Disconnected

It’s been a month since I deleted my Facebook account. I don’t miss it. I’m still active on Twitter, still lurk on Reddit, still talk to people on Signal and on Slack. It would take a significant effort to go fully dark, and it’s not a change I’m willing to make.

When I heard that this morning was the first day of F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference, I paid attention. I wanted to hear that Facebook was committed to providing a service that took its users’ privacy seriously. That didn’t happen. Apart from the announcement of a function that will allow users to clear their stored app and website history from Facebook, nothing suggested a commitment to user privacy and data security. Oh, but Facebook is going to add a dating service to compete with Tinder. I am skeptical that it will go well.

The most jarring thing about leaving Facebook has been the absence of people. It doesn’t take long to realize just how much of one’s social circle relies on one service, and how it enables passive awareness of what’s going on with your friends. (I’m sorry, but I really only know a few birthdays.) I spoke with a friend recently, who suggested that a mutual acquaintance was going through some rough times and was struggling. I was surprised by this; I had no idea anything was wrong. Of course I didn’t know, I thought.

Maintaining relationships takes effort. Facebook can reduce a lot of that effort and, in its absence, I have to do a better job of reaching out to people. It’s a lot easier to mash that “Like” button than it is to really listen to someone talk about something that brought them joy, or a struggle they’ve recently conquered. It’s not something I could do consistently, day-in and day-out, for everyone. Still, I think it’s worth trying. Relationships are important. Connection is important. We are important.

 

Gifts to Future Me

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As is sometimes the case, I feel depressed. I do not suffer from depression in the clinical sense, but incidentally, as I suspect most humans do. I had thought to tell you about Michelle Wolf’s speech from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but if you’re on social media, you’ve probably already seen it, along with a half-dozen hot takes. I don’t need to pile on.

When I feel like this, I really don’t want to do anything. I just finished my final exams for the Spring 2018 semester at the local Community College, and I bought myself a new video game as a reward for finishing my exams, but I haven’t been moved to sit down and get into it. Instead, I’m’ sitting in front of my laptop, in my pajamas. Writing. Building habits.

When I feel like this, I find it useful to leave gifts for future me. I do things that I don’t want to do right now, but things that will benefit me tomorrow. These are generally mundane chores that will add to my quality of life: I fold my laundry and put it away (the only difficult parts of doing laundry — I am a pro at putting my laundry into the washing machine, and I even set timers to remind me to put it into the dryer), I make sure I have a lunch for work tomorrow. I try to get a reasonable amount of sleep so that I don’t feel like a zombie in the morning.

There’s something about depersonalization that can make self-care more appealing when one is disinclined toward it. A dear friend of mine, when they hear me getting down about myself, will sometimes say to me, “I need you to be nicer to my friend Nicholas, please.” I’ll chuckle and roll my eyes, but sometimes it actually works. If you have a problem that seems insurmountable, imagine yourself providing advice on that same problem to a dear friend. And then do that.

If depression is something you struggle with, you might find this self-care guide useful. It’s helped me every so often.

That’s all I have for today. By the time you read this, it’ll be Monday. May you have an easy, compassionate start to your work week. If you don’t start your work week on Monday, may you have an easy, compassionate start to your day. Be well.

Two of My Favorite F Words

Two of my favorite F words are feminism and forgiveness. Recent events have made them extremely topical.

I love the word “feminism” because I believe it is the future. I genuinely believe that patriarchal societies are actively harmful to the people in them. I don’t think the toxic, traditional definitions of masculinity are doing any favors for anybody. There are lots of boys and young men who suffer because they cannot bear the pressure of living up to what they’re told a Real Man should be. There is no Real Man. There are advertisements that will tell you what a Real Man looks like, but it’s all so you’ll buy whatever product they’re selling to relieve whatever flaw they’re looking to exploit.

A society that identifies archetypal standards of behavior based on gender hurts everybody. I’ve found that living an authentic life, consistent with one’s values and goals, provides more opportunities for joy and connection than a life spent constrained by the definitions of a society that wants to sell me diet pills and light beer. Patriarchal society inhibits authenticity. Feminism does not.

I love the word “forgiveness” because I think it’s a path forward. One of my favorite poets, Buddy Wakefield, has a fantastic poem titled “Hurling Crowbirds At Mockingbars,” which contains the line “forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past.” (I believe he credits this quote to the Rev. Kathianne Lewis.) It’s a tremendous poem overall, one with which I personally identify:

I … suck at forgiveness, toward myself or toward others. I’m working on it. But I love the word forgiveness because, for me, it represents personal growth in a way that really appeals with and resonates with me. (There’s another line in “Hurling Crowbirds …” that talks about “telling the truth in order to get honest responses.” I also like that line quite a bit.)

“Friday” is also a word I like quite a bit. I hope this Friday presents you with many opportunities to relax, connect with the people you love, and take care of yourself. I’ll be back on Monday. See you then.

Failure, Etc.

Over the past two years, I’ve been studying to become a professional database developer. I’m learning JavaScript, PHP, Python, and SQL, and I’m sure there will be more to come before I finish my degree.

Reader, I am not a very good developer. Learning new things is extremely difficult, even moreso when they are outside your normal intellectual fields of study. (In college, I majored in Literature, and then in Journalism, and finally in Philosophy. I was pre-law before my first college career ended abruptly, but that’s another story for another time.)

After my short-lived stint as an Internet retailer came to an end, I decided that the best way for me to make a living while not having to run Magic tournaments or make Frappucinos was to learn how to code. So here I am. I take online classes and night classes, two per semester, and it’s enough to keep me busy.

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This resonates with me on a very deep level. And I don’t even watch Adventure Time.

I was a precocious child. I started reading at an early age, my childhood IQ scores were enough to draw attention, and I received a lot of positive attention from adults for my precociousness. In retrospect, I think I developed some unhealthy habits regarding approval and self-esteem as a result. I still try to shake them today. (The first part to fixing a problem is admitting that you have a problem, right?)

I bring this up because struggling with programming has led me to confront some challenging feelings (yay, feelings!) about no longer being precocious. I’m pretty solidly average at most things, but I’m definitely below-average when it comes to programming. I know that, eventually, I may become sufficiently competent that somebody would pay me to program for them, but there’s a lot of hard work between now and then.

On the other hand, what an opportunity, right? I’m closer to 40 than I am to 30, and I’m learning new things. It’s pretty incredible, even as it’s humbling and frustrating. I’m grateful for the opportunity to better myself and develop my brain. I’m learning that it’s okay to not be brilliant at something on the first try (or the second try, or the third try …), so long as you are willing to fail, and learn from your failures, and improve as a result.

Now, if only I could keep that in mind when I struggle my way through finals.

Mise.

So, I played in a Magic: the Gathering tournament on Saturday.

This is not a thing I normally do. The last time I played in a tournament was almost two years ago. While a younger version of me had aspirations to become a professional Magic: the Gathering player, those aspirations have long been dead. (True story: when I graduated high school, my parents paid for me to go to the US National Championships that summer, as a spectator. When I came back, I promptly told my parents that I was quitting Magic.)

I think Magic is one of the greatest games created in my lifetime. It’s a game that rewards creativity, logic, reasoning, and psychology. The friends I’ve made as a player, tournament organizer, and judge have been among the finest people I’ve ever known. My involvement with Magic has provided me with unique experiences that I’ll cherish forever. How many of you have been stranded in Barcelona overnight, getting lectured by a septuagenarian British cat burglar over a pitcher (or three) of too-strong sangria?

It’s no surprise to anybody who knows me well that my enthusiasm for Magic has waned over the last few years. Ever since I became a judge in 2004, Magic has been a major part of my life. I worked as a professional tournament organizer for the better part of seven years. I ran my own business selling Magic cards on the Internet for nearly three years. I’ve been a contractor for Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces Magic, since 2015. I honestly don’t think there will be a time in my life where I won’t know how to play Magic.

Yet I’m getting older. There was definitely a time in my life where I would wake up at 4 AM to drive three hours to judge a Magic tournament for ten to twelve hours, get paid less than $100, and then drive home that night. That time has passed. I value my free time differently. The community has also changed. There are only so many times I can correct a young, white, college-aged boy on his use of “gay” or “retarded” at a Magic event. I’ve had to reprimand players for wearing shirts with slogans like “Cool story, babe, now go make me a sandwich.”

While the community has changed, it is still a community with which I identify. It still possesses many lovable characteristics, and some of my favorite people. I like to think that I can help make it better for others. Hence, getting in my car and driving to my favorite game store in the world: Atomic Empire, in Durham. (To quote my good friend Aaron “Cluze” Lacluyze: It’s a great shop. You should check it out.)

To my slight surprise, I had a really good time! The details of my play are irrelevant, other than that I dropped out of the tournament after two unsuccessful rounds, and decided I’d rather treat myself to lunch at Cook-Out than play another round or two in hopes of maybe winning a pack. There was a time where I would have focused on playing the tournament out, in hopes of getting that pack, but that time has passed.

I consider myself to be more competitive than the average person. I definitely cared about winning, but as soon as it was clear that I wasn’t going to win, I thought about what the loss was going to teach me. Playing Magic, and losing at Magic, provides me with many useful opportunities for introspection, and that appeals to the parts of me that would like me to be a better version of myself. (This is an area with many, many opportunities.)

So, yeah – I went to a Magic tournament, I lost a bunch, and then I had a cheeseburger and a milkshake. I got to be enthusiastic about Magic with other people who are enthusiastic about Magic, and that counts for something. I don’t imagine I’ll ever pick up Magic as a competitive hobby again. Still, I’m glad that I was able to engage with the game and the community in a way that felt positive and helpful to me. Maybe I’ll do that again sometime.

 

Mediocre White Dude. (It me.)

Hi. My name is Mister Nicholas, and I am a mediocre white dude.

It feels good to admit it. One of the reasons I left Facebook was that I’d developed a persistent insecurity over what I’d call “lifestyle porn.” It is easy to cultivate and manicure one’s social media presence to present only the best, most-polished version of oneself. Flattering camera angles. Slacktivism that gestures at a deeper concern with Social Justice and World Peace. Pictures of yourself hanging out in Cool Places, doing Fun Things. I would see my friends having the times of their lives, and I’d look down at all the ways I felt disappointed in myself and dissatisfied with my life, and I’d feel lesser.

(This is not to say that I didn’t also engage in lifestyle porn. I definitely did. I liked to draw attention to the good things in my life. I rarely spoke of the things that weren’t working out for me. It provided easy doses of validation and peer support, neither of which can be overrated.)

Rarely did I see people talking openly and honestly about their insecurities. The things they didn’t like about themselves. Things at which they’d failed. It makes sense, it’s natural – nobody likes failure, or to appear fallible, or to be vulnerable. (I especially hate feeling vulnerable. Can’t stand it.)

Paradoxically, I think people are at their most relatable when they’re failing. When we stop trying to hold up the image of ourselves that we want everybody else to see, maybe that’s when we get to be who we really are. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I am a mediocre white man. One could definitely argue that this blog is a form of lifestyle porn. I’m presenting an image of myself to you, the audience, that reflects how I want to be seen. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be seen and, as much as I dislike large groups and grumble about idiots, I want to feel connected to the world around me. I think it’s natural and understandable.

But I digress. There’s freedom in mediocrity. If you accept that you will fuck up, several times every day, maybe it makes it easier to be compassionate to yourself. Maybe that makes it easier to be compassionate towards other people.

When people talk about mediocre white men, I suspect they’re probably talking about this excellent tweet by Sarah Hagi. We’re overconfident because we’re too oblivious to our own privilege. It’s true. I agree with it. I remember talking about this on Facebook and being asked why I would ever accept being labeled mediocre. When I think about it now, I’d say this:

Accepting mediocrity is difficult, but it’s honest. It’s compassionate. You’re not always going to be the most intelligent, the most attractive, the most most whatever. There’s always someone a little better at something than you are. It opens up space in how you relate to yourself, and how you relate to other people. It’s good.

Happy Friday, Dear Reader. I hope this weekend brings you something good. I’ll be back on Monday.

Superheroes & Philosophy

I was bulled in high school. This is only relevant because of what it taught me later in life. The kids who bullied me were assholes at the time, and I hope that they’ve grown into happier, kinder people since. (Though I wouldn’t be sad if they stubbed their collective toes every time somebody reads this post.)

As a victim of bullying, I became defensive about the things I liked. Anything I exposed about myself became something someone could use to hurt me. It meant that I hid my enthusiasm and assumed that I’d be judged harshly for it. I developed a layer of pretentiousness as a defense mechanism, and I carried it into college, where I decided I would become a philosopher.

Then I met John.

John and I took Applied Philosophy together, though we were not friends at the time. During one class, our professor asked us whether we would rather live in a world where everyone meant to do us well, but with negative outcomes, or in a world where everyone meant to do us harm, but with positive outcomes. I don’t remember my answer, but I remember John’s quite well. He replied that he’d happily live in the latter of the two worlds and added, “I could live in Castle Greyskull.”

I probably sneered at him as I retorted: “John, there are no superheroes in philosophy.” (What a jerk, right?)

At the time, I didn’t take John seriously. While it was obvious that he was very intelligent, I didn’t understand him at all. He seemed entirely comfortable being exactly himself. He loved professional wrestling, and Anime, and had a big laugh. John radiated happiness, and self-acceptance. John carried himself in such a way as to be completely devoid of shame, and twenty-something philosophy major me just couldn’t get it.

During lunches and dinners, as I passed by the table where John sat with his friends, he would heckle me. “What about Wolverine, Nick? Is there a Wolverine in philosophy? What about Godzilla?” (Damn right there’s a Godzilla in philosophy.) It didn’t take long for me to relent my pretentious position, and John and I became fast friends.

I like telling this story about John because, for all the reasons that I love him, one of the biggest is how fully and completely John accepts himself and loves himself. He embraces joy openly, loves people for who they are, and is as generous and as friendly a human being as you could ever hope to meet. People talk about the difference between biological family and chosen family, and I definitely claim John as my brother. I love him about as much as I love anyone. He has inspired me to become a better version of myself. It’s a hell of a gift.