My White Padded Vacation

 

My mind is vicious two-faced bitch sometimes.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties I used to fantasize about having some kind of nervous breakdown so they’d lock me up in a mental ward somewhere and all I could do to keep myself busy was play games, smoke cigarettes, stare out the window and look fashionable in a frayed bathrobe. Family members and friends would visit me and vulnerable truths would be admitted and catharses would be had followed by tears and hugs and the idea of starting over from square one with a clean slate was on par with the ending scene to “Good Will Hunting” when, finally, Will leaves his neighborhood friends and job behind and says, “Sorry, I had to go see about a girl.”

Even then, I wanted a break from life so badly the idea of a white padded room actually seemed like a vacation to me.

I remember when I started taking medication in my mid-twenties for bipolar II disorder I thought, Thank God I’m one step closer to the loony bin. Maybe now things will finally slow down. Maybe now I can stop trying so hard to live up to this thing, this fire-breathing dragon that calls itself my Ideal Self Image.

When, like in “Almost Famous,” I finally took my first solo road trip at twenty-nine from New York City to New Orleans I thought, This is it. This is where I’m supposed to be: on the road. This is where life is. I’m present. I’m in it.

“It’s all happening,” Penny Lane says to William Miller over hopeful guitar strumming and the music gently crescendos out as the camera cranes up signaling the end of act one.

I like the ideas of a white-padded room, of starting over with a clean slate or escaping on the road into the vast country wilderness. Or rather, I like what they represent to me: a moment of relief. A place where I can lie down and breathe into the clean air without the heat of the dragon’s breath hot on my neck like an oncoming fever.

A place to stop the constant drone pulsing between the tender folds of my brain tissue at the top of my skull that says I need to be doing something else, I need to be somewhere else, I need to accomplish more; that as I am, I am not good enough.

Tony Robbins has a meditation on YouTube he does with Tim Ferris where he talks about being in what he calls a “beautiful state” and how, in this state, we can solve our problems and live in our days with love and gratitude.

In the meditation Tony walks you through three moments in your life that you can feel immense gratitude for. He asks you to access that gratitude, to walk inside it. To feel what you felt during those moments; the smells, the sensations.

Admittedly, I do feel better after doing this meditation. But that’s not the point I want to make here although I do highly recommend you try this meditation. The point I wish to make is that my moments of immense gratitude are never the images I’m striving so hard to achieve. They never embody that fire-breathing Ideal Self Image I spend so much time paling in comparison to.

In contrast, the memories I have immense gratitude for are those memories I was most present for: Driving across country with a best friend and experiencing each day for all its newness and wonder. Camping alone in Joshua Tree and meditating at dawn as the sun rose above the distant mountain ranges. Jumping in the cold ocean at dawn along the shores of the Outer Banks.

So, is my white-padded vacation an escape from my life? Or is it an escape from the idea of what I think my life should be?

I Am Not My Job Description.

We are not merely one thing.

We are many things. We are beautiful, lush, beating, multi-dimensional, multi-talented, multi-faceted, red-blooded, breathing beings of light and wonder that cannot be reduced to a tagline or job description. We are so much more than that. Could it be that we are in such a rush to define ourselves that we’re missing the fact that labels cannot possibly explain the vivid depths of a whole and complete person?

Self Opposition

I want you to see me; but I want to be left alone. I want you to call me; and I don’t want to answer the phone. I want you to knock at my door; and I want to hide under the covers. Invite me to your party; so I can tell you I have other plans. Give me a job; so I can spit in your face and tell you I’m entitled to more. Let me talk to you through a computer; so I don’t have to look you in the eye. Let me forget what it is to be alive; so that I can escape into a lush dream where I can control when the sun sets.

Accepting The Good, Too.

You look great today, She said to me looking upward from the bed, her face peeking out from underneath the covers playfully hiding from the sun.

I feel like a mess, I said back suddenly aware of my unkempt beard and need to run a thousand miles and squat a million squats.

I read what you wrote and I love it, Someone wrote to me over Facebook messenger.

It’s not as good as it could be, I typed back alone in my studio apartment doing my best to block out my neighbor’s vocal warmups while I re-count my rejection letters hoping for Russian interference.

Your photography is great, He mentioned over coffee.

It’s no Steve McCurry, I scoff sprinkling Stevia into my acidic coffee house java that will almost definitely cause digestive problems later in the morning while comparing myself to Nat-Geo’s Insta-feed.

You seem like you’re in a good place, She offered in passing after the meeting enjoying a muffin I silently disapprove of.

Well my car was totaled and I’ve been out of work for almost a year, I mention back followed by one of those emotionless smiles that exist only on the lips, waiting for my ride to quit being so goddamn chatty.

Okay just stop, I tell myself. Let’s try something different today.

Let’s let it in.

The good.

When offered, don’t shun it away. When smiled at, don’t avoid it. When loved, don’t negate it. Don’t pretend like it’s all a lie. They deserve better than that.

Isn’t part of living a good life accepting the good when it comes? I passive-aggressively ask myself.

Okay, I profess with my hands up to myself in semi-faux surrender, I will give it my best today. I’ll let it in.

I will let all of it in.

Is Social Media Destroying My Artistic Integrity?

I admit I had to take a break without knowing if I’d ever come back to writing these posts. I enjoyed it at first, but then quickly found myself checking the WordPress stats all day. I developed a Pavlovian response to the little dings in my inbox that signified a new follower or like; the immediacy of viewership creating in me a dopamine high that is utterly dangerous. It tells me I’m on to something, I’ve figured it out. It’s that feeling when Edmond Dantés discovers the map to his soon-to-be uncovered buried treasure.

I soon found myself trying to hack the system, reading articles that sounded like: Minute-to-Minute Instagram Posting Metrics, How To Gain WordPress Followers and Influence Twitter Trends, So You Want To Be A Blogger? and even watching YouTube videos with tips and tricks that tell you to post at least twice a day, use hashtags, be honest, be yourself, be patient and soon you’ll find yourself with a loyal brand following! I admit that it took no time at all for me to try and write and post what I thought you wanted to read and how best to get you to read it.

And what began as a great feeling quickly became an obsession.

So I stopped and took a breath. This is the civil war that routinely cycles through my body; the war between the mind and the heart; the need to impress versus the need to express; the ego versus the spirit. It is an ancient war and one that doesn’t belong only to me and the problem is: it will happen again. It’s happening right now. Some days I’m aware of it, other days not so much.

So how can I disrupt this pattern?

Is it possible to be completely authentic to one’s own artistic integrity when literally everything can be measured by some sort of statistic? Is it a matter of living in an acceptable ignorance? Is it swearing away social media forever and becoming an eccentric street painter?

There is something that happens to my brain when I see friends of mine getting hundreds, if not thousands of likes on social media. At first I am in disbelief, followed by jealousy and sometimes anger. “Why don’t I have thousands of followers?” I ask myself routinely, “What am I doing wrong? Am I good enough? Maybe I’ll never measure up? They’re lucky because they have [some magical power]. They’re hot and travel the world and of course they’re going to get followers. I just need to find my audience. I just need more time. If I didn’t have to work so much, then I’d figure it out.”

I’m being embarrassingly blunt here, but let’s be honest, can any of us escape the digital rat race at this point? Or am I the only one with an inflamed ego?

What are the questions I need to be asking? Would I write if only I read it? Would I shoot photographs even if I never posted them Instagram? Do I make films because I need to tell my stories or because you might see it? Does creative work have merit on its own, or must everything be subjected to the public shaming of the digital chorus? And why can’t I simply be happy for my friends that have found success in the public forum instead of jealous?

We’ve made great works of art successfully throughout human existence and we still do. Except now we have focus groups.

Keith

“I still, when someone calls me for advice, or to lean on me, I still kind of get taken aback by that […] I think on some level I still walk around thinking I’m a fucking kid, you know, that I still don’t really have anything ‘adult-like’ to offer…

“You know one of my passions is cooking. I’m doing a leg of lamb and I got a buddy I’ve been pissed off at for three years and I finally said, you know, I’ve got to invite him over for dinner. So he’s coming for dinner and we’re going to listen to jazz.”

~ Keith B.

Addicted to Myself.

Even though I know it, I can’t stop. I’m addicted to it: the image of myself. And even though the image itself is not static but fluid and evolving, I still dig my nails bloody and grind my teeth dull until it makes me sick.

One moment he is a writer somewhere in Westchester wearing an old charcoal cardigan, collecting baby dreads of lint, sitting at an old oak wood desk in the middle of the night tapping away at his typewriter smoking Marlboros and drinking Oban. The next he is a talented writer-slash-director careening down Topanga turns in APC jeans and a black Steve Alan dress shirt and vest helming an entire set of crewmembers and actors destined for top tier festivals and after-parties. And yet he is also a world traveler in cargo shorts and an old plaid short-sleeved button-down, a Nat-Geo freelance photographer living in small villages in South Africa and each photo he’d take would be laced with a thick cream of social justice. And yet still he is a farmer in thrift-store couture watching the sun come up over the mountains in Montana drinking coffee in the early morning standing over his crops and admiring the milky layer of fog between the ground and the horizon.

Someone asked me what I was doing here in California earlier today and I didn’t know how to answer him. I never do. How can I subscribe to one path or ideological destination if even my own ego won’t agree with itself? And how can I possibly make sense of that lack of clarity to anyone else? In my head I often compare myself with other, more “successful” creatives and I wonder if they have a similar fractured understanding of themselves or if they see one clear, concise image.

But maybe yet the question lies elsewhere. Maybe the question is can I transcend those images? Can I let it all go? Can I drop the need to fulfill my ego? To not worry about what you might think of me? Can I not impress you? Can I be imperfect? Can I be messy? Can I always just be “figuring it out?” Can I live without judgement on how I’m living? Can I take me as I am and know that is enough? Can I love that person beyond the constant striving and trying and aiming and goalsetting? Can I look him in the eyes and say, “it’s okay, you’re exactly where you need to be.”

I wonder. I certainly wonder.

Featured image by Joseph Marconi.

Fear.

In March of 2015 I decided to go camping alone in Joshua Tree. I’d just seen “Tracks” (2013) depicting the true story of Robyn Davidson and her solo “1,700-mile trek across the deserts of west Australia”[1] with four camels and her dog, Diggity. Earlier that year I crossed the United States from New York to California — I employed both a car and a friend’s company for the journey — and felt the need to get back on the road. “Tracks” gave me the motivation I needed plus I was in desperate need of some quiet, solitary beauty.

However, in the weeks leading up to the trip, I developed a great fear over the journey. I was heading into Joshua Tree’s backcountry alone for the first time and I had no idea what to expect. I’d camped alone only once before that — along the sandy beaches of the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina — and suddenly I felt completely out of my depth.

I imagined all kinds of things. My mind leapt into gear and found this a perfect opportunity to try and scare me out of going. I spent hours deep diving through horror stories on YouTube. I imagined a desert floor crawling with rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions all out to kill me and by the slim chance I didn’t get bit by something I’d surely get turned around somewhere and die of heat exposure and dehydration. They’d find my sun-dried lifeless body a half-mile from civilization and the Rangers would shake their heads, chuckle and say, “City folk.”

And so in preparation I learned how to use a compass[2], what foods to pack, and how much water to bring. I researched the animal life in the area and how to stay away from them. I took notes. I bought maps. I was prepared.

Still, the whole drive out there on I-10 my heart was pounding: Why was I even doing? Had I death wish? How had other people survived this ordeal? What would my movie be called? “18 Hours?” Would Danny Boyle direct it, too?

But then something strange happened.

Almost as soon as I’d entered the park and walked into the welcome center, all that fear I’d had simply vanished. My heart slowed and my vision and breathing returned to normal. I was overcome by the incomprehensible majestic beauty of the park all around me and I’d easily surrendered over to the experience of actually being there, fully present for whatever adventures actually awaited.

My mind likes to tell me life is a scary place when, most often, if I just put my feet on the ground, I can see how beautiful it all really is.

And, unfortunately, I never saw any rattlesnakes, tarantulas, or scorpions.

 

[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robyn_Davidson

[2] By “learned to use” I mean generally how to hold, sight mountains, and get vague directional readings.

Not Today.

Some days are wonderful.

Some days aren’t.

Some days I wake up and I feel the sun on me and I feel connected to something great, finally part of something beautiful. Other days I struggle to make sense of anything, watching helplessly as my mind slips off into oblivion.

I sat here all morning, running through ideas, trying so hard to write something great and well, I came up short.

Some days are just like that I guess.

Some days are just hard.

Let go, I’m telling myself.

But I really don’t want to. Inside I’m like a child throwing a temper tantrum.

Stop trying to make this moment great, a gentle voice says again, just let go and surrender to it. Allow it to be whatever it’s going to be.

Okay.

You win, God.

And so I’m letting go of today’s pages.

I’m going to go outside and smile instead.

Cover Letter.

To Whom It May Concern:

I am formally applying for the position of goat herder within your company. Do you have a company? LLC? I couldn’t find any mention of you on Google. No matter either way as I am still interested.

Unfortunately, I currently do not have any education or training within the field of goat herding but, you see, I’m looking for a new line of work and since I don’t really know where to start, I figured I might as well try to do something that looked fulfilling from a movie I saw once.

Plus I like goats. Or at least I think I do. I think I petted one once at a petting zoo when I was ten and even though that was — years ago it was a defining moment in my formative years I like to think.

Maybe you’re confused as to why someone with my formal corporate training in marketing and advertising — twelve years of graphic design and art direction, an excellent portfolio working for some of the best brands in the business — would want to leave that salary and herd goats?

Well, you see, this isn’t the future I was promised and since, as it seems currently, that all bets are off, I figure I might as well put all my talent and drive into something a little more fulfilling. Something that has a lot of hours outdoors, working with animals, enjoying the elements. Because if I have to sit in a chair for eight hours one more day I’m afraid that I might implode or spontaneously combust and when they’re selling museum tickets to my mummified room and tourists are standing outside just beyond the velvet rope they’ll see a little charred artist’s recreation of me and the Tour Guide will say:

“He never left.”

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

— J.

 

 

Get Ready.

Wamp wamp wamp…

The morning alarm rips me from my dream and thrusts me into the day with an unfortunate but acceptable violence, like the instant discomfort of a cold shower.

I leap across the room and fumble with my phone trying to minimize the damage to her sleep and even though I told myself I wouldn’t do it, since I’m already holding it, the first thing I do is check my phone for emails, messages, Instagram likes, Facebook comments, et al. So much has happened without my knowledge or approval or understanding.

Beep…

There is a fire alarm occasionally beeping, in need of a battery somewhere in my building.

Anxiety.

Breathe.

Ooh-ooh ahhh oohh…

The tenant in the adjacent building is practicing his R&B scales again. Two years of this shit. It’s time to move.

I put on clothes in attempt to look cool with two-year old Gap Vintage and I leave her in bed and I walk to my car and—

Wee-yo wee-yo wee-yo…

—several sirens pass at high speeds on Vine street.

It’s 7:30 AM and there’s already traffic.

I check my phone again to look at The Times because that’s what adults do and another story on Russ—

Fuck you! You fucking cunt-face motherfucker! A slightly irate driver in an SUV offers another in a Tesla.

I shake off the vitriol, get into my car and—

Ding!

—my car finds it urgent to beep at me, notifying me that I am five hundred miles overdue for service. Then—

Ding!

—it beeps again to tell me to fasten my seatbelt. These dings also come with urgent alarm signs, telling my brain that the world is quickly coming to end.

I turn the car on and pull away from the curb and—

Boo-ca-doo-wa-beep-bop-dah-doop-doop—

My phone rings. Dammit I thought it was on silent. Barclaycard is vicious and by now my heart is now pounding and my breathing is matching that of a high-speed runner and my brain is swollen and pressed up against my skull and every sensation coming into my body sends gigawatts of voltage through my body and I check the time again and—

7:36 AM.

 

Forget Everything You Think You Know About Greatness.

“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”

– Miles Davis

***

Is there a way to quantify the moment when someone transitions into greatness? Can we package it up and brand it? Sell it to the masses or create some vocational school centered around breaking personal creative barriers?

Want to be the next Jackson Pollack? Justin Timberlake? Rihanna? Well you’ve come to the right place.

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell went ahead and tried to quantify it with his ten thousand hour rule. We all know the cited example of The Beatles playing in Germany every night of the week for several years, carefully and painstakingly honing their craft before ever setting foot on American soil and becoming the international sensation forever etched into musical history.

And so, according to Gladwell, ten thousand is the magic number where ordinary transcends into greatness.

I mean it sounds good, comfortable, even “doable” if you’re prone to the occasional manic episode such as myself; amped up on a delicious chemical imbalance, a mental Molotov cocktail of grandiosity and delusion.

Ten thousand hours. That’s all it takes. All I have to do is pick something I’m good at or something I enjoy doing and plug away at it for eight hours a day, every day of the week for three and a half years and I’ll graduate from the Gladwellian School of the Arts destined for greatness.

But Gladwell is a master marketer, and a goddamn fraud.

He presents you with something rather benign and then he raises his nasally voice and says, “Everything you ever knew about that thing you thought you had figured out is wrong!

Your mind is now, effectively and forever, blown.

You lean back in your chair with your eyes wide open and your hand smacks your forehead and you say to yourself, “Oh my God he’s right! I don’t know anything. Please Malcolm, tell me. Tell me now, dammit! TELL ME!

Gladwell is brilliant at catering to one of the most fundamental characteristics of human nature: the need to know. It’s the essential building block to any dramatic situation in story telling: you present a juicy-enough question and the audience is hooked. Will Ross kiss Rachel? Will Walter White get away with it? What does Jon Hamm have in his pants?

The Media use this device every day, except they ratchet it up with a heavy dosage of fear to guarantee viewership. Is this the storm of the century? What you’re eating could kill you. At eleven.

At the same time Gladwell presents you with something that is utterly preposterous yet simultaneously juuuuuuuust out of reach. If Gladwell had said, “These are people you’ll never be like because you’re simply genetically and mentally inferior,” he’d never get close to bestseller numbers. This is a marketing and mass-distraction phenomena Noam Chomsky discusses in his book “Manufacturing Consent” but unfortunately we don’t have the time to get into that because it’s usually around this point I really start to feel the need for an editor.

“Bring it on home, Joe!” she’d say to me, slightly seizing from mainlining a Venti Triple Shot Mocha and tapping her watch.

Exhale.

Gladwell’s not entirely wrong: There’s merit in taking the time to learn your craft. But my problem isn’t with the hours, it’s the assumption that greatness follows.

I’m not sure I know what it means to be great or when, as a culture, we went from striving to live a good life to striving to be the best at every goddamn thing we do. I do know that I’ve tried my whole life to be great and fell short. Over and over again. And that rift between what I expected of myself and reality created more pain than I’d like to remember.

But maybe it’s not even about being great at all.

Maybe greatness is just another marketing tool, a distraction, something to strive for. Maybe it’s about something else entirely. Maybe it’s just about being the being the best me.

***

Truthfully, I think Miles said it best:

“Man, sometimes you takes long time to sound like yourself.”

Oh and I just totally Gladwelled you.