Vices, Things Despised, and Sailboats

Today marks day 13 without coffee.

It also marks 12 hours without Facebook.

One addiction is harder to break than the other.  Care to guess which one?

I’m not going to itemize the signs and symptoms of addiction.  Everyone knows that Facebook is addictive.  It relies on little dopamine hits throughout the day whenever you get or give the instant gratification of “Liking” something.  If you build up enough friends or followers, you could technically have a continuous feed of dopamine throughout the day.  A slow burn.  Maintaining.  Until the short, cheap thrill wears off.  You post comments, thoughts, pictures, and continue leaving the trail of breadcrumbs which is your life for anyone on your vast network of friends to see.

The problem with this is the algorithm that handles all of this information, while at the same time bombarding you with ads for products, television shows, and clickbait for you to also see.  It’s kinda like having a heroin high that is interrupted by commercials.  At some point, the content is brief, if present at all, and your feed is choked with nothing but celebrity posts, ads, and pretty much only a handful of people’s posts.  Probably the same ten people to be honest, and most of what they post will be memes or news articles that they got from other people and are sharing them.

In other words, the algorithm chokes your feed to a trickle.  And recently, my feed has been reduced to only about ten to twenty posts, and then you can no longer scroll to see anything else.

Facebook operates in much the same way working in a call center used to work.  It mirrors the social network there almost exactly.  You might have two hundred people working in the same building, but everyone is separated by these battle-ship grey cubicles.  They put up pictures of their families, their interests and hobbies, and they sometimes get to play their music at a reasonable volume. I used to hate working in a call center.  I used to have a newspaper clipping of the USS Constitution hanging on my cube wall.  It was such a beautiful ship to look at.  I have always wanted to sail on a Tall Ship.  Looking at that picture took me away from that cubicle. Away from the constant drone of voices that were saying nothing pertinent to life.  A hum of conversation where people were talking but saying nothing.  It gave me a goal to get out of that place and out into the world, where the sky is a sharp color of blue until it meets the horizon at the edge of that grey sea.  That picture was the only thing I took with me when I left my call center job.  They had another butt in my chair by the end of the day, answering calls that I would have had to take.

There is a phenomena in cubicle land called “Gophering” which means that occasionally, people will pop their heads up over the wall and see other workers across the tops of the cubes.  They do this when new recruits walk by, or they might want to say something to a “friend” they met in the breakroom during the 15 minute break they were allowed to take twice a day.  Which is exactly enough time to microwave a burrito, or pour a cup of coffee, and consume it.  Other workers break down these fifteen minute chunks into cigarette breaks.  Usually two or three in the morning and two or three in the afternoon.  They use the excuse of “I’m a nicotine addict!” and get a free pass to take shorter, but more frequent breaks.  In a weird twist of irony, smokers are probably healthier, and stay with the job longer because of their social interactions.  Smokers in call centers have friends.  They even have friends they meet socially outside of work that they have met at work!

When you are standing around killing yourself slowly, one puff at a time, you have time to talk and visit and complain and get to know each other.  You would notice too that a lot of the smokers are the ones who gopher the most.  Because they actually care who walks past.

Facebook is like that.  Some of my friends were people I knew from outside of social media.  We talk outside of Facebook.  We hang out at barbecues, call each other on the phone occasionally, or email.  Very few of these friends have I met on Facebook.  Like the cubes in a call center, they want you to be comfortable, but they need you on the phones.  Socializing is not what social media is there for.  It’s an information pump.  It’s work.  You are the worker, the drones in the cubes, the hogs at the trough, and your information, your interaction is what produces the commodity which someone else uses to make a shit ton of money.  And you give this to them willing with your only commodity: Time.

When I say you give them this, I mean We.

Just like any job, you exchange your time and your effort for money.  Only Facebook doesn’t give you money for your time or effort.  What it has given you instead is your support structure, which is pretty damned important to humans.  Without it, we die or go crazy.  Out of a multitude of people, you have a handful of friends.  The people who gopher when you walk by?  That’s them.  That’s all you get.

So when Facebook’s algorithm started going weird on me and I was seeing only a very, very slow trickle of information from what has more or less become my social structure, I could feel it affect my mental state.  I felt isolated.  Alienated.  It kicked up my paranoia too since why weren’t people commenting?  Why wasn’t I being allowed to see what was going on in the world?!  Like an addict whose drug of choice has begun to wain, I wasn’t getting the high like I used to.  I was hitting that refresh button over and over until I could get a hit of instant gratification, social approval, affirmation, sympathy, or just a chuckle from a comment someone had made.  Instagram isn’t my drug of choice because everything is so polished.  There is no dialog.  No conversation, only a daily snapshot of the most perfect slice of someone’s day.  It’s a drug for terminal narcissists.  It’s a designer drug beautiful people in dance clubs take to make everything sharper and make the music feel better.  When everyone is that beautiful and happy and high, you don’t want to come down.  Some people never do.

The other way social media is like a chemical dependence is in the way it is delivered.  Everyone is on it!  Tired of this drug? Try this one instead!  And anyone who has ever tried to kick an addiction knows this much, the best way to avoid the temptation of that drug is to stop hanging out with your enablers.  Well, unfortunately, when you are on Facebook, nearly all of your friends are addicts and enablers.  It’s a lot like a man who is quitting drinking, who realizes that everyone he knows is someone at his favorite bar.  Only with Facebook, just about EVERYONE is at that bar.  They know you might leave for a little bit, but you’ll be back.  The stool will be right there, waiting for you when you return.  And if not you, then another butt will be in that seat, with a person filling that gap.

Getting off social media likely means that I will lose contact with nearly all of those people.  Nobody calls or hardly even texts anymore.  They sure as hell don’t knock on your door and say “Hey!  Whatchoo doing this afternoon?  Let’s go fishing!”  If you leave, you might as well cease to exist.  I can’t say die, because there are dead people on Facebook whose accounts are still active.  Every year on their birthday, it reminds you that they were born, and people post comments on their page.  It’s the post-information era’s answer to putting a stone or a coin on someone’s grave.

What I’m attempting to do is something else.  It’s the equivalent of moving to a shack in the woods, and here on my blog I suppose, is where I peck away at my manifesto.  Letting my beard grow long.  Listening to the birds outside.  Doing the work like a madman.

I plan on writing more.  Working on my fiction, maybe even some more paid blogs.  I was burned by the addiction of Facebook and once the drug began to no longer have the desired effect, I figured it was time to kick.  There are conspiracy theories out there that the CIA distributes hard core drugs to inner city communities to keep minorities down.  I can’t help but wonder sometimes if Social Media isn’t doing the same thing for the diminishing middle class.  I know it’s a major time sink for me.  It has kept me high on my greatest vice, which is procrastination, for years.  It’s a distraction.  A way to avoid real life by losing yourself in the fiction of others.  The bullshit that they push forward that they want you to see.  The concentrated truth and lie of comedy and drama which makes your dopamine receptors get all tingly for.

In short, I suppose I have had what alcoholics refer to as “a moment of clarity.”

It’s time to get out of those grey walls and see what is on the other side of that horizon.  It could be that the world drops off there, and you ride that sailing ship down the eternal waterfall into the Void.  Or, it could be that everything I ever wanted is waiting for me on the other side.

This comes from 12 hours without Facebook.

The realization that I have had from two weeks without coffee is that my breath doesn’t stink and I can save about $3 a day when I avoid it.  I’ve been on tea lately, which is the methadone to coffee’s opioid.  Black tea is named such, because it turns your teeth a nice shade of mahogany after a while.  I’m going to wean myself off that very soon too.

Ironically enough, I will post this entry to Facebook.  Maybe it will be a nice way to say so long to everyone at the bar.  Or maybe it will be a way to invite others to quit their jobs at the call center, to think about what they are getting back in exchange for their time, the photos of their children, their fears and worries and sorrows, all of their world they choose to hang up on the walls of Facebook.  Maybe a few will gopher as I walk out the door with my box of stuff.

And maybe this time, I leave the newspaper clipping of the tall ship on the wall to inspire someone else who needs it.

Call me, message me, email, or drop by for a visit. Or check here for updates on what I’m up to. But don’t look for me on Facebook anymore.

It’s time to kick the habit.  It might be the hardest thing I have ever done.  I’m not even exaggerating.

Do Something Everyday That Scares You

When I first heard this it was on a YouTube clip of a transcript of a graduation speech set to music and video.  Man, those words just resonated with me at the time.  I heard those words on a day when I truly needed to hear them.  Then I went on with my life for a few years, those words left unheeded…until I hit a time in my life when I needed to hear them again.

Not to go off on a rant about divorce, but it is a horrifying experience.  Your whole world is ripped apart, turned upside down, and it is up to you to rebuild everything from scratch.  In my case, everything was an improvement.  Sometimes these sorts of journeys are difficult, but worth the benefits.  In my case, what I left behind was the end of a dark time in my life and what I gained was…salvation.  Right around that time, I listened to this again, and as much of a wreck as I was, it still resonated with me.  As with the song, I divorced at 40.  I thought this was oddly prophetic.  And now, everything scared me.  Only now, there was something I could do about it.  I had already done something which scared the hell out of me, which was to reclaim my life and sanity from an awful experience.

I had to start small.  Scaring myself at this point was doing something little like going out to dinner by myself.  Yes, it sounds cliche.  The recently single person sitting alone at a booth at a restaurant, grazing on corn chips and salsa, chatting with the waitress.  Feeling as though everyone is pitying you for being alone.  You feel alone and yet conspicuous all at once.  You worry what other people think.  Until you don’t.

When I was married, I didn’t get out much.  I certainly didn’t go to parties.  I didn’t get invited to social events.  I never traveled with other couples or even family.  I had been locked in the strange world that is an occluded marriage.  We socialized only with the nuclear family.  Occasionally inlaws. I had let 15 years of my life pass me by.  It would take a couple more years to let the bitterness of that fade.  I felt like I had missed out on so much, hiding in a bad marriage.  At the end of it, I had only myself to blame.  After a while of that, there was no reason to keep blaming.  But there were still things that were scary.

Asking someone out on a date was one.  Submitting pitches and queries was another.  Deciding to allow things in my life to change, to get out of comfort zones.  Telling my kids “No” was tough too, especially when some of the biggest things that scared me in my life was being told no.  You would have thought I would have gotten used to it, sending stories out to magazines and editors; when you hear yes, it almost smacks you in the face, the No’s are so abundant.  And talk about scary:  when you hear yes for once.  It’s like “What do I do now!?  They said yes?!  I don’t know if I can handle this kind of pressure to succeed!”  I mean, what the hell are you supposed to do with that!?!

Over the last three and a half years, I continue to push myself and everyday, I try to do something that scares me.  Most of the time it’s something silly like striking up a conversation with someone, or trying out a new route to a place I haven’t tried.  My old method used to be to visualize everything in my mind that could happen and then I would have some sort of idea what to expect.  Lately I have discovered that nothing good comes from this.  Either the reality falls short of your expectations horribly, or you have already set your boundaries on how much you get to enjoy something because you can’t go past what you have imagined. Oftentimes, the reality exceeds the fiction you have cooked up.

One of my favorite dates was a movie, people-watching in a downtown venue, playing air-hockey, and dancing to live music on the sidewalk outside of a bar.  Better than Prom, better than a lot of things; yet simple.  Easy, if I let it be.  The scariest part was just letting me be myself instead of some schmoozy over-complimentary version of me that annoys the heck out of even me.  It was scary.

I used to blame anxiety.  Anxiety was a crutch.  It’s like they say.  “Everything you want is on the other side of Fear.”

Lately, I have been querying publications to get rolling on travel writing.  It reminds me of the old days of submitting to fiction magazines.  Either you hear back from the editors, or you don’t and the answer is oftentimes “No.”  After a while of submitting, you wonder what kind of masochist you have become to set yourself up for rejection in this way.  Over time you start to figure out that the worst thing they can say is “No” and it’s not so scary.  A “Yes” opens doors, but in the meantime, you don’t have to let No stop you. It might be what you need to figure out a better way to bend, or to examine how you could have done things differently.  Just keep going, and keep challenging yourself.  Be open to new experiences.  If the idea of doing something gets your heart racing, then there is an excellent chance that is exactly what you should be trying.*

In three short years, I went from timidly eating dinner by myself to skinny dipping in a hot springs around strangers.  Hot air balloon rides. Mountain biking. And maybe worst of all, occasionally telling my kids “No.  You can’t have that.”

Scaring the snot out of myself has become one of my favorite parts of the day.  Nearly every time I have done something, it has been worth the fear and anxiety I have had to battle. Now eating alone is no problem, neither is mountain biking, kayaking, road-tripping, talking to strangers, making plans, reconnecting with old friends, asking strangers to take your picture, joining in on conversations, etc. etc. etc.rain

Pro-tips: Be kind wherever your travels take you.  Don’t be obnoxious.  Be open to good things. Put your shopping cart in the cart-corral when you are done.  Learn how to say please and thank you for every country you visit. And don’t humble-brag.  It’s better just to listen to someone else than it is to act like an experience they will never have is no big deal.  Part of good traveling is telling a good story when you get back home.  Good stories don’t ever make people feel inferior.  They bring us all along on the journey.

*Within reason of course.  Just make sure you aren’t hurting yourself or someone else.

**Sunscreen is advisable in nearly any adventure situation.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Colorado is a state of many facets.  We have our mountains, our forests, our prairies, our highland deserts, and our…beaches?  That’s right, Colorado has beaches.  With waves no less!

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One of the many National Parks in the state is the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.   Located at the foot of the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in south-central Colorado, at about 8600 ft. above sea level, and near the town of Alamosa, the Great Sand Dunes is as close as it gets for a beach in Colorado.  Or the closest Colorado gets to Arakkis or Tatooine.

Compared to Rocky Mountain National Park or Mesa Verde, there aren’t a lot of draws to this out of the way National Park.  It is overlooked by mountains pushing the limits to be considered 14ers, with many others in the region exceeding that mark. Numerous hot springs can be found in this geologically active area, but perhaps one of the best things about this park is how remote it is.  You won’t find the crowds you do here that you would at RMNP.  The price of admission is still pretty low, with most visitors not venturing past the first quarter mile where the dunes rise high like Saharan peaks.  Snowboarders ride the dunes down and sunbathers drink in the rays as well as linger on the shores of the beach, with real waves created by the geological phenomenon which is Medano Creek.  The process of erosion in the sandy bottom creates dams along the length of this creek as it passes over the floodplain adjacent to the dunes.  When the dams break, the water rushes downstream, creating a wave effect.  During runoff season, these waves can be pretty impressive, but as the snow melts in the mountains above, later in the season, the creek bed is just a shifting trickle compared to earlier in the year.  Either way, it’s still pretty cool!  And it’s a good place to cool your feet or break out the swimsuits.

Beyond the tall dunes are miles and miles of more dunes, and not much else.

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The Spice Must Flow…

So what’s so great about dunes?  Obviously you have never rolled down one if you have to ask that question.  The entire area is literally a giant sandbox.  You can run, fly kites, build castles, dune-surf, or just about anything you can think of that is fun in miles of unvegetated sand.  You just can’t drive on it. So leave your paddle-wheel ATV at home for this trip.

You will probably wear yourself out from running on sand and walking up and down the dunes, quoting Lawrence of Arabia or Dune.  Or Spaceballs.  Or complaining about sand and how it gets everywhere, like a movie series prequel which shall remain nameless.IMG_0191

It’s a good thing there are open showers at the rest area to help with that when you are ready to hose off.  Just a pro-tip, however, I made the mistake of getting my sunscreen on just before rolling down the dunes.  The effect is something like making sugar cookies.  I was still picking bits of sand out of my scalp months after.