No One’s Thing to Write a Song About

My qualms and concerns since commencing this westward expansion have been fairly consistent – money. Not a day passes that I don’t become overwhelmed by fear, but this is far from anything new. There is a somewhat separate concern, of not finding a way to make a living doing what I want to do. But this, too, just as easily becomes about money. Unless the culture changes dramatically, I will need reliable income to live, and I am not at any point of comfort with regards to it. I’d like to say that I’m close, but I’m probably not. At best my future is [pock]marked by uncertainty. This alone can trigger the familiar, rising, surging, all-encompassing panic that is impossible to make friends with. Maybe I can say to myself, someday, that cheesy postlude about it all being worth it in the end, but I certainly wouldn’t say it now. I’m not there yet. There is certainly joy in my life, but it comes in small bursts. In between, my mind tends to race back and forth, like strands of rope being pulled in opposite directions, always tense and taut. It’s another part of me that isn’t new, but is nonetheless an eternal challenge.

Since I arrived in my Pacific abode, I’ve been charging forward with my music, playing as many ‘open mics’ as possible. It stems from necessity as much as desire – I know virtually no one around here, so it fulfills a social as well as occupational purpose. I also get my most joy from playing for an appreciative crowd to good effect. However, I have to constantly be restoring my faith in its usefulness, since it is an inherently impractical thing. It is a difficult life, to exert so much energy towards a highly uncertain end. Of course, music is not the only thing I’m able to do well, but it’s probably the only skill I have that has a literal voice of its own. My artwork is what it is; it does not scream and howl. But music is harder to ignore. It is its own language. The thing that I enjoy the least is writing lyrics, because I find it can just as easily detract from the beauty of the rhythm and the melody. When I play music, it works better when words are the last thing on my mind. The way I write songs is always music first, lyrics second. And many times this terminal step can get in the way. It all improves the more I play in front of people. And I suspect it will continue to. I do not think in words – not even when I’m writing, as I am now. One could say that integrating them into my life has been the root challenge; analogous to making my skills ‘marketable’. I simply cannot justify doing something for the sole purpose of money. I have tried. It doesn’t work. In fact, it often causes problems, especially for others.

My life is scarcely rapturous; and is at times relentlessly lonely and uncertain. I once had a poster in my room titled ‘how to be an artist’ followed by many tidbits, one of which was ‘make friends with freedom and uncertainty’. It is very much a part of me. So is the anxiety and fear that can accompany it. But, it was never a choice – I did not choose this life. It chose me.



“…I’m going to go over there now.”

About five years ago, I was happy with a fair amount of legitimately earned dough. I imagine one expects the next development to be ‘and then I blew it all and now i’m broke’ – it’s not; though it was the case once. At times my credit card hangs by a thread, and I’ve developed an active fear of viewing my balance. I suppose this is just financial future-phobia mixed with a compulsion to envision the worst case scenario. It was only in the past year that I truly committed myself to being an artist, and as such, put all aspirations of wealth out of my mind.

In Sickness and in Wealth

postmodern, me in nam nyet-no one.

Astutely observed (not by me) was the similarity to the famous Vietnam war image.

It has been a few weeks too long

The extent of seemingly baseless acts I have witnessed in the interim has been shocking and almost beyond pretense of sanity. I would never harm myself or anyone else, so it sits heavily on my at-times-world-weary mind. There was a sizable gap between my last post and this one, and there was a reason for it – the last relationship I had crumbled in one of the worst ways imaginable – gradually, distantly, and with many uncontrollable undermining factors working to not make it work. What ultimately ended it were words, and only words. Hence, I stayed away from writing for a long time.  I also stopped reading as frequently. I dove headfirst and headlong into my art and music – my true, lifelong passions, that I always loved but until only recently could never immerse myself in due to a disabling health problem. I’ll come back to that later.

When I would see her, call her Sheera, at first, there was no barrier; no secrecy. We had been attending the same weekly group for several months, and I knew from the beginning I was attracted to her, and similar vibes vice versa, but the opportunity to approach her never seemed to present itself. She seemed almost preternaturally distant, as if she felt hopelessly stuck in the present circumstances, with a boyfriend she would complain about [early on] frequently. She was around three years older than I was, and had an 11 year-old son from a previous marriage. This, naturally, gave me a lot of pause; not even in my dreams had a child been part of my life. It would be a very challenging thing even if it were to get anywhere, and I was certainly treading on unfamiliar ground with regards to her already having a boyfriend. It took a while for me to tell myself I was ready to take the plunge, to whatever end – after talking for an hour or so we exchanged numbers, and I told her that I wouldn’t be offended if she didn’t call back. It was not entering my mind that there was a possibility of a relationship; I was only hoping to lend an ear if she wanted to talk, because she seemed to have a lot to say and nobody to talk to. I wanted to help, and I was romantically attracted to her, so two good reasons led me to nimbly leap over an extension cord and dash out the door before she could escape. She’d seemed particularly hopeless this time, and I could relate to her unique situation, which was the icebreaker.

Unwittingly, it was the beginning of the end for me, when she texted me back the next day to say that she mostly preferred it to calling back and forth. Naturally we would continue to see each other after meetings once a week. But the texting grew to be quite immersive, and while I enjoyed it (I was recovering from a failed relationship, myself) I was also apprehensive that this was all it would ever amount to. Many times I told her that I couldn’t just text back and forth all day; I had already told her I liked her; she told me twice, with sincerity and on the phone, that she had a crush on me. And to call it a crush – that word itself has a certain feeling of doom about it – was going to make this a heck of a lot more complicated. At the time, though, I was happy that there was some kind of mutual attraction. My history is littered with instances of them that were never able to get off the ground for various reasons, not the least of which was my cool, if chilly, exterior which hid the fact that I’d very little experience in relationships, due to a prolonged, plagued, and hellish adolescence which became the norm; I had accepted by about ninth grade that life was all just pain anyway so I might as well go all-out if there were any possible way to counter or mitigate it. A good relationship could certainly make it easier.

It took me till age twenty six, having spent everything I had saved and even more into credit card debt, to finally confirm that truth for me. Two years earlier I’d found a natural, legal herbal remedy, through the internet, that made the persistent anguish suddenly disappear, so I could be generally happy, open, and spontaneous. The real slog was a period of twelve years or so, starting in 6th grade with the first whiff of responsibility, then solidifying in middle school as girls and putative girlfriends became the reality. There would be blips on the otherwise dull and onerous plane, but it was mostly just empty hopes and dreams, or people not indisposed to exploiting a desperately naïve person for their own gain (or in one case, a prank which didn’t exactly brighten my week.) Work, for me, was ten times what it was for the next person, because there was no inherent reward nor was it ever fun. I didn’t know this until I could actually do it without being ripped into daydreaming every few minutes.  I came to despise any and all authority, to the point where it became impossible to abide by someone else’s rules imposed upon me. This runs… very… deep. It is a serious, moral thing now. To be able to look back on the years of purgatorial ‘never-there-yet’ from this vantage point, it is probable that I endured a lot more than I had to. Not one person I’ve met has ever really fully understood, and so many times it would end in the patronizing “that’s just life”.

No, that’s just your life, buddy. People weren’t going to help; they couldn’t; they never had. I liken it to a mild form of “locked-in” syndrome, in which patients are 100% aware of what’s going on, yet not are not able to communicate this with those around them. So they become treated like vegetables. I was only very marginally capable of focused work; and socially, I could only put up a front for so long. By the last semester of college, I had not a single friend at school. I was certainly ready to call it after my B.A. in psychology. What I did afterwards was anybody’s guess. I had found World of Warcraft, and in it were all my friends. And I’d saved up a lot of money (in serene prayer that it would pay off someday) and could get through the days and take care of myself with very little money. I became frugal by necessity – hope, and only hope, was the fuel.

As it turned out, the perilously addictive scourge of WoW in its prime would self-extinguish within one timeless instant of icicle-shock. I could literally write a memoir revolving around that fateful moment, so I won’t go into much detail about what it involved but I’m sure one could take a pretty good guess… but I digress; With WoW went my friends, my sense of belonging, capability, responsibility, and of self-esteem. You might think, “well maybe you put too much into the game.” Of course I did. But I made the choice to dive in, and I knew it could mess up my social life – I made the choice because my own social life, at college, was fast crumbling away from the novel shake n’ bake hysteria of freshman year. It was all in the cards. Once I dove into that beautiful, immersive, endlessly interesting virtual world, the real world actually became easier. My grades improved significantly. My mood and happiness for the duration of my WoW addiction were markedly increased. I could fall asleep because I would look forward to the next day. I had somewhere to go to reliably distract myself from the “RL” problems I’d essentially resigned myself to, or put on indefinite hiatus. The real world became a nuisance. Real people became a nuisance. WoW was new and interesting, full of people from all over the globe that I at least had something in common with, even if it was something so bitterly ironic as collectively inhabiting anonymous avatars in a fictional world, and organizing ourselves into extremely difficult 40-man raids for a shot at some great loot to make our characters stronger – the never-ending component of these games; a timelessness both great in its power and terrible in its swift justice.

But nothing in the game itself made me quit. It was a person in my life. A girl (let’s call her Kira). Naturally. It is a weakness of mine, but at the time, a very serious one for me given that I was the age I was and had not found true love yet. It was a moral choice in that I refused to involve myself with people that I didn’t feel something strongly for. As above, it was one of those examples of a potential thing that never could ignite – we were talking on the phone, video chatting, etc, but were separated in age (she was 18, I, pushing 24) and distance (she lived across the country on a different coast) My life started to improve at twenty-five after a severe, trial-by-fire crucible of persistent, nagging, reliving and hoping and believing and praying that it would work out in the end. I was naïve, but also realistic in believing this could have been the only chance at true love I’d ever get. I did all I could. Never went overboard. It just didn’t work out… the post-traumatic stress went on for months after, with nothing – literally nothing – I could go to as a reliable distraction. WoW had ever-so-insidiously and gradually undermined my life, and a girl getting a boyfriend suddenly shocked the reality into, well, reality. The air conditioner started talking as I attempted to meditate to divest my thoughts of their bludgeoning, unbelievably severe encroachment. As is so rare and, in hindsight, precious in my life, I had to call someone because I actually needed help. And they did, but the damage (some might call experience) was done, and even initial recovery would take a long, seemingly infinite few months. I had mostly gotten over it but had also partly given up on all conventional methods of self-help. I needed to zero in on the problem – or rather, as so happened – the exact place the problem lay – in my mind.

While wandering sketchily through the campus of my elementary school at night, searching for answers in my past, the smell of opium – to me the aroma of the Gods themselves – recalled a couple memories of being pain-free in the past; I knew it was legal to grow poppies, so I tried, failed, but just so happened upon another plant, legal and totally mysterious, that finally “unlocked” my mind from its torment.

The caveats reared themselves one by one. For one thing, It worked too well. It was like hitting a golf ball with a tennis racket; it evened out my moods, was stimulating enough for me to stay attentive, and most importantly eliminated the mental pain which allowed me to smile and hold it for a while, in earnest, for the first time in 12 years.  It made me happy to be happy. So nothing else really mattered that much. I finally found a girlfriend (by pure chance she landed right next door at my apartment) and just enjoyed it to the fullest. My work ethic, though never more than threadbare at best, disappeared. That was also kind of part of the appeal to her, I think, the conviction and carefree attitude, with a candid, full awareness of being dependent on this then-marvelously mysterious legal plant. The other two caveats – it was physically and psychologically addictive, and it was expensive. When I say addictive I mean it; the withdrawals were the worst pains I’ve ever experienced in my life – but it was not dangerous. My time with her was limited only to how long I could last until my resources were gone. And they did go, across the board. But not before I saw a doctor in Sausalito (we’d moved to San Francisco for six months when she got a job there) that ended up giving a glimmer of hope on an otherwise bleak horizon. Even as she left, I felt hope, and even as I drove back from the airport having lugged two guitars and two cats onboard across the country, my father having had to pick me up and drive me to my childhood home – it was terrifying but strangely serene, as I was yet again tasked with rebooting my life.

I have dealt with one major disability my entire life – and it is quite unknown to almost everyone, owing to its sheer rarity. Three in a thousand people have Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (formerly syndrome, shortened to DSPD). Also, there is a strong genetic link between it (DSPD) and ADHD (Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder). At some point very early in my life or perhaps before it, I fell through the first hoop and then the other – both are fairly distanced from mental illness and fall more often in the ‘disability’ category, since they tend to be lifelong and better understood as a simple difference in brain physiology. But the greatest contributor to my sour, often brutal adolescence was the lack of sleep caused by the DSPD. I would have to get up by 7:15 at the latest, then be ‘in bed’ by midnight. The problem was, my body wanted to fall asleep later and wake up later (provided there are no stressors, I naturally fall asleep around 5-6 and wake up around 2-3.) So, night after night I would get five or six hours of sleep, for literally ten years. On weekends, I would still be wrenched out of bed at 11 by the piercing yell from downstairs, but given the chance I could sleep till 2, 3, even 4:45 once. The sleep deprivation, and the anxiety at bedtime, had a cumulative effect on literally every aspect of my life. My interests, emotions, friendliness, and sociability all dulled. My motivation went to zero (probably had something to do with hating and fearing every morning of every day) and the challenge in school was never the work – it was summoning the focus, the desire, the… well, it ended up just being waiting until crunch time, every time. I did it because the alternative seemed far worse. With this attitude I stayed in B+’good enough’ territory, though it was extremely difficult, for all the wrong reasons. I was distracted, daydreaming, nodding off but never falling asleep. At home I was constantly needing to do something enjoyable to distract my mind – video games, computer games, things with a lot of things going on at once. For lack of a better term, ADHDers don’t work serially, i.e. step-by-step; it makes our brains switch off. Some fidget; others daydream – I was the latter to a tee. A day-dreamer in wake and a never-dreamer at night. In short, zombie incarnate, with a masterful ability to blend in the background, because I could not show that there was something really wrong with me. Not especially as an adolescent, but not especially, ever. Something had to give, and give it did – its name was Kratom.

Kratom, in the same category of ‘I bet you’ve never even heard of this’ is an extremely powerful plant, if you can swallow it, literally. Many can’t even swallow it due to the bitterness of the leaf. Most people vomit. I never did. I think it was partly my being a vegetarian for nearly ten years beforehand. For me it was perfect, bliss, the solution to all and all within all, whatever… There was always that dreamless sleep or 12-hour Star Trek binge on the horizon. It’s a stimulant-narcotic-opioid, or to put it bluntly a natural speedball. A mood for every occasion. In other words, don’t start, please ;). Since there’s so little actual danger caused by the addiction, it makes sense that it’s legal. If you get seriously hooked you are as screwed as the heroin junkie; both end in rock bottom, and it varies by life and circumstance; I hit mine and I snapped a photograph around it time-wise:

the nadir of me?

the AWJ is for A-junk e-perfect-whatever, water world.

I went to treatment, and the treatment helped. People often seem mystified by how willing I was to commit to it, but the fact was, I knew my life could not plummet much further, plus, I had a strangely strong faith that buprenorphine (an opioid replacement therapy, overall far less risky than methadone) would be a crucial key to getting off kratom. And it was. It cleared my head and stabilized me. I stopped taking kratom immediately, as well as everything else (never far beyond gray market legality, but potent things nonetheless).

I was invigorated. My hope was renewed. I tapered down to a very low dose of buprenorphine, and as I did that nearly every aspect of my life gradually improved – finally, after 28 years, I could be a focused, productive person actually reaching for and realizing what I knew I was, at some level, capable of. Still, my money couldn’t ever catch up to the debt, though it got closer and closer. Sheera never obviously needed my money, but like Kira her sudden bitter departure took an emotional and spiritual toll, such that I literally had to do my artwork and my music; they were my twin passions throughout life, and they really helped me get through the moratorium with relative grace this time around. It didn’t make me too pleasant to be around, but, I was at least dealing with it in a healthy way. For once I could say it for real. Then crappy things started happening, and they got crappier, and now it’s come to a head. The feeling of injustice runs as deep as my mistrust in authority – it’s rooted in the hard, cold fact that I feel like I’m FINALLY living my life and now it’s being taken away! Oh, the humanity… Woe is me for now, and how! That was a long one folks. But, I think it’s good and worth telling (otherwise why would I post it? :) Peace.

Just because I have to, now, all images and text posted here will be ©Andrew W. Jagger (mean face)

On Going to Fall Asleep – The last moment beforezzz.

As I’ve probably said many times in this blog, sleep has been a colossal problem for all of my conscious life. Throughout middle and high school I could never seem to fall asleep, despite cumulative tiredness. It was as if, at 8pm, some switch went on in my brain that signaled the morning rather than night. I would be lying in bed for hours, twisting and turning, worrying and often agonizing about how painful it would be to wake up by 7:30, as late as possible in order to make the 8:15 starting bell. My clock would say 11, then 12, then 1, then 2, then 3. I learned to not look at it so much, but it remained the sole red light in my darkening room of brooding concern. When I finally did fall into my own natural slumberland, it would always be past one, so I would be waking up for ten years or so on a “generous” estimate of 6 hours per night. Apparently the ideal is 9 hours per night in adolescence. I would of course sleep till 10-11-12 on weekends, as well as nap for maybe 30 minutes once in a while after watching the back-to-back syndicated Simpsons reruns on Fox – which I would watch every weekday, religiously, for my entire 7th-12th grade stint. But it was fast becoming a lifelong problem. At present and consistently for the last decade, I still cannot fall asleep until everyone else around me is, and it’s impossible to sleep in any sort of exposed place. The only times I ever seem to be able to sleep ‘on command’ are when I’m on car trips with one person I trust. Otherwise, I have no control over when I will sleep – I can only estimate a range of hours in which it’s probable. About once every two weeks I stay up all night and all the next day, purposefully, so as to reset the tenuous schedule a bit.

In school, it would never, ever add up. The moment I knew it wasn’t a normal thing to have gone through was when, as a freshman in college, a friend brought up the topic of waking up in the morning and how sometimes it was nice to greet the new day – “you can’t deny it, once in a while…” I think he said. But I was being utterly serious when I said I never once enjoyed waking up in the morning. “Oh… really? Weird.” That summer or the next, I would see a sleep specialist doctor. By the stereotypical standards the meeting was exceptionally swift and unequivocal, even with me wearing my typical grim, clay-like morning expression and similarly formless, directionless state of mind. He simply had my mother and I explain it for a matter of minutes, then quietly, confidently scribbled something on a yellow post-it note and handed it to me: “delayed sleep phase syndrome”. It was a ‘textbook case’ as he put it. ‘It works fine if you’re a musician or an artist’ was the next thing he said. At that point I’d long known music and art to be my best talents, but I was still in limbo as to how to… do… anything… for a career, or to even make money at all. We were briefed on the two limited options for treating it. At that point it was just starting to be understood; as of 2013 it is officially recognized as a disorder, DSPD, and a disability.)

Within ten minutes of entering the building we were out the door. Both of us were very nearly silent for the 15-minute ride back home. I had a distinct-but-muffled feeling of closure, amidst the confusion of everything else.  I could not blame my parents because they could not have known about it, but sometimes I am haunted by the mornings when I would be very cold (in sleep the body temperature drops) and huddled next to the space heater, praying that some day it would all work out, or at least resolve in some way. I’ll never know how much it affected me permanently, but I know it was significant. In school I was like a ghost – invisible, cold, mellow-serious, sarcastic-apathetic – “cool.” But quiet, always very, very quiet. Others would be talking; engaged in the class, animated. I lost all love for school very quickly as my peers seemed to rapidly outpace me socially. I was outside the sphere. A ‘social reject’ as a friend in 7th grade bluntly (but aptly) described it. I was numb to that kind of thing… I was cool. I could always be cool. But I could never be much more because my identity was very unclear. At college commencement, I was a bitter man, never having had a girlfriend, nor any chummy friends past freshman and sophomore year. I did okay early on in college because of the novelties I could avail myself of; some would help create social bonds. Life is better with people in it. Life is way better with a significant other to share a close relationship. But, it’s not too bad to live alone – as with most things, you get used to it.

How to Save a Planet

philodendron leaf on b&w bg

The hand reaching through the darkness shadows’ light.

This is a very big and very simple idea. For the moment, try to ignore the irony of words being highly subjective, and of the annoying fact that there is no less clunky a word for something so important. But know that art and music are more efficient, historically proven, and powerful modes of communication than strings of words. They predate writing by millions of years, and are the basis for all forms of communication, which in turn led to an ability to collaborate and make a society into a civilization.

In fact words are a combination of pictorial and aural information; both sensed and perceived. They are no more than symbols which we attribute meaning to. You may read the word “nature” and think of the woods and the wilderness; the birds and the bees; all that is fully removed from the synthetic-seeming world of everyday life. Another person may read “nature” and think of all the world, including humanity, as being part. Some words are far less open-ended, such as ‘box’, but everyone will have in their mind a prototype for what a box really is – the thing that can be called a box out of convenience and fluency of conversation. Words like “the” and “and” are almost universally understood but difficult to define and impossible to reduce further – as such they are the purest words, unburdened by complexity. They are still, however, only symbolizing exactly what we read them to be.

With all that having been said, a book is a collection of words grouped into phrases and [usually] subdivided into sections. All the phrases, verses, sentences, passages, chapters are none but groups of symbols on a page or screen or background of some kind. Just as the word is subjective, since it can be interpreted in infinite ways, a book is the same, multiplied by as many words as there are. Infinity times infinity. Regardless of who the author was, the book will stand alone, open to [over]interpretation. If it were a picture book, there would be no argument – but something about words lends itself to conflict, and unfortunately some apocryphal texts turn meaningless lives into mindless and dangerous cults. All because of the fear of accepting fate, so to speak – “true knowledge comes in admitting you know nothing” – it took me a long time to see the beautiful truth behind these words, and yet I probably could have seen it sooner if I’d only let go of my preconceptions for a little while.

We cannot have constant squabbling over who is right and who is wrong; who is ‘chosen’ and who is not – it is ludicrous to think that this is at all beneficial to the world, because it is selfish by nature. All the warring in the past has been rooted in disagreement over who is correct, when neither side is. It is the most nefarious force working against humanity – groupthink; siding with the majority in order to belong. Or, simply, to give order to the scary chaotic world all around. How long it will take for people to see that the world is neither scary nor chaotic, but in fact, endlessly imaginative, and simple yet beautiful in its complexity, is beyond me. But that is what has to occur for us to take our nuclear arms and put them into use in space travel, rather than stockpiling them in a Dr. Strangelove-esque dystopia of mutually assured destruction (and collective fear of a ‘doomsday gap’).

Bottleneck at the Hillary Step

I am driven both inward and outward by other people who maybe were once close but now are far away but like to pretend they are still close, and people who were close but who half-willingly pushed me away out of fear that they might be sabotaging their relationships or their own lives, or social lives, or reputations, or pretty much anything, by risking getting dragged into my whirlpool of freakishly talented alienation and never getting back out. I think the truth is they know that if such a course were to be followed, they could never go back to their old ways – which they know deep down are suspect and surrounded by dubious ideals and stagnating over-easy answers to lifelong and fully unanswerable questions, and of course, other people similarly ensconced and embedded. Wedded.

The wedding is the symbol of something that has eluded me for the same reasons I have reflexively been evading it. I might muse about how it has been the cause of it, that I have been so idealistic and fiercely protective of my freedom and equally vigilant about my morality… but it feels like it will be empty lament in the end, since I just want something I cannot have without sacrificing things I cannot sacrifice… or so I may begin to believe, in this very hermit-like seclusion which itself may be a droning, looping cause-effect debate of the same nature [or nurture]. People may debate choice or proclaim a simple answer of going and finding and meeting people, but who they themselves admit that following one’s instinct is generally the best advice, and all the while making the maddeningly eternal leap of judgment that there is something broken that needs to be fixed. Inevitably they will become defensive when the reality of their own ignorant foundations begin to surface, like the French waiter in Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’ who takes us on a very long journey to his modest hovel in the countryside in order to explain the secret to living well – and in failing to do so adequately, becomes incensed and evasive, angrily stomping back to his house despite nobody even being there or talking to him. It’s truly one of those meta moments you cannot express in words as well – the person who gets angry in order to preserve his own fallacious and thoughtless way of life. So many times people just don’t want to think about such things, or do such things, or wait till their child is gone before they do – and then hide behind their children as proof of their self-worth, never willingly shedding their outer layers and living a repeating motif with the paradox of illusory change and improvement in the future. It’s a terrible tragedy to see up close, but if you want to, go and talk to any random person you know… nobody really, just somebody.

The Right is Wrong

Neon Me

Skeptical Fantasizing.

The most central issue in all questions of politics is a paradoxical one, and it never receives much attention.  It’s because bringing it up is basically a conversation stopper.  I’d imagine it would be like going to an alcohol-drenched frat party and striking up a philosophical debate; there is never a good context in which to ask the smoldering, deeply cutting question: If it’s wrong to force people to work, then how can we force people to work?

The answer is simple: we can’t.  And yet the way we deal with the eternal paradox tends to determine much about our future identity.

This morning began with me reading an editorial column in the newspaper, by a writer with a gift of presenting bourgeois problems in an lighthearted fashion.  For example, he writes about how his high-school age kids think he is “making their lives hell” and about the frequency of text messages they receive, as opposed to him (100 to 1).  It’s aimed squarely at the upper-middle-class, those that have no real life-and-death concerns and can therefore turn their attentions at the mundane problems that go along with family life.  In this particular article, consisting of a mishmash of unconnected bullet-points, he mentions that he took a few minutes to look at Thomas Kinkade’s artwork and thought it was “actually really good”.

Kinkade, the self-proclaimed “painter of light,” “most controversial artist in the world,” and “America’s most collected living artist,” had met his demise in the last month.  Every journalistic piece about Kinkade’s body of work seemed to carry an asterisk, that the art establishment generally thought his work was the epitome of commercialist kitsch, the polar opposite of fine art – worse than worthless.  He would amass a lucrative business juggernaut to distribute his paintings in various forms, and it was reported that 1 in 10 American households had at least one original Kinkade painting.

I had been meaning to wikipedia Kinkade ever since he died, but now had all the reason to.  It led me to several connected articles – “kitsch”, “schlock”, and “hipster” – all culminating in a sense of clear distaste that usually inspires me to write.

Back to the original question, though – how can society function if we can’t force people to work?  The answer is boring, but the question is not. It becomes much more interesting in light of Thomas Kinkade, kitsch, upper-middle-class liberalism, and the hipster subculture (all inextricably connected in my mind).  They all point towards a large, wholly un-creative social strata, still middle class, but still happy to be there.  It’s been said that kitsch is the type of art that people put up on their walls as a sign of advancing upward in society, rather than for the quality of the art itself.  I can clearly imagine a couple just starting to earn enough money to put the struggles of the past behind them, and in the process, buying a Thomas Kinkade original because they can.

It’s a social sickness, really, this obsession with class and materialism that signify leapfrogging the blue-collar drudge and becoming rich.  How does hipsterdom relate to all this? It’s a culture of anticulture.  It’s people who dislike other people and yet hang out together. It incorporates the positive elements of countercultures of the past – punk, grunge, hippie, beatnik – and turns them into a pretentious aesthetic.  For a lot of people, it was a way of being cool while being able to go to parties and hang out with lots of people. You just had to wear the right clothing, and a disaffected look.  It was complex enough to fool some people, but too ironic to survive very long (some say it peaked in the mid 2000s and has been in decline ever since).

As they say, birds of a feather flock together.  The herds of society exist in many different forms, and as they get more educated, they come up with even more devious ways to disguise the fact that they are too afraid to think for themselves.  It’s a lot of effort for something that, in the end, is meaningless. Unfortunately it will continue, and people will still lead hypocritical lives that hinge on material wealth.  And when they reach the point of no return, they coat themselves with memories of the past, and will never be able to realize that the painting on their wall is not beautiful – not beautiful at all.

…But Your Mind is Free

Some time back, during a semester away from college, I spent some time working in a farm community.  It was not my idea.  My fragile mental state (the reason for my unplanned sabbatical) led me to go along with the recommendations of others.  I was still at an age in which I believed the answers were just around the corner, hence, I deferred heavily to the opinions and judgments of others.

I never had any problems academically, but I rarely impressed.  I was a fringe top 15% student in high school, and ended up with a 3.0 average in college.  I got a few A’s, a few C’s, one D, and mostly B’s and B+’s.  In the whole time I never failed a class. You’d think that my attitude towards school would be a sort of blasé indifference, but in the times of most stress (papers, exams, final projects, etc.), I felt strong hostility. I always got it done, usually at the last minute, but it never got easier.  If anything, it became more difficult, as my mind slowly morphed into a free-thinking entity.

I was led to believe, as almost everyone is at some point, that my performance in school would determine the extent of my success in life.  A lot of people come to accept the rhetoric, and end up living their adult lives out of fear of breaking the foundations on which their worlds are built.  And in a lot of ways, they get exactly what they want, thus extending the shelf life of the idea introduced in the first sentence of this paragraph.  Fear of failure is a powerful motivator and deterrent.  No one wants to end up a homeless junkie begging for money on the city streets.

In any event, I was experiencing growing pains in my second semester of college, so I had to take a break.  I would have the first fall season in over 15 years outside school’s maddening and comforting walls.  The idea of working at a farm was thrust upon me as a way to regain my footing by the miraculous magic of work, community, and routine. Needless to say, the month I spent there was one of the worst of my entire life.  For the first week I slept about 2 hours a night, and aside from playing songs for the others on my guitar, it was a tortuous, imposing structure, and any free moment was quickly tainted by the realization of a brutal, impending five-hour stretches of gathering logs, tilling soil, and shoveling hay.  Instead of being able to wake up on my own time, I was to wake up earlier in the day than ever before.  It was the most imprisoned I’d ever felt in my life, and my decision to not stay was utterly absolute by the end of the first week.  I’d agreed to stay a month, though.

In that time, one moment sticks above all the others.  It was a cold, windy morning, we were in winter jackets, and a fellow worker said plainly “I’m cold and tired.”  I finally saw my opportunity to say what I’d been thinking all along: “We’re not free.” To which one of the community leaders replied, “Your mind is free.” In my momentary state of extreme tiredness, and general state of disarray, I was too foggy to question or argue with them.  If I were the person I am now, I’d probably get myself thrown out within a few days due to insubordination.

I think I would be right on one thing, though, which is that our mind isn’t free just because we happen to be doing mindless physical labor.  If you were a Buddhist monk, you might be able to feel free no matter what circumstance you are in.  For those of us that aren’t sufficiently practiced in the art of meditation, though, having rules imposed without consent tends to induce feelings of internal suffocation.  I guess that was my problem all along – that I was too insecure in my own beliefs, opinions, etc. to actually follow them.  I tried out other people’s advice, and to no one’s surprise, it didn’t work for me.

Eventually, I would start to give my inner voice more control, since I was well into my 20s, and clearly the sole guidance of others wasn’t going to take me anywhere.  And if my inner voice led me to dark places, I decided, so be it.  Life is too short to let other people decide what you should be.  And no one, anywhere, ever, can tell you your mind is free.  As the only thing we will own for a lifetime, the mind is the apprehended best from within.

There’s no Eye in Team (Reprise)

The Buddha

On occasion, you will reach a person’s “wall” and can’t see past it, at which point they are often making personal jabs at you to preserve their self-worth (“Yeah, well, what makes you so special?”). You can’t get much farther without risking serious harm to yourself or the other person.  It’s our breaking point – created via repression; a product of repeatedly justifying our moral ambiguities.

Simply put, people knowingly do bad things, and in order to live without the guilt, they push the memory to the back of their mind, outside awareness.  As more and more memories are piled on top, the pile grows so large that it becomes immovable and impenetrable.

The older you get, the bigger the wall gets, and it grows exponentially. It’s why there are racist, homophobic 85-year-olds, and why a large percentage of Americans still don’t believe in evolution or climate change. Closed-mindedness is probably the biggest obstacle for the success of one person and of humanity overall.  When you simply cannot accept that you’re wrong, you’re adding to that which is already growing in the nether regions of your mind.  Repression, as any psychiatrist knows, creates inner tension – the classic analogy being a pot of boiling water which must eventually blow off some steam.  Sprinkle in some groupthink, and you have a recipe for war.

When you reach that “wall” as described above, you are essentially bringing to light the foundational beliefs on which people have forged their entire mental lives.  Then comes “But you’re not even…”  “what makes you so good that…” etc.  Everyone has the freedom to believe what they wish, and it would be unethical to judge them based solely on said beliefs.  However, everyone also has the freedom to act on their beliefs, and that’s where the shit can really hit the fan.  I’ve seen it so many times, people’s “true colors” being revealed under duress, their real intentions made clear.

I challenge every person at every level of age, wealth, consciousness… to continually be questioning, doubting, and ultimately accepting. The concept of honor, nobility, greatness, call it what you will, is probably better than the effect of doing something bad to get something good.  To the people engaging in the latter – why not stop now?


Inflating the Shamrock Balloon.

The western world doesn’t think much of luck. The American ubermensch makes his own luck. He inspires lust in women and jealousy in men. He is something along the lines of Chuck Norris.

The phenomena of that man has endured beyond fad-status.  It started with a combination of image and cultural ideals that came together at just the right moment.  Remember the original Spiderman movie like 10 years ago?  That spawned about 100 different superhero movies which are continuing to score money at the box office, despite constantly fighting off the inherent tendency of the genre to degenerate into plot-heavy, emotionally deficient schlock. In my opinion.

“The Matrix,” though, preceded all of it – it was a movie that was timed so perfectly that its reverberations have steadily lingered in the nearly 13 years since its release.  The name of this blog references Morpheus, the ancient Greek god of dreams, who also happens to be the name of a character in the film (and without a doubt the most memorable). Lawrence Fishburne’s character is black, wears a black trenchcoat and black sunglasses that somehow remain stationary on the bridge of his nose.  He is “…the most dangerous man alive,” says a secret-government-agent-operative early in the film.  Yet he’s also a computer hacker, a thief, a martial-arts master, and has near the knowledge of Buddha himself.  It’s a delectable mix of Western independence and Eastern wisdom; Jock-like athleticism and Geek-like acumen; White and Black; black and white.

After I first saw it and “got” it, I remember suddenly imagining the world as if it were the matrix – a sheet pulled over my eyes with moving pictures corresponding to brain stimuli.  It was incredibly freeing to think that maybe, just maybe, this was all true and that all reality was a cultural invention.  It shocked me, and it also shocked the world. These were old ideas (e.g. Plato’s allegory of the cave), but through the miracle of art they were pushed into the collective consciousness of the developed world.  It distilled a crazy, totally subversive idea, unbeknownst to most, into an incredibly stylish and mind-bending two hours.  And it was an action film, so everyone could thoroughly enjoy the experience of having their entire system of beliefs and values questioned.

I was at the tender age of 15, alienated and shy at school, hooked on computers since 6th grade, and hungry for change. The film would have had a profound effect on me no matter what. Its melding of eastern and western religious themes introduced me to Buddhism and gave me hope that enlightenment lay somewhere on the distant horizon.

Growing up in the media-drenched Western world makes you feel like you have to be constantly doing something to succeed.  Success, while naturally subjective, becomes apparently clear cut: work hard, make a lot of money, achieve greatness, marry, have kids, grow old, die.  Encouraging time to think and reflect, while tacked on to almost every college commencement address, is roundly discouraged by nearly everything else.  The culture is in a rush to become rich and/or famous as quickly as possible, so much so that we are barely capable of taking a weeklong vacation without a cell phone.  I believe the internet is a good thing – something everybody should have access to at all times – but it can just as easily be abused.

It wasn’t “The Matrix” alone that made me a lifelong thinker and a dreamer, but it certainly helped. However, the media, in a country that epitomizes capitalism, does exactly what it should – it capitalizes on anything as long as it’s profitable. It’s why the Simpsons is still airing even though half of its original fans detest what it has become.  It’s why one Spiderman movie led to a hundred superhero films.  It’s why they came out with two sequels to “The Matrix,” both of which suffered severe sequel syndrome*, and why Chuck Norris is still popular.

Which brings us back to square one – why the hell is Chuck Norris famous?  He was in some fairly passable films and television series, but just happened to be a stone-faced, musclebound martial artist.  A mix of western and eastern, just like Morpheus, except he is white and real-life. America needed a real superhero, someone who was so powerful that “[his] tears can cure cancer – except he’s never cried.” No one fit the bill quite like Chuck.  So he went platinum, and being the “good” American he embraced and capitalized on his newly revamped image (just youtube Chuck Norris if you need proof).  He didn’t have to do anything, continuing the startling trend of people becoming famous for doing absolutely nothing.  In fairness, he did do a bit of film and television, but his rising to superstar-status was, to the best of my knowledge, caused by forces entirely outside himself.  At the lower end of the spectrum of do-nothing-celebrities there lies the obvious (Hilton, Kardashian, etc.).

Talk about luck. In today’s world you don’t even have to do anything to become rich and famous, right?

It’s untrue, of course. You have to be willing to at the very least bare a part of yourself to the public.  But other than that, it seems there really is something called fate, luck, kismet, karma, et cetera, and that our forefathers were dead wrong in saying that hard work was the only way to succeed in life. All opinions aside – the Western world seems to be integrating an idea the Eastern world has espoused for millennia – that luck can play a pivotal role in our lives.  To say that aloud will usually invite a comment about hard work being more important, and in truth it probably is.  Our actions are the one thing that we seem to have some definite control over, and thus it is probably a good idea to choose what we do and what we say wisely.  Other than that, though, why not spend some time in wonderland, and see just how deep the rabbit-hole goes? After all, time is money.


*Hypothetically, if you had just made millions from a standalone film with sequel potential, would you naturally make the sequel? And would it be for the audience, the money, or both? I highly doubt I would need another fifty million dollars, since I’ve never felt the need to buy much more than the necessities. But I’m also not in that position, nor, most likely, will I ever be. I don’t think America is ready for a celebrity who gives 90% of their profits to charity, but I’d gladly take that chance.