(I'm in a much better mood lately. Talking to Dave for hours on AIM every day rules, and I've also been talking to my sisters on the phone a lot. So I don't feel so disconnected.
Anyway, here's a song I wrote about a week ago. Amber got me reading this cool series by Rick Riordan, wherein the Greek gods still exist in modern times and still have squabbles, half-human kids, etc. The second book, The Sea of Monsters, go me thinking about Odysseus. So I thought to myself, if Odysseus were to write an emo song about his trip through the Sea of Monsters, what would it be like?)

it's been two long days since I last touched page to pen
and ain't much changed since then
supplies are short
and the wind is calm
this trip is taking way too long

and I better not be wrong

I was the only man in Greece who didn't care about Helen
just wanted plunder
and a quick end to the killin'
ain't it just like the gods to let them go home
and send me out here alone

there's a tree that grows up through the floor
there's an old dog waiting by the door
will you be my old lady anymore
when I drag my bones back up the shore
of Ithaka, Ithaka, Ithaka

every dame out here want to make me a slave, or dinner
but brave Penelope, not one of them's a winner
monsters, princesses, sorceresses
every one of them tastes frustration

I have only one destination

there's a tree that grows up through the floor
there's an old dog waiting by the door
will you be my old lady anymore
when I drag my bones back up the shore
of Ithaka, Ithaka, Ithaka

yeah, the crew barbecued some beef
that was sacred to the sun
and I blinded a child of Poseidon
but they mostly got eaten
and I'm still as lost as ever
I never say I'm beaten
great Athena knows I'm clever

but Charybdis takes all my letters

there's a tree that grows up through the floor
there's an old dog waiting by the door
will you be my old lady anymore
when I drag my bones back up the shore
of Ithaka, Ithaka, Ithaka

roseanne vs. the vma's

I'm just an ordinary average guy
my friends are all boring
and so am I
we're just ordinary average guys
~ Joe Walsh

I have a problem with envy.

Every year when awards season comes around, I gather my pettiness around me like skirts and flounce away from the TV. Or at least away from the channels where one may watch the Emmys, the VMAs, and various other musical award shows. I don't want to see droves of people who are, in my heart's reckoning, not quite as good at songwriting as myself, be fĂȘted and fawned over and asked to give speeches--or even have the cameras pan over them while they watch with sour expressions as rivals give speeches.

The real reason they are there, of course, has more than anything else to do with merchandising. That is, the amount of money their CDs, mp3s, concert tickets and associated gewgaws are able to siphon into the pockets of their corporate sponsors. But supposedly--nominally--in theory--they are being honored for having created wonderful music. As the creation of wonderful music (though I lack the means to distribute it at the moment) is one of the central load-bearing pylons of my identity, this is maddening. I feel like the dog who must sit and watch while I, the foolish human, slowly devour a delicious-smelling steak which the dog is one hundred percent certain is rightfully his. Hence, I do not watch these shows, because I tend to act like an ass and sarcastically insult all the performers, even the ones I like, and detract from everyone else's enjoyment.

As I said, a problem. A problem for which a practical solution still evades me. All I can do on that front is bide my time, keep an alert eye and a grasping hand ready for any resources I can use for the purpose, and continue to get better at writing and playing songs. So that when I do find an opportunity to do more than nothing about it, the quality of music I can actually produce will be as high as freaking possible.

I used to have another, more serious problem with elitism--or, to use the wider-reaching Biblical term for it, pride. I touched on it briefly in my last post.

It came directly out of my extreme social awkwardness and low self-esteem; identity-wise, that sort of pride is a last-resort defense against loneliness. It says, I am not excluded from these social relationships because I am an unworthy ally, but rather because I am so special and different that it is important for me to hold out for something better. Which contains a couple of major untruths right on the face of it. First, the falsehood that certain kinds of people or relationships are somehow better or worse than others. After assuming the first falsehood, the second falsehood states that being unfit to have "lesser" kinds of relationships somehow gives you extra points or makes you more fit to have "better" kinds. Take the two wrong ideas together, and you get a burst of ego-soothing pride every time some incident takes place which ought to have made you feel ashamed. Like all fake "good feelings" that come from lies, though, the emotional energy for it had to get stolen out of another part of your personality. In this case, it comes from robbing yourself of the ability to like, respect and trust others.

Pernicious lies like the above are the sort which ruin otherwise decent personalities and make the people who exist through them impossible to like. All the self-loathing, acting foolish et cetera that I eat raw to try and shake them off are a very small price to pay, considering the risk. And the risk is not totally gone. I still have a somewhat shaky hold on self-respect, still have trouble holding on to friends once I've made them (though at least I can now make friends pretty easily because I like everyone and it shows), still catch myself mentally turning my nose up at things which I know are good and valuable and not to be scorned. It's like Jefferson said: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Personality construction isn't architecture; it's flow mechanics. It's being able to maintain a standing wave with just enough curl that you can surf in it.

So yesterday evening Dave was channel-surfing and we ended up watching an episode of Roseanne. It was one of the big end-of-the-series ones where all the relationships have more or less stabilized and everyone's together twisting together loose strands of plot. So people were talking about the big stuff, relationships and love and the future, way more than in your typical sitcom episode.

I have no idea why, but when I was a lonely, ulcerous little kid, the Roseanne show stood for failure in my mind. I'd never watched it, just assumed that it was about people who'd given up striving for Greatness and Fame and a Chance to Earn a Place in History, and chosen to settle for being (ick!) an ordinary, average family. One of those nasty-assumptions-based-on-several-falsehoods that I didn't think about consciously, and wouldn't have recognized as such until I'd taken the trouble to drain out all the tributary falsehoods. That life isn't worth living unless at some point you attain Greatness and Fame. (And presumably Even More Ulcers.) That being part of a large, loving, occasionally squabbling family that still has each other's backs when it counts is somehow a bad thing, or an unimportant one. To name just a couple.

As I sat there and watched the show, saw all the plot threads come together as the fictional family reaffirmed their love and support for one another, I felt the same old gut-twist of envy that I normally expect from watching the VMAs. These fictional characters, for whom I used to feel casual, unexamined contempt, had something I desperately wanted. Not only the acceptance (howsoever grudging sometimes) and the togetherness (howsoever irritating sometimes), but the stability and means to enjoy and focus on those things. It's just a show about an ordinary, average family who has the freedom to sit around and live life and work out their relationships with each other, and the reasonable expectation that they can keep doing so. I want that, more intensely than I want a record deal, even. And at the moment, I'm about equally likely to be able to get either one.

Luckily I have a lot of practice appreciating the irony of moments like this. A way of life for which I once felt ill-thought-through contempt turns out to be one of my highest ambitions. A seemingly unattainable one, too, at least in the immediate term. Pass the salt and carve the crow, it's a typical dinner at my place.

Tomorrow Paula's going to be coming over to pick Dave up. Him staying here is not something I can afford with what I'm making now, and none of his job opportunities in the area panned out. I have no idea what's going to happen next. And this time that doesn't feel like a good thing.


The entrance to the place was clogged with sweating courtiers--not the sleek top-level ones but the dented, scarred, slightly too old and slightly too ugly ones who actually got everything done.

~ Neal Stephenson,
Quicksilver, p.168

"I just lost my best friend on Dead Man's Curve!"
"What's Dead Man's Curve?"
"It's an incredibly dangerous curve in the fake highway we built."
"Why would you build an incredibly dangerous curve in a FAKE highway?"

~ Upright Citizens' Brigade, the episode with the space dolphins

Authenticity is dangerous, elusive--necessary. Pundits cross verbal swords over what the "real America" is or isn't, hipsters chase an ever-receding horizon of cool, philosophers and theologians argue over the original intent of ancient texts, governments attempt to demonstrate the connections between their mechanisms of power and the will of the people they rule and, supposedly, represent. And very little of this, when I boil it down to its syrupy essence, has much to do with my life in practical terms.

I spent probably more than half my life in an attempt to win free of a deep-seated, irrational self-loathing. And just as, in this man's army, the reward for a job well done is another job, the success of that project cascaded into another project: self-respect.

Looking into how people put our personalities together has led me to observe some things about norms--the expectations and standards of behavior we use to judge the worth, the coolness, the desirability of various actions and behaviors. We also use norms to create and, unconsciously at least, rank the categories into which various types of persons may fall. A norm is, structurally, a collection of memes which we have invested with belief.

I've got some of the classic ivory-tower intellectual norms about blue-collar jobs. You could call it prejudice, naivete, or even something nicer if your norms lean in the same direction. Namely, deep in the bottom of my brain, I feel that people who work with their hands and the strength of their backs are in some weird way nobler and more connected to reality than people who sit at desks and crunch numbers or wrangle legalese.

Since most of my jobs have been the sitting-at-desks kind, I've experienced an interesting tension between pride in my work and shame that it's not "honest" labor. Now, however, I'm in a place where I don't just feel like an authentic, hardworking American laborer, I actually am one. I work (when I'm lucky) eight hours a day, on my feet, slicing meats and cheeses. I make salads, help customers find items, even make sandwiches or pizzas on occasion, and at the end of the night I take deli slicers apart and clean them, mop floors, and turn out the lights when I leave.

And I'm friggin' loving it. I actually do feel more connected to reality, and even if it's only an illusion created by my preconceptions, it's a useful illusion and I cultivate it. This teeny tiny job in this one grocery store is where the rubber meets the road. The whole corporate hierarchy of the company which owns "my" store, all the people who have desk jobs crunching numbers and wrangling legalese, exist so that I can have a side of beef or turkey or ham to slice up, tag, bag, hand to a customer and say, "Would you like some cheese with that?" Call me crazy, but I've been here almost three months now and it's still exhilarating.

The coolest part about it is really the human aspect. There's a camaraderie among people who work together with their hands that just doesn't exist in an office. We spend a shift together, or at least within eye contact of one another, performing the same mind-numbing and back-straining tasks, over and over, getting hassled by the same hilarious (in retrospect) customers, staring at the backs of the same item tags and watching to see when our trays and dishes need to be refilled. And when there's a lull in business, when it's time to mop up at the end of the day, when we're outside catching a cancer stick on break, we connect like real human beings. We swap war stories about crazy customers, talk about our kids/parents/significant others/roommates, and just generally bask in mutually earned respect.

Far from having my old norms dispelled by a rude shock of horrible reality, I find them confirmed and solidified. It matters that I can spend a shift pushing pizzas and squirming my whole torso in under the counter to scoop up precise weights of potato salads and still walk out the door smiling. It makes a difference in somebody's day that I gave them their turkey sliced to the thickness they wanted, got them a sample, and still found the energy to joke about the weather. If I want to be a bodhisattva when I grow up (even if that is just a collection of ideals I've assembled in my brain! or like a saint, but with more arms--both good!), then this is a step I absolutely could not have afforded to skip. This is freaking important.

Sure, I spend a lot of time worrying about money. That, too, is part of being a real authentic blue-collar American. At $8.20 an hour (per union contract for new hires--did I mention I'm in a union now? how cool is that?), the difference between 27 and 30 hours a week is the difference between not quite being able to pay my rent and being able to pay it and also buy bus fare and maybe some eggs, bread and beer. My manager is cool about it--she schedules me for the first seven hours of an eight-hour shift, so that if, at the end of the night, I find there's enough work to keep me there a bit longer, I can call in to the person-in-charge and get me an extra half-hour or so for the night. Gives me a chance to juice the clock from 27 hours up to 30 or so, in other words. Me being an awesome worker and high-energy customer service guru is the difference between getting that consideration and getting scheduled for the union-contract-minimum 16 hours per week--which would most definitely not be enough to pay for my rent, bus fare and food.

I work at a nexus in the maelstrom of commercial exchange, but subsist on a very narrow margin between the income I can produce and what I must consume in order to continue eating and living indoors. Every day is a balancing act. Sure, I could get the employee-discounted coffee for $0.83--but do I have that much in my bank account? Will I need it later for rent or bus fare? Or do I actually need to get it, to get a cash-back amount of less than $20 (the minimum ATM withdrawal) so that I can recharge my bus card in order to be able to get to work tomorrow?

It's kind of weird. I worry about this stuff every day, I run the numbers over and over in my head to reach the same sums, and then I take a step back into the philosophical, metagaming sphere which is my native realm. And I ask myself things like, "In what do you actually believe?" or "What gives you strength and keeps you going?" or "Whence comes your help?"


I am reformatting my personal definitions of all those things with every step I take, with every slice I push through with the strength of my arms, with every cent I spend. Authenticity, as I conceive it, is a thing you earn by living in spite of difficulty, through effort, by meeting challenges for which failure is not an option. It is the triumph of the spark in the ashes of the phoenix, the extra twenty minutes you put on the clock, the quarter you find in the gutter that makes bus fare home out of not quite enough. It is the difference between independent life and living under a bridge hoping for a handful of someone else's change. It is so very little, and in the final analysis, everything.