Essays on Technology and Culture

The Great Unburdening

In the waning days of 2014, I seized upon two words for 2015: “Simplification” and “Focus.” They’re concepts that are intertwined. It’s easier to focus on something simple, and the more simple I make my life, the easier it will be to focus on what’s important. Simplification is a process, and focus is the desired result of undergoing said process. I know that my life has become much busier and fraught than I would prefer—and this is coming from a full-time employed, thirty-one year old man in a long-term relationship with no children. It wouldn’t be so bad of those things that make life fraught were things I chose to undertake. Instead, it’s often a lot of stuff I’ve fallen into, or baggage I’ve carried from my past. Time to unburden.

The process begins with unloading (some of) the piles of stuff I’ve accumulated over the years. I’m not about to go all Minimalist Hipster here, choosing to live with some arbitrarily low number of things just to say I can. That way lies madness, and frankly, I don’t want to part with my collection of books, music, and DEVO Memorabilia. These things make my life measurably better to have, as I discovered during two years living with all of that stuff in storage. [1] But there’s other piles of stuff I could get rid of: clothes in my closet I don’t wear (or are so worn out that I can’t wear them), DVDs of movies and TV shows I’ll never watch or can stream, CDs of computer games I’ll never play again, and empty notebooks I’ll never write in—ones that I bought in college.

Okay, it’s largely symbolic, but I’m beginning the process of simplification by just unloading as much of this extra crap as I can. Every single physical thing in my life that doesn’t belong is taking up clock cycles in my brain that are keeping it from other, more important things to think about. This includes my work, my relationships, and even my health. No, the extra, cheap plastic shoehorn that came with a pair of dress shoes isn’t going to kill me, but how many shoehorns does someone even need, anyway? [2] My goal is to have a greater degree of intentionality about the stuff I allow into my life, not just to get rid of stuff I don’t want for its own sake. Honestly, until now, I didn’t even see myself as much of a pack rat. I’m not like those nuts who keep all their old iPhones—and the boxes.

Part of the inspiration to simplify came from Patrick Rhone’s recent talk at SimpleREV. In short, there’s three questions one should ask themselves about the things in their life: “What problem does this solve?”, “How little can I get away with?”, and “Where does this belong?” These go a long way into sorting out the stuff we have in our lives, physical and otherwise. I’m also asking myself a fourth question: “Is this making my life better?” It’s why I’m not parting with any physical media—save for DVDs and old computer games. Having music in a tangible form makes my life better.

What’s not making my life better is what I’m getting rid of. These are the burdens on my back that I’ve carried with my through a decade-plus of adult life. The physical ones are the easiest to remove: hock it, donate it, or trash it. But there’s other burdens I’ve been carrying, and for a lot longer that I have to deal with. That step comes next. Wish me luck.

  1. To that point, I just purchased a new record player, since the one I kept in storage died a brutish death due to being a cheap piece of crap. I could just buy all my music digitally, like I did when I had most of my things in storage, but there’s something wonderful about tangible records and CDs.  ↩

  2. Answer: two. One for home, and one for travel.  ↩

Jacket and Tie

The change in seasons in New York City has begun, and with it a change in my wardrobe. I can now, comfortably, dress myself each morning in a sportcoat or blazer, and with it, tie a tie around my neck. It’s how I would prefer to dress all year round, but the humidity of New York summers, and the brutality of non air conditioned subway platforms make it likely that I will only end up a sweaty mess by the time I arrive at work. So, I wait for autumn, and its cool breezes to bust out the finery, where it stays until summer rears its fiery head again.

I’m an odd one out in my office, at least among the non-executives, with my wardrobe. Many are content to wear polo shirts and khakis, or t-shirts and jeans. A hoodie or casual jacket is added as the weather turns. I’m sure they’re happy and comfortable in their dress, as I am in mine. I don’t dress to impress, for the most part. I dress for defense. I dress to defend against myself, and keep myself from slipping into laziness, into complacency. I sometimes call my favorite outfit: a white Oxford Cloth button down shirt, knit tie, dark gray wool sportcoat, black pants, and black captoe oxford shoes, my “responsible adult costume.” It’s more a superhero costume. Putting it on makes me feel like a responsible adult.

My outfit gives me super powers. Dressed up, I have the powers of confidence, of dependability and trust, of good first impressions. Plus, I look great. As long as I wear my jacket and tie, I feel like I can accomplish any task, surmount any hurdle, and deal with any unforeseen circumstance. Put a cup of hot coffee in my hand, and I become invincible. A set of clothes that look good and feel good have the power to change how you feel about yourself. Whatever misfortune, whatever woe has befallen you, you can look in any mirror and say, “at least I still look like I have it together.” For a lot of people out there, looking like you have it together is enough to make them think you really do.

When I look in the mirror and see myself in my jacket and tie, or when I look down to see my shined shoes, it’s enough to change how I feel. I don’t dress for anyone, except myself. Because I’m the person for whom dressing well and looking good will have the most impact. I feel like I have it all together, and if I don’t, I just need to adjust my tie, re-tuck my shirt, and run a comb through my hair for my powers to come back. And, perhaps one day, I’ll overcome my Kryptonite of the summer sun.

A View From Inside the Welfare System

Just over two years ago, I walked away from a job as a clerk with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. I worked there for eighteen months, and not by choice. It was the first full-time job, with benefits, that became available to me after a year of unemployment and hair-pulling stress. The job gave me a look inside a government agency that is too often seems like a black box—one with a number of misconception around it. These misconceptions are not only about how the welfare system works, but who uses it. Until I started there, my only experience with welfare was applying for Medicaid to pay the bills for a concussion I suffered in college. The hospital did all the heavy lifting for me. As intolerable as the work was, I learned a lot about the system that must be shared. The time has come to do so.

Nobody walks into the Welfare Office with a smile on their face, as if they would walk out with the magic card that would give them free food, rent, and healthcare. Everyone walks into the Welfare Office with the look of either desperation, or resignation on their faces. The Welfare Office is the place of last resort for many people. Even if you think you’ll take the system for all it’s got, stepping into the waiting room—always crowded—would wipe the smile off your face as you face the obstinate power of bureaucracy. I walked through that room every day, twice a day, until the police came to deal with a violent “customer” who threw chairs and attacked other people in line. I opted to come and go through the back door after that.

My district, Delancey, covered a large, diverse chunk of West Philadelphia. We covered the campuses of Drexel and Penn, the nice neighborhoods of University City, middle class Black neighborhoods, and out to the deep West Philadelphia ghetto. None are quite as bad as North Philadelphia or Kensington, but I would be wary to be out by the office at 58th and Market streets after dark. A cross-section of everyone could be seen in the office: Penn and Drexel grad students, kids doing a stint with City Year, unemployed middle-class families in University City, single mothers of all ages, races, and reasons, men fresh out of prison, the homeless, and more. They all needed help. Every last one.

I know this, because my job was to process applications. It’s your typical bureaucratic nightmare to get benefits: endless forms, documentation, verification, interviews… and if anything is missing or off, the caseworkers will kick it back with a denial of the claim. People can, and often do reapply several times before they get it right. The biggest cause of this is that the offices are understaffed and far overworked. At the time I worked there, Delancey had 35 caseworkers, of which twelve handled intake. One handled hospital applications for healthcare, and five handled special issuances for job training, transportation, and other things. This left just eighteen caseworkers to handle every active case in the district, of which there were thousands. Between the other clerks and myself, we routinely handled over 100 applications per day. Many physical applications came with handwritten notes, begging for help.

Many of these active cases did not require a lot of active work, but the ones that did would be overwhelming. Caseworkers come in every morning to full voicemail boxes. Periodically, I handled the phones for the office, and would get calls from people with cases in other districts. I had to tell them that I could not help them from where I was, and to call their district. The response was always the same: “But they never answer the phone there!” I understood. How can they, with so many people needing help. Halfway through my time there, they doubled the storage for caseworker voicemails. They still came in to full mailboxes, but now they were twice as full.

Once you have benefits, it’s easy to lose them for the same reasons it’s so hard to get them. Forms are sent out regularly for reporting and renewing benefits. Miss anything, and you’re cut off. This was especially problematic for people who moved around, which is common in the welfare system. If your renewal or reporting forms don’t get delivered, you’re in trouble. People wondering why their benefits were terminated were the largest number of calls I had to field by volume alone.

There’s little incentive to fix any of this. For cash-strapped governments, including Pennsylvania, welfare is just a money sink. To cut costs, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, along with the state legislature, cut the state’s cash assistance benefit, which recipients could use to cover what food stamps cannot. Two days after the cash benefit was dropped, was the last day I worked for Welfare, specifically so I could avoid the horror show of calls and complaints that would come. Money was spent on programs to digitize archives, or improve computer systems to manage applications and cases, but not to add more manpower.

What there is also incentive to do is investigate welfare fraud. The bugaboo of welfare fraud, to root out people exploiting the system, is something that’s easy to get bipartisan support for. Problem is, most fraud in the welfare system isn’t coming from recipients. It comes from inside the system. A few months after I started, someone in my district stole over $100,000 by issuing cash benefits to the card of a dead man. This made the local news, and we were ordered not to talk to anyone from the media: not that I knew anything anyway. In my last months with welfare, the idea was even being floated to drug test welfare recipients. As if the system isn’t emasculating enough already, the idea of forcing desperate people to piss in a cup just to get money for food is worse.

If you’ve never needed the welfare system, consider yourself lucky. If you’ve never needed to have strangers pore over your bank balances, had to pester your landlord for a letter about your bills, your friends and family to document their financial support, or had to face the stigma of trying to buy groceries with a food stamp card, you are lucky. Next week, if things turn for the worst, you could be waiting in line to have the same process happen to you. That’s the biggest problem of all: so many people are willing to support the welfare system when they need it, but when someone else does, they don’t—especially if that somebody is black, a single mom, or both. You can’t have it both ways.

In the Here and Now

I’m constantly thinking about the future. Sometimes the distant future, though not in the sci-fi sense of flying cars and holodecks. I’m thinking about my future, anything from where I’ll be in 10 years to what I want to have for lunch. I think of the day that I’m making enough money from blogging that I can be independent. I think of the day the band I’ve yet to start, after learning the instrument I’ve yet to pick up, plays on TV. I think about what I’m going to be doing tomorrow, whether it will be fun, or a chore.

I also think a lot about the past—the pain, the emotional abuse of my peers, the times I’ve failed, and the times I’ve been screwed over. I don’t need to say anything else about that.

I don’t often think about the here and now. My mind is rarely in the moment, unless I’m doing something that requires concentration. Writing, for example, is one of those things where I can keep my mind in the here and now, at least for short bursts of making the clackity noise. Writing is also a good way to channel my thoughts of the past and of the future into something that belongs here and now, but that’s more of a loophole to get out of the here and now.

What’s happening now? I’m in my apartment. My girlfriend’s gone to bed. I’m a little sore from the 28 minute Couch-to–5K run I went on after work, and a little sore from assembling our new folding couch. I’m listening to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and I’m making the clackity noise. It feels good to be a little sore, and it feels good to be typing and making the clackity noise.

I’m trying to catch myself when I’m not in the here and now, but it’s not an easy process. Mindfulness takes practice, and (with the aid of Headspace) I’m trying to make sure I get that practice in, each day. It’s the only way to escape the trap of being caught up in my past, and the only way to put myself in the place to reach that future I think so much about. To tame the unruly mind that became unstuck in time long ago will take time and effort. I think I’m ready to start.

What I Think About When I Think About Running

In April, I started the Couch to 5K training program. As I write this, I’m in week 7, having missed some time due to travel, injury, and other issues. I run because I want to be in better shape. I want to lose weight, and stave off an early death from a life spent sitting. I do not run because I like it. In fact, I hate running. Even this deep into the training program, I keep it up because I hate it less than I hate lifting heavy things and putting them down. I hate running less than yoga, than swimming, team sports, or most other forms of physical fitness.

Truth is, I’m a walker. I’ll walk all over. I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more. I’m also a fast walker. This comes from being a city person—streets are crowded, and everyone has somewhere to be. So, keep moving and get out of the way. During my lost year, I would routinely take late night walks from my apartment in West Philadelphia at 45th Street, over to the banks of the Delaware river, and sometimes back. I walk most weekends down Queens Boulevard, around Forest Hills, and back. When I take lunch at work, I get in a good walk around Chelsea, most days. When I still wore a FitBit, I rarely missed my 10,000 step goal in a day. If I ever did, I made it up in spades on the weekend.

I find walking to be an almost meditative activity. It’s just me, my thoughts, and the ambient noise of the city. Running isn’t an activity that allows for thought. It’s just pumping and pounding—and sweating. The only way I can make it tolerable is to blast loud, rhythmic music into my ears as I go. I prefer DEVO and Daft Punk, trying to time my footfalls to the beat. This is not what I expected to experience, having read Haruki Murakami’s book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The book is a memoir of both his craft as a novelist, and as a runner. It made me want to take up running then, in the hopes that maybe some of Murakami’s greatness would rub off on me.

Murakami’s view of running is romantic and freeing, a quiet solitude of motion:

“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”

My homemade void from running is neither cozy, nor quiet. It is strenuous, and it is painful. At least Murakami didn’t gloss over the painful part:

“If pain weren’t involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive—or at least a partial sense of it.”

I can’t romanticize pain. Maybe because i’ve had enough of it in my life already, physical and mental, externally and self-inflicted alike. Sure, it feels good when the pain subsides, when the endorphins kick in and everything feels soft and numb, much like the muscles in my legs after pushing myself on the treadmill. But it always feels good having ran. If I’m going to get into even slightly better shape, I’m going to have to take the pain. I don’t have to like it. As Murakami says, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Besides, I already dropped $120 on the fancy fucking running shoes with the arch support I need to avoid shin splints. I’m paying out the nose for the gym membership, so I’d better use it. I’m at the seventh week of a nine week program, and it’s taken me four months to reach it. If I stop now, that’s all a waste, right? The alternative is that there is no alternative, aside from sucking it up and doing something else I don’t like three times a week.

“What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue,” says Haruki Murakami. What do I think about when I’m running? How soon I can stop.