Then I neither enjoy it nor avoid the nutritional hit.

While walking up and down the street and in the store, I didn’t stop paying attention to how I was feeling. I kept collecting data within myself. And I was open to the decision going either way. Honestly, I couldn’t have predicted the outcome.

Part of me still wishes I hadn’t ended up buying it. It was a close vote. But the important thing is that I gave myself time to look at all of the voting blocks within myself, rather than forcing a decision through or being sneaky with myself. I didn’t dissociate with any part of myself in that decision. I sat with the conflict until it resolved. I wasn’t afraid of the answer.

I know someone with a penchant for dissociation who described himself watching as he took one step after another towards a goal he knew he “shouldn’t” have. He felt like a passive rider, denying that he was making a choice but observing it happen at the same time. What is “I” mean, if it’s so small that it doesn’t include your body?

I didn’t quite want to take the opinions of my mouth as seriously as I did. Much of me thinks my tongue is stupid and easily tricked. But my mouth is part of me, and it can get wiser over time by getting included in the decision-making and feedback process.

In making a true decision, there must be an actual openness to the dial moving either way. One might hope that when all the votes come in, we go one way over another. But if we don’t, that means that “I” isn’t actually counting all of us, and that we should work to become more integrated.

In Resonant Alignment

Sometimes I stumble upon music with voices that have a particular sound to them. Don’t worry about listening to these unless you have the time. They deserve at least half of your attention.

Existence: Life (alt link)
My favorite example.

I probably don’t have to tell you this. You’ve all heard a violinist play their instrument like a lover or seen a dancer give themselves to the music completely. Intuitively, we know what a disingenuous speech sounds like versus when someone believes in what they’re saying. It’s almost a caricature to hear how sarcastic and disingenuous the Chairman sounds in comparison.

Think about the difference between an honest plea from someone who needs help versus a sideways request that they choke out in after some distracting small talk. It doesn’t mean they’re lying to you, but it does show that there is dissonance in them. Parts of themselves that aren’t on board.

It’s not just passion. It’s also determination, confidence, an unwavering gaze. It’s chilling and powerful. There’s a way of sounding that you get when there is complete alignment. You’re hearing that what they singing is what they feel the truth is. Somewhere inside of you, it resonates the same thing in yourself somewhere in a way that’s very hard to ignore.

This isn’t just for music or creative acts. It’s important to know what this sounds like in yourself in others. Learning this is important. It’s how you can tell if you’re telling the truth.

This is how you tell if you’re speaking the truth or not.

Truth meaning what you actually believe, not what is objectively true out there. We’re not oracles for the world, but we can get closer to one when it comes to ourselves.

Mentally, this manifests as lack of energy or motivation. Procrastination, internal resistance, dragging yourself along. Shouldn’ts and Shoulds.

Physically, this manifests as a lack of smoothness, stopping and starting. Hesitancy and lack of confidence in movement. Tightness and aimlessness. Literally, spinal alignment.

Voices will sound shriller, shakier, quieter, hesitant, with more vocal fry, or just plain strung out in some direction. Sarcastic side comments, falsely inflected cheery small talk. Not being able to speak at all.

We’re a shadow of ourselves when our internal part are holding each other back, a confused collection of vectors that don’t fully line up with our speech and action.

When I’m in resonant alignment, moving forward isn’t tiring. Action isn’t costly. It’s flowing into the future. The words write themselves and my speech comes out clear. When all of those parts are in order—all of them, from our toes to our heart to our thoughts—is my working hypothesis for what a soul is.


I have an exercise that I find both painful and incredibly cathartic.

Look into the mirror and don’t break eye contact with yourself. Say something you believe. Listen to how it sounds. Say something that you don’t believe. Listen to how that sounds.

If you try to say it with feeling, are you convincing yourself? Be very careful to avoid learning how to better convince yourself of things you don’t believe, or you’ll risk jeopardizing your relationship with the truth. If you’re in a situation where you need to lie to yourself, maybe this exercise isn’t for you. If so, I hope you can move towards a situation that doesn’t make you do that to your soul.

Internal resonances isn’t a binary. It’s a matter of degree, and it takes a while to find the words that resonate the most. When I do find the right words, my chest will literally resonate more. And it often makes me cry when I do find them.

To sum up: There is a way of sounding when in alignment. Find the things that bring that voice out of you. Do that.

Eye Gazing

Union – Android Jones

It was late at night at an intimate festival around the charming hour of 3 am, when the night air began to bite and the ambient drug energy was beginning to calm. I was wandering with a discontent purposelessness, eventually meandering into some friends that I could follow instead. Together we went up to the top of a hill that perched between the two valleys full of campsites. 

On the top of that hill was a lounge with a plush cuddle space and beautiful laser cut piano that glowed from the inside softly purple and orange and red as people played. It was refreshing, the air cold but atmosphere warm.

I was frustrated. I wanted to vent to someone and I didn’t know how to ask. Looking around at the pile of bodies, I spotted a person I didn’t know next to some people I did know. An attractive person that had a kind look to him in a way that’s hard to pin down. I thought I knew his name, maybe. 

I sat down next to him and expressed my discontent at my night. There was so little depth in my interactions! I was an observer, unable to communicate and locked out of my own mind. When I shared that, he told me that he recognized the sadness in my eyes.

He was right, I was feeling sadness. I didn’t realize. I thanked him.

We took each other’s warm hands and sat close, bracing ourselves in the night air to watch a pianist beneath a psychedelic moon as he sang out under the stippling of stars. Mixed up with our feet were a dozen cuddling, intertwined bodies that relaxed with us. He began to work on my muscles around my shoulders and neck, gently pressing them down and helping them relax. After a few minutes of this intense and unexpected care, I began to cry a little, quietly. 

We looked at each other, tears in my eyes, relaxing our faces and gazing. Freedom from social performance. Our pupils contracted and dilated with our breaths and how we held our attention. I saw in his eyes beautiful pain. I saw a deep, calm sadness and I knew then that I loved him. 

We continued like this for several hours. Every time we shifted positions to straighten our backs or give an arm a rest, one of us extended a hand again. Every time, we reconnected, slowly building up a trust without words that we both wanted this. Needed this, even. Not a moment was boring. To put it dramatically, it felt as if I had been waiting for this my entire life. 

After hours of the continued cycle of syncing our bodies with one another and staring into each other’s eyes, I broke the sacred silence to tell him I was distractingly cold. Using words was vulnerable. I was scared I was breaking a beautiful thing.

We walked down the hill in close synchrony of steps as the sky lightened to a dim blue, giggling a little as we walked on a path one foot on each side of the stepping stone. I was shivering a lot at this point, which frustrated me. This made me want to go faster than our careful and slow lockstep, making our syncing more dissonant for much of the walk to the tea house. 

We separated for a minute to use the restroom, a surprisingly precarious thing. Very slow trust building. We then returned to our happy equilibrium, cuddling, face touching and eyes becoming less and less open in the early morning comfort of the teahouse. Warmer. The beauty of his eyes was still there, intense.  

We fell asleep like that, curled together in a bath of warm light and the sounds of soft conversations. 

When I woke up in the morning, he was no longer there, probably having left quietly to kindly avoid waking me. I felt the pained and sad confusion and insecurity of not knowing if he was returning or not. I lay there awake for a while, wondering. In some ways, what happened was instant codependence. An addictive closeness with absolute focus as we moved slowly and taking one step at a time, building security piece by piece. 

He didn’t come back after a while, so I swallowed my insecurity and shuffled off to my tent to sleep more. 

The next day it was hard to not think about what had happened. What was that, even? Who is this person? We hardly exchanged words and I had felt so much intense compassion and affection. What was that about? Would getting to know him more somehow stain that experience or allow another beautiful thing to happen? 

I don’t know. 

This is the second-most pleasurable thing I’ve ever experienced.

In the aftermath, something seems to have shifted. I have less anxiety about noticing the people around me. I think I was averse to eye contact before, so subconsciously that I didn’t notice. When I look around at a room full of strangers I see now real humans that I could connect with if I approached with openness and a smile. Humans that want connection just like I do.

Guru / Target: A model for personality cults of control

This is a model for how a specific kind of abusive cult or group functions. Not all dangerous groups follow this model. This can be used as a guide to distinguish if a guru is creating an environment for unhealthy control.

Extreme examples of this model include the Manson family and sub-groups within the Rajneeshees. I find the story of Uma Inder and self-proclaimed voice of God, Linori, to be informative.

The Guru

The Guru is most typically an intelligent man in his 30s or 40s that wants something badly. Sex, power, and fame are common motives. He believes that he is special, above others, and deserving of the thing he wants.

The Guru is smart enough to understand and read people, and has relied on his ability to read people as a strategy for survival. He can find weaknesses and emotional buttons, then adapt his pitch to better appeal to the target. And he’s practiced for years.

Still, he has a polarizing effect on people. Many notice the warning signs and avoid the guru out of distaste and wariness, leaving him around the people he most appeals to.

The Targets

The most important thing is that there is a power differential between the guru and the targets, be that age, intelligence, fame, manipulative skill, or wealth. Three common targets include:

  • Young women with self-esteem issues and family problems
  • Attractive men to help lure in attractive women
  • Wealthy men or women who feel a spiritual void and are seeking a salve

The Worldview

The guru will espouse a framework for how the world works that only he understands fully. Because he has monopoly over this understanding, his authority is unquestionable.

The guru will also prescribe a way of being. The deal is that the closer you follow this way of being, the closer you will be to understanding the framework and thus achieving some sort of reward.

The rewards for following his way are numerous, from power, abilities, enlightenment, love, or whatever else pushes the target’s buttons. The good student rises in status in the internal pecking order and gains validation — but never rises above that of the guru. Any real threats to his authority will leave or are kicked out.

Any outside and thus competing belief framework will be reframed as anything from naive to evil. These competing frameworks are seen as the word of the enemy. A dichotomy is formed where the world is conspiring against the guru and the targets. The only safety is to be found by listening to the guru and obeying his instructions. Questioning him or his worldview indicates that you are one of the enemy.

After abandoning whatever old framework the target had before, they are dependent on the guru for their sense of self, meaning, understanding, and purpose. The target cannot know better than the guru, unless the guru says so. True wisdom lies in accepting the word of the guru.

All of the positives are because of the teacher. All of the negatives are the fault of the student.

Over time, the target feels overwhelmingly indebted and thankful of the guru. The guru encourages this, with a way of being that emphasizes emotional and physical labor plus the gift of resources towards the guru. The debt is never paid.

Tools for control

The worldview above becomes installed with the use of many tools designed for keeping targets emotionally controlled. These aren’t all of the tools, but these are some common ones.

  • Drugs. Mind-altering substances can create a psychological or physical addiction. They also create dependence on the guru, who often controls access to drugs. Many drugs further destabilize and reframe the way the targets see the world, so they are dependent on the guru for stability and meaning.
  • Financial control. A worldview where the guru must have the possessions and resources of the targets.
  • Control of sex. Either celibacy or promiscuity. This prevents group members from forming strong bonds that might compete with the guru/target bond.
  • Threats and violence. Disobeying or questioning has spiritual or physical consequences.
  • Promises. If only the target does X, they will get Y. After the target invests by doing X, the requirements for Y often change to require yet more dedication.
  • Requirement of submission. A good student can only achieve enlightenment (or not get beaten) by submitting fully to the will of the guru. This makes it harder for the target to act in their own interest.
  • Conditional affection (aka “Love bombing”). This begins by providing more affection and care than the targets have felt before. it will be hard for the targets to frame the scenario as anything but good. They don’t realize how low a bar had been set by their upbringing.
  • Pecking orders. Special attention given to members that behave in certain ways.
  • Threats of disownment. This can be used to put targets into situations where they are more receptive of the other tools.
  • Illegality and blackmail. This can cause shame for targets, making it harder to confide in non-members of the group.
  • Pushing emotional buttons. Getting the targets to confide their secrets and traumas allows the guru to provide the right type of validation and threats to keep the target emotionally dependent.

Leaving

I’m interested in this topic because I was in an unhealthy and traumatic guru/target relationship for over a year. Realizing that the dynamic was not normal and in fact quite damaging was difficult, coming from a background of low self-esteem and the constant reassurance from the guru that everyone else was wrong.

IT HURTS when you learn that those you were taught were your “enemies” were telling the truth after all — but you had been told they were liars, deceivers, repressive, satanic etc and not to listen to them. 

It Hurts, from the Cult Education Institute

It hurts to admit that a situation was unhealthy. For me, it meant admitting that it wasn’t worth it. My time could have been better spent elsewhere. Admitting this to myself was very hard, and for a long time I was defending that it was worth it. In retrospect, I don’t think it was.

I had a hard time listening to the people who noticed the warning signs about the guru. At every step, the guru was framing the others as out to get us. Following my own volition was to go against the guru. Plus, everyone who was trying to help only made me feel like a child, stripped of agency.

Accepting that you have been the target of manipulation is to admit a loss of agency and control. But by looking at it straight on, in exchange, lets you regain actual control.

Leaving, I lacked a healthy support system and resources. I felt a lot of shame, isolation, failure, and guilt. I had a lot of dissociation and distancing from my experiences, that only came out as triggered outbursts at first. I didn’t know what was right or wrong for a while, as the framework for making sense had been revealed to be the product of bias and tool for control. Unfortunately, this all is normal.

The Body Keeps the Score is a good book about processing trauma and reducing dissociation.

It’s important to know that you should be treated with compassion, and that seeking a healthy environment is not a betrayal. There are support groups and therapy for people who have been targeted in this way.

Resources

What a Difference a Sandwich Makes

Living in a city like San Francisco is a nigh-constant assault of people in pain that want so much. Like most people, I learned to screen it out. I walk through the streets as if they were empty, clenched, haunted by a vague anxiety and fear.

While this is by no means healthy, this makes it less energetically expensive to leave the house. It still was hard, so for years, my goal was to get better at two things:

  1. Avoidance. Noise cancelling headphones and poor vision meant I actually don’t see or notice people around me. Just pretending doesn’t work, since subconscious movements and eye patterns will give you away. I also walk very quickly, so no one has much chance to engage with me.
  2. Boundaries. Getting better at refusals, saying “Sorry, no.” Having a policy not give money to people makes this easier. I break it sometimes when I feel like it or want to encourage things I like (like a cat on their head, great musical talent, raw charisma, or something that makes me feel genuinely good)

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine dropped off a box of delicious sandwich leftovers from their company office, more than I could eat. It seemed like a good idea to hand them out to people on the street, so I did. There were a couple immediate differences when I did this.

  1. Seeking. I was on the lookout for people who might want these sandwiches. When I came across someone and they asked me for spare change, I was pleased! I could offer them a delicious sandwich! It was a positive, not a negative, that they were requesting my attention. I was a lot less afraid. I was also surprised that it took so long to give out the sandwiches. When I’m avoiding, I feel as if there are people on every block. But when I was seeking them out, I realized that some people I thought were omnipresent were only there some days of the week.
  2. No, But. I had something of value I wanted to offer. Interactions were positive sum, relieving me of unwanted sandwiches and reducing waste, plus the people who got the sandwiches were quite happy about them. I was worried they’d be offended and prefer money, but this didn’t happen. I didn’t feel any guilt or awkwardness.

This made me wonder: If I had something concrete I could offer people that they would be happy to get over spare change, this would reduce a lot of my anxiety of living in a city. Ideally, this would be relatively cheap for me to provide and easy to carry everywhere. A pleasing social experience is probably the best thing, though I don’t know how to comfortably provide those on the fly.

Luckily, I got another box of sandwiches a few weeks later. Much of the same thing happened. I felt a lot less fear of engagement with the people around me. When my favorite camp had disappeared, I was surprised to find that I was disappointed.

This is the opposite of dissociation. Instead of assuming all of the sensations around me would be negative, I paid attention. I realized that actually, yes, I did like the feeling of being around some of these people and camps more than others.


I haven’t gotten any free boxes of sandwiches lately. But even now, when I recognize someone or spot my “favorite” tents, I tend to feel more interest and calm acknowledgement (or even curiosity) than avoidance and anxiety.

There’s still a ways to go. My next step is to have actual conversations with the people I’m curious about. I’ve only dared to with sandwiches in tow.

The Qualia of Lasik

I got Lasik eye surgery a month ago, early May 2019. Since then, my vision has been between 20/20 and 20/15. It is somewhat baffling to me that my vision never stops being good. Contacts get dry and the world clouds up as the day goes on. Glasses get dirty. My imagination was underprepared for the reality where my vision is excellent from when I wake up to when I go to bed, full stop.

Making the decision

Making the decision took several months. I knew for years that I wanted Lasik when I was old enough, and at age 23 I was taking the decision seriously. I had stable -1.50 vision in both eyes, bad enough that I couldn’t drive but not bad enough that I needed to wear contacts or glasses all the time.

The main questions were:

  • Would it be worth it if my vision isn’t that bad to begin with?
  • PRK or Lasik?
  • Are negative side effects likely? (Dry eyes, poorer night vision)
  • Is my age an issue?
  • Which surgeon should I go with?

The people who tend to say that Lasik is worth it start with terrible vision. Mine was only mediocre, so it was less clear up front.

“Going from -1.5 to 0 means you lose about an inch of sharpness at maximum closeness (2 inches from your eyeball) and you gain the entire world from 2 feet to infinity.”

Mars Van Voorden

The consensus I found from talking to friends who had gotten Lasik was that I had more to gain, especially with modern techniques and a good surgeon.

PRK vs Lasik: I considered PRK as an alternative to Lasik. The benefit of PRK is that it does not create a flap in the cornea, so the flap can’t be dislodged. In my first consultation, I found out that there is a lot more pain and risk of infection from PRK. Also, surgeons are less experienced at doing PRK. In hindsight, the pain of Lasik was enough for me. PRK sounds miserable.

If I did a lot of martial arts or contact sports or thought I would in the future, that may have tipped the balance. But even then, the corneal flap heals to around 90% of original strength within a few months (according to one consultation). One reason the flap is less of an issue is that a blade is no longer used to cut the corneal flap. A laser is used instead, which promotes healing better than the smooth knife cut.

Age: I’m in my early 20s. My optometrist was concerned about my age, since my prescription might still change in the future. Both consultations that seemed to think this was a non-issue. I knew for myself that my vision had been consistent for the past 10 years, so I judged that it was okay. If it does change within the next few years, I can get a corrective Lasik surgery. I hope I don’t have to. One thing that reassured me is that my mother and grandmother both got Lasik to great success.

Dry Eyes and Night vision: Most friends I knew with Lasik didn’t have problem, and the ones who did still felt it was worth it. I felt confident about the machines and skill of the surgeon I went with, and feel like this reduced my risk of side effects.

I was concerned about halos and worse night vision, but at the second consultation they explained that the new state of the art in Lasik could actually improve night vision.

One of my very trusted friends said this about night vision: “It got more like I was on acid all of the time. Lights are just brighter and more dominant than they used to be and finding things in true darkness is harder. I was also one of the last to get hand cut eye flaps, night vision is supposed to be improved in current generation all laser Lasik.”

Which surgeon: Two friends of mine had gotten Lasik from the same surgeon. A benefit was that it was cheaper than average in the area, which to me implied that the surgeon did more surgeries and thus had more practice. The machines they used in that office seemed to be the state of the art, the same ones used at the Lasik center at Stanford. The two friends also had no meaningful side effects.

Other considerations: With a low prescription like mine, there was a higher chance of having better than 20/20 vision.

I asked a lot of friends about this to see if I was missing anything big. Someone explained diopters, and how I would lose some ability to focus close up and need reading glasses sooner than otherwise. There were some stories of knowing someone where things went wrong, but many more personal anecdotes of Lasik being worth it.

Something I didn’t take into account was safety. I am much less likely to get hit by a car now, and feel a lot safer walking around city streets.

There are some downsides that might show up later on, but so far, Lasik seems very worth it.

Timeline of Subjective Experiences

The first four hours were incredibly uncomfortable. The eye numbing drops wore off around 20 minutes after the surgery. Opening my eyes was too bright. Even with my eyes closed, everything was too bright. This pain lasted for around 4 hours. During that time, all I could do was sit with my eyes closed while my body focused on healing.

The rest of day one, I was zoned out from Valium but was able to keep my eyes open enough to barely participate in my weekly Dungeons and Dragons game. After I could get my eye open, I could see things clearly, including screens and things up close. I did have to blow my nose every 15 minutes from the constant tearing.

On day two, it shouldn’t have been a surprise then that I got a cold. The valium, stress, and the constant tearing of my eyes at first led to a week-long feeling of clogged sinuses. I was pretty relaxed about it. Valium lasts a while.

Day three, I bought a pair of sunglasses. I found the darkest ones I could that would also block out UVA. Even then, the world was too damn bright. I was worried that I would be overwhelmed by people on the street and making eye contact with them, but this is entirely solved by wearing sunglasses. Also, I can see people from further off and avoid them more effectively. This isn’t an ideal strategy, but it’s how I cope with living in a city right now.

My eyes were no longer tearing. They were dry sometimes and uncomfortable, but not what I would call pain.

Later that day, I got bitten by a small dog. It was a small bite that didn’t break the skin but left a bruise. I broke down completely, barely able to speak and still hold back my tears. This was confusing! I knew that I didn’t care that much about minor pain. It wasn’t about the dog. I retreated somewhere private and sobbed for around 10 minutes before being able to interact with people again.

Something about that minor physical pain triggered a release of all of the numbed discomfort from the surgery. I had felt grief or loss about my old eyes since the surgery. My eyes had been trying very hard, and they weren’t good enough for me? That feeling of grief went away after crying.

This was also around when the Valium wore off. A thing I had to keep in mind was that Valium would interact with alcohol, making each drink dangerously more potent.

A week later, my eyes no longer felt like I had left contacts in them for several days. I thought “dry eyes” would feel dry, but really, it means itchy. I feel strong urges to rub my eyes every other day or so, and when I do, I put in eye drops.

One strange thing I noticed was that my hearing seemed to be better. The spatial cues in my environment or subtle lip-reading made some sounds feel louder. This could also be from freeing up processing power in my brain, now that interpreting my visual environment is so much easier than the interpolation and guessing from before.

Three weeks in, I’m still slightly sensitive to light but not in discomfort in the same way. Up until 2.5 weeks, I was wearing sunglasses outside every day, rain or shine. I no longer feel the need to when it’s overcast, but I think that sunglasses will be a larger part of my life now.

One nice thing about sunglasses I bought is that my vision is so clear that I can use the sides of my sunglasses as rear-view mirrors, and get a sense of what’s behind me without turning my head. This gives me a huge amount of extra spatial awareness I’m still learning to integrate, and when I don’t wear sunglasses I sometimes miss it!

I used to get headaches often. Getting Lasik reduced the amount of headaches I get. I now can pinpoint headaches down to more specific things, like reading in low light or looking at my phone in a car.

I also think this is helping my social skills significantly. I’m picking up and responding to a lot more cues from people. I have had less social anxiety since, and I hope it stays that way.

My depth perception and spatial awareness is a lot better, and this makes me feel less anxiety in general.

I feel freer in a way that is hard to pinpoint. If I were sent back in time, I wouldn’t have to worry about my vision. In the zombie apocalypse, I’d be able to spot them coming from afar. If I wanted to be a dirtbag traveling the world, I could do that all while seeing clearly. At festivals, I no longer will have to choose between seeing clearly and experiencing the pain of dust and sunblock that came from putting on contacts in a camping environment.

I’m a little disappointed that at no point did I get a feeling of euphoria from seeing clearly. No joyous “you’re free now,” or “this is so beautiful.” Instead, I get a few pings a day like “That’s convenient. You can see that person’s expression,” or “I guess it is kind of cool that you can see all of those nice rocks and trees right now.” I’m holding out some hope that my neurochemistry will change and that I’ll get a moment of euphoria when I look out at clear stars in a wide night sky.

Six months later, I’ve jumped in Barton Springs without a worry about my eyes, blinking water out them, and could see my friends smiling from a distance. But Lasik hasn’t been without drawbacks. If I am dehydrated, in a plane, or near a chlorine pool, my eyes get dry. Reading on my computer for 4+ hours will do this. It’s uncomfortable until I put in eyedrops, and if I don’t have eyedrops immediately on hand it’s stressful.

This seems to be getting better over time. We in our chronic screen dependent lives all have dry eyes to some extent, and long-term contact wearers deal with this too. It’s changing my relationship to screens in a way that I hope is for the better.

Seeing Lake Tahoe bare-eyed

Many parts of the world are not beautiful. Still, I am not looking away. I feel safer, and brave in choosing to experience the world more fully.

In Favor of Writing

Many people I know do interesting research, have numerous projects, and routinely develop novel deep thoughts. Lately, every time they’ve told me about a thing they’ve been working on, I have encouraged them to write it up and put it where someone else could see it. Why?

A selfish reason is that I am writing more and would enjoy the company.

Another is that I believe that what my friends are doing is interesting and important. I want to be able to reference their work later and be able to share it with others.

Overall, I’ve found a number of benefits to writing up things. First are minor pleasantries, like a better vocabulary and the ability to write faster.

Another is in the pursuit of laziness. Rather than have to tell the same thing to ten people before growing tired of explaining, then to watch them forget it, I have an artifact that sticks around for much longer. I can share that artifact astonishingly efficiently. And in the future, when I forget the details of what I learned at the time, my old work can fill me in.

Which brings me to the most serious reason. Putting work where it can be seen means becoming in contact with reality greater than the inside one’s own ego.

When I write something up, I am flirting with reality. A blank page is perfect. But imperfect words on the page are real.

When I post it online, I am dancing with reality. Others can tell if my ideas are weak or if I’m onto something. My work is where people can see it and judge it on its merits. What I share can’t generate defenses and excuses on the fly like I can.

This provides accountability to ego claims. Posting something online is proof that I made it. I’m not wasting time appearing like the type of person that writes things, I’m writing things and putting them in places where people can check.

When reality dances back, that’s how you get feedback. If a tiny segment of the world likes what it sees, that’s a step in the right direction. You know that you’re creating value. If that tiny segment of the world doesn’t like what it sees, then it’s time to change audiences or admit that the work needs improving.

There are some other benefits. I’m often aware of how easy it is to consume what other people have created without even considering creating on my own.

By posting something online, I am becoming the type of person that creates value. I am building the habit and skills of production over consumption. Even if that artifact falls into the void unseen, the work done will make the next project easier.

When should something be written up?

The Schelling Time is now, and by the process of producing and allowing that work to enter a feedback loop, it will improve faster. Waiting for a complete concept, a fully baked idea, or the end of the project to before daring to create a shareable artifact almost always means that none will ever be created.

I recommend that if you have something you believe is worth sharing, start working towards sharing it on a larger scale. If it’s just in your mind, put it on the paper. Share it with one person. Post it and never publicize it. When you’re confident, cast it out further and adjust it as the feedback comes in.

Alcohol Harm Reduction

Drinking is fun sometimes. And, unfortunately, drinking is unhealthy. There are a lot of strategies to reduce hangovers, negative side effects, and damage to our health that are underutilized.

This is a relatively shallow dive aiming for simple interventions that make the biggest difference. This isn’t medical advice, I’m not a doctor. Please comment if I make a mistake, I’d like to know.

TL;DR: This stack from Life Extension is solid. Take it with alcoholic drinks to minimize liver damage and oxidative stress damage. Or, consider taking glutathione before or after a heavy night of drinking. And don’t forget to hydrate with electrolytes.

Metabolism Overview

Alcohol is broken down in the liver in two steps.

First, ethanol is broken down by alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) into acetaldehyde. The first product, acetaldehyde, is more toxic than ethanol. It is a major cause of hangover. Buildups of it cause flushing, dizziness, nausea, and headaches. It might be responsible for the more unpleasant aspects of being drunk, such as the memory problems, sleepiness, and lack of coordination [2].

Next, acetaldehyde is broken down by aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) into the harmless acetic acid (acetic acid is what makes vinegar vinegar). If there is a problem with ALDH via genetics, alcohol is substantially more toxic!

A fast ADH or a slow ALDH cause a buildup of acetaldehyde.

The overflow system, for when there is a lot of alcohol or an underperforming ALDH, is called the Microsomal Ethanol Oxidizing System (MEOS). MEOS does a lot of important metabolism already, and by having to process alcohol, it can’t do its normal functions, which can lead to a buildup of toxic byproducts.

Glutathione: Key Antioxidant

Glutathione is an important naturally occurring antioxididant, that is, it stops the harmful chemical stress caused by free radicals in the body. Glutathione is generated by the body and might be supplementable.

Glutathione is reduced when alcohol is consumed [3]. This is bad. Taking glutathione and other antioxidants reduces alcohol-induced liver damage [8].

There’s a lot of debate about how effective it is to take glutathione orally [4][5]. Due to how important glutathione is, it seems worth trying. A stack like this one by LifeExtension seems like it might work, and comes complete with a long list of citations.

Other supplements and foods

To indirectly increase glutathione levels, these might help:

  • Food containing sulfur. Uncooked meat, garlic, eggs, nuts.
  • Foods or supplements containing selenium. Brazil nuts, mushrooms, seafood.
  • Vitamin C [6]
  • Cysteine or N-acetyl cysteine (NAC)
  • Vitamin E
  • Milk Thistle Extract
  • SAMe [8]
  • B6
  • r-Alpha Lipoic Acid
  • Curcumin

Mixing with other drugs

The short story is that breathing is good. Depressants that also lower heart rate and breath rate are dangerous, and there are a lot of drugs that do this.

For a short list, avoid alcohol and these things:

  • Benzodiazapines. Benzos stay in the system for 24+ hours, so if you took one yesterday it still might not be safe to drink today. They synergize aggressively, causing dangerously low breath rate and heart rate. (Also blackouts and intense stupidity, just read /r/drugs for an hour)
  • Opiates. Breathing is good for you and your brain
  • Sleeping medicine like Ambien
  • Be careful with alcohol and muscle relaxants. This can exacerbate the physical effects of alcohol leading to a potentially dangerous lack of coordination and balance
  • Altitude. It’s not a drug, but it’s hard to get enough oxygen at altitude. Drinking when you’re already feeling altitude sickness will not only hit harder, but increase risk of hypoxia.

Certain antidepressants, like Buproprion / Wellbutrin, don’t mix well with alcohol. When on an MAOI antidepressant, especially avoid red wine. Red wine plus an MAOI causes a new and fun sort of toxicity known as “cheese headaches”, which are uncomfortable and cause high blood pressure.

This isn’t a complete list of what to be careful of. Talk to your doctor, and if you don’t do that, check the Drugs.com Interactions Checker for prescription drugs or Tripsit.me Interaction Chart for illicit drugs.

Phenibut

Phenibut (β-Phenyl-γ-aminobutyric acid) is an anti-anxiety drug used in Russia. It’s unregulated and relatively unknown in the US, and can be purchased online. It’s a GABA-B agonist, meaning that it will relax muscles, increase feelings of relaxations, and decrease anxiety.

Despite grey area legality, I found it listed as an ingredient in 7-11

Many people take alcohol in order to reduce social anxiety. Phenibut reduces anxiety without many of the negative effects of alcohol. If social anxiety is the primary reason for drinking, Phenibut is a great replacement (sometimes).

Phenibut and alcohol synergize aggressively. This means that you can easily harm yourself by drinking like normal while on phenibut. But this also means that you can take phenibut and drink much less alcohol than normally, while still getting as strong a buzz.

Keep in mind: Like alcohol, phenibut is addictive, but causes fewer health issue than alcohol does. The withdrawal is known to be terrible if you do get addicted, so be careful. A good rule of thumb is to take it once or twice a week, and no more. The larger the dose is, the

Demographics and Genetics

Many people have mutations in the genes for either ADH or ALDH. Sometimes this is apparent from symptoms, and if not, an analysis of 23andme data could find something.

Mutations in the genes for ADH mean the risk of cancer from drinking is much higher [7].

Mutations in the genes for ALDH are very common and make alcohol substantially less healthy.

From Wikipedia, emphasis my own:

About 50% of people of Northeast Asian descent have a dominant mutation in their acetaldehyde dehydrogenase gene,[6] making this enzyme less effective. A similar mutation is found in about 5–10% of blond-haired blue-eyed people of Northern European descent.[7] In these people, acetaldehyde accumulates after drinking alcohol, leading to symptoms of acetaldehyde poisoning, including the characteristic flushing of the skin and increased heart and respiration rates.[7] Other symptoms can include severe abdominal and urinary tract cramping, hot and cold flashes, profuse sweating, and profound malaise.[7] Individuals with deficient acetaldehyde dehydrogenase activity are far less likely to become alcoholics, but seem to be at a greater risk of liver damage, alcohol-induced asthma, and contracting cancers of the oro-pharynx and esophagus due to acetaldehyde overexposure.[7]

If you experience those symptoms and have that genetic marker, be aware! You’re more likely to get diseases from drinking alcohol. This is balanced by the cursed gift that the ALDH mutation makes drinking less pleasant, so at least those with it are less likely to become heavy drinkers.

Females have less active ADH and lower H2O levels relative to body mass. This means the MEOS system is more often used in alcohol metabolism, which is less ideal in general.

The older you are, the more toxic alcohol is. One reason is that glutathione synthesis gets worse with age [3].

Harm Reduction for Severe Alcoholism

Well. Given that someone is an alcoholic, there are multiple interventions that can reduce cancer risk and liver damage and increase overall health.

Alcohol consumption interferes with ability to absorb nutrients, plus alcoholic drinks tend to have very few nutrients! This means that alcoholics are likely to be seriously malnourished in both macro and micro nutrients. [1]

First, start taking Vitamin C, B Vitamins, and either Vitamin A or beta-carotene. If you aren’t a heavy drinker, skip the Vitamin A, as large doses above what is normal can be toxic.

Then, start aggressively supplementing whey protein. Next, get a blood test to see what you’re most deficient in, and start working to reduce those deficiencies.

If you’re malnourished or on a low protein diet, ADH works less efficiently, meaning that blood alcohol levels stay higher for longer. Like those with genetic mutations on ADH, this will cause more disease in the long run.

Summary and Stack Suggestions

Convention wisdom for alcohol safety, like how to pace your drinking and keep hydrated, are no less important. Overall, the more unpleasant the hangover or alcohol experience is, the more likely it is to be toxic. Reducing hangover symptoms is caring about your health.

My stack, optimized for convenience and health, is:

  1. Life Extension Anti-Alcohol Complex. This has Vitamin C, E, Selenium, NAC, Glutathione, and a whole slew of other ingredients that have some evidence behind them. This is a one-stop pill. Take one pill with each drink, up to 5 pills. If you’re taking this, be careful taking other supplements that might contain some of the same ingredients.
  2. Replenish that glutathione and drink water with a PowerPak of Electrolytes (which contains Vitamin C, B Vitamins, and Selenium) the next morning.

Further questions

  • Phenolic compounds on ADH and ALDH
  • Alcohol and acetaminophen: Additive or negatively synergistic?
  • There are two forms of glutathione one can take: L-glutathione (also called reduced glutathione) vs s-acetyl l-glutathione. Which one is better?
  • The MEOS system: how it works and what it depletes, and what the tradeoffs are
  • Healthy balance between NADH and NAD+ levels. Impacted by alcohol?

Resources

  1. Relationships Between Nutrition, Alcohol Use, and Liver Disease. [link]
  2. Alcohol Metabolism: An Update. July 2007 from the National Institute of Health sub-department National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [link]
  3. Glutathione Depletion and Recovery After Acute Ethanol Administration in the Aging Mouse. Vogt 2008. Biochem Pharmacol. [link]
  4. Bioavailability Study of an Innovative Orobuccal Formulation of Glutathione. Buonocore 2015. Oxiditative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. [link]
  5. Enhanced Glutathione Levels in Blood and Buccal Cells by Oral Glutathione Supplementation. Richie 2013. FASEB Journal. [link]
  6. Vitamin C augments lymphocyte glutathione in subjects with ascorbate deficiency. KJ 2003. Am J Clin Nutr. [link]
  7. Alcohol dehydrogenase 1C*1 allele is a genetic marker for alcohol‐associated cancer in heavy drinkers. Homann 2005. International Journal of Cancer. [link]
  8. Overview: How Is Alcohol Metabolized by the Body? Zakhari. [link]