Cheyenne and I took a much-needed vacation in Vancouver, BC. We rented an AirBnB on Commericial Drive and had an itinerary of 1) going to coffee shops 2) going to bookstores 3) going to fun restaurants. Both of us have very “busy brains” which means that we get caught up in our thoughts so much that it makes it very difficult to focus on the tasks directly in front of us. While I am always thinking about efficient life-design, Cheyenne is often burdened with hundreds of project ideas. Frazzled and exhausted, we took a trip and agreed that if we saw each other working, we would intervene.
The trip was idyllic. Traveling can be stressful, and all of my friends told me that it would be a test for my relationship with Cheyenne. We hit some road bumps (as a general rule I will always travel in the wrong direction at least once), but managed to do everything we set out to do: Stanley Park, hip vegan eats, third-wave coffee shops, and MacLeod Books.
MacLeod was something of a dream and a nightmare mixed into one. The space was packed with books that, at first glance, seemed to follow no kind of organizational structure. Piles of books sat between shelves, and shelf labels were all fading and peeling. It was like being in a poorly maintained storage unit rather than a bookstore. Of course, this is part of the charm, as many people are drawn to bookstores to root through the stacks to stumble upon something special. Which is exactly what happened for me.
I found a copy of Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter, a book recommended by a friend years ago. Described to me as a book of puzzles, I leafed through the introduction and saw that it was an exploration into creativity, intelligence, and the mind. Floored, I put it back on the shelf, worried that the book was too big to bring back with me to the States. Cheyenne shot me a look. “Your face lit up when you saw that book,” she told me. “You should get it.”
I did, and it ended up being one of the best decisions of the trip. Excitedly, I went through the introductory chapters at Stanley Park. Cheyenne and I posted up on a bench by Beaver Lake where she drew and I read. I was immediately excited. The first passage of the book is about the cover, and Hofstadter discusses how his doodles have evolved into an art and possibly even a kind of language over time. The way he wrote aligned with how I think in my “busy brain”, and it made me feel thrilled that someone was as curious about the nature of intelligence as I was.
Ever since starting this book, I felt a mixture of joy and anger. Joy that I was not alone in my interests, and angry that sometimes I felt crazy for being so enthusiastically obsessed with words, gestalts, and organizational systems. I’m always thinking about how my brain is making sense of the information in front of it, which leads me to read things like The Circle (Eggers), Accelerando (Stross), The Story of Your Life and Others (Chiang), in order to explore the limits of what we can reasonably expect to understand when paired with smart phones and the like.
The vacation served as a breath of fresh air, and a warm bath for my overclocked brain. The relaxation of spending time without thinking led me to a new avenue of thinking that much harder about subjects I am very excited about. Refreshed, I’m ready to return to Seattle to delve back into my research of healthy relationships with rapidly evolving tools.
Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow states that when you lock into pure focus, you will lose track of time and forget to eat. Flow is also linked to how people experience true happiness – it’s when they are faced with a reasonable challenge with clear goals. As I lock into flow more regularly, sometimes the balance of my life is thrown out of orbit as I become more and more engrossed in my personal projects and experiments. As a result, reminding myself to breathe, drink water, and enjoy myself has become one of the most difficult things for me to do. I don’t think I am alone in this, since many of the bestselling books I see at bookstores have titles like How To Relax, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Get Your Sh*t Together. As we move faster and faster through dizzying amounts of information (and distractions), keeping our wits about us becomes the most important thing. We are, in essence, walking bags of meat that need movement, nourishment, and play.
For this reason, vacations clear up the processes in my brain the same way a Powerwash will free up some of the things gumming up the performance of my Chromebook. Walks in the park, diversions, and talks with Chey brings my brain closer to its “factory defaults”. This statement will sicken some of my friends, who angrily tell me that my phone addiction melts my brain. I think a lot about YouTube personality Julian Smith’s video “I Was Here”, in which he freeform discusses his year off the internet. His conclusion: though he may have been happier offline, he is back because he wants to live in the present day, rather than in a world before YouTube existed. I feel the same way. I was born into a time with a set of very unique problems, and I would much rather face it as a participant than a reluctant and fearful observer.
I grow tired of the “technology is bad” argument. Technology is dangerous, yes. It influences our politics, it shapes our thought processes, and has the potential to cause irreversible damage to the planet and the populations that inhabit it. The dangers and woes that surround our use of technology that tracks and manipulates us as a whole cannot be confronted by pushing it away and pretending it doesn’t exist. I don’t know why I indulge these arguments, and perhaps it is my own mistake in engaging with fear-mongers.
Maybe it’s because it was the timing of when I was born, that I have to navigate between individuals who believe things were “better in the olden days” and others than are thoughtlessly running into the arms of the future. Here I am, like Spiderman trying to hold together two parts of a crumbling structure with his web, trying to maintain a healthy life IRL and through the media channels on my phone.
Throughout our trip, Chey and I have added photos to Instagram and Facebook, and have carried dialogues with our friends and followers who are able to share all of the joy we have experienced. One of the things I appreciate about Chey is her love of people taking photos of each other for Instagram. Whenever she sees couples posing at landmarks, or cafe patrons neatly organizing their latte and notebooks on a table, she squeals with joy. I know that it’s because they are participating in an activity that Chey herself is heavily involved in and enjoys immensely.
Being drowned in images causes an assortment of problems that are worth examining with a level head. As with anything, thoughtless participation is a recipe for disaster. But my friend Melissa shared an idea with me over Twitter recently. There are some things we love “so much irrationally and feel the need to make fun of it to ease our own self consciousness about experiencing joy.” Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, as flawed and frustrating as they are, allow for small pockets of joy here and there on my bus ride to work and between chapters of the books I read. I am angry at the misuse and the spread of disinformation, but what an exciting time to take a stand and to push for the proper use of these platforms.
Cheyenne and I return to Seattle today. We are happy, refreshed, and excited to return to work. As with many of my blog posts, I find myself always reinforcing the truth of a cliché, and today that cliché is balance. For every pendulum swing towards the unnatural, we need to return to the natural (or as close to natural as we can get nowadays). What I mean is that we must always return to our feelings, our joys, and our connections in the same rhythms that we push ourselves to grapple with all of the strange things this year and the next will bring to us.