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Monday, April 25, 2016

Facebook of Death

 (Or, The Long Way Home)

Have you ever watched a stranger die on Facebook? It’s something I’ll never be able to explain to my mother, and for the precisely opposite reason, something I’ll never be able to explain the uncanny eeriness of to my children. It’s the face of the Grim Reaper in our present time, and while its impermanence – subject to the digital impermanence of all our media these days – raises faint alarms in the back of my mind, its immediate nature is both sobering and completely enthralling to me.

It’s not totally unlike when a celebrity dies, but that’s specifically not what I’m referring to. Especially when it was someone you personally found inspiring, the experience can be emotional, deeply cutting, and every bit as shocking to the psyche as the death of a relative. I cried harder when George Carlin died than when my own grandfather died. Losing Robin Williams was like losing my favorite uncle. But it’s the other side of the loss we feel when someone is snatched from the earth that I’m referring to. It’s not the element of personal pain I’ve begun to notice, but the empathy for those who are blinded by it. And it’s much more clearly defined when you watch someone die that everyone didn’t know.

Perhaps 6 months ago, an old coworker and Facebook friend of mine, who is involved in a fairly tightly-knit artistic community in a rather large American city made a post about one of his friends (someone I’d never met or heard of) that for whatever reason struck a chord with me. I think the only reason it even showed up on my feed is because it had maybe 15 likes on it. I hovered my cursor over the number, and didn’t recognize any of the names on the list. Perhaps it’s because it was 3 in the morning, or perhaps it’s because I was high – a part of me definitely wondered what my old friend was up to these days, who his new friends were, and how he was getting along in his developing craft. But if I’m being totally honest, I’d have to say that what made me scroll the mouse back over and click on the linked name was wondering who this “Meredith” person was, and why my friend had said such wonderful things about her in such a melancholy tone of goodbye. I knew in my heart her story hadn’t ended well, but something in his words made it feel like she was my friend, too.

After a half hour or so of reading through a seemingly endless torrent of remorse, pleading, nostalgia, and the strangest flavor of hope I’ve ever sensed, it was clear to me that Meredith had been a deeply and widely treasured – if secretly troubled – member of her professional peer group, in organizing events, and in inspiring even the most reluctant and self-doubting members to take their first steps performing. The goodbyes I read from heartbroken strangers that day instilled in me a feeling I’d only felt before at my father’s funeral, 6 months after his death, as I watched many of his friends and colleagues have the catharsis I had experienced months before. It’s a different kind of grief – one that originates entirely in empathy – and when you feel it, it reminds you for a moment how very cold the universe would feel without friends.

It’s always hard when someone you look up to, creatively and professionally, takes their own life. Most of my heroes killed themselves. It’s an ominous implication, in no uncertain terms, when even the people you admire most – who most successfully created, both in terms of reputation and legacy – in the field you have chosen, end up deciding that ending their lives is a better option than trying to continue living them. That’s a sobering dose, friendo. Perhaps it’s a testament to the psychological occupational hazards of my chosen craft; perhaps writers have a dramatic need for literary closure, and from time to time, you have on your hands a tragedy, with only one obvious, final solution. Perhaps it’s just hard to make a living. Maybe we just tend to drink too much. Still, you would need a chaser for that realization.

Several days before I left Santa Fe, one of my most respected local role models made that ultimate choice. It’s odd, to me, because I never actually physically met Rob DeWalt. Our entire lifetime interaction was through media. Before I ever started writing for the Reporter, Dylan’s Mom used tell me, “You should take a look at Rob DeWalt’s stuff! He does great music reviews! You should do something like that!” (Cheryl has never ended a sentence with a period in her life.) He was one of the few culture critics in town who had even a shred of integrity (and he had a generous helping), and whose opinions of the bands he wrote about were based in a context of personal familiarity with the local scene. He got it. And he called bullshit when he saw it. He never pulled a punch, and I may have disagreed with him on the occasional aesthetic, but be it a restaurant or an album or a gallery, if Rob vouched for it, chances are you should probably go check it out at the very least. So when I started writing Born Here All My Life, and he was one of the earliest people to chime in with his appreciation for the picture I was trying to paint, it was a supremely meaningful compliment. We were supposed to meet for beers one day last spring, but between my bouts of depression and his consistent medical issues, we kept postponing, and settled for giggling at the same memes on Facebook. I thought for a second, about a month before I left, to perhaps try again to set up a time to grab a bite to eat or something, and put a living face to the name I had shared so many knowing chuckles with. But I didn’t. I guess I didn’t think it was worth the trouble – his or mine – to make time and meet a person with whose life mine would probably never again intersect; someone who, despite his representing everything I considered a quasi-famous local writer to ideally stand for, had never made it past the level of “respected acquaintance” in my life. Why complicate things now, and make a friend just to lose him?

I was getting up from my last lunch for a while with another personal mentor, when I casually flicked on Facebook for a second, in my compulsive way, as he stepped into the restroom. It was there that I saw a post by a mutual friend of Rob’s who had known him in high school, and tagged him in it. It was a picture of a burned Van Halen CD with the following caption:

“Burned this for you the day it came out. But doctors and schedules and life conspired to make it harder and harder for us to just get together and hang out or grab a quick lunch (like the good old days).

“And so it's been sitting next to my computer for almost a year. I was glad that F'book afforded us some of the trappings of our old friendship, but it never allowed me to actually hand this over to you; to see what you thought of Ed's playing now, or Wolf's courageous but ultimately lacking attempts at hitting the top harmony parts, or Dave's undiminished enthusiasm for bellowing at age and mortality and boredom...

“And I guess that's where it will stay. Rest in peace my Friend.”

When someone dies, it inspires everyone who loved them to become – if only for a short while – the best version of themselves. And in their grief, they lower their defenses in a way that, if you open yourself to it, will make you feel that love as well. You feel for that moment like you knew this person, as they did, and you feel the joy he brought into their lives, as if he had been a part of your own. It’s a very particular and strange emotion, and while I can’t say I recommend seeking it out, I can’t call it a negative experience, either.

I’m not sure how I feel about watching people die on Facebook. I’m not sure how I feel about watching people die. I suppose I will have to get used to the idea of both more and more. I’m not sure how I feel about that, or the fact that, at some point, the two will be indistinguishable activities for most Americans, the way people in the countries we bomb probably don’t feel the need to differentiate what sort of munitions their relatives were murdered with when explaining it to friends… I’m sorry… Tangent… Where was I? I don’t remember. Something about death… Who needs a drink?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Options, Fears, Arrogance, and Fate...

(And other, lesser, demons...) 


Options have always been a crippling force in my life. Perhaps that seems paradoxical in light of my penchant for anti-authoritarian thinking, but in general, I’d much rather be told what to do, than have to suss it out for myself. It’s simply too open-ended a task; sorting through various, seemingly equal possibilities, to choose the one that might reap the sweetest reward. There are too many parameters available for me to waste time on, and I could – if left unchecked – spend a lifetime simply weighing the various categories of benefit, both long and short term, in even a simple dichotomy of options, without ever making a choice. In most instances, this leads to one avenue (or, in the worst instances, both) expiring, forcing my hand in the other direction. On still other occasions, my fear of that outcome pushes me into prematurely choosing the more time-sensitive route, despite it not being clearly in my best interest – worse yet, it has quickly proven itself, on occasion, to be the exact wrong choice.

Despite this constant fear of regretful arbitration, I’ve done a fair job of committing myself, over the last decade, to several sudden and extreme changes in lifestyle, location, and ambition. While they were generally triggered in moments of panic, brought on by heartbreak, loneliness, or stagnating depression (usually a blend of the three) – and while each has come with its own series of regrets in regards to abandoned pipe dreams, distant compatriots, and an uncertain future – I take some pride in my resolve to immerse myself in these unfamiliar and often socially isolated environments until I’m able to whittle out new perches from which to nest and base my new undertakings. It was this resolve that first forced me out of my desert home and into the rainy forests of the Pacific Northwest. It was also that steadfast determination in the midst of unrelenting panic that drove me to leave the bohemian oasis of Bellingham and explore the land of my birth in my own sporadic and cautious way. In the face of my own shame at returning to the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it was this same pigheaded refusal to accept my place as just another unwelcome millennial detractor from the prescribed local convention that led me to seek employment as a commentator on the culture and identity of that sleepy little village of weirdos. That position led me to at long last finding peace and closure for many of the hatreds and frustrations my childhood home had instilled in me. And that closure is how I came to view Santa Fe as what it has always been; my home. And in conjunction with another moment of panic and despair (I have those sometimes), it was this realization – that Santa Fe was, and always will be, like it or not, my home – that allowed me to, without fear and with little doubt, decide to leave home again, in search of something that can never be found at home; a purpose.

The psychological closure Santa Fe bestowed upon me in my final months, weeks, and in fact hours in its uniquely visceral light is something I’m still coming to grips with, and cannot begin to detail in this rambling missive. If the Gods only knew the sympathetic alliance I had forged with the sentient geography that surrounded my childhood, and the silent blessing those hills bestowed upon me as I packed my belongings into my shitty little Honda Civic and barreled out into the sunset, they would surely grow jealous and conspire in some truly devious way to remind me of my place as a mere mortal. How dare I master my surroundings to that extent, and presume to know in which direction my ultimate prize lay? How dare I assume that I, by some divine or demonic intervention, might actually know how the cosmic game of dice that lays before me will play out, before even the first is cast? I should be ashamed. I should tremble in fear. But alas, my arrogance has again got the better of me. Because while I have nowhere to live, no reliable internet, a much smaller contingent of peers and kindred spirits than I anticipated in this “Santa Fe on the Bay” that I hope to soon refer to casually as “home,” and absolutely not even the foggiest inkling of what I will do when this rant reaches a full stop, I know now that I am the only true arbiter of all my future outcomes. “I am He who is called I Am.” And no overabundance of options can prevent me from playing out my part in this absurd drama, which needs both heroes and villains; commentators and sycophants; jesters and fools; and perhaps a narrator or two…