There is a long history of you and your friends piling into a car and driving well into the night in order to catch a show that is not coming to your home town. While the traveling performer is a very old trope in our world, it is only with the advent of national radio – where audiences could get to know artists before they ever made it to the town they play in – that listeners were in a position to know what a show might be like before they went. Of course, by then the lines of communication were open so you could promote shows like this, and suddenly, all the pieces were in place to develop a culture where not only space could prevent you from seeing something you want, provided you could get there in time.
A much more modern tradition revolves around the weekend after Thanksgiving. As people are visiting family and friends for that holiday, they are usually casting around for something to do on the days leading back to that Monday, when you return to work. Bars fill up and, if you’re lucky, a few bands will tune up in the corner to help pass the time. The folks at Turn! Turn! Turn! certainly had that in mind this year, and to that end, a select handful of us found ourselves huddled around a brand new stage as we took in one of these shows, bolstered by booze and food and a sense that, for whatever reason, this was what we wanted to be doing instead of standing around the kitchen as we cast around for the last few things we’ll be saying to each other before we go home tomorrow.
White Shark Shivers started the show, an ensemble born out of various Thinking Feller’s Union Local 282 projects, with a large horn section and two guitar players, delivering something that had some of the same spirit as that long lost band, while creating a much more specific tone and mood that is not only more appropriate for a gloomy, raining evening, but felt in line with the current national mood. While this seems to be an extension of Mark Davies’ 1994 solo project The White Shark – and the set certainly included some of those songs amid some covers and originals – this seemed like a new ensemble made up of old friends that is capable of so much more. If we can’t have the Feller’s back, White Shark Shivers is absolutely the next best thing.
Compared to the crowd on stage for the first act, Porest’s two members was certainly an interesting juxtaposition, to say the least. Having not played in the US for almost 10 years, this was one of two shows that were happening on this continent, and when you listen to some of the songs Porest is known for, it actually makes sense. While mining some of the collage / experimental territory that Negativland loves to explore, Porest takes their political tone and runs wild with it, intermixing comedy and collage with deconstructive lyrics that might explain why Mark Gergis has been living outside of the country in recent years. “Soapbox Cutter” is a scathing indictment of US policy and politics, delivered from his “karaoke soapbox” that so conveniently is the form of his stage show, “Diplomat Smile” continues to explore these themes, in a way that pre-saged the recent election, and yet seems to be commenting upon it, too. “Keep fighting the fight,” seems even more ironic, and yet hopeful, when delivered to a crowd of dancing, happy fans. Mix this with some on-stage destruction, comedy, and slick dance moves that accompany a song against smoking, and it was most certainly worth it to catch this rare artist in his natural environment.
To close the show, Sir Richard Bishop of The Sun City Girls took the stage, and amid protests that we’d already seen the best, and that he was far too wasted to play well, he continued to deliver acoustic originals and covers that felt celebratory in a way we all desperately needed. While his improvisational sonic explorations are always contemplative, he wasn’t beneath throwing in a few jokey covers like “Fly By Night” and an incredibly earnest version of “If I Only Had A Brain.” We swayed, we rocked, we laughed and we cajoled, but it was mostly because we didn’t want it to end. We still had an hour drive home ahead of us, and the liquor soaked joy and pot-tinged celebrations seemed to be just starting as Richard insisted that we had already gotten our money’s worth.
But as we blasted back down I-5 to return home, it seemed the perfect endcap to an incredible evening. If seeing them, as Richard insisted, was about getting our money’s worth, then he’s being incredibly disingenuous. Porest didn’t come to this country just to play for a small crowd in Portland for the money, and it seems odd that Mark Davies would assemble a group like his because there was certainly money in it. Rather, this was another one of his jokes. When it comes to shows like this, none of us are getting together in a small club because it is “worth it.” Rather, we’re coming for the comradery, we’re coming to get away from our families for a few minutes and enjoy ourselves. We’re looking for something else in the night, in the rain, in the darkness, in this November at the end of a year that has beaten us down, insulted us, degraded us, and made us feel like there is no hope.
We’re looking, for a few hours, for some music. And, fortunately, we found it.
There is no amount of technology or improvement in our culture or way of life that can erase how helpless and meaningless everything seems when we get sick. There are moments, when we are awake at two AM, delirious, confused, feeling gross and insane, and your mind travels down a repetitive loop of nonsense that is both impossible to focus on and your entire reality – moments like that, where you suddenly remember how debilitating even the smallest illnesses can be, and how when someone says they aren’t feeling well, what, exactly, that can mean.
I felt it coming on Saturday morning, and while I wasn’t exactly sure at first, by the time we had decided what we wanted to do that day and were out in the world doing it, I was sure that the rest of my day would be awful. We finished our errands, got home, and I went to bed, and have failed to get sleep ever since. I’m sure I have dozed off for an hour or so, but nothing truly restful, or substantive. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the bathroom – and I will not give any detail as to why – and while I am often hungry, everything I put in my body does not seem to enjoy the experience. But, if I had to say anything is really the worst part of all of this, it is not being able to sleep.
I am so bad at taking care of myself anyway that it is not at all surprising when I do get sick, but the fact I don’t spend more time sick is either a testament to the human body, or my own genetic mutation thereof. But as I get older I have started to realize that all my terrible habits and non-considerations of things that are fairly worrisome should probably be reversed if I don’t want to experience an untimely departure. Our days are numbered as it is, and it would be embarrassing if there were something I could do to keep that end day at bay, and I did nothing.
Of course I don’t think about these kinds of things except when I am sick, or not feeling well, or some other aspect of health comes knocking on my door. Our minds are incredible tools, and allow us the ability to enjoy amazing leisure activities. But it is terrible at reinforcing good habits, or breaking bad ones and forming new ones, too. This largely has to do with how easy it is to find (and enjoy) things that are fun, and in doing so, ignore all things that we don’t think of that way. You’ve probably heard this elsewhere, but the key is to “gamify” your own health in a way you enjoy.
But, of course, doing that is fairly difficult, too. We are creatures of habit, and if you have any bad ones in particular, then you know how tough it is to change. I smoked for years and years, so much so that I had to quit several times before I was able to fully give up cigarettes. (And even that still hasn’t caused me to fully give up wanting to smoke.) I took me a long time to give up drinking every day, and as I give up one bad habit, I see a huge foundation of others beneath me that I still need to give up, too. How much self improvement is safe to undertake at any one time?
It is weird when you have to start guessing about what will and will not be good for you as you try to heal yourself. Will this stay down if I eat it? How far away from a toilet should I lie down? Should I just take some aspirin, or a sleep aid, or should I just let nature run its ugly course? And, is it okay to have just one cigarette, or glass of wine, too?
I think I’m on the other side of this particular illness, but the thing that was driving me crazy this time – and it is a concern I have struggled with my whole life – is not being able to sleep. Since High School I have struggled with this, and while for many years I could blame staying up late and ingesting too much coffee / cigarettes / drugs / whatever as the primary culprit, even at this advanced middle age, where many of these things have been given up, I still suffer from not sleeping well. Of course, this is largely because I’ve come to find that there is a bottomless well of sleep hygiene tactics that I should be employing if I really want to get to the bottom of all of this. There is only room for improvement, but you will never get there entirely.
It won’t be long before this is in my rear view mirror. My wife will be well again, and we’ll be back to our routine, and even the clean-up will be done. It won’t take much, even. By Friday the house will be clean, and we can joke about the gross parts, and make fun of those around us who are still suffering, the way family does when they genuinely love you, but want you to be in as much pain as they were, just so you understand what they went through, too.
Of course now that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, part of me wonders if getting sick and being reminded of our frailties is all part of the plan. Perhaps we benefit from knowing we’re very close to being almost entirely incapacitated by a small germ, or some dishes we didn’t clean. What kind of lesson does this weakness teach us? Can we gain any kind of insight into ourselves, or our life, or the lives of those around us from the few moments we spend, hunched over a toilet, willing to say almost anything if it means we will feel better?
Because you can’t. You won’t. You shouldn’t. To really consider the variable I’s that you inhabit throughout your years is just too much to handle at any one moment. We coalesce around a version of who we are saying we are, and project backwards and forwards in an effort to create continuity, and we are lucky to have this tool – language – that comes built in with narrativity, all used as a means of describing ourselves. So much is stacked against us that we have to consider the self with a three-act narrative arc.
But the thing that is not discussed – this notion of identity, or being and self – are not described by a narrative arc. More appropriately, there is a stuttering, stammering quality to the way identity is truly expressed. Every moment we are reforming who I is, and who I will be in the next iteration, each time drawing on the versioned elements of our personas that stretch forward and backward in time. There are so many things about ourselves that are difficult and complex to keep in our own consciousnesses, that in many ways it is easier to grab onto cliches and uniforms to help create visual and mental shortcuts.
I look at the me of today, and I wonder if I would be recognizable to any other me that I’ve identified with. I don’t know what I thought my future would be like, and it is not something that I necessarily spent a lot of time concerning myself about when I was younger. The work I wanted to do was more clearly defined, but the “me” that I thought about when the future occurred to me was once so ill-defined that in many ways I didn’t exist. There was always a name attached to a novel, but who that name was supposed to represent was never clear to me. I can only imagine what this ghostlike perception of self has led to as time has marched on.
I haven’t turned into a horrible person, or at least, I don’t think I have. I can be difficult and neurotic and hard on myself, but I don’t think I’m particularly awful. But I can see the compromises that this me doesn’t feel bad about, but I may have once taken issue with. At 19, there are certainly things I never imagined I would ever do, in spite of not having a vivid impression of this future life I might live. The problem with tomorrow is that it comes so quickly that you often don’t realize that you are there, and have even moved on to the thing after that, and that, and that, and that.
Firmly in middle age, it isn’t that hard to find where things went wrong. It is the natural state of the middle aged man to find fault with everything – himself especially – and I can very easily look at the man I have been and lay out a dissertation on the missteps and failed calculations. But this blurring of identity – this realization that we have dynamic mes that shift and chance from day to day – suggests that this person I remember is someone else completely.
A past me. A me that cared deeply about keeping everything, a me that smoked cigarettes with a passion. A me that worked for six years in a bookstore, who considered the hobby of “musician” to be an occupation at one point, in spite of the fact that it was anything but. This person loved punk rock and chasing women and thinking deep thoughts and being self-righteous about half-formed bullshit.
An uneducated me. An awkward me. A scared and lonely me.
It isn’t that I have become someone I would hate. Rather, it is that I wish I could be friends with who I once was, because he seems like someone I could relate to.
The path I’ve chosen is fine. There are no great opportunities that I was offered that I virulently turned down. If anything there were things I pursued that I soon realized I was never suited for, and I was better off, in the end, never becoming the person I briefly imagined I might have been.
The problem I have now is that I want so badly to find out who the person I am, now, actually is. I can only look in the mirror so many times before the image looks foreign again. We are, if anything, defined by what we do, and waiting for inspiration and pacing back and forth is not exactly something I want to be known for.
Nostalgia is powerful, and the me I once was has an allure and a charm that I am often very attracted to. Who doesn’t want to believe that something you can’t have again was secretly better than anything you can have now? At least that way, you never have to worry about happiness again.
But, just suppose, we had to be happy now. Is is possible? Could we find something in the present that isn’t backward or forward looking, but is content with the me of the present? And, does my own future now look so ill-defined, so amorphous and dim?
More importantly, how will I reflect on this, years from now, when the person I’ve become looks back, and wonders, “What the fuck is this guys thinking?”
Or, perhaps, all of this is another mental exercise, a way of framing identity in an altogether different way, so I can continue to avoid addressing the underlying issue that is at the heart of all of this, the question that really wakes me up in the middle of the night, that sends me to the keyboard so I can hammer out something else, this urge that makes me anxious and confused most of the time:
Why is it so hard to be happy?