You could sum up the difference this way:
In a patriarchal society, the message to young men embarking on a sex life is: “Be safe… BUT HAVE FUN!”
And for gals: “Have fun… BUT BE SAFE!”
(I’m a cultural critic.)
You could sum up the difference this way:
In a patriarchal society, the message to young men embarking on a sex life is: “Be safe… BUT HAVE FUN!”
And for gals: “Have fun… BUT BE SAFE!”
(I’m a cultural critic.)
Last week I mentioned in a post about recording music over the summer that I had new music out. And it’s poppy. And it’s not complicated.
I’m very pleased to be able to share the first track now! It’s called Stop. You can listen here.
Now I must begin the tedious and slightly upsetting chore of whoring it out enthusiastically, nicely, but forcefully.
I make music. Most of it gets released and disappears after a few weeks, because: 1) I don’t promote it very hard, and 2) I don’t promote it very well. Fortunately, my musical aspirations have never had much to do with getting famous, so the discouragement that always comes with having your music ignored is typically minor for me.
This summer, however, I spent a few weeks (just under a month, in total) in the studio, working with the usual band of good-for-nothing crazies with whom I’ve previously made the hard-rocking Paris and the Hiltons tracks. But we weren’t doing Paris and the Hiltons: we dropped the “band” thing, dropped the hard rock thing, and just focused on making pop-rock music.
Listening back, it’s not quite pop-rock, but that was the intention. To make something accessible, uncomplicated, without the constant irony of the old stuff, without the wacky growling. Just straightforward rock with a bit of acoustic guitar.
We put a lot of work into these tracks. Not only did we want them to sound good, but we knew they were going to be mixed by a high-profile engineer in the States, who’s worked with the Seriously Big Names: Prince, Bob Dylan, etc. It was very exciting, but it also meant that the work we did over the summer before sending it out to him had to be fucking good. It had to be well-recorded, with a clear structure, good singing, strong harmonies, and enough variety in it to make it worth sending out to a big shot elsewhere. I have not released any of this stuff yet, but it’s mastered and ready now.
The most important thing that I learned about making music this summer — something I had known in theory, but never in practice — is that it is REALLY hard to make a good radio-friendly rock song. We, the so-called artistic snobs of the world, can easily scoff at the shit that gets played on the radio, because it’s so bland, so boring and predictable. And that is certainly still true to me now. But to make a 3 minute song that really works, that clearly knows where it’s going, is hard work.
It involves constant simplification. Simplifying something artistic is, of course, not always simple, as anyone who’s tried to edit their own novel will know. But simplifying a track so that it’s really as ready, as accessible as it could be — that’s the hardest damned thing. Paring down all the ideas to see what really works — until you have ONE good hook, ONE clear lead vocal track, and a really good sense of flow throughout the song — paring the song down to its basics in this way is the ultimate reality check. Yes, your various ideas may be clever, but try making just ONE of them work on its own.
Try taking the big idea, the heart of the song, and making it work without using the other good ideas as crutches. And what you may quickly discover is how often we generate a bunch of “good ideas” because we don’t trust that there is a single “great idea” that can stand on its own. We think, well, this project has this going for it, and this, and that as well; so if someone doesn’t like this part of the project (this character, this melody) at least they’ll probably like that one instead.
It’s bullshit, of course, because it amounts to a lack of faith in the strength of the guiding idea. And spending a few weeks in a dark studio, sometimes until midnight, getting a project ready for someone else’s close scrutiny — that will force you to find the good idea, and run with it.
It occurred to me this morning, as I was walking back from the gym with my hamstrings, lats and shoulder muscles aching and my daily headache raging on — which I’d managed to ignore throughout the workout — that one of the most fundamental changes in my life has been in my relationship to pain.
One aspect of this change is physical: things hurt less, or rather, they hurt as much as they used to, but the pain doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it did before. I have long thought of myself as unfit for physical suffering, probably because I rarely enjoyed activities that hurt. I now see that my assumption about this was, basically, bogus, a simple belief that I’d allowed to become my reality. I quickly learned, when I was learning to box, that there is something inherently fun about getting punched, even in the stomach, if you’re in the right frame of mind. I spend a lot less time moaning about my fever when I’m sick. And when I accidentally hurt myself, I seem to recover fairly quickly.
But the more important aspect of the change is in my attitude to my own suffering. It’s become easier to feel pain than to avoid it.
If there’s one thing I know to be true about me when I’m in emotional pain, it’s that I strive harder, push harder, get more shit done, because I want to use that pain productively — I don’t like to waste pain. Having a breakup? Write ten breakup songs, one of them will be good. The tiniest incident in the street makes you worry about the law, or your rights, or how something puzzling actually works? Spend a few days learning about that so that you never have to worry about it again. Pain: not wasted.
But, as helpful as that can be (you do get a lot of stuff done that way), it’s still an evasion. It’s a way of trying to control the universe, of imposing meaning on meaningless pain. It’s much harder to notice your pain, emotional or physical, and just stop moving, and feel it all the way through. To be sad completely. To be truly, fully angry without moving a finger — just feeling the anger. Instead of acting on that emotion — which is an evasion — just feeling it, for hours or days if necessary.
I have learned to do this, to trust that pain won’t hurt me. Not perfectly, and not consistently, but it’s now possible and likely that I’ll just shut up and feel the ache. The astonishing part of this is realizing how reluctant others are to sit with their own pain. The minute you learn to focus on whether you’re dodging a horrible emotion, you start to see this in others. I’ve known a few people who seemed unbelievably insightful about this: they could sense that you were running away from a pain you weren’t even aware of. And we’re all going to be tempted to run away, to improve ourselves, to get stronger, to become cleverer. But the hardest and most rewarding thing seems to be not changing, and be able to withstand pain without concluding there’s anything wrong.
I forgot to announce last week that I’ve joined the team at Angry Robot Books, a wonderful publisher of science fiction and fantasy novels, as consultant editor. (By “forgot” I mean I forgot I should update the blog.)
There’s a press release here. The picture of me has been described by a friend as suggesting a certain mood of “No, you can’t take my picture. Fine, take my picture. But screw you if I’m going to make you enjoy it.” Accurate enough.
There’s plenty of work to do, as Angry Robot has spent the last few months being split off from Osprey, its previous owners. The books they’ve put out are fun, eclectic, and they have devoted readerships, so while I’m excited about all of this, I’m also conscious of the work it’s going to take to get things back on track completely. Obviously, with any organisational shift of this kind, there’s a chunk of stress involved, but hopefully I can help make the transition easier.
Lauren Beukes’s novel, Moxyland, is the kind of Angry Robot-published stuff I love, but there are also many straightforward scifi and fantasy titles you’ll find in the catalogue. So what I’m saying is, please read our books.
Back then I never wondered: Will I think back to this? Will I miss the sand and the water? I knew I never would. I thought, sitting there with you, that my nostalgia would be exceptional: that I’d recall other details, the light reflecting off some surface I alone had the soul to notice, or how a gull took a clever swerve from one side of the sky to another as if to show me, and me alone, that the universe worked cleverly, artistically.
You would be a memory of a good summer, I thought, a summer I knew then belonged to my youth. I exploited my youth. I knew, and you knew with me in your way, how someone older and sadder would tell us to seize this now, for life in principle was going to be very long but this part went too fast. Seize it, an older man would say, had said to me, in different voices and places. This, now, take what you have and be young. You have her, have her now. Nothing you do now will matter unless you fail to do it. Hold on to nothing but do it all exquisitely.
And I knew anything we did might be excused that way. I thought: everyone around is young too, but I have heard the older people speak when they are sad. I have heard the regret implied in their advice. I am clever and I’m young. None of this will matter. Kiss her. Be cruel but earnest. I am clever and I have the youth that grants me endless pardons.
So I seized the immortality I thought I was too clever to believe in, just as you seized yours. Casual, unconvinced by each other, but desperate to convince in our turn, we did flippancy, we tried needing nothing in the world but what we saw before us. We seized what seized us. And that night it was the sea we had, and the sand, the distant chanting of hippies we did not think meant what they did. It was a calf and its reticent mother lowing quietly under one of the cabins built into the trees.
I don’t recall the clever swerving of a gull, or the refraction of stray light through some crack in the waves. Nothing brilliant about me comes to mind from those days. You were fascinating, but perhaps more now, now my distracting brilliance has stopped blinding me, now that I can hear what I think I remember you saying. We fought. I stood and shook the sand from my legs and said not to drag me into your hole. What did I mean? That you wished nothing more than to be stuck where you were, feeling what you felt. Perhaps I was too many things to be happy as your pain. But it lasted only hours. When I was asleep in our cabin, I felt you climb the stairs, felt you get onto your inch-thick mattress on your part of the floor. You knocked my head back against the wall. We knew how romantic, how young it all was, to reunite this way. We had spent our time apart before, we would spend it again once this was over. But how good we were at this awareness of doing youth right.
I am not much older now. I think eight years have passed since we met, perhaps six since we last touched in the flesh. The details that return are sea, sand, argument and lowing calf. Despite all our pretensions, we ended up a simple memory of something already vanishing then, half-extinguished by our cleverness.
I wish I’d known that knowing didn’t matter then. I wish I’d filtered less through a future I never got. I wish I’d never thought there was a right way to be young.
Whose body do you refuse when you stand naked before a mirror and call yourself fat? Pinching your love handles, groping some part of flesh you deem excessive, telling yourself there is still so much that must go — whose hatred, whose body?
Who listens when you speak to yourself, ventriloquizing others who in fact do not care, listing your faults in ever-subtler ways so even your attempts at self-compassion become more stupid self-harm? Presenting your tendency to kick your own ass as a form of ambition, of keeping yourself in check, of getting stronger. Choosing to believe you can toughen up this way. Seeing those around you who seem great and assuming your path was once theirs; despising those who remind you of yourself, despising what you have in common with those who do not seem as finished as you would like to be. Who hears the self-justification in your head? Who believes it?
Wanting to be perfect, but clever about wanting it, too — never calling it “being perfect”, never saying anything aloud to betray what you do to yourself. Giving yourself much to resent in what you have, but at least never seeming so dumb as to cripple yourself trying for perfection. Not openly. Not even in your own thinking. Never calling what you do a process of perfection; mere self-improvement. Self-discipline, not self-loathing.
Even moments of inspiration must serve some greater purpose. Even learning to be here now means worrying you’ll forget how to do it tomorrow. Somehow even the insight that this life, this one, yours, does not have to be a coherent story makes you wonder if it was all leading up to this insight.
And when others are fools, you judge them, safe in not being them, glad to be part of so large an audience that you cannot be called onto the stage yourself. Yet every moment you dream of standing out, of being up there.
Whose emotions are these that you feel? Whose death will you die? What is wrong with this, now? Who waters what grows in the gardens you make up? Whose unhappy day is this? Whose anger, whose sadness? Who do you blame when you find joy, and who do you blame when it goes? Who is it she does not love — who are they who do not see the real you — who chose the words you chose poorly?
Of the billions of people apparently out there, who feels this, right here, now, thanking nothing?
But even as I typed out that resolution, to make myself publicly accountable (even without a public, I find it helps to be able to point to where I made my resolution public so that I can’ pretend it never happened), I knew I’d have to figure out what was getting in my way. What stops a man like me from having fun?
Being too serious is an obvious one. Being too serious “about” something is one thing, but being “too serious” in general is something quite different. The former suggests a kind of obsessiveness; the latter is more of an existential attitude. You can be too serious about this particular thing that’s happening to you, or you can be too serious about things as a matter of principle.
My bet is that in the case of being too serious about things, it’s barely possible to articulate the logic at work there unless you can find a way to step out of it. I’d be hard pressed to explain why I’m so pissed off about something without unintentionally giving away just how much of my world is affected by the act of being pissed off about something. “You want me to give you a good reason for my unhappiness today? Here it is… in fact, have twenty million reasons why I’m unhappy today. And I swear that they do not apply to anything else. I’m not kidding myself. Fuck you! My problem is with the immediate circumstances. Forget it.”
I know people who can be perfectly clear about how pissed off they are about something without accidentally revealing their entire worldview. They seem able to find something upsetting without turning their upset into a general metaphor for what’s wrong with the world. Surprisingly, these people aren’t even annoying most of the time.
In the last few weeks, I’ve paid a lot of attention to the way I let a particular annoyance inform how I see the rest of the world. It’s impressive to see the mind try to meet its daily quota of things to fret about. “Nothing bad happened today, Phil? HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN THESE UPCOMING THINGS AND ALSO THE UNRESOLVED PROBLEMS FROM LAST WEEK?”
That definitely gets in the way of having fun. It gets in the way of daily functioning.
When there’s a drunk guy screaming in the street and I’m trying to fall asleep, he’s not just a drunk guy. He is:
1) A fucking problem to me right now.
2) A metaphor for what’s wrong with society.
3) A reminder that nobody, not me, not the neighbors, not the people on the street, NOBODY is going to walk over to him and tell him to shut the fuck up — a reminder of everyone’s cowardice. And for the record, a screaming drunk is a great way to sum the various problems with letting people drink alcohol and why can’t we just ban all forms of drinking forever, except maybe water. Damn this all to hell. And this bed is unbelievably uncomfortable.
But this kind of thing has an element of humor to it, even gallows humor, and consciously so. I enjoy playing the grumpy bastard.
What I don’t enjoy as much (except maybe in the Lacanian sense of deriving some kind of existential substance from it, however unpleasant it may be) is the other side of taking things too seriously: the fear of feelings.
There’s no denying, at this point, my tendency to reduce my emotions to a kind of problem that would be resolved if I could just think them away. I’m an over-thinker, and I think so I don’t have to feel. If I’m happy, I can very quickly think myself into sadness. If I’m sad, I can very quickly think myself into numbness.
With all the seriousness of a surgeon trying to save someone’s life, I have, historically, tackled my feelings as though a single wrong maneuver would ruin everything. There I am, presented with overwhelming emotions, and instead of feeling them, I treat them as an unnecessary byproduct of things happening to me. I treat my feelings as waste. If I could just manage that waste better, I tell myself (not often consciously), then my life would have less waste in it in general.
For a few reasons, the last few months, in particular, have forced me to accept how inappropriate this metaphor of the surgeon is here, the waste, the fear of feelings. And now that I’m trying to notice what gets in the way of having fun, I’m forced more than ever to admit I’ve had it backwards for a long time. If my entire emotional life revolves around the management of feelings, instead of the experience of feelings, how will I ever learn to enjoy myself?
A terrible day? Sleep it off, take sleeping pills if you have to. High anxiety before going out? Maybe a drink. Feeling threatened or vulnerable around someone you love? Attack them first, without even being aware of it! It works! Make a ten-step plan to PERMANENTLY remove the possibility of this negative feeling ever happening again, maybe even go to a different country to do it! That’s how feelings work. We’re such adults here.
But if feelings are not the problem, as overwhelming as they may be, then it becomes possible to be okay in yourself even as you feel utterly terrified two minutes before you do something that you know is right. Bravery becomes possible again. Love becomes easier.
Those ten years I was given endless supplies of medication for my moods were ten years of being told that emotions are there to be managed, primarily. Unmanageable moods require extra-rigorous management. Whatever happens, the message was, you must find a way to manage your emotions even at the cost of learning to fear ALL of your emotions, all of the time.
Even an overwhelmingly good feeling, like fun, becomes a problem, because that’s the whirlwind of life now. If you can feel it, you should probably do something about it. Right?
Please hold me accountable to this. Whoever you are, bored internet person, bug me about it.
Every year around January and February, I get bummed out. It’s predictable and not a big deal, as long as I take care of myself when it happens. But this year I’m doing things a little differently:
(Context: I was heavily medicated for ten years of my life, which included a good chunk of my teen years. I was on antidepressants, antipsychotics and anxiolytics, because of a series of long depressions with psychotic symptoms. One of the most significant problems I developed before and during that medicated decade was an incredible ability to bottle up my feelings. The “numb” feeling you get when you’re on heavy medication, sadly, worked against the simple facts of growing up and learning to handle big emotions. As as result, by the time I managed to get off the meds, I was working long hours with my brain to avoid spending even ten minutes with my heart. Sharing feelings became very difficult because I could barely tell what was wrong with me.)
I’ve worked hard to fight the kind of person I’ve become over the years: I lost over 20kg of the weight I gained from the meds. I learned to open up and talk about feelings. I’ve accepted a lot more of what makes me “weird” than I used to.
The one thing I haven’t learned to do yet is just have some damned fun. I am perhaps the least capable person of chilling out and having fun that I know.
I don’t like Christmas, I don’t like Easter, I don’t like family reunions. I don’t like most gigs by even my favorite bands, and end up wanting to leave halfway through. I don’t like going to the beach. I don’t like skiing. I don’t dance. I don’t like being in bars. I don’t like being surrounded by people, but I don’t much like being alone, either, now that I’ve started opening up. I don’t like going to the theatre as much as it seems I should (and my dream in high school was to be a playwright!). I don’t like rollercoasters.
But the problem isn’t those things. The problem is my general reluctance to stop taking everything seriously and just have fun.
What the hell is fun?
And the most absurd part of all this is that what got me thinking about my specific trouble with FUN was this film:
Las Fucking Vegas. The most pointlessly banal Hollywood kind of film. I saw myself in the Robert De Niro character way more than I wanted to. Sure, there were flashes of me in the other characters, but it’s De Niro I feel like when I am alone, or, God forbid, when I’m with people.
I’m dedicating myself to having fun this year. I need to at least TRY to have fun at a roller-coaster park, and go to the beach for pleasure (instead of out of duty to those I’m around), and who knows? Take a dancing class. I don’t know.
But if I don’t make the time to have fun, I know that I just won’t bother with it. It’s ridiculous to say it, but I find it easier to write a chapter of my PhD thesis than to have an entire afternoon of relaxed and uninterrupted fun.
Fine — I’m not qualified to charge people for my fitness advice, but one of the consequences of having lost about 45 lbs in 5 weeks and somehow managed to maintain the weight loss and build muscle consistently ever since has been, well, a better understanding of how the whole working out/nutrition thing works. If I hadn’t sought out a proper education in these matters, I’d have found the whole thing a lot harder to keep up. Instead, it’s become easier and easier, and I have to think about it less and less.
This afternoon, just as I was leaving the gym, I remembered I wanted to buy some creatine and a simple whey protein powder. I didn’t really think about it — I didn’t wonder whether this was a good or bad idea, or how much better it might be to get casein protein instead of whey, or whether I should just skip the creatine and go for, who knows, anabolic steroids, maybe? I was in a dream built by routine.
At the counter, though, just as I was about to pay for the protein powder and creatine, the lady (who’d been perfectly friendly and a little awkward in herself the whole time) said, “So, are you sure this is what you want? You’re sure? Completely?”
I don’t think I even registered my own bafflement. “Um. Yes. Well. I mean.”
“This is what you were looking for, right?” She pointed at the protein and creatine.
“Um. Yes. Did I…” I caught myself preparing to ask her if I’d made some mistake, as though she had the authority to tell me what I’d really been trying to buy. “Yes.”
“Okay, great! Just stick your card in the machine here…” and the ordinary shopping experience resumed.
For a few minutes, as I walked home, I was a mix of confused and slightly indignant. What’s wrong with protein powder? What’s wrong with creatine? These are probably two of the most uncontroversial things you can add to your diet when it comes to strength training!
The likely thing is that she just wanted to make sure I’d found what I had been looking for. That store has lots of different kinds of protein powder, and supplements with names that are more effective than the supplements themselves. It’s easy to get lost in that jungle. But I didn’t need that help, right? I know what I’m doing, more or less. Right?
But what was striking was my reaction to it, and the reason for my incredulity. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked, ever, ever, by the (EVER!) person selling me something, whether I was sure about my purchase. Not like that — not in a way that snapped me out of the shopping daydream and made me look at what was going on around me, at myself, at where I was, at the transaction itself.
I’m fairly sure I’d have a lot less random junk stored in drawers if I’d been asked that question before. Ignoring my original indignation, I think, now, that awkward salespeople might be the best form of resistance against capitalism.