I have a friend who is a fan of medicating, as it were. He, like most people I know (myself included), has an elaborate pharmacy he uses to propel himself through the day — and with gusto! — from coffee to kratom to booze to pot to whip-its to Ambien to whatever. Note than none of these are illegal. And so a little of this, then a little of that, and the day goes on without catastrophe. Mind you, this is a highly productive person with his own business and happy family. (I add this aside as I hate that drugs are generally seen as an ugly agent, even if they often are for many people to whom I mean no disrespect at all). He refers to this all as his scaffolding.
I love this word, this image: scaffolding. It's poignant in that it holds up a structure, helps maintain a structure, but is not itself a structure. Existentially, we all rely on scaffolding in different forms — those things that hold us up.
Jobs are probably the most pervasive form of scaffolding. They give people an identity — I'm a coder; I'm a UX designer; I'm a chef —but they also structure people's time. They give people a clear, presumably inarguable (although I'd beg to differ) reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gives them some place to go, a reason to have their bodies doing this and that. It gives them purpose. Take away their job and whatever would they do? How would they spend their time? Who would they be? In Silicon Valley, and its culture, a job is no longer just a job. It's a way of life. It's a scaffolding so pervasive it seeks to take over the structure.
Of course, in reality, people are frustrated and fatigued from their jobs. Which is why they have Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and HBO. They have their shows. Shows become a way for people to distract themselves from their fatigue and frustration. This same show culture mocks the housewives of old who needed to see their shows at all cost — their soap operas. But it's all the same thing: scaffolding to keep people from standing alone, naked, with nothing to define their time or grab their attention.
This is not to say that these shows are bad or that watching them is bad. Jeez, I watch all kinds of things. I am not criticizing. I am, however, pointing out that jobs and shows are part of our scaffolding. You can hear the panic, feel the dread, when the WiFi is down. Whatever shall we do? What will amuse us? Where will we sit and what will we look at?
The scaffolding pervades — porn, politics, the new restaurant, Tinder, Facebook, the news. It's all so many things to demand our attention, keep us distracted, so many things to fill the day so we never have to reckon the various miseries that pervade our lives: our self loathing, our horrible childhoods, the relentless crap we tolerate in our romantic relationships, the soul suffocation of work, the fear of death, the actual deaths of our loved ones, our own impending demise.
I am not saying everyone is unhappy. What I'm saying is that the mere fact of being human inevitably affords us a certain amount of misery. Communication goes astray at an alarming pace (some would say always); desire provokes and goes unsated; love goes unrequited; parents get frustrated and scream at their kids, making both miserable and guilty and self-loathing; those closest to us die. I'm not being a pessimist. I am stating the obvious: living is fucking hard. And so we construct scaffoldings of different sorts to keep the pain at bay.
But what happens when the scaffolding comes tumbling down?
For me, my scaffolding involves a litany of substances — of course — but more integral is a certain sense of a solitary, knowing self. This is how I've imagined myself in the world: alone, outside the social (despite having been married and having a kid; a scaffolding is a story as much as anything else) and always understanding the way of things. Coffeen: the smart guy.
I clung to this notion, this conception, this support for decades. I cling to it still. The thing is, it's giving way. I suddenly find myself 47 years old, nearly broke, and alone. Yes, I have a child. Yes, I have some friends around the country. But, somehow, I've managed to keep them all at arms reach — or further. And my understanding of things? It looks terribly silly in the blinding light of my sister's death and the horror of trudging myself through the everyday.
Over the past few months (if not longer), this scaffolding has begun to give way. It became obvious to me when I went to New York in October, my first time home since my sister's funeral. And I was devastated, overwhelmed by memory, an inchoate swirling affective teem. It was not a series of images or events I was recollecting: it was my life all jumbled, all the sensations, all the loss, all the loves, all the death, all the violence, all at once, here and now. I was gutted, a bumbling, mumbling fool. So I upped my booze and my kratom and my Ambien which, perhaps needless to say, only made the scaffolding less steady. Still, back in SF, I doubled down on my pharmacopeia.
And then Christmas came and I couldn't turn to my usual litany of substances as I was sick as a dog. And then this sickness got worse. Desperate, I got a script for an awful antibiotic, hoping despite everything that it would restore order. But it did just the opposite: it made the entire scaffold collapse. I began crying hysterically all day and night as a steady stream of misery drowned me — alone and lonely in my shitty little rented house. (This is an actual side effect of the drug, Levaquin.) And I now understand Nietzsche when he says that when he was sick, he was not sick at bottom. For me, however, my sickness went all the way down.
Take away my coffee and cocktails, my kratom and pot; take away any work to distract me; take away my loves and desires; take away my shows as I've seen them all too many times and now they've begun to ring false; take away my philosophical ramblings and my witty repartee (a generous interpretation, no doubt); take it all away and what is left? This blubbering fool.
Laying about trying to maintain....something...I've been rewatching Breaking Bad. Hank is a character whose scaffolding we see give way. His good old boy machismo is no match for the horrors he faces — killing a man in a firefight, then seeing co-workers killed and maimed in an explosion, then being shot. He's afraid to say he's afraid; he's afraid to show himself a blubbering fool: he's afraid to be vulnerable. So he tries to double down on the machismo, despite relentless panic attacks. This only takes him so far so he retreats sullenly into his bedroom, ordering rocks and minerals like a lonely woman buying clothes online at 4:00 AM.
There is no such thing as no scaffolding. Indeed, the structure — who we are — and the scaffolding are entwined. But when the scaffolding gets too rigid, it can't support this human structure that moves, changes, that suffers in new ways. My scaffolding has been the scaffold of the solitary young smart ass — horny and quick and hyper critical: the smartest, randiest guy in the room who just wants to be left alone. But I'm older now. I move slower. My main tether to the world, my site of unconditional love that was always there, is there no more.
And so I need a new scaffold, one that can bend with me when I heave over in pain. One that can give way and allow other people to see me, to see my pain, to help me. I suppose this is why older people turn to Buddhism, to a practice and philosophy of acceptance. Without the vigor of youth, without a steady scaffold, all we have left is this. And this is what Buddhism presumably offers: this, just this — a scaffolding that's always changing to fit its structure.
I'd like to suggest that within us all is a blubbering fool — a scared, lonely, bag of flesh that just wants to love and be loved, to be known, to be held. And that much of our scaffolding impedes this, impedes love, impedes intimacy because it defers vulnerability. Because we work so hard to maintain the scaffolding, we neglect this blubbering fool, this beautiful, grotesque being. And so neglect this all too human life.