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ON THE PURSUIT OF PLEASURE

April was going to be the cruelest month… because it was about to be the driest month.


That was the sentence I’d planned on for starting this post when I jotted down ideas for it months ago. I was planning to do thirty days without alcohol and to log the experience with a blog post.


I’d thought of the title over a year ago, around the same time that I was drafting Swim Therapy. The outlines of FOUR blog posts came to me simultaneously - Swim Therapy, Sport in Times of Injury & Illness, Swim Therapy pt. 2 - Melon’s 5 Circles, and Chasing Pleasure. I don’t know WHAT happened in 2020, but I only ended up writing the first post - though I had notes on all of them.


After the New Year, I wanted to pick up where I’d left off, but a new idea was bubbling to the surface - what eventually became 1 000 words, 20 000 steps. I decided to “package” it with “Sport…” and “Chasing…” to make a three-part post on writing and fitness during on-again, off-again lockdowns in Geneva and neighboring France when working intensively on either one was not an option. I wanted to say - to tell myself - that slowing down would help achieve goals better than pushing oneself to do more.


And, of course, I imagined it would be a success story - there would be bumps along the way, but by the third post, I’d have reached my goal weight and have progressed significantly on my personal project. The first post was made shortly after the start of spring. A little late but not bad. The second was to come out in April and the third in May.


And where am I now? As I’m writing this, it’s the 30th of May (and as I’m editing it, it’s November). I’m sitting here with my almost-final draft of the second post, upset that the ending has nothing to do with the title, that while it came to me naturally to end it that way and tied it more or less to the present, that the post wasn’t coming across as a coherent whole. And all the tense shifting! I could see almost every English teacher I’ve had from grade school to grad school getting out their red pens.


One more month and the year is half over… In all this time, as of the 30th of May, I’ve posted one blog post, I’ve lost only ONE kilo (of the 5 aimed for), and I’m bored with the project I’ve been working on.


For a post with “pleasure” in the title, this is sure turning out to be a downer.


That’s because despite planning these posts about “slowing down,” I’d already heavily internalized the message that unless you can do things hard and fast and without making mistakes, you’ve failed and will never amount to anything. Where did such criticism come from? I’d grown up with a lot of parental pressure to be constantly productive and successful, I’d been in a long relationship with someone who saw slowing down and self care as signs of weakness - not to mention living in a bottom-line oriented, productivity-centered society. I ended up believing that only grand gests counted even as I suffered their consequences.


But then, I was also surrounded by posts on social media and the like that emphasized the importance of little steps taken every day building up to big achievements. In reality, long before this idea popped up everywhere, I’d already experienced it. I just hadn’t embraced it yet.


the costs of pushing oneself


If I want to run and try to set myself a time limit (“deadline”) for a certain distance - I can do it - pushing myself until I’m out of breath, feeling like dying to make it. And I hate the run. I’m too sore the next few days for any activity - and that’s the best case scenario. I could also bring on injury and put myself out of practice for months or even years. If I just set distance or time as a goal - i.e. run 3-5 km or run for 20-30 minutes - I can enjoy the run and run as it feels comfortable. Sometimes that’s slow and sometimes that’s fast but the consistency builds strength and most days I’ll do it in the time I was hoping for but without pushing myself for it.


It works the same way for me with writing. I’ve worked to deadlines before, but it made me sick of writing - literally. I’d pull all nighters, get out-of-control migraines and end up in the hospital. Too much coffee in the morning, too much wine at night, smoking all day. Did I want to live like that just to say, I got it done?

To top it off, I can only write to a deadline when the deadline is externally imposed - like for work or school. It never works when I set deadlines for myself, even if I try working with someone else to be held accountable. Why does it matter so much more when it’s for someone else? It’s like I’ve been conditioned to fear consequences rather than to pursue pleasure.


slowing down and making mistakes

Two things I heard a lot growing up: come on, slowpoke, what’s taking you so long - can’t you do your homework/this chore/this task any faster? - and - the jug breaks once (in Farsi, kosa yak dafa meshkina). The latter was used to discourage going out and trying new things because of all the things that could possibly go wrong. It doesn’t matter if the jug never broke before, you just need to drop it once and once it breaks, it’s broken. Whoever made up that expression obviously never thought of putting it back together with liquid gold.

This vessel looks so much more beautiful to me in this state than if it were pure blue. Off topic, it reminds me of lapis lazuli. The rich blue in its natural state has streaks of pyrite running through it - I’d read that they’re more valuable without the pyrite but I’ve always loved lapis with the pyrite and the unexpected patterns it made.


when pressure =/= productivity


Being so often pushed to go fast plus the fear of mistakes/failure lead to paralysis. It reminded me of the meme about diamonds being formed under pressure but dough rising when left to rest. When I don’t pressure myself and more or less do what I want, I end up making progress. Making lists, strict schedules and deadlines result in guilt, stress and little to no progress.


Do what you can and don’t push yourself. I am more productive when I talk to myself like this. Than when I say: come on, stop being lazy and get moving. Stop making excuses. Stop whining. Keep going or you’ll fall behind again. But if I let myself rest, I return to that super productive state faster than if I resist it. And I get more done in my « slow » state than I would’ve thought.


when slowing down means productivity in more than one area


For me, writing and sport go hand in hand… I felt bad about how many hours I was putting into fitness compared to writing though. But was it a coincidence that feeling on track with fitness aligned with increased creative energy? - both for writing and teaching? I enjoy teaching but contact with others is draining. I refuel during time alone, like with an early morning workout or long solitary walks. Sometimes during a walk something perplexing me during a session would get resolved or I’d have ideas for the next class.


on chasing pleasure


At some point during one of the lockdowns, I watched Julie & Julia. Following the main character going about her project and seeing her dedication to it, I burst into tears. I couldn’t remember the last time I had that feeling. A project you can’t wait to get to day in and day out. Where no matter what other work you do, you always have energy for it. I remember having felt this way but couldn’t pinpoint when; I knew it was tied to writing but definitely not the dissertation. And her project was so well defined - make every dish and blog about it. Do then write. I loved writing but what was I going to write about?


And speaking of food… it’s crazy how much food and drink we’re capable of desiring and consuming, beyond the need for sustenance or even pleasure. At least, my own capacity shocked and angered me. It shouldn’t be so hard. Why the hell did I continue to crave and consume even after I started to feel sick from it?


It occurred to me that it must be tied to something emotional - and I suggest that it’s because pleasure is not really defined or pursued.


Pleasure is elusive when things are done the way one thinks one should be doing them. I overate (and over-drank) when I wasn’t writing enough. And I didn’t write when I was focused on productivity, hitting a certain number of hours or words or having something done by a deadline rather than the pleasure of writing. Why set a deadline to make sure work is finished when by working on it consistently it’ll get finished anyway?


There’s so much more pleasure when I let the writing session be what it wants to be. Productivity says timed exercise - mini goals - concrete - write this scene in one hour - go. What if lines come for something else? Is it just a distraction to ignore? I’ve never been able to ignore it. I’d write until it was done then go back to the current project for whatever writing time was left. No wonder I couldn’t make it in academia… and clearly being a writer-for-hire isn’t for me. But I’m very happy (and sometimes surprised) later, sometimes months later, when I’m ready to tackle a new project and find all these “digression” notes add up to several pages. Beginning a project can be the hardest part - but thanks to these digressions, I almost never find myself at the beginning.


The only time externally imposed writing “tricks” help is if I haven’t written in a LONG time. If I’ve stopped journaling, I put that into place first. Then I do whatever it takes to get words on a page - timed free writes, mind maps, a schedule with deadlines (promptly abandoned once the project takes over) - at some point, the writing brain kicks in and these methods are no longer necessary. Every little thing done suggests the next thing to be done. The steps come naturally, if chaotically and un-linearly. One day it’s a lot of new words, another day it’s organization and adding little notes here and there, another day writing time is hijacked by words for a different project, another staring hard at everything written, nothing makes sense, nothing comes and I spend the day grumpy and go to bed disappointed… but if I show up consistently, it gets done.

conclusion - where was I…?


So… to go back to the beginning of this post… I’d wanted to post with success about the dry month - why was I doing it anyway? Wine was interfering with my fitness and writing goals. It added calories and interfered with sleep. The next day I would exercise more to make up for the extra calories consumed and to tire myself enough to sleep well the next night. But that took up time I should have been writing. Which I was avoiding anyway because conventional advice wasn’t working (setting S.M.A.R.T goals, stepping outside comfort zone, blah blah blah). Then night would come and the only way to shut out the mental chatter was to pour another glass.

I’d wanted log with success what those 30 days were like - but this post is more about the struggles. Maybe that’s what’s needed anyway. Success stories used as motivation but can be oddly discouraging.


It took me 50 days to do 30 days without alcohol. And once it was done, I was drinking even more daily than before I’d started the challenge. Why? It was specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound (S.M.A.R.T). But I was focusing on the wrong thing. Or over-focusing on one right thing. I needed to step back and look at the whole picture. I had to think of it as setting the stage to be able to do what I loved and what measures needed to be taken in order to set that stage, such as eating healthy, moving, drinking less and writing more. Even cleaning the house - some of my most un-productive writing moments come from believing others that cleaning was procrastination and that I should just write amidst the mess (or escape it by writing in a café). And lastly, talking to people I love. As an introvert averse to talking, I’d think about them more often than I actually called them, but there’s only so many one-way conversations I could have in my head with them, eventually I’d have to reach out.


I still get impatient about the lack of measurable progress and then I’m tempted to go back to productivity charts and the like, but if I’m writing this it’s to remind myself to slow down and identify and pursue pleasures. And if the over-arching goal hasn’t been met, the bigger picture is not yet a reality, it’s because the journey’s not over yet. Just like this post is coming to an end, but the story’s not over.

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