September: TV & Movies

TV_and_movies2

Picture this scene: two friends are lounging on a couch watching TV. Another walks into the room. Instead of occupying the empty seat on the couch, the newcomer pulls up a chair, flips it opposite the couch, and sits with his back to the TV.

For one month, that weird-ass newcomer was me.

In September, I couldn’t watch TV and movies. This month was at the core of the Alex Gives Up experiment—shedding bad habits in the search for new ones. TV offers cheap laughs, vicarious thrills, and mind-numbing distraction—not much beyond entertainment. Lucky for me, I had practiced low levels of television for years.

When I was a kid, my parents established a strict no TV, movies, and videogames on weeknights policy. To use a Biblical allusion from last month, TV was the forbidden fruit, my parents were God, I was Eve, and Rugrats on Tuesday nights was the snake. There were no morning cartoons before school. No Nick at Nite after homework was done. No late-night softcore porn on Cinemax (internet to the rescue!). Although I hated it at the time, the rule was a shrewd move by the ‘rents, and I did well scholastically partly because of it.

So when September 1st arrived, I was ready to revert back to that 5th grade mentality

The first day of September fell on a Saturday. I groggily pulled myself out of bed to smells of a sausage, onion, and spinach omelet wafting from the kitchen and a high-frequency buzz emanating from the living room. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my roommate planted on the couch watching pixelated images from my new rectangular nemesis.

I walked into the living room with my head down like a guilty kid about to be scolded by his parents. Keeping the TV firmly out of view, I walked past the couch and sat in a chair opposite our coffee table.

And this would become my life for the next month.

I initially thought that taking a break from TV would be a breeze. But I underestimated TV’s value as a social activity. When friends are hanging out with nothing to do, TV provides a solid backdrop. It could be high school buddies enjoying a beer over The Game. It could be girls giddily gossiping over the newest steaming pile of shit that network execs have cleverly disguised as reality television. Whatever it is, TV is the social glue for Americans everywhere.

When you look at the numbers, the average American spends 34 hours a week watching TV. That’s insane. That’s like watching half of an NFL team’s regular season in a week or, if you’re a particularly delusional girl with terrible taste in men, the first four seasons of The Bachelor. It’s as close to a national malady as they come, right up there with NASCAR and will.i.am.

So whenever I hung out at a friend’s house, the de facto activity was watching TV. If I wasn’t already a social outcast, my backwards seat embossed that scarlet letter. It was annoying as shit. While my friends chuckled along with the newest episode of Workaholics, I sat there and dicked around on my phone. Or stared at the wall. Or as one friend put it, “awkwardly watched everyone else.”

Abstaining from movies was slightly easier. I had to turn down a few invites to see September releases, namely Looper, End of Watch, and The Master, but I didn’t consider any to be must-sees. This was partly by design. I picked September because it’s generally a movie no-mans-land—the piece of bologna sandwiched between summer blockbusters and Oscar-bait indies.

But TV is omnipresent. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s at bars, in restaurants, in store windows, and in so many other places I’d never noticed until I actively attempted to avoid it.

So slip-ups were imminent. At bars, my eyes would flicker and I’d catch a second of television. On one occasion, I crawled onto the couch after a particularly unforgiving workday and accidentally watched 7 seconds of ESPN. I immediately scolded myself and resumed my post at the backwards chair.

But for the most part, I stuck to the resolution. My post-work routine changed dramatically. Instead of wasting those nighttime hours with SportsCenter or a fifth re-watch of 50/50, I read. I played piano. I went to the gym. My nights were peaceful, more productive, and that TV-induced malaise at the end of the day was gone.

However, falling asleep took some getting used to.

For the majority of my teenage years, I had mild insomnia. I would lie in bed for hours, my mind running like a Kenyan from child rebel soldiers. After college, I started watching a TV show—usually It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—before bed. It was like the grown-up version of a bedtime story, and it worked. Before long, my eyelids would droop in tune with the show’s opening theme song (fittingly, it was also the first time I noticed the effect new habits have on my well-being).

So with no TV, I turned to music videos before bed. It technically wasn’t television, and it wasn’t a movie, so my internal referee gave motioned “play on.” And before long, that worked too—I had no trouble falling asleep.

One of the funnier aspects of a television-poor diet was the pop culture ignorance. In particular, I missed every single bad call in the replacement refs era in the NFL, including the infamous Packers-Seahawks game (which had such a legendarily bad call to end the game that it has its own Wikipedia page). Listening to incredulous commentators with just my imagination and the ceiling as visual clues was hilarious—mainly because I had no clue what everyone was so upset about. Some things just have to be seen.

When September came to a close, I was proud of the effort I put forth. I lost a few battles to twitching eyes, but it was one of my most successful months to date and provided a clear benefit—I really was more productive. But I was still happy to have my old friends back.

I also invested in a new pair of running shoes. They would see a lot of use. Because I would spend the entire month of October without transportation.

August: Atheism

In my eyes, religion is like gay sex. It’s a beautiful, essential part of life for some people, however, it’s just not something in which I like to partake.

At heart, I’m a scientist. I believe that life and the universe can be explained with physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics. Although there are minor exceptions, I find that A Brief History of Time and On the Origin of Species give a more adequate model for how our world works than stories of apples, snakes, and floods.

However, I dislike labeling myself as an atheist. The word has a know-it-all, in-your-face stigma about it, and thanks to a vocal minority of obnoxious douche bags, that tone is justified. But hey, if I’m already disclosing that I drunkenly ruined someone else’s laptop with my own piss, I’d say it’s fair to admit that I don’t believe in God.

So when August came, I wanted a peek at the other side of the story. I decided to roll the cosmic dice and renounce atheism in favor of Christianity. In reality, I could have picked any religion, but for the sake of general familiarity, I sided with Jesus.

Since I had to become a good God-fearing Christian literally overnight, I defined a few strict parameters:

  1. Attend church on Sundays.
  2. Read the Bible every day.
  3. Pray every night.

There is much more to Christianity—as I would soon learn—but the guidelines gave me a push in the right direction.

I started my nightly Bible readings on August 1st in a rented studio in New Orleans.

Since I neglected to pack a Bible as part of my travel essentials, I opened the month hoping God wouldn’t smite me for copyright infringement and participated in Biblical internet piracy.

First came the task of picking a Bible. There are two main ones to choose from: the King James Bible which was translated in 1611, and the New International Version which was translated in 1978. I wanted to go full Christian—all the old-school thee/thou/hath business. King James it was.

Since I wanted to get to know my main man Jesus, I started at the beginning of The New Testament: Matthew.

After reading a few passages, a truth became apparent—as a writer, Matthew lucked out. The guy was a mediocre wordsmith at best but was giftwrapped the greatest orator ever to walk the earth as his literary subject.

Let’s take one of Jesus’s most well-known miracles: walking on water. In my head, the scene looked like this: Jesus descends gracefully from a boat, tiptoes across a still ocean surface as ripples radiate from his feet, and shines with a faint gold aura as dolphins gleefully leap around him and stunned villagers watch in awed silence.

You know how it actually reads? From Matthew 14:25-26, “But the ship was now in the midst of the Sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went unto them, walking on the Sea.” Peter then joins Jesus, starts sinking, and they walk back onto the boat. That’s it.

I know it’s supposed to be a parable for doubt in the Lord, but let’s get real Matthew—you reduced one of the greatest miracles in mankind to a terse four words. How about some description? A little pizzazz? Not to take anything away from bossman, water-walking Jesus, but if we’re calling a spade a spade, Matthew’s kind of a chump.

The Bible and I got off to a rocky start. But with The Book in the books so to speak, it was time for step two: praying.

I didn’t have the first clue on how to pray authentically. Sure, I “prayed” for a Playstation when I was 9 (and I fucking got one!), but as for actual honest-to-God praying instead of narration to the ceiling? No idea.

So I turned to my previous Lord and Savior: The Almighty Internet. After scouring Wikihow, I was ready to give it a shot.

I clasped my hands on the bed, lowered my head, and got down on my knees. Doing my best to ignore that this would be a great porno opener, I began to pray: “Dear God, I want to thank you for this day.” I then recapped my day, enumerated each challenge for which I needed His help, and mentioned all the people I was thankful for and why. I closed with a simple “In Jesus’s name, Amen” and that was that.

And you know what? I felt better. A lot better. It was humbling to consciously acknowledge how much of life was out of my control. Praying took literally two minutes and was a great decompression—like wrapping a bow on the day’s gift. I liked it immediately.

After a few more weekdays of Biblical passages and nightly prayers, it was time to pick a church. Although I went to Sunday School a few times when I was in 1st grade, I had attended church for the last time at 16 when my mom dragged my dad, brother and me to a Christmas Day sermon (which led to my dad pounding his fist on the steering wheel of our Honda stationwagon and exclaiming, “Alright God, here come the heathens!”).

I wish I could say that I embarked on a journey to discover the brand of Christianity that resonated with my core, but I opted for convenience. There was a Catholic church a few hundred feet from my apartment. So unceremoniously, I became a Catholic.

After a respectable night of Saturday sinning, it was time for my first mass.

I can’t say I was enthusiastic to hear the alarm ring at 8:20 when I had arrived at my apartment only 6 hours earlier. I dragged myself out of bed, gulped down a few bites of cereal, and splashed some water on my body. I didn’t want to be the schlub who showed up for his first Mass underdressed, so I pulled out the heavy artillery: my best button down (to be fair, I own two), slacks, and dress shoes. At the last second, I added a tie.

As I walked outside, it felt like the morning sun illuminated the path from my apartment to church. This particular church was imposing—hundreds of feet of vertical alabaster marble adorned with an austere cross and bronze doors big enough for several Andre the Giants. Serious business.

When I entered the church, I heard the soft sounds of an organ and smelled the musky scent of incense. I watched the elderly man in front of me solemnly submerge his fingers in a bowl of water and trace an unmistakable Hail Mary.

Not wanting to be outed as an imposter, I followed suit.

I dipped my index and middle fingers into the water, touched my forehead, then my sternum, and then froze.

Shit.

Is it right left, or left right? For the first and last time in my life, I wished for Tim Tebow.

Hoping that no one was watching, I rushed out a quick right-left and shuffled to a seat in the second-to-last pew.

As I admired the stained glass and waited for the other church-goers to file in, I noticed something: I was the best dressed person at church. By far. Most people were wearing jeans—maybe a nice sweater. One guy was even wearing shorts!

The irony was thick—in trying my best to fit in with the crowd, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I nervously fiddled with my tie and waited for the sermon to start.

A dramatic shift in the organ and a motion from the back of the church signaled the opening. Up through the center of the room came a line of five or so clergyman, led by a preacher. He was everything I hoped he would be: white hair, full beard, flowing white robes, and a dignified cane to top it all off. He bellowed forth in a tenor vibrato while I fumbled with my song pamphlet, hoping that I wasn’t making the adjacent women’s ears bleed with my tone-deaf grumble.

After a slew of hymns in Latin, a few awkward exchanges of “and peace unto you,” and what seemed like fifty arbitrary swings of the incense pot—which I quite enjoyed—the preacher opened his sermon.

This was a crucial moment for me. From a bystander’s point-of-view, there are a number of things to dislike about the Catholic faith—in particular, its strict emphasis on outdated rules, its joylessness, and its oppressive ideologies. I put on my cynic cap, ready to reject some ridiculous message about abortion or homosexuality.

But then the preacher began to speak.

He opened with a Nazi gestapo on his death bed. The Nazi gestapo had done terrible things in his life—killed people, watched passively as men and children died, and ritually drank the blood of Jews (just kidding). While feeling Death perched over his shoulder, he consulted a clergyman, expressed his deep sorrow and regret, and asked for his forgiveness.

The clergyman deliberated. He then responded, “I can’t forgive you. No man can forgive you for these atrocities. Only God can forgive you.”

Je-zus. If I wasn’t already awake at 9:45am, the preacher’s words hit me like a bucket of water to the face.

After a few more Halleleuh’s and an almost botched communion (fun fact, you’re supposed to eat the wafer before drinking the wine), church was dismissed and I walked out into the world.

My step had a hop to it. I felt better. My Sunday mornings were often worthless, but this spiritual productivity was a nice boost early in the day. It was weird to admit, but I kinda liked Church.

But the Bible and I still weren’t seeing eye to eye.

After slogging through Matthew, I skipped to Revelations. If you’re unfamiliar, Revelations describes a catastrophic battle between good and evil and it’s like a massively horrific shroom trip. Here’s an actual passage: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy” –Revelations 13:1.

John the Apostle: tripping balls since 95 AD. It did not make good bedtime reading.

Since I was on the verge of Biblically striking out, I consulted with a Christian buddy for a new section, who recommended a part of the Old Testament called Ecclesiastes.

And I turned a corner. Ecclesiastes beautifully illuminated the meaning of life and how to live. I found wisdom on every page, thoughtful passages about youth, death, vanity, and luck. Days later, lines still bounced around in my head (“Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king” -Ecclesiastes 4:13).

After a few weeks of practice, I think I made a pretty good Christian. I’ve always treated people well, but with Jesus on my side, I went a bit further. I gave money to homeless people. I called my parents more often. I didn’t miss a day with my Bible and dutifully prayed each night. And most impressively, I made it to church on the third morning of Outside Lands, a three day music festival. I’m not saying I’d waltz my way through the Pearly Gates, but I think St. Peter would at least grant me an interview.

However, I don’t think he’d be pleased when he unearthed some of my more, shall we say, less-than-holy moments. I had to work one Sunday and skipped church (and felt guiltier than a priest in a playground). I prayed a couple nights while slightly intoxicated. Worse still, I eased a Sunday morning hangover with a bowl of weed just minutes before church (if you’re wondering, yes, attending Church while stoned is extremely sacrilegious but still quite enlightening). And most damning of all, I was always cognizant that I was tethered to a month long experiment instead of a full spiritual immersion with God.

But despite my many sins, I gave Christianity a fair shot and learned quite a bit. In particular, I realized that atheists have a blindspot when it comes to Christianity. Naively, I had thought that Christianity existed simply as a vehicle to explain the universe’s mysteries in a series of overblown fairytales.

But that is a minor detail.

The religious rituals—praying, reading the Bible, and attending church—give many a sense of purpose, a certainty anchor in life’s turbulent seas. Religion teaches to respect and revere all of life’s uncontrollable ups and downs. And the Bible, mediocre writing and all, is the most profound book ever written on life and death and chronicles one of the coolest cats to walk the planet, Jesus Christ.

Even still, for me, the benefits of religion do not outweigh those of atheism.

Atheism trained me to think critically, to never accept truth without fact, and to respect others as fellow human beings. It imbued me with a powerful sense of self-reliance, moral responsibility, and humility. And most importantly, atheism taught me to make the most out of every moment because once I’m gone, I’m gone. I am a better friend, son, and man because of atheism.

But as August came to a close, I felt bittersweet. Sure it would be nice to gain a couple hours of extra sleep on Sunday mornings, but I genuinely enjoyed the time spent with God, Jesus, and the whole gang. Although they might hover over my shoulder for the rest of my life, I knew that the friendship had probably irrevocably turned one-way.

Which was disappointing, because I was about to lose another set of close friends.

In September, I would cut ties with my good buddies, television and movies.

July: Music

music2“Hey Al, what’s up?”
“Dad, I’m not gonna make it. I think I’m getting depressed.”

I called my dad on July 2nd while I swiveled in an office chair at work. For the last 5 hours, my Apple earbuds had transmitted sounds of trickling waterfalls and pattering rain drops. I thought this would be soothing. Instead, it was literally water torture.

I was only two days into my new life without music, and I was already going insane.

Thanks to my dad, I grew up in a household governed by music. One of his few splurge purchases was a gigantic set of oak speakers, of which he made good use. I watched him start many a Friday night by slicking back his hair, pouring a generous rum and coke, lounging on the couch, and blasting “Come Together” by The Beatles. Mashed potato and turkey dinners frequently featured a side of James Taylor’s Greatest Hits.  It was not uncommon for the household to have three sources of music at a given moment, even if the cacophony of rap, nu-metal, and 4-minute bass solos (another Dad special) made my mom’s ears bleed.

Even with that said, it’s tough to describe the role music has played in my life. Obsession fetishizes it. Addiction cheapens it. Habit doesn’t cover the depth. It sounds weird to say, but the closest word I can find is companion. Music was there when I was an awkward teenager alone in my room. It was there in college preserving my sanity while I pored over archaic math proofs. It’s there when I’m working out, or folding laundry, or recovering from a hangover. In fact, almost every word on Alex Gives Up was written with music playing in the background.

So I’m not sure what compelled me to list “music” as one of the 12 items to give up back in January. But I did. And the incredulity from friends was nearly unanimous.

“Music?!” they would gasp, and you could feel the exclamation point puncture the question mark. “Why?!”

My only legitimate response was “to see if I can do it.” It was sheer naive audacity—masochism, pure and simple.

The rule was that I couldn’t listen to music on my own accord. That meant no headphones, no speakers, and no instruments. But since music is so pervasive, if I heard it on the street, at a friend’s house, or in the background of a TV show, I wasn’t going to sprint away with my fingers pressed in both ears.

Since July 1st fell on a Sunday, I didn’t start to feel the effects until work on Monday.

My work habits are entirely dictated by music. Doesn’t matter where I am, I haven’t reached the office until my headphones are plugged in and music is streaming. I listen to it literally all day. At its best, it sharpens my focus and helps work flow.

But in my most unproductive moments, I’m easily distracted by picking a song. Hours in aggregate have been wasted finding obscure songs on YouTube. So I thought there might be a chance that abstaining from music would have some benefit.

Within a few hours, that chance plummeted to nearly zero. I couldn’t focus. My face was molded into a constant grimace. In a move of visual exasperation, I slumped face first onto my keyboard. It was around this time that I called my dad and boldly self-diagnosed depression.

If this was Harry Potter, bullshit ambient noises would have been the dementor sucking the life out of me. I needed to switch tactics. Something rhythmic, but with a little more variation.

What about speeches? I Googled “famous speeches in history” and started with a portly, fiery chap who had trouble pronouncing his r’s: Winston Churchill.

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall NEVER surrender.”

Fuck yeah Winston! You ‘n me buddy! It was just the jolt I needed.

Famous historical speeches became my savior. Good speeches have two primary components: what is said and how it’s delivered. A speech like “I Have A Dream” by MLK has a beautiful cadence and I’d heard the words enough times that I could lose myself in the rhythm and work. JFK became my Justice, Malcolm X my Mos Def, and FDR my Flosstradamus. In fact, I found a new rhetorical hero in none other than Richard Nixon who delivered the best speech of the 20th century with “Checkers,” a flawless dictation of his financial history featuring a spotted black-and-white puppy as the emotional high point.

But life without music was still dismal. I craved music like Christina Aguilera craves tubs of ice cream. I missed my Spotify and Hype Machine accounts (holla at sh’boy akorch16!), and my post-work ritual of playing piano to radio pop songs was dully replaced with TV. I nearly lost my shit any time a YouTube video was preceded with an advertisement for a new VEVO music video, possibly the first time in YouTube’s existence that someone has voluntarily watched the full 30 second ad instead of skipping through after 5. I didn’t even complain when my roommates would play country music, even if the sound of Southern drawls and twangy guitars still made me want to pitchfork Toby Keith right in the dick.

I knew that these were grey areas, but on paper I was still following the rules. However, it didn’t take long before I found the line and leaped over it.

On the first weekend of July, Fillmore Street was host to San Francisco’s Jazz Festival. “Well I walk down Fillmore all the time. This time, jazz music just happens to be playing,” I told myself.

File that one under “self-deluding bullshit.”

But goddamn did that bullshit sound amazing. There was a 20-piece band, complete with blaring horns, pounding congo drums, and booming bass. A few blocks up, a throwback rap duo laid down rhymes over smooth saxes and funky beats. You couldn’t walk more than a hundred feet without hearing the sweet sounds of jazz music.

It was bliss.

And it was cheating. But it was also the best I’d felt in a week.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only exception.

In May (fucking May), I learned that the San Francisco Symphony would perform a suite of Pixar music in July. In other words, one of the most renowned symphonies in the world would play music from my favorite movies on Earth. If I believed in God, his name would be Gusteau and his gospel would be Ratatouille. No way was I passing this up.

In late July, the day arrived. As I strolled inside, it felt like I had been transported to 18th century Vienna. The symphony hall was absolutely gorgeous: dimmed amber lights accented the flowing white pillars and crimson seats. Rows upon rows of musicians filled center stage. Even though I was slapping July’s resolution in the face, I was giddy with anticipation.

And then the music started.

The symphony opened with songs from Toy Story, the music simmering below an enormous screen silently showing scenes with Buzz and Woody. By the time the theme music from Ratatouille began playing, the tears were streaming down my cheeks. It was just so goddamned beautiful. The strings rose and fell as timpanis pounded and flutes crescendoed, each note illuminating Remy’s scampering footsteps. The two-hour set was mesmerizing and was the most remarkable live performance I’ve ever seen—definitely aided by the fact that I hadn’t listened to music in weeks (and was also fairly baked).

But even with those two breaks, July was still miserable. With other resolutions—meat and Facebook in particular—after a few days I hardly noticed their absence. Not music.

I never got used to it. Like the light had been sucked from my life. I hadn’t noticed until it was gone, but so much of my daily mood is intertwined with music—I have quiet, ethereal instrumentals for mornings, thumping electronic beats for daytime work, and laid-back rap for nights and parties. Instead, I was stuck with white noise and scattered sounds from the city streets. Pick any synonym for “depressed”—melancholic, glum, despondent—I had them all in spades. If it hadn’t been for Winston, Martin, and Franklin, the month would have been a total loss. It sucked. No… scratch that: it fucking sucked.

But I stuck to it. After 31 painfully long days, I was free. When August 1st arrived, I played my usual morning music and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

The worst monthly resolution to date was in the books. There would be rough (and embarrassing) times ahead, but my psyche would not take a pummeling like July’s again.

And for the first time in a while, I was excited for next month.

No longer would I be a godless heathen. In August, I would rid my soul of atheism and get buddy-buddy with the most famous man in history: Jesus.

June: Phone

Phone Douche

“Dude, this is affecting our friendship. GET A PHONE!”

Alex, one of my best friends, was pissed.

After I almost missed our pre-agreed meeting time at McTeague’s, a local bar, Alex’s frustration began to boil. He wasn’t the only one. My friends, who had previously seen the Alex Gives Up experiment as a humorous endeavor, had reached their breaking point.

But as for me? I couldn’t have been happier.

For June’s resolution, I decided to give up my phone. I got my first cell phone when I was 15 in Ninth Grade. Although my friends were playing Snake on their Nokias in Elementary School, my parents resisted giving their 12 year-old son a cell phone because I was, well, 12. I think they believed (correctly) that a 12 year-old would only use a cell phone to call his parents at work and request more Gushers and Goldfish.

But at 15, I joined the flip phone party with a silver Audiovox equipped with video game poker and Get it Now. And since then, I hadn’t carried out a normal routine sans phone for close to a decade.

So as May was winding down, I considered the prospect of not having a phone and concluded that it might be impossible. Not only is it extremely socially impractical, but at the time, I ran my own business. Without going into details, the organization was complex and required management of a team spread across the U.S. It just didn’t seem doable.

But then again neither did vegetarianism nor abstaining from alcohol. So it was game on.

However, in the interest of full disclosure, I cheated in June before starting.

Yeah yeah, I know I blow it every month (as of June, batting a cool .167) but this was slightly different. I had to go on a business trip to Austin, Texas for the first 4 days of June. I was in talks to merge my company with another and it was a huge deal for me. And to be honest, I didn’t want my new potential co-founders, one of whom I had just met, to come to the conclusion that I was completely fucking insane.

Which in light of this blog, I am. But I brought my phone anyway.

Five days later, the experiment began.

On June 5th, stomach full of brisket and head full of Texas hangover, the attendant on the flight back to San Francisco came on the loudspeaker and stated, “At this time, please turn off all electronic devices.”

When the plane landed four hours later, I watched as the tech geeks/cowboy enthusiasts powered up their iPhones. But not me—mine stayed in my pocket. And it remained there until I placed it on my dresser two hours later.

Well I guess that’s that then.

I wish breaking up with my phone was some dramatic Notebook-esque parting—red eyes, solemn goodbyes, and deep reflections—but truth be told, I just sort of chucked it on my dresser like a piece of junk mail.

I didn’t really notice the absence until later. As I walked out the front door, my heart skipped a beat when I checked my pockets and my hand hit thigh instead of a rectangular piece of metal. But a nanosecond later: “oh yeah… I have no phone.”

Not having a phone was immediately apparent in several ways. If your sense of direction is anything like mine (but I doubt it— I once drove 20 miles on the 405-South en route to San Francisco from L. A.), you rely on Google Maps and the blue GPS dot to get anywhere. Or maybe you pull up Facebook/ESPN/Instagram when you’re standing in line, or bored, or feeling uncomfortable at a bar because your friends aren’t showing up for 20 minutes and you’re not drunk and/or confident enough to talk to the mildly cute girl waiting for a drink.

Whatever it is—good luck doing it without a phone. Have fun staring at the wall.

The days piled up, and although I missed my Droid X, I was getting used to June. However, I had an ace up my sleeve.

On June 8th, I went on a 10 day mother-son trip to Barcelona. I’d be lying if I said this was coincidence. I strategically planned no phone for June because it coincided with a trip out of the country. In fact, this wasn’t the first time I did this: for meat, I picked February because it’s the shortest month and I naively thought it would be the hardest (it wasn’t). I strategically picked April for alcohol because it’s an alliteration and I love that shit. And in later months, I would strategically follow similar tactics.

Spain was a great natural deterrent. The sun was out, the sangria was flowing, the paella was broiling, and the only person I knew within a 1000 mile radius was my mom. I barely even noticed–the 10 days literally breezed by.

When I landed back at my apartment in San Francisco, I dropped off my suitcase, flipped open my laptop, and shot off an email to my friends Greg and the aforementioned Alex asking their plans for the night.

And 30 minutes later, after almost missing Alex at McTeague’s, the questions of friendship began to fly.

I gotta be honest: it wasn’t easy being my friend in June. I was literally impossible to reach. Everything needed to be coordinated in advance over Facebook and Gmail. And even then, there were still missed connections. My roommate became my self-proclaimed “secretary,” a role he surprisingly did not enthusiastically embrace (but as he likes to note, “no one wanted to talk to you anyway”). Some people gave up trying to get a hold of me altogether.

But for me, it was absolutely liberating. I was freed from virtually all social obligations. I stopped wasting time dicking around on my phone. And not having to hear the constant chiming and buzzing felt like finally zeroing in on an incessant fly and swatting the absolute shit out of it.

However, vocal communication didn’t stop entirely: it just shifted. Thanks to Skype, my parents and brother were only a monitor away. However, I don’t think they appreciated scheduling these conversations into my calendar like dentist’s appointments.

I did have my slip-ups (which should be no surprise if you’ve read anything else on here). Four infractions to be exact. June 16th is Father’s Day, so I borrowed my roommate’s phone and gave Dad a call. What can I say? I’m a good son.

The other three were phone calls to potential clients. In particular, I had the opportunity to land a huge client—a revered Silicon Valley author—and I wasn’t going to shoot myself in the foot before even speaking with him. So I borrowed a coworker’s phone. Worth it: I closed the deal.

The central point is this: although the Alex Gives Up experiment was literally dominating my life, other things occasionally took priority. Family and work were two of those things.

Or put in more eloquent terms: suck my balls, internet critics.

As June started to wind down, I was excited to get my phone back. Primarily because I wanted to see the level of my social importance: how many text messages, missed calls, and voicemails had I received? I considered this to be a litmus test of my popularity.

When July 1st came, I powered up.

And waited.

One text message! Then 2! Then 3! Then 4! Then… nothing. “Yeah, my phone’s probably just getting adjusted to having service,” I told my roommate. But an hour later, nothing else.

A whopping 1 text message every 6.5 days. So much for popularity.

There was one big surprise in June. Up to that point, my morning and evening bus commutes consisted of mindlessly scrolling through tech news on my phone. Now, in lieu of TechCrunch and VentureBeat, I brought a book and read.

Those 20-30 minute bus rides added up. By the end of June, I had finished two books that I read exclusively in public transport (including Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, now one of my favorite books).

And what’s more: the habit stuck. The entire year. I was the annoying bus bookworm who stayed in his seat and read while old ladies stood in the aisles (not really—I gave up my seat, but it was begrudgingly). In fact, there were residual effects from each month. I ate the same salad and soy sausage patties from my vegetarian month. My drinking intake was on a downslope. I still checked Facebook, but I felt guilty about it goddamnit. The victories were small, but at the midway point of The Experiment, my life had become noticeably different.

And that change would only accelerate. So far, I had given up things that were in some way detrimental to my well-being—alcohol, Facebook, marijuana—with varying degrees of success. But it was time to take a turn for the truly masochistic. I was worried that next month would be one of the most depressing months of my life.

For in July, I’d unplug my headphones, turn off my speakers, and take a month-long hiatus from music.

May: Swearing

swearing-kid

Fuck. Shit. Damn. Cunt. Bitch. Bastard. Asshole.

My friends. Comrades. Allies. And now I had no choice but to turn my back and shun them like a spurned lover.

In May, I resolved to not swear. Most of my monthly resolutions gave up something tangible—alcohol, meat, marijuana. So to give up something abstract—a set of words, no less—was new ground. My mind needed to be sharp, my focus at an all-time high. But I was up for the challenge.

Swearing and I have a long and proud history. I heard my first swearword when I was six. The song was “Hand in My Pocket” by Alanis Morissette and the word was “chickenshit” (you and your devil music, Alanis!). My dad, responsible father he is, told me that “chickenshit” was a “bad” word and to never say it.

So I went through most of my childhood and early adolescence with a clean mouth, one of my many golden child characteristics.

Somewhere between the ages of 16 and 17, I started testing the welcoming waters of swearing. It didn’t take long before I realized that swearing is fucking awesome. It’s one of the most concise ways to sum up a feeling—be it anger or elatedness. It’s a good way to build camaraderie with friends. And most of all, when used correctly, swearing is funny as fuck. By the time I graduated high school, I frequently seasoned my sentences with “fuck” and peppered them with “shit.”

My only overarching rule was to never swear in front of my parents. If it came down to it, I think they would rather me drop acid than say “fuck” in their presence. In fact, to this day, they have only heard me swear once.

I was in my apartment bathroom enjoying some “me time” and the Adam Carolla book, when my brother, who attended the same university, walked in:

Brother: “Hey dude, you there?”
Me: “Yeah, I’m in the bathroom.”
Brother: “Well, uh, what are you doing?”
Me: “Dude. I’m taking a shit.”
(pause)
Mom: “Hi Alex, your parents are here too!”

Thanks for the heads up dude!

So near the end of April, when I told my mom May’s resolution, she responded with:

Mom: “Well sweetie, that will be easy. You never swear.”
Me: “Yeah, well… not around you.”

From that, I developed a corollary: pretend like my mom was perched on my shoulder listening to every word I said. I had to revert back to the days when swearing was a forbidden sin, when every time I heard “fuck,” my neck would tingle and a shiver would run through my spine

I also needed to develop some stakes.

I very openly told my friends that for May only, if they caught me swearing, I would hand them a crisp 20 bucks. Fuck 25 cent swear jars and the participating middle-aged men that are afraid of putting a little hair on their kid’s chest. I go big or go home. Or in this case, go broke.

Twenty-four hours in, I quickly found that not swearing is suffocating. Communication changed entirely. I spoke slower and chose my words carefully. In some ways, this was beneficial—I sounded more intelligent and spoke more clearly. But I was paranoid that my vocal chords would succumb to the dark side before my brain could severe the neural connections with a synaptic lightsaber.

As a result, my mind was constantly preoccupied with trying not to swear. I could feel a “fuck” or “shit” lurking just behind my uvula, biding its time before its emphatic moment of release.

The paranoia was justified.

Two days in, I dropped an unassuming d-bomb. A week in, a few more d-bombs, an a-bomb, and an f-bomb followed.

The Battle for May was lost. It would just be a matter of whether the bombs could be contained or whether they would incite my own personal nuclear holocaust.

It’s not that I wasn’t trying. I was. Fiercely. But I had grossly underestimated how difficult it is to remove a set of words from one’s vocabulary. Swearing had become so ingrained, such an essential part of my communication with others, that “fuck” had burrowed deep into my subconscious. And it was damn comfortable in its ancient sheltered cave.

Not helping matters was that my social circle isn’t exactly comprised of do-gooders and saints. Meaning that my friends can be a little rough around the edges. Which led to a startling truth:

People cuss. A fuckton.

In a study to estimate how much the average American swears, a U.S. psychologist named Timothy Jay estimated the number to be 80 to 90 times a day.

Ninety times! Holy shit!

I needed armor. The cussing barrage was unrelenting. So I drew up some biological schematics and devised a plan.

Every time I heard a swearword drop, I reflexively retracted my diaphragm. After doing this several times, that telltale pit-in-the-stomach feeling became ingrained. It was some straight Clockwork Orange shit—both my body and mind were now repulsed by swearing. Another win for science!

But even with Pavlovian psychology on my side, I was still fucking up. A shitload.

I found that I was especially susceptible in periods of boredom, intoxication, or distraction. Which, to put it bluntly, are states that occur in my life frequently.

The infractions were diverse and numerous. While searching for a word, I have the bad habit of filling the silence with “fucking.” Like “Hey dude can you pass the, uh, fucking, uhh… ketchup?” Or sometimes, my mind would drift out of focus and a “shit” would worm its way into a sentence. If I was baked, the game was over—virtually any time I eat food I’ll celebrate the end of the meal by exclaiming “that was goddamn delicious.”

To make matters worse, faux swearwords blow. Saying “shoot,” “darn,” and “shucks,” is not satisfying, like expecting Seinfeld and being subjected to Two and a Half Men. “F-word!” or “S-word!” felt forced. Most times, I just said nothing and found ways to circumnavigate the fuck-shit-pitfalls. Which left a noticeable emptiness.

And ever wonder how much your friends are worth? Like if you had to put a quantifiable number on it?

Because in my case, their allegiance could be easily purchased for 20 bucks.

The Andrew Jackson Swear Jar seemed like a helpful idea. In reality, it was like having my own personal set of Nazi Gestapos. Exclamations of “b-word!” were followed with a cocked eye and “Which b-word? Bastard or Bitch?” Every time my mouth moved, the contents from within were strictly scrutinized. At this point, my roommates, who had stuck to innocuous annoyances like cooking meat literally every day during my vegetarian month, became downright ruthless.

I managed to make it 8 days before I had to shell out my first $20. At Nick’s Taco Tuesdays, the conversation turned to the limits for this month’s experiment. My roommate asked, “Wait you can say crap and damn?” I replied, “No, I’m not allowed to say damn.”

Fingers pointed and that was that. I opened and closed my mouth a few times in frustration, searching for the words to express my displeasure. Since they were all banned, none came. Instead, I was forced to open my wallet.

A late May Memorial Day Vegas trip didn’t help matters. In fact, it pushed me from about 10 infractions to over 20. What can I say? When the entire city economy is based on people losing money, a drastic spike in swearing is a natural accompaniment. Also, I was hammered.

Luckily, I was only caught one of those times, while singing along to a song and mimicking the word “bitch.” Since swearing is so ubiquitous, the silver lining was that no one else noticed when I swore in turn. So what could have been a $200 dent was only a mere $40, which my semi-guilty friends just reinvested in buying drinks anyway.

But even without a hefty fine, to say that this month approached anything nearing success would be ridiculous. It was a fucking disaster. In previous months, one infraction would send my head spinning. For May, I lost count at 20.

I needed a stimulus package after Hurricane Shit-rina. But I couldn’t call home to cry about it.

Because in June, I wouldn’t have a phone.

April: Alcohol

Shower Beer

Hi, I’m Alex, and I’m an alcoholic.

Well… no, not really. But I do like to drink.

After four years of college, including a 6 month capper where I lived in a frat house while not enrolled in a single class, I’ve amassed a formidable cadre of drinking stories. There’s the time when I pissed on the laptop of someone I’d never met. Or the time when I led six cop cars on a wild goose chase while successfully evading a minor-in-possession charge. I’ve dropkicked trees, uprooted sprinklers, and shattered street lamps. I’ve finished three beers in less than 10 seconds. I’ve thrown up in my hands at parties, on my friends at bars, and on strangers at wine mixers. Shit, my first time drinking was at my grandparents’ house where I finished a fifth of vodka and puked in forty-five minute intervals from midnight to 7am.

Chalk another one up for paragraphs I’ll regret writing in 5 years!

Although my drinking is nowhere near where it used to be—thank god—it’s still an activity I partake in with regularity. It’s not like I sneak around flasks of whiskey or chug beers before work, but hey, sometimes a guy’s gotta wasted on a Friday night.

So as April approached, my anxiety heightened. Like most twentysomethings I know, I’m a social drinker. I’ll usually go out one or both weekend nights and might have the occasional beer after work with friends. In other words, if I’m in an environment which involves alcohol, I’ll participate.

After getting last-time-in-thirty-days drunk on Saturday, the calendar flipped to Sunday, April 1st. This gave me a whole set of weekdays to acclimate before my first sober Friday in San Francisco.

Or so I thought.

On Thursday night, I paid a visit to The Fillmore—the famous music hall in San Francisco—to see a garage rock band called the Heartless Bastards with my roommates. The Fillmore is one of those picturesque music venues—signed pictures of famous artists adorning the walls, blue, purple, and yellow lights dancing over the fog of the crowd, and a full bar with beers on tap and cute female bartenders aplenty. To connect the dots, people (friends included) were drinking.

There’s something unsettling about watching other people sipping a liquid without having anything to drink (or at the very least, hold) in turn, so I walked up to the bar and ordered a Diet Coke.

The bartender grabbed a glass, filled it with ice, and sprayed out a few seconds worth of soda. “That will be four dollars.”

I stared blankly, the words taking a beat to register.

Reflexively pulling out my wallet, I said, “OK, here’s five.” You know, for your trouble.

I glared at my Diet Coke, plucked it from the counter, and walked back to my friends. If I had listened closely enough, I could have heard the bubbles softly fizzling out ssssssucker.

As I stood in the midst of the crowd, sipping my shitty $5 Diet Coke at a fucking rock concert like some kind of middle-aged chaperone, I had some time to reflect: Well this sucks. Yep… this definitely sucks.

I can’t say I was in the mood to pontificate.

Matters didn’t improve on Friday. I resolved that although I may not be drinking, I wasn’t going to spend Friday nights holed up in my apartment eating Chinese takeout and watching Pixar movies­­. I was going to attend parties sober and pretend to like them, goddamnit!

I showed up at a friend’s apartment dressed in my best (read: only) blue button down. As people arrived, the alcohol began to flow. My buddy smirked as he swooped a bottle of vodka off the table and inquired to the crowd, “shots?”

I pursed my lips together, shook my head slightly, and resigned myself to watching people get hammered while I stood on the sidelines with my hands in my pockets. As I watched the vodka swirl into shot glasses, I grabbed a 2 liter bottle of ginger ale and poured myself a shot.

“Cheers,” I said to myself, and half-heartedly threw back one-and-a-half ounces of Canada Dry.

I felt like Eeyore dressed in a Tigger costume. Inwardly, I was miserable, but since I was at a party, I couldn’t sit around glumly with my heads in my hands. So I faked it. I talked too loudly. I let my words slur. I planted a goofy smile on my face. But that didn’t change the fact that I was still utterly and hopelessly sober.

After a few more uneventful rounds of ginger ale, the party moved to cabs, and the cabs moved to bars.

At this point, I’d like to explain The Contract. When women and men meet at a bar, the man implicitly signs The Contract: “I, the male in this drunken and hopefully sexual encounter, heretofore state that I am at least as drunk or drunker than my female counterpart, thereby following the Hook-Up Corollary that asserts that the female was not taken advantage of and that this is a mutually drunk decision.” The woman then countersigns: “I, the female, am smitten by your charming wit, rugged handsomeness, and mild intoxication, and thus might go home with you, but only if you buy all my drinks.”

That’s the deal. That’s how it’s worked for centuries. And I, in good faith, could not sign that contract.

Not to say that I’m some kind of ladies’ man, but as opportunities came up, I found myself stumbling at the crucial juncture when it came time to make a move and seal the deal. I just couldn’t do it. It was like walking up to the plate, being lobbed a softball, catching it, and throwing it back. But I had one thing going for me.

My BAC read 0.00.

Two weeks in, my lips had only tasted soda and water. After faceplanting on my resolution three months in a row, I needed this. This month provided a clear line: either drink alcohol or don’t. No accidents. No absent-minded decisions. Just hold steady.

Although I’ll often fall victim to some combination of apathy, distractedness, and laziness, there are select times when I’ll train my mind like a laser on the task at hand. My parents like to tell stories of two-year-old me who, when faced with an obstacle, would stubbornly insist, “I do.” Putting on pajamas? “I do.” Feeding myself? “I do.” Solving triple integrals? “I do.”

This was one of those times. I had to do it.

Once I adjusted to sobriety, I cracked the pattern: go out with friends, sip ginger ale, pretend to slur words to fit in, and eventually, slip out the back and get into bed at a reasonable hour. Maybe (definitely) a quick smoke and a few taquitos before bed for good measure. It wasn’t exactly living the high life, but you could do worse.

I’ve now twice mentioned the importance of “fitting in” with the drunkards. I don’t want to give the appearance that I harbor a malleable personality, but I observed a simple truth regarding sobriety: people are uncomfortable drinking alcohol around someone that doesn’t drink. Sometimes it was subtle. A shift in weight. A nervous pause. Darting eyes. But other times, it was overt. At a friend’s family dinner party, I had to twice decline a glass of wine—falsely insisting that water was just peachy—which was met with a hesitant “you sure you don’t want some cranberry juice? Or a coke or something?”

No thanks, I’ll just wallow in my own misery.

As for sobriety’s benefits, I’ll be honest: they were hard to come by. Sure it was nice to wake up Saturday and Sunday mornings sans-hangover. And maybe I felt a little more clearheaded. But that’s about it. If my health was better, it was imperceptible. My social skills were stunted. This all came to a head when a girl at a bar asked how my April experiment was going. I responded, “Oh you know, it’s not that bad…” I racked my brain trying to think of some benefit to follow that up with. None came. “Well… yeah, actually, it is that bad.”

Before I knew it, it was Tuesday, May 1st. I hopped out of bed just as the sun was rising, dragged my feet to the fridge, and cracked a cold, frosty Pacifico. The first sip was bliss. I continued my morning routine, and jumped in the shower, bringing my beer with me.

While letting the cold Mexican beer slide down my throat and the hot steam soak my skin, it hit me: I had just conquered the hardest month to date. Handedly. I tilted my head back, drinking every last drop from the amber bottle, and set it on a shelf, where it still stands proudly. Success. And it tasted goddamn delicious.

Excuse me, goshdarn delicious.

For I wouldn’t utter a swear word in May.

March: Facebook

Mac

“The only reason that people are here is because Facebook tells them to come here… The whole world is connected now. It’s all connected by Bill Gates and that rainman Zuckerberg. He and his Jews have connected the whole world and now they’re toppling regimes. And Egypt, and Japan, and the Jews are all peaceful together.” –Mac, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

If the internet was the Earth, Facebook would undoubtedly be America: loud, fat, lazy, devoid of culture, but such a force that it can’t be ignored without significant effort.

Facebook is singlehandedly the biggest waste of time of our generation, such a colossal timesink that it ranks up there with video games in the 90’s, TV in the 80’s, and radio in the 50’s (or whatever people did with their free time in the 50’s… Marble throwing? Horseshoe tossing? I really don’t know). I don’t think I’m the only one that feels a wash of self-loathing every time I login to my account and find 30 minutes evaporate into thin air.

And women, it’s time we have a frank discussion about what men use Facebook for: looking at funny statuses from their friends, bragging about the only highlight of their week as if it was a regular occurrence, and browsing pictures of hot girls. I’ll readily admit that last statement. To this day, I am still friends with people on Facebook that I have talked to less than 3 times for the sole reason that they are attractive women and will occasionally post pictures featuring their boobs in tightly fitted outfits. Cat’s out of the bag ladies!

So for March, I decided to give up Facebook. Truth be told, I needed a break after torturing myself in February. I was excited for March—no Facebook would be a welcome change, and I anticipated a number of ancillary benefits.

On March 1st, my alarm rang at 7:30am and I started the morning like I always do: by groggily groping around the side of my bed until my fingers found my laptop. The first internet browse of the day is a sacred moment for me, like Buddha’s morning meditation or Lindsay Lohan’s third line of cocaine, and I usually complete it with a patterned flurry of clicks and keystrokes. But this time, I made sure that my fingers were nowhere near the “F” key. Gmail, Reddit, and ESPN would have to suffice for now.

After gussying myself up for another Thursday, which included scarfing down the best breakfast I had eaten in a month—steak and bacon, with a side of “fuck yes” and a glass of “awesome”—I hopped on San Francisco’s Muni en route to work.

I should mention that on the whole, I’m a diligent worker. I’ll get into the office around 8:30 or 9, and usually won’t leave until 8 that night. But since I’m self-employed, there’s no one to crack the whip when my eyes glaze over and my mind wanders. Which means that I have the freedom to take breaks any time I want, for however long I want.

At its best, the break doubles as a quick jolt of exercise, a breath of fresh air, and a healthy snack. At its worst, it manifests into the embarrassing habit of completing a task and checking Facebook. Or hitting a roadblock and checking Facebook. Or feeling the air temperature change and checking Facebook. Even more pathetically, sometimes I would log-on, let the screen load, and like some sort of crack addict who needs a hit of blue and white to get through the day, immediately x out and get back to what I was doing.

So the first day of Facebook-less work was a definite change of pace. It took an additional layer of focus to make sure I didn’t fall into old patterns, but I knocked out a ton of to-dos, limited my day-time distractions to Reddit and ESPN, and made it through the day without a mishap. I went to bed relieved, knowing that this month was more than doable.

The next morning, I woke up at 7:30, rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, fumbled for my laptop, and opened two new tabs.

It took about two seconds for my screen to fill with a blue header and pictures of people I hardly knew when a wave of guilt crashed over me.

Goddamn it shit fucking fuck. Fucking 31 hours! Fuck.

And just like that, with the quarter inch push of my index finger, 0 for 3.

If I wasn’t already lying in bed, I would have hung my head in shame. This month was supposed to be easy! A break! And I couldn’t make it two days without participating in Rainman-Zuckerberg’s pet project.

God damn it.

But like the Santa Cruz blunt extravaganza and the Superbowl chicken mishaps, I had to reassemble the broken pieces of my shattered pride and soldier on.

Mid-way through March, I had maintained the resolution. However, my primary hypothesis—that I would become a productivity machine—was wrecked. Yes, my Facebook time in the previous 2 weeks consisted of 2 seconds, but that time was not reinvested in working. Instead, I was checking ESPN so frequently that I could have taken over Sports Center anchor duties (Stuart Scott, I’m coming for you and your lazy eye(s)!).

For all of its faults, Facebook is regularly touted as an excellent way to keep in touch with friends. But really, I noticed no difference. Sure, I missed the 1 or 2 relevant Facebook events—unlike the other thirty “UCLA’S DANCE MARATHON IS ONLY 9 MONTHS AWAY, JOIN MY FUNDRAISING GROUP!!!”—but you know how I found out about them? Get ready because the answer is a doozy: real life. Through friends. By talking to them. In person. Shocker!

I wish I could say that I compensated for March 2nd’s slip up with a clean record down the stretch. But I still found a way to screw up. Twice.

In my mild defense, both were work-related blunders. While working on projects for clients, I had to research their company history, for which I used Google. Each time, without thinking, I scrolled through their Google results and clicked their Facebook page. Although I immediately x’ed out, I couldn’t stop my brain from doing a flip and bicycle kicking the inside of my skull.

This month was a failure. I knew it, my brain knew it, even my lateral incisor knew it.

So when March 31st, found its way to me, I was pissed. Three months in a row, all of which I had invested more energy into than my previous 20 New Years’ Resolutions combined, and I didn’t have one victory to show for it. Just a mounting pile of false starts, disappointment, and a piece of chicken drifting somewhere through San Francisco’s sewers.

It was time for a shock to the system—a fundamental reevaluation of my life as a social 23 year-old living in a big, fun city.

For April, I would dip my toes into the waters of sobriety.