How I Spent My Summer Vacation

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In early 2002 I quit my job at Amazon.com. I was answering customer service emails in a small Tacoma office that used to be a bank. When they announced that they were closing the office and letting the offices in India take over, they were also nice enough to offer us work in the Seattle office answering phones. Instead I quit on the last day of the Tacoma office operating and cashed in my stock options the next day. I used that money to sustain my family and me for the next two years. A few months later I ran into a former coworker. He looked at me like a guy who cheated the system. Why wasn’t I working? What was I doing as a fully able bodied adult not spending my days working a job?

The answer was simple. I was spending time with my five-year-old son and my seven and eight-year-old stepdaughters. I was studying writers and improving my writing skills. I was giving myself a mini-retirement in my 20s.  And many of my peers resented me for it.

In 2015 I got laid off after working an IT job for two years. Before that I was working as a marketing and technical writer for five years. Before that I worked in logistics at a paving company for two years.  Before that I had a string of temp jobs as I got back into the workforce after two years of mini-retirement. (I once did the math to see what those stock options would have been worth if I hadn’t sold them back then. It was just over $400,000. It seems like a massive mistake, but I wouldn’t trade that amount of money for those two years with my kids.)

After getting laid off from the IT job, I went on unemployment and tried without any luck to find something new. It didn’t help that I was one of 21 people laid off, all of us with similar skillsets. As my search for work approached the six month mark, I was notified that my unemployment would be cut. I did some research and found that I could extend it another six months by going to college.

I had attended some classes at Tacoma Community College twenty years earlier, but never got a degree. Now I was back as a 40-year-old student. I chose to get into Human Services with the intention of being a clinical therapist. (I was looking for a profession where I could help people and not break my back or knees when I got older.)

During this time I kept expenses low and used financial aid and loans for the most part to make ends meet. I also received help from friends and family and started driving for Uber. In my second year at TCC I started an internship as an Anger Management Counselor which soon turned into a paid internship. I was employed again and not just as an Uber driver. Unfortunately, budget cuts resulted in my not being paid for the final months of the internship and Uber’s car lease program died, resulting in my car being repossessed. So I took Summer classes just to get the financial aid money.

I excelled in college. More than that, I really enjoyed studying and learning. After two years at TCC, I applied for the Evergreen State College Tacoma program. My first year there was incredibly rewarding and challenging. Most weeks I was reading over a hundred pages a day.  Evergreen is famous for not giving out grades, but what you get instead are evaluations of how and what you did in class. These could be far more damning if one didn’t apply themselves.

After my first year at Evergreen Tacoma I was in love with the program and more excited than ever to get back to it. I considered taking Summer classes, but my girlfriend pointed out that I was mentally and physically exhausted and that maybe I needed a break.

As adults, taking a break is frowned upon. Anything more than a two-week vacation and you’re some sort of lazy bastard who isn’t willing to put in the work to help themselves. One of the first questions people ask when meeting each other is ‘What do you do?’ This nearly always translates into ‘What is your job?’ and saying you don’t have one is met with derision or suspicion. It’s irresponsible to not be working when you’re able to. What gives you the right to sit around and do as you like without punching a clock or waking up at a particular time if you’re not rich, right?

It’s this sort of mentality more than any financial barrier that keeps grown adults from allowing them to take care of themselves by just taking an extended break. One of the first things I learned in the Human Services department is that job number one is not ‘do no harm’ or ‘meet people where they are at’. Self-care is job number one. The reason people burn out, the reason people freak out, the reason people shoot up their place of employment is because they do not know and do not use good self-care techniques.

I once went to an old friend’s funeral. He had been a custodian at the local high school for over 40 years. They placed his nameplate from his desk that had his name and the words ‘Chief Custodian’ on top of his coffin. One of the guys who spoke at the funeral tried to make some sort of analogy about him not just being Chief Custodian of the school, but Chief Custodian of life. I couldn’t help but think at the time that he was more than his job or at the very least he should have been.

Back when I worked at Amazon.com, I found a sign someone had taped to the bottom of my keyboard. A message from a former coworker. It said, “If someone made you an offer of sacrificing 50 of the 52 weeks in a year to work at least 40 hours a week for $30,000 a year, would you take that deal?” It was, of course, a rhetorical question. If I was reading that sign, I had already accepted that deal.

Since then I have been someone who sometimes takes time off from that deal. It’s not always easy. It’s rarely accepted by my peers, but it is always worth the trouble.

As the Summer began my landlord decided to move his daughter into my house leaving me with no place to live and no income. Thankfully, a couple of old friends have let me stay in a room in their basement (for a modest monthly payment). I’m more grateful than I can say for their generosity as without it this Summer would have been impossible. The house is across the Narrows Bridge and far away from everything else in my life. I’ve referred to the place as Outpost Zero.

I did a couple of low paying freelance writing gigs over the Summer and worked on my novel. I drank with friends. I read and wrote a lot. I spent some time wandering around Pt. Defiance with my now nearly 21-year-old son. I got to spend a lot of time with my girlfriend. I caught up on movies, television shows, books, and comic books that I haven’t had time to get to during the school year. I meditated and took some time for myself. I lost over 20 pounds. And I launched a campaign to pre-order my first novel. It’s been a very eventful, but mostly relaxing Summer vacation.

Another aspect that is just as forbidden as taking extended time away from work is asking for and/or receiving help. To some, one should always earn whatever they have and should not have whatever they have not earned. On the surface this seems like a practical way to look at the world, but upon closer inspection such thinking justifies not helping those who need it and more importantly, functionally destroys the very concept of true community. My breaks from work and my attending college would be impossible without the help of countless friends and family. I could not have taken the Summer off without my friends letting me live in their basement. Friends and family have bought me drinks and meals. Directly before I started at TCC, I had a financial hardship and crowdfunded over $1,000 from friends and strangers to make ends meet.

For some accepting this sort of help is considered wrong or having failed on a societal level that is unacceptable. But I’ve also helped others when I’ve been able to. One of my friends who let me stay at Outpost Zero needed a place to stay shortly after Hurricane Katrina. He found a home in my apartment. A few years ago a family I know was homeless. I let them stay at my house for a while. And everyone I know is aware that I’m always good for a ride to the airport. Helping when one can and accepting help when it is offered is part of being a functioning community and nothing to be ashamed of. It is actually one of the most human things that we do.

I can’t help but be excited for the upcoming school year. One of my classes is on the midterm elections. That’s going to be all sorts of fun. But I also can’t help but think of all my friends and acquaintances who do not understand the life I lead or how I lead it. To them, I am not behaving like a productive member of society because I’m not spending my time helping someone else achieve their dream of having a profitable company. I’d love to explain to them that they would be better off if they took breaks. I’d love to tell them how life is so much more than how much money you make or the social value of having a day job. Maybe some of them will read this and think about taking some time for themselves.

As I end this latest break, I’m feeling more rested and able to tackle my last year at Evergreen. This year is going to be especially challenging because once again I’m employed. I’ll be working in the writing center at Evergreen Tacoma as a writing tutor. In a way it’s a perfect job in that it will fit around my college schedule and involves skills I not only have but enjoy using. In the Spring there’s a community fair project that’s going to take a lot of work. You’ll hear more about that from me later.

Some people thought I was crazy when I quit Amazon. Some people think I’m crazy for being a 43-year-old man able-bodied man who takes breaks from working. I think they’re crazy for never questioning the idea of never taking a mini-retirement. I know people who’ve practically missed their kid’s entire childhood because they were busy working. I understand that the work affords a certain level of lifestyle for the children, but I can’t imagine a retirement in the future that’s worth that sacrifice of time away from your kids. Luckily I never have to. It’s unfortunate so many others cannot say the same.

– Jack Cameron

The Myth Of Fridays

friday-083Most people who know me know that I’m an atheist. I try to be the sort of atheist who does not believe God exists but does not really care too much what your religious beliefs are as long as you don’t force them on other people (especially me). My girlfriend is a practicing Pagan. In the past I have been a Christian and a Quaker. If prompted I will tell someone that I feel we are all on a path of discovery when it comes to religious beliefs and that those paths are all different. I will say how it makes little sense to me to argue that you are wrong simply because you are on a different part of the path than me.

That sure sounds nice. And it is something I try to keep in mind. But there is a nagging thought in my head. A variation of this though is in the head of every atheist I have ever talked to. It’s the thought that gives atheist a bit of an asshole reputation. That thought is, “How can otherwise intelligent human beings who demonstrate the ability to think rationally, apply evidence, and use logic believe that there’s an old man in the sky who created everything in the universe but only cares about us and did this all in six days as recently as six thousand years ago?”

I have never found a satisfying answer to this question and so I have employed mental tricks to avoid the thought. The typical mental trick I try is that I pretend religious friends and family are playing different Live Action Role Playing (LARP) games. Each religion is a game with a set of rules and it’s all centered around an imaginary afterlife that you get when you die depending on how well you play the game while you’re alive. From a believer’s perspective I can understand how condescending an insulting such a concept is, but understand the idea here was to keep that annoying question out of my head in an effort to be nicer to those who believe and not bug them with that question.

Of course this too has a problem. If I manage to convince myself that it’s all a bunch of LARPers, then the lie I’m telling myself is that every believer knows deep down that God is not real and their religious convictions are illusions. And if I’m not careful I end up saying things to let them know I’m in on the joke. A joke that they aren’t actually telling.

Then something happened. I read a book. The books was called Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind by Yuval Noah Harari. There’s a lot in it but one of the more surprising things to come out of reading it was the concept of myth. Not just myths like Thor or Zeus but myths like nationality and money and days of the week. These are things that have no objective value but only exist because we decide that they do. Really there’s about as much evidence that today is Friday as there is that there is a God. Friday isn’t REAL. It’s an agreed upon myth. There is no scientific test that will prove it is Friday.

The problem for an atheist like myself then becomes what myths are acceptable and what myths aren’t? There’s no real way to live in society without accepting the myth that printed fabric paper has value as do digital numbers in a bank account. Not one strand of DNA in me can be definitively called ‘American’ because America is simply a place we’ve all agreed exists but is actually just a part of a land mass that we have all agreed to call North America. Why is it I would never have a problem with someone believing it’s Friday but I would have a problem with someone believing that a God created them? I wouldn’t think someone just isn’t very smart or at the very least they aren’t intellectual if they still believe in Friday.

I don’t have any answers here. This is just something I was thinking about and I figured I would share it.

– Jack

How The X-Men And Matthew McConaughey Helped Me Accept My Mortality

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I’ve been an atheist for about five years. It didn’t happen all at once. I spent years being unsure. I spent many years searching, reading, researching, and thinking before I came to the conclusion that there is absolutely no evidence of an omnipotent God and plenty to contradict the existence or divinity of Jesus Christ. I won’t get into what all went into that because that’s not what this post is about. What I want to do with this post is give an answer to a question that has bugged me for most of my life:

If there is God and no afterlife, what comfort can be found in knowing that you and I only get 80 years of life (give or take a decode or three) no matter what?

I tried thinking that the best we can do is do good and be good to ourselves and others and enjoy what we have. That’s a nice thought, but it’s really not all that comforting. It’s like decorating tips for a house that’s on fire. I’m all for being good and doing good and being an all-around nice person to other people, but that’s not helping me get over this thing where one day I die and cease to exist. I like existing.

I tried thinking of technological answers to our mortality problem. Cryonics offers hope that they might be able to freeze you and bring you back in a cloned body. The problem with this is that it requires that your current body (or at least head) are in good enough shape when you die that cryonics is even an option and even assuming everything works right, you’re still trapped in a human body which can be destroyed any number of ways, many of which are simply unavoidable. One day you might be able to upload your consciousness into a computer, but is that really you or just an artificial intelligence that thinks it’s you? I’m thinking it’s the latter. If you uploaded your consciousness into a computer, but you were still walking around after that, you wouldn’t say that computer was you would you?

I was stuck. Without God, no theological answer was likely to help. Philosophy on being a good person wasn’t helping. Technology isn’t there yet for serious life extension and even when it is, it’s only life extension, not something more. For a while, I stopped searching and did my best to accept the words of Jackie Greene, “We walk through life and we live and die/We do our best to not ask why.” I listened to music. I read books and comic books. I watched television and movies. And recently, the confluence of my media consumption resulted in a slight epiphany.

Sam Harris is a noted atheist and one of the faces of the so-called ‘New Atheist Movement’, a term that even Harris dislikes. I’ve read most of his books and attended one of his lectures. I’ve written about his books on this site before. While The End of Faith helped inform my already atheist views, his books Free Will and Waking Up have had significant impact on my life and the way I think about some things.

In Free Will Harris argues that free will is an illusion. He argues that our every decision is a result of our genetics, our past experiences, and luck. I approached the book disagreeing with the premise, but the more I read, the more it made sense. And then there was the following passage from the book:

“Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime – by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?”

As a writer of fiction, this passage entirely freaked me out. When I’m creating a character for a screenplay or a novel, I figure out who she is by making up her family, her upbringing, and her past experiences. Each of these informs me as to what sort of character I’m working with and results in my often knowing what a given character is going to do simply because of who they are. The way he’s talking about how we humans operate is the same way three-dimensional characters operate. This was one piece of the puzzle.

I also recently watched the first season of the HBO crime drama, True Detective. One of the main characters played by Matthew McConaughey is a burned out detective with a penchant for nihilistic atheist monologues. Among many of the great scenes in the show is this:

In the above clip he talks about M-Theory, which I knew (and still know) almost nothing about. The important part for the purposes of this article is that while you and I experience reality as linear time, that’s not all there is to reality. What we experience as time is just one big thing if viewed from beyond our third dimension. This is a difficult thing to fully grasp, but it’s nearly impossible to comprehend if free will exists. How can it all be seen from another dimension if we all can choose to do anything we want? Without free will, this makes a bit more sense.

This was the second piece of the puzzle.

The latest piece was the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar (also starring Matthew McConaughey). There is a lot that happens in Interstellar, but the relevant part for my purposes is that they attempt to show the universe outside the third dimension in one particular bedroom. It looked like this.

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The room had many books in it. So it’s not an accident that it looks like a bunch of books. I don’t know the reasoning behind this particular plot device, but it helped me visualize the concept of being outside of time and brought me back again to fictional storytelling.

With these pieces I added one final piece. I’ve been collecting Marvel Comics since I was twelve. I have thousands of comics starring the X-Men. I often reread them. From the perspective of the X-Men if they were real, they’d be experiencing time linearly. The X-Men of 1963 would have no knowledge that Magneto would one day be an ally. Of course, I can read their entire history at any point that I like. In this way I stand outside of time when it comes to the Marvel Universe. The X-Men are not dead or alive. They are both and neither because it depends on what point in time I choose to focus.

All of this led to a dream I had recently. In the dream, the technology to upload your consciousness into a computer had been achieved. Not only that, but when you upload your consciousness into the computer, the memories that are in your mind are hazy are crystal clear in the computer. In fact, they are so full of sensory input that accessing a memory would feel exactly like you were experiencing it. I awoke briefly wondering if that were exactly what was happening.

If there is God and no afterlife, what comfort can be found in knowing that you and I only get 80 years give or take a decade or three of life no matter what?

The comfort I’ve found is in knowing that everything I’ve done, everything I’m doing, and everything I will do is all happening at once and will always happen. Every loved one exists forever living, loving, and feeling every bit of life. The comfort is in knowing that we’re an eternal part of a picture that is reality.

– Jack Cameron

Being Wrong On The Internet

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People are wrong on the Internet. People will say things that are factually inaccurate and easily proven false. They will say things that any 5-year-old who hasn’t been hit in the head with a baseball can tell you are untrue. They will tell you that vaccines cause autism. They will tell you that more guns make people safer and that the last mass shooting was a hoax. They will tell you that everyone on the West Coast will get cancer within five years thanks to Fukushima. They will tell you there’s a secret root that cures all cancer. They will tell you about Obamacare killing thousands. They will bury you with absolute bullshit that if you heard anyone saying in a city park, you would just assume that person is a crazy person.

And yet, if you’re like me, when these people say these wrong things on the Internet, rather than ignoring their prattle like you would if a crazy person were ranting in a park, you feel compelled to correct them. You feel the need to make sure that if someone less intelligent than you were to stumble upon such a post, they would at the very least see your comment showing that the original post is absolute crap. Because what if an innocent and naïve person were to read the original post and think that it’s true? What if your comment is the only chance to stop some other person from sharing this obviously asinine crap? If not you, who will speak truth to stupid?

It’s been one of my pastimes over the last few years. One might even call it an addiction. I find a cause I’m interested in and I care about. I find people who disagree with my stance and I battle it out online with them. Whenever possible, I try to use links and facts and statistics to back up what I’m saying and try to insist that they do the same.

I’ll tell people that I like talking to people I disagree with because it’s the only way I learn. I’ll tell people how at one point I was a anti-choice, pro-death penalty, gun rights, Christian Quaker, and how through talking with people I disagreed with, I am now none of those things. And while that is true, it’s not why I do it.

I am not going to learn anything from someone who thinks 9/11 was an inside job. And there isn’t going to be a theologian alive who is going to convince me that God exists. There aren’t facts out there that will convince me that killing someone is the best way to show as a society that killing is wrong. Many of the things I see as true are things I’ve thought about and studied so much that in many ways I’m simply frustrated with those who see things otherwise. More to the point, I just want them to pay attention to the facts and see where that leads because I think if they do that, they’ll find themselves in a similar area.

I haven’t been doing it to learn. I’ve been doing it because it’s fun. And while I’m all for having fun, there are better ways to have fun than at someone else’s expense. Taking out my frustration and anger on people who have opinions not backed up by anything more than their feelings on the matter while enjoyable isn’t really what I want to be about. I’d rather take that time and simply make a compelling argument here on my website than get into a thread war on Facebook that inevitably ends with someone I might otherwise think is an okay person all pissed off at me because I’ve ridiculed them for having the audacity to post something stupid.

My point here is simple. I have things I need to do and things I want to do that all take priority over telling someone they are wrong on the Internet. So instead, I’m going to treat you like the crazy person in the park and simply walk away. Facebook friends who post too many bullshit stories will find themselves no longer part of my Facebook friends. Websites that post click bait will be ignored. Commenters so incredibly stupid that it’s strange they’re capable of literacy will be likewise ignored. In short, to all you climate change denying, 9/11 conspiracy, gun nut, anti-vaccers out there, I have better things to do with my life than to tell you that you are wrong on the Internet.
– Jack Cameron

It Might Not Get Better….But Don’t Leave Just Yet

When I worked for the police department in police records, I was shocked by many things, but nothing shocked me more than the amount of suicide reports I encountered. There was one about every other day and I was one of six people processing the reports. And this was just for Tacoma, Lakewood and Pierce County.

Many of the reports contained notes written by the person who committed or attempted to commit suicide. The first one I encountered was written by a 13-year-old boy. He lived in unincorporated Pierce County. He rode his bike up a trail in the woods, wrote a note and shot himself with his dad’s pistol. The note said how he’d never be cool enough or smart enough and he’d never be anything he or anyone else wanted him to be and that he just couldn’t live not fulfilling these ideas of what he felt he was supposed to be.

I cried a lot that day. I thought how if only I could have talked to that kid. Maybe I could have said something. Of course that’s probably naïve or arrogant of me. Whatever the case, over the two years that I worked there, I got used to the suicides. I learned that the longer the note, the more likely the suicide attempt would fail. I learned that some suicides weren’t just people giving up, but people deliberately trying to hurt people by their passing. I learned that it almost never works out the way they expect it to.

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about cyber-bullying. There’s the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, mostly targeted towards gay and lesbian teens. I like the idea of it for the most part, though few of us are going to end up being rich and famous regardless of how long we live. For most of the people in those campaigns, it didn’t get better. It got fucking amazing. But it’s made me think what I’ve thought about since the day I read that 13-year-old’s suicide note. What would I say to someone who was thinking of killing themselves?

So here it is:

I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t know what you’re going through. And I don’t know that it will get better. Things might even get worse. That may not be the best thing to hear right now, but it’s true. When life sucks, it tends to suck a lot. So let’s get that out there right now.

The other thing I’m going to say that a lot of people wouldn’t say is that you have absolutely every right to kill yourself if you really want to. We don’t get to choose how we come into this world. I think it’s fair to let us choose how to go out. However, just because you have the right, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve known people who’ve killed themselves and people who’ve tried to kill themselves. And every single one of them was someone unlike anyone else I’ve ever met. I don’t think that’s coincidence. I think that the freaks, the geeks, and the nerds are far more likely to consider suicide because they are far more likely to consider anything. You are the people who come up with the ideas no one else can think of. You’re a valuable piece of the world. And while it might not seem like it right now, we need you.

More importantly, we need you here because there are a lot of people and I mean a LOT who aren’t like you. They don’t think much. They don’t really do anything different than anyone else. And if you’ve ever felt like fighting for anything in your life, then you know that you simply cannot let these people win. And they can’t possibly win while you’re alive.

There are things in this world that you haven’t done yet. And I’m not talking about a bucket list. I’m talking about life experiences you can’t plan and never expect. I’m talking about your entire world changing in the space of a few hours.

I’m 36 years old as I write this. I’ve been married twice. I’m a father. I’m a published author. I’ve been to the other side of the planet. I’ve done things I thought only happened in movies. But long before all of these things happened, I sat in my parent’s living room with a gun in my mouth. I may not know what you’re going through, but I understand the urge to end things.

You are not a burden. You are a person. You are not doing anyone a favor by checking out. It might not seem like it right now, but this isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.

You don’t know what’s coming for you. It may get better. It may get worse. But I promise you, it won’t be all bad. And some of it is going to be more amazing than you can possibly imagine right now. You aren’t normal and that’s a really good thing. Stay weird. Stick around. It’s the one thing you can do that will drive all the right people nuts.

–          Jack Cameron