A More Forgiving Lens

The author and his little brother in 1980.
The author and his little brother in 1980.

I have never felt like I belonged in this species. I resembled a human, and I could force myself to awkwardly ape the basic mannerisms of people, but I would always suspect that there was something alien about me, and that everyone else suspected (or knew) the same thing.

A lot of this alienation is in regard to my relationship to, and interactions with, other people. I’m a pretty severe introvert, that’s no secret. Being around people, even those I love and feel most comfortable with, utterly exhausts me. But I’ve always felt that there was more to it than mere introversion. For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to relate to almost anyone, unable to comprehend others’ values, aspirations, needs, obsessions, or subtexts.

As a result, I’ve been at a loss as to how to blend, to appear as though I do understand, or at the very least to keep my bewilderment hidden. So I’ve thrown an inordinate amount of processing power at figuring out how to appear normal, how to talk, stand, sit, move, gesture, and where to fix my gaze or how to modulate my voice. I pretend to value the same things other people value and aspire to the same kinds of things they aspire to, even to the point of almost entirely convincing myself.

That alienation, this constant dissonance, was of my own making, I believed. I didn’t share the same interests as others because I had somehow failed to grasp the obvious reasons they were important or provided joy. I didn’t engage in sports or other physical activities because I was weak and afraid and unwilling to put the time in to not be that way. I had trouble comprehending instructions and directions because I was being self-absorbed and inattentive. I had trouble reading for any length of time because I was superficial and distracted. I upset people I love, not giving them what they needed, because I was negligent, self-centered, and oblivious. I didn’t want to socialize because I was a stick in the mud, narcissistic, and timid. I didn’t want to go on big adventures, travel, take big risks, or throw myself into new situations because I was cowardly and lazy. That summed up why I fared so poorly, academically and socially, throughout much of middle and high school: I was cowardly and lazy.

What else could I conclude? And having reached such a conclusion, over and over, in every circumstance from childhood to my late 30s, brought self-hate, depression, anxiety, resentment, and resignation. How could it be any other way?

I did have one suspicion, though. A suspicion that kept popping into my awareness, something that felt familiar, but also sounded too alien even for me.

That suspicion only grew, however. When I would air it out loud to someone, it would be summarily dismissed. I, not trusting my own perceptions of the world, not knowing how to be a person, conceded to the dismissal. But only outwardly.

I stopped conceding. I have finally pursued this suspicion to its end, and, well, it turns out for once I was right.

Last week, at the age of 38, I was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder, along with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

I have Asperger’s. I am autistic.

I’m so very glad to know. And I’m also glad that there was no hedging on the part of the doctor, the neuropsychologist who tested and diagnosed me. As my wife Jessica and I sat down in her office, the doctor mercifully began by saying, “I’ll cut to the chase, because I know you’re eager to know,” and told me that I had what she characterized as “severe” Asperger’s syndrome. Not severe in the sense of debilitation or in some kind of danger, but meaning that I’m firmly, well into the spectrum. Had the diagnosis been fuzzy, a borderline case, I’d never stop wondering and doubting. Having it be so clear-cut was a relief.

When I first began toying with the idea of getting tested, I couldn’t avoid the fact that simply knowing I had Asperger’s, if indeed I did, wouldn’t really change anything. There’s no medication to take, there’s no real treatment. I’d just go on as I had been. I had to ask myself, well, why bother?

Here’s why. The dissonance of my life – my strange predilections, my quirks, my strong and irrational aversions, my inability to read or connect with other people, my lack of interest in the experiences of life, my intractable obsessions over particular topics and utter lack of curiosity for almost anything else, my desperate need for safe and reliable routines, my spacial disorientation, my hypersensitivity to heat, sound, and light, my clumsiness and lack of coordination, my over-reliance on rules and logic, my inability to think in broad, big-picture terms, and most especially, the panic, pain, and exhaustion I experience in even the most benign social situations – I have always ascribed these things to my being a failure as a person. A lazy, cold-hearted, short-sighted coward.

Now I know that much of it (not all, of course) stems from something I was just born with. There was an actual condition that made it impossible that I could ever be and think like everyone else. My brain was literally different from theirs, and there was nothing I could have done about it.

Generosity of spirit is one of the virtues I value most, but it is never something I allowed for myself. Instead, I have tortured myself over my past, for the things I endured and the things I felt I had brought upon myself, because I had failed at some point to become fully human. I blamed myself for having neglected to learn how to be a normal person. I wasn’t just unable to cut myself a little slack for the failures and disappointments of the past, I had forbade myself from doing so. To forgive myself, I felt, would be to allow myself to continue to fail and disappoint.

Now I can reevaluate. I can look back on the story of my life through a more forgiving lens. I honestly don’t know what that might do to me.

As I sit here now and tell myself this is real, it’s hard to accept, even though it’s mostly welcome. I obviously have a great deal more processing to do. Some of that processing I’ll do here, in writing, as it seems to be the way I best understand and express my thoughts. In writing, the rules and parameters, and there are no social cues to miss or misinterpret, no eyes with which to avoid contact, no expected time frame in which to form and verbally express a thought, no expectation that I intuit the nuance and give-and-take of a real-time conversation. Here, I don’t have to second-guess my very worth as a human being.

Actually, maybe that’s the first thing I should do: Accept, finally, that there is nothing to second-guess, and that I don’t have to pretend to be normal anymore. Maybe I never did.

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The challenge today was to be alright with accomplishing nothing. Which turned into something else.

I’m parenting solo with only one of the kids, my 3-year-old daughter, as my wife and 6-year-old son are on a whirlwind trip to visit friends in far-off places. I am enjoying the chance to spend solo time with my daughter, though as my wife will attest, I already exist in a state in which I am constantly wrapped around her little finger. Nonetheless, it’s nice.

The week had been productive in a number of ways, not just from work, but in the restarting of my podcast after a brief hiatus, beginning to noodle with music once again, and most impressive to me, my having installed a dishwasher with no help, and no errors. 

But then I had my weekend with my daughter. Saturday was all about catering to her. Her brother was going on an adventure, and she was not, so this was a day to spoil her a bit, and that took the bulk of the day. Today, Sunday, was more or less a normal Sunday, with stuff to take care of around the house, and a kid to occupy (usually it’s two of them, and I have a partner in parenting). 

We played with her stuffed animals, we played doctor and patient (I needed a shot of course), and we spent a good amount of time on this beautiful, cool day at a playground. She loves the swings. She could stay on the swings all day. And of course, she must be pushed.

I could feel an anxiety rise in my chest. The work week was about to start back up. Nothing had gotten done in the house. I needed playtime to last as long as it could in order to fill time, and yet I worried over the time that was ticking away. For…what? I didn’t know.

I tried to be still. She was in a kind of state of blissful sublimity on her swing, time having even less meaning than it usually does for a 3-year-old. I wanted to join her, at least a little, in that state. It didn’t have to be bliss, but I could at least reject the concerns for Things to Be Done, for time filled purposelessly. I could, maybe, just be okay with being there, for as long as it went. 

I don’t know that I quite got there, but I got closer.

And then I thought, well, I’m not actually “doing nothing,” even though I am working toward being content with exactly that. I am doing something absolutely crucial.

I am raising my daughter.

Raising a child isn’t something that is “accomplished.” It is not a task. It is a (hopefully) lifelong series of moments, overlapping and tumbling and grinding and slipping by. It is a long line of fractions of seconds, in which I make connections of varying degrees of strength and meaning with my child. It is both glacial and ephemeral. 

It is each push on that swing. 

I didn’t accomplish much today. But I did push my little girl on her swing for as long as she wanted. I accomplished a lot today.

Permission to be Unproductive

A thing a sack of problems like me is supposed to do to mitigate crippling anxiety and PTSD is to allow oneself to escape, to decompress. I am notoriously terrible at this. And it’s not just because of the overt crazy from which I suffer, but all manner of tangential hangups.
Let me begin with an experience from earlier this afternoon. I was having my twice-yearly dentist appointment, which is really just a chunk of time during which a very nice hygienist scrapes, polishes, and flosses my teeth, wonders aloud at my bizarre lower teeth (long story), and warns me again to floss more.

But because I don’t floss much, portions of this otherwise banal process are rather uncomfortable. I was already coming into the appointment is a kind of emotionally exhausted daze, so this seemed like a good time to practice separating myself from any stressful stimuli, to rehearse something less uncomfortable.

So as that little sharp thingy scraped away at my teeth, and occasionally jabbed my tender gums, I made a point of gazing deeply out the window, trying not to think too hard or intentionally process what I was seeing, but just allow myself to take in the clouds, the colors, and the very slow movement. If I couldn’t see the window, I’d watch whatever tool was being used on me, as its handle went back and forth. I didn’t consider in detail what it was doing, just kind of stayed with it visually.

I had some success with this, and found it somewhat helpful. But the larger point is that I need to make myself escape in this way, become a little “mindless” more often, and at targeted times when I really need it.

I was unable to do it last night. I simply couldn’t allow myself to escape, to divert my attention from my issue-of-the-moment, but I so wish I could have.

My five or six regular readers will know that I have a lot of hangups around how I spend my time. I loathe going to bed, and I resist sleep, seeing it as a kind of “little death.”

I read books slowly, and often nod off, and worry about what other books I’m missing out on, what other things are happening while I’m reading, and what more productive things I should be doing. This is probably why I have tended to favor nonfiction over fiction, because at least with nonfiction I’m “learning” something in a way that is more concrete than I might with fiction.

I have made an attempt to calm myself and escape through music, and that turned into a nutty and obsessive hunt for The Perfect Headphones, documented here. But there again, I feel that allowing myself to sink into a reverie of musical consumption is somehow wasteful, that better uses of my time are beckoning. What they are, I don’t know.

And more of the same with TV and movies. I resist them both because I know that they take up chunks of wakeful time that I could spend on something that matters.

What are these things that matter that I ought to be doing? I guess writing, more creative pursuits, and whatnot. But do I engage in them when I’m not “escaping”? Not usually! Obviously, I do write, I do at rare times make music, but I’m certainly not filling every moment in which I could be watching a two-hour movie with artistic fulfillment. I’m probably just dicking around on the Internet and thinking about phones I don’t have.

But I’m coming around a little. A few weeks ago, because I knew we’d be seeing Age of Ultron soon, I leaned back in bed, plopped my MacBook on my lap, plugged in my headphones (I have stuck with the same ones so far!), and watched the first Avengers movie.

It was about the most therapeutic thing I’d done for myself in years.

What a release! What an escape! For the length of the film I was gone. I was just in this fantasy world, absorbed in something utterly removed from my own life, and when it was over, I felt, well, almost rested, even though it was probably two in the morning.

Most movies aren’t going to be that effective in this way, I know that. But there are plenty that are. I still have hangups about getting stuck in a movie that just isn’t all that good, and wasting those hours. But hell, being a parent, I can really only make time for the best of the best anyway. Experimentation with something stupid or ponderous is a luxury I don’t even have.

I am also being swept away by Seveneves, Neil Stephenson’s newest novel. Fiction! Long, long, epic fiction! Taking me away from me. I still nod off too easily, and I still take way too long to read, but I am trying to let that go.

Because at issue here is not achieving some sort of cultural or content-consuming quota, but to escape. To give my self a chance to get some distance, some room to breathe. So if it takes me all year to read Seveneves, whatever. So be it. (Or so I am telling myself.)

What really needs to happen is for me to be okay with being utterly unproductive, to allow hours to go by without anything to show for it. Not in total idleness, but in active removal. Not “boredom” per se, but engagement in activities or experiences with no industry attached. There can be some productivity as a byproduct, like when I zone out while mowing the lawn or assembling some new shelving piece or something for the house. But that’s incidental. Even in those “productive” times, I’m still not “here.” I’m still getting out of my own head.

This should not be hard for me, but it is. I know I wasted years of my youth on cable and late night TV, that I threw away precious time – after school, on summer vacations – time I could have used to better myself in some way. I just let my brain rot on pop culture, which was itself an escape from other things. But it was a poor avenue of escape, a kind of trap in itself.

But I’ve since overcompensated. It’s time to find the balance. The nice thing is that the only one who gets to decide what that balance is, is me.

That’s also the bad thing.


What I think people don’t understand about those of us who suffer from intense anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and the like, is that having an intense response to something is not a mere intellectual construction that one can be argued out of. We don’t put a few bits of data together and make a rational decision to freak out. The freak-out comes as a result of something our body, including the deepest and most animalistic parts of our brain, has learned, rehearsed, and taken as the unchanging truth: “I am under threat.”
And to the person having this experience, it seems entirely rational, plain as day, whether it could be rationally justified or not. The actual facts are immaterial, really, other than how they serve as stimuli to a fight-or-flight response. What doesn’t work is trying to convince us not to be freaked out by pointing out the facts. More data only fuels the fire, gives more things for our brains to be afraid of.

Because what’s happening is physiological, it’s chemical, even though it can express itself in language after it’s been through our brains’ processes. Particularly for PTSD (my particular flavor of crazy), we’ve been “trained” to respond in certain ways to threats (real and imagined) by our past experiences. Some event or series of events have served as rehearsals for our lizard brains, to the point that the perceived threat that kicks the fight-or-flight response in gear becomes The Truth. It is so compelling, in fact, that it also entirely convinces the “higher” parts of our human brains, the ones we like to think of as rational.

What happens then? The rational parts of the brain don’t resist the mania of the lizard brain. Instead, the rational brain goes to work justifying and bolstering what the lizard brain is telling it. Lizard brain says “threat,” rational brain says “drop everything and analyze all aspects of threat; actual and hypothetical; past, present, and future.” In these cases, the rational brain is kind of like CNN when a plane disappears.

I can’t get into it here, but there’s a threat I perceive in my life right now. I am being told my everyone in my life that the threat is very small — not nonexistent, but not worth obsessing over by any means. I am, nonetheless, obsessing over it, to the point of panic, to the point of a heart pounding against my rib case when I’m merely sitting and watching a movie with my 2-year-old daughter on the couch. I hear a sound, I sense a movement, I think of benign things, it all leads down the same path. I imagine every possible scenario of how this threat might manifest, the ways in which this threat might hurt or kill me, my wife, my kids. I remind myself of how almost anything could set this threat in motion, that its catalyst is entirely unpredictable. That means that this threat could appear at any time, in degrees that range from nuisance to unspeakable horror.

The facts don’t help. Every bit of data given to me about the situation, meant to allay my fears, only gives me further avenues to explore as to how things might unravel. It’s like a conspiracy theorist, where every fact meant to disprove a ridiculous assertion only serves to confirm it.

I know that the thing I’m supposed to do, as someone who’s been in a lot of therapy for this kind of thing, is to reverse what my lizard brain has rehearsed. To rehearse a new automatic response. But it has to go in the opposite direction of the original “bad rehearsal.” Instead of the experience being dictated by my lizard brain, and into my rational brain, I have to begin in my rational brain and work it backward. Instead of letting my lizard brain determine my physiological state (the heart pounding, the tightened muscles, the widened eyes, the quick breathing, etc.), I have to let my rational brain tell my body what to do, which should in turn “rehearse” my lizard brain to a new status quo. It’s incredibly difficult.

And it is made all the more difficult because, remember, my rational brain is already in the can for the worldview of the lizard brain. My rational brain believes that the threat is real and ever-present, and for me to tell it something contrary to that feels like an enormous lie, a sick joke, like trying to convince yourself that Santa Claus is real, or that two plus two equals banana. Everything inside me tells me that the threat is real, and all attempts to convince me otherwise are wrong, or worse, additional aspects of that threat.

The only solution to that paradox, frustratingly, is more and more rehearsal of the “correct” outlook. Even if every fiber of my being believes it to be a lie, the rehearsal will, in theory, eventually begin to take. My lizard brain will learn from the adjustments in thinking, in breathing, in refocusing. It will resist, but by rehearsing, it becomes the new normal.

But it is so hard. It is so hard. And that threat is right there, guys. It’s right there.

Death by a Thousand Emotional Microtransactions

How much do you care what people think of you? How much do you care what people you’ve never met think of you? How much do you care what people you’ve never met think about any individual choice you make or opinion you share? How much do you care what people you’ve never met think of the specifics of the format, timing, wording, tone, or technological means of the opinion you’ve shared?

If you use Twitter, or social media in general, you already kind of know the answer, or at least you’re learning it.

I have been learning some lessons myself about social media; how it can be used either passively or with intention; how it informs our personal identity; and how I have allowed it too much unfettered access to my nervous system, among other things. Clearly, for all its benefits, Twitter is also an enormous source of potential stress, eliciting what I call the Torrent of Feelings. I won’t get into the myriad factors that make this so. Browse this here blog, and you’ll see other ruminations on this subject.

What occurs to me lately is that a lot of the stress that Twitter (et. al.) engenders has to do with our perceptions of being judged. The more you present yourself on one of these platforms (and I’ll just use Twitter for now, since it’s my traditional platform and I’m tired of typing provisos indicating “et cetera”), the more you have your sense of self and identity wrapped up in it. And that can make one sensitive to the scrutiny that comes with such exposure.

Freddie deBoer recently put it like this:

“You’re doing it wrong” is the internet’s truest, most genuine expression of itself. For whatever reason, the endless exposure to other people’s minds has made the vague feeling that someone, somewhere, is judging you into the most powerful force in the world.

But what is being judged? The more I think about it, the more I think the answer is “everything.” And not “everything” in the sense of one’s whole self. That is happening, but it’s piecemeal. Very piecemeal, granular in the extreme. Because of course no one can encapsulate their whole selves in a tweet, or even a series of them, so judgment comes in small units. The hyperscrutinization that people experience (I know I do) on Twitter happens tweet by tweet, and on down.

Of course you can be called out for the substance of your opinions and choices, whether deservedly or not. But you can also be derided for your word choice, the timing of your tweet, your grammar, your nuance, your lack of nuance, your hashtag use, your frequency of tweeting or lack thereof, what client you’ve chosen to tweet from, and so on. And in those instances, though they are highly focused, the effect on the recipient is to add it to the collections of judgments about themselves as people. As Boone Gorges puts it, “A life spent on Twitter is a death by a thousand emotional microtransactions.”

And while I strongly advocate using Twitter and social media with great intention, there’s not much you can do about this micro-judgment phenomenon besides not using Twitter. That’s because Twitter is used by humans (usually), and humans, even the ones we really like, also tend toward the shallow and the knee-jerk response in an environment that fosters that kind of thing. Gorges again:

Every tweet I read or write elicits some small (or not so small) emotional reaction: anger, mirth, puzzlement, guilt, anxiety, frustration. I’ve tried to prune my following list so that when I do find myself engaging in a genuine way, it’s with a person I genuinely want to engage with. But there’s a limit to how much pruning can be done, when unfollowing a real-life friend is the online equivalent of punting his puppy across the room. So all day long, I’m in and out of the stream, always reacting to whatever’s coming next.

And there’s a domino effect. Especially during times of collective stress (such as the siege on Ferguson, the death of someone notable, etc.), those on the periphery peek in, see the Torrent of Feelings swirling around them, which causes them to judge the validity of that. Erin Kissane writes:

In the flood of information and emotion from something like Ferguson (or war crimes or an epidemic) … there we all are, gradually drowning. So people get huffy about the volume emotion that these events arouse—angry that others are angry about the wrong things or too many things or in the wrong register. … (I am properly angry, you are merely “outraged.”)

It should be noted that of the three writers quoted here, all three have left Twitter. DeBoer’s been gone for a while I think, and the other two announced their exit in the quoted posts.

Now, I’m not leaving. I have too much invested socially and professionally in Twitter to foreswear it. I will have to make do with diligent pruning, and accept that it will require a degree of fluidity: maybe I mute or unfollow certain people at certain times, and then bring them back to my feed at other times, for example. I will probably screw some of it up.

All of this is to say that Twitter is valuable, but we human beings are so damned vulnerable. The Twitter service does not care at all about this vulnerability, and probably thrives as a result of it. But I think we can do a lot to both harness Twitter’s positive value while being highly mindful of its power to kill by a thousand cuts (and this is before we even get to outright abuse, harassments, and threats, which is a related problem at a much higher temperature). I’ll be thinking about these things as I tweet and react, but also as I take in the reactions of others to me. It won’t be easy.

Image by Shutterstock.

The Quest for Peace, Through Headphones

Image by Shutterstock.
I am told that I am poor at being “in the moment,” and I confess it to be the case. I am nothing if not riddled with anxieties, large and small. At my worst, I am engulfed in worries, drenched in waves of stomach-sickening dread, doubt, and guilt. But normally, just going about my day, I maintain a manageable baseline of unease; the quiet hum of preoccupation with Other Things always resonating, if just barely. I am told this is bad for my health, to say the least.

I come by it all honestly, with anxious genes from my forebears, and traumatic life experiences from childhood and adulthood that have primed my lizard brain to needlessly rev itself while idle, overeager to burst into full fight-or-flight mode at the least cause, be it from a sense of physical danger to thoughts and fears of a more existential, personal, or mundane nature.

But while my limbic system is asserting itself, life is happening. There’s my wonderful family (who, in fairness, trigger not a small amount of anxiety themselves), music to be carried away by, books to be lost in, the lovely natural world that surrounds me here in Maine, Earl Gray tea, writing, bicycle rides, cool autumn air, my guitar, and even dumb video games and TV shows. To enjoy these things, I need to be there for them. I need to be “present.” Usually, I am not.

Being in the moment, being present, having a feeling of mindfulness; these things are enormous challenges for me. Elusive, to say the least, even when sincerely pursued. Being present, letting go of worries and preoccupations, takes up such time, time I could be spending being worried and preoccupied. There are all those Other Things!

The thing is, though, the worry and the preoccupation and the anxiety, it’s killing me. It’s ruining my sleep, shredding my nervous system, bruising my heart, pock-marking my brain, dampening my intellect, deadening my creativity, atrophying my muscles, and robbing me of genuine connection with my wife and kids, who I love deeply. I suffer from depression and I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, but it’s also true that I could improve things by leaps and bounds if I could just manage to make room in my life – in my mind – for one simple thing.


All this is to say that this is why I went on a weird and frustrating quest over the past few weeks trying to find a nice pair of headphones.

You see, even though I’m a musician and songwriter, actually listening to music, escaping into it, was something I’d lost the knack for sometime in my late 20s. As the Internet and podcasts and Other Things ascended, becoming absorbed in an album became a rare thing for me. I suppose this happens with a lot of people at this age; music is something we obsess over (and spend way too much money on) as teenagers and college students, and then more or less abandon as we become Regular Adults, save for occasional trips of nostalgia.

There’s another odd sore point for me, in that listening to good music comes with the baggage of opportunities missed. I once firmly believed that I would become a singer-songwriter by trade, and make a life of writing, recording, and performing music. Now that this is clearly not going to happen, it becomes more diffiult to enjoy much of the music I used to, or ought to, for it recalls thoughts of a youth spent, talent squandered, and lessons not taken. At times I get wrapped up in fantasies of what might have been, which, for when I was young and hopeful, was an exciting dream about a future, and as an adult is now a sad yearning for what can now never be.

Nonetheless, in the here and now, it seemed to me that music might be a good way to claim some peace for myself. Goodness knows, we have such easy access to so goddamn much of it, that there’s almost infinite choice. I have music in my iTunes library that I’ve owned for over a decade and probably never even pushed “play” on. But music, and audio more generally, seemed like a good way to ease into the pursuit of peace. When I sit to read a book, as Other Things go on around me, I could put on a pair of headphones, play some instrumental music, and escape into the world the author has laid out for me. (What more often happens is I that get distracted or fall asleep.) I could listen to guided meditations and affirmations to start rewiring some of the bad connections and memorizations encrusted in my addled brain. This wouldn’t be a way to be in the moment with people or nature, per se, but it would be a start, a first step toward letting the Other Things go, just for a little while, in favor of peace.

To do this, I’d of course need a decent pair of headphones, right? You can’t achieve inner peace with crummy earbuds, right?

Once upon a time, I’d had a kind-of-nice pair of over-ear headphones. Bose OE2’s, which sounded nice and warm, and were more or less comfortable, though cheaply built and easily broken. Before my quest for peace, I’d decided they were not being utilized enough to justify holding on to, so I sold them. (I also had sold my Kindle Paperwhite, since I was reading so much on my iPad mini – a choice I now regret for related peace-pursuit reasons.)

Now, I actually think Apple’s EarPods are quite nice for what they are, and we have at least two pairs of them in the house. I know there’s a kind of geek-cultural agreement that these are risible peaces of junk, but I have found them rather comfortable and sufficiently nice-sounding to serve most of my listening needs over the past couple of years.

But I didn’t think they’d suffice for finding peace. One needed comfortable over-ear headphones for that. I mean, everyone knows this, right? For true peace, you can’t have a little nugget in your ear canal vibrating the air and your skull. What you need is a couple of cushions lovingly embracing your ears, with earphones that produce a soundscape rich with detail. That’s the only way to peace, of course.

This was the tenet I had subconsciously agreed to, anyway. So I started researching and looking for deals. I was excited to find Logitech’s UE 4000 headphones go on some crazy discount to under $20, so I snapped them up, and at first thought they were a true epiphanic discovery. It wasn’t too long, though, that I realized they were painfully uncomfortable, with a kind of mushy, heavy sound. Dissatisfied and needing to find an alternative, my hunting instinct was triggered. It was time to shop for serious.

Let me say something about this. This is a thing with me, when there is an Important Purchase to be made, something takes over and I become obsessed with the process, consumed with researching possibilities, combing the Internet for bargains, digging through enthusiasts’ message boards, and gathering opinion. I used to only do this on those rare occasions when a new computer was to be bought, but that became a lot easier once I switched to Macs in 2004. But headphones were a new way for my meticulous shopping beast to howl at the moon.

Thinking on it now, how could it not? Headphones are the perfect snare for me: they are of near-infinite variety, there are models and makes that are widely agreed by certain communities to be superior, but dizzying nuance exists not just between price points and types and manufacturers and brands, but within those brands and individual models. And then there are factors that can affect one’s decision such as the quality of the production or compression of the music in question; the source player, be it a computer, an iPod, or a hi-fi system; the earpads, be they stock or purchased separately, made from all manner of materials; one’s surrounding environs; and even that maddening myth (is it just a myth?) of headphone “burn-in.” Audiophiles can give wine aficionados a run for their money, which they need a hell of a lot of.

And it’s not as though I live anywhere near a place that sells decent headphones, and has sufficient models on display for testing out in person. Yes, Apple Stores and other such places have headphones to sample, but they almost exclusively make available cans that are far out of my price range, which was really anything over $100 (technically, there is plenty below $100 that is out of my range, but as we can see rationality was lacking throughout this quest). I was limited almost entirely to what I could actually get delivered to my house. That meant actually buying them.

I won’t bore you with the shipment-by-shipment details, but suffice it to say I spent a great deal of time on websites like Head-Fi.org, r/headphones, and deep within the lowest levels of Amazon customer reviews. And by this time I have to assume that there is a red flag over my name, or perhaps a bullseye target over my picture, at Amazon’s returns department.

My primary experience was with three models: Sony’s MDR–7506, Audio-Technica’s ATH-M40x, and Sennheiser’s HD 380 Pro.

I began with the MDR–7506, which The Wirecutter has long named its top choice, and has been a staple of Those in the Know since they were introduced in 1991. I was at first surprised by how neutral they were, with no Beats-like thumping bass or Bose warmth. But I was quickly shocked by the level of detail I could suddenly percieve. I could hear the slightest taps of Erin McKeown’s fingernails on “Queen of Quiet,” and the bass crescendos in Pantera’s “Walk” sounded like they were physically coming toward me. But they were also rather uncomfortable. After a few minutes, parts of my earlobes would begin to ache. I tried a few minor hacks with the earpads to mitigate this, but the discomfort was undeniable.

Surely, I thought, the M40x’s would be perfect. Everyone (and by that I mean a lot of tech geeks) knows the M50x is some paragon of headphone perfection, and the M40x would just be a small step down in, well, some tech spec or other. They were big, rugged, puffy-looking, and extremely well-regarded.

But to my ears, they were claustrophobic where the Sonys were expansive. The sound was meaty, focused, tight, and powerful, but somehow scrunched. I doubted my own perceptions, thinking that I might even be wanting the “wrong thing,” for how could I not like these? But on top of the sound, they too were too painful to wear for long stretches. Replacing the earpads with something softer only made the sound feel empty, drained. Off they went.

The Sennheisers were very strange to me. Rather than pressing against the ears, they completely surround them, so your lobes never make contact with the hardware. I thought that might be just the ticket for my enormous ears, but the clamping sensation on my skull was off-putting, and the sound felt slightly tinny. Bass came through strongly, but mids were weak, as though being heard, well, in a can.

During this process, I began to doubt my senses. Could I even distinguish between crummy and high-end headphones? Was any of this even worth it? One night (yes it was late) I tried comparing the EarPods to one of the contender models, and found I couldn’t tell the difference anymore. I was going a little bit crazy.

I was feeling anxiety over the time and effort and money being put into this quest. I felt guilt. I felt worry.

At one point, I returned to the Sonys. Something indeed had been lost. The vast expanse of soundstage I had perceived from my initial experiences no longer struck me. Had I simply become acclimated to better headphones generally since my first time around the block with them? Or was there really nothing special there to begin with?

Despite the wash of “wow-ness” being gone, I found I still appreciated the “true” sound they produced. Not perfect, as some vocals sometimes came through a little recessed for my taste, but they still came across as superior to the others I’d gone through. I tried out a couple of different kinds of earpads that didn’t change the sound too drastically, but made them far more comfortable.

You can clearly see what happened here.

This all began with a sincere attempt to be more in the moment, to have a taste of relaxed mindfulness, to let go of immediate anxieties and remove myself from the frenetic stresses of work, parenthood, the news, battles on Twitter, and the like. But the process became its own source of stress. I simply had to find, if not the “perfect” solution, the solution that maximized the resources I had available to me, by way of money, time, and access to the objects themselves.

But I realized I was never going to achieve some kind of zen state by way of the headphones themselves. (If there is a doorway to the sublime to be found through headphones, it is likely well beyond my price range, so I may never truly know what it is to live with a pair of $400 cans, alas.) I finally understood that I could just pick a pair that was good enough, and move on to what started all of this. The quest for peace.

As I write this, I am donning my new Sony MDR–7506’s. I have a pair of Auray Ultra Deep earpads on them, which give a little more isolation and bass, and are far easier on my ears than the stock pads. I am still choosing between those and a pair of Beyerdynamic velour earpads, which are much softer, but a little less isolated, if barely. So I suppose this leg of the quest is not entirely over. But it’s manageable. It is not suffused with anxiety, just a twinge of guilt over the additional $20 spent on whichever pads I stick with.

I can stop worrying now about all the Other Headphones that I might test out. The next step, the first real step, begins now. It begins with writing this essay, with enjoying music through the good-enough headphones I’ve settled on. It begins with knowing that my family is here in my house with me, safe and tucked in for the night, and feeling my connection to them even as they’re not in the same room with me. It begins with being in this moment right here, right now, and then it begins again with the next moment. And I can be in those moments with nice headphones, with crummy earbuds, or even, when I’m ready, with blessed, blessed silence.


Note: Full credit to Iyaz Akhtar for first having the idea for using the Superman-related phrase “quest for peace” in  the sense it’s used here. In fact, he has a whole show about it.

The Big Sticker

So my wife’s dad (who is a really good guy all-around — just today he paid for two strangers’ layaway at Walmart without their even knowing because he’s just that kind of guy) bought my 4-year-old boy this giant-ass wall sticker-poster-thing of a T-rex and some other dinosaurs from a company called Fatheads. It’s freaking enormous, over 100″ across. And he’s in Alabama, so it’s not like he’s putting it up. It’d been sitting rolled up in its box for about a month, and I decided it was finally time, before Christmas presents overwhelmed all other thoughts in the boy’s mind, to get the thing on his bedroom wall.

I wanted to surprise him with it. He knew it existed, but he had no real idea of what it would look like on his wall (and I didn’t either, really). So I wanted him to be delighted one day to come home from daycare and find it dominating his wall. The only way to surprise him with it, however, would be to do it when I was the only one at home. If my wife and I are both at home at the same time, so are the kids.

Here’s the thing. I mentioned that the thing is freaking huge. The instructions even say, hey, dumbass, this should be done by two people. I’m paraphrasing. But I thought, well shit, it’s just a big sticker. I can do it by myself.

Let me spare you the details and just get to the point. It’s a big sticker so of course I screwed a lot of it up. In wrestling with this enormous decal, I managed to get the T-rex’s head to fold its adhesive side onto itself, and in trying to undo it, I put a small rip in the dinosaur’s neck and hideously pocked its face with little creases where I tried to unstick the thing from itself. When I comically succeeded in getting the thing on the wall, I scratched some of it up using the smoother-outer thing that it came with.

I was consumed with guilt. I drove to daycare to pick up the kids, and all the way I have this sick feeling in my stomach that I’d ruined his cool dinosaur wall sticker thing, I’d spoiled my own excitement for the surprise reveal, I’d damaged the expensive gift his grandfather had bought him, and I’d succumbed to my own impatience and stupidity in even attempting this fool’s errand.

After begging my wife’s forgiveness for my sins, we finally showed the boy the giant dinosaur now overwhelming his wall. And, as you can guess, despite how bad I felt about it, he loved it. (The baby, however, was somewhat scared of it, though fascinated.) The boy even went into a kind of dinosaur frenzy, a mad excitement came to his eyes, and he jumped up and down on his bed growling and roaring. “I LOVE it!” he declared. Of course he did. But I still knew it was a little screwed up, and still felt pretty bad.

The evening wore on, we got through dinner and baths and bedtime. I got a couple more looks at the dinosaur before leaving his room for the night. I came downstairs, went on with my evening, and I thought, well, maybe the dinosaur’s just fine. Maybe I don’t need to be so upset with myself about it. He loves it, it looks cool, the end. It’s a big sticker, after all.

So I’m settling down for the evening. The baby has a cold, so while watching Breaking Bad on Netflix, the wife and I had to pause to allow the baby to get up for a few minutes until she was willing to lie down again. The show ended, the baby went back to sleep, and the wife put herself to bed as well. I think to myself, well, to be a genuine artsy-fartsy intellectual smartypants, I need to sit and read. But what I really wanted to do was have a beer, browse Twitter, and watch TWiT shows. So then I start beating myself up about how little I read, how slowly I read, how much time I waste, and how it all indicates what a waste of space, and generally crummy human being, I am. I’m paraphrasing.

And then something happened. I stopped, took a breath, and I actually thought, hey, maybe I should cut myself a little slack.

This thought stunned me a bit. It was an unfamiliar thought, an unfamiliar feeling, maybe somewhat unsettling.

And then I thought, yeah, okay. I’ll get off my own back. Just for now, anyway.

I don’t know if I can do it again — it’s novel enough of a sensation that I felt compelled to write about it. But this whole getting off your own back? I can see the appeal.

Tony Stark and Me and Our PTSD

On an episode in May of this year of the podcast The Incomparable, which is a great panel discussion show about whatever bit of culture, entertainment, or literature strikes their fancy, the topic was Iron Man 3. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, Guy English takes the temperature of the group concerning the introduction of Tony Stark’s panic attacks, a symptom of his PTSD following the harrowing events of the previous film, The Avengers. There was general agreement that, yes, what Tony experienced battling the aliens at the climax of The Avengers would definitely fuck one’s shit up, but there seemed to be some ambivalence about whether it out of place in the context of the film in question.

I quickly want to address what they did not, which is whether it was done well. I watched Iron Man 3 only recently, on my MacBook during a flight a month or so ago, and I found the portrayal of someone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder shockingly realistic.

Let me qualify: I have only my own experiences to draw from. Read this to get a better idea of how I know anything about the topic — it doesn’t involve aliens. I do not at all want to assert that my experience of PTSD is universal or even common. It’s just what I know.

All that said, I was amazed at how much I related to Stark in his moments of panic. I recognized my own behavior in his when one of his attacks set in. (For the sake of rhetoric, I’m going to use the word “you” even though I’m really talking about “me.)

Something sets you off — a reference to an event, an association, a physical stimulus, what have you — and an animalistic fight or flight instinct takes hold. But it doesn’t necessarily own you entirely, you don’t turn into some werewolf in a waking nightmare. Your conscious mind is aware of what’s happening. You know you’re having an irrational rush of emotions and that your body is now compelled to act with sudden and overwhelming urgency. Maybe you run, maybe you fight, maybe you hide, maybe you scream, etcetera. All the while, you recognize that something not of your neocortex is in control. You may even be able to make jokes about it while it’s happening.

So I was mightily impressed and very much surprised by the way it was handled in this movie. It would have been easy to overdramatize Tony’s episodes, to make them Hulk-like in their violence and intensity, to make Tony unrecognizable in those moments. Instead, they let them be very much Tony’s episodes. We got to see him become aware of something happening to him, see him comment on it, struggle with it, and even try to mitigate it based on circumstance. And yes, he could even have a sense of humor about it in the moment. What was so true to life for me was that Tony never loses all control in those moments, but you do see his whole body carriage change as though a new force were asserting itself on his body’s operation, as though he was the Iron Man suit, and his amygdala now the driver.

We see a lot of troubled superheroes. Too often, though, their traumas exhibit themselves in brooding or vendetta. It was extremely refreshing to see a trauma manifest clinically in a superhero character, in a way I as a fellow-sufferer recognized. Indeed, Downey’s portrayal of PTSD episodes was so real to me, it mildly triggered my own responses, sitting there at over 10,000 feet, in the dark. My heart raced with his. My amygdala called shotgun in my mind for a little while.

I understand why it might have seemed a touch superfluous to the Incomparable cast. There are a lot of ways to tell the story of Tony growing as a character and knowing what it is to have weaknesses and failings. But this way of telling that story was crystal clear to me. For a big, explode-y Hollywood blockbuster, they told that about as well as I imagine anyone could.

You Are a Wonderful Person, But Now Please Shush

Following my previous post on introversion, the delightful Emily Hauser directed my attention to a piece by Jonathan Rauch from 2003 that not only acknowledges the difficulty of being introverted, but also advises extroverts on how to help the introverts they love.

First off, he makes a refreshing clarification: we’re not, by virtue of our aversion to social situations, dicks.

Introverts are not necessarily shy. … Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring. . . . after an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.

When it’s put like this, it doesn’t sound so bad, does it? I mean, hey, extroverts, you like eating and sleeping, right? Well guess what.

But of course, the extrovert in question would have to take our word for it, that this is simply how we get by. And, well, they often just can’t.

Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood.

Same here, and that very much includes those closest to me, who love me most. At best, I can manage to squeeze from them a kind of resigned acceptance, a humoring, with a loving dusting of benefit-of-the-doubt. ‘This is just what Paul is like, and if I want to know and be with Paul, I suppose there’s no changing this.’

There is, of course, always the expectation that, despite my feelings, I will play along with the extroverts. They are the standard. When in Rome, etc. Rauch gets this, noting that it is the extroverts who get to be the ones to put in place social norms–and how could it be otherwise? Being primarily those doing the talking–showing up, as it were–the idea of extroversion as a self-evident virtue naturally ascends and remains firmly fixed.

And as for we introverts? Whether or not we play along, we must lead our lives of quiet desperation, the extroverts all the while blissfully ignorant:

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts’ Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say “I’m an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.”

And not only would uttering such a sentence be a social felony, but the simple act of non- or half-hearted social participation itself is a misdemeanor, or, at best, a symptom of some horribly unpleasant (and slightly disfiguring) condition.

But think again of the analogy to eating and sleeping. Personal interaction is the food and slumber of the extrovert. Imagine someone you knew, and even loved, told you that, well, they actually don’t like to eat or sleep, and actually try to do as little of them as possible. And if they must eat or sleep, they actually need to recover from it. Yeah, you’d think that was a bit odd. You certainly wouldn’t feel inclined to rewire the world or rejigger your own life to accommodate them.

So as much as I want articles like Rauch’s to encourage the extroverts who dominate our world to better understand and appreciate their quieter associations, it’s also helped me understand why extroverts, like my wife, for example, can’t quite wrap their heads around why we are the way we are. It’s unfair that extroverts got to write the social rules to begin with, but it’s not like we tried to stop them, and it’s nobody’s fault now.

So anyway, what can the conscientious extrovert do to be humane to their introverted loved one?

First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say “What’s the matter?” or “Are you all right?”

Third, don’t say anything else, either.


Interestingly, Emily, who directed me to this article, noted that it turned a lightbulb on for her about her own son, 4 years old at the time. The fact that she realized this when her boy was so young is remarkable to me, for I don’t think my introversion would have been at all apparent to anyone, myself included, at that age. Indeed, I am told countless stories of my brazen openness to interaction as a toddler and young child, my constant efforts to win attention (which still exists, but not socially). Mostly what I recall from those years is a lot of positive reinforcement for who I was and how I behaved. It was not until he age of 10, sixth grade, when my family moved to a new area, that my life became very, very dark socially, with a constant strain of torment from my peers, when I had no choice but to retreat for fear of a kind of personal annihilation.

But, I suppose, too, I began to notice a slight difference between myself and others a little before then. Even in the idyllic part of my childhood, before our move, I recall inclinations toward the indoors over the outdoors, and quieter, more imaginative, and less populated activities and games over mad childhood scrambles or sports. Now that I think of it, I think I did at least begin to prefer being alone.

So perhaps I was already primed toward introversion, but I also have to assume that the barrage of negative reinforcement in middle school and onward, they daily flood of fight-or-flight chemicals in the bloodstream of a meek, thoughtful, generally sweet little boy, vaulted me well into all-out social aversion, where I remain encamped today.

I denied it for years, for decades. It was an illness to overcome, I thought, a fault in my personality to be corrected.

I don’t quite feel that way anymore. I am, if not proudly, at least affirmatively, an introvert. And if nothing else, I’m out.