Brokedown Palace: Confronting Prejudice, And Finding Solace In Loss Through Music

Brokedown Palace: Confronting Prejudice, And Finding Solace In Loss Through Music

Fare you well, my honey. Fare you well, my only true one. All the birds that were singing, are flown, except you alone. (Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter)

If my brother-in-law ever reads this, he would find it rather amusing that I’ve referenced what was once one of his favorite bands. He was, for all intents and purposes, a Deadhead. One of my favorite stories he told me was about running into Jerry at The Grind. Some of us are old enough to remember the place, in its original Maryland Plaza location. These days, Maryland Plaza is the picture-perfect representation of gentrification. Back then, it was still a bit bohemian, a little rough around some of the edges as you got east of Newstead, but a wonderful place for a bunch of crazy college kids to hang out and escape suburbia.

Back then, I was “too cool” for The Dead – largely due to the caricatured representation of its fans – especially during their high point in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when people started to deify Jerry – something that really frustrated the band.

One of our greatest flaws as humans, is that we allow our prejudices to close us off – whether that’s artistic elitism or the fear of people who don’t look, act, or worship like we do.

Bob Weir has become one of my top five favorite guitarists. The man plays rhythm guitar like a jazz pianist – and that was very intentional, as he studied Bill Evans (Miles Davis’s pianist) and McCoy Tyner (John Coltrane’s pianist). He had me there. The Cool period of Jazz is my absolute favorite. His fans include Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth and the members of The National.

From a technical standpoint, their Wall Of Sound remains one of most innovative PA systems created, and was the model for current line-array systems – allowing the music to sound GOOD and LOUD.

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One of their tech crew went on to head up audio post-production for Skywalker Sound. Dennis “Wizard” Leonard has made many of your favorite movies sound as phenomenal as they look. He was in charge of the live-to-recording mix of Europe ’72.

As per usual, I’ve gone fanboy and digressed.

Lately, I’ve found such great comfort and catharsis in the lyrics – and so much damned respect for each of the band members as musicians (all without the assistance of psychedelics).

“A lot of Garcia’s music was about death. That’s an appeal of the man that you have to discover over time. You don’t see it, immediately, because of the way he presents – historically – as this sort of big, happy hippie icon. You get to know, as you listen to the music, that actually, he’s a deliverer of dark news, you know. And, that’s when you begin to really take him seriously.”Nick Paumgarten from the docu-series Long Strange Trip

As I’ve said before, many people listen to music simply for background noise, or to keep the party going, etc. And, there’s a place for that – one, of which, I need to be mindful. But, my relationship to music has been so much deeper. I’m told that obsession was such for me, long before I could remember it.

My earliest memory is crawling and bumping into one of my dad’s Bose 901 Series II speakers – part of his own elaborate sound system. When I was eight, he began to trust me with the big-boy toys. He taught me how to set recording levels, and I learned my first lesson about being careful with high-end gear, when I damaged the diamond stylus on his Technics SL-1100 turntable – released the year of my birth and predecessor to the legendary SL-1200 series, which became the professional standard for radio and club DJ’s alike. It was recently resurrected by Technics and costs thousands, today.

And, because he has an engineer’s mind about EVERYTHING, my dad taught his eight-year-old about signal paths. Which switch did what. Which cable connected to which device. I became a natural troubleshooter, so it should be no surprise that I spent several years producing commercials and running live sound. I owe you for that, Pop.

In short, music was my first escape mechanism, my first love, a career path, and my current therapist. My favorite artists tend to have a bit of a dark side to their writing, and as such, I’ve been able to jump into the fire, so to speak (inadvertent Harry Nilsson reference, but I’ll leave it). So, whether it’s an obsession with Radiohead‘s discography, starting with Kid A, Dave Matthews Band’s Before These Crowded Streets, The Dead’s version of Morning Dew from Europe ’72, just about anything from Nine Inch Nails, or Pink Floyd’s The Wall – all of it has served a purpose. It’s been a way for me to face my own demons, grieve them, and move on, one step at a time.

For any Pink Floyd fans, I highly recommend Roger Waters’ recent documentary on his three-year tour performing The Wall. The man is 72 years old, worth a quarter of a billion dollars, even after four divorces, and he is still grieving the death of his father in WWII. Call it the universal human condition, if you will.

Today, I face the prospect of losing everything – as if losing my wife to divorce wasn’t enough. I’ll be involved in some practical measures to put me back on a path to healthy coping skills, but to be honest, I don’t hold much hope of gaining any kind of meaningful life back. Much of that is the consequence of my own bad decisions, and unhealthy behavior. And, while it’s important to own that, the consequences aren’t any easier. And, the hope of rebuilding isn’t there. I’m leaning on the only people in this world that I have ever been able to trust – my family. I’m leaning on their hope for me, because it’s all I can do, right now. And, in the meantime, I grieve. And, I trust the music to be there for me.

“Going to leave this brokedown palace, On my hand and knees, i will roll, roll, roll. Make myself a bed in the waterside, In my time, i will roll, roll roll.” (Garcia/Hunter)

Koan Of Shame

FeaturedKoan Of Shame

I’m a morning person. Sort of. I’ll wake up early, without an alarm, and – once I’ve shaken off the cobwebs I’m moving along. Sometimes, the dog is my alarm clock, and I’m on her bathroom schedule. Either way, I’m up. So, I might as well do something.

Lately, I’ve been working on making the best use of that time. Mostly by being still. Quiet. Doing what I can to get the internal dialogue that’s so often a part of my day to shut the hell up. Sometimes, I’m successful, and other times…well…take recently.

Much of my internal dialogue, the last few weeks, has centered around wanting to throw in the towel – to undo all of the hard work I’ve undergone in the last six months. And, when that dialogue becomes a shouting match, the impact ripples into every facet of my life.

Maybe not shouting, per se. Maybe loud and insistent. Like an intense family meeting, or my dog, when she sees a random creature she doesn’t like. Which is all the time.

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The dog. This is why I could never stay mad at her.

I like to think this isn’t my normal resting place – this deep level of negativity and despair. But, really, it’s the undercurrent that has subconsciously driven much of my life. To sum up…

Calling divorce a humbling experience is like calling being struck with a sword slightly painful.

flesh wound
The only time I’ll get away with mixing Star Wars with Monty Python. Deal, purists.

I loathe failure. Which puts me in good company. I don’t know too many people who like it. I see all sorts of motivational quotes from famous people who talk about how they learned the most from their failures, and used those incidents to become successful, later on. That sounds peachy.

I wish I could say I look at failure the same way it’s pictured in those shiny motivational posters. Someone screws up, misses the big shot, doesn’t achieve the business goal, fails in relationships – repeatedly, loses their run for the Presidency, because the Electoral College favors less populated states, and 50% of the electorate decided to sit this one out.

Pick one. They all suck.

The posters would have you believe that all those people simply brushed off the dust, got back up, and did it again. And, it’s a lie.

I’m fortunate to be close to some amazingly successful people, and can tell you that, with each failure, was a period of grief. Anger. Bitterness. Self pity. Perhaps to lesser degrees, and for smaller periods of time, but no one is immune from being human.

Feelings may not be facts, but they are, in fact, real.

Lately, it’s become important to trace the feeling back to the internal dialogue that may be causing it. And, that takes a certain amount of internal quietness. Which leads me to mindfulness. And, the study of Zen. And, it hit me that my long-standing internal drama functions as its own koan – and, not in a good way.


The reason I hate failure so much is that I’m rarely kind to me. As much as I want to think I have this instant likability, I don’t like myself too much. If at all. Success becomes the fix that blunts the inner pain, quiets the negative koan. Laughs in its face and flips it the bird. It’s fleeting, temporary, and then, it’s off to the next thing.

Failure is not an option. Which is, to use the vernacular, bullshit.

My hatred of failure, and ultimately, of myself, leads me to make rash choices, react quickly, keep moving. Do not sit. Do not feel. Do not acknowledge how much it hurts. Just. Keep. Going. Dodge the demons. Fake-throw and run.

Watch closely for the fakeout

The thing about demons is they’re persistent. Patient. Crafty little bastards. And, when they finally catch up to me, they’re pissed. I guess if I was part of a pack of howling, shiftless, spawn of Satan, running after some dodgy asshole, I’d be a little miffed, too.

So, there I am, face to face with a child of Beezelbub. I’ve just laughed in his face, given him the finger and made him chase my ass. It’s not much different from when I experienced this in grade school, with real-live bullies. Except, then, I usually got my ass kicked.

This chase scene is rather Benny Hill-ish – except not bawdy or humorous.  So, maybe, not at all like Benny Hill (I just wanted to get Yakety Sax stuck in your head. Have I succeeded? Good.).

And, it’s an illusion.

First off, the wiry little fucker is only in my head. A figment of my overactive imagination. The culmination of years and years of bad thinking, picked up from a multitude of sources – each with their own set of broken agendas.

This particular lying asshole demon wants me to believe I’ll never succeed. Never get what I want. Or, it would have me believe that I’m an impostor. That any success is fake. Ready to be snatched from me at any instant.

Any screw up is merely confirmation.


The first time I confronted this, in any healthy way, my therapist told me I needed to re-frame my concept of failure. Instead, I needed to look at what I learned in the experience. And, I needed to practice self compassion. He challenged me to call out the negative thoughts as harsh. Because, they are. And, he challenged me to ask the question about the source of the thought. From where, exactly, is it coming? Why would I possibly think such a thing?

In so doing, I have just made the unconscious conscious. I’m staring that son-of-a-bitch demon in his beady eyes, ready to throw the first punch.*

Jung

Right now, I’m scratching the surface – becoming aware of tiny acts of self-sabotage, in which I engage almost daily. I’m realizing that, when such a thing happens, my subconscious is screaming for help. And, this time, it’s a true scream.

Which gets me back to my study of Zen and mindfulness. A true koan forces us to examine our perception of things, abandon ultimate dependence on reason, and connect to intuitive enlightenment. I’m nowhere near there. I’m still learning how to be – to breathe in and out, and let the waterfall of thoughts simply be. Don’t try to control them, stop them or force them out. Let them be.**

Lately, that’s been more difficult. The thoughts and the feelings are strong. Fierce self hatred is so ingrained, and people fail my expectations regularly. But, every time I breathe in and out, every time I sit down and articulate things, I’m throwing a punch at that scaly, worthless demon. With enough practice, I connect. Connect enough times, and the bastard goes down. He might get up again, but I’ll be ready.

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Mama said, “Knock you out!”

*Most modern-day therapists would say the unconscious mind is not the enemy. This is a departure from Freud, who called it a storehouse of repressed thought. And, it’s a shift from those would treat the unconscious mind as a superhighway to achievement – then wonder why the constant barrage of positive affirmations aren’t working. The above links are to the same article, which gives the unconscious mind the proper respect it’s due.

**I identify as Christian, which I may discuss in later postings. The concept of Zen meditation does not conflict, at all, with the teachings of Christ. For more on this, I highly recommend Christian Zen, by William Johnston – a Jesuit priest, serving in Japan on the heels of the Second Vatican Council. Also, this app has been immensely helpful.

Isn’t this where we came in?

Isn’t this where we came in?

The difficulties of extenuating life circumstances, a need to process deep-seated pain, a comment thread on a Facebook post, and a several-weeks-long obsession with Roger Waters’s recent documentary on his three-year world tour.

It’s funny how seemingly unrelated events can connect. A quick preface…

The last six months have been full of both upheaval and stasis – none of which is happening at the most opportune times. When I want things to stay static for a moment, they change. When I want things to move forward, I get another roadblock. Rinse, repeat.

My wife of ten years and I are getting divorced. I won’t comment on details, as the legal proceedings are – for better or worse – still pending. It’s in the attorneys’ hands, now, so let the continuances…well…continue.

And, we still have a house to sell.

In that time, I’ve gone through the five stages of grief numerous times. And, I’ve gone from committing to turning the ship around to just wanting to set fire to the damned thing and jump.

The first is impossible. It’s among the most humbling of moments to read a legal document, in which a standard line states that “the marriage is irretrievably broken.” Sadly, no truer words have ever been written, concerning our predicament. It’s probably the one thing, on which, both of us agree.

The second is irresponsible and unhealthy. Which, leaves the third option: do what’s in front of me, in as much time as it takes.

I could get into all sorts of reasons why this frustrates the living shit out of me, but it wouldn’t be prudent, right now.

All I know is, recently, I found myself at a point of despair similar to where I was, emotionally, when all Hell broke loose in September. The ninth, actually – our ten-year anniversary. Thus, my several-week obsession with Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and specifically, the role bassist and songwriter Roger Waters played in its conception.

 When Syd Barrett went schizophrenic and was unable to continue as front man for Pink Floyd, Waters stepped in as chief songwriter. He was the band’s intellectual – a tortured soul, who channeled that angst into broader commentary on mental illness, politics, the music industry, authoritarianism, and – finally – his own damn demons.

Some people look to music to get them out of a specific mood, make them feel better, etc. I don’t. I’m in it for the catharsis, and it was clear I had some of my own damn demons to exorcise.

In the midst of this phase, I posted an article on Facebook, concerning a young, incendiary, conservative host who was suspended from her job.

What stayed with me was an off-tangent conversation I ended up having, related to the comment I wrote along with the post. I wrote, “Be nice to people on your way up. You may need them on your way down.” An old classmate – someone, with whom, I don’t interact regularly – responded. He agreed with the sentiment, then apologized for an incident that took place in 7th grade. He had tripped me, apparently, while I was holding a huge stack of books and supplies. I say “apparently,” because I don’t remember it. I assured him there were no hard feelings. And, truly, there weren’t. Kids are mean and stupid. Myself included. Most of us outgrow our childish behavior, and some don’t. Or, don’t outgrow all of it. Again, myself included.

But, because I am the kind of person that can over-analyze a plate of food, I asked myself why. Why didn’t I remember the incident? The likeliest reason: 7th grade was part of a year that included other deeply traumatic events. It was bad enough that I was in a new school, with new people to make fun of me, because of how I walked (the product of a mild form of Cerebral Palsy) or talked (the product of a precocious childhood, surrounded by adults, and a well-above-average reading comprehension level). It was even worse that I was one of the working-class kids from Rock Hill, all of a sudden surrounded by the old money of South Webster Groves. Money and status were important to me, at the time, and dad had made it clear that we were on our way up…until October 1983.

That was when my parents announced their divorce. My dad was both my hero and champion; home was safe. Irrational as it was, I was afraid I wouldn’t see him again. Also, he was the sole breadwinner. I’m sure you can figure out the very real impact that had on my day-to-day life. Really, though, this isn’t about a decision my parents made, especially now that I find myself in a similar boat. This is about how I coped with it – or didn’t. How I internalized horrible beliefs and attitudes about myself, and the world around me.

At the time, I convinced myself and others that, really, I was fine. I wish I had been more honest.

I responded, in part, by comparing myself to others who I thought were worse off – so that I could feel better. I became less invested in studies and more invested in being liked. Or, at least, not hated. And, I built my own wall – only to have it become my eventual, and repeated undoing.

After decades of unhealthy coping mechanisms, followed by occasional fits of growth, I realized that I was capable of being that right combination of witty, charming, intelligent, personable.

I learned that I was capable of casting vision, coming up with a plan, and sticking to it – while allowing some of that plan to change, if needed.

I learned that I could persevere, no matter how bad it felt, and how many times I wanted to throw in the towel.

I learned to do what I love and love what I do. And, I learned that there are any number of things I can do – both vocationally and as hobbies – that fulfill my core passions of art and activism.

Slowly, I am learning to be okay with me.

Every once in a while, however, I get hit with a curve ball. Someone says or does something critical of me – especially in a public or semi-public forum – and immediately, I’m that kid who would get humiliated in public on a daily basis. It’s confirmation of my worst fear: that I am not worthy of being valued, liked, accepted, loved. That I am an impostor, and my success can be snatched up at any given moment.

And, while those new incidents take me back to a familiar place, the lessons to learn are new. The first having to do with holding seemingly contradictory beliefs in tension. It’s possible for an incident to feel very familiar, and in parallel, recognize that it is not the same. At least, that’s what my therapist said. I’m told that this tension of beliefs is a critical first step to breaking the familiar narrative – one that keeps me in the role of victim and justifies any number of bad decisions.

The second lesson deals with my unconscious beliefs about safety, security and trust. They developed before my parents’ marriage blew apart, and shaped my reaction. Today, those unconscious beliefs continue to shape decisions – good and bad. The more I’m able to make the unconscious behavior conscious, however, the better off I am in the long run.

As part of my quest for safety, security and contentment, I still look for hope in the external. And, that isn’t necessarily bad. But, externals can change in an instant. Frankly, it pisses me off that these things come from within. Historically, I haven’t had the faith that I could pull off such a feat.

Every once in a while, any number of my well-meaning friends who share the same faith as me point out that I should seek hope in the eternal. While those individuals are correct, I still want to punch them.

I’m overdue for another reading of the book of Job.

What I do know is that the last 40-something years of operating the same way haven’t worked.

Six months ago, I came up with a plan – much of which is on hold until the divorce is final. But, this – writing – is part of that plan. I have no expectation as to where it would take me. Only the goal that I would improve over time. For me, that’s huge.

And, it’s confirmation that the best thing I can do, today, is stick to the plan, do what’s in front of me, and keep things moving – at whatever pace I can. To never sacrifice direction for speed ever again.

I’ll never slay my demons – not permanently. I don’t think that’s really possible. But, I can rise above them, day by day. And, sometimes, it’s important to protect myself from their intrusion.

I just need to be careful that the wall I build doesn’t close me in or swallow me whole, so I can still deal with the difficulties of extenuating life circumstances…

Sunday

Sunday

I am a person of faith without a church home. I’ll get into that in a later post, but for now, let me share what I’ve recognized in the meantime.

The teachings of Christ are real to me and valid. The institutions responsible for shepherding the flock have serious issues.

Stepping away from institutional groupthink has forced me to come to terms with my faith on a much more personal level. It’s forced me to be more open, less concerned with being right, more concerned with being true to myself.

Because of other issues relative to my personal growth and development, it’s been important to seek and accept professional help. I’m lucky that my therapist received his MSW from a local Jesuit university, and is familiar with the delicate balance of incorporating some form of spirituality in a plan toward mental health and emotional growth. The two are not incompatible, after all; and, in my opinion, both are necessary – essential, even – for holistic change.

As a result, I’ve been reading a book, lately, called Christian Zen, by William Johnston – a Jesuit priest, serving in Japan during the early 70s, on the heels of the Second Vatican Council.

Because mindfulness and meditation are becoming part of my daily practice, I’m using this app. It makes the practice super easy. It was recommended by a good friend, who just started a new blog. He’s better at the whole blog thing, so you should check it out.

I suppose I should get all “churchy” and read my Bible, but I haven’t been feeling it – aside from a recent re-read of the book of Job. I might do that, again, under the current circumstances.

Suffice it to say, the last six months have involved a tremendous amount of personal upheaval, requiring me to come face-to-face with some truths about myself. Some good, some not so much. All necessary, as the same time period has brought about an unprecedented amount of personal growth. I just wish it could be less painful, sometimes. I may get into more details when I can. For now, it’s inappropriate.