Unreal Unity

Thoughts about a healthier and more attainable concept of “unity” and how to move forward

Seeing Amanda Gorman reading her brilliant poem at Joe Biden’s inauguration was a stark reminder that nobody needs to hear my clumsy words.1But of course, I’m about to drop over 1500 of those clumsy words on you anyway, because that’s who I am. And it was a reassuring reminder that with a government composed of decent, competent people for a change, I don’t have to have an opinion about everything. “How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?” “If we merge mercy with might, and might with light, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright.” “…being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”

I’ve watched it three times so far, and I still haven’t watched President Biden’s inaugural speech. I’m hoping he at least remembered to mention “American carnage.” The truth is that I don’t really need to see any of the stirring symbolism of the day, because I was moved almost to tears just reading a list of President Biden’s day 1 executive orders, a tangible sign that his administration is going to be working to repair the damage of the last four years.

Honestly, every image coming from the inauguration — which I could only catch briefly while I was trying to get some work done again, after days of unproductive anxiety — was cause for an upswell of emotion and relief. There was such a diversity of speakers, a selection of people from all around the US to contribute to pre-recorded videos, an abundance of LGBT representation, all topped off with a professionally-run press conference that was intelligent, competent, and — imagine! — respectful.

I’ve already seen comments that American politics has become refreshingly boring again. And I get it, but I’ve been excited to see such an earnest display of kindness, decency, and integrity. It’s a relief not just from the spectacular combination of corruption and incompetence of a fear-and-hatred-fueled administration, but of well over a decade of creeping cynicism that preceded it.

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New Decade’s Resolutions

Starting a plan for a Better Chuck By 2031

As lousy as 2020 was, I’ve been very fortunate in that I was minimally affected by the pandemic and the stay-at-home order(s). Apart from having to spend the holidays apart from my family for the first time in my life, the rest has actually been a much-appreciated chance to reset. Since I’ve been forced out of my daily routine, I’ve also been forced to think about what I actually want to be doing.

I don’t really believe in yearly resolutions, but as the start of a new decade, it seems like a good opportunity to set an overall course for myself. Over the last seven years — measured from the end of my last contract as a freelancer — have resulted in me becoming more insular, anxious, forgoing social engagement with the online substitute, and devoting most of my time to the familiar. A new decade seems like a good opportunity to make a change.

So here’s a list of things I’m hoping to do at some point during the upcoming decade:

Visit Edinburgh for Hogmanay

I hadn’t heard of Hogmanay before seeing these videos of drone presentations around Edinburgh.1Technically, around the Highlands and then superimposed on footage of Edinburgh, but it’s still a good effect. Scottish YouTuber Shaun has a video talking about the various celebrations that take place around the city in non-pandemic years, and while looking at huge crowds of celebrants in Times Square or Bourbon Street always make me think Never in a million years would I want to be in the middle of that, seeing it in Edinburgh actually seems like a lot of fun.

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More to See Than Can Ever Be Seen

Breaking away from toxic social media by actively choosing to make better use of your time

Stay home this holiday season, or you could find yourself on a flight like this.

Yesterday I woke up with “Circle of Life” from The Lion King going through my head. In particular, the part of the first verse, that goes: “There’s more to see that can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.”

What stood out to me was the irony of it: it’s ostensibly a celebration of the infinite potential of adventure and discovery, but I’ve never heard it as such, because I’ve heard it so many hundreds of times that it’s become background music. Usually, background music during a trip to a Disney park I’ve already seen dozens if not hundreds of times.

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Weekend in Big Sur

Our long weekend in Big Sur for our anniversary, plus an accidental iPhone 12 review

Even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, we don’t take enough advantage of the fact that we live in the most beautiful state in the country. I’ve been living in California for over 20 years, and I’ve still never been to Yosemite; cabins, hotels, and campsites are booked up so far in advance that it’s always easier just to go to Disneyland. A couple of months ago, we drove out to Muir Woods in Marin County for a few hours, and I’d forgotten what it was like to be outside and surrounded by trees that weren’t placed there by a level designer.

So for the tenth anniversary of our first date, my fiance and I decided to escape the house with the safest vacation we could think of: driving south to Big Sur for a couple of nights in a secluded hotel, then down to Paso Robles to see a big outdoor art installation.

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Good Bones

Thoughts on pledging to be better, and giving up on the idea that people are basically good, which was kind of a lousy idea anyway.

There’s been an excellent poem going around the internet over the past week: it’s called Good Bones. It was written by Maggie Smith as a response to the disillusionment and despair many of us felt in 2016. It’s really wonderful, easily my favorite poem containing the phrase “a real shithole.”

I can imagine how it would’ve resonated if I’d seen it in 2016 — an acknowledgement that the world can be a hateful place, but with a faint glimmer of indefatigable hope still left at the end. Now in November of 2020, its tone has shifted. Of course we know that “the world is at least fifty percent terrible,” because we’ve been reminded of it multiple times a day, ceaselessly. The end no longer feels like a faint glimmer but a determined resolve to make it beautiful wherever and however we can.

I’m not just writing about it to unnecessarily over-explain it, though: I just wanted to add a personal note to say I’m grateful for it, not just for bringing a bit of light to the despair of the past week, but for reminding me just how hard my parents and brother worked to shield me from that 50% Terrible for as long as they could. I think they did a pretty amazing job, considering that I almost made it to 50 years old before I finally gave up on the idea that people are basically good.

I don’t think it’s naive to believe that; I just think it’s the product of being blessed enough to live most of your life surrounded by good and kind people. And I don’t believe it’s sad or cynical to abandon the idea, either. If you cling to the belief that people are basically good, then you’re unintentionally undermining all of the hard work that good people do every day. It’s much more inspiring to realize that people are basically neutral, so the heroes that manage to radiate kindness and hope aren’t just staying true to their natures, but are putting in the effort to make things better.

It’s aspirational. I’m feeling exhausted from having to hold onto so much anger, suspicion, and resentment all the time. I’d rather work on repaying all the kindnesses and generosity that people have shown me over the years. This has been such a tough year, and some of the things we’ve all lost and that I’ve lost are gone forever. But instead of concentrating on what’s lost, I’d rather try and help make this place beautiful.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Duolingo

I’ve been slowly catching on to the fact that this is an entirely different kind of language learning. Altogether.

Can you guess the answer, boys and girls at home?

Last month, I started using Duolingo again. I expected that I’d be very interested for a week or two, and then drop off to never using it, just like I’ve done the past five or six times I’ve tried to use Duolingo.

But this time, it’s stuck. At least, if my 39-day “streak” is to believed.1It’s not. I cheated with a “streak freeze” on multiple days when the stress of election + pandemic + life in general were too much for me to care about learning Japanese.

The difference this time is that a few days into using the app, I got to the point where it started frustrating the hell out of me. I’m using it to learn Japanese, and the first several sections were mostly just a review of stuff I already knew. It was useful as a refresher, since it’s been years since I’ve taken any classes, but it wasn’t much of a challenge. But then — suddenly — it started showing me words and kanji that I’d never seen before. I started failing out of sections, having to “buy” more hearts, or shut the app down until the next day.

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Quit ’em if you smoke ’em!

Relapse all you want, brain. I’ll just quit again. I could do this all day.

2020 has been the worst year of my life. As it has been for millions of people. That’s one of the relentlessly awful things about the year: it won’t even let me be uniquely miserable. Oh, you think you’re sad? Get in line, buddy.

So after three or four years without smoking,1Without Instagram as a daily diary, I don’t know exactly how long ago anything was anymore. I’ve had a few relapses. A long one at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, when things were the worst. A one-pack bump in the road back when this year’s California wildfires first blew smoke into the East Bay. And now I’m in the middle of another relapse, again triggered by the wildfires that turned the skies in the Bay Area post-apocalyptic.

I don’t mention the wildfires because we were directly affected by them; we’re fortunate in that we’re completely safe. And obviously, I’d never equate a few days of reduced air quality to what people are going through after losing their homes or worse. But perversely, breathing in the smoke seeping through the windows always makes me want a cigarette. That raspy feeling in my throat that never goes away, the weird gurgling in my chest when I wake up with a coughing fit, the thin layer of ash that seems to cover everything and stick to my fingers: ah, I remember this, and I think I… miss it?

For about a week, I’ve been dreaming about smoking. Or more accurately: sometimes dreaming about smoking, and sometimes dreaming about whatever it is I tend to dream about but in which I’m playing the role of a person who smokes. The most alarming was having a standard-issue dream, suddenly noticing that I’d been smoking a cigarette, and thinking what the hell did you do?

I can’t blame everything on the smoke. Election anxiety, and general despair over the state of the country, have been particularly fierce over the past few weeks, and I hit a low point. At least a solid week with insomnia, no energy, no enthusiasm for anything, completely unable to concentrate on anything for more than 5 minutes at a time. Also, we watched an awful anime with a character who smoked a cigar throughout, and the next thing I knew, a switch in my brain had flipped and I was a smoker again.

As somebody who’s over-thought everything his entire life,2Although now that I think of it, is that really fair to say? the thing that never stops being weird is how anti-intellectual it is. I know that it’s gross, I know that I don’t need it. I know that my life is better in every conceivable way without it. I know that it doesn’t actually calm me. I know that it’s worse than a waste of money. I know that I can’t have just one or two; for me, it’s either nothing, or one every hour without fail. I know that it stains my mustache a repulsive shit-yellow-brown color. I know that I feel worse in the morning. I know that I hate the recurring cough. I know that in the middle of a pandemic for a respiratory virus, it’s the stupidest possible time to be doing it.

But even while I’m thinking that, my motor center has driven me to the 7-11 and has me paying for a new pack. It’s like the decision-making part of my brain communicates with the part of my brain that actually does things via automated customer support line. Thank you for your message. We appreciate you and value your input. While we fully intend to go buy cigarettes and start smoking them anyway, we’ll take your concerns under consideration. Please do not reply to the message.

The one positive is that I finally found something that helps me quit. I smoked for over 20 years, and I made several attempts over that time using nicotine patches, Wellbutrin, and my insufficient willpower, with nothing lasting more than three months. But finally, Chantix worked so well for me that I don’t even mind linking to a drug company’s website. No discernible side effects, and no need to quit cold turkey as with the patch. The first time I tried it, I’d heard it described as blocking the receptors that are activated by nicotine, so that you get no pleasure from it. That made me imagine some kind of A Clockwork Orange scenario, in which I’d find them nauseatingly repulsive, but that never really happened. Instead, it simply seems to just shut up the part of my brain that has me out buying cigarettes despite protests from every other part of my brain.

I’m also encouraged because I did manage to quit earlier in the year, after one pack, and with no assistance, and no setbacks. I think that simply knowing that I can quit and that I’ve done it before, for at least three years, helps a lot. 2020 may be a horrible year, but maybe it’s the year I can shed all of the toxic BS dragging me down.

Postcards from Bat2

Photos from a pre-COVID trip to Disneyland in February 2020

At the end of February, we took a short weekend trip to Disneyland, unaware that it’d be our last trip before the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, we spent most of the time inside Galaxy’s Edge. It was our first time riding Rise of the Resistance, and we were able to get a boarding pass two days in a row, which was lucky.

I like the idea of sharing travel photos when we’re all stuck inside and separated. Looking forward to being able to travel again safely.

And yes, I did buy a Han Solo vest specifically to go to Star Wars land at Disneyland. Jealous?

Rapid Face Aging Project X-2000

Witnesses the ravages of two years in under 60 seconds

Something that seems to work much better in social media apps than on blogs: taking a selfie every day and compiling it into a time-lapse video. Which is something I’ve been doing for the past two and a half years, for some reason. These were made with the Close-Up app for iPhone, which only added tools to help keep your face centered in frame late in 2018, apparently.

Some might say that it’s absurdly self-indulgent. Others might say it’s a mildly interesting art project that comments on the ephemeral nature of our existence and the seeming permanence of our attempts to document the mundane moments. Others might say it looks like someone is trying to learn the basics of piecing clips together in Final Cut. Others might just want to see a middle-aged man grow a beard over and over again. For all of you — and more! — here you go.

Read-Only

I don’t know who needs to read this, but after around 15 years I finally have to admit social media was a mistake.

My cat and me in one of my first Instagram posts, circa 2010 CE

Last week I deleted my Instagram account, because it was too important to me.

The thing that set me off was waking up to find Instagram had made yet another change to the app in the name of “user engagement.” I started my usual morning ritual of scrolling through photos — reassurance that the world was still there outside, people were still sharing their lives with me, and I’d be aware of anything going on — before I hit a dead end. Instagram was cutting me off like a surly bartender. I was presented with a link to “Show Older Photos” if I wanted to see my old and busted feed. Here instead were photos and videos from a ton of different suggested accounts that Instagram had determined I would absolutely like, and would absolutely have chosen to follow if only I’d known about them.

It was like the search page, but somehow different, algorithmically, in ways that I couldn’t quite detect, but I’m sure were painstakingly established by neural networks far more advanced than my crude organic ones. Instagram had spent over ten years learning what I like — apparently, Disney parks, bearded gay men, and cute dog and cat videos in roughly equal ratios — and if a project manager somewhere in the Fourth Circle of Facebook (Greed and Social Engagement Analytics) decided that the algorithm was now accurate to within 95% certainty for 90% of Instagram users in the target demographic, who was I to say otherwise?

To a lot of readers, this may seem like a trivial problem with no real-world consequence. That’s because it is a trivial problem with no real-world consequence.

It sure was a drag, though, because Instagram was the last social media platform that I still mostly enjoyed using. It was just nice to have an outlet for minor interactions with friendly strangers, being able to share parts of my boring daily life. But Instagram’s decision to shove suggested posts into my feed was the culmination of around 15 years of tech companies working to develop a new business model: software as betrayal of service. The model disrupts the traditional contract between a business and its customers with a simple four-step process:

  1. Promise a straightforward and inessential-but-still-fun service (e.g,. a platform for sharing snapshots with a group of people of your choosing)
  2. Attract enough users with this service to achieve either an IPO or acquisition by a larger tech company
  3. Profit
  4. Gradually dismantle everything that attracted users to the platform in the first place

I understand that I’m not dropping any particularly earth-shattering truth bombs here. For almost as long as social media has been a thing, people on social media have been complaining about it — corporations are creating a dystopian future and we’re all complicit in it! But those arguments have never been all that persuasive. Telling me “with Facebook, you’re not the customer…you’re the product!” has never resonated with me that much, because it’s been too easy to reduce that to “well, what’s in it for me?” I’ve always been far too boring a person to get that worried about privacy concerns. (Back when I was in the closet, I was filled with anxiety that my interactions online would someday be made public. Now, the thought makes me anxious because it’d just reveal how unimaginative and almost prudish I’ve always been). So the cost/benefit analysis always seemed like it was working in my favor: I get to have a fun and mostly insignificant social outlet, and the only cost to me is seeing frequent ads for hair-coloring and -removal products.

But I think the real cost is more significant, and it’s just subtle enough to take over gradually. A little sacrifice here, a compromise there, but nothing that seems that significant at the time. And then several years later, you look around and realize that instead of having friends, you now look at photos of what the people who used to be your friends are doing. And you’d swear that there was a time it was possible to check in on friends without having to scroll through advertisements. (Even ones that offer portraits that make your cat look like a 19th century naval commander, which is admittedly rad). And I feel like I used to be able to talk to people without having to first clear the room of a dozen artificial women who carry exactly three photos of themselves in their underwear and are eager to listen in and build a connection with me for the purposes of sex and bitcoins.

(It’s weird that Instagram’s machine learning neural networks are so advanced that they can do everything except spot insultingly obvious patterns in computer-generated spam accounts. But maybe I’m just gifted with a preternaturally advanced second sight, considering how good I am at recognizing crosswalks and stoplights for CAPTCHAs. If only I could monetize that skill, I could finally be the sugar daddy these young ladies want me to be).

There’s never been a shortage of crusty old curmudgeons lamenting that our smartphones have made us all detached and isolated. It’s pretty hackneyed. It’s also simple-minded, since it ignores all the people who’ve felt isolated their whole lives and finally have technology that can facilitate connection. Whatever the case, it’s absolutely not limited to smartphones. I can remember being at the Grand Canyon and distracted thinking of captions for the Flickr photos. I remember being out in a bar and thinking of topics of conversation better suited to a message board I read at the time, instead of the people I was with. I’ve spent the first half-hour of movies trying to think of clever names for the blog post I’d write about it afterwards. For a while, my internal monologue was replaced by a portion of my brain trying way way too hard to come up with a clever Twitter-perfect description of what I was doing or thinking. And I’ve found my mind wandering during vacations as I’m mentally selecting which photos I should share on Instagram to best capture the day.

Throughout a lot of that time, the constant in the background was Facebook. Never my platform of choice, but occasionally acting like social media methadone to help me come down from being over-invested somewhere else.

It’s normal to want to share the things you’re experiencing with someone else. And the risk of not being fully in the moment can seem worth it when you look at all the conveniences. I’ve always liked the “asynchronous broadcast” model that social media provides. After over 30 years of being a weirdo, I was just plain tired of the blank stares from people who didn’t understand what I was saying or were just plain uninterested. The idea of being able to just toss out ideas or updates whenever, and only the people who were interested were obligated to respond, seemed like a life-saver. The problem is that over time, it felt less like I was broadcasting and more like I was tossing out messages in bottles, desperate to get some kind of acknowledgement that people can see that I still exist.

That convenience extends to all the reactions. I feel a weird anxiety now, when I’m reading or looking at something on one of the few platforms that doesn’t offer reactions. I find myself wanting to respond to the poster to acknowledge that I saw them. It’s not that I’ve ever been insincere in clicking the Like button on a post, but that the whole mechanism adds another layer of artifice to the increasingly alien and unnatural social interaction. It makes something quick and easy that probably shouldn’t be quick and easy. Maybe I should be taking the time to tell someone directly “I enjoyed this,” or “I’m sorry this happened to you.” If that feels overwhelming, then maybe I shouldn’t be pretending it’s normal to have genuine social relationships with hundreds of people.

All of these are basically manifestations of the same problem: these platforms seem like a convenient substitute when “real” socialization isn’t available, and that feeling of cosmic-level loneliness threatens to creep in. But they demand a level of detachment that some of us just can’t keep up for long. The people who thrive on these platforms are the ones who are most comfortable treating them like a commercial broadcast: promoting themselves or their business, maintaining that same layer of artificiality-disguised-as-warmth that you see in talk show interviews. And that’s not even necessarily fake or insincere; it just means spending the whole time hyper-aware that you’re playing to an audience.

I’ll never be an influencer, and in fact it makes me more than a little nauseated to be living in a world in which people are described as “influencers” with no sense of shame or irony. And none of the selfies, vacation snapshots, or dumb jokes that I’ve shared online could ever be monetized in any way that’d be meaningful to a social media platform. But still I looked at my old Instagram account, and I couldn’t help but feeling like they’d Tom Sawyered me into painting their fence — I was providing them “content,” and I’d agreed to watch ads, do daily fake account screening, and probably provide a few gigabytes of facial recognition data, for the privilege of doing it.

The most ridiculous part is that I never once would’ve considered it “content” until I started seeing accounts I’d been following popping up with occasional sponsored posts and “partnerships” with brands. Is everyone but me an influencer?! I couldn’t tolerate Tik Tok for very long, not just because I’m almost 50, but because they’re even more blatantly commercial and eager to go viral. Seeing so many people begging for tips just felt unsettlingly sleazy, like I’d wandered into a G-rated, teen-filled version of an adult site that only offered dancing and lipsyncing. “Kidz Bop: The Onlyfanz Edition.”

Looking back over 10 years worth of Instagram posts, I realized just how significant it all was to me. Over time, it’d become my daily diary. It covered my entire relationship with my fiance, including our engagement. I found a group of people who helped me be more comfortable being out, more comfortable with my appearance, and just generally more confident. It helped me find a community that never seemed very welcoming in San Francisco. I realized that as far as content goes, it was all but worthless to Facebook, but it was absolutely priceless to me. It felt gross that I’d poured so much of myself into an app that didn’t feel any obligation at all to me.

So I deleted it. I started over from scratch with a new Instagram account that’ll let me keep in contact with the genuinely good people I’ve met through the platform. But I’m going to be careful with what I choose to share on it. Only stuff I’ve made and travel photos from places I’ve been. Nothing I wouldn’t be willing to share on a professional portfolio site. I’ve also deactivated my Facebook account, and it’s felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. It’s just too bad I won’t be able to delete it completely until an anti-trust action divests the VR portion of Facebook’s business from their advertising-and-election-interference division.

A while back, I deleted my 12-year-old Twitter account after getting harassed by a Trump supporter. I had always believed that it’s important to stand up to bullies, but when I tried to report the dude, Twitter directed me to a site that looked like it had been made by someone trying to learn HTML and CSS by copying random examples from stack overflow. It was asking me to upload a photo of my ID and a phone bill proving that it was my real phone number. I looked at the page and thought, “I could do that… or, I could just delete my account and be free of this toxic trash heap of a website forever!” The only thing that surprised me afterwards was how much I didn’t miss it. (For the record: I sent in documents two months ago to have an account closed for a family member who passed away on February, and Twitter still hasn’t even sent an automated response, much less done anything to close the account).

I did make a new read-only Twitter account earlier this year, because people kept insisting on posting screenshots of tweets on other social media platforms. Even though hypermedia was designed to let people verify their sources instead of going off on unsubstantiated self-righteous mobs, and we’ve all seen how easily photos and videos are faked or taken out of context, I guess that’s just what we’re all doing now. And it seemed rude to respond “If I wanted to keep reading this bullshit, I wouldn’t have deleted my Twitter account.” Twitter doesn’t allow searching the site without an account, so here we are. The overwhelming thing I’ve noticed is that it’s gotten so much worse than I left — it no longer even pretends to give a reverse-chronological list of tweets from your friends, but is showing me tweets that the people I follow liked, or just randomly popular tweets from accounts that they follow. Absolutely nobody seems to get any enjoyment out of it anymore, but nobody seems willing to leave. It’s just people promoting themselves and their work, raging at something an idiot politician said online, and complaining about how awful Twitter is. And I can sympathize, because even though it’s hardly ever informative and hardly ever entertaining, I still find myself checking in, just because it offers the potential of something new.

So I’ll see how long I can take the “share less, listen more” mantra to heart. I’ve still got this blog as an outlet for any personal stuff, where at least I own it. I just need to find a way to make it easy to share photos, random thoughts, and stuff that isn’t a long, rambling essay that takes me days to write. Whenever I get the impulse to open an app to just scroll through looking for something new, I’m trying to instead open Kindle to read a book, or a real news app of the sort that Twitter and Facebook derisively calls “Mainstream Media,” or even Comixology if I just want to read something dumb. I doubt it’d be a perceptible difference from the outside, but I think it’d mean a huge difference to me.

One funny(-ish) thing: when I started my new, less-posting-more-lurking Instagram account, it went back to the old behavior of showing me photos from people I followed, instead of cutting me off and filling my feed with suggested posts. I don’t know if that’s a change that they reversed, or if it’s a side effect of using Instagram less often, or if they simply don’t have 10 years worth of data on me to generate suggested posts. But it was at least satisfying to see that “fixing” the problem that set me off in the first place didn’t make me regret my decision at all.

I do remember a time when everything was quieter. Lonelier, sure, and I often felt like I was out of the loop of what was happening. But I also felt like I had more time to make stuff. And the things that made me angry or upset were more often than not things that I had some way of controlling, instead of things seemingly designed to cause me perpetual anxiety and despair. Maybe I’m naive, but I still feel like we can live in the always-connected future that the end of Spaceship Earth promised, without being beholden to shitty companies that seem to profit off our being miserable.