It’s the last day of 2020.
I know there’s no real magic, no solid reason tomorrow will be better or the day after that, but there’s definitely a psychological difference between December 31, 2020 and January 1st, 2021 and I’m looking forward to it. Just because we don’t know why placebo studies show some folks improving when the real medicine isn’t administered doesn’t mean it’s not real at some level and I guess I’m holding out hope that it’ll be the same for this next year. Back when the pandemic felt like it had become ‘real’, I had just bought a new batik shirt. When I got it, I set it aside and figured I’d save it for when things were back to normal, but it’s been almost 10 months and here we are and I’m both here in this timeless Neverending Month of March and feeling like it’s the mid-2000s again. I’ll explain.
About 15 years ago, I got laid off and spent a terrible, no good, awful year-plus in flux, even after I was hired into a new job. We lost family to tragedy, we lost our savings keeping our home, we went into debt that was affecting our daily lives until just a few months ago, it was a bad year. The whole time, I found myself making decisions based on dealing with issues ‘for the duration of the crisis’. Everything I did fit into this model, fit into this structure of ‘I know this isn’t perfect, but this is the kind of thing I need to do for the duration of the emergency’. Going from one crisis to the next is normal for many folks for reasons ranging from financial to medical to situational and more so I was grateful that I could couch my plans in terms of ‘for the duration of the emergency’.
And one day, I was able to tell myself the emergency was over. That didn’t mean everything was fine, it didn’t mean all of our problems had gone away, but I was able to allow myself to start making longer term decisions that went beyond ‘put water on the fire’ or ‘hold onto the rescue rope’ or ‘don’t sink under the water’. The bad stuff had still happened, there was still uncertainty about the future and what would come next, but thinking beyond the immediate crisis suddenly felt possible again.
Since March, I’ve been living and deciding within the context of ‘the duration of the emergency’. I have what I have to acknowledge to myself is a serious medical issue that I may not survive, we’re going through a global pandemic that’s tearing families apart in so many different ways and has killed almost two million people so far, and as a nation we’re in the midst of an absolutely unbelievable schism of ignorance and arrogant, conspiracy-minded racist demagoguery that’s proudly embraced lawlessness and sociopathy. That shirt I bought in March, it’s sitting in my closet, unopened.
Things are not good, but there’s a chance they can get better.
My medical thing is being treated (if not improving yet) so there’s still a chance. The vaccines are being approved and administered, more than two million in the US have gotten their first shot so far. In three weeks, the General Services Administration will be sending a team of contractors through the White House to thoroughly disinfect every disease-ridden surfaces possible before a new administration comes in, but a new administration WILL be coming in. A month from now, I’ll probably still be sick, people will still be dying of an avoidable disease that was somehow politicized, and we’ll all still be burdened by the dumb, foolish, and uncaring monsters that were in our lives this whole time that we tried to ignore, but there are good things happening too and maybe things will trend towards better.
But that’s a month from now, for today I’m gonna try and ride out the last hours of 2020 knowing that a new year’s just around the corner. I’m going to hold onto that hope for the future that’s been so hard to believe because I need it, I need that hope, that hope that ‘the duration of the emergency’ has an expiration date because it has before. I’m going to put a lot of pressure on the concept of ‘Maybe’ because that’s what I need to move forward.
Maybe my medical thing will start to get better. Maybe the Constitutional and law will push back against some of the corruption. Maybe the racists will start to be afraid again. Maybe in two or three months if we’re all lucky and get get our shit together as a nation, I’ll be able to go to a ‘normal’ feeling meeting with friends, the kind where we can hug again and maybe…
Well, maybe I’ll be able to wear that shirt.
I wash my face a third time, but the water still doesn’t run clean. I scrub at it, I use soap, I rinse… in the mirror I see the drops in my beard are still dirty.
I just got back from my first Burning Man, and the dust isn’t the only thing that’s stuck.
I am the joke, the parody of the first time Burner who can’t stop thinking and talking about this experience. I’m probably insufferable, but my family loves me and has listened patiently while I try to wrap my brain around this last week.
I want to talk about the communities I saw created out of thin air, the experiments in art covering the playa, the giant fire-breathing structures rumbling through the desert with 20-30 people onboard dancing or the tiny, one-person mutant vehicles made out of love, steel, and gasoline.
“How was it?” has been just a hard question to answer too. It was hot, it was cool, it was beautiful, it was ugly, it was physically uncomfortable and emotionally overwhelming. There were the smells that come with 70,000+ people camping in a tightly-packed mass in a waterless desert, there were also the ad-hoc families that formed and dissolved over a period of minutes. I talked and shared moments with folks I’d be intimidated to make eye contact with in the ‘real world’ for any number of artificial hang-ups and preconceptions, I pushed my own personal boundaries and challenged my hangups whenever I could.
I’m not trying to say I had a spiritual experience because I don’t think that’s right. Every moment was intensely earthly, where the physical (and often uncomfortable) reality was always front and center. There’s something unavoidably kinetic riding a bicycle in a desert with thousands of other people and vehicles on constant collision courses.
I had an experience and it was something I treasure. It was good, it was difficult, it was eye-opening, it hurt, it helped me reset some stuff, it showed me some things I’d never imagined, and, well, I guess it’s still stuck on me.
I think I might need to go back.
I have a secret talent that I’ve kept hidden long enough. I’ve been developing it since I was a child. It’s taken practice, required me to overcome social pressures that tell a kid they can’t do this, pressures that tell them they shouldn’t even TRY. Not just the practice required for building this skill, there’s also been the physical conditioning. Muscles need to be regularly exercised, physical body modifications that I’ve had to try and hide from my doctor because if they discovered what I’d done, they might try to fix it. I have developed this talent and this week for the first time as an adult, showed it to someone else. I can tell that they must be struggling to reconcile who they THOUGHT I was with the new reality. Imagine that you have a family pet that one day starts to speak english, you would be forced to go through your own adjustments, right? So when I did a Very Interesting Thing, I can only imagine something similar began for my son Alex.
The other evening, I was driving the two of us home when I realized it was Mouthwash O’Clock. This isn’t a time you’ll find on your watch, it’s that sudden knowledge that your mouth tastes like an appointment you’d rather cancel but can’t. It’s that special time where you think “I wish I had some mouthwash to clear this taste” and then curse the lack of forethought that kept you from putting a bottle of mouthwash in your central console. I don’t get to curse that lack of forethought anymore because one day, I bought a bottle of mouthwash that lives in my center console. It’s not a travel-size or anything because those are a rip-off and I’d be worried about emptying it after just a couple days of answering mouth-nature’s call. At the same time, it’s not one of those big industrial jugs of the stuff you pick up at Wally World because ain’t nobody got space for that in a car. It’s a very reasonable mid-size bottle that fits in the console and this week when that alarm went off in my head, I realized mid-swig that Alex was in the car with me and that my secret was about to be exposed because now I was committed.
If you’ve ever used mouthwash in your car, you know that the biggest problem isn’t the swishing or the gargling. It’s not the intense eucalyptus oils or peppermint flavors either because these are all challenges everyone faces no matter where they use mouthwash. Oh, it’s not the alcohol either because it’s 2019 and that’s just… just not a thing anymore. Those poor, dumb modern teenagers passing a bottle of Listerine around behind school… bless their minty hearts. No, the problem is disposal. Once you’ve finished swishing it around your mouth, you’ve got to spit it out. In no particular order, here’s what doesn’t work:
- Spitting it out the window. Even parked at a light, maybe half of it’s going out the window and the rest is splattering on the inside of your door. You might end up with some on your shirt and it’s bewildering because you’ve been spitting all your life, how can this fail so badly? One word: Volume. The half a cc of spit you usually hurl can fly free because there’s so little of it. You build up pressure, you expel air, there’s some lip stuff… gross story short, when you try this with a mouth full of mouthwash, maybe a fraction of that payload launches and the rest, well… it goes everywhere.
- Spitting it out a slightly open door. This seems obvious, right? You stop at a light, open the door a few inches, lean over, and… now it’s everywhere. Most of it’s on the ground and even if it looks like you’re barfing, you’ve largely gotten it free of your mouth except some is on the door sill, some might have stuck to your chin if you’re particularly incompetent, and also… it’s not ALL gone from your mouth. You’re now doing the frantic follow-up spitting that follows while looking up to make sure the light hasn’t changed yet. It’s a fiasco.
- Swallowing. Yuck. There are less unpleasant ways to coat the inside of your car with vomit.
This brings us to my talent, my special skill. For you see, I have learned a special way to spit. That’s right, I’ve unlocked an ancient secret that allows me to fire an uninterrupted stream of any non-viscous fluid up to 10 feet away, and there’s none of the volume limitations that come with normal spitting. If I can fit it in my mouth, I can firehose it with precision targeting until it is all gone. All of it.
This is my secret power.
This is my secret burden.
It is a burden because when you have a power like this, you might feel compelled to use it but… it comes with great responsibility because if I go around squirting fluids at things willy-nilly, well… they have words for that, and they’re unkind.
I’m not trying to suggest that my situation is “basically the X-Men Universe’s Civil Rights struggle for Mutants against discrimination by people without abilities” but if you choose to see it that way, that’s understandable. The thing is that I learned this when I was single-digit-years old and made the classic origin story mistake of doing it where someone could see me and they made fun of me for it for some reason so I learned the importance of secrecy.
Like the mutants, I learned to keep my ability hidden to protect both myself and those around me.
Please, I’m no hero, just another human who has to guard their special ability from making them or their loved ones a target. And now it’s the evening and now I’ve got a mouth full of minty freshness and now I’m sitting next to my teenager and now…. it’s time to expose my secret.
I realize that he’s going to learn my secret and see my power for the first time, so I take a careful deep breath and begin speaking.
“So, you’re going to see something-” I begin before some mouthwash pours out the side of my mouth by accident. I dart forward, slamming my mouth shut after catching the rest of it. The car hardly swerves out of my lane at all during all of this and Alex is gripping the door handle as I veer back into where we’re supposed to be. I can only imagine that at some level, he’s somehow picked up on the seriousness of what I’m about to tell him even though I was cut off by spillage almost immediately.
Tilting my face up so it doesn’t slop out the side of my mouth again, I take another shot. As I’m doing this, I’m rolling down the driver side window. We’re slowing down for a light so this will be about as perfect as a time as any.
“You’re about to see something totally normal”, I tell him in that special enunciation that people use when they’re speaking with a mouth full of mouthwash. We glide to a stop and he looks over at me skeptically.
“Behold!” I intone, then turn my head…. and let loose with an almost 5 second-long, 10+ foot stream of used-up mouthwash. Like some sort of curving laser, it arcs upwards into the sun before dropping down to the unoccupied land next to us. With one final special flex of perfectly tuned tongue muscle, I eject the last little bit and turn back for the amazed praise I know is coming. Friends, I cannot emphasis enough just how perfectly this demonstration went. My mouth: absolutely empty and fresh. The car, completely unmarked by the unsightly little specks or droplets of mouthwash a less-refined approach would leave. My mouth: fresh and pure! I turn to my son, ready for his questions. I know he’s going to have many. I’m wondering where he’ll start… will it be wanting to know how long I’ve hidden this from everyone? Or will he ask whether or not it’s too late for HIM to learn this skill? Maybe he’ll want to know about the different adventures I’ve had with this, the problems I’ve solved. I can’t wait to tell him about the-
“Did you just spit that all out the window?”
Ok, maybe I’d misheard him in the beginning, this sounds more like it. Enthused, I nod my head. “Yes, ALL of it!” I wanted to fill him in on the secret, that there was no followup spitting needed and I wouldn’t have to swallow any of it and to draw his attention to how I didn’t need to open the door or-
“Kinda gross.” He looks back at the car behind us where I’d noticed the wide-eyed, open-mouthed admiration from its occupants in the mirror after firing that glorious arc of mouthwash out the side window. “I can’t believe you just did that.”
Uncertainly, I think about what he’s just said. When he can’t believe what I did, is it… is it because he didn’t realize the human body was capable of such an achievement? Is he amazed by the… no, he’s giving me mixed messages because he also said it was ‘gross’. Perhaps this is slang. Maybe… he’s saying it’s 144 x cool? I’m going to roll with that for now. I laugh it off, best to stop while I’m ahead. There’s a part of me that wonders if I’m too late for that, but I ignore it.
The important thing is, he knows so when he’s finally ready to learn about the exercises and minor dental modification required, he can come to me. It feels like it would be sad if this secret died with me, after all, but then again, maybe it’s a lot of responsibility for someone so young. It certainly was for me, anyhow.
Since this happened a few days ago, I managed to somehow dump the entire mouthwash into my center console so my car smells like a koala threw up. Every origin story has downturns, that’s part of what shapes one’s character before they face that great challenge in life where their ability comes in handy.
Regardless, I have this talent ready and some day, it’ll come in handy in a way nobody can anticipate. Maybe I’ll save the day with a mouthful of something important. I’ve used it with flammable liquids to great effect, for instance, and only burned off part of my mustache. Perhaps a jet of water will arc out to extinguish a burning fuse that can’t be reached by hands that are tied to a railroad track or something! Ok, that’s probably unlikely, more of a cowboy/wild-west situation. I’ve got it, same scenario, but Monorail track.
Anyways, this talent will find uses that are more important than just mouthwash disposal from a moving car, and that day, everyone else will also recognize how ‘gross’-cool it is.
That Younger Ben who lives inside of me who was made fun of this will be happy to see that this skill has made me a cool guy after all and not just some weird little squirt.
When you say this, do you mean to make someone feel smaller? Or is that just an accident?
It's a powerful method for making folks who create stuff feel bad. We're socialized to see working as good so this statement weaponizes the concept of free-time. Instead of recognizing that people have different levels of interest in different things, this places a clear border between 'useful' and 'screwing around' like they're objectively measurable things.
I build stuff, I create thing, I follow my passions and when someone suggests that I have 'too much free time' because I'm doing something different than them, I've got to disagree. No, we all have the same amount of fixed time, I'm just organizing how I use mine differently.
"Well, I don't mean it that way-" stop. For the sake of communication, your intention is not going to change how plenty of folks will hear it. Consider the possibility that you're unknowingly causing hurt with an innocent sounding phrase and that whether you intended to or not doesn't change that fact. Someone who slaves over a drawing or spends hours assembling a model or puts their heart and soul into an elaborate cosplay setup and hears an implication that it was just messing around because it's not Useful Work can't read your mind.
My request to you: stop accidentally shaming people (because 'too much free time' implies laziness) for making things. If you want to train people not to show you their creations and to make them feel bad about themselves, I guess this is a good way to do it. If, however, you'd rather _not_ be the person who punishes those around them for choosing to open themselves to a little vulnerability by showing you something into which they invested their hearts and souls, consider deleting this phrase from your vocabulary.
If you have the time, that is.
Not everyone can make the same physical impact on the world. Wealth, circumstances, ability… these vary hugely. There can only be so many opera halls and libraries, only so many thriving industries, but the one thing that unites us all is death. We all die in the end (until we can be uploaded into the fabric of the universe, manipulating the quantum foam itself as a computing substrate maybe, but that’s a different post) so how can we leave a mark that’s US and not just who we THINK we are?
With grave markers, folks sometimes put a favorite quote or write something personal, but like a survey of self-selected survey takers, how representative can it actually be? Is it who we really are, or is it just our idealized presentation of how we want people to see us? That question is why I propose Grave Discussions.
Instead of picking a phrase out of a book or just filling in a form at a mortuary, let your ideas engage in mortal combat at the coliseum of ideas: The Web. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, but everybody sees your inner self. Sometimes it’s thoughtful, sometimes John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory takes over. Whatever way you decide to go, your contribution with the highest ranking at the time of your death becomes your WINNING IDEA, the one that’s presented to the world as your opus.
Will you change your life to put your best foot forward? Will you sharpen your skills and become a more effective you to bring about the legacy YOU want? Or will you let the tides carry you along to whatever’s popular at the time but isn’t really who you think you actually ARE?
Now take away the physical gravestone and you have… today. Your internet presence will probably be seen by more folks than almost any gravestone. Also, you don’t have to be dead for people to make judgments about who you are because shoot, they’re reading those comments now. Is a grave marker really where we tell everyone who we are/were? Maybe it was once, but now… now every comment and post we make is a little marker we leave that may outlive the planet. If we wanted to affect how the future saw our impact on humanity, is it too late? Or can we still take control and put our best selves forward?
Commit. Commit now, then start posting your best. Your legacy depends on it.
It temporarily takes it out of rotation. You’re saying “I love you, song, but we need to take a break so I don’t end up hating you”. It’s great, it’s still in your life and influencing other song choices in your listing, you and the song are still friends, it’s just _elsewhere_ for a little bit.
Relationships with songs seem complicated, right? We associate them with events in our lives, the way they make us feel, a technical appreciation for their structure, all sorts of things. But compared to relationships with people they’re simple. Songs don’t change, but people change every second. Songs don’t turn nasty or associate themselves with vileness suddenly (ok, except for maybe some Wagner, tough break there) while still being the song you liked previously. Songs stay themselves and we’re the only dynamic one in the relationship.
So… how is it that a song for Pandora can offer such a useful feature for managing those rough patches while Facebook (“The Social Network”) doesn’t?
There’s something about this election (more so than others I remember) that seems to be bringing out the worst in folks. I’m sure others think the same about me, don’t get me wrong, but that goes back to the whole ‘people and relationships are complicated’ thing. These last few weeks, I’ve seen folks whom I like adopt shocking opinions and downplay some outrageous things. People whom I like have said things that knock me on my butt but… I still like them as People, I just don’t know how to deal with them as Participants In Election 2016.
Facebook has a few hamfisted tools for this. You can unfriend people, you can block them, and you can unfollow them. Each of these are pretty strong medicine and permanent without conscious effort. If you block someone, they’re goooooone until you remember to unblock them through some interface you’d probably have to google the instructions for. With unfollow, they disappear from your news feed and likewise will be elsewhere until you remember to track them down in settings and re-enable them. Unfriending people is pretty rough because if they notice, it sounds like you’re sending a message ‘we are not friends any more’. I’ve been unfriended before by folks who didn’t see it as a big deal and I still smart from it because it feels like rejection. For some of us, forming relationships is hard work and doesn’t ‘just happen’, having the other person make a conscious choice to no longer be ‘friends’ feels like a punch.
So what’s the solution? What can Facebook do to help people like me who feel like a kindergartner who accidentally wandered into the front of some terrible machine-gun battle?
“I’m tired of this track”.
It’d probably need a different name. Maybe…. “Temporarily mute friend”, or… “?” (Kikazaru, the monkey with the hands over its ears) or something clever. Basically, I’d like a feature in Facebook where, when I read that some friend of mine has one of those Election-Specific opinions about something on which I don’t want to battle, I can just not see their posts for a few weeks. It’d be great if it automatically deactivated after then so we can just continue as before. No out-of-the-blue friend requests, no chance to screw up and forget who you unfollowed, just a temporary break.
I don’t want to have to maintain some rolodex/action list of people to re-follow or re-friend after the election’s over because I’ll screw it up and the “wait, you unfriended me?!” conflicts sound pretty awful too.
I don’t think I have too many illusions here. Some of the things that upset me now might end up being deal-breakers. I think a few of my friendships are in some real peril now because of some pretty upsetting endorsements and excusals I’ve read recently. No doubt there are people out there who feel the same about me, too, but I’ve got to hold onto the hope that some of them are going to get better when this election is over.
Facebook and Pandora have plenty of functional overlap. Our actions and relationships affect suggestions and behaviors already, maybe it’s time to get inspiraton from another function for the sake of maintaining friendships.
Maybe this stuff is easy for the rest of all y’all, but this kindergartner’s ready to come in from the war for a little bit.