There was a time, maybe as recently as last week, when I could make sense of experiences. My conversations, projects and actions seemed to jell into a recognizable narrative (albeit a plodding, non-linear one). I took this coherence-making as a sign of mental health. Thinking about it now, it seems more like a rationalist’s religion: a belief that events are building toward something, so it’s important to show up and pay attention.

What was that storyline? I feel like I’m living another person’s Facebook aggregator: someone’s dog is all muddy; so-and-so wishes it were sunny; somebody likes tacos. Irrelevant events enacted by strangers. It’s as if some time in 2009 I absent-mindedly ceded control of my life to another, someone who’s never met me.

Stuff just doesn’t add up. Tuesday I found myself in a remote American suburb shuttling between conference rooms and listening to marketing people strategize and argue. I took notes and spoke occasionally to show that I was tracking. But there was a lot I didn’t understand. Their sentences were so full of unfamiliar acronyms and wacky corporate jargon (“brooming,” “razzing,” “rat-holing,” “dog-fooding”) that I struggled just to follow the main ideas.

How did I get here? I don’t know. But by some mix up at the car rental place, I can say that I arrived at the meeting in a Hummer H3.

On this trip I was treated to a series of over-priced meals in faux-fancy restaurants. At one I listened patiently for our waiter to detail every aspect of the menu and cooking process, as if I’d never before ordered or tasted food. Another dinner was spent in the company of my father, my stepmother and their kids, whom I see only once or twice a year. After a little catching up, they discussed their favorite reality TV shows, the state of AP testing, the price of a cafeteria cookie, sports scores, class rank, and other assorted teenager trivia. I had nothing to add.

Last week I had to dream up ways to hype an entertainment event I most certainly will not attend. At several points in the meetings, I said things like “this sounds exciting” when my opinion was precisely the opposite.

In a final bit of surreality, the office where I now type is shrouded in plastic sheeting. Maybe for a week, maybe for three months. It’s outside of my control for reasons too tedious to explain here (imagine that).

While I’m feeling a little desperate, this is not a cry for help. I just need to find the thread again somehow. I believe it starts with choosing something I want. Which right now is much harder than it sounds.


  1. Lax Rear Slit said:

    If you come out to Seattle one more time without telling me, there will be HELL to pay.

    Yes, I read your blog. I know your secrets. Suck it.

    Okay, now that that’s out of my system…thanks for the honest post. I think you’re right – – – you need to choose something YOU WANT. Easier said than done, but it’s a start. I couldn’t even begin to offer advice about how one goes about doing this, as I struggle with the same thing, but I can at least commiserate.

    Your old pal,

  2. Jake said:

    Thanks, Lax. I am determined to commandeer a Hummer and squeeze in a Ballard visit one of these trips. You guys have a McCormick & Schmicks nearby, right?

  3. 2b+3s said:

    I empathize, too. Getting fed up, determining to do what I want inevitably entails figuring out what I want to do, which typically leads to an exhausting and fruitless search for meaning in the work I do for a living, etc., and the frightening solution of chucking it all and starting over. So more often than not I wind up doing something other than what I want to do and chalking any unhappiness that may result up to my innate lack of motive. I don’t feel this problem makes me clinically unique – in fact, it’s all but ubiquitous among my more self-aware friends. Sometimes I think the solution is to short-circuit the whole process by acting before thinking about the consequences. But that practice usually leads to another set of problems that are even worse than hypocrisy and malaise.

    • Jake said:

      And you know, it’s really a privilege, this malaise. It may be a natural byproduct of “self-awareness.” But I fear it’s also due to an utter lack of real hardship. If I was ever really in NEED of something, it would be a lot easier to WANT something.

  4. Rachel said:

    Hey, Jake,
    I am late to the commentary here, but I have to join in anyway, because your malaise is very familiar to me. It’s so difficult to be a person that relies on a narrative. It means being compelled forward by a story that can only be imposed upon the messy chaos of life retrospectively. It’s a perfect paradox.

    It’s like the process of evolution in that way: There are a few absolute laws that operate, but the actual real-time change occurs without direction and without purpose. Nonetheless, as long as people have thought that organisms are subject to change, they have tried to impose some sort of narrative–usually of one of progress–on the history of life and the process by which biological change happens. We are totally addicted to these narratives, especially if we think we can write ourselves in as the protagonists or, in this case, as the purported pinnacle of evolution.

    It can only be worse for individual organisms like us, since we have a well defined biological ontogeny. It’s almost impossible not to think that we are (or should be) developing progressively throughout our lives in every way, just as our bodies have developed progressively.

    Anyway, that went all biological in a way that I didn’t intend at first. The best part about our human brains is how good we are at revising the narrative over and over again to make sense of things and also to choose a new direction. That’s a big advantage over evolutionary history and biological ontogeny–those cannot be rewritten, but our own intellectual/emotional narratives can. Which you know, since you are already in the process of doing it 🙂

    Looking forward to seeing you guys next week!

  5. Kirk said:

    How about you and I work towards starting a talent management company for Chinese and Latin American artists and musicians who want to gain exposure in the U.S. I dunno, it was the first idea I’ve had in a long time the narrative of which seems both exciting and possible. Too bad I don’t know anything about art or music (not to mention writing about it)!

    Let’s talk!

  6. 2b+3s said:

    @ Jake: Hardship is relative. Who knows — the millionaire struggling to become a billionaire may have more genuine internal pain and suffering than the single mom working two jobs just to feed her kids. We judge the latter to be more worthy of empathy than the former, but that doesn’t mean her suffering is real and his is imagined. My point is that explaining away our “malaise” as merely a privileged byproduct of our (relatively) leisurely lives is facile. We need to look deeper to find the source.

  7. Jake said:

    This (already painfully tortured) literary analogy needed some grounding in biology; thanks, Rachel. I only wish my brain let me be satisfied to have my story unfold without intention or perceptible direction. Instead, it taunts me with the twin realizations that I am capable of choosing and afraid of diverting from a well-worn course.

    2009 may not be the best economic climate to launch an arts venture if you want to pay the bills. But if paying the bills were a worthy end in itself, I wouldn’t be in this quandry. Exciting and possible—you have my number, Kirk.

    I hear you, 2B. Not saying the examination isn’t worthwhile or that the malaise isn’t real. But my point is that, if I had fewer choices in life, I reckon I’d spend less time second-guessing the ones I’ve made (intentionally or by default). My grandfather didn’t bother himself about whether it was his true purpose in life to fix gas pumps. He was too busy fixing gas pumps.

  8. I got to know: What the heck is “rat-holing”? I hope it is as dirty as my imagination suggests it might be!

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