Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Getting Good at Goodbyes


I’ve bounced around quite a bit in this past decade that has been my adult life so far. Both geographically and organizationally. While I’m almost certain I’ve unlearned more things than I have learned and am far less certain of the things I still think I know than I was toward the beginning, there are a few things I’ve come to be convinced of during this decidedly nonlinear odyssey. One of them is the great importance of parting well.

The fact is this: There will be many people in your life you will part from one day fully expecting to see again but never will. And there will also be a fair number of folks you leave thinking you’ll never see again only to cross paths with them down the road in totally unexpected circumstances.

Parting well is important in either scenario.

I made some mistakes with this early on and also received some good advice. Which was probably good given that since then I spent two years in an expat community of sorts where people were constantly coming and going, traveled to about 30 countries and (at least) two war zones, worked for two politicians and several different agencies and organizations. And while I left some of them under difficult circumstances, I think (to the best of my knowledge – if you’re reading this and think I’m wrong I hope you can forgive me) I’ve left on good terms with just about everyone.

I’ve recently worked in a world of people who like bullet points, so I feel the odd but undeniable compulsion to leave some bullet points about parting well. This is probably complete bullshit, but anyways:

  •           Mindfulness: Just keeping in the back of your mind that even the most mundane or routine goodbye to someone may be the last time you see them goes a long way.

  •           Intention: Goodbyes are awkward. I get it. But make time for them anyway. Situations when you know you’re saying goodbye for a long time are an opportunity we don’t get often, so take advantage of them. It doesn’t need to be elaborate. Just take the time to intentionally acknowledge the fact.


And that’s about all I’ve got, kids.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

All the people I once knew are people I know


Thanks to social media in general, and Instagram “stories” in in particular, I have this weird sense of connectedness to lots of people from the myriad and at times bipolar lives I’ve lived.

In some cases, we are people who meant a lot to each other. In other cases, we only briefly met. And, while it gives me pause if I think about it too hard, in most cases, we will most likely never meet again. Yet we’re now somehow aware of the mundane goings-on of each other’s lives. I worry about what they think about me—and wonder if they worry about what I think about them.

Old coworkers. Old drinking buddies. Nearly all my [many] unrequited loves. Nearly all my old bosses. Some people that I knew when I was a very different person than I am today, and other people I hung out with only when I was trying to be someone other than who I was at the time.

Some of them are people who I wanted very badly to impress back when I knew them in person. And I get excited now when they react to something I’ve posted, in spite of the fact that, beyond some ephemeral intellectual connection that we may have, it’s really meaningless. They have their lives in their countries and I have mine.

At the same time, though, it is something. We were, however fleetingly, a part of one another’s lives, just as we’re now, in however absurd a way, connected and aware of each other. Sometimes this makes me happy. At other times, it fills me with a deep existential angst.

On the bright side, life, for all of its complete lack of promises, is never short on surprises. And while it may be I will never see many of these people again, it’s possible that I will, and that it will mean something more because of our voyeuristic awareness of each other in the intervening years.

Or maybe it’ll just be really weird. It’s impossible to say.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, and My Digital Life


I just bought a new laptop for the first time since 2011. While I’m quite pleased with it so far, the process of setting it up and transferring accounts from my old machine has brought into sharp focus something that I’ve been vaguely aware of for the past few years: There are a whole bunch of companies vying to be the complete solution to my entire life. And you know what? It stresses me out.

Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple, and many lesser-known players all now want not just to sell me their flagship products or services, but to get me to use their comprehensive suite of solutions to all of my digital (and increasingly non-digital) needs.

As things stand now, I own a laptop computer built by one company with an operating system built by another company, on which I run primarily apps built by yet another company. I also have a phone built by a completely different company and use some of that company’s media services, but my TV is powered by a different company and I use some of its media services there, as well as some media services provided by the aforementioned company that provides apps for my computer. And I am relatively happy with how this works out.

However, while I am taking this à la carte approach, the fact is that now, any one of these companies is fully capable of providing all of the other products and services mentioned above entirely on its own. And boy, do they love reminding me of this. And stealthily trying to get me to use all of their services. And actually acting hurt if I decide not to.

And it bothers me so much. I’m a very loyal person. I’m also relatively prone to anxiety and tend to struggle with misplaced empathy. These combined tend to make me a dependable and nice person when it comes to dealing with other people, but it only compounds all of the stress I feel over all of these digital services.

First it was Siri, then it was Siri and Alexa. Then Google Assistant (who had been there all along, I just never noticed her) became part of my life. And now Cortana, my sweetheart from Halo in high school just came back as a full-fledged digital assistant.

They all want me to use them. They all want to own my data. And I'm really anxious about it all. 

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Thanks for sticking with me


I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel down recently. I really am. And so I will start this right off by saying that if I know you and you’re reading this, then I value you and your friendship, or acquaintanceship, or members-of-humanity-that-randomly-stumbled-across-one-another-online-ship. Thank you for being there, wherever that is. Furthermore, I want to affirm that I really do actually like people and believe that there is hope for the world, even if I’m increasingly unsure what it looks like.

If, over the last few weeks, you have chatted with me at a party, watched my Instagram story, met me for dinner, or interacted with me in any other personal context, you may have come away with the impression that I’m some sort of brooding, misanthropic character with a level of cynicism bordering on nihilism. I hope that that is not true, but what is true is that I have been pretty-generally in a dark mood.

Coming to the end of my 20s this year, I’m faced with the realization that my own life has not really been all that I might have wanted it to be and there’s a good chance it never will be. That’s entirely manageable though. What compounds it is that, over the past few years, I’ve almost entirely lost faith in the things that — however much they frustrated me — were supposed to give it meaning.

Looking at the wider world, I’ve also lost hope in the beliefs and institutions that I once really thought had the power to fix the many problems we’re facing. That would be bad enough on its own, but over the last couple years it’s become worse.  

Not only am I powerless to really fix the things that I see as problems; it’s actually turned out that the only path I’ve been able to find to improve my own situation is to become – at least to a degree – an accomplice to those very problems.

And that’s what really gets me.

I recently watched the Paul Schrader film First Reformed. I don’t often relate that strongly to fictional characters, but what was simultaneously intriguing and terrifying in First Reformed was how much alike I am with Reverend Toller in the movie, both in his tendencies and situation.

Maybe the thing that is most terrifying was that Toller isn’t quite who I am now — but who I could very easily see myself as in 10 or 15 years if a number of things don’t change. So I want to change, and I’m trying to change, but for the last few months it’s seemed especially daunting.

So that’s my explanation. It’s not a promise that I’m going to suddenly be cheerful all the time or even that I will stop being cynical about things and people that are. But I at least wanted to explain, and also say thank you for sticking with me this far anyway.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Turning Points & Placeholders


It’s possible that I’m writing this post just so that I will have written seven blog posts in 2018, rather than the even more pathetic six that the count stands at now.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this year. In terms of my own life, I can think of equally convincing narratives in which it’s a turning point, and other’s in which it’s just another placeholder. I guess if you really think about it, every moment is both a turning point and a place holder simultaneously. But I’ve been trying not to think about it.

I think too much. Writing makes it worse. So I’ve been trying to limit how much I do of either. I’ve obviously been successful at limiting the writing part. The thinking part has been more of a struggle.

I need to spend more time with people. I’ve known that for several years, but I’ve been reminded of it again visiting my old friends back up in New York this past week. But it’s difficult. A couple weeks ago, I went out for tea with someone I met on the internet, and she told me she couldn't believe me when I said I was a sort of a loner and spend about 98% of my time alone. But I am, and do. I don't think it's what I want, but it happens somehow. 

I think I need to change my lifestyle, because I’m worried about my health — and become more focused on my goals, because I’m worried about the future. But I also think I need to stop worrying about my health and about the future.

In terms of the world, I don’t know. I just don’t know. And I feel like I know the least I ever have.

I hope you have a happy New Year, wherever you are. Whether 2019 is a turning point or a placeholder for you, may you find what you need in it, be that peace or striving or something in between.   

Sunday, December 02, 2018

I [finally] finished the Harry Potter series

It's funny how things in your mind can change so much without anything really changing at all. Coming to the end of this weekend, my near-term outlook on life is much less hopeful than it was this evening seven days ago. So much has changed, all without anything changing. I just now know a couple of things I'd been hoping for months would come to be most likely never will.

The funny thing is, those outcomes were probably just as certain a week ago as they are now. As all outcomes are probably certain all the time — or at least I've always tended to think they probably are. The difference is knowing, and the way we always hope. Even an incorrigible pessimist like myself hopes.

I finished the final book in the Harry Potter series today. Two years after I started, and about fifteen years late. But that's beside the point. Without giving anything too much away to the handful of other people on the planet who didn't read them in junior high, there's a very thought provoking little discourse in the second-to-last chapter about how we all know we are going to die, but simply the fact we don't know exactly when makes it seem much, much more bearable. I guess that's the same principle. Or maybe its inverse.

Maybe that's where all this is coming from, and I should stop reading the teen literature I wasn't allowed to read as a teenager to try and recapture something long gone. Or maybe it's that just when I was starting to feel like I'd become remarkably better at coping, I'm suddenly having a difficult time again.

I'm really sorry if you thought this was going to be my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and are just now realizing it's probably a trap to try and make you feel as glum as I have the past couple days. You shouldn't, and I shouldn't.

The past year has been amazing and far more than I ever could have dreamed would be December last year when things really seemed to be falling to pieces for me. All the things I've got to do and be part of, and all the people I got to get to know and be with have been amazing. That it hasn't all gone in the next direction I thought and hoped it might doesn't in any way tarnish what it was.

Like Harry realizes, in the grand scheme of things, we all end up dead. But we don't know when, and the fact that we will shouldn't detract or minimize from what was or is. So this much smaller ending shouldn't either.

There, see. I brought it back to Harry Potter. So you can't be that mad at me.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Trending

Sometimes I think we don't appreciate how much society is changing and in how short a time. And I wonder what it will be like for me when I'm old — if I make it that long — to say nothing for my children, in the increasingly unlikely scenario that I have any.

This summer I started listening to music using an app that displays all kinds of information about the song and artist on the screen while the audio plays — including the release date of the album. I’ve been struck by the fact that the release dates on albums I'd listened to in my teens are often two or three years before when I remember listening to them.

What strikes me as odd about this isn't that I started listing to music that was several years old  — I still do this frequently. Rather, it's that I remember feeling at the time like it was the latest and greatest thing. That's where the change is: As far as me and anyone I knew were concerned, it was the latest greatest thing. After all, we had just got it, and there was no reference point from which to say it was dated.

Art and news and trends moved soooooooooo much slower just fifteen years ago than they do now.

When I first played the board game Settlers of Catan in or around 2004, it was because my then karate instructor told my class about it. So I started playing it, and introducing my friends to it, and all the time thought of it as this edgy new German style board game that had just become a thing. And for me, my then karate instructor who introduced me to it, and the guy at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania who's name people still remembered in hushed tones in 2008 when I was a student there (but I have subsequently forgotten) who first brought the game to the school sometime around 2003 when my karate instructor was a student there; for all these people, it was a thing.

Yet, if I look up Settlers of Catan on Wikipedia as I write this post, I see that the game was initially published in Germany in 1995 and introduced in the US a year later. So all of the excitement and newness and edginess that my friends and I felt on discovering the world of Catan in 2004 was nearly a decade after it was released.

Compare that to now, when the whole world knows about everything the hour after it happens and is over it the next day.

Catan may be an unfair example as the distribution channels for board games have always been slower and less linear than for, say, Hollywood movies. Also, in my case, almost any example is going to be exaggerated: I was a fourteen-year-old in a moderately xenophobic sect of Christian-Reconstructionists living in a socio-economic backwater in a rural part of Pennsylvania that escapes being classified as part of the Rust Belt only because it was never developed enough in the first place to have rusted.

The point is, though, trends today travel so quickly and globally and then become irrelevant so much faster than they did just 15 or 20 years ago. Everyone all over the world is seeing and possibly thinking more or less the same things at almost the same time. And when we try to stop it, our efforts end up sounding like the headlines of online satire: Just this year, dozens of my acquaintances took to Facebook to complain about Facebook, and Steve Bannon went on an international speaking tour to warn against internationalism and was happy to discover that the global community of isolationists has never been more connected.

We can't go back. Like it or not, we live in a world now where a fringe interpretation of a major religion adhered to by a small militia group in a country almost no one cares about can become a global online movement drawing adherents from Australia to Canada to become part of an actual territoriality nation-state, and then vanish back into to the sand and the internet chat rooms from whence it came. And all this in less time than it took the record of a band that had risen to prominence in Brooklyn, New York, in 2001, to travel five hours to influence a kid a kid near Troy, Pennsylvania in 2006.

Certainly, we aren't all confronted by the same trends. If anything, there is more diversity of interest than at any time before. Just spend an afternoon reading through subreddits. And there are dark corners of Discord and 4chan that most of us will never know even exist until they suddenly explode into our real physical lives leaving us only to ask: why? But the speed with which these subcultures and movements develop and move outside the constraints of face-to-face community and geography that used to exist is new.

This isn't all bad. There are positive examples, and I'm sure someone who is more of an optimist than me would have used them. But it is different than it was before, and this week I've been thinking about how different it is, and wondering where it will go from here.