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Decadent and Disillusioned

Decadent and Disillusioned

Man in a bright red dress standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge on a rainy day

“If I could find a way to see this straight, I’d run away / To some fortune that I, I should have found by now / And so I run to the things they said could restore me / Restore life the way it should be …”

– Young the Giant, “Cough Syrup”

The foam left by the waves on the shore was white, fluffy, and cold as snow.

It was a brisk, overcast day, but if you’d just looked at me, you would’ve thought that it was ninety degrees and sunny. I had on a breezy red summer dress and bright red lipstick to match. A pair of oversize dark glasses covered the majority of my face.

My tripod stood a few feet away, its base buried in the sand, my phone clipped in and ready for action. I hoped that the wind and the water wouldn’t cause it to tip over.

Click. Click. Click. I pressed the Bluetooth shutter in my hand several times in quick succession as my hair whipped into my face.

Click click. An ice-cold wave rushed up, seemingly out of nowhere, completely enveloping my feet and ankles. Luckily, my extremities had gotten used to the temperature a while back.

Click. I gave the camera my best sassy-model face before the wave could recede.

I was at Marshall’s Beach in San Francisco, which had my favorite view of the Golden Gate Bridge — close enough to note its color and structure, far enough to be able to get all of it in the frame. The foamy white water, chilly breeze, and light grey clouds hanging low in the sky created the perfect opportunity for moody photos with lots of texture and contrast. [1] This was my idea of a good time: dedicating myself to bringing a vision to life, no matter what the cost, even if it meant standing for an hour or so in freezing water wearing nothing but a dress.

I had a good feeling about these shots, especially the last one. Over the years, I’d developed a connection with my iPhone camera, a sixth sense almost, where I could stare into the lens and be able to see in my mind’s eye what the final result would look like. Who cared if I was cold, if my hands (and arms, and legs, and all exposed parts of my body, for that matter) were starting to go numb? Who cared if I was probably going to wake up a little sick tomorrow? Certainly not I.

It wasn’t like I had anywhere to be, anyway.

When I was satisfied with the number of pictures I had, I ran through the waves to my tripod, yanked it from its sandy anchor, and brought it safely to shore, where my other clothes were waiting. After hastily putting on my sweatpants and jacket — must-haves for shooting in cold weather — I sat my ass down in the slightly damp sand to look at the results.

My phone was sticky from the ocean mist. My fingers were so clammy that it took several tries for the screen to register my touch as I scrolled through the photos, looking for the winners.

There were over three hundred shots in total. I was always a bit shy when I started, so the first ones were somewhat awkward. They got better and better as I became more comfortable and started having fun. 

And there it was, at the end — one of the last ones I’d taken, the one I knew I’d like the most. I stood directly in between the two sections of the bridge, my hair windswept, foamy water rushing up past my feet. My red dress popped against the grey sky, and I wore an inscrutable expression that hid all sense of inner turmoil.

“That’s the one,” I said to myself as I stood up and dusted myself off. “Mission accomplished.”

Behind-the-scenes fun

Oh, but photos lied. I had a lot of inner turmoil, more than I knew what to do with.

I love certainty. Rationality. The ability to form clear, linear narratives out of ambiguity. Unfortunately, months after leaving my job — and the things I thought about in those months — were defined by their uncertainty. If the time I spent at my job was a bad trip, then this was the sober, heavy morning after.

For one, I was deeply disturbed by the fact that I no longer knew what I wanted out of life. Every moment that I spent in this haze of uncertainty was time that I would never get back. Also, I wasn’t sure what the point of life was, period. Maybe it was a good thing that all this time was slipping through my fingers, because I had too much of it anyway. I knew for a fact that my experience at my last company wasn’t uncommon. Would all of my jobs be like that?

And then the other “what was the point” questions:

What was the point of bringing in an income to support one’s existence, if that existence was miserable to begin with? 

What was the point of companies that made yet another nice-to-have product when there were so many fucked-up things happening in the world that needed actual resources? 

What was the point of seeking pleasure in life, if everything was ephemeral?

Maybe this is what adulthood is all about, I thought at times, remembering the grey, resigned presence of adults in the cartoons I’d watched as a kid. Obligations and sacrifices made to support a life that one doesn’t even want in the first place. If this is what it’s going to be, then I’m not sure I want to — 

That was a line of thinking that I never let myself go too far down. 

I spent a lot of time reading other people’s memoirs, studying how they had fulfilled the responsibility of having been born. I also hung out with a lot of software engineers, trying to figure out if they had answers to my questions about the point of life (no) or if they’d had similar experiences as I had in my previous job (some no, some yes). I wandered down the dark, drafty hallways of my centuries-old Victorian house like a little ghost child, wondering if I would spend the rest of my life dealing with my unfinished business. [2]

I found that I couldn’t indulge in any of my earthly vices, either — namely drinking, smoking, or any other type of partying. Whenever I did imbibe a little something something, the effect would cause a tiny, irritating voice to pop up in the back of my mind, telling me that I would never care about anything ever again, that I’d have to move back in with one of my parents because I was a fucking failure who couldn’t hold down a job.

To be honest, ambition was my drug of choice. Nothing I chugged, inhaled, sipped, snorted, huffed, or otherwise ingested could ever compare to the steady, blazing force that kept me focused, entranced almost, on a single project from concept to completion. When I really wanted something done, that feeling could wake me up at 4:30 or 5 AM and keep me in The Zone for days on end, no caffeine or other substances needed.

But ambition ran on dreams, and the dream that had kept my motivation high for my entire adult life had turned out to be rotten at its very core.

How could I get myself out of this mess?

My saving grace

As frivolous as it sounds, my photography habit saved my mental health during this period of existential unease. Visual storytelling reignited my sense of purpose, if only temporarily — it was a great means of distraction, a way to maintain some sense of control. I couldn’t stop worrying about the future, but I could pack a suitcase full of dresses, fuck off to an interesting location, and take pictures for however long I wanted. I couldn’t stop wondering if this was all there was to life, but I could find the perfect contrast, color balance, and vibrancy for a certain shot.

Photography was also the closest I could come to experiencing the rush of being in The Zone. Planning shoots was a way to keep busy over logistics. I had hundreds of saved pictures on Instagram, organized by color and location; Google docs and saved maps with locations; lists of what dress to wear at which location; albums of poses; timetables and bus routes. Actively taking photos on-site was an opportunity to let loose and pretend to be a different person living a different life for a few hours. Post-processing — adjusting exposure, color toning — was meditative and relaxing.

It was during this time that I really honed my eye, learning how lighting, composition, angles, and poses could encourage completely different perceptions. Through trial and error, I figured out how to create eye-catching pictures with nothing but my secondhand iPhone and a handful of five-dollar editing apps. I became a master of budget travel, too — finding cheap flights, bus tickets, Airbnbs and car rentals whenever I could, relying on friends’ couches and public transportation when I couldn’t. I went to the Florida Keys and Palm Springs and Big Sur and Los Angeles; to Carmel and Malibu and Anaheim; to Philadelphia and Miami.

While it was fun to escape, I knew that these little projects had no real purpose. I wasn’t posting these pictures anywhere; I took them, edited them, and let them sit in a folder on Google Drive. I was becoming a pretty decent iPhone photographer, but that was a consequence, not a goal.

I knew that I was just distracting myself. Sooner or later, I would have to face my problems.

Fortunately, unfortunately

After a few months traveling and shooting nonstop, I started to notice diminishing returns. Waking up early to go places for pictures wasn’t as much fun anymore. Neither was going through my camera roll, which I had largely stopped doing because I was always on the go. Plus, my existential crisis hadn’t gone away — it was always there in the background, calling for my attention, demanding that a solution be found.

I felt as though I was playing a game of “fortunately, unfortunately” with my life.

Fortunately, I was no longer burnt out.

Unfortunately, the thought of ever writing code for a living again made my stomach clench up in knots.

Fortunately, obviously, software engineering wasn’t the only career option available for me.

Unfortunately, the thought of not writing code for a living ever again made me want to hyperventilate and scream into the neverending void.

I’ve spent so much time thinking, and I still don’t know what to do, I thought. Maybe I should just apply for jobs and see where things take me.

The life I’d been living was unsustainable, and I knew it. My family, my camera roll, and my bank account all agreed that it was time to return to the Real World.

I just needed to figure out where to go. ♚


[1] Cloudy days are great for photos because there’s a lot of diffused lighting and no harsh shadows.

[2] I know, I know, I’m melodramatic as fuck.

All parts in this series

Part 1: The End of Certainty

Part 2: Worthless Unless Productive

Part 3: Decadent and Disillusioned

Part 4: Coming Full Circle

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