Pandemic Idleness

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Goodreads

Well, not quite. Makes for a good soundbite though, doesn’t it? The full context, emphasis mine:

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

But on further consideration, when, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Project Gutenberg

What have you been up to lately? Sitting quietly in a room alone? Perhaps contemplating “the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition,” as a global pandemic is wont to encourage?

I’m trying to maintain my usual sultry self, lounging around the house in pajamas while submitting pull requests and posting pictures of my dog in the work Slack. Yet I consider this an achievement: I know how I would have responded to a situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic and social isolation two or three years ago, and it ends with hospitalization. The most significant thing I’ve done for my mental health since then is resisting at all costs the urge to stop working when it starts feeling harder. That way lies madness; keeping my mind occupied keeps my body safe.

So I’ve been trying to pick up music again, and have been spending a lot of time fiddling with various MIDI controllers plugged in to GarageBand and Logic Pro synthesizers. Atypically, my desire to create music right now has been driven by the joy I find in listening to it, instead of a vague sense of obligation to other people. (my Selmer Series III alto sax remains in the closet, still making me feel guilty) A few artists and selected albums that I’ve been enjoying the heck out of lately:

  • Mac DeMarco: 2, Salad Days, This Old Dog
  • David Bowie: Young Americans, Earthling, Blackstar
  • Billie Eilish: Don’t Smile at Me, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
  • The Cure: Disintegration
  • Nine Inch Nails: Pretty Hate Machine
  • Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  • Think Tree: eight/thirteen

School and learning were also things I used to do mostly out of a vague sense of obligation to others. Since suspending my studies, I’ve realized that I’m only failing myself when I receive grades or evaluations or criticism that I feel don’t reflect what I’m capable of. Fortunately, I’ve only ever been afraid of failing other people, so this came as some relief. I’m far more productive, not to mention healthier, when my studies and my work and my music are for me, and not my parents or teachers or instructors. I still don’t know how I ended up living more than nineteen years of my life purely for other people, though I suspect it is at least in part due to the pervasive disconnection I felt from being trans.

That I might someday choose to go back to school, not because I have to, but because I want to, has been a liberating realization as I continue defining and redefining myself through transition. I find that my subset of the trans community often talks a lot about hormone regimens and the difficulties of stabbing yourself in the thigh with hormones on a weekly basis, and less about the sheer Sartrean terror of freedom you face once stabbing yourself regularly starts to seem normal and the artifices of the self-image you once presented to the world seem increasingly less so. An entire life awaits: you’ve come so far, it still feels hard, but you’re just getting started. You can do anything and be anyone you want to be: these things are left as an exercise for us readers. It’s exhilarating and terrifying.

In my idleness, I’m trying to make music, and I’m trying to start writing regularly again, alongside my typical immersion in reading about computer science and programming languages. I wish I could say I was more engaged in politics right now, as the dusk of capitalist realism seems nearer than ever before. Unfortunately survival is all I can muster, and I’m okay with that. My life and environs are simultaneously at a high I could not have imagined was possible two years ago and a low I could not have imagined was possible three weeks ago.