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Friday
Aug152014

Reflections of a Dirtbag Tycoon

So this week, I ran a successful crowdfunding campaign (here for more info - though goal is reached, you can STILL pony up if you're so moved) with the aim of gathering rent money on a co-working space so I could take my increasingly complex and varied work life out of my house.

The initial goal was $3K to cover like 6 months' rent - I blew through that figure in 2 days, so I raised the goal to $5K, in order to enable me to be freed a bit from the pressure to generate freelance income while working in a more focused way on creative projects (the WRITE CLUB anthology, a YA novel I've long neglected). In a couple more days, I blasted through the new goal. Who knows? Maybe I could keep going, keep raising the goal till I amassed a salary-of-a-Quizno's-branch-manager-type figure. Then it'd be nothing but hammock naps and traveling around on jet-boots.

But the money was never the point. I mean - don't get me wrong - I need the money. I need this money and way more of it. We have a mortgage and a shit-ton of credit card debt and an aging car (our second one was totaled in March and we can't afford to replace it) - on and on. Just like everybody else.

But I also have this stubborn, intractable, inflexible, unyielding need to continue making art. And given the market realities of this world, I am able to discern that I am not an internationally famous movie star or pop diva, therefore I am shuffling up the kill chute into the slaughterhouse of poverty, along with near everybody I know.

But my drive to continue creating is undimmed. So, knowing that there are a (limited, so limited) number of people in this world who dig what I do, I resolved to conduct this crowdfunding experiment. Below are my findings:

 

  • Sweat Equity. The importance of this cannot be overstated. I've been toiling mostly for free on making shit for a long time. Some of that shit has turned out pretty well. This achieves the double benefit of my having the confidence to turn to the world and say: "Hey - this is what I need," and for certain among you to reply "I hear that - you have a track record of making shit. Go. Make more." Without the years - YEARS, children - of making shit mostly for free, this request of the world would have been presumptuous and would, I hope, have fallen on deaf ears.
  • Asking for Help. I would rather remain conscious through brain surgery than do this. It acknowledges that I am vulnerable and finite; that I am unable to hit upon/devise solutions my quandaries. It has at its center a kernel of "I am not equal to this - I am not smart/capable/strong enough to fix this." Asking for help is a house, the basement of which is mortality - which, ultimately, maybe is the basement of all human experience - but here I mean that the logical extension of "I am limited" is some form of "I will one day die." Which is generally a bummer thing to think. But as is invariably the case - that struggle/source of pain/roadblock will remain forever insurmountable if you don't screw your head into that halo, and listen as the surgeon bone-saws your skull open. Then, before you know it, your surgery is complete and you're no longer hearing the voices, and experiencing that persistent smell of burning hair.
  • Self Loathing Can Go Fuck Itself. Important distinction: self DOUBT is critically, indispensibly important. They've done tons of studies and the "there are no bad ideas" form of brainstorming is an ineffective time suck that succeeds in nothing but sparing people's feelings. It's a demonstrated fact that sinking some sharp critical teeth into a plan/project/idea yields better results. So, YES. Be hard on yourself - have escalating expectations of yourself. But do NOT succumb that impulse that preemptively scuttles you, that makes your every utterance some form of apology, and that makes the only ride in the amusement park of your life a demoralizing one called the Shame Spiral.
  • Money is an Ingredient. In the stew you are preparing - it is an ingredient only. It is not a recipe, it is not a completed dish. If you regard it as some kind of end point or apex, you doom yourself to a covetous life of envy porn where the concept of Enough will remain forever beyond reach.
  • Gratitude Like a Pile Driver. Over the course of the week, I composed an increasingly elaborate series of personalized thank-yous on my facebook wall for the persons known to me that kicked in. This was great fun, and allowed each of them to know that I was humbled/thankful without ever getting soppy and dewy-eyed about it. In the same way that WRITE CLUB is an ongoing experiment in badass generosity, the more of these thank-yous I posted, the clearer it became that it's fully possible to remain weird, loud, and truculent (in other words, sacrificing nothing of my usual voice) while also making clear that I'm touched and thankful. Couple of my favorite examples:

You know how you'll get on the goddamn bus, because of a long series of cluster-fuckity circumstancesyou don't even want to go into, and you the bus is populated by people you know only dimly and the only open seat is next to some dude you don't know at all, but a couple people have assured you that he's a good dude, so you brace yourself a little bit, because despite these assurances, you yourself remain a person who is essentially fearful, and your shitty coping mechanism is to cling to the asinine belief that all people are boring and stupid, which, even though you acknowledge that this is a piss-poor means of dealing with the world nonetheless compels you to dread every new encounter with every new person, and so you're all clenched as you sit down next to the dude, stuffing earbuds in and making a big show of elaborately opening your book to send the signal: "Do not approach. Remain silent." But then the dude asks you about your book. And, gritting your teeth, you engage. And he makes a recommendation of another book that kicks total ass. And then you both talk about the One True Favorite Writer who is the same for both of you, and who - each time you're poised to read a new story, you have a feeling a little like you're drowning because you want to love it so bad, and are afraid the One True Favorite Writer will have lost it - and you'd never have been able to articulate that anticipatory drowning feeling were it not for this conversation with this former stranger on a bus. The bus is social media. The dude I dreaded conversing with but am nonetheless glad I did is Kevin Forest Moreau.

Or:

Sometimes people are misguided or undiscerning enough to praise you for your way with words. Which - don't get me wrong - you totally, totally appreciate. But which also rings a little hollow when you know that such a person as Barrie Cole exists in the world, and has this wizardly, alchemical capacity to break language into its constituent parts and wring its juices into a bucket of her own devising and to stir the contents of that bucket with a vigor and intensity that you feel like might leave your poor brain in a smoking husk were you to attempt it. Then she pours that resulting concoction into your ears with that voice that hovers in the air between you like a jet trail, and the reconstituted language burrows into your brain and nests there. And you maybe forget about it for a while, but then its chrysalis splits and it flies around inside your brain, and even though you know you can't work the kind of magic that she does, you look with new eyes at the words before you, and you by God try.

Or:

So you know how the first time you see Charlie Bucket returns the Everlasting Gobstopper, and on the one hand you're OUTRAGED that he would part with such UNENDURABLE BOUNTY THAT FITS IN THE PALM OF HIS HAND, but on the other hand, you're proud of him in a way you can't fully identify - a way that has to do with backbone and character, a way that offers satisfactions that share nothing whatever with the satisfactions afforded by Candy Without End. And you have that stung-betrayed feeling that THIS STORY IS ACTUALLY OH-MY-GOD ENDING THIS WAY, and then Wonka palms the candy, and everything shifts for Charlie forever and always right there? Amy Neill Bebergal is that Wonka-palm.

  • Let's Light This Candle. Generosity is tremendous. The professions of friends and loved ones of their belief in your abilities and desire to see you free to create more - these are wonderful. But if this infusion does not act as a propellant, or a foothold on the rock face, then it will have been for nothing. I resolve to grant my full attention to these larger-scale projects that have lain neglected. I resolve to lace up my kicking boots and go after bigger slabs of ass. I resolve to work to make WRITE CLUB better and bigger and broader, and to remain hungry for new heights (or depths, as the case may be) of fury and might.

 

Tuesday
Aug122014

Self Immolation

So Robin Williams is dead. Which is awful.

I won't pretend to have known him. Or to ever have met him. Or to have been diehard fan (if anything, the opposite is true - I believe he fell victim to what I've come to call the Steve Martin Principle, which holds that the longer one works in film, the less nuanced and vital one's performances become, the more rote and cartoonish).

But I do have thoughts on his death. Or, more particularly, on the reaction to his death.

The inflamed rhetoric of "suicide is selfish" presupposes a couple of things - 

  • Because of your fondness for a public figure, they owe you longevity. They do not. They owe you precisely nothing.
  • Because of your familiarity with the work of a public figure, you delude yourself that you know them. You do not. They remain a stranger, to whom you have had mediated access through a screen or your ear buds. 
  • Because of your regard for a public figure, you are owed some warning of their sudden demise. Again: you are owed nothing.
  • If you yourself have never grappled with the dark spectre of your own destruction, the likelihood that you will ever be able to accurately describe its contours is nil - this is tantamount to claiming that you know precisely how it feels to have a vestigial tail when you have none.
  • If you yourself have never had proximity to anybody brawling with mortal depression, then you're like the sun-kissed Eloi, declaiming about the volitility and squalor of the Morlocks below, upon whom you have never laid eyes. 
  • When a person has coiled in their brainpan an Iago-snake, feeding them lies about their worth, about futility, about the immortality and intransigence of the Iago-snake itself, then that person's capacity to even describe what is happening to them/their experience of the world, let alone remain cogent/self-preserving enough to seek and attain the forms of help that they need, no matter how pressing this need will plainly be the rational observer.
  • If you are a person who has never known the oily black appetite of addiction - and here I'm saying firsthand knowlege, because often even the closest bystander will develop only the dimmest understanding of the greasy ravenous swamp of addiction - then you are likely never to understand the sufferer. Addiction is the scorpion that hitches a ride across the river on the coyote's back, dooming itself when it stings the coyote, but powerless to stop itself from doing so - he'll tell you, as he drowns: "It is in my nature."
  • Because of your (perceived, fictional) connection to a public figure, you ascribe some connection between their actions - up to and including their final act - and yourself. No such connection exists. The struggles of a sick, sad, embattled person are internal to them - not only are you (as some portion of said public figure's fandom, not, obviously, as an individual) not a target of their destruction, you are entirely incidental to it. The destruction takes place in a world you do not occupy.

Look: suicide is confounding and distressing - there's no doubt about this. It is frightening to our core - the sense that the cord running up our spine turns out to be a wick, lit by some baffling flame, and we can blaze and gutter into a misshapen molten puddle from the inside. There is the superstitious terror that we are unsafe even in our own company and that our brains might curdle and putrefy in our skulls to betray us. 

My dad killed himself in 1986. It took me a long, long, long time to tussle with this fact. I never wrestled it into anything like submission. I was never able to slide closed a drawer of my mind with a file stamped Case Closed. The case remains very much unsolved. The case is cold and will remain so. This is perhaps the most horrible aspect for those of us who remain after the blood has caked, the noose has been cut, the body bag zipped - this dreadful open-endedness of it. As much as the perplexing self-harm snarled at the center of a suicide, it is this reverberation without ceasing that we most fear. 

The payoff - to the extent that it qualifies as one - is that when you grapple with this shit, it equips you to be more able to accept - albeit in an uneasy and mostly vexed fashion - this untidiness, this ragged truncation. 

Monday
Aug112014

Go. Fund me.

Seriously. Go:

The variety and complexity of the undertakings I have a hand in - writing, teaching, freelancing, consulting, performing, etc. - are such that I am in desperate need of a work space outside my damn house. 

My partner Lindsay Muscato has found this gem of a place, and I need some help to set up shop there. Kick in a few bucks if you can. Greatly appreciated. 

Saturday
Mar152014

A Few Thoughts on the State of Things

Hey, Universe 

I was kindly interviewed by The Bustle, and made statements intended to be of help.

Please to enjoy.

Wednesday
Jan222014

Guts & Glory - Godless 11/20/13

I don’t believe in God.

Which. Big fucking deal, right?

I live in a major urban center. I’m in the arts. Politically, I have long been agitating for a new Robespierre to start filling baskets in the center of public squares with the heads of bankers.

Furthermore, I have two kids. And I feel the world has enough gullible people ruled by their fears, and don’t wish to create any more.

Given these facts, the likelihood that I’m going to be devout is pretty slight.

So. No shock. Water is wet. Artsy egghead in city is atheist.

But. For me. This is a bit of thing, actually.

Not because my family is churchy. Not because my wife is religious. Not because I think I owe my kids some kind of relationship to the divine.

It’s because I’m an alcoholic in recovery. I’ve been going to Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings since 1994. So if I make it to next spring without a drink, then I’ll have gone 20 years with drinking alcohol.

Outside of the meetings, I rarely talk about being sober. For a couple of reasons: main one is, like much of what is really real, it is none of your goddamn business. That’s the selfish reason. The better reason that I mostly keep it on the down-low is that if I ever start drinking again – which is always a risk, most days it’s a low-level risk, but a risk nonetheless – it could be misinterpreted as a failure of the program, rather than my personal failing, if that makes sense.

Because if somebody who’s a drunk, or a druggie needs the help of AA, like I did, but then they learn that I’m a member of the Fellowship, and they see me drunk, then they might not believe the program works, and they might give up and die a horrible, pointless death.

And maybe this sounds weird to you, but I take this obligation really, really seriously. I owe everything I have to Alcoholic’s Anonymous – I know that sounds corny as fuck, and that we’ve all been conditioned by Upworthy videos to view such a statement as hyperbolic and dopey. Or I have, anyway.

But it’s the literal truth. Everything I have, I owe to AA.

If I had not found my way to Alcoholic’s Anonymous, I would never have gotten married. I would never have had children. I would never have started writing seriously. I would never have started my show WRITE CLUB. I would never have found a way to forgive my dad for killing himself at what, for me, was an age when I could really have used a man-shaped person to help me figure shit out. I would never have made what peace I can about my grandfather’s unsolved murder.

And mostly, I would be dead. And no, I’m not exaggerating. I’d have been dead by like ’97 at the latest.

And I’d have died alone, just like my dad – a-wallow in despair and self-pity; enraged by phantom injustices; choking back the always-rising bile. The surest fucking way to become exactly like the parent you hate is to make elaborate, repeated claims that you’ll never, ever, ever be anything like them – it is the perverse joke of the human heart, which may have greatness in it, but also can be a huge dumb-ass.

But so when you are an alcoholic, and you remove the alcohol, you are left with the feelings. Which you must experience. In all their un-minimized fury.

Which, for a person like myself, is a fully horrifying prospect. Most of the time, I’d sooner pound a tent stake into my own thigh than feel the feelings. But this is not an option. The emotional life of an alcoholic without alcohol is a gunfight – either the smoke and fire and blood-letting, which at least has the a grisly kind of clarity – or the anguish of standing in the dusty street, twitching hands poised over your gun, waiting.

For the non-addicted among you – you can know repose, for you tranquility, or at least neutrality, is possible – for us, even where we may outwardly appear to be free of turmoil, likely as not, we are coiled. We are in that single breath that precedes fight or flight. We are on a rolling boil even when we don’t look like it.

So. Given that this is as you can imagine an exhausting condition, it follows that we need relief. We turn idiotically to every form of feeling-cessation there is – TV, internet, gambling, porn, food, rage, work – any substance or activity upon which it is possible to binge. Where there is no precedent for abuse, we will invent one.

But we find, inevitably, that none of these is effective for very long. We need something more – more comprehensive, more encompassing. Which is why the program of Alcoholic’s Anonymous is framed as a spiritual one. To gain relief from the unendurable tyranny of the fucking feelings that never, ever stop for even a second, no matter how desperately you might plead with them, we are advised to turn to God.

Which makes sense. Since we are under siege from inside our own skulls, there is a sound logic to seeking relief from some outside source. And God, let’s face it, is a classic.

But I find myself unable. Not unwilling – it’s not for want of effort. I have prayed. A lot, actually. AA is a temple built by “fake it till you make it,” and it is populated by people of good will who wish to help you for no other purpose than to see you get well. So I have been advised to pray even in the absence of belief. And I have.

But whether it’s my own intellectual pride, or lack of humility, or any number of deficits that plague me, I have never been able to shake the feeling as I pray that I am a fraud, and that I am talking only to myself.

When I first got sober, I was vehement in my atheism. I was strident in my certainty.

Now I have no such certainty – I am marooned, actually, by my lack of belief. I can see in other people that their belief – even if it is rooted in nothing – is effective. I have witnessed the relief, the calming, the reduction in turmoil and hate. I see it all the time.

As you probably suspect, I hate acknowledging my vulnerability. Hate it. I also hate acknowledging that I have love in my life – that I have married the girl of my dreams and have the privilege each day of living with a woman far too good for me. I hate admitting hat I am stricken by love for my kids, a love of such intensity and ferociousness, I did not think myself capable. I hate acknowledging that I am blessed and fortunate. I hate conceding that I have found the work I need to be doing, and that despite its frustrations and the fact that it is largely unpaid, it is fulfilling and constitutes a for me a sense of purpose. I hate acknowledging that people whom I respect seem not to be lying when they tell me they like my work.

I hate all these things only in part because I hate the kind of soft-headed affirmation-spew that exists as a slack shorthand for actual feeling, the kind of psychobabble boosterism that stands as a spineless substitute for actual self-examination.

But mostly, really, I hate these things because I am afraid - chronically, feverishly afraid of losing all of it. It’s not a fear you could see, probably. I’m not one of those anxiety monkey-type people.

But I am afraid. Because of the kill switch mounted on the wall of my skull. I am afraid that one day it will all prove too exhausting, too overwhelming, too impossibly large and important and confounding, and in a moment of weakness or depletion, I will abandon it all and leap into the abyss of self-immolation that always awaits me.

People – inattentive people, mostly – too readily mistake me for a cynic. Which I get. I rant. I say mean things. I adopt a tough-minded posture.

But the people willing to peer through the cracked windows into the flimsily constructed house just past that posture, though, can see that I am no cynic. I am afraid. I am badly, hopelessly afraid.

I have a heart that is warm and wounded, and I have much – so much – to lose. So in a corner of that flimsily constructed house, I crouch around it all like a cornered animal, clawing at any who draw too near.

I wish it was possible for me to invite God into this house. I actually envy those who can, because if I could, mine would become a house less lonesome. But even with its warped floors and poor layout, the rats in the walls and leaking roof, this shabby house of mine is a true house. It is real.

So even though God is not unwelcome, exactly, he seems to me to be a made-up thing, and therefore cannot stay.