The death of gravel racing

July 17, 2022 Comments Off on The death of gravel racing

No, pro gravel racing’s not dead.

Yet.

But it’s dying, make no mistake about it. The biggest events on the calendar have stagnant or declining participation in their “hardperson” categories. What’s more telling, a tiny handful of the same riders from event to event are the only ones seriously in contention. That’s not a bad thing nor is it abnormal: the real contenders each year at Paris-Roubaix or the Tour tend to be few in number.

What’s bad is that after those few real contenders, in gravel racing, there’s no one. Unlike the pro peloton, or even your local racing hierarchy, once you leave those top ten or so competitors in a gravel race (fewer than that in the women’s field), the caliber of the racing falls off a cliff. So every event you’re simply watching the same handful of people slug it out, assuming you’re watching, and in reality, hardly anyone is. To say that the fields lack depth is an understatement.

By way of comparison, today the gap between 1st and 50th at the Tour is 1h 22′ 23″. For 2022 Unbound, the gap between 1st and 50th was 1h 25’35”. Sounds close until you add in this detail: Unbound’s gap between 1st and 50th was after 200 miles of racing. The 2022 Tour had a similar gap after more than 1,400 miles, or seven times the distance. The difference between professional road racing and fake professional gravel racing is more clear when you go farther down the placings: last-place Caleb Ewan, in 157th place, is 3h 46′ down on the yellow jersey. Last place at Unbound 2022? 6h 39′ down. At the 2022 BWR, the results are even more ridiculous: a 1h 25′ gap between first and 50th over a mere 137 miles, a 2h 20′ gap between 1st and 157th, and an absurd 12h 23′ gap between first and last.

Gravel promoters claim that this is no different from marathons, where hackers and elite runners start together but finish in vastly different times. This, of course, is false.

First, the apples-to-apples comparison of gravel and Pro Tour races, both of which are done on bicycles, shows conclusively that the gravel fields are pitifully thin in terms of quality. When you actually compare a European classic like the Tour of Flanders with the gravel “monument” of the BWR, the difference is embarrassing: after 163 miles of racing, the difference in Flanders between 1st and 50th is 5’13”. BWR? Over 1h 25′. At Flanders, first and last are separate by 10’16”. That, to repeat, is after 163 miles. At the BWR, first and last over about 137 miles are separated by, uh, 12 HOURS.

Second, the “mass start gravel is like mass start marathons” is false. In the sport of marathoning, there is no separate race held for elite runners. Competitive cycling, which has its own teams and events separated on the basis of rider classification, purposely separates racing between the lower and higher ranks. Marathons, on the other hand, lump everyone together in every marathon. But unlike professional gravel racing, the sharp end of the spear at a race like the Berlin Marathon has incredible depth. The first twenty finishers alone completed the 2021 course in under 2h 19′, and the top ten were all the equivalent of top riders in the Tour. The top finishers of the biggest gravel races belong to a category known as either “retired” or “never heard of ’em” or both.

Third, the winners of the major marathons go on to compete for what is truly all the marbles in marathoning, that is, the Olympics. Not a single gravel winner has ever even been in the Olympics, much less been a contender. Top gravel “professionals” like Peter Stetina, Ian Boswell, and Ted King were, during their pro careers, domestiques. To suggest that a long-retired domestique is somehow the equivalent of an on-form Eliud Kipchoge, Wilson Kipsang, or Meb Keflezighi is stupid and insulting.

In short, marathons have nothing, zero, zip, nada in common with mass-start gravel racing in terms of field depth, field quality, or the elements that are key to any fair competition such as governing bodies, drug testing, professional contracts, and other indicia of professionalism.

The structural weakness of gravel fields makes ridiculous claims that any of the premier gravel events are similar to the European monuments. Of course you cannot sign up for the Tour of Flanders or any other monument unless you are a member of a selected team and possess a UCI professional license. Claiming that an event with two or three long-retired professionals, none of whom ever won a pro race, resembles a European classic is absurd. And after accounting for the ex-professionals, when the remaining five or ten contenders are nothing more than talented amateurs, and the rest of the 800-rider field is filled out with people who have never actually entered a sanctioned race of any kind, you are talking about some serious delusions with regard to the nature of gravel racing.

A major race with several hundred participants where less than ten riders are contending for the win, and those contenders are the same ones in every race, is boring from the standpoint of the spectator and, crucial to the promoter, boring to the participant. That’s key because the big events depend on repeat business to grow. When you’ve done Gravel Unbound once and finished in the middle of the group, you might be tempted to do it twice, or even thrice. But slogging your way along the same old course for the same old participation t-shirt is a hard sell for most people once they’ve got their trinket and their hangover. “Been there, done that,” is real.

How noncompetitive are these fields? The women’s winner of last year’s “Tripel Crown of Gravel” won by virtue of being the only woman who registered for and finished all three rides. The men’s winner came out of the tiny handful of riders who finished all three. When simply finishing a race series puts you into contention for the overall, it’s a safe bet that the event is not competitive. Hard? Yep; long bicycle rides are like that. Competitive? Nope.

How desperate are promoters to attract riders at the marquee events? For 2022, they’re giving away a fourth entry to the BWR “Quadrupel Crown of Gravel” if you purchase entries to the other three. What’s next, a Quintuple Crown? Sextuple? The idea that anything more than a tiny number of people have the time, interest, money, or fitness to travel around the country riding gravel races is a poor one upon which to found a business, and no amount of hoopla can change it. Nor does it help that the “prize list” for this amazing series, or the rules, or the current standings, are unpublished on the promoter’s web site.

Not to be outdone in silliness, the Lifetime Gravel and MTB Series offers racers a total purse of $250,000, which sounds hefty but is a farce. Why? The overall winner gets $25,000 for doing the best in five out of six races that go from CA to UT to ARK to KS to CO to WI. Still sound like a lot of money? Uh, okay. I guess your time is worth virtually nothing. And if you’re not the overall winner? Prize money only goes ten deep for each gender and is probably going to be in the range of $6,000 if you’re not an overall winner. Wow, a real fortune: $6,000 or less to travel to five or six races across the entire U.S. over the course of an entire year. I never thought that any cycling discipline would make professional women’s road racing look lucrative, but gravel actually does.

Nor is the Lifetime competition open to just anyone: to even have a shot at one of the 40 “racing” slots (20 for men, 20 for women), you have to apply. See? It’s just like being in the Pro Tour minus the prize list, the team support, the subsidized equipment, the subsidized travel, the salary, the health insurance, and the contract.

The reality is that no professional sport worthy of the name pays its competitors in prize money. Nor does it pay them through one-off sponsorships from Red Bull, Floyd’s of Leadville, or Tubby’s Lawnmower and Plumbing Supplies. True professionals are paid with something called a salary via a document known as a contract. Good race results provide what are known as contract bonuses, as well as that amazing thing in pro sports known as a contract extension.

If your business model is living off prize money you are not a professional. You are a gambler. And you’re clearly not the kind who knows how to walk away or to run.

Show me the money

Gravel racing has none of these minimal professional standards, and with good reason. There’s no money in it for anyone except the bike manufacturers, the equipment manufacturers, and those oddball hangers-on known as participants in the “bike industry.” The entire bike industry, including sales, equipment, and e-bikes, is less than $7 billion, and it’s split between a plethora of tiny players who already have way too many advertising venues to fund. By way of contrast, legal and professional services are a $1.2 trillion industry.

The same way that gravel races lack structure, depth, quality, or true professionalism, the financial structure for the handful of people who “make a living” at it is likewise smoke and mirrors. Remember that the bike industry is tiny and that marketing budgets are tinier. Also remember that if you want exposure in bike racing and you have any budget at all, you invest in the Pro Tour and specifically in the Tour de France. Everything else will receive crumbs.

This means that gravel will never have professional teams. Not only do the bigger players already have them in various capacities on the Pro Tour, but there is zero interest from the general public in gravel racing. If you think amateur road racing is a niche, wait til you start asking people what they think about “gravel.” They’ll tell you that it looks good in rock gardens and certain kinds of driveways, or that they hate the way it chips their windshields on the highway.

Yet gravel is a vector for bike brands to sell more bikes, so they sponsor it in a manner commensurate with its significance. Like Red Bull and Yeti, they add individual racers, or “privateers” to their roster of “brand ambassadors.” Or, like Wahoo, they hire an individual racer to do real work and let him race on the side, and race well, like Ian Boswell. As Boswell himself admits, though, there’s zero pressure to perform in gravel races. Why? Because he’s not a paid racer.

What other sport that claims to be a sport has its top competitors admit that they aren’t really racers?

The real marketing benefit for all these companies is in the social media networks of the gravel “stars.” People like Colin Strickland have in excess of 40k Instagram followers. Once he hits the witness stand in the murder of Mo Wilson, he’ll probably have lots more.

Although gravel is a lousy investment for Specialized from the standpoint of funding a team and team infrastructure, they get quite a bang for their buck by having the top gravel racers as brand ambassadors. This nickel-and-dime sponsorship that keeps riders on tenterhooks from race to race and season to season, with no guaranteed income, no stability, no insurance, and no promise of anything around which to build a life or career, is proof positive that pro gravel racing is a no-dollar, no-interest, seat-of-the-pants craze that has nothing built into it to guarantee longevity.

Staying false to your roots

Another huge problem with competitive gravel has little to do with gravel races or their promoters and everything to do with the false premise of commercialized cycling, which is that in order to cycle properly you need proper equipment. This mindset, developed in road racing, tells people that in order to race properly you need thousands of dollars of equipment and clothing, no matter that hardly anyone who ever races a bike will ever win a race or even get on a podium.

In conjunction with this financial barrier to entry and barrier to continued entry, bike racing is physically and mentally hard beyond belief. The greatest racer of all time barely won 30% of the races he entered. A modern pro can expect to never win a single race on the Pro Tour, and the typical amateur, provided he’s racing against his peers and not sandbagging like so many masters “champions,” can expect victories to be incredibly rare. Because bike racing is so hard and because you are guaranteed defeat virtually every time you race, cyclists have always cast about for an easy way to feel like a winner without actually winning a bike race.

The first misbegotten child of this “participation” mentality was the century ride. These were explicitly non-sanctioned non-races that people who can’t win in a real race often signed up for and tried to “win.” Everyone else was simply doing it “for fun,” a complete lie when you saw people’s reactions to mistakes in the “results.” The difference between 876 and 877 was everything, really.

The second child of the participation mentality was the gran fondo, an actual race that wasn’t a race. The gran fondo, like the century, was a place where unsuccessful bike racers could find success in a non-race that was actually a race. In essence the fondo was a century, often literally, on steroids. But the fondo boom busted, too. Where there were once fondos tucked into every nook and cranny weekend from January to December, only a handful remain. Levi’s Gran Fondo, which rumor has it once attracted 7,000+ riders, now caps entry at 2,500, allegedly to maintain safety and ride quality, but more likely due to the fondo craze having dried up and gone away, because craze.

Bleeding over between fondos and centuries, sometime around 2010 there was a cyclocross craze. This lasted an exceedingly short while. Although racing ‘cross allowed consumers to buy a whole new rig and clown costume, the unforgiving reality of cyclocross is forty-five minutes of absolutely unrelenting pain. Whereas the century and fondo had lots of room for the feeble and faint of heart, cyclocross tosses you into the wood chipper every single time. There is no “party grupetto” in cyclocross.

So that fad waned because it turned out to be the one thing that people don’t want, which is a real bike race. Sure, there were people in the early days who could show up to a Brad House event in PV, score a win, and “upgrade” to Cat 1, but even that level of sandbagging hurt, it took place in shitty weather, and it was often accompanied by that most-unwished-for thing, the bicycle-falling-off-incident and ensuing ouchies. The ultimate dagger in the heart of cyclocross, on top of its unimaginable pain, was that it required real skills. People who saw ‘cross as a way to race without racing were soon educated, and after a few seasons the fad faded.

Enter the gravel

And so it made perfect sense that some clever person would look at the key qualities of ‘cross and fondo/centuries most appealing to the average cyclist and identify those qualities as 1) new bike and 2) participation t-shirt. Gravel was thus born. It required a whole new rig, a whole new vocabulary, and it offered up the flabby ethos of “everyone’s a winner” in spades and a custom kit. This ethos is euphemistically called the amazing gravel community, but make no mistake about it, the allure of gravel racing is that it’s not a race for any but a tiny few. For everyone else it’s about the PR, the gnar, the sufferfest, trading turns at the front, the cray-cray mechanicals, the gumbo mud, and the camaraderie of the big drunkfest at the end of the ride-I-mean-race.

Gravel racing also thrived because of its refusal to drug test. There can be no doubt that many gravel racers dope, but as a form of racing that covers up its drug use by claiming to be “grass roots” and independent from organizing bodies, everyone can pretend that the winners are racing clean. I remember asking one promoter when he was going to start drug testing. “Next year,” he said … in 2017. His events, in 2022, are still pee-free.

Gravel racing is driven by the absence of drug testing. Even the Lifetime Series with its $250,000 prize list can’t manage a drug testing regimen in their series that is anything but absurd. Only three men and three women were tested at Unbound 2022, with no mandatory testing of the winners. This, despite research that shows doping increases as money increases.

Facts aside, gravel racing thrives precisely because it’s a doping free-for-all. Riders like Colin Strickland, a guy who ostensibly has nothing to do but race bikes, turned down a pro offer after winning Unbound in 2019 because he didn’t like the rigid format of pro road racing. That sounds like code for drug testing. It beggars belief that at least some of the top gravel racers aren’t using PEDs. They do in every other sport, but in gravel it’s cool because there’s no testing.

Instead, promoters who don’t want to pay for testing and racers who want to dope all come together under the rubric of “grass roots” and “camaraderie” and “sharing a beer after the race” to hide the fact that the sport is almost certainly rife with doping. This utter absence of meaningful drug testing guarantees that no sponsor will ever get too deep in the sport. Everyone knows that no drug testing means rampant doping, and privateers/brand ambassadors who do get caught, or who, like Colin Strickland, get embroiled in public affair disasters like the murder of a fellow athlete, can be immediately shitcanned with no significant financial or media fallout. Having to cancel your Pro Tour team is a multi-million dollar debacle. Cutting ties with a scuzzbag? It’s quick, easy, painless, and cheap.

Beware of good vibrations

Gravel racing always sounded too good to be true because it was. Camaraderie, grass roots, safe, people engaging in healthy competition … what’s not to like?

Well, everything.

There is indeed camaraderie in gravel racing, a kind of friendliness that you certainly don’t find in ‘cross or sanctioned road racing. Know why? Because nothing is at stake. Gravel racing is an empty bag for the top finishers, with tiny or non-existent prize money, and even when there is, it is never 20-deep, as you’ll find in any major stage race. Gravel racing is very much winner-take-almost-all, and it’s not very much. Purses in gravel are so insubstantial that the half-dozen or so “pros” who “make a living” as “gravel racers” do it through individual sponsorships–there is less team organization and finance at Rebecca’s Private Idaho than there is at a master’s crit in Dominguez Hills. When BWR bragged in 2022 that it was offering up a $45,000 purse to the top five men and top five women finishers, and $5,000 to the top three junior riders, it got a lot of press. But we never got the privilege of seeing a) whether that money was actually paid, and b) the breakdown of who got how much.

In any event, first place likely snagged no more than $5,000; a nice payday for six hours of bike racing, to be sure, but, as I mentioned before, not when you have to spend the year crisscrossing the country, and not when you don’t win EVERY SINGLE TIME. Sixth place spent just as much time and money as first, and his/her payout was zero. Not a problem for promoters; someone will always toe the line in the hopes of picking up a check. But it’s a huge problem if you want fields that have professional depth or quality, because athletes at the top of their sport won’t work for free.

And before you start thinking that $5,000 for the winner is a game-changer, remember that in 2021 it was already $2,500 … and enrollment in the Waffle appears to be waffling. Clearly, most people know that the five riders eligible for a payday will not be them.

This same press release tooting the big prize money also promised a “series payout to be published in February” but as of July and two BWR events already in the bag, there’s still nowhere on the Internet where I could find the specifics of this chimerical series prize list. Likewise, the promise that each event will have its separate prize list can’t be confirmed, at least by me, no matter how hard I Google. There’s nothing wrong with puffery; that’s what gravel is built on. But when you’re trying to establish something as an actual competitive event that has meaningful prizes, it’s worse than dishonest to hint at big prize lists that somehow never get publicized.

Where there’s nothing to fight over, i.e. compete over, camaraderie does ensue. But that camaraderie of having someone help you plug a tire isn’t enough to make you sign up for the Grinduro for a fifth time. So what about grass roots?

Well, I’d ask what that even means? Smoking a joint after the race? Not having to buy a license? Not having to pee in a cup? The idea that your event is simply made up by a couple of nice folks and their friends may take away some of the hostility and formality of referees and governing bodies, but it also takes away those things called rules, because in the main there are none, and in the main, there is no way to enforce them. Why would that be? As mentioned earlier, rules mean doping controls, and no one in gravel wants that. But doping aside, it’s because nothing is at stake. When you line up with 800 people, you’re going to be pack fodder and you know it.

Safety, though, that is a big deal. Real bike racing is real fucking dangerous. And compared to spinning your bike along a fire road in between doobies, the hazards of racing on the road are significant indeed. Gravel racing fields like the BWR may have several hundred entrants in a mass start, but they generally spread out very quickly. Slower speeds mean less serious injuries, and softer surfaces mean softer landings. Problem is, and I’ll get back to this, is that you don’t have to pay a $250 entry fee to enjoy the security of riding on dirt roads. People may enjoy the safety of doing gravel races-I-mean-rides, but they quickly learn that they can get all the benefits and none of the cost without signing up for these wildly expensive events and simply riding at home with a friend or two.

Of course the thing that people love to point out most of all is “healthy people engaged in healthy competition.” Okay, fine. I actually agree with that. But you’re not really bike racing when you’re finishing two, three, four, or twelve hours down on the winner. The remaining 775 riders are simply paying to fund a bike race between a handful of unexceptional ex-professional riders and amateurs who don’t want to drug test. The pack fill is competing for a PR or trying to improve on last year’s time or simply trying to finish. And guess what? You don’t need to spend $250 and fly to North Carolina to get that kind of competition on a bike. In fact, you can get it for free on something called “Strava” or for a modest fee on something called “Zwift.” Google it …

Go big or go home

Unfortunately for many of the marquee event promoters, gravel racers by the thousands are going home. Why? Because “home” offers a whole host of gravel races that are dirt cheap (heh, heh), nearby, and that offer all the supposed camaraderie and grass roots and blah blah blah of the big events. Also, you have a much better chance of placing in a small, local gravel race than you do against ex-Pro Tour riders, however long in the tooth they may be. I once met a trio of guys who had come down to San Diego to do the BWR from Anchorage. “How was it?” I asked.

“It was fun,” one guy said.

“It was really hard,” the other guy said.

“Coming back next year?” I asked.

They all laughed in unison. “No way,” said the third.

This doesn’t mean that the marquee events are going to dry up and blow away. It’s worse than that. They’re going to decline to about half their current registrations over the next few years, and become the niche events that fondos, centuries, and ‘cross all became. It’s hard to imagine that a promoter in a major urban area, after paying for permits, space, staff, advertising, marketing, and services like toilets and timing would net more than $30,000 or $40,000 in the most miraculous of times. That’s a terrible return for what is a year-round job, and a business where the income arrives in one big wham, after which you have to eke out an existence the rest of the year on whatever you earned from the prior one. Hope the wife has a good job with health insurance and a 401k. An inheritance wouldn’t be bad, either.

With prospects like these, it’s no wonder that gravel race promoters look so sad and haggard, and you can read it in their advertising hype. Where these events were once mythical and you were “lucky” to get a spot before registration filled up the day after opening, where racers once had their USAC licenses vetted carefully to make sure they were racing in the right “wave,” where the mantra was “you aren’t worthy,” well, the tune has changed considerably.

Now the events never fill up. Now there is a desperate begging tone, “Sign up for three, get the fourth free!” wheedles the Quadrupel-Doopel of Grovel. Now the emphasis is on personal fulfillment, on the life-changing nature of the event, a kinder and gentler hardest-thing-you-have-ever-done-or-will-do, unless of course you opt for the 25-mile cupcake version or, my favorite, the e-bike category.

When I did the first BWR in 2013 there was one category and it was called “Long, difficult, invitation-only, free.” Now you can choose from a Waffle, a Wafer, a Wanna, and previous editions even had e-bikes. If you think this hasn’t dumbed down gravel, you’re wrong, because now more people do the shorter, easier versions than the original beatdowns that gave the events such cachet.

The trend isn’t good if you’re pushing the idea of a hard day in the saddle. In 2019 there were about 959 wafflers and 661 everything-elsers. In 2021, 701 Wafflers and 774 no-thanks-ers, and in 2022, 905 wafflers and 863 uh-uh-ers. Same goes for Unbound, a far bigger and more prestigious event; in 2022 1,136 riders did the full 200-mile route, whereas 1,837 decided they’d have the baby enchilada. The message is clear: people want easier. Can you say “e-bike”?

At best, the watered-down version and the full version are nearing parity in terms of number of entrants in many of these events. But with each year, the easier version gets fuller and the harder version gets emptier. That’s a double smackdown because it shows that people really don’t want all that hardman-hardwoman-gumbo-mud-hardness, and it hurts the promoter because it’s the longer event that brings in the most revenue. As is always the case, being all things to all people leads to loss of identity and cannibalizes profits. Not that there were ever many to begin with.

I think you have an eating disorder called “bingeing”

Along with the begging and the attempt to be all things to all people, the marquee events have always made a big deal out of the special relationship between gravel racing and beer. They have beer tents, beer sponsors, even custom-labeled beer to commemorate your amazing participation in something that anyone can participate in. What American gathering has there ever been that doesn’t go well with beer? And in addition to the party atmosphere and explicit incitement to over-imbibe, there is the pre-ride breakfast and the post-ride lunch, both of which are rather amazing examples of terrible nutrition, unhealthy eating, and outright bingeing.

This, then, is the wink-wink that organizers send to participants. Real bike racers, particularly those who race long distances, succeed by essentially starving themselves. Big watts and big kilograms, unlike beef and red wine, do not pair well together. The participants, with no hope or talent or training regimen that will ever get them anywhere near the podium, understand that their real reward isn’t the t-shirt, it’s the alcohol and food binge. You might be thinking that with a formula of pig-out, get drunk, post on the Gram, there’s no way the promoters could lose.

You’d be wrong, because after the hangover wears off the participant sits down and totes up the incredible cost of this weekend of “racing.” Travel to the “race.” Hotel. Registration. New gear. Up-sells at the event, including an event clown suit, special event tires, and if you went with the S/O, the afternoon before the “race” shopping at the outlet mall. And after adding all those numbers up, the participant realizes that he can ride on dirt roads near home, hang out with his friends, and still get shitfaced at the bar for less than $50.

It’s this that is the worst sales proposition of all for the big events. What they offer works once, maybe twice, maybe-maybe-three times, and that’s it. The events that have more than a solid toehold and that will continue to do well are the smaller, highly localized events like the Rock Cobbler. Significantly, it explicitly tells you that it’s not a race. Hard, yes. Race, no. With participation capped at 500 and no pretensions to anything other than riding off-road, it’s a model that many have emulated. All the same, it’s not bike racing, the people who win it are not professionals, and the only rules it abides by are the ones that it makes up, such as, “give angry cattle the right of way.” Which is a really good rule, by the way.

Worst of all for those who’ve staked their claim on big, overblown drunkathons with too much food, too much hype, too much #socmed, and too little racing, there’s a new girl in town. She’s a cheap date, she’s hot af, and she will sleep with anyone and do it outdoors, to boot.

Her name? Miss Bikepacking.

END

Saturday group ride

July 16, 2022 Comments Off on Saturday group ride

I haven’t been on a group ride in over two years, and last night I decided to do one on Saturday. There is something about riding with others that solitary pedaling just can’t provide.

I got to the start early. The only ones already there were the three pine trees. We exchanged pleasantries anda little smack talk. Pre-ride chatter is always superficial.

Then the sun showed up, wedging himself between the pines and spreading all over everything like a warm breakfast. He’s always got to preen. “Where’re the others?” I asked.

“They’re going to hop in at various points,” the sun answered.

A minute or so after starting, my shadow hopped in. He looked pretty fit. “Gonna be a beatdown,” I said to myself.

The pace was steady. It’s uphill the first 13 miles, on dirt, with about 4k of climbing. Soon enough I was pinned.

Before long we had a couple of scrub jays, a titmouse, and a raven. It was noisy af but all I could do was pedal. I didn’t have the lungs to talk.

When we got above 5,000 feet, the gray pines and scrub oak got dropped, and we were joined by the big timber: red cedars, giant ponderosas, even a sequoia. The hitters were all there, or so I thought.

Right before the summit in hopped Brer Bear. We tried to drop him but couldn’t. His teammates golden eagle and red-tailed hawk rode tempo at the front so he could hang on.

The descent was nucking futs. White-breasted nuthatch, robin, summer tanager, Steller’s jay, and mountain chickadee bombed the downhill and shelled everyone.

I sprinted with doe and baby fawn for the scraps.

I think I’m going to join them next week, too. 37 miles, 5400 feet, and 98% dirt in four hours, forty-two minutes. Riding with others is what makes you stronger.

END

Holey Meadow

July 15, 2022 Comments Off on Holey Meadow

The lady pulled her minivan over to the side of the road and motioned me to stop. “Have you seen some dogs?” she asked.

“No. What kind of dogs?”

“A German Shepherd and a Newfoundland. They got out of the tent last night while we were asleep. They’ve got their leashes on.”

“Where are you camped?”

“Corral Creek,” she said, mispronouncing it “coral.”

I pointed down the steep embankment to the river’s edge. “You won’t find them down there. City dogs won’t get through this kind of underbrush, especially with leashes. You’d best head back to your campsite. Did you check next door at SoCal Camping?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a giant campground right next to you. Lots of pets, trash, and people. Your dogs are probably there, getting breakfast. If they did go along the river, that’s the direction they would have gone. Flat and easy and lots of garbage.”

“Thank you!” she said, and sped off.

I felt really bad for her. Having a couple of lost dogs, when you don’t have kids, is just like losing your children. A mile later I passed her campground. She came running out. “Thank you so much!” she shouted. “They were waiting for us when we got back!”

I laughed and waved. Dogs like a second breakfast, too.

I’d left at a quarter to six, headed for Holey Meadow, about 75 miles, 6,000 feet, and six hours of riding, round trip. The climbing is steady and steep after you leave the Kern River, a 12-mile grind up to Parker Pass, then a short drop down the Western Divide Highway and a quick left into Holey Meadow.

Last year’s fire torched the mountains all the way from Johnsondale way past Holey Meadow, up into the Sequoia National Park. All along the climb, the roadside was burned to a crisp. What used to be a final two miles of big trees and cool shade was now a scorched graveyard of giant standing matchsticks. I didn’t know what I’d find at Holey Meadow, one of the prettiest little spots in the area, but I figured it would be charred, too.

Down the trail to the campground I slammed my 23mm road tires against a sharp stone but they didn’t puncture. The campground and meadow were untouched by the fire. Better put, the fire crews had specifically fought to save it, because the perimeter was blackened and dead. The meadow itself was green and lush, and the tall trees in the campground were just as tall and just as green as they’d always been.

I think the reason they saved the campground is because it has one giant sequoia on it. Either that, or they wanted to protect the toilets. With the Forest Service, you can’t ever be sure.

Given the fact that it’s peak season, and there’s been a massive post-covid camping boom, the campground was pretty clean, only a little bit of trash and an abandoned frying pan with tongs that looked like they’d played starring roles in a spectacular dinner failure.

I crossed the meadow, which was blooming with wildflowers. The summer cattle hadn’t come in to trample and eat everything and shit everywhere yet. The quiet and solitude were thick enough to taste. Getting there I hadn’t been passed by five cars.

I sat at a picnic bench and munched nuts. My water bottle was still filled with spring water from farther down the road, but I’d need a refill on the way back. The morning air was long gone and it was going to be hot the whole way home once I’d dropped out of the cool altitudes.

Religion isn’t my thing, but maybe they misnamed this place. Maybe they should have called it “Holy Meadow” instead.

END

Getting to know you

July 11, 2022 Comments Off on Getting to know you

The main reason that we don’t have “enough” time is because the algorithm keeps us busy, from waking til bedtime. Checking emails, texts, #socmed, news, and of course watching videos, TV, movies, all these things fill up the time interstices between busybusy activities so that the day passes in a slurred blur. These activities, which are actually not active at all and are instead un-activities, things done seated and unmoving, are driven by the algorithm and they involve selling you items or having you work for the algorithm, for free.

Always being occupied and sedentary indoors means that our heads are always filled with thoughts. Being in a car, or sewed up in a motorcycle helmet are forms of being indoors, fyi. There is no down time, no period where thoughts stimulated by the algorithm simply go to bed and leave you alone. It’s not an accident. Once you stop thinking, you stop buying and you stop donating your time to the algorithm.

A vacant head is a prized and rare commodity. It’s so hard to come by that yogurt retreats, meditation, mindfulness camps, and the like charge a lot of money to help you vacuum out your brain and leave it a hollow vessel. Yet the odd thing is that an empty head, and all the benefits that flow with it, are yours for the price of engaging your senses.

What benefits?

The primary benefit of draining your mental swamp is that it allows happy, positive thoughts to flow into the void. Those thoughts aren’t the kind of positive thinking associated with self-help, such as “Try to find the good side to that asshole.” They are thoughts whose very nature is positive. They don’t put a good spin on bad things, they are inherently good thoughts that spread a sense of well-being throughout all connected thoughts and to the body.

Such a practical kind of nirvana simply requires you to use your senses first instead of thinking. There are countless ways to do this, and they all involve being outdoors. Simply listen for birdsong, for example. Or simply look at a tree in order to discern its type and shape. Breathe the scent of flowers in order to discriminate the smell. Walk shoeless to determine what is beneath your feet.

When the senses are engaged in order to observer/discern/understand the natural world, whether it be a cloud, a stone, a river, a mountain, a bird, or a flower, all other thoughts are erased. You cannot think an anxious or negative thought about that nasty tweet while you are staring at a leaf and trying to figure out what the ant is doing on it. To the contrary, the moment you focus your senses first on sensing, the resulting thoughts will be completely focused on trying to unravel and interpret what you have seen, heard, felt, or smelled.

I recently, happily and peacefully, spent the better part of an afternoon watching ants cut apart and haul away a pile of dead flies that I’d swatted with a rag.

Thoughts evolved from the perception of stimuli. The moment you force your senses to do their job by immersing them in the outdoor environment, they will quickly take over the cognitive faculty of thinking. This makes sense. All organisms evolved senses in order to guide behavior, either through unconscious thought in the form of instinct, or conscious thought in the form of what we call thinking. The brain, by directing its senses to natural stimuli, subjugates the mind, forcing it to consider and interpret those stimuli to the exclusion of everything else.

What seems like a simple thing, focusing your senses on natural stimuli, releases your mind from the psychosocial stresses caused by artificial stressors such as news, gossip, #socmed, even stresses caused by interpersonal interactions. It’s not necessary to study under a yogi or to attend a yogurt retreat in order to clear your mind. All you have to do is engage your senses.

For most people it’s quite difficult because when they are outdoors, they are still focused on the thoughts in their head. Perhaps they’re jogging along a beautiful coast line or bicycling up to a marvelous ridge, yet they don’t “see” any of it. They’re still pissed about that nasty blog post they read or the news of the day’s fifth school shooting, or they’re sad because their Instagram post didn’t get enough likes. Maybe they’re fixating on a work relationship headache, stressing over bills, or fuming over a partner’s bad behavior.

The key is to simply use your senses. Looking at any natural feature, be it a tree, a bird, or a landscape, and trying to interpret what you’re seeing will scrub your mind clean of everything else. With practice you’ll learn to banish bad thoughts by engaging smell, hearing, vision, touch, sometimes even taste.

As you learn to subjugate your mind to your brain’s use of the senses, you’ll notice a concomitant drop in the desire to be entertained. You’ll start becoming disinterested in what other people think, say, or do. You’ll find that gradually you have more and more time each day, not less. You’ll find that watching birds scuffle at the feeder, or listening to the wind in the branches will be, well, fascinating.

You’ll also find that activities you once engaged in for the sake of the activity have become vectors for sensory perception and therefore positive thought. In my experience, using my eyes and ears when I ride in order to understand and interpret natural phenomena makes it irrelevant where I ride, how fast, or for how long. Being outside and being receptive to the outdoors and its sights, sounds, and smells makes every bike ride a PR that is littered with infinite KOMs.

How long can you sit outdoors? When you’re training your senses on the natural circus all ’round you, there’s virtually no limit beyond hunger, weather, and the need for sleep. Moreover, being still and focusing on perception, rather than on worries/anxieties/thoughts, puts you in extraordinary touch with your surroundings and the things that inhabit it. In short, it allows you really and truly to get to know your world, whether it’s the expanse of the sea or a tiny postage stamp of a backyard, a park or a night sky.

This morning I decided to interrupt my perceptions for about ten minutes during that brief window when the sun first breaks over the eastern peaks. That’s when everything assumes the most incredibly dramatic coloring, when, to take a picture, you need neither skill nor even much knowledge. Point and shoot, and the sideways sun will do everything else.

These pictures are really nothing more than an infinitely narrow slice of what I perceive when I sit out on my prayer mat, warding off prayers and drinking coffee as I watch, listen, and smell the opening day. In the forty-five minutes before sunrise so much happens that it’s scarcely possible to even sketch it. There is the false dawn, a contemplative wonder in its own right, and there are the individual sounds of mourning doves, ravens, house finches, house sparrows, acorn woodpeckers, wild turkeys, barking dogs, titmice, scrub jays, ash-throated flycatchers, Eurasian collared doves, white-breasted nuthatches, a horse, Bullock’s orioles, a California towhee, bushtits foraging through the oaks. There are the shapes and colors of oak and pine, of spreading juniper, pitch-covered pine cones, of stones, rocks, leaves, needles, grass, seed-heavy weeds, up-thrusting infant trees just out of the acorn, deer tracks, delicate flowers, burn scars, a jay feather floating in the bird bath …

When commanded to perceive, your senses take in so much so quickly that your mind can only barely keep up, but it can keep up. What it dispenses with are the thoughts, the swirling worries and anxieties that spend so much time living rent-free in the spaces of your head.

Of course the more you see, hear, and smell, the more you know a thing. Whether you know its common name, its scientific name, or no name at all, the perception of the thing places it in your mind and makes it familiar, knowable, something real in a way that no #socmed post ever is, or ever can be real. Perceived stimuli are the ultimate anti-algorithm.

Here’s one small example of how engaging vision can make a thing knowable, close, personal, intimate.

Last year I was walking around the yard, watering things. Growing out of some rocks was a small oak. It was feeble, had few leaves left, and appeared to be on its way out. I sneered at it. “You need to toughen the fuck up,” I said, dousing it with the hose.

Then I looked at it more closely. It had been cut down to the stump and yet grown back. It was surviving, barely, with no water and no help in a harsh, incredibly arid and shade-less environment. Toughen up? This small plant had more toughness, resilience, and will to live than any human I’ve ever met. And here I was, a fat, lazy, well-fed person insulting its survival?

The more I looked and saw how brutal its existence, the more I began to love it. I apologized to it for calling it names. I apologized to it for insulting its struggle. And I promised to respect its struggle and become its friend.

From that day, each time I watered I took especial care to give a large portion to this tiny oak. I called it my baby and encouraged it. “You won’t die for lack of water, not on my watch,” I vowed.

And scarcely a year later it had transformed. It was full, thick, bushy, busting out with green leaves. And each time I see it, I see it. I look and try to understand what I’m seeing. Those moments of perception push out all thoughts except interpreting what’s before my eyes. Is it bigger? More leaves? Healthier? Does it have enough water?

Multiply this familiarity with the other trees, stones, birds, mountain peaks, with the mountain ridges, the false dawn, the true dawn, the barking dogs and grunting pig, and my mind fills with positivity that no like, no kudo, no fake piece of the algorithm can ever approach.

Well, anyway … it works for me.

END

Protected: Is there any way that I can possibly be of service?

July 9, 2022 Comments Off on Protected: Is there any way that I can possibly be of service?

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Protected: There are those days

July 8, 2022 Comments Off on Protected: There are those days

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Protected: Not exactly an old friend

July 6, 2022 Comments Off on Protected: Not exactly an old friend

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Built for comfort

June 28, 2022 Comments Off on Built for comfort

Many years ago I read this post on the Rivendell bike blog. At the time I agreed with it … but not for me.

I’ve always believed that cycling clothing is stupid, but like most “cyclists,” it was always easier to go with the flow than to do what hundreds of millions of people do every day, that is, bicycle in normal clothes.

Since covid I have ditched cycling-specific clothing, or rather, I’ve ditched cycling clothing that is designed around the needs of professional bike racers. Helmets, shoes, socks, bibs, jerseys, arm warmers, snazzy little mini-gloves, and all the other items designed to make professionals go as fast as possible have been tossed or donated. The fact is that unless you ride a road bike for money, you don’t need any of that stuff.

When you consider reality, there are lots of great ways out there to ride a bicycle that don’t involve bicycle race wear. My favorite is loose shorts.

When I started cycling in 1982, a pair of bike shorts cost $40. If you rode daily you might own three pairs. Modern race wear can easily cost $350 for the bibs alone. When I rode to Canada from LA, I started with two pairs of expensive bib shorts. By the time I got home I was wearing floppy mountain biker shorts. Nowadays I ride in shorts that work great on the bike, look like normal attire when I reach my destination, and function perfectly when I shift to my main mode of transportation, walking. My favorite pair of shorts is made by Chrome. They cost $132 and appear to never wear out. They work wonderfully on a bike saddle, and unlike traditional bike shorts, they easily take the abuse of sitting on stones, sand, gravelly surfaces, or parking lot cement.

The biggest obstacle to riding in normal shorts for many cyclists is the lack of a pad. In my very limited experience, this has never been an issue despite logging tens of thousands of miles with nothing thicker than a thin pair of nylon underwear beneath the shorts. Comfort on a bike, in my opinion only, is much more related to being overweight and/or riding on a racing saddle than it is related to shorts. When you are carrying too much weight above the waist, the increased pressure on your ass and crotch hurts. The times I wear a fully loaded backpack (up to 40 lbs.), the added pressure becomes painful after a few hours and I typically have to get off and rest my ass for a few minutes. However, when wearing a heavy pack I’m also touring and can therefore rest whenever I want, so that hasn’t been an issue. Also, when I switched from a racing saddle to a wider leather one that, after breaking in, conforms to the contour of my undercarriage, my riding comfort went through the roof, even with a heavy pack. More than any pair of unpadded shorts, a hard, narrow saddle jammed up against your soft parts will cause pain.

Loose shorts, whether a cheap pair of cargo pants from Target or a bike-specific pair like those made by Chrome, are more comfortable than bibs because they don’t squeeze your legs, butt, and gut as does race wear. It’s not until you acknowledge that you are not, and are never going to be a professional bike racer that you understand how uncomfortable race wear really is. Loose fitting pants are merciful to the crotch area as well.

I think another great benefit to cargo-style shorts is that they get you out of the body-shaming loop that most race wear marketers engender. None of us looks all that great with every curve, bump, lump, angle, droop, and bend highlighted by skin-tight clothing, especially pants. In fact, except for a very tiny minority, almost every post-40-y/o cyclist in Lyra looks like a giant sausage, or a grape with legs. And feeling like you look fat in tight clothing is a huge riding disincentive to lots of people. Why should cycling require you to display all the details of your anatomy whether you want to or not? Loose pants have the advantage of letting people look normal whether they’re super skinny or super not.

In a similar vein, race wear is never fashionable off the bike, and rarely fashionable on it. Race wear, unless it’s black, seems to always incorporate the ugliest designs. Having a comfy pair of loose fitting shorts that are just as pleasant to ride in as they are to sit in at a cafe opens up a lot more uses for bicycling. Normal shorts can help you bridge the gap from pro bike racer wannabe to normal human using a bike to get somewhere to do something fun or (gasp!) useful. And if you’re into fashion, there’s a lot more to choose from on the normal pants rack than there is from the rogues’ gallery that is cycling fashion, where the norm is bizarre and the bizarre is shit-you-can’t-make-up. For people who like clothing variety, it’s so much cheaper to buy several pairs of normal shorts than to buy even one pair of high quality race wear bibs.

A comfy pair of cheap shorts takes little care. Splatter them with ketchup or soy sauce? No prob. Toss ’em in the wash, load up on the suds, and then dry them on high. They’ll be fine, but not so much with race wear. The bibs are delicate and the Lycra is, too. Use race wear hard, launder race wear hard, and you’ll be shelling out for another $700 kit before your cargo shorts from the discount rack have so much as started to fade.

Maybe one of the biggest bonuses to a loose pair of shorts is that they prevent you from taking yourself seriously. No matter the degree of your delusion, you just can’t gin up the fantasy mill that you’re a Tour contender with floppy pants. But don the head-to-toe race wear costume and you can’t help but feel that you coulda been a contendah. Normal clothing is an antidote to the delusions and the bad behavior that come with race wear: snobism, being judgypants about other people’s degree of kit coordination, and of course the secret fear that you are the one who looks ridiculous wearing this most amazing set of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Comfy and floppy pants destroy the exclusiveness and hierarchy of race wear that is designed to make people feel inferior, inadequate, fat, poor, and unwelcome if they don’t own or can’t afford the costume.

At some point you will wonder, “What do I wear when it’s too cold for shorts?”

This question was solved several thousand years ago with something called “long pants.” The way they work is that you put them on, then roll up the right leg so it doesn’t hit the chain and get smeared with grease. In addition to a number of clothiers who produce jeans, khakis, and completely normal-looking pants with small reinforcements and additions to enhance their utility on a bicycle, there are other very, very old school manufacturers who make stuff that works absolutely great on a bike. My all time favorite pants for riding when it’s cold, wet, or nasty outside are the L.L. Bean winter wool slacks. They cost $130 and it takes about 20,000 miles for the seat to wear out. I’m on my second pair and absolutely love them as they work great with a belt or with suspenders, your call.

And don’t wrinkle your nose at “suspenders.” What do you think holds up your bibs?

END

Protected: Sugarloaf burn scar

June 28, 2022 Comments Off on Protected: Sugarloaf burn scar

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Old boot, re-boot

December 25, 2021 Comments Off on Old boot, re-boot

Today I turned 58. It was cold when I awoke, and the mountaintops were dipped in a frosting of fog. I breathed in the sharp air, feeling alive and alert and old. Very old. I thought about all the things that were, which now are not.

On this birthday, our birthday, I’m going to take my old life back to Target and return it for one that’s a cuter color in the right size. I’ve been working up the courage to approach the returns counter since July 9, 2020, when I pedaled my bike out of LA in search of the life that we all have inside if only we can suppress the fear long enough to take the first terrifying step.

Because you can’t start anything until you quit.

When I was a kid I quit smoking dope and started trying to look at what really was instead of Dr. Seuss.

I quit being a slave to alcohol when I was fifty, and started unraveling, started seeing that booze was just another fake Instagram filter to pretty up the gray skin and erase the coffee stains.

I quit guitar, piano, flute, harmonica, chorus, baseball, basketball, academic excellence, following orders, reading the instructions, believing in a higher power, shaving, bathing (mostly), haircuts, shopping, and marriage. I quit trying to pass algebra with Mrs. Morcom. I quit Amazon, hustling for blog subscriptions, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn, Strava, and reading the news. I started to understand that there is no news, nothing new under the sun, cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9, all is vanity. This means me. This means you.

I quit believing in my dad. And when he died I started seeing my own end and my own beginning plainly, without drama or sadness or regret.

I quit Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, the Violet Crown Sports Association, Peloton Racing, Cynergy, Big Orange, Ironfly, and would have quit SPY if they hadn’t quit me first. I quit road racing, cyclocross racing, track racing, group rides, bib shorts, cycling shoes, helmets, Garmins, turbo-trainers, tubulars, e-Tap, racing frames, cycling “nutrition,” mass start events, and following the Tour. I quit embro and would have quit chamois cream if I’d ever used it. I quit people whose lives are their social media accounts. I quit Belgian waffles. I quit buying clown suits. I quit cycling and started riding a bicycle.

I quit every job I ever had except my current one. I quit naughty underwear sales at Sharpstown Mall, door-to-door greeting card sales, Grit, Christmas candles, selling newspapers with Michael Dell at the Houston Post, lawn mowing, phone interviewing, sacking, oyster shucking, driving a bread delivery truck, dishwashing, working at a ski resort, moving pianos, Internet marketing, English teaching, business consulting, web designing, nature trail developing, designing sustainable tourism projects in small communities, interning in Germany and Japan, clerking, flipping burgers, simultaneous interpreting, publishing a journal on Japanese law, managing a losing political campaign, and writing stories for a mesothelioma web site. I started seeing that capitalism is the problem, and that I’m a capitalist.

I quit driving and owning cars, I quit asking forgiveness, trying to make things right, stirring the pot, throwing parties, abusing other people, being a bully, trying to make the world a better place, putting my money towards social justice, giving a voice to the silenced, fighting for justice, working for free, calling bullshit, ridiculing the ridiculous, and shining a light up the rear end of bad behavior. I quit publicly praising the crappy work of people I know and started privately praising what nature has already written in trees, rivers, animal tracks, boulders, and birdsong.

I quit grandstanding. Championing causes. Owning more than three pairs of underwear and four pairs of socks. I quit wearing sunscreen and bug repellent. I quit trying to be cool, quit hitting on women, quit misogyny, quit lying to others, quit lying to myself. Okay, maybe I didn’t quit lying to others. No one does. But I started believing what I have always known: The universe is random and uncaring, period.

I quit believing in karma and the innate goodness of people, quit hoping that love would win out, quit trying to talk to people about how each of us has a carbon footprint and unless we make it tiny our posterity will be left with nothing. I quit trying to not only make a difference, but to be the difference. I quit trying to be part of lives that don’t want anything to do with mine. I started walking by myself in all things and enjoying the company, and I started to cry from the heart.

I quit fake friendships and real ones. Quit giving to receive and then being sad when all I got was a bad case of raw ass. Quit inviting people to come visit a place they don’t want to see. I quit reaching out and started reaching in.

I quit Russian, Slovak, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Indonesian, Greek, Korean, and Italian. I quit trying to talk to strange people in strange tongues and started talking to myself in my own vernacular, like every other crazy guy living under a bridge.

I quit angering. I quit birdwatching, college chemistry, high school chemistry, college zoology, logic, symbolic logic, and hard work. I quit conforming to them and started conforming to me.

I quit gossiping and listening to it, and started listening to sunrises, sunsets, and starry, starry nights.

I quit surfing, snow skiing, water skiing, snowshoeing, car enthusiasm-ing, debating, caring about politics, believing that you could be rich and somehow pass through the eye of a needle, photography, baking, vague acquaintanceships, unhappy relationships and as importantly, being the toxin in the relationships of others. And in a profound sense with regard to most people and things, though not all, I quit loving. When I relinquished that, I started to grasp the significance of all the things I’d given up or that had given up on me.

And that meant grasping the importance of the one thing I’ve never quit, one-and-a-half things if you include memorizing Chaucer. I never quit writing, which brings this pretty verse to mind:

They would not listen, they’re not listening still

Perhaps they never will.

“Vincent” by Don McLean

The fakery of the tortured artist trope

It has always seemed to me that artistic greatness is tied to great personal struggle at a minimum, and madness at its zenith. Zigzagging along as a writer I’ve always found my idiosyncrasies, mental struggles, penchant for drink, and my rich palette of other problems as a validation of artistic self-worth: You may not be great yet, Seth, but you are crazy as a shithouse rat, so there’s hope! And speaking of crazy …

I don’t know very much about Vincent Van Gogh, but I do know the song about him by Don McLean. My parents used to play it when I was a kid; I thought the title was “Starry, Starry Night” and had no idea that it was about a tortured artist and a singer’s homage to him.

Painting was not a big thing in my childhood for which the art world owes my parents thanks. My grandmother had a portrait of some family relative on the wall, one of those bad paintings that your cousin did of Auntie Melba and gave it to you, so you hung it in the living room. I looked at that painting a lot, a haggard old woman with a fur cap and a goofy earflap, reminding me that ancestors are rarely pretty. But her odd face and the odd background always made me gaze at it. Granny never said who the woman was and I was too embarrassed to ask. What if it was her mom or grandmom?

After listening to “American Pie” the other day I did a search for “Starry, Starry Night” and came up with “Vincent,” the actual name of the song. It was far more beautiful and sad and melodic than I’d ever remembered it, and 15M YouTube viewers seemed to agree; Mclean performed it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, even. If you don’t know the song you should give it a listen. It speaks to the tortured artist trying to be heard, to be understood, and the dark hopelessness of being crazy. I actually cried when I listened to it. Poor Vincent. Poor world. Poor me.

Then I buried myself in a couple of hours’ worth of Internet reading about Van Gogh. Wow. Talk about rough sledding. Talk about being inspired by mental illness. Talk about being misunderstood, or better yet, not being understood at all. Talk about dying young and in obscurity. Talk about … talk.

A few days later I came across an extremely famous pop music critic I’d never heard of, Robert Christgau. He has been writing nastily about pop music since the 70’s, first for the Village Voice, then mostly for himself. He’s considered the Dean of Rock and has reviewed virtually every record that ever came out. “Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash” by the Pogues? Yep. And countless others.

For the most part his reviews are withering. Like all good critics, he loathes his subject matter first, and the artists second. Even in praise he manages to revile. But as he points out, he knows what he likes, he listens to music 16-18 hours a day, and many people use him as a guide for what to buy as all critics should be used, not because they agree with him but because his ghastly taste teaches through opposition. I checked out his reviews of Hendrix and Peter Frampton and was shocked that anyone could detest such obviously bad music. Christgau really does hate pretty much everything that the rest of the world likes, but inconsistently. A rock connoisseur who hates “Frampton Comes Alive” and loves “Rumours” has issues.

Then I checked his review for “American Pie.” It was scathing. And at the end it made a snide remark about that most beautiful of songs, “Vincent.” Per Christgau, buy the album if “you’re in the market for a song about how nobody understood Van Gogh.” That was it. Dismissive and dismissed.

At first I got mad, like someone whose dog has been called ugly. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered. Was this anthem to the tortured artist simply junk? Did this nasty critic have some insight that I and the rest of the Internet had missed?

So I began reading about the tortured artist, the person possessed by the muse to the point of madness. I thought about my brother, a fine poet, who was not only tortured by mental illness but who was also dead due to a self-inflicted gunshot to the heart.

Turns out that the whole “inspired by madness” thing is a trope. Lots of artists have mental illness, and poster children like Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Jimi, Janis, Jerry, Kurt, and lesser known stars like Gerry Rafferty have all died young as a result of suicide or terrible drug and alcohol addictions. The list is long and frightening and almost encouraging, especially when you consider that suicides like Hunter S. Thompson, Virginia Woolf, and Yukio Mishima are only a tiny number compared to artists like Beethoven, Nietzsche, and Kafka, who were “simply” racked by mental illness.

Still, the idea that you have to be mad to be great is, sadly, preposterous because the vast majority of creative geniuses aren’t mentally ill, or at least they are no crazier than the general public. Kenzaburo Oe, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Plato, Freud, Marx, Thoreau, Jefferson, Bach, Picasso, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Jack Nicholson, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, Marie Curie, George Washington Carver, Thomas Edison, and of course Don McLean either created up until their natural deaths or, in the case of McLean, Oe, and Nicholson, are creating still. And then there are the millions of people who have composed music, painted, sculpted, written poetry or fiction, played music, or, in the age of the Internet, designed in Photoshop, Illustrator, and countless other creative apps. Those people are creative and many are genius, but hardly tortured, at least in the way that popular culture says you have to be in order to be a “true artist.”

Most artists do their thing, brush their teeth, turn out the lights, go to bed, and miraculously wake up the next day without having put their head in a gas oven or invited a gun barrel into the roof of their mouth.

In my readings about Van Gogh and the tortured artist, I did manage to solve a little personal mystery, though. That painting of the relative hanging on Granny’s wall? It was a cheap print of Van Gogh’s self-portrait with his bandaged ear. No wonder I thought old Aunt Melba was ugly.

So what is art, really?

For ten-and-a-half years I plugged away at this web log project and never once did I ask, “What is art? Am I really an artist? And if so, why?” I suppose I never really had to ask. When you’re on a daily publication schedule the time to ponder is always later.

But after taking a six-month break, I’ve spent the time trying to figure out why I write and whether it’s worth picking back up, which ultimately leads to the question, “What is art?” In sum, Wikipedia. And to summarize the summary, art is either what a few people say it is, what everyone says it is, or what no one says it is. It’s easy to understand how such a simple question is so flummoxing. Basically, like asking “What’s the meaning of life?” it’s a fake question.

“What is art?” presumes there is such a thing, just like “What’s the meaning of life?” presumes there’s a meaning. When you try to follow the reasoning behind the various philosophies of art, you see how confused everyone is. Art, even as an oddly incoherent concept, didn’t even exist until the 16th Century. Before that, art meant “what you do,” and it’s the root word for “artisan.” For a cooper, making barrels was his art. For a lute player, it was playing music. It took the confluence of empire, nascent capitalism, and rigid class structure to create the idea of “fine” arts. Whatever they were, they didn’t include barrel making.

So I concluded that it’s folly to define art or even to talk about it unless you are going to be specific. In my case, I’m no artist. I’m a writer. And same as for a painter, composer, dancer, computer programmer, or writer of HR manuals, it’s a lot easier to talk about the specifics of writing than the generalities of The Great Blob of Art. And it was pointed out to me that I write because I am exceedingly vain.

At first glance it’s a blow to recognize that your Precious is simply an expression of your vanity, until, at least, you reflect on that most atheistic section of the Bible, a/k/a Ecclesiastes, which unambiguously states, “all is vanity.” Not “some is vanity.” Not even “some is more vain than others.” Just the pointed statement that all is vanity. This means me. This means you.

If we admit that writing is vanity (cf. self-published books a/k/a “vanity publishing”), it’s helpful to ask what the vanity satisfies. Because regardless of the artistic endeavor, all are based on a desire for recognition. From writers of great novels to writers of pithy Tweets to nervous virgin bloggers posting “Hello, world,” the act of publishing your work is an act of braggadocio, an unbridled ploy for attention. What better example than “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce? You can read it from cover to cover but there’s no portrait anywhere, not even a sketch. Did he have jowls? Was he thin? Chubby? Balding? Stoop-shouldered? Broad-chested? Bow-legged?

You’ll never know because the main point of the book, like every book, is to stroke the vanity of the author. Joyce, an unpublished, unknown Irish expatriate titled his book not simply “an artist” but monstrously, “the artist.” All really is vanity, and vanity, when done right, sells. What if the title had been honest? “A Story of an Unknown Writer as a Young Man Who Still Happens to be Young and Unknown”? Still vain–who wants to read about an unknown writer–but perhaps not monstrously so. Ecclesiastes would shrug at the distinction between being vain and extremely vain. All is vanity.

Fortunately, Facebook has done lots of research and has mined the science of addiction to help us understand what we hope to obtain with our vanity publishing. It is called dopamine. When you write something and it is liked, either facebookishly, instagrammatically, by fan mail, on Strava, or by selling ten million copies and having it made into a Major (or minor) Motion Picture, your brain releases dopamine. Back in the Paleolithic day, dopamine came in drips and you had to work hard for it. The killing of a mastodon didn’t come easily.

Nor, for that matter, did becoming a high priest of the modern novel. Joyce suffered from syphilis and a host of other mental issues, not least of which was the battering that his, and any author’s ego, takes when it is continually rejected for publication. But social media figured out that the old joke “Every journalist has a novel inside, which is a good place for it,” is partially true. Every person has the kernel of delusional greatness inside, but the best place for it is on the Internet, in a captive digital ecosystem, where Chaucer = Joyce = Some Yahoo Still Pissed About Obama. In fact, the Yahoo Still Pissed About Obama is a greater writer for Facebook’s purposes than Chaucer, Joyce, and Shakespeare put together because Facebook gives not a shit about the art, and cares instead about the personal data of the artist.

Social media closes the loop that began with Homo erectus, when what you did, whatever it was, was your art. Every person who writes, no matter how well or crippled, is an artist, from “Hello, world!” to those beautiful harangues with 10,000 likes whose subtitles should be, “Keep the fuggin’ gummint outta my Social Scurrity and Medicare!” I’m an artist. You’re an artist. He’s an artist. And as long as you’re playing in the social media sandbox, where your data can be scraped and resold, what you say and how you say it is meaningless to the Lords. Give us your data and we will let you troll for your dopamine fix, a/k/a “likes,” by writing whatever you want.

Of course you don’t have to publish on #socmed. You can get your own domain and plug away at your pet project for decades, just be ready to get the tiniest drizzle of dopamine instead of the hormone shower you’d get with 5,000 friends on Facebook. And what addict wants less heroin when he can get more?

For the first time since people began wondering, then arguing about art, we have an answer, at least as far as it concerns writing: A “writer” is any person who writes anything, at any time, in any language, that is read by another person … or machine. For the first time since writing was invented, content and quality mean nothing. The only salient feature that separates one writer from another is the number of likes, from zero to Don McLean’s 15M. In other words, your writing is no more or less than your algorithm. And what’s key here is that unlike times past, today’s writers are tortured not by schizophrenia or manic depression, but by how many likes their post generated. It’s that anxiety that causes them to log back in, toss up another blob, and hope for more approval.

In other words, the 4.5 billion artists on social media are working and creating compulsively, without rest, for free, donating their creations to the Lords in exchange for more work and the relinquishment of their most private, defining, and meaningful personal data. No wonder everybody wants to be the next Zuckerberg: Money for nothin’ / Chicks for free.

The clerks of nostalgia

Aristotle said artists were touched by madness, but he should have added that they were regulated by the Lords. In times past, the folks who assessed what was good and what wasn’t were the clerks of nostalgia, appointed wiser-than-thou owners of advanced art degrees, experts in the provenance of some moldy old Dutch painting that was ugly then and is ugly now, or in the literary field the publishers, editors, and critics who manned the bridge with mile-high stacks of pre-printed rejection letters that said, “Thou shalt not pass!”

The clerks were themselves men and women, mostly men, who had in their time been denied passage across the bridge and so in revenge had trudged, toiled, cursed, and struggled their way through the labyrinth of accreditation to become guardians of the bridge. It was crucial that the clerks be numerous, withering, and merciless because capitalism and its antecedents had discovered that art had value, but because all art is trash and since any fool with a pen or a brush is an artist, that value could only be created and inflated if “good art” and “great art,” and by extension the people who produced it, were rare.

So the concept of genius was invented. Instead of every person being born capable of great art, only the luckiest and rarest of genetic-environmental circumstances could produce it, and those geniuses and their works were exalted, coveted, and traded for great sums of money. The only thing that made you more valuable than genius was genius+suicide or genius+batshit crazy. But once Leonardo da Vinci was crowned a genius and his work enshrined behind bulletproof glass, someone had to come up with a rationale as to why a portrait mill in China that produced exact and better copies was inferior to the original, otherwise the market for Leonardo’s art, and all similarly situated genius works, would collapse. The clerks developed philosophies and explanations about how a copy was inferior to an original, how a print was inferior to a painting, how pixels were inferior to colored goop that gave you lead poisoning on cracked canvas. Otherwise, all beautiful things would be equal and prices would collapse.

More disastrously for the Lords, ugly things would be no worse than beautiful things, and the clerks, who slaved for the Lords to uphold the market value of their art, would no longer be the arbiters of beauty.

Worst of all, aesthetics would implode completely and the individual man or woman would be the measure of all things. An original Van Gogh would be as valueless as a cheap print bought on the Internet or the fingerpainted smears of a three-year-old.

The Internet in general and social media in particular have massacred the clerks. Failed writers who at least made a living judging the writing of others have been mowed down by the scythe of Facebook and Amazon, Facebook by admitting everyone’s silliness to the hallowed hall of “publication,” and Amazon by creating a platform where the only thing standing between you and publishing a hundred books is absolutely nothing. WordPress, Blogger, Twitter, and html have made the extinction of the clerks complete. None shall pass? All shall pass.

You would think that opening the passage to the proletariat is a good and democratizing thing, especially when you consider how cruel and nasty the clerks have been over the centuries to those trying to turn a buck as artists. You’d be wrong because the new clerk isn’t a person at all. It’s something much more cruel, merciless, vindictive, remorseless, and invincible than any clerk ever was. The new boss looks a lot like the old boss, only bigger, meaner, nastier, and way more efficient. His name is algorithm.

The siren song, so silly

Why have 15M people listened to a mournful, campy song about Vincent Van Gogh that isn’t even true? Well, why do people listen to songs at all? On the surface, we listen to them, especially favorite songs, because the singer’s lyrics “speak to us.” The singer “gets us.” We can “relate” to the words. It’s “exactly” how we feel. When you’re feeling down, chances are great that you’ll turn to an old favorite because it really “captures your mood.” On the surface, that explains it.

But underneath, chemistry is at work in the form of dopamine. The common misperception is that dopamine has an opioid effect which makes you feel good and want more. That not exactly how it works. Dopamine is a chemical that triggers the desire to seek, and it is this sensation, otherwise known as anticipation, that is one of the most sharply honed evolutionary adaptations in the animal kingdom. Seeking with the anticipation of reward drives life. At one time or another every piece of human knowledge has been summed up in a Texas whorehouse, and dopamine’s effect is no exception, to wit: “It ain’t the flop on the bed, it’s the walk up the stairs.”

Before we ever hit “play,” we’re anticipating the feeling of “relating to,” “being spoken to,” “having our mood captured,” and the minute the song starts, its first note triggers a release of dopamine, which in turn triggers other, opioid-like hormones, which result in the flow of good feelings. But the dopamine immediately fades and is replaced by its ugly cousin cortisol, the chemical that tells you no anticipatory goodies are on the horizon. So in order to get the little dopamine reward that comes from the anticipation of knowing something good might happen, better get crackin’, I mean check your feed.

On YouTube this is known as hitting the replay button. Problem is, there is a diminishing return until eventually the song generates nothing at all. Time to move on down the playlist.

But the song “Vincent” gives its fans a lot more than dopamine. Its message actually gives them validation of something completely untrue: That Van Gogh was “too beautiful for this world,” that no one was paying attention to him, and that they still aren’t. The outrageousness of these falsehoods doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant that there is so such thing as being “too beautiful for this world.” It’s nonsense, English twisted into the moron-taffy of a Grateful Dead drug mumble. And the idea that Van Gogh was ignored is belied by the outpouring of condolences from the greatest artists of his day, some of whom are regarded as among the greatest of all time. When your work earns a tribute from Paul Gaugin, you may be unhappy, but ignored you are not.

Most laughable is the suggestion that people weren’t listening to Van Gogh and “perhaps they never will.” Hey, folks. Van Gogh is the most studied artist in history, and his paintings are consistently the most expensive ones on earth. Perhaps they never will? McLean must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Online, though, facts matter not so much. What matters is that this song speaks to people who think their true value is unrecognized, in other words, every human being everywhere. Even people who have reached the pinnacle, like Van Gogh, think that the world has only scratched the surface of their amazingness. And every hacker on every weekend group ride will tell you about how extraordinary they almost were that time they came close to doing that thing with those people. Humanity, all of it, believes its own bullshit. Cf., again, Ecclesiastes 1:9: “All is vanity.”

To state that everyone thinks they are worth more (money/recognition/emoluments/titles/historical accolades/etc.) than they in fact have is so obvious as to barely need stating, yet an instance here and there to prove the point won’t hurt.

I went to high school with a guy named David Biespiel. He was very short and very muscular. He was a diver. We weren’t friends but we knew each other; he was a friendly guy who seemed very caught up in the Jewish social life of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, which was a big deal at my high school. I knew little about Judaism and nothing about BBYO, only that the people who gravitated towards it seemed pretty vacuous. David never took any hard classes as far as I knew and was certainly not part of the brainy group, a motley collection of Jewish, Indian, Chinese, Black, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Anglo, and other nerds whose parents had taught them at an early age that “Your paycheck will be signed by a nerd.”

Several years ago I saw David’s name on a high school reunion notification, and I looked him up. He’s a poet and an editor at a poetry magazine. His work is easy to find and I’ll let you be the judge of whether it’s anything better than white bread. What’s interesting about him isn’t his poetry, it is his Wikipedia page, because it’s his avatar, and appears to be self-authored. Talk about delusions of amazingness. Here is a guy who has made a career out of writing middling poetry, penning his autobiography to make it sound like a star really was born, and that star is he. It is embarrassing to read, so full as it seems to be of authorial praise passed off as the penetrating analysis of some third person.

And you know, maybe he is that star. But the point is that his magnitude in the firmament of poets is something much fainter than “visible to the naked eye” and more akin to “better seen with a deep space probe.” And you can tell from his Wikipedia page that he feels unrecognized, undervalued, overlooked, else why be the anonymous person singing such superlative praises to himself, if that’s in fact what’s happening? This average poet with a Wikipedia page that rivals e.e. cummings’s is like everyone else–he’s way more amazing than the world knows. They did not listen, they did not know how, perhaps they’ll listen now. And if not, there’s posterity. And if posterity rates his work with a shrug, well, maybe it’s just because he drew the line at chopping off his ear.

The bothersome fact is not that we now have multiple ways to channel our vanity, it’s that the limitless thirst for recognition or at least acknowledgement in every person’s heart is now cynically exploited by the Lords for profits earned through voluntary, 24/7 online unpaid labor, and it’s done by manipulation of human instinct-and-response to a very basic hormone. The algorithm shows exactly what evokes the anticipation, and constantly adjusts to make sure you can’t detox from the dopamine tit. Capitalism has squared the circle: The definition of art is now money. All art everywhere has been monetized, but not for you. For the Lords.

Why would people be so insatiable for the “rewards” that come from some dumb update to a fake life of a person you’ve never met and never will meet? Why is fake so much tastier than real?

The voracious devouring of fake

Van Gogh is nothing but an image. We don’t even know what he painted, and therein lies part of the explanation of his allure. As one German art critic remarked when yet another magnificent posthumous Van Gogh was discovered, “The dead Vincent paints and paints.” An even better quote came from the neighbor of a man who counterfeited Van Gogh and sold his work as originals: “Van Gogh’s been doing his best work thirty years after his death.”

While it’s funny to think that Yasuda Fire Insurance & Marine paid $30M for something that was worked up in a counterfeiter’s shop, Van Gogh’s work is inextricably tied to the fact that hundreds of his works are fakes and no one is sure which is which. The fight to prove that Vincent painted it has become its own industry, and the conclusions of those particular clerks of nostalgia swing the bidding from $30M to $0 overnight. Funnier still, the clerks declare a painting authentic one day and fake the next, then reverse course ten years later. No one cares except in this way: When declared fake the value plummets. When declared authentic the price heads for the moon. Did the painting ever change? Um, no.

Of course the best way to understand bias is to look at what’s not said. When museum chieftains declaim on the certainty that Van Gogh painted this landscape of space shuttles and semiconductors, it’s crucial to ask why anyone would care about provenance if the painting were ugly? Why are paintings judged on provenance and not on beauty? Well, the answer is that if you make beauty the criterion, then anyone’s as good a judge as anybody else, and we sure can’t have that. At least in the past we couldn’t, because once a Van Gogh equals the doodling on the pad next to the phone, or once “Hello, world!” equals Hemingway, the Lords are going to lose many pretty, warm, snuggly dollars. And the Lords generally don’t like to lose any dollars at all, as you’ll see from the late rent fee in your apartment lease.

When a thing is a fake, or might be a fake, it becomes news and the object of financial speculation. That piece of junk you bought at a yard sale is really worth $20M? Shit. Better start hitting more yard sales. Paintings, or rather the market for them, obtains a lot of its value because of the speculative nature of provenance and the relative frequency with which great works are authenticated, challenged, or shown to be fake. It’s much harder to fabricate the blockchain, apparently.

Humans and animals are genetically programmed to prefer the fake over the real if it’s more noteworthy, larger, or more colorful. “All that glitters is not gold,” is an admonition against our instinct to choose the fake over the real, but unfortunately the riposte is that “Yeah, but it looks great with this outfit.” Engineering us away from fake is to engineer us away from being alive, and with good reason.

We are designed by evolution and culture to seek stimuli that are exaggerated. Whether it’s a boob job, a hair plug, or even a colorful XXXL t-shirt to cover that 85 lbs. of bulging visceral fat, these supernormal stimuli alert us that what we are seeing is preferable to smaller, drabber, more subtle versions of the same thing. In terms of the experiences programmed into our genes, brighter colors, super sizes, and less-blemished surfaces indicate “better” or even “best.” We share this with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of animal and insect species.

So the fascination with the fake is somehow tied up in our life force, the drive to stay alive. Literature, however impossible and unbelievable and patently false, is swallowed whole if only it promises things so fantastic, ridiculous, colorful, huge, and perfect as to blot out humble reality. Bible? Koran? Lord of the Rings? Voodoo? The bigger and faker the whopper, the more delicious. As Oscar Wilde said, people will believe the impossible but never the improbable.

Art was, is, and always will be a cachement of the absurd. You really think Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein looks like Gertrude Stein? She said it did; it was revolting and bizarre enough to leap the gulf of improbability and land squarely in the Land of Cannot Be. This drive to seize, then swallow the lie whole, underlies Trumpism and every other -ism, including pacifism, Nazism, nihilism, and prism. And this ceaseless search for the fake goads us on to ever sillier and less believable realities: That global warming isn’t real, that capitalism is working for you, that your fake posts are real, and of course that next year you’re gonna be FAF–fit as fuck.

[Seek – anticipate – dopamine reward] once propelled us along a lifespan that was infamously termed nasty, brutish, and short. There was a lot of seeking, most of which ended in disappointment a/k/a cortisol. But hunger being hunger and the need to couple being the need to couple, humans would seek again until after a while they got close to the goal, were flooded with anticipation, and then doused with a drizzle of dopamine, a/k/a SEEK SOME MORE! The cycle repeated, and the only constant was that the period of seeking was long and arduous, and the period of [anticipation – dopamine reward] was real, real brief.

A great way to compare old school dopamine with Internet dopamine is to go buy yourself a 12-lb. sledgehammer and a dozen 5-lb. wedges. Then get a 6-ft. foot green, knotty pine log about 2-ft. in diameter and try to break it up into firewood. If you are strong and smart and dogged, you’ll eventually bust off a small piece, and the moment it flies off you’ll get a little dopamine buzz for your two hours of backbreaking work. Then whip out your phone and check your new messages. See? With the log it’s two hours, a herniated disc, one piece of firewood, and a tiny dopamine burp. With the phone it’s one second, press a button, and ten or twenty big dopamine burps. That’s how it works, and that’s why people gravitate to Facebook more than they do to log splitting.

Of course the Internet was built on the foundation of fake, and its evil twin brother Algorithm is the unstoppable engine of growth that keeps us consuming the fake at exorbitant prices, and keeps us producing the fake for free so that the Lords can monetize the data of those who peruse our art, fake, junky, silly, worthless crap that it is. You will have noted that you cannot break free as both a producer of fake crap and an insatiable consumer of it. Caught between dopamine and the algorithms that drive it, you now know why.

The cheapening of vanity

All is vanity. But vanity used to be costly and risky and tricky to dangle. Especially the most pleasing form of vanity, admiring one’s reflection, depended on finding a still pool or an exceptionally smooth, wet stone. After millennia, mirrors came about but few had them. The jump from mirrors to portraits took more thousands of years, and even then more centuries passed before photography. At each step it got cheaper and easier to become “Ne yet Narcissus of ful yore agon.

Less satisfying forms of vanity such as bragging were formerly risky. Even in my childhood, a mere fifty years ago, bragging about one’s ANYTHING risked an ass-beating. I still remember the first day in 7th Grade Major Works English with Mrs. Wakefield. “Do you all know why you’re in this class?” she asked.

My hand shot up.

“Yes?”

“Because we’re geniuses!”

There was an awkward silence, some snickering, and then a withering reproof by Mrs. Wakefield. “Geniuses you aren’t. You’re here to learn how to read good books and write about them intelligently.” So far, so bad. The real reckoning came after class, when Don Somer, the biggest guy in 7th Grade, passed me in the hall.

“Hey, it’s the fairy genius,” he said. Much derision followed, but everybody forgot about it never.

Farther back, braggadocio was often mortal, leading to fisticuffs, duels, wars. Even earlier in time, spoken vanity was dangerous because it signaled the tribe that you were more concerned with yourself than with the community. Native Americans were famously tight-lipped. If anything good was to be said about you, it had to be said by someone else. Some cultures even made the word “I” close to a taboo. One of the first things you learn about Japanese is that sentences tend to omit the word “I” altogether. Historically, the nail that stuck up didn’t merely get pounded down, it got ripped out and tossed back into the forge.

Less satisfying forms of vanity such as having others praise you, used to be complex, and it required a track record, humility, lots of politicking, and often death. Chaucer was adamant that “Then is it best as for a worthy fame / To die when that he is best of name.” Politicians went to great lengths to hide their connection to their flaks, and it was important to obscure relationships that might suggest praise was being ginned up by a mouthpiece, critic, or fake letter-writer to the editor.

The Internet makes full-time vanity possible and indeed modern society exhorts us all to practice it. No better example exists than the advice of a marketing maven I know: “You are your own brand.”

To understand the disease, or rather the total capitulation to full-time vanity that this mantra states, you have to ask yourself what is a brand? A brand is a commercial name that exists to facilitate the sale of a product or service. Andy Warhol made the point, brutally, that money and the products it pimps, that brands like Campbell’s soup are art when money is the driving force behind self-expression. Brands are money, money is art, you are a brand, and therefore you, my friend, are money. So pimp yourself wisely, and for dog’s sake take down those IG photos of you passed out in a ditch.

Whereas the exercise of vanity was once a perilous thing sometimes ending in death, or worse, requiring it, now it is a moral and social imperative that we exercise vanity at every turn. Put your IG handle on your rear windshield. Cross-link all #socmed accounts. Make sure that when you get your 15 milliseconds of fame everyone knows how to find you on Twitter. Keep your feed fresh, your videos crisp, your aphorisms pithy, and your face re-shaped with the most flattering filter. Would Disneyland let Mickey walk around out of head? Heck, no. So don’t wander out into the Internet looking anything less than your very best, especially when your best is wholly fake.

I have a friend who used to say, “It costs a lot for me to look this cheap.” The current state of vanity is that now it not only looks cheap, it is cheap. And it’s ubiquitous, garish, and metamorphosing into the ultimate in fake-perfect-vanity, the avatar. More about that later, but not from me.

As we all become comfortable penning our own stunning Wikipedia entries, wearing our vanity on our sleeve, and telling each other that it’s crucial to crassly advertise our so-called strong suits, something inside isn’t buying it. It’s the realization that no matter how many overpriced, “the latest” cycling kits you buy, you’re still a sagging, old-and-getting-older, wholly unremarkable fake. That badass gravel ride you did, well, the shorter version, that you proudly wear the t-shirt and bib shorts for? Yeah, that one. Inside, you cringe. I cringe. We all cringe. And the only thing that can override our gut is the post-ride alcohol binge, because Binge > Cringe.

If vanity is the answer, and we’re all our own brand, and more is better, and the only improvement on supernormal stimuli is a super size of the same, if too much is just enough and modesty is a quaint notion, why does more time spent Internet shopping and #socmedding make people depressed? Why, if you really do have thousands of followers and everything you post is liked-loved-ejaculated over, are you so sad? Why does more deliver less?

The answer is ugly. Can you say “wildfire”?

Honey badger doesn’t give a shit AT ALL

If you are really, really, really old, you may recall “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” video that took YouTube by storm ten ancient years ago, before TikTok even, and which is at 98M views and counting. There is no accounting for taste, but there is a reason for the video’s popularity. Substitute “nature” for “honey badger” in the phrase “honey badger doesn’t give a shit.”

Nature really does not give a shit. Worse, it doesn’t even not not give a shit. Nature is worse than indifferent, nature is random. If you doubt it, you need to spend more time staring into dark night skies free from ambient light pollution. The honey badger, an avatar for nature, goes about his business killing, fighting, and eating venomous snakes with zero concern. This message, that nature does not give a shit, is stark, and it resonates. The more people try to fluff and primp in 140-character witticisms, the more their gut tells them that it isn’t working. Their closed universe may “like” them to death, but open reality doesn’t give a shit, at all.

Art, through fakery and money and algorithms and dopamine, all avatars of each other, works overtime to perpetuate the myth that life and nature imitate art per Oscar Wilde, as opposed to Aristotle’s myth that art imitates nature. I learned firsthand this summer that both are true, neither is true, and sometimes one is true and the other false. Let me explain.

I have spent the last few months in a place where most people are terribly overweight, terribly addicted to drugs and alcohol, terribly poor, and when they vote, terribly Republican. One of the things people here most hate is the government even though it funds the three busiest places in town, i.e. the school, the health clinic and the post office. The local supermarket has a handwritten sign over the register, posted after the last election, that says, “The Democratic Party returns to its folly, like a dog returning to its vomit.” Most of its customers pay with EBT cards. No one, least of all the cardholders, wonders which party invented welfare. The author of the sign never wonders what will happen to his business if when those cards go away, or which party is a sworn enemy of welfare. All anyone knows is “America.”

One of my neighbors once buttonholed me at 10:00 AM as I was riding up the street to harangue me about vaccinations. “It’s mind control! A secret plan to control our minds!” I didn’t say my opinion, which was that he could really use some mind control because it would at least prove he had one.

After health care, education, Social Security, welfare, and the post office, the biggest funder of this area comes from the USDA, which is the federal department that funds the U.S. Forest Service. Here’s where it gets even crazier. Everyone loves the forest service because that’s who runs the wildland firefighting crews, and those crews are what beat back the monumental fires that sweep through the Sierra every year now. Get it? Hate the government, love the USFS. Somehow, in the minds of the people who hang “Thank you!” banners and “You are heroes!” throughout town after a fire, the government they hate and vote to de-fund is precisely the government they swoon over. I’ve spoken with a few of the firefighters and get the uneasy feeling that some of them, too, are hard core Republicans.

Vote for the party trying to fire you and burn your house down. Go figure.

All of this is simply to say that the local literati who rant and rave on NextDoor, Facebook, and the like, the ones who fly giant “Fuck Biden!” flags in their front yards, are simply replicating the art that is spoonfed to them through social media and its algorithms. Like all abrupt changes in communication media, the initial democratizing effect of #socmed was quickly overtaken by a more intense concentration of power into fewer hands, allowing the individual the perception that they have more freedom, have more autonomy and more agency, when in reality it is exactly those things, in addition to privacy, always, that have been even further reduced for the proles and arrogated to the Lords. And under the control of social media, all sources of information and entertainment are intermingled and directly marketed to the individual, who is both consumer and laborer, always online, 24/7, working for free. Slavery never felt so good.

Politics, friends, news, messaging from public agencies, disaster notifications, social events, and family are all found in one location, as opposed to having to source different media for different news, which process always forces you to encounter new people with differing viewpoints. And each feed is tailored via algorithms to the precise psychology of only that individual, so there is less exposure to the variable messaging through art that would have at one time been directed to the public and all of their differing opinions. Since the algorithm chooses topics that elicit the highest dopamine response to each consumer/laborer, people see only the narrowest sliver of the extant information, but become biologically fixated through the dopamine response on the little jaundiced crumb they receive. Social media chooses what your mind has access to; it’s a library in reverse. Instead of going into the library and being able to aimlessly browse the shelves, the library pre-selects your books and delivers them to your inbox, never telling you what else is there. The card catalogue is a patented, protected trade secret. Same for your music. And everything else, including the shoes you wear.

This force closes a loop that was begun with the printing press. It combines surgical messaging with dopamine to change the way people think in the narrowest of ways. It is far greater than anything Goebbels ever dreamed of, as it drives society to think and act on the algorithm’s behalf, using chemistry, computers, and instinct to hijack freedom of choice so that you will do what the Lords want you to do. Life is literally imitating the art of social media, which is money, which is control.

Yet nature insists on its randomness. Even as the people in my town were drinking, drugging, bingeing, and complaining about how we need a real strongman in charge and how elections are passe, a series of wildfires swept down upon us in August. The hated government executed an orderly evacuation, set up refugee centers for people, pets, and livestock, shut down all looting, then put out the massive fire even as it burned to the doorsteps of many Trumpy homes. It got to within a quarter-mile of us. Others had the fire extinguished on their doorsteps. Not a single home was lost.

What was lost, however, were hundreds of thousands of acres of timber, resulting in less oxygen-producing trees, devastation of the few remaining giant sequoia groves, more air pollution, and more global warming. Our fires complemented even larger ones farther north that are among the largest in recorded history; one such fire did what some thought impossible–it actually burned over the Sierra from California into Nevada. It is a certainty that bigger, hotter fires are on order for 2022. Many insurers view the situation as so dire that they are no longer willing to renew fire insurance policies.

Is this a good time to double down on the denial of science and to aggressively cut firefighting budgets? Your answer is predetermined by your algorithm.

From the vantage point of art, this is a key point. You can write in the closed universe administered by the Lords, you can paint, photograph, and produce videos, but you are still beholden to the forces of a wildfire when it incinerates you. Art as money that only labors in service of the Lords will never provide the vantage point to see and interpret the imperatives of the physical world. It can only exaggerate, falsify, and distract you to ever larger fake supernormal stimuli.

Of course art has always been limited in its ability to reproduce naturelife, just as naturelife has always been limited in its ability to imitate art. Systems of control, whether censorship, the clerks, or the difficulty of reproduction (no printing presses, for example), have always kept art as far from the public domain as possible until it has been properly sanitized and stripped of its heretical notions. At the very least, it has been held back until the “tortured genius” is dead and no longer able to talk or, like Picasso, bribed with millions so that “Guernica” could take its proper place as a possession rather than a call to revolution against the Lords.

But social media and the Internet have so greatly ratcheted up the control in such a short period of time that people stuck in the old ways, people like me, are at a loss.

I thought I was a writer. Apparently I am, but that status is shared by 4.5 billion others, and more painfully, since what I write is not a product of social media, it is less interesting, less meaningful, and less relevant than I could have ever imagined.

Barefoot

You and me, we’re the same. We both have that feeling in our gut that something is wrong. This incessant shower of dopamine and its cycle of seeking for empty things hasn’t made anyone happier, hasn’t made the world a better place, and hasn’t slowed down the superheating of the planet.

What more do you need to know about the state of things than the phrase “another school mass shooting”?

As someone who has written regularly in one place for over a decade, I have an obvious and easily accessible storehouse of my own vanity. Realizing that vanity is within everyone, that its limitless expression is an illness, and that the conversion of art into money is an intentional sleight-of-hand executed by the Lords, is enough to take the wind out of any writer’s sails. Fortunately, vanity and seeking are part of existence. Dispense with them and you die, literally. Rats whose ability to produce dopamine was surgically eliminated starved to death despite being able to eat.

But I don’t think I want to continue writing according to the Lord’s rules.

I think I want to shut down the dopamine feedback loop between me and the closed systems. That means ignoring stats, turning off comments, and absolutely abjuring the beggardom of subscriptions. It also means refusing to partake in social media and refusing to read the advernews. If all is vanity, well, perhaps some of the vanity can at least be honest, and by honest I mean things like walking barefoot.

Now don’t misunderstand me. By honest I hardly mean truth-telling. It has been shown over and over again that honesty is not only the worst policy, but that it is no policy at all. It takes neither skill nor judgment nor acumen to tell the truth, and of course it requires zero memory. To lie requires you to remember the various incantations of the story, which were hopefully changed according to the listener’s needs, and it requires you to think carefully about structure, timing, and content. Lying is the best policy, indeed, it’s mankind’s only policy, to tweak and twist the truth in just the right way so that “No, those jeans don’t make your butt look like a dump truck,” sounds credible, sincere, and straight from the heart.

Honest writing should not be an exercise in truth-telling, it should be an exercise in truth-approximating. Honest writing should strive to enter the antechamber of truth but go no farther, and dally there only long enough to come away with a faint whiff of verisimilitude about the armpits. This is what I mean by walking barefoot.

When you take off your shoes and stroll out of doors, you receive no immediate communion with the spirit of Mother Earth, your feet do not magically spring into coiled arches and into splayed, healthy toes that grip and stride from ball-to-heel with the natural gait of the Kenyan barefoot marathoner. No, when you take off your shoes and go any distance at all it hurts like fuck. Your feet are soft, spongy, ugly, weak and rotten cupcakes that scream the moment they encounter anything hard, sharp, abrasive, hot, or cold. And the more you walk on them the more they hurt until some misstep or another drives them against a stick or jagged stone and the skin rips, the blood spouts, and you howl in pain.

Here, though, is the oddity. For millions of years, hominids walked unshod. Like hippos, deer, cats, beetles, crayfish, and stinging flies, humans were born shoeless. What’s more astounding is that shortly after birth, and roughly coinciding with the age of perambulation, the soles of the human foot begin to toughen. In the briefest of periods growing children used to become accustomed to walking barefoot, and generally they only abandoned the habit when they died.

You and I, however, we are creatures of Nike. We’re as likely to go to a party barefoot as we are to show up naked. And this isn’t far from where things now stand regarding the utterly fake architecture of social media. Just as shoes were used by the Romans to signify wealth and power, and just as being unshod was a sign of slavery and submission, the Internet-social media structure and the degree to which you wallow in it signifies wealth and power as surely as being un-wired signifies poverty and powerlessness.

Of course what you find over time is that the benefits of shoes are minimal to non-existent compared with going shoeless. Your soles develop toughened skin yet become incredibly sensitive. You feel hardly any pain when you walk shoeless, yet you feel everything beneath your feet. You walk more slowly, deliberately, and with the utmost care. Your eyes rarely deviate from your course, and you develop a precision, balance, and upper body strength that you never had before. More astonishingly, you find that the thing your feet evolved to do, walk, is something they do amazingly well without expensive accoutrements.

Most incredibly, you find that the 100+ muscles and ligaments and tendons in your feet do virtually all the work in walking, meaning that you can go for miles and miles over the worst terrain and never feel tired. Instead of finishing a long walk and wanting to denude the fridge, you are barely hungry. This outward indicia of powerlessness and slavery, going barefoot, is actually your birthright and is the pathway to strength, health, and the independence that comes with it.

Like any such pathway, though, it requires desire and it hurts and you can’t do it if you’re morbidly obese. Shoes are indoor cycling are social media. Expensive shortcuts to an inferior result.

The more you walk barefoot, the more you will question footwear. The more skeptical you will become about its benefits, its cost, its utility, even its attractiveness. When your default is the bare sole, your default will be the bared soul. That’s not to say that a pair of steel-toed boots won’t come in handy when chopping wood, or that a comfy pair of sneakers won’t work like a dream when you’re riding a bike, it’s simply to say that the closer you stay to what brought you, the likelier you are to be happy.

And what brought you isn’t Facebook. What brought you is a chance encounter between sperm and egg and the resulting imperative of a genome that folds back upon itself to the beginning of time. It can probably be improved upon here and there, but in the main, the things that make us human don’t reside in external computers or algorithms. They reside in our conscious decisions to submit wholly to those things, to embrace them warily and at a distance, or to reject them entirely, to simply walk away.

Unshod.

The way you were born.

Happy, happy birthday, every day.

END

*Many of the ideas in this blog are my brilliant girlfriend’s, who is smart af.

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