“Leave Your Mark” (Originally published December 13, 2010)
Do you recall which grade it was that you were first given the opportunity to use pens in school instead of pencils? I don’t remember which year it was for me, exactly, but I have a faint memory of it being a huge leap forward; it was as if those in charge had said “If you choose to do so, you’re now at an age where you’re free to leave a permanent mark on the world.”
I’ve never had the best form with my pen, and much of my life has been marred by periods where an eraser would have come in handy. But looking back, the periods which were dominated by unfortunate smudges and unintelligible chaos have ended up being the most important which I’ve lived through to this point.
My pen has been permanent in many ways I wish it wasn’t though, leaving marks on people’s lives in a disastrous manner, often causing an unthinkable amount of distress and harm. Occasionally time is able to fade or blur the remnant of the mark made, but without the ability to erase the mistake it is never able to completely disappear. I’m afraid that of all the victims however, my pen has done myself the most harm; a realization that I’m faced with every day.
At the same time you have to remember those initial directions: You have been given the freedom to take your pen and leave your mark on the world as you see fit. While the mark of a pen may be permanent, the story you write with it is never finished until you say so. The mark you made yesterday may in no way reflect the same intent or mindset as the mark you make today. And that’s okay. As frustrating, disappointing, and sometimes crushing as it is to live with the mistake made with your last stroke, you have to keep in mind that as long as you have the ability to wield a pen and the freedom to do so, it is up to you to decide what impact your next stroke has on the world.
If only pens came with instructions.
“Fuck Natalie Portman” (Originally published January 5, 2011)
Watching the trailer for No Strings Attached I had the thought just now, “Wow, I really think Natalie Portman is becoming more attractive with age.” Rightly, I feel like an idiot.
She doesn’t even exist…
I don’t mean that in the sense that she’s not real, or something, just that she doesn’t exist in the reality I live in. I’m tired of fantasizing about women who don’t exist, interacting with me in situations that never happen to real people. You’re gorgeous as hell, but fuck you Natalie Portman. It’s not your fault for being who you are… but fuck you for making every other woman I see seem less precious , less beautiful or less interesting than they actually are because of some perverted idea of reality I have based on the impossibly perfect appearance of a one in a million outlier who is chosen to represent her entire gender in movies.
Fuck Ashton too, for that matter… but fuck him just cause he seems like a douche.
“Fuck You, Common Sense!” (Originally published January 9, 2011)
Focus on them needing a friend. It takes a good friend to stay with you in hard times, it takes a good friend to stay with you in good times. Everybody needs support… Everybody does. So you’re letting me down, if you see me doing something and you have a hard time coming to terms with it because your feeling about your own life, what’s really happening is you’re letting me down as a friend. You’re being a shitty friend by being jealous. So think about the other person—think about what they might need. I could’a used you. I got divorced, I got a show canceled. Ya know, I had some tough times, I could of used a friend. During those times that were making you jealous, I was struggling, I was having a hard time.
This statement comes at the end of the second hour of dialog between Marc Maron and Louis CK on Maron’s brilliant WTF podcast. At one point in time best friends, the two had moved apart from one another and the statement comes as Louis’ explanation to Marc of how his insecurities helped build the divide that separated them. Powerful shit.
For the past 16 weeks (as of tomorrow… also, there’s an unrelated reason I’m counting the days) I’ve been making an attempt to take an honest focus of what I’m doing with my life. Part of this has included looking at my feelings, apprehensions, and emotions… many of which are all tangled amongst relationships. Like Maron, I’ve spent plenty of time trying to address my own jealousy… something which I have, embarrassingly so, had no shortage of in the past. But Louis’ words here are something that—even through this phase of self-assessment—I hadn’t really ever thought about.
One of the projects I’ve been working on as of late is working with a few other people in the Nashville area to develop a platform for rap and hip hop artists to use as a jumpoff point for building their careers. But in the process I’m finding that there is no support between artists… no community to build off of… no love, really. Yesterday, when talking about this with a friend, he hit me with an old saying I’d forgotten about, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Just as it works in this scenario—working together as a team to develop each individual’s career aspirations—it works in the context of friendship.
I only assume the same to be true in Maron’s past, but for me, I’ve realized that for so long my resentment was based on this sense of entitlement which I wasn’t even aware of. Resentment of friends and of other bloggers simply because I thought I deserved what they had. It’s jealousy brah, and it’s very fucking unbecoming. Further, I would get even more bent on certain people because of their subtle reactions to my overwhelming douchebaggery… just a bad trip all around.
It’s been healthy to look at that aspect of myself in the mirror and actually realize that it exists, but it hurts when I start to realize how many friendships I’ve moved away from and how many opportunities at building relationships with people I’ve lost because of this. Just a bummer, you know? All you can do, really, is move ahead and be aware that the shit exists and it still has the ability to become a factor. Even this past week, fully aware that I’m trying to put this aspect of my past behind me, I found myself a bit pissy because someone wouldn’t return an email who should. A business-related email that was pleasant and didn’t have any strings attached… and she wouldn’t bother getting back to me. So immediately that resentment kicks in and I want to say “alright, fuck her too”… over something as small and insignificant as an email. But that’s not the answer and it’s certainly not going to lead anywhere positive. Point is, is that the same beast that pops up in one area of relationships does so elsewhere, and it’s the same animal in both situations when it comes right down to it. Open the mind, consistently check your personal bullshit at the door, and hopefully you’ll be a better person for it. That’s the way I’m looking at it for myself, at least. If I want people to be better friends, I have to be a better friend, myself. Silly as it may sound, common sense doesn’t seem to come that easy for me.
Untitled article (Originally published January 17, 2011)
One of the hardest parts of growing older is realizing that you can’t give up. It’s frustrating to recognize that helplessness isn’t an option when faced with confusion. So we move on. We look back on a time when feelings became overwhelming, and we learn from the experience and we grow as people. Somewhere inside of us remains an empty spot where that desperation once resided… a hole that is now largely void of any genuine emotion, but is slowly being replaced with understanding, compassion and positivity.
It’s hard to see the good in becoming stronger sometimes, when you feel as though all it is that you’re searching for is a little bit of chaos. Then again, chaos gets old, real quick. So what’s there to do? Move on, I guess. Wake up, take a pill, make some coffee, turn the computer on, go to the gym, maybe talk to a friend, maybe have a good meal… and try to grasp onto that feeling of owning your control. Right now I’ve lived in a chaotic state for so long that I don’t know what it’s like to act responsible for any honest length of time. I don’t know what it feels like to be consistent, nor am I comfortable with that feeling quite yet.
I’m 27 and as much as I’ve learned to feel comfortable in my own skin, becoming comfortable with who I’m not is still a work in progress.
Untitled article (Originally published January 30, 2011)
If things had worked out differently I could be rolling with a ten year old kid and be married to someone who’s completely wrong for me. Essentially, I could have put a cap on my growth as a person. I could have foregone any sort of education and pursued the rest of my life with a fear of learning and a high school diploma which, as it turns out, was hardly worth the little time I actually invested in it. I could be bored with my life. I could think that what I was doing was a “good path,” pushing boxes around in a warehouse somewhere, or working as a hack-chef in an upscale chain restaurant; or at least I’d say it’s upscale to give myself some inflated sense of worth. I could be in jail. I could be in some gutter somewhere. I could be dead. But I’m not. Of all the things that could have happened, I ended up here. Looking at this screen on a Sunday night in a beautiful and safe apartment that I can miraculously afford in a state that I genuinely had trouble pointing out on a map as little as eight months ago.
Looking back on who I thought I was, and maybe even who I thought I was going to be, I could have never guessed that things would have played out like they did. I was in the 12th grade a decade ago, working to make up credits so I could actually graduate from high school. I had quit my job and picked up a taste for drinking beer and doing a bit of hash and weed. I guess though, when you carry your own pipe around with you pretty much wherever you go, ‘a bit’ is probably an understatement as far as usage is concerned. Point is, the drastic changes that life gives us are so immense that it’s sort of pointless to focus on anything but the moment. Sure, draw up your five year plans and figure out what you’d like to aspire to be in that given amount of time, or make sure that you’re working to meet your goals, but don’t think for one moment that some serious change isn’t going to happen between now and then. It will. Things could have been different now given the past, and things in the future will be different given the present. Suppose all that’s to be done, really, is to just try and enjoy yourself a bit right now.
“The Weight” (Originally published January 9, 2012)
I’m only six feet tall, but in early 2009 my weight peaked at an unfortunate 235 pounds. As a freelancer I was on my own schedule and could indulge in food and drink whenever I felt the urge. By late-spring though, I grew tired of my general disposition and began working out regularly, while also making fewer of the poor dietary decisions I’d made so frequently to that point. By early-fall I was down to around 200 pounds. Then I let it go. I quit my main freelance gig, moved to a new country and began relapsing into old habits. By mid-year I returned to the States, still setting my own schedule and giving in to these patterns, and by the end of 2010 I was back up to 220 pounds. Last year I made it back down to 200 pounds due, again, to diligent exercise, however as the year wound down I took on a new job, moved across the country, and found myself returning yet again to old habits of gross indulgence and bingeing. With a full belly, this morning I weighed in at 225 pounds. I can’t help but ask myself how this happened again, but I know exactly how this happened again.
One of the purposes of this blog is to help guide and document my progress as I, once again, take aim at nurturing sustainable dietary habits and a better sense of self-control. This time around my goal weight is 185 pounds, just as it was the past two times I focused on weight loss. I already know how to get going, however, there is a change in the focus of my aim this time around: The main difference is that my goal now isn’t simply to work hard with a finish line in mind, but rather, to work hard to change the way I live as I prepare for the rest of my life.
“Be Water” (Originally published January 13, 2012)
Today marks the second anniversary of when my parents dropped me off at the airport with a single suitcase before I boarded my first of three flights of the day as I moved from Minneapolis to Calgary. About six months after I landed in Canada, I grabbed my suitcase once again and hit another pair of flights on my way to Nashville. A little over a month ago I loaded a moving truck (which is kind of like a big suitcase, right?) and moved to Hiawatha, Iowa (of all places).
To step away from that for a moment however, yesterday Stanford professor Carol Dweck was interviewed by the Harvard Business Review in a discussion that revolved around “the right mindset for success.” Reminding me of the adage “The only thing I know is that I don’t know nothin’,” Dweck made the argument that in order to promote a growth mindset, we must strive for confusion ourselves. Not in the sense that we’re mindlessly confused, but rather that we strive to live outside of our comfort zones. It’s this topic of remaining in a state of flux that really intrigues me as I’ve increasingly found that, in my own life, I’ve had a hard time promoting growth within myself without removing myself from a state of complacency. (Or it could just be that I’m easily bored.)
I’m obviously not where I want to be yet, physically and mentally, which is why I started this blog. But this infusion of ideas from Dweck reminds me of Bruce Lee’s philosophical leanings which, as luck might have it, I was reminded of yesterday while watching a documentary on the legendary renaissance man. “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash…” And on this day which holds a special meaning to me, I offer the same words to you as Mr. Lee did in his conclusion, “Be water, my friend.” Be water.
“27 Forever” (Originally published February 3, 2012)
Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. These are some of the more obvious names to be included in a rather unfortunate group, the Forever 27 Club: musicians who passed before their 28th birthday. I, myself, turned 28 this past September, a day before Winehouse would have done the same. On one hand this alone is cause to celebrate — my survival, not her death — but on the other is the glaringly obvious issue that simply surviving the year doesn’t necessarily mean that much was achieved. This is especially true when comparing my feats to any number of other people’s rather fantastic accomplishments. And yeah, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in playing this game of inferiority, but when I find myself doing that I take solace in some words I heard long ago from Henry Rollins. To paraphrase: you can only compare yourself to yourself. As long as your better than you were a year ago, a month ago, a week ago, or even a day ago, you’re on the right track.
“Happiness, Part 1″ (Originally published February 15, 2012)
Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects. | Will Rogers
Last summer I found myself once again lost in the long-since familiar state of depression. I was confused about my own direction and what the future might hold, but more than anything I felt like I was missing out on some larger sense of happiness. No matter where I’d go it seemed as though people were simply happier than me: If they didn’t appear to have a greater sense of direction or purpose, at least their day-to-day lives seemed to give them a greater sense of satisfaction. Even more, friends around me were pairing up with loving and supportive partners, pursuing fulfilling careers, and dedicating their free time to gratifying hobbies.
To better understand what I might be missing out on I did what any technophile would do took to the Internet, but immediate Google results led me no deeper than transparent articles extolling such platitudes as savoring the moment and finding happiness in ourselves. As I began to dig a little deeper in my research however, I soon discovered that I was not alone in my search, but more, that happiness itself hasn’t exactly been a constant over time. In fact, it’s long since been a hot point that has been argued spiritedly throughout the ages. Still no hard answers, I thought, but at least it appeared as though I wasn’t alone in my confusion.
Continuing down the rabbit hole it quickly became apparent just how confusing this illusive “happiness” actually is. How could it be that “happy” people actually die earlier than “unhappy” people; that citizens in “happier” nations are likelier to commit suicide than those in less happy nations; that anger helps us survive, and maybe even that an overabundance of pleasurable things in our lives could distort and warp our reality, counterintuitively distancing us from the main goal we’re all striving for? If, for instance, happiness is the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, as 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham suggested, why is it that we are so driven for our own happiness, yet are so quick to turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering of the less fortunate in the communities around us, both local and globally? Happiness, it would appear, is as much a mystery now as it’s ever been.
As my exploration continued it was the New York Times‘ Jim Holt who seemed to offer the most easily digestible historical recap of how the perception of happiness has changed over time, “The history of the idea of happiness can be neatly summarized in a series of bumper sticker equations: Happiness = Luck (Homeric), Happiness = Virtue (classical), Happiness = Heaven (medieval), Happiness = Pleasure (Enlightenment) and Happiness = A Warm Puppy (contemporary).” Each and every culture, school of philosophy, and religion has had a unique historical take on what happiness is and how it might be achieved, and tracing it through the annals of history is a massive undertaking in and of itself. But by merely grazing the surface of that exploration process what was initially most surprising wasn’t the idea that happiness has changed through time, but that entitlement to happiness is actually a relatively new invent.
The very feeling that I thought I was missing out on — deserved, even — and saw around me in seemingly every facet, might not actually be a guarantee in life. “The pursuit of happiness” is built into the fabric of the Declaration of Independence as a cornerstone of America, suggesting that we all have a right to capture this highly sought after intangible state. But as the country (and all countries, for that matter) continues to age, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this pursuit has mutated into a system that leaves us perpetually grasping at an invisible carrot rather than an taking on a quest for something truly greater. What, exactly, is is that we’re all looking for and how do we find it?
“Happiness, Part 2″ (Originally published February 16, 2012)
Happiness comes in small doses, folks. It’s a cigarette or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. That’s it, okay! | Denis Leary
Leaning closer toward the modern end of Holt’s historical spectrum might be someone such as English philosopher John Locke who suggested happiness to be pleasure and its many forms. But what is it then that delivers pleasure: wealth, education, physical beauty, religion, spirituality, family, friends, fame, power, sex, food, alcohol, drugs? To some degree I agree with comedian Denis Leary’s line about happiness, as we each have our own unique interests which grant us that momentary satisfaction, yet prevailing thought seems to counter that constant search for the next small dose of relief.
Happiness as a finish line is a fleeting view as continuous attempts at making a mad dash for the end seem to only result in some sort of failure to hit that mark. (And forget the anxiety, disappointment, and depression that accompany the failure!) Without getting all the journey IS the destination on you, it’s only when we begin to change the entire scope of what happiness might be that we’re able to see that there is no one single finish line we’re building toward; part of doing so comes within the issue of definition though: What exactly does happiness feel like on an individual level?
The theory that we each have our own personal starting points from which we base our happiness levels on is vital to understanding our own personal pursuits toward the goal. New York Magazine’s Jennifer Senior approached this concept in her 2006 article “Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness” where she explained, “Human beings adapt quickly to their circumstances because all of us have natural hedonic ‘set points,’ to which our bodies are likely to return, like our weight.” When these “set points” are added to the mix, the equation of how to achieve happiness becomes that much more complicated, but interestingly enough, possibly a little less confusing.
The comparison between a mental “set point” and a physical one makes much more sense within the context of the work of David Lykken. In 1996 the former University of Minnesota researcher suggested that about half of an individual’s satisfaction is derived from genetic programming after analyzing information on some 4000 sets of twins born between 1936 and 1955. Lykken then concluded that “It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller.” He later redacted the statement however, adding that “It’s clear that we can change our happiness levels widely — up or down.” Despite the impact of his first conclusion, Lykken’s change of stance would seem a wise one when contrasting it to the happiness formula which is credited to psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ken Sheldon, David Schkade, and Martin Seligman.
The simple equation of H = S + C + V proposes that happiness is equal to our biological set point plus our individual circumstances plus our voluntary activities. But what sort of “voluntary activities” might lead to happiness given that most attempts at pleasure seem to bring about a momentary change, at best? Perhaps actions that avoid shallow stabs at immediate gratification in lieu of those which aim for something more. Maybe even something “virtuous.”
“Happiness, Part 3″ (Originally published February 21, 2012)
People ask why I study happiness, and I say ‘Why study anything else?’ It’s the Holy Grail. We’re studying the thing that all human action is directed toward. | Dan Gilbert
While the meaning behind one of the Declaration of Independence’s most quoted lines remains largely up for debate — it’s hard to conclude with any concrete certainty whether “the pursuit of happiness” was to suggest that happiness be a birthright, simply the right to exercise a state of being, or something altogether separate from that — in tracking down its origin, author Carol Hamilton recently concluded that the term’s genesis might have less to do with Thomas Jefferson creatively piggybacking the famous prose of Locke, and more to do with the theories constructed by some of his philosophical heroes.
When John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the pursuit of happiness,” they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are civic virtues, not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia. The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to “social happiness.”
Eudaimonia, the Greek term for happiness, makes sense here and is grossly appropriate in terms of its place within the foundation of modern happiness. But when connected to areté, the Greek term associated with “virtue” (though most often translated as “excellence”), the combination do well to spell out the basis for the “classical” view of happiness which Holt made reference to with his “bumper stickers.” Interestingly, this construct holds up remarkably well when considered within the context of the “happiness formula” and which might be the most beneficial “voluntary activities” to incorporate into our own lives.
Much as Aristotle did before him, Epicurus, who worked within the realm of Hedonism — the philosophical view not the titillating Jamaican resort destination — put forth ideas surrounding what might deliver actual happiness while also making clear distinctions between perceived and actual sources of happiness. Epicurus might now be considered somewhat of a modern-day minimalist as he believed that the most good actually came from the most modest of pleasures, compounded over the course of time. Praising the value of knowledge, friendship, and living a temperate life of areté, Epictetus preached that an individual could experience the most satisfying of lives by going without such unnecessary luxuries as fame, excessive wealth, or over-indulgence. Aristotle, however, defined happiness in different terms.
In his composition titled Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote that “the happy man lives well and does well,” further adding to that statement by arguing that happiness was to be achieved by living a life of virtue and continuously searching for the “golden mean” by striving to find balance between two excesses. He also explained, “For as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” Living one’s life in a virtuous manner, even introducing an ethical or moral slant in calculating happiness, would appear to lead to what Aristotle would regard “the good life.” Incidentally, just as Jefferson might have written into the pursuit of happiness a meaning that we should each have the right to practice happiness, Aristotle’s work suggests that he believed that happiness isn’t in itself pleasure, but the result of practicing a virtuous life.
“I think that there is a connection between not getting my work done and feeling guilty or ashamed of myself. Which ultimately manifests itself into even more unproductive behavior.” This journal entry that I wrote in 2009 seems rather obvious in retrospect, but in my life these words have often been true: the times where I’ve felt the weakest have been when I realized that I had failed myself. This might be why the Aristotelian viewpoint makes so much sense to me as his philosophy breaks down the goal so clearly, leaving happiness appearing far less impossible to achieve than a quick Internet search or trip to the library initially led me to believe. But it’s when the work of far more recent thinkers is figured into the bigger picture that the nature of happiness in today’s world really begins to take hold. Research this past decade has come to offer numerous examples of how to incorporate the historical views of happiness and translate their finer points into today’s landscape. For example, Seligman, the previously mentioned positive psychologist, suggests “authentic happiness” in today’s world to be the combination of pleasure, engagement, and meaning, which all align nicely with the higher living taught by the aforementioned Greek thinkers.
Additional reflections will follow in the coming weeks, each inspecting the work of such positive psychologists as Seligman, Gilbert, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, each exploring not only how shifting focus toward eudaimonia or areté appear to offer a far more rewarding life, but also how re-approaching ideas surrounding our individual perceptions, expectations, and capability to adapt might drastically change our ability to live lives of maximum happiness.
“Resolve to Pause” (Originally published February 28, 2012)
On the debut episode of The Marc & Tom Show with comedian Marc Maron & WFMU’s Tom Scharpling, Scharpling closed with a comment regarding how it can feel like it takes him forever to correct his path sometimes,
It’s like when they turn those oil rigs — like the giant tankers — around. It’s like it takes them ten miles to turn ten feet. That’s what it feels like for me. It’s like, man, I cannot turn the ship around. I can’t do a one-eighty on these things. It takes like… and at this point I’m slightly pointing more in the right direction; I guess I’ll take this, that might have to be enough for what I can do here.
The times where I’ve recognized my own lack of personal resolve have historically been my weakest, and my inability to remain consistent in maintaining a healthy weight might well be my greatest source of struggle; not my drinking, nor my ups and downs with depression, nor my otherwise erratic behavior. It just so happened that while I was listening to Scharpling explain his position that I happened to be in a funk as I was closing out a week that had seen its fair share of personal letdowns in that regard. I kept telling myself that my ship was changing its course, so to speak, but the reality of the moment left me feeling like my one-eighty was not to be…
After a few brief hours of sleep that night I shot up at 1:00 am as a dream left me with some sort of revelation. What was the dream about? What was its point? What lesson was I to gain from it? Between the time that I stood up from my bed to the time that I hit the bathroom I lost the plot: grenades were involved, there was a small fight of some sort, and if I remember correctly the brother of one of my good friends was in there somewhere, but I couldn’t ultimately piece together the bigger picture. I didn’t, however, lose the purpose: I genuinely felt like I could now walk away from binging.
Earlier in that day, before I had heard Scharpling’s explanation, I was actually contemplating writing down some reactionary thoughts to the idea of Commitment vs. Experimentation, or essentially setting a hard-commitment to less and less while not foregoing experimentation. In essence I was trying to figure out whether I was trying to set too many goals for myself and whether or not that was — to borrow the phrase again — preventing me from turning my ship around. Was I simply experimenting where I needed to commit? (In this case, the focus being a weight loss goal I’d set for myself.) But as the day wore on and new ideas penetrated my train of thought another theory began to take hold: not Commitment vs. Experimentation but Reward vs. Regret.
For the past week or so I’ve tried to be more present concerning the decisions I’m making. If I had a bad day or experience, I tried to focus on monitoring my instincts, my cravings, and especially how I attempt to reward myself to get over whatever hurdle I might be stuck on. A few days into that process though, as I continued to work on the idea, the term for what I was searching for was handed to me: “Pause.” As Leo Babauta writes,
When we fail, it’s because we act on urges without thinking, without realizing it. We have the urge to eat junk, and we do it. We have the urge to check email instead of writing a chapter of our book, and so we open our inbox. We have an urge to smoke, to drink, to do drugs, to chew our nails, to play a Facebook game, to procrastinate, to skip a workout, to eat more fries, to criticize, to act in jealousy or anger, to be rude … and we act on that urge. What if instead we learned to pause after each urge? What if we stopped, looked at that urge, paid close attention to what it feels like inside our bodies, but didn’t act?
Have you ever been so emotionally attached to someone that your tunnel vision prevented you from seeing a bigger picture around you while you were with that person? Prior to reading Babauta’s words the thought came to me that my brain frequently thinks within this realm of unhealthy irregularity, as if I were in love much of the time. I simply don’t think straight. I’d have a great week and be so caught up in the moment that when I’d be buying groceries, for example, I’d completely overlook that I was de-railing myself by binging on unhealthy food for dinner. While I might have been committed to a goal, I had no Pause, and all I could see was the reward: I might not have been in love, but a very similar sense of momentary blindness was still affecting me.
A few weeks back when my dad came to visit with me he explained his own situation in trying to identify why I might have been experiencing such issues with my own weight. As he aged and began to gain a lot of weight himself he became diabetic and he thought that I might have that same issue developing in my body. I might, don’t get me wrong, but as I told him I’ll repeat here: I can almost guarantee that diabetes isn’t at the core of my weight gain… I am. I’m no physician, but regularly drinking a fifth of cheap booze and eating an entire frozen pizza (in a single serving no less) likely has quite a bit to do with gaining about 20 pounds over the course of a few months… Just a hunch.
When you get caught up in minutia, the really important stuff gets left undone. Often simply because in buying the low-carb salad dressing, you give yourself a mental checkmark in the “healthy eating” column and proceed to violate the truly important issues.
Ultimately I enjoy the frankness of this “mental checkmark” statement because it helps cap off the idea of Pause nicely, bringing home the idea of why it’s important. So often have I become caught up on a single reason or two as to why my ship might not be turning around fast enough that I forget to ensure my own commitment to staying the course. So often have I set a goal, only to reward the most insignificant of achievements in an unhealthy manner, setting myself back two steps before I’d even gained an inch. But this past week I’ve been successful in taking a step back from myself — pausing, if you will — and analyzing my actions before the fact rather than after. When a reward wouldn’t outweigh the regret I might experience after partaking, I’d stay away. If a reward wouldn’t really knock me off of my larger aim, then I’d go for it. The resolve to Pause has been a beautiful thing for me this week and certainly something that I feel resolved to pursuing as I continue forward toward my goal. Now, if only I can figure out what that damned dream was about, I might really have something here…
“The Pursuit of Dissatisfaction” (Originally published March 7, 2012)
But a lifetime of happiness?! No one man could bear it: It would be hell on Earth! | George Bernard Shaw
As Western civilization’s impact continues to be felt across the planet, so too has the culture’s ever-increasing average lifespan spread. But while general health or happiness have been attributed to such a result in various studies focusing on lifespan — including the well documented case of the nuns of Milwaukee — this increased life expectancy hardly seems to be a result of healthier and happier living across the board. In fact, seemingly in spite of ourselves we seem to be growing increasingly un-healthier in many areas of our lives. In her work on happiness, cognitive researcher Nancy Etcoff addresses this conundrum, facing such inconsistencies head on through her studies which monitor global surveys and societal patterns. Her conclusion? Despite societal evolution, “happiness stays the same.” The unfortunate reality, however, is that the happiness levels haven’t actually stayed the same, but rather, appear to be declining.
Regardless of its original intent, the modern “pursuit of happiness” has left our culture painting a rather murky ideal of what happiness is and how to achieve it. The development of self-worth, particularly in relation to what it is that we seem intent on respecting and praising, has evolved into anything but a healthy model for happiness. Though hardly a new trend, global lust for wealth, glamour, and celebrity has shifted perception of personal worth, and has ultimately affected our individual abilities to prioritize real value in our lives. Despite a general upward swing in standard of living over the past century (lifespan, etc.), the past decade in particular has yielded a crass disparity between wages and happiness. For instance, our society’s relentless pursuit of a higher income has not led to happier people, but instead, unprecedented levels of pessimism, anxiety and inequality which continue to fuel widespread cries of dissatisfaction heard around the planet.
The foundation of the world’s economy continues to shake, yet instances of gross indulgence are no less prevalent than they’ve ever been. Along the way, wouldn’t you think that something has to give? The gap between the rich and poor continues to expand, yet as more members of the global community adopt a goal of keeping up with the Joneses, this growing disparity between the haves and have-nots only further inflates our collective ideal of not what we’re thankful for, but of what we’re lacking: We grow jealous that we don’t have the movie-star lifestyle of those we see on TV, movies, magazines, and the Internet, but we so easily shrug off the fact that our lives are remarkable when compared to literally billions of other people around the world. It’s so terribly difficult to fight against comparative relativity and avoid mistaking the good fortune of our neighbors for our own inability to measure up, but shouldn’t an advanced (or at least advancing) world strive to embrace some sort of paradigm shift toward personal empowerment, if not a happier species? One would hope so, but as Etcoff suggests, this won’t happen as long as we continue to focus so heavily on factors such as income and economic development in attempting to nurture such results.
Dissatisfaction is the root cause of unhappiness. | Martin Seligman
Outside of the United States negatively trending happiness levels continue to spread despite overall economic “advancement.” But most of this, as previously mentioned, isn’t a direct link to a rising financial tide, but the rapidly increasing gap between those benefiting from the process and those being left behind because of it. The growing economic gap in China, for example, is leading to lower levels of happiness among the country’s citizens (as if the idea of Chinese labor, such as factory work for low pay, weren’t already bleak enough to rob people of their happiness). The U.K. is hardly resistant to similar trends, as the level of happiness experienced by Britain’s population has dropped considerably over the last six decades while GDP continues to climb: As the BBC reported in 2005, “The proportion of people saying they are ‘very happy’ has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36% today.” Certainly these examples don’t draw any concrete correlation, but when considered in the same breath they do speak to a larger issue; especially so when also considering developments in the tiny, land-locked Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.
(GDP) measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. | Robert F. Kennedy
Making the change from focusing exclusively on economic development, the nation has taken to making “gross national happiness” paramount when considering the real development of its people. For over four decades Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Thinley, has led a campaign that has not neglected economic growth, but gauged it alongside the culture, mental health, compassion, and community of the nation’s citizens. The outcome is hardly a shocker as this initiative (which asks of its people questions such as “How do you feel about how you spend your time each day?”) has been so immensely successful that there are now over 40 countries around the world which are actively studying their country’s GNH. The point isn’t that we should abandon our current goals altogether, but that they need to be augmented by realistic qualifiers of what makes a people happy.
After all, money is important (and you have to admit, it can be used to purchase some pretty cool stuff!) and ultimately, financial security certainly benefits those who are able to attain it, so it’s foolish to abort the goal of trying to make a decent wage. When so much value is placed on something such as finance though, that’s often where a false perception can creep in, working its way into our consciousness, gnawing at our self-esteem and persuading us to believe that our lives somehow suck compared to how the other half lives. Despite knowing that not having as high an income or as sound a portfolio as our neighbors doesn’t equate having a worse life, somehow this thinking can still leave us feeling as though we don’t match up. And when we can’t latch onto financial security, there’s a tendency to look elsewhere to satisfy or mask our own potential feelings of inadequacy.
Envy is a perfect poison. Taken regularly throughout the day it can ruin anything decent going on in your life. Therefore… don’t forget to take it in measure minute by minute! It can turn a sunny day cloudy, and get your juices flowing when you’re calm. | Ben Stein
Celebrity and glamour are so highly valued in the world that we’ve created for ourselves that the idea of being famous or attractive might as well be synonymous with godliness. While the realities of being pretty or popular are the same as wealthy — being so doesn’t necessarily mean being “happy” — it’s easy to get caught up in lusting after those models of “success” when all else fails. Especially as they become, or at least appear to become, increasingly feasible to achieve: If you can’t be rich, you might as well be gorgeous… or on reality TV.
Much as seeking wealth as a primary goal typically overlooks what the consequences of attempting to achieve that goal might be — let alone what the result will actually bring — the concepts of fame or beauty are hardly the express tickets to happiness that they might superficially appear to be. The reality is that celebrities, artists, and even your basic run-of-the-mill beauty models aren’t all that different from us in terms of such simple universal pursuits as self-esteem and happiness. Actually, being famous or beautiful can be kind of rough on people: “there is a surprisingly weak relationship between physical attractiveness and self-esteem”; “movie stars aren’t happy”; the pursuit of celebrity often comes as a reaction to being neglected as a child; and striving for both fame and looks often results in foregoing countless personality-cultivating experiences (such as living a real life; though I could probably argue that with George Clooney’s looks and salary, it might not be that much of a struggle to make such a sacrifice). This isn’t to mention the widespread tendency to romanticize self-destructive behavior among our society’s celebrity, or the rather shattered personal home-lives that many develop from constantly being under the scrutiny of the public eye. More disturbing, however, has been the trend over the past decade to strive for micro-fame through outlets ranging from reality TV to social networks; the reality of fame has so ridiculously mutated that it has now evolved into a horrifying and manipulative machine devouring those who yearn for the 15 minutes of fame they feel they can’t live without. Which brings me back to me.
There’s a big difference between caring and preaching, but when waxing on and on about dos and don’ts it becomes so easy to appear as partaking in the latter. And if simply speaking to the source of societal woes somehow avoids being translated as being preachy, it most certainly encourages claims of hypocrisy. What’s worse is that in this case, such assertions would be largely accurate: I, myself, continue to long for these known happiness-inhibitors.
I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong. | Ovid, Metamorphoses
Despite filling my head with informed opinion as to what focus might lend my life more substantial satisfaction, I still find myself in a similar situation as so many others around the world: not simply falling into dissatisfaction traps, but actively welcoming them. Despite knowing what I know and recognizing the risks of gambling with my emotional and physical health, I still overlook historical pillars of health and happiness in seeking a number of the aforementioned empty pursuits I just criticized: I still feel like money would bring me happiness; I still feel like I might be better off if I were somehow more popular; I often value looks over substance; even this very blog is evidence that I have some craving to validated by others rather than figure things out on my own. And when all else fails, I so easily lose my focus and overlook the bigger picture of my goals in life, eventually seeking refuge in overindulgence in food and drink to soothe these negative feelings. When wealth, celebrity, and glamour fail, I look to self-medicating.
George Loewenstein established the term “empathy gap” in explaining how thought and behavior cannot be predicted when in hot or cold states of mind. Further, as the Carnegie Mellon University psychologist suggests, such states as love and rage blur general conclusions made regarding happiness: “If our decision making is influenced by these transient emotional and psychological states, then we know we’re not making decisions with an eye toward future consequences.” Similarly there’s something that has left it very hard for me to plan for my future, which I guess could be called the reaction gap: a tendency to react, influenced heavily by one’s individual psychological prognosis.
All things being equal, there are numerous keystones that have evolved through the ages that should help deliver some form of happiness to those searching for it. But when making decisions within the foggy bubble of depression and dependency, the idea of being happy often takes a back seat to simply trying to avoid sabotaging oneself. That’s where the reaction gap comes into play. For some years now, my professional diagnosis has been that of Major Depressive Disorder with a side of Alcohol Dependency, and considering that overall personal “happiness” for me has devolved into being more about feeling good than doing good for myself, it’s not hard to see how I’ve become lost during my journey. Over 450 million people suffer from mental disorders around the world. There are 2.5 million alcohol-related deaths recorded annually. Such statistics suggest that I’m not alone in struggling to just to simply survive, but that hardly soothes the nagging itch of What’s Missing. This might be different for every individual looking to find the best path toward happiness in their respective lives, but in discovering how to proceed moving forward for myself I feel it important to address my own reaction gap by unearthing and addressing the correlation between happiness and the issues that I’ve struggled most with in my past.
“Not All Losses Are Equal” (Originally published May 27, 2012)
This Memorial Day weekend Vice President Biden took the lectern in front of over two thousand attendees (Gold Star families of deceased veterans who died in service) speaking as part of the T.A.P.S. survivor seminar, initially determined to discuss a very empathetic matter: his son Beau’s Iraq deployment. “We felt guilty because he came home whole.” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow introduced the clip, “I do not think I have ever seen a speech like this from a President or a Vice president. I have never seen something this raw and emotional said by a President or a Vice President before… ever, I don’t think.” Not that my eyes and ears have ever been particularly aimed at politics, but I agree. What the man said was heavy about his son, but his words became even more serious when the topic veered to a topic even more emotional.
The call said my wife was dead, my daughter was dead, and [they] wasn’t sure how my sons were going to make it. [They went] Christmas shopping and a tractor trailer broadsided them, in one instant killed, two of them and… well… And I have to tell ya I used to resent, I knew people meant well, they’d come up to me and say ‘Joe, I know how you feel.’ (crowd erupts in laughter and applause) I knew they meant well, I knew they were genuine, but you knew they didn’t have any damn idea. Right? (more laughter) That black hole in your chest like you’re being sucked back into it. Looking at your kids, and most of you have kids here. Um… And knowing it was the first time in my career — my life — I realized someone could go out — and I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here; no, but it’s more important, you’re more important — for the first time in my life I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts: because they’d been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again. That it was never going to get… never going to be… again. That’s how a lot of you feel. There will come a day — I promise you, and you parents as well — when the thought of your son or daughter, your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later, but the only thing I have more experience than you in is this: I’m tellin’ ya, it will come.
I wouldn’t say that I acted as emotionally to this as I did, say, the recently viral Lip-Dub Proposal video, but I’d like to think that what I lack in tears I make up for with understanding. Biden’s words touched me because they’re not solely aimed at the families of loss, but the lost themselves (ourselves?).
From time to time I feel guilty, too, but not because I’ve come home from some misguided war effort in one piece, but because I so consistently revert back to feelings that I know represent betrayal to many friends and family members. I don’t think that I’ve ever really reached any mountain top, as Biden called it, but I often feel like I’ll never again experience the resounding sensation of wholeness that the Vice President alluded to in his speech. It’s not an every day thing, and I’m not moments away from drawing a razor blade to my skin and making a mess of myself, but the thought persists: I often feel like I want to die. When times are dark, the mind strays accordingly, but even when the sun is shining emotionally, I still find a way to make the connection: How romantic would it be to go out while in a good mood than a bad one? I’ve quite literally thought that before. Hopefully that doesn’t make me any more deranged or nuts than anyone else though.
I’m lucky to have friends, but the few that still listen to me are probably growing tired of hearing me think out loud about how I’m struggling to find out What Comes Next. One recent idea I’ve been bouncing around is that of landing in a new city, back in a state where I have (to this point, at least) a rather terrible track record, hoping that the kindness of a few old friends and a relative strangers helps me land on my feet. Overall, I really don’t know what I’d be looking for if I made the leap other than a safe place to spend some time, but more than anything I think what spurred the idea was simply Possibility: The possibility of new beginnings, new adventures, new love… even if none of them are actually there to be discovered. I think I’m searching for what we all are, in some respects, but I feel guilty that I know I’ll probably turn my back on whatever I find, good or bad, no matter where I land, by continuing to experience these feelings. They’re hardly like clockwork, but I can count on them with the same infallibility as death and taxes.
I was recently told that I am “a risky man to love right now.” The friend who offered me that espresso shot of reflection was dead on. Her cautionary words weren’t meant to say anything about me as a person, or at least anything I didn’t already know, but something about what’s fair to expect out of other people. As long as I feel this way, any attachment I find to anything or anyone is going to act as a replacement for what I’ve lost: that black hole in my chest Biden alluded to. Hopefully I’ll have fun along the way because I’m sure I’ll later feel guilty as my fun is balanced by thoughts that reduce my mind to a bleak wasteland of stark emotion. But rather than determining that all is either perfect or lost, I find myself momentarily taking shelter in the today’s words. Hopefully, like Biden said, in the future today’s tears will become tomorrow’s smile. So easily lost is the reality that the experience of surviving is what makes the next moment of adversity less unbearable to combat. Joe, I know how you feel.
“Ham and Cheese Sandwich Eating Bastards” (Originally published August 9, 2012)
Wait, I should call my friend who just went through this and ask him for help.
And what? He’ll tell you not to have the sandwich, and we already established that’s happening. And when you talk to him you won’t feel better, you won’t feel stronger, you’ll feel more alone. And you’ll feel like a fraud when you don’t take his advice.
Who are you?
I’m you. I make you feel alive, and bigger, and stronger, and better.
But you’re telling me to do things that make me less alive, and less stronger, and less better.
Stop! The doctor wasn’t talking about us. He was talking about regular people, not us.
I don’t think I like you. How do I fight you?
Here are the things I know:
• I have a ham and cheese sandwich eating bastard inside of me
• My friends tell me to call them when he speaks up
• I don’t call them when he does
• I don’t call them because they can’t really understand what ham and cheese sandwiches do for me
• I don’t call them because ham and cheese sandwiches are the only thing that make me feel more alive, and bigger, and stronger, and better.
• I don’t call them because they can’t really empathize with how I feel when I have a ham and cheese sandwich
• I don’t call them because if they really cared they’d be calling me
• I don’t pick up when they do call
• I don’t pick up because they can’t really care
Here are the things I don’t know:
• How to fight that ham and cheese sandwich eating bastard by myself
• About a million other things that aren’t relevant at this exact moment
Here are the things I’m thankful for:
• The people who do call, the people who do text, and the people who do email
• The people who still reach out even though that ham and cheese sandwich eating bastard inside of me rejects their attempts at doing so
• The people who are fighting their own ham and cheese sandwich eating bastards, and can empathize even a little with the daily struggle that is simply remembering that the ham and cheese sandwich eating bastard’s voice isn’t the only voice that exists
Here is what I have to remember:
• That people really do care
• That people really can help
“Accomplishment” (Originally published August 17, 2012)
Some days I feel like a complete waste. Some days I feel like I can’t get out of bed, and further: there’s no point. Some days I feel like I don’t have anything to offer the world, or myself for that matter. Some days I feel like the world would be a better place without me in it. Some days I’m fine.
When I become lost in my own mind I’m finding that it’s becoming increasingly important to pay close attention to the day’s small victories. If you get out of bed that puts you a step closer to doing the dishes. If you clean the dishes that puts you a step closer to showering and shaving. If you clean up you that puts you a step closer to going to work.
Each new morning can bring with it an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, but accomplishment doesn’t have to come by running gold medal winning races or releasing New York Times best sellers. Some days accomplishment comes in taking small steps when that first inch appears impossible. Shaving and showering isn’t a huge victory, but the action is important because of the change it might help usher in. One step leads to the next, and the first step toward conquering the day is sometimes one that might otherwise seem insignificant.
As the old saying goes: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
“The Invisible Carrot” (Originally published August 22, 2012)
Success can have a variety of meanings depending on the individual defining it. In general though, many feel like we’ll never be “successful” — not because of our personal definitions, or lack thereof, but because of how inflexible our definitions are.
There isn’t too much in my life right now that I can do where I’d honestly consider myself a success. I’m exercising every day and am eating right in an attempt to lose weight and become healthier, for example, but at what point in time do I become successful? This process is something I’ve done numerous times before, but typically I’ve worked hard until beginning to plateau, only to become complacent with failing to achieve what I’d really hoped for. It’s not that I have a fear of success — I simply count myself as a failure before I’ve actually failed.
More and more however, I’m trying to shift “success” from being a goal-oriented objective to being the act of maintaining focus on what I define as important. Establishing priorities is one thing but maintaining a clear perspective regardless of how life plays out is what’s key. In my situation, what happens when I stick to a routine and I still feel miserable, unhealthy, and the pounds refuse to come off? Am I then a failure? Maybe. If my perspective is clear however, I’m more likely to see things for how they really are… That I’m only really a failure if I stop trying. In making the goal of resiliency paramount to metric-based landmarks, it becomes easier to refrain from negatively reacting to the appearance of stagnant progress and remain determined to move forward. Failed expectations are less likely to equate failure if our mindset is right.
Great expectations are premeditated resentments.
Too often it becomes habit to set expectations around rigid goals: A + B = C, and nothing else will do. But what happens if life gets in the way of these plans and we start feeling like we have to play catch-up just to get back to square-one? What if “B” never arrives, or instead, we’re given a “J” to work with?! Pretty quickly the plan of action to achieve “success” can become our worst enemy, mocking us as we try to latch onto the carrot on the stick — a carrot that we likely never had hope of grabbing hold of in the first place, if it was ever really there to begin with.
To draw out the metaphor out a little further, it’s easy to overlook all the carrots around us when we’re so intently focused on the carrot on the stick. Many successes arrive only to be overlooked because they’re not the successes we planned for. However, if we’re able to move beyond this, it becomes easier to build on small accomplishments and prevent expectations of what should happen get in the way from appreciating what is happening. Tomorrow’s success might very well be something you could never envision today.
Regardless of yesterday’s results, success isn’t dependent on whether or not things went as planned: If they did, great, if not, get over it. Instead, success can come in the act of simply recognizing that we can start over today. Success is what we make it.
“Being Lucky and Being Given” (Originally published August 25, 2012)
Lucky and given. Those are two very very dangerous words for a comedian because those two words can put you to sleep. Especially once you get a taste of both: of being lucky, and being given. Because the days of luck and being given are about to end. They’re about to go away — not totally, alright, there’s always going to be comedians who through hard work, they’re going to get noticed by agents and networks and studios and directors and record labels. There will always be an element of that. They deserve their success, by the way. Everyone of them that still makes it with that model still deserves their success. And there’s always going to be people who benefit from that, alright? I hope it keeps happening. But what I meant when I said the days of luck and being given are about to end is this: Not being lucky and not being given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.
About a month ago Patton Oswalt appeared at Just For Laughs in Montreal to delivery the festival’s keynote speech. His presentation followed two distinct paths, offering similar messages to different audiences, weaving a consistent thread throughout: That the world of creation is changing. No longer does your success, as an artist, rely on gatekeepers allowing you to succeed.
From 2008 to 2009 I held a position at an alt-weekly, working as a regularly contributing freelancer. I was given the responsibility of creating daily web content, and was given a ton of opportunities to contribute to the print edition as well. Being a sucker for data, I kept track, and when all was said and done I had put together over 400 blog posts, concert previews, album reviews, and interviews by the time I quit. The point here is that I was given a chance, and I let it slip away.
By my account I was asleep, and the vast majority of what I was contributing during that time remains some of the least inspired writing I’ve ever done. But a crucial lack of maturity and clarity about how rare the opportunity actually was went right over my head. By the end of my time with the company, budgets were fluctuating and I was being asked to do more for less money. Despite this, I failed to recognize that I was still getting paid a fair(ish) wage in a cutthroat industry that very few people actually get the chance to make a living from in the first place. At the time I felt like I was entitled to the work, and that I deserved more, when in reality I was just lucky. Lucky and given.
It’s been nearly four years since I took my first assignment with that company and I still have yet to find a situation remotely as opportune as what I had. When a similar position opened up last year I decided it would be worth moving back to the city for, so I applied, but I never even received a response. When I actually needed it, there was no opportunity just sitting there, waiting to be given to me.
As Oswalt later reflected in his speech, in order to succeed in the future, “I need to stop waiting to luck out and being given. I need to unlearn those muscles” — words we’d all do well to remember the next time we find ourselves waiting for the next big opportunity to land in our laps. That, or more importantly, the next time we fail to appreciate what we’ve already been given.
“Stock More of What’s Selling” (Originally published August 26, 2012)
What are the shelves of your store stocked with? Are you recognizing what sells and what doesn’t? Are you paying attention to the items that no one’s buying? Are you increasing inventory of what is selling? Are you helping your business succeed?
Life is like an emotional retail store. We have to constantly run inventory, making sure that we’re not giving too much shelf-space to efforts that aren’t working. To get more out of our limited floor space, we have to pay attention to what’s selling in our own life and act accordingly. What brings you fulfillment? What helps you achieve your goals? You should probably stock more of that.
Take inventory today. Look at that shelf of failure and count how many times a decision has left you feeling empty or sad. Stop listening to the questionable voice in your head giving you bad advice, telling you to stock your shelves with ambrosia-infused microwave popcorn and squid-flavored Jell-o. That shit ain’t workin’.
Stop actively putting yourself out of business.
“A Big Sky State of Mind” (Originally published August 29, 2012)
“Imaginary flirtations with the second amazing waitress of the day float through my mind as we drive home for the night, a bleak country-sized horizon lit up by the high-beams. I feel lucky.”
Today a friend told me that it seemed like I “had just totally thrown [my] hands in the air” when we met this past spring, a few short weeks before I jumped on a train bound for Montana. I really didn’t have any clue what I was doing. I’d just quit my job, had again liquidated much of my stuff and lugged the remnants to my parents’ place, and was looking to find a change of scenery. I imagined my week-long expedition would be accompanied by some sort of life-changing revelation; majestic scenery seems to have that effect on people in the movies. But after the trip, “imaginary” was the only word that kept returning to me: Imaginary was the playful interaction that occurred in my mind with many of the trip’s great wait-staff, and imaginary was the role that I didn’t realize I was playing, until I recognized that I’d been playing it all along. I was living in a dream world.
The truth is: I do feel lucky. I got to spend a considerable amount of time with a friend and learned plenty about her that I didn’t the first time around. About five years after we’d last seen each other, we had both changed, but despite moving in our separate directions I think we shared something that many people are experiencing right now: A commonality of wanting to feel like there’s a purpose in our lives, yet little real understanding of what it might be.
During my trip I wrote and wrote and wrote about meals and people and places as though they were being experienced through the eyes of someone who has important things to say about meals and people and places. There were the tired North Dakota laborers in various states of buzz who were heading to Idaho for a week-long break from the rigors of a booming oil-scene; the aging bartender in Butte who left Seattle many years ago after fearing for the safety of her children (making the baseball-bat wielding street gang that we saw in town seem that much more ironic); the friend of a friend who said goodbye to me with a warm hug; a bartender at Bozeman’s Crystal Bar who explained that the rather imposing field goal that stood over us was from 2006 when the Bobcats beat the Grizzlies (Me: “How long’s this place been open?” Him: “Since about ten this morning”); and the various other people along the way, all friendly, all willing to share something of themselves. But the collection of words just didn’t feel like it left me with that life-changing experience that I’d been daydreaming of.
Driving back across the flyover states, there was a point in Deadwood, South Dakota where a couple drew up a spot next to where my friend and I were sitting. They were a little drunk, a little too handsy, and a little too obvious about their intentions. They said some rather stupid things (and maybe a few hurtful things too), but rather than blowing them off, something stuck with me that defined part of my experience. Even if only for a moment, I wanted to be them: I wanted to be able to be rightfully cocky about my appearance; I wanted to have someone wrapped around my arm who was brag-worthy; I wanted to feel what all of that feels like. Throughout the trip I pestered my friend with a torrent of questions about her life, maybe if only to continue talking about myself, and somewhere along the way I asked her if she ever wanted to be anyone else. She said no. I didn’t get around to responding to my own question (maybe because she’d long since discovered the pending threat of self-centered speculation every time she returned the volley), but my answer was yes.
For the longest time I’ve imagined being other people. Completely oblivious to their problems — many of which likely outweigh my own — I would dream about what it’d be like to have that life and not this life, as though there’s something terrible about what I have. But all the while I never really seemed to have the dedication to begin the transformation from one life into the next, or to overcome what someone else might have had to in order to achieve their outlook, physical health, appearance, or social status. And I’m not talking extremes here either: the stuff that I don’t do typically comes down to things as simple as avoiding eating too much junk food, exercising regularly, or just socializing every now and then. The reality isn’t that I can’t be like those two crab-walking assholes, but that I can always change if that’s what I really want to be.
“If you’re ever passing through Bozeman, the jalapeño, guacamole, and chipotle buffalo burger at Ted Turner’s Montana Grill is easily one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Ask for Kelsey. A few doors down, at Burger Bob’s, I’d recommend the spectacularly crunchy waffle fries which are meant to play a supporting role to another good, if not basic, burger: one half of a bun bedding the patty while the other bears a handful of veggies arranged as though the meal itself were as happy to be eaten as you might be to eat it.”
At the time I started writing this a few months back I concluded that, “Now my next step is leaping into a life that likely won’t exist the way I still imagine it to, but if the move is anything like the last few times I’ve tried starting ‘a new life’ I’ll be likely to find out something about myself that I didn’t even know I was looking for.” Despite the decision paralysis that followed my ventures to and through Montana, Iowa, and Missouri, I woke up one day and forced a move that would return me to Nashville.
I didn’t know how to make it work, but rather than imagining all the different ways it could work out without pursuing any of them, I hounded Craigslist ads until I found someone who would let me live with them. Then, instead of imagining what it’d be like to move back across the country, I rented a truck and drove my stuff from Minnesota to Tennessee. Then, once I landed, instead of imagining what it’d be like if I had a place of my own again, I put out more inquiries, eventually landing a roomier spot at my old apartment building. Then I rented another truck, secured some furniture, and with the help of some of my best friends, moved my ass up three flights of stairs and into my new home. And now I’m finishing this blog post, not just letting it sit as a rough draft, imagining all the different ways that it could play out while the emotions and memories continue to fade into the past.
As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.” About five months ago I quit the job that I had first left Nashville to pursue, and even though it took untold emotional struggle and over 4000 miles to find my way back to the city, I’m quite literally a stronger person for it. I couldn’t have done so if I hadn’t taken that first step, and I couldn’t have done it without friends and family, but even more pressing: I would never have made it here without letting the imagination slide and actually committing. I don’t want to be like that pair of idiots we ran into in Deadwood, but I don’t want the life I had when I first left Nashville either. The goal now is to stop imagining and keep committing until the person in the mirror matches the person I want to see looking back at me. I guess that life-changing revelation I was seeking just took a little while to sink in.
“Embrace Randomness” (Originally published August 31, 2012)
The world is unpredictable, and that means we cannot foresee whether an idea or project will turn out as planned. In fact, the plan may very well become outdated before we even start to execute it. And if we can’t logically plan our way to success, then it must mean that success, when it happens, is a result of something unexpected—of something random. It is a revealing paradox.
As Frans Johansson argues in “The Rules of Randomness & How You Can Stand Apart,” if we accept that life is unpredictable we can leverage randomness to our advantage.
At times it’s hard to let the ego go and accept that the world isn’t going to work out like we planned, no matter how much desire we have for it to do so. Sometimes we just have to do our thing and wait to see what happens.
Planning is key in setting goals and identifying importance, but plans aren’t gospel. If we waver from a plan, that doesn’t mean we’re failing — just adopting to change and embracing unpredictability to the best of our abilities.
Don’t let the universe get in the way of whether or not today’s a “success,” simply because you were unable to plan for everything.
Sometimes it’s okay to just let life happen.
“Uncrossing My Wires” (Originally published September 10, 2012)
An enduring idea that’s been crippling me recently is that I should be acting to serve some vague goal I have in my mind, assessing everything I do in order to figure out if it’s truly helping me achieve some larger purpose. You know, convoluted adult stuff. The problem is that I’m constantly getting my thoughts mixed up in the process: There are separate goals that might not have anything to do with each other, and I try to connect them, leading to confusion; and there are separate goals that actually do have something to do with each other, and I fail to make any connection, which also becomes confusing. Somewhere in the middle of it I found myself in a nowhere land of being “conflicted about being conflicted.” Basically, I’ve had a lot of wires crossed and haven’t been able to make much sense of anything because of it.
I’ve been having a hard time living in the moment, and because of it there’s been a lot of anxiety building up inside of me. It’s not that I struggle with living for right now, not concerning myself with a future that hasn’t happened or a past that doesn’t exist, but that I live too deeply in the moment and forget what the hell it is that I’m trying to do — that “larger purpose.” Waking up in the morning with a blank slate is one thing, but constantly forgetting both yesterday’s triumphs and yesterday’s failures when trying to fill it is a tough way to go through life. This week I unexpectedly found some new readers for my little blog here (a great thing!), but with that I was again swayed from my focus.
I wrote about this confusion and lack of direction, and one of my friends sent a nice message, encouraging me to keep going and “stay schemin’!” They were inspiring words, but in reality that’s the kind of thing that has left me conflicted before, and really confused this past week. I grew up with the entrepreneurial spirit firmly embedded in my make-up, nurtured through my adolescence until I eventually sought a degree in the field. Then with a higher understanding of textbook principles I shot off into the “business world,” rising from the ashes from a couple of failed “straight jobs” with a surprising opportunity in the form of an “income generating small business.” Finding new ways to stay schemin’ has long been a default.
There are a lot of crossed wires here that go back a long way, but this year I’ve become increasingly sensitive when it comes to my writing and the conflict between the hustler and creator that live inside of me.
In 2005 I started a music blog because I liked music, not because I liked writing about music. English class in school was always tricky for me, and moving from Canada to the U.S., and having to then adopt a variety of new spelling and grammar rules, didn’t make things easier. Early into my first college English course the professor called me into her office, sitting me down to ask about my near-complete lack of fundamentals. It wasn’t too hard for me to learn new rules because I only had a tentative grasp on them to begin with, but I still continue to struggle with grammar, structure, and instances like whether it’s grey or gray and practice or practise. But when my blog got a link from a wildly popular website, readership blew up and I reacted by trying to write better (or at least more!). I didn’t do this because I loved writing, I did it because I felt it’d help legitimize whatever it was that I was doing. Default took over.
I was listening to a band the other night that brought back memories, reminding me of when I would listen to them in my bedroom in junior high, playing pretend disc jockey and making mixes for myself. Even then that entrepreneurial default was well-established though — I’d buy music from pawn shops or used record stores, copy what I wanted, and either re-sell the albums to kids at school or back to the stores… leaving me with an absurd amount of music for any pre-Napster era listener — but over time that default somehow led me from having fun with music to bearing a harsh resentment over not having a “career” as a legitimate music journalist as that blog continued to grow. But not only was that profession never my dream, it was never even something I really wanted to do in the first place. There have always been signs of this, but in playing Clark Griswold with my mind, trying to unravel and make sense of 250 some-odd strands of emotions, feelings, and desires, it wasn’t too hard to cross a few wires and miss the obvious.
In order to make a living you have to build on past achievements, and rarely does success in one field translate to another. Not a single editor I had asked me about my grade point average, and likewise, I got nothing but awkward smirks in the few occasions that I interviewed for a “straight job” as a “professional music blogger.” Over time I forgot about never wanting to really do the music writing in the first place though, and in starting with that blank slate each day it just sort of worked out that it became my personal occupational qualifier: Yeah, I was a Customer Sales Representative, or whatever, but I was also a “music journalist”! Riiight. There have been some seriously crossed wires for quite a long time here, but because I was making some money from it, everything seemed to be okay. But I grew tired of it, found a job late last year, and moved on from the blog.
Another friend shot me a message last week opening discussion about how artistic expression is perceived as a commodity by the general public. Regardless of his intention, I was reminded of how confusing that can be and how I sometimes forget what it means. When I was a kid cultivating my music collection I was pretty idealistic in my view of musicians. (David Lee Roth-era Van Halen was an early favorite — that should say it all, really.) Now, factors like time, age, and maturity have done a lot to change that perspective, but I’ve also developed a strong cynicism for musicians after interacting with so many of them under the lens of business. That’s very much a two-way street though: Sure, I’m tired of bullshit attitudes and artistic entitlement, but my own motives also played a huge part in my changing views. If I didn’t get a good interview or an exclusive bit of content to premiere, then I wouldn’t get the pageviews and the advertising revenue that I needed to keep the wheels in motion, leading to more of that harsh resentment. Quickly the evolution went from blogging about music I liked, to focusing on gaining new readers, to actively seeking “content” to further monetize an opportunity. I’ve become a little numb to what it means to have one side create something, and the other enjoy it simply because they like it. I needed to hear those words from my friend not to remind me that I should relax my aggressive stance on creative-types though, but that maybe I should relax my aggressive stance on myself as someone who’s creative.
In a blog post the other day Seth Godin set the challenge, “Are you going to invest your heart and soul into something that’s important or waste it selling something you’re not proud of?” In my mind Godin’s message rang not entirely dissimilar to my friend’s, but more piercing was a second question that followed: What happens when art becomes commodity to its creator? If I write only to make money, chances are good that I’m not only writing about subjects that fail to move me, but that I won’t be doing good work because I’m creating for reasons that don’t inspire me. This writing, as I’m doing here, might not be “art,” but sometimes it’s the only form of expression I have — sometimes it’s the only way I can even begin make sense of what’s inside of me. But if I start at the bottom of the “music journalist” ladder again, writing on subjects that bore me for outlets I don’t care about, it’s going to read like I’m writing about subjects that bore me for outlets I don’t care about. And that’s going to impact how I write here: “art” or not, the results will suffer.
In an interview with Fiona Apple earlier this summer, she was asked about what the catalyst for her new album was.
No one was urging me. Other people might be angry that their record company didn’t give a shit about whether they had a record out, but I am very happy Epic didn’t because that would have just made me go away and not want to do any of it. If people were like, ‘You gotta come out with something,’ it’d be like telling me to take a shit. Even if you tell me to, I can’t.
In the exchange that followed, the interviewer joked, “So what you’re saying is that your music is shit?” “That’s my metaphor for the day,” Fiona said in return. “This is the stuff that I really needed to get out, this is the excrement of my life, the excrement I was trying to exorcise out of me.” When I write here I’m exorcising some shit from out inside of me. When I’ve been paid to write though, it’s mostly only just been shit. Sometimes there are separate ideas that might not have anything to do with each other, but sometimes there are separate ideas that have a lot to do with each other.
When I quit my job this past spring I was given some really great advice. I was confused about what I was doing and had hit an obvious emotional low, feeling like I’d just given up the last real career opportunity I might ever see. During a visit one day a family friend took me aside and told me that despite what I was feeling, I was lucky. I wasn’t lucky because of my confusion, obviously, but I was lucky because at least I’d quit now rather than 20 years down the line, only to then realize that I’d dedicated my life to something I didn’t care about. That hit me, but I didn’t really consider how broad a stroke the message carried until last week’s breakdown.
Ever since I started making money from blogging there’s been this monkey on my back, like if I was working a straight job I was giving up on my “dream,” and if I was doing the music blogging, I was negating my “future.” (I mean, I went to school to become my own boss for chrissake — that alone is sort of a paradox.) But just because I got to be my own boss, through combining that entrepreneurial default with a longstanding interest in music, didn’t mean that I was any better off than sitting in an office doing something else I didn’t really care about. I had simply sold myself on the idea that it was what I needed to be doing. (And, truth be told, if I didn’t go through that, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with writing.) Now, it’s not like I don’t like writing about music — there are days I really enjoy it, so long as I stay about a mile away from the business-driven drama that can come with it — but to continue on that course is only going to give me the same feeling that’s inspired me to walk away from every job I’ve ever had. It finally hit me that I can’t do it.
In another article about Fiona Apple’s new album the author explained how her view of the commercialization of her music had changed. “Let’s not be too precious,” she said, responding to a question about a song she’d licensed for the movie Bridesmaids. “Give me money,” she chuckled. Artistic expression isn’t only perceived as a commodity by the public, but if you head down to Music Row, you’re going to find that it’s perceived as a commodity by many in “the industry” as well. Combine that with a self-realization that you, the creator, have unintentionally allowed your work to become a commodity, and it’s enough to make anyone go off on a rant about how the world is bullshit. That’s hardly what Fiona was talking about years and years ago in her notorious VMA speech, but regardless, that’s sort of how I felt the other day. I just couldn’t put my finger on why.
If you’re this successful doing work you don’t love, what could you do with work you do love? | Tama Kieves
While Fiona’s had the luxury of being successful enough to drift in and out of seclusion to make the music that she wants (rather than, say, hitting an office to ghost-write for disposable pop singers), she’s adored because she refused to let the commodification of her music get in the way of making art that breathes both her passion and her personality. I’m sitting here, typing away, thinking about all of this and still the default weighs me down: If I don’t want to do a sales job, have my soul crushed by another customer service position, or start at the bottom of the ladder again writing about music, how can I make a living off of doing anything?! Maybe it’s “precious” to think that anything’s above commerce, but in putting that first I know I’m doing myself a disservice. Even if it drives me to becoming flat broke, I think I have stop believing that the paycheck matters so much.
“Many people have read your expressions of ideas, thoughts, opinions, experiences,” another friend told me. “And they’ll keep reading to see what DeLine is up to now. That makes you happy — it has to!” “Many” being a very loosely defined term here, that friend is right. In the span of two days I brought together a bunch of feelings that had been building up inside of me, driving me nuts, and I presented them as best I could from my soapbox to whoever would listen to me. And then something unexpected happened: a number of friends reached back out to me offering input, lending thought, and sharing in discussion. Not to sound like a vaguely nauseating Hallmark Movie of the Week here, and I don’t know if I’ve found what I’m legitimately trying to accomplish in life in a mere matter of days, but I think I’ve found the door that I need to step through do get there. This answer speaks to what that last friend said, and it speaks to being ready to actually admit to myself that I have another default that needs to change.
“In reality, I have the first draft of a short book written, but I haven’t been able to knock it out because I’m tired of reading it… In reality I don’t know what the next step is.” Well, in reality I spent quite a lot of time this past year researching and writing a first draft of a project that now online as a series of blog posts. In reality I’ve been putting this together a memoir written about my struggles with depression, drinking, and a search for happiness, but I stopped pushing ahead because it wasn’t as good as I knew it could be. Rather than trying harder though, I shot the idea down and told myself that I’d just worry about me for a while.
In reality I absolutely hate the basics of A.A. (see: “memoir”), but I started going to meetings about a month ago because I just needed safe people to talk to. In reality all of this was bubbling up inside of me and I had no where else to go. In reality I’ve been trying to deal with all of this while continually blanking my own slate ever since I was in rehab four year ago, and even after everything I’ve been through I still couldn’t figure out whether I really wanted to stop drinking. In reality, I told a close friend that partying isn’t what I came back to Nashville to do, and in reality, it was only a matter of time before I pulled a Memento and re-positioned myself into a spot where I again cleared the slate, allowing another blackout in the name of socializing. In reality I’m more scared to put this out there than I was to write and release all my stories months ago because now I have some friends who I’ve had drinks with who don’t know this side of me, and others who think I’m “better.” But to move forward and let a lot of it go, I have to capital-O Own It rather than merely concede that an issue exists and that I’m trying to figure things out.
Having sat on this idea for a few days I can see how putting all of this out there might be seen as some sort of grand self-indulgence — or maybe just more talk. In reality I do talk a lot about wanting, about doing, about vague passions, and about larger pictures. But my plan is to finish this motherfucker and put myself in a position where I can help other young people who are struggling with this same shit that I’ve been going through. If you’ve read this far, I REALLY appreciate you caring enough to do so because right now I haven’t been able to think of another way to better position myself to start uncrossing all these wires and start Owning honest change in my life.
Now all I have to do is remember all of this when I wake up tomorrow.
“It’s All About You” (Originally published September 12, 2012)
Over time shy feelings were replaced with boldness, politeness overtaken by brashness, and sensitivity for others gave way to narcissistic care for self. When, exactly, all this happened: I don’t really know. But what I do know is that I have to cut this shit out.
It’s something I’m angry at myself for, and something I’m struggling to change — as if I recognize a problem, but don’t care to rectify it.
I’m an impulsive person — that part of me has been consistent — and I’m finding that when I make an effort to change old habits, positioning myself to not act out through negative behavior, these impulses start trying to break the skin and find sunlight through other avenues. One such outlet that’s been hard to barricade has been my mouth.
If I feel something, I say it (there’s that disposition to put myself first again). Good. It’s off my chest, NOW I CAN MOVE ON. But what about the impact those words might have on the person you’re saying them to? Why do your feelings count, but theirs don’t?
What if unloading this burden places a weight so immense on the shoulders of others that they can’t be around you anymore? You can move on, because you “had to say what needed to be said,” but what about them? What if you rob them of a friend that they need in the process? You might feel entitled to revealing the “Truth” as you see it, but what if the real truth is that your undeniable lack of sensitivity will forever leave you bitter and alone if you continue allowing it to breathe through you?
Impulses exist, and they’re hard to silence. But sometimes for the sake of the people who you claim to care for — who “mean something” to you — those impulses have to die a silent and painful death.
It’s time to change again. It’s time to become a friend.
“Strangers on a Bus” (Originally published September 18, 2012)
Last week a friend and I boarded a bus together. I swiped my pass while she followed, riding out to the next stop as she worked her way through the tedious process of depositing a handful of change to pay the fare. When she sat down next to me another passenger called from a few seats over, expressing something to the effect that “money’s money.” From there conversation began. We learned that not only does the transit system accept pennies, but that he once stood at the mechanism at the front of the bus, painstakingly unloading a few hundred of them at once to pay for a day-pass. Money is money.
As the bus continued we rode by a car dealership (two, actually) which provoked discussion of how The System has been put in place to encourage car lots without ensuring that there’s anyone left able to afford the cars; a rather obvious metaphor for the country’s current financial woes, we concluded. He then told us about how he’d lost somewhere between enough-to-pay-for-his-daughter’s-college-tuition and a half million dollars (the exact amount changed over the course of a few sentences) because of the economic collapse. This led to an aside about regrets, how living in the moment is all we really have, and the utterly fascinating actualization that comes with really understanding that the moment IS all we have.
Then he asked me if I had a Facebook page.
Riding public transit nearly every day I’m used to talking to strangers. In the South, actually, I’ve become comfortable with an openness about creating dialog as a sort of necessity to pass time. Elsewhere it’s an intrusion of privacy, but here it’s generally accepted. Sometimes people are just building momentum to ask you for a spare dollar, sometimes they’re just waiting for their destination to arrive. Either way, most people are fairly innocent in this regard.
When Thomas (I can’t quite remember if that was his name, but for the sake of discussion “Thomas” will work) asked me if I had a Facebook page, though, that triggered a defensive reaction within me. I told him no. He said a few more words, then repeated it as though I’d misheard him. I again shot back, assuring him that I did not have a Facebook page. The walls were erected and on my side, at least, and while communication continued, the conversation was over.
He knew my name, and at the time I knew his. I’d learned of his financial situation, that he was actively working through some sort of therapy, that he had at least one child of age to go to college, and that he probably wasn’t as crazy as his glazed-over eyes and speech impediment immediately made him out to appear. But I refused to cross some imaginary line of intimacy in my mind. As we were exiting the bus I shook hands with Thomas and wished him well — joking again that if I found “The Answer” to it all, I’d be sure to pass it on his way — and he replied with equal passing kindness. My friend then asked me why I told him that I didn’t have a Facebook page, since we’d just met, and we’d just connected on the social platform only a few days earlier. It took me a moment to conjure an answer, but all I could muster was that I actually intended on being friends with her. The same can’t be said for many connections on Facebook though; the excuse remains bullshit.
When I was walking home from the bus station the thought continued to plague me, if only because I’d been called out on my nonsense. I texted my friend a follow-up, about how maybe I’m just used to keeping my guard up. At least that’s closer to the truth. But the reality is that I don’t know exactly why I balked at a stranger on the bus like I did. Had he asked me for a dollar at the end of our interaction, I’d have given it to him — he earned it. But he didn’t. All he did was imply that he’d like to talk further. And I lied. Twice. What’s the worst that could happen? I don’t like him and cut him off? I don’t know, maybe he really is crazy and somehow tracks me down in person and finally asks me for that dollar? There really isn’t much “bad” that could have immediately come from it, but I was quick in putting up that wall. Had he been a gorgeous 25 year old with blonde hair and skin to die for, maybe (and by maybe I mean absolutely) I’d have reacted differently. But he wasn’t and I didn’t.
The point is that I felt bad. Not for Thomas — something tells me Thomas will be fine without me — but for myself, and my own stupid barriers that continue to prevent me from simply being as honest as I claim to be. If he was crazy, so what… he’s no crazier than the people I interact with on a daily basis, it’s just that he’d be a card carrying member of the lunatic society rather than an onlooker who denies their insanity’s existence while continuing to act on it in their own life. The good that could have come from Facebook-ing with Thomas easily outweighs the negative what-ifs, because maybe, even if only for a moment, it was clear that we weren’t all that unlike, Thomas and I. And despite the interconnectedness of us all it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people who you can say that about.
“Alcoholic Musings” (Originally published September 28, 2012)
“Alcoholics Anonymous” has played a comedic role in my life for ages; the brunt of a joke between friends who, by no stretch of the imagination, are all variants of the term’s textbook definition. For instance, in college we got drunk (drunk!) before putting on our workout gear and hitting the gym for an intramural basketball tournament. Game One was us against a team of football players (our team had those too, but there was a size and speed advantage on the other team which unfortunately was only made that much worse by our largely inept lack of skills and, of course, the jags we all had going). The last thing I remember is jogging around the court prior to tip-off, mocking the other team. In my blackout state I hard-fouled one of their biggest players, and he sent me flying. I broke my collar bone, and a small “skirmish” ensued. I ended up sitting out the rest of the tournament (though, in a just world, I shouldn’t have played at all… I’m the worst basketball player I know), only to shine again during the last game of the season.
Some weeks later I dawned my finest thrift store sport coat and assembled a pre-game speech, trumpeting the triumphs of alcoholics from yesteryear to rally the team before the season’s final game. It remains the best speech I’ve ever given, sober or stoned… which probably doesn’t say much for my public speaking abilities. I’m pretty sure a salute to Buzz Aldrin was in there somewhere, but the point of the thing was to simply make light of life and have some fun. That game we were pinned against the team from the sober dorm. We won. Actually, it was the only game of the entire tournament that we won. I was carried out of the arena on the shoulders of a couple of friends as if we’d won the championship, my arms still rigidly hooked into a sling to help straighten out my fractured clavicle. Our team name: the Alcoholics Anonymous. We play in a fantasy football league now, and have been doing so for years, under the same name. The past two seasons I was either passed out or I drunkenly forgot about the pre-season draft and ended up with ridiculously poor teams. (This season I drafted my own team. Yay me.) Point is, the name is a joke to us.
And I think the term “alcoholic,” itself, is kind of silly, too. It’s not a medical definition, and its meaning is myriad, completely relative to the person using it. One of my favorite quotes comes from the Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas, who once said “An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.” That about sums it up for me.
During the first few meetings I sat in on last month, in situations where I’d be introducing myself to the group, I’d simply say “Hi, my name is Chris.” But I thought about it some… it’s just a word, “alcoholic,” and what the word means is up to me. In the process of going out of my way to distinguish myself from others, by refusing the distinction I was sort of disrespecting where they’re coming from, regardless of how I feel about the term. So, amid all of this personal struggle and a search for self, I’ve begrudgingly dawned “alcoholic” myself. I still don’t like saying it, as if it’s some sort of slur that passes only because of the company I’m in when I say it, but I do so out of a place of compassion for what we all have in common. Together, we are alcoholics.
Yesterday I sat down for coffee and breakfast with my “sponsor” and we talked about life and “The Program.” He knows I’m coming from a place of skepticism, bearing ill will toward the religious rhetoric that powers the 12 Steps since having first read The Big Book cover to cover about four years ago. I revealed that earlier this month I made a promise to myself that I was going to “put myself in a position where I can help other young people who are struggling with this same shit that I’ve been going through.” Two and a half weeks ago I didn’t know what that meant, but it soon dawned on me that I would transform this vague memoir-slash-research-project I’d been working on into a book, written to myself four years ago, to the version of me who unabashedly mocked treatment because of personal preconceptions; the version of me who ultimately gave up on life. And over french toast and coffee I continued to explain this to someone firmly embedded in “The Program” — that I was writing something (I’m still not sure what to call it) based around a model of acceptance, an introduction to treatment for those who balk at recovery, written by someone who’s been struggling with the very thought of “treatment” for the better part of a decade. It was sort of liberating.
Sure, I mean, essentially I’m my own research tool here, letting my guard down and going with the flow to see if I’ve been wrong about A.A. this whole time. And maybe that’s not the optimal way to start out, but it’s the only way I could start out. I showed up because I had no where else to go, and no one else to talk to, and my life’s been better this month than it was two months ago. Do I think this is the doing of a “higher power”? Nope. But I can’t discredit the positivity that’s developed from simply attending meetings and talking to other people who struggle with issues similar to my own. Yesterday I attended two such meetings.
What flowed through the first was a theme of how to deal with pain, both physical and emotional, while the second was aimless, rambling, and largely worthless for me. But what both helped me remember is that life exists outside of my own head, and the problems I’m facing are hardly the worst that mankind has ever witnessed. And all-in-all, if that’s what I take away from the day… holy crap, that’s powerful. And that’s what I’m trying to build on. About three years after going through the treatment process myself, I began researching the fundamentals behind numerous recovery methods and relevant psychology branches to better understand the addiction and recovery process on a larger scale. And right now I’m back to where I began four years ago: With a blue book in my hands, trying to figure out just how the hell “a Power greater than [myself] can restore [me] to sanity.” But I’m not just reading The Big Book, I’m reading that and Jack Trimpey’s Rational Recovery; that and numerous websites and forums dedicated to the eradication of A.A., sussing out the truth that it’s a “cult”; that and resources championing A.A. as the foundation from which a better life can be built.
There’s the aim: compassion, tolerance, and understanding. You know, shit like that…
Yesterday I was talking to someone prior to my second meeting and discussion somehow landed on how I was sitting at the bar at a T.G.I. Friday’s a few days back waiting for a friend to show up for dinner, and how the smell of the stale bar-back was a little nauseating. This person — and bless her heart — gave me the stink-eye and demanded to know if my “sponsor” was aware that I was going to bars. I said no. This person’s stink-eye turned into a stink-face. I asked what response they were looking for from me. I was told that “The Program” dictates that we shouldn’t go to bars or be around alcohol for a year, which was followed by a couple anecdotal stories of how the struggle of temptation is simply too great to bear in such scenarios, so we best not put ourselves, as alcoholics, in such a position.
However deaf the ears might have been, I argued that the blanket advice is helpful, but it doesn’t speak to individual triggers, histories, and habits. I was at “the bar” because I showed up way too early and didn’t want to sit in a booth in a restaurant, bored and alone for an hour in the middle of the day while the close-captioned versions of a couple of my favorite sports talk shows were readily available on big screens but a dozen yards away. Sitting there I was no closer to losing my mind than I was an hour earlier simply because of my proximity to a substance. By sheer defiance, I’m pretty sure I lost that debate, but I feel victorious in trying to stand up for what makes sense to me without backing away out of politeness. She might be in her 50s (late-40s?) but nothing she was saying was coming from her heart, just from a place of indoctrination (see: A.A. as a “cult”). I like talking about this stuff because I like growing as a person, and right now I really feel like I’m doing that. I keep showing up to meetings not because I hit rock-bottom and lost everything, but because of all I have to gain, personally, by setting my life on a healthier course. Hopefully this “book” becomes the manifestation of my effort.
Last night I texted one of my fantasy football buddies (one of my best friends, and also a teammate on that basketball squad) and mentioned this sobriety twist in my story. He responded, “Nice man. I like that.” To be honest, I’m not hating it, myself.
“Suicide” (Originally published October 2, 2012)
I’m a little torn here. I almost feel like suicide is something that should either be talked about without reservation, or not talked about at all… Which is why I don’t really know that I should be writing anything. In this video Ze Frank says it’s like a virus, and that it can spread from one person to the next — how true that is of a lot of destructive behavior. When I was in college I knew a girl who was dealing with tremendous night terrors, where she’d start thrashing around at night, still asleep, yelling and kicking until she woke herself up, only to then think she was still trapped in the world which her mind had created for her. I can’t imagine what that’d be like, fearing sleep. She took medication, but that didn’t help much. She sought therapy, but in the small college town we lived in the options were very limited. She told me one day that she had been using another coping mechanism in her life: To help manage the pressure, and take control of her emotions, she would cut herself. This was a new concept for me, and I didn’t really understand it at first. It didn’t take long before it made complete sense though.
For some reason I have a harder time talking about cutting than I do suicide, but both are destructive outlets for release that I’ve used to try and get through, or escape, living. Part of the reason that I started attending meetings at a local sober house in August wasn’t because I was strung out (to be fair, I sort of was), but because I could see my mind drifting, opening up possibility for that dark cloud of self-destruction to return. I was confused, about a lot of things, and after finding no help from local outlets that are supposed to be able to at least point me in the right direction, I decided that just being in a room with people was better than being in a room by myself. I was right.
Talking about suicide is a hard thing to do, and I still don’t know the right way to even approach discussion of it. Whether or not this is ever true, it seems easy for those who haven’t struggled with crippling depression to offer catch-all, broad-stroke advice to those in need of support, or to say, “seek help,” or “you’re not alone,” or “it will get better.” And that pisses me off. What pisses me off more is that even coming from someone who continues to struggle through suicidal ideations years after a failed attempt at ending my own life, that’s about all the advice even I can offer.
I don’t know what good there is that can come from putting this out there, but maybe in some universal-positive-lifeforce-energy kind of way, it’s just my way of taking the aluminum foil down that has been covering my windows, and setting a tone within the tiny, little community that I live in. And if by some odd chance someone reads this who feels like a miserable sack of shit, who’s working a soul-crushing job to pay for a house that they purchased because that’s what grown-ups do, who’s getting shuttled to and from that dreadful job by friends they don’t even like because they lost their driver’s license, who’s as depressed when medicated as they are normally, who doesn’t get any reprieve from therapy, who feels like their family would be better off without the burden of dealing with an emotional train-wreck on a daily basis… just know that it actually does get better. The dark clouds will return, maybe even for as long as you’re alive, but it’s just a matter of recognizing that things are hardly ever as bad as they might seem. And if you can’t remind yourself of that and things appear their most bleak, you’d be surprised who will show up on your doorstep in order to talk you off of that ledge. People care. You’re not alone.
“Three O’Clock A.M.” (Originally published October 12, 2012)
I woke up this morning at three o’clock a.m. to the sound of rain on the tin roof that lines the outer shell of the apartment building I live in. I’m on the top floor and that puts little room between me and the sound. Normally I enjoy the echo of the rain pounding down in sheets, the wind drawing it to and from the building such that when the sky exhales it sounds like a wet towel slapping the back-side of the building. But not last night. Last night I laid in my bed, angry that I couldn’t sleep, bitter about the lack of control I had in the moment to re-escape consciousness, and the reality of the day that had put me in such a foul mood in the first place. I wasn’t angry at anything or anyone in particular — not at the rain, not even at myself — just generally unhappy with the feelings that kept returning in sporadic intervals, bookending laughter, endorphin highs, and brief moments of everyday zen.
I woke up this morning at seven o’clock a.m. to the sound of my alarm but all was not forgotten. I remembered the rain that I hated, and the inexplicable feeling that soiled my otherwise “fine” day prior to the night’s unwelcomed interruption. I cracked an eye, read a text on my phone, replied, and returned my head, face down on the pillow. Another buzz on my phone, another half-conscious effort, another pillow flop, the mind unwilling to return fully from the departure. When I awoke again, whatever it was that was in my head was gone.
Three O’Clock A.M.s don’t happen that often, but when they come I’m told to ride out the emotional storm, recognizing that the mental tides are constantly shifting, sometimes unpredictably so. Weeks can pass without issue, then at once, without reason, a volatile mood strikes and life is stripped of its flavor.
Depression is just a word, but the uncontrollable feelings that suck me in and inexplicably warp everything around me go well beyond the power that ten simple letters wield.
“Love and Death” (Originally published November 9, 2012)
Yesterday morning at 4:40 A.M. my mom’s mom passed away. She was 90 years old. I have no idea who she really was though. About two weeks ago one of my parents’ neighbors died in his sleep. He wasn’t very old. He was a nice guy, and was very kind to my folks. About seven months ago my parents put our family pet down. It was a small bichon shih tzu named Eddie. I named Eddie after a hard-partying hockey player, my childhood hero. At times Eddie could be a pretty good dog to have around.
Even considering recent events, death really hasn’t played much of a role in my life. The people who essentially served as my adopted grandparents are both gone, but while I cared for them it wasn’t exactly foundation-shaking news when word came of their passing. Never having been close to my real grandparents, the three that died during the last decade or so had no real impact on me. My dad’s dad died long ago. As for my immediate family members and relatively close relatives: some are more alive than others, but they’re all still here.
When my parents’ neighbor passed I received an email around midnight letting me know what happened. That night I sat awake awhile, thinking about death. In elementary school one of my best friends died in a car accident. It had been a while since I’d actually thought about him. He, his brother, his sister, and his mother, all died driving home from visiting family for Easter in Saskatchewan. Sadly, the father, who had stayed behind in Calgary (I can’t remember if he had to work, or what it was) survived them all. All three were in separate grades in our elementary school, and I remember how everyone came together for a terribly emotional assembly in the wake of the accident. There were a lot of people — both big people and little people — who were very confused about things when that happened. I was one of them.
I don’t really remember much else about that time aside from a couple of strange moments. For instance, I vaguely recall the outline of a ridiculous lie I told a grief counselor in class, about how I had seen the crash in a magazine and something-or-other about seat-belt safety. For whatever reason, that memory still leaves me feeling guilty and embarrassed. Then there was a girl in the grade’s other class of students (her name was Trista — no idea how I remember that) who asked me if I was friends with the boy (his name was Greg, and yes, I was). I also have this weird out-of-body type memory — the kind where you can see the whole wide-angle scene, as if watching it in a movie — where I was walking home with a neighborhood girl who didn’t go to my school, telling her that I wished I had a punching bag full of chains to hit, because that’s how angry I was. Even as a kid I was typically full of shit.
Last week a friend and I were going back and forth, talking about how people come and go in our lives. The conversation wasn’t about death though, but about love. Either way, loss feels its worse when those lost are those we love.
When I think of love I remember the first elementary school girlfriend, innocent junior high flirtations, a solid high school crush, the first “real” love, and later a woman who challenged my views on fatherhood, and whether or not I could see myself picking up such a position. But love has always been a weird thing for me. Love is a weird thing for most people, I think. And that sort of love isn’t even what love’s always been for me. I loved Greg just like I’ve loved a lot of people, and even right now I love a number of friends. Sitting here, it just sort of struck me how fortunate I am that I even have friends who mean enough to me that I’d actually care if they died. It’s a wild ride, love and death.
The shifting personal definition of what love is often presents itself as a difficult terrain to navigate in terms of how we reconcile its meaning with our actions toward those who we express the feeling for. And when that person is gone, whether they die or the relationship merely stops existing, it’s strange how some feelings linger while others become Photoshopped in our minds, taking on new lives of their own post-mortem. This afternoon a small group of family members will bury my mom’s mom. What happened with the neighbor, I’m not sure. As for Eddie, her ashes now sit in a small nondescript box. Someone at some point in time loved each of them though, and that love will continue to linger, sometimes lost or misplaced, sometimes positioned as firmly as it ever was. Of course, in the end we’ll all die. I guess the hope is, though, that when we die we die as one of the loving and one of the loved.
“Old White Men for Obama” (Originally published November 30, 2012)
I’m walking to the gym and I catch a glimpse of someone up ahead of me, standing behind an S.U.V. As I get closer I realize that it’s a woman and she’s taking a picture of something with her phone. As I get closer still, I realize that it’s a slightly-past-college-age girl taking a picture of a bumper sticker that reads “Old White Men for Obama.” Hashtag: blog-worthy.
She sees me seeing her capturing the moment, and I smile at her. Seemingly embarrassed, she smiles back while saying something and turns to head the other way — the same way I’m heading. I take my earbuds out only to catch nothing she says, and I speak up, trying my best to be spontaneous and funny, “So, who do you like more? Old white men or Obama?”
Appearing momentarily speechless, she says something quickly under her breath about men before moving on to how she does actually like Obama. It was a strange question posed to her by a strange man walking alone on a Friday night, a man who also could have been an angry Republican freshly bitter about the election, attempting to sabotage her innocent moment of Instagramming with an anti-Obama rhetoric-bomb. I didn’t realize that until I said it. I’m not sure how I would have answered my question if I was her. We walked together for somewhere between an instant and a moment before it all occurred to me.
“I didn’t realize how creepy that might have sounded — being an older white man asking you if you like old white men.” She sort of laughed and said she was thinking about what she might have looked like, her taking pictures of bumper stickers. I said I’d forget the whole thing if she would. We agreed and mentally shook on it. Nice girl.
It had been a good day prior to that moment, but the culmination of things appeared to have contributed to a timely wave of physical energy. I smiled my way through the workout. While walking home I came across a gathering of police cars not far from my apartment, blocking off one side of traffic across from the grocery store I was heading to. I purchased dinner and continued walking home before I saw a tall man overlooking what had to be seven or eight cop cars. Each of the vehicles had their lights set on strobe, and number of officers in reflective vests were assuming various form of police business across a city block. I walked up to the tall man and asked him what he thought had happened. He pointed at somewhere around ten o’clock to where there was something still in the street, broken, which I couldn’t quite make out: Wreckage of some sort that had colors I associate with children’s toys. I didn’t really want to think about it. We talked for a minute about the dangers of jaywalking before he mumbled something about making it home safe to eat his ice cream. I slapped my grocery bag and told him that’s what I was hoping to do, too.
After dinner I scooped a bowl’s worth and ate my ice cream in front of the television. In hindsight, I probably should have introduced myself.
“Annihilate Agenda Spam” (Originally published January 9, 2013)
Having moved from Nashville in December of 2011, I spent January of 2012 settling in to a new apartment and job in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I made some new friends, grew a bitchin’ ponytail, and things were going alright for a while. Smooth sailing didn’t last too long though, and I ended up quitting my job. I was in a wedding party, so I stuck around for a bit, but by the end of March I left Iowa. At 28 I moved back in with my parents. Seriously. So, given my situation, I did what any 28 year old bachelor living with their parents would do and I grew a scraggly depression beard. I also walked away from what had been my online home for the previous seven years, turning over the keys for some quick cash to help me get by until I figured things out.
I eventually got antsy just kicking around and hopped on a train bound for Montana to visit a friend. A few weeks later I took a Greyhound to Des Moines, and another to Kansas City, before things fell apart again. I busted up my ankle something fierce, and lugged my worthless swollen limb home on another bus back to Minneapolis (with tail firmly between legs). Somewhere along the way I re-grew man-boobs. I also decided to move back to Nashville. (It’s a helluva town.)
I made my transitional plans on the go and set up a place to live over Craigslist. I loaded up a moving truck and drove my stuff from Minneapolis to Nashville. A month later I secured a new apartment in the building I’d previously lived in, re-loaded my stuff into another moving truck, and with the help of some amazing friends, hauled my things up three flights of stairs into my new apartment. One step forward, two steps back: another emotional breakdown. But this time I reacted differently… My hair was getting a little out of control, so I cut it off. Then I turned 29 and lost a bunch of weight. That’s my 2012… almost.
A year ago this week I set a list of goals for myself, and for the first time in forever I actually made some of the changes I said I was going to make. Not only did goals stick, but they helped me discover a version of myself that I didn’t know existed. All the breakdowns and self-sabotaging make for interesting character-development stories, but the brief little section about me getting my shit together remains the most important part of my year. Old Chris, let me introduce you to New Chris, who will continue to steer the ship from here on out. You’ve put in plenty of years and we thank you for that, but I’m sorry: your services will no longer be needed here at DeLine Co.
So, with new management firmly installed, the idea is to once again set the tone for drastic change by claiming a few bold resolutions for the coming year… because that’s what successful people do, right?
I’ve not been good about my physical health. My weight goes up, then down, then up, then down… But the ups and downs aren’t a few pounds here and there: they’re embarrassing 20 pound swings. It’s not as if the metabolism fairy cursed me with some wild dysfunction though: it happens because my tendency has been to eat and drink too much without keeping an eye out for exercise. Mystery solved: you’re fat because you eat too much. However, for most of 2012 I didn’t really do much to change my patterns. I said I was changing, and even changed for a few days at a time, but it was mostly just hot air. Until I actually changed.
I started the year weighing 225 pounds. Just a few months before that I was down around 205. See what I mean? So, I wanted to drop 40 pounds in 2012, because why not? I ended up losing about 28 pounds. Not a triumphant victory, but pretty pretty pretty pretty good. I began going to the gym every day. (I ended up reading the mammoth 1100 page Infinite Jest in its entirety while riding a stationary bike.) And I started making better decisions about what I was eating. At my lowest I was down about 33 pounds. I’ve been putting in overtime on crafting excuses to eat poorly and not work out during the holidays however, which is why I’ve gained some back.
One of the most valuable mental changes I started making to help this process has just been to ask myself “what is it I really want?” Not only that, but I also started demanding answers. No more waffling. Because of this I’ve started to become more present and this self-questioning has slowly changed from being a forced practice to an automatic response: What am I doing, what is the likely outcome, and does it help or hurt my goals? It’s almost too simple. But it’s not like the guide to living well is restricted to deciphering ancient Sumerian tablets, ripe with volumes of convoluted prophetic wisdom. The concepts are easy, the doing is difficult.
In this context, agenda spam is the T.V. show that I “want” (there’s that word again) to watch. Agenda spam is the junk-food that I “want” to eat, it’s the snooze-button I “want” to hit, it’s the urge to not “want” to do sit-ups, and it’s the aimless Internet browsing I “want” to partake in. Granted, sometimes you gotta just blow things off and relax. Youbetcha. But y’know what feels better than waking up late and watching The Fresh Prince for a few hours while OD-ing on Grumpy Cat photos? Doing things. Actually doing things that matter beyond serving temporary “want”s.
I figured I could lose 40 pounds if I tried, maybe, but I didn’t know why exactly I was trying, which is partially why I didn’t start, and why I’ve always put the weight back on. But the picture became more clear this year. The weight isn’t really just weight to me. Family and friends have told me that I shouldn’t worry about it so much, but physically looking “better” wasn’t the point of wanting to lose weight. I don’t want a gut and man-boobs, that’s for sure, but, y’know, those things happen. Same goes for being “healthier”… it’s nice in theory, but it’s never been important in practice. It turns out that I wanted to lose weight because of what losing weight actually represents to me. It’s unmet potential.
I know I can do better, but when it comes down to it I wasn’t eating healthier and exercising because I didn’t give two shits one way or the other about myself. It’s a sad truth, but it is the truth. Putting weight on at scary rates hasn’t just been me getting fat, it’s been a physical manifestation of my attitude of not-giving-a-shit. When I recognized that I started trying. And things started changing. And I started giving a shit. Then I started trying more. And things started changing more. And when my actions began to prove that change was not merely hypothetical, the “fuck it” attitude stopped returning because it was no longer welcome. As my old Economics professor used to say: That dog don’t hunt. Not no more, it don’t.
In 2013 I’m going to lose the rest of the 40 pounds. I’m almost there. When I do that it will be the first year I didn’t lose weight, only to gain all it all back in the matter of months. It’s going to feel good, but again: the weight isn’t really the aim here… the lifestyle tweaking that facilitates the weight loss is the goal. That’s what I’ve been missing and to some degree, that’s what I’ve never actually had. I am physically and mentally capable of losing weight. I’ve lost a minimum of 20 pounds every year for the past four years. I’ve done the work, I’ve put in the hours, but I’ve also gained the weight right back. Until I get the day-to-day lifestyle changes down, the potential for dramatic swings will continue to exist. I can upgrade my sandwich to a foot-long for only $2, or I can not. I can avoid going to the gym or I can go. What is it I really want? Okay. Good. Now do it.