Three feelings that I don’t have words for

20.53, Tuesday 29 Sep 2020 Link to this post

It’s kinda ridiculous to attempt to use words to describe feelings that I don’t have words for, but let me circumscribe them, at least partially, and I’m curious to know whether I share these with anyone else, and what other people have called them.

Imagined vastness

When I’m reading a book, usually sci-fi, and the implied universe is very big, and described with detail so it feels real, but with gaps such that you mentally decide there must be more there with as much resolution, and so the result is much bigger than any book could really ever contain, there’s a joy of exploring that vast world that I wish would continue forever. I feel wide-eyed and absolutely content, and weirdly somehow outdoors.

Books that create this feeling for me are Anathem (Neal Stephenson), as I’m discovering by re-reading it at the moment, and (looking at my shelf) Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (Samuel Delaney). I’m sure there are more.

Stack overflow vertigo

When I’m programming and I’m many parentheses deep, I have a sense of precariousness. There’s a similar feeling when making a change that needs to touch many lines of the codebase simultaneously before it starts to work again – starting from the first change it feels like setting off on a tightrope, and reaching the final change feels like making back to safety. I often hold my breath. I am hyperaware of what’s around me in the code, and that focus pushes away all input from the real world.

Atemporal hotel lobbies

I’m having the opportunity right now to encounter very many new ideas, for work, and I have a need to rapidly synthesise them and to come up with ways to share that synthesis – and ask more questions. I’m in pursuit.

It’s all consuming, and it can’t be hurried. The best way to do it, for me, is to sit with the raw ideas, mull them over, sketch them, write about them, sit some more, and so on…

And I’ve done that a lot in my life, mainly late in the evening, on my own, in hotel lobbies in cities that are not my home city, with the cold beer that you only get in hotel lobbies, and the music you only get in hotel lobbies, on the chairs you only get in hotel lobbies, brain exhausted but still chewing things over, turning things around and around, continuously but somehow leisurely. There is a pleasure in it.

And also:

I tweeted about a pecularity back in 2016:

every moment i’ve sat in a hotel lobby with a beer and my laptop is the same moment. for 13 years? time shrinks like a collapsed telescope

And previously back in March 2012: Hotel lobbies always feel the same to me. The exotic, and melancholy. Temporary homes. I like sitting in them.

Both of which get to the nub of this feeling:

The hotel lobby exists outside time. In that place, I’m 28, I’m 42, I’m all ages in-between. I feel like, sitting there in 2012, I could probably remember the future yesterday of 2016, but it didn’t feel special to do so, so I didn’t bother to think about it.

So there’s a mental place which has such a strong feeling associated with it that all other places are washed away, and all the instances of that time feel identical, past and future identical, outside time, and FOR SOME REASON I reach that mental place when I’m working in hotel lobbies, and it’s touched with a kind of nostalgia for the present, and gentle pleasure, and immortality, and I don’t know how to explain it better than that.


Loosely I would say that a feeling is

  • felt viscerally, that is it in the body
  • and it is accompanied by a bias on the trajectory of my thoughts.

For example, panic is a shortness of breath and a tightness in my mouth, and it biases my thinking towards the short term.

Contentment is a widening of the face and an ability to stay in the moment.

By this categorisation, the three descriptions above are all feelings. As fundamental as panic and contentment, or at the very least, on the same plane? Maybe.