I noticed a paperback sale on Ingram a couple days ago and I got excited about the idea that somebody outside of my minuscule circle finally took the plunge. Well, as it turns out, yes and no. I’d contacted Nicola’s parent company via Facebook of all things, which I NEVER use and they’d responded with a message telling me they’d order a copy, I assume for the Ann Arbor store because heaven knows they couldn’t spring for a book or two for the other stores, gads, this is how shitty the book selling business is I guess. No room on the shelves to begin with and what’s on the shelf isn’t selling. But the kids like those stuffed animals and stickers and plastic ukuleles, thank god or, well, there wouldn’t be any bookstores, let alone independent ones left. And I’m frankly convinced there won’t be unless your goal in life is to hang on as an entrepreneur by the skin of your teeth and just survive. Which is exactly all that I’ve ever accomplished, of course, by way of my lousy food business fiasco and, if the current state of zero book sales is any indication, my attempt at being a professional writer.
Meanwhile, little victories. A paperback finds its way into my last chance independent Ann Arbor bookstore. Placement? Staff review? Enthusiasm for any gratis reader copies? Per my emails? Nope. No response, no comment. Just, “We ordered a copy for the store.” Okay. Gosh. I don’t know, is it just throw it into the mix and see what happens? Yes. It’s the same all over. Music, art, books. Nobody wants to curate, to analyze, to cultivate, to communicate. Besides the lucky handful of books that are apparently born to get attention, born to get on recommended lists and new release displays and get read and written about and some goddamn word of mouth. The rest of us millions and zillions of wannabes that managed against all odds to haul their creations out of the black void and into the light? I don’t know. I just don’t understand, after all my years thinking spent about it and dreaming my artist-craftsman self into existence, how this thing gets legs and that thing doesn’t. Quality plays only a part of the story. There’s a lot of crap out there but a lot of good stuff, too. Too much of everything, apparently, least of all books, least of all novels, least of all debut sci-fi novels.
When it’s meant to be you can’t stop a thing. When it isn’t, you can’t drape it in 24K gold leaf and capture any attention, you can’t set it on fire and get any notice. Welcome or refusal. As for the third way, which can be termed indifference – neither welcome nor refusal – there is pedagogy; that is to say, teaching and instructing the world, over time, of a thing’s value; creating a need versus tapping it. If you can live that long and keep up the fight. Why fight? Because we write to be read, that’s all there is to it. We write for it’s own sake, too. But without the dream and vision of welcome for one’s work, one’s boon, the energy drains away and nothing moves in the end. Entropy reigns and things fall apart and die.
Energy resides within Time Crime. I feel it, sense it, respond to it every single time I look at the book or page through it. It’s good; good enough to succeed and find a legitimately vital place within the pantheon of novels. Time Crime possesses a vibe. Because it’s an authentic mythology. Because it has mythological heart, mythological substance and mythological truth. It’s true fiction. In the full sense of the original German romanticism. Am I the only one who thinks so? Yes, apparently. I can’t even give a copy away to a bookstore employee. They’d apparently rather just let it be, let it alone, let somebody else give it a look before doing anything else but shoving it onto a shelf. I suppose I can’t blame anyone. I myself would likely ignore Carnegie Olson from Ann Arbor’s debut novel. Who f*cking cares about yet another novel? But that book cover kicks ass. And if you pick it up and browse a few lines it might just speak to you.
Nevertheless, despite the force of life, some things seem destined to die, I get it. I used to sift through zillions of compact discs at that cd store I worked at thirty years ago and tossed most of them aside as irrelevant, either worthless or mediocre or… something besides compelling. The handful of compelling discs just happened, despite everything. They worked in the world. Sometimes, rarely, but indeed sometimes, a disc would manage to inspire a second chance, a second and third listen, poised within the middle ground as it were until, perhaps, it tipped into the acquired taste zone and I became a believer and a supporter. I would support my likes, my interests, the things I believed in. I recommend stuff. I review it and rate it and communicate my opinions. And I’m not a curmudgeon critic type who hates everything that isn’t subversive and obscene and impossibly irreverent, either. I like palatable stuff. I get it all. I’m a professional discerner. Professional because I’ve been paid, mostly a pittance, but I’ve been paid nonetheless. You get paid a dollar to discern, you’re a professional.
That said, I understand how some things just never take off like they should; they never see their little place in the sun, not even for a minute. Life rolls over some things, indiscriminately, wrongly, and it sucks. Sometimes the Van Gogh effect happens. You know, the posthumous arrival. But that’s a tragedy, not a success. Success in one’s life is the success we seek. I’m not interested in legacies. What if somebody discovered your book long after you were dead and it became a best seller? Who cares then? Because I’m dead. Which is to say I’ve stopped existing. The devoted reader of the DOP will eventually glean my contemplative perspective, which happens to be one of a not inflexible seeker. I belong to that tribe. What you seek is seeking you, suggests Rumi. Such an idea rings true for some us, the mythological romantics amongst us, perhaps.
My brother-in-law’s brain cancer was diagnosed as so-called stage four. Apparently that’s the worst, I don’t know, I don’t read up on such things. I know that Angie’s father suffered a brain tumor that killed him – well, he died of complications; namely, pneumonia – in six months or so. Neil Peart supposedly lingered for three and a half years, finally in a wheelchair, not speaking, again, I don’t know, I didn’t look any of this up, it was just something Angie said she read about. What is there to say about end game, end of life issues? That it points out the imperative of being properly alive until your end comes? Of being engaged, immersed and otherwise devoted to the deliberate practice of your veritelically authentic personal mythology, your VAPM?
Somebody more enlightened, perhaps, than me may suggest that there’s nothing to pursue in life, nothing to strive for or desire; that we must keep letting go. We lose our place, as they say, within the principle of eternity when we focus on the outcome of our deeds. That’s Campbell by way of The Hero With a Thousand Faces – I’ve cited it on numerous occasions, see the DOP – and the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna instructs the fraught and psychologically paralyzed Arjuna to set aside the fruits of action and hence his internal conflict over outcomes in favor of mindful action for its own sake, in its own right, as an expression of one’s proper function and hence an expression, a reflection, of the cosmic order, of life and death and how things are. Which is to say how Nature and human nature are mysteriously but inevitably intertwined or entangled. We are who we are and if we can discover that essence our only requirement is to surrender to it, to the performance, the expression of it; to be who we are. This idea precludes, of course, the acutely psychologically schizoid state, the condition of psychosis in which a person legitimizes appropriation, inhumanity and tyranny. Arjuna, entirely rational, in possession of his faculties but neurotic, on the border of psychosis, perhaps was, within the context of his culture, a warrior and therefore free to fight. We might say he ought to have indeed set down his arms, become the warrior who would not fight and therefore promulgate peace. But Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as the Divinity, as the play-of-opposites, as eternity, as reality behind the illusion of samsara. And Arjuna’s only responsibility is to express his part to play. He is to lay the outcome, the fruits (or failures) of his actions at the feet of the God or gods, what have you. He is free in this way. Free to be who he is, no more, no less. It’s a fine wisdom tradition, of course, this Oriental perspective, this Eastern mythology.
My selling or not selling of books, then. I write. To be read, of course. But I write nonetheless, because I’m a writer. And that’s the most important thing.
DOP1 VINTAGE POST:
The Manhattan Dragon
In 1990, having lost my job at a failing compact disc (retail music) store called Just CDs in Farmington Hills, Michigan, I changed all of my money – $2500 – into travelers checks and took an Amtrak train to NYC, arriving on September 1st in Grand Central Station. I had a room reserved at the Malibu Inn at 103rd and Broadway, a cheap but supposedly clean hotel I read about in Frommer’s – New York On $34 a Day. Arriving in the middle of a late summer heat wave, I found to my dismay that it was actually more of a dump: crawling with roaches and mice, a community bathroom down the hall, no air conditioning – it was like a crappy college dormitory, and likewise inhabited by young people like me starting out in the city. My only window opened onto the brick wall of the building next door, which was so close by that I could almost reach out and touch it.
I lived at this shithole of a Hotel on the upper west side for a month while I looked for a job in the music business – I had this dream of working for a record company. I thought, like so many young fans whose lives pivoted on the music they listened to, that I’d make a good A&R (artists and repertoire) guy – discovering and signing great new bands to mutual acclaim and substantial fortune. Or a producer, like Roy Thomas Baker, Mutt Lang or Steve Lillywhite for example; guiding great bands through their next history-making album by dint of my intuitively gifted fantastic ear and razor-sharp critical acumen.
Of course I was actually none of the things that get you anywhere in the music business. I was neither a musician, nor did I know any of merit. I knew absolutely nothing about the recording industry nor the real business of making a record. I’d never scouted bands. I was (and remain) a passionate hobby listener, armchair critic and appreciator of popular music, bebop-era jazz, and a pinch of classical and country. But a perverse lack of experience and talent never stopped anybody from making it in New York City, did it? Anyway, I learned early in my life that I don’t have talent for making music – I can’t write a song and I can’t write song lyrics, even though I’ve written poetry – it’s not the same thing. I don’t think up new musical ideas. When I noodle around on my guitar it’s just that: noodling; I have no natural technical ability whatsoever. I’m limited to being what I am: an appreciator.
“Chasing the Manhattan Dragon” is a phrase from Hugh MacLeod’s book “Ignore Everybody.” The dragon is a classic mythical symbol in many cultures, but I think it’s an especially apt symbol for NYC at least, as Hugh says, in one’s first month of living and working there. The power, terrible beauty, danger, vitality, intelligence, history and elusive riches of the city, the dream of which has sustained the adventurous souls of so many, is a fantastic beast to behold in person – fearsome, opulent and tempting. Chasing the dragon it is what you end up doing for the rest of the time you live there, once the newness fades and is replaced by the more familiar grind of getting through life. I certainly didn’t slay the dragon and to be honest, I don’t think I ever really found him. I only got a glimpse of him, an intuition of his presence maybe, during that first sweaty, furiously exhilarating, humbling month, just like almost everybody else who ever did what I did. After that wild ride of being new to the city, I was lucky enough to get a job at a record store in midtown, near Rockefeller Center, and I just sucked it up and went to work, really, with my dreams sinking ever deeper into my back pocket.
I had done some due diligence before I left for NYC regarding the music business. I had purchased a “Buyers Guide,” a publication designed for industry folks who need addresses and contacts for all the music-related businesses, after seeing it advertised in Billboard magazine. Before leaving for NYC, I made a list of all the record companies and retail outlets currently doing business there; places like Warner/Elektra/Atlantic (WEA), Capitol, Tower Records, Virgin Records, Sam Goody, etc. If I couldn’t work for a record company and was forced to return to music retail, I preferred to work at Tower Records because it had a great selection and a much more immersive, creative and cool music-culture vibe. I wasn’t interested in Sam Goody because it was dorky, goofy and seemed to not quite “get it.” It had no cool. Yet Tower also, when I tried to apply there, seemed to personify the completely irreverent indifference that I had experienced back home in Michigan, and screamed “You’re not unusual enough to work here.” I thought they might care that I knew a lot about bands, records, cds and the music retail business; that I even had experience working in a music store. Nope, only nose rings, spiky multi-colored hair, tattoos, hot legs in short-shorts or big tits crammed into a leather bustier.
My daily schedule in that first month involved getting the fuck out of that shitty hotel as soon as I could in the morning and hitting the pavement with my list of five or ten companies to visit and submit an application. I figured I at least now had the advantage of living there and that I could start work right away, that very moment such as it was. Pathetic. But I was doing my best to follow a dream. Days passed and I developed a routine – it’s funny how no matter what you engage in, you develop a routine – of riding the train (subway) and walking my ass off getting to these businesses, soaking up NYC all along the way and ending up at Lincoln Center in the evening for “dinner” which is to say a bagel, apple, banana and bottle of water. Every single night. I sat outside, usually somewhere around the Metropolitan Opera, resting my feet, and people-watching until it became late enough that I couldn’t avoid the inevitable return uptown on the “one-train” o my shit-hole hovel, which I dreaded. Then I’d do it all over again the next day. I thought of it like fishing, which is how I’ve always thought about job hunting. I learned from my Grandfather Morrison that you catch a fish about every one hundred casts (at least in the lake we fished). He probably made that up to shut us complaining kids up, the percentage seems to work for a lot of things you try in life, including looking for a job; for every one hundred resumes/applications you submit, or inquiries you otherwise make, you usually get a “bite.” Not necessarily a job, but at least some interest, some feedback of some type and maybe even an interview. So that was my plan: to bang out at least one-hundred job search activities everyday until I exhausted all my options in the city. If that didn’t work, I didn’t know what I’d do, but it did me no good to worry about that until it happened, until I reached a vanishing point.
In the end, after about two or three weeks, I can’t remember, I got an interview at the only record store I really didn’t want to work at – Sam Goody. Of course, that’s how job hunting works: you end up working at the least desirable place on your list, your last choice. Why doesn this happen? I think now it has something to do with not following your bliss. For example, instead of trying to find a job working for somebody else, I should’ve been starting my own business. But back to the story. I get this interview with what was then Sam Goody’s biggest store, the one in Midtown, near Rockefeller Center, (which everybody incorrectly called “Rockefeller Plaza” back then; “Rockefeller Plaza” was the name of two-way street that passed north-south between the ice rink and the GE building). At least that’s how I remember it. Anyway, this guy who interviewed me was from, of course, Michigan. Duane was a confidently homosexual white guy of my own age. He was a gay expatriate of Metro Detroit where you can’t very well be gay and be happy about it. He liked me. Yes, it turns out, in THAT way also. But he only really hit on me once at his place after some drinks, inevitably attempting to get his hand down my pants. I learned that night what it must be like to be a female fending off the likewise inevitable physical advances of a person you’re not going to have sex with but don’t want to insult, embarrass or otherwise humiliate as a friend. No harm, no foul, I negotiated the situation such that we acted like it never happened and later, he actually helped set me up on a date with a girl I was interested in at that store.
So, that was how I got a job in NYC and I was glad as hell, because nothing else came my way. I caught my one fish so to say. I was good at what I did, people seemed to like me and after six months, when Sam Goody opened a new store in Greenwich Village at 8th St. and Sixth Ave. (Avenue of the Americas) I got picked to be one of the Assistant Managers. Yippee, promoted already. Actually, it wasn’t so much my passion for the music biz and my skills as an assistant manager that got me the new job; it was, I think, my skill and reputation as a crime stopper. I, along with a handful of other like-minded employees, couldn’t stomach anybody trying to rip shit off. So any time I was working and there was a “situation” I did my best to alert our security guards, who sometimes handled it, or I shadowed the culprit myself, observing quietly and discreetly while the perpetrator stuffed cds into his clothes or whatever, thinking I wasn’t watching. Having removed the security tags – usually with a razor blade – the perp would either attempt to calmly exit the store or he’d just make a run for it out the fucking front door at top speed. Either way, I’d go after them and do my best to get the stuff back. I usually did. This happened with regularity – I’d say at least twice a week. So, with the new store in the Village already understood to be in a high-crime area, I got tapped for support. I don’t think I ever got anywhere based on my desired skilled set in the music biz (or anywhere for that matter); it was always about me doing something that needed doing and being in the right place at the right time. Little did I know, but I was to transfer and repeat that biophycomythological problem through several more careers….
I remember thinking the people in NYC, especially the locals, could be just as blind to the vibe of the rest of the world as the rest of the world could be blind to the vibe of NYC. I started to see that the city, while uniquely global, is also uniquely sheltered. All the people, opportunity and action sort of spoil the lucky few who can really afford to enjoy it – they start thinking it’s the only way to live – and then the rest of those that live there for any length of time just get attached to the busy-ness, the never-ending crush and rush of activity, whether you’re really getting what you need out of living there or not. You become comforted by the “somewhereness” of the city, and it can turn you into a voyeur, just a watcher of the swirling masses and their lives playing out. The coming and going. The building and wrecking. The pace of change. Meanwhile your own life goes by.
I knew two young guys where I worked, one from Queens and the other from Brooklyn: one quit and moved to L.A. and the other quit and moved to Florida. They both came back to their old jobs within six months. They were chasing their own “dragon” which goes to show that your dragon never resides in the city where you grew up. It never resides in any city of course, even NYC – it resides inside you, in your heart – the dragon is your inspiration and your guide, at best.
I can’t tell you how many times I was having an unbelievably good time enjoying the people, the places and the action of NYC – bright lights, big city and all that – the sense of opportunity and potential was palpable, I felt it was in me too and then, sometimes only hours or minutes later, I’d run up against something equally brutal, ugly, disturbing, disappointing, troubling or annoying. Like a teenage prostitute asking if you want a blow job for twenty bucks, a guy lying in his own barf on a subway train at 2:00AM, the trash in the streets, the smell, the construction, the indifference…. There is always this dichotomy, this trade off. So in the end you’re left with, most days, the challenge of balancing these two extremes, which can be exhausting. When you find yourself focusing more on the bad than the good, and getting worn out in the process of chasing that dragon, you find yourself wanting to leave the city. Some folks go chase another dragon in another city – L.A., Tokyo, London, Paris, whatever – certain cities lend themselves to dragon chasing – or like me, you head back home, tail between your legs and try to get your shit together.
I had gotten myself fired again. Got on the bad side of the manager, who had big ambitions, and I called in sick one day out of frustration. She pulled out a policy statement from the employee manual which said I needed a note from a doctor to call in sick. A note from a fucking doctor, what a joke. This is the same company that was paying me, before I went to the big-time salary of $19K/year, what I call “Chinese overtime.” It’s where you sign an agreement when you accept the job, to get paid half your hourly rate for any overtime hours. Yep, half. I fought it; I bitched and complained about it. To me, it seemed fucking illegal, but it wasn’t, ostensibly because I’d been dumb or desperate enough to sign their fucking document so as to get hired. Instead of getting paid time-and-a-half after forty hours, you made half-time – half your hourly rate – after forty hours. Fucking outrageous. Looking back of course it was obvious that the “fiasco” had begun on day one. Taking the job at the new store in The Village brought the Chinese overtime problem to the fore because to open the store we worked twelve-hour days for at least two weeks, unpacking and then organizing all the music, helping to set up the display racks, stock rooms, décor, whatever the fuck they needed. So instead of making better money, I was being paid less than I’d ever been paid in my fucking life, at least for about twenty hours a week for two weeks. Fuckers. I never got over it. I took it as a personal insult besides the corrupt business practice that it was. Of course nobody complained except me. This keep-your-mouth-shut-and-take-it-up-the-ass attitude has always baffled me. It’s one thing to make sacrifices when you’re starting out in life, in a career but it’s another to have experience and your wits about you and get fucked over in broad daylight so to speak. The insult ruined me for working there, it ate away at me continually and affected my attitude ever after. I couldn’t get passed it.
I’ve returned to NYC only twice in the twenty years since I lived there. The first time was with Angie – her first visit – a few years after we got married. It must have been the late 90s or early 2000s. I gave her the tour of New York as I lived it, with a little more cash in our pockets than I ever had back then of course. The second trip was this year, 2010, almost twenty years to the day of taking that train to Grand Central Station in September of 1990, and the ironic and ignoble coincidence of being likewise unemployed is not lost on me to be sure. I was unemployed again. Angie had a conference she had a two-day conference she was required to attend for work, and she suggested that I come along. I wanted to go, but I wasn’t enamored with the idea of being or otherwise feeling, like a tag-along. She suggested that I don’t be one – a tag-along – which snapped me out of my funk about the past, the present and the future and reminded me of all the work I’d done on getting my own life right since getting fired. I had made progress on myself and here I was back-sliding into my old self-critical, self-sabotaging behavior.
Be who you are. Writer, cook, hiker, traveler, asshole. If you can’t be what you want to be, then fucking fake it; act “as if.” Being unemployed doesn’t define anybody. Create your own job, your own vocation, even if it’s only in your own head. It doesn’t have to pay, that’s not the definition of work. Engaged pursuit of an interest and passion can actually be more work than a paying job, if you define it as time-consuming, difficult, strenuous (mentally and physically) and even irritating. How is that not a job? Following your heart, listening to it, finding your way, discovering your guides, mythic or otherwise, and using them to stay on your path to enlightenment or bliss, is not straightforward, simple, or easy. A paying job working for someone else’s dream can certainly be straightforward – it’s usually technically easier – but biophycomythologically? – it’s like moving mountains. Getting to work on being who you are can be the most frustrating and scary adventure you can undertake.
If you’re a “collector” of cities like me, then you know you don’t need to live in them to bond with them in some intuitive way. But I think spending a lot of time on foot in a place is essential to developing this connection, of making it real instead of fantasy. I’d already spent, in the years I lived there, and during the first return trip, an enormous amount of time walking in NYC, so I had a healthy bond with it.
Our first evening, Angie and I met up with her co-worker, I’ll call him Al, at Trattoria Casa Di Isacco in the Hell’s Kitchen area, on 9th Avenue between 39th and 40th streets. Al was a Canadian expatriot, a man close to retirement and now living in Vermont. He was apparently a great fan of sniffing out restaurants, of digging for culinary gold and laying claim to having discovered the best of the best in a certain city, at least regarding lunch and dinner. This Italian joint was one of his proud finds and it was charming and ethnic and we ate and drank up a storm. I even had my first experience with high-quality Spanish cured ham: Jabugo De Bellota Gran Reserva, which is acorn & truffle-fed ($50 for about 8oz!). The owner waited on us and I had him bring out some pictures of the pigs that produced this magnificent pork. He’d brought us enough wine that by the end of the meal, we had a hard time dividing up the bill amongst us. Al unfortunately didn’t know that the cured ham was anywhere near as expensive as it was and he was beside himself when he saw it on the bill, but hell, he wasn’t paying for it. We had a good time, what the hell.
While Angie and Al were at their work conference all day, I wandered the city on foot. But after two days and twenty-five miles of walking Manhattan, a trek that was half nostalgia and half curiosity on the current state of Gotham, I was feeling tapped out. Unconnected. Past it, out of it, and also like nothing had changed at all. I even sat, uncomfortably, through a beer at my old 1991-2 haunt, the Slaughtered Lamb Pub, which opened the same year I started living there. Ugh. I’d seen it again with Angie in 2004, but couldn’t pull the trigger to spend time there – I had walked in, observing with abject disappointment that the bar had been haphazardly relocated to the other side of the room (always a bad thing to have folks sitting with their back to the door). Bad vibe then, bad vibe now. It was still in business, which is laudable after twenty years I guess, but still, ugh. So I wandered. And wandered. Past all the cheesy, tacky, pretentious, silly, dull and ridiculously self-aware restaurants and bars that Manhattan has always churned through. Drake’s Drum on the upper east side? Gone. Now what? I essentially gave up the search for a comfortable seat at an inviting bar and just kept walking. And I really like walking – it’s a master passion in fact – a key component of my biophycomythology. Intuition took me south towards SoHo along West Broadway. Art galleries. Bars, eateries, taverns, but nothing looked inviting. Finally, occupying the corner of West Broadway and Broome Street, the Broome Street Bar. Tattered but sturdy, it exuded just enough vintage charm to inspire entry.
Led Zeppelin on the speakers. Kitchen up front near the door and in full view. A cool bartender, Steve, ex-rocker, played some music from his old band The Prostitutes. Mott the Hoople, eight tracks, and hallucinogens were mentioned and the various introductory mini-histories of our lives, all fun. I enjoyed a Guinness with my comforting cup of the daily special New England Clam Chowder. Chunky potatoes, a hunk of carrot, luxurious creamy clammy broth and big, juicy clams, tender and with some grit. Pink Floyd: Meddle. A discussion of when that album came out. A neighborhood place. Multi-generational, easy-going, attentive, attention to quality. No Red Bull refrigerator on display. A real bar, right when I was thinking that Manhattan had forgotten what a real bar was. A sign of a good watering hole is a memorable restroom – this is just my theory, but it usually holds true – it’s rare for an establishment to have everything working and to ignore their restrooms. Often, the restroom can be the thing that sticks with you more than anything – it might gross you out, or it may actually inspire you to enjoy your time there because the vibe continues within and without. Why should you get up from your bar stool, walk around soaking up the atmosphere, only to end up negotiating your way in and out of a disgusting afterthought of a space? If you return to your seat with the urge to drink away what you just experienced, or if it reminds you too much of that funky dive from your college days – the one with a running toilet and no burned-out light bulb – there’s a problem. At Broome Street, no worries, this curious visage beckons:
Here’s a compelling image I found in my computer’s clip art file, of all places. For me, it captures the concept of heart-mind; this skull is “seeing” literally and intuitively, with its heart.
Trying to see the world with my heart so to speak has always been the only way I’ve ever seemed to make any progress in my life; my rational mind, obsessed with survival, tends to overpower my heart and remain distant from it. I consistently fail to merge the two. My heart, when I make a point of listening to it, knows what I should be doing, but I’ve sort of made a career out of ignoring it; always placing more importance on my rational thoughts. In a desire to conform, or fit into the working world for example – to cope with the schism between my job and my life – I’ve successfully changed my own brain and subsequently parts of my personality, to a degree that’s been noticeable by others, like my family. It’s unsettling to realize you can betray yourself in this way, literally modifying your personality to an extent that’s almost permanent. There is research being done concerning brain science and brain plasticity that convincingly argues that you can indeed change or modify your physical brain (after all, it’s electrochemical) just by thinking. A changed brain means a changed person, which means a change in perception of the world, right? And like every other useful thing in the world, this process can be used for better or for worse.
Is it straightforward to understand that changing our attitude (looking at the glass half full vs. half empty as an example) which is to say changing our thoughts, our thinking, can lead, over time and with some considerable effort, to a physical change in the structure – the physiology – of our brain? Clearly it happens. But how? Our brain changes as we age, with experience and from injury – it’s malleable, or “plastic” from the outside-in so to speak, it responds to temporal and physical influence, to time and space. Like muscle tissue, it grows (cells multiply), it can repair itself (within physiological limits) and it can be said to become “stronger” with use – better at negotiating and influencing the world-of-action which continually influences it. But what is the nature of a non-physical influence on the brain? For example, modifying muscle fiber requires work in the Newtonian sense (F = ma, W = Fd, et al.) – cause and effect in this case is physical – no amount of thinking will build, atrophy or repair our muscles. Yet the brain is clearly capable of being physically influenced by non-physical (non-Newtonian) influences, which is to say experience in the broadest sense – those experiences exclusive to the mind as separate from the body. Now, we can’t say a physical experience (that of the body) is tangible and a mental experience (that of the brain or mind) is intangible because the word “experience” implies tangibility; whether we’re awake, dreaming, watching a movie or playing a game, we have physical or mental experiences of unquestionable tangibility. Physical action may or may not affect the mind and mental action may or may not affect the body, but it’s always the case that our brain prefers neither – science reveals that our brains, in the context of brain chemistry at least, do not differeniate between a mental and physical experience; they are shown to be identical whether “real,” dreamt or wakefully imagined. In what context then are we are able to know the difference? In the context of what we call mind? How do we obtain the mental distance to choose the type (or level if you will) of experience we wish to have? We can for example imagine things differently than how they are. How are we able to imagine a mental change and to go about making it? How are we both slave to and master of our thoughts? We cannot be anything we want yet we are what we take time to become. We are conscious of being conscious, (where a dog or cat is not), and the advantage of either state-of-mind is dubious.
In meditation we attempt, through the cessation of doing (which includes watching or otherwise observing) the exclusive experience of being. This condition implies an advantage to presence over an inclination towards the past or present through the relief of those very inclinations. Presence is synonomous with stillness, ceasing to be drawn towards or away. If one could attain such a position of uninclined, uninfluenced centering between this or that – a perfect paradox so to speak – one could attain so-called unattachment or enlightenment; bound to nothing, you become bound to everything, an undifferentiated identity – self becomes Self. Mind could be said to move from the individual to the collective, or the collectively individual. Can you be yourself and also All? In the East you attain Buddhahood and per the myth, may choose to remain temporarily corporeal (the Buddha eventually died), or to immediately sublimate into the eternal All. In the West, All is the effect of God and, per the myth, you attain the grace of that enternally differentiated identity (you blaspheme if you identify with it). In the East, God is an inside-out proposition, whereas in the West, it becomes outside-in.
In either spiritual sense, and for that matter every other contemplative case (excluding the neurotic), we invariably find ourselves returning here, to the confines our our minds and thereby our brains, nonetheless watching. What, if anything, has happened? Certainly something has. The experience – the mental journey of thought – has changed us. A cause-and-effect condition is demonstrated, however seemingly imperceptibly, by the changes in our mind (our thinking) and our brain (its physiology). Is it of any importance to consider the nature of the cause-and-effect? Is there anything more to know about the difference between the watcher and the doer in each of us – between reflection and volition – besides the fact of the difference? Could a more complete understanding help us change more quickly and effectively into who we want to be and to more effectively do what we want to do? If science tells us that matter and energy are identical, and our thoughts can be said to be electrochemical occurances – energy – then perhaps the relationship becomes less mysterious. Are the Newtonian properties of our thoughts perhaps similar to the properties light: both particle and wave? Does it matter, pun intended?
The skull image looks like a tattoo and what are tattoos if not symbols so compelling and meaningful (hopefully) that an individual chooses to permanently capture them and integrate them, into their flesh as well as their psyche. For some of course, a tattoo is merely decoration, but we see the same symbols repeated on tattoos (skulls, serpents, hearts, knives, skeletons, anchors, dragons, idealized women, flowers, crosses, crucifixes, etc.) exactly because, I think, and as Campbell would probably agree, they are time-tested mythic symbols that resonate with almost everyone across time; they’re archetypes. The skull is a very common archetype – it appears virtually everywhere in the world, right? It’s a universally powerful image loaded with meaning; it’s perhaps a life’s work to study the image of the skull throughout the world’s art. I think tattoos are very visceral examples of people trying to literally create and connect with their own myths.
I began my self work before I knew that’s what I was doing. Several months before getting fired from JCI, I had been very actively looking for a new job; I’d even had an interview in Santa Fe, California, the flight paid for by the employer. I spent, much to my chagrin in the end, $5,000 for career coaching and job search assistance. Whenever I had an interview, I’d post the name of the city we’d be moving to on the pantry door and this became an enjoyably inspirational game of sorts. The activity of illustrating the name of a desired city in multi-colored hand lettering and then posting it in plain sight became an irresistibly compelling motivational device for me – a positive psychological trigger – and served to keep my spirits up. Sometime during this period of biophycomythological rehabilitation, or self-work or selfology (I’ll eventually decide on the right word) Angie commented, innocently enough, that “The key to happiness is an unconventional life.” This statement struck me, as they say, right between the eyes. It rang true. It sounded self-evident; like a maxim. In fact, it seems practically unassailable when you examine the lives of the most successfully happy people. Whether we speak of Mahatma Ghandi, Thomas Jefferson or Keith Richards, folks that have eschewed convention and security like this are inevitably the ones we come to admire as uniquely engaged and accomplished people. Of course their happiness could be open to question, but I doubt it. I think this hinges on the idea of the unconventional life because that life will necessarily be free of the crushing expectations and enthusiasm-killing, dream-killing metaphorical “ice-water-in-the-shower” effects one endures when trying to conform.
I recall the image of the red-masked man and how he somehow captures the idea of the “unconventional life.” Over time, I came to think of him as a version of me.
As the weeks and months went by, I intuitively searched for more symbols that captured me but it wasn’t until I read about vision boards, in Jack Canfield’s The Success Principles, that I created my first version – literally a black foam-core board where I spray-mounted found images and my own illustrations and text. Canfield’s discussion on the topic of vision boards and their effectiveness was compelling; the practice of collecting and arranging, like in a scrap book, (but a scrap book of the future instead of the past), pictures of what you want to have, do and be resonated with me. And this is where people are different, because Angie, after struggling with a vision board, ended up preferring the written word for her vision. This is ironic, because I always prefer learning (and communicating) through writing – that’s why I think I enjoy email so much – whereas Angie always says she learns the best visually. But when it comes to our own biophycomythology, are preferred mediums are reversed so to speak. This is why it’s so essential to remain flexible and open when engaging in self-work – you must resist the inclination to pre-judge, project or otherwise assume something will or will not work for you. Both Jack Canfield and Joseph Campbell would agree I think, that you might need to remain open to everything, even faking it – acting “as if”- a particular idea is appropriate, trying multiple hats on without bias, because you might find, in the course of using it, that it’s indeed the tool you really need. After all, if you’ve just begun a biophycomythological rehab, it’s almost a given that you’re not as tuned into yourself and your needs as you ought to be – you need practice being who you are. Many important experiments will seem completely foreign to you. My advice is to stick with it – your heart knows what’s right and will bring your brain along with it, given the chance; the answers are within you but you’ve got to have the courage to accept them, to surrender to them.
I eventually incorporated the heart-mind-skull as the image and symbol I connected with, replacing the red-mask-man who was, after all, wearing a mask, as I had been for so very long. It was that mask that I was now attempting to remove, to get out from behind. Angie’s mantra regarding the unconventional life being the key to happiness is still an active part of our selfologies, but the heart-mind skull became a more compelling and resonant image for me personally. Hearts are placed within the eyes and on the forehead, symbolizing the location of the mind – you are to see and think with your heart – it’s the perfect representation of heart-mind. Campbell talks about masks whilst discussing Carl Jung – you go through life with a mask that you put on to present yourself to the world in the way you think you need to. Obviously, it hides your true self, becoming what he calls your antithetical self and opening the door to schism. A skull, however, not only doesn’t have a mask, it doesn’t even have any flesh, so there’s absolutely nothing, symbolically at least, between you and the world. So, here’s a good symbol for me right now, to help me work through stuff. I can go on and on, and that’s exactly the point – this symbol is guiding me, motivating me, centering me. Which brings me to the next topic: the Mandala, or sacred circle.
Of course, in trying to relate yourself to transcendence, you don’t have to have images. You can go the Zen way and forget the myths altogether. But I’m talking about the mythic way. And what the myth does is to provide a field in which you can locate yourself. That’s the sense of the Mandala, the sacred circle, whether you are a Tibetan monk or the patient of a Jungian analyst. The symbols are laid out around the circle, and you are to locate yourself in the center. A labyrinth, of course, is a scrambled Mandala, in which you don’t know where you are. That’s the way the world is for people who don’t have a mythology. It’s a labyrinth. They are battling their way through as if no one had ever been there before.
Below is my Mandala, which took the place of my previous “vision board.” For many months, the vision board served as inspiration but, like I said, it quickly began to lose its effectiveness, mostly because I could not effectively remove the photo of the my dog without “ruining” the rest of the value of the board. My board then started to piss me off – it went from helping me to blocking me. That shit happens in life – what once helped now hinders – and you need to stay vigilant to keep finding ways to move forward.
You are to place yourself, as Campbell says, in the center, then you place the symbols of what’s important to you around the center. You’re going to situate yourself, intuitively, within the things most important to you. Where things go on this circle is where you intuitively think or feel they should go – it’s all about you and what feels right at the time. I continue to adjust my mandala as I see fit, but that I continue to struggle with jamming things in between me and my sacred circle, that in all likelihood only function as limits or blocks to the back-and-forth connections between me and my “stuff” is, I think, telling. It’s one of my life-long struggles I think, letting things get in between me and who I am. Maybe it’s suburbia. Maybe it’s my parents. Maybe it’s my coaches, teachers, blah, blah, same as everybody else, nature or nurture or both, life will fuck you up and it’s nobody’s fault, I’m living it and it’s up to me to patch the holes, to do the repair work, to do the self-work. Fighting to clear out the space between me and who I am is ridiculously difficult at times but look, now it’s empty and I can tell you that it was like breathing clean air when I looked at it.
Does discovering your myth, bringing your boon back to the world, always involve the pedagogical – the getting a “hook in” as Campbell says and getting the info to folks in the way they can handle it at the time and teaching and coaching them – showing patience and compassion – towards an understanding and appreciation of what you have to offer? As Campbell indicates, you come back from your hero’s journey, with your boon for the world, and he describes the three possible reactions:
- Tell the world to “go stink,” do your thing with your new boon, alone, and let the “weeds grow around the gate.” Whether the world discovers your boon twenty years or twenty thousand years later – it doesn’t matter, you don’t care.
- Use the skills you’ve acquired on your journey and from the acquisition of your boon to give the people what they want. You tell yourself that you’ll get back to your boon later when you’ve got your life straightened out or whatever. That’s Campbell’s version of commercial art. You’re not giving anyone anything they don’t already have, so you’re giving them nothing. But, as Campbell said, “you’ve got a public career.” And he points out that this will indeed kill your ability to provide your boon later, when you supposedly were going to somehow get around to doing it. You’ll lose touch with the ability to connect with your boon. I think this is reflected in The Alchemist when the Alchemist himself describes how you can shut down the process of listening to your heart and the consequences.
- Try to get “a hook in” as he says, to society in such a way so that you can basically teach them what to like about your boon that you have to offer. It makes sense to me, to go about it in this pedagogical way, because how the fuck can you expect most folks to understand your boon? They, after all, didn’t go on your hero’s journey with you. It’s like when a great rock record comes out, but at first, nobody likes it. It takes someone with some insight into the “aesthetic myth” of it – like a “shaman disc jockey” – to recommend it and keep it in front of folks long enough for them to digest it a little and then make it their own – to assimilate it into their mandala of mythic symbols.