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?

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.

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.

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.