8.19.2014

I'm Better At Internetting Than You Are

When I was in high school, I had a xanga. For those of you who remember what a xanga is, congratulations, you're old. For the rest of you, a xanga is what we would today call a blog, except it lacked all of the positive facets of a blog. The aesthetics and layouts were atrocious. Worse, you could customize the colors to your liking. Of course, that meant that mine was an ungodly combination of red and black. As far as content, mine mostly included some drivel about my high school girlfriend and rants about how great the band Tool is, along with some cryptic quotes that I thought were deep. I'm pretty sure no one read it. I've tried to find it, but it's nearly impossible - not that that's a bad thing.

Remember AIM? That stuff was a big deal to high-school-me as well. I had my main username (toolfanatik121) and of course, my novelty username (bladedrifter121). I would use this account when I wanted to slip into the persona of a wandering swordsman whose life was pledged to the blade. It even had some crappy ASCII picture of a sword in the profile. I was 14.

It felt awesome to have a bunch of people on my AIM buddy list. I remember seeing other people's buddy lists and they would be twice as big as mine. I would think "dang, they know a lot of people!" But really, how many of us would actually talk to every person on that list? I for sure didn't. And what about away messages? You know, those cool messages you could leave on your AIM window to let people know that you were too busy to sit at a computer and talk a screen full of pop-up boxes? I had this one friend who always had the coolest away messages. It got to the point where he was "away" more than he was actually on the computer. I came to the conclusion that away messages were more for looking cool than for actually being away the computer.

Myspace, anyone? Forget it. I can actually remember my Myspace information. It's all black and white photos from bad angles complete with awful captions. No joke, I can actually recall a few times where I'd hear a line or a lyric somewhere and I actually interrupted my thought process to think, "No way, I'm gonna use that as a caption for my next Myspace photo!" Who even thinks of things like that? 

It just got worse and worse, this whole internet thing. Before I knew it, I was a member of multiple forums and websites, submitting content, trolling users, and commenting on whatever I could. I was publishing poems on poetry.com. I was dissecting lyrics of songs by my favorite band on the aptly named toolshed.down.net. I'd talk about football on bengals.com, discuss the mana-to-creature ratio of a recent deck I was working on on mtgsalvation.com, and post queries about bands with similar lyrical and musical structures to The Contortionist on gotdjent.com. Those are all real websites, people.

I have at least three music sites and earlier blogs that are still festering in the underbelly of the internet somewhere. My first blog was called "The Arbiter Cometh," because who wouldn't want to read something with a title that awesome? For my next blog, I took on a thematic direction: I'd compose alternating posts of two things - original poetry and lists of things! The lists were about anything in general - music, language, whatever. So here I'd write a pretty little poem one week, and then next week I'd post a list of all my favorite songs. Isn't that a terrible idea? Eventually, I stopped. It was right around the time that I made a list of reasons why Texas sucked and emailed it to a bunch of people, thinking it was funny. I was going to school in Texas and they were all Texans. I am not a smart man.

Even at the high school age, I was trying to get attention on the internet. At first, it was only from very close friends. Eventually, it grew to pretty much anyone I could offend or get to listen to me. I wanted people to think my interests were similar to theirs. I wanted to flaunt my knowledge for other people to see. I wanted to prove that I too could contribute some philosophical and meaningful thoughts and publish them online for strangers to peruse. Read my poem, listen to my song, comment on my blog, agree with my thoughts. I wasn't doing anything for anyone but myself and my ego.

Fast forward to today, and it's more or less the same.

Today, I've got a Facebook, a Google Plus, an Instagram, and this silly blog. That's scarce by internet standards. As demonstrated by the gap between my last two posts, I can barely keep up with that much. Not only that, but I'm consistently breaking what is considered to be the Golden Rule of blogging - don't blog about yourself. What else is there? I want people to know what I'm into and what I know. That's what these platforms are all about, right?

Nowadays, everything seems to be about self-endorsement. A cool concert is coming to your town? Better click this box so all of Facebook can see that I'm going to it! Who cares if it's 18 months from now? You're standing next to the world's biggest ball of yarn? Better check in and give all of the world the exact coordinates to my location! You won something? You read a news article the minute it came out? You recorded a grainy video of some spontaneous sidewalk performance? You were first in line for the newest product by whatever? 

And I say all of these things because I am guilty of them. I have been for a long time. I want you to know that I read this interview or announcement before you did. There's nothing better than someone bringing something up about the latest tour announcement or music video to you, only for you to say those two golden words:

"I know!"

We've all felt it. 

Tell me how cool I am for taking that picture, going to that place, shaking that celebrity's hand, climbing that mountain, or having that opinion. Have I posted a status only to delete it within an hour because it didn't get enough likes? Yes. Have I shared an article/picture/video/announcement online just to show people that I'm on top of my internet game when it comes to knowing stuff, even if I'm not particularly invested in the subject of the post itself? You bet. Have I posted very public things to friend's walls just for the sake of showing everyone else something that I could have very easily have sent in a private text? Yep. Heck, my first Instagram picture was of a river. A RIVER. I didn't know what I was doing at the time. But did you see that river? It was full of water, man. You should have seen it. And then my fiance posts a picture of the same river and gets twice as many likes on it. Did I care then? YES. But not anymore.

There are concerts I've been to that I cannot recall all that well because I was too busy filming a low-quality video of it on my phone to post later. There was a time when I had 1500 friends on Facebook. I CAN'T EVEN NAME 1500 PEOPLE, real or imagined. And then there's the bizarre opposite philosophy: parity is cool. Oh, I only have 15 Facebook friends now. Only 30 views on my blog in a month? That's ok, the content is so esoteric and erudite that the everyday pleb wouldn't comprehend it anyways. We all know of at least one person who has thousands of followers because they take amazing pictures, or because they're really good at doing their own makeup. A mountain with snow on the top of it? You can bet that this person will photograph it, apply a superficial filter, and get a combination of 17 million likes/comments. That's their mountain now. They're legally allowed to name it after themselves.

Here's my main point. There are plenty of people who do these things because it's their job, or because they're legitimately passionate about it. Some people are really into photography, and they're good at it - they don't post for the sake of vanity or imaginary internet points. Some people like to keep track of the concerts or places they've attended. They love music, they love traveling - and that's a way for them to remember those events. Some people have terrible memories and are unable to recall experiences unless they have pictures of said experiences. I do all of these things, but more often than not, they stem from a selfish place. And at the end of the day, there's really no satisfaction in any of it - at least for me. I would rather spend an entire day exploring a beautiful forest, without any access to the internet or a camera - than sit at home witnessing a hundred comments on a picture I took, a hundred new followers/friends, and a hundred views on my blog. It's a momentary stroking of my ego that will fade within a day.

Maybe that's selfish, and I sure as heck don't demonstrate that belief the majority of the time. But deep down, that's the truth of it. I'm not calling for a crusade against social media or a culling of your friends list (even though that feels like an accomplishment). I'm calling myself out, and apologizing to anyone who may have been victimized by this stupid behavior. I don't want to try and make people jealous about what I know, where I've been, and what I've done. I want to look back on these silly pictures and comments I've made and think that they were enjoyable footnotes in a long and fulfilling life, rather than the start to my campaign of becoming an internet celebrity or insta-famous or whatever it's called these days. 

The point of this blog always has been and forever will be about the fact that I don't know what I'm doing, in one way or another. I'm no longer a wide-eyed kid in a brand new city, but I'm also not a guy who knows everything. I'm a person with problems that hopefully others can relate to, and it's to those that I forever want to relate to. Sometimes I look at the amount of views my blog has had, and I think, "How??" But if it's just one lonely scientist in Antarctica and a depressed kid in Denmark who are reading this blog and getting something out of it, then I'll trade every single low quality picture/video and every nameless follower for the sake of that continued enjoyment. 

So, I'm sorry. For demonstrating the worst of internet culture. You know what's scary? I used to be worse. Oh, so much worse. I was a TROLL and an attention seeker on Facebook. Nowadays, there's a very noticeable difference in activity between the Facebook users that are my age and those that are merely five years younger than me. Neither of us are quiet.

I'm working on myself first. The rest of you, have fun with your internet endeavors and pouring ice water over your heads. There's a way to do it right, and then there's my way, which stems from a place of pride and selfishness. One day I'll get it down. And then I'll publish a lengthy blog post on just how I did it so you can all know how smart I am.

Just kidding.

Oh, did you guys see the new Taylor Swift video???

Just kidding again. 

JDS

PS I will give your 10 million internet points if you can manage to find my old xanga or either of my old blogs. You'll be a true hero.




8.14.2014

Your Disease Can Be My Cure

A disease of the mind is a frustrating thing to cope with. There  are no post-surgery scars. You can't wear a cast while waiting for a bone to set. The infection won't subside. Medically speaking, that's something you have to deal with the rest of your life. 

Sometimes, I wish the wounds brought about by my mental condition were of the exterior kind. That way, I would be able to see the healing process. I'm in no way saying I prefer my mental problems to a broken leg. I'm also not saying that physical problems are easier to deal with. Simply put, I wish that I were able to see what it is that I am fighting. Instead, I've got these inner demons running loose in my brain, and they don't always slow down when I want them to.

Like today.

Today, I thought about suicide - not in accompaniment with any thoughts or desires of self-harm - I merely thought about the concept. This week, in the wake of actor/comedian Robin Williams' death, a lot of words have been thrown around, especially once word got out that it was a suicide. "Depressed" and "selfish" and other words that I'm all too familiar with. Words that have been woven into my identity over the past few years, whether I like it or not. 

A while ago, I posted some thoughts about Ned Vizzini's suicide - the author of It's Kind of a Funny Story. Ned basically dedicated his writing to those struggling with depression, detailing his own bouts with the condition in his works. After this week, I've been thinking a lot about the concept of suicide and what it takes to arrive at a place where it feels like permanently shutting off your brain and stopping your heart seems preferable to every other available option. We have two guys here - one who spent his life making others laugh, and one who championed the battle against mental disorders with his words. Both suffered from the same condition, and both took their own lives. What does that mean for the rest of us? What kind of odds are those for those of us who have been there before?

Depression works differently in everyone. I'll never have any idea what kind of demons plagued these two men. None of us will - it's not for us to judge when all we see is the result. I do know what it's like to be in a place where ending your life seems like the best way to go. After all this time, I forgot what that thought process is like, which is a good thing. But this has been a week for reminders.

Personally, it seems to me that several days out of the year, my depression chooses to ensnare me in its grasp, putting all of its weight on me at once. On those days, I want nothing to do with anybody. I have zero motivation to do anything. It's hard to eat and I only want to sleep, but even that doesn't come easy. My usual silly demeanor is buried beneath a heavy malaise, and I'm not myself to those around me. That's when it gets rough. 

It's hard to maintain eye contact with your loved ones when you haven't gotten out of bed all day. It's hard to make a joke when you're constantly seconds from bursting into tears, for no reason and with no warning. On those days, doing anything is a burden, and I start thinking of what a waste of space I am. Today was one of those days.

I was feeling particularly miserable this evening, after a day of doing nothing but hiding inside from the typical grey Seattle skies and passing the time watching irreverent shows on Netflix. I found myself alone, thinking "So this is going to be one of those kind of days, huh?" Realizing this, I decided to put off going to my usual Thursday night Bible study. I go as much as I can, and I deeply enjoy the people there, but I wasn't feeling up to being around people. So, I grabbed my computer and headed off to the local bookstore, thinking that I could get some reading/writing done to calm me down.

Naturally, I found myself wandering through the science fiction/fantasy stuff. Browsing though the multitude of titles, I saw a little note that read "Free Brandon Sanderson samples." Thinking this was an excellent way to get into one of the genre's better writers, I thumbed through the offerings, looking for an easy place to start. A man who was also perusing books in the same aisle stopped near me, and with his eyes still scanning the shelves of novels, said "There are so many books here, you could get lost for hours!" 

I mumbled a halfhearted, barely audible reply, not sure if his was one of those empty phrases people automatically utter when on an intercepting route with a stranger, or if it was an opening to a conversation. Thankfully, it was the latter. We got to talking about books and whatnot, before he eventually asked me where I was from and how I got here. I told him what you all well know by now and what is summarized in the title of this blog. Basically, I told him that I got in my car and drove here with very little resources. He listened attentively before opening up about himself.

His name was Thomas. He was raised in a racist part of Texas, with an alcoholic for a father and a mother who suffered from bipolar disorder. He used to work construction in San Francisco, but the earthquake in '89 undid all of his work in about 3 seconds, and left him with some substantial injuries as well. Now, he's homeless, looking for a place to stay every night. He's over 50 years old and just recently got a job, which was just about the only good part of his story. I told him I currently didn't have one and that I was very happy for him, because that's a huge step toward feeling accomplished.

He then mentioned that he didn't have a church, although he had visited a few in the area. Now, you have to understand something about me - I am terrified of asking people to come to church. I think I can count on one hand the number of people I've ever invited to church. It's not my gift. But I knew then and there that if I didn't, I'd be kicking myself later. After all, he opened up and shared his story with a stranger. He didn't know that it happened to be a stranger who was there to get away from people and the sickness in his head. So, I figured I'd share a part of my life with him.

We found our way to a table, where he gladly handed me his pen and a scrap of paper to write my church's address on. I also gave him my telephone number, telling him I'd be happy to give him a ride if he managed to get to a place I could pick him up from. We talked more about our past and our problems, before we parted ways - him back to the books and me to my car.

I was sort of dumbfounded. I had gone out of my way to avoid my regular schedule of interacting with others that day, seeking a place where I could channel my frustrations into some sort of creative or quiet activity. Instead, I was put directly in the path of a man who was in need of someone to talk to. It's not like he walked up to me and tugged at my arm. He didn't ask for money. He didn't smell bad. We just happened to be two nerds in one place at one time. And I could see the look of joy on his face as we got to talking, him saying that it's hard to talk to people in the Northwest, let alone connect with them on an emotional level. 

As I left, my mind went back to Ned Vizzini and Robin Williams. They used whatever gifts were available to them to help people overcome their own problems. Yeah, they may have lost out to the darkness in the end, but they did good work before they went. I want to do good work before I go, and I intend to go the natural way.

You see, my disease put me in a place where I was able to help someone else. Not only that, but was helped by my conversation with Thomas. I told him that I wasn't even supposed to be there, that I was avoiding my usual routine because I was feeling particularly depressed that night. And I'm glad that I was. I'd rather be somewhere in the open, struggling with my problems, instead of sitting at home entrenched in contentedness, if it meant that I could be helping someone and that they could in turn help me. 

Suicide is something that I need to think about often, to remind myself that it's not the answer. It's a heavy concept that is no fun to talk about. I know I will never be as funny as Robin Williams, or as good a writer as Ned Vizzini, but if I can use what I've been given to help others steer clear of their inner darkness like these two did, then I will have considered that a success. And if it was necessary for me to try and take my own life twice for me to get to a place where I can help someone cope with their demons, then I don't mind all of the pain and suffering I've had to go through to get to that point. I can't say the same for my friends and family - they don't deserve that kind of burden.

I just hope that there is a Thomas out there for everyone. Someone who comes along and interrupts your self-pity and unwittingly drags you out of your despair by simply talking to you and genuinely listening to you. Someone who pays your plans no heed in their efforts to care about you, be they strangers or not. Because sometimes that's all it takes. My sickness put me in contact with another sick person - a different sort of sickness - and the two of us walked away feeling a little healthier.

If that's not a good way to spend an evening, I don't know what is.

JDS