My Stories So Far
05/07/23 11:32 Filed in: life | Bio | society
A collection of my published stories on Medium, as of 7-5-23, In no particular order. Stories about my life and my thoughts, messy and random, as they should be.
Last Saturday was the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I did pause to think about that day and where I was and what it was like immediately after, but I also thought about living in constant trauma. 20 years of nonstop war that did not achieve its ultimate goal. The pointless diversion into Iraq. But more than that, what is it to be a Gen X’er who's life is so often bordered by war. Raised by parents traumatized by vietnam, one of my father's childhood friends died there. I saw his name on the wall when I visited DC as a kid. Growing up in the early 80s under the constant cloud of the cold war. Iran contra, Reagan bombing Libya. Terrorism, when I was a kid, was mostly elsewhere, but it made the news a lot. Bus bombings, hijackings. The CIA mucking about all over, foolishly setting traps we'd later spring on ourselves. Somehow I became a bit of a news junkie and I grew up in the era when cable news was on the rise, and 'if it bleeds, it leads' was more prevalent. Bad news about people killing each other over land or some stupid idea of who's imaginary sky daddy was better became the thread that stitched my life together on the evening news every night.
People worry that fictional tv and video games are too violent. Nonsense, we kill each other and broadcast it on the news more than enough to traumatize us all. Every generation has it's collective disasters and traumas that shape their experiences, and as I think of this I wonder if that's one of the secrets of the Boomer's success. That at least for a stretch of time, they didn't feel this constant pain of violence and fear. I'm sure it was there in some way, but they also had unprecedented prosperity and growth. I know I have an easier time dealing with my thoughts about the world as a whole when my life close to home is stable and stress free. Which it rarely is.
The piece de resistance of my childhood war backdrop came in 1994. The first Gulf War, with the US engaging after Iraq invaded Kuwait. It was on CNN 24/7 and was what I watched every day after school. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that I was interested in news or wanted to know what was going on elsewhere in the world. The downside was the constant drip of bad or stress-inducing news, combined with my feeling a need to fix these problems, something none of us as individuals can really do. The solutions to world violence and war seems so obvious to me. Just stop. Have the courage to stop. Stop killing because your god is different. Stop being to fucking greedy so that other people feel desperate, leaving violence their only option.
This violence isn’t just a foreign problem either. I also spent my teen and early adult years with full time news coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing, Ruby Ridge, the Waco siege, the Unabomber, multiple abortion-providing doctors murdered, and the Atlanta Olympic bombing. And today, we’re in the aftermath of a siege on the Capitol itself. Still and again, fighting and killing because we fear what’s different. Are we really better off now? This is why studying history os so important. I’m old enough now to be watching reruns.
I’m a Gen X member. A late X’er to be specific. Pretty much all the things you hear about Gen X are true. I’m pretty nihilistic, although I frost and sprinkle it with optimism. With my generation I think we have hope, we want things to be good, but we are also totally unsurprised when everything goes to shit. One thing I do have hope about is the Gen Z kids and those younger. I grew up thinking I could change the system from within. I was well into my adult years before I realized it was both rigged and broken before I was born. I feel like the younger folks grew up knowing the whole thing was a big pile of shit, so be ready for radical change. We’re out of time and out of fucks to give to wait for gradual fixes. At least Gen X parents are teaching their kids what they need to know in time for them to use it.
It has been an elucidating process to read about Xers and all that now that I’m older, several gens removed from youth. One feature of X is that we’re a much smaller group than Boomers and Millennials on either side, but that won’t be true much longer. Another 5 years or so and enough Boomers will die off to even the scales. There are plenty of boomers I love dearly, but it’s time to stop sucking all the air out of the room. It’s not even just boomers. Honestly, if you were born before the Korean War, it’s time to get the hell out of politics. Having leaders 4 generations removed from the youngest voters is a terrible way to make policy. Members of the Silent Generation are still in charge. I mean, sure, I know you all have plenty to share with us, but get the hell out of being in charge. This isn’t your world anymore. Hell, it isn’t even mine and I’m half your age. /digression over.
Some thoughts I was having on this topic from my blog, 06-07-02020:
I feel like I'm outside the outside. Maybe because I'm in my mid-40s, or because I've been in therapy, I've been examining my past from various angles. Recently I've been having Gen X nostalgia. I'm halfway through a book by Jeff Gordinier called X Saves The World: How Generation X Got The Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking. I do identify strongly with most of what I've read so far. I'm on the young end of Gen X so I missed some of the experiences others had, but I'm there. And as is mentioned in the book, in many ways X is a mindset, not an age. The game was rigged from the start and I lost before I even knew I was playing.
Gen X is much smaller than the boomers or millennials to either side. We were too late to have careers like our parents, and we were too old to have the advantages of being natives to the information age. We are outsiders, both by choice and by circumstance. The world didn't open up like a fresh sunrise that the boomers got, and when we looked over the fence we decided we didn't really want to put up a fight for the rat race anyway. I've always felt like I'd prefer being a mad scientist tinkering away in my lab rather than play the Gordon Gecko game. But that's not what America wants. Bogus.
However, there is one aspect consistently covered by writers on Gen X that bugs me - music. Something inextricably linked to Gen X, and really to every generation, but thanks to MTV Gen X music was even more saturating. Music is a shorthand, Cliff's notes way of framing the attitudes of a generation. And in the coverage of the music makes me even more of an outsider. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is often held as the moment Gen X hit the mainstream, and I think that's accurate. Though I was never much of a Nirvana fan, I do still listen to Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. But I feel like I'm at risk of loosing my X member card if I'm not a super fan of The Pixies, The Cocteau Twins, and Siouxie and The Banshees. In fact, aside from Nirvana, many authors I've read just give passing mention to the rest of the grunge movement. I just never clicked with the "alternative rock" sound that older X-ers grew up with. I didn't have older siblings and I lived in the great lakes region where trends slowly drifted in from the coasts. I guess it was over by the time it started. Sometimes I feel like the younger sibling of X that mom and dad made X drag along to the beach with her friends.
I'm an X-er, but I'm also a metalhead and a guitarist. That's the music I chose as mine when I hit my early teens. Iron Maiden, Rush, Metallica, Queensryche, the Vai/Satriani/Malmsteen school of shredders, that's my musical home base. Gordinier even singles out Queensryche as a counterpoint for what was on top of the charts when Nirvana broke. So, music, one of the most significant badges worn on the X uniform, marks me as outside that group, too. Maybe some metal is totally in the X wheelhouse, but none of the self appointed spokes-authors for the generation see fit to talk about it. Maybe it's not pretentious enough. It's hard to tell other people you're cooler than they are if you write about metal. Works with The Cure, not so much with Cannibal Corpse.
But, as a metalhead I'm not totally on that train either. Metal fans are a wide and usually welcoming group, but I've never really 'lived' like a metalhead. I don't do the lifestyle. I skimmed around in metal and landed in prog rock and prog metal. Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Echolyn, Seiges Even. Even further outside. Eventually this not-quite-metalhead X-er went to college and studied jazz and classical guitar. A niche of a niche of a niche. Outside the outside the outside. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.
I’ve spent the past two and a half years in therapy. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. After I turned 40 my life was ok, but my baseline normal was low, and my stretches of being “in a funk” were getting longer and longer. Honestly, with all I’ve learned, I think everyone should have required therapy as a high school senior, and again in your mid-twinties. There is so much that I didn’t know then that I needed. Some forms of therapy are really as close as you’ll ever get to “If I knew then what I know now”. Or as close as you’ll ever get to time travel. Sometimes my sessions are deep and painful, and sometimes it’s more like life coaching. There really is a wide range of approaches used for professional mental health care, and if I can talk about my experience to help normalize this I certainly will.
On my good days, I am content. I am happy with what I have, not wound up with what I don’t have. On good days I don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of me, or feel like the world has no use for me or what I can do. I have better tools now so I have more good days. The bad stretches don’t last as long, but they still happen. So much of my mental struggle has been where my internal life runs into the external. The battle between my intrinsic value and what the outside world values in getting from me. The outside world hasn’t changed, and I can’t change it. I can be better prepared to cope with it.
It’s weird, sometimes, being a middle-aged adult. I feel like I don’t know what to do with myself because I didn’t expect to get this far. I also didn’t take the typical path. I don’t have a career ladder to climb, and I don’t have kids to shape my life around. My road lacks the usual signposts you might expect to see along the way. I grew up being told the world worked a certain way, and right at the moment I was becoming an adult that all got flipped on it’s head. I don’t know how many of my generation saw what was coming. I certainly didn’t, especially what the internet might become. We Xers grew up with the existential dread of nuclear armageddon. Sure, you could try to have a good life, but it could all end in a flash so don’t bother trying too hard. Unfortunately we left too many of our elders in charge way past their prime. We abdicated too much responsibility. Now, though the world didn’t end in atomic fire, we are watching in real time the death of our democracy and the death of our planet. Both things a long slow process that we had plenty of warning about, but humans are terrible at dealing with crises that are not acute, sudden traumas. I still want to have hope, but I will be totally unsurprised to spend my twilight years in a Mad Max hellscape.
I am a child of the 80s, a late X’er as I’ve said before. Every generation and subset of a generation has it’s distinctive experiences, and this is what I remember about being a child of the 80s.
I remember the food. I think the 80s was a weird time of a new peak in food preservation and a lack of widespread knowledge about nutrition. Canned spaghetti-os, frozen bricks of spinach, sugary cereal, mass produced lunchmeat, all par for the course. Not that any of this food is necessarily bad for you as long as you don’t eat too much, but I didn’t know any other way. Granola was the only health food I knew about and that was for those weirdos from California, like that guy power walking I often saw on my way to school. Seemed rather inefficient and pointless. TV dinners were a treat, my favorite being spaghetti and meatballs or mac and cheese (one of these had the baked apple desert… best ever). Heated in the oven of course. Microwaves were pretty common but we didn’t have one until I was 12 or 13. I think back to the days of waiting for my spaghetti-os with hot dogs to heat on the stove. Probably took what, 10 or 15 minutes? That was an eternity after the microwave entered the house. Fast food was more a treat that a regular stop, but there was plenty of it. Anybody remember “The Moose” from Hardees? A 32 oz drink cup, shocking at the time. Thats what, a normal large now?
Children of the 80s are definitely the toy generation. Prior to Star Wars I can’t think of another toy/media empire that encouraged the buying of so much STUFF. And I had some of all of it. Star Wars, GI Joe, Transformers, and He Man being the big names for me. Other lesser known but nevertheless salable franchises like Battle Beasts and Muscle Things populated my room. Hot Wheels were big for me (an old toy line, but ever expanding with weird 80s additions). And of course Legos. Timeless, I had 3 ice cream buckets full of them. I also built many a model plane, model rocket and had a love of model railroads from my grandfather (and I still do). I can only think now that I was substituting all these THINGS for my lack of human interaction. My parents might have been doing the same, substituting things for their lack of knowing how to be parents. I know I occasionally played with toys with my friends, but most of it was time alone. And I don’t really remember actively “playing”. I would most often set up diorama-like sets, like a frieze of an action scene.
I watched a lot of cartoons, even organized my time around them, because they weren’t on all the time. Saturday mornings and after school was prime viewing time. In addition to the aforementioned toy-selling toons, I got to see the classics. Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, The Flintstones. Some of these you can’t see anymore, or they are shown with disclaimers, and for good reason. I do think there is some kind of special influence in my life that I can credit to the Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera, Doc? Along with the classics of course went all the marketing toons. GI Joe and Transformers being the biggest to me.
Movies were another favorite activity. For a stretch of my pre-teen years my aunt (dad’s sister June) was my babysitter. Even though I went latchkey pretty young I spent most of my summer time with a sitter. I guess my parents could trust me for a few hours after school but they didn’t want to leave me all day long. My aunt would take me to the local video store and let me pick out a movie to watch. Later, when she moved to Georgia, she gave me her VCR. It felt good, since that was our “thing”. The relationship she chased down there failed a couple years later and she came back to Wisconsin. She took back her VCR (I don’t remember my parents protesting this at all). I was devastated, another example of adults failing me. It was several more years before my parents would go buy a VCR of their own. We did sometimes rent them along with renting tapes, another artifact of the 80s. My small town had a one screen theater and I saw quite a few movies there. A nearby larger town had a shopping mall and a larger theater I went to frequently. Sometimes my hometown theater was not very well managed (or cleaned). I remember seeing The Last Starfighter on video before it arrived at my theater. The first movie I ever went to without my parents was Star Trek V, seen in that small theater with a friend.
Rode my bike or my skateboard everywhere. I was never very good at doing the trick stuff, but I tried. Most of my friends were way better at it than I was. I was always afraid of getting hurt, never was a risk taker. Video games were always a part of my life. The first game I ever played was either Galaga or Centipede at the bowling alley my dad would go to, or the Ms Pacman arcade table at the Pizza Hut in my hometown. This must have been 1983 or so. There was also an arcade downtown that my dad took me to a few times. I remember playing a lot of Asteroids there. My town, Whitewater Wisconsin, had a state university. In my tween and early teen years, a friend and I would go to the UW rec center and play games there. Usually there was a student running things, and they didn’t care if we were there. Occasionally we’d run into an older adult, maybe a teacher or a facilities worker and they’d chase us out. Never kept us away for long. I never had a home system (other than a cheap Radio Shack Pong clone) until I was in 6th grade, when I got an original Nintendo system. I always seemed to be last among my friends for getting whatever the popular thing was. A few years later I sold it and my games to buy my first guitar. I wish I could accurately convey what a big deal that was, for a 13 year old kid to sell his Nintendo in 1989. Everything changed after I got that guitar.
One of the things I’ve had to work through in my therapy is my dislike for the pacing around my life. I get raging bursts of creativity followed by droughts of nothing. The busier I am the more I want to work on my own things but don’t have as much time. Work life as a freelancer can be very feast or famine. Fifty hours one week, fifteen hours the next. I will spend a clump of time of a hobby like model railroading then not touch it for months. I feel like things I used to do a lot like drawing are things I should still be doing consistently. My enjoyment of video games would come in large chunks. I’d have fun, and then chastise myself for “wasting time” (BTW, time spent doing something you enjoy is never wasted).
I used to get extremely frustrated with this and always wanted to have some kind of life where I just made steady, even progress. I first learned to accept that this is the way I am. It’s not just that my chosen life in self-employed arts land is like this, but that my brain seems to be hardwired to work like this. The whole notion that I could somehow work steadily, a little at a time on projects or whatever just isn’t possible for me. I can’t schedule that much nuance into my day. It took time and work, and I still slip back into my old thoughts, but I have accepted that this is how my life works. Even with these writings, I just took about 2 weeks off and I feel fine about that.
The second step I’ve been adapting to more recently is to “embrace the clump”. I have started recognizing these times when something is taking over my attention, and I try to go with it. If I’m having a creative burst, I ride it as long as I can. If I feel like playing video games all day I do that and I don’t feel bad about it. Whatever my subconscious is pulling me toward, I go, and I am learning not to think about all the things I’m not doing. I think that’s the bigger part of this. It’s not that I don’t want to do whatever I’m doing, it’s that I used to feel so guilty and feel like a failure for not doing other things on my list. I’m learning that my creative tasks are not like pets or plants that will just die without regular attention.
“Be in the moment”. This is something we’ve all heard over and over but I don’ think it’s ever explained properly. “Just Be” is too passive, it often seems presented as something you sit back and wait for. It isn’t. Being present in your life is an active state, it is something you have to consciously choose to participate in. Maybe it’s from being a product of the MTV generation, but I have spent far too much time waiting for things to happen to me, instead of being engaged in making things happen. And I don’t mean that in a ‘go out there and take the bull by the horns’ way, I just mean to be actively aware that you are choosing to do what you are doing. Doesn’t matter if it’s eating breakfast or working your job, smelling a flower or practicing an instrument. Know that you are engaged in an activity as you move through time. It’s hard to explain, but when that ‘active mode’ kicks in, you know it.
Hand in hand with this change in thinking is being able to tell myself that whatever I did today, it was enough. I don’t have some metered way to say my day was successful. I just need to get to the end of the day and be able to say I did something that brought me contentment, satisfaction, and/or joy. Old me would have said “you only practiced guitar for half an hour, you failed” but new me can say “hey, you got to play guitar for half an hour, cool”.
Is there anyone else out there that ever gets an angry beehive feeling in their heads? No? Just me? Ok… Well, what I mean is when I am ramping up for a clump, usually of the creative type, I feel what I can only call a buzzing in my brain. Sometimes it’s enough to keep me awake at night. As best I can tell, it’s new creative ideas or creative energy building, waiting to pop out and be put to use. I think mostly it happens when I have some ideas of what creative project I might do next, but I haven’t really started anything. Subconsciously the creative energy bees are ready to work, but the conscious brain hasn’t figured out how to open the door or which door to open yet.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were all supposed to do a little bit. Recycle. Donate some money. Volunteer to clean up a river bank. Drive less, walk more. There was still time to make a difference. There was still time to fix climate change. “If we all do our part”. What a bunch of bullshit. Even if every last one of us “did our part” we would not have dented the problem. According to many reports, 100 companies, mostly energy producers, account for 70% of greenhouse gasses. Not getting a straw at Wendy’s does fuck all for that problem. I have long thought of living on Earth while trying to have a progressive civilization as rowing a boat. I may or may not change the world, but I can at least help row in the right direction while I’m here. Now it seems clear that 1/3rd of us are rowing in the right direction, 1/3rd are rowing in the wrong direction, and 1/3rd don’t even have oars to paddle with.
Now we’re just fucked. As best I can tell the most I can hope for is avoiding the total collapse of civilisation. There is a character in the Niven/Pournelle novel Lucifer’s Hammer who gathers and hides a bunch of books just after the impact event. I think I’d be that guy, trying to preserve some record of what we almost were. I’m worried that at least half my neighbors would be burning them. Both for heat and for spite.
The long arc of history was slowly getting better. Sure, there would always be problems, but we were going in the right direction. But now Afganistan is overrun by violent religious fanatics and women and girls will pay the highest price. This isn’t just a failure of now, it’s a failure over decades.
There are people getting yelled at, threatened, and even stabbed over mask wearing during the pandemic. And some have to question and analyze when personal liberty gives way to the common good. I don’t know, I don’t think it’s that hard to know. How about WHEN THERE IS A FUCKING COMMON GOOD! Are these extremes and not the norm? Some would say no, but I’m not sure. It doesn’t really matter anyway, the internet has allowed extremes to be so loud if there is a larger middle it gets drowned out.
When I was 8 years old my aunt bought me a membership to Greenpeace. I loved animals, so I guess it seemed like an obvious fit. I got the magazine with neat photos and all that, but I was also made fully aware of the brutal slaughter of whales and dolphins, and of the destruction of essential habitats. Should I have not known about this? I don’t know, but how can anyone justify burdening a child with feeling I had to fix it? No one ever helped me form any perspectives. Again, I navigated this bloody, burning maze on my own.
I’m an atheist. When I was very young my family wasn’t particularly religious. Aside from funerals and weddings I went to a few Christmas and Easter services with my grandparents. I went to sunday school with a friend once or twice the morning after a sleepover. Religion never really mattered, and I hadn’t formed any real ideas on the concept of God. The only time I ever prayed was for god to save the whales and stop the Israelis and Palestinians fighting. Yeah, I was old when I was young. What business does a 9 year old have knowing that much about the world. Anyway, of course, God never answered. Still hasn’t. Fuck that guy.
I suppose I won’t stop rowing, but I’m pretty goddamn tired of going in circles.
I was a candy maven when I was a kid. Maybe that’s a little strongly worded, but as I’m reflecting on my childhood I do have strong memories of candy. 1980s candy had a particular vibe. I’m sure a lot of the candy wasn’t new (from what I’ve seen a lot of what I ate was invented in the 60s), but the marketing and glitzy packaging was on a whole new level. Candy was just one of those things my friend and I spent our pennies on. We didn’t get the old-fashioned candy counter experience (unless you went to Old World Wisconsin), but the downtown Whitewater department store had quite the selection. It was called Schultz Brothers, sort of an old fashioned department store. Pre-Walmart days, not a gigantic place, but they sold just about everything but large appliances. This was also the place I spent a lot of my chore money on Hot Wheels, model airplanes, and Estes model rockets.
Sweet Tarts, Smarties, Now and Laters, Spree, Skittles, Nerds, my candy preferences skewed to the tart/sweet side of things. I’m sure there must have been a few favorites not starting with an N or an S. Ooh, I almost forgot root beer barrels and bottle caps. I liked chocolate and various candy bars well enough, but given the choice I think I’d go for something more of the fruit flavored sugar lump variety. I also have a fond memory for root beer barrels and Twizzlers licorice. I hated black licorice, I can tolerate black jellybeans now. And keep your Red Vines the hell away from me. I do sometimes lament that Oregon is Red Vines country. I’ve neer even seen Twizzlers at the movie theater. I think Junior Mints or Reese’s Pieces would be my other movie theater go to. (An aside as I write this: Skittles and coffee are not a great combo).
My maternal grandmother always kept a candy dish in the house. Mostly hard candy like peppermints and butterscotch (one of my favorites), and those weird after dinner butter mints, usually on their pastel colors. I liked those more for the way they disolved in my mouth than for the flavor. Sometimes when I ate one I felt like I had to sneak it. The candy dish was one of those things at grandma’s house that I was never sure was practical or just a decoration.
In my brief stint in T-Ball and little league baseball there was quite an obsession with bubble gum. I think it was Double Bubble, little rock hard cylinder shaped gum chunks, really pretty bad. The concession stand at the park we played in sold it for a penny a piece, and we’d load up before games and practice. Some kids would even drop a buck for 100 pieces. I remember not having pockets for some reason, so I’d stuff the pieces in my socks. I don’t think the sweat made them worse, it had flavor for about as long as it takes you the chew it enough to soften up.
One summer in grade school I took a cooking class for fun. One thing we made was potato candy, little soft chocolate covered things. I always remembered making these and being impressed you could make candy with potatoes. Years later as an adult I was going to make them again. You can find a Maine Potato Candy recipe that is pretty much what this was, and I realized that it was more that a 4/1 ratio of sugar to potatoes. Not really as intriguing as I remember it. I think the potato is just a binder in this recipe. I was rather disappointed that I did not have a healthy homemade candy option.
So, in conclusion, eating tons of candy isn’t good for you, but depravation is no good either. Nothing wrong with finding a little joy in what you eat.
I am an introvert. I’ve called myself that for as long as I’ve known the word. If you are an introvert or you know one, read Susan Cain’s book Quiet. Even though I knew I was an introvert and I thought about how that shaped my interactions, I never really considered how other people treated me. This world, particularly the US, is not set up for introverts. Mass media culture is attracted to loud, brash exuberance, favoring idiocy over quiet intensity and thoughtfulness.
A couple of things happen when you're an introvert, even at a young age. People assume you are fine and don’t need any help or anything. If you aren’t seeking out interaction with other people then everything must be fine. Another common occurrence is that people think you are grumpy, angry, or standoffish. Speaking from personal experience sometimes these things are true, but often they are not. It’s just that I’m much more comfortable with other people drawing me out, rather than me initiating something.
When I was maybe 7 years old I went to a company party with my parents. They used to drag me along to these things and I never enjoyed them. A bunch of people I didn’t know, never any other kids. I’d ask my parent’s “who’s that?” over and over, until they finally told me not to worry about people’s names. Later this would translate into a terrible ability for remembering names. If I don’t see you or interact with you at least once I week, I will probably forget your name. Apologies in advance. At these parties I would just kind of sit at a table and be in my own world. Maybe sometimes I’d have a book to occupy my time. Occasionally another adult would try to talk to me, being nice. I’d just offer one word responses and shyness. So much so that at one event someone asked my mother if I was autistic.
This is pretty much the experience I’d have at family gatherings. I come from a small family on both sides. My dad had two siblings, and I have one cousin. My mom has four older brothers but I only have four cousins that were around in my youth, and only two were anywhere near my age. There are some other step-cousins that I’ve only met once or twice. My dad’s family mostly lived far away, so gatherings were often with my mom’s side of the family. Easter Dinner would be like the company party, me quietly reading or drawing. I think I did get along well with my relatives, but other than my parents and maternal grandparents I was never that close to anyone. To this day I sometimes feel guilty I never drop a call or an email or a card on my aunts and uncles, but I rarely actually do anything about it. I just don’t feel that attached to very many people.
I am a musician. Yeah, it’s really my job. Not a rock star. No, just trying to be a regular middle class guy. You know what, it’s the most awesome and the most shitty thing in the world to try to make a career in the arts.
I’ve never been… financially comfortable. I have always managed to have a place to live, insurance, all that. I’ve never gone hungry, and I am well aware that simply being a white male American puts me at a sizable advantage over much of the world, and even over much of the rest of the US. But moving on with that in mind, the economic system in the US really doesn’t care for the arts. Oh, sure, it wants to enjoy the arts, but it doesn’t really respect the people making it.
There’s no growth here. Inflation and flat wages have killed a lot of careers, including mine. In fact, I’m in the hole. 20 years ago I was in the mid-20k wage range, plus benefits. In my McJob days I could manage on that. Now, self employed, I’m lucky if I hit 35K while covering all my own expenses. This calculator (https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/2001?amount=26000) shows I should be at almost 40k, and that’s with no real career growth, just raises covering inflation. Sucks. Sucks to be 45 thinking I’ll have to go back to a McJob.
By the way, if you still need to hear this, trickle-down economics is a steaming pile of dog shit idea that’s been around for over 120 years, and Reagan sold to the boomers and they let it happen.
Covid has left me mostly unemployed for the first half of 2021. I’m among a particular group experiencing a delayed effect. Most of my paying work is related to schools, and though kids are starting to get back to in person learning, music teachers don’t seem to have budgets to spend.
The year and a half of Covid that we’ve suffered through has altered work, and I hope people realize the fundamental change that could be happening. People are tired of low wages and worthless tasks. Tired of being leashed to their work station. And it’s not just service sector this time. Life should be better and work should be a support for a good life. Capitalism is broken. No, actually it’s working exactly as designed. Billionaires are obscene. I don’t want us to forget this, but we probably will.
Aside from the financial consideration, the quest to artistically express myself is always present. Whenever I finish a work, I feel like it’s the best I can do at that time, it’s a snapshot of where I am as a person and an artist. I can’t endlessly tinker or go back over and over for perfection. I’m not going to ‘George Lucas’ my past works. I have friends that endlessly strive for perfection and never release any music. I can’t understand the point of that. For a long time I’ve been obsessed with getting projects done. I have managed to temper that, because it caused me problems. I’d finish something and it would land in the public with little notice. I would tell myself that I didn’t care, that I did this for me. That wasn’t really true though. It’s the nature of art, that if you intend to do it at a professional level, you have to create for yourself, but then you have to share it. Until recently I really didn’t know how to put in practice the resilience to create for me and share without expectation. Or, I guess I have expectations, but I’m far less damaged by lack of response. I’m much more balanced now, I can again enjoy the process of doing most of the time, and have much less worry for the finished product. I still have my goals, it can’t just be the journey. Like the Oatmeal says, you don’t want Frodo to just me a homeless guy wandering around with stolen jewelry.
One of the things that has been difficult, somewhat to my surprise, is the pain I’ve felt when hearing some of my older music or seeing my older performance videos. I hear music I made 15 years ago and I hear the person I was and the person I thought I would be. That person did not come to be. I see videos of my band from way back and I really feel like I’ll never do that again. I am grieving for my past.
Generations are more an artificial line on a map than an objectively real thing, but it’s a fair way to organize the collective social experience that I had with my peers. Late Xers like me have our own names. The Oregon Trail Generation is a pretty good one, but I’m a fan of Child Of The 80s. My childhood was filled with GI Joe, Transformers, Spaghetti-Os, and After School Specials. I missed out on New Wave music for the most part (that’s more of the early X). Grunge and alt rock is what my peers are known for, but my own early music choices were metal and 80s guitar shredders. We walked home from school to an empty house, our parents assuming we’d not burn the place down. My parents cared, they loved me, but for the most part as long as I came home at the end of day not bleeding, on fire, in the back of a police car, everything was fine.
I was an independent child. My mother has said I was easy to raise. I took care of myself, she didn’t have to worry about me. Well, for all the plusses of having to learn how to act like an adult at age 7, there are some serious drawbacks. Mainly that any interaction with other humans is really hard. I worked in a call center for a week and it was about the worst work experience I ever had. As much as I struggle financially now, I much prefer the solitude of working at home. People ask me how, with my introversion and shyness, how I perform music in front of a crowd, it’s easy. My guitar is a shield between me and people, and I’m sort of a character on stage. Sean Gill the musician is not exactly Sean Gill the homebody.
There are a few types of attachment disorders that children might develop, and I think I had several to varying degrees. Somewhere in my early childhood something happened to me that led me to mostly disconnect from adults. I learned that asking for help was pointless, and I needed to do everything for myself. The adults in my early childhood apparently just assumed I never needed help. Honestly, from what I remember of the times I did ask for help I didn’t get anything useful. My dad was one for “constructive criticism,” which to this day is a term that makes me want to boil with rage. My dad was really only capable of telling me what I was doing wrong, what the expected outcome should have been, but never offered any insight into how to get there. Pretty much the opposite of the definition of constructive. My brief tenures in little league baseball and high school golf were essentially just me being a terrible athlete with my dad constantly saying “no, do it like this”. He really didn’t have any idea how to teach.
Later in my teen years this lack of human connection and lack of understanding made me more desperate for connection, but I never understood how. I could only fumble around with information gleaned form tv and movies about how relationships were supposed to work. Probably not a great source of information. To this day I am only deeply connected to a few people at a time. In my quest to find connection I became a fixer, subsuming my own personality, wants, and needs to others in order to maintain connection. This left me open to being used, and I let that happen, always thinking the thing I wanted (even without a clear idea of what that was) was just around the corner. Of course it never was. I had several relationships that just took from me, including a marriage. I had no concept of what it meant to take up space for myself in a relationship. Maybe I felt like a relationship was a series of trials, that once completed, set you free to live life exactly as you wanted. Obviously wrong in hindsight.
Without enough guidance of a certain kind, I really had no idea what life could be like. The consequence of this is that I, by default, waited for life to happen. And waited, and waited, while others took my time and energy. I still struggle with doing things for myself, or especially buying things I want or need. I have tremendous guilt when spending money. My ex kept such a tight control and made me feel there was never any money for anything. So bad at one point my primary guitar was in disrepair and nearly unusable, despite being an essential tool for doing my job.
It took a long time for me to realize the survival skills I developed as a kid didn’t work so well as an adult. I have a supportive partner who showed concern for me without harping on me. I was able to find good mental health care. I’ve been learning about stoicism for years, but now can better put it to practice rather than just intellectually understanding it. The problems are still the problems, but my perspective and skills for dealing with them is much different now. If there’s any lesson I can share, its to be patient with yourself and embrace that it will be an ongoing process to go through.
Sometimes I have trouble with my early childhood memories. I often feel like everything is compressing into a year or two of time. Like not enough happened for me to actually fill all that time. I guess that’s one reason I’m writing this. To try and prove to myself that I did have a lot more experiences than I feel like I did.
When I was a kid I would bike or walk home from school most of the time. It was about 2 miles home, with half of that being on a country road with no sidewalk. Of course I was a latchkey kid, but I often forgot my key. I discovered that the house we lived in had a really crappy doorknob on the door from the garage to the house. You could just jiggle the knob and the lock would rotate open. This became somehow a normal thing for me to do. Even when I had my key I’d make it a game to jiggle the door open. Later, as a teen we lived in a different house. I could not use the same trick when I forgot my key. In the winter when it was cold I’d sit in my dad’s boat in the garage and do homework until a parent came home. Why we never hid an extra key outside remains a mystery. My only hypothesis is that my dad was fairly paranoid.
Growing up in the country, not on a farm but surrounded by them, was, in retrospect, lonely and isolating, but I enjoyed it. I spend hours pretending to play soldier or explorer or something, wandering the fields and hills and forest with my dogs. Anytime of year, it didn’t matter. One winter I stomped through an area I’d never been to, later learning it was a bog. I guess frozen bogs are less treacherous than the non-frozen kind.
Our house was down a long gravel driveway off the county road that led out of town. I do have many fond memories of that place. The crunch of gravel beneath my feet, the warm summer breeze rustling tall grass at the side of the drive, various insects buzzing, my constant Gordon Setter companion Max trotting back and forth seeking the scent of a pheasant. That’s actually my happy place, a place I can close my eyes and go to and relax. I’m often reminded of it in my favorite movie of all time, The Shawshank Redemption. The scene near the end where Red has travelled to Buxton to look for whatever Andy left for him, and he’s walking the gravel roads between the fields. That scene feels like where I grew up in southeastern Wisconsin. I was probably always worried about the world being and old child, but in times like those I can say I did have my proper, unconcerned childhood.
We lived in this house from my preschool days until I was in 7th grade. I spent many hours wandering about with my two dogs (the other being a small chihuahua-poodle-something mutt names Lassie. This was long before chihoodles or whatever the hell you’d call it were trendy). I played baseball with my parents (and the dogs), we had cookouts. We found many an arrowhead, spearpoint, and even an axe head in the surrounding fields. Sometimes friends would come over. Still, all this time spent there feels compressed. In my memory there isn’t much that distinguishes one Christmas from another, or one summer from the next.
Further down the drive past our house there was an old farm. Totally dilapidated and abandoned by the time we moved there, I often went there on my imaginative play trips outside. There were piles of scrap and metal from collapsed silos and storage bins, old cans and bottles, and an artesian well (I think) that probably churned out as much rust as it did water. Inside the house itself there was only a few broken pieces of furniture and scraps of drapery and clothing. I’m probably lucky it never fell in on me.
I actually loved winter then, not so much anymore. I played for hours out in the snow building forts and snow men. Tunneled under the berms left by the snowplow, another one of those things I’m lucky to have survived. I can’t say my parent didn’t care, but they never told me not to. I can likely credit The Empire Strikes Back for a large part of my winter enjoyment.