Thursday, December 30, 2021

Dog People

One of the great injustices in life is that the average human lifespan is so much longer than that of the average dog. For those of us who cherish our canine companions, that means we will not only have to endure their passing, but also that we go into the relationship knowing that will eventually come to pass. They don’t, they live each day as though it is their only day — not like it might be their last, but like it’s the only day there is — the only one that matters. It is among the most profound gifts they give us, but it is among many, many others. If we, the so-called “dog-people,” are lucky, we will experience a few dogs who both grace our lives… and depart from them. Luck, however, is a two-edged sword, both edges are razor sharp. One side cuts deeply into our hearts, our souls and our lives, filling us with unequivocal, unconditional love; the other leaves the pain of their passing so unique it is difficult to describe. The sting of loss will fade over time, but their love never does.

“But what is grief, if not the perseverance of love.”

~ Vision, from Marvel’s WandaVision

Facebook, as much evil as it sews, is remarkably efficient in cataloguing my activity and recalling it as “memories” on a daily basis. In that respect, it only reproduces what I have put in, and much of that is absolutely worth remembering. Sometimes what is worth remembering is the “perseverance of love.” There have been a handful of really special dogs in my life, all lived out what would be considered long lives — for dogs. Facebook reminded me of two today. One passed on this day peacefully in her sleep nine years ago at the age of 15. Her name was Magic, a pound rescue black lab/Australian shepherd mix whose name fit her perfectly. The other, Bella, in this Facebook video, was just a pup 12 years ago today. She passed less than a year ago. Both of these dogs left paw prints in my heart; I feel them, still, persevering. The sting of their loss has faded, but their love remains — unequivocal, unconditional, eternal.

Now I have Möbius. He has not replaced Magic or Bella or any of the other dogs who have graced my live over my 59 years on this planet. He has added to them, he is among them, he is part of their pack. He lives every day like it’s the only day there is. He loves me unconditionally, he is always happy, his word is always full of optimism. However, the odds are that I will outlive him and one day, he, too, will have to leave me. He doesn’t know it, but I do. He still has a lesson for me — he has the tools to deal with that reality, to deal with all future possible calamity, uncertainty, whatever life might throw at me: Live today like it’s the only day — not like it’s my last, not like there is no tomorrow, and not like a dog without any need to plan for the future, but to enjoy what time I have and just live. Today. And love — like today is the only day there is.

 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

The Script, Pt. 2

 

The Eric Rood Administrative Center is the main government building complex for Nevada County, a rural county in the Sierra foothills just east of Sacramento, California. There are two main buildings – one holds all of the main county governmental machinery and the other is the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility (WBCF) – the Nevada County jail. Yesterday, the 30th Annual Nevada County Toy Run once again attracted in the neighborhood of 1,000 motorcycles with various toys lashed to them. They were all gathered in the parking lot outside of the jail for their annual pilgrimage to the fairgrounds. For 30 years, the toy run has provided toys, clothes and food to the less fortunate residents of Nevada and Placer counties. For me, it is also sort of a homecoming.

 

In the summer of 2002 and again in 2004, the WBCF was my home for a while. For 78 days in the summer of 2002, I would pay my debt to society and, because I am not very good at following directions, I returned for another 40 days on August 6th of 2004. In 2002, although it was not my first time in jail, it was my first extended sentence; it was more than just a day or two, or four or five – it was weeks. I was tired, I was becoming compliant, I experienced some moments of what we call “surrender,” but I was still fighting, still a “victim,” and still way smarter than virtually everyone else. And I had my rights, dammit! I was convicted of a non-violent felony (since then, after a few years, reduced to a misdemeanor) and sentenced to the relatively cushy trustee “N Section” of the jail. I felt I could improve upon my situation and worked myself right into the much less cushy general population “A-pod,” where I served out most of my sentence.

 

Every year that I ride in the toy run – and on the other occasions I happen to be on my bike at or around WBCF (it’s located right on CA-49 near CA-20 in Nevada City, an absolutely beautiful place to ride a motorcycle) – it takes me back to a little rectangular window on the second floor, right on the corner of the jail, in A-pod. That was my cell. I used to stare out that window and watch the Harleys and other motorcycles riding up Highway 49, pissed off, at first, but eventually just sad. Sad because at some point while I was there I had an epiphany. One day – and I will never forget it – I realized why I was there. It was not because of the cops, or the judge, or my idiot “friends,” or my parents or anyone else. It was because of me. It was like lightning struck me. That day, I stopped fighting.

 

Until I got out. I was going to follow the script. I had every intention of cleaning up, of getting into a 12-step program, of following through with the second part of my sentence – three months of residential treatment – and starting a new, drug-free life. But withing six hours I was right back where I was when I went in, and I had no ability to turn it off. It’s not the first time I was going to “quit” and meant it. It’s not the first time that I connected the dots, saw where they led and said to myself, “enough!” I’ve had these “moments of clarity” before – and as recently as less than two years previously when my behavior almost killed me.

 

A little more than 21 years ago, on October 17th, 2000, I was living the life of a “non-conformist,” of a “renegade,” of a “freedom-loving American,” or whatever other euphemism I would come up with to defend my “right” to put whatever drugs into my body I saw fit. I would say things like it no one else’s business, that the only person I’m harming is myself (and I didn’t believe I was, anyway) and that if it bothers you, that’s your problem, not mine. I bought into all of that bullshit in order to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. That morning, due to the drugs I was consuming, I fell asleep at the wheel while driving my then 13- year-old son to school. I drifted into the oncoming lane and hit an approaching logging truck almost head-on. My son escape major physical injuries (however, non-physical injuries are serious, too), as did the logging truck driver, but my injuries damned near killed me.

 

I don’t remember almost all of it, and what I do remember is seriously clouded by shock, pain medication and a medically induced coma. I “woke up” five weeks later. Within a day or two, by the time the fog cleared, I knew exactly what happened. I knew this wasn’t a “close-call,” it wasn’t a “near-miss,” this was a direct hit and, of all the times in my life that I “could have died,” this time I should have. They thought I would. They didn’t think I was going to make it. And I knew why, even though it was determined that “drugs and alcohol were not a factor,” (I have no idea how or why, but that’s what the police report said).

 

I’m not stupid. I almost killed myself, I could have killed my kid. I put my parents and everyone else who cared about me though literal hell. It was everyone else’s business. I was never going to do that again. But I did, not long after I got out of the hospital three months later – still with metal and tubes sticking out of me. I rationalized that now that I knew what could happen, I could prevent catastrophe, but that was yet another lie. Law enforcement came into my life in a big way and by 2002, I found myself looking out that little window longing to be part of that world, wishing I could have followed the script that would get me there.

 

I finally got into residential treatment in March of 2003 and stayed for six months. I gained a lot of clarity, participated in 12-step recovery, tried to work with the “god” thing – something that took a lot of work, because there is no old man with a beard living in the sky in my world. But there was a path around it. In the fall of 2003 I returned to school and thrived like never before. The success I had there was a two-edged sword, however. It bred an arrogance that would soon be dealt with at the end of 2003 with a relapse, a probation violation in 2004 and a return to WBCF on August 6th, 2004. Since that day, I have not found it necessary to use any drugs or alcohol. I have found that following that script is working for me.

 

But it wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t just the drugs. I had to swallow years and years of pride, a world-view that had me at its center without a concern about how my actions affect others. I had to take all of that back – in a very real, personal and direct way. Do I follow all of the rules? That’s not a simple question. There are rules and then there are rules. Some conventions I do not follow – but they do not affect others. My tattoos, my long hair do not. That really is your problem, not mine. My motorcycles? That’s a much tougher question. If I were to be seriously injured or killed on my bike, that would absolutely affect those I care about – those who love me. But that is a little different, the same can be said for simply walking out my front door – it is a dangerous world. Drugs, at least those that defy “recreational use,” have no redeeming features – they lead to destruction, despair, dereliction and, often, death. The script I have followed for the past 17-plus years absolutely, 100 percent prevents all of that. It has a proven track record.


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Script, Pt. 1

Just to be able to remember “what it was like 21 years ago,” we must be considerably older than 21 years of age. My first memories are from the age of maybe four or five – perhaps a little younger, but they are so sketchy that I hesitate to qualify them as full-fledged “memories.” Those are more ephemeral, ghostlike, perhaps dreamlike images that I cannot really contextualize. But from the age of about five, they become much more concrete. That means I had to be at least 26 before I could say things like, “Twenty-one years ago, we didn’t have…” However, I can remember what life was like when I was 26, and I wasn’t thinking about shit like that. I wasn’t really thinking much at all.  

 

Twenty-one years, in the context of a human life, is a long time. It is almost one third of the average human life expectancy, worldwide. It was, and still is for certain things, the arbitrary number of years it takes for a child to reach “adulthood.” For many species, 21 years is more than enough time to come into existence, live, procreate and die without a trace. When looking at recent technological advancements, the past 21 years has been nothing short of amazing, although 500 years ago, a 21 years span might have looked no different at either end. Still, for people, generally, 21 years is a good long time.

 

 

And that went on for many years. I did some things. I had some success. I had a family, a home, a white picket fence and a mini-van… a wife and a career. But all of it, in retrospect, felt like I was living by someone else’s script and all the while I was “ad-libbing.” What did the ad-libbing look like? It was the epitome of not thinking. Following the “establishment script,” the rules, the norms, the conventions, the “way we are supposed to live life,” would have served me well and kept me out of trouble, but for some reason I just could not keep on that track (I have some ideas why now, but at the time I had no clue). The “left turns” were minor in terms of adding, for lack of better words, excitement, entertainment or recreation to my life – through chemistry - and the related larger “left turns” that manifested in major life changes. The minor, over time, often led to the major because there is no such thing as recreational substance abuse, better known as addiction. 

 

At 26 years old, I was still largely a responsible(ish) young adult with a promising future ahead. All I needed to do was follow the script that remained ahead of me. While I did need some cooperation (the dissolution of my short-lived marriage was not in the script and, while my wife and I going off-script contributed, there is a divorced, single father responsible adult script left), it was still in my hands, if I could do it. I could not, and playing the victim was particularly helpful in my justification to take my character into new and uncharted waters. The twelve years between my 26th and 38th birthday, in retrospect, was not a long time, but so much happened. The successes were still there, but they were fewer, farther between and shorter. And the trouble mounted, slowly at first, but it grew by orders of magnitude. I finally got a handle on all of it in 2003 and again, for good, in 2004, buy by then a lot of damage was already done.

 

Twenty-one years ago today, my life was chaotic, and my two youngest sons were along for the ride. They might have said that they were living a good life (they have said so before), but they were not aware of everything going on and, despite living in what many refer to as “paradise” in the mountains, there was plenty of trouble in paradise. In just four days, all hell would break loose. 

 

We were all, of course, blissfully oblivious to what was on the horizon, but it was all part of the script I was living – it was not a preordained conclusion, but is was certainly in the cards. On October 17th, 2000 – not quite 21 years ago, everything would change. For me and my family, it was the beginning of the end – not quite the end yet, that was still coming, but it was the beginning. The beginning of the beginning would not come until 2002, but the actually new life I enjoy today took another two years to come to pass. Ironically enough, I am following my heart and following the rules, conventions and norms of civilized society – the script I fought against so hard for so long.

 

To be continued…

Friday, September 17, 2021

Of Lights and Tunnels

About 17 years ago, I was in between the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility (Nevada County Jail) serving 40 days of a 60 day sentence for a probation violation and the Calaveras County Jail for a 90 sentence on the charge that got me violated in Nevada County. I was coming off a six or seven months relapse after being clean (or sober, depending on one’s brand of recovery) for a little more than nine months after all the original trouble that got me on probation in the first place. Another violation would send me to state prison. I was again clean/sober — both by force because I was in jail and by choice because I didn’t want to go to prison, but I wasn’t happy about any of it. Those were not good days.

At the end of 2003, at about nine months of staying out of trouble, of staying straight, of “doing recovery,” I thought I had it going on. In some respects, I did. I went back to school and attained the kind of success that far surpassed anything I ever experienced academically prior. I regained the trust of my family. I felt better — physically and mentally — I had a clarity I could not remember ever feeling. But I also felt a power over myself, my own wants and desires that was wholly unfounded. I felt “in control” of much that I was not and, I believe, will never be in control of. I felt that I could use drugs, and the drug alcohol (although, for me it was primarily other drugs), “recreationally.” That turned out to be absolutely false, but I not only didn’t know it, I didn’t even consider it — I probably didn’t want to know it.

I also wanted it all — all that stuff, not just the material stuff, but the status and the stature, the standing and the prominence, and, of course, I wanted the material things, too. I wanted what I saw others had, but I didn’t want to wait for it. It’s important to understand that these concrete thoughts were not bouncing around in my head, I was not saying these things to myself, but in retrospect, the thing the drugs always gave me — instant gratification — was still driving me. I wanted it all and I wanted it now.

That week in between jails was difficult. I had 40 days clean and all the motivation in the world to stay clean, but despite that, I wanted an escape. I didn’t “want it all right now,” I just “wanted it all to end.” I was pissed off all the time — nothing, it seemed, was going right. I knew where I could find instant gratification, I knew where I could get instant relief, but I also knew where that would get me. I also knew, by then, with a clear, albeit angry, mind, that instant gratification only lasts for an instant. But I just could not see any light at the end of any tunnel. All I could focus on was staying out of prison and to do that I had to stay clean. But that was not at all easy. Fortunately, I would be locked up again soon before I could make another fateful decision.

The old Calaveras Jail was a miserable place. It has since been replaced with a new, modern facility (so I hear), but at the time it was an ancient, overcrowded hell-hole. However, the fact that it was overcrowded worked to my advantage. Where I would have had to serve 60 days of that 90 day sentence, I was released after only eight days. And eight days was enough. By the time I got home I was still angry (and, to be clear about that, although I had plenty of anger to go around, and many undeserving people got the brunt of it, I was really pissed off at myself), but I had around 60 days clean and a bit of a foothold in recovery once again.

But the light was still nowhere to be found. I saw that others who were doing this recovery thing had found something, and I saw that. Over time, many had achieved big, fulfilling lives. I wanted that, too, but I just could not see it for me. It was just too far away. I just needed to stay out of prison — and that turned out to be challenging enough. There were a couple of days when it was close, but I made it. I finally made my way back to school at the local junior college and, as time went on, things gradually got better. It was somewhere around six months clean that a revelation washed over me — I’ll never forget it. It’s as simple as it is powerful: I realized that I had gone a few days, maybe several, without any anger. It might not seem like a big deal, but being pissed off all the time is fucking exhausting and to realize, in retrospect, that I was free from it for a sustained period of time — and, also, not even knowing, specifically, that was what was draining me until then — was like a wave crashing over me.

Of course it didn’t last, but the anger, over time, continued to diminish and the peace and serenity in my life began to increase. I continued with my education, transferring to California State University, Sacramento where I earned my BA, with honors. I then enrolled in the communication studies MA program at CSUS earning a master’s degree. I then applied to and was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University where I advanced to doctoral candidacy before settling on another master’s degree. During all that time, I stayed clean, stayed “in recovery” and dealt with life as it came — not all good, not all bad. I didn’t always handle every situation perfectly or even “well,” but I also didn’t ever self-destruct over anything, either. The success that eluded me my entire life — the bottom that always fell out eventually — still hasn’t, for 17 years now. And that light? It’s as bright as the sun now.

In the last few years, my focus has been not so much all that “stuff” — both material and status — that I so desperately wanted (or, thought I wanted) all those years ago, but rather, it’s peace. It’s serenity. I know that conflict is part of life, I know that it is unrealistic to think that I can totally avoid it, but I can do quite a lot to mitigate it, to moderate it, to not invite it and, where it comes to my own domain, to show it the door. I have come to a place that probably has to do with not just the years of recovery from addiction — which includes but is not limited to just the complete abstinence from all mind and mood altering drugs — but also an age where I simply do not feel like wasting my time with bullshit. I will not tolerate drama, I do not do passive-aggressive, if you ask me what I think, be prepared for the truth.

All those years ago, I wanted the things I have now. The money, the nice house, the motorcycles (yes, plural, and I can’t even begin to say how excited I am about the one I’m picking up tomorrow), the ability to not worry about paying my bills and living paycheck to paycheck. I thought that’s all I wanted; I thought that would make me “happy” (a misnomer; what I want is contentedness, satisfaction, peace — happiness is and must be fleeting). It turns out that those things are a result of all else. I enjoy the “things,” I like my stuff, but that stuff absent the intangible peace and peace of mind it took, literally, all those years to attain, would be meaningless. I know, because I’ve had “stuff” before and it never gave me what I really sought. But, I never really knew what I was looking for. It took 17 years to get here, there is no way I could have seen that 17 years ago.

#peace


 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Unconditionally

I usually have some “big” thoughts on my annual ride to Sturgis. This year, my eighth consecutive pilgrimage to the Mecca of all the motorcycle things (my seventh consecutive actual ride there) is no different, but I have not dwelt on it much nor does it have to do much with the adventure itself. It was, like all the previous seven excursions, not a “vacation” as commonly defined, even though for vast numbers of attendees it is that, it was once again about the journey. It is a three part deal — the getting there, the being there and the getting back, each full of trials, tribulations and triumphs — challenges to be met and overcome, expecting the unexpected and dealing with it all. Along the way, there is a complete immersion in the experience one can only gain from being in close contact with and in some control of the actual travel on two wheels, completely exposed to the elements, the atmosphere and in being an integral part of all of it. That all happened this year, but I’m not going to go into any detail about it. It was different this year, but the overall theme is the same — and that theme is that the experience is never the same.

The difference this year, for me, had nothing to do with Sturgis. It had to do with love, unconditional love. People put conditions on everything. There is always an unspoken agreement, always lines that cannot be crossed. Often they are not known until they are crossed, but they are, for lack of a better word, “conditions.” Even the most noble among us, the most saintly, have our limits. While “love” might always exist, the nature of relationships amongst humans is complicated and they can be altered, sometimes irrevocably. The same is not true of “man’s best friend,” our canine companions, dogs. I suppose there are those who would say the same of other pets, but I have not found this quality of complete, unadulterated, unconditional, reciprocal love more pure than between a human and his or her dog.

I have had a few dogs in my life, a few who have claimed me as their human. Most recently, Bella, an 11 and a half year old chocolate lab who was my son’s dog for the first half of her life, came into my home in her later years and claimed me as her own. She was my everything, but passed way too soon from cancer last March. Her loss devastated me like none before or since; it caught me off guard. I am not made of stone, but I tend to be somewhat philosophical about such things — life and death — I do not “not” feel it, but I tend to be rather emotionally stoic. Not so with Bella. Her loss has weighed heavily on me since she left — it still does.

I knew I would be getting another dog eventually, but I wasn’t sure when. I planned to be out riding my motorcycle most of the summer, including my ride to Sturgis. That did not come to pass. Although I did take one other shorter ride earlier in the summer, I was home most of the summer. However, I was not ready and I wanted to be home when I brought a new dog into my home, and I knew I’d be gone the two weeks for my Sturgis ride. I figured I’d begin my quest when I returned. But the planets aligned, my friends had a litter of golden retrievers in June and, as fate would have it, one of them would become mine. He picked me before he was fully weaned and I know who would be coming home with me when I returned. I thought about him every day I was gone.


The ride home from Sturgis was actually one of the best. I rode with three others, two of whom were new to the entire experience. Most of the route was old hat for me, but the roads were iconic and ones I was glad to ride again (still am). There was even a stretch of new stuff that proved to be absolutely magic (ironically, the name of a dog I had years ago). But as good as all that was, I could not wait to get home. I’ve been home for four days now and the unconditional love I missed from Bella is back in my life. It is not Bella, Möbius did not and cannot replace her, but he has filled a void that she left, and I know she is smiling down upon us. Because she loved me, unconditionally. Always.

 

Friday, July 23, 2021

Fake Sincerity

 

Six day ago, I posted a quote from ski film maker/documentarian Warren Miller to my “timeline” on Facebook.  It was, in true Miller fashion, clever, sarcastic and said more about a lot of shit than a paragraph or more ever could. Two days before that, I posted a screenshot of my last text message and a memory of my last conversation with one of my closest friends – ever – Art Werstler. It was one year ago, but he did not pass until September, however, COVID incapacitated him to the point that he was unable to communicated much, and then, only at the end, with his family. I also added on some thoughts regarding the medium I referred to as “Fakebook,” a much more fitting name for this platform that makes distortions of reality so common it appears normal – that distorted reality actually is reality.
 
Since posting that Warren Miller quote (don’t worry, I didn’t forget – I’ll get to it), I have not interacted with Fakebook via my own timeline/profile/page/whatever except to post links to stuff I’ve published elsewhere – stuff like this – usually to my spot in the online magazine, The Medium. But it could also come from my personal blog and I could, in the future, post other creative works using other media, such as video, as well. The key distinction is that nothing is being produced for Fakebook (the Miller quote was, despite it being properly attributed and clearly not my words, it was placed on my timeline – only). Although I have interacted with the few commenters from those two posts, I am still on the fence about whether I will continue to do so. At the moment, there are very few; this is no surprise considering the average Fakebook user’s attention span is less than a paragraph, never mind five or more woven together in a well-spun tapestry. However, I’d prefer that those “conversations” occur in the areas provided in the original publications.
 
That quote? I posted it because I found it smart, clever, witty, and everything I said about it above. I figured my Facebook “friends” would see it and find the same in it that I did. And for some, I knew it would have a time-delayed element, that it would hit them a second, a few seconds or even moments later. And, the truth? I wanted that to be a reflection on me. I post the smart shit, I make those bold statements on society and the particular topic of this quote – sincerity – is one I’ve spoken about many times before. Posting the quote from an icon of the stature of Warren Miller validates me and my position on it. That quote is, “The secret to being a good [ski] instructor is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made” (Miller, 1982). The paradox of faking sincerity is, of course, what sends this quote into the stratosphere, but it begs the question: Why did I feel compelled to post it, especially after I “swore off” Fakebook?
 
It’s a good question and one that I didn’t really consider until recently. As it turns out, in light of the conflicts I was having with Fakebook, the post felt rather empty. It became a microcosm of so much of what I would put out into the Fakebook “environsphere.” It was almost, but not exactly, a passive-aggressive declaration of who-I-am. And while it is certainly true that I am partly about what that quote denotes, at least as far as I perceive it, there is so much more to me than that. I realize that I could be over-analyzing myself (not that I ever do that…), but the mindlessness of the things we place into the world simply because we can, sans any kind of reflection as to why, could be a big part of what makes Fakebook fake.
 
The two things that have appeared on my timeline since are like this – much more detailed, explorative, nuanced and rich. They require more than two seconds to consume and will only be consumed by those who are truly interested. They are not “drive-by” posts on someone’s news feed and, when they do generate comments, those comments are typically not of the drive-by variety, either. For those who want to come to my “home” on Facebook to see what I am up to, they will no longer find the Reader’s Digest version of me, but, rather, if interested enough, they will find some reading to do. If you want to know who-I-am, it will require the commitment to find out. Unfortunately, the quickie Fakebook post standard has been pretty well established, I do not expect many to make the effort. But that is not my concern – my concern is authenticity. And… sincerity, not faking it.
 
I have not completely extracted myself from other aspects of the Fakebook ecosphere. I still read other’s posts, I still comment from time-to-time, I still administer a couple of interest groups and participate in several others and I still own my page, ShirtPocket Productions (and its version on Instagram - @shirtpocket_productions and YouTube - ShirtPocket Productions). All of those things have some value to me, but not in the creation or maintenance of some online or real persona – a distinction that Facebook has blurred to be almost one and the same. Perhaps, through my alter-ego plural first-person “good folks” at ShirtPocket Productions, I do speak in an institutional, almost Warren Miller-esque voice. As “the good folks,” I do play around with persona alteration, however, I am clear that they and I are all me and that “we” are about getting out into the world and doing things – or, as the good folks at SPP say, “Go out and do shit!”
 
Since leaving the inane shit off my Fakebook timeline, my writing output immediately increased. It seems I need a creative outlet, but Fakebook was the junk food equivalent substitution for nutritionally balanced meals. I wrote a lot of longer, original posts for Facebook, but, with rare exception, they were short by literary standards, but still long by Fakebook standards a very unhappy medium. This is the third substantive work I’ve written in the last week, an output in frequency the likes of which I haven’t seen since I began using Facebook regularly many years ago. Coincidence? Partly, maybe; I’m sure there are other factors at play, but the evidence that posting stupid, fast (even if they were “important”) things to Facebook seemed to satisfy any desire to do the real work it takes to do this. And this is who-I-am.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

More Than 150 Thousand Miles Later

 

I’m not exactly sure how many lifetime motorcycle miles I’ve ridden. I can make a pretty good guess how many I have rolled up in the past 10+ or so years, however. The miles logged from the time I bought my first bike when I was 18 years-old (a Honda CB 550 – the venerable 550 Four) in 1981, through the 80s and the 90s until I went through my non-motorcycle years up until my first Harley in 2005, I really have no idea. But, I didn’t go on the multi-day, super long distance rides I do now, every year. However, I rode a lot and, depending on the era, every day – I racked up a lot of miles.

 

At this time 11 years ago, my friend, Steve, and I embarked on our first extended motorcycle road trip. It was to span almost two weeks and covered, ultimately, almost 5,000 miles. At the time, I owned a 2007 Harley-Davidson Road King – a “bagger,” and an excellent
choice for such a ride. Steve had an older Harley, but it, too, was well suited for the ride – both bikes are big, burly and formidable machines. The ride began to take shape months earlier – a “bucket list” thing that not just the two of us, but a few of our friends who ride were all going to do. It was originally going to be a guys thing, but after some pressure the guys relented and allowed gals to come, too. The decision turned out to be moot – one by one, everyone dropped out except me and Steve.

 

And we almost did, too. There is strength in numbers and the confidence and security we once felt with a group of five, eight or more was gone when we were faced with the reality that it would be just us two. None of us – any of us – had any experience with that kind of riding. We would be going hundreds of miles every day, several days in a row without a whole lot of planning regarding route or, except for our ultimate destination (Butte, Montana), any of our overnight stops along the way. What if something went wrong? What if we couldn’t handle
it? Those and a hundred other forms of fear almost stopped us dead in our tracks.

 


But we decided to go anyway and we did so because we both had sons deployed in Afghanistan at the time. If we could not muster the courage needed to take a fucking motorcycle ride, how could we even face them? Seriously. And that really was the tipping point – so we rode. And it was magic. There were times we had to adapt and overcome; there were times when luck smiled upon us and it was not always glamorous, easy or like we imagined. Indeed, it was way more than all that. And it was worth every inch of every mile.

 

Since then, I have ridden either that motorcycle or one of its successors a total of more (much more) than 150,000 miles through most of the western and gulf states and two Canadian provinces. I have ridden in temperatures as high as 120 degrees and as low as the 30s, in rain, hail, sleet and even a little snow. I have ridden at altitudes above 10,000 feet and lower than 200 feet below sea level. I have ridden solo (a lot), with one or two others and, more recently, a few others. Soon, it will be eight others on a five state ride from Sacramento, CA to Sturgis, SD – maybe that ride, like it didn’t happen all those years ago. All of it started 11 years ago – in fact, at this very moment 11 years ago, Steve and I were riding along the base of the Sawtooth Mountains on our way to Jackson Hole, WY.

 

I have been known to show some disdain for sharing “vacation pics” just for the sake of showing them. It reminds me of the days when, upon being invited to someone’s house for dinner, the “after dinner activity” involves the host breaking out the slide projector and sharing his or her recent family vacation photos to Wally World. Yawn. I will quite often not even stop to take that breathtaking shot, instead committing it to memory, sharing it with myself, at will, when I please. However, when I do shoot ride video and photos – and I do, with some degree of passion – I will often include my mantra. It is my go-to for my life and what I hope my adventures inspire in others: Go out and do shit! Go get your own pictures; go see this shit with your own eyes; go ride the miles to that faraway place and experience the entire scene, not vicariously through my words and pictures (or anyone else’s)... make your own. It doesn’t have to be a motorcycle, but it can’t be through a fucking screen. Go out and do shit.

 

Eleven years ago, I went out and did some shit. I haven’t looked back since.




Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Facebook Zombies

This is the beginning. Actually, this is the documented beginning, the real beginning began, probably, when this whole social media morass did. The end began when it started. But, for all intents and purposes, as a practical matter, this is the start of a process in which I extract myself from social media, specifically from Fakebook (yes, I know that is a denigration of our social media lord, but it is a much more accurate name). I am not deleting or deactivating my account (I have deactivated a handful of times in the past, for as long as a few weeks) because I have, unfortunately, a couple of commitments that are inextricably tied to the platform. However, those commitments do not require any involvement from me personally on my personal timeline (page, profile, whatever the fuck they are calling it at the moment). It is not as easy as it appears or (and this bothers me), as easy as it should be.

 

bulentgultek / Getty / The Atlantic
Okay, here we go. Introduction written, it’s good, it should have taken a curious reader to this point. Now what? This is a violation; a peak behind the curtain, a look into the writer’s mind. This paragraph can be where the heavy lifting begins. It’s not always the case, sometimes the words just flow as if they have a will of their own – they seemingly want to exist. These are not those. I’m going to go smoke a cigar, I’ll be back. This is important, but I have not yet assembled all the words…

 

It’s been a couple of days, a few cups of coffee and at least a couple of cigars. In those days I have not added to my Facebook profile, have not added to my “timeline,” and where I have interacted, it has been mostly in respect to specific groups I am either a member of or the administrator of. I have also “allowed” my Facebook page, “ShirtPocket Productions,” to be cross-posted by posts made from my “ShirtPocket Productions” Instagram account. I realize that that sounds like a fairly intricate level of involvement, but in reality – and especially compared to maintaining a personal presence via my own timeline, it is not – not even close.

 

Unfortunately, one of the things I actually do like about Facebook – something I’ve written about before – will eventually be bookended. In fact, if I stay committed, it already has. The history feature, “Memories,” will no longer be replenished with new memories for future recall. True, there are 10 or 11 years of solid entries to view, but if I stay the course, that ease of recall via Facebook timeline entries will be lost because there will be no new Facebook timeline entries. Save this. This will be published to my personal blog (michaelalthouse.com) and to The Medium, and I will link one or both to my Facebook timeline. That, however, is simply promotional. I post those to Twitter and LinkedIn as well.

 

Why? Nothing much new, just new iterations of the same old shit. I have hundreds of examples of how the reality is not what Facebook portrays it and of how reality is absolutely affected by what Facebook portrays. Not reality in how water is made up of two hydrogen and one oxygen atom, but the reality of how people relate to one another – a reality that is no less “real,” but unlike molecular reality, one that Facebook has an inappropriate and disproportionate ability to alter. Even knowing that is often - too often - not enough to combat what Fakebook has constructed.

 

The age of information has also turned essentially every little nuance of daily life into some kind of data, each minute division of everyone’s daily life is another thing which can then be known as yet another bit of information, as though all of that information is somehow valuable. Its existence, its mere passing though time, does not demand documentation and the fact that some informational bit is documented does not mean that it must be examined, reviewed, studied, saved or even known. Too much of what goes on in people's individual lives that, prior to the “age of information” simply existed and evaporated as it passed through liminal space, now finds its way into permanent storage, often altered – intentionally or not - from what actually transpired. But forgetting about errors in record-keeping and context, there are things that find their way into the public domain that were not necessarily “meant to be private,” but were private by default, prior to the age of “now we know everything.”

 

I don’t want to know what all my friends think about every little thing that comes to their minds. Sometimes I agree, and we can have a wonderful online slam-fest with a group of like-minded souls, attacking anyone who might enter that arena with an opposing view, like a bunch of sharks at a feeding frenzy. Of course, if I came upon a bunch of friends in said frenzy about a view I opposed – I then become the food. That shit never happens in real life. I also do not need to know if my friends are associating with my not-friends (yes, I have “not-friends”) – it’s none of my business, however, Fakebook not only doesn’t care, it feels it is duty-bound to inform us. And then Facebook serves up, as a main course, the feelings of betrayal that real life would not normally produce.

 

It’s easy to say that Facebook is morally neutral, that it is a tool, like a hammer, neither “bad" nor “good,” that it is up to whoever wields it. While that is technically true, Facebook is more akin to a wrecking ball than a hammer. It is true that a wrecking ball is also a tool, but it is a tool that is used primarily to destroy whereas a hammer can be, but it is equally useful in building. I don’t know where this ends, but it has to end here and now for me. I don’t want to know the things I know, I don’t need to know the things I know, and, despite the fact that the vast majority of it is “public information,” it is none of my business knowing these things. Information is power, and power is intoxication and intoxication of any kind, in my experience, is bad. I see the Fakebook zombies, they don’t even know they've crossed over. If I walk on the edge long enough, I’ll fall in, too.

 

#peace

 

 



Friday, July 09, 2021

One Redeeming Quality Might Be Enough

I maybe should be more appreciative toward Facebook — or whoever developed the idea that Facebook commandeered its “memories” function from (I want to say, “Timehop,” but I’m not sure and don’t care enough to do the research). I’m not being facetious, and this is not a new revelation. I have made this assertion many times before; the “memories” function is among Facebook’s most redeeming qualities. In fact, it might be Facebook’s only redeeming quality. So, I give the platform itself a lot of shit, I criticize the money-people behind it (not the regular day-to-day employees, they are just doing a job) and, generally, think when weighing the pros and cons, the cons break the scale, but that does not mean that this one pro should not be given it’s due — again.

There was a time — before e-everything or Apple’s betterized i-everything, before this informational epoch — the “age of information” — was upon us, that our personal histories were recorded differently. Just before the computer revolution took hold, an age that I, like other Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers are very familiar with, we appeared to rely more on the oral, tribal tradition. I can’t say with certainly for most other families, but the general feeling I get is that we did not write a whole lot of our familial histories down — we passed it down verbally. While there are a few analog photographs that date back (if we are lucky) 150 years, at most, for most of us, the only printed records of us are kept by record-keeping agencies. There is no story told, at least not in a story-telling way.

However, there were some who did more than just remember and talk. There were some who did keep written records in the form of diaries and journals. And some are/were meticulous. Mine were not, and while they, I believe, are “around somewhere,” I have no idea where and even if I could find them, the records I wrote were a very brief window in time. Some people, however, wrote with much more detail — with names, dates and places. They are rich and robust. And, we, as a society, have greatly benefited from those personal histories — to fill in gaps, to add humanity, to lend insight and in thousands of other ways the original authors could never have known.

Much has been lost and even that which survives is not so easily accessible. It cannot be searched, indexed, organized, sorted, etc. like the digital versions Facebook’s archives (and IG, and Twitter, and all else) can be. Furthermore, there are not just a few dedicated souls documenting their lives — many on a daily basis — for posterity. Y’all are journaling, y’all are writing in your diaries and you’re doing it with the kind of precision that will make it extremely valuable 100, 200, 500 years from now. It doesn’t have to be a 700-word or more essay like this — most aren’t and most won’t read even this far (and someone will comment about how this is too long). But because of Facebook and, in a similar fashion, all other social media platforms, we are all now writing not only our own familial, personal histories for the benefit of our offspring, but society will benefit from it, too.

I was inspired to write this today by my own Facebook history, what they used to call “on this day,” what is now simply, “memories.” I opened my Facebook account in May 2006, but I didn’t get active on it until about two years later. Today, July 9th, my Facebook “memories” date back to 2009. Apparently, this general time of year has been something of a personal roller-coaster — as recently as two years ago. However, even that particular undulation was not as pronounced as some in the past have been. The peaks and valleys are, according to the historical record, smoothing out. I have some memories of tumult that precede Facebook — plenty — and some took place during this time of the year, too, but the precision that e-everything gives me is lacking. I cannot see any patterns or trending like I can in the past decade or so. That additional information, that context, is valuable, and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Facebook’s role in it.

Is it worth it? Is Facebook’s one redeeming quality worth all the bullshit that comes with it? Short answer: No. Longer answer: Still no, but with a caveat. In time, the cons, the vastness of the deceit and the lies and the divisiveness that is also part if this historical record will also be preserved. Maybe, just maybe, we will survive all this division, rise above it and that history will be the history we learn from. Because if we don’t, we are surely doomed to repeat it.

 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

You Know What I Mean?

There is a consensus that the level of overall skill in terms of grammar, spelling and written composition, generally, is not what it once was. That might not be entirely true. It might be that, with the advent of easy publication of written texts, the level of skill (or lack thereof) is simply more visible now. I’d say it is part both; there is a decrease in skill and that there is more visibility — and technology is to blame for both. I am on the record that “I don’t like it,” but that’s hardly unique. Even those who are guilty of egregious liberties with written English will lament about how lax attention to proper grammar has become — in the same paragraph “then” is used where “than” should have been.

I accepted long ago that there is a different and lower standard for social media. The argument, “you know what I meant,” is valid, as is the one that claims this is part of the evolutionary nature of language. There are, however, caveats to both arguments. In the first case, we are basically speaking about function and form. For some things, function and form are inextricably linked. Language is not purely one of them, however, for it, function and form cannot be mutually exclusive, either. And, for all things, form — beauty — is important. And it is important in terms of communication, even if the form itself doesn’t actually discursively speak. Don’t believe it? Ask Edsel Ford how form and function are related.

Ironically enough, there are some exceedingly talented, artistic, creative people in the world who know exactly how important form is, but will demonize it when it comes to the art in writing. Who better to understand the importance of form, of beauty, and what that means to a thing’s underlying function? Further, these same people should be the most understanding when it comes to the exactitude of publishing (or otherwise publicizing) their work — their art — if it does not reflect their standards. But when it comes to certain art, apparently, only function is important — “you knew what I meant.” Okay, but not when applied to me and my writing. Form, to me, is at least as important, maybe more important.

From time to time I am accused of being the Facebook “grammar police.” When that happens, my challenge is pretty standard — “show me when I have done that.” They can’t, but I have done it, on rare occasion. I will slam someone for grammar only when it’s some troll slamming me or someone else for being stupid, uneducated, otherwise “dumb,” or (my personal favorite) using bad grammar when incorrectly correcting me or someone else. That’s it. However, because I am careful about the words I put out into the public forum, because I care about form and (I hope) because I am successful in producing some beauty in that form, some assumption follows that I am “judging” everyone else.

No, with the exceptions I already enumerated, I am not. But I do assume others are judging me based on everything I present — my words, my image, my everything. I am careful that I present authenticity, and that authenticity includes attention to detail in my craft — just like a musician, or a painter, or a custom car builder, or any other crafts-person or artist would. Do I cringe when I see certain uses of the language in certain places (i.e., social media)? Yes. Do I say anything? No. Do I feel compelled to? That’s a better question and the answer is that I used to want to “help” everyone be better writers. I still didn’t, wholesale, do anything — that was and is much too overwhelming a task, but that was my desire — to help. I figured everyone would want that, too. That was a long time ago. I no longer think that and I am no longer compelled to help (unsolicited, of course I’ll help under some circumstances).

Because… I do not want or need anyone’s help becoming a better musician, painter, etc., either. I’m cool. If I did need those skills, I would certainly: a) know it, and: b) find the help I need. I expect if someone needed to be a better writer, he or she would know it and get the help needed to become one. The other two reasons are much simpler. First, language evolves and this is part of the process — not all or even most of the current “new conventions” will stick, but some will and the generations behind me have as much right to fuck around with our language as we did. Second… 99 percent of the time, I know what you meant.

 

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Common Denominator

In the fall of 2003, I returned to school for the first time in many, many years. My previous attempts at higher education were mixed, but in total, unsuccessful. I had less than two years of college credits accumulated, and they were scattered across several areas - too many were redundant or otherwise did not count toward anything. It was rebuilding my life and nearing my 41st birthday. I was also, for the first time "clean and sober," a story for another time, but a key part of that rebuilding process.

 

My goal was not to complete a bachelor's degree, I was only shooting for an AA degree so that I could start a new career in substance abuse counseling. But really, it was a much shorter-term goal that drove me initially - I was in it for the money. The student loans and grants that I would receive would put the kind of money in my pocket that I had not had since my life came crashing down about three years earlier. However, some time during that first semester, my motivation changed. It changed because I was getting the kind of grades I was never able to earn consistently before. I was good at something good.

The coincidence was not lost on me. My ability to apply myself and do the work necessary, consistently, without the distraction of not only substance abuse, but also the lifestyle that goes with, enabled me to realize the potential I always knew I had. But I never could do it. I knew I could, but I couldn't, no matter how good my intentions, no matter how much I willed it, it didn't matter - the bottom always fell out. Of everything, eventually. That fall in 2003 I had four As and a B - the best GPA in a semester I ever had up until that point. I relapsed during the winter break and went to school that next spring with all those distractions and, while I managed to power through, my grades suffered considerably. I was also arrested again and by the time the fall 2004 semester came, I was in jail for a few weeks. That relapse also ended any hope of becoming a substance abuse counselor.

 

But I was, by necessity of circumstance, clean and sober once again. And the fire of that first successful semester was still smoldering. When I got out some time in September of 2004, I could not go to school right away, and even when I could go back, I did not know what future I had there. However, after talking to a counselor at American River College, we discovered that I was only one semester away from transferring to my local university. One semester of general education courses would earn me a spot as a junior at California State University, Sacramento. My choice of major was hugely influenced by my new appreciation for my old ability to weave words and punctuation, so journalism seemed a natural choice. The dual major of “government-journalism” manifested itself after I got there. My final semester at ARC was even more successful. Still clean and sober (since going to jail on August 6th, 2004 – to this day, no drinks, no drugs), I achieved straight As, and it would not be my last perfect semester.

 

I finished my BA at CSUS in the fall of 2007 and took a semester off writing for a local newspaper before entering the MA program in communication studies there in the fall of 2008. I was awarded my MA in 2012, but in the fall of 2011, I moved to Baton Rouge where I would begin my study in the PhD program at Louisiana State University, also in communication studies. Every semester with the exception on fall 2003 (I was in jail) and spring 2008 (in between my BA and beginning my MA program), I have been a full-time student and taking a full load of classes to fulfill the various requirements to achieve whatever degree I was pursuing at the time. From the fall of 2008 until I left Baton Rouge and LSU at the conclusion of the spring 2015 semester, I was also teaching two undergraduate classes per semester. That is a lot of school for a 40-something turned 50-something “non-traditional” student.

 

It is the longest run of sustained success I have ever built – the bottom still has not fallen out. And that common denominator – clean and sober – is still common. However, that fire did eventually burn out. For a lot of reasons, all of them important in their own right, I only advanced to PhD candidacy – I never wrote a dissertation and never won the big prize, I never earned the right to place “Dr.” in front of my name. I did earn another MA at LSU, however, and those two master’s degrees, along with the PhD coursework I did complete has secured me a place as a lecturer (adjunct professor, part-time faculty, non-tenured faculty… we have many names) at my first alma mater, CSUS, where I continue to work today.

 

But it was this day, seven years ago, that I sat in my last classroom as a student. I would still be another year at LSU as a student, but my coursework was complete. I had my comprehensive exams to take and that little dissertation thing to write – and, of course, I was still teaching. But today, seven years ago, was the last time I sat in a classroom on the front side of the podium. I don’t remember what class it was or who the professor was, and although I know it made enough of an impact on me at the time to make note of it, I don’t know that I could have really appreciated the magnitude at the time. Not just that – all of it. All that has happened in all those years – and there is so much more than just this.

 

And that common denominator… seems to be something there.