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.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Facing Facebook Death

It has been about 10 days since I deactivated my Facebook account. Three years ago - at about this time of year - I deactivated for about three months, although all of my friends who recall it remember it being much, much less time. The archives, however, do not lie. Still, it is interesting how the perception, among those who have any recollection at all, is so universally underestimated. No one said, “Only three months? I could’ve sworn it was longer.” I reactivated on a limited basis for a couple of specific reasons (reasons that I no longer remember) and while my presence was, in fact, initially limited, eventually I was right back into the mix complete with reinstalling the app on my iPhone.

With the exception of the occasional quip, “I thought you were done,” no one really questioned my return. It was business as usual. Facebook, at the time, was pretty similar to what it is now. A few features have been added, but what makes it unique has been a key feature for a long time now. What feature is that? It’s not exactly a discrete feature or application, but more of a mosaic that is woven through Facebook as a whole. It is literally the binding agent that holds Facebook together and those tentacles have spread far beyond just Facebook and its holdings (Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.).

Most social media users recognize the hyper-connectivity of it. It is, perhaps, one of the features that makes it so attractive. There are any number of ways to interact on Facebook. For example, we can simply click “like” or, now, select one of a few other “reactions.” We can comment on the main thread or any of the comments, creating or adding to a sub-thread. We can tag all kinds of shit – not just pictures; we can tag posts, we can tag comments, we can tag videos, memes, ads, and so on and so on. Everything in our archives is inextricably linked not to just a few others, but due to our connections with friends, friends of friends and their friends and their friends of friends, we are all just a few degrees of separation from everyone else. Yes, everyone.

Okay, I hear you. That’s nothing new. It’s been like that for a few years now, at least. Granted. And the ramifications of all that are as old as the connections are, too, but I don’t know if many people have given it much thought. Here is what it means, especially for those who are, like me, frequent and/or long-term users of Facebook. It means that our real realities are now inextricably linked to our virtual realities. They are (or are becoming) one and the same. That is where this is headed and jumping ship at this point – and failing to board that ship at some near-term future point – is damned near impossible. The Facebook world is no longer virtual, it is part of the real world and those who aren’t “in,” are, by definition, out.

Still nothing new? So what? Okay, consider this: When I, or you deactivate or (gasp!) delete Facebook, it is not the same as a death or disappearance in the physical world. When people leave this life or for some other reason are physically absent for a long time, they still have a presence. They held a place in our world, in our hearts and in our memories. Some African tribal cultures believe that as long as the memory is alive, that ancestor is not truly dead. In real reality, when we leave or die, we have left a mark, a memory remains. Not so with Facebook.

While Facebook has not yet figured out to completely erase a former member’s existence, they have done a good job getting there. When we leave Facebook – whether it is permanently or temporarily – we lose all trace of our existence. Facebook removes not only all of our own content – what we post and allow on our own timelines – but also every comment, every like, every tag and everyone of my pictures that shows up in your “photos of” tab because you were tagged – they are all gone. Facebook not only takes us out, it extinguishes almost all of our history, and that history is very closely linked with those of many others.

Therefore, once established in the Facebook Universe, once we acquiesce to all that is Facebook, the platform is in control of every aspect of our virtual lives. On it, we have no right to free speech, we have no rights whatsoever. It is not our  world, it is theirs. But if you do try to leave, everything goes, including all communal references to you. Yes, the pictures your friends posted and tagged you in are still there, but your tag, your name is gone.

I find myself with a dilemma. There are a handful of people in my life who have memories, many of which occurred in the real world, that are “housed” on Facebook. Where we would have real pictures in an actual photo album, we have turned that task over to a machine that does a remarkable job bringing more complete content and recoverability to those memories. But, we have given responsibility for their care over to Facebook as well. Mine are now gone, in a virtual purgatory, neither alive nor dead, in between places. I don’t know how long Facebook keeps deactivated accounts alive – I’d guess indefinitely since advertisers pay more for a larger count of accounts. And if I reactivate, even if I just stay on the sidelines as a spectator, everything will come back. If I don’t, eventually my virtual presence – all of it – will disappear. It will be as though I never existed. The same machine who created virtual Mike will erase not only me, but all remnants, all memories of me, too.

At this point I feel as though I am thinking in terms of a “final” decision. Go along now, build upon my virtual presence, keep all that in the care of an algorithm or go rogue, get off the virtual grid, be forgotten. I am on the fence, honestly. Furthermore, there are those in my life for whom this sort of communion is real enough, is beneficial, it might even be necessary not in terms of life and death, but necessary in terms of a means of communicating where little or none existed before. Or… it’s just better and more convenient. Is that so bad? Stayed tuned, I guess, the wheels are turning…