isaac black

isaac black writes

I’ve worked eleven days in the last two weeks, and I feel like I can’t sleep or snack enough. I drove filmmakers to their screenings for the Sundance film festival, waking up at 5:30 too days in a row and getting home at 1:30 am on a few nights. Despite the schedule, which often included killing time for hours in the middle of the day, it was actually fun. I made new friends and got to see several very good films. And I made enough money, including tips, for more than a month’s budget.

Yesterday I went back into my old office for a few hours to do some contract work. My old coworkers clapped when I walked back in, but despite the warm welcome I held plenty of ambivalence toward that old social context. I worked at a “cool” company, the scare quotes indicating the startup mentality which invites employees to dress up corporate professionalism with their own superficial flair. Our CEO asked us to write the goals we had outside of work for the year on a magnetic rectangle to hang at our desks. The intended effect was, I guess, for us to bring some of the passion we had for things outside of work into the labor we sold to the company. In the era of “campuses” instead of workplaces, where unemployment is tenacious despite an average work week of 47 hours, where email on phones makes everyone effectively on-call, companies increasingly want to monopolize what meager shreds of identity are left after clocking out. At my “cool” job, I was encouraged to banter and get drinks with employees, but I still felt sheepish about being anti-capitalist or posting about UBI on my facebook page as more and more coworkers discovered it and added me, and when my coworker with anger management issues called me a pussy I didn’t take it to HR. It was a little uncomfortable inhabiting that old persona, but at the same time it was somewhat cathartic knowing that I’m a freelancer and that if they don’t like who I am for whatever reason I don’t need them. Still, I used to spend forty hours a week in that social context, which is more time than I spent with my friends or family, and that persona was inauthentic.

I had a headache within a few hours, which made me remember the headaches I would get about once a week in the afternoons. It was possibly from the bright natural light in the office, which is a good thing! I also made $60 an hour, so I’m sorry to anyone for whom my bitching is disrespectful. My point is to push our collective imaginations forward to a world where workers have autonomy, where livelihoods don’t require prioritizing jobs over relationships.

After I quit, it felt a little like I was enjoying the last few months of my life. I was dealing (barely) with a breakup, so that contributed to the feeling, but I also think it shows how deeply I had internalized what I “do” as who I am. Not only is an income required to keep myself alive, it serves as a public avatar of self. And with resigning from the faith I was raised in, I had erased myself from two very important societal institutions.

In that light, maybe it wasn’t so deliberate that I shifted my emphasis to my relationships. Maybe I needed to do that to compensate for the social ties I had severed, ties which helped define who I am. At any rate, focusing on those relationships while being more authentic has predictably been much more fulfilling, even though it can also be draining and require downtime.

On the converse, I have two friends who seem to seek out extra work, only partially for the money. This is a very surface level interpretation on my part, but they are both women who are social to the point of spreading themselves thin. Maybe getting more jobs is a way of anchoring themselves to a fixed identity.

It’s been about four and a half months without steady employment, and it’s been the best thing I could do for myself. But even with enough savings for at least eight more months, working has jarred me out of my complacency. I’ve been thinking more about what I need to do to start a hot sauce company, which of course assumes that my forays into writing don’t pan out, or don’t pan out soon enough. But I have managed in a few months to knock loose my assumption that I need a steady nine-to-five in order to get by. Progress, I guess.

For today–resting up while also trying to kick the writing part of my brain in the ass enough to finish the chapter I’m working on.

I went over budget again, this time because renewing my car registration cost $100 more than I expected and because I can’t stop buying records. 

After three months I’ve realized that sleeping enough (I feel despair creep in more readily if I get less than 6 hours), talking to friends, reading a bit, and making my own meals is a full day. I’ve realized that writing a novel and perfecting my hot sauce recipe is a full slate so I’ve put my website idea on hold. When people ask what I do I tell them “nothing,” but that’s partly because I am keeping my novel close to the chest and partly because it’s hard to explain how much time it takes to take care of oneself and one’s friends. 

I haven’t felt lonely the last couple months. (This is not to say I don’t miss my ex girlfriend. I think about her regularly.) But I’ve gone to bed wishing I had someone with me so many nights in my life I hadn’t considered I could feel otherwise without someone actually being there. I’ve learned that different people draw different things out of me, and I’ve been enjoying going on dates while also focusing on long term friendships with people I trust. 

Last week I hitched a ride with friends to the Oregon coast, via San Francisco, to spend some time with a friend having relationship trouble. In northern California I got high in a redwood grove. A mist-filled clearing glowed through the trees, reminding me of an old fantasy, a conflation of the creek behind my childhood home and a story I read without an ending about an enchanted forest. I had forgotten that part of myself. My hopes, memories, and fears were airing out within me. 

I recently sent an email to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requesting they remove me from their records. I talked to the bishop of the ward I am in before my trip, and he was supportive and understanding despite his loyalty to the organization. But my own superstition flared up in light of my existential unaffiliation. I was now unclaimed. I began to remember times I embarrassed myself by making careless mistakes toward people. I fretted that with the Holy Ghost no longer my companion I was headed for disaster. Life, existence is fearful and overwhelming. And much too soon it will be over. 

My friend and I drove north along the Oregon coast on the way back to Utah, a detour of four hours or so tacked onto a fourteen hour day. The rivers swelled with rain and the ullage flooded the roads. The tide was so high on Cannon Beach that we couldn’t walk on the sand. The Columbia River Gorge reminded me of the Norwegian fjords as clouds disguised the mountains and waterfalls poured spontaneously through the foliage. We made it home at 3 am, technically Christmas Eve. 

Lately I’ve heard several stories of the church superseding relationships, including my friend’s. But this morning I opened presents with my parents and consider myself very fortunate that even though they can no longer expect to be with me in the next life we’re together in this one. 

It’s December now, improbably. Time has gone by so fast, presumably because I spend so little time awake (9 hours a night seems to be a minimum for me), but also because I mark time both by the beginning of the month (for budget purposes) and the 18th, the day in September when I quit.

As far as my budget goes, $1,700 a month is quite comfortable, even with a car payment and now a health insurance premium. I drove to San Francisco and still only went over budget by $50. I rarely eat out, which helps, but I don’t exactly deprive myself at the grocery store. I might try to cut back on a few things, but right now I don’t really see the need.

I was worried at the outset that I might go a little batty without any forced social interaction. I’m definitely keeping it together, but it seemed like a real danger for the first time two days ago. I had overextended myself socially the last couple of weeks, so this week I had been very reluctant to make any plans with people that I don’t know well. Being an introvert, I was taking some time for myself. It felt really good, but at the same time I was dissatisfied with the most recent section of the novel I’m working on and couldn’t figure out why. It was like a burr in my shoe. I couldn’t feel productive or move on from it until I figured it out. I felt a little like I was existing in the fictional world I had created, poring over the details trying to make it more compelling.

I realized that the text wasn’t as fun as I wanted it. I thought through some things and made some revisions and came out the other side feeling better about it. I’m now sitting at my computer procrastinating going to a potluck with some friends, so socializing may still be a little much for me, but at least I don’t feel like a disheveled lunatic wiping boogers on his bathrobe (I never actually did that).

Two weeks ago a new LDS Church policy leaked that classifies gay couples who marry or cohabit as apostates, the worst offense in Mormonism and an excommunicable one. Additionally, children of gay couples can no longer be blessed or baptized while living at home, and only then at the age of 18 if they disavow the validity of their parents’ relationship. The change came as a shock to many in the community, who had felt that the church was making slow but steady progress toward acceptance of gay people within the church and in society. In fact, the change was so significant, and having arrived without any official statement so soon after October’s General Conference, many thought it was an anti-Mormon lie spread to discredit the church.

My friends, who exist on a spectrum from fully active to ex-Mormon, were all upset about it. It was discouraging and, given the church’s top-down structure and typical intransigence of the faithful, now set in stone. My family wasn’t upset at all, and in trying to tease out the implications of it with them I only made them defensive and condescending.

True to my goal of prioritizing relationships I spent much of the week commiserating with friends, as well as working through my own, complicated feelings toward the church. I posted publicly on Facebook that I no longer associated with the church in any way and did not agree with the church’s stance on gay marriage. Friends reached out to me with supportive words, regardless of their church affiliation. I came to decide that I would request a disciplinary council to be tried as an apostate, extinguishing whatever faint hope I may have retained that some heavenly bureaucrat would let me be with my family in the next life because I had the right box checked.

I talked to a friend who had left the church recently. She was going through a breakup, but when she called me in tears she was wondering what life meant and what she wanted out of it. She had wanted to be a mother but now wondered about the selfishness of bringing more people into the cruelty of life. She was able to talk to the guy she was seeing about things, but with him gone she had lost that temporary foothold on reality. Mormonism promises permanence–everyone lives again, and families can be together for eternity–and letting go of that belief system brings mortality into sharp, immediate focus. A younger friend’s jokes about her age–twenty-five–gave her anxiety.

She had been married, and her friends and family weren’t supportive when she tried to tell him about the emotional abuse she experienced in that relationship. They encouraged her to stay in her marriage. She left him, but after years of therapy the scars remained. She mentioned swallowing a bunch of pills as a solution to what she was going through.

I spent the day with a close friend whose marriage was in trouble. After dating for a year long-distance, her husband had become fixated on her flaws. Her brother is gay, and the recent policy change proved divisive with her and her husband. Her disagreement with it prompted him to dissect her views on the divine guidance of church leadership.

I talked to a friend who had decided to resign from the church after the recent change, something which several of my friends had also decided to do. She supported my decision to go through a disciplinary council, and despite the years of not attending church and holding a principled opposition to the church program, she wanted to get free of it as quickly and easily as possible. She wasn’t going to tell her family, and when I pointed out that her parents would find out, if not through some other way, when they went to tithing settlement at the end of the year. She didn’t care. She didn’t want to give her parents the opportunity to try to convince her otherwise.

She empathized with the frustrations I felt with my family. While we were talking, because of my own inability to cope with my parents’ mortality, I asked if she was afraid of her parents’ dying. She admitted that it was her biggest fear. My mom is the oldest of her siblings, and her twin sister was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple years ago and had recently gone into a home. My friend’s parents, like mine, are in their 70’s.

It was an emotionally exhausting week. At one point, having felt physically almost like I had run a marathon, I broke down in tears. I found myself looking forward to my planned trip to Yosemite and San Francisco. I was craving the disconnection and isolation that camping promised. But, as I was leaving Sunday morning, I checked the weather. It was supposed to snow in South Lake Tahoe where I was going to camp that night. Later in the week it was supposed to be sunny and clear, so I changed plans (without a touch of anxiety!) and texted my friend in the South Bay that I wanted to stay with him that night instead of Wednesday as I had been planning. Luckily he and his family were able to accommodate.

I caught up with an old friend in San Francisco, and we were able to talk about things openly in a way we hadn’t been able to before. She was Mormon, but because she didn’t live that lifestyle she was facing a dilemma of how to identify and how to embrace that liminality. She didn’t know how to navigate the expectations that come along with the identity that she wanted for herself.

After drinks we talked about her observation that Mormons, because of the patriarchal blessing we typically receive in our teens, are in the practice of second-guessing their decisions–if we lived more righteously, if we were more open to the Spirit, would we fulfill more of that blessing? would we be happier? She hadn’t gotten that same sense from talking to those not raised in the church. It was something I hadn’t considered before, but it made sense. She self-effacingly advised me against seeing a psychic, since it further hampered her ability to live in the moment.

The next night I went to Golden Gate Park after lunch with a couple old friends. I walked from the park to Ocean Beach. A sign warned me that people had drowned swimming in the undertow. I thought of the dichotomy between untimely death and the comfort of the pastel rowhouses lining the beach. It made me recall how impressionable I used to be to the energy of cities I would visit, whereas I had now become so critical, always looking for the flaw, the dark secret, that new places rarely moved or excited me anymore. I resolved to let places speak to me on their own terms.

On my way out of the city I dropped in at the California office of the company where I used to work to see an old coworker that I had become good friends with. As we were catching up, she told me she had just come back from a cruise where a passenger had jumped over the railing and drowned. When she got back to the office she learned that a former coworker had died suddenly of a heart attack. He was in his 30’s and fit. He was very friendly to me the few times that we had met.

I drove to Yosemite. Fire had denuded the forest bordering Yosemite’s west entrance, leaving blackened tree trunks spiking up out of the meadow. I noticed a little manzanita bush clinging to a sandy bank beside the road. It wasn’t hard to imagine erosion uprooting the bush, leaving it to shrivel and snap into kindling. I thought of giant sequoias, imposing even in death with their tall, exposed root systems clawing the air.

As I hiked over snow to Tuolomne Grove, I got a call from my mom. Her twin sister, my aunt, had died. I walked back to my car, following snowshoe tracks in the half moon. A layer of haze on the western horizon was such a deep red it made me gasp.

I drove to my campsite and burned a bundle of wood to coals. The forest was dead silent when I crawled into my sleeping bag. I thought about my aunt. Lying in the unforgiving dark it occurred to me what a long, beautiful life she had been able to live.

I had lunch with a friend the other day, like a real grownup. (Bonus detail: I’m getting coffee with another, grownup friend tomorrow). We talked a little bit about relationships, which came out of a conversation about autism. She said she gets a lot of satisfaction out of relationships, almost to the point where she wished she could de-prioritize them in order to do other things. I am the opposite. I have been trying to train myself to get satisfaction out of maintaining relationships, rather than seeing time spent socially as wasted. I feel most productive working on something in my room by myself.

I still get anxious sometimes, even with all my free time, about not being productive enough. I think part of it stems from my taking on very longterm projects, like learning to code and learning Spanish, projects with no real endpoint. But these are similar to keeping up relationships–you put time and effort into other people’s feelings; what’s the end result? I know this makes me sound like a robot, but I think it comes from this impulse in me to finish things, to wrap up loose ends. It’s a trait I inherited from my father.

Earlier this week I felt a craving for human interaction. I live with roommates, so I see people and have casual interactions regularly. But, for the first time I can remember, I wanted to socialize with people on a friendly level. Historically, romantic and/or physical relationships have been how I have felt validated, so I can remember feeling romantically lonely as far back as fourth grade, but it’s more rare that I want to engage in small talk or catch up with a friend. I choose to see it as a positive development, that I’m learning how to recognize an impulse in myself to feel human warmth from other people. Yes, I’m a robot learning how to love.

I don’t know how much stock I put in Myers-Briggs tests, but I’m an INTJ. The profile does seem to fit me. My ex girlfriend was also INTJ, which is especially rare for women. Apparently the romantic profiles for INTJ’s–cerebral, cold, abstract thinkers–are not very encouraging. But I related to her better than anyone I’ve dated previously. The way she approached the relationship was how someone might approach a business partnership. It didn’t kill the passion, though. In fact, it drew me out. Being so verbal about our feelings made me feel more effusive. I wrote her a couple dozen poems, something I’m not in the habit of doing. Granted, I tend to be more improvisational in relationships but that may be owing to my failure to recognize and communicate my own boundaries. So, yes, I’m a robot, but when we were two robots figuring things out I was the romantic one. I miss feeling that way.

That’s all there is to say about that.

I’ve been jobless for a month. I’m not bored, and far from it. I have a pile of clean clothes on my floor and a layer of dust on my car’s dash that I’ve been too busy to clean up. I’ve been on two weeklong trips and in the interim, I’ve made a lot of progress on my novel. I have been learning Spanish and Python and steadily reading through my reading list. I haven’t been submitting short stories lately because I haven’t carved out time for it. I haven’t even watched Andrei Rublev yet.

My sense of time is changing. I forget the days. I don’t have the same sense of endurance through the week work with a protracted downtime on the weekends. Instead each day follows the contour that my week used to–a sluggish morning, productive afternoon and sometimes evening, a little bit of socialization and some free time at night.

“Joy” is a bit too strong a word, but I’m feeling a great sense of satisfaction from writing. My free time involved both decompression and creativity, so my writing started to come with a sense of exhaustion. With enough time to think and deliberate about what I was doing, I feel energized after writing.

I don’t know how I’m going to go back to working. Luckily I have enough funds for another eleven months, at least. I’m feeling good about the budget I set for myself. I was hoping I would be under budget, but I also don’t really want to miss out on fun events or trips. I did save a little money this month by not signing up for health insurance yet (I have another thirty days or so). I also was able to do some contract work for my old employer, and it looks like I might make a couple hundred dollars when I exercise my stock options (before taxes).

I just got back from a weeklong trip wherein I drove a couple of friends’ moving truck across the country for the price of a plane ticket home, meals, and a place to stay in Brooklyn. I have a habit of inhabiting situations where I feel barely competent. As a guitarist I always improvised, and still do, preferring to chance upon something brilliant than rehearse something to flawlessness. This tendency comes from a desire to learn, a restlessness that has me overcommit and fake the difference, an impatience with the depth of mastery. Or it comes from a long harbored sense of inadequacy–my coddled, little albatross. In that theory I’m uncomfortable with success, awkward about excellence. A couple of weeks before giving my two weeks I biked up a steep canyon. Two miles from the top I bonked. I had food but I forced myself to finish the ride, ginning up frustration and anger to stoke my metabolism. At the top I popped cola flavored gummies into my mouth without volition. I was training my body, my self, not for achievement but for survival in grim conditions.

I signed myself up for the trip to New York without knowing what I would do there, only trusting that I would find something. As the time came I acknowledged that I would rather stay under the comfort of  blankets in my chilly room: writing, running errands and doing my Spanish lessons. There was no option to back out, so I painted my fingernails turquoise and drove through the Corn Belt.

The drive was scenic and beautiful, but, having lost an hour each day and hobbled by the truck’s hard 75 mph limit and abysmal gas mileage at high speeds, I only ever made it to my target late at night. Pulling my backpack into a chain motel I would get ready for bed right away and then realize I had nothing else to do there but sleep. Two nights were spent in that lonely way, salved by Colbert and the punctuation of interminable commercials.

That first day of driving, as I learned to appreciate rather than resent the state of Nebraska, my mind settled into the topic it’s avoided the last two and a half months. No one could see me cry in that cab, if I needed to cry. I allowed myself to miss her, to think of the magical times we had together. I focused on the beauty of it all; the sadness was and will be present enough that I didn’t need to focus on it. I had been skipping through Garth Brooks’ greatest hits, a choice I snickered at as I put it on. But the chorus of “The Dance,” a song I had dismissed as schmaltzy when it played ad absurdum at church dances, surprised me. I had never listened to the words. “And now I’m glad I didn’t know the way it all would end, the way it all would go. Our lives were better left to chance. I could have missed the pain but I’d have had to miss the dance.”

Sometimes when I’m meditative my mind latches onto a mistake I’ve made. Even blunders made years ago, long forgiven by all, will dredge up feelings of humiliation and anxiety. I don’t do this when thinking about her, though those moments were plenty. I don’t dwell on the mistakes I made with her, maybe I trusted her to handle herself. Maybe because what we had for that brief time was an understanding so deep that forgiveness was implicit.

I would sometimes wake her up in my sleep, wanting to talk. One morning, annoyed, she told me about my doing that the previous night. I had no recollection of it and, while laughing, apologized on behalf of my subconscious.

The night I got to New York I found a spot for the truck in front of a hydrant a door down from the apartment. My friend and a friend she had made were on the bare floor of a new, two story place with a bag of chips and a bottle of whiskey. I excused myself to go the bathroom and downed some whiskey to calm my nerves, aggravated by too much coffee, going too long without a bathroom break, and my GPS’ insane route through the cramped streets of Brooklyn. The three of us took another shot and ate delivered Indian food and brought up a bed and a sofa, after which they helped me pull the 16 foot truck into a legal spot with 6 inches to spare on either end.

We read tarot cards. My cards didn’t resonate, except for one–the six of bottles. The book interpreted the card with the story of a trusted friend making a healing cup of tea. It sounded so nice. I fell asleep on the couch while the two of them talked late into the night.

The next afternoon, after helping unload the truck, my friend went to get some schoolwork done. I set off in search of a park. I felt uncomfortable in the one I walked to, self conscious of my whiteness and tourist’s ignorance. I felt lonely. I decided to take transit to Prospect Park, a place I had been before. When the bus came I had three singles in hand, ready to pay the fare. A sign on the till said no bills. I asked the driver, and he said “Just go, just go.” To not waste time I didn’t thank him, except when I got off.

I felt better as I walked to the park. The streets were lively; it was Saturday evening. I wasn’t aimless. I found a spot of wilting grass by a pond and lay down. I intended to read but I just lay there, sunglasses on, sorting through my loneliness. I dozed a couple times for a few moments apiece, and not too long after I felt rested and refreshed, energized enough to do the labor of reaching out, of asking friends for what I need.

The next day I slept in late, feeling slightly awkward about my sloth while my host unpacked and got ready for the day, but not enough to rouse myself. I showered and got coffee with an ex girlfriend, a meeting that went as well as I had hoped. I got on the train to the natural history museum, but seeing how beautiful the afternoon was I strayed to Central Park like a sailor to a siren. After an hour of sitting on a rock in partial shade I got falafel from a truck and spent the next couple of hours reading on a sunny lawn. I was adopting her mode of traveling–coffee, friends, and scenic place to park with a book.

Afterward I went back to my usual travel style: moving quickly and seeing sights while allowing for interesting detours, paying attention along the way, feeling for the unique flavor of places. I arrived early for a meeting with friends and walked to the 9/11 memorial. It was grim, surreal in its beautiful bleakness. It affected me profoundly, aided by the small memorials of stones and flowers left by the names of deceased loved ones. I met my friends for a monks’ choir concert in a nearby episcopalian chapel. The chairs were arranged in a horseshoe faced inward and the dozen monks completed the rectangle when they filed in. I was able to view the other attendees. The impression I got was one of weariness. Some people had shopping bags. One young creative class couple rested their hands on each other’s knee, her head on his shoulder. Normally I would have viewed the scene with disdain, the singing of anachronistic monks for privileged people as a self-conscious, past-fetishizing affect.  That night, a Sunday night, maybe influenced by an old impression of urban chapels as a refuge, their thick walls muffling the streets’ clamor and their dusty stained glass obscuring the city’s stimulae, I saw the concert as an act of solace for those who needed it. Which is everyone.

I spent the next day with friends who introduced me to a friend of theirs, culminating in a cordial goodbye when I came to my stop. I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen for years. We had dinner, drinks afterward, and unloaded our respective heartaches. For my last day I treated myself to a ferry ride, bought myself some books, revisited the natural history museum just in time to get in free for the last hour. I had pizza for dinner, a $2.50 slice of cheese better than anything I can get at home. Now I’m back, doing laundry, trying to sort through emails and dreading a little the contract work with my former employer that I agreed to do while I was gone. Back in the confines of competence.


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