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Fragments of the Weekend: Fractal Misery

On the flight back from Chicago yesterday, I sat next to a woman who might just be The Most Miserable Person in the World. And I say that without even having met all the people in the world.

She stayed on the phone from the moment we boarded to the moment we pushed off from the gate, and her entire conversation was a litany of her personal misery, described in the most minute detail imaginable. For nearly forty minutes, she shared her misery with whoever was on the other end of the phone, and me, and everyone else within earshot; we all learned of how unhappy she was on the trip to the airport, how bad the traffic was, how the bus arrived five minutes late, how heavy her suitcase was, how badly she needed to use the washroom on her trip through security. We learned how she did not like the man in front of her at the security checkpoint, how the employees of the airport would not help her take her shoes off, how difficult it was for her to find her ID in her purse.

And through it all, i learned many things about misery I've never before known. Her misery was fractal in nature; every part of her misery, when looked at in isolation, was just as bad as her misery taken as a whole.

Take her need to use the washroom, for instance. She zoomed in on that part of her misery, a trip as dizzying as any exploration of the Mandelbrot set. The urge began before she was even through security, making her misery at the whole miserable process just that much greater. And then, once past security, when she thought she would be able to do something about it, the man ahead of her dropped his boarding pass. She tried to tell him that he had dropped his boarding pass, but he would not listen to her; even while she chased after him, still he did not listen. And he moved away from the washrooms, increasing the time she had to travel to get there. And her shoes weren't properly tied, so walking to the washroom was that much harder...especially in light of the carry-on bag she had to carry, which was heavy and tired her...

She relayed his tale in a voice clearly practiced, honed for the task like a sushi chef's favorite knife, the tool fitted perfectly to the job to which it was put. Each vowel held just long enough to communicate the injustice of a cold world not appropriately aware of her needs, her suffering; consonants clipped in such a way as to express her contempt and disdain for the formless, faceless forces of malice arrayed against her.

It made me wonder if there is some quantum limit, some fundamental point past which no further resolution becomes possible. Her misery was tracked in such minute detail, and reported to such an astonishingly high fidelity, that I thought perhaps no. Perhaps there is no point past which the form and shape of her misery becomes lost in the fog of quantum uncertainty; perhaps her internal model of her misery really is infinite in its detail, so that any magnification, any level of zoom reveals more edges and whorls, more information about the precise contours of her suffering.

She continued her phone call until the flight attendant made her turn off the phone, her last comment to her unseen companion a bitter complaint about being forced to hang up.

There is a lesson in here somewhere, which your humble scribe is not clever enough to tease out.



( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 26th, 2008 07:03 pm (UTC)
Now I'm trying to figure out how to research if there is a quanta of misery.

All I can think of is an analogue with the black body radiation problem specifically seeing if there is an analogue to the ultraviolet catastrophe:


Where a person would be able to radiate an infinite amount of misery at some finite frequency of emission or if like the solution to blackbody radiation there are quanta of misery which make the amount of energy in any finite field finite.

So want to be the Max Planc of misery and help sort this out? I'm thinking we first need to do some experimental work we can isolate a subject and watch them move up the frequency scale of emission from twitching to grumbling to bitching and from there all the way up to LJ assisted fatwa against the misery inflicter. For that we could use perhaps some sort of electrified probe or failing that Fox News
Jun. 26th, 2008 07:03 pm (UTC)
Hey, whatever makes her happy...
Jun. 27th, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC)
For some value of "happy," I suppose.
Jun. 26th, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC)
I wonder how long it took her to develop this amazing misery quotient, and whether her misery leaves her feels satisfied.
Jun. 26th, 2008 07:12 pm (UTC)
I think it must give the miserable person some level of satisfaction. I've met too many people like this, my mother being one of them. They seem to derive some kind of satisfaction or fulfillment in their quest to be miserable.

I don't get it. And I'm a cynic and a bottom.
Jul. 2nd, 2008 07:42 pm (UTC)
Cynicism and masochism can be quite healthy in the right contexts, whereas this woman's sick love of misery is most certainly not.
Jul. 2nd, 2008 07:56 pm (UTC)

Unfortunately self-depreciating humor can be difficult to convey through text-only mediums :-)
Jun. 26th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
I prefer to look to the teachings of the Prophet McFerrin in these cases:

"Don't worry" (do do do do do do do do do) "be happy... be happy now!"
Jun. 26th, 2008 09:58 pm (UTC)
Bah...don't get me started on Bobby McFerrin...
Jun. 26th, 2008 07:21 pm (UTC)
Sounds like she Leveled up her "Craftsman Other : Misery" skills.
Jun. 26th, 2008 07:26 pm (UTC)
This is one of the cleverest posts I've read in quite awhile. I figure most people have 2D misery, or maybe 3D for the really complex miseries or even 4D for the suicidal; I'm guessing the dimensionality of her misery is 5/2, or maybe 8/3. - ZM
Jun. 26th, 2008 09:26 pm (UTC)
Actually, despite the physical nuances of singularities, suicidal misery is effectively one dimensional.
Jun. 27th, 2008 01:09 am (UTC)
I suppose you are quite right. (Although, in my defense, I was watching Better Off Dead last night - that 80's teen movie with John Cusack - and dude, that suicidal misery is, like, seven-dimensional.) - ZM
Jun. 27th, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC)
That. Movie. ROCKS. It's been much too long since I've seen it.
Jul. 2nd, 2008 07:46 pm (UTC)
Gee, I'm real sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.
Jun. 26th, 2008 07:28 pm (UTC)
Ah yes, I know that person well, having been indoctrinated from the womb.

Question is - did she shine her bright little misery light on you after she had to turn off the phone, or were you able to put up your shields to deflect it?
Jun. 27th, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC)
Fortunately, no. She turned to talk to me after we took off, and I feigned death sleep until she went to sleep herself.
Jun. 26th, 2008 07:53 pm (UTC)
There's a theory that people derive a sense of identity by making the rest of the world into an enemy, and they derive a sense of moral superiority from complaining about it. A bit like boosting your ego by finding fault with others. Reality is obviously wrong, so I must be right.
Jun. 26th, 2008 08:07 pm (UTC)
I think that is bang on. "Misery" is probably too kind of a word to describe this person. You could feel sorry for someone that deserves to feel miserable but this the variety that inflicts it on herself. Instead it is just hubris and petulance and I find myself so weary of that.
Jun. 27th, 2008 12:01 am (UTC)
There's a theory that people derive a sense of identity by making the rest of the world into an enemy, and they derive a sense of moral superiority from complaining about it. A bit like boosting your ego by finding fault with others. Reality is obviously wrong, so I must be right.

In the legal field, we call those people "pro se plaintiffs."

OK, that's rather snarky, but the firm where I work has/has had dealing with several of exactly this kind of person, and I'd go so far as to say it's not just a question of feeling all morally superior, but a matter of making the universe Pay Attention to them. You see, my gut feeling is that these people know on some level just how insignificant they are in the overall scheme of things, and it scares them/pisses them off, so they're going to make damn sure that attention is paid to them, even if it's only negative attention. They think, or want to think, that their world is out to get them, and whether intentionally or merely subconsciously, they contrive to arrange for just that to happen. (In all fairness, some pro se plaintiffs simply can't afford an attorney--although I'd still check w/one's local legal services office first--but the vast majority do seem to be nursing some vast sense of resentment at the injuries to which they (claim to) have been subjected, and are determined to Make Someone Pay. *sigh*)
Jun. 26th, 2008 08:15 pm (UTC)
I would have thought this puzzle well within your capabilities.
It is indeed an equasion. 1:3:1
For every one person who revels in their misery, there are three who must suffer in unwilling sympathy. And finaly one more who will enjoy it and wish more upon the first.
As well, there is the factor that there exist in the world those who ask, no.. Beg for the 'Chains of the Martyr' to be placed upon them. Those people have no idea that they are far less than worthy of them, and thus their assumption of the suffering is pointless. But they do so in the misguided belief that others must be suffering less for their efforts.
Jun. 26th, 2008 08:32 pm (UTC)
There's more than just misery working here. Most suffer in silence. No, this person must share her misery.

In fact, most of the misery she felt involved those that did not notice she was suffering, and the suffering they caused by their very inaction. It makes me wonder what she would do if she found herself literally the last person on earth. Would that make her ever more miserable, or -- lacking an audience -- relieved? If a tree bitches and moans in the forest, and no one is around to hear it. . . .
Jun. 26th, 2008 08:36 pm (UTC)
Brilliant! I'm afraid that the Planck constant of misery may be infinitesimal—not actually zero, but some small number epsilon that is arbitrarily close to zero regardless of the units of measurement.
Jun. 26th, 2008 09:59 pm (UTC)
The whole time I was reading this, I just kept thinking about the poor SOB on the other end of that line.
Jun. 26th, 2008 11:25 pm (UTC)

me too. i can only assume that it's someone she is irritated with/angry with if she feels the need to subject them to 40 minutes of that. don't get me wrong, i'm known to whine periodically meself. but most of the time it can be condensed ;)
Jun. 27th, 2008 02:45 am (UTC)
Presuming there was such a sympathetic ear. Anyone familiar with such a person would most likely set the phone down quietly and tend to their garden.

The only type of individual I can imagine listening attentively is someone of similar temperment, feeding on the miserable feedback loop like some sort of misery dynamo.

I wonder if such negative energy could be harnessed to prop open the mouth of a wormhole...
Jun. 26th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
If you EXPECT misery, and you WALLOW in the misery. Well, gee, what a coincidence if you GET misery. You're making your own damn existence miserable.
And to think she could have walked barefoot, checked out some nice butts and generally been happier..
Jun. 27th, 2008 03:33 pm (UTC)
There seems to be a certain personality type for which happiness is not only unimportant, but irrelevant. Life is measured by other criteria, such as how long one has been married, and how many offspring one bores bears. I don't rightly comprehend this approach to life, myself...
Jul. 2nd, 2008 07:45 pm (UTC)
Her misery is our pleasure in this case, because of what it inspires in your writing. It must have been hell to listen to her, but it is such bliss to read your finely crafted words. ;)
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )