sweet ’n’ sour tape #8: manufactured normalcy

Nothing is out of the ordinary, but nothing feels organic.

These are the dreams of a machine learning algorithm, showcased by artist Refik Anadol. This video about it is great.

The question of whether life is a simulation seems to grow more disconcerting every day. Unless you ask a different one.

“How?”, not “Why?”.

That’s what we said some time ago, probably back in March during your last tape. It was an absurdist-inspired rejection of existentialism in favor of reprogramming the different variables of life to our benefit, and accepting the idea that your ability to shape the latent chaos of life corresponds to your position in society.

Well, something like that. Not as codified, but we had to record it somewhere, right?

The point was to make practical and tangible use of all of 2019’s unproductive existentialism. Since we fully internalized that we create our meaning, now we’d focus on the creation of it then. But as you pointed out in your last tape, this has presented its own challenges. And what makes it even harder is this- instead of distracting ourselves by rambling about the higher workings of the universe, our newfound wisdom reminded us that the only people we should point our fingers at is us.

We were getting up and falling down over and over during the early days of 2020, up until near the end of March, when the coronavirus outbreak drove its fist into the entire world’s modus operandi (see what I did there haha shoutout 070 Shake).

Look, I’m not gonna say it’s a blessing. We personally know people who’s families have directly suffered from the virus, and as of writing this the death toll stands at around 205,000 worldwide. The US, of course, has not only suffered the most deaths at 50,000, but they also have the most confirmed cases at 983,000. This is because of our fast, stellar, and coordinated response against this threat!

NYC during quarantine. It’s suffered the most deaths at 17K

Millions of people are out of work, schools have closed, and the everyday happenings of life have come to a complete halt. The entire world has been paused, left to simply hold its breath till the crisis ends.

But what I can say is that this crisis has provided us with the ability to assess the reasons we’re falling, and make strides to improve fundamental traits and habits of ours. Like you said, we can craft a new vision of ourselves that matches where our head space is at.

As it turns out though, being stuck with yourself is either a boon or a curse, depending on the day it seems.

I fully believe that living a life ruled by fear makes you a slave, so I’m glad you’re learning to embrace it instead and use it as more of a positive motivation for yourself to succeed. April taught me about that a lot.

I’m a pretty bipolar person. I don’t know how it took so long to find out, probably because I don’t really like talking about that kind of stuff, but I wanted to explain some of how I feel to you in written words, because I don’t know how much I’ve really told you, and as my closest friend I feel like you should know.

I have no idea what my baseline is as a person. I feel like I’m being tossed back and forth between two “poles”- be it happy or sad, apathy or empathy, productive or lazy. But this back and forth isn’t as rigid or binary as how entertainment or popular misconceptions make bipolar look; it’s much more blurry and convoluted. Many days I don’t fully even understand what I’m feeling, and that’s when it’s the worst, because I have no idea what kind of actions to take to feel better.

I understand this much: When I can’t comprehend my mental state, emotions feel thin and liquid, until my brain locks into one and just revs it up to 100. It gets old I’m sure for the people around me, but it also gets old and sometimes even scary for me, especially when I recognize it happening and just pray I can control it. I’ve been fortunate enough to not have a lot of public breakdowns, but each time really riddles me with feelings of shame and guilt and cringeworthy replays in my head.

My meds keep me relatively stable, but they regulate chemicals, not the stimuli entering my brain. I’ve had to learn how to remain clear and levelheaded while my mental rampages like a fucking hurricane of thoughts and emotions. You’re gonna think this is crazy, but sometimes it makes me feel like some android glitching out from a major design flaw.

The Voight-Kampff test is a test used in Blade Runner to discover a Replicant. I wonder what I’d score.

Anyway, let me tell you why this is relevant for the particular month of April 2020. April has taught me the importance of what I want to be the key takeaway from this tape: endurance.

Being bipolar already makes it difficult to maintain productivity, but I felt like I was only going crazier stuck in the four walls of our apartment. Time turned meaningless and each day turned so repetitive that it became mentally suffocating. The air in the house feels stale and breathing it over and over is polluting my brain. I lost sight of all my good habits and routines, and I was slowly losing what I always considered my greatest asset- my creativity.

You need to experience to create, you need to live to make art that has a soul and resonates with people. I feel like my creativity has been overstressed. I have no time away or any distractions, so I’ve been putting all my energy into finishing music, but that just leaves me overwhelmed and run dry. The result is this awful cycle where I feel “overworked” and brain dead, but I haven’t made enough progress to warrant any sort of break. The song I just finished was such a tumultuous process that it took 3 weeks. You know the worst part about the creative process? A good idea today isn’t always a good idea tomorrow.

I was growing more and more terrified of how forgone my efforts seemed. I decided I had to get out.

It’s 2AM. I’m not in my bed. Or inside.

I grabbed my weed and some wraps and went to the construction site across the block. Aside from a couple people just hanging around the corner stores, there’s no one around. The site itself is completely empty of course. I looked up at the half-done parking garage in front of me excited to get away and do something fun.

I figured I’d scope it out just once before they finish it, it looks so cold and abandoned from the outside that I guess I kind of just wonder what it looks like on the inside. I wanted to climb the stairs to the top, smoke and vibe for a little while I cleared my head.

You were saying how fear has really shaped and controlled your life, but I’ve been plagued by fear’s similarly terrible cousin- doubt. It seems clear as day that music is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life, and other times it feels like I’m just meandering along. I worry about not being able to be the level of an artist that I wish to reach, simply because I can’t.

We’re the masters of starting and not finishing. Sprinting too fast and tapping out too early. We struggle with endurance, and quarantine so far for me has felt like a real endurance test. I was ready to make the most I could of quarantine and was trying to live up to a fake ideal (sound familiar?).

Quarantine has humbled me and reminded me how difficult and long of a journey we’re really on. But this has taught me to trust myself. I know my capabilities, deadlines, and I recognize the stakes. I should be able to make up for any lost time during a break, or stay persistent in the face of some difficulty (like your beat not saving properly fuck). Improvement always brings growing pains, but we have to remain accountable. One of the best ways to do that is to develop our endurance.

Apparently, it’s difficult to maintain good habits and remain consistently productive, even if there’s no excuses. Normally we’d ponder the reason for this, but that’s never led us anywhere with a real result. We have to think about the solution instead. You can only trust yourself as much as your ability to hold yourself to the rules you signed up for with this path. We agreed.

I learned all this and more from quarantine. Well, I say quarantine, but really I mean the spidermonkeys.

Yeah, you read that right. They looked like the one from Ben 10.

Everything was normal while I went up the stairs. Everything was normal before I opened the door to the roof too.

Everything wasn’t normal after that.

As soon as I stepped out, I saw hundreds, maybe thousands of floating chunks of stairs. It looked like someone took a 10,000 step stairway and broke it up into a bunch of randomly sized chunks, and then just threw them up into the sky. The sky by the way was filled to the brim with stars and the occasional comet, but the best part were what seemed to resemble aurora lights. They were black, red, and purple, all flowing into each other like someone spilled Pepsi, fruit punch, and lean on a canvas.

I ran to the front side to try and see our house. It was no use. Above, below, left, right, 360° all around me was this strange cosmic hurricane.

I think I tuned out the first couple monkeys I saw, because it almost seemed too absurd, until their numbers were too much for me to ignore. It seemed like there were almost two or three times as much monkeys as broken stairways, and they were all scrambling and jumping over each other, leaping upward through the air from stair chunk to stair chunk.

That’s when I looked up and fell completely in awe. It was far away, but at the very top, you could see a giant bowl of milky white light. It didn’t look like the end of a tunnel, it was more like the eye of a hurricane, or the opening of a tornado.

I was getting chills again and again just looking. I must have been like that for ten minutes, until I jumped up when one of the spidermonkeys leapt and stood in front of me.

We maintained eye contact silently for 5 minutes.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” he said.

“I think I got lost, I was looking for somewhere else.”

“Where were you going to?”

“Just somewhere to think,” I told him. He was more interested in me then I thought, which was weird.

“What’s there to think about? And hurry up, I have to go soon.”

So not only was I roped into a conversation with a spidermonkey, but for some reason now I was being rushed to explain my motives so he can keep his schedule.

So I told him how I’d been feeling. I know, I know, it’s anything. But he was the first non-roommate-or-family interaction I’d had in forever, so it was hard to stop talking once I started. And he told me something that really helped me get right.

“I worry I don’t want it enough. If I did, I wouldn’t doubt myself in the first place, right?”

“You can’t measure want! You can measure skill and use those skills to move toward whatever you said you were doubting, though. Anything else?”

“But what if giving my all still isn’t enough? What if I struggle because I lack what’s necessary? It makes me think I should quit to save some embarrassment at least.”

The spidermonkey jumped up onto a cluster of stairs floating past us. But before he drifted away, he turned around and said this.

“You don’t have to make that decision now though, right? Then don’t worry about it. Struggle is a fact that you just have to accept, so you need to be responsible and cultivate the stamina to match the mileage of the life you’re chasing. Even if that’s on a day by day basis. Because when the day does come where you might have to quit, at least you’ll know you gave everything you had. This hesitation and stress and making yourself anxious needs to stop, because right now you’re committed to being a legendary artist. And you’ll know — without any confusion — when you need to reassess that decision, which lucky for you is not anytime soon.”

I kept up with its journey for as long as I could, following it from leap to leap until it disappeared into the storm of the sky. I hope he reached that small, glimmering pearl.

As I closed the door and came back down the stairway, I checked my pockets.

The wraps were still sealed.

So that’s where I’m at these days. Trying to remain fully cognizant of where I am, what I’ve decided to do, and trusting myself to hold myself accountable and find the right solutions to my mistakes.

Because it turns out that the best part of this pandemic is that we’re stuck with ourselves. As each day goes on, you notice more and more details about how you think and behave. This hyper awareness is the biggest impetus for improvement, because it forces you to learn about yourself. You have to confront sides of yourself that you didn’t know were there, and while this can be really stressful and disheartening like it was for me, it reveals the issues you need to address if you’re serious about reaching your goals.

If there’s anybody that wants to figure out how to make the most of themselves, now is the time to do it.

The last concept I want to talk about is something I learned about in one of my classes, Designing the Future of Work. I’ve been focused a lot on the future lately, and this class is about automation and how it will change the nature of human work. It aims to provide insights into how we can deal with this major impending crisis.

The concept is called manufactured normalcy. It’s from an essay called Welcome to the Future Nauseous by Venkatesh Rao, a researcher and author from a think tank called the Berggruen Institute.

Manufactured normalcy is the idea that we get lulled into a false continuous present- life feels generally stable and static aside from slight fluctuations here and there, which is why it can take years to notice or enact lasting change. This proves troubling with issues like automation and artificial intelligence, because those threats seem farther than they really are, even though we’re in the middle of the future right now.

He talks a lot especially about how the user experience needs to evolve to accommodate the pace of the future so humans are fully prepared for whatever it brings. Right now, we don’t understand the full breadth of the ingenuity many advances have brought us, and the future doesn’t feel real until it can be conveyed in the form of concepts that we’re already familiar with.

You can read the whole thing here. The whole essay is full of interesting shit like this so check it out if you miss your dose of academia :). It’s annoyingly fucking pedantic but if you can get through it, he has some fascinating ideas about how humans perceive the “future”, maybe more so how we don’t.

With respect to us, quarantine has brought its own sort of manufactured normalcy. Nothing feels like it matters because it feels like the stakes have evaporated. But just because time feels nonexistent doesn’t mean the clock isn’t ticking. The show is still going. Like you said, we’re fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of this time, and a key area we should refine is our ability to remain committed to the changes we’re making-our endurance. We must pinpoint our pitfalls to maintain awareness of where we are in relation to where we want to be, and make decisions with the maturity we swore we gained from 2019’s existential wisdom.

So I’m resting, I’m hydrating, I’m lazing. I’m sketching and chopping weird samples and taking online classes. But along the way, I’m remaining aware of the growth I need and focusing on setting benchmarks that I can reach.

It’s on me to prioritize them. I’ve decided to fully embody the “how?”. I won’t be stultified, which is a word I learned from the future class. Here’s the definition:

The tape is over. But consider this the epilogue. This month marked 11 years of friendship between us. So I made a list of 11 reasons why I’m glad we’re friends.

#1: You’ve always accepted me for who I am. If you try to change me, it’s only so I’m a better version of myself, never to impose your own idea of who I should be.

#2: You’re the only person I can talk to about absolutely anything. It’s always been like that and it always will be; that ability to say anything to each other has been important, cathartic, and essential to our growth as people.

#3: You made me appreciate Kanye and Uzi. Their music has quite literally saved my life sometimes. Enough said.

#4: You let me move in with you while I pursue my dream. Doing this while living at home would be super cumbersome, so being in Philly with you and meeting your friends was great.

#5: You’re in this with me. Our paths and trajectories are different, but the vision is the same just like we’ve said before. Anytime I feel like I’m losing my focus or dedication, you’ve always been there to keep me going, and I’ve done the same for you and will definitely continue to do so.

#6: You’re super open minded. That’s what makes a lot of our conversations fun. But what really makes this one of your best qualities is that it makes you want to learn about EVERYTHING. It’s definitely annoying sometimes and I know it can distract you, but you being a sponge for information is one of your greatest and most powerful traits. Makes me jealous because as we know I’m only good at doing and learning about what I like, but you can do that with anything.

#7: You’re the person I trust most. I don’t even mean in a corny or emotional way; I mean if shit goes DOWN, you’re the first person I call (or my mom lol). You’re the only person on earth who almost knows me as much as I do, so if I ever need advice or support or have to confess something or need to figure some shit out, you’ve always lent your ear and I really appreciate that.

#8: You match my creativity. Building all these countless stories and characters and entire worlds has always been incredibly rewarding and crucial to me developing my personal aesthetic, taste, and standards as well. You’ve challenged me, provided constructive criticism, and helped me complete so many ideas, transforming them into shit even wilder than my original vision. You’re the first person I collaborated with, and before I met any other creatives, you were the only one I knew. I would’ve gone crazy if I didn’t have anyone else to share the shit in my head with, so thank you x1000000.

#9: You call me out no matter what. I’m glad you check me and make sure I don’t fall prey to my own bullshit and bad habits. it keeps me self-aware and humble; it’s definitely saved my ass sometimes too lmao.

#10: You’re a great listener. Venting to you always helps me feel better, and you more often than not have some good advice or perspective that I may not have considered. Even the worst problems feel like they suddenly have some courses of action I can take, because you had the capacity to listen and give some insight.

#11: You stay. Simple as that bro. I’m a complete weirdo yet you still choose to be my brother. I’ve always struggled making close connections so this means more than you could ever understand. Thank you for helping this android feel less lonely on his quest to conquering the art world

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