I have more to say about introverts and extroverts, below, but I wanted to start this newsletter on a high note rather than a skeptical one. Here’s the high note: I’m still here! Here’s an actual image of me trying to write this. My new apartment is a basement and it’s always chilly, even when it’s 70 degrees outside, and Emmitt is a cat. You can do the math.

There are a bunch of new terms that we use now that weren’t lexiconically noteworthy until this year: social distancing, abundance of caution, COVID-19, novel virus. I am doing my part by staying inside, which is easy for me because I like being indoors and I like solitude. I also have an unfortunate tendency to masticate, and this indoor solitude makes it much easier.

Masticate is verb that means “to chew” and I prefer it to the other metaphor for the activity, woolgathering, which sounds whimsical and harmless. Mastication is neither of those things. The activity is also more commonly known as “worrying” which is a word that also means “to chew.” It has teeth. When you do it right, it feels like gnawing on gristle, and it has about the same utility, which is to say, it’s pointless.

No amount of anxiety makes any difference to anything that is going to happen. – Alan Watts

After years of practice, I’ve gotten very good at it. For instance, I can focus my worries, laser-like, on an extremely specific subject that actually has some small chance of coming true. I tend to materialism (as in the philosophy), and I only worry about things have some possibility to occur. My worries are based on facts.

One great aspect of fact-based worrying is that it is also vulnerable to the application of data. If worry is a balloon blown up by thoughts of what might happen, facts are the needle that pops it. Facts don’t supply the air, they simply get the process started. A pile of worrisome facts is a crisis, and worries are often based on the fear of a crisis. The difference between a worry and a crisis is that a crisis can be managed. A crisis can be overcome, dealt with, surpassed. If I scatter a deck of cards all over the floor, I’ve created a crisis. All I have to do is pick them up, and I’ve solved that crisis. A worry can’t be managed. It slips between your fingers when you think you’ve got a handle on it. A worry is what happens when you think about how terrible it would be if someone threw a deck of cards on the floor, and somebody slipped on it and hurt themselves. That would be terrible! But it’s not real. It didn’t happen. The cards are fine. If they scatter all over the place, I can just pick them up before anybody slips on them. Even better, I can put the cards away in a drawer, which makes it even more unlikely to happen. Even if someone else comes along, opens the drawer, and throws the cards on the ground, and somebody slips on it and hurts themselves before I can get around to picking them up, that is a crisis we can deal with. But none of that happened! It’s a worry. It’s something to chew on, pointlessly.

The universe has been kind enough to offer me plenty to worry about, little facts that get the balloon inflating. You know the one I mean. It’s very easy to worry about a virus, because it’s invisible and deadly and lurking around everywhere. Anybody could have it! It might even be living on things that I touch. I can take precautions and mitigate my risk, putting the cards away in a drawer, and that will probably be enough. I have slightly high blood pressure (it’s high normal, but I take medicine for it because I’d prefer it to be normal normal, which is another way for me to put the cards away), but I’m not statistically more likely to die from it if I get it.

No, I have something even better to worry about, and I’m writing about it because I’ve learned that writing about my worries crystalizes them and gives them form, and once formed can be examined. I usually do this privately, in a notebook that nobody sees, because I don’t think anybody would care, and it can sometimes be embarrassing. Yes, believe it or not, I have worried about some things that, when analyzed, shows itself to be as ridiculous as a spider with roller skates on.

I’m writing this and sharing it with you, my readers, because it’s What I’m Going Through at the moment, and you might find solace in watching someone crystallize a worry and then smash it. Anyway, here goes:

A lot of bad things have happened to me this year, and while I still have the things that matter most, and my blessings are many, there was a lot of bad stuff! I won’t make a list for you, but I’m single and living alone during a pandemic now. That sucked! So what would be an additional thing that could suck really bad? I could get COVID! Yes, I could. But I put those cards away, so it’s not likely. But, and here’s the worry, what if my tumor grew back.

I have an MRI every year, in June, to make sure that hasn’t happened. The internet says that tumors like mine grow back, but experts I’ve talked to say it’s actually unlikely. Me getting the kind of tumor I had was incredibly unlikely, and they did a great job getting rid of it, so it’s highly unlikely for it to grow back. Those cards have been put away. When oncologists are really worried about tumors growing back, they do scans more often than yearly, so that should be a pretty good indication of what my medical team is worried about.

But even if it has grown back, that becomes a crisis, and a crisis can be managed. It’s already happened once, and it was an awful experience, but I’ve done it before. Brain surgery sucks, but I already did it twice. What’s once more?

I always start to spin up my cancer worries around now, because the day of my yearly MRI approaches, but my run of bad luck lately has me worried about this MRI, as if it will be different from the last two. But this is something I don’t remind myself of often enough: the tumor crisis happened in the middle of a great run of luck — I was in a relationship I liked, I had a job I loved, and everything was going great. Therefore, how lucky I currently feel I am has nothing to do with whether I will get a brain tumor.

There is data on both sides of a worry. As I said before, the worry wouldn’t exist without some facts to get it started, but the two items on the Pro side are thus: I had a tumor once and it sometimes grows back, and I’ve had a run of bad luck lately.

The evidence on the other side is piled so high that it casts a shadow on the two points of data on the Pro side. One of them is a neurologist saying “your tumor won’t grow back.” Another one is a total lack of any symptoms. It reminds me of when I was afraid I had diabetes and a friend of mine who has diabetes said “what are your symptoms” and I said “I don’t have any” and that was the end of that. Also, luck isn’t a thing. Luck is a series of patterns taken personally, and it’s never a good idea to take things personally.

And with that, my worries are allayed. In fact, I’m so embarrassed by my worrying that I am rethinking sending this newsletter out! Here goes Jim again, talking about his brain tumor. “We get it, you had a tumor.” Yeah, well that one thing you do that’s annoying is annoying, too, so stop doing it!

I promised some words about introverts and extroverts so I’ll finish this up with that. I don’t believe that people are only one or the other. I know people who read a lot and don’t go out very often that turn into social butterflies in specific circumstances (like when they’re talking about something that interests them). I know self-described extroverts who read and write a lot and spend a lot of time alone! As with most things in the human experience, I think it’s more of a spectrum. Some people are very solidly on one side of the spectrum than the other, but it’s reductive and unrealistic to limit oneself to just one side.

The debate is particularly active currently, as the title of this newsletter alludes to — many people are talking about how great this pandemic is for introverts. I, myself, said that I probably wouldn’t mind being quarantined. I was right, I didn’t mind it, for about a day. Now, more than a few days into the lockdown, I am ready for it to be over. I miss drinking a beer at a bar with my favorite DJ. I miss going to movies. I’d love to go to NYC and see David Byrne’s show. I miss people watching and buying furniture at IKEA, especially now that I have some space to fill up. I’m glad that fewer people are dying than we anticipated, and I’m happy that my putting the cards away has probably kept a few people safe. That’s good. But I’ll be happy when we can hug our friends again.

Now I’m going to recommend some things!

I mentioned Simon Stålenhag in the last newsletter, and I had no idea that a tv show based on his paintings was imminent! It was and now it’s out and I love it. I’m biased toward liking it, of course, but I can also justify my liking it.

Every episode was written by the artist, and there is a definite choice to make the show resemble the emotional space of the paintings. There are long stretches of quiet contemplation. Every episode is about an hour long, but there’s a lot of empty space in them — lingering shots of landscapes, diversions that don’t really need to be explored. It takes a while for things to happen in each episode. The show is more interested in creating a mood than it is in telling a story, but I never found the stories lacking. Things happen and are never explained, but that appears to be the thesis of the show: life is defined by the choices we make in a random universe, but human beings, and our relationships, are what keep us moving forward. The show isn’t as interested in solving riddles as it is in watching people try to deal with them. That’s life! I can see that frustrating somebody who wants more plot than atmosphere, and usually that person is me! At one point, the last character you expect to cry goes on for a jag of weeping for an uncomfortable amount of time, and we have to watch him do so, and then collect himself and go inside the house. It’s powerful and hard to imagine in a different show.

Also, the visual choices of the show are very reminiscent of the illustrations, which are based on a premise of a more technologically advanced 1980s but without the strangling weight of nostalgia that chokes shows like Stranger Things. The show does not take place in Sweden but in Ohio, which is perfect — it looks exactly like the suburbs I grew up in, and the small town I pedaled my bike through. This is probably another reason why I like it. I’ve only watched half of the episodes, so maybe it takes a turn for the worse! I like to space these things out, because I also enjoy delayed gratification. That’s a matter for a different newsletter.

Anyway, the show is called Tales from the Loop and it’s on Amazon Prime.

My other recommendation is a podcast! I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts, but I used to. If I ever have a commute again, I expect I’ll listen to more. But one podcast that is particularly Of the Moment is called Stay F. Homekins, and it’s just Paul F. Tompkins and his wife, Janie Haddad Tompkins, talking to each other for 45 minutes. They’re both hilarious, and they make each other laugh a lot, and their conversations are fun. It’s low-stakes and low impact, just two people stuck in the house together, like the rest of us. Janie also happens to be from West Virginia, and I automatically like anything involving someone from West Virginia.

Stay distant, friends, and I’ll see you soon!

1,131 thoughts on “Introvert Olympics

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