You can dig up a lot of video of David Bowie. He was in the public eye for most of his life. In this clip he's twenty-seven. In this one, thirty-six. In that one, fifty. A human being who is now gone will always be twenty-seven, thirty-six, fifty years old, in these strings of flashing pictures. The oldest pieces have nicks and scratches burnt into the picture, testifying to their origins on cheap film. Drawn in front of a lens by Clotho, wound by Lachesis onto a spool like a spindle, cut off by Atropos at the end of the reel. They are discontinuous snippets of a life that will last forever. The Video Fates don't so much weave a tapestry as they knit in intarsia.

Bowie was charming. (Is charming. My brain thinks that running media is in the present tense, and I am tired of fixing verbs.) He is intelligent, and obstinate enough to keep getting up on stage despite starting out brutally shy. In 1974 -- in the video where it is always 1974 -- he is shockingly thin and milk-white. He is also quite possibly the most perspicacious junkie I have ever seen. He is completely coherent in live interviews from that time, even when sniffling unstoppably and talking lunatic piffle about black noise and the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He has sufficient insight to note that sliding the words from his proto-poetry kit around on the table is useful mainly as a tool for digging things out of his own imagination, and then casually mentions that he feels like it can also tell him the future. One wonders how, when he clearly has some kind of grip on what's going wrong, he ended up falling so far down that rabbit hole.

I can tell you how that happens.

I do not have a direct line into the inside of his head ca. Diamond Dogs. But. One of the reasons his music can reliably make me sob is that, when the lyrics spiral down into a terrible place, they become a collection of incredibly vivid but mundane flashes of detail, disconnected from both each other and the singer. This is exactly the kind of shattered stained-glass window my brain feeds me when I'm in dire straits. Having now seen him sit down and explain, patiently and with a wry sense of humor, exactly what went wrong with Ziggy Stardust to get him there, I have a new understanding of why I creep out medical personnel. I don't have the budget for a drug habit like his, but that changes surprisingly little; the only wrinkle chemicals introduce is that one of the things that's eating you is the same as one of the things you're trying to use to distract yourself from the fact that you're being eaten. The pattern is otherwise the same.

It starts with a problem.

It's not necessarily a crisis sort of problem. Quite often, it's boredom. When you have a brain that won't stop spinning, and you think for fun, you always have to have something to feed it. There has to be some kind of load on the motor, or all the wheels just whirl faster and faster on their way to nowhere, driving nothing. Overspeed long enough, and one of the turbines will shatter. The more raw power you have, the more you have to do something with it, or you start to go insane. The freshman advisor I had in college kept trying to sell me on the idea of taking 'intro to uni' seminars, no thinking required, for an easy A. I thought that sounded exactly like my idea of Hell.

Ninety-nine percent of what you do with a brain like that never escapes your head. It's like dreaming, all the mental shuffling you do while staring out the window. One of the theories of why we hallucinate like that when we're asleep is that it sorts and re-sorts and strengthens connections between all the things already in our heads, so that we have some sort of index handy to make sense of it all. The resultant fantasies are just entertaining heat sinks. No one else ever hears about it, because the logic goes nowhere, and nothing ever comes of it.

I have absolutely no idea what other people think about on trains. I've asked a few times, but most randoms can't explain themselves very well, and my friends all work like me. So.

One of the best ways to get a brain like that to solve a problem for you is to set up the machinery for it, and then leave it alone to work. Occupy the front of your brain with something else while the mill in the back grinds away. Video games are good for that. Picky art projects. Repetitive rhythmic counting activities like jumping rope or martial arts kata or knitting.

This per se is not enough to trigger a slide into disaster. It works much of the time, or we wouldn't keep doing it.

The complicating factor is pain. Boredom is painful. I know what it's like to be so exhausted I start to fall asleep in lecture. I have no idea what it's like to fall asleep out of boredom, because boredom hurts. It interferes with sleep, the same way a headache does. Boredom is painful like anxiety is painful, like being stretched taut is painful, and at a certain point they become one and the same. This is why I have a stash of sedatives: Because, just like with chronic pain patients, there comes a time when I physically need sleep, and I hurt too much get it any other way. I have worn the doctor down to the point where she agrees with me.

Pain is distracting, and it takes willpower to think through it. So you have the problem of having a problem, which needs to be solved by shoving it to the back of your brain and doing something else with the front, only you can't table a thing while you're hurting because then the pain breaks your concentration, and the problem itself is being bereft of anything to do with the front of your brain in the first place.

The other way you solve problems with a brain like this is brute fucking force.

The kettle of problem needs to stay in the back so it'll stew properly, and the hurting needs to stay off to the side so you can get on with your life. The only thing to do is build a wall to keep everything contained where it should be. The wall isn't perfect, and problems can be unfortunately persistent and clever about shooting tentacles through any holes they find, so you have to keep an eye out for cracks. You can't stop doing things like going to work and cooking dinner and showering, so as a stopgap measure, you re-allocate the daydream unit to tentacle-watching duty. No one sees most of the games in your head anyway, so no one will be inconvenienced if playtime is temporarily suspended.

You can fill the space with other people's daydreams for a while. You cram a lot of books and TV and music in there to try and keep the echoes down. This is also not a bad tactic when it's temporary. I cope with being sick in bed by feeding entire technical manuals into my head. When the amount of time you need to endure has a definite end -- I will be stuck in this class for three months, I will be sick in bed for about a week, I will be trapped in this train car for an hour and a half -- it works well. If literally all you need is for the weekend to go by faster so that you can pick your project back up on Monday, beer and Netflix is a perfectly reasonable solution.

And there is the next level of meta-problem: The amount of time you have to kill like that is 'until the original problem is solved', and you have no idea when that will be. It may be that the problem as stated is NP-complete, and will never resolve until a stray cosmic ray strikes at random and makes the computer jump unexpectedly to an instruction it would never otherwise reach. You don't know. You can't know, because whether a program will ever terminate is a problem that is itself NP-complete. Blame Turing, and maybe Gödel.

The daydream unit falls into fatigue. They are not really trained for this. There is no time for rest, or for returning to their regular fantasies; the problem is still there, and still has tentacles, so the wall has to be vigilantly watched and repaired. Boredom still hurts. No one else notices.

Wall-patching has to be continuous and automatic if it is to work, so you start assigning all of the continuous and automatic services in you brain to the effort. Hyperlinks are almost autonomic for me. Everything is so interconnected in my head that calling for delivery of any piece of information will also get me a complementary list of See Related references. There is enough of a temporal element that most time-dependent pieces of information -- appointments, deadlines, schedules -- will courteously surface by themselves, in sequence, when needed.

Emergency wall-patching efforts eventually cause enough personnel allocation issues that the concierge service shuts down. Automatic functions get offloaded (temporarily! I swear it'll just be temporarily! I just have to get through this -- how long can it last?) into conscious processing. Everything I need is still in there, I just have to hike down to the archives and pull it myself. I can do that, because I have enough spare capacity to handle it, but it's not really how the system is supposed to work, and it's tiring. As far as I can tell, most people don't have concierge service in the first place. They have no basis for comparison, and see no difference.

Young Bowie, even in pain, has incredible charisma. So do I, albeit I don't know that I have it to that degree. More importantly, I got it the same way he did: I was shy and awkward and very outside, so I sat down and hammered on the problem with my giant brain until I learned. It is very much a skill. You learn to charm just like you once learned to walk. It is wonderful when you finally figure that out, because suddenly you can communicate most of what's in your head to other people in a way they will understand and mostly not hate you for. It is also the next meta-problem, because once you have that ability, it is under conscious control, and you can invoke it at will.

People think that genius comes at the expense of social acumen. House is just a TV show, mainly written by people who are, frankly, not all that smart. A lot of us have decided that we don't care if other people think we're strange, but we are generally aware that people think that. We can be quite clever, in our own self-destructive ways.

You cannot explain to most people what your problem is. They do not understand how boredom can burn like acid, like fire, and not pull on you like sleep.

Charisma is also magic. It is verbal sleight-of-hand and kinesic misdirection. It is very difficult to get to the root of a charismatic person, if they don't want you to. One hand pulls rabbits out of a borrowed hat while the other one pulls reassurances out of thin air, and the mouth only stops running to give you a mysterious half-smile, just often enough to make you wonder about something that is almost, but not quite, completely unrelated to what is actually going on. Charisma is the illusion on the front of the stage that prevents you from ever thinking about all of the whirling dervishes in the wings.

If you have ever worked in the theater, you know that the way to keep the audience believing that the performance is effortless fantasy is to continually keep track of every tiny detail, while simultaneously pretending that you're not. There is no man behind the curtain. It is perfectly natural that you carry that prop off stage left, and has nothing to do with getting it in position for the next actor who needs it. The audience never notices that half of your clothes are held on with velcro and the other half are piled on over other outfits, because you only have forty-five seconds to go from covered in cinders to Cinderella. They do not see, because you do not let them. When you are very good, it never occurs to them that there's anything to see.

So. There you are. You have a problem, which needs to be solved, so that it will stop hurting you. In order to solve it, you need to clear some space so it can solve itself. To get the thinking space, you have to shove the pain and the concerned outsiders to the side, but the effort of keeping everything out of the way sucks up so many of your resources that whatever energy you have left has to be devoted to daily survival and social misdirection. Otherwise everything else will start to fall apart, and you will have even more problems to deal with. You are so, so tired, but you can't sleep. If drugs are your bag, they do work, sort of. You can knock yourself out with a chemical hammer, or prop yourself up with a chemical crutch, or wallop yourself out of bounds so you don't have to deal with anything for a few hours, but in any case, the best you can do is keep such a tight grip on the original problem that it remains in stasis. Nothing changes. You just can't get ahead.

Your brain is still -- wonderfully, unfortunately -- your brain. All of the space, all of the scaffolding, all of the colossal power that allows you to continually reorganize and reallocate so that you can keep slogging onward despite the Terrible Looming Boredom Problem That Won't Go Away, still exists. The vast capacity for hoarding detail and forging connections that makes you the person that you are never turns off. Ever. Each incremental change was an adaptive one at the time, but you are still more than astute enough to realize that all your potential paths converge on a frog march into oblivion. It is a pattern; it is obvious. Patterns are what you do. You will pick up the clues and put things together whether you like it or not.

Bowie is high as a kite through that entire documentary. He has snorted Wall Street. He has probably been up for several days running, and eaten nothing. He is still perfectly able to explain how he ended up where he is, to lament the information he didn't have when he needed it, to lay the pattern out explicitly for the stranger with a camera. He is aware that it is entirely his fault -- the fault of his own nature, his own ability to use the environment ruthlessly to solve short-term problems while grappling with bigger ones that the outside world cannot touch. Raw capacity has kept him going as an artist and performer, the one thing he can still do right. But that brain, it still works, and he cannot make himself numb enough to stop noticing how rapidly, and how badly, everything is going downhill.

And you keep going like this, despite knowing how it's likely to end, because you are still a stone-cold, stubborn, brilliant, terrifying, magnetic genius. It is your main problem, and your only potential salvation. If you start out average, the sudden jump in cognitive load all of this entails makes your life difficult very quickly; if you start out incomprehensibly smart, then it takes a good goddamn long time before anyone who's not out at the end of the bell curve with you would even notice the change. Nobody outside your head can do a damn thing about it. They can't get a foothold. Desperation can make you very clever. No matter what happens, somehow you devise ways to keep functioning just well enough that they. can't. stop. you.

I have absolutely no idea how Bowie solved it. I know he fucked off to Berlin, but that doesn't tell me what he did there to claw himself out of the hole. I don't know how I ever get myself out of it, either. So far, I always have, but I expect that one of these days -- ideally a very long way in the future -- it'll happen when I'm too old and tired and riddled with chronic health problems to care.


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