Infinite Ascent.

by CJ Quineson

Blending life together

and watching what’s coming out

Fear of missing out

Last weekend I divided my time between the ten-day live-action role-playing game that I helped run, The Price of Progress, and a meetup with people related to a summer camp I was a counselor for last summer, Winter SPARC. I spent time at WSPARC during the day, from lunchtime to dinnertime, then I went to MIT campus to do stuff for TPOP, staying until two or three in the morning, then sleep for not-enough hours. It made for a long weekend.

I could’ve stayed at WSPARC the whole time. I could’ve slept at the house they rented out, on a sleeping bag or on a couch. It would’ve meant less conversations cut short, getting to attend that game of Psychologist, or getting to take a group photo. Or I could’ve spent more time at TPOP. Put more time cutting item cards, or walking around and talking to players, or setting up gamespace earlier, or attending more council meetings. It was a compromise.

The fear of missing out can only exist if there’s uncertainty—if you don’t know what you’re missing out on. If I’d known how that conversation would’ve gone, or what went on in that council meeting, I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out. But January is a rude month, when many interesting things happen over the weekends, which means that they often conflict.

The worst parts were the twenty-to-thirty-minute commutes between them. The cost of having both is having neither.

I think about how, if the timing was different, I could’ve spent more time at TPOP. If I stayed for all ten days, I could’ve been a player. Maybe next year, I tell myself. Next year I’ll be another year removed from being an undergrad, and thus another year older than the median ten-day player. Next year, if I attend WSPARC, I’ll be another year older than the median attendee, who’s a high school senior, maybe a college frosh. There’s nothing stopping me from attending these things, no rule in place to ban those too old. There’s arguments I can make, about why having diverse ages is good for these kinds of events. But I don’t want to be weird. I can settle with missing out.

Playing catch-up

The other Friday I went to the dentist for the first time in six years. Okay, that’s not true—I went to the dentist once between, during my gap year, to get a gum infection checked out. But this is the first time I went to get a checkup and cleaning.

The dentist told me that my gums were “a disaster.” I’ve been scared into flossing, and I’ve kept the habit for several weeks now. I got two deep cleanings, and fillings for the lower-right quadrant of my mouth. I have three upcoming appointments for the other three quadrants. Part of my treatment plan is to remove all wisdom teeth. Orthodontics are also on the table.

At middle school we were taught that puberty is around time that people begin to develop romantic attraction. That didn’t happen, and I said maybe it’d happen once I’m in high school. There was a person, once, whom I thought I was attracted too. Then I graduated. There was another person. It didn’t work. I started college. Then a third. Nothing. Then I graduated. Then a fourth. Maybe? No.

I kept telling myself that maybe that’s what romance is like, that it’s waiting for the right person, and when that person comes I’ll feel it, and I’ll know it when I feel it, and it’ll be different than those other times, times where I wanted to feel it so badly that I think I made it up. It’s been a decade of telling myself this. If I could have crushes, I should have by now, right?

All the coming-of-age movies set their characters in high school, maybe college. I’m past that. I now entertain ideas like: maybe I should care about my oral hygiene, or maybe I should explore romance. And I’m already a few years behind.

Shiny things

At TPOP the in-game currency was gear-shaped coins punched out of metallic cardstock. Bronze washers, silver cogs, golden hexes. Each had a hole punched into the center, though sometimes it’d stick, and you’d have to push out the hole yourself. Kendra, another person helping the game masters run TPOP, collected these bronze, silver, and golden circles in a resealable plastic bag. I helped her punch out some pieces. It looked like large glitter.

At WSPARC I had a conversation with Dai about work. I’ve been thinking about finding a new job, you see. They gave me a lot of advice. I remember them telling me to chase shiny things. I don’t remember exactly what it means, but my guess is it’s about doing what’s neat, or cool, or interesting, without worrying about where it’s leading. When sailing against the wind, you can’t travel in a straight line.

What about work makes me dissatisfied? Maybe that it’s not shiny. We’re working on a new product, sure. We’re leaders in our field in some respects. But it isn’t shiny, not to me. What is shiny?

Games, puzzlehunts, LARPs. Web development and writing for Galactic Puzzle Hunt 2023 was a part-time job that I’d do full-time if I could. I loved working on every puzzlehunt I’ve worked on: GPH 2020 and GPH 2022 and MIT Mystery Hunt 2021 and Aquarium Puzzle Hunts 2021 and 2022. I’ve co-written one LARP, Sierra Alpha 20, and written another, An Aquarium Auction, and want to write more. Escape rooms. Lots of similarities. Watching TPOP reminded me of a certain joy, the joy of watching others play with your work. But there’s issues with getting paid for this: cultural issues, motivation issues.

Maybe a therapist. Or logistics, or operations, at a non-profit I like. Not something I can do on post-completion OPT, though. Visas, huh.

Or education. When I was in middle school, I dreamt of making math textbooks better. Then I entered high school, and dreamt of making math textbooks about things that didn’t have textbooks for them yet. More and more research gets written, how much of it gets read? Are random blog posts on Towards Data Science the best we’ll get? Stronger visualizations, more systematizing. Distill, but not on hiatus. AoPS, if they sponsored visas.

Look at my list of excuses: motivation, visa reasons, salaries, relocation, how it looks to quit a job after only six months working there. Are any employers offering jobs that tick all the boxes? Let me know.

Shiny things I could be working on; wants I don’t want to act on.

Combinatorial explosion

If you have nn things, there are (n2)\binom{n}{2} pairs of them. With 55 things, you have 1010 pairs. It grows quadratically.

It’s an argument for quantity. Do more things. Get more experiences. Being the best in any given thing is hard. Being the best in a combination of things is easier. Watch me become a world expert in type theory applied to square dancing. I will glue things together until they stick.

Mind over matter

Winter SPARC is named after SPARC, the summer camp proper, which is many things to many people. Its roots are rationalist, but it’s changed over the years. I think it’s partly about teaching analytical high schoolers to be introspective. There was a short class at SPARC called Flossophy. I didn’t attend, but I’m reminded of it now that I have a regular flossing habit.

My fear of visiting the dentist was rooted in two things: a fear of shame, and a fear of pain. I think of shame as emotional pain, so maybe these are the same thing. But I went to the dentist anyway. I went to the dentist thrice last month. The pain wasn’t too bad. Local anesthesia is a medical miracle, after all. It takes a few painful injections, and it doesn’t block all the pain, but it’s endurable.

I read a tweet the other day. It talked about getting through today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and then every day after that forever. It reminded me of Twenty thousand paper cuts, a post I once wrote, that talked about frustration, rejection, disappointment. In a comment, Petey excerpted Infinite Jest. I’ll excerpt it again.

He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants that lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. […] It’s too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it’s as of now real. […] He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and head and reporting. But he could choose not to listen; he could treat his head like […] clueless noise. He hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out the cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.

As a kid I always thought the phrase “mind over matter” was ridiculous. Pain is real. But let me draw on rationalist thinking and predictive coding. Pain is a sensation, and like any sensation it’s the result of the bottom-up processes of sensory input, the top-down processes of predictions, and some magic that combines them. It’s possible, in theory, to tune out the sensory input—more realistically, I can avoid adding to the pain already coming in.

This moment, the next one, the one after that, and every moment after that forever.

Take care

The phrase “take care” has several meanings. You take care of something by handling it, or by watching over it, as in “I’ll take care of that problem,” or “I’m taking care of my sick friend.” You can also take care by being cautious or careful, as in “Take care not to fall.” What do we make of the phrase “take care of yourself,” then?

I’ve written about caring before, in the context of caring about student groups, or my own health. I mentioned the Assassins’ Guild, the live-action role-playing group that runs things like TPOP. During game, I got the wonderful opportunity to roleplay a demon with overpowered stats. I ran across the lobby of Building 34, slipped, fell, scraped my shoulder. I’ve written about falling before.

I didn’t like playing outside much. But when the stars aligned and the neighbors’ kids were out, I’d be running around the rough, unpaved asphalt outside our gate. And I was learning to walk at the time, and I’d always trip and get scratches, wounds.

Mom would get some cotton and swab some iodine, telling me to be more careful. That if I kept getting wounded, it’d be alcohol on my wound next time. It would hurt, she said. It would burn, she said.

Then I got wounded and we ran out of iodine. And I was like, AHH PLEASE DON’T PLEASE DON’T but mom put alcohol anyway. It hurt.

This time I fall. I scrape my shoulder. My glasses and my Nerf gun slide across the floor. My elbow got scratched too. Both, I realize. I stand up, put my glasses back on, take the Nerf gun, reload. The GMs call a game halt. They ask me if I’m okay. I say I’m okay. I was okay. The excitement of combat? It numbs the pain. Adrenaline is an analgesic, which is a fancy word for painkiller.

The dentist explained to me how the nerve block works. It’s “…mixed with epinephrine, to lengthen the duration,” the dentist said. Right. Adrenaline is an analgesic. So is paracetamol. So is caffeine. So is alcohol.

Because care can have different aims. It can be preventive, aimed at stopping a disease before it arrives. Or curative, aimed at ending a disease after it arrives. But it can also be palliative, aimed at minimizing the effects of a disease. It’s strange to me how the term “palliative care” only applies to end-of-life care, when pain management and anesthesia are both palliative.

Staying in character

In the lore of writing games for the Assassins’ Guild, there’s a well-known issue called the twenty-first century college student problem. Usually, players won’t do things that violate “good behavior”, even if it’s thematic for the scenario, unless instructed to.

Consider TPOP, where one of the main conflicts is between two factions, Piltover and Zaun. Instead of resolving conflict through combat, players did some diplomacy and negotiated some agreements. Whether this is “in character” is hard to say, as the results aligned with the goals of characters from each side. But it wasn’t what the GMs were expecting, so changes happened.

LARPs are a bit weird in the sense that you get a character sheet, and you’re expected to play in character, even though you, the player, might do something different. Not to say that characters in a LARP are static, or that there aren’t decisions for the player to make; but there are some things that simply are.

As a player, it’s fine. It’s what I signed up for; it doesn’t cause any dissonance. As a human, though, there are things on my character sheet I wish were different. I take antidepressants because I don’t want to be depressed. Sometimes I wonder if that means taking away parts of what make me, me. Because there are parts of me that aren’t “normal”, whatever that means, that I am fine with, like being asexual, or aphantasic. I’m fine living without some parts of the human experience. I don’t think it matters whether these are innate or something caused by childhood trauma, whether I can change these things or not; I don’t feel an urge to.

But being aromantic? Is it arophobic to wish I wasn’t aromantic, that I could cultivate romance if I tried? People in love seem so happy! So much ink has been spilled and so many voices worn dry by what I used to think was a universal human emotion. Two equally strange thoughts. That I can reduce myself to the interaction of chemicals, that I can manipulate with drugs. Or that there is no me to point to, only the stories I tell myself—there is no CJ other than what the character sheet says.

Crisis of faith

The word “crisis” has a negative connotation, but its etymology is more neutral; it comes from Greek krisis “judgment”. In a medical context it refers to the turning point of a disease, and change must come after, whether it leads to recovery or death. From PIE *krei-, where we also get “certain” and “discriminate”.

The word “faith” comes from Latin fidere “to trust”, from PIE *bheidh-, where we also get “abide” and “confident”. (“He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding.“) Hence, to have a crisis of faith is to judge your trust in something. To behold the basis of your belief and find it bereft. To stare into the abyss, and have it stare back.

Wondering if I’m aromantic feels a little like this. I’m not even sure which universe is worse: the one where I’m right and won’t get to experience romance, or the one where I’m wrong and haven’t even gotten close to feeling it. I guess that’s a bit of a stretch.

The bigger crisis of faith is whether I should quit my job and find a new one. I’ve already mentioned that there’s lots of practical factors about why I’m in my job, like place or visa sponsorship or insurance. But to be honest, I put zero effort before taking this job. I had a return offer and that was it. It’s not like I had a particularly great time as an intern, that summer was painful in a lot of ways, some of which I haven’t written about publicly. I chalked it up to living in the Bay and not having a lot of friends, but now that I’m in New York, I’m wondering if these problems are fundamental to the job.

But it’s not like I’m suffering if I stay. But I have to confront the reality that, if I tried a little harder last spring, I could be happier with my job now. But that’s the counterfactual; that didn’t happen. But maybe it would’ve been easy to change. But maybe if I hold out a little longer it’ll be better, and I wouldn’t know that if I left. But…!

Felt sense

Focusing is another one of those things in the rationalist canon. I have no idea what it is, and I hate reading so I’ll probably never find out, but my understanding of it is that it’s kinda about paying attention to how your body feels and using that to judge things. But apparently a felt sense isn’t a gut feeling or an emotion, as it needs to be bigger or whole or whatever?

While talking with Ashwin at WSPARC, we made a series of points that may (or may not) be related to this:

  • My body sends bottom-up signals of dissatisfaction when I think about my job.
  • I’m imposing a top-down explanation of what I think causes these signals, but there’s no way for my top-down self to verify this on its own.
  • The signals are only raw experience, and don’t in themselves mean anything? I could be wrong about what they’re pointing at.
  • The bottom-up self is already convinced of something (perhaps something along “I dislike my job”), and it’s a matter of talking my top-down self into it.
  • The words that come out when I talk or when I write are mostly from my bottom-up self. Sometimes (maybe most of the time) it’s my bottom-up self that’s talking to other people, or writing blog posts. Sometimes this is in an act to convince my top-down self of something I already know.
  • This process is why talking and writing are important to me and understanding how I feel; Dissecting emotion is the biggest example that comes to mind.

There’s something trippy about talking about these two “selves”, and using “I” to refer to something that’s maybe neither of these, something below or above both of these, or something that only arises through the interaction of these.

Gnashing of teeth

The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears in the Bible several times. The parallels of “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth” seem to show that gnashing teeth expresses some emotion, and context points to anger or pain. But gnashing teeth could also be involuntary. Andrey told me that I grind my teeth when I sleep, which is apparently bad for the teeth’s surfaces.

When I mentioned this to my dentist, he told me that though this was an issue, the more pressing issue was filling the seven cavities I had left. Maybe the gnashing of teeth in “weeping and gnashing of teeth” isn’t as important as the weeping; it appears second in the phrase, after all. Maybe they are both pointing to the same thing: pain.

In thinking about the selves and feelings around quitting my job, or of pain and the mental movements to avoid more pain, I think about grinding my teeth. Part of the reason my teeth grind in the first place is because they’re misaligned; even chewing would grind down the surfaces of my teeth. My dentist said it’d be counterproductive to both get a night guard to hold my teeth apart while I sleep, and to try to align my teeth through orthodontics.

Perhaps the friction between the selves shouldn’t be resolved by letting one or the other take the lead, but by aligning or integrating them in the first place, whatever that means? Like adjusting the tuning pegs on a guitar to get the strings correct, rather than playing strings on their own. There’s the systemic question, maybe, of how I ended up in a job I feel uncomfortable with in the first place—were my selves not attuned enough?

Words hold power

At WSPARC, Yudhi told me they read and liked Crying in the subway. Last week, I got an email from Cecilia saying that To the exclusion of everything else resonated with them. The week before, I got an email from Sarah talking about had i known how to save a life and how it made them realize they’re not alone. I get messages and emails like these every few weeks, and it keeps me going, despite the days when I don’t feel appreciated for my work.

It feels good, knowing that my words have the power to touch others. To speak into words is to make something more real; to turn into words is to exercise power over something; to shape into words is to define how I want something to be told.

I’ve felt affection for others, but haven’t called it romantic attraction, because it doesn’t feel as intense as other people describe it. No butterflies in stomachs or sharp pains in being apart. I’ve hesitated to put labels to relationships because I’m afraid of what might happen if things go wrong. Too risk-averse for my own good.

To armchair psychologist myself, maybe I’ve blunted my feelings because my parents punished me for expressing them. Maybe I don’t allow myself to feel intense emotion, whether toward myself or others, because I was afraid of making my parents angry. Maybe I’m risk-averse because I’m afraid of disappointing them. Even if these were true, so what? I’m not even sure how I’d go about changing that.

But maybe my writing will tame it. Maybe, now that I’ve turned it into words, it’ll lose its power over me. Whether I fall in love, or am aromantic, or whatever, is secondary; what matters is that I’m the author of the character sheet, that I’m blending my life into an integrated whole, that I’m coming out of the crisis with a path to recovery, and that I’m coming out, behold, I’m coming out!