What Happens Next

“IS ANYBODY GOING TO DIE?”

This was the first thing my therapist said after ten minutes of anxiety-fueled ranting. Ten minutes of what I thought was a pretty good case for The World Ending, an inevitable demise that was all my fault and I’ll never recover and how could this happen before I’d ever get to watch season three of Ted Lasso? Life not only wasn’t fair but cruel.

None of this mattered to her. I mean for $175 an hour I expected at least some acknowledgement of my suffering, a Starbucks gift card, anything. Instead, all I got was a question.

“Is anybody going to die?”

You’re healthy, she said (for now, I thought – what about my shoulder that needs to be replaced soon?)

You don’t have to worry about money, she reminded me (okay but what if there’s a deeper recession and you know my daughter’s wedding someday in the future isn’t going to pay for itself.)

You have a family and friends who love and care about you (until I do something stupid again and then I’ll be ghosted like Casper.)

I didn’t say any of those things, preferring instead to keep them within the spiral of my inner monologue. I just listened – and after a while, I relaxed.

I saw myself from the outside looking in. Suddenly the reason why I thought life was over sounded ridiculous. Now I was embarrassed for mentioning it, for believing it mattered, for allowing myself to get pulled into the quicksand of doubt once again.

But I wasn’t going to die and neither was anyone else. That doesn’t diminish what I was feeling in that moment, nor is it meant to discount what others feel when life doesn’t go their way.

I never expected to share this with anyone – no one needs to know nor should they care. But after months of seeing friends and former colleagues lose their jobs, many reaching out here on LinkedIn for help and support, I just want you to know that it’s okay to feel whatever you feel.

And that what matters now is how you choose to respond.

Life isn’t lived in the past. It’s not about what happened, but about what happens next.

You’re going to be fine. You’re going to be great.

You know, on second thought, maybe that $175 an hour is paying off after all.

Art and Magic

Great art is indistinguishable from magic. The artist not unlike a God among mortals.

Sometimes the art is so great, so perfect, such a “normal” occurrence, we forget about the artist. And that’s natural – most of us don’t think about Gods every second of every day. We go about our lives, secure in the knowledge that they are there with us despite our ignorance.

But then a God performs one final magic trick. They become mortal. And they leave us with their art as a reminder of the God they once were.

Be honest: Did you listen to Jeff Beck’s music the week before he died? Did you jam out to David Bowie or appreciate the majesty of Christine McVie’s songwriting on a regular basis before they passed?

Of course not. And that’s okay, you weren’t supposed to. These artists were Gods; they were never going to die. And when you believe people are going to be with you forever, you stop thinking about them. You take them for granted and assume they will always be there whenever you need them.

Like our family and friends. Like all the people we see all the time or hardly ever, until one day they’re gone.

We shouldn’t wait until our Gods become mortal to remind us that connection matters. That by simply being present in someone’s life you can change it for the better. You don’t need to be an artist or a God to leave a lasting impression on the world.

If that’s not magic, I. don’t know what is.

Timeout on the Field

You don’t have to be a football fan to feel for what happened to Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin on Monday night.

A young man, doing what he loves, collapses and goes into cardiac arrest. One moment normal, the next unbelievable. The game stops, the teammates gather and pray. Timeout on the field.

We don’t want to speculate about what happens next for him. We don’t want to talk about football or the playoff implications, nor should we. This is about life and death, a tragedy and a trauma played out on national television. This is collective shock and grief.

And it is a painful but important reminder.

I’m not trying to be morbid or melodramatic – that’s far too easy. We all know “life is precious” and that we should “make each day count” and that “life can change in an instant.” Cliches and catch phrases are but a temporary salve for our fears.

Instead, we should all take a cue from the NFL. We need a timeout on the field, wherever and whatever you play.

Be present with your loved ones for a while. Do something for someone else. Call a friend just to say hello, or better yet, call someone with whom you had a falling out and apologize.

Play will resume. We will go back to our regular lives and do our work and cheer for our teams and make big deals about little things. But maybe, every once in a while, we can call timeout and remind ourselves why we play in the first place.

The Two Faces of Grief

TWO PEOPLE DIED IN THE PAST TWO WEEKS.

Okay, obviously a lot more than two people. People die every day, every hour, every second. Death doesn’t take time off.

What I mean is two people died this week and I miss them, but not in the same way.

One of them was a neighbor for 26 years, the other a grandfather across the country who I never met. The neighbor knew our daughter when she was young; the grandfather just met her a little while ago.

The neighbor was a friend. He watched our house when we were away, he chatted us up about the latest gossip. He was a bigger Lakers fan than me, and that’s saying something.

The grandfather was a stranger. I knew his name but nothing about him. I know his son and his grandson, but that’s where the familiarity ended.

So, the question is, why do I miss them both?

Because grief isn’t the same as mourning.

When we mourn it tends to be short-term, intense, in the moment. Mourning is deep sorrow, black clothing, eulogies and prayers and protocols. Mourning generally happens the same way for the same amount of time for everyone.

But here’s the thing about grief.

No two people experience it alike. There is no standard process or timeline. You can’t control it or pray it away.

You can grieve for the past, for the time you had and the moments you shared. And you can grieve for the future, for the times you will never have and will never share other than in dreams.

I miss them both because I remember my neighbor’s smile, his “howdy!” each morning and his Ned Flanders perspective on the world. I miss them both because I won’t get to meet the grandfather at Thanksgiving this year or enjoy more family events with him, his grandson and my daughter.

Mourning is the present; grief is the past and the future. They are just two people, a neighbor and a stranger, but in my mind, they are connected – two infinitesimal points on the continuum of what once was and what could have been.

Battling Ageism in the Web3 Age

I’VE NEVER BEEN THAT PERSON.

The one who doesn’t keep up with change. The one who eschews new technology out of some self-righteous adherence to a past that was never meant to remain static. The past IS prologue — time and time again.

My job has always been to keep moving forward, to find what’s lurking beyond the current line of sight, and to embrace the past knowledge that never stopped but continuously evolved — from Second Life and Ultima Online to today’s “Metaverse”; from Friendster and Usenet to Twitter and Reddit; from elementary digital goods to serious digital money and NFTs; from online communities like The Well to today’s Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs.)

And all this time I’ve never felt old or past my prime; I’ve never been called an outdated thinker. So when a current group of acquaintances says things to me like “that’s very Web 2.0,” or “this is what we do in Web 3.0,” well I get little defensive.

I understand, I could be their dad. I’m a bald dude with graying temples. I’m sure they think I still subscribe to cable and have a Netscape email account somewhere (and that I’m old enough to remember Netscape — yeah, Compuserve and GeoCities too, and proud of it.)

“That’s very Web 2.0” is code for “step aside, grandpa.” It’s ageism as a digital pejorative. They assume because I have a 401K that I also like to print out and fax my emails.

So my advice to them — and to all of us — is to take a page out of Ted Lasso’s book and Be Curious. If the Web 3.0 disciples had asked, I would have told them that I have not just one but two crypto wallets; that I’ve been around the blockchain since the early 2010s, and that I was creating digital environments for brands in virtual reality platforms since 2006 (I also attend a synagogue service in Second Life in 2005, which was a religious experience on multiple levels.)

I know that what’s happening today, this “new” thing called Web 3.0, is in large part what Tim Berners-Lee predicted back in 2008 — a “semantic web” of machines talking to machines (blockchain “smart contracts” anyone?) But I also know that the Web 3.0 of today will evolve and become something new and unique, something that all the tech and talent of the past could never have predicted.

Which is why after all these years, I still love this shit.

So if you want to find me I’ll be in my usual spot — just around the corner, taking all of that “old” knowledge and applying it to what’s next. Because if being a product of the Web-Point-No era has taught me anything, it’s that change and new ways of thinking shouldn’t be wasted just on the young.

You Don’t Have to Live Somewhere to Call it Home

This picture was taken in 1941 in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. German soldiers are surrounding Jews in the Market Square, and we all know what happened after that.

My family left Zhytomyr decades earlier. I never thought about that place much, never visited, never felt like I had to. It was the Old Country, not My Country. It’s not like I have any relatives there now or any other reason to worry.

But I can’t shake the strange quiver in my chest. I can’t block out the memories of my grandma’s bland chicken soup, or her and my mom’s Yiddish conversations about Ukrainian relatives I didn’t know and would never meet.

I hadn’t thought about Zhytomyr for years, and now I can’t stop thinking about it because my sister texted me today and said that Zhytomyr was just bombed by the Russians. Again there will be soldiers in the Square, and there will be new pictures, in color this time but materially not much different.

Zhytomyr is just one of dozens of cities being bombed, its people among millions of others who will be put under occupation. I shouldn’t give it a second thought. But you don’t have to live somewhere to call it home.

The Wonder Year

One year ago, in the Year That Wasn’t, I was in a hospital tent trying to breathe, in isolation trying to distract myself with bad football, trying to make it to 2021 because my God how could that be any worse.

Overall this year was better, being alive not the least of the positives. We have vaccines, we have (a little) more sanity in DC, we have fans back in the stands. We had Wandavision and a new season of Ted Lasso. We had live music again, Dave Grohl sweating his ass off again. Marvel destroying the box office again.

We got together, with masks and then without. We celebrated and reminisced about the Before Times, when we used to do our own grocery shopping and pickup our own takeout. When online learning was an option, not an expectation. When we worked in offices, not in sweatpants in that spare bedroom no one ever used.

It was a year of Once Agains and Remember Whens. Of science breakthroughs and NFTs and spaceships for the rich. It was a year full of more normal than not, whatever normal means now.

2021 was a year to exhale, to reflect, to wonder. And I do.

I wonder if the end of 2021 is just the beginning of a new wave of uncertainty. I wonder if we learned anything at all from 2020, from the election and the insurrection, from the scientists who gave us hope and the health care workers who risked their lives for strangers.

2021 was a year of wonders and wondering. We moved forward and then moved back to new variants and renewed resistance to taking precautions, to protecting ourselves and others. We’re “over it,” we say. We did this already, in 2020. We won’t do it again.

Disinformation still flows, from Fox to Facebook, from Tucker and Taylor-Greene and to every stop on the train through Crazy Town. We are still divided, still don’t trust each other, still discriminate and still hate and still murder each other Every. Fucking. Day.

So I wonder, as we close Year One after the worst year in generations, will Year Two, 2022, be any better. Will we be any better. Can we finally move forward — because if this year taught us anything, it’s that there’s no going back.

The Broken Parts

I THOUGHT THERE WOULD BE A COUCH. 

I’d never been to see a therapist, but I’ve been to a shit-ton of movies and well, there’s always a couch in the movies. There’s almost always a happy ending, too, which should have been my first clue that art does not imitate life, but mocks it. 

Instead of one big couch there were two chairs and three smaller sofas arranged in a semi-circle. “Sit anywhere you like,” she said, which is not what you say to someone who can’t even decide what flavor of hummus to buy (hey “pumpkin” hummus, you know you’re ridiculous, right?) I picked the seat furthest from her, the one with the most pillows, where I could sink into the soft leather like a dead weight subsumed by quicksand.

Now I’m not going to go down a mental health rabbit hole and bare my soul in some desperate cry for attention. That’s what all my work emails are for. But I do want to stop pretending that everything is okay – because after a pandemic, contracting Covid, and a myriad of other life changes and pressures, everything is definitely not fucking okay.

I spent so much time pursuing fiction that I couldn’t separate it from reality. The fiction – that life was great, that I was some high-powered executive, that nothing bothered me and I got along with everyone and I was always funny – was so much more interesting. And who doesn’t want to be interesting? So I played the part, taking “all the world’s a stage” to heart and being the person I was expected to be but who didn’t exist.

So many people spend their lives manifesting conceit, projecting perfection, making every moment memorable if not instantly Instragammable. And they are rarely satisfied, always looking with longing at all those other “happy” people who must be doing something right because God knows I’m never that happy and why the hell is that? 

Because in our search for perfection, for acceptance, we ignore the broken parts that make up who we are. But the fact is we are all constructed from strewn pieces. It’s those individual imperfections that come together and make us whole. 

I used to hate the broken parts. I still do, though not as much and not as often. I now know that broken can make you better; that hiding behind fiction doesn’t guarantee a happily ever after.

I will still have moments where nothing seems to matter. There will still be times when I smile to keep from screaming; when I will let the quicksand drag me down. 

But I’ll keep trying. Broken parts and all.

Hugging the Porcupine

I’VE ALWAYS HAD A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE UNKNOWN.

I love that it fascinates me, inspires me, drives me. But I embrace it as you would hug a porcupine — very carefully and not without a huge dose of What the Fuck Was I Thinking.

I hate myself for feeling this way. Not only is it counterproductive to, you know, living, but it’s also what all of us experience every day, all the time. So get over it already.

“Unknown” is our default programming. It’s the factory setting for humanity. Yet we spend an inordinate amount of time planning in the false hope that we will then follow that plan. We crave order, but we live in a world ruled by entropy. Chaos is our king.

And still it bothers me. I “what if” myself like crazy, playing out a thousand multiverse scenarios for every stupid decision I make. It’s hard to just go with the flow when all you see is a raging tsunami coming to drown you in a wave of missed opportunities and regret.

The pandemic took these fears, these innate aversions to the unknown, and plopped them in our faces, on our couches, in our fresh baked sourdough, and on every one of our uncomfortable Zoom calls. Suddenly nothing was certain or would ever be again. We woke up to the true nature of existence. The pandemic re-booted our operating system so that now we would function normally, as in constantly scared shitless about the future normally.

What happened next? What did we do once the immediate threat was over, and we realized that pandemics were going to be with us for a long time, perhaps forever? How did we — a lot of us anyway — decide to live the rest of our lives?

We hugged the porcupine. We told fear to fuck right off. We embraced the unknown like a long-lost relative — not always comfortably, but hey you can’t choose your family. You just have to learn to live with them.

The Great Resignation is just one example of how people now not only accept the unknown but seek it out. We’ve responded to our new programming like a thirsty man to a glass of water. After all, what is “risk” in a world where an invisible microbe can kill you without warning, where your right to live is no greater than another person’s “right” to be an asshole?

Life has always been short — nasty and brutish, too, if you ask Hobbes. But while our life expectancy hasn’t changed much in the last few years, what we expect from life has.

I thought I knew this after my brain tumor in 1993. I would tell myself that “life is short” so don’t waste a second doing something you don’t want to do.

I thought I realized it when my daughter left for college, promising myself to pay more attention from now on, telling myself that I’ll never get back all those years of parenting in absentia.

I discovered it again on New Year’s Eve 2020, struggling to breathe and wondering whether my final resting place would be a parking lot in Irvine. Laying there, listening to machines speaking to each other in melancholy rhythm, I expected more out of 54 years. I expected life to do better by me, and I was kinda pissed that it had let me down.

But not anymore. From now on, I own the unknown. I decide what I should expect from life, from my decisions — good, bad, or monumentally fucked up. And you should too.

As Glinda the Good Witch told Dorothy, “You always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.” So go ahead, hug the porcupine — it may hurt, but at least you will know you’re still alive.

Looking Ahead to “Hindsight”

IT’S TRADITION here at Below the Fold to share an early excerpt from the next book project. Okay not tradition in like the traditional sense, more in the “well I’ve done it before and I haven’t died from embarrassment yet so what the hell why not” sense.

Plus there’s the added benefit of looking back years later and realizing how awful it was. Good masochism takes time, people. Take it from me, a triple black belt in poor decision making.

“Mercy” is still in the editing phase; it’s been pored over more times by more people than an election ballot in Arizona. So while that especially excruciating exercise takes the few remaining years off of my life, I’m exploring the world of “Hindsight,” where a perfect virtual experience becomes a real nightmare. It’s a story for the whole family — if an entire family disappearing is your idea of wholesome entertainment. If so shame on you (but also buy this book.)

I’m also working on a Below the Fold anthology, complete with some new essays and updates/commentary on the classics. But that’s for another post. In the meantime, and while we wait for “Mercy” to see the light of day, Here’s a brief peek at “Hindsight”:

The technician gives me a thumbs up as she removes the haptic harness, carefully unfastening the magnetic straps while I regain my balance and natural senses. The world – the real one – slowly comes back into focus, as if adjusting a camera lens. And once again, reality is just another disappointment.

I wonder what would happen if I didn’t regain full consciousness, whether they would give me more time to recover or if they would just cart me off to long-term rehab – affectionately known around Hindsight as the Omelet House, because, you know, that’s where they send all the broken eggs. But not me, I’m too hard-boiled for that (see what I did there? Dad jokes, I’ve got a million of ‘em.)

Still, I understand why some people become omelets, why it can be almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Because Hindsight isn’t virtual reality.

Virtual reality is a toy.

This is a time machine.

And more than anything, I want to go back.

I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore

I’m surrounded by driverless cars and mindless people.

This is the future my past never predicted – where thinking for yourself has become, if not obsolete, then essentially unnecessary. And why not? Computers are fast, precise, and obedient. The most advanced A.I. and quantum technology can even anticipate our needs and sense our emotions. We don’t need to ask Alexa or say “hey” to Siri, because they already know what we want and by the way the drone just dropped your package on the porch.

In many ways this is the world we always wanted, the one romanticized by futurists and promised by tech heads and Comic-Con attendees alike. And there are lots of benefits too, don’t get me wrong.

Want to hear a song from 30 years ago? Ask and ye shall receive “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” thank you very much. Can’t remember how Battlestar Galactica ended (not the original one-and-done version from the ‘70s but the 21st century reboot where you couldn’t tell a Cylon from a Caprican)? Just pick from one of any number of streaming services sending instant geekification to the screen of your choice. Life today isn’t a restricted menu, it’s a 24-hour buffet and vomitorium so there’s always room for the next meal.

Yes, we advanced. Not because we needed to, but because we could.

Early humans invented the wheel out of necessity (it being the mother of invention and all.) We created tools to survive, and medicines to cure disease and extend lifespans. But once our needs were covered, once our comfort exceeded our expectations, we advanced for mere challenge and thrill. We did more because we could do more, and more was the preferred state over less. “Anything worth doing is overdoing” the old saying went, and boy did we ever.

Before I go on, I should make one thing clear: I’m not a Luddite. I have the latest iPhone and couldn’t live without the Internet (can anyone?) Autonomous vehicles made our streets safer. And oh, by the way, did I mention that I just returned from a trip into a virtual world and am counting the days until I can do it again? I’m not looking for a cure to our modern complacency, I’m a proud and willing symptom. I’m a damaged blood cell grateful for the disease.

But some things are worth preserving – a sticky movie theater floor, the sound a needle makes when it drops onto a vinyl record. The future shouldn’t cancel the past, no matter how painful it might be. And it can be excruciatingly painful.

You see, the past for me isn’t nostalgia. It’s not history.

It’s regret.