Unfollow, Confirm

1,200 photos of the same dog in a thousand different places. In each picture, the dog looks happier than I have ever felt. In each photo, the dog is staged and tagged in a place I will probably never visit. Dogs are amazing. I have two. But a celebrity dog usually means expendable income for their owner – like a pageant mother running their child all over town – so I unfollow the dog. I unfollow all of them.

I unfollow all the fitness folks, the yogis, the nutrition experts and anything with footage of someone doing something in a gym. I will never nail a handstand or secure the sole of my foot to the back of my head. I unfollow them and feel the burden lifted. Unfollow the famous yogi-doer and achieve immediate enlightenment.

Who are the half a million followers of a woman I’ve never heard of? The one with a thousand million photos of her face and ass. “A portfolio page,” they call it. There is no story here. Just a mis-attributed quote and a slew of lewd comments. The story is that this woman gets photographed a lot. Why am I here looking at you? Unfollowed.

The woman wearing the same bikini in the same pose at all the tourist spots they (and you, probably) only discovered because someone else in a different bikini took the same shot there a month ago. I do not look great in a bikini. I will never run into these people at the global destination I will never find myself at. Same goes for the guy who quit his corporate job and travels the world making $5million a year from his laptop business.

I have my suspicions.

Unfollowed. All of them.

I keep following the lady who sometimes dog-sits for us when we are out of town because she is too damn nice. I will also follow her boyfriend because I think he’s a compelling enough guy even though I haven’t gotten the chance to get to know him. But I know what he likes on Netflix because that’s what he last watched on my queue (when he was at my pace, dogsitting with the nice lady.

There is another guy I know kind of well I follow. His struggles with health resulted in a breakup with the person he wanted to marry. He posts oddly saturated photos every now and again that are devoid of context or captions. At least we know he’s doing well enough to do that. I should call him.

There are hundreds of others I follow because I met them once or twice. I keep following them because they post comically bad photos of the food they are eating at a restaurant and no one ever comments on it one way or another. A few accounts have flipped over to uncomfortable MLM selling tools. I should probably get around to unfollowing them too.

I also unfollowed all of the Ferrisses and Vaynerchucks of the world. Good intentions for someone, I’m sure. Nothing they suggest works unless there is a bag of cash attached to it. “Grinding” is bad. Grinding is how machines wear down and eventually destroy themselves. All machines need oil to keep moving. I recommend a modestly priced single batch rye.

Unfollow the brands. They want your money, and they will jam into the stream of nice things you like to get it. More lives have probably been influenced by the Harry Potter books than the “12 Steps to your first Million” courses you can buy online.

That photographer with a million gorgeous photos all edited the same – of models or landscapes or whatever – will I ever actually buy and frame a print of theirs? Will I ever pay for them to take my photo? Of course, they are on a great journey. I’m sure they appreciate the support I never actually give them. Double-tap to like.

I’ll follow the travelers who post photos of them sleeping in airports or the ones who post once every two months because that’s when they get into a wifi area that works. The kind of folks with journeys that leave them filthy and smiling. The kind who enjoy a shower out of a bucket rather than a hot tub overlooking a sunset.

I’ll follow the causes which are working for something grander and more important than the sum of its people. Follow causes because they NEED your support.

Follow the creators who are new and fresh and still refining their craft. Watch them grow. Watch how grateful they are when you buy their work and share it with others.

Follow the creators and artists who inspire you to a point where you can’t help but close the app, drop your phone, and get going on something incredible of your own.

These apps should be a source of inspiration, not desperation.

Three Small Paintings

There is a little gallery in Old Town Albuquerque that you probably won’t find on social media. They don’t’ have an official website. There is a Yelp page for the Santisima, but they are careful not to feature any of the work they sell within the gallery. The shop is located down one of the numerous pedestrian streets that wind through a maze of low-slung adobe buildings. Among all of the doorways that take you into any of a dozen galleries featuring jewelry from “local artisans” (EVERYTHING seems to be made from locals, as though there is a central factory hidden somewhere in the walls), look for the one with the petite statue of a woman dressed to celebrate Dios De La Muerte. Inside the gallery are walls packed with bright and eccentric paintings from any one of two dozen artists somewhere in New Mexico. Everything on the walls is an original, one of a kind. The handful of prints for sale in the racks are officially licensed and unavailable anywhere else in the world.

Nothing in this place is a reproduction. Inversely, the gallery owner works double time to make sure nothing of his artists gets reproduced anywhere else. For a while, when marketers told him to have a website and promote his new gallery releases through Facebook. In doing so, he routinely fell victim to having the images ripped off only to be printed as posters or T-shirts or postcards in a factory in Mexico, only to be sold at bandit booths near roadside attractions or in any of the gas stations that dot the landscape between here and the next town.

It is a bold move, but it might be a lesson worth learning. Although there are no sales of online products, the gallery still does extremely well with the sales it does make. Originals cost a little more and might be harder to come by, and that just might the whole point.

 

Around the turn of the century, a German critic named Walter Benjamin rolled around with this idea of “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Somewhere in the 1920s, Walter was concerned about the idea of how ancient texts, images, and art were being presented in a world where photography, printing presses, and electronic transmissions (heyo telegraph!) were starting to become more and more prevalent.

The gist of his argument can be summarized today in the fact that everyone knows, sort of, what the Mona Lisa is. The smirk, the look.  Most of us have likely viewed it through an online medium, printed in a book, on the side of a coffee mug. It has been noted to be “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.”

Those who have visited the painting in person are usually underwhelmed by the size of the original or have been outraged by the line to view it. Others will comment on how some travel all around the world to be in the same room as the painting only to take an Instagram story of it. Between the coffee mugs, the insta-stories, and the critics who spend their whole careers breaking down the meaning of the image – what is the actual point of something like the Mona Lisa in our modern times? Does seeing the painting a thousand times on a digital screen inspire anyone to take up the brush? Does the painting technique or the story or the mystery of the thing convey across our modern art distributions? Does the Mona Lisa exist purely to drive tourism and gift shop sales?

Paintings were stretched over canvases to be archived in galleries or discussed in salons, or they were delicately strewn across earthen walls as frescoes. Plays were done anywhere a stage, and a crowd could gather. Movies were seen in theaters where the runs were months long and you frequently saw the same movie numerous times before the films were packed up and moved to the next region. All music used to be live music.

So, in our modern days of digital reproduction, what does this all mean?

Today we have screens. Lots and lots of screens. Most of them are two dimensional with rather impressive sound systems. Just about any content can be streamed to any pocket anywhere in the world. None of that content is ever actually “owned” anymore. The black and white films of the 40s and 50s created for luminescent screens are now presented in high definition on a screen that the creators couldn’t have even imagined.

More modernly, there is a whole crew of people finding oddities of the modern, wide-screen presentation of Malcolm in the Middle which was never meant to be shown beyond their 4:3 format. Every bit of music that is being recorded on an analog platform is eventually compressed down, digitized, streamed and delivered to everyone through the same 1/8th-inch jack that every set of headphones comes with.

All of this is bad for the historic culture of the media that came before the iPhone generation. Yet, probably not so bad for those who are creating in step with it. Like Soderberg’s release of Unsane, a feature film shot entirely on an iPhone. He also knows that a good portion of his audience will likely be viewing the movie on a mobile device. Which might be a better experience than the time I watched Dunkirk on an iPad on a flight back from Mexico.

 

So why am I wondering what settings are best for exporting a photograph I shot on a full-frame lens so that it is best presented on Instagram? Why do so many of us feel inclined to reduce our work to something that is compatible with a three-inch screen? Why are there creators out there who feel pressured to constantly be updating feeds that are scrolled through as fast as possible, only to have the content disappear out the top of the cell phone?

Why the algorithm? Mona was never subjected to an algorithm.

We have been told by a new generation of digital marketers that continuously updating the free content is the key to generating business. I don’t think that’s true. I’ve explained in previous posts about how making a play for volume ultimately creates bad art and drives creators to do stupid stuff. Someone “liking” a photo has never meant less than it does right now.

What is the point of social media if no one is legitimately social?

Maybe I never actually post a photo online again! Wouldn’t that just kill my dreams of quitting it all and traveling the world as a photographer?

Given, I have submitted a handful of images to Unsplash as their presentation is marginally better than a three-inch screen. Over there they are free for use and seem to be more appreciated than anything on Instagram. I have also printed numerous photos I’ve taken in large formats as sale items and gifts for those who have supported my work in the past. Frankly, I think all photos should be printed to some degree.

Maybe, just maybe, our relationship with art and artists (or with fans and patrons) isn’t to consume through the three-inch screen, but to have it serve as some kind of index. The trailer for the movie, the flier for the performance, the taste of what is to come. The modern marketers might have had it wrong. Why bother overloading your fans with free content on the medium they consume everything else too? Maybe the real sales power is in the mystery.

 

I bought three paintings from Santisima gallery that afternoon. Two four by sixes, a five by eight. I would add photos of them here, but that would go against the wishes of the artist. They are gorgeous. Three, small giclee paintings of women in skull-makeup face paint. All of them wearing full brim hats, all done in a delicate black and white. You will have to come by the house sometime to see them.

Reminders on Rhetoric

Maybe I have grown cynical. Maybe I need less time on the internet, fewer voices in my head. Maybe it is time to go back to cleaning up my kitchen.

Instead, I made a list of rules to remind myself of all the reasons I get into creative funks.

Or, really, I feel like a few things need to be cleared up.

On Trust

First and foremost – no one deserves your trust. Of course – do well by your family and those who love unconditionally. Everyone else on the face of this planet is not deserving of your trust. On a long enough timeline, everyone will reveal that they did not have your best interests at heart. This should never surprise anyone.

If you find yourself trusting a total stranger, it means they are a hell of a salesman. Salesmen are only interested in how deep your pockets go.

The shorter the distance between a person’s idea and the “publish” button, the less you should trust them. Also, makeup and studio lights hide a lot of lies.

On News

Journalists have a very narrow focus to their job – answer “Who, what, where, when, why” about a particular concern of the community they serve. These are the Five Ws that you likely learned in grade school in one discipline or another. Journalists find answers to these questions through eyewitnesses, insider sources, or collaborated accounts from different people. For a journalist to do their diligence across the 5 W’s and then have it called it “fake news” is to contest the fabric of space/time.

After the Five Ws, analysts go a little further to bring about the “how” of the news. The “how” provides historical context and is usually where things get fucked up. Because anyone can add any flavor of context from a vast number of sources, the story starts to get bent. THIS is where stuff can have a fake feeling, this is usually when “news” becomes “editorial.”

News and Editorial are not the same. Anyone who chooses to be a part of a discussion should first prove they know the difference between the two.

News is the presentation of facts. Editorial is one person’s translations of those facts into a story. If a news broadcast seems to lean hard in one direction or another, it probably isn’t news. Usually, that is State TV (and a whole ‘nother can of worms).

On Politics

No politician on any level should be trusted. From the global leaders we see on, middle-managers of whatever company you work at (office politics!), to Susan who wants to head the PTA this year – not a single one of them is deserving of an ounce of your trust.

Politics, especially in today’s environment, is a necessary evil. When we decided to have a quasi-democratic/socialist society we put a collection of public resources at the middle of everything. This may or may not have screwed things up. But it did require a need for politicians to help facilitate the (ideally, responsible)use of these resources

On Philosophies & Belief

I feel like most of us are lost in trying to compare politics with philosophies.

Politics should never be fought for or over.

Philosophies, by design, are meant for personal guidance. Philosophies can charge politics, but politics should never define our philosophies.

Beliefs are usually what we’re fighting over. Beliefs are programmed into us at such an early age and reinforced over our human experience. When the time comes to fight over them, most of us have forgotten why we believe what we do in the first place.

Politicians should be questioned frequently and never defended. Every politician claims to run on platforms of voter values. Most politicians will not think twice about their constituents once they are in office. This is not entirely their fault – most of the time they are so wrapped up in deals, debates, and interests of political parties that the need of the individual will never cross their mind unless it makes for a good photo op.

And Finally

My God, let me enjoy this. I’d like to thin that life isn’t just a sequence of things waiting to be done.

The Usual

There is this idea: the human body does a complete overhaul every seven years. Cells masticate, metabolize, and regenerate at a pace where every seven years you are essentially a brand new person. Same old habits, same crap attitude, and maybe you pick your nose when no one is looking, but at least the paint looks new? In the midst of a recent overhaul, I had approached the age where haircuts started happening every three weeks to appear clean enough to engage with the quasi-professional circles and present at a periodic client meeting. No longer could I live the days of a year between haircuts, or updating my wardrobe, or collecting my receipts for my quarterly filings. I still never wore a tie, but I did need to cut my hair.

Behind the counter of The Usual was a man with a face I had never seen before. New employees were not uncommon. A busload of new people arrived daily to this town; every face looks new; every face looks the same. This guy, with his hat and thick-framed glasses, says to me: “You’re David, right? Let’s check you in.” A beat, “I totally went to high school with you, man.”

It isn’t every day a total stranger says they went to high school with you. Maybe some humans out there would be delighted at this idea. I filled with dread. Before I can say anything the phone rings and he picks it up. “The Usual,” he says.

He doesn’t offer his name to the person on the other end of the line. I hang my baseball cap on the hook and sit down on the couch in the reception area and pick up the same indie-surfer magazine I always flip through whenever I come in. The magazine is surprisingly well made for its limited circulation, and it is anyone’s guess how it wound up in this shop. There are three centerfolds – all thin, evenly tanned by the sun, appearing disinterested and not much thinking given to the location of their bikini tops. Also, a comic strip about a man having an existential crisis with a bear, the joke is how he can hardly stand it.

Today, though, the magazine doesn’t do anything for me. I wasn’t actually looking at the pages or centerfolds or realizing that the joke is about how he can’t bear it anymore. One of the most uncomfortable sensations of our modern times is when someone says they know you, and you cannot reciprocate. This is the era of casual celebrity, tagging friends in photos, hashtags, and geotagged locations. We are begging for attention that no one actually wants to acknowledge when it happens. I imagine this is why celebrities shave their heads or delete their accounts or have fantastic overdose deaths. It has been nearly 15 years since high school. 60 or 70 haircuts and somehow this guy still remembers me.

He wore a baseball cap, torn up jeans, a ratty t-shirt that showed off his full sleeves of tattoos (all the way to the fingers) looking like something from the discarded liner notes of a vintage Descendant’s album. He resembled nothing of a Colorado Suburban high school kid with his prescription lenses set in comically thick frames and a two-day beard. Had I known this person then, would I have guessed he would one day aspire to operate a chair at the neighborhood barbershop?

But he’s so damn friendly on the phone; my own clients would be so lucky.

Finally, he hangs up, comes around the counter and extends a tattooed hand. “Kirk L” he says to me.

It all comes back, instantly. Neurons caked in a decade and a half of residue from questionable diets, frequent beer, and a variety of drugs (mostly prescribed by professionals) dusted off and lit themselves up like an old hard drive forgotten in an attic. Of course, Kirk. He was still the same person in the eyes – now magnified, framed, and partially hidden his frames – but the guy was still back there

“I even have our Senior Yearbook here today,” he is beaming at this.

Of course he does. Kirk.

“All these guys here didn’t believe that I used to be fat, so I had to show them. Then I found the yearbook by chance last night, and then I saw your name on the appointment sheet. Such a unique name.”

There are about 8,500 other David Pennington’s in circulation. Some of them might go by “Dave.”

Sure enough, there I was. My amateur mug on the glossy pages among the dozens of other professional photos. “There I am,” I say, not entirely sure what needs to happen next.

“Yeah, isn’t that weird? But whatever.” Kirk snaps the book shut and gives a glowy smile to no one in particular. While it would have made this story even more perfect, I don’t sit in Kirk’s chair. Instead, Danny is cutting my hair today. He is another face that I had seen a thousand times before, new to town, probably cut out of the same liner notes from the same album that every other barber in Denver had played on.


The phenomenon of memory – trying to recall if events or details are real truths or just something that I really wanted to be the truth. The gestalt of human recollection – do I remember things the same way as another person? If not, who is right?
We – Kirk and I- weren’t friends in high school. But maybe we were friendly. I recall we shared 7th period English one year – whichever one had the unit on Of Mice and Men – with Ms. Lucas. He was a theater kid and always sat next to a girl I crushed on who might have been named Katie (working under the general assumption that most high school female populations are named Katie). He was larger back then, as the yearbook photo showed, but he was also the guy who was friendly enough to everyone until you gave him a reason not to be.

Then again, I could be remembering all of this wrong. I don’t remember much from those years because I don’t think it was worth remembering fondly. I was the bitter guy. The one who didn’t care for much of the work, the people, the social clubs. Maybe I tried a little in the later years, but a mediocre academic scorecard makes it difficult to engage with pretty much anything else. My yearbooks were lost in one of my eight apartment moves between 2006 and 2010. The last chance I had to see most of these people after a cryptic Evite arrived at my inbox announcing the unofficial 10-year reunion. Given how unfamiliar the RSVP list looked (a majority of the names changed with various weddings) I had to decline with the claim I couldn’t find a sitter for that night – which seemed to be a safe and common excuse for that crowd – even though I have no children.

The question that bugs me the most: why Kirk? And why did this happenstance at my usual barbershop? It isn’t so much that I’m surprised to see on the streets of Denver. So many of us made the post-grad jump from suburban to an urban center and stuck there – hell it is what I ended up doing. A city population of 700,000 would surely be enough to dilute down a graduating class of 200 to the point none of us could very well never run into each other again.

With the appointment list and the sudden finding of the senior yearbook, perhaps the cosmos is playing a joke. Maybe something happened recently that I just can’t remember. Maybe two people who first met 15 years and two cellular cycles ago are destined to meet again. Here in a barber shop – he friendlier than ever and I in a high state of social standoff?

Danny finished cutting back the last three weeks of hair and the 15 years of age the mass of my hair typically added. Trimmed up, I grabbed my hat back off the rack and looked back at Kirk as he was deep in a jovial conversation as he trimmed the sideburns of his 2:30 appointment.

Or it’s all just coincidence. Perhaps we are due to shed another round of cells, ink another layer of tattoos, grow another inch of hair and try to meet again in another place, another time, or as another person.

Dedicated Listening

I used to write for music rags. Free ones. I used to think that is exactly where all of THIS was going: The writing, the general hostility towards popular culture, my inane pickiness towards new things. The manifesto of the time was Dave Thompson’s I Hate New Music. Today, as I compose this mess of words I can readily admit in those early days I had little idea of what I was supposed to be doing or why I was doing it. Little has changed between then and now.  

When you are 19 and in college, the idea of writing about bands and music while taking casual drugs and watching Almost Famous seems like a better idea than dragging oneself to yet another seminar on British Literature. Who wouldn’t love to have the inside track on new music, up and coming bands, or knowing famous people before they were actually famed. On top of it all, who wouldn’t love to be shipped free, pre-release music, on physical album space when broke college students relied on the Napsters and Limewires of the world to deliver a mess of misnamed, untagged, music that was always riddled with some kind of virus?

Months after I had started writing for Keith – the owner of the music rag – I had a bad day. Up to that point I had talked with people who Garage-banded their own work and got into shows for free at the places that I would hang out and drink anyway. Yet, this bad day – one of many in those years, I was sent an album to review that was hands-down the worst thing I had ever gleaned from a CD. The album in question was  a juvenile mess of country music laid over with dick and fart jokes about life in the trailer park, composed by guys who lived in a well-off Colorado suburb.

I ripped it apart in 300 words, Keith ran the piece. There were complaints.

For any band you have or haven’t heard of, there are at least a dozen people who will show up to just about every show they do at whatever neighborhood dive would have them. They are the ones who buy the T-shirts, the albums, and share every event in triplicate on Facebook. These are the wives, the boyfriends, and the offspring who rely on members of the band for something and are endlessly supportive in return. They also collaborated with the editor of the music rag to have me removed from publication – which was probably a HUGE blow to freedom of speech.

“You can’t hate everything like that,” Keith tells me with a strangely fatherly tone over coffee one morning a little further down the road. “It is possible to write about something you don’t like in a way that might appease everyone. It’s called objectivity.”

Writers like Bangs and Christgau probably never had to deal with being objective or softening up their tone for albums they didn’t like. They probably never bothered listening to or thought about writing on them in the first place. Trailer park country music  likely wasn’t a considerable genre back in those days. Maybe I was jealous of what they got to see and the archives they were able to build and publish from them. Even through the words, I didn’t see what they got to see. Music writers in those days were in the position every publication writer is: somewhere between advertisers, promoters, the art itself, and the people who produce it. Journalists in that particular heyday had the rather difficult job of distilling down the lifestyle of inebriation, addiction, overdose, and violent relationships into casual tales of drugs, drinking and parties that went till dawn.  It takes about a decade of failures and mistakes to realize that Almost Famous is far from a career plan, it is a cautionary tale.

If I couldn’t deal with four middle-aged suburban hobbyists who recorded, mixed, pressed, and printed an album by hand, then what business did I have with someone who embraced heroin as a garnish? Who was I to rip apart this album? Me, the guy who was too hungover to write most of the time, the guy with a roommate that was always at least two months behind on the rent, the guy who couldn’t tell two chords apart, much less play them? If I couldn’t figure that out, then what business did I have criticising anything?

When working with a rag, page space is limited so what gets listened to and reviewed has to be attractive for the readers (usually just the bands featured, their significant others, and anyone with a birdcage to line). Space was limited; music was plentiful.

Moving online gives infinite page space, but the reader’s attention becomes finite. Your own attention shortens. What you can write about both expands and contracts at the same time. The music doesn’t ever stop coming. No filter. Sometimes I think the best thing to ever happen to me was to upset the jilted lover who threw a bottle of cheap Merlot at my head, only to have it shatter on the wall behind me. My laptop, a hard drive, several decent books (never replaced), and my workspace was liberally coated in a slowly-sticking wash of red. Worse yet, the wine went to waste and I never got my deposit back on that place (the same place the roommate was two months behind in. I can only imagine everyone’s 23 year of existence is equally as awesome).

Everything byte of music I owned was on those two corrupted drives. Moving eight addresses in 6 years meant collections of anything were hard to keep around. Libraries of books and CD collections were sold off or given away with the each expiration or surrendering a lease. No one was buying records, no one was making CDs. Everything was progressively digital. The shelves that used to be lined with CDs were now keychains of branded USB drives featuring albums that each required their own special player. And there was Napster. A lifetime of music packed into a little box.

To go from a flood of chosen music to whatever happens to be on the radio is a relief few get to know. Today there is more music available to listen to than any one person can hear in a lifetime. Ten lifetimes. James Jackson Toth – a music journalist who was mailed stacks of records on the regular, in addition to creating a massive archive from the early days of Napster – realized the issue of having too much to listen to. When there is so much to hear, it’s hard to actually LISTEN to anything. When he challenged himself to dedicate listening deeply to one album per week – the only thing he’d listen to that week – he found that it was an impossible task. The medium for it doesn’t exist anymore; there is no element of focus in the consumption or appreciation of what is out there – like being sprayed with a firehose while drowning in the ocean.

There used to just be one song. Then maybe there were a dozen, sung around a campfire to a beat played on a dead animal skin stretched over something. These were tales of lore, of culture, of who they were. My mindset of casual anthropology is on par with my criticism of popular music: it sounds right sometimes, but is rarely grounded in much. Yet, in these modern times there is this feeling that music is more of a commodity than an artform. Albums went from being a wholesome work that enjoyed beginning to end on a turntable somewhere to twelve songs packaged together and uploaded with cover art. Sometimes we would wait years between albums from our favorite artists, now some of them are releasing five within a year. Others are just going back to releasing just singles every few weeks, and they are giving them titles that would be more palatable to algorithms.

So young, poor Rob

There will always be favorites we fall back on or stuff that we hear by happenstance in a bar or on the radio that we end up loving. If we leave it to the algorithms, we will just be listening to more and more of what we already love without having the room to ask: am I listening to the right stuff? Have I been exposed to the stuff that I was sure to enjoy? Is there a singer-songwriter out there that I might change my entire stance on life? How do I find them, and wouldn’t it be a sonofabitch if they happen to be playing at the cafe down the street from me next week?

There are no answers at the end of this. Just a lot of wondering and questions that probably never need to be addressed. If we are to address our appreciation of music critically, wholesomely, then it does require effort. It may require going out of the way and approaching music in a way that hasn’t been thought of in a while: through vinyl records and stores that sell them, through conversations with all the Robs of all the Championships of the world. Through trading physical mediums and picking up the album of the opener that you happened to catch the end of the act. At the end of this discourse, a single question: do we listen to have a noise we can control, or are we listening to be open to a chance for change?

Maybe this was supposed to be overwhelming. I didn’t think it would be like this. Maybe everything I’m meant to discover should be by accident. Maybe I’m supposed to rely on the meta-data tied to a music file because I can’t ever remember to order a new needle for the record player.

Tales From Taxes

We finished our taxes this weekend. This was a Sisyphean task that we had been dreading for the better part of the year. By the end of the ordeal the wife and I, filing jointly, also shared the same headache. The sort of all-encompassing headache created from a combination of hunching over laptop screens, sorting paper, and trying to not grit ones’ teeth as the refund calculator bounces up and down the charts. 

Taxes were strange this year because I was first laid off in January. Then I was collecting unemployment after my severance ran it’s course in the eyes of the state. After that, I received some sort of payment from no fewer than 15 different people/organizations. The whole time, looking for that nice, stable full-time employment that would put us back into a better tax bracket.

Or something.

Filing this year’s taxes was a fantastic exercise in reflection. Looking back over everything, I had become something of a sole proprietorship. A freelance business. I had gone from working in advertising technology – my last paid profession – full time to just some-of-the-time. In exchange, I wrote more. A lot more. Paid gigs from people I knew. Paid gigs from people I had never known.

The kicker? For our 2016 taxes – when we both had exceptional full time employment – we owed a lot back to the Fed. This year? Just about broke even.

 

2017, as weird as it was for me, ended up reconciled.

So, an observation of 2017, via our finances, because that seems to be the American way.

Everyone will feel bad for you when they hear about a lost job. No one gives a damn when clients drop off or find ways to not pay you. Now when I hear about someone losing their job or getting laid off, show them the bright side. It is a chance to think creatively, do what they want for a moment, and open themselves up to all the opportunities they turned down because they were to busy with their last job.

I never wanted to run a business. I never cared about invoices and tracking expenses. I just wanted to take photos and write things down. I never wanted to pay for an accountant or for a subscription to Office Excel. Although, I do love lead generation and talking to people about projects. It is inspiring to talk to other people about all the great shit they want to do.

About 37.8% of my budget goes to coffee. Being a sole proprietor of a weird little company-thing requires extra juice.

I officially spent enough on printing to justify just buying a damn printer. The printer is now smarter than I am, which means I think I have to claim it as an employee next year.

If I take enough photos of my dog with my pro gear, at what point do they become an employee so I can start writing off their vet bills as an expense.

Seeing the invoices and expenses laid out in black and white is a massive motivator. It is easy to lose sight of what is being accomplished when the work is piecemeal and right under your nose. This can be like trying to find your way when the map is zoomed in all the way. Sometimes, direction comes from pulling back and seeing the whole lay of the land.

Maybe I continue going all out on the freelance market. Maybe I build up into an actual company with responsibilities. Maybe I find the allure of a team and a full time job and a computer loaded with software IT departments use to track my every action.

Maybe 2017’s numbers will tell a bigger story.

Maybe We Just Subscribe Already?

It is time to subscribe.

Nowadays, a fair amount of my attention goes to online advertising. This kind of advertising used to be an image and a link on a website. Sidebar filler. Banners. Maybe a popup.

Then, in an attempt to make online advertising better for a few people, a grand system of codes and servers and referential links were created and now everything is broken all of the time. Usually. For sure, 100% of the time, neither the client nor the publisher gets what they wanted out of the equation and everyone is mad and stressed out all of the time over it and I can’t help but wonder if it would ALL be resolved if everyone just funded their Patreon account.

See: Advertising enables bad behavior. In some cases, it encourages the worst behaviors .

Hear me out on this.

***

Traffic and Audience

Advertising does work. It just has to work on scale. A very big scale. Like: global. Superbowls, Season Finales, Christmas kind of big. The advertisers should be able to afford a massive advertising budget and they should only be paying media companies that are mostly bulletproof: network TV, print publications that have been around for decades, billboards.

That’s where advertising can work. Everything else sorta in that direction and things get messy and weird and the internet just sorta breaks.

When a media outlet – like the website for your local news station – tries to get to the scale where advertising works for them, problems happen.

I was thrilled to hear when The Denver Post announced it was putting up a paywall on their website. Good for them. I think that is exactly what every publication should be doing because every publication only has so much of an audience it can feasibly reach. For years the Post’s digital revenue priority was CPM based.

CPM – Cost Per Mille (thousand). A metric that most online advertisers use to sell their ad space. Show an ad a thousand times, get paid. Usually anywhere from $5 to $50 per thousand. Sometimes more.

The result? A firehose of content no one could drink from. Stories published as fast as possible that had little to do with the actual news but was wallpapered with advertisements anyway. Then there was the birthing of a mobile app.When every ounce of space was covered in an ad, they threw an interstitial unit on top of everything.

The Post became unreadable. They weren’t alone in it. Just about every local news outlet in Denver was modeled this way.

Scott Galloway breaks it down the cons of this model here:

 

Advertising fails right at the point the audience ends. Eventually, especially with local news, every audience ends. Yet, every fiscal quarter demands an increase in revenue.

Surprise: This doesn’t work on a small scale. And by small I mean “anything south of two million views.” When you are working on a smaller scale, the ad experience feels like it is more in the way. It messes with the content and my experience with it and it is why I use a healthy ad blocker.

 

The Small Producer

My first job in AdTech I was selling programmatic display advertising to website owners and publishers. We went for the long-tail publishers – the ones with organic traffic, the people who kept a blog as a hobby, who published things purely for the joy having a slice of the internet to themselves. These were the people who had an audience of friends and family and however far their collection of Twitter followers could get them. Most of these publishers made a handful of dollars from the advertising we could provide them. Yet, they were the publishers the company put up on their marquee when talking with advertisers.

Look at how awesome and valuable this organic traffic is!

However, the websites that made the kind of revenue which allowed the company to keep their lights on were website you will never visit or hear of. They were the kind of domains that split the line between “bought” traffic and “bot” traffic. These operations were shady. If online advertising was a federally regulated industry, a lot of people would be going to jail. It’s not, it won’t be.

Point being: the marquee publishers I worked likely never made a living off the CPM model we provided. Those that could make a living off their websites did so by selling premium memberships, merchandise, courses, speaking fees, ebooks, and so on.

The TV writers strike of 2007/2008 – before my introduction to adTech – showed me just how amazing the independent web could be. As my favorite shows fell from the airwaves and were replaced by endless iterations of American Gladiator, I turned to the world of YouTube, Vimeo, and even DailyMotion to find anything worth watching.

I found stuff like BreakALeg.TV, Casual, and the Vlogbrothers. Shows like QuarterLife were brought on by the networks because they were starved for content. As the technology improved, the path between concept and publishing shortened up and anyone with a connection could get anything they wanted published. The democratic power of the independent web was stronger than ever!

However, like any political theory, it is quickly ruined by money. Today, places like YouTube are eating up a huge wealth of attention. Advertisers would be eager to jump on this IF the content weren’t so shaky.

Smaller producers are seeing the allure of the CPM model. Lone-wolf “media companies” going to the extremes to make something that will take off, go viral, and bring in the cash. Shock factor is leveraged. The Logan Pauls of the world happen. Parents dramatize the lives of their kids for views. People watch each other play video games (for the life of me…). Suddenly the medium that was YouTube is no longer bulletproof and the actions of a few content creators jeopardize the revenue opportunity for everyone else.

Advertising drives bad behavior. Especially on a CPM model. Publishers try to cheat it, Advertisers try to spend less per thousand. The advertisements get more invasive and annoying. The ad no longer tries to sell a product, it now also harvests data. Content producers hitch their wagon to advertisers and now there is an expectation to the content they produce. Breaking that expectation results in things like the Adpocalypse.

1000 True Fans

Who is at fault here?

I’d like to go ahead and blame the consumers. Those who spend hours on their devices each day consuming content that is produced in basements and on kitchen tables all over the world. The people who read, who watch, who do the clicking and sharing. Content consumers are the ones who decide if something gets to be viral or not. A viral video can pay a content creator’s rent. Two of them in a row can launch a media enterprise. But how often can we tolerate things “going viral”?  How satisfying was the Harlem Shake, really?

So yes, I’d like to blame you – dear reader who has made it this far (1,100 words to this point!). And myself, for not doing more to support the creators who are stuck between wanting to make something good, and finding out ways to make the good stuff pay for itself.

I think of the weekend warriors shooting backcountry ski movies on limited camera gear that are still good enough to inspire my own adventures. Or the visual artists who make stuff that I see on Instagram that  want to hang in my office. Or the kinda-unknown musician I really like but only listen to on Spotify.

Kevin Kelly had the idea of 1,000 true fans.  The idea that a creator takes the dollar amount they need to survive (hell, to thrive?) a year, divide it by 1000. That’s how much you need to ask out of your true fans (via product sales or subscriptions, etc).

Working at it the other way: Out of all the stuff we consume – what are we true fans of? Out of everything we read or watch in a day, what are we actually gaining from it? Out of the bazillion pieces of content that are published each day and made available for free – what’s actually good? What goes beyond asking for our time, and is good enough to get our money?

Maybe it’s time to double down. It’s time to subscribe to what we actually love and gain value from, and throw the rest to the wayside. More than just subscribing to a Twitter feed or an email list. How about putting money down and buying into the creators that you don’t want to see go away?

So, yeah. It’s time to subscribe. More than just following on Twitter or enabling notifications on YouTube. Instead, a way to remove the income middle-men that is the advertising. I just added a payment method to my Patreon account so that I can shell out a handful of bucks every month or so to the content producers I keep coming back to and consuming.

I have a folder of email lists and producers I’m subscribed to that send out stuff every week that I keep an intentional eye on. I always try to find at least one good creator each week to get into and find a way to support. This is all a very labor intensive process right now, but if a creator is dumping their heart and soul into something, shouldn’t we be taking the time to actually appreciate it?

All of this effort to remove the creators we love from the advertising ecosystem that will always find a way to screw them over.

So yeah. Buy that book. Buy two of them. And get their record on vinyl or support their next indiegogo. Otherwise, we’re left with the questionable and volatile landscape of free content.

The Toltec Guide to Surviving the Internet

Step 1: Delete all of your accounts. Wipe your hard drive. Donate your computer to a local school and take up the kind of job where you repair something unique. Live a life of quiet solitude and fade into the dust like we were all meant to do.

This, however, will not happen. We live in that semi-miraculous time where there is this TOOL between all of us that allows for instant and continuous communication with everyone we have known or could know. Anything we desire is just a few keystrokes away, endless opportunities are presented, and most everyone else on here is an asshole. And since you arrived here by clicking on a thing that brought these words to your screen, a life of quiet solitude is likely not meant for you either. Also, there is nothing left to repair. Use it up, throw it away, replace anew. 

So, What is a Toltec?

  To be frank, I’m not entirely sure, but I’ll tell you what I read, and you can just go read more on it, yeah? In short, for the purposes of this post:

“Thousands of years ago, the Toltec were known throughout southern Mexico as “women and men of knowledge.” Anthropologists have spoken of the Toltec as a nation or a race, but, in fact, the Toltec were scientists and artists who formed a society to explore and conserve the spiritual knowledge and practices of the ancient ones.”

In short, Toltecs were philosophers with a spiritual backing from a civilization none of us were invited to. That passage, and many others you should probably read, are right out of The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The Toltecs and Ruiz did not have the internet, so it is difficult to imagine applying their ancient wisdom to modern problems.

Yet, that’s why philosophies are so cool – they are but a lens to view the world with, not the world in and of itself. When it comes to surviving the internet, the Toltecs provided and Ruiz further defined, four convenient tools:

  •    Be Impeccable with your Words
  •    Don’t Take Anything Personally
  •    Don’t Make Assumptions
  •    Do Your Best.

The Awfulness of Everything and the Need For New Glasses

At any given time on any given day, the internet is a horrible place full of bad personalities getting attention for doing things that are not necessarily newsworthy. Also, everyone is mad at something all of the time. There are few things created in this vortex of content that is worth anyone’s time. Yes, probably, including this web page right here.

Yes, true, the internet is always heralded to some extent as the last bastion of the democratic ideal: everyone has a voice. But with more voices comes more opinions and more chances for conflict. All of these voices wrap up neatly and are fed through a handful of algorithms to ensure the right voices piss off the right people at the right time for the sake of advertising revenue.

From 10,000 feet, it’s a pretty crappy view.

From ground level, it is easy to get lost in the mess of it all.

Here is this thing that we would all happily give up if it didn’t give our attention something to do. Here is this THING that is driving significant change in each and every one of us, yet we are the ones that should be changing IT.

Habits and behaviors change through a reframing of perspective – getting that new lens.

How do the Toltecs play into this?

I tried to break down the Four Agreements in context of online life. The realization? I fail at this philosophy, routinely, every day. Possibly every hour. Again: the beauty of philosophy – it is meant to be failed at.

Be Impeccable with Your Words

I made a small oath with myself at the beginning of the year: Don’t Fan The Flames, don’t add oxygen to the fire. This has been outrageously difficult to do. It is so, so, so easy to throw in my two cents, to apply my experience to a situation, to make sure I am HEARD.

But is everyone else’s outward expression always evil? DId your family member mean to share that racist post? Remember Michael Scott? He shared jokes by forwarding emails around the office because he thought they were funny, even though everyone else saw them as offensive.

Being impeccable with your word means, loosely, to be so sure of what you are saying that it must be said in the way you are saying it all the while keeping in mind that your words will impact someone, somewhere, in some capacity. Sure, you may be going for a particular result. But is that result necessary? Is it good for the world?

Over a billion users online, doubtful any of them are being impeccable, or even careful, or even conscious of what is being said. We can try, but it is probably best to take the second agreement into consideration.

 

Don’t Take Anything Personally.

Even when it’s meant to be taken personally.

Even when it is designed for you, specifically, to take personally.

Taking things personally gives all the power to the publisher of those words. Largely, you can assume they don’t have the same investment or energy towards you that you likely have towards whatever is upsetting you.

Most of the time, things are written without full consideration of the ultimate impact it will have on the audience. If consideration were given, we’d rarely see anything published.

If something has been designed to get you to react in a specific way, the best reaction may be none at all.

Don’t make Assumptions.

Most social media profiles have an “About Me” section that is around 200 characters long. Most of us are human beings that have decades of life behind us. An eon of experience wrapped up in a handful of words. It must be an exercise in Zen to accurately portray yourself over this small space.

The result? Many of us are left creating huge stories about the persona presented on the screen before us. Maybe we criticise the girl trying to sell tummy tea through her Instagram, but not go so far to think that maybe she hates her job as much as most of us do and is trying to change her situation. Or, maybe that’s just another story that I’ve given her. Maybe the tea really does work.  

Everything they say or type or share is tinted with whatever preconceived notions we have of that person. Or, worse yet, we end up projecting ourselves and our fear onto that person we have never met.

Always Do Your Best

Isn’t it amazing how much of an impact a 3-inch screen can have on our lives?

Wouldn’t it be an excellent habit to sit back and ask yourself “is this the best thing I could be doing with my time?”

   Is it worth fighting with strangers? Maybe they are wrong. Maybe they disagree with you. If someone disagrees with you, does that always make them wrong?

Humans are fallible.

Fallible humans build complex systems of inconceivable machines (which are also fallible) that we then ask to be intelligent, only to usually be perturbed by it the result.

None of this is perfect. We would be insane to think it could be.

There are always going to be selfish, center-minded people on the internet. Or in life. By now we have learned that giving our attention to things only gives it fuel and life.

Maybe this is just a sign that we should give attention to the good things? What, then, is “good” in a world where anything can be made to look like anything else?

   

There are just as many bad days as good ones. There are tragedies and things said that only serve to steep my ire in the world. There Is a split, though, between what the algorithms say I should care about, and what the conscious, flesh-and-blood commitments of my day to day say I should concern myself over. There are dusty typewriters that need to be repaired and stories that need to be told and tabs which need to be closed.

Every morning, a fresh set of lenses await us even if they only risk to get smudged. Good luck out there.

 

The Bikes

It’s not about the bike.

That’s the famous, pre-doping allegation from Lance Armstrong. Winning the Tour de France time and time again, asked about his equipment and eventually saying that his victories had nothing to with his bike. It was all him.

It’s not about the bike.

Until it is.

A few years ago my wife was really into road cycling. Her then-employer participated in a charity ride in the high mountains. She did it for a few years, then took up riding as a weekend hobby until the day she returned from a ride – windburned, bug bitten, with two flat tires – swearing she would never ride again.

I don’t blame her. It’s not about the bike until you’re on the wrong bike. Tires run flat; chains are broken. Rust and grime build up. Eventually, a new material comes out that is stronger and lighter than the last one and less ambitious athletes are running circles around you purely because of the gear they have.

So, sometimes, it’s the bike.

The first camera I bought for myself was a Sony Cybershot. A small little point and shoot that stored everything on a memory stick and a battery that lasted for YEARS. After college, doing some professional work, I bumped up to a Pentax K10D to join the SLR family. The Pentax was fine for what I needed 10+ years ago. I used the hell out of it until the internal chip corrupted. Pentax offered to fix it for $600 bucks. Instead, I took a photographic break, eventually sold it for scrap, and bought the latest iPhone.

The bike may have left, but the desire to ride it never changed. I got back into the game on a slim budget, picked up the Nikon D3400. It is a solid little camera for the price and got me well on the way. Loads of photos were shot, edited, sold and shared with that thing. I’d recommend that camera to anyone looking to get their first dSLR.

I went mirrorless. I wanted something with a richer background. I needed a smaller profile for the travel I was doing. I sold the Nikon and traded some components to go straight-across, price wise, to the a6000 and was immediately disappointed. The size was great, everything else kinda sucked.

The a6000 drained batteries like crazy. I had numerous data cards get corrupted while formatting. Every lens on this thing was a cumbersome thing. I eventually stopped using it; I stopped taking photos. At that point, everything just sorta …stopped.

I wrote previously about how my diving back into photography kickstarted my creative mindset for everything else I was up to. I wrote more, I reached out more, I wanted to get to know more people and be more places. It was a high and it was great and EVERYTHING was moving forward for me. When the photos stopped, so did that energy. My personal growth stopped, the growth of my client book slowed, the stagnation was starting to manifest as depression.

I was on the wrong bike. Fortunately, I believe in serendipitous events.

The local camera store had screaming rebates on Sony cameras, AND they were offering a trade-in event. So I dropped everything of the a6000 and bumped up to the a7ii without having to surrender my shirt.

It is a heavier camera. The profile is bigger. It’s a hulk of a thing. But it is friendly with batteries, it is nice to my data cards, and it makes a statement. It is fast and a joy to use and creates fantastic images.

Everything comes to life again. Everything is growing again.

It’s not about the bike – unless you’re on the wrong bike.

Books Read – January 2018

When you decide to roll back on casual drinking, there are more days at home just going through all of the books that have been stacking up around the house over the past year.

Writing improves with reading. Reading improves with variety.

I wrapped up A Man Calle Ove by Fredrik Backman. A charming story about a grumpy old man who just wants to be left alone so he can die already. It’s already got a film adaptation from a Swedish studio. It will also have a remake starring Tom Hanks sometime in the next few years. Because why not?

Tribe of Mentors – the latest brick by Tim Ferris – isn’t a book I “finished reading” this month. It’s one of the numerous books on my shelf that I will never quite finish reading as it is one of those beasts you take down, flip a few pages over, and go “huh, ok.” Worth perusing, not buying, because it’s a real dedication of space on the shelf.

True Vine was a disaster to read. Of course, this is entirely the point. A tale of albino brothers that had been kidnapped into a traveling circus in the not-too-distant era of the Jim Crow south. As the author goes deeper into trying to find out what happened to the pair through the decades by digging into not-so-reputable newspapers and interviews with elderly residents who might still be around.

(Not pictured, because I can’t find it…) Donna Tartt’s, The Little Friend. Another tale of the south, fictional this time, to pursue and get justice a cold case murder that happened a decade ago. Now, the sister of the deceased – Harriet – goes on as much of a gumshoe journey as any 14 year old could be to discover her brother’s death was at the hands of a meth dealer. It’s typical Donna Tartt stuff – big, sprawling pages of literary landscapes, kids getting into trouble that is way older than them, and a resolution that is always about half as interesting as the incident that set everything off to begin with.

Speaking of sprawling and huge: Garth Halberg’s City On Fire. 70s, New York. Everything is dirty and punk. Everyone is mad and strung out. On New Year’s Eve a girl is shot in the head in Central Park. Over the next 850 pages a whodunnit rolls across generations, billions of dollars, and zines and records bootlegged from nightclubs you might not even want to take a piss in. It was one of those books with prose that was just relaxing enough to draw you in for a few hours at a time without trying to complicate things with excessive storylines. Worth a read.

Last, Ignore Everybody. I’ve been following Hugh MacLeod’s stuff for a while. Curious cartoons with existential perspectives of our modern times. Ignore everyone is usually sitting right under my monitor. When I get stuck or burnt out I’ll flip open to a page and just wander across one of his anecdotes. Good book, better gift.