Reaching into the Whirlwind

This is a metaphor I use to understand some things about myself. Maybe it will help you understand something about yourself too. If so, use it with my blessing. If not, maybe it will help you understand some things about me.

Caveat: This was quite emotional to write. It may be quite emotional to read, I don’t know. I didn’t feel up to rereading it.


I want you to imagine something. If you’re one of those strange people who can picture things in your head, maybe visualise some of this. If you’re a normal person like me (i.e. someone with aphantasia, a tiny fraction of the population), let it stand as a story.

I have a show room. It has many interesting and useful things in it. Some are a bit strange, but there is so much and so much variety that most people can find something in it that they like, and everyone is impressed by the quantity. Sure, much of it is not of especially high quality, but some of it is rather good, and either way there is so much of it. It impresses.

Standing in the showroom, you may think highly of me. And objectively you’re right: By any normal standard I produce a ridiculous amount. Good job, David. You’re a success.

Leading from the showroom is a door. It goes to the workshop. The workshop is full of tools. Disorganised, for sure, but can find things in it, and that’s what matters.

There are no half-finished projects in the workshop, just tools.

A further door leads out of the workshop. It goes to the store room. When I want raw materials to work on something, that’s where I have to go.

The store room is where I keep the whirlwind.

Yes, I know, a store room is supposed to have shelves and drawers and suchlike. Maybe some of them are poorly organised, maybe there’s a pile of miscellaneous junk, but mostly the stuff is just sitting there.

Maybe yours is like that. Mine has a whirlwind. It lives there.

So what happens when I want to work on something? Well, that’s when I reach into the whirlwind.

(Do not do this with a real whirlwind. You will die.)

Something hits my hand. I grab on, I try to pull it out. What have I got?

A recipe idea? I’m not anywhere near the kitchen! I don’t know what to do with this! I let it go, the whirlwind takes it. I cast around for another thing. PhD, I’m supposed to be working on my PhD today. I hunt the whirlwind, looking for anything computer science shaped.

Sometimes I find something I like and discover it is… larger than expected. I pull, and pull, but the whirlwind is strong, and I tire. Eventually I give in and the whirlwind takes it. Maybe a piece breaks off in my hands. Can I do something with this? Lets see.

After my battle with the whirlwind, perhaps I’m holding some materials I can use. Perhaps instead today was not a good day, and I am left empty handed and exhausted. There will be another day, with luck a better one, but on this day the whirlwind has defeated me.

Suppose instead that it was a good day, and I have something I can work with. Maybe it’s the computer science I was looking for, maybe it’s the beginnings of an overly emotional metaphor for my state of mind that is going to make me cry multiple times while finishing it off. Who knows? Not me.

I take it back to the workshop and try to turn it into something I can put in the show room. Often this works. I have a lot of tools in the workshop, they give me a line of attack on most problems the whirlwind hands me. I have pulled many things from the whirlwind before, and by now I know how to work with them.

But sometimes it takes too long, or the starting point turns out not to lead anywhere interesting, or I need raw materials that I don’t have to finish it off. I stop working on it, the wind picks up, the door blasts open. The project I was working on is gone. The whirlwind has it now.

Sometimes this happens even when I am diligent, and the whirlwind snatches the project from my very hands.

Maybe I’ll see it again one day, but probably not.

Sometimes I hand projects to other people. They bring them with them to the workshop, we work on them together, and then when the day’s work is done, the project leaves with them, to stay in their own normal, sensible, store room with shelves and boxes, where it will be safe from the whirlwind until we can start again.

Sometimes when I’m working on my own and a project really matters, I try to anchor it, tie it down. Maybe this works. Sometimes it does.

But whirlwinds are strong. They can lift houses.

Sometimes I find that the tools I have are inadequate to the task at hand, and I build new tools. Maybe I even manage to finish the project that the tool was for. Either way, the tools stay in the workshop, to be brought to bear on future projects. The whirlwind doesn’t want tools. I don’t know why.

Sometimes I have to dismantle what the whirlwind gave me before I can use it. It’s too large, or complex, or has weird squiggly bits that aren’t what I need. Maybe in doing so I find something useful in there that I can turn into a piece for the showroom. However it goes, the discarded parts go back in the whirlwind, perhaps for future use.

Sometimes I take a project out of the showroom, to attempt to improve upon it. Maybe I’ll succeed before the whirlwind snatches it from my hands. Most likely not.

If we’re lucky and the project is one of the digital or intellectual, thus ephemeral and copyable, things that I normally work on, it goes back to the showroom unchanged. If not, oh well, the whirlwind has it now.

I like the showroom. It’s a record of accomplishments, that which I have wrested from the whirlwind and made my own. Even the mediocre and the bad are trophies of battles won.

When I am in the showroom, I can see myself as others do – I have created.

I even like the workshop. It is a place where I accomplish things, where I build and learn. It’s where I keep the tools – the weapons in my war against the whirlwind. The workshop is a battle ground, but it’s one that I have fortified.

But most of the time, I’m not in the showroom or the workshop, I’m back here in the storeroom, searching for what I need, reaching into the whirlwind.

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