end of the road

(Adapted and expanded from a Facebook post from May 2018)

I don’t quite remember when I first began doing these “end of the trip” personal summaries.  Certainly as far back as the turn of the century when I was coming back home from Baltimore though I might have done it prior to that. I just remember that particular time sitting in a mostly empty Baltimore airport terminal scribbling some random thoughts about the trip into a notebook. Since that time I have done summaries for most personal vacations and some work trips.

 

I’m standing in front of my hotel in east London at 4 AM waiting for my Lyft to arrive. On the last day in the UK I finally get to see just a wisp of one of those famous London fogs that everyone goes on about.  Not impressed. I do however suddenly have a craving for a cigarette.  Maybe it’s the urban setting that’s doing it but the craving passes by fairly quickly.

I decided to give myself a treat after two weeks of ‘roughing it’ and got a room at an upscale hi-rise hotel. A glass and steel spire with nice new streets, expensive roof top restaurants, and all night bars and clubs where the current crop of stylish 20somethings hang out. So this is how the other half lives.

 

The temptation to stay another two or three nights was strong but all vacations have to come to an end and soon the night wound down fairly quickly as I had a dawn flight out of Heathrow.

The next morning up pulls an E-class Mercedes and the driver comes out wearing a peaked cap. I didn’t ask for a fancy car and I suddenly felt rather scruffy in my travel-worn clothes and my travel backpack.

We whisk down the empty streets of London towards Paddington station. Even on empty streets it would take about an hour to get to Heathrow. The Paddington express would get me there in fifteen minutes.

The driver turns on the radio. A morning DJ is doing what morning DJs all over the US would do. Playing songs, talking to callers, getting people pumped up for the work day to come.

I could live here. I could get used to using the underground and walking everywhere and the smaller houses and running from one small store to another to get things instead of finding everything in one store.

I could probably make a go of it in any of the countries that I visited. You can learn local languages and customs fairly quickly if you want to or are forced to.

At the Airport I swap out the last of my English pounds, Euros, and Korunas for good old American dollars.

I’m thinking about how I’ll get home once I step out from Hobby airport in Houston and what the weather will be like.

My mind is shifting back out of vacation mode. I planned everything beforehand so I had little to think about during the trip. I just went to my next destination and it was there waiting for me.

While people around me went about their jobs and lives I wandered round with nothing to do. Except… joggers. Walking around London and Paris in the middle of the day I would encounter joggers and I would wonder what kind of job that they had that allowed them to take a jog in the middle of the day.

For the last two weeks my room was cleaned, my bed was made, my food was cooked, and my transport was arranged but now I’m going back to the real world.

Bills to pay, appointments to arrange and keep, checklists and schedules to make. Beds to make, meals to cook, places to drive to. A life.

My first real vacation in four years. My first real mental break since my dad died. I have come to terms with the fact that he will no longer play a part in my decision-making process.

For the past five years I’ve planned my life round his needs and now that chapter is closed. I can now put my needs in the forefront. The thought frightens me a bit.

I feel a bit like a soldier that’s just come home from a war with no clue about the future.

I had my daily routines, my schedule, the course of my life all built around him and putting him ahead of everything else so that he’d never want for anything or that his health might suffer. But that’s gone now and I have to do things for my benefit and I find that hard to do.

During the vacation I tried to remember what my ‘life plans’ were before I committed myself to take care of my parents. Those notions of what was “going to happen” seem like they belong to some other person.  My life path has gone onto a totally different course.

Twelve years ago I realized that my dad would need care and what and who I could depend upon to help. Ten years ago I bought a house to take care of both of my parents, a big Four bedroom house with front and a back lawn. Totally impractical for a childless bachelor but something that would give them the space that they had been accustomed to.  Five years ago they came to live with me.

I gave up a normal social life. The invites to events and parties trickled down to a few and then to none. No point inviting me if I always said I couldn’t go. I’ve become contented with a movie or a play on the weekends.  The parents and the job filled most of my waking hours.

The job I didn’t particularly like but it would let me work from home and stay close to them so I had to keep going. This came in particularly useful in the last year of my dad’s life when I had to rush him to the hospital more than once.

But now I’m coming home tabula rasa, with a clean slate. My dad is gone, my job is gone. I lost my job in March.

Maybe my mind couldn’t concentrate on the work anymore, or maybe I didn’t see the point in staying at a job I didn’t like with no compelling reason to stay, or maybe after 15 years of doing inside sales I just burnt out.

Sales was never a good fit for me. I’ve never been a born salesman. Somehow I kept it going because I had to. But I don’t see myself going back. Not to that company at least and probably not to the sales field.

Don’t ask me what’s to come for me. I don’t know. I’ve got savings so I’m okay for a while. I told myself that I was taking this trip to get some inspiration or some new idea of where to go and what to do. I think I knew that wasn’t true.

Truthfully I just needed time away from me.

Maybe now I can force myself to look at my situation and see something that I wasn’t seeing before. Get a clue about what to do.

Landing in Ireland and running to my next destination.

Movie review – Rogue One – A Star Wars story

Spoiler alert

Normally I would go heavily into the details of a film in a review.  While I will include some spoilers of the film, this is going to be more a discussion of certain aspects of the film which I feel are important to bring up.

So, this post will go into details about the movie “Rogue One: A Star Wars story“. I am also drawing material from the Rogue One novelization and details from the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  If you don’t want to know what happens in this movie you better stop reading now.

 

I, along with most fans of the Star Wars universe, was very excited and a little nervous when I heard that Disney was going to produce the last 3 films of the Star Wars film series. The Force Awakens was a nice nostalgic trip down memory lane and while I did enjoy the film it really did not break any new ground in the Star Wars universe.  We were basically still discussing the Skywalker family and their relationship to “The Force”.

I first heard only sketchy details about Rogue One a couple of months after The Force awakens.  The concept that the producers pitched to Disney was that the Star Wars universe would be fleshed out in a series of semi-related stand alone stories.  Follow on stories will discuss Han Solo and Boba Fett in their own movies.

Rogue One however is unique in that it does not focus on any of the popular characters from previous films.  The characters involved are at best mentioned in passing but never explored and most of them in fact have never been discussed previously.  The story deals with events just prior to episode 4 filmed in 1977.

Films, they say, are a product of their times.  Rogue one reflects this sentiment perfectly.  In the old Star Wars universe everything was well-groomed and things were generally tidy.  Even the smugglers and gangsters seemed to be neat as a pin.  Everyone seems focused on “the mission” and the story line.  This movie moves the focus more onto the smaller supporting cast of characters that make the main players seem that much more heroic and grandiose.  This also focuses more on the more unsavory aspects of wars and rebellion.

The lead character is a young woman, Jyn Erso, whose father is designing the Death Star for the Empire.  Her father sent her off at a young age to be safe and she has grown up under the tutelage of her father’s friend, Saw Gerrera, a revolutionary.  Saw trains her as a revolutionary but she leaves him to become a petty thief and criminal.  She has grown up with  deep-seated anger towards her father for abandoning her and for being a pawn to the evil empire.  As the film progresses she works through her feelings about her father and slowly comes to appreciate her father’s position at the time when he sent her away.

Cassian Andor is the other main lead.  He has grown up in the rebellion and has never known life without being opposed to the Empire.  In the name of rebellion he has had to do several unsavory things.  In the film itself he murders a friendly informant to keep him from divulging secrets to the Empire.  But as the film progresses you can sense the turmoil within him.  He finds himself less and less capable of justifying the terrible things he must do for the rebellion and he seeks redemption by following Jyn on a suicide mission into the heart of the Empire.

Saw Gerrera is the most interesting and best developed character in the film.  Saw is perhaps the first rebel.  He fought the separatists before the Empire and then when he saw what the Empire was becoming he began fighting again.  Most of his time has been spent waging a very cruel and dirty terrorist insurrection.  He has set off bombs in busy places and murdered people in dark corners.  In the film he tortures a defector to make sure that he is being truthful.  Two decades of continual conflict have damaged not just his body but his mind.  He has become paranoid and a little unhinged.  The casting director that brought in Forest Whitaker made an inspired choice.  Whitaker had previously played Idi Amin in “The last king of Scotland” and you can see traces of that performance in Saw.

Most of the film takes place not in air-conditioned settings and well-lit and clean cities but in dingy dark alleys or dusty worn down towns in the middle of nowhere.  Most of the people in the Empire live in less than ideal worlds and must work hard to make a living.  The Empire itself makes life difficult and unpleasant for the majority of the population.

You get a sense of gloom and doom from the film.  One of the preview trailers for the film had a great line that captured this feeling, “The world is coming undone, Imperial flags reign across the galaxy”. The common everyday people are giving up and accepting their position in the Empire and soon nobody will be able to stand up to them.

The Empire itself is finishing up the Death Star and we are approaching a moment when the rebellion will either have to stand up and fight or lose all hope of overthrowing the Empire.  People like Jyn and Cassian must ask themselves if they are willing to stand up for what they believe.  Jyn’s father provides hope in the form of a flaw in the Death Star and Jyn and her friends must hurry to find the plans of the Death Star and get them to the rebellion.

The film also presents us with the less than savory aspect of war in that people die in wars and not just “the bad guys”.  One of the big spoilers is of course that all the main characters die by the end of the film.  Disney had the option of going with a happy ending but allowed the director to film it as he wished.  He wanted to stress the sacrifices made by the characters in order for Luke Skywalker to destroy the Death Star later on.  In this way Rogue One is a much more honest film than any of the other Star War films.

One of the other details I found refreshing was returning the magic and mysticism to “The Force”.  In the prequel films it was explained that The Force was nothing more than an energy field generated by microbes.  Most fans were less than pleased by this.  Rogue One presents The Force in more mystical terms.  Chirrut Imwe, one of the other characters, believes in The Force.  Although not a Jedi he is sensitive to The Force and has studied and uses The Force to compensate for his blindness.  More than that he treats The Force as a religion which I think is the way that Lucas originally intended The Force to be portrayed.

Overall it is the best film since “The Empire Strikes back“.  I was a little sad that we won’t see any more of these characters or see their stories develop any further but really the film says everything that needs to be said and is practically perfect.

 

2016 and moving forward

Last time I did this I was at a tea house.  That tea house is long gone now and my oh my how things have changed since then but then again some things haven’t changed.

Let’s rewind a bit before the tea house.  I was at a coffee shop with an acquaintance.  She noticed that I was limping round because of my ankle injury.  She told me that her husband had the same thing and that it took him over 6 months to recuperate.  I mentally winced.  6 months!?!?

It turned out she was pretty dead on correct.  The injury was the centerpiece of the first half of my year. A daily nagging and painful reminder of how things were in general. I worked my way back from the injury and in fact I ran a 10k race in November.  The ankle is not fully healed.  On cold mornings it still hurts and I still don’t run on a daily basis.  But perhaps given more time it will one day heal totally.

This year has in some ways been a wake up call and a reminder of how time has passed.  Injuries like this that I could shrug off now take time to heal.  Beyond that I find that some of the interests of my youth no longer hold the same allure that they used to.  The science fiction novels, the action movies, the loud music just don’t interest or thrill me as they used to.  From time to time I still indulge but I find that I am far more picky as to what I spend my time on.

The business part of my life has picked up during the course of the year.  A 4 month-long sales doldrum finally broke in February and I’m slowly returning to form.  I find that the sales arena is now much more competitive.  We live in leaner economic times and I have to do my utmost on each and every sales opportunity and lead to try to convert them into projects for our company.

But of course the big news of the year was and still is the election. Along with millions of others I stayed up that Tuesday night in early November and watched dumbfounded as all the election polls were proven wrong.  The implications of what this election might mean to not just my life but the country and the world in general began to sink in that sleepless night and for many nights to come.

Panic has given way to anger and then determination.

In the past couple of weeks that determination to stand up and resist the new administration and to work to oppose the dismantling of our freedoms has become more and more pronounced.

It’s curious.  Thinking about the effects of this election and my need to speak up and act has made me think more about my life and my life goals in the last month than I have for a long time.

I’ve begun to realize that in some ways my life goals in previous years have been somewhat shallow.  In general, those life goals consisted of maintaining my employment, paying off my house, building up a retirement nest egg, and finally selling the house and moving to a retirement spot.  Possibly some place in Europe or maybe the southwest US.  Not the worst life but not the best either.

But now, now I feel that this election has given my life a certain focus.  I feel that this is a call to take action and to become more involved. I can’t just sit idly by and just go to work while things are occurring right in front of my face and not take action.

I’m not blind and I can see very clearly what is happening and that I have to lend my voice to those that oppose the changes coming to our country.  I’ve never been what you would call hugely political but then again I’ve never before felt such a threat to our democracy.

I don’t imagine that the next few years will be easy and I don’t think that we’ve hit rock bottom yet.  But I do think that if I hold on with steadfast determination that things will change for the better.  I also think that no matter what happens that my life will be the better for having participated and having done my part.

My life will at least be more interesting.

A choice

Aggies came together tonight. Whether it was at the Aggies United event or at one of the many events held around the Memorial Student Center to protest Richard Spencer speaking at our University.
 
But even if not a single Aggie attended his speech, sadly some did, even if he spoke to an empty hall on our campus the damage has been done.
 
The damage has been done because this individual accepted the invitation to speak at our University expecting a welcoming reception.
 
That by itself is a loss for the University worse than any defeat that our football team has ever suffered.
 
The fact that our University would be perceived as a place where racists might be welcome should make students, former students, professors, and administrators stay up tonight and think.
 
Texas A&M is supposed to be a world class University. By sheer numbers we are. We are the largest University in the state by enrollment and the third largest in the country. Like it or not this carries with it a burden to lead.
 
Leadership is a virtue that no true Aggie shies away from. But we have to choose the path where we are leading our nation.
 
Do we choose the path of bigotry? The path of hate? Do we live up to all the bad stereotypes that rivals hold of A&M?
 
Or do we instead try to earn the title of a world class University? Universities are places to think, places that embrace diversity of thought, of opinion, of people from all walks of life and from various places around the world.
 
People like Richard Spencer want conformity of thought, conformity of speech, and conformity of people. They use the privilege of free speech to spread their hate to places where they think that it will grow.
 
The damage is done. He spoke, and the protest rallies have come and gone. But now it’s up to the University community to decide what happens.
 
Will students turn a blind eye to those that openly discriminate or will they speak up? Will former students become more conscious about bigotry in their work and daily lives or become conformists and bigots? Will the administration do more than just give lip service to diversity and to enforcing codes of conduct against bigotry or actually try to do something meaningful.
 
These are the questions that every Aggie and every person connected to Texas A&M University must ask themselves tonight.

Games people play

I was doing yet another sort through some boxes in one of my closets and tossing out old things I no longer needed.  How did I ever accumulate so much junk?  At the bottom of a box was a stack of game manuals, some from the late 1980s.  Most of these manuals were the rules and mechanics of playing all sorts of role-playing games or board games. One game that wasn’t there was Monopoly.  I hated that game.

You remember Monopoly, right?  A game that almost always ended up with someone getting really pissed off as one player inevitably ended up crushing all the others by ruining them financially.  Most families have that one relative that takes the game too seriously and read all the rules and understood the game mechanics way too well and always had the advantage.  It’s usually that distant cousin you rarely see and can’t stand and this just solidifies that distaste.

Well that cousin grew up.  Those early lessons in understanding game mechanics and manipulating the rules don’t just apply to board games.  We rarely think about life in the terms of game mechanics but some do and they do quite well for themselves.

Nearly everything in your life comes with prepackaged and predetermined rules.  Your job has rules.  Break enough of them and you’ll lose your job.  Driving has rules.  Those that don’t follow the rules either get a ticket or wind up in an accident.  Social interactions have rules.  You break these rules and you might end up all alone.

Those things that don’t have rules?  Either they do have rules and you haven’t realized it yet or some enthusiast is eagerly working out the rules right as we speak.

But two aspects of life have the most rules and have the most effect on our lives; money and politics.  Sure there are other games out there.  There’s science, there’s fame, there’s religion. But money and politics, those are the one’s that can affect all the others.  In all of these games is a cousin that knows how to work the rules.  Money or trade was the first game that we played.

The idea was simple.  Use tokens of exchange to represent value and trade those tokens in order to facilitate trade.  What’s wrong with that?  You provided labor or made something of value and someone paid you for it.  But along the way that cousin noticed something.  Money itself could be made to “work”.  Money couldn’t do anything itself of course but money in motion or the promise of money, well that could move mountains.

In the last century and particularly in the last 50 years, that cousin noticed that manipulating and skillfully moving money around could generate even more money than actually doing any physical labor or producing anything tangible.

So much money in fact that you couldn’t make enough physical tokens to represent all that money.  That money was now just notional numbers floating around in some digital ledger.  Cousin had totally figured out the rules of how to make more money and where the rules were sketchy then cousin made new rules to make even more money.

But somewhere along the way the rules got a little too complicated.  They contradicted themselves and suddenly the money began to eat itself up and shrink.  Cousin didn’t know what to do because the rules that covered this flatly stated that the game was over.  But Cousin also played another game.

I could get into a sophomoric argument of when and where it started, who’s to blame, and what’s the solution is but the game of politics is almost as old and complicated as the game of money.  You could look back in history all over the world and see similar examples and read as the political game became more and more complex and finally one way or the other collapsed either due to outside forces or internal pressures.

Where did our particular game start?  Some said it was a group of jealous old men at the start of the country creating rules to favor their interests.  Others point to the Civil War and the ascendancy of the federal government, and others point to the World Wars and the Great Depression making it obligatory that the political game become more important to ensure our survival.

Any way that it started it was ripe and ready for Cousin to enjoy and use.  We elevated politics from a homespun art form to a sort of science.  I say a sort of science for although we have good solid principles to look at, I don’t think we can quite claim that we can predictably look at politics and determine an outcome based on current conditions and applied forces.  At least most people can’t claim that.  Don’t expect the experts to admit to that.

But nonetheless amazing things have been done.  For example we created a system where spending money was considered to be free speech.  We mastered the art of the backroom deal and the wisdom of when and where to apply pressure to arrive at the desired outcome.  We could take a small sample of opinions from everyday folk and extrapolate the results to determine what an entire state or even the nation was thinking and postulate that this candidate would win where that other one would not.

Cousin played this game as well.  When one has a significant amount of money you can’t help but play this game.  Money attracts attention in a way that few other things can.  People that don’t have money figure that just being around money will lure money towards them and sometimes they’re right.  People that play the political game know that money helps quite a bit.

Cousin argued that the money game was broken and needed the political game to “fix” it.  Cousin knew that the money game could help the political game keep moving and expanding.  So new rules were written and the money game was fixed.  For the good of every one of course.

But now the political game was broken.  Those amazing polls, that nuanced science that could foretell the future, suddenly was blind.  Those political calculations that said this candidate should run instead of that one, those assumptions that underpinned the very rules of the game had suddenly yielded up an unexpected result.

Now the professional class that plays the political game for a living is at a loss as to what to do.  The rules had been followed yet the results were not as they should have been. According to the rules of the game something bad is about to happen.

Cousin won’t suffer.  Cousin never suffers.  Money forgives many sins, it pads Cousin against harm, and insulates Cousin against the worst effects and what’s great is that now, Cousin can make an infinite supply of money.

But for those that don’t understand either the political game or the money game….

As ever they will be the ones that suffer first and the most.  One thing that you may notice is that when you put away the monopoly board that you’re always missing  a piece.  The thimble, or maybe a couple of plastic houses, or a couple of dollars go astray here and there.  No monopoly board ever remains intact and yet even though some of the little pieces of the game may be lost or damaged the game continues.

Insulted? Angry at the notion of plain every day people being considered to be nothing more than pawns or tokens?  Me too.  Why aren’t we doing something about it?

What am I trying to say?  Do I have a plan to fix it all?  Of course not.  That would mean that I played the game (one or the other).  Clearly I don’t play.

But maybe it’s time to flood the game with millions of new players.  Maybe it’s time for people who never thought that they had a stake in the game to get in.  By themselves they would not win, they might not even win in big groups but maybe, just maybe they can force a rewrite of the rules.

Improbable?  True.  But is it better than just being a pawn and waiting for the dice to roll to determine where you will land?

The panhandler

When I was a kid there was this credit card commercial.  Two buddies out on the highway with their ten speed bikes.  They spend the day riding around and then ride into an inn or bed and breakfast where one of them takes out his credit card and books a couple of rooms.  No wallet, no fuzz , no muzz.  This was back in the late 80’s and to me it seemed that the only people who could live like this were rich people.  The rest of us carried grubby piles of paper money and coins in our wallets.  The idea of a cashless society was just a pipe dream.

So fast forward a few decades and there I am in traffic headed back from the gym.  I’m headed to a supermarket to get some fruit juice or something to drink.  All I have in my wallet is my ID and my debit card. I’m stopped at a left turn signal waiting for the light to change.

Just to the left on the median is a guy with a handwritten sign on a torn scrap of cardboard.

“ANYTHING HELPS”

All I could offer was a smile.  The light changed and I drove on.

Typically I do give to panhandlers.  I know the arguments against it and I do give to shelters as well.  I always advocate that people who can give should give.  But when you’re face to face with someone so obviously in need it’s a little hard to say no and comfort yourself with the logic of giving to a homeless shelter for the ‘greater good’.

I don’t give every time of course or I’d be broke.  By some estimates the U.S. is up over 1.5 million homeless people and I just can’t get to everyone.

1.5 million people who need food, water, shelter, and some sort of basic sanitation.  Just because you lose your job doesn’t mean that you stop living.  You still have to somehow provide for your own needs an often adults have to provide for the needs of their children.

Now, not everyone that is homeless begs or panhandles.  Most people try to tap their personal resources of friends and families or reach out for government assistance.  They keep on trying till they’re able to normalize their situation and get back on their feet.

But some people do have to panhandle to survive and feed themselves.  Some abuse the panhandling situation.  They don’t have a desperate need but have normalized this as a way of life.  Lastly, some panhandle to get drunk or stoned and to try to escape the miserable reality of their lives for just a little while.

I wondered what kind of money was involved in all of this?  How much do these people make in a day?  Easy enough to research on the web.  Somewhere between ten and a hundred dollars per day depending on circumstance with an average of about twenty-five dollars a day.

How many people?  That’s tougher.  Not a very stable population to track.  But for argument sake let’s say a fifth of the total homeless population.

How many days a year?  Again this probably varies wildly.  Some days they work, some they don’t.  Some days they make nothing.  Let’s say about 300 days a year.

Plug in some numbers….  This can’t be right. 2.25 billion dollars a year.  Averaged out to about $7500 per year per panhandler.  Most of that money going to basic needs or vices.

Of course that figure assumes that all of us still carry round paper and metal money to give out to panhandlers and that we don’t all carry just debit cards or credit cards.  Tying back to the beginning of this post a lot of economists want us to do away with physical money permanently and switch to a digital system.  Once that happens might we see the end of the panhandling era?

Not necessarily so.  Now I go back to a couple of years ago.  I’m at an art gallery wandering round looking at paintings and sculptures and whatnot.  Someone has set up a credit card reader on a pedestal with a sign urging patrons to support the arts.  Each swipe would donate 5 dollars.  The reader is hooked up to an Ethernet cable and seamlessly debits the donated account from the patrons account.  Several patrons are enthusiastically swiping.  Why shouldn’t they?  It’s been shown that people tend to spend more using credit and debit cards when they don’t have to dig out physical money or write out a check.

So now we go back to my panhandler on the median.  What if this panhandler had been equipped with some sort of card reader.  Not a sophisticated device like those hooked up to a smartphone or to the internet but a standalone device.  Something that needs to be downloaded at a centralized base station like at say a homeless shelter.  A place where the homeless would have to go to cash their earnings.

A place where he would be registered, where homeless volunteers and workers would get a chance to help this person with additional services.  A place that they could keep tabs on this person and suggest housing, food, or medical help for this person.  A place that we could begin to better quantify the problem of homelessness.

The challenges?  The technology I don’t believe is a challenge.  Card readers are fairly robust and reliable systems.  Coding the applications needed should not be a problem.

The banking aspect would be trickier.  Would bankers go for something like this?  Certainly they would want to charge service fees which might make things difficult for the average homeless person.  But perhaps the answer lies in the volume of business.  I mentioned up above that this could turn out to be a multi billion dollar concern.  Even if the bank made cents on the dollar this could add up to be serious money.

Of course abuse could come on the other end.  Card readers being stolen or hacked to extract the funds.  But I think safeguards can be put in place.

The main benefit that I see is that this is a way to get people back into the system.  This allows the system to sit up and take notice of just how big a problem homelessness really is and to allocate the appropriate funds to address the problem.

I believe that we need to address this problem in a modern fashion.  If we expect to go into the future and reap the benefits of a technological wonderland we must be prepared to make sure that these benefits are enjoyed by all parts of society from the richest to the poorest.

If we choose to ignore or marginalize this population then I don’t think that we can ever really move forward into the future.

 

How did we manage to live before….

For a couple of years now it’s been my habit to wind down the working day by logging onto all my social media sites at the same time and catching up on everything as I finish my work day.

Online social media has made itself ubiquitous and to some degree almost inescapable in the last 3 or 4 years.  You can log into your social media accounts in so many ways that it almost seems that you can’t get away from it.

If you have some sort of event or some sort of business that is in any way related to the internet it is almost compulsory for you to become involved in social media.  Even if you’re just an individual you are almost obliged to get on and find out what all your friends are doing else you risk falling behind in the latest events and not knowing what is happening in your little social domain.

Lately however it has been become overwhelming.  Disasters, news events, the elections, gossip, they all get bandied about by one contact or another on social media sites.  You see the same piece regurgitated in a seemingly endless stream of story overload.  Then of course comes the incisive commentary from your contact list.  People on the left, on the right, people from one group and another.  Lastly comes all the fighting and bickering.

And of course a friend of a friend (and possibly of a friend) posts about some tragedy in their life.  I want to empathize with their plight but when you have so many people on your news feed demanding your attention it all becomes too much to process and I feel that it actually drains my emotional batteries to the point that I just don’t want to know any more.

I feel like these social media sites aren’t so much communicating with me as they are yelling at me.

So I just left.  At first it was for nothing more than just to get away from it all and take an online vacation.  To let all the cyber babble die down and give my mind a break.

Surprisingly it was easy.  I thought I would want to constantly check and get updates but I found that the first day went off pretty much without any hassle at all.  I can’t say that I found a ton of “extra time” or made great personal discoveries by being by myself.  I didn’t even take time to wonder how easy it had been to not log in. It was just, quiet.

Instead of logging in I read, I watched a couple of movies on Netflix, “The big short”, a highly entertaining and thoughtful movie.  I just went about my daily life without the nagging feeling that I was missing out on something by not checking in.

By day 3 however something curious happened.  Social media missed me.  Not the individual people mind you.  I don’t think they even noticed I was gone honestly.  No, the social media websites themselves started sending me emails and telling me how many new notices and notifications had happened since I had last logged in.  Another website sent me suggestions for new people to follow that I might enjoy reading about.

By day 4 I had accumulated 99 notifications and then the spam emails kept repeating themselves.  Apparently 99 notifications is the upper limit the programmers set.  Perhaps they couldn’t believe that someone would let more than 99 notifications go by without checking in.

The only time I was somewhat tempted to log in and post something was when I went to a cafe on the east side of Houston and I wanted to post a picture of the cafe.  But as I sat in the cafe I began to think about this and wonder.  Does posting about the cafe experience make the experience any better?  Why share everything?

Andes Cafe

Andes Cafe

I had decided somewhere at the beginning of the “experiment” to come back in a week.  A week passed and I found I had absolutely no desire to log back in.  I was somewhat apprehensive to tell the truth.  I finally relented about ten days in and logged back in.

Like someone coming back from vacation that has a mailbox stuffed with letters, I had to wade through all my old notifications and messages.  After about 2 minutes I just hit the “read” button on everything.  Nothing had changed.  I honestly don’t know what I expected to have changed.

Perhaps one thing that has changed is that I no longer feel that having an online presence is as de rigueur as I once thought that it was.  A world without social media is not unimaginable.

I will continue to log in but I no longer feel as invested into the whole social media experience.  I don’t feel that I have to share every moment in my life or react to everyone’s news anymore.

You can live your life off the net quite well and find a satisfying life.  You can leave.

run

I’m sitting on an examination table in an examination room waiting for the doctor to come in.  The narrow little room is barely larger than a broom closet and lit by a single sullen fluorescent light that doesn’t seem too thrilled to be here.

My naked feet dangle just inches above the floor.  I look round and see the standard things you would find in any exam room in America, rubber glove dispenser, a sink, anatomy posters that look decades old,  and advertisements for some new drug or some other treatment for diseases that I can’t even imagine.

The doctor walks in.  He looks to be in his fifties and wears the ceremonial white lab coat that we all associate with medicine and science.  He briefly glances at a clipboard, greets me, and gets to business.  He kneels down and starts stretching and rotating my feet around.  After a few minutes he nods his head and announces that he is pleased with my progress.  The ankles are not as stiff as before and the swelling has disappeared. As he washes his hands at the sink he advises me that I should start running again.  Nothing too severe and definitely not everyday.  But it would be for the best he says.

Just like that, doc?  That easy?  Start running.  I think back through the years at all the people who would issue commands or make broad statements and never really gave any thought as to what they were saying.

Start running.  I had stopped running back in November.  In the middle of a step, miles away from anywhere, I stepped down and felt a fiery jolt of pain race up my right leg.  I nearly stumbled off the running trail.  I wound up hopping all the way back home and I kept limping for the next two months.

I then had to navigate through my insurance agency’s tenuous rules and regulations till I found a podiatrist I could go see.  Now, months after the treatment I was ready for the next level of my rehabilitation.  Running again.

I had tried getting back into running before.  If you know nothing else about me you must at least know that I will heedlessly plunge into anything with little thought of consequences.  It is one of my biggest faults and at a few key moments in my life my only redeeming quality.

The results of course were predictable.  After less than five minutes of running.  Pain, cursing, limping, and returning home dejected.  So you must imagine I was not too thrilled to attempt running again.

Treadmills.  No true runner would find it ironic to know that treadmills had at one time been used as a punishment in prisons hundreds of years ago.  The device itself is not to blame and neither are the designers that in their genuine good intentions wanted to provide people with an indoors running option.  No, rather the concept of mindlessly running in place in one spot for minutes if not hours at a time is somehow anathema to those that spend any amount of time on the road.  The very activity seems to be innately linked to punishment.

The newest and latest treadmills offer all manner of conveniences from heart rate monitors to personal fans to virtual reality TV monitors that try to give the illusion of running out-of-doors including inclining or declining the treadmill.  But really nothing replaces the feeling of being out-of-doors and seeing the world move past as you run.  Feeling the heat of the sun, the cold of winter, the rain pelting on your face or the wind blowing in your face and feeling like an anchor trying to drag you back.

This particular treadmill was on the higher end of the machines.  It had a built-in TV, a heart rate monitor and a variety of options to make your run more pleasant.  You could even hook it up to your smartphone and listen to your tunes.

I hit the quick start button and started walking.  I set the machine for a 30 minute workout.  The pace is a glacially slow walking pace so I almost immediately dialed it up.  After two minutes I was bored so I dialed it up again and again.  I finally dialed it up till I was at the edge of a running pace.  How long could I keep this up?  I kept nudging it up.  I held onto the heart rate monitor bar and I was already up to 130 beats a minute.

Finally I was running.  The monitor said I was running somewhere between a 9 and 10 minute mile.  I’ll take that.  I wasn’t trying to break any records.  Just get out of the starting gate again.  I try to focus on the running and keeping my mind off the tendons in my ankles.  Was I tearing something?  Would I feel it in the morning?  Would I throw away months of rehab in a few minutes?

Keep running.  Ten minutes, fifteen minutes into the workout.  I reach for the heart rate monitor.  174 beats  minute.  Right at the edge for a man my age.  Sweat is getting in my eyes.  I feel my cheeks flush as my internal engines kicks into high gear.  Long idle systems springing back to life.

I feel a slight jolt as the treadmill slows down.  I’ve lost track of time and the 30 minutes is up.  The machine automatically goes into a ‘cool down’ mode and a walking pace.  After five minutes I unsteadily walk off the treadmill and head to the weight room.  Sweat rolling off every inch of me.

A couple of the trainers do a double take seeing me walking off a treadmill.  They’re used to seeing me at the stationary bikes.  Riding fast and getting nowhere.

I pass by a kid wearing an Iggy & the stooges cut off t-shirt.  Apropos I guess because I do feel like a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.  I should be dead tired but I’m not.  Running always revs up my engine and this workout has released a heady brew or adrenaline and testosterone into a system that hasn’t felt like this in months.  I’m not cooling off at all.  I was heating up.

Everyone has a set routine of how they prefer to workout.  Too many people today, my routine won’t work.  I need to get rid of this excess energy.  So I head for the nearest thing.  The rowing machine is open.  I don’t even check the weight and just start rowing.  Attacking the handles and almost ripping them off.  Before I know it I’ve gone through three sets and still I’m not tired.

It’s almost intoxicating.  This feeling of power coursing through me, needing an outlet.  I feel like I can do anything.  Bicep curls, the ab crunch, the chest press.  Finally I get to the lower back machine and I feel that I’ve done enough.

I get in the car and it hits me.  Like a junkie coming down, the last vestiges of the adrenaline wear off and I feel abnormally tired.  I almost want to sleep.  So many months without anything and suddenly all of this.  It’s too much for my system.

Still, I wonder how my ankles will reward me in the morning.  One day doesn’t cure anything.  It’s just a proof of concept.  I’ve still got a long ways to go and this is just one of many challenges to come.  Enjoy the moment.  Little victories like this are few and precious.  Tomorrow will take care of itself.

 

 

success

I wake up while it’s still dark.  The sun isn’t even of thinking of getting up for another hour.  I dress in my gym clothes or rather my former running gear.  I don’t run anymore.  The last pair of running shoes that I bought still look fairly new even 9 months after I bought them.

I step outside and it’s a typically hot and humid July summer morning.  This Saturday won’t bring any relief from the heat.  I drive down to the gym on the empty west Houston streets.  Last year I could run the three and half miles to the gym in about half an hour.  Not any more.

I get to the gym entrance just as they are opening up for the day and go in with the other early birds and go through my routine. Half an hour on the stationary bike and forty-five minutes on the weights and machines. The same routine four or five times a week depending on my schedule.  I’m thankful for the continuity of the routine. Routines and set schedules are a cold comfort but they are a comfort after what’s happened in the last year or so.

I suppose collapse might be a good description of 2015.  2015 was a year that I expected would be a breakout year for me.  I expected that things would not just get a little better but would totally improve in every aspect and in every imaginable way.  Unfortunately it seemed that things began badly and little by little progressed to be actively terrible.  The year culminated with my health taking a turn for the worse.

The gym has new exercise bikes.  Much better than the older bikes that they used to have but I can feel that this is no substitute for an hour-long run.  I’ve tried the thread mill and the elliptical machines and I still can’t do more than twenty minutes before the pain in my ankles forces me off.  Still, I feel better than I did in December when all I could do was limp from place to place.

I leave the bike all sweaty and I get some sense of satisfaction.  Proof that I’ve done something today.  I go into the weight room and look for an empty machine or a spot with weights without too many people.  My gym is fairly cool about things.  “Leave me alone and I will leave you alone” is the unspoken motto.  A few people like to show off.  They load up the weights as much as possible and make a great show of lifting or they show off their physique by wearing clothes that are too tight or too revealing but for the most part it’s work minded people looking to get in their sets and get back to their regular lives.

Work itself has been a challenge to say the least.  Whether it’s because of a sluggish economy or bad advertising of our company or just my depressed mood it has been a challenge to keep moving forward this year.  We snapped out of our doldrums around February and have been making progress since then, slow but steady progress.  I’ve been able to implement some routines to make the most of what sales leads that we do get and the results are slowly beginning to pay off.  Nothing spectacular but better than the nothing that I was producing before.  I feel happy with the progress but I dare not get slack and relax.

I’ve worked out my arms till everything aches.  I get that odd ropey almost limp spaghetti like feeling in my arms that let’s me know that the workout was effective and a little more progress was made today.

The sun’s out and as I drive home and at a red light I think about my situation.  I no longer have the big goals or checkpoints to check my progress that I wrote down in late 2014.  No lists or anything that tells me “yes you are getting ahead”.  That doesn’t work in this situation.  This year I have to measure success in another way.

I have to measure success in my willingness to get up every morning and to continue battling every day.  To take progress wherever or whenever it comes and to be adamant that no matter what happens that I keep fighting.

In the worst days of December, January, and February I would wake up dreading the coming day at work.  Would I sell anything today?  Would I get any sales leads?  Would I have a job at the end of the week?  I would feel depression and shame as my physical condition slowly deteriorated over the days and weeks and feeling powerless to make things better.

Little by little I’ve had to claw and scratch my way back.  I can’t look up yet and face the gigantic hill that I still have to climb.  The sheer size of it would sap my will.  It’s not time for that yet anyways.

I have to define success as my willingness to continue fighting every morning.  No matter what happens, no matter what setbacks may come up I am still willing to continue fighting.  It’s not the joy of competition or joy of battle that I once felt when I was younger.  Time was that I would savor a new challenge and see the advantages and rewards to be gained by testing myself and winning.  No this isn’t that.  This is a sort of grim determination that I will not quit.  I will not stop.  No matter what I will keep going.

Maybe one day I will be able to set up lofty goals and have grand plans again.  But for now this is what success looks like. Another day of fighting.  Another day of work.

Clearing the slate

December 19, 2015

Sitting at Té one last time.  Having a cup of tea and looking around.  Remembering and thinking.

I’m going to miss this place so much once it shuts down.  So many happy afternoons and evenings spent here in all sorts of weather.  Just writing, thinking, and relaxing.  Places like this exist to nurture the soul.

But time moves on and things change.

At the end of each year I come up with a list of goals for the next year.  I’m sitting here reading a copy of my goals for 2015 on my smartphone and shaking my head in dismay.  Such an ambitious plan and so many things that went wrong almost from the start.

I think it’s fair to say that 2015 was not a good year for me.  Strangely enough I find that most of the people who I know concur with this viewpoint.  I know of almost no people who consider 2015 to have been a good year.

This particular year began with a financial investment that went bad and barely broke even, to work challenges all year-long, to a very painful personal relationship episode, to a seemingly endless series of small but annoying mini-disasters that I had to work my way through, and finally to some health related problems at the end of the year that persist.

So here I sit with the weight of it all crushing down on me.

Despair is a narcissistic state of mind.  In a way it’s pleasant to lose oneself to despair and let your worries and fears take over.  No responsibility, just let things happen as they may.  But after a while you realize that it’s not getting anything useful done. So you stand up straight, square your shoulders, and look your problems right in the eye.

Or that’s what I normally do.  This time though I have to sit back for a second to take a deep breath and let out a deep sigh.  Middle age makes it a bit harder to pick up the pieces.

Okay, one more time.

An extremely trimmed down set of goals for 2016.  Sixteen  pages were way too much.  Focusing on the core fundamentals of my life and loosening up my goals as to what constitutes a “win”.  Normally I would council doing the opposite and tightening up goals and making goals harder to achieve.  This however is going to be a rebuilding year.  If I can get back to the state that I was in at the end of last year I will be ecstatic.

Looking back at last year’s goals I think that I was trying too hard to please other people in my life.  To make their lives better.  I was also trying to use other people’s goals in my life and in a sense live up to their expectations.  I need to live my own life and fulfill my own dreams.

So I start off fresh and cast away everything that isn’t useful or is in fact hindering me.  Firstly I will try to fix my broken body so I can then mend the rest of my broken life.  I have few extended goals that I want for myself this year.  I don’t know if I will be able to reach them but they’re there for me to aim for.

Two years ago I wrote about the barren landscape and how we craft the future.  We also craft our problems and the situations that get us into those problems.  But, we can also craft the solutions to those problems.

I finish the last of my matcha and buy a bag to make my own at home.  I leave Té for the last time.

Thank you for one last memory.