The weird thing about restarting your life is that it really does feel like restarting. I mean, I think when I endeavored on this whole thing, the “restart” felt more like a metaphor. It’s just ~like~ starting over, not really Starting Over. But there is no metaphorical restart and maybe, to even have thought that, is a sign of how broken I was in my old life. I lived an abstract, unattached life then.
Graduate school and academic culture fed on the part of me that thrived on affirmation from others. Since childhood, I had been a people pleaser. Grad school was just an extension of the same “jump-doggy-jump” game I’d played all through middle school and high school and college. Play by the rules, get praise, feel good. As my friends were moving to new places - new lives! with salaries and vacations and engagements and houses - I was getting my fix in school, allowing others to substantiate my existence through points and grades and pithy praises written in the margins of my papers. “Nice work!” I found a new source for my fix.
Even though my drug was “harmless,” like all addicts, I eventually crashed and burned. But that’s a different story that I haven’t figured out how to tell yet. I don’t even know if its worth telling.
I wish I could say that there was one moment where I realized that the path I was on was not the right one for me. Hell, I wish I could say that there was one moment where someone else realized it and told me. It was a process though. And not a process that occurred in a logical, linear order of operations. I knew first that I was not happy in grad school and relished the day that I would be Done. While conjuring up what I wanted out of a better life, I had a lot of learning to do. Mostly, I needed to figure out how to appreciate myself and be accountable for my own well-being and health. Doing that work and learning those skills was boring, but nourishing. Kind of like if Rocky’s workout sequence involved big couches and talking about his feelings a lot. By learning mindfulness techniques and processing my experiences through talk therapy, I was able to build up my self-esteem and be my own “fix,” so to speak. After all that, I realized that the path I was on - the path that kept me in academia for the long-term - was not the one that led to that “better life” I had been dreaming up.
From the other end of it all, after the hard restart, I can see how a metaphorical restart would have been appealing to me. I had worked so hard to become a new me and there was a part of me that feared if I changed paths the new me would be left behind. It would be a lie to say there was no danger in that. I mean, I guess it’s like that thing of when you have to take your computer to the Genius Bar because it’s not behaving and you’re worst fear is that they have to replace your hard drive and it’s the last week of classes and like a dummy, you have not been plugging in your external hard drive so that Time Machine can do its magic and back up literally every important document and file in your life. Losing that hard drive and getting a new one is your worst fucking nightmare.
Once I started leaving that old life, it was easy to begin letting things go. First my material possessions. I donated as much of the contents of my studio apartment as I could to an animal rights charity. I took left over food to a soup kitchen. Let a young woman who distributed goods to families who’d been left homeless due to catastrophic incidents take my linens and kitchen supplies. Donated my warm weather clothing to a women’s center. By the time I left, everything I owned could fit into my tiny hatchback car. I got rid of all my things and I still felt like the me I had worked to become.
I wanted to let more things go. Tired of being belligerent and bruised, I decided to let go of my anger. Something I learned in therapy was that emotions are supposed to serve a purpose. At a very base level, they are just information that tell us how we’re feeling. And that information can be used to change the situation! And then, once the emotions have ceased to be useful, they can just be let go! That was a revelation to me. I used to stew in my emotions, let them simmer until they boiled over into a tidal wave that knocked me down. Before someone told me this - really helped me learn the power of this skill - I thought of my emotions as these huge, intimidating, warden-like things that I could not escape. Enthralled with this new option of “letting it all go,” I made decisions regarding people and situations that had made me resentful or sore and then I let the emotions go once I was satisfied with my decisions.
Those heavy emotions were gone and I felt more like myself than ever before in my entire life. I remember when I first got glasses; I was 12 and in eighth grade. We got my first pair of glasses from a DOC in a strip mall on a spring evening. Riding in the way way back of my mom’s van I wore those glasses and I was in a trance over how clearly I was able to see the rain rivulets rushing down the window. Unclouded by negative emotions, I could feel happiness and passion and rage. I could give a damn, finally.
Animated GIFs have a specious reputation on the web. Everyone remembers the garish “Under construction” GIFs of the 90s - now more of a punchline than a viable method of conveying information, along with the much-maligned tag in HTML. The animated GIFs of the 90s and early 2000s are punchlines these days. In more recent years, the animated GIF has a reputation for being silly and almost frivolous; this form of media is often used on social media sites to depict emotional reactions in soundless, looping images. Reddit, Buzzfeed, and Tumblr are just some of the platforms that are well known for GIF usage.
Single-serving Tumblrs like What Should We Call Me leveraged the animated GIF to demonstrate reflexive responses to commonplace (or not so commonplace) circumstances. Composed of sentence fragments and single moving images - no sound, no verbose explanation - What Should We Call Me went viral. It’s important to note that WSWCM was written by two bi-coastal best friends attending law school. My friends went to law school and that is a different world, man. For all intents and purposes, WSWCM should have been obscure and inaccessible to anybody outside of the best friend law school bubble that the two authors occupied. The exact opposite thing happened though. WSWCM was spotlighted by HuffPo and Forbes (! …) as a must-follow blog. Copycat blogs sprung up as people sought to describe and express their experiences in an equally evocative manner.
WSWCM was not only compelling to read and chatter about and share; it made people want to make their own WSWCM. It made writers out of people who might otherwise remain readers only. Now that it had become a meme, the format began to reproduce itself across Tumblr as people in all different kinds of circumstances started combining animated GIFs with their own quippy sentences. I recall a friend of mine loving one iteration that was specifically devoted to the experience of young Americans who were raised in foreign countries (“third culture kids”).
Awhile back in a PBS Idea Channel video, Mike Rugnetta proposed an idea about the “cultural singularity.” You’d be better watching the video than my summarizing it here, but the gist is that the internet builds culture and culture thereby builds itself. Communities of people are part of the mechanisms by which culture is continually building itself out and on top of itself becoming evermore self-referential. Rugnetta refers mostly to memes themselves - image macros, animated GIFs, and the like which emerged from the 2012 summer olympics broadcast. He notes that while he barely saw the broadcast sports, he saw tons of gymnastics on Tumblr in GIF form. Video clips become GIFs become GIF sets become GIFs about something else totally unrelated become glitch art etc etc etc. Each new iteration begets something new.
We celebrated the 23rd anniversary of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations” yesterday.