Tuesday, November 27, 2012

No Stress

My eye is twitching.  Not even the simple hiccup of an animated Jafar from any number of Disney “Aladin” movies.  No, this thing is full-on ‘seizure on the dance floor’.  The shimmies and shakes it does would put Pinkamena Diane Pie to shame.  It does this every few months for no known reason.  I used to think it was spring pollens and such – I mean, I did have my head cracked at one point.  Then it was the coffee, or rather, my roughly four shots of espresso a day – more, if during the holidays.  Maybe it’s the stress.

I blame the Dutch for most things.  Being an American mutt, I may very well be blaming myself.  In fairness, it’s a comedic blame to defer from the traditional prejudiced or stereotypical reflex I was raised with in the blaming department.  Hell, being raised in a multi-racial household with a proud Panther step-father helped mitigate anything BUT that from ever being a response.  It was always a little weird when he expected me to do the Panther salute in 1994.  My only familiarity with the Panthers as an eleven year old boy in the backwoods of southwest New York State was from ‘Forest Gump.’  To say that’s lacking in adequacy would be to draw similarities to the modern American public educational standard.

As far as I know, we have only one person who is part Dutch (that we know of) in the family, and he married in.


Point being, I don’t know if I can blame the Dutch for my eye twitch.  Stress is the easiest culprit, so let me give you a better story.  No, we’ll blame this on the great dragonbeast of Bismuth, Azurath of Malachite, the flaming beast of Meriol and T’edrialle.  It was foretold that his return would occur on the final moon of the Mayan calendar, and I fear his return deeply.

And if you just bought that, let me sell you some headlight fluid – it will protect you in the coming days of darkness!

What is causing it really doesn’t matter (unless it’s drain bamage, in which case it might matter a little).  But thinking on stress made me think of what stresses me out.  Butterflies that knowingly cross busy thruways; for that matter, sparrows that dive bomb the same roadways as if playing ‘chicken’ with the speeding cars.  Driving country roads at night for fear of having deer viscera and excrement smashed into the fine aluminum folds of my car’s exterior, should I unwittingly hit one.  Number two pencils.  Seriously, when have you ever had a plain, old, number two pencil?  And for that matter, if they’re not made with lead, how do the still work for those scantron tests?

These are all things well within my control, so why does it stress me out?  Everybody has stress.  That’s like saying you have had the urge to poop at least once before in your life.  Humour me as we look at something for a moment: we can only be effected by what we let affect us.  The understanding I had been traveling under was to simply be hard and rigid to things that I didn’t want in my life, but I’m finding that it’s not like that at all.  Not, “It’s not that easy;” not like that at all.  ‘Stress’ (of the variety I’m dealing with here) is very simply defined: put under physical or mental pressure.  There are scientific measurements of nominal standards for most humans and fish, but it is a most interesting concept because we – as a society – define its limits however we want.  My new boss is stressing me, my car is stressing me out, these tacos are causing some emotional stress (alright, we can all agree on the last one). 

We tell ourselves- and those around us- what it is that’s bothering us; what it is that’s stressing us.  Couldn’t it be said that we allow ourselves to set these benchmarks for what makes us stressed?   Are we, yet again, defining the limits to which we want to acclimate to a social norm of compliance? Or is this an easy out?  Do we typify all these things within a comfort zone, and anything breaching it is simply a stressor, rather than adapting our ability to grow so that these are included?

Looking at myself and this twitchy-as-fuck eye, I can say I am setting my own standard for what is my personal stress.  As a personal example from work – both recent and in a decade’s past - I'm starting to realize the reason people can drive me nuts with how moronic they sound, is because they're giving me back the same half-cooked explanations of everything that I don't understand.  That is to say, they irritate me, because they show me what I am doing wrong.

I am getting ‘stressed’ because I’m communicating concepts I don’t grasp firmly, and that’s causing people to come back to me, stressed, and asking for clarification.  And if you’re wondering how this applied to selling video games and running a video game store, all I have to say is: RETAIL.  Seriously, that job may come with a big old manual of what to do, but not HOW to do it.  And for selling, let’s be real for a moment: over 120 games come out from October to January annually.  Are you really so damn thick to think I’ve played every one of those, worked 60 hours a week to pay for my food and rent, spent at least 5 hours a week with my wife (while she’s conscious, thanks to alternating schedules), and then juggled the 9 hours of calls during holidays from my stores on my personal time off, all to have played these games THE DAY they came out?  Seriously: I could have had a colonic and not had more shit come out of me after the way I would make that stuff sell. 

In effect, I am my own worst enemy with stress.  I accept that there’s a limit to when I will be susceptible to it, and I allow myself the comfort of its blame, rather than expanding my own boundaries.  So for me, all ‘stress’ I encounter is simply a self-imposed inability to process or cope with aspects of my daily life.

Easy enough, right?  Understanding that, I can affect change.

Now, let’s talk about my recent endeavor to stop using Prilosec after a fifteen year prescribed stint (docs started me YOUNG).  Just thought to myself, is this something I need?  No, but I have to re-learn what in the hell food agrees with me now.  Speaking of, let’s also talk about how I’m not drinking coffee anymore…

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Spending in the Name of

Thanksgiving Day.  It’s a quirky American tradition celebrating our ancestor’s ability to settle their cultural differences with the Native Americans, and share the crop brought forth from the mutual perseverance of all.  This day in history would be followed with the settlers buying land from the Natives at a mere pittance of their actual worth, all because they knew how to work a mark over.  See, the Native Americans didn’t have a concept of ‘owning’ land.  They would have taken a damn letter opener from the settlers for it, because they had no idea how any one person could own the land – just like our notion of no one being able to own the sky- and figured they were the ones taking advantage of the early American pioneers.  They would take these contributions and laugh, because they didn’t understand they were being taken advantage of, and they had no indication of the dangers ahead from just letting a few Shylocks pull the wool over their eyes.

But that’s just me being a hipster, anarchist, liberal, egalitarian dick, right?  I mean, it’s not like this gets brought up on Fox News or anything...

The same celebration of thanks occurs to this day.  We sit with our families, setting aside our perceptions of who is really the craziest one in the bunch, ignoring Aunt Edna as she slams back Xanax and wine like Tic Tacs and Fresca.  We find Uncle Charley’s inebriation charming; instead of the slow, menacing vehicle he’s using it as to cure his manic depression – either by killing him, or numbing himself into a mild mental retardation.  No, on this day he can happily play with the nephews and nieces, none older than nine.  And look! – They think he’s funny and imitable!  How adorable!

I honestly love Thanksgiving.  As a day, it truly speaks to what is best about being from this country.  We have branched so far from our families and our familial identities in just a little under a century.  We are all our own franchises: selling the same genes, but with a refreshing regional twist that keeps everyone guessing.  And on this day, we come together to share in our food, our stories, and our loving appreciation of each other. I love this – it is fantastic to see so many, and to be reminded of what makes them unique and just simply wonderful.

And when the food has been consumed, the wine emptied, the turkey looking as barren as the elephant boneyard in The Lion King, we chuckle like devious hyenas as we plan the next, inevitable phase of spending time with our family not 31 days from Christmas: holiday shopping for each other.

Black Friday is as American as Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan:  Smile at the natives, let them all eat, and then take them to the bank.

Disclaimer time.  I have worked retail since 2003.  That’s nine seasons of working through Black Friday (and Saturday. and Sunday. and – sometimes - even Thanksgiving Day).  Last year I dropped over half a K on Black Friday – just on myself.  This year I still dropped about $100, but not on myself.  This was a conscious decision predicated by my desire to decrease my annual spending.  By a lot.  I did NOT visit a brick-and-mortar store that day, as all shopping was done right from my phone’s browser.  I did NOT do any of it on Thanksgiving Day.  Ironically, now that I was no longer on the other side of the counter I had this almost Pavlovian instinct to look at all the sales flyers and set aside the times necessary to purchase the timed deals online.  The epiphany I discuss here did not hit home until the drive home when I took the time to think about personal growth. 

Again, this is all fucking ironic, and in large part a lesson to my future self.

Back to the story here.  We drove out of state on Wednesday.  Even on that day, when driving past a Best Buy or Wal-Mart, there was always – yes, always; not a hyperbole – at least one tent setup at the front door.  Occasionally, there’d be a few other chairs behind it.  At one location, there was a truck backed up the tent, running a power line to a light inside of it – maybe even a television, by the flickering - and several people playing soccer by the vehicle’s front lights.  It looked quite jovial, as there was also a mini fridge plugged into it, and a gas grill steaming in the brisk New England nighttime air.  This was how they were spending their holiday: in a parking lot, in the cold, at a store, and –from my own experience behind the counter with this fine pedigree of human consumer - away from their families.

The training has been to wait until THIS day to buy THAT item because it will be at THOSE prices.  The hottest new toy, the fad cellphone, the best-ever video gaming doodad – they’re all available at the year’s lowest prices.  You’ve just had a day to spend with your family – aren’t they great? – don’t they deserve the best? – Then come on out and shop for them!  Hell, if you’re so crazy about your family, some places are even open on Thanksgiving Day!

So you can leave your family gathering, shop for the people at your family gathering, and get back before it’s over.  This is ingenious, right?

Well, sure: if you aren’t the one that’s working at this fantastic retailer ringing you out on Thanksgiving day.  What in the great merciful hell is actually wrong with you, America? - Tampon so high up there you’re suffering from toxic shock?  These are people that have a family; somewhere, someone is having a family gathering – without them.  The family is broken, and the day that should be bringing them together is driving tacking nails with the hammer of Thor to do the opposite.  Even with a tight schedule that had me working so closely before and after the holiday, it was impossible to spend the actual day with anyone from my family.  Finally spending it with them this year was both wonderful and a little awkward.  I mean, it’s a shame how much I don’t know about any aspect of my family.  Equally, I feel like they always see this twisted misanthrope and that’s all (to be fair, that’s half of my personality).

The great retailer broached us in years past for how to grow their business.  We replied to give us better deals.  They celebrated – the idea could work.  They give us discounted food, and we in turn storm the stores like the beaches of Normandy on June 6th of 1944.  That may be hyperbole.

Do our children need iPads? – sure, if they’re on sale!  Do they need iPhones, designer jeans, and faux-fur parkas? – why not!  Already at the store buying that 93” television, may as well toss it all in.  Besides, they’ll love you more if you get them more! – remember last year when you got them all that stuff, but they started hating you again a month later? If you buy them more this year, that won’t happen!

Let’s branch out from a tirade that’s seemingly going nowhere for a moment.  I’d run into this psychobabble every year where parents would accuse me of ruining their child’s Christmas because we’d run out of “The Barney Chainsaw Massacre” or “Call of Dootie: Taint Surprise”.  Are the loving bonds between you and your family so tenuous that a sixty dollar piece of plastic is the only thing maintaining the admirations and standards that they have held you to?  Will they stop thinking they can’t be an astronaut if mommy can’t buy them a copy of “Assman’s Free 3: The Chap’s Revenge”?  Does little Jimmy really NEED an iPhone 5 when his 4S from last year is just as good?  Fuck- the kid’s eight: why in fuck’s name does he even have a cellphone? - Is Selena Gomez his girlfriend?  

As long as retailers believe that they can get more money from us on this day, they will continue to encroach on our wallets – and our families.  With a little lobbying, the right shoulders rubbing together, or even the right money on the right candidate, how soon before they create a precedent allowing them to rip employees from their family to work on this day with no recompense?  Hell, how long before none of us can have Thanksgiving Day as a holiday?  The retailers are schilling us their crude shapes of plastic and cut glass in an effort to hold more of the modern American real-estate: our money. 

How in the hell do we make a change? – starting simple.  Re-evaluate why you’re buying what you’re buying.  First, do you need it?  Do you need to purchase it on Black Friday?  Is so, Do you need a $900 dollar TV just because it’s $700, or can you get by nicely with the $200 one?  Feeling more radical? (brace yourself: this might cause you to blow a damn vessel in your eyeball) – stop shopping on Black Friday.  But, hey, while you’re at it, let’s also rule out Thanksgiving Day, the Saturday and Sunday after, and even Cyber Monday.  Make them treat it like any other day of the year.

It is not for the consumer to bend to the stipulations of the business; it is the business’ responsibility to cater to a consumer’s whim.  And we’re just giving them the dotted line on that contract for our paychecks - or souls; whichever’s worth more.

When is the last time you actually sat down with your family – your kids - and talked to them?  For those who are unaware, we have an entire day as a country dedicated to just this opportunity.  I mean, a whole actual day – no work, no need for TV, and we’re already indoctrinated to get together with every able branch of our family.  Blows the mind, right?  Maybe simmer on the shopping lists, and focus on the reason you have the day off from work, and we could all learn a little something about the monsters living under our own roof. Or, you could even get crazier, and try to have regular “family time” – maybe on a weekly, or even – gasp! – daily schedule.  You might even learn something about someone in your family.  Hell, you might even learn something about yourself.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Future You

I have a poster on my wall at work.  Very simple in design- two feet wide and three long, a soft collection of various browns, beiges, and even a faded orange rectangle neatly tucked away in an odd side.  It’s just a collection of all the odd warning signs scattered throughout the video game “Portal 2” - one of my favorite games, really.  Not because of some deep, over-arching plot devices, but, the subtle complexities of it – and, the inherit simplicity of making such a universe completely relatable, despite being so far from reality. 

See, this game is first and foremost, and shooter.  However, you don’t blow anything up: you use a gun to great little pathways that are used to navigate from area to area.  The environs are wide and varied, filled with perilous pitfalls, shimmering sharp shapes, and a flaming furnace containing a catastrophic cake. You have to think, pay attention, move carefully, and above all else, laugh at the inordinate amounts of self-referential, absurd, Monty Python-esque dialogue.

Of all these signs, there is one that I find most intrguing for what it warns. This saying – this sign – is inspired when taken out of context.  It’s a testament to the human will.  Maybe more to our programmed habits and desires.  Maybe to a higher level of complacency.

“Remember!  If a future you tries to warn you about this test, DON’T LISTEN.”

Everyone will go through trials in life.  Through different tests, challenges, moment of moral clarity.  There will be epiphanies, and catastrophes.  We will fail at least twice as often as we succeed.  These are parts of being human – understanding the challenge, and being aware of all consequences.  And then there are some that just blindly ignore the lessons of those that have preceded them.  Nothing wrong with that – hell, I’ve done it many a time.  What I have always found spectacular is how people will frequently make the same mistakes repeatedly.  I can understand ignoring advice, and learning a lesson the hard way once.

But for the love of fuck, people: if you put your hand in a fire once and it burns, the next fourteen times it is still going to be a hot fire.

More miraculous, is that as a modern, tech-aware (I hate saying tech-savvy; very few are truly tech-savvy, we just call people who understand the general state of things and how they operate as such, while those that do get it, are nicknamed things rhyming with ‘hill mates’ and ‘leaf mobs’) society, we have surrounded ourselves with stories from all walks of life at varying stages.  These people are moving through the events that others may very well face.  The logical response to this seems to – instead of learning from it – give it a thumbs up on Facebook.  From their cellular communications device.  While driving.

About two months ago, I stopped using Facebook.  At the time, it was more of necessity.  Little did I realize through the next two weeks how addicted I was to just skimming through the “News” feed, leaving funny or snarky remarks to the feedback of others, and posting some caliber of drivel greater than the sum of my parts – both physically and intellectually.  That is to say, in retrospect, following Facebook may have caused as-yet undetermined long term brain damage.  Maybe a few folds went a bit smoother, at least.

I would share, comment, post – whatever – almost ALL of the inane babbling that would come to my mind. Which, trust me, is a good deal more than the sane amount of conversation I have in a day.  I would even post hard won challenges and trials, and forget the morals and lessons between the humorous replies, the counting of how many ‘likes’ I could get, or posting it and checking to see what everyone else had been up to.  All in all, I spent over an hour a day watching a text-based version of Jersey Shore, and aborting my own life experiences in favor of it.

Facebook has taught me how to brag and boast, broadcast and convey, but not how to actually BE a better person.  In the time I have forced myself to not convey my every waking thought - whether it be whimsical, crass, sophisticated, convoluted, or downright perplexing - the more I have felt like I actually understand myself better.  I honestly feel as though I have been going through a series of motions, and, only when I made the world stop watching, I was able to see these motions for what they were.

But that’s only a part of why that Portal quote sticks with me.   It’s more the expectation that doing the same thing over and over would ever result in a completely different outcome, despite all variables remaining the same.  That’s easily the most applicable understanding of this quote.

Let’s look at an expectation versus exception.  I commonly was working around ten hours a day with GameStop – twelve or more, come holidays – and that was the “norm”.  Matter of fact, we were bound by a supposed contract (upon termination it was made transparent that I was, in fact, not contracted thanks to a merger half a decade past) to perform at least 44 hours a week from January through October, then 53.5 from November through December.  There was little regard for personal life, families, emotional well-being – and this was all the expectation.  Working all of that time without additional pay – while only being offered incentives or vacation displacement – should only be an exception.  Bells and whistles do not put food on my table; hell, that much time away from the home kept me away from the table.  In actuality, a normal week with GameStop would result in 48 or more hours, while, during holidays, I would easily pull down 65 a week. 

It was worth it for the compensation, though, right? – All three additional days off that could only be used from February to April?  Fuck, people: I would have made more in those 12 hours a week of regular, salaried pay, spread across five weeks (because our season really started mid-November and ran to the end of December), than I did in those three, eight-hour days they were “rewarding” me with.

The only person responsible for setting that exception as an expectation, though? - That was all me.  So now I have this time with myself.  I find other projects to do.  Hell, finally getting around to editing the first draft of The Brass Gentleman novellas, while penning in the next three simultaneously (easier explained at another time; suffice it to say, someone’s got a copyright finally).  I have more time to perform odd jobs around the house.  My time at work is better spent, now that I’m not peeking at my phone every forty minutes for new status updates.

You get the idea: I am getting more done, learning more about what I do, and learning better ways to overcome failures, just by getting  rid of a few (hundred) extra voices in my day to day life.  I also like to think I’m producing better material, not nearly as much of an elitist douche, and, hey – maybe I’m even a little less racist, since I’m not awkwardly laughing along with everyone else’s racial slurs on an hourly basis.  Maybe I don’t find torture-porn jokes as funny, because really, I never did.  It’s only now that I don’t have the daily exposure to them requiring me to ‘just deal’, and occasionally laugh uncomfortably.  I’m even finding it harder to laugh at TextsFromLastNight.com, and that’s saying something.  It’s not because I’m becoming some prude – it’s because there is nothing to substantially glean from that exposure; it has little net worth in addition to what I can do during a day.

If I should have ignored my future self and fallen back on comfortable habits, well, then I’m glad that I stabbed that asshole in the throat.  I’m not going to tell you what you need to do to grow: it’s different for everyone.  My wife found invigoration and respite in building her personal strength.  I still find a certain peace to a long run (more of an ambling tumble on an elliptical while the bone in my leg continues to heal).  But if you’re spending every day wishing you could be so much more, and you do nothing to that end, then I salute you for taking Portal’s advice, and ignoring your future self.