Monthly Archives: January 2021

“Nobody can mess with me; I got my haircut.”

More than twenty years ago, opposite the main entrance to West Liberty State College, a place called JB’s offered beer, cigarettes, and a small but delicious menu of better-than-bar-food options. It was a convenience store roughly the size of a standalone two-car garage. You didn’t need to drive to get there, and almost everyone who lived on campus walked across the street at least a couple of times while they were Hilltoppers. It wasn’t my first job, but it was one of the best experiences in my life. I made four dollars an hour.

“JB” was a retired trucker who owned the place. He was Smart Country and had a strange lens through which he viewed the world. Even though his long-haul days were far behind him by the time he hired me, it was obvious that the lifestyle agreed with him. He wore mesh-backed trucker hats in an attentive fashion; they were more perched than worn. A this-might-come-in-handy vest draped over flannel shirts suggested a laid-back outdoorsman. JB was every bit the wily uncle you didn’t know you had, and his stories rivaled Mark Twain’s most days. There was a mason jar full of white lightning stationed on an out-of-normal reach shelf in the back of the store. Real moonshine from downstate West Virginia. With a beer, JB’s stories and life wisdom was good medicine. With moonshine, JB’s half-missing index finger on his gesturing hand became a celestial wand, and his word became cosmic law. JB was alright, man.

We had a small crew of college students who ran the night shift. All of us were in the first years of our undergraduate degrees, but Brother Fell was nearing the end of his time on campus. He was set to graduate after completing his student-teaching internship. He was “Brother” Fell because his high school football coach called everyone “Brother” as a title of respect. I pictured Macho Man Randy Savage as a Friar. It worked.

On slow nights in JBs, it was storytime. Nobody sauntering across the street from the college and no phone orders meant that the night shift might drag. We depended on each other to pass the time, as we sure as shit weren’t going to do any homework. Get outta here. I had a few good stories, but Brother Fell’s were those of Anytown, USA, and as such, they couldn’t be beaten. Plus, he was probably the most agreeable and likeable fellow with whom you’d strike up a conversation. Top Ten story material, without a doubt. Honest folks always are.

There was the time Brother Fell accidentally turned from a side street and found himself and his old Civic in the middle of a Main Street parade. Instead of attempting to drive back out, he tapped the Happy Honda horn and waved as though the act were planned. Meep Meep! Onlookers waved back. Stories of football and general shenanigans were on par with the classic rites of passage from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sometimes Porky’s. If you worked with Brother Fell, it didn’t matter what night it was. You were guaranteed to pass the time excellently.

Sometimes in the spring semesters of college life, classwork starts to pile up, or some damn fool makes the mistake of taking several more classes than is generally advisable when attempting to balance good times. The looming end to a degree program accelerates the threat of the Outside World encroaching on the otherwise more perfect years of your life. Meeting new people, learning new things, expanding your horizons. Questioning who you are, and what “it” is all about. I was lost in thought, leaning on my elbows next to the cash register one day when Brother Fell walked in with a sigh, grinning and shaking his head. “New hat?” I asked, nodding toward a sharpish fitted baseball cap. Brother Fell nodded and stopped. He took off the hat, held it in one hand while smoothing it appreciatively and said, “Loooong day. No worries, though. They couldn’t get me down. I got my haircut.” He ran his hat-smoothing hand over his short hair and snapped his fingers. His eyebrows raised, he nodded his vigorously once as if in agreement with himself. “Nobody can mess with you when you have a fresh haircut.”

The phones hadn’t rung, and the only customers popped in for a pack of smokes or a tall boy, mostly Budweiser. Pounders were less than a buck then. Glorious. Brother Fell sat down his bag in the back of the store, took a look around to see if there was anything we needed to do after day shift’s exit. There wasn’t. “Tell me about this hair cut deal,” I said. I had kept my hair short for years at that point. I wasn’t aware of any benefits–I just didn’t want to do anything with mine. Brother Fell walked back up to the counter from the back, put one knee up on the lower shelf and squinted at my hairline. “You don’t know about how nobody can mess with you when you’ve gotten a haircut?”

I shook my head. He took a five-finger dip of long-cut wintergreen and grabbed a foam cup as his spitter, then glanced out across the empty street toward the college. “Here it is,” he said, moving the tobacco around to situate it to the right of his lower lip.

“When you get a fresh haircut–and it doesn’t matter who you are–your whole perspective changes. Don’t know why, don’t know how. It’s just the way it is. Now, take my haircut. You’d think it doesn’t even matter, since I have it hidden under this ball cap. But my ears hear more. I’m more aware. With this cut, it’s one less thing to think about,” he said, eyes twinkling. He spat a little juice in the foam cup.

“Everyone’s got it all wrong,” he continued, explaining, gesturing with casual sweeps of his right hand. “Take a look at certain majors over there across the street. Some frats, some sororities wearing their Greek letters all over everything. Some kids walking around worried about repping their teams all day, every day. Pro teams they don’t play for. It’s weird. College athletes here, they don’t seem to worry about that. Our colors are nice, and they have plenty of gear comes their way. Black and gold West Lib gear. Nice stuff.” Fell nodded, spat again.

“It’s a zen thing, having a fresh haircut. You oughta celebrate it by just taking time to make sure it’s a focus,” Brother Fell nodded.

“You mean like with product? Gel?” I grimaced. I didn’t want to do anything. That was high school shit. Kid stuff.

“Nawww, man,” Fell laughed. “Not unless you’re trying to get the job. Start the ol’ career. Think about it like this–how fast is a shower now? Ten minutes maximum? That’s even faster with the fresh haircut, right?” I nodded. “Right. That’s a focus. That’s what I mean. No extra time making yourself pretty, because the haircut’s fresh.”

Pause. Another spit. We watched a car full of girls in Greek letters pull into the parking lot, converse animatedly with their hands, and then pull back out. “Forgot their IDs, I’ll bet,” said Fell. “Can’t sell them Zima without their IDs,” he reminded me. Brother Fell stood up straight and stretched away the earlier part of the day, and adjusted his hat. “I saw a guy get his ass kicked outside of Bubba’s last year, but it didn’t matter to him none,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Cause even though he was beaten and a little bloody, and a pretty good black eye, his haircut was fresh,” he laughed. “People weren’t sure he actually lost the fight.”

I was beginning to see.

“So, even on a long day, when you’re working on finishing a degree and you’re about to apply for jobs you aren’t even sure you can do,” Fell put extra emphasis on the do to make his point. “That fresh haircut is one less thing to worry about.”

I got my haircut today. It’s fresh. Tomorrow morning I’ll move a little faster, and the commute will end a little sooner, and I’ll have a few more minutes of quiet time before the work day begins and we try to move heaven and earth with our wills. But I”ll have one less thing to worry about.

The Writing on Your “Wall”

When I was still on Facebook, I used to post a video of Sean Parker admitting that the founders of that site and other popular social media applications used basic psychology to trap users. I didn’t post the video to announce how much smarter and in control I was compared to fellow Facebook users (I was part of the dimwitted masses), but as far as I know, Parker was one of the first to come out and say, “Here’s what we did, and why we did it, and now I think it wasn’t a good idea.”

I finally left Facebook for good about six months ago, and even though at that point it wasn’t really a major factor as far as daily time wasted, I just didn’t want it to be a part of my day at all. So now it isn’t.

I think people forget how much we used to get done before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the shitty “look at me dance” video apps that I won’t mention by name. It’s laughable. And you’re an idiot if you’re an avid user. Be honest with yourself.

Unless you’re a teenager, there is a strong possibility you still remember the world before social media. Media manipulation and mass advertising came through television, print, and whatever websites you visited, but there was still a disconnect. An on/off button existed, because our phones weren’t yet super-computers. YouTube and Google and the rest of the apps weren’t constantly shaking hands to keep us connected and scrolling.

In my thirties, the apps were there, they just didn’t really do much. It was cool to see what some people were up to, but nothing really came of it. About a year ago, everyone became an epidemiologist. Then a political expert. I had already seen that movie a few times before, though. Every American election cycle gives voice to psychological bias and unchecked stupidity. This one was a little bit worse. So 2020 was the last gasp for me. I cannot believe the amount of idiocy propagated through media designed to exploit the masses. It’s a shame I was ever a part of it. Soon, I will retire from the other apps too.

No more people whining and not doing anything about their unhappiness, which was magnified by the app through which they are whining.

No more dipshit morons wringing their hands about “the state of things” in which they barely participate. Hunching over a keyboard with poorly-research “facts” doesn’t count, Username.

No more glamourous influencers jamming their piece-of-shit products down my throat. No more subpar music clogging my brainwaves while some hip waif styles the freshest drip in the latest colorway. Those shoes came out when I was a kid, my guy, and they were fifty dollars cheaper. But yeah, please let me get them in bright green or orange.

Unbelievable, how we let these apps run us.

This is a question I have asked for a few years, and I think I will continue to put it out there:

“In forty years, when your life is mostly behind you, how do you want to be defined? Do you want to look back and say, ‘I pissed away my best years being manipulated by a software application that was designed to keep me trapped through psychological weakness’?”

It’s not easy to admit how much time we’ve wasted on these things. I know. When work from home became the thing this year, I spent more than two full weeks in a Call of Duty game. As in 14 full days, 15 hours, and some change. Oh, sure, it was fun. We ran our mouths and made some pretty cool videos. The highlight was winning a match with two elementary students. First-graders, dude.

However, at some point near the end of the year, I just kept thinking, “Jesus, man, you’re 41. Forty-one. How much longer can you get online and be okay with spending even an hour a day mindlessly gripping a controller?” I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that out of 52 weeks in a year, I spent two full weeks on a single game. That doesn’t even include time spent in other games.

I started keeping informal track of my time spend digitally. What I found was unsettling: thirty hours a week between an Xbox and apps on a cell phone. But yeah, I “don’t have time.” Lies.

So, now that January–which is by far the shittiest month of the year–is more than half over, it’s time to become even more accountable. The software created by smarter people to keep me trapped and complacent have a chief design flaw: I have to turn them on before they can waste my time.

I hope that as the vaccine rollouts continue we will start to see reality become a little more real, as opposed to what the screens tell us, but it will take a while before that happens. In the meantime, try something: keep track of where the time goes, and see if you’re any happier. If not, make some changes.

A Single Step

36 days ago, I was melting into Matt and Natalie’s giant couch. I was slightly short of breath, with one leg propped up on the coffee table. It was Thanksgiving Day.

“I only had one plate, and it’s not like it was overflowing!” I wheezed in glossy disbelief. My confusion was somewhat justifiable. Matt has a rare turkey technique. Wielding a giant syringe, he channels dark magic to inject buffalo sauce into various pathways, then dusts the entire bird with a matching dry seasoning before deep-frying the turkey. No mortal stands a chance. Honestly, I went into the day with every intention of not overeating. One plate (honest!) later, I was semi-conscious and lounging in front of the TV, eyes rolling around while I daydreamed of an out-of-the-blue points surge from a WR or RB that I hoped nobody else had noticed. Naturally, I wasn’t winning anything in the DraftKings contests. My belly seemed to be growing larger by the minute. At that point, I wasn’t drinking anything, and I wasn’t snacking. I wasn’t doing anything at all.

That’s when it hit me. With Christmas right around the corner, and most of the shopping done, I was kind of in a state of cruise control toward the end of the year. I had a bizarre thought. What could I do that day to kick off a new era in life? What was missing? What action could I take that would begin a journey of a thousand miles?

My mild devotion to doomed DraftKings contests had encouraged superstitious behaviors. Horse betters had their weirdo routines, and athletes had their pregame rituals. Matt and I had “Pittsburgh pushups”–regular pushups that generated mystical energy to power the Black & Gold to a W. Nothing more than a drunken excuse to pretend that real activity on our part could influence the destiny of a football game. Anyway, X amount of pushups later (I’m sure I didn’t reach a hundred), I actually felt a little better. Was it possible that the smallest amount of activity on my part created a feeling of achievement? Was it real? It had been so long, I couldn’t even remember what real physical activity felt like.

The next morning, I went into the garage and got onto our nearly decade-old treadmill. Recalling the best motivational quote ever (thanks, reddit), I got started. Nothing extravagant. Just a run/walk combo to get started. Something to jar the gears and knock off some rust. A spark to ignite The Machine. Thirty-five days later, I feel better. Every morning I get up to exact revenge against what I might have become if had I continued to do the exact same thing for another year.

More movement led to better eating, and also to a real accountability to self. The goal is to be better than I was yesterday. I think I am on to something. This year I will be documenting the journey every day. It might be something cool I found, a thought I have had, or an idea I want to explore. It’s funny that it took a pandemic for me to finally do this, but here we are. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll come along for the ride.