Restless soul syndrome

[A snippet from a writing project in gestation that will probably make more sense if you read the preceding snippets.]

If you asked me six months ago to imagine a scenario which would result in me living with my parents, I would have laughed heartily and given you some wildly unrealistic turn of events, like a complete mental breakdown or traumatic brain injury. I mean, shit, I’ve been away – hundreds if not thousands of miles away – for fifteen years now, and there’s simply no way in hell such a thing could happen, yet somehow here I am, upstairs in the house where my Grandmother lived for most of her life. My brother and I used to stay in this very room when we visited Grandma. I remember we needed to have a bucket to piss in, so we wouldn’t have to make the long trek to the bathroom downstairs. I wish I had that bucket right now, as my mother has some friends over this morning and I’m trying to wait them out.

I’m starting to get better at adapting quickly to change, as life has been unfolding in unpredictable ways for the past several months. In the past several months I’ve stayed in Kentucky, North Carolina, Vermont, Mexico City, El Pueblito, and now good old Troy. Troy, New York: The Home of Uncle Sam! That’s what it says on the big green sign you see on the way into town. “The Armpit of America,” is a descriptor I remember reading once in a magazine. I call it “home,” and it could have been a lot worse. I’ve got at least several weeks ahead of me to continue “pre-habbing” for knee surgery; then I go under the knife and begin the nine-month to a yearlong rehab process. The doc says no way I can head back to Mexico until spring rolls around (at the earliest), which means a long time apart from Molly and all my unfinished business south of the border.

Today I took a stroll around the neighborhood, breathing in the crisp autumn air and noticing the many changes wrought by the fidgety hands of time. Those hands had hold of my mind as well, sliding my thoughts around like chess pieces from present to past to future. In some ways it’s good to be home again. I feel a sense of reconnection that typically gets lost in the chaos of brief holiday visits. And I’ve been able to maintain at least some equanimity this time around, whereas I usually tend to withdraw into a passive daze after a few days under the Trojan moon.

Even though I was only there for a couple of months, my time in Mexico was a real tonic. In fact, despite the difficulties I faced there, in some ways it was easier to tap into the energy of creativity, and easier to maintain focus and discipline in the face of inertia and stultifying habits. I felt more awake and alive than I have in a long time. Of course, this has been the case whenever I’ve made big changes or, more commonly, when big changes have been thrust upon me. Once things settle down, however, and I settle into a relatively static routine, it’s not long before I drift back into a semi-daze, feel existentially/spiritually disconnected, and start to feel the whole Restless Soul Syndrome coming on all over again. But I’m determined not to fall into the same old traps this time around. If it’s change that’s needed to keep the juices flowing, well shit, there’s nothing but change, if I take the time to notice. Maybe I’ll finally get it, or maybe I’ll continue this same old shuffle of “one step forward, two steps back.”

This reminds me of something an old professor told me while I was in graduate school. He was quoting the Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, who said something like, “For years I was taking one step forward and two steps back, but that’s okay – I was headed in the wrong direction.” I was especially fond of that professor—Charlie Tart was his name. He had made a name for himself in the Wild West of Woo known as Transpersonal Psychology. I call it woo not to be totally dismissive. I did, after all, go into considerable debt in pursuit of a master’s degree in the field. But much of what I encountered at the California Institute of Transpersonal Psychology was dubious even to my then freshly cracked-open mind, and even the things I thought (and still think) were life-changing and avant-garde were (and still are) dismissed as claptrap in the mainstream of the mental health field. Professor Tart was especially known for his work in the area of altered states of consciousness. Here’s a snippet of a paper I wrote for that class, just to give a taste of what my “unconventional” education was like:

If a child were fitted into a virtual reality helmet at birth, his or her experience of “reality” would be quite different from non-helmeted humans. Much as our typical human experience is limited by the structure of our organism (e.g., our brain and sense organs) and its relationship to the physical environment, the experiences of helmeted humans would be determined in large measure by the programming of hardware and software. If there were a power failure causing a complete shutdown of this virtual world, would a person born and raised in this computer-generated reality experience a death of some kind? What would his or her experience be of the “natural world” if he or she were to take off the helmet and perceive light and sound through their naked eyes and ears for the first time? Would they be “born” again?

Helmeted humans! It was Charlie’s class—and an incredibly hot girl I met in his class—that inspired me to wander into Buena Vista park one day to purchase my first bag of weed. Brenda was an unabashed pothead who extolled the many wonders of weed smoking nearly every time we got together. I eventually smoked with her, on several occasions, but the only effect of note was an unpleasant amplification of a general state of self-consciousness. Brenda speculated that my problem was an inability to relax and let go into the experience, suggesting that perhaps if I smoked up alone in my room I wouldn’t feel as self-conscious about how the drug was affecting me. And so I headed up Haight Street toward the park, a section of town where normally I couldn’t walk a hundred yards without being offered “buds” or “doses” by some dreadlocked teenager passing me on the sidewalk. When I first moved to San Francisco, I actually thought these kids were calling me “Bud,” as in “Hey Buddy, how are ya?” Yeah, I was pretty naïve back then, but now that I was hoping to purchase some of these magical buds, I couldn’t attract the usual attention from the would-be dealers. So I headed up into the densely forested section of the park, like a fly hoping to get caught in the spider’s web. It worked like a charm. Some nappy-headed hippie gave me the nod within a few minutes and I awkwardly negotiated the deal, heading home with a plastic baggie full of something that smelled a lot like what had been in Brenda’s plastic baggie. I had nowhere to be for the next two days, so I closed the door to my room, filled Brenda’s pipe with a load of green, and smoked the entire bowl with a series of deep huffs in rapid succession. It was like chugging a beer, I reasoned, hoping the quick hits would bypass the whole self-conscious thing and move right into this “high” feeling that everyone was raving about. While I was waiting for the effect to dawn on me, I filled the bowl again and “chugged” it in with another several deep draughts, coughing up half a lung in the process. “That ought to get things rolling,” I thought, but before that train of thought could move any further, the thing went completely off the rails.

I got so high so quickly that I could no longer keep a thought in my head long enough to anchor myself in the old familiar world where things made sense. I rapidly cycled through phases of déjà vu and amnesia, which frightened me a great deal, but not as much as the amplified sensation of my heart beating against the walls of my chest. I became certain that I had overdosed and would pay for the mistake with my life, and so I attempted to make my way into the living room to the telephone where I could call 9-1-1. Fortunately, my seventeen-year-old housemate Helen was home, and she quickly divined the precise nature of my predicament. She assured me that, although I sincerely thought I was going to die, I most definitely was not actually going to die. Despite her young age, Helen had been through a bad trip or two in her day, and she expertly coached me back into state of relative calm and sanity. I had no idea that marijuana could have a hallucinogenic effect on a person, no matter the amount smoked. The experience unnerved me, but intrigued me enough to try it again a few weeks later. It took a bit longer to move from high to tripping balls, but I got there once again, this time documenting my reaction on a hand-held tape recorder for posterity. The next day when I listened to the recording, I was amazed to discover that I had only uttered two sentences, which were whispered and separated between long, long periods of absolute silence.

“Oh my God I think I’m going to die…” and “That’s not me, that’s not me…”

The first thought was a return of the deeply held conviction that I had smoked too much pot, that it was likely laced with something toxic, and that I was going to be punished for my foolishness with a heart attack. The second was something I said after noticing my reflection in the full-size mirror hanging just outside the bathroom. I looked at the image in the mirror, could not fully convince myself that it was my own reflection, and gradually became stricken with a doubt deep enough to drop me to my knees in a state of abject horror.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. One step forward, two steps back. Restless soul syndrome. I need to fight against it, to keep things in constant motion so the patterns can’t set in. Stay in the flow. Which reminds me that I have to piss like Niagra Falls. Mom and her friends are still clucking away like a brood of hens. I have neither a bucket nor a pot to piss in, nothing but an empty plastic water bottle. I’ll give them five more minutes; then I’ll choose between pissing in the bottle (and possibly all over myself) and the thirty seconds of awkwardness I’d have to endure interacting with strange humans on my way to and from the bathroom. I’m sure there are more options, but sooner or later a man has to take that next step, whether or not he can tell the right direction from the wrong. Reminds me of another Robert Johnson quote. Not the analyst, but the bluesman:

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees. Asked the lord above, “Have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please.”

Robert_Johnson

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Mirror, mirror

[A snippet from a writing project in gestation, which will probably make very little sense if you haven't read the preceding snippets on the the Zia page.]

640px-Mirror_baby

Our host family in Mexico didn’t have a mirror in their bathroom. I found this to be curiously unsettling during those weeks before construction of our separate quarters was complete. I missed checking in with myself each trip to the bathroom, giving myself the old “thumbs up” or flashing myself a goofy smile. It was as if I wanted reassurance that I was still the same old me, that I hadn’t withered into a husk while lost in a daydream, or shape-shifted back into some long-forgotten, original form. Like any habit, the mirror check-ins served a function, kept a familiar pattern in place. “We are what we repeatedly do,” is a truth that can be verified in difficult circumstances, when one’s choices have been restricted. Try locking yourself in a cage for a few days, or better yet, a few weeks. The drunk becomes sober, the smoker a nonsmoker, because one can’t truly be a thing without doing the thing that makes you that thing. It’s a foolproof method of transformation, so long as you don’t mind living in a cage, and you never get your hands on the key.

Now that I’m back in the land of free—Troy, New York, USA—I can indulge once again in all the little habits that keep the me-machine running. It’s a major upgrade from my jualita (little cage) to the swanky minimum-security prison I’ve come to call “home,” which comes fully equipped with all the amenities, including a spotless, well-lit bathroom mirror. This mirror is more than a mere reflector of cold, hard facts. It’s a canvas upon which I cast my hopes and fears, creating a sense of illusion every bit as convincing as the work of a skilled stage magician. It’s a seductive and compelling illusion, but as with stage magic, at bottom I know it’s not real, I know I’m not really free.

Suddenly I’m reminded of Whipple, of his own reflections on his reflection, the news anchor game he played with his sister, the nightmares of his father’s slightly altered face, the deep-seeded doubts about his own identity. Was any of that real? Was Whipple just the whimsy of someone’s imagination? I can’t know for sure at this point, so why not sit back and enjoy the show before questioning everything to death? To question everything means considering the possibility that I never went to Mexico at all, that maybe I’ve been living with my parents all this time instead, for years even, retreating ever deeper into the recesses of loneliness and regret. Some questions are better left unasked, better left quarantined with the other queasy feelings until they slip from the tip of the tongue and into oblivion.

Morning. I limp down the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the bathroom. An unpleasant bouquet of cigarette smoke and shit lingers from my father’s last visit. There are no sheets of toilet paper left on the dispenser, so I hunt around for the back-up stash. I don’t have to go. I’m just looking out for my Dad, covering up the evidence of his crime. Under the sink, my mother has enough T.P. stored to make it through a nuclear winter. There are no short stories, not even a haiku, written on any of the rolls that I can see, so I grab one at random and place it on the dispenser. I turn around to face the mirror, only to find my own reflection and nothing more. I give myself the old thumbs-up, flash a goof-ball smile, but feel no comfort or reassurance, only a gnawing sadness. The smell my Dad left behind is starting to sicken me, so I crack the window to let in a little fresh autumn air. My Dad grew up in this house, one of five kids in this teeny, tiny mouse-hole of a domicile. Eight people, if you count my grandfather’s spinster sister Hazel, shared this one little bathroom for all those years. I remember the day my grandfather collapsed right beside the toilet. My grandmother called in complete hysterics, and so my Dad threw me in the car and we were there inside two minutes. I’ll never forget the look of sheer terror on my grandmother’s face, or the sick feeling I got in my stomach as I tried to determine why my grandfather was slumped over on the bathroom floor. He survived that heart attack, but died soon after from another one that struck him down out back while he was packing the car for a fishing trip. I was told he was found lying down on the soft green of the lawn, staring up at the clouds with a peaceful smile across his lips. I wonder if he saw any forms in the clouds before he passed on, like a turtle, or the outstretched hand of God.

One particular moment from the funeral is seared into my memory. I was kneeling beside my father before the open casket, alternating glances between the man in the box and the man beside me. “That’s his father, and he’s my father” were the words that I recall floating through my head, but the sensation that gripped my entire being held a meaning far beyond the words. That’s when I discovered the horrible truth that one day it would be my Dad in the box. I’m not sure if it occurred to me then that I too would be in the box someday, but if it did, that thought didn’t seem to matter one bit compared to thought of losing my father. I buried that thought deep down, and for a long, long time I let it lie fallow. But now that I’m home again I see the handwriting on the wall. The chain-smoking, the disregard of dietary recommendations, the frequent illnesses, the yearly medical procedures, the mounting pile of medications my Mom puts out every morning in a little plastic bowl marked “Sam.” I can hear the rumble in the sky, see the dark clouds banding together on the distant horizon. There’s nothing I can do though, nothing except enjoy the company of the man who has been to me everything a son could hope for in a father.

The sound of my parents’ car pulling into the driveway snaps me back to the little bathroom in their little old house. A quick glance back up at the mirror and I notice my beard is starting to come in thicker than I’ve ever seen it before. The thicker the beard growth, the more I look like my Dad. In fact, if had just a little more hair on my face and a little less on my head, I’d be a dead ringer for my father as he looked when he was my age—thirty-six. At that point I was just a kid of 8 or 9, just about the time the two of us knelt beside Grandpa and his box. I’ve drifted off again, and suddenly I’m no longer a man seeing his own mirror image, but rather a boy seeing a strange man, a father-imposter, and now I can completely relate to Whipple’s nightmare.

“Ro-BERT!!!”

My father’s voice startles me back to the here and now.

“Stop admiring yourself in the mirror and help your mother bring in the groceries! I’ve gotta take a dump!”

I fling open the door and there he is. The real deal.

“But Dad, I can’t help it that I’m so pretty to look at. And keep that window cracked, will you. The paint’s peeling off the walls from your last trip in there.”

He feigned a playful punch to my midsection as we squeezed past each other in the doorway. A box of Fig Newtons was poking out of the one grocery bag he left on the kitchen table. My signature childhood snack. Before I could reach the back door my Mom kicked it open carrying at least three grocery bags in each hand.

“Oh, Bobby. I didn’t know if you were up or not. Don’t worry about the groceries. I can get them. I don’t want you to hurt your leg. Where’s your Father? In the bathroom? One lousy grocery bag and he’s done! See what I have to put up with?”

I gimped out back to the driveway to grab the rest of the bags. I set them down for a moment so that I could close the trunk of the car, and in gathering them up again I became fixated on the narrow patch of earth between the asphalt of the driveway and the fence that marked the property boundary. This two-feet-wide strip of earth that stretches the length of the driveway is where my brother and I would dig for worms, collecting them in an old Maxwell House coffee can before heading out on a fishing expedition with Dad and Grandpa. It seemed to me that there was an inexhaustible supply of worms living in that skinny patch of ground. My brother and I never needed to seek another source. When it rained, the edge of the driveway would be lined with squirming worms that had been washed out of their cozy holes. I remember going up and down the driveway as a kid, picking up the worms and tossing them back on to the patch of earth. I felt like a rescuer, a hero even, saving those poor worms and sending them home to their grateful families. Somehow it never occurred to me that these were the same worms who, on the next fishing day, I would be pulling from the embrace of their family members, kicking and screaming. Who I would toss into a coffee can, pierce with a fishhook, and then cast away to their certain, gruesome deaths.

A little while later I was back upstairs doing my morning mindfulness meditation. It’s been super hard to stick with this practice since I’ve returned home, but it’s not because I don’t have the time. I’ve got time to piss away, to burn, to stew in. And it’s not because I can’t find a quiet, peaceful place to sit for twenty minutes at a stretch. I think it’s this: It turns out sitting in silence can be a far more objective means of generating a reflection than a mirror mounted above the bathroom sink. In fact, it’s the perfect gauge for the most accurate and updated information on the state of my soul, and since I’ve been home the needle on that gauge has been bouncing around like an old pick-up truck on a God-forsaken dirt road in Mexico. Like those infernal trucks that rolled in every few days carrying loads of battered and bruised watermelons. Those infernal trucks that would stop just outside my window, bright and early, as I was trying to squeeze in a few more precious minutes of sleep. They’d stop and then start blaring some fucking annoying sales pitch into a megaphone. I’d have preferred to be awoken by a tarantula crawling across my face. At least then I would’ve had the satisfaction of exacting revenge. Yes, since my return home the soul needle has been bouncing around just like all that, straight away each morning before I can enjoy even a breath’s worth of peace and serenity.

Mindfulness is hard because my mind is full of worms writhing on the hot asphalt, half-hoping to flail their way back onto a patch of cool, moist soil, half-hoping for the swift mercy of a swooping bird or the rolling tire of a car full of Fig Newtons.

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The Goastt of Waxahatchee

I rarely get excited (or even mildly interested) in new music these days. Like many aging Gen-Xers, I wince when I catch wind of what passes for a “hit song” today. I know, I know… Most popular music in every era is pretty shitty. And it’s subjective, yada yada yada…

However… over the past week or so a couple of Facebook associates linked me up with the following nuggets of new music that I find to be quite pleasing in my ear holes. First up is The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger with “Animals.” The visuals (including the beautiful naked women) probably contribute to the allure of this tune for me, not to mention the fact that John Lennon’s look-a-like sound-a-like son Sean is fronting the band, but I’ve been singing this song around the house for days, so there’s more to it than meets the eye.

The GOASTT – “Animals” Video from stereogum on Vimeo.

Then there’s Waxahatchee, who is Katie Crutchfield, a young singer-songwriter from Alabama. She reminds me of early Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power), and embodies that totally stripped-down, recorded-in-a-bedroom-on-a-lonely-night sound that I find so compelling when delivered with soulful vocals:

Actually, I had the opportunity to see Waxahatchee perform live the other day at one of the DIY venues here in Las Cruces. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it, due to the fact that I am totally lame and old and a withered husk of human being. Perhaps that’s a tad harsh. The show was on a Tuesday night and I had to be fit, bright and early, for a long, full day on Wednesday. The sad truth is that, be it age or some unknown source of lame-itude, I just can’t live the late-night, music-scene lifestyle any more, especially during a school night. Now the entirety of my “scene” takes place right here, in my little office with all my little gadgets to keep me company.

*Sigh*

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Nice beak!

two toucans talkingI’m feeling tired and unsettled these past few days. Morning has broken and the birds are singing, or rapping, or babbling incoherently–whatever it is they do. We like to think they’re singing. But who’s to say they’re not hurling insults at each other all morning?

“Nice beak!”

“Thanks! Your Mom thought so too when I was preening her last night!”

Anyway… Feeling lethargic. There are plenty of grad school assignments to attend to, but just the thought of that busy work sends me deeper into the trance. I suppose I should go for a run, let the sun hit my retinas, warm my skin. Should, but not gonna.

I’m a man out of ideas, but I am other things as well. Like half blind in my right eye, packed full of poo, burdened by chores, without a functioning speedometer in my car, worried about my family, bothered by the mounting signs of aging, waiting for things to happen, seeking an entertaining distraction, finished with my cup of coffee, needing to brush my teeth, about ready to empty my bowels, graying in the beard, curious about the life of birds, seemingly unable to follow through with changing the strings on my guitar, unconvinced of the value of twitter, willingly deceived by my own thinly veiled excuses for not living life more fully and courageously, scratching myself between sentence fragments, staring off into space every few minutes, spending way too much of every day in my pajamas, becoming more and more socially isolated, grasping at straws, setting fire to time.

I feel distant from the source, disconnected, like I’m going through the motions. Fingertips flutter as chemicals flash like rainbowfish back and forth across the tiny spaces between neurons. Who knows what it all means. What it’s all for. Nothing. Nada!

Too much unrestrained TV/computer watching, time wasting, pizza eating, beer drinking, circularity of thinking, compulsive door-lock checking, on the toilet sitting, chip munching, chore avoiding, intention ignoring.

Not enough guitar strumming, soccer playing, song singing, butt shaking, muscle flexing, novel reading, navel gazing, out reaching, soul searching, gong heading.

However…just about the right amount of beard stroking, showering, coffee drinking, around the block strolling, home calling, class attending, bill paying, grocery shopping, mail checking, garbage curbing, dish washing, wife loving, bed making, stick shifting, tooth brushing, hours sleeping, day dreaming, bird watching.

Done writing.

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Know or die

hawkWhen she said, “About three quarters of an inch okay?” I should have said, “I like to keep as much as possible.” But I didn’t say that, and so she went right ahead and cut most of it off. The hair on the top of my head. That top part of my hair that falls over the “thin zone” to provide the illusion of youth and vigor. She severed my illusion! So now I’m stuck with a bad haircut, and by bad I mean a haircut that reveals the truth, the real reality of my ever-expanding forehead.

I don’t like losing my hair, however much that goes against the grain of my “acceptance-based” spiritual ideals. Even if it weren’t a sign of getting old it would be distressing. My attractiveness level (on the ubiquitous scale of 1 to 10) peaked out at about a 6 back in the early nineties. Hair loss does not boost my rating. And now, twenty years or so after starting my decent toward the six-foot hole at the bottom of “the hill,” the hair loss has that added, objective, sign-of-decay-and-pending-demise sort of significance as well. But hey, it’s morning time, and the birds are singing!

Yesterday you could hear a turd drop for that twenty minutes or so that the giant hawk was perched on my neighbors roof. It was duck-and-cover for just about every life form within a square mile. How they all know the difference between a hawk and a really really big pigeon is a mystery to me. I suppose it’s a know-or-die type of scenario. You either get it or you get it.

I wonder if spiritual realization is like that, in a way. If it’s a know or die type of thing? Except that the death associated with not knowing is a living death, a zombie-like existence whereby deep down you know that you know, but you’d rather go on pretending that you don’t know. You know? You either get it or it gets you. Know thyself, or else! Or else the giant hawk will pounce, will lift you to the clouds before dropping you on your big, balding head.

Next time I’ll be sure to say, “Just a clean-up around the ears.”

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Stand-up guy

Bathroom-Stall-Dimensions1All things being equal I prefer not to move my bowels in a public restroom, but the bowels want what the bowels want. I had just finished tidying up afterwards when I looked up and saw Tim staring down at me with a perplexed look on his face.

“Can I help you?” I said, concealing my fear that he may have watched the entire performance.

“You wipe standing up?” Tim asked, as if he were inquiring about the time of day.

“Yeah. Why? You don’t?” I responded, playing along as if it were socially acceptable for an adult to watch another adult engaged in such a private activity.

“No way man. I just stay seated. I mean, first of all, I’m already sitting down. Secondly, my ass cheeks are nice and spread apart in that position, so I can get all up in there. You know what I mean?”

“Ummm, yyyyeah. I never thought about it before, to tell you the truth.” I said. “I’ve been standing up to wipe my entire life, and never thought to question the efficiency of my technique. Maybe I started standing up when I was being potty trained, like to show my Mom what a good job I had done, what a good boy I was to get my hynie so clean. The habit must’ve stuck. And what with butt wiping typically being a solitary pursuit, I’ve never seen anyone do it any differently. But explain this to me… How do you get at your asshole with your dick and balls just hanging there, in the way? Do you just lift them aside with one hand and wipe with the other?”

“What?” Tim asked, seemingly unable to generate a corresponding mental picture to what I had just described. “What are you talking about? You just reach back, from behind, and wipe up in the direction of your tailbone. No need to lay a finger on your twig and berries. You can use your other hand to spread your butt cheeks even wider apart, if the situation calls for it, but otherwise your other hand is free to hold a book, make a phone call, whatever you like.”

“Hmmm. Interesting.” I said. “I’m glad we had this talk. Remind me never to masturbate in here. I don’t think I can handle finding out that I’ve been doing that the wrong way too.”

“It’s not about right or wrong, dude.” Tim said. “This is America. Our forefathers laid down their lives so that we could be free to jerk off in whatever way the spirit moves us.”

And with that, Tim and I went about our business as if nothing unusual had transpired. The next time I had to take a dump I tried out Tim’s technique. I didn’t like the whole “reaching behind me” thing, but I had to acknowledge that it didn’t make a lick of sense to stand up until the entire procedure was complete. I never stood up to wipe again.

And that’s how I learned that change is always possible.

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Wait and see

[A snippet from a writing project in gestation, which will probably make very little sense if you haven't read these other snippets: Square one, No importa, New tables, Belly of the beast, No turning back, Memories, dreams, reflections, & El campo de pueblo.]

I’m sitting in a corner of the room, surrounded by all our belongings. Some guys are putting in the floor tile today, so my world has shrunk to a six by six foot pile of stuff while they work on the rest of the room. Presently, the workers are taking a little Pepsi break, chatting about this and that. The word chinga tends to come up a lot. Undoubtedly, they must be curious why I choose to remain in the room while they work. However misguided and ultimately self-defeating, I tend to view most others here as potential criminals, out to fuck me over as soon as the opportunity presents itself. People have families to feed, and here’s my stuff all laid out like a five-finger discount flea market. I remember a line from Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you.” This couldn’t be more true for me right now. I am attached to my things with shackles.

At this point, I’m against putting in the tile, as a way to protest the cost being jacked up at the last moment and because the process promises to be a major inconvenience. They say “no hay problema, muy rapido,” half the tile in today and the other half tomorrow, but experience tells me to expect otherwise. The room is my safe haven, where I have established at least enough privacy, order, and control to maintain sanity. I can feel the shackles chafing.

Of course, when it’s all said and done, it will be nice to have tile, as the floor figures prominently in my plan to take over the world. How so? I’ll get to the specifics in a minute, but in general the plan is fairly simple and straightforward: To resurrect every stinking, rotting intention that lay buried in the dung-heap of apathy, excuses and half-assed efforts I spent a lifetime compiling in the U.S. Every last little desiccated seed will be resuscitated and nurtured to fruition. Among other things, this means a book will be written; a language learned; an instrument mastered; and a body and mind recalibrated, re-inhabited and renewed.

I’m sure you’ve heard it all before, from one twenty-something or another. Carpe diem and all that horse shit. If you’re a friend of mine you’ve heard it many times, straight from this horse’s mouth, especially when the beer is flowing. I’m fine with the so-called realists who like to roll their eyes and who prefer their resignation and cynicism to my pipe dreams. If I’m deluded in striving for the full realization of my potential—and I suspect that I’m naïve at the very least—what really is there to lose in persisting in my folly? I finally have the time—nine full months, all day, every day—to invest in myself, to break some long-standing patterns, to reset the game and start playing without my hands tied behind my back. If not now, when? If, in the end, the whole project provides nothing more than a few laughs for the older and wiser Future Bob, then so be it. Don’t laugh too hard though, Future Bob. It might make you shit your pants, or at least pee a little. A crack of a smile will do just fine, and makes for a suitable death mask as well.

Along with Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I’m currently reading Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon’s the one keeping me on the floor, experimenting with various yoga and meditation practices. About the level of commitment necessary for self-realization, Kabat-Zinn quotes psychologist Carl Jung: “The attainment of wholeness requires one to stake one’s whole being. Nothing less will do; there can be no easier conditions, no substitutes, no compromises.”

I love this kind of balls-out sentiment. Miller strikes a similar chord, vis-á-vis art: “Art consists in going the full length. If you start with the drums you have to end with dynamite”. My bandmates and I used an inside catch-phrase to capture this full-throttle vibe, demanding of ourselves and each other that we “head the gong.” Those of us who grew up worshipping the rock band Led Zeppelin know well that drummer John Bonham, who died young of a drug overdose, used a gong as part of his drum set-up. Anyway, the guys and I went out to see a Led Zep tribute band one night, and as the drummer wailed away during the famous ten-minute Moby Dick drum solo, we couldn’t help notice that he held back a little toward the end. “Dude,” I said to my friends, “if you’re going to do Moby Dick, you gotta go all the way, you gotta throw yourself head first into the gong. Yeah man, you gotta head the fucking gong!” Trust me, if you were there and full of Pabst Blue Ribbon, you would have been pumping your fists in the air.

I’ve often told myself I would one day put into print the “Head the Gong Manifesto,” making explicit to myself and to the world precisely how I intended to live, should I ever find the requisite strength and courage. My hesitation has been held in place by a couple of lines of thought, each representing a critical voice I’ve internalized over the years. The first essentially says, “You’re selfish.” This one comes straight from the bosom of my family. My lack of interest in creating and raising children is at the root of this accusation more than anything. I’ve mounted a stiff defense against this charge, pointing out the logical absurdity of choosing parenthood for the sake of not-yet-born children. I’ve trapped them with arguments that force them to admit their own inescapably selfish motives for becoming mommies and daddies. But it’s not really about any of that. They want me to do it for their sake, to affirm this most central of their values. In rejecting parenthood I’m rejecting them—it’s as simple as that. And so what I most value—this stuff about truth and awareness and developmental potential—this makes me even more of a self-centered little bastard. “The holy trinity of me, myself and I” is how my brother summed up my life. “Maybe they’re right” is a thought that comes up more than I’d like to admit. Navel gazing looks a lot like narcissism, and if it quacks like a duck it just might be a duck, right? It’s true that every minute I spend here nurturing my own seeds I could spend trying to better the lives of the people all around me, people too focused on survival to worry about drum solos or finding time to just be.

The case against me is strong—I can’t deny it. And there’s still the other line of attack, the one that says, “Even if it is worthwhile to go the full length, you just don’t have what it takes. Not. Good. Enough.” Just like that, my manifesto is transformed into yet another list of New Year’s resolutions destined to be forgotten by the time February rolls around.

Well, here’s the list, for what it’s worth: I’m going to meditate everyday; write the book I’ve been not writing for the last ten years; finish up and properly record every song idea in my cassette archives; learn Spanish, then Chinese; study a martial art; step up my exercise regimen with daily stretching and calisthenics; learn some cover tunes and refuse to shy away from opportunities to perform; rededicate myself to the study and practice of Somatic Education (a form of neuro-muscular/body work); find a way to teach for a living… I’m sure more will come to me. And I’m off to a good start, I must say – writing like a madman, Spanish improving by the day, soccer practice every night, a few days into formal meditation practice and a solid floor exercise routine.

We’ll see what it’s worth, in the end. Call it an experiment, a wait and see thing. Let’s see if by investing some quality time in me, myself and I, I might be of far greater service to others when it’s all said and done. Let’s see if I become more or less of an asshole. If it doesn’t pan out I can always just admit the error of my ways, settle down, have a few kids and let them redeem the situation.

headthegongblue

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DIY

millerneimanI was reading Henry Miller last night, his essay “Artist and Public” to be precise, and was intrigued by his pipe dream to call upon the artists and art lovers of America to buy into a plan that would subsidize every artist for the duration of their lives–regardless of what they produce. What a plan! It seems nuts, to be sure, in that it seems about as likely to happen as the second coming of Christ. And while it may be true that nearly half of Americans believe Christ’s return is imminent, I’m pretty sure only a handful truly give a hoot about the plight of the artist. But it’s an interesting idea of Miller’s nonetheless, namely that it would eventually pay off, IN DOLLARS AND CENTS Miller stresses, if artists were to be supported with sufficient funds to cover all basic needs for the entire duration of their lives. The idea being that enough of these artists would produce enough great and valuable works of art to make the whole set-up generate a net profit. If Jesus does come back, maybe he can get in on the ground floor of this project. A sequel to the Bible, written by the man himself, would surely get a mention on Oprah or in the New York Times.

Also interesting was Miller’s discussion of whether or not making artists comfortable would soften them up to the point of creative impotence. Miller argues against the notion that artists need to be on the edge of starvation and desperation in order to produce great works. I’ve thought about this issue myself, as it seems that we see a classic pattern, in modern times at least, of creativity suffering once the artist “makes it,” or achieves whatever vision of success that he or she has set for him- or herself. It seems as if the creative drive winds down, or at least changes in form and intensity, as one gets older. This is something I’ve obsessed about in recent years. As a rock music fan, I’m always on the lookout for the band or artist who produces their best work after the age of forty. And I’m not finding much on that horizon. Is it getting older, or having a lot of money, or what, that causes rock stars to become karaoke acts by the time they reach their fifties? And then there’s the zeitgeist or the effect of “the times” one is living in. People often say things like “the 60s produced so much great music.” Perhaps that’s literally true, that artists are not rightly understood as individuals undertaking some lonely creative process, but rather they are inspired and compelled to do what they do by the environment they find themselves in. This “artist in context” theory might also explain why getting rich and moving into that huge mansion effectively makes the artist “soft.” Change the environment in a major way and you change the entire creative equation. Anyway, I harp on all this because I’m afraid of getting soft myself. Afraid I’ve already gotten soft. Okay, I KNOW I’ve already gotten soft. The question now is, Can I firm back up? Can I summon that creative boner when the mood is just right? Can I stoke the creative flame and produce with the sense of burning intensity and purpose I felt way back when?

A guy named John wrote the following in my high school yearbook: “Bob. Don’t think. Do.” At the time, I thought John was full of shit, and maybe he was. But the fact of the matter is that I’ve been plagued by a palpable lack of “do” my whole life.

So do something Bobby. Now that you think you may have found the key, go out and do something dude. But where’s the door? Who’s doing what now?

Just take the next step man. Trudge on. What I’d really like to do is meticulously devour each day, savor every bite, get my five dollars worth before the dream machine runs amok. Sure, I’ll take the next step forward, but then sure enough it’ll be one step backward, just so I can analyze the footprint, make sure it’s the proper shape, that the weight was distributed just right, that it’s headed in the right direction. Even though I KNOW it’s headed in the right direction.

Well then, never mind all that. Today. Forward! Trudge on, lad! No need to look down at your feet, unless you step on a snake, or a pile of bear scat. It’s too bad Henry Miller’s plan didn’t come to fruition. If it had, I might consider submitting my application, joining the program. I can’t help wonder what Henry would’ve thought about the internet, had he lived long enough to see it develop into its current form. I bet he would’ve been a blogger, like me, casting his words into the great cyber-sea. But would anyone have noticed? Would anyone have taken the time to post a comment?

Forward Bobby! Onward! Don’t think too much about such things, such terrible, horrible things! Focus on what you want. On what you need. On whether or not this keystroke, that thought, this sip of coffee, is getting you closer to or further away from the goal. Don’t wait for Jesus or Henry Miller to come back and set things right. Do it yourself. Take a step back if you want, but not until you get somewhere worth looking at.

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Galvanized

Late 1780s diagram of Galvani's frog legs experiment

Late 1780s diagram of Galvani’s frog legs experiment

This morning I made my bed upon rising, fetched the paper without failing to notice the birds in all their glory, and enjoyed homemade pancakes for the first time in ages. New Year’s Day. If only I could be so galvanized every morning. Galvanized. I mentioned this word repeatedly on our long drive back and forth to Little Rock last week. That peculiar state of being energized in such a way as to practically guarantee creative action. Why, I wondered aloud during our road trip, why was I so creatively ablaze during certain periods of my life, while during others the inner flame flickered so faintly? Why was rock music so especially good in the 1960s, and then again in the 1990s? Why does greatness seem to be as much a product of the times as of the will and talent of individual human beings?

It was in the eighteenth century when Luigi Galvani discovered that a frog’s legs could be made to twitch in an electric field. A dead frog, no less. It is said that the discovery was accidental, that Galvani and his assistant were using frog skin to experiment with static electricity when a charged scalpel made contact with the exposed sciatic nerve of a recently skinned frog. As to what happened next, I will quote directly from Wikipedia, because the phrasing is just too perfect:

“At that moment, they saw sparks and the dead frog’s leg kicked as if in life.”

What a sentence! The first sentient being to be galvanized–a dead frog in 1771!

Well here I am—a human being and very much alive—inspired by the boldness of the number “1,” by the ring of the word “galvanized,” and by the fresh coffee straight from my brand new French press. Is it yet another fleeting swell of the flame caused by nothing more than some excess static charge in the air? Maybe so. But why not forge what we can while the flame is high?

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New Years Rulin’s

It’s that time of year again. Time to take stock and set goals and all that shit. Me, I’m looking to crank up the creativity this year. As Maria Popova at Brain Pickings pointed out, both Tchaikovsky & Jack White agree: Inspiration AND hard work are needed to keep the creative flame burning. First Tchaikovsky:

There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.

Then Jack:

Inspiration and work ethic — they ride right next to each other…. Not every day you’re gonna wake up and the clouds are gonna part and rays from heaven are gonna come down and you’re gonna write a song from it. Sometimes, you just get in there and just force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out.

And then there’s folk legend Woody Guthrie, who wrote the following “New Years Rulin’s” in his journal on January 1st, 1943:

New Years Rulins

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