Friday, June 21, 2019

Self-promotion, Ego and the Interwebs


This essay will probably go largely unnoticed, unread and will ultimately be forgotten. It will fade into obscurity not because it is poorly written, not because it is not relevant, and not because it is not insightful; I’ve been doing this a long time, that combined with perhaps more than my share of experience packed into my 56-plus years gives me the confidence that this essay is all of those things. While there are a number of reasons why good writing, relevant thoughts and insightful prose slip through the cracks, one of the more prominent is dilution. The Internet has provided, but it has provided way too much.

Through technology generally and the Internet specifically, now all people can be all things. Photographers used to have to know a little something about how exposure and shutter speed and many other factors including how different film made different images – and that’s to say nothing of the magic that happens in the darkroom. Filmmakers – same thing. And writers, too. All of the arts have been enhanced by technology to the point that the artists need not be talented. The means to produce it and consume it is, literally, at our fingertips. Fifteen minutes of fame? Warhol had no idea… It used to require more than just “followers” to get exposure, an artist had to have actual customers of some sort. And to get there, it took a little luck, a lot of dedication and it took skill.

Kenneth Webber Jr. - 2012
There’s a lot of really good art floating around on the interwebs. We have access to more truly good art than we ever have. Ever. In the entire history of humans, our collective creative output has never been greater or more available. There is no filter, however, and a lot of shit comes with the gold. True, there are some places where we can count on a certain level of quality – we still have legitimate publications that do not publish bullshit, but there are enough either look-alike “quasi-legitimate” publications and/or a general lack of discernment regarding what is real and what is not that even those once clear waters are now muddy.

This essay will appear on “The 25 Year Plan,” a blog I created way back in late 2005. I don’t have many “subscribers” or regular readers. I have never been “popular” in Internet terms. Even on Facebook, I only have just north of 2,000 “friends.” I will also publish this on an online publication called “The Medium.” I found it when Jeff Bezos published his confessional in response to the attempted blackmailing by David Pecker and The National Enquirer. As fascinating as all that story was (and, forgetting the infidelity that got him into that pickle, can I just say how much I admire Bezos for firing back as he did?), when I dug just a little deeper, I found gold. A lot of it. Maybe too much.

To that, I am adding this. It will likely not receive even the very modest attention I sometimes get for one reason: I will not link this to Facebook. Facebook and I have been having issues for quite some time now. I even canned it for a few weeks recently. I brought it back for reasons which I’ve already hashed and rehashed, but the bottom line is that Facebook has made itself necessary. It is not life-and-death necessary, but there are connections that I value housed within the platform that are either impossible or not easily replicated elsewhere. For the past few days, I have gone on a “post strike.” It was not intentional at first, but it is now. This might be that happy medium I was looking for.

Copyright:©tashatuvango - stock.adobe.com
Of course there is a downside. Since my Facebook profile has more “followers” (euphemistically, “friends”) than I have anywhere else, I will lose that exposure. Why not just post links to my writing and forget the rest? Because it feels dirty. Not in a dishonest or cheating way, but in a “like” groveling way. Self-promotion always runs the risk as coming across as pandering, and often it is. I don’t want “clicks” just because a friend sees that I published something and thinks, “That’s my friend, Mike. I’m going to click ‘like’ to show my support.” Even if that friend actually reads it, I’m not doing it to collect “likes.” Or am I? And maybe that’s where all this is going. Maybe the war I am fighting is against an enemy as old as we are. That enemy is ego.

I write for a number of reasons, one of which is simple enough – I am good at it. I, like anyone else who practices his or her craft, get pleasure from the production of that craft. But I would be disingenuous if I said I don’t care if anyone else finds it as compelling, as beautiful, as thought-provoking, as interesting as I do. I do care. I want others to read what I write and find something in it that is at least worth the time spent engaging with it. Like any other artist does. But that isn’t the be-all, end-all. It can’t be. If it was, I would have quit a long time ago. Something else calls me to it and whether or not anyone else ever sees it, it is worth my time. My ego tells me to promote the hell out of it, but something else is fighting that.

Maybe it’s a sense of confidence. Maybe I have been around long enough, been through enough shit, hit the restart button so many times that I do not need or crave external validation. And I think “need” is the key word here. I don’t need it, although it “feels good” when I get it. I do want it, but I want it organically. I don’t like where the social media and virtual reality is going. It’s a place where being famous is reason enough to be famous. I don’t want fame, I want to understand and be understood. To that end, I write. Even if no one ever reads anything ever again, I would continue to write. At the very least, it interests me.








Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Empathetic Perception


I was recently refered to as “one of the cool kids.” This, of course, is the current colloquialism for being part of the “in” crowd, the “popular” people and the like. Funny thing, though, I have never felt like I was in the “in” crowd, never felt like I was popular and, despite having had a few “best friends” throughout my 56 years, I have never felt as though I was someone else’s “best friend.” Granted, much of that feeling is just that, it might not be reality, but my perspective of always being on the outside looking in, sometimes longing to be in, is real. In the past 15 or so years, I have done a lot of work on myself, a lot of self-examination, some reflection and quite a bit of writing just like this and, as a result, my self-perception has changed.

Perception. It is much more than just the framework through which I see the world. It is also the framework through which you see yours, and through which you see me. And how I see you. And how everyone sees everything and everyone else. Each one is wholly unique. I guarantee that they way I view Sally is not exactly the same way anyone else views her. Not in terms of appearance, character, personality, privilege, luck and thousands of other ways we see things, each another sub-frame, or perspective. The number of ways in which we construct reality is mind-boggling. How I am receiving the world — right here, right now — is only my perception; it’s not like anyone else’s, and it never will be.

Empathy differs from compassion or sympathy in that it is not an emotion, per se; rather, empathy seeks understanding, the ability to “walk a mile in another’s shoes.” However, despite our efforts to imagine what it must be like to wear those shoes, we cannot actually put them on. Still, similar experiences can get us remarkably close — in isolation. But the perspective, that frame we are forced to looked through is not only influenced by a wide range of variables - and experiences are not only just one variety of variable; all of our disparate experiences work with and against each other, rendering each a distinct element, a new variable, in just this one area. When factored all the way out, the number of things contributing to our perception is infinite. Groupings and similarities aside, each one of our worldviews is totally unique.

That means that whether I am a “cool kid” or not depends on the perception of others. It is a tenuous place to be, teetering on the edge of coolness. There was a time when my image – that version of me that I present to the world – was constructed to create a perception that would allow me access to that which I desired. Friends, of course, but also other human connections that would validate who I was. There was a problem, however. I did not know who I was. To say that my self-perception is unaffected by what others see would be a lie, much the same as saying, “I don’t care what you think.” I do care what certain others think, and I am very much affected by how others view me. I contributes to how I see myself. But it doesn’t have to dictate who I am.

So how do others view me? I actually have a little insight on that. It took more than 50 years to get it, but I’m a little slow out of the blocks. I am one of the “cool kids.” To those who were like me earlier in my life, who saw those who looked like me and did some of the things I do, who see a veritable “free spirit,” my life looks pretty fantastic. But there are those, too, who think I am arrogant, obnoxious and, frankly, an asshole. Nothing cool about any of that, but for some I can come across that way and their perception is that I am an asshole. And it is perfectly valid, I do not discount it. For others I am a professor – some think I am a cool one, other’s think I am anything but. I am a father to three boys and although they share many similarities in their lives, each their perceptions of me as a father and as a person is also unique – they each see me as an entirely different person. Again, the variables are infinite, the result cannot be anything but unique.

And that brings me to me. Who am I? Really, who the fuck am I? I see myself in a way that has been built on my experiences, my interactions, my environment, an infinite number of variables have contributed to the way I see myself and where I fit in the world. The answer today is not the same as it was last week or last year. It will not be the same next week or next year. Are there constants, certain static aspects of what makes me, me? Maybe, or perhaps aspects that change very slowly, but there are also plenty that can change me and my viewpoint violently. Who am I today? I am me.

But I know that the way I see myself – in all my various and sundry roles, is not the same way anyone else sees me. My perspective and that of others could be so different that I would not recognize the person described as me to me. Indeed, that has happened. And the way I see others might not remotely resemble who they think they are. It’s a humbling thought that the “poor, misunderstood me” routine can and probably does apply to everyone. We are all misunderstood by a lot of other people, but we are also very closely understood by others, probably far fewer. Some perceive in a way that is very close to how we see ourselves. By keeping all that in mind, I can come closest to putting on someone else’s shoes and lacing them. They might end up hurting my feet before I get a mile, but I’ll be that many steps closer understanding. And understanding is what empathy needs to realign perception.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Life in a Bubble


Last November 13th, at about 3:00 p.m., my youngest son, Matthew, was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. The motorists who turned left in front of him was wholly at fault and entirely underinsured, with just minimum liability coverage. His coverage didn’t even put a dent into the financial cost of my son’s injuries, injuries he is still very much being affected by today, months later. In two days he will endure another, hopefully final, operation to repair his left tibia, again. His other injuries, combined with extensive physical therapy ever since, are responding well to the surgeries he had right after the wreck. He has not been able to work and will not be for weeks to come, at least. At just 29 years old, this has been a serious interruption in his life.
 
The reality of this is not lost on me or him – he was lucky to survive at all. It was a violent wreck forceful enough to beak every bone in his left leg and his humerus in his right arm. The humerus break also caused some damage to his radial nerve, but even that has been slowly getting better. It is the tibia (which, like his femur, was an open fracture and now has a rod in it) that is not healing correctly or fast enough. The operation is going to, hopefully, get his leg to finally mend. He is ready to put this all behind him, and the chances that he will be able to are still good. We are optimistic.

Riding a motorcycle is dangerous even for the most experienced riders. While Matthew is a good rider and had a great deal of road awareness, his experience is limited. When he approached me about buying a motorcycle, I had some reservations – the same reservations I am sure my own parents have about me riding mine. Although it would be hypocritical not to support him in his decision, that is not why I supported him. I did so because of one simple word: freedom. And in Matt’s case, it’s freedom that he literally fought for while in a Hell-hole called Afghanistan.

Do I feel partially responsible for the situation he now finds himself in? At first, yes – a lot. But that was a knee-jerk reaction. The truth is that I could do little to stop him from riding even if I wanted to. Still, when seeing my son splayed out in a hospital bed, enduring unimaginable pain, it is difficult not to feel somewhat responsible. It was also difficult not to exact retribution from the idiot whose fault this really was, the moron who was, in fact, 100 percent responsible. There is nothing there, financially, and to take it out of his hide would be counter-productive, illegal and only briefly satisfying.

What we are left with is dealing with the unfairness of life. We are not the first nor the last who, through no fault of our own, have consequences that must be dealt with. Again, in the big picture, he is lucky – life could have been significantly more unfair. While the physical rehabilitation is work that no one else can do for him, with the help of an attorney and a pretty good social safety net through MediCal and the VA, Matt will not fall into crushing debt.

He is nowhere near a decision regarding whether he will ride again when he is able, or at some point down the road. He’s pretty sure he will at least go back to his roots – dirt and off-road riding – when he is able, but street riding is, appropriately, a big question mark. Me? I still ride, but not the same way I used to. I was averaging about 20,000 miles per year before he wrecked. I rode everywhere, all the time. My motorcycle was my primary means of transportation, it was my “daily driver.” I rarely ever commute on my bike anymore. That’s what he was doing when he wrecked – nothing out of the ordinary, he was just going home from work, like any other day. I still ride a lot of miles, but now it is primarily for recreation, not utility.

Although I have had a couple of relatively minor wrecks, this time, despite it not being my wreck, it came much too close to home. Every time I throw a leg over my bike, I think about the very real risks like I haven’t in a long time. It doesn’t make me more vigilant, I am already ├╝ber-careful, but it is always on my mind. Even with my experience, considerably more than Matt’s, I am very conscious that some idiot behind the wheel of a car can surprise me. In other words, I am not exempt, it could happen to me.

On the other side of the equation lies actually living life. Risk of all kinds exists on a continuum. Being more or less careful, limiting one’s exposure can move the level of risk one way or the other, but no matter how careful one is, there is no “zero-risk” place on the scale. How much we are willing to expose ourselves to is a personal matter and should not be limited by laws or regulations unless my risk exposure affects someone else’s. Lot’s of things in life are dangerous – life itself is a crap-shoot. By limiting how I live it based on someone else’s aversion to that risk is not living. Freedom is not easy and it is not always “safe.” But living life in a bubble is not living – it’s dying a slow death.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Divide and Conquer


Facebook’s ability to “remember” and then recall events on a particular day in years past (not all of them, even for me, a Facebook “old-timer,” it’s just a 10-year historical record) is, arguably, one of just a very few of its redeeming qualities. Of course, it wasn’t Facebook’s idea – like so much of the platform’s functionality, it was a “borrowed” idea. However, it is now an integral and useful part of the social media platform. While it only remembers what we post, and what we post varies from the extraordinary to the mundane, and not all of it is necessarily rainbows and unicorns, Facebook takes the family photo album and puts it on steroids. It can be, depending upon how extensive one has utilized Facebook, a powerful tool.

For example, 10 years ago today my youngest son graduated from high school. He was the last of my three boys to venture out into the world; the 10 years of my life since that milestone have been eventful indeed. Many of those events are also memorialized in my Facebook timeline, but not all. And some I have deleted – permanently. They are experiences I’d prefer to just forget, remembering only the “essence” of them imbedded in my psyche as one of many “lessons of life.” The others, however, even the more innocuous postings from years past, serve as more than just a reminder of where I was two, three, seven or nine years ago. They serve as virtual bookmarks. They are the dog-eared pages of my life, an index to not only what was happening in my world (and nowhere near all of it documented on Facebook), but also what was happening in the world.

After his high-school graduation, my youngest, Matthew, decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. He wasn’t ambushed by a recruiter (although they tried – another memory indexed by this one), we did discuss it. I wasn’t crazy about the idea as the odds of him being deployed to fight an ill-defined war in Afghanistan were likely. However, he made a rational decision and followed through with it. In the coming months, memories of his Basic Training and AIT will be coming alive again on Facebook. So, too, will be the pictures and other interaction I had with him while in that Afghan Hell-hole. While these are not the type of memories one looks upon and smiles fondly, they are, nonetheless, important historical landmarks in our lives.

I have wrestled with the power Facebook has. I have struggled with its monopolistic ubiquity. I don’t trust it – even as a place to secure, remember and catalogue my memories (I archive it all to my hard drive regularly). Facebook absolutely warps reality, feeds hate and cares nothing about the truth. Although they say they do now, it is only damage control. Facebook willingly takes money from anyone who wants to buy access - whether the content is true or not, whether it fosters hate or not - Facebook does not care. It fortifies and intensifies the already generally anonymous nature of the Internet and turns the safety of a keyboard bunker into a fortress. Time and time again, whether I am just fed up or, on rare occasion, actually pull the plug, I have come back. And it is largely (though, not entirely) due to the “Memories” function (formerly known as “On this Day,” stolen from the app, TimeHop) that I come back or stay.

In August, memories from my first through my fifth trips to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will begin popping up in my memories (appropriately, while I am at my sixth). In July there will be blanks in 2012, the days around my ill-advised and ill-fated marriage. Similar blanks in the memory bank will be present from February 2011 to June 2013, the two-plus year life span of that train wreck relationship. I deleted a lot of it. The lessons I learned do not need to be prodded by beautifully fake wedding pictures – I remember, thanks. However, not all of the memories from that time and even the wedding itself are bad. Friends and family gathered for it in numbers the likes of which will probably never happen again. It many respects, it was the party of the decade and, taking the actual reason for that party out of the equation, the rest of it was a good time. The pictures from that day are in a Facebook album titled, “What’s Left.” They are the pictures of the good times with friends and family, not the ceremony itself.

And then there are my grandsons. I get to see my youngest son’s boy, in person, a lot – almost every day in the summer. But my eldest son’s boys live about 450 miles away, I don’t see them often. Facebook helps, a little. But the memories of when they came into the world are special, I like seeing them pop up. Finally, my middle son and his wife are expecting a baby in early August. If Facebook doesn’t implode and if I can stomach its bullshit – because Facebook dances on the edge of my tolerance all the time – in ten years’ time I’ll be looking back at baby pictures of my newest grandson.

We used to pull out the family photos from time to time and reminisce around a table, in the den, maybe, or perhaps during a summer barbecue, talking about the memories those photos triggered. It wasn’t every day, it was never a scheduled thing; it was organic, it would just happen. But rarely ever did we do it alone. Social media, and Facebook in particular, has taken that and many other communal activities and reduced them to a one-on-one interaction, except one of those “ones” in the pair is Facebook, the medium itself. McLuhan was certainly onto something, he just never realized how big, multi-faceted and ubiquitous one single medium could become.

It is dangerous for the simple fact that even though we recognize its very real evils, we/I/you – most of us, statistically – have become accustomed to the very warm and fuzzy. The protection and care of these things that are so precious, unique and personal – the very essence of who we are – is in the hands of an entity that uses us to sell things to others. And we know it! But it is warm and fuzzy and, now, much more than convenient. It is routine. Even if we don’t regularly click “Memories” on the sidebar, Facebook will show us one of our memories on our timeline and ask if we’d like to see more. Of course we would. Warm and fuzzy. Curiosity. How much better or worse we are. It is interesting, it is solitary and, when engaged, Facebook has us, each of us, individually, all to itself. It’s the ultimate manifestation of “divide and conquer.”

Monday, May 20, 2019

Believe in Magic



These photos are from my Master's Hooding Ceremony At California State University, Sacramento, eight years ago. Although I was not yet quite finished with the degree requirements (my degree was actually conferred one year later), I was well on my way. I had six years clean (and/or sober, for those so inclined), I was in a new relationship and I was on my way to Louisiana State University  in the fall to begin work on my Ph.D. The future looked bright indeed, however, there were dark clouds on the horizon and the storm that came was not only predictable, it was predicted - I saw it, but ignored it.

I remember, as I approached my seven-year recovery anniversary (August 6th, 2004 was the first day of my continued abstinence from all mind and mood altering chemicals), I was "warned" by those in recovery of how “hard” the seven year mark was. I didn't believe it then (I still don't - we only hear the horror stories, most "seven years" are perfectly mundane), but seven to 10 years clean was, for me, a monumental struggle on several levels. It seemed everything in my life was way harder than it needed to be, that everything was falling apart and that the Universe was out to get me. That “new” relationship turned into a 2,200-mile Sacramento-to-Baton Rouge “long-distance” relationship turned into a long-distance engagement turned into a long-distance marriage and finally into a long-distance divorce, all while I was working on a Ph.D. at LSU.

In the moment - many moments - I questioned the purpose of my very existence in ways I had not done since before getting clean. It was not the 24/7 type of gnawing that it was in the past, but those questions persisted. By the time my coursework at LSU was finished and by the time my funding ran out at the end of the 2015 spring semester, and despite the fact that the storm had largely blown over, I had already spent a year not writing my dissertation. I cycled through several "I'm gonna do this!” moments of inspiration, always followed by more and deeper procrastination and... then nothing. Sometime in late 2015 or early 2016 I decided that despite my ability, I did not have the willingness to complete and write what is typically a year or more research project. By that time I was employed as a “lecturer” at my first alma mater, CSUS.

However, I did have enough coursework and I did complete my comprehensive exams (I was a "doctoral candidate"), and that was more than enough to be awarded another MA at LSU. I took it before my early coursework started to "time-out" and moved that last, ultimate academic goal, the Ph.D., off the “back burner” and over to the "almost made it" category. It's not the only thing that lives there among my many failures in life, but that one, more than all the others, comes with a significant level of recognition; it represents much more success than it does failure. I am still very much proud of the work I did, despite not doing it all.

Do I regret missing the big prize? A lot. And I knew I would. That I did see coming, and I accepted it. However, my decision also placed me where I ultimately wanted to be. Although my job title and responsibilities differ in some ways (as does my pay) from tenure and tenure track professors, I am doing what I wanted to do. I love school;  that is something I never thought I’d say when I was young. When I came back as a “non-traditional" student 15 years ago, I used to joke that I wanted to remain in school for the rest of my life. I get to do just that. I teach "Rhetoric and Social Influence," "Argumentation," "Public Speaking" (both lower and upper divisions) and other classes in the qualitative arm of communication studies at CSUS. As such, I am always "in school."

That storm, that train-wreck relationship for which I volunteered, was not solely responsible for derailing my Ph.D. Did it play a role? Certainly, but there were several other factors that also played a role - some foreseeable, some not. And my (ahem) advanced age definitely contributed to a mix of factors that ended in failure... and success. My life today is rich. It is fulfilling. While I would love to have earned the right to put "Dr." in front of my name, the fact is that I did not earn it. What I did earn, however, has made my life a magical experience. I have a quote tattooed on my left forearm from a children’s book called “The Minpins.” It is the last line in the last book ever written by Roald Dahl, published posthumously in 1991: “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” There are all kinds of magic. I found one I can believe in and because I do, I have, indeed, found it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Pursuit of Happiness


I might have had it all wrong. I might have deluded myself into thinking in a way that would always leave me lacking. I figured I was entitled. Not to fame or wealth or prestige or anything materialistic, but my frame of reference led me to believe that those were the things that would bring me that which I was entitled to. I thought I was entitled to happiness. I actually believed I deserved to be happy. As a result, every time I was not happy, I felt unhappy. Further, because I deserved to be happy, I was also entitled to do whatever was necessary to achieve it. While that pursuit materialized in a number of ways, eventually it led me to chemical substances that created the illusion of happiness.

This is not so much about drug and alcohol abuse as it is the mindset that contributed to it. And, to be clear, the ultimate cause of my years of “happiness” through chemistry, while no longer important, is not so easily identified. It could be genetics, it could be environment, it could be the time and place I grew up and it is likely a combination of factors. Regardless, substance abuse was by far the most destructive manifestation of my pursuit of happiness, but it was not the only one. In the nearly 15 years since I found recovery, since I abstained from the use of chemicals to alter my consciousness, I have also changed my perspective on many things, a key one is this “right” I had to be happy.

First, some hard, cold truths. No one has an inherent right to anything. True, societies have created conventions that do enumerate certain rights (and they did not start with the good ole US of A), but the fact that we have any rights at all is a result of hard fought battles and many great thinkers. Our ability to communicate symbolically, abstractly and cooperatively has propelled us to the top of the food chain. We are not the strongest, fastest, toughest or most adaptable species on the planet. We are the smartest and because we evolved these huge brains, we are no longer prey. But without our predecessors paving the way we should treat each other, no one is entitled to anything – even life itself.

However, we do have rights. The framers of the Constitution, in the Preamble, declared that we are endowed with, “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And while the framers believed these rights are endowed by our "creator," whatever their source, they are enforced by societal conventions. So far, so good. So what about this so-called pursuit of happiness. Apparently even the creator did not grant happiness, only its pursuit is granted. However, from the 1960s and on, while I was coming of age, I must’ve decided that if the pursuit of happiness can be endowed upon us, then actual happiness was simply the logical extension. In other words, why not just bypass that silly chasing it stage and grant it as well.

The second and ancillary problem with that attitude is the conflation of lack of happiness with unhappiness. As it turns out, not being happy is not the same as being unhappy. In fact, it turns out that happiness is rather elusive and unhappiness is also not usually a long-term or prevalent condition. Indeed, what I was after is not achievable. No one can sustain happiness 24/7, but I can be content most, if not all, of the time. What I should have been seeking is contentedness. If that is what I seek, the only time I need take any real action is when I am feeling discontent. Happiness and unhappiness are situational and fleeting. When I thought I was unhappy – when I was feeling a lack of happiness – I was quite probably still content. But, by framing that lack of happiness as unhappiness, my contentedness, that very well could have been, necessarily became discontentedness.

This entire insidious pattern plagued me for years. In my pursuit of happiness, I felt I had a right to do whatever was necessary to get back to that place I had no right to in the first place. Even contentedness is not a right, but it is achievable by simply shifting my perspective, my priorities and what I actually need. As it turns out, I already had everything I needed, and I never knew it. And, of course, once the instant gratification of substances found its way into the picture, that twisted perspective became even more entrenched – and the insidiousness took an ugly, and potentially deadly, turn.

Once the “fixes” were removed, I had to find some way to be okay with myself. That took time, it took work and it took a conscious effort to change the way I looked at the world, to reevaluate what I “deserve” and what it takes to be content. As it turns out, contentedness is not all that hard to achieve. In fact, if I would have just stopped long enough to appreciate who I was, where I was, what I had and who was in my life, I would have been content long ago. Temporal happiness – the occasional, euphoric, natural highs - will come… and go. But I need not become discontent or even discouraged when it does go. And a lack of happiness is not unhappiness. I cannot be “happy” all the time, I am not entitled to it and, furthermore, I don’t want to be. If I was, where could I go from there?  

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Not a Motorcycle Story



This is a motorcycle ride story, but it’s not just about motorcycles. I became profoundly aware of some “life things” during this particular ride. I expound upon them towards the end. It’s worth pondering, even for those who never have and never would ride a motorcycle. It’s not as much about riding as it is about living.

Last weekend I decided to take a break from everything and go on a three-day motorcycle ride in Central California. It was not my first solo multi-day motorcycle excursion, I’ve made several such trips, but most were part of a bigger picture – some destination or other “reason” was usually part of the deal. Once I rode to Southern California for a friend’s wedding and then took several more days traveling through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. More than once I’ve used the journey to and from the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as an opportunity to log several thousand solo miles. While I like riding with others (two to four, not a lot of others), it’s not the same as riding by myself. Nothing is more relaxing, more meditative and more energizing than just me, my machine and the open road.

My route last week took me on many roads I’ve ridden before, I knew what to expect - great roads, little traffic and pristine scenery. Although I didn’t have any firm plan as to the route I would take, I did have a list of possibilities that are based on experience. I live near Sacramento and there are numerous ways I can go to get “there.” I chose US-50 up into the Sierras toward Lake Tahoe, CA-89 over the Monitor Pass to US-395 and south from there towards Death Valley. These are roads I am very familiar with and rendered exactly what I expected; it was Nirvana. I spent the night in a motel that would be a sub-one star rating if ratings went that low, but it had a bed and a shower, which is all I really need. From there I took CA-190 into Death Valley, another road I’ve ridden before and, at this time of year, the weather is perfect.

While at the summit getting ready to descend into Death Valley, I had a decision to make. I could have continued through Death Valley National Park or take Panamint Valley Road to Trona-Wildhorse Road into Trona and Ridgecrest. The road condition was a big question mark, but I had the option of turning back and going to Stovepipe Wells and Death Valley Junction, winding my way around to I-15 before attempting to reroute back to roads less traveled. I took the chance. The road condition was not great, but good enough to navigate my 2017 Harley Street Glide Special at a decent clip. And there were sections that easily fit into my “must-ride” category of motorcycle roads. It also took me out to Lake Isabella and CA-178 through the Kern River Canyon, a route that I would have bypassed had I gone around.

I had a minor mishap on CA-178, a bump in the road took out my kickstand spring. I was able to fix it temporarily, but I was also lucky to find a small shop in Weldon that could fix it for me. I could have made it without the repair, but since I could get it fixed, I did. While I was there, shooting the breeze with the other bikers hanging around, I was informed about just how spectacular the road through the canyon is – and how dangerous it can be. I found it to be spectacular and only as dangerous as any other winding mountain road would be. That was, after all, why I was there. That road flattens out in the Central Valley as is enters Bakersfield. I stopped for gas at the CA-178/I-5 interchange and was content to let my GPS guide me to San Luis Obispo where I would stay for the night. That route put me on I-5 north for more than 20 miles, not a ride I was all that into.

As I was riding, thinking about the I-5 and 20-plus miles of straight, flat, boring riding, I remembered the route options I saw on the map days before. The fastest route was indeed I-5 to CA-46 to US-101, but the more direct route is CA-58 through the Coastal Range right to San Luis Obispo. Google maps indicated that there was construction on that highway, but it was not only a Saturday, but late in the day at that. At the last moment I took the CA-58 offramp, and away I went. Through the valley section, it was not anything to write home about. It had it’s moments, but it was mostly Central Valley farmland. However, when I hit the foothills, the ride took a serendipitous twist.

There was indeed construction going on – they were resurfacing the road. But most of the many miles I traveled on it were already done, and recently. The road condition could not have been any better – it was smooth, fresh and sticky. The section they were still working on was short and construction was already done for the day. No one-way traffic controls (despite the warning signs to the contrary), no personnel and no equipment hampered me in anyway. But the best part of that section of road was that it was virtually abandoned. I saw maybe fewer than 10 other vehicles on the road during the best part of it – for miles and miles. When I arrived in San Luis Obispo, I was walking on air. I rolled the navigational dice all day and I won every time.

As I was unwinding in San Luis Obispo, in a much better motel room, I was contemplating which way I would take to get home. If the journey is really about the journey, the only logical choice would be to ride the world famous Pacific Coast Highway up through Big Sur, Monterey and points north. I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again. It is a ride that never gets old. However, there was a chance of rain in the forecast along the coast and I was not too sure about riding that road in the rain. I’ve ridden in the rain many times, in many places, but I avoid it if possible. However, avoiding it meant riding inland several hundred miles on perfectly mundane roads. I deciding to check again in the morning. When I did, the chance had decreased, but was still there. I rolled the dice, again.

It turned out to be another win, and it was decision I made due to a revelation from the day before. It was what I now call a “motorcycle decision.” (For those who have endured the ride thus far, this is where I get to the “life stuff” I teased at the top). A motorcycle decision is one that best fulfils the purpose of the ride – any ride. While this ride had no destination, it held no utility, it was largely uncharted, the route was always in flux, it did have a purpose. There was a goal, a reason I set out on what turned out to be an almost 1,100 mile circle. That purpose, while difficult to define in certain terms, can be looked at as an extended meditation session. Prior to the ride, I was stressed. I had some internal pressure gnawing at me. I felt not myself. My ride was meant to take me out of the here and now for long enough to get my feet back under me, and it did just that.

That goal could have been derailed by a number of factors – decisions made that were not directly aimed at achieving this goal. For that, I had to know why I was doing what I was doing and how that mechanism works. When I am on a ride, and there could still be utility or other purposes beyond just getting out on two wheels, the destination is not what it is about. Ever. Even when I am going someplace, if I am riding, the way I get there is a factor. That revelation goes for virtually every decision I make in life. It is never just about “there;” it is about how I get there. Sometimes expediency is a factor. If so, an airplane would be a better decision. Sometimes other people are factors. If so, the best way to connect with them is a better decision. Whether it’s work, school, family, recreation, fitness… whatever the destination is, there is a path to it. If all I ever consider is “there,” I could overlook factors concerning what the best way to get there is.

We seemed to be so goal oriented these days. Although there is nothing wrong with goals and focusing on them, if I get so focused on getting there, I'll develop tunnel-vision; I will inevitably miss so much along the way. Last weekend, my goal was to get out of myself by doing the kind of riding I enjoy most. That riding does not involve traffic, straight, flat roads or a bunch of people. The decisions I made, unwittingly at first (CA-58) and then very purposefully (the decision to take PCH after all) made it a truly magical experience. If I take the time to consider things I wouldn’t in my effort to "arrive," I won’t have to just endure the journey. I can truly enjoy it.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Producing Words


Wm Spear Design
At my core, I am a writer. That is my art, my talent, the one thing about me that I seem to have some natural creativity in. I am glad to have it; I don’t have another one like it. Some people are naturally creative in virtually any medium – they can sing, dance, draw, paint, act, etc. – and it appears effortless. I know better. I know “natural” talent is not enough and that without work – and lots of it – that talent, that creativity, that art is never complete. However, for most of my life I’ve envied those who are able to create those things that I could not. I have envied their ability to create works that are beautiful, compelling, thought-provoking, timeless and enduring. I sort of knew I could communicate well through the written word ever since I was a kid, but I never appreciated it and, until much, much later, I never honed that talent.

Thankfully, that is no longer true. I am conscious that I am, in fact, creative in some way – in my way. I appreciate it and I work at it – a lot. My output has ebbed and flowed over the past few years, but I write constantly, regularly and… painfully. Grabbing my palette of words and punctuation, placing them just so on a blank canvas and being happy with what I paint happens, but the process is arduous. It is never easy. And no matter how good it is, I am my worst critic – it could always be better. And, in rereading much of what I’ve written in the past, some of it wasn’t ever good to begin with. Such is the angst of art.

With the possible exception of the news stories I wrote while a journalist, the essays that populate my blog represent the bulk of my published work. The other significant difference between those two outlets is that I don’t get paid for this stuff. My news stories all had a price tag of one kind or another – either as part of my salary or piecemeal as a freelancer. And the writing was, of course, much different. While journalism does have an artistic element, it is also confined by many rules that limit its creativity. This writing has no such bounds. I don’t do it for money, I have no ads or other monetization on my website/blog. But I think about it sometimes… maybe I should.

I have conflicting beliefs regarding art and its production. On the one hand, I place a lot of weight on the notion of “art for art’s sake.” Artists produce because they are compelled to create, to make a statement that has all of the above-named qualities. Taken to an even deeper level, in theory, it is not produced with any audience in mind, it does not require or want for any attention or accolades. It just is. On the other hand, that’s all bullshit. We are doing it for more than just some utopian “purity.” That is not to say there are no elements of that pure essence present, but I write to be read – even if I am the only reader (I read more own stuff all the time, I always get new insight from it). To be recognized with real, tangible, compensation is even better.

I hear people talk about writing their future books as a means to an end, and that end is money. That is the primary motivating force. Yes, they might have a story to tell, a interest to promote or an idea to develop, but when I hear the plan (and, since I am a writer, the aspiring writers in my extended circle always want to tell me about it) I often hear dollar signs. And, really, who knows what will sell? There is no shortage of good ideas out there and it is also true that bad ideas can be very lucrative. But if money was my primary motivation, I would have already written that book and retired by now. There has to be something more, something other than just money. The fact that I write so much for no money makes this painfully clear.

I have written enough in my blog to compile two or three books of essay collections. My father once suggested I do that. I began the process, but it, like the other two books I have in the works, are currently sitting on the proverbial back burner. I always intend to get back to them. In fact, this very essay is a step in that direction. I’d love to get paid for my words, I’d love even more for people to read and enjoy them. However, that is not what produces them. What produces them comes from somewhere else. It is painful. It is hard. It is compelling. It also, apparently, does not require any monetary compensation. I write them anyway.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sensory Overload

Today is Easter Day, 2019. I guess that this day has come and gone for around 2,000 years, but I really don’t know nor do I care. I know it means an awful lot to an awful lot of people, but to me it means nothing more than the Easter Bunny and kids hunting for colorful eggs. And even those days, for me, are long gone unless I happen to be with any of my grandsons. Usually Easter is not that sort of occasion. I get the significance it holds for those who believe, but the premise behind that significance is, to me, nothing more than an impossible legend, a myth. It might transmit certain cultural histories, but the proof of the story to which it pertains is not nearly enough for me. And no, I am not open to debate it.

This day – this weekend – is also when an annual convention for a certain recovery 12-step fellowship takes place in Northern California. In fact, it is called the “Northern California Convention of <redacted> Anonymous.” This year it was held in Sacramento and there were literally thousands of attendees. It took place over four days, but besides a quick visit to register on Thursday, I only went for the main event last night. I was there early enough, however, to do some socializing and exchange pleasantries with a bunch of people I know, some of whom are close enough to be actual friends. Most, however, are not – at least in the strictest sense of the word.

Ken Tisa, “Kali’s Dance” (2017)
In this, and probably other similar fellowships, the term “friend” gets thrown around much more freely than I would use it. And some might even be taken aback that I do not consider them friends outside of meetings and other “program” gatherings. Many would say that since finding a new life in recovery, they now have – I am not exaggerating – literally hundreds of friends. I cannot imagine how anyone could maintain even 100 friendships, never mind multiple hundreds. And at this convention, for those who have all those friends, they were surely in their element. All of that attention and all of that good will and all of that like-mindedness and singleness of purpose, combatting an affliction that could have killed us and did make our lives a living hell. Yes, we have that connection that is often formed when groups of people are faced with catastrophe, and long-term relationships spawned from that often come from it – but to be friends with everyone? Pass.

I’m sure there are those who are naturally affable and feed off all that energy; they make connections with as many persons as possible. I don’t. All of that all in one place drains me. I enjoy seeing old friends and acquaintances as much as anyone, but I prefer it be in a far more limited way. But I was there. I hugged a lot of people (we do a lot of hugging in this fellowship). I exchanged pleasantries. After a few hours, I needed to get out of there. It was not anxiety, it was exhaustion. And even though I saw so many, I missed seeing even more – and many of those I did not see were among my real friends. It is impossible to find everyone one wishes to find in a gathering that large. And, truth be told, I didn’t look that hard. Because simply walking around means running into too many “friends” who I must stop and talk to for a moment. Because that’s what we are supposed to do.

So I did it. I took my introverted self to the very place I am least comfortable. It’s not just crowds (though I will avoid crowds generally when I can), but a crowd where I knew so many by face at least, and many of them by name. There were also too many who knew me, somehow, but I do not know or did not remember them. That’s awkward. But I put on the face, danced the dance and did what I viewed as my responsibility. I took my 14 years, eight months, two weeks and one day of clean-time (no mind-altering chemicals) downtown to show that this thing we are all doing can work. That doesn’t mean I have to enjoy being over-stimulated, it just means I have to endure it. Seems like a small price to pay for the life I have today.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

I'll Think About It


After almost four weeks of Facebook deactivation, I am thinking about reactivating my account in the near future. I have not, however, made a final decision yet. Unlike most people, when I say “I’ll think about it,” it is not a deflection to avoid saying what I already decided; I am, in fact, thinking about it. So, what is there to think about? Didn’t I basically throw Facebook under the bus? Didn’t I call it and its mother every nasty name in the book? Didn’t I say it was the harbinger of the end of the world as we know it? Well, the last statement is partially true, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The others are, of course, hyperbole.

I don’t condemn the platform itself so much as I do the way it is used. As it has evolved and as it turns out, the quasi-anonymity of (ironically for “Facebook”) faceless-to-faceless interaction has led to the spread of hate and division. Indeed, where that kind of infestation took some skill, planning and resources prior to the age of information, it can now be done with ease by those who don’t even realize they are doing it. That and the boundless self-aggrandizing, self-promotion - self-everything - has not only turned me off, it was turning me. Turning me into yet another of the many iterations of Facebook minions.

Despite my disenchantment with what Facebook has revealed about people, Facebook is, in a way, its own antidote. The same platform that is so utilitarian in spreading division can, in theory, also be used to spread unity, understanding, peace, good will, diversity, love and all other timeless virtues. However, the platform itself is merely a tool, its benefit comes from how it is used. The degree to which the corporate entity, “Facebook” (whether that refers to Mark Zuckerberg or any other real people who make up that entity), can direct that usage is limited. It is limited in the same way a hammer manufacturer can limit the way its hammer is used. While the Facebook platform has more about it that can be regulated, it is still, ultimately, about who is swinging the hammer.

If I go back, I will use that hammer to build, not destroy. That, however, is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, I could argue that using a hammer for demolition is constructive, is morally positive and is ethical. The demolition phase of construction clears the way to build anew. Of course when it comes to people, ideas, institutions, ideologies and the like, the demolition of those things brings in different and powerful dynamics. We are no longer dealing with tangible, inanimate objects. These are, instead, intangible, but - and ironically enough - very much animate… and sentient. It all has to do with people and all of our collective humanity that makes us up. Facebook puts all that under a microscope and magnifies it to ridiculous proportions, indeed, super-human proportions.

My job, then, should I choose to accept it, would be walking a fine line. I performed that role before, but not consciously. In fact, I have performed that role for much of my life, I seem to be built that way. I don’t want to get all new-agey (one of so many irritating reignited fads from the past that Facebook has breathed new life into), but as an introvert, now euphemistically called an “empath” (sounds special, right? Like we have some sort of super-power), I am easily exhausted by too much sensory input from others. High energy people, some of whom are my closest friends, drain me. Facebook brought all that energy into my home, onto my desktop and put it into my pocket. I was being depleted almost all day, every day.

My return to the platform would, therefore, be markedly different in many ways. The most significant would be my very limited participation. My obligation to acknowledge anyone via a status update, a post, a comment on one of my posts or even a “like” is absolutely zero. As such, Facebook would not be nearly so “interactive.” My job will be to contribute to the world of words and information those things that I feel will benefit humanity, will promote unity, will foster diversity of thought and action and, when demolition is necessary, will do so in a way that recognizes the very real humans involved. I would also use it for personal documentations  of my travels and adventures, but only so much that myself, my family and my (real) friends can enjoy them, in much the same as I enjoy (and now miss) theirs. As I’ve written many times, this ease of connection is probably Facebook's biggest attraction and likely what made it what it is.
Little enlightenments come to me on a daily basis through a number of sources, but the most pronounced is still the Internet – usually through email. I will, when sufficiently motivated, write about them as I am this moment, but more often than not, those insights will fade into the darkness of my memory, never to be heard from again. Facebook never forgets. And even though Facebook users are acculturated to sound-bite sized snippets, part of what I do is challenge that status quo. The platform allows for statuses this long, I have (and will, if I decide to reactivate) use that space. If I can get Facebookers to read several hundred words – about almost anything – then that, in and of itself, is beneficial.
The article that got me thinking about this in terms of a return as a real possibility was written in an online journal called The Medium. It is the most recent of a few periodicals that I have a paid subscription to. I found the writing and writers enlightening, fresh and inspired. It is the kind of stuff I like to read – and write. If I had to compare it to something, I'd say it is similar to The Stone, a section of the New York Times that features essays and opinions that are philosophical in nature. But The Medium is more than that. The point is that a simple link to the article I read today does not work on Instagram, does not work on my blog, it might work on Twitter if I had built up a following and liked it, but I haven’t and I don’t. They are not easily and effectively disseminated anywhere else. Facebook is the standard.
My goal, then, if I go back, is to do so with my shields on “high,” limiting my interaction to almost none and just post things that are, at worst, value neutral. Of course, the goal is to foster unity, peace, tolerance, diversity and essentially everything else that not only makes us good Americans, these are the things that make us good humans. But I am still thinking about it.



Thursday, April 04, 2019

Bella's Facebook


My dog has a Facebook account. Her name is Bella and she is super smart – much smarter than the self-proclaimed geniuses on Facebook. While it is true that I have deactivated my own Facebook account, I have not gone completely, totally Facebook dark. Furthermore, although Bella has her own Facebook “friends,” many of her friends are (were) my friends, too. Because of certain canine limitations (no opposable thumbs, for example), Bella needs help navigating and manipulating her Facebook activity. She doesn’t post much, doesn’t interact much, almost never comments, but she will throw a like here and there, peruse the newsfeed for any juicy tidbits and funny cat videos. Her news feed looks nothing like mine did, despite having similar roots.

She doesn’t see much political stuff, either. It’s a good thing because she really, truly, has no fucks to give. However, she still sees some of the pettiness of others, amplified on Facebook to monumental proportions. Maybe it’s because she keeps her yap shut, but that human shallowness so prevalent on Facebook doesn’t seem to faze her. She ignores it. She doesn’t participate. It rolls off of her like the proverbial water rolls off the proverbial duck’s back. It is truly remarkable how nothing, Facebook or otherwise, ever, ever, bothers her. She is unperturbable. I aspire to be more like her.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that I am her Facebook curator. I’ve batted around the idea of coming back to Facebook in some limited sense, but I do not see a way to that end. It will only snowball into the quagmire it was when I left. The pettiness, the cliques, the unsaid and the partially said (all that and more, collectively, used to be called “head games”) has become the rule, the norm, the new juvenility that I will no longer tolerate. So I left. But Bella likes Facebook just fine. She has found, apparently, that limited state where, to her, it is nothing but what it ever was, a virtual echo chamber. It is not real. It is, in her world, all meaningless. Bella doesn’t care who is “in” and who is “out,” and, more importantly, doesn’t care where on that popularity continuum she is. She is not interested in validation, in “likes,” in comments or tags.
 
She just doesn’t care. She is truly free, and she is without being #facebookfree. I am learning from her. In dog years, she is only a little older than I am, but her wisdom surpasses mine in ways that are unfathomable. So she doesn’t have opposable thumbs, so what? I do and she has me. We are helping each other. But mostly, she is helping me.




Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Signs, Sighs and Hints

Yesterday I was considering reactivating my Facebook account in some limited way. I tossed around the pros and cons in my post yesterday and then let it simmer. The things I hate about Facebook are not, of course, really the medium itself, but how people use it. While the medium is an integral part of the message (McLuhan says it is the message), I see far too much “hidden meaning” or “vaguebooking.” I’ve done it too, the medium seems to be an ideal conduit to convey that there is a message, but not what that message is. We get ensnared in a guessing game, but we must do it remotely, across the vastness of the World Wide Web.

Where I actually talked myself onto the fence about Facebook, I am no longer there. Of course I could be persuaded or persuade myself back, but for a medium that has as much text-based information exchange – perhaps more so than any other “multimedia” yet - it is largely devoid of any real talk. And it’s not just Facebook, it’s not even just the age of information, it’s likely a phenomena that is as old as we are. As much as we can misunderstand symbolic communication, as inaccurate as words can be, it is still far and away the most effective way to convey our thoughts.

The template for this non-communicative communication scenario looks something like this:

Scene: Something is clearly bothering someone. This is evident through non-discursive communication – all communication that does not use words, including silence. The conversation follows.

P1: *exhibits some form of discontent through non-discursive and/or limited discursive communication*

P2: “Is there something wrong?”

P1: “No, I’m fine.”

Yet it is clear that P1 is not at all “fine.” We’ve all been there, we’ve all been both P1 and P2. As P1, “I’m fine,” means I’m fine. It also means “leave me alone,” or “I don’t want to talk about it.” If pressed, I’ll say that. From the perspective of P2, it is difficult not to internalized P1’s discontent. “Was it something I did or said, didn’t do, didn’t say?” There was a time in my life when what I did and did not do, what I did and did not say, always had the potential to create discontent in others. Questioning my role was both appropriate and damage control. The other component to that internalization has to do with a genuine desire for those close to me to be content. I cannot make the world “happy," and will not at the expense of my own serenity. Furthermore, at this point in my life my motives and actions have never been purer. Yet I still question, “was it me?”  That is something I continue to work on.

We are dealing with humans and their idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. I get it and I have a lot of experience as P1, P2 and P3-infinity. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. But that does not mean I have to live there anymore. I am not a child, a teen or a “young-adult.” I not only grew through those phases, I literally survived them. I am not interested in reliving that. Facebook didn’t create that semi-spoken/unspoken tension, that quasi-communication that requires us to be mind-readers, but it certainly gave it a much larger audience. That fact that I still run into it, as a 56 year-old man, is nothing short of unacceptable. I won’t play. Got something to say? Say it with words. If those words say, “nothing,” then I’ll ignore all other signs, sighs and hints and go about my happy life.