“the great circus train wreck of 1918” – the residents (2017)

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Last week, I had the privilege of seeing The Residents perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  It was the loudest show I had ever seen at that venue and was a mesmerizing spectacle to watch.  This was my first time seeing the legendary multimedia avant-garde group live and it was not a show to miss.

For those unfamiliar with The Residents, their story and image outside of their music is also a point of fascination.  They are an American art collective that have been active since 1969.  They combine avant-garde music with multimedia presentations as part of their performances.  These pieces come together to create a sonic and visual aesthetic that puts the audience in a strange dreamscape.

Since the release of their first album Meet the Residents in 1974, they have developed a cult following over the last five decades.  In addition to the strange art music they compose, part of the band’s appeal concerns the mystery that surrounds the group.   The members of the group operate through a management team named the Cryptic Corporation which allows them to maintain a certain level of anonymity.  While the members of the band have changed over the years, very little is known about them.  Early in their career, rumors circulated that the band members were actually the Beatles since Meet the Residents parodied the album cover for Meet the Beatles!

In addition to hiding behind a management company designed to protect their identities, The Residents also wear elaborate costumes that simultaneously protect their identity as well as enhance the visual aspect of the show.  Most famously, the band wears a costume featuring a large eyeball helmet, top hats, and tuxedo; an image that has become iconic for the band.  Their costumes frequently vary, but they are all elaborate and the right amount of creepy.

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At the show at Old Town, they stayed true to their signature aesthetic.  The stage featured a large blue and white checkered backdrop with their iconic eyeball breaking up the pattern every so often.  There was also a large giant ball that was used as a screen to project animated videos of people reciting dreams.  On this ball, John Wayne talked about his nightmare of a disappearing ballerina, Mother Theresa shared her dream about a train wreck, a scary clown dreamt about being a cowboy, and Richard Nixon professes his dream of being a blues singer.  These unsettling animated videos appeared after three or four songs and evenly broke up the set.

I had never seen The Residents live before, but I am a little familiar with their music after being turned onto them by a college roommate.  What I expected was what I heard on records before.  I expected strange, high-pitched vocals with various rhythmic noises that sounded like they belonged in a circus (“Constantinople” for example).  However, what I got was much different but incredibly exciting.

Since I had never seen the band before, I didn’t know how faithful they were to the source material.  Based on this performance, I would say rarely.  The show I saw at Old Town was droning, industrial noise rock.  I find that music to be really cool, but this was so unexpected.  I watched each member of the band closely and was amazed by their level of skill and mastery of electronics.  The guitarist was stunning and perhaps one of the best guitarists I have ever seen live.  He style was a progressive rock vibe on par with performers like Frank Zappa or King Crimson.  The guy behind the synthesizer played these great droning pieces that really laid down a template for the show and where the others in the band could start from.

The drum, however, was my favorite.  He played on a small electric kit, but had various sequencers and programming tools that really made his sound bigger than it appeared.  He made sounds and rhythms that suggested he was supported by a larger group of musicians.  I watched him the most because I wanted to discern what sounds he contributed and how he did it.  When he hit a pad and a cymbal noise in reverse played, I was losing it.

The leader singer, an older gentleman and original member, had this great sinister vibe going on.  He would lurch around on stage and appear menacingly as he growled lyrics like Tom Waits.  And for a man his age, he sure had a set of pipes on him as demonstrated by various screams and yells that sounded like he was unleashing hell hounds.

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The costumes were excellent as well and added a surreal vibe to a darkly energetic show.  The intimidating lead singer wore a silly cow costume and fake cow nose, but it didn’t detract from his performance.  On the contrary, it elevated it.  The other members were dressed in suits with the same blue and white checkered backdrop.  However, they also wore plague doctor masks, dark lenses, and white bowler hats that added a level of black humor to the whole experience.

The show was absolutely wonderful even if I didn’t recognize most songs.  Turns out that some of the songs are preview tracks for an upcoming blues album.  The album also performed industrial covers of Elvis Presley’s ”(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” “Six More Miles (to the Graveyard)”, and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

In 2017, The Residents released their 43rd studio album The Ghost of Hope.  While none of the songs from the album were performed at this show, one of the tracks has callbacks to the Mother Theresa train wreck dream.  “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” is a seven-minute nightmare with drawling vocals, synthesized organ music, and a droning backdrop that sounds ghostly and sinister. In the song, the lead singer is a clown that is having an emotional breakdown following the circus train wreck and reminisces about the funeral the day after the show.  While Mother Theresa’s dream varied slightly in details and delivery, the vibe is similar.  “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” is an uncomfortable, but entrancing listening experience that is not unlike Tom Waits’ spoken interludes like “What’s He Building?” from 1999’s Mule Variations.

The Residents are not for everyone.  It is a strange and polarizing band that is very confusing and sometimes frightening.  However, if you want an unforgettable concert experience, check them out as soon as you can.

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“humble.” – kendrick lamar (2017)

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This week, Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize in their music category.  This came as a shock for two reasons.  First, Lamar is the first nonclassical or jazz performer to win the music prize.  Second, a lot of people on social media had no idea that there was a Pulitzer category for music (myself included).  Lamar’s Pulitzer win signifies a sea change for the award committee that elevates popular music, but specifically hip-hop, on the same level as classical and jazz music; two genres associated with snobbery and elitism.  However, Lamar’s win represents a lot more than impacting the award committee of a particular organization.

Lamar’s Pulitzer win is for his 2017 album DAMN.  That release, critically praised by critics and a commercial success, was snubbed at this year’s Grammy awards with the top prize going to Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic.  For years, the Recording Academy has been criticized for neglecting to recognize critically-acclaimed albums in favor of albums that have sold very well.  That isn’t always the case, but there are more examples of this scenario playing out than there are examples where it doesn’t happen.

The Pulitzer Prizes, established in 1917, praised DAMN. as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”  Lamar is an ambitious artist who started life as a black kid in the ghetto and has since struggled with this as he uses music as a platform to address key social and racial issues systemic in our society.  While the Pulitzers have honored black artists and artists with similar messages in the past, honoring a dynamic hip-hop artist that continues to redefine the genre with complexity and commercial appeal is long overdue.

While the Pulitzers deserve praise and kudos for this decision, a lot of work still must be done to fairly recognize and honor artists of color that put out magnificent work.  Artists that are disruptive in their genres are only recognized much later and long after their commercial and creative appeal has since waned.  There are active artists of color working today and struggling to get attention because of a lack of access to resources that would make them commercially viable and profitable.  Additionally, Lamar’s win isn’t just a win for hip-hop.  It is also a win for people are actively working as pop artists who are in demand and profitable.

However, relevance can be a quality that is detrimental to one’s recognition as a genius in their craft.  The Pulitzers have been praised for recognizing an artist as relevant as Lamar, but just boxing Lamar into a category based on their relevancy diminishes his accomplishments and mastery of his craft.  Merely honoring someone based on their relevancy ignores artists with less pop and commercial appeal.  This is why the Grammys have been criticized for as long as they have.  A winner-take-all culture is a by product of a society that values the democratization of culture and information where only the most popular or accessible figures are lauded.  This comment is not meant to diminish Lamar’s work on DAMN. because it is a rich piece of art.  However, the virtue of him being a popular artist and winning such an award puts him at the center of this discussion.

While many praise the Pulitzers for this decision, there is also some healthy criticism as well.  Primarily, critics of this decision feel that this award serves as a platform that can boost the career of someone less commercially viable and accessible.  The purpose of awards like this are meant to be based on merit as opposed to sales and popularity.  Though, you can have artists that fit into both categories of crafting something worthy of merit that also sells well.  The notion that we only award less commercially established artists is almost as absurd as only awarding artists that have sold a ton of albums.

Much of the debate surrounding Lamar’s win is very similar to the debate surrounding Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.  In Dylan’s case, many critics felt that Dylan’s work was misunderstood or mischaracterized as being literature.  The question of whether or not song lyrics, outside a musical context, could be considered literature was hotly debated by critics and supporters of Dylan’s Nobel win.

However, Dylan’s win was also criticized for the same reason as Lamar’s Pulitzer win.  Should Dylan’s Nobel Prize have gone to someone not as established as Dylan thus providing them a platform to be recognized and see a boost in their appeal and sales?  Again, this doesn’t serve the notion that awards are supposed to be based on merit.  However, do people conflate the concepts of commercial appeal and artistic merit?  Are sales a metric of an artist that is a master of their craft?  Is something critically praised relevant if it doesn’t sell well?  These questions are objective and open to discussion and debate.  However, the idea that a commercially successful artist cannot also be a genius is false and without merit.  And the concept of “relevancy” is an intellectually limiting term designed to fit a complex figure into a small categorical box which can be dismissive of established artists.

The first single from DAMN., “Humble” (stylized as “HUMBLE.”) became Lamar’s first as a lead artist and one three Grammy awards; “Best Rap Performance,” “Best Rap Song,” and “Best Music Video”).  Not the strongest track on DAMN., it is a catchy song that is a statement about Lamar’s inner conflicts between his past life and current success.  The music video is brilliant and highly stylized as Lamar is dressed like the pope and plays out scenes resembling Leonard da Vinci’s The Last Supper.  The video represents irony and is deeply symbolic reinforcing the powerful lyrics of the track.

DAMN. is a hip-hop milestone worthy of praise.  Lamar is a genius and master of his craft who has continued to create stunning music (his latest work for the soundtrack for Black Panther illustrates his continued success).  While his Pulitzer win is well-deserved, it also represents the idea that we still have a long way to go in recognizing artists of color.  Healthy debate regarding the merit of Lamar’s win is fine, but let’s get distracted with vague concepts of relevancy or the democratization of our culture.  Regardless if an artist is popular and commercially successfully, we should be honoring works on their own merit.  Blindly awarding people based on lack of popularity diminishes the work of artists who have worked hard to achieve they success they have.  And exclusively relying on relevancy to determine value also diminishes the ongoing work many established artists continue to create.

Whether an artist is successful or popular should be wholly unimportant when breaking down a work of art.  We have a long way to go regarding this inclusivity in our awards, but democratizing the process does no one any good.  I know it can appear that we tend to only award a handful artists and when someone wins something then they win everything else.  The solution, however, is not to exclusively adhere to the antithesis of that and ignore established artists in favor of those with less commercial appeal.  It is quite reactionary.  Good art is good art is good art.  Regardless of where it comes from.

“hasta siempre, comandante” – carlos puebla (1965)

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I recently returned from spending a week in Cuba.  There, I was completely off the grid and without cellular and internet access.  This gave me ample time and opportunity to explore as much as I could about the Socialist Caribbean island and clear up any misunderstanding many Americans have about the country.  I will be writing about this experience in detail at a later date for my community radio station’s blog.  However, in the meantime, I wanted to share something I found that was incredibly interesting on its own.

On my second day in Havana, I came across a small market near La Habana Vieja (Old Havana).  In the market, Cubans were selling various items to tourists.  Some of these items included books, posters of Cuban movies, collectible cigar wrappers, coins, and various other items one would typically see at an open-air flea market.

I wasn’t interested in much of what I was seeing.  I was looking mainly out of curiosity.  In the back of my mind, I was looking for gifts and souvenirs for friends and family.  However, I wasn’t searching for anything specific and no one I knew would have much interest in what was being sold in this market.  Sure, books about how the CIA waged several attacks against Cuba during the 1960s is interesting in its own right, but I didn’t feel compelled to buy a torn Spanish copy of such a book as a gift for anyone.

I treated the experience more like walking through a museum exhibit.  I was interested in looking at everything and thinking about their historical or cultural significance, but they were still so alien and impractical to me.  Unlike a museum, however, you have the merchants pushing items on you very hard with some even putting things in your hand and asking for money for it.  These people live in poverty and this is their means of survival, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend money just to appease them.  Cuba is a difficult country for Americans financially because the embargo restricts us from accessing our funds.  In a situation like that, it becomes easy to not spend money on things that don’t particularly strike you.  So, being firm is key to not going broke.

However, I didn’t leave the market empty-handed though.  As I perused the various wares merchants were selling, I kept seeing this one particular book.  Each copy I saw varied in its condition quality, but it kept catching my eye.  The first few times, I would walk by and think that it looked neat.  Then, as I saw more copies, I would stop and page through it.  And, finally, at the last stall in the market, I found a decent copy and felt compelled to by it.

The book was Álbum de la Revolución Cubana.  Since the government is responsible for the country’s education, they must find ways to educate the populace.  For children, who represent the next generation of Cubans, the key to educating them is to make the experience fun.  This is where this book comes in.

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Álbum de la Revolución Cubana, first published in the 1960s, is a comic book that tells the story of the Cuban Revolution.  Not only is that concept interesting on the surface, but the execution had an interesting novelty factor.  The book, when initially issued, is blank.  The goal was for students to fill in the blanks with corresponding cards (not unlike baseball cards) that contained a panel of the comic book.  The more cards you collected or traded with your friends, the closer you came to completely filling out the book.  The cards were included in packages of a canned good product that the Cubans would by.  It was fascinating to me that that Cuban government created this interactive experience that both educated the public on the revolution as well generated revenue by requiring the purchase of a canned good product.

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I bought a copy and not only was it in great condition, but it was complete.  Every card was there.  I wondered how long it took a Cuban child to completely fill out the book and how many of this specific canned good one would have to buy to accomplish that.

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As I carried my bag around, a few Cubans I met would ask what kind of music I had in my plastic bag.  When I would pull out the book and show them, you could see the joy fill their faces as the nostalgia washed over them.  They would tell me they remembered that book and it was very important during their childhood.  This was an exciting find.

Álbum de la Revolución Cubana has been since discontinued, but I don’t know when.  Instead, a different comic book has been published in its place that looks and feels more like a typical comic book.  Interesting in the sense that it is a colorful tool of communist propaganda, but nowhere near as impressive as its predecessor.

In 2000, by Cuba Soul, a music album tie-in to the book was released.  Containing fifteen songs, the album featured various propaganda songs important to the Cuban people and their culture.  I was not able to find a copy of this propaganda CD, but I was made aware of one specific song that is featured on the album.

When I was walking through this market, I did find some vinyl records.  Coming across records in Cuba was rare and, unfortunately, nearly everything was inadequate quality.  Either the sleeves were soft and damaged, or the record was unplayable.  When I was looking through the records at this market, the vendor was trying very hard to have me buy some.  We showed me various rhumba and salsa records of famous Cuban musicians that I was unaware of.  I wasn’t interested, but he kept going through his collection showing me more and hoping I would by some.

One of the records he showed me was by a Cuban guitarist named Carlos Puebla.  Though briefly explained to me at that time, I would later find out how important Puebla was (and still is) in Cuba’s music history.  Born into a modest family, Puebla spent his early life as a carpenter, mechanic, and sugarcane worker.  He began composing in the 1930s and became a regular performer in Old Havana by the 1960s.

He was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro even before the 1959 revolution.  He became politically active and was able to share his message more broadly in concerts during the 1950s and 1960s.  Puebla passed away in 1989 and he has since become a cultural legend in Cuba.

In 1965, Puebla wrote and recorded his most famous song.  “Hasta Siempre, Comandante” was written by Puebla following Castro’s speech that Che Guevara would depart from the Cuban government and return to South America to lead his revolutionaries.  This song is Puebla’s tribute to Che and showcases his passion for Che and his message.

In the song, Puebla sings that the Cuban people learned to love Che from the historical heights where the sun of his bravery laid siege to death.  Che’s transparency and gloriously strong hand made him a beloved figure and that hi revolutionary love inspires the Cuban people to continue to carry on the way they had followed him before.  The song ends with Fidel declaring to Che “Until forever, Commander!” The song became iconic after Che’s death and has been covered over 200 times.

The record I was shown with the song on it was in such poor quality and would’ve been cumbersome to bring back to the United States.  However, I would’ve loved to have found a copy of the Álbum de la Revolución Cubana CD even if it would be overpriced because I was a foreigner.  Cuba is a fascinating country and I cannot wait to elaborate on more detail about my trip there.  However, Álbum de la Revolución Cubana is a little piece of the island that was too good not to share.  It is my favorite thing I brought back from the country and is a unique look into a world that continues to be intentionally misunderstood by the United States.

“are you lost in the world like me?” – moby & the void pacific choir (2016)

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On Saturday, I went to the Music Box Theatre in Chicago to check out the 70mm presentation of Ready Player One. Based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel, legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg brings Cline’s nostalgia-driven techno dystopia world to life. In the story, Wade Watts is a teenage kid who lives in a ravaged future version of Columbus, Ohio in 2045. The world really sucks as constant wars, economic fallouts, and environmental disasters have turned society into a near-apocalyptic nightmare. However, there is an escape for those who can afford it. The Oasis, a virtual reality game where players can fully immerse themselves in worlds or scenarios within the limits of their imagination, offers a reprieve from the harshness of reality. As long as you got the funds, you can stay in the Oasis forever as you can do everything there with the exception of sleeping, eating, and using the restroom.

The Oasis was the brainchild of James Halliday, a brilliant and eccentric computer programming geek. The Oasis was his brainchild for those who wanted to be around the things they loved all the time and within their own terms. Halliday grew up in the 1980s and remained obsessed with 80s pop culture and chic through the end of his life. Prior to his death, he hid three Easter eggs (secret items) in the game. If you found all three of the Easter eggs, you inherited his entire fortune and full control of the Oasis. With the real world being so awful, it is easy to see how appealing the Oasis can be. Depending on your intentions, you can try to profit off your endeavors or you can just keep playing to avoid the drudgery of everyday life. Either way, it is extremely popular.

With all the random pop culture throwbacks to various film, music, and video game intellectual properties from the 1980s, it easy to forget just how depressing the world Wade Watts lives in. Watts, and those around him, live in a dystopian nightmare where people don’t engage with each other in reality. They prefer contact and connection in the Oasis where they can adopt new looks and personalities that better fit who they think they are or whatever they’re trying to convey. Not only is the world of the Oasis not real, neither are the people from a certain point of view. You don’t know if the avatar you’re looking at is an attractive woman or some fat guy living in his mom’s basement.

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In the world of Ready Player One, the real human connection is a lost art form. When Watts finds all three of the Easter eggs and gains control of the Oasis, he makes the decision as its new owner to shut it down a few days of the week so people can log off and enjoy each other in reality. Watts does this so he can spend time making out with the girl he met in the Oasis, but his intentions of elevating societal realities is pure at heart.

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We don’t live in the same world as Watts quite yet. We have video games, virtual reality, and other technocratic distractions that don’t require other human beings in the flesh. However, we still live in a society that has an ever-increasing reliance on technology that distracts us and mediates our interactions with people. And our inability to control that has adverse effects on our lives on an individual and communal basis

Social media has done more to increase the physical distance between people in their everyday lives than any other technological platform. It creates a convenient area where one can keep up with the lives of their friends and family without leaving their home. Social media has been around for a little over a decade, but we don’t fully realize the effects it has on our psychology.

I’m not someone who is against social media and advocates it as an evil. I use social media for personal and business reasons. It is a tool and source of entertainment for me. While I am an active user, I still can recognize the problems it causing in our society.

On a macro level, social media has created recent problems in our society. The United States presidential election was inarguably tampered with by a foreign agent using social media. And they succeeded. Nearly two years on and our government is still trying to fully assess what happened and how to prevent the undermining of our democracy from happening again.

Specifically, in recent news, Facebook has been under fire. Facebook is the largest social media platform and one of the biggest tech companies in the world. Facebook had provided data on millions of its users to Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting company that uses data mining to influence strategic communication, under the assumption that the company would delete the data. They did not and the information was used to elevate Donald Trump’s election campaign.

While the recent data mining news has been troubling, social media has been criticized for devaluing human interaction for years. People are just glued to their phones too much. I hate situations where I’m having a conversation with someone and they look at their phone without warning. And when I was single, going out to bars was terrible. You couldn’t meet a stranger in an organic setting because everyone just sits there and stares at their phone. It is kind of maddening.

Social media does a lot of good though. As mentioned, I use it for various purposes. I promote events or projects I’m working on. I live in a city where I don’t have any family, so it is nice to see family post pictures of what is going on in their lives. I have friends I see frequently in person, but we’ll also stay in touch virtually. And for those who date, social media like Tinder is a great way to maintain control NS filter people who don’t set off red flags for you.

However, social media can be an outright obsession for some people. For some, the number of likes, comments, and clicks their posts get is somehow an indicator of their own worth. These addicts will post and share hoping to get enough likes to feel validated. It happens to everyone. I’ll be surprised when a particular post gets an unusual amount of attention and it gets exciting to see how many likes you can get. I recently posted a picture of a dog I saw to a dog group and it got over 1,800 likes because it was funny. Admittedly, while exciting, I also kept checking my phone too much because this was such a rare occurrence.

I do think I look at my phone too much. However, I don’t believe it keeps me from enjoying my life and reality. I read physical books, I see friends in person, and I maintain hobbies that keep me away from my phone. I’m not disconnected from reality so I don’t fear living in a world where something like the Oasis can happen.

The reason why I think I look at my phone too much is that, sometimes, I’ll get caught up in the negative aspects of social media. I love seeing what my friends and family are up to. However, the whole experience can be extremely isolating. Whenever I see my friend count go down, I spend too much time thinking about who it was and why. Did I do something to offend them? Do they not like me anymore? Did someone actually defriend me or did they just delete it (given the Cambridge Analytica news, some people are quitting Facebook in protest)?

I want to know and I feel like I need to know. Everyone likes to be liked and I’m no different. Sure, I don’t give a shit if certain people don’t like me. But everyone, on a general level, wants to be liked. It is a really silly situation and I feel silly for thinking that way. A lot of people do feel that way, though. You can curate and build your own world on social media. You can filter what you want, achieve confirmation bias, and be reassured through the site’s analytics that what you think matters and you’ll be affirmed by people who love you. The tools inherent in these systems force us to care what people think about us because if a negative piece of information gets through, it is jarring and we have to regain control.

I don’t think how much people use social media is the problem. I think it is what they do with it that is. It is a great tool to stay in touch with the world around you. I get urges to quit all the time. It can be an energy drainer and just something to do when you’re bored. For me, I have offline activities I can engage with but those came from a specific effort to find those. For those who don’t put forth that effort, social media can be a black hole of wasted time.

Whenever I think about quitting, I realize it is a silly thing to do. Just as I like to keep up with friends and family, my friends and family want to keep up with me. They care about me and want to engage with some aspect of my life if they can’t be physically present. That’s the beauty of connectivity that social media offers and quitting because I allow myself to feel bad due is just kind of ridiculous.

While quitting under those circumstances (doing so due to data mining is another issue) doesn’t solve the root cause, I do believe resets are important. Like what Watts did with the Oasis, not engaging once in a while can be mentally, physically and psychologically healthy.

In 2016, Moby addresses smartphone and social media addiction with the single “Are You Lost In The World Like Me?” Joined by the Void Pacific Choir for the studio album These Systems Are Failing, Moby pontificates if the person he is seeing to is free or if they are lost when the systems fail. Lyrically, the song is just ok. However, the video is striking and reinforces the song’s narrative. Animated by Steve Cutts, this Max Fleischer-inspired animation starkly depicts a world where people are hypnotized by their smartphone and because oblivious of the world around them. Though quite an extreme metaphor, it does speak some truth.

I’m leaving for a trip tomorrow where I will have zero cellular and web access. It is a little concerning because of how much I rely on technology in my own life (map for example). However, being disconnected from social media pressures and not having wireless signals bounce all over me will be good for me. I’m using this as an opportunity to start seriously changing how I interact and use social media. I want to still use those platforms, but not do so in a way that makes me feel bad about myself. It can get too easy to look up or engage with toxic people or become too focused on why your friend list went from 836 to 835.

I do remember life before social media, but it has been a huge influence on my world. Within a few years, I’ll get to a point where social media will have been present in half my life. It isn’t going anywhere. It is a burden on younger generations who don’t have much, or zero, frame of reference of life without it there. I can’t quit using it because there is value there, but I can change how it uses me. Periodic resets will be great until I can learn not to put so much stock in it. Life is great and I don’t need that validated for me in the form of an emoji. I’m ready for an Internet cleanse.