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A Stuck Loop

Sometimes I get stuck in a loop. It might be that I go iterate over the regular outputs of a technical task that functions as a problem generator. It could be that I find myself doom scrolling, or simply scrolling: you scroll, you refocus your eyes, skim read some words or look at an image, react, or dismiss… you scroll, you refocus your eyes, skim read some words or look at an image, react, or dismiss… Sometimes I learn Ukrainian on Duolingo. Or Portuguese. Or German.

I cannot speak Ukrainian, or Portuguese, or German.

There are times - many times - that I despise all of the people and all of the institutions that have consciously made decisions to engineer for this precise kind of compulsive perseveration, this being stuck in a loop, making things addictive for people who are ego depleted or anxious, in an age where it is inevitable that people will be ego depleted and anxious, people who thereby lack the almost inhuman reserves of will power required to resist the idiot short-circuits our contemporary world throws up every minute of every day. Fuck them.. But that’s not this.

This loop might not have lasted longer than half an hour, though I am certain I beat myself up about it far longer. This loop was technical in one sense - there are people would consider it so. It is geeky, if not so much as the times I will spend countless hours, those peculiar out-of-time hours, figuring out how to parse and manipulate the various timestamps on my task lists using the Python programming language. But it was creative too. Only now as I write about it, I see where I was going.

A friend, Matt Sandiford, had sent a photograph of a cat I used to more or less live with and who now lives with him. I had taken it into my head to “trace” it. I had been thinking about zines, had handled and read a few having reorganised my little flat, finding those I had collexted and seldom read over the last few years. I knew this, if vaguely, but something unconscious was playing out I would scarcely guess at for hours and might not have guessed at at all if I had not taken to writing about it here.

I opened the image in Inkscape and attempted to trace it. This, looking back now, was something I must have done once before, years ago, with a handful of photographs of Ostrava. A tracing in the sense I am talking about here involves the changing of the format of an image file from a bitmap to a vector image. A bitmap is an image formed of pixels. A vector is formed of lines and curves. If you zoom into a bitmap image, it becomes pixellated: the dots that make it up become larger squares. A vector image scales smoothly to any size (if you are unlucky enough to be reading this on the internet,1 you can see this by right clicking on the image, opening it in a new tab and zooming in by pressing CTRL SHIFT + or some similar combination). Vector images have their place. If made correctly, they may be smaller in size than bitmaps and so can be useful in web design. Vector images may be monochrome and though bitmap images such as photographs may be rendered as monochrome, it has sometimes struck me that tracing is a good way of making monochrome images which may be optimally versatile for the making of printable, photocopyable, and downloadable zines. The traces I made of the industrial buildings of Ostrava those years ago were intended for the paper version of a zine I had been working on.

Debugging

There is always a reason, a trigger for these states. Those of us most prone to them may have many such. As I have symptoms of autism and ADHD, my mind is an “invitation to struggle” (the phrase has been used to describe the separation of powers in the United States, and you can see how that’s playing out); its outputs are consequently chaotic: not only are they impossible to predict, it is hard to look back from any known state and meaningfully derive the chain of causality. Since I have any number of potential triggers in a smaller number of categories (environment, routines, food and drink, trends of thought, emotions), it is, it seems, always necessary to undergo a period of “debugging”. Failing to do so can lead to days, or weeks, or months, out of shape, anxious, rudderless, shiftless, depressed. But even if this were not the case, these stuck loops I describe are simply one of a number of symptoms of my having something to process. The debugging accompanies that whether I will it or not and, honestly, there is very little my willing something can do to influence my state of mind: my mind does what’s its inclined to do more or less all of the time. And so I pick over my routines, the food I have been eating, try to work my way down the cave systems of my mind to take a look at the state of what Bohumil Hrabal called the subterranean streams, the things I have unknowingly been thinking about.

July 6th, 2022. The second mid-week state holiday in a row here in Prague. I had known this in advance and somehow forgotten, or not made the requisite mental transition and preparation. The shapelessness of weekends can leave me four sheets to the wind week after week, but there is something about the unanticipated shapelessness of a surprise state holiday that can throw me utterly. There is good time-out-of-time and bad time-out-of-time. Journeys, especially those by train, can be good time-out-of-time. (Destinations are rarely worth the anticipation or aggravation and disruption but that’s another matter.) Holidays tend to be bad time-out-of-time: hell is other people - at festive seasons.

So four sheets to the wind and a perfect storm. Because nothing was clear. It’s the first week of the school holidays, and I work in a school. People are off everywhere but my work - writing the lessons for next year - is just beginning and I will soon be working on my own. Meanwhile, my department is run by somebody who is seldom available. There is little direction. Little information.

Remote work. Now that’s a whole other subject. I probe area after area of my current environment, my routines, my life. You can imagine all of these as browser tabs open in the mind, questions unresolved, dilemmas, connundrums, emotions unconfronted. Remote work: is it freeing or psychologically crushing? It depends upon your perspective, but also, this side of Covid, on a range of factors including how socially integrated you are or are not, your living conditions, your economic conditions, your temperament. And for me the summer stretches out ahead of me where a lot of the work - the bulk of it - will be fighting against my head. The summer, as others take their holidays with their partners and families, will be crushing loneliness and boredom.

I have been stuck in Prague for years now, have travelled to nowhere but Britain, a place I invariably feel lost, neurotic, anxious, and depressed. But I have nobody to go with anywhere and little money or stability as the prices go up all around me.

Women. A woman. And on top of that, my flat, which is tiny, and invariably a mess. Specifically, it is a mess now.

The first state holiday I had been standing waiting for fifteen, twenty minutes for a tram to go to my office - an office which no longer makes any sense and which I will soon have to be rid of, an office where it seems by now I have worked on an endless series of meaningless tasks, or tasks rendered meaningless by lack of interest - when the first tram went by, in the opposite direction, with those telltale Czech flags on the front. I am working in a job I find frustrating, and which pays poorly. Though I have not yet handed in my notice, I will have to, since two days before I had accepted a different job, also poorly paid, but for fewer hours, starting in a couple of months' time.

But this interminable indeterminacy regarding the office is simply part of a larger fractal whole. I am living in a shitty little flat I will one day surely have to grow out of, living in a city, and a country, which no longer makes sense to me, of me. A friend, a former colleague, is over from the United States. We had worked together in a school in Prague five, six years ago, and had met up to walk in Vyšehrad on the 4th July, her first evening, and had played tennis on the 5th, the day before. She has an eccentric, unschooled backhand where she turns her hand back on itself as if she were putting on the power on a motorbike instead of rolling off the gas, something which locks off her arm, restricts her movements, and prevents her following through, but she plays a decent game. Still, these are not my routines. Neither can they become my routines. And the fact that only people passing through this place, this “ox bow lake” as I referred to it the other day, on the “suburbs of Europe”, can understand any of the things I can tell of my life, doesn’t make any of these indefinite routines here any the more promising.

“Don’t work,” she had said at the tennis club when we sat for drinks after the game. I had complained that I was always working on state holidays. I had perhaps said, truthfully, that I didn’t know what a holiday was. We had stayed until closing time. They had cleaned down and locked us out on the terrace on the first floor. We had ran for the tram and said goodbye at Výtoň and I had got back to my flat having had a few and I had put on my usual audiobook with the sleep timer to get off to sleep and had listened to Tony Judt’s Postwar for the nth time for what might not even have been minutes before falling asleep.

I find change difficult.

I find people difficult. As hard as it is being on my own all of the time, and as much as I want to find what I call “community” or as much as I dream about fantasy girlfriends who understand everything and make few demands on my limited social skills, being around people is tiring. I talked about this on Výšehrad. What do I want? Why should it make sense what people want?

At the tennis, the first time I have played with anyone but my regular partner, who has had little enough time to play, I see a tennis trainer I had asked to fill in for my regular while he is away. I wave vaguely. I am not making eye contact - people tend to interpret that in various ways - but she looks past me. Typically stern, přísná, she looks positively aggressive. This kind of thing is not an irregular occurence.

We have beers both nights and talk for hours. Odd how impossible the rudiments of conversation have been here. Odder how easy they can seem after those two years of Covid, a breakup, the move to this tiny little flat, illness, a cancelled Christmas, a lonely New Year, underemployment, a strange, brief, out-of-time ill-fated love affair in February, giving up on everything that ever seemed important to me, losing faith in almost anything I ever believed in.

I had started taking Ritalin again a few days ago. Endless days of staring at my computer - worst of all, at Google docs and sheets and chat boxes - had left me ego depleted, struggling to work up the motivation to work in ever shorter sprints. It seemed unsustainable. Why can’t we work with our hands anymore?

I get to Albertov with a Tesco carrier bag full of empty beer bottles - non-alcoholic, mostly, though beer of any kind isn’t good for me and I know it, and the justification of drinking the non-alcoholic beer was that I was going to exclude alcohol for a month or three and see if it was the beer or the alcohol or what it was has been sending me off into those pea soupers all of my life, triggering all of those Walter Mitty daydreams, losing me to the world.

The impossibility of socialising sober. The impossibility of functioning when alcohol is part of my life.

I put the beer bottles into the machine and collect my ticket for the few crowns off my purchase and I notice that beer was drizzling, perhaps almost pouring out of the holes in the bottom of the thick plastic carrier bag. I look around me - did anyone see? - and with scarcely a guilty thought about not using the damn thing forever like nobody does, I see a bin and throw it away. I make out I have nothing to do with the pool of beer on the floor. Anyway, it’s non-alcoholic.

The alarm has been sounding all this time on the disabled toilet close to the tills and the bottle collection machine. Does nobody intend to do anything? Should I do something? I don’t.

I see a pretty sales girl - a brunette, though we shouldn’t say brunette - and lose myself in a reverie of talking to the usuals at a literary awards bash about how we got together. Makes a change from the women at the teahouse anyway. I walk through the turnstiles to the vegetables to buy coffee. I had planned this. Nothing to do with the pretty brunette.

I buy coffee and beer - I had drank a can I had found in the fridge at the office and needed to replace it. It’s been this last few years I drink beer. It does nothing for me. I buy two cans of Plzeň - Pilsner, I suppose they call it, which is named after the city - and a non-alcoholic Birrell. I will drink both cans of Pilsner and the Birrell. It will do nothing for me.

The pretty brunette makes conversation. “Do you have the Lidl app?” she says. “Cash or card?” she says. I have numerous threads for this kind of thing. They all open up. The story idea for the conversation diary may be one of them.

And so, I had a free day.

Already, perhaps the previous night, I had shut down my computer and booted into the live distro I use for writing and so I wrote in the morning. I eased my way in with my Czech homework, writing a diary about work for the most part. And then it was writing proper, which takes time and mental resources to prime after a long break. And then, already, it was getting on, and I was to cook for my friend, and I was to face whatever it was that was to involve, which meant facing myself, which meant… And I had to tidy, clean the place to make it borderline acceptable for visitors. Which seemed an impossible task, as it often proved to be. And the shops would doubtless be closed, and so it seemed an impossible task to do so much as buy chicken, and clean my place, and…

And so I found myself stuck in a loop.

A Zen-Adjacent Key Change

Stuck loop. Stuck loop. Perseverating this, procrastinating that. Autistic, autistic, why must I be so autistic? Attention deficit disordered, why must I be so…? I’m so “scatty” today, so “flitful”, “I’ve got my head up my arse”..

If all that has to happen for us to beat ourselves up for doing something better than any of our sworn enemies could is that they defund it, make sure not only that nobody will ever earn a living from doing it well or doing it for the right reasons, or doing it at all, but that purely by having that thing in their lives, they’ll never for two straight months believe they can keep a roof over their head, they win cheap though, don’t they.. I mean to say it’s as if we reach into our wardrobes and put on our finest shirt with the starched colar and choose a nice tie to go with it and then strap ourselves into a straight jacket.

Sometimes I think it’s a matter of trust, or of belief, faith.. In my rare Taoist moments, I think it’s all about when you stop suppressing your instincts and work with them. Trust them somehow. You stop pathologising your creative process, whatever it is capitalism would have you crush. You get off your own case..

The real stuck loop is the daily grind.. It is the thing you optimise yourself for day after day. You take your meds and you do your yoga and you meditate and you eat the right food and you avoid the beer and the whatever it is so you can get up at the right time to the sound of your alarm clock and open your computer and feed the Google because the Google wants feeding.

There’s something elemental about that traced image, as there’s something elemental about Estee. About all cats, perhaps. I didn’t know this. And then I did. And the original image, it’s got Estee, but there’s something about this brings it out the more. I think. Clearly, it is about the composition of the photo, the waiting for the right shot. I didn’t do that, Matt did. But the thing about remix culture is you take something and you pass it on, give it a twist, keep it going. It doesn’t have to be Jimi Hendrix doing All Along the Watchtower. It doesn’t have to be better, just different (there’s nothing more pointless than a faithful cover). Maybe it doesn’t even have to be good, just honest. And before I got myself “stuck” in this loop where I saw some potential and gave a twist to what I am surprised to see was in fact a pedestrian photograph (I am used to some excellent shots from Matt, who knows his photography, but, judging by the depth of field and the like, it is possible this was shot on a phone camera at the moment I was writing about how it had been fun to see Estee after a long while ie. that it was taken the way most people take photographs), I had been writing.

Writing? Was it real writing? There are times I would have been tempted to say no. Would it become a novel? No. Would it be a Netflix miniseries. Fuck no. Would it get me in the position to write, or sell a novel, to sell myself? Doubtful.

I had been writing a novel. A novel I began thinking about, began living, maybe fifteen years ago now or getting on for it. It wasn’t a novel of ideas, though it had plenty of ideas. It was and it wasn’t a state of the nation novel - as claustrophobic as it began, as the Kafkárna of a future Manchester dreamed up as a palimpsest of Normalizace Prague, it was too international for that.

I may write a novel again. But just as I have stopped believing in The [New] Labour Party or The Guardian, I can’t say I believe in any of the big publishing houses, or the gatekeepers and “taste makers” I used to see all the time on Twitter; what is worse, I have stopped believing in the institution that is the kind of people who have the time and resources to read difficult novels. I stopped believing in them in the sense that I stopped believing their opinions might matter, that they might take what they learn from reading a novel, like they might take what they learn from reading an editorial in The Guardian and do something in the world that makes a difference.

I work in education. My friend who is visiting right now, works in education. The day before I got myself stuck in that loop, when we were looking over the tennis courts as the lights were turned off and the bats, now and again, did loops of the badminton hall, I said I have taken to use the term “edumucated”. I said I had heard the term from two people, Spike Lee and one of the two blacksmiths I used to work with at a Rudolf Steiner college for kids with “special educational needs”. What I was saying was that one of the problems I have consistently found over the past few years is that the salt-of-the-earth people who years back would have had jobs where they worked with their hands, have so often been pwned by populist movements. The intelligent, well-placed people, meanwhile, are so edumucated, so convinced the world works in the way it is supposed to work, and so absolutely unaware of having been convinced of it, that it is senseless talking to them about anything.

The people who read the most novels are edumucated. Novels are optimised for their tastes, mental models, styles of thought and prejudices as newspapers are constructed for the tastes, prejudices, mental models, and styles of thought of the kind of people who buy newspapers or, increasingly, the kind of people who are targetted by advertisers who pay to place adverts in those newspapers.

Do I really want to dedicate my life to creating a fictional world that would convince some Tarquin at a publishing company that the kind of edumucated people who might, for the twenty years I would struggle to do so in moments stolen here and there as I work in a series of unrewarding menial jobs, ask me if I am an “actual writer” and then turn away, would buy it in a 3-for-2 deal at a shitty books megastore that pays minimal wage for its workers, or, worse, from Amazon Prime, so that they can discuss it at the kind of wine and cheese evening the mere knowledge of which would make me misanthropic for months at a stretch?

For this an other reasons I had not had the resources to write towards a novel since I was depressed in Britain some months ago before I came back to start the job that has sucked up my life for the past few months so I can barely afford this shitty bedsit and which I have yet to quit.

Side note, probably the last thing I posted on Twitter which, I am told, is essential to build a following so as to be taken seriously as a writer, is “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.” I was in Britain, and I saw it coming somehow.

What I had done was write an interview with myself. An interview at any rate with a version of myself. It is an interesting exercise. Who would I have to be, I asked myself, if I were able to really deliver on some of the projects I had been thinking about, occasionally talking about, over these last few years? What would have to have happened? I wrote an interview with myself in a world where people like myself are valued for the work they are doing.

In so doing, what I had done was figure something out. It was just a case of listening to myself. Specifically, to the part of myself I censor or beat down for not doing whatever it is is expected of us, whatever it is we are supposed to do to make a way for ourselves in a world of upside-down incentives.

The Crack-Up

Stuck loops. Autism. Perseveration. People think you a loser for sticking to your passion long after you have falsified the notion it could lead to any kind of income stream, let alone a career. You hear this again and again. And you hear it from the people who are doing well. You hear it from the edumucated, the people with the monetizable credentials, the beautiful house, the beautiful spouse, the beautiful life. You hear it when they say it, and they often have no shame in saying it, but you hear it too when they don’t say it, and they have no scruples about not saying it, loudly. And it soaks into you.

I’ll tell you what it is, this kind of seemingly burned out exploration I’m talking about. Your real life gets squashed down to the expansion cracks in your day. But things are heating up. They are heating up way beyond what was anticipated. Until one day there is no more room to expand. It all breaks.

Ritalin. Beer. Thoughts about women. Thoughts about jobs. Thoughts about living conditions. Thoughts relating to all of the fears we are supposed to submit to until we conform to whatever it is we are supposed to conform to - have you ever noticed how the fears must ramp up and up until they threaten to pull themselves down in some sudden pancake collapse, they must go up and up as we are expected to conform to more and more, satisfy ourselves with less and less? These compulsive moments of spontaneous creativity, which may begin in the simplest of ways, begin as dandelions in the asphalt, a natural, vigorous expression that there is life here even in the expansion cracks you’ve permitted us.

When you pay attention to them, when you don’t dismiss them but nurture them, make a habit of them…

…but I have said enough. For now.. You’ll figure it out. Or you can put on your tie and your straight jacket, get on with feeding the Google, and never think about this ever again.

There is a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in.


  1. If you are reading this online you are probably still feeding the Google. One of the ways Google extends its sinister influence on the world and extracts as much from us as it can is by serving fonts.

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