We’re Half Awake

Let’s talk about being romantic. I don’t necessarily mean romance as in love and sex songs, like “Seas Too Far to Reach” or “Sweet Thing”. Rather, I am talking about a certain way of experiencing the world. There’s a way of processing things and a style of artistic expression that swoons and expands – it’s evocative and transformative, it’s the grand gesture, it feels so much. In my mind, there’s a difference between “romantic” and “romance.” Though, let’s be honest, it was frequently about romance too. My fiancée has lovingly teased what she calls my “sentimental heart” and defines my single years by the quote from Teen Girl Squad: “I have a crush on every boy!” So, let’s just say that romance is not the only thing I mean here, or the most important one.

The other day I decided to listen to the latest album by the Arcade Fire (Reflektor, which has really grown on me since it came out). While listening, I was struck by a desire to listen to Funeral, their first album and always my favorite. I put it on and began to think about how much I listened to this record, how it (along with many many other albums) came to be the soundtrack for so many aspects of my young life. The imagery they used is the perfect encapsulation of making the simple epic, the mundane grand. “If my parents are crying, then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours.” The first song, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, takes something as simple as visiting a friend or lover while growing up in a suburban town and injects it with all the magic and intensity that that simple act seems to hold at a young age. The desire and need is so strong for the narrator that they envision themselves doing something completely ludicrous and impossible in order to fulfill it. Nothing, not even a blizzard, will stop this fulfillment; to the contrary, it will actually add to the beauty and emotion of the situation. The album is full of lines like that, giving things like bedrooms, street lamps, snow, letters, the backseat and the moon the mystical importance they deserve.

That album came to embody almost any emotion I was going through: unrequited love, the start of a new relationship, depression, anxiety, happiness with my friends and, most importantly for this essay, that feeling of everything being too much. The problem with being a romantic is that wearing your heart on your sleeve gives it no protection, as I learned again and again. What I mean is that getting so much emotion and meaning out of everything goes hand in hand with being someone for whom emotions become overwhelming or painful. They make you feel like you’re going to explode. Add to that an anxiety disorder and a propensity for depression, and you’ve got quite the powder keg. But music was there to help me with that, as well. These singers felt the same way as me, or at least helped me put words and catharsis to the crashing waves of feeling. From “No Cars Go” and its longing for a quiet place of peace to Joanna Newsom’s cry of “I slept all day; I woke with distaste” or “all that I’ve got is scattered like seed and all that I know is moving away from me.” There was David Fridlund solo (and with his band The Citizens), and the way he would take the feelings of breaking down, of suicidal thoughts, of cracking up and depression and fear and would cathartically express them with a reckless and oddly joyous abandon. There was Ben Gibbard softly singing about how “I live like a hermit in my own head.” I saw myself there. Those lyrics and moments became my lyrics and moments: they were someone else’s art but used to express Me. “This is not my tune, but it’s mine to use.”

***

Looking back on all this it’s no real surprise that this kind of music is one I hooked into so intensely. The first albums I ever really loved were by Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. For Bruce that album was “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” which, of all his albums, is arguably the most filled with that kind of poetry-just listen to “New York City Serenade” or “Sandy”. And, for all of Waits’ growling and obsession with odd rhythms and atonality he is a maudlin romantic at heart. He never quite lost that image of the guy drunk in a bar, sadly crooning into his shot glass, no matter how strange and unique his music became.

This connection is not just to music. I can see it in the way Chungking Express felt like an atom bomb going off in my discovery of film and what I wanted out of it. Or the way I watched Before Sunrise 6 times in 2 days. Or the way I’ve always gravitated to Alice McDermott’s rapturous prose and incantatory passages about family, suburbia and the everyday occurrences of life. But movies and books are a topic for a different essay.

Music was always more important, anyway. The amount of times that it has been there for me is astronomical. I remember feeling lonely in a new city and for some reason being unable to stop listening to The Replacements: “Bastards of the Young”, “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Left of the Dial.” They became my soundtrack for those first few months in Philadelphia. As I met and started to get to know the girl who is now my fiancée I would listen to “Kiss me on the Bus” with giddy anticipation. Even now, I still put on “Unsatisfied” almost daily. I think about how Sufjan Stevens and Wolf Parade came to define my Sophomore year of college, where I finally felt like I was making a second home for myself and getting out of my shell, and how I used to belt “THIS HEARTS ON FIRE THIS HEARTS ON FIRE” at the top of my lungs as I drove home from school. I look at the way Brand New and Death Cab for Cutie will always bring me back to a certain teenage feeling, even if I didn’t actually listen to them until I was in my early 20s. I don’t think I’ve listened to a Death Cab album seriously since Plans, but nevertheless if I put it or Transatlanticism on…well, just watch out because you are going to hear some off-key warbling, that’s for sure. The Promise Ring, Sunny Day Real Estate, Built to Spill, Hüsker Dü, Modest Mouse…these skinny, punky, snotty kids who wear their hearts on their sleeves became my heroes. And the romantic doesn’t have to simply be lyrics – sound can go a long way too. Just look at My Bloody Valentine’s woozy swoonscapes, or the stately sounds of The National’s Boxer. I used to listen to “Fake Empire” as I took a cab from my girlfriend’s dorm in New York back to the train station that’d take me back to Jersey. As those horns kicked in and I looked up at the city lights at night, I felt like my whole future was opening up to me.

At this point, I could spend this entire essay quoting lyrics or discussing sounds at you, and the music nerd in me most definitely wants to (let’s all make mixtapes for each other and stay up until 3 AM discussing the guitar sound of Joey Santiago), but that’s not why I started this. No, I want to talk about how things are today.

***

Lately there’s been something going on with me. I find it much more difficult to emotionally connect with the art I surround myself with. It seems to have happened gradually, and I didn’t notice it at first. It lurked under the cover of just “being tired” or trying to watch too many things at once, or not paying close enough attention. It’s more than that, though.

All my life I’ve struggled with this certain sensation. My good friend playfully labeled it “Novocaine for the soul.” She was referencing the Eels (and calling me out for thinking too much) but I thought it fit pretty damn well. It’s this…disconnect from everything; a certain numbness or emptiness that hangs over it all. The emotions are there, but there is a removed quality. I look at the people I love around me and feel like I am looking at strangers. Even though I feel so much for them, miss them when they are gone, and remember, happily, all of the things we’ve done together, something about it feels derealized for me – like it had happened to someone else, in a dream, another life. This makes me feel constantly…broken. I always had trouble explaining it to people; even as I write this I know I am not fully accurately describing it. Most of the time the reaction was to laugh it off or tell me I was overthinking things (which, I’ll admit, is also true). It is a separate and distinct feeling from the suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression I’ve also struggled with. And no, unfortunately, this detachment did not make any of those things easier to compartmentalize, instead often feeding into them. Over the years, though, I have learned to live with this feeling, as I’ve learned to live with everything else. There are good days and bad, but I’m able to accept it as a part of me. Just another thing that makes me Brian.

Overall, though, I’m happy. I’m engaged to someone who understands me in a way I never thought I’d ever find in my life, I have good friends, I laugh, and I am dealing with my anxiety and other issues better than I ever have before. I want to make that clear before moving on.

But, here’s the thing. I have been feeling, lately, like music is being conquered by the “disconnect” too. Music, the thing that helped me forge so much of my identity, that helped me process being overwhelmed by big emotions or feeling numb to things that should have been more, that was there for me through every god damn emotion or event in my life is now something I have such trouble connecting to in an emotional way. The one thing that I thought this would never touch, that could always speak to me beyond even books and movies. I find myself listening to all those old records I talked about, obsessively, trying to tap into the nostalgia, to feel in that moment again for a little while. I, who once discussed “feeling too much” would now give almost anything to feel that much again, sometimes, so I could tap into it and not feel so fucking broken.

Anytime I find something in the last year that I connect with in that way, such as the last A Sunny Day in Glasgow album or the Little Big League album from last year, I clutch it to myself like some sort of precious stone, playing it over and over again. There are often albums that I even “like” more. They might seem more important somehow, or “better”. They might go higher on my top 10 list, be talked of more among the critics and my friends. But they don’t cut through it all the way. Whenever I am watching a movie and it actually makes me cry, I replay it in my mind, making myself feel it as much as possible, milking every bit of catharsis from it.

I have heard about the way our brains change physically and chemically. When we are younger, we process things differently than we do as adults due to this change. So, maybe all of this is just the natural process of growing older. My friend has also talked about how people like us NEED to have that connection to art to get through the turmoil of our younger years. Now, we don’t need it anymore. It has served its purpose, yet we don’t want to accept that because it was so important to us for so long. Or maybe it is the day-in-day-out work schedule, the way my energy is sapped at days end, my brain too numb to do anything but look at things objectively, like “Oh this is a pretty song…” or “That’s a beautiful shot…” without actually feeling it. It makes experiencing art feel more like homework. It becomes this thing I do because I have to, not because it’s an important part of my life. In fact, this is probably a huge portion of it…I can trace the gradual change in how I connect to art back to around when I started this 9-5 job. And, I know I am also definitely having the turning 30 crisis.

So, what am I doing? I’m doing what I always do. I’m figuring ways to cope. I try to be more mindful of my time with art. I try to make it special or share it with others. I pay attention to it and I try to only sit down for it when I really want to, and not just as another thing to do that day. I try to be present and enjoy every moment with the people I love, connect with, and share a feeling with, and not take them for granted. And, I try to put on some music once in a while and scream my head off while I drive somewhere.

And so, put on “Wake Up” with me right now, and let’s sing… “Now that, I’m older, my heart’s colder…our bodies get bigger, but our hearts get torn up…I GUESS WE’LL JUST HAVE TO ADJUST

HACKERS (1995) and the Longing to Belong

So, this Saturday I did two things. First, I hung out with one of my best friends, someone I haven’t seen in a long time and don’t see nearly as often as I like. I went to his house in New Jersey…something I haven’t done in well over a year at least, maybe even two. This, of course, prompted us to talk about old times, how we missed each other and staying up until 3 AM talking in front of the Starbucks about everything. This put me in a general kind of melancholy and nostalgic mood. Then, secondly, we watched HACKERS. Which is what I really want to talk about here.

Now, there’s a lot to talk about with this film surprisingly. We could discuss what a funny and genuinely decent movie it is. I realized halfway through that my enjoyment of it was not at all mocking, ironic or even wistful for something I loved as kid. My laughter came at the actual jokes just as much as they did at lines about how great a 28.8 modem is. I could talk about the way it uses cyberpunk and hipster fashion to create a dream world underground that never really existed like that. I could talk about how a movie that is so cheesy in its hacking visuals (because we all know hacking looks like psychedelic math equations floating in a monitor or like a virtual reality flight simulator game) can also suddenly get so many things right like its discussion of the important computer bibles or by using the Hacker Manifesto. There’s a lot to be said about how that idealism and change the world for the better attitude from that Manifesto and that time has failed to materialize. Hell, there’s a whole book to be written about how that idealistic youth culture of misfit rebels repeats itself every generation and how it often fails to enact real change. But no, I’m not going to talk about these important topics or the film’s technical or artistic merits. I’m going to use it as a spring board to talk about subcultures and the way watching it caused me to think about my own place in the world and how I relate to those subcultures. How all of that is tied up to my unending desire to be a part of a community.

All my life I’ve had this propensity to romanticize certain things. Time periods in a specific place, or certain genres of music in a certain area or era. I would think about the East Village in the early 90s and dream about the idea of creating art and going to a place at night where there were a bunch of other feverishly creative people to discuss things with and who would push one another towards making something. Every time I’d hang out with my friend or go to a show with him I’d long to go to them as often as he did, to the point where he’d know nearly everyone, where you were just expected to run into people and everyone got your in jokes. I’d see all of his friends as so fucking cool. I’d wish I was born in a different time period or that I hadn’t missed out on things. Inevitably this would leave me feeling melancholy for a time, dissatisfied with my own life. This led further to a massive interest in the idea of subcultures, movements and groupings within a larger place. From the Harlem Renaissance to the electronic music scenes of the mid 90s to tumblr to the way Korea Way is its own little country inside the larger city of NYC, this stuff just fascinates me.

As I was watching Hackers I felt myself getting this emotion again. Right from the beginning of the movie we hear this lovely song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bV-hSgL1R74, which to me just sounds like aural nostalgia, set beautifully to a bird’s eye view of New York City as it passes underneath us. Quickly we see the loner protagonist find the like minded but unique individuals who accept him and introduce him to a larger world of people like him. They quickly form a close knit family of acceptance and in the end of the film this turns global as hackers everywhere unite to save the day. Cheesy I know but I found myself moved by this idea. The global movement, separated by distance and language but still all one big family. I found this melancholy feeling beginning again. I found myself wishing I had been born earlier, had studied computers, had lived in the fictional world of William Gibson or this film where this mecca of coolness and electronic music and anti-corporate progressive politics were utilized in an epic battle of the good fight versus the corrupt elite. I knew this was silly of course, I am not that disposition. This is a running thread for these bouts, of course. The realization of their silliness and of how my personality differs from how I wish I acted or…whatever.

I was talking with my fiancee the next day about where I think this came from and she very smartly pointed out so many things about myself and what they could mean. We realized the common thread for every single one of these moments was the idea of community. Belonging to a group larger than you that accepts you, recognizes you, has common goals and interests. Not feeling so damn alone. I started to realize how important to me this was and why. So many of my days in high school were spent in my basement on the computer or watching movies. Learning about the things I loved and that shaped me but not sharing them with anyone except maybe my brother. I realized how often I’d be somewhere like a show or a video store or a comic store or a rep screening and how I’d be alone and too anxious to join in any conversations or make any connections/join any ongoing community. How, in College, I had my close friends but I never really became a part of the campus or houses that they were a part of. Eventually I would find more close friends who loved the things I did and who made me feel loved and valid and help me to discover a sense of self worth and belonging but that community was still something I always wanted. It would forever be a weird desire that would infect my days.

Which led me to realize that…I am part of one now. It might sound silly to some but it brings me genuine joy to realize how many people I know only on twitter I consider genuine friends. I love the different interests my followers have and the bonding we all participate in with each other. I love that people whose writing I am a huge fan of and love are actual buddies and the way we will all discuss these interests and writings. Apart from that I am more at home in myself and at ease in my friendships than I ever have been before even if I don’t see everyone nearly as much as I wish I did. So, yes it’s true, HACKERS helped me reach a real epiphany. I realized how satisfied I am in my life and how much I am grateful for my community and the people I love.

I shall leave you with this. When you look up Halycon On & On it is described as having lyrics. When you actually listen to the song it is clear that they aren’t there so I have no idea where it comes from. But they are as follows:      “I need a place where I can go, Where I can whisper what I know, Where I can whisper who I like  And where I go to see them.” I got chills when I read those lines, which perfectly visualize that community I strive to find.

Anyway, Hack the Planet motherfuckers, I’m going to read Neuromancer and listen to Achtung Baby.

Those Albums

You know the ones I’m talking about.  When you put them on they immediately seem to be about YOU at THIS MOMENT.  Sometimes they are even retroactive.  I have listened to a few of them that basically voiced exactly how I felt about my nervous breakdown in high school \or a bad break up but years later.  They make you feel exactly how you did at that moment, but it is comforting not painful.  I’ll think things like “wow, I really wish that I had this album then”.  But,  if I did, it probably wouldn’t have meant the same thing.  Sometimes we need that distance from those moments to actually understand how we felt and what was going on.  \

I’ll start with Emergency & I by Dismemberment Plan.  This album is what gave me the idea for this post.  It was one I entirely missed out on, I was not into the band (or really into music in quite the same way) when it came out and I was probably too young for it to really be “about” my life the way many critics and fans have claimed it felt to them.  The pitchfork review actually was a pretty lovely and autobiographical piece about how that album grew up with those who got it just entering their early or mid 20’s; how it came to define a certain sort of individual.  Although I am now on a path towards what I hope is gainful employment and a set future for myself, there are still times when I feel somewhat adrift and confused.  Basically, it is quarter-life crisis time and this album is pretty much the ultimate quarter-life crisis album.  The lyrics just cut right into how I feel about the world: anxious, jittery, lost, uh…loving a magician?  For example, just take a look at the lyrics The Jitters, You are Invited or Gyroscope.  Though this album was made quite a long time ago, and I had listened to the other three Dismemberment Plan albums, I did not actually hear this album until the reissue came out.  You know something is brilliant when you feel like it was something that was always part of your life on first listen.

Next, we have The Meadowlands by The Wrens. I had this album for quite a long time but for some reason never actually listened to it.  I had heard various critical notices forever and always wanted to but it just never happened.  One day, nearly a year after my break up I decided to listen to Secaucus by the same band.  I absolutely loved it.  So the next day I put on The Meadowlands and proceeded to have an emotional reaction akin to being punched in the chest.  Then I immediately listened to it all the way through again.  This album features a lot of songs about dead relationships, anger and sadness.  By this point the anger, sadness and guilt about the way things had gone down and ended in my relationship had mostly dissipated but while listening I had begun to feel as if it had happened just the day before.  Surprisingly, this feeling was good.  The songs gave voice to a lot of the things I had difficulty explaining to myself about how I had felt and forced me to deal with a lot of things that I had kind of swept under the mental carpet in the process of “moving on.”   By allowing myself to feel as angry as I did and accept that, even if it wasn’t entirely justified, and as sad as I felt, even if it didn’t entirely make sense, and as guilty as I was, even if it was more than I needed to, it finally allowed me to actually process all of that and move on.  About a month later I moved to Philadelphia and started a new phase of my life.  I was still lonely, but I wasn’t bitter anymore, which I must admit I had been.  I had put on a face of being OK and acting relatively normal again but it was there.  I was nervous of being in a new city and being out of home for the first time but I was excited as shit.  Then because I was somewhat lonely and nervous on my first night in the apartment I decided to call up one my best friends who had also recently moved to the city and she invited me out to dinner where I met a really pretty girl who mocked me for liking Brand New and who I immediately had a crush on.  Quite a few awkward conversations and “study sessions” later I finally got off my ass and kissed her.  So thank you Kevin, Greg, Charles and Jerome for forcing me to relive an incredibly painful thing, it was the best possible medicine.

 

First Post

Well hello there.  This is a placeholder entry while I figure out how I want this place to look and before I post my first thing.  I am not entirely sure what this blog will be about; it won’t have a set topic the way I see many blogs have, and hence, it probably won’t really be read by many people.  I have some theories on some things I’d like to talk about (this started with an idea for a weekly blog post about a music album that I feel like talking about…this may happen).

I’ll basically wing it.  I may have some planned posts, but others will probably just happen when I feel like talking about something.  I will try to be analytical and not just bullshit like I used to in high school on my *shudder* Xanga.  no “OMG WHAT IS WRONG WITH REPUBLICANS” here.  I will try to link to articles if what I am talking about is beyond the scope of just my opinions.  I may just have posts that say “You guys should watch this TV show so it does not get cancelled” but I may also have posts that talk about the ramifications of the military being in charge of Egypt’s transition to a new democracy.

Hopefully by the end of the week my first real post will be made, we will see what it contains.