A La Descartes

I’ve been listening to a podcast of a series of Yale lectures about death. This isn’t about the grieving process or the 5 stages or about what actually happens to your body when you die. This is a lecture from the philosophy department. It’s a series about what death IS.

Is death just about the body dying? Or is true death when the soul dies? Or is it both? Does your soul live IN your body? Within a certain range of your body, like a Bluetooth headset communicating with a nearby phone? Or can your soul be far away somewhere, but communicating real-time as though it’s just watching your body via Skype? And what does that even MEAN, since a lot of people don’t believe in souls anyway?

I’ve been listening to this man lecturing on and on, twisting himself into logic pretzels, and I can’t help but wonder what the end game is. What’s the aim of all of this thinking? What is it even for? Isn’t the purpose of thinking about something to find a solution to some problem or to answer some question?

Perhaps that’s very pedestrian of me.
Perhaps the point of philosophy is the thinking. Just the thinking.

So I googled “what’s the goal of philosophy?” and learned one thing: this wasn’t as stupid a thing to Google as I’d thought. It seems that no one really knows what the purpose of philosophy is, and anyone who might be close to knowing is a philosopher. The problem? Philosophers aren’t so great at thesis statements, so any explanation would be long, convoluted and full concepts that may or may not be complete bullshit, depending on what your “complete bullshit” threshold is. (Having gone to art school, mine is pretty high. Then again, I proceeded to go into programming, so sometimes it’s low. I argue with myself a lot.)

One answer claimed that philosophers searched for answers to really complex questions. Since those questions are complex, they often lead to long, convoluted answers and even MORE questions. This stands up to reason, but I can’t help but find it frustrating. You do all that thinking, all that writing, thousands of years of it and you never come up with a solid answer? Is philosophy an art or a science? There’s no scientific method here. There’s no burden of proof. There’s no expectation of results other than the production of more ideas and questions. What elevates this from “thing to do when you’re high” to “potential career choice”?

Maybe the ideas ARE the results? Maybe the only point in studying past philosophers is so that you can build on what’s already been done? Maybe that study is what separates a professor from a stoner?

I continued to think about this and I went to bed. Just as I was starting to get really, really tired of the whole roundabout circle of wondering what the point of something is and what exactly it contributes to society and why someone would spend thousands of dollars studying this when they could study something that might get them a job, I realized something.

I’d been lying in bed thinking for an hour. I hadn’t come up with any answers. I’d come up with more questions. I didn’t feel robbed of my time or like I’d just been wanking around. I just felt like I’d given something some thought but didn’t have a conclusion yet.

Maybe the point is asking the questions.
Maybe the point is to have a journey with no destination.
I had become, in some small way, one of them.

It burned.

The Pasts of Women and End Tables

It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’ve yet again failed at shopping for end tables. One wouldn’t think that this most “first world” of problems would lead to anything more than going to some other store to look. One would also have to be pretty new here, as finding a blog in the banal is kind of how I roll.

“I can’t just go to a store-store and buy a thing that’s for sale just because it doesn’t offend me. I want what I want, or I don’t want to pay for it and the idea of just walking into a place that sells furniture and slapping down a credit card just seems so…consumerist.”

Jen is on the receiving end of this phone call and I’ve already warned her that I’m probably having a serious low blood sugar moment.

The ultimate answer, as it so often is, is to go to an antique store. To buy something that wasn’t constructed in China and isn’t made of particle board. Something from back when “cherry” meant solid cherry and not cherry veneer glued to pine. Something with a past and a story. The answer today is to go home and clean something, craft something or paint something. But, for the love of God, to not spend Saturday sitting in Rivergate Mall traffic.

I return home to continue the project of going through everything I own to compile a closet worth of stuff to put in a yard sale. It’s part of phase 3: ditch the Ikea furniture you bought on Craigslist and deliberately, mindfully choose furniture that you like. On purpose. Like an adult. While it is true that no one really “needs” end tables in the way that they need food or water, I’m a nester, and I’m tired of nesting on hand me downs and things I bought because they were cheap and not because I loved them. Everything else in my house is there because I love it: the pictures, the cats, any other people who might be around…why does the couch get to be the one thing that gets to be here simply because it was really cheap and it didn’t fill me with contempt? It doesn’t make me feel like I’m home. It just makes me feel like “here’s this place to sit.”

(As a side note, “cheap and doesn’t fill me with contempt” is a phrase a redneck might include in the “what do you look for in a partner” section of a match.com profile.)

I so much prefer the cheetah print chaise someone gave me: it is fabulous and comfortable and when I sit on it, I think of the friend who gave it to me. I look at my nightstand and think of the little old man who sold it to me, telling me the story of where it had been since it was made almost 100 years ago. I look at the bed frame and think of the tiny songwriter and his tiny wife and how I liberated it from their guest room as the tiny songwriter told me stories he’d heard. Stories about the father of the guy I was dating at the time, who was also the reason I needed a bigger bed. Nashville is a small place and Craigslist makes strange bedfellows, no pun intended.

Part of the process of bringing in intentional furniture is clearing out unintentional things: art supplies left from a past life I don’t plan to revisit, quantities of hand-me-down dishes that I will never need, text books on things like ActionScript 2.0 (ancient!) and accessories I have outgrown. 35 year-old grown women needn’t own large, plastic jewelry in heart shapes and candy colors. I could deny this fact, but denial just makes me feel sort of sad and ridiculous, like a 60 year-old woman wearing sweatpants with “Juicy” written across the butt. You have to know when to walk away. If you’re lucky, you feel like you’re walking toward something better, despite its lack of bright plastic hair accessories and Catholic schoolgirl skirts.

Halfway through cleaning out my craft closet, I found the box containing my negatives and contact sheets from photography class. These negatives are snippets of a life whose residue I am slowly cleaning from my craft closet.

So many pictures of my life at 24. Mark and me in a Halloween store. Me sitting in my office at Vanderbilt. The horrible, scary shower in the apartment on Louise Ave. A younger, sprier Mr. Puss. A younger, less attractive version of myself with hair down to her butt and a penchant for wearing said hair in long pigtails. There are a couple of rolls that look like the world’s most depressing ad for the Cherokee nation, where I’m sitting in the foyer of my apartment building wearing a baggy t-shirt and shoes that should only be worn by an angry feminist from 1995: chunky Mary Jane creepers whose only redeeming quality is being shiny. I remember a blur of long days, 3rd shifts and feeling like I was living in someone else’s body. My recollection seems accurate: I am smiling in only 3 of the 50 or so pictures of myself, most of which skew toward “art school dramatic” a tad more often than they should.

Still, I am glad for these pictures. They are little time capsules of an era that was a blur. They make me wish I took more pictures now. They make me sad that no one will let you photograph them anymore because they’re afraid of what you’ll put on Facebook. They make me wish I owned an SLR camera and had someone forcing me to make time to use it. I must have done something right: my teacher tried to get me to switch my major, but I didn’t want to spend my life photographing weddings.

All of these pictures also make me wish I could send a letter back ten years to the girl in those pictures. The one glaring impatiently at the camera, wearing chunky feminazi shoes and Willie Nelson braids.

It will get better in every way that you hope it will. In five years, panic will leave you, almost as if by magic, but mostly because you stop caring in exactly the right way. In six years, you will close on your first house. In seven years, you will lose the weight that Paxil gave you. In 9 years, you will get a job that you love. In ten years, the boss at that job will tell you you’re kicking ass at that job and you will get a raise. You will try to go buy end tables and fail, only to realize that, if that is the biggest problem you have on a Saturday, you’re doing pretty well.

Through all of this, there will be times that are hard. You will keep putting one foot in front of the other and walking right through, emerging a little bit stronger than you were, having learned to anticipate the hard things and step over them like a ninja. Should you fail at this, there are plenty of people who will help you step until you find your balance.

24 year old self, I know it sucks right now.
Stay with me.
It gets so much better.

Don’t Have Sex with People Who Don’t Like Prince

As a new acquaintance (a terribly clinical term I use for someone who is not just a friend but not committed to me) and I were doing our second “get to know you” meetup/date/whatever, I recounted the story of the first time I went to goth night.

“I walked in and ‘Policy of Truth’ was playing, and I thought ‘I’m home.'”

Thus, my dinner companion pretty much knew most of what I’d been listening to since: goth stuff, synthpop, industrial and a little pop on the side. I usually don’t get into this with new people because they usually have no idea what half of those genre names even mean (dark wave? really?), much less any of the bands. I start trying to explain Skinny Puppy or Das Ich and, upon receiving bewildered looks, I just start rounding off. My musical history, in their eyes, becomes little more than The Cure, Nine Inch Nails and “those German dudes that did ‘Du Hast.'” I can’t explain why it feels like home. It’s like trying to get someone to understand why you like your favorite color: you just do.

“So, if that was college, what did you listen to before that?”

Easy question.
Prince.

It was Prince when I was 4, sitting in front of the TV watching him prance around in that shiny purple trench coat. It was Prince when I was 8, dancing around in purple satin pajamas, putting on lip sync shows for my sister. It was Prince when I was 16, playing a pseudo-audition for my would-be piano teacher. For all of these reasons (and just because it’s funny), Prince occupies the locket I wear all the time.

This led to a conversation about early 90s R&B, entire chunks that I’d forgotten because no one ever brings them up. Years of time when I would rush home from school and sit in front of the TV eating single-serve Red Baron pizzas and flipping between MTV, Vh-1 and BET. Shai. Silk. Jodeci. Al B. Sure. Bobby Brown. Tony Toni Tone. Troop. New Edition. Boyz II Men. The list of harmonizing black men stretches out as far as the eye can see, but the tenors were always my favorites.

“And ‘Freak Me!’ That was such a filthy song, to just be getting played on the radio like that!”

Now that we have Sean Paul and the Ying Yang Twins singing about blue balls and seeing someone’s dick respectively, the idea of licking someone up & down seems sort of quaint and sweet by comparison. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy being licked up & down?

A person with a prosthesis made of Jolly Ranchers.

All of this got me thinking about what the effect of today’s music will be. What kind of relationship are children going to have with sex when they’ve been getting pelted with “Fuck Me Like You Hate Me” all their lives? And when they’re not getting fucked in a hateful manner, they’re being fed sugary fairy tales written by Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen. Listening to all of that, what are you supposed to think love IS, anyway?

Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Maybe pop music is stupid now because it’s always been stupid. Let’s not forget, the 90s also gave us Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me,” while the 00s have given us songs like “Miss Independent” (both the Kelly Clarkson and Ne-Yo versions make the point) and one song urging women to have standards. Ne-Yo’s over there doing his best, and Rihanna waltzes in and poops out “Birthday,” a half-assed effort made with her abusive ex. It seems so unfair.

All of this curiosity led me down a narrow alley of question. Does listening to slap-dash music turn people into slap-dash lovers? Or is somebody somewhere having caring, meaningful sex while listening to Hinder? I wonder a lot about the cult of the slap-dash, wonder whether instant access to everything is causing us to be impatient about things that really deserve to take a long time. Whether Twitter is somehow going to turn all of us into clock watchers with A.D.D. Whether our approach to conversation, sex and love will turn into our approach to food and information. Where faster is better at the expense of quality.

All of this from listening to some Bobby Brown, ladies and gentlemen.

The answer is probably “Amy, a lot of people are doing a lot of things, in a lot of different ways.” Still, I thought I’d throw the thought out there and see what came echoing back at me from you guys. In art school, we called this “creating a dialog.” In English class, they call it “not finishing your essay.” Potayto, potahto.

Stella

It’s a Saturday night. I’m standing in a gay bar wearing tight bondage pants, red lipstick and a thin film of sweat. It is 80s night and I’ve just gotten done dancing to “Rock Me Amadeus” with some gay dude who tried to get me to kiss him. I look around the room and feel like me again.

It’s an odd, happy thing to feel after 6 or 8 months of feeling decidedly unlike myself. I had been feeling all gray and sad, sandwiched between a deeply abusive work life and a relationship that was making me spend my whole life feeling like the walking wounded. I went through life zombie-like, feeling like everything I did was something I was doing for someone who wouldn’t care or appreciate me or my efforts. Like everybody was telling me, “you should feel lucky to be here,” when I felt miserable to be everywhere.

If I’d had time to do something of my own, I’d have just thought “oh, everything I like is stupid,” consumed some wine and fallen asleep. I got into an endless death loop of jigsaw puzzles. It was like a default setting. Toward the end of the relationship, I would just sit and do puzzles and cry. For hours. The only thing that gave me any real pleasure was helping my friends do stuff: move, paint rooms, etc. because it made me feel like I was good for something. The thing about that kind of slow roasted sadness is that you don’t see it for so long. Until multiple friends ask you what you have done with their Amy and when you’re planning on returning her.

Eventually, I dug out of that hole. I got a new job working for people who appreciate me and have told me repeatedly that I’m doing a good job. I’m not a person who needs a lot of praise, but I am a person who (for better or worse) defines a big part of herself by her work. It is nice to feel valued. It is nice to work for someone who is not insane. I don’t have to fill out detailed time sheets or answer 100 crazy emails or get yelled at because I didn’t answer my phone at 10 pm.

While cleaning some pictures off my phone, I had occasion to go through my Flickr photo stream. There were all these pictures taken while biding time. Sitting around his living room, walking around some store, sitting around his living room some more. Then, as I went back further, there was my life before him: DJing at one of Abbey’s goth nights, going to parties, Dragon*Con, Jen’s wedding. All of that is mostly my fault. It was a life scheduled around HIS life, because he refused to schedule with me. I shouldn’t have even let it start happening, much less allow it to continue for so long. My life slowly just became some stupid, pointless accessory to his because I let it happen.

The feeling of being all gray and old creeps in so slowly that you don’t even notice until, one day, you look at your life and realize that you’re miserable. That you haven’t felt like you in a long time because part of what makes you who you are is going out dancing, making art pieces that might or might not work out, playing music, weiring odd outfits and being a weirdo. And what have you been doing? Sitting on someone’s couch watching tv. Being too afraid of failure that you never even try anything new. When dancing, you have to commit to the move, even if it turns out imperfectly. Do it all the way and stop second guessing yourself and secretly thinking that everything you do is lame. Get out there and find your groove. (Also, stop hanging out with people who make you feel like everything you do is lame.)

The groove is hard to find because it’s all over the place. I hate monotony and would rather do something new that might kind of end up sucking than just do the same thing all the time. I like going new places, eating weird things, and doing stuff that might end awkwardly. This gets me into trouble sometimes, but it usually works out pretty well. My first circuit blast class was super awkward; I couldn’t even remember how to jump rope. Two months later, I can get through class pretty easily, though my rope jumping is still more “3rd grade double hop” than “Rocky Balboa.” Hopefully, the future experiments in furniture refinishing, bread making and pyrography turn out as well, if I ever get time for them. Stupid school and life goals are taking up too much of my life.

Then again, the groove is easy to find because all you have to do is whatever you feel like doing at the moment. Failing that, just go do something new. There’s a solid 50% chance that you’ll end up having a good time. If nothing else, whatever you do could be horrible enough to get blog material out of it. There’s a part of me that is always screaming, “let’s go have adventures!” even when day to day life and finances require that “adventures” be a new restaurant, hanging out with someone new or going to a party where you’ll only know 1 person. When you have school and work, Adventure becomes Adventure Lite, but it’s still better than just sitting there.

So, the template is this: work when you have to and spend the rest of your life doing stuff that makes you happy. Or pissy. Or whatever. Just feel some way about something. Go do something worth writing about.

The Cynic

In these post-breakup days, I have had a lot of time to myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been working, going to school, seeing friends, working out, Christmas shopping, playing the piano, and…well, good lord. You get the picture. But one of the strange things about these days is the amount of time that I’ve had to just THINK. For whatever reason, I just hadn’t had much time to do it. Or I’d been spending all of my thinking time thinking about the wrong things. I’d been wondering where I was going to work when my contract ran out. Wondering if a certain horrible group project would turn out OK. Wondering what the flying hell happened to my relationship. All of those things can tend to take up a lot of time, and most of them don’t end up with answers. Now that my brain is no longer in survival mode, it can get back to “leisure thinking.” Things like “what if, like energy, there’s a certain amount of fat in the world? A morbidly obese person dies, and 60 girls gain ten pounds? They blame their birth control, but really it’s because the weight needed to be redistributed as the fat person rotted. Fat IS stored energy, right?”

Seriously. I pondered that through an entire grocery trip.

In survival mode, everything just stops while your brain just tries to get through the day. I had nothing to say and nothing to write because there simply hadn’t been a thought in my head that wasn’t about what I did that day. Even my internal dialog had become plot summary. As a side note, I hate plot summary. Conversation should not be like a third grader’s book report. I only want to know what you did so that we can then move on to how you felt about it, how you hope it turns out, or how it fits into your master plan. The big picture.

Anyway, with all this quiet around me during holiday drives, commutes, workouts, etc., I felt my brain open up. It had time to think. To wonder about things. To think of things it wanted to do. To slow down and try to figure things out. I started to give some thought to the nature of love. Like, maybe my relationship fell apart because I just wouldn’t know a man that loved me if he walked up and shook my hand. Maybe I was just THAT cynical.

But no.

I knew that one friend loved me because he listened to me bitch about my job ALL the damn time. There were long stories detailing such riveting topics as paper jams and mail merges, and he listened to every single word of every single one, without interrupting me, acting bored or changing the topic. If memory serves, he would even reach over and mute the tv or pause the DVR so we could talk. That man loved me.

What happened to him? If I wanted to blame him, I’d say that he found a girlfriend and forgot about me. If I told the truth, I’d say I wasn’t that great a friend to him (he supported me, and I’d be like “thanks” and then miss important things like his college graduation) and he finally found a girl who would accept his love properly. I still owe him an apology, and he’s going to get it if I ever manage to track him down.

I knew that another friend loved me because he talked me down from 100 different ledges after a particularly gross breakup. I’d get going on some rant, and he would just stop me with “Amy, this person threw you away. Like trash. Via TEXT. Why are you spending all this time even thinking about him? He should be wiped from the Earth, along with your memory of him.”

He helped me through that breakup and when his breakup came, I legitimately tried. I listened to his understated story of being tossed aside by a girl he thought he would marry. I thought he was fine, because he seemed so calm. I knew that he loved me because I got a chance to beg. To say goodbye. To tell him I loved him. When he killed himself anyway, it changed me forever and I forgot how to be terrified of everything. That man loved me.

I know dad was kind of contractually obligated, but still. There must have been countless times that he gave something up for mom, sis and me. Countless times that he didn’t get to do what he wanted to do because we were the bigger picture. Countless things he couldn’t have because he was squirreling money away. Money that became part of the down payment on my house. My car. My eyes. This is the man that made a goth girl do a mock interview because “I think you’re cheating yourself out of 20 grand a year with that nose ring.” The man who looked at a disheveled 10 year old and made her “have some self respect and iron that shirt.” The man who kept asking “no, really, what ARE your goals?” until I figured out an answer. He loved me enough to not let me get away with anything. He loved me enough to tell me that I could do better until I did better.

I’m still a terribly cynical person. I will check your actions eight ways to Sunday to make sure they’re true. I do this to protect myself.

But, by God, I know when I am loved.
And I never, ever forget it.

Tomorrow The Green Grass

“I’m thinking grilled shrimp. But wait! There are deep fried gator sliders! God, ever since I went back to eating meat, it takes me 15 minutes just to order in a restaurant.”

I am sitting across from an old friend, trying to do what you’d think would be easy: I’m trying to sit down and figure out what I want. It’s easier said than done. I look at this menu, look at her and realize that few things are really that simple.

All you have to do is sit down, decide what you want and then go after it. Life isn’t like being a vegetarian in a restaurant, where all you have to choose from is salad or french fries. Life is like being Anthony Bourdain: you could have the steak, the fish or you could just have the chef cook up whatever’s living under the fridge. The menu doesn’t have pictures, and you don’t know what the portions are like. How are you supposed to just sit down, figure out what you want and order it? What if it comes and it’s nothing like you thought it would be? Buyer’s remorse on a plate of gator sliders is a lot different from buyer’s remorse on a career. A spouse. A family.

She chose differently than I did. Though we are the same age, my friend has chosen a husband, kids and a very different career than mine. I chose a career, a cat and a life where I come home to a house of near silence. Though neither of us wishes to swap lives, there are certainly days when we would both like to swap for a couple of hours. After those two hours, I would say “I just need some quiet,” and she would say “I’m bored and miss my family,” but the impulse is still there.

I look at her life and think “look at these people on her team, look at the life they can make together. She does not have to go on awkward first dates and her house is not like a library. She and her husband can lean on each other, and her kids need her.” I’m sure there’s some little part of her that looks at my life and thinks “she can talk on the phone without anyone yelling ‘mommy!’ She can go out dancing, nobody asks her what’s for dinner after she’s worked a long day, and nobody ever pukes on her.”

Universal truth: it is nice to not be puked on.

The thing about choosing a life is that it really is possible to change your mind. You can choose the career for a while, and then choose the family. You don’t always have to choose correctly the first time (though I don’t recommend un-choosing your children), but everything you do is a kind of choice.

Indecision is still a decision, it’s just really lazy. It is you saying, “I choose to not eat.” I would rather make a decision and then change my mind than just not care, and lord knows I’ve changed my mind a few times. Go on, ask me about my college credits.

I have friends who are thinking of changing their direction. I have friends who love their direction. I have friends who forgot to choose. Though my friend and I may think for a minute or two that the grass is greener on the other side, we are both ultimately content with what we’ve chosen. One day I may choose something else, but that doesn’t mean that what I have is somehow unacceptable. It’s like choosing between shrimp and gator: there’s no wrong choice, but there might be a better one.

In the great restaurant of life, you may regret having ordered gator sliders. You may sit and wonder if the shrimp might have been better. But if you don’t choose something, you definitely lose. You sit there and starve.

I ended up picking the grilled shrimp. They were delicious. But I’m getting the gator sliders next time.

Happiness as Boolean (Part 1: To-do or not to-do)

Each morning, I wake up and start deciding which things will get done that day. Which things are more urgent, which things will take the longest, which things will serve as a nice break in between more boring things. I keep a to-do list of these things in a desktop gadget (gadget, not widget, cause I’m on Windows).

Side note: I remember when widgets where placeholder words for things one would manufacture if one had a business. “Say you’re making, uh, widgets…” the professor would say. Now that widgets are actual things, I wonder what word business schools use as a placeholder. Smorglflat? And whether WordPress sidebars will soon utilize smorglflat technology. Also, Smorglflat sounds like the name of a black metal band comprised of Muppets.

Anyway, the to-do list. I look at the clock and say, “I have _____ hours. Let’s see how far I can get on this list.”

That’s a fine way to go about things if all you need to do is get things done. If you care about not losing your mind, I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

Trouble is, when you go and go each day until you can’t go anymore, all you’re really doing is working and sleeping. One day, your cat knocks over a glass of Kool Aid and you just lose your shit, that being the final straw in a giant hay bale of frustration and loneliness. As you’re kneeling on a towel in your bedroom, soaking up the last of the seltzer water you used to clean up the spill, you just lean your head on the edge of the bed and cry because you’d think that, for ONE THING on Earth, your cat would let you god damn sleep past 5am.

(continued tomorrow)