Friday, March 4, 2016

A Waldening Retrospective

In January I went waldening for two months - my girlfriend and I packed up our bags and moved out of San Francisco and into a small house in the woods of Gasquet, CA. You can read my original post here and read about my theory behind waldening here.

Our primary goal was to gain some outside perspective on our San Francisco lives. We accomplished this, but it wasn’t easy. At first I looked forward to our time away as an opportunity to be more productive while I was free of social obligations. We read Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” and began to put into practice its suggestions for getting more serious productivity out of ourselves.

But this didn’t work. Cal Newport’s advice is great for someone that knows what they want to accomplish and needs to focus all their effort on it. I am struggling with a very different problem - figuring out what it is that I should be spending my life on. Trying to focus deeply on my writing or anything else didn’t work because I’m not convinced that that is the thing for me to do.

After about a month I shook the mindset of the cult of productivity. I changed my focus to getting to know myself and to pursuing the unique opportunities that Gasquet offered instead. Both my girlfriend and I were surprised by how much there is to do in a small town in the woods. Gasquet wasn’t just not San Francisco - it has its own personality.

It was these local activities that I found the most fulfilling. We started making woodcraft and my girlfriend opened up an etsy store to sell them. We collected thousands of wild mushrooms - yellowfoot Chanterelles and hedgehogs popped up like weeds in the woods behind our house. I invented a new workout routine on the nearby beach that I call “Beachfit” which involves lifting a lot of driftwood logs and stones. And we took advantage of having some space to ourselves to throw art parties for the two of us.

When we got outside the house we encountered a different culture from what we are used to in the city. Everybody knew everybody else, and everybody takes the time to chat. We met a few guys at the local woodcarving shop and would stop in for a conversation each time we walked by. They filled us in with valuable information about the area and helped us out when we needed someone to watch our cat. We even learned a bit of woodworking from one of them. The friendliness reminded me a little bit of Burning Man.

Some of the people we met seemed cheerful with very simple careers, such as our grocery store cashier who had worked the same job for 20 years. Perhaps she was cheerful in part because a person could earn a decent living in that area on a cashier’s wage. And for us, used to rating our self-worth by the ambition of our careers, it was nice to meet people we liked living by another set of values. I think it will help us relax a bit.

I chose to undertake a big personal odyssey at the start of our time in Gasquet by breaking my addiction to caffeine. It’s an incredibly common drug addiction in my SF social circle, but there were two reasons that I wanted to drop it. First, I wasn’t sure if I could - I had been a daily coffee drinker for more than half my life. I picked up the habit 16 years ago in high school.

Second, I didn’t like how I used coffee to manage social perceptions of myself. It made me bright, energetic, interesting and interested but I thought I was none of those things without it. I constantly worried over my caffeine level - if it was too low and the time was too late in the day to drink more coffee, I might skip a social event altogether. My reasoning is that I would rather make no impression than a bad impression.

I want to confront my need to manage others’ perception of me and ultimately live a less strategic life. To do this I need to clear out all the padding and barriers I put between the world and my true self. Caffeine was one of these. It had to go.

I decided to kick the habit cold turkey. My imagination didn’t comprehend how miserable the withdrawal symptoms could be. For 25 days I sat in a stew of lethargy and headache. Little interested me. I reread Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series but my eyes had a hard time focusing on the words. Often I glazed over paragraphs without understanding them and would have to go back to read them again.

The silliness and energy that I'm known for was gone. After several weeks of caffeine withdrawals, I was scared that they might not come back. The internet will tell you that caffeine withdrawals are supposed to last for only a handful of days, maybe a week at most. My brain had grown around this foreign chemical for 16 years, maybe I would never be normal without it? Many times I doubted myself and seriously considered cheating by having a caffeinated tea.

The first sign that the withdrawals would end and that I would be normal again happened after about 25 days when there was music playing and I felt like dancing. Some peppy energy was moving through my body, and I felt happy. It was the first time that I felt any joy in a month. After that I was able to be interested, excited, and happy without the need of caffeine.

Whatever else happened in Gasquet, I can count on kicking the caffeine habit as a success. The house in the woods was my own little rehab center. I would have never been able to let myself suffer that deeply and that long in San Francisco where I have a life to maintain.

So in addition to a new mindset, I return to San Francisco with a new brain on a biochemical level.

Coming back to the city I felt a mild dread. I miss having space - even unpacking my bathroom items into ample cabinet space in Gasquet felt like luxury. In San Francisco folding my life into a tiny space is a daily source of mild stress.

But I’m also excited about the possibilities that are available now that I’m back. Many of my master plans for how I will eventually make money doing the kinds of things I like can only be supported by a liberal city culture. The woods was a place to get to know myself, the city is a place to connect with other people. If I learned one thing while waldening, it's to enjoy the place where I find myself instead of wishing for the possibilities I would have if I were somewhere else.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Waldening Theory

see the first post explaining the concept of "waldening" here

The motivation behind waldening concerns free will. Humans appear to have the ability to choose how they act. But we understand the world through concepts given to us by culture. So it ends up that we have the freedom to choose between all the paths that our culture allows in pursuit of things that our culture tells us to value. This is a weak kind of freedom. Culture can’t be escaped. There is no such thing as seeing the world how it “really” is, without the interference of culture. Maybe babies do it, but continuing beyond a the age of a few months would require you to go full Romulus and get raised by wolves. After all, language itself is a cultural artifact. Perfect freedom isn’t possible or desirable. But more freedom is possible. Living in a new culture for a time can give us perspective on our home culture. We realize that things could be otherwise and no longer take things for granted. The more perspectives we gather, the more alternatives we can imagine.